The girl with the tea trolley leaned over their mother’s chair.
‘You’ve got visitors today, Mrs Lindley,’ she said. ‘that’s nice, isn’t it?’
Their mother tilted an emaciated face in her direction. ‘I’m slim now,’ she said.
‘You are,’ said the girl, whose name, according to her badge, was Jade. ‘More than I can say. But I keep trying, eh?’
She laughed and squeezed her substantial buttocks between the arm chairs. ‘Biscuits?’ she said.
Keith’s younger brother, Timothy, took the plate and offered a digestive to his mother, who looked at him interrogatively.
‘I used to have a blue dress,’ she said.
‘You did,’ said Tim, selecting a hob nob for himself.
‘With a tie round the neck,’ said Keith, joining in. His mother looked at him with barely disguised contempt.
‘Not that one,’ she said.
He caught Tim’s glance and they smiled at one another.
‘I remember one with an open collar,’ Tim said. ‘And buttons.’
His mother frowned as if at some immense complexity, then said, ‘I’m slim now.’
‘Too slim,’ Tim said. ‘Have a biscuit.’
It was hard, Keith thought, not to let your mood sink, despite, or even because of, the attempts at festive cheer. Mr Rawlings sat slumped in the next armchair, open mouth drooling, hollow cheeks, green cardigan festooned with tinsel. The woman on the far side of the lounge sat very upright and when anyone looked at her sang Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, in harsh, defiant tones. It appeared to be the only line she knew.
Hard not to imagine yourself here, in a few years’ time, though he had to keep reminding himself he wasn’t sixty yet. Fifty-eight, two weeks ago. Tim’s wife had sent him two cards, one from them and one from his mother.
You bolstered yourself up for these visits, made yourself come once a month, no matter what. Usually Tim would come on a different day, but this time, dental appointment or something, their visits had coincided. Which should have made it easier, but somehow didn’t. Keith could see himself being visited by Tim one day; Tim feeding him biscuits while Keith drooled.
With any luck, they might have legalised euthanasia by then.
Keith tried not to look surreptitiously at his watch, and when an hour had passed (though in fact there were no restrictions on visiting times) he stood up abruptly and said, ‘Well, time flies, eh?’ and leaned over to kiss his mother’s cheek. It smelled of medicine and butterscotch.
‘I’ll be back,’ he said. His mother made no response at all. Then Tim bent forward to kiss her. ‘I’ll see you soon,’ he said. ‘Don’t eat all the biscuits.’ As he straightened, their mother caught his hand.
‘I love you, you know,’ she said. Tim pressed her fingers. ‘I love you too,’ he said. And there they were, smiling at one another tenderly, as if none of this, the Alzheimer’s, the institutionalised surroundings, the wearing process of visiting, had ever happened.
It was just a moment; fleeting, insubstantial, before their mother sank back into herself, frowning as if still trying to remember that blue dress. It would have been ridiculous for Keith to press himself forward for a similar acknowledgement. Tim turned to him with a slightly baffled expression, half apologetic, half-humorous, are you all right? So Keith said, gruffly, ‘Are we ready, then?’ and turned away from them both, no looking back. It wasn’t as if she would even register him going. Besides, he would be seeing her again soon.
And then she died.
‘Right,’ he said to Cath, the manager of the home, on the phone. ‘Right, I see.’
And he put the phone down part way through her explanation of what a peaceful death it had been, she’d slept right through. And then, first thing in the morning…but he had put the phone down on her at that point.
It felt strange, impossible, he couldn’t imagine it. He walked into the kitchen as his wife, Pat, was unloading the washer. She barely glanced at him. ‘The bearings are going,’ she said. ‘That bloke said he’d come out and hasn’t. I think we should just cut our losses and get a new one.’
She knew what he thought about what he called this throwaway culture, where nothing was repaired any more. Which is why, when he didn’t argue, she looked up at him. ‘You all right?’ she said.
‘She’s dead,’ he answered, nodding.
