It’s been three weeks since she’s visited her grandmother. She’s forgotten what they talk about. The usual platitudes elude her. She decides to dive straight in.
‘Why did you say I had a dog?’
A funny sort of question. Hanging in the air. She’s waiting for Irene to refute it. To look confused. To say there must be some mistake.
Irene says ‘Why didn’t you say you didn’t have a husband?’
‘I do have a husband. He just happens not to be around. I’ve never had a dog. It just seems like an odd thing to make up.’
It is odd. Very odd. Irene often says odd things. Then again, the things she doesn’t say are even odder. Odd that she hasn’t mentioned Alan when she clearly knows he’s gone. Billy must have told her. You’d have thought she might have called. Expressed some sort of curiosity, support.
Then again, no-one mentions Alan. Not even Billy. It’s almost as though he doesn’t exist at all.
She has the vague sense that there’s some sort of conspiracy. That she’s the last person to be in on an obscure joke. It’s like being back at school. Looking on in bemusement while the other children laugh. She never gets the joke. Not that she doesn’t have a decent brain. She was in top set for everything. Not for art, admittedly. But everything that counted. It’s just she’s always been, well, literal. Slow to pick up on irony, or subtleties, or matters left unsaid.
‘Speaking of make-up,’ says her grandmother.
‘I wasn’t.’ says Linda. ‘I said I thought it was an odd thing to make up.’
Irene stares at her granddaughter’s bare face with detached disdain.
‘I know your husband’s left you. But it won’t be any help to anyone if you let yourself go.’
‘Well.’ Says Linda icily. ‘He’s not around to see me, so it doesn’t matter does it?’
For a moment, just a moment, Irene considers putting her right. Explaining, yet again, that outward appearance is not just a matter of show but a matter of self-respect. Describing the indignities of life in the Infirmary. First as a patient, weak with Scarlet Fever. Later as a nurse, a transition made without the usual ceremony. Without official training. Without challenge. Without question. Irene’s inexorable rise.
Linda knows all this of course. Knows the elementary facts. But she has absolutely no idea. No idea at all. She can’t imagine what it’s like to bathe in filthy water. To wear the same clothes day in day out. To be deprived not just of make-up, but of shampoo, soap and sanitary towels. To reach the point where you wonder if you’re visible at all. Where the struggle to look your best becomes your life-blood: the battle for recognition; for survival; for self-worth.
She isn’t going to waste her breath. It’s not like Irene to give up. But what would be the point? In any case she’s tired. Tired of bending other people to her world-view; to her will. She isn’t used to being tired. She doesn’t like it at all.
Linda isn’t letting Irene off the hook. Not this time. Not again. Avoiding awkward questions. Making out that all the troubles in the world are somehow Linda’s fault.
‘You said I had a dog called Gala, and that I’d buried him at Macey’s Patch. That’s not being economical with the truth. That’s a total fabrication. An out and out lie.’
Strange that she wrote that note. What can she have been thinking? Perhaps she’s going senile. She’s in her nineties after all.
It might be a relief. If Irene were to lose a little of her edge.
Linda looks at her grandmother anew.
She looks so well put together. But appearances can be deceptive. You never really know what’s going on in someone’s mind.
Linda adopts a different tone. Wheedling. The voice she’s heard other people use to speak to women of a certain age.
‘We never had a dog, remember? You wouldn’t let us. You think they’re unhygienic.’
Irene looks amused, tickled by the turn the conversation’s taken. She doesn’t move to fill the silence. She lets Linda carry on.
‘We had a cat. But then it died.’
‘And you were pleased.’
‘I wasn’t pleased.’ Says Irene with exaggerated patience. ‘I just thought it was absurd that you made such a fuss.’
‘You never wanted him in the first place. You wouldn’t even put a cat flap in the door.’
Dammit. How did that happen? Irene has changed the subject. Or did Linda do it herself? In any case, she’s missed the moment, lost the thread. Lost her composure. She still gets agitated when she thinks about the cat. Linda can feel herself regressing. Fuming with adolescent indignation. Speaking like a sulky child.
Irene does that thing where she arches one of her eyebrows.
‘It’s just as well I didn’t. We only had him for a couple of months.’
‘You always had it in for him. It was obvious from the start.’
‘I can assure you I didn’t feel any particular emotion either way.’
‘You said …’ Linda stops herself. She has a vague sense that there is still time to redeem herself. To regain the moral high ground. Not to dredge up grudges from the distant past.
‘You said….that when you said that cats were more refined than dogs, you had a certain sort of cat in mind.’
Irene smiles her sweetest smile.
There she goes again. Acting as though Linda hasn’t just said what she’s said. Oh God, perhaps she didn’t. She knows she formed the sentence. She can recall it word for word. But did she say the words out loud?
For years, she wasn’t certain if her voicebox worked at all. Whether the words she thought she’d said out loud were real. She thought perhaps her throat was just too sticky. That words got trapped before they made the open air. As a child she dined on Lemsip, Strepsils, Cherry Smoothers. Sometimes she thought perhaps there was a switch she didn’t know about. Somewhere deep within her throat. That stopped the words from making the transition to the wider world beyond.
Not that it makes the slightest bit of difference. Irene will hear whatever she wants to hear. Say whatever she wants to say.
She’s going to say it now. Whatever it is. You can tell by the way she’s pulling herself up straight; drawing in her breath; waiting for her Linda’s absolute attention.
Here it comes.
‘I said Gala was buried there. Technically, that’s true.’
‘Right’ says Linda. ‘Thanks for that. Now it all makes sense.’