regret

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Cuckoo

Published May 20, 2021 by Naomi Rettig

I sit in my car chewing on nicotine gum and watching the mourners seep into the church. I don’t recognise anyone. Leaning back and closing my eyes, I toy with the idea of driving off somewhere else, anywhere else. My overnight bag is in the boot. I could. I wouldn’t be missed.

There’s a tap on the window. I open my eyes. Keith. My brother-in-law is attempting to smile, his face almost pressed against the glass. I stare at him and press the button. The window drifts down. His wobbly face twitches. It seems he doesn’t know whether to start talking while the barrier is lowering or wait.  He waits. I chew. The whir of the window stops.

‘Kate. Hello.’ He exhales, expelling the essence of peppermint and meat. Cheap sausages, I think.

‘Hello Keith.’ I don’t smile, hoping my sour face will encourage him away from my personal space. It doesn’t.

‘How are you?’

‘I’ve just driven six hours to come to my mother’s funeral in bank holiday traffic with a hangover.’

‘Oh. Yes.’ He straightens up and recedes from my window, fidgeting with his tie. ‘Are you coming in with us now?’ He glances across the car park to my sister and their two adolescents. It’s odd seeing her dressed in black. I only see her wearing florals, bright yellow, or tacky Christmas jumpers. Josh and Max are in matching black suits. One is tapping away on his phone. I think it’s Josh. They’re both the same height now.

I take out my gum, wrap it in a tissue, and pop it in my pocket. Keith hovers as I lock up then we walk across in silence.

‘Hello Kate.’ My sister smiles. It’s a tired smile. She looks old.

‘Jackie.’ I smile back, but I’m not sure it translates to my face. My Botox hasn’t had time to settle.

She takes a deep breath. ‘Let’s go in.’

The service is short. A brief history of Mum’s life accompanied by sniffing and snivelling from Jackie. Keith and the boys look like they’re waiting for a bus. Friends of Mum give their condolences to Jackie outside the church. I don’t think many of them know who I am. I’m a stranger. To everyone.

Jackie says thanks to the vicar then turns to me. ‘Do you want to follow us in the car to the wake?’

‘I’m going to give that a miss.’

Jackie’s face wrinkles. ‘Why? You’ve come all this way.’

‘Exactly. I’m tired from the drive. I’m just going to the house.’

‘Fine. Do what you want, you usually do.’ Jackie sighs. ‘I’ll call in later.’

‘I’ll probably be asleep.’ I walk off to my car, judgement smothering me.

I pull up outside Mum’s house. I see a curtain in the house opposite quiver as I lock the car. Nosey neighbours in their narrow semi-detached houses with their narrow semi-detached minds. Yes, it’s me, the bad daughter, the one that left and only comes back unwillingly for birthdays and Christmas.

Closing the front door, I drop my bag on the floor and stand still listening to the almost silent house. That bloody clock is ticking loudly. Leaving my bag in the hallway, I follow the noise of the clock into the lounge. Mum’s beige threadbare wingback chair is still shaped with the indentation of her. The burgundy walls are still depressing. The flowery curtains are still deciding what decade to fit into. I wander around the room, looking at all the cheap ornaments on display like I’m in a mundane museum. Photos in mismatched frames are everywhere. Most of them Jackie’s kids in various stages of growth. I stop at a picture of Jackie and me. We must be about ten. Linked arms, smiling on a beach. Morecombe, I think. We do look like twins. That was when I believed we were. About a year later, my nan told me I was adopted.

I sit on the sofa, taking the photo with me. I trace my finger over the two smiling girls with matching swimsuits and matching brown bobbed hair. Nan had told me not to tell anyone I knew. She said it would upset Mum too much. It hadn’t even been a real adoption. Apparently, while Mum was giving birth here in this house to Jackie, I was left on the doorstep. I often wonder how my life would have been different if, instead of Mum and Dad registering me as the twin to Jackie, they had handed me to the authorities. I knew Jackie was the favourite. I understood why. She was the golden child, and I was just a cuckoo.

I realise I’m crying. Not big ugly crying but tiny veins of tears trickling down my cheeks. ‘Oh, Mum.’ I say out loud to her chair. ‘Why didn’t I tell you that I knew? Why didn’t you tell me?’

