“Right,” says my mother, as we drive out of the hospital car park. “Now’s our chance to get to work on that bungalow.”
Even with both eyes fixed on the road, she must notice my alarm, because she takes her left hand off the wheel and places it on my knee and says, in that wheedling what-do-I-ever-ask-of-you tone, “Come on, Emma. If we do it together we’ll have that place bottomed in no time.”
Home from Uni for the Easter holidays, I’m supposed to be churning out an essay on the English civil war. I’m supposed to be searching for a McJob to tame my overdraft, or hanging out in the pub with friends I haven’t seen since Christmas. Unfortunately, what I’m supposed to be doing is of no consequence to my mother. Set against one of her projects, any plans of mine turn out to be as flimsy as cobwebs.
To be fair, when we get back to the bungalow, I do see her point. Without Gran enthroned on her armchair in front of the telly, I can’t help but notice the state of the place, and it isn’t good. Without Gran to commandeer the visitor’s attention with her chronicles of the doings of the neighbors, wrapped up in the latest from the soaps and her memories of war-time evacuation, the dust and grime and piles of rubbish are right in your face. A week on the ward, the nurse said, if all goes to plan. What harm can it do if we tidy up while she’s away?
Over the next couple of hours, curtains and nets are taken down and bunged in the washing machine. Rugs are suspended over the washing line and the dust beaten out of them like an exorcism of evil spirits. Used tissues and rogue buttons are needled out of their hiding places and chucked in the bin. A drawer full of out of date money-off coupons is similarly disposed of. A treasury of ornaments is swept off the mantelpiece and submerged in a basin of soapy water.
The exercise is not without its casualties. A china shepherdess, inscribed A Souvenir of Devon, tumbles onto the marble fireplace and loses her head. Before I can say Superglue, Mum has her consigned to the bin.
Rooting for rubbish under the cushions of the settee, Mum’s fingers encounter a moldering plum, squidgy as an eyeball, that spouts its remaining putrid juice right up her sleeve as soon as she tries to pick it up. But she appears undaunted. Indeed, the incident feeds her determination to do battle with the dirt.
When she comes back from rinsing her blouse I am lounging in Gran’s chair, engrossed in a Woman’s Weekly from before I was born.
“Since when were you interested in knitting patterns and baking?”
“It’s Social History,” I say. “My subject.”
“It’s a fire hazard,” she says, and packs me off with a box of old newspapers and magazines to the recycling point down the road.
When I get back, I hear a funny scratching sound coming from the front room. I wonder if I’ll have time for a cup of tea before Mum sends me out again on a quest for mousetraps. And then I spot my mother, down on her knees, fretting at Gran’s country-cottage wallpaper with a scraper.
“Cleaning!” I say. “You said we were just cleaning.”
“Oh, don’t make such a fuss,” says Mum. “It won’t take long to paper the lounge. Just think how pleased your Gran will be when she sees it.”
I’m not convinced, but years of being dragged into Mum’s hypermanic missions have instilled in me the virtue of resignation. “What do you want me to do?”
“Tell you what.” Mum sponges a section of wallpaper and sits back on her heels and smiles at me, like she’s about to give me a present. She pushes a stray lock of hair behind her ear with a hand peppered white by the decomposing wallpaper. “Why don’t you go and choose the paper? Something bright and cheery.”
At least that’s easier than stripping wallpaper and sanding down skirting boards, I think, as I drive Mum’s car to the out-of-town DIY emporium.
Once inside, I’m not so sure. Stumbling down the colossal aisles, the odor of sawn wood renders me nauseated, rather than raring to get on with honing up my home-improvement skills. The muzak—wouldn’t it just have to be my mother’s theme song, I’m Every Woman—seems to mock rather than empower me.
Too much choice can be worse than too little. Geometric figures, flora and fauna, minimalist brushstrokes all but invisible to the naked eye. Lilacs and blues, reds and pinks, yellows, browns, greens. Hard enough to pick the right one for yourself, never mind for another person.
