Monday, February 10, 2020

My Mother Sent Me a Parcel by Anne Goodwin

Anne Goodwin's character is sent an unexpected package by her overbearing mother.

My mother sent me a parcel. I must admit I was surprised. She'd never been one for spontaneous displays of affection, and it wasn't my birthday or Christmas. The postman must have been equally surprised to find me still in my pyjamas when he handed over the parcel at almost noon. He didn't show it though. Like window cleaners and refuse collectors, postal workers have a knack of affecting indifference to the mess glimpsed beyond our front doors.

At least my pyjamas were presentable, royal blue silk with white piping around the edges. The kind of pyjamas you might wear to park your SUV on double yellow lines while dropping off your darlings at school. If you had children, that is. Or an SUV. Or a motorised vehicle of any genre to your name. These were pyjamas worth maxing out your credit card for, nightwear to smooth your transition to sleeping alone. I like to think the postman respected that when he passed me the parcel from my mother.

I knew it was from my mother because of the prominently placed label with her name and address beneath the words IF UNDELIVERED PLEASE RETURN TO. I thought it strange she'd be anxious the parcel might not find its way to the flat she'd visited every other month for the past ten years. Even if I'd done a flit and not told her, she'd have her ways of sniffing me out. She was that kind of mother.

My mother had inscribed her details in immaculate capitals, each letter as if cast by a printer, whereas she'd scrawled mine carelessly across the packaging, missing a digit from the postcode and obscuring the last letter of my name with the stamp. If it weren't for IF UNDELIVERED you'd think she wanted to send the parcel to herself.

I placed my mother's parcel on the worktop in the kitchen and went back to what I'd been doing when the doorbell rang, which was sitting in bed with my laptop, not writing my dissertation. With the deadline three weeks away, all I'd written was the introduction and I'd probably have to scrap that. The parallel between the subject matter - shifting concepts of coming-of-age in the last half-century - and my own shaky journey to adulthood wasn't lost on me. That might have gone some way towards explaining why my bed was strewn with scribbled notes on yellow post-its and lined sheets of A4. I was drowning in ideas that gurgled away like water down the plughole as soon as I tried to transfer them to the screen.

After typing a couple of sentences and deleting them, I kidded myself the postman had fractured my concentration - as if I had a creative flow to interrupt - and I was due an early lunch. Eating cottage cheese from the carton as I waited for the kettle to boil, I inspected my mother's parcel: a box the length and breadth of my laptop, although deeper and half the weight. Wrapped in brown paper with crisscrossed string bisecting both addresses, it might have been an artefact from an earlier age. From a time when young women progressed directly from their childhood bedrooms to the altar and, while the virtues of recycling and vintage had yet to be articulated, every housewife kept a drawer stuffed with bits and pieces just in case.

You know that feeling when you've consumed a bar of chocolate before you've given yourself permission to eat a single square? That's how it was with my mother's parcel: I'd snipped through the string and ripped off the paper before my brain had registered a shred of curiosity about the contents.

The lid bore a line drawing of fur-lined boots in a frumpy style. Not the ideal gift as we approached midsummer, especially as these were a size too small. A space opened up inside me, the kind that can only be filled with a family-sized tub of ice cream. But then it closed again of its own accord. Perhaps you've come of age when you can accept that, if your mother sends you footwear, it'll be boots that only see daylight when she bundles you outside for a bracing walk.

Raising the lid revealed balls of scrunched-up tissue paper. If these held boots, they'd been designed for a doll. Opening up one of the balls, I remembered games of pass the parcel, my excitement waning as the prize shrank with each layer of wrapping peeled away. Yet the girl I'd been would have appreciated the coil of spotted ribbon I now discovered, although it was a strange present for a daughter pushing thirty, even if that daughter had the yearnings of a child. I left the ribbon snaking across the worktop while I poured my coffee. When I picked it up again the colours sprang out at me: the blue spots the perfect match for my pyjamas, the white chiming with the trim.

Taking a slug of coffee, I plunged into the box for another ball of tissue. The plain black button I found inside was even more confusing. Was I meant to find a use for these items, or were they souvenirs of my past? Although wiped from my memory, I could easily imagine my shoulder-length hair being held off my face with a blue-spotted ribbon. And the button could have come from my school blazer.

