‘Just one more chance, pleeeeease,’ I stretched the last word out as far as it would go, but Mother’s back was turned, and my bag stood in the hallway with my good winter coat and red wellingtons.
‘I’ve ‘phoned the Bad Girls’ Home. They’re coming for you in an hour.’ She was showing no mercy to the tomatoes as she sliced them with her sharpest knife. Her tongue clicked the roof of her mouth as they spilled their seeds over the kitchen counter. It was, I suspected, similar messiness that had led to my own fall from grace.
‘You can have your tea before you go,’ she said. I hated sandwiches, and Mother knew it. She had a machine for cutting bread, a bit like a guillotine. I flinched when she operated the blade. Taking the butter from the fridge, she waved the packet at me.
‘There’ll be none of this where you’re going. It’ll be water and dry bread before bedtime if you’re lucky.’ She tipped her head to one side to show she was thinking.
‘Or maybe a bit of gruel,’ she added.
‘Like Oliver Twist,’ I said.
‘Don’t get smart with me Madam.’ Mother gave me one of her looks. I was not taking this seriously enough.
Mother had taken me to see The Bad Girls’ Home last time I had let myself down. We had taken the bus miles out of town, then Mother, glancing around to check no-one was watching, had wrenched open some rusty gates and led me up a path overgrown with weeds and brambles. The building she had showed me was unlit and unloved.
‘Let this be a warning to you,’ she had said, placing her hands under my armpits and lifting me off my feet, so that my chin was level with a rotted wooden windowsill. I had peered into a deserted classroom; a few wooden desks and chairs, a chalkboard with some long-forgotten lessons written in an elegant cursive script. A box containing a hockey stick topped with a pair of bottle green knickers stood in the corner.
‘There’s nobody here,’ I had protested, sure I had caught Mother out in a falsehood.
‘The Bad Girls are out at work at this time. You won’t have much time for all your books and nonsense if I have to send you here.’ Her tone had made me silent. She had gazed at me for a long time before deciding I was sufficiently contrite. We had returned home, and she had made my favourite soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers.
Now, though, there seemed to be no chance of a last-minute reprieve. Mother set down a plate of cheese and tomato sandwiches. I stared at them, swallowing hard, unable to even take a first bite. A tear slithered down my cheek.
‘I’m sorry that it’s come to this,’ said Mother. She took a cotton handkerchief embroidered with her initial from the sleeve of her cardigan and blew her nose hard.
‘As a matter of fact, Mummy has had a little weep herself, this afternoon.’ I looked up as she sniffed and dabbed her eyes.
‘I blame myself. I must have been a very bad mother, to make you behave this way.’
This was my cue. Sliding down from my chair I scurried round to where she sat and flung my arms around her shoulders. I sobbed into her neck.
‘You’re the best Mummy in the world,’ I whispered into her ear. Mother did nothing for a long time. Then, stiffly, she began to pat my back.
‘There, there. Don’t upset yourself.’ Her words held no emotion, as though she was reading them from a prompt card. She extricated herself from my clutches and went out into the hall, where the telephone stood on its glass and wrought iron table. I heard her lift the receiver and dial a number.
‘I think I should give her one more chance. Perhaps she has learned her lesson this time. Sorry to have troubled you.’ I buried my head in my arms on the table and sobbed again, this time with relief. Mother came back into the room. She removed the unwanted sandwiches from the table I heard her tip them into the kitchen pedal bin, making no reference, as she usually did, to starving children in Africa. She took something from the fridge and gently placed it in front of me. The smell of chocolate made my nostrils twitch. I sat up, scrubbing at my face with clenched fists.
A slice of the kind of chocolate cake in which we only indulged on Very Special Occasions sat before me. Mother kissed the top of my head.
‘I will wipe your slate clean.’ It was an old promise, but one which had never before been accompanied by cake.
Relief had made me hungry. I devoured the whole slice, picking up crumbs on a dampened finger. Mother winced only slightly as she watched me. Afterwards we sat on the sofa, my head resting on her shoulder as we watched my favourite quiz show. Several times I answered a question when the contestant failed. Mother smiled proudly.
‘I love to spend time with my clever girl,’ she said. I began to relax in the glow of her approval. I remembered the chocolate cake, bought and sliced and waiting in the fridge for my redemption, even before my crime had been committed. I yawned, stretched, and went out into the hallway, leaving the door open wide enough for Mother to see what I was about to do next.
‘I’ll take this back upstairs,’ I said, grabbing the handles of the empty bag she had ‘packed’ for my departure. I slung it easily over my shoulder, ensuring that she knew I had no expectation of it containing any weight at all. I smiled my most angelic smile as I mounted the stairs.
‘Love you, Mummy,’ I said. I was tired of this game and would not be playing it again.
Alison Wassell is a short story and flash fiction writer published by Retreat West, Reflex Fiction, Firewords, Bath Flash Fiction, NFFD, FlashFlood Journal and The People’s Friend. She has been longlisted, shortlisted and placed in various competitions.