Next Of Kin

Entry by: Deedee

15th September 2015
Every night I go to sleep with Mama’s words whispering through my head: “Tomorrow will be better, Ella. Tomorrow will be better. We have each other, and that’s all that matters.” That’s what she always told me when I was a little girl and full of worries about what tomorrow might bring.

Me and Mama. Mama and me. It had always been that way, for as long as I could remember. Maybe I had a father once – or maybe I was created by some divine conception, or carried to Mama’s doorstep between the sharp pincers of a stork’s beak, or left by fairies at the end of the garden. I wouldn’t know. Mama never spoke about my father; it was as if he never existed – and maybe, for her, he didn’t exist. Over the year, I could only guess that it was a bad ending or a non-beginning that caused my mother to never speak his name. Was it a one-night stand? Was he a lothario? Did he break her heart – did she break his? I never asked.

Growing up, I soon learned to sense when things were best left alone. Like the time mama came in with her hair mussed up and her lipstick streaked all around, like an unkempt clown.

I guess I must have been about five. Young enough to be petrified when I woke and found she wasn’t there – old enough to intuit that her absence wasn’t right. I was sitting on the top step, sobbing, when she finally lunged through the door. A smell drifted up to me – one that I remembered from long ago that spelled bad news; fumy and sour. A smell that made Mama act like she was not Mama but someone else entirely. When she finally staggered to a halt and saw me, the voice that came out was not Mama’s voice. “Whaddayadoinup?” she had slurred.

Hearing this not-Mama voice, I had cried harder, clutching the edge of my nightie and bringing it towards my mouth to stifle my sobs.

“One night. Can’t have a night to mesself,” Mama screeched. Then she saw the puddle of urine pooling around me. I remember it now, the hot stream leaving my body, relieving and comforting for a moment but quickly cooling against my skin. And, then, Mama’s face, contorted with anger.

“Oooooh you dirty, naughty girl,” she’d yelled, tripping up the stairs in her haste to chastise me.

The next day, Mama had been extra-special nice to me. She had dabbed away the dried blood around my nose, sobbing into my hair and asking me to forgive her. And of course I had – because who else was there for me other than Mama?

It wasn’t until I was eleven – about to start secondary school – that I realised how co-dependent Mama and I were. She was filling out a school admin form. “Father, n/a,” she had muttered, drawing a diagonal mark through the box – it seemed to be a lot larger than necessary, given the small size of the square. “What is en-ay, Mama?” I asked.

“Not applicable, darling. Not bloody applicable.”

“Next of kin,” she’d then mumbled. “Well, that’s easy. It’s me isn’t it.”

“What’s next of king, Mama?”

“Kin, Ella – K-I-N. From kindred. Kith and kin. It’s your closest blood relative. And that’s me.”

“So who’s your kin?” I had asked.

“You hunny-bunch. We’re all we need.”

“Why don’t I have a daddy like the other children?” I had asked then.

That was a mistake – Mama had clearly thought I’d already interrogated her enough and swiped the back of her hand smartly across my cheek. By this stage, Mama didn’t need what I now knew to be alcohol to fuel her anger towards me. She was like the wind my Mama, drifting this way then that – one day telling me I was the centre of her world, the next chastising me for being a burden and a financial drain.

When I was thirteen, I was finally taken into care. It was one misplaced backhander too many that ended Mama’s game. I had tumbled down the stairs and broken my leg. Once doctors were involved, the rest of the ‘circumstances’, as a social worker delicately described it, soon came out.

Despite everything, I hadn’t wanted to be taken away from Mama. Like she always told me, she was my everything. She wasn’t perfect but neither was I. Neither was our situation. But she had always worked – there had always been food on the table and, when Mama wasn’t in the angry-zone, there were laughs too.

Those years I spent with bland, banal, beatific foster parents were among the worst of my existence. I felt ill prepared for a life so perfect on the surface. The trills of ‘good job’, reward charts, and by-the-book parenting. I even caught one foster mother reading a book called ‘How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.’ On purpose, I never did open up to her and I spent six months answering her with only ‘yes’ or ‘no’. My mother, for all her faults and occasional misplaced anger was more real than all of them put together. Her passion for our togetherness and her faith in our small unit was what had sustained me all those years. Once I was spewed into the system, I had no proper sense of myself. Yes, Mama was out there somewhere – but untouchable to me. I had never felt so alone in all my life.

