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Night Watch

Louise Mumford

I have to wait until Mother is asleep.

I am a prisoner in my own home. Every fifteen-year-old girl feels that way at times, though, don’t they? “You are grounded, young lady,” their parents say with a sad shake of their head. Then they close the door on the carefully decorated bedroom and temporarily halt the pocket money. 

I don’t have pocket money. 

I don’t have a carefully decorated room. I think it might have been, once, before we moved in. Now the flowery wallpaper is faded and peeling away from the wall, the petals that would have once been pretty colours wilting towards the floor. Mother has let me keep the bed, and I have a blanket when it’s cold, but everything else was cleared away years ago.

There is something wrong with Mother. 

The problem is when there is just the two of you, and one of you is only a child, it takes a while to realise something like that. A mother is a mother. What they do is what they do.

I haven’t been able to compare.

There is a rattling at the windows.

School stopped when I was six. “We can’t carry on like this,” is what Mother said when she took me out of there. She said “we”, but what she meant was “I”: “I can’t carry on.” What about me? I would have been happy to stay. I had friends, I think – at least I remember sharing colouring pencils at blue plastic tables and the teacher’s necklace dangling down as she bent to talk to me: big, fat, plastic beads that fascinated. School had smelled of waxy crayons, tuna sandwiches and a tang of something that might have been urine, might have been bleach. 

We home-schooled. Mother bought textbooks second hand from the internet, they still had pencilled notes in them from the old owners, and every morning she sat me down to learn. Except the learning never lasted very long: it soon turned into shouting and me hiding the sharp pointed pencils.

Mother doesn’t have friends; she doesn’t smooth a slick of glossy red onto her lips and spritz a cheap perfume to go out with the girls. She stays at home and watches television, irons, paces, wrings her hands, pulls out bits of her hair and scratches red welts into her skin.

Paranoia. Morbid anxiety. I’m sure a doctor could fix any number of handy labels on her. We don’t see doctors.

She’s nailed my window shut. 

I can’t remember when she cleared my room, maybe I’ve blocked that out. Too painful. I’d had toys and dolls, a wicker chair that was too small for me to sit in anymore, posters on the walls, a bookshelf with books. All gone. She probably didn’t sell them. She probably gave them to the church.

It’s the only place we go. 

Sunday morning, hands fixed in prayer, eyes skyward. The place itself is a miserable enough block of concrete just off the high street, something that looks more like a council building than a place of worship. There isn’t even any stained glass. 

She holds my wrist the entire time. Not my hand, because that would look affectionate, no she doesn’t want that, instead she grips my wrist hard enough for me to know. “We do not court speculation, Nia.” We do not want to be noticed.

Oh, but I notice. I notice the boy my age with floppy brown hair and eyes I easily snag. Mother cannot stop me from looking, and from being looked at. And, when she trots up to greet the priest, dragging me in her wake, the brush of his fingers against mine are a static jolt. 

I am sixteen soon. I know birthdays mean cake and a present wrapped in shiny paper with one of those bows made of coloured foil. It means singing and candle blowing and cards in envelopes sent by distant family. We don’t have relatives. Last year Mother gave me a new copy of the bible and a sprinkling of sugar on my morning porridge. 

I tiptoe to my door. There is no point trying the handle, it will be locked. It is always locked after eight in the evening. But, in the dark (Mother unscrewed the bulbs) I feel the rough wallpaper under my fingertips, my hands brushing over unseen roses, and I come to the wall that separates my room from hers. It is a thin, plasterboard thing, easily dented with a fist. Easy to listen in on the next room. I press the side of my face to it.

I will know when she is asleep. 

Sweet sixteen. That’s what the cards say. I know, I’ve seen them in the shop windows. And sweet is what I want. Anything. Life here is just grey, from the porridge, to the walls, to Mother’s complexion. Stale. Dust in my mouth. I can’t live like this. I shouldn’t have to.

There is another life out there for me. I’ve seen it, briefly, at church, in-between the eyes skyward, palms held together. 

Eyes can do other things than look for God. 

*** 

I have to wait until Nia is asleep.

I am a prisoner in my own home. Every middle-aged mother feels that way at times, though, don’t they? “What happened to my life?” parents ask with a sad shake of their head when they finally understand that their child’s life has swallowed their own. 

That’s what she did. She gulped me down whole.

