By Cathy Cade
“Why don’t you sit down, Mum? I can do that.”
The tea towel stilled in Eileen’s hand. Crane-like, her gaunt neck lengthened, as if emerging from the customary dark silk scarf. She looked down her beak. “I hope I can still manage a bit of drying up,” she snapped.
Laura hadn’t the temerity to contradict her mother. If she mentioned that swaying pause for breath, it would be dismissed as her imagination.
Her wet fingers tucked wayward hairs back in their clip. Upstairs, the children were quarrelling. Her husband appeared in the doorway, hair ruffled and glasses askew.
“Can I drop you home, Eileen, when I take the kids to Scouts?”
“Could you, Rob?” Laura replied before her mother had the chance. “That would be helpful.”
A gust whipped hair into Laura’s eyes. She shivered and refastened a shirt button that had pulled undone. While Rob checked that the children were strapped in, Eileen was exchanging pleasantries with neighbour Josie through the passenger window. The breeze caught Josie’s curls when she stood back to wave the car off.
Laura winced. Mum hated that; she thought their generation should address her as Mrs. Harper.
The car turned the corner. The sun came out again.
“She’s a marvel, your mum,” said Josie, “for her age. Is she still volunteering at the charity shop?”
“Two days a week,” said Laura. “She can’t just relax and let go.” Of my life.
“I see her here quite often.”
She usually ignored Josie’s prompts, but today she needed an outlet.
“She’s here most days when she’s not at the shop. If she hasn’t thought up a reason for me to collect her, she’ll come on the bus. Rob says it would be easier if she lived with us,” the thought of it exhausted her, “but she won’t give up her bungalow.”
Josie nodded. “Independent.”
“Stubborn.” She sighed. “Lately, though, she seems drained. She gets breathless though she won’t admit it.”
“Sounds like my dad; maybe her heart’s playing her up.”
“It wouldn’t dare.”
Eileen relaxed back on the sofa, clutching the remote control, although she hadn’t turned on the television. It was so peaceful here, just drifting. She would get up and close the curtains in a minute.
She loved her grandchildren.
But she was sure Laura and Peter had never been so loud. There was no need for all that shouting and screeching.
Did one’s tolerance of noise diminish with age, she wondered?
She had less patience with everything these days: mugs that leaped out when she opened the cupboard, pens that slipped through her fingers, tiny, impossible buttons, jars that wouldn’t open. She supposed that was her hands, not the jars.
How could she keep control of her world when she couldn’t control her own hands?
She had always been strong—in charge. Now nobody noticed her. Laura didn’t listen these days and never consulted her.
She inspected the hand that held the remote control. Its nails were still strong and elegant, although her shaky aim meant painting them took longer. Lumps on the knuckles were, apparently, arthritis, although they didn’t hurt like her knee did. She moved her fingers and watched the tendons dance behind worm-like veins that bulged under withered skin.
She was drying up, like some shrivelled leaf: recognisable but dehydrating. She imagined her desiccated husk lifted on a breeze, her house receding far below, Laura’s nearby.
The crematorium was full. Her brother’s eulogy was moving, but she remained dry-eyed. Rob said she’d been too busy to grieve properly.
“You’re not yourself, love. I’ll take a couple of days off work—register the death and help with funeral arrangements.”
She’d sent him into work. She didn’t want time to grieve. Or to think.
Now, composed and indomitable, she received the condolences of people who’d known Eileen through her fundraising and charity work. She was glad they didn’t all come back to the house: she’d only catered for family and friends.
Peter said, “It must have been a shock—finding Mum like that.”
“Not at first. She looked as if she’d fallen asleep holding the TV remote.”
It had felt like a cloud lifting. Laura pushed the thought aside. “Can I get you another cup of tea?”
Josie said, “You’ll miss her. All those birthday cakes and Halloween costumes, babysitting, helping out.”
Organising, advising, disapproving. Taking over. “Yes. Mum’s always been there.”
And now she wasn’t.
Peter’s family were last to leave. She closed the front door and paused at the hall mirror to confirm that no hair had strayed from its appointed place.
“Mu-um, can we change out of these now?”
She adjusted the dark silk scarf at her throat. “Go on, then. Make sure you hang them up.”
“Yay!” The children pounded upstairs.
“Less noise, you two; there’s no need.”
To wake the dead—she’d stopped herself from completing the phrase.
Collecting a mug from the hall table, she surveyed the living room, where Rob was clearing plates and cups. In the kitchen, Josie had started on the washing up. Laura picked up a tea towel.
“You go put your feet up,” said Josie. “We can do this.”
The scarf’s label poked at her skin; she stretched her neck to dislodge it.
“I’m fine,” she snapped, hearing irritation in her voice but unable to control it. “I hope I can still manage a bit of drying up.”