Mother Knows Best
Denise had been having a 'difficult' afternoon, which was now drifting effortlessly into a miserable evening. The children were playing up worse than usual, grizzling and moaning and indulging in the endless name-calling and spiteful pinches and proddings so beloved of bored children down the ages.
'It's mine mummy, tell her it's mine! She can't have it, can she? Not if it's mine….See? Mummy nodded! It's mine well it is now you get off you just get off…'
Loud thumps from the back of the car, followed by the inevitable wail and the equally inevitable flurry of thumps and kicks and the nerve-wrenching sound of flesh being smacked.
Oh hell, thought Denise as she peered through the flapping windscreen wipers at the gusts of chilly rain. This means the shopping will be murder.
'Shut up you two!' she called automatically, as her eyes raked the supermarket car park for a precious parking space. Why was it that thousands of extra people seemed to always want to do their shopping on rainy autumn evenings? She was sure that on those warm spring and summer nights there was always plenty of room, no matter what day or time. But autumn and winter were beastly. Cold, wet, miserable, and – worse than everything else – crowded to suffocation…
Ah, there was a space.. No! Some stupid idiot had managed to park across two bays… Exactly half way across. An ancient black Riley, old enough surely to have been around since long before the supermarket – perhaps it had been there since before the parking bays were marked out… her mind wandered idly down such paths as she peered into the murky wall of water. Oh didn't it make you want to scream and scream! As if to encourage such an effect, the noise from the back of the car got louder. Then there was a moment of relative calm, followed by the awestruck announcement…
'Mummy she's broken it! Look! (a rattling clanking sound) the leg's come off!'
More scuffles and a loud shriek which seemed to pierce a soft vulnerable point in the very middle of Denise's brain…
'Shut up can't you?' she shouted. 'I'm trying to park the car! Honestly you two, it's worse than the zoo!'
Dreary crying from both children greeted this (grossly unfair to both of them) attack.
'It's not fair! It's not my fault. Tell her…'
'It is! It is too your fault. I didn't break your rotten horse. Anyway it isn't a horse, it's a donkey.'
'It isn't, it's a horse'.
'Horse! Horse! It's a HORSE!..' shrilled the outraged voice of the horse/donkey's owner and unsuccessful protector..
Thank heavens, someone pulling out. Painfully slowly though, why couldn't people learn to drive? Come on come on.. there's masses of room… Denise tapped a tattoo on the steering wheel as the big green car, packed to the roof with huge bulging packages and staring alsatians and children, manoeuvred its way with extreme delicacy into the central lane between the serried ranks of dark wet cars.
The children kept it up in the supermarket.
'Can we have one of these Mummy? Oh why not?… Please Mummy, just one of these, I shan't ask for anything else… David's pulling me tell him to stop pulling me Mummy, stop it stop it stop it..'
'Oh come on you two, you're not helping, and the list is enormous. We've only got four things on it so far, and we'll never get done if you don't help. Look Janet, you go and get the cornflakes (no sense in asking her to get anything that had to be weighed, she always got too much), and the… the toothpaste'.
'But Mummy, it's right down the other end! It's miles away, why can't David get the toothpaste? I always get the rotten jobs, it's not fair.'
Denise couldn't raise her voice, there were eyes all around, and already she could hear disapproving murmurs and tutting noises from her fellow shoppers '…who can't control children…' a voice floated by.
Then a more friendly voice interrupted her tense deliberations as to which errands would create the least friction among her fractious offspring and pass their stringent 'fairness' test most successfully…
'Hello Denise! Murder isn't it?'
Margaret. What was her other name? Richards? Roberts?
Reynolds, that was it. Married to a sculptor or somesuch.
Always pleasant and cheery anyway. Certainly a tonic on days like this.
