The First-Born

Submitted into Contest #20 in response to: Write a story about a day in the life of a mother.... view prompt



Amanda had got so used to telling people that she was a natural early riser and always had been that she now even believed it herself sometimes. It was not a complete lie. She supposed, if she had to classify herself into one of the two polarised categories, she would have called herself a lark rather than an owl. Even when she was a teenager, and her contemporaries thought it life’s greatest luxury to lie in bed until noon, she had liked to be up quite early, and had always thought there was something rather special about the first light of a spring or autumn morning. But for years now she had been up at about five, if not before. In winter, and it was winter now, that meant it would be several hours before the sun first rose, and on a misty morning like this one, it felt like the middle of the night.

     Originally there had been some practical reasons for it, but that was now long past, with the children grown up – well, theoretically – and Sabrina away at university most of the time, and Kevin not around any more (she still mourned him, but it had turned into something quieter and calmer, most of the time, something that made people whom she dearly wished had spoken to her about him when her grief was at its rawest feel easier about mentioning him). There was only her and Theodore – Ted, as he always insisted on being called, and she didn’t blame him) – in the house.

     But an enforced body clock can metamorphose into an habitual one, and she wanted time to think.

     She sighed as she involuntarily wrinkled up her nose drinking the green tea she was trying, unsuccessfully, to develop a taste for, and thought no, that isn’t true.  I don’t want time to think. Not about that. I would prefer not to think about it at all and have surely already thought everything there is to think.

     Like most mothers she had sworn she would never have favourites, and like most mothers, she had. Oh, she worshipped Sabrina and was so proud of the way she’d done well at school and was tipped for a first class degree in history and already planning to train as a teacher afterwards. And she’d always been a bit of a Daddy’s girl – she inherited her passion for history from Kevin. 

     But yes, if she’d been forced to admit it, Ted, her first born, was her favourite. He had been born by C-section, which she hadn’t planned, but it did mean he came into the world less wrinkled, less fraught, and to her relief, a relief she had never imagined was possible, hale and healthy. Despite being in the breach position. “You might have known he’d make things difficult, even from the start,” Kevin had said, once, and he had said it in a tone that was affectionate but tinged with something that was less light-hearted than such a comment might have seemed.

     “That’s not fair!” she’d objected, about Ted, who was fourteen at the time. “He’s incredibly easy-going!”

     “Maybe that’s part of the trouble, Bree,” he had said, before letting the subject drop.

     She had also always sworn she would be a tolerant mother, but not spoil her children. But it was so hard not to spoil Ted, or at least to let him get away with things. Even Kevin’s elder sister, the children’s Auntie Sophia, who was the first to admit that though she liked children well enough, there was something a tad tedious about them in the early years, had been forced to admit that his babyish chortles gladdened the heart, and he barely needed the lightest tickle on his firm, plump, pink tummy to elicit them.

     At first, his teachers indulged him, too. As Amanda finally managed to get down the last of the green tea (didn’t they do it with a vanilla flavour? She might try that!) and put the kettle on again for a coffee, she remembered the initial glowing reports. He was a delight. He was bright for his age, never minded letting the other children play with his things, and was often the first to offer touching childish comfort to a classmate who was upset. 

     Mrs Wellby, his Year Two teacher, was the first to raise rather more problematic matters with Amanda. “He’s a charming child, Mrs Simmons, and always polite. But – perhaps it’s time to have a quiet word with him about applying his mind and his efforts a bit more – rigorously – to things that don’t necessarily interest him as much.” Even more tactfully, but with that way a wise teacher at parents’ evening has of conveying information without causing offence, she raised the issue that he didn’t always seem to do his fair share of the chores all the children were expected to do. Of course there was no child labour at the school, a wholly enlightened and liberal establishment, but they were expected to help out with emptying the classroom waste bins, stacking the chairs, clearing away their lunch things and the like. She never used words like “lazy” or “workshy” in either context, but the more Amanda thought it over, the more it began to rankle.

     “And I’m sure it’s not true!” she said, “Look how good he’s always been with Sabrina!”

     “Well – he certainly didn’t seem to be jealous,” Kevin said. “But –“ he broke off in mid-sentence, and though that was one of his few habits that got on her nerves, she didn’t force him.

     The trouble was, Amanda thought now, as she paced across the floor of the lounge, despite having meant to give herself an hour or so with her book and the radio – what some people called “me time” – that now she knew, as perhaps she had known at the time, what the end of that sentence would have been.

     Friends who came to visit often said, “Oh, what a good, kind brother you are!” And there was no denying he was fond of planting totally sincere kisses on Sabrina’s cheeks, and telling folk how he loved his sister. But he rarely picked up anything he had dropped, let alone anything Sabrina might have thrown out of her cradle, and the strange thing was, that after a few years, and far sooner than it would have happened with most siblings with the relevant age gap, it was as if they were the same age. 

