The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise
When my headaches started Mum took me to the optician’s.
“It’ll be your eyes. It’s always the eyes. They always think it’s not, but it is,” she said as she pulled me along the street, dodging the people handing out flyers for free makeovers, and the others asking for two minutes of her time to save the tigers and stop the war with a small monthly contribution.
The optician lowered the giant binoculars to my face and turned the lights down low. He put different lenses into the goggles and kept asking about the fuzzy alphabet on the wall in front of me.
“Better or worse?” he said as he checked his digital watch in the dark.
“Can I ask a question?” I said.
“Can you just read the letters first?”
“Yes. A, B, P, H, Q, V, S, T, M, O, then maybe an X, but I’m not quite sure.”
He made a note.
“Are we comparing to the last time or the first time?” I said.
“Am I saying it’s better or worse than the very first time with no glass in at all, or better or worse than the one that just went before? Only I’m not quite sure which you mean.”
“The one before.”
“Oh. I can’t remember. Can I try again?”
He puffed out his breath and changed the lens.
“Better,” I said eventually. “I remember now. Definitely better.”
“Very good,” he said, and fiddled with the knobs either side of the binoculars. “Now once more . . . read as far as you can go and let me know if it’s better or worse.”
“I have one more question,” I said eventually. Your eyes are vital; I needed to get this right.
The optician sighed loudly.
“Than the last time, Francis,” he snapped, with a little more emotion than I felt appropriate for a health practitioner.
It wasn’t my eyes, it turned out.
“God knows what it is,” Mum said as we made our way to a café for coffee and a scone. “You haven’t been smoking, have you? Oh, God, it’s not drugs, is it? Francis, you can talk to me, you know? Francis . . . I will find out.”
Obviously she wouldn’t. I could be quite deceitful when the mood took me. I once had two hits off a joint at a party of Chris’s and she was none the wiser.
“No, it’s not drugs. I hardly even drink.”
“Only when you let me.”
“Hmmmm. Well, just let me know it if gets any worse,” she said, draining her cappuccino.
When we got to Grandma’s house I presented her with a handful of sugar packets that I’d swiped from the café.
“Cheers, flower,” she said, lunging toward me, kissing my cheek and grabbing the sugar packets, which she deposited into the front pocket of her apron.
“I really don’t appreciate you getting him to steal for you. He’s enough on with his final exams as it is without petty theft complicating things,” said Mum. “If you want sugar, I’ll bloody well buy you it,” she added, dropping Grandma’s shopping bags in the hall and making her way to the kitchen.
“Julie,” Grandma said, “the language.”
Grandma’s house had the atmosphere of a Tupperware box left out in the sun. Like a tropical flower, she had to be kept warm and moist at all times, or she would wilt and die.
“Besides, I like the sugar packs. Saves you having to wash a teaspoon. I just pour it in and I’m away.”
“Oh?” Mum said. “Away where, exactly? The pharmacist for that repeat prescription? Or just to the end of the street to catch the post? Those saved minutes must be a real godsend.”
“My little ray of sunshine, eh?” Grandma said, cupping my cheek in her hand. After they’d unpacked the shopping, we sat down for a bit. Grandma turned the TV to its lowest setting as Mum filled her in on my ailments. I sat quietly, concentrating hard on not throwing up by lipreading the commentary on the horse racing.
“Anemia,” Grandma concluded. “You can see it in his face. Dark circles. He’s losing weight too. Though it doesn’t surprise me. . . .”
“Don’t!” Mum said.
She and Grandma never quite saw eye to eye on anything. Take food, for instance. Grandma liked things to be brown and steaming and caked in pastry. Mum bought recipe magazines that Grandma said cost more than a week’s shop should in the first place. Once, when Mum treated us to a meal for Chris’s birthday, Grandma shrieked at the top of her voice when the waiter explained what sushi was. Then Mum shrieked when Grandma sent it back and asked them to fry it. Even Chris looked embarrassed when she asked the waiter for some salt and vinegar. I can see both sides of the coin and play it to my advantage. With Mum I got essential vitamins and
minerals, which were good for my skin and stimulated growth (being three inches below average height was no joke). Then at Grandma’s I got the sort of food that always made it feel like a Sunday. She was never too busy to make dessert from scratch, never out of a box.
