When my mother died I came home. Cocooned in a shawl of loss, I moved wraith-like through a world that was too vivid to contain me. Every image of normal life was a reminder of what was gone.
Someone at the hospital had packed the remnants of her last days. There were two items; I had to sign for both of them. I didn’t have to sign for her body.
The things that hadn’t fit into her suitcase had been shoved, without care, into a torn, plastic shopping bag, a reminder of my absence. If I had made it back in time, it would be a proper bag or another suitcase, and her clothes would have been treated with care.
In the days after the funeral I sat on my bed in the hotel, and folded and re-folded her clothes. I took her toiletries out of her suitcase and tried them on my hands and face. I rubbed her creams into my feet, trying not to use too much, to savour what was left. It took me a week to get around to checking out, to hire a car and make plans. There was no-one to direct me, no-one to comfort me or to tell me what to do. Not even Sam.
At the funeral people told me I looked like her, people I didn’t know. They meant it as a kindness but I’m nothing like her and I wondered if I was looking old.
On the morning I left the hotel, I stepped out from the shower, bright red from water too hot – the way I like it. I rubbed the steam from the mirror and looked at my reflection. I tried to convince myself that the skin on my face hadn’t drooped, that my lips are still thick and pink, that lines only appeared when I smiled or frowned.
The person at the hire car company asked if I was here for a holiday. I tried to tell him I was going home but the words stuck in my mouth like cotton wool so I nodded my head and looked away.
As I drive into town, I squint and watch the unchanged houses go by, trying for remembered images. When it doesn’t work, I pull pictures from my memory and paste them over my eyes. For a moment the town looks the same. Neat rows of brightly painted weatherboard houses, with freshly clipped lawns and well-pruned rose bushes trim the streets. But the images won’t hold, and when I blink the town becomes old. Like the people who live here the houses are pocked, bent and sagging.
Passing the post office, milk bar and bakery, I search for a café, for signs of life; I find nothing new and see no-one I know. It makes me think about the few who are left; in time they will have cannibalised their stories and there will be no-one to moderate their tales or call them to account for the truth. I wonder who she will be in the telling, whether I will recognise her. I’m not sure I want to hear them tell her life to me, to own the parts I never did.
I turn into the street and almost park out the front, but I am not a visitor so I take the weight of the broken wire gate in my hands and drag it across to clear the driveway. Pulling the car into her spot, I can almost hear her ask if my posh car is too good to park on the street. The hedges are so overgrown that I can barely open the door. I shuffle along the side of the car, grateful that my things are in the boot. I pull the key from the tiny yellow envelope the lawyer has given me and wriggle it in the lock. The hinges sing as I push the door open. My ears strain expecting other notes to follow, anticipating the final lilts of her humming. But the house is quiet. Light filters into the hall from the front rooms, stealing away the darkness. The musty smell hangs over everything. It clings to the walls and wraps itself around the furniture.
I walk into the kitchen and try to pry open the window. It’s stuck, as though painted shut. Stiff, it creaks like an arthritic old woman. An empty vase sits on the kitchen table, as if she left on the verge of filling it. I imagine it blooming with roses and sniff at the air with expectation. I lock the front door and go to my bedroom, putting my bag on the top bunk. The mauve bedspread of my childhood beckons. I lie down, close my eyes and disappear.
As I pick the sleep out of my eyes I notice that someone has hung floral curtains in the windows, they’re hideous. I’m amazed that anybody could have thought them a thing of beauty, paid money for them. Maybe they were free – a gift – I reason. A sensible hand-me-down, vile yet practical. Some people have no regard for aesthetics, for the way the look of a thing can change the way that you feel.
My eyes wander the rest of the room. It looks the same, a mausoleum. Raggedy Ann stares down at me from the top of the wardrobe. I think of the two of us cuddled up in my bed, her sitting on my knee in the lounge room, accompanying me on my first anxious days at school. I wonder why I left her behind.
My feet are at the end of the bed and I feel hemmed in, as if the world has shrunk. Yet I am small and this bed is the size of the universe. Light spears through a slit in the curtains. A blanket of sleep casts its first gossamer net over my skin.
