The word made Dan’s eyes flick open. In a heartbeat, his vision adjusted to the darkness of the bedroom. It wasn’t morning yet, but his six-year-old didn’t care. The sobbing became a wail.
Images of Lucy flooded Dan’s head before he could stop them. A cruel way to wake up. He swallowed hard, threw back the duvet, and stumbled as far as the boys’ bedroom.
“Bad dream, Jez?”
“Where’s Mummy?” Jeremy’s grumpy mood seemed to slice through Dan, demanding attention. Eight-year-old Tim only stirred in the top bunk. Tim had inherited his mother’s blonde hair and her quiet demeanour, even when he fell or his allergies flared up. Not like his younger brother, who was whining now into Bunny’s round belly.
Dan sighed. “Come sleep in Daddy’s bed.”
The boy headlocked Bunny defiantly. “I want Mummy!”
“Don’t we all,” muttered Dan.
He lifted Jeremy up, making him howl, and hauled the child into the master bedroom and a still-warm bed.
“That’s enough Jeremy, we’re going to sleep. All of us.”
Jeremy went quiet, but his eyes seemed to burn with frustration. Every inch his father’s son. “Where’s Mummy?”
“I told you before, she’s asleep. Asleep in heaven.”
When Dan’s own mother stopped by unexpectedly that Wednesday evening, she doled out advice he could have done without.
“Allowing a child into one’s bed is a bad habit, Dan. You must nip it in the bud straight away.” Helen was busy cleaning pasta sauce from her grandsons’ faces with terrifying efficiency. Helen took no nonsense from anyone. Even Jeremy knew that pulling Grandmother’s tight grey curls couldn’t grant him freedom from her.
Dan turned from the sink, a burnt saucepan in his right hand, a dripping rag in his left. It baffled him how his mother seemed to know everything that went on when she didn’t even live there.
“How’d you know about that?”
“Mothers sense these things.” She sniffed. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
Dan didn’t respond. He knew better than to answer his mother’s rhetorical questions, especially when they concerned childrearing, relationships, property prices, or, well, anything. Tim was staring at him, imploring sweet release to the living room and television.
“Half an hour,” Dan tried to sound strict, “then bed.” The youngsters hopped from the kitchen like frogs.
At the table, Helen sipped her tea. Always from china and always with a saucer. And the lecture wasn’t over either.
“The boys have to learn to stay in their own beds.”
“It doesn’t happen that often,” lied Dan. It hardly mattered to him where the boys slept; he had bigger problems to deal with.
The telly started blaring. Any other night, he’d shout at them to turn down the volume, but tonight he just dried his hands and sat.
“They still call for Lucy,” he said. “It’s been two years and they still want their mum. If they hurt themselves, or fall out with a pal. Or in the middle of the night...”
Helen’s response was brisk. “I knew this would happen.”
“They need a mother. And you need a wife.”
Dan sat back in the chair, swapping frustration with sarcasm.
“Surely not. With a grandmother like you around? Snooping wherever and whenever she pleases?”
“Don’t get smart with your mother,” retorted Helen. “Face facts, Dan. You can’t do this job on your own. For goodness sake, burnt leftovers for dinner?” She tutted. “The boys’ clothes need ironing, you could all do with a decent haircut, and don’t get me started on the filth of this kitchen. Whatever made you think you could be a single dad?”
As his jaw hit the floor, Dan realised that yes, his mother was actually serious. “You think this is some kind of choice? Lucy didn’t choose to get sick, you know. We promised, ‘til death do us part’.” He struggled to keep his voice low. “It’s not like she walked out on me. Like you did with Dad.”
In an instant, Helen had stood up and lifted her things. Dan grabbed her hand. “Mother! Please, I’m… I’m sorry.”
She held the pose without a word, coat and handbag tight in her grip. Helen’s lectures were hard to stomach, but it was nothing compared to her silent treatment. If he wanted to make amends, he’d have to use his mother’s particular brand of olive branch.
“I’ll iron their school uniforms,” he said.
She said nothing.
“And I swear, I’ll get a cleaner.”
Her fingers drummed the black leather handbag. “Very well,” she said, “I’ll talk to the ladies at church, they can recommend someone.”
He blew out a breath.
“But I still say they need a mother.”
Dan rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to just pick up some stranger as a stand-in for Lucy.”
Helen drained her cup. “I know. That’s why I’ve arranged an evening out for you. With someone I know you’ll like.”
And with that, the penny suddenly dropped. Why else would his mother come over out of the blue? Always storming off whenever anyone dared challenge her, but just now, she’d stayed. He wasn’t sure what part of all this made him angrier.
“A date? Mother, I’ve told you before, don’t meddle.”
“Don’t be like that, Dan. Tessa is a very nice woman.”
The name rang a bell. “Rita King’s daughter? Go on then, tell me what’s wrong with her. Is she some kind of recluse maybe? Addicted to cleaning?”
Helen gave the tiniest of smiles. Tessa could have two heads and his mother wouldn’t care. So long as she could cook, clean, and strike a maternal pose in family portraits.
“Don’t you want a wife, Dan? Nice man like you – house-trained and good with children. Now, let Mother buy you something to wear for your big night out.”
“You’ll buy me nothing, thanks all the same. And is that how you describe me to your friends? A mismatched single dad who makes a mean cuppa?”
“Of course not.”
