A Winding Silver Path
This is the house in which I was born. A house of spaces, of air and of running feet. That’s how I remember it.
“I think I’ll go out,” she says.
“Are you sure, Mum?” I cram the washing in the machine.
“I don’t know about that. I’m going anyway.”
The front door clanks shut. It’s a unique sound. None of my other front doors has sounded as bright. It’s the old wind-up bell, the loose glass, the chain like the anchor chain of a small boat, the three bolts, the Yale lock, the deadlock.
We need bread for lunch. I peer out of the window. Mum’s walking up and down the sidewalk outside the house. ‘Patrolling’ the children call it. ‘Is Grandma patrolling?’ they ask. I usually answer yes. I know what they mean but they’re wrong. I shouldn’t leave her but it’s not far to the shop, 200 yards at most. I nip out the back door, cross the road without looking back and rush round the supermarket all the time checking the aisles in case she’s followed me.
“Grandma’s packed up the car,” whispers Lucy when I get back.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s brought down all her jumpers and put them in the boot.” Lucy’s wide-eyed, deadly serious.
“Where’s she now?”
“Did she say where?”
“She just said she was going out. She took Toby.” Lucy purses her lips and widens her eyes even more.
It’s good she takes Toby. People see her with a dog and know she belongs somewhere. I go out to the road. She always turns right towards the playground and the cliff top. Left is to the car park and the shops. She never goes that way anymore.
I toy with bringing in the jumpers but return inside and call upstairs.
“Does anyone want to go for a walk?”
Silence. Jodie and Kate are in their rooms.
“Are you coming for a walk?”
After a moment there’s a drowsy, “No, we’re online.”
I want to shout: Why don’t you get out and ride your bikes or go for a paddle? There’s a massive garden out there with badminton, basketball, croquet, volleyball, the lot. But I expect enough of them as it is.
We talked for months about coming to live with Grandma, leaving our home to help her for as long as we could. The idea was that we’d all move here, Dan included. ‘Not forever,’ I said, whatever that means. ‘A point will come,’ said Dan. And now I only hope I recognize it. Going into a nursing home is forever, that’s the point.
Of course I pushed it, she’s my mother. I had right on my side, I thought. But he hated it here, he hated the uncertainty. When he woke in the early hours to find her standing in our room, I had to choose. I didn’t hesitate over the decision to stay. So we have an enforced separation, not a proper separation but we’re living apart and I despise him a little now, that’s the biggest change of all. The door clanks.
“She’s back.” It’s Lucy again. “Can I see if Tammy’s in?”
“Yes,” I say although it’s lunchtime and Tammy’s mum will probably send her straight back.
I stop off in the downstairs bathroom where the washing machine has been installed. It used to be my grandmother’s bathroom and then a shower room. I put the washing on spin and watch it turn for a while. It heaves and whines. I shouldn’t have put in three pairs of jeans along with all the other stuff.
Mum is in the hall, with her coat on and Toby still on his lead.
“I think I’ll go home now,” she says, frowning.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like a coffee?” I stop myself from adding ‘before you go’. I mustn’t pretend that much.
“Coffee would be nice. Then I really must be getting back.”
I help her out of her coat and release Toby. He rushes to his bed and slumps down with a sigh. I flick on the kettle.
“I’ll just hang out the washing,” I say.
“Where’s the coffee?”
Where it’s always been. “It’s all right. I’ll do it,” I say and set out two mugs. “I won’t be long with the washing.”
“No, I’ll do it.” She sounds firm.
I show her the label displaying the word coffee on the cupboard door.
“In here?” she asks.
“Yes, in the cupboard.” I open the door.
“This?” She holds out the jar.
I get out a teaspoon and milk and head out with the washing. It’s dripping but I hang it anyway. I like hanging washing; it’s the only domestic chore I enjoy. I peg the jeans at the back, space the school shirts carefully, stretch the T-shirts so they won’t need ironing and hang the dozens of pants and socks at the front in pairs to conserve pegs.
