We’re sitting in the pretty, flower-scented garden. Behind mum, in the shadow of the rose arbour, French windows lead into the house. They’re open; it’s one of those freshly washed April days that make everyone smile. Mum’s smiling. She’s looking across the lawn to where the froth of almond blossoms catches the breeze.
There’s an open book on her lap. Daniel Deronda. She used to recite great chunks of it standing in the kitchen. Still can. And Mill on the Floss. She calls George Eliot the greatest writer that’s ever lived. Yet she’s never liked Middlemarch; none of us quite knows why. Dad used to say it was sheer cussedness; that she’d read somewhere that literary experts considered it the perfect book, which was enough to put her off for life. He had a point. So, possibly (if he was right), has she.
Mum’s hands rest on Daniel Deronda. They don’t look quite like her hands, though I can’t pinpoint why.
There’s a flash of colour in my periphery vision: a blue-tit. He lands on a low-lying branch and tips his head at us. I wonder what sights he sees in this garden, what sounds startle him into flight.
Mum’s still absorbed in the shifting petals, bubble-gum pink against an azure sky. I breathe deeply and inhale lilac, so laden with nostalgia that my heart stops and I have to resist the urge to kneel on the grass at her slippered feet, rest my cheek on her lap, and feel the rough wool of her skirt as she strokes my hair and tells me that everything’s going to be all right.
“Sonya – !”
Her voice makes me jump.
“I’m not staying here much longer. “
She’s looking at me with her soft Irish eyes. The colour of the sea, dad called them.
“No – of course not – it’s just till you feel better mum.“
“Don’t lie to me Sonya.” Mum’s still staring at me. The thought of her knowing – knowing what’s happening – is too much to bear. I shift in my chair and pull my eyes away from hers. My gaze settles back on her hands. I realise she’s not wearing her gold bracelet. That’s what’s not right.
“Where’s your bracelet mum?”
She looks down, frowns, wrinkles her nose in that new, odd way she has and shrugs her shoulders. “Dunno – “
Don’t say dunno – it’s uncouth Sonya.
“Is it in your room mum?” I’m worried that she might have lost it or, worse, someone’s taken it.
No wonder you can’t find anything – your bedroom’s a pigsty Sonya! She used to make me tidy it on Saturday afternoons or I couldn’t go out in the evening.
Her gaze is milky. Her lips start to move silently. I know what she’s saying. Her mouth is forming the words like a prayer. It is a common sentence that knowledge is power, but who hath duly considered or set forth the power of ignorance …. She carries on for several minutes, the complex sentences unfolding from her as perfectly as the day George Eliot wrote them; and then, as suddenly as she started, she stops.
“I’m not staying here a moment longer!” She half shouts it and for a moment – a moment of my own utter madness – I’m six again and being told off. My hands tighten in my lap. I can’t find the words – any words – to reply. “I’m not staying here!” Mum shouts again.
“How are we doing?”
I look up into the florid, middle-aged face of a woman in a cardigan. I don’t know who she is. She may live here, she may be a member of staff, she may, like me, be visiting.
“Fine, thank you,” I say.
“I’m not staying here!”
“It’s okay Kathleen, no one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to.” The woman bends down. I watch mum’s eyes slowly focussing on her; at first I think the woman’s gained her trust. But then mum’s features twist into a knot, she sucks in her cheeks, pushes her tongue to the front of her mouth and spits. I flinch as if I’ve been hit; as if the spittle sliding down the other woman’s chin has struck me.
The cardiganed stranger seems unperturbed: she takes a tissue from her cuff and wipes her face. “Okay then Kathleen, never mind. I’ll come and see you later.” She straightens herself, gives me a knowing look and walks away. As I watch her retreating, my heart pumps fit to explode and a voice – my voice – inside my head shouts silently after her, She’s not Katherine; she’s Kate! She’s my mum!
When she first began forgetting things I put it down to old age. When she stopped going out I thought she was frightened of getting mugged and didn’t much blame her. When she said that the home-help was stealing her jewellery I almost believed her. Only a call to say that she’d been found wandering in the road in her nightie – at midnight – rammed the message home. I couldn’t see what was under my eyes. Couldn’t or wouldn’t? Or simply didn’t want to?
Mum’s head’s lolling onto her chest. Her medication makes her sleepy; it carries her off to the land of nod. When I arrived she told me she’d cried herself to sleep the night before.
“No! Why?” Guilt licked at me.
“Because I can’t remember my life.”
I’d never heard anything as empty and sad.
Daniel Deronda slips from her fingers. I pick it up off the grass and begin to read, seeking comfort from the familiar words. A sudden silent movement announces the blue tit’s return; when I look up his unblinking eye is watching me, watching mum drifting slowly away.