‘I don’t want to be a burden,’ said Alice Carver, looking across the local playing fields from her hospital bed on a damp Thursday afternoon in September. Alice was eighty-five and had been brought into the hospital early that morning following a fall at her home. She had fallen on her way back from the bathroom at just after five o’clock, after failing to hang on to the handle of the living room door, which was one of her stopping-off points on the journey to the armchair in front of the TV. Although Alice had an emergency button around her neck, it did not occur to her to push it. Unable to reach the telephone, which she could still use, she lay on the floor until her carer arrived at about a quarter past seven.
Susan Chaplin, Alice’s daughter, sat beside her and gently squeezed her mother’s hand. Susan was forty-nine years old, tall, willowy and with a rather severe bob of jet black hair. She and her husband Sean had just returned from a week’s holiday in Tenerife and the remains of her suntan glowed against the antiseptic whiteness of the walls of the hospital ward.
‘They have done all the tests, Mum,’ she said, ‘and there’s nothing broken. Not like last time. Just some bruising. You will only be in here for a few days.’
Then, almost as an afterthought, she added,
‘Don’t worry, Mum, you will never be a burden.’
As she said this, Susan knew it was not true. Her mum was already a burden to her and had been for a long time. She and Sean had had their two children when they were in their early twenties. Now Mark and Jennifer had both finished university with good degrees and were well and truly ‘launched’ into the world, in that they had both left home, had good jobs and were attached to partners who seemed to be responsible and ambitious. For a mother in modern Britain, Susan thought this to be a remarkable achievement.
With this phase of her life behind her, Susan had hoped that there would be time for her and her husband to try new things, to travel more and even to rekindle their physical relationship, which had all but fizzled out some years before. After devoting over twenty years to her family, she had gone back to work by getting a job in a local insurance firm. She enjoyed the work and was good at it, and she liked the office environment, particularly the realisation that, thanks in part to years of gym sessions and running, she was still a good-looking woman who attracted the attention of men of all ages. She began to feel more confident, believing that she could now look forward to all that life had to offer.
Unfortunately, things had not worked out that way so far. From a material point of view, they wanted for nothing. Sean had always earned good money as a management consultant and they lived it a four-bedroom house with a nice garden, surrounded by all the trappings of suburban comfort, from four-wheel drive cars to en-suite bathrooms. However, Sean was working longer and longer hours and Susan had begun to feel that his lack of interest in her was now bordering on neglect.
But the main problem was Mum.
It was ten years since Susan’s dad, Albert, had passed away. Mum was seventy-five years old at the time. Not long after the funeral, Susan told Mum that she should ‘downsize’ and so Alice, with the help of her daughter, sold the large semi-detached house which she and her husband had owned for over forty years and moved into a small terraced bungalow, about ten miles away from where Susan lived. The bungalow was just a couple of miles from her old house, and Susan hoped that Mum, who was still quite fit and articulate, would be able to keep in touch with her old friends. She had calculated that the place was sufficiently close for her to be able to visit from time to time, while being far enough away to prevent Mum, who did not drive, from entertaining any idea of invading her household on a regular basis. Sean had often remarked that Mum could be ‘a bit heavy going’, something with which Susan could not completely disagree.
This arrangement worked reasonably well for the next five years. Then Susan began to notice that Mum was forgetting things. Letters were not opened; some bills were not being paid. The bungalow, which had always been kept spotless, was no longer being cleaned much, if at all. Every time she visited, Susan realised that Mum was becoming less and less mobile and was having difficulty getting to the local shops just down the road. It had been a gradual process, yet all at once things seemed to happen very quickly. Within weeks, Susan had to arrange a shopping service, meals on wheels and carers who called three times a day. Once these were all in place, she hoped that the situation would stabilise for a while.
As the years passed, Mum’s condition deteriorated quite badly. Her lack of mobility was becoming a serious problem, to the point where she now needed a walking frame, although she frequently abandoned this inside the house if she thought that there was something solid to hold on to. Hence this morning’s attempted grab at the handle of the living room door. Two years before, she had slipped on the kitchen floor and broken her hip. Considering her age and condition, she recovered remarkably well from this accident, after treatment in hospital and a rehabilitation unit, but it left her feeling very stiff and seemed to accelerate the downward spiral towards a purely sedentary existence.