They hadn’t been getting on too well lately, and Pat hadn’t got on with his mother at all, but he saw her expression change. She straightened, putting her hands to her back, stared upwards, and said, ‘Oh. Right,’ as if all the implications were dawning on her.
Then she said, ‘Does Tim know?’
He felt a stab of annoyance at the question, though it was natural enough. He said, ‘Well, I assume they’ll have phoned him as well.’ And just for a moment he wondered whether they had phoned Tim first, then he was annoyed with himself for thinking it.
Pat was still staring upwards, as though there was something particularly fascinating on the ceiling. ‘I’ll tell the kids,’ she said. Finally she turned to him. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ she asked, and he didn’t, not really, but he wanted her acknowledgement of this thing that had happened, so he said yes.
There was so much to do. Even though their mother’s house had already been sold to pay for the home. At that time, he and Tim had worked their way through an unreasonable arsenal of stuff, making several trips to the tip, so at least that was done with. But there was the will, and the funeral arrangements, and of course there were people to tell.
To give her credit, Pat did most of that. She phoned their son, Michael, who was at university and their daughter Liza, who was on her first real contract for fabric design, in Switzerland, (no, it’s all right, love, you don’t have to come home. Gran would have understood.); she phoned Keith and Tim’s only cousin, and their mother’s ex-neighbours, in case any of them wanted to go to the funeral. And she contacted the vicar.
So it was hard, in fact, to say what exactly it was that Keith had to do, on his week off work, but he felt as though there were a mountain of obstacles to negotiate. The catering, for instance, though Pat and Sue, Tim’s wife, were taking care of that; noting who was vegetarian, or vegan, or gluten free. But he had to pick up the rest of his mother’s things from the home, and Tim went with him. Her belongings had already been put into two bags, so they didn’t have to visit the empty room.
Keith glanced at the chair they had last seen her in.
I’m slim now, he heard her say. And then, to Tim, I love you.
They went through the bags briefly; there was no controversy. They divided the photographs, and ornaments, donated the nightwear and toiletries to the home, then had a brief discussion about music and readings, which ended when Keith suggested they should each choose their own; it would be a surprise on the day. Especially if they both chose the same, Tim said, laughing, but Keith said there was no chance of that.
Then Keith left; he couldn’t get away fast enough. He went straight to his girlfriend’s flat.
‘Oh love,’ Megan said, taking him into her arms.
But Keith didn’t want that; he pressed her down onto the bed, shut his eyes. And a few minutes later, turned away from her.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘It’s hardly surprising.’
He wanted to hate her for it, but he couldn’t even manage that.
Over the next few days, he sometimes found himself on the phone with someone who had rung to express their sympathy.
‘Yes, I’m fine,’ he said. ‘Well, it was a good age. She had a good innings – she could only have got worse. We’re all fine – thank you for asking – not bad at all.’
He could hear his own voice, the one he used on the telephone, pursuing him as he went about his daily tasks: yes, he’s fine – did you see him then, parallel parking without a hitch, wheeling the shopping trolley through a mass of shoppers all of whom seem to think there’ll be food shortages over the weekend. And look at him now, dealing with the broadband company, and those bastards the car insurers, and then washing up. Nothing wrong with Keith.
There were more people than he’d thought at the funeral, Pat had done a good job. Their son had come home, with his girlfriend, and Keith’s cousin, Lorna, was there with her husband, and their daughter. Two of his mother’s neighbours had come, and a lady called Irene who used to see her regularly at church. Then an older bloke called Don, who said he was their mother’s cousin, had flown in from Canada when he heard the news, which struck Keith as odd, because he couldn’t recall ever seeing him before. Cath from the home came, bringing flowers. And then of course there was Tim and Sue, with their two sons.
