by Karen J Mossman
Walking up to the front door, I was about to press the buzzer when the warden appeared. “Your mum’s not herself today, Jennifer.”
“What’s happened?” I asked following her down the corridor to mum’s flat.
“She’s telling everyone John’s coming.”
I pursed my lips, “John’s, my dad. He won’t be coming.”
“That’s what I thought.” She said, pushing open Mum’s door. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
Mum’s flat was small, a bedroom and bathroom led off the lounge which also incorporated the kitchen. I still felt guilty living in our family home while she lived here.
Mum, wearing a pink sweater with a stain on the front and black slacks was holding a photo of Jessica and me.
“Ah, there you are,” she said, as Jessica came in behind me and sat on the arm of the sofa.
She was stroking the photo with her thumb. “My girls.” She murmured and looked up at me. “Your dad will be here soon.”
I glanced at Jessica who was watching Mum closely. “Mum, dad won’t be coming.” I told her. “Why don’t I make us a cup of tea, instead?”
“Yes,” she said putting down the photograph. “That will be nice. Get an extra cup out, just in case he comes.”
I said nothing as I moved around the kitchen filling the kettle and putting tea bags in the pot.
We sat around the table like we used to, and Mum poured the tea.
“Do you see Dad at all?” she asked.
“I don’t know what you mean.” I stirred my tea. Jessica looked at me and back to Mum.
“Your dad and I said you’d grow out of it, but you haven’t, have you?” I sighed and looked at Jessica.
When I was a child, I talked to people they couldn’t see. Jessica, who didn’t laugh often, thought it was funny until she realised I was serious. She and I were like two halves, she the introvert and me extrovert.
“Who are they and what do you say to them?” She once asked while we were doing puzzles in the front room.
“They’re people who’ve lived and died in this house.” I said, not looking up.
“Aren’t you afraid of them?” Her blue eyes and blonde hair were the mirror image of me.
“No, and you shouldn’t be either.”
“What do they look like?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. “I can’t always tell. I don’t really see them individually.”
She screwed up her eyes in that funny way she has. “What do you mean? I thought you could see them?”
It was hard to describe. “I can, but I see shadows, I suppose; wisps of people doing what they’ve always done when they lived here. I don’t even know if they’re aware of each other.”
Jessica and I had been born in the house on Webster Street and had lived there all our lives. The shadows had been there for longer than we had.
“Wow!” Jessica seemed transfixed as she looked around the room trying to see what I saw. “Cool, you better not tell Mum and Dad, though. They’ll think you’re silly.”
I never did, which was why Mum’s question lingered in the air. Jessica looked glum.
“You haven’t grown out of it, have you, Jennifer?” Mum repeated.
I couldn’t discuss it with her and especially not now. “Mum…”
“We knew you were different but didn’t know what to do about it.” She was having one of her lucid moments and it made my heart ache. “You were the only one who didn’t cry at your dad’s funeral.”
Without thinking, I said. “That’s because he was standing next to you.” Jessica put her head in her hands and groaned.
“You can’t do this!” Mum shrilled, getting to her feet and knocking over the dining chair. “I’ll get Jessica to stay with me. She was always the nicer one, now get out!”
There was no reasoning with her when she went off on one like this. It would end up with us all being upset if I tried. So, I left and went down to find Megan, who was sitting in her office chatting to a Home Help. I tapped on the door to get their attention and they turned to look at me.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I can’t reason with her and it’s best just to walk away. Will you keep an eye on her? She should calm down now I’ve gone.”
The Home Help looked sympathetic and Megan said, “Of course. I’ll pop down there in a minute to see if she’s okay.”
I nodded, “Thanks. Give me a ring if there are any problems.”
“She’ll be fine, I’m sure.” Megan said with a smile.
It wasn’t far to walk home, that’s why I liked the accommodation Mum was in, convenient to get to day or night. I put my head down and with hands in my pocket tried not to think of the how it always hurt when she did that. I wanted my mum back, and that would never happen now. Even her lucid moments were getting less.
I didn’t notice the car till the horn blared and Tom, my boyfriend got out. I say boyfriend and although I liked him, it was hard being in a relationship when Mum was this difficult. Tom was a good man who didn’t push me and was always supportive.
Three years ago, I dialled 999 when Dad fell off a ladder hitting his head on the paving stones. He died instantly, and Tom was one of the first police officers on the scene.
Mum, who already lived her life in profound shock, went downhill from there.
Tom got out of the passenger door. “Jen?”
“Oh hello, I was miles away. I’ve just been to see Mum. She’s had another turn.”
He walked with me and the car crawled alongside us driven by his colleague. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know it’s upsetting. She can’t help it now. I think it’s time to make that phone call, don’t you?”
I knew in my heart of hearts I needed to ring Social Services and have them assess her again. But even though her lucid moments were getting less, they always made me hesitate. “I know you’re right.” I said giving him a half-hearted smile. “It’s just so…” I trailed off.
“Difficult,” he finished for me.
“Yes. I know I have to face it sooner rather than later.” We stopped at my garden gate. “I just feel so guilty all the time.”
