FICTION: Fancy Cushions by Kylie Whitehead

Something has changed and Chelsea is determined to figure out what it is. What she knows is this: today is distinctly different from yesterday. In school, she has learned about the moon’s orbit around the earth and the earth’s orbit around the sun; she even understands the 24 hour clock. What has happened is something much more complex than time, which is regulated by a number of things that Chelsea trusts: the moon, the earth, the sun and the clocks on the wall, the microwave, the TV, the computer, her mum’s mobile phone and so on.

As an amateur detective, Chelsea knows the first thing to do is collect the evidence. There isn’t any evidence, so she moves straight onto step two: questioning.

As usual, her mum is full of useless suggestions. “Well it was raining yesterday” she tries and, “it’s a Saturday”. One thing Chelsea does notice though, is that there is something different about her mum. She seems both lighter and heavier at the same time. Chelsea says, “mum you look different today” and her mum shrugs, smiles and lifts her magazine back up to her face. Chelsea does a big sigh and stomps back upstairs to her bedroom.

Chelsea consults her detective’s handbook which has a checklist and all her casefiles. Chelsea’s handwriting is very neat which means other people could easily decipher her notes if they tried, so she keeps the handbook hidden at the back of her wardrobe to be safe. Step three in the handbook is ‘reconstruct the crime’. The handwriting stumbles a little over the word ‘reconstruct’ which Chelsea had written down slowly as her mum spelled it out to her. The ‘e’ on the end of ‘crime’ was filled in at some later point with a different coloured pen.

As there hasn’t actually been a crime, Chelsea decides to reconstruct the whole of last night instead. She knows that everything was definitely normal at dinner, so she thinks she should start there, but it’s too early for dinner, so Chelsea goes to the TV. She switches it on, finds the same show she watched last night and starts to watch it again.

“Chelse I swear you’ve seen that one a million times” says Chelsea’s mum, “It’s Saturday, don’t you have anything better to do?” Chelsea says “no” and her mum says “Chelse, that wasn’t a question” which isn’t really true but Chelsea doesn’t have time to argue about that now. She switches the TV off and does another big sigh and stomps out of the room again. It isn’t really that big of a deal though; Chelsea had gone upstairs early last night anyway and she’s pretty sure that things were normal then too.

Last night, Chelsea’s mum had gone out. Chelsea’s brother, Brad, told her to stay out of the way because Hayley was coming over. Chelsea’s mum’s perfume lingered through the house and Chelsea decided she would try a bit on, just to see what it was like, even though she already knew because she did it all the time. After she’d spritzed the perfume on her wrists and neck and in a big cloud in front of her which she proceeded the walk though, Chelsea tried on a bit of lipstick. The lipstick was a bit brown and a bit shimmery and didn’t really make her look like the women in the magazines her mum read. Chelsea wiped it off on her sleeve and picked up an eyeshadow. She poked around her mum’s dressing table for a little while but she was just building up to what she really wanted to do. Eventually, she had opened the drawer.

Chelsea’s mum has two underwear drawers and a sock drawer. The top drawer is full of pants that look a bit like Chelsea’s as well as soft cotton bras that Chelsea thinks are a bit like little hammocks. The third drawer is full of socks and tights. The drawer in the middle holds what Chelsea was after last night.

The middle drawer is less full than the other drawers, but its contents are much more luxurious, Chelsea thinks. She likes to feel the lace and silk and mesh and see the little diamantes glisten. Her favourite things in this drawer are the bras. These ones aren’t like boob hammocks at all. They are more like the sort of fancy cushions that posh cats sit on, or that Prince Charming carried Cinderella’s shoe around on. Fancy cushions for boobs. One time, Chelsea’s brother said that if he died, he’d want to come back as a bra, so Chelsea knows they must be pretty important. She also knows how they are supposed to be worn; she has seen her mum wear them (well, the boob hammocks anyway). Sometimes Chelsea hooks the straps over her arms like her mum does, but the bras just hang off her. To save herself the disappointment, she has taken to putting them on things that can fill them; namely, her knees and her head. Sometimes she puts her face into one of the cups and inhales deeply, but she has stopped doing that as much recently. It has started to feel weird but she doesn’t really know why.

Chelsea had only looked at the bras last night, she had touched the satin and lace but she had not taken anything out of the drawer. She knows she must do this again now, in her reconstruction, but seeing as her mum is still in the house, Chelsea has to be really quiet. Luckily, Chelsea is a pretty good detective and knows where all the creaky floorboards are, so this isn’t really a problem. She lingers at the dressing table for a few seconds but she doesn’t want to be caught so she decides to take a quick peek in the second drawer before moving on with her reconstruction. But the second drawer is empty! Chelsea checks the third drawer and it’s still full of socks so she checks the first. All of the pants that look like bigger versions of Chelsea’s pants are still there; but the boob hammocks are gone! Could that be it? Was that what had changed?

