Summer reissue: a prayer for a woman with dementia, this fictional piece by Cambridge writer Tracey Slaughter features in the new edition of Landfall.
First published 7 November 2020.
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She will forget the house. It will leave her one window at a time, breaking off in pieces of pine and lace and quartered glass. She will forget the feel of the rooms on her skin, the stir of their smell when she walked them. The cool of the hall which held the scent of sour fruit and locked mahogany, so her footprints couldn’t help but slow in its long, polished gloom. The sharp kitchen sunlight striking the steel bench with its rack of illuminated drips.
The froth of the laundry, the soapy fluff churned from the tub, her forearms chugging in their glisten. She’ll forget she could never get through the weekly scrub without a cheeky song. Something sudsy, because she felt spring-time, bubbly with showtune and get-go and sweat. The bugger of a wringer with its rubber cogs squealing, the slithery feed of shirts gushing into her bucket.
She’ll forget him, scragging boots off at the back door, a stompy, gruff dance on concrete steps, shovelling his coat pockets for tobacco and stray tools.
She’ll forget him saying hey up missus. Smoko. She’ll forget his dip, down into the pursed hair of her nape, her collar flustered, ooh leave off you. Forget his leathery sip. The roof of her mouth will forget their bedroom’s simmer of late afternoon dust.
She’ll forget the words. She’ll forget the name for the things her son stands in a jar by her bedside, ruffles of red that flag and bruise on their sticks. This new room is easily forgotten. It has never sunk in. It’s only the smudge of linoleum, a yard of grey flecks, wipeclean with loneliness. It’s only the grizzle of trolleys wheeled in to tip her head and rattle in pills. She’ll forget the use of the black balloon they strap and pump to her pulse rate. She will forget the numbers on the glass stem they slot in the woozy vowels of her dentures.
She’ll forget why they lever her over, a tutting struggle on the steel-bridged bed, why she’s sandbagged with white. She’ll forget how to work herself upright, except for wild starts in the night, when 3am seems to tug her wires, and she rumbles from her monitors, escapes a few muddled steps. Of course she’ll forget where she is, and the names of the people she meets in the nowheres she wanders to. Of course she will falter and two-step and turn and the loneliness will just stretch down new corridors, a grey route that empties in numberless doors through which she still remembers no one.
She’s forgotten her baby. She left him at the shops. Didn’t she? Had him swaddled, had him snug in his pram of peachy wool, had him drowsy with pavement-roll and dopey milk, had his snowflake bonnet on, had his plump chin shining in pleats of ribbon, the cleanest, chubbiest face of snuffled content you’d ever be likely to see, and she parked him in the shade, and she nuzzled at his thick vanilla sleep and she murmured Mumsie’s back in a trice my bub, and then she just popped into the butcher’s, just popped in a tick, it was honestly only three-shakes-of-a-lamb’s-tail, and then somehow, somehow she propped up her parcel like always in her astrakhan coat, cool with blood in its corded wrappings, and spongy with the comforting slouch of meat, and she marched with it all the way home, and her next-best heels on the pavement clapped a stout little singalong. She hummed, just in musing over putting the kettle on, just in portioning the pot with its few black feathers of tea. And then her nipple buzzed. The drizzle of what she’d forgotten burst out on her breast. And she dashed, she bolted, she raced back, a blat down the bricks, until the lane brought her up against the braked pram, its dark trunk hooded, its wide wheels glinting, and she stared down and down, slopping big tears into his snooze. She was the worst mother. Ever. But it was all right. The baby forgot.
One foot. What’s next? She will have forgotten. She’ll sway in her slippers in the ultraviolet. She will have forgotten her mouth is open, and oxygen and words spill down. Her neck is a tremor. Her voice comes out of it nothing like a hymn. Is it help or hello? Her tongue has forgotten. It blinks in and out of her pleading. The corridor throbs and splits four sealed grey ways and she shakes on its cross of clean roads. All she will want is to make her way back to her blue cell, to her crocheted crawlspace. But she’ll have forgotten which side of the world it is on.
She will forget the clock. It is lines on the moon. It is stones in a pool. She will remember, somewhere, a pool, for a second, and she will see herself, trailing a tide of pale hair, all slipped from its pins, which she knows is like silk to the boy she teases, which she knows is as good as a lure, which is golden and sultry and tugging at her scalp with her flounces of toying and leading him on, with whinnies of bad, so she takes him, on a dance at the end of her dangled mane, takes him off on a shimmery goosechase, through slashes of birch and stumble of fence, through breezy laughter and muddy romp, and they come to a pool, and she lets him brace her, his shivery length along her frock, at the water’s edge, she lets him cup her cool palm with the tilt of a good flat stone, and he teaches her to skim, and she remembers the scud of the pebble, its grazing rebound off the gleam. They forget the time. The hands they know about are under their seams, are urging at cloth. The hands they’ll remember are clammy, and paddling with heartbeats of want under heavy serge. The hands are making her dip and rise again, arc and lap and rise. She’ll forget the clock. She’ll forget what time her father wants her home.
