Crestfallen Around Noon
My parents had been planning their own death for a long time before they actually died. I’m not sure when I first started noticing what they were up to. They started calling me more frequently, often several times a week and sometimes more than once a day. Most of our conversations were just insipid everyday chat, what they had been doing, what they were going to do next. But slowly, I noticed that each conversation had an underlying purpose and was not just about checking in. My mother started offering me things. She had been clearing out the cupboard in the hallway and found some of my old drawings and schoolbooks, did I want them? If not, she was thinking of throwing them out, they couldn’t keep all this old stuff anymore.
“Your mother’s going a bit crazy getting everything in order,” my dad said.
She offered me ornaments they kept in their living room; a copper figure of a woman on her knees, a bronze figure of a pig with long skinny legs that I had always found scary. Most of it I didn’t want, but I agreed to take some things to make my mother happy. Other things I just didn’t want them to throw out, even though I didn’t particularly want any of it myself. Like the skirt my mother had made herself that I remembered seeing her wearing in photos from around the time I was born. It was bright green with a full skirt. It must have been lying in a cupboard for at least thirty years and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just leave it there.
“I just want to get rid of all these old things. There’s no need to hold on to them.”
They put the stuff I wanted in boxes, but since I didn’t come to pick them up—I didn’t visit them much those days, they started sending the boxes to me by post. Large boxes would arrive at the house where I was living with my boyfriend Simon, and I would place them on the kitchen table. My name and address were typed, printed on white paper and attached, which made the parcels seem strangely impersonal. They were carefully wrapped; closed tightly with tape, making it almost impossible to get into them. In the boxes were the few things I had said I wanted and then things I had no memory discussing with them at all: small, blackened silver spoons, a brooch of orange flowers encased in hard plastic.
After a while, I started rejecting anything they offered me. I didn’t know what to do with all these things, but I didn’t feel I could throw them out either. I had a feeling they wanted me to remember something, to take me back to childhood and keep me there, that they were longing for some expression of sentimentality. But even though I said I didn’t want anything, my mother still kept sending me stuff. One day a collection of miniature glass dolls arrived, each of them no bigger than a finger. As a child, I had been so afraid of breaking them, now they lay there hard and cold in the box and I felt like shaking it with great force. I was angry. Simon came into the kitchen where I stood staring at the dolls, he looked into the box and laughed.
“This is all harmless,” he said.
I didn’t say anything but it didn’t feel harmless to me and I thought, if something is harmless, you probably don’t have to say it is.
At that time, it still hadn’t occurred to me that my parents were planning their own deaths and I didn’t realize it all at once but through little drops of information here and there. When they called, my mother might say that she had cleared out the garage and there were a lot of things they could just burn, an old door and shelves they never managed to put up, and then she said that she’d burned some of her diaries. I didn’t know my mother had written diaries, that she had the courage.
“It was just old stuff,” she said, “some of the books only had a few pages written.”
I could picture these books there on the fire, their pages glowing orange and the letters standing out black against this orange background before they crumpled and became ash, carried into the sky as meaningless dust. I felt I had lost something I didn’t want. There’s something different in burning diaries than sending me boxes of old toys or burning a door you would never use.
And then, they started actually making plans for what should happen when they died.
“We might not be here for much longer,” my mother would say. I don’t remember the connection, what in the conversations led up to this. Maybe it just came out randomly in a pause. Then she would sigh, long and deep, ‘Yes’, she might just say and then nothing. I knew she was waiting for me to respond, put up some protest, say that they were too young to plan for such things, that I didn’t want to talk about them dying. My dad would grunt in the background. I don’t remember him as very active in these conversations, just adding confirming sounds and words, “Yes”, “Uhmm”, and “That’s what we’ve been thinking.”
“We want to be burned,” my mother said. I noticed how she said burned instead cremated. And they didn’t want a gravestone, just a spot on the lawn, unmarked, amongst the other unmarked graves. These sorts of things started coming up in every phone conversation.
“No need to make such a statement out of yourself with a headstone.”
Most of the time, I didn’t even take anything out of the boxes. I just opened them when they arrived, peered in, and then carried them to our small cabin in the back of the garden. Though I didn’t feel sentimental, there was still a ceremonial feeling about carrying these old things to their final resting place, and I was very aware of my surroundings as I walked through the garden: the grass under my feet still wet from the morning dew, the sun coming up behind the trees. That’s that, I thought, I will just leave them there, but the things in the cabin started bothering me. It was almost as if I could physically feel them there, radiating, making me nauseous, and breaking out in sweat when I was near the cabin. I started avoiding the back garden all together.
In May, my parents started looking at graveyards. It was unclear what exactly they were looking for, what their criteria for a good graveyard was. For some reason they didn’t want to be too close to their home but not too far away either. They didn’t want to move to a completely new area, so to speak. The church itself shouldn’t be too big but not too small either. Most days they would drive around looking at graveyards, hoping to find the right one. I pictured them with a large fold-out map on their dining table, drawing in the churches and graveyards in a reasonable radius and then dotting the route from cemetery to cemetery.
