Single Mother – Samantha Hayes

Drizzle mists the air as she walks briskly through the deserted streets, the bag heavy in her hand. Her hood is up, her head down, watching her feet tread the wet pavement. It’s early – barely past dawn and too early even for commuters. The station is only just opening as she arrives. She thinks she’ll probably be the only person buying a ticket today and not actually going anywhere. She’d been awake all night, and the decision was made. No looking back. A night filled with screams and blood-soaked sheets. Her man nowhere to be found – not that he’d be any use anyway. As ever, she’d coped with it all herself. Life was filled with one problem after another. Things to be dealt with. To be cleaned up and taken care of. Miserable, but it’s how things were now, what she was used to – the weight bearing down, wearing her down, crushing her to death. She couldn’t see a way out.

Maybe she didn’t want to. She buys her ticket – one-way, of course – and heads towards the platform. Time to wait, time to think, grateful there’s no one else around to hear should there be any noise. The air smells of diesel as she sits on the wooden bench, waiting. But at least she’s out of the rain. The bag is on her lap, both her hands resting gently on top. Some kind of comfort. She looks at her watch, noticing several other passengers gathering on the platform. She’s far enough away from them not to be noticed. Things used to be good once, she thinks with an inner smile.

Fun and carefree, her big dreams unshattered, every day a breeze. She remembers the parties in London, the alcohol and cigarettes, the boys hungry for her, the wild outfits she wore – tiny suede skirts and long white boots, low-cut chiffon dresses with ruffles. She adored those boots. Wore them until they greyed with age. Several blue and yellow trains pull up to various platforms and, eventually, one grinds up to platform six. She heads down to the furthest end of the train, opens a door on the last carriage and gets on, walking down the aisle past all the empty seats, trailing her hand along their velvety backs. At the end of the carriage, she places the bag she’s carrying in the overhead luggage rack, above seats forty-seven and forty-eight. She looks left and right. No one there. She wonders who, if anyone, will be sitting in these seats.

Not her, she thinks, making sure the bag is secure before she turns and heads for the nearest exit door. Once she’s off the train, she walks briskly back to her car, the rain having stopped and the autumn morning sun now a slash of red hanging over the town. She will drive home and get on with her day, get on with her life. And if she has to do it again, she will. ONE Mel stares at the recycling box. It’s overflowing. She’d asked Kate several times last night to take it down to the bins at the back of their building but, as ever these days, her daughter had remained in her room. With everything that’s happened recently, she hadn’t wanted to get heavy with her. ‘Kate, breakfast’s ready. Hurry, or you’ll be late for school,’ Mel calls out, waiting for some kind of acknowledgment.

No reply. ‘It’s eggs,’ she adds, not needing to shout. Their flat is only small. The single bedroom belongs to Kate, while Mel sleeps on the sofa bed, hiding away the duvet and pillows every morning before Kate emerges. She keeps her clothes in a cupboard on the small landing. Space is tight, but they get by. Egg, actually, Mel thinks, spooning the small amount of scramble onto a piece of toast. She hears Kate’s bedroom door open and, a moment later, she comes into the kitchen wearing her school shirt, no tie, and her pyjama bottoms underneath. Her hair is unbrushed, the strawberry-blonde strands a frizzy halo around her pale, slim face. ‘Where are your school trousers, love?’ Mel says, pouring half a glass of orange juice for her.

It’s all that’s left. ‘In my room,’ she replies without looking at Mel. Kate slides onto the chair, picking up her knife and fork. Mel notices the blush blooming on her cheeks, knows her daughter too well. ‘Thanks for this, Mum.’ Mel sits down beside her, coffee mug between her palms. ‘Kate—’ ‘Don’t, Mum,’ she replies, shovelling in her breakfast, still not looking up. ‘Really, it’s fine.’ Mel reaches out a hand to Kate’s forearm. She’s thin, Mel thinks.

‘You know I’ll listen and—’ ‘Mum!’ Kate says – not a shout, exactly, more a choked hiccup. She snatches her arm away. ‘OK, OK, love.’ Mel gets up, scraping back the chair. She grabs the empty egg box and juice carton, cramming them into the recycling box, squashing everything down. Then, trying to appear busy, hoping that by backing off Kate will open up about what’s been bothering her these last few days, she sorts through the pile of junk mail that has accumulated on the kitchen counter. ‘Where does all this stuff come from, eh?’ she says, trying to sound bright. She doesn’t want the day to get off to a bad start. A worse start, she thinks, wondering how she’s going to tell Tony, the landlord, that she can’t quite make the rent this month. ‘Pizza flyers, takeaway menus, and look…’ She holds up a leaflet, waving it about.

‘This one is offering to jet-wash our driveway.’ She shakes her head. ‘Didn’t they notice we live in a first-floor flat?’ One by one, Mel stuffs the papers into the recycling box: local free newspapers, letters to ‘The Occupier’ – most likely trying to sell her insurance policies for appliances she doesn’t own, or pre-pay her own funeral. She hesitates over a couple of envelopes, tentatively slicing open the flap with her finger. When she sees they’re bills – red reminders – she tosses them into a separate pile on the counter. They’ll have to wait. Then a smart cream envelope catches her eye – better-quality than the usual junk mail. Plus it has her actual name and address printed on the front, and a local return address on the back. Glancing at the clock on the wall, she quickly tears it open, half pulling out the contents. ‘Someone’s certainly gone to town to get my attention with this,’ she says, rolling her eyes at the wodge of wasted paper.

