Maria could say something like, “It’s fine, I ate earlier.”
Or, “I’ll have something when you’re in bed.”
Or maybe, “Mummy’s not hungry tonight, babe, you finish it.”
And then Emma will shrug, and toss her plait over her shoulder, and scrape her plate clean.
Later, when lying on the sofa in Dr. Emma’s hospital (plastic stethoscope, old Calpol spoon), Maria will put that meal – that not-meal – into her savings account. As she lies there (close your eyes Mummy, you have a nasty bump on your head) she will float the chips and beans on the stock exchange, try to calculate their worth. She imagines men in dark suits and bright ties, pointing and shouting, making signs with their fingers. BUY! BUY! BUY! The growling pangs in her belly will be worth half a chapter of a textbook on kidney function, two packets of biros.
She knows the going rates. On the long evenings, sitting under a blanket on the sofa with the lights out, Maria has calculated every penny. Example: if she brushes her teeth only once every 48 hours, the toothpaste tube will last four times as long; that’s two tubes a year instead of eight; that’s £4.80 less; that’s a few minutes of an oncology lecture or marking for one fifth of an essay on the adrenal gland. BUY! BUY! BUY! SELL! SELL! SELL!
Or perhaps she will take her sacrifices to a second-hand dealer, a junkyard merchant, a dabbler in antiques. He’ll squint at the items she places carefully on his leather-topped table:
a dozen teabags re-used three times each,
two pairs of frayed jeans (knees absent),
a space where the boxes of tampons she didn’t buy don’t sit,
a couple of hundred missed breakfasts.
He will examine each one then sniff and suck his teeth. And he will offer her half an hour of private tuition before Emma’s biology A-level, half a page of notes from a second-year anatomy lecture, half a train ticket home for Christmas at the end of her first term.
Or maybe Maria will bundle it all up –
the cracked sealant round the bath,
the missing two degrees on the boiler thermostat,
the evenings spent scrubbing blood from her knickers at the kitchen sink,
the excuses about haircuts and birthday parties and school trips,
the million times she’s added it all up and shaken her head and added it all up again.
She will take it all and dump it at the feet of an unknown god. And when it has been weighed and sifted, he will give her this: a moment, 30 years from now, nestled in a matchbox.
(You can wake up now, Mummy. I made you better.)
Whenever she needs it, Maria will slide open the drawer of the box, and there, in perfect miniature, will be a doctor – a surgeon, maybe. A Senior Consultant. The doctor will be standing in front of her bathroom mirror, undoing her plait. She will wash her face and rub in an expensive night cream. And as Maria watches her, she will brush her teeth until they gleam, spitting the money down the sink.
Chloe Banks is the creator of one novel (THE ART OF LETTING GO, 2014), a small handful of prize-winning short fiction and two young boys. When not trying to tame words or children, she likes to walk the hills thinking up stories which she then usually forgets. Website: chloebanks.co.uk. Twitter: @ChloeTellsTales