A short story by Clare Mackintosh
I knew she was dead. I’m not senile. Not yet.
But you can’t talk to someone for fifty years and break the habit straight away.
‘Cup of tea, love?’ I’d ask, letting the noise of the kettle fill the silence that followed.
I’d put on one of the soaps she always liked. Habit again, you know. I didn’t watch it myself: I looked at her chair instead. She spent a lot of time in that chair, watching Corrie.
The stairs had got too much for her in the end.
I helped her upstairs, for a few nights, but it hurt her, and upset us both.
‘I like it down here,’ she told me.
‘So do I,’ I said.
Even if we’d had the money, we’d have never got a stair lift into that tiny hall. And at the top, on the landing, where would all the boxes have gone? All around the house, they were, her collections. The dolls she bought at car boot sales, the piles of newspaper, the commemorative plates bought with the coupons from the Sunday supplements.
It wasn’t so bad, sleeping downstairs. What I missed in having Ivy next to me in bed, I gained from being able to look at her in her chair opposite mine. When she slept the lines round her eyes would relax, and I’d see the girl she used to be: before the new hips, and the blood pressure pills, and the stiff, arthritic hands.
It was the butcher who noticed.
Not the first week, but the second.
‘Mrs Harington alright, is she?’ he said.
One lamb chop instead of two, you see.
‘Just a bit off colour,’ I said, thinking it wasn’t so far from the truth.
I bought two the next week, and the week after that, and he didn’t ask again. I put the chops in the freezer and wondered what on earth I was going to do with them all.
Turned out I didn’t need to worry.
The council said ‘concerns had been raised’.
‘Concerns about what?’ I asked, but the woman with the ponytail didn’t answer. Looked instead at the flies that swarmed against the lounge window.
As soon as she caught a glimpse of my Ivy, that was that. She ran outside, clapped her hand over her mouth, bent over double by the drain at the side of the house.
‘How long has she been there?’ she said, and she couldn’t stop the shudder, even though she must have seen how it hurt me. She’s beautiful, my Ivy. Always has been. And now this girl, this officious council office junior, vomiting into the pansies.
She wouldn’t come back inside. She stood in the rain, on her mobile phone, taking furtive glances through the window. I held Ivy’s hand, so she wouldn’t be scared.
I didn’t watch them carry her out. Didn’t want to remember her like that, all laid out flat and shoved in the back of a hearse. In my head she’s young; twirling around at our wedding reception and trying out ‘Mrs Harington’ for size.
My ‘other half’, I used to say. What does that make me, now?
I lost count of how many people turned up that day. All in white paper suits and masks, like there’d been some sort of crime. None of them spoke to me, only her: the girl from the council, with the enthusiastic ponytail and the nose that wrinkled when she came close to me.
The bath had long since been filled with one of Ivy’s collections, but we kept ourselves clean enough. The kitchen sink had been good enough for us both when we were nippers, and I was still handy enough with an iron to keep myself turned out right.
‘You can’t stay here,’ said the girl from the council.
‘This is my house,’ I told her. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
And I didn’t. Not when the skip turned up, and they dumped Ivy’s chair in it (‘you can’t keep it, not now,’ they said). Not when they rifled through her collection of magazines, and tutted to each other as they cleared the kitchen of all our treasures.
‘It’s a health hazard,’ one of them said, holding up the desiccated remains of something that might once have been a mouse. I don’t know where he found it. I’ll admit the kitchen could have done with a tidy. But you could still get to the sink if you were careful and didn’t knock anything over.
It took them a week. They took the first skip away and brought in a second, and clapped themselves on the back as each room was emptied.
‘You’ll be able to sleep in your bed again!’ the girl from the council said. The others had taken off their facemasks, but she’d clung on to hers like her life depended on it.
I didn’t want to sleep in my bed. Why would I want to sleep there, without Ivy?
When the skips were full they brought in cleaners, bustling about with rubber gloves and replacing Ivy’s eau de cologne with Pledge. I sat in my chair as they worked around me, moving my legs for a vacuum cleaner so powerful it sucked the rug up along with the dirt.
‘Isn’t that better?’ said the girl from the council. She took off her mask and risked a quick sniff. ‘So much better!’ Her ponytail swung and she beamed at me, so clearly delighted I couldn’t bring myself to ask her why she was doing this. Wasn’t it enough that I’d lost Ivy?
‘Come upstairs,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you.’ She reached out to take my arm, then glanced at my sweater and changed her mind, flapping her hand towards the stairs instead.
The landing was empty, Ivy’s boxes of china gone, along with the bags of clothes she’d pick up from the charity shop to make into rag rugs. It seemed lighter upstairs, and when the girl flung open the door to the spare room her smile became even bigger, even more satisfied.
‘Lovely,’ I said, although in truth I couldn’t have told you what it was like before. It had been a while since we’d needed a guest room, and so Ivy’s collections had covered the bed, and – in time – the floor. Something had toppled over at some stage, making it impossible to open the door. We hadn’t worried too much.
‘Wait till you see your bedroom.'
We’d bought the house because of the bedroom. Because of the views over the field, and the window smack bang in the middle, which meant we could lie in bed and look out at the trees. It’s different now: of course it is, nothing can stay the same for all those years, can it? The room’s still lovely, though, with the wallpaper Ivy picked out all those years ago, and the quilt she made before her hands got too stiff. More than a year, it took her, stitch by stitch. Cutting out each square on the kitchen table, and spreading out the pattern on the floor by the fire. From time to time she’d prick her finger, wincing and sucking the blood before any more drops fell on the quilt. Over the years it acquired a few more marks: a smear of make-up, or a stray line from a pen as Ivy wrote Christmas cards in bed. Like the clothes she’d used to make each square, the marks charted our marriage; our lives together.
I’d forgotten the carpet was blue. Funny how your mind plays tricks on you. Threadbare, but blue, and undeniably clean. The curtains seemed lighter, too, and without Ivy’s hat collection on the shelves you could see the wallpaper. At least they hadn’t torn that down. I turned my head so the girl couldn’t see me sniffing the air, searching for something once so familiar I took it for granted. It wasn’t there.
On the bed, encased in plastic that crackled when I touched it, was our quilt. The colours brighter than they’d ever been, the stains steam-cleaned into submission. Not a trace of my Ivy.
‘It’s come up beautifully, hasn’t it?’ the girl said.
She can’t have been more than 25; no ring on her finger yet.
‘We’re not really supposed to, but it’s so lovely, and I know a brilliant dry-cleaner, and he promised to be so careful with it, so…’
She looked up at me; so confident she’d done the right thing.
She’ll learn. When she’s old, and her memories are tied up in boxes and bags stacked high in her loft, and every magazine, every piece of card is a snapshot of her life.
When her ‘other half’ leaves her barely whole. She’ll understand then.
‘You’ve done a grand job, love,’ I said to her. ‘I wouldn’t recognise the place.’
Clare Mackintosh's debut novel, I Let You Go, is published by Sphere.