Today, I go without food. Stale bread for my boy, the last drops of milk I selfishly steal for my coffee. I need that injection of caffeine or I cannot make the school run–I need it to inject petrol into my eyelids. He will have to go without Rice Krispies today.
I deliver Ritz crackers smeared with peanut butter to his lap, a store-brand box of apple juice as accompaniment. The slim cardboard drink fits awkwardly into his fist. I remember when he would hold his drink with two dimpled hands. I am lost in this reverie of when he was tiny, then retreat to the kitchen, murmuring promises under my breath that soon we shall afford freshly-squeezed juice in see-through bottles, containers that offer you a glimpse of an orange pulp pond under the lid. I look at these expensive drinks on shelves in my supermarket and salivate, virtually tasting nutritious sweetness guaranteed to ignite a happy, sunshine feeling throughout my body with each sip. Energy would be restored.
He is licking peanut butter from the crackers. I fix eyes on his silhouette from the kitchen. It’s cold today. I daren’t boil the kettle again for another coffee. The milk is gone anyway. Soon we will afford better juice. How stupid I sound. I should be grateful for being able to give my son breakfast not murmur promises to him. Years of promises remain a steady, unbroken stream. Undelivered ‘some day we will have’ mantras, spoken to his cherub face. In the corner of the kitchen this morning, shoulder pressed against my cool fridge, I curl fingers over my eyes. I shield shame from my boy.
I have tried. Tried my best. I see now that our poverty is easing onto my son’s radar. The other boys have Playstations. They have sleek, shiny bicycles and look forward to holidays in France. I observe his smile weakening as he reassures me that I am the best mother in the world and he is happy. I consciously distance myself from comparing my life now to when I earned a six-figure salary and amassed a collection of over one-hundred pairs of stilettos and practical pumps for work.
I curse the decisions I have made to render us into this stifling existence. I hold firm affirmation that the big break I need to regain my footing is lurking behind a cunningly disguised hiding place around the bend. I dream one day of being discovered. I am determined to write every day and apply for jobs employers ultimately declare me too experienced to fill, then my talent as a writer will emerge from this darkening, abridged life of not sleeping and my daily state of ‘just getting by.’
I am hungry. I won’t empty the box of Ritz crackers so there will be a few left to munch when we have our tomato soup tonight. Soup again. But my boy smiles at this meal: his small but maturing face still crunches with delight at mealtimes when I serve the heated tin of Campbell’s aside toast topped with circles of ham for eyes, a knob of cheese for a nose and squiggles of bright yellow mustard for a mouth. He still laughs at this, my gorgeous boy. How long will he source joy in my efforts to dress up our bare cupboard with such imaginative folly?
I never cry. Okay, untrue. I cry at silly triggers. Not the obvious ones about my life or personal hopelessness. I cried yesterday when I moved the sofa and trickles of coins littered the floor. The relief! I watched an old man last weekend incite an argument with a group of young boys in the park. The teens were dropping wrappers and plastic bottles indiscriminately as they munched and gulped along the path, paying no heed to the littered trail that exposed them as culprits. They didn’t care. They don’t care. The old man cared. He spoke up, shaking his walking stick their direction and ordering them to pick up their mess. The stick was a mistake. One lad grabbed the end—not harshly but enough to stop the flailing action and it scared the old man. I watched them lock eyes—two men: one shrunken and silented by the world; the other, youthful and brash in his loudness. The young gang then continued on their way, discarding detritus in their wake. The pensioner retreated to the nearest wooden bench. My son continued holding my hand, looking up at me for answers. I cried. Not so much for the old man or the fear of what is happening in our world, where people stomp around dirtying the few public places left for me to bring my child. It costs nothing, an afternoon of kicking a ball around together in the park. I didn’t even cry because how deeply saddened I felt that this is the world my son will inherit. A world of rudeness and entitlement by some who still have not reached the age of shaving their pimply faces. And it was not a big cry, so do not worry that my son witnessed any outdoor breakdown by his mother. No, it was a simple cry, over in seconds. A release of grief in a moment of helplessness, a sympatico felt for the old man who similarly inhabits a world where he knows what is right and has a good heart, but he is also silenced and he has then, invariably, been disempowered.
Deep in my core, I feel a rage of power rumbling like lava—it’s a determination and knowledge that I have everything I need to propel me and my boy out of this life, towards something better; for now, though, I sat on a park bench alongside an old man, contemplating how to share my voice with the world and consider tactics to increase its volume. Using my voice–not a cane–as weapon.
Like the majority of television-gazers each December, I also weep at John Lewis Christmas adverts. We know these are designed to be emotive, to elicit tears from even the hardest-hearted of individuals, yet the advertising trap ensnares us. I cry. I cry for the images of family portrayed in beautifully-filtered videos: always a mother and father and child experiencing holiday magic in a knife-to-the-emotional-fortress scene where a dog or penguin or gorgeous garden features. A child wishes for Santa and dreams come true. Yes, it is obvious. I don’t cry then for what my boy and I do not have. Not because I no longer can afford to shop at John Lewis. Not for my present circumstances. But I weep at the surging attack on my nostalgic sense of when my little-girl-self stood at the window of my grandparent’s house and expelled Christmas wishes with hot breath against cold glass, then traced my finger through the steam to make small pictures my grandmother would rub with gusto to remove from the pane.
I am determined not to reach a day when I reveal to my son how poor we are becoming. I sold my grandmother’s jewellery last week. The sole possessions left to flog now are my grandfather’s coin collection and the pearls my mother gave me on my sixteenth birthday. But these I want to save for my son. Maybe someday he will hold each cold coin in his hand, as I did decades ago when sat on my grandfather’s lap, running my unwrinkled fingers around smooth edges of round and octagonal metallic circles. I have looked into selling this collection and the reward would be next to nothing. This is purely a sentimental hoard. Copper and silver with little value, only precious to me, stored in my closet but I remain hungry.
Perhaps one day my son will love a woman enough to enclasp my strand of pearls around her neck. He might streak his lips near her ear and whisper tenderly that he loves her. She would feel warmth emanating from his body, the warmth that fills his body now, the blood connection he and I once shared when his heartbeat began inside of me. The blood now circulates through his small body, pumping his life in rhythmic beats, nourishing his organs, blood flowing to extremities so his fingers still move and can clutch that juice box and crackers, tie his own shoes and control the telly via remote.
I pray he becomes a man one day who is fortified in the knowledge he can excel at whatever his passion. I fear my shame will stick to him and diminish his destiny to be a grown up with loving heart and integrity. Despite barriers, I trust I have carved a childhood of learning for him that solidifies his mission to be a human emanating kindness to others and to himself.
My belly is empty. I last ate yesterday morning. My hands tremble as they hover over keyboard. I am mistyping sentences because I lack any source of energy to sustain me. I hear my son watching cartoons in the other room. He is giggling at silly voices of puppets and animated characters.
I will write myself to a better life. I will do this for him, for me.
After an indulgence of soup tonight, I shall write with a steady hand.