When she sees it’s nothing more than what appears to be a legal scam, she stuffs that into the recycling box too. ‘How do they get away with it?’ she says, shaking her head. She drains her coffee mug. ‘No doubt they want cash upfront before I “claim what’s mine”.’ Kate stares up at her, dark circles under her eyes and the whites tinged pink. ‘Claim what’s yours?’ she says, offering a little smile. She’s trying to appear normal, Mel thinks. For my sake. If Kate got her own way, she’d stay off school today. Stay off school for ever.

Mel has to admit, she’s tempted to allow her a day’s respite – but then what about her work? She can’t afford to take a day off, nor risk upsetting Dragon Boss. At twelve, Kate is too young to be left home alone. It kills her to know those girls at school are giving her daughter such a hard time. Kills her, too, that Kate won’t allow her to speak to the head teacher to get the bullying dealt with. ‘It’ll make it ten times worse, Mum. I’m begging you, please don’t say anything,’ Kate had pleaded the first time she’d opened up about what had been going on, admitting why her belongings had gone missing, why one side of her hair had been hacked off, her blazer torn, why there were bruises on her shins. ‘They’ll probably move on to someone else soon, when they get bored of me.’ Since that day, Mel had been fighting every cell in her body not to go steaming into the head’s office at Portman High. It was getting harder each day to keep the promise she’d made to Kate. ‘Claim what’s yours, as in?’ Kate continues, scraping her plate.

She knows as well as Mel that food is not to be wasted. Several times in the last month, Mel has gone without dinner so Kate can eat. ‘Didn’t look to find out,’ Mel says, shrugging and bagging up the recycling into two bulging refuse sacks. She dumps them by the door ready to take out when they leave. ‘Right, love, go and finish getting dressed and I’ll drop you at school on the way to work.’ Kate clears away her plate and heads off to her bedroom. A few minutes later, she reappears, her hair neatly brushed and secured in a long ponytail down her back, her tie straight, her blazer buttoned up – admittedly now on the snug side, stretching across her shoulders. The sleeves are riding up past her wrists. Mel stares at her daughter as she stands there, her school bag slung over her shoulder. ‘Oh, Kate…’ she says, wanting to hug her, scoop her up, do everything she can to make this better for her.

‘Don’t say a word, Mum, please.’ ‘But…’ Kate holds up a hand to silence her. ‘It would have been worse if I hadn’t done it, OK? There’s a chance one of them might actually think it’s… you know, cool.’ She gives a little laugh then, makes a coy face at the thought of anything associated with her being construed as cool. Mel closes her eyes for a beat before dropping her car keys and bag on the table. She gets down on her knees in front of her daughter. ‘Wait,’ she says, folding up an inch or two of the freshly hacked fabric of Kate’s school trousers. ‘Try them like this,’ she adds, standing back to admire her work, while also heartbroken that her daughter has felt the need to do this. There was no way Mel could have afforded new school trousers this month. Kate dashes off to her bedroom to check the mirror, returning with a grateful smile.

‘Thanks, Mum. They look much better,’ she says quietly. ‘Proper pedal-pusher chic. Who knows, I might start a new trend.’ Half an hour later, Mel pulls up at work, her heart sinking as she spots Josette’s brandnew white BMW parked in a disabled bay outside the care home, even though her boss wasn’t due in until lunchtime. It about sums her up, Mel thinks, squeezing her beat-up Fiesta into a spot under the trees where the pigeons always mess on the bonnet. ‘Hi, Angie,’ Mel says cheerily as she heads into the staff room. Her colleague, another carer, is just coming out, already in her uniform and ready for the handover. Angie smiles, returning the greeting. Mel knows that, despite her worries, her anxiety and fears for what the future holds for her and Kate, it’s a sum total of nothing if she doesn’t keep her job.

Josette seems to have eyes everywhere, and zero tolerance for her staff’s personal lives. The only time Mel ever took a sick day, her boss docked her pay. While it was most likely outside of HR law, Mel wasn’t about to argue and risk getting sacked. She needed every hour she could work while Kate was at school, and every penny that brought in. ‘Michael…’ Mel says, reminding herself to reply to him as she hangs up her coat in her locker. In the morning’s rush, she’d forgotten to text him back. Just like she’d also forgotten to take down the recycling bags. Oh yes, please do call round later! I need some Micky cheer. And I can work 10–5 in the shop on Sat again if you need xx She hits send and puts her phone back in her bag, wondering what she’d do without him – her best friend, confidant and all-round go-to guy. She changes into the clean uniform hanging in the top of her locker, turning a blind eye to all the junk that’s accumulated in the bottom over the months.

She checks herself in the full-length mirror, tucking back a strand of dark hair that’s escaped her ponytail, before heading off to get the handover reports. It’s as Mel’s heading out of the staff room later that afternoon when her shift is over, having changed back into her own clothes, pleased as punch with her lucky find and keen to pick Kate up from school to give her the bag she’s clutching, when she literally bumps into Josette, who’s striding down the corridor, a large mug of coffee in her hand. The scalding liquid sloshes down Mel’s front, making her jump back and let out a squeal as her hands sweep frantically at the mess, pulling her T-shirt away from her smarting skin. ‘My office, if you would, please, Melanie,’ Josette barks. ‘Now,’ the taller woman adds, ignoring the look of pain on Mel’s face.

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