This story was published in If And Only If in April 2015.
FOR THE SAKE OF JUNE
I notice the curtains are closed when I walk up the path to my daughter’s front door. I know this means I’m in for a bad day. She’s twenty eight and has anorexia nervosa. That fancy word doesn’t mean much to me. I just know she’s thin as a rake and getting thinner all the time. I watch her waste away in front of me and know there is nothing I can do to help her. She’s severely depressed as well.
I tuck the potted plant I bought her – a lilac, her favourite when she was a child – under my arm along with the box of cakes I bought at the local baker. I rummage in my bag for her spare set of keys. On a bad day she doesn’t get out of bed. There’s no hope she’ll answer the door. I find the key at last. I unlock her door and enter the house. I lock the door behind me.
I notice the smell first, a pungent odour that catches in the back of my throat and makes me cough and splutter. The carpet’s matted with filth and sticky beneath my feet. She hasn’t done the house-work in a while. I check out all of the downstairs room’s. Everything’s covered in an inch of dust. I can smell rotting food. Her house always stinks of it. I never really knew the smell of rotted food or food that had gone bad before my daughter got sick. The smell of rotting food and the dust everywhere tells me she hasn’t been out of bed for several days. The last time I was here was two weeks ago. I doubt if she’s moved since.
The house is in darkness. I flick the light-switch but nothing happens. I check the electricity metre in the hall. She’s flicked all the switches off. I flick them back on. The lights all come on and the sudden brightness blinds me.
I march into the living room. I place the potted plant and cakes on the coffee table in the centre of the room. I throw open the curtains and bright daylight spills into the room. I throw open the curtains in every room. I can almost hear the house sigh with relief as daylight spills into it.
I still haven’t heard a sound. Anyone else would think the house is empty. I know my daughter better. She hasn’t left the house in months. It hurts her frail body too much to walk around. She lies in bed too weak to get up and too stubborn to ask for help. She gets that stubbornness from her father.
I pull the fridge door open. The stink makes me gag. I stocked the fridge the last time I popped round. She’s hardly touched a thing. The shelves are full of rotted meat, fruit and vegetables. The milk’s long gone sour. The cheese has started to mould. The putrid stink makes my eyes water.
I grab the bin she keeps under the sink and sit it on the floor in front of the fridge. I cover my mouth with one hand to keep the bile back. I sweep the contents of the fridge into the bin. I go through the cupboards as well. By the time the out of date food’s in the bin the shelves are almost empty. I pull the bag out of the bin, tie it into a knot and dump it in the wheelie-big outside beside the back door.
When I go back into the house I hear a floorboard creak above me. I listen to my daughter’s footsteps. I hear the floorboards creak, the toilet flush, more footsteps and the sound of her bedroom door slamming shut. I wait a few moments, take a deep breath and make my way upstairs.
I open the windows in all the rooms before I go into her bedroom. She’s lying under the covers, propped back against the pillows. She’s flicking through a book on her lap. I knew she’s not reading it though. She likes to pretend things.
Her appearance shocks me. She’s lost a lot of weight in the two weeks since I saw her last. She looks like a bag of bones under the thin sheets. I can make out the shape of her ribs and collar-bone. She doesn’t have a lot of her hair left. Her hair used to be blonde and down to her waist and was thick and glossy. The colour’s faded from it almost completely. There’s not any life in it. There are only a few limp wisps left. She’s skeletal thin. Her skin looks like paper. I can see all of her bones. Her eyes are sunk deep into her skull. Her cheeks look hollow. Her fingers are thin as twigs. In that moment I hate my daughter’s illness for turning her into something out of a horror movie.
‘I thought I heard you downstairs’ June says.
‘Why didn’t you eat any of the food I bought? I had to chuck it all out’.
‘I ate some of it. I wasn’t hungry. You bought too much stuff again’.
‘I bought sufficient food for one person for two weeks’.
I can hear the nagging tone in my voice. I know this will just rile her up and she’ll become defensive. I can’t help it. I gave birth to her. I was in labour for eighteen hours. She hits my ‘overbearing mummy’ button every time. I cross the room and yank open her curtains and the window. I can’t remember the last time they were open. She shrinks back from the air and light.
‘Close them again, Mum’ June says.
‘You need light and air in this house and around you’.