The clock ticks. That bloody clock. I discard the photo frame on the sofa and wipe my face with the tissue in my pocket. I forgot I wrapped my gum in there and proceed to wipe it over my eyes. ‘Shit.’ Removing gum from my eyelashes, I stride over to the clock, remove the batteries and fling them to the floor. ‘Shit, shit, shit!’

‘I never liked that clock either.’ A voice says quietly behind me.

I reel around. ‘Jackie! Why aren’t you at the wake?’

‘I went, but it didn’t seem right that you were here alone.’ Jackie puts her handbag onto the armchair by the door.

‘I’m fine. You can go back if you want to.’

‘You don’t look fine, and I don’t want to.’ Jackie picks the batteries up from the floor. ‘I don’t think Mum liked the clock either.’

‘Then she should have got rid of it.’

Jackie places the batteries on the mantelpiece next to the now muted mahogany clock. ‘Think she felt a duty to Nana Babs to keep it.’

‘How ridiculous.’

Jackie nods. ‘How long are you going to stay here? You can stay with us next door if you’d feel more comfortable.’

I’d feel more comfortable on a bed of nails in the middle of a motorway. ‘I’m fine here. I’m going back home tomorrow.’

‘Oh. I was hoping you’d stay longer.’ She sits on the sofa staring at her hands and then erupts into tears.

I freeze. No automatic instincts kick in. Does she want me to console her? Give her some space? Say something meaningful? I opt for sitting next to her and placing my hand on her back. She still sobs but is now more subdued. I awkwardly stroke her back. We sit with my silence and her soft sobbing. I feel tears formulating in my eyes. I swallow them down. One of us has to be in control.

Jackie wipes her eyes and takes a deep breath. ‘I miss you.’

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.

She takes another gulp of air and sniffs. ‘With Dad and Mum both gone, I’m frightened you’ll disappear from my life and leave me too.’

‘You have Keith and your boys. You’re not alone.’ Unlike me. My hand is static on her back. I remove it.

‘But you’re family too. We grew up together.’

One of those statements is true.

Jackie turns slightly towards me. ‘I know we haven’t been close since you left. I know why. But I’d really like us to build bridges.’

My hands clasp themselves like magnets. ‘You know?’

‘Yes.’ Jackie nods. ‘Mum told me.’

My chest feels like my lungs have been punctured. ‘Mum told you but didn’t have the decency to tell me?’

Jackie frowns slightly. ‘I guess she thought it was more relevant to me.’

‘Wow!’ I lean forward, desperate not to faint.

‘Mum told me not to tell anyone, but I thought you knew somehow when you moved away and didn’t keep in touch.’

I focus on the swirly brown carpet. My stomach feels like it’s trying to replicate it. Or decorate it. ‘Nana Babs told me.’ I swallow down bile. ‘And also told me not to tell anyone.’

‘I wish I’d said something to you before now. This secret has been eating away at me.’ Jackie reaches across to her bag and extracts a tissue.  ‘I’ve felt such an imposter around you whenever you came to visit.’ She blows her nose. ‘A cuckoo in your nest.’

I sit up. ‘A cuckoo in my nest?’

‘Yes. I know Mum favoured me a lot of the time, but I think that was because of me being abandoned like that, and selfishly I accepted it. And now I’m so sorry because it pushed you away.’

My heart accelerates like a cheetah chasing an antelope. ‘What do you mean you abandoned like that?’

Jackie stops looking at the awful carpet and turns her focus to me. ‘Did Nana Babs not tell you the full story? I was left on the doorstep. Here.’

I take deep breaths. I don’t want one of my panic attacks right now. ‘But it was me on the doorstep.’

Jackie stares at me, her eyes wide and wild. ‘No. Nana got that wrong. I was the doorstep baby.’ She reaches out and grips my hand. ‘You thought it was you?’

‘Yes.’ My speech feels weighted with granite. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Mum and Dad were both O blood groups, but I’m type A. That means they couldn’t be my biological parents.’

I feel Jackie squeeze my hand. A spike of emotions rips through my entire body. I implode and spew out a strangled shriek accompanied by a torrent of tears.

Jackie hugs me and cries too. We sit entwined in grief for what feels like hours but is merely minutes.

Jackie releases her embrace and reaches for more tissue in her bag. She hands one to me and frowns. ‘You’ve got something sticky in your eyelashes.’

