Mary’s Folly

When Martha had the second stroke, Mary knew her folly-building days were over for the foreseeable future. The stroke robbed Martha of her speech and put her in a wheelchair. It was a disaster, because of the garden.

Their parents died within a year of each other, the one of dementia the other of a stroke, and the sisters had lived together ever since. Strokes seemed to run in the family. Martha was the eldest by three years. For reasons different but not discussed, neither had ever married. The arrangement suited them both, though Martha found Mary aggravatingly airy-fairy and Mary found Martha somewhat rigid and overbearing.

This difference was reflected in the garden, which they both loved. It was a huge garden, by modern standards, the sort that would nowadays have a five bedroom mansion somewhere in the middle of it, rather than a two-bedroom bungalow giving onto the street.

Martha was in charge of most of it. Mary had the bit at the back, where the garden path wandered through the damson hedge. The damsons made a nice screen, to Mary’s way of thinking; out of sight, out of mind. Here she could work on her folly, whilst Martha manicured the lawn, pruned the trees overhanging the fish-pond and weeded around the rose-bushes, expansive and military. Martha needed that order.

What Mary needed was to climb up her stepladder and glue on broken china and other bits and pieces – an old clay pipe, a blue scent bottle, a discarded medal with the Angel of Mons on it, charred in some long-ago bonfire. If anything like this turned up in the garden Martha it put by for her, in a shoe box in the greenhouse, although she never admitted to any ‘putting by’. Mary’s folly was the height of – foolishness and Martha ought to be discouraging it. Nevertheless, she saved things.

Mary would make herself available to act as gardener’s assistant if, for example, Martha wanted to prune the apple tree or dig out a new flower bed. Martha did not make many such requests, for Mary was a dilatory worker, prone to day-dreaming, and as soon as she was dismissed, she would slope back through the damson hedge.

After the stroke, there could be no more sloping. Martha sat about, a blanket over her knees if it was chilly, issuing instructions. It was difficult. Her speech was impaired but Mary was good at working out what she meant and, without exactly appearing to do so, acted as interpreter when they had visitors. And in spite of her dilatoriness and inefficiency, Mary did seem to be managing Martha’s ‘half’ of the garden quite well. She must have picked up more knowledge whilst acting as gardener’s assistant than either of them realised.

It took up all of her time, but she had anticipated that. The lawn remained mown, if not manicured. The apple-tree remained pruned, though she had had to ask a nephew to help her with the heavier branches. The roses, though not up to Martha’s standard, remained alive and pleasant-scented. Mary even planted a couple of new ones, to fill in gaps, and planted underneath them with hardy geraniums: a living mulch, according the man at the garden centre.

The day of Martha’s funeral dawned cold and rainy. It was what you would expect of early February. Mary put on a thermal vest under the black suit she had had to buy for the occasion. She wrapped a thick scarf around her neck, only wishing that a woolly hat had been appropriate. As the coffin clunked its way in through the silk curtains they played something by Bach, about sheep. Martha had apparently liked it. She had left a list of such details with her will. She had left Mary her half of the bungalow, as expected, and the contents of her deposit account: more than expected; the interest would cover the cost of a professional gardener once or twice a month.

After the funeral, whilst friends and family consumed sandwiches, tea and cakes upstairs in a hired venue, Mary slipped away. They might wonder where she was, but probably wouldn’t care over much.

It felt too dank for wandering up and down the High Street so she ducked into the tea-shop and had a coffee on her own: a little time to think. There was a charity shop across the way. She made a start there, coming out with a stack of mismatched saucers and an imitation Clarice Cliff teapot. She loved Clarice Cliff, and fake was just as good. In another shop she found a tiny, broken doll; in yet another, an ashtray with pink and blue flowers and ‘Gran Canaria’ painted in wobbly black lettering. The first shop had given her a bag-for-life, but after an hour or so it started getting heavy. Time to go home, where hammer and glue awaited her.

Spring was just around the corner.

