Before You Go by Sukey Tarr

October 2002 – Sheffield

I never said good-bye, really I didn’t. There wasn’t a chance to. I didn’t say good-bye did I. No hugs, kisses, looks, reassurances, remembrances or promises. Nothing. The postman is coming, finally, how long does it take?

It’s nearly 11am and I have that knawing feeling, the toast feels like a lump of wood in my stomach. He’s at the gate now, oops I should step away from the window, don’t want to look like the lonely cow, because I’m really not. Oh he’s seen me trying to escape – even worse, what should I do, duck down? Wave and smile as if I always do this? I’ll give him a wee smile. There he’s gone hurrah!

The post; Visa bill; letter from loft conversion company; advertising rubbish; official looking letter. That could be it. I open it, it is it. A letter, and stapled to it a photo-copy of the Hull Daily Mail dated Friday October 12th 2002.

“Police officers found Marie Elizabeth Stevenson dead at her home in Malm Street, West Hull, after a neighbour raised the alarm. It is believed she was a teacher and moved from Bournemouth to Hull in 1998. She was found on Tuesday however it is possible that she died several weeks earlier.”

Weeks! God, weeks. How could that be? What was she doing being dead for weeks? Didn’t she have any friends at all? Did  no-one notice she was gone? Slow down, slow down. Stop. Stop. I’m stopped. I sit down. Inside there is a strange feeling, I hate myself for it but it is a kind of excitement. Something, a big event, has happened. I now know that my mother is really dead. She is no longer alive. The mystery has ended, or maybe begun.

We might find clues, uncover her whereabouts for the past 20 years. Someone must know her, work with her, at least tell me what she looked like. May be there’ll be letters from the house she lived in, letters to me and Susan. Telling us, explaining everything about her 20 years without us. I really, really want to know why? Every June 10th for the past 20 years I’ve wanted to know why, not only then but that date I can guarantee. What is she doing? How old will she be? To be frank I think lasting til she was 60 wasn’t bad. I know it is young these days but she wasn’t healthy at 40. She woke up with a cough and a fag then. Is there something I’m supposed to be doing, my mother has died, there must be a way of dealing with this? I don’t know what to do now.

November 2002 – Hull

We’ve been to the house in Malm St. Just come out and now I’m in the car with Susan and our stepmother Joy. Hull is still flat. It was flat when I was 8 and it’s still flat now. The flatness is unending, unbelievable. How is land so flat – it seems unnatural? In Sheffield nothing is flat, my driving instructor once said to me ‘if you learn to drive in Sheffield you can do a hill start anywhere’. Back to the house of my dead mother (sounds strange doesn’t it?). It was a small Victorian terrace with a bay window. A little front garden and a yard at the back. Inside was creepily clean and absurdly empty. Mum was never known to be clean and tidy, as her brother said recently with true nostalgia ‘there’s many a kitchen floor of your mother’s that I’ve stuck to’ – but Susan suggested that the fumigators had probably had to go in. Doesn’t explain the emptiness.

There was so little meaning to it. No real possessions. No photos, no music, no nick-knacks. There were three library books, I flipped all the pages like a detective would, hoping a hidden message would drop out or a small key be secreted in the flap. The books were all three detective novels strangely enough; perhaps she was learning how to cover her tracks? We found a teddy bear sitting on the settee – I think the fumigators must have felt sorry for us and placed it strategically.

We emptied out everything in the flat and packed it in whatever suitcases and holdalls were to hand, plus black bin bags. The wardrobe she had was bizarre. My memories are of a youthful dresser, slightly outlandish and with hippy tendencies. But what did we find, a large number of floral polyester skirts, knee-length and some pleated! There weren’t really any tops that matched them, or many tops at all. There was a large maroon fleece that must have come down to her knees – she was even smaller than I am. And the strangest thing was that Joy shrieked when we found that item, she has one exactly the same at home – BHS size 12, exactly as I said.

Susan and I looked at each other wondering if this was the ‘meaning’ we were looking for, the mystical clue to unravelling her past. Susan doubted it. There were some pink flip-flops, a few long white cotton nighties; 3 brand new Marks and Spencer’s bras size 36D. They would have fitted her once. The wardrobe search didn’t help. I wanted to feel her or smell her in some item, to find her just once more. But there really was nothing. It was like she hadn’t really existed. Susan did a search of the rest of the house and revealed that there was no food (fumigators?), no cutlery, no condiments even. One plate and one bowl and a plastic mug were all. There was no money in the flat, but the police had bagged up any papers and documents so perhaps within them were some real clues to the life she was living. 

