I have children. I know because they put pictures of them by my bedside. I kept asking what their names are and the girl who’s looking after me looked like I’d just stabbed her in the heart. In the end, she put little cardboard name tags in front of the photos.
Adam and Rebecca. Nice names, though I would think that. I chose them. Apparently. There are lots of things they tell me I did, but I remember very few of them. I can remember how to use the toilet which, I’m told, is unusual. I can remember that my first dog was called Thomas and would chase rabbits until they turned on him. Then he would come racing home with his tail catching on his paws and a very sorry look on his face.
Some days I think I’m still in the hospital, but others I recognise things. Today, I know without a doubt that I chose the wallpaper on the walls. I remember David and I spending hours in the DIY shop trying to decide what we’d go for. He never liked it. At least, there were others he’d have preferred, but he let me get my own way.
There are no photos of David, which is strange. You’d think I’d have pictures of my husband up in our house, but apparently I destroyed them all a couple of years ago, during one of my bad patches. I cannot imagine having a bad patch as far as David is concerned, but they tell me I did.
They tell me all kinds of things, but they can’t tell me the things I want to know. I don’t know what Adam smelled like, or Rebecca for that matter. I don’t know what their first smiles looked like, or whether they called me mum or mummy. I don’t suppose I’ll ever remember. They tell me I don’t have long.
A young man enters my room and I’m about to ask him about the wallpaper, when he hands me an envelope. He’s already opened it, which makes my blood boil, but is a mercy on his part. My hands shake worse than branches in a storm. We had a big storm last night.
‘Did we have a storm last night?’
He jumps when I speak, as though he expects me to lie here and wither away in silence. He shakes his head and I squint at him. He looks vaguely familiar and my eyes dart from him to the photos on the night stand.
He shakes his head again. Is he mute? It’s possible, I suppose, though it would be unusual. I’m about to ask when he opens his mouth. I look for a tongue just as it starts to move.
‘Adam’s my dad. I’m your grandson. I’m Edward.’
‘Edward. Of course.’ He doesn’t believe me, any more than I do myself. There’s memories in there somewhere, or at least, I feel there should be. But I’m drawing a blank on Edward. ‘Yes. Edward.’ Nice name. Not as nice as Adam, but a good choice. ‘Did we have a storm last night?’
‘Not for two weeks now. That one was pretty big, though. A few trees came down.’
‘Right.’ Two weeks. Maybe it just felt like last night. I can still remember David asking me to dance at the school prom and that was longer ago than I’m willing to admit.
I turn my attention back to the letter shaking back and forth in my hand. I try not to look at my hand. The veins that show through my paper-thin skin offend the part of me that thinks I’ll one day leave the house. That part’s getting smaller and quieter every day, but it refuses to stay entirely silent.
I pull the paper out and unfold it. It’s thin and let’s the light through, showing the tiny scraps of newspaper stuck to it. I straighten it and try to hold it steady. My eyesight’s not gone yet, thank goodness, though I read most of my books on the CDs now, anyway.
It starts strangely.
I am imprisoned. You are to blame.
I pause for a moment and glance over the paper at Edward. If this is from his father, he doesn’t know about it. He looks bored. He’s staring out of the window like he can’t wait to get out there. I don’t blame him, I can’t either. A cough punches me in the gut and water fills my eyes.
He comes closer, face screwed up in a frown, and I wave him away. My handkerchief rest on the eiderdown and I use that to wipe away the tears. I start again, though I’m not sure I want to read this. What is it, some final damning accusation from a child I no longer know?
I am imprisoned. You are to blame. They put me here so many years ago and you did nothing to stop them. You promised me I could return when your real children came, but you left me here. I sat in the darkness for countless hours and listened to the laughter and the play.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT’S LIKE?
I have your memories. You have nothing, not even time. Release me from my prison and I may give them back to you. Otherwise, I condemn you to a hollow and worthless grave.
Yours, in play and partnership.
I read it twice, just to be sure, before I let it rest on the bed and look at Edward. He’s still got the same, ‘boy in the wrong place’ look on his face and I almost relent. Almost.
‘Is this a joke?’
‘What, you don’t know whether it’s a joke?’
‘I don’t know what it says.’
I eyeball him and am glad to see I’ve lost none of my power. He shrinks before me and I clench one, embarrassingly bony fist. ‘Where did it come from?’