(flash fiction: 833 words)

Featured image: Clarice Cliff Crocus Tea-set, 1931

Sharing with my sister

She rings me more or les every other evening now, from her kitchen on the far side of Canada, where it is early morning. I have actually never seen her kitchen but I imagine it big and airy, but for some reason rather chilly, with chunky, cluttered work-surfaces and one of those giant American fridges stuffed with joints of meat; lots of brother-in-law’s half-finished DIY projects; things dismantled that will never put back together again.

Outside I visualise a neat, large lawn and other houses similar in design to hers, set at different angles, a kind of giant, Canadian-flavoured Lego construction. I imagine squirrels in trees, vague trees, and looping along the fence panels like the ones I saw when I visited her in Ontario that one time, a quarter of a century ago. Now she is in Alberta, where it is colder. Still kind of Canada but more so. In spring I imagine her garden as a fenced square, kind of big and kind of sterile and kind of green. I imagine a large shed, because I happen to know there is one. I can’t imagine flowers.

Does she think of it as a Yard, I wonder, or is she still English enough for it to be a Garden? I imagine an identical fenced square covered in thick snow in Winter, with the driveway laboriously dug out and snow blown off the road and into the gardens by the snow-blowers. We do not have snow-blowers over here, at least not that I’ve seen. What we have is blocked roads, until the ice chooses to melt of its own accord.

I cannot imagine her state, or her city. Sometimes I type the name of the city into the internet and hit ‘images’ but the images are not enough to reconstruct a city, with that unique, intangible atmosphere each city has; its back-alleys, its park benches, its ponds and trees and shops, its traffic intersections, its threatening corners. I cannot imagine it after dark; I cannot see the inhabitants scurrying along the sidewalks to work in the morning; I cannot hear the noise of its traffic or breathe the air. Photographs are just looking through somebody else’s eyes.

I cannot visualise my sister, most of the time. I haven’t seen her for so long. I look at my face in the mirror and see what has happened to it over the last three years. I try to imagine what will have happened to hers. Has she put on weight, or lost it? Is her hair still tied back, or has she cut it? All I can see is her face when she was four years old and I was seven, when we were having that photograph taken, uncomfortably perched on the back of Mum and Dad’s settee. A round, innocent face.  A big smile whereas I’m looking anxious. She still had her baby teeth; my front teeth were missing altogether. Eyes lighter than mine. Ridiculous ribbon bow on top, same as me. Those ribbons were a kind of dusky pink and cream, with a knurled pattern down the edge.

And now I hear her weeping in this distant kitchen I can’t properly imagine, morning after morning, evening after evening, and try to think of something helpful to say about being confined in a house with a furious, imminently dying husband, who refuses all assistance. She is appealing to me because I am her older sister and she has no one else, but really, if there was anyone else…

I have not experienced this myself. I find it difficult to visualise what she is seeing when she looks at him, though she tries to describe it to me. I cannot visualise worse than the way he looked before, but I can hear the shock and revulsion in her voice. She says it is like being trapped in a horror movie, all day and all night. I think of times I have lost sick or elderly cats, and had no choice but to be with them as they died. I find even this little collection of indelible images difficult to bear, and time makes them no easier. How is she going to cope with remembering this?

I cannot get over there, and apparently no one else can either. One of her neighbours has arranged for a boy to come in mow the lawns and sort out all the overgrown stuff. I picture him quietly working day after day, restoring some order, at least to the Outside. The sight of him seems to calm her too, and the brief expeditions to the bank to get money to pay him. Normal life is still happening, at least Outside.

This bit I can I understand. I remember after a very, very bad time in my life, which also felt like living in a nightmare, making an appointment and going to the hairdresser. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and seeing only some nightmare creature, but the hairdresser was a young girl and she chattered away, seeming to see nothing at all odd in the mirror. She was actually talking to me as if I was a normal person. It was like I really existed, after all. That sunny afternoon, the face in the mirror, the face behind, the quiet snip, snip of the scissors, little wedges of damp, snipped hair falling into my lap, somehow made all the difference.

