Like all mould, it started, unremarkably, in the bathroom. It rose steadily from the bathtub to the ceiling, until eventually it became a black, pungent shroud.
It began on a warm and sticky day. I had most of the windows in the house wide open, not only to let the breeze circulate but also in an effort to air the mustiness of winter into the premature summer we were having. I believe that spring is no longer a valid season; new life does not seem to slowly edge its way into April and May. Summer, I find, appears suddenly and aggressively, resulting in the day that I have been explaining to you.
Mother, as always, was sitting in the bathtub with her head lolling gently back against the shallow curved wall. Her arms were gently draped over the rim of the bath, with her big toes protruding from the grey water. Her toenails were ingrown and the surrounding skin was angry and red. (I often offered to help her; I told her I would gladly trim those nails as I had suffered similarly from such an ordeal.) Her grey-white hair was slowly drifting in the breeze from the bathroom window, and her eyes were trained on the ivy that twined its way across the glass.
Opening that window was a huge struggle. The bathroom door has no lock, so I knocked gently upon the door to let Mother know I was coming in. She never minded; she never said a word against it. I strolled in and prised the ivy-ridden window open. She watched me struggle with the tendrils that were bound as tough as steel to the wooden frame. I’m sure she found it amusing to watch me battle with a plant.
At last, I wrenched the ivy away and the sunlight streamed in. I asked Mother whether the light was hurting her eyes, but she remained silent. It was then that I noticed it – a small patch of dark, grey-black had appeared, illuminated by the sunlight, where the smooth porcelain of the bath meets the wall. It was the size of a fifty pence piece, but thickly coated. It was only now that the faint air of pungency greeted my senses.
I asked Mother whether she would be more comfortable to continue her bath later in the evening when it would be cooler and when I would have removed the mould from the wall. She declined, simply requesting a cup of tea in her upturned palm. The skin was etched with years of grooves and hard work, and these were scratched across her arms, face, and well into her torso. Her breasts did not perk above the water as they had when she was younger, but lay flat and low against her stomach in the brown-grey murk of her bath-water. I took her hand and squeezed it gently. Her fingertips were cold, so I ran the hot water a little more. Mother’s baths are always well over an hour long. She sits there until the water turns cold, so I often have to run more hot water into it.
I told her I wouldn’t be long with her tea, to which she responded by sinking comfortably lower in the water, her chin submerged and her head more upright now. The water bubbled between her thighs. I giggled, but she did not. She looked stern, so I apologised and went to fetch her cup of tea.
Mother likes her tea very dark with no sugar and barely any milk. I have never been able to understand how she can enjoy the taste. I carried the steaming tea up to her and into the bathroom. Letting my tongue out of my mouth, I took a gentle sip in front of her. She did not blink; her silence led me to assume that the tea was as it should be for her.
The sun made me tired, and I had to be up for work for my night shift in a matter of hours. I decided to leave her to it and placed her tea on the surface by the sink. I brushed my teeth in the kitchen, splashed my face, and went up to my room to sleep before work.
I dreamt that I was a young boy again, sitting in the bath with Mother as she combed through my thick head of hair while I played with my ship. I held the ship in my hand. It was long, like a battleship, and rounded at the tip. Mother kissed my shoulder, put the comb on the side of the bath, and lay back against the cool tiles. I followed, lying against her chest with my ship in my right hand. It was a short dream, but vivid. I awoke – my face sticky with sweat, and my pillow damp with saliva. The evening sun was fading, and I had less than half an hour to go before work. I stood up, waving my hands about the moths that were gathering around the orange glow of the light bulb.
I peeled off my corduroy trousers that were sticking to my clammy skin and unbuttoned my shirt. I stripped down and pulled the latch on my door silently so I would not disturb Mother. Standing in front of the full-length mirror, I regarded my naked body. It had changed since those days of bathing with Mother. My chest was littered with black hairs, streaking from my nipples to the centre. They followed down in a uniform line to my navel, where like ink blown by a straw or some sort of delta, they branched out wide to surround my penis, which stood long and erect before my reflection. I touched it briefly, sending a quiver down my back and deep into the muscle. I erupted upon my reflection.
I dressed quietly into new boxers and trousers and slipped on the mustard work t-shirt. The lights on the landing were all out, so slowly and considerately, I padded down the stairs and out of the front door for my shift.
I work at a factory. I make wallpaper. To be more precise, I am in the gravure printing industry. My shift starts at nine in the evening, every night, and I return home at about seven o’clock every morning. My father worked in the same factory when he was alive. Each morning, after hours of ink rolled onto and absorbed into paper, I return, my hands and fingernails stained reds and purples. I take the walk up the garden path and often stand and look up at the house. It is my mother’s house, not my own, but she has always said she will leave it to me when she passes away. I always tell her, ‘Mother, you shall live forever,’ to which she usually grunts and turns away.
