Every chapter in The 10pm Question ends with a conversation between Frankie and his mother in her bedroom. The conversations are not necessarily in chronological order; they are kind of representative and convey that this is an ongoing ritual in their relationship. The pattern is that Frankie – usually indirectly – asks Ma for reassurance over a current anxiety. They are so attuned to each other that he doesn’t have to speak directly about this fears – Ma always reads between the lines. And there is a kind of ruefulness about Frankie’s indirect confessions – he’s pretty sick of himself and his tendency to fret. At the same time he can’t let go of his desire to get Ma out of the house, somehow – to get her to live a ‘normal’ life...so, almost against his better judgment, he will occasionally blurt out an impossible suggestion (come to the Bolshoi Ballet) and then will be guilty and disappointed in equal parts at Ma’s refusal and distress.
But while these are tricky exchanges, they’re also taking place in an atmosphere of nurture and comfort – a parent’s bed, with all the accompanying sensory and nostalgic feelings. I do think, too, that all difficult moments in relationships and life take place in tandem with the ordinary and absurd as well... So, even though this is a tense, loaded dialogue between Frankie and Ma, there are also all the little nuttinesses of their everyday life – Colin and The Fat Controller having one of their regular spats; Uncle George arriving home late (in a later extract Uncle George loudly sings hymns while he’s making a dessert for himself), the tragi-comic spectacle of Solly Napier’s cousins funeral - and there is the recurring symbol and puzzle of the woman in the painting hanging on Ma’s bedroom wall...
Below is an extract from The 10pm Question by Kate de Goldi, reproduced with the kind permission of Kate de Goldi and Templar Publishing.
It was never completely dark in Ma’s bedroom, even when she’d switched off the bedside light. A diffused glow came through the window from the street lamp directly outside the front gate. Ma never drew the curtains; she liked the glow from the street lamp.
Frankie had been listening for the click of the bedside light; sometimes he preferred to ask questions in the dim colour of that outside light.
“Are you still awake?” he whispered.
“Yes,” Ma whispered back.
Frankie laid his head back on Uncle George’s pillow. He liked its smell — apple shampoo (which Louie said Uncle George had been using since 1977) and Uncle G’s aftershave; he always haved last thing at night to save time in the morning, which was why in the evenings, if he was there over dinner, he looked even swarthier, and slightly dishevelled.
“Everything all right?” said Ma, turning over and sitting up a little.
“Yeah,” said Frankie. He looked at the woman in the painting but only her hair gleamed, the rest of her swallowed up by the night.
“Solly Napier’s cousin died. At his school. He was thirteen.”
“That’s terrible,” said Ma. “How?”
“Hole in his heart,” said Frankie. “No one knew. They were playing football.”
There was a loud thump on the roof, followed by the skittering of claws on metal. The Fat Controller. Her night was just beginning.
“You haven’t got a hole in your heart, Frankie,” said Ma.
“I know,” said Frankie, “I’m just saying. Solly went to the funeral. They had a football on the coffin and it rolled off during the service and bounced down the aisle.”
“Oh,” said Ma. Frankie could tell she was trying not to giggle.
“The Bolshoi Ballet is coming,” said Frankie. “The greatest ballet company in the world.” He’d read this on the poster at the Town Hall. “They’re doing Sleeping Beauty.”
“I love that music,” said Ma.
They lay there, silent, listening to the sounds outside the window: the occasional passing car, a door slamming, The Fat Controller arguing with next door’s cat, Colin.
“Did you ever see the Bolshoi Ballet?” Frankie asked.
“On video,” said Ma.
Colin-next-door was Burmese. His mournful whine rose and fell, an unearthly music that set Frankie’s teeth on edge. The Fat Controller’s response was a kind of gruff miaow, no-nonsense, pitiless.
“Wouldn’t you really like to go?” said Frankie.
“Yes,” said Ma, after a pause. “But you know how it is.”
The two cats continued outside the window, an eerie drawnout duet. It was more mysterious than Russian, Frankie thought, untranslatable — except for The Fat Controller’s final exasperated yelp-yowl, which Frankie interpreted as ‘bugger off ’. There was more thumping and rustling and then a long quiet.
“I wish you could just go,” said Frankie. “We could get you a ticket as a birthday present.”
He knew he shouldn’t be saying this; he hadn’t said anything like this to Ma for a very long time. Not since the time he’d given her a hand-made birthday voucher inviting her to see the nest of yellowhammer fledglings he’d discovered up in McCullough’s Reserve. Ma had cried that time. She’d stood at the bench in front of the electric beater, shaking; tears had rolled down her cheeks and pinged off into the cake mixture.
“Maybe, you never know, maybe it would be okay this time,” said Frankie. It was an old hope, one he’d almost forgotten about. For ages now he’d told himself not to think like that.
“I’m sorry, Frankie,” said Ma. Her voice was just a whisper.
They both lay still, listening now to the muted kitchen noises that signalled Uncle George’s arrival home. The fridge door opening and closing. The bang of the kettle against the sink. The pipes shuddering as the hot tap ran.
The bedside clock showed 10.15 p.m.
“Sorry,” Frankie said. He kissed Ma on her cheek.
“I’m sorry, too,” said Ma softly.
“It’s okay,” said Frankie, sliding off the bed.
“One thing,” he said from the doorway. “I definitely don’t want a football on my coffin. Or a cricket ball. No balls, okay?”
“You’re not going to die,” said Ma. “Not till you’re extremely old.”
He really didn’t know how adults could say things like that.
It was preposterous. Not to mention virtually a lie. How could they possibly know?
“Night,” he said, and closed the door.
The 10pm Question by Kate de Goldi is published in the UK on 1st March 2011 by Templar Publishing.
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