Mary gripped the side of the kitchen table. She’d been feeling so very tired recently, and now there were the pains in her chest.
“Coming, mother!” she called weakly.
She stayed there for several long moments, running a hand through her greying hair, breathing deeply, recomposing herself. The water was boiling on the stove but she didn’t go over to it, at least not until she felt strong enough.
When she did, she dropped an egg in the water, flipped the egg-timer over and took from the table the tea that she’d already poured.
The cottage’s wooden stairs, which Mary remembered bounding up as a child, were now like a mountainside to her. She grabbed the hand-rail to the right and half climbed, half hauled herself up the daunting obstacles, all mocking twelve of them, the cup and saucer rattling in her left hand.
Her mother was sitting up in bed. Mary placed the tea on the bedside table
“What kept you?!” the old woman demanded.
“Sorry, mother. I wasn’t feeling so—“
“Never mind that. You know I can’t get up. I need the pan.”
Mary slipped an enamel bedpan under the sheets and looked the other way while her mother relieved herself.
“I brought you your tea,” Mary said, making an effort to sound kind. It had little effect on her mother’s mood.
“What about my egg?!”
“I’ll get that shortly. I can’t bring it all up at once these days.”
Her mother scoffed and shook her head.
“Don’t give me your sob stories. I wish Susan was still alive. She looked after me properly.”
“I try, mother.”
“Well you don’t try hard enough if you ask me. Now go and get my egg.”
Mary turned and made to leave.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“To … to get your egg.”
“What about the bedpan?! Do you want it to spill and soak my sheets?”
“No, of course not. Sorry, mother.”
“I should think so, too.”
Mary retrieved the bedpan and placed it on the floor at the foot of the bed.
“You’re going to empty it, I hope!”
“I’ll get your egg first.”
“All right, but six minutes, remember! I don’t like it runny.”
“Yes, I know, mother.”
“And another thing.”
Mary’s shoulders drooped.
“This isn’t working.” She pointed to the telephone on the bedside table.
“I know,” said Mary wearily. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to get into town today, though — it snowed last night and the lane … well, you know the lane. That time last winter when we were cut off for over a week, remember?”
“Of course I remember. I haven’t got dementia yet you know. But anyway … I don’t care if it’s tricky, get yourself into town and tell them to fix it. We can’t be stuck out here in the wilds with no way to contact the world!”
“Yes, mother. So … I’ll go and get your egg.”
“And make it snappy. I’m famished.”
Mary made her way carefully down the stairs and got to the kitchen just as the last grains of sand were dropping through to the bottom of the egg-timer.
She lifted the pan and turned off the gas ring. The egg-cups were in the cupboard above the sink. As she stretched to get one, the pain returned to her chest, making her gasp. She grabbed hold of the edge of the sink and tried the deep breathing that had helped before.
A second, stabbing pain ripped through her. She groaned, her arms flailing about her now, seeking and failing to find support. She slumped against the table, pushing the teapot off with a crash and crumpling to the floor like a rag doll.
“What’s happening down there?” came the angry voice from upstairs.
But Mary, motionless on the cold, grey tiles, would not be answering this time.
Nor, indeed, ever again.