No one’s around so I dodge behind the shed for a cigarette. I’ve learnt to carry them in my pocket so I can grab the chance as it comes. Everyone hates me smoking. I think they see it as my death wish. It’s not though. It just stops me from being angry. If I don’t smoke I’m angry at everything from the fact that no one remembers to feed the rabbits at weekends to the way people want to set limits on immigration and as for Dan, I shiver, I hardly dare think about him, about what I’ve done to our marriage.
It’s damp behind the shed. I duck amongst some brambles that form a tangled screen between the privet hedge and an apple tree.
The shed used to be a beach hut and when the council banned beach huts because the cliff was crumbling, Dad and his brothers carried the hut piece by piece up the cliff to the house. I used to play in it but it was spidery and I preferred the hedge. I liked climbing amongst the laurel branches and watching everything from between the leaves.
I waft away the smoke. I don’t want anyone coming over. I smoke the cigarette right down to the filter, stub it on the ground and flick it into the privet.
Mum’s not in the kitchen. The mugs are still by the kettle. I poke my head round the door of her sitting room.
“I’m just going out for a minute,” she says. She has fastened Toby on his lead again. He doesn’t look pleased. I tighten my toes.
“Don’t you want a sandwich?” I ask.
“Is it lunchtime? I thought it was much later.”
“It’s 1:15.” I take the sandwiches into the sitting room. She eats half of one and gives the rest to Toby, leaving the crusts.
Jodie and Kate tramp downstairs and collect their sandwiches.
“Hello Grandma,” Jodie says. “You all right?”
Kate offers a biscuit to Mum who takes one and gives it to Toby. Kate shrugs and they return upstairs. We’ve been here two years, one year without Dan although he visits sometimes. They’re good really. Jodie will sit and chat with her. Kate will help her with the gate or out of the car. Not that she’s unfit; she’s a non-smoking, non-drinking, five-mile-walking, 75-year-old dynamo, but every day she loses a little more of herself.
“I really should be going,” she says.
This is usually where the dance with reality has to start. “You are home, you know.”
“Home? What, here? Not my home.”
“26 Hichley Road, Norcliffe. Your home. Your house. Your home.”
“This is?” She looks around.
“You’re sitting in your green chair, the recliner.”
She looks at it.
“There’s the wedding photo of you and Dad.”
“I remember the photo.”
“The plate with the nude nymphs,” I smile. Maybe we can laugh it off.
“I know all that.” She stands up. “That’s what everyone says.” She looks around again. “It’s not home. I don’t know Min…I can’t seem to…it’s just not home.”
“Shall we take the dog round the cliff?” I ask.
“The dog? Yes, let’s go out.”
We walk in silence. We walk fast. She always walks fast, purposefully. On the cliff top we release Toby and take our usual route. The dog wanders amongst the Scots pines. I love those trees, the long, jagged trunks, the bundles of flyaway greenery high up, so high up. The green parts remind me of Mum’s hair, how it used to be, no fixed style, just hers.
We walk into the wind, down the cliff path.
“It’s choppy today,” I say.
“The island’s clear.”
“Not many people out.”
We walk amongst the gorse. The wind smells of marzipan. Toby sniffs the undergrowth.
“Shall we go up the steps?” I ask.
“Too cold to go further,” she says.
Back home, I assess the dinner situation and decide on lasagna, everyone likes it, it’s the ideal but really I want to stick a couple of pizzas in the oven and open a bag of salad. I make myself start. She hovers in the kitchen. I want to be alone.
“I’m just going to check on the washing,” I say and sneak round the back of the shed for another cigarette. The blackbird pecks at the ground a few feet away from me. My grandmother said the blackbird was Grandpa reincarnated. I don’t know if I like that. Sometimes I wonder if the robin is Dad and I hate him seeing us like this.
When I’ve finished I see that the washing’s gone. I rush inside. It’s been dumped on an armchair in the sitting room, damp and crumpled. Mum’s standing in the hall.
“I wish you’d left it out,” I say.
“It’s getting late.”