‘It was on the kitchen table when I came in this morning.’
‘On the kitchen table? Who put it there?’
‘I dunno. I thought someone must have picked it up yesterday from the front mat. Weird that it doesn’t have an address, though.’
He’s holding the envelope and I want to snatch it from him. That would be odd, though, I might scare him. So I read the letter again, instead.
He’s watching me, the first hints of curiosity bullying their way into his boredom. ‘Would you like to read it?’
It’s a cruel question, but I still enjoy the look on his face as he tries to figure out what the correct answer is. ‘Would you like me to?’ He asks and I nod. Not a bad effort.
He waits for me to hand it over, which is another decision that speaks of sound judgement. When I do, he takes it calmly and without greed. Perhaps he thinks it’s nothing and therefore not to be excited about. But I can feel the pink in my cheeks that hasn’t been there in months. He knows I’m heated about something.
As he reads it, the lines on his forehead grow deeper and I look again at the photo of my son. I can imagine the same lines on his forehead, and something flickers in the back of my mind. A boy in shorts sitting on the work surface in the kitchen, face screwed up as he tries not to cry and I wipe the blood from his knee.
It’s gone as soon as it came, but I could kiss this stranger before me for even that. He looks up from his letter and the resemblance is even stronger.
‘What does it mean?’ He asks and I laugh. It’s an unusual feeling these days, not one I’m accustomed to. It turns to coughing soon enough, but it lasts long enough to make him smile in return.
‘Sorry, I just mean, is it a joke?’
‘That’s what I asked you, don’t you remember?’
A shadow crosses his face before he realises I’m having fun at myself. Even then, his smile is awkward. I pat his hand. ‘It’s okay. I’m quite used to the vagaries of my mind, you can laugh. Unless you though it wasn’t funny.’ I enjoy watching him squirm far too much, but he takes it well and even manages a wry chuckle.
I like this one.
‘Big Ted is the name of my teddy bear, from when I was a little girl. But no one knows it, not your father or anyone else.’
‘So who wrote it, then?’
We look at one another. I know the answer, but then, I know lots of things this young man hasn’t even dreamt of. Unless he plays those computer games or reads the sorts of books that were wild and wacky in my youth.
‘Do you need me to tell you?’
His entire face changes and it’s fascinating to watch. The sheer depth of his cynicism is profoundly disappointing and I have to re-evaluate my opinion of him. ‘Um, granny, I think it must be some kind of practical joke.’
I smile and lie back against my pillows.
She’s mad. Dad said she was mad. It’s why he doesn’t come to see her any more. He says it’s too painful. I never really knew her when she wasn’t mad, so I don’t mind it so much. And she doesn’t smell funny, like the home they put granddad in for the last couple of years. She doesn’t crap herself or any of that, so I can handle it.
And Dad’s paying me. He doesn’t tell mum, cos she’d lose it, but it’s fair, really. I’m here all Sunday, which is pretty full on. Although, she’s got a sweet TV, so I can’t complain.
Where did this letter come from, though? Then I realise. She made it herself. She’s so barking she got up in the middle of the night, chopped out loads of newspapers and made a ransom note for her memories. It’s kind of tragic, when you think about it. She’s so desperate to remember, she’s blaming it on her teddy.
‘Look, granny, is there any chance you…’ this is tougher than I thought. ‘Is there any chance you made it?’
She fixes me with those eyes again. She’s mad as a hatter, but she’s still bloody scary.
‘Why would I make something like this?’
‘Well, I mean, because you want to remember stuff again?’
‘Why would I write a ransom note for my memories? As far as I understand it, Alzheimer’s doesn’t come with a money back guarantee. In fact, young man, as I understand, Alzheimer’s is very much a one way trip.’
‘Yeah, of course, I didn’t mean, I mean—’
‘You don’t seem sure what you mean, not at all.’
She doesn’t sound mad, now. She sounds sharp as a tack. They said six months ago she had weeks to live. They said she would go in and out, and I might not ever talk to her again. But she’s totally with it. Unless this is all some crazy thing she’s figured out in her head and I’m falling for it.
‘Humour me, young man. In the loft— has anyone been up in the loft yet?’
‘What do you mean?’
She sneers. It’s weird coming from an old person. ‘Don’t treat me like a fool. I know very well someone has been packing up my things. ‘Let’s clear the old house before she goes, save us some time afterwards’.’