One day they found a place they were happy with. It was a graveyard outside a small village not far from where they lived but had, strangely, never been to before. Many of the graves there were old, some of them dating back to the 17th century. But there was also a newer part still in use and the far end of the graveyard housed the graves of the unknown. It was a large green lawn sloping up towards the borders of the graveyard, surrounded by a tall stonewall. Along the wall stood several large oaks and dotted around the lawn itself were at least four or five copper birches, they couldn’t quite agree on the number between them. The church itself was nothing special but they had found out that the service could take place from any church. Since my parents were being burned, the service could be in one church, then they could be driven to the crematorium and burned and then later put in the ground at the graveyard they had chosen. My dad had called someone at the council who dealt with that kind of thing. He seemed more active in this part in general, even though he still mostly confirmed or emphasised what my mother had already said. She led the way in this project. Then they seemed to be done, they had cleared out most of the things they wanted to, though there were still some trips to be made to the skip. They had found their place of rest and I wondered what they would do next.
Ever since I was a child, I had fantasized about my parent’s death. Often, I had trouble sleeping, certain I would not wake up again the next day, and lying awake in bed at night, I would imagine the most wonderful things to ease myself to sleep. I would fantasize about arriving at school on a large black horse, receiving a prize on a stage or living in a flat on my own. But the most durable fantasy, the one that most easily and successfully soothed me to sleep, was the one about my parent’s death. I saw a funeral procession approaching down a long straight alleyway; a cortege of large black cars driving slowly. The alley was lined with tall narrow trees, Ginkgoes maybe, burning with the loveliest orange colour since it was always autumn in my fantasies, and a drizzle hung in the air like a light fog. At the end of the alley, the cars parked and I emerged from one of them, all dressed in black, my head bent.
In my fantasy, I start walking up a green grassy hill, small pearly drops from the mist have fallen and now sit in my hair and the fabric of my black coat. Others dressed in mourning clothes follow me. At the top of the hill, a priest waits, his hands folded, in front of him the graves are ready, two black shining caskets resting there. The priest silently nods when he sees me. Then we all stand in a circle around the graves, me at the foot the other mourners along the sides. The priest starts talking but I don’t hear what he says. I’m feeling everyone’s tender attention tremble on my skin. I hear the leaves rattle on the trees, moved by the invisible wind. Time must have passed, though it doesn’t feel like it. Then I’m walking back down the hill towards the line of black cars waiting at the bottom. I can’t see the other mourners though I feel someone lightly touch my shoulder, gently guiding me away. Sometimes in my fantasies I was a child and sometimes an adult. I only ever saw myself from the back or the side, my head bent. I wanted to see my adult face and tried to force me to raise my head and meet my eyes but I never did.
There was no death in my childhood. My grandparents had passed before I was born, we didn’t have any pets, no short-lived Guinea pigs or hamsters. Mostly it was just my parents and me. My father worked on the weekdays and me and my mother would be alone in the house. No friends ever visited. There was this feeling that it was best if things weren’t disturbed, as if the surface could easily crack or break.
I played in the garden. For hours, I stayed out there. I was told not to go into the forest that bordered the garden. There was a lake only a few minutes’ walk from the house and I had strict instructions not to go anywhere near it. They could have put a fence up around the garden, it would have calmed my mother. But my dad was too busy and my mother would never start a project like that on her own. Nor would she ever call anybody to make any arrangements. That type of practical planning was not something she did. These things didn’t belong in her world. In think she would rather stay anxious than take action or commit herself to anything. She stayed inside a kind of fence herself and some things were unthinkable within this border.
I didn’t leave the garden anyway; it was large and there were plenty of places to hide and play. There was a large rhododendron which had a hollow in the middle where I could sit and all the beds where my mother grew vegetables and at the edge, towards the forest, the garden had a small slope. My mother often watched me play from a window in the house. I could feel her eyes resting on me, following me around, but I didn’t turn to look at her. I continued playing though in a slightly altered, restricted way, aware of myself and my movements, lowering my voice. I hid in or behind the large rhododendron or went to the bottom of the garden where I knew I couldn’t be seen.
Somehow, I knew I wasn’t supposed to look at her, that I should pretend I didn’t know she was there watching me. But there always came a point where I couldn’t resist any longer and turned to face her. Our eyes met. We stared at each other for a while, she looked straight at me but she didn’t smile and didn’t wave, just looked into my eyes and then she turned and walked away. I remember a feeling of victory and of great sadness. We never mentioned anything when I came in for lunch or when we had tea together in the afternoon.
My parents didn’t have any friends either but my mother had a sister called Aunt Maggie. Aunt Maggie didn’t visit very often, but when she did come to holiday with us, she always stayed for a long time. She lived in Africa so it was a long journey and it wouldn’t make sense to just stay for a week. Aunt Maggie’s husband was a doctor and she was a nurse, they worked at the same hospital.
Maggie was loud. She was tall and strong, when she talked, her hands would fly around the air, she would nod eagerly and throw her head back in bursts of laughter. My mother’s movements seemed entirely practical, neither calm or graceful, nor wild like Maggie’s, just practical, measured, almost as if she had to concentrate; walk to the kitchen, take bowls out of the cupboard, put them on the worktop, mechanical, her arms down her sides, her shoulders tensed.
