Winner! Step forward and show yourself. Also, if you could give me the theme for the next contest too, I've honestly forgotten who is the writer of this, so I'm looking forward to finding out too. - Lemex Her - 2,541 words. 'Wash your hands before you do that, Jess.' The words grate on me badly, and I'm ten years old again. I keep my temper in check because this is just a visit. I take the coffee cup down from the shelf and set it next to the kettle. Her brows dart up – dark sparrows against a pale sky. 'Jess. . . ' 'I'm just making myself a coffee, Mum. My hands are clean. Do you want a cup?' Its a thin attempt at re-shifting her focus, but she's defensive now, angry. There's a short burst of recriminatory words and I find myself in the bathroom, washing my hands and trying to banish old feelings that have risen to the surface. Hamish, the Scottish terrier, follows me in and tries to get into the bathtub. Apparently he has a thing for dripping taps, and he'll sit in the tub and lick the spout for hours if you let him. The bathroom door has to be shut at all times and there's is a folded up tea-towel wrapped around the tap in the garden. My Dad assures me he's wonderfully well adjusted besides this one quirk. Hamish is a new addition since my last visit. I'm surprised she allowed a dog in the house, but the comical eyebrows and the short stump of a tail that's always in motion could melt anyone. He's adorable, and he knows it. Whenever Mum goes into the kitchen he trots in after her and holds himself in classic begging pose. And she laughs, loosening, before feeding him a treat from a plastic container tucked against the cookbooks. I look at myself in the mirror and smooth out the crease between my brows. My parents house has changed very little since I left, the bathroom least of all. The pink tiles are dreadfully outdated and comforting, the bath mat is an odd shade of green and the window is still covered by net curtains. They let in a splash of winter sunlight. There are at least six bars of yellow Velvet soap lined up along the sink – I'm not sure what I'm supposed to use so I settle for the soap dispenser that I suspect is Dad's. The room smells sharply of vinegar and there are bottles of it tucked under a bench. Vinegar is disinfecting. She uses is everywhere. She won't let me help with meals because I refuse to rinse my hands in it. I didn't want to visit my parents. Its a two hour drive with the prickly maze of her disorder waiting at the end. Phone calls are much easier. The thought of spending three days with them filled me with anxiety and I tried to talk to Mel about it while I paced the kitchen tiles and gulped wine. She stared at me from across the butcher's block, trying to force common sense into me by sheer will. 'You're not going to cure her in three days. Don't try. Just do all the little things she asks and don't focus on it. You're there to visit your mother, not her illness.' 'Are you sure you won't come with me?' 'Hell, no.' When I come out of the bathroom she's dishing up tea. My presence bothers her. The kitchen is a minefield of fears and contamination issues. She becomes so anxious her mouth draws into an tight bow, and she snaps at me. 'Can't you wait? Dinner's almost ready.' 'I'm just getting my coffee.' It comes out sharper than I intended. She turns her back on me, sighing loudly for my benefit as she spoons vegetables onto the plates. She's an inch away from not eating, so I back down and leave the room. When I was younger I was always doing the wrong thing in there. I'd help myself to a glass of orange juice and she'd appear, immediately angry. Maybe I had unknowingly touched the leftover roast that was in the fridge. Or my hand had hovered over the plates when I reached for the glass, which I had set it down on the wrong counter. 'I won't be able to eat tea now,' she'd say bitterly, and she would sit at the table, resentful and silently accusing while my Dad and I ate and begged her to change her mind. We would try pleading with her, or cracking jokes to placate her. Eventually I would lapse into silent anger, but nothing did any good. She was as unwieldy as stone. I sit stiffly at the table and listen to her moving around. My Dad appears from what he still insists on calling his Den, my old bedroom that's now a home office with a grungy old armchair, a television and a wall of bookshelves. I know he spends most of his day in there, avoiding conflict in what he thinks is the best way to handle things. When he does venture out she's constantly instructing, criticising. 