A few months ago I entered a short story competition. The story had to be based around one word: 'future'. And I didn't win, so here it is!
Sat on the front doorstep, I could feel sun on my cheeks, the cold stone on my feet and the breeze making the skin over my ribs tingle through my thin t-shirt. As the evening sun abated, hyperactive school children celebrating the end of the school week were being summoned inside by their equally-as-relieved parents on the doorsteps of their townhouses.
If I’d just woken from a coma, I wondered, would I know what day it was? I was certain that the smell of the air, the palpable relief emitting from those walking by and the general feeling in the atmosphere was distinctive of how only a Friday evening felt.
The smells drifting lazily past shifted from fragrant wet grass and barbeques to the cool aroma of a summer’s evening, which cannot be likened to anything other than the permeation of the earth’s surface cooling down after a hot day.
With my legs stretched out in front of me, I remembered when I was a young girl and, sitting on the front doorstep, I used to try to reach the front step with my feet. I smiled slightly as I realised that some things hadn’t changed over the last decade.
The distant hum of lawnmowers and children playing faded as I remembered the dread I felt walking up the steps to the front door on a Sunday night for a glass of milk and a biscuit, bath, bed and another week of school. I realised how vivid my memory was now that I was back in my childhood home. Since I’d left for university, my recollections of being a child only existed as questionable dots in my consciousness – but being back in the same place again had transformed them into veritable visions that intermittently blurred into the present.
I heard the familiar sound of the television getting louder and I instantly became aware of the disparity between my memories of being here as a child and the present. I stood up, subconsciously wiped my hands over the back of my legs, and turned around.
“Mum!” I shouted, walking into the living room, the first room as you entered the house. She jumped up and looked at me with a startled expression. I walked over to the sofa, picked up the television remote and turned the volume down.
Her expression fell into a look of despondency. She asked, “That thing turns the volume up, doesn’t it?”
“It does, yeah. Let’s leave it on top of the fireplace shall we? Just so you don’t sit on it again”. I withheld from telling her that this was far from a new idea – but that we went through this routine on a weekly basis.
“Good idea”, she said, proudly looking at me with a deep stare that was once reserved for bad news and severe telling offs. It’s funny how expressions are so unique to a person’s face – it takes a lot of getting used to when they change.
Being suddenly interrupted from my cogitative state had left me feeling as if I’d been suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. I rubbed my eyes and, looking over at my mother, I watched her sit down, and her expression perked up at once – typically capricious, but at least she was rarely in a bad mood for long.
“What are we having for tea tonight, dear?” I heard her ask as I walked into the kitchen.
“Oh, not sure yet mum”, I shouted back as I cleared away our dirty plates. The leftovers were still warm.
Later that evening, I sat in the bath and, still feeling particularly contemplative, I absentmindedly turned the cold tap on and off with my foot. I listened to the soothing whisper of bubbles as they disintegrated around the sides of my head. I began to close my eyes when I heard a familiar buzz coming from the direction of the bathroom windowsill.
I shot out of the bath and ran into my bedroom, with a towel hanging across my dripping body. I swapped my phone into my other hand and wiped the bubbles from my arms.
“Caroline, hi. It’s Jeff.”
“Jeff, hi! How’s things?”
“I’m going to cut to the chase. We’re a reporter down. Jill’s just left and Charlie’s handed in his notice.”
I swallowed. I knew what was coming next. I secured my towel and walked downstairs, popping my head around the corner. I was safe – she was asleep on the sofa.
“Jeff, you know I –“
“I know. Can you promise me you’ll think about it, though? Listen – I don’t have a problem with recruiting someone else, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to re-think things. The features desk is really suffering, Caroline.”
I sat on the edge of my bed, ignoring the fact that I was still covered in bubbles. I didn’t respond. “I know your situation is difficult, but in this economy it’s unheard of for a boss to ring up someone who left and beg like this. Sod my pride, Caroline. It’s becoming obvious around here that you can’t be replaced.”
Two hours later I was still wrapped in my towel. In every direction of my bedroom was evidence of a life lived to the full. I tapped my toes on an old pile of teen magazines that were worn out from Saturdays of lazing around with friends, giggling over fantasies of being married to members the latest boyband. Except, that life was ten years ago.
I often experienced nostalgia like a spectrum – a pendulum of warmth, wistfulness, melancholy and longing. This time, however, I didn’t feel any desire to have the carefree life of my teenage years back. I wanted my future, but my present made that difficult.
Moving back home was an innate response – but I suppose I was just turning out to be more selfish than I thought. My ambitions were on hold, and every day they continued to grow inside me like a malevolent disease. I opened my drawer, ignoring the faded stickers stuck to it, and put on some clothes. On my way downstairs I opened mum’s bedroom door. Leaning on the doorframe, my eyes began to sting as they fell upon the abundance of notes stuck to furniture around the room. They reminded her what to do when she woke up. I slowly crept over to the mirror. ‘You’re 60. You live at 122 King’s Crescent with Caroline. Dom is no longer here.’ I felt a tightness in my chest spread down to my stomach.
I gently made my way to the kitchen and furtively slid some bread into the toaster. I clung onto the doorframe and swung into the entrance of the living room. I saw mum’s chest slowly rise and fall with each breath. I thought back to when I was younger, when I used to always check that she was still breathing when she was napping. And if she’d been asleep for too long, I’d wake her up just to make sure that she was still alive. I realised a long time ago that I had always felt that overprotective ‘mother’s instinct’, just as my mum did. Just like she’d watch me walk up the street to school every morning, I’d wait downstairs for her to get home from her weekly night class. I still remember the overwhelming relief on hearing the sound of her key in the front door.
Just as predicted, the smell of toast wafted into the room and she began to stir.
“I’ve made you some toast”, I tentatively handed her the plate. I drew my hand to my lap, and suddenly didn’t know what to do with it. I instinctively traced my fingers over my lips.
“Yes, mum. You like toast. In fact, pretty much everyone likes toast”.
I compensated for the frustrated tone that my sentence tailed off with by smiling. She looked at the plate suspiciously and pushed down on the spongiest bit of the bread, right in the middle. The butter rose to the surface around the edges of her fingertip, and we both watched, hypnotised for a few seconds.
“Mum, I’ve just been on the phone to Jeff”.
Her eyebrows rose, apologetically.
“My old boss”. I felt my eyes sting once again, and found my gaze focusing on the toast again. Saying something that felt unbearably stuck in my throat was a lot easier without eye contact. “He wants, well – needs me to go back to work”.
“Okay... well, that’s fine, Caroline”. For a few seconds I saw a glimpse of the old mum. I heard a glimmer of her steady, rational voice that only came out when we had a conflict of interest. “You always did enjoy making those sandwiches.” My stomach sank as I thought back to my part-time job when I was 17.
A week later, I stood on the front doorstep and breathed in as deeply as my lungs allowed. As much as I’d missed the city air, I knew I’d miss the smell of home again. I balanced my suitcase on the top step, containing the last remains of my room, and turned to the living room.
Mum stood awkwardly in front of the door. For a second, I wondered if she’d forgotten that I was moving out.
“Promise you’ll be okay?”
“We’ll be fine. See you tonight”. I smiled in resignation.
I shut the door. The image of her stood awkwardly, with her arm around Robo-Assist 500 would haunt me forever.