Mother Love 


Ernest suspects his Mama is mad. The nasty gnawing idea has been growing daily. The evidence to support his supposition is everywhere. It’s dreadful enough that every surface and window is festooned with yards of black crepe, lying like ebony snakes. The curtains are drawn all day and he must wear his tightest, scratchiest black collar with his black, velvet knee-pants, and worst of all, he is forbidden to leave the house. All this is terrible enough, but there is more—much more.

Every afternoon, Ernest has to withdraw with his Mama to the back parlor which overlooks the ruins of the garden. Once his summer playground, lush with greenery and vibrant with roses, it is now like a graveyard, except Highgate is jollier, Ernest thinks, than his home.

Meanwhile, Ernest sits hunched, shoulder to shoulder with the pianoforte, (bedecked in more black ribbon), jostled by the ring of chairs laid out for Mama’s guests—guests who never make an appearance. Except, of course, for one. Ernest dwells on the thought of The One who squints through the letterbox and has bad breath.

“No more use than a chocolate teapot that one,” His old Nanny had said.

Tears pricked Ernest’s eyes at the memory of Nanny Mary. For even she had finally given up. She had departed, sobbing, kissing and hugging Edward to the last. He, in turn, had been weeping openly in a most unmanly fashion. He did not care if Papa saw him, though Ernest hadn’t ever seen Mama or Papa cry—not once these past weeks—which was strange.

In the high-ceilinged hallway, the ever-growing pile of black-edged calling cards lie, like ravens’ feathers, untouched and unheeded.

Forgotten too are bed time, tea time, and bath time—all the previously important daily rituals disappeared along with Nanny. Ernest gets up when he pleases, eats stale cake and steals nips from his Papa’s wine cellar. Like his Mama, who is getting more pungent by the day, he hasn’t bathed in a while.

He recalled a terrible scene on Papa’s last day in the house. Papa had been yelling ‘till he was spitting on Mama’s dry powdered cheeks. Ernest, huddled on the landing, watching from the banister.

Mama merely dabbed at her face with her linen handkerchief, not giving in at all. So, in a fury, Papa left for the City. ‘On business—indefinitely,’ the servants had whispered. They were the next to leave. One by one they made their excuses or were ‘let go’.

Ernest really missed Cook, with her shortbread and ginger cakes. He was living on her larder stores now, raiding them daily. Mama never ate, just sipped a little water and nibbled at her nails. She was so thin, he thought sadly, like a black scarecrow lady. He was too nervous to touch her in case she would fracture, like the sailor doll his Papa had bought him last Christmas—its face had a long crack through it which made him look like a pirate.

What a wonderful Christmas that had been. Ernest let his mind wander back. The fir tree had shone with a hundred candles’ flames. Cook had made jellies, pies, and all sorts of sweets. The pile of presents had grown daily. When the carolers came calling, they were invited to have sweet sherry or homemade lemonade. There had been laughter and warmth. The fires were all lit.

Ernest glances at the chilly ashes in the parlor’s grate. He doesn’t really want to look at what else occupies the parlor with him and Mama.

Mama is sitting on the chaise lounge, shrouded as always in layers of black net and lace. Her bones stick out on her wrists. She is slightly flushed and has that blank, vacant look in her eyes that gives Ernest ‘the ghoulie shivers’ as he calls them—those tingles up his neck and back.

Staring at the room’s other occupant, Mama asks, “Do you think he looks a little pallid today?”

Silence fills the spaces in the room while Edward ponders a suitable reply. There is, he knows, no truly suitable answer to this question. So, he settles on an old favorite. Nodding sagely, he answers, “Yes, Mama. A little.”

He turns his head away so he does not have to watch his Mama reach over with her rouge pot to rub more color into his baby brother’s flaccid cheeks. There are hectic patches of red there already, which complement the velvet cushions, against which, baby Albert, pale as ice cream, reclines, possibly in slumber—though Ernest knows differently.

It has been eight weeks since his brother drew his last breath. The quiet which followed was broken by days of unremitting wailing from his Mama. Her grief scared him. All she wanted to do was sit with him and Albert, holding both their hands. Ernest really didn’t like to touch his little brother now. He tried very hard to keep his fingers away from the small swaddled shape. He had kissed him twice afterwards, as he’d been instructed to. Privately, he thought that was enough. He’d been fond of Albert, but now Albert was a grim bundle of horror. Because of him everyone had left.

The doorbell pealed out. It must be 3pm already, thought Ernest. Mama did not stir. Nothing else moved.

“Mama, should I answer the bell?” Ernest asked in a whisper, tugging at her arm. It felt like a twig. His fingers scurried back into his pocket.

Mama didn’t move, so Ernest got up, more to move around and because he wanted a break from the stuffy parlor. He quietly left the room, crept up to the front door, and peered at the blurry figure outlined in the glass.

“Yes?” his voice shook. Ernest didn’t talk much these days. He was sure his voice was getting weaker. He used to shout and whoop around the house, making Nanny laugh and hold her ears.