God, she’s bloody merciless. She’s waving again, like she’s trying to make a joke. I can’t handle her joking about dying, it’s like choosing your lobster in a restaurant. ‘It’s fine, I don’t mind, truly. Has anyone been up in the loft?’
I shake my head.
‘Good. Go up there for me. You’ll find a box in one corner with Watkin’s Removals written on it. They moved us in, you know. How long ago was that?’
I shrug. How the bloody hell am I supposed to know that? She waves it away.
‘It doesn’t matter. Bring the box down here. Be careful.’
I wait to hear what I’m supposed to be careful of. Probably falling through the bloody ceiling and killing myself. There’s a ladder in the garage which I haul in through the kitchen, trying not to knock any of the nasty cat ornaments off the shelves on my way.
The loft hatch is at the end of the hallway, so from where I set it, she can watch me climb.
‘Be careful, young man. Can’t have two people dying in the same house.’
Is she being funny? I suppose so, if you’re bloody morbid. How can she find it funny? She’s dying, she can’t remember her own name, and she doesn’t seem bothered that her own children won’t come and see her anymore. Apparently, she was amazing when she was younger. She was this super mum who did everything and still had time to be glamorous and gorgeous.
‘The light switch is in the floor on your left as soon as you get up there.’
She’s right. How does she remember that when she didn’t remember my name? She didn’t remember me at all. That must be so scary. I keep thinking about dying. Not like it’s gonna happen soon, but being here every Sunday makes me think about it. I want to die in my sleep, long before any of this stuff.
I remember visiting Granddad. He used to crap himself and scream and stuff. Only for the last few months, when he went in the home. Only time I’ve ever seen Dad cry. I think he’d cry if he came here, now. Though maybe not today. Maybe today he’d see his mum like she used to be. I should text him.
The loft is huge and dusty and filled with boxes. I crouch in front of the first one, wipe away the dust and read what’s written on there. Watkin’s removals. I move to the next and find the same thing. Bugger. There must be twenty boxes up here. Which is the one she wants?
She said it was in a corner. I creep around, keeping my head clear of the fist-sized spiders who’ve taken over the place. At least the floor’s got proper boards on it; I’m not about to nosedive into the kitchen.
I do a full circuit and go halfway round again before I spot it. It’s like the dust didn’t realise it was there. There’s a space around it. It’s not a big space, no more than the other boxes, but for some reason this one just looks a little more… alone.
I don’t have to wipe off the dust, because I can see the words, clear as day. This is the one. I go to lift it and grunt. It’s bloody heavy. I settle for shoving it across the floor to the hatch before I pause for a breather.
I’ll have to get beneath it and heft it down that way. What’s in there to weigh so much? Maybe I could take a few bits out to make it easier. I put one hand on the lid.
‘I’ll need everything in there, young man, just bring it down as it is.’
I’ve been sweating in the close space, but now the sweat turns cold enough to make me shiver. It was just lucky timing. I shudder and kneel down, then set my feet on the steps. When I lift it off the attic floor I think I’m going to lose my footing and go arse over tit, but I catch my back on the edge of the hatch and it saves me.
I rest the weight against the ladder as I come down, shifting the box one rung at a time. Finally I reach the floor and take it all the way down. I stare at it for a moment, then check my hands. No dust. Weird.
I close the hatch, put the ladder away, then slide the box into her room. She’s asleep. Her eyelids are closed and I can see her eyes beneath them, flicking back and forth. What does she dream about? I heard dreams are you sorting out what happened to you during the day, but nothing happens to her. She lies in this room all the time, wondering what her name is and what she’s going to be given for dinner this evening. Maybe she’s dreaming about dinner.
At least I don’t have to continue with this weird charade with the letter. Although, I am just a little curious about what’s in the box. I set it against her bed and turn to leave.
‘Don’t you want to know what’s in the box?’
I bite my lip so hard a little blood leaks into my mouth. She’s creepy. She’s also laughing. I’m just beginning to wonder if she’s got Alzheimer’s at all when she speaks.
‘Sorry, Edward, I couldn’t resist it. Please, come back.’
I turn back and see the smile on her face. It looks lovely. Looks like Dad. She waves at the box. ‘Well, go on then, open it.’
I watch him. He’s trying to decide if I’m batty or just having everyone on. I wish it were the latter. I’m having a good day, today, but don’t they say you get one last hurrah before it all goes down?