'Hello Margaret! Yes, these two are certainly giving Mummy a run for her money today, aren't you darlings? Both doing their best to be a bit of a pain really…'
'Oh we're not, that's not fair is it David?' A temporary truce was silently declared among the combatants, but the sentence was mumbled among blushes as the bright unfamiliar adult smile beamed down.
'They are pets though, aren't they?' said the bright smile. 'Children, I mean'.
Denise wasn't really convinced, but let it pass. They chatted for a couple of minutes about the usual supermarket topics… The state of the weather – wasn't it awful – the price of things – going up by leaps and bounds, you just couldn't keep pace with it all… accompanied by the traditional wry smiles, and of course polite enquiries about the condition of absent husbands and children. All the time Denise was keeping an eye on her charges.
'No dear..' she said absently as David put six tins of dog food in the trolley with a burst of muffled giggles, and 'Mind the eggs!' as Janet dropped a tub of margarine in from a height.
Then a new topic presented itself for inspection.
'Isn't that Miss, er, oh what is her name? Finch or Flinch or somesuch..?' stage-whispered Margaret. 'Yes it is.."
('I thinks it's French' whispered Denise in a lower key)..
'Now there's a saint if you like.' Margaret carried on, ignoring the technicality.
'Geoff knows her quite well, she works in the library doesn't she? He's always in there checking reference books…"
(That was it, thought Denise, writer of scientific text books, not a sculptor…) "..and he says he doesn't know how she copes. Invalid mother and all. Honestly it makes you count your having to look after an aged parent – completely bed-ridden Geoff says – and keep up a full-time job too..My dear parents are both in the rudest health in faraway Tenerife, thank God. Miss What's Her Name's marriage prospects must be just about nil, I would think, men aren't keen on taking on senile relations are they?"
(Was anyone? wondered Denise)…
…"She must be about 45 wouldn't you say?'
Denise nodded – at least 45 she thought; both of them were too polite to observe that the lumpy figure in the mud-coloured cardigan and shapeless raincoat probably wouldn't have been much of a catch at 35, or even 25…And apart from the totally style-free clothes.. having her hair in a tight bun like that and dispensing completely with makeup that might have softened those rather severe features weren't going to get any of the town's eligible middle-aged bachelors beating a path to her door..
Still, Denise reflected, having such a responsibility as Margaret's graphic description spelt out must be an awful cross to bear, with no hope of escape except the passing of the 'loved one'. These rather gloomy thoughts made her look more fondly at David and Janet, quiet for once and peering intently – together- at the rules of a complex game on the back of a muesli packet.
Margaret went on.
"I wonder if I should go and have a word? Trouble is, if I do, I'll have to ask.. 'How's your mother?', and I don't honestly think I'm really in the mood to know.. And I must get this shopping finished – Geoff will strangle me, I've been hours already. Wasn't the parking hateful tonight? Anyway, you and Jim must come round for drinks soon. Really soon mind.. Bye! Bye bye you two – give Mummy a hand won't you?"
They nodded silently, and scuffed the ground idly, waiting for the trolley to start moving again.
Just as well she hadn't named a definite evening for those drinks, thought Denise as she studied the respective merits of thin cut versus thick cut orange marmalade (which one was it that Jim couldn't stand?She could never remember). It was much better to keep such possible meetings vague – after all, they didn't really know each other that well, and what with her parents' prospective visit and David's school pantomime rehearsals looming she wasn't really in the mood for extra social activities..
As she trundled the trolley round the store she nearly bumped into Miss French. They smiled at each other, the slightly guilty smile of people who know they're supposed to know each other, but can't really remember how well.. well enough for a proper chat? Or perhaps just a 'Hello, how are you these days?' 'Oh, mustn't grumble.. busy today isn't it?' exchange. Or just a smile?
They both settled for just the smile – for which Denise was grateful as the children were beginning to act up again.. Janet had been staring very fixedly at Miss French, and didn't wait till they were quite out of earshot before remarking piercingly..
"Wasn't that lady ugly Mummy?"
