by Rose Morley
Winner of the Autumn 2020 ORB Short Fiction Competition, judged by Monica Ali.
‘We’ve all got to be nice to Mama,’ you said as we drove to pick her up from the hospital.
You had given us each a tulip for her. A red one of Azis, a purple one for Yusuf, and a yellow one for me. I held it under my chin and asked Yusuf if it said that I liked butter.
‘That’s only for buttercups, stupid,’ he said, and turned to face out of the window.
I dug my nails into the tulip stem, deforming it with tiny arched scars.
It had been three weeks since our little sister slipped out of Mama, a tiny, crimson echo of a person, curled in on herself as if trying not to look at the pain she had caused. We tried to wash her out of the sheets, but we couldn’t. You took Mama to the hospital the week after that. The sun glared at us through the window while we waited for you to bring her out, heating up the air inside, forcing that hot car smell of squashed cereal bars and muddy socks up our noses. We waited in silence, picking at the soft petal skin of our tulips.
Azis was eleven now, Yusuf nine and me seven and three quarters. Mama had always wanted a girl. If our first little sister had been born properly, she would be four now. The next little sister: two and a half. After her we stopped remembering their ages. It just made Mama sad.
You and Mama appeared on the horizon, framed by the sticky car window, pulsing in the heat. She looked smaller than usual, and you, so big and tall. My Dad, the strongest, fastest, handsomest Dad around. And My Mama, the one who cried when she got angry, and sometimes locked herself in the bathroom and stayed there for whole days. The pair of you grew bigger as you approached the car. Wrapped in the new shawl that you had bought her, her features were etched onto her face as beautifully as usual, but somehow seemed fainter, as if the rain might wash them off.
In the car, Mama looked at the three of us curiously, as if not expecting us to be there. She opened her mouth a little, closed it again and looked at you as if there was something that she needed to ask. The silence grew thick and solid between us until Azis broke it with his arm, brandishing the red tulip at her abruptly, as if he was being controlled by one of Yusuf’s robot remotes. ‘Welcome home, Mama,’ he mumbled, forcing his eyes to meet hers.
Yusuf handed her the purple tulip, trying to give her the smile that Azis could not. I pressed the yellow tulip into her hand and kissed her on the cheek. Her skin twitched underneath my lips. ‘Hello Mama’ I whispered. You squeezed her arm and grinned. She smiled a smile back that looked like it had been drawn on as an afterthought, and looked at a spot just behind your ear, toward the hospital, perhaps toward a room where they were storing the part of her that they had taken away.
‘Three lovely boys,’ she murmured when she finally turned back to us. ‘Three lovely tulips from three lovely boys.’ Dad started the car, and the spluttering engine punctuated the silence filled the drive home.
When we got back to the house, put our tulips in the vase that Azis, Yusuf and I had painted for her birthday one year when we were small. Three little paint covered hands that you had steadied and pushed down on the pottery to leave their prints that day, still bright, ready for us to push our palms against again each year and show each other how much we had grown. You went to the kitchen to start preparing dinner, and told us again: ‘be nice to Mama, remember.’ I nodded my head to show you that I understood. Yusuf picked at the carpet with his bare toes. Azis just looked at you.
I climbed up and sat on the back of Mama’s chair, took off the new shawl and played with her hair. She tilted her head a little, like a cat being scratched, and sighed.
‘Thank you, habibi,’ she said, quietly.
‘How was hospital, Mama?’ asked Yusuf, abruptly. Azis trod on his foot and glared at him.
She shrugged my hands off her head and put the shawl back on, hiding from the question.
‘Do a puzzle with us?’ he tried again. Mama shook her head slowly, as if swaying it to music that we couldn’t hear. Her silence suffocated the three of us. I began fiddling with her hair again, but she shook her head when I touched it.
‘Please go,’ she whispered, finally. So we went.
The next day, Azis, Yusuf and I each kissed Mama goodbye before school. In each of our lunch boxes you had left tiny piece of halvah as a treat, wrapped up in special purple cellophane. We ate together that lunch break for the first time in ages. Azis took out his halvah and dropped it on the floor without saying anything, but when Yusuf picked it up, he snatched it and put it back in the lunch box.
‘You weren’t even going to eat that!’ Yusuf protested.
‘Shut up,’ said Azis.
At the end of the day we waited at the gate but you didn’t come. Finally we saw Mama approaching. She walked slowly with her eyes on the floor, as if concentrating hard on the act of putting one foot in front of the other. Azis groaned and shuffled backward, hiding behind Reggie Stevens. Mama never came to pick us up from school.
‘Who are you here for?’ Mrs Malins asked her, in her parent voice. Mama looked as if she didn’t understand. She pointed to Azis, Yusuf and me and nodded her head slightly. ‘If you give me their names I can tick them off the list!’ She prompted her brightly. ‘Mrs…?’ she added. The word hung in the air, a timid lifeline for Mama to grapple onto.