Aunt Maggie wasn’t exactly pretty but she was handsome. Her features were large; large bones and hands, a strong face with a clear jawline and pronounced nose. She was a handsome attractive woman. Everything about my mother was delicate. It was hard to connect the two sisters but sometimes when Aunt Maggie was visiting, I would see them walking together in the garden in deep, serious conversation but also now and again laughing together. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I would watch them from the window and if Aunt Maggie noticed me, she would wave and gesture for me to come out. Then the three of us would walk through the garden together and Maggie would ask what the different things growing were and my mother would tell about her vegetables and plants and Aunt Maggie would tell about the garden she was trying to plant in Africa, what could grow there. When I was older, I would ask my mother where in Africa Aunt Maggie lived and my mother would say, “I don’t know. I don’t know about things like that.” But she must have known.
I think my mother found Aunt Maggie’s long visits a bit exasperating. At night over dinner Aunt Maggie and my father would talk politics and Aunt Maggie would talk about war and the hospital where she and her husband worked. My mother mostly stayed quiet and didn’t participate in the conversation, and I felt sorry for her. I would crawl up and sit on her lap and she would hold me tight, she would play with my hair and tickle my neck with it, and we would smile at each other.
I know my mother and Aunt Maggie saw each other a lot when they were younger. For a while they even lived together but I think my mother only liked her in small doses. Still, when Aunt Maggie left, my mother would cry. There would be a strange mood of relief and melancholy in the house. My dad would come home from work the first night after Maggie had left and let out a big sigh. My mother would serve dinner. We would all chat, my parents would discuss things, as if either Aunt Maggie’s visit or her leaving or maybe both, had released something in them or thinned a kind of membrane holding things in or together.
Aunt Maggie also came on a different kind of visit which wasn’t exactly holidays. I am not sure how many times it happened but I remember one time especially clearly. Before that visit, the mood in the house had been strange for a while.
My mother had seemed so brittle, she walked as if something invisible, some guarding fence, would break if she made any sudden movements. In the morning when my father left for work, they stood for a long time whispering to each other in the hallway, my father stroking my mother’s arm again and again. When he left, my mother turned to me watching from the doorway, her eyes narrowed and a furrow appeared between them. She kept looking at me but it was as if she didn’t see me.
“Mum,” I said.
She closed her eyes and lowered her head for a moment. When she looked up again her face was forced open, her eyes wide and her cheeks tensed in a smile.
“Now June, what will we do today?”
I smiled at her.
We would sit together on the couch, my mother’s body stiff, me leaning against her. Her eyes would flicker as if she was seeing something I couldn’t see, or thinking about something very hard. I followed her gaze but there was nothing there. I would bring her tea and biscuits because I thought she should eat something.
“Thank you, June,” she said and I saw tears in the corners of her eyes. Then she ate her biscuit very slowly and just let the crumbs stay on the chest of her dress.
This brittle tension spread from my mother throughout the house, as if there was sickness in her breath making the air itself poisonous. It was better when I went to my room at the other end of the house and closed the door or stayed in the garden. It seemed there was a limit to how far the poison could reach at first. Eventually, it always found me in my room. It crept through the crack under the closed door, making me stop in my movements, breath in hard and short and turn my head towards the door. And even when I was playing in the garden, the poison would find me though it took longer. It made me lift up my head as if I had heard something and look towards the house. After a while, I would have to go in and check on her. She would still be sitting on the couch. Wouldn’t even notice me coming in, and when she did look up, she stared at me as if she didn’t recognize me, until something fell into place and she smiled.
“Sweet June,” she would say and smile again.
In the late afternoon, she would start preparing dinner, she would chop lettuce and tomatoes, put a chicken in the oven with mechanical movements, and I would hand her bowls and spoons when she needed them.
“Us two cooking, ah June.”
She ran a wet finger along the bridge of my nose, her hand shaking slightly, almost as if she was afraid to touch my skin.
“Are you happy June?”
“Yes,” I answered.
During one of these porous periods, I left my mother on the couch and went out in the garden to play. I had been out for hours, when I fell down from my favourite tree. The small old apple tree never produced any apples but it was perfect to climb in with branches arranged almost like a ladder. Since the tree wasn’t very tall, I didn’t fall far but I landed in an awkward position and heard a snap in my left arm.
A shooting pain spread from my wrist all the way to my shoulder. I felt dizzy laying there on the ground under the tree. I pulled myself up and sat leaned against the trunk. Tears rolled down my cheeks even when I pressed my eyes shut. For a while, I just kept sitting under the tree, feeling the dampness from the ground through my skirt, rubbing my wrist gently. It sat in a funny angle, slightly pushed to the side, and a large red bruise was forming.
My mother didn’t look up when I came in; for a while I stood in the doorway holding my arm, watching her. She sat cross-legged on the couch, staring straight into the air in front of her. Sometimes she bit her lower lip, first gently, absentminded, then more fiercely, chewing it until she suddenly stopped and was still again. She looked so young,I don’t know if I thought that then or if it’s just something I’m thinking now, seeing her in my mind’s eye. But I do remember this feeling of fragility oozing from her, as if she was something that should be looked after and not disturbed too much. I went to my room and found the biggest sweater I had with the longest sleeves. My mother had knitted it for me but it was really too big and we only kept it for when I was older and it would fit better. I put it on and it hid my wrist nicely. At night, my dad came home as usual. We had dinner. We watched the news on TV. My dad held my mother’s hand sitting next to her. I had my arms pulled into the sleeves of my sweater and tried not to move too much.
