Fiona Mitford

Mum’s tongue goes right around her lips when she paints, just like a paintbrush. She likes to paint more than anything. My dad said she could have been a famous artist, but she married him instead. But then, he was crying drunk when he said it, so he could have been having a laugh.

Our hallway is covered in Mum’s paintings, and if you turn them over you can see their prices. She hangs her paintings at shopping malls and community centres and a couple of days later back we go, praying to see a red sticker. Mostly, we bring them all home again and put them back up in the hallway. But, as my dad says, ‘At least they’ve had a bit of an outing.’

She mainly paints what she calls ‘seascapes’. Our hallway is all foaming surf, jagged rocks and little boats tipping sideways, but there are no windows in the hallway so you need to turn the light on to see them.

A while back, she started painting words onto tiles; shiny white tiles about the size of your hand. She’s been painting the same words for days now. Every morning when my little brother Tom and I come out to the kitchen, she’s in the same place. Bent over the kitchen table; one hand pulling her hair back from her face into a ponytail. Her tongue moves in time with the tip of the brush.
‘I must go down to the sea again,’ I say, reading the words over her shoulder.
‘It’s just a poem,’ Mum tells us. She straightens, rubs her back, rolls her head from side to side. Her hair falls like a collar around her neck . ‘That’s when words rhyme and their nearness to each other makes them sound beautiful,’ she says. She places one hand on her neck and her fingers stroke her throat. ‘It’s when you find words like sky and goodbye and cry and … who knows why?’
Her voice just sounds like a sad song to me when she says those words. She reads from the tile. ‘I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’
‘See?’ she says smiling, but she’s saying it to the tile, not to us. ‘Now that’s a beautiful piece of rhyme.’

I say her words over and over in my head, but not out loud because sometimes if I talk too loud when she’s painting, she mucks things up. Then she has to start over and our tea’s late, and my dad comes in from a hard day’s work and there’s just broken rhyme all over the kitchen table and nothing else.

One time he came in and put his big hands on the table, and his fingers spread out wide over the tiles, as wide as two of them. And he said to Mum in a kind of quiet but slow voice, like my teacher does sometimes when I don’t understand, ‘Is this all we’ve got for dinner then? Bloody words again?’ But none of us laughed. And another time when I made her very late, his big hands swept right across the table to make some room and he knocked her tiles to the floor and my mother looked at him, and it felt like it was her who lay in sharp, little pieces on the kitchen floor.

Mum’s holding her paintbrush in front of her like the conductor of an orchestra. She’s staring through the glass sliding doors to outside where it’s all grey mist again and I wonder how she can look at nothing for so long. And when she turns at last, and looks at all the breakfast plates, the crumbs and spilt milk on the table, her eyes look surprised to find them still there, and she says to me in a voice that’s not much more than a whisper, ‘Would you throw those crusts out to the poor sparrows, Sean?’

I clear the table quietly, and wonder if Mum’s forgotten it’s nearly lunchtime. But it doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to see her put those brushes in the jam jars on the window sill beside her geranium slips. We kneel on the floor in her bedroom and I hand her the tiles, one at a time. She wraps each one in creased, pale yellow tissue paper and lays them gently in a cardboard box. She clears her throat all the time, like she’s not sure if her voice will come when she needs to speak.
‘I think we should go see your grandma today Sean,’ she says, and I try to see her eyes, but her eyes are watching her hands closing the lid of the cardboard box. We don’t see my grandma much any more. She doesn’t live far away but Mum says we’re just a bit too busy for visiting these days. Dad says he’d rather watch grass grow than sit over at her place. Sometimes though, I know he thinks about grandma.

We’d gone to the apple orchards one day. Tom and I had played in all the orange and red leaves while Dad loaded up the boot with golden delicious and grannies. On the drive back Dad had one hand on the wheel and the other holding a huge golden delicious. He ate it in about five great bites, right down till you could see the black seeds in the core and then, just as we got to Grandma’s turn-off, he wound his window down and threw the core out, sort of angry. It was like he’d saved throwing it till then.

