Welcome to this weeks Sunday Sit Down. Grab a cuppa and a comfy chair and sit down to read. I have a genuine fear of the dentist and I’ve already put the job of bringing A to the dentist because I’ll be honest I’d have the poor child bawling crying and I really don’t want to pass my fear on to her. I wrote this short story in 2009. It is about a mother desperately trying to hide her fear as she brings her daughter to the dentist. It’s a simple concept for a story but the imagery is what makes this story sing to me. I hope you enjoy it. I’d love to know what you think about this one.
~~~ Charcoal ~~~
There was a taste of charcoal in my mouth, as though I had licked at the dry dust from the fire grate like a rock of candy.
It filtered through the cracks in my teeth and stifled the fresh air that surged under my nose. I licked and spat, gurgled and spluttered but the stale tang lingered.
I drove our old Ford to the school, spewing out mountains of saliva that held traces of imaginary charcoal molecules into damp tissues that I wrestled from the glove compartment. My mouth stretched and churned as I forked my tongue around the cavities struggling to wrench the offending flavour from my gums.
Would you believe I was afraid?
The feeling that convulsed in my mouth, slid down my throat and ate at the insides of my stomach was fear. I realized some time ago that this relish, this charcoal bitterness, was how my apprehension bubbled to the surface, like a silent chemical reaction that stimulated my brain to deliberate anything other than what I was afraid of. Idealistic and puerile but, none the less, it worked to some extent. The partly burnt wood continually played between my tonsils and teased a mild mouth ulcer. I drove on.
Sophie skipped along the pavement in front of the school and I, the doting mother, smiled and waved enthusiastically, as though I hadn’t seen her for days, even though I had made her breakfast five hours before and forced her to eat every last scrap. Arguments ensued, the toast is cold, the milk is off, I’m not hungry, I’m not hearing any of it, I shouted back as she played with the bowl of cereal that swam in sweet milk. Revelling in morning heated rituals that transcended into afternoon love.
For that moment when she bounded into the front seat of the car like any nine year old, the bitter tang seemed to evade my senses.
I waited until her seat belt was fastened before I started the car again. On the third attempt of turning the key and propelling the engine into a screeching start, I noticed the charcoal was beating out of the engine.
Her young, fresh, smiling face looked up at me and I gazed over my arm at her, without making eye contact. I wondered could she smell the charcoal too. Could she taste the virulent fumes?
“Ah, man,” she exhaled like a mine worker who spent twelve hours underground picking rock away from rock.
“Anna said to Ms McNulty today that the frogs in the big school escaped out the window and fell under Wally’s grass cutting tractor and they all got squished. Then everyone went eugh and Ms McNulty told Anna not to make things up, but I heard Claire’s big brother say the same thing to one of his friends at the bus stop this morning so I think it’s true.”
I smiled. She lightened the taste in my mouth with the way she watched everything through the eye of a needle and translated it in a way that made a likable story.
At the traffic lights I looked over at her and watched as she picked at her nails, flinging the proceeds onto the car mat. She chatted in the frenzied way I love. She talked quicker than I could ever drive in the old car, nattering in her nonsense shrewd sort of way.
Thankful for every red light, traffic jam and cyclist that yielded in front of me, I drove on. The delays and diversions and the endless stream of conversation from Sophie provided a slight distraction. The flavour loitered. It was hopeless, I was hopeless. I chewed the inside of my cheeks to get rid of the hesitant indolent aroma. She didn’t notice I scraped my teeth along the inside of my jaw and ate.
I took the last turn and pondered driving past the surgery until she pointed and told me that we were there. Her face looked dour as I slowed the car to a safe fifteen kilometres per hour and the chatting stopped. The thought of a half day from school was suddenly blundered by the realization that she was actually taken out before the end of class for a justifiable reason. I pulled the car into a space far away from other cars at the furthest end of the car park, a heavenly distance from the front door. I contemplated letting her go in alone but what mother would do that on her daughter.
I delayed her in making it to the onerous grey building which didn’t help her nerves any. But still, I awkwardly changed out of my driving shoes, rearranged unnecessary items in my bag, looked for the parking ticket I knew was between my fingers and finally brushed my hair down with the sweaty palm of my hand. She walked up ahead of me by a meter which gave me too much distance to try and break away. But as I coughed and gurgled, fighting again with the singed taste, she turned and waited for me.
She slid her cool fingers through my damp hand and gripped harder than I could bear. She was trying to be reassuring, which was impracticable as this was her appointment, not mine. A surge of guilt washed over me as I realized just how un-motherly I was at that very moment. Concentrating on my own inadequacies, I ignored hers. My eyes were locked on the doors five feet ahead of us. I grated my teeth together, compressing charred traces of nothing onto metallic fillings.
