Twigs snapping, that's what it sounded like when she got up, straightened her legs and her red knees, still tingling from their compression against newspaper on the floor, clicked in gratitude for the gaunt burden lifted from them. The newspaper was a cushion against the bald carpet. 'Amen' she said and yawned. Cold air hit her pink gums and she kissed her rosary three times; for the father, the son and the holy ghost. It was an equable division of kisses placating all elements of the trinity. This was very necessary in her mind. 'You never know which one of them is checking in with you' she used to say as her husband, Herbert, would watch her, tying shoes onto his feet and smoking with a cigarette hanging from his lips. He would sit on his side of the bed, oblivious to ash fluttering on the duvet and the carpet. 'Can't you wait til you get out?' she used to say before telling him to quieten down and kissing the rosary one more time to compensate for Herbert's transgression from the faith. She would smile at him, reluctantly, looking at his spectacles, thick like jam jars, and the blue eyes behind them filled with love. 'Don't say a word' she would say, wanting him to speak, so she could scold him with words that landed like soft kisses. That was ten years ago, before her yellow teeth were replaced by sparkling white ones she now kept in a glass of water by her bed. They were good days.
Annie was 86, skin and bone, and wrapped in a devotional fervour intruded upon by her damned, unforgiving, arthritic knees. But still, knees weren't meant to bend forever. She had come to accept that now. 'Ten minutes is plenty before sunrise and coffee'. She recalled saying that to Herbert as if she was a naughty girl. He would just laugh, his eyes scrunching shut behind his spectacles, his shoulders heaving up and down. She remembered him laughing. What a laugh he had, loud and garrulous through an open mouth smelling of ale. You could see back to his tonsils and all his teeth. 'He could have painted them for all I knew.' Annie used to say that a lot. She didn't say it so much as time passed. 'You there, love?' was the refrain that supplanted it. She said that again as she reached for her glasses. They lay next to a worn leather clad bible on the floor. She sucked her bottom lip, annoyed at having to bend again to retrieve them. 'Think Annie' she said and slapped her forehead with her open hands, frustrated at her forgetfulness and tired of her frustration. You could have heard the thud from thirty yards.
Squinting in the naked light of the iron lamp by her bed, she put on her glasses and stood still to catch a fleeting memory, surprised and disappointed at the room's emptiness. 'You there, love?' she said. There was no reply. A plume of smoke appeared in the corner of her left eye and she made herself discount it as the grey mist of a cataract.
It was dark outside. Annie knew that because it was winter and 6 am. Her yellow curtains were drawn and moved ever so slightly at the rush of the wind against the pane and through the old frame. Annie didn't notice that. She noticed the cold as she breathed it in. But she didn't put the heating on. Only when the curtains were open and there was a hot Nescafe in her hand would she light the small gas fire in her room. She pulled apart the yellow fabric and looked upon the silent street through a lace net curtain that was once white and elegant. It was now greying with damp and dust that gathered in the folds of the loop though which it was strung and nailed to the wall. Before her was a front garden overgrown with nettles and sheltered from the street by a brick wall three feet high. She looked for the blue Morris Minor. They had bought it in 1973. They had sold it in 1978. It was not the first car they had bought. It was not even the last. But somehow its contours had etched themselves into her soul as indicative of good days; when the children had crawled around her like love sick puppies, aching to be near her. It was a strange mercy that shielded her from the truth: by 1974 her brood were already in college or University, or in the case of young Mark, in a borstal for affray.
Outside, all she could see was a Ford transit van parked with all its tyres on the pavement. There were no people. If there were, they were masked by darkness. 'You could have said you were leaving early' she thought and felt a wave of annoyance pass through her. It disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. He never did like to wake her when he was on earlies. She understood that, but God did she hate to be treated like a wallflower.
