‘Mummy?’ Anna called ahead, as was her habit, making her way along the hallway of their flat, stepping over her school shoes that were lined up side by side underneath the radiator. Their laces had been looped on the outside, making it a doddle for her to slip them on. This was just one of the small things her mummy did to make her life easier. She also cut Anna’s toast into soldiers so she could hold a slice in her fingers and still colour in with her free hand. And she turned down Anna’s bed at night so when her teeth had been cleaned, Anna could, with no more than a hop, a skip and a jump from the bathroom across the narrow hallway, land in her bed and onto the stripey, bobbly, flannelette sheet.
‘Mum?’ She pushed open the lounge door and stared at the scene that greeted her. ‘What’re you doing?’
Anna watched curiously from the doorway as her mum, Karen, waggled the long, unattached flexy Hoover hose above her head, darting forward and then jumping back, twisting this way and that, jabbing it into thin air.
‘I’m trying to catch this spider without hurting it!’
‘With a piece of the Hoover?’
‘I thought it was a good idea until you arrived to watch!’ Her mum laughed, leapt onto the worn, sagging sofa and poked again at the speedy spider, who darted away across the ceiling, quicker than she could react and further than she could reach. ‘I think I need a plan B.’ She chuckled, jumped down off the sofa, dropped the hose and placed her hands on her hips. She often did this when she was trying to figure something out.
‘Why don’t you just open the big window and let him crawl out?’ Anna said.
‘Or her.’ Her mum smiled at her briefly and then did a double-take, before making her way to the window to do just that. ‘My clever girl, let’s try it. You know I like the fresh air. Darling, I must ask, what have you got on your head?’
Anna liked to make her mum laugh and she delighted in the giggle that now bounced off the walls of the little square lounge.
‘I’m getting married!’ she announced, adjusting the white pillowslip that sat loosely on her head and cascaded down her back like a cotton veil.
‘Ah, I see. And where’s my invite?’
‘It got lost in the post.’
This retort was enough to send her mum into pleasing fits of laughter once again.
‘That’s why I’ve come to get you.’
‘Ah, quick thinking.’ Her mum tapped the side of her nose with her finger. ‘Where are you getting married?’
‘In my bedroom. Meet me there in three minutes!’ And Anna rushed off to continue with her important preparations.
As instructed, her mum loped in and sat down on the edge of the single bed, folding her hands in her lap.
‘Well, it’s a good job I was only in the lounge. I would hate to have missed my girl’s big day. No girl wants to get married without her mum there.’ She smiled. ‘But I do wish I’d had a bit more notice, I’d have got my hair done and probably put a frock on.’ She ran her fingers through her long fringe.
‘You look fine,’ Anna said reassuringly, in the way she had heard her mum and Maura do on many an occasion as they checked their reflections in the hall mirror before leaving the flat. She flicked the pillowcase over her shoulder, as if swishing her long locks.
Her mum picked up the pale green, cloth-covered copy of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Anna wasn’t entirely sure where the book had come from, but she couldn’t remember a time when it didn’t have a place among her things. She was too little to read it for herself, but her mum read her bits of it when the fancy took her, often after a glass of wine. For some reason, holding the book and reading aloud always made her mum sad, which was odd as it always made Anna very happy.
Her mum put the book down sharply and turned to face her. ‘So who are you marrying? Someone nice, I hope?’
‘I’m going to marry Joe.’
‘Oh, how lovely!’ Her mum clapped.
‘Joe is my bestest friend, he gives me a piggyback when we come back from the park and I know if anyone was mean to me, Joe would get them for me.’
Her mum laughed, nervously. ‘Yes, I suspect he would.’
It made perfect sense to Anna. There was no one in the whole wide world she loved as much as her big brother.
‘You might have a bit of a wait for your ceremony, Anna.’ Her mum glanced at the little watch on her wrist. ‘He’s not in from school for another hour or so.’
‘I know! This is just a practice and I wanted to line all my teddies up.’ She pointed at the row of soft toys propped against the wardrobe door on the narrow strip of carpet in the tiny room.
