Flora is splayed out on her crumpled bed with none of the dignity of a woman of her class. She feels more like road-kill. She’s been sobbing for more than an hour, a sporadic, watery braying. She doesn’t care if they can hear her. The upside-down bedroom still smells of Jacob’s sweat, the faded flowery counterpane still strewn with a dozen balls of screwed-up orange toilet paper. Flora’s face is, of course, blotched red-and-white, the whites of her grey eyes blood-streaked. She has no make-up on to run. Out back, in the small, sunny patch of garden green (tended daily these summer months by Jacob’s loving hands), Pepsi and Tizer, each tied to his own corner, continue their ceaseless, peevish barking.
It’s a nightmare.
Flora prays the neighbours will let the canine row go. Just today. They know he’s left now. They must have heard the screaming and the bellows. Maybe they’ll have pity. Maybe they’ll allow her this one day off from battle. Maybe they won’t. Maybe it’s THIS day of all days, the very day that he – the real dog, the real problem! – has at last quit Pleasington Close in his black cloud of proud fury that they’ll come for her. Maybe it’s today that the cul-de-sac hordes will perversely choose to storm in and seize Flora for her long overdue stripping, shearing and general disinfection. It will start in the house on the left, and they’ll be led by the track-suited youth Troulan. She can’t believe Troulan actually – legally! – bears the title “Mr”. Yet the Department of Environment noise pollution complaints he so regularly files against them do attest to this absurd fact. To Flora he is simply vile: a Nazi, a hooligan, a pale pink pig, his teenage bride just dishwater.
Flora’s mind races with nothing as coherent as actual thoughts, just pulsating waves of worry, an unending series of hollow, cascading, paradoxical sinkings. Nausea at Jacob’s enraged departure an hour earlier, blind terror at the prospect of his sudden return; anger at the racket those fucking dogs are still making, fear for the unspecified consequences the noise may have.
Panic and emptiness, that’s what I am, that’s all I am: this is the knowledge that churns implacably round her system.
It’s just that – knowledge: sickly, wordless knowledge, not a controlled linguistic formulation, much less a conscious literary allusion. Even if she is, in name, an English teacher (to pupils barely human!), the perennial combination of flint-eyed neighbours, wild-eyed husband and, of course, the dense fog behind her own eyes, is hardly conducive to a lucid retention of the refrains of Great Novels, no matter how apposite. Right now Flora isn’t reflecting on Forster’s twin moral demons, no: she’s just living them. They gnaw more ferociously at her gassy guts with every passing, noisy second.
She’s just starting to gestate the anxious (yet oddly irritable) realisation that she has no idea where the girls have gone when she looks up to see Adam staring at her from the doorway. Neither woman nor boy speaks for a moment. Flora has stopped actually wailing, and now tries to gain some control over the wheezing and the shaking.
Adam’s awkward eyes drop down to the book he dangles in his left hand. It looks to Flora as if it’s yet another one of those trashy, macabre women’s novels that Carrie and Corinne are so obsessed with now. She recognises the gaudy silver print across the cover. Again she feels irritation at her daughters for supplying Adam with this sort of filth. What could a ten-year old boy be drawing from tales of flowers and attics and incest? She feels more comfortable when she sees him in the company of Stephen King. Or even the vicious Rat Man. At least they’re for…well…at least they’re not so tawdry.
Adam pretends to read a sentence or two, and looks up again at his crumpled, nervous mother.
He gives her a patronising smile.
Why won’t he come over to the bed and just give her a hug?
Flora struggles to remember when it was exactly that Adam stopped running up to her, stopped throwing his arms tightly around her whenever he saw her in distress.
Was it after that time Jacob commanded that Adam stop coming in to perch on the loo to chatter away as Flora took her bath?
The boy is too old to gaze upon his mother’s naked breasts.
So quaint, Jacob’s expression sometimes! Almost biblical.
When was that exactly? Way, way back, surely? Adam couldn’t have been more than five.
But Adam definitely carried on comforting poor mummy over the years as Jacob stamped her into the ground, stood over her defiant, cringing form, spat out (behold the hopeless Mother Courage!) at the hapless arbiters and do-gooders who’d come to visit their miserable family. Liberal hearts full of goodwill and charity, they’d flee hours or minutes later, mouths agape, bleating for years to come, to whoever would listen, of the horrors they’d witnessed in that eerie, tragic home.
