Another short story from my 2012 published collection, Postcard from a Pigeon and Other Stories. This was written in response to a topic challenge in a writers’ forum.
Mummy won’t get out of bed.
There’s ice inside the kitchen window. The curtains are closed.
I soaked some crusts of bread and old biscuits in the last of the lumpy milk. It softened them. Kitty cried while she ate it. She said it made her feel sick. She said it smelled like cat pee and old socks. She giggled when she said that. Then she cried harder.
The wind rattling the window frames and whistling through the holes where the putty cracked, scares Kitty.She clutches my hand. A branch from the old tree in the yard scuffing against the glass makes her jump. It makes the same sound as the rats skitting and scurrying in the pipes.’It’s only the wind and the tree,’ I tell her.
Kitty’s my little sister. She whispers to me when she speaks. Her brown eyes look twice their size in her little face. She stares around her when she whispers as though she’s waiting from something to jump from the shadows.
Mummy can’t get out of bed. Occasionally, we hear her coughing like someone’s kicked her stomach. She reaches under the bed to scrabble for the tin can. Then she hacks, splutters. Then there’s silence.
Things were better before she got sick. She brought me to school. It was my first day and she walked me down there, wheeling Kitty in her buggy. She handed me a paper bag with two slices of crustless bread smeared with strawberry jam and peanut butter. She kissed me and ruffled my hair.
‘Be a good boy,’ she said to me ‘and do everything the teacher tells you.’
I watched her and Kitty walk away. I smiled because I could see she was talking to Kitty. I couldn’t hear what she said but I could see her crouch over the top of the buggy and shake her shiny black hair.
I scrabble around in the cupboards for something to light a fire. I rip out old newspapers lining the drawers and bunch them in the grate. There’s a few sticks left of the kindling I’d gathered in the yard and three coals at the bottom of the bag.
Kitty’s clothes are ragged and dirty. I put everything she owns on her; her ribbed black tights with the holes, a pair of dungaree shorts, an old ‘My Little Pony’ teeshirt and two skirts. She watches me from the tatty armchair next the fireplace. Her teeth rattle. She tucks her hands inside her armpits.
We used to walk through the park on our way home after Mummy picked me up from school. Kitty gurgled or girned in her buggy while I played on the swing or mummy bounced me on the seesaw.
She met her friend there, the same time, same place, every day. I pushed Kitty’s buggy down to the edge of the park pond where I skimmed flat stones and Kitty waved and giggled at the ducks. Some days, if mummy’s friend was late or didn’t show, she’d march us home, silent. Then she’d send us to our room while she smoked a cigarette and chewed her nails.
We didn’t mind. Kitty made a fort in her bed to play house with her doll, Moll and Bruno, the one eyed bear while I flicked through a book of pictures and made up stories about other lives and places. We knew there’d be a fight when Daddy got home. The shouting started after the front door closed and we heard the ‘phhssshhhh’ as he opened his first can of beer.
The match lights at the first strike. I’m glad of that. There are only three left in the box. I light the crumpled newspaper, dry as dust, and wait for the kindling to catch. From upstairs we hear the sloshing sound of the tin as it’s dragged from under the bed. This is followed by another hacking fit of coughing. Then it stops.
We wait in silence. I can feel Kitty’s slow breathing close to my face and her big eyes, hollow in her baby face, staring at the flames. The fire flickers there in those sorrowful peepers.
Daddy left five days ago. They had another fight. We sang songs in our room. The crashing was the loudest yet. Mummy was asleep on the living room floor when he came home. He told us to get out, go to our room. There was no fresh food or beer just a stale loaf, half a litre of milk, two tubs of yoghurt, some biscuits and a bag of frozen peas. He gave her money but it was gone. She met her friend in the park that day.
The door slammed shut. He was gone. He never came back.
I didn’t go to school the next day or the day after that. We heard Mummy climb into bed that night. The next morning she didn’t wake up until lunchtime. She shuffled downstairs in her old dressing gown and floppy slippers. Her eyes had sunk in her head. They looked red and angry. She hadn’t combed her hair and it was matted and flattened on one side. She didn’t speak as she slouched to the fridge. Her shoulders slumped.
‘Where’s the fuckin’ yoghurt?’ she snarled. Kitty picked up her bear and stood behind me. I could feel her little hands clasp the leg of my pants.
‘There was nothing else to eat,’ I said.
She looked at me as though she’d just noticed I was there. Then the light went out in her eyes again and she shuffled past Kitty and I. When she got to the bottom of the stairs she half turned and growled, ‘I’m sick. I’m going back to bed. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you two and don’t answer the fuckin’ door.’
She hasn’t come downstairs since. Even when there was a knock on the door in the middle of the night and Kitty, crying, woke me with her little hands shaking me and I felt her wet tears on my face. ‘Who’s at the door?’ she asked me but I didn’t know. So we stayed quiet and waited until nobody answered and the knocking stopped.