He walked into the house his face set, features grim.
"Hello love, did you have a nice time at Nanna's? How is she? I do hope she's beginning to settle now."
He didn't immediately answer her.
"What's the matter love? She didn't upset you did she, I know it's not nice seeing her in there. Did she have her funny head on? You mustn't take anything she says to heart you know. She can't help it."
Ian looked at her, unsmiling. He normally came into the house a cross between a freshening breeze and a herd of marauding elephants. Usually his voice preceded him, his most favoured greeting as he opened the door and walked in, a breezy, "Hello my mam." So far he had not spoken a word.
For the first time, Jean noticed the small bag in his hand. It looked like the kind of bag you'd get from a good confectioner, about eight inches tall, pretty, a deep rose colour with a cut out heart shape covered in clear cellophane. The bag was tied at the top with a broad scarlet ribbon.
"What's this?" she asked smiling, "A present? Whose been buying you presents, not nanna surely?"
"No it's for you Mother." His voice was flat,
Mother? What was with the mother thing? She wondered, he'd never called her mother in his life.
"A present for me? How lovely. What is it?"
He walked over to her and handed her the bag.
"No it's not a present, I'm just returning something to you."
She took the bag and looked puzzled. It appeared to be empty. Ian was behaving strangely, so cold, so indifferent, normally he was such a sunny lad; she was worried about him. Jean opened the bag slowly; maybe there was something at the bottom, a piece of paper or tickets to something.
"There's nothing in it. Ian are you all right Darling? What's the matter? What's this all about?"
His eyes narrowed to slits, she'd seen this look before though not for at least a couple of years. His whole stance was hostile, his eyes, what she could now see of them were full of hurt, anger, fury. Ian hadn't had a temper tantrum for ages now; he was always so pleasant and loving.
"I'm returning all the love you've ever given to me Mother. But if you say there's nothing in the bag then it didn't amount to much did it? Why are you looking so shocked? You wanted me dead didn't you? Maybe I should get a razor blade and slash my wrists right now, would that please you Mam? Would it eh? See the bags empty so you never did love me did you? You never wanted me, can you deny that? Can you?"
"Ian where the hell has all this come from? Of course I love you. You're behaving like a three-year-old. Now calm down and tell me what's upset you."
He sat in the chair opposite her. Confrontational, direct, the way she'd always taught him to be if he had a problem.
"Face it down son." She would say, "Never be afraid to speak your mind, and if problems occur, sort them out. Don't let them fester."
And here he was facing her with tears in his angry eyes, accusing her of not loving him. His hands were on his knees, fingers twining, twisting, moving. He was fidgeting; he always fidgeted when he was upset.
"You didn't want me."
It was neither a question, nor statement. This was a big booger accusation that needed to be addressed.
"What? Ian, how can you even think that."
"You didn't want me, and you don't love me."
He was regressing by the second. The body was still that of a strapping great six foot two eighteen year old, but his attitude was a hurt little boy, desperately in need of reassurance.
"Of course I love you, I always have. Don't be so bloody stupid."
"No you don't, and for what it's worth you're off the hook. I'm old enough to look after myself now, I'm moving out, and for what it's worth I'm returning any love you think you have for me because I don't want it. I don't need you. I don't need anybody."
Jean almost smiled. Oh my God, the hormones, she thought. He was fourteen again and threatening to leave home rather than have a bath before going to bed. She checked herself, if she showed any sign of not taking him seriously now, it would only make things worse, and he was obviously hurting, despite his club handed way of expressing his feelings.
"Sweetheart, you aren't making any sense. Of course I love you. I've loved you from the second you were born and never once have I wavered in that love for you, even if you are a pain in the backside sometimes. Everything I've ever done has "
"Oh for Gods' sake Mother, not the old everything I've ever done, I've done for you speech. That is so old. If you are going to try to justify yourself at least be original."
"Okay Matey, I'm getting sick of this, what's it all about? You were fine when you left the house."
"Nanna said you were going to have an abortion."
And then there was light.
"Nana's a senile old fool."
"So you never for one second considered getting rid of me?"
Jean tried to always be honest with Ian. She wasn't accustomed to lying to him and she wasn't going to start now.