‘And I see they have all dressed for the occasion.’ Her mum nodded at the toys, who were adorned with hair clips and necklaces; one even sported a hat made out of a red paper napkin.
Anna beamed, delighted that her efforts hadn’t gone unnoticed.
‘Where are you having your wedding breakfast?’
‘That’s what they call it,’ her mum explained, ‘a wedding breakfast. That’s the meal you have after you get married, even if it’s at teatime.’
‘Do you have cornflakes and toast?’
‘No, you can have whatever you want, because you are the bride and it’s your special day. It’s like being a princess for a day and everybody will do what you want them to.’
Anna liked the idea of this very much. As princess for a day, she’d probably get everyone to make her jam sandwiches and help her come up with dance routines. ‘I am going to get married and have two babies, a boy and a girl.’
Her mum reached down and ran her palm over the top of Anna’s head. ‘Well, that sounds like a plan. My mum had two girls – Lizzie, my older sister, and me. I always thought I was very smart to have one of each and I highly recommend it! I didn’t mind what I got, a boy or a girl.’
‘So’ – Anna considered this – ‘if I had come first, I would have been a boy called Joe!’
‘Yes, you would.’
‘And Joe would have been a girl called Anna!’ She wrinkled her nose at this absurd idea.
Her mum paused. ‘I was always dead set on the name Joe. And truth be told, I didn’t really know what my little girl was going to be called, but then I took one look at you and you were definitely an Anna. My little Anna.’
‘I think I will have my little girl first and then my boy.’ She nodded, making the decision right there and then.
‘Good choice.’ Her mum smiled. ‘And what will you call them?’
There was a moment while Anna let out a long, low hum, tapping her finger on her mouth and thinking of the names that most appealed. ‘I will call my little girl Fifi and my boy will be called Fox.’
‘Fifi and Fox?’ Her mum leant back and laughed. ‘Anna, I love the names Fifi and Fox!’
Anna laughed too, happy that her mum approved of her choices. ‘Do you think someone will want to marry me?’
‘Oh, baby girl, I think everyone will want to marry you! They’d be mad not to. You are wonderful and you are only going to get more wonderful. You are my little gift that I never expected and it was the best present the universe could ever have given me.’
Anna beamed, showing the gap in her front teeth where one had fallen out; its replacement had yet to appear. She also liked the idea of being presented as a gift. Her smile faltered at the earnest expression that flashed across her mum’s face.
‘But you know, what you eat on your wedding day isn’t really that important. In fact whether you get married or not isn’t really important. The thing that matters most is that you spend your time with someone who loves you very much and who you love right back, someone who is kind to you and who you in return want to be kind to.’
Anna stared at her mum, figuring this required further investigation.
‘But... But how do you know, Mum, if it’s the right person?’ The idea of getting it wrong felt more than a little scary.
‘Ah, you don’t have to worry, that’s the easy bit.’ Her mum blinked slowly and smiled with her lips in a thin line, the way she did when she was talking about one thing but thinking about another. ‘It will be someone who makes it seem as if it’s sunny, even on a rainy day.’
‘Did you get married, Mum?’
‘No.’ She bit her bottom lip. ‘No, I have never been married.’ She shook her hair from her eyes.
‘Did you want to marry Joe’s dad?’ Anna fidgeted with the button eyes on a teddy usher, welcoming the distraction, aware that this topic was usually off limits. The words sitting like something bitter in her mouth.
‘No, love. No, I didn’t. I am thankful for Joe, but his dad...?’ She exhaled. ‘He was a proper handful. I thought I could fix him, but life doesn’t really work like that and it took me a while to figure that one out. I think I always knew we were on a timer.’ She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. ‘Long while ago now.’
Anna nodded, as if she had the faintest idea what a proper handful was and what it meant to be on a timer.
‘Did you want to marry my daddy?’ This she whispered.
There was a beat of silence before her mum answered. Anna heard her sharp intake of breath.
‘Truthfully, of all the people I have ever loved, he is the one I think I could have married. He was a lovely man. Is a lovely man,’ she corrected. ‘He made my life sunny and then he gave me you.’