Tom put his hand on my arm and said, “I know you do and you really shouldn’t. It’s not your fault, Jen. You did the right thing for her and you must do it again. Make that phone call.”
Tom was so always so wise. “I know.”
Tom turned to his partner in the car. “Des, I’m going to walk Jen inside.”
“I’m fine, honestly.” I told them looking at Des as well. I didn’t want to get them in trouble.
“He had a curry last night, so yeah, it’ll give me a break.” Des quipped.
“Ignore him,” Tom said, and I smiled.
There was always banter between those two and they often made me laugh even when I didn’t want to. We walked up the path to the from door.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” I relented, as he seemed intent on coming in.
“Never say no to a cuppa. You know me.”
I put the key in the lock. “Well, your daft mate better come as well.”
Des didn’t need telling twice, and I knew they would take it as an opportunity to skive. Tom went straight up to use the toilet and Des lingered in the hall talking on his phone.
I went through to the kitchen, put my coat over the chair, and filled the kettle trying not to think about what Mum had said when Jessica appeared.
“Don’t say anything, favourite child,” I told her, forcing a smile. It wasn’t Jess’s fault, poor love.
As Des came into the kitchen and Tom down the stairs, Jessica retreated.
“So, what happened this time?” asked Tom, leaning against the table.
“Just the usual really. You know what she’s like.”
Des looked out into the back garden, “My nan was like that, normal one minute, unreasonable the next. We never knew what mood she would be in.”
“It’s more than that, Des,” said Tom as I put the bags in the teapot and filled it with hot water.
“Oh, I know, I was just saying. I sympathise with you, Jen. I know what it’s like.”
“Let’s go out tonight?” Tom suggested.
“Oh! I’d love to, thanks for asking,” said Des and I laughed. Tom picked up a tea towel and threw it at him before turning back to me.
“Ignore him. We could try that new Italian place on the high street.”
“Yes, that’s the one. It would be good to get your mind on something else for a change, what do you say?”
I nodded. “Yes, okay.”
“I take it I’m not invited, then?” said Des.
“No!” Tom and I said at the same time and grinned.
“Seriously though.” said Des. “I went the other week, and it was nice. The food’s really good.”
I handed them the tea, and we all stood in the kitchen drinking when their radio burst into life. They had a shout and quickly left. I emptied their tea down the sink just as Jessica came back into the room.
“I know,” I said, as she always knew what I was thinking. “I shouldn’t commit to a relationship when he doesn’t know about this?” I swept my hands around the ghostly images. “And there’s Mum, she needs me even if she doesn’t always know it.”
Jessica remained impassive as I turned away and washed the cups.
A couple of days later Mum walked in through the back door.
“What are you doing here?” I gasped, abandoning the meat I was frying.
“I want to see Jessica and I want to see John!” she demanded.
She went into the front room where Jessica was sitting. “So! You’re keeping secrets from me, are you?”
“And where’s John, where’s your dad?”
“I can’t just bring him back like that. You shouldn’t be here. How did you get out?”
“I walked, how do you think? Anyway, I heard you telling Jessica that you could summon anybody, and I want to see John.”
“I know you do, but I was a child then. It’s not like that now. They need to be left alone.”
She was poking around the room, peering behind the sofa and curtains. “They? Who are they? Where are they?”
“Nobody’s here, Mum.” I said, trying to be patient, but she wouldn’t listen.
“Yes, they are. They’re always here.” She carried on looking determined to find something. “You said that. I heard you say it.”
I looked at Jessica, and she wore that haunted guilty look.
Running out of the room she said. “I’ll find them. I will, I’ll find them.” As she went upstairs, I was just about to follow her when I smelled burning. The meat!
The frying pan had caught fire and ignited the curtains. Panicking, I threw a tea towel over it, but it caught fire too. Thick smoke billowed and engulfed the kitchen forcing me out into the hallway.
It happened so fast and Mum was upstairs! I covered my mouth and nose with my arm and tried not to cough.
“Mum! Mum!” I screamed expecting her to appear.
I was just about to go after her when I was grabbed around the waist. I’d hardly registered someone kicking down the door as they pulled me outside.
“My mum! My mum!” I screamed, but they didn’t listen as the flames headed for the stairs.
Within minutes a fire engine had arrived, and everything became chaotic and surreal. Water hoses spurted at the windows and fireman with breathing apparatus went inside. They put ladders against the upstairs window and I watched with horror as they headed up.
People gathered round to watch and as I sobbed, I could see faint shadows in the windows. Thick smoke poured out of them, and flames licked the gutters through the broken glass.
They brought Mum out, and it was too late. Once I had been checked over for smoke inhalation, Tom took me back to his house as I had nowhere else to go.
The following day I insisted on going back to see the embers of Webster Street. My family home was burnt to the ground.
His arm was around me as I stood and sobbed. “I don’t understand why you need to see this. You’re only torturing yourself.”
One day I would tell him although I’m not sure he’d understand. I took a final look at Mum, who for the first time looked happy. Dad, his arm around her protectively had the twinkle back in his eyes. Finally, standing next to them was Jessica, my depressive, suicidal sister.
This is just one of the stories in The Magic of Stories book. It is available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Or to buy from all good book stores.