The Bit in the Middle

by Krystyna Smallman



So, here I am, home. Huh, joke.

‘How was the trip, sweetheart?’ says my mother.

‘All right.’

I haven’t told her yet. I suppose I’ll have to. Ruin her Christmas.

‘Lovely to see you, Emmie,’ she says, hugging me tightly. She smells of chocolate.

‘Yeah, okay,’ I say and pull away.

‘Come on in, my love, it’s freezing out here,’ she says, linking her arm through mine and pressing it against her, drawing me towards the house.

‘I’ll get my bag.’

‘Jack will bring it in for you.’

‘No, I’ll manage.’

I disengage my arm and go to the car, crisp snow crunching under my feet.

She looks older, and smaller, standing there hugging herself against the cold, gazing at me piteously while the icy wind tears at her hair.

‘Leave it,’ she calls out, ‘Jack will...’

‘I said I’ll manage.’

‘Oh well, do what you like.’

The garden is empty, just a few sticks poking up here and there through the snow. And a dead tree reaching for the black sky, also empty, apart from one lone star. I’m frozen solid. Bloody weather.

‘Is this all you’ve brought?’ says my mother, eyeing my bag.

‘Yes.’ I won’t be staying long, get this over with and go.

She turns and goes in, and I follow her. The house is like a giant oven. My mother is trying to roast us for Christmas. Here’s Jack, smiling, looking expectant.

‘Hello, my dear. Good to see you again.’

‘Hi, Jack. Good to see you too.’

‘Here, I’ll carry that up for you,’ he says, taking the bag from me.

‘Thanks.’ He’s so nice.

My mother is wandering off. ‘I’ll put the kettle on for tea,’ she says without turning round.

Jack shoots an anxious look at her back, then says to me, ‘Go through into the lounge, Emily, over there, and make yourself at home.’

‘Oh, right.’

The lounge. Not the living-room any more. This is all a big mistake. I shouldn’t have come. Oh well, now I’m here I might as well go into the lounge. I’ve never been in this house before. After Dad died, my mother met Jack and then sold our house and they bought this one. New house, new man. My mother has moved on.

Jack is thumping downstairs, then muffled conversation in the kitchen, my mother’s plaintive voice alternating with Jack’s gruff patient tones.

Weird in here, in the lounge, a mixture of old and new – what you can see of it in between the Christmas decorations, she’s decked the halls in a big way. I hate Christmas. Ding dong merrily on high and all that crap.

The oak clock on the mantelpiece, that’s from our house, as is the cherub she bought when we went to Cornwall , and the painting of a nautical scene – naughtycold, I used to think when I was little. Also the photographs, mainly of me, spanning my life from zero to twenty-five. Dad’s mounted fish didn’t make it, though. Affectionately known as Mike the Pike, forty-seven pounds, his pride and joy. Left behind.

‘Tea’s brewing,’ says my mother, striding briskly into the room with Jack following. ‘Warm us up. It’s so cold out there.’

‘It’s stifling in here,’ I say.

‘Your mother is the secret cause of global warming,’ says Jack, and looks at her as if this were a good thing.

‘Oh Jack,’ she says, smiling, and whacks him with the back of her hand.

We all sit down. Shall I tell her now?

‘We’ve just bought the settee,’ says my mother and looks at it fondly.

So it’s settee now, is it? As opposed to sofa. Why are they suddenly speaking this different language?

Right, I’ll tell her now. I clear my throat in readiness.


‘I’ll get the tea,’ says my mother, positively springing up.

‘Shall I get it?’ says Jack.

‘No, thank you.’ Then, deliberately, ‘I’ll manage.’ And she’s gone.

Yes, I know, that was aimed at me. I wish I hadn’t come.

‘How are you then, Emily?’ says Jack.

‘Fine, fine.’

‘What’s the matter?’

My mother bursts in, rattling the tea tray.

‘Here we are.’

She slams it down on the table and starts pouring out the tea.

‘This’ll warm our cockles,’ says Jack.

Their eyes meet, unspoken words flash between them and they grin. Then we all sit drinking our tea in silence.

‘You look peaky,’ she says, frowning at me. ‘I hope you’re eating enough.’

‘Of course I am.’

‘You don’t look…’

‘Oh don’t start, Mum.’

‘Well your mother’s been cooking and baking for days,’ says Jack. ‘If you eat everything she’s made for you, we’ll have to roll you out the door.’

I glance at her face but she is sipping her tea, not looking at me. Okay, I admit it, I’m bad, a wretch. But what does she expect? We’ve hardly been on speaking terms for months and here she is, pretending nothing has happened, everything is okey-dokey and joy to the world.

I’ll tell her now, get it over with.


She looks at me. Are those tears in her eyes? Bloody hell.

‘… the house looks lovely.’ Nope, couldn’t do it.

Her face relaxes into a smile. She’s always liked people making nice comments about her house. Very house-proud, she is.

‘You like it?’ she says.

‘Yeah. It’s great.’

She’s beaming at me now.

‘I wanted to make it all Christmassy for you,’ she says.

‘I hate Christmas.’

Her smile freezes. Well why should I pretend I like it when I don’t?  I wish I hadn’t come.

I get up. Get out of here.

‘Er…the bathroom?’ I say.

‘Upstairs,’ says Jack. ‘Top of the stairs, on the right.’

I walk out the room, the silence behind me like a huge block of ice.

It’s true the house looks lovely, perfect. Toss my mother a cardboard box and she’ll convert it into a home, she can’t help herself. Upstairs, I snoop around. Here’s where I’ll be sleeping, my bag’s on a chair. All white and fuchsia. My favourite colour. Flowery feather eiderdown and matching curtains. Vase of flowers on the dressing table. Scent of lavender and fresh linen. Cosy.

When I come down my mother is clattering about in the kitchen and Jack is in the living-room sipping a glass of sherry.

‘I think I’ll go to bed,’ I say, dithering by the door. Build my strength up for tomorrow’s ordeal.

‘Already? Have a little nightcap first,’ says Jack, brandishing the sherry bottle. ‘After all, it is Christmas Eve.’

‘No, thanks. I’m really tired. Had a long day. So, goodnight then.’

In the hall I call out ‘Goodnight’ in the direction of the kitchen.

No answer.

‘Goodnight, Mum.’

Here she comes, wiping her hands on her apron.

‘I’m off to bed. Long day.’

‘Oh. Sleep well, Emmie.’

‘Thanks. You too.’

Still no mention of our argument. No questions. I know she’s dying to know what happened. She’ll know soon enough, when I tell her, tomorrow. Oh tidings of discomfort and sorrow. Can’t face it yet, the aftermath, the recriminations, the how could yous, the I told you sos. Just let me rest a bit.

Would you believe it, when I pull back the bedcovers I find a hot-water bottle in the shape of a fluffy pink bear. I roll my eyes. How infantile. I’m twenty-five, Mother. Eventually I fall asleep, hugging the bear, luxuriating in its warmth, crying my eyes out.

Next morning, when I wake up it takes a few seconds to remember where I am and when I am and why. Christmas Day, ho ho ho. I feel like shit. Like my stomach is full of holly and pine needles, like I’ve swallowed a bloody great reindeer, antlers and all. It’s no good, they all have to come out, now. I dash to the bathroom and while the gentle strains of ‘Away in a Manger’ are wafting up the stairs I’m gagging my guts up into the toilet.

the cattle are lowing…

The reindeer refuses to budge, wedged tightly inside. On opening the door, I’m startled to find my mother standing there like a spectre.

‘Are you all right?’ she says, frowning.

‘Yes, fine. Bit of a bad stomach, that’s all. Something I ate yesterday.’

‘You don’t look…’

‘Stop fussing, Mum. Please. I’m fine.’

Let’s not start, not yet, wait till I’ve pulled myself together a bit.

‘I’ll make you some toast,’ she says, heading for the stairs.

‘I don’t want any. Just coffee.’

She pauses, looks at me, opens her mouth to say something, then changes her mind and goes downstairs.

noel noel noel noel

Oh hell oh hell oh hell oh hell.

Downstairs, there are presents under the Christmas tree. I haven’t brought any. My mother only phoned me a few days ago and somehow persuaded me to come, so I haven’t had time to…okay, excuses. Truth is, I’m just plain bad.

‘Look what Santa’s brought you,’ says my mother, handing me a present.

So I open it to reveal a scarf. It is horrendous. Hairy, and with so many lurid colours it makes me dizzy to look at it.

‘It’ll keep you nice and warm,’ she says.


…joyful and triumphant…

And before you know where you are, here’s the turkey and stuff.

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,’ says Jack, gleefully rubbing his hands.

The food is wonderful, as usual, and we drink wine and pull crackers and put on paper crowns and Jack and my mother join in with the carols and all the time I’m thinking and thinking about what I have to tell her and how it will sour all this merrymaking.

After dinner, when we are lolling contentedly on the sofas, my mother brings out a box of chocolates and offers them round.

‘This is my favourite,’ she says, ‘Caramel Surprise.’

‘That’s one of the bad ones that nobody wants and gets left in the box,’ says Jack. ‘I almost broke my teeth on one once.’

‘It’s hard on the outside,’ says my mother, ‘but the bit in the middle is lovely.’

‘You need a chainsaw to get to the bit in the middle.’

‘What you do is let it slowly melt in your mouth and suddenly it opens up and all this creamy caramel spills out. That’s why it’s a Surprise, because you’re not expecting it. Here, try one.’

Jack and I take one each and sit quietly sucking. When the caramel hits my taste buds it’s like the alleluia chorus.

‘Wow,’ I say and smile at her. She smiles back.

‘See? You just have to be patient and wait for the hard outside bit to melt before you can get to the soft bit in the middle,’ she says, looking at me significantly.


Then she says, ‘How’s Kevin?’

This is it. My cue to tell her. I take a deep breath.

‘We’ve split up. He doesn’t want to leave his wife.’

My mother must be pleased, it’s what she wanted, she’s won, although she’s not showing it. That wasn’t the thing I had to tell her.

‘And I’m pregnant.’

That was.

It’s out, finally, for better or worse. I’ve resigned myself to her recriminations, but she’s just staring at me, her face impassive. She doesn’t seem surprised.

‘I’ll go and…yes...er, right,’ says Jack and leaves hurriedly.

Still she’s staring at me.

‘There’s something I have to tell you,’ she says finally.

‘I know, I’ve messed up my life, I’m bad and stupid.’

‘I was pregnant when I met George.’

Just a minute, what’s this?

‘So…he wasn’t my father?’ Some things take a while to filter through.

‘Not your biological father, but he loved you and brought you up, he was your real father.’

So many questions in my head I don’t know where to start.

‘Who was my biological father?’

‘He was married.’

I absorb this in silence.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I was going to, and then I thought, what’s the point?’

‘So why are you telling me now?’

She doesn’t say anything, then, ‘I’ve never regretted having you, you know. Never. You’ve always been loved. Always will be.’

Then we just sit in silence, digesting the dinner and the revelations.

Suddenly, she jumps up and says, ‘Hey, I haven’t shown you round the house.’

‘What? Oh, no, you haven’t.’

‘Come on, sweetheart.’

She gives me a guided tour, chattering about how she bought this and did that.

‘And here is our den, where we spend most of our time,’ she says, opening the door on a small room lined with books, photos and knickknacks. ‘I curl up over here and read…’ Dad’s armchair ‘…while Jack fiddles with the computer.’

‘Dad’s fish!’

‘Mike the Pike,’ she says, smiling at it fondly. ‘Your dad’s pride and joy.’

We end up in the kitchen, with a cup of tea and chocolate cake.

‘I’m sorry I haven’t brought you a present,’ I say.

‘Oh but you have,’ she says, and lays her hand gently on my abdomen. ‘Life. What greater gift is there?’

I place my hand on hers and squeeze it.

And then, all too soon, it’s Boxing Day, time for me to go as I must work next day. I put it off till the last minute. My mother’s given me so much food to take back that Jack’s filled the car with bags. I close the boot and look back at my mother, standing there hugging herself against the cold, gazing at me piteously while the icy wind tears at her hair. I go to her, put my arms around her and hug her tightly.

‘Thanks for everything, Mum. I’ll be back for New Year.’

‘Drive carefully, sweetheart.’

‘I love you.’

‘I love you more.’

We both laugh. The I-love-you-more game we used to play when I was little.

I get in the car and look back at them, Jack with his arm round my mother, both smiling at me. There will always be room at the inn for me. Knowing her, she’s probably already making plans for a baby room. Incorrigible.

It’s freezing, although I’m nice and warm in the scarf, horrendous as it is. And I’ve taken the hot-water bottle. I smell of chocolate – no wonder, the amount I’ve eaten.

It’s been snowing all night and everything looks fresh and clean and white and glistening, winter wonderland. The garden isn’t empty, and the tree isn’t dead. Under the snow and ice they are throbbing with life and colour. You just have to be patient and wait for it to melt.

I smile to myself. It’s true, the bit in the middle is lovely.

©2007 Krystyna Smallman

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