I convince myself I’m overreacting. Mum’s only seventy-two and wouldn’t anyone go a bit strange living on their own. I live on my own. I still manage to cook a healthy meal. Once in a while. I drink only every other night. An unhelpful image of waking up flat out on the Persian wearing only a beautiful scarf (gift from my boyfriend — boy — that’s laugh. He’s sixty. Married.) and a pair of my old knickers, grey with wash.
Nowhere to park and Mum doesn’t have off-street parking. She doesn’t have a car either. Never learnt to drive despite me leaning on her heavily around her fortieth birthday. I found it embarrassing to have a subservient mother. One who baked and had Dad’s dinner on the table by six o’clock, when the factory shut for the day. I saw myself as a modern day Boudica, what with all my red hair. Embarrassed by my working class roots. It took me years to sharpen my consonants.
The road is no longer lined with trees as it was a decade or so ago. They’ve been ripped out, the pavements narrowed, and the road widened. Now lined with Peugeots and Volvos. SUV’s with child seats and sat-navs. In the office and around the corner, near the post office, and walk to my childhood home. Past houses with bay windows and red cedar blinds, in my clippity-high-heeled sandals. Not a single curtain twitches. No snoopers. Middle class yummy mummies and the occasional house-husband aren’t interested in anyone else, obsessed with their own lives.
Mum’s house looks tired compared to the re-pointed brick work of her neighbours’. The smells of posh dinners, concoctions of mung beans and quinoa, fill the air. Weeds spring up between Mum’s cracked pavers. When was the last time I visited? Two weeks ago? Three?
“Jo, your mum’s on the phone.” Karen had screeched across the office not an hour since. I’d wrinkled my nose and shook my head determinedly. Karen held out the receiver. “She sounds distressed.”
“Hello, Mum.” Forced cheerfulness. I was in the middle of a report on our new initiative for increased productivity in the workplace, employing fewer staff members. Redundancies. It wasn’t going well.
“Joanne, there’s a woman on the telly saying I have to send my old eye shadows to Kabul.”
“Mum, she doesn’t mean that literally.”
“I don’t understand. She says I should bake bread and brew coffee to sell my house. I like it here. I don’t want to move.”
I look at my watch. I still have another hour of work. I’m quiet until I know for certain this isn’t going away. I scoop up my laptop and quickly explain to Karen that I have to go. I don’t mention Mum’s mental state, I say she’s had a fall.
Mum comes to the door wearing a blank expression. These days she doesn’t so much wear it as take it on outings. “Oh, hello love. It’s not Thursday, is it?” Actually, it is but its years since I’ve visited her on Thursdays, when Dad was still alive and she would cook me toad in the hole. I hated it but she did a mean Victoria sandwich cake for ‘afters’ and it saved me cooking. On a good day my fridge holds a hard piece of Gruyere, badly wrapped in cling film, a jar of caviar and stale crumpets.
“You just called me, Mum.”
She stands in her slippers, big toe peeking through the left one. Nails that have never had a pedicure or gleamed with shiny nail polish. She’s wearing tights and an old button up dress which gapes over her chest. She looks at me, her eyes blinking into the afternoon sun, as if she had a purpose but can’t remember what that purpose is. Then a cloud lifts and her eyes clear.
“Come in, Joanne. Don’t stand there letting the cold in.” An Indian summer breeze wafts down the street. I’m wearing a floaty dress despite our strict suit policy at work.
The house smells of biscuit crumbs and hairspray. “Sit down Mum. I’ll make you a cuppa.”
“It’s my house.”
“You’ve made enough cups of tea for me. It’s my turn now.”
She accepts this argument and sits down in her favourite chair. Props her feet on the ottoman. I notice her ankles are swollen, ladders run through her tights. If I’m honest with myself, my expertise at nurturing ends at making cups of tea. Although I can turn my hand to coffee. What comes next? Plumping cushions? Asking her who the prime minister is. Not for the first time I feel inadequate in the face of Mum. I don’t have the stomach to be her carer.
If Dad were still alive, we would be conspiring under the steam of the kettle, linked in our incompetence. He was a lovely man, my dad. Saw the funny side of everything.
“Come on, Joanne. Things can’t be that bad.” He’d put a hand on my shoulder, tell me a joke. He knew how to bring me out of myself, an expression of Mum’s. “Gerry knows how to bring my Joanne out of herself.”
Something crunches under my foot. Looks like spilled cornflakes. In the pantry I can’t find any tea bags, only boxes and boxes. PG Tips, Tetley’s, Typhoo. None of those terrible herbal affairs, as she calls them. All the boxes are empty. Mum never runs out of tea. It was alarming enough when she switched to bags.
“You can’t stir the pot properly with those bag thingies. And they taste awful.” Mum was a connoisseur. She wouldn’t run out of tea.
