‘Only me, mum!’
Sian was answered only by the hiss of the door closing behind her.
‘Welcome Sian,’ intoned her mother’s Virtual Assistant.
‘Can’t stay for long,’ she called breathlessly, struggling with shopping bags. ‘I’m just stopping by on the way home. Got to get back to start Bianca’s dinner… Mum?’
Sian entered the living room. Her mother, Charlotte, sat far back in her armchair, sagging skin and baggy clothes hanging from her stick-thin frame, jaundiced eyes receding into her head. No wonder the woman couldn’t hear; the telescreen was blaring at a ridiculous volume. There was not so much as a glance from her mother; not so much as a flicker of acknowledgement.
An advert was showing a family on vacation. Parents watched indulgently as children met cartoon characters, building memories that would last a lifetime. Pursing her lips, Sian dumped a shopping bag to the side of the chair.
‘Just leave that, mum. Bianca asked me to pick up some things for her whilst I was doing your shopping.’
If Sian hadn’t been watching for it, she might have missed her mother’s eyes flicking over to where multi-bag crisps and red-labelled cola bottles erupted from the bag.
‘I’ll go and unpack, shall I?’
Sian retreated into the kitchen.
‘Did you hear Julie’s finally been allocated a residence?’ There was no reply. ‘Julie? Your friend Pamela’s daughter? Mum? She – oh flip!’
A jam jar slipped from her hands and smashed on the floor. Sian felt the blood rush to her face as she knelt, collecting the larger shards in her hands before sweeping the smaller pieces into a dustpan and wiping up the red condiment.
‘Been on the list for fifteen years, Julie has,’ she continued evenly. ‘Kids almost full grown as well. Her mother Pamela went on time. No justice, is there?’
Sian was on her knees now, her head in the fridge as she made room for the milk, cheese, and margarine.
‘Don’t know whether you’ve been watching the news, mum, but it’s not just housing that’s stretched to breaking point.’ She began to reorganise the fridge, dairy in the door, fruit and veg in the bottom, cold meats at the top. ‘Hospitals, doctors’ surgeries…they’re all full to bursting as well. Young folk not being able to get an appointment, people forced to do DIY surgery…bed blockers, you see?’
There was only the blare of the telescreen in reply. Moistening a dishcloth with bleach, Sian set to cleaning the hob.
‘It’s just not the same as when you were growing up, mum,’ she said, attacking a smear of heaven-only-knew-what between the gas rings. ‘Back then old folk were treated as oddballs, as curiosities.’ Scrub, scrub. ‘It’s different now. We understand…not how much of a drain you are, that’s not fair, but…’
She paused to pick at a piece of grime with her fingernail. ‘Take your great-grandfather…’ Pick, pick. ‘He fought in a world war, for God’s sake! He could point to an achievement, something that he had contributed.’
One final buff and Sian could see her face in the hob. She washed her hands before picking up a bottle of plant food and returning to the living room. She began to eye-dropper food into a potted peace lily.
‘We need to start thinking about the younger folk, mum,’ said Sian, peeking at her mother from between the foliage. ‘I’d like to think that when my time comes I won’t make a fuss. It’s not becoming. It’s not…graceful.’
The only movement from the older woman was the shallow rise and fall of her chest. Sian put the lily down roughly.
‘Do you know why Bianca isn’t with me today, mum?’ she asked, hands on her hips. ‘Why she hasn’t visited her grandmother for six months?’
She moved in front of the telescreen. Charlotte’s rheumy eyes slid upwards to meet her daughter’s for the first time.
‘Because she’s fucking embarrassed, mum. Every time she goes to school, every time she steps out of the front door, she…Do you know what they say to her? How she’s bullied?’ She leaned down into her mother’s face. ‘How am I supposed to answer my daughter when she asks why her grandmother hasn’t done the decent thing and visited a Clinic yet? Why we’re still spending our lives nursing her through every day? Why her friends’ grandparents have all slipped off with their dignity, while hers sits mouldering in an armchair?’
Sian watched as her mother’s eyes flitted to the window. Was it embarrassment she saw in the old woman’s face? More likely boredom. She slammed a bottle of water down in front of her mother. On it’s packaging were snow-capped mountains and cracked glaciers. That was how the atmosphere was now – glacial.
‘Don’t drink that until I’ve sorted your meds.’
Wrenching her mother’s ancient vacuum cleaner from the cupboard, Sian set to attacking the carpets. She had always found manual cleaning therapeutic and was soon working out her frustration on the thick shag. By the time she had been upstairs and down again, she was covered in a light sheen of sweat, her breathing deeper and calmer.
‘I’m sorry, mum,’ she said, switching off the vacuum cleaner. ‘Sometimes I forget that three generation families were a thing to be proud of in your day. It’s…changed now, that’s all. There’s so much…stigma attached to people of…of a certain age.’ Sian laughed weakly. ‘I know I must sound like a monster to you, but I promise you, not every daughter cleans their octogenarian mother’s house every week! I come because I love you, mum. Remember that, yeah?’
Charlotte’s lips were thin, her attention back on the screen.
Sian’s shoulders sagged. ‘I’ll just clean the shower and then I’ll be off.’
