For Life: a novella in progress 6

Six: Manda

Chocolate biscuits, sponge puddings in custard and steak and kidney pies couldn’t stop Manda’s mother wilting into six petite stones, but she was well presented, and always looked at Manda on arrival as if she let the side down. It was one of her phrases, most of which could be categorised under The Importance of Being Respectable.

Manda had felt cooler on her bike but now she wiped sweat from her top lip and forehead. Her mother wouldn’t like a damp kiss. To Manda, her small room, overheated in winter, felt stifling – but then she had a bit more flesh on her bones.

   “Hi, Mum.” She bent down and kissed her cheek. Her mother winced from the touch of her hair, as if it was the Brillo pad her dad used to call it. “It’s Manda,” she added, just in case.

   “Amanda,” said Evelyn. “Always in a rush.”

   “Cycling isn’t rushing, it’s leisure. Shall I open a window?” Stuffy would have been a euphemism for the atmosphere. She feared she needed changing, and told herself she could do that if she had to, roles reversed.

   Evelyn frowned. “No dear, don’t.” She shivered convincingly.

   Manda pulled her aluminium water bottle out of her backpack and drank. She felt watched.

   “They do tea and biscuits here, you know.”

   “Mm. I know you love your tea. How are things?” she asked her mother, not sure what things there were to evaluate, apart from tea, TV and colouring books. Evelyn didn’t like anything that involved joining in anymore and Manda knew she must feel self-conscious about the incontinence.

   “I lost all my things, the nice things. She probably sold them.” Manda didn’t ask who; she was the only suspect. “Can I go back to the house now?”

   “Not until you’re stronger, Mum. It’s nice here. Snug, you said.”

   “I did not! That’s a silly word. I have a perfectly good house – if she hasn’t sold it.”

   “This is comfy for now, though. You agreed it will do nicely. The people are kind.” Manda admired them; their pay was a scandal. No wonder they didn’t stay long.

   Her mother’s skin was thin on her face, her cheekbones too pronounced and her eyes always watery. The staff said she ate well, so what was consuming her? Something powerful inside. Was it just entropy, or a loss more emotional than physics?

   “Has Libby called you?” she checked, because she’d promised under duress.

   Evelyn squinted at her. “Who?”

   “Libby. Elizabeth. My daughter. Your granddaughter.” Manda had a photo in her purse; with a struggle she pulled it out from behind her library card and CND membership. Then she realised it was too small, apologised and put it back.

   “Rob came.”

   “Sorry?”

   “Rob came to see me. Such nice manners. Needs a haircut though.”

   Manda smiled. “His dad kept telling him that. I never understood why.”

   “Well you wouldn’t. Tell him to come again.”

   Manda had told her more than once: “Rob died, Mum,” but it broke her every time – sometimes for fifteen minutes of repeating what she wouldn’t believe, sometimes ten, five. Don’t contradict, the doctor said. Manda smiled and agreed to tell Rob his gran would like to see him. It was funny the way she mostly deleted Libby but asked for Rob, with stories of his visits and what he’d brought her, all of it edible but sweet.

   “Rob’s a good boy,” Evelyn said, with a fond smile, as if he was all hers. “But you should get his hair cut.”

   “Rob wouldn’t be Rob with a short back and sides, Mum.”

   “It’s a wonder the teachers don’t send him home. It’ll be because he’s their favourite. Top of the class again!”

   Manda thought that would amuse James. Rob was more intuitive than academic, more creative than Libby but less of an achiever. He’d scraped by. “Do you remember when his painting was displayed in the school reception for a whole three years?” That was until the Sixth Form, when Rob organised a protest against a recruitment visit by British Aerospace and returned to school next day to find his artwork replaced at last. “He can quit now and do his exams privately if he still wants to,” she told James, who was appalled by the idea that school and exams were just options. And Rob stayed on, with a peace badge pinned to the label of his blazer.

   Her mother was repeating the fake news of Rob’s visit. “Next time he comes he can get his hair cut here in the hotel. They’ve got a salon, you know. Why don’t you ask them to give you a shampoo and set to calm yours down?”

   Manda laughed. “They’d need a steamroller.”

   “It makes him look like a tree hugger.” Evelyn always smiled with pleasure when she used a phrase she considered up-to-date.

   “We should all hug more trees, Mum. People too.” On impulse she put her arms around her mother, shocked again by the absence of her. So little left. Manda wondered what she would say if she produced her phone and showed her the film.  She could hardly be more confused, but wouldn’t it make her happy to see “good boy” Rob? On the other hand, what would she make of his message, given that she always turned the subject of climate crisis round to a dirty man who’d frightened her as a child with his sandwich board warning that the end of the world was nigh? “And here we all are!” she’d ended the story last time, triumphant enough to make a small fist.

   One of the nicest carers appeared at the open door to say it was bath day, hair wash too.

   “Oh good,” said Manda. “You enjoy your bubbles. Have you still got that zero waste shampoo bar I gave you for your birthday?”

