Another week, another terribleminds flash fiction challenge! This time the prompt was bad parents and we had 1,000 words. I really wanted to stay away from the whole ‘starvation, drunken rage, cigarettes getting stubbed out in painful places’ kind of story. Not because those things don’t happen, but because there’s only three ways for those stories to go. It either ends in tragedy (kids die), triumph (kids escape and/or kill parents) or stasis (isn’t it dreadful).
At the end of this post I’ll link to a few of my favourite stories that other authors have written in response to the prompt.
I throw the slivers of chicken into the pan with the onions and stir. The pink meat turns white, the oil hisses and spits
“Sarah?” Her voice, thin and scratchy, crackles over the baby monitor. I bite my lip, stir the chicken and add a splash of stock to stop it from burning.
I go upstairs and open the door to my mother’s bedroom. She lies there, propped up against her pillows. Thin, skin translucent, crazed with wrinkles. You can see all the veins in her hands, wrapping up and around those knobbed knuckles. I stare at her hands and avoid looking at her face.
“What is it, Mum?”
“Would you like a glass of water?”
“A tonic water,” she says. “With a slice of lime. A thin slice. I don’t want the lime to overpower it.”
My heart sinks. “We don’t have any lime.”
“Can’t you go to the shop?”
“The corner shop won’t have them. I’ll need to drive to Tesco, and that’s fifteen minutes there and back. I’ll go after I finish lunch, okay?”
Silence. I stare resolutely at her hands.
“I don’t want any lunch,” she says. Her voice quavers.
“You need to eat. It’s almost done. I’ll get the lime as soon as I’m done cooking.” I try to make my voice firm.
“If your father was here—“
“But he’s not here,” I cut her off. “I’m in the middle of cooking. If I leave now it’ll be ruined. I’ll go after lunch. Do you want a glass of water?”
“No.” Her voice is sulky.
She starts to sob as I close the door.
While the chicken and carrots finish cooking, I take a separate pan and make the gravy. Butter, flour, stock, herbs, a slosh of white wine. I add pepper, hesitate, then add another shake of pepper. Last time she told me there wasn’t enough pepper, that it made the meal bland. I take her plate, the special china one with the blue swirls around the edge. I shape the carrots into a pyramid and place three pieces of chicken in a fan shape next them. I use the back of a spoon to swish an arc of gravy on the other side of the plate and stand back to scrutinise my handiwork. I add a garnish of fresh parsley, dropping it onto one of the chicken pieces.
I put the lid on the pot to keep the heat in, then put her plate on the tray. I take out a tumbler and pour some tonic water into it. I’ll take it up to her, and then go and buy the lime.
When I open her door the sobbing starts again, little hitches in her throat.
“Please don’t work yourself up, Mum.” I carry the tray over and put it down on her lap.
“No lime,” she says.
“I’ll go and get you one now.”
“Don’t bother,” she says. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. I just didn’t want to go while lunch was cooking, and—“
“I know how hard it must be, looking after your old mother. I remember how hard it was for me, when I had to look after you.”
“Oh! I slaved over your food, and you wouldn’t eat a bite. I tried everything, organic baby food, pureed dinners, I spent an hour once making a special soup out of roasted squash and you just threw it on the floor.”
“I was a baby.”
“You were always as good as gold for your father. He’d come home and you’d eat any old rubbish. You never really loved me, of course.” Her voice cracks. She knows I can’t stand it when she talks like this.
“I love you Mum, you know I do.” I pat her hand awkwardly. “Look, just eat your lunch. I’ll go to the shop now, you’ll have your lime slice as soon as I get back, okay?”
She heaves a deep sigh. I head for the door, but before I can reach it there is a clatter and crash from behind me. I spin round.
She’s knocked the tray onto the floor. Gravy, carrots, chicken, all over the carpet. The tumbler rolls across the floor until it knocks into the leg of her bedside table. I bite my lip.
“Oops,” she says. Smiles.
I don’t answer. I pick up the tumbler and the broken bits of plate and put them on the tray. The food goes in the bin. I get the vacuum cleaner and suction up the rest. There’s a gravy stain, but I can deal with that later.
I go downstairs, put on my coat. I’ve worn through one of the elbows.
Tesco is busy. I don’t see anyone I know. Most of the people I went to school with have moved away. Sometimes I see Kate, but she’s always too busy running after her toddler to see me. She isn’t here today. I buy the lime, smiling tentatively at the woman behind the checkout. She gives me a blank smile in return.
When I get home I stir up the remaining carrots and chicken and give it a quick blast of heat to bring it back up to temperature. I take out a new plate, build the pyramid of carrots. I fan out the chicken, swirl the gravy.
I pour the tonic water, slice the lime nice and thin. The tonic fizzes when I drop the slice in.
I carry the tray upstairs. She smiles as I bring it to her bed.
“Oh, you sliced it just right. And look, you made such a pretty gravy swirl.”
“Thanks, Mum.” Happiness blooms in me at her words.
She cuts a tiny piece of the chicken, puts it in her mouth, chews. “It’s a little dry. You left it standing too long. And there’s too much pepper.”
“Don’t be silly. I don’t expect you to take any trouble over your old mother.”
Some other stories about bad parents
These were my favourite stories written in response to the ‘bad parents’ prompt.
Beneath One Wall, Inside Another by JP Juniper. Great sense of time and place in a short word-count, and just enough detail about the children to whet your imagination.
No such thing by Chris White. Such a fantastical story and original setting. I would love to see this world developed further.
Deals with the Devil by Alex. A sharp toothed story about the way society regulates women’s bodies, especially those of mothers.