Everybody and His Mother

Auntie Diane’s funeral had taken place on a rainy Tuesday at the Lawnswood Cemetery in Leeds. Sometimes people called Lawnswood “neo-Georgian”, though it was really Victorian. But “Victorian” didn’t seem specific enough. Auntie Diane had died on a Monday. On Tuesday, Jemima had stood at the cemetery all alone. Jack had left her all alone.

(Always protects the funeral, he does.)

God, what was she thinking? Always protects the kid, that’s what she’d meant. Or maybe not. Maybe Jack was protecting the funeral from his presence. There was no reason for her to think that, but she did. Just like there was no reason why Jack wouldn’t want to go with her, but he hadn’t. He hadn’t gone. And as always, the kid had copied him. Jack owned the kid’s mind – and sometimes Jemima wondered if anyone else in the family deserved owning it.

Just a few hours before she’d been due to go to Lawnswood, Jemima had seen a dream. The kid had stood looking at the door of the house in London, where he’d never been, some distance from the well that wasn’t there. Not really, not in Jermyn Street, thank God. But in the dream, there had been a well – a kind of lonely gaping hole in the green hair of the world.

Auntie Diane had been standing next to the well in Jemima’s dream, looking very fragile with her bony legs sticking out of skinny jeans. The kid had thrown a stone at her (it had hit her head with a popping sound), and she’d fallen into the well head first. It was very similar to that horror film her sons had watched tonight. The Ring, that was it. She could now tell it had been inappropriate. Death was still too real in this house.

But back then, just a few hours ago, she hadn’t had the guts to say it. Now she merely lay exhausted. What she had said and what she’d gotten back was enough. Jack must have bitten out a part of her heart.

At least she’d had the guts to ask Jack why he hadn’t let the kid attend. (She’d only brought herself to do it two weeks after the funeral, and even this had felt like an enormous effort.) He could have at least said goodbye to Auntie Diane, right? That’s what she’d said to Jack, or so she thought.

She’d hoped to talk to him alone, but when she’d come back home from the Amnesty International office (she worked as a charity fundraiser), she’d found him watching that Ring thing with the kid. And once she’d seen the kid tucked in under Jack’s slender arm (it had covered him like a broad wing of a bird of prey), she’d no longer been able to control herself. This jealousy was some vicious circle she and Jack were forever stuck in: an emotional custody battle Jack was winning. The kid looked so safe, so calm, so happy around Jack – the way he never did when he was with her. Impulsively, she’d asked him:

“Are you sorry Auntie’s dead?”

The kid hadn’t had the time to answer. Jack had looked up at her in his cool, resentful manner, and muttered:

“Lay off him for fuck’s sake, he’s had enough of this shit.”

“What shit? What you’ve got on the screen – that’s what I call shit. And this is life, Jack. Death, it… it’s a part of life, and –”

“Lay off him, I said. And no, it ain’t really, not for normal folks.” He’d swung his long legs down like a pendulum, catapulting himself upwards. “We’re off. Come on kid, we’ll go on a ride.” Looking at her, he’d added spitefully: “Got my pay cheque today .”

They’d only just left, it seemed. Or maybe an hour had gone by. Jemima still had their sickening movie playing with her nerves, but maybe it was endless. She pressed the power button on the remote without ejecting the DVD and let her head fall back onto the couch.

The sitting room felt big and empty, like a cold ocean. It seemed the entire funeral had taken place here, though of course it hadn’t. But Jemima’s mind had darkened from the pain, that peculiar heart pain any fight with Jack left her with – it accumulated, like the after-effects of angina.

She couldn’t stand being in this room with the boys away. It seemed Auntie Diane’s body had lain on the very couch on which she was lying now. “This here couch,” Auntie had called it, or even “’ere”, which sounded just like “her” pronounced in the North Eastern dialect. It was plain snobbishness on her part, aimed to show that try as Jemima might, Leeds wasn’t London.

She hadn’t stayed here long. Not in Leeds. Jemima had done all she could, but it was what they said about old people: they couldn’t be moved around. Not even if everything had been done for their comfort.

