2018 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Third Place




'Thunderstorm'- by Mary Francis




My mother talked about the end of the world. What would happen, death and doom and destruction.

I could see that she tried not to talk about it. She would hold off for as long as she could, asking about school, my friends, my hobbies. She even asked about Dad sometimes, when she got desperate. But sooner or later something would pop the cork and she’d start talking, all the fear gushing out of her.

My mother was pretty. That made it harder for people to see how crazy she was. I remember running into one of my teachers in the supermarket when I was out with Mum, and them starting to chat, and the look on Mrs J’s face as she slowly realised this woman wasn’t a normal, breezy school mum. She was rambling about the price of fruit and how global warming was going to wipe out all our edibles and flood the fields and starve us. Mrs J made an excuse and hurried away. I couldn’t look her in the eye again after that.

When you grow up with crazy, you learn to read the weather and how to ride it out.

Mum never got violent. Not with me. It was always just talk. Endless, rambling, fearful talk about what was going to happen.

My first memory of Mum was what we called a thunderstorm. Tears and shouting and things breaking and her arms and hair flying around. Afterwards, Dad tucked me in and told me everything was all right. He did a lot of that, back then. After we moved out, he stopped telling me and started asking: “Everything all right with Mum?”

And I’d close the front door after me, home from another visit to Mum’s one-woman end-of-the-world apocalypse horror show, and say, “Yeah. Fine.”

Poor Dad. He loved her. He knew she dreaded hospitals and couldn’t stand medication. She wouldn’t even take Lemsip when she had a cold. “No drugs!” she’d say. Cheerfully, at first. Then, when things got bad, she’d say it about wine or beer, or Dad’s cigarettes that he smoked more and more, and then she’d say it when he looked at her, when she could tell what he was thinking.

So he didn’t have her put away. He made sure she got unemployment benefit when she lost her job, and I’m pretty sure he gave her money sometimes, too. But once we moved out he didn’t go back and see her. He never talked to her directly, not if he could help it. He got me to talk to her, or he talked to her neighbour, Judith, who was a nurse and didn’t need more work but never complained about keeping an eye over the fence.

I was twelve when we moved out. Mum stayed in the house I grew up in, and at first I visited every weekend, until I became a teenager and there were things happening at the weekends that I couldn’t miss. There was netball and play rehearsals and birthday parties and big projects at school that I had to work on and couldn’t at Mum’s house because she couldn’t afford the internet and it wasn’t healthy for her to get online anyway. “Like an alcoholic having a bar in the house,” Dad said. Which I didn’t understand at first, until I heard Mum talking about Twitter and blogs and reading the Daily Mail online, stories and evidence she was hoarding, fuel for the fire. She went on the library computers to find it, on the days when she wasn’t asked to leave for being disruptive.

By the time I was sixteen I was visiting about once a month. I didn’t like sleeping over, because I could hear her late at night, talking to herself or talking back to the radio or TV. She didn’t sleep much. I woke up once and she was sitting on the side of the bed, watching me. I’d never been afraid of her, until that moment.

So I went early on Saturday morning, and left after dinner. I’d take the bus across town and walk up her street slowly, dragging it out, taking in every little detail - the peeling white paint on Judith’s picket fence and the fronds of jasmine trailing over it, nodding at me solemnly as I passed.

There’s a particular smell to a house that hasn’t been taken care of. It took me years to figure out that’s what I was smelling when I walked in the door. To me it was the unique odour of Mum’s house, a portent of doom. Opening the front door with its stiff latch and stepping into the dark hallway, feeling the too-soft carpet underfoot, all spongy and discoloured, that smell would meet me and I’d try to breathe shallowly, so the despair wouldn’t get caught in my lungs.

Mum did her best for me. I remind myself of that, when I think about the smell of the house. She’d try to have food in the house for lunch, though she didn’t eat much herself. She didn’t seem to care about food, except when she was talking about how it was all industrially manufactured and full of poison.

We’d sit at her kitchen table, me trying to avoid saying anything that could start the tirade; her trying to hold back the one thing she wanted to tell me.

It always started eventually, and I suppose it was a relief for both of us.

The end of the world would come soon, and we weren’t prepared for it. Nobody was. It was coming on every front, insidious, like weeds creeping through the grass. Global warming and storms and disease and GM and nuclear weapons and terrorism and the sky would fall in and the earth would rise up and the cars would stop moving and we would see our world eaten away, a mass of humanity weeping and pleading for salvation that wasn’t coming because we used up all the salvation years ago.

When the world did end, it wasn’t a weekend, so I wasn’t supposed to be there.

