‘Sweetening the Pill’
‘Why are you standing there? Do I know you?’
The words sting my entire body as the sharp, suspicious voice snaps out from inside the bedcovers. Does she know anyone today? Does anyone in this place know anyone?
The carer who’d arrived here at the same time as Mum was admitted watches me, weirdly intrigued it seems, as I stand, immobile, in the corridor. I try to pretend she’s not staring at my every move. I just want to go, but those old eyes in that room have noticed the brown paper bag, clutched to my ribs. I’ve got to stop here, now, for a while at least. How could I not do?
The frail body sits up in the bed, held in place by three pillows, flesh draped over her skeleton like an ill-fitting catsuit on a coat hanger. A flicker of light hits her eye for the moment, and her mouth stretches across her face. I hover near her, awaiting the moment when the elastic in those thin, pale lips pings back, returning her mouth to the downward crescent of confusion. But it doesn’t.
‘It’s Catherine.’ She pushes her body up rigid in her bed as her arms reach out to me. ‘My little Catherine’s come home.’
I can’t speak to her. Not just yet. There’s a boulder in my throat that I’m trying to swallow. More than anything I want to rush through the doors into the open air; to run away from the stench of incontinence and disinfectant, masked by the monotonous lines of vases holding carnations and roses. I thought weeks away from the place would remove the pungent memory from my nostrils – but it didn’t, and now I’m back again for more.
My legs are rigid; my eyes stare at the desperate, gnarled fingers and the pale blue plastic-looking buttons of eyes which, more often than not, betray nothing of her life or her memories. I reach over and drag the chair marked ‘VISITORS ONLY’ next to her bed. The brown paper bag rustles in my hand and sets off a pang in my stomach like I’ve just been punched.
‘What have you got in there?’ Her eyes devour my hand cannibalistically in their eagerness to see inside. Once again, my fingers grow taut across the tear-damped, paper bag, rolled over at the top. I don’t want to part with its contents. I shouldn’t, not to her. She won’t remember. And especially not when I want to scream, ‘Damn the lot of you!’ and run from the building, clutching my treasures. But her eyes lose their greediness as quick as they gained it and, instead, look at me with the sad inertia of the starving orphans I see on the TV. How can I sit beside her and give her nothing? I pull out the packet of pear drops and lay it reverently on the fluffy blanket, beside her bundle of legs.
‘Why’s the packet open? Been helping yourself, have you? Greedy girl.’ Her eyes change to a deep blue as she scrapes the packet closer to her, hiding it badly beneath her twisted, gnarled hands. I say nothing.
‘So, er…?’ A frown wrinkles across her nose – that familiar puzzlement of a child who can’t quite place her surroundings.
‘You called me Catherine, didn’t you?’ I reach over to hold her cardboard fingers. She flinches at first, and then the frown lifts.
‘My Catherine? Yes. What do you do? I…’ The glazed bemusement falls upon her again.
‘I’m a teacher. I went to university, and I trained. I’ve been teaching for about ten years.’ I smile, filling her head with the transient memories I know she won’t hold, and I feel her fingers rolling around mine, until she nips onto my gold band.
‘You’re married, little Catherine? I don’t recall…’ Her eyes fill up and I stroke her hair, quickly, monotonously, until she calms herself.
‘It’s all right, all right. Yes, I’m married. His name’s John. We’ve two children. Their names are…’
‘You’ve children? And you teach other people’s children? How could you? Women are never satisfied.’ She begins to snarl at me. ‘A mother’s place is in the home, with her husband and her own children. I must have told you that. I don’t remember… You neglect your children, Mrs… whoever you are… I don’t want to know you. Not anymore. Go away.’
Her voice screeches through my ears, as she points her back deliberately at me. There is no point in explaining to her that the kids are twenty and twenty-four, and leading their own lives. I knew it would come – the nastiness. It happens all the time in here, among the flowers, and the soft carpets, and the sympathetic smiles from those who work here. It happens when they can’t remember, and the carer rushes in to bring calm to the corridor.
‘Mrs Pearson; Maggie. OK, love, settle down.’
I’ve not seen this one before – so young, business-like but gentle with her mechanical calming. What’s she doing here? Why would she volunteer to be here? She turns to me. ‘It’s nice to see you. Maggie hasn’t had any visitors since I’ve been here.’ I ask her how long that is; she replies, ‘Five months,’ and I wonder how come I’ve never encountered her before. Or maybe I have and just don’t remember. What a dreadful thought.
I feel the ancient fingers grip onto me. She’s calm now, and her smile is docile – it’s like drugging a dangerous animal so it can be handled.
‘This is my Catherine. My daughter. She’s been living abroad. She’s come to see me.’
I can feel the carer’s eye on me. ‘That’s lovely for you, Maggie.’ As I look up, she mouths the words, ‘Have you?’ and I shake my head and stare at the blankets, and the hard, sugar-coated sweets, and wonder when I’ll be free to leave. Will I ever be free, even in my own head? The rooms here spin around in my dreams and I’m tortured by Mum’s face as I toss and turn; she forgets to eat at first, then forgets where she is for a while, until, finally, her eyes grow cold and she forgets me. I become smaller, more transparent, until I am nothing more than a dot, and even that disappears altogether and I exist no longer in the world where she is. I awake from my dreams, soaked in sweat and tears.