Cath and Lorna and Sue wept throughout. Tim kept his arm round Sue – it was plain to see he’d been crying. The grandkids just looked doleful, but that was the way they always looked. Pat looked grim and set; heavy. She had developed a kind of heaviness that wasn’t exactly fat. She’d become thickset, like a builder, with the same weightiness of expression. Or maybe that wasn’t fair – it was the harassed, stubborn look of someone who was in charge of all the arrangements and determined to see it through. Even though she’d never liked her mother-in-law.
Liza wasn’t there, of course. Keith had a sudden fierce sensation of missing Liza, who was the only person here who wouldn’t look like, well, like she was at a funeral. He missed her laughing, teasing him. He felt a flash of resentment towards Pat, who had discouraged her from flying back. Of course she should be here; it was her grandmother for Christ’s sake, and she only had the one. Pat’s mother had died when she was quite young.
Apart from that, he thought he bore up well. Only when the vicar started talking about Elizabeth, or Beth, devoted wife and mother of two sons, did he feel something inside him hardening, like the skin over a wound. And then after he had read his verse, the usual thing Fear no more the heat of the sun, in a clear, definite, voice, without a tremor, Tim got up and read something quite different, by Siegfried Sassoon, in a shaking voice, as though he could hardly make it through:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Keith felt a kind of rage, underscored by contempt as Tim read. Yes, he thought, you can cry.
Keith’s mother had once told him it had taken four years of trying before he was born and then another eight for Tim to come along. At Christmas. He remembered being nonplussed, and a little outraged by the gift of a new baby brother, which he definitely hadn’t asked for.
Fortunately, his parents had showered him with other gifts. Including a new bike, which was bright and shiny and designer enough to take his mind off everything else.
‘Best bike on the street,’ his father reminded him regularly. It was. He wouldn’t give any of the other kids a go, in case they scraped it or bent it or wouldn’t give it back.
It kept him occupied, of course. Out of the way.
He could hardly blame Tim for that. And yet, when people were congratulating them afterwards on the service, and the woman called Irene, who’d been to the same church as their mother, thanked Tim specially for his poem; Beth always loved birds, she went on feeding them, even at the home – and then, turning to Keith, said, ‘And Shakespeare, of course,’ without finishing the sentence, he felt it again; the small, hard core of rage.
But he thanked everyone for coming, and at the meal afterwards, raised the toast, as was only right, since he was the older brother.
‘What can you say about Beth?’ he said, intending to say something witty and flippant, but in the end managing only, ‘she’ll be missed.’
And after a moment of waiting for something else, everyone said ‘To Beth,’ heartily, and drank, assuming, he could tell, that he’d been overcome with emotion. But it wasn’t that; that wasn’t it at all. The strangest thing had happened when he’d raised his glass. He had seen, just for one moment, his father’s reflection in it.
It wasn’t his father. Once he moved his glass he’d realised that he had been looking through the wine to a distorted image of, – Don – was it? The cousin from Canada. Who did bear a passing resemblance to Keith’s father, even though he was his mother’s cousin.
Weird. And unsettling. Though there was no reason why Keith should be unsettled. Or why he shouldn’t think of his father, at his mother’s funeral.
His father had died while Keith was at university. Tim, aged eleven, had wept copiously at the funeral, Keith not at all.
Afterwards, Keith had gone back to university, got a job as a chartered surveyor, and had never really returned home. You could say that Tim had become the man of the house.
Maybe that was why their mother had loved him more.
‘Yes, fine,’ he said in answer to all good wishes as the guests left, ‘Yep, good. Never better,’ he said to one person, who looked startled. But in fact, he did feel well, hale and hearty, anxious to get back to his normal routine.
And yet, back at work he felt tired, jaded even. He’d always been popular there, a good boss, but now he found it hard not to be irritated by everyone, by their habits, and especially their sympathy. He was quite snappy with Shelagh, his secretary, and when he apologised later and she said it was all right, she understood, in that maternal tone, it was all he could do not to say something unforgivable; that botox is doing nothing for you, love – you’re too far past your sell-by date now.