But Adam definitely carried on burying his little brown head into Flora’s pink, wet neck as the years rolled on and the tears rolled on, telling her he still loved her, he’d look after her, still her James James Morrison Morrison after all.
No, Adam’s way of standing stock-still (and at a safe distance) when she weeps now, his tendency to look away, or to pretend to read, or to smile that oddly patronising smile, if that’s what it is… that’s quite recent, Flora feels sure.
That’s why it still feels frightening.
“Where’s he gone?” the boy finally says, expressionless.
“I don’t know, darling. Mr Adebayo’s, I suppose. Toxteth. That’s where he goes.”
Another silence, but this time it’s brief.
Adam brightens, before the inevitable next (agonisingly hopeful, shamefully excited) inquiry.
“Will we get a few days this time?”
Mother and son are interrupted, however, by the Voice of Paul McCartney.
It comes sailing up the stairs like a divine, syrupy, Liverpudlian visitation, benevolent adversary of the neighbours’ malice, authoritative muffler of the Jack Russells’ tuneless yaps, cheerful executioner of Flora’s overlong session of self-indulgent groans.
Carrie and Corinne have decided that it’s safe to commence the sack of liberation.
Adam leaves his mother’s bedroom, and runs down the stairs to join his sisters – angry baby-mothers two and three – in their musical celebration of liberated rage. Flora hears the children’s hysterical shrieks searing through the song. Their jubilation is sailing up the stairs on the wings of the Voice, filling the house, ridiculing her pain, pissing on her state of anguish more contemptuously than ever. They’re behaving (as they always do whenever this kind of thing happens) as though the wicked witch of the west has just melted, thinks Flora. Or was it east? She’s revolted by the sheer legitimacy of the gaiety. They hate him so much. SO MUCH! And they’re right to.
“Be careful with those!” she screams petulantly, knowing that the girls can’t possibly hear her over the sentimental din, and that even if they can they’ll take the most exquisite delight in ignoring anything she might care to say.
Fine. Let them play his fucking records. Let them. It’s just the same as when he’s here I can’t hear myself think they’re just like him I wish I was dead. They won’t scratch them anyway. They love the fucking things as much as he does. More, probably.
McCartney’s saccharine song, the one that seems to have emerged as the clear favourite over the last three or four years, the one they never stop singing, the one Corinne shouts laboriously along to for hours and hours at the pee-sodden kitchen piano (and took all the way to that fucking Saturday Superstore audition in London last week) has finally ended (please don’t play it again), and the children’s voices can be heard squabbling (though clearly without any real aggression – that always seems to dematerialise, at least with regard to one another, whenever Jacob leaves “for good”), trying to agree on the next track.
Flora finds herself waiting, vaguely interested (but only vaguely) to see what they come up with. She is fleetingly fascinated by just how much the musical taste of her three children has in common with that of their hated father, the father they never call “Daddy” (as he commanded them to, by written edict, five years earlier), but instead whom they still, after all this time, all three of them, amongst themselves and even with her, chillingly refer to as “Beast”.
The sibling triumvirate doesn’t take very long to reach a unanimous decision. A new track floods through the house, which Flora takes a few seconds to place. It’s not McCartney this time. But it’s the same general ball-park. They’ve just taken the whole thing back twenty years or so.
Why are they all so obsessed with the fucking Beatles?
It’s not till the song’s bridge – the part about the over-sensitive guitar-player not knowing why nobody’s told his loved one how to “unfold” her love (and later: not knowing how it is she’s been “diverted”, why no one “alerted” her) – that Flora realises she’s crying again. It certainly isn’t the song’s rather self-conscious beauty. Even if it is beautiful, Flora is usually left cold by music that seems to drive her husband and children into spasms of ecstasy. (Could it be true that the four of them somehow appreciate music more naturally than her? Could it really be in the genes?) It isn’t even the sickening realisation that it was this song playing in the background when she spoke her first words to Jacob. Not ever having really loved her husband with the passionate kind of longing that would make her cling to incidental details like this for…years, perhaps, yes, years, after the initial coup de foudre, she’s never given the weeping white-guitar song much thought since that evening in Calabar.
The things she remembers about the meeting are a good deal less romantic.
