He was there at the end of the corridor in the near-dark, looking at me. Our old boxer. He’d got to his feet in slow jerks and now he trembled, half-covered by a layer of grey light that came in from the street.
The dog’s jaw hung down withhis tongue out loose, because the night was hot. It was the sort of heat that sticks your pyjama top to you like you’re melting. It brought the world in close and crowded because you felt the air sit snug against your sweat, and felt warmth in your mouth when you breathed.
The boxer had put his front legs far apart to keep steady, stocky stilts he was trying to balance on. He gave a heavy sigh and stared at me. He looked like my gran. I didn’t know what he wanted — he had water and I’d fed him after supper — but he still just stared. When he breathed, the sagging skin on either side of his mouth moved. Jowls, that’s what people called them.
My gran had jowls too. And she sat like that when we visited: her arms out straight, propping herself up in a thin, hunched pyramid on the hospital bed.
She was my mom’s mom, and no-one liked her. I knew this because everybody said they didn’t like her. People talked a lot, so I learnt about many things she’ddone:
They said she chased off my uncle Liam’s wife. Rosie swears she had a dog put down because she didn’t want it in the house. She got angry at my mother for having a fourth child. Gran had thought Mom would stop at three children, because the third one had finally been a boy. None of my mom’s friends said out loud that the argument had been about me, but I started school that year and had been able to count to four for quite some time.
We had to go visit Gran because she was in hospital. At first, lots and lots of people came with us. There wasn’t even space in the room for all of us, so we waited our turn outside like we were getting tickets for a ride. The queue got shorter each visit, and by the middle of the holidays it was just me and Mom who went every Sunday.
There wasn’t really a point to it, from what I could see. Gran didn’t remember people, not properly. She thought uncle Frank was fifteen and about to sail up to Port Alfred. She knew the date he went, from forty years ago, even when she didn’t remember that she’d had lunch so she rang the bell for her meal for half an hour while we visited.
Her bed was narrow and high off the ground. The side had metal rails that you could pull up so she wouldn’t fall out in the night. There was a bag hanging next to the bed –a tube came out of it and went into my gran’s hand.
On days when she noticed things around her, Gran hated all of it except for the string above her bed –it had a square handle like a little trapeze, and a nurse appeared each time she pulled it. This was the only thing she understood every weekend. I could see the nurses didn’t like it. Mom saw it too, because she gave a sympathetic smile each time one of them stuck their head round the door.
“She’s batty, really,” Mom said to Frank once, right in front of Gran. “She has no control, no memory and, well… she’s always had a vindictive side. No, you can’t pull that, Mom. Here it goes, now it’s out of the way.” She tucked the handle away behind the bed rail. My gran couldn’t get her arms back that far.
Mom told the story at supper that night. She got the look on my gran’s face just right – a pinched frown that didn’t change for ages. My brother snorted into his soup when he saw it. Mom laughed with the rest of them, but she stopped first, straightening up and filling her chest with air. Dad took her hand then and said sometimes all you can do is laugh.
One Saturday, Mom was trying to talk to Gran and I was sitting in the chair in the corner with a book. Gran looked at the ceiling, then at the wall. I bounced the backs of my shoes against my chair until Mom snapped, “Stop that,” and went to speak to the doctor.
The room was quiet. Gran called me “nurse”. I knew she was crazy then, like Dad said. Children aren’t nurses – they’re too young. But she looked at me and drew her shoulders up like she did when she was about to speak. She said, “I’m going to get away now. Pass me my things. Have you escaped before?”
“It’s me, Gran. It’s Richard.”
“I’m getting out now.” She lifted her hand – her arm was like cloth on sticks. Bone almost stuck out on either side of her wrist. She kept her arm up. It wavered, shook, and she made a strange sort of croak with her breath, again and again until I came over and took her hand.
I felt a dry lump sticking up between her thumb and finger: there was something growing there on the paper skin and I wanted to wash my hands. I didn’t let go, though – she was looking.
“Getmy suitcase,” she said. She didn’t blink. Could she still do that? The skin underneath her eyes hung down, showing wet lines of pink.
“Where’s the suitcase, Gran?”She wasn’t holding my hand – I was doing the holding when all that I wanted to do was let go.
“It’s under my bed. They won’t let me have it, Sister Duncan. They’re keeping me here.”