And one cold, wet Sunday when we’d driven out to Piha, and Tom and I chased each other along the wet black sand until our jeans rubbed our ankles raw. Driving home, I watched Dad from the back seat. He had the wipers on full and the car was all steamed up with our breathing. As we got near Grandma’s turn-off, I could see his knuckles turn white on the steering wheel and he squeezed that wheel like it was something he hated. Tom was asleep and he thought I was too, but I heard him say it. ‘It’s up to you.’
My mum looked down at her hands and out at the road and she seemed to lean a little nearer towards her window, but he never slowed the car down. And then the turn-off was way, way behind us, and I heard him say in his quiet, gentle voice, ‘Maybe next time then.’

So while Mum puts her red lipstick on, I get Tom’s duffel coat and button him into it before she changes her mind. I make sure to strap his seatbelt tight across his body so that if we have an accident we won’t shoot like bullets through the windscreen, and smash on the tar-seal.

As we drive to Grandma’s, I’m thinking about the YMCA camp day trips we did last week, and me, singing ‘Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam’ with the other kids in the bus on the way out to Meremere. I counted 342 empty coal buckets going round and round on the conveyor belts. And there was that great day we had at Mangere. Hanging around for hours at the viewing platform, and me, rubbing my arms, wishing that mist would clear. And then, just when I’d about given up, seeing those huge planes lift like giant seagulls, up and out through the mist, taking people to places I’d never even heard of. It was worth the wait though, that’s for sure. So, I’m miles away, dreaming, when I hear Mum say in her sing-song voice, ‘Here we are then.’

Grandma’s lawn is special. It’s got lovely, soft grass called kikuyu and when I was here once in the summer, a long time ago, I took my sandals off and the grass was springy under my feet. A lady was laughing in the house next door and there was a man over the back fence mowing his lawn while his kids played on their swings. It felt so nice to be there, that I lay down on my back, shut my eyes against the sun and let the soft needles tickle my head. But that was a sunny day. It’s grey today, a real ‘pea-souper’, as Mum would say, and all I can see is Grandma’s front steps, the daphne bush by the letterbox and the two dead hydrangeas that Mum planted here last Christmas.

Mum presses the little ringer beside the box on the door that says Sorry we missed you … please leave a note. Tom and I each grab one of Mum’s hands.
‘Just like two little counterweights,’ she says. I’m not sure what she means, but it sounds happy, so I smile. I’m still smiling up at her when Grandma opens the door and says, ‘Hello strangers!’ with a laughing voice. And I want to laugh too, but Mum squeezes my hand. Not a soft squeeze – it’s hard and it hurts – but I don’t say anything. She drops my hand and I pick at a scab on my leg, which is just asking for trouble. She gives me a slap, but it’s just a soft one on the top of my head.
‘You look a bit peaky you do,’ Grandma says, squinting at Mum. She turns before Mum can answer her. ‘A bit green around the gills are you then?’ she says, walking ahead up the hall.
Mum says, ‘Hello Mum.’

All the walls and ceilings in Grandma’s house are browny-yellow. Mum would call it rich ochre or burnt sienna. I watch Mum running her finger around the inside of a cup. She picks up one of Grandma’s tea towels, sniffs it, puts it back on the sink and then dries her cup on her skirt. There’s a big white square on the brown wall near the sink that wasn’t there last Christmas.
‘Moved the fridge then, Mum?’ she says, and her laugh is just like Grandma’s. But Grandma’s in a big hurry today. She needs to get to the radio to check who’s running in the next race and her slippers make little scuff-scuff sounds on the lino. She takes a pen from her pocket and makes a mark in her bible. I know it’s not a real bible but my dad calls it her bible because it never leaves her side.

Grandma’s got two cats on her kitchen table. There’s one for each end. They’re called Ginger and Stripey, and Grandma says, ‘That’s just what they are.’ I love cats, but we mustn’t touch them. They’re very old, like Grandma, and they don’t like kids much. She turns the volume down and her tiny black velvet slippers scuff-scuff-scuff back to the kitchen.
‘I’ll just open us a tin of salmon for lunch,’ she calls, and the old cats leap down from the table and run in and out of her legs, like ribbons. Mum brushes her hand along the table top. Fur floats to the floor.
‘Nothing for me thanks, Mum,’ she says.