"Yes I did."
"Oh right then, that says it all doesn't it? I'll start packing then."
His voice had risen to a yell and he got up from the chair. The force of his fifteen stone's departure sent the armchair flying back to bang loudly against the radiator. He stormed off toward his bedroom stamping his feet on every step he hit.
Jean's temper snapped. It was a long time since he'd behaved in such a childish manner. They had worked hard on their relationship since the spots, grease and tantrums of adolescence had diminished, and her sweet loveable son had been returned to her. She understood that he'd had a shock, but he had to learn to cope with life's melodramas in a more adult manner.
"Ian, Get back here right this second. How dare you storm off before I've had a chance to explain my side of the story."
He came sullenly down the stairs, brazen in his attitude, but not brave enough to ignore his mother when she used that tone of voice. He loitered on the bottom step his hand resting on the dowel, ready for blessed flight if he didn't like what she had to say. Fair enough, this was a compromise, she could say her piece like this.
"Right you will listen to what I have to say, and as long as you are under my roof you will show me respect. Not only do I demand it, but I've also earned it. Ian you know that it wasn't easy for me bringing you up on my own before we met your dad. Christ love, I was fifteen years old when I fell pregnant with you. I was still a child myself. Three years younger than you are now. Can you imagine that love? Can you possibly understand how overwhelming it was to find myself pregnant at that age? And him, well he was even younger than I was. We were children playing at being adults. There is no excuse for what we, I, did. I knew it was wrong, and I'm not going to lie to you and say it was the first time, or that I didn't know I could get caught. It wasn't and I did. We used protection, of course we did, I was embracing adolescence at the advent of the aids generation. But we didn't know about family planning clinics, Hell I don't think they had free Johnny's for all then. Peter that was his name Peter used to steal them from his older brother, or we'd copper up our dinner money to buy a pack of three. But sometimes we got caught short. And well we were kids. Stupid bloody foolish kids."
"You're a bloody hypocrite. That's what you are. When I think of all the times you've lectured me." He put on the imitation voice of a nagging woman. "Be careful son won't you? You will use protection won't you? How bloody two faced is that?"
"Can't you see that I wanted better for you than I ended up with?" Damn! As soon as the heated words left her mouth, she knew she'd said the wrong thing.
"Oh, you wanted better for me, better than what Mother? Better than having a bastard son at the age of fifteen. Better than being saddled with a shameful bastard eh? What stopped you then? What stopped you having me cut out of you and being left in a bucket to die?"
"Stop it. Stop that now. I will not have you speaking to me like that." Suddenly all the fire went out of her and she wilted into the seat. They were both crying openly. She wanted to go to him, to put her arms round him and comfort him, but she knew that her advance would be rejected. He was hurting too much to let her in. So she sat with her arms wrapped round herself, rocking slightly, and speaking softly in between sobs.
"Of course I considered termination."
He winced slightly as he heard the last word and as it sliced through him, so too did it hurt her, to see him react so painfully to it.
"Sweetheart I considered that, and adoption. I considered running away and I considered suicide. I was desperate. The best way I can describe it to you is that I didn't feel as though I was having a baby that was just far too big to think about. I was pregnant. I was fifteen and pregnant and terrified. I didn't think of you as a baby, I didn't let my mind work on seeing me as a mother. I was a schoolgirl, a bright schoolgirl about to take my CSE's and I was pregnant. The school councillor talked about what was easiest. My mother, God bless her for putting us through this, said that she couldn't bring up another child, she'd done enough bringing up her four. I felt helpless and hopeless. I didn't want to face up to anything, time was moving on towards the twelve-week cut-off and everybody was yelling at me, telling me to hurry up and do it. If I heard 'it's for the best' once, I heard it a hundred times that week. And then one night I was lying in bed and I felt you. Oh don't get me wrong, I didn't feel you moving or anything like that, it was way too early. But I felt you the essence of you. The little person inside me, and I knew that you were going to be the greatest, most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. I talked aloud to you that night. I made you a promise from that moment on, that I was going to be your mummy, and that I was going to be the best mummy I could possibly be to you. Sweetheart, I have never forgotten that promise. I've not always been the best mother in the world, but I've been the best mother that I could be." Jean smiled fondly as she went back in time to the days of her pregnancy. "I tell you though Darling, you caused me some grief. I remember when I was oh four, maybe four and a half months pregnant. I was on the bus going to school and I felt you kick for the first time. The books right? All the expert baby books said that it would be like a pleasant flutter. Pleasant flutter my arse."
