Authors: Christine Dwyer Hickey
And her mother is everywhere, everywhere â following her out to the garden, popping up in a room she has just entered, yapping at her when she's trying to read, trilling up the stairs to call her for another meal, snack, pill, temperature-taking.
Even the sound of her voice.
There are times when it physically pains her. She has to wonder if this revulsion she feels towards her own mother could be some peculiar after-effect of the virus. She remembers when she was younger, how she used to sneak into Dr Townsend's surgery with Rachel and Paul in search of disgusting things. They found a photograph in one of the medical books once â it looked like a fat scabby caterpillar resting on a rock.
the photograph was called. Paul said it meant âMother's Mark' â and that it wasn't a rock, but a big bald head. What had started out as a tiny forceps scar on a baby had grown as the head had grown and then suddenly turned cancerous. Could she have something like that she wonders now â a mother's mark, but on the inside where it could be felt but not seen? A sore, swelling thing, festering away on her brain? Her heart? Or right here, then, in the middle of her gut?
Because she can't remember feeling this way before she got sick. Yes, there had been times when she'd felt like screaming; times when she'd felt if she'd a gun in her handâ¦
But nothing so ferocious, so all unforgiving, as this.
It has a life of its own. It climbs on top of her in the middle of the night and presses down on her chest; it breathes sour, hot breath on her face. It makes her cry with temper, with sadness and sometimes even with shame.
She thinks to herself â tomorrow. I will make an effort tomorrow. I will try to be nice to her. The effort I make will be strong enough to break the grip in my stomach and then I'll be able to breathe again.
In the early hours of the morning she is filled with hope for
tomorrow's effort. And then the next day, the second â the very second â she sets eyes on her mother queasily coming out of the bathroom and padding down the stairs in her big frilly dressing-gown, the laundry basket held high in her arms, empty bottles whispering inside it â she hates, hates, hates her, all over again.
And yet, she had loved her once â in fact, she had been almost in love with her. They had slept together until she was nine years old. Elaine had thought it quite normal then â the husband sleeping in one room at the back of the house, the mother and child in another at the front. They shared the same bed. They ate sweets together under the bedclothes. Snuggled up and told stories. Gossiped about the neighbours. Spied on them. Mummy, she called her then.
It might have gone on like that forever, only Brendie Caudwell found out about it and blabbed it all over the school.
It was around that time Elaine had gotten it into her head that Ted Hanley could well be her father. Later she would realise that she'd simply been picking up on her mother's crush. And not just the crush she had on him, but also the admiration â if not for his wife exactly, then the impression they gave as a married couple. The Hanley couple â their clothes, their furniture, their
. âNote,' she had said more than once, âthe way
don't need children in order to be happy.'
When her mother spoke about Ted, her whole face lit up. If they were lying in bed she would cuddle Elaine tighter. The clothes he wore, the car he drove, what he had done to that house â such
clever ideas â practically an artist, in fact. âI mean â those
,' she would say. âThose
Once at the bus stop coming home from town, her mother had fallen into a conversation with another woman and started to describe the garden room Ted Hanley had built at the back of his house. Ted did this. Ted would only do that. Ted simply wouldn't have it any other way. She had become so animated that even the woman had started to look at her oddly.
For a moment Elaine had thought her mother was going to confide in this woman, to lower her voice and say, âBetween you and me â the man I live with? Well he's not actually my real husbandâ¦' and that she would have to listen very carefully to the whispering voice behind the hand if she wanted to learn the adult reason for living in one house with one husband, while desperately longing for another house, including the husband that was already in it.
Her parents were once invited to a party in the Hanleys'. She'd been about eight years old at the time. She watched them cross the road together. Her father holding her mother's elbow and guiding her through the gate, the way he did when they went to church on Sunday â the only other time Elaine ever saw them touching. He had a bottle wrapped in tissue in his other hand, holding it out and away from his body as if afraid that it might explode. He was wearing pale coloured trousers and a patterned shirt. There was something almost shocking about seeing him without his suit, as if he was going out in his underwear.
Her mother, in a green dress, hardly looked fat at all; her hair,
all done up in a Saturday-night do, had made her seem taller. She was wearing high heels and walking in short, nervy steps.
Now when she spies out the window, she spies alone, and at least with some degree of shame. Agatha teases her and calls her a spyarse, but she is spying on Agatha's behalf as well as her own. Agatha seems to forget how greedy she is for visual detail: colours, shapes, movement â the overall impression left by all that. She wants to know everything â not just what Elaine can see in the moments they spend together, but what she has seen since yesterday, last night, weeks ago even.
âTell me about the new arrivals,' Agatha says on the end of the phone line, âthe new arrivals in the Osbornes' old house.'
âI've told you already!'
âTell me again.'
Elaine goes into her father's room, lifts the receiver from the extension phone on his desk then returns to the hall where she hangs up the house phone. Back at his desk, she stretches out in his leather chair and tells her again:
How they arrived in the middle of the night, so nobody noticed. How, at first, everyone thought they were sisters.
âThey were coming and going, in and out so quickly, but from a distance looked similar, you see.'