“Well, a lad can’t grow big and strong off salad and fish.”
“We eat perfectly healthily.”
“He needs a plate of mince pie, some mashed potatoes, and half a can of peas. That’ll sort him out,” Grandma said, and nodded once.
That was the last that was said on the subject.
At the door we kissed her good-bye.
“WAIT!” she yelled, running back inside.
“Now what?” Mum said, clicking the car open with the remote key. “Oh, come on, let’s just go before she gets back.”
“One minute,” Grandma hollered from the back kitchen.
When she came back she was all out of breath and carrying something in her hand.
She slapped a wet package into Mum’s hands. It looked like brains.
“Jesus Christ!” said Mum as raw ground beef juice began leaking between her fingers and onto the cuff of her jacket.
“Promise me you’ll feed him up. Get his strength back,” Grandma said as we walked toward the car.
She stood in the doorway waving as we pulled away.
“Remember!” Grandma yelled down the street. “Half fat to flour!”
Mum tooted once and stuck her hand out the window as we turned the corner.
“Here,” she said, tossing the packet of beef toward me. As it flopped into my lap a bloody smear appeared across the front of my T-shirt. I looked like Jackie cradling JFK’s brains.
“I swear to God,” said Mum, “the sooner we convince them she has Alzheimer’s, the better.”
Outside Chris’s flat Mum lugged the Henry Hoover from the trunk of the car.
“How you feeling?” she asked me, puffing and red-faced as the cord got caught in the trunk and she yanked it free.
“Fine. Just a bit sick.”
She held my face up to the light and I had to squint.
“Your glands aren’t swollen. Let me know if it gets any worse. When did you last have some painkillers?”
“I think it was two hours ago, but it was on an empty stomach, so I’d better leave it for now. The stated dose is two every three hours.”
“Well then, help me with this,” she said, handing me the vacuum.
We lugged it up Chris’s path and Mum had to knock three times before anyone responded. I heard Fiona yelling from the flat followed by what sounded like a boulder rolling down the stairs. Eventually the door opened and she stood there in her underwear and one of Chris’s shirts.
“It’s quarter to three,” Mum said.
Fiona’s hair hadn’t been washed or brushed and she had bruises on her knees. I should at this stage point out that I loved Fiona with all of my heart and had a sneaking suspicion she felt the same way, only was too frightened to do anything about it. I wasn’t being deluded, either. I had three pieces of concrete evidence to suggest as much.
One: Of all Chris’s roommates who I knew liked me (Fiona, Callum, and Dan) and the one I wasn’t so sure about (Beth), Fiona was the only one who bought me a Christmas present. One year it was a battered old Beatles LP, and the year before that a stack of eighties porn magazines she’d found at a flea market.
Two: Although I think she probably fancied Chris first, he was gay, so she had little to no chance of ever begetting children with him. Genetically speaking I was next best thing, only with the advantage of a slightly increased life expectancy due to my tender years.
Three: Once, at a New Year’s Eve party, I had gone to bed to read after we’d all said happy New Year, and Fiona came into the bedroom about half an hour later and passed out next to me, using a guest’s coat for a blanket. When she told me she felt sick I went to get a bucket to put next to the bed, and before she nodded back off she said she loved me. I knew she was drunk, but I believed that in this instance alcohol had allowed her to shed her inhibitions and speak from the heart.
We were obviously destined to be together.
“Julie, always a pleasure,” she said, standing aside in the doorway to let us in.
“You look like you’ve been exhumed,” Mum told her.
“That crease in your trousers is particularly succinct today.”
“Do you want the Hoover or not?”
“Not particularly, but needs must.”
Mum and Fiona always had little jokes like this.
“Hi, hot stuff,” Fiona said, and grabbed me in a tight hug as I walked inside. She smelled of perfume and whisky. “I’m hungover like you wouldn’t believe here; can you help?”
I hugged her back and dug out some chewing gum from my pocket.
“It’ll stimulate saliva, which might help dehydration. And sugar’s supposed to be good for a hangover,” I said. She
took the chewing gum and put a piece in her shirt pocket.
