My mother has decided to quit. Not her job at the bank, she did that ages ago. She’s decided to quit being a mother. She said she’d had enough, more than enough. In actual fact, she used what my dad calls good, old fashioned Anglo-Saxon words that they’re allowed to use and we’re not, and said we could bring ourselves up from now on, she wanted no more part in it.
She said what she did all day was the laundry, the cooking, the shopping, the cleaning, the making the beds, the clearing the table, the packing and unpacking the dishwasher, the dragging everyone to ballet and piano and cello and football and swimming not to mention school, the shouting at everyone to get ready, the making sure everyone had the right kit for the right event, the making cakes for school cake sales, the helping with homework, the making the garden look nice, the feeding the fish we couldn’t be bothered to feed, the walking the dog we’d begged to have and then ignored, the making packed lunches for school according to what we would and wouldn’t eat (for those of us who have packed lunches) and then the unmaking them after school with all the things we didn’t eat, the remembering dinner money (for those of us who didn’t want packed lunches) and not to mention, she said, all the nagging in between.
Here she paused, which was good because we all thought the strain of talking so fast without stopping was going to make her pass out. But quick as a flash she was off again. Dad stood grinning in the corner, by the way, like all this had nothing to do with him, but we knew it was just a matter of time before she remembered she was married and then the you know what was going to hit the you know who.
Mum took a deep breath.
And another thing.
She had her fingers out for this one. And there weren’t enough fingers in the room to list the next set of crimes.
Who did we think took care of the bank accounts, the car insurance, the life insurance, the mortgage, the tax returns, the milk bill, the charity donations, the accountant…
Here she paused again, looking around the kitchen to make absolute certain she had full attention and eye contact and no one was thinking of escape -- even for a minute or two – from the full force of her resentment.
We are not totally stupid, by the way. We read the tabloids often enough to know that between a mother giving a lecture of the fanatical nervous breakdown variety to her kids and GBH there is a very fine line indeed. The Sun, for instance, specialises in stories along the lines of Formerly Average Mum Bludgeons Family With Stern Lecture and Tyre Iron, Then Makes Cup of Tea. We three kids were doing the eye contact and respectful hangdog look thing, maintaining that pathetic silence that makes mothers feel guilty eventually, when they’re done shouting. But we had to give the old girl credit, this time she showed no sign of flagging.
She took another deep breath.
…the magazine subscriptions, the dentist appointments, the birthday parties, the Christmas dinner, the presents, the nephews and nieces, the in-laws.
As one, we swivelled to look at dad. Mum had stopped and was looking at dad too, whose brain you could tell was racing with possible escape routes, excuses, mitigating circumstances, and of course the desire to be somewhere else entirely. He shot a single furtive glance at the back door, figured it was too far to risk making a break for it (mum was no slouch in the lunge and tackle stakes, having been a county champion lacrosse player on a team full of hairy dykes back a hundred years ago when she was in school, and we knew she hadn’t forgotten all the moves due to an incident a few years ago with an attempted purse snatching which none of us refers to now, but word on the street is the guy still never leaves the house).
And, she said (glaring at me because the woman is an experienced enough mother to hear you thinking a digression about Lacrosse and hairy dykes), and I hope you are listening, because when I say I am not going to do it any more, I mean I am not going to do it any more. She glared at each one of us in turn, a kind of equal opportunity glare.
And one last thing, she said, in an even scarier, quieter voice, and I risked a sideways glance to see if Francis Ford Coppola was in the wings directing this masterful performance. From this moment on, she continued, I am deaf to whining. Deaf to any annoying tone of voice you three, she shot a relatively benign look at dad just to let him know he was off the hook on this particular issue, assuming he backed her up that is, can dream up. And screaming will only be acknowledged if accompanied by bones sticking out of skin or hatchet actually buried in skull.
Moe was shuffling his feet a little now, and sneaking peeks at his watch because his teacher hated it when you were late to school.
She glared at him and he jumped to attention like something out of the Queen’s Guard.
Right, she said, surveying her troops and appearing a little calmer now. Any questions?