She remembers the incongruity of her pale presence at the colourful Good Woman of Szechwan wrap (what a play to put on here!). She remembers the sheer oddness of Jacob’s Chinese make-up over his broad, dark, handsome face. And she remembers the ache she felt (and continues to feel, right up to this ugly Birkenhead afternoon, some twenty years later) in her heart, head and bowels, about John, John, who’d probably never even heard of Brecht, John, hundreds of miles away, in the dusty, dangerous capital, John, with his black wife and those three beautiful, black children.
Jacob-Yang Sun asked her to stand guard over his cigarette while he went to the toilet. His ill-disguised irritation upon returning (she’d let it burn out – but he’d been gone for so long!) implanted a twisted seedling in her fluttering mind. Staring up nervously into his flashing eyes (anger? lust? who could tell with a boy like this?), she willed away all capacity for thought. Perhaps he’s the one who must sweep me away. He looks as hysterical as I feel.
No, these are not romantic memories. She’s not sure what it is she feels exactly when these images come into her head. A kind of sadness, perhaps – regret? She’s surprised she can feel anything at all.
Why have they settled on this track? Are they mocking her? Has she told them about her meeting with their father, right down to this detail? She doesn’t remember it if she has. Could they be so cruel, in any case? Corinne, perhaps, even Carrie if she’s in a temper, but surely not Adam?
The mournful song is long over now, and the next, annoyingly schizophrenic track is itself nearing its end. She can hear the children shrieking along with John Lennon, something about putting fingers on triggers. She shudders: the girls are so morbidly preoccupied with sex.
Flora wrenches herself off the bed and pulls the curtains wide open. The two-headed barks are a little less frequent now. She decides to go down and see if Adam fancies taking Pepsi and Tizer on a walk with her around the cul-de-sac.
* * *
Asda’s packed. It’s Saturday. The aisles swarm with Birkenhead’s great unwashed. The better kinds of people on the Wirral – in the main, parents of boys at Adam’s school – don’t live in the town itself, but in more “countrified” spots, villages, often really rather lovely (thinks Flora), dotted around the peninsula, accessible only by car.
The hordes stare less than they did when the family arrived six years ago; Flora can deal with them now. The children still draw the occasional overlong, unembarrassed gaze. But things have definitely got better. That much is undeniable. Nobody would dream of screeching at her now, for example, that there are plenty of those kinds of sailors over the water in Liverpool. Not in this day and age.
Still, Flora wishes she wasn’t so bullied by the children. All three of them have insisted on coming shopping with her today. It’s just too much.
Carrie and Corinne have categorically refused to stay in the house alone with Jacob, who came back this morning, after just three days at Mr Adebayo’s. (It was indeed in the ghetto that he dissipated his rage.) He pushed open their bedroom door at eight in the morning, silently took off his clothes, climbed into bed with Flora (awake, wide-eyed, since six), and said simply that he was sorry. Didn’t beg for forgiveness, no, but said simply that he was sorry. He didn’t really hate her. Things would get back to normal.
“He’ll just be working in the fucking garden! He won’t even speak to you! Just stay in your room, and listen to your music!” Flora whispers furiously at her wailing daughters, sick and tired of their predictable barrage of threats and recriminations. “Adam and I won’t be gone long. I’ve just got to get in some basics. For God’s sake! He wasn’t actually going to do it! Has he touched you? Has he? NO!”
But her words carry no real weight, not in this family, not anywhere, not really.
The girls have no work to do: Corinne has taken her “GCSEs” (why change from the solid GCE? it seems so sad), Carrie her A Levels. They await the results in ever-mounting August anxiety. They can’t go out with friends. Carrie, like Flora herself, has none, poor thing. And Corinne appears mysteriously to have lost her gaggle, those awful girls she so proudly flaunted just a few months back. Perhaps that’s why she’s in such a foul mood.
Either way, the whole situation is out of Flora’s control.
It’s the flying (then spectacularly shattering) cassette-cases that finally force her hand. How does Corinne manage to do that? Flora doesn’t want to think about it. Even Corinne looks shocked. Carrie and Adam giggle, simultaneously impressed and disapproving, as if they’ve seen such pyrotechnics before and are still in two minds. Less explosive than the sister that fell between them, cowed, even, by the furious heat she spews, they nevertheless clearly admire the comic effects of her lava on their horrified mother.
