“They would never do it now. It wouldn’t be allowed.”
The paper was delicate between the swollen joints of my mother’s fingers. She flipped the worn pages, and then her gaze caught on the photograph there. A small, tender smile lit her face.
“So, you remember it? It really is me?” I’d found the paper at the bottom of her bedside drawer, amongst a treasure trove of half-empty vials of perfume, silver hair grips and brooches. A scientific research paper from the fifties, at first seemed utterly out of place. Then I’d seen the photograph.
“You were three,” she said.
“I look older.” I pointed to the black and white picture of me, frilly ankle socks beneath a striped dress. “Weren’t those my school shoes? I must have been five.” She hummed, barely present and threatening to depart entirely, but I pressed on. “You never mentioned it to me.”
I was perched on the edge of the small sofa in her room, a mean two-seater with springs that caught me no matter how I positioned myself. Mother was bonded to her favourite chair, a blanket around her legs even though the nurses kept the rooms above 25 degrees.
“It says, of the 300 children in the experiment, only one third managed to free themselves within the time limit.” I tapped the paper. “Some panicked, some cried. Some just waited to be let out, they didn’t do anything.”
“Yes, funny that, don’t you think?”
“And me? What did I do?”
“You got out, I think. You were fine.” She looked to the ceiling, as though it held extra information. “You didn’t talk about it afterwards.”
“The follow up interview?” I took the paper back and flipped the page to show her. I felt better with it back in my hands. I had sat up at the kitchen table most of the night reading and rereading it. I could recite the measurements for the test enclosure, the names of the researchers involved and the age breakdowns of the children. “They interviewed the parents to see if the children had been affected.”
“Someone must have come to the house,” she said, sounding as if she had not been there at all, but was stringing information together just as blindly as me. Then she added, “They were friendly.”
“How can you possibly remember that they were friendly? You just said you’re not even sure they came to the house!”
“Now, Ruth, there’s no need to go getting yourself in a state.” Her voice was quiet and I realised mine had not been for a while.
“I’m not,” I said, forcing a stage whisper just as someone knocked on the room door. Mother looked at me expectantly. I got up to open the door, switching the subject of my frustration to something more harmless. “Why don’t you just have them left themselves in? What do they do when I’m not here?”
The nurse greeted me and I watched as she wheeled in her trolley, sour at the interruption and the idea that she might have heard our conversation, my raised voice. The walls were thin; she would be telling the other carers about it later, shouting at her mother, and Mrs Williams, such a darling. She was very young, with a blue stripe in her hair that I remembered seeing before, but I couldn’t remember her name. Sarah or Sandra, I thought.
“Good afternoon, ladies.” She turned to my mother. “Would you like me to lay the table, or will you be eating in your chair?”
“I’m comfortable right here, please, Sylvie.” She always spoke to the nurses with a sweetness that tried my patience, answering their questions and making conversation. Sylvie unloaded the tray from her trolley and laid it out on the over-chair table, which was laid with a white cloth. A small, rather dry looking salad, a baked potato with cheese, a plastic container of coleslaw, and a square of jam sponge for dessert.
“Just ring the bell when you’re ready for me to clear,” Sylvie said as she left.
“See you later, dear,” my mother called. She started to unroll her knife and fork from the cloth napkin. We could hear the trolley trundling along the corridor to the next room. “They boil these potatoes you know.” She cut it open, not eating, just looking, poking with her fork. “I can always tell. They put them in the oven for the last ten minutes to brown the skin, but the potato isn’t the same.”
I watched her pick at her food. I’d been told not to talk to her while she was eating, the distraction slowed her down and decreased her appetite. Her wrists underneath the cuff of her dressing gown were skinny, like a teenage girl having a growth spurt. She finished the potato and salad, then offered me the cake. When I said no she covered it with a tissue, saying she would save it for later.
On the drive home, I kept thinking about that cake. It would get dry underneath the tissue, until my mother rang the bell for Sylvie to come in and clear it all away, off the white tablecloth, onto her trolley and then later into the dustbin. The sun was so low now, so early in the evenings, and soon I would be driving in the dark when I came back from visiting my mother.
There wasn’t much food at home and I didn’t have much appetite, but I knew I should eat. I was crouched in front of the fridge, looking to see if there was any pickle jammed in at the back, when the phone rang.
I rose and reached for the handset and recognised the care home’s number. My stomach clenched so tightly I had to grip the counter to stay standing.
She’s fallen, she’s sick, she’s unresponsive.
This is it.
I picked up the phone and held it to my ear.
“Hello, sweetheart, it’s Mum.” My stomach did a sweep-swoop, yanking the panic back from the edge at her cheery tone. She didn’t usually call. Not at all, not for the last few months. She sounded very far away.
“Is everything alright?”
“Everything’s fine. I’ve just finished dinner. It was a tuna casserole; a bit cold. I should have asked Sylvie to heat it up again. There was jelly for pudding, you would have liked it.”
“That sounds very nice.” I wiped my hair back from my forehead. I kicked the fridge closed.
“I called to tell you, Ruthie,” she said slowly, as if she was reading the words from a prompt sheet, “that you were one of the ones who got out yourself.”
“Got out?” My mind swam for a moment. “You’re talking about the experiment?”
“In the study, yes. You got out yourself, quite quickly. You didn’t cry. The researchers said you did very well.”
“I got out myself?”
“I think you rather enjoyed it. Afterwards we went for a walk in the park and you said it was fun but you didn’t want to do it again.” She paused and I waited to hear what else she might say. “I got in there too, you know. The researchers asked me if I wanted to try so I crawled in on my hands and knees. You were laughing when I came out.”
I laughed now, listening to her.
“I’m surprised you don’t remember it yourself,” she said.
I stopped laughing and wiped my tears.
“I think I do remember it a bit now, mum,” I said. “It was a really lovely day.”
The next morning, another phone call woke me. I didn’t understand, not until I drove to the home and met with the care manager, and someone from the police who had come to file a report. They showed me the room. It was just as it had been when I’d left the day before, no sign of a fall or a struggle. The blanket was neatly folded in the armchair.
“She was fine when I saw her for dinner.” Sylvie had been called to join us and she kept looking around the room, as if expecting my mother to emerge from a wardrobe or behind some furniture. “She ate everything, even dessert.”
“Jelly, was it?” I asked, and she looked at me in surprise.
We watched the blurry camera footage, all of us crammed together in the security office, dark except for the black and white screens.
“If she had left, the camera would have caught it,” the manager said to the police officer. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
Sylvie murmured her agreement. The police officer replied, pen scratching against his notepad as he filled in a form. None of them noticed what I saw on the corner monitor: a shadow moving low to the ground. I let them talk, remembering the sound of my mother’s voice from the call the night before. I saw her as she must have been, smiling and laughing as she crawled out of the trap. I remembered how I must have run to her and hugged her, all that had gone before completely forgotten.
About The Author
Sarah M Jasat grew up believing her family was very strange but later discovered she was Indian. As part of the 2018 cohort for the Middle Way Mentoring Programme she has been developing short fiction exploring how individuals struggle within the constraints of traditional families. She dreams about writing a novel for older children if only she could get her own child to go to sleep. She lives in Leicester, UK.
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