Nobody dared say anything, except of course Alec, who could smarm for England and has not lived 15 years on this earth without picking up a trick or two along the way. He had stopped lounging against the wall, which is what he does with most of his waking hours, stood up fairly straight, plastered this sickening look of sincerity across his wily mug and said, OK Mum, fair cop, we’re with you on this. I’m only surprised you didn’t make a stand a long time ago.
Then just to prove she wasn’t born yesterday either, mum made this kind of snorting sound and rolled her eyes, indicating rejection of smarm, and said, I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you approve, Alec. Now everyone had better get a move on because school starts in twenty minutes and you are going to have to figure out how to get there.
As one, we turned to dad, who was now trying to make himself two dimensional and slide behind the fridge which would have been easier if he hadn’t been 6’4” and built like a rugby tackle. But dad is a man who knows when to fold in poker, like when all he’s got in his hand are threes and fours of different colours. He folded gracefully.
Come on then, he said in a resigned voice. Pile in. We’ll leave mum alone for now and give her some time to collect herself.
Some time to collect myself? Some time to collect myself? How kind, how fantastically kind of you, why, I can’t think how to show my appreciation short of taking out a full page ad in the effing FT. (She practically screamed that last bit.) But, say what you will, I now have the rest of my life to myself, and it’s you suckers who are going to have to cope.
She smiled at us then, a genuine smile, all warm and mumsy and loving, and kissed us each in turn, the way you’d kiss people who were trooping off to a firing squad.
Have a lovely day all of you. See you later.
We hated it when she turned all nice and snatched the moral high ground out from under us. But it was getting late so we all crammed into dad’s car, elbowing and kicking and biting each other like captives in a government crocodile breeding initiative and headed off to be late to school.
Naturally there was a fair bit of conversation in the car about mum’s little episode.
She’s bluffing, Alec said. She’s probably just getting her period.
I wouldn’t be so sure, smartarse, dad said. She didn’t look like she was bluffing to me. And just a hint for later life -- don’t ever even think those words in the vicinity of a woman or you’ll find yourself castrated before you can say oops.
Alec grinned and I sniggered, knowing my dear big brother’s future was definitely going to be bollock-free.
Anyway, we got to school late, and all got detention except Moe who has a professional line in looking like he’s about to burst into tears, and by lunchtime we’d all forgotten that we even had a mum at home, what with all the gossip and sexual harassment and who’s not talking to who and have you noticed who she’s hanging around with these days.
After school, Moe and I caught a ride home with Esther’s mum who wears flowery clothes and acts like a proper mum, asking if you’re hungry and doling out crisps and having tissues with her at all times, and never screaming “shut the bloody &*%$£@ up!” at her children like someone else I can think of. Not that I’d want her as my mum, due to her being an irony-free zone not to mention harbouring a fervent wish for Esther to grow up to be ‘a person of substance’, an expression she actually uses in public, which explains why Esther looks so long-suffering and wants to be an air hostess.
My mum always said she wanted me to be a ballerina which is her idea of the world’s funniest joke because I’m not exactly small and could be two ballerinas if they cut me in half and I had four legs. Moe wants to be a vet, like every other eight year old in London, and Alec just wants to get out of school, drink alcohol, go clubbing, get his driver’s licence, get a car, and have a girlfriend who’ll let him have sex with her all the time, not necessarily in that order.
But I’m getting off the point here.
We stayed at Esther’s for supper, dutifully notifying mum so she couldn’t shout that she’d gone to all the trouble to make us a nice blah blah blah with three kinds of blah blah blah on the side and we weren’t there to eat it and hadn’t even had the courtesy to phone.
She seemed pleased to hear that we weren’t coming home for dinner, and it wasn’t until I hung up that I realized she hadn’t said the usual If you’re not home by seven you’re toast, but I took it as tacit and made sure Esther’s mum gave us a ride home so we walked in the door at ten to seven, which I thought was a pretty good touch, just in case someone’s watch might be running a few minutes fast.
