by Rue Baldry
I’M PARKING outside the student residence where Dylan lived for two terms instead of three. He has passed First Year. They all have. But they have missed out on summer parties and afternoons in pub gardens, on debating with friends on these patches of grass, on the relief of the end of the last exam. When they went home for Easter, thinking they’d be back in three weeks, they found themselves locked down with their parents for nearly four months, besieged by coronavirus.
‘Look, Mum, it’s fine. You don’t have to come in.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ I reply. ‘The email said we only have two hours.’
‘That’s plenty,’ he says. ‘Just wait here.’
If the world was still normal, the students could have got their bags and boxes ready, posters down, beds stripped, floors hoovered, before their parents drove up. And, even on the few occasions when his sisters were fully prepared, I’ve still known it to take two hours to load the car.
‘You really have no idea, do you? Which is understandable because you’ve never packed up—’
‘There are still students living in the flat. I don’t want to risk you catching it.’
He turns his face away from me, looks up the concrete front of the building, to his floor, the third floor, which is just above the decorative run of primary-coloured bricks.
His hair is down to his shoulders, as long as it’s been since he was a pre-schooler. He had such gorgeous curls at that age that I couldn’t bear to cut them. We were shocked when he came home bleach blond at Christmas. So unlike him. Then, when we met him off the train at Easter, it was bright green. It’ll be easy to date those family photos in years to come.
His brown roots are showing clearly now and the green ends have faded to an almost natural colour, or perhaps I’ve just got used to it. I wonder what he’ll choose to do when the barbers re-open?
He unclips his seatbelt and opens the car door in one movement. This is ridiculous. There’s the whole bedroom plus the en suite and whatever he’s left in the kitchen. We’ve only got two hours.
‘You’re allowed to bring someone in with you to help. It’ll take half as long if we are both—’
He fixes my eyes with his. ‘Get the boot open. I’ll bring the boxes down to the door here and you can load the car.’ He strides away, key card held out in front of him.
Poor Dylan is very unworldly for his age. His sisters had had boyfriends and part-time jobs, been to pubs, clubs, and festivals, before they went off to university. But that’s just boys, isn’t it? At least two years behind girls until they are well into their twenties. In a way, it’s been a relief to have him forced home early this year.
By the time he has the door open, I’m right behind him, car locked. I get my hand to the handle before it shuts. He doesn’t turn his head until it closes behind me. He looks like he’ll say something, but instead he just rolls his eyes and takes the stairs at a run.
I remember where the lifts are.
This building smells exactly the same as every other Halls: of burnt garlic and festering rubbish bags. Kitty’s and Molly’s were the same. It always takes me right back to my own student years. Of course, in those days there was the fug of cigarettes, too, and of the sweeter smoke which drifted out of certain rooms.
In the block next to mine, the bedrooms had bare breeze block walls. Now it’s all a bit shiny designer, apart from the inevitable carpet stains and empty bottles.
Dylan has been fretting about his cactuses. Probably all dead by now, of course. We’ll find out in a minute. While I am riding the lift, though, they are Schrodinger’s cactuses. Cacti? Even if they are still alive, we should probably bin them here. Living things don’t tend to survive car journeys very well.
Once, as a child, I carried a starfish, for an hour in a car, with splashing drips rising out of its tub onto my lap. By the time we got back to Mum’s, it was dead. Of course, it might already have been dead when we got it into the car.
Dad’s Swedish friend, Margit, had given it to me. She’d found it in a rock pool when we walked the dogs that morning. She was his girlfriend, but nobody told me that then. It was years later, when I’d just had Kitty, that he referred to her as ‘my ex, Margit. Remember her?’
My mouth dried right out the same way it did when I breastfed. I felt terribly betrayed, but also very stupid, because it was so obvious as soon as he said it.
I make it to the door to Dylan’s flat before he does, so he has to let me in. Security is much tighter now. Everything was open when I was at the Poly. You could just walk onto any residential floor and use their loo. Now it’s all codes and cards, locks every few feet.
Dylan doesn’t say a word. But then, nor do I. I can’t hear any evidence of the students who are supposedly still in residence, though I know some did get stuck on campus when the country locked down. We were so lucky he was already home.
He heads all the way down the windowless passage, past faded name tags and posters on the room doors, past his own room, into the kitchen. The cheap cooking fat smell is stale in here. The events advertised on the pinboard have been and gone, or were cancelled. Gigs, sports practices, club nights, political meetings, film societies and bar crawls all feel misguided, alien, historical.
He taps one of the cupboards: ‘That’s mine. There’s a roll of bin bags in there, you can pack it all in one of them.’
Of course I can’t. The mugs, bowl, and plate will break if I do that. The pans will rip the bag. It’s not his fault that he doesn’t think things through, he just doesn’t have the life experience.
I peel a bag off the fat roll and rub at the top to open it.
I never did find out whether Dad was messing about with Margit when he was still married to Mum. Too awkward to ask now. My parents told me they were divorcing because they didn’t love each other anymore. I’m sure they said then that there was nobody else involved, but perhaps I just assumed that. Within two years, Mum had married Frank. I thought, even then, that wasn’t enough time to meet someone, date them, fall for them, and decide to get married. They claimed that was what had happened, though. I was eleven by then; I would have understood.
