Living By Numbers

As often happens when I am supposed to be working on something, a new idea distracts me. Here’s an impromptu 1.7k words on bereavement. Please let me know what you think.


Living By Numbers


It was my Nan that suggested we write up a timetable. I guess she knew how scatty my Dad could be, and how important it was to make sure we didn’t miss out on anything with Mum gone.


It started with waking up in the morning. That was Task One. By Task Four I would be washed and into my school uniform and heading down the stairs. If Dad was going into the office he’d take me over to Nan’s house, which was Task Five. Once he’d gone she would untie my hair, brush it out again and then tie it up neatly before giving me my breakfast, and then taking me to school in her old Nissan. If Dad was working from home that day then Task Seven was to give him a kiss at the school gate. We’d call out the task numbers when they were done. The other parents must have thought us a bit odd to say “Task Seven” at the school gate, instead of goodbye.


I think Dad preferred it when Nan took me to school. Dad and I would have a nice time chatting on the way, but the mums at the gate scared him. Their little gangs and groups put him in mind of a ghetto with graffiti on the walls and burned out cars in the streets. The coffee mornings were drug deals and the parents’ advisory group that met the headmistress once a month was the court of the local crime lord.


I didn’t know what any of these things were before he started walking me to school. Imagining what things might really be was one of the games we played. When his ideas became especially colourful he would have to explain all the bits to me. I used all the crime and ghetto stuff in a story for school, and Miss Hargreaves called Dad in for a chat about what books I was reading. I think she liked the real answer even less, and for a while Dad was a bit more restrained.


Nan didn’t go in for the routines herself of course; they were just to keep her son in order. She’d pick me up from school and take me to her place, where I’d have tea and change and do my homework. Dad would stop in on the way from work to have dinner, and then we’d go home together. He’d be on Task Twenty, but really dinner was Task Six, that was Nan’s and my little secret.


We also had a timetable in the kitchen, so we’d always know which homework was due on which nights, and whether I had after school clubs the next day. We marked on birthday parties, and put a star in the week before to make sure we had bought a present, and that dad had wrapped it.


Dad said Mum had special magic mum powers that meant she just knew which was library day, and when homework was due, and who had given what presents at the last birthday.


By Dad’s count Task Thirty was to tuck me in bed and either read to me, or listen to me read. To be honest I was ten at the time, and little old for it, but it was part of our day. If he was particularly tired he might fall asleep at the foot of my bed. He would be a warm, comforting weight for me to sink my feet into.


I’d wait til he had said goodnight and gone to bed for Task Thirty-One. The day Mum died I had taken her pillow and hidden it under my bed. I would pull it out, breathe deeply, and then hold it for a while before I slept. At first it had still smelled of her, but long after the smell had gone, I kept doing it. I knew there were a million breaths and a million heartbeats somewhere in that pillow, and it was a way of saying goodnight to her too.


Weekend routines were more relaxed. We tried to keep mornings for ourselves, and then either go out shopping or visiting. There was still time reserved for weekend homework, and making sure that Dad had his work clothes ready, and I had my school clothes for the week all set out, and my shoes polished.


Our cleaner came in on Wednesday. Dad and I didn’t think we made that much mess, but Nan said Dad suffered from a rare condition called dust blindness. Mum had never let Dad do the cleaning because she said he always made a mess of it, and she just had to do things over. Dad of course denied it all. He said he was just pragmatic about the whole thing. When I asked him to explain what pragmatic meant he told me about Mum’s troll.


Troll dolls must have been a thing in the olden days when my parents were children. Mum still had the ugly little plastic figure with wild bright green hair. You could still see the marks where her little brother had once drawn a moustache on it. It lived on a shelf in the study. Dad had one of his tidying fits one day, and threw out loads of stuff. Somewhere buried in all his clutter was an old keyboard, and he couldn’t throw that away he explained, because it might come in handy one day. It was however covered in dust, and so he had used the hair of the troll to clean the dust out from between the keys.


That was how Mum found him that day, and to quote Dad “she went fractal”. He couldn’t see what he had done wrong, I think if I could ask him today he’d still be baffled. It was a suitable implement, and it was easily to hand, so he used it. To Mum it was part of her childhood that had just been subjected to a terrible ordeal of indignity. Afterwards he had to explain to me what fractal meant, and I couldn’t see how it described Mum’s temper, but it was such a cool word that it stuck.


He was prone to those kinds of lapses, which is why we had a cleaner. That way he wouldn’t mix up the cloth for cleaning glass with the wood duster, or use the wrong heads on the vacuum cleaner for the wrong parts of the house. Chrissie had been coming since the time Mum got ill, and she knew how Mum liked things done, and she kept at it, in spite of any advice she got from Dad.


My secret pillow came to light one evening after Chrissie had been. On the Tuesday we’d had our school play. I had a very minor part, but Dad came to watch, and took lots of pictures. He’d told me not to worry about not getting a big role. He was always spear carrier number three at school, because he liked to make up his own lines and couldn’t be trusted with a speaking part.


The routine was blown for that night, and I was really tired, so when Dad tucked me in, I dragged out my pillow and fell asleep. Task One the next day was a real problem, and I stumbled around up to Task Four. I almost fell asleep over my cornflakes at Nan’s.


When we got home it took me a while to understand what had happened. Chrissie had been through changing all the linen and there was Mum’s pillow, on my bed, in a crisp, clean pale blue cover. I must have forgotten to put it away.


Dad tried everything. All the words that people say when someone has died. How they live on in our hearts and memories, how they would like us to go on living, how much he loved me, and so on and on while my storm of tears would not end. I must have fallen asleep from exhaustion in the end.


I remember waking up in the middle of the night. I still felt exhausted. It was as if not saying goodnight to Mum meant the sleep was useless, and I hadn’t rested at all. I had another little cry then, scrubbing the tears off my face as they fell.


Dad had left the night light on for me as if I was still a little baby. I rolled over to turn it off and nearly shrieked in fright. On my bedside table was Mum’s troll doll, its bright green hair standing straight up and glowing in the dim light. It had a big goofy smile and it still had the traces of the moustache. I remembered the scene as Dad had described it, with Mum towering over him, and him in his study chair holding the doll in one hand and the keyboard in another. Mum going fractal, her hair standing up like the troll doll.


Mum had described the scene to me as well, and as I looked at the doll I could hear her laughing and telling me, “Your Dad looked like a puppy that’s pooped on the carpet, and doesn’t understand why it’s being told off.” Dad came up with imaginative ways to describe things, but Mum could nail them precisely. As I heard her description in my memory I smiled.


I crawled out of bed to go pee, since I was awake anyway. On the way back I peeked into Dad’s room. He wasn’t there. I walked all-round the house, and eventually found him dozing in his chair in the study. The screen saver was waving on the screen, and when I touched the mouse a picture of Mum and me together came up. We were camping in our own back garden, and peering out of the tent.


The tears came again. This time quietly. I climbed into his lap, and he shuffled sleepily to accommodate me, “Cuddle time is Task Two on a weekend,” he murmured drowsily. I didn’t reply I just rested my head on his chest. I began counting his breaths against my hair, and the slow sleepy thump of his heart by my ear.


In the morning I woke up bright and early, in my own bed. The troll doll was still there, but the pillow had gone. I walked past Dad’s room on my way to the bathroom and called out, “Task One.”




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