Jane had finally turned up. Audrey Winters had been waiting for her daughter to appear for seven days now, and had found herself staring at blurred passers-by through her net curtains, awaiting every shadow to turn in at her door. Since her fall, her daughter had begun to pop round more, and brought groceries and sometimes even stayed for a game of Gin Rummy. That was, until Alma arrived. When Audrey’s doctor informed of a home care worker coming round to look after her, she had not envisaged Jane taking off again quite so quickly. In retrospect, she thought, she should have known. She was becoming acutely aware that her fractured hip meant obligation, rather than concern, and sensed early on that Alma agreed.
‘You alright, Mum?’
Jane bustled in breathlessly with a cluster of Asda bags and marched right into Alma, who had been standing by the door. Audrey could have sworn she heard her hiss.
‘Oh sorry, love,’ Jane muttered to Alma, scanning her Hispanic skin and stern features, ignoring her furrowed brow. ‘Sorry I haven’t been round much Mum, everything’s been so hectic, spent the last few days with Fariz. He’s not doing well Mum, so I had to go round to see him, and I ended up staying for a few days… but you don’t mind, do you? You’d tell me if you needed me right?’ She dropped the bags and propped herself up onto Audrey’s bed, now conveniently placed in the living room, and waited for Alma to leave.
‘Is that your carer now, Mum? She seems… nice,’ spotting her mother’s recoiled expression. ‘She might not be the most friendly, but you want her out of the way, don’t you? You must be used to peace and quiet by now.’
It was true, Audrey Winters was a solitary woman in her old age. Her days were still and her habitat empty, if not for Coronation Street and the occasional Question Time crackling from her rusted brown television set. She was self-contained, accustomed to loneliness, having raised Jane and her brother unaided after losing Adam Winters to ghastly prostate cancer in the sixties. His passing had hit Audrey badly. She swallowed the death, and stopped speaking her worries, her words soon drying to a hush. Sometimes she would still wake in the dark and be weighted by grief. Though these days, Audrey realised, her carer had become the gasp of breath waking her, humiliation troubling her in the night-time.
Adam Winters reclined in the sanguine leather armchair in his study. Before every cigarette he would tap the tip on the chestnut arms, then ignite the flame on his zippo. He watched the smoke meet the ceiling and pool into the crevices by the wall, and dragged sharply on his Benson Full Strength. Once finished, he twisted the butt into the apricot ashtray and released a sigh as the glow waned to a hiss.
Smoke seeped into Audrey’s nostrils and tapped her awake. The smell of cigarette smoke brought her straight to the years of her lover, and weariness prayed his presence down the hall. Eyes open, the bedside wheelchair stole her back.
‘Alma!’ she grumbled. The croak of her own voice had startled her. She tried again.
After a moment, Alma ambled to the room. Between two fingertips, a lit Marlboro Red flicked ash to the Persian rug. Fury pricked at Audrey’s cheeks.
‘What?’ spoke Alma, the word rolling off her Spanish tongue with a bite.
‘I don’t smoke, Alma. No one can smoke in this house. You should have asked me!’ she sighed with disbelief. ‘Please smoke your cigarettes outside.’
Both women looked shocked at the firmness tinged in her voice. Audrey was almost proud. A slow burn spoilt Alma’s face as she seethed through clenched teeth, and turned for the hallway. Audrey called out and she glared back.
‘There’s ash on the carpet.’
Alma’s stare darted from Audrey to the baroque geranium rug, and sailed back to the hall as she curled her lip to a smirk. She sniggered. Audrey reddened with shame as her words were ignored.
During the ad break in Corrie, Audrey needed the toilet. She had been taunted by the wheelchair for twenty minutes, and dismissed the urge until she was desperate, still cursing herself for her slipped foot on the stairs. The scene had been replayed and reversed many times, the horror and the crunching of bone, but she could not let her foolishness go. Stupid old bat, she would chant in her head.
The wheels were parked out of reach, so Audrey needed help to her chair. Choking on pride she called out for Alma. Clangs of pots and pans were coming from the kitchen, but she failed to emerge – Audrey was certain she’d been ignored. How pitiful, she thought, her bladder now trembling and weak. Alma strolled through just in time.
The push to the bathroom was shrill in its silence. In a bid for an easier evening, Audrey gave in to the quiet.
‘I’m sorry for earlier. It was my fault, I hadn’t been clear with you,’ she reluctantly spoke. ‘I’d like for us to get past this.’ She posed the words as a question, glancing at Alma expectantly. She was stared back through dark eyes. Alma nodded faintly, bumping the wheels over the metal threshold of the bathroom and slamming the door between them. Relief trickled into the toilet bowl.
On the walk past the study, Alma saw red. Hurling her scrawny figure at the leather chair by the desk, she dragged its weight to the bathroom and obstructed the door. She switched off the light.
‘¡Pinche puta!’ she spat out to Audrey.
Inside the room, Audrey halted, alarmed. She scrambled to yank her slacks up. Heaving her throbbing hip to the seat, she lurched the wheelchair forward, and rattled the doorknob with weak force. The jammed door would not shift. Sickness washed through to her stomach and she screamed. Her voice grew hoarse with the strain. ‘Come back! Please…Please come back! I can’t be here. I can’t bear small spaces. Please let me out, Alma,’ she wept. ‘I’m sorry’ she repeated over and over, not sure what she was sorry for.
The room was dark at dusk, if not for a streak of florid seventies wallpaper lit up by the moon. Panic bred into fear and her heart went soaring towards her breastbone, flattening like a bird to a window. It slid limply into stomach acid. Her wails and begs had regressed Audrey to a childlike form, flustered and puffy eyed, sobbing to a door. The strength that bloomed inside her that day had wilted already.
Thirty minutes had passed. When Alma sauntered back to the bathroom and freed open the door, Audrey wheeled out deflated and numb. She chained her chin to the carpet and hid from her gaze.
Audrey lay still and awake through the night, watching beams of red and white car light dance across the room. By morning, shadows stained her under eyes. When Alma let herself in at 11, she listened as the tap ran into the kettle, the water soon bubbling, slowly surging to a crescendo. And then silence. She needed the toilet and she was terrified. The wheelchair was too far to reach, once again. Calling for Alma sickened her gut, and she knew Jane would not show up two days in a row. She’d laugh at her mum, the old dear, too anxious to be helped to the toilet! Humiliated, Audrey vowed to speak no sound of the earlier incident, burying it under the petunias in the garden.
Her bladder was bursting. Tears slipped from her eyes. She grabbed the handle of her handbag and threw it onto the wheelchair’s seat, looping it over the frame. Still holding the strap, she mustered her strength and tugged the chair near her. Shifting her body to the edge of her sunken mattress, she wrapped the chair’s arms with her wrinkled hands, pursing her lips as she propelled herself forward. Her lungs wheezed with regret as her foot lost the step, crying out as she collapsed to the floor.
She gaped in a stupor at the ceiling. Pain seared from her shattered hip as she began to panic, hearing footsteps rushing to the room.
‘No no no no! Not you!’ Audrey shrieked. Alma flung her head around the doorframe.
‘Oh my God, Audrey!’ Alma exclaimed, thrusting her hands in her pocket for her phone. Audrey looked away. Shame seeped through her body, leaking out to her clothing. Wet warmth pooled at her crotch. She jammed her eyes shut as her face burned red.