*This story contains mild swearing*
I have to go to the gym
I have to go to the gym
I have to go to the gym
I repeated in my head as I drove the kids home from school. I had been planning to go to the gym for the past week. Ten days to be exact. I knew because my mum had given me a gym membership for my birthday. Really sweet I thought to myself, not allowing my smile to waver, but the witch in my head poked her head as she inspected her nails and asked nonchalantly, is she implying that you’re fat?
“It’s a great way to meet guys, I hear!” Mum had said, planting a kiss on my cheek, “And if that doesn’t happen, then at least you’d be keeping healthy and beautiful! We need to get you back out there and find you a man who deserves you!”
I have to go to the gym I repeated in my head as I made a detour to get Samuel a birthday present to take to his friend the next day. Josh was sitting next to me, babbling about his friends. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my phone light up.
“Josh, sweetie, could you read what that text says?” I made sure I never touched my phone while the boys were in the car.
He took the phone from the cupholder and read: SOMETHING CAME UP AT WORK. I WON’T BE ABLE TO TAKE THE KIDS TODAY. SORRY!
“Are you serious?” I asked no one in particular, feeling my face turn red with exasperation.
“Yes, that’s what it says!” Josh said innocently.
“I know, sweetie,” I mumbled, “the asshole!”
“What?” I could tell he was trying to un-hear what I’d just said.
“Mummy said the A. word!” Samuel chuckled from the back seat.
I closed my eyes and exhaled as I pulled over in front of the toy store. I took a deep breath, plastered a smile on my face, and we all got out of the car to get the present. As usual, I cursed myself for not getting the present before picking up the kids from school. Taking two boys into a toy store is a sure way to either deal with a lot of tears or spend a lot of money. I ended up doing both.
As soon as we got home, and while the boys were kicking off their shoes in whichever direction, I heard the landline phone ringing. I threw my keys and bag on the table and dashed to get it before it stopped. As soon as I saw “Private number” I knew it was my landlady because she was the only person who called me on the landline, except for Chris, my ex-husband, when he was being passive-aggressive but still wanted to talk to the boys.
My landlady was old and lovely, usually. But, understandably, she only called when there was an issue: extra costs, some guy coming to check something… or a complaint. That day, it was the latter. My next-door neighbour, Mrs Bailey, had called to inform her that I hadn’t mowed the lawn for “ages”, and so my landlady had to “gently” remind me that it was written in the contract that I had to mow the lawn regularly. I closed my eyes and bit my lip waiting for her to finish her lecture while my mind started wondering just how exactly I was going to do that when the electric lawnmower hadn’t been working for a while. We had left it in the rain, and it had given up on us in protest.
I apologised, promised to act upon it and hung up. Mrs Bailey wasn’t a bad person, I reminded myself. She was just an old lady well into her eighties and had nothing else to do other than watching the neighbours. Well, that and tending to her precious garden. I never saw her working in the garden, but it was always immaculate. I genuinely wondered if she cut her lush grass so evenly using regular sewing scissors. She was always all smiles and compliments for the boys and me. She even fed our cat, Big Boss, when we were away.
Yes, I’m aware it’s a funny name for a cat, but that’s exactly how he acts. We all live by his rules: I can’t close any doors, including the basement door, because he needs the flap to get in and out of the house and in and out of any room at any time, day or night.
Given that she was my only attached neighbour and she so badly wanted my garden to look less like a wild jungle and more like her tame rose garden, I decided to borrow her lawnmower. Maybe also make her aware that I was aware that she’d snitched on me.
Taking advantage of my disorientation, the boys quietly went scavenging for chocolate and biscuits, but I couldn’t fight that battle right then. I found a tightlipped smile and plastered it on my face as I went to talk to her, but before my finger reached her brass doorbell, the heavy door flew open and there she was, as tiny as a morsel and just as sweet.
“Mrs Bailey… hi!” I muttered.
“Good afternoon, Ms Donahue!” she said smiling inquiringly.
“Erm…” damn, I didn’t rehearse this, “Mrs Parker called and said you’d like me to cut my grass. I’m sorry it’s been out of order, but I was wondering if you could…”
“Ms Donahue,” she put a hand up as if to stop me from uttering more nonsense, “if you choose to live in a house like this, in a neighbourhood like this, then you should do it the right way!”
