Not a care in the world, a short story by Maria McCann

by
20 December 2019

Jen receives an early visitor at Christmas. A short story by Maria McCann

THE woman had a dry, tired cough and had to clear her throat before speaking. “I saw her a minute ago. She’s in bed, listening to her CDs.”

Motionless, then. Under the bedclothes. Jen couldn’t let it go. “And she’s all right? I mean, did you see Mum smiling or anything — did she move at all?”

“She was singing away to herself.”

“Thank you. I just had a feeling. . .”

“No problem. We get people ringing up, they’ve had a dream, you know? But I’ve never yet had someone call, and it’s been what they thought. Never. Anything bad, we’d be straight on the phone.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you coming for Christmas?”

“I don’t know.”

She meant no. It made no difference, now. Not much point inching along in the Christmas traffic, when Mum didn’t know it was Christmas and didn’t know Jen either.

“Well, have a good one. Bye now. Bye. Bye — bye — bye.” The last word was repeated, as if to fend off silence, as the woman put the receiver down.

“Bye,” Jen said to the dialling tone. She turned back to the living room and her visitor who, despite shimmering and breaking up a little around her head and shoulders, was contained by the armchair closest to the stove. “Well,” she said, “I see you’re still here.”

“Manners,” said Mum.

MAKING tea in the kitchen, Jen paused and stood motionless, picturing how the morning sun turned Mum’s edges transparent. Was that a ghost sort of thing? Could you be a ghost if you weren’t dead? Perhaps it was more a daughter-going-mad sort of thing. She carried the tea back to the living room and set down a mug on the table next to Mum.

“Don’t you have any coasters?” Mum nagged. She had never stopped talking to Jen as if to a careless adolescent. Not that Jen’s adolescence had been especially free of care. “You’ll spoil the varnish.”

“It’s heatproof.”

“Why are you staring like that?”

“Am I?”

Mum’s head, arms, and legs had a degree of definition, but the rest was a cloud, a swirl vaguely suggestive of clothing rather than nakedness. It was a mercy.

Jen said, “It’s nice to see you,” and then, idiotically, “Was it a good journey?”

“Journey?”

“From Liverpool.”

“You going soft, or what? I came with you in the car.” In fact, she had materialised that morning. Belatedly, Jen realised that this Mum looked much younger than she did in the flesh. And she was no longer deaf.

“Of course I did,” she said. “I’m so forgetful these days.”

At this, Mum gave such a loud, contemptuous snort that Lulu and Billy, curled in a corner of the sofa, pricked up their ears before lapsing back into sleep. Apart from that, they paid Mum no attention. So much for the famed sixth sense of dogs.

Another ten minutes passed. Mum had yet to take a sip of her tea. She had always drunk tea greedily, finishing her cup before anyone else.

But did she know she wasn’t drinking? Questions of this kind had exercised Jen even before Mum entered the care home. For many months, Mum had believed herself to be independently shopping, cooking, cleaning, and running her own financial affairs, all of which tasks were carried out, in reality, by Jen or by professional carers. Mum also believed herself to be showering daily, a job which was not done by carers because she would allow nobody to touch her.

“Don’t let it get cold,” Jen said, nagging in her turn.

So far, Jen had performed nearly a decade of Dementia Duty; this Christmas was to be her first, for many years, not spent with Mum. She hadn’t yet planned any of it; not planning was itself an exquisite luxury. Oh, the plans she had made and executed, over those years! This Christmas she would be free — well, almost. She had the dogs to look after, of course, and was tied to her mobile in case the care home phoned, but such light obligations hardly counted.

There would be no booking Lulu and Billy into kennels; no guilt about them being cold in December; no procuring and packing a Christmas dinner, with wine and crackers and any necessary kitchen equipment (since Mum’s meals were all microwaved, these days, and she tended to throw away useful items); no crawling along the motorways in the holiday traffic — with ice adding to the fun; no sharing the sofa, grimly smiling, while Mum channel-surfed for hours on end, the ads so loud that they seemed to be exploding inside Jen’s ears; no furtive drives to the sand dunes for half an hour’s escape.

Instead, there would be — peace. Her own home, quiet, calm, a walk with the dogs, a good book, meeting up with friends. As for the fuss and fret of the last decade, Mum was now being cared for round the clock, so it was Goodbye to All That.

Or, perhaps, now that Mum had turned up, Hello to All That Again.

Had Mum come to stay for Christmas — was she expecting a Christmas spread? Jen’s need to know whether she would eat or not was growing more pressing by the minute.

“Don’t let your tea get cold,” she said again.

Mum pursed her lips. “Are those dogs allowed on the sofa?”

“Yes,” Jen said firmly.

“They’ll make it smell.”

Jen considered replying, “I don’t care,” but contented herself with “I’ve got a spray.” She wondered what Mum would say when she discovered that Lulu and Billy slept on Jen’s bed. “Would you like a sandwich or something, Mum? You must be hungry.”

