Mental Health Stories #1

Raindrops on the Window

The rain comes down in gusts and sheets, raging against the steel-framed windows like an omen. The house creaks and groans in its suburban nest, while I watch the wood lice scuttle.
I’m locked in the shed around the back, but I can still hear my mother flinging the young seedlings I’ve been growing into the bin.
“You’re bone bloody idle, that’s your problem. Wasting your time with this rubbish!”
Yes, I’m idle (I don’t do enough gardening), my underpants are disgusting, and I’m disloyal. The man who collects our monthly insurance premium agrees. He will be given the full, unexpurgated account again – his fixed professional grin slowly cracking around the edges as he sidles towards the bolted door.
“He’s a little bastard, like his dad” she’ll explain.
But I’m looking forward to having a father at last and sometimes I sit on the staircase late at night listening closely to the murmured conversations, and lengthy mysterious silences……
“They’re all after one thing…… I don’t trust any of them…..never again!”
Oh, that’s a shame. The shining knight isn’t going to appear after all. I’d better content myself with looking at old car magazines, and working out how long it will take me to save up for an ‘E’ type Jag if I get a part-time job after school. I sense that my irrational cravings are beginning to reach out of the house like the hand of a drowning man. I reread ‘The War of the Worlds’, regularly massage my groin and sneak peaks at the Test Cricket while my mother goes to the shops. I play the sea front slot machines, oil my bike, wait for the rare call of a friend.
A count the coils of crusty dog poo down the street. Some are new, some are old. Nothing changes. The summer holidays are here. Ali and Kennedy are making history. The gardens are full of marigolds and butterflies, tended by old people who never seem to get older. The tar on the road begins to melt.

My mother has taken to her bed, complaining of vague ‘female’ problems and a lifetime of drudgery.
“You’ve worn me out” she whispers.
“But, how?”
“Don’t be cheeky.”
I urged her to visit the doctor, but she sent me instead to the chemist for a strange parcel which was handed over with exchanged looks, and no comment.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It’s rude, don’t ask” she replies.
Now, every evening I walk home from school wondering if she’s got up during the day, and whether the windows will be dark as I turn the corner with a queasy feeling rising in my gut. But more and more she remains in bed and the breakfast pots stare at me through the half-light, as I draw the curtains and walk upstairs past the picture of the weeping urchin, and into the shadows of my mother’s bedroom. A sickly sweet smell meets me and, like travelling on a macabre roulette wheel, I wait to see if rage, silence or tears will greet my inadequate hello. Then it’s down to the kitchen to select some tins for our tea, put on the telly and hope that ‘Blue Peter’ will be on. Although I’m too old to watch it really, I still like its cheerful faces, cardboard castles and licking pups. There’s comfort in the familiar. Safety in the bubble.
But the dog with the wagging tail doesn’t drive away the probing blackness that far and after tea I squat in front of our smoking fire, looking through the 40-watt smog at the tatty remnants of our 1950’s heyday; the building blocks of my mind being slowly rearranged.
The sky is full of rain. My dinky toys are packed away for the last time. I’ll always remember the huge pine toy box; a legacy of divorce and travels. Now filled with plastic models, pop guns and the shifting memories of a hazy past.

One neighbour has been duped into shifting a single bed downstairs so that my mother can sleep permanently in the living room. I just drift along hoping for the best, terrified of the worst. Still a silly child.
“How’s your mother today?”
“Oh, a bit better I think.”
“Good, good. If you need anything just pop ‘round.”

My mother has moved from white-faced secrecy to appalling openness as she begins describing her problems in the starkest detail. She’s “haemorrhaging badly”, “bleeding both ways”, and she’s having to use a bucket as a toilet downstairs. She’s scared of what the doctor might tell her and she’s getting through a pack of large external sanitary towels every day. My head spins and I turn away.
“My mother went the same way” she weeps.

The meal is cold, the sobs are only half suppressed and the TV is turned off. James Bond and The Man from UNCLE aren’t so important this year. It’s Christmas Day and she gathers me into her arms to say:
“I think I’ve got cancer.”
I am dead, my mind is blank, my emotions silently scream. A man with a paper party hat walks past the window. He carries a bottle of wine and laughs. The mad dog next door barks and barks.
A neighbour sends for our old doctor and tests soon reveal that my mother has……. a non-cancerous growth in her womb. We’ve been sharing the agonies of the last year for no good reason, and a hysterectomy will set things right. I don’t realise that the problems are in many ways just beginning and that in this world ‘right’ can still be wrong. I breathe a sigh of relief, but the air is poisonous.

The time my mother spends in hospital is like a morbid religious holiday, as I hang warily between feelings of loneliness, and newly discovered independence. When she returns she’s strangely obsessed with the whole experience of illness and doesn’t really expect a full physical recovery, or the resumption of a normal life. She’s pessimistic about her future and seems to take little interest in anything but her ordeal. Gradually she develops brittle bones, a weak stomach, high blood pressure and nervous complaints. She is fiercely proud of the growing tally.
“I’ll soon be dead” she says in the mornings.
“I’m finished” at bedtime.

“Get out! Out! Go and stay with your bloody friends if they’ll have you!”
I’ve left school, got a job, bought a motorbike and moved away, but I visit at the weekends, strangely pinned by the past.
My mother spends most of her time sat in the fireside chair, with eyes closed and arms crossed. She avoids doing any household chores and the house is untidy, cluttered and dirty. There are maggots in a bar of chocolate. Any challenge is greeted with massive temper loss, embarrassing scenes, threats and tears. She’s finally trained the professionals to leave her well alone. Social Security payments have become sickness benefit. Librium has replaced talk.
“I’ve given up” she says. “I’m jiggered.”
The rain still beats against the windows. Many of them are cracked now and their frames are rusty. The hedges have grown and darken the rooms. Fashion has passed the house by. The big wardrobe is full of deserted evening dresses and fur coats. Moths feed. Spiders lurk.

My mother has her feet up on the chipped, 1930’s tiled mantle piece, surrounded by unopened mail order catalogue parcels and mountains of magazines, picking the dead skin off her shins. She seems to love the miserable silence and razor tension. Sometimes a thin smile flickers around her lips at my discomfort. She is now a martyr.
“I haven’t the strength to go on” she said one day. “I’m……..”
“Finished” I unwisely interjected.
“Smack!” came the response, as she leapt across the room like a kangaroo and landed a smart right-handed slap to my temple.

I do something to offend my mother, and she charges after me like a rhino through to the kitchen, her eyes wild with fury, screaming abuse, raining slaps around my defensive arms, mad as Hell. My first impulse is to escape into the garden and just hang around outside until she’d cooled down, but for some reason the door’s locked. As I wrestle with the handle and fiddle with the key, I feel further blows stinging the back of my head and neck. Multiplying and getting harder. Much harder.
“You’re bloody useless! Useless! Useless!”
Like a cornered animal, I turn around and fight, pushing her hard against the old washing machine. I hear her gasp as I make for cover upstairs, and as I pass her astonished face, I instinctively know that something has changed. The sitting duck is no longer sitting, and temper has found its place, like all things. The physical attacks have finished.
I’ve grown up.
But the boy is the father of the man.


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