And so I listen, and I say the same things I said the day before last, and two days before that, and two days before that. I say them over and over. I try to persuade her to get help, ask for carers to come in, doctors, nurses, anyone but she needs his permission. I tell her she needs to take over now, now has become the time. Eventually she is going to have to start thinking things out for herself and acting without permission. But they only had one model for being married, and now it isn’t working. And anyway what do I know about anything? Empty words, no substance behind them.

And then I remember that Ex has a gentle side as well as the more evident bombastic, endlessly-opinionated side. I remember he possessed a miraculous knack for reassurance, a matter-of-fact, earthy acceptance of How Things Are. And so I email him and ask if he will do me a favour, and eventually he does phone her, and it seems to have helped, at least a little. Now she has two people she can talk to, albeit miles apart from one another and thousands of miles across the sea. Now she has two listeners, and two voices on the end of the phone, one male and one female, and it looks as if she has asked for help, though it hasn’t yet arrived.

I hope that this will be over soon, and the sun will be permitted to shine in that unimaginable Canadian garden, and the squirrels can resume their dancing, and the birds can start their singing.

Below and above: Mary and Martha, sister cats.

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Florence Nottingale

The Domestic Science wing at my school was known as The Crimea. This was on account of some connection with Florence Nightingale, the Lady With The Lamp. The headmistress never stopped banging on about old Florence and gave us the impression that wounded soldiers were actually nursed in our Domestic Science wing, in beds, in rows, like the picture above. I never quite understood this, because I thought they were on the battlefield and she went out to them.

You’d think this might have inspired me to be a nurse, or a heroine of some kind, but all I ever wanted to be was a Poet. My parents were not impressed when I told them this. They said I would be making better use of my time as a shorthand typist for the Electricity Board. Actually, over a whole frittered lifetime, there turned out to be nothing much I would have been better using my time doing.

Fast forward and here I am apparently nursing a stray cat with an amputated leg. I mean a very amputated leg, right up at the shoulder. His name is Nicholas, because he has a white necklace. When you have quite a few black and white cats it’s easier to remember them that way, like recognising seabirds by their beaks or whales by their fins. I have been feeding him outside for some time. He and Sunshine (another un-neutered tom) were sharing the garden on an unspoken rota basis. But Nicholas has been missing for several day.

Yesterday I got home from a routine visit the vet’s to find Nicholas outside. He looked brisk and business-like enough but he was holding a front paw in the air. Perhaps a thorn, I thought, or a cut. Looking on the bright side, or trying to, I reached down and scooped him up. Bad sign, that he let me do that.

Several phone calls to the vet, the RSPCA (to get an Incident Number), to the vet again, to a taxi firm. I can’t take a sick cat all that way on the bus. By lunchtime we are back at the vets. Probably an abscess, says the vet, in that Russian-type accent I have never been able to reproduce. If you are going to take him I will do the operation and castrate him at the same time. But when the x-rays come in he shows me – that leg is shattered. You have three options he says: have the cat put to sleep, refer him to an orthopaedic surgeon – because I can’t fix that – which would cost you around £4,000 – or have the leg amputated and the castration done at the same time, which I could do cheaply for you for only… Only?

The cat might be adopted afterwards, of course. He looks round from his computer and grins. ‘You don’t have to take them all.’ But he knows perfectly well that I do.

