As Marjory sat in her armchair, a steaming cup and saucer of tea next to her, she ruminated on how it had been a long time since someone had come to see her. It was a nice feeling, having a visitor. The window in which her armchair was situated had a wonderfully clear view of the sloped lawn outside her home and Marjory got a lot of pleasure from watching the wind sway the trees to and fro and the birds flitting about. She especially liked it when they landed on the feeders, pausing and pecking with sharp staccato movements and an alert wariness; and then, how they launched themselves off again at speed once they were done.
The fat grey birds underneath the feeder also amused her, waddling and pecking, reminding her of old Mr Tom, the church warden from when she was a girl with his high waisted trousers and grey pullovers. He had quite a rolling gait, like a drunken rotund sailor and he was always peck-peck-pecking into other people’s business.
There was something else there that they reminded her of too, just on the periphery of her memory – a vague sense of a warm place and laughter; a time long ago when she was young but not little; a feeling of longing but also pain. It was fleeting and was soon overridden by the more comfortable childhood reminiscence of silly old Mr Tom. Marjory chuckled to herself at her remembrance and let her eyes rest on the peaceful repetitive movement of those plump grey birds.
“Okay then, Marjory!” A loud but not unpleasant voice said in her ear. “Julie’s here to see you so I’ll be back again tonight to give you your dinner and put you to bed.”
A round jolly face with very pink cheeks placed itself in front of her garden view and Marjory tried to focus. For a moment, she struggled to place her and then she noticed the shapeless tunic, like a uniform and she remembered that she was the nurse – Anthea, was it? Andrea? Something like that.
The nurse continued to look at her expectantly and raised her eyebrows and Marjory spoke softly in a voice that had long ago shrunk to a whisper.
“Thank you, nurse,” she replied and smiled weakly.
“You are very welcome, my dear! And you can call me Annette, not all of this formal nurse stuff!” Annette plumped a cushion from the adjacent sofa before placing it behind Marjory’s back and reached for her patient’s hand. She rubbed it lightly, marvelling at its papery thinness and the sharpness of the bones beneath; an old hand covered in brown spots that gave no indication of the woman who Marjory once was. Annette felt an affection for Marjory and her quietness. She was never any trouble although she would have liked her to be a little more chatty but then, she could chat for them both and it did mean that she got on a lot more quickly here, doing her job efficiently. It was a small satisfaction in a job that was pretty much thankless and Annette always left Marjory’s house with a touch of pride and a sense of having done something right. As miserable old Mr Jones was her next stop with his open leg sore and his equally sour manner, Annette was always grateful for Marjory’s lack of demands and polite replies and was glad that she was her first call of the day.
Annette smiled once more as Marjory moved her gaze back to the garden and gently placed her hand back on her lap. She did love those birds, especially the pigeons. They really did bring a wistful smile to her face.
Annette turned to head towards the door and met Julie coming from the kitchen with a cup of tea of her own.
“Alright, love, I’m off! What’s it like out there now? Bloody windy when I got here first thing. Has it eased any?” Annette asked Julie.
“It’s not so bad. Warm, at least,” Julie replied, marvelling at the bustling way Annette moved, giving out an air of brisk efficiency, and watched her whilst taking a sip of tea. “Thanks again for taking care of Nan. How’s she doing?’
Annette slipped off her house shoes and put on her comfortable leather flats left by the doormat. Standing up to place her shoes in her bag and reach for her coat, she said, “She’s just grand! No trouble at all! She sits and gazes out of that window at them birds in a world of her own most of the time. Mind you, she’ll always speak to you when you ask her something, as long as she’s heard, that is!”
“Well, thanks again, Annette and enjoy the rest of your day,” Julie said as Annette buttoned up her coat and opened the door, letting in a blast of cold air and some swirling leaf debris.
“Not much hope of that, I’m afraid!” Annette said but with no rancour. “But onwards and upwards, they say! Got to pay the bills somehow!”
And with a quick wave and a shout of “Bye, Marjory, love!”, Annette headed to her small blue car and like a small happy human tornado was gone.
Julie shut the door and wondered at the vacuum left by Annette’s leaving. What a woman, she thought as she smiled to herself. They were lucky to have her and at such reasonable rates to care for Nan. No-one wanted Nan to go into a home and Julie was grateful that she came from such a compassionate family. Everyone from her parents to her aunt and uncles, to her brothers and sister, all had joined together to ensure that Nan could stay at home, pooling what they could share financially to enable this. It made her feel warm inside.
Julie headed into the living room and the chair next to Marjory.
