Julia was relieved when no doctor’s appointment was available for a fortnight. It could seem like a routine check that she should attend as a sensible woman of 53. But the fortnight passed remarkably quickly. She has seen her doctor. Now she can do as she pleases; a morning off work. Or half a morning. She can have a leisurely coffee, treat herself to lunch, do some shopping. Thing is, she doesn’t feel like doing any of it. She feels like having a tantrum, throwing herself on the floor and screaming like a child. She had hoped she was just being obsessive, a little silly or over-thinking the funny fluttery sensation that happened if she was tired or climbed too many stairs, or sometimes for no obvious reason at all. Her symptoms were not conclusive, but indicative. A heart arrythmia. She now waits for the summons from the hospital inviting her to see a specialist. If nothing else, Julia now feels that she can tell her elderly mother with justification that she cannot accompany her on the proposed trip to Venice. Her mother is as strong as an ox, never a flutter of the heart in her whole life. At 53, Julia’s mother could climb the Eiffel Tower with nary a breath out of place. Now, approaching 90, she will tell her daughter that she is a hypochondriac, attention-seeking. It is not convenient for her daughter to be ill. That’s the truth of it.
Julia recognises that she could easily fall into the trap of her potential health issues, making them into an excuse. This would be useful, as a means of justification, but not emotionally healthy. Her mother would develop a counter-strategy based on attrition. The outcome would be a loss for her, a deterioration in her long-term health. Julia will have to go with the bald presentation of fact. Logically, she has the most to lose; her mother has already had the most out of life. She suppresses a voice that says – but always at the expense of others. The holiday in France last year is still a painful memory. She had sacrificed her annual leave go on a tour of the Languedoc with her mother, who had made a fuss at every turn, resulting in a show-down. Julia had placated the guide with a fifty Euro tip.
Telling her mother about her diagnosis causes Julia more worry than the possibility of surgery. It could be she needs a pacemaker, or drugs. But she hopes it is a wait and see but keep your weight down and exercise sort of thing. Now, that is something her mother would approve of, Julia losing weight and exercising. Julia will never be a sparrow like her mother. Putting off telling her won’t help.
Julia drives straight to her mother’s house. It is a modest two-bedroomed bungalow, ideal for an elderly widow. The front garden is neat as ever, like embroidery around the edge of a green cloth, silk knots of flowers in brown velvet beds and a herringbone border of trellis. She knows that the back garden is just as neat. Herb planters, and a bay tree in a tub on the little patio. A compact, but productive, potager to the side. Julia’s mother doesn’t have a ‘veg patch’ or even a ‘kitchen garden’, preferring the notion of the French convent potager, where quantities of health-giving verdure can be sown and harvested by elderly nuns, for whom she is the self-sacrificing proxy. Albeit, these days, she has help from a very patient gardener.
Through the front door, Julia can hear her mother on the phone, talking in an elevated voice. Julia can see her through the frosted window of the door, walking up and down waving her free arm. She feels sorry for the person on the other end. Rather than disturb her mother mid-tirade, Julia opens the side gate and walks around to the rear of the house. The paved path is swept clean, and the rubbish bins are lined up neatly, their tops washed and shiny. Patio chairs are tilted in against the little table, to allow the rainwater to drain, and prevent soiling of the seats by birds. The fruit is netted and the salad crops protected with fleece hoods. The nibs of new beans sprout from red and white flowers. Bees have plotted their air corridors between the neat rows – lettuce, rocket, chives. Pot marigolds are planted in-between to discourage aphids. Companion plants. The whole thing is an admirable exercise in planning. Her own garden is an untidy, ramshackle thing in contrast, no vegetables in sight, unless she takes a fancy to dandelion leaves. Pis-en-lit. Something she doesn’t want to remember from childhood, just after her father died.
Julia can still hear her mother from within, her voice rising and falling, its sound muffled by the double-glazed patio window. The patio is dry, so Julia pulls a garden chair to an upright position, and sits, facing the garden, watching blue tits squabble in a small birch tree at the back of the garden, like naughty children. Julia had had no sibling to squabble with, nor squabblers of her own. That was a loss and a failure. She wasn’t cut out for marriage. And the sibling, well, he wasn’t cut out for life. Julia had never met him; their lives had not crossed. Rather abutted. A bonny, bouncy girl to replace the sickly boy who died before his first birthday. Julia had been born seven months after her brother’s death. Here, she can only imagine how her mother would have felt. An impossible emotional conjunction. There is a photograph of her brother, tucked inside her mother’s jewellery box. The only one she has seen. Her brother had been a crumpled little thing, wrapped in a lace shawl, his face seemingly confused at a world not prepared to welcome him. Little was ever said about this child. His name was never spoken. Julia knows he was born with a problem of some kind, but it was not discussed. All that remains of her brother is the photograph, a Christening certificate, and a tiny little bootee with a blue bow. Oddly, after over half a century’s displacement, she could cry for her brother. She mutters to the beans. ‘I, at least, got out of the cradle’. She imagines him fluttering like a pale butterfly over the bean flowers, as on a Victorian memorial card. As if at her psychic bidding, a cabbage white flits hopefully towards the bean poles. As her mother says: ‘There is always some creature or another after one’s slice of pie.’
The back door opens, and Julia senses her mother’s presence before the old lady says: ‘Not at work today?’
It would be easy to make a cutting response, but Julia bites her tongue. The issue of Julia’s work commitments has caused friction. Julia can’t take time off willy-nilly as her mother seems to think. She is expected back in the office this afternoon.
‘I presume you are here for tea?’
‘Tea would be nice. Thank you.’
‘You are lucky to get tea at all.’ Julia’s mother says archly, as if her daughter needs no other explanation.
