I wrote this piece yesterday based on a prompt from a friend: 300 words that take place in the time between putting a piece of bread in the toaster and it popping up. I wrote it on breaks between rereading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (which makes much more sense, for some reason, at 27 than it did at 22). As a result, the characters came out a lot like Tony and Sarah West, from that novel.
Dark or Light
You’ve chosen well with Kerri, Mrs West mused, slotting two slices of granary into the toaster. Girls take after their mothers, you know, so she shan’t lose her figure. Dark or light?
Dark, I lied. Mrs West turned the dial from three to five.
The measure of a man is how he treats his mother, supposedly, she continued. Her dressing-gown was silk: a peacock feather pattern. Something her undeserving husband had picked up on a business trip no doubt; a guilt purchase, when exiting some sleazy spa. It billowed open as she moved around the kitchen balletically, plucking jam, butter, teaspoons. I tried not to look. How about your mother, Dominic, Mrs West was asking now, do you treat her well?
Oh yes, I began, hoping that something witty might materialise after. It didn’t; I left the sentence trailing upwards, a rollercoaster track without a dip. Mrs West’s hair was still bed tousled, I realised. But her lipstick was perfectly applied; pillar-box red.
Then she was looking at me. Hands on the counter (and I noted that her fingernails were pillar-box red too), her lips parted, her eyes daring me to confront her clavicle. I could smell burning. Is this what love feels like, I thought, burning? Or lust maybe, real lust, and my heart was pounding: I could hear my blood in my ears, and I wondered if Mrs West could too. Do it Dominic, I thought, she wants you to, there’ll be other Kerri’s, and I leaned forward an inch before Mr West had burst in and – BANG! – slotted a bullet into my skull.
Except of course not, but there the toast was, in its blackened glory, with Mrs West saying shall I ask you again Dominic, or are you hoping I’ll guess, is it marmite or jam?
Here lies the final installment of the story so far (and the final photo of Esther and me). Hopefully posting this will inspire me to finish the story, now that my poetry submission is out of the way. Please let me know if you’ve read and enjoyed the story, or if you’ve read the story and have feedback for how to improve it. If you read it and hated it and don’t have feedback, please don’t let me know. It’s too much for a Monday.
The planetarium was out of this world (GET IT!?). We watched a show about the solar system, and another about the moons of Jupiter. Even better: we bought annual passes, and mum said we could go back whenever I wanted (but on the bus from now on). I bought some glow in the dark stars in the gift shop and, in the taxi home, mum and I planned how we could arrange them to represent some of the constellations. We decided that maybe the ceiling should be a dark indigo, the same colour as the night sky on that holiday in Wales; the same colour as the teddy bear; the same colour as my memory.
We were half way through watching Thelma and Louise (mum’s favourite film – I wanted her to choose) when the phone rang. Mum plonked her tub of aloo gobi on the floor and I paused the film so that I could eavesdrop.
I could tell it was someone she didn’t want to speak to because of the way her voice lowered. I couldn’t make out the words, but she was speaking almost in a whisper. She sounded cross. I tiptoed towards the door and listened.
“To be honest I think it’s rude that you’ve called. The number was on the form for emergencies only. And it’s a Sunday evening. Well, how very considerate of you to offer but no, we’re not interested. No, I have no desire to put her through that again. Not after seeing her this morning. I don’t remember you mentioning anything about side effects! Yes, she’s fine now, but that’s not really the point, is it? It’s not any of your business, to be honest, how we plan to spend it. No, of course you can’t speak to her! She’s busy! Yes I do have your number but I shouldn’t expect a call any time soon if I were you, goodbye Mr Silk.”
Mum slammed the phone down a little too hard. I darted back to the sofa and picked up my chicken jalfrezi, pretending not to notice how flustered she looked.
“Who was it, mum?”
“Oh, no one. Just a telesales person, trying to sell us double glazing or something. Shall we put the film back on?”
It was the first time, as far as I know, that mum has ever lied to me. I said nothing, but picked up the remote and pressed play.
The sun was bright in the skylight when I woke at 6.30am on Monday, so I knew it would be a good day. Plus, it was double physics first thing, and I had gymnastics after school. Knowing that always made it easy to get out of bed. I decided to go downstairs in my pyjamas and make mine and mum’s breakfast, so that she’d be in a good mood before she headed into university.
But when I stepped into the kitchen, she was already there. She was sat at the counter in her dressing gown, holding a letter and crying. Crying! Maybe you don’t realise how ridiculous that is, but mum NEVER cries. It’s just not something she does. She cries at films and books, but that’s different. This was actual crying. Big heavy sobs. I haven’t seen her crying like that since dad left, and that was five years ago.
“Mum! Are you ok?” I ran towards her with my arms outstretched, but when she saw me she sprang away, as though I was a spider in a bathtub.
“Oh God, Star! Go back upstairs please, I’m being stupid, I need a moment.” She held her hands up to cover her face, as if there was a chance that I hadn’t seen already. I folded my arms and stayed put.
“No way, mum. You’re crying. You never cry. I very much doubt it’s stupid. What’s going on? Has someone died?” Mum looked shocked when I said that, then she shook her head and looked even sadder than she had before.
“Mum! What’s going on? What could possibly be this bad?!”
“Oh Star it’s stupid, it really is. At least if someone had died you wouldn’t think I was a total idiot, and I’d have a good reason for crying. But I don’t, I’m just an idiot, it’s just a stupid bill. And I’m normally so good with them, but I’ve made a mistake and you’re going to think I’m a total idiot.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say so I just stood there. Emotional outbursts weren’t the kind of thing mum had brought me up to deal with. So I just tried to think what she would say if I was having an emotional outburst, and said that.
