I have a big jar of buttons in my sewing box. I can’t seem to get rid of them even though, over the years, I have probably only made use of a handful of these buttons. So it got me thinking (lots of things do!) what would happen if someone became obsessed with buttons and how that would impact their lives and the lives of those around them . . .
‘Would you take a look at that?’ Judith says, nudging her friend in the ribs.
‘Ec-cen-tric or what?’ Mags tries to suppress her giggles as her eyes follow the sight which is dancing along the pavement a few feet ahead of them.
Bright feathers of different lengths and colours had been attached to what looked like a vibrant onsie. A woman’s face, painted in garish shades of pink and yellow grins out at them.
‘She looks like a cross between a parrot and a pantomime dame,’ Judith whispers.
Mags stares hard, before shrieking with laughter. ‘More like Big Bird and a clown!’
‘How old d’you reckon she is?’ Judith asks, doing a better job of controlling herself.
‘She’s got to be in her forties at least, hasn’t she? I mean, given we’re pushing thirty.’
‘I’ll give you thirty!’ Judith bats her friend on the shoulder with her gloves. ‘I call it mid- twenties myself.’
You never could count,’ Mags says. ‘Come on. The boys will be waiting for us.’
As they turn into Friar Street, Judith casts one last look at the figure skipping happily into the distance. Then it hits her. That feeling of having just been winded. Where your breath comes out as haltingly as a cold car in the 70’s. A blast of memory which has been hidden away, biding its time, slams into her body full force.
Mags runs over to Judith, throwing her arms around her. ‘Judith! Are you okay? Judith?’
Judith tries taking long deep breaths, just like she had been taught as a child. Long and deep, right down from her throat, through her chest to the pit of her tummy. And again. And again.
‘I’m calling an ambulance,’ Mags says, groping around in her bag for her phone.
Judith could feel the world tumbling around her, spiralling her down and down into a blackness she swore she would never return to. Back into her past.
* * * * * *
‘Judith, look at me! Look!’
I was five years old. Mum was the best fun mum in the whole world, back then. And today was the most special day ever: It was “show and tell” day in class, and it was my turn. Other children had brought in boring things like birds’ nests and sea shells and photos of their relatives. Not me. Oh no. Today I was going to surprise everyone. I was bringing in my mum.
Gasps fluttered round the classroom as my mum danced in. Two girls pointed and started whispering together. Mrs Smith sat at the front with me. She was so amazed by my mum, her mouth hung open for at least a minute.
‘Children, do you have any questions for Judith or her mother,’ Mrs Radley asked, as soon as she had found her voice.
Several hands shot up simultaneously.
‘Is it heavy?’ John’s eyes widened as he looked at my mum.
Mum nodded before giving another rattling twirl, skirts swishing as she spun.
‘Me! Me!’ Megan raised her hand high and higher. ‘Where d’you get them all from?’
‘Everywhere,’ I held my head up high. For once I wasn’t the forgotten girl at the back of the class, the one with the mismatching clothes and mousy brown hair. For once, I was important: the child everyone wanted to speak to. ‘We cut them off clothes, we get them from sales, we ask people to collect them for us.’
‘There must be hundreds and hundreds.’ Alice stared hard, trying to count them.
Fiona’s hand shot up. ‘And do you sew them all on yourself?’ Fiona was the popular girl. She didn’t normally talk to me. I didn’t like her very much.
‘Yes,’ I glanced over at mum, ‘of course.’
A chorus of: ‘WOW!’ breathed through the classroom.
Mum got the biggest round of applause and I felt like I would burst with pride. Out in the playground, I was surrounded by children who all wanted to be my friend. It was the best day ever.
* * * * * *
‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Judith, happy birthday to yououuuuuu!’
I blew out the sixteen candles which Mags had carefully positioned on my cake. I knew that if I didn’t she would be upset. She had made such an effort; she was the only one who had, unless you counted mum and her b. . .
‘Go on then. Cut it!’ Mags urged, passing me the knife.
The thought of eating cake made me feel nauseous. There seemed to be a huge boulder lodged in my stomach that left no room for anything except discomfort. It had been there a very long time.
