Those squeaking and slapping sounds, bouncing off the hard walls and up to skitter around in the metal beams - if there’s anything that echoes round my head when I can’t sleep, it’s that. I’ve spent more time in cold gym halls than I care to remember, so those sounds are kind of ingrained. All the noises seem bigger in those places, twisting together as they spin round the room, mixing with your own huffing and panting. Except for the little words, the speech sounds, the things that are muttered as you weave in and out of each other, only meant for that one person, not for the room to hear. Those things, I suppose, just don’t cut through. Not in volume terms, at least. They can’t compete with the screech of rubber soles and clattering balls.
If it’s not those sounds, it’ll be the racket of my mum’s jewellery, the tap of her feet or her sharp fingernails on any surface she can find. Her bangles are clattering up and down her skinny arms as she eats her tea, distracting me while I’m trying to tell you this. She’s sawing away at that chicken like she wants to make sure it’s good and dead. Not that I ever see her pop a morsel in her mouth though. She’s always had, how would you describe it...her own style. Lots of jewellery, including those bloody millions of bangles, big frizzy hair that seems like it might topple her over, dark dresses embroidered with stars and moons and other signifiers of the night. That never rubbed off on me, although maybe if I let my hair grow out and never combed it, like she does, it would go like hers, so you never know. Genetics’ll get you if you’re not careful.
Tonight might as well’ve been any night in the last five years. Me and mum, some dried out old bird on the table (the chicken, I should clarify) and not much else. Certainly not much said, except her usual. As you can maybe tell, I’m a talker. Even worse when I’m nervous. So I’ll pick a night, a bit at random but a bit kind of not, to tell you about.
So there we are, sitting at either end of our long table in our stupid old house. I got constant slagged for being posh, even though I wasn’t posh, for living in this big house on the edge of the park that looked like it was carved straight out of a wedge of granite. The house belonged to my grandparents. I never knew them, they died years back, when my mum was little, and then she just stayed there in this dusty old building with a few big, draughty rooms and lots of little pokier ones. I guess it was different to my friends’ houses, but it was just normal to me. Being posh means, to me, that you think you’re better and you’re dripping in gold. Well I don’t think I’m better than anyone and we weren’t dripping in gold, before you ask. Come to think of it, my mum got all her jewellery from her mum, who got it all handed down to her from her mum too. So maybe we could’ve been rich if we sold all those shiny heirlooms, but we didn’t, and we weren’t.
My mum’s leg was going like crazy, her heel knocking off the table leg, over and over. It was a sound I could block out most of the time, but in the dining room these things reverberated and swelled in the air until they took over your head. You know when you’re looking up a word in the dictionary and you’re scanning your way down, all the words starting with the same letter, and you’ve seen that letter so many times, and it goes on and on, that you start to question how it really looks, like you’re starting to see inside and around it and it doesn’t seem like itself anymore? Well, that’s what I felt like with her demented rattling.
When she spoke to me, it was never what you’d call a conversation, with an opener - “how do you do” or whatever - and then some questions, a bit of a dance back and forth, each of you giving and taking a little bit. No, she just asked whatever was on her mind, expected it answered immediately, then silence. Then maybe some other words, related or not, would tumble out a while later, like she’d been stewing on them the whole time. Maybe the silence wasn’t silence for her, her brain churning with thoughts. You could see the fizzing inside her reflected on the outside, her body all twisted round itself, a confused knot coiled around some deep terror.
That night, as I was tucking into a squeaky green bean, psyching myself up for a chew on the leathery chicken, she blurted out:
“I wish you still saw your old friends”.
I didn’t answer. I don’t know if I even knew who she meant. I chewed on my food, gulping down some water to help it along. The glass was greasy with fingerprints, but it didn’t matter to me.
“You hear me? You go about with that dirty crowd when you had a perfectly good group of friends in the team”.
That dirty crowd. My mum, you see, is obsessed with cleanliness, and order, and things being a certain way. At least she said she was, and I don’t doubt that she believes it, but you’d never know it to look at how we live. I can’t really talk, not that I do much to help with the cleanliness and order around here, but anyway - the point is that she doesn’t either. It’s all just talk, maybe some way of keeping her mind quiet and tamed, a way of dealing with all the stuff that’s happened to her, to us. My brother loved order, to put it mildly. Stacks of videos, all out their boxes but meticulously arranged. Papers covered in mysterious jottings that he kept lined up perfectly with the edge of a table, throwing a mad fit if a gust of wind disrupted them even a millimetre. His was a real thing though, a proper obsession, whereas my mum’s is more, shall we say, theoretical.
