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Mary: A Short Story

My first short story to have been published in a magazine! My thanks to the team at My Weekly for featuring Mary in their 5th April 2024 edition.

We did not have the most traditional of childhoods, my sister and I.

Of course, we didn’t know it, not for a while, but we always had our suspicions. A sense that other mothers were not like ours. Our small, brittle mother who had one eye eternally cast towards the closest window. Who rested her white hands neatly in her lap, fingers curled over as though she was a bird on a perch.

Our mother’s back was always poker straight, even when she was sat up in bed. It was as though someone were coming to collect her, as though she was due somewhere else at any moment.

We often wished it were the case. That she would leave and some apple cheeked, milk maid of a mother would come and take her place.

A mother who did not talk of Mary. Here’s some things you need to know about Mary. She was our mother’s best friend, best everything. We never met her. Mother never saw her any more.

We were never allowed to ask questions about Mary or what happened to her but were made to feel it was somehow our fault that she was gone.

We never even saw a photo. I don’t know why we didn’t think it strange, why we accepted guilt with no proof, but we were simple children. Clumsy and obvious with our smudged handprint artwork and our velcro shoes.

All we wanted was for our mother to notice us, but she just read the paper, the weather forecast. In our bedroom at night, we hissed like swans.‘I bet Mary’s children can speak five languages.’‘And walk around with ten books stacked on their heads that never fall off.’‘I bet they do ballet.’‘I bet they do lacrosse and say things like ‘Jolly Hockeysticks.’

There was a sort of joy to be found in hating Mary. Liquorice tasting. It brought us closer than we might otherwise have been, us sisters. We hated the name Mary and all its connotations. Mary Poppins was a smug cow. Mary Magdalene was in it for herself. Mary Mother of Jesus was obviously at it with someone else.

We made Mary up, from her wide bunioned feet to her thin, mousy hair. ‘But why would mother be friends with her if she was so awful?’‘Maybe she bullied mother into friendship?’ There was a girl at school who got you round the neck and rubbed her knuckle over your scalp with big rings on until you gave her money.‘Maybe Mary is only imaginary?’

Obviously we had considered that they were lovers, mother and Mary, our dad being more of an idea than anything certain. A blurred memory of a broad back and a bristly moustache one Christmas and then never again.

‘Maybe they had to hide their love away like that Beatles song.’‘Maybe Mary actually wrote that song, for mother.’

‘Very likely.’

‘Before she married John Lennon and broke up the band.’

We should have felt sorry for mother, friendless and vapid, but it was hard. She should have smelled of hand cream and made stewed apple served with custard, not sit in the dark with the TV off, staring at a painting of hedges.We did not compete with one another as other siblings did, but united instead. We pooled resources to outdo Mary.

Our fridge was covered with certificates. Merit marks and gold stars that flapped like gummy mouths when the door was opened.500-meter swim. Fountain pen licence. BAGA gymnastics level 2. 100% attendance.‘Read me!’ they seemed to say, but mother just pinned the shopping list over them. Blanketed them under tinned peaches and hazelnuts.

We tried, time and time again to get to know our enemy.‘Tell us about Mary’ we’d wheedle, our nightdresses long and frilly, our hair laying damply down our backs. Bathed and powdered in innocent sweetness. We tried to crawl into mother’s lap, but she would draw her knees up. Would not be provoked into conversation. Would only mention Mary when she felt like it, and when she did, it was always wistfully, always pining.

‘Mary loved the sun’ mother would sigh, as though it was something original, as though no one else loved the sun, as though we welcomed rickets and scurvy. ‘She adored early mornings.’ We, ginger dumplings, burned like lobsters, had to douse ourselves in suncream. Woke up angry and rat like, feral until 10am.

‘Mary was always up for anything,’ Mother said once, on a walk that was far further than she’d told us it was going to be, and not one to be wearing jellyshoes on. Challenge accepted, I thought and launched myself at the nearest tree, but my skirt got caught and a branch bit me and I ended up with livid bark rubbing marks down my inner thighs as I slid down the trunk. My sister gave me a brave smile, then half-heartedly attempted to jump over a log, but panicked last minute and fell, clumsily and loudly into the brambles.

