I have a clear image of myself: I’m looking for my bicycle in the garage. I needed it to bike to my friend Abigail’s house but couldn’t find it anywhere.
Turrets of dust particles floated upwards. Exposed by horizontal, flat rays of light breaking through the dust-heavy aluminum window blinds. I watched as they rose, spiraling around and around, higher and higher up into the garage rafters until out of sight.
Loose screwdrivers and wrenches were strewn about the place, half hidden in amongst piles of dirty rags. Dad’s protective, see-through workman’s goggles hung off a nailed beam, suspended mid-air by their bouncy elastic head strap.
I gave up looking for my bicycle, opened the driver’s side door of Mum’s car and hoisted myself up onto the front seat. I tried to mimic driving. Jerking the steering wheel from left to right, making it fight against its own taut. It moved, pulling awkwardly from side to side but the wheels refused to budge. They ground stubbornly against the carpet, and the axle released a cranky moan.
An insect scurried along the dashboard in front of me. Reaching forward, I flicked my forefinger and thumb together, hard against its tiny torso. It fell onto the steel-spoked, steering wheel rim, parachuting downwards toward the floor, tumbling into the darkness of the footwell – lost forever.
I breathed in the familiar interior leather smell and ran my hands along the tiny rivet dots on the seat’s surface. I sighed absently, put my head back on the headrest and closed my eyes.
Shadows crept along the floor. The sun was making its way around from the front of the house, signaling the arrival of late afternoon. I opened my eyes and stared at the car ceiling wondering when Mum would be well enough to take me to school again. It seemed like no one really knew.
I tilted my head to the right, slanting it sideways so that the back of the house was in clear view. Both Mum’s bedroom windows were slung wide open. The curtain drapes pulled across as a barrier against the day’s penetrating, heady heat.
The curtains became caught in a sudden breezy gust. Billowing out, up and down in a balletic pas de deux through the windows. Once the breeze died down – quickly deflated, weakened and defeated – they fell back inside, skimming the whitewashed sills on their way down.
It was a strange feeling, waiting for something to go back to normal: the school run with Mum; searching for her face amongst the adult huddles standing together, propped up in groups against the cast-iron school gates like toy soldiers; afterschool snacks bought from the tiny front-room-like newsagents, swinging our hands together gleefully as we strode down the high street; balancing sherbet dips in our hands, eating curly wurly bars and sucking sugary pink cola cubes.
I wanted that to be us again.
It was a blisteringly hot day in June. Summer’s hideous peak. And inside the garage, heat was accumulating. Hot sticky, sickly sweet air tinged with the remnants of WD-40. It smelt dank and musty.
Torn pieces of Dad’s old crew-neck T-shirts and ripped bedsheets – once white and bright now covered in oil smears – lay used and discarded on the carpeted floor.
I found an old garden bucket, filled it with water and made a washing station for myself outside on the driveway, sheltering beneath one of the lowered garage doors in the half-mast of its shade.
Father Robert, our local vicar, had been visiting more frequently – disappearing upstairs for what felt like hours – to Mum’s bedroom. He may have arrived earlier that day, but I don’t remember seeing him come to the house or thinking anything different about him being there, even if I had seen him. It was just another adult passing through and I’d grown accustomed to seeing different people come and go.
I heard the kitchen side door open and close. Father Robert was looking for me.
“Hello, Rebecca,” he spoke softly. I looked up at him through squinted eyes, and smiled briefly, dismissively. The doll's clothes had clumped together in a sodden ball, creating their own fast-moving momentum as they circled around in the bucket of soapy water down on the ground in front of me.
“Hello, Rebecca,” he repeated, louder this time. “I’d like to talk to you for a moment if that’s okay?” I stopped what I was doing and looked up at him, using a hand to cover my eyes from the sun’s glare. He loomed over me: a black silhouette iridescent against the brilliant blue sky overhead.
“I’d like to talk to you about your Mum,” he said, emphasizing the word “Mum” very carefully. “Do you understand what is happening to your Mother, Rebecca?” he asked.
