She’s got grapes, a bunch of little sour ones like dull pearls, and she’s sucking them in, pop pop pop. You can hear them hitting the roof of her mouth.
She’s marked up two different glasses and a coffee cup with her lipstick so far this morning, and spilled the contents of them down my limited-edition band t-shirt – which is all she’s wearing.
‘See something you like?’ she says.
I squint and shrug, head for the door. She shouts after me.
‘You tell her I’m here! I’m waiting right here and I’m going nowhere until she comes back.’
Thelma has been waiting right here for three days now, lingering like the smell of a fire starting. I can’t figure whether Jo walking in would be the spark or the hose, but it doesn’t matter. Once Jo caught word Thelma was in town, she hightailed it over to the boarding house in Mount Marta and there she’ll stay until Thelma gives up and goes back to wherever she blazed in from this time.
I find Jo in her favourite greasy spoon, nursing a large cup of what looks like dishwater. She’s drooped over the table, massaging her temples with her fingers.
‘Hang back,’ she says. ‘I think I caught the flu off the creeper who’s living in the lobby.’
‘Maybe you should come home where I can look after you?’ I say. ‘Have a word with Thelma? She’s driving me nuts. I can’t get my work done.’
‘Yeah? You not any closer to finishing the Great British Novel, then?’ Casually cruel, that’s my Jo, and trying to change the subject.
‘No, and I never will with Thelma sitting around with her bum out…’
‘Her bum? Hah!’ Jo’s laughter turns into a glommy cough.
‘It’s not funny,’ I say, ‘It’s really uncomfortable. She’s your mum.’
‘Just kick her out.’
When she first showed up, Thelma was dressed in a nice skirt and a clean blouse, her hair and make-up dead perfect. She was sober, so I let her in and now I can’t get her back out. It’s like dealing with a housefly infestation. You flap tea towels and open all the windows, poison yourself spraying that shit out of a can, but they don’t go. First she shouted at me, then she threw plates, and then when I tried to force her out the door she turned out to be a whole lot stronger than me. Afterwards she took the liberty of a shower and one of my favourite t-shirts. That’s how we ended up with the bum situation and me with a long scratch still stinging on my arm.
Jo shrugs. ‘Call the police on her.’
‘She’s your mum.’
She sips her drink, pulls a face. ‘Yeah, all right. Not that. But tell her you spoke to me and I still don’t have the damn jug –’
‘– bottle, whatever. Tell her I don’t know where the hell he put it and I’m not up to dealing with her, so she may as well go and bother someone else.’
Jo goes off to her night shift, still more mulish than ill. I order my own cup of dishwater, pull out my laptop and get typing. The café smells of kippers and my notes get smudgy fast. They stick to the plastic tablecloth and my skin starts to glisten in sympathy with the fetid air. I can’t concentrate, so I head back to our little house.
At home Thelma has put her skirt on, t-shirt tucked in neatly, and is doing the washing up. Her hair’s pinned up and her make-up’s fixed. She turns round when I walk in, welcoming smile at the ready, but when she sees it’s only me, she drops it.
‘You didn’t bring her back?’ She looks so sunk that I feel sorry for her.
‘She won’t come, Thel. You’ve upset her too many times, and she’s at work anyway.’
‘Oh,’ says Thelma. She dries her hands off and smoothes down her skirt. ‘I just thought, you know, it’s the third day. Three’s a good number.’
‘You know you’re both stubborn well beyond three days,’ I say. Thelma’s picked up a bottle of whisky I didn’t know we had and is doing some liberal pouring into a freshly washed glass. ‘You sure you want to do that?’
She puts the bottle down and picks up the glass. Sniffs it and wets her lips.
‘That girl’s driving me to drink.’
‘Not true,’ I say. I walk over and take the glass off her. Give her a little pat on the shoulder and switch the kettle on.
‘Fine. Her daddy drove me to drink, and she’s sending me that way again.’
‘Just go home, Thel,’ I say.
‘I’m trying!’ she roars, and slams her hand down on the sideboard. ‘I’ve been trying for years, and I held on ‘til Jo grew up. I stuck around. And then that fucker died without telling me where he put it!’
And we’re off. This speech is a tradition. For three years, since Jo’s dad dropped and had a heart attack while he was mowing the lawn, Thelma’s shown up with the same words to the same end. She’d been obsessed with finding the bottle when he was alive, but it got worse after he died. Jo’s digested version is, ‘She’s looked for that bottle at the bottom of a lot of bottles’.
After the first visit, following which Thelma eventually sent a bunch of sorry-looking flowers and a cheque to cover damages, Jo told me a bit about it. We were nailing boards over the smashed windows and she’d run out of ways to apologise.
‘It was a game when I was a kid,’ she said. ‘Daddy would go out and we’d play hunt the bottle. I’d bring her all the bottles in the house, but none of them were the right one.’
‘I would’ve thought any old bottle will do,’ I said.
She stopped work, pointed at me. ‘You hold your tongue. That’s my mother you’re talking about.’ Then she went back to the job at hand, talking a song over the rhythm of the hammering.
‘When I was little and we were done looking’
‘she’d hold me and say that I was too young anyhow.’
‘It’d be too soon, she said, but never what for.’
‘As I got older I didn’t want to play anymore.’
‘But she’d make me search the damn house for the bottle anyway.’
‘That was my Saturdays.’
‘Me ransacking the place’
‘for a bottle that wasn’t the one in her hand.’
‘Getting hard with me.’
‘Telling me I had to find it.’
‘But I never’
We had to put another bit of board over the piece she smashed through. She’s not really talked about it since.
I’ve settled Thelma back on the couch, cup of tea in one hand, cigarette in the other. She holds it loosely, luxuriously, which is worrying when it’s your work she’s waving it over. She tilts her lips up at me.
‘You feeling a bit better?’ I say.
‘As good as I can,’ she says, ‘seeing as how I’m stuck here and no one cares.’
I glance involuntarily at the door. The cut on my arm throbs with outrage. ‘Jo cares,’ I say.
‘Maybe, but she does it from a distance.’ Thelma sips the tea, washes it down with a chaser of smoke. ‘It’s my own fault, she gets it from me. You watch, sonny Jim, she’ll up and leave you one of these days.’
‘It’s in her blood,’ says Thelma. ‘You want to keep her, you’ll have to trap her. That’s how her daddy got me.’
‘Well, times have changed.’ I pick up the paper, shake it out to waft the cigarette smell away from my face.
Thelma grips her cup tight. ‘Guess you think you’ve got it made – rich girl like Jo looking after you while you follow your dreams.’
‘That’s not true and you know it,’ I say, even though I shouldn’t say anything. Better just to let her talk herself down and when she’s done, she’ll go.
I didn’t know Jo’s family had money the whole first year I knew her, and Jo’s dad was a long way off handsome or charming, while Thelma was a stunner and still is, so she’s not one to talk.
‘I didn’t want him,’ she says, reading my thoughts. ‘Look at me – you think I would have settled for that? He was a clever bastard and he trapped me, and here I still am. I know men, I know what they are and what they do…’ Her speech is getting slurred – she’s still drinking her tea and I realise too late that she added to the cup. ‘Three wishes, I told him, and you all think you’re so smart, you think you know all the stories – but he tried. I wish for you, he said, and I laughed in his face. “Still one to go. That’s not on the cards, buster,” I said. So he took my bottle, stopped it up and hid it away. I made him rich and it wasn’t enough.’
She lolls back on the sofa, looks at me, eyes half-closed, closing. ‘Others might have taken it out on her, you know, but I never did. I love my little girl.’