Mum was on the phone when we got there, talking to her business partner, Jo. They’d had a lot of interest from America after the article that was written about them in Country Life, and apparently antique garden implements were all the rage among rich Americans who had too much money and not enough antique garden implements.
I noticed immediately that the breakfast table looked exactly the same as it had when we all left for school this morning, with dirty dishes and open jars of marmalade and crumbs everywhere, and I thought mum was going a bit far to prove a point given how much she hates mess of any kind, but I thought I’d better play along and so started clearing up. I shouted for Alec to come help but he said he didn’t give a monkey’s whether it was cleared up or not, and since we were in charge we should be able to live in squalor if squalor was what we liked.
As squalor went, this was pretty tame, and anyway I had homework to do and got distracted by Hooligan wanting to go out for a walk and since mum wasn’t giving orders anymore, I let him out in the garden and even he looked confused that no one was shouting at him to stay away from the herbaceous borders.
Hey, Moe, I hissed. Get this. And I pointed to Hoo out in the garden doing a poo the size of Mont Saint Michel by mum’s nicotiana sylvestris, and Moe’s eyes widened and we both thought, cool!
After that we forgot about Hoo and watched some television while pretending to do homework and in the commercial breaks I managed to write a whole essay entitled The Egyptians: Why They Became Extinct.
After the initial shock, this new regime was turning out to be much more relaxing than life with Mussolini. Ooops, did I say a fanatic Italian dictator? I meant mum.
When dad finally got home he looked a little grumpy about no dinner being on the table, but it wasn’t long till he got the hang of things and filled a soup bowl full of Frosties and sighed really loud a few times to make sure everyone knew he wasn’t thrilled about the new order. Moe looked at dad’s Frosties and because no one said no, he had some too.
Mum, in the meantime, had moved into her office in the garden, which she had the foresight to make dad build with its own shower room and enough of a kitchen to survive on. As she put it, “there’s no way I’m going to step foot in that kitchen until you four call Rentokil.” She still came to say goodnight to us, a little like a fond auntie, and sometimes we hung around and did our homework in her office because every place in the whole house seemed to have something messing up the surfaces where you might want to put a book. And she didn’t seem to mind us coming in as long as we didn’t bother her or leave wrappers on the floor. Which was tricky, given that all our meals seemed to come in wrappers these days. She was on the phone a lot, and having meetings with her partner and smiling more than we’d seen in ages.
Which was great.
Only, after a few weeks of this, us kids were starting to look at each other and think, hey, fun’s fun, but there are no clean clothes in the whole house and we’ve run out of cereal for breakfast and tea, and speaking of tea, there’s only one manky box of teabags that came free from Tesco about a hundred years ago and dad’s taken to drinking instant coffee, which puts him in even a worse mood than he is naturally. Also, the dog needs brushing, the radiators make a horrible noise, and every envelope that arrives has For Your Urgent Attention written on it in red.
So we sat down that Saturday at what had once been the breakfast table, but now looked like that exhibit at the Zoo filled with half eaten meals and Rattus Norvegicus written on a brass plaque. I noticed the two goldfish in the bowl on top of the fridge for the first time in ages, and it was clear no one else had noticed them either, considering they had given up swimming some time ago and taken up floating on the surface. Moe was wearing the cleanest of his shirts, which had ketchup spilled down the front and a chip actually stuck to it, dad had gone out to have breakfast alone with the newspaper at Starbucks, and Alec and I were drinking blueberry cordial, which was the only thing left to drink in the house since we ran out of PG Tips and the milkman stopped coming.
OK guys, I said. I think it’s time to start begging.
Moe looked annoyed. But we’re doing perfectly well without any help, he said, digging into a bowl of recently thawed peas from the freezer with some week-old takeaway curry mixed in.
Alec said he was going to be sick and Moe should be taken into care, and they began to shout at each other and Alec stormed out, but I called him back and because it was so obvious to all of us that something had to be done, we managed to be civil to each other long enough to write a letter setting out our terms of surrender. Here’s what we wrote:
You were right. Even we can’t live with ourselves.