I am beside the road as a yellow car drives past.again. My small hand disappears inside Sam’s. We’re walking to school trying to stay close to the edge like Mum says but the grass is long and I’m scared of snakes. Sam says he’s not, though he doesn’t complain when I pull him closer to the bitumen. Sometimes cars come upon us quickly and small stones spit at our legs. They sting my ankles and shins; I bite my lip but I don’t complain. Sam holds my hand tighter and I feel as though my hand might squeeze out the top of his, like toothpaste pushing out of a tube. We stop to look at bugs. Sam’s favourites are stick insects. I like butterflies but they’re hard to catch. We see a lot of butterflies but we catch more stick insects.
Sam likes the way that stick insects look like sticks. I don’t like things that look like they’re something else.
My mouth tries for a yawn but my lungs are greedy and the yawn is too big for my jaws. I take the air in sips instead. I should get up, look around, organise things, work out what to do. But getting up will mean beginning and beginning will mean continuing and continuing will mean finishing. So I lay and watch the cobwebs swing slowly in the draft.
When I wake again I’m hungry and desperate for the toilet.
The bathroom is still painted pink, to match the bath and basin. I turn the tap slowly so the water doesn’t splash my nightie. A rusty coloured trickle runs out. I wait for it to run clear, and then punish my face with a flannel before cleaning my teeth.
I wander the rooms. It doesn’t take long. The house is too tidy and I don’t know where to begin. I decide to make a pot of tea and drink it in the garden, for old time’s sake. It’s the same old kettle, the kind that goes on the stove. It makes a tinkling noise when the first splash of water hits its base. The flint for the gas is beside the stove. It has an ugly green plastic handle that doesn’t match anything. I use it to light the gas and stare out the window while the water heats. Sunlight and dust hang in the air and I can almost see Sam and me, through the window, playing in the garden but the shrill whistle of the kettle pulls my eyes back into focus. Wrapping the bottom of my cardigan around my hand, I take the kettle off the stove and the noise dies. The steam fogs up the glass. Leaving the tea to steep, I use my cardigan to clear the window. The vegetable patch has grown wild; there’s silver beet as tall as me out there.
I sip my tea under the canopy of Mum’s favourite tree and watch a bee busy itself on a stalk of lavender. Its legs frenzy while its body rests for a few moments before rotating again. When it’s come full circle it helicopters onto another flower and begins again. The base of the lavender bush has become woody and ugly but the top is a blanket of flowers, a ruse to draw the focus from what lies beneath.
I tip the teapot for another cup. It’s empty and I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting here, how many flowers that bee has harvested or whether I’m still watching the same one. As I push forward to stand a splinter catches in the back of my leg. I lift my skirt aside and twist around to look but I can’t see it. I run my index finger over it, careful not to push it in further or break it off. The jagged end is sitting inside my flesh, it feels surprisingly thick.
Back in the house I search through the linen cupboard for the sewing box. Instead, I find an old plastic container filled with the decorations from my Nan’s wedding cake. I open the lid and think about the days that she’d let Sam and I look at them. If we were careful and asked nicely we were allowed to eat one or two. I’m amazed there are any left and that they are still perfect, as though they’d been cast in plaster. I haven’t seen them since Sam died.
I’m tempted to eat a flower but it feels wrong without Nan here, without permission. It strikes me that the house is full of things that I didn’t think I’d want, so many of them attached to memories like string. How long is it, I wonder, since I’ve thought about my Nan’s wedding decorations, of eating her flowers with a glass of milk, of Sam?
After Sam died I’d tried to convince my mother to get rid of the clutter, to simplify her life, to shed her grief. But she claimed that these things belonged to her heart, that she’d rather live in an ugly, overstuffed house than have a lean empty soul. She asked me if I’d discard my photographs and when I said that I wouldn’t she said: ‘See?’ But I didn’t.
As I place the box back on the shelf I smile to myself. If she were here she’d have given me an ‘I told you so’ look but she’d have wrapped it in a smile and tempered it with her eyes so that it didn’t seem mean. Her eyes would be wet, for Sam.
With the memory of Mum’s humming in my ears, I bend around and squeeze until the splinter pops out of my leg; I wipe it on my skirt. I pack up my things and throw Raggedy Ann into my bag. She looks at me, her head sticking out, as I lock up the house. I’m sure I see her sewn on mouth bend into a smile as I drive to buy boxes.