In the car on the way back to the house, Marina remarks on the difference in our demeanour towards Mother compared with that towards Dad. ‘You become smaller – like two little girls, waiting to be told off.’ I think about this later. It is a lifetime of holding our breath, watching Mother and waiting for the next explosion that has done this to us; the uncertainty of her moods, not knowing what it will be that will tip her over the edge this time. It is a lifetime of Being Good Girls. And that is not set to change any time soon.
We go back to our parents’ house and into our parents’ room, where Mother has forbidden anyone to go for months and months. It is covered in crumpled used tissues, unopened letters (mostly bills, alarmingly) and dirty clothes. A thick layer of dust sits on the mirror, dressing table and bookcase. Since Mother’s illness took its place at the helm, and then Dad’s came too and jostled for pole position, this house has veered violently off-course. This house, where Mother used to chant, ‘A place for everything, and everything in its place’, is all at sea.
I go to Dad’s study which, since his illness, has been a makeshift bedroom, a dumping ground for furniture that was in the way when the hospital bed came, and now, by the looks of it, is a recycling station for yet more unopened mail. I stand and look at the piles and piles of stuff on the sofa, table, desk and floor and feel crushed, as though I am now lying under it all, weighed down by paper. My sister has two small children. How will she be able to help sort through all this? And the Will and the funeral and the unpaid bills and the telling everyone and the death certificate and the finances and his possessions and his clothes. Oh God, his clothes.
I will have to do this. Me. Anna. The oldest child. I hear my cousin’s voice saying, as he did when we found out that Dad would not make it, ‘We are all relying on you now, Anna.’ Well you shouldn’t, I feel like saying to him now. Because I am not up to this. I am not grown-up enough. I am not strong enough. I am weak and small. Cold, tired, weak and small.
I go into the dining room and look at the hospital bed, the zimmer, the bed pan, the drugs. The paraphernalia of the end of days. This room used to be part of the sitting room. I remember the day we moved into this house. It was 1976. We had moved from a tiny two up/two down at the other end of town. I had never been in a house this big before. I ran round and round the empty rooms thinking, ‘This is my house! This is MY house!’
Mother wanted a dining room for entertaining, though, so the rooms were closed off, divided in two, creating a dark, formal room which I always hated. ‘Can’t we eat in the kitchen?’ I would ask, dreading the manners that were expected in the dining room, the ‘Sit up straight’, ‘Don’t scratch the table!’ ‘Don’t rock on your chair’, ‘Be a Good Girl!’
What I wouldn’t give for a big family meal around the table now. The last one we had was just before Dad went in for his amputation. In spite of the circumstances and Mother’s anxiety, it was jolly. I must remember that.
I turn away from the insurmountable task of clearing and sorting and instead I pick up the tattered address book from the shelf in the sitting room. I open the book at ‘A’ and run my finger over the names and numbers, some familiar from childhood, some not. And I begin the long, sad job of ringing round, bearing the news of Dad’s demise, receiving sympathy and consolation and answering questions about the funeral, taking advice about how to proceed and consoling others in my turn. The message from everyone is clear. ‘You can do this, Anna.’ As if I have a choice.
Of course I can do this, I think as I close the address book and draw breath. I have to. I am a Good Girl.