“You all right, Mum?” said John.
Positioned next to him in the hospital wheelchair at the end of the row of red molded plastic seats, she turned his way. “What? Urm…” She gave him a lost look, inward-eyed.
Weights hung from his heart.
“It’s all right.” He patted her arm. “It won’t be long now. Would you like your orange juice?”
She shook her head.
Nurses leaned over reception, scudded off. They swerved around patients coming the other way. He watched them go on their urgent errands.
He jumped as a hand clutched his arm.
“That reminds me of Carsley Meadow.” Mum gazed up at a painting on the wall that showed a valley drenched in mist. She didn’t have the voice dredged up from the depths of her being he’d become accustomed to of late. She had the rich storytelling voice he remembered from childhood. “Remember when I took you that summer? All those butterflies. They were like flowers that took to the air as we walked through them.”
“Yes.” That’s it, Mum. Stay with me. “We can go again if you like.”
She turned and stared at him, candidly, like a child. “We can?”
“Yes. In the summer.” January now; drive up there June or July. It didn’t seem too much to promise—no matter what the consultant said today.
“You mean it?”
“Yes, Mum, I mean it.”
She smiled. “I remember crossing it as a girl. It was evening. The moon was up. Mist rose from the grass.” Her sleeves left the arms of the wheelchair. “I pushed through it. It swirled back around me, waist deep. I swam in it.” She reached out in front of her. As if in slow motion, her hands swept back. “Only the trees stuck out above it. And the hedgerows. And me.” She looked up and around. “Then either the mist rose or I hit a dip. Suddenly I couldn’t see the other side. It erased the whole world.” One hand made a vague circular motion like a dampened royal wave. “I was so scared but it was all right because I’d seen it.”
Her eyes fluttered like fruit-machine symbols. She put a hand up to her head, touched her patchy, straggly hair. “The lines need changing. It doesn’t fit.”
He took her hand, held it, squeezed. “It’s all right.” No, Mum. Not now. Don’t go now. Not when it might be good news.
He swallowed, with difficulty.
She’d re-crossed time’s border.
A nurse approached. She stared with eyes wide open and filmy as if getting used to contact lenses. “Mrs. Clavell? Mr. Devlin will see you now.”
John shot upright. “Mr. Devlin? We’re here to see Miss Parthorpes.”
Blink, blink. “Mr. Devlin is standing in for her today.”
John shuffled round to the back of the wheelchair. Not good. “Come on, Mum.”
The nurse held the door open and he wheeled his mother into the office. Its essence hit him as if from childhood: antiseptic.
Mr. Devlin concluded his summing up with a flourish of his hairy, knuckly hands. He placed them on the desk between them, joined, and looked up to see if Mum had understood.
“There’s a dot on the edge,” she said.
Devlin stared at her with head tilted.
Devlin’s most prominent eyebrow quivered. “Don’t the different departments communicate? Doesn’t he know it’s simply a question of which will go first, her body or her mind?” Finally, the consultant sat back in his chair and, as if being filmed and looking from Camera 1 to Camera 2, turned to John. “I’m afraid we’ve done everything we can but your mother doesn’t seem to be responding to treatment.”
John couldn’t keep the heaviness out of his voice. It sounded clogged, nasally. “How long?”
The consultant turned his hands over, palms upwards. “I would say we’re looking at weeks rather than months.” No… “I understand how hard this is, for both of you.” Let me bear it… “Does she want to stay?”
“No.” Mum jumped. John adjusted the volume of his voice. “Home. We agreed…” His voice quavered. “If it came to…”
His hands came up to meet his face.
Such were the negotiations involved in getting his mother out of the hospital and into the car, in the surround-sound north-easterly, that neither of them spoke, not properly.
Her eyes were fixed on infinity as he plugged her in.
He put a hand on her arm. “Mum, are you all right?”
She turned and smiled. “Yes, Johnny.”
“You do understand, don’t you?”
“Is there anything you want to ask me?”
She dipped her head, looked up with ageless eyes. “You’re still going to take me to Carsley in the summer, aren’t you?”
Flakes of snow streaked past as if the car belted along.
Oh, Mum… The weights that hung from his heart clunked against each other.
She blinked and her hands butterflied. “The lines are crossed. They can’t get through.”
Like a lepidopterist without a net, he caught her nearest hand. “Ssh, ssh, it’s all right. It’s all right.” Yes, that’s it, Mum. Don’t look back. Don’t look back. Let me bear it for you.