Book Week Scotland 2016
We're almost at the end of Book Week Scotland. Here's our penultimate writing offering. It's a short story, but from a different author.
Everyone always said that Pa must have had a secret lady-friend to keep house for him after Ma upped sticks and left. Otherwise, they’d hiss to each other when they saw us, how could he manage with three children, all under seven? Well, there’s that older girl, but she’s no good with the little ones.
They were absolutely right; I was terrible with my little brothers and sister. I was much more interested in going into town on the bus and hitchhiking my way back in the darkness. Most nights Pa would’ve had a drink before I got home and, when I asked him why he didn’t worry about me, he’d slur back that “your Ma’ll take care of you”. That’s what the drink always did to him: make him think that Ma was a kind of angel.
Truth be told, I never really liked Ma. I was always a Daddy’s Girl and it used to upset me that she was so unkind to him, always snapping about how he’d ruined her life. I’d always figured that was because she was seventeen when I was born. Pa was nine years older: he’d had chance to make a mark on the world and, if what Ma said in anger was true, fall in love at least once before.
For me, there was something infinitely forgettable about Ma. My first memory of her was at the school gates when I was five and I remember resenting her because she wasn’t Pa. I was eight when my first little brother was born, then ten for the second. Then we moved to the Old Rectory, which Pa loved. Just nine months before Ma absconded with her yoga instructor, my little sister came along.
I wasn’t sorry to see the back of Ma. She’d never really loved me like the others, but Pa would extol her virtues whenever she wasn’t there, saying things like: “do you know, Penelope, your Ma was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen”. That I could believe. She knew it and everyone knew it, including the yoga instructor. But Pa came out with others, like “there’s never been a more generous soul” and “nothing was too much for your Ma, she’d do anything to help people”. That didn’t sound like Ma at all. She’d shake her head at charity workers and believed that buying a poppy every November made her a philanthropist.
Once she was gone and the drinking became more frequent, Pa would say these things over and over again. At times I wanted to shake him for forgetting who she really was, but mostly I just felt sad that his memories were skew-whiff. But despite all the drinking, he somehow managed to keep the house in brilliant working order.
I’d leave him passed out on an armchair in the study at half past midnight and then awake to find him in the same place. Yet, at some point, he’d got up and set everything out for breakfast. And there were always neat, clean clothes for the little ones, despite the fact that Pa couldn’t work the washing machine before Ma left, much less the iron. He didn’t always remember to buy food, but there was always something to eat, even if it came from the untended vegetable plot.
I eventually came to the conclusion that Pa was the epitome of Resourceful. But that didn’t help when it came to finances and, a year after Ma left, we started getting letters from the bank threatening to foreclose on the mortgage. Ma was the one with the money, and she hadn’t left Pa a penny more than he needed to feed and clothe us.
Pa’s reaction was “your Ma won’t let that happen, Penelope. She’ll make sure we get to stay here.”
That time, I shouted that he needed to take off the rose-tinted glasses and accept that Ma had left us all very much on our own. He just smiled and shook his head with a laugh. “Your Ma understands how important this place is. She’ll make sure we keep it, mark my words.”
That was the final straw. I couldn’t bear to hear him sticking up for her. I stormed out and slammed the door behind me, heading into town to meet up with friends, drinking cider and smoking cigarettes behind the cinema. It was almost three in the morning before I managed to get home, embarrassed about the reek of fags and booze that hung around me.
I could hear Pa snoring in the study, and I peered in to make sure he was alright. Sure enough, even in my own stupor I could see that he had indulged too much and was sleeping it off, with the last can resting on his round stomach. I turned to go but heard someone switching on the washing machine in the utility room. You couldn’t have heard it from upstairs but down here it was unmistakable. By the time I stumbled into the utility room though, the only sound I could hear were footsteps hurrying up the stairs to my brothers’ bedroom.
The noises stopped, and I realised that one of the boys must have taken it on themselves to look after everyone; although how a six year old could have done that I’m not sure. Feeling guilty that one of my little brothers had felt it necessary to look after me in just the way I had refused to look after them, I walked slowly towards my room. Another sound reached my ears: my little sister’s determined toddler chatter, happily nattering away to someone. I pushed open the door and found her sitting on her bed, looking from me to the darkest corner of her room.
“Who’s there?” I demanded, trying to hide my surprise at how loud my voice sounded, as though all the other noises had been impossibly quiet.
My little sister pointed into the corner. At first I could see no one but, just as I turned my head away, the shadows seemed to flicker and I saw a young woman staring back at me.
“Your Ma,” my little sister said quietly and then settled down to sleep, as though this was the most unremarkable thing ever. I looked back at the dark corner of the room and the shadows creased into the shape of the woman raising her hand to her face to blow a cobwebby kiss in my direction.
Shortly after that, Pa went away (we found out later that he’d been in hospital) and we stayed with Nana. She insisted on the Old Rectory being sold and, when I overheard Pa challenging her about it, she tutted at him. “Really, Oliver, you can’t spend your whole life chasing after ghosts. Let her rest and there’s an end to it. No wonder Lynne left you when you moved there; it was always going to end badly.”
I never heard his response, but later I found myself wondering whether the ghost was still standing in the shadows of the Old Rectory, or whether she had only been there because she was glad to find Pa again as he had been to find her.