The sentence sweltered in the air above us.
I looked back down at the bucket and started stirring the dolls clothes around again. This time in a steadier, less exuberant more controlled motion. Using the slowness of the stir to try and prolong the time needed to think up an answer and avert his eyes at the same time. If I looked back up at him, he might realize – I didn’t know.
I lowered my eyes to one side, studying the hairline cracks and weeds sprouting up through the asphalt surface next to the bucket, fixating on a moon-shaped shadow left by an earlier spill.
Shifting uncomfortably, cross-legged, I moved my weight from side to side pulling at a blade of grass, fanning it back and forth between my fingers as I continued trying to think up an answer.
Without looking up, I nodded my head vigorously, silently. I heard him exhale a low, soft sigh before he repeated the question, only this time he bent down to my level and took hold of my hands.
“I’m here to talk to you about your Mother, Rebecca.” He used my full name again which only seemed to add to the severity of the question. Mum usually called me Rebecca if I was in trouble. I quickly calculated that he had used my name twice, maybe three times, since he’d started talking, which worried me.
I started to think that maybe I’d done something wrong and that he was here to tell me off. To tell me that God had asked him to come around, to talk to me about my bad behavior. My mind raced through a list of possibilities, but I couldn’t think of anything other than the bug I’d flicked to the floor just moments ago in Mum’s car. Perhaps it was something from before then.
“Can you do that with me?” he pressed, leaning in closer until we were almost at eye level. I felt the warmth of his mildly stagnant-laced breath on my face as he spoke. I hesitated, replaying the question over and over in my head. The words pinged back and forth like a tennis ball rebounding off a wall that no one was hitting.
The question: “What’s happening to my Mum,” I had to admit – I didn’t know the answer to. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that if I could say the question again and again to myself in my head, then maybe I’d be able to come up with an answer. Mum was always telling me what a clever girl I was.
The other concern was that no one had ever asked me a question about Mum like this before. It caught me off guard. I needed to try and find the words to show that I understood the question, or at least pretend I understood. This is like a class test, I thought to myself. Just choose an answer. I tried to think about the question in different ways as it seemed like Father Robert needed an answer.
Maybe I did know. After all, Mum had told us she hadn’t been feeling well lately and she might have to go into the hospital for a few days, but that we were not to worry, Nan would look after us and we could always visit.
I knew that some things were still okay – they still made sense – but that other, more noticeable things, were very different to how they had been.
Mum’s nightly garden watering had stopped. This was unusual because she always watered the lawns, especially the flowers and hanging baskets, even when everyone knew there was a hosepipe ban on.
When her flower beds were in full bloom, vibrant colors imploded into each other competing in bursts as they reached upwards for the sky, but now, they were tethered, bending sideways, weighted down, suffocated by the weeds emerging around them.
Other things had changed too, some in small ways – others in big ways. Nan had come to stay with us, she’d been helping me get ready for school in the mornings and there’d been new people visiting the house that I didn’t recognize.
Sometimes, strangers’ cars would be parked in the driveway when Denise – Mum’s friend – dropped me off after school. I can’t remember their faces or names – I just know they were there. I’d feel shy about meeting someone I didn’t know, going in opposite directions up or down the stairs, on the way to or from Mum’s bedroom.
Or there’d be nurses or doctors I didn’t know, standing in the kitchen, where Mum used to prepare our pack lunches every morning, talking in low tones, drinking hot cups of steaming tea. One for the road, I’d hear them say.
Sister Currie visited regularly. She looked like a real nurse to me, the kind I’d seen pictures in books. She wore a white square shaped cap, a blue pinafore dress, and wore thick nylon tights that brushed together and made a loud shushing sound when she walked. On her chest she wore a silver watch pendent which she fiddled with and looked down at frequently whilst she was talking. She had brown wavy hair – just like Mum – and a friendly smile. In the past couple of weeks, a new nurse – Mary – had arrived. I liked Mary; she laughed at my stories and said things to me like: “Your Mum must be very proud of you.”
