The History of Ordinary People
(A short story by Marjorie H Morgan © 2017)
It was a day in April, nothing remarkable had happened on any of the other days in April so far, and Mish wasn’t expecting this Tuesday to be any different. That was the way she liked it, no surprises were the best presents she could every ask for.
When she first woke up that morning she did so only because of the insistence of her bladder penetrating through her sleep. At the time her alarm clock hadn’t yet gone off so she reluctantly opened her eyes as narrowly as possible, and shifted from the bed.
Broken sleep was something Mish had become afraid of in recent years because in those early hours of the day all sorts of thoughts and memories settled in her mind, and even with her eyes clamped firmly shut she was then unable to grasp sleep again. That’s why she liked routines. They gave her comfort, but most importantly, they gave her sleep, they closed her mind from conscious wandering.
Along with a fondness for routines, Mish also liked to dream, and she looked forward to time in bed and the pleasure of deep unbroken sleep. If she remembered her dreams when she woke up Mish would write them in her dream book that was always close at hand on the bedside table. What Mish did not like was thinking, and not being able to stop thinking, especially about the past. About when she was younger and the decisions that she made that had led her to a life settled in suburbia and middle age.
With semi-closed eyes she made her way back to her bed. The darkness that pervaded all the corners of house was confirmation that it was too early to get up, so with gratitude Mish crawled back under the duvet into the warm spot she had just left. She was as desperate to get back to sleep as a someone who was parched with thirst. Laying in bed with the duvet pulled around her back, she started to think about what time it could be. She hadn’t dared to open the curtains at all but there was a small gap at the top of them where a different shade of darkness had peered through. It was not night, but also not quite day. It was the kind of light that couldn’t make its mind up whether to be one thing or another. It was a comforting kind of dark light that assured Mish that there was still plenty of time to settle back into bed and maybe get back to her dream.
This time, sleep came again quickly and soon she breathed evenly as dreams caressed her mind.
The first alarm went off louder than usual. Well, it sounded louder but that was probably the alcohol increased sensitivity that was banging at her head.
As she made her way back from the bathroom for the second time that morning, she stopped by the window and gently pulled the curtains a few inches apart. The sky was still grey, although it was lighter than when she had got up a few hours ago.
Having that extra drink so close to the time she did eventually go to bed had been a really bad idea, she knew it at the time, but did it anyway, the way you do something that you know you are going to regret but carry on and enjoy the guilty pleasure of that moment. Now, in the early part of the morning when she knew she had to get moving, the regret was stronger than the momentary pleasure of the past evening. She made a mental note to stick to her routine in future. But somewhere in the back of her mind she knew that she would be having this reflective conversation with herself again sometime soon.
Glancing at the time on her phone, she saw the date and knew that she wouldn’t go back to sleep now that she had remembered, not that she could ever forget this date. There was now no chance of even five minutes of numb resting between the alarms. Clarity slapped her awake and she pulled the duvet even closer around her as she lay still with a fixed stare from her wide open eyes. Mish’s gaze held fast to the shaft of light fighting its way through the curtains onto the wall. Today was why she had the extra drink last night. It wasn’t a mystery, but it wasn’t something that she had purposely brought into the front of her mind. That glass of smooth merlot was her medicine to help her forget and sleep. Well, that’s what something in her said as she had poured herself that third large glass of wine. It didn’t work. It never did. With a sigh Mish threw back the duvet and pushed her feet into her slippers.
This day began the night before, when she was clearing up the kitchen before going up to bed. There was a tune on the radio that jolted her, she switched stations quickly and that’s when she reached for the wine that was sitting on the table.
Now the day began all over again, in the sombre grey light of the April morning.
It was the longest day of her life, every year the same thing. Just like the first time, when she was the same age as her son.
It was that thought, that stayed with her all day and caused her to raise her voice when she got home in the evening. Shouting and arguing were activities Mish didn’t like to partake in, especially since Jay had left; they left a sense of bitterness in her mouth and mind that even the sweetest glass of Ribena couldn’t displace.
