‘How about these Nan?’
My granddaughter extracts four or five tablecloths from the depths of the linen cupboard.
‘I don’t think I’ve seen you even use these.’
I can remember my baby sister Maisie embroidering those tablecloths, sitting on the big bed we shared with Edith, fantasising about the fabulous man she was going to marry. Two years later she was so proud hosting Stan and I to dinner at her new home with her young husband. Her table was beautiful, the tablecloth and napkins ironed and immaculate. We barely got to know Pat, five months after that dinner he would be at the bottom of a foreign ocean, entombed forever in a submarine. Maisie never remarried, never had children.
The tablecloths came to me eight years ago when the cancer finally took her.
‘They can go to good will sweetheart, unless you want them?’
‘No thanks Nana.’
Maisie’s embroidery disappears inside the already bulging garbage bag.
‘You’re doing great Nan.’
She rubs my arm, I know she means well and she’s a dear helping me clear my home like this, but right now, I want to hit her hand away. She’s no idea how well I’m doing, silly little thing. I can’t bear to look at the pile of things on the porch, that fool boyfriend of hers needs to load his pick up faster. Stan’s box with little draws is there. I can still see him sitting on the back steps, opening the little draws, removing the shoe polish, a soft rag, filthy with different colours, a rough brush and a soft brush, shoes lined up beside him. A Sunday night ritual in our home, a hang up from his time in the airforce.
Brad or Brandon or whoever he is finally picks up the box. I keep my back to the door, looking through a pile of dresses I haven’t worn in two decades. I hear the box shatter as he throws it in the back with the other bulky items headed for landfill.
‘Nan, you don’t need all these vases, can you choose just one?’
I won’t have a garden, so I won’t need the vases. Two of them were my mother’s, the big one Stan gave me for our third wedding anniversary, because I needed a vase for my hydrangeas, the matching pair was a gift from my grandchildren, and the pewter one was from my daughter, it had held the last bunch of flowers Stan ever gave me.
Another decision, which part of my life, my history to throw away?
‘I’ll take the pewter one with me, but sweetheart.’
Please, let the begging tone disappear from my voice.
‘These two cut glass ones were my mother’s, do you think maybe you and your sister might like them?’
‘Oh, Nan. I’d love it, thank you.’
I grab her hand and kiss the smooth, youthful skin, shaking it.
‘I need some air, I think I’ll just go out to the garden for a minute.’
I’ve lived in this house, this home, for 32 years and yet I don’t recognise the rooms I’m passing through. The shelves are empty, there are pale squares on the carpet where furniture once stood.
That circle was where our moon lamp stood. It was a souvenir from our first family holiday. We had taken the train with the two girls, they were six and four. They loved taking the train, two hours north to the seaside, we stayed in a cheap hotel, all in the one bed. Stan found this tall lamp in a curio shop by the pier and said it looked like the moon, he had to have it. We wrestled the fool thing home, juggling the girls, the bags and the lot on the train. The girls and I took a taxi home from the station, Stan walked with the lamp, it took him two hours to get home.
Stan’s moon lamp is now somewhere underneath his shoe shine box in Brandon’s pick up.
I feel older. I’m 92 but right now, being strong, ruthlessly culling my possessions, I feel ancient.
Thankfully there’s still a chair in the garden, I don’t think these old bones would be able to sit in Stan’s spot on the steps. I lower myself into the wrought iron chair. It’s uncomfortable, I don’t remember buying it, don’t even like it and of course, it’s one thing I haven’t been asked to get rid of yet.
My eyes close, I can feel the sun on my face, hear the sounds of my granddaughter moving through the house, putting things in boxes. For a second, just a second, I let my mind believe the sounds are really Stan, moving around the kitchen, making me a cup of tea.
‘Nan? Are you ok?’
‘I’m fine dear. What do you have there?’
‘It’s a box of things I cleared off that high shelf above the TV.’
She places the box on my lap so I can look through the contents and delete them from my life.
There’s a baby photo of my youngest, Carol is about three months old, an ashtray made by one of my grandchildren, neither Stan or I ever smoked, there’s another vase that used to belong to Maisie, a World’s Greatest Grandma coffee mug and a dictionary I was given by my father when I got the composition prize in sixth grade.
‘It can all go in Brandon’s pick up.’
I hand the box up to her and the contents slide forward.
Something slid from beneath the picture frame. A small square of burnt tile.
‘Wait, I want that.’
‘What? The picture of Aunty Carol?’
‘No, no! That.’
I grab the shard of tile and rub my thumb across its surface.
‘That? I just thought it was a piece of brick. You’re sure that’s what you want?’
I can smell cheap whiskey, feel my heart beating, my face hot.
‘Sweetheart, can you just throw away everything else in the linen cupboard? Keep anything you like, but just empty the rest.’
‘You ok out here Nana?’
‘I’m fine, I’m just going to sit out here for a little while.’
She heads into the house again. The little piece of tile sits heavily in my hand. I lift it and touch its cold surface to my cheek.
The smell of whiskey returns. I close my eyes, and wrap my fingers around the burnt tile, its sharp edges dig into my fingers.
Stan had been in France for two years, we’d been married for two years and seven months. I was a young bride, childless and had nothing to do. I baked, I gardened, I visited elderly relatives, I sewed, I comforted my widowed baby sister. I started a pottery class.
The potter was old, too old for the war, he must have been all of 42. His wife was a little older than me, but much younger than him. Isla. She was like no one in my life, then or since.
I was fascinated, mesmerised. Isla smoked cigarillos and wore feathers in her hair, not colourful dyed feathers from the milliner, but found feathers, from the park or the garden, twisted and twined through her dark blond hair.
Her fingernails were always paint stained, I never saw her paint or saw any artwork she may have created, but the paint beneath her fingernails changed colours, blue, red, orange.
She laughed, loudly. In this time of war, of seriousness and restraint, she was vibrant and exuberant.
She would visit while we war wives created practical plant pots, bird baths and vases. She would perch barefoot on the long workbench and quiz us about our lives, as fascinated by our existence as we were of hers, her husband would leave our little class and go to the dog track.
One afternoon I had remained behind, I was making a sundial for Maisie’s garden and was keen to see it when it emerged from the kiln.
Isla was present, smoking her cigarillo and swirling whiskey in a mug made by her husband. She had been asking about my sister, curious about this widow living alone.
‘She’s brave but I think she should take a lover.’
I was shocked, the breath flew from my body, my cheeks flamed with colour.
‘Not our Maisie, no, not our Maisie.’
Isla laughed loudly.
‘Oh Eileen, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to shock you!’
I took a tiny sip, the rough liquor burned my throat. I managed not to cough, but my eyes widened.
She smiled at me, indulgently, as if I were a child.
This time I laughed, not as loud as Isla had, but still, it had been a long time since I’d laughed so spontaneously.
We talked. We talked and laughed and drank cheap whiskey out of pottery mugs until the sun went down, after the sun went down. Time flew, my head grew light and my fingers numb.
The insistent ringing of a buzzer finally drew our attention, I’ve no idea how long it had been going. I came to my senses, such as was left of them, and turned off the kiln. When I turned back, intending to tell Isla I needed to go home, she was standing immediately behind me,
She leaned forward.
Her soft, soft lips touched mine. I froze.
Her lips moved, opened, opened mine.
Smoke, warmth, the taste of whiskey, my head spinning. And then space, fresh air. Isla’s smile.
I don’t know how I got home, but I awoke at the shameful hour of 9 the next morning. I needed to collect Maisie’s sundial, I’d promised it to her today and she had so much disappointment I couldn’t let her down.
Sheepishly I approached the studio. There was no sign of Isla, but the potter was working. When he saw me, his face fell. Oh God, he knows.
‘Eileen, I’m so sorry, your sundial, it exploded in the kiln.’
There was a pile of broken pottery, pots and mugs as well as remnants of my sundial, beside him.
I reach my hand forward, pick up a piece of tile. It’s scorched, burnt. I don’t know why, but I raise it to my cheek, my smooth, young cheek. It’s smooth. I turn my face and it smells smoky, of cigarillos and cheap whiskey. I close my fingers over the shard.
‘It’s ok, I don’t think Maisie really wanted a sundial anyway.’
The sharp edges of the shard cut into my fingers.
‘I don’t think I can come back anymore, but thank you ever so much for all your support. Your work is just beautiful.’
My granddaughter is in front of me. I look around the garden, I’m in my home again. Another farewell.
‘Brandon wants to take the pick up and empty it, are you ok?’
‘Yes, sweetheart. I’m ok.’
She has a bag of Christmas decorations in her hand, decorations made and collected over, I don’t know how many decades. I open my hand and look at the burnt tile resting on my palm.
‘I’ve got all I need.’