Issue 53: May - June 2006 

| author bio

David Ramos Fernandes

 She spent the morning in the kitchen, mopping the floor and wiping down the cupboard doors and shelves, even though they were clean. During the night, lying restless with her son held tight to her chest, she had tried to reassure herself that everything would turn out OK, that the house would be shining when they came round, but she didn't believe this. She knew the dirt was there, waiting to embarrass her, and in the end she had gone downstairs and started dusting the living room.
      By the time Mark woke up she had worked her way through the house to the kitchen, her hair tied back into a knot, her fingers raw from scrubbing the oven. After making his breakfast, she sat him in front of the television, holding him as he gently rocked from side to side, trying to get his attention, I'll be in the kitchen yeah? If you want mummy just shout, pointing in the direction of the doorway. Mummy's only going to be away a little while.
      The boy paused for a moment, then kicked his legs, waving his hands at the cartoons on the screen.
      That's it honey. Mummy wants you to sit here until she's finished. She built a nest of sofa cushions around him, trapping him inside a tight circle, then kissed him on the forehead, squeezing him closer. You'll be okay, okay?
      Clearing away the foam, she ran her fingers around the water, gathering up the last few dishes and rinsing them under the tap. From the window she could see cherry blossoms shivering in the breeze. The air clouded with glittering petals until the gust died and they fluttered to the ground, sinking into the wet street.
      The house was quiet. Cars hissed along the road outside.
      With a rag she soaked up the drops of water from the draining board. She could see faint stains scarring the surface, so she rubbed in a few drops of cleaning fluid and scraped at the edges, forcing the aluminium to gleam.
      She backed away from the sink, angling her head to the light. The marks were still there. She scrubbed harder, pressing her nails into the cloth, her face becoming red with the effort, but as hard as she tried she could always see them.
      After finishing the kitchen, she dragged the vacuum cleaner upstairs and began to clean the bedrooms and the bathroom. She didn't think they would go further than the living room, but still she felt uneasy at the thought of someone wandering around the bedrooms, taking notes, getting the wrong idea. Clothes were piled up on the bed, toys were strewn across the landing, towels had been left wet on the floor by the bath, the mirrors smudged with fingerprints and water marks, and all of this reflected on her, telling everyone she couldn't cope, that maybe it was her fault after all.
      She remembered the nurse looking at her as they walked along the corridor to the consultant's office, saying well sometimes mistakes are made, and you can never be completely sure, but to be honest I think you really need to ask yourself . . . glancing down at her jeans, noticing the food stains she hadn't had time to wash.
      This time it would be different, she told herself. Everything would be clean and in its place. Everything would shine.
      She would make sure of it.
      On the staircase she held the vacuum cleaner and fed the nozzle into the cracks and corners. After a few steps, she cut the power and let the whine slowly ease down to silence. She listened, waiting to be reassured.
      She heard the television. People were arguing, shouting at one another.
      She yanked the cord further down the staircase, waiting for him to make a noise.
      Mark? Mark? Where are you baby?
      She stopped breathing.
      Her voice was flat against the stillness. A tune began to blare out from the television. She dragged the vacuum cleaner downstairs and ran into the living room. The nest was empty, the cushions pushed aside. A woman's face glared from the television.
      All she could see were a few toys spread out across the floor, sullen in the glow of the screen. She stared at the discarded cushions. She couldn't understand why he wasn't there, and as she stepped over the toys she found herself looking around so quickly that she saw nothing and had to look again, and then again, to be sure that he wasn't lying there. She fell to her knees and crawled behind the sofa to find nothing but old boxes and plastic bags and other things that she knew shouldn't be there because this is what the nurse had said could happen if you left him unattended for too long. How could I have been so stupid, she thought; this is what happens, this is what happens when I'm not here to look after him. She clutched hard at the bags as if they were the cause of all her problems, until she turned round in time to see him hunched up beneath the coffee table, chewing on the wheel of his truck.
      She reached under the table and pulled him out, gripping his arms and shouting, don't you ever do that again, do you understand? do you hear me? her voice tailing off to a whisper as she folded her arms around him, hugging him tight, smothering her tears in the soft curls of his hair, you scared me baby, you scared me, rocking back and forth, stroking his head, calming herself down. Always stay near me. Always stay near mummy. Okay? Okay?
      She knelt there for the rest of the morning, the boy cradled in her arms, waiting for them to arrive. They'll only be here an hour, she told herself, then they'll leave and it'll just be the two of us again. She stared at the empty nest of cushions, frightened at the thought of letting him go.
      The social worker was ten minutes early. She stood on the front step of the house with her clipboard and folders in full view of the neighbours, fumbling through her pockets for her ID card.
      Hello. Clare isn't it?
      Clare nodded.
      My name's Heather. We spoke on the phone. She shoved the card back into her pocket, nodding her head as if she'd been asked a question. I'm going to be your caseworker.
      Clare allowed the door to open wider.
      Thanks. The woman stepped in, looking up the staircase, then glancing along the hallway. Well. This looks like a nice place.
      Clare showed her to the living room. Mark's through there.
      She made two mugs of coffee and listened as the woman baby-talked Mark. She felt an awkward fear, as though she was scared he might prefer the woman's voice to her own, and she tried to distract herself by reaching for a cloth and wiping down what was already clean and shining. Outside it had started to rain, and what was left of the fallen blossoms was now trickling along the gutter towards the drains.
      She looked up at the clock. Darren was late.
      In the living room she set the mugs down on a pair of drink-mats and sat on the chair opposite the sofa, lifting Mark onto her lap. He struggled briefly, then settled against her bosom.
      Oh, thank you. I haven't stopped all day. The woman took a sip, making sure that she placed the mug back on the mat. Then she took a deep breath. Well now. I'm just going to take a look at Mark here, see how he's looking, okay?
      Clare passed the boy over, then locked her hands together and dug her nails into her palms, wincing as the woman lifted up his shirt to reveal a faint ridge of pale yellow bruises across his back.
      Well. That looks like it's clearing up, doesn't it? Yes. She tickled the boy, her hands cold against his warm body. You're a strong boy aren't you? Yes. A strong boy.
      Clare tried to smile.
      Okay then. Just give me a second won't you? She looked over his arms, then checked his legs and head before quickly pulling down his shorts. That's it. All done. That didn't hurt did it? No. She bounced him on her knee, making faces. No. Of course it didn't, because you're a strong boy, aren't you? She passed him back over to Clare. He seems fine. Has he been back to the hospital?
      Clare nodded.
      Any problems?
She nestled him against her bosom.
      They sat watching Mark for a while, letting him fill the silence.
      The woman checked her watch. He's running a bit late isn't he?
      Sometimes he doesn't get out on time.
      It's just that I'm not going to be able to stay past the hour. I've got another meeting.