It was later than usual when she eventually got home after work, and the shops had been full of indecisive people who didn’t know what they wanted to eat later.
“Shall we have pasta or a pizza?” The two women walking down the same aisle as her were asking each other for menu suggestions. The only thing was, they were doing it with their trolley – full of biscuits, packets and cans, positioned askew the aisle, so Mish couldn’t squeeze past the pallet that the store employees were unloading a little way ahead of them all; they had created a bottleneck. She didn’t want to back up and go all the way around, because she was sure that they would be at the other end of the aisle by the time she took the long route to the herbs and spices that were just beyond the shelf loads that were being slowly unpacked.
‘Pizza,’ she thought for them, ‘please choose pizza’. The pizza bases were on the shelf just to their right, she wanted to reach out and put a couple of packets into their basket just to get them out of the way. But they looked like they couldn’t be bothered to cook, they looked like they never cooked anything from scratch. ‘They’ll probably need the ready made pizza from the fresh food counter at the back of the shop,’ she thought as she took a second glance at their shopping.
‘Just move!’ Mish screamed inside her head. Then she said, “Excuse me,” in the politest tone she could muster. Her tone had a slight edge to it, despite her best efforts at calmness. They both jumped in surprise at her voice, she was inches away from the woman with dark brown hair peeking from under a maroon hat. Was she a woman or a young girl? Hard to tell from that angle and the clothes she was wearing, more like a shift than shapely clothes.
‘Younger than me by a long way’, Mish mused to herself, ‘should have more of a clue about food by now you’d think.’
“Oh, sorry,” the woman closest to her mumbled as she hastily pulled her trolley in to the side, banging into the shelves as she did so. “Oops!” she exclaimed to no one in particular.
As she walked past them Mish felt guilty for the way she had judged them on the content of their trolley. What did she know about them after all? Nothing. She knew nothing about them, the same amount they knew about her. But she did suddenly wish that there were rules for trolley behaviour in shops like the rules for using an escalator.
At the front door she nearly dropped the bags as she struggled with the shopping, her work bag and the keys. She really should have made two trips to the car, but she was reaching the point of exhaustion and just wanted to be indoors and sat down with a cup of tea.
As the door swung backwards into the hallway she stumbled a little and called out, “Josh? Josh? Where are you? Come and give me a hand, please.”
“Oh hi! Can it wait?” his voice trailed down the stairs from his room. “I’m busy watching something. I’ll be down in a bit. Alright?”
“Seriously?! Get down here now! I need your help.”
“Can’t it wait?”
“No. It can’t. How often do I ask you for help? Hardly ever. Please come and help me. Now, please!”
Angrily, he stomped out of his room and walked down the stairs where his mum was standing in the hallway.
The frustration between them collided in the air as they glared at each other.
‘This is so not on,’ Mish thought.
“When I was your age …” Mish could hear herself drifting off before she really began and when she knew that she needed to be focused and give a life lesson. But suddenly she didn’t care that she was getting distracted and that made her afraid. She needed to care. She knew that what she had started to say was important for her son to hear. Well, she had thought it was when she had started speaking, suddenly, she didn’t care about talking anymore and all she wanted to do was to wind back time and be in the bedsit in Surrey. All alone. All alone with nothing but her pain, her hopes, dreams, disappointments, and great unmade plans for the future.
The guilt that hit her when she realised what her thoughts meant made her face flush with embarrassment.
“Are you alright?” Suddenly, Josh was paying attention to his mum. Usually, when ‘she started’ as he liked to label the talks that she launched into with him – several times a day it seemed, he would put on that look that made it seem as if he was almost paying attention, but not too much otherwise she would know something was up.
“Yes, yes. I’m fine.” She lied.
