One potato, two potato, three potato four, five potato, six potato, seven potato more… she grunted the old children’s rhyme as she peeled the potatoes. They were big fat potatoes, with cream and reddish skins, firm-fleshed and almost pumpkin yellow. You always need food, no matter what. And if you don’t, well that is truly the beginning of the end. It’s a woman’s work, wife’s work, mother’s work, peeling the potatoes, making the stew, turning the shopping into sustaining. So she thought, peeling the potatoes, grunting, counting. Her mother had taught her how to do it, count as you peel. Now she taught the girls. Anthony didn’t have to help, being a boy, but he always did.
One each and one for the pot. So that was one for Milly and one for Joey and one for me and one for…and the desert opened wide. Counting is such a dangerous process. There is no end to counting. You march them up to the top of the hill and you march them down again. And when they are here they are here and when they are gone they are gone and when they are only halfway here…. They are no potatoes.
I should have looked after him better, I should have known he’d gone out, I should have known. Why didn’t I know? You think you’ll always know, about your own flesh and blood. You think if it’s your father, who’s been more like a mother to you, who’s always been there, that you’d know if he was lying all bent and broken under a red bendy bus, you’d think you’d know. But it turns out you don’t. You don’t even know that he’s late home, in fact before he’s late home, he’s gone, already gone home, if that’s where it is. “Dad, your tea’s ready!” No answer. That’s when you know, too many potatoes. They’ll go to waste, not having pigs.
There are moments, when the world turns to stone. Then nothing is the same again. There are moments, when the heart skids. The knock on the door, the polite expression of someone official trying not to feel too much nor, if they are decent, to feel too little. Which you pick up on first; it distracts you; you wonder, fleetingly, as if just to take your mind off it, whether this nice young man, in some distress obviously, ought to be offered a cup of tea, to sit down, in fact, since he’s in your home. There are moments, between the thought and the offer of the cup of tea, when everything stops. Then he makes the suggestion that you sit down first. Is that meant to soften the blow? Putting off the evil day. Evil days never do get put off, she thought as she put the potatoes on to boil. They always come due, like death or taxes.
Yes, there are moments, of reckoning and coming due. And there were the moments, too, of no time at all, lost in the summers of girlhood and lollipops; mucking about with the dog on the beach, watching dad drive home with sunburn on the back of his neck. Dozing in the back of the car on a winter’s day, she used to watch while the wipers went slish-slash and London’s suburbs purled by like eddies in a stream of respectable housing. All safe, all together, all warm and cosy: Mum going to cook kippers for tea, Dad cursing softly as other cars took advantage of his following the Highway Code. “Silly whatsit!” he would call out, beeping his horn for emphasis.
It had to end, she knew. Everything finishes, ready or not. Potatoes boil over, they burn, they get eaten or thrown away. People, too. How do you look after old people? Nobody really tells you. They just end up there, after all their life looking after you and goodness knows what else they did before you came along, romance probably. Hard to think of Mum like that, but she did look beautiful in the wedding photos. Dad in uniform, ever so handsome, he wasn’t much taller than her but she was ever so slim as a girl. You could see he got a kick out of protecting her.
Dad was in the war. Must have been bad but he never talked about it much, hated those programmes on the telly about Anzio beach or whatever it’s called. Beach, he said, was the wrong word, it wasn’t anything like Tenby or Camber Sands, those lovely long stretches of white sand where they used to run and make sandcastles when she and Sadie and Jack were little.
Noises in the hallway, the dogs whiffling and barking as Milly came in and hung up her coat. She started frying sausages.
“Hi Mum, how was today?” She’s a good girl, she knows how I feel.
Is she going out today with that awful Matt boy? Keep quiet, now, you know you’ll do no good interfering. Dad never interfered, even when it was that shocker Jim who was going out with Vicky and Nicola at the same time, and got both of them pregnant, though luckily not her as well.
She had to stop and grab the counter, feel along it for a tissue before Milly came in the kitchen. Really, she had to stop all this crying. It had been more than six months and they’d not just had the funeral, that was quick of course, directly after that awful inquest when the Coroner said.. but really what was the good of thinking about that? They’d even had a memorial service, which was, in some way lovely, though in other ways even more awful than the funeral, because it really did put the tin lid on it.
People said it was time to get over it and maybe it was. But why didn’t it feel like it was time? It felt like everything was still stuck in that awful not-understanding fog and the only thing splitting up the days was these blessed potatoes, meals and washing up and putting the cat out.
Milly popped her head round the door.
“Need any help, Mum?”
“No dear, I am fine. You go on and have your shower if you want, before Joey takes over the bathroom.”
