The frothed milk bubbles clung to the lip of her coffee cup as she drank down the last mouthful with resolve. Her empty suitcase lay on top of the walnut double-doored wardrobe upstairs in her room, south facing to the yellow tulip lawn. The bow-front curved glass of the double doors threw skewed reflections onto the floral covering of her made bed. Her clothes, visible through the panes of glass indicated the short stay she had planned. Her beige calf length winter coat with matching pea green silk scarf, three crisp cotton blouses, two lambswool sweaters and two wool dresses - one mauve and one grey. Three pairs of slacks hung there, neatly preserving the ironed crease front and back. The morning would be brisk. Stonily, she cleared up, then climbed the stairs and made her way into the guest bedroom. She tugged the case forward from above the wardrobe and began to pack, ready for her long drive home.
In the five years her daughter Marion had lived in Surrey, Barbara and George had made the trip every quarter and stayed for one week. Marion would also make trips down to Portsmouth, to the home where she was brought up. Marion and her husband Eric had bought the Gate House to Meadow Croft House for its rustic charm, surrounded in wilderness, a good- sized home for a gate lodge, it had been built in 1860 from locally fired brick. Gradually over time and with George now gone, at age seventy-five Barbara felt less inclined to visit. Wearied by time, she felt every year her age. She would make the trip to Marion’s but was glad it was just for one week.
For over a month the scourge of Coronavirus had been making headlines. On the evening that Barbara arrived, Eric came home from his hospital shift with news. After a week or two of conjecture, a lockdown was now imminent and immediate. The city was under siege – the enemy, Covid 19, invisible, menacing, on every street corner and in every Tube. Scenes of devastation were streamed from Lombardy, rows of coffins, battlefield triage - Death by lottery.
Marion had welcomed her mum, as always and had reassured her after the lockdown was announced, “Mum you’re welcome to stay, of course you’re always welcome”. The truth was the option for Barbara to return home did not really exist. What was Marion to do, pack up her mother’s car after one week? Send her to journey home alone - to her death? She was very welcome. She must stay and that was that. Barbara and Marion had a cool type of mother/daughter relationship where they both cared about the other but were not especially close. Marion never confided in Barbara and that was fine by her mother. Marion had been an only child. As she grew, she had longed for a companion perhaps a younger brother to care for. She’d teach him to read, they’d go net fishing together and their shared stories and friendship would last a lifetime. But it wasn’t to be and that was okay.
As she now packed for home, Barbara thought back over the night before. She hadn’t heard footsteps as yet this morning and assumed Marion and Eric were still asleep. The bright morning sun streamed beautifully in through the bedroom window as she listened to the wood pigeons in the young chestnut trees at the end of the garden. Last night had been a nightmare. The past five weeks had been one constant mounting struggle, looking back now.
Barbara had observed the lockdown rules to the letter, not leaving the house for five weeks except to walk just beyond the rear garden path. Nobody called and she phoned no one. Every headline and news bulletin seemed to warn the elderly of impending death. “Coronavirus has now reached almost every part of the world, the World Health Organisation says”, Sky News. The horror of the death toll – the number of cases in ICU - predicted death ratio to number of confirmed cases – the economic burden on the country. It was endless. Ratios, percentages, infection blackspots, bar charts. Barbara’s head was dizzy, swimming, brimming, not able to take much more. Her daily nap restored short lived calm. Yet there was a compulsion to go back for more bad news – an addiction, just like candy. Stepping away from the twenty- four hour news coverage was what she wanted and what Marion and Eric needed, but there was a pull. And they were all feeling the strain.
Her morning routine – radio on while dressing, “an eighteen year old is the youngest to die from Covid 19 in the UK as fatalities rise”- then fresh air in the garden, then breakfast. With age, Barbara depended more and more on routine for a happy existence. Lockdown with Marion and Eric felt like a constant tug away from her familiar home life. Everything in and around her own home formed part of her comfort. She neatly parked her car in exactly the same place each day, tucked against the kerb of her gravel drive, under the fine oak tree. Her reading glasses case were set parallel to the edge of her bedside locker. The nail brush on the soap dish placed beside her folded facecloth. Two small steamed potatoes with dinner. It bothered her a little when all that remained in the bag were large irregular shaped ones. She had to make do with them, but it itched at her routine.
Marion came in from the garden in the dewy evening. The nights were much longer now as the year stretched well into April. Still cold in the evenings and beautiful sunshine each day. Marion had cancelled their summer holiday to Praia de Carvoeiro earlier – she’d held out for weeks but finally it had to be done. She left the patio door partially open to replace the flat, dead air of the kitchen, with a stream of fresh night air. She looked behind her into the kitchen and sighed irritably. For the past seven nights Barbara had made large buttery pancakes served with sugar and lemon. It was George’s favorite supper and reminded Barbara of home. Marion silently despaired, “will we still be eating pancakes by the summer solstice?”