The dark wardrobe in the moist and dusty corner at which she was unconsciously staring gave a low creak. The wind, it must have been, or maybe the boys had forgotten to close the door. It wasn’t like Jack, but whatever. The funeral and the death spirit must have affected him, though he didn’t show it.

She was very cold. It seemed to her that the wardrobe door was open, but she couldn’t see (darkness was descending rapidly, like a carnivorous bird on a hunt – a raven, maybe). Auntie’s wardrobe was watching her, the black gap she’d seen or imagined in it smiling at her like a crooked vertical mouth of some monster, or a slopping open wound. The whole thing was so rusty and shapeless it could well be a Scandinavian troll masquerading as a harmless piece of furniture. It was an enormous wardrobe, like in those Narnia novels.

Only it was neither magical nor harmless. She knew this much. This wardrobe hosted remains. The remainders of late Aunt Diane’s life.

The house in which Jemima lived was a very big, empty house (there was hardly any furniture), full of cracks and draughts, but not yet haunted. No one had died there, from what she knew. Even Auntie Diane hadn’t; she’d died in the hospital, in that shitty East Park Medical Centre with no one to hold her hand… And if anything, Jemima could bet Auntie had always wanted to die next to that bloody Gothic wardrobe. That’s why she’d had it dragged in all the way from London and paid a fortune for it.

When they’d been taking Auntie away and making such a fuss about it, Jemima had already known at the back of her mind that Auntie wouldn’t come back. Or maybe she hadn’t known. It was hard to tell now. People always granted events with retrospective significance, as John Banville or some other self-proclaimed Irish philosopher had said.

She killed the lights and lay smoking in the dark, propped up on her elbows a little. They were going sore, but she didn’t mind. The cigarette rested an inch away from the wall. She wasn’t afraid to set the house on fire, even though the padding was inflammable. The house was too wet, and she had no energy left. If it burnt – well then, let it burn… Let her burn too, burn here in the dark… She wasn’t worth much if her sons had turned away from her so easily.

She could see a kind of pale electric green gleam coming from the newfangled skyscraper round the corner. The glowing cigarette seemed to keep her warm, though nothing could stifle the cold coming up her windpipes from her diaphragm. She seemed to be breathing liquid ice, like a dragon that’d been fed a fire extinguisher. Mississippi Burning was a film that had scared the crap out of her as a kid, but how was it different from her life now? Jemima Preparing to Burn in Leeds… But that wasn’t a catchy title.

Some headlights flashed in the window. She thought by association that killing the lights had been exactly what she’d done. Disconnected them from their life source.

(They’ll want something to eat, now that they’re back .)

She wondered if they’d find the pancakes she’d left them – and then realized Jack must have fed the kid elsewhere. He possessed a remarkable combination of teenage callousness towards her, and fatherly concern when it came to the kid. Somehow that insulted her most. If Jack found that job in the police force he wanted (she’d run into him reading the police force training manual a few times already), he’d take the kid away from her and the kid would readily go.

She knew why he felt that way. She wouldn’t even go to court after Jack if he really did this, as she anticipated. The kid didn’t like it that mum was always sad. And who could blame him? Jack was always so cool with his boiling dark humour – even Jemima admired this attitude. What scared her was that they wanted to keep chilling, even though the house was in mourning. They wanted to scare death away.

Taking no notice of her.

On a subconscious level, she knew what Jack thought of her. He was her son, after all – and for years she’d been his sole parent. He thought she was playing the saint now, even though she’d hated Auntie Diane herself. He had a point. It was hypocritical. Jack nearly always had a point.

For years, Jemima had tried to do right by Auntie Diane, whatever that was supposed to mean. But she’d mainly wanted to do that to feel her superiority. Her three-decades-long grudge against Auntie Diane had always been fuelled by a sense of righteousness, a sense that she treated Auntie better than she’d treated Jemima…

Of course, that in itself was an insult: a calculated insult Jack had made her conscious of. Jemima was busy with the saintly shit, not Peggy. Not Peggy her cousin, a famous and happily married Asian languages specialist who lived in the States now, in a nice big house in Louisiana, if one was to believe The New Yorker. Not Peggy, who’d left Auntie to rot in hell so help her God.