Miss French finished her shopping in her usual purposeful, methodical way, and pushed her trolley through the automatic doors into the car park. Her clumsy parking of the old Riley, right across two bays, had the advantage of giving her plenty of room to park the trolley next to the easily-opened back door and put the bags on the back seat. She'd never been able to park very well. As well as her 'two spaces' talent, when only one space was available she always thought the car was lined up correctly, but as she drove into the required space her hands on the wheel pulled the car over to the left. Although this gave her plenty of room to get out on the driver's side, the manoeuvre frequently made it impossible for the owner of the car next to her to open their door at all.. Several times on emerging from the supermarket she'd been greeted by such exasperated drivers longing, but quite unable, to drive off – sometimes failing in basic politeness while making her aware of the 'problem'.
Tonight she had more pressing concerns than her poor parking.. How would Mother be tonight? She'd certainly been getting weaker lately; in bed for the last three weeks, which must be significant, and the airless little bedroom was beginning to smell of decay or something. But it took so long.. that was how they worked – these sophisticated, modern, odourless, tasteless poisons. She'd spent hours poring over medical text books at the library, and had then made up a mixture herself – a little of this, a little of that, and these common or garden household ingredients became a deadly cocktail. Almost impossible to detect, but they took ages to work. Still, this was the best way she was sure, and another few days should see the end of it all. At last. At long bloody last.. She allowed herself the treat of a mild swear word, and smiled grimly through the dirty windscreen as she thought of the future. She'd sell the house of course. As soon as possible. It was cramped, dark, damp and full of small stifling rooms that always smelt sour, even after a thorough spring cleaning. She'd get a bright airy little flat somewhere, decorate it just as she wanted, plenty of bright colours, and indulge all the silly decorating fantasies she'd always hankered after.. scatter cushions in deep purple and flaming reds, venetian blinds everywhere and thick-pile plum-coloured fitted carpets. No more horrible palm-frond wallpaper, or those awful bright green plastic floor tiles that Mother had insisted on.. 'No point in making cleaning work dear' she'd said rather tartly, when Miss French had gently opposed the scheme of tiling the whole of the downstairs area.
And no more garden either – definitely no more garden! Miss French had grown to hate the sodden quarter acre behind the house with a passionate intensity. Work at it as she may, the heavy clay which lurked inches below the surface foiled all attempts to turn it into something worth looking at. Those awful backbreaking digging sessions, which left her feeling hot and cold at the same time, and very breathless.. Flowers and shrubs all triumphantly died, despite her following the watering and feeding instructions to the very letter. Weeds did well though, all year round! She'd never have to look at its sad, cat-infested weed-filled wasteland again! There'd be just one bright little window-box, filled with bought plants that she'd throw away each year. The image of this wondrous future became an almost physical ache, and she began toying with the idea (not for the first time) of increasing the dose and hurrying things along a little.. But no, that wasn't the way. It might all go wrong if she did that – kindly Dr Hamer might think it looked 'funny' and refuse to sign that vital certificate. He might even want an autopsy or something!
Miss French grew panicky at the thought – her hands tightened on the wheel and she nearly swerved into a hedge..
'Calm yourself, Alice French!' she admonished herself sternly. Using her full name like that always worked, made her toe the line. Since childhood she'd used little tricks like this to change her mood. Oh, it wasn't that she hated Mother particularly. Oh no, she was just in the way that was all. Early 70s, and likely to live for years and years and years.. draining Alice's spirit, her imagination, her hopes – totally and irrevocably, just by being there. Gently critical, gently demanding, gently opposing all her daughter's schemes, ideas, plans.. all very gentle, thorough and beastly!