      I'm sure he'll be here soon.
The woman reached for a folder, pulling out a few sheets. While we're here, maybe I could ask you a few questions. Would that be alright?
      Clare nodded. Her shoulders sank.
      Let's see. She placed a sheet onto the clipboard, taking out a pen. How have the two of you been getting on?
      You and your partner. Have the two of you had any problems, in the past? Sorry. I know it sounds personal, but it's just for a general sort of background, for the forms.
She checked over the question on the sheet. I mean. You've never had any trouble have you? I mean, more than the usual sort of thing anyway.
      Not really.
She moved Mark over to her other side. Nothing apart from the-
      Apart from what?
      You know. Just. The usual. Arguments.
      I see.
She wrote a few more words and ticked a box. Has he ever shown any sort of violent or aggressive behaviour? I mean, to you or the child?
      No. Not really.
      Not really?
      Not at all. Not while I was there.
      Okay. Okay.
She turned over the sheet, glancing up at Clare. Where is Darren staying at the moment?
      With relatives.
She made a note, then tapped her pen against the clipboard. Have you had any problems here, I mean, being on your own, with Mark?
      Clare shook her head.
      Okay. She ticked another box. Okay.
      D' you want to look around?
      No, no. That shouldn't be necessary.
She looked around the room, nodding her head. I can see it looks fine. She placed the sheet down and braced her hands around the mug, to be honest it puts me to shame, I'm so messy.
      Their laughter fanned as they looked over the cold, cracked walls. The woman took another sip of coffee, admiring a set of picture frames along the wall, dried flowers pressed behind the glass. Oh, they're nice aren't they? You must like them too, eh? The woman winked at Clare, then shook her face at the boy. Eh? Do you like the pictures?
      The boy looked at the woman for a while, then tucked his head behind his mother's back. They watched him hide, and glanced over at each other, smiling, reassuring themselves.
      The doorbell jarred the silence, snapping the women to attention. Clare got up, balancing Mark against her shoulder as she walked to the front door. Through the window she could see Darren waiting in the rain, the water dripping from his baseball cap, his face in shadow.
      Fuck'sake Clare. Come on. It's pissing down out here.
      She opened the door and noticed he hadn't bothered to wash his face. It was smeared with engine oil and grease.
      You alright? He paused for a moment, then leaned in to kiss her, but she backed away, pushing him off with her hand.
      You're dirty.
      I didn't have time.
He stepped through the door, waving to the boy. Is she here?
      Clare nodded her head at the living room.
      I didn't want to use my keys, y'know. Didn't want her to think I was just walking in when I felt like it.
      That's okay.
The social worker had stepped out into the hallway. As long as I'm here when you are.
Darren pulled off his baseball cap. Yeah.
      Shall we sit down?
The woman pointed at the sofa. Sorry, but I can't stay for much longer. You should have called to say you were going to be late. We could have rescheduled.
      Yeah. Sorry.
      Clare followed Darren into the room, staring at the carpet in horror. His muddy boots had etched his journey from the doorway to the living room, and as she tried to rub the prints away with her foot, she became aware that they were waiting for her to sit down.
      She took the seat beside the social worker. The two of them faced Darren, watching as he tried to get comfortable.
      Any chance of a coffee love? I'm fuckin'he stopped, glancing over at the social workerthirsty.
      Clare hesitated for a moment, then passed the boy over to the woman. Would you like another?
      The woman shook her head.
      Clare walked into the kitchen and switched on the kettle. As the water began to boil, she stood by the doorway so that she could listen in. Darren was talking about the weather, that it had become so dark outside that he'd been driving with his lights on. The woman seemed to be agreeing.
      She walked back into the living room with the mug of coffee, passing it over to Darren. Mark played on the floor by their feet.
      Okay then. The woman stroked the boy's head. Now. I think it's time you got to hold your son, eh? She picked the boy up and gently passed him over to Darren.
      Clare felt her hands shake. She had to clasp them together to stop herself from taking the child back.
      Alright son? Remember me? Darren hooked his hands underneath the boy's arms and swung him in front of his face, rubbing his nose into the boy's belly. It's your dad, remember? Course you remember.
