There it is, on the porch, tucked beneath the wood storage. Rickety stool, one leg shorter than the rest, teetering on the edge. Tiptoes. Just out of reach but – there – untangled the string of the wind chime: its dull scrape of driftwood and hollow chimes: how the sea would sound if it could speak. It is too windy for them here, a crude cacophony interrupting my sleep. I will move them somewhere sheltered. Nails, I need. Some logs for the fire, too. Nights are closing in now, the chill seeping under the doors. Cold days. Colder nights. I will have to take the bus into town, the three-o clock one, yes. A busy day. Things to do.
The bus is crowded. A female driver. She waves away my pass, ‘I know who you are, Mrs Jones,’ knows my name – I’m getting old – too old. A family on the seat in front are eating sandwiches: smells of tuna and cucumber and cheese flood the space as they’re passed around. A toddler turns and looks at me, owl-eyed. We’re slowing down, the bus swaying. This is my stop. Is it? Yes: the square with the hanging baskets and the tulips, all reds and oranges, outside the supermarket. Bright lights inside, disorientating, too much choice. All in one shop. It was never like this, the greengrocer used to let you try the strawberries before you bought them. Where am I, which aisle? Nails. I need nails. And logs, hard to make out my scrawl on this paper. The signs swim above the aisles: bread, kitchen, hardware – there. Rows and rows of nails, I grab a small pack, still too many, they will go to waste. I only need a handful. A hand by my shoulder, a young man in red. Spotty face.
‘Are you looking for anything today, Miss?’ He works here.
‘Homefire heat logs, six-pack.’ The boy nods and studies the crumpled paper in my hand.
He says, ‘just down here,’ and is already walking away. He walks too fast, slightly ahead of me. He’s found the logs already, their bright blue packaging, those are the ones, yes.
‘…Carry them for you?’ No, no, I can manage. Only six. It is not far to the bus; there is life in me yet.
‘No, thank you.’ Logs heavy in my arms. His nametag at eye level: Jonathon.
Logs and nails, that’s everything. Now where is the till? This way? That? A far-off beeping to my left. I make my way, the bag knocking into my leg. Slow progress. I shuffle in line to a free space and my pack of nails rattle past on the conveyor and the girl packs everything into my hand trolley. She has bright blue hair, dark eyes, tells me ‘have a nice day,’ and something else, but I want to be going now. Time for home. I hurry down to the bus stop, sounds of shouting behind me, a male voice. There is too much noise here. It is quieter by the beach, only the slow whisper of the sea and my singing kettle. My bus pass – where is it? Digging through my pockets, my bag, but – no matter – ‘long time no see Mrs Jones,’ – the woman waves me onto the bus anyway.
The door is unlocked. Burgled? No, no – nothing knocked over, the house is clean, how I left it. It looks the same. My fault. Stupid. Stupid. That’s what age does do you: memory like a sieve. I will have to be more careful. It is too cold to be outside with hammers and old stools today, I’ll move the chimes tomorrow. Matches, where did I leave them? By the fire, yes, their usual place. I can’t get these hands to work. One match – two matches – broken. The flame burning my thumb, fumbling, dropped on the floor. There. Paper kindling turning brown to black to ash, crackle of the fire, earthy scent of wood. A cup of tea then, before bed, and some toast. Marmalade. My show should be on the telly. A note by the kettle: take your pills, yellow and two white ones before bed. Whilst I’m here. Bitter taste. I never liked taking pills, never could take them without water, had to force them down and spit them out when mum looked away. Painkillers, a broken leg, that was it! I was twelve, fell from a tree, winded on the ground and grass tickling my face.
The whistling of the kettle is filling the room, steam coming from the stove top. Has it been that long? Stiffness leaving my fingers around the hot mug and warmth creeping from the hearth to the corners of the room. Sealing me in. A weight off my bones and body, creaking like an old ship settling…my uncle had a ship. We travelled with him one summer: the lapping of the waves, salt water spray, swaying, swaying. Seagulls that shrieked and circled above, hungry for our ice cream cones. I could fall asleep in this chair, heavy headed. Awake – chin drooped against my chest…how long have I? The flames and television screen blurring together, like a dream…snatches of dialogue…I’ll rest my eyes for just a moment.