One and a bit semesters of a history degree has shown me that, under conditions of uncertainty, it makes sense to plump for what’s worked in the past. Yet no matter how many times I inspect the ranks of wallpaper, there’s no sign of vintage country-cottage. I’ve no option but to pick out a new design. If only I’d spent less time attending lectures and more time watching makeover programs on cable, I’d be better equipped for the task. I imagine a woman with a cheesy smile extolling the virtues of decorating a room to reflect the occupant’s personality. Reasonable advice, perhaps, but I’m not sure Gran has a personality, apart from Neighborhood Gossip.
I close my eyes and try to conjure up an image of Gran sitting in state with her brand-new hip in a transformed front room. She’ll have new stories to tell, about handsome young doctors and angelic nurses and crazy hospital routines. I picture her now, holding forth, while daughters and granddaughters bring her cups of strong tea and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Prattling away with her false teeth shunting around in her mouth independently of her gums, looking like a character in an old film where the sound is slightly out of sync with the action. In my mind, I try freezing the frame, zooming in on the walls, trying to discover what background would fit with this scene. But it doesn’t work. I can sense the presence of my Gran—that’s easy enough—but the walls are just a nondescript grey.
But then it hits me: isn’t that the point? I have to laugh at myself. Here am I, agonizing about getting it right when Gran is hardly likely to give a monkey’s what the place looks like. Of course, I know who my Gran is: a woman more interested in exercising her vocal chords than keeping house. A woman who cares more about interacting with people than the detail of her surroundings. Gran would still be Gran whatever we put on the walls. I open my eyes and grab half a dozen rolls from the first rack I see. Empress Narcissus it says on the wrapper next to the bar code. Quite appropriate, I reckon.
When I get back to the bungalow Mum’s already stripped two walls and is ankle deep in concertinas of damp paper. She grabs the bag from me and peeps inside. “Daffodils! Just right for Easter. Your Gran will be pleased.”
Mum decides I should stay over at the bungalow to help Gran get used to her new hip. “It’s not as if you’re doing anything at home,” she says.
I suppose I can not do my essay just as easily here as at my parents’. Just as easily fail to find a McJob or catch up with friends at Gran’s as at home.
So I’m waiting in Gran’s spruced up front room while Mum goes to collect her from hospital. The sun streams in through the windows and dances on the yellow flowers on the wall. I’ve bought a bunch of real daffodils and planted them in a vase on the mantelpiece, among the freshly laundered knick-knacks. A room to come home to.
Gran hobbles in on two sticks. Mum hovers at her side, ready to catch her if she totters.
”Well, what do you think?” says Mum, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Gran looks bewildered, like she’s stumbled into a neighbor’s bungalow by mistake, like she’s been away from home for a year rather than a week and forgotten where everything is. “Oh sweet Jesus! Let me sit down.”
She looks old. All my life Gran has been old, but this is different. That was the old of experience, of ancient sagas that acquire a deeper meaning with each retelling. This is the old of technophobia, of assumptions way past their sell-by date. The old that, if you remove the familiar landmarks, gets hopelessly lost.
“Isn’t it great?” says Mum. “Daffodils. So cheerful.”
She helps Gran into her old armchair, now jazzed up with a new cushion, the color of jaundice. “Emma wanted to brighten the place up for you. Wasn’t that sweet of her?”
Gran twists awkwardly to look at me. From the expression on her face she could be holding up a mirror to mine. Betrayal.
“Oh yes, Changing Rooms,” she says, after a long pause. “I used to watch that on the telly.”
That ought to be enough for anyone, but Mum doesn’t do restraint. “But do you like it?”
Gran sighs. Her words seem stuck inside her, as if the hospital has treated her for verbal diarrhea instead of an arthritic hip. When she finally speaks, her voice is tiny. “It’s lovely.”
Passionless. Passive. Past it. It doesn’t sound like Gran at all. Against the vibrance of the clean and bright daffodil room, all Gran’s color seems to have been drained away, leaving her a nondescript grey.