And so here I am – Mrs Squeamish, who hates any kind of physical responsibility, trying to be Florence Nightingale. Nicholas is alternately stretched out and curled up in an untidy heap of pet bed, blanket and folded fleece in the corner, partly covered by a blanket. He doesn’t look too bright, but he has eaten something and doesn’t seem averse to a stroke and a purr every now and again, between long sleeps. For some reason I think about Beowulf, and Grendel and his arm torn off at the shoulder at the battle of Heriot…

Concentrate, woman…

To be honest, I have never seen a newly-amputated creature before. An amputee is one thing – you see them on TV all the time – but a new wound is another. I had to bathe it this morning, and of course there are ugly things, like stitches and blood and shaven, puckered skin. I shall be so glad when that fur begins to grow back, Nicholas. He squirms over onto his tummy and squints up at me. I am going to get so bitten, I think, approaching on creaking knees with the cotton wool and the bowl of warm water. But no, he lies patiently and lets me clean him up and looks ever so slightly less appalling afterwards. Much smarter, I say.

I was thinking about angels, and that mysterious old man on the bus who talked to me about the meaning of life, recited Desiderata and vanished. I was wondering if we are all obliged to do ‘Angel Duty’ – a bit like conscription – at some point, or in one aspect of our lives. I was thinking maybe it was my job to be Nicholas’ angel today, and that he had at least chosen the right person to hobble to. I was wondering who my right person was, or would be if and when the time came, to hobble to.

I was thinking about competence and incompetence, and how the both things can exist in the same person at the same time. I was thinking that my sister doesn’t speak to me now, and wondering if it is because she has got lumbered with all the financial and practical stuff in connection with my mother, and despises me and my irresponsibility/incompetence/host of financial phobias and anxieties, for having backed out of all that so smartly. Did I let her down? At the time I just knew she would be better at it, but all the same… I’m the older sister and that should have been my responsibility.

No, you don’t have to take them all in. And you don’t have to be an Angel in everything. You have your one thing, and maybe only that one thing. That’s your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Kiss it better

Canadian sister and I were talking, transatlantic fashion, about how much we missed Mum. Mum’s in a home, and she does not know us. I visited her today and she asked, in a rare half sentence, where The Daughters were. I am guessing that in her mind The Daughters are not the lumpy, grey old badgers that come to visit her but spotty, insolent teenagers or pigtailed infants.

The television was on loud. People being pompous about food, drizzling this jus or that jus on this or that. We agreed that we both particularly hated cooking programmes.

Finding her propped up in the armchair, my Adopted Godmother (or Godmother Elect) and I lowered ourselves onto Mum’s squishy orthopaedic bed with our feet on the squashy blue plastic ‘in case of falls’ mattress. Every time one or other of us moved, or stood up to make Mum a cup of tea or find her a jacket, both bed and fall mattress gave a fart and a chorus of desperate sighs. It was how we felt.

Last night Canadian sister told me how she felt when she learned her husband of forty years had cancer. She said she wanted to tell Mum, straight away. She knew Mum couldn’t do anything about it but she had to tell her all the same. But she couldn’t tell her. Mum was past understanding anything anyone said. She had tiptoed off without bothering to say goodbye, it felt like.

I told her something I had not realised until I said it, that although Mum had spent most of her life annoying me in one way or another I often longed to talk to Old Mum about New Mum. If only she would come back just for one day so that I could ask her what to do, even though there is nothing at all to be done.

When you lose your parents it’s weird. It’s not like you become a grown-up, suddenly. Here you are, still a five year old inside the elderly carapace you hardly recognise in the mirror, but now you’re abandoned, cast back upon your own inadequate five year old resources. All the bad and sad stuff that has always been inside you, all that stuff that will probably get better someday all the while Mum and Dad are in the world – suddenly they aren’t in the world, in any meaningful way. And then all the bad and sad stuff starts to creep and snuffle its way out. Unchecked. Unbalanced. No one to kiss it better.

When we were children, if we fell over and cut our knees she would wash and bandage them for us. “Mummy kiss it better,” she would say, and the magic always seemed work. It occurred to us that it’s not important whether or not a parent – or anyone else – has any actual power to help you. It only matters that you can tell them. It’s just somebody being there to listen.

