After the sun goes down, Mummy and I sit in the dark. I brush my hair, then my dolly’s, then mummy’s, slicing through the strands with my comb. When I hear Daddy’s key in the lock, I know it’s time to start.
“What has happened to Mummy?” Daddy stands in the doorway to the sitting room. He is lit from behind so his body is a giant shadow with fiery edges. The room is full of shadows that are thicker in the corners. Mummy says spiders live in dark, shadowy corners and they come out at night to stroke our skin with their thin legs. That’s why she hoovers their webs up in the daytime, when they’re asleep.
“Mummy is very tired,” I say. I do not look at mummy. I know she hasn’t moved from where she lies on the sofa with her hand covering her eyes and her hair fanned out over the cushions. Her hair is shiny from all the brushing. “Very very tired,” I say.
There is a bookcase that runs along the wall of the room. Daddy built it for me a long time ago and he chose the books for it with pretty, glittering covers. All the books start ‘once upon a time’ and they end ‘happily ever after’. Mummy doesn’t like these books. She tells me Daddy doesn’t understand anything, but I know he understands stories, so that’s what I’m going to tell him, even if the ones I have are different from the ones in the books. Even if they end in a different way.
Daddy’s shoes tap across the wooden floor to the sofa and I know he must be touching Mummy’s face, her hair. I brush my dolly’s cold skin with my fingers. I want to slap his hand back. Mummy doesn’t want to be touched. I will have to brush her hair again. I’m allowed to brush her hair because she says it’s soothing and it makes her head feel better. She says I am so gentle and that’s why she sometimes cries but they are not sad tears, but happy sad, because I am so gentle and so careful with her.
The only book on the bookshelf that mummy reads is an en-cyclo-paedia. Facts, she says, we need facts; we need things we can be sure of. She reads out loud to me, she reads that human hair is stronger than metal and it’s very hard to break. But then, Mummy adds, tapping the page, the encyclopaedia says that spider webs are even stronger, and look at what happens to them.
Daddy is calling Mummy. He is whispering her name. He sounds tired. He must be watching Mummy’s chest rising and falling and feeling her skin warm and her hair silky soft. I hear Daddy sigh. I am pleased he is going to listen. I am pleased he is not going to shout.
“Why is she tired?” he asks. “What happened today?”
“Mummy’s legs turned into a shiny tail like a mermaid so I took her to the swimming baths. She dove into the deepest part of the pool and she stayed under the water because she doesn’t need air to breathe. Mummy blew into the lock on the lion’s cage at the zoo and melted it. She told the lions they could run free wherever they liked as long as they all brushed their manes and washed their faces.”
“Which was it?” Daddy asks. “The swimming baths or the zoo?”
“Mummy showed me how to make boxes by folding huge sheets of shiny silver paper and then she made one as tall as she is and folded herself into it. We used my chalk to draw a blue flower on the pavement and Mummy stepped into the middle and went to sleep between the petals.”
“Didn’t you use up your chalk last month? You’ve been asking me to buy more–”
“Mummy collected feathers from the blackbirds and pigeons in the garden and we stuck them to tissue paper to make wings, then she flew up into the clouds. Mummy whistled and a rocket ship came down from the sky and she went in and jetted off to the moon. Mummy hiked up a rainbow and carried on going because she wanted to camp in the stars.”
He is quiet now. He listens and wonders what will come next. He does not look at mummy. He looks at me.
“Mummy is tired,” I say.
“So what should we do?” He has put down his briefcase. He has taken off his coat. He is kneeling on the floor, not saying ‘this hurts my knees.’ Not saying ‘my trousers will get creased.’
“We must be very quiet,” I tell him. “We must go upstairs, we must pack our things.”
He nods and nods, yes, he understands, now finally he understands and I am happy sad all over.
Daddy helps me bring my bag down the stairs. I watch him kiss Mummy on the cheek and then I kiss her on the cheek too, so she will feel my lips last because that is what she will want. I comb her hair back one last time. I put my dolly under my arm, close to my chest. I hold Daddy’s hand as we leave the house.
We walk down from the house, through the gate and onto the road with only the streetlamps to guide us. I squeeze Daddy’s hand. Now Mummy will stay. She will stay with the books and the spiders. She will read the only book she likes, to find facts she can be sure of. She will read about human hair and spider webs and how strong they are.
And maybe, in the quiet, she will think of what is not written and is stronger, so much stronger and never breaks. And when she’s ready, she might reach out for that strong thread and pull us back.
Sarah M Jasat grew up believing her family was very strange but later discovered she was Indian. She lives in Leicester, UK, and writes short fiction about the strangeness of family. She dreams about writing a novel for older children if only she could get her own child to go to sleep.