Mercia stood in the street with the chest of drawers. It was an ugly thing, with heavy rectangular handles and squat, tapering feet. Now it was out in the sunlight she could see the veneer was peeling on top, curling at the corners like a stale crust of bread. She checked the straps that secured it to the flatbed trolley and glanced up the hill. It was two hundred metres from here to her new house. It would be a slog.
‘Mum,’ she called. ‘You said you’d help!’ Her mother was already trudging down the hill but she turned now. She took off her glasses and stood for a moment with her hand over her eyes.
‘I got it downstairs with you. I stole that trolley from B&Q. I can’t do more. I just can’t.’
Mercia swallowed. This chest of drawers had been her crib when she was new born. There had been no cot for her so she had slept in the bottom drawer. It had been her hiding place when she was a toddler, squashed into the alcove beside it, smearing bogies into a crack in the side while her mother and Gran argued downstairs. Later, after Gran died and they’d rented out her house, she’d had to scrub out the drawers for each change of tenant. She remembered how the house smelled of toilet cleaner and other people’s breath, and the chest of drawers was always there, squatting darkly in some corner. She wanted to find money left in it, or jewels, but there were only ever scraps of paper, rubber bands and once a stick of chewing gum. The top drawer groaned when it was opened, like someone waking from a bad dream. She knew this chest of drawers well; it would be heavy work, hauling it up the hill.
But her mother was shaking her head. The glasses went back on and her face sagged. Mercia gathered herself.
‘You can come round later, if you like,’ she said.
‘Well, I suppose dinner would be nice.’ Then her mother turned and plodded down the hill. She didn’t say goodbye.
Mercia rolled herself a cigarette. She wondered if she could run with the trolley; one surge of strength and it would be over. Then she’d polish the chest of drawers, put a vase of flowers on top, and bake a cake for her mother’s tea.
Or would it be an endurance test? Each step quivering in her legs, teeth clenched, her scalp itchy with sweat? She lit up and tugged at the handle. The trolley inched forward but slipped back the moment she relaxed, impelled to hurtle after her mother down the hill. She tightened her grip, pulled harder and the trolley began to creak. Another step and she had it with her. The wheels crackled on the tarmac and a low groan began to resonate in the wood.
She trawled it past the Thompson’s house at number forty-one and thought of Freddie, their three year old son. She hoped he was wasn’t cowering behind the curtains. When she was his age, this rumbling groan would have echoed through her nightmares. She would have pictured growling monsters, shapeless figures looming out of the mist. Even the sight of a woman, dragging a chest of drawers up a hill with a roly in the corner of her mouth would have kept her terrors churning.
‘Why is she doing that mummy? Is there a dead body in the drawer?’
‘Mercia, you’re being morbid again.’
‘But I’m scared mummy. I saw black clouds in it.’
For years, Mercia had thought that her mother had laid her in the bottom drawer and then shut it. She thought she could remember the suffocating silence inside, the darkness, heavy as folded blankets. She was almost an adult before she realised the drawer would have been placed on the floor. This was no comfort. The rictus grin of the square hole beside her, dark and draughty, was no company for a baby.
On she strained with the trolley grumbling behind her. The vibrations of the wheels juddered in her hands. She passed number forty-nine where filthy Mrs Feltham used to dart out and shake her fist at the ice cream van. A Somalian family rented the house now and the net curtains were bright and clean. There were lanky young men inside who could sprint up the hill with this trolley and still have breath to laugh. She might have asked for their help if she had known her mother would walk off. But how to explain? If you have risked everything to escape the horrors of your homeland and struggled to start a new life, a woman dragging a grotty chest of drawers up to her freshly painted house was a nonsense. Their bewilderment would embarrass her.
‘I won’t let you leave it behind,’ her mother had said when the sale of Gran’s house was complete. ‘That chest of drawers is your history.’
Mercia thought the whole street was her history. She had lived here until she was seven. Then, when they rented the house out, she had returned often enough to know who had moved, who had died, which family were building an extension out the back. Now it would be her future too. She had her own house in the same street, and it was Gran’s money that made it possible. The connection was quite live enough, she felt, without the weight of this chest of drawers tugging on her arms.
‘I couldn’t afford anything for you when you were born,’ her mother said, every time they returned to the house. She would take Mercia’s hand, place her fingers on the cracked veneer. ‘I brought you home in a hospital blanket. You slept in the bottom drawer and I got all your clothes from jumble sales.’
Mercia wondered why her mother had waited until after she was born to go to the jumble sales. If she had gone earlier and found a moses basket, she might not be lugging this thing up the hill now. Her roly had gone out and the taste of tobacco was sour in her mouth. She spat the end onto the pavement and strained onwards. She felt like a mule, her progress slow and resentful. She had seen sepia pictures of people like this. Refugees struggling over mountains with all their worldly goods. Or servants loaded with supplies for some expedition, their part in the endeavour unmentioned. But those people had their burdens thrust upon them; she had agreed to this.
