We pull up in the driveway on a crisp New Year’s Eve morning. It's been two months since I ran away, two months since my failed fresh start.
The social worker is watching me. I avoid her gaze.
“I won’t be long.”
“Take as long as you need, Emer. I’ll be here.”
As I leave the car, I catch her gaping at the glass-enclosed terrace, the twin koi ponds that edge along the stone path to the front door, the lavish grounds with green shrubbery, dusted with a fine sprinkling of white ice.
I wonder if she thinks I am mad for running away.
We're on a tight schedule; my mother will be preparing for her annual New Year's Eve party and the caterers will arrive soon after midday. I knock on the door and wait. Two glassy-eyed frog ornaments flank the doorstep like strange, silent observers. My mother opens the door. As she moves aside to let me in, her hand draws behind her back. I instinctively snarl, “I said no phones.”
Eyes wide, all innocent, she holds up her beautiful hands. I huff inside.
Though I lived here for years, she leads me like a guest to the conservatory, where she has laid out tea and shortbread on the best china. I sling off my rucksack and perch on my chair. She sits in perfect elegance in her cream turtleneck and tailored trousers, like a stiff porcelain doll. The winter daylight shines through the coloured glass panes, bathing her in an ethereal glow.
Her features are hard like shiny plastic, her lips and face tense with filler. She wears imported hair extensions, which she never washes herself but gets styled once a week. She eyes me critically, her mouth turned down in disappointment. I look different, I know, like a shell-shocked soldier still reeling from war.
She pours the tea and we drink in silence. Neither of us reaches for a biscuit. I know they are not laid there for me to eat, but to form part of the illusion she strives to maintain. When I checked my phone in the car, she had a symmetrical snapshot of the coffee table on her Instagram story. “Look at my aesthetic china and biscuits,” it seemed to say. “My life is better than yours.”
“Did you look at the file? The one my solicitor left you?” I ask.
She winces, takes a sip. “Emer, I don’t think you understand what you’re asking of me.”
Her coarse accent humbles her; it gives her away as an outsider in a curated world. She continues to talk as I stand and walk around the room. I have always loved this room. The view overlooks the hills to the sea. It was added to the house after we moved in five years ago. My mother filmed the initial stages of the renovation process and various decorating companies contacted her, clamouring to sponsor the project. All in exchange for a shoutout on Instagram and YouTube.
Along the walls hang silver-framed photographs of the two of us. There is one of me in my bottle-green school uniform, as she stands behind me, a cool hand pressed on my shoulder. I touch my tiny airbrushed face, smothered under a layer of glass.
I was stupid to think I could escape her so easily. She played her trump card two months ago, right after I ran away; she refused to pay for my school fees, even though I am in my final year and have the most important exams of my life ahead of me. I ran away because she switched our schedule to daily vlogging my final year of school, to "document my journey". I tried to maintain it, I really did, but, inevitably, I cracked under the intense scrutiny and the pressure of the expectations, ambitions and criticisms of a hundred thousand people. I would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air, flailing wildly in search of a hidden camera. I just couldn't do it anymore.
I'm lost in limbo; finally free with frozen finances. The school granted me a grace period to pay my fees, but it’s about to expire; I have to pay up by this evening, or leave. The ultimatum has left me riddled with stress; I twiddle my hair until it comes away in my hand and bite my nails until they are raw. I can’t concentrate and my grades are slipping deep into a deep well of distraction and distress. Soon, they will be beyond where I can haul them back to safety.
“A 50% cut is too much. I had all the ideas. I started the Instagram page and the YouTube channel, and I ran them and organised the sponsors. You got to live your life, just as normal. It hardly affected you.”
“We remember it differently.”
My mother doesn’t tell me to sit and finish my tea, like she would have done only months ago. She is wary. She blinks at me and pleads.
“Emer, listen to me. We had nothing before.”
"Nothing" is not the word I would use. My mother had me as a teenager and dropped out of school. We lived in a damp, one-bedroom flat. She wore cheap clothes, bought scuffed, second-hand furniture and boxed-dyed her hair a brassy shade of blonde. She worked in a supermarket stacking shelves and checking stock. We lived that way until I was eight, and I loved the life we had built, just the two of us.
But she always wanted more. She pored over pictures on social media comparing lives, comparing wealth. She began recording silly clips of me and posting them online. Since she spent all of her time at work on her phone, they let her go.
“As if we need them. They’ll be sorry,” she told me. She spent her last paycheck on a second-hand Canon camera and started to take our online presence seriously.
My mother, who is still speaking, raises her voice. “Don’t act like you never wanted this. I never pressured you, you wanted to be famous too.”
I want to throw the framed photo at her and shout, how could I have known what it meant to be famous? At nine, I was dancing around our tiny kitchen in my pyjamas to an audience of twenty people, most of them our neighbours. By eleven, I was acting from a script and being watched by hundreds of thousands of nameless, faceless profiles. Strangers would approach us in the street and know my name, the names of my cuddly toys, when I got my first bra. I would bristle like a startled animal, while my mother pinched my arm and hissed in my ear to behave. When they were gone, she would berate me, you idiot, our fans are our livelihood, without them we are nothing. With each passing year, I told myself it would get easier. But our audience only grew, with ever-increasing commentary on our life. I was targeted by trolls on online gossip forums. I sometimes read their comments about me, about how I looked and behaved, and I wanted to die.