“My old friends?” I asked her, kind of looking for an answer but more just saying the words out loud to make sure she didn’t fly off the handle at me again.
“The girls on the team. Abigail and Katie and Elena - all of them good girls. You should be off training instead of lazing around that park with that horrible lot, getting up to no good. It’s really a sin, you know, it really is. With your gifts. Your talent”. She shook her head and recommenced her jangling and shuddering.
I should clarify - these good girls were not my friends. Unless my mum thought that friends were just people that you had the misfortune of being in the same room as for extended periods of time, doing things you didn’t want to do. Under that definition they were friends, but not under any normal one. And for talent, read height. My mum was obsessed ever since my brother died that I had some kind of God given talent for basketball, when actually my only advantage was that I was taller than the other girls. To be fair, I understand her obsession - my brother was never the outgoing type, and he took up so much of her time and her energy that she must have had to fill that with...something. She used to bug him to go out, get out into the world she would say, always signing him up for clubs and classes. He would never go, of course. He was happy in his room, kneeling in front of his little telly, watching the same films over and over. Happy. I do think he was. She never saw that.
My time on the basketball team had been amongst the worst of my life. I’d say worse than my brother dying or when mum really lost it after dad left and I had to go and stay with my aunty for a while, up in her creaky old cottage with only the chickens for company. Worse than those times. I think it’s because those things - the dying and leaving and stuff - they made sense to me. I could see why they happened, or at least have a good guess, and see how things might be better or different again. I was sad, but it was fine, because those were sad times that deserved to be treated as such. With the basketball team, I just kept getting told I was so good at it, I had a knack, a perfect aim, and everyone assumed it was a great laugh for me, loads of fun. I was so unhappy, this thing was taking over my life, every night after school pretty much, and weekends too - it sounds daft to say it, but it was like I was in a spiral, you know, I couldn’t find a way out. So eventually I just stopped. After years, mind you. Years of getting slagged rotten, spat on, fishing my clothes out the changing room toilets. I remember one of them - Abigail it was - saying I played better when I was angry. So of course they’d do their best to wind me up, tease me, brush up against me on the court and whisper to me that I stank, over and over again. Just mean little comments, all stacking up.
I didn’t snap. I’m not that kind of person. I just took it out on other things. Like walls, and - as a result - my feet, my hands. Punching concrete, kicking bricks. Every lunchtime, ignoring the food packed in my bag and grinding my fists to mincemeat against the gritty walls round the back of the gym hall. What an idiot, now I say it out loud. No wonder folks kept away from me. But that helped, in a weird way, because I eventually mangled my hands so much that I could barely hold the ball, every time I touched it I’d leap back in pain and it would putter off across the court. The doctor said she was surprised I could walk, because of the amount of little fractures I had in my feet. I’d broken two fingers as well, not to mention all the cuts and grazes and poisoned bits on my hands from scraping them off every rough surface I could find. The coach eventually sent me out, shaking her head. Sent me down to the nurse, who bandaged me up and suggested I make an appointment with a doctor. That was it for the team - I never went back and things were just great after that, thank you very much.
My mum, as you can imagine, was devastated that I’d quit the team. Or been chucked out, I didn’t really know. She wasn’t bothered about they state of my body, the welts all over it - because when I was alone, I picked at the skin on my legs and stomach too, you see - or the blood that seeped into my sheets every night, especially when I’d have nightmares and knock the scabs off in my sleep, that red threaded pus draining out, the sheets sticking to my skin as it dried. No, my mangled hands and feet didn’t matter, but what people would say did. I forgot to mention appearances earlier - cleanliness, order, things being a certain way, and appearances. Those were her preoccupations. I suppose they’re all the same thing, really.
Ever since my brother died, my mum went full-on trying to push me into doing things that I didn’t want to do. I resisted, of course, feeling her attention moving from him to me, sliding across my life like an oily blanket. What hated me doing things she didn’t approve of. I’m not some kind of rebel though. I wasn’t smoking crack. It was just the disbelief she had that I would possibly want to do something she hadn’t decided for me. She made a big show of how shocked she was that I started hanging out with my new friends, people I actually liked. She threw her arm across her brow one night, like she was going to take a funny turn, as if she was a Victorian woman swooning. I just sneered at her and went to my room, smelling the nice scent of tobacco and spilt vodka on my clothes rather than the bleachy sweaty stink of the basketball court.
One night I’d just come back home - the night I said I’d tell you about - and as usual the place was pitch dark. After dinner, mum would be up in her room, some dreadful music on the radio but her fast asleep and I’d go in and turn it off, tuck her in, that kind of thing. But that night, I noticed as I climbed the stairs that the landing light wasn’t on, and some kind of animal noise coming from the staircase. Without any way of seeing where I was going, I stumbled into something half way up, a curled thing blocking the stairs. I realised it’s her, mum, and she’s not in a good way. I hauled her up under the arms, spindly old things, her body rattling away and wheezing as I lift her up. I fumbled around for a light switch, knowing there’s a lamp somewhere. A flickering bulb came on, and I saw her medicine packets scattered all over the stairs, four or five empty blister packs. I managed to get her sitting up, propped against the wall, and she opened her eyes. They were grey, tiny things, her skin more hatched with wrinkles than I could remember. The lamp flickered a cool light across her skin as she whimpered and moaned, a string of gluey drool almost hitting her knee. I gathered up all the crap she’d left lying around and stuffed it in my pockets. Typical. I’d had a good night - a great night actually - just dossing about with my friends, but sometimes those are the best ones. And now I had to sort her out, probably sit with her all night holding her hand and pretending to listen. Some of my friends were probably still out, giggling under the stars from the last of the vodka buzz, and here I was suddenly sober and depressed.
She straightened up, as much as she could, levering herself up with one outstretched arm, her bangles making a trembling percussion along to her words.
“Please”, she croaked, brittle and dry. She didn’t need to say any more, I knew exactly what she meant. She’d gone on about it enough. She kept repeating it, even as I walked her to the bathroom and washed her out with salt water. In between retches, she kept at it, begging. Her body convulsed as it expelled the last of the medication into the toilet bowl. I made a mental note to ring the doctor in the morning and order her repeat prescription now that she’d gone and wasted the whole lot. Once she started feeling better, her badgering and pleading only continued. I eventually screamed at her, the sound of my voice sharp and ringing off the tiled walls. What starts out as noise eventually settled into words, barked but intelligible, conceding.
I know I said I never went back to the team, but that was just for effect. I played terribly, of course. Despite my apparently innate skills, I barely even knew the first thing about the rules, other than not to push anyone too obviously. And travelling, of course - don’t do that. When I walked in, the coach grabbed me in a hug, pinning my arms to my body. The rest of the girls didn’t say a word, just continued changing and moaning about whatever daft assignments they hadn’t bothered to do.
We were barely into the first quarter and I was skulking around, my arms hanging useless, my mind on other things. I wanted to be outside, with my new friends, not in here with the slapping echoes crescendoing to the ceiling and crashing back down on top of me. Abigail was dribbling along, maybe a bit smoother and confident with the ball than I remember, and she got in a tight spot, two of the other girls on her. I didn’t draw attention to myself, but she saw me. The ball came shooting across to me. I wasn’t ready. I fumbled for it, the soles of my shoes yelping, and went over on my ankle. I crashed down on the floor and a wave of insults whirled around me. The whistle went while I sorted myself out and my team mates glared at me with a vast negative energy. I lay crumpled, trying to project myself away from this place and in amongst my friends, laughing in the drizzly night.
We won, though. Me being there didn’t help, but as the final scores were announced, I noticed up in the stands that my mum was on her feet, a smile seeming to break out of her face, wider than her head. She led the rest of the crowd in rapturous applause, her jangling bangles lost in amongst the rest of the racket. She looked at me in a way I wasn’t used to. In that moment, despite her beaming face that seemed neon with pride, I felt a horrible loss spreading through my bones, an emptiness in my guts, the stomping feet and thrashing hands of everyone echoing inside me. I wondered then if I should get used to that flattening feeling, at least until it was my turn to live vicariously at some unknown future date.