By Rachel Cronin
The ringing phone wakes me. The room is dark and fuzzy, then focuses itself. Is it morning already? It’s too dark to be morning already. My arms are stuck at my sides and I’m wrapped in Mum’s burgundy duvet like that bit in James And The Giant Peach when James dreams he’s a caterpillar. The shadow of Mum sits up in bed; legs over the side, facing the wall. She’s holding the phone to her ear, but doesn’t twist the cable through her fingers like in the films. She sits still. She puts the phone down and it clicks into place.
‘Who was that?’
I think I know already.
‘Just Nannie, she can’t sleep.’
I don’t think I believe her.
‘Is he dead?’
‘Nannie couldn’t sleep so she phoned. She just feels lonely.’
I sit up in my cocoon, wrapped up to my neck. I wriggle free and clamber over the sheets to sit next to her, facing the wall. My head’s level with her shoulders. The air is colder out here. Bottles of face creams and hair sprays and makeup litter the dresser, and in the dark I can’t make out any of the labels.
Maybe Nannie couldn’t sleep. But I don’t think she would phone. I picture her at the small window, phone in one hand, looking out at the driveway and the big tree in her garden. She always complains about the leaves in the autumn- she rakes the whole place all morning and by lunch time she can’t see the grass for the leaves.
‘Is he dead?’
She’s crying and her face is in her hands. She nods with it in her hands.
Mum stands and I bob up as her weight leaves the mattress.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Downstairs. Cup of tea.’
I think she means a cigarette.
‘I’ll come with you.’
‘Go back to sleep, love.’
‘I’ll just come down too. I’ll just come.’
Dad’s in my room, because he snores. Mum snores too, but not as badly, so sometimes I go in with her. We tiptoe down the stairs, and I focus on each part of my foot, squishing through the bristles on the beige carpet, avoiding the squeaky spots. The pictures on the walls are floating black squares and the clothes spilling over the edge of the washing basket look like creatures waiting.
Mum’s slippers scuff the kitchen floor as she drags her feet over to the kettle. The tap turns and screams into the kettle, which screams again as it boils. Mum goes out for a cigarette and I’m scared for her standing in the cold. I keep an eye out for any tigers or bad men hiding under the hedge or in the dark. But all I can see is the tiny orange glow from the end of her cigarette, which goes brighter slowly when she takes a puff. The clock on the oven says 02.36 in glowy green lines. It’s already tomorrow! The keys jingle in the back door as it shuts. Mum comes back in to finish the tea and I wonder when we’ll go to bed again. Or will we stay up? I go through to the living room and sit on the floor. The video player says 02.37. The house is very quiet, like Christmas morning before anyone wakes up. Mum shuffles in with two white mugs, wearing Dad’s brown dressing gown over her pyjamas. It smells of cigarette smoke and grown-ups. Her grey-blonde fringe sticks up at all angles.
We drink our tea in the quiet, and every so often Mum says ‘He was a good man.’
And then I say ‘He was a good man’ and I ask if she wants another cup. And it’s like that for a while, and I know it’ll be a memory soon but right now this is all it is. So I make another cup of tea and the kettle isn’t as loud anymore, and the time is 03.14 and then 03.58 and then 04.22. Sometimes Mum goes to make the tea and I’m alone in the living room, and it’s very very still. And I want her to come back quicker. I don’t like her being alone and me being alone.
I wonder how many cups of tea we’ve had. Maybe 6 or 7. I stare into my mug and it’s warm brown like autumn in there and there’s that shiny stuff you see on the top sometimes, like oil on the road, all different colours. We need to pee a lot because we’ve drank so much tea, and when I move around I can hear it slosh in my belly. I think of Nannie again, standing with her forearms on the windowsill, looking out onto the driveway. Maybe she phoned someone else or maybe she didn’t. But she’s all alone and I don’t like it. And I’m just waiting for morning to come.