Fiction — June 14, 2011 12:55 — 2 Comments

When She Flicks The Latch – Jessica Bell

For the fourth morning in a row, Elvira wakes up to see her mother, Dot, passed out on the couch. A bottle of Smirnoff lies on the floor on its side, open, pleading for Dot to wake up and take down its few remaining drops with her morning cigarette. Dot’s skeletal, feeble limbs are splayed in directions Elvira recognizes as also possible on dead, bruised victims she’s seen on Crime TV.

Their Australian suburban house is small—just slightly bigger than a caravan, but at least it doesn’t have wheels—at least this means they’re not ‘trailer trash’—quite.

Elvira passes Dot to go into the kitchenette, being sure to make as much noise as possible—frankly, she couldn’t give a damn if she woke Dot up; she’d probably take that last sip of vodka and pass out again anyway.

Dot is wheezing a little, so she’s still alive … so far. Elvira wonders if she’ll ever have to face the inevitable time when ‘passed out’ will have evolved to ‘deceased.’ If she wishes for that day to come a lot sooner than fate has planned, what will follow? Devastation, or devastating relief? And if the latter, will guilt wheedle its way into every passing thought? Into her meals, dress, make-up, false nails?

Escaping is not easy. Escaping has just as many unattractive consequences as staying with this antediluvian witch. This mother. This bitch. Who has kept a lifetime of funds a secret from her in order to feed her own bottle-raising addiction. One Elvira attempted to cure, by dropping out of high school a year ago, at sixteen, and using her own meagre hairdressing salary to pay for counselling. But the money didn’t only go towards that. It went towards the booze Dot would smuggle into her bag on the way, and devour quickly before returning home.

A glob of drool vibrates in the corner of Dot’s mouth with every breath of air that struggles through her sticky cracked lips. Strands of stiff bleach blonde hair, clumped together and matted below her ear, look petrified with dried saliva. Her fingers twitch. She has two black nails from when she jammed them in the hinge of the alcohol cabinet door. She groans. One eye opens. Elvira stares right at it—a vibrant crystal blue bordered with a yellowy, bloodshot white. Ugh. You make me fucking sick. Dot’s eye closes, and she sits up, blindly reaching toward the coffee table for her pack of 50s. It’s empty. She scrunches the packet and throws it across the room. It lands between an urn and an empty bottle of gin on the mantle.

“Luv, get me a packet of cigs from the servo will ya?” croaks Dot, her eyes still closed. She opens and closes her mouth in an attempt to rehydrate it, and clicks her tongue, as if tasting something foul—most likely her own roof. One of her cheeks is creased and streaked with red lines that look like giant broken corpuscles—temporarily marking her with pathetic addiction and a plea for concern—that is, until the marks fade and Dot’s blatant midday drunkenness reminds Elvira that sympathy claimed its freedom long ago, descending down their street in triumph.

Dot pushes hair out of her face, trapping her fingers in the soggy matted clump near the base of her neck. She stands, almost losing balance, and shuffles into the kitchen. She pulls a sharp knife out of the drawer. Elvira doesn’t flinch; secretly hoping Dot will drive it through her stomach, but then instantly retracts the thought.

Dot grabs the clump of hair in her fist and saws it off with the knife. The hair crunches along the blade, as if it were alive—crying for help. She leaves the mass of hair on the bench and absently puts the knife back in the drawer.

As if remembering Elvira is in the room, Dot yells, “Luv, I aksed you a fuckin’ question. Are you and your chubby arse gonna get me those cigs or do I have to go out on the fuckin’ street and strain me poor old legs?” She stumbles back to the couch. Elvira focuses on Dot’s dirty cracked heels as her stale sweat humidifies the air around her.

Elvira slaps two slices of white bread on the cutting board and spreads them with salted margarine, promising herself that she’ll cut all dairy products and carbohydrates tomorrow.

“There’s a spare pack on ya dresser, Ma,” she says, then shoves a whole slice into her mouth, chewing aggressively. Filling her mouth with an edible cushion is the only way to save herself from Dot’s blistering slap.

“Well, get it for me, will ya, luv?” Dot lies back down on the couch, closes her eyes and nurses her head. She rubs her temples, swallows saliva, coughs it back up, swishes it around her mouth and washes it down with the remaining dregs of vodka from the bottle on the floor.

