Winning entry in Memoir – Dorothy Gallagher

Then One Day…


Then one day, it all changed

Aunt Kathleen turned her head slowly from side to side, but her eyes didn’t move. They remained trained on the image in the gilt-framed mirror on our lounge wall. If she knew that I was there, watching, then she gave no sign of it; I was not acknowledged, unlike the coy beauty that half smiled back at her.
She swivelled slightly, her sharp heels twisting the shag pile of the rug beneath her, churning hollow coils of wool, like worm casts from damp sand.
Twisting a stray strand of mid brown hair around one finger, she patted it into place behind her ear, stroking it down, like a sleep bound child. She hummed a tune I did not know and staying firmly within her own world, caressed the gentle swell beneath her smock.
‘It would have been too much for her,’ I’d heard them say, ‘especially in this weather. A graveside is no place for a woman in her condition; better to stay at home, with the children. ‘

We had rarely used this room, since moving in just six months before. It wasn’t really a room at all, more a slight swelling in the hall, talked up by the estate agent. It didn’t have a door, just a thin velvet curtain, so people could come and go, silently and unobserved.
In fact, that’s how I found out.
He had been on the phone as I happened to pass through that flimsy partition, from childhood to the rest of life. Of course, I’d known she’d been unwell for a while, but she had been many times before and things always, eventually, went back to normal. Everything was so different when mum wasn’t in charge; the alien stench of ‘beef coral’, a favourite of our visiting helper, pervaded all; its powerful odour casting a cloud around me, even as I tried to live the other life at school. But nothing was the same when she wasn’t there.

Slightly built and quiet by nature, it was difficult to account for the presence she exuded. In her wardrobe of Marks and Spencer, 19/11 dresses (‘really a pound,’ she would caution, ‘don’t be fooled’), she invisibly filled each room, gathering our debris in the pockets of her lemon apron, with its Easter chicken border. She listened to our many woes with an equanimity that we did not question, waiting in turn to tell the tales of our day; she would just listen.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to hear him, arched over the tethered hand piece, looking strangely frail. But it was not his words that pulled me to him, it was a sound I hadn’t heard before; a formless sound, a guttural monotone, tuneless wail that oversung each outward breath, punctuated by sharp snatches that seemed in themselves to cause fresh agony.
‘She’s dying.’
A sickening knot twisted beneath my heart, a seed of sadness that would forever seek its source; an umbilicus of sorrow. I wished myself away.
‘There’s no hope.’

I think I turned away, to retrace my steps and undo this scene, but in truth that memory is forever lost in a scream of white noise. What I do know is that I managed to leave without being discovered and that it would be years before I would recall this event, shocking myself with the discovery that I had had warning of the imminent calamity. There was no going back.

Aunt Kathleen withdrew to the fireside chair and rearranged its thin cushions. She circled each shoulder in turn, working her way in to comfort, then closed her eyes, against the fire’s glare and any risk of intrusion. I watched the mound of new life shift as she followed its moving contours with a manicured hand. This was a hopeful interment and I envied the unborn its maternal love. A baby, buried beneath layers of living flesh was not scary at all and with each nurturing minute, it became more ready for life, more vital, more human. It was in the process of becoming; cell–by-cell it was enlarged upon, improved. I closed my eyes and followed its new blood, surging through unspoiled limbs that beat their intent upon the mother’s womb. It was safe, for the moment. No feasting predators lay in wait, no nails required to hold it fast, no need to claw should it decide to leave; my eyes shot open.

My mum hadn’t been much of a talker either, at least not to me. As one of the youngest, I had often felt frustrated by the silence between us and envious of the relationship she had with the eldest girl, her confidant. She listened well, yes, but offered little in return, rendering most of our conversations much shallower than I would have liked. It meant we didn’t have words for things. Each time we talked, we seemed to cover the same territory, never breaking out or moving on. And like prisoners circling within a barren yard, our communications became defined more by their limits than possibilities.

We were rarely alone together, but once, when I was about seven, we were. From my seat on the bus, I could see, as she stared out the window, that something was dangling from her nose; something that she would want to remove; she liked to look smart. But I had no word for it with her. I tried to find a way and silently rehearsed some possibilities, before accepting defeat and the uncomfortable recognition that we didn’t know each other well enough for that. I turned the other way and realised that the wall was even closer than I’d thought.

Aunt Kathleen shifted a little in her chair and for a moment I thought she might open her eyes. She prized off each shoe with the toe of the other foot, easing stiff black patent along American Tan heels. She wriggled her toes, freeing them a little from the moist nylon that gaped around one of her naked toes. A month before, I would have smiled, but not today. To see her exposed like that, not strong, not perfect, not invincible at all; perhaps, I thought, her silence was a failing, not a stance. Perhaps, I thought, we just didn’t have the words.

Behind her, a heartless February screamed its fury; sea salt tears down sand smeared panes. Beyond them, a garden that no longer called me to play. Tomorrow, I would go back to school, to the grey prefabricated cage, where foolish girls competed for centre stage and boys did not yet exist. To the beaded brows of adults regretting their lot, and longing, like the rest of us, for the bell to ring. Tomorrow I would assume again my lower tier, towards the back of the main auditorium, a reluctant audience to the main players. Tomorrow the day would tumble on, like so many other Fridays, but nothing would ever be the same again.




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