The next Waltoween guest post is from Lynn Love, a very talented writer who has been featured on WordPress Discover. Her flash fiction is superb, so make sure you pay her a visit at her blog, Word Shamble. And please let her know you were here to enjoy this story by clicking ‘like’ and leaving a comment below!
Mother of Thousands
by Lynn Love
Coming through the back gate, I look over the veg garden. Everything’s growing well, the flowerbeds given over to canes of runner beans, swedes and carrots planted over the Anderson shelter. It broke Mum’s heart to see her roses dug up, roots dangling like so much wispy white hair. But the war takes everything.
Her voice reaches me as I approach the house, winding through the back door, echoing under the lean-to’s tin roof. She’s always been a Dolly Daydream, but since Dad passed, she stares at nothing, listens to the wireless without really listening.
‘… you’re safe now,’ I hear her say. ‘All safe.’
The voice of my childhood, of iodine on cut knees. So many children came and went from our house because she’d feed any stray who wandered in. My Mother of Thousands.
‘Clear those things away,’ she says. ‘Our Ben will be back in a mo.’
The lean-to’s warm from the sun, the air thick with the scent of the cyclamen, Mum’s last remaining flowers. But there’s another scent too – a burnt smell, like a singed Sunday roast. I stare at the brash rosettes of scarlet and pink and listen.
She giggles, an oddly childish sound. ‘I can’t tell him, pet. Don’t want to worry him.’
I can’t bear to hear more. I stamp in through the back door, wipe my boots on the coconut matting as I step into the kitchen.
‘Hullo there,’ I call. ‘Anyone home?’
I can’t see Mum, but I can hear her slippers scuffing over the living room linoleum. There’s a pattering sound like small bare feet, soles half sticking to the floor, then a hard, rolling noise that grows louder and softer, ending with a bump and silence. It jogs a memory.
‘Hullo love.’ Now she’s standing in the doorway that joins the sitting room to the kitchen, duster in hand, scarf round her head to keep the muck from getting in her hair. ‘Tea’s in the oven. Potato pie,’ she says.
She’s bustling over the kettle, slicing bread, telling me about the neighbour’s son being called up and how she could hear his mother weeping even though she turned up the radio.
‘You on your own?’ I peer past her towards the half-open living room door, but the sun is setting and all I can see is Dad’s old chair, the antimacassar on the back seeming to float like a ghost in the gloom.
‘Course I am. You think I’ve got Comrade Stalin sitting in the parlour waiting for a slice of pear cake?’ She nudges me. ‘Eh, I used some of your carrots in the mix instead of sugar. We’ll give it a go for afters.’
Everything’s so normal – the kettle starting to whistle, Mum humming an old tune as she serves the pie, I feel daft for thinking … Whatever I was thinking.
Mum went to bed an hour ago, leaving me alone in the kitchen. The oven door’s open, the gas on low to keep off the chill. I’ve closed the blackout curtains and all the lights are out. Just me and the flickering kitchen, the glowing end of my cigarette.
A song comes on the radio, the very one Mum was singing over tea. A deep voice, darkness rolling over golden trumpets.
Lazybones, sleepin’ in the sun … how you spect to get your day’s work done …
It reminds me of earlier, of Mum giggling and talking to herself.
A noise behind me. I have my back to the living room, the door that’s slightly ajar, the room that’s a dark hole now, thanks to the blackout.
There’s a rolling sound that’s loud then quiet and hard, a bobble at the end and I recognise it now, know what I was trying to remember earlier. Marbles. That’s the sound of marbles on the lino.
I’m up on my feet, the ashtray clattering to the floor, spinning like a top before falling still. Powdery ash rises to meet my face, that smell of burned things. But there’s another burnt smell – the one from earlier – and it’s not tobacco, not Sunday roast, but something more and I know that smell from four years of war, from the bombed out homes during the Blitz and I don’t want to think what it is, even though I know.
A scurrying sound, a tiptoe sound and through the gap in the door, the flash of black against grey as someone – something – rushes past Dad’s chair, past the floating ghost of the antimacassar.
I try to swallow, but I’m too dry. I should call out, shout a warning into the darkness, but the words stop in my throat, trapped right at the back where a pulse of flesh flexes against the roof of my mouth.
Another flash of black. A creak on the stair. A slap of a foot on linoleum and the door swings open …
Mum in her nightie, bare bony feet, purple veins like cords under the white skin.
‘What are you doing?’ she says.
I can’t tell her what I saw, when I didn’t really see anything. Only what I smelt. Only what I know.
‘You go up to bed,’ she says, hand on my arm. ‘I’ll clear this lot up. You must be shattered, working all those hours.’
So much to be tired of.
She passes me, heading for the kitchen and the dust pan and I kiss her head, kiss the hair like rose roots that smell of roses too.
‘Shoo,’ she says, patting my arm and I head for the stairs, trying not to look around the living room as I pass through it.
Mum’s voice snakes up the stairs. ‘Lazybones, sleepin’ in the sun …’
There’s the sound of running bare feet, marbles rolling, rolling. And I realise she’s done what she always did, taking in the waifs and strays, my Mother of Thousands.