Debra Waters

Debra Waters is currently studying part-time for an MA in Creative & Life Writing at Goldsmiths. In 1996, she graduated from the same university with a degree in English & Theatre Arts. Debra works as a digital food & lifestyle writer; previously, she’s worked as a TV reviewer, press officer, receptionist, runner, waitress and actress. She writes autofiction, flash fiction, short stories and prose poetry.

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These three pieces are extracts from a longer piece of autofiction.


1987: mother

Margaret found herself staring out of the kitchen window. She was thinking about how she hadn’t done much with her life, that her daughters were her life.

Even if she had longer, Margaret doubted she’d have done much else. Seen a bit more of the world, perhaps – nowhere too adventurous – America, or Australia if she could persuade Jim to go back. He’d been a Ten Pound Pom until his ma got homesick and had her breakdown. Took two years to save for the boat back. Jim had happy memories though, he loved to regale her with stories of spiders in the dunny and kangaroos as common as alley cats. The stories thrilled Margaret, there wasn’t much of the exotic in East Yorkshire.

Margaret picked up the mixing bowl and placed it in hot, soapy water, leaving her hands immersed for a moment. She was always cold and the warmth was a comfort. She thought about her girls – sad and angry girls since her diagnosis – and how all she wanted was to watch them grow, graduate, marry, have kids. Before the weakness in her limbs began she’d been planning to retrain as a social worker, though it meant a lot of paperwork and what she really enjoyed was being a homehelp, chatting to the old ladies and doing useful things like buying groceries and brushing their ivory hair. Then, after they retired, her and Jim talked about moving to the coast, Robin Hood’s Bay or Staithes. Talked about getting a dog.

But that was it. She’d never been a woman to march the streets, she wasn’t a bra burner, a gesticulator. That was for the teachers and lawyers, the educated women she only saw at school plays. She’d turned down a place at grammar school to be with her friends.

Margaret took the steak and kidney pie out of oven, dusted the flour off her striped pinny, and walked slowly around her home. It was what she was most proud of, after the girls; she gave it the same reverence a congregation gives a church, cleaning every inch and dusting hidden skirting boards and the tops of picture frames, fussing like a seaside landlady. Jim liked to tell their friends she’d dust him if he sat still too long. Carpets twice vacuumed, once away from the pile then over to smooth the fibres down, kitchen cupboards tackled monthly, bedrooms tidied daily. She saw value in cleanliness, in order. Tidy house, tidy minds.

Until recently, until the limping started, her contentment alarmed the girls. Barely teenagers and their self-assurance had already outgrown hers. They reminded her of trees that sought the light and were taller and stronger for it. She hoped they’d go to university – they’d be the first women in her family to if they did – and find jobs they liked and men they loved. She wouldn’t judge or hold them back, she wasn’t that sort of mother, a possessive hen who kept her chicks too close. Jim was such an alarmist, telling the girls it was a degree or the factory, but then he always thought in black and white.

But when her daughters used the f-word she felt a nerve twitch and tug at her left eyebrow.

‘You’re so not a feminist, mum,’ the eldest said, because she folded Jim’s shirts and let him have the final say.

‘Why didn’t you go to university, mum? Why were you just a secretary? Why did you give up work when you got married?’

Margaret told the girls she had the fastest shorthand in her class and that if she hadn’t been a secretary she wouldn’t have met their father (so there’d be no daughters). Jim had gone under her desk to mend a phone line, fallen in love with her legs and asked her out. He was funny and practical and respected her decision to wait until they were engaged.

She explained how once, when she was 15 and her parents thought she was staying with a schoolfriend, she camped outside the ABC for Beatles tickets. She showed the girls a sepia photo of herself looking like Holly Golightly in a tiny black cocktail dress, eyes thick with eyeliner, hair beehive-high. She wanted them to see past her cream blouse and A-line skirt, see the woman she was before she was their mother.

Her youngest showed an interest; she loved film stars, especially Audrey Hepburn. They watched old films together on rainy Sundays while Margaret ironed. The eldest said she didn’t need to know that her mother waited until she was engaged before she did it. Gross.

Margaret worked, cooked, cared, cleaned, ferried, loved. She sewed, supported, entertained. She stood up for herself, taught the girls how to shield themselves against mean tempers, bad goods and poor service. ‘The best thing you can teach your children,’ her own ma had told her, ‘is resilience.’

Resilience. They’d all need that now.

Margaret went upstairs to the eldest girl’s bedroom, smoothed the duvet, hung clothes. She closed the left-open diary without peeking though it itched her slim fingers to do so, then went to her youngest’s room and placed cassettes back in boxes, re-stuck the corner of a Smash Hits poster to the wall.