The contents of the next package were even more disturbing. Why would my mother send me a pair of plastic handcuffs joined by three links of chain? If I'd ever been turned on by bondage, I'd have kept it from my mother. I felt caught between curiosity and alarm at the prospect of checking out what other improbable items she'd sent.

By the time I'd finished my coffee, the kitchen floor was awash with discarded tissue paper. Spread out along the worktop, along with the ribbon, button and handcuffs, were a roll of porridge-coloured masking tape, a roll of silver-grey duct tape, and a ball of green garden twine. Among them, and the only thing I recognised, was a cracked leather dog lead belonging to the beagle that died when I was six. Finally, I found a blurred photograph of a baby on a woman's lap: me and my mother, or random strangers she'd disinterred at an antiques fair?

There's another party game: a cloth is momentarily whisked from a tray of intriguing objects and you have to write down as many as you can remember while the clock marks time. Unless she'd succumbed to very early-onset dementia, my mother must have sent this motley collection for a reason. It had to be some failing in my capacity as a daughter that I hadn't the slightest idea what it was.

I was psyching myself up to ring her when the first few bars of "Someone Like You" summoned me to the bedroom. I found my phone beneath a page of notes on Generation Rent.

"I didn't think I'd catch you," said my mother.

So much for my suspicion she'd installed a secret camera in my flat.

"How's the writing going?" she continued. Before I could fathom an answer, she began a convoluted account of a work colleague she'd always despised turning her dissertation into a book. I then had to wait while she tried to remember the topic. "It's on the tip of my tongue. Something similar to yours."

I sauntered back to the kitchen with my phone at my ear. "Mum," I said, "that parcel you sent me..."

"Intrusive parents!" she announced. "Now surely there's nothing new to be said about that." She launched into the familiar story of her own controlling mother who'd even gate-crashed her honeymoon. "Things are so much easier these days. Mothers and daughters are like sisters, going boozing together and swapping clothes. Nine times out of ten, when you see a bunch of girls on a hen night, it's the mother of the bride who's the most raucous. In fact, that's why I phoned you. I found the perfect venue for yours."

I slipped my hand through the cardboard core of the roll of masking tape. It made a particularly chunky bangle. "Mum, I'm single at the moment..."

"I know that," she snapped. "What do you take me for? But you'll find someone soon enough and this place gets booked up two years in advance. If you come up this weekend we can check it out. We're overdue another girls' night."

I fingered the dog lead, brought it to my face for a sniff of old leather and beagle. "What about my dissertation?"

"You can't study twenty-four seven, it's not healthy. And we haven't seen you for weeks."

Scrutinising the photograph, I noticed how the baby perched awkwardly on the mother's lap, as if struggling to wriggle free. I could almost feel the pressure of those constraining arms. "I'll think about it," I said, but I wouldn't. I'd already made up my mind.

"That's my girl! Now, did you get that parcel I sent you?"

I didn't need to know why she'd sent the jumble of fasteners. Whatever explanation she might come up with, the overriding theme was clear. In fact, I could kick myself for not noticing it earlier. Even the postman must have sensed my mother's message. I liked to think that shouty IF UNDELIVERED made him pause.

How many of my relationships had fizzled out with the guy complaining I was tied to my mother? Would it always be that way? "Sorry, Mum, got to dash, I've got a deadline to meet."

Before she could speak, I pressed the red phone icon, killing the connection. I gathered up the bindings and dumped them in the bin. Without them, the worn worktop seemed refreshingly uncluttered. It was up to me how to use the space.

But that would have to wait until I'd finished my dissertation. Each section clear in my head, I grabbed another cup of coffee and hurried back to bed.

18 comments:

  1. A very well written story. I like that it can be interpreted that the young woman used her mother's package to "get her life together". Thank you for sharing.

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  2. Thanks, James, so glad you liked it.

