This story is by Amanda Blundy and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Katherine pulls the duvet up to her chin, fingers rubbing across the surface like she could uncover the secret of sleep within its confines. The digital display spills green fragments of light across the carpet, almost imperceptibly shifting its trajectory as the clock flicks from 5:02 to 5:03. She sighs, hoping the expulsion of air will allow her to deflate. It doesn’t. Turning her head, she tries to sink further into the pillow, let it engulf her like quicksand into the space where sleep is tangible. The pillow has no more ground to give and remains a stationary mound of crushed foam. She wonders if she will always feel like this. If insomnia is a neon warning sign for guilt at the GP’s office or if she should make an appointment anyway. If the lump that has taken up residence in the back of her throat is now a visible sign of her physiology. The blackbird started its repertoire of annoyance three minutes earlier this morning and timed its most irritating chirps to align with her eyes sliding shut. If she was the type to give in to fanciful notions, she could have convinced herself that the bird was trying to drive her insane; one melodic measure at a time. She wouldn’t blame it if it were.
Resigning herself to another night without sleep, she reaches for her phone, opens the note application and types PILLOWS in capital letters and sets the reminder as her lock screen. Concluding the advantages of an hour’s sleep fail to outweigh the time required to cover the bags under her eyes, she throws the duvet to the bottom of the bed. Okay Katherine, she thinks, time to get up. You have four hours and forty minutes to at least look semi-conscious. Time to put on your best black suit and sad smile. Get through the funeral, a few drinks. This time tomorrow it’s all over. Nobody is going to find out.
One week earlier
Katherine swings her Land-rover into the driveway, turns off the engine, clicks on the hand-break. The cherry blossom has left a pink puzzle of petals amongst the wood chip, the hydrangeas are in full bloom. Years ago gran would have been in the garden, hands covered in soil, dirt smeared across her brow; cup of cold tea left on the front step. But not today. Puffing a chestnut curl out of eye line, Katherine rescues the shopping from the front seat and finds the key to the front door.
‘Only me gran,’ she shouts, pushing the door, wedging the small metal mouse under the frame before dragging the shopping bag inside. ‘I bought us some those custard tarts from Jerry.’ She kicks the mouse to one side and uses her bum to close the front door. No point in having an ample attribute if she didn’t put it to good use. The house smelt musty, stale cigarette smoke with an undercurrent of what she could only describe as home.
‘That’s nice dear,’ comes a raspy voice from the front room.
Katherine pokes her head round the door and smiles. ‘I’ll make us a cup of tea.’
Her gran leans forward, tucking the blanket around her knees in a little tighter. ‘That sounds lovely, Beth, then you can tell me about all the trouble Charlie has been getting into love.’
Katherine closes her eyes against the prickles of heat that have accumulated in the corners, blinks twice. Today, she is her mother; and it shouldn’t make her heart break, shouldn’t make her long for lemonade with a scoop of ice cream floating on the top. It shouldn’t conjure up memories of mini excavations in the back garden for toy soldiers, old pennies and broken pottery on lazy summer days; but it does.
‘Be right back with that cupper,’ she says forcing out a smile. Each visit gets harder. Each time her gran looks at her and fails to see. It’s going to be a long few hours.
The tea is hot and the conversation easy, if not sporadic. A small pile of wool has accumulated on the arm of the settee. As her gran talks she plucks stray bobbles from her cardigan. Katherine wonders if in a week’s time there will be any cardigan left.
The kettle by the gas fire is glinting in the sun that filters through the blinds. Katherine remembers it holding a compendium of copper. Giant circular coins that no longer held monetary value but ignited a passion with her, tainting her fingers with the smell of history. It’s why she became an Archaeologist.
Her gran blinks
Katherine recalls shoes caked in so many layers of mud she could have walked off the pages of a Tolkien novel. Katherine and her Gran make apple pie and leave a piece wrapped in newspaper on his doorstep before sunrise.
Her gran blinks.
Katherine recalls running along a beach marking giant X shapes in the sand with a stick that comes up to her hip in case they got lost. She recalls how, when she returned home later that day, she marked the stairs with large red crayon X’s to find her way to bed. Remembers her grandmother shouting and smiling and calling her Indiana Jones.
Katherine’s gran asks when her husband will be home; Katherine’s grandad died five years ago. Gran tells her that Lainey is coming around later, they are going dancing. Lainey has been dead even longer.
Katherine nods and smiles as the pile of wool on the arm rest grows into a small pyramid.
‘Beth. Hand me that stick, would you?’ her gran says through a mouthful of custard tart. ‘That tea has gone straight through me.’
Katherine stands and holds out her arm. ‘I’ll help you, Gran,’
‘Thank you dear. May have overestimated my staying power,’ she says standing. It’s not new. Radiotherapy and simple old age have conspired against her and her bladder isn’t what it once was. The nurse comes in three times a day now but she’s still stubborn. This is her home, this is where she belongs and, as long as possible, Katherine is determined to keep it that way.
