Drowning in Lemon Juice by Tracey Glasspool was the Short Story competition winner from Hysteria 2014. You can read the winning story here and meet Tracey in the interview she did for us when she won. Tracey was also a judge in last year’s competition too.
“You’ve cut your hair.”
The words are out before I can stop them, but it’s a shock – her hair was always so long. She lifts her hand, tucks a stray lock behind one ear; self-conscious.
“It looks good,” I say. Her features are so delicate – the short cut should make her look younger, more vulnerable than she already is, but somehow it doesn’t.
She doesn’t smile. “He liked it long.”
She comes into the living room and we stand for a moment, both of us slightly lost.
“I’ve got your room ready,” I say, trying to fill the silence. “The bed’s all made and I’ve cleared the cupboards for you.” Then I notice she doesn’t have anything with her – no suitcase, no holdall. Nothing but a carrier bag. She sees me looking; reads the question on my face.
“I’ve left it all behind. There’s nothing I want.”
I scout around for something else to talk about. I can’t believe I’m this dumbstruck with my own daughter. We should be chatting away non-stop like we used to. ‘A couple of noisy magpies’ my Alan used to say.
Then I hit on something – a reminder of better times. “Pancakes,” I say. “Let’s have pancakes, Lucy.”
We used to have pancakes at least once a week, not just for Shrove Tuesday like everyone else. Lucy would have eaten them for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I’d let her. Drowning in lemon juice and sparkling with sugar – I can almost smell them.
Please, I’m willing her. Please say yes.
“Not now,” she says, voice a whisper. “I think I’ll just have a lie down.”
And she’s gone.
My throat feels thick; heavy and aching. One more thing he’s taken from us.
Lucy’s with her counsellor. I’m in a department store cafe just down the road, picking at a slice of fruitcake. It’s like trying to swallow ashes.
I wish I could be in there with her, wish I could hear what they are saying. It should be me she’s talking to.
“It’s like with your writing,” she said after her first session. “You always said you couldn’t write at all if you thought someone would read your first draft. All that stuff that just flows out before you have a chance to shape it and mould it. That’s how it is for me.” And then she looked at me and her voice was so small, so despairing that it broke my already broken heart all over again. “I have to tell someone, mum.”
But that someone’s not me. I only get the edited version. I understand, I really do. But I’m still her mother; it still hurts.
We get through each day in our way and I start to think we’re doing okay. That we are getting, well not over it, but getting on with it – moving on as they say. Then this morning I reached out to her, just to touch her arm, and she flinched away from me as if I was about to strike her. I saw the shock on her face as soon as she realised what she’d done. I’m sure it was a mirror of my own face. We carried on, as if nothing had happened, but I dropped my hand. And later on, when she was in the garden, I went upstairs and I screamed into my pillow. Can I never reach out to my child again? Has he taken that too?
I’m in the department store, another day, another slice of cake. I’m watching two women; they’re laughing together, joking. They must be a mother and daughter – they’re different but the same if you know what I mean. Different hair colour, different build, different faces. But something about their expressions, the way they move and interact makes it obvious they share blood. Like my Lucy and me.
I want to go over to them. ‘Make sure you notice,’ I want to scream at the mother. ‘Make sure you notice when something is wrong with her. Trust your instincts, always. Don’t you ever find yourself in my position – wondering how the hell you could have missed the pain she was in.’
Because that’s what people think, I know. I know how their whispers go. How could she not realise? How could she not see what was happening to her daughter? But I didn’t. I really didn’t.
I have my own counsellor now. He tells me it’s not my fault. He tells me about the abusers – how clever they are, so charming and believable, in complete control at all times. And he tells me how clever the abused are too – so careful to hide any evidence, to conjure up the perfect excuse for a missed engagement or the too-long sleeves on a too-hot day. He tries to take away my guilt and my shame, but he can’t. I’m terrified that I’ve lost her; that she’s gone for good – that little girl and her dreams of being a doctor, or an astronaut, or a mermaid; that stroppy teenager with her outspoken views and her rebellion against the world; the young woman she became with her passion and her commitment and her beautiful soul.
