Let The Magic Work

Woman with towel on head looking out bathroom window.

A Fiction Long Read Just For You…

After such a terrible trauma it takes courage to trust, accept help and start to put the pieces of a life back together…

By Linda Mitchelmore

My mother was beautiful once. Beautiful in a Catherine Zeta Jones sort of way. The same womanly body and the same lustrous hair – hair the colour of mahogany that flashed and shone in sunlight. A woman happy in her skin.

She wore wonderful clothes – satins and velvets and silks in jewel-like colours – and always the most glamorous shoes with high, high, heels, and strappy bits that criss-crossed her ultra slim ankles. For adornment – if any were needed – just her plain wedding band on her ring finger, and a simple, hair-thin, gold chain at her neck.

Where other mothers might embarrass their daughters, I was proud of mine. She glittered and dazzled. Especially on parents’ evening at school when the men present would stop talking when she entered the room, their eyes drinking her in. The women would peer from under their lashes at her admiringly, and not just a little enviously.

But that was before my father left. I heard that last row as I’d heard all the others. A row between my parents was a row. My mother had the Latin looks and the Latin temperament to go with it. And my father was a modern-day Richard Burton – all deep, sonorous voice and theatricals.

I’d been in my room reading Jane Austen – losing myself in Regency romance, desperate to get a good A-level result – when the row started. I did what I always did and pressed my hands over my ears to blot out the sound. Five minutes, maybe a minute or two more and the row would have screamed itself out, and they’d be sobbing in one another’s arms, kissing, pouring wine, sharing a little terracotta dish of glossy black olives between them.

Except this time it didn’t. I heard the front door slam, heard its echo, felt the eerie silence that followed wrap around me, slowing my heartbeat. I heard the timpani hammering of a sudden squall of rain against the window. And then my mother’s high heels clattering down the path to the gate, her voice screaming, “Steve! Steve! Come back!”

Then the screech of brakes, the thud as my mother hit the wing of the car – or it hit her…

And my mother’s beautiful face was scarred forever.

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My father never did come back. He simply left our lives. I did my best to help my mother pick up the pieces of her shattered life – it was just the two of us now.

But into our lives came Ed.

“I don’t want him here, ever,” my mother whispered, her voice reed-thin, every syllable an effort, where before she would have shouted her disapproval.

“He can help you,” I cajoled.

“I don’t need help.”

Oh yes, you do, I thought. It was as if our roles had reversed and I was now the mother, she the daughter. Gone were the beautiful clothes – the deep burgundies, the aquamarines, the indigoes and the violets – replaced by beige and cream, and taupe and sand; anonymous things in synthetic fabrics bought from catalogues.

Lipsticks dried up in their tubes from lack of use. The strands of silver in her hair were allowed to grow, to multiply. High-heeled shoes were exchanged for shapeless mules and frumpy slippers with ruffles of fake fur.

She rarely left the house. The scar on her face, like a thick twist of rope at first, faded just a little, became less angry-looking. My mother’s fingers flew constantly to it, touching it. She tried endlessly to rub it away with creams and lotions. But it was there; a constant reminder of my father’s infidelity and desertion.

“Well, Ed’s coming,” I said gently. “At two o’clock.”

“We don’t have to let him in.”

“I will. Just listen to him. You don’t have to say anything, agree to anything. But the doctor thought it might help.”

My mother was angry with me for going to the doctor behind her back in the first place. She froze me out for the rest of the day; turned her back whenever I entered the room, flicked her gaze away from mine, like a petulant child. I just shrugged and played music very loudly and waited for Ed.

Something had to change, and I was doing my best to make it so.

So, Ed arrived with his little bag of magic. Beautiful Dream, it said in gold letters against the sage green leather.

“Couldn’t they have sent a woman?” my mother hissed at me, as though Ed wasn’t there at all, laying his tubes and pots and brushes out on a cloth of purest white linen.

“They could, but the waiting list for the girlies is long,” Ed said, not looking up, yet not irked either by my mother’s rudeness. “So you’ve got me.”

“And what do you know about make-up?” my mother asked, a little fire back in her voice for the first time since my father had left.

