“Beth, it’s Stan…”
Stan? Mum’s next-door-but-one neighbour Stan?
“…I need you to come, dear. Now.”
I squinted in the dark at the too bright, illuminated screen of my mobile phone. 3.19am shone out. Why was he ringing me in the middle of the night?
I don’t think I spoke back to him and he may’ve said more, but I couldn’t hear him through the odd rushing sound in my ears. My heart pumped so fast I thought it might burst right out of my chest and land, splat, on the bed in front of me. I pressed the red, end call button.
Maybe Mum had taken a tumble again and he was calling me to come and help get her up. Or she’d been burgled, or there was a huge ginger cat stuck head first in the old cat flap left in the back door by the previous owners.
But I knew. I just knew what it meant. I tried to think, but I couldn’t. And then the autopilot I didn’t even know I had kicked in and I began to move. Will sat up next to me in bed, touching my arm.
“Beth, Beth, say something,” he whispered. “Who was that on the phone? What did they say? You didn’t say a word. What is it?”
I stared at him. Why was he talking in slow motion? His mouth was moving. I knew he was speaking to me, but it all happened so slowly.
It took me a moment before I found the right words. “Mum’s gone,” I said, peering into his half-open green eyes. A sliver of moonlight peeked in through a gap in the curtains. I concentrated on every detail, every line and crease on his face. The stubble on his chin looked like an old yard brush worn down to nearly bare from years of sweeping. His short dark hair was sticking up at the crown, making him look like a small boy. The scar on his cheek from many moons ago looked different in the near dark. “Mum’s gone,” I repeated.
“Gone? Gone where? It’s the middle of the night.”
I didn’t answer him. Instead, I swung my legs out of my warm bed and slid my feet into the cold slippers on the floor. The black ones, with the bow and the sparkly glittery bits, the ones Mum gave me last Christmas. Still clutching my mobile phone I opened the bedroom door and started down the stairs, Will tailing me.
“Beth, you’re worrying me. Please tell me what’s going on,” he whispered, creeping past our daughter’s bedroom door. I put my coat on over my pyjamas, took my car keys from the hook on the wall, and turned back to him.
“She’s dead,” I said.
He looked at me as though he didn’t recognise me, his wife of nearly a decade. Had I spoken out loud? I wasn’t sure, especially the longer he stared. But then he sat down, on the bench next to our front door, and the worried expression turned to disbelief.
“You stay here with Lily. I’ll call you when I get there.” He nodded as I unlocked the front door. A blast of freezing February air rushed in and swirled around us, sending a handful of dry brown leaves dancing in after it.
My fingers slipped on the key as I started the car. 3.26am glowed from the dashboard clock. Should I get back out and scrape the ice from the windscreen? I turned the heater up full blast and directed it on to the frosted glass instead.
I thought I’d sat there for only a few minutes but when I checked the time again it said it was 3.52am, and the windscreen had cleared. The inside of the car was now hot, but something inside of me was now cold.
Pulling out of the drive, I glanced up and down the road. I don’t know why though, there never tended to be a lot of traffic down our little lane at any time of the day, let alone that time of night. Turning right, I started off along the way. Mum only lived ten minutes away. One pretty much long straight smooth road actually; took you right to her doorstop. How many times had I made this journey? Countless; somewhere in the thousands probably.
3.56 am. Only a few more minutes and I’d be there. Breathe.
A rather podgy, scruffy old badger crossed the road up ahead of me, opposite the pub where Mum and I went every Thursday for lunch. The road curved off to the right and I drove past Mum’s favourite garden centre – the one we always stopped in at on the way to do the weekly shopping, for a cake and a coffee. So many memories around every corner.
As I pulled into her drive I glanced down at the clock. I’d made good time – only nine minutes.
And then I looked up at the bungalow. Curtains still open, the light still on. Breathe.
I started to shake. First in my feet and then my legs, up through my body to my face. My teeth began to chatter to themselves.
Stan’s old white classic car sat on the drive. He was huddled in the front seat, the engine ticking over.
He looked up as I parked in front of him. Even though I couldn’t see his face through the reflections of both of our windscreens, I knew he was sad.
Time jumped in stages. Stan opened my car door and stood back so I could get out. We neither looked at each other nor spoke. I guess he, like me, had no idea what to say. I stepped out onto the shingle path and the tiny stones crunched under my shoes. Sparkling frost dusted the path to the bungalow. Keep breathing.
Stan stood by Mum’s front door, and waited, so I went there, too. He raised his arm and I noticed a fraying patch on the elbow of his jacket. He pushed down on the handle and the door creaked open. Had it always done that? Again I followed. The smell of Mum and all her worldly things hit me. I took a long and deep breath.
Stan had gone left, along the narrow hallway into the lounge. But this time I couldn’t follow. I’d already looked up and seen Mum, sitting with her back to me in her armchair, her brown leather handbag on the floor next to it. A small pile of books sat on the little table beside her, along with a half-drunk glass of orange juice.
Why had Stan brought me here? He obviously didn’t realise Mum had simply fallen asleep and needed waking and helping to bed. But no, I knew. I wanted to turn myself around and go straight back out that creaking door but my feet were numb. I couldn’t function.
Stan stood across the other side of the room; his hands folded together in front of him, staring down at his boots. I studied them, too, for a moment. Maybe they were muddy. They seemed clean enough to me. And then he looked up, and over at Mum. That’s when I saw the tears in his eyes, the strain across his forehead. He reached for the hanky in his jacket pocket and rubbed at his nose. As much as I wanted to pretend Mum was just sleeping, I knew she wasn’t. I knew she’d gone. To a place I couldn’t follow.
I wanted to crumple into a heap on the floor right there and then; curl up into the tightest little ball I could manage and pretend it wasn’t happening. But the untrained autopilot inside of me took over again and instead I walked the hardest steps of my life and came around to stand in front of my mother. The person who’d carried me inside of her. The person who’d taken me to school on my first day and gone home crying; who’d taken me to swimming lessons every week for nearly two years before I got the hang of it; who’d shed tears when we bought my uniform for big school. The person who’d helped me move into that first tiny flat I’d rented when I eventually left home, aged twenty three; and who’d been at my side for the arrival of my own daughter. The only one who’d been there my entire life. She was my person. And now she was gone.
She now sat so very still, and so very quiet.
The room behind me fell away and I was left with just Mum and me, alone, on a mountain top. The air around us was bone-chillingly cold. Her heating had long since turned off; she usually went to bed at ten.
There was no sound, just an absolute eerie, silence. I stared at her; she looked asleep. Her eyes were shut but her mouth hung open. Today’s hanky poked out of the sleeve of her favourite old cardigan. The hands on her black leather watch still going round. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
Maybe, just maybe, if I stared hard enough and for long enough I’d catch her out, and she would flutter her eyelashes a little by mistake. But I watched her carefully, for a very long time, and nothing moved.
I still shook, but now a panic rose inside of me, creeping up through every bone in my body. I wanted to look away but I couldn’t. I wanted her to stand up instead and take me in her arms. Feel her warmth around me and hear her voice telling me it was all going to be all right. But that would never happen again.
Stan coughed behind me bringing me rapidly down from the cold lonely mountain and back into the bungalow with an almighty thud.
“Thank you very much, Stan, for ringing me,” I said in my autopilot voice.
“Oh, Beth, I am so, very sorry…” His hoarse voice trailed off. He couldn’t continue.
He turned and rested his hand on my shoulder for a few seconds before he left. The smells of tobacco and chocolate surrounded me. No more words to be said for now. The front door clicked shut. I looked again to Mum.
In slow motion I knelt down by her feet and laid my weary head on her lap. The tears came then. Single droplets at first. Followed by a silent stream. And then the gushing floods. My whole body heaved as I sobbed, emotion attacking every cell of my body.
Why had she left? Why had she gone where I couldn’t follow? Why hadn’t she told me she was going? We always told each other everything. I wasn’t ready for this. I wanted her here, with me, with us. She was our family, I couldn’t manage without her.
I imagined her then, lifting her hand and stroking the back of my head, smoothing my hair down. Her gentle voice washing over me.
“Come on, Beth, don’t upset yourself, love. It’ll all be okay,” she said. Except that she didn’t, because she couldn’t. She was no longer. I would never see her again. The whole blackness of it enveloped me, pulled me down, and tried to swallow me up in one gigantic mouthful like Jonah and the Whale.
I don’t know how long I sat there for. Time really did seem to stand still. From the corner of my eye I saw her handkerchief peeking out from her cuff. Its tiny detailed pink roses danced across the cloth, losing me in their never-ending pattern.
Mum loved the world’s amazing gifts – the flowers, the trees, the plants, the very soil itself. She loved to spend the day with her hands caked in her garden’s dirt. Giving life to each bulb and seed that she planted. I’d come and sit near her sometimes on those days, watch her at work, bring her a cup of tea when she got lost in the moment and forgot about the time ticking by.
Who would look after those lives now? Who would come and start a new chapter of their life here, in the bungalow, where Mum’s had ended? I couldn’t bear to think of it. My head felt heavy, and sore, and then my pocket began to vibrate as my mobile rang. Will. I’d forgotten about Will. I fumbled for my phone. Pushed the green button and held it close to my ear.
No words came, from Will or myself, but I knew he’d be feeling my pain. I needn’t explain. I heard a single, very quiet, lonely sob escape from his end. We’d had our ups and downs over the years, like all married couples. But he’d always been there for me.
“I’ll be home soon,” I managed and clicked the red button.