“I know but…” I try to keep my mouth shut and walk into the kitchen. “It’s just that it’s the weekend and it’s still wet. I’ll have to iron it.” I know I’m in the wrong. I glimpse her walk into the other room.
“Is it the weekend?” she says. “I’m sorry.”
I want to say I’m sorry too but instead I chop an onion and begin to cry. I hear her go upstairs and while I’m crushing garlic she returns to the hall and deposits a carrier bag of clothes by the door.
“I’ll have to be getting home soon.”
I run the garlic crusher under the cold tap; water spurts everywhere and soaks my jumper.
“Shall I leave my things here?” She stands in front of the fridge.
“Mind the floor, it’s wet.” I say. She moves and I take a zucchini from the fridge.
“I think I’ll go out,” she says. “I’ll take the dog; he could do with a walk.”
“Will you find your way back?” I ask.
“I expect so,” she says.
The door clanks shut.
When she’s gone, I pour a glass of wine, slug it and feel almost happy. I do a little tap dance between the tiles on the kitchen floor. Lucy comes bounding in and joins me in my dance for a while.
“I had to come home. Tammy’s having dinner.”
“Did you have lunch there?” I ask, feeling guilty.
“No. What’s for supper?”
“I hate lasagna.”
I knock a spoonful of butter into a saucepan, hammer it on the side so the pan rocks and the spoon makes little marks in the steel like millimeter grades. I give Lucy a packet of crisps and a biscuit and feel guilty again. Moments later I hear the TV.
When the lasagna is in the oven I look along the road. Mum’s heading back. I wave and Toby bounds towards me.
We take a pot of tea to her sitting room. I ask if she’d like to help me sort the photos.
“If we’ve got time,” she says.
“We’ve plenty of time.”
“Won’t they be meeting us?”
“Oh no,” I say.
“I thought they would, you know, when we get to the other end, when we get off the boat, when we get home.”
“Look,” I show her a photo of the three of us children and Dad. “We were having fun.” It was on the beach, all smiles and hugs, a sandcastle with a flag, buckets and spades. When we were in the sea, she’d sit on shore and watch, worried because she’d never learnt to swim.
She looks at it, puzzled, then after a few moments she beams. “It’s you.”
I find some more. I pile photos of my father’s family dating back to ancient photographic plates until I discover one, just one, of hers. It’s of a small cottage in Northumberland and three children, muddy and laughing. It’s tiny, the size of a passport photograph.
“Is that you?” I ask.
She takes it. “Must be,” she says.
“Did you ever want to go back home?”
“Home? Back there? No.” She hands it back.
We eat dinner while watching Millionaire. Mum falls asleep with her mouth open. At 9.30 I start the bedtime routine, fend off the children’s excuses, the ‘I’m still hungry’ business. I do Mum’s pills, put out the dog, lock up, fill a hot water bottle and take her to her bedroom where she’s slept for fifty years and yet doesn’t know the way. I help her change into pajamas, check the children, tell them how good they are, hug them, tell them I love them and then I rush downstairs, pour a glass of wine, go into the garden and smoke. The dog sniffs the bushes, ventures into the vegetable plot and ambles over the hedge and watches the rabbits in their run. The cats prowl at my feet. The sky is bright with stars. The security light comes on and I watch my smoke billow in its glow.
When the cigarette’s finished, I herd the animals inside. I’ve made a few changes to the house. I’ve painted the hall cream instead of brown and cleared it of clutter because Social Services say clutter adds to the confusion. I’ve moved more chairs into our sitting room because we needed them. And I’ve painted the walls of the sitting room yellow, partly to cover the outdated, blue wallpaper and partly to cheer us up. Otherwise, the house has remained the same. I can still see my grandmother sitting where Mum’s green recliner is now. I can see her staring out the window: ‘Mrs Perry is busy this morning, can’t imagine what’s got into her. Is that Mr. Johns? He hasn’t been to chapel since Bessie’s funeral. Come and straighten the curtain Min…not like that.’
