Burst Balloons and Sugared Milk
Mummy wore her grief like a cloak that hardened from a vine leaf to bats' wings until it was the hard sticky darkness of a cocoon.
In the days after Jamie died, Colly and I would peel the heavy material back and climb inside to reach her. We'd furrow in the airless depths, our child’s arms blindly swinging to grab hold of her body. We hugged her to us, relishing the thump, thump of her pulsing heart, relieved she was still tangy with life and not quiet stone like Jamie.
We’d cajole her, love her, pour our childish neediness into her in order to rehydrate her maternal love for us.
It didn’t work.
She withered to sharp grey bone and solid sinew within the spines of her cloak and the energy it took to beat and crack the shell she’d cultivated became too tiring for us. One day, we stopped trying.
When Jamie was ripped unbidden from Mummy’s grasp, when his body burst and his life gusted out in red-wine blood that soaked into the summer dry tar on the road, Mummy loosened her fingers and let us go too.
Jamie was the special balloon, the shiny one, the colourful one. And it was clear Colly and I were dull latex; the balloon leaves of the family arrangement, the foliage, pretty but much less valuable without their star flower.
It was difficult to accept that one child was worth more than the sum of their siblings but we could not deny it was fact.
Daddy grieved a different way. In an out of the house way. He grieved in the warmth of the pub, feeding off the beer and sympathy of those who were escaping their lives in one way or another. I wondered if they ever spoke of his living children, asked who was making their dinner.
It was I who took Colly’s hand and walked him to school, our legs moving without rhythm in stiff, conscious strides to avoid the cracks in the pavement. Colly says he stepped on one the morning Jamie died and that is why he ran out in front of the 4x4 with silver bull bars, unnecessary in the town. I reassured him, said he was silly and it was the lady on her phone’s fault, but in my heart I worried it was I who had not been careful enough. I always avoid the cracks now, with or without Colly.
Colly no longer speaks at school or to anyone else but me. He wets the bed too, his dreams torment him, spur him to scream damply for the mother who will never come to comfort him.
It is I who crawls into the piss sodden sheets to hold his small frame to my chest, still bone hard and unmotherly. I stroke his brow and when he wakes, wash him with the soft baby blue towel our mother used to use. I change the sheets and warm some milk on the stove for him to drink. A sprinkle of sugar for sweetness, just like I make it for Mummy.
At 13, I am the parent that Colly needs, even if it is not the one he wants. I am also Mummy to Mummy.
And if they were ever to ask, the teachers and the friends, I would tell them we are fine. Colly has lost everyone else, I can’t let him lose me too.
And Mummy, although already lifeless in her cloak, still has air in her lungs, so, although Colly and I are untethered, we will not float away.
comes from a wonderfully neurodiverse household in rural Northern Ireland. She has work published in numerous literary magazines including Splonk, Bending Genres, Intrepidus Ink, Bright Flash Literary Review, The Metaworker, JAKE, Roi Faineant Press, Flash Fiction Magazine
and The Airgonaut
, amongst others. She enjoys writing from a sensory perspective. She tweets @mlmcguinness