The phone rings when Elvira is about to fetch Dot’s cigarettes.

“Jesus, pick up the fuckin’ phone and tell ’em it’s too bloody early in the fuckin’ morning.’ Tell ’em I’m not ’ere.”

Elvira mutters under her breath, “You’re never bloody ’ere,” and answers it.

Elvira picks up the phone. “Yeah?” she snaps, expecting a telemarketing rep to be on the other end.

“Oh, er, hello, I was wondering if an Elvira Winters lives there?”

“Sorry, but we’re not in-ter-res-ted in your products.” Elvira looks over at Dot who has already gotten up to raid the alcohol cabinet for a fresh bottle of booze. She’s just about to slam down the phone, when the voice on the other end cries out.

“No, no, I’m not selling, my name’s Hilary Neale, I got your number from Barry Manner’s sister—your father’s sister.”

“Oh …” Elvira looks over at Dot pouring herself a glass of scotch, trembling, spilling it all over the cabinet. Elvira turns her back to her and looks out the window at the deflated children’s floating-aid duck in the middle of the lawn, faded almost white from years in the sun. “Can ya hold on a min? I wanna switch to the cordless,” whispers Elvira and hangs up.

“Who wassit?” Dot grunts.

“Telemarketer.” Elvira looks at her feet. “I’m gonna get your cigs.” She goes into her bedroom, picks up the cordless phone, and sits on the edge of her bed as if for some reason her two feet need to be securely and firmly placed on the ground to prevent an accidental fall.

She brings the cordless phone to her ear. “You know my father?” Her heart beats like a cog train gaining speed. This could be her way out. Of this hell hole. Out of this pathetic attempt of living. Away from the fear of waking up to a dead body on the couch. A chance to be selfish, for once—for once in this useless life.

“Well…” Hilary coughs; nervous and small. Elvira can hear her hand cover the receiver on the other end. “I’m sorry, this is difficult, awkward, sorry … I, er, well, my daughter is your half-sister. Your father, Barry, is her father too, and I was wondering if you’d like to meet her?”

Elvira, dying to speak, to cry out in excitement, stares at the wall, muted by future possibilities sifting through her mind at rapid speed. A sister. A friend. “You actually have two half-sisters, but the other one lives overseas, and isn’t my daughter, although her mother and I are good friends … Hello? Are you still there?”

“I have two sisters?”


“And you are my aunt?”

“Well, yes.”

“Oh!” Elvira drops the receiver into her lap, relief flushing through her body, tingling through her fingers, to the tip of her nose. I’m not alone. I’m not alone anymore. She can hear Hilary’s distant voice, hello? hello? between her knees, and in a panic takes hold of the receiver again, and presses it firmly to her ear as if a gentle touch might let Hilary slip away.

“I’m sorry,” Hilary says. “This must have come as a shock. Would you like me to leave you with our phone number and perhaps you can call back once the information has sunk in.”

“No! I mean, no, please don’t go. When can I meet you?”

“Oh, thank goodness. What a relief. I thought this news might have shaken you. Shall we come over to your place today or tomorrow afternoon? After school perhaps? When do you get home from school?”

“Um, no, I think it’d be better if I come over to you guys. I’ll come over after work. What’s your address?”

Hilary gives her their address and a time is set for the following afternoon. Elvira can’t believe it. Another family. She can have a new family! Oh my god oh my god oh my god.

Elvira hangs up the phone and looks at herself in the mirror. She smiles at herself, examines her features. Her short dark chestnut hair that curls up at the edges after a shower; her hazel eyes that sometimes look green under the trees; her crooked, yet strangely button-like nose and chubby cheeks; her thick bottom lip, and the way her top lip curls up a little in the center as if preparing for a kiss. I wonder if we look similar. I wonder if she likes getting her nails done like me. We can get our nails done together. Like … sisters. She plays with the word ‘sister’ on her tongue. It feels good; like sucking on boiled candy.

Elvira runs into Dot’s bedroom and rummages through her dresser drawers—the place she found the letters from her father—the place that eased her guilty thoughts of wishing Dot were dead—the place she discovered Dot had been accepting money from her father for years without uttering a word about it and spending it on booze—the place that is now … empty. The letters are gone.

