© Jon Horne  

   The operation is tomorrow. Thank goodness they had a space for me. I was scared that I’d have to go private. I can’t afford it - at least not if I want to do anything else all year.
    What a time though, spring. December, January, it would have been nothing - get it done, recover, get back to work. Robert would be here for me and no one else need’ve known. Now Robert has gone, I’m in the middle of moving house, I’ve got four essays to finish (in three weeks!) and I’ve had to cancel a holiday for all this.
    Not just a holiday either. It was a week alone with my mother. I phoned last night.
    “Susan,” she said, “why are you playing games with me?”
    That’s how she talks. She’s been to counselling. I told her I wasn’t playing games, that I wasn’t well, and that no, I didn’t need her to be here.
    “I’ll have Robert here,” I lied. “Rachel and Ben too,” I hurriedly added, in case she remembered that Robert was going away. That was a lie too. What sort of a mother is it whose own daughter can’t tell her the truth?
    I’m making up a packed lunch. I don’t trust the NHS. Food, laundry, all those things they put out to tender; you never know who’s in charge. I’ll put salad sandwiches in, some with tuna - no, salmon. Much better. Chocolate too, obviously.
    Rachel calls.
    “Sweetie!” she says.
    “Hi Rachel. Listen, I’m glad you called. Could we have a chat? It’s important.”
    “Susan darling, can’t stop to talk. Just need to know if you’re going to be there at the weekend. Could do with a bit of a chinny-wag myself.”
    “Yeah, I’ll be around.”
    “OK Susie, toodle-oo.”
    “Byesie-bye Rachelly-wachelly,” I say, but by then I’ve put the phone down. It was a daft idea telling her anyway. I should tell someone though - someone who’d understand; someone I can trust. Gran.
    Does that surprise you? I’ll explain anyway. For a start, she’s not old enough to be a standard-issue Gran. We went to her fiftieth birthday party... hang on, when was it? I’d just done my GCSEs. I was going out with Ben at the time. It’s funny how things turn out. So anyway she’s fifty-four, not that old. Also I lived with her until I was ten.
    Gran understands things. She lets me skin up in her living room. In fact she’s been known to have a puff herself if she’s been on the Chardonnay. I popped Ben’s cherry on her sofa... sort of - he hadn’t really got the hang of it then and it was a bit of a mess. We turned the cushion over to hide the stain. Gran noticed, and since then I’ve been able to tell her anything.
    “Hi Gran.”
    “Hello dear. How are you?”
    Gran, I’m pregnant.
    “Oh, not bad. Actually Gran, I’ve been a bit rough lately.”
    “That’s a shame. What’s wrong?”
    “This and that. Always getting colds and flu, you know how it is. I’m going to the hospital tomorrow, to...”
    To have an abortion.
    “...to have a few tests - make sure it’s nothing serious.”
    “Well, you look after yourself, dear. I know what you’re like for burning the candle at both ends.”
    There’s a delicious smile which breaks through into her voice, even on the telephone. I can’t believe I’m not telling her.
    “I know, Gran.”
    “I don’t mean to be boring, just be careful.”
    “Gran, there’s one thing...”
    “You don’t want me to tell your Mum.”
    “Not the bit about the hospital. Do you mind?”
    “That’s alright dear, we all know what she’s like.”
    “Bye then, and all the best for tomorrow.”
    “Bye, Gran.”
    I go back and make the rest of the sandwiches, then read the paper: Ireland again; Yugoslavia again; two war-crimes trials; riots in Manchester; some poor sod in Leicester stabbed for his pension money, dead. What a world. I’m doing the foetus a favour.
    Robert phones. He wants to pick up some stuff; says he’s found somewhere to live. He’s cold with me. It’s obvious that he’s still got a thing for me and I wish he wouldn’t put so much effort into not showing it. It’s not attractive, just sad. Other boys haven’t been like this when I’ve broken up with them - OK, I’ll admit that I thought they were a bit sad too, being friendly after I’d given them the push, but the point is that we always stayed friends. And as for Ben - well, Robert should take some lessons from Ben. One minute he was out of the door with my size-five Doc Marten up his arse, and the next, he was on the settee with Rachel’s hand down his trousers and me upstairs in floods.
    It’s got dark outside while I was on the phone. I must have been talking quite a while. I should be hitting the sack soon; I’ve got to be up and out of the house by seven tomorrow. I get back to reading the paper. It’s a strain reading with this little lamp but I can’t be bothered to get up and change the lightbulb. It would involve standing on a chair anyway. Robert did have his uses.
    You can’t get beyond the front page these days without having some well-meaning expert preaching to you about Ecstasy. The way they talk, you’d think that casualty departments were bursting at the seams after every all-nighter. The fact is, folks, we know what we’re doing. A pill, some banging tunes, plenty of water, a little speed for the comedown and you’re sorted (well done Jarvis, you’ve taught them a new word).
    As far as I’m concerned, The Peril Of Ecstasy - as the headline calls it - is in getting so loved-up that I pulled my ex-boyfriend, forwent the banging tunes and instead had six hours of spine-bendingly good sex in Rachel’s bed.
    Ben’s learned a lot since that morning on Gran’s sofa. Thanks Rachel.
    In the future, I’ll be sticking to speed. The buzz is better and it stops the urge to pull.
    There’s a hammering on the front door. I’m not going to answer it. Ever since someone chalked “slag pit” on the wall of the house, underneath my bedroom window, we’ve had these blokes calling on the off-chance. Fucking weirdoes. I was going to wash it off but Robert and Ben wouldn’t let me because they thought it was funny. Well ha bloody ha. How would they like it?
    The lights are off upstairs, so I go into Ben and Rachel’s room and peer out of the window.
    Fuck, it’s my mother. Where are the perverts when you need them?
