I didn’t have the best parents growing up.
Who does though, right?
I can forgive them now for a lot of neglect. Well, I try to. They’re dead anyway. But forgiveness isn’t just about somebody hearing it. It’s about the feeling of forgiveness.
My sister has tried forgiving too.
I can forgive many things. But it’s hard to forget. It’s hard to try to forget. What’s that thing they say about white elephants? They say - don’t think about white elephants, and then it’s impossible NOT to think about white elephants. I try to forget. But the more I forget. The more I remember.
I remember when our parents left us home alone for a week. I was eight years old. My sister was eleven. You don’t leave kids that young home alone. They had a wedding in Scotland and my mother didn’t want the inconvenience of taking me and my sister with her.
It was easier to throw down £50 and stock the fridge full of food than take us.
My sister Lucia was in charge. She was older and we just had to get on, not kill each other, learn how to order pizza (this was before everything was done on an app), and get through the week.
It was fine.
It wasn’t the worst neglect ever!
But being home alone at that age. It was scary.
Again; this was back in the days before mobile phones and instant communication. So, when my parents left for a week - they left for the entire week in body and spirit.
On the first night, my sister and I snuggled up together. We were never very close and it was heartwarming really. It was the closest I’d felt to her. We hugged each other and drank tea with marshmallows and watched cheesy American TV all night, eventually falling asleep on the sofa - top and tail with each other. If the rest of the week would be like that - well, then I’d love to be home alone.
On the second night, there was to be a slight relief in terms of being alone without ‘parents’ and it came with a knock at the door.
I answered. I thought it was the pizza (the second night in a row of pizza). Instead; it was a woman. An ugly woman. She was disheveled, her hair was a mess. It was all frizzled and greasy and her teeth had shit in between them. They were all blackened and chiseled in. At the risk of sounding offensive… She looked like a crackwhore. But she had a very kind and soft and delicate voice. And there was something familiar about her.
“You must be Dana.” She said to me and she was beaming towards the moonlight.
And yes, my name is Dana.
Her face was just full of pockmarks and scars and zigzagging acne. She had the worst complexion I had ever seen.
But… there was a familiarity in the voice and posture and that glint in her eyes had a disarming way.
“Who are you?” I gently asked.
I always respected my elders.
“I’m your Aunt Mary.” She said, and ever since then, we’ve dubbed her SCARY MARY during the infrequent times we’ve mentioned that week.
Now, you might think it’s crazy to have some old coot knock at your door saying she’s your aunty and to actually believe her. But let me clarify - WE DO NOT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT MY MOTHER’S PAST. Nothing. My mother had also always desperately tried to forget everything herself. We weren’t the only ones obsessed with forgetting.
So, a long-lost aunt.
Not impossible!
We invited her in. She sat in the corner, on a small poof that my dad often fell asleep on after a few too many drinks.
“I heard that you are home alone and I have come to watch you for the week.” She said,
What could we say to that? No!
She was claiming to be our aunty.
And so, we let her stay.
“Come give your aunt Mary a hug.” She said.
We both embraced her together and as I cradled at her breast I could smell that damp deathly moldy smell that to this day still lingers and hits my hippocampus anytime I’m around something damp and moldy.
My parents owned a 3-bedroom house. The house had a room within the floor basement that we’d never been into or entered. My dad claimed to use it as a kind of man-cave. It was strictly off-limits.
Mary stayed the rest of the week in my parent’s bedroom. She slept in their bed. Alone I presume.
Mary was stranger than strange could get and Lucia took an instant dislike to her. She ate with her hands. She ate cereal, noodles, eggs - all picked up and shoveled into her mouth with her hands. It was disgusting. She didn’t shower. The entire time she was here - she didn’t once shower.
But the most horrifying thing about her - late at night, she’d be in my parent’s room howling and screeching. Strobe lights flashing from within the doors and a strange song and dance taking place within that room. I know what you call it now. I didn’t then but I know what you call it now.
She left a mess everywhere she went. She ate coffee grinds straight from the can and we found ourselves constantly cleaning after her - little blacks grains scattered everywhere.
We were petrified that my mum would come back and do the yelling and screaming that she’d basically trademarked for herself about our messiness and about trust and how she never wanted kids and how horrible we all are. My mother owned those kinds of hateful speeches. Like Mussolini on the balcony - that was my mother.
We followed Mary around with a dustpan and brush and continuously swept up her shit. I was anxious every time she went to the fridge and forced food down her gob with her hands. The trail of food she left on the floor reminded me of a snail’s trail. It was caked by her feet wherever she went.
By the near end of the week, Lucia had enough, she was at breaking point and decided to confront this witch of a woman. And the conversation was not a pleasant one.
All three of us were sitting on the sofa watching Knight Rider on the black and white TV. I could see clumps of hair missing from Lucia’s head. She did that when she was stressed. It was day five of seven and our parents were due back in two days and Lucia was stressed to the point of breaking. The constant howls late at night and never getting any sleep. Cleaning up after some dirty old woman all day long. Lucia was breaking. And now she was tearing her own hair out.
Mary was eating yogurt with her hands and that must have been it for Lucia. I could see her grimacing every time Mary picked up a blob of yogurt between her fingertips.
Mary was sitting covered in yogurt on the sofa. She was in her underwear - knickers and a bra and I know now that it was inappropriate for her to be sat there in front of us dressed that way.
But Lucia snapped in the way only Lucia can. Not by screaming and hollering. But by asking piercing questions that go to the heart of the problem.
“Why did my mother never mention having a sister?” Lucia asked.
And she had that tone that Lucia takes with people and it’s commanding and it can be intimidating. Even back then. Even as a child. Lucia was, after all, her mother’s daughter.
“I don’t know how your mother decides to raise you kids and what she decides to tell you,” Mary said.
“How did you know we were here and that we were alone?” Lucia said.
Mary smiled and threw the yogurt pot on the wood-paneled floor knowing that I would clean it up. Which I did. I got the brush and I swept it up and got the wet rag and dabbed at the dirty yogurt on the floor.
“She sent me a letter,” Mary said.
“So, you don’t appear or get spoken about for our entire lives and just show up like this and the entire week you act disgustingly inappropriately,” Lucia asked.
Mary clutched her hand to her breast and looked brazenly offended towards Lucia.
“I’m here to babysit you my dear,” Mary said.
“But you’re not babysitting us. You’re making a mess and treating us like crap and making us clean up after you. And you’re keeping us awake at night.” Lucia said.
Mary’s face darkened and slight anger overtook her and then her eyes reddened and you could see the anger glint within.
“I’m watching over you,” Mary said.
She said it slowly but it was chilling in that darkened tone that her voice crept to.
“But you’re not,” Lucia said.
“That’s what you think,” Mary said.
Mary got up and took Lucia’s face in her hands. She smiled at the girl. She pecked her lightly on her cheek. She held her head and looked admiringly at my sister’s pretty face.
“I am family, my dear. I am family.” Mary said pleadingly.
Then she slapped the life out of Lucia. Slapped her right across the face and caused her neck to pivot back. It was a belter of a slap right across her face.
“Maybe you’re right Loo-che-ahh.” Mary said, mockingly enunciating her name.
Lucia’s face was full of tears and shock and rage and paralyzing fear.
“More discipline is what you rotten kids need. I left you to yourselves and maybe you need discipline. Your mother has clearly done a crappy job. But I am gone in two days. What can I cram in now? How about you meet my friends! They’re regular disciplinarians.” Mary said.
Lucia put her head in her hands and wept. I was aghast, rooted to the spot. Unable to move. Paralysis overcame me. I had an empty yogurt pot in my hands and I remember wondering how the hell we went from some old coot knocking at the door to this.
To this.
Mary grabbed Lucia by the ankles and then yanked me by the hair. I dropped the dustpan and yogurt pot. I hit the floor. My legs were almost going over my head.
She pulled us both and we yanked forward and with a tremendous amount of strength coming from this feeble-looking woman. She started pulling us down the stairs, dragging us down into my father’s forbidden kingdom.
Every step went crunch against our bodies as we hit the stairs individually and she dragged us down into the darkened basement.
As she approached the closed room, I saw the hard brown mahogany of the door and felt the heat radiating from it. This room I'd tried many times to break into and was always locked.
The room my father beat the life out of me for trying to get into.
She stopped. She slapped Lucia again, another hard-hit and said;
“Your father is a disgusting man and he brought this on himself. Your pig of a mother too.”
She pointed at the door.
She yelled at the door. Screeched something incomprehensible and it opened.
No pushing the door was involved, no lock, no key, it just opened and there was a blinding hive of activity within but I couldn’t quite make it out. Everything was blurry for me at that point - maybe I was concussed from the stairs. I couldn’t see inside. To this day I am still trying to see inside. Desperately trying to see what my brain and my vision hid from me on that day.
I then broke free from her grasp and started running back up the stairs and just as I turned I saw her drag Lucia inside the door and slam it shut after her.
I ran up to my bedroom. I put the quilt over my head and I did something I haven’t before and hadn’t done since - I prayed.
Hours went by as I laid in bed awake. I watched the ceiling from within my quilt and I heard strange chanting noises coming from the basement. And I cowardly hid under my covers, knowing my sister was down there.
Many hours passed thereafter until….
… Lucia stood in the doorway to my bedroom. I will always remember that skinny silhouette, speechless but swaying from side to side.
There was a horrified look on her face. The 1,000-yard stare. A life that felt undone. And yet, still, alive. I am grateful to this day for that moment she stood in my doorway.
I held her. I held her so tight. She got into bed with me and I could not let go of her. I held tighter than I have ever held anyone. And I whispered in her ear:
“Where’s Mary?”
“They took her.” Lucia said.
Who were they?
I didn’t ask who they were. I didn’t ask what happened. At that time - I DID NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED.
My parents came back a few days after and those days in between were uneventful and involved a lot of cleaning. We didn’t go back into that basement. We didn’t see Mary again. We just waited and kept quiet - almost scared to move from my bedroom.
My mum and dad looked sheepish when we first mentioned Mary the week after at the dinner table. Maybe Lucia said it. Maybe I did? I can’t remember.
I could see the awkwardness on my dad’s face. My mum’s eyes scurrying about the room. And then, hysterically, with that high pitched voice saying:
“I don’t have a sister. I don’t have a sister. I don’t have a sister.” My mum said.
Saying it over and over again. Overcompensating.
“You kids and your imagination.” My dad said.
There was an awkward faux smugness to him. He was trying to play it off as delusions but his acting left a lot to be desired.
To cut a long story short but we later moved house - my father boarded up that basement before we left. Reinforced the doors with slabs of wood and drilled in nails.
My parents later died from mundane sicknesses. It was quick and to be expected given their lifestyles and they died without much of a fanfare in their communities.
I forgave them for the years of neglect. I forgive them for not being there to protect us from Mary. I tried to forget just how crappy and neglectful they were and I got on with my life.
My sister. She’s still with us. She’s had many problems. Relationship problems. Well-being problems. Mental Health problems. But, come on, I don’t blame one week being home alone and some ugly woman that wanted somewhere to squat for a few days on all her problems, and neither does Lucia.
Only once did I ask what happened in that room for those hours that she spent with Mary. Only once. It was a few years ago when we were both adults and wiser and maybe more jaded and open about things.
And you know what she said to me?
“I don’t remember.” 

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