Look at those smug women in the supermarket! With their bright, noisy children and successful husbands who adored them. She could have had all that too, she was sure, but who on earth has time to cultivate meaningful relationships, fall in love, get married, live for God's sake, when there's a 'dependent relative'.. clinging like a genteel limpet, taking up your time, all your time, your energy, your whole being.. Oh she had to admit that Mother had never stopped her going out, she'd just given those little shrugs, those sighs of resignation, even brave smiles.. as if to say.. 'Go on dear, you live your life, after all mine's not important, I'll just sit here and rot.. and maybe, just maybe, you'll have a few regrets when I've sunk into my lonely grave…Ugh!
Alice French hardened her heart.
And Mother was developing a new trait as well, possibly more unpleasant than the others. She was getting secretive.. had taken to using those off-putting phrases from Alice's childhood..
"Never you mind.." "Curiosity killed the cat.." and "You just bother about your business dear and I'll bother about mine.."
Alice hated all that. It seemed to shut her out, and after all she was the breadwinner wasn't she? Alright, Mother did have some money (Alice didn't know just how much – more secretiveness), but surely the whole house only ran at all because of her job, her income. Mother would be in a home if it wasn't for her wouldn't she? (Possibly better for her – less chance of getting poisoned.. said a small distant voice which Alice quickly shouted down by repeating the mental lists of Mother's shortcomings. Critical, smothering, possessive.. and now secretive).
She wasn't going to take it any more! Like that letter from Northampton. What on earth was Mother doing getting letters from Northampton for heaven's sake? They didn't have any relatives there, and it wasn't a computerised address label either so it couldn't have been an advert or a circular. Very neat handwriting it had – slightly backward sloping, and it had spelt Mother's christian name right, which was unusual – Katherine with a K instead of the usual C. Must have been a friend.. But who?
"Never you mind" was the response to her polite query, and Mother had pointedly waited for Alice to take the tea things downstairs before opening the letter. She hadn't thrown it away either – Alice had checked all the bins, including creeping out at night to the dustbin in the narrow dank alley next to the house. Silly really, but she didn't like mysteries. They made her uneasy. Mother hadn't gone out for years. What were 'friends' doing, suddenly writing to her out of the blue?
And another 'funny' thing.. Mother wouldn't let her put her clothes away any more. Weak as she was, she'd got quite snappy lately when Alice went to hang her dressing-gown up in the wardrobe.
"Just leave it on the chair!" she'd said.. no, ordered.
Alice was getting closer to home now, and the familiar grey sadness was beginning to settle on her at the thought. Oh no, she must get away.. and this was the only way. Cruel and heartless maybe, but what if Mother lived for another 20? 30 years? She, Alice, would go stark staring mad!Actually, the faint voice reminded her, she probably wouldn't at all.. she'd just carry on, sinking slowly, gently and remorselessly into a twilight 'elderliness' – uninteresting to the world about her and uninterested in her surroundings; the smell of cabbage seeping thoroughly into her very bones.
Or she could live! Have a wonderful new life – with laughing bright-eyed friends hurrying up the warmly carpeted stairs into her cheery flat, then fulsomely admiring the treasured possessions from her round the world cruise (another treat she'd promised herself) picked out in rosy spotlights. Freshly ground coffee bubbling a welcome..
Mother must go. It was absolutely essential. Surely anyone could see that.
The sky was a wonderful blue. Blue to the furthest horizon, above a sparkling sea of emerald green. The sun was high and warm and shone like a caress on the golden sweep of the tropical island beach. Katherine ran through the surf, feeling the warm water splashing her tanned limbs, the glorious sunshine bathing her arms and shoulders, yet the gentle breeze keeping her deliciously cool.. A tremendous love of life surged through her, a feeling that anything was possible, everything was possible, the world was the most fantastic place in which to be alive. And she was running to meet Alex, of that she was sure. He would be cutting driftwood for a fire later, to cook a superb meal of fresh fish under the brilliant stars. She sped on, her brown feet kicking up the spray, her heart singing a hymn of praise for the wonderful day. Across the golden sand, leaving hardly a footprint, her steps were so light. Up into a sunlight-dappled g lade. Exotic fruit filled the trees, the air was rich with their scent, and with the cries of brightly plumaged birds calling to each other in the dark green above. Alex was just around the little clump of trees in the middle of the glade, of that she was sure, and she ran laughing to greet him. And there he was! But he looked so funny! She laughed even more – why, it was too absurd! He was wearing a suit of armour! Clanking and chinking as he awkwardly strutted around, piling the driftwood. She couldn't see his face, it was covered by a shiny visor.. and suddenly she felt alarmed. Something was wrong – badly wrong.
