Wednesday 2 September 2020

Can You Smell Chips, Mam?

by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt  

Robinson’s Blackcurrant Juice.

“Can you smell chips?” Mam says.
            I see her standing over Nain’s bed; a Tesco carrier bag hanging off one wrist, the buttons of her Oxfam mac buttoned up all wrong; she looks lop-sided. She’s forgotten to wash her hair again; it’s greasier than chippy chips.
 I stand at the end of the ward, peep from behind a yellow curtain and watch her fidget. She attempts to remove a bottle of Robinson’s Blackcurrant Juice from the carrier bag only the bag gets stuck on her wrist. I see the panic tug the lines out of Mam’s face. She keeps flicking her wrist. Flick. Flick. Flick. Finally she’s free. She sets the bottle down on the table – so now there are three bottles; they look like three Darth Vaders keeping guard; looking after my nain. Mam doesn’t seem to get it though, like a thread’s snapped somewhere and she can’t make the connection, can’t see that Nain already has too much Robinson’s Blackcurrant Juice.
            Nain doesn’t say much – but then she can’t, can she? All she manages are grunts and snorts, although lately short sentences but sometimes they make no sense; and her face reminds me of a baby with wind, crunched up like that Tesco carrier bag (a 5p one, not a Bag-for-Life one, they don’t crunch up like that). The only person Nain really talks to is me.
But the doctors say the thing that snapped inside her is mending. Slowly.
I watch Mam pull out the chair where I was sitting, you can probably still see the soft indent, it’s probably still warm. I was reading to her from Anne of Green Gables. Nain’s favourite. I look down at my schoolbag where the orange spine still pokes out. Next to the chip paper, now bunched like a fist.
That’s when I turn. Nurse Efficient (my name for her) scurries between beds holding a bedpan. It matches her face, or is that deadpan? I feel like Nain, she muddles letters. They think it’s since she had the stroke but she always muddled letters. Nurse Efficient shakes her head. Maybe she thinks I should stay, try and talk to Mam again; that I shouldn’t keep hiding. But Mam won’t even look at me.
Mam has issues. If I didn’t have my schoolbag in one hand and the other hand burrowed in my coat pocket I’d do that twitchy finger thing I’ve seen people do. Issues they mutter hanging their fingers either side of the word. Issues. Eirlys, your mam has issues.
It’s why Dad left.
I hoist my schoolbag onto my shoulder. Mam looks at Nain’s untouched cottage pie and mushy peas. I hear her say, “Can you smell chips, Mam?”  

I decide to walk. I look at the line of people at the bus stop, some from our estate, but they won’t look at me. It’s like there’s a thread connecting their heads to their dirty trainers. I always plan to get the bus but then when I see them looking all miserable like they’ve got the dirge – I think maybe it’s catching. Dirge is a new word I learned. Cerys says it means a sombre song of lament expressing grief. Sounds more like a disease. Some diseases are catching. When people say that, they probably mean viruses and bacteria (we did it in biology) and it’s why the doctors and nurses are supposed to wash their hands before they touch Nain only sometimes they forget. And nits – they’re catching too (but don’t talk to me about nits, my head itches just thinking about nits). I worry if I get the bus with these people the misery will jump from them to me like nits and I’ll walk with my head attached to my feet like I’ve got the dirge. I did have it. We all had it that week when something terrible happened, but I don’t want to talk about that yet. Give me time, okay? Rho amser i mi
             I only really talk Welsh in school or when I’m practising for a test. I try it out on Nain, though.
Those classroom rhymes they make up about me sound the same in English and Welsh and the sobs come out the same, no matter what language I use.
            Eirlys is mad like her mother. Eirlys the crazy mother ­­­­_____ (pause for bad word, fill in the blank. It’s like an exercise in class) but I won’t write a bad word. I won’t say a bad word. Maybe I should’ve used a bad word, two bad words, only really the second one isn’t bad on its own. And then maybe it wouldn’t’ve happened.

