My Mother, the Mannequin

They zipped the woman into a bag. A year later, my mother lies on her back facing the evening sky.

My Mother, the Mannequin

They zipped the woman into a bag. A year later, my mother lies on her back facing the evening sky. Her eyes are closed when I get there. She looks quite peaceful. She had been using a payphone; the receiver is swinging. A year before, I looked at that bag with the woman in it and, though I hated her, she'd come alive in my head, and this was enough to make me feel sorry for her.

The first woman wasn't really a woman at all, but a life-size, full-body CPR dummy. She was wearing a blue bodysuit and her feet were bare. They'd told us, last week at Beavers, that'd we'd be doing first aid, but I hadn't known we'd be doing this. I'd have stayed away. But, while we were having Ribena and digestives I saw the instructor pull her out of the bag. She was curled impossibly, boneless. She unfurled like a whip and her rubber head thunked to the floor. She lay there, supine and stupid, and I clutched my digestive until it crumbled.

Mannequins had terrified me for as long as I could remember. One of my earliest memories is driving past a local clothes shop, Warwick's, which had very lifelike mannequins in the window. I remember doing that childish thing where you look away, screwing up your eyes, but then you have to look, you must look, and you do, and your whole self surges with fear. Years later, I would learn about the Uncanny Valley, and it would all click into place.

But, there in the gym of my primary school, woggled and kerchiefed, I could not expose myself as a coward. Snack time ended and we were herded, all of us in our baggy grey sweatshirts like encroaching cloud. Boys pointed, chuckled at the weird fake lady on the gym floor. Badger glared and they studied their shoes. The instructor told us that he was going to teach us mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

My mother, on her back, her face a serene white mask. Like L'Inconnue de la Seine. A small crowd had formed, the usual chalet-holiday types. That's where we were: on holiday. Just for a few days, she'd said. She and my Dad needed some time. That was all. Some time. Yes, he had some serious thinking to do. She'd come out to the phone to call him. And now she was lying on the ground. A voice behind me says, 'How'd she get like this?' and I don't hear the response. I kneel.

I knelt next to the dummy. Her hair was short, blonde and curly. I focussed on the tiny holes where the hair had been threaded in, but this induced a trypophobic lurch, so I looked at the blank half moons of her eyelids. But I also caught the weird pucker of her lips. The rouge had worn away and in the centre was a perfect little black circle. "You breathe in there," the instructor said, jabbing at the mouth-hole.

My mother's lips are very thin and very pale. I put my lips to hers and breathe in. I don't want to hurt her. She seems to be shrinking, fading, a gossamer version of herself. I try to breathe colour into her. Pink for surprise. Purple for joy. Red for the knowing silence we'd let hang between us. Someone behind me says, 'Look, he's giving her the kiss of life.' The kiss of life. Yes. Life, please. Just a few extra seconds.

I breathe into my mother for what feels like a long time.

I pulled away from the mannequin. It tasted like babywipes. Sure enough, the instructor swabbed the mouth-hole as I got to my knees, then to my feet. I became one with the grey crowd again. It was someone else's go.

She had not come back to life. I had failed.

She has not come back to life. I am failing.

A washing of blue light. On. Off. On. Off. A hand on my arm, my shoulder. Borne back, into the crowd. The thinness of my mother there, like a wishbone.

Some of my breath dances in her chest.