If you agree to come back we will follow any rules you make with absolutely no complaining and no whining.
Promise. Cross our hearts and hope to die.
Please. We miss you so much.
Plus we were wrong.
I typed the letter up on dad’s laptop, set it in a nice curly font and after I printed it out we all signed it and drew hearts on it and so forth to suck up, and then we slipped it under the door of the studio and went back into the house and got to work.
It took all day, so it wasn’t a bad thing that we didn’t hear back from her right away. We scrubbed the floors and the walls, the kitchen and the bathroom, we swept off all the junk stacked on every surface and separated out the bills and left them neatly stacked, and dad paid them when he got home. Moe cleaned out the refrigerator and Alec and I went up to the shop with a lifetime’s supply of pocket money and bought food, not the stuff we’d been eating all month like chocolate breakfast bars, but proper food like chicken parts and green beans and granary bread and cheddar cheese. We cleaned out the fish tank and flushed all the fish down the toilet, which wasn’t inhumane considering their advanced state of fatality, put clean sheets on all the beds and did about 15 loads of laundry, and even folded it up afterwards. Alec got out the hoover, but miracles have to end somewhere, and when the phone rang and it was his girlfriend, I ended up doing it myself.
It was a not entirely unsatisfying day, if I say so myself. Even the house itself seemed less bad-tempered, like it preferred being clean.
Well, Mum may have suspected something was up when she saw all the black rubbish bags stacked outside by the front door, or she might just have got tired of sleeping on the little day bed in the studio. Or maybe she even missed us. Who knows.
But that night, around 10pm, we saw lights on in the studio, and found a handwritten note pushed through the letterbox.
It read: I’ll think about it. Love, Mum.
And I guess she thought about it all day Sunday, because it was teatime on Sunday when she finally knocked on the door like a visitor, and when we let her in, she looked around in every room, and nodded every now and then, and finally she sat down at the (immaculate) kitchen table and said, OK, I’ll come back--
We all started cheering and surrounded her and hugged and kissed her but she held up one hand and kept talking.
--on one condition. At which point she pulled out a sheaf of papers that looked a little like the Treaty of Versailles, and handed one set to each of us, and on it was a schedule of who did what job on what day, and to be fair, she had written herself in to the list occasionally too.
So this is where I’m supposed to say we all lived happily ever after, but in fact we didn’t -- at least not quite in the way we expected to. Nobody really stuck to the jobs listed on the piece of paper, including mum, because she was away a lot suddenly due to her business being so successful at last, but the good thing was she seemed to care a lot less about the house being as clean as it was before, and we had learned one important lesson which was not to push her past a certain point so we did pitch in more than we ever had, with the possible exception of Alec. Then mum really started raking in the dough and Dad quit his job and stayed home, doing most of the cooking and cleaning and gardening and seeming strangely happy about it. So in general, things worked out more or less peacefully for a while.
But a few months later, we noticed mum was spending a lot of time talking to the young guy next door, and one day she gathered us together and said she was moving out for good. We just stood there stunned and completely freaked out, and Moe began to cry, and mum grabbed him up in her arms and said Stop crying Moe, and come look at my new house.
Then she opened the front door, and jumped over the little wall by the front path and pulled a key out of her pocket and opened the door of the house next door. And while we were staring at her trying to figure out what had happened, she was grinning ear to ear and said I’ve finally sorted it.
So that’s the end of the story. Mum bought the house next door, and though we have to take our shoes off when we go visit her she almost never shouts at us anymore, and she never complains about the mess in our house, not ever. And when we get fed up living with dad or if I can’t stand another minute with Moe and Alec, I move in with mum for a few weeks and we have a great time staying up late and talking and just getting on. And sometimes we rent a movie and make popcorn and invite mum round to our house to watch it and she stays over, and we make her breakfast in the morning before she goes back to work.
And whenever anyone asks us in a polite concerned voice why we don’t live with our mother, we put on mournful faces and sigh, and say Well, she just walked out on us one day, but we’re pretty much resigned to it now.
And then we fall about laughing, and go and tell mum.