Before I had even dipped the point of the knife into the chocolate icing, I heard the familiar clicking noise getting louder. Closing my eyes, I made a wish. I wished as hard as I could that mum would not come in, that she would walk past the lounge, out of the front door, keep on walking and never come back.
Mags caught my eye as the door handle twisted.
‘D’you know how long it took me to make this?’ Mum held up the dress, my dress, out in front of her. And how do you reward me? By wearing this . . . this monstrosity!’
Mum made a grab for my skirt. I dodged aside, well-practised now at avoiding her.
‘Look! It’s matching! Like mine. Mother and daughter.’ Mum held out the long skirts of a dress drowning in buttons. Around her neck was a long intricate necklace also strung entirely with buttons. Even her hair was threaded with the damn things.
As the scene unfolded in front of us, Mags kept her eyes firmly fixed on the cake and the point of the knife that hovered there.
Mum sank into our aged armchair, as if the plug had been pulled on her energy. As the buttons covering every square millimetre of her outfit clashed with the buttons coating the armchair, the clatter set my teeth on edge.
Tears fell from her eyes. She placed her hands over her face and howled like a wolf mourning the loss of a member from its pack. That was the pattern. If I disappointed her in any way, and it didn’t take much, she would cry and cry and cry. Then, when there were no more tears left, the onslaught would continue: ‘I didn’t understand her, I was heartless, I didn’t think about anyone else but myself, I should know by now how much buttons meant to her . . . to us . . .’
I wondered how different things would be if mum had loved me more than buttons rather than the other way round.
To tell the truth, I can hardly say the ‘b’ word without every inch of my skin crawling and dormant anger simmering inside me. Some children are orphans, some are neglected by their alcoholic or drug addict parents or by parents obsessed by work or extreme hobbies; whereas, my competition was bits of seemingly innocuous plastic, metal, china, pearl, precious and semi-precious stone and countless other materials with holes in the middle. If it hadn’t been so heart-breaking, it would have been ridiculous.
Every spare minute of mum’s day was spent finding, counting, sorting, boxing, placing and sewing buttons. When the two of us first moved into our three-bedroomed house, I marvelled at the space. Granny left us the house, having finally slipped away after years of battling cancer. It was our new start. A long way from our cramped studio flat in what Granny called an ‘undesirable area’.
But bit by bit, day by day, the walls closed in on me. Towers of clothing occupied one room, ready for the buttons to be lovingly released, snip by careful snip, into her care.
In another, shelving had been purpose built, not only around the outside of the room, but in rows through the middle like a warehouse or specimen laboratory. On each of these shelves were hundreds of sterilised, see-through plastic containers. Handwritten labels had been painstakingly stuck on, each one in the exact centre with a precise drawing of the type of button lovingly placed within.
In the dim light of dawn you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into one of those old fashioned sweet shops, except here nothing was edible and nothing was for sale.
In the past, I’d tried to work out where her obsession had started. Was it the pink dress with the pearl buttons her mum had bought for her, aged 6? The one she had pinned up on the wall above her bed; the only garment in the house which had survived more than a few weeks in its original form with its buttons still intact.
Was it the scraggy brown rabbit with one beady glass eye which she had called ‘Buttons’. The one which, when it lost an eye a year into its life, her dad had laughed at and said she’d have to rename ‘Button’?
Or was it Nan and Granddad themselves? The Pearly King and Queen glittering and sparkling, and applauded for the remarkable charity work they carried out? The Pearly King and Queen who, as their fame spread, neglected their only daughter to such an extent, she became a ward of court aged seven and spent the next nine years being packed off to different homes, her only constant companions a shabby pink dress and an even shabbier brown, one-eyed rabbit.
By the time I reached 15, I could not care less about where mum’s obsession had started. I was sinking into a deep, dark pit, and I seemed incapable of clawing my way out. Panic attacks had become a daily occurrence. Nightmares haunted me during restless nights. All I wanted was for it to stop.
But today on my sixteenth birthday, I was trapped. I stood frozen in the lounge with mum’s howls ripping through me. Pity streamed from Mags’ eyes. Shame brushed my cheeks a vivid scarlet as I bit back my own tears.
‘Sorry,’ I mouthed.
Mags laid her hand on my shoulder. ‘It’s okay,’ she whispered.