“Mum. Breathe. Take all of the negative stuff out of it for a moment and tell me what’s happened. Whatever it is, we can fix it together.”
Mum looked at me and managed a weak little laugh. She probably knew I was imitating her. She closed her eyes and did a few slow breaths, then started again.
“Our gas and electricity bill is £600 a year. Normally we pay it every month and I factor it all in. But last winter our boiler broke and we needed money for that, so I changed the electricity to twice a year. I said to myself that I’d put some aside and make it work, but I completely forgot to. Like a total… well, I forgot. And now it’s due in a week, half a year’s worth of it, and we don’t have anything saved up to pay it. We could have just paid it with the money from yesterday, but I told you not to worry about bills because I should be the one to worry about that. And now I’ve given you my word on something and not kept it. I told you to fritter away your £500 and now I don’t know how we’re going to pay this bill. I’m so sorry, Star. I didn’t mean for you to find me like this, feeling sorry for myself. I’ll think of something. I was just ashamed of myself for making a silly mistake, that’s all. I want you to feel like you can rely on me.”
Mum’s hands were limp in her lap and she stared down at them, like she was afraid to meet my eye. Like I was the head teacher and she’d been waiting outside my office for a telling off.
“Mum, that’s really not that bad.”
“It is, it’s stupid. I could have just-“
“Mum!” I interrupted her. “What did I say about negativity?”
She laughed and gave me a little grin.
“Oh Star. Sometimes I think you’re the grown up here.”
“Well I’m not. But we look after each other, don’t we?”
I thought that mum was going to start crying again when I said that, and I felt annoyed with myself for being too soppy. But then she gave her head a little shake and laughed, and I knew she was snapping out of it.
“Right, yes. We do.”
“So what’s the plan then, mum? Have you got any ideas?”
“There’s nothing you can think of?”
“Nothing at all?”
Mum looked at me then, suspicious.
I raised my eyebrows. I wanted her to bring it up, not me. We were both silent for a moment, but I knew that mum had more patience with things like this than me.
“Mum, I heard you on the phone last night. I know Mr Silk called.”
“What? Were you listening in on my phone call? No way, Esther. No way. I can’t believe you’re even suggesting it!”
She stood up and flew out of the room, her dressing gown billowing behind her.
I waited until she was in the shower to look in her purse.
I’m not a sneaky person. Like I said before, I hate lies. I hate any kind of deceitfulness. I believe that it’s easy to pretend to be nice; to pretend to be a good person. But actually being a good person? Being honest and doing the right thing? That takes real work. Dad was nice and loving. He pretended to be good, but really he was lying. Having a secret girlfriend: that’s not good. Going to live with your secret girlfriend and her kids instead of mum and me: that’s not good either. Leaving mum to look after us on her own: that’s definitely not good. If there’s one thing my dad taught me, it’s that there’s a difference between nice and good. I’m not sure that going through mum’s purse was nice or good, but it was the right thing to do. Sometimes you have to trust your gut with these things.
I found Mr Silk’s card and wrote the number down on a little scrap of paper, then replaced it quick as a flash. The shower was still whirring and I decided I probably had another five minutes before mum got out, so I took my chance. I darted through to the hall and picked up the phone.
Someone answered after one ring, but it wasn’t Mr Silk. It was a woman with a voice so crisp and clear that I thought for a moment she might be a robot.
“Good Morning, thank you for calling Dream Catchers, how may I be of service to you?”
I was silent. Suddenly I didn’t know what to say.
“Ms Turner? Can I help you? Would you like me to put you through to Mr Silk?’ My breath caught in my throat. I remembered how distrustful I’d been of Mr Silk. Suddenly, calling him seemed like a terrible idea.
“How do you know my-“
“Haha! Caller ID, Ms Turner. You’re in our database. Would you like me to put you through to Mr Silk?”
I paused, feeling a little silly. For a moment, I’d thought Mr Silk had cameras in our house, or could read our minds even.
“Um, yes please.”
My voice sounded like a scared little girl. I took a few little breaths to compose myself before Mr Silk came on the line.
“Good morning Esther, how lovely to hear from you so bright and early. What can I do to help you?”
His voice reminded me of a game show host: friendly but scripted.
“Um, yes, hello. I’m calling because I think you called my mum last night to request another donation, and she said no. I just wanted to let you know that we’ve changed our mind.”
Mr Silk laughed. I couldn’t tell whether it was with me or at me.
“Excellent, I’m very glad to hear it, Esther. We can fit you in this afternoon. Can your mum bring you along after school?”
The shower stopped whirring. Mum was getting out. I calculated I had about sixty seconds before she’d be opening the bathroom door. A few seconds later and she’d walk through the hall.
“No, I’m afraid she’s busy, but-”
“No trouble at all Esther, we can pick you up. 3.30pm outside your school gates sound reasonable? We’ll need your mum’s signature of course, and we can have you home by 6pm. How does all that sound, hmm?”
Mum’s signature. There was no way she’d sign for it. I heard her turn the lock in the toilet door. I had to think dead quickly.
“Yep, ok, great, see you there. Got to go, bye!”
I slammed the receiver down and raced through into the kitchen. I was just filling my bowl with Cheerio’s when mum came in.
“Star, I’m sorry about before. I just wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I made you do that again. It wouldn’t be right. Let me figure something out. I can borrow something from gran and then do some overtime at the library to pay her back, ok? It’s just £300. One electricity bill is not worth putting your daughter through all that.”
