Sharon Ashton


In the garden on Christmas Eve she sits, sloe-gin-drunk, a fat black cat on her lap.

I know you’re there.

We never went away.

You can sod off. I’m not letting you in.

Tut tut − language.

She’s stroppy tonight.

It’s the gin.

Mother’s ruin.

Just twenty minutes to wait for Mary Poppins, her favourite Christmas film, a deep carpetbag full of delights.

Practically perfect

She would like some snow − just a Camelot sprinkling − not enough to stop her mother travelling down tomorrow.

There's a legal limit to the snow there, in Camelot

She is beneath the evergreens, braving pigeon droppings, gazing at her cottage. It glows like the model of a church her mother used to produce each Christmas, which, lit

from within, played Silent Night. She used to peer through its amber cellophane windows to try to see the little people her father said were inside.

Silent night, holy night, sang the little people…

She hasn’t seen her father or the little church for years, but has her own dolls house now − lit up for Christmas.

Christmas is coming, and Daddy’s getting fat, sing the little people in her doll’s house.

Without moving, she passes through the rooms of her home; intimate with each faded Edwardian watercolour in the moss-green sitting room, garlanded today with freshly cut

holly, heavy with berries.

I’m going to show you how to prepare your home for Christmas, for just a few pounds…

Sap-sweet evergreens swag the low black beams of the Hobbit-like middle room, its inglenook lit with clove-scented candles for the holiday. Here is her collection of what

the girls called “Greek and Roman stuff” − shabby, schoolgirl copies of Catullus, Civis Romanus and Mentor

Romulus marked out the walls of Rome with a plough, arā, with a plough− ablative of use…da mi basia mille…give me a thousand kisses…

In the buttercup-yellow kitchen, pungent with parsnips and cinnamon, the girls help John to peel potatoes and cut crosses in sprouts which only her mother will eat tomorrow.

What’s the difference between sprouts and bogies? Children won’t eat sprouts…

She leaves her husband and children reluctantly, passing into the dining room skewed by four hundred years of wear and tare.

There’s isn’t a straight line in this house, mate…

For a while she lingers in front of her favourite prints, a Rothko − blue to yolk-yellow to terracotta, and next to this a Miro − deep, splashing blue with a snowy form

impossible to define − now a dog’s head, now a hand, now a bird.

The thing like Tin Tin’s dog, Snowy? Actually, it’s a horse…

Her hands are cold. She places them beneath her sweater where her breasts are warm.

Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies…

It’s still there − spoiling the curve of her left breast − fixed, hard, painless.

Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee…

Deftly, despite the drink, she assesses the shape and size of the growth with her fingers. It has grown.

Didn’t we tell you it would? Didn’t we say?

I told you to go away.

You can’t keep us out forever.

I decide. I decide when. I decide how.

She writes up the clinical notes: lump > three centimetres in diameter, upper outer quadrant, left breast.

She visualises the pre-printed, faceless female torso with its left and right breasts represented by two smiling curves, ready to be completed by a woman’s tragedy.

It’s your turn to draw now, Kate.
She draws:smiley faces

But that is not what she meant at all.

Withdrawing her hands, she straightens her clothes and strokes the cat so viciously, it jumps away, mewing.

What we have here, gentlemen, is a cluster of ugly, aberrant cells, like grotesque frogspawn, gathering to wage war on the body. By now some have probably broken away, swum through the blood and lymph, and set up secondary sites elsewhere to launch lethal attacks, first on the lymph glands, then on the lungs and bones. The host is forty; onslaught could be rapid.

If she lets them in, her body will belong to others. In less than seven days she’ll be exposed and documented; the tissue of her being extracted, magnified and graded. Others will examine and stare, push and probe, ponder, slice her into segments, re-form her.

If you’d listened to us, there might have been a chance of reconstruction.

Breast reconstruction: now there’s a thing. She’s seen them at meetings, making appreciative sounds at slides of reconstituted meat, flaps of muscle repositioned, topped with false nipples like cherries on a cake. She wasn’t fooled. If you damage a cake you can add more sponge, cover it with plenty of icing and a ribbon, and be sure to photograph it from the good side, but in the end it’s all pretence.

‘They offered me reconstruction, but at sixty-five I don’t think of myself as sexual,’ said her mother.

In rooms she sees friends and colleagues stop talking. They smile, embarrassed.

Strange she didn’t notice it earlier − in her profession...

The cottage dissolves to create a Rothko just for her: Christmas white and endless black. Her mouth is dry. She feels sick.

The body’s instinctive fight and flight mechanism diverts blood and pours out Adrenaline…flight…flee. Flee Old English flēon, from Germanic:

Run away. Seek safety by fleeing. Leave abruptly. Vanish; cease; pass away.

She wonders how you flee your own body

There are voices in the cottage; her perfect cottage; her beautiful, warm, safe haven for their voices.

Windows open like an Advent calendar.

‘Are you out there, Mum?’

‘It’s on now, Kate, you’ll miss the beginning.’

She walks across the lawn towards the cottage.

You think a spoonful of sugar will help the medicine go down? Don’t make us laugh− we’re dying with laughter.

I decide. I decide when. I decide how.

Call yourself an intelligent woman? There is no Camelot; there were no little people in the church; your father is never going to come back. Look up, Kate, look as long as you want- you’ll never see the silhouette, the hat with a flower, the opened brolly. There is no bottomless carpet bag with some gin-flavoured medicine for you.

She opens the door and passes like a ghost through the rooms of her home.

The Apple
Waiting for Mary Poppins