by Dina Segal
She stood alone in the wilting room, her back to a dented formica countertop. All the furniture was sagging and grey. Her single bed rested in the corner against a once-white wall, the drabness of years of headresting above her pillow matched the murky patch of wall surrounding the light switch. The linoleum floor was scratched and cracked. A faded cross stitch of a vase of flowers, once orange and cheery, hung dusty and listless. Her couch had holes in the maroon leather, cracks along the arms, patches of darkness and decay. Dull loops of fabric that once held the cushions in place now drooped underneath it. She tries not to sit there anymore, finds it difficult to get up, and once had to sit there for two hours in an endless cycle of struggling and then wheezing back defeated. Finally, a nurse had come in and helped her into bed, where she collapsed exhausted. She looked down her body, and then around the room, and she knew she was going to die.
She turned around to face the counter. Switched the kettle on by plugging the cord into the wall. She tried not to look at her flabby arm as she reached towards the shelf above the kettle. Next to the red box of Five Roses on the shelf was a saucer. Gripping the saucer in her fingers, she put it gently on the counter. On it sat a dry teabag which she put into a chipped mug. The kettle began to steam, as she reached up for the sugar bowl. It was full of different coloured sachets. Every time she has a cup of tea in the communal dining room she puts a sachet in her cracked leather handbag.
She had always known she was going to die. Sometimes thoughts of mortality were so overwhelming that she would have to close her eyes, force herself to think of other things. As a young child she had lain awake for hours, too scared to call for help, too scared to close her eyes. She had been taught in school that God had always existed, and that it was bad to even ask what had come before him. He was just always there in His Absolute Power. But what came before God? No, don’t think that, if you die with these thoughts you’ll be punished. But something had to have come first. What did the void look like? Stop stop stop thinking, what if you die, you’re going to have to answer to Someone.
But now it was real. No longer the nervous thoughts of a fraught child, a little innocent who didn’t realise how strong and young she was, as she easily climbed trees and fell out, ran wild in the enormous garden and jumped with ease onto any wall or countertop. She tore open a white sachet with red writing. Poured the white sugar into her mug. Watched the kettle steam. Why did it always take longer when she watched it? She picked up a dry rag off the countertop and began to swipe it back and forth, from mug to kettle, kettle to dreary wall.
She remembered the striped wallpaper of her childhood bedroom, how it livened the room. The two beds lying parallel, covered in cheery pink fabrics. She shared a room with her sister. They used to lie in bed at night and tell each other stories. Always in quiet whispers. They had giggled and whispered so innocently. They had shared everything once. Secrets and biscuits, dolls and desires. Her sister once been given a brand new white summer dress in the iciness of winter. Their mother had insisted her sister wait until summer to wear it, so cruel in child-time, so many hours of small victories and giant defeats until finally it was warm enough and the dress not longer fit the growing girl. So she got to have it. Her sister watched with green eyes and pigtails as she twirled around and the skirt flew out, like a princess. That lovely spotless tight little child, not realising the bumps and bashes and destruction ahead, that would sag her skin, stretch to stretchmarks, turn her heels to cracked stones, her feathery hair into dry grey string and her smooth hands into bags of wrinkles and spots, barely capable of lifting the smallest weight.
At least she doesn’t struggle with the two hundred and fifty millilitres of milk. When did they change from pints? She can’t remember. Her kitchen consists of the chipped counter, the kettle, the sugar, mugs and tea on the shelf above, and the swing-top dustbin below. And of course, the bottle of milk on the counter. She insists on keeping it. Hates powdered milk substitutes. But the milk goes off so quickly. She picked it up and unscrewed the blue top. Gripping the white plastic, she stuck her nose into the opening, sniffed.
