She was teaching when to use past tense verbs when the phone call came. Or was it present perfect? A year ago, but already blurred – the teenagers, tanned by the Spanish sun, the windowless room with its whirring ceiling fan.
‘You’d better come.’ The secretary nods, receiver in hand. ‘I’ll keep an eye on them.’
Elaine frowns. It’s not normally done, all calls to be answered afterwards. She takes the handset, moves away from the classroom door.
Her brother on the line. ‘Mum is saying silly things.’
She has been for a long time. The present not so perfect, out of kilter with events, the old woman’s mind incapable of separating past from present. Her head full of holes, like a piece of rotten furniture eaten by woodworm.
‘She’s asking for you.’
‘I’m in the middle of term. I can’t just…’
‘You should. Make an exception, can’t you?’
Peter’s not one to exaggerate. So whether or not her job is on the line, Elaine is on that plane. Stansted, and then home – or what used to be. But when she steps inside the house, the past becomes present, unless it’s the other way round.
Her mother saying she’ll be dead by Saturday. I just know. ‘And what will I come back as?’ Elaine holds her hand. ‘You’re the only one who understands. Tell me. After all that’s happened.’
Drowning in a sea of fear.
‘Will it be someone in a place like a slum or a prison camp?’
Lifeboat time. Elaine’s been practising what to say, what to do when the moment comes. How to pull her mother out of the thick grey swell and launch her off towards the Promised Land. How to send her out of this life with good karma so she is reborn as someone fortunate. (Indefinite future.) A quiet death on a calm sea, the clouds puffy, backlit by sun.
So she reminds her of the good stuff. Christmases past, conversations when Elaine was young hinting that she was cherished, buoyed on a pillow of love. She doesn’t mention the fights, her mother saying: No-one’s going to love you for your body so you’d better develop your mind. The times she asserted it would have been better if Elaine and Pete hadn’t been born. The past imperfect.
Her mother’s face puckered, the time lines all mixed up. The child waiting for her own mother to come home. The father that wanted a boy. The school teacher that hit her on the knuckles with a ruler, then showed her wonderful handwriting to the class. The unhappy wife and reluctant mother. A sea of need, a hunger for life.
That life ebbing out. Peacefully, Elaine hopes. She kisses her mother’s cheek and sees her smile as the rope catches on the end of her little boat, then guides it ashore at last.
Helen Kampfner lives in the Basque Country, where she works as an English teacher. Her short fiction has been placed in various competitions and published in The Pacific Review, The Write Path, Dream Catcher, Gem, Eyelands and the HISSAC anthology. Her first novel, Chaos Theory, was shortlisted in the Opening Chapter Competition at the Writers Workshop Festival of Writing, 2014.