That afternoon was a particularly trying one for Mary. Having changed her mother’s incontinence pad and left her on the sofa watching ‘Homes under the Hammer’, she had retreated upstairs, planning to work. But after turning on her computer, she heard the rattle and scrape of a metal stepladder being positioned outside, on the dank strip of gravel between the privet hedge and the bay. Its treads squeaked under the awkward weight of someone not expert at climbing ladders, but determined to ascend.
Sonia from number six then appeared at eye level, wearing an apron over her dress and brandishing a pair of secateurs. As usual she was fully made up, her lipstick coral-coloured, her bright brown eyes heavily mascara-ed.
Mary reluctantly got to her feet, twiddled open a brass security lock and eased up the sash window. “Hello?” she said.
“I’ve come to prune the wisteria, which is something I do regularly,” Sonia informed her. “Otherwise your mother’s house would just disappear. Wisteria is a terrible plant, it gets everywhere. Strangles your brickwork and if you don’t mind me saying so, it brings the whole neighbourhood down.”
“I’ve always thought it rather pretty,” Mary said, looking with regret at the heavy panicles of flowers, now in green bud tinged with mauve. She supposed this draped abundance did look a bit out of place in a narrow street of plain Victorian houses. Though not half as odd as number 31, now reconstructed in the style of a half-timbered Tudor mansion and sticking out awkwardly in the long terrace.
“Only for two weeks a year,” Sonia replied sharply. “It’s got a short flowering season. Anyway, I prune it for your mother, to save her the trouble.”
“That’s very kind of you.” Mary wanted to ask Sonia to come back another time, or go away altogether, but instead asked “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, when I’m finished. Of course now you’re living here, you could do it yourself.”
“Perhaps I could,” Mary said guardedly.
“Don’t you go out to work?” Sonia jabbed the secateurs at Mary’s chin.
Mary flinched and withdrew into the room. She had no wish to offend, but also would rather not join a six-hour queue in Accident and Emergency. “No, I work from home, editing academic texts.”
“That’s nice. So you don’t have to risk being blown up by terrorists. Like my sister.”
“Your sister?” Mary said, rather startled.
“She’s an office worker. Has to travel in and out by tube.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Anyway” – Sonia abruptly changed the subject – “You need to get those gutters cleared. Or they’ll overflow and then you’ll have terrible problems. People often do ignore their gutters, until the rain comes creeping indoors. And by then it’s too late.” Her tone implied horrors beyond Mary’s capacity to imagine. “The insurers won’t pay up, either. Tell you what, if you like I’ll ring someone. They might be able to come round this afternoon, with proper ladders. I can’t reach that high on just a stepladder,” she said aggressively, as though Mary had suggested she might. “It wouldn’t be safe.”
“I’ll just go and see to my mother,” Mary desperately excused herself and hurried from the room, in what she felt was a cowardly retreat, but really the only option left to her. Her instinct was always to placate, or scuttle off. As she went downstairs, she reflected not for the first time that living here put her in an invidious position, at the mercy of all callers and their opinions. Partly belonging, but without rights of retreat and self-protection. Her mother’s home was not Mary’s castle.
She remembered how, many years ago, she’d watched from her back bedroom window as the girl from upstairs, kneeling on the patio, determinedly scraped moss from the bricks around the drain. She had no business being there at all, since the garden was for Mary’s sole use. But Mary had simply moved away from the window, out of sight. If she ventured outside to protest, she knew who would get the worst of it. She did not want to be lectured on the disgraceful state of her own outside wall.
Ros had fallen asleep on the sofa, oblivious to little bursts of music and excited commentary. Her scalp was pink under thin white hair. Apart from age spots and a few deep wrinkles her skin was clear, her face free of sorrow and anxiety.
Mary switched off the TV and looked down at her mother. It was almost possible to believe she would wake up quite well again, as the loving and concerned mum, the intelligent, lucid person she had been. The woman who had once ruthlessly captured an escaped geriatric wandering along the pavement in her nightgown, trapped her with false assurances and driven her straight back to the local care home. For each man in his time plays many parts, Mary thought. Time wreaks its hideous but natural changes. Experience is lost, innocence regained.
Ros’s eyelids flickered and she began to twitch and make whimpering noises. Then she woke up. “Are we all packed and ready to go?” she asked. “Will we be leaving soon? Oh dear, what will happen to us?”
“It’s OK, Mum. Everything’s all right,” Mary said soothingly.
“Grasshoppers are crawling all over the house!” cried Ros. “Help!” She caught sight of the stepladder outside the window and was diverted. “A foot” she said, laughing.
“That’s Sonia, Mum. She’s pruning the wisteria.”
“I don’t believe you. Now tell me, how old am I?”
“And how old are you?”
Ros thought this over, her expression doubtful. “You must have had a child very young, in that case,” she said. “Because you were fifty-four when I was just a baby. And then I had several more old children.”
“Would you like your supper now?” Mary interrupted her mother’s random calculations. “Shall I pop it into the microwave?”
“Pop! Pop!” Ros waved her arms enthusiastically. Mary withdrew to the kitchen, where the rush matting laid down by her mother a decade or so ago to cover the cracked red quarry tiles was now worn and encrusted with dirt. She did some washing up until the microwave beeped. The food was divided into neat plastic compartments – breaded fish, peas, potatoes – and Mary thought it looked quite appetising, as she transferred it to a plate. Wiltshire Farm Foods, delivered in a van to one’s door or freezer, and popular with all the old folk. The packs compared well in price to ‘meals on wheels’, the disgusting council mush. She arranged plate, cutlery, a glass of orange juice and a paper napkin on a tray.
