“That’s all it’s worth I’m afraid.” The estate agent, crisp in his pale grey suit, shrugs. “I mean, you could spend some money. Update it, landscape. You’d get more then. But no-one is really looking for fixer uppers at the moment.”
They’re crushed, my sisters. I see it in the uplift of their well-shaped eyebrows and the downturn of their glossy plump lips. I mask my own smile.
“What now?” quivers Poppy.
Rosa shakes her head, glossy ponytail rippling.
“Well,” I chance, “I could move in. Care for her. You’d need to pay me of course, cause I’d have to give up my job. But I’d cost less than a care home, I’m sure.”
They frown at me, or at least, as much of a frown as their botoxed foreheads will let them.
“You’d live here?” Rosa asks.
I nod. They shudder in unison.
I see their point. The shutters swing on rusty hinges. A club-footed pigeon limps along a windowsill, pausing to peck at a thick cobweb. As if reading their minds, a slate careens from the roof, shattering at our feet.
“Ugh,” says Poppy.
I marvel at the height of the dandelions and grass.
“And how much would you charge, Heather?” Rosa has her chequebook out. “You’re a cleaner, aren’t you?”
“I manage a care home,” I tell her quietly.
They exchange a glance.
The place didn’t always look like this. When my mother breathed her first breath here, it was a charming cottage on the edge of a chocolate-box English village where people grew their own vegetables and the butcher knew your name. Where families gathered on the village green to celebrate spring, the harvest or the impending approach of Santa Claus. A novelty for three dusty city girls.
“What are these Grandma?”
“This is the area I planted especially for my favourite girls.”
A neat rectangle houses an explosion of colour. Toffee-apple reds, candy-floss pinks and mango-ripe oranges burst from their soily bed.
“Camellias, for your mummy. Proud roses for Rosa. Dancing poppies for Poppy.” She touches one of the periwinkle spears. “And Heather, for you my lovely.”
Calluna vulgaris. That’s the Latin name for Heather. Common. Ordinary.
We sit, us three sisters, sipping our drinks in silence. It’s been a long time since we were all together.
Rosa twirls her prosecco glass by the stem. Time does seem to have stood still on her face and body, her skin smooth, her willowy frame taut. If you look hard enough though, you can see the incision marks left by the surgeon who hoisted up her sagging face. Not that she’d ever tell.
Rosa the Poser, they used to call her at school, and it paid off: successful modelling career and a sideways slide into editorial styling when she got too old for the catwalk. I pick up her magazines every now and then, despite the lack of interest I have in their content. That’s the only reason I know about her divorce. And the drink driving charges. And that her former assistant is suing her.
Poppy too made quite a name for herself at school. Wild, wild Poppy. Heady, intoxicating, dancing to her own drumbeat. Raising eyebrows as the model for the art teacher’s scandalous nude drawings.
She nurses her rum and coke in its stout tumbler, long fingers capped with neatly filed, claret nails.
“So.” Poppy breaks the silence. “How much are you asking, Heather? Only, I don’t have much disposable at the moment.”
“Is the gallery not doing well, then?”
She flushes. “It’s doing beautifully, thank you very much. A lot of my funds are just tied up at the moment.”
I sip my shandy. I feel giddy. Judging by the grim faces of my sisters, I’m the only one enjoying this. “Have either of you seen her lately?”
“Oh, well the gallery…”
“It's the commute, you know…”
They trail off and we fall back into our own reveries.
“You know, she might not have you back.” Rosa looks past me, which is irritating.
“She doesn’t have a choice.” They nod grim concessions. I grin, raising my glass. “Cheers!”
Native to Asia, the camellia was brought to Europe and cultivated by gardeners. Renowned for its exotic beauty, it was highly sought after, until it was replaced in fashionable garden circles by the orchid. The camellia was never hardy enough to profligate alone.
It must have been an exotic name for that little village. Camellia. Unusual, different. Much like Mummy herself. Little Camellia. Always her full name. Never Cami or Mellia.
I have only one picture of Mummy young and that’s from her wedding. In that picture, her painted lips are pressed together in a teasing pout and her head is tilted down so that she has to look up to the camera. Her dress is beaded - ‘hand beaded in Italy, no less’ - and painfully elegant. She’s stately and swan-like beside Daddy, who looks like he could be her father.
We don’t really remember Daddy.
“He had to go,” was all Mummy would say, as though he was running late for an appointment that he forgot to come back from.