On she went past number fify-nine where Jeffrey Jones had once lived. He would come to the door with tomato plants and marigolds for Gran. Mercia’s mother said he was dim. She sent him away, telling him in a slow, loud voice that Gran couldn’t care for plants any more. Mercia hid among the hanging coats and watched him blinking and pulling on his ear.
‘She growed ‘em lovely, once,’ he would say. ‘Can’t you teach her again, my lover?’
After Gran died, Jeffrey bought Mercia an ice cream and asked her if she was sad. Mercia hadn’t thought about sadness. She had thought about the brambles that grew up against the window in the back room. She thought Gran’s shadow was caught among the briars. Her mother said Jeffrey shouldn’t have mentioned the death to her.
‘You’re morbid enough as it is. We’ll have a new start when we move out.’
But it hadn’t felt like a new start. Maybe because they returned to the house so often, or maybe because Mercia dreamed about brambles every night and her mother took to sighing. Her face turned heavy and the air around her seemed grey.
Now Mercia’s legs were trembling with every step. Her arms felt weak and stretched at the elbows. Sweat prickled on her neck.
At number sixty-seven the door opened and Mrs Robertson, the old Jamaican lady stepped out. She had never spoken to Mercia before but she stood now, with her hands on her hips, looking Mercia up and down.
‘You’ll break your back, you know.’ The blue feathers on her slippers wavered as she shuffled round to watch her pass. ‘You could have asked Donell. No problem for him.’
Mercia tried to smile but her mouth was dry.
‘It’s OK. My mother’s been helping me.’
Mrs Robertson frowned.
‘I don’t see no mother. You’re on your own.’ Mercia stopped. She almost laughed. She felt that perhaps she should. That her thin mouth, puckered from pinching roll ups, was too bitter. That Mrs Robertson had been generous in stepping outside, and it was rude to stand there trembling, po-faced before her. But she was turning back to the house now and all Mercia’s laughter was gone.
‘Girl, you’re too strong for your own good.’
Mercia could feel the trolley slipping back now, tugging at her quaking arms. What if she let it go? What if it roared down the hill, flinging sparks from the wheels, bouncing and banging, screeching down the paintwork of the parked cars? What if her mother was at the bottom, arms raised, open mouthed as the whole thing came hurtling towards her? That was funnier. So funny in fact that Mercia didn’t dare dwell on it, lest she doubled over in hysterics.
She looked up the hill. No more than ten metres to go. But she couldn’t pull any more. Her arms were drained of substance. She would have to push instead, heft her body against it, feel the weight of the thing with every fibre of her being. She turned the trolley round and leaned on it, shoulder first. The wood smelled damp and depressing as she forced herself forward and the wheels crackled into life.
She knew now that she didn’t want it in her house. It was true that her history had been scrubbed into the wood. But it wasn’t her history alone. Gran had bought the thing after all. She had probably loved those modern square handles and its dark and certain weight. And as for the crib, well that was her mother’s story, even more than her own.
The trolley wavered before her, rattling and veering towards the kerb. She spread her arms around it, feeling the strain in her chest as she tried to muster control. She wasn’t a mule any more, she was a clown in a silent film; no doubt there was a banana skin ahead, or a busty lady carrying two large cream pies. But this had no humour for her. Tears pricked her eyes. When this was over, she decided, she would take an axe to the thing.
This thought urged her on to her gate. She rammed the trolley up against her front door and leant against it, gasping. Grey zigzags jerked behind her closed eyes. She wished she had the strength to chop it up now, or simply kick into splinters. But her knees were trembling and her saliva was thickening as if she might be sick.
Slowly, she climbed onto the chest of drawers, feeling it teeter beneath her. She put her key in the lock, pushed open the door and slid down into her hall. She wanted a cigarette but her hands were too weak to roll one. She dragged herself, on watery legs, to bed.
When she woke, there was golden sunlight on her bedroom floor. There was a knocking sound somewhere. Not the sharp rap of her door knocker, but something more hollow with a deeper, sadder resonance. Then her mother’s voice, at the front of the house.
‘Mercia! Mercia! Let me in!’
Mercia sat up. She rubbed her eyes, stumbled over to the window. Her mother stood at the gate, banging on the chest of drawers.
‘Mercia! Why have you left this here? I can’t get in.’
Mercia yawned and looked out to the green hills beyond the city. When she came to buy this house she hadn’t looked out the windows. She thought it would be exactly like Gran’s. She knew which corners were likely to get damp, where the neighbours could be heard on the stairs. But now she had discovered a brightness at the top of the hill and it felt like a gift. The clouds were piling on the horizon and as she watched them she tilted her head back, receiving the blessing.
‘Mercia! Why won’t you let me in?’
She had always supposed the chest of drawers would end up in the alcove by the window. Each morning would begin with the familiar clunk and groan as she pulled the drawers open. But now the chest of drawers would be firewood. She would place an armchair in the alcove instead, with plump cushions and a table beside it for her cup of tea. There would be many evenings ahead, to sit and watch the sky turn gold.
This was the winning story in The London Magazine’s Short Story Competition 2013, which was judged by Avril Joy and Stephen May.