‘Goodbye, mother. Don’t come out.’ My daughter pauses in the doorway, stooping down to press her powdered cheek against my cheek. Then she takes her own daughter’s hand, and walks off. Neither one of them looks back. My sitting-room is like a prison cell: narrow and squalid. I expect my former husband would call this poetic justice. Pale light filters through the dirty window, coating the white sill and its row of dead bluebottles in a thin glaze. The flies are as stiff and odourless as dried flowers. Downstairs, in the communal lounge, the other Sunday visitors are probably still eating fruitcake, and fretting secretly about inheritance tax. My fellow residents always pretend not to notice the fretfulness. They have lived through wars, earthquakes, and famines: they can cope with a little bit of greed. When their relatives go home, they gather round the telly and try to out-boast each other. A grandson has joined the air force. A geat-niece is marrying a doctor. I got an invitation to the wedding, you know. It shows someone remembers. More to the point, it proves they still exist. My daughter only stayed for half an hour today. She sat in her usual chair – the ugly brown one – pretending to drink tea. They let me have a kettle here. They do not think there is much chance I will electrocute myself, or blow myself up. But my daughter made the tea herself. She is not so sure. ‘Sweetheart,’ she said, to the little girl in her lap. ‘Don’t you have something you want to ask Granny?’ Sweet heart. Who would call a child that? It sounds sugary and old-fashioned – like something men once said to women, before we got the vote. ‘I’m doing a project in school on the olden days,’ my granddaughter mumbled. ‘Mummy thought you might have some stuff to show me. She told me to ask.’ ‘Sweetheart,’ I say softly, now, easing myself down into the chair my daughter so recently vacated. The word is an experiment. A rehearsal. I know there are things I ought to clear up, before it gets too late. It was nothing personal, I will tell her. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be your mother. I didn’t want to be anyone’s mother. The photograph albums I showed my granddaughter this afternoon are still open on the floor, like carnage left over from a battle. ‘Garden fête,’ she read aloud, in her scratchy-record chant. ‘1971. Alimorn.’ She turned the page. ‘Christmas dance. Alimorn. 1973.’ Cut that out, I nearly told her. Instead, I took my glasses off, and pretended to rub them on my sleeve. I didn’t want to see those shadowy two-dimensional surfaces. My husband would be glaring out from under the ink, his eyes wide and appalled, his mouth forever open or else shut. ‘What’s Alimorn?’ said my granddaughter, looking up. 1974, I thought but did not say. Alimorn. Burnt. My daughter’s eyes had gone hard and narrow. They were the merciless eyes of a police officer. They were as cold as the eyes of a judge. ‘That’s enough,’ she decided. ‘Granny’s getting tired.’ Not true. Granny wasn’t tired, because she hadn’t looked. But now I pick up one of the albums from the carpet, wincing at the twinge in my back. I turn the pages with a tremulous hand, and sink into a world where the light is always hot and dusky, music arcs in bright ribbons, scents sparkle, hopes gleam. I can still hear the voices of the dancers, their wordless howl. Admire us! their bodies cry. We are so young! Oh, admire us while we are young! The last photo is of a girl with her head tilted away from the camera. Her hair is brown and long, her chin pointed. It’s possible she was in love. For a moment, the red flower of memory opens and closes inside me, darting its brief light. But I can no longer really be sure what she felt. By now the man is absence only; he is an eye behind a camera, an empty space. Even the half-turned girl is no longer black and white. Instead she’s sepia, a kind of speckled beige. The expression on her face is lost. My daughter brought a geranium with her today. It droops on the table next to me, in the fading daylight. She left it here as a guilt offering. For my guilt, not hers. As the evening shadows ooze across the floor, I adjust the pot, wobbling the lurid petals, the hairy stems. Does she think I can’t kill it? Does she believe I have forgotten how? She ought to know better, after four decades. She ought to have given up hope. It is a pleasant surprise, when I let go of the geranium, to discover that some of my energy has come back. Not much of it, but all I have the right to hope for, anymore. A sort of greyish trickle. I use it to carry the cups into the kitchenette and drop them in the sink. I won’t wash up until tomorrow. Why risk the effort? If I am dead before I want more tea, someone else can deal with the mess. I don’t mean to sound macabre. I’ve never liked doing the dishes. Now that I’m on my feet, I walk into the other