‘Three lovely boys,’ said Mama eventually. ‘I’m here for my three lovely boys.’
‘We just need their names,’ said Mrs Malins. ‘Just a precaution!’
Mama’s unfocussed eyes passed over Azis, Yusuf and then me. She pointed again. ‘My boys.’
I waited for Azis and Yusuf to say something. Azis was looking hard at Mama. A raw pinkness was tinting his eyes and his lips were shut tight.
‘She’s our Mum,’ mumbled Yusuf, and finally, ‘Mrs Qureshi.’
Mrs Mallins squinted at Mama.
‘I’m sorry, I’m going to need to see some ID, it’s just protocol,’ she said apologetically.
Mama’s hand moved mechanically into her handbag and pulled out her drivers licence, which she gave to Mrs Mallins.
‘Perfect, sorry, always have to check.’ She smiled. ‘See you tomorrow boys!’
I took Mama’s soft and limp hand in mine as I led her away from the gate.
‘Where’s Dad?’ Yusuf asked
‘Just in the car,’ said Mama, not looking at him.
A loud metallic crunching sound from behind made me jump. Me and Yusuf and even Mama turned around to see Azis stomping on a deformed coke can, each angry impact making it cower a little more, reducing it to a shiny, jagged circle.
‘I’m Azis, Mama!’ he shouted, still stamping ‘Azis! You named me, remember? Look, that’s Yusuf, him too. And Talal! Remember Talal?’ he added, throwing his arm out at me. Mama stared at Azis as if he was something new and perplexing that had caught her attention but was far away enough from her not to matter. He stared back, the reddened rims of his eyes no longer holding back his tears. The seconds stretched between them for a while. Then she slid her hand out of mine, turned away and carried on walking toward the car. Azis kicked the contorted remnants of the can into the road. He didn’t come down to dinner that night, even though it was runny egg and soldiers.
In the playground the next day, Reggie Stevens dribbled his football up to me ‘Alright, lovely boy?’ he laughed ‘Three lovely boys! Three lovely boys!’ he started chanting. Soon Marcus and Rahim came over and joined in too. They sung it to Yusuf when they saw him as well, but not Azis, because he was in year six and said the F word. The only time they didn’t sing it was when you came to collect us at the end of school. Their voices tripped over each other in a rush to finish first as you got closer to the gate to take us away and back home, where Mama would take those same words and make them soft and fragile.
That Friday it was my turn to read the year three notices in assembly. On stage, I felt as if a curtain had been drawn back to reveal me standing naked behind it. The whole school, squashed into the hall like battery hens, looked up at me from its position cross legged on the floor. Then I heard Reggie Stevens’s voice.
‘Three lovely boys! Three lovely boys! Three lovely boys!’ he chanted, the boys around him quickly joining in as the sound expanded like ink on tissue paper. I pushed my teeth down on my tongue until the rusty taste of blood washed over my tastebuds. ‘Three lovely boys! Three lovely boys!’ continued. ‘Enough of this,’ said Mr Glenn, but his words were swallowed up by the relentless chant. I scanned the crowd for an ally against this rhythmical army but saw nobody.
Suddenly my feet stumbled and my legs buckled, but instead of falling to the floor I staggered and then ran, bursting through the doors and out into the playground. It was raining for the first time in months, and it smelt musky and tired, as if it had absorbed the sweat of all the hot, dusty days that had come before it. I ran through the gate and along the route home still fleeing the echo of ‘three lovely boys.’ At the house, I spun over the back wall on my belly and jumped down into the safety of our garden with its memories of fort building and racing snails. The back door was unlocked. Mechanically, I began climbing the stairs to my room.
As I passed you and Mama’s room, I felt a sharp pain in the bottom of my foot. I looked down to see a fragment of mottled blue on the floor highlighted by a dark smear of my blood. Through the crack in the door I could see the silhouette of Mama standing in front of the window, looking out onto the pulsing, swearing city like a princess in a tower. The floor was littered with small pieces of the tulip vase, some marked with the coloured curve of a tiny handprint or the tip of a minute finger still learning how to move itself. In the glazed ceramic graveyard lay the three lifeless flowers, chlorophyll spines curved with the strain of supporting vibrant scented heads. Though I couldn’t see her face, I knew that her eyes were fixed on the distant tower of St Thomas’s hospital which loomed across the city, a constant reminder of the little sisters who death snatched before life could hold them. I picked up my tulip, letting it rest on my palms, and walked toward Mama. She flinched when I nudged her back, even though I was as gentle as possible. She turned and looked at me blankly, as if nothing was left inside her, a fading flesh coloured shell. I extended my hands to her, as if offering the tulip at a shrine. Her head tilted to the side, and the corners of her mouth slowly began to curve, forming the faint imprint of a childish smile. She took it.
‘Talal,’ she said.
ROSE MORLEY reads English at Wadham College. She only entered this competition to do the right thing by teenage Rose, who read Monica Ali's Brick Lane about 8 times during secondary school.
Art by Tara Kelly