“Gwyneth Paltrow? Nicole Kidman? Cate Blanchett? Heard of any of them?”

My mother nodded slightly. Of course she had.

“Well, I used to be in the film industry. I’ve worked with them all, on this film and that. Oscars night. That sort of thing.”

Ed carried on emptying his bag of its contents.

“So, why did you leave?” my mother asked, her voice betraying the fact she didn’t believe a word of it.

“Sometimes it was just over-gilding the lily. And this, for me, is more worthwhile.” Ed unscrewed the top of a tube, spread a little of the contents on the end of a finger.

“No!” my mother screamed. She edged away from him on the couch. The screech of her body on the leather as she whisked herself away echoed in the room.

“Relax, darling,” Ed said. “I was going to show you this.”

And before my mother could protest at being called darling (my father’s favourite endearment) Ed had completely covered a large mole on his arm.You could hardly see where the cream had blended it into the same colour as his skin.

“Wow!” I said. “That’s magic.”

“No, it’s not!” my mother fired back. “And what’s a mole compared to this?”

She jabbed a finger at her scar, drew it along the length of it where it started beside her left ear, and snaked down her cheek. She rubbed the scar hard with the heel of her hand, reddening the skin around it so that the scar stood out like bas relief.

“Like your daughter said, it’s magic. If you let the magic work.” Ed put very heavy emphasis on the word “if”. “Now we find a bit of foundation to tone in exactly with the skin…”

He selected another tube from the group on the cloth.

My mother watched in silence as Ed made mole after mole disappear on his muscled arm. And then Ed rolled down his sleeve, rolled up his cloth, re-packed his little green leather bag.

“Oh, you’re going,” my mother said.

“Same time next week, darling,” Ed said, and was gone.

“I wish he wouldn’t call me darling,” my mother said.

“I expect it’s just a left-over from his film days,” I said.

“Perhaps,” my mother said.

But I noticed the corners of her mouth twitch up a little.

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By week three we had learned, my mother and I, that Ed had met his wife at a drama group. She was the make-up artist, and it was join her in her twilight lifestyle or lose her. Ed joined, and soon he became better at the job than his wife.

The famous names of those who requested Ed’s skills for this film or that flowed from his lips like an Oscars night guest list. He brought photos, to show my mother, of himself with the stars.

And without realising she had done so, my mother let Ed smooth on the masking creams to hide her scar. With fluid movement, his fingers blended and shaded as he talked.

“My wife wasn’t as lucky as you,” Ed said calmly.

“Lucky?” my mother returned fiercely. “You call this lucky?”

She grabbed the box of tissues that lay on the table and used the whole damned thing up scrubbing off the creams and the lotions. Her face was an angry mass of blotched skin when she’d finished.

“Yes,” Ed said, very quietly. “My wife didn’t survive her impact with the car driven by a drunk driver at two-thirty pm on that Monday afternoon.”

“Oh. I’m sorry…” my mother said.

“So am I,” Ed said simply. “Which is why I do what I do.”

“Show me again,” my mother said. “Please. Katie will make us a cup of tea.”

I will? I thought. Right from the start my mother had insisted I didn’t leave the room the whole time Ed was with us. Not once. Not even if I was desperate for the loo, or the phone rang when it might be Josh asking for a date.

Might. Because I’d turned down Josh so many times to stay in with my mother that he’d stopped ringing lately.

I made the tea and found some biscuits.

I laid the biscuits out in a fan pattern on a doily – just the way my mother used to do things. Before.

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“This dress hangs better, don’t you think? Now I’ve lost a little weight,” my mother remarked.

A little? More like a stone or more, but I just nodded. Tears were gathering like a regiment of soldiers ready to do battle and cascade down my cheeks. I swallowed hard. It wasn’t the brightest dress she owned, but mid-blue was light years away from her recent digestive biscuit look.

Ed glanced at me when my mother came into the room in the mid-blue dress. He raised one eyebrow a little higher than the other. Well, well, the gesture said, this is a start.

“Two more weeks and then I think you’ll be almost as expert as I am,” Ed said encouragingly as he watched my mother’s fingers blend and shade, hide and highlight.

“Oh,” my mother said, her hand stilled against her cheek.

“Lots more ladies needing my attentions,” Ed said. “Face cancers, burns, that sort of thing.” I saw my mother trace the scar. Then she resumed her blending.

“I was thinking of making a cake,” she said. “For when you make your next visit. Iced stem ginger. Do you like it?”

I knew she wasn’t directing her question at me. I hate the stuff.

“Nothing better on the planet,” Ed said, with a shy smile.

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My mother made the cake – a poem of delicious, scented loveliness; the icing glistening like sunrise on freshly fallen snow.

I found a tablecloth and shook the creases from it ready to lay it over the coffee table – nothing fancy, nothing grand, just tea and cake with Ed, who would soon be gone from our lives.

“I’ll do it,” my mother said, pushing me gently away from the table.

“Fine,” I said. I straightened up, and whereas in our stockinged feet my mother and I were the same height, in her heels my mother was now a good four inches taller. Heels? I hadn’t seen my mother in heels in a long time.

A smile threatened, but I chewed my lips instead. This was going against the rules of etiquette for therapists and patients, wasn’t it?

“Mum,” I said, “be careful. I’m not sure Ed thinks of you the same way.”

“What are you talking about?” my mother demanded.

“Well – you’re behaving as though you’re going on a date. I don’t want you to be hurt, that’s all.”

“A date? Ed hasn’t asked me out on a date. And I certainly haven’t asked him out on one either.”

“But I thought…”

“I think you’re reading something into a friendship between Ed and me that isn’t there. Yes, I like him, and he likes me – as you’ve noticed. But that’s all it is – a friendship that has done us both good. I’m doing this,” she pointed down at her shoes, “for me.”

She carried on setting the table, turning the cake on its glass stand, checking the icing was evenly spread. Then she plumped up the cushions and brushed imaginary crumbs from the seats of the couch.

“I don’t suppose,” my mother said, “you have a lipstick I could borrow?”

“Colour?” I asked.

“Scarlet,” she said, her face breaking into a wide smile.

I found my bag and handed her Perfect Poppy. She twisted up the tube and slid the wand of colour expertly across her lips without needing to look in the mirror to do it; one of her almost – but not quite – forgotten skills.

She turned to me.

“K?” she asked.

“Beautiful,” I said.

“You know, Katie,” she said, “It wasn’t the loss of looks I minded so much, it was the loss of love… and confidence.”

“I know, Mum,” I said. “I know. But you are beautiful.”

“Am I?” she asked, turning to look at herself in the mirror as if seeing a stranger.

“Very,” I said.

“Thank you,” my mother said. “For everything. I know I’ve not been a normal sort of mother to you lately.”

“Normal’s boring,” I said. But in truth I had missed her vibrancy, her glamour. And the way she hugged me to her, squashing the breath out of me over the tiniest thing that pleased her – a robin’s sweet call from the apple tree, a perfectly fried egg, a phone call from an old school friend, Paul McCartney’s voice suddenly singing, as if to her, from the radio. I had even missed the rows between her and my father because despite them they had meant we were a family – were… past tense, past life.

She hugged me now, and left me gasping for breath.

“I didn’t mind at all,” I said. “Honestly. Well, not much.”

And we both laughed and hugged some more. Now we could both get on with our lives, couldn’t we?

“Got to go,” I said, disentangling myself from my mother’s arms. “Ed will be here soon and I need to make a phone call.”

I rang Josh.

“Katie?” he asked, as if he’d forgotten who I was, and yet that he was pleased to hear my voice all the same.

“Yes,” I said.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

“No, no, nothing’s wrong.” I felt my voice begin to crack. “Everything’s right. It’s just that my mother, well, she’s beautiful…” My larynx seemed to have stopped working, and yet I was too happy for the tears I knew would lubricate it.

“In that case,” Josh said into the silence, “why not come over and tell me about it?”

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I passed Ed coming in as I was going out. We smiled at one another – no need for words. I closed the door behind me – the softest chaste kiss of a click – and went to meet Josh.

A Word From The Author…

“I have a relative who was badly burned on the face as a child, but she is so expert at applying make-up that you would never know… and she has never let it affect what she does in life. She is an inspiration.”

Enjoying another long read now…

Karen Byrom