The Type of Hell
I am showing you. See the bathroom, crawling with woodlice. See the airing cupboard where my sister's clean nappies are waiting. Here is the drawer with the ointment and bandages. The creaking gas fire, that dangerous smell. Out the back door, down into the yard. Here is the spot where I mix mustard plus washing powder plus rainwater into a potion. See the coalhouse, where I store it for future use. Nothing has happened yet. It is about to happen. See, how the air is thick with it? See how my mother is dead behind her eyes?
Tonight is the night.
I am out of bed and walking to the bathroom, dopey with sleep. The floorboards are rough against my feet. Light is coming from the middle room. I push the door open. Choral chanting music is on the radio. Candles guttering along the windowsill. The second wine bottle is empty, sediment settled into a circle at the bottom of the glass.
My mother is painting a beast on the wall.
Its colours are red, black and brown. The beast is bull-like. Thick horns begin above the ears and taper up into spikes. Smoke is billowing from its nostrils. I cannot look away.
'What are you doing?' I ask.
'Go to bed,' she says, not looking up.
In bed, I rub the soles of my feet against the mattress, back and forth.
Next morning it was not a dream. The beast is still here. My mother has never painted a picture before, in my memory. Now, she sleeps. She will only get up when I have left for school. I eat a loaf of bread, spooning on blobs of strawberry jam. The heating is on, though I think it is summer.
Grandma visits, bringing bags of food and bad news. It is very hot in the flat. Nobody opens a window. Grandma pins a tablecloth over the beast. She strokes my hair and I close my eyes for a second, let the weight of her hand slow down my thoughts. Grandma cleans the kitchen and they whisper together in there, smoking with the back door open. Occasionally Grandma's voice turns into a hiss. I spit sunflower seeds into the palm of my hand. Grandma leaves. My mother returns to bed. I check the airing cupboard and knock on all the walls.
By the next morning my mother has taken the tablecloth down. The beast seems to have grown larger. Its colours are deeper. When I stand close to the wall I can hear garbled words in another language.
See the door of my mother's bedroom. It does not close completely, the wood has been painted and repainted too many times. See through the crack in the door. It is inky and so, so hot in there. The smell is of fruit beginning to rot. The inside of a spoilt plum. The TV flickers. She watches everything but does not remember. Listen to my mother drag her fingernails across her skin again and again until it bleeds.
My sister has still not been born. My mother's belly button has popped inside out. I am lying with my face pressed to her bump. Above, my mother is staring at the ceiling and chanting under her breath. Her hands are scabbed and weeping. The jar of Betnovate is empty. My tiny sister is kicking her feet against my cheek. I know that our eyes are the same colour, although we have different fathers.
I am woken by banging from down the hall. Next door I can hear my mother scratching and scratching away. In the morning there are holes all over the walls of the middle room, ragged gouges. I pull away crumbling plaster from one of the holes. Inside, I see a narrow gap between the wall and the bricks. What life is lived in this space?
I am standing in the doorway of her bedroom. I am throwing an unlit pillar candle at the shape of her on the bed.
'You have to stop it' I am saying.
She is curling into a ball, hands clutching her head.
'It is going to eat her' I am saying.
She is sobbing and doing nothing at all.
I am painting over the beast. The paint is milky, trickling down to pool in the ridges of the skirting board. After five layers the beast is a shadow. My skin is flecked with tiny dots of white. It is on my eyelashes even.
My mother has taken the fan into her bedroom. I sleep with no blanket. I think of my sister in her squidgy waterbed. I do not believe that I lived inside of my mother. Sweat is stinging the corners of my eyes. I hear hooves scraping against the floorboards.
My mother is out of bed and standing up at the sink. She is stirring instant coffee into cold water. Her feet are swollen and do not fit into her slippers. Her hair is plastered to her head and darker than usual. Under my feet, crescent shapes are scorched into the wood.
'We need a cot,' she says. Her voice comes through a lake of mucus.
'You should have got it already,' I say. 'Where is she supposed to sleep?'
My mother closes her eyes, holds onto the sink.
'Give me a break,' she whispers. 'Just once'.
It burns to breathe through my nose.
The colours of the beast bleed through the white. They are deeper than ever. The beast has grown. Now it takes up almost the entire wall. The smoke coming from its snout is spreading all over. The smell of bonfire night.
The paint on the radiators begins to blister.
My mother has locked her bedroom door. Behind it, she is screaming. My sister is being born. I twist and twist the doorknob but it is too hot to hold. The smoke is very thick now.
I cover my ears and pace around the flat. There has to be a thing I can do.
Again, I hear the hooves, stamping down the hall. I get the hammer from under the sink. I approach.
The beast moves in smoke. It charges again at the wall, bringing down more plaster. The building is falling down. This is what home looks like. I turn from the beast to his picture on the wall. I hit and pull apart the plaster until there is nothing left of the beast, just a hole in the wall. I am sweating and breathing hard. The beast is in a fury. My mother is screaming as if being murdered. I am hitting and pulling. Parts of the wall are falling onto me.
From down the hall, I hear the click of a door unlocking. And, beyond it, a new voice. Cutting through the whimpering of my mother.
I race through, to the bloody horror of my mother's bed. My mother is terribly wounded. She is keening, slowly rocking from side to side. At her feet, something squirms. Listen. Listen as my sister fills her lungs. Behind me, the beast is dead. He is in a thousand flaming pieces. My little sister is feeding the fire. She is filling up the entire flat with her howling. She is filling even the tiniest gaps between the floorboards.
writes short stories and very short stories. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne in North East England.