She trudged up the stairs again. The cleaning spray felt heavy in her hand as she gave it a few desultory squirts and started to wipe the Perspex. The shower smelt, not of dirt, but of old people, and Sian found that she could barely stand it. Leaning into the cubicle to scrub the plughole, she made one last attempt at reason.
‘You know that there might be a time when the choice is no longer yours, right?’
Her voice echoed back to her flatly, but there was no other response.
‘The High Senate is due to debate that Timely Termination Law again before parliamentary recess. Eventually they’ll have to legislate. Nearly ten billion people on the planet – it’s just not sustainable.’ Sian turned on the shower and started to rinse the cubicle. She raised her voice above the din. ‘It’s not all razor blades and loft hatches any more, you know. There are places you go to. Clinics, like your friend Pamela attended. They’re clean, dignified – not like this.’
Sian turned off the water and sighed. There would be no getting through to her today, but perhaps, perhaps she had planted the seed. She made her way back down to the kitchen and began to sort her mother’s medication into Tupperware for the week. Taking a pod through, she placed it next to the bottle of water.
‘There’s your meds for today, mum,’ she said softly. ‘Think about what I said, yeah? And …remember that I love you’.
She planted a kiss on her mother’s forehead and strode from the room.
‘Off,’ croaked Charlotte in a voice gravelly though lack of use.
The telescreen went black and the old woman closed her eyes. The maddening rattle of daytime television was preferable to her daughter’s simpering chatter, but it was a close contest. One thing she couldn’t block out was the cloying smell of bleach. It seemed to herald the arrival of her daughter, its tendrils creeping around her chair even before a safety cap had been twisted. Charlotte levered herself up from her armchair with trembling limbs. Sian was a prissy little bitch, but she wasn’t wrong; any grace was long since gone. She tottered into the kitchen. Where to start?
Using her walking stick, Charlotte hooked a cupboard door open and removed a box of muesli. Sure enough, she was rewarded with the jangle of glass. She peered in. Nestled in between the clumps of granola were shards of jam jar. Tut tut. The miserable trout would have to do better than that.
What next? Everything in the refrigerator looked fine. Older produce had been brought to the front and each item was level with the edge of the fridge shelf for ease of access. Perhaps having a moronic bureaucrat for a daughter had advantages, after all. Where then? Charlotte was about to move on when she saw it – the new carton of milk had been opened and then resealed. It was not until she held the milk up to the light that she saw a dirty brown layer of liquid sitting at the bottom of the carton. Plant food. Silly old bugger, must have mixed up her shopping. Taking advantage of an old woman’s failing eyesight had been a rare flash of intelligence from her daughter.
Her hearing, in contrast, was fine, which was why the next fix was to turn off the gas at the hob. As if she wouldn’t notice four rings left on! Unfortunately for Charlotte, her daughter was not hindered by lack of subtlety. The police’s contempt for the elderly mirrored the rest of society’s, and Sian’s attempts at pyrotechnics would not have elicited much suspicion. Daft cow went and left the gas on. That would have been the end of her; a line in the newspaper, of interest only to those seeking to inhabit her still-smouldering home.
Now, onto less certain territory. The vacuuming had been a new one. What had she been doing out there for so long? Buggering around with the electrics? No. Sian wouldn’t have the wit to do that. Meddling with the boiler? Ditto – the technical expertise required to poison someone with carbon monoxide was far beyond her delinquent of a daughter. As Charlotte began to climb the stairs she smiled. She had been right to doubt Sian’s creativity – a corner of the carpet had been pulled up. Clumsy old sod only went and tripped down her own stairs! She almost felt sorry for her daughter; this was desperation.
Charlotte completed her ascent and stopped to catch her breath. There was no point in giving her daughter the satisfaction of dropping dead of a heart attack, after all. She stepped into the shower room. No loose tiles. No broken lights. In fact, the entire cubicle was gleaming. Charlotte’s mouth hardened. She pushed the rubber foot of her walking stick into the shower tray. It came away shining and pendulous with baby oil. Slipped in the shower; not a surprise, at her age.
The old woman’s arms were aching and her skirts damp by the time she had hosed down the cubicle. Sidestepping the loose carpet on the stairs, she made her way into the living room and sat down in her chair once more. Her pill boxes lay in front of her, and Charlotte felt a surge of irritation at having to rearrange everything. It wasn’t the attempted murder that needled, although the meds Sian had given her for today would have knocked out a silverback gorilla; it was the assumption that she wouldn’t be thorough enough to check.
Charlotte knew that her daughter would get her in the end, of course. All that was needed was one misstep, the overlooking of one tiny detail. Things were already being missed. She emptied today’s pills into her hand and unscrewed the bottle Sian had left for her. The blue label had been stuck on wonkily and was already starting to peel. Charlotte had been rushed, admittedly, but that was still sloppy. She would just have to start relying upon her other senses. So far, so good; she could still hear the hiss of an unopened bottle of sparkling water, and she had certainly smelt bleach in the air long before her daughter had started to clean the kitchen.
Putting two pills in her mouth, Charlotte took a long swig from the bottle, threw back her head, and swallowed. Cola! At her age! Still, rather that than what Bianca would be guzzling down any time now – chilled spring water with a healthy dose of Domestos. Embarrassed to see her, was she, the little bitch? As far as Charlotte was concerned, she had done the decent thing.
Matthew Richardson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.