At this point Ian laughed and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket. She wanted to tell him not to do that, to get a tissue, but she bit her tongue. He walked across the room and sat beside her. Jean turned to him and smiled, she wiped a tear from his eye, sniffed to try and control her own leaky fluids, and then draped an arm loosely round his shoulder as she continued talking. He was unaccustomed to hearing his mother swear, and although it made him laugh, he felt ashamed of the language he'd used earlier. Jean was trying for a 'no big deal' attitude towards this turn of events. She knew the drama was over, all that remained was the mopping up.
"I tell you son of mine, that was no pleasant flutter, that was a whopping great kick in the belly that felt as though I'd been hit with a battering ram. I let out a scream, the bus driver stopped at the side of the road to see what all the fuss was about, and bless me, I thought I was going to have you five months early and right there in the back of the bus. And do you know what my only concern was? It wasn't that suddenly every kid on the bus knew that I was pregnant. We hadn't told anyone at that point, trying to keep it as low key as possible for as long as possible you see. Nope my only concern was that I was terrified of losing you.
"Anyway the bus driver was an old hand at having babies; he had eight of his own. Don't think they had much in the way of a tele in their house, anyway he explained that it was only you letting me know that you were there and that you were well. He said it was your way of saying hello to me. I'll never forget that moment. It was beautiful. Phew, not so beautiful when we finally got to school though, oh the stick I had to put up with."
Ian raised his head to look at her.
"I'm sorry mum." He said beginning to cry again. He only called her mum in his softer moments. Usually it was the harsher Mam, bellowed at the top of his lungs and often followed by what's for dinner I'm starving.
"I love you Mum."
"I know sweetheart and I love you too, and don't you ever forget it." She kissed him on the least snotty part of his face, after wiping her own nose on her own sleeve. And then she picked up the pretty, deep rose coloured bag and went into the kitchen.
Ian heard her banging about in cupboards. And then she came back in and handed the bag back to him.
"Go on open it." He opened the bag and found it full of squares of plain, dark chocolate.
"You see son, my love is non returnable. It's not something you can just hand back when you think you don't need it any more. Because let me tell you now. You may be able to get through life without many things, but you can't get by without knowing that your mum loves you."
He handed her a piece of chocolate and she took one, thanked him and put it in her mouth. She continued to talk round the chocolate, no mean feat without dribbling everywhere. He put a piece of chocolate in his own mouth and grinned at his mother, she'd have gone mad if he'd done that.
"My love for you," she went on, "Is a bit like that bag of chocolate, when you put it in your mouth, first of all you get the darkness. Sometimes love can be dark, you can be scared, feel insecure, and have a whole load of dark emotions that can be difficult to deal with. And then you get to the bitterness. Love is often bitter; people say things in the heat of the moment that once said, can't be taken back. It can be hurtful, if you didn't love somebody so much they wouldn't be able to hurt you so hard would they? And who said love was ever easy, it's not always easy loving someone, considering their needs above your own. Worrying that you are doing what's best for them. Love can be just like bitter chocolate. Most of the time though it's smooth and creamy. That's what love, and life, and living is all about. Feeling secure and wanted, knowing your place in the world and realising your worth. And where do you get that worth? Form the people who love, and care about you. Now if you were to eat that whole bag of chocolate you'd feel sick, love can sometimes be sickly and cloying. It can feel overwhelming, frightening, scary. Too much responsibility, but we have that responsibility to shoulder because that is the essence of loving somebody. And finally there is the aftertaste. The lovely rich smooth, decadent aftertaste. That is knowing that no matter what has gone on that day. Regardless of what's been said or done, your mother's love is unconditional. That no matter what, I'm there for you. "
She looked at her son and smiled.
"So I have just one thing left to say to you. No return my Darling. No return."