We’re up hourly through the night. I hear Mum wake the children, ask them where we are and tell them it’s time to get up. At three I find she’s gone. She’s opened a downstairs window and climbed out. I find her on the cliff top, bewildered.
“I can’t find Sam,” she says.
“Not Sam,” I say, “Toby. He’s at home.” I take her back and eventually, I sleep.
The next morning I’m woken by the doorbell. It’s a neighbor.
“Your mum’s walking along the white lines in the high street,” she says, “in the middle of the road, with the dog.”
I laugh but the neighbor looks stern.
“I tried to get her to come back with me but she wouldn’t.”
I thank her, get dressed and collect Mum. Back home, I try the coffee routine but she stands in the hall.
“I think I’ll go out,” she says.
“You don’t have to,” I say.
“No, but I want to.”
“It’d be better if you stayed.” I hold out her coffee mug.
“Better for you, not for me.”
I don’t answer that, instead I go upstairs and moments later the front door clanks. I peer in the children’s rooms and find them eventually. Each is burrowed amongst a mass of soft toys. I sit on the top stair, try to relax, stretch my mouth into a smile and crease my eyes. I imagine the relentless musical loop of tomorrow and watch my fingers twitch.
I can’t sit here. It’s past midday. I go to the laptop and order last week’s shopping again.
Mum’s left Toby behind and without him she’s more vulnerable. I walk along the road but I can’t see her. I make my way to the cliff top. The sea is iron grey, a shade or two darker than the sky. I search the gorse bushes along the cliff path and wander through the parked cars outside Somerfield’s. I even go as far as the school. Once, while I was at work, she tried to take Katie out of school because she’d heard a bad weather warning on the television. She doesn’t watch television now; I don’t think it makes any sense to her.
By the time I get home, she’s standing on the doorstep, the door open and Toby on the lead.
“Come in, Mum.” I squeeze past her and wait, holding the door wide.
“There’s someone in there,” she whispers and nods towards the kitchen. “I don’t know who it is.”
Maybe it’s like the men in the bedroom, the boys on the flat roof, the dog in the tree. I take a look. She’s right; someone is in the kitchen, pouring water from the kettle into the teapot.
“I brought your Mum home. She was on the cliff. Tea, Lorna? Shall I bring it through for you?” She obviously knows the place. I’m sure I’ve never seen her before.
“Yes dear, that would be nice.” Mum holds out her hands and shrugs in disbelief as the woman passes into the sitting room. I shrug too and mime a laugh back.
“I’d better leave you now Min’s home.” She knows my name. I should know hers. As Mum drinks her tea the woman sidles up to me.
“Can I have a word?” She frowns and looks knowingly at me. I hate that. “She was out on her own, you know.”
I smile back.
“I brought her home. She didn’t know where she was. Such a shame. It’s a terrible thing.”
“Thank you. It’s very kind of you,” I say.
“She didn’t know where she was at all.” She looks grimly at me. I’m supposed to react.
“I know,” I say.
“She could have gone for miles, could have ended up anywhere.”
“Thank you very much,” I gush, smiling.
She leaves. I know I’ve disappointed her. What do they expect? Am I supposed to lock the doors so she can’t get out? Is that what they want?
I empty the kettle, put in different water. If I could, I’d sleep but if I sleep during the day it unsettles the children so I dig over the vegetable plot while Mum stands and watches. I can tell she wonders why I’m digging. But I dig furiously and after a few minutes the shovel hits something hard and I want to do something else. I walk round the garden. Mum’s on my heels so I can’t stop off at the shed for a smoke.
I decide to deal with the torn wallpaper in the upstairs bathroom. Mum follows me in. I could pull off the loose paper and redecorate the whole room. It could do with it. I rip a bit of the paper, just a corner and a great chunk of hardboard falls into the bath along with handfuls of dust, plaster and a trail of cobweb. Mum laughs.
“That did it,” she says.
I try to push the hardboard back up but it’s useless.
“My computer’s broken,” Kate shouts from her room. “It’s dead. Nothing.” She slams something. I pretend I haven’t heard and sneak downstairs but when I next go to the fridge, the light’s off. The room lights are working so is the TV. I eventually figure out that the sockets on one side of the house have packed up. I run an extension lead to the fridge and another to the washing machine and set up the kettle in the sitting room.
