Short Fiction by S.A. Edward
Mam seemed asleep then she opened her eyes and said she longed for some pumpkin soup.
“Saturday,” Sara said, because, that was the day her mother always had soup.
Mam’s voice was feeble, but firm. “No. Today.”
“But it’s Thursday and the meat’s not even seasoned.”
“Well tomorrow,” Mam said. “Get a piece of pumpkin an’ one or two eddoes from Mr Mo on the corner. An’ put a little orange lentil in it.”
It was a while since Sara had made pumpkin soup. In her own home, the only tradition she’d managed to hold on to was rice and peas on a Sunday, but since her return to Ponders Grove to take care of her mother, her Caribbean cooking skills had been forced back to life.
Sara knew Mam was likely to sample a few morsels, swirl the rest of it around then push the bowl away. Swallowing was difficult for her now, but the meal would still have to smell, look and taste like she’d cooked it herself, or else she wouldn’t even sample it.
“That might be a bit too heavy for your stomach, you know, Mam,” Sara said.
Mam pushed her thick, dark lips out and made a hissing sound, as she sucked air in between her teeth. “What you know?” she said, tugging at the bedclothes. “You think is you that know what’s bes’ for me? Put a little sugar in the dumplings, eh,” she continued, “an’ don’ make them too hard like you accustom doing.” She turned her head on the pillow to face the half drawn curtains.
The next day, in the kitchen, Sara peeled and chopped onions, garlic, eddoes and pumpkin and dropped them into the pot with the meat and tiny orange lentils. After that, she made the dumplings, adding a little cornmeal and semi-sweet water.
Proud of her results, she spooned some of the soup into a breakfast bowl and gave it time to cool before presenting it to her mother. To her surprise, Mam’s only complaint was about the size of the dumplings. Sara cut them in half.
The following morning, Mam was dead.
The ambulance men were preparing to move the body, when Dr Springer arrived . He apologised for being a little late and, before leaving, handed Sara a prescription. “To help you sleep,” he said, “Paracetamols should deal with the headache.”
Soon after he left, there was a knock on the front door.
A short plump Indian woman wearing a thick blue cardigan, a colourful scarf neatly wrapped around her head and neck, stood on the door step.
“Good-morning,” the woman said.
Sara’s eyes stayed on her.
“Mrs Mo,” the woman said, “from the corner shop. You came in a couple of days ago. I know it’s a bit early, but we saw the ambulance − and police. Is everything alright? I…I
mean with your mother.”
“My mother? Mam?” Sara said. “Yes, the ambulance …”
The woman nodded and leaned towards Sara.
“Ere … no. She’s gone. Mam. You know … passed.”
“Oh,” Mrs Mo had a deep sadness in her voice. “We, my husband and I, hoped her
condition was improving.”
There was a pause as Sara’s gaze fell on Mrs Mo’s exposed toes curled over her black
and gold sandals.
“You have my deepest sympathy,” Mrs Mo said.
Sara looked up, beyond the visitor, at the space under the lamp-post where the ambulance
had parked. A chilly wind, blowing the season’s rusty leaves around, began to weave its way past her. “Oh, where’s my manners? You must come in. Have a cup of tea,” Sara said, widening the gap in the doorway.
Part of her hoped the woman might refuse ‒ not wanting to venture this far, but Mrs Mo fixed her inquisitive brown eyes directly onto Sara’s face and fumbled with the button on the collar of her cardigan. “It’s not good to be alone at a time like this,” she said and stepped inside.
Mam didn’t like Asians, Sara thought, dropping tea bags into the pot. She called them
Coolies, like most people did back home. Mam would never have considered the visit from this Indian woman to be as genuine as it appeared. Sara pushed the vision of her mother’s dead face from her mind.
She tipped some biscuits onto a plate, put the sugar and milk on a tray and carried it into the front room. Mrs Mo sat on the edge of her chair, still wearing her cardigan. Her arms were folded close up to her chest, legs and feet pulled tightly together.
“I’ll turn the heating up,” Sara said. “It’s so cold.”
“Don’t worry your self,” Mrs Mo said, but Sara turned it up anyway.
She sat down, poured their tea and allowed her visitor to help herself to sugar before
offering the biscuits.
