Edwina Makes a Decision
Edwina hauls herself out of the bath by holding on to both taps, the bath creaking as if it might escape its moorings. Roll-topped and cracked white enamel, the tub is heavily stained with tea- coloured limescale. Everything is falling to pieces, thinks Edwina, wiping the steam from the mirror and laughing at her reflection.
Who on earth is this tiny silver-haired woman with the squirrel-brown eyes? Where is the twenty-two-year-old brunette beauty with her laughing crimson lips and baby-swollen belly?
She is still inside me, Edwina decides, thinking of the Russian dolls she once owned. All the Edwinas are still in there, from lonely boarding-school girl to excitable art student, young wife, mother, widow – all her former selves are stacked one inside the other, right down to the tiniest baby-doll Edwina buried deep within her, the size of a monkey nut, she supposes.
I’m still me, she decides, sitting down to dry herself. The towel is frayed and the mirror age-spotted.
Before her cataract operation she was blissfully oblivious to all these signs of decay, but last year, when she came home from Moorfields Eye Hospital with her new plastic lenses, she suddenly noticed the filigree of cobwebs drooping from the ceilings, the mouse droppings in the kitchen drawers and the woodworm ram- paging everywhere.
The house has started to turn against her. It sprouts new prob- lems daily, worse than a sickly child. Hairline cracks run the length of the skirting boards; musty whiffs catch in the back of her throat; a fraying pull cord in the downstairs lavatory she’s already had to re-knot twice.
“The garden threatens to invade; the windows of the basement are bottle green, thick with ivy that makes the kitchen jungle-dark even in June.”
The garden threatens to invade; the windows of the basement are bottle green, thick with ivy that makes the kitchen jungle-dark even in June.
The house is telling her to go: her allotted time is up, it’s some- one else’s turn. This place needs a firmer hand than the freckled mitt that clings to the banister rail. Mine, she realises, my little old hand.
Georgian houses are the enemy of the elderly, concludes Edwina, and she pads back into her bedroom, where the carpet is freckled with mildew, and it takes all her strength to open the underwear drawer of her mahogany chest of drawers.
A present from Oliver’s parents, all the good furniture came from them. The grandfather clock, its genial sun and moon smil- ing face at odds with the downturn of its hands for ever stuck at twenty past eight.
“Morning or night?”
Morning or night?
Sometimes Edwina gets confused. She does her best to keep her mind and body active: a few yoga stretches before she gets dressed in the morning, some neck rotations to ease the grinding in her shoulders. As for her brain, she is well-read and cultured, her shelves groan not only with dry rot but with every type of book imaginable, from chick lit to Ladybird books on flowers of the hedgerow to heavy Booker-nominated tomes. In her purse she has membership cards for the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate, expired, but even so . . .
Edwina talks quite crossly to herself: ‘You are an articulate and intelligent woman. You still beat the Eggheads occasionally on BBC 2, and if you could be bothered you could rustle up dinner for twelve.’ Not that she needs to; the days of the candlelit dining room glinting with silver are long gone. These days she mostly eats down in the basement kitchen – after all, trays and stairs are a lethal combination.
More and more of the house is unused; it has been months since she ventured into some of the rooms. Maybe she should take her- self on a guided tour, see her home as others would see it, or maybe the time has come to sell the thing.
She has had this thought before, and dismissed the idea as ridiculous almost immediately. But not this time: suddenly it all makes sense. She no longer wants to be a prisoner in her own past.
Of course I will have to have a big tidy, she thinks, bothering for the first time in weeks to actually make her bed. Most days there seems little point, considering she gets up late, has a lengthy afternoon nap and goes to bed early. The sheets are grimy. She used to have a home help who sorted out the laundry and the ironing, but Alicia retired a decade ago and the stress of employing someone new is more than Edwina can bear.
Everything nowadays has to be done on the internet. Fifty-odd years ago she found Alicia by accident on a park bench, and within two hours of meeting her she’d offered her a job. Ah, but that was sometime in the last century.
Dear Alicia, she still sends Edwina letters from St Lucia: envelopes thick with photographs of her great-grandchildren, Edwin, Lucinda, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub.
Occasionally Edwina will reply with a hastily scribbled postcard. She bought a big selection of David Hockney cards when he had that show at the Royal Academy. When was that? Last year, or the year before?
She hasn’t been to many exhibitions lately; silly really, when the bus into town goes right past her door, but sometimes it’s easier to stay indoors and watch Flog It! Edwina pulls on a pair of olive green cords. She weighs the same as she did when she was a bride the first time around, never mind the second.
She momentarily recalls her two weddings, both registry office affairs, both without honeymoons, the first in optimistic knee- length white, the second in a cautious grey.
Obviously her weight has fluctuated, but she has never been bigger than a size ten. Apart from when she had her children, of course.
These cords were bought some time back in the eighties, and were expensive at the time – she has always liked nice clothes. She is stylish even now, so it’s such a shame that her woollens drawer has moth. The sweater she is pulling over her head is lacy with holes around the cuff and armpit. Oh well, it’s warm. Some of the radiators aren’t working, they probably need bleeding.
Edwina sits on the wicker chair that has always stood to the side of the chest of drawers. It has a faded pink velvet seat and she cannot for the life of her remember if she has ever sat on it before. It doesn’t matter, nothing really matters, it’s time to let it all go, the un-bled radiators, the limescale and moth. She has clung to this house for too long. Like the ivy at the back of the house, it’s time she was cut free. She needs to close the door on number 137. She will take some memories with her, pack a small case of the good ones, but she doesn’t need a lot of baggage. There’s a lot she can leave behind.
How strange that she should be the last to go, and for a split- second she can hear them, running up and down the stairs, the tumble and laughter, followed by this silence.
Don’t cry, she reminds herself.