I close the album that presses them out of sight and place it on top of my suitcase.
“What are you doing, Grandma?”
She’s on her knees in the garden pulling up dark green leaves. Roots like worms trail behind them. She wipes her brow.
“Getting rid of these dandelions.” She indicates her lovely flower patch, yellow-headed flowers nudging everything else out of the way.
“They’re weeds, Heather. I don’t want my garden weedy.”
I play with the word in my mouth. Weedy. There is something vaguely sneering about the word. Weedy. Seedy. Greedy.
“They’ll choke the roses and poppies,” she tells me.
“What about the heather?”
“The heather’s much more resilient than the rest.” She pats me on the head. “The heather’s going to be just fine.”
We grew up fatherless in a Kensington townhouse. Four stories, six bedrooms, and a short stroll from the Royal Albert Hall.
The upstairs drawing room looks so different these days, splashed across the front cover of Quality Interiors magazine. Rosa sits on a fluffy white rug in the centre of the photo under the cover line “At Home With Rosa: the former model gives us a glimpse of her lavish Kensington pad.”
I flick through the magazine to see what she’s done to the place.
Gone are the period features, the antique furniture and the soft carpets. My childhood home is all sleek lines and chrome appliances. There’s even a ‘wet room’, complete with ‘mood lighting’ where a linen cupboard used to be.
The dining room houses a ginormous white marble slab that she must use as a table, but would look more at home in a mausoleum. Gone is the sturdy teak table that we dined at for years.
I wonder if there’s a little imprint of us there, etched into the fabric of the room. We haven’t dined together for years: not there or anywhere. Still I search the image for something familiar.
I recall that dinner. Save for Rosa’s wedding, that was probably the last time we were all together, Mummy and us three girls.
“That was delicious, Mummy!” Rosa was practically purring.
I had rolled my eyes at Poppy, who pointedly ignored me.
“Yes, well, I only choose the best recipes for my girls. Especially my girl who’s getting married!”
She stroked Mummy’s arm softly. “So soft, Mummy. It’s almost like you’re ageing in reverse!”
I remember wanting to gag and watching Poppy’s face which was ricocheting somewhere between admiration and fury.
“You know,” Rosa was fiddling with her napkin then, glancing sidelong at Mummy, “I’ve been telling Steve how wonderful it was to grow up in this house, and how it would be perfect for us to raise our family here.” Words like petals tumbled from her pretty lips.
Poppy looked set to burst.
“Didn’t you always say, Mummy, that you’d love a quieter life by the sea?”
Three weeks later, Mummy, Poppy and I moved to the cliff top holiday home that Daddy had conveniently left to my mother.
The nurse looks tired and sad.
“Now, she’s a bit disoriented, but her faculties are still intact.”
“And her speech?”
She shakes her head. “Still nothing. Though it may return in time.”
I sign the release form and print my name under the scrawl. Parking my buttocks in an uncomfortable wingback armchair, I scroll through my phone.
Art Now! has a feature on upcoming and low going galleries. I want to see if Papaver Somniferum Gallery has made one of the lists this year. There, under the doomy heading of ‘A bad year for…’ PSG sits in the middle of the list.
“Far from making the projected impact on the world, curator and owner Poppy G has given space to contrived, trite and boring artists in bland displays of ego and stunted imagination.”
I zoom into the thumbnail picture accompanying the harsh critique.
An expanse of blonde wood extends to the sea-vista presented by the floor-to-ceiling glass doors. Judging by the rail running along the outside, this seems to be the top floor, the rooms knocked through to create one large space. My little square bedroom no longer exists.
Poppy, less eloquent than Rosa, had to whine for longer before she got her way.
“It’s not fair, Mummy. I deserve a place too. Just because I’m not going to get married. Why should I be punished for wanting to make my own way in life?”
Mummy and I moved to my grandparents’ cottage, themselves dead and long gone by then.
I click my phone off and push it into my pocket.
“Here she is.”
I close my eyes, not quite ready to see Mummy again yet.
The house my grandparents vacated was already starting to decay like a rotten tooth when Mummy and I moved in. Damp was creeping up the walls, the wood around the windows was splintering and everything creaked, as though the house’s old bones were aching.
Outside, the world had changed too. Gone were the friendly butcher and the village green. A steely supermarket stole the soft edges of the place, boxy Lego-type houses encroached from all sides.
