Short Story: Why Don’t You Just………….

Any sentence that begins “Why don’t you just…….” is never going to end well. This is true even if the person speaking is right- in fact it’s true especially if they are right. And you really don’t want to hear it from your mother.
“I’m just saying.”
“I know you are.”
Neither of them were quite sure how to carry on. Margaret knew that her daughter was irritated and Katherine knew that her mother meant well. It was tricky. There was most of the coffee still sitting there in the cafetiere, the grandchildren and the grandfather had been asked after, and it was obviously best not to talk about the husband any more or somebody might get angry. They didn’t do angry in the Jackson family. They did smiling grimly, saying nice things, going to build a bear workshop and sending cards. So for a while there was silence. Then Katherine’s mother tried again.
“I just think it’s something that you should consider, that’s all.”
“I have considered it. It’s not so simple as you think.”
More silence.
“No woman should put up with abuse.”
“Abuse? What abuse?”
Jonathan had never hit her. Not once. So how could it be abuse? He was a good man. He just didn’t choose to show it to her mother, that was all. Anyway her mother was a fine one to talk about abuse. Except they hadn’t, had they? Not even when it was staring them in the face. Her mother’s face was closed off now, afraid of what might come next. She knew what Katherine had seen.
“You deserve better.”
“So did you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Her mother knew very well what it meant. She was trusting Katherine to back off the way she always had in the past. Both heads went down, heavy faces stared into their coffee. The radio chirruped out smugly, the coffee machine hissed and people hurried in and out, bringing blasts of cold air with them. Katherine wished that she had ordered a muffin. It would have given her something to do.
“Anyway, have you heard about your course yet?”
“We’re talking about you.”
Katherine could feel herself starting to lose her patience.
“No, mother. You are talking about me. I am trying to change the subject.”
“I worry about you, that’s all.”
“No need.”
“You’re still my daughter.”
Her mother often pointed that out. Well, being a mother might be a job for life but being a daughter certainly wasn’t, or not in the way her mother would have liked it to be. You couldn’t live your life for your mother, however much you loved them, otherwise you didn’t have a life at all. You just stood around on the fringes of theirs.
They talked about things that neither of them were interested in for a while, but that was never going to last. Her mother’s worry rose to the surface again in a rush of words.
“I just want to know that you’re happy, that’s all.”
Katherine put down her cup and cleared up the sugar that she had spilled with her napkin.
“Of course I’m happy.”
She wasn’t, but then what did that mean anyway? How did you know you were happy? Katherine suspected that if you were genuinely happy you didn’t have to think about it or crow about it, you just were. Blissfully, ignorantly happy. Children could manage that quite easily. Keeping going was more important than being happy. Hanging on. Putting up with stuff. If anyone had taught her that it was her mother.
The statement hung in the air unchallenged. Neither of them wanted to admit that they didn’t believe it. If they put that into words there would be too many consequences. Too much hurt.
“You will have to come round for a meal one night.”
Katherine nodded.
“Yes. That would be nice.”
“With Jonathan.”
“Yes.”
He’d never go. This was something else that they both knew. The reasons why had to be kept quiet or her mother would be hurt. Just saying outright that Jonathan would be bored out of his skull and made potentially angry after just a few minutes of her mother’s company might unleash a torrent of criticism and you really didn’t want that in a coffee shop. Her mother’s thoughts on Jonathan were a dam of angry frustration waiting to burst, but she had no intention of letting that happen. Not here and not now.
Katherine looked round at the other tables, avoiding her mother’s eye. So many contented people. Comfy, cosy people, licking the froth off their spoons and grinning at each other, idling away their time in a window seat with their eyes half closed, or absorbed in a book or a text half a world away. Relaxed baristas with nothing to do but straighten up piles of cellophane wrapped biscuits and tease each other. This was a place to disappear into, a place where you came to leave things behind not thrash them out.
“So what are doing for the rest of the day?”
Her mother was doing her best to be cheerful. The reply was going to have to keep to the script. Katherine searched for something innocent that she could say in return that would be reassuring and cheerful in return. Something that wouldn’t lead to her being judged.
“I don’t know. A bit of shopping maybe, before I pick the kids up, while I’m in town.”
She wondered what shopping. There was plenty of food in the house. Usually she ended up buying the children something but Jonathan was going to have a go at her if she did that again. Certainly not something for herself.
“Is Jonathan working today?”
“No, he’s at home. Sorting out the loft.”
Katherine was angry with herself for saying that. Why did she always feel that she had to say Jon was doing something? Perhaps because her mother never seemed to think that he did enough. He wouldn’t be in the loft. He would be playing World of Warcraft. It was his day off, surely he was allowed. Her mother nodded, too slowly.
“I wish you’d listen to me. You won’t be told.”
That was one of her mother’s stock phrases. “You won’t be told.” She had heard it right the way through childhood and it usually meant that her mother knew that she was right, whether it was about eating too much, putting her cardigan on, or not teasing the dog. She was always at fault when she heard it and it always meant that her failure was about to be proved. Most recently, of course, it had usually been about Jonathan. Never about the grandchildren, funnily enough. They could do no wrong, so by association neither could their upbringing. Once she had learned never to criticise them in her mother’s presence things had gone surprisingly smoothly on that score. They were an easy conversational bolthole when things got difficult.
“You will be looking forward to Jack’s family assembly tomorrow. I wish I could go with you.”
With a swift change of gear her mother launched into the new subject, as Katherine had known that she would.
“I got those rabbit ears he needs.”
“Yes. You told me.”
This didn’t stop her mother telling her the whole tale all over again. The shop, the price, the colour, the size, the wait while they found a new set still in their wrapper, the nice girl at the checkout. Katherine nodded like one of those television interviewers who need to prove that they are listening. She wasn’t, but her mother was satisfied and the danger passed.
“I shall take my camera.”
“Lovely.”
They smiled at each other. At least this was something that they could both be pleased about, something that was undeniably a good thing. Jack in his rabbit ears playing Mr Rabbit- the star part- was something for them both to be proud of.
The coffee shop was busy now. They were sitting with two empty cups, taking up a table. One of the barristas swept over and gathered up the cups. He would be back with a cloth to wipe the table down soon.
“Can I get you anything else.”
Her mother looked as if she was about to say yes. Katherine stretched out a hand for her coat.
“No thank you, that was lovely.”
The chair scraped back awkwardly on the tiled floor as Katherine got up. Someone was already waiting. Her mother sighed and prepared to leave.
“You would tell me wouldn’t you? If there was anything wrong?”
Katherine nodded. Like hell she would.
“Of course. You worry too much.”
“Somebody has to.”
Katherine thanked her mother for the coffee, said her goodbyes, and made a determined effort not to run for the door. As the bell on top of the cafe door rang out, signalling the start of the next round of her fight, her eyes filled with tears and her mouth shook. At least she had kept her pride.

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