“Tabby, can I smoke just one cigarette in here? It’s far too chilly to go outside and I’m an old woman, do you want me to die of pneumonia?” the woman’s hands shook as she spoke, much to fast for her to do anything other than sit there as her daughter combed her long white hair.
“No, mam,” Tabby replied, the long, smooth teeth of the broad, black brush glided effortlessly through the silk river of hair. “I told you yesterday and this morning, and on Monday, and everyday for the last three months; no, you cannot smoke in here, or anywhere else in the house. I’ve just had it wallpapered and besides, it was smoking that got you into this mess.”
Tabby’s threw her eyes skyward as she begged for the strength not to strangle her mother. It had been three years since she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It had been only one year since she had also been screened by her doctor due to a strange lump on her lungs that turned out to be cancer. And it had been only three months since the news came that it was terminal. But even this hadn’t stopped her mother from wanting to smoke. So everyday they had this fight.
“If only God had taken me during that operation then maybe I wouldn’t have to suffer this hell!” the old woman spoke sharply but only half serious. She had actually died, clinically anyway, for almost a minute and a half. But here she was, still kicking, still desperate for her cigarettes. It was a running joke in the family that she had met St Peter at the gates of heaven and asked him “Do you sell king size Richmond?” and when he replied “No” she marched back down the cloudy steps and forced her soul back in its skin. “Not today,” she had woken up saying two days later, “Not today.”
“Mam, if you say that one more time I’m going to stop brushing your hair. I’ve other things to-do, you know,” which was true. Around the two women sat bundles of half folded laundry and half drunk teacups. Ever since her mother had moved in, Tabby often felt like they were waiting in limbo, half distraught and half naught. Just waiting. Waiting for the moment they knew was coming but would never mention.
“Yes, you do. You know when you were a girl, you came home every day to a sandwich on the table and a freshly made bed. Here I am, sitting in my own filth and not even allowed a cigarette to calm my nerves,” the old woman said, with the glint of a fight in her eye.
Not raising to the bait, Tabby cast her eyes skyward again, “You also made me do my homework instead of playing outside and made sure I was in earlier than the rest.”
“Yes, and good job too. Nothing but lay-abouts and yahoos on that estate. Do you remember the Christmas we were robbed?” The mother seemed content to revel in the misfortunes of the past and for that Tabby was thankful, she couldn’t stomach another argument.
“Yes, mam, I do.”
“Bastards, God save my tongue. They took your fathers war medals and that plastic prostitute you asked for for Christmas. Barbie my eye. May God have mercy on their souls, stealing a dead mans pride and joy, and on Christmas Eve nonetheless.”
She had been a fighter, and still was – to a certain degree. That Christmas, almost forty years ago now, the mother had rung the police and took her two daughters out into the garden to play with the snow. “Santa’s not been yet,” she had assured. After speaking with the police she had disappeared, leaving her two girls with the neighbour, Mrs O’Jenkins, and returned just before Christmas dinner. In her hands had been an old teddy bear with coal black eyes and rough, fuzzy fur and a red train with chipped paint and a broken smoke stack. The girls had thought they’d been naughty that year; they had no idea what their mother had done for those Christmas pittances. Nor would they ever. She had raised good girls and there was no way some thieving letch would take away their special day. They’d already lost so much.
“It’s a shame dad wasn’t there to see the snow,” Tabby remembered sadly.
“Ooouucchhh! CAREFUL!” the mother called as the fine bristles caught in a snag of pearly hair.
“Sorry, mam,” she said softly.
“Can you clip my toenails next, Tabby?”
“Yes, mam,” another look to the sky.
“Do you know Sandra Killfiln?”
“The chemist’s wife?” Tabby asked.
“Yes, is he a chemist? I thought he was a doctor. Shame, his mother could have been so proud. Anyway, apparently she’s put her Aunt in a home, the one on Torrin Road.”
“Really?” Tabby was only half listening, her mothers hands were shaking so violently that she wondered if she should mention them. She didn’t like to bring it up as it made her mother angry but this was worse than before.