This day was no different. I regarded the front of the house. The ivy around the bathroom window was brown and dry in places, falling down in lattice formation and tickling the porch with its tendrils. Despite my previous efforts to pull it all away, some had pushed up the window like parasites, sticking to the glass pane. Weeds sprouted from every crevice along the garden path – dandelions pushing through the cracks between the paving slabs. Mother had always told me never to pick a dandelion, else I’d wet the bed. I had always believed her.
It was barely seven o’clock, and the postman came scuffing along the soil and weeds, startling me by timidly placing his palm upon my shoulder.
‘All right, son?’ His forehead was creased with concern, but his eyes seemed distant, blank even.
I nodded, fumbling for my key in my pocket.
‘No post today, I’m afraid. I just wanted to ask you how you and your mother are. She hasn’t ordered her usual magazine for some time now.’
‘You must be mistaken,’ I said quietly, twisting the key in the lock. I leapt into the house, slammed the door, and leaned against it. Then I turned and watched through the keyhole as the postman paced back along the path and onto the lane.
I slung my bag onto the floor and kicked off my shoes. I longed to be back in my room, back upstairs, ready to run the bath for Mother – so I ran, my socks catching on the knots of wood on the staircase.
I opened Mother’s bedroom door as quietly as possible. It creaked open, and Mother’s familiar scent greeted me. I inhaled it deeply. It smelled yeasty, like she did before she bathed, and the scent was warm.
I peered into the room. Mother was not in her bed. The sheets were pulled back, and her book lay open on the same pages she had been trying to read for the last four weeks. She always fell asleep before she managed to reach the second paragraph. Her underwear lay strewn across the bedposts. I lifted it up and held it to my face. It was dirty. I placed it back; I only ever put Mother’s clothes in the wash after she had given me permission. I would ask her later.
Closing the door firmly, I walked to the end of the landing. The bathroom door was ajar, so I went in, my head as hot as the morning sun. Mother lay calmly in the bath, but behind her head, the cool tiles and emulsion of the paintwork were covered in a black mass. The mould that was once the size of a fifty pence piece now stretched at least a square foot of the wall. It stank and caught in my throat. I opened my mouth to speak, and the scent of it clung to my teeth and tongue and skin.
I wanted to wash myself. I needed to clear my body and my senses of the smell. I would rid the wall of mould and then wash. Taking a damp loofah, I stretched my arms above Mother’s head and tried to scrub the mould.
It would not budge. It was embedded deep within the magnolia pigments of paint. As I scratched and scraped at the wall, Mother’s face came into contact with my pelvis. Her head had moved to face mine, her eyes were wide open, and my irises burned with her stare. Her hand had slipped towards my inner thigh, and it became clear what she required of me.
I stopped and dropped the loofah aside.
Stepping away from Mother, but never once losing her gaze, I peeled off my mustard t-shirt. She knew I was desperate to be cleaned of the smell, of the lingering pungency. I stripped down to my bare skin. Her face longed to be close to my torso, and her arm was outstretched towards my body. I padded towards her, and her mouth dropped open.
Suddenly, I could not smell the mould upon the wall. I clambered into the bath in front of Mother and parted her legs, so I could sit between them, so we both could bathe together. My body tremored and pulsed, and her head tilted backwards onto the tiles.
It was then that I noticed the beauty of the mould behind her. It spread in flowery shapes across the magnolia, blotting delicately, and shaded from deep black to hunter green around the edges. It was not as the first fifty-pence-sized area, dense and thick, but rather lay in patches, some opaque, others thin and nearly translucent. The patches joined and latticed like the ivy on the bathroom window.
I pulled my arms away from Mother, and it struck me. This mould was extraordinary. I gazed at it, this mould, like wallpaper.
Annabelle Carvell Annabelle is a co-founder/editor of Synaesthesia Magazine. She has been shortlisted for the 2012 Cinnamon Press Short Story Prize and has been published on CHEAP POP, Visual Verse and THRESHOLDS, the international short story forum. She is currently working on a short story collection, predominantly influenced by Ian McEwan and anything else that's drenched with the disturbed.
Lauren Kolesinskas is a Pratt Institute graduate living in Brooklyn. Brush and ink is her perpetual jam, though she works in a variety of mediums. She enjoys drawing lots of things, some of them mutated, and has worked on a wide range of projects, such as graphic novels, album covers, story-board/concept art, set decoration, and editorial illustration. Past clients include Pfizer, Fox Studios, and Jenkem Magazine, among others. View her work at laurenkolesinskas.com.