“Thanks, Mum. How long to dinner?”
She prodded the potatoes.
“Say, half an hour?”
The door bell rang. Must be Joey. He always forgot his key, silly boy. Dad used to say, “He’ll forget his own head next.” Then Dad…….
She padded to the front door, wiping her hands on her apron. It didn’t look like Joey though the glass. Two figures, one with a helmet. Oh my God, not another policeman, please not that. Bearers of bad news. Where was Joey?
The bell again, imperious, two tone, throbbing in her ears.
She opened the door, peering out.
“Mrs Matlock?” He was quite a young policeman. He held out his ID card. She scarcely glanced at it.
“Yes?” Tell me what it is, quickly for God’s sake. No, never tell me, I can’t bear to hear any other awful news.
“Are you Mrs Matlock?”
“Yes?” Her heart was pounding; she was not sure if her legs would hold out.
“Is your son Jerome at home?”
She peered at them. What were they saying?
“No,” she faltered, scarcely conscious of what she was saying.
“May we come in?”
She opened the door mechanically, blood drumming in her cheeks and breasts.
“What is it?”
They were silent, looking at each other. She backed down the narrow hallway, almost tripping over dad’s slippers, which she still hadn’t moved from in front of the dryer.
“Oh God, tell me!”
“Perhaps it’s better if you sit down?”
Awkwardly they all edged into the kitchen. She stood, back to the French doors, looking at them, her hand clutching at the loose edge of her collar. They cleared their throats.
“Umm, is anyone here, Mrs Matlock?”
Oh, for God’s sake. This strange dance of propriety was quite unbearable.
“Is he dead?” her voice squeaked, out of control, not like hers at all. They blinked but did not react. Had she even spoken?
It seemed like a mirror image of that earlier day, ten months ago, when – was it the same ones? She peered, but tell the truth, they did all look the same. It was probably the expression of official concern. They may have been the same, but wait, was one of the earlier ones black? Oh, what was she thinking of? Had they come to tell her the worst of all things, that her own child….?
The saucepan on the stove hissed and bubbled.
“Oh God, the potatoes!”
She got to her feet and went over to turn off the gas ring.
Her back was to the doorway where they still stood, so she did not see the policemen exchange significant glances.
The older one coughed meaningfully. Did they teach them that, varieties of noises to make in your throat?
“Mrs Matlock. Your son Jerome…”
She swung round, swallowing her fear just enough to see how ill at ease they looked: two youngish white men in dark suits in her half-painted doorway.
The doorbell rang: once, twice, three-four in an accustomed burst of joyful impatience. Joey!
A big smile lit up her face.
“That’s him now, excuse me.” She made as if to brush past them but they remained in the door. There came the sounds of Joey coming in and kicking his schoolbag down the corridor as usual. Then, in his not-long-broken voice,
It was him, no question about it.
She called out,
“In the kitchen, Joey. There’s some policemen here.”
They swung round to her, their faces accusing. But what was going on? It was her house, after all. And her boy was safe, her girl was home, her husband was working nights. She felt strong enough to ask them.
“What is going on?”
But now it was their turn to fiddle with their clothes and look askance.
“Can you identify this young man as your son Jerome, Mrs Matlock?” asked the older one. Was the younger one able to talk at all? she wondered.
She took the potatoes to the sink to drain. It all seemed pretty unimportant now. Carefully she poured them through the old battered bright colander where they sat, floury and not too watery, thank goodness.
“Yes, that’s him,” she said.
The younger one spoke. His voice was quite thin and reedy.
“Can you identify yourself, son?”
Son, indeed! He was scarcely old enough to be an uncle, let alone Joey’s dad.
Joey looked confused.
“Oyster?” he suggested, digging in his pocket. Perhaps he associated the air of officialdom with requests to see his ticket.
The younger one nodded. Joey handed over the card, which the policeman duly inspected and, rather grudgingly it seemed to her, handed back.
The older one seemed to have come to some decision.
“Perhaps we could all sit down?” he suggested.
She looked at him and heaved a sigh. Pulling out the table, she indicated places and said to Joey, over the heads of the policemen, “Tell Milly supper will be a bit late.”
Joey bobbed acknowledgement and backed out of the doorway.
“Do you need Joey to be here for this?” she inquired, her voice taking on a formal tone.
They did not reply and sat down, rather heavily. The older one pulled out a notebook and began to read in a flat monotone.