The pain made it hard to fall asleep. When I finally did, I would wake up again as soon as I turned over and accidentally lay on my bad arm or hit it against the side of the bed. The rest of the week, I wore that sweater. I still helped my mother in the kitchen in the evenings using only my right arm. It was easy enough to hide, she seemed distracted, seeing things in her own mind.
The following Saturday, I helped my dad in the garden. He was in a good mood, he hummed as he pruned trees and cut the hedge. He turned to me and made funny faces. It was mild day and later we were going to have a bonfire with the branches he had cut off. My job was to collect the branches, put them in the wheelbarrow and arrange them next to the fire pit. My mother worked in the garden too, preparing the beds; soon it would be time for her to lay potatoes and sew carrots She turned the ground with a fork spade and then raked so it was neat and almost smooth. She had bare feet and the dark healthy earth stuck to her feet and calves. It was April and most of the trees were still bare but the thick heads of hyacinths had started making their way up and showed through the ground. Last year’s rotting autumn leaves gave off an earthy smell.
It was hard for me to work the wheelbarrow, my left arm hurt badly when I tried to lift the barrow by the handles, so I gave that up and instead carried the branches in my arms. I had started to wrap a pair of tights around my wrist in the mornings, it seemed to hurt less when something held my arm together and I could carry the branches if I was careful and didn’t move my left arm too much. I don’t know if my dad was wondering why I wasn’t using the wheelbarrow or if he had noticed the tights wrapped around my wrist, but I saw him watching me from across the garden as I put down another pile of branches. He still had the hedge cutter in his hand when he came towards me. He stood in front of me, very tall, I thought. I looked down at the ground. At first, he touched my hair, gently put his hand on my head.
“What’s that, June?” he asked, touching the tights on my arm lightly with a finger. “Can I see your arm, June, sweetie?”
I looked up at him without saying anything.
He held my arm very softly and slowly unwrapped the tights. My mother stopped raking to watch us, her bare feet in the ground as if she had planted herself My dad gave out a little gasp when he saw my arm revealed under the tights. It was dark purple from the middle of my hand to about halfway up the lower part of my arm and looked more skewed than it had the other day. My mother had freed herself from the ground and came towards us now, walking first, then running, letting go of the rake, leaving it there randomly on the lawn.
“Oh, June,” my dad said.
My mother stood next to us now, tears running down her cheeks, with her hands in front of her mouth. At first, she made no sound, then she started sucking air in gasps and then a strange wail came from her throat.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It doesn’t hurt.” I watched my mother without looking straight at her, stolen sideway glances. I couldn’t stand looking at her. I was afraid she would fall apart, literally that her arms would fall of, first one then the other, that her head would drop to the side, dangle, a deadweight on her neck, and that her eyes would leave her head until she was just a pile of detached human parts on the ground. I wanted her to stop crying. I wanted the three of us to continue working in the garden together. This was a good day.
My father put some ice in a tea towel and wrapped it around my arm even though it was probably a bit late for that. Then him and I drove to the ER. The doctor confirmed that my wrist was broken in two places.
“It’s good this happened now, June, really,” my dad said on the way home, as if some accident had to happen sooner or later. My arm would take six weeks to heal so I would get the plaster off before it was really summer.
Shortly after the wrist-incident, my father told me my mother was going in for some tests and would be gone for a while, but that Aunt Maggie would come to look after me. It was nothing to worry about, he said, my mother would be back again soon.
“We are so happy. Aren’t we, sweetie?” my dad said.
Aunt Maggie was in the kitchen when I got up the next day. My father had left with my mother while I was still in bed. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her.
There was something wild about Maggie. There was a clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen in the mornings when she cooked porridge for my dad and me, foam and bubbles in the air when she did the dishes. Sometimes I sat and giggled watching her. She would have the radio on and loudly comment on the news or sing along to music. She would wink at me. My dad had rented a car for her to use while she was staying with us and we would often drive to the nearest town.
“Roll down your window June, get some air blown through that hair.”
Unsure but excited, I did as she said; I sat on my knees on the front passenger seat next to Aunt Maggie with my head out the window like a dog. Now and again I would bark or howl like a dog, the air fanning my hair back, the landscape of forest and small villages flying by. Every so often, I would look over at Aunt Maggie in the car, checking, she was smiling as she drove. She bought me colourful dresses. We ate ice cream, walking along the river in town. In the afternoon, we played hide and seek in the garden and later on we would go inside and she would read to me before dinner.
On one of these afternoons, Aunt Maggie called me over to the couch.
“I wanted to show you this June.” She had a white envelope in her hand and patted the seat next to her. I sat down and she opened the envelope. She pulled out about ten photographs of a little baby.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“But it’s you, June,” she smiled. “Look, still the same eyes.”
I bent down to study one of the photographs more closely. The baby sat on a grass-green blanket on the floor looking straight into the camera, eyes questioning. I wasn’t sure. I looked up at Aunt Maggie.
“Come,” she said. We went to the bathroom and Aunt Maggie pointed at the mirror. “Look,” she said.
I looked at myself in the mirror and Aunt Maggie held the photo of the baby up next to my face.
I had never seen a photo of myself before. Not as a baby, not at any age.