I hugged her and said it was alright, and she went off to university thinking everything was fine. For the rest of the morning, on the bus into school and all through double physics, I had a heavy feeling in my stomach, like I’d swallowed a rock. This is what it feels like, I thought, to trick someone you love. This is what it feels like, to lie.
We got dressed quickly and skipped breakfast. My normal breakfast of choice is Cheerio’s with loads of milk. Mum calls it ‘Cheerio soup’. Mum has two pieces of dry toast, slightly burnt, with a big mug of coffee. Mum’s mug is nearly as big as my cereal bowl, so I call her breakfast ‘coffee soup’.
But today, there was no Cheerio soup and no coffee soup. Mum said I was in charge, so I decided we would go out for breakfast, for the first time in our lives. My life, anyway. We threw on some clothes and headed straight out the door, with ten crisp £50 notes tucked in mum’s purse.
We headed straight for the bus stop which is right outside our door, since our house is above a shoe shop on the high street. Force of habit. I’d already decided we’d get taxis everywhere today, but neither of us were used to splashing out.
“Mum, how do we get a taxi? Do we need to go back inside and phone one?” Mum laughed. She’d forgotten about taxis too.
“Oh. Um, I think there’s a taxi rank around the corner. They normally queue up there. Let’s go and have a look.”
We walked around the corner but the taxi rank was empty. Across the road, Mr Patel who owns the sweet shop was just opening up for the morning. We crossed over and asked him if he knew where all the taxis were. He chuckled.
“Oof ladies, I’m sorry, the taxi rank’s normally quite quiet on a Sunday morning, I’m afraid! People only tend to use them when they want to head into town for the clubs. I can call one for you if you like, are you heading anywhere special?”
“No, no. Just late for a train and in a bit of a rush.” Mum jumped in to answer before I had chance. I shot her dagger stares: I hate lies. Even little white ones. Mr Patel went into the back room to call the taxi and, while he did, mum grabbed my arm and whispered: “Star, it’s not a good idea to let people know about the £500. People treat you differently when you have a lot of money, trust me. Let’s try and behave like our normal, sensible selves. Until we’re in town, at least.”
I thought it was dead stupid really. Mr Patel had been our friend for as long as I could remember. I decided to give mum the benefit of the doubt though: adults can be weird, and mum understands that more than me sometimes.
While we waited for the taxi, I decided to buy some sweets from the big jars behind the counter. Mr Patel had shelves and shelves of them, and he had to stand on a little ladder to reach the highest ones. Normally, when I came here, I had a budget of 50p, and Mr Patel would weigh out exactly 50p’s worth of blackcurrant millions. Today though, I decided not to stop until I’d got a little bit of every sweet I fancied. Mr Patel chuckled as I started reeling off my order. I got a quarter of sherbet lemons, a quarter of rhubarb and custard, a handful of fruit salads and a handful of black jacks (yucky, but they’re mum’s favourite). I got ten big flump marshmallows, a fistful of pixie straws, some cola bottles and a gummy snake as long as my arm. Then I spotted a whole extra row, right at the bottom, and got a bag of pink mushrooms, a bag of flying saucers and three sugar mice. By the time I reached the end of my list, Mr Patel was howling with laughter.
“Goodness me, Miss Star! You’re going to be bouncing off the walls! Have you won the lottery or something?”
Mum shot me a nervous side glance. She was probably worried I was going to rumble us: she knows how much I hate lying.
“No, it’s just a special treat from mum. I did really well in the gymnastics competition yesterday. First prize in my age group!”
It wasn’t lying really. Just rearranging the truth.
“First prize! Goodness me! Well then you’ve definitely earned a sugar splurge!”
All those sweets only cost £5.60. More than a week’s pocket money for me, but only a little more than 1% of our target for the day. Mum’s face reddened as she pulled the £50 from her purse.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, with a slight nervous giggle. “The bank gave it to me when I went to get my rent money.”
Another white lie. Mr Patel didn’t seem to notice, even though mum looked dead shifty to me. Most people aren’t expecting you to lie, I suppose. He packed the sweets up for me and they filled two bulging bags, which made him laugh again.
It took ten minutes for the taxi to arrive. In that time, two Number 65 buses went past the shop window. I was just starting to think we should jump on one of them instead when the taxi pulled up outside.
“You watch your teeth with all those sweets Miss Star, ok?” Mr Patel called after us, as we walked outside and climbed in. Two big bags of sweets and our own personal driver. I decided I was glad we’d waited.
“So where are you heading, ladies?”
The taxi driver was looking at us as though it was the most normal thing in the world, to hire a private car and a chauffeur on a Sunday morning. He would think that, I suppose. Mum grinned and gave my hand a little squeeze.
“I’m sorry I got tense in the shop just now. This is your day. Where do you want to go?”
Poor mum. If splashing out was weird for me, it was probably three times weirder for her. She’d spent thirty years more than me scrimping and saving.
I asked the taxi driver to take us to Mr Moo’s Milkshakes. It’s a café right in the middle of Birmingham, where they turn any sweet you like into a milkshake. The front of the shop is painted in black and white splodges, just like a cow, with ‘Mr Moo’s’ spelled out in bubble-gum pink lettering. It’s like something out of a cartoon, and I’d been dreaming of going there for years.
When we pulled up outside, the meter said £11.82. I gave the taxi driver a £20 note and told him to keep the change. He looked at mum, waiting for her to correct me, but she just laughed.
“Well thank you very much, ladies!” He handed mum a little card with his company number on it. “You just let me know if you need picking up!” Mum was right. People do treat you differently when you have money, but it’s a positive improvement if you ask me.
