Thursday, 12 December 2019

Looking for Graceland



by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

festive milkshake with extra whipped cream

 I used to think Mum was abducted by aliens.
            I’m standing outside Harrods, clutching shopping bags and my bright pink brolly that’s turned itself inside out, and I’m wondering if knock-off Ugg boots are waterproof, when I see it. It’s a crack: a crack in the pavement, no more than a centimetre wide. Then some fella brushes past me with a six foot tree and near sends me face down into a puddle. Never even says sorry – miserable git. Happy Christmas to you too.
            I stop myself from falling by wrapping my fingers over the handles of the bags like that’s gonna keep me upright, act as ballast. Weird thing is – it does. So here I am standing outside Harrods looking at a crack in the pavement and thinking maybe I’m as crazy as her, when I take another step. So now I’m standing right on the crack. I hear Mum’s voice in my head, “Picture it, Keira, say it out loud.” I close my eyes, whisper “Narnia” and wait for everything to disappear.

Mum was always disappearing. But back then when Mum disappeared, she always came back.
One time they found her in Sainsbury’s car park wearing nothing but a sombrero she’d picked out of Mr Singh’s dustbin (don’t ask) singing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, her ode to The King who she said she was gonna marry till Dad asked her. “Besides,” she said “Memphis is a lot further than Southend-On-Sea.”
 “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes,” she sang and she was still singing it when the plod brought her home to twitching curtains and tut-tut-tuts from nosey neighbours and Mr Singh standing in the middle of the drive saying, “My rubbish – not yours.” At least Mum knew how to have fun. But later when she was playing ‘Love Me Tender’ (she always played the slow ones when she was sad) I remember thinking I wish I knew how to keep her safe.  Dad said that was his job.
And I remember looking down at her feet as she stood there, wrapped in a navy towel the police must have given her, singing: “Don’t you, don’t you – step on my blue suede shoes.” That’s when I realised she wasn’t only wearing a sombrero, she was wearing flip flops. Yellow ones.
“Your mum has issues,” Nan would say.
“What’s issues?”
“Nothing,” she said.

“Do you think she can hear us?”
            “Maybe she’s got a condition – you know like epilepsy?”
            “Hello? Anyone in there?”
            “Someone take her bags, don’t let her fall.”
            Words. Swirling around me like glitter in the snow globe Mum gave me. I’m the little Elvis glued inside under the Graceland sign – fixed to the same spot.
When I open my eyes there’s some fella looking at me like I’m an alien. I suppose that’s better than being invisible.
            Mum said she’d seen aliens. It was that time she disappeared for a couple of days and the plod were out looking for her. And Nan kept saying, “She can’t ’ave gone far, Gary.” And Dad kept saying, “Shut up, Brenda.”
            They found her on the high street in her lilac dressing gown and Dad’s Big Foot slippers. That time she was clutching a stack of Elvis CDs she’d robbed from the Red Cross shop. The manager chased her to the corner of the high street telling her she was stealing from them poor starving folks in Africa and she told him, “There’s one thing you should know.”
“What?” he’d said.
“I’m having Elvis’s baby.”
           
When they brought her home and we asked where she’d been for two days she said, "Abducted.”          
Then she’d lifted her sleeve, “See.”
She showed us what she said was where the aliens pinned her down so they could take samples. It was a bright pink graze on her wrist, like a bracelet.
            “Elvis was there,” she said.
            “Last time you said he was still alive and living in Vegas,” I said.
            “Oh yeah,” she said. “I forgot.”
            It was only after, when I thought about it, the graze looked just like the ones she said she got from walking Aslan, our golden retriever, when he pulled too hard, only when I walked Aslan and he pulled too hard, I never got lines on my wrist like that.
            I supposed that’s when I started to realise.
            But I never said.

“Here, come and sit down.” I feel someone pulling on my arm. I’m thinking it ought to be snowing not raining. When they went to Narnia it was. Thick snow. And the lamppost. I can see that, just in front of me.        
            “P’raps someone ought to phone for an ambulance.”
            “No. No one official, not yet.” It’s what Dad said. It was when Mum disappeared that last time, two weeks before my thirteenth birthday, Christmas Eve. Maybe Dad thought someone would phone and say Mum was roller-blading dressed as Mother Christmas at the precinct again, or in the post office telling ’em she wanted a one-way ticket to Graceland. People knew who she was; Dad left our phone number everywhere.
            “You’ll have to keep her in,” Nan used to say. “Don’t let her out on her own.”
            “Easier said than done,” Dad said.
            “Like Aslan?” I said. “We keep him in.”
            Dad laughed then, not that it was funny. “Get her a lead,” he said. Even Nan laughed, before she cried.
            I try not to think about that.
I try not to think about lots of things. But trying not to think about something is the same thing as thinking about it.  Like trying to think about what Dad told me: that Mum had something wrong with her brain: “A chemical imbalance,” he said. “She can take pills for it,” he said. “She’ll get better,” he said.
Thing is – she never did.

