Elaine Morton caught a glimpse of herself in the dining room mirror as she carefully carried the teas towards the living room, two in each hand. She did not immediately recognise herself with short hair; she had not worn it this short since she was twelve years old. For a moment it was like looking at some grotesque distortion, like a child who has suddenly aged fifty years overnight. She looked tired. She felt tired.
The funeral had finished some hours ago. George, Elaine’s ex-husband, had taken the younger children for the night so that she could look after her elderly father in peace. It had been a long, difficult day. Robert, her eldest, was also there. He had only come home for the funeral and would be catching a train back to University early tomorrow morning. He stood up and attempted to remove two of the teas from around his mother’s spindly fingers.
“You should have given me a shout.”
“It’s alright I managed fine.”
Robert placed the piping mugs on the plastic table.
“Who’s that other one for?”
Elaine looked puzzled at the two remaining teas she carried. She remembered consciously choosing four mugs from the cupboard. She managed a weak laugh.
“Do you know I’m not sure, spare one.”
They sipped their teas in silence. Norman, her father, sat back in the armchair, oblivious to the conversation. It really was a horrible armchair. The theme of the living room had always been ‘child-proof’: Paintings on tatty paper blu-tacked to the walls, patches of damp spreading from the corners of the ceiling, turning the cream paint a tea-stained yellow; the little blue picnic table where the kids used to eat their lunches, shapeless brown sofas to camouflage the Ribena stains, and a scattering of neglected toys and board game pieces. The chair had been a spur-of-the-moment purchase after her husband had taken the matching brown one, a sort of burgundy with creeping black floral patterns winding up the arms. It had looked very striking outside the second-hand-shop, amongst the tatty leather recliners and ominously discoloured futons. But here, surrounded by childish plastic furniture and facing an oversized television, it looked ridiculous, desperate almost.
Robert leant forwards, holding his grandfather’s traditional Manx mug at arm’s length.
“Do you want your tea Grandad?”
Norman didn’t reply. His frail eyelids quivered a little, folded down over frightened eyes. He’s not asleep, Elaine thought, he just doesn’t want to be here. But he is, nonetheless. She gently nudged her father on the shoulder until he opened his eyes.
“Dad, Robert’s got your tea.”
Norman squinted; even this action seemed to require a great effort.
“Robert’s got your tea.”
Slowly, slowly her father returned to the room.
“Yes, Dad. You know Robert.”
She smiled apologetically at her son, but it didn’t offend him anymore. It had been easier for him, only seeing his grandfather during the holidays. He hadn’t had to watch him suffer and struggle and gradually forget how to live independently.
Norman stared at Robert through cloudy blue eyes. They weren’t vacant, they hadn’t given up. That was what kept Elaine going. There was a desire to remember, still a desire to understand. But there was no recognition.
“Thanks, lad” he said quietly, accepting the tea with two shaking hands. He took a minute sip before holding it out before him. Like a baby, thought Elaine, but scolded herself, helping her father replace the mug on the plastic table. A baby was easier to look after. It had sometimes been unpleasant, but she had really loved every second of raising her four children. Being woken up at all hours, changing nappies, nursing colds and the overall frustration at their incapacity to understand had all felt so right, so perfectly natural and easy. She hoped her children never had to look after her in such a way; there was no pleasure in that task.
They sat in silence, the three of them. All at such different points of life. Was it any wonder they didn’t have anything to talk about? thought Elaine, glancing over at her son. Nineteen years old, she couldn’t believe it. When had they become so – distant? Being fifteen when his youngest brother was born, he just seemed to crawl into his attic room one day and quietly grow up. There he was, staring silently at the worn curtains, hanging limply from the few remaining hooks. Who has the time to replace curtain hooks?
Was he happy? He never seemed unhappy. She’d heard him talk fondly about his friends, although he’d never brought them over for dinner. Was that still something people did at nineteen? She couldn’t remember. There was no reason to come to this house anyway, it was designed for children. But where were her children now? Every alternate weekend they would leave, leaving her alone in this playhouse. It fell into a state of suspended animation as soon as the kids left. Robert would be gone tomorrow as well.
“Are you happy Robert?”
She hadn’t really meant to ask. It wasn’t the kind of question to throw at your son on the day of his grandmother’s funeral, but there it hung. Robert thought for a moment, evidently trying to assess where this was going.
“Do you mean right this second, or just generally?”
“Just generally, with your own life.”
Elaine thought he looked a little frightened. It was true she’d never spoken to her son like this before – plainly. When was the last time the two of them had had a meaningful conversation? It wasn’t as if they didn’t get on as mother and son, but it occurred to Elaine that their conversations could all be put down to a sense of duty. Her duty as mother to ask about his day, but not to pry, and his duty to respond pleasantly, and pretend he was interested in hearing about her boss. She doubted she could name any of his current friends, and he probably didn’t know what her job was.
“Yes. I’d say I was happy. Every year seems to be a bit better than the one before.”
There was a far-off quality in his expression as he spoke these words.
“What about you, Mum? How are you doing?”
She hadn’t expected him to return the question. Thinking about it, it would have seemed quite heartless of him not to, she just couldn’t see how her life could be of any interest to someone who could give an answer like the one Robert had just given her. It probably couldn’t be.
“I don’t know” Elaine sighed, unsure how much she was about to burden her son with.
“I just find myself wondering sometimes…” Was this fair? Robert was perched uncomfortably on the arm of the sofa, studying the scum inside his tea cup. Elaine looked at the little white clock on the mantelpiece, chipped from where a bouncy ball had knocked it off years ago. It was after midnight, in seven hours he’d be up and heading to the station. He probably couldn’t wait to get out of this house, back to real life.
Elaine stared at the little clock, then at her tired father.
“What happens now?”
Her tone must have betrayed something, because now Robert moved to her side and put his arm around her narrow shoulders.
“I guess we just get on with it.”
photo 19th cent. anonymous.
Daniel is 21 years old and currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Northumbria University. He is originally from Sheffield and his favourite writers incluide Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce.