My very dear Claire,
I already know so much about you, and yet I have never actually seen you. For six months now, I have been passing you, sensing you, hearing you, closing my eyes when I... [+]
The house seems incongruous on the immaculate street. There are weeds invading the spaces between the broken tiles that lead up to the flaking front door, and a plastic bag rustles, as it struggles to escape the branches of an adolescent sycamore, insolently residing in the center of the baron lawn. I mutter to myself in annoyance as I catch my new coat on the thorns of an untended rose bush that clings to a faded trellis to the side. I take a deep, composing breath, filling my lungs and slowly releasing, as I raise my gloved finger to press the mildewed doorbell.
The woman that finally arrives to let me in has fear in her eyes and sadness in her stance. She is a beige woman, from the vintage clothes that hang from her frame, to the neatly laced shoes; even her skin i beige. She silently steps aside to let me enter, then glances cautiously down the street as if checking for an enemy approach, before retreating and pushing the door closed with an effort that is out of proportion to the action.
The hallway should be wide and filled with light from the large frosted window at the side of the door, but instead the walls are insulated by piles of yellowing newspapers, each brick neatly wrapped in string and finished with a tidy knot. I make my way down the tunnel and into the front room, my nose tickling from the smell of old libraries that is somehow comforting and heartbreaking all at the same time.
The room is darker than it should be at this time of day. The heavy curtains are closed, a broken ring allowing a single shaft of natural light to enter, while a Tiffany glass lamp rests on the table and fills the rest of the space with a warming orange glow. The ornate mahogany mantelpiece now surrounds an ugly gas fire; its copper piping uncaringly hacked through the side of the surround. A concertina of correspondence rests on the shelf above, each letter positioned precisely between two bookends.
The woman interrupts my inspection with a simple gesture of hospitality. “Would you like a cup of tea dear?”
I turn, smile at her and decline, conscious that the simple act of making tea can be challenging for someone with her diminishing sight. I balance on the edge of a faded sofa rubbing my palm across the worn fabric absentmindedly as she navigates the room and takes up her place in the armchair opposite the fire. She doesn’t bother, or doesn’t remember, to remove her shoes before she puts her feet up on the ottoman, which is positioned perfectly to catch the maximum amount of heat from the fire, although it isn’t quite cold enough for it to be on yet.
On the wall opposite a row of photos tell her autobiography, charting a life that was full of youthful adventures. Joyful eyes looking back from a black and white image of her standing with a cluster of young women all dressed in their finery and I imagine what event they could have been attending. Those same eyes sparkle with infatuation in a later photo as she stands in white lace, holding a bouquet, beside a handsome man in uniform.
Looking back towards her, I wonder if that vitality is still there somewhere, the sparkle hidden behind the cataracts, or whether age is taking these memories from her in the way that it is eroding her more recent ones. It won’t be long before she’ll be forced to move from this home and into one that’s assisted. Her smile is fixed. Her misty gaze neither looking directly at or past me, and I lean forward covering her frail hand with mine and ask whether there is anything I can do for her.
“You could read to me dear. My eyes aren’t so good anymore.”
There are plenty of books in this house that was a home before e-readers and tablets were even dreamed of, but I know it’s not literature she wants to hear. I extract the first precious envelope from the shelf and remove the single piece of delicate paper it holds. The script is written in the flowing ink of a fountain pen that years ago glided across the paper to share its words. It’s a letter of love, of longing to be together in a world that has separated its writer from its receiver, and it’s quite beautiful. I take my time over the words, allowing her to savor each one and letting the melodic prose fill the room. When I finish, I refold the paper and return it to its protective sleeve before selecting the next one.
“My Roger had quite a way with words.”
She seems to have drifted away into a memory, so I pause before starting again, only speaking when she has finished absorbing all of its nutrients. By the end of the second letter, there is a tear resting on her cheek.
Time passes slowly in this darkened room with its recollections looking out from behind glass frames and speaking through old letters. I stay hours longer than I should, but while there are plenty of other places I could or should be, there is nowhere else I’d rather be, than here with her, giving her a window into a time when she was happiest. Perhaps it’s life’s way of protecting her from the loss that followed, chiseling away her memories of it.
I continue reading, and though I know how the story ends, when Roger writes that he will be leaving the country, I find that I need to take a break. “I’ll put the kettle on,” I say. I touch her hand lightly as I pass and head out to the kitchen, past the newspapers that have been saved for Roger to read when he comes home, for although he did come home, her dementia has taken that from her too.
When I return, she has fallen asleep, her head fallen slightly to the side and her mouth letting out little puffs of air. I hug the warm mug of tea and return to the picture wall where the story confirms that Roger returned, and later that they had a child they clearly adored. There are pictures of the family growing up and growing old together. She used to tell me that our past should surround us and not be hidden in shoe boxes. I’ve always liked that idea. The series stops suddenly when Roger leaves her permanently, his passing seeming to correlate with her aging in my mind. I do my best to see her regularly, but it’s getting harder. She doesn’t always know who I am. She is simply waiting.
I wait to see if she will wake up, watching the rise and fall of her chest as she escapes into her dreams. I don’t want to leave her, but I know that I will have to; I have a family of my own who will be waiting for me. Eventually, I cover her knees with a woolen blanket and she mutters my name as she wishes me goodnight. I whisper my reply, “Goodnight, Mum.”
I make my way back through the newspaper tunnel and out of the door that eases closed behind me. As I walk down the path, I look over to the gnarled rose bush that snagged my coat and see the pink petals of a single rose in bloom.