Linda is back at Irene’s bedside. She can’t decide on tactics. Perhaps she should come right out with it. Confront her grandmother. Insist that she explains herself. Explains the riddle of the meaning behind the symbol of the reason. Just tell her in plain English exactly where she’s put her will.
It isn’t quite that simple. She knows her grandmother too well. Irene will love the chase, the game. She’ll string the whole thing out forever.
She’s tempted by brute force. She’s quite enjoying the novelty of Irene frail and helpless. Lying there in bed. It shouldn’t be that hard to put her hands around her neck. To throttle her. To squeeze. Until Irene’s forced to speak.
Awkward if someone spots her. Tricky to explain.
She tries another tack. Dutiful granddaughter. She decides to make an effort to be nice.
She says ‘Is there anything you need? Biscuits? Magazines? Fruit?’
Irene says ‘I need my make-up and a mirror.’
‘Of course.’ Says Linda sweetly. ‘I’ll make sure Billy comes up next time. I know he’d love to see you. I’m not sure what came over him last week.’
Irene doesn’t answer.
Linda tries again. Raises her voice a little. ‘I said Next Time I’ll Bring Billy.’
Irene says. ‘Make sure you bring my vanity case.’
‘The bonfire’s going ahead.’ Says Linda. ‘They’re clearing all the rubbish from the hospital. All the files and shelves. The whole lot’s going on the fire. If there’s anything you want to save you better tell me now.’
Irene doesn’t answer.
‘Anything important.’ Linda says with emphasis. ‘Important documents.’
‘It’s good to have a proper clear-out.’ says Irene. ‘Dusting down the cobwebs, making a fresh start.’
‘Right’ says Linda. ‘So there’s nothing in that building that you might want to keep.’
Irene has that look again. As though she’s seeing right through Linda, to another time, another world.
She’s thinking of the things they used to burn. Wobbly tables, rickety chairs. Mattresses riddled with rot. Handy, for sitting round the fire. For gorging on potatoes speared on toasting forks.
‘At the end,’ she says to Linda, ‘once the flames were really hot, you’d pick up whatever you’d been sitting on and hurl it in the fire.’
Linda’s not in the mood for this. Another trip down Memory Lane.
‘The thing is,’ Irene says conspiratorially, as she lowers her voice to a hiss. ‘We all got carried away.’
‘Carried away?’ says Linda.
‘The flames, the fire, the wastefulness. All we did all year was scrimp and save. Patch things up. Make do and mend.’
Irene struggles to explain it; to find the words her granddaughter will understand. The heady thrill of throwing out possessions, the extravagance, the excess. The adrenaline, the hedonistic madness. Irene can hear the fireworks, feel the heat. The chanting gets more vicious, more ferocious. The crowd works itself into a frenzy. Fuelled by cinder toffee, alcohol, the intoxicating cocktail of flames and smoke and heat.
Chanting, jeering, baying for blood.
A penny loaf to feed the pope
A farthing o’cheeses to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Irene is choking too. Her throat is thick with soot. Her mouth and tongue are burning from the hottest hot potato. She can’t see through the smoke.
Irene is misty-eyed and mumbling.
‘I think she’s hallucinating.’ Says Linda. ‘One minute we were having a conversation, the next minute she was talking to herself.’
Doctor Tanner is a good listener. Professional. Understanding. Wears a sympathetic smile as Linda prattles on.
He says. ‘We can’t be absolutely certain that she’s going to pull through.’
Thank. You. God. Thinks Linda. And thank you Dr Tanner.
She wants to give him something in return.
Something to look forward to. A ray of hope.
She leans towards him, lowers her voice. Proffers her own advice.
‘I hope I didn’t upset you. What I said about your wife. It’s just, you seem to be so different. As though you’ve grown apart. You don’t have to be that person. That person married to Elsie Tanner. You can be anyone you want to be.’
Dr Tanner looks a little startled. There is a glimmer in his eye. Excitement? Anticipation?
‘What I’m trying to say,’ says Linda, ‘is it’s never too late to walk away and start your life again.’