It was spring, but hot as summer. Hayfever reduced half the kids at my school to croaking zombies. That Monday afternoon the city was jammed with traffic. Purple-black clouds hung over us. My friend Sukhie got a migraine and went home vomiting. Atmospheric pressure, our teacher said. Once the rain comes it’ll all clear up.

My bus was in gridlock in Richmond and I got out to walk. I could feel the heat vibrating off the asphalt and my back was wet with sweat under my backpack.

My phone rang and it was Judith, from next door to Mum. “Amy, darl, your mum’s sick and she’s asking for you. Where are you?”

She couldn’t come and get me because of the traffic, and because she didn’t want to leave Mum. I turned left and starting trekking towards Mum’s, while Judith tried to reassure me that everything was going to be all right but she did think I should come if I could, to help calm Mum down. I said I was coming as fast as I could and hung up, and then I was talking to myself out loud and swearing.

Mum had never once asked me to come round when she felt upset. She called me sometimes, I think when she was lonely, but she never asked me to come over. Maybe she knew I would say no. Except Judith was a nurse and she said Mum was probably going to be ok, but probably didn’t mean definitely, and Lucy Ho’s sister committed suicide last term even though she saw a doctor who said she’d probably be ok, and I was running now.

I caught a tram and ran and caught a bus and ran, and it was an hour before I was at the end of Mum’s street. I’d never hurried up it before. I was sweating so hard that I didn’t know it was raining until I got to Judith’s peeling white picket fence and felt fat raindrops pelting down on me. I fumbled my key out of my bag as the rain became a torrent, turning everything grey and white.

Mum was in her bedroom and Judith was there, sitting on her bedside and holding her hand. I stopped in the doorway and dropped my backpack on the floor. Above the sound of the rain, I could hear a horrible wheezing sound. At first I thought it was me, because I was wheezing from all the running. I had my inhaler in my pocket and took a puff, and then I saw that it was Mum. She was lying on the bed with her chest heaving. Her face was pale and her lips looked blue.

When Judith saw me standing there she jumped up and grabbed me. She put an arm round my shoulder and whispered very quickly into my ear, so that I hardly understood her, “Your Mum’s having an asthma attack. I’ve called an ambulance. You need to sit with her and keep her calm.”

She pushed me over to the bed and I sat down, and Mum reached out and took my left hand and held it in both of hers, while my right hand clutched my ventolin inhaler. Mum’s inhalers were on the table by her bed, and the lids were off. There was a can of Coke, too, which Mum never drank because it was evil, so it stood out like a weird red lightbulb, and I stared at it blankly, wondering where it had come from.

Mum didn’t say anything. She just wheezed, her whole body straining to push air out and in. Her eyes were dark. She was sweating, like me. I wiped my forehead with my sleeve, and then I wiped her forehead with it, too, and said, “Everything’ll be all right.”

I saw pictures of it on the news the next night. The hospitals were full; people were crammed into emergency departments, wheezing, struggling, panicking. Someone filmed the queue on their cellphone. “I can’t breathe,” sobbed a woman who stumbled through the sliding doors and couldn’t even find a seat. “None of us can,” said someone else, off-screen.

The heat and humidity had lifted pollen from the ryegrass and carried it into the air, and the pollen burst, tiny stabbing shards flung down over Melbourne where the people breathed them in. Traffic clogged the streets as airways closed over. The ambulances couldn’t get to everyone. The hospitals couldn’t treat everyone. It was an epidemic. It was a flood.

In Mum’s dingy bedroom, it was quiet. The rainstorm passed, but the air didn’t clear. Judith propped up Mum’s shoulders and got her to sip the Coke. “It might help,” she said. Then she answered her cellphone and I could hear her in the hallway saying, “I can’t come in… Yes, I know. But I can’t come.”

Mum tugged at my arm and dragged in a breath and whispered to me, “It’s the end of the world, love.”

I tried to say something, but nothing came out.

“She phoned for ambos hours ago,” said Mum, the words whispering out like ghosts. “They’re not coming… It’s the end.”

On the six o’clock news the next day a senior ambulance officer cleared his throat and didn’t let the tears drop as he said, “I never thought we’d have people die because we couldn’t get to them. Because there weren’t enough ambulances.”

But they did die. The earth rose up and the sky fell in, and my Mum couldn’t breathe the poisoned air.

She always talked about the end of the world. She was so desperate to warn me, so terrified at the prospect. But when it came, all the fear drained away, and there was nothing left but the sound of the air struggling in and out of her, little by little, less and less, until it was all over.