This story is by Ray Kelly and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sara knocked softly at the door, waiting as she had been trained, balancing a stack of white towels, sheets and pillowcases in the crook of her arm. When no response sounded she eased the door handle down and entered Mary’s bedroom.
Seeing the curtain that covered the single window was still drawn, Sara placed the towels and linen on to the sole armchair occupying the corner by the window and tugged the curtain across. The morning sun peeked into the room.
The chair, a bed, a desk, and a small wall unit were all the furniture that remained with Mary after eighty-seven years on the earth. Sara ran her fingers along the crocheted blanket that rainbow-covered the armchair, enjoying the way the undulations felt across her fingertips. Next, she picked up the towels to replace those moist and disheveled in the ensuite that made up the second and only other room of Mary’s last home. Placing the clean towels on the sink top she removed those soiled before noticing Mary laying on her side, awake and watching her move from the bathroom to her mobile cleaning station in the corridor.
Sara smiled and greeted Mary loudly, not surprised when the old woman did not respond or seem to notice that Sara had spoken.
Bustling on, Sara wiped the desk, carefully lifting then replacing the photographs of children and grandchildren. The most recent snapshot revealed a puzzled Mary surrounded by smiling family. Sara remembered it being posed at Mary’s last birthday, on the verandah, sun streaming through the perspex, softening the old woman’s lines that now conspired to etch her final face.
On the wall above Mary’s bed were dozens of photographs of her as a young woman, placed there by one of the teenagers in the family group portraits. Each framed memory revealed Mary’s life as a ballroom dancer, with her husband or partner, Sara did not know which, handsome at her side. There were slightly blurred shots of the couple spinning so quickly the camera image had all the majesty of a motion picture. Other pictures showed them holding small trophies, and a particular photograph that always caught Sara’s eye was of the two waltzing, heads angled back, hands precisely placed upon backs. A number flapped, desperate to remain attached to the formal black coat of Mary’s gentleman.
The last two photos were of a middle-aged Mary, still dressed to dance but with no tuxedoed partner to be seen.
Come on sweetness, Sara helped Mary rise from her bed and shuffled her into her dressing gown and slippers before escorting her to the group dining room for breakfast.
Returning to complete the still-to-service room, Sara swept and dabbed strategically at the floor with a mop before changing the sheets on Mary’s tiny bed and making it up for the next evening. She carefully gathered up a teacup and water glass, placing these on the cleaner’s trolley parked outside the door. She then glanced up and down the long corridor to see if any stragglers were wandering to the dining room or whether other staff members were passing about their business.
No one to be seen, Sara casually turned and reentered Mary’s room before moving quickly to Mary’s bureau, second drawer, opening it and removing a crisp new twenty dollar bill from Mary’s worn pink purse.
Stuffing the money into her pocket, Sara replaced the purse in its same location and went about the final few tasks to complete her morning’s work in Mary’s room.
Stopping at the door, Sara turned to check all was in order, particularly the second drawer of the bureau.
After finishing her duties in the other rooms she worked in, Sara entered the main hall of the retirement facility and saw that the ladies and gentlemen were now dressed and seated in a broad circle, enjoying the music that was tumbling from the speakers that squatted beside the large television screen mounted on the wall.
Music therapy was underway and many of the congregation swayed and waved their arms as the therapist modeled the actions to follow.
Passing through to the staff break room, Sara noticed some of the men showing their usual reluctance to involve themselves in this activity, and some of the other patients submerged so deeply into their Alzheimer’s experience that they hardly registered the activity at all.
Mary stared into the distance recalling something that wasn’t the present, nodding vaguely to a rhythm not carried in the music being played.
Sara knocked softly at the door, waiting as she had been trained, balancing a stack of white towels, sheets and pillowcases in the crook of her arm, and when no response sounded eased the door handle down.
Entering, Sara immediately saw Mary sitting up in her bed, sitting up, and dressed in her day clothes.
Sara placed her laundry down and moved over to Mary.
Sweetheart, she said, you’re up already? Are you feeling alright?
Mary smiled and stretched her arms out to Sara. Dropping to her knees, Sara embraced Mary, breathing in the scent that she must have sprayed on to herself as she dressed.
Feeling her gesture with her hips, Sara realised Mary wanted to stand and she gathered the older woman’s small hands into her own and helped her to her feet.
This was the most activity Sara had ever seen Mary willing to engage in without encouragement and Sara smiled delightedly at her.
Do you need to go to the bathroom?
Mary shook her head and gently relaxed it onto Sara’s shoulder.
What is it, honey? What’s the matter?
Hearing no response, Sara felt Mary’s left foot tapping into one of hers, faintly at first and then with more urgency.
As Sara looked down she felt Mary’s hand creep up her back and position itself over her shoulder blade.
Realising what Mary wanted, Sara released a small laugh as she tried to remember all those years before when she had learned to waltz – and to lead now.
I’m not sure I can, my darling.
However, they trip-glided into movement and gingerly began the one-two-three sequence, slowly moving to the centre of the floor. Heel-toe, toe toe heel, toe heel-toe. Back and forth to the melody, Sara realised Mary was humming a tune Sara knew but could not name – a lovely, irresistible reason to dance.
Finding more and more coming back to her, Sara gently angled her lead steps to the right and turned Mary as they continued to dance.
Too soon, Mary indicated by raising her head that she had grown exhausted and Sara led her back to her bed.
Sara beamed. Honey, that was wonderful. She glanced up at the dance memories and realised she may have seen the real Mary for the first time.
Mary sat, hands in her lap, seemingly lost in her memories again, not returning Sara’s smile or gaze.
Wow, Sara exclaimed, as she spun across the floor to her laundry, placing it on the bathroom counter before returning again to Mary.
Breakfast for you, my darling, she said as she helped Mary to her feet as she had done the day before and many, many days before that.
Leading Mary to breakfast, Sara felt her hand tapped and looked down to see Mary pressing a twenty dollar note into her fingers.
Sara did not meet the old woman’s eyes as Mary smiled and kissed her gently on the cheek.