If only others had been half as tolerant as Mags. Sneers hovering on lips, raised eyebrows, cruel jibes, pointed fingers: they’d followed me through the years. Even dad had cited them in the divorce paperwork. In short, buttons had ruined my life.
Nothing was left untarnished by my mother and her marriage to buttons. It had even warped my sense of style and nurtured my own obsession with shopping for clothing which did not contain a single button, not one. Poppers were just about acceptable, as a last resort, but zips and hooks and eyes were my preferred form of securing garments, even Velcro would do.
Becoming handy with a needle and cotton from almost as young as most toddlers learn to feed themselves had come in useful. If my choice of clothing necessitated alteration, then I was an expert at this. But I had to ask the shop assistants to remove the offending buttons before I carried my purchases home. I knew this crime, as mum perceived it, would be harshly punished if it was ever discovered. But it was a risk I had to take; my phobia about buttons was almost as powerful as mum’s obsession with them.
Mags was the only friend who had stuck by me. ‘You’re my mate,’ she’d say. ‘Friends forever.’
The other kids gave me a wide berth; why would they risk being ostracised simply by their association with me? As for boyfriends; even if my defensive demeanour had compelled them to look twice at me, the rumours which followed me about like a relentless shadow on a summer’s day, were enough to keep them away.
Two weeks after my sixteenth birthday, when mum was out pulling clothes from skips and recycle bins and from bags left out on the street to be collected by charity vans, I packed my things into a large suitcase. Having raided every can and teapot where mum hoarded money to fund her addiction, I finally stepped over the threshold for the last time.
* * * * * *
‘Judith, can you hear me?’ Dave’s familiar face blurs in front of me, moving in and out of vision.
I had been out cold for 24 hours; swimming around in the blackness of my childhood and beyond.
Running away to Reading. Finding a job and a rented room. Re-inventing myself as “Judith Smith”, whose parents had both been killed in a car crash the year before, who now had no living relatives. Making friends. Meeting Dave. Persuading Mags to go along with my deception when she moved in with me six months later.
Everyone had been taken in by my charade. The only person I had never fooled was me.
‘I need to tell you something,’ I say. It takes all my energy to reach up and touch his face. ‘I should have told you years ago.’
Dave draws away from me. ‘You’re already married?’ he asks. ‘You have three children hidden away?’
I would have smiled if I hadn’t felt on the brink of an abyss, convinced that when I topple into the realms of truth, Dave will turn on his heel and leave.
Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath. ‘It’s about my mum, well my parents.’ I hesitate. I can see confusion and hurt reflected in Dave’s eyes. I force the words out: ‘They’re not dead. There was no car crash.’
Dave takes hold of my hand. ‘Tell me,’ he says.
So I tell him the whole story, right from the beginning, right to the end where I’m sitting in this hospital bed holding his hand.
Dave stands up, runs his hands through his thinning blond hair. ‘Is anything about you real?’ he asks.
‘All of it,’ I say, ‘except my past . . . and my name.’ I turn my head away from him. More shame layered onto more shame. It feels unbearable.
‘So when were you going to tell me? As we stood by the altar? “Dave, you’re marrying “Judith Rogers” not “Judith Reynolds”? Christ!’
‘The altar?’ I ask.
‘Yes, of course the God-damned altar! I love you Judith . . . well, whoever you are. At least, I thought I did.’
‘I’m still me. Please don’t leave. Please.’ I’m begging now. Tears silently drop onto my pillow. Mum had ruined my past, now she was going to ruin my future as well.
Dave moves closer. He wraps his arms around me. ‘I don’t know what to think,’ he says. ‘But you have to sort yourself out.’
When Dave leaves, I curl up into a tight ball. I just can’t go back there, not even for a minute, I can’t go back.
Several days later, I am discharged from hospital. I try to pick up the strands of my life, but it is impossible. My whole body feels as if it is unravelling, as if I am still held fast in the web of my past. I realise I can’t get through this on my own.
It takes a whole year of therapy before I am ready to face my past. Months of leaching the shame, the fear, the anger and my obsession with mum’s obsession. I even attend Al-Anon meetings. They are meant for families of alcoholics to help them detach from their loved one’s drinking and instead keep the focus on their lives and their behaviour. Yet there are so many similarities, despite the substance being buttons instead of alcohol. They call alcoholism a family illness, well buttons had certainly destroyed our family.
