“Milo! Have you seen my handbag?”
The deep rumbling that came from Irene’s teenage son’s bedroom seemed to indicate not.
Irene did not want to ask her husband, who had disappeared into the downstairs loo ten minutes ago, despite her continued pleas for him to use the upstairs facilities if it was a job that was going to take more than five. Duncan, ten years her senior, hated people conducting conversations through walls and doors. Irene had grown up with five siblings and was not quite as territorial.
Torn, glancing at the clock on the microwave, Irene drew in breath to interrogate Duncan, then let it out in a whistled sigh between her teeth. She looked under the kitchen table. Not there. She looked on the sofa, lifting up the cushions even though they didn’t appear to be concealing any tell-tale bulges.
“Are you nearly ready to go and visit grandma? We need to be leaving in five minutes!”
There was a grunt in reply, echoed by one in the toilet. Irene was unsure if the latter was directed at the matter in hand or in frustration at her bellowing, and didn’t care to know. Every couple of weeks they went through this same performance. Irene left her organisational skills at work. Her job as evidence technician with the local police force seemed to use all her mental faculties, meaning home life was always a blur of rushing around, looking for clean clothes to wear and discovering they’d run out of milk.
“Where is the sodding thing?” she muttered to herself, tapping a fist against her forehead, trying to retrace her steps.
“Mum, it’s up here!”
“Oh, thank god.” Irene jogged over to the foot of the stairs. Milo was standing at the top of them, her handbag slung rakishly over his shoulder.
“What do you think?” he asked. “Will it be a hit at London Fashion Week?”
“Just give it here.” On a better day she would have played along with the act, enjoying shaking off the gravity of her job and lowering herself to her son’s sense of humour, which always reminded her of the child this almost-man used to be. But she was prepping herself for visiting her mother at Sunny View Care Home, meaning her guts were already coiled tightly inside her and any game-playing mentality had to be locked away in the toy box that still existed at the foot of Milo’s bed.
Milo scrambled down the stairs (another thing that set Duncan’s blood rate rising) and handed the bag to his mother. She pecked him on the cheek and he wrinkled his nose in disgust, although his half-smile gave him away.
Irene knocked timidly on the toilet door. “Right, we’re off. I’ll pick us up some fish and chips for dinner later.”
Mother and son made their way out to the car.
They pulled up in silence to the care home’s small car park.
“Did you remember to bring your pictures to show granny?” Irene asked Milo, already guessing the answer.
“Ah sh---ugar, nah, they’re still at school.” Milo was a middling student but was beginning to show signs of being a skilled photographer. Irene liked his landscapes best, although Milo favoured urban exploration and graffiti. She just hoped he hadn’t broken into anywhere yet. She would never live that down at work.
“Never mind,” she consoled him. “She probably wouldn’t understand them anyway. We’ll bring them next time though. Maybe they’ll prompt her to talk less about the shadow people.”
They got out of the car, Irene pressing down on her key to lock it, and walked up to the front door, neither of them in a hurry now. Visiting Grandma Rose always sounded like a nice idea on paper. Irene wanted to do her daughterly duty. And she loved her mother. But that woman was becoming less of her mother on every visit, more like a patient in an asylum that had seen a picture of Rose and dressed up as her. Then talked incessantly about these ‘shadow people’, no matter how Irene tried to steer the conversation. It was the side effect of the medication that kept her tremors under control. The doctor had warned them. But Irene had so desperately wanted Rose to be able to do more for herself again she thought she would take the chance.
A plump nurse answered the door. Ann was one of Irene’s favourites, always bubbly despite the advances she received daily from the elderly residents and the jobs of what seemed like five people she had to do in eight hour shifts. “Ah, Irene, good to see you! And Milo too. Come in, come in, Rose is waiting for you.”
Irene and Milo scraped their shoes respectfully on the mat.
“She’s taking some sun at the moment on the back patio.” Ann’s tone was of delight. Forced cheeriness made simple choices like a resident wanting to sit outside a topic of celebration. Was it forced though, Irene wondered as she watched the back of Ann’s white uniform crinkle with her jostling movements as she guided them outdoors. Perhaps some people really did live for mopping up tea spillages and changing bedsheets? Irene was yet again humbled with admiration. She noted more bounce that usual in Milo’s stride too. He was probably glad to be getting away from the smell of bleach over urine and the fug of soup that clung to the care home’s main social space.
“Rose, look who’s come to see you. It’s your daughter and grandson.” Ann winked at Irene and patted her on the back, before she shuffled off again to answer the pull of an emergency cord.
“Hi Mum,” Irene said as she pulled out one of the wrought iron seats. Milo scraped his rather than attempting to lift it up, and she shot him a brief warning look. Rose was of the same school as her husband when it came to sudden noises.
Rose was looking glamorous in a pair of shades that concealed half her face. She had tilted her head towards her visitors but her mouth hadn’t moved from its puckered state.
“Ah, it’s you.” Rose twisted in her seat a little, but remained unsmiling. The shades made it difficult to discern any more of her mood.
“Hello grandma,” said Milo, making the old lady flinch a little.
“And you’ve brought the boy! Hardly a boy now, I suppose. Remind me of your age again, young Milo?”
“Fifteen. Well, sixteen in a month.”
“Is that so? My new friend Arnold over there was telling me he has a grandson about your age.”
Milo and his mother exchanged glances. They were alone in the garden.
“So, how have you been, mother?” was Irene’s attempt to change the topic.
“Oh fine dear, fine. They look after me so well here, you know.” She patted Irene’s arm with her veiny hand. Irene thought of all the potions on her dressing table at home to fight the onset of such appearances. An array of gleaming glass jars and expensive plastic pots. On Duncan’s side of the bedroom there was merely a little tray for him to put his spectacles and watch in.
“And such riveting company. You really must meet Arnold.”
Irene forgot that just because she couldn’t make out Rose’s eyes, it didn’t mean her own were concealed, and scrunched them up as an outlet for her inner frustration.
“Are you okay dear? Hope it’s not conjunctivitis again.”
Irene blinked. “I’m fine, Mum.”
“So when did you meet Arnold, grandma?”
Irene stifled a groan. She knew Milo had good intentions, but she’d warned him again and again not to encourage Rose in her hallucinations.
“He came in last week. Used to be a ship’s captain. Such wonderful tales he has, a life of true adventure.”
Milo umm-hummed in reply, trying to eke more small talk out of his grandma before she started as usual on how he ought to cut his hair.
“Unlike me. Stuck in this shabby care home, in a story rushed to meet deadline, here to remind people of the unconquerable march of death and getting in the way of your fish and chips.”
Irene and Milo both boggled. They hadn’t mentioned their dinner to Rose, although it was true it was their usual habit to get a takeaway after seeing her, a reward that was never described as such. And the rest? Pure gibberish.
“So, this Arnold?” asked Irene. “Please, tell us more about him.”