Flora doesn’t want to think about it.
All four of them eventually shuffle out of the house around eleven o’clock, the children mumbling a grudging “bye” to the inexplicably buoyant father. Preparing to set his needle on the very McCartney soundtrack that the girls pulled out with such triumphant zeal as soon as he was out of the door that day, he is mercifully oblivious to his beloved vinyl’s recent adventures.
Catching the number 43 after just a few minutes’ wait outside the perennially vandalised Chinese fish-and-chip shop, they make it round Asda in under half an hour, and without major incident (although Flora’s not-discreet-enough purchase of a packet of Durex provokes loudly-proclaimed revulsion from all three of the children), and now they are waiting outside the grubby supermarket for the taxi back to the house.
As each cab draws up in front of the rank, Flora steps nervously forward and asks if it’s for them. Each time she’s met with the same contemptuous response. When she repeats their surname (embarrassing enough, but her oh-so-middle-class pronunciation of it just makes the whole exchange excruciating) there’s an involuntary screwing-up of the driver’s face. Then angry silence and the man’s expressionless stare into the middle distance. Another family, usually made up of an over-weight, red-faced man in track-suit bottoms, a dishwater wife, and one or two wailing, white-and-blond toddlers, steps up, says their name (or not), and is whisked away.
“Did you tell them BARRYMORE? Did you?” demands the middle child suddenly, with the quizzical, singsong authority of a pubescent commandant.
Flora jumps out of her skin.
Carrie and Adam stare at Flora with equally accusatory intensity, but somehow she isn’t so terrified of them. Her heart is sinking all the same.
They’ve got her. She hasn’t done it. She meant to. She always gives that name normally. It makes the taxis come. But today she somehow felt that, well, perhaps she could give their real name when she made the call, that perhaps things weren’t as bad as they all imagined. Imagination did play its part in all this, sometimes, surely?
“I suppose we’ll have to walk,” she announces weakly. “Each of you, take a bag. We can cut across the field.”
The barren park is peaceful and green, and Flora allows herself to think banal thoughts. Can it really be true that this wasteland was the inspiration for Manhattan’s Central Park, as her envious colleagues across the water never stop reminding her? It seems so improbable.
Carrie chatters about the prospect of university in September, the specificity of which will not be revealed until the end of the month, and Flora feels ecstatic and distraught at the prospect of this, her eldest, most fragile child’s imminent escape. How will it feel to be apart from Carrie, Carrie, her littlest in so many ways, Carrie, the only one who’s ever really needed her? Carrie reminds Flora of herself in so many ways. Hated and bullied by the blonde bitches at school, intimidated at home by a younger, more socialised sister, and all for no reason! None! If Flora has been unable to protect her from Jacob’s whip, from Corinne’s tongue, from the howls and shrieks of the vicious girls at Bellevue, at least she can show her, at some point in the future, when the time’s right, that she understands.
Adam reminds Flora that he has a party coming up the next day, and Flora feels envious of the little boy’s bustling little prep-school social life. Adam doesn’t suffer. He’s the only one who doesn’t, hasn’t ever, not really. Jacob appears to have given up on a once-earnest project of limiting the garrulous boy-child’s multiple outings and social functions. (“He must be prepared early for when they begin their Rejection of him!”) At least Jacob has the capacity to rein in his excesses of sour megalomania after due consideration. Things aren’t as bad as all that.
And Corinne reiterates the importance of her deep-seated, animal-loving needs. Flora sighs, and tries once again to work out in her own head how on earth she could even be entertaining the idea of buying a horse for her second daughter, the frightening one, the distant one, once Jacob’s special little girl, but now nobody’s, a fledgling, an alien, a grumpy fucking Midwich cuckoo! Flora is, in fact, merely playing for time, stalling, clinging grimly to the vain hope that Corinne will forget about that horse, get off her back, perhaps eventually disappear in a puff of petulant smoke. Who exactly does this girl think she is? Why is she so angry all the time? What does she want from Flora? Really? They all have it bad in this house, all three women, not just Corinne.
What kind of life does Corinne think they’re living?
How could this terrible existence possibly leave anyone room for a horse?