“Yes. Really,” the old woman said as she snatched her hand from sight and placed it on her lap. “Darn thing,” she muttered.
“Are you O.K., mam?” was as far as Tabby dared broach the subject.
“Yes, dear, fine, fine.”
A paused stretched between them. The vibrant floral swirls of the wallpaper were frozen mid dance around them and the wind howled as it swam and spun through the small back garden. The shed’s door was loose and clapped in a steady rhythm. Bang. Bang. Bang. Beat. Beat. Beat. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tabby stopped brushing as her mother clasped her hand.
“Will you tell Lara something for me?” her voice was thin now, as if the wind outside had been the wind in her sails just a moment ago.
“You’re going to see her tomorrow. Her flight gets in at three o’clock, I told you you could come if you felt up to it, do you not remember?”
But she did remember, that old woman sitting on a chair in front of her daughter. She remembered very well. When she had first been told that Lara was flying home to see her, a vision of a teary reunion between an estranged daughter and mother flashed before her eyes. Tears and laughter, the joyful embrace of a child never forgotten and the warm feeling of forgiveness that would settle between them. But she knew now it would never be.
“Tell her, that I’m … that I’m so very sorry for-“ her voice broke of as she choked on the emotional bile that threatened to tumble from her blue-ish lips.
“Mam, come on now,” Tabby clenched the sadness in her belly and stayed as strong as she could.
“Please, do you promise, Tabby? Please promise?” Her voice sounded weak and child-like, almost as if she was begging.
“I promise,” I didn’t like to indulge her but how could I say no when her heart was so evident on her sleeve?
“And, I’m sorry for what I’ve put you through too,” the old woman’s voice was barely a whisper.
“You’ve not put me through anything. Not a thing, d’you hear?” her daughter replied.
“I’ve not meant to be nasty or mean to you these past few months. It’s just been so hard to rely on you like this. To force myself on you. You aren’t cross with me are you?” the old woman pulled her daughters hand to the chest of her wrinkly nighty and nuzzled into it with the paper thin flesh of her nose.
“Of course I’m not, you silly old woman. How could I ever be cross with you?” the tears were pouring down Tabby’s cheeks now. Silently they began to drip from her face and into the shiny silver of her mother’s hair below.
“I remember I used to brush your hair,” the old woman said.
“I remember that too,” was all Tabby could say.
“Thank you. Thank you for not putting me in a home like Sandra’s Aunt. I wouldn’t have liked it there. I wouldn’t have liked it at all.”
Tabby was beyond words now.
She held her old mam as close to her as she could. The tears and sobs all being taken up in the freshly brushed strands of her mother’s hair.
“And I’m sorry if I’m a trouble to you. I don’t mean it, Tabby, honestly I don’t,” the old woman was crying now too. Her hands shaking with more than just the disease.
“You’ve never been a bother. Not ever,” Tabby wept unable to do anything else to prove her words. All she could do was hold her mother in her arms and enjoy those precious few seconds they spent bonded as one. As mother and daughter they cried and pleaded silently with each other for a forgiveness they already knew they had.
The tears could have been rivers and the breathless sobs hurricanes for all the stars above knew. The glittering, twinkling ever sparkling stars above cared no more for us than we did for them over the losses each sustained. Tabby wasn’t to know that her mam wouldn’t ever see Lara again. She wasn’t to know that in a week her house would be filled with the smoke of mourners that slowly turned the walls beneath her wallpaper yellow. She wasn’t to know that she would give Sandra Killfiln food poisoning with an undercooked sausage roll. Or that her mother would greet St Peter like an old friend and be welcomed through the gates of heaven as a kind and honourable woman, who raised a family and sustained loss like only a rare few people could do.
All Tabby knew was that her mother was in her arms and that she had done the very best she could. She would remember these precious few seconds of unbridled bliss between herself and her mother until the day she did the same with her own daughter.
And finally saw her precious mam again.
Her hair still freshly brushed and her hands no longer shaking.