It wasn’t that his mother had ever been less than honest with him. She was open about everything she did, as far as he knew. But about the motives in her life, she only told him what she believed to be true, and he’d come to realise that her self-reflection had become flawed in some way, at some point in her life. She’d chosen her particular line of work, she said, because she didn’t know anything else, and now she was much too old for shop work, or tending a bar, or serving tables.
He told her that there were plenty of mature women working in shops and bars. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You’re absolutely right. But I’d get very tired, very quickly. I couldn’t stand around on my feet for hours. Or, running up and down, smiling and talking all the time, the way those women do. They’re used to it. They’ve been doing it for years. I’m too old to learn how to do it, is what I’m saying.’
‘You don’t sleep much,’ he said, worried that he might not be entitled to say this to his mother. She invited him to expand, by giving an agreeable nod. He continued: ‘If you slept, then you might have more energy for regular work.’
She looked evenly at him. She didn’t have to say anything. He was perfectly entitled to tell her that she didn’t sleep enough. But, her not working in a shop, or a cafe, or a bar, wasn’t really anything to do with being tired. It wasn’t anything to do with logic. But it was all contained in that look she was casting his way, written all over her face. And whether he was able to read it or not, that look closed the subject.
Some mornings, he’d wake for school, and she’d be in the kitchen, staring at the stove, or standing in the middle of the floor, holding a tea-towel in her hand, as if she didn’t know where she was. He’d bound in, or slouch in, depending on which stage of puberty he was at, and then she’d switch on, but not before he’d caught the look in her eyes. ‘Good morning,’ she’d say, but he’d know: not so much that she was overdoing it, that the late nights, and the men, and the drinking and smoking were all taking a toll. But that she wasn’t as sure of herself as she liked him to believe.
But it’s me, he wanted to say. It’s me. You can tell me. You don’t have to lie to me. There’s no need to act – I’m not one of your customers.
Once, late at night, unable to sleep, he’d joined her on the veranda. Lit by the single bulb, she was staring at a glass filled with Italian vermouth. She began to tell him about need. Then she told him about money. Then she told him about desire.
She said that the first two are what drive people to do what they do. ‘I need to eat,’ she said. ‘I need to feed you. And the only way I can get groceries is with money.’
‘Well, there’s an aspect of life that isn’t about need at all. There are things that feel like needs, but they’re not really. We don’t need them to live. But, they’re what make life worth living.’
‘Am I a desire or a need?’
She laughed. ‘Well, let me see,’ she said. ‘Oh, don’t worry. You’re definitely a desire.’
And, she said that these three elements – need, money, desire – become mashed-up. ‘How you combine the three, and make them work together, is different for every person.’
Then she said she’d figured it out for herself, and he would have to do the same for himself, when the time came (but that it was never too early to make a start). But whenever he watched her go off to meet with one of her customers, the boy wondered whether it was her desire or theirs which was the player.
‘You don’t look happy,’ he told her one day.
‘Are you looking at my face?’ she said. ‘I’m smiling, aren’t I?’
‘Well, yes,’ he said. But you don’t look happy, he thought.
It was a neat explanation of life, and he wondered if she’d read it in a book. He asked her about it when they were older, and she asked him if she’d really said all that. He felt disappointed, that she didn’t remember something that had stuck with him, and that there was a small possibility that she might not have meant any of it.
‘I meant every word,’ she said. She chewed a fingernail. ‘Terrible habit,’ she said, screwing up her face. ‘Look, I’m going to put my hands up, and say that I don’t remember saying it exactly how you’re describing. I recall saying something along those lines. You’re right, about it sounding neat. It’s a little bit too neat, isn’t it? It made sense, I suppose, at the time I said it.’
And then she closed her eyes. Not to sleep, but to let him know there was nothing more to be said. He searched her face – older, now that she’d closed her eyes; he could see how, in just a few more years, the skin might become lined and saggy. And for the first time, it was easy to imagine how the colours of her face might sink, night by night, into sallow greys and yellows.
© Barry Lee Thompson and ‘Stories, by Barry Lee Thompson’, 2013.