I suddenly remembered a time when my parents were both alive but old and, as the unmarried daughter, I seemed to have to go around everywhere with them. We went to a museum once. Admittedly it was raining and all three of us arrived at the reception desk in dripping rain-hoods, looking like drowned rats. ‘Three Seniors?’ the woman enquired with not even a trace of face-saving irony. Dad even bought me a walking stick exactly like his though I didn’t (and still don’t) need one.  How depressing I found that museum visit. How I wish I could turn back the clock and relive it now, torrential rain, walking stick, stupid receptionist and all.

Just Another Solo Sunday

Christmas Eve. I have been sitting in the dark watching forgettable TV and feeling sorry for myself. My sister phones me from Canada.

We talk about family matters for a while. Practical matters. She is distracted by her husband who, despite advanced cancer, is determined to drag the washing machine back into position after re-tiling the kitchen floor. Go and help him  – you can phone me back. But no, he’s a man and he Doesn’t Need Help.

She tells me she is going to have to entertain one of her husband’s work colleagues and family on Boxing Day. Last time they saw me I was a weepy mess, she says. It’s embarrassing.

Think yourself on the other side of it, I counsel, knowing I couldn’t do so myself. Remind yourself that it’s only a few hours and then they will be gone. How many hours can they stay?

Well, now they’ve got the two-year-old to think of, maybe five hours…

Five hours! I think.

Five hours! she says.

Maybe you can have a few excuses lined up – things that will get you out of the room for twenty minutes here and there… I’ve run out of inspiration.

We turn to the subject of my solo Christmas Day. I’ll be on my own, Mum being unexpectedly in hospital with a broken hip. Would probably have been on my own anyway, Mum having been in the home since April or thereabouts. Somehow or other I haven’t planned for it. Why didn’t I think to volunteer to muck cats out at the local sanctuary? I know the answer – the cats would be pleased to see me but the worthy women at the cat sanctuary wouldn’t. They would look at me askance as people – and particularly women – tend to do. I was born without the ability to Bond.

We talk about our other sister – how come two sisters can never have a conversation without talking about the third? She will have her family around her – her partner, her daughter and ‘the boys’, ie her son and his partner. We think/hope maybe it won’t be as jolly and wonderful as it sounds. They’ll probably get fractious and bored. The boys will probably wander off somewhere. Couldn’t cope with all those people ourselves, etc. Not that sociable.

But it would have been nice to have had the option.

If we’d been in the same country, she says, you would have been coming to us for Christmas. It would have been only natural, the two childless ones.

Yes, I say. Or we might have taken it in turns to invite? 

I am comforted, inspired even, by the thought of the succession of Canadian Christmases we might have had. I remember my one and only trip to Canada back in the ‘eighties. It was Christmas then. There were plastic reindeer galloping merrily across every front garden (or should it be yard?) and plastic Santas attempting to squeeze themselves down non-existent chimneys. Fake snow decorated every window, real snow fell ‘snow on snow’ into the garden and creatures that might have been squirrels or maybe skunks looped their way along the tops of boundary fences. It would have been nice to be there every Christmas.

It would have been nice…

A bit of a long paddle, though. She is talking about the Atlantic.

She goes on talking and I suppose I am listening and making the appropriate replies, but also I am imagining myself walking on water, skimming the Atlantic Ocean on foot, only it isn’t icy cold and mind-bogglingly, Titanic-sinkingly deep like the real Atlantic but shallow and warm. Yes, I am that woman in the Dior perfume ad – Charlize whatever – and I am slender and young and wearing a gold dress so tiny and yet so beautiful it seems part of me. Water glistens down my throat, and the sun catching it and glinting off it, and I am perfumed and mysterious and splashing my way across calm waters towards a golden sunset.

Being a Beastly Sister

In my parents’ bungalow the door-handles were made of Bakelite. Indeed, in those far-off days almost everything was made of this hideous proto-plastic – radios, telephones, pipe-stems, toys…

Bakelite was always brown, at least in my experience, and there was something threatening about it. That was why my little sister believed me when I informed her in a scary kind of hiss that all the handles in the passage were actually radios, and if you touched one you would almost certainly be electrocuted, or else the handle/radio would send a signal to spies to come and get you. For a long time she would sit crying under one or other of the seven Bakelite door-handles in the passage, unable to let herself in, even to her own bedroom. Eventually, of course, she blabbed to Mum and I got punished – that time by Mum rather than Dad.