She turned back into the room, sighed and walked past an old arm chair that was in urgent need of reupholstering. A spring in the seat was protruding an inch. You couldn't see it though thanks to the pillow that covered it. Upon it was draped a black suit and a blue tie. Beneath the chair were Herbert's smart shoes, his only shoes, for the others had long since been chucked when Annie wasn't looking. All her children had agreed that it was kinder that way. Sometimes, in the night she would wake and brave the cold air to go to the bathroom. Her sleepy gaze would fall on the clothes and shoes. She would call out, 'it's late. You shouldn't sit there all night.' Having made her point, she would go back to sleep, reassured by the seated presence. There was no need to wait for a reply. It was not, she reasoned, as if Herbert was a great talker. Later that morning, in the bright winter sun, men would come to the house to clear it of rubbish and take away all remnants of Herbert and Annie. They would remark on the dust glinting on the black suit and its faded colour as they ripped off the curtains. Both the suit and the curtains were stuffed it into a black bin liner. They fell on an open tobacco tin. The few strings of tobacco it contained smelled of nothing but the stagnant odour that melded the room's scent with Annie's. Hers was the scent of talcum powder and nicotine.
'So much to do' she said as if she recalled some vague itinerary of tasks extending no further than getting washed and ready for the day. She shuffled her feet across the bald carpet and into her slippers by the door. They were pink but somehow failed to convey the femininity they were meant to. They were just functional items on her feet. 'Well at least he's put his slippers away' she told herself, as she did every morning before leaving the room and shaking her head.
As she walked along the dark hallway, the soles of her pink slippers patted against a clear plastic sheeting that had been laid down over ten years ago to protect the carpet beneath it. After the fourth pat she stumbled against something hard on the floor. The surprise of it made her lose her balance and she swayed into the tired wallpaper and then stopped to gather her thoughts. 'What is the matter with you?' she said and returned to her bedroom to retrieve the torch that lay by the door. 'That's better' she told herself as a beam of soft light fell across the hallway and the suitcase within it. It was sat facing her like a guard dog. She looked at the case and wondered at its presence within the hallway's hushed gloom. The kids must have left it she thought, unable to recollect how the case had got there. She continued past it and the staircase she had not ascended in several months.
On she shuffled to the small kitchen of lavender paint peeling off plasterboard and impaled with nails holding up pans. When did she have time to use those things now? She wondered. 'So much to do' she said.
In the kitchen was a white gas cooker streaked brown with old grease. From the small table by its side she picked up a yellow box of matches and proceeded to light a gas ring to boil water for her Nescafe. 'I'm too old for one those love' she had said when her daughter, Sarah, had tried to convert her to the use of an electric kettle. 'You do things your way. I'm happy as I am' she had said, pursing her lips and sucking them in against her iridescently white teeth. No one argued with her. 'Of course Mother' was all Sarah had said, amused at the Blitz spirit.
Just as the first bubble was rising through the pan of water the phone rang. Annie walked back into the hallway and lifted the handset off the wall. 'Herbert' she said.
'It's Sarah' said a voice used to gliding over references to her father.
'Oh I see. I haven't heard from you for a while' said Annie, bristling a little.
'I packed with you yesterday Mother. The suitcase and everything is ready to go. I'm dropping William at work at 9 and I'll be with by with you for 9.30.We're so excited you are coming to live with us' Sarah added whilst bending down to pick a stray sock off the floor and throw it at William, her husband. William was sat in an arm chair watching television. He threw the sock back at her and scrunched his face in mock annoyance. Sarah smiled, harassed and ready to say something to him, something witty she had just thought of. She opened her mouth, and then she took cognisance of her mother's comment, 'I can't leave your father here.'
'Oh, Mother' she sighed and the flying sock was already a memory. She could have said more but it was a cliché to repeat that 'dad is in heaven and has been for a decade.' Besides, all it did was open old wounds that never failed to startle with their implacable severity. 'Mother, I will see you at 9.30. Don't forget to eat some toast now. You know how you get giddy when you don't eat. I've left some marmite in the fridge for you. You like marmite.'