She’s dosed off. Her face is smooth and framed by white hair. She looks beautiful. Then her mouth falls open and she looks like a trout. I walk over to her chair. A cup and saucer sit on the occasional table, from an age when dark furniture was in fashion. The local paper folded neatly, a hair line crack running down the side of her favourite floral cup. It contains, not tea, but water. Cooling from the kettle no doubt. A frission of fear brushes over my hands.
When was I last here? I can’t remember. I’ll check my diary when I get a minute. I pull my phone from the handbag which still hangs from my shoulder as if I’m not planning to stay. Stacey will be feeding the girls their supper but that’s too bad. I can’t deal with this on my own. Mark is rarely home to help her. He’s not a bad man but he’s very good at avoiding. Avoiding responsibility, avoiding hard work. I’m astonished he was there for the twins’ conception. Stacey picks up after one ring, probably has her mobile placed next to pureed pumpkin or peach surprise.
“Bloody hell, Jo. You know it’s feeding time at the zoo.”
“I don’t know what to do. Mum rang me at work talking nonsense about some afternoon television show. There’s no tea in the house.”
“I’ll alert the media. Elderly woman in tea-lapse-shock.”
“Stace, she never runs out of tea. And the phone call. Did you get my text?”
“No.” She’s lying. “Confusion. It happens to us all. I forgot to put mince in the Bolognese sauce yesterday.”
“You have twins, you’re expected to be a loon.” I had always equated motherhood with madness. “This is different.”
“You can deal with this, Joey. Got to go. Ruby’s putting mashed potato in Ava’s ear.”
Wish I had such confidence in myself. I don’t know what to do so while Mum naps so I clean out the pantry. I may have to stay the night, I don’t think there’s any way I can leave her. She looks peaceful though. Her chin is raised which pulls her flappy neck tight. Stace is right. Confusion.
There’s not much to clear in Mum’s pantry. Anything nutritious is out of the packaging and lying on the shelves hardening, turning green. There are tins of stuff as if she was expecting to be barricaded in the house for a month or so. Baked beans, tuna, spaghetti hoops, cat food. Mum hates cats.
Overwhelmed again I stop. Listen to the silence. I noticed the quiet when I walked in the front door. It was the sort of silence that would cover you, roll you over and over. Like my home. Mum is still sleeping, her head leaned slightly towards the window like a plant growing to the light. On one side her table, where her spectacles lay next to the newspaper, and the other where the budgie cage stood still. At the bottom of the cage is a small sausage shaped creature, covered in blue and white feathers. Stanley. All Mum’s birds are called Stanley. Whatever colour they were, whatever the gender. An old boyfriend? I never even asked. I delve in my bag for a tissue, open the budgie cage and retrieve Stanley. Wrap him in a Kleenex shroud, put him in the bin out the back. Is it worth buying a new one? I think of canaries down the mines, dying in the poison, supposedly warning underage pit boys of danger. Stanley hadn’t been that old had he? Perhaps he had died of danger too. Mum’s nonsense making him throw himself from his perch. Can’t say I’d blame him.
I sit down opposite the woman who’d made me eat my sprouts. Retrieve my phone from my pocket, finally take my handbag and put it on the sofa. Before I connect to the internet, I look up briefly into an unusually blue sky shining on now fashionably terraced houses. Mum has her head on the antimacassar covering the wing of her chair, accordingly to Sharples family legend the chair was picked up for a song from the deceased estate of a woman who lived opposite. As Mum and Dad were moving in, giddy with youth, she was taken from her house for the last time in a box. Mum and Dad giggled like children telling that story. I suppose they weren’t much more than children then. But I’ve never liked that chair. It gave me the creeps. The cushion where a dead woman’s bum had sat.
“We don’t know she died in it, Joanne.” Mum said repeatedly. I wasn’t taking any chances.
The house opposite had been done-up. I hadn’t seen inside. A couple who ran an events management business had moved in, but the yellow render that covered the exterior brickwork brought a slice of the Mediterranean to the street.
Back to my smart phone. ‘Knowing the Common Symptoms for Dementia. Number one. Memory Loss: I laugh. Who doesn’t have that? I remember Stanley. He’d probably died of malnutrition because she’d forgotten to feed him. I’m relieved she didn’t like dogs. There wasn’t a paper tissue big enough to dispose of even the smallest dog.
It’s been a month at least since I’d been round here. I’m the eldest, the responsible one. This is no place for Stacey’s twins. Knocking over furniture, sticking their fingers in the electrical sockets. Stace has those plastic things that push into sockets, and molded ones that rounded sharp corners. One month. What has mum been eating? How long has she been drinking boiled water instead of tea?
