She is dark against the square of light. The back of her, curved now, looks mutely upon the green space caught tight within that square. I know how it stretches, how it rolls out to the foot of the mountain and gathers up there, but this sharp triangle of grass, this geometry, fed in through that one portal of light, is all she knows. And it’s only the slivered glimpse of red she gets through it that offsets that monopoly of colour, an oblique corner of it, something that – along with most other things now – must surely puzzle her; a mere suggestion only, of the thing she cannot, will not, see in fullness. I know it to be the French school, built in the old style in red brick and eaves. Both of these – the small grass patch, the shard of school – are set twice at a distance and twice out of reach: first by the window, divided into four by two straight white lines, and again by the high metal fence that separates the home’s car park concrete from the long school lawn. Only in that negative space between where the sloping edge of green ends and the hard right angle of the window begins, does it offer some measure of difference. Today, that space it is opaque and silver, but not dark enough to bring the rain that would wipe out the view entirely.
There are no children on the lawn today.
She cannot see me where I stand in the doorway of the living room; she will not hear my approaching step. Her concave back, moulded into shape by the motorised chair, sits slumped to the right towards the table, weighed down by the heavy fall of her head. The thing around her neck, the little doughnut, does little to keep her up. Only when I stand before her and lay my hand on the narrow ledge of her shoulder and graze her downy cheek with my lips will she notice me.
As though hearing a distant noise while deep in thought and remembering it only after it has already faded and passed, she looks up. Her face scrambles back into expression and shapes into the hesitant smile of a child.
‘Oh, hello Mags,’ she says, slowly and faintly, each word reaching me again from that irrelevant afterworld. This light does nothing for her. The skin of her hands sits along the bones, ridged and hollowed like set sand the tide long out. Beneath the blanket, stained with milk and last night’s roast dinner, her wasted thighs jut out.
I saw again the men she had taken between them not so long ago: Jack, the man who took the place of my father, who had plumbed her and battered her, and her sister’s fiancé, who he had screwed – among many others – at one of her parties while my aunt was pregnant with his child. I was at that party; the youngest guest, aged ten. I remember my aunt’s fiancé – it never went beyond the promise once he became my mother’s lover – as a tall, smirking man, who wore his hair long. I did not see them disappear together, but I remember very little from that time, let alone that night, which was for me just one of many loud, intrusive nights filled with smirking strangers. Many years have passed and many things in those years, and still the old story plays out for me each time I come and sit beside my mother, as though as soon as my arse hits the wood, a switch goes off somewhere, and the pictures start rolling.
Once my aunt’s child had been born and named Cat, my mother had made it almost her duty to single her out as a particular favourite. Though my aunt and my mother did not speak, there was between them a sort of transactional relationship where Cat and I were given and received on alternating weekends, as though both women were abandoning their child to a reliable ghost. I spent a lot of time in my aunt’s house, and Cat spent a lot of time in ours. I adored my aunt; my mother adored my cousin. ‘Kitty-Cat’ she called her. She bought her little presents – I thought of them as ‘just’ presents: presents for their own sake, exclusive of Christmas or birthday – often exclusively and in plain sight of me. My mother used Cat’s youth as the excuse for this blatant injustice. ‘She young,’ she’d say, ‘you’re too grown up for bits of tat like that.’ Bits of tat was all it was, foam two-dimensional airplanes and small glittery acid-coloured bouncing balls that leapt into the air, but that was not the point. The gifts would exchange hands between the two of them like a secret and all I could do was go deaf to everything but the dull chanting of ‘pretty tat for Kitty Cat’ that dug its tracks in my mind. Of course, Cat responded. She was a good niece when she was younger, dutiful in return for the gifts that seemed to come so freely and so unattached, and incredulous at her mother’s disdain for her aunt, while she remained young and ignorant, at least. She used to be a regular visitor since the illness, until the story worked its way out, as stories do, some thirty years later. One slipped word that hooked onto others and formed the thing outright, fragile and believable as a daisy chain. She doesn’t call anymore.
The man who took the fill of the two sisters, and got a daughter between them into the bargain, has not called once, though that’s nothing new; Cat’s lived with that her whole life. And my own father was gone long before I knew him and Jack, my pardoned stepfather, is the last person I need to see here, not least because he and my mother could never be in the same room without orchestrating a way to destroy one another, and drag anyone else who was around into their vortex. But still, it stings, to come and see only my name on my mother’s list of visitors. She had a knack for that when she was part of the world: shoring up high banks around herself, unmooring, and sailing away, alone. And that is where she has remained.
