‘I can’t believe you kept it.’
It’s an ugly thing – a Year 8 woodwork project. Unevenly circular, almost egg-shaped where I over-planed to make tiny unnecessary adjustments, erroneous hour-increment markings where my chisel deviated around the grain. For some reason I painted a black cat on it – an eerie, wide-eyed, withered creature that watches me.
Only when I brought it home did I realise the mechanism was going backwards. Dad tried to fix it. I took it to my teacher, who tinkered with it at breaktime. Neither of them could resolve the problem, and I thought we threw it away.
‘I found it in the loft. I like it.’ Mum puts two mugs on the coffee table.
‘Where’s your stick?’
‘Oh, around somewhere.’ She wafts her hand dismissively. ‘I sometimes forget to use it,’ she says with a self-conscious giggle.
That’s a new one on me. Usually, she’s reliant on it, her spine folding in on her as she shuffles along, catching her foot on the carpet. Today she’s straighter and sprightlier. She sits without the customary groans.
Later, as I kiss her goodbye, I glance at the clock. Yep, still ugly.
We meet up every two or three weeks, usually at Mum’s house. She struggles to get out much; she feels more secure at home.
The next time I see her, she seems taller. I sidle up beside her to measure myself against her, trying to judge the comparative sizes of our shadows on the wall. She was always a couple of inches above me – an adolescent bugbear that my growth spurt stopped short of her five foot eight. The dark, puffy rings beneath her eyes are smoother and they’ve lost their opacity.
‘Have you lost weight?’
‘A couple of pounds.’ Hands on hips, she wiggles to show off her rediscovered waist. ‘Oh. Look at the time!’
I glance at my ugly cat clock. ‘How can you even tell the time on that thing?’ I watch the hands turning for a moment, captivated by the absurdity of it. I’m aware of Mum fussing with her bag and dashing into the hall for her jacket. ‘Are you wearing make-up?’
‘Yes, I’ve got a date,’ she says reticently.
After Dad died several years ago, Mum’s shown no interest in meeting new people. I trail after her from room to room.
‘Someone from bingo. You don’t know him.’
Between visits, Mum phones me, though we never have enough to say to warrant it. Once the pleasantries are done and she’s enquired after Kevin and the boys, we fall into a laboured stream of random comments. She likes to hear a familiar voice, she says, invoking my guilt.
It’s been three days since I visited, and yet no call. I phone, but she doesn’t pick up. After several progressively more frantic attempts, I leave work early, citing emergency, and rush round to check on her. I imagine her lying on the floor, unable to call for help, ignored for days. I shouldn’t have waited so long.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask when she opens the door to my panicky knocking. I scan her face for bruises and her limbs for plaster casts. ‘You haven’t called.’
‘Of course I’m okay. Sorry, I’ve been busy.’
I lean against the door frame to catch my breath. ‘Busy? I was worried.’
‘Whatever for?’ she laughs. ‘Come in. You’ll have to excuse the mess. I’m having a sort out.’
Piles of clothes are strewn across the living room. Her shelves have been cleared of the ornaments she’s had for years. I gaze at the once-beloved items with concern – presents from Dad, from long-deceased relatives. She bends to scoop items off the floor. Bends!
‘You love this dress.’ I hold up the dusky pink shift she wears for christenings and non-family weddings, but she swipes it and drops it into a bag-for-life.
‘You’ve dyed your hair?’
Streaks of grey remain at the temples, but her brunette lustre and bounce has returned. She pats it self-consciously and smiles.
‘It started turning brown a few days ago. Must be my new shampoo.’ She twirls. My broken, arthritic mother dances on the spot. ‘What do you think?’
‘Mum, what’s going on?’
‘Have you eaten? We could go for a late lunch. Frank took me to a lovely coffee shop the other day – we could go there.’
‘My friend. I told you about him,’ she says lightly.
She busies herself with gathering her coat and finding her shoes. I watch her carefully. Her skin is smoother, and her cheeks are plump. Her jawline is sharper.
I glance at the clock, at the hands ticking backwards, at time reversing. The monotony holds my attention, slowly hypnotising me. I forget what I’m going to say next.
I begin to visit daily – after work, then increasingly instead of it – curious to see what other changes occur. Each time, Mum’s encroaching youth is more obvious. She ditches elasticated waists and orthopaedic shoes for fitted skirts and stylish scarves, for strappy dresses and baseball boots.
The softness of her body melts. The prominent veins striating her legs recede.
She enjoys a brief spell of crocheting when her fingers unexpectedly become more dexterous, but dismisses it within a couple of days for something less boring.
‘I might join the gym.’
She skips away from that idea and onto something else. Heavy metal gigs, learning to surf, skydiving.
‘Deep-sea diving,’ she gasps excitedly, fresh-faced – we could be mistaken for sisters.
‘Mum, stop this.’
Her Lady’s Friends are replaced with Cosmo, left open at articles about vibrators and experimenting with lesbianism. She closes the pages slowly, checking I’ve noticed them, as if to get a rise.
Her daily tipple of sherry becomes an afternoon of Prosecco. She pours generously, and we sit in awkward silence in the living room. I censor everything I want to say – starting and restarting conversations in my head, but not having the conviction to carry them through. The clock mocks me with its anomalous insistence. I can’t help but stare. The creepy cat is daring me to intercede. I shudder involuntarily under its sinister gaze.
‘Dad got so mad with that clock,’ I say. ‘Do you remember?’
She’s lounging on the sofa, her legs stretched over the arms, Prosecco glass resting on her flat stomach. She’s lithe and flexible again, her limbs long and languid.
‘He tried hanging it upside down, didn’t he? Stupid man.’
She’s never said anything like that before, not even in jest. She sips from her glass and flutters her feet in the air.