He kneels beside the bed and opens the box. I close my eyes and imagine I can see it with him. I don’t need to be looking to know what’s in there.
It begins with the irons. Six of the old style irons we used to use. They were horrible back then and still are. Heavy chunks of metal I used to hang over the fire then take to David’s shirts. He never once went to work with a crumpled shirt. Not once.
I hear them clunk onto the floor, one by one. Edward is sniffing. Probably wondering why I made him bring them down from the attic. An excellent question, but I’m past trying to explain to him the power of good iron. There are people, creatures out there who won’t enter a house that contains iron, so I’ll always keep some around.
I’m not sure he’d know how to respond to that, or the feeling of truth that came with it, the truth that sits in his bones like blood.
Once the irons are out of the way, we come to the good stuff. My books, all three of them, painstakingly copied from Lilith over many years of learnings. The words I used to win David and the ones I used after to make sure I could have children.
I screw my face up. The words I used to make sure Elspeth Abingdon couldn’t have children. The words I used to make sure the road was icy when Charlie drove home from our ill-fated date. Why can’t I remember my children but still remember the feel of his grasping hands?
They had to cut him out of the wreckage. My face smoothes and I open my eyes. Edward has the first book open and his frown is back.
‘I can’t read this. I don’t recognise the language.’
‘Not many can, young man. It’s an old language. Don’t worry about it now. What’s next?’
I close my eyes again and let my memories lead me. He’ll find some ribbons and thread, set neatly into a little box with beads sewn across the front. He’ll find the feathers from my first raven and the pestle and mortar from my first conjuring. He’ll find the needle from the spinning wheel and the thimble that should have gone with it, but never did. He might find the jar of mist from the Forgotten Island, though I have a feeling I traded it away some time ago.
I can’t remember, just now.
Beneath all of that, he’ll find something older. I can feel his fingers closing around the rough fur and I open my eyes just as Edward lifts Big Ted out of the box and up to the bed.
‘Is this it, Granny?’
‘Him. That’s him. Pass him here.’
Edward’s staring at him and it takes me a second to remember why. But as he slips into my hands, the shape as familiar as my own, I remember. The tape still lies across his mouth. It’s old and wrinkled, dried up, but still clinging to his fur. It still traps within what must remain trapped.
There are things I should say, but I’m feeling suddenly tired. The room’s growing darker, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s because the day is growing old. I do believe my second wind has blown itself out.
‘Take the box, and everything you found in it, and burn it in the back garden. Make sure it’s all burnt, good and proper, understand?’
‘Do it.’ I don’t mean to snap, but I won’t be here to ensure it’s done properly.
‘Okay, Granny. What about the letter?’
‘Throw that on there.’
He doesn’t ask about Ted, and my guilt brings the darkness quicker. With a shaking, palsied hand, I tear the tape off his black thread mouth. I don’t hear whatever comes out. I’m too busy listening to the gurgle Rebecca made whenever I tickled her feet.
I rest my head against the pillow, seeing my children from the kitchen window playing in the sun outside. We had one of those paddling pools, the type where the edges always collapse in. Adam’s laughing so hard his eyes are screwed shut. The room’s growing darker, but I can see it all so clearly.
‘Granny? Granny? Oh crap.’
She’s dead. I think she’s dead. What the hell am I supposed to do? I’ve already got my phone out. The nurse. I should call the nurse. I find the number, drop the phone, swear, blush and apologise to Granny, then shove the phone to my ear.
Half an hour later, the house is busy. The nurse is still here and she looks really upset. She knows Granny better than any of us. Dad’s come, finally, though it’s too late. I think he knew it was too late. I don’t think he’d have come otherwise.
I’ve stashed the box. I’m not sure mum and dad would approve of me burning her stuff, but I promised I would. I’m pretty knackered, but I don’t want to go home, not yet. I’ve found a corner in the dining room where I can’t hear everyone talking about stuff and I’ve got my bag open. It means I can look at the teddy bear without anyone seeing it.
I would have sworn before she tore the tape off, its mouth was a flat line. But it’s curled up at the corners now. I can imagine someone making it like this. It’s got the kind of smile adults think is cute, but any kid could tell you is creepy as hell. I dunno. I kind of like it, though. Wish I could understand those books. Maybe I should take another look, just in case.