'Have you washed your hands? Why do I always have to ask?' I long for him to stand up to her but he's become mute in the face of her behaviour, and prefers to do as she asks. Dinner is apricot chicken with vegetables and mashed potatoes. I know she bought the string beans with me in mind. Her plate is lined with layers of grease-proof paper. She's rinsed the plate in boiling water. She hasn't dried it with a tea towel; she doesn't want anything but her hands to touch it. And she still needs a barrier between it and the food, which is rye crackers and cheese and a small handful of almonds. The short list of things she will eat has become even shorter since she stopped using utensils. Don't say anything. 'Mum,' I start. Don't say anything! 'Don't you think its time you got some help?' 'Help? For what?' She looks at me blandly. 'For this!' I gesticulate at her plate with my fork, my tongue well and truly out of the gate. 'Let's not fight,' says my Dad mildly, and immediately my spine grows spikes because they're ganging up on me already, pushing me out. 'You think this is normal? Someone needs to talk about it, even if you two won't.' And I immediately hear Mel's voice in my head. 'Ah yes, the martyr has arrived.' 'This is our business, not yours,' says Dad. He allows himself to be angry with me, and his voice is stony. I was going to say so many things this time. I was going to be calm and reasonable. Dialogue would begin, things would be admitted. In my most extreme fantasy apologies would be made. And as always my voice is just . . . gone. Washed down inside of me and resting in a deep pool. I know that if I had spoken it would have been the voice of a skinny, desperate teenage girl, full of helpless anger. I push back my chair. 'I'm going to take Hamish for a walk.' --- I call Mel. 'Come home,' she says. 'If its going to drive you crazy, just come home.' 'I can't leave before tomorrow. Everyone will blame me for ruining the day if I'm not here. I'll leave straight after.' We have a strained conversation while I stand on the pavement with the leash wrapped around my legs because Hamish is overexcited in the crisp air and wants to run. My scarf is pulled up to my chin. I talk about what it was like when I was a kid, how she tried to convince me I was sick all the time, telling me I had allergies and chemical sensitivity and some unspecified weakness of the chest. She wouldn't let me use spray deodorant, conditioner or toothpaste with fluoride. I couldn't have a bike. It all sounds so shallow when it falls from my lips. It doesn't explain everything, the hollowness that ballooned inside of me, slowly filling with bile and anger while I was trapped in a house devoid of warmth. 'Its an illness, Jess. You can't control it. Stop trying.' 'So I'm supposed to just ignore it, like everyone else in this fucking family?' Its a crappy thing to say, and we both know it. She doesn't allow herself to be drawn into playing devil's advocate again. 'This is your own shit, not hers. Don't let it get to you. Think of me waiting for you when you get back, with a large bottle of wine and many things made of chocolate.' --- The next day is her birthday. The winter sky lets in a little sun, enough to soften the chill. I offer to pick up a cake but my Dad tells me he has to do it, there's only one bakery he can go to. He has to get the right cake. He doesn't want to be alone with me. He knows I'll try to talk about Mum, using him to burn off some of my frustration. I tidy the spare bedroom instead while she works in the garden. Hamish keeps me company. I smooth my hand over his soft ears and they feel like silk. A pink tongue shoots out and swipes at my hand. 'Yuck!' I wipe my hand on my sweater, but he just laughs at me, his mouth split into a grin. When David and Rebecca arrive he bounds towards the sound of their car, barking possessively. I find Mum holding them in the front yard, pointing out certain plants, showing off her garden. She does the same with me whenever I visit. She's always loved working in the garden. So many times I would come home from school and she'd be out there in her straw hat and yellow gloves. 