“That’s it,” Aunt Maggie said. “Dinner,” she clapped her hands together.
At night, I was so tired after my busy days with Aunt Maggie that I always fell straight asleep. Though sometimes I woke up again later from the sounds of my father and Aunt Maggie talking in the living room. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, just the deep mumbling of their voices. I crept out of bed and crawled slowly down the hallway towards the living room, staying close to the wall, careful not to make a sound. The air felt cold against my skin which was still warm from laying under the duvet.
“Well, I think you have to tell her something,” Aunt Maggie said. “You don’t even know when Rosemary will get back home or how much better she will be. You can’t just let June hang like that. She must be wondering.”
“She wouldn’t understand anyway, she’s too young. She’s so sweet. So happy.”
“I fucking wish you wouldn’t say that,” Aunt Maggie said. “I also don’t think Rosemary should be alone with her straight away.”
“But that was so many years ago and she was much worse then. We’re past that.”
“I could stay longer. I have already said that.”
“I don’t know,” my dad said.
I did wonder where my mother was. Sitting under my favourite tree in the garden, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She had to be alone, I thought, because we weren’t with her. I knew she was at a hospital or some similar place where they did tests, but I didn’t understand why she had been away for so long. I had once had a blood test taken myself and even though it hurt, it only took five minutes. I knew her being away somehow had something to do with me and maybe my wrist. I saw her floating in the air in a white room, dressed in a white nightgown. She lay on her back looking up into the ceiling which was very close to her face. She turned around and looked down at me, smiling. I pressed my back against the trunk and starred into the treetop. She waved at me, her lips forming my name, June, but no sound came from her. I wanted to pull her down towards me like a balloon and hug her and have her hug me back but she soon disappeared amongst the leaves of the apple tree.
I don’t know how long my mother was away, a couple of months maybe, though it could have been less. Time is even stranger when you are a child. They didn’t tell me the day she was coming home, it was a surprise. I went into the hallway when I heard the door and there was my dad with my mother. She crouched down, looked straight at me, and I ran to her.
She looked a bit different, I don’t know, maybe her cheeks seemed a different color, maybe her hair was shinier. She smelled sweet and a bit like ammonia when I buried my face in her neck.
Later that night while we had dinner, I sat on her lap and ate from her plate. I didn’t want to let her go. Almost unnotably, she moved her body slightly away from me but when I looked up at her, she smiled. My dad didn’t say much but I saw him looking at my mother again and again and when she noticed, he gave he a tiny nod while he closed his eyes. Aunt Maggie encouraged me to tell my mother what we had been doing while she had been away. I told her how when we drove, I had my head out the window. My mother looked alarmed over at Aunt Maggie.
“It’s okay Rosemary.” Aunt Maggie’s mouth strict and tired.
I saw Aunt Maggie put her hand on my mother’s back when they stood in the kitchen after dinner doing the dishes, stroking her back gently. My mother didn’t react. And when Aunt Maggie left the next day there was no big goodbye scene.
My mother didn’t cry.
“Let’s go into the garden,” she said and we didn’t talk more about Aunt Maggie.
The first few days after my mother returned, she seemed almost shy. When I caught her looking at me, she would smile and turn her gaze down. Sometimes she would stroke my arm but when she noticed what she was doing, she quickly withdrew her hand. I could feel a different, more animated energy radiating from her, but it seemed almost as if she was holding it back. As though this energy embarrassed her and she felt fearful of showing her new self, conscious of how it might reflect on how she used to be. Maybe she was protecting me from something moving within her or maybe my present was holding her back.
Sometimes at night, I woke up to find her sitting at the side of my bed. I didn’t open my eyes, but sensed her there, feeling the weight of her body on the edge of my mattress. Now and again, I could hear her breath, slowly in and out, carefully. I sensed danger, a frail, crisp sensation in the air, electricity, a high-pitched noise you can hardly hear but it’s there. Lie very still, I told myself. I kept my eyes closed, tried to even my breath. It felt like something might suddenly happen? Loud and hard, or slow, soft, and gentle, something which can’t be undone.
My mother went away a few more times, maybe once or twice. I’m not sure because we never talked about it, not then and never really since. I think she started feeling better when I got a bit older. Or maybe she just learned to hold whatever it was in place, at bay.
I didn’t see Aunt Maggie for a long time and nobody mentioned her much. I knew something wasn’t going well for her in Africa, and, around my confirmation, she had moved back on her own, to a flat in a city a few hours away. Her husband stayed in Africa. I wanted to see her and tried to talk to my mother about it while she worked in the garden. But my mother dismissed any suggestions I had. She was putting leaves in the wheelbarrow to take to the compost. I stood behind her, talking to her back.
“She could just come for an afternoon. She doesn’t live far away now.”
“She doesn’t have a car and the train is too much for her”
“She’s not used to trains,” she said.
“We could go see her.”
My mother turned around and looked at me, her eyes harsh but tired. “She’s not well, June.”
I was fifteen years old and I don’t know why I didn’t go see her myself but I didn’t, it somehow wasn’t an option doing something like that by myself and on my own initiative.
