‘Maggie’s Journal.’ The girl has long blonde hair and a pretty smile. She opens the green faux-leather book at a page and reads. ‘Saturday April 26th: The blackthorn hangs heavy and snow-white with blossom. Primroses and wood anemones peep shyly from beneath the damp debris of autumn and, today, I saw the first orange-tip butterfly of the year. On the footpath above the valley, red admirals, peacocks and small tortoiseshells cavort with the lamb-jumping joy that only spring sunshine can evoke. Lacy ferns uncurl their tight fingers to reach for my passing hand. Today is a good day.’ She smiles. ‘See, Maggie? Today is a good day.’
In the questioning silence, the memory of my home above the valley fades and the walls close in around me: a faintly-disturbing green that is neither the fresh youth of spring nor the heavy maturity of summer. I frown. ‘The swallows are late. Last year they were here on April the first. Have you seen a swallow yet?’
‘The swallows left last week, Maggie. You remarked on them gathering on the wires outside the window.’
Did I? I feel foolish, annoyed with myself for forgetting summer is almost over. ‘What happened to spring?’
The girl laughs. ‘You are a one, Maggie.’ She looks at her watch. ‘Tea and a biscuit?’
My stomach rumbles. ‘Did I have lunch?’
‘Yes. Shepherd’s pie. Your favourite.’
‘The cabbage was overcooked. I hate overcooked cabbage… the smell hangs…’ I didn’t use to complain but, when my world shrank to these four walls and this one of many anonymous faces with varied conversational abilities, cabbage, the cooking to perfection of, becomes the centre-point of one’s day.
The girl puts the book down and I pick it up. Thoughts may migrate through my mind like the missing swallows, too fast for me to write them down anymore, but I can still read.
Sunday April 27th Saw a… bird… reddish chest… white flashes in its wings. Why can’t I remember what it’s called? Some days, my mind is like Swiss cheese… or a colander, or a dry-stone wall with all those little crevices and holes, where things lurk and hide and die unheard and forgotten, unless a worm or a nosey stoat brings them back up to the light of day.
What was it called, the bird? Not a bullfinch. A chaffinch! I raise my head higher at the small victory of remembering. Chaffinches are common here, but back when we lived in the old house, they were rare and it was house sparrows that were common. Simon used to feed the birds. I can see him now, throwing seed and breadcrumbs. I take a deep breath as if I can breathe in the memory, the smell of him, the warmth of him, the silky-soft hair on the back of his neck, and let it fill me and nurture my damaged mind. Odd how these memories are so strong. How it’s so much easier to lose oneself in the past, to relive the lost moments and make them real again.
The unnatural-green walls fade and I’m thirteen again. He’s walking up the steps from the girls’ playground towards the science block. He’s tall and dark: serious but good-looking. Mum says he looks like Cliff Richard. He looks back over his shoulder at me and smiles. I smile back, flick my sun-bleached pony-tail and my heart misses a beat. A week later he asks me out. Of course I say yes. One’s life changes forever on the toss of a coin, a left or a right, a yes or a no… a gamble. I never did know my left from my right, or know how to say no. I didn’t know this was the gamble of a lifetime.
The rattle of a tea-trolley and the walls are back. A badly-painted landscape hangs crookedly on the disturbing walls: I’d straighten it if my knees would let me. China cups and saucers. A large catering teapot. Plates of biscuits and ginger cake. Didn’t we have chocolate cake yesterday? Or was that the day before?
I nod and smile.
A cup slops tea onto the table beside me.
‘Biscuit or cake?’
My stomach grumbles again. ‘Did I have lunch?’
‘Yes, Maggie. Shepherds’ Pie, remember? You had two helpings.’
‘I’ll have the cake.’ The cake is a bit on the dry side and the tea is too milky. The trolley moves on. The ginger cake is popular. Connie take two slices. I should have taken two while they were there, to make up for missing lunch. Back to my journal. It’s better than staring at the crooked landscape.
Monday April 28th Chaffinch. Why couldn’t I think of that yesterday? I shall know next time, because I’ve written it down, now. I had to look up the names of the butterflies I saw on… Saturday to tell John.
Tuesday April 29th Saw an otter on the river bank. I daren’t tell John I got lost on my way home or he won’t let me out by myself, again. He worries about me. He says I have a mind like a sieve. I followed the stream and lost my bearings: went the wrong way, that’s all. But I’ll carry my mobile with me in future, just in case.
Wednesday April 30th I think I’m going doolally. I know I shut the windows before I went shopping. I know I did.