'Get something to eat and come sit with me,' she'd say, and I'd make myself a tuna sandwich or something and settle on the front step while she talked about the bulbs coming up, or the birch trees that never seemed to like the soil there and refused to grow well. She points out the clusters of hellebores and paper daisies that splash colour across the dense green winter bed. She's wearing plastic bags over her hands. She won't go outside without them. No-one says anything, focusing instead on Hamish, who's strutting around proudly with a ball in his mouth. When he tries to tug off the home-made guard around the garden tap David scoops him up, laughing. My brother is big and bear-like, and easygoing to a fault. He's never concerned about anything. At least not outwardly. I don't talk to him about Mum because he will only say 'That's just the way Mum is,' with bland regularity before changing the subject. When he sees me he gives me a bright but casual 'Hey Sis!' as if we see each other every other day, and instead of catching up he assumes I'd rather talk to Rebecca, who's hugely pregnant, and uncomfortable looking. She keeps pulling down her sweater self-consciously and rubbing her hand across her stomach. 'My back hurts like hell,' she says. She glares down at her belly. 'Get out, you loiterer!' I tell her about my friend Veronica, who went out for spicy food and promptly went into labour at the restaurant. She perks up a little and tells me she's going to try it. We're still in the garden when my uncle arrives, and he walks up the path a little too ponderously. He gives me his one-armed hug and asks me jovially if I've 'found a man yet.' Its an old joke between us. Rebecca looks uncomfortable. 'The question is, have you found a gym instructor.' I poke him in the ribs. His scent is warm and spicy. Dad isn't allowed to wear aftershave anymore and I have a childish urge to stay there against him and draw in some sweet scent from my past. I settle for sitting next to him at lunch and listening to his laments on retirement. He's bored, he says. I suspect he's lonely because he's been a widower for six years now. I talk about dating sites and he laughs. 'Who's going to want an old war-horse like me?' 'You're not bad looking. Give up smoking and update your wardrobe.' 'I'd prefer someone who's interested in the original version.' I eye his worn zip-up jumper pointedly. He pretends to look hurt. 'I thought I was your favourite uncle?' 'You're my only uncle.' Its all old jokes with him. He likes things that are comfortable, worn deep with time. Mum eats her crackers and cheese. There's the obligatory teasing. 'The roast is nice, Mum. Don't you want to try it?' and 'You're so thin! Can't you eat just a little bit?' They want years of habit to simply fall away so it can be a less awkward occasion. When the cake's produced we sing Happy Birthday, and Hamish cocks his head, surprised at the sudden burst of noise. She cuts the cake and hands out slices. 'Aren't you having any?' I ask, looking at her empty plate. 'I'm not hungry.' This time even Dad is roused into speaking. 'You don't want any of your own cake?' 'No. Its been a little disorganised here today. I'll have some later.' She means me, my visit. There's a brief, uncomfortable pause. David makes small talk about his job and its seized on eagerly. Mum focuses on Rebecca, and the soon-to-arrive baby. Her face is animated and she laughs and tells her about David's birth, which took two days. 'He was a big baby,' she says. 'Oh, he's still a big baby,' says Rebecca, rolling her eyes. The table warms a little. But when I get up to make coffee I catch her silent for a moment in the sea of light chatter. She looks sad and drawn, her face pale. It pulls at me hard. I want to comfort her somehow, wipe away her worry like you would mop the tears from a child's face. But there's nothing I can do; I'm too spiky now, all my softness for her scrubbed away with Velvet soap and hot water. Its late when everyone leaves. I wait until Dad is ensconced in front of the evening news before leaving. I lie and say I've been called into work the next day. They both act disappointed. 'We never see you,' says Mum, walking to the car with me. 'You could visit us,' I say doggedly. 'You know I don't like going into the city. There's too much pollution.' In the last two minutes, while I'm climbing into the car and buckling my seatbelt, she wants to know everything; How have I been? How is Mel? How is my job? Everything is condensed. I'm frustrated at her scant parcelling of affection and drive away, her diminutive figure framed in the rear-view mirror, a lost woman who never really grew up. I'm not strong enough to sweep her up and protect her. She broke me down along with her. I do the only thing I can; I fly back to the city, away from her.