There was no boat, he says.
What do you mean? she says, and a hand goes up to fiddle with her hair, pulling it this way and that.
No boat, he says again. There is a sigh rising inside him and there is something he wants to prevent, something he has to stop from boiling over. He makes as if to stuff it down with coughing but she is busy with her hair. She is muttering, It was supposed to be… a boat, yes, there.
He listens to her muttering and the thing that is rising up is for a moment quietened.
It’s alright, he says. I can go another day. It’s only water.
No, she says and stops, her hand coming down, her hand fluttering towards the boy. It’s not only, she says. It was for you, and I did it, arranged it, for you. Were they? Were who? The men. Were they? There?
They said nothing to me, the boy says and again he is fighting not to, not to boil over. Our skin reveals its melody and his changes colour, the tune below a symphony of anger and disgust. My husband says nothing, she is muttering to herself. I am left here, with the boy, and him, he says nothing, and I have so much to do, a million jobs and errands, a million yellow leaves to sort and arrange, a million small animals to pet, to care for.
Mother, he says, and underneath his skin it is gentler now because he has give up on the overboiling and something in him has changed. They go about their business, mother, unaware of who they hurt, but I don’t mind, truly I don’t. So there was no boat. So what? And he comes to touch her arm and she stares into his face as if broken.
We must not declare what’s wrong, says his mother as if instructing a class, turning her neck this way and that.
No, mother, nothing’s wrong. There was no boat. No. No boat, says the boy, who sees now that there would never have been a boat, no-one knew of it and no-one saw to it.
The boy, who is almost not a boy now, almost grown and gone away, takes his mother’s arm, and she allows herself taken. He takes her into the darkened room, he lies her down, he brings her tea.
It’s nothing, Mother, he says while she lies there, gazing up. It’s only boats and water, a harbour, men working, sails and anchors, fish and fishing rods.
Yes, she says. It’s nothing. It’s only water.
And she smiles up and towards him and when she has shut her eyes and not opened them again, he stands up, with the empty cup, and moves towards the curtains to close out the world from her again.
Tania Hershman is the author of two story collections: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012), a collection of 56 very short fictions, and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008; commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers) . Tania’s short stories and poetry are published or forthcoming in, among others, Five Dials, Stinging Fly, Tears in the Fence, PANK magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, the London Magazine, and New Scientist, and on BBC Radio. She is writer-in-residence in Bristol University’s Science Faculty and editor of The Short Review, the online journal spotlighting short story collections and their authors. www.taniahershman.com