Copyright is held by the author. This is the second and final part of a two-part story. Read the first part here.
IT WAS a year or so later, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to relieve the monotony of our marriage, that George and I left England for Canada. Our first return visit was at the beginning of Ga’s illness. I remember going up to the West End with mother on another of her shopping sprees, and when we returned, exhausted after battling the sales, we must have been going on about the crowds.
“You’re complaining!” Ga said suddenly. “You don’t know what I’ve been through.”
We didn’t take any notice of him at first, until he repeated it a little later. But he wasn’t going to tell us any more until we bullied the story out of him.
It turned out quite simply that he’d had an accident. “Shit my pants,” he growled. “God, what a mess. Had to clear it up all by myself. Stank to high heaven. And all day I’ve been running there . . .”
“Why didn’t you get Beryl or George to help you?” I asked. “They were here.”
“Oh, Beryl . . . ”
“What did you do with your underclothes?” mother asked.
“Tried to wash them out. But they wouldn’t come clean, and I didn’t want to have my hands in all that mess. So I buried them in the garden.”
Mother looked at me and we both tried not to laugh.
“Just as well perhaps that we weren’t there,” she said to me later. “I don’t know I’d have had the stomach for it.”
On our next visit, over a year later, Ga was dying. He was bed-ridden, incontinent, and tearfully ashamed. With Beryl and George’s brothers’ wives all working, it ended up with myself looking after him a lot of the time. Mother — always the cheerful one of the family, never worrying about the things the rest constantly fussed over — just went to pieces. She couldn’t cope at all. And not because of grief, but because she couldn’t bear to look at him.
“You see,” she explained to me when it was all over, “after all these years of marriage I’ve never actually seen my husband naked.” She patted the wisp of hair across her forehead, then laughed as though she expected to be scolded for it: “You wouldn’t believe it, would you?”
“And what about . . .?” — I wasn’t sure of the word I should use — “Didn’t he ever, then?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Almost every night, until the last few years. It’s a wonder we haven’t more children than we have — being pregnant, though, when he never touched me, was the only time of rest. But always in the dark, grunting and groaning away, he was very passionate.” She went on: “Only I wished sometimes that . . .” She stopped. “I wondered sometimes what he looked like. But for me to take off his clothes, when he was ill . . .”
“Mother,” I said, “I’ve never asked you. About those letters you used to get?”
She smiled vaguely for a moment, then shook her head.
She lived for a number of years after that, although I saw her rarely. I had fallen in love with another man and felt guilty towards George’s family every time we went there because of the secret affair I was having. Mother died quite suddenly, and I recall being in that house — only Beryl lived there now — after the funeral, with a sense of not belonging, of wanting only to get back to my lover in Toronto. She had died in the living room, and it seemed to me that the smell of the grape hyacinths was there only to cover the smell of death: since then I can’t bear to have them anywhere near me.
It’s over two years now since Beryl died. In a nursing home on the south coast where, it seemed, she lived a life totally devoid of any interest in anything or anyone. She insisted that people go and see her, and then had nothing to say when they did, either pretended they weren’t there or managed to express a deep resentment towards them. Some 10 months before her death she’d tried to kill herself anyway, or so it was thought, simply by walking out to sea. She was found by some boys, lying in her soaked clothes among the rocks, and taken back to the nursing home. No one missed her, not even George it seems, despite all those times before our divorce of going back to England and having not just to visit Beryl, but to visit her first, before the other relatives. She mightn’t have liked it otherwise.
I dream of that family occasionally: in my nightmares I can’t escape the weight of the Holdaways’ terrible respectability.
I had been with mother the day the last letter arrived. She opened it and read it in the kitchen, something she’d never done before in front of me, while I silently lit the gas for the kettle, which she’d forgotten to do.
She read it and said nothing.
Then she went to the cupboard, unlocked it, and grabbed the first pair of shoes to fall on the floor. “I really should wear some of these . . .”
She put on the pair she’d taken — they were the ones we’d bought in Eastbourne, I think — and began walking round the house in them, admiring herself in each mirror she came to.
Beryl had seen them immediately when she came sniffing into the kitchen. “More shoes, mother?” she said scathingly. “However much do they all cost you?”
“Yes, more shoes,” Mother said defiantly, but she took them off and started to cry.