“You are a curious one, Francis, a real find.”
Fiona made jokes like this with me all the time too. I didn’t entirely understand them, but was happy to play along regardless.
Mum made her way up the stairs with the Hoover and before we reached the landing we heard her yelling.
“Bloody hell, Christopher, it looks like a bomb’s gone off in here!”
The rest of the household groaned.
“Volume!” Chris said.
“No sympathy.” Mum began rolling the Hoover to the farthest corner of the room. Fiona came in carrying a chocolate candy bar and a blanket. She kicked Callum’s legs off the couch and sat down beside him, making a show of squishing herself deeper and deeper into the recesses of the couch.
“Do you want some chocolate, Francis?” she asked, brandishing the bar at me from her nest.
“No, thanks, we had lunch in town.”
“I remember a time when I used to have lunch,” she said, pretending to be sad, and started munching her way through the chocolate. “Now it’s all Red Cross parcels and harvest festival donations.”
“Speaking of which . . . here!” Mum threw the plastic bag of ground beef toward Chris. “Courtesy of Grandma.”
“Thanks. I suppose,” he said, examining the raw meat.
Callum’s eyes widened. He shifted on the sofa, pressing himself backward like a shocked kitten, and for the first time since we’d arrived sat bolt upright. Then he lurched toward the door.
“Going to throw up!” he said, only just making it to the bathroom before the sound of damp retching started to echo off the porcelain bowl.
“Charming. Look, we’re not stopping because we’ve got things to do,” said Mum, widening her eyes at me, which meant it was time to go.
“How you feeling now?” Chris asked me.
“Fine, I suppose. The optician said I had twenty-twenty vision, which means I could become a pilot or join the army, if the mood ever takes me.”
“Worth the trip then,” he said.
“I love a man in uniform,” said Fiona, sprawling over Callum’s place on the sofa and resting her head gently in Beth’s lap.
On the mantelpiece, between the full ashtrays and the well-thumbed stacks of takeout leaflets, sat a chaotic pile of unopened mail. Mum surveyed the mess and shook her head. “Honestly, the money I spent on your education, and even life’s most basic skills are beyond you. And the state of this place . . .”
“Enter Henry Hoover.”
“Well, you do have to plug him in and use him, you know,” Mum said. “Just having him here won’t make any difference.”
Chris grabbed a notepad and pen and pretended to scribble down her instructions.
“Plug in . . . push . . . think I’ve just about got the gist.”
“I don’t know why I bother,” Mum said, kissing his forehead and slipping him twenty pounds before we left.
Just as we were about to go Callum came out of the toilet, looking hunched and sad, like he was too delicate to handle anything bad life might throw at him. He squinted up at us and his whole body spasmed once more as he noticed something on my face.
“Oh, God!” he said, with his fingers pressed to his mouth, and ran back toward the toilet.
“Are you all right?” Chris asked me, standing up from his place on the floor. He took me by the arm and sat me down as Mum rummaged through her bag for something. She came at me with a packet of Kleenex and a worryingly determined look in her eyes.
I still didn’t entirely know what was going on until I felt something warm trace the length of my lip and spread down my chin, and then gulped down on a glob of metallic-tasting blood.
“AAAAAAAAAAH!” I screamed from the couch.
“You have to apply pressure,” Mum said, with her iron
fingers crushing the bridge of my nose like a torturer. “Or it won’t clot.”
“Just let it bleed!” I begged.
“Shut up, Francis, she knows what she’s doing,” Chris told me.
“See?” Mum said, pressing harder on my nose.
“Oh, my God, it hurts!”
“Don’t be so soft.”
“You’re fracturing my skull!”
“Man up, Francis,” said Fiona from the couch.
I steeled myself and tried to be more macho about the ordeal. But Mum was tough. No matter how fancily she dressed, she couldn’t hide her true nature. Everyone at school was scared of her. Especially the other mums. She once knocked out a man with a single punch when he barged into her shopping cart in the grocery store. She also went around to Scott Earnshaw’s house when Chris told her about his campaign of terror against me. When Scott’s mum tried to deny it was happening, Mum gave her a final warning. After Scott didn’t heed her advice and locked me in the art supplies closet one lunchtime, Mum went back to their house and lunged at Mrs. Earnshaw. Chris and I watched from the car but they landed inside the vestibule and Mum kicked the door shut with her leg. When Chris asked her what the hell she was playing at, she just smiled and said, “Reverting to type.”