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  3. Witty, precise, intelligent work. Funny, too. I really enjoyed and plowed through it even though this is the time of day my brain has usually given up by. Loved the careful use of non sequitur, clever similes, and the evolving relationship with the mother, who, in letting go seems to free the narrator. Beautiful and touching. I even liked the UK lilt.

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    1. Thanks for ploughing through, Chris, and for your lovely feedback. Glad it still worked for a US audience.

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  4. ...porridge-coloured masking tape, a roll of silver-grey duct tape, and a ball of green garden twine... a cracked leather dog lead... Cutting the umbilical cord, very late. Mother understood the need to let go. Daughter didn't even see the cord. Very well written.

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    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, Rosemary. I'm intrigued that you read it as mother happy to let go and daughter reluctance, as I had thought of it the other way round. But I I love it when readers experience something different. Thanks.

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  5. By the way, I've published 5 more stories about daughters in a FREE SHORT STORY E-BOOK FOR My NEWSLETTER SUBSCRIBERS http://eepurl.com/gyaFpr

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  6. I like the bit about the pyjamas and the description of the present Funny story.

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    1. Thanks, Harris, I'm so pleased to know the story worked for you.

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  7. There is so much I admire and enjoy about Ms. Goodwin’s story. Such mastery of effective fictive techniques—the deadpan, self-effacing narrator; the cumulative details that can create suspense and anticipation over the opening of a parcel, of all things!; the backstory and current situation revealed through inanimate objects (brilliant); the sly interruptions to the plot (when will she finish opening that box? what’s in it? what do the objects mean?) as the narrator becomes lost in thought; the sadness and anger that underlies the overt comedy; the memories that each item in the box evokes; the epiphanic moment when the narrator fully understands the significance of the objects.

    The surface story is a young woman humorously pondering the meaning of her mother’s parcel. The subtext is a woman “pushing thirty,” longing to find a partner. I love the rich and telling details—the sly reference to Adele’s “Someone Like You” about a person who wants to find a man to love. The reference to the altar and the mother’s talk about the “mother of the bride,” as well as her funny, but heartbreaking idea to book a venue for the narrator’s marriage two years in advance, create such pathos. You can feel the daughter’s humiliation and sense of entrapment. “Mum, I’m single at the moment,” she says. Even the pyjamas speak to the narrator’s angst: “nightwear to smooth your transition to sleeping alone.” There is great humor in this story, but there is also touching sadness, longing, and eventually, anger and rebellion. A woman struggling financially—"notes on Generation Rent”—and emotionally. She is literally and figuratively boxed in by a controlling mother who has driven away men who complained she was too tied to her mother. Consider her insight that the baby in the photograph was “struggling to wriggle free” (another perfect detail that works on multiple levels).

    I was delighted when the narrator literally and figuratively “killed the connection” by hanging up on her mother, and dumped the “bindings” in the bin. You sense she has freed herself when she says, “It was up to me to use the space.” As a reader, you are joyful in her triumph.

    An exquisite and intelligent tale that works on many levels and ends perfectly! You are a wonderful writer, Ms. Goodwin. Thank you.

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    1. A positive reaction is one of my stories and I'm smiling. An analysis of how and why it worked is a gift. A long and detailed comment is extra generous. To have all of these, I'll be grinning for the rest of the week.
      I can't thank you enough for your time and thoughtfulness.

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  8. Really loved this story. The use of the package and picture was great. Such great writing here.

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  9. There are so many hints sprinkled throughout the tale to help drive home the theme, it is saturated with symbology almost to the point of absurdity...and it works to great effect in this story. Love this sort of tale, always makes me want to re-read and find all of the hidden gems I missed on my first pass.

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  10. I really enjoyed this story. The slow reveal of the package's contents build the tension, and I felt the story was going to take a dark turn when the final list of contents was revealed (masking date, duct tape, handcuffs).

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    1. Ah, there's an idea, Mike! I do have some darker stories but didn't even think of that angle for this one. Maybe that's one for you to write?

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  11. Entertaining and thought-provoking, weaving strands of humour into a story that is both serious and sad; the misuse of control, however well intended, and its consequenes. There was some hope for this mother-daughter relationship in that the mother's parcel was an acknowledgement and a covert apology!
    Beryl.

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