[I belong to an online writing group, and each month we write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘Cutting the Strings‘ in exactly 1000 words.]
Everyone has a number. What’s yours?
I know mine. We all do, of course: it’s something we’re born with, indelible, immovable, inked into our DNA. Our number is as much part of us as the frizziness of our hair, or the slope of our nose, or the way our skin burns in the sun as we’re heading Anywhere on the back of a bike, while we still can.
I could guess your number, looking at you, although there’s no guarantee I’d be anywhere close. That’s my earliest memory, in fact: trying to guess someone’s number. We’re in a circle: the light is butter-soft, my mouth full of chocolate, my dress a gauzy pink, floating out, dreamlike, when I spin.
“Seventy-seven,” I sing, “My number is seventy-seven,” and I pirouette on velvet toes. I want to spin seventy-seven times on the spot, to show everyone how long-lived and lucky I am, but after counting seventeen I stagger, disorientated, into the sofa. The room is wheeling, and Mei is watching. Mei only comes up to my shoulder.
“What’s your number?” I ask her.
Mei whispers something, like a bird.
“What?” I say, too loud, but I saw the way her lips moved; and even before the tears, I know something is very wrong.
“Five,” I tell my mother, skipping home. I try and wriggle out of her clasp, but she holds on tight. “Mei said her number was five.”
My mother opens the door and shrugs me out of my coat.
“Why is her number five?” I ask the darkness, “Nobody’s number five,” and my mother grabs me, hard, and looks me straight in the eye.
“You’re not to talk about it,” she says. Her voice is raw.
“Why?” I whine, but she stands up and hustles me to the kitchen with, “Be nice to Mei.” I count the chops, and stop when I reach my mother’s number: seventy-six, just one less than mine. My mother and I will be alive for a pretty long time. Numbers are things you get from your parents, of course: everybody knows that. (Although we don’t talk about my father.)
You never know, though, the exact day your number’s up. I remember, not long later, my mother holding my hand, tight-lipped, as I watch dry leaves curl round and round. Mei’s mum won’t let go of the coffin.
“First job?” he asks. There’s a chair between us in the cafeteria. I nod, and blush.
He’s not done: “Finished school?”
“Couldn’t wait,” I say quickly, and he grins: one of us. I’ve never seen eyes that colour before.
He’s still looking at me.
“So – ”
“After you,” he says.
“Do you want to stay here for the rest of your life?” I ask, and he laughs.
“Don’t you want to see the world?” he asks, and then we’re outside in the crisp cool, the leftover sun tingling on our skin. He has a dog, a sister, and a motorbike. I have three missed calls from my mother. I switch off my phone.
“I want to go travelling,” he says.
He crunches leaves.
“Anywhere,” he says. “That’s the beauty of the bike. – What’s your number?”
“Seventy-seven,” I tell him, and he raises his eyebrows. “Yours?”
He looks away a second, and I remember Mei.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I say quickly.
“Ninety-nine,” he says, and I take a breath: “That’s -”
“That…might be difficult,” I decide, eventually.
He looks at me.
“You get it,” he says. “Most people don’t. When’s your birthday?”
“Why?” I say, “What are you going to get me?” and he tickles me until I squeal, “Tomorrow! I’m seventeen tomorrow!”
He drops his arm.
“Not yet,” I say, smiling at him. I don’t say, “My mother won’t let me.”
She’s waiting at the end of the street this time, which is further out than usual.
“Mum?” I ask.
“You didn’t answer the phone,” she says.
“I was talking to someone,” I say, and then add, louder, “A boy.”
“How many times,” she says, “have I told you to answer?”
The evening is darkening and cooling; the seasons are shifting, too early.
“Mum,” I tell her, rolling my eyes, “I’m practically seventeen.”
“I know,” she says, “I know.” Then she says, as if she doesn’t want to, “I have to tell you something.”
“What?” I ask. “What’s happened?” but she’s opening the door and shaking off my coat.
“What is it?” I ask again. “Mum!” I follow her to the kitchen. “You’re scaring me!”
She spreads her fingers flat on the table, and looks down at them for a long time.
I reach over and rub her shoulder once, twice.
“Mum,” I ask, carefully, “Is it about you?” because whatever it is, she’s going to pull through it. Her number is proof of that.
“No,” she says, “It’s about you.”
“Me?” I repeat, and something inside me sighs, and surrenders, because deep down, I know.
“I’ve tried,” says my mother. “I’ve tried to keep you safe – ”
“It’s my number, isn’t it,” I cut in, and she looks at me. “It’s not seventy-seven,” I add, more gently.
“It was so easy!” she says, quietly. “I thought I’d been so clever. You’d never have to know.”
But I think I’ve always known, mum.
“I wanted you all to myself,” she says, “For seventeen -” she searches for the word – “untroubled years.”
“And that’s what I’ve had,” I tell her. Lying has always been easy.
“But I can’t keep you safe,” she says. “Any more.”
I reach for her and we sit there, holding hands.
“What are you going to do?” my mother asks the table eventually.
I pick up my phone.
“I’m going to call that boy,” I say. “And we’re going to see the world together. While we still can.”
She squeezes my hand till it hurts. And then – at last – my mother lets go.
© Joanna Rubery 2017