Anakana Schofield short story: Strawberry Plants and Cabbages

Out of Ireland summer fiction: The world turns inwards on a girl and her mother

 

The three girls – sisters, Sarah presumed – made chapati in the back garden of number 42, on the cement ground in their bare brown feet. From the bottom of the garden she spied the details of them between the leaves of a hedge.

Three, two more, now a boy, all moving in and out of the back door, squatting towards the ground, turning the dough or mix, whatever it was, over and over, slamming it between their hands and maybe on to the ground, while a language as impenetrable but as pleasant as the talk of starlings passed between them.

Above her the bathroom window opened.

“Get out of that hedge and stop spying. Sarah! Sar-rah!”

Mum was up, finally.

Sarah stopped still, braced to see had Mum’s voice crossed the threshold of the back lane to reveal her. If so then it would be over, these delicious moments of peer and escape.

It must be after lunch, as Mum had now risen and Sarah hid in the hedge somewhere after 9am with a bowl of Rice Krispies with water and Nesquik powder because there was no milk in the house.

The kitchen window jarred its way out on to the domino-shaped garden that suffered from neglect and no hope like butter and a knife. It held the feeling that no one lived in it, no one took a stroll up or down it. A sense of dereliction prevailed as if it were an abandoned car park waiting for some wanton act of destruction. Rubbish had blown in; any small vegetation was overgrown and had straggling objects dumped in it: a bed’s headboard, pink, quilted satin, with a burn mark on it; an old bedside cabinet with the door hanging off. Even the chain from the outside toilet lingered by the fence, which divided the identical row of brick-built terraced houses. One day I’ll get around to moving it, Mum said. That was seven years ago, before she slept so much.

“Sarah! Why didn’t you go for milk?”

Did she absolutely need to call her name so loudly? She only had one child. It wasn’t as if another could reply in confusion. But maybe the children opposite would know her name now. Perhaps it was good.

“There’s no money in the jar!” the back of her head replied. Her eyes stayed with the girls making bread. Their skinny legs dropped them up and down to a comfortable squat, and their long ponytails trailed their arms as they whipped their heads around to face each other. She kept her eyes firm front. Yes, good, they had noticed the shouting; one of them ambled to the bottom of the garden to locate it. Did she want them to see her? She didn’t know if she wanted them to see her. But she wanted them to know about her, so she continued shouting back to the shouting, watching their faces carefully.

“You go. It’s your turn to go. I’m busy. Put it on the tab.”

The girl came right to the fence, her eyes searching for voices. Younger than Sarah she was, no more than 10 years old, tiny wrists and hair pulled back into a lengthening ponytail that went . . . Sarah couldn’t tell how far down her back it went but speculated that it dropped low, maybe to the bottom of her spine. Who had the longest hair between the two of them?

“There’s no fucking tabs any more.” Mum, shrieking.

She watched to see did the curse lift the other children’s attention from their breadmaking and was disappointed to see it did not.

“It’s not my fault,” Sarah sent back. Any random comment she chose, would the other girl look at the hedge? She willed it, but no, she did not look: she was staring at the wrong garden. Only the thin-wristed girl took an interest, but even she shortly offed back down the garden.

“Well, you’ll have to go for it.”

Sarah skulked backwards out of the hedge and retreated up the short steps to concrete, remembering why Mum didn’t like her to go out the back.

It gives me the creeps back there, her mother would say, I don’t like the dogs down the back lane.

But Sarah had never seen any dogs down the back lane. There were no dogs down the back lane.

I don’t like the smells that come over the wall. Her mother was talking of the waft of curry. No one takes care of their gardens the way they used to – her final excuse. This wasn’t true: since Christmas a man four houses down had bought gnomes and spread them all over his garden. If you walked the back lane and stared through his cheap, chicken-wire fence you could see a new one each week, and if he caught you looking he’d shout, What are you lookin’ at? Eh you! It’s rude to stare, and get owt of me garden! Even though you weren’t in his garden. So you had to be careful when to steal a look.

In the old days, Mum said, people grew strawberry plants and cabbages. All the gardens were mostly concrete, though, so Sarah wondered how exactly they grew them. She asked the old lady at number 56 if she remembered the strawberry plants, but the woman said the gardens were always concrete, except for that hedge along the back they all shared. “I don’t know how it grows, though,” she said; “maybe the roots are metal.”

Mum never went out in the back garden. Now she urged her daughter not to go.

“How many times have I told you, I don’t want you out there? You’ve to stop this spying. People don’t want you looking at them.”