Margaret thought of her own mother, dead these past 20 years, her brain drowned by haemorrhage just six weeks after her and Jim’s wedding. She said once that had it been six weeks before she may never have married, she’d have looked after her grief-wrecked da. He wouldn’t have got better, she suspected, even if she’d stayed, but she would have done it. Her girls were furious about this, frightened, their eyes tacky with tears – it was one thing to lack ambition, another to sacrifice reduced hopes and dreams out of duty. Such an act of unnecessary martyrdom.

‘It wouldn’t have been out of duty,’ she explained, ‘it would have been out of love.’

‘Yeah, right,’ said the eldest.

‘Don’t put less value on love,’ she’d warned. It worried her that love is what seemed to suffer most.

Margaret looked out over the green-field land and watched the diggers plough it up for housing. That building work was never meant to happen to those fields, and the disease was never meant to happen to her. She was livid with time, its advancement encroaching on her town, her family, her body. She was young, not yet 40, facing an illness of unthinkable cruelty. Her right arm was permanently weak, her limping worse by the day. She’d need a wheelchair, said the terse consultant. Within the year. She’d soon find it difficult to talk, swallow, breathe. He told her this without looking up from his desk in his room on the 12th floor of Hull Royal, and Margaret fixed her eyes on the clouds fleeting across the Humber as he did. She wished she was one of those clouds, wished she was the consultant, the nurse, anyone but herself. She called Jim on the hospital payphone, hysterical, and within 20 minutes her husband of 15 years covered 20 miles to reach her, left his van parked in front of the hospital with the door open, ran into the consultant’s room and pinned that cold, clever doctor to the wall with one hand, made a fist with the other.

‘I told you not to tell my wife without me,’ he shouted, spit gathering in his dark beard.’ They’d agreed this. ‘How could you tell her when she had no one with her? What sort of man are you?’ Margaret didn’t stop Jim, didn’t care if he hit him. She would have too if she wasn’t shaking so much. ‘Where’s your common decency?’ shouted Jim as two porters prised him away. The doctor didn’t press charges.

‘How can I be a mother if I can’t mother,’ she asked the family cat, an idle black male that favoured the warm folds of her youngest’s unmade bed. Margaret looked at her hands – she had a few liver spots, the only sign of aging she’d see. She tried to make a fist but her fingers wouldn’t curl. She never had to think about making a fist before, it was as instinctive as walking and talking. Those actions, too, would soon be things she couldn’t do.

Margaret took a deep breath and pulled out a leaflet from her pinny pocket.

Motor neurone disease, or MND for short, is an incurable, progressive disease. Messages from the brain are unable to reach the muscles, which leads to atrophy.

 ‘I’m wasting away.’

More than half diagnosed die within two years.

 ‘I have so little time.’

The final stages of MND will usually involve gradual weakening of the breathing muscles and increasing sleepiness. This is usually the cause of death, either because of an infection or because the muscles stop working.

She’d already become a minor celebrity, mentioned in the local papers alongside fete openings and muggings. He’d follow up, the reporter said. By that he meant an obituary. It would read something like Margaret A–, housewife and mother to two daughters, lost her brave fight… It wouldn’t list her achievements because housewives, secretaries and mothers didn’t win OBEs or the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet she felt sorry for the people who heard she was dying. If it was happening to someone else she’d probably say to Jim, ‘How sad, and those kids deprived of a mother’. And he’d reply, ‘Poor sod’. Other people might say, ‘I hope she’s getting the support she needs’ if they were pragmatic, while the devout would whisper, ‘There for the grace of God go I’. Friends would cry and even compete because there’s always someone who clings to another’s tragedy as if it’s their own.

 You may worry about distressing symptoms towards the end of life, such as choking. In reality, most people with MND do not die from a frightening event, but have a peaceful death.

Margaret wasn’t one to dwell on tragedy – there was enough of it in the world without having to wallow in it – but what to do when it was your own? She’d always preferred uplifting stories, like A Woman of Substance where heroines railed against the odds, but now she felt duped. Those books had her believing that extraordinary things happened to ordinary people but here she was on the flip side of fate, her life made extraordinary by something that would kill her, something so rare it’s what she’d be remembered for. When her name came up in conversation they’d forget her small kindnesses, her loyalty and good humour, and recall the disease, her good deeds eclipsed. She’d serve as a warning, a lighthouse flash to remind others of their good fortune.