He knew she had lied to him as he had read her face since he was a baby. Josh also knew that when his mum lied to him she got really sad for days after. What he didn’t know was that it was not the fact that she had lied that made her so sad, it was the reason behind the fact. That was a mystery that he had never been able to fathom. Once he had even searched in her room when she was out, to try to find out what her big secret was, trying to see if he could unlock the mystery to her infrequent withdrawals and repetitive playing of seven old records. But then he got bored with looking at her things that he thought were old and pointless. ‘These things would look great in an antique shop,’ he thought to himself as he sighed in frustration having not found anything worth a second look. If he had kept going for a few more minutes he would have uncovered the leather bound notebook, hidden in the drawer under the unused handkerchiefs. It was the perfect hiding place, because Josh, like so many other people, didn’t see the point in cloth handkerchiefs, especially the embroidered ones that his mum liked to collect, so he moved on with his half-hearted search before giving up and retreating to his room to watch something on TV. As he left her room, he looked over his shoulder to see if he had left it the same way as he had found it. Josh knew his mum loved having him in her room when he was in the mood to talk, but she hated it when he left things in a mess, especially in the kitchen. At night, when he was used to furrowing for food he was like a wild animal: he was too tired and didn’t care about the mess that he left. He knew that it annoyed her, but he also knew that he intended to clean it up later. Really, he did. Unfortunately, later never seemed to come before his mum blew her top and shouted at him to clean something or another up. It wasn’t really his fault that he was so busy. He wished she could understand what it was like to be him. But he didn’t ever say that. Instead he said, “I was just going to do that.”
But, being a teenager the time that the thing, whatever it was, would get done, never seemed to stay in his mind for longer than a few seconds. The truth was that he kept forgetting as there were more interesting things to look at, people to text and talk to, photos to post online and … well, life was more exciting that doing chores. Josh also had a failsafe fallback position because he knew that his mum hated mess and he could out-wait her. It was like a card game, he held the trump card which meant he never had to do anything if he didn’t want to. She would always give in first.
“When I was your age …” She started to speak again, and that’s when the dream journey into the past and a different future began.
‘When I was your age, I didn’t imagine that I would be here now, a parent, a home owner, an office worker. When I was your age … I had just left home and I was living in a bedsit, sharing a house with strangers, living hundreds of miles away from my family for the first time. I was working at a new job, in a new town doing something I wasn’t sure I could do. I had managed to convince my employers that I knew what I was talking about, I lived in a state of anxiety for years. I was sure that they would find out that I really didn’t have a clue and had blagged my way into the company by a series of unexpected turns of fortune.
There were many evenings when I would go back to my bedsit, doing my best to avoid all the other people in the house. I would furtively use the shared kitchen and bathroom when I knew they had all finished or were out somewhere. Sitting in my room, watching my portable TV or listening to the radio on a low volume, I was aware that my life was moving ahead of me in a direction I had only taken because I was too obstinate to accept the alternative. That’s another lie. I was afraid of the alternative. That’s the main reason that I had left home.
There I was, barely eighteen years old, living independently near the South coast, working in the head office of an insurance company. Why? Because I didn’t have any one to offer me an alternative. I didn’t have a cushy home life. I didn’t have a choice but to choose to survive and that was my best option. At the time, when I was your age, I felt like I was living on the moon, isolated and afraid.’
Instead of any of those thoughts she said, “I’d offer to help before I was asked, and I’d do things around the house when I was at home.”
“All I’m asking for now is a little help to put the shopping away. Is that too much to ask for? I’ve had a long, tiring day. Can’t you just help me?”
He just stood there looking at her. He made no effort to reach out and take any of the grocery bags from her. He was confused. He heard what she was saying but he couldn’t figure out what she wasn’t saying, and he was thinking about the film he was just watching too.
“What have you been doing while I’ve been out? Did you even …” Mish trailed off as she walked away from him and went into the kitchen. There she saw that the surfaces were still full of dirty dishes that he’d moved from his room the day before.
Spinning on her heels, she turned to Josh, “I thought …”
“I’m just about to do it.” He hurriedly said, walking past her and lazily moving a few items around the worktops. The truth was that he had forgotten about them, as usual.
“I’m done!” Mish dropped the three bags on the floor and walked out of the kitchen.