“Is that you, Master Harding?” asked the man on the other side of the door.

Is it me? Ernest wasn’t sure anymore. He felt he was becoming a ghost. Gradually fading away.

“Yes, I think so.”

“May I be allowed to come in?” asked the man.

“Mama does not want any visitors.” Ernest repeated the words he had memorized.

“I really feel I should come in and bring God’s word to you and your Mother, young sir.”

Ernest felt his stomach twist and his heart thump. God was a good thing—Nanny had made that clear. And Cook used to sing in church every Sunday. She had a lovely voice.

The silence lengthened. Ernest felt the shape of the key in his pocket. What would Mama do if he allowed the vicar entry? She would be so angry with him. After all, to Mama, he was — “all I have left in the world now” — as she told him frequently.

“Here is my card young man.”  A black-edged square of cardboard appeared under the door frame.

“Please, Master Harding, I do implore you to pass it on to your Mama. I must speak with her soon. Burial arrangements must be made.”

Ernest bent to pick up the card. The words, Reverend Matthew Leighton, glittered up at him in their gold ink finery.

“Are you reading your Bible every day, young sir?” asked the Reverend.

Ernest thought about the family Bible, which was currently propping up his brother’s torso.

“Err, well, Rev sir. I do try to be good, for Mama.”

“God bless you my son.”

The man’s shadow receded. Ernest pressed his palm against the glass and slid to the tiled floor. Hot tears filled his eyes. His chest felt tight, like it would burst. He tore angrily at the buttons on his velvet tunic. One ripped off, fell to the floor and rolled away, escaping.

“Breathe, breathe,” he whispered. “Keep breathing or else you will become like Albert.”

“Who was that?” his mother’s voice called from the parlor.

“Just the vicar, Mama. He left his card.”

“Come sit with us both, Ernest darling.”

Ernest began to stand up, obediently. He thought about the scene awaiting him in the parlor. His heart began to beat very fast. Ernest pulled off his starched collar, tossing it onto the plate of calling cards. Outside, he noticed weak sunlight breaking though the black drapes, dusting the tiles with shadows. He was decided.

“No, Mama. I am going outside, into the garden.”

Ernest pushed open the bolts on the large garden doors and stepped outside. He drew deep breaths of air, felt water on his cheeks, and looked up at the clouds. His heart soared. He was free—free of the black wrappings, of the stench, and of Mama’s clutching hand. He jump-kicked into a pile of leaves, left mossy footprints on the untended lawns, startled some pecking sparrows, and played in the woods near the bottom of the garden. It was bliss. He could hear nothing but birdsong and the faint rumble of carriage wheels on the road beyond the garden wall.

Pausing under the oak tree, Ernest eyed the tiny grave of Sweep, his pet dog. Gone these last two winters. It gave him an idea, one which he thought might break Albert’s grip on Mama and make the vicar happy. It might even bring back Papa and Nanny Mary.

He would have to wait until Mama was asleep. Though drugged by her nightly drink, she kept baby Albert close beside her on the bed. An act that had horrified Papa, Ernest recalled with a shudder.

The clock was striking one when Ernest crept into his Mama’s bedroom. He had brought his candle tin with him, for inside it was muddily dark.

There Mama lay on top of her brocaded coverlet, fully dressed with one bony hand holding the bundle that was Albert. Only a very tiny movement in her chest showed she was still breathing. She hardly made an indentation on the mattress.

Ernest quietly wrapped up his brother in a blanket and carefully carried him down the stairs and into the garden. The trees branches waved a welcome. Otherwise it was silent.

Walking gently with his burden to the patch under the trees, Ernest knelt down, bent his head and spoke the only prayer he knew off by heart.

“Our father who art in heaven…”

Then he took out his shovel from his dressing gown pocket and began to dig in the dirt. When he thought the hole was wide and deep enough, he carefully placed the bundle in the ground. The moon flickered out from behind a cloud, just long enough for Ernest to fill the earth back in. He patted the ground flat and stood for a moment.

He felt calm. He felt light.

At 6 am the next morning, Ernest heard his Mama shuffle to the landing, and then she began screaming. It was like a parrot he had once encountered in a shop, barely human. Ernest huddled in his room, covering his ears, praying she would stop soon. She carried on for over an hour but then she fell silent.

Ernest crept out, hugging the tapestry covers on the wall until he could peek into his Mama’s bedroom. A ragged bundle of black lace and stick-thin limbs lay sprawled on the grubby carpet. It was a moment before Ernest realized it was his Mama. He did not want to go and touch her.

Ernest sat downstairs in the hallway, with the front door key in his hand, waiting for 3pm and the knock from the Vicar. When it came, he walked carefully to the door and unlocked it.

Speaking clearly and firmly, he announced to the Reverend Leighton. “I have made burial arrangements sir. It is done. You may enter. Mama is upstairs.”