“Ma!” growls Elvira, her face growing hot. She runs out of the bedroom. Dot is asleep again, an empty glass clutched in a hanging hand. She kneels down beside her and slaps her face just hard enough for her to wake up. “Where have ya put them? Where have ya put the freakin’ letters? Wake up and tell me where ya freakin’ put them!”

Dot sits up, blinks, whimpering foolishly, as if Elvira might feel sorry for her. “Put what, Darl? I dunno what you’re bloody talkin’ ’bout.”

“The letters from Barry, from Dad, the ones I told ya about at the hairdressers the other day. The ones I found, Ma! The ones that said to put me into Uni. The ones that had bloody blank cheques in them, for me. The cheques ya decided it’d be better to drink and vomit up instead! Don’t tell me you can’t remember, Ma. Don’t bullshit me. Where are they? I want them. NOW! I want Dad’s address!”

Elvira towers over Dot with her arms on her hips. Dot wipes away some escaping drool from her chin with her shaking hand, jagged nails embedded with grit.

“Darl, I can’t remember.”

“This’s bullshit,” Elvira yells and flings open the alcohol cabinet door. A hinge pops and flies across the room. She clutches the necks of as many bottles as she can, carries them into the kitchen, slams them on the kitchen bench, and then fetches the rest. She unscrews their caps and throws them at Dot’s chest. Dot hardly moves, but blinks on each impact, sniffing.

Elvira pours the alcohol into the sink. One by one. Let’s make this sting. Dot cries for her to stop. Her cries screech as she clutches at her hair in panic. Grey tears stream down her cheeks.

“Darl, please, stop! I threw them away. Please!”

“You what? What the fuck did ya do that for?” Elvira slams a just emptied bottle of supermarket gin on the counter. “Well, tell me where the fuck he lives. Tell me now.” Dot looks at Elvira in silence, in horror. Elvira can see her reflection in Dot’s eyes, and wonders if she can see what she sees—a distorted fish bowl image of her daughter’s disappointed yet hopeful face.

Dot shifts her gaze from the last full bottle of alcohol by the sink, to Elvira’s blazing eyes. Dot still doesn’t say a word. Elvira grabs Dot by the shoulders and shakes her, “Tell me where he lives for Christ’s sake!”

Dot takes a quick breath, bringing her tears to a halt. “With his brother. Near Phillip Island.” Dot looks at the gin as if it will be her prize for revealing Barry’s whereabouts.

Elvira pulls a bottle of water out of the fridge, grabs Dot by her upper arm, pulls her forward and shoves her into her bedroom. She throws Dot on the bed. As she closes Dot’s hand around the bottle of water, she says, “This is for your own good, Ma. One day you’ll thank me. I promise.” Dot glares at her, a silent plead for ‘just one more glass’. Elvira walks out of the bedroom, and flicks the latch closed on the outside of Dot’s sliding bedroom door. A door with a child-friendly lock.

Amongst the cheerful sounds of squealing children, in her street outside her house, she can hear the fading sound of Dot’s angry fists banging. Banging. And they don’t sound as threatening as she’d thought.


Jessica Bell is a literary women's fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter who grew up in Melbourne, Australia. She was born to two gothic rock musicians who had successful independent careers during the '80s and early '90s. She spent much of her childhood travelling between Australia and Europe, experiencing two entirely different worlds, yet feeling equally at home in both environments. She currently lives in Athens, Greece and works as a freelance writer/editor for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide. Jessica has published a book of poetry called Twisted Velvet Chains and her debut novel, String Bridge is scheduled for release in November, 2011, with Lucky Press. A full list of poems and short stories published in various anthologies and literary magazines can be found on her website, She also blogs at


  1. Kittie Howard says:

    A high school friend’s mother smothered to death in her own vomit. It’s amazing how Jessica Bell realistically described how my friend’s mother manipulated money and abused those around her to feed her addiction. Her story gives hope, that the daughter’s love will prevail, that the daughter has a future, all of which caused my eyes to mist – my friend made it out of that mess.

  2. Jessica Bell says:

    Wow, Kittie. Thank you. I’m so glad your friend made it!

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney