Alison's hand trembled as she reached towards the handle. She could do this. She could do this. Today was the day…
Earlier, running water into the chipped enamel bath, she’d mentally reviewed the plan. She was painfully aware that, for most people, leaving the house didn't need much of a plan, but ticking things off a list helped her stay focussed. As she lay in the bath, the perfumed bubbles rose and fell with her breathing. If she slipped below the water, she wondered, would anyone notice? How long would her body lay there, undiscovered? Did skin continue to wrinkle after death? If she'd added vinegar instead of the 'moisturising bath essence ’left over from a 3 for 2 Christmas set from Boots, would it afford some kind of preservation, or would she just pickle? She shuddered. Stop thinking like that. Tugging at the plug with her toes, she lay still as the bath drained, taking childish pleasure as a dam of water burst from between her buttocks when she finally sat up. Drying herself with a decades old towel, Alison dressed in the sensible clothes that made up her entire wardrobe. She supposed she could go wild now that she was no longer under the critical gaze of her mother, but somehow it seemed disloyal. Anyway, her clothes had years of wear left in them, and changing her look would mean a trip to the shops. One step at a time, Alison, one step at a time.
She could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she’d left the house since her mother's funeral. She always turned left at the gate and went to the local shop, fragrant with a heady mix of newsprint, body odour and pet food. She didn't need much. Just bread and milk. She was still ploughing through the tinned foods that had been their staple diet for years. But, after the card had dropped through her letterbox, she'd decided yesterday that tomorrow would be the day. Which meant of course that today was the day. She'd looked at her toast, curling, dog-eared on the plate, and thrown it into the bin, ignoring the inner ‘tut ’about wastefulness.
She re-read her list:
And now she stood, heart pounding, hands shaking, and a genuine fear that, while her bowels turned to water, her legs, despite their undoubted sturdiness, would fail her completely…
Life hadn’t always been like this. Lacking any grand ambition, she’d left school at sixteen and found a job at a local solicitor’s. She’d assumed that she'd eventually meet someone, get married, make a home, start a family. Until life caved in around her.
Popping home one lunchtime, having forgotten her sandwiches, she’d been puzzled by noises in the house. She knew her mother was visiting her aunt and her dad would be at work.
Nervously creeping upstairs, she'd pushed open the bedroom door…To this day, she could never un-see her father doing something that she didn't understand, to the man that she'd always known as Uncle Billy. She'd run from the house into the street. Leaning against a wall, she'd experienced her first panic attack. Paralysed, terrified, bewildered, she found herself unable to breathe. The deafening rush in her ears made it feel as if her head was going to explode. Passers-by, seeing her clutch her chest and sink to the floor, had called an ambulance. By the time she'd been checked over and allowed home, her father had left. Alison would never see him again. Unable to rationalise or, much less, talk about what she had witnessed, she'd held that confusing image in her mind. For years, it would return every time she closed her eyes, etched onto her retinas, fuelling her anxiety and feeding her compelling need to feel sheltered. Not from harm, exactly, more from betrayal and disappointment.
Her mother had withdrawn completely, devastated by a deception she could not and would not try to understand. She became increasingly needy and demanding, ringing Alison’s place of work three, four, five times a day, and weeping uncontrollably if Alison made plans for the evening. There were times when she would lock the door, hiding the keys so that her daughter was unable to leave the house.
It never occurred to Alison to persuade her mother to seek help and, as her mood swings and anxieties got worse, it became clear that she would have to leave her post at the solicitors to care for her. Alison didn’t think anything of it - it was simply her job to be with her mother and support her at a difficult time. She little knew how long this ‘difficult time ’was going to endure. She’d been almost eighteen, her mother, fifty-six.
Alison’s few friends tired of trying to persuade her to meet up, and it soon became just the two of them, living like old maids. Church on Sundays, walks in the park and occasional coach holidays to the South Coast. Her father had continued to support them financially and, by being frugal, they’d always managed. Alison heard vague rumours that he’d set up home with Billy in the next town, but she never dared reveal this to her mother. His name was never mentioned, and Christmas and birthday cards were thrown onto the fire, unopened.
Years passed, and Alison forgot she’d ever had another sort of life. As she aged, her mother became more and more difficult. She’d never been easy, but the passing years saw her treating her daughter more liked unpaid help than family. Her toxic criticisms lashed at Alison like a studded leather belt, leaving scars that would likely never heal. Even after the catastrophic stroke that had left her bedridden and completely dependent on others, she’d pinch Alison’s arm if she felt she was doing something wrong and, despite her limited verbal capacity, made it quite clear that carers from outside agencies were not welcome or necessary. The temptation Alison felt to help her ‘sleep ’with a few extra tablets ground up in her Complan was, at times, overwhelming.
When she had finally died, without any help or interference from Alison, the overriding emotion she’d felt was one of relief. No more being told she was useless, no more being blamed for her father leaving, no more living in a bubble of poison and vitriol.
After the funeral, alone in the house where she’d been born, Alison began to think about the life she had lost - the irony of twenty-five years being squandered on a woman who loathed waste. She had no-one. Her ‘friends ’had been her mother’s friends. She had no living relatives, save her ageing gay father, and there were times when felt it would have been better to have been buried alongside her mother. She realised she was probably in the throes of some sort of‘ mental health issue’, but the years spent alone with her mother left her bereft of any sense of worth. She didn’t feel she deserved help, and certainly didn’t want to waste her doctor’s time over something so trivial. She supposed her mother would tell her to pull herself together. But she wasn’t here any more. And what did ‘pulling yourself together ’mean, exactly? She wasn’t a jacket or cardigan that could be zipped up and fixed. Alongside these angry thoughts came a quieter realisation. It wasn’t her mother holding her back anymore, and could no longer be held responsible for the situation Alison found herself in. She was gone, and Alison knew that breaking free of the past was down to her and her alone.
Slowly, Alison began to feel stronger and wanted to prove to herself that she still had a life to live but, to her frustration, every time she tried, she failed. So far she’d attempted trips to the park, a church coffee morning and the doctor’s surgery. She could never turn right at the gate, always ending up back at the stupid local shop that smelt unpleasant and charged twice the price of anywhere else. Ignoring the ever-present voice from beyond the grave that told her she was useless, she would assure herself, ‘I’ll turn right tomorrow. It’ll be better tomorrow. ’But, for Alison, tomorrow never came.
Until today. Today was yesterday’s tomorrow, and yesterday’s tomorrow, she knew, had finally arrived.
And so it was that Alison stood in her hallway, shaking, looking again at the card that had dropped through her letter box:
‘Alison. Always know I am here for you if you need me. Dad’
She closed her eyes, opened the door and stepped across the threshold. She took a deep, calming breath, carefully considering how she was feeling. Reaching the gate, she quietly whispered under her breath, ‘So this is what tomorrow is like…’ and turned right.
Published in Issue #26