Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Father Ghost (Black Americano)


By Emma Lee
I looked at the letter, stupefied. Milan, who’d met me on the way home from work, must’ve picked up my reaction. He came behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist.
‘It was in the post. It’s not a bomb,’ his words caressed my throat.
‘It’s mum’s writing,’ I splutter.
‘But she died on Saturday...’ He pulls me closer. ‘She must’ve posted it on Friday, before...’
I reach for it and stop. ‘Later,’ I mutter.
I remember the phone call from my mother’s neighbour, her voice hurried, panicky. At first all she could say was my name, ‘Katia,’ over and over. Mum hadn’t collected her post. The police had broken in. Accidental overdose: no suicide note has been found but there was an empty bottle of painkillers. No mention of her other medication so she probably got rid of the packaging and transferred the pills to the painkiller bottle. She’d wanted a tidy ending: no lingering into old age and ill health for her. She’d have hated the thought of being a burden. But that was how she saw it. Not how I saw it. She wasn’t easy but she wasn’t a burden.
‘Does your father know?’ he asks with the casualness of someone brought up in a two parent family.
I shook my head. ‘She called him Ghost. No one knows who he was.’ In my class only five children had two parents. We were all the first to be born after the war. At sixteen, I’d left to find work. My mother’s work as seamstress was held in high regard but regard and low pay, often in kind, doesn’t put enough food on the table. It was selfish asking her to continue to struggle just to keep me in education. I didn’t send money: she wouldn’t accept it. But I did send gifts, a sweater, a pair of shoes, a new coat and insisted on paying the heating bills. She felt the cold.
Milan shuffles off to warm up the stew I made yesterday. Usually I tease him about it: he’s a city boy whose mother did everything for him. My mother taught me to cook as soon as I could stand. Play dough and dumplings to start with, then more simple stuff and eventually I found myself doing all the cooking. I didn’t mind, I enjoyed it. My mother wanted me to be independent, ‘in case anything happens, Katia.’ I knew if anything happened to her, we were on our own.
‘It’s not the same without your dumplings,’ he mock complains.
I join him at our table, a small counter wedged against the wall in a tiny kitchen. It’s a tiny apartment but affordable on my wages. Milan wants us to find somewhere a bit bigger, using our combined wages. I tell him he has to learn how to clean and iron first. I’m not his mother.
‘Working tomorrow?’ he asks.
‘Depends how I feel. I’d like to go but don’t want to cry in front of everyone.’
He nods.
He can’t tell I’m lying. I’ve already decided I won’t go. I’ve been allowed a couple of days’ leave.
After eating, he kisses me goodbye.

