© Clare London / 2010
All I could say was, the visitor’s chair didn’t get any more comfortable, week in, week out. I wriggled a bit, trying not to get my skirt caught again. If they just offered a cushion. Or decent tea, or biscuits that weren’t stale, or a half open window to let some fresh air into this stuffy, rancid little cell they called a guest room…Or, of course, if I didn’t have to come around at all. I reckoned the old biddy in the armchair opposite me didn’t even know when one week bled into the next.
I plucked one of the tissues from beside the chair and blew my nose. I should be at home, nursing this cold, looking after myself, not some shrunken old crone who sat with a blanket over her knees all day. Why the hell I thought I had to dress up every week to pay court to some distant relative, I’d never know.
Well, of course I did.
I wrinkled my nose. Disgusting in here. Damp clothing left on a radiator; an apple core left to rot down behind a beside table. Old age and neglect and the carelessness of failing eyes and ears.
Aunt Marie coughed, pointedly. “Are you all right, Em?”
God, how I hate being called Em, like I’m some little kid. I peered at Aunt Marie. Every now and then the eyes behind those thick glasses looked far more alert than the bloody doctor had led me to believe they should be. “I’m fine.”
“Maybe you’ve got that flu that’s been on the news. It’s a killer,” Aunt Marie said, quite cheerfully. “Breathing problems. You’ve got the symptoms.”
I frowned. You’re the bloody pensioner. “You need to be careful yourself, all these viruses about.” Can but hope.
Aunt’s eyes widened. “I get flu every year, it gives me immunity. It’s youngsters like you…” Yeah, you smirk away, like you know I’m way past my prime, “…get hit badly, first time around for infection. Attacks the nervous system.” Marie’s mouth twisted in a parody of a smile. “Poor you.”
I swallowed the cough that was tickling my throat. I’d tell the nurses to take away her TV because the constant diet of hospital soap operas was obviously upsetting the old witch. Like I’d told the supervisor where Marie hid her chocolate: like I’d told that lovesick geriatric up the corridor Marie didn’t want tea with him because he stank of piss. “I said I’m fine.” I glanced at the plate on Aunt’s side table. “Those cakes look better than usual, right?”
Aunt raised her pencil-thin brows. “You can see those?”
Mentally, I rolled my eyes. It’s not me needs hyper-multi-focal glasses just to find the toilet. “How come you’ve got such a good spread today?”
Aunt Marie was watching me. “Please help yourself, Em. I think I deserve some nice things. Might as well spend all that money, after all.”
“Yeah. I mean, no.” I recovered well, I didn’t think she’d seen anything amiss. “Though don’t go wasting it.” I took one of the iced chocolate cookies. I couldn’t remember when I’d smelled anything that good.
Aunt Marie sighed. “Those were my Billy’s favourites. I used to take a couple when we went on a picnic.” She blushed. “When we were courting.”
Christ. Now I had to listen to all those tales again, all about her dear departed and the old days when the weather was always brighter, the buses on time, and all the other relatives were still alive and kicking…
I bit into the biscuit, snapping the thick chocolate. “So what did the lawyer say?”
Aunt Marie blinked hard. “Try the pink meringues, Em.” Her smile was sad. “Martin loved them. ‘Pink cakes, Mum’, he’d say. ‘What’d the men say?’ Of course, that was before…”
Yeah, yeah. “The war. He died. You said.” I tried one of the said meringues. Rich sugar, melting on my tongue. “But what about the will? You said you were seeing him yesterday, to get it changed.”
Aunt Marie’s smile looked frozen. “You said that, dear. But I appreciate your concern. Have a sponge finger, too.”
Tell me you added me on the will. You promised you would! I sipped some of the lukewarm tea and reached for a lemon sponge finger. “So whose favourites were these?” I laughed. What morbid memory this time?
Marie was very still.
I swallowed the last mouthful. It had an odd aftertaste. Dirty: earthen. Like crumpled, dead leaves. Like sand. I coughed. The sand thickened. There was a knot in the back of my throat: pressure in my chest. I couldn’t breathe freely. Fear was immediate and startling. If you can’t breathe, they say, nothing else matters.
I was just trying to help you move on, you old cow!
Marie didn’t stir. “And that’s what I’m doing, too, dear Em,” she whispered. “Helping you to move on. After all, you’ve never been happy here, have you?”
The nurse ran into the room.
“She just stopped breathing,” Marie sobbed. “I rang the call button immediately.”
The nurse’s hand gripped my wrist, businesslike, assured. “Had she been ill?”
“Just flu,” Marie murmured. “Some trouble breathing.”
“I’ll have to get a doctor. What a shock for you.” She dropped my wrist like I was a body, not a live patient.
Marie smiled, as if at a private thought.
The nurse was peering at her. Poor old Marie, were her thoughts. Funny how I could hear them, even as the rest of my senses suffocated. The last of her relatives gone.
Marie spoke to her quite calmly. “But I’m fine, you know. They were a very mixed bunch. I’ll leave my money to the donkey sanctuary, like I always planned.”
The nurse shrugged. “Let me take you to the lounge while I clear up the spilt tea.” She stooped and picked up the fallen plate. “God, haven’t we finished these biscuits yet? Plain and stale. Let’s see about some tasty cakes next visiting day.”