I was too young to know at the time, but this group of people were the end-of-life and palliative care team.
I came back from my train of thought and focused in on Father Robert’s question reverberating around my head. I’d tried to ignore it, but it was forcing its way in. I recalibrated. I knew where she was, I thought to myself. That might be the answer to the question Father Robert is asking. She’s upstairs, lying on her bed. She probably has her eyes closed and may be asleep. These last few days, she’s been asleep, her breath raspy, every time I’ve been up there to see her.
Once, I asked how she had got all the bruises on her arms. She turned her arm over, inspecting the inner elbow area at great length holding it out in front of her, turning it this way and that. She told me that there were a lot of bruises because the nurse had had trouble finding her veins.
“Why did the nurse need to do that?” I asked. She went quiet for a moment.
“Because she likes…Blo-oooood. Just like Count Dracula!” she exclaimed, ruffling my hair and laughing at my squeamish response. Her bright eyes, round and big as she bundled me in closer – her thinning, graceful arms wrapping tightly around me.
Mum had a magnificent antique brass bed. It was too high up off the floor for me to get onto unless I stood on tiptoes, reached over as far as I could and grabbed the far side edge of the covers to pull myself up. Before she started sleeping during the day and became too weak to lift me, she’d help me up by holding onto my outstretched arms and pulling me gently in towards her. Lifting up the duvet so that I could bury under the covers with her.
But now I know that everything up there is very still and quiet. I know that the air is oppressive, heavy and thick even with the windows open and that at night the silver mirror on her dressing room table casts a reflective shadow over the thick tapestry floor rug.
I know that she keeps a glass of water on the nightstand beside her bed. I once saw Mary holding her head and encouraging her to the rim as she tried to take a sip. Her throat coarse, lips cracked and mouth dry. I heard her tongue make a click-click clicking sound, sticking to the roof of her mouth as she tried to swallow.
When she finished, one of the nurses had to hold her shoulders and lower her gently back down. She couldn’t do it on her own. Her body collapsed onto the bed – both her and the pillow puffing out in unified relief. Taking a sip of water looked like it was the hardest thing in the world she had to do.
“Rebecca,” Father Robert pressed gently. “Do you understand why your Mum is so poorly?” It must have been hard for him to keep his composure, find the right words.
“No,” I blurted out, abruptly. “No, I don’t. I know Mum isn’t well, but she’ll get better soon. The nurses are looking after her.”
I jolted back to the present, looking up confidently, defensively into Father Robert’s eyes. They seemed dull and tired. He tried to ask me the question again, only this time he added something in, something I’d not heard him, or anyone else, say before.
“Do you understand that your Mother is very ill, Rebecca?” He paused. “And that she will be going soon.”
I thought I’d heard Father Robert’s words wrong and tried to ignore what he’d said by staring defiantly back at him, but the sentence lodged itself, stubbornly, in the fragile space between us: Mum was going to leave. A tight, swelling knot started hurting in the back of my throat; I wanted to cry, and a sense of doom-like dread started rising up from the pit of my stomach. Maybe it was Father Robert’s earnest sincerity, his choice of words or the carefully placed tempo of their delivery but for the first time, I felt scared.
“Yes, I understand,” I stammered back. But it was a lie. I had no idea if yes was the right or wrong answer, but I knew it was a reliable way of answering: I’d used it in situations like this before where I didn’t know what was being asked of me. It seemed like the acceptable thing to say and better than the silence that was deepening between us.
I stared back up at him and focused all my energy on the clear, crystal blue sky overhead.
“She’s ill in bed, and she can’t take me to school,” I offered. There was a moment of dead weight, impenetrable silence. He squeezed my hands tightly, pausing, before letting go as he stood up.
I untucked both legs from my crossed-legged position and jumped to my feet.
“But, Father Robert, where is my Mum going?” I demanded suddenly. He took a deep breath and turned his head away from me. He seemed to be surveying the front garden.
