Beth Cochrane


She said it was a great night. Just a bit different, you know?’

Gary repeats what his water-cooler-colleague had told him. She had also reported that her husband hated it and wouldn’t talk about it afterwards, but his father had died recently and maybe that had something to do with it.

I balance one pea at a time on my fork, before placing them side-by-side atop the long peak of my mashed potatoes. It forms a nice, pea-armoured wall through the middle of my plate.

‘So, what do you think?’

‘I don’t think it sounds like our cup of tea.’

‘Nothing’s been our cup of tea for ages.’

‘We’ve been busy.’

‘Everyone’s always busy.’

‘We’ll have a good time, I promise.’

He books the babysitter for the following Friday (‘a weekend night!’) and we leave the toddler waving at the window. We drive away and I don’t look in the rear-view mirror to watch her get smaller in the distance. Gary chats in my ear and I wonder if the toddler will stay there all night, waving until her little body collapses with exhaustion.

We drive into town and park the car, enter the theatre and at the box office we are given separate forms, with one red pen and one blue pen.

Please read carefully and circle the answer most appropriate to you.

1. Describe your relationship with your Mother (red) and Father (blue):

       a. Very satisfactory
       b. Satisfactory
       c. Neither satisfactory nor unsatisfactory
       d. Dissatisfactory
       e. Very dissatisfactory

2. Describe your overall experience as a child experiencing childhood (red) and as an adult reflecting on the experience of your childhood (blue):

       a. Very satisfactory
       b. Satisfactory
       c. Neither satisfactory nor unsatisfactory
       d. Dissatisfactory
       e. Very dissatisfactory

3. Describe your childhood home’s comfort (red) and dinner table interactions with nuclear family members (blue):

       a. Very satisfactory
       b. Satisfactory
       c. Neither satisfactory nor unsatisfactory
       d. Dissatisfactory
       e. Very dissatisfactory

4. Describe your sleeping patterns from ages 5 to 18 (red) and birthday gifts from parents before and including your 17th birthday (blue):

       a. Very satisfactory
       b. Satisfactory
       c. Neither satisfactory nor unsatisfactory
       d. Dissatisfactory
       e. Very dissatisfactory

5. Describe the quality of tap water in your childhood home (red) and colour of the front door in your first adult home (blue):

       a. Very satisfactory
       b. Satisfactory
       c. Neither satisfactory nor unsatisfactory
       d. Dissatisfactory
       e. Very dissatisfactory

Continued on reverse side.

Having circled the appropriate answers and deposited our forms we each take a numbered ticket. We sit at the bar waiting to be called forward, I’m sipping on a chilled white wine while Gary holds his pint of lager. We try to talk about things that aren’t the house, the child, work, the future, or the past. Two hours pass in one.

Eventually, Gary’s number is called and he kisses me on the cheek as he leaves.

‘Try to enjoy yourself, will you?’

He walks toward the door by the stage and disappears behind it.

The quiet chatter around me is good. The empty seat beside me is good and I picture myself here, a dark bruise on the skin of the room.

My number is called and I leave the table and go to the door underneath the speaker and fluorescent 2 0 4. Behind the door is a corridor and to my left a map of the theatre. A note is pinned to the side:

       Follow the lighted paths.
       In the event of a fire alarm
       an exit will become apparent.

The map is winding and not unlike a map of a tiny Underground. Big rooms and little rooms build arteries between sometimes winding and sometimes straight corridors.

At either side of my feet strips of light begin to glow, like when the overhead lights go dim on a plane and the aisle is illuminated for health and safety purposes.

The map gives nothing away and my snaking lights slice through the gloom, leading me toward a branch in the corridor. I follow it and it takes me to a door, which I open and step inside.

The scene in the room takes a moment to fully register. It’s a Christmas breakfast with all the trimmings: pastries and coffee and juice and family. I sniff the air. The pastries are fresh from the oven and my stomach grumbles in recognition. Bodies, already in paper hats, are sitting at the table while others bustle around, balling up used wrapping paper and refilling half-empty glasses of Bucks Fizz.

It is a warm, homely scene and my blood tingles as I realise the bodies around the kitchen are my family. They look the same as they did twenty years ago when our Christmases took place in this exact kitchen and at this exact table. They ignore me as I stand by the door until mum offers me a glass of Bucks Fizz and brings me to the table. I’m welcomed by them; step-dad, half-brother, half-sister, gran, grandpa, three cousins and an aunt.

I spoon strawberry jam onto my plate and the pastry flakes between my fingers as I rip into its warm crust. I place the croissant in my mouth and notice my half-brother’s teeth are straight, my aunt’s ears aren’t weighed down with earrings, and my youngest cousin is taking part in the family conversation.