But they did: they all wanted to be regarded in their small houses, in their small lives that mostly moved from front room to factory and back. People washed their cars in the narrow street; they washed them out front there because they wanted to be seen.

Their only view of the world was via the front-room window, on which the curtains were firmly shut at all times, because her mother said she “didn’t want people looking in at them, taking account of what they had, and entering it into their ledgers. I’m not going to be picked apart by them.”

It was true that folks looked in windows, mostly to catch their own reflection and check their hair. Occasionally when her mum was sleeping and it was raining, and she couldn’t go down to the hedge to hide, Sarah opened the curtains and observed. Did people pass and scrutinise the front room? Were they looking for clues to an existence?

One man patted the top of his hair when he caught his reflection, but that was it. Outside a stringy-looking Pakistani man washed an orange car with a plastic blue bucket that had no handle, so the soapy water sloshed out below his knees as he moved it.

Sarah had been caught unawares. Her mother had entered the room and ripped the curtains closed, turning on her.

“How many times?” she said. “I’ve told you, no, no, no, closed, closed, closed!”

Her mother’s hand moved up and down emphatically, like she was in charge of an empire.

But she’d seen him. She’d seen him, and she was now infuriated by that man washing his car. Her mum strode to the front door, pulled it open and shouted across.

“Do you think we want to look at you washing your car? What’s wrong with you people? What do you think the back lane’s for?”

She slammed the front door so hard that the knocker hopped, and she reappeared triumphantly in the doorway of the living room.

“Sometimes you just have tell them how it is. They need to know.”

She had promptly gone back to bed. She did not come down the stairs for another four hours, until after four o’clock, when she said she felt tired and would need to go back up again for a quick lie down and could Sarah manage with beans on toast for her tea, and she’d open the can for her.

Sarah didn’t warm the beans up, because she was scared of the gas cooker. She detested that pointy thing and trying to click at precisely the moment the gas shot out. She ate the beans cold on the untoasted bread. They stuck in her throat, and her tummy felt heavy and swollen after them. It was that day she began talking to the old woman on the corner, who sat on a fold-up chair with her front door open and watched and heckled the world as it went by.

The For Sale signs were slowly replaced by Sold signs, and many of the factory families, as her mother called them, moved on to bigger, brighter houses while Sarah and Mum remained where they were.

“We’ll be here ’til the landlord chucks us out.”

“If,” Mum said, “I owned this house, I’d never put a sign up. There are several reasons why. A burglar would know you owned it and would probably choose to steal from you. Anyway,” she said, “you know putting up signs encourages day trippers.”

Day trippers were folks who had no hope of ever buying a house (like us, Sarah thought). Folks, her mother insisted, spent their professional life gaining entry to people’s houses, acting as if they were going to buy but really only trying to get in to see how you lived. Sometimes they opened your cupboards, rooted through your bins. “I’ve heard about them. It’s in the papers.”

Mum opened the front-room curtains during daylight hours because she wanted to hunt down and expose some of these day trippers. She armed Sarah with a notebook, making her record car reg numbers or descriptions of people’s scarves, hats and coats. Once the people went inside to look at the houses, her mum dispatched her to pin a note on the windscreens with the words “day tripper” scrawled in stern black marker. Sometimes she instructed her to scrawl it on their wing mirrors. Sarah would watch them screw the note in a ball and look around, confused, before driving off. She noticed that sometimes, once they sat in the car, they unscrewed the note and read it again. Sarah liked things now, because her mum got up early and there was always milk in the house because the milkman delivered it.

Six months later Mum cancelled the milk and went back to bed. She declared the street taken over by Indians and Gypsies. She called everyone Indian, even a black man who had a posher accent than her own. The Gypsies were what she called the Irish, who she declared had too many kids and never brushed their hair. The Indians never threw anything away, she said, and they hid people in the attics. She’d shout obscenely at smiling families, “It’s only four people is allowed to live in these houses. If you’ve more than four I’ll report you.” They squinted back politely and sometimes wave, because when she was shouting like that she could have been talking about the weather or anything.

All her mother’s outbursts caused Sarah to feel peculiarly regarded when she opened the front door each morning and pulled it closed behind her. They still smiled at her, and she did not know why they did. She mostly clutched her satchel close and tried to train her eyes on her ankle socks and the tips of her shoes to avoid having to make any eye contact.

A girl at school said everyone knew her mum was mad, crazy mad, fucking mental mad. She made a funny face when she said the word mental, turned her lips inside like she’d lost her teeth and went cross-eyed. She said it nicely, like Mum was part of a strange religion. But, the girl said, at least you don’t smell like the Gyppos do.