Thursday May 1st I think it’s May 1st when the first thing you say in the morning isn’t ‘white rabbits’. My grandmother told me that when I was about five – ‘The first thing you should say on the first of the month is white rabbits, except on the first of May.’ Funny the things you never forget. I wonder what you are supposed to say, today?
Friday May 2nd Sue’s birthday. See, my memory isn’t so bad. Except I forgot to post her card. I’ll phone her when I get back from the doctor’s. Not looking forward to what he might say.
Saturday May 10th The doctor suspects I may have the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. I’m not entirely surprised: it’s why I started a journal about a year ago. It will remind me about my life, in case I forget. It’s a terrifying prospect, forgetting who you are. Still not sure I’m coming to terms with it. Dead-headed the daffodils. No frog spawn in the pond yet but I saw five young frogs. Must be last year’s. The polecat had the adults last autumn.
Sunday May 11th John and Millie have been talking. They think I don’t know what they’re saying. I know they’re worried about me… about the future. I told them to put me in a home and get on with their lives when I don’t know them anymore. Millie cried. John went out to his shed. This wretched disease is already ruining our lives. Note to self: John is my husband. Millie is my daughter. God, now the page is all wet. I hate this.
Who wrote this rubbish? John isn’t my husband. I’m married to Simon. I was nineteen and he was twenty-one. I’m so happy, so proud. We have two boys and a lovely home, a stone cottage with roses. Garth and… Garth and… blue eyes, like Simon… but blonde. Where did he get his blonde hair? What is his damn name? The scent of the roses fades to be replaced by the stench of overcooked cabbage and I grieve the loss of my memory all over again. How can I forget the name of my own son? Why hasn’t Simon come to see me? I turn a page. My son will be here; Simon will be here, somewhere, along with the answers to all my questions. I wish I could rewind and replay…
Monday May 12th Glorious sunny day. We’ve bought a small canal boat and have moored it near Brecon. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long while and if we don’t do it now, it may be too late. The medication seems to help a bit. We may have a year or so… maybe more. If Penelope wassername and Timothy White can do it. Or was Timothy White a menswear shop back in Northampton in the sixties, and Scales… but not Penelope? Damn – another hole in the bloody wall for my life to disappear into.
The boat, yes. She’s a Wilderness Beaver, made in 1989, and we call her Afanc, which is Welsh for beaver. The planks of the staging reflect in her newly-polished sides. Ducklings are swimming past, all brown and yellow and fluffy dabbling their bills in the canal. I can see the reflections of alder trees leaning across the shimmering water, and hear the low putter of engines and the bleating of lambs, but I can’t picture Simon and the boys there. Prunella, wasn’t it? Scales? And East… or was it West? And I don’t have a daughter.
‘Nurse… nurse…’ Girls walk past but none of them pay attention to me. One of them must work here. ‘Nurse…’ A wet warmth spreads between my thighs and tears prick my eyes. Too late now for anything but the pitying smiles of the nurses, the wrinkled noses of the more sensitive visitors, and the humiliation of not being able to change my own pants. It’s the buttons and zips… my fingers don’t seem to know how to do them anymore. I do try… Maybe no-one will notice. I flip some pages. The one I stop at is fingered and creased, the writing blotched and smudged.
Sunday September 3rd The leaves are beginning to turn yellow and gold. Wasp-ripe plums hang from the trees in abundance. I shall make a plum pie, and bottle some like Gran used to. I used to love looking in her store cupboard and seeing all the jars of jam and bottles of apple, pear, plum and greengage. I always feel slightly sad at the turning of the year. It’s like a loss of youth and an impending downward spiral into the anonymity of old age. I must write down the things that matter, about the people who matter, while I’m still able. Simon and the boys, Garth and Jake. I love them so much it hurts, but they’re gone now and the pain is unbearable. Shock can cause the onset of this awful disease, apparently. Maybe it was the fire and losing them that did it. I must never forget my beautiful twins.
The fire… my heart breaks yet again. Why did I have to write this down? Why couldn’t I have let myself forget them? But Simon survived, even if he couldn’t save our sons. Not his fault. Where is Simon? Why doesn’t he come?
The blonde girl sniffs accusingly. ‘Have you had another accident?’
What’s she talking about?
‘Let’s get you a change of clothes, shall we?’