It’s the music that doesn’t forget her. Where do they play it? Is she in church?
She will forget she never liked the carry-on of scripture, couldn’t stomach all its uppity fuss. She’s never liked the vicar who warbled and strutted around his pulpit, a finicky font of shalt nots. She’s never liked the disc she has to suck from his index, doesn’t like the goblet with its plasma slurp, his gown’s musty swish. She doesn’t like his crouch down to bless her, breath as bad as his flowery twaddle about sin. She doesn’t like the mortified picture of Christ tacked up in his loincloth, chickenskin white. She’s got no time for pomp. But she can’t fault the music. Against her better judgement, against her grudges, those notes press in, make her chest swell. Her breathing rears. Her wristbones hallelujah. And she’ll forget she’s an oldie in velour, forget she’s been tucked in with crochet squares. She’ll forget that the tune is being henpecked out on a keyboard of corny plastic watts, by a troop of godbotherers the likes of which she once used to dodge on her street with merry snorts of scorn. The bones in her feet know the tempo and bob in their pumps. The bridge nods her balding head. Her eyelids fill: Jesu.
Down at the base of her skull the siren has picked out the crossings of terror in her blood. The shelter, the shelter – she’s forgotten the way. And now the road hairpins, there’s billows of brick, the buildings making jagged shifts, the chapel coming at her in floes of stone. Out of its white side she watches the next hit blowing the blueprints of stainedglass God.
Where is the shelter? Where is it? Where? She should know – her father walked her, chanting, mapped it, over and over and over. But now there’s nothing where she should turn left, the landmarks crushed to haze. The shops are chalk. She calls his name, but her teeth are liquid. She takes unwieldy steps, fresh alleys scraped by fire, black girders, her shoes blunted with blood. Windows she recognises stretch their last gleam, then ignite. The pavement fishtails, breaks the grip of her feet, tips her face first into dust.
The bombs go off until all the world feels bloodshot.
When her father finds her, much later, there’s no talk between them. Their mouths brim with silt, their hearing numbed. Atoms still hang in the air in spasms trying to find the shapes they were blasted from. She stumbles with him home. She doesn’t question. They slip and blink. They pass what they have to. A man whose sleeves unspool into nothingness. A child tugging at the tongue of a boot, above the ankle his parent a load of smoke. She follows her father’s trudge.
She will forget they’re the lucky ones. Because her father never recovers.
He gets her home then he lies down and does not get up. He stays put, woundless and whole. He lies in his bed, what they’ve seen like a stone on his chest, his name carved cold. He dies of it. She watches him die of it. He dies of not being able to forget.
At night the walls of her room will be a bare screen for small things being forgotten. Willows over a plate, in blue shivers. Cockles dropped with soft clacks in a bucket. Pine needles picked from the staves of his boot. The scallop shell where he tapped his ash. The school gate swinging on its crisp hinge of lichen. The tongue of a scrabbling lamb, its warm-ribbed suckle.
White shirts breaching on the shrill back line. An east wind chiselling light through trees. Never enough to keep the film running, never enough to still a scene. She blinks and they’re watercolour. Tries to speak and they pass like dreams or breath. Her lids are a vanishing point.
The boat will move in her mind like forgetfulness. She won’t remember the sway of it there. She will forget the ache of it rolling, days lost to salt in the lurch of its tread. She’s left one world, split off from the wharf, and has no pictures to bring her the next one. What will the next world look like, and who will she be, standing fatherless in its fields? She seems to forget anything but the ocean – ocean rising in iron lines of swell, or sleek as glass in the wide landless glare. For nights she latches herself in her cabin, bolts herself away still dressed, her heels in their buckles, the sweat streaking into her coat – she won’t meet the alarm (which she knows must come, as sirens do, they always do) with indecent skin in the moonlight, a spectacle of bare limbs sunk. She lies down terrified, groomed and buttoned, waiting for the sure SOS. But the rock of the ocean speaks to her, enters her clothes, the blackwater rhythm of smooth and shock. She slips to the deck, a graceless stagger on boards. And finds that she loves it. The water moves like whiplash.
The wind laughs in her throat. Her hair blurs with stars. She raises her arms in the silky overhang of cloud, says the word starboard like it is beautiful.