“Did you ever feel guilty?” I ask.
“Guilty?” she splutters, and her teacup smashes against the glass coffee table. “For what? For giving you the best life I could?”
I look at her sadly. “For not listening when I asked you to stop.”
She’s not looking at me anymore. She’s picking up pieces of broken china from the carpet and swearing to herself.
“I never made you do anything you didn’t want to do.”
I wonder if she really believes that.
I say nothing and take the picture of me in my uniform from the wall. School was my sanctuary, a space to breathe. I never crept around on high alert that a camera was pointing in my direction, capturing my quiet moments for outsiders to pick apart under a digital microscope. I remember coming home from my first day, overcome with excitement. My mother stopped my fervid babbling and sat me in front of her new camera and ring lights.
“Tell the viewers,” she ordered.
I squirmed in my chair. “I don’t want to.”
I looked down, away, anywhere but at her. “Mam-”
“They’re the reason you’re in this school. You owe it to them, Emer.”
“Mam. Please. The girls at school, they’ll watch, they’ll laugh at me.”
She strode towards me, gripping my shoulders tightly, stabbing me with her sharp nails. “Think of how many views this will get. Don’t you care about that?” She shook me. “Well? Don’t you like going to private school? Don’t you like the life we have? This is the price of that life, Emer. Do you understand that?”
I press down on her perfectly pixelated face so hard that splinters appear in the glass. Touching my hair with trembling fingers, I hang the picture back on the wall. The silence expands between us. My mother tips the broken pieces of the cup onto the table and sighs. “I did what I had to do, Emer.”
I want to ask if she had to teach me to edit and airbrush pictures of myself before they were worthy of being posted, causing body image issues that still haunt me today.
But I am not here to discuss the past; I want the money. She was never eager to share the spoils of our stardom and the financial deprivation has threatened my most valued possession; my education. My social worker won't help. She says there's nothing wrong with public school and that I can't ask my mother to spend thousands of euros against her will on something I could get for free.
“I want my share. I put as much effort in, if not more, than you. I was the reason that people watched. That money is mine too.”
She massages her forehead and inhales deeply. Though her face is smooth, her eyes are weary.
“Please sit, Emer. We can talk about it. Let’s have a real conversation. I can make you understand.”
My mother and I haven’t had a real conversation in nine years. Not since she made the choice to obliterate my privacy and put my life on display. There is no “we”, only “her”. Her business. Her money. She will coerce me into returning to this life. She will promise it will be different, but New Year's Eve will pass into New Year's Day and nothing will change, and I will never see my money. As the sun washes a wave of light over me, I realise that there is nothing left to be discussed.
I want to scream and break her things, take a photo and upload it for her precious followers to see that this is what they’ve been missing, the dysfunctional reality of a YouTube family. But I do none of these things. I grab my rucksack and walk towards the front door, and she follows, pleading with me to listen to her.
It’s cold outside. We shiver silently in the doorway, conscious that the social worker’s eyes are on us now. Her face is working, but I can’t tell what she is feeling. She reaches out her hand, but I step away. With an audience, however small, I can’t trust her. I am left with no choice but to play my last card.
“I have something for you,” I say. I open my rucksack, take out a black folder and hand it to her.
She hesitates. “From your solicitor?”
“No. These are from me.” She begins to unzip it, but I interject. “Don’t open it until I’m gone. Please. Mam, I want it to be different next year. I hope what you find in this folder can show you that.”
Her eyes, the only real thing left in her plastic face, betray a flicker of hope. She pushes back a stray hair from her face.
"It's been... strange, without you. I miss you being here with me."
My throat constricts as I turn my face away. She misses the placid, beaten-down shell I used to be. The one she could mould to please the passing whims of strangers without faces, from recesses of the web where likes and comments are currency.
My throat hurts because I miss the real her. But I haven't seen that person for years. She died that day our first paycheck arrived.
"Enjoy your party," I say, looking at the frogs on the doorstep. They gaze back impassively.
The social worker starts the car. I get in the passenger seat and we roll out of the expansive driveway. I turn to watch my mother grow smaller. "Happy New Year," I whisper to her tiny, distant figure.
“You have a beautiful home, Emer,” she says.
“Had,” I reply.
“Ah. Sorry. Did you guys sort things out?”
“I think so.”
"Maybe you two can start afresh in the new year. I know you've had a tough time recently."
I want to say "You don't know anything." But instead, I smile and say "Maybe."
As we drive away, I close my eyes. I imagine my mother opening the folder.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. My mother taught me how to use a photo to create a narrative, never representing the whole truth. She was always in control of the story. But not anymore.
I wonder if the photos in the black folder will be enough to persuade her to give me what I deserve. I think they will. I may have exaggerated a little, for dramatic effect. What harm? Isn’t that what social media is all about?
In the folder, I gave her a choice. She can continue the lie as a one-woman show and give me half of our earnings. Or I will tell them. I will speak my version of the truth. And I’m confident that the money I need will be in my bank account within the hour.
I smile, opening my eyes to watch the world outside the window blur into obscurity as the car gathers speed. I daydream about seeing my school friends again in the new year. They will wonder how I prised the money from my miserly mother. But I will keep that to myself.
She edited her way out of our old life. I have photoshopped my way to a fresh start. After years of editing and improving photos of my carefully curated life, I am an expert at the craft of deception. I am my mother’s daughter, after all.