Mrs Mo said that chocolate digestives were her favourite and asked Sara to call her Jas. It was an abbreviation, she said, from a long Indian name. Sara didn’t try to pronounce it in case she got it wrong.
“I can imagine how you must feel,” Mrs Mo began. “I took care of my own
mother until she went.” She picked up a biscuit.
Sara heard a floorboard creak above her head; looked up and reminded herself
that Mum wasn’t up there anymore. “It’s very nice of you to pass by,” she said, her hands trembling as she poured another cup of tea.
“She choked. On her own vomit, you know,” Sara said, putting the teapot back on the tray. “She asked me for pumpkin soup and I gave it to her. I thought that was why she choked, but the doctor said it wasn’t.”
“So she was quite ill?” Mrs Mo said.
“Mmm,” Sara nodded. “She couldn’t go out at all over the last couple of months, not even to church.”
“Was it cancer?”
“Mmm,” Sara nodded again. “But she didn’t like to hear the word.”
“It can be so dreadfully painful, cancer.”
“I did my best to help ease it.”
“I would have come earlier, I mean before today, but I didn’t really know her. It’s only through the shop,” Mrs Mo said.
Sara held her nostrils between her finger and thumb and squeezed ‒ a habit she’d picked up from her mother in attempt to reduce the width of her nose.
“Not many people really knew her ‒ not the way family ‒ especially me and Auntie Edna, her sister, did,” she said.
“I know she used to sew.”
“Yes, bed covers mainly. Very beautiful ‒”
“And shawls,” the woman added, smiling. “I have a lovely one, a gift from my husband. He said he bought it from her.”
“She didn’t sell that many,” Sara said, visualising the precious collection of crafted bed linen and throws stored neatly in the landing cupboard upstairs.
For years she’d watched Mam, pencil in hand, pieces of cloth and threads of various colours and textures scattered around her on the floor; reproducing patterns she’d designed earlier, on paper. But the sales never thrived.
“You are the only child?” Mrs Mo asked, both hands hugging her cup.
“Yes. Do you have any?”
“Two. It would have been three, but I miscarried with the first.”
“Oh, no,” Sara said.
“But they’re practically grown up now. Preparing to leave the nest. You left home to go and study?”
“Yes. Luton. And I stayed.”
Mrs Mo said she had friends in Luton. Perhaps she’d see Sara there one day.
“Mam always said it was too far, so she never visited. Ray said she might, if I was more
insistent ‒ Ray’s my friend,” Sara added, in response to the puzzled look on Mrs Mo’s face.
“But I couldn’t insist. So, I always came to her.”
“Well it’s good that you came,” Mrs Mo said. “In this country, too many children have
little time for their parents.”
The more Mrs Mo spoke, the more Sara felt glad she hadn’t dropped by whilst Mam was alive. Mam would have instructed her to get ‘dat’ Coolie woman out of the house. And she, Sara, would’ve been blamed for the intrusion. Thankfully, she supposed, she wouldn’t have had to endure a burning twist of the ear or a sharp pinch at the back of her arm ⎼ quiet punishments she’d grown used to as a child, when Mam was fit and well.
“Your father’s not around?” Mrs Mo asked, after a pause.
“No. He went to French Guyana – Cayenne, when I was little. They were never really together.”
“That’s a shame,” Mrs Mo replied, unbuttoning her cardigan.
There was an unusual warmth in the room which Sara found quite pleasing, even though it seemed wrong to be savouring such feelings when her mother’s body had just been taken away, zipped up in a long black rubber bag.
“My Mam was a hard woman, you know. Not easy to please,” Sara said, after her visitor
finished stirring her tea. “Only cared about her sewing. When I first came to England, it was rubber panties. I had to pack them in bundles of fifty and the Greek man would come in his white van to collect them. He would leave another heap for her to stitch and make me pack.”
“She didn’t even really want to send for me either, when I was small,” Sara continued, after a pause, “from back home – St Lucia. I would’ve been very happy to stay there too, but looking after me was too much for Gwanmama – my grandmother.” She sighed. “I know Mam thought I was the biggest mistake in her life.”
“No,” Mrs Mo said, sharply. “These feelings are to do with your loss.”
“Huh. Loss? What loss?”
“Ahh, you’re just upset.”