room. I avert my eyes from the bed. Its tawdriness is repulsive even to me. The covers lie in a wrinkled heap, stained with hieroglyphic blotches I do not care to read. They come out of the communal laundry, twice a week. I have no choice about sleeping in them, but I can choose what not to know. I detest other people’s incontinence. And that is all that goes on, here, under the sheets. Switching on the light, I prop myself, gingerly, in front of the mirror. The girl in the photograph wouldn’t recognise herself. My brows are still plucked into an expression of surprise, but my skin is melting over my bones, sinking into the hollow spaces beneath my eyes. This is what I will look like in my coffin. I don’t mind the thought of dying. So many of my friends are underground. For a long time I have felt left out. But all the dead people I know have tombstones that extol their virtues. I do find myself wondering what my daughter will write on mine. When I set fire to Alimorn, I was the same age as she is now. Forty-one. I remember how hot it was, suddenly – that marble mausoleum of a house. I remember the colours running into one another, red and yellow and orange, as if a mad artist was mixing huge splodges of paint. My husband burnt to death in the library. I didn’t stay to watch, but I can guess how it was. His stomach fat bubbling. Pages of Plato and Virgil and all those other old farts popping and crackling around him. The roof started to collapse as I ran to the nursery. The geraniums on the mantelpiece were sizzling like fireworks. The curtains were blackening. And I was elated – I was ecstatic. Hot ash got in my hair as the man who had once taken my photograph helped me climb down from the window. I handed the baby to him first. I’m not a monster. The fire destroyed bricks, bones, evidence. For me it meant freedom. I left my three-year-old daughter to be brought up by my husband’s family, and I fled with my lover to Tuscany, home of gods and poets, artists and partisans. Sparrows nested in the holes they once shot arrows through. Everything was dirty, everything was green. Even now I can remember that vine-laced, olive-tiered countryside. It’s where I discovered the anarchy of appetite: the flat loaves of scorched bread, the soft white cheese that made me dream and dream. In Italy we were anonymous. One of those unnamed, historyless couples you pass on dark street corners, their feet among the trash cans, leaning back against a dirty brick wall. It doesn’t matter what city. It doesn’t matter what street. What matters is that I too have known that sense of abandon, unsubtle and exclusive. It comes back to me, now, out of the mirror. Her upwards-reaching arms, sly for the absolutism of possession. Mine. Don’t touch. Or lost, without will, like the girls rescued from burst rivers and hungry dragons, by men in visored armour. So much depending on the light. And him? That curve of his neck might look vulnerable, from certain angles. But he was a vampire: he was drinking her in. Well, it all ended long ago. I struggle to be sure it even happened, anymore. The one thing that’s stayed with me is the way he spoke. There was a language in his voice that had nothing to do with what he was saying. He had a rich, deep, subaltern drawl. His words themselves were harsh as knives. So that is what is left to me. A few romantic vowel sounds, and the unforgiving child I came back to, in the end, too late. On her way out of my room this afternoon, my daughter rubbed her hands on her skirt as if something unpleasant had stuck to them. ‘Give Granny a goodbye kiss,’ she said. My granddaughter looked at me with distaste. With horror, almost. I could see it in her eyes: that sense, as in public toilets, of not wanting to touch. Don’t worry, I nearly told her. I won’t be here much longer. That is perfectly true. The doctors say my heart is weak. I feel a sense of relief when I think about dying. I have nothing to fear, because I have nothing to lose. Although I do regret the barrenness of colour, at the end. Angina pectoris. It sounds like a sentence Virgil wrote. Once I would have wanted melodrama. I would have demanded blood, sticky and red, slashed across the veins of my wrist. Or a homemade noose, a skipping rope twisted twice around my neck. A gas oven. A light socket. And then – I’m not sure my daughter wants me dead just yet. She thinks my ghost will walk. She’ll plant geraniums above my grave. Goodbye, mother. Don’t come out.
Joanne Rush is an art critic, an award-winning short story writer, and a poet. Her work has been featured in anthologies such as Best British Stories and Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Lights On, and magazines including Tickle Lit and Diet Milk. She lives in Wiltshire, England, where she is putting the final touches to her debut novel – a tale of art, identity, and secrets.