Margaret gently shooed the cat away and made the bed. It was getting harder now, to do housework. ‘Do you want to go away? I’ll take leave, we’ll pull the girls out of school and take a trip.’ Jim asked. ‘No, I want to stay, I want things to be as normal as possible,’ she’d replied. She lay down and breathed in her daughter’s mild scent, hugged and kissed the pillow as if it were her child. She wasn’t sure who she was asking but said it anyway, ‘I have healthy kids and a lovely home. I have a husband who loves and respects me, and a job I enjoy. I smoke and wear my hair as I want. I voted a woman into power. I’m a homemaker and homehelp with just enough time to do those things and I have just enough left in me at the end of the day to love not begrudge. I have enough.’

Maybe, she thought, this was why life was giving up on her so soon.

‘Have I not been bold enough?’

She’d written the girls a letter each, to be read after her funeral. It told them how much she loved them (equally, so there’s no point arguing, you two!) Look after your dad and each other, she’d written in shaky letters. Be kind.

Margaret got up and went into her bedroom. She took the letters out of her bedside table drawer and added at the end, just before All my love, mum xxx

Be bold. Speak up.

‘Ok let’s make a deal,’ she said to the air. ‘Let them grow old,’ now that she knew she wouldn’t. ‘Let them know wrinkles and arthritic knees, let them see their grandkids, for God’s sake. I’m owed that.’

Recently, people had taken to telling the girls to be quiet, as if Margaret was already on her deathbed. But she didn’t want to stop her daughters laughing or talking or singing or shouting – sod what the neighbours thought – she wouldn’t shush them when they talked late into the night, wouldn’t stop them screaming at her, their anxious faces hot and red. She closed her eyes and pictured the light around them getting brighter as hers dimmed. No, she wouldn’t let them fade away.


1989: daughters

Mum’s lying on the sofa when I get in from school, half-shrouded by a blanket. She’s wearing grey joggers, sports socks and a pink jumper. The wool is unraveling on the right cuff. She’s most likely asleep but I lean in to check she’s breathing. Dad said she did this when Lou and I were babies.

She hasn’t been up for weeks now, maybe months. Her hands are too weak to work the joystick on the electric wheelchair and she can no longer turn the pages of a book. There’s often an audiotape playing, today it’s A Woman of Substance. Her brain ticks over, dazed by uppers, dulled by downers. Her neurons continue to call on her muscles to walk, talk, chew, but the messages dissolve into nothing, like words spoken in thick fog.

Lou’s hiding in her room again, or she’s at her boyfriend’s house listening to The Cure and pretending to like them. Having a joint, pretending to like that. I’ve started to think that I never actually had an older sister, that I dreamed her up. I can’t picture the fair-haired girl who fed me ice cream, who blocked dad’s palm when it swooped for my leg, who taught me the Thriller routine, who lent me her second-best top for the youth club dance. It’s like I live with a poltergeist, I see she’s moved stuff but never see her doing it. And I hear sounds, a chair leg scraping on kitchen tiles, a door slamming, and sometimes a disembodied voice talking to mum.

Normally I make toast and go straight to my room. I don’t sit with mum because her reclining body infuriates me; it should be carrying laundry up the stairs, it should be gossiping on the phone, it should be fetching me from netball. I don’t feed her because when food falls from her mouth I retch. I’ll never make a nurse, I’ll never make a parent. I don’t talk to her because my thoughts are jaundiced with disgust, I don’t hold her hand because my hands are permanent fists. But today I’m brave. If my friend Fay has the guts to ask out a sixth-former I can sit with my mother. I pull up the carpeted footstool, crouch by her head, and rest my heavy schoolbag on my knees – it’s a bolster, it’s a wall.

There’s no point asking her how her day’s been even though she raised me to. I know that while I’m skipping maths, answering back in biology and smoking behind the art block, carers bathe her, friends fuss and chatter, cousins feed her cups of Complan. Dad pops in and plumps her pillows, tells her jokes, strokes her limp hair, kisses her on the mouth.

Dad doesn’t get irate like he used to. Instead, he says to my eye-roll, ‘for better for worse’; to my scowl, ‘you’ll get it one day’. Every day for weeks now, maybe months, his eyes have been stained with a reddish hue. Red-rimmed as he mows the lawn, red-rimmed as he drinks tea by the kitchen window, red-rimmed as he drives us to school. I’ve forgotten how they looked before. He’s cheerful for mum; he sits with her at night and holds her hand while they watch gameshows and Only Fools and Horses. But out of her sight he says very little.

We are a family waiting for the preordained.

When I look to Lou for advice she hasn’t any. When I borrow her second-best top without asking she comes at me so quickly the carer steps in to break us up. She stays with her best mate for days, maybe weeks.

For dinner dad and me eat Kraft cheese slices and food cold straight from tins.

