For the last eleven years, eleven months and twenty-eight days I’ve washed my hair every morning. Today will be different. I wipe the tap. Two, three. Turn it on and watch the water swirl. A shred of potato peel dances like a dervish in the plughole. I pour the cold dregs from the kettle onto the plant and hold my hand in the flow from the tap. As the water limbers past two floors of overheated flats, its body-warmth ebbs. I fill the kettle before it’s completely cold, then the glass, and gulp it down. Ten, eleven, drain at twelve. Never the number after. The water’s icy now, like the scuds of snow flecking past the window. I switch the kettle on. I never get the routine quite right. The devil’s in the detail.
The sky’s bruised pink-purple. A naked birch shivers, black and exposed above the moss-grey rooftops. A white van pulls into the car park. It slides into the space alongside the anonymous silver car, not quite straight. I wash my hands. Marmalade? Eggs? I never was a breakfast person. I have to make myself. Porridge is good comfort food for a day like this. Half a cup of oats. The stream pours creamy into the pan. A cup of milk and half a cup of water. A twist of salt. It’s rubbish without salt. The men in the van are opening flasks and tupperware. The driver’s wearing a black hat. He bites into whatever’s in his hand and shakes out a newspaper. The silver car has tinted windows. The porridge erupts. I pull it off the heat and beat it into submission with a wooden spoon. A splash sizzles on the stove, the smoke curling away as it blackens. I can’t even get this right. I wipe up the charred remains and replace the pan. It simmers sullenly, waiting for me to turn my back. Revenge is sweet. I never had much of a sweet tooth.
I balance the tea on the bathroom sink. It’s in the pink cup today. I wash my hands. The face looking out of the mirror is old, and seems wearier than usual. It can’t be long now. My hair’s growing through. I stopped colouring it in August. It had been six months and I’d heard nothing. I called it ash blonde in another life, but the roots are nothing more nor less than white.
The men have got out of the van by the time I get back to the kitchen. Their toolboxes and reels of cable are stacked on the wall and they’re taking down ladders. They’ve come to fix something. The boiler perhaps, or the dodgy entry phone. The porridge is thick and steamy. It glurps into the bowl and waits for the butter and cream. I scrub the pan, gouging at the oatmeal skin with my nails. Porridge isn’t best served cold, but I can’t leave the pot dirty. The first time I left I washed the dishes. I dried them and stacked them in the cupboard, everything in its right place, then I wrapped Molly in a blanket and caught the bus across town. He pretended not to understand why I did the dishes. I’m still pretending not to understand why I went back. The butter melts. The van door bangs. I pour on the cream. It’s the top of the milk, and safe as childhood. The oats combat the cholesterol. Porridge is good and bad. Yin and Yang. A perfect balance. I stir slowly, leaving a rim of cream around the porridge. The Sudoku book’s ready on the table, but the pencil’s blunt. I twist the sharpener. Six, seven, never the next one. If I can only get it right, I won’t need to wash my hair. I can’t see the van from here, but I can hear their banter. Not the words, but the sound of voices. It feels reassuring.
Today is the twenty-ninth of February, and Molly’s birthday. I let myself think about it now. She didn’t have many birthdays, not proper ones, and the thought’s been there, like a butterfly at a locked window for weeks. I close my eyes and she’s here in front of me. Pink T-shirt, pink jeans, pink trainers and strawberry blonde hair. Her blue-green eyes reflect the eight candles on a pink cake. She pushes back a curl and leans on tiptoe to blow them out.
Make a wish, Molly
I know what she wishes for.
He breathes thickly behind me.
I can smell the alcohol oozing from every pore. He hasn’t been home for three days. He vanishes when the singing starts.
Happy birthday, dear Molly …
I barely noticed the porridge. It’s all wrong. I should have finished the sudoku first. I run hot water in the kitchen. Outside, a ladder clangs. The driver’s taken off his hat, and I suddenly don’t know who’s who any more. One of the men approaches the car and knocks on the driver’s window. I plunge my hands into the scalding water. It’s cleansing, but it’s not enough. I’m going to have to wash my hair.
One of the van men’s leaning on the roof of the car now, exchanging pleasantries as if it’s any other morning. His mate rattles the ladder against the wall. I can see now he’s no more than a lad. He has no idea what’s going on. I wash the porridge bowl. Round and back. Five times. Inside and out. My hands are red. The tips of my fingers whiten in the heat.
Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.
The car door opens. The barrel glints in the winter sun. I straighten and lean towards the window. He mustn’t miss me this time. The spoon splashes into the water and everything unravels backwards.
The courtroom’s cold, and I’m left alone. They drag him from the dock.
You can run, but you can’t hide. Slag
It shouldn’t have been that way. I was her mother and I should have protected her.
What kind of a mother are you?
They’ll have to prise her from me now. I failed her. I won’t let her go. There’s nothing anyone can do. The paramedic’s sobbing like a baby. I don’t know who called them, how long they’ve been here, or how they got here. The police are here. The ambulance arrives. How can one fragile life hold so much blood? There’s blood everywhere. Blood in my hair, so much blood. There’s blood on my clothes. She’s limp in my arms. He’s too blind drunk to stop. She launches herself at me.
She sees the blade before I do. They’re a birthday present from my mother. She’s come down specially to show them off. Molly’s on the stairs in her new pink pyjamas. He erupts into the house.
This time I’m going to kill you. Bitch
The kitchen window implodes. Pain burns through every part of me. The purifying fire I’ve longed for, and everything falls away at last. I won’t need to wash my hair ever again.