Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Would You Just... Help Your Mum With The Shopping?

I'm at my mum's house trying to clean her kitchen. "Trying" being the operative word.

My mum is a hoarder. Not in the sense of stacking newspapers dating back to the seventies against the walls, or hiding mason jars filled with urine under the beds, but she does have trouble throwing things away. She wants to keep everything, finds meaning, memory, in everything.

"What about this?" I say, holding up a small and badly-painted plastic dog figurine, the kind you might get free with an RSPCA membership, perhaps.

"Oh, no," my mum says. "He's special."

"These?" I point to the mountain of half-empty Tic Tac boxes I've found.

Long sigh. "Well, I suppose. Although if they're different flavours..."

I usually leave my mum to her Ways. I'm not home often, and the odd evenings I do pop by we find enough about politics and religion and my future to argue about without bringing her house into it. But this is different. My girlfriend and I, after a long period pretending things were working when they evidently were not, have broken up, and lacking anywhere more sensible to go it now appears I will be staying back with my mum for a while.

There's not much it would be fair to say about the break up. My life is material for my writing; Charlie's is not. I hope she's going to be happier eventually without me, that we'll still be friends, all those cliches you cling to in a sea of terror and uncertainty.

Anyway, after two days on my friend's sofa drinking whisky and watching, inexplicably, Mythbusters and Singin' in the Rain, I decide I am not going to fall apart, so I cook my friend and his girlfriend a risotto, then go home to my mum's.

This is not my house, I tell myself later, standing in the kitchen. This is my mum's house. She has a right to keep it however she wants. If she finds calm in clutter then that's fine.

Except, are these birch leaves here? Brought back from a walk last autumn, maybe, and now crumbling to dust beneath, what? a pile of ancient Spanish phrase books, some dog-grooming leaflets for the now dead dog, a one-legged, mud-encrusted action figure from my youth, rediscovered I presume while gardening, and a veritable smorgasbord, a cornucopia, of phone and camera chargers, some of these surely from phones and cameras that haven't been turned on since before Live and Kicking went off the telly.

Perhaps I will do a little light clearing, actually. But I'll be understanding. I won't interfere; I will help.

"This?" I say ten minutes later, waving a car-parking voucher from a folk festival held in 2013 at my mum's face in an accusatory manner. "Surely you don't still need this?"

"That will go upstairs," she says, "with the others."

"Yes but are you going to put it upstairs, or are you going to drop it in the other room and then I'll find it under a load of old crosswords in six months time?"

"Oh, Robert..."

As far as I can make sense of my mother's system, she seems to have three baskets in this kitchen for odds and ends, either sort of inchoate, nebulous planets towards which odds and ends are being pulled from the asteroid fields of odds and ends littering the rest of the room, or else the odds and ends are the inhabitants of the basket-planets, now migrating across the room's galaxy to find new homes among the stars (or kitchen appliances) -- it's hard to tell. There is also an odds and ends drawer, that will no longer open all the way, that probably contains clues to the birth of the universe, but I just cannot even think about that drawer right now.

I condense the baskets into one, fit all the odds and ends from the rest of the room into it. I pull out the microwave and the toaster and the bread bin, brush away all the crumbs and leaf residue and sticker-ties from loaves of bread that have accumulated behind. I wipe the counter tops, clear and wipe the table. I scrub the fronts of the cupboards and around the sink and behind the collection of Interesting Shells and Rocks (?). The grill, thankfully, is already relatively clean, but I do under the hobs and the oven front and around the dials. I sort out the Things Under the Table. I sweep the floor.

That's okay, I think. Everything is okay. I cook tea for us, serve tea, respond to my mother's conversational prompts -- Yes, it's tough, it hurts, but I think everything is going to be okay --, smile, take the plates out, wash up. Then I go to my room and close the door and spend the rest of the night worrying that everything is really not going to be okay.

* * *

The office chair is a problem. It's my day off and Charlie is back home with her family and we've arranged that now is a sensible time for me to pick up my belongings from her flat. No longer our flat. It's these little thoughts that are the most serrated. Other examples: We'll never now finish watching season two of Mr Robot together. How will Charlie complete the Day of the Tentacle remaster without my Playstation? And what should I do about my office chair, the one Charlie paid for the day we went to Ikea, when I zoomed about on the trolley like a child instead of thinking about the future, before Charlie got angry and I got to pretend it wasn't my fault? I want to offer to pay for the chair, but there's something about this that feels horrendously pragmatic, cold, like we're negotiating a business deal. But to just take the chair would be wrong.

I text Charlie, offering to pay.

"The chair was a present," she replies. "I don't want anything for it."

I feel sick.