One Saturday when her mum had closed the curtains again Sarah opened the door to find a neighbour standing there. A man with dark skin and big eyes and a sheen to his hair. He smiled at her. He was holding a package. Sarah recognised him as one of the men who washed his car and whom her mum shrieked at.

“Mum!” she shouted up the stairs while still staring straight ahead at the man.

“What?”

“The man from across the road is here.”

“Don’t open the door.”

“I’ve already opened it.”

“What does he want?”

“Is this hers?” The man asked, showing her a package with her mum’s name typed on it.

“He’s got something of yours.”

Her mum came sideways down the stairs, wearing her nylon sky-blue dressing gown, her long hair ratty, her bed socks on.

The man with the big eyes handed her the package, explaining in his accented English that the postman had left it with him.

“How did you get this?” Her mum snatched the package and read the address. “It’s 43, but they have 33 on it.” She smiled at him. “It’s from the catalogue. It’s my earrings.”

The man nodded. “Good,” he said. “Very good,” he repeated.

She thanked him creamily, light-eyed. “They’re my earrings,” she said. “Earrings, you know.” She pointed to her ears and pulled out their lobes under her dirty-looking hair.

“Good, very good,” he said. “Yes, yes.’ The man still stood smiling.

Sarah knew her mum was mad that day, utterly mad. Beyond-repair mad.

Mum became evangelical about the man and his family despite having spent the previous months warning him that she’d report him for the more-than-four rule.

On account of him, the earring man, she opened the curtains again. She began sending things across to him. Things she made Sarah carry over, like china ornaments she said they were finished with, and that would improve that man’s life because where he came from they didn’t have decent ornaments. She sent a dressing gown, worn, dotted with small balls and a note pinned on it: “For your wife from us, your Catholic neighbours.” Sarah worried about the plural. She worried about the Catholic. They were not Catholics. She was now implicated. Her mother sent a rolling pin. “They probably don’t have one,” she said. “Tell him it’s a rolling pin, show him.” When her mum asked her to take across a nailbrush and inform him he could also use it for scrubbing potatoes, Sarah began hiding the presents in her satchel. The red biro she outright refused to take.

“He doesn’t need a red biro,” she said. “The man has a car.”

“They don’t know what it is,” her mum insisted. “They haven’t got red biros in India. They haven’t even got water there. Take it or I’ll push you over there.”

But this day Sarah wouldn’t take it, and her mum threatened again to push her there.

“You’ll have to push me,” Sarah said, and so her mother did. Sarah screamed, and her mum pushed her, shouting that she was disrespectful, no respect, no respect, no fucking respect. She caught a clump of Sarah’s hair in her hand and lifted it tightly as she forced her across the road. Sarah screamed she was hurting her, and people came out to see the disturbance, and Sarah yelled “She’s crazy,” and everyone watched while the man opened the front door and, bewildered, took the red biro from the child, who was red-eyed and crying, with her mother hitting her repeatedly on the back. “Disrespectful!” she shouted at him. “They have no respect these days.” And the man’s nervous eyes neither encouraged nor agreed with her. He quietly moved his children back from the door and hailed his wife to come out. They exchanged words in their language. “Go home,” his wife said gently. “Please stop this. Go home.”

Mum talked past his wife to the man as if he agreed with her, and they were at one (that his wife didn’t understand), but the wife quickly closed the door. Mum did not notice and talked to his red front door, to its cracked red paint. Sarah hid behind her hair, crying, but she didn’t move, because Mum had her hand in the middle of her back on her twisted arm, restraining her.

She slumped down to his front step in a heap and placed her other hand over her ear.

When her mother finally turned, two police officers were waiting for them.

In a police report, three paragraphs down from the top the two officers stated they had witnessed her mum kick her three times to the side of the head while she was on the doorstep. The mother appeared in an elated state, the report read. Elated, and talking about a red biro.

That month Mum closed the curtains again.

Now the social workers visited, to “see how things were”, because Mum said she didn’t remember the kicking incident and she was sorry, because she didn’t like people who hurt children, and it wouldn’t ever happen again, because it had not happened as she remembered it. Sarah nodded when she said, “See, my daughter, she’s happy here with me. You don’t want to leave your mum, do you?” Sarah shook her head, the way they’d practised, and because Mum had promised she’d make jelly that evening. Blackcurrant jelly, which they laughed at when it wobbled out of the mould. The social workers scanned the house, the two of them, and made bright comments like, “You look well. You’re doing well.” They outlined in frank terms that if her mum didn’t take better care they would remove Sarah. “We aren’t asking much. We just need to see everything’s okay.” They talked to Sarah alone, but Mum had warned her about their trick questions and the danger that they’d both be living under the bridge if she gave the wrong answer.