When we walked into Mr Moo’s, instead of a little bell chiming, the door made a big mooing sound. It took mum by surprise, and she collapsed into a fit of giggles which set me off laughing too. The walls were painted in the same black and white splodges as the outside had been, and were lined with wall to wall shelves stacked with jars and boxes of every sweet and chocolate bar I could think of, and some I didn’t even know existed. The servers were all wearing pink and white pinstripe aprons and caps, and the air smelled of vanilla. I felt like I’d stepped into a marshmallow.
“‘I’ll go and get us a table – can you order me a large coffee, Star?”
“No way, mum! Come on, you can’t just have coffee soup! This is a special day! You’ve got to have something special.” I decided to take control. “Let me order for you. I’ll pick something good, promise.”
I ordered my own first: a blend of double decker and crème eggs with a fat swirl of squirty cream and rainbow sprinkles on top. It took me a little longer to decide on mum’s: she’s fussier than me. In the end, I ordered her a Bourneville shake with two coffee walnut whips blended in, and some chocolate covered coffee beans sprinkled on top. Both of them arrived at the table in great big sundae glasses, with pink and white curly straws. Mum burst into another fit of giggles when it arrived.
“Oh my goodness Star, it’s bigger than my head!”
Normally, mum only picks at her toast at breakfast. But at Mr Moo’s Milkshakes, she drank every last drop, until her straw started to slurp and gurgle. Then, she let out a huge, rumbling burp, and burst out laughing again, so loudly that the waitresses all looked over to see what the fuss was about. I don’t think I’ve seen mum laugh so much in my whole life as I did today. It was only when we went to leave that we realised that Mr Moo’s sold food too. So I bought two mega brownies, studded with M&Ms, and mum ate every bite of that too.
It only got better from there.
Our next stop was Bears ‘R’ Us. I don’t even like cuddly toys anymore, but I’d always dreamed of having a Bears ‘R’ Us bear when I was little, so we went anyway. I decided we had to design one for each other, and we had to get all the accessories and special features. We had to keep our teddies secret from one another. Then, when we were back out on the street, we swapped.
Mum loves fantasy books, so I got her a big fluffy dragon with emerald green ridges on his back and iridescent wings. I held the dragon out to mum and waved his wings a little bit, so that they twinkled red, pink and gold in the sunlight. If they made iridescent paint, I would have wanted my bedroom to sparkle like that.
“Oh Star, he’s brilliant! I wish he was real!” Mum reached out to grab him but I snatched him back.
“Wait! I’ve not shown you everything yet.” I gave the dragon’s tummy a big squeeze. “Grrrrrrrrrrrrrreetings! I’m SCORCH! You’re ROAAARRRRsome!”
Mum was giggling again.
“Star! How did you do that without me hearing?! That’s amazing! Oh I’m worried you’re going to think mine’s rubbish now, I don’t think I did it right. I didn’t know we were supposed to pretend to be the toy.” Sheepishly, she brought my teddy out from behind her back.
As soon as I’d seen it in the shop, I knew it’d be the one she’d pick for me. It was a smiling bear with indigo fur, covered from his ears to the tips of his paws in shiny silver stars. What I hadn’t expected was the little lab coat she’d put him in, with a plastic stethoscope tucked around his neck.
“I’m not saying you have to be a doctor or anything, but they didn’t have a telescope or anything like that. The lab coat is just supposed to represent science in general, ok? And that my daughter is a genius and going to do something amazing, one day.”
I went a little bit red. I never know what to say when people are really nice to me, especially mum. I reached out and gave the teddy’s belly a squeeze. Mum’s voice came pouring out, a bit more formal than usual: “I’m so proud of you Star. I hope we both remember this day forever.”
Mum looked mortified.
“I didn’t know we were supposed to pretend to be the toy!” She repeated. “I feel a bit stupid now.”
I threw my arms around mum’s neck and hugged her so hard that both the toys started talking over each other, and we both started laughing again.
“Mum, he’s perfect. Now come on! We’ve got a lot of money to spend and not much more time to spend it in!”
After a few hours, shopping got boring so we stopped in a café. We’d been carrying so many bags that the handles were carving red grooves into my arms. While mum sipped at her black Americano, I sorted through everything we’d bought – fourteen shopping bags full of clothes and videos and books, but we still had £100 left. I tried to feel thankful for all of it, as excited about each purchase as I might have been if I’d saved up and bought it with a week or two’s pocket money, or if mum had given it to me for my birthday. I had more stuff here than I’d had for my last three birthdays and Christmases combined. But I just couldn’t feel it. Instead, I felt bloated. The same feeling I’d had the year that I convinced mum to let me eat raw cake mix instead of baking me a cake. I could see in mum’s eyes that she was feeling the same, but I didn’t tell her how I was feeling. I wanted her to stay pleased with her decision to spend the money.
“Mum, I think after this we should get a taxi to Think Tank. We can go to the planetarium and watch some of the IMAX shows, and then we can get a taxi home. Maybe get a takeaway and watch one of our videos.”
“Home? Are you sure? I don’t think all of that will cost £100.”
“I know. I was thinking we could just save the last bit. We can use it another day to buy the paint for my room. Then maybe start decorating it together next weekend?”
“Sure, that sounds brilliant. But on one condition. There can be some form of vegetable in my takeaway. I think I’ve eaten enough sugar to last me for a good few weeks.”’
Normally, mum and I are both early risers. Mum says she wakes up early because she drinks too much coffee and it makes her sleep badly. She says I wake up early because I’m a kid, and kids just wake up earlier. That’ll all start to change according to her, when I’m a teenager. But right now, I love mornings.