   Her mother had no idea what she was talking about, so she said she hoped it would turn up because the sea was clogged up with the stuff and until the government forced manufacturers to think again everyone had to use consumer power to force their hand. Then she smiled, kissed her mother’s cheek and said goodbye, promising to be back soon.

   Once outside in the car park, she breathed deeply and sat on a low wall to check Twitter. The stats. There was the film, at the top of her page, because just for a day or two she wasn’t going to share any injustice – or even any good news, should she find it – and below… retweets 346, likes 2K. Feeling like a child greeted by a crowd at a surprise party, she put a hand to her mouth and began to read the comments. Sorry for your loss and RIP Rob and You must be so proud and, her favourite so far, If only the world’s leaders had your son’s integrity and commitment to the future of humanity! Hugs.  Manda soon stopped Liking for the protection of her arthritic fingers. There were good people in the world who understood.

   The only shade the clinically tropical front garden could offer was courtesy of a tall yucca. Manda moved into it and watched the film again before retweeting with thanks for all the kind comments. She looked back at the longest and most accurate tweet and saw that its writer had just retweeted again, with the text: Don’t miss this inspiring and moving tribute. In his photo Adam Browne was wearing a denim jacket and embracing a large dog. His profile info said, Fifty-something optimistic greenie. Love and peace man. Manda smiled, and followed him.

   The newly shared film was attracting more retweets. She was checking how many when she saw: So long hippy dupe, climate change is fake news wake up leftie bitch and move on. your precious son was probly a pothead anyway and whats with the hair black blood in this #snowflake

   Feeling the colour deepen in her cheeks, Manda breathed slowly and looked at the guy’s page, expecting a Texan Trump supporter, fat with a rifle. But @TruthTells had a Union Jack as his profile picture, with a clenched fist overlaid. Clearly she was one of many targets for his rage, most of them female. It wasn’t personal. So why did it feel like that fist of his had struck her stomach?

   “Well yeah Mum, surprise surprise” she heard Libby say. Rob had warned her long ago; she just hadn’t considered the possibility…

   She blocked @TruthTells and saw that Adam Browne had followed her back. A glance at her watch told her that even though her Twitter troll would tell her to get a job she’d better pedal back to hers fast or she’d lose it.

At the vegan café where she’d made the tablecloths and painted the walls she found Farah with an unlikely crowd of customers for a Monday morning.

   “Hey! I told you not to come in today,” Farah told her as Manda put on her apron and tied back her hair in a wild pony tail.

   “Hey! I said try and stop me.” And in a few days’ time she’d work on the anniversary of Rob’s death too. It was necessary, however Farah argued.

   “As long as you don’t expect to be paid,” muttered Farah with a grin.

   “Pay? What’s that?”

   “No good asking me.”

   Farah winked, and moved over to a couple of guys taking a break from a building site with large slices of Manda’s plum cake. However exhausted she was and however little money she’d actually earned so far from Peace Café, she never looked less than serene. Farah was tiny and graceful. Beside her Manda felt a mess.

   “More tea for the lads,” Farah muttered as she joined her behind the counter. “Are you OK? Manda, your film – you had me sobbing.”

   Manda apologised and told her she was fine. In fact she felt unsettled – not so much by @TruthTells but by Libby, who hadn’t retweeted, by the thousands who had and by the gaping silence from James. By the cakes she’d baked that weren’t for her birthday boy. By the heat, which was unnatural and frightening, and the way the phrase climate change was passed over in the media as if it might require gardeners and farmers to modify their practice and wildlife to adapt as wildlife does.

   That was even before a regular customer who always chose chai tea and baklava looked up from her phone screen and reached a hand out towards Manda, who was behind her – to ask, “This is you, Manda? I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

   Soon after half past two she had her lunch break at a corner table where she found that @CallMePowell and @BrexitBoy had taken exception to the reference to Rob’s work in Bristol with a charity supporting refugees. And @libbyjcraig96 no longer had a Twitter account.

   Manda took a series of breaths that could have been deeper. Then she deleted the film, not just from Twitter but Facebook too. All right, over, she told herself. She imagined Rob’s hug. Then she saw a message notification. Adam Browne: Take no notice of the shits. Your Rob’s worth a thousand of them. I hope we meet at a demo. I’d like to talk over coffee sometime. Call me.”

   On another day she would have shown a come-on like that to Farah with a Yeah, right. Today she re-read it, left it sitting unanswered and called Libby’s answerphone, her voice low.

   “Hi, darling. Look, I’m sorry you feel the way you do about the film. I’ve pulled it so if you want to go back into the jungle, well… up to you. I seem to have upset some fascists and climate deniers so that’s a plus.” She paused. “Seriously, Lib. I should have made it for us, not social media. Nick asked after you, by the way – he helped me. Nick Gorski.” Libby had been smitten the first time Rob brought him home. Maybe her anger would be muted by his involvement. “I promise next September to let the day pass quietly. And 7th too.”   She wasn’t absolutely sure whether Libby would remember the date Rob died, or had buried it like kids who’d been abused. “In fact, let me cook you dinner on 7th. Love you.”

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