Written by Esther Harris


Short story: Evil under the Calor Gas

To ‘celebrate’ Mother’s Day this weekend Esther Harris has written us a short story. Hankies at the ready.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

My mum comes from a strange island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. No one has ever heard of it. When I was young I used to make up stories and pretend that the island was Hawaii and that Mum was a booty-shaking beauty named Kiana. But actually, it was just a creepy forgotten outpost and Mum was sad and called Clara. But so it goes.

In truth, I never really bought the image of her as a grass skirt-wearing hedonist but I had to fill in the gaps somehow – Mum never talked about her life while we were growing up and I figured the mysterious island held the key to her locked down heart.

It took me 30 years to find out the truth. That’s when I first heard about something called downing that used to happen on the island. Something wicked. Something they regularly did to schoolgirls who were coming of age. They would see a girl with breasts budding, assume she was ready for sex and break her in as she made her way to class. Mum was a B-cup aged 11. She didn’t stand a chance.

It kind of explains why, when I hit puberty at 12, Mum was in a bad mood all the time and my life started to go wrong. Everything about my very presence – my cloying body odour, the clusters of spots and the sprouting hairs – seemed to, not just irk her but actually sicken her. But they are happening to me, I wanted to sob. I need your help. But she couldn’t give.

I remember the day the blood came. She shrank back from the few drops in my knickers and flung a packet of brick-like sanitary towels wordlessly my way before marching me sullenly down to the doctors to demand that he put me on the pill. “Why, Mrs X?” he asked, “Is your daughter sexually active?”

I didn’t know what “sexually active” even meant but Mum signed the forms and next thing I knew we were in the chemist and I had a potbelly and wanted to cry all the time. I was angry. I hated being forced to grow up. I was happy playing horses and on my skateboard. But Mum refused to believe me. Even though she could see me giddyuping happily across the garden, looking over at her every so often like, I didn’t want this but I couldn’t stop this. She wouldn’t – or couldn’t – forgive me.

It made me feel bad about myself. If my own mother couldn’t bear to look at me and thought I needed medicating with something called Dianette, what was wrong with me? Mum had whipped away the information that came with the pills and there was no internet back then so I couldn’t look up the whys and hows. I just cried a lot. And bled a lot.

And when I started arguing and shouting questions that’s when she started grounding me and locking me in my room. And that’s when I started eking out my school trips home for a bit of extra freedom and hanging around with a girl called Carrie, whom everyone whispered was a bit of a slag. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t care. I just knew she was the one person that wanted to spend time with me.

“I was brought up by a mum that didn’t speak and girls’ magazines, the latter of which are brilliant on how to blend a smoky eye but not so good on how to get the hell out of Dodge.”

We got the train into town one day and Carrie got talking to these two boys who were eyeing up our newly developed chests and we were all singing Pato Banton together and I felt the most excited girl in the world. I was involved.

Carrie went off to a carriage with one of the boys and had this funny look in her eye when she left me. The other took my arm and led me to a toilet cubicle. I still get nightmares when I think of how obediently my little feet followed him.

He hurt me in that cubicle. I feel sorry for him now – just a little bit. I think boys feel pressure to stick it in and they don’t know what else is down there or what to do and their friends are bigging it up and they panic and get aggressive. Actually, I don’t feel sorry for them. Because whatever bad stuff they go through I don’t think many have ever had to laughingly turn rape into sex.

He pinned my arms behind my back and it and it wasn’t sexy like they sometimes make it out to be in Mills & Boon – “He dominated her” – it was pure terror and I wet myself. I really thought I might die.

There is no lesson taught on how to get yourself out of rape. I was brought up by a mum that didn’t speak and girls’ magazines, the latter of which are brilliant on how to blend a smoky eye but not so good on how to get the hell out of Dodge. Why did I laugh? Well, he was going to do it anyway and it was the only possible way I could see to getting out of this alive. My mum always called me the smart one, so I used my brain. Own this, turn it… He pushed himself inside me and it was awful, excruciating. Afterwards, I thanked him.

Emotionally I retreated to a dark place but Mum didn’t seem to notice. Luckily, school was just completing, and I managed to use my last drop of energy to scrape through the exams. I was just heading out of the door to my last parents’ evening when Mum appeared in her coat; she had finished work early to come with me.

On the way home something miraculous happened: she touched me, gently, the first time in 10 years; just a brush to the top of my head, to stroke my hair, as we departed across the playground. But it was like an angel’s wing-tips and I could have bawled, it was so tender. “I felt 10 feet tall, girl, hearing your teachers talk about you,” she whispered.

We went and got a McDonalds milkshake and two straws after and I wanted her to hold me close and never let me go. I wanted to tell her that a boy had hurt me and ask what had hurt her. But by the time we had got home, the moment had passed. Gone.

The rows started again and I moved in with a new friend’s family. They were a sanctuary. I did OK at college and got a decent job. I never married, never had children, I just worked and did cocaine.

I rarely saw Mum. Just once at Christmas, when she would cook a turkey and then retreat to the back of the lounge, shrinking far away from me as usual, behind the Calor Gas heater she always had on at full whack because she never got used to the cold. She would ask about my job and tell me about her neighbour’s eye operation and my cousin’s progress on Slimming World. It was fine. It was what we could both manage.

view of St HelenaI was working for the government in the foreign office when I was asked to take on an assignment which meant taking a trip to my Mum’s funny little island. The FO was scoping out the possibility of building a new airport there because they wanted the island to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on UK funds.

I got the last boat out. As I heard the accents and saw the skin colours, memories of the past washed over me. I cried buckets. Without realising it I had pined for almost 40 years for Kiana the booty-shaking island goddess. Or even the woman in McDonalds.

I arrived on the island and settled in a tiny B&B. And as the owner chatted to me in her lyrical voice about the lovely island folk who knew everyone by name, the sun that shone all year, the exotic fruits, I did my own research and read about the child abuse, the raped children, the powerless, the voiceless. I looked up Clara’s name. And it all made sense.

I flew home and went straight to Mum, visiting in the summer – for the first time in 10 years. She was in the lounge, tiny and dark at the back as usual, still with the three rings on the Calor Gas, glowing bright orange like the tropical sun she couldn’t forget. I ran to her and held her.

“I went to the island,” I told her. “I know. I understand…”

She was silent for a while and then nodded. “Do you know my own mother… told them to help themselves to me?”

“She was wrong,” I said. “So was I…” she said. And she wept.

When the airport opened, I took her to the island on the first commercial flight available. She vomited all the way there and I cried again. But when we arrived and she saw the change: the hustle and bustle of the airport, the faces of the tourists and newcomers, asking questions, looking in corners, breathing new life into the island, she got down on her knees and kissed the tarmac.


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Written by Esther Harris

Esther Harris is (still) writing her first novel and tweets @writer29