Peggy couldn’t give a damn. That was the worst thing about it all. Jemima couldn’t help giving a damn, couldn’t help caring and turning the other cheek… And that’s why she had two full-grown Peggies in masculine form lurking around her house now. Peggies who couldn’t give a damn either – and who’d probably do much better than their mother in the end. That’s what she’d learnt on her own skin.

Even in ‘85, when Jemima and Peggy had both been kids visiting Auntie Diane in London, Peggy had it all. Wherever she was, Peggy came with her empty palms turned upwards, as if in prayer, and her fluffy eyes wide open – and she always left with her pockets full. She’d even gotten the scholarship to study in the US after citing “extreme poverty”. “Extreme poverty”, bloody hell. Jemima knew Peggy was very good at showcasing “extreme poverty” – indeed, at acting as if she was poverty personified. It had always paid off for Peggy – just like it used to with Jemima’s sweets.

Summer ‘85, yes, she remembered it well. Showers pouring non-stop over London, as if God had delivered a personal deluge over the city. They’d all pretended to be religious then. The Thatcher fashion had demanded it. Jemima knew it as someone with a sociology degree. And because no one had known how long the deluge was going to last, Jemima’s parents had sent plenty of treats with her to Auntie Diane: French cheese they could barely afford, fresh rabbit meat and pots of home-made clotted cream from the Devonshire farm near their house.

Auntie Diane was – had been, Jemima corrected herself grimly – her mother’s sister. Another sister had been Peggy’s mother, killed by meningitis in the ‘70s when Peggy had been a toddler. Auntie Diane had been childless, so she used to invite Peggy over to spend holidays at her house. But not Jemima. She’d never been enthusiastic about Jemima, but God, she used to love l’il Peggy.

Auntie would unwrap all Jemima’s treats and look at everything at once, like a capricious customer at the counter. Then she’d say she was allergic to this and that, and that none of it was any good at all. She’d always expressed her dissatisfaction to Jemima, as her parents’ representative.

Once the presents had been unwrapped and sneered at, Aunt Diane would tell Jemima to take a walk. She hadn’t cared about a lone child’s safety, as long as the child was Jemima. The London of the ‘80s had been safer than it was now, but still not safe enough. But Jemima hadn’t learnt that until much later. She used to always take that walk, like a good girl.

And once she’d left, Auntie Diane would lock the doors and draw the curtains down. Then, she’d cook all Jemima’s treats for Peggy – and Peggy would eat them all and lick her lips. There would never be anything left for Jemima to try. She could tell now it was ironic. At home, her parents used to tell her this kind of fancy food was too expensive.

If she could be cynical, like Jack (but she couldn’t), she’d have said Peggy and Auntie Diane had started a jolly good business of feeding off her, the soft-hearted idiot. Peggy continued profiting off that business streak of hers in Louisiana. And once Peggy had been safe in the States, Auntie Diane had carried on feeding and feeding on Jemima’s mind, like a maggot squirming around its valleys.

She’d been happy to move to Jemima’s house to be cared for, even though she’d already signed off all the money to Peggy. She’d even dragged her huge and inconvenient demonic wardrobe over, and Jemima hadn’t had the guts to resist. Oh, she never had the guts to resist.

She couldn’t even resist her own feelings. No matter how unfairly Aunt Diane had treated her, Jemima had always longed for her affection. That’s why she’d taken her in the moment Auntie Diane had fallen ill. Not that this had been a good idea. The moment Jemima had arranged for the wardrobe to be transported to Leeds, Aunt Diane had secretly sold the London house to new owners. She’d sent the money to Peggy over the Atlantic, purely out of spite for Jemima.

And still Jemima had felt insulted on Aunt Diane’s behalf, when the boys had skipped the funeral. Skipped it as if it was some boring Sunday service at a local church. Only now that Auntie had died, Jemima had seen what a weak person she was. She couldn’t even discipline Jack. God, he was so strong. So ruthless.