I was always getting punished by Dad. I got punished for things I had done to my three-year-old sister – like telling her the passage was also full of dragons. Ragonies, she would bleat, tearfully. Ragonies in the passage!

Yes, I would say, GREAT BIG RAGONIES. The red ones breathe fire and scorch you to bits, the blue ones just EAT you…

I was horrible to her. I hit her when no one was looking. I dragged her along the passage (the passage seemed to feature in most of our episodes) by her long hair. I laughed when she made a mess eating her food and had to have her face wiped with a flannel. That chubby, innocent little face irritated the bejesus out of me. I just wanted to… I just wanted to…

And yet I loved her, and she loved me, and she’s now all I have left in the way of family, emotionally if not in fact.

Later in life, having digested far too many self-help paperbacks and psychology manuals, I have come to understand why I was such a Beastly Big Sister – possibly.

I think it may have been the thing with Dad – unless I was just born spiteful, which is also a possibility. I was his first child and I was weird – long, sulky silences alternating with day-long howling tantrums. I would barricade myself in my bedroom – or the toilet, if he was chased me. This annoyed everyone, since there was only one toilet in the bungalow and I could be in there for a day at a time, huddled on the floor, hiccupping, drying my eyes, crying again, hiccupping… I remember thinking, I have no food and I have no water but I can spend a penny if I want to, and blow my nose on the loo-paper. Though it was Izal in those days. A sheet of Izal was akin to a sheet of glass as far as bottoms, or sensitive, swollen noses, were concerned.

He punished me with slaps – ferocious slaps around the face and legs and any other bit of me he could happen to reach – because his father had punished him that way, and probably the Army or Air Force or whatever it was he was forcibly conscripted into had also treated him that way, for years. He had a knack for backing me into small corners, against a wall or a door, say, thus combining the slaps with bangs to the head.

The wrong thing might be contradicting him (because he was wrong – I was a persistently, foolishly argumentative and logical child) or answering back (because he was wrong).

A bad thing might be elbows on the table at mealtimes, and reading (which he did all the time, but apparently this was a rule only for children – illogical).

A bad thing might be my sister spraying the living room wallpaper (every single wall) with ink from a fountain-pen but since I was the oldest I should have stopped her. She and I were both clumsy and disaster-prone.

A bad thing might be picking up a cactus and getting a palm-full of prickles or falling on a glass shelf and breaking it.

A bad thing might be throwing an apple through a window, in one of my rages.

A bad thing might be putting my own fist through the garage window, where he had locked me for some earlier misdemeanour, and cutting my wrist in the process.

Trouble was, I had a goldfish-like short term memory. By the time he had found out and worked up a head of steam to come after me, I had forgotten.

He also had a way with words. Anger seemed to release this gift in him and I would be on the receiving end of a stream of steaming vitriol. He knew me so well that he could take me to pieces. And he did take me to pieces. I swiftly forgot/forgave the slaps and the bangs on the head but I never did forgive the words.

And so I suppose, when you are a child you don’t know why you’re being Beastly. Nobody’s yet explained to you about Kicking the Cat. You only know you’re angry and you want to oppress someone. I inherited his height, his physical power, his intelligence and his verbal facility and I did what he did with those thing – I hurt a helpless child; I used words to make pretty lies, and monsters to scare her. Because I could.

In a drawer in my kitchen cabinet I have a treasured possession. It’s a dark green wooden coaster, a gift from my little sister, who now lives in Canada. She has probably forgotten it. A worn away label on the back says Cedar Mountain… something, Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. It says:

SISTERS

by chance

FRIENDS

by choice