Weeks before I go back to my childhood home, I have nightmares. Of arriving at the front door to find it covered in thousands of buttons, so many in fact that it takes me days of searching to find the doorbell. Mum opens the door and smiles. Her eyes are two hollow rounds, her mouth the thread between two holes and her nose a huge pink pearl. She opens her mouth to speak and I become tangled up in the threads, like a fly caught in a spider’s web. I wake up sweating and panting just before mum’s tongue, a huge sharp needle, reaches out for me.
Despite the nightmares, despite the terror, despite weeks of postponing this moment, finally the day arrives. After a long journey, which seems far too short, I stand in our road. Our old road. All I want to do is to run away and never come back. Just like I had when I was sixteen. But I know that this is one thing I can’t run from permanently, whichever corner of the earth I escape to. It will always catch up with me.
Every step I take towards our old house demands huge amounts of self-control not to turn on my heels and flee. I suspect this is how you would feel if you were making your way to the hangman’s noose or the guillotine. Or similar, anyway.
I reach the doorstep, but it all feels wrong. I check the number to make sure I have the right house. The black paint on the door gleams; as does the highly polished door knob and knocker. Nothing used to gleam in our house, except the buttons.
What if she’s moved? Been evicted? What if I’ve come all this way and she no longer lives here? What if she’s dead?
Five minutes pass before I find the courage to knock. I don’t know what would be worse, for mum to be there or to discover she’s moved on.
The knock echoes as I wait. The door opens. I squeeze my eyes shut. I start shaking. Even the thought of the clicking and mum’s wild eyes and the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of buttons makes me feel nauseous and faint. Would there even be room to walk through the hallway with the additional buttons she would have collected during the years I’d been gone?
Slowly I open my eyes.
There in front of me stands, well mum, no question about it. But she looks nothing like the mum I remember. Her hair is neat and tidy, her clothes are, oh my God they are normal clothes: a plaid skirt and cream blouse. And the most remarkable thing of all is that there is not one extra button in the wrong place. In fact, as far as I can tell there are no buttons at all. I cannot take this in. It is too much.
Before I know what was happening, mum has folded me into her arms and is sobbing silently into my shoulder. Mum with the wild outbursts, mum who howled with hysteria at the slightest provocation, mum who was so out of control. My mum, crying quietly.
I vaguely remember being led into the lounge, mum handing me a dainty cup of tea and placing a plate of chocolate biscuits in front of me. Like a proper mum.
‘I’ve dreamed of this day,’ she says, her eyes stained with regret.
Flashes of conversation reach into my consciousness: ‘It broke my heart when you left . . . fell apart completely . . . had to get help . . . needed counselling . . . no more buttons . . . all gone . . . took years . . . searched everywhere for you . . . never stopped searching . . . kept hoping you’d come back to me . . . I’m so, so sorry . . . can you ever forgive me?’
Mum and I, we talk into the early hours of the morning. I am too tired to protest when she shows me up to my old room. Whilst it looks exactly the same as it was the day I walked out ten years before, only cleaner, everything has changed.
When I leave my old home the next morning, I feel like a snake who has recently shed a redundant and restrictive skin. Mum waves me goodbye. Now that she has finally found me, she is only able to let me go with the knowledge that my address and phone number are clasped firmly in her hands, along with a tentative invitation to visit the following weekend.
I know that re-building our relationship will take time, and that the path of reconciliation will have its bumps along the way, but the fact that we have both been released to a large extent from our bondage to buttons, gives me hope.
* * * * * *
Dave and I get married on 15th May the following year. My dress is made of stunning white silk, embroidered with roses. A zip runs snugly up the back. Mum looks elegant in a light blue suit with a small fascinator which flutters in the breeze during the photos. I keep sneaking looks at her. The transformation is so incredible, part of my brain cannot take it in. Each time I catch her eye, I expect to see the old version of mum, rattling with buttons, madness shining out of her.
Everything about the day is perfect. My wonderful husband. Mags as my bridesmaid. Family and friends around me. But d’you know, whilst this no doubt caused all our guests a significant challenge, the absolute best part of the whole day is the dress code: “No Buttons.”
© Nicky Clifford, 2013