The front door slams, and Jo walks in. She’s greyer than an hour ago and her nose is running. She stands framed in the doorway, hands on hips, looking down at her mother snoring on the couch. They could be sisters. She turns her scowl on me.
‘They sent me home. Too sick to work. I feel too crap to face that hole of a motel.’
‘Well, your timing’s good. She’s passed out.’
‘Usual conversation, then?’
‘You’ve one wish left… he took my bottle…’ Her impression is cruel in its accuracy, except Jo adds a bite that Thelma’s lost. ‘Her with her wishes and her kisses and her traps. Like we held her back from stardom. Like he kept her soul in a jar. She makes me fucking ashamed. I’ve had enough. I’m going to bed before she wakes up.’ She shakes her head with something like pity, starts to walk away.
I hold my hands out. ‘Hey now, not even a peck on the cheek for the poor sod stuck with the two of you?’ Thelma’s got to me.
‘When I’m running a river of snot?’ But she comes over all the same and gives me an awkward half hug. ‘Thanks for dealing with her.’ Her hair falls in my face, and through the cough medicine and Olbas oil, I can smell her – heavy spicy cinnamon saffron. I close my eyes, breathe her in. No, she’d never leave me.
She pulls away, heads for the stairs.
‘I love you, Jo,’ I say, and hold my breath. She shrugs.
‘Ah, yeah, all that,’ she says, and vanishes to her room, the hidey hole that she’s done up nice with cushions and candles just for her.
Thelma shifts on the sofa. Her empty cup hits the floorboards and she sits up. Pulls her skirt down where it’s ridden up. Pats her hair. None of that angry pouting now; she can’t look me in the eye. I wonder just how passed out she was.
‘Three years,’ she says. ‘That’s my three wishes. Not a one answered. There’s a lesson in there.’ She stops fidgeting, sits very still for a while, staring at nothing. Upstairs, the thud and creak of Jo going to bed.
‘You going to be okay?’ I ask, because Jo’s family is mine and I’ve a duty. Thelma slowly pulls herself together.
‘Not for you to worry,’ she says. ‘Back to it, then. Car-boots and village halls and auctions. I’m sick of the smell of second-hand crap.’ She stands up, gathers her bag and bits. Tugs at my ruined t-shirt. ‘Suppose you want this back.’
‘You take it,’ I say, though it’s vintage and I’ll never find another.
‘Second-hand crap,’ she says again. But she keeps it on and shuts the door quietly on her way out, so as not to wake Jo, I suppose.
About the Contributor
Françoise Harvey writes short stories and poems. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Bare Fiction, Synaesthesia Magazine, Litro, Agenda, Envoi, The Gingerbread House and anthologies Furies and The Casual Electrocution of Strangers. She is one of the founders of Literary Salmon (literarysalmon.wordpress.com) and works at Mslexia magazine.
Thunderwith - Libby Hathorn
I was sent a copy of Thunderwith when I was nine (my dad is Aussie and so we were sent a lot of lit by our family there). My immediate memories of it are that it is the first book that I cried over, and reread again and again, so I could cry again. The heart of the tale is Lara Ritchie, age 11/12, whose mother has died and who has moved to live with her father (who is a stranger) and his young family on a farm in the bush. Loss (of people, of animals, of innocence), acceptance, fear of rejection are threaded through it, not just from Lara's POV, but also from her dad's family, who are threatened by Lara's arrival. All of them are dwarfed by the enormity of the landscape where they live. As an adult, rereading it, there's also loss of the Australian bush and loss/corruption of Aboriginal culture seeded through it. And the comfort comes from words: poetry, a library, storytelling, and a dog that sits in the middle of all these things and turns out not to be as magical as hoped. One of those books which, as a kid particularly, is a hand-holder and a comfort before you've ever even had to experience the emotions in it in real life, and still works, for me, as an adult reader.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To by Linda Mannheim
- The Cyclops by Karen Foster
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Endurance by Gerard McKeown
- Pack Animals by Anita Goveas