In the dark nucleus of her mind it was obvious why she resented Jack’s obsession with the kid so much. She had been the unloved child, the hated good-girl niece. She’d been the one endlessly exploited and ridiculed, and yet the one to always come back for more like some deranged, pathetic masochist.

As if one emotional beating hadn’t been enough. She could still feel the blows on her heart. Even her parents hadn’t treated her to things like Auntie Diane had treated Peggy. Even her parents hadn’t fussed about her like Jack fussed over the kid.

She could hear the boys getting back in. It had to be after midnight. The scratch of the key in the keyhole made her shudder. (Jack always unlocked the door as if he was practicing for a break-in. Maybe he was. God only knew what his plans really were.).

The headlight beam she’d just seen must have been theirs. It meant Jack had taken the Toyota, ancient but powerful, was old girl… Well, well. She knew it got him off in a way, acting like the kid’s surrogate father. She couldn’t deny he was doing well. And there hadn’t been a scratch on the kid’s face for months, not even from a fall. In fact he was painfully happy around Jack – painfully for Jemima.

Jack was so strong, so young – he could afford to smile all the time, to ignore Auntie Diane’s death, to go clubbing till dawn after a nine-hour shift. Jack was like some immortal beast brought down to Earth to shame his mother.

No wonder the kid felt nothing for her but a sort of condescending sympathy. How could she compete? She was mourning a death. She was too tired, too lifeless. No better than Auntie Diane. Maybe she was mourning her own death as a mother.

She really wanted to save this cigarette. She liked the stubs, and hated the fresh long white ones. Those looked like bloodless human fingers stuck in the doorway. But she didn’t want either of them to see she was awake. Especially Jack. He would resent it all – all this sluggish sentimental snot.

Maybe Jemima hadn’t loved Auntie Diane the person. But she’d loved the auntie who was part of her past, her childhood. Had been, not was. All of these things were had beens.

Jemima drew the blanket around her shoulders. She lay looking at Auntie Diane’s wardrobe. It was a survivor, that wardrobe. The rest of the stuff had been passed over to new owners.

But this was the most important wardrobe. It hosted Auntie Diane’s secret. Back in the ‘80s little Jemima used to think Auntie was a “Hair Krishna” (which she’d thought was a sort of creepy hairy rodent). Later on, teenage Jemima had thought Auntie Diane was a voodoo witch, and that she cursed people using all the hair – that the hair came to strangle the cursed when they went to sleep. Maybe Auntie had cursed Jemima’s sons, who hated her… They’d hated Auntie’s presence here, too, in what they saw as their territory. Especially Jack.

Jack would be able to afford his own place soon, she knew – a tiny place, but habitable. But he thought this Leeds house was the kid’s territory. He was ready to protect the kid’s interests with his teeth.

She remembered that Jack had just come home. A strong man and a worthless son. His presence was making her afraid.

She closed her eyes and hid her joint under the cone made of her pale shaking fingers, praying that they passed by without seeing she was awake, and that the turbulence didn’t extinguish the cigarette stub. It could seem she’d folded her hands like that in order to pray properly, even though she’d never prayed. But now she did. She prayed that they left her in peace. Left her to rest in peace like Auntie Diane.

She’d known straight away Jack was bringing in a girl. There was a soft perfume smell in the air. Now they were trying to smuggle her into the bedroom, though Jemima could tell he’d been counting on making out with her here in the sitting room, where there was more space. It was disgusting that he’d do that a week after a funeral, that he’d want to fuck someone on this dirty sofa bed where Jemima was now pretending to be asleep.

The girl giggled – Jemima heard Jack promise her lots of booze once they got to his room. Now she could hear the kid rumbling about in the kitchen. She’d been calling Steve that for years, as if he didn’t have a name. But he never answered to “Steve” when she called. Jack had been the one who’d started to call him “kid”. And now he’d taken that as his name.

Slowly, she took her cigarette out from under her improvised lighthouse. It lit a small red circle around her face, as if she was a parody of an angel.

