Monday, 3 September 2012

Just Beneath by Sara Crowley

Claire has decided there will be no more of that nicey nice. No “Would you like a drink?” No smile.
These people coming into her house uninvited. Sort of uninvited. Assessing. Judging more like. Judging her carpet and furnishings, her sofa and decor, her attire. Her child. Her parenting. Her life. Fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em sideways.

            “Hi, come in.”
            Claire smiles, ushering the women towards the living room.
            “Can I get you a tea or coffee?”
            “Black coffee no sugar, for both of us, thanks.”
            Of course no sugar.
            Claire imagines them scrutinizing the living room she takes them into, noting that even her back is fat as she leaves them, imagines them thinking, so that’s why the daughter doesn’t want to eat. They look as she carries mismatching mugs to them and slops scalding liquid onto her hand. She’d like to cry, sink to her knees and wail. She’d like one of these strangers to make everything OK.
            “Well,” says the blonde one, and both women turn to her expectantly.
            “Well...” Claire says. She launches into her story. She tells them about her daughter, her beautiful Samantha, who has stopped eating and started cutting herself.
            “You must stop being so reactive,” says the grey haired one.
            Claire nods. Yes, she should stop being so reactive. But when Samantha sits resolutely at the table refusing even a mouthful of whatever Claire has brought her it’s hard not to react. The heat rushes through her, and tuts, sighs, head shakes follow. Or worse. Shouting. Shaking. Once she slapped Samantha so hard her hand stung. The mark on Sammie’s cheek faded after a couple of hours, thank god. It was only that once, most times she sat beside Sammie and rubbed her back, soothed her.
            “It’s OK baby, we’ll get through.”
            Love gave her endurance. It didn’t matter how tired she was Claire would keep on going, continue with patience to cajole and entreat, encourage and support. It was love that gave her strength. And it was keep going or…
            “Ignore the bad behaviour, reward the good,” says the blonde one. Anna is it? She speaks so softly Claire can’t be sure. Yes. She nods. Yes. Of course. Ignore the gouges from the compass jabbed repeatedly into Sam’s arm. Ignore the scratched stomach where Sam rips at her own flesh in a frenzy. Ignore the picked scabs and trails of blood. The bite marks and bruises.
            “How do you feel when she does that?”
            Her voice cracks. She swipes an arm across her eyes and nose, sniffs, a sudden schoolgirl reaction.
            “What do you say to her?”
            “I don’t know. I...hold her. I shush her. I try to calm her down.”
            “And then what?”
            She hears herself, her normal voice, only it sounds too loud and fast compared with Dr grey hair and whoever Anna is.
            “It depends. Sometimes she’s not herself. She looks at me like she hates me. I try not to react. I try not to show her how shocked I am. I’m blank. Like this...” She mimics an impassive face.
            “Why are you shocked?”
            “Because of what she is doing to herself. Because a child is not supposed to be a stick drawing. Because we’re connected, she’s my baby, part of me …”
            The professionals watch her cry.
            When Samantha enters the lounge they turn to her.
            “Hi Samantha. How was school today?” asks Dr grey hair.
            Sammie dumps her backpack on the floor. It looks too heavy for her tiny frame. She joins Claire on the sofa, folding her bird legs and hugging them to her chest.
            “How do you think things are going?” says Anna.
            Claire laughs, reaching one hand over and stroking her daughter’s arm. It’s a reassuring gesture but with it she’s chiding. Don’t forget your manners, she is saying. Don’t make a show of me. The look Sammie gives tells her the message is received.
            “I’m trying, but it’s hard.”
            “You need to give things a proper chance,” says Dr grey hair.
            There’s a chilly distance in her tone. Claire feels insulted for Sammie. As if she doesn’t give things a go. She’s a good girl, struggling. People don’t understand. She places one arm around Sammie who snuggles into her. Abruptly Anna is fixing a follow up meeting for a weeks time and it’s over.
            “Don’t forget the mood diary,” Anna says.
            There are many rules. Like, don’t try too hard. Don’t spend hours cooking elaborate dishes. Don’t try to entice with favourite foods. Don’t pander. Be casual. Do not engage in a battle of wills. Claire cooks pasta and stirs in a tomato sauce, adds mozzarella and zones in for a moment on its melt. She places a bowl for herself and one for Sammie on the table, digs in with her fork, trying not to convey nervousness. Samantha leans over the bowl and inhales.
            “Gross,” she says and leaves the table.
            When Claire has cleared up Sammie comes back downstairs. She shows the fresh wound on her thigh, its gape laced with a mysterious black. Claire conjures her blank face and strokes her daughter’s cheek. Sammie burrows under her mother’s armpit as Claire cocoons her in plump warmth and they watch the telly. 
            Reaching into a kitchen cupboard Claire pulls out a packet of crisps. She takes wine and cheese from the fridge and scuttles into the lounge trying not to be heard. The thought of Sammie catching her. Ugh. The TV is loud and she scoops handfuls of potato chips and throws them into her mouth. Gulps down huge mouthfuls of wine. Tries to relax her shoulders. Tries to unclench her frown. Her stomach is huge and she rubs a hand over it. Gross. No wonder. Etcetera. She sinks her teeth into the cheese. With each mouthful she senses Sammie becoming lighter. Her hip bones jutting a little more. Her skull just beneath her face. 

About the author:
Sara Crowley was the winner of The Waterstones Bookseller Bursary and her novel in progress - Salted - was runner up in the Faber/NBT “Not Yet Published” Prize. Her short stories have been published at a variety of lovely places. She blogs at A Salted and appreciates you taking the time to read this.
Photo:  (c) Monroe's Dragonfly via Flickr Creative Commons