One night, he dreamed about his mother. She came to him in his room and said, you know, it was just a mistake, what I said – I thought it was you, I was talking to, not Tim. And all his pain had lifted, he felt his heart swell with the release of it; she’d made a mistake, that was all.
When he woke up, his cheeks were actually wet. And then the realisation came tumbling down on him, that it had been a dream, there was no mistake, as far as he would ever know.
He lay in the darkness, listening to Pat snoring, realising how rough and uneven his own breathing was.
Then he realised something else, about his father. Fifty-eight – that’s how old he’d been when he’d died. The same age as Keith was now.
He began to feel hot, and as if he couldn’t breathe at all. He got up and went into the bathroom, noticing how mottled his face was in the mirror above the sink. He stopped looking, and just stared downwards, at the plug. Trying to breathe.
His hands, on the rim of the sink, looked old.
Pat came up behind him. ‘What is it, love?’ she said, sounding softer, more anxious than she had at the time of his mother’s death.
‘It’s all right,’ he told her. ‘It’s nothing. No – don’t call anyone, I’ll be fine.’
And he was, of course. It would take more than a fit of breathlessness to finish Keith off. He stayed late at work; made a conscious effort to be nicer to his staff; hardly saw Megan; didn’t see Tim at all.
Liza wrote, to say she was coming home after all, just for a week. He didn’t put her off. It would be nice, he thought, though he was surprised to find he didn’t feel much about it either way.
He had agreed to pick Liza up from the airport after work, so he stayed behind in the office. He finished the final draft of something he was working on and leaned back in his chair, because it still wasn’t time to go.
He could hear children playing in the car park below, though he’d told them off for it often enough. There was only his car there now, he should go down to check on it. Still he hesitated, feeling a strange lassitude. What did it matter, really?
As he sat, staring at a blank wall, memories rose in no particular order. His son’s face, how closed it was when he spoke to him, Irene thanking Tim for the poem, and then, of course, the one he kept trying to fend off, his mother catching hold of Tim’s hand and saying, ‘I love you, you know.’
He contemplated it in a kind of dull misery, devoid of bitterness.
He remembered other things from his early life; how preoccupied his mother had always been, how he could never wait to get home from school to tell her about his achievements, but her responses had always seemed manufactured, not genuine, as they had been for Tim.
Was it because Tim was the baby, and she would have no more, or was he innately more loveable? Keith would never know, he would never be able to ask her.
Of course, it wasn’t the kind of thing he could say to anyone else. They would only deny it; don’t talk daft, of course she didn’t. But she did, and Keith knew it now, he held onto the realisation like the point of a blade.
He remembered himself as a very little boy, long before Tim had been born, on a different bike. It was a three-wheeler – he couldn’t have been more than two.
He had loved that bike.
He remembered pedalling on it, along the garden path, out of the gate. He was entirely alone. God knows why, but no one was keeping an eye on him. And the pavement was cracked, he’d tumbled off at one point. But he’d got back up without crying, or running for his mum. He got back on his bike and pedalled again – who knew where he thought he was going to?
The sun had seemed like a tunnel of light along the street; perhaps he was pedalling into that. He remembered the sensation that there was only him, and the sun and the bike.
He had never felt safer, or more secure.
Of course, he was anything but, a toddler, out alone, pedalling along a street. But that was how he felt. That nothing else was necessary, and nothing would ever seem more real.
Keith spread his fingers on the desk as though to push himself into standing, yet there was something tentative in the movement as though he could no longer be sure of the surfaces of things. Grief sat like a stone in his heart, for the child he was, for his mother.
He had to pick Liza up from the airport. Liza, whom he loved, with an unreasoning, incalculable love, that was wholly unlike his feelings for Michael. It was not something he would ever say out loud of course, but both his children knew it nonetheless.
The thought of it, that callow, hurtful love, caused a small pain to nest in his heart. But there was nothing he could do about that now. Time passed, and there was nothing he could do about that, either. There was the doorway in front of him, and somewhere beyond it, a different sun.
first published in The Manchester Review