“I’m not bothered,” Mum said. Jen bristled at the words: for her, they invoked the absence of zest that she recalled from childhood, and had also met with as her mother’s carer. Shall I make you some tea? I’m not bothered. Would you like to drive to the beach? I’m not bothered. Pasta or roast? I’m not bothered. What channel do you want to watch? I’m not bothered. Shall we just commit suicide? I’m not bothered.

No sandwiches, then,” she said.

IT WAS evening. The sound of television, only a little louder than usual, floated upstairs as Jen marinated in the bath, breathing in the comforting perfume of Winter Magic bath oil. She was remembering her visit to the care home two weeks earlier, when she had kissed her mother goodbye.

The bedroom was clean and brightly lit, the walls lemon yellow. In this impersonally cheerful space Mum had been confined, immobile, for some weeks. Curled up in bed, she was unrecognisable as the bustling, formidable matriarch of former days. She seemed frail as paper and almost as flat, her arms on the coverlet shrunken to crinkled skin lying slack over bone. A fragment of memory, suddenly: Jen, very young, climbing into her parents’ bed after a nightmare. She had snuggled between the sleeping backs that rose above her on either side, a deep, safe canyon.

Seeing Jen, Mum had made occasional sounds that might or might not have been words. When Jen held her hand, she smiled abstractedly but seemed not to connect the sensation with her daughter’s face bending over the bed.

Afterwards, Jen had driven back along the motorway, filled with sadness but with no compensatory sense of having comforted her mother. Having stopped at the services for coffee, she drank automatically until she had finished every last mouthful in the cardboard bucket handed her by the barista. If Mum had registered a presence at all, she had probably taken Jen for one of the carers. And, within a year, Mum would be dead, and this phase of Jen’s life, which seemed to have gone on for so long and necessitated so many struggles — against herself as well as others — would shrivel into history.

Death, and admitting its approach, wasn’t a family taboo. Sex, yes — vicious battles had been fought over that, and Jen winced at the memory of them but not death. While Jen was still in her twenties, she knew exactly which undertakers Mum and Dad would prefer, and what they would expect.

Some expectations, of course — the most important ones — were left unstated, and these Jen had had to intuit. She knew them now, and was aware that she couldn’t fulfil them. All she could give was her dry and dutiful best, striving for kindness, growing drier as years of frustration and fatigue eroded her. What was expected, by everyone it seemed, was a transcendent, all-forgiving tenderness which Jen had repeatedly struggled, and failed, to achieve.

Mum herself had never been one for such emotion. It wasn’t her fault, Jen knew: she’d done better than her own mother, Jen’s grandmother. It’s hard to give back what you’ve never been given in the first place.

But then, that equation of emptiness applied to Jen, too. She pulled the plug and lay still as the hot scented water was sucked down the drain.

“YOU haven’t drunk your tea.”

“Oooh, give that girl a coconut!” Mum had never seen any problem with sarcasm, offered at the slightest provocation.

“It’ll be cold now, would you like some more?”

“If I want some more I’ll say so.”

Right, thought Jen, you say so. She sat back and studied the flickering presence in the armchair. Was she mistaken, or was Mum looking older? On first appearance, Ghost Mum had looked about 50, ready (as ever) to fight. Surely her arms were now more sagging and shrivelled, and her face —

“That’s a pretty little thing,” Mum said suddenly. “Lulu, is it?”

“Billy.”

Hearing their names, the terriers woke and stretched. Mum rose, drifted in the direction of the sofa, settled into it and patted her lap. Jen watched the dogs greet her, thrusting out their front paws. She felt a faint sickness as Lulu and Billy climbed into Mum’s lap, or rather through it: from Jen’s perspective they appeared to be sitting on the sofa with Mum coalescing, if that was the right word, around them. My dogs are inside my mother.

Jen herself had once been in the same place — but then she remembered that Mum had no womb, having undergone a hysterectomy in her forties. So the dogs couldn’t quite be . . . there.

How old are they now?” Mum asked.

“Nobody knows for sure. I’ve got a photo of you together.” She went upstairs to fetch her laptop, glad to escape the spectacle of her mother apparently digesting the dogs. Coming back down the stairs she almost fell, and wondered what would happen if she took a tumble: would Mum be able to raise the alarm? How ironic, if not. After all these years of anticipating every possible accident on her behalf.

“Here it is, look.” She forced herself to sit beside Mum on the sofa and opened the file.

Mum recoiled. “Do I really look like that?”

Jen bit her lip, realising her mistake. For Ghost Mum, who looked now to be entering her sixties, the past it showed still lay in the future — in her eighties. Jen managed an unconvincing laugh. “It’s a terrible picture. Nothing like you, really.”

“More like your gran,” Mum said.

“Yes. Like me, too, probably, in a few years.”