Irene wakes up with a start. Linda is looking at her thoughtfully. As though she’s weighing something up.
Irene is irritated. She doesn’t like being caught out like this. Caught napping. Just a catnap. It’s undignified, unseemly.
She says ‘Haven’t you got things to do?’
Her granddaughter ignores her. At least, ignores the question.
‘Bruno Brown just called. They’ve found a skeleton.’ Says Linda. ‘In your cupboard. In your office. A child. They say he wasn’t more than six months old.’
Her tone is casual, conversational. But there’s an odd look in her eye. Confrontational. Accusing. Not like her at all. Or perhaps it is. Perhaps she’s changing. There’s some hope for her after all.
‘It was a hospital.’ Says Irene. ‘People were always dying. Especially the little ones. Babies, toddlers, children. They didn’t stand a chance. We were burning bodies every day. The incinerator never stopped All day long. And through the night as well.’
‘So why would you keep his body in the basement? Why not burn him with the others?’
‘It was the doctor’s fault. He insisted on a proper burial. But it wasn’t so straightforward. You couldn’t get the gravediggers. They’d been called up to fight. In any case, you saved the tombstones for the adults. Made the wardies disappear.’
‘The babies born inside.’
Linda says ‘Inside?’ She’s doing it again. Parroting her grandmother. One step behind.
‘On the ward. The children’s ward.’
Irene leans in towards her. Adopts a confidential tone.
‘They had no business having babies. They were only girls themselves.’
Irene closes her eyes. ‘So many illnesses.’ She says.
She starts to sing. Or rather chant. Some sort of playground ditty.
Measles and pneumonia,
Abscesses, convulsions and
Sludge green diarrhoe-a!
Linda struggles to keep calm. To maintain her composure. She wants to slap her, shut her up. Bludgeon home the message that life isn’t one big ditty, one big game. She struggles to ward off the hot frustration that has plagued her since her childhood. The stuttering, spluttering fury of a tongue-tied adolescent. Tortured by her inability to speak, to find the words.
Linda says ‘I’ve seen the things you do. I know you killed the cat.’
She didn’t mean to say it. She has surprised herself. A long-forgotten memory. A half-remembered outrage. She hasn’t given it a second thought in years.
Irene says ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
Now Linda sees it clearly. Looking from the landing window. The mix of outrage, horror, fear. The knowledge that she would pretend she hadn’t seen it. Pretend to Irene. To herself.
She says ‘I saw you put its body in the dustbin.’ She is calmer now. Matter-of-fact.
Irene sighs. She’s not sure she can summon up the energy to explain. Not after all these years. The cat was aggravating everything. Linda’s allergies; her asthma. Hairs all over everything. It was an ugly little thing as well. One leg shorter than the others. A stump instead of a tail.
That’s the problem with the younger generation. Too accepting of imperfection. So sentimental about life.
She didn’t want to do it. God knows, she didn’t enjoy it. It’s harder than you think to throttle a cat with your bare hands.
She was thinking about Linda. And the furniture as well.
Dr Tanner lingers by the bedside. Like he always bloody does.
Linda says ‘Was there something you wanted?’
He stiffens slightly. Stung by the coldness in her voice.
He says ‘I did what you suggested.’
Linda looks straight through him.
‘I left her. I left Elsie. Just now. Over lunch.’
Good for you, thinks Linda. What do you want? A prize?
Dr Tanner can’t understand it. He has rehearsed this conversation. It isn’t going to plan. He pulls himself together. Linda has a lot to deal with. She must be worried sick. He is the professional. He can help her. See her through this. He can take control.
‘Your grandmother is increasingly delirious. In and out of consciousness. Her moments of lucidity are few and far between. If there’s anything you feel you want to say to her, I suggest you say it now.’
Linda crouches down by Irene’s bed.
She says. ‘I’m trying to make my mind up.’
‘Oh.’ Says Irene. ‘About what?’
‘I’m trying to decide whether you’re evil or just senile.’
Linda is half way out the door before Irene replies.
‘Just make sure you bring my vanity case.’
‘We’ll see.’ Says Linda airily. ‘I might. And I might not.’