Mentally, it was clear that dementia was setting in. Although her speech remained articulate and she still had a wide vocabulary, this was very deceptive. She had no short-term memory and, despite always having a newspaper at hand, never knew what day of the week it was or which year she was living in. She could still operate the TV but had no real idea of what she was watching, unless a familiar face from the distant past appeared. On a recent visit from Susan, she had become very animated when some film of Clement Attlee was shown, which her daughter imagined must have been an unusual reaction from a viewer. Most distressingly, she had stopped going to bed, sitting up all night in her armchair and putting the TV on at full blast in the early hours, much to the annoyance of her neighbours. Every trip to the bathroom became like a polar expedition and, coupled with incontinence, this inevitably created a huge amount of extra work for Susan.
Susan was an only child and quickly realised that she would have to assume responsibility for Mum’s care. And what a responsibility it was. In spite of the team of service providers, she had to organise everything, to clean up, prepare evening meals, carry out repairs, pay the bills and, yes, spend time with Mum, who complained with increasing frequency that she was lonely. This soon involved spending much of the weekend, and one or two evenings during the week, at Mum’s place. On top of this, she had to do a full-time job and run her own house with a largely absentee husband.
The week in Tenerife had been a welcome break but it did nothing to bring Sean and Susan closer together. It had not got off to the best of starts. At the last minute, Sean, who had not taken a holiday for two years, suddenly claimed that he was too busy to go and Susan had to drag him, almost physically, to the airport. Once they arrived at their destination, things calmed down. They slept in the same bed, ate at the same table in the hotel restaurant, took some interesting trips in a hire car and occasionally walked together on the beach, but Susan felt that they were leading two different lives, as though there had been an unspoken separation.
When she got back home on the Sunday afternoon, Susan had to drive straight over to her mum’s house after the carer had phoned to say that the electricity had gone off and that she was not allowed to touch the fuse box for ‘health and safety’ reasons. Mum soon vented her disapproval at her daughter’s suntan (‘what do you need that for at your age?’) and complained vociferously about having been neglected for a week, in spite of the extra visits from carers that Susan had arranged and paid for. After Susan left that evening, having spent six unscheduled hours trying to placate her mum while also cleaning the house, she was in a hurry to get home and was stopped by the police for speeding less than a mile from where she lived. By the time she finally opened her front door she felt at the end of her tether.
The next morning, just as she arrived back at work, a most unexpected thing happened. While waiting for the lift, she stood next to one of the managers, a smart, well-groomed man named Chris. Susan had spoken to him a few times before, including one lengthy conversation at an office party, and had formed the impression that he liked her. She found him attractive and was flattered by the attention that he paid to her. She also knew that he was a few years younger than she was and that he had a beaming wife and two children, so she did not give it too much thought.
As the lift door closed, she noticed that the two of them were alone inside. Chris immediately put his arms around her and kissed her firmly on the lips.
‘God, you look wonderful!’ he exclaimed, trying to get his breath. ‘Can we meet at Wilson’s Bistro at twelve-thirty? Please.’
At this moment, the lift doors opened, revealing Susan’s open-plan office. Chris, who was exactly the same height as Susan, smiled, nodded and walked away down the corridor. Susan was desperately trying to regain her sang-froid before greeting her colleagues and regaling them with some holiday stories.
They did meet at half-past twelve. Chris was very open about his marital situation and apologised for his ‘forward’ behaviour that morning.
‘Susan’, he declared, ‘I want to try something different, something to get me out of the rut. And I would be delighted to try it with you.’