She opened the door for me, given half a chance I would have stayed outside in the cold. The smell hit me like a battering ram, musty concrete mixed with sulphur and surgical steel. And the faint hint of charcoal. The smell was out of place, it didn’t belong yet it loitered through the corridors, on the receptionist’s cardigan and the magazine my daughter pretended to read in the waiting room.
Sophie kicked her legs back and forth without her feet ever touching the ground. She’s an inch or two smaller than most girls her age, but it never bothered her. She was reading Vogue which upset me a little because it was too mature for her. It upset me a lot but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. Really she was just looking at the pictures, but that troubled me even more because of the half naked men that sprawled on every fifth page. I didn’t want her to grow up with a preconception about what men should look like or women for that matter as I saw a woman with no waist and no arse parading in black lingerie. I didn’t want her to read about multiple orgasms and ask me what they were, to question girth and foreplay at nine years old. I was not ready for those conversations. Still, she hung on to the magazine as I discounted flinging a tattered copy of Mandy into her hands. I was too distracted to really worry what her eyes were lighting up at.
She rubbed her arm on the half mutilated perfume sample for Jean Paul Gaultier. She mingled her skin particles with those of every other person who creased their skin along the thick paper in the barren waiting room. Her arm hovered under my nostril in an effort to get me to smell the over calculated perfume. The floral scent was tinged with the dust of burnt wood in my nostrils. I told her it smelt nice.
The scorched stench thickened. It permeated the room like oxygen, delivered directly to my lungs. I could feel the spread of the sickly gas condense in the small room and I started to suffocate. I was breathing too rapid, my chest tightened and the walls pushed against me with the heavy scent of Jean Paul Gaultier in my face. I leant over, my head between my legs trying to get the blood back in all the right places.
Sophie’s hand rubbed my arm. All her soothing did was hurt. A sharp prickle stabbed at my chest and breasts from inside my rib cage. She wetted my lips with water but it tasted like dust.
I could feel a hundred eyes staring at me. I was embarrassed for Sophie. The receptionist with the charcoal cardigan talked to me in a demeaning sort of way, as though I was nine and my daughter was the mother who didn’t know how to deal with a panic stricken child.
“I’ll be fine, I’m fine,” I said because I couldn’t curse at her or strike at her and force her to step back two feet because she was too close. Far too close. The charcoal subsided deep into my lungs as I gasped for air that was fresh and not tinged with dewy scents or smouldering odours.
I heard Sophie’s deep heaving sigh as she sensed I was gaining some sort of composure again, when really I tried to squeeze and flatten the atoms of that large, dusty, charred jungle that dispersed through my body out of my pores. I did this, all but to save the humiliation of my offspring as she squirmed in her chair, imploring that she be the next appointment and leave the woman who gasped and sweated in her pool of anxiety. I tried to regulate my breathing, compose myself. I tried to be a mother.
I closed my eyes and counted my way through the alphabet, A –1, B – 2, C – 3, D – 4, E – 5. I continued this way until I had cleared three or four repetitions. I lost count and opened my eyes. She was gone, she went in without me. Or did I really think I was going in there? I would hardly purr over the surgical steel instruments, the fluorescent lights and the smell of clinical gloves as she opened wide.
I noticed the receptionist was looking at me. Her acute care for a panic stricken woman was now overridden by my apparent inappropriate parenting skills. She told me that Sophie was nervous herself and could have done with a little support. I had no answer for her. I felt blighted by the woman. As though I didn’t realise she was nervous. Did I look that incompetent a mother?
I regained what little composure I had and waited. I was somewhat soothed by the fact that the ordeal was nearly over. Her ordeal, not mine, I reminded myself. My poise was threatened as the walls remained encroached around me, but I managed to keep them pressed at my shoulders away from my spine. The charcoal still lingered, although faint, it mustered around my feet and floundered under my tongue.
Finally, Sophie filtered down the corridor out of some unknown room and smiled at me. Thank God she smiled, I thought. I waved to the receptionist as Sophie took my hand and I kissed it lightly, almost missing her skin. Sophie understood me, I thought, better than any stranger and loved me and for that I was grateful.
We walked the length of the car park in silence to the old Ford. As I turned the key and the car gasped I noticed the charcoal had lifted from the engine and all that rose from the hood was the pungent aroma of petrol.
“It’s crowded. He has to take one out next time,” Sophie looked up at me and down at the floor almost immediately.
The charcoal threatened again.
“Dad can bring me,” she continued, a hint of apology in her tone.
“Thanks,” I said back and curtly rubbed her knee with one hand as I drove with the other.
I pulled the car into the driveway, thankful for modern suburbia. I headed straight for the bathroom and scraped at the ridges of my tongue with my toothbrush.
Geraldine Walsh © Over Heaven’s Hill