‘Don’t talk nonsense, sweetheart. You’re deathly pale. Light and fresh air will do you the world of good’.
I tilt my head towards her. ‘They’re staying open. I won’t have my daughter fermenting in the dark’.
‘Fine, you can do what you want. You always do’.
I perch on the end of the bed. She shrinks away from me like she’s scared I’m going to hit her. I’d never harm a hair on her head. I hate that she’s become so suspicious and cautious.
‘I noticed the house hasn’t been cleaned in a while’ I say.
Her hackles rise. ‘I haven’t felt up to it’.
I touch her hand. She shrinks away. ‘I didn’t mean it like that. I meant –‘. I stroke her paper-thin skin. ‘You should have called me. I could have helped you’.
She folds her arms across her chest. She looks at me, defiantly. ‘I don’t need your help, Mum. I can manage’.
‘You can ask me for help. It’s not a big deal’.
‘I’m fine. I don’t need help’.
I pace the room and fuss with her things. She watches me. There are so many things I want to say to her. I need to bite the words back every time they come into my head. If I speak them aloud she’ll cut me out of her life like her father. She only lets you in her life if you pretended she’s fine. You can’t mention her weight or her illness. You need to act like nothing is wrong.
Jake, my husband, can’t put on the charade, even for me. He told her a year ago to get help or she’d never hear from him again. He’s kept his word. He never asks after her. I can’t talk about her at home. Her name has become taboo in the house where she was raised. I can’t be like him. I can’t turn my back on my daughter. It breaks my heart when I see how thin and unhealthy she looks. I can’t cut her out of my heart like my husband. I gave birth to her. Even if she’s determined to starve herself to death I’ll never leave her side. What kind of mother would do that?
‘Why don’t you have a shower? I’ll make breakfast?’ I say.
‘I don’t want to get up today’.
I pull the covers off her. I wince when I saw how thin her legs are. Dear God! I don’t know how she manages to even stand upright on those frail sticks. I don’t even want to think about how she manages to walk. She tries to yank the covers off me.
‘Leave me alone, Mum’ June says.
‘You need to get out of bed, sweetheart’.
‘No, I don’t’.
‘You can’t just lie here like a corpse. It’s not healthy’.
‘That’s up to me’.
She yanks the covers out of my hand. She sinks back against the pillows. I grab the covers again. I yank them off her and throw them across the room. She gives me a horrible look.
‘You don’t want to talk about your illness so I don’t but I won’t allow you lie in this bed all the time and ferment under the covers. You get up now or I’ll march out the door and leave you to get on with it’ I say.
‘That would suit me’.
She lies down on the bed and turns her face away from me. I turn my back on her and march out of her bedroom. I try to set my face in hard lines so she knows I mean business this time. My lips are trembling and tears run down my face. I’m halfway down the stairs when I hear her get out of bed. I run back up and into her room.
‘Fine, Mum, if being out of bed will stop you complaining I might as well get on with it’ June says.
I mutter a prayer of thanks under my breath. I can’t remember the last bad day when I got her out of bed this easy. There have been days when no power on earth will move her. There have been days when I needed to physically drag her out of bed and frog march her to the shower.
‘I’m going to have a shower’ June says.
I kiss and hug her. This might be progress at last.
I rush downstairs to make her some food. I hear the shower. I can hear her walk about. There’s nothing left in the fridge. I find some frozen macaroni cheese in the freezer that I stick in the microwave. There isn’t any milk left. I find some still-in-date fresh orange juice wedged in the back of the fridge. I pour her a large glass.
I take a small plate out of the cupboard and sit some cakes on it. I water the potted plant and sit it on the window-sill. The microwave beeps. I scrape the food onto a plate. She comes downstairs and into the room. She sits at the table in the centre of the room. She has on a clean pair of pyjamas. I sit the plate of food and juice in front of her. I give her a fork.
‘Thanks, Mum’ June says.
I place the plate of cakes in the middle of the table. I make a coffee and sit in the chair opposite her. She gives the plate of cakes the evil eye. She starts to pick at her macaroni. I drink my coffee, have a cake and watch her. She eats a couple of mouthfuls and shoves the plate away.
‘Don’t you want to finish your food?’ I say.
‘You’ve hardly touched your food’.
She drinks the juice. She scrapes the rest of the macaroni into the bin. I take a large empire biscuit off the plate of cakes and shove the plate towards her.