Dad is from Liverpool, won’t even try to talk Welsh. Although when he was drunk once he did get some fella (that’s how he speaks – some fella) to teach him the Everton Rap in Welsh and now he does it when he wants people to like him.
 I know about wanting people to like you.
Square pegs don’t fit into round holes. It’s a cliché. I learned it in class. A cliché is a phrase that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
All I could think about, when Mrs Owens (Head of English) used that as an example, was I used to have a toy where you had to hammer shapes into holes and Mam used to say all you have to do, cariad, is put the right shapes into the right holes.
Sometimes I think that’s a metaphor for our lives.
A metaphor is something used to represent something else.

Mam used to speak Welsh all the time to Taid, before he died. I think she still does. Or she did when I lived with her. Nain is Scottish and she never learned Welsh which is why it’s weird what happened after her stroke. Although it’s not really weird, when you think about it (think about it at the end, okay?). She started talking Welsh to the nurses, repeating what I said. Not proper sentences, just words she threw out and hoped someone would catch (but not like nits though). The nurses forget she doesn’t speak Welsh sometimes and they ask her things in Welsh. But she can only grunt something back if I’m there to translate and tell her what word to use. One of the doctors, Doctor Smirk (my name for him) told Nurse Scatty (my name for her) sometimes when people have things wrong with their brains they talk languages they couldn’t before. I looked it up and he wasn’t making it up either. How cool is that? Maybe it explains why Dad talks nonsense when he’s drunk, booze messes with your brain. Same as those pills Mam has to take to stop her having bad thoughts. 
            I wonder if there’s a pill to stop her buying Robinson’s Blackcurrant Juice.
            Or to remember to wash her hair.
            Or to forgive me.

There’s a boy from my school walking his dog. A small scrappy yappy thing – the dog, not him – although. Nain does that. Only half finishes sentences. Mrs Owens gives you a big red mark for that. But sometimes I do it just because.
The boy doesn’t even look at me, like he’s got the dirge too. There seems to be a lot of it going around. Like an epidemic of bent heads and scuffed trainers and people who won’t look at you.
            We know what you did Eirlys Gwendolyn Jones.
            Mam never used to. Not look at me that is. Or walk like the world is a pile of bricks on her shoulders. Or say: how we’re born and how we end up is because of what happens in between and because of the ­____ life throws at us (insert bad word, clue: four letters, first one S, last one T).
            I used to wonder what ­____ life threw at her.
            When I tried to talk to her about my issues (cue twitchy finger thing) she said I had to grow a thick skin.
            “That’s a cliché,” I said.
            Later she asked if I wanted to live with Dad. Maybe she was scared her issues would jump from her head to mine.

It was ages before Mam would leave the house after it happened (like I said, give me time okay and I will tell you). Rho amser i mi
            Nain’s stroke came a few weeks after the it thing which makes me think it must be my fault, even though Nain says it’s not. But I can’t help thinking it’s like everything is attached to everything else and no matter what we do we all affect one another.
I go every day. I wait for them to say Nain is well enough to go home. But not to her house. Not anymore.
I used to go to Nain’s house after school. That was before her stroke. I still go there sometimes. I like to stand at the window with my hands trailing in soap bubbles and practise my Welsh. On Taid. One time I was there I heard the key in the door (turns out the nurses gave Mam Nain’s key so she could fetch stuff) but they didn’t realise they needed to write lists for her – nighties, Nain’s reading glasses (now she’s a bit better), her magazines. When I heard the key I hid behind the full-length curtains in the lounge. But when I saw Mam standing there like she was lost I stepped out. She only looked at me for a second, then her face screwed up. “The house smells of chips!” she said. That’s when she turned around and dashed for the door.
“Wait, you forgot—”
But she was gone.
The chippy is on the way home from school.
After she left I wrote a list for next time. And then I put Nain’s nightie, the one with the little daisies on the front, into my schoolbag to take to her.
Mam’s stopped going to Nain’s house. I heard her telling Nain she won’t go because I go there. It’s like she’s only happy if we’re in different rooms.