‘He drives a black cab, doesn’t he?’ Anna filled in the small detail that she carried around inside her head, a precious snippet of information that she used to try and build a picture of her daddy. Since this fact had come to light, whenever she got the chance she stared at cabbies who had dark, straight hair like hers, waiting to see if any of them might roll their tongue. This, Joe had told her, was a skill inherited from your mum or dad, and as her mum couldn’t do it...
‘Yes, he does,’ her mum said with an obvious lump in her throat. ‘And his name is Michael.’
She stared at her mum, who looked dreamily towards the window. This news had been offered so casually, almost as an afterthought, and yet for Anna it was a bright jewel of information that would glow inside her head for ever. My daddy is called Michael! Michael...
‘So...’ Anna proceeded with caution, desperate for details but nervous all the same, her voice barely more than a whisper. ‘If you thought Michael was lovely and he took away your rain, why didn’t you marry him?’
Anna looked up at the unmistakeable sound of her mum crying. She instantly felt guilty, knowing that more likely than not it was her questions that had caused this. She had a sad, sicky feeling in her tum and wished they could go back to laughing.
‘Because he was married to someone else,’ her mum managed. Fat tears rolled down her cheeks, which she wiped away with the tips of her fingers.
Anna took a step closer and placed her small hand on the side of her mum’s face. ‘It’s okay, Mummy.’
This had the surprising result of making her mum cry harder. Anna toyed with the idea of calling off her wedding, but she had gone to a lot of trouble and her teddies would be most disappointed. It was as if her mum had read her thoughts.
‘But please don’t let my tears spoil your wedding day. In fact, tears are almost obligatory on your wedding day, so I’m told.’ She sniffed loudly and smiled, a fake smile intended to reassure but which had the opposite effect.
Anna’s mum had cried last week too, and this memory was enough to make Anna hold back her own sudden urge to cry. They had been walking down the high street from Honor Oak Park station and as they’d stood on the side of the road by the crossing, waiting for the traffic to stop, her mum had suddenly grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back towards the wall. She’d bent down low, taking Anna with her, as if she wanted them both to fall right into it and disappear. When she spoke, her voice had been shaky and her eyes had swum with little pools of tears.
‘What’s wrong, Mummy?’ Anna had asked, afraid of this odd situation. Her mum was squeezing her arm so tightly it hurt.
‘It’s okay.’ Her mum had smiled broadly, even though her lips quivered in a way that told her the exact opposite was true. ‘We are just going to crouch down and stay here for a second or two...’ She swallowed. ‘It’s a game! Like statues. How still and quiet can you be?’
Anna stared at her, being as still and quiet as she could. Her mum usually counted her in when a game began, but she understood that this game had started the moment they’d jumped back from the crossing.
Her mum raised her chin, twisted her neck and watched the row of cars roar past, then stood up. ‘Come on, Pickle.’ She reached down and calmly took Anna’s hand and they had walked home as if nothing had happened.
This felt just like that – odd and as if her mum was fibbing a bit.
‘Joe will be home soon and we need everything to be just so. What do you fancy for your tea?’ her mum asked with new enthusiasm.
Anna jigged on the spot, happy at the change to her mum’s mood. ‘I don’t mind.’
‘And I don’t know why I bother asking you and Joe – you both always say “Don’t mind!”. I might give you something really disgusting one night and I bet the next night you’d be full of good suggestions.’
‘Ooh, I don’t know, snail stew or cooked tomatoes!’ She laughed, knowing the latter was on her daughter’s banned list.
‘I hate cooked tomatoes!’
‘What? More than snail stew? Eeuuuw!’ They both laughed. ‘What did you do today at school, anything good?’
Anna nodded. ‘We did a bit more on our project, “Under the Sea”.’
‘That sounds brilliant. How’s the collage coming along?’
‘Really good!’ Anna nodded energetically. ‘Mrs Jackson picked my squid to go in the middle.’ She adjusted her pillowcase headdress, which was in danger of slipping off her rather fine, shiny hair.