      Clare couldn't recognise him sitting in the small chair, the boy made small in his arms. She was used to seeing him on the sofa, splayed out tired with the boy tucked in beside him, but now he seemed monstrous, his shoulders hunched over, his arms spread wide so he could fit between the arm rests. She could smell the white spirit he'd used to clean his hands, but she also saw the black ridges underneath his nails, the dirt rigid between the lines of his knuckles.
      Okay. Okay. The woman leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Now Darren, I'm not criticising, but I think it might be worth looking at the way you handle the child. You're a big man, and sometimes, well, sometimes we don't realise how strong we are.
      Well. I saw how you picked Mark up and, well, I mean, you have to be gentle don't you?
      I know how to pick my son up.
      I realise that, but I noticed-
      Clare had also leaned forward. Why can't you just listen to her? Just listen to what she has to say.
      Don't start, Clare.
      Look what you're doing. You're hurting him. You're hurting-
      He's alright.
      Look at him. Look! Give him back to me.
She snatched the boy back and walked over to the doorway.
      Okay. The social worker raised her hands. Okay. Let's just calm down a little here.
      Darren had tucked his head between his hands, staring down at his boots. Why don't you just say what you're thinking Clare? Why don't you just say it?
      The social worker reached for her folders. I think we'd better end it here. She picked up her clipboard. I'm sorry Darren, but we should leave. We can reschedule for another day.
      Do what?
He looked up at her. I only just got here.
      I know. I know. But let's just take this step by step.
      Clare was staring at the carpet, at the muddy footprints Darren had carried through. She noticed he was staring at them too.
      The social worker took a deep breath. Listen, we can meet up next week. In the meantime maybe we should all have a little think about how we want to resolve this. Okay? she looked over at Clare. Okay?
      Clare nodded, holding the child closer. She could feel the boy moving, struggling to find room to breathe.
      She watched them leave. They stood for a while beneath the cover of a tree, sheltering from the rain. Darren had his arms folded, nodding his head while the social worker pointed towards the house. She was writing something on her clipboard. After a few minutes they both left, each of them getting into their cars and driving away, until the street became quiet and all she could hear was the rain against the window.
      She walked through to the hallway and noticed that the steps at the bottom of the staircase were dirty. She had forgotten to finish cleaning them. She sat down on a step and let Mark crawl across the hallway to the front door while she wiped her fingers between the struts of the banister rail, brushing away a few specks of dust. She looked back at the boy and realised that he had started plucking at the clumps of mud on the carpet.
      Everywhere she looked she could see dirt.
      She licked her fingers and quickly wiped his hands clean, turning him around to make sure the mud was all gone. He looked clean, but she knew he wasn't.
      She lifted up the shirt and stared at the pale blossoms on his back, gently rubbing her fingers against the skin. It frightened her how smooth they were, and when she could bear the sight of them no longer, she gathered the boy in her arms and pressed him against her body, like the pages of a book closing upon a flower.

David Ramos Fernandes 2006

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author bio

David Ramos Fernandes grew up in London, but has since lived and worked around the UK and Europe. His poetry and prose has been published in anthologies and literary magazines. Although young enough to know better, he affects a bald patch.

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see also Storage from issue 51


Issue 53: May - June 2006  

f i c t i o n

Helen Simpson: Every Third Thought
Josip Novakovich: Night Guests
Rattawut Lapcharoensap: At the Caf Lovely
Craig Dixon: Box Count
David Ramos Fernandes: Blossom

picks from back issues

Barry Gifford: Holiday from Women and Dancing With Fidel
Des Dillon: The Blue Hen

q u i z

Animals in Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz:
American Lit and Culture of the1960s

b o o k   r e v i e w s

The Stars Above Veracruz by Barry Gifford
The Priest of Evil by Matti-Yrjn Joensuu

r e g u l ar  f e a t u r e s

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
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