Time wouldn’t stand still though, because it couldn’t. The sun had arrived. The long cold darkness of this awful night was already turning into a new day. How bloody dare it. Did it not know what had happened? Did it not have any respect?
The pins and needles in my legs told me I had to get up. I had to go home. I had to phone someone. All of a sudden the day that I’d planned was gone. I didn’t need to take Mum to the supermarket now, or pop into the garden centre on our way back for a cup of her favourite coffee. Didn’t need to make space in her fridge from last week’s shopping because she hadn’t eaten all of the rhubarb yoghurts she’d insisted on when we bought them last Tuesday. Now I had to ring people instead. Who? I didn’t know. I only remembered seeing people on the television ringing lots of other people at times like this.
I pushed myself up onto my knees and leaned into Mum’s face. My hand stroked her soft cheek. She was cold. Why hadn’t the heating come on? And then I remembered. She wasn’t that sort of cold. She was empty of life cold. She was never to be warm again cold. I bent forwards and kissed her soft, cool forehead.
“I love you, Mum,” I whispered into her ear. On unsteady legs I got up and left the room without a backward glance. – I’d never felt so alone.
How would I carry on without her?
We all three sat together on the blue sofa that’d lived in our cosy lounge for the past seven years, and had become a part of the family. An old friend and a place of comfort in times like these. We put Lily in the middle and each placed an arm around her.
We’d made attempts for three days to break the news to her, but it was just too hard to say. The words got caught in our throats and never made it up as far as our mouths. She was only seven, how was she possibly going to understand? We tried to think of nice ways to put it. We even looked up ideas on the internet of how to break death to a child, but they all came down to the same thing – you had to tell them. And keep it simple and honest.
“Lily, honey, we have some very sad news to tell you,” Will started. Lily looked up wide eyed at her daddy, her hero. I held my breath, nerves shook my hands.
Their matching green eyes stared at one another; Lily’s from under her straight blonde fringe. She waited for whatever he was about to say. What was she thinking? Maybe she thought he’d run over her pink scooter on the drive earlier because he hadn’t seen it, or maybe that he’d eaten the last of her favourite biscuits.
He blinked, opened his mouth, blinked again, and then closed his mouth. Breathe.
“Lily, darling,” I began instead, surprised at how calm my voice sounded. “Nanny has gone, honey.” She turned and looked her trusting young eyes up at mine. Her soft hands rested in the lap of her yellow cotton dress. Her feet didn’t quite touch the floor yet, but it wouldn’t be long.
Mum would never see that. How much was she going to miss? She wouldn’t see her turn eight on her next birthday. She wouldn’t see her open presents on Christmas morning ever again. I tried my hardest to keep the lump of sorrow rising in my throat down. I wanted to be calm and comfort her. I didn’t want her to be comforting me.
“Where?” she asked after what seemed like an eternity. “Why has Nanny gone?” That’s when the good friend I now knew I had – my autopilot – switched itself on again. I took a deep breath.
“Because she died, honey. Nanny’s dead.” My voice quivered slightly. But there, it was said. Her beloved grandmother was gone now. Forever.
She sat very still, and very quiet. Had she heard? Had she understood?
“When will I see her again?” she asked eventually.
What could I say? I couldn’t lie. Simple and honest they said.
“Lily, you’ll never see her again,” I replied, trying to hold back my own heart-breaking sobs. Lily frowned.
“But what about heaven, Mummy? When we die we go to heaven and then when the other people who are left die they come to heaven too and then we all live happily ever after together on a cloud.” She turned to look at Will and then back again to me. Neither of us had the answer she wanted.
Simple and honest.
“Well, nobody actually knows if heaven is a real place though, sweetheart.” I endeavoured to swallow my next words, but they came out anyway. “I don’t think I believe it’s real, Lily.”
She stared at me, her eyes fixed on mine. Was she trying to determine if I was telling the truth? She raised her eyebrows as she spoke.
“Does she not love us anymore?”
“No Lily!” we said, in unison this time, and held her even closer, even tighter.
“But Nanny still loves us, doesn’t she?” Her voice was soft.
What could we say? Mum was gone. She couldn’t love us anymore because she was no more. I didn’t know what to say.
“Honey, Nanny died, she didn’t choose to die but she did, and if she was still here she would still love us but she’s not…” Will replied, taking Lily’s hand in his and kissing the back of it. I stroked her silky hair.
“Well, I still love Nanny,” Lily said with a pout, pulling away from us.
I wanted to reply. “And Nanny loves you too, Lily,” but I couldn’t, because she couldn’t, because she was no more. My stomach churned.
Silence. Nothing but silence. Tears slid down both mine and Will’s faces, but not Lily’s. Not one. No sobs, nothing.
She climbed down off the sofa, picked up the remote control and turned the television on. Seconds later she was smiling at Tom, as he chased Jerry out through the cat flap, like nothing had happened.