She had thought him charming; now she found him arrogant and a bit too sure of himself. He was convinced that she would jump at his offer of sex with ‘no strings attached’, as if there was such a thing. The assumption that she would not, indeed could not, refuse was deeply patronising, like his proprietorial caress of her shoulders as she had sat down to lunch. She suspected that he was going through a well-practised routine. And yet, he was undeniably a handsome, vigorous man, and when would she get such an offer again? She was churning this over in her mind when he leaned across the table, took her hand and said:
‘I can get Thursday off. Would you meet me at the Alvia Hotel in Reading and spend the day together?’
‘All right’, she replied, without hesitation.
That Thursday morning Susan was up early. She was running around the house like a teenager on her first date. Sean was away on business, so she indulged herself by trying on various underwear, clothes and make-up in front of the mirror. Finally, she settled on an outfit, put some more things into a bag and called a taxi. Her initial concerns about the sordid nature of the escapade, about the prospect of being unfaithful to her husband for the first time ever, had dissolved into a seductive mist of anticipated pleasure. Oh God, how she wanted pleasure! Lingering to stare at her naked self in the mirror, she didn’t think too much about Chris, only about what she hoped he would provide. She wanted to be launched into orbit and at that moment she didn’t care who knew it!
The taxi drew up at half-past eight. She looked into the mirror one more time. In spite of the focus on her inner desires, she wanted to look nice for Chris, if only to inspire him to greater things. She picked up her bag and, having seen the inky-black sky outside, put on her raincoat. Just at that moment, there was a call on her mobile.
A couple of hours later, Susan found herself sitting in the hospital with her mum. Chris had been very good about it, saying that he ‘completely understood the situation’, although he was obviously disappointed. But not one millionth as disappointed as she was! After sending the taxi driver away and calling Chris to cancel the arrangements, she had cried non-stop for fifteen minutes before even thinking about making her way to the hospital, sometimes screaming at the top of her voice and clasping her body in frustration. She never thought about Mum for one moment, just fantasised about what might have been and might never come round again.
Alice had spent hours waiting on a trolley in the A&E department of the hospital. The day was chilly for mid-September; the waiting area was draughty and, even on a Thursday morning, overcrowded. As she was stoic and not writhing in pain, no one seemed to be in a hurry to see her, or even to acknowledge that she was there. Finally, just after midday, she was wheeled in for an X-ray. Once it was established that nothing was broken, Alice was transferred to a ward upstairs, where she was put in an area with three other patients. As soon as she was settled in, Susan was allowed to visit her there.
For her part, Susan had been on auto-pilot since arriving at the hospital that morning. Things had gone from bad to worse. As well as having to cope with her bitter disappointment at missing her assignation with Chris, she had got caught up in a monster traffic jam on the way to the hospital. To cap it all, the car park was full and she had left her car on the road, where she was fairly sure it would attract a parking ticket.
As she sat with her mum in A&E, still reeking of the perfume that she had doused herself with just before the taxi arrived, she did her best to be comforting and reassuring but her heart was no longer in it. She loved her mum, of course. More accurately, she loved the pretty, funny and playful woman she knew as a child, and the dignified, elegant lady with the winning smile who had charmed everyone at her wedding. But she could not honestly say she loved the wobbly, haggard old woman whom she was sitting next to now. There seemed no point. All she was doing was her duty, just like a soldier blindly obeying orders and marching up and down the square alone in the pouring rain.
Furthermore, while she was waiting in A&E for the X-ray, Mum had been her usual moaning self that morning. Frustrated by her fall and its consequences, she lashed out at Susan.
‘It’s all your fault,’ she had snapped. ‘You’re my daughter. You should have been there.’
‘Mum,’ protested Susan, ‘I can’t….’ But then she gave up, realising that an explanation would be a waste of time.
‘Tell them to get a Doctor. I can’t stay here all day. There are things to do at home.’
Susan got up and made her obligatory visit to the reception.
‘We’re doing everything we can, you know’ said a rather harassed-looking nurse with a Yorkshire accent. Susan was sure that they were.
‘You’ll be next,’ she told her mum, certain that she would forget this in a few minutes. And what ‘things’ were there to do at home, for heaven’s sake, apart from watching TV? She and the carers did everything, and Mum knew it, or perhaps she didn’t, or didn’t want to.
