by James Wall
As soon as Carol stepped into Mary’s flat, the heat enveloped her like an over-enthusiastic relative. She should be used to it by now. She’d learnt early on not to open a window to feel the light breeze cooling her scarlet cheeks; Mary had let it be known.
‘Only me,’ she called out.
She popped her keys into her handbag, slipped out of her coat and hung it on the hook on the back of the door, and went through to the living room. She found Mary in her usual seat, the three-legged walker with its purple frame and large grey tyres, next to her. On the other side was the Formica table that she ate her meals off.
‘You alright there, love? Quite comfy?’
‘Oh yes,’ Mary said and shifted a little in her armchair, her small slippered feet flat on the carpet.
She still had that redness around the bottom lids of her eyes. The left one glistened, as it often did, and Mary retrieved her small, embroidered handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her running eye. She smiled almost apologetically, and Carol wanted to hug her, but refrained.
‘What time is it?’ Mary asked, but Carol knew that she was quite aware of the time; she’d spotted a glance towards the carriage clock on the mantelpiece.
‘I’m only a few minutes late,’ she said. ‘The bus was stuck in traffic most of the way here. I’ve not done too bad, considering.’
‘I’ve been waiting to watch that film.’ Mary waggled her thin finger in the direction of the TV. ‘The one we talked about.’ She clicked her fingers as she tried to remember. ‘With Audrey Hepburn.’
‘The one you talked about, you mean?’ She was smiling. ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’
‘Yes, that’s the one.’ Mary became more animated, with both fingers pointing towards the TV. Childlike. Carol loved her like this, loved the spark Mary still displayed. Carol’s knees cracked as she bent down to put the film on.
‘You want a tea, love?’ she said loudly above the noise of the opening credits.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Mary. ‘And a digestive. Maybe two.’ There was mischief in her eyes.
In the kitchen, Carol listened to the film’s music as she gathered the crockery, milk and tea bags, and waited for the kettle to boil.
‘Are you coming?’ Mary called. ‘You’re missing the film.’
Carol didn’t mention that they’d seen it hundreds of times together. She arranged the digestives on a plate, reminding herself she should get some doilies next time. She put them all on the tray, and carried it in.
Near the end of the film, Carol heard the familiar light snore and turned to see Mary’s head on one side, her mouth slightly open, her breathing heavy. Carol prised the remote control from her fingers and turned down the sound a little. She’d turned it off once before but that woke Mary and she’d been chastised for doing so. She looked peaceful, and Carol would often just watch her for a while, as with a first born, examining her carefully for any unusual breathing or strange murmurs. Instinctively she glanced at her phone in case there was a missed call or a text; there was neither.
As she tidied away Mary’s cup, there was a loud clatter of keys and muffled swearing from the corridor. She recognised the voice, and her chest tightened as she feared the noise would wake Mary who’d already begun to stir. Denise burst into the flat, her arms laden with large bags, her sunglasses slipped low down her nose even though it wasn’t sunny outside. She wore those dark blue jeans that Carol loved and under her suede coat, a white blouse open to reveal a necklace with large beads that became smaller the further away from its centre they were. Carol found herself straightening up in an attempt to match Denise’s posture, but her bust was too large and it strained the buttons of her top. She pulled at the bottom of her blouse to hide the ripples of flesh that had begun to poke out from between it and the top of her jeans.
‘Oh, give me a hand will you, Carol,’ she said, her voice whining with exasperation that pierced her like a cocktail stick. Carol hesitated as she watched Mary moan and turn in her chair as she gradually woke. ‘Come on,’ said Denise, beckoning her with a twitch of her head.
‘Sorry, I didn’t want to wake your mother,’ Carol said as she took the bags from her arms and laid them on the floor by the table.
Denise gave her a sideways glance as if inspecting her reaction to see whether she was being cheeky. Carol lowered her eyes. Denise must have been satisfied as she carried on. ‘She’ll be fine. You don’t need to worry about that.’
She straightened herself up, her cheeks flushed.
‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ asked Carol.
‘That would be lovely. You’re a star. My mother would be lost without you. We both would.’
Carol’s chest swelled and a warmth rose in her like an ignited gas flame.
‘That’s very kind. But I love it here with her.’ And with you, she wanted to say but daren’t. The three of them together.
‘That’s so sweet,’ Denise said as she took off her coat. She was about to hang it up when Carol took it from her to do so.
They sat in the small living room, the mother and daughter in separate chairs, each with matching tea cups and saucers in a white and pink floral arrangement, and Carol, sitting on the middle cushion on the sofa, holding the brown mug with a picture of a hare on it that she usually used. There was a chip on the lip and she had to remember to drink from the other side.
‘We watched a film,’ said Mary, brighter now she’d had a sleep.
‘It was wonderful, wasn’t it?’ said Carol.
‘Denise would’ve loved it,’ said Mary.
Denise was looking out of the window and appeared not to have heard. Carol waited for a response, glancing between them, longing for the silence to be filled. Denise looked elegant perched there on the edge of the seat, light coming in from the window onto her face. Like a film star, Carol thought, as she had often done, and once nearly even told her so, but shied away at the last minute.
Denise turned back to them and, seeing she was the object of their attention, asked what she had missed. Carol laughed and mentioned the film, dismissing it with a wave of her hand and a softness in her voice that insisted it was not important yet hoping that Denise wanted to know more and they would chat.
‘Are we going out now?’ Mary asked. ‘For lunch? Like you said?’
‘I’d love to, Mum, but Roger needs me to help with the VAT return this afternoon.’
‘Again? You had to do that last week.’
There was a pause. ‘It’s on-going, Mum. Bane of my life. You know this.’ She shook her head, and from under the few strands of hair that had fallen forward, she glanced at Mary.
Roger was in “women’s fashions”, a wholesaler. Denise’s description of what he did made Carol think of a market trader, not the type of man she’d have expected Denise to be with. She could see Denise with a medical consultant, or a barrister. Someone professional. Roger sold end of line material, cheap stuff, the garments that nobody really wanted. Denise did the bookwork; there were a lot of VAT returns to complete. And these seemed to keep her away from Mary. She shouldn’t complain. It was more work for her, and she got to spend time there in this nice flat. Better than her place. And there was a chance of a cuppa and a chat with Denise when she arrived, which was usually much later than she said she would be.
Carol didn’t mind not having a car, but at times like these, she would have loved to take Mary out. But without one, she couldn’t see her getting the number 79 bus; not her style. Even in her later years Mary still had a poise that Carol admired, one that had clearly been passed onto her daughter. An effortless glide, she often described it to herself.
‘Sorry, Carol, I didn’t think,’ said Denise. ‘Would you be able to stay a little longer today? I know we said until lunchtime, but you can see I’m up against it.’ Her expression altered then, and her eyes indicated a recollection. ‘It’s not this week that your daughter is visiting, is it?’
‘I thought you said something about your daughter visiting?’
‘Did I? No, no,’ Carol said quickly. Had she mentioned a visit? She couldn’t remember saying that. ‘It’s no problem. I can stay longer.’
‘You are a star,’ said Denise, clasping her hands together.
‘No lunch out then?’ said Mary, a small voice behind them that had been temporarily forgotten.
Denise rose from her chair, pulled on her coat that Carol had retrieved for her, and released long strands that had become tucked in.
‘I’m afraid not, Mum. But Carol is going to make you something wonderful here.’
Denise whispered to Carol that there was a lasagne in the fridge that she could put in the oven, then turned back to Mary who was looking up at her from her chair, her eye glistening again. Denise lent over and kissed her mother on the top of her head.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll go for lunch then, shall we?’
Mary turned to Carol. ‘What are we having to eat?’
Denise hesitated, perhaps waiting for recognition from her mother, but when none came, she picked up her bags and left.
She had time to shop, thought Carol, but not time for lunch.
In the kitchen, she put the lasagne in the oven; she knew this would be too much for Mary, so she would have some too. With a bit of salad. She might have a biscuit or two later as well, when Mary had nodded off. She enjoyed those quiet times when she would read a paperback novel to the accompaniment of the carriage clock ticking and Mary’s steady breathing. Like a baby.
Her thoughts returned to Denise’s comments about her daughter. She couldn’t remember mentioning anything. But she got like that sometimes, when chatting in full flow. Got ahead of herself.
