The nuances and complexities of a troubled mother-daughter relationship are beautifully rendered in this short story, adapted from Laetitia Erskine’s novel Women on Women.
The light never dimmed altogether in the front room. All night, orange glow from the block on the corner, the streetlights and the precinct underneath. If Peta got up now and crept across the flat, she could stand in its chemical pool. She could stop in the doorway, where in younger years she had stood, frozen, while her mother worked, her back to Peta, paper and glue and paint coming alive in her hands. Now, with this many people in proximity, it was comforting to know that someone was always awake, and maybe it was not always her. The boom of an argument came through the wall of a neighbouring flat. Peta knew the shape of it well, knew how to steal her mind around its muffled wrath and find sleep.
She held tight, surfing, resisting the look back or forward. Nothing in the world was lonelier than listening to that muted roar duet with the hush of breath next to her, from a man she was not, should not, could never be, in a relationship with. He was the married one, so perhaps even guiltier than she was, yet he was the one sated and bathed in sleep. Barely a wave of sound, ebbing this way and that from his sleeping form, the heft of him in abeyance now, encroaching on her only as a slight dip in the mattress, but making a hostile escarpment of her bed. There was nothing lonelier than the tug, the skew of it, nothing more insistently fraying on her ability to sleep, pulling her back to what she always missed, the pull of a void behind the junk of day, and the always unfinished conversation with her mother.
Flat on her back, curled in foetal, tucked on her side, she roamed outside, and all roads led back to then. Her mind travelled up and down the street, on to Golborne, up and down Portobello. She was in her pushchair and her mother was milling around, picking up a pot, a picture, stopping for a natter, trying on an Afghan coat and spying herself in a sliver of mirror propped on trestles, bargaining for a bag, bundling all the bits from the pushchair in it, slinging it on the handles behind Peta’s back. If Peta stood up, she knew the whole thing would go crashing behind her and her mother would wallop her. But she couldn’t stand up, because her mother had harnessed her in. Wide straps and loud snaps. Her mother pushed her along the middle of the street, market stalls down one side, vans and the odd fold-out canvas chair on the other where stallholders sat.
‘All right, Mum,’ they said. All around, people greeted her as if Sydney was their mother.
‘All right, Dave, all right Tone,’ Sydney sent back, ‘What have you got today? Is that a real Gauguin?’
‘Genuine article. In the school of the original. Genuine frame too.’
‘Not a bad frame, nice old gilt. But I need something bigger.’
‘Not for one of yours, is it?’
‘Would I do that to a genuine Gauguin?’
The leather pouches of Sydney’s cheeks squeezed tight in a bunch of secrets. Peta scowled at her mother’s exchange of grins. In the pushchair she sat, making patterns from the shape of dried pasta hung in a shop window. She sat there trying to make out what was for sale in one window chock full of lamps and beds and vases and cushions. She sat there staring at the stupid dead face of a china doll with a velvet cap. She sat there staring at the sky above the market, could have been blue, could have been dreary, back then it was all weathers and none on the ground.
Through the thicket of people, selling, buying, eating, here for a breeze, they carried on. The wheels of her pushchair kept turning, Sydney marching down dale and up hill. All right, all right, Mum, men said to her, young and old. Lovely strawberries, pound a punnet.
At the summit, the market thinned out and the houses were big, white as new teeth, weeping with wisteria, or small and sherbet-candy-coloured, snapped by Japanese and Americans. They carried on, Sydney relentless with her pushing. Peta refused to go to sleep. The park was near here. Would they stop in the park today? But it was only a short cut. They carried on through, pigeons parting, a wave of living concrete dust. Peta craned to see the Round Pond. The man with the toy sailboat might be there. There was a gigantic playground here somewhere, she had been a few times, it was near a flat maze or lake or secret garden, fancy stonework, place of myth and history. As they rounded onto to the avenue, she lunged for a stick in the path of a free running dog. Grabbed it just in time. ‘Oi, you nearly!’ A claw briefly clamped on her shoulder. Her mother didn’t give her a chance to lose her seat. But now Peta whisked her stick through the air as they went. Wish, whoosh. Wish, whoosh. Out of the park, she trailed her stick along the railings, the drumming sound lost in the traffic so only she could hear it. On they went past big monuments, into quiet streets, and finally into a mews parked with shiny cars.