I tried my best to make it homely for Mummy and I: shone the floors with eucalyptus oil, washed the curtains in lemon juice and rubbed white vinegar on the glass panes until they gleamed.
“Oh, these moist walls,” she’d declare. Or, “So draughty!” And she’d burrow into oversized cardigans and sweatshirts.
“If only,” she would sigh, staring out of the window at the garden.
I’d slam down my cloth, stomp out of the room. Not that she seemed to notice.
She trembles when she sees me as though afraid.
“I’ve come to take you home, Mummy.”
She’s grass-stalk thin and about as substantial. The skin on her face sags like melted candle wax, hair brittle as spun-sugar. She’s curled over in the wheelchair, a lone parenthesis around - what’s that she grips in her hand? - a plant. No, a flower. A pale pink camellia.
“Lovely,” I say, indicating the flower. “We can plant this in the garden.
She has the decency to look incredulous.
She’s silent on the drive back. I fill the void with small talk: apparently we’re in for a dry summer, the cost of fuel is rising again, no, the intervening past ten years haven’t been kind to either of us.
The grass rises to my waist - a ballgown of foliage that hides my scuffed shoes interspersed with the innocuous-looking fluff of dandelion clocks. There’s no path, nor a well-trodden route through the tangle, but I’ve stamped down enough of the springy weeds to get Mummy into the house. The wheelchair struggles over the terrain, but, panting, I finally get her to the front door.
Beyond the threshold, the drawing room is bathed in a soft pumpkin-hued light. A warm fire crackles in the grate. I’ve replaced the threadbare chairs with the plump sofa from my rented flat, and a chunky knitted throw hugs the bare floorboards.
Her mouth forms a little O.
We’d had variations on the same argument for nearly three years, but I suppose, that night, I pushed her too far.
“Gosh, I miss my friends in London,” she sighed as the city blinked on tv.
“You didn’t have to leave London.”
“I miss the sea too.”
“You didn’t have to leave there either,” I bit.
“Oh but they needed…”
I slammed my cup down. “They needed nothing. They used you. Flattered and cajoled you. Where are your invites eh? Or their visits here?”
“They’re just so busy…”
“They just don’t care.”
This was usually as far as we’d get into the argument. Mummy would cry, I’d sulk and in the morning, we’d nibble our toast as always. But that night, I went further.
“You are a foolish woman, Mummy. Vain and stupid. You deserve to have lost your houses.”
“Get out,” she whispered. Then she bellowed, “get out! I never want to see you again. Do you hear me?”
I packed a bag and left that night, but not before I stopped to blow the fluff from some of the dandelion clocks in the garden.
“Deal with your own weeds,” I huffed.
I did it just to be petty at first. Angry at Mummy and furious that I had lost my home, I came by the house every few months, plucked the dandelions by the stalks and blew. I enjoyed watching the feathery floss falling like little pilots leaping from their planes and engaging their parachutes for a gentle landing. I knew that they would find homes and press their tangled roots into the earth, refusing to let themselves be poisoned into oblivion.
The place became a jungle pretty quickly. I realised that my sisters would hate to be lumbered with a place like this, so I did it more often, raising a fluffy fortress around my silly mother.
The dandelions pushed their pantheric heads between the cracks in the path, stretched their roots into the drains and poked their leaves through spaces in the wall.
I didn’t stop at the garden. Rocks were thrown at tiles already clutching precariously to the roof, saltwater was sprayed onto hinges and pebbles cracked the ageing glass.
In short, I made the house as ugly as possible.
It’s a clear day with only the mildest hint of a breeze. I bundle Mummy into a cardigan and take her outside. She’s looking more like the Mummy of old, a corally blush playing on the apple of her cheeks.
She leans on my arm, blinking as we exit the house for the first time in weeks.
“I want to show you something.” I lead her into the tangle of weeds, treading carefully, crushing the stalks under my boot to create a path for her.
I hear her breathing heavily, though her lips wear the faintest hint of a smile.
I pull aside a curtain of grass to Grandma’s flower garden. Mummy gasps.
I haven’t yet removed the stalks of the wilting roses: shrivelled heads bowing like stooped old women. Nor have I taken away the bare poppy stems, petals shredded and fluttering in the breeze. But at the centre of the garden, I have planted Mummy’s pale camellia. And surrounding it, the ever resilient heather.
“Oh,” says Mummy. “Oh.”