Not long after, there’s a screech from the shower and Jodie yells. “There’s no hot. Shit!”
Mum and I laugh. Jodie comes into the kitchen wrapped in a towel, hair smeared with conditioner.
“You’ll have to take a bath instead,” I say knowing what’s going to come next.
“I don’t do baths, thank you.”
Mum hides a smile. I take apart the showerhead, put the bits in a gold-rimmed teacup and cover them with vinegar. When I get back Mum’s switched off the socket that runs the extension cable to the fridge.
Lucy struts downstairs dressed in black with red lips and high heels.
“Looking good,” I say and remember the parties I had when I was eight, the blue dress with layers of petticoats, the big bow at the back, matching ribbons in my hair.
“You do look nice,” says Mum.
I search for my car keys but they’ve gone so I can’t take Lucy to the birthday party. She stamps upstairs crying loudly. After an hour of looking we find Kate’s purse in the back of the fridge behind a jar of olives, Lucy’s roller blades under Mum’s bed, a bottle of Summer Fruits squash behind the lavatory and eventually the car keys in Mum’s coat pocket along with the earpiece to Jodie’s iPod. That evening, I shout. No one wants the shepherd’s pie; it doesn’t taste right and they disappear into their rooms.
After I’ve taken Mum to bed, I pour out the half inch of wine that’s left in the bottle. It’s thick with residue. I slug it back in one gulp and look in the sideboard cupboard for another. I find the gold-rimmed cup that had contained the pieces of showerhead. I sift through the bin but I can’t find the pieces anywhere.
I open another bottle; by the time I’ve finished a second glass, Mum’s footsteps are on the stairs. She has pulled a pair of trousers and a Guernsey sweater over her pajamas.
“I thought I’d get up,” she dumps a pile of clothes on top of the carrier bag by the door.
“It’s 10:30,” I say.
“I thought it was morning.”
“You’ve only been in bed a while.”
“Shall I take you back up?”
“Could you Min? You know, I don’t know where to go. I know it’s silly but I just can’t remember.”
“Never mind,” I say.
I take her upstairs, settle her in bed. It happens three more times.
“I have a headache, a terrible headache,” she says. I fetch a Paracetemol.
“You’ll feel better after you’ve slept,” I say.
“I can’t sleep. I can’t get anything right. I don’t seem to understand anything. I don’t know, Min. What am I going to do? I can’t stay here forever. I have to be getting home.”
I point out her things. Her jewellery box with the carved edelweiss, the clothes brush they brought back from Cypress, the Viking longboat vase we children gave her one birthday.
“But it’s still not right,” she says. “I feel…You know I think I’m going to die.” She weeps.
“You’re not,” I squeeze her hand, “it’s just your memory.”
“Yes, the doctors say you’re as fit as anything.”
“Do they?” She seems relieved.
“I’ll leave you to try and sleep. I’m only across the landing. I’ll be in bed.”
“Thank you, Min.”
She won’t get better. I know that. Medication stems the decline; it can’t reignite dead brain cells. I’ve always thought of change as a kind of savior that brightens the future. I believe the gush about silver linings. Maybe you don’t always see the silver, not if you’re sitting in the shadows anyway. And maybe when you’re sitting in the shadows, the last thing you want to see are silver linings, because that’s the future and all you want is shadow.
The next morning, the children are huddled on the landing.
“It’s the robin,” says Jodie.
“A robin,” corrects Kate.
“It doesn’t look dead,” Lucy prods it with a pencil. It’s not mutilated but stretched out, red breast exposed, beak up and little legs straight like pieces of barbed wire. “Perhaps it’s a present from the cats.”
“Where are they now?” I ask but no one answers. “Anyone seen Grandma?”
“Gone out,” says Lucy.
“Bloody hell.” I want to have a tantrum. I storm off to the cliff top. Soon summer will be over and I’ll be back at work, the children at school. I can’t lock her into her own house.
It’s a blue sky morning. The sea is flat, the tide is out, the beach curls round the bay like a yellow shawl. Even from this distance it’s obvious that it’s her, all alone and up to her knees in water, standing upright staring towards the horizon but she can’t swim.
I rush down, hug her, and try to urge her onto the shore. At first she won’t move.
“We’ll have to find Toby,” I say.
“It’s getting cold.”
“Time to go in.” I take hold of her hand.
When we get home, I rifle through papers for the number of the emergency psychiatrist.
“What are you doing?” Lucy asks.
“Looking for the doctor’s number,” I say.
Jodie and Kate come down, watch me for a while then they all disappear.
I dial the number, not quite believing that such a person exists but he answers and says he’ll be round at eleven o’clock.
I wander round the house unsure of what I’ve done. Everything seems bigger and darker. When the door clanks and Mum ambles in from the front garden I tell her the doctor’s coming to see her.
“Good,” she says.
She follows me as I tidy round. I make coffee and we sit, waiting.
“I expect he’ll give you some pills,” I say.
“The doctor. He’ll be here soon.”
“Oh, yes.” She’s surprisingly bright-eyed.
When the doorbell rings the children watch silently as I let him in and disappear again when I show him into Mum’s sitting room.
The doctor asks Mum how she’s feeling.
“Very well, thank you,” she says. “Not as good as I used to be but…”
“None of us is any younger,” he smiles. He’s young. She smiles back. He writes something. “Can you tell me where we are now?”
She looks confused.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Do you mind if I examine you?” He feels her wrists. “You’ve a nasty bruise. Do you remember how you got that?”
“She climbed out the window, it could be that,” I say and wonder if he’ll think I’m defending myself.
“It could be,” she says.
“Do you go out much?”
“Yes,” I say. “She’s hardly ever in.”
“Does she wander?”
“I don’t like talking about her,” I say, “not while she’s sitting there.” When I hear myself say the words I want to crawl away in shame. I glance from one to the other.
“I think it’ll be all right,” he says and looks at Mum who nods absentmindedly.
It all comes out and when I’ve finished, Mum frowns.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I didn’t know any of that,” she says.
He asks if I’ll make some coffee. She stands as if to follow me. “Can you stay here Lorna, for a moment?” He smiles at her.
I turn on the kettle and Mum joins me.
“Has he finished?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
I go back in.
“I’m going to phone round hospitals for a bed. We need to reassess her medication and then we’ll make our recommendation about long-term care.”
“A nursing home? She doesn’t want that. That’s why we’re here.”
“Perhaps. Maybe you’d like to get her bag packed.”
I return to Mum, certain she’ll refuse to go. “He thinks you should go into hospital, to sort out your medication. I’ll take you in the car and make sure you’re all right.”
“Good,” she says.
That evening, when I return from the hospital, I can’t believe what has happened, what I’ve done. It has ended; the strings have been cut, the loop broken. I left Mum happily chatting to the old ladies and feeling safe, safer than she felt here so I feel no guilt, just joy, like a dog let loose from its lead. I phone Dan.
The children emerge, inhabit the downstairs rooms, play music, chatter in the kitchen as I cook. The house sounds full like a party.
“Do you want a game of badminton?” asks Lucy.
I hug her, hold her tight. We rig up the net and play doubles with Jodie and Kate until it gets dark, laughing when the wind takes the shuttlecock over the hedge.
“Is Dad coming?” Lucy asks.
“Soon,” I say. Then we go to the beach, hold hands and wade in the icy water gazing at the silvery path made by the moon until our toes are numb.
3 replies on “A Winding Silver Path”
Wow, beautiful. I know It’s fiction, but you seem to know this kind of elderly condition really well, reminds me of the last days of my grandma, so bittersweet.
Thanks, Adriana. Yes it is fiction but it is also, to some extent, written from experience. I’m glad you enjoyed it. We tried to help out in a similar way to the family in the story and I’ve always wondered whether it was te right thing to do.