She will forget the photographs he pins to the wall beside her bed. The faces in them will go out like lights, the trees and streets standing in the wash of past, nameless. Some days he will lift them from their thumbtacks, he’ll float them in figure eights above her gaze, Remember Mum, eh Mum, look, you remember. But she will forget the girl by the birdbath, her bulldog huddled to her gingham dress. She will forget the low stone wall with its slurry of muck, its gaggle of piglets, the child in giant galoshes who gives squealing chase. She’ll forget the man by the gangway, holding out the woven tropic nonsense of a hat, mock bandito, his grin in its tequila glaze, his fool shins sunburnt. She will forget the same man, stooping to mortar the base bricks of their house, shirt a white straggle poking from his back pocket, the sun working north along the bones of his spine, against the grain of his sweat (she’ll forget how much she loves each seam that liquid runs). She’ll forget the rolypoly woman with her Xmas tipple in her crêpe paper hat, laughing at the chit of the cracker joke until she topples off her chair, takes a rush of tinsel with her. She will forget the joke. She will forget the stitch on the blanket that the woman is rocking – shell, chain or crocodile? – forget the lullaby she’s humming down into the bundle’s drowsy face. Is it Danny Boy? He can’t remember either, as he pins the dark snuffed squares back to the wall.
She’ll forget the white rabbit. She’ll be out by the washline and flick up the catch to let the little thing out. She’ll be strapping out the heavy slumps of sheets to set their wet loads cracking in the northerly, and she’ll let the baby jumble around on his bum on the dewy grass to get to the lemons, scattered from the tree in dimpled thuds. She’ll let him suckle on their pocked yellow balls. She’ll shoo the rabbit closer to him just to make him gurgle, clapping his podgy hands at its flops. It’s the sheets, it’s the sheets that conceal it, the black and white bullet of the next-door’s dog. It comes in and out the sheets, their wet white banners, the bloody lightspeed launch of the dog, that hits the creature, flings it up, figure-eight, in a grisly snarling jolt. And the sheets will bluster her outstretched hands and coat her mouth and blanket her calls. And it won’t be until she beats to the end of their terrible flapping corridors that she knows what it is that runs wet in the dog’s manic growls, that she’ll know what is pinned and barbed in its muzzle. She’ll forget to bring the washing in. But in two days’ time she will refill the coop with a small bright bunny, a twin of bornagain fuzz. The baby forgets. The baby will never know the difference. Did she forget? She must have left the cage open again. The dogs have got to her memory.
She will forget her teeth. She will watch them in their blue cup of soak and not know they were ever hers, their pearly stained curve, their arches of caramel. What did she say with them? Who did she open them for, clicking through the puzzle of sounds, her tongue swishing the glyphs. She watches the bubbles that lift off the molars like syllables. The half-moon palate fizzed with translucence. A beaded vocabulary sizzling, and lost. Anyway, it will be easier to let go the words now she’s forgotten them. She can let them go soft. They can run off the edges. If her mouth can’t make them neither can her mind.
She’ll forget that he’s already gone. He was always getting ahead of her – into the bookies for a flutter, the pub for a pint and a yarn, down the wharf to-seea-man-about-a-dog. She could never keep up. And is that him now, hooting down the hall, with talk full of blarney, all smiles and tall-stories, roping everyone in with the scheme of his grin? She’ll forget supper, be dragging the kid by the hand to hunt him down, to smarten him up, talk sense, get him on the straight track home. But you can’t knock that grin, how he’ll nod fair enough, fall in step, turn his racket of charm on her and the boy, and he’ll canter them home, all cheek and malarkey, the kid a fool for his chuckles, smitten. And her no better: how can a woman be expected to fend that off, the wow of it? How can she store up the scores against him, the list of sorepoints and fibs and flaws? She’d dare any red-blooded woman to do it, faced with the dimpled no-good of that grin. She knows the moment she’ll give in – he’ll pledge to clean up, and he’ll hand her the razor. Kitchen chair straddled, he’ll cantilever back – into her fingers he’ll stretch his dark throat. He’ll say nothing, but hum as she grazes, philtrum, shadows, Adam’s apple, the blade in the soap a bristled hiss. She’ll forget it all. She’ll willingly forget.
The nurses are a side effect of forgetting. The face of one nurse slides into another. Their blue zip tunics and tough white shoes fill with ghost after efficient ghost. Even her son will forget their names. But he’ll say to the last one, as he’s hunched by the bed, there must be a word for this. And she’ll pause behind him, place a palm on his shoulder. No, she’ll say. Without a word for it, you can let it go. He won’t believe her but he’ll drop his head, let her voice in.
Repeating: in time, you’ll forget.
Kisses in the threshed barn, the itchy glow of hay. Catching her breath in his laboured clothes, his musk of pine and turpentine and honey. A picnic table at the foot of a gorge. The deep-fried rustle of fish and chips. Playtime, zipping her boy into his parka, the plastic crunch of old rain. Flax moving to the creek in fibrous whispers. Bathing the baby in the late afternoon, laying him out on his shawl to babble, her face above him teasing up squeals and kicks, his fingers waggling for ends of her stray hair – just let her remember this – wordless gurgles of love.