She remembered her own grandparents from sixty years ago. How they had looked, how she had despised their feebleness. What were they like before time took away their vitality? Why did she only remember them in their dementia and frailty? Sometimes some well-meaning children came into the home, with their sparkly youngness, gleaming and certain like she once was. They glow with pride at their altruism. They surely spend the rest of the week aglow at their good deed of cheering up these ancient has-beens. They come in, these fresh unsullied daisies, and she knows they will end up like her. But they don’t, with their well-mannered disdain for the reality of humanity. They think they are invincible, as she once did, as her long-dead grandparents did. But she knows. If only they’d really listen, but they won’t. Her only value is as barometer for goodness in little girls and boys. Were they willing to give up an hour on a Sunday afternoon?
She tilted the milk bottle over the mug, spilling its whiteness over the waiting teabag and sugar. She always puts the milk, sugar and tea in first. Just like her mother did. Her mother loved tea. Loved making it in her favourite teacup. Drinking it on the stoep. A miraculous breeze ruffled the beige curtains. Somehow a determined gust of air had managed to find its way through the concrete tunnel. Her view consists of exposed plumbing pipes. She savoured the unfresh air, wondered why she didn’t savour freshness when she had had the chance.
The curtains ruffled again, and she heard footsteps squeak down the corridor outside. She can picture the worn sticky lino floors, cracked in places. She wonders about the footsteps. Could it be one of the carers, squeaking past in bright white rubber-soled shoes? All these sulky women in stiff clothes. They speak about her in front of her all the time. As if she’s stupid, or deaf. Or already dead. They call them carers, but she knows they don’t. She knows what they are really like. Barging into her room as they please. Pinching her if she doesn’t move fast enough. Speaking through gritted teeth.
She picked up one of her three teaspoons. It was slightly dented and scratched. Where had it come from? She didn’t remember buying it and wondered if it had had a previous owner. While she glared at someone else’s scratch on its handle, the footsteps moved past her room. Was she grateful, or sorry? She often daydreams about visitors, one single simple visitor, someone interested in hearing her stories. She has so many stories. She remembers her lovely childhood that sped past her like water through a cupped hand. Her wedding. She had been so nervous. She hardly knew Harry before their marriage. He had been charming and handsome. Their parents knew eachother well. He was a lot older than her. She was nervous because she had never been with a man. Her sister had hinted that it could hurt. What if he found her body ugly, like she sometimes did? She had to wear her sister’s dress. The war meant everyone was tightening their belts. What if he hated it? What if she looked cheap and stupid? What if it looked second hand? What would the people at the wedding think? Would they remember the dress?
The bubbling told her that the kettle had reached boiling point. She unplugged it from the wall. She had heard that you can get ones that switch off automatically. She strained with the weight of it, nervous of the steam. The kettle shook as she poured water into the mug. Boiling hot splashes speckled the formica. She put the kettle down and wiped the spots with her rag. It dampened in places. She picked up the teaspoon again and stirred the tea carefully. Watching the brown liquid swirl, she gripped the once new teaspoon between her fingers, and wondered at other hands that had also held it.
Her mother had told her that the dress looked beautiful, like it had been made for her. Her father’s face was so proud. Both dead now. Her sister wasting away in some similarly hopeless home. She had danced with Harry, his hand on her waist, so confident. So handsome. He had steered her impressively around the dance floor. His suit was black, and he had a satin waistcoat. She kept tripping on her hem. He had smiled indulgently. That was the end of her childhood.
She watched the tea stop swirling, and then pressed the teabag against the side of the cup with the spoon. Lifted the teabag with the spoon, and placed it on the blue saucer. Stretching her tired arm, she replaced the saucer on the counter, next to the red box. Is this her punishment for all her mistakes? Perhaps she has already died. Perhaps this is hell they scared her with, the terrorthreat used to keep her in line all those years of fear and compliance.
She picked up the chipped mug by its handle, careful not to touch its hot sides. She turned around and shuffled her slippers towards the miserable armchair. Carefully, eyes on the mug’s rim, she sat down. He body felt like it should have creaked. She sat in the armchair, her hands clawed around the mug, staring at the wall.