‘I’m cold,’ Mum shouted, suddenly.
‘I’ll get you a blanket.’
There were no blankets, so the harassed nurse had to go out and look for one. She returned fifteen minutes later and put the pink, frayed-edged cover over Alice. Looking at Susan, she raised a half-smile.
‘Sorry, it is a bit chilly in here. It’s cold for September. There’s nothing we can do about it, I’m afraid. And we have to put up with it every day, don’t forget.’
‘I…I’m sorry to have troubled you.’
‘Anything else?’ asked the nurse, in a no-nonsense sort of way.
‘I hope not,’ replied Susan, quietly, as she sat down once again next to Mum.
As the nurse departed, Susan noticed that Mum was sitting up, scowling at both of them in turn.
As she entered the upstairs ward that afternoon, Susan was prepared for another stream of complaints. Yet the first thing she heard was,
‘I don’t want to be a burden.’
Mum had never said this before. In her impotent rage against her failing condition, she always seemed to assume that Susan should be available to help her seven days a week around the clock. So this utterance came as a surprise.
As she looked at Mum, Susan thought that she saw, for the first time, rather than defiance and anger against the world, an expression of fear in her eyes. Fear at what was happening to her, fear at what was to come, fear that things could not go on as they were. She looked again and saw tears running down her mum’s cheeks. This prompted Susan to take her hand and squeeze it gently, something that it had not occurred to her to do that day, or indeed for a long time. In recent times, she had seen Mum as someone to manage, not to cherish.
‘Don’t worry, Mum. You will never be burden.’
How could she say this? She knew that it was not true. She had said it because suddenly she was talking to a different Mum, someone who needed her, really needed her, not someone who just expected her to be on call all the time. Perhaps this was to be the start of a new, happier part of her life.
She thought about Chris, the hotel in Reading, the low-cut top she had forgotten to change, and she felt deeply ashamed.
‘You were going to meet a man, weren’t you?’
‘Mum, how could you…?’
‘I know. I knew as soon as I saw you this morning, Susan. The way you were all dolled up, even though you were trying to hide it. I remember having that feeling myself, a long time ago, that feeling of waiting to meet someone. The excitement, the anticipation, I know how you feel, believe me. I haven’t forgotten it. You were looking forward to something special, I can see that. And I messed it all up for you, didn’t I? I’m just a silly old fool ruining your life, Susan. You’re not young anymore and I don’t want to do that. I’ll make sure that I won’t be a bother. I’ll go into a home, or maybe I will……’
Her voice tailed off and her thin, white face lay back on the pillow, exhausted by the effort of the last few minutes. Susan paused, worried that someone in another bed may be listening and briefly suspecting that Mum was trying to elicit sympathy and inviting her to protest at this suggestion. But when she looked at her again, she knew that this was for real. It wasn’t just Mum’s tune that had changed; it was as though a different person was talking to her.
‘We don’t have to decide this now, Mum. You can come and stay with us.’ She was not sure what had prompted her to make this completely impractical suggestion.
‘I’ve decided. You know me; I may be past it but I am stubborn. What do you mean, stay at your place? With that wet rag of a husband of yours? He doesn’t care about you. He never has. I suppose that’s why you’re on the lookout for someone else.’
‘Mum, don’t, please,’ pleaded Susan. ‘Sean’s been good to me. I’ve been such a bloody fool. Mum, you saved me this morning when you had your fall. You saved me from myself. It was providence. I can’t thank you enough.’
She fell onto her mum’s lap and began to sob.
‘You’ll make the bed wet,’ growled Alice. For a moment, Susan thought that she had reverted to her old grumpy self. She sat up.
‘I’m sorry, Mum, I’ll get you….’ At that moment, she noticed a flicker of a smile on her mum’s face. It was getting wider by the second.
‘All right,’ said Susan, giggling as she reached for a tissue. ‘You had me fooled.’ She could not remember the last time she had shared a joke with her mother.
Alice lay back on the pillow again.