So I don’t ask mum. I’m sidetracked by some biscuit crumbs stuck between the glass and wooden edge of the side table. When I try to dig them out with my pinkie finger they disintegrate, make a smudging mess.

‘Auntie Pat’s coming over,’ I say. Pat is mum’s best friend. She’s psychic – we know this because she had a vision of a plane on fire and cancelled a holiday to Corfu. Her husband was so mad until fifty-five people died on a Manchester runway. We call her Gypsy Rose Pat now but she hates to be reminded, says it’s a curse not a blessing. Saved her family though.

Won’t save ours. Pat didn’t get an inkling about mum but I did. I was stood in the doorway to the lounge and mum walked past me wearing a blue A-line skirt and cream blouse. She’d just had her highlights done. Her leg buckled underneath her and she said, ‘That keeps happening’. It could have been cramp but I knew. I felt it in the cold shudder down my back. I knew before the tests and false diagnoses and the trip south to see specialists that it was too late, that she was as good as gone already.

I tell Lou something’s badly wrong. What I don’t tell her or anyone is that part of me is excited. It’s a weird, shameful feeling like fancying your cousin. Months, maybe a year, later when dad says mum will die my sister wishes I hadn’t told her. ‘Why did you tell me that?’ she shouts as if me saying it made it happen.

I offer to do mum’s make-up. I’ve never offered before. I’m being a grown up, I’m trying it on for size.

‘That’s nice,’ she croaks. Her words, I’m so riled by her body’s refusal to part with them. I want to force them out with a Heimlich manoeuvre. One, two, three, OUT.

I get her floral vanity bag from the dining room – now her bedroom. The inside is stained with bronzer, looks like it’s rusted.

‘Avon Calling,’ I say, and she smiles.

I don’t bother with foundation. I dab the small sponge applicator onto a square of pale blue eyeshadow, pick up some colour and slide it across her closed lids. Her skin is parched so the powder doesn’t glide on well. It’s darker on the flaky patches. There are tiny spider veins running from her large nose like bloody rivers. I read somewhere that a strong nose looks better in photos, but me and my sister’s are small and snub. I put my hand to mine and squish it down, then I run my finger along the hard ridge of mum’s – she doesn’t seem to mind that I’m stroking her like a pet.

The cream blusher has dried and cracked so I smear Vaseline on the apples of her cheeks. I take her frosted pink lipstick, twist it up and inhale the familiar smell of musky perfume. I apply it then hide it in my schoolbag. A token. If I don’t take it my sister will.

Mum barely moves. She reminds me of that song Cliff Richard used to sing, the one she’d play in her Mini Metro when we went to Whitby. Got myself a livin’ doll.

Everyone says how young she looks – they think this is a comfort – and my sister agrees with them because she’s learned how to lie. But mum looks older than I imagined someone could ever look, decaying like the witches in fairytales she read to us when we were kids, witches who couldn’t stay young and beautiful without drinking the blood of virgins.

I’d give her mine if it helped.

While I curl mum’s hair I think about the things that have been said to Lou and me in so-called sympathy:

Only the good die young

You’ll always remember her as a young woman, she won’t grow old in your memories

The best ones are from mum’s brother:

Of course, you’re her daughters but she’s my only sister

God needs her more than we do (my favourite)

Luckily, no one takes our uncle seriously ever since he converted us to Christianity over a weekend and mum had to unconvert us.

The oddest one is: you have each other. So, we don’t need a mum?

Mum asks me where Lou is and I say, ‘How would I know?’ My rudeness has triggered a rash on my neck that looks like a lovebite. No such luck. The boys at school avoid me. Debbie Downer.

I’m nervous about Auntie Pat arriving. I don’t want mum to cry about me again. I don’t want another lecture on how there’s not long left so you must be nice. I don’t want to hug her because I’ll catch her death, it will invade my veins and neurons if it hasn’t already. I talk about school, I have my GCSEs coming up and Lou has her A Levels, we’re studying just enough to keep our escape routes open. I tell her that I’ve been learning about saints in R.E (I don’t say that I secretly pray to Jude, patron saint of lost causes).


‘Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War.’


Romeo & Juliet.’

‘I like that story,’ she says, swallowing between each word.

‘It’s a stupid story,’ I say. ‘People die just because a message doesn’t get through.’

I’m suddenly so livid by this that I breathe in too quickly and the air hurts my lungs. I stuff the make-up back in the vanity bag and storm into mum’s bedroom. I pick up a photo of Lou and me in Malta when we were five and seven. I pull out my tongue at the tanned, smiling girls and put the photo back, face down. I lie on the patchwork quilt and look up, staring hard at the patterned Artex ceiling until my eyes lose focus. I see waves, a knife, a bolting horse. I pick a scab on my hand and watch the blood coat my skin. Then I suck it until the bleeding stops. Then I pick another.