“Mum” says Chelsea as she runs downstairs. She pronounces the word with lots of extra ‘U’s in the middle. “When will I be old enough to need a…” she stands up straight, swallows and finishes, “bra?” She can feel her face get hot but she’s relieved that she has said it. “A what?” says Chelsea’s mum. “A bra” says Chelsea but she can tell that her mum does not understand. “Nevermind” Chelsea says, huffing and stomping once again to her room where she will spend the next few hours trying to understand the implications of a world without bras.

***

Denise doesn’t know how she’s going to tell the kids. Chelsea already knows something is wrong, she’s acting weird, and even if she doesn’t know, Denise has the appointment next Thursday. She’s going to have to say something soon.

Denise thinks she will tell Brad and Chelsea separately. Brad is 16 now, he has Hayley, he has his dad and he will not ask questions that Denise can’t bear to answer. But Chelsea. She is too young to understand this. Chelsea doesn’t think she has a dad, she doesn’t understand what that means. All Chelsea has is her mum, and Denise isn’t sure she’ll even have that for much longer.

Denise turns to Mick as a last resort. She doesn’t expect him to care, but she has to try. Whether she is trying for Chelsea or to alleviate her own guilt is unclear.

Mick still lives in the same building but he has a bigger flat now, the council upgraded him when Clare had the baby. Denise doesn’t even know the baby’s name. What she does know is that Clare is working at the pub tonight. She knows this because she has been to the pub every Friday night for the last 3 weeks. She tells Chelsea and Brad she’s going out. She puts on extra makeup and perfume so that they don’t suspect anything.

Mick hasn’t met Chelsea, insisted he didn’t want anything do with her, said if Denise was going to have the baby he wasn’t going to help. She hasn’t spoken to him since.

Denise still has a key fob for Mick’s building and to her surprise, it still works. She finds his flat number on the post boxes in the lobby. She takes the lift up to his flat. She knocks softly on the door so as to not wake the baby.

Mick opens the door wide and starts to pull it closed again in one clean sweeping arc, as if he is wafting out smoke or a bad smell. Denise puts her foot in the door and says “Mick”. He tries to pull it closed anyway. The door bounces off Denise’s foot and instead of saying “ouch”, she says something even more painful: she says, “Mick, I have cancer”. The door swings open on its own as if it’s haunted. Mick sighs and gestures for her to come in.

For a few minutes, Denise lets herself believe that Mick will step up, that Chelsea will not be orphaned, that there is a future, somehow, for her. Perhaps, with the right support, Denise will get better, they could live as a family again. But five minutes later she is crying in the lift and then she is poured back out into the night where she wanders blindly until she can go home without raising the suspicion of her children.

Denise lies in bed all night thinking of how she will tell them. She thinks she has it figured out, but in the cruel light of the morning, she’s not sure she can do it.

Chelsea hasn’t settled down all day. She keeps asking weird questions and Denise is starting to dread the sound of her own daughter’s voice. Chelsea comes downstairs and puts the TV on. Denise knows that Chelsea suspects something and she knows she could tell her now, get it out of the way, but no, she is not ready. She stretches her face into a smile she doesn’t realise is obscene and says, “Chelse I swear you’ve seen that one a million times.” Chelsea grins back at her and Denise realises that what she has said is not really what she means. She tries again. She says “it’s Saturday, don’t you have anything better to do?” Chelsea says “no”. Denise raises her voice, allows her brow to fold severely, “Chelse, that wasn’t a question.” The words come out harsher than Denise had intended. She thinks she can see fear wash over Chelsea’s face. Chelsea storms out of the room and Denise is overcome by her hostility towards her daughter. She squeezes her eyes tightly shut but still the tears ooze out somehow, snaking down her cheeks as she sobs silently.

Denise can hear Chelsea sneaking around upstairs. She knows that Chelsea likes to try on her bras but she hasn’t told her she knows this. It won’t be so long until Chelsea needs her own. Denise wonders if she will survive to buy Chelsea her first bra. She hopes she does not survive to see Chelsea struck down as her mother was, her grandmother, as she, Denise, will surely be.

Denise rubs her eyes with her sleeve when she hears Chelsea pounding down the stairs. She lifts her magazine to cover her face. She will tell Chelsea she is reading a very sad article. But Chelsea is so flustered she doesn’t even notice. Denise realises that her own daughter can’t look her in the eye and she thinks she’d better get used to that, once she starts telling people. Chelsea whines “Muuuuuuum” and Denise cocks her head to show that she is listening. “When will I be old enough to need a… bra?” Chelsea’s face is the same shade of red as Denise’s but neither of them notice. Denise does the only thing she can think of, she denies all knowledge.

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Kylie Whitehead

Kylie

Kylie Whitehead is a writer of short fiction from Bristol, UK. She is the founder of Slush Bristol, creating a friendly support network for women who write.

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