‘A phantom pregnancy?’ Carol searched her mind, recalling the phrase that had some familiarity but nothing she could pinpoint exactly. I’m to give birth to a phantom? No, you silly woman, that was not what Dr Arnold meant at all. She knew this but her mind whirled, thoughts unable to settle, like dust in the wind. Slowly she became calmer.
‘I’m late,’ she said. ‘I’ve been sick the last few mornings. And my breasts are tender.’ She raised her hands towards them, and then placed them back on her lap, her fingers shifting in between each other.
Dr Arnold was kind, his face emitting sympathy like a warm night-light. His eyes didn’t linger on her ample bosom, as many men’s did.
‘It’s not uncommon,’ he said. He paused. ‘Especially as women begin to get a little older. The fear of missing out, some suggest. You are…’ he turned to the computer screen, his eyes darting around it for her records, its coloured reflection in his glasses.
‘Fifty-two,’ she said.
‘You and your husband are not trying for a baby I guess. Or would that be too presumptuous?’
Carol slowly closed her eyes and concentrated on restraining the turbulence in her stomach that she could feel heading upwards.
‘He passed away,’ she said, managing to keep her voice level. ‘Last month.’
Didn’t the notes show that? She thought they would, save her from having to say the words, which she didn’t think she would ever get used to.
They had always wanted a baby but none had come. She’d wondered at times whether her desire for one was greater than his; he was more relaxed about it, saying, ‘If it happens, it happens.’ Maybe she should be have been like that too, but she couldn’t.
Neither of them sought professional advice or help; it wasn’t their way. But it would have been nice to have a girl or a boy running around the place. She had often contemplated that.
Mary was not alone in disliking the term ‘Sheltered Accommodation’, or of being referred to as a ‘resident’. Carol had often been informed of this during her time as manager at Sunshine House. Sounded institutional, Mary would say in her more lucid periods. They were flats, just flats, and the people who lived there were homeowners. Like in any flats. The only grouping that could be applied was that of age.
Many of the ‘residents’ had said that the red cords hanging from the ceilings in each room were merely an adornment, and were rarely used although Carol suspected they were tacitly pleased with their presence. She smiled when she remembered the time that Mary set the alarm off by accident soon after she’d moved in two years before, when she’d attached a small sprig of dried flowers at the end of the cord in the living room. It was her own defiance, she was sure, and Mary admitted during one of their afternoons much later that she had been just a little embarrassed by the incident.
She was thankful for the cord when she had her fall last year. Carol was the first to answer it. And her support was remembered after senior management asked Carol to leave her position as a result of cost cutting. It was no reflection on her, they’d insisted. From then, she’d provided Mary with day-to-day care. That was coming up to a year, spending four hours a day, with her, often more, making her lunch, watching TV together. Mary’s husband, Stanley, had died a few years before, and left her well provided for.
The important thing, Denise had said from the beginning, was that she shouldn’t be left on her own for too long. ‘She may have another fall, or do something stupid like setting fire to the place.’ There was a smile in her voice, but only just discernible. At least, Carol liked to think so.
That Mary had moved here to be nearer to Denise, made Carol smile. Denise’s visits became less frequent, and although Carol enjoyed being relied upon to help Mary, she thought (but would never dream of saying as much) that Denise should make more of an effort to see her mother. But, she did have a lot on, she told herself. It wasn’t so easy, Carol imagined, when you have so many demands on you, so many friends who wanted to spend time with you, a husband to take care of.
Denise rang later that afternoon to see how Mary was. Was that out of guilt, she wondered? Another film had been watched, lunch had been enjoyed. No, nothing had been said about the cancelled trip out. This wasn’t completely true but Carol didn’t like to say anything. Yes, she was asleep. Quite peaceful.
Denise was about to go when Carol said: ‘Mary mentioned that she hadn’t seen her great grandchildren for a while. Expect they’re busy.’
‘Not so easy with them being in Suffolk. Jack was going to come up last month but had to cancel last minute. Bloody typical.’
Carol wasn’t sure whether to respond, but enjoyed being brought into Denise’s confidence about her son. She was aware of the geographical difficulties, and a little white lie about Mary talking about them wouldn’t hurt, would it? They’d been mentioned in the past after all.
‘I don’t want to over-step the mark with your mother, but I wondered about borrowing my daughter’s laptop and we can Skype them from here one day? No one would need to travel anywhere.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Denise said, but then paused. ‘I may have a laptop to do that with, although I’m not sure how that Skype thing works.’
‘It’s no bother. I can go through it with Mary if you like. I’m here anyway. And you’re very busy. I think Mary would appreciate it.’
‘I’m sure she would.’ There was a long pause, and Carol was about to say something to check that Denise was still on the line when she spoke: ‘Might be worth a try. I’ll speak to Jack.’
Carol was sure she heard the click of Denise’s smile. Or maybe it was her own?
‘One more thing,’ said Carol. ‘I was wondering...’ She surprised herself with this sudden confidence.
Carol paused, taken aback at Denise’s impatient response, but then calmed herself and continued. ‘It would be nice for us to have a drink somewhere one day. One of those nice bars in town you’ve mentioned. They sound lovely.’
She’d been rehearsing this speech for the last three days; trying to make it sound nonchalant, like one of Denise’s girlfriends would do, as if it was something that they regularly did.
‘I don’t think it’s my mum’s thing.’
‘What?’ said Carol, a panic rising in her. ‘No, I wasn’t thinking of your mum. Just the two of us?’
‘Just you and I?’ There was a pause. ‘I’m very busy,’ Denise said. ‘As you know.’
You seem to go quite often. With your friends. Carol wanted to say, but bit her lip.
There was a rustling of papers over the line. ‘Yes, we’ll have to arrange something.’
‘Shall we arrange it now then? I’ve got my diary.’
‘It’s a bit difficult now. My plans change daily. Like today for example. Next time, we’ll sort something out. I have to go now I’m afraid.’
The line went dead, and Carol silently put the trim phone down. She’d have some dates in mind to put to Denise for the next time she came round. Or maybe text her with them?
She pulled her own phone from her handbag. As she did so, she could have sworn she’d heard it ring, but, glancing at the screen, there was no sign of any activity. She typed in possible dates for their drink and sent the message to Denise.
‘It’s very shiny, isn’t it?’ said Mary as Carol took the laptop out of its bag. The morning light streamed in through the window.
‘Grace hasn’t used it much,’ said Carol quickly, wondering whether Mary could tell that it was new, it having been bought the previous day. No, of course she wouldn’t. Carol had not had a computer before and had persuaded her neighbour’s son to give her a crash course yesterday evening so as not to appear too unfamiliar with it, not that Mary would know. The warden at the flats gave her the wireless password, which she wrote down on a piece of paper, a move introduced since her departure for the residents to contact their families. A good idea, and one she wished she’d thought of herself.
She placed the laptop on Mary’s table and plugged it in. They both watched in silence as it whirred, the screen lit up, and various images and words too fast to read appeared and then quickly disappeared. Mary’s legs bounced slightly as they waited for the laptop to finish and was ready to use. Carol was on her knees at Mary’s side, her head tipped back to better view the screen under the rim of her glasses.
She’d soon hear a giggle from the computer, and Molly and Charlie’s faces would fill the screen, grinning back at her. In the corner, there’d be a small image of Mary, her eyes wide and glistening, just as the boy had shown her. Mary would look to Carol, her face full of happiness and light before returning to the screen.
Carol would listen to their conversation for a short while: a lost front tooth (Charlie was 7 now, Mollie 5), the games they were playing, the reference to friends who Mary didn’t know, and then Carol would walk silently through the narrow French doors to the kitchen to put the kettle on. There she’d collect the china cups and saucers for them, drop the tea bag into the porcelain pot. She would have just arranged mint KitKats (Mary’s favourites) and Jaffa Cakes on a side plate with a doily, when Mary would call her to show her what the children were doing. They’d all laugh at the funny faces they were pulling, the music of their voices dancing around the room.
A tear would trickle down Mary’s face, and she would reach out to Carol and gently squeeze her hand. She knew it was Mary’s way of expressing her gratitude. Never one for saying it. She knew what she meant; they had a connection. Carol would close her eyes and try to capture this moment, the image of them together, the feeling of intimacy and love, like a favourite photograph that she could refer to whenever she wanted, in the privacy of her mind, as a mother and daughter would do.