Sydney traded places with her at the front door, robbing Peta of the riddle of the brass lion’s head knocker and letterbox before her. Instead, there was her mother, too close, standing in her tweeds, lambchop sleeves billowing from her waistcoat, mustard-coloured, a foul hue, the silken tie in the small of her back rumpled and smeared with a bit of paint. Peta felt a fury coming on from being hidden behind her mother, stuck in the pushchair, but soon she would be out and able to explore this new place. The hall was tiled, and her wheels rolled smoothly on it, a good sensation. She liked the sudden easy feel of it. Glass sliding doors gave on to a sitting room of white leather, glass and metal and bright pictures. From underneath her seat as Peta craned and gazed around her, her mother slid out the shiny black book containing her sketches and photographs of her pieces. In the room, a man was sitting on the low white sofa, an orange on a plate before him. Peta watched her mother glide through the glass door and greet him, the heavy book in her hands. The world came to a standstill now. Her mother left her on the wrong side of the doors.
The man stood, no taller than Sydney, but fat, a purple shirt with a jewel sheen tucked in, gleaming dark hair, shapely beard, ageless brown skin. They sat. The shiny black book lay on the table, its blank face beaming at the ceiling, but neither reached for it. They began what looked to Peta like secret plotting, leaving her gazing in, or upwards at the fluffy banana-yellow carpet on the stairs. A woman in a frilly white apron appeared, feet first. Zoomed into Peta’s face, cooed, disappeared down the hall. Her mother and the man were still plotting. Peta watched him pick up the orange, peel it, eat the segments one by one. Shockingly bright, it looked so juicy, and he ate every last bit, not spilling a drop. The man waggled his fingers, pinkie ring glinting, patted his mouth with a white napkin. Then he picked up a heavy-looking shiny object from the glass table. He pointed it at Sydney, and Peta saw it was a small gun. Now Peta began to rock back and forth, the safety straps preventing her escape, preventing her from saving her mother from disaster. The man laughed, raised the gun, finger at the trigger. Her mother leaned in – the world stopped and Peta did too – a flame jumping from the barrel of the gun. A yellow flare engulfing a tiny bloom of brightest blue. Her mother leaned into the flame, womb of fire around a burning seed. Then she leaned back, emitting a long plume of smoke from her cigarette, and the man did the same. They had a deal. And the deal had nothing to do with Peta. Smoke curled around their heads and mated with beams of sunlight Peta noticed had been waiting to join the dance in the room where the grown-ups sat.
Peta was hungry. Peta was cross. Peta was furious. Peta needed a wee. Then her mother came out and on her face was written all the world’s and all of Sydney and Peta’s disappointment and outrage put together. The deal was off, Peta knew. The stuff her mother made, the stuff she bargained for bits for, muddled through false starts over, stayed up all night with, had not found its target. It had not earned their rent. Worse, Peta knew it had cost her mother pride, a secret source of power that switched on and off. Sometimes, when wounded, it crippled her mother. And sometimes it soared to monstrous proportions, and then it crippled Peta.
As they wheeled around and back down the tiled hall, the injustice of it was too much for Peta. She longed to rebel and could not tell if surrender was the better option. A burst of warmth flooded her seat before seeping down her legs. There her heart released, dripped on the floor, its casement moulting to leave an inconsolable knot of confusion in her chest. A mistake, a glitch in time, but it was for her mother, for her mother’s shock, for her mother’s hard work, and the knocks she’d had, that Peta wept. Her mother’s shoes squeaked on the floor wetted by Peta, the two of them reattached like one unwanted beast, small wheels turning, Peta harnessed, hypnotised, leaving the man who should have seen, should have known better, behind them, as her mother beat the pavement home, saving her pound of bus fare.
Peta rolled over. The whisper of a stranger’s oblivion teased her as the dawn light seeped in. She caved her body over that former self, tried to befriend that child in the pushchair as she chased after sleep. Disappointment was an impossible conversation to have, but there were others, almost begun, failures and successes too. She did not know what they might have been. She was afraid of missing their return in the night. She remembered her mother’s morning moods, either haunted or elated, the smell of turps and drink and ash and the mess, and then the day that opened up its fistful of truth on her mother’s studio all cleaned up. Her mother had left, and sleep would not come.
About Laetitia Erskine
Laetitia Erskine is a writer based in London. She most often writes about love, loss, and women’s experience, and explores the boundaries between daily life and the metaphysical, in variously surreal, absurd, comical and poignant ways. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in Lunate, The Phare, Lucy Writers Platform and Popshot Quarterly. She is married with two children and a cat and is completing her first novel.