Mum is a freelance brand consultant, which means that she does projects all over the country. Sometimes she’s really busy and sometimes she has weeks off, and that’s how it’s always been. She came to my school and talked about her job once, and showed us this supermarket logo redesign she’d worked on, and everyone was really impressed. I mean, she’s cool. Her job is cool. Only now I’m looking at this photo I’m wondering: When did she actually last work?
She was on a project when I got ill. I can vaguely remember hearing her talking to Dad about it, hearing her say, “I’m pulling out. I’m not going to Manchester.” All I felt then was relief. I didn’t want her to go to Manchester. I didn’t want her to go anywhere.
I look at the photo again, at Mum’s happy, shiny photo face—and then down at her tired, asleep, real-life face on the bed. It hadn’t occurred to me that Mum had stopped working completely. But ever since I’ve been at home, I realize, she hasn’t gone to her office once.
I feel like I’m slowly coming out of a fog and noticing things I didn’t before. What Dr. Sarah said is true: you get self-obsessed when you’re ill. You can’t see anything around you. But now I’m starting to see stuff.
I turn to see that Mum is pushing herself up on her elbows.
“Hi!” I say. “I thought you were asleep. I brought you some Lemsip.”
Mum’s face cracks into a smile, as though I’ve made her year.
“Sweetheart,” she says. “That is so kind.”
I bring the tray and watch as she sips the hot drink. Her face is so distant that I think she might be falling asleep again, but suddenly she focuses on me.
“Audrey,” she says. “This Linus.”
I feel my defenses rise at once. Not Linus. This Linus.
“Yes?” I say, trying to sound casual.
“Is he…?” She trails off. “Are you…? Is he a special friend?”
I can feel myself squirming inside. I don’t want to talk about Linus to Mum.
“Kind of.” I look away. “You always say I need to make friends. So. I did.”
“And that’s great.” Mum hesitates. “But, Audrey, you need to be careful. You’re vulnerable.”
“Dr. Sarah says I need to push myself,” I counter. “I need to begin building relationships outside the family again.”
“I know.” Mum looks troubled. “But I suppose I’d rather you began with…Well. A girl friend.”
“Because girls are so nice and sweet and lovely,” I retort, before I can stop myself, and Mum sighs.
“Touché.” She takes a sip of Lemsip, wincing. “Oh, I don’t know. I suppose if this Linus is a nice boy…”
“He’s very nice,” I say firmly. “And his name isn’t This Linus. It’s Linus.”
“What about Natalie?”
Natalie. A tiny part of me shrivels automatically at the name. But for the first time in ages, I can also feel a kind of longing. A longing for the friendship we had. For friendship, full stop.
There’s quiet in the room as I try to pick through my muddled thoughts. Mum doesn’t push me. She knows it sometimes takes me a long time to work out what I think. She’s pretty patient.
I feel like I’ve been on this massive long, lonely journey, and none of my friends could ever understand it, even Natalie. I think I kind of hated them for that. But now everything’s feeling easier. Maybe I could see Natalie sometime? Maybe we could hang out? Maybe it wouldn’t matter that she can’t understand what I’ve been through?
There’s a photo on Mum’s dressing table of Natalie and me dressed up for last year’s Year 9 prom, and I find my eyes swiveling towards it. Nat’s in a pink lacy dress and I’m in blue. We’re laughing and pulling party poppers. We did that picture about six times to get the party poppers just right. They were Nat’s idea. She has funny ideas like that. I mean, she does make you laugh, Nat.
“Maybe I will call Natalie,” I say at last. “Sometime.” I look at Mum for a reaction, but she’s fallen asleep. The half-full Lemsip is tilting dangerously on the tray, and I grab it before it can spill. I leave it on her bedside table in case she wakes up, then tiptoe out of the room and head downstairs, full of a kind of new energy.
“Frank,” I demand as I enter the kitchen. “Has Mum given up work?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“But she’s really good at her job.”