Ownback by Em Kittow


     ‘Look at this.’
     Maggie moved to see what Kai was pointing at, he was enjoying his new cool status with his big sister’s old iPhone. He was looking at the Magpies and Mochas account, the social media monster that Maggie’s mother had created. She called herself an influencer. More like binfluencer, Maggie thought, her lip curling into a snarl. 
     The post Kai was rolling his eyes at was a blurred-background photo of a coffee stain on a piece of paper and a scrunched-up chocolate bar wrapper.

One of those days where the kids make you just want to pull your hair out. #deserveatreat #metime #littledevils #mumsofinsta

It had been posted yesterday at lunchtime, while Dad and Maggie had gone out for food. Mum had chosen to stay at home and ‘work’. Maggie snorted, ‘I wasn’t even there.’ Kai flicked through some other posts, Maggie looking over his shoulder. All twists on the truth if not downright lies. Maggie’s eyes filled with tears. If Kai noticed, he was smart enough not to mention it. ‘Do you even want to be in the photos?’ He scrolled back through years and years of posts, back to when Maggie was only four or five. Scrolling, scrolling, then she was two or three. Back when it all started. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Does she know you can see them now?’ ‘Probably not.’ He spun round excitedly, ‘you should get your own back.’ She punched his arm in agreement. ‘Ow!’ ‘Sorry. You’re totally right though.’
Was she really about to do this? Like, really really? Maggie’s hand fluttered on the door handle. It trembled with every thud of her heart. Maybe she shouldn’t do this. Her tongue felt like she’d been chewing cotton wool. But then she heard Mum humming upstairs, cleaning glue from under her manicured nails. Baby pink like a #flamingo. Maggie clucked her tongue. She was doing this. The glue under Mum’s nails was from a craft she’d spent all morning building in the kitchen, while Maggie read in her room, alone. All so she could post more pictures online. When she’d finished, she’d moved it into the ‘playroom’. A room Maggie wasn’t to go in, unless Mum was there too, ‘making memories’ as she called it. She would place Maggie behind the carefully curated stage, featuring an all natural, all indie-business-bought toy that had been designed to keep kids Maggie’s age occupied for a whole day. Rather than a 38-year-old preoccupied for a morning. Mum would then take loads of photos. Hundreds. All candid of course. Then she’d write a flood of hashtags like #craftygirls #anydaywithayneedsacraft #craftmama #mamabear247 and #mummyscleverclogs. The missing apostrophes drove Maggie, an out-and-proud clever clogs, absolutely wild. She hated the hashtags more than the photos. Maybe. Maybe not. She definitely hated the photos. With that, she twisted the handle and slipped into the playroom, gently pulling the door closed behind her. The walls were cream, the carpet the colour of milky tea. There was no telly. Bambi-coloured toys made a dreary display of beige. Everything was perfectly placed to appear scattered. #messybunnies #amummysworkisneverdone. But it was nothing more than a museum exhibition about fun. No touching. The perfect set design to make other parents feel bad about how much of their time they could devote to their #littlies. There were two neatly ironed outfits hanging from a wooden rail. Matching tops and shorts. Rusty red with little embroidered flowers or stitched-in noughts and crosses. Neither had ever been worn. They hung there, ghost clothes, made to look like a busy mum had rushed away from her ironing as soon as a craftless child wandered past. Maggie headed over to the clothes and pulled a little jar out of her pocket. She’d offered to feed Percy that morning. Percy was their Persian cat. A prize pet with bright white fur that needed combing every day, if he was going to be camera ready. They’d had Percy for months now but today was going to be his grand unveiling. #newpet #notreally. Percy’s favourite food was tinned salmon. The stinky fish was the same colour as Mum’s horrible nails, but Maggie didn’t dare point that out. He loved it so much he would come running as soon as he heard the crack and pop of a ring pull. It was a once-a-week treat because no one in the house could stand his breath after. Maggie steadied herself at the thought of what a daily salmon habit might smell like. Maggie had squeezed the top of the can against the fish and watched the murky waterfall of brine trickle out. Usually this went straight down the plughole, but not today. Today was not a usually day. Today she poured it into a little jar that had been draining on the side. Dad had carefully washed it out of the sticky strawberry goo he liked to call jam – homemade and so full of pips it was crunchy like peanut butter – so it could go in the recycling. #ecofamily. Luckily, he hadn’t thrown away the lid yet. Maggie had poured the stinking salty juice into the pot and smiled at the little flakes of fish that swirled around in the rosy liquid. Now, she twisted the jar open and dabbed her finger into the warm-from-her-pocket broth. She rubbed her salmon-stained fingers into the legs of the shorts, the armpits and necks of the tops and into the velvety coat hangers for good measure. She was careful not to splash any on the front of the clothes because Mum would notice something was out of place straight away. But that wasn’t all. Maggie lifted a sandwich bag and gagged a gag that almost got away from her. The stench was something she couldn’t ever have imagined when she’d collected cold beans from everyone’s dinner plates three weeks ago. Collected them into this flimsy little sack and hidden it behind the radiator. The mould, green and white, looked alive. Like slugs crawling through clouds. She closed the lid, but her nostrils still hurt. Bruised and battered by the homemade stink bomb. It was perfect. She slipped it into one of the shorts pockets and smoothed the fabric down. #nothingtoseehere.