Afterwards, when they’d all waved goodbye and blown kisses, Carol and Mary would sit in the flat, bathing in the aftermath of laughter, smile to themselves and quietly drink their tea.
‘Is it ready now?’ Mary glanced over to the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. ‘They’ll wonder where we are. Maybe we should give them a ring; check that they’re still available.’
Carol searched round the programs on screen, looking for Skype.
‘It’s here somewhere,’ she said, her eyes darting around the screen, her fingers gliding along the square pad underneath the keyboard as she tried to get it to work. ‘It was here yesterday’, she muttered to herself. ‘Where is it?’
Her cheeks were flushed, and in the oppressive warmth of the room, she felt a trickle of sweat down her temple. This has to work, she told herself.
Mary became agitated, and kept looking over to the green trim phone on the side table. ‘We should let them know that we’re going to be late.’ She paused. ‘Or not going to be able to contact them.’
Carol imagined Molly and Charlie sitting in front of the laptop at home, waiting for their great grandma’s face to appear on the screen, repeatedly asking their parents where she was. Not long now, they would say, and then swap worried expressions as their concern grew about this venture. Carol? they’d said. Oh yes, the woman who helps with Mary. Sits with her while she watches films. She’s very good with her. On the whole. Helps Denise out enormously. Just as well she’s got no family of her own.
‘There it is,’ said Carol, and she squeezed Mary’s thin arm. She must have been a little carried away as Mary flinched.
Carol clicked the icon, but nothing happened. She tried again. No image of the children appeared on the screen like it was meant to; no sound of their voices came through the speakers.
‘Can you not work it?’ asked Mary. ‘I thought you’d found what you were looking for.’
‘Yes, I have.’
‘So why can’t I see the children?’ Carol’s eyes traversed the screen looking for anything that would help her. ‘Carol?’ She tried again but there was no change. ‘Can’t you do it?’
The heat surrounded Carol now. Her head ached from it. She looked at Mary: there was so much disappointment in her eyes. She wanted to do it for her, for them.
This wasn’t how it was meant to be.
Closing her eyes she focused on slowing down her breathing.
Keys jingling in a lock brought Carol back. She opened her eyes, confused as if woken from a slumber, and turned towards the noise. Denise was standing in the doorway, dressed in a brown gipsy skirt and a beige jumper over a white blouse.
‘Thought I’d join you in this technological viewing,’ she said, placing her handbag on the empty seat on the sofa. She had smiling eyes today; very bright and lively. ‘Any tea going?’
Carol’s knee cracked as she stood. She glanced back at the laptop screen, and was disappointed to see it blank.
On the number 79 bus back home, Carol shook her head as if trying to discard the image of Denise’s face in hers, the sound of Denise’s voice in her head as she told her how her mother had been looking forward to this, how this had been her idea, and how disappointed they all were. The words hung in the air like laundry on a line, pulled heavy by their own weight.
She’d said she was doing it for Mary, but now wondered whether that was true.
Mary had said that it didn’t matter, but she knew it did.
Carol had pressed her ear to the door in the corridor when she’d left, the air at once cooler than inside. She wasn’t sure now in the confusion whether she’d been asked to leave. Denise was on the phone to Jack, apologising for the cock-up. It was the home help’s fault. That her name wasn’t mentioned stabbed at her. Carol didn’t wait to hear any more and made her way to the lift.
The bell indicating the next stop sounded and Carol peered out at the street now sodden with rain and sinking into dusk. This was her stop too.
She’d not go back tomorrow, she decided. Probably not even wanted anyway.
She buttoned up her coat and stepped into the aisle. She’d gone a few paces when she turned and looked back at the laptop in its bag next to where she’d been sitting. No one had noticed that she’d left it. Their eyes were down on their mobile phones or were gazing out of the windows. Had anyone seen her at all? She made her way down to the door, steadying herself on the back of seats as the bus came to a halt, and she stepped out into the cool evening. When the laptop was found, she would be long gone and no one would remember who’d been sitting there.
James Wall’s fiction has previously been published in the Best British Short Stories 2013 anthology, Tears in the Fence, The View from Here, Prole, and in Matter Magazine. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2010, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. He has a story to be published in the forthcoming Unthology collection, and he is completing work on his first novel.