The following is an excerpt from Pauline Holdstock's new novel Here I Am!, a mesmerizing story about the lucidity of children and the shortsightedness of adults. Pauline Holdstock is an award winning Canadian author originally from the UK, whose work has been shortlisted for a number of awards, including the Best First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
You probably want to know what happened. I will tell you.
It goes like this.
It was Wednesday. It was just MyMum and me and not MyDad because he had gone to Ipswich. I was singing. I was getting ready for school like I always do and I was singing Be My Be My Baby because it’s MyMum’s favourite. I thought she was still in bed so I shouted Mum! Get up! when I went past her door. I didn’t shout Dad! because I have already told you he had gone to Ipswich. That’s quite far.
I went into the kitchen and climbed on the stool and got my cereal down. My Snap Crackle and Pop had all gone so there was only boring Weetabix. I got a bowl and put it on the table and put one in and then got the milk. If you pour it round the edge it makes a nisland and it doesn’t go all soggy on the top. I got a spoon and started eating. (I sat down on the stool first. Of course.)
I didn’t hear MyMum yet so I called out again and some milk ran down my chin. It was embarrassing. I thought I heard her in the sitting room and that made me remember I hadn’t fed Jackie yet so I got the tin of birdseed. It says Cadbury’s but it’s where we keep his food in case there’s a mouse. Not a pet mouse like the ones I killed but a sort of wild mouse. Except it lives in the house. I am telling you things right now because I am not sure I want to remember the next bit. I could tell you everything like the colours on the carpet and the patterns on the curtains and how I killed my mice and what Jackie says when you talk to him and what it says on the side of the Weetabix box and the label in my shorts and what seven nines are and the front page of the Radio Times. I could tell you everything I know but then I would be an old man and I would die too so you would never know about MyMum. But you’d already be dead anyway. Haha. I’d better just tell you.
So when I went in the sitting room I saw MyMum in the big armchair. She didn’t turn round and say Good morning Sunshine! She didn’t even move. I said Mum! I’m up! And she still didn’t turn round. I said Can I sit on your lap and eat my cereal? She was wearing her fluffy dressing gown. It’s made of the same stuff as my blanket. She didn’t say No so I went to get my cereal. When I came back she was still sleeping. (Well you know she wasn’t because I’ve told you what she was but I didn’t know yet.) So I whispered Mum! I’m getting up. I put my cereal down. When I looked up I saw her eyes were open. I laughed because she was just staring like the time she got the telegram. I said, Mum! Stop it! but she didn’t. I watched her really hard. I thought she was tricking me. Then I looked at her dressing gown. When I sit on her lap and she does breathing the fuzzy stuff moves just a little tiny bit. It tickles. I left my cereal on the little table and I climbed up. I put my cheek on the collar. It didn’t tickle. I said You’re dead aren’t you. That’s when I knew. She didn’t burst out laughing like she would if it was a trick. But I still had to ask her something because her eyes were open. I said What are you looking at? And she didn’t answer. I said Mum! What are you looking at? And she still didn’t so I said Mum can you see me? and I put my face in front of hers — like right in front — and I looked right in her eyes — like right in — and then I was a bit scared because I couldn’t see her and I couldn’t see me either in the black bit. I said You will get tired like that Mum. Go to sleep. But she didn’t so I reached up very carefully so I wouldn’t hurt her eyes and put their lids down. It was better then. She looked like someone having a really nice sleep. She looked cozy. I wanted to have a little cuddle but it was time to eat my cereal so I got down and ate it. I sat beside her on the floor with my shoulder next to her leg. When I had finished it was time to go to the toilet and brush my teeth and comb my hair and then I would have some time left over to call 999 (that’s Emergency). I had just finished combing my hair — it took a long time because of the sticking up bit — when I had a new thought. It was What?! like that with a rounders bat. What?! It meant what do you need an ambulance for if you’re already dead? I felt really silly because I was already nearly phoning it. It made me go a bit red so I stopped looking in the mirror and went to look at MyMum instead. She hadn’t moved. Of course. I felt a bit strange then. It was like everything underneath me the carpet the floor the dirt everything had fallen down a big hole and I was still standing there. I was standing on the air. Thin air! Not even that! There was nothing underneath me at all. I thought I would fall down the hole too if I didn’t think of something quickly. And then I heard MyMum’s voice only it was inside my head. It said What’s next Frankie? What’s next on the list? It’s what she always says to me when I get lost in the day and begin to feel a panic. So I thought Go to the toilet and brush my teeth and comb my hair and…GO TO SCHOOL! Then I knew what to do. It was easy. I would go to school and I would tell them about MyMum and they would know what to do when the person is already dead.
First I went to MyMum and told her. I got on tiptoe and whispered it into her ear because I was a bit embarrassed. It was like when you talk to Jackie and then you remember he doesn’t speak English.
I got the funny feeling again (only it’s not funny) so I got down and put on my coat and my shoes. MyMum looked lonely all by herself. I went back and said Don’t worry Mum. I’ll tell them. They’ll know what to do. And then I gave her a kiss and then another one because she didn’t notice. And then I went to school.
On the way I saw the milkman. He was just going home. I knew that because the bottles in the back of his float were empty. He waved. I wanted to call out but my throat wouldn’t work. It was like what happens when you have a dream. After he’d gone past I turned round to try again but he was already driving round the corner.
I was thinking about it a lot when I fell asleep behind the mattresses but I don’t remember anything else until I felt them moving and then it was the next morning.
From Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock. Used with permission of the publisher, Biblioasis. Copyright © 2020 by Pauline Holdstock.