“Today at approximately 4 pm on the pedestrian crossing at Lordship Lane, London N9, opposite Aldi’s superstore, at the junction with the North Circular Road, a young boy, aged about 14 or 15, was knocked down by a white sports car. The car did not stop. The boy is now in the Homerton hospital. He is seriously injured. According to witnesses, the driver was talking on a mobile phone. The driver is said to be a man, of Asian or Mediterranean appearance.”
She listened carefully.
“Is the boy going to be all right?” That seemed the most important question.
Relieved – some mother’s son, thank God not hers — she stared at them. Why had they come?
As if in answer to her unspoken question, the older policeman continued to read in the same uninflected manner.
“At that time uniformed PC Michael Holbooth arrived, summoned by a call from a member of the public. He noted a young male acting suspiciously nearby. PC Holbooth apprehended him as he appeared to be searching the pockets of the casualty. When questioned, the young man, Jerome Xavier Matlock by name, said, “He nicked my ipod. I’m trying to get it back.” Pc Holbooth asked for proof of this alleged incident. Mr Matlock said, “That’s why he run in the front of that car, innit? What a div.” PC Holbooth then attempted to arrest Mr Matlock on suspicion of theft and assault but he run off.”
He closed his notebook very quietly and looked at her. Everyone was perfectly still until Joey called out form the TV room.
“Mum? Is it about that boy what nicked my ipod?”
She looked at the potato peeler, lying on the draining board. She hardly ever used the pointed bit, hadn’t for years. In the old days, you could never get all the eyes out of the potatoes but these modern kinds didn’t seem to have them. She felt like picking up that peeler and twisting it into her life, into the whole family’s life and just cutting out all the horrible things that seemed to bore into the flesh of their existence. Just core them out. But no. There would have to be answers, questions, procedures, endless plodding , oh STUFF, until it was sorted out and they could go back to.. what? Dad’s coat still hanging on the hook in the hall, Dad still gone, Joey probably with some kind of record. And the potatoes going cold in the drainer.
She burst into tears. When in doubt, cry, her mum always said. Funny how often it worked.
The young policeman said she reminded him of his mum, which was odd because she was mixed-race and he was pink and blond and as white as could be but who cared, it was the right kind of effect.
And, of course, Joey hadn’t really done anything except get his ipod stolen so as Jim said when he got home, late as usual and the potatoes having to be reheated along with the fish, they hadn’t got much of a leg to stand on. Which was like Jim, who liked to look on the bright side because why not? It’ll get you in the end so don’t get there first as he said.
But what, she wondered, as she tossed and turned in the spare bed (“Better if I sleep there for a bit when I get so hot at night and all,” as she’d said to Jim) if you are there first?
If that coring doesn’t cut out the black, corroding eyes but instead tunnels into the healthy firm flesh, turning nourishing food into cavities, tunnels, webs of woe? If that coring is the central activity of life and all the other nice things are just fancy pants and fur coats, what then?
How dark it is in the middle of the night, how dark and hot and frightening she thought, as sweat trickled in rivulets between her breasts and into the folds of her pink cotton nightie, a completely sexless garment as Jim always pointed out. But usually comfortable. Only not now, because of the flushes. Completely sexless was how she felt, what with the hot flushes and Dad and now Joey and when would all the bad things end?
Questions without answers loomed up like cliffs in the night. She might as well get up and make a cup of tea. She struggled up in the bed, all tangled in the sheet, and managed to get out, almost falling over her feet in the dark. The cat was on the landing, bloody thing. It followed her downstairs, waving its tail. No worries about death for it, just a life spent nagging round ankles listening for the sound of fridge doors opening.
She looked at the hook where dad’s coat hung. It still looked as if it was waiting for him to put it on and go out to fetch the papers and a half ounce of rolling tobacco.
That wasn’t going to happen. She reached out a hand to fetch it down, give it to the charity shop or something, but changed her mind. Leave it there. It was a comfort in its way, like the roasting potatoes whose smell now filled the hallway. You need a bit of comfort in this world, Lord knows, she thought as she went to call the children down for supper. Let’s hope they don’t argue today over who’s going to do the washing up, she thought as she untied her apron and sat down.
They clattered into the room. Anthony sniffed appreciatively.
“Umm, roasties.” He leaned over to plant a kiss on her check before he sat down. “You do the best roast potatoes, Mum.”
Millie and Joey joined in.
“Yeah, Mum the roasty king,” said Joey, always the joker.
“Mum’s the best cook of my friends’ mums,” said Millie, bless her.
“And you always do the right amount,” said Anthony, spooning gravy lavishly over his food. “How do you manage that?”
She looked up from her plate, her vision a little blurred.
“Just the counting, darling, two for everyone and one for love.”