As a young girl, whenever my mother caught me doing something bad, she would sit me down on the edge of the stairs and ask in that breathy uncompromising way of hers what I had learnt. A slug is not a pet. Nana’s teeth are not a toy. Mrs Costa is not a lesbian she is Lebanese.
Extra points if I could extract by moral alchemy a core lesson from my misdemeanour: You must stop asking poppa for his coin collection when he dies because old people have feelings like normal people. You must not put paint in Tina’s hair and tell her she looks better for it, because that is only your opinion and you cannot force your opinions onto other people’s hair.
Each of these lessons she made me write on refill in streaky ballpoint and tape to the inside of my closet door, and then the outside, and then the wall around it, my room becoming the physical manifestation of an unflagging conscience, a Dickensian nightmare of yellowing tape and mistakes past. ‘But none of my friends have to do this,’ I said, and I knew this to be true for I had checked inside their closets while they were in the bathroom, but my mother shook her head and walked me back to the foot of the stairs, where those four words were waiting.
What. Have. You. Learnt.
I don’t know.
I began my rebellion when I turned ten, scraping the tape from each mistake and smuggling them out the front door. Some went into the neighbour’s black bin, while others received a hasty burial at the bottom of the garden where the lemongrass grew, but I was then faced with another problem: the gaps of apricot wallpaper peeking through like bald spots, the only solution being to cover them with counterfeit lessons, lessons I had not learnt at the bottom of the stairs under my mother’s watchful glare but from another kind of glare that my mother limited to the hours of four to six each evening. When crossing the road you should look right and then left and then right. Do not talk to strangers. A pattern of unexplained injuries may indicate abuse in the home.
I returned from school one day to find my mother in the centre of my bedroom.
‘You’re growing so fast,’ she said when she saw me. ‘I barely recognise you within these walls.’
She fingered the edge of my most recent forgery: Do not play with fire.
‘Fire,’ she whispered, as if she did not know the word.
We set about tearing from the walls that afternoon all the mistakes that were and weren’t mine, my mother’s guilt so powerful a cleaning agent it took only six minutes and a bottle of Spray ‘n’ Wipe. The whole time she sighed intermittently, insisting she had surrounded me with my errors only to make me a stronger person, a better person, and in return I told her that she had.