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The Bad Mother's Handbook: A Novelby Kate Long
When I was twelve I fell and broke my elbow. It was election day 1929, and we were mucking about on top of the wall by the polling station. It was about six feet up and you were all right as long as you sat astride the copestone, only I’d turned sidesaddle so as to spot the people who’d voted Conservative; my dad said you could see it in their faces. Jimmy nudged me and we started singing:
“Vote! Vote! Vote for Alec Sharrock,
He is sure to win the day.
And we’ll get a salmon tin
And we’ll put the Tory in
And he’ll never see his mother any more.”
I swung my legs to make the words come out better, and the next thing I knew I was sprawled on the ground with my arm underneath me. Jimmy tried to make a sling out of the yellow muslin banners we’d been waving, but I screamed and he started to cry in panic. It hurt so much I was afraid to get up in case I left my arm on the floor.
The following day, when we heard the Labor Party’d got in, Dad got so drunk he couldn’t open the back gate.
“I’ll go and let him in,” Jimmy volunteered.
“You’ll not!” said Mother. “Leave him where he is.”
So I lay on the sofa with my arm all strapped up and watched him struggle. Finally he fell over and my mother drew the curtains on him.
It was funny, we’d never known him to touch a drop before.
His vices lay in other directions.
The day after it happened, everything seemed normal. Even from behind my bedroom door, I could hear Mum going on at Nan. She tries not to get cross, but it’s the only emotion my mother does these days.
“Come on, Nan, it’s time for your bath.”
“I can’t. My arm hurts.”
“No, it doesn’t. You’ve been dreaming again. Come on.”
Ours is a house of lost things; keys, hearing aids, identities. There was a row about sausages this morning. My mum had cooked two sausages for Nan’s dinner and left them on a plate to cool. Then the window cleaner came to the door, and when she got back they’d gone.
“What have you done with them?” she asked her mother (patient voice).
“I han’t touched ’em.”
“Yes, you have, you must have.”
“It were t’ dog.”
“We haven’t got a dog, Nan. Where are they? I just want to know, you’re not in trouble. Have you eaten them?”
“Aye, I might have done. Yesterday. I had ’em for my tea.”
“How can you have had them yesterday when I’ve only just cooked them? God almighty, it’s every little thing.” My mother ran her hand wearily over her face and sighed. It’s something she does a lot.
“By the Christ! There’s no need to shout. You’re a cranky woman. You’re bad-tempered like my daughter, Karen. She blows her top over nothing.”
“I am your daughter Karen,” Mum said.
It was me who found the sausages next day, wrapped in two plastic bags inside the bread bin.
Not that Nan has the monopoly on confusion.
I know my name is Charlotte and that I’m seventeen, but on a bad day that’s as far as it goes. “Be yourself,” people—older people—are always telling me: yeah, right. That’s so easy. Sometimes I do those quizzes in Most! and Scene Nineteen. Are you a Cool Cat or a Desperate Dog and what’s your seduction style; how to tell your personality type by your favorite color, your favorite doodle, the hour of your birth. Do I (a) Believe this crap? (b) Treat it with the contempt it deserves? Depends on my mood, really.
Sometimes Nan thinks I am her own childhood reincarnated. “Bless her,” she says, rooting for a mint, “her father beat her till she were sick on t’ floor and then he beat her again. He ran off and her mother had to tek in washin’. Poor lamb. Have a toffee.”
This drives my mum up the wall, round the bend, and back again. She doesn’t like to see good sympathy going to waste, particularly in my direction, because she thinks I live the Life of Riley.
“You have chances I never had,” she tells me. “Education’s everything. How much homework have you got tonight?” She bought me a personal organizer for Christmas but I lost it—I haven’t had the nerve to tell her yet. “You must make something of your life. Don’t make the mistake I made.”
Since I am part of her Mistake (“I was a mother by the age of sixteen, divorced at twenty-one”), this leaves me in an unusual position: I am also her redeemer, the reassurance that her life has not in fact been wasted. My future successes will be hers, and people will say to me, “Your mother was a clever woman. She gave up a lot for you.” Or so she hopes.
Actually, I’m in a bit of a mess.
When Nan walked in on me and Paul Bentham having sex yesterday afternoon she didn’t say a word. She’s surprisingly mobile, despite the bag. The colostomy was done dog’s years ago, pre-me, to get rid of galloping cancer.
“The Queen Mother has one, you know!” the consultant had shouted.
“Ooh. Swanky,” replied Nan, impressed. “Well, Ivy Seddon reckons Cliff Richard has one, an’ he dances about all over.”
I thought she might let it slip that evening while we were watching Coronation Street. Suddenly she said, “She were too young, she didn’t know what she were doing. I towd her, Musn’t fret, I’ll tek care of it.” My mum, coming in with a cup of tea for her, banged the saucer down so that the tea spilled on the cloth, and gave me a look.
Christ, Nan, please don’t say anything or I’m done for. (A thirty-three-year-old woman was today formally accused of bludgeoning to death her teenage daughter with what police believe may have been a personal organizer. Neighbors reported hearing raised voices late into the night.)
It still hurts a bit. I didn’t know it would hurt like that. I knew there’d be blood because I read somewhere about them hanging the bedsheets out of the window in olden days so that all and sundry could see the bride had been virgo intacta. I used an old T-shirt and rinsed it out afterward; if she asks, I’ll tell my mother it was a nosebleed.
I’m not a slut. It’s just that there’s not a lot to do around here. You can walk through Bank Top in fifteen minutes, a small dull village hunching along the ridge of a hill and sprawling down the sides in two big estates. From the highest point it affords panoramic views of industrial Lancashire: factories, warehouses, rows and rows of red-brick terraces and, on the horizon, the faint gray-green line of millstone-grit moorland. To the south there’s the television mast where a German plane is supposed to have come down fifty years ago; to the north there’s Blackpool Tower, just visible on the skyline. I used to spend hours squinting to see the illuminations, but they’re too far away.
There are three types of housing in Bank Top. Small Victorian houses, two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs, line the main street, while on the fringes of the village it’s all modern boxes with garages and uniform front lawns. None of the people in these prestige developments talk to each other, but you can hear everything your neighbor’s doing through the cardboard walls, apparently. Beneath these shiny new houses the foundations shift and grumble over defunct mine shafts—the last pit closed forty years ago—making Bank Top a sink village in every sense.
Then there are the semi-detached duplexes built in the thirties as public housing, where dogs roam free and shit on the pavement with impunity. This is where we live. We bought our house in the boom of ’84 (also Divorce Year), and my mother celebrated by having a Georgian front door fitted and mock leaded lights on the windows. The front storage room, upstairs which is my bedroom and minute, looks out over the Working Men’s Club parking lot; some odd things go on there on a Saturday night, I can tell you.
In the center of the village is the church and the community center and a rubbish row of shops, a newsstand, a launderette, a grocery store. Two pubs, more or less opposite each other, battle it out, but one is for old people and families from the new neighborhoods with quiz nights and chicken tikka pizza, and the other’s rough as rats. I don’t go in either. For kicks, I get the bus to Wigan from a bus shelter smelling of pee. Fuck off, it says over the lintel, so I generally do.
I don’t belong in this village at all. Actually, I don’t know where I do belong. Another planet, maybe.
• • •
So there I was, on my back, entirely naked and rigid as a corpse, when Nan totters into my bedroom and says to Paul, “A horse has just gone past the landing window.”
“Which way did it go?” asks Paul.
“Which way did it go?” I said later. “What are you, mad too?”
“I was only trying to make conversation.” He shrugged his bony shoulders under the sheets. “What’s up with her? Is she mental, like?”
“No more than a lot of people,” I said, a bit sharply. I get defensive about her, even though she is a nuisance. “Some days she’s more with it than me. She’s just old. You might be like that when you’re old.”
“I’d shoot myself first.”
“No, you wouldn’t. That’s what everyone says, but they wouldn’t.”
Part of the problem in this house is hormones. There are too many undiluted women for one small ex-council house. Huge clouds of supercharged estrogen drift about and react, sending showers of sparks into the atmosphere; the air prickles with it. Nan hasn’t got any left, of course, although she hung on to hers longer than most (had my mum at forty-six! Didn’t realize people even had sex at that age), but I’ve got more than I know what to do with. Certainly more than my mother knows what to do with. She suspects I have tart DNA (passed on from her, presumably). If she finds out I’ve been having sex she will kill me. Really. This would be my worst nightmare: Mum, finding out:
Bloody bloody bloody hell. Bloody Nan for making a mess on the bed. Again. Not her fault but I don’t care, nobody cares about me. Come off, you bloody fitted sheet, bastard son of a sheet—hell. Trailing this armload off to the washing basket and—hell, I’ve dropped a pair of tights—hell, I’ve dropped a pair of underwear trying to pick up the tights, whole bloody lot’s gone now, all over the floor. Navy sock in with the whites, that was a close shave. Charlotte will not put her dirty clothes in the right baskets; what kind of a slut have I produced? You’d think she’d have more consideration. Dying for a cup of tea, cotton with prewash, heavily soiled, everything’s heavily soiled in this house. Not Nan’s fault, that bloody tape doesn’t stick to her skin if she gets Nivea under it. What’s this, what’s this? What’s just fallen out of the dirty pillowcase onto the floor?
Oh, Jesus, it’s a condom. Charlotte’s been having sex.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2005 by Kate Long
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