Mother sighed like a balloon going down. Walked on too fast for us, hurting and humiliated to keep up. We plucked pine needles from our hands and feet that night, vowing it was the last time we would ever try to compete.‘Mary would have loved it here’ Mother said, on our next doomed family outing to a beach. ‘Well why didn’t you invite her then?’ I asked before I knew I was going to.

My sister gasped, elbowed me sharply. Fear coated my tongue, sour and acidic like gummy worms. The whole world stopped moving at my words. Seagulls trod water in the sky. The waves all froze mid roll. The wind held her breath. Mother looked up sharply, like her head was on a string, tugged by some unseen hand. We waited, breathless, deliciously frightened, but she said nothing. Her eyes went red though, and her lip quivered, and she didn’t touch the sandwiches we’d made her, even though we said she could make her own.

The rain came, dimpled the sand with wet patches. Mother didn’t seem to notice; the newspaper went soggy, the cucumber wilted. The waves crested into curled lips, sneered at us to go home.

Indoors, mother did that slow walk of hers as though she’d had a fall. Shuffled up the stairs, her bedroom door closing quietly. We didn’t see her again for two days. She came down to a spotless house, polished brass ornaments round the fire. Two creepy crawly daughters. An itchy, uncomfortable silence.

Mother made us into cartoon characters. For her we became two slapstick sisters who slipped on banana skins and told knock-knock Jokes. Anything to make her smile, just once. To make those bloody lips of hers lift at each corner, like the flaps of a tent. How we longed for the shock of her pink gums.

We regressed, spoke like we were on helium, high as kites. Giddy with our devotion to the cause. Pointed out robins and road accidents and squirrels and hot air balloons. A cow in a field almost got her interested, but she changed her mind. Looked back down at her hands.

We left home at 17 and 18. Moved into a flat together that had no Mary in it. No cold breeze of a mother. We could keep the windows closed. We cut keep the curtains shut! We should have been happy, been free, but guilt had hidden itself in our cardboard boxes. Sprinkled itself like sand across everything. Gritty grains of worry and remorse under our nails, in the shower tray.

Mary was a ghost that could walk through walls. Our mother was closer to us in her absence than she had ever been when we lived together. She was the salt in our meals, the crackle of kindling. She was every knock at the door although she never visited.

And so we went back to trying. Took her out to high tea at the Grand where she picked up sugar cubes with the little silver tongs, then sighed and looked out the window. We took her on a walk round a National Trust garden. She snapped pussy willow buds. Whipped at the topiary bushes until we were asked to leave. We took her to restaurants where she refused to eat. To talks from local authors where she pulled her hat over her eyes and fell asleep, snoring loudly. To the doctor who told us she was in fine fettle, just a little bit sad.

I don’t know why we didn’t give up. Why we kept trying. Our mother was a sharp piece of wood, and we welcomed her splinters. ‘Mary would understand’ she’d say when we asked her what was wrong. Why she was crying. She’d started crying by then. Little balls of glass that rolled down her tiny face and plopped onto her collar where they shattered.

Try me, I wanted to say, but couldn’t bring myself to. Could not bear for her to look at me, pityingly, for who I was not. Obviously, with all this time spent trying to outdo Mary, our own lives were rather small. No lovers, no social life. No high-jinks and great adventures like we’d promised one another. We worked in the same office, took the same lunch break, and spent evenings at home with mother. She got older, her hair and teeth became transparent. An old hip injury we’d not known about flared up. She walked with a stick. Stopped wanting to eat. Lived on apples and carrots, neat little teeth marks. We took her out to cafes and art galleries. She was even smaller by then. We could park her like a dolly in a pram.

She became as vague as her Mary, as insubstantial. She died on a Tuesday, early spring. The bulbs were just coming through. At the funeral, we kept turning in our seats, thinking the door may open. That some tall, Rubenesque woman in a black hat and a jacket decorated in war medals might appear, but no one did. We moved back into her house, our home. Didn’t bother renovating. It was easier to just carry on. We still called everything that was dreadful Mary.

‘I’ve had a Mary of a day; the customer was such a Mary,’  but our hearts were no longer in it. It rained so much, two winters after mother died, that the wall under the window sagged with damp. We had to get a man in. There, under the floorboards, hidden from years and our eager eyes, was the photo we’d been longing for.

Mary. Tall and beautiful, shiny, and resplendent. Her mane and tail plaited in ribbons, her coat gleaming in the sun. Our mother astride her, mouth open in a smile that we’d never ever seen.



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