"Alex!" she called, but he ignored her and just kept plodding about with his arms full of wood, making that clanking, chinking sound.
Her eyes opened to the sight of Alice noisily arranging the tea things. Oh no.. not a dream.. don't let it have been a dream. She closed her eyes tight and tried to escape back to her enchanted island, the sunlight dancing on the water, the flying fish… But it was no use. The island was just an island of dreams, Alex was dead and gone these twenty five years, and reality was Alice.. in her drab woollen cardigan and wispy hair, setting out a tea that neither of them really wanted.
She opened her eyes again and let them drift out of focus across the room. She did this a lot lately – went into a kind of trance. Alice didn't seem to want to talk much these days, which suited her as was almost as if Alice was waiting for something to happen, she kept looking at her.. then looking away quickly when her gaze was returned. Slightly impatient, but cautious as well. Like someone waiting for the January sales, but not quite sure if she was in the right queue. She kept asking Katherine how she was. Silly really, she ought to know.. Katherine thought the smell from the wardrobe had been getting quite noticeable lately, and today had better be the day. No sense in shilly shallying, best to get it over with, and anyway Alice had brought it all on herself.
The things one had to do to humour invalids! (Even those who were invalids because of the mince and beef stock you gave them..) Why on earth was Mother suddenly making such a thing about wanting to look in the big trunk in the cellar? It had been there for a thousand years, and Alice was doubtful if she'd be able to manage it up those steep steps on her own anyway. Still, anything was better than the reproachful looks from the bed if she refused, and the photograph albums Mother was sure were in the trunk might be of some interest, (though why did she want so particularly to look at them now?)
Oh well, she'd get it while Mother was eating her latest instalment of Alice's 'Freedom Dinners'. A horrid giggle burst from her at this irreverent description. What a dreadful thing to call them! But best to call a spade a spade really. And that's what they were, weren't they? Her passport to freedom. But there must be no pain in the process, just Mother's gradually increased weakness and a quiet death in her sleep – if Alice had calculated the doses right. Then… look out world!
She had to leave the room while Mother ate the mince anyway, as that was another example of the secretive behaviour.. She'd said.
"I don't want you peering at me while I eat dear, it's like being an animal at feeding time. You go and watch television".
Come to think of it, Alice had only seen her eat one of these 'special dinners', but they were always finished when she collected the tray later. A nasty doubt suddenly brushed against her mind like a bat's wing. Could Mother suspect?.. If so, what would she have done? Supposing she hadn't eaten any of the meals! Alice stood irresolutely at the top of the cellar steps, gazing hard into the blackness beneath, as if trying to conjure up what might have happened. No, it didn't make any kind of sense. Mother was bed-ridden, wasn't she?And if she hadn't eaten any, what had she done with them? If she'd hidden them, there'd be an awful smell by now. And what had she eaten to stay alive?
But the doubts seemed to hurry closer now, like shuffling feet. And she stared down into the gloom in mounting horror. Shuffling feet.. Shuffling feet..
She turned round as the shuffling stopped, and stared into Katherine's fixed and expressionless gaze.
"Why Mother! What on earth are you.."
Her sentence turned into a rising scream, as she was given a sudden sharp push, and went tumbling backwards.. down, down… She fell in a wide arc, struck her head on the sixth step, and knew no more.
