The bag was straining in her hand. Taught polythene handles had stretched thin, cutting painfully into her fingers as she made her way along the street. Above her, birds sang happy songs in a largely cloudless sky and the sun had made a brief, rare appearance and shone brightly, warming her round young face.
The heavy shopping rubbed and knocked against her leg as she paced the last few steps to her house, the heaving burden of the groceries she had been forced to drag along back from the local supermarket. Her mother sent her out often, since she scarcely left the house herself.
Her mother had problems, problems that had started long before she was able to remember. She didn’t know what exactly the problem was or when exactly it had began. She had never been brave enough to ask what moment it was that had so thoroughly broken her, leaving her a shadow of her former self. Whatever it was, it required regular visits to a clinic, pills popped out from bottles covered with severe warnings, a nurse coming to their house twice a month to make sure the medication was working and a social-worker to check that she was coping.
What exactly it was that she was meant to be coping with was open to discussion since she rarely did anything beyond looking up from the television or dozing on the sofa between rounds of loudly demanding cups of tea be brought to her. Her daughter took the brunt of it since it was just them living in that tired, grim old house.
Sam sighed as she made her way to the door. Their house was down a cul-de-sac, languishing in a dull little corner, shyly tucked away from the other houses on the street, a greying and aged building compared to the others. Their neighbours regarded them cautiously and they were never made to feel welcome, never seeming to be able to quite fit in. Other children never made eye-contact with her, nobody ever knocked on their front door to pay them a friendly visit.
She put down the shopping and began rubbing the red lines that tracked across the inside of her hands. Sam grumbled to herself and began fumbling in her pocket for the house keys. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled with the sense that she was being watched. It wasn’t unusual to have eyes turned towards her and she tried not to notice, to convince herself that what other people thought really didn’t bother her, no matter what the truth might be.
The key slipped into the lock but refused to turn. She sighed to herself and tried again, wriggling it enthusiastically but being careful not to snap it off in the lock. If it were to break, the full and unreasonable force of her mother’s rage could be turned against her.
She breathed heavily, a frown on her young face as she pulled the door towards her, fiddling all the while with the key, hoping to shake the lock open. It started to turn, the mechanism feeling old and dry, as if it had not been used in many years. Eventually it went all the way, finally yielding with a satisfying click.
Sam sighed heavily and turned back for the shopping. As she reached out she noticed just how dirty her fingers were. The door hadn’t been cleaned in as long as she could remember but still, it was worse than she had imagined it should be. She wiped her hands on her jeans and grabbed up the shopping, hefting the swollen bags of goods to her sides.
She nudged the door open with her foot and stepped gingerly inside, hoping that her mother would be sleeping, or else would be so engrossed in whatever she was watching that she wouldn’t even notice. That would mean she could unpack and retreat to her room, stealing a few moments of peace for herself, away from it all.
As she stepped inside, it was suddenly very clear that something wasn’t quite right. The house smelled musty and stale and dust hung thickly in the air. There was no furniture, just peeling, yellowing papered-walls with a dirty carpet running between them. It was all lit by a sickly yellow shaft of light peering in between the tired old curtains.
For a moment she just stood, staring with a frown on her face and a growing unease beginning to claw at her stomach. She carefully put down the shopping and went outside. She peered about, making sure she hadn’t chosen the wrong house, as if that might be possible. She stepped outside, glancing around with a sense of urgency, quickly convincing herself that this was, and could only be, the correct place.
There could be no doubt, they had lived there for thirteen years, this was without doubt her home and had been all her life. She went back inside, looking around with wide-eyed wonder. What could have caused this, where was everything? There was no sofa, no television, none of any of the things that usually littered the place. She slid in past the hall doorway, making her way up to the stairs. She dashed up them, her breath increasingly shallow as a strong sense of unease was beginning to crawl up her spine.
She went from room to room, gazing in with wide-open eyes, her breathing heavier as she pushed open each tattered old door, every moment pushing her closer to panic.
“Mum!” she cried out but silence was her only reply. “Mum!” Her voice was louder, the words cracked as her emotions began to strangle her, tears welled in her little blue eyes.
She fled down the stairs, tears rolling down her cheeks as she gazed around, edging closer and closer to losing control, to giving in to sheer, unadulterated panic.
At the top of her voice she cried out one last time, “Mum!” Her throat burned from the effort, her breath was shallow as she stood rolling her head around the empty living room. There was nothing there but silence. She could hear her own heartbeat thumping in her ears, her breath blowing over her lips. There was nothing else. There was nothing else left.
Nurse Baker shook her head sadly as she looked down at the woman, sprawled helplessly on the sofa, gazing up with unblinking, empty eyes.
“She’s catatonic?” a voice asked behind her as a social worker forced himself into her thoughts. She turned to see him writing a report with no more concern than if they’d found an empty box in the house.
“They kept increasing her medication because you kept recommending more. Eventually it broke her. She’s lost now in her own mind. She’s not coming back from this!” she said sadly.
He looked up and their eyes met for a moment. He clearly couldn’t care less. He shrugged and went back to his report.
“So, I’ve got one less crazy old woman to worry about. I’m sure there’s plenty more where she came from.”
Nurse Baker bit her lip hard and tried not to let all this get to her. She failed and found herself saying angrily, “You’ve taken a woman with mental health problems and you’ve tightened and tightened the screws until you’ve destroyed her mind. Who knows what hell you’ve trapped her into? There’s no way to know what’s going on in her mind now!”
He shrugged once again. “There’s nothing going on in there,” he said, gesturing with a nod of his head. “Personally I have no sympathy for her. She’s not the first woman in the world who had a miscarriage. She should have got over it in thirteen years like everyone else does.”
The nurse shook her head and said sadly, “Everyone is different. Her mother abused her, she had a terrible life as a child herself. Maybe that contributed?” She gazed at the woman. Her chest moved up and down slowly but behind her eyes there seemed to be nothing. “I hope wherever she is, that it’s better than this world.”
The social worker smirked and looked around the shabby house. Nobody had cleaned it properly in thirteen years, it smelled awful, the walls were grim and the carpet was worn and threadbare. “What could be better than this?” he quipped.