‘Could you imagine his surprise if he walked in now and saw you looking like this? He wouldn’t believe his eyes.’ I try to make this sound like a blithe remark, but the air fizzles with all the things I haven’t said.
Mum’s legs stop swinging. She tilts her head slightly, without turning to me. Her arms are rigid across her chest.
I chew on my nail. ‘You know, I think we should get rid it – it’s obviously never going to work.’
Mum sits up, puckering her lips into a tight O. ‘No, I like it. How could I not? You made it!’ She stands and edges towards the wall.
We eye each other suspiciously, each trying to ascertain what the other is thinking – like in Saturday afternoon westerns when they zoom in on Clint Eastwood’s squinting eyes and the music is ominous.
‘Do you…?’ I pause and consider. ‘I think the clock is doing something… to you. Don’t you?’
‘Of course it’s not. Don’t be so ridiculous. What? What would it be doing?’
I gape at my mother, who looks exactly like she did on her wedding day, her skin dewy and fresh, the hint of freckles across her nose. ‘This! It’s doing this.’ My exasperated arms swirl around in front of her. ‘Just… let me take the clock.’
I stand and she hurdles across the room to get between me and it. ‘No.’
On my way to the wall, I pause mid-stride. I don’t remember the last time I saw her move that fast.
‘It’s my clock.’
‘I like it.’
I make stop-start twitches. Not moving forward but testing her reaction. Every gesture is mirrored, every action met with caution and unease. We’re in stalemate.
‘I think you should go.’
My eyes flicker towards the clock, relentless and unnatural. I calculate my speed; I note the chair that might impede me. My legs are poised to leap, my arms ready to propel me.
Mum eyes me with the steeliness of a lioness.
I exhale and smile and let my arms fall to my side. ‘I’ve got plenty of time. Do you want me to put the kettle on?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ she says coolly.
She stands at the window as I walk to my car, as if I’ll race back to catch her unawares.
Mum starts to look like every photo of her as a twenty-year-old. She pierces her ears again and fills her cupboard with skinny jeans and tight T-shirts. I’m sure I see the red raw swelling of a new tattoo peeking from beneath the hem of her top.
I tidy up when I go over – scrape burnt baked beans from her pans and throw out a pile of empty microwave meal trays. I pour away rancid milk and gag at the mould on the bread.
Every time I leave, I fear for what I’ll see next. I make ludicrous plans to steal the clock, to break in, even. I wake in the night, or don’t sleep at all.
‘It’s not possible,’ I tell myself. ‘It’s really not possible,’ I say out loud to Kevin, who grunts and rolls over.
On Saturday, after I’ve sent Kevin and the boys off to the cricket, Iron Maiden blares out as I turn into her street, and it takes me a moment to realise it’s not coming from one of Mum’s neighbours but from her house.
‘Oh, for crying out loud,’ I mutter to myself and hold my finger on the doorbell so it sounds like an infuriated wasp. I’ve got a key, but I’m scared to use it, worried about what I’ll find inside.
A neighbour slows as she passes, switching on her gossip antennae, making notes for the WI. I smile guardedly and say, ‘Lovely morning,’ and she quickens her pace.
As I consider retrieving my key ring from the bottom of my bag, the door opens. My eyes are level with where Mum’s should be, but she barely reaches my shoulders. She’s almost a kid. She steps back silently, coyly, and lets me into the house.
‘You can’t take the clock.’ She scrunches up her freckled nose and scowls.
‘Really? You want to go all the way back to being a baby, do you? You want me to carry you around in a sling?’
She hesitates, plucking a retort from mid-air. ‘It might not be the clock at all. I’ve had it in the house all this time – it might be something else entirely.’
‘Really? Like what?’
And her argument falters. I reach to take the clock off its hook. She jumps at me, trying to obstruct me or knock it out of my hand. She pulls on my arm, but I shrug her off. She lets out a long, high-pitched screech and pushes me.
‘Stop that!’ I yell, and she does.
Tears roll down her chubby cheeks and her bottom lip quivers.
I hold the clock above my head, and she stares at it with trepidation.
I yank the mechanism off the back, rip the hands off, throw the battery across the room. I stomp down on the plywood until it cracks; I grind my heel and it splinters.
The silence sighs, shrieks, squeezes. It holds us, suspended.
We’re captivated, breathless.
Mum’s limbs slowly stretch, like she’s a rubber doll. Her torso lengthens. Bones crack and tear. Her hair grows.
Her nose loses its buttonness; her freckles fade.
Acne covers her forehead and cheeks fleetingly, then vanishes. She reaches my shoulders, then draws level – gangly and awkward, then immediately spongy and plump.
Her hair grows, becoming thick and shiny. She’s taller than me again. Her breasts protrude, and her waist is shapely and defined.
For a second, she hits the sweet spot of clear skin, juicy lips, bright eyes, contentment in her own skin.
Then wrinkles appear, laughter lines in the corners of her eyes and mouth. Her jawline softens; jowls form.
Her hair grows longer still, hanging limply, flecked with grey. Dark spots spread across the backs of her hands and her décolletage; blue veins swell beneath her skin. Hips billow.
Her hair reaches her waist, a straggly wave of silver. More wrinkles: deep creases like valleys criss-crossing her cheeks. The bones of her fingers curl and refuse to straighten. She holds them out, flinching with the pain of it. Eyelids droop. Hips creak.
Her skin is paper-thin, her knuckles large and inflamed. Her hips are generous and her dress strains around them.
I watch as her eyes turn hollow, withdrawing into their sockets. Lips brittle; face gaunt. Her skin is loose as though I could pull it away from her skull.
A lifetime’s ageing in sixty seconds. Older now than I’ve ever seen her.
Shrinking, folding in on herself. Shorter than me, reaching towards me with skeletal fingers, staring in terror.
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