Over the silence that followed, Sara sipped her tea and noticed Mrs Mo looking around the room. The place needed a thorough cleaning. The television didn’t work and fruit flies had made their homes on the neglected plants in the kitchen.
The strength of the wind caused the old sash windows to shake. Sara sniffed, pulled her nostrils together again and apologised for anything bad she might have said.
The conversation continued with talk of the past; of the first time Sara remembered
meeting her mother, the woman in the framed black and white photograph hanging on Gwanmam’s living-room wall. In that picture, Mam was sitting on a chair, wearing a dress with big flowers printed all over it; her smile showing even white teeth.
Sara recalled clinging to Gwanmama, at the harbour where the big ship stood waiting to
bring her to England.
There’d be no banana, mango or guava trees from which to pick a snack in between meals or on the slow walk home from school. No chickens pecking and clucking in the yard, or beh-behing complaints from the goats tied to a bush all day, until the sun was getting ready to go down.
“I won’t be here when you come back,” Gwanmama told her and the seven year old Sara had cried and begged her not to say that. But Gwanmana was right. They never saw each other again.
The journey was long ‒ on a boat big enough for a small girl to get lost and scared and with only the nurse, a woman with pale skin, straight yellow hair and eyes the colour of the sea, to take care of her.
“At first,” she told Mrs Mo, “I couldn’t even tell which house we lived in. They all
looked the same.” She chuckled. “And no outdoor space … always closed in.”
Mrs Mo smiled and nodded in agreement. She spoke of her own arrival in England. “The
cold … so much snow!” she said. “People were not very friendly… . That we had to get used to.”
Sara often recalled the welcome her mother had given her on arrival at Dover; when Mam’s
arms held her in a suffocating embrace filled with the smell of flowers and bubbles of laughter.
“I used to love to hear her laugh,” she said, “but she had no love for me ‒ I could tell. I
should have asked her why, before she died. I should have said: ‘Why can’t you love me, Mam?’ but I wouldn’t want to hear her reply.
“On occasions, you know, like for Mother’s Day, I would buy her little things. For the bunch of flowers, she would say, ‘A-A, where’s the funeral?’ When I bought her chocolates ‒ ‘You don’ see how fat I am already?’”
“Oooh,” Mrs Mo said, a hollow smoothness in her voice. “It isn’t always easy for us mothers to show our love ‒ I’ll get some more tea.”
Sara hesitated, but remained seated watching the back of the floral scarf disappear out of the room. She’d never known anyone, other than family, prepare anything, even boil a kettle, in her mother’s kitchen. She tried to imagine how Mam might have reacted if she’d come in and found the Indian woman in there opening her cupboard doors, fingering her utensils.
“More biscuits?” Mrs Mo shouted from the kitchen, causing Sara to sit upright.
“Thank you so much,” she said, when Mrs Mo returned with the laden tray and reclaimed her seat.
“And I’m really sorry for ‒”
“Ah, there’s no need for apologies. This is a difficult time for you.”
“I ‒ it’s just that ‒ I gave her rum.”
“Yes, she kept asking for it. I tried to ignore her at first, but now I keep wondering if it might have ‒ I mean maybe I shouldn’t have.”
“You mean you think it was bad for her?”
“Well…maybe if I hadn’t given it to her…you know, she would still be here.”
“Oh, don’t think that,” Mrs Mo said, slowly emphasizing each word. She leaned forward to rest her hand on Sara’s. “Your mother is at peace now. No longer in pain.”
“Mmm, I suppose,” Sara said.
“And everything you did was to help her. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” Sara said, leaning further back into her seat.
Mrs Mo tucked a few stray hairs back under her scarf then pulled it forward to cover more of her head.
“That’s a lovely scarf,” Sara said. “Indian silk?”
“You can tell?” Mrs Mo smiled.
“Uh-huh,” Sara nodded. “It’s my job.”
“Oh. And what is that?”
“A buyer of fabrics.”
Mrs Mo raised her eye-brows in surprise. “So you and your Mam shared a love?”
“Yes,” Sara said. “She gave me that.”
After saying good-bye to her visitor, Sara took the tray to the kitchen. She retrieved the bottle of rum from the back of the cupboard where she’d hidden it after calling the ambulance, and poured what was left into her cup.