    “Susan! Open the door! It’s only me!” She’s shouting through the letterbox. It snaps shut - on her finger probably, because I can hear her swearing.
    “Hang on Mum, I’m in the loo!” I shout back.
    Quickly I undress and get into my dressing gown. If Mum’s going to park herself here, then I want to be able to claim tiredness. As long as she doesn’t want to stop the night...
    “Just coming, Mum.”
    “Oh Susan!” she says when I open the door. I think this is the cue for me to say “Oh Mum!”, fall into her arms, and start sobbing. I know I ought to, because it’ll make her feel like a proper Mum - which is why she’s here of course.
    “Mum, you’ve hurt yourself!” A lifeline. With any luck I’ll be able to keep the conversation away from whatever she has decided are my troubles. God, she is hurt too; the letter-box has taken a chunk out of her knuckle. I run into the bathroom to fetch her the TCP and a plaster.
    She sits down in the living room, in silence. I pace around a little and then sit down opposite her. It’s hard to stop fidgeting.
    “Susan, you’ve been smoking.” The ashtray is full.
    “Yes Mum.” I told her I’d given up.
    “Roll-ups too.” Not exactly. There’s not much point in rolling a decent-sized spliff if there’s no one to share it with, so one skin does me fine.
    “Well, you know how it is,” I say.
    “No I don’t know how it is!” she shouts. “First we were going away together and then you tell me you can’t because you’re ill. One minute Robert’s gone away and the next minute he’s looking after you. So where is he?”
    “He’s away.”
    “Rachel and Ben?”
    “Them too.”
    “Oh Susan!”
    “Oh Mum!”
    There is a part of me which wants to let go completely; to be a little girl howling over a grazed knee or a broken doll. But my mother is a broken doll. That’s what she once called herself - though she didn’t mean it, because she and Gran were both drunk and she was only trying to hurt Gran. I doubt she succeeded.
    “I’m sorry Mum, it’s Robert. He’s gone for good.” I feel a weight lifted because I’ve at least told her something true. She holds me for a while and doesn’t speak. Then she says: “You know I’ve been seeing a counsellor.”
    Oh Mum, please don’t spoil it! She can’t know how good this feels, just sitting here, being comforted. If she tells me to open up or express my true feelings or whatever they tell you to do, then I’ll only clam up again.
    “I have some things I have to talk about.”
    “Please Mum, I’ll be alright. It’s just that...”
    “Not about you. I need to talk about me. There are things I have to tell you. I have to get everything out in the open.”
    I look up at her through the film in front of my eyes. I expect her pitying, judging stare. She looks straight ahead though.
    “You know how old I was when you were born,” she says. It’s not a question. She was fifteen. Now I know what she wants to talk about. I’m her shame and her ball and chain. I’m why she had to go to night school, to catch up on the education that I stole from her; I’m why she lived with her mother all those years, and why she’s still stuck in a council flat; I’m why a succession of Uncles never turned into Daddies, why everyone still calls her by her christian name.
    She’s not broken at all. She’s put herself back together, ‘found herself’ or something, found some sort of life, and I’m not in it. I know what the holiday was about. She couldn’t let me go without a last act of love, and now I’ve spoiled even that.
    I sink a little further into her, trying to note every sensation; cotton on my cheek, the heartbeat, the smell; something to take with me.
    “You weren’t my first child. Not really.”
    My eyes open very suddenly. I don’t move though.
    “I was pregnant before. Your Gran made me termi... Susan, I had an abortion.”
    I can feel her looking at me. These are just words, hitting the back of my head and not penetrating.
    “I wanted to have the baby, just like I wanted you. From the minute I found out. Did you know that - that you were wanted?”
    I was a mistake. Gran said I was. No one wants to have a baby at fifteen.
    “It was a boy actually. Doesn’t matter what it was. A nurse told me. They’re not allowed to, but she did.”
    I say something but the syllable catches in my throat and comes out as a squeak.
    I feel laughter rising in my belly. For a minute it still feels like crying, but then it forces itself out of me. I explode out of my mother’s embrace and find myself sitting on the floor in a fit of hysteria. She gawps in bemusement, then in anger. I know that every snort and every hiccup is a slap in her face, but I can’t stop myself. It goes on and on.
    I’ll have to tell her now.
    I’m dragged from this by the sight of my mother marching out of the living room. I get up and rush to the door, which is slammed in my face. I push it open and run into the hallway. I catch her by the arm. We struggle and my bike gets knocked to the floor.
    “How could you?” Her voice is so choked that she can’t even shout at me.
    “Wait! Please wait! Mum!”
    She pushes me away and goes out of the front door, slamming that one too. I chase her out into the road, where she is walking towards the car, upright and fast.
    “You can phone me tomorrow.”
    “I can’t, I’m having an abortion.”
    That stops her. An old man passing by looks at me wide-eyed.
    “What the fuck are you staring at?” I ask him. His head drops and he hurries along his way. I walk across the road to where my mother stands motionless.
    “Please come inside, Mum. I need to talk to you. I’m sorry.”


    “It’s Ben’s? Oh, Susan!”
    “Stop saying ‘Oh Susan’. It’s a mess, I know.”
    “And you’re sure?”
    “About who’s it is?”
    “No, about the abortion.”
    “What do you think?”
    “Doesn’t matter what I think.”
    “Yes, I’m sure.”
    “Certain. It’s not wanted.”
    “Does Ben know?”
    “He knows about Ben, not about this.”
    “What about Rachel?”
    “Sorry love.” She smiles, then asks: “Do you want me to be there?”
    There is a silence.
    “Nothing... oh, you know.”

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