My bedroom used to be an attic but mum’s having it converted, bit by bit. I LOVE my attic room. It’s got a little windy staircase with a bookcase built in, and great, sloping ceilings. The best part about it though is the skylight right above my bed. In the morning, light pours in through it and fills every inch of the room, and I can feel the sunbeams on my skin. Sometimes, I keep my eyes closed and point my face up towards the skylight, and pretend I’m sunbathing on a beach in Spain or Greece or somewhere hot like that.
I don’t mind if it’s rainy though either. The pitter-patter sound reminds me of holidays when I was little, back when dad was still living with us. Dad had a caravan and we’d sometimes go to Wales for the weekend. People make fun of Wales because it’s rainy and there’s not much to do there, but it was in Wales that I first realised how great stars were. It was a clear night and, because we were in the countryside and there weren’t any streetlights or shops or houses, the only light we could see was starlight. One night, when there was no rain, mum and dad and I sat outside the caravan in our camping chairs, drinking tea from our little tin camping mugs and looking up at the sky. There were stars EVERYWHERE! Dad tried to get me to count them but I kept losing track, and some of them seemed to twinkle in and out of view. Dad pointed out the Plough and Orion and the North Star, and that’s when I realised how amazing space was. Then it did start to rain, but it didn’t matter, because we just went inside, got tucked up in our sleeping bags and listened to the pitter-patter on the caravan roof until we fell asleep. Rain on the skylight makes me happy, because it sounds just like that. And sometimes, on clear nights, I can see one or two stars through it too.
But this morning, things were different. I only woke up because mum came in with a cup of tea and gave me a little shake. Even then I felt dead groggy, as though my brain was taking a while to switch on. Mum had her big morning mug in her hand and was frowning a lot, the way she sometimes does before she’s finished her first coffee.
“Are you feeling ok, Star? I’m sorry to wake you love, I don’t think you’ve ever slept until 9am before in your life! I was starting to get worried!”
She sat down on my bed next to me and pressed her hand to my forehead, which was weird for mum. She’s not normally a fussy person.
“I’m fine mum. I just feel a bit sleepy, that’s all. Are you sure it’s 9am?!”
I dragged myself up into a sitting position and tried a sip of tea, but every atom of my body was telling me to lie back down.
“Oh God, Star I’m worried, you look like you’ve got a hangover! I knew this memory thing was a terrible idea. I barely slept all night thinking about what a terrible mother I am for letting you go through that. Let’s go to the doctor today shall we, the normal doctor? To make sure you’re ok?”
She put her hand back on my forehead and I was worried she was going to cry, so even though I still felt groggy I tried to be the brave one.
“Honestly mum, don’t worry. It’s fine. I’m fine! I think I’m just groggy because of the competition. Miss Honeybone said gymnasts usually feel sick or tired after a big competition, because all the adrenaline goes away. It’s probably that mum, really. We don’t need to go to the doctors! Anyway, it’s Sunday. Doctors don’t work on Sundays.”
Mum smiled a tiny smile and her forehead unwrinkled when I reminded her about the competition. Anyone would think it was her memory that had been taken.
“Sometimes I think you should be the parent and I should be the child! I completely forgot the doctors are closed on Sundays. But are you sure you’re okay, Star? Honestly? I’ve just been lying in bed, staring at the ceiling thinking ‘my daughter’s never going to forgive me’!”
“Mum, don’t be ridiculous. I’m fine, and it was a great idea.” I gave her a little hug, half to make her feel better and half to make her stop being so serious.
“Well listen, if you really are feeling ok, I wanted to suggest something to you. Let’s spend the money on something fun and exciting, hey? Let’s not just put it away for bills or rent or save it or anything like that. This was a strange and one-off opportunity and you did all the work. Let’s spend it on having a brilliant day together – whatever you want to do and we’ll do it. Let me be the one who worries about making money for rent and bills. This money can be fun money. What do you think?”
I couldn’t quite believe what she was suggesting. Mum was the woman who insisted on going to three different supermarkets because one sold cheaper vegetables, one sold cheaper tins and one had good offers on toiletries. Mum was the woman who thought taxis were for snobs, and who only bought clothes in charity shops. Now she wanted to spend £500 on whatever I wanted. In one day. Sometimes, we spent less than that in a month. All of that fuss with Mr Silk, just to fritter it away on nothing.
“Well?” She was looking impatient, eager to make sure I was happy with things. “Mum and Star’s magical, once in a lifetime, never to be repeated day of fun. What do you say?”
It hadn’t been for nothing, I realised. Not really. It had been for charity. I grinned.
“I say we need a catchier name for it. But other than that, let’s go!”
Yesterday’s story opening continues. Pictures of real life Esther continue. Enjoy!
I know what you’re thinking. My mum sold me out for £500. But the thing is, we really did need the money. Since dad left, we’ve really struggled. Mum’s been trying to get her qualifications sorted so that she can work as a Science teacher. She says once she qualifies, we won’t have to worry about cash anymore. She says we can get a car and go on nice holidays every year, and we can even decorate my bedroom in any colour I like. But in the meantime, we have to count every penny.
I have to hand it to mum: she’s great at counting pennies. I’ve never seen her buy new clothes, and she always knows which supermarket has the best deals on. She’s always thinking about how to make our money go as far as possible. So I understood why she wanted to get us the £500. Plus, mum likes doing stuff for charity too. Like I said before: everyone’s a winner, right?