‘That’s okay, Gran. Let’s get you cleaned up.’
Taking her gran’s arm, Katherine guides her to the downstairs bathroom. Hooking thumbs into her waistband, her gran takes down her trousers and sits on the toilet. Katherine kneels on the floor and slides off one of her grandmother’s shoes.
Looking down at Katherine her Gran shakes her head, eyelids tenting like small pinched coal hoods. ‘I never thought you kids would have to do this.’
Lifting her Gran’s other foot Katherine looks up and smiles. ‘The way I see it, you did this when we were kids. Now we’re just replaying the favour.’ It’s not enough to salve the embarrassment but it’s the kindest thing she can think of to say. Her grandmother’s legs are hairless and swollen, the skin cracked like a sheet of intricate origami that has unfolded. She pulls her grans trousers then underwear off and on to the floor, bundling them up. Katherine feels a hand on the back of her neck. It travels down sinking into the waves of her hair, untangling a small knot before continuing its stroking motion.
The rasping voice of her grandmother sounds far away, as if pushing through heavy fog. ‘I remember when you were a pink little thing. Me and your granddad came to see you in the hospital.’
Katherine’s breath catches and she stills, as if the slightest movement may break the spell of clarity.
‘I didn’t want to get attached. You were so small they dressed you in dolls clothes. I didn’t want to love you.’ her hand continues it soothing slow movements, venturing out towards her shoulders.
Katherine blinks and forces saliva past the lump in her throat.
‘But you were a fighter. Even then, you took your pink hands and dug into the blanket, forced your little head around to look at him. Always digging, Katherine, even then.’
Tears form in the corner of Katherine’s eyes and she closes them against the heat, her breathing fractured.
‘And he said “that kids going to make it.” And right there. In that room full of bleeping monitors and against previous conviction; I fell in love with my strong, beautiful granddaughter.’
Silent tears fall down Katherine’s face and her grandmother moves her hand to her cheek. Katherine opens her eyes and looks in the eyes of a grandmother who knows her for the first time in six months. Her shoulders shake and she gulps at the air like she’s trapped underground and trying to absorb every molecule of oxygen before it’s too late. Kneeling she leans forward to rest her head on her grandmothers chest. It’s only then her grandmother whispers her confession.
‘I don’t want to live like this anymore Katherine.’
‘I’m confused. I’m scared. I’m dying… Soon, I’m not going to able to decide.’
‘I need you to help me.’
‘I… I can’t.’
‘Oh my brave girl. I know you can. Please.’
Katherine feels something wet sink through her hair, the air smells of salt. Her grandmother’s eyes are fixed on the locked medicine cabinet in the corner.
Katherine stands to place a kiss on her grans forehead. She mumbles something about clean underwear. Bundling the damp discarded fabric in her arms she hazards a look at the imploring eyes of her grandmother, turns, and makes her way upstairs. She makes it as far as the landing before her feet give out from under her and she has to sit down. Katherine’s heart and head separate like sediment in a centrifuge. She thought her Gran was happy. Thought that she was living in her very own HG Wells novel, travelling through her past and reliving the best moments of her life. Thought that the confusion was only distressing to people on the outside, not to her Gran. She wonders how many times she has felt like this. How often her Gran was alone, in tears, waiting for all this to be over. Her Gran had always been pragmatic. Gran had always told her the truth, no matter what the popular consensus was. She had liked Gavin, her first real boyfriend that her father detested. Approved of her leaving home at sixteen because “the girl knew her own mind”. Told her the truth about Santa and the tooth fairy. Let her read books that were too old for her. To think that her Gran was trapped inside her own mind desperately trying to reach the present; unbearable.
Looking out of the window she glimpses the poem, set in a wooden frame and tacked to the wall. It had always been there, for as long as she could remember. Gran had never been religious but this was the one exception. Entitled ‘Footprints’ the simple verse talked about being lonely but never alone and spoke of a guiding hand during the worst times in a person’s life, of being carried when things got tough. Tracing a finger around the hardwood frame she wonders why she has never stopped to read it before.
Katherine takes a deep breath and stands, making her way to the bedroom and freshly laundered clothes. There is no time for self-pity. She needs to speak to her Gran. Needs to know that she is aware of the implications of her request. Needs clarity, but when she returns the recognition has faded from her grandmothers eyes.
Later, after reruns of Frasier, ginger biscuits and tea she stands to say goodbye. The lead toy soldiers rescued from the back garden stand to attention on the mantel piece as she reaches forward holding her Gran tight to her chest. She refuses to cry. Before leaving she slips into the bathroom, unlocks the drug cabinet and pockets the key. Gran had always said she would be a grave digger or an archaeologist. Now she thinks, maybe she’s both