Mum’s sunken eyes reflect the altostratus Pen can’t seem to tear her gaze from. A cheerful white-aproned girl arrives at our window table, gripping notebook and pencil as if they’re about to wriggle out of her grasp.
‘What would you like?’ she asks, her smile bright enough to chastise the inclement weather.
Mum stares at nothing in particular and Pen, forcibly distracted from her interest in the nothing that is happening outside, smiles back.
‘Dover sole for me,’ she says, then addresses me.
‘What will she have? Not the fish, we don’t want her choking on a bone.’
‘Ask her,’ I say. Mum isn’t a child or a pet. And she isn’t absent.
‘She’s still in there,’ the nurse told us earlier, trying to be reassuring. But she doesn’t know mum as she was before, and the woman sitting across the table from me looks distorted, like looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror, except this isn’t fun.
It’s not just her clothes, although before she came into the home you wouldn’t have caught mum in a chunky zipped cardigan and sensible elasticated trousers. She likes her lace and pearl-buttoned cardi’s. Pinks and blues have given way to beiges and chocolates which either hide the stains, or at least don’t ruin the clothes when you try to get them out. Even her make-up looks wrong. The beautician has a set colour palette, but it’s less vibrant than the one mum used at home. She blends in with other occupants. Everything harmonises, nothing clashes. I’m sure it’s very peaceful.
Mum’s face is vacant, as if her body awaits the puppeteer who’s not quite good enough yet to convince us she is real. Pen scowls.
‘You could try to be more helpful,’ she says to me, then turning her attention to our waitress, ‘She’ll have the cottage pie.’
‘Do you want cottage pie, mum?’ I say loudly, stalling the scratch of pencil against paper. Mum’s eyelids flicker, but nothing else does.
‘You might prefer the pork fillet,’ I say, willing for some reaction, something to prove Pen wrong. I slide my hand under a wrinkled liver-spotted one, frozen in the position of someone who is learning to play a piano, as if they are holding an egg which mustn’t break. ‘Squeeze my hand mum, squeeze it if you want the cottage pie.’
There is no movement. Pen scoffs. ‘It’s not a séance,’ she chides. ‘One squeeze for yes, two for no. Anyhow, she won’t manage the pork, she can’t chew.’
I imagine gagging Pen and ignoring her futile efforts to plead for food. Ordering her beetroot (which she hates), whilst telling her how good it is for her. Mum isn’t helping herself. I set my teeth.
‘Mum,’ I say. I’m gentle, but she must sense the urgency in my voice.
‘You’re not listening to me,’ Pen is petulant, whining. I want her to shut up, go away, not be a witness to my failure. It’s like being back in primary school, made to feel foolish for getting the answer wrong, and heat starts to rise and expand until my face is burning.
I ignore Pen. I might as well not speak to anyone, but one of us needs to keep this conversation going, and all Pen knows is how to stop it.
‘The nurse said you had afternoon tea in the garden yesterday,’ she says to mum. ‘You enjoyed that, didn’t you? You like to go outside, don’t you?’ Pen has the same tone that I’ve heard her use towards her youngest grandson Jack, who’s only two. Ten years ago, mum would have put Pen in her place. Now she just stares, mouth half-open, vacant. If she is still in there, she’s hiding pretty well, because I can’t find her.
The waitress fidgets, her smile is fixed, and she’s doing a good job of cheerful-not-impatient-at-all. I take pity on her.
‘One Dover sole, one cottage pie and one lasagne,’ I say. I wish I could have found a better menu alternative, but Pen is right. Cottage pie is about the only thing mum will be able to manage. There is nothing on this menu to thrill, and I figure it is the least dangerous option for her, as lasagne is for me. The smells emanating from the kitchen suggest the cook doesn’t like to risk a hint of raw, and I do not like sloppy food.
Will I want to live like this in forty years? The thought sickens me – everything soggy-soft, blurred at the edges; overcooked cauliflower the prevailing perfume of the day. How will I feel being wrapped and swaddled like a baby? Should we have left mum here?