“I’m not Sister Duncan. I’m Richard, remember? I’m your grandson.” I gave a laugh to show I didn’t mind being called a girl. Gran watched me. She didn’t smile. Her lips were dry and her mouth was a little open. She never really closed it. You could see her tongue.
Her hand shook again. I didn’t want to feel that lump move, so I held her arm instead and then lowered it onto the bed. It sat on top of the duvet, too light to make any indentation.
She said, “I hate this place.”
“Mom says they look after you. I’ve just seen under the bed and there’s nothing there.”
Gran talked about her clothes – and types of toiletries I’d never heard of. Just when it seemed she didn’t need me in the room for the conversation, her eyes focused straight on me – there was no more confusion and no frown. She leant close and said, “It’s in the cupboard.”
The cupboard was big and full of towels and nightgowns. I felt all the way to the back, to show her I really was having a look, and I couldn’t find her get-away suitcase. By the time I turned back she had pushed her blankets aside and had gotten one leg to hang off the bed.
Her skin was creased down the side of her calf. It was all tiny, folded, multi-coloured spots with barely any space in between. She was staring intently at the floor, hunched over. There was a wet sound in her throat and her skin was loose off her face like the boxer’s. She seemed very far from the floor.
Then Gran looked me in the eye again like she saw me. I didn’t understand. Then I noticed her leg dropping further – she was sliding off. She’d break. Her eyes were so wide. So I ran and grabbed her, and I was trying to keep her up, about to collapse onto the tiles with her, when I heard a panicked, “Richard! You know you must call me when she tries to get out of bed.”
Mom hoisted Gran back into place. She covered her where the nightgown had slipped, and pulled the blanket up, saying gently, “No, Mom, stay in bed. Where do you think you’re going?”
Gran didn’t know where to put her hands, she didn’t stop moving her head. In a string of short frowns following fast on each other, she was sore, afraid, bewildered. My chest pulled tight while I watched.
I was doing homework in the living room when we got the phone call. We had the standing fan going all day, but everything you touched still heated up and became sticky. The world was small and hot: just the warmth underneath your t-shirt, the sweat under the hair against your forehead. Our dog had panted so slowly this morning that I’d tried to fit him in the fridge. Dad explained to me why that wasn’t a good ideaand we hosed him down outside instead. I was on the floor where I could see the boxer lying in a muddy patch of shade.
I listened to Mom. She spoke to the hospital people, and then to uncle Frank, and then to nearly everyone in her phonebook. Once she looked back at me over her shoulder before she said, “I don’t know if he understands. I’ll speak to him in a bit. Did Ryan tell you what she did the day before it happened?”
I knew we’d come here after the funeral like we had for Grandpa the year before. They’d all carry on and on about her, just like my Mom on the phone now. About a real witch who hurt people and argued and did things.
I frowned down at my hands, not really seeing my exercise book.
I didn’t want them to talk about her forgetting us, ringing that bell all the time, and the rest. Because then they were really speaking about her hanging eyes, that escape, that lump on her hand and all those spots. Because not even her own skin worked anymore at the end. They hadn’t seen how scared she was when she was falling. They hadn’t seen her get up in the bed and find out that that was as far as she could go.
Sitting on the couch, hearing my dad typing and my mom dialling another number, I could picture the church and the urn, and the tea afterwards. I saw them all in smart black suits and dresses, breathing hot breaths in this muggy room. They would stand here near the little fancy snacks on the tables, speaking in quiet voices, with small hearts that brought their worlds in close against them like the heat did, enjoying their stories about her.
How many of them knew that at the end she hadn’t been a witch who could hurt people, but something different? They had stopped visiting her. So they didn’t know the person who died. I didn’t know her either but I’d seen her, looking out of a body that had stopped being hers.
I made a plan. I didn’t know if I’d go through with it, butsitting there right then and thinking about it, I smiled a tight smile. I’d wait until everyone was in the room, fanning themselves with serviettes or side-plates or song sheets.
I’d wait until there was a real crowd round the fan.Then I would get Gran’s jar and tip her out into the airflow. She’d blow everywhere. I could see ash roll in a paste down people’s necks, I could see it stick in their hair.There would be shouting and running and shrieks – much better than all the talking.
Gran would have liked that, maybe even crazy Gran at the end. Just then my smile widened into a grin.