Her thighs have gotten abnormally thin. Pick sticks, toothpicks, used and thrown on the heap. I close my eyes against the sight of them. I pull in the threads that unravel themselves every time I call here and the old story insists on being re-told; every time my aunt changes the subject when I phone her, or Cat silently leaves the conversation when I mention my visit. The long empty tracks of retreat. What do such barren threads matter now, anyway?
She is watching me now; remembering, too.
‘You’re looking well,’ she says.
I call Bea over from the nurse’s stand and ask for tea. She is short and round and dark, and always smiling. She nods once and sweeps away.
‘How are you feeling today, mum?’
‘Oh,’ she says, and makes a withered face. ‘Sore.’
‘Where are you sore?’
She leans in, conspiratorially. ‘My arse,’ she says, her eyes darting from left to right.
‘I’ll tell the nurse when she comes back.’
She gets sores there; a combination of nappy rash and sitting. Nothing new. At least it’s not a headache.
Noise goes off at the couches behind us. There is an argument over what’s on the telly. A young woman protesting with loud, insistent screams at an older man, who is shouting – because of his hearing aids and the woman’s furore – that he wants to watch the rugby. My mother leans her head further to the right away from the noise and her face goes slack. I see in it the vestiges of her, underneath the swollen, chalk-down flesh, the thin lips. The hair in the section they shaved, above the right eye and down behind the right ear, has never grown back and a deep ridge runs through it, between the metal plates. A gorge that can never be filled. She once had bright eyes, and a mouth that was always either laughing or punishing, and a wild top of dark curls. The hair now is lank and mousy, the eyes opaque.
The argument settles; the rugby goes on; the young woman is pacified with sweets. She is the youngest here by decades, and here she will remain until her death. Even though I have been a regular visitor here for two years, it always shocks me when I see her. She is smooth skinned and freckled, with only a few grey hairs peering out in her black hair. Her mother told me her story. She was highly successful in the world of international finance, spent her life on a plane, in hotels and boardrooms. One morning in a New York hotel room her brain took a haemorrhage. And here she is: being fed and toileted and watered, unable to form a sentence that hasn’t been repeated from the television. She is three years younger than me. Twenty years my mother’s junior.
Bea brings the tea, with the plate of ginger biscuits I never ask for, but always receive. She lays out each white cup and saucer, making laughing small talk in her tinny, melodic accent.
‘Isn’t it good your Mags came again, Tish? You have so good a daughter.’
‘No, no, you’re right,’ my mother says, forcefully, as though engaged in a silent and unseen argument with someone who is not here.
‘You’re very good, Bea,’ I say, and she beams and sweeps rapidly around the room once, settling all dissent and idling with her smiling self, and is gone again.
When she has passed through the door and out of sight, I take out from my bag the mint crisp I brought with me. My mother spots it and the girlish smile creeps back.
‘Hello, chocolate,’ she says.
The ginger biscuits will go untouched.
My mother always protested against sweet things in her life time, though she kept a stash of treats in a tub on top of the fridge, behind a potted peace lily. She was thin, but had a hatred of excess flesh. She could be vicious about other women who had not her naturally slight physique. She hid her tendencies, though we all knew of them. It was another of the things that made mum mum, another overlapped, slightly twisted layer that made up the form and shape of her, her difficult, unnavigable path. Now, though, she is gleeful, prideful, even, of her sweet tooth. That unnecessary layer of her she has been stripped of.
Behind her, Marge is shuffling about. When Marge is shuffling, you have to keep watch. I look around for a nurse, but the room is now empty apart from the residents, and myself. Marge knows I am watching her. Now she lingers at the window, chest-facing out, but with sliding eyes back to us at the table all the while. And now she is pitching around the table with her unmanageable energy, now loitering behind me. I feel the irregular pulsing of her, and my shoulders tense. I shift in the seat so she is no longer at my back, and she lunges to the left, almost falling over an armchair, and a man. She steadies herself, ignoring his barking obscenities, and a nurse appears, and hurries forward to calm him.
I know she is angling for the mint crisp.
Any gift I bring mum is sensed and coveted by this woman, this stout and narrow shouldered woman with man’s hands and an ugly and explosive temper. I watch her darting eyes, her retching step. There is a dangerous awareness lingering in her that festers in this sleepy waiting room.