Dan didn’t believe her for a second.
Nor did he believe the bossy text message she sent him the very next day.
“The Wheatsheaf, 6pm Friday. Tessa informed. I’ll pick boys up from school. Table booked at Usher’s for 8.”
It was still early Friday night when Dan turned his key in the front door. The music from ‘Coronation Street’ was blaring from the living room. From upstairs came the sound of energetic play, the kind of rowdiness that Grandmother couldn’t possibly condone. Had they talked her into giving them some cola with dinner? Dan sighed. That kind of thing never happened.
In the living room, Helen sprang up from the sofa, hands on hips. “What are you doing back here?”
“I cancelled the date.”
“You did what?”
“Don’t get upset, Mother.”
It was too late. Helen glared at him, her face aghast at the thought of explaining her wayward son to Rita.
“I met Tessa, and we had a quick drink. I told her I was sorry, that I wasn’t ready to move on. That’s the truth, Mother.”
Helen’s nostrils flared while the noise from upstairs began to dim. He would have to lighten the mood quickly.
“She was very understanding. Funny thing is, she told me that her mother had set her up too.”
Helen’s face turned pink with anger. “I didn’t set you up,” she barked, “now ring that woman up and get yourself back into town.”
“No Mother.” Dan kept an even tone. “I’m staying right here. You’re welcome to stay if you want to.” He leaned a hand on the oak mantlepiece, looking at Lucy’s photo in the frame. Somehow, she’d always managed to keep the peace between him and his mother.
“You had no right,” snapped Helen.
“No Mother, you had no right to interfere. Christ, it’s hard enough on my own without you sticking your nose in.”
“I knew you weren’t coping.”
“Dammit, we’re doing just fine.” Dan slammed a hand hard onto the mantlepiece, and the frame fell to the wooden floor. He cursed as he picked up bits of broken glass. It was then that he noticed Tim at the door, rubbing his eyes and sobbing.
Dan straightened. “Mother, I’m not saying I don’t need you; I do. But what I don’t need is to go out with someone who thinks I’m a loser on the wrong side of forty, desperate for a surrogate mother to control his two tearaways. Lucy wouldn’t want it like that.”
Tim’s whinging got louder. Then his brother showed up to join in.
Helen folded her arms. “She wanted the boys to have two parents.”
“So did I,” cried Dan, “but that’s not happened, has it? Unlike you, I’m not bloody perfect, but I’m doing the best I can for my sons.”
“Until they go and throw it in your face. Sons do that!” With handbag and coat in hand, she headed for the door. “When it all goes wrong, don’t come crying to me.”
The guilt barely registered with him as he shouted after her. “That’s it, Mother, walk out. That’s what you do best!”
Jeremy tugged on his sleeve. “Daddy,” he whined, “there’s something wrong with Tim.”
The angry red hives along Tim’s arms and neck meant only one thing: allergies. Dan held the boy’s face in his hands. “Tim darling, did you eat something you shouldn’t have?” The child’s lips had swollen right up, and he responded only with a choking cough. This was extreme. Panic shot through Dan as he shepherded Tim out to the hall.
Helen paused at the open front door. “Your apology’s no good to me-”
“Get back here, Mother. What did he eat?”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Dan! He’s acting out, can’t you see that?”
Dan lifted Tim in his arms and hurried upstairs. His mother could give out all she liked, but something was definitely wrong. He felt it.
“It’s okay, son,” muttered Dan. Gently, he laid the boy on top of the unmade bed. “If I can just find the damn epi-pen thing.” He searched the drawers of Lucy’s wooden bedside locker, but Tim’s breathing was getting wheezy. As sweat broke out on Dan’s brow, his fingers finally found an old injection kit. He skimmed through the directions on the wrapper, trying to ignore his mother at the bedroom door.
“Hives are nothing to worry about. He’ll be fine, he just wants to-“
“Shut up, Mother!” Dan’s mind flooded with instructions, panic, and an overwhelming sense of failure. Somehow, he’d let his child eat the one thing that could kill him. Dan eased Tim’s trousers down to the knees. “Do you remember what you ate tonight, love?”
Tim launched into another fit of choking as Jeremy wandered in. The six-year-old was licking the chocolate fingers of one hand while the other gripped an open bag of yellow M&Ms. Helen swiped the bag away. “Jeremy, put those back in Grandmother’s handbag!”
The flash of yellow made Dan stand up, his fear turning to fury. “You let the boys eat nuts?”
Helen’s face dropped, her hand went to her mouth. “I…I-“
“How the-?” He pulled off the cap of the epi-pen with his teeth, and thrust the needle into Tim’s thigh. The child’s howl could have rivalled his younger brother’s any day.
The cough was quick to subside. Dan didn’t care if Helen had scarpered, or that Jeremy was playing banned video games downstairs. In the master bedroom, a quiet calmness descended over him. He just sat there, Tim in his arms. This was how it felt to be a parent.
Soon afterwards, they headed downstairs. “Jez,” called Dan, “get your coat, we’re going to the hosp-“
He stopped when he saw a sheepish Helen in the hall.
“I thought you’d gone,” he said.
“Is he… Will he be okay?”
Dan nodded. As heavy tears spilled down Helen’s face, he realised he’d never seen his mother cry.
“I was wrong,” she sobbed, as Dan’s arms wrapped around her. “You’re doing just fine.”