Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition 2018
By Dianne Bown-Wilson
I glance at my watch counting down the time remaining until, once again, it will be over. Out of the 168 hours in each week this is the only one that matters, each minute as precious as a droplet of water to a parched desert-traveller.
Apart from me, the room is empty. Three easy chairs crouch round a watermarked coffee table and I perch on one, mindlessly ironing my skirt with my sweating palms. Looking around, everything I see is shamelessly functional: cream woodchip walls, cheap floral curtains, and serviceable carpet tiles contribute nothing to homeliness and if it were possible, seem to become even less welcoming week by week. Clearly, whoever designed this space believed that those who have to come here deserve nothing more.
The door opens and Myra’s face appears, creased but comforting like a well-used road map. “Ready, Eva?”
“I’ll go and see if he’s here, then.”
She retreats and in the silence, the clock’s tick is as loud as a metronome. Beneath it, a plastic-framed poster says: Quality Time is Worth More Than Quantity Time.
My heart is racing.
Suddenly, like a spectre, he appears in the doorway – all alabaster skin, copper curls and forget-me-not eyes – and for a while we look at each other as if we we’re cats, assessing whether the familiar remains unchanged.
His gaze is so intense I can hardly bear to look away but when I do, breaking the spell by smiling and reaching out to him, he doesn’t move and his expression remains blank. I’m not surprised, it’s been a fortnight since our last meeting – a sizeable gap when you’re only four.
“Come,” I say, “Let’s see if I’ve got something for you.”
He pauses for a few seconds then approaches me cautiously, his thumb in his mouth as flush as a plug in a sink. Stop that! You’re too old! But I bite back the words, knowing I’ve surrendered any right to judge.
As he nears, I reach into my bag, extract a small package and hold it out to him. Still at arm’s length, he takes it, unsmiling, then slowly pulls at the paper wrapping. The toy car inside is nothing special, deliberately chosen so his grandmother, his father’s mother, can’t object. In the past, on top of all her other allegations, she’s apparently accused me of trying to ‘seduce him with expensive gifts’. I was only trying to give him something he mightn’t already have, I wanted to tell her, but knowing it’d change nothing, I never bothered to respond.
Seeing the car, he finally smiles, dropping to his knees to run it up and down the coffee table, as kids do.
I return his smile, as warmly and genuinely as I can. “Shall we look in the toy box and see if there are any others?” I ask. “Then we can have a race. What do you think?”
He nods, and with apprehension still squeezing my throat as tightly as a boa constrictor, I reach for his hand.
Fifty three minutes:
We slip easily into a racing car game and finally he starts to relax, rolling on the floor, making BRRMMM noises, squealing and laughing. But this much I know: contentment can segue into boredom as rapidly as the skies change on an April day. Time for something new.
“So what now?” I ask. “How do you feel about some colouring and then, maybe a snack? I bought some cake on the way here.”
“What sort do you like the most?” I’m hoping his preferences haven’t changed; I’ve so few opportunities to get anything right.
“And what sort of juice?”
“Oh dear, I must have got you mixed up with another little boy. I thought you liked turnip cake and celery juice.”
His lip trembles. “No…”
I smile to confirm I’m teasing. “Well, maybe not. When you’ve finished colouring at least one page in this super book, we’ll see. What colour are you going to start with?”
He surveys the crayons I’ve produced, frowning with concentration. “Yellow!” “Sunshine in a stick,” I say, but he doesn’t respond. Tongue poking out, he’s already focused on doing a good job. My heart melts at his energy, enthusiasm, total in-the-moment being-ness. My boy. As I watch him, I recall how, when he was newly born, I used to spend hours just looking at him, never tiring of his perfection, his knowing gaze, the velvet of his skin – everything about him as exquisite as a renaissance cherub. But these days I hardly know the child and my memories of those times are dissipating like wisps of bonfire smoke across the evening sky. There’s little to replace them. These visits are no substitute for normal life.
I breathe deeply and in my brain a single message pulses: How did it come to this?
He’s tired of colouring.
“So how’s school?” I ask, handing him a chocolate brownie and struggling to pierce the juice carton with its tiny plastic straw. Eventually it succumbs, and I place it in front of him on the coffee table that forms a barrier between us.
“Pete still your best friend?”
He screws up his nose. “I thinkso.”
“Good. Everything alright at home with Grandma?”
His lack of meaningful response is frustrating, but I know not to press for more. And I’m hardened to the fact that he never asks me anything about myself. Part of me thinks he ought to want to get to know his mother – but how would I respond?
Well I’m clean, two years now, but still going to meetings every day. I’ve got a job, a flat, I get by, but it’s still not enough to persuade them to let you live with me.
Time is ebbing away like blood.
“How about a story?”
“Come here then.”
I pick up a book, settle back in the chair, and he climbs onto my lap, so close I can feel his breath on my cheek. I read the words aloud but my brain is elsewhere. They call this bonding. This is what happens when your baby’s taken away. I focus on the words on the page and try and swallow the pain.
The door opens and Myra appears. She frowns, pityingly, no doubt noting that I haven’t moved position from where she left me an hour ago. “Sorry he didn’t show,” she says. “I’ll get them to talk to his grandmother and remind her in no uncertain terms that he has to come.”
I shrug. Sitting alone all this time, thinking, imagining, has exhausted me. Apparently, yet again, my memories of him are all I’m to be allowed; I can’t even summon the energy to cry.
Myra nods towards the poster. “Hopefully next week,” she says.
Biography – Dianne Bown-Wilson
Dianne Bown-Wilson was born in England, grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Dartmoor National Park where she’s tempted to become a hermit (her husband has other ideas). In recent years her short stories have either won prizes or been placed in competitions including the Fish Prize, Exeter Writers, The Momaya Annual Review, Writing Magazine, the Bedford Writing Competition, the HG Wells Prize, Flash 500, the Yeovil Prize and Leicester Writes. A collection of thirty-two of her successful stories, Instructions for Living and Other Stories was published in 2016. She is currently wrestling with writing her first novel.