Such a beautiful baby. Good. She would sit quietly, her eyes following me as I cheerfully went about my little household tasks, because I was cheerful then. I thought her to be docile, a placid baby, not easy to smile but not easy to cry either. I was wrong. She wasn’t docile. She was watching.

There is something wrong with my daughter.

I don’t like to think of her up there in that room. She’s nearly sixteen, she should have a room with posters of pop stars on the walls, clothes strewn on the floor, a dressing table with pots of glittery eyeshadow on it and a teddy still somewhere, because even when you’re nearly sixteen you still need your teddy. I should have been yelling at her to keep the place tidy.

I yell. But it’s not about that.

Her things had to go. I have discovered, through painful experience that, in her hands, most objects can turn into a weapon when I let down my guard. Better to allow her nothing to work with. Bare walls, bare floor. Bed.

I remember the day they called me into the school when she was six, the look on that teacher’s face, though it wasn’t her face we were there about. She told us what had happened, haltingly, as if she herself was still trying to piece it together, like the broken beads from her necklace. She wore it all the time: a long dangling thing that would have easily brushed the desk when she bent to speak to Nia. 

We don’t know why. All we know is how. 

Before the woman had had a chance to take a breath Nia had gripped onto the glossy necklace and twisted hard, pushing those big acrylic beads into the soft part of the woman’s throat, twisting with such a fierce and sudden force that the woman had started to choke, and the other children began to whimper. I can picture the scene, even now. The teacher stumbling backwards, the child – my child – latched onto her like a parasite, her face inches away from the woman’s, teeth bared. A thing from a nightmare.

I cannot blame the school. They offered us therapy and specialist teaching, safely away from the other children, of course, but I was adamant: I told them we had another school lined up.

That was merely the start. 

I turn off the lamp in the living room after my television programme has finished and brush the new hair I’ve pulled from my head onto the floor. I don’t even notice I’m doing it now, all I notice is the little pops of relief it gives me as each new clump comes away in my hand. I deserve the pain.

I can only blame myself. People say that when they say sorry, “I blame myself” they say but they don’t mean it, it is merely a cue for someone else to jump in with, “No, no – it’s not your fault” and pat their hand.

There is no one to pat my hand. I am to blame. I am her mother. I did something wrong, in the raising of her, or before that, in the womb. There are labels, I am sure. Syndromes, conditions, something to pin on her and stand back to see if it fits. But the responsibility is mine, and mine alone. I created her, I grew her there in my core and so my core, my very soul, must be corrupted for it to have produced… her.

That is why I cannot give up church. I hold on tight to her wrist the whole way through, determined for no one else to end up choking on their own necklace. I wish I could put a hand over her eyes because there are too many other young eyes around. But I have to pray. Of course, I pray alone for hours here in the house, on my knees until I cannot feel them anymore and have to massage my legs to get them working again, but I cannot shake the feeling that prayer is more powerful in a place of worship. Maybe I think some of the calm, the peace of the place, might rub off on her. 

I’ve tried everything else. We avoid over-stimulus, we keep our diet plain and free of additives and sugar, we keep to a routine, we read the bible and rote learn parts to repeat like meditation. This I do with her, for this is my penance as much as hers. This is my eternal five Hail Marys and an Our Father on a rosary, my very own choking necklace. I keep faith. I keep hope. Something will work. Though she is now nearly as tall as me. And cleverer. 

I go to my room with the bed I never sleep in. I know she is locked in but still I sit by the wall that connects my room to hers and I press the side of my face to it. In her head I must be the troll under the bridge, standing in her way, stopping her from crossing over into an exciting new world she could try to manipulate and then destroy, like everything else. She destroyed my marriage, my friendships, my job… me. I crumbled to dust under her gaze. 

I doze and in my dreams there is a faint rattle. 

I wake to the sound of the window opening. A window I’d nailed shut. And I’m out of my seat, the last fog of sleep making me wobble, through my door and across to hers, the keys in my hand, and all the while I’m thinking, thinking: which mistake did I made this time? What did I do wrong? 

I stagger into her room and the curtains flap in the cold air, stroking over the nails so painstakingly worked free without my notice. My hands reach the windowsill and I barely hold myself up as I see two figures running in the pool of light from a streetlamp. Nia and a boy I vaguely recognise from church. 

I blame myself.