“I sort of remember you getting them.”

“The dogs?”

“Didn’t they come together, from some foreign place?”

Jen stared. “Yes, they did.”

Her mother’s face was definitely older than when she’d first appeared. Still, she shouldn’t be remembering that, not yet. You’re in your sixties, Jen appealed silently. You can’t remember. You’re shifting in time!

No. What’s happening is that I’m going mad, because you don’t exist.

And yet. . . How to ignore a ghost on the sofa? “Shall we go to bed soon? I’ve made up the spare room for you.”

“Not yet,” Mum said. “Can you put the other side on? There might be a film.”

She’s here to stay, Jen thought. Nights and nights of this. . . She glanced sideways at her mother, whose face now showed deep lines from lip to chin.

Mum turned up the volume.

“WHY don’t you bring her to a home round here?” well-meaning friends sometimes asked. Jen could rarely summon the energy to explain, yet again, the battle she had fought to make this possible, and why it had been fruitless. Homes in Jen’s area were expensive; Mum’s local authority would only release sufficient funds to place Mum in a local care home.

That might have been worked around, had Mum moved nearer to her daughter before she developed Alzheimer’s, and so become a local resident there. Foreseeing problems, Jen had begged her a decade earlier to do just that, but Mum wasn’t leaving Liverpool, and wasn’t taking advice from a child, even a child now drawing a pension.

“I’m doing fine. My friends are here. You mind your own business, nosey poke!”

Jen considered dismantling her life and moving to Liverpool. Not possible. And so Mum had her way. In time, as Jen had foreseen, the glorious vision of independence didn’t hold up: as Mum grew more confused, unstable, repetitive, and grubby, her friends melted away. They were elderly themselves; some had died, some had gone to live elsewhere, and some were too terrified by the grim future that Mum represented.

Jen had struggled to exert some influence. “Your mother has mental capacity,” she was told. “She can make and express her own decisions.”

“But she’s going to kill herself.”

“Ah,” people would smile ruefully, “They don’t have to be good decisions.”

At last Mum suffered a fall so serious that the hospital refused to release her except into a care home. Thank God, Jen had thought, Thank God. But by now Mum had become disinhibited, foul-mouthed, and smelly. Rooms in care homes are in short supply: privately run homes have their pick of smiling, clean, biddable old ladies. So it was that Mum’s triumphant exercise of choice left Jen, at the end of the process, with no wriggle-room at all.

“You seem angry with her,” a therapist had observed. Jen had seen more than one therapist over the years.

“I am.”

“You’re an intelligent woman. You know she can’t help having dementia.”

“It’s not about that. What gets me is the way she was before. When Dad died, I begged her to come here. I said things would change, she’d need more help, we all need more help over time. I told her it would get impossible —” Jen clenched her fists. “Now look at us.”

The therapist said, “Other people’s choices have results we can’t control.”

“Tell me about it! Years of driving up and down the country, running everything from miles away, propping up her life, and it’s never once occurred to her that maybe that’s not been so great for me.”

“That you hate it,” the therapist said.

Jen let out a breath.

IN THE guest room, she drew back the quilt. There seemed little point in showing Mum the workings of the shower, but to be safe, she had placed some toiletries and a towel in the en suite. It looked friendlier.

Should there be a nightdress? But as soon as Mum drifted into the room, still clad in her shimmer, it was clear that she wasn’t interested in nightwear. Just as she was, she lay down on the mattress and Jen drew the quilt over her. She couldn’t help seeing that Mum’s legs were bonier, her back humped. She now definitely resembled the fragile woman lying in the care home.

Billy and Lulu scrambled up on to the bed, and Mum didn’t shoo them away.

“I was glad when you got them,” Mum said. “Nice little things.” She sank down further into the bed and Lulu curled up in the crook of her knees.

Jen switched on the bedside lamp. “You remember that, do you?”

“You weren’t sure whether you wanted the two or just one.”

“No, I wasn’t. And you said,” Jen felt her throat tighten, “you said, ‘Better take both of them. If you split them up they’ll only grieve.’” She hoped Mum hadn’t noticed the tightness. It had come at that memory of kindness for two small abandoned animals.

“And here they are,” Mum said. “Safe and not a care in the world.”

Jen walked round the bed to look directly into Mum’s face. Through creased, swollen eyelids, Mum was gazing up at her.

“Not a care in the world,” Jen said. She stroked Mum’s hair. Mum’s eyes closed and a vague, unfocused smile settled over her features: the smile Jen remembered from the care home. Jen turned off the lamp and made her way downstairs into the living room, where the phone was already ringing.


Maria McCann’s novels include As Meat Loves Salt and The Wilding. Her short story “Colossal Wreck” ap­­peared in the collection Kiss and Part published this year by Canterbury Press (£16.99 (£15.30)) (Features, 20 September; Books, 29 November).

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