‘Get some rest, Mum.’ Susan wiped her brow with a flannel.
‘That husband of yours isn’t good enough for you. He isn’t…’
The words faded again as she closed her eyes. A nurse appeared and nodded to Susan.
‘She will sleep now. She’s very tired.’
‘She is,’ said Susan. ‘I should go.’ As she got up, she squeezed her mum’s hand once more and took a long, loving look at this woman whom she suddenly felt she didn’t deserve at all.
She knew that Mum would never wake up again.
Susan left the hospital and walked back to the car. And yes, there was the parking ticket. She spotted it from about fifty yards away and it felt like a big fat slap in the face, a bureaucratic act of retribution, to be paid within twenty-one days. She thought of Chris again and tried feel shame, but, having left her mum and the hospital, should could not. She imagined him on top of her and herself tingling with excitement, digging her fingernails into his back. And then, all of a sudden, she thought of the bag that she was going to take to the hotel, the bag filled with everything required for a day of lovemaking, the bag she had not closed and must have left in the bedroom at home.
Susan drove home as fast as she could. She knew that Sean would be back from his business trip and remembered that he was due home around seven or seven-thirty. Still, she didn’t want to take any chances. It was just after half-past six when she opened the front door, but she soon realised that she had not made it in time.
‘Is that you?’
She heard Sean’s voice from upstairs and her heart sank. For once, her husband must have come back earlier than planned. Resigned to her fate, she climbed the stairs and saw him sitting on the bed. She saw his thinning hair and his thickening waist. She saw his eyes, staring at the laptop resting on his knees. And she saw the open bag, barely a yard away from him on the floor. It was clear that he had not noticed it and that he probably never would.
Susan did not know whether to be relieved or to be furious at his negligence. She sat down next to him on the bed and kissed him.
‘How is she?’ he asked.
‘All right,’ she replied. ‘She’s comfortable. There’s nothing broken.’ She knew that this was, from a factual point of view, correct. She kissed him again.
‘What’s the matter with you? I’m trying to work. I’ve got a lot to do.’
Susan would never have expected Sean to come to the hospital, even if he had got back early from his trip. He had only ever visited her mum a handful of times in the last five years and had made just one reluctant visit to see her during the months she spent recovering from her broken hip. Susan had only told him about Mum’s fall in a text message to warn him that she may have to stay late at the hospital that evening. Sean had not bothered to reply. He was a few years older than she was and both his parents had died, quite suddenly, about fifteen years before. There had been no gradual decline, no painful illness and, for him, no exhausting years of running around dispensing and organising care. One day they were there, the next day they were gone. That was all.
‘She said that she didn’t want to be a burden,’ said Susan, gently.
This seemed to get through to Sean and he looked up from the screen.
‘For God’s sake, that’s rich. She’s been a burden for the last ten years!’
Susan did not react but just sat quietly while Sean resumed his typing. The phone rang. She went out onto the landing to answer it, knowing perfectly well who it was and what they would say. As she walked back into the bedroom she looked at the bag, light blue with a dark brown handle, still crouching on the floor next to Sean’s feet like a guilty child, and for a moment she was tempted to pick it up and to spread the contents on the bed in front of him. Not without some difficulty, she resisted.
A second or two later she heard a ping indicating a text message on her mobile. She walked out onto the landing again and looked at it. It was Chris, proposing a new date the following week. Steeling herself, she replied.
‘No, it’s finished’.
She knew that she had to send this message, but once it had gone she could not understand why she had done it. It was as though she had just slammed the gate on a garden of bright colours and now felt condemned to live the rest of her life in grainy black and white.
In a daze, she returned to the bedroom. She wanted to hold Sean but he didn’t even look at her. For several seconds, she stood there, feeling invisible. Maybe she was.
‘She wasn’t a burden, darling. She really wasn’t’.
He was not listening. Who would listen to her now?
Susan went out and shut the bedroom door, not bothering to take the bag, or even to close it. Outside, the rain had cleared and the September evening light was fading.
In the next few days, there would be things to do.
And then there would be the future.