Declining motor function: she can work the kettle but what about putting the gas on. She’s refused meals on wheels. Over-cooked veggies, under-cooked pasta. I thought she’d been managing with a chop at the weekend and rissoles during the week. Stupid. For all I know she may have been eating cheese and biscuits for months. I haven’t seen her eat a meal since Christmas. We took her out to Oliver’s, my favourite restaurant. I can’t cook and Stacey has her hands full. She even dragged Mark along although he didn’t say a word.
“The plate’s square, Joanne,” said Mum. I’d noticed that. Wouldn’t have minded a set myself. White and square like a blank canvas. Even my attempt at moussaka would look good on them. Mum shook her head, finished her dinner. Traditional turkey, with sprouts. She left the sprouts. “That’s the first time I’ve eaten off a square plate.” I caught Stacey’s eye briefly. She looked tired. Mark yawned. One of the twins, Ava I think, vomited up her egg custard.
I would have noticed if Mum had struggled with her knife and fork. Her buttons had been done up in the wrong order. I hadn’t bothered to put them right. I’m probably not a good daughter. Too bossy, not involved enough. Poor Mum. Eating off a square plate, with her slip showing under her cheap apricot-coloured blouse.
Disorientation: what the hell did I know? I’ve ignored her for a month. She’d phoned a couple of times. She had asked for help, she couldn’t find her purse. I was packing for a weekend away with Roger. His wife, the ultimate cliché, was visiting her sister. Mum needed her purse to put some coins in the Salvation Army envelope. I brushed it aside, trying to decide between cammy knickers or a silk slip. I was more worried about the kindness of the lighting in the hotel room on a dirty weekend than being kind to my mother. I’d taken the slip in the end.
Behavioral changes: Mild mannered people getting cranky all of a sudden. Mum had always been quiet. She had always been easy, not easy going but easy to manage. Dad had adored her. I know he was worried, as he slipped away, that she would never be loved like that again. Stacey and I found her awkward. She followed us around after Dad went.
“I can’t turn around for falling over her. It’s creepy.” A terrible thing to feel like that about the person who literally squeezed you into the world. Stacey thought it would change when she had the twins. Everybody said you felt differently about your mother after you had your own children. Appreciated her more, loved her more. But we were daddy’s girls. A bit resentful that we were left with her, that we didn’t get Dad to ourselves, feel the adoration he felt for her shine on us.
Paranoia: Mum had become terrified of being followed. But I knew how slowly she walked up the road to the grocery store. Too slow for anyone to follow her, not that anyone would have good reason. She didn’t have to go very often. I did a shop when I remembered. Hob Nobs, good muesli, tins of tomatoes. Staples. It had been at least a month. Perhaps she couldn’t manage the tin opener. I looked over at her, curled up like a cat in a floral dress and homemade cardigan. She didn’t look much smaller. She just looked diminished.
Disorganisation: trouble planning shopping lists and meals. I was lucky it wasn’t her lying in a heap instead of Stanley, without a decent meal in her for weeks. While I dined with somebody else’s husband, in beautifully decorated restaurants with square white plates.
Agitation: never. Mum never berated, moaned or worried. She was calm personified. I look over at her smooth white skin and perfect white hair. She had more grace in her little finger than I had in my entire lump of a body. And yet I couldn’t love her. Not the love she deserved. It wasn’t just me, Stacey too. What was wrong with us Sharples girls? My younger sister with her stuffed shirt husband, and me with a man twenty years older who would never be mine. It’s like we never even tried to meet a man half as good as Dad. Instead, we punish Mum for succeeding where we had failed. Was that it? How shallow were we.
“What’s the matter, Joanne?”
My face is wet, I must have been crying. Mum’s ice blue eyes still manage to appear warm. I’m a bitch.
“I’m so sorry Mum. I should have been here, getting your shopping. It’s a wonder you haven’t starved.”
Mum laughs. “Don’t be silly, Joey. I’ve got the neighbours. They see me I’m alright.” Those blue eyes, checking me out. Another laugh, more enthusiastic than the last. “If I waited for you girls I would starve. Fall on the floor and die.”
“Mum, there’s something awful I have to tell you.” I don’t want to agitate her. “It’s poor Stanley.”
“It was his time. I hadn’t had a chance to get rid of him. It was his time you know, Joey. I’ve lost lots of budgies over the years. Best not get too attached.”
“You haven’t got any tea in Mum.”
“I should throw away those boxes. I’ve gone back to leaves, I keep them in the caddy you brought me back from India, all those lovely bright colours. You know, where that man took you.” She mouths his name, Roger. I know she is thinking Roger the Dodger. “Did you want a cup? I’ll make you one.”
She stands up from her chair, smiling all over her lovely face.
“Mum, what about the telly confusing you? The woman with the makeup and trying to sell your house.”
“I have to get you here sometimes. Just for a chat. I am your mother and I’ll try anything these days. I have no shame.” She shuffles off to the kitchen in her slippers, winking as she passes.