With surprising agility Katherine negotiated the steps, and checked for a pulse. All quite satisfactory. Poison her indeed! The very idea. And so hopelessly inept in its execution. But then, Alice had never been very efficient, and this attempt had been so feeble, and yet so typical.
Katherine had used one of her tiny medicine bottles to send a sample of the first 'Freedom Dinner' to an old chemist friend of hers and Alex's in Northampton (luckily he was still alive, though long-since retired). She'd noticed an odd slightly nutty flavour to the mince, and the meal had been followed by a dull headache (she never got headaches), and slight aches in the joints as well. She'd written quite a chatty letter, 'You probably don't remember me after what must be close on a century!' and merely mentioned the sample as an 'Oh, by the way..' postscript – not important, but one of her granddaughters had been doing a rather complicated chemistry experiment and she just wondered what was in the enclosed sample. The friend's report had been quite definite, so Katherine had known what was going on right from the beginning.
The plastic bags in the (locked) wardrobe began to fill up with mince – all securely sealed to prevent them smelling too much – and she lived on those packets of high-calorie food supplements tucked away on the top shelf of the larder. Alice had bought a boxful a couple of years ago during a (temporary) slimming craze. She'd only used a few and there'd been forty five packets left; now there were twelve. Alice had probably forgotten they were even there.
She'd always been a rather sad character Katherine reflected. She was forever hiding behind her mother's skirts. Making excuses why she couldn't accept friends' invitations to go out. Giving those nice boys the 'brush-off' – that was the expression wasn't it? Telling them all she 'had to stay with Mother'. Rubbish of course, as Katherine had told her on many occasions. She hadn't wanted Alice hanging round anyway; no conversation at all, and she liked all the TV programmes that Katherine hated – the game shows, the cookery programmes and those awful soaps.. And why for goodness sake try to poison her? Why not just get hold of a live-in housekeeper (money wasn't a problem, she could have told her that) and leave?
Oh, it would be so nice to have proper meals again! She'd certainly get a live-in cook/housekeeper as soon as possible. Oh, and redecorate the house at once. Brighten it up a bit.. lots of flame-coloured cushions would be a good start..
But first, she needed to look up Dr Hamer's number in the local phone book and ask him if he could just pop round after surgery this evening – she'd been having chest pains which were a bit of a worry. He was always ready to make a house call to her, she was a favourite patient and the surgery was near by. She wouldn't bother with 999, because of course she'd been asleep when it happened, and had only made the dreadful discovery much later with Dr Hamer.
Denise's large front room was unusually quiet. David had a large and complicated cardboard jigsaw strewn all over the floor and was quietly grumbling to it. Why was there always such a lot of completely blue sky? And why were most of the pieces the same? Not just similar, but exactly the same? Janet was also spread-eagled on the floor rather listlessly turning the pages of the local paper – why not use the perfectly serviceable large table in the room? Denise wondered for the millionth time. Suddenly Janet called out.
"Mummy look! It's that lady from the supermarket!You remember, the funny one with the wrinkly stockings!"
Snorts of laughter from David greeted this, and Janet put the paper on the table where they could all see the interesting item. There was a photo, not a very good one, of Alice, and the headline read:
"The paper salutes a courageous local pensioner"
The item read:
"It's easy to get cynical these days, but here's a story to really restore our faith in human nature. Mrs French, aged 72, has been fighting a battle with the local council to make stair-rails compulsory in older properties with basements and cellars. Readers may recall that Mrs French's daughter Alice (see photo above) tragically died after missing her footing on their cellar steps. Her indefatigable mother has beaten the Town Hall mandarins and got the measure accepted!
This should certainly go a long way to prevent more serious injuries or deaths. Mrs French – well done!
This shy pensioner didn't want to be interviewed, but she did make this statement which we're pleased and indeed proud to print:
"I thought I owed it to Alice – and quite honestly I just felt it was my duty. If even one needless accident is prevented, it will all have been worthwhile."