“How are you doing, Nan?” she asked cheerily.
Marjory turned to look at the young woman sitting next to her who seemed familiar. Such a nice face, she had, with pretty eyes and such glossy hair. She reminds me of me, she thought.
“Hello, love. I’m good.” She smiled, mirroring Julie’s warmth to her and added, “I’ve just been watching those funny birds…those ones….those grey ones. What are they called, I can’t think?”
“Pigeons, Nan? The ones at the bottom of the feeder?” Julie offered.
“Yes! Pigeons!” Marjory said with whispery excitement, again conscious of that feeling, that memory of yearning ,which was tinged with sadness. “I can never remember their name.” Marjory slumped a little in her chair, the exertion of saying so much seeming to visibly tire her and making Julie feel a little concern. She didn’t want to exhaust her but she liked to come and knew that Marjory was on her own a lot of the time despite Annette’s visits and family dropping in when they were able. It wasn’t easy with the commitments of work and family to always be there daily but they all made an effort.
Julie felt like she was watching her nan slip away, just little pieces of her disappearing. She tried not to dwell on this as it invariably upset her especially as Marjory had not addressed her by name in months. She focused instead on the advice that a friend had given her at lunch that week; that she might be able to find a way to access her nan again through her memories and to use a stimulus to do this. When Julie had found an old photo album, way behind the biscuit tin in the pantry last week, she had been itching to look through it and see if it would prompt Nan in some way that would bring her back for just a little, for just a short time, that she had been quite annoyed when her brother Bruce had made an impromptu visit. She had felt compelled to go and reserve her alone time with Nan for a future date and leave Bruce to it, Bruce’s visits being so sporadic.
She looked once again at her nan who had resumed her wistful look out the window and headed for the pantry. It had struck her that it was an unusual place for a photo album to be kept as Nan had always been quite a methodical and logical person so food in the pantry was acceptable, photos would have been a definite no-no.
But Julie shrugged this off, the prospect of sharing something with her nan and catching a glimpse of the lively personality that had shone throughout her childhood, someone who she missed dearly every day, being her paramount goal today. She had been quite excited with the anticipation of it and it had taken all of her willpower not to take the box home with her and look through it privately. Her respect for her nan’s possessions and her need to share something exclusive with her again made her put it back.
Reaching behind the biscuit tin, she found the dusty box and brought it forward. It was a big box, like a wedding album and was heavy. With some effort, Julie brought it forward and blew the dust from the top. Blimey! This had lived here for a long time. Her sharp blow of breath had barely disturbed the thick dirty layer on the top and she used her hand to make a smear. She could see that it had Italian words on the front in a fancy script – gold lettering. Posh and classy! Julie felt a bigger leap of excitement in her gut and removed the box, stepped out of the pantry and pushed the door with her hip to close it. Now that she had it in the light of the kitchen, she could see that it was of some age with brown marks where time had marked it.
She couldn’t wait to bring it in to Nan.
She headed once more into the living room where Marjory sat in the same position as she had been when Julie had left.
“Hey, Nan.” Julie said gently.
Marjory slowly moved her head again towards Julie. “Hello, love.”
Julie sat in the chair next to her and reverently looked at the box that she had on her lap infront of her. There was something weird about this, Julie knew, and for a moment, she hesitated in what she had planned to do. But she looked again at the woman next to her, a woman who she loved dearly, a woman who she had known all of her life – surely, there couldn’t be anything sinister in this box, could there?
“I love those funny birds…don’t you? Those grey ones? What are they called?” Nan faintly asked, a smile still shadowing her lips.
Julie suppressed a grimace. “Pigeons, Nan. They’re pigeons”. A stab of pain went through her heart at having to explain this again in a matter of minutes and this hurt acted as a spur to action, a brutal reminder to Julie of the limited time that she had left with Marjory and she seized the moment, determined to find the remnants of this strong, passionate, caring woman who had once lived so largely and was now reduced to an armchair ridden shell, grasping at the rags of memory just to talk.
If this box meant that she could have a conversation with her nan for five minutes which wasn’t about how she was or if she wanted a cup of tea or if she was comfortable or telling her AGAIN that those funny little birds were pigeons, then she would grab it selfishly with both hands and to hell with the consequences of it.
If there was one thing that she knew about her nan, it was that she was not a secretive woman.
“Look what I found, Nan!” Julie ventured with enthusiasm.