I chew the pastry and am impressed by the verisimilitude of the scene, but I have always had an eye for details and some fall short. I listen to the conversation around me and make motions that I am enjoying myself, as I don’t want to offend the actors by pointing out their shortcomings. It is a remarkable effort, regardless.

Mum rests her hand on my shoulder (skin around her nails bitten raw, stripped back from the nail bed and fraying at the edges – very good) and refills my glass. We spread butter and jam and add crispy bacon to our plates, discussing gifts and turkey and movies to watch later.

A bell erupts at the other side of the kitchen and the scene comes to a quiet end. Above, the lights go down and, once again, a lit-up path is shown to me. It takes me across the room and through the door opposite the one I entered. I leave my half-finished croissant and half-wave to the actors, who pay no attention as they sit in stillness around the table.

The lighted breadcrumbs take me along another, longer, passageway, and halfway up a staircase. I recognise the banister and the dark green carpet and I sit on the step where the last light glows. I turn my head to the left and look through the spindles which separate the staircase from hollow air. Muscle memory pulls my hands forward and I grab the wooden slats on either side of my face.

There is a tightening in my throat as mum and step-dad’s voices drift through the door below. I lean in closer – not because they are shouting and I am nosey, but because I want to know what there is to fight about. Mum is crying and step-dad doesn’t stop shouting, doesn’t stroke her hair and tell her it’s OK, like mum would do for me. She continues to cry and step-dad doesn’t care, which makes her cry more and him care less.

Perched on the step, looking in on the same actors from the previous room, I recognise this scene as not an unhappy one. I like sitting on that step. I like watching them. There’s a tinge of pleasure in knowing that if I walked into that room everything would stop. Tears would be wiped away and raised voices replaced with gentle words coaxing me back to bed. I could end the scene if I wanted to, but the drama of it, the what-will-happen-next, keeps me at bay.

This scene is shorter than the last. The actors are soon silenced by another bell and my path reappears, leading me back down and around the stairs. My hand trails along the banister and I’m glad there is no staircase for the toddler in my flat.

I’m deep in the theatre now and I can feel its labyrinthine walls weighing down on the small room I have entered. The air smells of fresh laundry, the synthetic lavender scent wrapping around me like a cold shiver.

Mum is lounging on a cushion on the linoleum floor. She holds a torch in her hand and a bowl of sweets sits beside her, empty magpie wrappings littering the floor. I settle next to her and pick up a chocolate when she does, not checking what kind I’ve chosen as I unwrap it and place it on my tongue.

There is laughter and shouting from the front of the house and it’s getting louder as footsteps approach the door. Mum and I freeze, another chocolate midway unwrapped (even the crinkle of the paper might give us away). The doorbell ding-dongs and we stifle a giggle, they’ll never know we’re here!

Almost every Halloween was spent like this and it was wonderful. Sometimes other family members would join but sometimes not, and for a few years it was just like this. Me and mum, scoffing chocolates, huddled in a utility room with no windows and the softness of laundry air encasing us.

The doorbell rings once more and it is just so good to see mum’s young face in the torchlight again. I look into her face as she plays with the torch and notice her eyelashes are fragmented around her eyes. The hairs make a patchy frame, disrupted by spaces plucked by worrying fingers.

Overhead the bell sounds and the torch is turned off. In the gloom mum smiles and nods and gets to her feet. She exits through the door I entered and I am left in the near dark.

A voice on the tannoy: PLEASE BE PATIENT WHILE WE RESET.

I eat another chocolate and tear at a ragged nail. There are no white tips left to pull free but the skin around my pinky nails is intact. I begin to peel it with my teeth.

When the floor lighting re-illuminates I am led back a familiar route. I retrace my steps to the kitchen table from the first scene, but this time it’s not Christmas. It is a spring morning and there is a carton of orange juice on the table. Step-dad is reading a newspaper and my mum pours fresh coffee while keeping an eye on the frying eggs.

I’m eight again, or maybe nine, and pouring myself cereal at breakfast.

It’s a school day and the cereal is a wheat-based, berry-flaked thing which will quickly turn to mush in my bowl. It will taste fine. Step-dad crunches through his toast and marmalade while mum checks the eggs. The electric hob glows red under the pan and for a moment mum stands by it, staring out the window while the eggs firm and whiten. I’m watching her as she flattens two fingers to the glow and her shoulders shudder. I imagine, again, her fingerprints sizzling.

Mum shudders perfectly.

The orange juice is too bright in the jug and the coffee smells too fresh. Step-dad shuffles his newspaper a page forward and my cereal remains untouched as mum lifts her fingers and replaces them with two from the other hand. The smell is like a Sunday afternoon; beef roasting in the oven until it’s time to eat the pink and tender meat.

