She was doing her third lot of washing that morning when Kenny waddled in and said he'd shat himself. She told him to stand there until she'd finished. He didn't. He rolled around on the floor for a bit and screamed like a velociraptor. Then he took his nappy off and flung it at her. She tried to stay calm and finish what she was doing. She rinsed the suds off the baking tray and stacked it on the draining board, which looked like a scrapheap with all the cups, plates and bottles on top of each other. With washing up, there was always more than meets the eye.
"Right, let's get you sorted," she said, taking off her apron. In the living room she heard Loose Women coming on the TV. She wanted to watch it with a cup of tea, but she had to get Kenny cleaned up first. She couldn't believe that's what she wanted to do. And that she wasn't even able to do it. When did she become the person she swore she'd never be?
Kenny had gone upstairs. After wiping herself down she went to look for him. Following the small brown smears up to the top, she heard him in her bedroom. The door was half closed, and from the landing she could only see his legs and feet. He'd climbed up onto her dressing table, and she could hear him going through her makeup and jewellery. She imagined him dribbling and getting his shit everywhere. Of course, in the most adorable way.
"Where is he?" she said, putting on a baby voice. "Where's he hiding? Ready or not, here I come!"
She opened the door to her room and found him playing with her pearl necklace. Nothing was broken, it was all fine.
She caught her reflection in the mirror. Fuck, she thought. Is that me? She knew she wasn't looking her best - she didn't mind that. It was her expression. It was the way she looked sad and worried at the same time. She pulled the same smile she'd just smiled on the landing, to see what it looked like. It didn't look like a smile. It was just her opening her mouth into an oval shape. The sides of her mouth didn't curl up at the ends, and her eyes were dead. She blinked slowly and it hurt. It felt like a bruise was on her eye. She touched it and felt a lump. It was a stye.
"We play football with this mummy," said Kenny. He'd split her pearl necklace and there were white balls everywhere. "Mummy, we play football now!"
Kenny woke her up every hour of the night until he was five. When most other people would have slept for eight hours straight, she was getting up every 60 minutes through the night, for five years. Her friends who had kids the same age seemed to sleep just fine. Most of their kids started sleeping through the night when they were two.
She didn't mind. When Kenny's made a success of himself one day, he'll remember his good old mum. He could grow up to be an actor, a football player, an astronaut, and he will remember the part she played in it. That would make it all worth it, she thought. The more she suffered now, the more joyful it would be later. That was the pay off. Her mother told her that to get her through those early days, and it was how she coped with the stress of raising a child.
But Kenny wasn't that into drama at school. He hung around boys who said it was "gay". And because he tended to give up on stuff he couldn't master straight away, he didn't take to sports either. And the astronaut thing just wasn't going to happen. He didn't hate doing things, he was just indifferent. He wasn't really that into anything, and he didn't care.
Kenny did alright in his GCSEs, but not well enough to get into sixth form, as she'd hoped. He got a job as a support worker at an old people's home nearby, and carried on living at home.
Most of his friends went to sixth form, and he lost touch with them after a while. Because of that, she lost touch with the other mums she knew. It made her feel lonely, even though they made her feel bad about herself, not on purpose, but by telling her about all the amazing things their kids were doing. They thought she was shy, but they only talked about their kids, and she never had anything good to say about Kenny. As he developed into his late teens he started to look a lot like his father. The long, triangular jaw and the thick brow. Even though he rarely saw his dad, Kenny still acted like him. He was a negative person, and never motivated to do more than the bare minimum, and see past the status quo. She realised that, despite all the chances and inspiration she'd tried to give him, in the end most things come down to genetics. Kenny was 18 by the time she knew this.
When Kenny went full time at the old people's home she asked him for rent. At first he refused, but then when she threatened to kick him out he started paying up. He agreed to pay £40 per week.
She was watching Loose Women, and laughing in the way that only middle-aged divorcees can, when he came and sat down next to her. He usually sat down on the armchair, rather than sharing the sofa with her.
"Why aren't you in your armchair?" she said.