     Despite Mrs Wellby’s worries, Amanda told herself it truly didn’t matter if a junior school child found some subjects more interesting than others. It was only human nature, after all! She said as much when she was summoned to have a “quiet word” with his head of year, Mr Sparks, when he was thirteen.

     It had been an uncomfortable interview, Amanda remembered, loading up the washing machine even though there wasn’t really enough for a full wash yet. Prosaic household tasks were supposed to calm you down, weren’t they?

     “I entirely agree with you that every pupil has their own strengths and weaknesses,” Mr Sparks said, making a steeple of his hands in a way that reminded Amanda of her own head-teacher, further back than she cared to think, and that had both annoyed and unnerved her back in the day. “And believe me, we don’t expect every child to get the same marks in all their subjects, or even to be as interested. But he seems to think it’s unreasonable to expect him to apply himself at all in some subjects. You do know he hasn’t done his physics homework for nearly a month, and Ms Coates has been very patient with him.”

     A succession of thoughts occurred to Amanda. No, she hadn’t known that, and she supposed she should have done. She had never been that keen on physics, either! But – well, yes, she had still done her homework, as she had in all her subjects, even those where she only received a kind but lukewarm, “I can see you’ve made an effort, Amanda.”

     “The thing is,” Mr Sparks said, “Ted is a likeable young man, for the most part, and quite a clever one. But he’s not a little boy anymore, and this ought to be nipped in the bud.”

     Well, talk about damning with bloody faint praise, she thought, and she was someone who rarely swore, even silently. I wish Kevin were here! He was a civil engineer who sometimes needed to work odd shifts, and wasn’t there to back her up.

     She also knew what would have happened, she realised, after it was finally light and she pegged out the unnecessary washing on the circular dryer in the back garden. Kevin had fitted it up for her, and she’d asked Ted if he’d mind rubbing a cloth over it, and of course, he didn’t mind in the least, but he hadn’t done it. Not yet. Kevin would have been polite to Mr Sparks, and not contradicted her in front of him, but later on said he had a point and it was time to be a bit firmer with Ted.

     Music playing from upstairs told her that Ted was up. She supposed that even when he was a teenager they’d been lucky about his taste in music. He’d never gone in for pounding heavy metal or the like, and in other circumstances, this vaguely Celtic meandering of harps and tinkly percussion and a somewhat androgynous voice, even though played loudly, would have been rather soothing. 

     Ted had always wanted to be a musician himself. It was not such an unrealistic notion – was it? Before his voice broke he had a clear, true treble, and had even sung the Pageboy in Good King Wenceslas at a Christmas concert. It still made Amanda angry that she had heard, once, someone mutter that he was no Aled Jones.

     But it was true.

     He was blessed with perfect pitch and had no trouble picking out tunes on the piano, but he hated what he called, “Boring scales and stuff”, neglected his practice, and never got beyond Grade 2. 

     Anyway, he had professed himself grateful he didn’t go to music college as he’d never have fitted in there. Deciding, though, that he did quite like the idea of being a student, he had put in a last minute spurt, got decent A-levels, and been accepted at the local Red Brick University to study English Literature and Drama. Well, much use would that physics have been to him now, anyway, Amanda had thought. And she was not so secretly delighted he elected to still live at home.

     “Morning, mum!” he proclaimed, kissing her lightly on the top of her head.

     “Morning? It’s nearly afternoon!” Which it was, she realised, with a start. 

     “Oh, come on! You know I hate it when you pretend to be one of those mums!” He had perfected charming, slightly wounded reproach to a fine art.

     He had taken to the student life like a slightly exotic and rather desultory duck to water, even without living in hall. He produced some rather eccentric but sporadically insightful essays on the Romantic Poets and Experimental Theatre, and was one of the founder members of a folk-rock ensemble that called itself The Musing Minstrels. They even had their own manifesto, which they called the Minstrels’ Muse

     Of course, the university didn’t have parents’ evenings, even for those parents who lived nearby. But things have a way of getting out and getting back, and during Ted’s second year Amanda and Kevin found out that he was behind with his work. Again. And on nights he’d said he’d been working in the library, as he said with what Amanda took for disarming candour, catching up on some things he’d missed, he was either making music or (more likely) indulging his taste for red wine in either the campus bar or one of the “character” ones (which charged twice as much) not far away. 

     I told myself I was trying to strike a happy medium, thought Amanda, as she realised that she had let Ted “slip out” to town rather than have that serious talk with him. She knew she could never be one of those mothers who practised “tough love” and show Ted the door until he saw the error of his ways. She couldn’t fathom how anyone could do that, even to a grown-up child. But nor was she like one of those mothers who followed every snippet of advice the agony aunts gave and surfaced in novels with pastel colours on the front and immediately embraced their offspring on discovering any “sins of commission or omission” assuring them of unswerving unconditional love. Well, what’s wrong with trying neither to be too harsh nor too lax, she thought, wondering if she would manage to eat much of the tin of chicken soup she had opened for her lunch. 

