‘Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.’
‘Gail, dear, you can’t hide cards up your sleeve.’
The nurse points out my mother sitting at the far side of the room in the games corner, but I had already heard her voice, high and shrill. The room is bustling with relatives today. I weave through the circle of armchairs and past the high-latticed windows overlooking the grounds. The apple trees that sit against the west side of the building are vibrantly green against the crisp blue of the sky. I see clusters of figures gathered around them, filling their bags with apples.
My mother is wearing the baby pink cardigan I bought her for her birthday and a mischievous smile. She holds a fan of playing cards close to her chest.
‘Hi, Mum.’ I lean down to kiss her on the cheek.
‘Catherine, it’s so nice to see you! Ted, Gail, this is my daughter Catherine.’
We shake hands even though we’ve been introduced before. I pull over an extra chair.
‘Catherine, my darling, won’t you be a good girl and tell Gail that hiding cards is cheating?’
‘No need for that.’ Gail removes the card from the sleeve of her navy cotton jumper and places it on the table.
Mum looks smug.
‘Your mother’s as sharp as a knife,’ Ted chuckles from his place between the two women, a physical buffer.
They begin laughing along with him, as do I, glad that my mother has found companionship. I think Ted hangs around mostly for the entertainment, but he certainly does his bit in dispelling her silly disputes with Gail.
‘I could never get anything past her as a kid,’ I say.
‘I’ll bet! How have you been, Cathy?’ Ted asks.
‘Busy, as always.’
‘Where’s that husband of yours? You never bring him here to see me anymore,’ Mum tuts.
Ted catches my eye across the table and furrows his thick grey eyebrows. He is sharper than my mother, he remembers the things I tell her.
I hesitate. ‘Sorry, Mum, maybe next time.’
‘You know, Simon is a lawyer like Catherine.’ She shoots a look at Gail. Beat that.
‘Look Mum, I brought you something.’ I reach into my pocket and pull out a small paper bag. She peers inside like an excitable child.
‘Rhubarb and custard! My favourites.’
‘You used to buy them for me after school, remember?’
Her bright blue eyes dim and she scrunches her face as if trying to see through a haze. I take her hand in mine and squeeze gently. She looks down at our fingers together and her smile turns into another confused frown.
‘Where are your wedding rings, Catherine?’
I park up on the street opposite Captain Cod’s chip shop. Lea Street is packed today; my usual spot has been taken, but the florist is still in view at least. The light disappears behind the row of terraced houses. I watch the street grow darker but I can’t bring myself to leave my car and return to the flat.
My visit to Pinegrove had been niggling at me on the drive home. Mum was confused again and asking difficult questions, ones I didn’t know how to answer without reminding her that she had forgotten something.
A couple of teenagers come out of the chip shop. Hot steam rises from their polystyrene boxes. The girl laughs and steals a chip from the boy; her long, brown hair blows into her face as she tries to eat it. I watch them, waiting until their laughs are out of earshot before I leave my car.
The light from my bathroom window shines like a beacon over the Beautiful Blooms shop sign. I have forgotten to switch it off again, too used to Simon checking everything before we went out.
I fumble with the lock on the side door; there is a knack to it that I haven’t quite figured out yet. I balance my bag of chips against my hip as I bend to pick up the post.
Before I even see the contents, I know it’s arrived. I tear it open even before I head up the stairs. ‘Burton & Son’s Solicitors’ is printed at the top of the front page. Of course he got his father on the case.
Upstairs, I add the papers to the top heap of post all addressed to Mrs. Burton. I move through to the bathroom to turn off the light. The mirror startles me. I reach out and touch the reflection, expecting it to ripple like water, but the image is true. I wonder if this is how my mother feels when she looks in the mirror. I click the switch.
A few boxes remain stacked in the middle of the room, separating the kitchen and living room like a makeshift wall. They’re labelled with the thick, black strokes of a sharpie: cushions, books, ornaments.
I open the top box and plunge my hand into the softness. I pull out the first thing my fist closes around, a tiny white cardigan. I smell it, expecting it to hold a trace of something, but it is clean, unworn. I drop it back into the box.
I take out two green cushions from the next box along and place them on the sofa, carefully angling them so the corners point towards the ceiling. The flat still looks bare.
Defeated, I retire to the kitchen table with my box of chips. I sit and eat in the silence. I don’t bother with cutlery.
My phone buzzes loudly on the counter, making me jump so my watering can goes clattering to the ground. The text is from Natalia. She has messaged me a few times over the past few weeks wanting to meet up before her baby arrives. Our little ones would’ve been in the same class at school. I write a note in my appointment book to send her flowers.
I ignore the text and mop the floor before I continue refilling the buckets of carnations with water and adding plant food. I remove the carnations with limp and withering petals and replace them with fresh, unopened buds. When I’m done, the pile of dead flowers fills two plastic bags. I mourn their loss. It is my fault.