‘Mum?’ ‘What do I keep telling you?’ Maggie sighed, ‘Mummy,’ the word tasted like a custard cream, babyish and so sugary it gave her ulcers. ‘Yes, darling.’ ‘I don’t feel well.’ She wanted to give Mum – sorry, Mummy – a get out. She wanted her to turn around and say ‘you feel poorly? Oh, sweetheart can I make you a hot chocolate? We can just snuggle on the sofa until you feel well again.’ Or, even better ‘don’t worry love, it’s over. I don’t want to post anymore. I’m sure people don’t care what I think anyway. Shall we go for an ice cream? And we’ll swap Percy for a slobbery great dog like you’ve always wanted.’ ‘You’ll be fine,’ she said, sweeping past with a quick back-of-the-hand check of Maggie’s forehead. She tutted as Percy rubbed himself around her legs, meowing and shoving his nose under the playroom door. He knew better than to scratch at the carpet, weeks of being sprayed with water had conditioned him to care as much about the furniture as Mum did, but he was desperate to get into that room. Wonder why, Maggie thought. Pleased with herself. She picked him up, his purrs like an engine revving. Mum opened the door. Maggie waited to see if she noticed the slight whiff in the air. She was sure the whole street could hear her heart beating. That Mum would see it banging around inside her chest, and make some stupid comment about needing a bra soon. Of course, Mum didn’t notice anything, she was too busy choosing which filter to use. ‘Come on Mags, we don’t have all day,’ she called, a director organising her cast. ‘Okay,’ Maggie sounded as natural as the yoghurt in their fridge. Mum had asked for this, she skipped into the playroom ready for her afternoon of #funfunfun. She tried to keep Percy in her arms, wanting to wait for the camera to start clicking before letting him go but he was a squirming, whirling ball of fluff. No way she could hold on. In less than a second, he was up in the air, dragging his claws through the coral-coloured cloth. His purrs so loud now, the room seemed to vibrate. ‘Percy!’ Mum screamed. He landed with a bang, pulling the outfits and hangers down with him. Maggie felt terrible that he might have hurt himself but the almighty stench that clogged the air told her it was the rotten beans that had exploded, not Percy. He was having an incredible time, rolling around in the salmony goodness, spreading the fuzzy beans as he went. Mum looked like the poster for a horror film. Pale, mouth open in a silent scream, eyes practically popping out of her head. She took a step back as Percy started walking towards her, blobs of white fluffy mould disguising themselves in his white #floofy fur, his paws padding sticky bean soup into the carpet. Maggie captured the whole thing. Using Mum’s phone to take pictures as the room fell into chaos felt good. SO good. The best she’d ever felt. Mum tried to catch Percy who sprang out of the way every time she lunged, every time he bent to lick at the salmon-soaked rags his gorgeous long fur became more stained with orange. He looked like he’d been given one of Mum’s spray tans. Mum stopped running and crumpled down onto the floor, sobbing. Maggie didn’t feel so great anymore. ‘Why, Mags?’ Mum asked, her voice not much more than a whisper. Maggie looked down at her shoes, striped like a tiger with sticky orange gloop. ‘I wanted you to know how I felt.’ ‘You could have just told me.’ Her voice was rising in volume, speeding up towards a shout. ‘No,’ Maggie stopped her. ‘You never listen.’ Mum flapped her mouth like a fish. Neither of them spoke, the room was fizzy with quiet. Maggie looked down at the phone in her hand, began swiping at the photos she’d just taken. Mum and Percy running about, falling over, covered in gunk and goo. They weren’t as funny as she’d thought they would be. She kept swiping, thousands and thousands of versions of her face whizzing past. ‘How come Dad isn’t in any of these?’ ‘He didn’t want to be. When I asked him, he said no.’ ‘You never asked me.’ Mum beckoned for Maggie to join her on the floor, she took the phone back and stared at the screen. Her face lit up like a jack-o-lantern, she opened Magpies and Mochas and started tapping away. Maggie let out a sigh, almost deflating herself completely, and started to get up. Anger itched at her skin. ‘Wait.’ Mum handed her the phone.

It’s been wonderful sharing this time and space with you, but Magpies and Mochas needs a little break while we think about what the next part of our journey is going to be. #growth #mummyworkinghard #newthingsahead

‘You’re still in trouble, you know,’ Mum said, as she picked a wrinkled bean from out of her hair. Maggie couldn’t stop the grin from taking over her face. #WorthIt.

About the Author

Em Kittow writes for children of all ages. Her unpublished YA novel was shortlisted in the Hot Key Young Writer’s Prize and Longlisted for the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition (though this was longer ago than she cares to admit). Last year she worked on commissions for Seven Stories and wrote an activity book for Ladybird. Her dream is to work on a picture book but she can’t draw much more than stick people.

Twitter: @emkittow

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