We spoke to the neighbour – Alison. She invited us all in for a cup of tea, despite us door stepping her for information about mum. Her house, by comparison, was stuffed with life. Photos, pictures her grandchildren had done, books on the shelves, CDs, papers lying around, ornaments and other clutter. Mum had not been friendly, not rude exactly, just private.

Alison was clearly very surprised that she had a family, children that loved her. She always thought of her as a spinster (her words) who had lived with her own mum til she died and then lived quietly alone. She was also very surprised that Mum was only 60; she would have reckoned 75 or so! She was very wrinkled and thin Alison said. She would walk out each morning about 10am to the corner shop, and come back with a bottle of orange Fanta and a can of chicken soup. I asked if she had any friends or visitors, Alison didn’t think so. Though she would always peep out through the curtains when her grandchildren were playing out the front, and sometimes come right out and watch them smiling. Thanks for that Alison!

Anything else you can tell us we asked, searching, trying not to be desperate. Here I was with the last person to see her alive, could I smell her and see if there were any traces of my mum on her? Alison was very sorry she hadn’t found mum earlier, it was the awful stench that alerted her. She called the council and they went in and found her. Oh and more recently when mum had gone out for the morning shop she’d been kind of limping, or perhaps unsteady on her feet. Alison would have offered to help but she got the impression mum didn’t want anyone interfering.

December 2002 – Sheffield

I’ve just come back from the funeral parlour. Joy came too, Susan didn’t want to. I think she’s scared of being emotional in front of me – being the oldest. I was shown into the room with mum in. She had a white drape over the body. I wasn’t allowed to actually see the body. The funeral director strongly recommended that I didn’t. The body had been in the worst state of decomposition he had ever seen. I asked him to be as specific as he could. He said it was very ‘mushy’ and brown.

We decided on a Sheffield cremation, as this is where Susan and I live. And Joy and dad too. I haven’t mentioned dad yet I know. It makes me sad to think of him I guess. He’s still full of life, very fit and healthy at 62. It’s hit him much harder than I thought it would. When the funeral director came to arrange the funeral with us, dad and I met him. Susan couldn’t she came later due to work commitments.

He asked us about mum, what was she like? What could we say? She was a warm and deeply passionate woman, with too much caring and loving to survive for long in this world. But that was 20 years ago. It took him a while to take in the situation. Dad could almost not speak; suddenly the grief was upon him. It’s rare for us to see our fathers cry. Generally speaking they don’t. I’ve got to go and get the car cleaned for the funeral, and write something to say about mum.

I’m back from the funeral, it was a small gathering; me, Susan, Joy and dad, Mum’s brother Fred, dad’s sister Caroline, and of course Stephen. I was pleased she was there, she wanted to come, she new mum in the early days when Susan and I were just little kids. She was only a teenager herself but they got on, so different that they intrigued each other. Caroline is so proper, she does everything by the book and yet she isn’t at all stuffy or uptight.

Mum was always looking for another angle, a way to be different, not wanting to bend when everyone else did. She was the only parent to stay seated during ‘God Save the Queen’ at our school play. Dad cried the whole way through, holding his big white hanky up to his face every few seconds. I cried all the way through my reading, it just poured out, the relief of it. I worried that I might not be able to stop at all. I haven’t introduced Stephen, now would be a good time. We’ve been together for 8 years, he’s the love of my life I think.

He asked me to marry him last night while we were cleaning our teeth. I couldn’t answer – my mouth was full of white froth. He hasn’t been able to be around much lately, working in London. We’re thinking of moving to the South East for work, we have a few friends there too. Anyway, I couldn’t say ‘yes’ it didn’t come out spontaneously and now I’ve let him down. In fact I do want to marry him but I couldn’t last night. So I’ve told him yes now. Have I ruined it?

Brighton 2007

We’ve moved here. We have a little girl, Grace Marie, she’s 4 years old. Stephen and I got married on her 1st birthday. I’m still thinking of mum, it’s June 10th again, she would be 65 today. I’ve come down to the beach with Grace. She likes throwing the pebbles into the sea, hearing the plop. I don’t think I’m a very good mum, I have a lot to live up to.

My memories are all the happy ones, the joy, the closeness, the intensity of child love and of course the smell and taste of my mother. She’s not here to deny any of it. Grace loves me so much it is almost too much to bare, she reaches into my soul. She would want that we never leave each other’s sight. Do you think she knows, she senses it? Might I leave her before she is grown-up and not let her say goodbye?

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