When we got outside, Mr Silk had a taxi waiting for us. I’d never got in a taxi before. I could tell mum was dead excited by it too: her eyes were darting around everywhere, taking everything in. She was trying to hide it from Mr Silk though, so I tried to hide it too. I just sat quietly and watched the meter tick up and up, counting the price in multiples of bus tickets. After five minutes we’d already spent £4.57, which would have been enough to get all three of us back to Erdington on the 903 AND have 7p change. I went to tell mum that – she loves how good I am at Maths – but I decided to keep it to myself, because Mr Silk didn’t seem like the kind of man who ever got buses at all.
Instead, I sat and thought about how I could decorate my room, once we’d got the £500. I’ve already picked out the colours I want from the paint chart at the shop: ‘Moroccan Flame’ and ‘Volcanic Red’. I want it to feel like the room is on fire, like I’m sleeping in the middle of a star. Not the silly pointy ones little kids draw, but real stars, like you see in the night sky. Close up, a star looks like a huge ball of flames, although really it’s made of gas. Hydrogen, mostly. The coolest thing about stars though is that they look tiny but really they’re HUGE, even bigger than our planet, they’re just dead far away. In fact, sometimes they’re so far away that by the time the light reaches us and we can see them, they’ve already burned up and aren’t even there anymore. So when we look at stars, we’re looking into the past. How cool is that?
“Don’t go letting your mind wander too much Esther! We want to keep that memory nice and fresh!”
My mind had wandered and I hadn’t even realised that the taxi had stopped. Mr Silk was holding the door open for me, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital looming behind him like a ginormous spaceship.
“Come on, Star!” Mum was forgetting to pretend we were posh. She looked dead anxious, digging her hands into her pockets and shifting her weight from one foot to the other like she was holding in a big wee. So, as we walked towards the hospital, I looped my arm through hers so that she’d know we were in this together. That’s what she always does for me when I’m nervous.
It was hard trying to be the relaxed one, when I was feeling a bit frightened myself. The hospital was MASSIVE. But I just stared at my feet, and tried to ignore all the hurried nurses, the mopey looking visitors with flowers and the shuffling patients in their paper thin nighties. If you just stare at your feet and think ‘left foot, right foot’ over and over again, it’s easy to make big things seem tiny. Footstep size. So we paced through corridors and up staircases, the sound of bleeping and whirring everywhere, and I thought ‘left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot’ until eventually, we stopped. Mr Silk’s voice went all sing-song cheerful. “Here we are! Ward 411: Neurology.” Mum was still looking nervous, but I felt better now it was quieter, so I gave her arm a little ‘we can do this!’ squeeze. Mr Silk pressed an intercom button, flashed an ID badge and we walked in.
After that, my memory gets a bit blurry: everything was so new that it was hard to take it in. Mr Silk talked to a doctor who introduced herself as Dr Green, a cognitive neuroscientist. How cool does that sound? It means she’s an expert in how the nerves in your brain work to make you think or learn or remember things. Anyway, Dr Green told me she’d be performing the operation to extract my memory and that I shouldn’t worry, it wouldn’t even hurt. Then another doctor came in and didn’t even tell me his name, only that he was an anaesthetist, which means his job is to be able to put people to sleep during operations and then wake them back up again, so that they can be cut up and not even feel it. Mum panicked when they started talking about putting me to sleep, and she started asking a zillion questions. But I was dead excited to be put to sleep. It happened to Poppy in my class, and she said she couldn’t even count backwards from ten before falling asleep. I wanted to see if I could beat her, and that was all I could really think about, until they lay me down and inserted the cannula, which hurt a tiny bit but not as much as Poppy had made out. Then the anaesthetist was smiling down at me and saying “count back from 10” and I was really concentrating, doing my best to stay awake and saying: “10! 9! 8…”
And the next thing I remember is waking up.
“Welcome back, Esther.” Dr Green and the anaesthetist were still smiling down at me and it was like they’d never moved, but the clock on the wall behind them said 3:25pm which meant two hours had passed. Mum and Mr Silk were sat in chairs next to the bed, and suddenly I realised that everyone was staring at me and waiting for me to speak. But I was SO sleepy. All I wanted to do was close my eyes and go back to sleep. Dr Green said it was important that I answered a few questions though, and she propped me up with some cushions and gave me a glass of water. The questions were dead easy at first: yes I’m fine, yes I remember why I’m here, no, nothing hurts. But then she asked me to describe my morning, and suddenly everything got REALLY weird.
I had nothing to say. The whole day before me was a fuzzy blank. The first thing I could remember was putting my coat on in the school gym, getting ready to catch the bus. My brain felt wooly, like when you wake up half way through a dream and you don’t know straight away what’s real and what isn’t.
“Is it Saturday? Was the gymnastics competition today? We were at school. We met Mr Silk.” I felt stupid asking such ridiculous questions – even more stupid when I heard my slurred, sleepy voice – but Dr Green beamed at me as though I’d just recited my 72 times tables backwards. In French.
“Perfect!” Mr Silk was standing up and clapping his hands together enthusiastically. “Well done Ms Green, a perfectly clean cut again. Exactly what we wanted!”
“It’s Dr Green. She’s a cogni-” I started to explain, but Mr Silk wasn’t listening. “Show her,” he said, gesturing at a glass bottle on a metal trolley behind Dr Green. With care, she picked it up and held it to the light for me to see: an inky purple liquid which glinted pink and black as she turned it in her palm. “This is your memory from this morning.” Dr Green was spellbound, her eyes locked onto the glass bottle as she spoke. “We can give this to another little girl or boy and all of the joy and excitement that you felt this morning, they’ll remember it as though it happened to them. We know it seems a little strange, but we think that giving” – she paused to choose her words carefully – “less fortunate boys and girls the chance to remember happy childhoods like yours… could really help them to build happier futures of their own.”
“Was I really happy this morning then?”