In the shop window, I stick up paper letters and place three pumpkins equidistant from each other. I stretch out cotton wool for the plastic spiders to live in. At two o’clock I lock up the shop and check my seasonal display from the outside. ‘Happy Halloween’ is backwards.
I arrive at Pinegrove at half past two. A paperchain of ghosts brushes against my hair as I come under the archway into the common room. Skeletons lurk in the corner. Today, my mother is sitting in the armchair next to Ted. Candles shaped into miniature gravestones lie unlit on the coffee table. I place two mugs next to them and begin stirring in Mum’s sugar and milk.
I open the bag of rhubarb and custard sweets I brought her and she digs her hand in eagerly. ‘Oh darling, I haven’t had these for ages!’
It is easier to ignore her mistake this time. ‘Where’s Gail today?’
‘Her, um well she’s…’ she looks down at her hands, as if the answer is written on them. ‘Remind me who that is, dear?’
Ted looks across at me with sad eyes, his expression a mirror of my own.
Mum reaches for my hand and grips it tightly as if she knows that she has done something upsetting. Her skin is soft and puckered like she now has too much of it for her withering bones.
‘She’s your best friend.’ I try to sound cheerful.
‘Gail’s gone out with that daughter of hers, hasn’t she, Lynn? Hardly ever comes to see Gail, and when she does she has to be all flashy and take her off grounds.’
‘Oh yes! They’ve gone to a fancy restaurant,’ Mum pipes up.
‘Funny thing is, she can’t eat anything except soup with her teeth.’ Ted smirks, accentuating the lines on his face.
‘Gail’s always barking on about that girl like she’s God’s gift, but I put her in her place by telling her about my wonderful Catherine. You know Ted, she’s a top lawyer, married and all!’
I gulp down my coffee. It scalds my throat, burning a pathway down my chest.
In Mum’s bedroom, I help rearrange the pillows on her armchair. I wiggle the cushions behind her back as she instructs me left and right, higher and lower. Mum’s nurse, Sue, arrives with a vase for the flowers and takes over the cushion rearrangement to Mum’s satisfaction.
‘Those flowers are just gorgeous,’ she coos. ‘What kind are these ones?’
‘That’s a yellow snapdragon and those orange ones are a type of lily. Lilies are Mum’s favourite.’
‘Well aren’t you lucky, Lynn?’
Mum smiles sleepily and settles back into her chair. She usually has a nap not long after I leave.
I squeeze behind Mum’s chair to place the flowers on the windowsill. I lean down to kiss her cheek. Suddenly, she cries out, clutching her blanket to her chest, leaning away from me.
I recoil too, like magnets pushed apart.
Sue reappears, settling Mum’s cries. Over her shoulder the flowers go out of focus as my face becomes wet. Orange, yellow and red bleed together. I have to turn away.
I kneel besides the small faux Christmas tree in my flat, reaching underneath for Mum’s present. I’ve bought her a navy scarf and matching cashmere gloves, knowing how cold she gets in the winter months. This will be my first Christmas in the flat. I only finished unpacking the boxes and giving my possessions a place a few weeks ago, but the addition of a tree and the fairy lights make it feel comforting.
When I arrive at Pinegrove I am directed to Mum’s bedroom as they tidy away the dining room after the residents’ Christmas Lunch. The only sign of festivity in Mum’s room is the silver tinsel hanging over the mirror; she isn’t much for change. She is sitting in her armchair while Sue strips her bedding. As I walk into the room she smiles, spotting the giftbag in my hand.
‘Lynn would like to go for a walk today?’ Sue asks.
I place Mum’s shoes in front of her feet and hold her hands whilst she slips them on. She wobbles as she stands and Sue helps to steady her as I grab her cream coat from the back of the door. I do up the zip and wind her scarf around her neck, tucking the end into her coat. Sue passes over a pair of cheap black gloves. I am glad I got her new ones.
I link arms with my mother as we slowly walk down the corridor. Sue comes after us and whispers to Mum who smiles.
‘She asked us to get you something, she picked it herself,’ Sue explains before dashing off in the direction she came.
The air is crisp against our skin as we make our way down the path towards the apple trees. Mum tilts her face towards the sun. The sky is as blue as her eyes.
‘Can we sit here for a minute, darling?’
We sit on a bench facing the row of trees. The branches are bare now and apples sit rotting at the base, pecked by the occasional bird.
Mum produces a small package from her pocket covered in robins; a sticky label reading ‘Catherine’ sits centrally.
‘What’s this, Mum?’
‘Open it. Sorry it’s not much, darling.’ She smiles at me expectantly.
I tear the paper away and reveal a plastic bag full of rhubarb and custard sweets.
‘We used to have them when I picked you up from school as a special treat,’ she explains, but of course I remember.
I look at her in disbelief. She slips her hand into the bag of sweets and hands one to me. I take it from her and hold onto her hand, not wanting to let go.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.