Cold. Where is the sheet? Fallen off again: moving too much in my sleep – no. Not in bed. Where am I? My heart is pounding in my chest. Where – don’t recognise – chair. In the armchair, I’ve fallen asleep in the living room again, with the buzz of static on the television. Daylight now. The fire has fizzled out and taken the warmth with it. I forgot to put the heating on, my neck and back won’t forget me sleeping in the chair for some time. The clock says it’s ten already. I never used to sleep this long, used to seize the day, quam minimum credula postero; always woke up before seven to make his breakfast, toast and marmalade, and wake the children for school. My one bit of silence and solitude in the day. Years ago. I could forget my own face now, still expecting the young and unwrinkled me to stare back from the mirror. Not this tired looking reflection beside a note reminding me to take my morning pills, yellow and white, twice a day; once more in the evening. I will have to get to work. No time to waste.
Back on the stool, as unsteady on its feet as me. I forgot the toll it takes on the arms, some years since I’ve had to do this kind of work, I always had Tomas to do it, or the kids. No matter. All the nails out now, rolling around my palm like something living. The chimes will be better on the other side of the house, out of the way of the wind. I only put them here so people could see them on the way in, hear them chime when they came to visit or when Leo or Sarah flung the door open, racing back from the beach in a game of Tig. Their sandy footprints across the floor. There is no need for that now, with only myself here. Can’t steady the nail to hammer it. Hard work. They don’t tell you how difficult it is to use your hands when you get old. TAP TAP – slip -TAP – there. Done. My deed for the day. It is only midday still; all the days are falling into one. What did I used to do with my time? Maybe I’ll go for a walk, it is a nice day for it. The air is stale, though: a storm coming, possibly? I will go whilst I can.
Forgotten my shoes. Silly me. They’re back in the house: I knew there was something missing. Rough sand between my toes, and seaweed, like the days when I would paddle in the shallow waves, barefoot and careless. The crackle and pop of the seaweed on driftwood bonfires. The smell of salt in the air. I won’t go much further. There are too many pebbles here, too many sharp shells. The rush of the waves almost seems to be speaking, or is it –
‘Hello?’ Behind me, ‘hello?’ Coming from the house, not the sea, a man’s voice. Waving from the porch, walking towards me, running now – who? Shoes in his hands. My shoes. ‘Looks like you could use these,’ he says, holding them out to me. Like he knows me. Does he? I don’t know him.
‘Who are you?’ There is nowhere to run, I am too slow to anyway. A curious play of emotions across his face, then nothing.
‘It’s me, Mum.’ Mum? No, no. Not my Leo, it can’t be. Can’t it? My Son, I would remember: my own child. Would I? What kind of mother…can’t trust myself – can’t trust this stranger.
‘You’re not…I don’t know you…’
He smiles sympathetically. ‘Come inside, mum, you’ll catch a cold again.’ Again. My mind is muddled, can’t seem to hold onto a single thought. Shoes shaken in front of me again. Grains of sand scraping between their fabric and my skin as I slide them on and follow him inside.
‘Have a sit down,’ he says, ‘cup of tea.’ Being guided into the armchair, the sound of spoons and cupboards clattering in the kitchen behind me. ‘They said this would start to happen more, but I was only here last week. Do you remember that?’
‘Last week? No, no, you don’t live – Leo lives in Australia now.’ He does. He does. I haven’t seen him since Christmas. Dinner on the porch, we all pulled crackers. ‘I’d remember.’
‘I know, Mum, it’s not your fault. I moved back for a while, to take care of you. I didn’t want to put you in a home.’
It is all too much. His hand resting on my knee. Looking to the side, looking uncomfortable. Have I done this to him? My own son? How many times? But – no, it’s not my Leo. Doesn’t look like him. I’d know. Light brown hair not dark. Taller. Harsher face. Leo has a tan since he moved, freckles and –
‘You don’t look like him.’ Panicking now, a strain on my heart. He’s shaking his head.
‘I’ve grown up, Mum, I’ve been away. You didn’t recognise me when I first came to visit,’ he smiles. A sad smile. ‘I didn’t know it had got this bad until then.’ His hand leaves my leg, he’s walking to the kitchen, pottering around in there. Walking back with a mug of tea: ‘here.’ I’ve taken it, reflexively. He watches me drink: burned my tongue a bit, it needs more milk. Some sugar.
‘I’ll come and see you tomorrow. I’m staying at the hotel if you need me.’ I nod, there is nothing else I can do, and he is making his way to the door.
How long have I been here? Woken by – what? – the spreading of something cold, wet. Tea spilled on my blouse, mug still in my hands. Lukewarm now. I need to stop falling asleep here, it is no good for me. The light is still on, but it is dark out and there is something – something I need to remember, but. Someone was here: that’s it: a stranger, he said he was Leo. Did I dream it?
The door is rattling in the wind again. From the window, the sea is a mass of darkness save from the churning white illuminated by the moon. Its light bleeding on to my desk, scattered papers, scattered thoughts. Something is wrong, missing. Out of place. What do I need? Pictures, yes, pictures of Leo. And Sarah and Tomas. Then I can make sure. There was one of all of them, here, on the desk. Wasn’t there? I’ve been wrong before. More and more lately, I don’t know what’s real, what to trust. I. My cheeks are wet, my fingers wet from touching my face. Tears.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Sunday. Milk delivered, it says on the calendar. No plans today. I’m missing my purse, it is not in my pockets or my bag. I want to tip the boy who delivers the milk. All my cards are inside it, my bus pass too. Sarah will be mad, she always worries about me losing it, not safe she says, stick to cash. She doesn’t like it when I go into town alone, she takes me to the shops on…when? Mondays, the calendar says, her handwriting, her name underlined next to Morrisons week after week after week. It saves you calling me so much when you forget, she always tells me. I mustn’t worry her. Where did I have my purse last, what day? Can’t seem to picture it. The purse I had as a girl was pale green: sequinned: my pride and joy. I carried my pocket money in it to the sweet shop, ten and twenty pence pieces, and spilled its contents out on the counter for packets of bon-bons in white paper bags. My stomach is rumbling. Have I eaten today? There is too much clutter in my house, in my mind. I will find it if I tidy, yes.
Someone is knocking at the door. I’m not expecting anyone. Maybe the milk boy coming for his two pounds, he doesn’t usually nag for it.
‘Hello! Only me.’ Only me is letting himself in. I recognise him. From yesterday (yesterday?). Yes.
‘Who are you?’ Too far from the phone, I can’t call anyone for help and it is too remote here to shout for any.
‘Leo, your Son. I said I’d drop by today.’ I don’t like this, this confusion. Tears are stinging at my eyes again.
‘No. No, you’re not him I have a picture – I can’t find it, I-’
‘We took them down, remember?’ No, no I don’t. ‘They were confusing you, I looked a lot older than you remember, like I do now. Sometimes you don’t remember me at all’
‘Sarah is in them, too. I remember Sarah, not you…not your face.’
‘Yes, of course you do, mum. But some days you just remember us as kids, like today. It’s okay.’ He motions for me to sit down. The room is shaking. Or my head. I don’t want to be here anymore, want him gone. I need my purse. It must be around somewhere, in a safe place, somewhere I’d remember. On my bedside table?
‘What are you looking for?’
‘My purse, I lost it. I want to see Sarah.’
‘Oh, why didn’t you say!’ He rummages in his pockets, ‘here, you gave it to me for safekeeping the other day.’ It is mine, yes, my purse. Don’t know what to say. ‘And Sarah’s away today, she didn’t tell you?’ No. Maybe she did, for all I know. Maybe. Leo. My Leo.
He relaxes, eases into a smile, ‘yes, Mum.’ How many times, this conversation? How do they cope with me, my own children?
‘It’s okay,’ he tells me. It’s not. I’m losing my life, little bits of it falling through the cracks: how long before I lose it all: before I lose Tomas lose Sarah lose Leo all over again? How long before I fall through the cracks?
Not fair. It’s not fair.
Nearly tea time: the large hand ticking past the five. He’s still here. Asking me all kinds of questions; jogging my memory. It helps, he says, like doing crosswords, it keeps your brain active. Let’s go for a walk – okay. Bracing cold wind on the beach, hair whipping in my face. His hair bedraggled. He’s had it cut, it used to blow in his eyes on days like this.
‘What was the name of that street you lived on when you were little, Mum? You used to talk about it a lot.’
‘I did? I didn’t live there long, I don’t – Rosemary Drive, I think it was. Yes.’
‘Yes, where you had the cat, what was its name?’
‘Cat? No, I never had a cat. A dog, it was…where are we going?’ Lost now. How did we get here? Narrow path in the long grass by the beach, where? –
‘We’re going for a walk.’
‘Oh, yes. Yes, of course. Where are we?’
‘Just past your house, Mum.’
‘Yes…yes.’ Past my house. Don’t recognise this place at all, couldn’t find my way back. This is further than I usually walk. Home, where is home?
‘And your parents, do you remember their names?’ My parents? Yes, lovely people, I miss them still, their names…what were their names?
‘I – their names, what were my parents’ names? I… don’t remember,’ don’t like this talking anymore, this walk. Like an interrogation. Like torture. My own parent’s names, what kind of child forgets? My parents. I loved them. I love them. The saddest days of my life when I lost them. We’ve stopped walking. A flash of something in his eyes, like anger. I’ve never seen that on him before, he was never an angry child. Is this what I’ve done? Forgotten my family, left them caring for me like a toddler? Made them angry? I want to go home.
‘What about their surnames. Your maiden name?’ He’s holding one of my wrists. Squeezing.
‘Stop. Please, enough of this – I…Wilson. That was my name. Dot Wilson, yes.’ I haven’t lost everything, still clinging onto bits of myself whilst the rest is washed away like sand with the tide. What will it leave me with? Scraps? Imprints like those the fossils make in the stones of the rock pools? He’s let go of my wrist now, apologising: he seems calmer. I don’t like this side of him. Let’s go back to the house, he says. Yes, let’s.
A slow trudge back through the sand, tension leaving my shoulders: there’s my house, in the distance. I know where I am now. Inside, he reaches for a biscuit. Peanut. He hates peanuts, always has.
‘You don’t like those,’ he looks up at me, confused. ‘The peanut ones.’
He smiles. ‘I do now.’ Can I trust my memory, these thoughts that are turning my family against me, turning me against them? Real or not real. Loves peanuts or hates them. Cat or dog, yellow pills and white pills. I stand, worrying a loose string on my jumper, as he walks to the bathroom. An obnoxious blaring pierces the silence. The phone ringing. Only telemarketers call this late, or Sarah. What day is it? No time to check the calendar, the shrill scream of the phone is echoing through the house. The receiver cold against my ear.
‘Hi, Mum, just checking in.’ Sarah: yes: she always calls on Sundays (Sunday today, then, it must be).
‘Yes, hello love, I’m fine thank you.’ There is rustling, she’s talking to the side, telling someone on her end to be quiet.
‘Do you want me to bring anything extra tomorrow?’
‘No, I’ll be fine, dear. Leo is here if I need anything.’ A moment of silence. I fiddle with the telephone wire.
‘Leo? Mum, he’s in Australia, I’ve told you before.’
‘Yes, but he’s visiting for a while. He’s here right now, somewhere.’
‘No, he’d have mentioned if he was coming over, Mum, are you okay?’
‘Of course, Sarah.’ Footsteps to my left. Leo leaning against the wall, his eyebrows furrowed, miming who is it? ‘Here he is now’
‘Shall I put him on?’
‘Mum, what-’ the dial tone in my ear, the phone hung back on the wall.
A hand –
Head hurts. Spots of light dancing around the-
Living room: yes: home. On the floor. Hurts to stand, the room is spinning. How did I – fall. Yes, I must have tripped, hit my head. Silly. Fear creeping up on me, dizzy like I haven’t eaten in days: something isn’t right. Have I taken my pills? That will be it. Silly. Tomas always chastised me for forgetting. He left me notes around the house and made sure I took them with a glass of orange juice and a digestive. I should take them now. In the bathroom, red and yellow, the note says. A cut on my temple, vivid in the light of the bathroom mirror. The small bumps of the scab under my fingertips.
The house needs tidying, clothes strewn out of the bedroom wardrobe and across the bed. Leo was staying here. Always so messy, he must have gone back to the hotel, yes. Hard work hanging all the clothes back up, my back isn’t what it used to be. Why would Leo have been in here? Maybe it was me, always losing something. I was probably looking for my purse or – yes, in the box with my valuables, where I always check, so much more worried about keeping things in the house now since Tomas passed. I will find whatever I was looking for there – but wait, where the box should be, I’m sure: empty space: not under any of the clothes, no. Where is my mind, my own mind? It is like living with another person sometimes, when I remember things. If I could hang onto a thought…what am I looking for?
A loud knocking, sending me to my feet too fast, a blood rush to my head. A man is shouting ‘Ma’am?’. Past the mess, through the doorway, struggling with the latch on the door. Sarah. A man beside her. Of course, here to take me out, it must be Monday. I’m not dressed yet, still in my dressing gown, she is early. But why is he here, this stranger, wearing a uniform: a police officer? Is Sarah okay, is there something the matter?
‘What’s the matter, love?’
‘Mum, thank God. Are you okay, did he do anything to you?’ Her voice in my ear as she hugs me. Confused: don’t know what’s happening. He? Who? Sarah keeps talking
‘-knew something was wrong as soon as you hung up, I called Leo, he’s still at home, Mum. In Australia. God, I can’t believe it.’
‘But he was just here, what are you talking about? Is Leo okay?’
‘Leo’s fine, Mum, he’s getting a plane to see you. That other man wasn’t Leo.’
‘A plane? What? I don’t – I.’
The officer touches my shoulder. ‘We believe he found your purse at the grocery store, Mrs Jones. An employee named Jonathon saw him take it from the cashier and claim to know you,’ he checks his notepad, ‘we’ve cancelled your credit cards, but we have no leads on his location, is there anything you can tell us about him?’ Too much to take in. Not Leo? I lost my purse but Leo, he found it. He had it for me. It didn’t look like Leo but – my memory – can’t trust it. He said was Leo, he said – I’d forgotten. Always forgetting things, people, faces; even Leo’s – my memory –
‘It’s okay if you can’t. Come on, sit down.’ Sarah’s voice is soft, and her hands, leading me to a chair. She’s buzzing round the kitchen now, boiling the kettle which bubbles over the low hum of her conversation with the officer. They keep glancing over at me. Talking about me like I’m not there. He’s wandering in and out of my rooms, looking at my things. I shrink smaller and smaller into my chair, can’t hold the hot mug Sarah offers me.
My hands are shaking. I don’t know what’s happening.
There’s a piece of paper on my bedside. Not my handwriting. Mum, it says. A list of bullet points: the man who was here was lying about being Leo, don’t worry, he was trying to get your bank details but as far as we know he has nothing, I’m in the spare room if you need me. Then, underneath, in a different coloured pen: Leo is here too – Sarah. I read it again for the first, for the second, the third time? Reliving the last few days in short bursts, grasping for what’s real. Bits and pieces, things half-remembered and some things brand new. All louder and more discordant than the wind chimes, the tangled wind chimes. Leo is here. Back from Australia.
The door is stiff, cold against my skin, it creaks as it opens. There: a figure standing with its back to me reading a newspaper against the kitchen counter. He turns around when I walk in, light brown floppy hair in his eyes, scrunched at the corner, his handsome smile, skin darker than it ever was living here in this damp corner of the world.
‘Hi, Mum,’ he says. Leo. Back home. Holding him to me tighter than when he got on the plane. He’s here, murmuring reassurances to my sorry’s and it’s you’s. I remember him, that face: my own face.
The real Leo. My Leo.