Annie heard the line go quiet and replaced the handset as gently as if she was placing a flower on a grave. She noted the mottled discoloration and baggy skin on the back of her hand as it lingered on the dial, understanding the finality of the communication if, or when, she turned away. She was like a statue for a timeless minute with only the faint quiver of her hand giving a clue to her condition. Yes, she was still alive. 'Oh Annie,' she said as she touched her eyes with her thin fingers and turned around to face where she had come from. The kitchen door was open. The cooker's flame was humming in her ears. What tune was that, that incessant long whine? Straining her ears, she surmised that the hum was an old record that must be playing somewhere, that the worn stylus must have snagged on a groove, and that the record player was upstairs. She stepped back to face the stairs, concerned only to locate a record player that hadn't played in a decade. 'Herbert' she called and recalled he was gone. Annoyance filled her at the prospect of scaling the fourteen stairs and the plastic lamination over dirty grey carpet. Some of the steel tacks that Herbert had used to fix it down (there were four per stair) had long disappeared or lay detached from carpet and stairs, their grey sheen infiltrated by a rusty brown encouraged by the seeping damp of the old house. 'Oh Annie,' she said again, but this time with determination. Her damned knees would respond to her will.
Grabbing the bare pine banister she pulled herself as if she was drawing in a rope and ascended the stairs one painful step at a time, waiting for both feet to meet before urging them on again. Her chest rose also with ever deeper breaths and at some point between the first and eighth step she scaled her feet met and she stood to attention, wondering and flushed with embarrassment at her suspended animation. It must have been at least a year since she had last gone upstairs. There was no need anymore. Like some Lego puzzle her bedroom had been dismantled and recreated downstairs. The doctor had insisted on it as a condition of her autonomy but his utterance had fallen, imperceptibly as a feather on grass, on Annie's ears. They were already attuned to Columbo while her daughter patted her skinny, sad looking shoulders. 'Of course doctor' Annie had mumbled, finally, just to get them out of the room, her room, her house, her precious beautiful house that she had picked with Herbert. And leave they did. 'I will die here as I lived' she had muttered, her eyes not flickering as Columbo faded into adverts.
Annie waited on a step until her chest steadied itself, surrounded by paisley wallpaper and holding the banister with her thin hands. 'Herbert' she said and heaved herself upwards once more until, finally, there were no stairs left to climb. Breathing in, she looked around and felt like a stranger entering a forbidden place. She touched a wall with the back of her left hand as if she was grazing a baby's cheek and walked towards a door, berating herself for forgetting her torch. Batteries cost less than electricity form a meter: she believed that with all her soul and not even Herbert had ever convinced her otherwise. It was only a question of time therefore that the old torch from a rusted tool box resurfaced once he had gone.
When she entered the doorway she stood still, leaning against the wooden frame, watching the first morning light entering the empty room. This was where she and Herbert had once slept. It was a shell now. The life had been sucked out of it. In its dusty centre, resting on a brown carpet, was a record player. It was old junk now. But she recalled how she would play it and dance with Herbert, slowly, around the double bed and a wardrobe in which they stuffed their clothes. 'By God, could Crosby sing' she thought to herself. Herbert had always wanted to put someone else on but she never let him. His hands were too big—builder's hands he had—and she worried that he would scratch the vinyl. She remembered it like it was yesterday. Closing her eyes, she danced in her head, very slowly. A tear came down her left cheek, like a first raindrop down a window, and she raised her hands as if she was telling someone to stop. 'Oh Herbert' she said, turning round, away from the memory.
She shuffled her feet towards the stairs again, grabbed the pine banister, and descended the first step. It was then that her headed jolted upwards. It sounded to her like a long scream. The fire alarm in the kitchen had been ringing for over ten minutes but she only heard it then, when her reverie had broken and she had descended a step. Annie rushed her left foot forward, anxious to move, not knowing whether she wanted to move towards or away from the long scream, and lost her grip on the loose carpet.
An inaudible gasp left her lips as she fell, head first, to the ground, shooting like a human torpedo along the fourteen steps. She left behind her a button that had torn from her shirt. It had snagged on a nail. She ended with her head resting on the downstairs floor, wedged against a skirting board that had cracked with the impact. Her feet rested on the steps, separated from her pink slippers. 'Herbert' she whispered.
'Come, my pet' said a voice in her head. She smiled and she closed her glazed eyes on the world for the last time.
BIO: Balvinder is a lawyer working in London. In his spare time (usually around midnight) he enjoys writing poetry and short stories. He has also recently completed his first novel.