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My Mam's tougher than your Mam

Andrew Kirby


AJ Kirby is the author of the novels Paint this Town Red, Bully and Sharkways, and the non-fiction book Fergie's Finest. His short fiction has been published across the web, and in magazines, anthologies and literary journals, as well as in two collections: The Art of Ventriloquism and Mix Tape. He was one of 20 Leeds-based authors under 40 recently shortlisted for the LS13 competition and his novel Paint this Town Red was shortlisted for last year's The Guardian Not the Booker prize. He blogs at



            Spirited woman, my Mam. Dad called her high-strung. Said her emotions were all over the shop. Said she had no control over them at all.

            She told me he was Bob-on wrong. She said though she was sad, she’d always get done what needed to get done. For us. For me.

            Dad said that made me spoiled. He said she’d spoiled me with all those treats after he upped and left.

            Dad said a lot of things. Most of them I didn’t agree with.

            I’d thought Mam was on the mend. Coming out the other side of it so to speak. Got her old spirit back. But then, she came home and I knew that for the lie it was.

           As soon as Mam stepped through the front door, I could tell that there was something wrong. Where was that long sigh of relief that she always made as she heard the door click shut behind her and she knew she was safe?

           I looked up from the television, immediately reading the worried look on her face and making wild presumptions based upon it. ‘What’s up, Mam?’ I asked, absently pressing the mute button on the remote control.

           Mam leaned back against the front door but didn’t say anything. I was shocked to note how pallid her face had become.

          ‘Fancy a cuppa?’ I asked. ‘There’s still some of them choccy digestives left as well.’

           Mam simply shook her head in that weary way she gets when I’m the one bringing home the bad news.

           ‘Sit down,’ I said, ushering her through into the front room as though she’d never seen it before. And in a way, she was a stranger at that moment. I could just tell that her mind was off somewhere else. She sat down nervously, on the edge of the seat and frowned. She hadn’t even taken her big coat off. In the brighter light of the front room, I could now discern the red rims around her eyes which suggested that she’d been crying.

           I’d never actually seen Mam cry before, but I’d heard her soft sobs carrying through the house’s thin upstairs walls. I’d seen the red rims before in the mornings, too, as she made me an extra couple of extra rashers of bacon for breakfast or a second fried egg. When I was little, I used to think that she only got the red rims when she cooked. I thought that maybe it was a result of too much steam in the kitchen or something. Later, I realised that the red rims were actually what made her want to cook.

           ‘Something terrible’s happened,’ she said slowly. ‘I’ve done something terrible, son.’

            And then the tears did come; great droplets of misery carving a course along the contours of her face, forming larger rivulets in her wrinkles, and gathering in the delta of her nose, along with the snot. She started trying to speak, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying over the sobs and snivels.

            ‘There there,’ I said, and passed over the box of man-size tissues. She bought us man-size tissues; not boy-size or Mam-sized.

              Mam finally managed to get a rein on her emotions. ‘I was driving back from work,’ she began, ‘same way I always do. Same speed as I always do… I’m a careful driver, Matthew, you know that…’

            ‘Mam; have you crashed the car?’ I interrupted, seeing the wreck of our little green Lupo in my mind’s eye.

            ‘No, no,’ she replied, smiling. I recognised her fake smile; it was one that I used on a fairly regular basis. ‘It’s nothing like that, son; I’ve run over a cat.’

            I felt the relief creeping up inside me; the disastrous news I’d been expecting wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

           ‘It just ran out in front of the car like a mad-thing. I couldn’t stop in time. I heard it screech under the wheels. Of course, I stopped and got out. It was lying under the car all battered and bloody. I could tell that it was still alive though.’

           ‘That’s good,’ I agreed.

           ‘I’ve seen the cat before, sitting on the windowsill of one of the houses along Raven Road. It’s a real cute long-haired thing… Anyway, the only thing I could think of to do was to pick it up and carry it to the house.’