They go inside. The bungalow is tidy as always, apart from a little pile of papers by the telephone in the hall.
‘It’s the water again. They said it would be back to normal!’ her mother exclaims, nodding to the pile of paperwork.
Julia flips the top one over. Water main repairs. Temporary supply diversions and cuts. The dates show the work is only just beginning.
‘Sounds like a nuisance.’
‘That’s putting it mildly. I had no water for three hours yesterday.’
‘More than that. The washing was in progress. The machine stopped filling.’
‘You should have checked the time.’
‘I thought there would be some water. Just a trickle. I didn’t think they’d need to turn it right off. It’s not like electricity. I can understand that they need to turn all of the electricity off.’
Julia knows better than to engage her mother in reasoned argument when her mother has already set her mind on a course of unreasonableness. She sits at the over-large table in the kitchen. A relic from the family home. Other relics of dated kitchenware sit in readiness on the worktops, out of time with the modern fittings.
Her mother fills the kettle. The flow is noticeably weak.
‘Well, you have some water today…’ Julia tries not to sound waspish.
‘Only just. I think they are giving my water to other people.’
‘Quite possible, Mum. Sometimes they have to divert supplies to serve other households.’
Julia knows she is on dangerous ground with this line of argument. Only a diversion of subject matter will stop her mother from going on about her water. Julia looks around for a new topic of conversation. She skips her eyes rapidly over the holiday brochures on the kitchen table. A no-no subject for this morning. She decides to come straight to the point of her visit.
‘I had a doctor’s appointment this morning.’
‘Workman’s tea or that dreadful de-caff you like?’
But her mother puts a decaffeinated tea bag in both cups.
‘I’ve run out of proper tea, anyway.’
Somehow, Julia feels that it is her fault.
The kettle grumbles and thumps. Julia ventures: ‘Sounds like the kettle needs de-scaling.’ Her mother harrumphs, like the kettle. Julia goes for broke.
‘I need to see a heart specialist. I have arrhythmia.’
‘That will be your age. And your weight, I expect. I’ve always told you about that.’
‘It could be serious.’
‘Well, think of all the medication I have to take at my age. At least, I try to stay healthy.’
‘You’ll get to 90.’
Her mother doesn’t look up from the kettle.
‘I surely can’t take the blame for my height. That was your fault!’
Julia tries to make it sound light-hearted.
The kettle clicks off.
‘You do know that you weren’t supposed to be born?’
Julia’s heart gives an uncomfortable little flip.
Her mother pours water over the tea bags.
‘Well, here I am…’
‘By rights, you shouldn’t be here at all.’
‘Good to know.’
Her mother places a mug of tea in front of her daughter.
‘They said I shouldn’t have another child after what went wrong with your brother.’
‘What was wrong with him?’
‘He had some inherited disorder. Fatal. He would never grow up. They didn’t know so much about those things then. He died at ten months and fourteen days.’
Julia sips her tea. She thinks of the photograph. The little crumpled face.
‘Poor little chap.’
‘But by then, you were on the way. I didn’t think I was pregnant. I thought it was all the stress. By the time I found out it was too late to do anything.’
‘You mean a termination?’
‘Yes, dear. Termination. That’s what they suggested if I ever got pregnant again. They didn’t mess about with scans and tests in those days. They didn’t have the technology, of course.’
‘So I nearly didn’t get born at all. That makes my day!’
‘You turned out all right, though. Didn’t you? Despite everything.’
There seems more than an edge of disdain in her voice. The ‘everything’ is loaded with all of Julia’s failings. Julia has always been a big girl. Not like her small mother, nor her father, who had been quite a short man. Her mother makes her feel like a cuckoo.
‘I am what I am, Mum.’
‘Do you know, he didn’t ever smile. Not once.’
Julia thinks about the man who would have been here instead of her had he lived past the age of ten months and fourteen days, and all the years in between. Would he have ever learned to smile? Julia has always told herself that she is glad that she has no children. She has seen how hard it is for women who juggle their work and families. They are always chasing their tails, getting nowhere. Worrying. Not that her career has been a great success. She manages a small department in a small business enterprise. There is no glamour, just a steady income, a good pension scheme. Not too much stress. The phone rings.
‘That’ll be them again. You know, I’d disconnect the pipes if I didn’t need water.’
Julia sits at the old table, listening to her mother in the hall, building up to another tirade. The table is marked with over half a century of use. Yet it functions perfectly well as a table. She recognises scorch marks that can be directly attributed to her own carelessness when she still lived at home with her mother. Julia looks at her watch. She must be in work in an hour. She leaves quietly through the back door.
The garden is peaceful. The birds have ceased their argument. Amongst the yellow marigolds, Julia spots an imposter. A dandelion. Once, her mother would have immediately excised any dandelion presumptuous enough to establish itself amongst the civilised order of her potager. The dandelion has stolen a march upon the marigold, and now sports a beautiful seed-head, poised to launch more of its kind upon the well-regulated garden.
Julia steps over the low wicker fence, and treads carefully between the closely-planted rows. She cups the seed-head in her palm, and closes her other hand to it, like a book. As a little girl, she laughed as she counted her hours on the dandelion clock and blew the little parachutes away. Today, she quarantines the seeds from her mother’s potager and takes them back to her car. It is up to her what she does with the hours.
Elizabeth Stott lives in the north of England and worked in industry as a scientist. Her stories and poems have appeared in magazines, anthologies, online and as a short story collection, Familiar Possessions. Most recently, stories have featured in Liars’ League spoken word events, The Woven Tale Press and in the We/She anthology from Arachne Press. Two poems were included in the PEN Write to be Counted anthology, and a poem won second prize in the Magma ‘Authentication’ competition.