Someone takes my bags and now the crack in the pavement outside Harrods disappears and I’m being shunted, like a train carriage. I can hear music coming from a car stereo. I think for a second it might be Elvis but it’s not. It’s Eminem.
‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ was playing, or maybe it was ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love.’ I don’t know when, sometime in the summer before Mum disappeared. After two years the details fade. I’m afraid the same thing will happen with her. I do remember the song was playing on a loop; I counted to thirty-seven before I went in the kitchen for a Pot Noodle.  I found Mum on the sofa squeezing a tissue until it disappeared. “Will you look something up for me?” she said. “On the interweb? Will you Google trains to Narnia?
Then she said it was an early birthday and Christmas pressie because she knew how much I loved the books. She said if you booked early it was sure to be cheaper. “Like on a supersaver,” she said.
            “But it’s not a real place,” I told her.
 “Oh yeah,” she said. “I forgot.”
            She was wearing the jumper, the one Dad bought her the Christmas before, shipped all the way from America, from the Elvis store, but she’d said she didn’t like the colour. She only wore it when she was sad. She had her hair pulled back off her face. She put her hands over mine and she had the distant look she’d get sometimes. Like before she shut herself in her bedroom. I used to think she was never gonna come out.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I close my eyes and pretend I’m somewhere else.”
 “Like Romford?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“What about Next when the sales are on and you can get fake Ugg boots for half price?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Knightsbridge then? Window shopping, like you used to do with Dad?”
“No.”
 “Mum,” I said and I felt her hand tighten over mine. “Where is it you pretend to be?”
That’s when she closed her eyes and started to sing. She sang ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ all the way through.  Dad came home, watched us from the doorway. He looked almost as sad as her but he never said anything. I heard him in the kitchen then, clinking his spoon against the side of a cup faster and faster and then he stopped again on his way past. “Someday we’ll meet up yonder, we’ll stroll hand in hand again …”
It was the first time I saw him cry. But he still never said a word. I always wished he would. I still do.
I used to hear snatches of conversation muffled by closed doors. Nan saying: “But if she won’t take her pills what are we supposed to do? Force feed her?”
And I remember thinking how much I missed the fun Mum; the one who cycled to town dressed as Cleopatra and had picnics in the middle of the shopping centre. The fun Mum who made me stay home so we could play Twister and only eat things that were yellow. And the fun Mum who made me skip up and down Romford High Street because she said you should never step on the cracks in the pavement. She said if you did, you would disappear.  

The miserable git who almost knocked me over with the Christmas tree is now holding my arm and leading me towards the entrance of Harrods. I hear him telling some woman to look after his Norwegian Spruce while he finds somewhere for me to sit down. People are gawping at me the way they used to look at Mum so I close my eyes and imagine I’m wearing ruby slippers.
It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, our last Christmas, when Mum made us watch the Wizard of Oz because she said they never showed it anymore. “Remember how you used to think there are magical lands everywhere?” She was perched on the edge of the sofa, pulling the sleeves of her cardigan down over her wrists.
            “Yeah,” I said. “Like Kansas?”
            “Yeah like that.”
            “And at the back of the wardrobe.”
            “Yes. And remember what I told you?”
            “That you can find magical lands just by closing your eyes.”
            “Yeah,” she said. “Just making sure you remember.”  Then she added: “But don’t be invisible.”
 “Is that how you feel, Mum?”
She never answered because we got to the bit where the Wicked Witch was melting and we liked the way her hat looked like it was sinking into the floor.
            But later Mum told me that’s how she went to Graceland, I don’t mean sinking into the floor, I mean by closing her eyes. That’s when she gave me her snow globe. “I want you to have this,” she said. I watched her tip it up, let the glitter settle. “I’m not the one’s that’s invisible,” I heard her say; when she thought I wasn’t listening.

I think about Graceland now. I used to think all we had to do was go to Memphis and somewhere in one of them cafés we’d find her – singing and laughing. I still do sometimes. I’d ask why she never sends me any signs. Or maybe she does.
Of course they never found Mum in Memphis. They found what was left of her on the train tracks near Romford on Boxing Day.
Dad never talks about what happened.
Or about Mum.
            And I never cry.
            “You alright, Love?”
            I open my eyes and think I see him: Mr Tumnus carrying an umbrella. I look down to inspect his hooves and realise it’s not Mr Tumnus but a man in shiny shoes, standing in the doorway at Harrods. But he is holding a brolly, a pink one turned inside out and he’s got my shopping bags. They were selling off Elvis memorabilia at the tube, two quid a piece; I bought it all. It’s like I forget she’s not coming back.
            “You look all shook up” Mr Tumnus says.
            I turn and look at him and before I know it I’m laughing. I can’t stop but I can’t tell him why.
Is that my sign? All Shook Up?
Now Mr Tumnus and Miserable Git are staring at me like I’m insane. But I’m not. I’m really not.
             I look back along the street.
            “Miss? Your stuff?”
“Keep it,” I say and before either of them speaks I step back onto the pavement.
I scroll through the names in my phone, stop at D.
“Hey,” Dad answers.
 “Don’t step on the cracks.”
“What?”
 “And don’t be invisible, Dad.”
            I hear a car stereo and this time it is an Elvis song, but it’s not Elvis singing. It’s ‘Blue Christmas.’ Ours won’t be blue, not anymore.
            “It’s time to talk,” I say, “about Mum.” 
            Then I hang up.
And right there, standing on the crack in the pavement outside Harrods, I know.
I know it’s finally okay to cry.           

About the author

Winner Bath Short Story Award 2013

Shortlisted in Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013

Debut Novel While No One Was Watching published by Parthian Books

 NEW SHORT STORY COLLECTION OUT NOW! AMAZON
 
                       

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