I had developed this theory about girls and women. How some females stay girls and others become women. It had nothing to do with age. It wasn’t like you were a girl and then, as if by magic, became a woman when you got older. I thought you could tell what females would become even from when they were young, if they would become women or if they would forever remain girls. At first, I thought it had to do with bone structure, that females with a finer bone structure were doomed to stay girls forever and females with a stronger, larger bone structure became women. But I saw examples of actresses, delicate, light and fine, who were definitely women. And in magazines and on the street, I saw large-boned, heavier females who were clearly girls. I found it was related to more of an undefined quality. Something assured, some power to do with movements and taking oneself seriously. Not that women were always very serious and girls weren’t. Women could clearly have fun and be funny, I thought Maybe it had to do with being fully engaged when doing things, serious or silly. I found women with children troubling, unfit for any of my theories. Mothers. Especially young mothers. They seemed like women, but somehow lost themselves in the attention they paid to their children. As if they had completely forgotten themselves, their eyes glassy when they looked at their offspring, bending over a buggy or slumped but alert on a bench in a park by a playground. Their skin shiny with a special kind of mother grease, slightly reddened and their own bodies unattended. It was not the kind of womanhood I understood or looked for. And though it didn’t purely have to do with looks, I felt it had something to do with appearance. It wasn’t make-up. You could see girls plastered with make-up, which clearly didn’t make them women and then some female country singers wore a lot of make-up and were still women. Other females in the women category didn’t wear make-up at all. I thought at one point it had to do with looking healthy but then I saw a picture of an actress who had cancer and looked very ill and grey but who was undoubtedly still a woman. I decided that the common denominator had to do with movement and self-confidence, though I wasn’t sure how that fitted with being able to predict if a small girl would become a woman since movements and self-confidence can change over time.
I started studying photos of actresses. These were a good study since there were so many pictures of them both as children and adults. When me and my parents were in the supermarket or in town on a Saturday, I would in my mind label females we passed into categories of either girls or women. It was surprisingly easy, you could tell right away, it was all over them, almost as an aura around their face and body. I also labelled people I knew, teachers and classmates’ mothers, Aunt Maggie.
My mother was the only one I found hard to categorize. On a swift categorization, my mother would be a girl but there was a photo of her, which made me doubt this. In the photo, taken before I was born, she stands next to my dad with her body at a slight angle to the camera. Her head is turned, facing the photographer. They are at a party. Her hair is cut in a bob with a fringe. It is shiny and light brown, with what almost looks like strings of gold in it, but I think that’s just the light playing. A large smile on her face spreads to her eyes and around her eyes, even her cheeks. She’s wearing a green velvet dress which also shines in patches under the light. It’s not a particularly sexy dress. It has long sleeves and isn’t very low cut. Around her neck is a tight chain of red stones almost like a choker and she’s wearing red flat shoes of braided leather. In this photo, my mother is a woman.
I would stare and stare at this photo, trying to determine what it was about it; the glow to her skin, the light, the way she was dressed, the angle, the setting of a party, but it was clear it was something that came from within, from her eyes maybe, and spreading over the surroundings, even over the glossy photo paper. My mother was normally a girl and then in this photo she was a woman.
I started watching her, trying to see if this womanness would come out on other occasions. I watched her cook and read and sit on the couch, vacuum, fold clothes. I watched her emerge from the bathroom in the mornings in a cloud of steam with a towel around her head, unaware. And being unaware, completely unaware of oneself seemed to be the key to womanhood in my mother, and maybe in most cases. I hadn’t reached a conclusion regarding all aspects of my theory yet and certain things even seemed to contradict each other; mothers seemed lost in their children and unaware of themselves but a different kind of unaware from women without children, and the children mostly seemed loose and free around their mothers. It wasn’t like that with us. I was stopped in my movements around my mother, self-conscious and I was sure my mother felt the same. As if we had a hook in each other and in each other’s bodies.
She was never as much a woman again as in the photo, not to my eyes anyway, but there were times when there was a glimpse of something. This was especially when she was in the garden, unaware of anybody looking at her. She often wore an old mid-length linen skirt and a sleeveless top, clothes she wouldn’t wear going into town. She would do hard gardening work, turning all the soil over in the beds using a large fork, sweating and completely absorbed. Now and again, she would stick the pitch fork in the ground, resting a foot on it with one arm on the handle. I watched her doing this with her back to me, because as soon as she saw me, something in her changed. I would watch her from the window. I would try in my mind, to piece together all the pictures I had of her in different situations doing different tasks and then the photo of her at the party, but I never reached a firm conclusion.
I was a girl but I wanted to be a woman. I knew that this was not a short-term project, that it might take a long time or might never happen. I tried out different things, being quieter; just tilting my head to the side when asked a question instead of actually answering, being noisier; I would comment loudly on the news on TV and my parents would look at me with startled surprise. I tried moving thoughtfully, calculated, aware of my movements, then to forget myself, not thinking about what I was doing before I did it, but it’s hard to forget yourself when that’s what you are trying to do. I had always had beautiful skin. People would mention it even when I was a child. There was a glow to it, they said, a firm smoothness. It was my force and now I started buying creams and lotions to preserve this feature. My mother never wore makeup and there were no lotions on her nightstand or in the bathroom and even though my theory said that being a woman had nothing directly to do with make-up or looks, these lotions became an obsession for me. It was something tangible to hold on to in becoming a woman.