The bus drops me in the middle of the village. As I approach mum’s house, I feel uneasy. There’s nothing to suggest there was a death here, at least not an unnatural death. I look at the house. Squat, two storeys that still looks as if the neighbouring houses are somehow holding it up. Window frames and door well-maintained. Mum always did paint the woodwork regularly. But something’s out of place.
It’s not until I open the door, lock it closed behind me and see sunlight catching dust motes that I realise the curtains are drawn. Mum never drew the curtains, always did her sewing in gloomy, dim artificial light. I’d tell her she’d strain her eyes but she’d laugh and joke that she’d never live long enough for that to be a problem.
I lay my handbag and key down on the small shelf in the hall, the sounds muffled by an embroidered runner. I run my finger over a satin-stitched petal. Then dart upstairs. My room was on the left. I open the door. The room’s bare. I draw the curtains which are thin enough to let in plenty of light. I drop to the floor.
This is where my bed was. Opposite there used to be a wardrobe with a small table next to it. The table used to have a small tablecloth with embroidered cats on. The room’s been repainted, but the nail that mum hung my first sampler on is still there. It was agony, so many unpickings and re-stitchings and a blood stain from pin-prick I thought would never come out. Then mum washed it and stretched it into a frame and I cried again: it had all been worth it. She’d sold the furniture but I didn’t believe she would have sold the sampler so it must still be here somewhere.
I go into her room. First thing I do is straighten the bedclothes, then half-close the curtains. It doesn’t look right with the light flooding in. I open her wardrobe. Maybe half a dozen dresses hang over two pairs of shoes and the holdall I’m looking for. I can smell the mothballs I can’t see stuck on the shelf, hidden behind a pile of sweaters. None of them will fit me. I put the holdall on the bed and look in.
There it is. She probably sold the frame, but the sampler’s carefully wrapped in a patchworked bedcover and rolled into the holdall. I wrap it up again and return it. Then I pick up the small tablecloth from her bedside table and fold that into the holdall. I leave her bed. I never could get on with it. The mattress over-stuffed and too soft, suffocating layers of blankets but mum complained of being cold at night. Cold, tired and careworn. If I woke at night I could sometimes catch the sound of her sobs. But she’d push me away if I went to her. Her little ray of sunshine shouldn’t know about such things. It would ruin me she said.
I go back downstairs, still carrying the holdall. She’d put her sewing machine under its cover as she always did. There were piles of cloth around the room, which I didn’t disturb. Her customers could collect them when I felt ready to deal with it. The sewing machine’s safe enough where it is, but I tease out the tablecloth from under it. How she never got the tablecloth caught amongst the sewing I’d never know.
It’s the kitchen that finishes me. I sink onto the cushioned wooden bench behind the table, ball up the tablecloth into a pillow and let the tears finally come.
This is where we lived. Where we ate, where I did my homework, where she told me fairy stories. Where I’d embroider or finish buttonholes by hand, freeing her up to start the next job on the machine.
On the rare occasions she’d managed to find some plum brandy and drunk one too many, she’d let things slip. She mumbled about me kicking her into being. She’d come back here after the war, numbed, walking dead. But she was pregnant. She disbelieved at first but I kicked and fidgeted and kicked. She’d pretend I was a changeling. I was so light and blonde where she was swarthy. I was an easy baby, apparently, full of gurgles and giggles and grew into an easy child. That must have been the brandy talking.
I never found out my father’s name. He was always spoken of as Ghost. I had her surname. She never wore a wedding ring. I’d assumed she’d sold it. But now I suspect I she never had one.
I splash cold water over my face. I’m tempted to make a pot of tea, but already I need to think about getting back. I fold up the tablecloth and manage to squash in a couple of the cushions as well. The table looks bare and I’m amazed as its transformation from something welcoming and homely to something solid, hard and unforgiving.
The holdall’s bulky but light. I stuffed some sandwiches in my handbag before coming but I’ll eat them on the bus. I pick up the key and hesitate before unlocking the door again. The house belongs to neither of us now. After the funeral, I’ll clear it and sell it.
I still don’t feel ready to put the key in the lock. I listen.
The silence in the house is so loud it almost echoes. I don’t know why I think it, but the silence seems to suggest my father was never here.
I finally unlock the door. Firmly I lock it after me and walk to the bus stop without looking back.

Walking back to my apartment I notice a man on the other side of the street. He’s wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. He’s also blond and blue-eyed like me, but that’s not why I notice him.
It’s his nose. It’s upturned slightly at the end, just like mine. He raises his hand to his eyes to shield from the sun as he checks before crossing the street. His wedding band glints.
Back in my apartment I pick up my mum’s letter.
I hold it over the sink and set it alight, only dropping it as it threatens to burn my fingers. At least her death won’t be recorded as suicide. It won’t be recorded as murder, either, although it should be. But that assumes you can be murdered by a ghost.

Emma blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com and has had short stories published in magazines and anthologies including "Gentle Footprints" (Bridgehouse Publishing) and "Extended Play" (Elastic Press). Her novel "Bitter Fame" was published last year and she has a full-length poetry collection, "Yellow Torchlight and the Blues" from Original Plus.

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