           Somewhere in the back of my mind, something started to nag away at me about Raven Road. I knew somebody that lived there, didn’t I? Only I couldn’t quite remember who…

            'I knocked at the door and a woman answered. As soon as she saw the cat, she erupted into floods of tears. She snatched the poor thing out of my arms and then made as if to close the door in my face. At the last minute, she opened it back up again and, in this little wispy voice, thanked me for bringing the cat back. She said that some people would have just driven off and left the cat to die… A young lad about your age came out to the door then too, and said he’d call the vet… Oh, Matthew! It was only then that I knew whose poor cat it was that I’d knocked down.’

            I didn’t need to even ask who the young lad had been. It was Dean Howitt; the bane of my life. Even before my mam had run over his cat, he had made my life a misery with his bottomless magic bag of humiliations and abuse. Now, every ‘fatty’, every ‘lard-arse’, and every ‘whale’ would seem like walks in the park in comparison to what he’d do to me. I was marked; branded.




Mam drove me to the school gates the next morning. I felt as though the car had been daubed in thick red paint; the word ‘murderer’ would be there for all to see. Numbly, I pecked her on the cheek and lumbered out of the passenger seat, head-bowed, ready to face my doom.

             Inside, I wanted the black and white tiles of the corridor to swallow me up; I wanted a science lab fire to catch a hold of everything. Around every corner, I expected to see Dean and his group leaning nonchalantly against the whitewashed walls, polishing their blades ready to drive into my flabby stomach.

            Sweat started to gather on my brow and trickle down my face, although it could have been tears. Maybe it was on account of my blurred vision that it took me a while to recognise him, but as soon as I did, there was no doubting who it was. It was my Dad, and he was walking arm-in-arm with Dean Howitt’s mother. They both paused in the corridor when they noticed me. They looked sheepish and rather embarrassed to be seen together.

            ‘Hello Matthew,’ said Dad, face creaking into an even faker smile than Mam had attempted the night before. ‘And how are you today?’

            I nodded that I was fine and continued to worry at my fingernails with my teeth. I didn’t really understand why the two of them were at the school together; nor why they’d been linking arms.

            ‘Will you thank your mother for bringing our Toby back last night?’ asked Dean’s mother. She was a tall, slim woman but she had terribly greasy hair, not like mam’s. ‘Toby’s our cat and he’s a little crazy sometimes. I realise that it wouldn’t have been your mother’s fault. Thanks to your mother, we got him to the vets in time. Our Dean is so happy!’

           I could have guaranteed that Dean was not happy. I could almost have guaranteed that if he had access to a car, he’d be planning to run me over in it, just to even up the score. I said nothing. Soon, the two of them walked away. Dad tipped me a wink as he turned, and then whispered something weird. He thanked me for looking after Mam while he’d been gone. He said she needed a lot of looking after. He said I’d done a good job keeping her spirits up.




Even when I turned into Raven Road and started to walk down it, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing. All I knew was that something was telling me that I needed to go up there and have a look for myself. I kept back, low behind the parked cars like I was in the army or something. Not that they would have had anyone fat in there like me.

            Too late, I realised that Dean Howitt was also out on Raven Road. He’d spotted me, but just continued perching on his front wall, kicking his legs back and forth. He kept glancing in my direction but then his eyes would return to the street as though there was something entrancing on the tarmac. Despite myself, I edged forward between two cars. And then I saw the skid-marks, clear as day. They cut across onto the wrong side of the road, those thin black smudges; those unmistakable thin black marks.

            Mam hadn’t knocked down the cat by accident; the skid-marks couldn’t lie. They cut purposefully into the path of the cat and ploughed it down. On the wall, Dean nodded but kept quiet. There was no abuse, no name-calling, nothing.

            And then I looked behind him, through the open curtains of that house on Raven Road. I saw my father looking back at me. He had his arm around Dean’s mother and a worried frown upon his face.

            As I walked away, I knew that I’d been right in my choice. I’d always known that my mother would protect me. Spirited woman, you see. Spirited as a lioness when she wants to be.


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