By this time, it was years since I had last seen Aunt Maggie and even though my parents didn’t talk directly about her in front of me, as if she was something that needed to be hidden, I did catch certain facts about what was going on with her.
Aunt Maggie had been back in the country for a few years. She didn’t work. She didn’t really do anything, she just stayed at home in her flat. She wasn’t sick. She didn’t have cancer, or some tropical disease, or parasites, as I had speculated for a while. She had just come to a halt. She had always been so social both in her work and privately, now she didn’t really see people. I could hear something almost like schadenfreude in my mother’s voice if I caught her talking about Aunt Maggie to my father, and I would stop, out of sight and listen. I didn’t really believe the things I heard.
One day I decided to call Aunt Maggie. I couldn’t let my parents know, so while my mother was in the garden, I found Maggie’s phone number in the address book and called her. It wasn’t a long conversation; I was afraid my mother would come in while I was on the phone and ask who I was speaking to, so I kept an eye on her in the garden while we spoke. I could see her through the window but now and again she would move out of my field of vision and I had to be ready to hang up at any time.
“June,” Aunt Maggie said, sounding almost relieved as if she had been waiting for my call for a long time or as if she thought something had been wrong with me but then, there I was on the phone, fresh and alive.
“How are you Aunt Maggie,” I asked and maybe I sounded slightly formal, not completely sure yet of how to speak to her now that I was older and it had been so long.
“I’m fine,” she said, her voice slightly dismissively as if she didn’t want to talk about that, there were more important things to discuss.
“When can you get away? Come see me?” she whispered hurriedly as if she knew this conversation was our secret.
“I’m off school tomorrow,” I whispered back. I don’t know if Aunt Maggie knew this wasn’t true but she didn’t comment on it.
“Tomorrow then,” she said.
“Tomorrow,” I said. And Aunt Maggie hung up without saying anything else.
I had a feeling of importance in my chest, as if a pact had been made.
The following day I left in the morning at my normal time but instead of going to school, I took the train to Aunt Maggie’s flat. I was afraid I would miss the train and didn’t really notice much before I sat down and the train started to move. Then I got this remarkable feeling of being completely relaxed mixed with a sensation of fear and freedom. A trolley came through the carriage and it occurred to me that I could buy a cup of coffee if I wanted. I did, I said to the woman, “a black coffee please,” and I got my coffee. I also ordered a little package with two biscuits. The woman said the price, I paid, and she moved on down the train with her trolley. I looked at the man across from me but he didn’t seem to notice anything strange but just continued reading his paper.
I drank my coffee, it was very hot and I had to take small sips to start with. I ate one of the biscuits, again in small bites, trying to make it last and decided to keep the other one for the way back. I had a feeling of having been cut loose, of endless opportunity. I didn’t think much about Aunt Maggie, I looked out the window and saw the fields passing by, brown, heavy, healthy ground, or green with crisp winter seed. I watched people getting on and off at the different stations in the smaller towns and later at stops in the city. The train ride lasted a couple of hours and I knew I would have to hurry and find Aunt Maggie’s flat fast, we wouldn’t have much time if I was to be back at my normal hour. I didn’t want to worry my mother.
I didn’t know the city well and had never been in the area where Maggie lived. Her flat was on the outskirts of town and the area looked almost suburban. There were bungalows with small square gardens in front, shops, a hairdresser, a baker, a supermarket, and apartment blocks. Aunt Maggie’s building was made from yellow bricks. Her flat was on the second floor and even though I had known it was a flat, I felt surprised. I had been so used to picturing her on her veranda in Africa looking out into the dark nightfall full of stars and nothing else for miles and miles and I couldn’t connect this place with her. I rang the entry phone and the door buzzed open.
On the second floor, her door was ajar and I walked in, rather hesitant.
“Aunt Maggie,” I called standing in the hallway.
“In here.” Her voice sounded like it always had and I took off my coat, hung it in the hallway, and walked towards the sound. Aunt Maggie was sitting on a couch in a living room. The room was very dark. The curtains were drawn and hardly any light was let in. Two small lamps were lit on tables on each side of the couch, facing the door where I came in, its back to the window. Wooden masks with strange faces and twisted mouths hung on the walls. There was a dark wooden coffee table in front of the couch and a large TV in the right-hand corner.
I stopped in the doorway, feeling unable to move further into the dark room, not knowing what to do or say. It was clearly Aunt Maggie sitting there in front of me but then again, it wasn’t her. She was enormous, almost as if her body had no divisions anymore, everything: head, face, neck, torso, arms, and legs looked like one large piece of flesh. The skin on her cheeks and neck had a strange bubbly texture, thick and rubbery. Her hair looked thin but maybe that was because everything else on her was so big, such strange dimensions. She sat completely still and straight on the couch, her feet on the ground, her hands down her sides, no movement apart from the quiver her breathing created through her jelly-like flesh. I remembered Aunt Maggie from years back, all her gesturing, her strong face.
“Don’t look so shocked,” she said. She padded the seat next to her for me to come sit.
“I had coffee,” I said and sat down next to her on the soft couch.
“Nice,” she said. She put her hand on top of mine, resting on the seat, hard and clumsy as if she had dropped it there. It was cold and damp. I both wanted her touch and felt disgusted by it.