My daughter. My blood. It was my job to notice.
It’s a glorious day – travel brochure skies. I feel trapped in the house, restless. I can’t breathe.
“How about a day at the beach?” I say.
She shakes her head, but I’m insistent. I need to get out. She needs to get out. In the end she just gives in and I feel a pang of guilt. Am I controlling her too?
We park, gather our bags, head for the sand. We spread towels, cast off shoes. I slip my t-shirt over my head and shimmy out of my jeans but Lucy stays as she is. She rolls up her trouser legs but her shirt sleeves remain down, the buttons fastened.
“It’s so hot, Lucy,” I say. “Why don’t you go in for a swim?” But she shakes her head. I decide not to push anymore. Maybe it’s enough that I got her here.
The water is too inviting and I dive in – the cold shock wonderful as I slide under. It’s so calm beneath the surface, so tranquil. I wish I could stay here. It’s like my problems are removed from me – part of another world, above my green and hazy cocoon. I feel like I’m drowning anyway, easier really just to stay.
But I can’t of course. There are things I must face.
I resurface, take a gasp of air, look for Lucy. She’s huddled up, arms wrapped tightly around her knees, staring into the distance. My long-ago mermaid would have been with me in the water, or dancing on the sand, or off collecting shells and seaweed. She wouldn’t have been so cowed, so diffident. And I make a decision: I want my mermaid back. It’s as if the cold water has brought me some clarity, some purpose. It’s time to push a little –starting with my own confession.
“I’m sorry,” I say when I reach her. “I’m sorry I failed you, Lucy.”
She turns to me and I see confusion in her face.
“Is that what you think?”
I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
She stares off at the sea again. “And I’m sitting here thinking about how I’ve let you down. How ashamed Dad would have been.”
I’m shocked. “Never, Lucy,” I manage. “You must never feel ashamed.”
“He’s still controlling me, isn’t he?” she says. “He’s controlling both of us. I’m still not free of him.”
She’s suddenly on her feet, startling a nearby gull into the air. Its scolding cries fill the space around us.
“No,” she says, quiet but determined. “There’s no-one to blame but him. He’s the only one who should feel any shame.” Then she sheds her clothes and runs to the sea.
When she gets back to me she’s shivering and I wrap her in a towel, rub her shoulders. She crawls into my arms, like she did when she was little and it’s as if a dam has burst. Words pour out of her, unshaped, unmoulded – the unedited version. All I can do is listen. Then we sit in silence, oblivious to everyone else, everything else. When we get home we are exhausted – ozone and emotion have drained us both and we crave nothing but sleep.
I wake up to the smell of lemons. At first I think I’m still dreaming – of islands and blue seas and lemon trees. But then I realise that the smell is real, that I’ve just woven it into my dreams. I can hear the echoes of cooking, the clatter of pans and dishes. Then a thick, warm scent – eggs and butter and sugar. It seems to drift around me, wrap me up and beckon me downstairs.
Lucy is at the oven and she turns to me as I enter the kitchen. She’s smiling. Not a full-beam, high-voltage smile like it used to be. Just a tiny smile, curving the corners of her mouth, but it reaches her eyes for the first time in weeks.
Just a tiny smile, but like oxygen to me all the same, a sudden gasp of air. I can see my little girl again in that smile.
She holds out a plate to me – drowning in lemon juice and sparkling with sugar. “Pancakes,” she says.
Tracey Glasspool lives in Devon with her husband, three sons, sheep, llamas, cats and a snake. She has been writing seriously for about three years now and during that time has had stories for adults and children published in magazines, short story collections and online.
She is addicted to entering competitions and has been lucky enough to win or be placed in several. As well as the thrill of winning Hysteria 2014, she has also won first place in the Choc Lit winter competition 2013, Exeter Writers Short Story Comp 2013/14, plus a win with Writers Forum magazine and second place in Writing Magazine, amongst others.
She recently joined Exeter Writers and is a member of an online critique group.
She works part-time as an administrator in a small, rural primary school and is working, very slowly, on her first novel.