My mother is grieving again. I know because our bathroom has been sparkling clean every single day this week. Not so much as a stray eyelash on the side of the sink. The synthetic lemon scent stings the back of my throat as I watch her, elbow-deep in denial, scrubbing the toilet bowl, removing every last trace of something only she can see. Emerging, all blotched cheeks and puffy eyes, she announces, “These chemicals, they irritate me; I’ve always been sensitive.” My younger sisters dart between bedrooms, lost in a made-up world, barely registering the excuse, let alone questioning it. I’ve seen her though, bent over in convulsing sobs, leaning hard on the side of the bath for support.
This merciless cleaning will continue for days, my mother dropping often to her knees to spot-clean an already spotless floor. Then she will gather us all at the kitchen table for dinner. This my sisters will notice, and they will protest loudly at not being able to eat in front of the TV. She will beguile us with platitudes of how lucky we are to have each other, us four, all girls together, how lovely this house is compared to the last place, slipping in that our latest step dad has moved out. Later on I’ll hear her telling Nana on the phone how well we’ve taken it, agree that we’re such resilient girls and that we’ll all be fine in a few weeks. She won’t hear my sisters telling each other how they’ll miss the piggy backs up and down the stairs or how they bet they won’t get to go swimming on the holidays anymore. She won’t hear the click of my bedside lamp being turned back on after she’s gone to bed, or know that I’m still awake, listening out for burglars and imagining house fires.
When my mother left our father, she cleaned the bathroom of the new flat twice a day for months, taking a toothbrush to the plugholes, flicking out black gunge onto white tiles. She polished the rust-spotted mirror with a vinegar-doused cloth, buffing in squeaky circles, searching through blinked tears for a perfect reflection.
Dad makes us clean his bathroom on our weekend visits, inspecting afterwards all four taps and the underside of the sink to make sure we’ve done it just right. My sisters get sent to bed early if he finds a soap stain on the cabinet or if there’s any dust gathered in the corners of the floor. I get to stay up late to cook the “grown-up dinner” and refill his dwindling drink while he watches TV. He plays with my hair and tells me, “You’re a good girl, not like your mother.”
When he starts to fall asleep, I’ll wriggle my aching shoulder from under the weight of his arm and get up off the sofa. “Where you goin’, angel?” he’ll mutter, the vodka smoothing the sharpness that usually edges his voice.
“Bathroom”, I’ll say.
Elisabeth Alain lives in Worcestershire, raising two daughters and writing short stories and poetry. Her work has appeared in the print anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying and online in The Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, The Drabble, Dear Damsels, The Ginger Collect, and Black Country Arts Foundry.