“We should have something to drink too. There’s a kettle in the kitchen and tea in the jar that says tea on it.”
I got up and went in the direction she had pointed. I crossed the hallway and opened the first door I got to. It was even darker in there but after a while I could see the outline of a bed and, in the far corner, a wheelchair and I thought that maybe Aunt Maggie was partly paralyzed, maybe she did have some strange disease after all, though I didn’t really think so, the stillness in her body seemed different from people who were sick and her eyes were so alive, as they always had been. I stepped a bit further into the room. There was a peculiar smell in the air, stale and sharp at the same time. For a while, I stood beside Aunt Maggie’s bed. I let my hand brush over her bedlinen and it felt silky against my skin. I wondered what fantasies eased Aunt Maggie to sleep at night, what dreams she might have.
I found the kitchen further down the hall. I put the kettle on and opened the fridge to look for milk but there was only butter, pumpernickel, three packages of liver pate and a strong smell of meat. In a cupboard I found two Toffee Crisp mugs, the kind you get with an easter egg in the spring. They felt a bit sticky as if they were seldomly used and I washed them before putting the teabags in. Then I waited for the kettle to boil. In the window sill I noticed a bonsai tree, I lifted the miniature watering can sitting next to it and imagined Aunt Maggie caring for this tree, carefully cutting the branches, shaping it.
I had such a squint feeling there in Aunt Maggie’s kitchen, as if I wasn’t quite myself or I was myself but not the self I had been in the morning leaving the house not going to school, not the self from the train, amazed, drinking my coffee. Here was a dark strength in me that came out. It was not exactly that I didn’t feel like me, just that I hadn’t known that was me too. Maybe Aunt Maggie had always brought out a different side of me. When I was a child, a louder and more free-spirited me and now this dark strong self. It had something to do with making me prepare the tea, taking it for granted that I could handle it, allowing me to see her like this, letting me into her strange unfamiliar nest, letting me see this without warning, without worry that I wouldn’t be able to take it.
I made two large mugs of strong tea, brought them into the living room and sat down next to Aunt Maggie on the couch again.
“Why do you have the wheelchair?” I asked without looking at her.
“Someone from the council brought it around for me. They say it will make it easier to get around outside. But I don’t go outside anyway,” she said and smiled, a mischievous expression on her face. “I have helpers too. They bring me food and clean,” Aunt Maggie was still smiling.
“Are you sick?” I asked looking up at Aunt Maggie this time, feeling a bit bolder.
Aunt Maggie laughed as if she thought that was a preposterous thing to think. “No I’m not sick. Not as far as I know anyway.”
She asked about my parents and I told her things were pretty much the same, my mother would do a lot in the garden, my dad working.
“They never change, do they?” she smiled. “And is your mother okay?”
“Yes, she’s okay.”
I had never before had a conversation about my parents and however short this conversation was, there was something comforting about it. The two of us had this secret together, something about my past, my childhood, something that was hidden from the world but that she knew about and I could never hide from her, even if I wanted to.
We were quiet for a while and I gained a bit of courage.
“Why didn’t you visit?” I asked, “when you came back from Africa?”
“I did want to come…to see you, June…siblings can be complicated. It’s as if you know them too much and then not at all.” She looked down at her hands resting in her lap. “I also wanted to be alone for a long time.”
“Did something happen?” I held my breath.
“Yes, but I don’t believe in cause and effect like that, directly, you know, June,” she turned her head and looked at me
The dark room gathered around us like a protective cape.
“Oh,” Aunt Maggie said and let out a deep breath. “I had a little girl.” She looked at me briefly and smiled, then her face darkened.
“I knew something was wrong. From the beginning,” Aunt Maggie frowned into the air, shaking her head. “I said so but they wouldn’t listen to me,” she stomped her foot on the floor, angry. “Nobody would listen. Everything was fine, they said, my husband our friends, all the doctors.” Aunt Maggie turned her head and looked at me again. She squinted her eyes so that they almost disappeared in her bloated face. “But I knew. It was as if she didn’t fit inside me.” Aunt Maggie nodded her head. “Only your mother believed me, told me to come back, stay with you.” She raised her eyebrows, brushed some invisible dust from the couch seat between us. “She was born at five o’clock in the morning.” There was a long pause. Aunt Maggie looked straight ahead, her eyes glazed over. “Perfect. Little and round. Blinking at me,” Aunt Maggie smiled. “They put her on my chest and we both fell asleep and when I woke up again, she had died right there in my arms.”
Aunt Maggie’s body sank deeper into the couch, her chin resting on her chest. The room grew so very quiet. I could see dust move in the air in front of us when I breathed, though I almost didn’t dare. I felt Aunt Maggie there next to me, something radiating from her. I put my hand on hers, her skin was so warm.
“What was her name?” I asked.
“We called her Lily. Your mother Rosemary, me Marguerite, her Lily.” Maggie turned and looked at me. “Maybe if we had called her July,” she smiled at me, then her face turned serious for a brief moment as if she really considered if calling her July would have changed things.
I felt very calm on the way home on the train. I didn’t think much about anything. I gazed out the window, I saw all the people on their way home from work, with kids, with briefcases, with books they were reading, eating crisps or apples and I felt more a part of them, more as if I belonged amongst them, as if I was allowed to be there.