It never stopped Holly, of course. Holly-horse, horsy-Holly. And all the while she, Flora, had nothing at all. Nothing but her books. And Elvis, of course. It makes her want to retch. Is Corinne actually turning into Holly? Flora sometimes wonders. Poor Carrie! It would be just like Holly to do something like that. Stranger things happen at sea. Though Corinne could never actually turn blonde, of course. Thank God. Not even at sea.
Flora does occasionally feel annoying stabs of pity for both her daughters over things they “ought” to be enjoying as teenage girls of 1988 – occasional summer holidays, perhaps, or parents with a car – but whenever these feelings pounce she immediately recalls (usually out loud) those times in Cornwall, back in the day, when she and Holly literally had NOTHING to eat.
Either way, one day they’ll be out of here, both of them, away from here, gone. Living their own lives, finding out for themselves how tough it all is: let them see how tricky it is to make the right decision all the time, when you’re hemmed in on every side, when nobody will help you, not your mother, not your husband, not anyone. Didn’t Flora pray for years and years and years to fly from her own horrible childhood home, to be far away from Mum and Holly? And didn’t the day of her Great Escape eventually arrive? Didn’t she make it all the way to Liverpool? Liverpool, beloved Liverpool, the place she first laid eyes on black faces, those kind faces, the first ones that ever made her feel like a human! And she forgave Mum and Holly all those sad, lonely years they caused her, didn’t she? She didn’t hold grudges! Escape will come for Carrie and Corinne too. You have to just get through girlhood, bear it, know it will all be over, sooner or later, one way or another.
Why does Corinne have to be so fucking angry about it all?
And why can’t she just forgive?
The park is unusually empty. Here and there a malnourished pair of brats kicks a ball round, or merely roams, but by and large there’s nobody about. Where are they all? Tenerife? New Brighton? Kwik Save? Flora really doesn’t care what the explanation is; she just feels grateful.
Carrie, interestingly, is the one to start it. Flora wasn’t expecting that. Flora has, of course, been waiting for something to start. She’s been waiting for it since the moment the four of them scurried out of the house. She’s been cowering in a stickily uncomfortable sludge of fear and resigned, guilty anticipation for over an hour now. There were mild clues that it was on its way in Asda. But the signs failed to develop properly. Now they are sidestepped without ceremony. Full-blown symptoms burst out in pussy lesions across the whole women-and-children body.
“So is he loving you tender? Your Brown-Eyed Handsome Man?”
This is Corinne’s cue-key to rush at the gored deer into which Flora has been fantastically transformed by the prick of Carrie’s poisonous rock n roll blessing. And rush she does, bronze daughter-fangs bared and dripping and gleeful.
“Of course he is! He was always on her mind. It’s been worth it, though. She’s worth it. England’s answer to…Peggy…Lipton! Our very own Mrs Quincy Jones. Or the other one – what’s Mary-Beth Lacey’s real name? Tyne Daly! Noble White Wives. Blue eyes crying in the rain.”
Vile, oh such bilious sarcasm!
Flora now bitterly regrets having so often mentioned the names of the minor American television actresses who, yes, are making this difficult, difficult kind of cross-cultural marriage work, despite all the odds, despite the world’s fucking predictions. She regrets too the enthusiasm with which she’s frequently praised even actresses who’ve merely acted out this kind of struggle on TV dramas, women who don’t even necessarily live it in their real lives, of course, but have performed it, stars like… but now, oh no, Adam’s joining in, Adam’s guessed her own train of thought, has beaten her regretful ruminations to it, is piping up:
“Like Jane Alexander in The Great White Hope!
Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue!
Kirstie Alley in North and South!
And introducing Katharine Houghton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?!”
Mercifully, there Adam’s bizarre, quasi-autistic catalogue of lily-skinned martyrs – twentieth-century Desdemonas (no, not Desdemonas: what a silly, racist cliché; Hesters, Hester Prynnes: that’s closer to how she feels) – comes to an abrupt end. There aren’t many more famous names (or even semi-famous names) that he can add to it, even if he wants to. It occurs to her that none of them has mentioned Dawn French, and for this she feels vaguely grateful. But that is probably more indicative of these children’s perplexing obsession with all things obscure. It is because of their relentless desire (so like that of their father) to root out all that is glamorously “collector” as opposed to the blandly “mainstream”, not the fear of wounding their mother’s pride in her neglected English brunette beauty, that they have not deigned to allude to the fat but happy British comedienne and her Lenny. Dawn or no Dawn, Flora looks down at Adam in hurt annoyance. He doesn’t seem to be aware of her, though, and is instead looking up at his two sisters, wrathful baby-mothers two and three, for their dark-woman approval.
