This short story ‘The Mummy Shop’ was rejected by BOMB magazine.
She pulled the plastic tightly over its corners; if it were a man in its place he would be blue by now. She smoothed it once, twice, hummed satisfied, motioning us to bring the plates in. There was korma and mash, a hunk of bread moulding ink stains at its edges, grapes and milk. We ate with our plates held an inch away from our chew-with-your-mouths-closed mouths. Not a drop was allowed to stain the house.
Cleaning up always takes longer than dinner itself. But we never complain. Once the plates are drying, the plastic rinsed, dried and ironed, we are permitted a break and a program on the TV. We sit as still as we can before the rabbit-eared set; if we fidget even the slightest the sofa covers will tell on us, squeaking so loud it’ll be all we hear.
She tells us to call her Mummy and we do but never when alone, then she’s She and we whisper about trying to leave.
On our trips to the provision store we see children with no homes crowding its doors, skeletal and doubled they look more like wild dogs than a few years younger or older than us. We never let them be our age in our head, the one time we did, nightmares of us joining them stalked us for weeks. They bare their teeth at our car window and we know we’ll never leave her.
I was barren for many years. I mourned then, believing there existed no tragedy greater than mine. Now, I know the truth. He was testing me, leading me to you, she said, cupping their cheeks with black pebble eyes, shining satisfied. They pinched their nose as she pulled them in. Onions and garlic from dinner three nights ago burnt their eyes wet; they stayed face squashed in her apron till she was done.
Make way for Noddy was starting. Noddy, they yelled in sync.
It was a man who founded The Mummy Shop.
If she’s troubling you, we’ll take her back. Pick your new mummy and never know a lack.
In the beginning he found no takers. Children howled and flung themselves home. Some kicked him in the groin or pulled his face down by his tie, punched him in the nose, and then ran screaming home.
They figured him a body snatcher a mummy murderer a vampire a bat; a monster. Then they grew to candles enough to fill a cake and thought a lot longer over the finer points of his proposition. This was around the time their mummies were starting to transform into snarling drill sergeants. Don’t this don’t that, go to your room don’t you dare talk back!
They may think you are a child but you aren’t stupid. You aren’t too young to know when enough is enough, he roared and they, puppies on cocaine crusted tennis balls, yapped in answer, falling over each other to be first in line.
I think you need a mommy, she said softly.
We were slow dancing to far away music. I forget now how she pulled me in but what I do remember is her skirt grazing me ever the slightest bit. Silk, she had said earlier, a kira from Bhutan, I was there this summer.
Almost double my age, it was only natural that she barely noticed me at the start of the night. As it grew longer, the white lines on the linoleum table kept cutting themselves. Our bodies loosened, melted and she, found her way to me.
Her hand heavy not clammy was rubbing my back lingering at my bra strap. I wanted to walk away but politeness made me stay. Mummy wouldn’t have me in any other way.
Before leaving, the woman kissed me lightly and said, you never know.
We learnt we were a two when we were seven years old and our grandmother was still alive.
At dusk when everyone else was lighting their homes, she sat in the dark, adamant that it’s the only way to see. She who forbid us to ever hate – the Lord’s children know not this word or feeling – hated grandmother. We loved her more because of it. She was a mad old woman given to powdering and sprinkling her nails in her food; but she also gifted us a primary truth: the mirror will show only one but there’s a crowd in you.
We used to see our father a week a year; after that visit we breathe a little better. The plastic is folded and stowed away till next year. Was it him or her who liked the house and us, squeaking clean? It must have been her, for him, I can barely remember. He stopped coming after we started menstruating.
He never punished us. He didn’t pinch our thighs or batter our knuckles. He didn’t thrash our head. Our arms, our legs. Drag us to our room and starve us of food. He still frightened us. His presence felt like a wound that refused to close, oozing pus and rot it showed most in her. Flinching and scrubbing, pulling at her sleeves trying to hide the purpling skin beneath.
Shorts weren’t allowed that week neither were skirts or blouses without sleeves.
Dimpled skin can make a man lose his senses, she said. We itched to say, isn’t it lost already; but we didn’t.
Try our latest rehabilitation feature and in just two weeks, you’ll find her improved and enhanced. The founder winked saucily at the end of the ad; business was booming for The Mummy Shop.
My plural didn’t agree – she says she’s ours she must be, she tried to say – but I was louder.
Feel the difference in two weeks, he said. I didn’t. I asked my me if she did, she was silent.
She still is.
What makes me a blahcksheep: I used to write copy for a living; now I write for myself and earn no living. I lost friends who couldn’t read my work and lost every semblance of a social life and possibly all my marbles too; but then as my grandmother once said and the Cheshire Cat too would agree, aren’t we all mad here?
You can also listen to the story here on Nina’s podcast Children’s Stories for Adults.