I laugh. ‘Oh, nicotine gum.’ I take the tissue and pick out the remaining gum.

Jackie wipes her eyes. ‘I can’t believe you’ve spent all these years thinking you were adopted.’

I finish picking at my eyelashes, satisfied all the gum is out.

‘Why do you think we bought the house next door to Mum?’

I shrug.

‘Because I felt an obligation to stay close and look after her. She took me in and treated me as her own. In fact, better than her own. I felt that I owed her.’

I shake my head, still processing. ‘Meanwhile, I ran away like a selfish brat. Resentful to you for being the perfect daughter with your perfect husband and your perfect kids.’

‘Ha!’ Jackie sinks back into the sofa. ‘Keith thinks he’s romantic if he changes his underwear every day, and the boys are obnoxious ungrateful ignorant teens right now. You have it right with your high flying career and luxury apartment in the city.’

I laugh and flop back into the sofa too. ‘What? My boringly glamorous head of accountancy job and my microwave meals for one. I haven’t even got a cat.’

We sit in comfortable silence in the uncomfortable room. I close my eyes and almost doze off.

‘Why don’t you stay longer?’

‘I guess I could work from here for a few days.’

‘You could always move in here. Permanently.’

I open my eyes and tilt my head towards Jackie. ‘That’s quite a big decision.’

‘I know.’ She nods, then leans back, closing her eyes. ‘Just want you to know that I’d like it if you lived closer.’

I lean back and close my eyes again too. ‘Would Keith letch at me over the fence if I was sunbathing in a bikini?’

‘Probably.’

‘Would the boys get on my nerves with their noisy music over the fence?

‘Probably.’

I peep across at her. She’s still got her eyes closed and is smiling. ‘Can we burn the clock?’

Eyes still shut, her smile expands. ‘Definitely.’

My smile twins with hers. My heart rate reconciles itself.

The Hair Slide

Published November 28, 2020 by Naomi Rettig

Monica wasn’t superstitious but she knew that her day wasn’t going to run smoothly for a Friday 13th. Having dropped her breakfast, peanut butter on toast, on the floor to be devoured by Jinx the Labrador, catching her finger in the kitchen cupboard, and tripping over a conker on the path outside her house, work at Craven Care Home wasn’t much of an improvement.

‘I’m not sitting by her, she’s a thief.’ Olive’s bony hands rattled her walking frame as she came to a standstill next to the dining table.

Beryl, seated at the table, shook her mop of grey hair. ‘The cheek of her! She’s the thief and a liar!’

‘Ladies please.’ Monica, already used to playing referee to these two after only a few days, was finding it particularly tiresome today. She’d only been on shift for a few hours and was already counting down to being home alone Jinx. ‘Let’s be nice.’

‘I’m not eating with her. I’d rather starve,’ said Olive.

‘Go on then,’ said Beryl. ‘Starve to death.’

Monica was frustrated that these grown up women were acting like toddlers. ‘Mrs McQuillan, come and sit over here.’

She steered Olive towards a table on the opposite side of the dining room and helped her to sit down, placing the walking frame by the side, like a playpen barrier. The dining room was heavy with the smell of cooked cabbage and disinfectant and the noise of pots and pans bashing about overshadowed the smatter of chatter from the residents awaiting their food.

‘She stole my hair slide.’ Olive’s eyes, milky with cataracts, stared at Monica.

Nodding, Monica glanced around the room. ‘I’m sure it will turn up.’ She caught sight of the metal food trolley with the wonky wheel heading their way. ‘Look, Joanne’s coming round with lunch now. Cod and parsley sauce, your favourite.’

‘I hope it’s not lumpy sauce like last week.’ Olive removed her false teeth and plonked them on the table.

Monica watched a globule of spittle slide from denture to table. ‘I’m sure it’ll be lovely.’ She walked away to the small tea room next to the kitchen. She didn’t feel hungry anymore.

Kyla had a coffee waiting on the worktop in the tiny tea room for Monica and stood drinking hers from a mug with the slogan I’m a carer what’s your superpower. ‘Thought we were going to have fisticuffs then.’

Monica grimaced and picked up her mug. ‘Thanks.’ It was a souvenir mug from Cleethorpes. No member of staff was from Cleethorpes or had ever been to Cleethorpes so it was a mystery mug in the staff cupboard that Monica had adopted. ‘I don’t know why they annoy each other so much. Ever since Olive arrived, Beryl has been more cranky than normal.’ She took a big slurp of coffee.