‘Good for you, baby girl. That’s wonderful! It’s given me an idea – maybe we could have squid for tea?’ Grabbing her daughter’s hand, she kissed her knuckles, entwining Anna’s fingers with her own.
‘Oh no, Mum! I could never eat squid. They are too cute. Plus I bet they’d be all slimy and rubbery, some of them look like plastic bags.’
‘You’re right. I think we’ll stick to sausage and chips.’
‘That’s my fav-ou-rite!’ Anna jumped up and down, as if this coincidence was more excitement than she could take at this time of day.
‘Well, I never did!’ Her mum laughed.
Anna felt an extra-strong rush of love for her mum, who made everything feel okay.
‘I’ve just had an epic idea! We could make a wedding cake if you like? I think I have the ingredients for a lovely Victoria sandwich and you could make a decoration for the top!’
‘Yes! Yes!’ Anna squealed her delight, rushing from the bedroom and into the kitchen, eager to get started.
It was half an hour later, as they sat at the kitchen table with two golden rounds of sponge slowly rising into domes in the oven, that they heard the sound of Joe’s key in the door.
‘He’s home!’ Anna gasped with delight, her eyes bright. Her brother was always the best playmate, jumping into any part with gusto.
She heard Joe slam the front door behind him and make his way into the bedroom next to the kitchen, slamming that door too.
Her mum blinked rapidly and gave a small cough to clear her throat. ‘You wait here, darling. I’ll go and give the groom a shout.’
Her mum hesitated in the doorway. ‘While I chat to Joe, I want you to do something for me.’
‘Okay.’ Anna nodded.
‘I want you to go round the room with your eyes and try to think of something in here for every letter of the alphabet. Don’t worry if you get the alphabet wrong, but do as many as you can! I’ll start you off. A... apples!’ She pointed at the fruit bowl.
Anna got the gist. ‘B...’ she said aloud. ‘Bananas.’ Also in the fruit bowl.
‘That’s it!’ She gave her daughter a less than convincing wink that all was well and left Anna at the table.
C... cup. Anna used her index finger to draw shapes in the fine dusting of flour that now coated the shiny work surface. D... dishes. E... eggs. G... G... No, wait a minute, it’s not G next... I’ll skip to I...
It was impossible not to hear the loud shouts being exchanged only feet from where she sat, even though she tried hard not to listen. She tried to sing in her head, tried to concentrate on the image of the fabulous blue squid she’d painted and that Mrs Jackson had picked as the best in the class, but it was no good. Anna was forced to listen to the angry words being hurled back and forth like sharp things between the two people she loved most in the whole wide world. It made her heart beat quickly and her face felt warm.
I think I might write a letter to Fifi and Fox. I can do it in my rough book and rip the page out. I’ll do my best writing...
‘Only weed?’ her mum was saying sarcastically. ‘Do you have any idea how stupid you sound? You are fifteen! Fifteen! Christ, when I was your age—’
‘Oh God, here we go... When you were my age you were practically a nun, studying and being perfect, living a perfect life and being the perfect child. Well, I’m not you, Mum!’
‘No, you’re not, because I would never have spoken to my mum like that, and for the record, I don’t expect you to be me and, actually, my life was far from perfect.’
Anna heard Joe snort. She drew jagged lines in the flour with her fingertip.
L... leg. N... nits. What comes next – is it P? I think it might be. Petals...
‘I am so worried about you, Joe. And to make me worry like this is just not fair! You are only fifteen and I am responsible for you. I hate how you care so little what you put me through. Believe it or not, there are some things in life that I know more about than you do – and don’t roll your eyes when I am talking to you!’
‘For fuck’s sake, I didn’t!’
‘And don’t swear!’ Her mum was screaming now and it sent a jolt of anxiety through her six-year-old veins.
‘I can’t do anything right!’ her brother yelled.
‘You can. You can do lots right, and one of the things you can do right is to stop smoking that noxious stuff with your friends.’
‘It’s not noxious – it’s less harmful than a cigarette. They’ve done loads of research.’