I thought that this was the moment he would take me up to see her. We’d all be able to talk about this together. Father Robert would let her know what he’d said to me and Mum would be able to explain what he’d meant by “going soon.” She hadn’t mentioned anything about going anywhere. Besides, I didn’t understand how she could leave since she was upstairs in bed and hadn’t left her bedroom for days now.
I started panicking about how we would all go with her. In the car? By bus? Adrenaline squirted into my ten-year-old brain like a dense cloud of deadly octopus ink poison. I quickly concluded that wherever she was going, we’d all be going too – after all, it had been so long since we’d been anywhere together. How could she possibly want to go out, even to the shops, without us. Dad would bring my brother, Ben, home so that he could come too.
Father Robert diverted his gaze away from the garden and turned back around to face me again. He reached his hands out and gently lowered one of them to rest on my shoulder as he exhaled another thoughtful sigh.
“God bless you my child,” he said. “Your Mother loves you very much. She will be in God’s safe hands in Heaven.”
I was dumbfounded. I stared down at the driveway and tried to unpick the complexity of what had just happened. What he’d told me didn’t make any sense. I recognized some of the words but not all of them. I knew about God. I knew he was in Heaven looking down over me, watching everything I did and guarding me from somewhere above, but I couldn’t relate the two concepts: Mum and Heaven.
For me, they were different things that had nothing to do with each other. I wasn’t equipped for this. There was no framework of understanding, nothing to process the information with. No emotional bridge to show me how to walk from one side of the conversation to the other. I thought about the Heaven Father Robert talked about in church. I knew old people went there. Animals too. It was a place in the sky where God met you surrounded by bright light, but I couldn’t see how Mum was going to be able to get there or why she’d even want to go. She hadn’t left her room for days now.
I felt the warmth of his hand pressing down on my crown, just like all the other times we’d been in church together. Me kneeling down next to Mum at the alter during Sunday service. But this time it felt different: I didn’t want him to stop. I thought that if we could just stand here together, still, nothing would change. Surely, if he carried on long enough, then all the power of God’s goodness would come down his arm, his holy arm, through his hand and into me: it would make everything okay again.
His hand lifted and hovered over my head for a few minutes longer while all around me came to a standstill. Birdsong echoed somewhere in the distance, but the only thing I could hear was the race of my own beating heart, stricken with fear.
I tried to concentrate on his words, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. His eyes were closed and he was murmuring. The feeling of dread was growing and growing. Welling up inside me like a drowning wave at the seaside. Now it seemed like a big, unnamable, very bad thing was going to happen, and I didn’t know what.
I wanted desperately to run inside the house and ask someone where my Mum was going and find out exactly when she’d be back.
Father Robert opened his eyes with a flutter as if someone had prodded him and tried to look me in the eye. I fidgeted with my dress and started to think about who else I could ask. I wasn’t sure I could trust Father Robert anymore. The other adults – Nan, Mary, even Sister Currie – might know. I needed to be ready.
He asked if I had any questions about Heaven, but I didn’t. It was a far-away place where God lived and I didn’t understand why he kept asking me about it. He hesitated for a few moments longer, composing himself. I expect he was calculating the delicacy of the moment, the extent of my understanding and the reasoning behind my reluctance to ask about Heaven. He smiled down at me, kindly, took hold of both my hands again, cupping them in his and squeezed them together tightly.
I suddenly felt awkward standing there alone in the driveway opposite him, and not sure of what to say. Mum had always taught me to be polite to adults, especially Father Robert – he was a holy man of God – but no words were coming out. He let go of my hands and they fell limply to my sides.
I lowered my head and stood staring at one of the Barbie doll's legs that had come loose. It was floating and bobbing around freely on the water’s surface. Mum will be able to fix all this soon, I reassured myself.
“My child, with God’s blessing and love,” he said slowly as he turned to leave. Looking back at me over his shoulder he walked away, striding purposefully toward the house – his long black cloak sweeping majestically over the dusty concrete driveway in the wake of his step.