I live with Dad now, not Mum, but he won’t tell me why.
The trouble with Dad’s place is the space. Think Grand Designs - it’s a house, not a home. Minimalism is king, and its emptiness echoes like an art gallery, its concrete floors cold and unyielding. I swear Dad wouldn’t mind if the bathroom was open plan. The reflection in the vast expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows lures unsuspecting birds to their deaths mid-flight. I pick up the broken-necked victims, dig holes at the base of the trees which surround the house, and bury them with dignity, making crosses from the twigs they would have used to build their nests.
Looking for anything in this house is like a game of hide and seek. I thought it was cool at first, but now it’s just creepy. In the kitchen area, instead of turning or pulling a handle, you tap a panel. Dad hardly uses the kitchen, and The Bitch certainly doesn’t - her exquisitely manicured talons are proof of that. All our meals are microwaveable or takeaway, or else we eat out. I get a buzz out of branding the mirror-polished cherrywood with greasy, sticky fingerprints, just for the fun of seeing The Bitch having to clean them off. It gives her something to do instead of preening herself all day. She needs reminding that she and Dad aren’t the only people in the house now.
For the most part, they leave me to play video games in my bedroom. I get bored, but there’s not much else to do. The Bitch got me a rug and some posters – ‘to make you feel more at home’. But the rug is the skin of a dead cow - gross. And the posters are old ones of hers - some ancient pop group she likes called Abba. I’ve never heard of them.
I suppose she means well. It’s just that she’s the reason Mum and Dad split up, and I hate her for that - always will. When she first appeared, I used one of my old dolls as a voodoo doll, wrote her name on it and stabbed it with pins. It didn’t work, but it felt good. Now I just steal her makeup instead – a lipstick here, a face mask there. If she notices, she doesn’t say anything. I’ve thought about running away but I expect she wouldn’t mind – be relieved, even – and anyway, why should I leave rather than her?
Mum’s in hospital, I know that much. Dad says it’s a special type of hospital. I invent stories to explain to classmates why she doesn’t pick me up from school. It stops them calling out ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, where did your mother go?’ Currently, she’s a secret agent for MI5, travelling all over the world at a moment’s notice. The school bullies give me a wider berth than normal, as if by association I might whip out some high-tech gadgetry and assassinate them.
I miss my mum. I close my eyes and summon the touch of her gentle hands; her smell, Yardley Lavender; and her voice, soft and warm as a kitten.
It’s not fair. Why am I not allowed to see her? I used to have visitors every time I went to hospital. And Mrs Gillam from across the road visits her son Tommy every day. He’s in a coma and on life support. I don’t know why she bothers.
‘Always wear your cycle helmet when you go out on your bike,’ Dad says. Tommy didn’t, he pulled out of a side road too quickly and a truck hit him. He’s a
vegetable now. Mum said that vegetables can feel pain. Not all pain is visible.
‘When will Mum come out of hospital?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Can I go back home when she’s better?’
‘You’ll have to ask your Dad, munchkin,’ The Bitch says.
‘Your mum isn’t able to look after you just now, munchkin,’ The Bitch says.
‘I’m not your munchkin! I don’t want you here’ I stab the words at her as I dash upstairs.
I turn the cold tap full on and splash my face to dilute a tsunami of tears. Then, like the guppies in Dad’s giant fish tank, I pucker my lips, lean over the tap and swallow huge gulps of water, trying to swill down my sadness. I’m not even thirsty - it’s a habit I developed when I lived with Mum. Cooking was not her forte. Her food was always so salty.
This week The Bitch got a cat. A large, white, fluffy one, to match the rug in the living area. And her personality. Another lethal enemy for the birds.
Everything in this house reminds me of death – the death of my parents’ marriage, the killer windows, and now a bird-eating feline. With a predictable lack of imagination, she calls it Fluffy. I call it Cat. It performs figures of eight around my legs in the way cats do, purring, tail raised in arrogant anticipation.
I brush off the fine white fur that Cat has shed and now clings to my jeans. The Bitch won’t like picking up furballs and cleaning litter trays. Nor will the architectural aesthetic of a litter tray appeal to my father.
I gaze through the windows at a skitter of sparrows, their beaks probing the cracks between the flagstones to extract the dried mealworms I had thrown onto the terrace that morning. It was like watching a game of Russian Roulette, and I clenched my hands instinctively inside my pockets. The garden has become a death trap.
Dad’s home in a couple of days. Perhaps we could go somewhere nice. Just the
two of us.
The last time I was admitted to hospital, I nearly died.
When I regained consciousness, Mum and Dad were sitting next to my bed. On the same side. Since the divorce, the only time I saw them together was when I was in hospital. They didn’t argue, and we played board games and video games and did jigsaws and Dad helped me with the homework that the school sent and I felt so bubbly and light inside watching Mum laugh again and I wanted it to be like that forever.
When a policeman came to see me, she took off her helmet and looked very serious, just like they do in crime programmes on the telly. It made me feel nervous, but she said I had nothing to worry about, I’d done nothing wrong. Even so, I picked at my cuticles until they were red raw and bleeding as she asked me lots of strange questions about being ill, taking notes while a nurse looked on. The policeman and the nurse exchanged tentative looks from time to time. Maybe they fancied each other. Neither of them was wearing a wedding ring. Neither did Dad after the divorce, though Mum still wore hers.
When I got better, Dad collected me from the hospital, and I’ve been living with him ever since. Why? There’s a piece of a jigsaw puzzle missing. It gives me a peculiar, hollowed-out feeling in my chest, and my worries begin to grow, like a snowball rolling downhill.
I just know there’s something wrong.
A minor triumph. My watery eyes and sneezing fits aren’t the beginnings of a cold. Turns out I’m allergic to cats. Fluffy aka Cat must go - although I’d rather The Bitch went. She’s all Botox and no brain. And I’ve started my period. A persistent, dull cramp low down in my stomach is tightening around me like a vice. Why isn’t Mum here when I need her?
Dad says I’m still drinking too much water. He makes an appointment with someone in the clinic to ‘talk it through’. But I thought water was good for you?
Dr Fox has reddish-brown hair, just like his namesake, and his wispy beard makes him look older than he probably is. He has my medical notes in front of him. They’re quite chunky, I’ve been in hospital so many times. He asks me to tell him what life was like when I lived with Mum.
I told him. How we spent time shopping together, walking the dog, watching TV, going to the library and the park and the beach. How she would help me with my homework. ‘She was a terrible cook, though - everything she made was far too salty,’ I finished, adding hastily that she is a wonderful mum and that I wanted to go back to live with her, in case he gets the wrong idea. I tell him how upset Mum’s been since Dad left; how happy she is when he visits me in hospital, and that she would do anything, anything at all, to get him back.
‘And what about you? How does that make you feel?’
I cannot answer. Any words have been sucked out of me, turning my mind into a vacuum.
Because with the telling of the tale has come the stark realisation of what Mum may have been doing. In the name of love.
That evening, my father holds me tightly while I sob out my sadness. When I raise my head, I see my reflection in the mirror. My eyes are slits; pink-rimmed and puffy, my nose and lips red and swollen, my hair starched with dried-on tears. I go to the bathroom and splash my face with cold tap water.
But this time I do not drink.
I learned three things that day.
First, to forgive my mother; she has an illness of mind born out of heartbreak that only time will heal.
Second, to forgive my father, for keeping the truth from me. Broadmoor is no place for a child to visit, he says. He was trying to protect me.
And if The Bitch is to remain a part of his life, maybe it is time I try to forgive her, too.