He didn't say anything. He just stared at the amber glow of the three-bar heater at her feet.
"Hey, aren't you supposed to be at work?" she said.
"Mum, do you love me?" said Kenny. As the heat rose it made her toes look all blurry.
"Of course I do, my little one," she said. She smiled and ruffled his hair.
"Well why don't you show it?"
When you see it written down like that, it doesn't really look like much of a statement. But something about the way he said it really got to her. Why don't you show it. With his dad's vacant look, with his mouth slightly open. Answering his own question.
And then it all came back to her. The three-day labour, the sleepless nights, the three jobs she'd worked to pay the bills. The shame she felt when around the other parents. Not once had he lived up to the hype. They say babies never ask to come into the world, but he did. He wasn't planned. Even now she cleaned up after him. There was still not one moment of joy.
"Get out," she said.
"Why do you charge me rent? None of my mates have to pay rent," he said.
"Get out!" she said again.
He looked at her as if he was going to hit her.
"And the Academy Award goes to... Kenny Cooper!"
"And now we go live to Captain Kenny Cooper and his team from space, as they continue their journey to Mars."
"And it's Cooper with the winner, in the last minute of extra time!"
She was fantasising about memories she'd promised herself. It was dark outside and there was nothing on telly, so her mind was wandering. Wondering, about him. She realised she missed him. And that surprised her. They'd not been in touch for over a year.
Then for the first time, she imagined him fucking up as an astronaut. Like, just spending all day floating around in zero gravity rather than contributing anything to whatever space mission he was part of. She sniggered. Then she thought about him failing as a footballer - getting so angry with another player for being so good that he would pick up the ball, belt it out the stadium, and walk off the pitch. She laughed out loud. Then she imagined him as the worst actor in the world, forgetting his lines on stage, and just looking into the audience blankly, as he tried to remember them. She snorted and the tea that was in her mouth went everywhere.
It didn't matter, she realised. None of it mattered, the hopes and dreams. None of it. A chill washed over her, and suddenly her eyes felt wet. Nothing mattered to her except for one thing. Kenny was her son. God, what had she done?
Her bones clicked as she shot up from the couch. She went to the door and put her feet in her boots. She was still wearing pyjamas, but she put on her long coat so people wouldn't notice - unless they really looked hard. It was much colder than she thought it'd be. But it was fine. In fact, she couldn't stop smiling. Kenny was her son. She thought about the other parents who would understand what she felt. She hadn't always felt like this, but now she did. And he was gone.
She saw the pub sign in the distance. The fog had lifted around it. She picked up the pace and even though her laces had come undone, she didn't stop to tie them. She had to get there.
"Kenny!" she said as she came in through the door. One or two heads looked up from the bar. A couple of guys playing pool stopped and stared back at her.
It was a rough pub. The walls were nicotine yellow. There were crisp packets on the floor. A pint glass on the bar filled up with drips from the leaky ceiling. But she knew Kenny often used to come in here. And if he wasn't in here today, someone was bound to know where he was.
"Is Kenny here?" she said, looking between them all.
A barman climbed up from the cellar, breathing heavily.
"Kenny Cooper?" he said, coughing.
"I haven't seen Kenny in months. He used to be in here every day from about six til last orders. He played for our pool team on Thursdays," the barman said.
"Where is he?" she said.
The barman said: "He left town. He met a girl and then got a job where she was from. It all happened pretty quickly. Why, who's asking?"
"His mum," she said.
"He mentioned you a couple of times," the barman said.
She nodded and smiled, but the barman didn't elaborate. One of the men playing pool came over.
"Here, I've got his number. Give him a call, see how he's getting on. Tell him Dave says hello," the man said.
"I will, thank you," she said.
She left the pub. On the way home, she saw a group of kids hanging out on bikes near the bins. One of them was doing a wheelie on his own, the others were slumped over their handlebars.
She shouted over to them: "Your mothers love you!"
They looked back at her, baffled. Usually they were laughing at how terrified of them she was. She had a completely different energy today.
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