I woke up aching, with a sore throat. My back hurt. That doesn’t normally happen. I was having a dream. Brad Pitt came to start at the factory. I had to show him around. We ended up in bed. But people kept breaking into the room to talk to him. They wouldn’t behave normally. Brad and I sat in bed discussing it, how people couldn’t just be normal, couldn’t be human. I got up thinking, Who’d have thought Brad would be so sensible? And, it’s a pity it wasn’t Johnny. And, my back hurts. My legs hurt. My shoulders hurt. I went to bed at eleven, lights out at midnight. Friday: you know you can do what you want, assuming you can remember what that is.
I made coffee, and sat on the sofa. Then lay down. My head was full of the people I knew, little aches, like insects buzzing. Katie, Helen, Sandra, who’s Jason’s friend Steve’s mum, my older brother, haven’t seen him for years, Dad. I didn’t want to see any of them, but feeling them there made me more lonely. It was amazing how tired I was. I lay on my front and closed my eyes. I tried to ask myself what could be wrong. What should I do today? What’s wrong? Go into town. Look at some shops. Have a coffee. Behave like a person. I couldn’t even imagine the noise and press in the city on a Saturday coming up to summer. I didn’t feel sick in an obvious way.
Should I have a cigarette? I asked the quiet part of me, right inside. Should I have a cigarette? It said it really didn’t matter, and that put me off more than the voice in my head saying, stop smoking, which always made me want to.
“Mum,” Jason said. He came in talking loudly. “I can’t find my shirt. My strip. I can’t find it.”
He wasn’t upset yet. He was just raising the issue.
I said still face down, “Have you looked in the laundry basket the airing cupboard under your bed your chest of drawers your kit bag?”
“I’ve looked everywhere,” he said. He went to look in the places I’d said or some of them. The conversation would be continued. He came back in. “Are you ill?” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Maybe I’m coming down with something,” I said. “What does it feel like?” My back was heavy. It feels, I wanted to say, like thirty-five years came into my body and forgot to leave. There’s too much time in here. I’m done for.
“Aching muscles,” I said. He snorted and went out. A bit later I heard him shout, “It’s not in the laundry bin or the airing cupboard!”
I needed to go to the shops and buy food. Buy food, I thought. That was one thing. And get up and move a bit. Move. That was another.
Should I call someone, I asked myself. Arrange to meet for a coffee? Too late notice. Weekend. Are you depressed? I feel uneasy with things. You’re not getting younger. You look relatively all right now. You’re relatively young. Shouldn’t things be happening? Isn’t this when things should happen? Is there something you forgot to do to make them start?
But the quiet part of me said there was no point forcing anything. It wouldn’t work. Then what should I do? Shouldn’t I do something? Is this all you want from me? I nagged. But it didn’t want me to do anything. Why is everything so fucking simple? I asked, then wanted to laugh.
Jason came back in. “Kick-off’s in an hour!” he said. “Did you look in your bag?” I said. He went away. “Got it!” I heard. “ By the way there’s no food,” he said when he came back in, wearing his tracksuit, bag slung over his shoulder. “I had cereal. I’m just telling you. I can go to the shop on my way back but it’ll be later. Text me if you want me to. Bye Mum.”
“Bye,” I said, and I went back to trying to understand something about the day, and what it wanted.
The hardest times passed like fire. I don’t remember much till Jason was two. Till he was at school. I used to think of this documentary they showed when we were in school. It was a woman talking about World War Two. Her hair was set in white curls like Nan’s, her face a map of wrinkles. You saw a photograph of her before, a young woman, round-cheeked, wearing lipstick, and wondered how she’d let herself get old.
The door again, he was back. I heard coughing, panting, kicking off his trainers and chucking his keys on the counter. The old lady said something, her eyes sparkling. About the war. “Ooh it was a difficult time but a wonderful time. There were love affairs. You never knew what was going to happen so you didn’t think about tomorrow. You just lived.” Her face shone.
That was how it was when Jason was a baby or I first started work or looked after him when he was ill. There wasn’t that terrible sadness I used to feel when I was a girl standing on the common knee-deep in grass on a cloudy summer day looking at a line of trees waiting just waiting for something to happen.
In the other room he was breathing, lighting up, putting on the kettle. His phone beeped. Sometimes I think if I had long enough to sit and think I’d understand what to do, how to get out of the grass and move ahead.
We still hadn’t talked about it properly, college, and next year – what he was going to do.
“All right,” he said, when I went into the kitchen. He didn’t look up from putting peanut butter on his toast. The knife went down on the counter. I imagined picking it up later, wiping the counter, washing the knife. Getting the kitchen clean, which it wouldn’t stay.
“Jason, have you had a chance to think about college?” I said. I picked up the knife and laid it across the open jar.
He breathed out harder and put down the plate. “I’m just having some food,” he said.
“I know you are,” I said. He leaned back against the counter and stared at the wall.
“I don’t want you to miss out,” I said. No chance of that, he said. “ I’m not having a go,” I said. Sound of him chomping, crumbs everywhere. He finished the toast and put in another slice.
“I might not want to go to college,” he said. “I might get a job.”
“Oh Jason,” I said. “If you don’t go to college you’re just stupid.”
He yanked up the toaster lever and the bread popped. He walked out. That didn’t come out right. I stood there buzzing with things I wanted to explain, waiting for him to return. Music came out of the closed door of his room, something thumping. After a bit I washed the knife, wiped up the crumbs and the peanut butter, disliked myself for doing it.
Excerpted with permission from The Living, Anjali Joseph, Fourth Estate.
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