She didn’t resent Jack for dragging the girl in per se. He had his hormones, he had the kid to teach how to do it all… And then God knew he paid for it all himself from what he got off his service jobs. Jack always paid his way through. The rest was none of her business.

Her cigarette going dimmer and dimmer, she lay shuddering in her diminishing self-made circle of light. No matter what she did it wasn’t warm enough.

That was why she didn’t see Auntie Diane coming straight away . The light was moving in jittery jumps all the time, and she didn’t notice the movement near the door, in the corner opposite the wardrobe. Auntie Diane didn’t materialize, as ghosts were supposed to do – she didn’t emerge as a shimmering presence in the dark. She didn’t emit cold. In fact she emitted a kind of warmth in the frosted room – a heavy, nauseating warmth of a parasite-infested body.

The first thing Jemima noticed was Auntie Diane’s physicality. She was wearing the dress she’d been buried in. But she didn’t feel dead and she didn’t smell dead. She didn’t even look dead. That’s why Jemima should have thought then she wasn’t dead, but she was. Jemima had seen her face in the coffin less than three weeks ago.

The ritualistic time period for the soul to leave its past abode was forty days, from what Jemima had read in esoteric literature. And it hadn’t been forty days – not even close. She couldn’t even make use of this information.

Auntie hadn’t died in this house. It was important to remember. But Jemima thought a soul belonged where it had felt in place, at home. Even so, however – Auntie hadn’t liked Leeds any more than her own house in London. In fact she’d hated it. It all seemed very illogical – but Jemima had always thought humans tried to make the world more logical than it really was.

But when Auntie’s ghost moved in the direction of the wardrobe, Jemima thought with a heavy, nauseous kind of understanding she knew what this was about – knew what Auntie wanted. Knew what was in that wardrobe.

She was convinced the Auntie Diane she was seeing wasn’t really a ghost, but a biofield. Her late husband would have said so too. This light interest in all things occult had been part of what had brought them together as students. One of the creepiest punk things Jemima and her beloved had stumbled on were the writings of Jasmuheen, a New Age mystic. About biofields, Jasmuheen wrote that it didn’t matter how many days had gone by, or where one’s soul felt in place – this kind of thing was just a relic from the ghostly, long-buried Christian culture.

What mattered was the interaction between biofields. There was some kind of interaction between Auntie’s biofield and the wardrobe in the dark corner: between her and its contents.

Jemima had never forgotten what lay in the first drawer just above the ground. What had lain there for years, absorbing the icy drafts of wind rising from between the floor tiles of the house in Jermyn Street – and from the very different cracked airways of this old house in Leeds. She couldn’t forget. When she’d accidentally found it, it had scarred her eleven-year-old self too much.

Auntie’s biofield had come for her hair. The ancient, curled-up buns of hair she’d saved up. They were full of stale, white dust that looked like powder; no one had touched them for decades, except for their aging owner. Jemima had thought of all this hair when she’d stood at Lawnswood all alone. Thought that she’d have to clear it out somehow, since Auntie had dragged the wardrobe over from London. Maybe it really was haunted and inescapable – and it inescapably haunted Jemima.

She’d seen those thick grey balls of hair as a child, packed in the drawer and covered with dust. There’d been plenty, but little Jemima had never had the strength to pull out the drawer far enough and look at them all (Jack would have done it in an instant). Now it didn’t matter. The grown-up Jemima would have to clear the entire wardrobe and dispose of it all.

Their family wasn’t Jewish, even though Jemima’s husband had been, so there wasn’t any ritualistic obsession with cleanliness. She wasn’t disgusted by the hair either. But she knew it couldn’t be left lying around – and it couldn’t be thrown away. This was just as confusing as all the superstition stuff. Despite her Amnesty job, taken up to feed her children, in her heart she was a failed sociologist, like the rest of her family. She still had all the James Frazer volumes, including The Golden Bough, lying around in the kitchen. He’d written somewhere that a sympathetic connection existed between the hair and its owner. It was always safer to dispose of it after a death.