‘Her husband has not been for one week,’ the nurse – one I don’t recognise; she must be new – tells me, by way of explanation of Marge’s behaviour. She comes up to Marge’s side and speaks quiet cajoling words and leads her, stubborn and goat-like, out of the living area. I can only feel relief. Whenever her husband stays away, Marge grows more violent, and wanders. At times she has crept into my mother’s room, and pinched her shoulders and face. My mother has told me this, and so, it cannot be believed. I know. But she has told me it regardless.
My mother had a talent for untruths in life. She could never be trusted with information, even less if it were sensitive or volatile. She knew just how to twist and re-order language so it would have more value to her. Not only did she destroy her relationship with her sister by fucking the father of her child, she used her secrets as leverage in company, company with whom, I can only assume – I’m grasping again, as Tor would tell me – she must have felt hugely inadequate. That is the only way I can justify her behaviour towards my gentle, suffering aunt, who has only ever loved me, despite my mother’s opposition. Surely I did not deserve my aunt’s kindness by association, and yet she gave it to me. Even as my mother declared it was my aunt’s time of the month at parties in front of attractive young men, or intimated at family gatherings her lack of prowess between the sheets as the reason she could not keep her fiancé, my aunt loved me still, and had me over for dinner outside of the planned weekends of my childhood and called me over for impromptu cups of tea, and held me when I told her about Tor, and told me she’d always known and that I wasn’t, even for a second, to begin to explain myself.
But those untruths that were such an integral part of my mother in life are not there now, not as far as I can see. Because she is lovely now, meek and lovely, and I wish they would all come and see that, and love her too. I wish that I could be less alone in this, in this love for this woman who was so unloveable, and who I loved even then. If even one other person might come and begin to, try to love her, then it would not all be for nothing. It would not all, these forty years, have been a waste.
The light is failing now. That pale space through the window is growing dark.
‘I’ve to go and put the food on,’ I say. ‘Tor will be home soon.’
Tor, smooth-edged, easy, light-hearted Tor, who I met on a job in Norway; who my aunt unconditionally accepted and who my mother has never met. We are marrying in the winter, and my mother only knows her as a genderless, foreign name. And as I think this, think it is all I do, for what must surely be the thousandth time, my mother’s hand closes around mine. She grasps me with beguiling firmness; her yellowed nails, recently nurse-filed, close in on my wrist.
‘Gordon Ramsay called – he says Nigella is going to cook for us next weekend.’
I am used to this, expectant of it: the hurried conversation to hold me; the surreal, the delusions, the madnesses. Sometimes, too, the stabs at sense, and then the trilling hope; the collapse of it; the resignation. The acceptance that hope is just a concept, that this is my mother now: better, in many ways much for the better and perhaps it is just right. I smile at her, say nothing. She closes her hand more tightly around mine, looks into my eyes with hers that are translucent, red-rimmed, hairless.
‘Tor can come too,’ she whispers.
I hold her unguarded gaze, and let that blossoming hope curl back in on itself. She does not know. There is no possible way she knows, when often she forgets my name and her own. And then I think that she hasn’t really changed at all, she is only using that keen sense, still intact, for other people’s open wounds, and pressing her yellowed nails into it while she has the chance.
‘I’ve to go,’ I say again, before yet more threads unravel and the whole thing comes, bleeding, apart. I kiss her. Her benign smile is my gift in return. It has been made meek with suffering. That self of hers, the one that would have smirked, appears to have gone.
When I reach the door, I turn to say a last goodbye, but the farewell, pointless now, really, catches and subsides.
She is there where I left her: her slumped shadow turned away, gazing out. The window rewards her with greyness. Beyond the faded fence, dark patches hint at things that once stood firm and distinct. I wait and watch as they melt together, becoming night what was once the green and naked patch of grass, the vivid red wall of the school.
About the Contributor
That They May Face the Rising Sun - John McGahern
This is probably my favourite ever book, and loss is less a theme of the novel and more its entire purpose; the turn of each page is a shedding, a surrender to the quietness of being. It is a beautiful meditation on the simple unfolding of day to day life in rural Ireland that seeks to preserve a way of life that is slowly dying. As you sink into the changing colours and seasons of each passing day, time and space become irrelevant and move beyond both into a state that is almost transcendental.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals