This is the fifth in my series of short stories of a literary/women’s fiction nature. This piece is only about 1500 words, but holds a dear place in my heart because it is the very first piece of fiction I ever had published. It appeared in Freelance Market News over a decade ago, having won the monthly competition. I have never been so shocked in my life to receive my copy of the magazine and to open it to find a £50 cheque!
The story was inspired by my mum’s own battle with depression and anorexia, and the thoughts and feelings I had as a young child as I watched what was happening to her. This story replicates the exact moment that triggered my mum’s willingness to get better. If ever I was happy to use a true story to inspire my fiction, it was for this one.
A Monster on Her Shoulder
I took a tray into Mum. She was sitting, hunched up in bed, scared of the food tray. I pretended I hadn’t seen the expression on her face, and put the tray down anyway. And while I smiled that new gentle, careful smile of mine, and tried not to think about the two lectures I had missed, I wondered if this would be the day the monster would tell Mum to die.
“Would you like to try a piece of this cake?” I whispered. Mum eyed me like a soldier would eye his enemy.
“I might…I’ll see, maybe – soon,” she said and slid across the bed, away from the tray.
I wandered over to the window. There was Maggie from next-door, flaunting her new curves and waving her newspaper at any passer-by who dared to get near her gate. I had not brought Mum the local paper this week. “Half the Woman She Was” read the headline, together with a photo of Maggie as Slimmer of the Year, as voted by the invisible public. Maggie had always been one of the crowd. Mum never had.
“Look at ’em all,” Mum had sneered, peering underneath the arch shape in the middle of our net curtains. “They all think they’re God’s Gift now, with their ‘Louise said…’ and slimming club meal plans.
“Oh, it’s just wonderful, Joyce,” Maggie had said earlier that day, putting on her posh voice and standing up tall, overshadowing Mum’s five feet, three inches. “You really ought to join, you know. It’ll do someone like you the power of good.”
Maggie had looked Mum up and down in a queer sort of way, pulled her closer, and whispered, “Do you get nasty patches inside your thighs when you’re walking – you know, from your legs rubbing together? You’ve still got a lot of weight on you, from having Paul, even after all this time, haven’t you? It’s a shame you two made a mistake like that, at your age.”
Mum had hung her head down and mumbled some excuse about getting the washing in. Her cheeks were the colour of scalded lobster, as she scurried inside, out of the way.
So when Mum had stared, teeth gritted, out of the window, she made a vow. “I’ll show ’em. They might have money to go splashing around at that club every week – I’ll be lucky to pay the gas bill, when it comes in. I’ll do it myself – and I bet I lose more than that lot out there.”
Mum left the food. She asked, “Would you run me a bath? I think I’ll get up for a little while.”
“Dad’ll be pleased to see you downstairs when he gets home,” I chirruped, and regretted it the moment I said it. We had figured out many months ago that, if the monster was to be knocked off her shoulder, then it had to be up to Mum if she wanted to eat the food, or to come downstairs, or to argue with her monster and ensure that it didn’t get her, that day. And I hoped, as I held her withered hand for a moment and smiled at her, that she would do all three.
I ran the bath. Mum had undressed and was standing in front of the mirror. She used to look at me in a cheeky, guilty fashion and grab a dressing gown or towel to cover herself when I had caught her assessing her saggy bits. Now, as the skin hung from her bones as if it was waiting for the vultures to eat it off, she just stood staring at me with her fingers around the skin under her ribs, and her curled lip nearly reaching her nose. Then she crept past me and climbed in the bath. I had done as Dad said, and only run a shallow one – just in case.
“I’m not sure I’m up to going downstairs just now,” Mum said. So after I helped her get dry, and she climbed back into bed, I sat in the chair next to the window. Dad would be home soon, after he had collected Paul from Nan’s house, then maybe I could try and get some work done. Sometimes Dad’s tired, ghoulish exterior made Paul cry. So Nan helped in her own way, so no-one would bang on the door and take Paul away from us.
I must have drifted off in the chair. I awoke, heart thumping, sitting in a pool of sweat. I could still see that grim, wet day which had hidden under my eyelids a few seconds before. People had been gathered around in a huge huddle. I had drawn closer to the group and, as one faceless person moved aside, I realised they were standing around a hole. More of the faceless bodies moved back until I was confronted with an opaque coffin, deep in the ground. Even in my dream I felt sick as I peered down from the edge into the blackness.
Mum’s face was inside. She was staring up at her monster which was dancing on the lid, and she was kicking. The bangs echoed through the graveyard, but only I seemed to hear. And she was screaming, “Get me out, I don’t want to die – not now.” But I didn’t know how to help. So I stared down, and, as I felt my cheeks getting wetter, the monster jumped off the top of the coffin and launched itself at me.
I cried when I told Dad. We had no secrets anymore about how we were feeling. Instead, I said, “She’s going out in a box, isn’t she?” We sat on the settee together, and he hugged me until I thought my shoulders would break and my head would disappear inside his chest. And when I sneaked a look at him afterwards, I could see the white tracks, the little tell-tale snail trails, leading from his bottom eyelid to his chin.
How long had Mum been standing there, behind us? My stomach billowed as she crumpled to the ground with her head pressed to her hands. We scooped her up and laid her on the settee, and that’s when she whispered, “I’ve had enough now. No more.” She gripped my hand momentarily with her corpse-like fingers.
Dad and I said nothing. We just stared with wild, scared eyes at the bare movement of Mum’s chest, and in the silence, our hard, gasping breath was all we could hear.
It is my twenty-first birthday today. My cards stand on the window sill, below the arch in the net curtains, and my presents are piled up on the coffee table. My degree certificate sits on top of them all. Everyone said yesterday that it was a shame that Mum wasn’t able to be there. They laughed, and peered at me over their empty champagne glasses, and said that now I’ll learn to grow up – after all the parties, and the laying in bed, and the dodgy working hours. They said that it was now that I’ll find out what the real world is like. And I didn’t bother telling the glazed-eyed, red-faced celebrating parents that being a child for a while would be a comforting change.
But their comments mean nothing. Because the thing that mattered most to me this morning, was that Mum sat at the kitchen table with us and ate a whole slice of toast. I tried not to watch, but I couldn’t help it. I watched her chew, bit by bit – and swallow. She stopped every now and again to drink her tea. Just a sip at a time, but she finished it in the end. Dad had been concentrating hard on feeding Paul, and not looking. He gave me the look when he realised Mum’s plate was empty. And I had been able to give a little smile as I shook my head at him. There was no food in her dressing gown today.
When she had finished, Mum sat in her chair and looked at us, her little expectant, worried eyes sunken back in her head.
“Fantastic, Mum,” I said.
Dad stopped wiping his fingers on the dishcloth and kissed Mum on top of the head. “Well done, love,” he said.
Mum looked at Dad through her hanging hair and skeleton eyes. “I am going to make that monster come off my shoulder. I don’t want it there anymore.”
The snail trails were back on his face, but this time they fastened themselves onto a smile. I think that, possibly, to see Dad smile was the best birthday present I received today.
Maybe, later on, at tea-time, Mum might have a piece of birthday cake. Just a small piece. And the monster will slide further off her shoulder. Maybe one day, it will fall off altogether.