Half-sister comes pelting downstairs, crashing into the kitchen and shouts where are her eggs, is the toast in the toaster? She has to be in school early today, she says, and within thirty seconds buttered toast and the fried eggs are in front of her. Mum says she will go put everything in the car. We are to meet her in the car in five minutes. As she exits, the now familiar bell goes again.

I leave the pathway on the floor and go to the cooling stove. I hold my hand a hair’s breadth above the hob and feel a comforting heat. Sometimes I felt that heat in her fingers as she pulled a hat on me or strapped me into the car seat.

Pulling myself away I wonder how long I’ve been following the lights in the floor. This time it leads me far: along thin corridors and up a staircase, turning through wider corridors until the next scene begins in a wide room.

Our neighbours – Ellen and Martin, I remember their names with ease – are sat on one sofa and my step-dad on the other. He gestures for me to take the seat beside him. I do, trying to settle myself comfortably on the cold leather, and the adults continue talking.

I’m nine or ten again and I know what is coming next. The sound of smashing porcelain comes from the kitchen.

Step-dad asks me to go help mum in the kitchen but I don’t move. If I don’t move it’s not happening, if I don’t see it maybe she’s not doing it. He asks again and smiles politely to the neighbours, giving me a nudge on the arm to do as he says. I turn my face toward him. I want to know if he knows what is going on next door, but he gives nothing away.

I can already see the teapot smashed to pieces, scattered across the floor. Broken cups lying in fragments and her bare feet pressing lovingly into those shards. I will go and I will stand in the doorway and she won’t notice for a few minutes. By the time she raises her eyes from the floor blood will coat the soles of her feet.

But this time I’m not nine or ten and the woman playing mum doesn’t have to do those things. This time I can stop her and brush the mess from the floor before she reopens the newly healed scars on her feet. I push open the door and there is more blood than I remember. It is coating the edges of the broken teapot and cut up mugs; is steeping in the spilled milk with firework tendrils.

She is in the middle of it all, looking out the window as she was at breakfast, with a ceramic chunk in her right hand, pushing it into her left palm. It’s piercing the skin of the centre, where the softest part of the muscle stretches and becomes taut when you pull your fingers back. The sharpest point of the teapot piece is pushing through, leaching blood from her skin like a hungry mouth.

The bells rings and mum clenches her fingers into fists. She limps to a smaller door, one close to where she stands. She has not acknowledged that I entered the room.

The bell rings one last time and the end of the session has arrived. I am led to the exit door and find myself once again in the bar. Gary is waiting for me, a pint in hand, looking delighted. He relived a fondly remembered Christmas and a funny encounter at a friend’s family’s breakfast table where they had added ketchup to cereal like it was a normal thing. He also experienced a vaguely unhappy Easter when his older brother had snuck into the garden early on Easter morning and eaten all the hidden eggs, but he supposed he had to take the good with the bad.

He is continuing to talk as I drive us home and I’m thinking back to my fourteenth birthday when I found mum burning birthday candles against the soft underside of her wrists. I remember how I shouted at her and asked her why couldn’t she just be a normal mum.

Gary puts his hand on my knee. He guessed before we got in the car that I hadn’t experienced such a great production, but he was filling the silence anyway so I didn’t feel like I had to talk. He gives my knee a squeeze.

The babysitter did a great job. The toddler is in bed and sleeping by the time we arrive home and she had been no trouble, no trouble at all. The babysitter liked the toddler, said he would be happy to come back again if we ever needed it. Gary gave him an extra ten pound note, since it was a weekend, and thanked him profusely.

I didn’t see mum do those things again after that birthday. She either stopped or she hid them better and we never spoke about it again.

Gary and I lie in bed that night and the baby monitor is almost silent as Gary drifts off, holding my hand and giving me a last kiss on the shoulder before his gentle snores rustle the dark.

The toddler is waking up. I can hear her stirring, starting to blink sleep and a bad dream away. She starts crying for me.

Call for dad, call for granny, call for someone else, please.

The wailing erupts through the monitor and Gary barely shuffles in his sleep. I stare at the ceiling, not owing this child anything. I want it to go away and I pass the time pulling gently, then not so gently, at the nail on my index finger. The whole shell eventually gives way, lifting up and away from its nail bed as the crying continues.

Beth Cochrane is a Scottish writer and creative producer based in the north of England. She’s been a recipient of a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, a winner of the University of Edinburgh’s Sloan Prize, and Emerging Writer in Residence at Cove Park. Her fiction and poetry have been published widely, including in Gutter, 404 Ink’s Error, Riggwelter, SPAM, and Speculative Book’s The Centenary Collection for Edwin Morgan. She’s taken spoken word shows to Hidden Door, the Saboteur Awards Festival, and Edinburgh Book Festival’s Unbound stage.