“Mum?” he called after her, but she didn’t stop. “Mum? What do you mean exactly when you say ‘done’?”
She ignored him, something she didn’t like to do but at that moment Mish was sure that any words that came out of her would hurt both of them.
With her hand on the bottom of the bannister Mish hesitated for a second, she really wanted to go back and take the frozen items out of the bag and put them into the freezer, but that would make her dramatic exit seem weak, so she carried on walking up the stairs and went into her bedroom. Closing the door behind her, she stood with her back against the dressing gown that hung on the brass hook at the back of the door. The warmth of the fleece-like material against the back of her head calmed her breathing for a few moments. She felt swaddled and stood still while her breathing returned to normal.
After a short while she could hear the freezer drawers opening in the kitchen, and the sound of frozen items being dropped into them.
‘That’s something,’ she thought wryly. ‘Why is everything such a big deal?’
She took a few steps and flopped onto her bed, Mish realised that she was still wearing her coat and started to cry. Not because of the coat. And she cried with silent tears, of course. She never cried so that Josh could hear her. Mish thought that he never knew, but the days when she had red eyes were also the days when he would surprise her with an unexpected kindness. It was a mutually agreed blindness to the truth, they both practised it without a word.
The house went quiet and she drifted off into a semi-conscious state where she was crying in her dreams. Some time later Mish heard the creak in the fifth step as Josh made his way upstairs. His hesitant footsteps reached outside her closed door. Then nothing for several seconds.
‘“Mother?” the simple word was accompanied by a knock at the door.
“Yes, Sweetie,” the tired automatic response came from the corner of her mouth.
“I’ve made you a cup of tea. Shall I bring it in?”
“Go on then,” Mish replied after she hastily wiped the remaining tears from her face and adjusted it to wear a tired smile.
Josh pushed the door open and lopped in.
“Where do you want it?”
“On the coaster, of course!”
“Of course!” he laughed his rich deep laughter and then sat on the end of the bed. He was staying for a moment. That was unusual.
There was a hint of nervousness around him even though he feigned the look of casual indifference.
He scanned her face while pretending not to look at her directly at all, that was something he was getting good at. He noticed the slight redness in her eyes, but didn’t say anything.
‘I thought she’d been crying,’ his internal dialogue started up and he assessed the state of his mum while deciding what to do. ‘I was right. Oh God! Not again. What is it this time? Ah well.
… Humour usually works,’ he thought. ‘I’ll give that a go, then I leave her be.’
“Why have you still got your coat on? Are you cold? Or are you having a ‘senior moment’?” He looked straight at her as he spoke. Again he laughed and the corners of his eyes crinkled up like a beautiful piece of linen.
Despite herself Mish smiled at him and pulled herself up, propping her back up against the huge colourful cushions that were strewn on the bed.
‘He really does care,’ she thought. ‘He is such a darling!’ Even though there were times she could cheerfully strangle him for being a brat, at that moment all she thought of was how wonderful he was.
Mish smiled involuntarily as she remembered the joy he gave her from the moment he was born. She remembered all her hopes and dreams for him as he lay in her arms, and now, looking at him sat on the end of her bed, Mish felt guilty all over again as she replayed the words in her mind as she reprimanded him for his laid back approach to life.
“When I was your age…”
And suddenly she was grateful that Josh was not having the same life experience that she had when she was his age. In the bedsit, all those years ago Mish would never have guessed that her real life’s purpose was not insurance but being his mother, especially as she had barely been mothered herself. It was in that same secluded room that she lay alone after she had just stopped the process of being a young mother herself by a simple hospital procedure: in and out. All done.
Shaking the memory from her mind she smiled at him. He was such a lovely boy.
That was his cue. He knew it was a real smile. Not one of those fake grins that she used to try to placate him when she couldn’t be bothered to talk anymore.
“Right, I’m going to my room,” he responded with a crooked grin. “The kitchen is tidy, too.”
“I should hope so! It’s about time.” Mish retorted and they both laughed.
“Sorry about the delay in service,” he said as he walked out.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2017