I bend down to tie my shoelace outside Cerys’s house. Her mam has the front painted different colours every year. This year it’s purple which makes it look sombre which means having or conveying a feeling of deep seriousness and sadness and I sometimes think Cerys looks that colour too and I wonder if the same thing is happening to her at school. But some things you don’t talk about, do you? But maybe you should. Maybe it’s time to tell you.
            Mae'n amser.
            I didn’t want to do it. The photo wasn’t my idea. I thought he liked me, Martin Davies, same year, only he was already fourteen and I wasn’t yet. He was Mr Popular. And he was in top set for everything. Not like me with my learning ‘issues’. He said I was pretty and we made a secret pact. I showed him one boob, that’s it. It’s not like I have big boobs yet or anything. He wasn’t supposed to show anyone. It was our secret because he said if I did, he would go out with me. And people would like me.
            Virulence means actively poisonous; intensely noxious,
            Like bullies.
            And it means ability to spread.
Like photos in text messages.
It’s true about that everything is connected to everything else. Text—Facebook—Twitter …
I didn’t know you could see my face on the photo too.
            Or that when I went into school everyone knew what I’d done.
            I was supposed to go to the Head. It felt like I was in a cave and everyone was whispering. The situation was untenable. It’s the word Dad used when he divorced Mam. Same as irreconcilable only I forgot to look that up. One of the meanings of untenable is not fit to be lived in and that’s how I felt. I couldn’t live in my own head knowing what I’d done. I couldn’t live in my own skin knowing everyone had seen. I couldn’t look at people ever again.
So I heaved my schoolbag onto my shoulder, pushed open the double doors at the end of the science block. It had started to rain. I took in a deep breath, looked down at my shoes. And I.

I walk past Cerys’s house to the corner, two doors down from Dad, but I already know the curtains are pulled which means he’s at the pub. The window at the top on the right is my room; where it happened. I keep on walking. Nain’s house is past the estate and up the lane. Sometimes I go in and sit in the dark listening to the pitter-patter of the rain.
            I bought chips on the way home from school the day of the it. Dad was out, maybe at the jobcentre signing on as it was Thursday and he always signs on on a Thursday. I tipped the chips onto the plate and squelched ketchup on the side. I carried it to my room, took the stairs two at a time. I already knew what to do. I’d Googled it after Mam said she’d tried to do it once, before they changed her meds.
            I couldn’t eat the chips. Does anyone eat their last supper? I wrote sorry in the ketchup.
            I didn’t think I was strong enough to do it. Or how to tie the rope or.

I was there when they told Mam, holding her hand, only she kept flicking her wrist like she did with the carrier bag. Nain was there too. Not Dad. He was already in the pub. He was the one who found me. My bedroom stank of chips for days. The policeman talked slowly and sometimes he didn’t finish his sentences. Maybe he was hoping he could just think the bad words and they’d jump into their heads without him having to say Eirlys has hung herself in her bedroom. Or have to ask them if they knew why.

It’s been a year since Nain left hospital. She doesn’t talk Welsh anymore. I do though – only to Taid. And sometimes to Cerys when I whisper the answers in her Welsh exam. The school’s had a big crackdown on bullying. I guess good can come from bad places.
            Mam’s a lot better (they changed her meds again). She lives with Nain somewhere they can both be safe; a government scheme.
            Mam can’t see me, Nain can though; sometimes. Mam often says she can smell chips though but it doesn’t freak her out anymore, it just makes her hungry. Not like the lost nightie and the lists she kept finding at Nain’s when she was still in the hospital, that freaked her out. But you can get used to anything in the end.
Even being a. 

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 @DebzHobbsWyatt 
Writing Blog 

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