Then we drove to McDonald’s and had a drive-thru. I marked it in my diary at the time as “The Best Day Ever.”
After five solid minutes of the sort of pain they make documentaries about, Mum eased her grip a bit.
“There, I think that got it,” she said, standing up and observing her handiwork.
My nose felt like it was about to drop off. I was scared to touch it, and doubly scared to look in case of irreversible damage. I’d already had it broken once and feared the worst. My eyes were watering and I could feel myself weaken with the trauma of it all.
“Do you want a T-shirt to change into?” Chris said.
I nodded feebly and he told me to help myself. Only as I got up I saw him and Mum give each other a secret glance, which I knew meant they had been talking about me in private.
I took ages choosing a T-shirt that I wanted because Chris spent all his money shopping on eBay, so borrowing clothes from him was much better than buying new ones from a shop. I saw two I liked. I put on the smallest underneath a Kiss T-shirt I’d had my eye on for some time, and dropped two pounds into Chris’s money jar, so it wasn’t really stealing. While I was getting changed I could hear Mum and him talking about me in serious voices, only they stopped once I came out of his bedroom and Chris told me
he would force-feed me the Kiss T-shirt if anything bad happened to it. I promised to take care of it. We left my T-shirt in his living room because Mum said it was ruined.
“Just cut off the bloody part and use it for dusting,” she told him when he protested.
He looked sick as anything but couldn’t be bothered to argue.
“What were you and Chris talking about in the hallway?” I asked in the car on the way home.
“Just chatting,” said Mum, and pressed her foot to the floor.
“This is a thirty-miles-per-hour zone.”
“I can read, Francis.”
“In two years’ time I’ll be driving,” I said.
I had to keep doing this with Mum. She’d once promised me that for my seventeenth she would pay for a set of driving lessons, so that fourteen days from my birthday I would be a qualified driver. It was up to me to maintain the momentum until she made good on her pledge. I imagined myself with Fiona in an open-topped sports car. The wind was blowing attractively through our hair as we cruised down country lanes, one of her hands resting casually on my leg. The only downsides were I’m not too great with directions, and the fact that there weren’t many country lanes near ours. There was a patch of farmland and some hedges on the back road behind the nearby super
market, but it didn’t look anything like my fantasy, more the sort of place that the Evening Chronicle describes as a “dogging hotspot” (which I knew about because Mr. and Mrs. Tilsdale at number sixteen got caught in the act twice in one year). So that was my plan, and in preparation for it I had already bought a pair of mock-leather driving gloves and created the perfect mix tape for our sepia-toned journeys of love.
“We’ll see,” Mum muttered to me.
“We will,” I said, putting one of Chris’s mix CDs into the radio.
“Wahwahwah!” Mum said, rolling her eyes. “Why do you always listen to this dirge?”
“It’s depressing! In my day we only listened to music you could dance to. You’re not going to bump and grind to some postgrad with a three-chord refrain and a broken heart,” she said, veering quickly sideways when she nearly missed the turnoff.
“You can shuffle to it, and sort of bounce your head while you’re staring at the floor. Then you can pretend you’re in a Cure video.”
“Even the Cure don’t pretend they’re in the Cure anymore. Put on something more upbeat, Francis.”
“After this song. What were you talking about, with Chris? You didn’t answer me before.”
“Oh . . .” Mum said, driving faster and faster. “Just making sure he was okay for money.”
“You said my name.”
She had; I’d been listening at the door.
“You may have cropped up in our conversation, yes, but only in passing. You’re really not the most gripping of topics, love.” As she spoke Mum poked her hand out of the car window and flipped her middle finger at a man in a Toyota who had tooted at us twice. Then she went quiet and sighed.
“I do love you. You know that, Francis?”
“I know,” I said. “I love you too.”
“Good,” she said, and nodded, speeding up even more as the traffic lights went from green to amber. “Glad we got that sorted. Now change this song before it kills us both.”