Content warning: death or dying
When I go out to the bin, it hasn’t been emptied and is full of strangers’ rubbish. Takeaway boxes, greasy paper, naked silver tins. I pull out the top bag, drag it to my neighbour’s kerb, and split it open with the keys in my pocket. Now when he tries to dump it back in my bin, it will rip and spill all over his feet. I decide to watch from the kitchen window to see it happen.
Pain sprouts in my legs as I shuffle inside. Old age doesn’t come alone, they say, but I could do without feeling like I’ve walked ten miles before lunchtime every day. The house is quiet. Too quiet. I turn on the television to drown out the silence, but the noises bounce and echo like the whole house is screaming at me. I turn it off again.
I have forgotten to do something. The impulse is strong, an itch under the skin, but no matter how hard I scratch and scratch, I can’t bring it up. I search for something to jog my memory. Have I eaten? I don’t know. I can’t remember. The cupboards are bare when I check. Food never seems to last long anymore. I must remember to ask the carer to bring extra next time.
I’m not supposed to call Magdalena ‘the carer’. “You mustn’t think of her like that, Mum,” Evie says. “She’s just there to give you a wee bit of help.” It’s like ever since my Terence went into hospital, my children collectively conspired that I couldn’t cope.
My feet scuff against something wedged under the table. My Terence’s walking shoes. They’re old now, the creases soft and pulpy. How many miles has he walked in these? There’s a brand new pair sat in the wardrobe. Size ten. Black. Good support. But he didn’t want them. He wanted the pair that was like him, he said. Well-worn, well-travelled, and well-loved.
Perhaps the new pair won’t ever be used now. “You’re getting too old,” I tell him. “Too many silly falls. The hospital must be sick of you.”
Something settles into place like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I must visit Terence. He’ll be lonely without me. Nobody else will visit. The children and grandchildren don’t go to see him. They get angry when I ask.
The hospital is at the other end of town. The bus driver looks at my bus pass, then back to me, like he’s playing Spot the Difference. The machine that reads the cards makes a beeping noise like an angry bird before I hobble down to my seat.. I’m so busy thinking about all the different birds that sound like they were named by someone who hated them – the drab seedeater, the common loon, the rough-faced shag – that I miss my stop and have to take two more buses to get back on track. By the time I reach the hospital, I’m exhausted.
The hospital is full of old people and young nurses. One nurse with hair the colour of candyfloss tends to a woman in a wheelchair. She must be in her eighties, at least, deep lines worn into saggy skin, like the flesh has lost its connection to the bone. She frightens me. What must it be like to be that old?
The nurse at the reception is new, but somehow, she knows who I am. “Hello, Mrs Murphy, how are you?” She says it kindly, like nurses should.
“How do you know my name?” I don’t say it kindly. Were my dear mother still with us, she’d have clipped me round the head for cheek.
“You’ve been here before, Mrs Murphy,” Reception Nurse says.
“Well, of course I have.” I push my chest out. Some women ignore their husbands when they go into hospital. Not me. I’ve always looked after my Terence. “I’ve come to see my husband. Is he coming out yet?”
There’s an expression on Candyfloss Nurse’s face that I can’t understand. “Mrs Murphy, do you remember what we said to you this morning?”
“This morning? I wasn’t here this morning. You must be mistaking me for someone else.” What a bloody cheek. And they say my memory is bad.
The nurses murmur to each other. Someone comes to take the old lady in the wheelchair away, then Candyfloss Nurse takes my elbow and guides me to a chair.
“Mrs Murphy, do you not remember what happened this morning?” She doesn’t let me speak, talks over my attempt to correct her. Her grip on my hand is too tight. “You came in about nine o’clock this morning. You wanted to see Terence.”
“Then why can’t I see him? It’s horrible to deprive an old man from seeing his family.” My throat is thick with tears. I don’t understand why.
“Mrs Murphy, your husband passed away,” Candyfloss Nurse says. “Don’t you remember? He had a nasty fall six months ago and –”
Everything falls into sharp, horrifying clarity.
I whip my hand out of Candyfloss Nurse’s. “Of course I remember!” I splutter. “I just … I just got a bit confused. Of course I remember that my husband …”
I can’t bring myself to say the words. And I leave before they can see my tears.
Someone has left a bag of rubbish on the kerb in front of my house. I lift the bag and it splits, spilling wrappers, food scraps, clanking bottles. I kick it all right on the neighbour’s path. That’ll show him.
The house is thick with dust that shifts but never settles. There’s something I’ve forgotten. The memory drifts about like the dust motes. Close, but out of my reach. I can’t remember what I’ve forgotten. But I know it must be important.
I switch the television on. Sometimes watching the news helps me remember. But today it’s full of people I don’t know talking about things I don’t care about. I turn it off again and the silence rushes in. Good. Peace and quiet. That’ll help me think.
My stomach rumbles, low and persistent, like the warning growl of an unfriendly dog. When did I last eat? Why are the cupboards empty? Why didn’t I go to the shops? There are too many questions, not enough answers.
I wander the kitchen in search of something forgotten. A packet of biscuits maybe, a tinned pudding, a box of crackers. All I find is a Post-It Note stuck to the fridge. It reads, “NO MORE TAKEAWAYS!” and has been signed by someone called Magdalena. I don’t eat takeaways. Greasy, overpriced rubbish. Whoever Magdalena is, I get the suspicion she doesn’t know me at all.
A dull ache worms up the back of my legs and I have to sit down, frustration spiting in my stomach. Yet more idleness, more sitting down when there are things to be done. If only I could remember what they are. My body and my mind don’t feel synced together anymore, like when the sound on the TV is delayed, and the actors flap their mouths uselessly like fish strung on a pole.
Reaching down to massage the muscle, my foot brushes against Terence’s walking shoes. They feel important, though I don’t know why.
I extract them, their leather soft in my hands, and something inside me dislodges. Something familiar, a memory from long ago, like lemonade on a hot day, the sweetness of fruit in rice pudding, the smell of roses in a white bouquet.
And I remember.
I must visit Terence in the hospital. He’ll be lonely without me.