“Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my garden?” I want to say. My English reserve answers instead and I reply to her question about the delightful weather.
She’s softly spoken and I judge about my age, early forties. Homely looking. Although that’s probably me too. I don’t feel my age but when I brave the mirror, it soon reminds me that having three kids has taken its toll.
I’m sitting on Frank’s bench. Stupid really that I call it that. He made it for me. With a growing family, I relish stealing a few minutes respite in my garden. The unspoken deal was this seat for my silence. A blind eye when he sneaks off to the shed for a smoke. The honeyed teak is still as smooth as a cat’s purr. The dappled light that streams through the trees hypnotises. It frolics, like fairies at a dance, on the lawn in front of me.
My nerves are all of a jangle. That’s why I’ve retreated to my refuge, to take a moment. A needed balm for the stress. I was on my way home, crossing Links Lane and a maniac raced at me from nowhere. Drivers these days! I don’t know how they pass their tests. Tyres squealed as he banged on the horn the same as those inner-city drivers. Seconds away from contact. I came over all jittery and lightheaded. And what a foul-mouthed youth, calling me all kinds. An elderly gentleman, with a tortoise-like face, took my hand to steady me as I reached the pavement. He commented on those hybrid cars, so quiet that they creep up on us older folk. If his gentle grip of my arm had not been so genial, I may have challenged him. Old, I ask you. I’m feeling a tad creaky these days, but still! I had been busy reliving these events so that the second time around, with quicker wit, I answered everyone with a clever repertoire. But this evaporated with the intrusion of this woman ending my rerun.
“Good morning. Are you ok?” Her melodic voice grates on me.
“What’s your name? Who are you?” I hear the brisk edge to my voice and excuse myself due to my turbulent morning.
Plain Jane. Fitting, I judge. My hardness niggles but I bat it away as I search my memory. Who is she? Frank had been on at me to get a cleaner and take the load off a bit. I know I dismissed him. Well, what would my mother have said! And the expense. He must have gone ahead anyway. Did he say anything? Ahh, I blame that car. It’s got my mind all shook up.
“Can I get you anything?” she trills, annoying me further.
“Where did you come from? Who are you?” My thoughts are a tangle. Was she familiar? It’s as though I’ve been in a washing machine and I don’t know which way is up. I’m in my safe space, I remind myself, as I close my eyes and slow my breathing. It won’t be long until my rose beds bloom again and emit their sherbety fragrance. My favourite time of year.
On opening my eyes, there’s a mug of tea on the table next to me, emitting willow the whisps the momentarily glide before dissolving. Did I get it? Where’s that woman gone? I rake the garden with my eyes. Nowhere to be see. No loss. Grasping the mug, I cradle it in my hands, appreciating the warmth. Taking a generous sip, I shudder and gulp down the mouthful of syrupy liquid. Sugar! Who on earth put sugar in my tea!
Two pigeons, engrossed with their mating dance, caper along the fence and catch my eye. He coos, before parading his worth by strutting and hopping while protruding his chest. She glances at him with some indifference.
“You make him work for it, love.”
Frank did plenty of strutting back in our courting days, in his bell-bottomed jeans and tight shirts. He was a dish, but like her, I didn’t let him know too soon. His rendition of Crosby’s Have I told you lately that I love you captured me for good. How can a girl resist a chap in a Fedora, singing off-key, while dexterously accompanying himself with the spoons. He is my soul mate – if there is such a thing. Sure, he gets ratty when sleep deprived, but I wouldn’t be without his tuneless whistles and snoring.
A light breeze tickles the apple trees’ branches, releasing a flurry of confetti. The blanket of petals is inspected by a blackbird as he picks about them. There is no tonic to match the spring sun. It licks at my skin and permeates my turtleneck. My gloom burns away as did the morning mist. Furry bumblebees hum as they busy among the primroses in the border.
Footsteps. Two women approach. That woman’s back and – I don’t know the second lady, but she leads the way with purpose. This second one collects a white plastic garden chair as she navigates the flagstone path and heads in my direction. Placing it several feet away, she perches on the edge, as though poised for a quick exit. She smiles at me but a stiff one that looks out of place on her face. I wait.
“Morning Mum, how are you?’
Mum? or was it Mam? What did she say?
“Sorry, who are you exactly?’” I say with no hint of an apology.
“It’s me mum, Helen. Your daughter.”
Tutting, I shake my head. After settling the mug by my side, I look this lady firmly in the eye.
“Helen is at school.” I speak slowly as though explaining to a child.
This “Helen” pulls her weight off the front of the chair and shuffles both herself and the chair nearer, placing it a foot away. She sits tentatively on the edge. Reaching across the divide, she scoops one of my hands into her own, holding it softly.
“I’m not at school. That was a long time ago now Mum. I’m sorry but this home doesn’t belong to you anymore.”
She did sound sorry but her words are gobbledygook. I pull my hand easily from her grip.
“Look, I don’t know what you’re playing at. I can call my husband you know. He’ll get himself straight back here and sort out whatever mischief is going on.”
“Mum I’m so, so sorry, but Dad’s no longer with us. He passed away six years ago. You don’t remember?”
“How Dare you Say such a Thing!” I pull my back straight and proud, to firmly put an end to this charade.
She reclaims my hand and begins to slowly stroke the top with her finger, running it softly from side to side. Looking down, our hands together, I’m bewildered to see how skeletal mine appears. Darkening brown age spots with thin translucent skin. A blue network of veins mapped out just under the surface. How? Nothing makes any sense. My stomach lurches, reminiscent of riding the Dipper at Blackpool. My mind joins the gastro movements and whirls, unable to make sense or order. She breaks into my thoughts.
“Mum, it really is me.”
I study her. There is something about her. Those hazel eyes look glassy but they are a match for Frank’s.
“I need Frank, he can sort everything out.”
“I’m sorry mum, he’s passed away.”
With pale eyebrows furrowed, she fishes around in a cloth bag. Helen moves slowly as though I’m an animal easily startled. Moving the mug, she lowers herself next to me. I do see my wide hips and skinny legs reflected on her.
A book. Memories. She narrates to me with each page.
“Yes, yes.” I know all this. Sepia photos of Frank and I shift into colour. Helen’s words fade, as the colour has from the early photos. The kids. All chubby legs, fly-away blond hair and matching clothes. Helen keeps turning. Everyone’s aging. I want to halt but look on. The kids are no longer kids. Their likenesses morph. I slim down. Frank bulks out a little around the middle and our hair whitens. New babies join – but they aren’t mine.
“No, no, nooo.” I bend my head, covering my eyes with a hand. I shiver. The sun’s heat now powerless. Raising my eyes to meet her, I see fresh tears glistening. The liquid glass poised to spill down her face. My own track their path, splashing onto our entwined hands.
“Helen?” I try the sound of the word in my mouth.
“It is”, she whispers back.
Helen supports my arm as we amble along. I notice how sore my left knee is. Stiff like a rusted garage door. As I glance at those familiar hazel eyes, they look tired. How many times has she walked me through days similar to this? I cause Helen pain. I want this all to stop.
Between suburban semis, we arrive at a Victorian house. Complete with manicured hedges and a stripy lawn. Old people litter the benches enjoying the weather.
Once inside, I excuse myself. I reach the bathroom a minute too late. When did I become this? I try to dry myself with tissues. The bitter ammonia radiates out. My lip trembles, eyes dampen and I want to scream. This is not me! I’m trapped in a body I don’t know and it doesn’t work. Who am I? I don’t want to be here. I was happy earlier. I freeze as a rotund woman with protruding eyes and a sharp nose intrudes.
“Who are you?” Do I know? Have I forgotten? I don’t remember. My limbs begin to shake.
“Ther, ther, Missuz Ingleby. Let’s get you all cleaned up now.”
I’m like a small child. She overlooks embarrassment and deftly deals with clingy garments and resistant joints. Now clean, I stutter apologies. She brushes them away. A mirror reflects a spectre. Milky brown eyes. Skin sallow with more folds than a swing skirt. Trembling, my mother’s face glares back. After caring for her, I had always told my kids to finish me off before I went too far.
“Try to calm down mum. We’re back safely now.”
As I enter the bedroom, Helen draws me into a hug as though I’m a china doll. Her heat transfers, radiating like an electric blanket. I melt into her, confident the talc and spritz of No. 5 mask my accident. The room is beige. I hate beige. I think I hate beige. What’s the time? I locate a muted ticking to a mantle clock on the sideboard. It’s almost four. What am I doing? I need to get to school, collect the kids. Words get jumbled until, ‘Must, kids, school’, is all I hear.
“I’m here mum.”
No school. No kids. Yes, I must remember. Helen helps as my body fights against my command to get into bed. From here, I see photos alongside the clock. Familiar yet all wrong, like a brain fug after a confusingly realistic dream. Frank. There is no Frank. She told me. I hear a wailing getting louder. A nurse appears in a flimsy blue apron and she seems to think it’s me. I’m fed tablets. The water doesn’t eradicate the bitter trail left in their wake. Helen cradles my hands in both of hers, stroking them. The weight of loss presses me hard into the mattress. My home belongs to a stranger, my husband’s dead and my children are grown. So many questions but I can’t catch them to ask them. What have I missed?
“Noooo”. The wailing starts up again. Outside the window, the spring rays have been eradicated by leaden clouds. Fear floods every inch of my frame. My heart rends into shards. Powerless to fight the tablets, the day fades fast. Eyelids, like shop shutters at the end of trading, draw closed. Please, not another day like today.
Maybe I’m already asleep and in a nightmare. Maybe I will awake and see my Frank.