The thought of breaking her out is exciting. I picture Pen’s shocked face as I bundle mum out, into a taxi, shaking life and adventure back into her. This gesture of bravado would most likely break me. I’d save mum’s mind and lose my own. I couldn’t be a nurse 24/7. I want the fun, to be the naughty one – I can’t contemplate feeding, changing, bathing mum like a baby every day until she dies. There are some things a daughter shouldn’t be exposed to. It doesn’t bother Pen, but it bothers me. I don’t want to see her old, naked body. I don’t want to witness her vulnerable as a baby. I want her to fight the sickness, the patronage, the weakness of will, the cold, inexorable march of time. I want my mum, but I’m too much of an adult to explore that feeling; too independent, too wilful, too selfish. Mum used to call me all those things, Pen has ruthlessly followed in her footsteps.
Our dining table is beautifully laid with stainless steel cutlery from Sheffield, embroidered napkins, and sparkling glassware. You’d almost think this was a real restaurant. But the water glasses are the same Arcoroc we used to drink from at school lunchtime. Everything in this place is geared towards children; the building blocks, the sensory toys, the big piece jigsaws. There is a lump in my throat the size of the table tennis balls Pen used to slam across the table to me, back in the days when we argued as equals, before she became a prim and proper opinionated adult, and I just grew taller. I don’t fit in this place, where I’m expected to act like a grown-up, and tell mum and the nurses what’s best for her. As if mum’s relinquished her right to any sort of control over her life, and prohibited from making a decision for herself. I know mum would not want me to see her like this, living in this children’s playground. There is no dignity.
Our lunch arrives, and it’s worse than I feared. My lasagne congeals, a tepid colourless gloop on my plate, a solitary lettuce leaf lying limply beside it. Immense care has been taken to ensure I do not burn my tongue. I learn that the cook does not believe in salt, and appears to have forgotten the cheese for the cheese sauce. I’m glad I didn’t have the fish, which is drowning in a saucer of milk and accompanied by some slush which I think is meant to be mashed potato.
‘Would you like to feed her?’ Pen asks, as if offering a special treat. The thought makes me wince, the grotesque idea of mum being this overgrown baby fuels my desire to leave here as soon as I possibly can. How does Pen stand it? Now that lunch is in front of us, she’s no longer interested in the window, she’s smiling encouragingly at me, as if I’m going to be next. Or at the very least as if I’m supposed to participate in this monstrous charade.
I shake my head. Mum isn’t looking at me, so she won’t see my refusal, and if I don’t say anything she can’t hear it either. Pen takes up the challenge as I knew she would, and smears a small amount of cottage pie onto a teaspoon. I half expect her to make train noises during its journey between plate and mouth, but she doesn’t even ask mum to open wide.
The only part of mum widening is her eyes, at the dawning awareness of approaching food. She moves backwards, and I can’t blame her. The cottage pie looks no more appetising than our own food.
‘Come on, mum,’ Pen says as the spoon misses its target and makes contact with mum’s cheek. She sounds encouraging, but I detect a note of irritation under her placid manner. A care assistant rushes over.
‘Oh Clara, you’ve spilled your food again, you silly girl. Never mind, let’s get you cleared up,’ she says, sponging mum down with an inadequate tissue. ‘Do you want me to help?’ she says to Pen. ‘It’s a shame to let your dinner spoil.’
Bit late for that, I think, as Pen acquiesces. Pen doesn’t seem to notice anything wrong with her food, taking precise tiny bites and laying her cutlery down on her plate between mouthfuls. Pen has been on a diet for as long as I can remember. She hasn’t needed to for years, but I think she’s forgotten that she can eat less restrictively if she wants to. On the other hand it probably helps to have a diet mindset if you’re planning to stay to lunch with a resident. I push my fork around my plate, trying to flatten the lasagne and making it look as if I’ve eaten something. I clench my stomach in an attempt to quell its gurgling, and try not to think of the McDonald’s I’m going to pick myself up on the way home.
Mum’s head pitches forward, and the care assistant gently pulls her back.
‘She’s sleepy,’ she says. ‘I think I’ll take her for a little nap. Stay here and enjoy dinner.’