‘Christ, Joe! Do you think I know nothing about the world? Give me some credit. You think you’re inventing smoking dope and drinking with your mates, but you’re not! You’re just doing what every other fifteen-year-old who is going off the rails has done for ever.’
‘I am not going off the rails!’
‘You are missing school, Joe! I know you are. I never see you study or do your homework, and smoking drugs is only a small part of it for me. All of these activities are wrapped in dishonesty, which is not how you were raised. It’s the crowd you hang around with and your lack of direction, this is what bothers me.’
‘Oh not this again! You’ve never liked my mates!’
Anna heard Joe stomp across the floor, then the sound of his bedsprings flexing.
There was a moment of quiet. Anna heard a new tone to her mum’s voice now and it helped her tummy unknot a little.
‘I love you so much, Joe. I can only keep telling you that I love you because it’s the truth, but I am scared for your future. I fear that smoking weed or whatever you want to call it is a stepping stone towards other drugs, other habits, and that scares me more than I can say.’
‘I’m not stupid!’
‘I know, but I have seen intelligent people fall into the grip of drugs and it destroys lives, it takes away all the things that you have every right to expect – a job, family life, a future.’
‘You are talking about my dad, right?’ Joe asked, quieter now.
Her mum evaded a direct response. ‘You are not stupid, Joe. You are smart and brilliant and that’s why it would be such a terrible, terrible shame to see all of your wonderful potential go to waste.’
Anna didn’t hear what Joe said next as his words were reduced to a whisper.
Her mum came back into the kitchen and reached for the padded oven glove in the shape of a crocodile’s head. It usually made her laugh, especially when her mum snapped it at her, but she didn’t feel like laughing right now. Anna watched as her mum opened the oven door and removed the two slightly overcooked sponges, laying them on the cooling rack that sat on the plastic tray with red and orange flowers hand-painted on one side.
‘Is... Is Joe all right?’ she whispered.
‘Yes, he’ll be fine.’ Her mum braced her arms against the sink and stared out of the window at the brick wall of the neighbouring property. Their eyes were, as ever, drawn to the green streak of moss that glistened against the orangey bricks and the leaky old pipe above it. ‘God, I hate this room. It’s so dark. I dream about having a kitchen with a big wide window overlooking a garden, and I’d have it open all of the time, with a lovely breeze coming in and the scent of flowers filling the place. Wouldn’t that be lovely, Anna?’
Anna got the impression she wasn’t expected to reply to that. ‘I did it, Mum. I got as far as S for salt.’
Her mum nodded, still avoiding her gaze. Her shoulders straightened a little. When she eventually spoke, she sounded weary.
‘It’s a good distraction, Anna, my alphabet game. You should remember it. When your thoughts are too loud, or you feel afraid or you just want to pass the time, you can go through the alphabet and find things to match the letters. By the time you get to Z, things have usually calmed a little, or you will at least have taken the time to breathe.’
Anna stared at her mum’s slightly bowed back and then at the rust-coloured sponge cakes that she no longer felt like decorating. She knew there was not going to be a wedding today after all. Reaching her hand up her back, she yanked at the pillowcase, pulling it from her head and letting it fall onto the chair.
Her tummy rumbled, but she knew this was not the time to ask about the sausage and chips she had been promised for her tea. Instead, she ran to her bedroom, returning with her rough book and a fistful of felt-tipped pens, some with the nibs pushed up inside the casing, though this fact was only revealed when it came to using them.
Anna sat herself in the big chair and laid her pens in a faded rainbow on the table, then opened her book. It was chockfull of doodles, pictures, words and lists. Her mum smiled at her over her shoulder before busying herself at the sink. Anna stuck out her tongue and began:
deer fifi fox
my nam is anna cole I six I yam yor mummy
not yor mummy now but in lots of time
my techr is missrs jacksun she is very nis but smels like ham
i did a blu skwid
my brother is nam joe and he bigr than me
my mummy is karen she is reelly reelly good singr
she sings al the time.
I wil rite you letas and you read them when you ar big.