The carer pulls back the covers.
I nod and step out into the pungent fragrance of carnations in the corridor, while she deals with the potty. And this is the point – I know it is – when I can walk away from the corridor into the open air and breathe in real life. She wouldn’t notice, would she? Not for long, anyhow. I could return home and begin cooking the tea so that John could have it on time for a change, and forget this place ever existed.
But I stand, rooted to the corridor like the umbrella plant in the alcove. An overwhelming need to return and not desert her like the coward I feel gushes over me. And I wonder – right at this moment, just exactly whose need is the greatest, hers or mine?
I take my cue from the splashing in the tiny corner sink, and resume my spot in the chair while the carer finishes drying her hands.
‘Right then, medicine time, Maggie.’ And there’s the tablet bottle, wafting briefly towards the bed. Terrified, the child-like face froths a whisper from between her tightened lips as she curls herself into a ball.
‘Not the medicine. I don’t like it.’
But it’s forced in, like Mum used to drive syrup of figs into me, on the end of a metal teaspoon. I remember how I always used to sneak a biscuit afterwards, while she was putting away the bottle, high up so I wouldn’t touch it. I don’t think it was to protect me. It was to protect the contents of the bottle from the plughole. She never said, but I’m sure that she knew about the biscuit. So, when the carer is gone, I rustle the corner of the bag of sweets, quietly, but enough to bring a smirk to the screwed-up face. Our little secret. She points to a pink one and I take it from the packet, popping it in her baby bird mouth.
She leans back into her pillows and sucks for nearly five minutes, and I just sit, feeling my heart thumping through my exhausted ribs against my brown paper bag. Eventually, when the sweet is small enough, she talks.
‘When I was ten, I had to go and stay with my Aunt Beatrice, in Lincolnshire. It’s what happened to children in the war, you know. Evacuees, we were called.’ I nod. Lucid memories are often plucked from nowhere in here. She smiles. ‘I didn’t want to go on the train without Mum and Dad.’ Her hands clench and I place my palm over her knuckles until she realizes I’m still there. ‘Mum made cakes – the best cakes I’ve ever had. She made up a box of them – they were in a brown paper bag, too. They were so sweet, and they stopped me crying, on that train into the country.’ She grins. ‘Like your sweets. They just make taking your medicine taste better.’ And, for that moment, the clarity in the blue of those tiny eyes startles me.
A frown fixes on her face for a minute, as she stares intently at her blankets. She raises her eyebrows to look at my face and her hand comes up to touch my cheek.
‘Catherine?’ She strokes my face and her ragged cuticles scratch at my skin. I hold her hand there and smile at those confused little blue eyes. I delve into the brown paper bag and remove the only other item. I hand it to her and she grips it until I can almost see the bones of her knuckles through the skin.
‘To remember me by,’ I say, and regret it. Her eyes spark at me.
‘Where are you going?’ Her hand grips my fingers until I want to cry out.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll be back again.’ And I make my promise to the lady who is as confined as I am by this pretty, bitter-sweet smelling building with the beautiful gardens and expressive artwork on the walls. The relatives pay for it all. Oh yes, they pay. They keep on paying, every day of their lives.
I kiss her on the cheek and step away. It’s cruel, watching an old lady’s face as her sliver of life, of reality for that day, disappears into the distance of the reception desk.
The young carer who brought the medicine wants to stop and talk. She’s got a lot to learn about decorum, I think.
‘Funny, isn’t it, how they can remember details like that, but then not have a clue who their nearest and dearest are. Like you.’
She looks at me strangely when I reply, ‘Well, she wouldn’t, would she?’
The manager appears out of the back room and takes me by the hand, squeezing away my encounter with the old lady; bringing me back to my world – my life with the brown paper bag.
‘It’s nice to see you again, Michelle,’ she says to me. ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived to collect your Mum’s things.’ She eyes the bag. ‘Not much, is it, for two years in here?’
I peer into it to find nothing there. ‘No.’ Emptiness is all that’s left of a daily visit, week in, week out; visits full of empty stares and one-way conversations. ‘It shouldn’t have taken me so long to fetch them. I’m sorry.’
The manager’s sympathetic, understanding smile says it all, as always. I feel her hand on my shoulder. ‘What you did for Maggie Pearson just now – you didn’t have to do it, you know. But it was kind. She misses visitors – I know she does. She’s barely seen anyone since the accident.’ I hang my head in recognition. ‘Three generations – daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter. We told her; took her to the funeral. But she didn’t know who they were burying. She asked her son-in-law for fish and chips.’ Sister sniffed as she turned away momentarily. ‘The son-in-law, he stopped coming.’
Through the window of her bedroom capsule, I watch Maggie’s fragile finger stroke the picture of me in the silver frame, as she sucks on the sweet I gave her. This is the moment I should make my escape, leave this superficial beauty and its hidden torment. It should be for the last time, but I know for certain that I’ll be back. It’s my home from home, isn’t it? And coming to visit Maggie, bringing her pear drops in our secret bag – wouldn’t this sweeten the pill for both of us?
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