‘I don’t want a cake’ June says.
‘It’s only one cake. What harm will it do?’
She gives me a nasty look. ‘I don’t want to put on any more weight. I’m fat enough as it is’.
‘You’re not fat, you’re too –‘. She gives me a warning look and I bite my tongue.
‘I don’t want a cake, Mum’.
‘Just have one cake. Please. You don’t even need to eat the whole thing. Just take one bite. Please. The doctor said you need to eat well’.
I plead with her to take one bite of cake. I’d force feed her the whole plate if I could. In seconds I know I’ve gone too far. Her face twists in anger and colour floods her cheeks. She stands up so fast she knocks her chair over. It makes a loud thud when it hits the ground. She sweeps the plate of cakes onto the floor with one hand. The plate smashes and broken bits of cake spray everywhere.
‘Do you want me to be fat, Mum? Why do you hate me?’ June says.
‘I don’t, I never said’
‘Don’t you how hard it was for me to lose weight? I’ve struggled for years to be thin and pretty. I finally left that fat stupid girl behind me forever. Why do you want to bring her back?’
‘I’m sorry. I never meant –‘
‘Get out of my house. I mean it this time’.
I grab my jacket and leave before she says anything else. I don’t want to fight with her. It will take weeks to repair the damage. It breaks my heart when we argue. I know neither of us means it. I decide to wait a few days before I go round again.
My husband’s home. He’s weeding the back garden. I wave to him from the kitchen window and start to cook the dinner. I want to tell him about what happened at June’s. I know there’s no point. He refuses to talk about her. He told me only to tell him when she accepts she’s ill and needs help. There’s no one to talk about what’s going on.
I wait three days before I go to see her again. I try to wait a week but can’t make it. I’m worried about her. There was hardly any food in the house. She won’t have gotten round to cleaning yet. I wait until my husband goes to work.
The curtains and windows are still open. This is a very good sign. I can’t remember the last time they stayed open so long. She usually closes them as soon as I’m gone. I let myself in. The house has been cleaned since we argued and smells nice and fresh. I can feel a breeze against my face. This is a very good sign.
‘June, sweetheart, it’s Mum. Where are you?’ I say.
There isn’t an answer. I check every room downstairs but she’s not in any of them. I’m halfway up the stairs when I hear a scream of pain. The sound comes from the bathroom.
‘June, honey, is that you? Are you okay?’ I say.
‘I’ve hurt myself. I think I broke something. It really hurts’.
Her voice is filled with pain. I take the rest of the stairs two at a time and throw the bathroom door open. She’s sprawled on the floor, wedged in the small space between the toilet seat and the wall. She looks like a broken doll. The shower is still dripping. The noise sounds enormous. I switch it off fully. Her face is a horrible shade of grey. Her shoulder looks twisted and swollen. The skin looks bright red and inflamed. I kneel beside her.
‘What happened?’ I say.
‘I took a dizzy turn when I got out of the shower. I fell. I think I’ve broken my arm or dislocated my shoulder. It really hurts’.
‘I’ll phone an ambulance. Try not to move’.
I turn towards the door. She grabs me with her free arm. I look down at her.
‘What’s the matter honey?’ I say.
‘I’m –sorry, about the other day. I know you were only trying to help’.
‘It doesn’t matter’.
I run downstairs and dial 999. I give them my daughter’s name and address. I explain her condition and tell them what’s happened. The operator tells me an ambulance is on the way. I go back up to the bathroom. I want to wait by her side until the ambulance arrives. I kneel on the floor next to her.
‘I’ve been thinking’ June says.
‘Maybe I should see a doctor – about my weight I mean. I feel fat but I know I’m not. The person I see in the mirror isn’t the person I feel inside’.
Tears of relief run down my cheeks. ‘I’ll go with you if you want’.
‘I’d like that. I don’t think I can do this on my own’.
‘You don’t need to’.
I hug her, gently. She’s so thin I don’t want to hurt her. I’ll do whatever it takes to make her well. She can move in with us if that’s necessary. I’ll force-feed her if I need to.
The ambulance arrives and I go to hospital with her. The doctor’s wheel her away. I call the house and tell my husband she’s ready to get help. He gets in the car and drives to the hospital.
Copyright © 2015 by Pamela Scott