It took me eight years to finally get back to Mama. She had disappeared without a trace – and since our links were only to each other, there was nobody else to help me find her.

The first thing I did when I was old enough, probably sixteen or so, was to go back to the house, but it was boarded up; its windows sightless, its front door firmly closed on the once-upon-a-time life I used to have.

When I was eighteen, I went away to university – an opportunity, I was reminded by my last foster family, that I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in my mother’s care. That final family had urged me to stay in touch, but the day I walked out of their house for the last time, I felt a freedom I hadn’t experienced in years.

I pole-danced my way through university – earning enough to come out of my course debt-free. But those book-filled days and tassel-filled nights meant that although I left with a 2:1 in Law, I also left without friends. The acquaintances I had made drifted back into the shadows and I was alone again, with only the memory of Mama.

When I finally found her, it was through chance – as if fate had decided the time had come to put us back together; two missing pieces of the same jigsaw.

I was sitting in the foyer of St Alban’s Magistrate’s Court, waiting for a client who looked like he was in danger of missing his bail return when my attention was caught by a commotion outside Court 3. A woman was shouting at her brief, telling him what a useless piece of shit he was. It was a voice I recognised instantly – and the slight slur told me she was drunk.

Spilling coffee down my white top in my haste to get to her, I pushed through a small cluster of people who had gathered to watch the barrister’s bollocking. And there she was! Looking about twenty years older and fifty times rougher.

“Mama?” I had asked, even though I knew it was her.

Her head had snapped up then, and her eyes, misty with alcohol and confusion, finally found my own. “Ella? Baby?”

Turned out my mother had a list of convictions longer than an octopus’s leg. She kept giggling at the irony that her own child was now a solicitor. Seemed that while I’d spent years training to counsel criminals, my mother had spent just as long becoming one.
It was all petty though – thefts; handling; a bit of prostitution. You know, the general things a gal needs to do to keep herself in fags and booze. The one saving grace was that my Mama never turned to drugs – and a stint in The Priory (paid for by yours truly) and a lifetime membership to AA eventually saw Mama right.

And so it was that Mama and I resumed our life together. She mellowed out – and I toughened up. Financially we were all set – and I bought us a small house. Mama got herself a rescue dog from Battersea – a mad terrier-type thing that occupied her days well enough when I was at work.

Finally, two years after our unusual reunion, I asked Mama once again about my father. I was a grown woman now – I wanted answers. I felt I had a right to know – my mother had had her years of secrecy when I was a child and, later, when we were separated. But there is a time for everything – and now was my time to own my history; to grasp my heritage and truly understand what it meant to be me.

I’d steeled myself for a row the day I asked. I was prepared to cajole, coerce and plead. But it turned out not to be like that at all – it was Mama’s time to speak; and, maybe, just maybe, because of my profession, she had decided that it was okay to confide.

We sat opposite each other at the kitchen table and when I asked, she slipped her hand into mine. “Sometimes, Ella, something so wonderful is preceded by something terrible – storms can flatten and destroy but, afterwards, there can still be a rainbow. You’re my rainbow, honey.”

“I don’t understand. Did my father abuse you? Were you raped?”

“Yes and yes,” my mother replied. “You ever wonder why you never had anybody – no aunts, no uncles, no grandparents?”

“Of course,” I said, and a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach told me that if our conversation finished now, I already had my answer. “Mama, you’re not trying to tell me that . . .”

A tear slid from her eye and crept down her crêpey cheek. “Uh-hu. Your father – your grandfather. Same thing.”

Suddenly I understood – in a flashback to my eleven year old self I saw it anew; and now it all made sense – my mother’s insistence that we had no other next of kin. After all, how could we?

Last night, it was me who tucked my mother in. As I bent to kiss her, I whispered in her ear, “Tomorrow will be better, Mama. Tomorrow will be better. We have each other, and that’s all that matters.”

Because now I know what I am meant to do. I know why Mama was so full of anger for so long. And I also know why we were separated; why I was given this chance to become something I might never have otherwise become. It is to avenge my mother. I will find him. Now that I know, I will track him down and I will drag him through the legal system for what he did to her.

And when I am finally able to stare him down, as he stands trembling in the dock, I will do so safe in the knowledge that he’s no kin of mine.