And then the delivery vans. They began to arrive the first morning and continued to arrive all week. Furniture, paintings,
groceries even. Fully formed shrubs in fancy tubs that were brought around the back along with the garden furniture.
âWhat did your mother say? Do the voice!'
âA ready-made garden! Either they're bone idle lazy, or they don't intend staying too long.'
Agatha laughs. âAnd then
The woman first. From the back of the taxi when Elaine was on the way home from her hospital check-up: the woman, leaning her backside against the ledge outside the Osbornes' front porch, smoking a fag. Her shirt tied up at the front, beneath it a block of brown belly. The shirt, pale pink. Jeans snug to the hip, cut-off to just above the knee. She wore no shoes; even her feet were tanned.
âGood figure?' Agatha asks.
âAnd the girl?'
The girl came a minute later. She appeared out of the garage, drinking from a Coke bottle. She wore a man's shirt as if it was a dress and was shuffling along on flat, white slippers, the sort you get in hotels â like the ones the Shillmans have all over their house. It was hard to say what age â âOur age, maybe.'
âWhat do you mean âour age', Junior?'
âAll right â your age then. Seventeen.'
âGive me five words to describe her,' Agatha says.
She gives her more than five â tall, tanned, tennis-player's legs; blonde fuzzy plait over one shoulder. Slow bouncy walk.
âAndâ¦?' Agatha says.
âThe cigarette! The cigarette!'
The girl walked over to the woman, took the cigarette from her hand, helped herself to two short pulls, before returning it to the V between the woman's fingers. The woman looked up then, spotted her standing there and waved. Elaine pauses a moment to imagine how she must have looked to the newcomers, after the taximan had pulled away, leaving her exposed on the pavement like something that had been under a rock, grey-faced and gawky, blinking into the light.
âAnd what did you do then?'
âI waved back, but I don't think they noticed.'
Days went by. The women talked of nothing else. Elaine heard them through the kitchen window while she was lying on the patio, reading. Their voices straying out along with the smell of cigarettes and coffee. They were German, it was decided.
Mrs Osborne was known to have German relatives â wasn't she?
I didn't know that.
Oh yes, now that I think of it, you're right
. She's right. I heard that too.
It would certainly explain the sporty look of them
. Sporty! Is that what you call it? And now that you mention it, Mrs Townsend's cleaner thought she'd heard funny talk coming from the back garden while taking in the washing.
Yes, you know, foreign.
âOh God!' Agatha says. âWhat next!'
Next, the double beds. Two double beds â brand new, mattresses wrapped in plastic, confirming it all: two sisters waiting to be
joined by two husbands. Mrs Caudwell said, âIt wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, of course, two couples living together in the same house, but they do things differently in these countries, I believe.'
âAnd the car?' Agatha urges. âDon't forget the car.'
âYes, the car.'
The German sisters bought a car. The younger one drove it home. She banged it off the side of the gate when she was pulling into the driveway. Then she jumped out of the car, slammed the door, screamed something through the window at the other one, before stomping up the drive and kicking the garage door. That one kick to the garage door changed everything.
âMy mother. She got on the phone to Martha Shillman.'
âDon't forget her voice!'
âNot sisters at all, Martha, I'm telling you. Mother and daughter. Of course I'm sure. Yes. Yes. God, if I can't recognise a teen-tantrum by now!'
âA teen-tantrum â Jesus!'
The women were back, this time they took to the sitting room. There was no smell of coffee, but the ice bucket was missing. Elaine had to earwig over the banisters.
There had been reports of the newcomers sunbathing in bikinis in the back garden.
When the sun turned in the evening, the mother â as she was now called â had been seen in the front garden reading a book, although she at least had the decency to throw on a few clothes.
âIf you could call shorts and T-shirt clothes,' Agatha says, taking off Mrs Townsend's voice.
âYes, exactly, and my mother agreed â as usual â with everything Mrs Doctor had to say.'
There was something quite common about the whole sorry scene, it was agreed, sitting by her front door on a kitchen chair. It was the sort of thing people living in terraced houses on the far side of town were rumoured to do. And all that waving at the men as they drove by on their way home from work, flashing that smile.
âAnd who did she wave to?'
âOnly randy Caudwell and that was probably because he drove by with his tongue hanging out.'
Agatha squeals. âDon't stop now!'
Who was she anyway? This woman who dressed like a teenager?
What was she doing going around in bare feet?
And what about that paintbrush in her hand?
Why would she be painting the house herself when she clearly had money to burn, with her car and her ready-made garden?
And as for those teeth? Did they not look a bit too perfect now to be real?
And the hair? Was that not a bit long now for a woman her age?
And what about the way she let her daughter smoke like that in front of everyone? And get behind a wheel of a car, too â the child might have been killed!
But more to the point â much, much more to the point â where, oh where, was the
âAnd after all that,' Elaine says, âthey simply knocked on
door. Our door. They crossed the road, came through the gate and rang the door bell. You should have heard my mother with her posh accent, trying to pretend she hadn't noticed anything going on across the road â Oh yes, the Osborne's house, of course, of course. I'd forgotten it was even let. Do step in. Elaineâ¦ Elaaaainnne. Come here a moment would youâ¦?'
âSo now at last â you saw them up close. What did they look like?'