Beth regretted taking a table at the front of the café, in full view of city types, men and women dressed in black or navy blue hurrying along with purpose, carrying sandwiches in white paper bags and café lattes to go. No Cathy. Beth felt self-conscious, dressed in a flower-print dress which at least today wasn’t garnished with baby sick. Why did Cathy make her come into the city? It made her feel outside of her sister’s life. This wasn’t about Cathy, it wasn’t about Cathy at all.
Beth spotted her sister wearing grey. “How dull,” their mother would say. Ursula loved orange, sling-backed sandals and fairy tales. Floppy hats and men who made her laugh.
Cathy walked fast. Perhaps all those meetings she attended made her brisk and hasty, quick and testy. Her high heels snapped on the concrete, her brief case was held against her side.
“Hello, Beth. I won’t kiss you, I’ve got a summer cold.”
Cathy sat down efficiently in the empty chair, took her mobile phone out of her bag and put it on the table.
“Don’t give me that look. I’m expecting an important call.”
Beth didn’t ask what could be more important than this. But she thought it, in capitals, with a full stop after each letter. She placed a large envelope on the table in front of them. An envelope stuffed full of a daunting future.
Cathy slid the brochure from the envelope. “Valley Springs. You’ve seen this place?”
Beth nodded. “You didn’t turn up.”
“I had an urgent meeting.”
A waiter appeared dressed in black, they barely noticed him. He coughed.
“A short black. Beth?”
“A skinny latte, please.”
Cathy read from the brochure. ‘Our aim is to provide a clean, efficient environment but also a nurturing one, homely and most of all fun. Each guest…’ Cathy raised a well-plucked eyebrow at her sister.
“Oh for God’s sake, it doesn’t smell of overcooked cabbage and lavender furniture polish.”
“‘We boast excellent social facilities held in our games room, including yoga, tai chi and ballroom dancing.’ Ballroom dancing is for stiffs, Mum loves the flamenco. And it’s expensive.”
“Tell me about it, there goes my kid’s private schooling.” She couldn’t help feel resentful that Cathy would easily make the payments. Beth’s husband, Michael worked selling cleaning goods to small businesses, commission only, whilst she was on a career break from the surgery where she worked as a nurse, bringing up twins.
“I know what you’re thinking, believe it or not I will have to make sacrifices too.”
Beth looked down at her own nails, bitten to the quick. Yes, getting her low-lights done at a cheaper salon or having one less manicure a month.
“You’ve got that thin-lip look, like when we were kids if you thought I’d got more of something.” Cathy laughed good naturedly. “How are Charlie and Flora?”
Beth smiled, “They’re great. Bloody hard work though.”
“My clients seem rather like my children.”
“They don’t vomit on you and wake you during the night.”
“Have you said anything to Mum?” Cathy stared directly at her sister.
“How will it be for her, losing her freedom?”
Cathy’s spoke softly. “We don’t have a choice. She left the gas on. It you hadn’t arrived early…”
Beth thought back to their childhood. Ursula used to turn the dining room table upside down and they would pretend it was a boat. She would pack a picnic and they would spend all morning on the high seas.
“Remember Mum’s picnics?”
Cathy smiled. “She was the best Mum. She’s only sixty-five.”
“They found her at the bus stop in her nightie. She can’t live on her own any more.”
After their father had left, when the girls were still small, the dining room table stayed permanently upside down. They ate every meal off-shore from a different country, escaping to another world where their father didn’t bark, “You’re nuts, woman! I can’t get promoted at the bank with a fruit loop for a wife.”
Beth and Cathy knew she wasn’t a fruit loop. Beth shuddered. “One day Charlie and Flora could be here discussing whether to send me to Valley Springs.”
“How would you feel about that?”
“I’d rather die.”
Ursula, the free-spirit who, when the girls were teenagers, popped out for a capsicum and didn’t get home until the following morning. She’d run into friends celebrating, drinks flowed into dinner then she’d slept on the floor of a friend’s apartment. The girls were used to it, proud to have an unconventional mother. Their friend’s mothers were predictable. Although Beth knew that sometimes Cathy craved stability. She looked at her sister now, her sharp suit and reliability. Was Mum the reason Cathy spent her days banging her head on the glass ceiling? Looking for acceptance and being somewhere she felt a good fit.
“Do you remember when I brought home my first boyfriend and she threatened to set fire to his hair if he didn’t look after me.” Cathy chuckled.
“Dean Prentice. No wonder he didn’t stick around for long. She gave Michael a packet of condoms. He was so embarrassed.”
The sisters fell silent, searching silently for ways they could save their mother from her fate.
“Let’s order lunch, Beth. I don’t think we have much more to discuss, except how to break it to her.”
When plates of Caesar salad and green tea noodles arrived, the two women ate quietly, each playing snippets of family memories like movie vignettes through their minds.
“Do you remember those spectacle frames she wore, the ones with no lenses?”
Cathy snorted. “She used to scratch her eye through where the glass should be, in mid-conversation queuing at the butchers or picking up a lotto ticket from the newsagents. Nobody knew how to take her.”
“And the time she invited us for Christmas dinner, with no food or presents as she had donated the money to the Salvo’s.”
“Beth, she will still be Mum in that place? I couldn’t bear it if she just gave up.”
She put her hand on her sister’s arm. “We don’t know what it will be like. This will be new for all three of us. I wish I could give you reassurance, Cath, but I can’t. Who knows what’s ahead.”
Cathy looked down at her lunch, stopped in her tracks. Beth wondered if Cathy ever stopped to think about her life.
“All of us have our moments of darkness, Cathy. We have dreams but even if we achieve those dreams it doesn’t feel like we had imagined.”
“You always wanted a family.”
“Yes I did and it’s great. But I’d imagined sweet scented sleeping babies in a house full of calm. Life is messier, dirty nappies, and pureed food up their nostrils.”
“Sometimes I wouldn’t mind a bit of mess.”
Beth smiled. “Do you know what Mum’s dream was?”
“To join the circus, be a magician’s assistant? Anything with a sparkly costume.”
“She wanted to fall so deeply in love that it hurt.”
“Mum? She never needed a man.”
“It wasn’t about need.”
Beth saw Cathy’s face remember. “Tom.”
“At least they had five years before the accident. At least her experience of love wasn’t just dad.” Tom had fell off a friend’s boat deep sea fishing, washed up on the beach a few days later.
As lunchtime business eased, Cathy picked up her mobile phone, turned it off and slipped it into her handbag.
Tears slid soundlessly down Cathy’s face. “I thought her life was sad, that she suffered so much pain. I didn’t want that, I wanted a structured life which didn’t allow for hurt.”
“Not being sad doesn’t mean you’re happy.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Beth takes Cathy’s hand, her eyes watering, thinking of their beautiful mother. Of how she lived in clutter, in a Bohemian way, gorgeous dresses draped over chairs and mirrors. Piles of books where you’d least expect them. Beth had once seen a pair of tights flung over the ceiling fan.
“Mum is such an individual, I hope they don’t confuse her character with her condition.”
“Cathy, she has dementia, do you know what that means?”
Cathy shifted in her seat and shook you head. “Not really.”
“It means that we are going to lose Mum bit by bit, before she dies. She may be aggressive with us, not even know who we are. It will happen, it’s just a matter of time. And this will be the hardest thing for Mum since Tom died.”
“This should have been our time, the two of us.” Ursula had repeated whilst raising her third or fourth glass of wine. She would cry, sometimes for an hour. Nothing consoled her. Their lovely mother, her red hair unbrushed and her eyes swollen and bloodshot.
Beth and Cathy stayed with her, went to uni close to home. Beth studied nursing and Cathy a business degree.
“My sensible girls, you don’t get it from me. Maybe a sensible life brings happiness but I live for the highs and lows, when grief or love rips through me like an opal seam.”
“The rooms are nice, she doesn’t have to share. There’s space for a lot of her things.” Beth spoke between mouthfuls of croutons.
“I bet the décor is calming blues and greens. Mum says those colours make her nauseous.”
Beth sighed. “There’s not a lot I can do about that. Of course, its pastels, they all are. At least it’s not mission brown.”
“It won’t be so bad if she can have her things. What about Venus?”
“They won’t allow pets. Could you have her? Cats are unpredictable around babies.”
“I’d love to have her but Mum will be heartbroken.”
“Cathy, is dementia is genetic?”
“I don’t know. Maybe something happened to her, a trauma perhaps, which could have contributed to it. God, wasn’t she stunning when she was younger?”
“She still is. Do you think she’ll meet someone new at Valley Springs?”
Both women stifled a laugh then Beth grabbed Cathy’s hand.
“This is nothing, Mum’s going to go ballistic.”
Beth started to sob, slowly at first then fear and grief coursed through her chest. Cathy put her arms around her younger sister, held her tight. When it was over they sat back in their chairs.
“You’re wearing you lunch on your blouse.”
Cathy looked down at spinach stains, “Perhaps it is time to get messy. Come on, I’ll get the bill. Let’s go and see Mum.”
“What about work? The call you’re expecting?”
“I’ll ring in sick.”
The women walk out of the café, one stained with lunch, the other with tears, both thinking of one woman. And her opal seam.