Family, Fiction, Melbourne, Parenting, Relationship and marriage, Writing

Bess Remembers (short fiction)

Before the accident, Jilly juggled work and motherhood with her trademark shrewd skill.

Her daughter remembers.

Bess spent school holidays in the office, colouring in under Jilly’s desk, while meetings were held on the round table, next to the white board. At eight, she lay on her tummy with her feet raised, rested the soles of her shoes on the underside of the desk as she drew pictures of unicorns and princesses. She listened as her mum made tough decisions, gave out instructions to her team, and if necessary, managed any workers who weren’t meeting key performance indicators. Bess’s lips curled into a smile whenever Ben was brought into the office; he habitually missed his targets and was a sloppy team member.

‘Last warning, Ben,’ Jilly had said one morning. ‘It’s all here in writing. Take some time to read through, ask any questions. Then we’ll sign it together.’

‘I’m sorry.’

Jilly made no reply.

Bess remembers a fancy party hosted by Jilly. Bess longed to join in but when she asked Mum, the reply was, ‘When you’re older, my darling.’ Instead, she was hurried off to bed, but rose quietly once the guests arrived, to watch from the top of the stairs. A cornucopia of scents rose from the entrance hall, up to the staircase and tickled Bess’s nose. She nestled against the banister, snuggled in her jarmies, dressing gown and slippers, and stared, admiring the glimmering dresses and smart dinner suits. Long-stemmed glasses of champagne were passed around. Couples embraced in dark corners, kissing. Bess saw Jilly and Ben, his hands running over her backless dress, Jilly’s arms pushing, fighting him off. Bess gasped loudly, scurried off to bed before she was discovered.

Bess remembers picnics with her mum. Bess remembers her mum patiently cooking with her, teaching her how to bake cupcakes, make spaghetti bolognaise and even roasts. Jilly was the best mother a girl could hope for. Until…

Bess remembers her high school principal walking into her science class. His brow was furrowed, eyes red. He whispered to her science teacher as a hush fell over the room. Each student aware that this was not the norm. Something had gone horribly wrong for someone in this class. Bess’s heart raced in her chest; its thumping beats giving the message before the science teacher looked her way.

‘Bess,’ Mr Birken called quietly. ‘Can you please go with Principal Sheffield?’ Her body burned, her fingertips thick and fuzzy, her head spun in shock.

Bess remembers sitting in Principal Sheffield’s office with silence filling the space around them. He cleared his throat. ‘Bess, I’m afraid I have to share some bad news with you.’

Bess remembers nodding.

‘It’s about your mum, Bess. She’s had an accident at work. I’m sorry to have to tell you this.’

Bess felt like throwing up. She wanted to place her hands tightly over her ears, to drown out the words she feared were coming.

‘She’s in the hospital.’ Relief flooded Bess’s veins. ‘She’s being kept in a medically induced coma. I can take you there now, if you’d like.’ Bess nodded as Principal Sheffield continued, ‘The police have contacted your grandmother in Queensland. She’s on her way down as we speak.’

Bess frowned. ‘I didn’t even know I had a grandmother.’

‘Well, let’s head off shall we?’

‘Wait, Mr Sheffield,’ Bess reached for his forearm as he strode towards the door. ‘Do you know what happened to Mum?’

‘The doctors will tell you more once you arrive at the hospital. And once your mum’s next-of-kin arrives.’ He cleared his throat again. ‘But it seems she fell and hit her head on a table in her room. She was found there by a colleague.’

Bess went cold. ‘Which colleague? Do you have a name?’

‘Um, well yes, he’s been very helpful with the police in the details. Ben somebody. Ben Jamison. Yes, that’s him.’

Bess remembers Ben. And inside, as her tummy churned and flipped, she knew her mother’s fall was not an accident.

Now, more than ten years later, Bess is Jilly’s carer. She feeds her mushed-up food, prepared earlier in the day by steaming and blending. She lifts her on and off the toilet, bathes her. Like a mum with her baby, Bess thinks wryly.

Jilly’s old colleagues visit, out of respect. Even Ben, who got away with his violent act. There was no proof. Bess told the police what she saw that night, but it wasn’t enough. Fingerprints were lifted from Jilly’s office; Ben’s among them, along with just about all her team.

Bess tolerates Ben’s visits, until she finally notices Jilly’s eyes darken each time he’s there. Jilly is pleading with her. Bess knows what to do.

On his next visit, when he rings the bell, Bess answers the door fresh from the shower, a towel draped around her. Her skin glistens with droplets of water, mixed with moisturiser.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I forgot you were coming. Excuse my state of dress.’ She giggles, and flashes a grin. Her fish is nibbling already. ‘Mum’s in the front room. I’ll be right back.’

Ben is staring at Bess. ‘Can I put the kettle on?’ he asks.

‘Sure,’ she replies, tossing her head over her shoulder to look at him once more before she catwalks down the hallway. ‘That’d be lovely.’ She lets the towel drop slightly to expose the nipple of her left breast.

Ben gapes. Her fish is hooked.

She moves her head, ever so slightly, to indicate he can follow her. He does. Men are so stupid, she muses. In her room, she lets the towel drop to floor. Ben immediately goes to her, places his hands on her arms and looks at her.

‘God, I knew you’d grow up to be stunning,’ he murmurs.

Bess tastes bile. She’s twenty-five, he must be nearly fifty. What a loser. But this is the only way she knows how to avenge her mum.

And, as he’s thrusting inside her, grunting and sweating, Bess reaches for the brick she placed earlier under the doona. She lifts it high and belts it down on his head, over and over again, until he collapses on her. His blood is warm, it trickles from the back of his head to her face. She throws up.

Bess walks to where Jilly sits. ‘It’s done. Mum, he’s gone.’

Jilly nods her head and her lips curl into a smile. Bess gasps.




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