I was too sleepy to feel happy or sad at that moment. I remembered feeling nervous when we got to the hospital, and pleased about the hot chocolate. I didn’t remember feeling especially happy.
“You were very happy!” Dr Green’s eyes were bright and kind. You can always tell which adults actually like kids or not and I could tell Dr Green did, from how bright her eyes were. “You’d won a gold medal, Esther! Don’t worry: your mum will explain it all to you later. But now, another child – who has probably never felt as happy as you did this morning in their whole life – will get to know what it feels like.”
It was a lot to take in. I’d forgotten about the gold medal. Part of me felt happy to be told that I’d won, but it didn’t ring even the tiniest of bells. Part of me felt confused: adults were always saying how dangerous and bad drugs were, and this didn’t really seem much different to me. Mostly though, I was just sleepy. I wanted to just close my eyes again for a minute.
“Do you like it, Star?” Mum was stepping towards me, looking dead nervous. It was strange: it was exactly the voice that I used when she was cross at me – a tiny hamster voice that makes it harder for someone to stay mad at you – except I didn’t know what I was supposed to be cross about. “It looks a little bit like outer space, doesn’t it? I thought you’d like that.” She turned to Dr Green and smiled proudly. “Esther loves outer space. She’s brilliant at Science. And Maths.”
Dr Green smiled back. “Ah well, if that’s true Esther then I’m sure you’ll want to do some investigation yourself.”
Carefully, she placed the glass jar in my hands for me to inspect. It really did look like outer space, dark and deep, a glittering universe of its own.
“Do they all look like this?” For a moment, I thought about asking to keep it. Suddenly, £500 didn’t seem so special. I couldn’t imagine what I could buy that could be as beautiful as the galaxy shimmering in my hands. I wondered what would happen if I drank it: if the memory of the morning would come jolting back. But Dr Green was already lifting it away from me.
“No. They’re kind of like mood rings. They change from donor to donor, and depending on the kind of memory. Isn’t that interesting? We label them in detail of course, but the colours help us to categorise them, which makes them easier to assign later. Greens are family memories, for example. Pinks are to do with academic achievements. I’ve never seen one quite like this before. Normally sports memories are blue but this one is more of a dark purple. When we get a new colour we name it after the donor – Suzie Pinks, David Greens – so this one’s going to be called ‘Esther Purple.’ Exciting, hey?”
“It’s indigo,” I said, sleepily. “Esther Indigo.”
Mum gave my hand a little squeeze. “Actually, her name’s Star. You should call it Starlight.”
I’ve not posted on my blog much lately as I’ve been working on uni assignments – Poetry and Writing For Children. I got my mark back for the latter this week and got a first: WAHOO! Anyway, in celebration of that, I’m posting the creative piece I submitted for the unit.
I’ve posted an earlier draft of this before but it’s changed a lot since (and been extended to 8000 words) so I think it’s worth reposting. Considering how long it is, I’m going to put it up in sections over the course of a few days.
This story is dedicated to – and inspired by – my best friend Esther Stephenson, who I have been conducting a long term character study of over the course of sixteen years. 🙂
This morning, they came to take my memories away.
I’d just won the gold medal in my school’s gymnastics competition. My routine had been perfect. Every handspring. Every round off. Every somersault. My head was fizzing, like it was full of lemon sherbet.
Let me tell you what it was like at the end of my routine. My lion mane hair had been tamed into a tight bun and my leotard was indigo crushed velvet, studded with twinkling diamante. The judges and kids and parents were clapping like they really meant it – a sea of big grins – and my mum was out of her seat, whooping. I was still panting for breath when they announced that I’d won first place, and my grin was a mile wide when they led me over to the winner’s podium to place the gold medal around my neck. There was someone there from the local paper, asking me to look at him and hold the medal up to the camera, and all I could do was smile, smile, smile.
So I can tell you all that, and I know it’s definitely true. But only in the same way that I know that dinosaurs existed, or I know that the earth is round. Because I believed the person that told me, that is. Mum wrote it down during the operation, and read it all out to me on our way home from the hospital. She even drew a little doodle of my final pose, with my arms pointed up to the sky in a triumphant V shape. So I know it, but I don’t remember it. Because winning my gold medal was the memory that they came to take.
“You did a super job there today, Esther. I’m rather impressed!”
Those were the first words spoken to me by Mr Silk. I can remember that, at least. Everything after I stepped down from the podium is still there, and it all begins with Mr Silk. He had a voice to match his name: smooth and luxurious. People in Birmingham don’t normally talk like that: not even Mrs Copley, my head teacher, and she’s dead fancy. They definitely don’t say ‘super’ or ‘rather impressed’.
Mum was helping me to put my coat on when he started speaking. We only had a few minutes before our bus was due, so we were rushing. Then there he was: POP! Out of nowhere. Like he’d just teleported from another dimension. And he was talking to ME, in that fancy voice, like we were old friends.
Mum and I both turned to look at him: this peculiar man – with his long, beige coat and toady smile – staring at me expectantly. I said nothing. I get dead awkward talking to strangers: mum normally talks for both of us, but she was looking a bit confused too. After a few moments of us staring at him blankly, he just carried on talking. He had a funny habit of slowing down on certain words, dragging them out like they were a really yummy sweet he wanted to savour the taste of.
“I’ll bet it feels fantastic doesn’t it, standing up there on the podium, having won that medal, everyone clamouring to take your photo? I’m ever so jealous. I was never any good at gymnastics, myself, haha. Here, I’ve brought you a hot chocolate. I thought you might need warming up… shivering in that leotard all morning!”