Marjory again obligingly turned her head and looked towards the young woman and what she had found. In the girl’s lap was a dirty rectangular box, stained and distorted on the top. What an ugly thing, Marjory thought. Marjory’s brain immediately dismissed it and she turned back to the window, slowly to gaze at those funny fat birds.
“Shall we have a look inside it, Nan? I found it in the pantry, behind the biscuits. I wonder what it is? I thought it might have some old photos.” Julie lifted the lid of the box and inside was a pristine cream wedding album.
As Julie lifted out the beautifully bound book, Marjory continued to direct her gaze outside but was struck suddenly, internally by a spark of recognition, a further igniting of what she had felt previously that day when watching those plump birds. It was increasing in intensity with each movement from the girl and like the small bejewelled pieces of a kaleidoscope, so a composite picture was beginning to form in her mind.
“Let’s see,” Julie said, having finally shaken the book free of its box, difficult to do gently as it was reluctant to be removed. She smoothed the front with her hand and with a curiosity founded on best intentions, turned the cover. Inside was a delicate piece of transparent paper, enough to blur the image below but not enough to completely obscure the outline of two people. Julie, with care, took the edge of the paper and pulled it back.
There, on the page was an old photo. In it were two figures: one her beloved Nan, the other a tall magnificently handsome man, smartly dressed and beaming at the photographer. Behind the newly married couple was a European vista but very clearly not Basildon where she believed her grandparents to have been wed. In fact, if she had to take a guess, she would have said Venice. And she would have been right.
Julie tried to suppress her shock but couldn’t. Her nan was in front of her two fold; one young and vibrant and static; the other old and wilting and static and she realised in that instant that she knew neither one of them. This was to be the second biggest shock of her life. Immediately, her mind leapt from its frozen state of puzzlement into something much more damaging – a vehement need to know the truth.
She moved the album, holding it gingerly like it was poisoned into her nan’s lap. Marjory was still gazing out at the bird feeders but her expression was no longer one of vacant calm; now, her eyebrows had knitted together and she looked perplexed, like she was mentally tackling a problem, which of course she was.
Having something heavy pushed into her lap, Marjory jolted a little at being brought to the present and gazed down at the picture in front of her. A wedding! How lovely! She had just been thinking about a wedding. Warm and so, so happy! Such wonderful food and the dancing! Ah, such a lovely, lovely memory. She smiled softly and wondered who it could be in the picture. It looked like that girl, the one here earlier…
“Nan? Who is that with you in the photo?”
Marjory continued looking at the photo and yes, it was her! Of course! My, how beautiful she had been and that dress was just perfect. Ornate lace but light as a feather and how she had loved to twirl in it that morning, marvelling at how lovely she looked and how happy she was to be alive.
“Nan, look at the man. Who is he?’
Some innate instinct had precluded Marjory from looking at the male figure in the photo. She had been content just to revel in her memories of being a girl but that voice was insistent – “Who? Who? Who?” – like an annoying owl. And like a diver’s air bubble, the name of the Italian man she had married all of those years ago rose to the surface to be uttered once more.
“Marco,” she said simply and clearly, the muted whisper abating for just a moment as she voiced the name from her past.
Julie gasped and stared with shock at her grandmother, willing the truth to explode out of her on the spot. But then, instantly and conversely, she couldn’t look at this stranger next to her, this woman who she had been so sure of who had just reduced her whole world to crumbs in a moment. Compelled and horrified at the same time, she turned more pages of the album, seeing her nan with foreigners in a foreign landscape. Marjory’s eyes were struggling to follow the page turning taking place in front of her but each new image, quickly glimpsed, evoked a resurgence of memory, of love, of passion, of Venice, of St Mark’s Square, of pigeons and running through them, of a day of abandon and freedom with the man she loved so vehemently.
The album was finished. Julie rested her hand on the top, tears brimming in her eyes. She felt so many emotions, so many! Hurt, pain, anger, betrayal and, the most painful of all, loss. She sat, wanting to speak, having so many questions but not knowing what to ask.
Instead, Marjory broke the silence.
“Marco,” she repeated softly again now, her voice relinquishing its strength once more. “My love.”
Julie held her breath. Marjory continued, haltingly, a pause between each utterance.
“He was my husband. He died.” Marjory sobbed, a terrible racking sound of past grief stored for years in that dusty box in the pantry, locked away behind the sweetness of biscuits.
Then, came Marjory’s last lucid moment, a lynchpin that decided the way Julie’s life would progress from that instant; a life which by all accounts had shown promise, but slumped into decline and sadness almost immediately after three words.
Three simple words with which Marjory altered the course of her granddaughter’s life forever.
“I killed him.”