Jake’s mammy always wove the most wondrous tales, carrying him on the magic carpet of her imagination to kaleidoscopic worlds far beyond the everyday.
Through her, he became an intrepid explorer, roaming enchanted lands, befriending fantastical creatures, performing the bravest of deeds.
She made him an intergalactic adventurer: he discovered planets, soared through space and time, voyaged celestial seas.
He was six when her skin paled, when her voice wavered, when her hair thinned.
Six, when the colour and sparkle leached from Storyland.
Six, when hooded figures began to lurk in its doorways and feral dogs to stalk through its shadows, their hungry eyes shining.
But the day she told him she was better, they had giant-sized portions of chocolate ice-cream with multicoloured sprinkles and she danced him around and around in a whirl of celebration.
She always created happy endings.
She was magical, after all.
His eighth birthday party was the best ever.
She converted the living room into a pirate ship: she made sails from sheets, created rigging, fashioned portholes. The big window was painted with swirling waves. Sea-shanties boomed from the speakers. And in the kitchen, the table was heaped with food fit for a band of hungry young buccaneers returned to shore.
It was later that same month she told him the beast was back in her bones.
“But I’m going to beat it,” she promised. “This old monster doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.”
He asked if she’d go bald again.
“Probably,” she said, scrunching her nose, squeezing his hands, “but that means I’m getting better, so you be a brave boy.”
He cuddled into her, making himself small and safe. But he was sure he could hear the scratching of rats deep in the hold. Their scurrying and gnawing kept him awake as he lay in his cabin bed, tossing and turning on the waves.
She’d soon be better though: his mammy was braver than all the storybook heroes, and he was sure she could cast spells. He believed it, when she said she’d defeat the invader. Or at least he thinks he did.
It’s hard to really remember.
He was ten-and-a-half when he noticed he was outgrowing her, burgeoning as she shrank. Her assailant – a parasite, he thought, not a storybook monster – was feasting on her, sucking her bones into brittle twigs.
The first time he read to her, he was eleven, and she, only thirty-six, was curled in an old armchair, frail as dawn. He perched on the springy chair-arm and momentarily placed a hand awkwardly on her shoulder before engaging it in the more comfortable task of holding open the book.
He tried his best to animate the story, that she might get lost in it and forget her pain. But his voice was wooden, and he wanted to cry.
Sometimes he hated her.
“At least when you die,” he screamed into her startled face one afternoon, “I won’t have to listen to your nagging!”
Her effort not to cry, the dimpling of her chin, wasn’t a thing he could bear, and he tore from the house, running nearly to the limit of his legs and lungs, slowing only when he reached an abandoned cottage that had lately become his refuge. Once inside, he sank to his knees, pressed his hands into the worn linoleum, and howled his impotent fury into damp walls on which mould-mottled pictures hung cockeyed.
He listened, somehow disembodied, as his noises morphed from yelling to groaning to a jagged crying that unhinged itself from somewhere deep in his gut and fell at length to whimpering, and then to a quietness punctuated only by his staccatoed breath. Spent, he staggered outside as if drunk, and curled hedgehog-like into the unkempt grass.
Someone used to mow this lawn, he thought, as his eyes closed.
Walking back along the lane, he rehearsed his lines: I didn’t mean it, mam; I love you; I just want you to get better. But as he stepped through the door, his throat clamped and he swerved from her hug.
“It’s okay to be angry,” she said. “If I … if …” Her voice broke, becoming strangely shrill. “I’m not going to leave you, Jakey, I …”
That promise again, voiced now by a banshee, strange shapes rising through her chest, contorting throat and face. But she shook herself, unwrapped a smile, dug out a scoop of raw energy, turned the radio up loud, grabbed his reluctant hands, and danced him around the kitchen like he was little again, monkeying so hard that, for a minute, he forgot.
Afterwards, she could barely eat her dinner, and went to bed before it was dark.
He’s standing now in their desolate living room staring at a letter, its overworked creases beginning to tear. Inevitable disintegration, he thinks, half pleased to recognise the irony.
My darling Jakey,
I’m stitching every precious memory of you into my eternity cloak. It’ll illuminate the skies, each reminiscence a bright-shining star. (Twinkle, twinkle, little star: you used to sing that over and over. Remember?)
I’ve been remembering your chubby toddler-body, crouched with intent, little hands furiously shovelling sand. (Our sandcastles were epic, weren’t they?) And that time, only just three, you sang ‘Yellow Submarine’ word-perfectly to Nana and Granddad, so animated and earnest I wept.
Your first day at school, your little face was so taut with anxiety I wanted to gather you up and run. But at home-time you were all dimples and grin, trotting towards me waving your painting (the one in the bronze frame with ‘New School: An Abstract’ written proudly on the back – my handwriting strong then, not spidery like this. Oh dear).
How old were you when you scored that brilliant hat-trick (left-foot, right-foot, header) in the inter-schools? Ten? (Your celebrations were much more restrained than mine. I hope I didn’t embarrass you too much!)
Oh Jakey, it’s only five months since you headed off to secondary-school, suddenly small and scared again, your blue crested sweater slightly too big. I wanted to clamber onto the school bus right beside you. D’you remember the night before, I insisted you sit on my knee? You nearly crushed my poor skinny legs! But I didn’t care, only wanted you to feel loved as you embarked on your new chapter.
Oh God, it breaks my heart, all you’ve had to endure.
Some people say big boys shouldn’t cry. Ignore them, they’re idiots. Unleash everything. Sob your socks off; pummel pillows; smash old plates; hurl stones into the sea; dig massive holes so furiously you gasp for breath; scream your lungs out at the match. Whatever it takes.
I’m not going far, Jake. The veil between worlds is gossamer thin. I’ll be twirling through those skies in my magical cloak, a whisper away.
I love you so much. That love is going nowhere, I promise.
(PS The Beatles were right. It’s all we need.)
The PS must’ve occurred to her later. It’s in a different pen, the writing even wobblier.
Adults lie all the time. And talk such crap.
Love didn’t heal her, did it? Neither did science, come to that. All those surgeries and drugs, all that radiation, they only withered her, stripped her down, drained her away, pretty much stole her fucking soul, as far as he could see. And for what? Died anyway, didn’t she, after all that suffering, all that pain?
And of course she’s nowhere to be found. Another broken promise. Magic cloak? Gossamer veil? Fuck’s sake. He might’ve believed it when he was eight. Total fuck-up that he is though, he still searches the sky. Prize eejit.
He screws up the letter and thrusts it towards the fire burning vigorously in the grate.
But his fist won’t open.
His stomach lurches; he tastes vomit; he needs air.
Shoving the balled-up letter into his pocket, he clatters through the hall and out the front door, his dad calling impotently after him as he races down the lane.
Reaching the neglected garden, he hurtles through the rusting gate and into a skid, hands splayed, knees and elbows banging and scraping on the gravel, pain screeching, shock hammering its drum.
Crumpled, he stares down at his bloodied hands and legs, and sobs like a little kid.
He hadn’t cried since the day she danced in the kitchen, spilling precious drops of her remaining vitality. Not even when her breathing stopped. Or when they lowered her into the ground. He tried but nothing came. Nothing. But this forsaken place, it seems to wring the sadness out of him.
He brings a hand to his lips.
She is the tenderness in his kiss; the blood trickling down his arm; his snot tears; the knot of weeds carpeting the path; the white scudding cloud.
She is a whispered breeze, stroking his stinging skin.
When you stop looking, she once told him, the lost thing reappears.
And through the evening stillness, what reaches him is love.