These soft, slowly decaying hair balls were like grey cotton threads cats played with, only they were thinner. It was all right here, yes. All the hair Auntie Diane had ever cut off. Faded, silver and seemingly hard and thin at the same time, to the over-emotional Jemima they looked like metallic threads. Or the threads of fate woven and ruthlessly cut by the Moirae.

Only Auntie Diane hadn’t wanted to cut hers. She’d keep her hair, her lifeline, preserved safe in the intimate darkness and hidden from sight, rolled up in balls, so that they were indistinguishable, inseparable from one another. By keeping all her hair, she’d hoped to prevent her lifeline from tearing, from ever being cut. And guess what, boys and girls, Jemima thought, drowning in muted shock that rang in her ears like a gong, guess what. It had worked; she was back. She’d attained her immortality. Now she wanted to make sure she’d have it forever.

Aunt Diane truly was a biofield, not a ghost; she had a physical body. It was a hot body full of energy, though this energy wasn’t of the ordinary kind. Maybe it had come from Auntie Diane’s hair, like Rapunzel’s. That’s why she’d come for it; she’d come to take her hair away into her grave.

Her biofield now hovered just above the ground in front of the wardrobe. She didn’t emit a white glow like a ghost probably would. Instead, she still radiated heat. Jemima could almost see its waves rising from under her feet to the top of the room, like waters splitting to let a saint through. Jemima could see Auntie’s face and her piercing profile with a long hooked nose and hard aquiline eyes. They had always been blue, but now they had a dark red glow. It could have been from Jemima’s cigarette, but it wasn’t; that had long since died out. Her numb fingers had split it in halves.

Auntie Diane looked at the wardrobe – Jemima could see the red dots in her pupils turn towards it – and its doors opened. There wasn’t any noise, not even a creak, though that was unnatural. Jemima’s ears had become blocked, as if she was travelling at a great height. She tried swallowing and couldn’t do it.

The hair drawer crawled out once Auntie Diane looked at it, making Jemima think of a crab. She felt the surge of mind-eating terror. Auntie wasn’t hovering. She stood completely still in the sickeningly warm air (it kept moving around her, as if rising to the top of a forest bonfire), as if it was a pedestal. And as she looked inside the wardrobe harder with her unseeing glowing eyes, the hair balls slowly started to levitate.

They rose into the air above the drawer and slowly floated out, following one another in a pattern resembling a loose scatter graph. Some thin single hairs must have been ruffled by the turbulence. Jemima could see them in the moonlight and the green glow coming from the skyscraper, now that the balls had shifted away from the dark corner. Now they were lit up with a green light.

Auntie Diane’s biofield turned around, and floated slowly towards the window, followed by the balls behind and on either side of her. She looked as if she was leading a liturgical candle procession during the Easter service – though of course this was a blasphemous thought.

Jemima thought of the rock ‘n’ roll song she and Peggy had been brought up on: “Great Balls of Fire”. But the fire had been in Auntie’s eyes.

Auntie Diane and her procession travelled out of the window and into the monochromic moonlit sky.

Jemima half-sat in silence and perfectly still, staring at the window blankly, her elbows forgotten. With some distant part of her mind, she could hear shuffling and soft voices coming from Jack’s room. Then the jingling of some jewellery. Jack’s voice: “I’ll call you tomorrow.” She wondered if he was lying to the girl, and decided he probably was. Jack was no romantic.

She didn’t look up or glance around. Instead, she listened to the sounds of Jack walking to the door to see his companion out. The kid was probably asleep by now. It was for the best.

As Jack stepped back into the sitting room, Jemima reached out and turned the light on with one sharp movement. He stared at her silently, in grim anticipation.

She licked her lips, and asked:

“Did you have a nice evening?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry we woke you up,” he said flatly. She was sure he was. It meant he had to talk to her now.

She licked her lips again, and forced herself to say what she’d meant to say all along.

“I just wanted to tell you – you were right not to go to the funeral. You were right not to let him go, too. She was a witch, a real witch. And I’ve always been a coward.”

Her son stared in astonishment.

It suddenly crossed her mind she could be a witch herself.