Mum got a bit cross then and snatched the hot chocolate from Mr Silk before I could take it, but she did it so quickly some of it spilled on her hand. She must have been worked up: she didn’t even flinch.
“She’s fine, thank you very much!” Mum was holding my tracksuit bottoms out at me and glowering. “Come on Esther, or we’ll miss the bus.”
I yanked them on as quickly as I could and we turned to walk away. I could tell that mum wanted to get out of there double quick – she only ever calls me Esther when she’s angry or wants to make someone think we’re posher than we are. To anyone that knows me, my name is Star.
“Mrs Turner! Ruth, is it? Perhaps before you go you could just take my card. I work for a children’s charity you see.”
Mum stopped in her tracks, like she’d seen a lion. Slowly, she turned around and I could see in her face that Mr Silk was about to get one of her special dressing downs – one of the ones where her voice goes really low and you can tell you’re on your final warning before she EXPLODES.
“It’s Ms Ruth Turner. And I don’t know what exactly might make you think that we need your charity, but my daughter and I are doing perfectly well on our own, thank you.”
She held the hot chocolate out to him and, when he didn’t take it, placed it down by his feet. Then she whirled me back around and began to march me out of the gym. I tried not to care about leaving the hot chocolate behind, even though I was a little bit cold and hot chocolate is a really special treat in our house.
We were almost out of the door when he caught up with us.
“No! Ms Turner, please! Please, I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. You’ve misunderstood me. It’s your daughter that could help us. I mean we’d pay you both, of course, if you were to agree. We have funding. But the children at the charity could really benefit from the help of a little girl as – as well brought up as Esther.”
I’m not sure which part of what he said got to my mum, but the truth is we do always need more money. Mum’s obsessed with me being brought up well too, so maybe it was that. Whatever it was, she turned around. She still had her ‘don’t mess with me’ face on but her voice was calmer now.
“What kind of charity is this, exactly?”
Mr Silk’s big toady grin got bigger and for a moment, I thought a huge tongue might come springing out of his mouth and swallow us up like flies. But instead, he just laughed.
“Why don’t we go and get that hot chocolate and we can sit down and have a chinwag about everything? Presuming you don’t mind missing your bus? There’ll be another along shortly, I imagine.”
So he explained it all. That he was in charge of recruitment at a charity called ‘Dream Catchers’, and that his job was to find happy children and then pay them to donate some of their happiest memories. The memories were given to children who’d had difficult or unhappy childhoods. Simple. Everyone’s a winner. Mum was dead suspicious at first, asking loads of questions about science and research and safety. I got a little bored then and started daydreaming, thinking instead about my hot chocolate and savouring the taste as much as possible. In fact, I’d stopped listening to them completely. I was pretending that my tongue was a hot chocolate waterfall, when I suddenly realised that both of them were staring at me.
“Well Esther, what do you think? £500 to help someone less fortunate than you? And mum says you like science – how do you fancy seeing some exciting lab equipment?”
The answer was dead obvious. Everyone was always saying how important it was to do things for charity and to help other people. And £500 was a lot of money.
“Yeah ok, I don’t mind.”
Mr Silk’s smile was getting so big that I thought it might climb off of his face and strangle me. Mum was smiling too, although hers was a little more anxious.
“Well come along then, ladies,” Mr Silk stood up and gestured towards the door. “What are we waiting for?”
This morning’s prompt was: write an invitation poem. For some reason, an invitation to my funeral sprang to mind.
I think I first fantasised about my funeral at the age of about 11. I used to walk to and from school every day, and the walk was a little over a mile. Over the months and years, that left a lot of time for my adolescent, Pre-Smartphone-World brain to fill with imagining. Mostly, I imagined some ongoing novels, short stories and soap operas which I plotted in daily, Dickensian episodes (and thankfully, considering their awkward subject matter, never wrote down). But – if I’d had a particularly frustrating argument with a friend or my parents that day – I would imagine my funeral. I’d imagine everyone crying and wailing to each other ‘OH THE REGRET, WHY WERE WE EVER MEAN TO HER’. Pretty self indulgent, I agree, but I’ve met plenty of adults who confess to doing the same thing. I also used to imagine myself murdering my enemies after delivering grand, Jules from Pulp Fiction style speeches. I’ve not met anyone else with this kind of fantasy yet.
Anyway, with this fun little insight into my psyche, please enjoy my poem. It’s named after my favourite Britney Spears perfume, which I’ve been wearing religiously for 8 years.
You are cordially invited
to my funeral
which I sincerely hope
you will attend
and which has been designed
with your greatest
in mind. .
I am not dead yet.
Far from it.
In fact I’ve never felt more
than in these days
since your presence
has ceased to be a given .
since you have endeavoured to avoid me
and since my hoping
to pass you on the street
and say ‘oh hallo,
how nice to see you
you look good, I’ve been well’
has become an exercise
in disappointment. .
So I hope you will attend. .
My ex boyfriends and ex friends
are planning on sitting
in a row at the back
and sobbing tears of regret .
and my mother is giving a eulogy
about how I always had
a good heart
and how any cruelty
or reckless behaviour
were all in fact products
of my simple desire to
And I think nobody would mind
if you stormed towards the lectern
with fire in your eyes
‘stop it, all of you,
stop all these lies –
yes she was cruel
and she doesn’t need you
for it.’ .
Then, if you like,
you could run out of the church
with hot tears in your eyes. .
And it might not be until later
side by side
at the buffet table
over plates of sausage rolls
and triangle sandwiches
that you’d see me
and I’d shyly smile
and say .
I heard everything
you said back there.’ .
And from then on
I might find
to be thoughtless
and from then on
you might find