And approval they give, bursting into cackles of laughter, skipping furiously, carrier bags mockingly swinging.
And, then: the inevitable masterstroke (but not Adam, thank God not Adam).
They begin to sing the song.
It starts sweetly, slowly, romantically, and the girls sing in perfect harmony. They have pretty voices, both of them, although Corinne’s is the stronger, the more aggressive of the two. Flora can’t place the song at first, or rather, of course she can place it (for it’s the McCartney song they rushed to yank out as soon as Jacob left that day; it’s Corinne’s audition song for Saturday Superstore; it’s the song from the awful film soundtrack that Jacob was putting on that very morning when they were leaving the house), but it isn’t until they reach the chorus that she understands why they’re singing it now. Singing it at her.
It is their operatic Judgment.
“No more Lonely Nights! No more Lonely Nights (duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh). No more Lonely Nights!”
At this point (the end of the chorus) they drop their bags, collapse into hysterical rolling, and turn round to look to see what’s happening to the wretched Mother Courage.
Flora has dropped her own bag and has begun to groan.
Her face has gone completely red, and tears stream from her grey eyes. As her groaning becomes louder, she puts her hands on the hem of her second-hand skirt and raises the skirt up to her waist, dancing on the spot as she continues to groan and her face becomes redder, her stockings and underwear on display for the three foul kids.
Let them look at this.
Adam, who has now also dropped his bag, stares at his dancing mother, his face expressionless, blank. Carrie and Corinne, however, carry on laughing, more aggressively, more contemptuously than ever.
“She’s doing it again, she is just like Carrie’s mother!” shouts Corinne with delight obscenely coupled with disgust. (It will only be a couple of years later, when the 12-year old Adam will lecture Flora for hours about the importance of his idol, a blonde, Texan actress, the more famous, cinematic “Carrie”, whose various melodramas he will beg her to watch with him on the Saturday evenings when Jacob goes into town, that she will begin to make any sense of Corinne’s seemingly tautological observation.)
And the two girls begin to pull their own hair in bizarre, jerking, violent, upward motions. Carrie pretends to slap herself across the face. Corinne actually does slap herself across the face. Flora hears the shocking Hollywood crack and sees a long red streak magically appear across her daughter’s brown cheek.
The laughter goes on and on, an unending peal of spite.
Flora feels as though hordes of black birds are flying towards her, into her face, scratching at her delicate skin, ripping it to shards with their filthy claws. She can see the birds in the sky, they’re in the trees, they’re coming. They want to shred her, rip her very soul apart. They want her blood, those birds. And those witch-daughters of hers. They’re in it together. Flora suddenly stops dancing and pulling at her skirts, and instead simply turns and runs. She doesn’t know where she’s running to. She knows simply that she has to get away. From the birds, from the laughter, from this enchanted grassland, from that ogre back at the house, and from these ungrateful goblin children.
Her face is hot and wet, her mind the usual fog.
She has been running for about ten seconds when a piercing shriek (it’s Carrie, she knows it’s Carrie) makes her stop reluctantly in her tracks and turn guiltily around to face what she’s left behind in the distance.
As she comes closer, she finds her daughters (such pretty girls, it’s a pity) bent over Adam, whose eyes, still expressionless, but staring directly at her, fill her with a sickly new level of guilt, the intensity of which is, even for her, somehow overwhelming.
It’s only when she’s right up close that she sees the blood pouring from both his nostrils, down onto his chin, and all over the grey-and- white stripy T-shirt that once belonged to Corinne. It flows down and down, in a pair of bright red unending streams.
The inexplicable and embarrassing thought occurs to her, as she stares back at him, quite paralysed, that her only son – he seemed so content! – may be having his first period.
Andrew Asibong was born in Derbyshire in 1977 and is the author of the novel Mameluke Bath (Open Books, 2013), as well as numerous books and articles on ‘minor’ (especially fantastical) literary and cinematic modes of expression. He lives in Tottenham in north London.