Brushing back through the curtain that divided the kitchen from the main living area, she came face to face with Sonia. “Here you are!” their neighbour exclaimed. “I was worried in case you’d had an accident or something. You were both so quiet, I could only hear the television.”
Mary stood still, amazed. Did Sonia know a secret way into her mother’s house, she wondered, through some tunnel or hidden door? Having the advantage of height, she could see past Sonia into both sitting room and half-hallway. The front door was standing wide open. Ros had disappeared.
This was impossible, Mary’s fogged mind argued. She always kept the front door locked, as her mother was liable to wander. Ros could open doors but not unlock them, although sometimes she poked bits of card or paper into the keyhole and twisted them experimentally.
With trembling hands, she put the tray down on the dining table. “Where is my mother?”
“Oh, she went out,” said Sonia. “She rushed past me in just her nightie and a fleece jacket and slippers. I did think it was strange for her not to be wearing proper clothes, in the daytime. Ros should be kept looking nice and fresh, I thought to preserve her dignity. But perhaps I shouldn’t criticise. No doubt you think it’s none of my business. Your mum left a spare key with me, yonks ago, in case of an emergency. Anyway I just wanted to check with you, before I ring the men to clear your gutters. It’ll be about £80. They could do mine as well, while they’re about it…”
Leaving Sonia to ramble on – in case of an emergency? This was an emergency! – Mary ran outside, up the road, in one direction then another. “Mum! Mum!” she screamed. She came to the McDonald’s and a dual carriageway with two sets of traffic lights. Surely her mother couldn’t have crossed here? Holding a stitch in her side, Mary looked down over the children’s playground, the river path, the shiny and swirling Thames. I must ring the police, she thought.
Two policemen arrived at the house, their shoes squeaking on the lush carpet of massacred wisteria. They insisted on searching upstairs, then asked Mary to unlock the back door. “She can’t possibly be out there!” Mary protested.
As they patrolled the 20ft garden, she realised they were checking for freshly turned earth, signs of recent burial. She hoped they wouldn’t disturb the fox, whose den was under the lilac bush. But really, this was ridiculous! They were losing time, she agitated.
“Sorry, but there are some very strange people around,” the senior officer told her, re-entering the kitchen and stamping on a non-existent doormat. Poor old bird, he thought, observing Mary’s stressed face and untidy hair. Having a breakdown, maybe? Spinster, carer, no real life of her own. She’d been pruning her wisteria at totally the wrong time of year, it should be done in winter. And clearly no one ever gardened out the back.
The two officers’ expressions were no longer mistrustful and Mary noted hopefully that two-way radios were being used.
“OK. Now we swing into action,” the senior one announced.
“Good,” Mary said, controlling her voice. “Thank you.”
“Shops and supermarkets are often good points of call, so we’ll ask there after we’ve knocked on your neighbours’ doors. Have you got a picture of her?”
After a rummage, Mary produced a blurred group photo, her mother hemmed in by a group of smiling relatives. Underneath it in the drawer was the profile portrait of a glamorous young actress. Oh Mum, how beautiful you were. “This one shows her nose better. But of course she was much younger…”
“The more recent one, please.”
Mary sat crying in the window seat, in full view of anyone walking past, but not caring. Mum, Mum, where are you? It was getting dark. Several neighbours had expressed concern and were searching in their cars. A lost child was most likely to be found in the first hour, the officer had told her. The golden hour, he’d called it. “And with respect, your mother is like a child.” Yes, she was pleased he’d grasped that. But now at least three hours had gone by, with no sign of Ros.
There are some very strange people around, he’d said… Might there be people who seized lost old ladies, kidnapped them from the streets and tortured them? But surely, surely, others would be kind.
To whom apart from herself would her mother be of any value? Though she was loved and so sweet, with her odd and charming phrases. “He hedgehogged off,” she remembered Ros saying last week, after they’d watched a hedgehog amble into the dusk. Oh Mum…
Bedtime came and went; Mary kept vigil at the window. No news, although the police had returned twice to update her on their lack of progress. People across the road switched off their lights, first downstairs then upstairs.
She couldn’t even lie down on the sofa and rest for a few moments, in case her mother turned up. But what if Ros never turned up – had vanished altogether and permanently? Then it seemed to Mary she would never be able to sleep again.
She thought momentarily of Sonia, who had not offered to help with the search. Guilty conscience? That was probably too much to hope for.
At 11.40pm, she went to the kitchen to make herself coffee. The doorbell rang.
Mary hastened to open the door and there stood Ros. A tartan blanket was pinned around her shoulders, over her nightgown; it made her look quite dashing and handsome. Her pink slippers were exceedingly grubby. Her legs were bruised.
“Mum!” As Mary ushered her mother indoors, a car started in the road. A woman waved from its dark interior. The car turned the corner and was gone.
“Here you are,” Ros greeted her. “Where have you been?”
“Oh Mum. Where have you been?”
“I fell on the railway. Some men drinking at tables told me no, no, no. Then she said to her husband, I’ll take the car.”
“So you remembered your address?” Mary said in astonishment.
“I certainly did. Up the ivy runs the weasel, to midnight road, a cul de sac with balloons on sticks,” Ros gibbered. She was hyper. Well, maybe the kind stranger would return at some point to get her tartan blanket.
“Come on, Mum. Let’s get you to bed…” Mary propelled Ros up the stairs. And if not, she thought, the blanket would make a nice throw for the sofa.
This story was awarded third place in The London Magazine’s Short Story Competition 2013 judged by Stephen May and Avril Joy.