I lean against Mum’s chair and drape one arm around her shoulder, but she’s looking out the window at the mist.
‘Mum?’ I say, and she looks at me. But it’s the look she gives you when she’s painting or reading her poems. When her eyes meet yours you can be standing so close to her that you can see yourself in the black bits in her eyes, but you know she’s not really seeing you at all.
‘If only this mist would lift,’ she says after a long time. There’s no one else in the room but me and Mum, but I know she’s not saying it to me. I watch her run her finger through the puddles on the window sill, making them into one big pool.
‘Five minutes!’ Grandma says, mashing the pink and silvery mound with the back of a fork. Her cough sounds like water trickling over broken glass. She takes a cigarette from her cardigan pocket, taps the end twice on the table and places it in her mouth. She cups one hand around the flame of the match, so it doesn’t die. She used to let me blow the flame out, but I’m ten now and big for my age. She strokes the cover of her bible.
‘He’s running in five minutes,’ she says again. Smoke leaves her mouth in wiggly white puffs as she speaks. She nods her head up and down to thank the man in the wireless for letting us know.
I try to lean my head on Mum’s shoulder but she pulls away from me towards the window.
‘Into the lounge Sean, please, and keep Tom happy,’ she says, and her words come out with a big woosh of air behind them. I pretend not to hear her and hook my leg over her crossed ones, but she pushes me.
‘Off!’ she says, and jerks her head towards the lounge.

Tom’s only just five and he’s always whining. He wants to make houses out of the lounge cushions but they keep caving in and everything smells in here. It smells like there was a fire a long time ago, but that’s stupid. I know there wasn’t. The walls are all browny and all the Toby jugs around the mantelpiece are laughing at me, and the blinds are closed and now my guts hurt. So I just watch my mum sitting at the table through the doors with the wavy glass that makes everyone look shimmery.

Grandma leans forward in her chair getting as close as she can to the man in the wireless and he’s shouting ‘and they’re coming in for the last turn!’and that’s when I hear above his voice my mother say ‘Mum’. Her voice sounds a bit like mine does when I wake up from a nightmare and there’s only dark. But that man’s shouting louder now and Grandma holds up her hand to stop whatever my mum wants to say, and ash falls from her smoke onto the lino and she stubs it out with her slipper like she’s doing the twist.
‘Just hold on,’ she coughs. ‘Just hold on a minute now. I’ve got a fiver each way on Mista Majestik.’
And my mum just holds on. And pretty soon Grandma opens the glass doors and throws her bible into my lap.
‘Maybe you’ll pick out a couple of winners for your poor old grandma?’

She pulls the doors together behind her. I wait for a minute then nudge the opening with my foot. I hear the hum of the heater. The man in the radio has gone.
‘How far along are you, then?’ I hear my grandma ask. And my mum just sort of flops her head onto her hands on the table. And then again, she asks her, and she’s sort of shaking my mum’s arm.
‘I said how far, for Christ’s sake?’
Grandma’s chair scrapes hard against the lino as she stands, and moves towards Mum, and her voice sounds like my father’s, and my guts really hurt now, so I push open the glass door and stand behind Mum’s chair and I say, ‘How far is what, Mum?’ My voice sounds funny and my throat feels like there’s a something big in the back where you swallow. Mum just lifts her head up from the table and turns to look at me, more fur floats down to the floor, and she says ‘Oh Jesus!’ So I know it must be a very long way.

Grandma opens a door in the china cabinet where she keeps all her treasures, and gives me a packet of jubes – a whole packet. I look at Mum, her eyes are red, and there’s a red rash up her neck. I wrap my arms around her chair.
‘Leave your mother,’ Grandma says. ‘Outside now, and take your brother.’
She pushes Tom and I towards the back steps.
‘It’ll pour soon,’ she says, ‘and then you’ll be all wishing you’d got out when you had your chance.’

The sky outside is the dark charcoal of one of Mum’s pastels. Thunder rolls a long way off. I hear the clack-a-ta, clack-a-ta, clack-a-ta of a train somewhere and listen until it’s gone. I leave my brother on the back steps with the jubes, and open the door to Grandma’s outhouse. The walls are soft sepia. The water in the bowl is almost black. My grandma has torn up strips of the New Zealand Truth for toilet paper and hung them on a wire hanger. I sit there, as fat raindrops splash onto the iron roof, piecing torn pages together, looking for beautiful rhymes.

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Other work by Fiona Mitford - Nourishment