     Anyway, he must have, if only sporadically, have been paying some attention, perhaps in the last minute manner of his A-level work, as he did get his degree. It was a 2.2 and everyone agreed he should have been capable of at least a 2.1 but he was airily unconcerned and announced that he was proud of having a “Desmond”. 

     Some of his fellow-students still didn’t have any particular plans about what they’d do when they left university. Ted did. Well, he told his parents he would really have liked to do postgraduate work, but there was this stupid rule about you having to have at least a 2.1 so who was to blame? Later on Amanda discovered this rule was open to flexibility, and had to accept that Ted had never had much interest in becoming Dr Ted. Anyway, given that he “couldn’t” do postgrad work, he announced his intention to be an entertainer. 

     Amanda and Kevin had never pretended it was possible to present an entirely united front, but generally Kevin, though he had his views, deferred to Amanda on matters of the children’s upbringing. Over this, though, they had a row. A proper row, not one of those “clear the air” and “show you respect the other’s viewpoint” discussions. Oh, they didn’t throw things or swear at each other, and didn’t even raise their voices much, but Kevin said it was high time, as he couldn’t carry on with his studies – and it was largely his own fault! – he brought some money into the house. And he meant his foot to stay firmly down, and told Ted that in no uncertain terms. Ted’s reaction was surprising – or perhaps it wasn’t surprising at all. Rather than acting ill-used or getting angry, he gave his father a long, longing look – and he was blessed with dark, soulful, puppy dog eyes – and asked, simply, “Have you never wanted to follow a dream, Dad?”

     That caught Kevin off-guard, Amanda remembered. Yes, he had wanted to follow a dream. He had been a very talented soccer player at school, and had been approached by the local team, but had finally decided – with heavy parental pressure – to do the “sensible” thing instead. Kevin had no illusions – he would never have lifted the FA Cup! – but a part of him still regretted not at least giving it a go, though he loved his work. 

     In the end, they reached a compromise. He could have his try at making it as an entertainer (he physically winced at the word “showbiz”) but would also work as a part-time barman in the Frenzied Ferret, one of his old student watering holes. 

     For a while the latter, at least, worked out fairly well. He was a familiar face there, and generally well-liked (though a couple of less generous folk did call him a “pretentious prat” on occasion) with a winning manner. He assured his parents the entertainment was going well, too. Amanda genuinely wished she had never heard from a friend of a friend that at a Christmas concert, possibly remembering his success as the pageboy, he had sung his own solo version of Fairy Tale of New York with a backing tape, and an irate manager, sensing the restlessness in his audience, had put on the Pogues’ version, playing loudly, saying, “Yes, I know that’s how it should sound”. 

     Though he was not, for all his ways, a drunkard, he drowned his sorrows with a bottle of the best Rioja from the Frenzied Ferret – and whilst the proprietor was pragmatic about his staff helping themselves to an odd glass of house wine, there were limits. 

     He was sacked, and whilst his mother sympathised with him (suspecting that he was giving her a rather doctored version of the value of the wine he had purloined) his father was firmer. He even made reference to the Fairy Tale of New York incident, and Amanda couldn’t make up her mind if he were being mean and hitting below the belt or telling a much needed home truth.

     Then there was the tutoring business, thought Amanda. He had seemed to find that all off his own bat, and though it didn’t bring in that much money and they had to help him out, even Kevin had to admit he was trying. He was actually very popular with his pupils and Sabrina wasn’t the only one with a flair for teaching – but the trouble was, as it came out, he had decided contempt for the GCSE English literature syllabus, and spent most of his time introducing his charges to his own favourite fantasy novels – including some he had started to write himself, though he generally lost patience after a chapter.   When the majority of his pupils failed that was an end to that. 

     At this point, Kevin uttered the dread words “Sign On” and kept on uttering them. If Ted couldn’t find work, he would have to draw benefit. “Oh, please, don’t make me do that!” he pleaded. “They’re so intrusive – I’ve heard about it, it’s a nightmare.”

     A deeply private person herself, Amanda pleaded for a stay of execution. Then Kevin died. Suddenly, of a heart attack, and like the cautionary tale of the otherwise excellent chap in an ominous TV ad, he hadn’t taken out life insurance.

     At first they had all been so traumatised (and Amanda was pretty sure even Kevin’s grief was genuine, though he and his father had a troubled relationship) that money hadn’t seemed to matter much, and they did manage to pay for the funeral, but months passed and coalesced, and now it did.

     I will have to issue an ultimatum, thought Amanda, and I will have to keep to it. He must get work or sign on within the next month and no extensions or exceptions.

     Or what? Or I throw him out? Or I let him starve?

     The day was already moving towards sunset, and she found herself, ludicrously, hoping he would be home before dark, and hoping he was not doing anything silly.

     She wanted him to come home, so she would know he was safe and would sleep in his own bed that night.

     She dreaded him coming home because this time, she told herself, she must say the firm words, must harden her heart to his soulful, appealing eyes.

     And she sank down on the couch, and did not put on the light against the gathering dark, and she wept and longed to be holding her perfect first-born child again.

December 20, 2019 08:12

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