The wheels on mum’s chair squeak every few rotations, but soon she is out of earshot. My hands fidget under the table. What on earth am I going to speak to Pen about?
‘That was lovely,’ she says to the white-aproned girl who’s come to collect our plates. ‘Absolutely delicious.’
Pen has either lost her taste buds, or become an extremely accomplished actress. I mumble a ‘thank you,’ as the girl’s gaze flicked from me to my plate, and back to me again.
‘Was everything all right?’ she asks.
‘Perfect,’ I say. ‘Very filling. I’m sorry, I can’t manage it all.’
She doesn’t believe me, and eyes the leftovers as if I’ve pushed away an abandoned kitten.
‘I really couldn’t.’ I’m not lying. I really couldn’t eat any more here. It’s one of those places that will serve up steamed puddings so stodgy it’s like trying to chip concrete out of your dish, or ice-cream that’s melted before it leaves the freezer. I’m not a fussy eater, but I have my limits.
Pen refuses as well. ‘You’ll get me in trouble,’ she jokes with the girl and pats her stomach. ‘I have to watch my waistline.’
The girl nods in sympathy at Pen. Her disapproving look is reserved for me.
‘Tea or coffee?’
I dare not refuse. They can’t mess up coffee, surely. Pen agrees, and my feet tap a nervous dance as I wait for her next suggestion, which I’m sure is going to be something I will find difficult or uncomfortable or both, and I’m out of excuses.
Our coffee arrives, and I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s the nicest thing we’ve been given since we arrived. Pen stirs hers around and around, as if she’s trying to dig a hole in the bottom of her cup which she now seems unable to tear her gaze from. I’m fascinated by the mini whirlpool she’s created, and offer a soft cough – a reminder that I’m still here. Eyes resembling espresso shimmer in my direction. Pen’s tired. Pouches have replaced dark circles, something’s beating her down.
‘Are you okay?’ I’m not sure I want to know, but it seems the right thing to say.
‘Not really. I’m struggling. I can’t connect with mum, I don’t know how to talk to her.’
Pen’s always been self-assured, keeping me in check, taking the lead. I am lost for words, waiting for what is to come.
‘I wish I knew what to do. How are you coping? Do you get her to connect?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I try, but it doesn’t happen. I don’t think she knows we’re here.’
‘But the nurse said…’
‘That she’s still in there? Sorry Pen, I think they say that to make us feel better.’
Pen’s face clouds and my stomach flutters in shame. I shouldn’t say such things.
‘Maybe she’s shut herself off because she doesn’t like the way she’s treated.’
‘What do you mean?’ Pen is indignant. ‘The staff are lovely. She’s really well looked after.’
‘Come on Pen!’ The problem with my sister is she has no imagination. ‘Would you want to be treated like a five year old? Have you listened to yourself speak to her? How the staff speak to her? I think I’d shut myself down too.’
‘It reassures her. She understands she’s in a safe place, surrounded with people who love and support her.’
‘I don’t believe that.’ My chest tightens. ‘It’s patronising. Insulting.’
I don’t want to fight with Pen. I wish I hadn’t said anything. It’s not as if I can change the situation. Our voices are quiet, showing respect for where we are, but my thoughts are anything but, and if my eyes resemble hers, we might as well be at war.
‘No, I don’t suppose you do.’ She is half out of her chair, longing to leave as much as I am. ‘You wouldn’t want to be spoken to like that now, so you can’t see you might feel very differently one day. We don’t stay the same for ever, haven’t you realised that?’
I haven’t thought of it like that before. Could I be wrong? I can’t unhear Pen’s words, and I won’t be able to visit with the same confidence again.
‘I want her to fight back,’ I whisper.
‘I know you do. But she can’t.’ Pen’s hardness vanishes, and she holds a hand out to me. ‘Let’s go and say goodbye.’
My legs don’t want to move, but I push myself up and walk with Pen down the long corridor to mum’s room. She’s laying on her bed, but she’s not asleep, and she manages to focus as we stand beside her. There’s a glimpse of sun through the clouds.
‘My girls,’ she says, and I find her in that moment.