‘Cranky? That’s polite, she’s been a right pain in the ass. It’s not helping that Olive keeps going on about the bloody hair slide.’ Kyla rummaged under the work top and brought out a biscuit tin and yanked off the tight lid. ‘Custard cream or soggy gingernut?’

Monica still had the image of Olive’s saliva coated false teeth in her mind. ‘I’ll pass. Is there a hair slide? I haven’t seen one.’

‘Probably not.’ Kyla shoved a whole custard cream in her mouth. ‘Remember deaf Gordon? Swore blind he had a dog in here.’

Monica laughed. ‘Yes, the imaginary Goldie. Please shoot me if I get like that when I’m old.’

Kyla raised her eyebrows. ‘When?’

‘Cheeky mare, I’m forty-five not eighty.’

‘That’s old to me.’ Kyla reached for another biscuit.

The sounds of a busy canteen mingling with Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas. Monica shook her head. ‘Look, just because you’re young enough to be my…’

‘Daughter.’

‘No, younger sister, doesn’t mean I’m old.’

‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Kyla, brushing some crumbs from the front of her tunic. ‘Have you made it up with your sister yet?’

‘No. Not going to.’ Monica drank some more coffee.

‘But it’s going to be Christmas soon.’

‘And? What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘You don’t wanna be alone on Christmas Day.’

‘I won’t be. I have Jinx.’ Monica faked a cheesy grin, she didn’t want to talk about her sister, it was still too raw.

‘He’s a dog.’

‘Exactly. Loving, loyal and doesn’t betray me. Plus I’ve put my name down for the Christmas Day shift here. I see you’ve got it off, what are your plans?’

‘Staying in bed with our Liam and eating chocolate all day. Probably pop over to his mam’s house for tea when we’ve finished shagging.’

‘Kyla!’

‘What? You could be having that too. I mean, not with our Liam obvs, but if you got yourself another man, a nice one, not like Geoff, he was a prick.’

Monica pictured Kyla’s Liam in bed. It wasn’t a sexy image. The first time she met him he was waiting outside the home for Kyla. He was swigging from a can of supermarket own cider and had a collection of dubious stains decorating his t-shirt. Monica imagined his underwear would be equally, if not more, dubious. ‘I’m happy waking up with Jinx and then spending the day here.’

‘See, senile already.’

‘Thief!’ Olive’s shout echoed through to the tea room.

‘Bloody hell.’ Kyla rammed another custard cream in her mouth and shoved the lid back on the tin.

Brian the odd job man appeared at the doorway holding a sprig of mistletoe. ‘Alright ladies?’ A waft of Brut aftershave entered the room.

Monica put down her empty mug and turned to Kyla. ‘Finish your cuppa, I’ll sort her out.’ She smiled as she watched Kyla take the lid back off the biscuit tin and squeezed herself awkwardly past Brian’s teddy-bear tummy. ‘Sorry Brian, duty calls.’

On entering the dining room her smile slipped away when she saw that Olive had thrown her lunch on the floor and was continuing to shout insults across to Beryl. Joanne the kitchen assistant was swooping in with cloths and a mop. Monica, being careful not to slide in the lumpy parsley sauce, escorted the still shouting Olive to her room.

Olive flopped down into the wipe clean faux leather chair. The bedroom was generic beige with white plastic blinds at the window. A painting of a lavender field was above her bed. ‘She’s stolen my hair slide. I don’t want her here.’

‘Well she has to stay here, her old care home has closed down.’

‘I don’t want her here.’

Monica sat on the end of the bed facing Olive. ‘Now come on, don’t get yourself all upset. I’m sure if you got to know her you could be good friends.’

‘I don’t want to be friends with someone like her.’ Olive turned her head and stared out of the window, grinding her gums together in a gurning grimace.

‘OK.’ Monica hoped that Olive’s teeth hadn’t been swept into the bin. Retrieving gunky dentures from the rubbish wasn’t a thought she relished. ‘Well, have a little rest here and try to calm yourself down. Getting upset like this isn’t good for your blood pressure is it?’

Olive ignored her and carried on staring.

Monica stood up and smoothed the bed down where she’d been sitting. ‘Anything you need before I go?’ When no answer came she turned to leave the room.

‘Forgiveness.’

Monica stopped at the door, turning back towards Olive. ‘Forgiveness?’ She waited for an answer but Olive just continued to stare out of the window. ‘Don’t worry about the broken plate lovely.’

When a reply still didn’t come Monica left to go and find the false teeth.

Olive closed her eyes for the last time..

Monica showed the funeral directors out and walked back to Olive’s room. She always felt sad having to bag up belongings of patients with no next of kin. Throwing treasured items into the trash always seemed so tragic to her. Lost in her thoughts she was startled when entering the room. There in Olive’s chair sat Beryl. For a split second Monica thought it was Olive.

She placed her hand on her chest and exhaled deeply. ‘What are you doing in here Beryl?’

Beryl was staring at the empty bed. ‘Forgiveness.’

Monica had started to walk towards Beryl but stopped dead. Déjà vu prickled through her body. ‘Sorry?’

‘Forgiveness. Looking for forgiveness.’ Beryl was still, her eyes unmoving from the sterile bed.

Monica glanced down to Beryl’s lap as a sparkle caught her eye. A hair slide of marquisate and silver was being slowly twiddled between Beryl’s fingers. ‘Is that Olive’s hair slide?’

Beryl’s looked down at the hair slide and nodded.

‘You took it?’

Beryl nodded again. ‘Yes.’ Tears leaked down the wrinkles on her face. ‘I’m sorry.’

Monica sat on the corner of the bed, just as she’d done with Olive on that last time with her. ‘It’s ok.’

Beryl smudged her tears away with her hand. ‘I wanted to take something of hers.’

‘Why?’

‘She stole from me. I wanted her to know how that felt.’ Beryl stared at the hair slide.

‘I’m confused now. What did she steal from you?’

‘Bill.’

Monica hoped this wasn’t another imaginary dog situation. ‘Bill?’

‘Bill was my fiancé.’

Monica would have preferred an imaginary dog, they were more easier to deal with than betrayal. She tried not to think of her ex-fiancé Geoff but his face launched into her mind evoking emotions she didn’t want to deal with. She focussed her attention back to Beryl. ‘When was this?’

‘When I was nineteen.’

Monica did the maths. ‘You knew Olive sixty-seven years ago?’

Beryl nodded again and let out a sigh. ‘She stole him from me and married him. He was my fiancé and she stole him.’ She turned her head and looked out the window. The rain was running down the glass in crinkled lines. In her reflection the rain appeared like tears navigating her wrinkles.

‘Were you friends then?’ Monica leaned forward slightly when Beryl didn’t answer. ‘All those years ago?’

Beryl carried on watching the rain. ‘No. We were sisters.’

Monica sat upright, she was confused, or thought maybe Beryl was confused.  ‘Olive said she had no next of kin. I knew she was a widow but I didn’t know she had you.’

‘She didn’t.’ Beryl turned to face Monica. ‘I stopped talking to her when she married my Bill, when she stole the life I should’ve had.’

Monica frowned. ‘But she was a young widow. She told me her husband had died six months after they were married.’

Beryl stopped twirling the hair slide between her fingers and her eyes widened.

‘You didn’t know that?’

‘No.’ Beryl swallowed hard. She closed her eyes and exhaled deeply.

Monica’s pulse was increasing and her mouth was dry. She was wishing she hadn’t delivered that news and was concerned that Beryl was going to go the same way and in the same chair as her sister. She was relieved when Beryl opened her eyes.

‘I left the country after their wedding.’ Beryl stared at the now unmoving hair slide in her hands. ‘I moved to France. I couldn’t bear to watch them live a happy life. They were both dead to me from that day.’ She started to cry silently and closed her eyes.

Monica leaned forward and placed her hand on Beryl’s. Monica thought of her own sister and their falling out. She made a promise to herself to drive over to Amanda’s straight after work, before she could have time to talk herself out of it. She didn’t want to be bitter and resentful. She needed to forgive, to move on. She didn’t want to become Beryl.

Beryl let go of the hair slide and held Monica’s hand. The distant sound of carols echoed gently through the corridors of the care home. Beryl squeezed Monica’s hand and Monica squeezed back. They sat in silence and the hair slide slid to the floor.