She said it with what looked like a genuine smile.
“You know, I work full-time, grappling with raising kids alo…”
“Oh, if that bus stop could talk!” she interrupted me again, craning her frail neck to nod at the street, “it would tell you how I was there at five-thirty every single day come rain or shine! I had children too!”
Yes, but your mother lived with you and you had a husband, I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the words, so I bowed my head and turned on my heel ready to leave.
“What is it that you actually came here for, Ms Donahue?” she asked as I was getting off her pathway.
I turned slowly and said, “I was wondering if I could borrow your lawnmower like last time if …”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, but your grass has grown so long and thick, it would break the blades!” she said apologetically.
I didn’t look at her or say anything. I just stomped home realising I was still in my high-heeled boots and got into the house huffing with anger.
I sat down on the bench under the coat rack, then quickly stood up again; I was going to go and buy a lawnmower.
I put my coat on and kicked off my boots to change into something more suitable for the hardware store. While I was doing that, I briefed the boys that Mummy was going to go to sort out an important matter and that Josh, who was nine, was in charge of Samuel who was four and that she was going to lock the door and that they were not allowed to leave the living room until she came back.
“Do you both understand?” I looked them both in the eyes.
“Yes, Mummy,” Josh said in a big brother voice.
“OK, Mummy,” Samuel tried to copy his brother’s serious face.
“FUCK!” I screamed as I felt a tiny furball scurry onto my hand and onto the tiles, disappearing behind the shoes.
Both boys jumped in fright.
“What?” Josh asked.
“Did you not see that?” I said throwing my trainers in the air.
“See what, Mummy?” Josh asked again.
“The fucking mouse jumping out of my trainer and onto my hand!” I said feeling every hair on my body bristle and blench.
They both shook their heads. I tried to steady myself on the bench. Then I shook both trainers making sure they were mouse-free. I put them on with trembling hands, steered the boys to the living room, and turned on the TV.
Before slamming the door behind me, I heard Samuel chuckle, “Mummy said the F. word!”
“Twice!” Josh tutted.
I drove to the hardware store, feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders. Why was my life such a mess? Why did I always put myself in these situations? Why is adulting such an unbearable load? Was it like that for my mum when we were growing up? Was it like that for all parents, or did I attract chaos and trouble? Wasn’t I doing enough? I worked hard, I fed, I cleaned, I read bedtime stories, I wiped bums and kissed tears and shooed away monsters. What else did the world want from me? And why, just why did my stupid cat drag in these mice? When I joined the ranks of cat people, I thought one of the perks would be the cat protecting me from menace, not plaguing me with it!
Not only did mice freak the living light out of me, but I had to set up traps and kill them now as if his part of the deal was the catching, not the finishing of whichever mouse or bird he brought in. Chris used to do that because he knew how I recoiled at the mere mention of rodents, but now it was all me. Me alone.
I got out of the car and hurried to the store. That was my first time leaving the boys alone for any length of time. I rushed through the automatic doors and came to a halt at the entrance of the sprawling grounds. I squinted, scanning the hanging signs and after a few seconds, I spotted GARDEN. I zoomed over there. Shelves and shelves of garden tools stretched before me, and at the end of the section, I found a huge plank of wood with lawnmowers of all shapes and sizes displayed on it. I walked over but couldn’t get very close because there was a couple inspecting them. There they stood, hand in hand, whispering and laughing. I had no idea lawnmowers could be so funny.
I cleared my throat in the hope of them noticing that another customer was waiting to look at the damned things, but no such luck, so I squeezed around them and looked at the prices from the other side. I tried my best to stifle a gasp before it escaped my lips. What the hell were they so expensive for? My heart sank. So I left the boys alone, in the evening, risking their dad calling and realising I’d left them alone to do God knows what only so I’d go home empty-handed? Who could afford these prices anyway? I stole a look at the couple who were seriously but lovingly debating which of the two most expensive ones to get. A wave of sadness washed over me.
Then, as if by a miracle, a petite, shy lawnmower poked its head tentatively from behind the burly, legitimate ones. I put one foot on the wooden plank to give myself a push closer to the box. It was a manual one, but it was reduced by thirty per cent, which made it only slightly above the budget for an impulsive buy like this. Relieved, I secured my handbag across my torso, wrapped my arms around the heavy box and waddled proudly to the checkout counter. I smiled sheepishly as I lined up with other adults who were in charge of their lives. I was starting to take the reins of the cart of life into my own hands.
There were two men left ahead of me in the queue when my phone rang. I put the box down and fished for the phone. HOME it read. Oh dear, these were the boys.
“Yes? Joshua?” I whispered.
“MUM!” Josh huffed, “Samuel stuck a LEGO up his nose!”
“A what? Oh my GOD!” I screeched.
The two men looked behind them in concern.
“OK, I’m coming!” I said through gritted teeth.
I paid hurriedly and clambered to the car where I deposited the bulky box and sped back home.
When I got home, both boys met me in the hallway, heads bowed and shoulders slumped in total resignation to whatever I was going to shout or do. I was too drained to say anything. I quietly ruffled their hair and lifted Samuel and put him on the dining table where there was enough light. I could see the yellow head of some unfortunate figure up his nose. I tried pressing the side of his nostril to coax the plastic piece out, but it was too well-lodged.
“Don’t move!” I looked him in the eye and he knew he’d better not mess with me, so he froze.
I ran upstairs to the bathroom and got the tweezers from the cupboard. I ran back down, almost tripping on Big Boss, lounging on the stairs, unconcerned about any of this.
The LEGO head was so smooth and slippery that the tweezers initially failed to grab it, but a few attempts later, I successfully pulled it out and Samuel threw his little, chubby arms around me.
“Mummy, you saved my life!” he said in his cute little voice.
I gave a brief chortle of relief and squeezed his little body before I carried him up the stairs for his bath.
When both boys were bathed and read to, I lay down, still in my blouse and jeans, and stared at the ceiling. I realised that other than whatever biscuits they ate in my absence, the boys hadn’t eaten. Then I fell asleep.
A few hours later, I was awakened by a scuffle downstairs. At first I thought I was dreaming that the boys were fighting over chocolate, but they were both there in my vast bed, fast asleep.
I carefully peeled Josh’s arm off my chest and tiptoed downstairs. I saw Big Boss clawing at the shoes under the hallway bench. Oh, the stupid mouse. I’d forgotten all about her. Big Boss always did that. He brought in whatever poor victim he’d found and released it in the house. Either to tantalise it for a few days until he finally finished it off or to let it die of injury or despair.
Nobody prepared me for the truth about cats until I bought into the concept of them. They’re loving yet selfish, cuddly yet savage, soft yet harsh. They give a lot but take a lot. They make you feel like the only person on earth sometimes, but sometimes they turn their back on you with not much as a tail wag. They’ll snuggle into you, purring and gracing you with their warmth, but make one wrong move and they’ll scratch you or shun you.
And then I saw her, tiny grey thing whimpering in the corner behind the bench. I crouched to get a better look, which I’d never done before. I used to close my bedroom door and wait out the ordeal whenever I heard Big Boss torturing a mouse, but this time I decided to stop hiding. She tried to climb into Samuel’s shoe because it was on its side, but she was too feeble even for that. So she just pressed herself into the wall, protected by the bench’s wooden frame, awaiting a miracle… or death.
I felt my chest heaving and my defences crumbling. I cried and I cried. Poor little thing; she did the best she could. She held on to this illusion called life. She probably never thought she would be among the fallen, so she hustled, oblivious to life’s sticks and stones and cats. Perhaps not oblivious, but rather aware that she had no other choice but to press on and hope for a happy ending. Or at least a different ending.
I heard my sobs get louder, and I didn’t stop myself. I moved my feet from underneath me and sat my bottom on the cold tiles.
When Big Boss heard my whimpering, he turned around and looked at me, cocking his head to the side as if bewildered by my unusual presence before it was time to pick up the mouse. I remembered what everyone told me about how cats brought these little victims as an offering to their owners. I was supposed to see this as a gift and token of love and appreciation and it made me cry a little louder.
Big Boss turned on his hind legs and sauntered towards me. I moved my hands from my lap to make room for him, and he swiftly climbed onto it. He rubbed his soft head on my belly and purred before relaxing his body into mine. He was always there for me when I needed him. I felt a strange sense of resignation, so I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and stroked his warm fur.
I have to go to the gym.