As Barbara slid pancake number five from the pan using the slotted turner, onto the warmed plate on the quartz island worktop, it brushed against Marion’s mustard coloured suede
handbag. A thumbprint sized oily circle formed. Marion’s eyes darkened and her throat tightened as redness crept across her face. Eric had bought her the bag at a street market in Barcelona while on holiday last summer. It felt as if something inside her snapped. “Mum, that’s it, I have to say something”, Marion began, raising her voice. “For weeks it’s been constant blaring news, meat and two veg dinners, ironed tea towels, dish clothes boiled in washing detergent. You are the guest here. Can’t you see that?”, she glared at Barbara. “It has to stop”. “What Marion, what has to stop? Don’t speak to me like that please”, responded her mother. Eric came downstairs and quietly paced outside in the hall. “No Mum, we’ve been patient, I’ve put up with you and your ways for weeks, but it’s all you, you, you”, she shouted. “I’m sorry Marion”, Barbara said. “I’ll be different. I’ll make a better effort”. “No. You can’t and you won’t”, Marion spat out the words.
Anger now flashed in Barbara’s eyes. “You’re a good one to talk about putting up, Marion, after all you put myself and George through”, she said quietly. Marion paused now, her eyes glazing over. “You know Marion, I’ve never recovered from that and I never will”, her mother continued. “Stop Mum, stop”, Marion called to her. “The sweetest angel that ever was born, she was”, Barbara continued. Marion gasped for breath, “don’t Mum, just don’t...please”. A fire had been relit inside Barbara, “Darling Elizabeth, if I could hold her in my arms one more time, just once”, she pined. “We’d have taken her, loved her like our own”. Marion stood at the kitchen door ashen-faced. Her lower jaw was frozen, speechless. In that moment she was transported back, back to waking from a nightmare, gasping. Trying to call out for help...but there were no words and nobody there to hear them.
Marion staggered from the kitchen, spent. Walking past Eric in a trance, she climbed the stairs and flopped down onto her bed. Knees held tight against her chin, she clung on, foetal. Nine years ago, she had tried counselling, briefly. Maybe it was the wrong therapy, or the wrong therapist, perhaps she’d been unlucky, either way it hadn’t worked. Since then she’d frozen that part of her life entirely. Eric hadn’t needed to know. She couldn’t face the pain of opening up to him. That part of her was gone, like a dead limb. It was her only way to cope. It was her only way to live. Warm tears streamed down her face silently, turning cold on her pillow.
Elizabeth had been her newborn baby girl. Her birthday would be soon, she was a May baby, the most beautiful month of the year. She’d named her Elizabeth May. She had taken most of her final year out of university and moved home to her parents’ house. Adoption was the plan. Marion would return to college the following year and finish her law degree, following in the footsteps of her father and her aunt and in time joining them in practice. She had to be strong, everyone said it, get through it and move on.
They kept the baby at home for two months before she was adopted by a suitable couple. They could offer her a childhood that Marion felt she could not. A garden playhouse and a swing set, birthday parties at the homes of her little friends, perhaps riding lessons as she got older, if that took her fancy. She remembered the drive from the hospital back to her parents’ countryside home outside Portsmouth, four days after the birth. As they drove along the tree lined country road towards their gate, in a way Marion felt as if she’d never been there before. She’d been there, but as her former self. It felt strangely different now with her newborn in the baby seat beside her, strapped in snugly with the rear seat belt. Elizabeth had a beautiful soft complexion. She remembered her best in her little blush pink hooded pram suit. It picked up the rose colour of her baby cheeks. The scent of her skin after lifting her from her baby bath endured, wrapped in a soft towel, ready for her feed.
Marion knew it had been a mistake to let Elizabeth go that day with the adoptive family. Baby Elizabeth belonged to her and she belonged with Elizabeth. She knew it on that day and had sensed that her mother felt the same. She’d cried for weeks and longed to nurse Elizabeth, knowing well how she would cry for home.
Marion hadn’t heard Eric come to bed that night. She must have fallen into a deep sleep, worn out. She didn’t feel anger towards her mother, just shock, exhausted shock. Eric needed to know, after all. During the night in half-consciousness she sensed Eric’s presence. “Everything will be okay Marion, don’t worry”, were his kind words. In the early morning she woke to the sound of morning birdsong and the wheels of a car on the cobbled driveway. Her mother had left. A note stuck through the front door brass knocker read, “Marion, it’s time I was gone. You need your life back. I’ll be in touch, Mum”.
Eric and Marion spent an hour in the dewy back garden, seated on a bench in their dressing gowns and slippers, sipping tea and chatting. All was not lost. All of nature was bright and new... and summer beckoned.
By Valerie McLoughlin