As long as Sarah went to the hedge and the curtains stayed shut, things went fine.

After the red biro and the police and social workers, Sarah began to walk. After school she did not go home. She wandered to places, warm places such as the library, and sometimes she just walked up and down streets and looked about. Anything but go home. She began not just to talk but to visit the woman with the open front door who sat in the deckchair. In the living room, she drank tea and ate cheesecake while the woman knitted dolls and teddies for the church tombolas. It didn’t matter which church, she said. They all took knitted dolls. Every church needs them. They were lined up on her flowery sofa. She’d ask Sarah what colour do you think for her skirt or his scarf, and Sarah told her and she listened and took up that ball of wool, held it out and asked was she sure. Didn’t she think brown a better colour? And Sarah agreed, yes, brown was a better colour for a scarf. Her knitting needles clip-clipping and stories of her son who never came to visit her. One day he’ll come, she said, and I won’t be here.

Sarah always left through the back door.

Things might have been okay if Mum had not found out about her visiting the woman with the teddies for the tombola.

“I have heard you’re visiting the woman in number 56.”

She didn’t deny it.

“I want it to stop,” Mum said. “Her son’s a copper. I can’t have her talking about us. I want you home after school.”

A few times Mum went over to the tombola woman in her dressing gown and knocked at the door, demanding to know if she had her daughter in there. The tombola woman grew afraid of her mother, and a few times when Sarah called she said that she was busy today, that her son was visiting.

But Sarah saw her hiding in the front room with the light off ’til she’d gone. And she never saw her son. He still had not come to visit.

One day the tombola woman rushed out and thrust a letter into Sarah’s hand. It read, “I am afraid of your mother, your mother has been knocking on my door shouting for you, that’s why I can’t let you in for cheesecake no more. Sorry about that.” It was signed Mrs O’Malley. “PS: My son still has not visited yet.”

It was easier to write letters to the tombola woman, so she wrote them in the library and only posted them if it was dusk or dark. Otherwise she put them in the post box, labelled with old stamps.

The problem was that the house was so small she couldn’t escape her mental mum. With the threat of bridges and orphanages looming she had to resort to walking endless new routes and reading. The problem with walking was the gangs of lads who’d call out the obvious to you – look at her walking, always walking, or weirdo or freak or just stupid stuff that was easy to ignore. Once a group called something at her that route was ruined, and she’d have to find another. She’d seen the danger of familiarity. Three more such chats and you’d be needing a bandage. As soon as she turned 15 she’d get a job. Mum had always intoned that when she had her own money she could buy as many Mr Kipling tarts as she longed for, buy the yellow leggings she’d implored her for. So much so that Sarah had begun to detest her mum’s purse and longed to set it on fire, because it seemed to be the barrier to so much. It was because of it surely that her mum had gone so mad in the first place.

Also, what was inside the purse bothered her. She shouldn’t have opened it. It wasn’t right to open your mum’s purse. She had gotten what she deserved. She was glad she knew what was in the purse. She had already revisited it a few times, just to check it was still there. To see if the paper with the instructions scrawled in red biro had been altered. The instructions Mum had written to whoever found her stated that if they went upstairs they would also find her daughter and she had done what she needed to do for both of them. That one couldn’t go on without the other, it wasn’t right to leave her alone and she had not suffered. I gave her five paracetamol, she’d written before offering elaborate directions of how they were to be buried beside each other, with a sock on each from the same pair; her hoop earrings were to remain in her ears. DO NOT TAKE THEM OUT. DO NOT TAKE THEM OUT OR ELSE was her final, capitalised instruction. Written as if she’d rise from the dead and berate them, and then they’d be forced to bury her all over again properly.

Sarah had been less afraid of what her mother was proposing she’d do to the pair of them than indignant that the woman imagined she could persuade her to take paracetamol. And she was upset that Mum had written it all over the back of a prized cereal-box coupon that Sarah had been collecting to send away for a free Adam Ant T-shirt.

She remembered the three girls slamming the chapati between their hands and on to the ground.

Mad, crazy mad, fucking mental mad.

She lit the gas cooker, fearlessly, to boil beans. She would rip up those stupid instructions later. Or maybe could she Tippex over them and reclaim the coupon. She only needed one more. Maybe the tombola woman might give her the 45 pence postage and packing.

Anakana Schofield is the author of Malarky and Martin John. She lives in Vancouver

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