When I get back with my bloodied hand she’s crying skin-flecked tears.

I look away, stare at our reflection in the TV. The room is crowded, now, with four. I don’t recognise any of us.

‘Juliet’s pathetic,’ I say, eventually, by way of explanation.

Mum lolls her head towards me and smiles. ‘She’s young,’ she says.


1999: sisters

 So, I’m in bed with Dan. It’s late, like 2am. We’ve been seeing each other on and off since Sam’s Fire in the Disco party – he kissed me on the illuminated dance floor and gave me a piggyback through the streets of Soho. He works in TV, which always comes first, while I don’t like my PR job. He says it’s a silly industry, which is his way of both supporting and patronising me. I’m getting used to being cancelled on. I don’t like it but always say it’s fine, cool, no problem.

Dan didn’t bail tonight so we had dinner at Paradise by Way of Kensal Green. We ate mussels in cream and anise and got so drunk we snogged in the restaurant and the waiter told us to get a room. We’re lying there chatting and start talking about our older sisters. I’m doing my usual complaining about the love-hate relationship I have with mine, that she’s a daddy’s girl and I’m a mummy’s girl. What I don’t say is that since mum died where has that left me? Nobody’s girl. We have sex and afterwards I hope he’ll tell me I’m his girl, but he doesn’t.

We carry on talking about our sisters – his lives in their hometown. I ask to see a photo. She’s blonde and peachy-skinned, not swarthy like him. Her name is Becky and she has her own salon. This impresses me but Dan isn’t fussed, he looks down on her because she stayed in Wales and has never even been to London. She looks friendly and I wonder if I’ll ever meet her, ever be part of his family, but he doesn’t imply that I will so I bite my lip and hope that one day he’ll want that.

I tell him about my sister Lou and how she ended up in a psych ward when she was thirteen. No one really knew why she was so depressed and when she realised she was the only girl there who hadn’t been molested she felt so guilty she got even crazier. He laughs at that – the irony of it, I think. It isn’t an unkind laugh but neither is it a kind one. I tell Dan that while my sister was there we’d go to family therapy; Lou, me, mum and dad. There was a one-way mirror that psychologists used to observe us and dad would go up to it and pretend to be an ape seeing his own reflection for the first time. He’d jump up and down on each leg with his hands curled under each armpit and Lou and I would fall about – she’s always found dad funny, even when she’s sad. That was a year before mum got ill and three years before she died, I say. Dan says nothing.

We have sex again. I hope it will make us closer but nope. He hasn’t opened up much in the months we’ve been seeing each other so I’ve stopped asking, not wanting to push things, you know. Then, while I’m leaning out of his bedroom window having a smoke, watching the cars move down the Harrow Road and enjoying the lights made hazy by rain, he tells me his dad had an affair. I don’t want him to know how happy I am he’s sharing this with me so I focus on my ciggie, which won’t relight because the end has gotten soggy.

After he stops speaking I say it’s good that his parents resolved it, I mean they’re still together, right? He laughs and this time it’s definitely an unkind laugh. One Christmas, he says, his father’s mistress called his mum and told her everything. She was probably hoping his mum would kick his dad out but she didn’t. That was a bad Christmas. No kidding, I say, it must have been tough. I get back into bed and kiss him hard to show I mean it.

We’re quiet for a while then Dan says the affair didn’t end. That’s because it wasn’t so much an affair as a relationship and his dad has two daughters with this woman so he has two half-sisters. The eldest is very close in age to him, by a couple of weeks.

All he knows is where they grew up. I’m sure he says Swansea but it could be Swanage. He’s never seen a photo and he doesn’t know their names.

I consider how, after Dan and his half-sister were born, his dad split his time between two women and two babies. Then, for years after, between two families completely unaware of each other. Does his dad love one family more than the other? I ask how his mum could stay knowing such a thing and Dan says he doesn’t know. He seems to have less respect for his mum than his dad.

I touch his face, it’s stubbly, and say it must be really weird and he says yes, it is. He says that when he was at university he was afraid that every girl he kissed might be his half-sister and every woman he’s fancied since. Then he gets up to use the toilet and I lie in the warm space he’s left and smell the sheets that smell of him – musky and sweet. I listen to him moving about in the bathroom and wonder if I love him. I hope that him knowing that I’m definitely not his half-sister – though we were also born two weeks apart – will make him feel better. But I don’t think it does.