I wrote Whose House is This? in answer to a call for submissions from Honno for short stories for their anthology, Coming up Roses . The story is that of a mother and daughter and the changes in their garden throughout the seasons running parallel to the changes in the mother’s illness; her dementia. Because time and a mother’s dementia has hidden a memory for many years in my latest book, The Memory, much in the same way that memories disappear in Whose House is This?, I was given permission from the publishers to reproduce the story here.
Coming up Roses: A collection of garden stories from Wales
Edited by Caroline Oakley
“Sad, tense, funny, bizarre but best of all, original plots and a huge variety of themes show how creative writers can transform fruit and veg, flower borders and potting sheds to delve into our deepest fears and unrequited longings but also bring on the growth of new possibilities with each passing season.” Western Mail. http://bit.ly/2GlXuQ4
Whose House is This? by Judith Barrow
I’ve given up trying to persuade Mum to stay indoors, so here we both are, huddled in a shed no bigger than a telephone box, our breath, white vapour, mingling in the coldest December day this year.I’ve wrapped her up as best I can: coat, blankets, woolly hat and gloves. The gloves are the most important; she will insist on trying to touch the shears and secateurs. I’ve cleaned, sharpened and oiled them and the shine of the blades fascinates her.
‘Just let me hold them,’ she says for the tenth time after I’ve put them safely out of her reach.
‘Not today, you’ll get oil on your coat.’ Her hat has fallen over one eye and she tilts her head upwards and glares crossly at me. I straighten it. ‘I think we’ve done enough in here for today.’ Ignoring the loud sigh that balloons her cheeks I add, ‘Let’s go in for a drink.’
Hands under her armpits, I haul her to her feet. The blankets drop to the floor. I kick them to one side; I’ll pick them up later. We shuffle out of the door.
‘Mind the step. And watch the ice on the path.’
‘I can manage, I’m not a baby.’
‘I know.’ Even so, I hold one hand under her elbow and my other arm around her shoulders. She seems so tiny.
‘How about we have a whiskey and hot water to warm us?’ We pick up pace towards the back door. Just before we go in, she stops.
‘Whose house is this?’
‘It’s ours, Mum; we’ve been here thirty years.’
But she won‘t go in. Stubbornly she holds on to the frame with stiff arms.
‘This isn’t our door, our door is blue.’
‘No, we had double glazing last summer. This is our new back door.’
She doesn’t speak. I wait, my hands on her waist. She turns, her arms dropping to her sides; the many layers she wears means that they are at an angle from her body as though she is gesturing in surprise. She looks around the garden.‘Whose house is this?’‘Ours.’I wait. It’s best too keep quiet when she’s in one of these moods.The birds are making short work of the seeds and bread we scattered earlier. The squirrel stares at us, still as a statue, hanging from the peanut holder.
‘I don’t like winter,’ she says. And then in one of her sudden changes of subject, ‘Do you remember your granddad’s allotment?’And, in a flash, I’m there. It’s a memory long forgotten. I don’t know why or where I’ve conjured it up from. Perhaps it’s the clouds, bruised with threatening rain or hail, just like that day so long ago, or it’s the blackbird scuttling around on the lawn. Anyway, there I am, after all this time.
Seven years old, sitting on the outside lavatory, picking the whitewash off the wall and watching the blackbird following my grandfather as he digs in his allotment, which is on the other side of the low wall of our yard. He’s turning the soil over one last time before winter sets in. I’ve left the door open. If it’s closed the darkness smothers me and I’m afraid; there would be only a thin line of light at the bottom of the door where the wind whistles through and causes goose-bumps on my legs.
Heavy drops begin to fall to the ground, turning into muddy water on the clay soil. My grandfather pushes the peak of his cap off his forehead, squints up at the sky, and takes a tab end of cigarette from behind his ear. He rolls the flattened tip between forefinger and thumb but his hands are wet and the paper quickly becomes saturated. The strands of tobacco fall out. He swears softly, unaware I am there, and takes a small yellow tin from his trouser pocket. Balancing his spade against his leg, he carefully taps the remains of the cigarette into the box.
I lean forward and tear a square of newspaper off the loop of string hanging from the back of the door, use it, and stand to pull up my knickers. The rain slants down in a sudden rush, hitting the flags in the yard with loud slaps. Granddad has disappeared into his shed. I shiver, thread the belt of my navy gabardine coat through the buckle and tighten it. Lowering the wooden lid of the lavatory, I sit on it, waiting for the rain to stop so that I can make a run for the house.
After a few minutes it turns into a drizzle and, as I hesitate, my grandfather reappears to stand in the doorway of the shed. He glances to his left and I follow his gaze. I can hear the muffled clucking of the hens in their shelter in the run at the far side of his allotment. Granddad drags on the gold chain across his chest until he is holding his fob watch in his hands. His lips move with a low breathy whistle… It‘s a Long Way to Tipperary.If I go now he will see me and know I have been watching him. He hates being watched. A small dour man in poor health, we have lived with him since Grandma died, three years ago. Resentful of his need for my mother, he speaks as little as possible and spends much of his time in his allotment.
He slips the watch back into the pocket in his padded brown waistcoat and begins the laborious process of rolling another cigarette. This always fascinates me and I watch until he finally crouches down to strike a match along the brick that he keeps by the shed door just for that purpose. Cupping his hands he shelters the flame and sucks vigorously. The paper flares for a second and then the tobacco glows red. Slouching against the door-frame Granddad lifts his chin and, making faces like a fish gulping, blows smoke rings upwards. We both watch as each circle floats away, expanding outwards until it is only a wisp of white against the glowering sky.
Finally he pushes himself upright and strides towards the hen house, flicking the stump of cigarette into the air. It scatters sparks as it arcs away. I stop swinging my legs, uncross my ankles and peep around the door frame. The gate of the hen run is made from chicken wire, stretched over thin pieces of wood. He lifts it on its hinges and squeezes through. He stands still for a minute. The hens become quiet. He bends down, disappearing below the yard wall. There is a sudden commotion and when he stands up he is holding a hen by its legs. I turn my head sideways to look at it. It’s Ethel; I recognise her by the black patch of feathers on her wing that contrasts with the auburn ones. She is squawking and flapping frantically.
Somehow I know what is going to happen. I open my mouth to shout but no sound comes out. I begin to run towards Grandad. With a quick twist he snaps her neck before I reach the gate.
‘Yes,’ I say to Mum. ‘Yes, I remember Granddad’s allotment.’Mum and I are vegetarians. I have been for as long as I can remember; Mum, since I started doing the cooking ten years ago.
Today we are planning to plant shallot and onion sets into the vegetable patch and to transfer the small tomato plants, I’ve grown from seed, into Gro-Bags, in the greenhouse.It’s cool for the beginning of May. The pale sun struggles through a skein of lemon clouds and a chilly breeze causes the line of Leylandii in next door’s garden to shiver constantly but in the shelter of our fence it’s pleasant and, in the greenhouse, quite warm. Mum is sitting, muffled up as usual, in her chair, just outside the doorway.
She doesn’t answer and, when I kneel down at her side, I see she is asleep; gentle snores bubbling her lips. I tuck her hands under the blanket and take the opportunity to carry the Gro-Bags from the shed to the greenhouse. The rattle of the wheelbarrow doesn’t wake her and I manage to get most of the tomato plants transferred before she starts to move restlessly, muttering to herself. Standing up I wipe my hands on my trousers and then kneel next to her, waiting for her to open her eyes. She gets frightened if she can’t see me at once.
‘Whose house is this?’
‘Tea?’ I ask again and she nods, touching my cheek.
We sit on the bench outside the back door, holding hands, waiting for the kettle to boil.‘I’ll have to have a wash before I make the tea.’ But she won’t let go of my fingers. I hear the kettle switch off. ‘Just let me make the tea. I’m only in the kitchen.’
But as soon as I disappear she cries out.
‘Joyce…Joyce? Whose house is this? Joyce?’
‘Won’t be a minute. Watch the birds. And just look at the Clematis; that plant, next to you in the tub. It’s never had so many flowers on it. Isn’t it pretty?’ I keep talking but she still calls my name. Hurriedly I brew, put two cups, a jug of milk, a packet of digestives and the teapot on the tray. The ’phone rings,‘No, thanks I don’t need double glazing, nor a conservatory.’ But the woman is persistent and keeps talking, so in the end I put the receiver down on her. ‘Coming now Mum.’ There is no answer. I look out of the window but can’t see her.
She’s not there. I hurry to the greenhouse, then the shed. A quick look around the garden proves fruitless. She’s nowhere to be seen. The gate’s swinging open.
I run down the lane. There isn’t a footpath and I hope there are no boy racers trying the twists and turn of our narrow road today. The scent of the bluebells mixes with that of the wild garlic; the vivid blue diminished by the prolific cowslip.
And there she is. I can hardly believe it; she is walking quite quickly in her pink fluffy slippers. Her white hair flows down her back and from the way she’s waving her arms around I can tell she’s upset, even before I hear her crying. There’s a wet patch on the back of her skirt so that the material clings to her skinny buttocks.
‘Mum.’ She doesn’t hear me. My breath is shallow; I’m not as young as I was. I catch up with her, careful not to touch or frighten her. ‘Mum?’
She stops and looks at me, sobbing; tears and snot mingle.
‘Lost,’ she says, ‘lost.’
‘No, you’re not lost. I’m here now. Come on, let’s go home.’ She won’t move. She prods me in the chest.
‘No,’ she says, ‘no. Joyce, Joyce…lost…again. Always getting lost.’
