The Tragedy of Perception

Someone’s drunk Lily’s milk, and eccentric weed extermination

In which Thomas Smithe reluctantly visits his mother who mistakes him for a tradesperson and then adopts an eccentric style of weed extermination.

Thomas and Helen Smithe were paying their usual weekly visit to Thomas’s mother. They parked in Niggling Grievance Street, then Helen grabbed Thomas’s sleeve and pulled him along the pavement.

On either side of the street was a row of terraced houses with small front gardens; and along the street were dotted the occasional low stumps of elm trees, as though the street were the crippled survivor of some historical hostility. A handful of cars were parked in the street and there was a steadily increasing flow of traffic—since the rush hour was approaching and the street had the misfortune to serve as a short cut for drivers who were impatient to reduce any unwelcome portion of their day.

Helen stopped at Number 52, opened the garden’s small, iron‑work gate, then looked back and saw Thomas trying to escape. She darted over to him and said, “She’s your mother, Thomas—your mother!” She pulled him through the gate and along the path to the front door, then stood there with one hand gripping his sleeve and the other held on the bell push. A rapid tapping sound came from the front window. She looked round and saw Thomas’s mother, Lily Smithe, holding the net curtain aside, peering round it and shouting, “Yes? Yes?”

Helen quickly released Thomas’s sleeve, shouted back, “Hello, Lily, it’s us!” and smiled pleasantly.

Lily shouted, “Yes? Yes?”

Helen pointed to the front door and smiled again.

Lily frowned at her, “Yes?” looked doubtful, “Yes?” hesitated for a moment, said, “Ye—?” and released the curtain.

Thomas snapped, “Ridiculous!”

“Shut your face.”

“If she asks for a password, I’m going.”

Helen half watched the door and half watched Thomas and whispered to him—as if talking at a funeral service, “Don’t be silly; why should she?”

He shouted, “She did last week.”

Helen watched the front door—as if returning her full attention to the service—and whispered, “She was just confused, that’s all.”

“Confused!”

The door opened slightly and Lily watched them warily through the narrow gap.

Helen smiled and said hello.

Lily watched them for a moment, then muttered, “Oh yes—” and opened the door wide.

They both stood in the hallway as she leant out of the front door and—apparently checking to see that no hostile neighbours were lying in wait there—she carefully peered round the whole garden, then looked into the street, scowling at every window along the opposite terrace. She nodded to herself—apparently satisfied—closed the door, stepped over to the stair‑cupboard and started wrestling with its door—while Thomas and Helen exchanged questioning glances—then she opened the cupboard and told Thomas, “The gas meter’s in here.”

He said, through gritted teeth, “I’m Thomas!—we’ve come to visit you.”

Lily pointed her finger warningly and said, “I don’t want to buy anything—”

“I’m Thomas!”

She watched him doubtfully, then wandered into the living room, muttering, “Suppose you could come in.”

In the living room, the tea things were laid out ready on a small table. Lily sat in her easy chair and warned Thomas as he entered the room, “You’ll have to be quick though—I’m expecting visitors.”

“We are the visitors, mother!”

She sat up, “Mother— mother— shall I be mother?”

Thomas said, through gritted teeth, “No, I said, ‘We are the vis—i—tors!’ ”

She watched him blankly, then muttered, “Well, sit down then; I can probably spare you a cup—you’ll have to be quick though.”

He groaned and sat on the sofa, nursing his abdomen, as if an old wound were playing him up.

Helen sat beside him, ignoring him, and cheerfully said to Lily, “So, how are you keeping?”

Lily looked at the teapot (—But how much can I spare?). She looked at the cups—the three cups that were already laid out, and with milk and sugar already placed in each. She wondered who placed the milk and sugar in them for her, without even telling her—and thinking she was too stupid to lay out the cups herself. She scowled at the woman on the sofa, then heard the woman asking her what she was keeping (—Who do they think they are?—they come in here, wanting tea and milk, sugar as well, but won’t even read the gas meter; face seems familiar though, seen that somewhere… Oh, it’s her—come back has she?—she thinks I’ve not suffered enough yet—I know all about her, seen her before somewhere… Too stupid, am I?—thinks that, does she?—and what’s she looking at?).

Lily turned away but she could still hear the woman pestering her—“Keeping, keeping, what are you keeping?”—and Lily looked back at the woman, “Keeping, I’m not keeping anything—what you talking about, ‘keeping’!” She snatched up the teapot and started pouring the tea (I can spare half a cup each, no more. I’ll leave mine till my visitors come). She put the teapot down and noisily pushed the two half‑full cups across the table. She looked at her own cup, thought about getting two more for when her visitors came but then realized she may have run out of milk. She tried visualizing the milk bottle (—I’ll never have enough, not if it’s empty. These people—won’t even read the gas meter, and now sitting here drinking my tea—my tea, with my milk in it, my milk). She shouted at Thomas, “I’ve written to the MP about it; I have.”

Thomas shouted, “What—you’ve done what?”

Helen said, “Thomas!”

Thomas shouted at his mother, “What have you done?—tell me, tell me.”

Helen gaped at him.

Thomas shouted, “You old… You old…” and bent forward, clutching his abdomen. Then he shouted through gritted teeth: “She’s ruined it.”

Helen gasped, “Thomas!”

“The old bat’s ruined it.”

“Thomas, don’t speak to her like that.”

“But what about the petition—?”

Helen gave him a puzzled look.

He said, “The petition, the petition. I’ve got to go to the MP’s house—how can I go there now—after she’s sent her senile ramblings to him—he’ll recognize my name.”

Helen said, “Of course he won’t.”

“He will; he will—she’s ruined it—I can’t go there now.”

“Of course you can.”

“How can I; he’ll know I’m related to—” Thomas turned and spat the word out at his mother, “—her.”

Helen said, “Of course he won’t.”

“Is that all you can say?”

She told him, “Shut up and drink your tea.”

He shouted at Lily, “Senile old bat!”

“Thomas!”

“—Old bat!”

“Thomas, shut up and drink your tea.”

“Old bat. She’s ruined it—look at her—she’s ruined it and she doesn’t even know.” He shouted at his mother, “Listen to me, you senile old bat!”

Helen gaped at him.

Lily was watching his face. She was sure she had seen him somewhere before but could not think where. Then she started recalling that place, the asylum; she could still clearly see its wards and corridors, even after all these years. And while continuing to watch this man raging at her from the sofa, she recalled the noise of the mob as they clung to her like the collapsing walls of some confined pit she had stumbled into. They were pushing her along a corridor, shouting, “Butcher’s wife!” Then they pushed her into that room; and she could still recall the sight of their close‑up faces and the feel of each of them entering her in turn like a series of brutally curious snakes, each determined to plant him inside her, so he would grow and grow until he, too, would become like them.

She continued watching the face as it raged at her. Yes, it was him, her second son, Thomas (—But why’s he come back here?—and after all this time, and just to read the gas meter? And who’s that woman beside him?—arguing with him and smiling at me—she keeps doing it!—what does she mean?). Lily heard the woman saying something about, “...your bloody petition again.” And then, “What does it matter?” And it seemed to Lily they must be talking about the gas meter: what does it matter about reading that when they can drink all her tea—“After all, what does it matter?”

Lily heard the man saying something about, “...her see‑nine letter to the MP.” But that could not be right, so perhaps he was saying, “I’ve seen nine letters to the MP.” Then she heard him saying there was room in the letter; he kept shouting this at the woman on the sofa, “There’s room in it and she doesn’t know.” And Lily wondered what there could possibly be room in the ninth letter for.

She watched his angry face, and suddenly the face seemed unfamiliar again. She knew he was connected with Tommy, her young boy, but she could not work out how. She could imagine Tommy’s face, and she could even hear his voice, a small boy’s voice, calling to her from somewhere nearby (—Yes, that’s where he is—playing in the garden. And he’ll want his dinner soon; what can I make? something for—), something for her dear little boy, the only one she had left now—they had taken her first one, Peter, and now she only had Tommy, her dear little Tommy.

She saw the man on the sofa glaring at her, then realized who he was, for she now remembered it was this man who stole her Tommy from her (—And now he’s come back to boast about it—“I’ve taken your Tommy, so you can’t have him any more, so there”—that’s just what he’s done).

The man was shouting at her, “Senile old bat!” He kept repeating this, over and over, and suddenly it was all too much for her and she stood up and shouted back, “I’m a bat!” shouting this at that man on the sofa; and also at everyone else, all those other disgusting objects of hatred. She slowly waved her arms up and down and shouted, “I’m a bat!—flap, flap.”

She noticed the man crouching forward and she could see that what she was doing was making him suffer. But his agony was not enough. She went into the hall, opened the front door, stepped out into the front garden and shouted, “I’m a bat!”

She saw the narrow flowerbed that ran along the garden’s left edge, and, while slowly waving her arms up and down and continuing to shout, she hopped along the flowerbed while being careful to only flatten the soil in between the quivering plants, as if it were the custom in this neighbourhood to employ this eccentric style of weed extermination.

She stepped into the geraniums beneath the front window and peered in at the window. She saw the man and woman still sitting there on the sofa—the man still apparently suffering. But his agony was not nearly enough. She banged on the window and shouted in at them, “I’m a bat—flap, flap,” and each time she shouted this, she spat it out as if delivering a blow to that man. She could feel the words biting into his body and making him cringe, “—flap, flap.” And the idea that she was causing him pain and thus gaining revenge, somehow satisfied her, “—flap! flap!”

She crossed the garden, opened the gate and walked into the street, shouting, “There’s not enough room in the letter—flap, flap. Have some more milk, take it all—flap, flap; I’m a bat—flap...”

Back in the living room, Helen half watched the opposite wall and half watched Thomas while whispering to him—as if back at that funeral service again, “Well done.”

Thomas was still bending forward over his knees, clutching his abdomen. He groaned and slowly rocked back and forth while moaning. But apart from that, he made no response.

Helen returned her full attention to the service.

Outside in Niggling Grievance Street, the street was now in the middle of its afternoon rush hour. Lily Smithe circled round behind a parked car while slowly waving her arms up and down and shouting, “I’m a bat,” then swooped back out into the road again. Another car screeched to a halt and its horn blared. She leant over its bonnet and shouted in at the driver, “There’s not enough room in the letter—flap, flap. They’re drinking all my milk!—flap, flap.”

The driver’s mouth hung open.

Lily banged her hand on the bonnet, shouted, “I’m a bat,” then swooped back out into the middle of the road. Another car screeched to a halt, its horn blared and its driver shouted.

All around the street, car headlights flashed, fists waved out of car windows, and neighbours peered round curtains and watched from doorways, some with their hands cupped incredulously against their ears while others seemed to be frowning as they pushed their noses around as if twisting tuning dials on their evidently‑faulty radio sets.

Lily hopped onto the opposite pavement, circled another parked car, then swooped back out into the street, all the time shouting at the top of her voice, “Drink all my milk—go on, go on—there’s not enough room in the letter.”

Helen Smithe was now hiding behind the front door of Number 52 with the door open just enough for her to see into the street. She called through the gap, “Lily—your tea’s getting cold.”

Lily flapped her arms and shouted, “I’m expecting visitors—drink all my tea, go on. Stamp along the flowerbed—flap, flap—it’s not enough yet; it’s not enough—I’m a bat—have some more milk.”

Helen courageously edged the front door open further, poked her head out into the open and called, “Lily—come in and drink your tea.” She watched Lily swoop back out into the road and then start tormenting the halted cars again while continuing to shout to the growing crowd of pedestrians and to all those faces framed in doorways and peering round the curtains along the opposite terrace.

Helen called to her, “Lily… Lily!” But above the commotion, she was certain Lily would never hear her, not from where she stood. She tentatively put her foot out over the doorstep, leant forward a little and looked along the street. She was just about to step out when she changed her mind, retreated back into the living room, sat beside Thomas and told him, “You go and get her in—she’s your mother.”

Thomas was still bent forward, clutching his abdomen. In response to Helen’s comment, he simply continued rocking back and forth.

Helen told him, under her breath, “Thomas—don’t just sit there.”

As if in response, Thomas made that half-moaning, half-whimpering sound again.

She gasped, “Thomas—”

He looked sideways at her—while still clutching his abdomen—and watched her discomfort for a moment. Then he snarled at her, “Enjoying the visit, dear?”

She glared at him and returned to watching the wall opposite, as if engaged in a gruelling staring contest with the wall. Her head was about to start quivering with the effort when she noticed the silence outside. Thomas and herself watched each other. The silence continued for a moment, then the living‑room door burst open and Lily entered, still waving her arms up and down and shouting, “I’m a bat.”

Helen’s face relaxed and she sighed, as if a mortally embarrassing weed had been uprooted from her garden. She smiled and said, “Sit down and drink your tea, Lily.” She half watched Lily and half watched Thomas while whispering to him—as if back at that funeral service, “Go and deliver your petition, Thomas—you’ve done enough here for one day.”

Thomas, while still clutching his abdomen, moaned, through gritted teeth, “How can I go now—?”

Helen told him, “Don’t be silly.”

“She’s ruined it.”

Lily shouted, “There’s room in it somewhere.”

Helen said, “Of course she hasn’t.”

Thomas looked up and shouted at his mother, “Old bat; you senile old bat!”

Helen gasped, “Thomas!”

Lily, who was still standing up, frowned at him for a moment, then pointed and said, “I know who your father was.”

Thomas’s face drained of colour, as if that wound in his abdomen had broken open.

Lily said, “He was a cripple; it was the fourth one.”

Thomas shouted, in desperation, “Liar! liar!—she’s senile; you can’t believe a word she says; it’s all rubbish.”

Lily bent her foot sideways and limped around the room, dragging her foot behind her.

Thomas could hardly focus his eyes as he watched her performance, and he became aware of a sensation in his chest like a clenched fist. Then Helen started laughing at him and he could feel the fist clenching tighter.

Lily pointed at him again and said, “It was him!—the fourth one.” Then, while still dragging her foot behind her, she shouted at the top of her voice, “I’m a cripple—take all my milk; there’s not enough room in the letter.”

Helen now seemed to be laughing uncontrollably and Thomas could take no more of this. He stood up and pushed passed Helen—who was now lying sideways on the sofa, apparently being tortured by her own laughter—and as he left the room he shouted back at them, “Bastards!”

He flew out into the hall, through the front door, along the garden path, kicked the gate open and stepped out onto the pavement. He turned back to the house, shouted, “I’ll get you for this,” and kicked the garden wall as hard as he could. He crouched on the pavement, gripping his foot as the pain swelled within him and seemed to paralyse his lungs. He panted a few times, stood up straight, took a deep breath and shouted at the house, “I’ll get you—” then limped along the pavement towards his car.

Mercifully, the rush hour had now all but passed, and there were only a few lingering neighbours left in the street to gape at Thomas’s encore to Lily’s performance. But as if to demonstrate the audience’s appreciation, a handful of curtains fluttered into life here and there along both terraces following Thomas’s farewell hail to his wife and mother.

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