Exclusive extract from SR Wilsher’s novel, ‘Mint’

August 15th 1976

The daylight is ending as I return to the shop, the dregs of the sun in the top windows of the taller building opposite. I let myself in with the key handed back to me with my personal belongings yesterday. A brown-box time capsule, too big for my belongings. My watch, the keys, and a couple of pounds in loose change. I have the clothes I’m standing in, and my life in my pocket.

I’m surprised the key fits. My life had changed so little in prison, it left me imagining the rest of the world spinning away from me. In reality, not much has altered here either.

I expect an empty shop; the rolls of cloth sold, the buttons lost, the shop fittings looted. Brace myself for dust and dirt and the death of this place an equivalence of my mother. Instead, it manages to rescue what little light is hanging around at this hour to shine with the electric rainbow of brilliant material stacked with clashing disregard. From floor to ceiling, the shelves hold the history of her life here. She floated around the rest of the building like she didn’t quite fit, yet her feet anchored themselves here. She had lifted the rolls deftly without concern for their bulk, rolled and worked on the cutting table with swift confidence. When I was small, I liked to come here and sit on the stool behind the counter while the shop lived its life. Or I had until the teenage world called and I ceded the seat to Sam.

The wooden till drawer under the counter is empty.

The kitchen in the ground floor wing on the back of the building is small and basic. It exists behind the curtain of the shop theatre, and has therefore been accorded less attention. It had once been my favourite space, so much had gone on here. Long talks and raucous laughter. The cold, damp bathroom beyond the kitchen remains my least favourite place.

The cream enamel oven is a freestanding unit she bought on tick, cheerfully tripping to the Gas office once a month to make the hire purchase payment and get her book stamped. A rectangle of fifteen red quarry tiles is set on the floor in front of it. I’m better able to imagine the glass dish she once dropped and smashed than to picture her kneeling on the floor with her head inside trying to bring her life to an end. Any image of her refuses to form.

I fill the steel kettle from the cold tap hanging from the wall above the square sink and plug it in. The cutlery, crockery, and the coffee are in their place. There’s little in the fridge, and what’s there has turned. I empty the milk into the sink and the food into the bin.

I go upstairs to the other place we congregated, the small corner on the first-floor landing with the ragged sofa in front of the spindly-legged television. I recall her watching the old black and white whilst sitting amongst a mound of sewing. A newer colour television sits outside of her room in front of the now more-ragged sofa.

We had come and gone from here as a family, while the layout prevented us living as such.

Her bedroom is shadowed yellow from a sun at dusk sky, and I turn on the weak ceiling bulb. The room is unchanged. The familiar big flowered wallpaper, and the vaguely complementary pulled taut orange candlewick bedspread. The faded-lime carpet had been old when I was a child. A dress and a coat on hangars are hooked over the wardrobe door, open because it’s overfull. An emerald green dress lies across the foot of the bed, as if she selected it for her own laying out. The dressing table is as cluttered as I remembered. The room as if she stepped out moments ago.

The suitcase on top of her wardrobe contains the clothes I left behind. Only clothes. I told her to get rid of everything else. Fresh starts demand such decisions, and she promised. She understood my life hadn’t been one of sentiment.

Lara’s bedroom on the back of the house overlooks the neighbours’ shadowed rear yards. What’s left of the daylight helps make out the neat flower borders of the wool shop, and the stacked marble and granite of the Stonemason’s. Beyond, is an enclosed wasteland of tufted grass, mounded mud, and broken concrete. A dangerous playground, or potential money-spinner? The reason Freeman wants the shop.

On her bedside table an open book lies face down. Crossing the Water. On the plain white wall above the bed is pinned a film poster of The Exorcist. On the adjacent inner wall an Aladdin Sane poster partially covers a Bay City Rollers one. The shift from unembarrassed child to self-conscious teen. The single wardrobe holds some clothes. This room is less occupied than the other.

Her record player is on the floor beneath the window. Half a dozen albums lean against the wall, kept in place by a small tower of 45’s. On the turntable is a warped and dusty Chi-Lites single. I close the lid to prevent more dust spoiling the machine.

I don’t go into the windowless attic room, taking it all in from the doorway. I try not to see the small access door to the eaves, but I can’t not. It’s occupied my mind for too many years.

It’s Sam’s room now. With the ceiling too steeply pitched for a wardrobe, the furniture is a chest of drawers poorly painted in purple, and an unmade mattress on the floor. Above the dresser are a few ragged images badly torn from magazines; A Clockwork Orange, Slade, Roxy Music. The walls are time-spoiled white, the inner wall half painted in a deep red gloss. The manic brushstrokes peter out halfway to the door, as if whoever has ill-preparedly run out of paint, or grown bored with the effort. Either likely with Sam.

I choose Lara’s bed. The least poor choice. I like the block of darkness of the huge furniture store in the street beyond the open land. A high plain wall not unlike the outer bulwark of a prison. I appreciate the absence of noise. Freedom has vanquished the night shouts and the background hysterics of incensed men.

I leave the curtains, allowing the poor light from a small-town to channel across the backyards and into the room. I open the window onto the sultry night. The heady build of heat through a long dry summer has made rain a stranger, and I long for its return, ache for a refreshing downpour.

The empty drawers in Sam’s room, and the missing clothes from this one, suggests they’ve moved out. I presume the absence of life means they’re with their father.

I’d spent nine years among the vilest of men. Yet I’d never experienced the level of terror in prison that had been generated by the man I’d grown up with. A man worse than any of them. Coming home means facing him. I’ll go in the morning.

You can read a review of SR Wilsher’s novel ‘Mint’ here

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