I put the chair in the car, along with my clothes, my PC, my books. The guitars I can barely play. The DVD collection I haven't added to since 2010. All the stupid videogames with the stupid war-men on their covers.

I sit with the cat for a long time. She attacks my hand, bounds away. She doesn't seem to comprehend the gravity of the situation. I say goodbye to her, close the door, leave.

Back at my mum's there is no space on my floor left on which to stand. I look at all my junk splayed about the room. A sorry account for a life. Yet all I have left to hold onto. That night I fall asleep under floral-patterned spare covers, feeling that I am slipping through the gaps between the cardboard boxes and bin bags into a weightless void beyond. I feel like I am disappearing.

* * *

The next morning, however, I have not slipped, have not disappeared. I am still here.

My mother makes coffee, talks about the Archers -- which programme apparently makes her more angry than some real-world wars, yet cannot ever be missed -- then asks me if I will go to Sainsbury's with her.

I have lived back home before, as an adult, and I was bad at it. I acted like an entitled adolescent. I would get in at 3am, drunk, maybe stoned, fix myself maybe one last gin and tonic from my mum's spirit shelf (telling myself vaguely I'd buy replacement bottles some time, never doing it), then lock myself in my room and watch films or play games, feeling unhappy, until it was time to go back to the job I hated. I treated my mum horribly, as if it was her fault I was so miserable. I sat in silent disdain through her meandering stories at the dinner table, mocked her offers to get me out of the house on a walk to the countryside -- "Thanks all the same but actually I don't fancy spending my one day away from the purgatory of that job walking around a large body of water discussing farm-based radio soap operas with my mother," -- and, most of all, I despised being asked if I would go to Sainsbury's with her.

I would slouch along the aisles, scowling, saying I didn't care what we bought, I didn't know when I'd be around for tea, I'd just eat out or something, whatever. I'd be as uncooperative as possible, hoping negative reinforcement would condition my mum into never asking me along again. I would basically be a terrible prick.

Remembering those days now I think about how much I don't want to be that person. How terrified I am of still being that person.

"Of course I'll come to Sainsbury's," I say. "Shall we go now?"

In the car down, as my mother talks about Karen, who I don't know, who was the teaching assistant before Geraldine, or was it Katie? No, it was Geraldine, because it was Geraldine who, her husband Keith, it was very sad actually, Keith had lost his brother Gavin, and Keith hadn't really recovered, although... no, well of course that was the year before, or... God, it wasn't Gavin was it? It was Richard -- as my mother talks, I look at her, think how lonely she must be in the house by herself sometimes, about how she texts me whenever she's in town asking if I want to meet for a coffee and I reply, three days later, "Sorry wasn't around", and she texts back that she loves me, and I don't reply.

"So yes," I say. "Geraldine's husband...?"

We walk around Sainsbury's, chat. I pick up a few Belgian beers, don't say anything about my mother's silence, accept that she worries about my drinking, accept that she is making an effort not to comment.

Back home I bring the shopping in from the car, put it away, offer to cook.

Then I sort out my room. I empty the cupboards and drawers, the boxes and bags, of my own odds and ends, mementos left over from shared houses, old jobs, university, school. I put a few letters, notebooks, old drawings to one side, throw the rest away. I bag up for charity all the clothes I don't want. I strip everything down, dust. Then I put out my books, and the names -- Foster Wallace, Delillo, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Plath, Woolf -- look down on me approvingly.

I don't know. It's all a bit fucked. But maybe it will be okay. Maybe a step backwards isn't always a step back. When you've lost your footing, for example. When you've walked head-down into a bog. Sometimes the best way forwards is actually backwards, just a little.


I go downstairs. The light is fading. Mum is standing in the half-light staring out of the window, one hand lightly touching the locket she wears about her neck.

"I could get rid of a few bits myself, I suppose," she says. "Take a few bits to the charity shop. I won't be around forever, after all, and I hate the thought of you and Liz having to deal with everything when I'm gone. That wouldn't be fair on you."

I put my arms around her. She is very small next to me.

"I'm sorry I haven't been a very good son," I say.

"Nonsense," she says.

We stay like that a while.


  1. Very lovely. A different tone. Blimey though, what a mine of material you've got there. xx

  2. Bummer dude, still life goes on and you can always flee reality and hang out in Baja with me and Daisy

  3. Wonderful writing, Rob. I particularly enjoyed the capitalisation of Things Under the Table, and also learning a new word (can you guess which one?)

  4. Just stumbled across your writing, by accidentally discovering "World One-Two", then following you here from your July 2016 update there (glad you thought to post that). Yes, wonderfully written piece, thx. You have a gift. Will be following you going forward. :-)