The ward door slipped out of my hand and swung shut with a hollow crash. My two sisters turned towards me in unison, the noise disturbing whatever plot they’d been cooking up from our mother’s bedside.
‘You do like to make an entrance,’ Muriel said as her eyes tracked me passed the first beds. The aim was a bit of sisterly intimidation, it wouldn’t be the first time. Much as she worked hard at it, I was better. Whatever stress I had suffered in getting here, I was determined to stand tall when Muriel was around.
‘How is she?’ I asked.
‘She’s hardly dancing a tango.’
‘I was hoping for something a little more informative,’ I said, intent on keeping the peace. If only she’d let me be reasonable for a second, I did understand that Muriel and Gayle had been here for a couple of days already and my turning up was probably something of a release valve for some of the pent up emotional energy.
‘She’s asleep, nothing’s happened yet,’ Gayle said. Her voice cracked as she spoke. I suppose it was good that one of us was feeling something. I wasn’t sure if I’d even come. I’d sat on the train at the station for a good few minutes before getting off and coming here. If the train had been on a fast turnaround, I would happily have let it take me home again.
I pulled up a chair, but didn’t sit down immediately. Instead, I stood over my mother, taking the scene in.
Mother looked so old. It was a feeble observation for a woman on her death bed but to me the difference was striking. It was three years since I’d seen her. A few minutes ago my head was full of the determined ogre who told me once too many times how little my feelings counted. Now, beyond the steady rhythm of the ventilator, she couldn’t even push the air out of her lungs.
‘How long has she got left?’ I said, as I took to my chair.
‘Anytime apparently,’ Gayle said.
I checked my watch, not that I needed to know the time.
‘Are we keeping you Tania?’ Muriel added, ‘something more important to be doing?’
‘It’s good that we’re all together,’ Gayle said, ever the peace maker. Even with her eyes scalded red from drying tears she still clung onto straws of optimism. ‘Dad would be pleased that we came together for the end.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Gayle,’ Muriel said, ‘Dad hated us being together. He spent his life keeping us apart, playing one of us against the other. Old sod was paranoid, couldn’t stand the thought that we were talking about him.’
‘Probably turning in his grave now,’ Gayle said with a half-
I nodded, acknowledging Gayle’s joke. The old sod would definitely be fuming if he could hear us and I desperately hoped he could. Father wasn’t paranoid; he was simply good at secrets. He managed his family and business friends with similar skill, manipulating each situation to its own end. Apart from his more sadistic legacy, I had learned much from him about maintaining an assured and friendly disguise. I never understood what darkness lurked underneath father’s facade; I only know that I was constantly shuffling emotions around like a pack of cards.
‘Why did you come then?’ Muriel asked. ‘Dare I mention the word….inheritance?’
‘You called me, if I remember rightly. Anyway it’s got nothing to do with you. We’ve all got our reasons.’
‘You really are full of shit, Tania. The only woman I know who can speak a hundred words and say sod all.’
‘At least I don’t have a toilet mouth.’
‘Tania, Muriel, stop, please.’
We stopped and glared. We might be thirty years older but nothing had changed. I could trace it back to the time she pulled a condom out of my handbag and waved it in front of the old cow. As ever, Muriel was pleased with herself, when she didn’t know anything.
I picked up my mother’s hand wondering if it would induce a response. The ventilator retained its steady rhythm, whilst mother didn’t even twitch. Her hand was warm but the skin was loose, the flesh and muscle that defined shape had disappeared. Only solid bone was left. I squeezed a little harder, wanting her to feel my presence, to know I’d come but what was I expecting? As Muriel pointed out, she was hardly going to spring back to life.
My fingers entwined in hers, the edge of her diamond ring caught on my skin.
‘Oh I see what you’ve got your eye on,’ Muriel said, ‘I’m telling you now you’ve got no chance. There’s a queue honey, and you’re right at the back of it.’
‘Give it a rest, will you?’ I said. I’d forgotten my sister’s hawk-
‘Trust me, Tania. I’m pretty sure Hilda wouldn’t leave you her underwear to wash, but just in case she has, I’m putting it on record here and now, I’ll contest it.’
Her face burned with aggression, eyes glaring from behind dark eye shadow. I knew the kind of anger Muriel was capable of, not unlike my mother’s own brand of tyranny, but the venom she harboured still shocked me. Another reminder of why getting as far away as possible had been the only thing I could do.
The ward door crashed again and we all turned to see a white coat enter. A boy, barely out of nappies, walked towards us.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘nurse told me you we are all here. Perhaps we should take the opportunity for a chat.’
How come it always rained at sodding funerals? As if it wasn’t miserable enough. And this wasn’t just rain, it was pissing it down. The dark forces of nature were gathering which seemed more than appropriate for the occasion.
I lit a fag, took a sharp drag just as the breeze caught my umbrella. The cigarette was instantly drenched, so I threw it away. It was going to be that kind of day.
Gayle and Tania stepped out of the hearse. I let them ride in it together; being that close to death didn’t feel comfortable. Tania shuffled under the Undertaker’s large umbrella whilst Gayle went up to the church, probably trying to find the Priest who if he had any sense was hiding from the weather, knocking back a bottle of communion wine. Not that mother gave a toss about religion, unless it was the odd occasion father wanted to impress one of his mates and we were all lined up to smile sweetly whilst notes flew into the offertory.
‘It’s important to have a proper funeral,’ Gayle had said, in that prissy manner. Just because you’ve got a head full of guilt, I thought. Though what she had to be guilty about, I had no idea. Perhaps underneath that meek exterior she was having more fun than the lot of us.
Tania appeared having nicked the undertaker’s umbrella. Now here was someone who had plenty to be sorry for. Up close I could see she looked a complete state in a large dark tartan poncho. ‘Where the hell did you get that?’ I asked. ‘It’s different I’ll give you that.’
‘Don’t start, Muriel. I don’t need it.’
‘Oh dear, we are feeling sensitive-
‘Are you two at it again?’ Gayle said, returning from the church.
We looked a right trio. Tania camped under her tent, Gayle clinging onto a veil she must have bought at the ‘Widows R Us’ sale. Me with my soggy fags and make up running so many lines down my face I must have looked like an extra from a zombie movie.
‘Good turnout,’ Tania said.
She was right, there was a good collection of oldies milling around the entrance.
‘Maybe they can smell money,’ she added, ‘brings them out of the woodwork.’
‘Don’t be vulgar,’ Gayle said, ‘Mum and Dad had a lot of friends, lots of people knew them.’
‘You’re kidding,’ Tania said, and for once I had to agree. ‘They had a decent business… with money friends come automatically. They don’t have to like you.’
We fell silent watching the coffin be lifted from the hearse.
I should have felt something, but I couldn’t find a response. Love never belonged in our house. Gayle pretended, but you could tell from how she carried her face round in a plastic bag that happiness didn’t visit often. Tania was too much like me, much as she’d deny it. She was the oldest and Mum made everything her fault. It was too. The smug bitch never said a word, never warned us. Even when we asked her she refused to talk about it, but it happened to her as well. I know . She lied all her life. Walking round like the wounded soldier, carrying the world on her backside, stuffing chocolate bars like happy pills.
The undertaker approached and removed his hat in acknowledgement of our supposed grief.
‘We’re ready now,’ he said.
The silence in the room said everything.
Even Muriel held her tongue. She still reeked of smoke and looked like she’d not slept for a week or more. Mum’s death had hit her hard. She’d protest otherwise, but the extra layer of dark eye shadow was there for a reason.
Tania spared me a smile or was it for herself? She was polite and reasonable but her constant fidgeting and lack of eye contact made me worry. She’d always been big but more recently she seemed to have grown larger. I wish I knew her. I wish that I could help.
The solicitor across the table stopped shuffling her papers. She let her glasses drop and spoke.
‘If I could have your attention.’
I held my breath. Perhaps for the first time ever, we would learn our mother’s real thoughts. For so long she hid under the fire of her breath. We’d only known one tough dimension. I couldn’t remember a single rational conversation about anything. It had always been questions, arguments, demands, yet there had to be a sane being somewhere in there.
When clearing the house after father had died and Mum had gone to the home, I’d tried to find more about her past. Something that told a story; a letter or even a photograph. But I only found formal stuff. Perhaps coldness was all this family could offer.
The solicitor went through some formalities. I sat between Muriel and Tania sensing the collective ‘get on with it’ between us. We might not like what we she had to say, but we needed to hear it.
‘First I have a short note to read,’ she said.
I held my breath.
‘I wasn’t fancy in life. I’m not about to start now. I’ll say what needs to be said and that’s it.’
I could hear mother’s voice as the solicitor spoke. Short sentences, no soft words. Curt and to the point. Her face would screw up as she spoke, just in case the words lost their intent.
‘I’m not saying I did things right, but it wasn’t wrong either. Your father did some things, horrible things and not just to you, so don’t be looking for sympathy. I did what I had to, putting food in your mouths. Nowadays you’d wonder why I never left, why I stayed. It wasn’t that simple. No doubt you’ve made your own mind up, so I won’t waste my time explaining.’
I leant back in the seat, no longer intent on listening. I’d tried to talk to mother and she never listened and never explained. That wasn’t father; that was her choice. But then like Tania said, divide and conquer was how father did things and it obviously worked. My gut wrenched and nausea rose. His hideous body odour still dominated the house even as he was burning in the crematorium. Every bit of fabric reeked of his sweaty skin. And there was mother, shouting the odds from the kitchen, denial reinforced by bitterness. Even as his hand crept under my clothes, I could still hear her lectures.
‘I’m tired, tired of life, tired of you all. I have no care for your petty squabbles. Nor do I have any desire to be fair or grateful. Life is full of choices, up to you what you do with them.’ The solicitor placed her glasses on the desk as she ceased reading.
‘Is that it?’ Muriel asked.
‘No goodbye, no nothing?’ I asked.
‘That’s it,’ the solicitor confirmed. We all looked at each other, unsure what to say.
‘Typical of the old cow,’ Tania said. ‘She was a bitch in life, no reason to die any different.’
‘If I could continue with the will,’ she said. ‘It’s very brief.’
Again we waited.
‘As the eldest and first born, in line with tradition, I leave all my worldly wealth to my daughter Tania Collins.’ The solicitor looked up again.
‘That’s it?’ I asked.
‘You whore, you absolute witch!’ Muriel’s anger surfaced like an exploding volcano.
Tania was white with shock, completely stunned. I could tell from her reaction that even she hadn’t expected the money. She’d walked away from the family. Muriel and I, had hung around, helped out; done everything for her.
I looked at Muriel who seemed ready to kill and then back to Tania. A smile had appeared on her face.
‘Miss Collins, if you could follow me through to the back, there’s some paperwork to deal with,’ the solicitor said.
‘You’re not going anywhere, Tania,’ Muriel said, ‘I want my share. What about you Gayle?’
‘Tania, you know this isn’t right. We deserve our share, it’s only fair.’
Then it dawned on me, what mother had done. Tania articulated it better as she followed the solicitor through the door.
‘As mother said. Life isn’t fair.’