I put an unopened bag of pasta into the bin liner, peanut butter, the cutlery, a couple of Pot Noodles, and the rest of the bin bags, then I head down to Dylan’s room to get a tub or something for the crockery and pans.
I was fourteen when I realised Mum had lied to me. I found a photo album of her and Frank on holiday together, dated eighteen months before Dad moved out.
Dylan’s bedroom door is closed, but, luckily, those, at least, have to be locked with a key. I open it with my shoulder. He spins towards me like I’ve jump-scared him.
He’s kneeling in front of the bedside drawers. He hastily hides something brassy behind his back. It looks like a hash pipe.
I probably shouldn’t be as surprised by that as I am. It’s only dope. Not unusual for a nineteen-year-old. But this is Dylan. He scarcely drinks. An occasional joint would be one thing, but buying a pipe is a committed investment.
I decide not to say anything about it. Heart stupidly thudding, I turn away to let him compose himself. Now I’m looking straight at a poster displaying a scantily clad girl’s back. I don’t want to be. I look at the floor.
‘Mum! I thought you were—’
‘I’ve done as much as I can without a box.’
I can’t see one in here. I need to do something, be useful, stay busy. There’s an empty holdall on the bed so I grab it. The wardrobe is right beside me. I get my free hand on the tiny, grey knob on its narrow, mirrored door.
‘I’ll do the clothes, Mum,’ Dylan says sharply behind me.
‘No, it’s ok—’ But I stop for a moment, freeze the sweep of movement which has begun to send my blushing face away from me.
‘No, really, don’t open that—’
‘I think I can cope with a bit of mess—’
Dylan is reflected in the mirror now. He looks stricken. His hands are still behind his back. ‘Mum, don’t open that door!’
But I have already opened it. I have already seen the neat hangers with trousers folded over them. And I have seen the dark shine of leather and glint of metal.
I know I shouldn’t look closer, but my eyes are drawn. I could turn my back, head to the kitchen and leave him to sort it out. But I am seeing it now.
There are slim black leather straps connected by chrome rings. There are chains. Those are handcuffs. And the long, brown, knotted strips seem to be cascading down from a pole, or a—my mind goes blank. It fills again with the word whip.
I spin away, but I’m confronted by the girl in the poster again. She isn’t in skimpy underwear after all. There’s a lot of pale flesh, but it is glimpsed between strips of leather. The red satin which I had taken for lingerie is wrapped round her bound ankles and wrists, connecting them to her neck.
‘Look, Mum. It’s actually fine. Safe, sane, consensual.’
‘How can it be properly consensual if you’re…’ I look for the pipe in his hand.
I drummed this into my girls so hard. I’m certain I told him, too. But he is looking at me with confusion. Surely he must know that if a girl is high or drunk, then she’s not able to consent properly. My stomach drops, nausea clenches.
I grab his hand, lift it. The pipe is still in his grip. It’s an odd shape. He looks away from my face.
It’s stubbier up close, and what I thought was a pipe bowl is rounded over the top. There’s nowhere to put the weed. It’s smooth, symmetrical, like a teardrop on its side, with the heavier bottom part leading into what should be a stem, but is more a cylindrical shaft. Too short. You’d burn your lips. And where the mouthpiece should be, there’s a flat disc studded with gems.
I think I have an idea what I might be looking at, where it might have nestled. I drop his hand. I can’t look at his face. So little time seems to have passed since I was changing his nappies, keeping him clean and soft and safe.
He tugs an empty Amazon box out from under the bed and stabs it at me.
‘Right, I’ll see to the kitchen,’ I say, trying to drag brusque cheer into my voice, the way I used to be able to do when things got broken when they were little.
‘Oh, and give these some water while you’re there. Not too much.’ His voice is thick and dry.
I take the three tiny cactus plants on the long tray. They look a little brown at the tips, but they are certainly alive. I watch my hand carry them above his wiry carpet, over the threshold strip and into the corridor. I hear the door close heavily behind me.
On the top shelf of his cupboard are the tea towel set, oven gloves and dishcloths I bought him last summer— still clean and crisply folded. I wrap the crockery in them.
Perhaps it’s not a girl on his poster. It’s hard to tell from a back view. That white blond hair is very similar to the colour Dylan had at Christmas.
I turn the tap on, then twist it back right until it releases only sporadic drips. I hold the first cactus under it, wait, feel release then panic as a water droplet falls, darkening the soil. I pull it clear before the next drip comes. Just enough water to get home with.
I thought there would be no point putting them in the car because the journey would be too long, that they would die like starfish. But what do I know?
Rue Baldry’s story publications include in Ambit, Fairlight Shorts, Postbox, The First Line, The Incubator, Crossways, Litro, MIR online, Mslexia, and The Honest Ulsterman. Her Creative Writing MA is from Leeds. She’s been Discoveries Prize longlisted, a Bridge Awards Emerging Writer and a Jerwood/Arvon mentee. She is currently completing work on her novel, Dwell, a story about two men falling in love in 1919, with her agent, Samuel Hodder at Blake Friedmann.
Her website is https://ruebaldry.wordpress.com/