‘No, I’m here, Mum. See, I’m here. It’s me, Joyce,’ she hesitates, shaking her head. I say again, ‘Your daughter, Joyce. I’m here.’
She pushes me away, flapping her hands at me.
‘Not Joyce. Joyce…little. My little girl…lost. Frightened…without me…ends in tears.’
And I know what she means. When I was young, I would slip away from her in town; eager to explore but, inevitably, I would finish up being frightened by the freedom I had gained. Scared and alone and surrounded by strangers.
‘Oh, that Joyce,’ I say, ‘that Joyce. She’s back at the house, she came back.’
She stares at me suspiciously. ‘Came back? Never gets back…can’t get back.’ Looking into her eyes, the blue faded by years, I see a flicker of comprehension as she repeats, ‘…can never get back.’
I hold out my hand to her. Through the thin material of her cotton gloves, her fingers feel cold. And even though I know I am lying, I say firmly. ‘It’s never too late to go back, Mum. Now, let’s go home for that cup of tea.’
On the drive the cherry blossom floats its flowers down on us.
‘It’s a wedding.’ She laughs. And catches a petal.
The rain pounds heavily on the porch roof and when I open the door it gusts in with me. Mum, sitting in the wheelchair lent to us by Social Services, shouts, ‘Shut.’ She shouts a lot these days. She hates being inside but weeks of dull, grey days and rain have stopped us from going outside and, for some inexplicable reason, being in the greenhouse now frightens her, so things in there have been neglected. The garden has suffered, too. The grass on the lawn is inches long. It never dries out enough to be mown. The flower beds are a flattened slimy mess and the riot of colour that was spring has degenerated under one of the worst summers I can remember.
Sometimes I feel that there is a scream waiting to burst from my mouth; one, which if I let it escape, will never stop.
‘What a day,’ I say, not expecting an answer. I straighten the blanket over her knees but she throws it off and punches my arm. Yet another bruise to add to the others.
She’s wearing the purple satin evening gloves she once wore to a mayor’s ball she went to with Dad. She found them a few days ago, in a charity bag I’d put in the hall for the church jumble sale.
‘Mine,’ she’d shouted, triumphantly. She refuses to take them off.
‘Biscuit,’ she yells now, ‘tea and biscuit.’
‘In a minute, Mum.’ I speak sharper than I meant to but I’m tired. Last night’s full moon had lit up the fuchsia outside her bedroom and the strong breeze that’s been blowing all week had whipped the branches around. The shadows had frightened her and kept her awake. I’m going to cut the bloody thing down.
‘It’s that fuck you thingy,’ she’d cried, ‘it’s getting in.’
‘Fuchsia, Mum,’ I’m sure she knows what she’s saying. Long ago, a family friend, a Polish woman, had visited and admired the shrubs in the garden, ‘especially the fuckyas’ she’d enunciated carefully. Dad had left the room but we heard his guffaws as he went down the hall and it had become a family joke.
‘Fuck you,’ Mum says, obstinately.
Like I say, sometimes I swear she knows what she’s saying.
I bring in the last of the tomatoes. It’s been a poor year. They are tiny and green. I could throw them away but old habits die hard.
‘I’ll make chutney out of these.’
She doesn’t answer; she’s lost in her own world.
I was never a cook. Mum had insisted on trying to teach me, years ago but had failed.‘You’ll need to attract a man somehow,’ she’d said, ‘with your looks you’ll have to find something that will make them want to stay.’ Lately, the more I think about it, the more I realise how spiteful she was when I was younger. I should have left her years ago.
It’s too late now. I look through the kitchen window; there are some panes missing in the greenhouse. They were blown out in a gale, a few weeks ago and I haven’t bothered doing anything about it. I’m waiting for another storm; hopefully one that will flatten the bloody thing.
I put Mum in the lounge, in front of the television.
‘Not our house,’ she mumbles.I ignore her.
Alan Titchmarsh is telling her it’s time to tidy the garden before the long winter months. He’s always so damn cheerful.
I’m not going to bother with the garden next year, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I brew the tea and pour Mum’s into the beaker with the spout. I make myself a sandwich, take a bite and throw it in the bin. I’m not hungry. I mash a banana for her. I don’t rush; she’s no sense of day or night anymore and wants to eat all the time. She’s put on a lot of weight. I’ve lost two stones and I am so tired. I haven’t been sleeping much and when I do I have nightmares. I wish Mum hadn’t reminded me about Granddad and Ethel. She’d laughed, all those years ago, when I told her what he’d done. Said not to be so soft.It’s starting to rain again.
Last night I killed my mother.I could say I didn’t want her to go in a home.Or the thought of winter depresses me.But, to be truthful, I’d had enough. I couldn’t carry on.It would have been easier to smother her. But it seemed right, somehow.It was so easy; just one quick twist.She never liked winter anyway.