In spring my mum sent me a pack of socks, five pairs, soft and brightly coloured. Each had a farmyard animal on the ankle that looked like they belonged in a nursery rhyme. The next day, between the early start and the sad cereal breakfast, two smiling cartoon ducks slipped onto my feet.
We’d talked earlier that week, popping grapes into my mouth on a snack break. “My friends’ mums send them care packages before exams. With chocolates and things.” She’d liked the idea.
This was the spring I barely saw her. Days passed in long, elliptical orbits between the library and my room in halls. As I slumped back for the night with a backpack full of notes, surprised by the late hour in the lengthening dusk, I called mum as an excuse to think about something other than work. We talked about the dog, neighbourhood gossip, and television. It felt like I was on a spaceship receiving the latest missives from Earth – like that voice at the other end of the telephone, an impassable distance away, anchored me to the rest of humanity.
For the few days over Easter when I touched back down at home, I found myself carefully scheduled. She popped into the dining room as I hammered at my laptop. “I thought we could make a cake. Now, or this afternoon?”
“I guess. It depends how work goes.” My chest thrummed with nerves at the thought of hours that could have been spent studying. When she left I looked up from my screen to see she’d set a cup of tea down next to me. “Thanks,” I called after her.
I’d never seen her afraid like this – deeply, sorely shaken by the depths of my unhappiness.
I emerged after exams into summer sunshine that failed to pierce a cloud of newly diagnosed depression. I stayed in my university city, full of tourists but empty of friends, for a summer internship in a biotech startup. It was strange to have evenings and weekends free of guilt about work. I ran long distances, wrote bizarre, apocalyptic short stories, and made an appointment with my GP to see if there was anything I could do except wait for counselling. There wasn’t.
Mum spent a small fortune on train trips to take me out for coffee and cake. One afternoon, I cried into my cream tea and tried to explain to her why the life she’d helped me build suddenly felt like a snake’s dead skin that I would rather shed.
“There’s nothing good in it,” I said, even as the sun coated us like butter. She looked helpless and confused. I’d never seen her afraid like this – deeply, sorely shaken by the depths of my unhappiness. I didn’t know how to convince her to trust in that fear, to say, I feel it too. That’s how I know the real me is still here.
It felt like I was on a spaceship receiving the latest missives from Earth
A month later, in Portugal alone, my texts to her took on a manically cheery tone. I was on holiday! I was having fun! Against my expectations, this was true; watching the sunset on the metro back from a beach trip with complete strangers, I felt my joy might spill over if I moved too fast. Not normally a keen photographer, I took pictures for her at every opportunity. She replied with three sun emojis. My happiness felt more solid for having been shared.
Later, back for term time and struggling academically, I scrolled back through the photos and knew I could feel that way again.
I didn’t know how to convince her to trust in that fear, to say, I feel it too. That's how I know the real me is still here.
In my first counselling session, I tried again to explain why I was so unhappy. We worked through every aspect of my life, cataloguing everything that felt wrong. “And your mother? How’s your relationship?”
The damp, mildewed part of my brain, usually so ready to criticise, was unusually quiet. “It’s good.”
“Are you close?”
“Really close.” I warmed as I thought about it and the words started to flow. “I know she thinks the world of me. It’s really hard for her to see me like this. But she always listens.”
“That’s how it should be.”
The mildew crept in again. “I just wish I could give back to her. It feels uneven.”
My counsellor nodded. “Do you think that’s something you can change?”
Our session ended soon, with a promise that I’d come back in two weeks. I walked out into the golden autumnal light and thought about that question.
I cried... and tried to explain to her why the life she’d helped me build suddenly felt like a snake’s dead skin that I would rather shed.
Every time mum visited my room in halls, she’d check my mirror for the phrases I scribbled there in dry-wipe pen. Mostly the words came from poems or articles I read on the internet, anything I thought was beautiful. In October I gave her a plain brown notebook that I had decorated with her favourite quote from the mirror, inspired by Tavi Gevinson. Not enough time for self-hate! Too many things to do! Go!
“I love it.” She hefted it in her hand.
I had filled the pages with my mirror quotes. “I didn’t know you liked Louis MacNeice,” she said, and gave me the biggest hug I’d had in a long time.
I had thought MacNeice a discovery of mine; I’d borrowed an anthology from a friend who studied English and spent an afternoon in bed copying out my favourite phrases. Now I wondered if she’d spent a similar afternoon as a student, feeling that same thrill of something new to love.
The damp, mildewed part of my brain, usually so ready to criticise, was unusually quiet.
When I came home for the Christmas holiday it snowed so heavily the walk to the train station felt like an ice rink. Her car was waiting for me at the other end. I chucked my bags unceremoniously into the car and collapsed in the warmth of the front seat.
“We’re having some people round after Christmas,” she told me as we drove past the familiar landmarks; the fish and chip shop, the old sauce factory, and the Tesco Express on the corner. “I’m making some curries if you want to help.”
“I’ll help,” I promised.
We spent the week in the kitchen, dancing around each other with knives and hot pans and bowls loaded with food. Mum covered our plan for the meal with last-minute scribbled changes and swore at the fridge when it couldn’t possibly hold any more food. I volunteered to chop leeks, wash dishes, assemble starters and watched her to-do list shrink along with the stress lines on her forehead.
“I don’t want anyone to go hungry,” she fretted, pouring over a list of dishes. “Do you think there are enough desserts?”
“We could make another,” I said, pulling out the recipe book. We pored over it together, skipping crumbles and pies until we came to a cake that made our eyes widen.
She delegated me to put some music on, and when the record started her head snapped up. “I love Fleetwood Mac!”
“You used to listen to this all the time,” I remembered. It was why I’d put the album on my phone when I found the CD buried dustily in a pile during a shelf clearout. It was why I’d listened to it on the train home earlier that week. Now, mum sang along as we mixed butter and flour.
My extended step-family arrived to a feast of chickpeas and spices. We wove around making small talk, smiling indulgently at small children, and drinking plenty of prosecco to help us cope. There was always something to do: tidy up bowls of nibbles, find another fork, bring in the starters, collect dirty plates. In a brief moment of respite in the kitchen, she cast me a frazzled look.
Now I wondered if she’d spent a similar afternoon as a student, feeling that same thrill of something new to love.
I topped up her drink and hugged her. “Everyone loved the samosas.”
“God, I couldn’t do this without your help.”
I focused on finding a spoon in the drawer for a bowl of chocolate mousse. “I haven’t done much,” I mumbled.
“Just having you here.” She reached in and found it for me, rummaging below the potato peelers and spatulas. “It feels like a bit less of a disaster.”
I peered through the door at our chattering guests. “It’s not a disaster. Everybody’s happy.”
“That’s all I want.” Her smile came back on again. I’d spent so long feeling like I was failing at this, at giving her all that she wanted from me, but now it felt easy to return her smile.
She picked up the mousse to take through and I carried the huge cake we’d made together, laced with orange zest and chocolate.
My happiness felt more solid for having been shared.
Our big, complicated family made all the right noises as we set dessert on the table, and our eyes met with pride at the warmth with which we’d filled our home. Mum cut the slices. I handed out plates. We all sat down to eat.
Anna Lewis is a writer and blogger