Now the humiliation of the hoist, strapped to something that looks like a trebuchet. Maybe they’ll wind the handle and twist the ropes tight, and catapult me through the window and out into the fresh, clean air away from all this. I’m lifted, swung round towards a wheelchair, lowered and pushed along a corridor to my room… my cell. A nurse pulls and pushes at my trousers while I watch the face in the mirror. I smile and the ravaged face smiles back. Who is that woman, that shell of a human being? What good is she anymore? I’ve always been an advocate of voluntary euthanasia… Now would be a good time except I need to speak to Simon.
I’m washed and dressed, and wheeled back to the long room with the picture windows and offensive, not-the-right-green walls: back to my chair. To sit somewhere else would cause consternation amongst the other unfortunates. We’re creatures of habit, you see, and our own bit of familiar world is precious to us. I can’t remember the name of man on my left, who stares through the window all day every day and never speaks, or the woman to my right who repeats herself with mind-numbing regularity. She’s rabbiting on about her daughter, Judy’s, husband who’s big in electronics. The girl picks up my journal and places it in my lap, patting my arm as she does so as if I’m a dog. I almost expect her to say there’s a good girl – stay and throw me a biscuit.
I close my eyes and let the walls fade from my mind. The sound of rustling trees and the babble of the stream near my home fill my head and I breathe in the warm smells of the earth. Simon is there. We’re at the old house. He’s there with Roxy Mitchell, from Eastenders, and loads of children. How do they find the space for so many? I’m not going to let the bitch get away with stealing my man.
‘The children can stay…’ They’re innocents in this.
‘What about the baby,’ a small girl says.
‘He can stay.’ My voice is reassuring. ‘Your mum’s done nothing wrong.’
Ronnie Mitchell smiles, half in thanks and half an apology for her sister. ‘Simon’s upstairs with Roxy.’
I climb the stairs as if going up a ladder to the scaffold. Roxy backs away in the face of my anger. How can I compete with her long blonde curls? Simon turns to face me. He looks so lost.
My heart disintegrates, as it does every time I see him. ‘I love you more than anything in the world. I always have and I always will.’
Simon smiles gently. ‘Perhaps, not always.’
A prick of guilt: I could have shown him how much I loved him and none of this would have happened. Too late for regret, now. ‘Yes, always, whatever you may think. I want you to be happy, Simon.’
He looks at Roxy with love-sick, buying her sugar mice and playing their song, eyes. ‘I am happy.’
Part of me wants to scream but I’m not. I can’t bear to cut the ties that bind me to him. ‘You’ll come back and see me sometimes.’
I move closer and rest my head against his chest, feeling the beat of his heart. I breathe him in, luxuriate in having his strong arms around me, a moment that has to last a lifetime. ‘And if it doesn’t work out… you’ll come home.’
It was all I’d wanted to say… all I wanted to hear. I can die happy, knowing he knows I still love him. That we didn’t part on acrimonious terms. I don’t ever want to move from his embrace.
A shrill voice destroys the moment. ‘My daughter, Judy’s, husband, George, is head of Elect-Euronics Inc in Brussels, you know.’
I open my eyes. The old house is gone, and Simon, Roxy and all the children with it. I feel for a tissue to blow my nose. Why Roxy Mitchell of all people? Odd things, dreams. The feeling of loss lingers, an emptiness that is more than hunger. Hunger can be satisfied.
Supper is ham and salad with chips. Judy’s mother sits opposite me at a table for four. If she goes on about George I may lump her one on the nose. We reach for the salt at the same time. Normally, I’d pull back and let her go first but this evening I’m feeling fractious. She has grey hair, dyed blonde, and her pink lipstick reminds me of Roxy. I close my fingers round the salt pot and grip it hard. I get a certain satisfaction from seeing the look of surprise on her face as she draws back her hand. I take my time over carefully applying more salt than I would usually need to places that I’ve never felt the need to add salt to before. Connie… her name’s Connie, is brimming with impatience. I suppose her salad’s getting cold?
Dessert is caramel cheesecake. I grab the last slice for seconds. Thingy opposite doesn’t seem pleased. Do I care? I think she’s messed herself… or is it me?
No, it’s her turn for the trebuchet. With luck and a fair wind she could make it all the way to the river.
‘You have a visitor.’ The girl with blond hair smiles as she wheels thingy away to her doom.
A man and a young woman sit beside me.
The man’s face crumples. I’ve said the wrong thing? ‘It’s John, Maggie.’ He waits, and his face rearranges itself, anxiously expectant, but I can’t get Simon’s name out of my head.
It’s as if my lips are pre-programmed. ‘Simon. My husband.’ Who’s John?
‘It’s Dad. You must remember, Mum.’
The girl’s eyes search mine, though what she’s looking for, what she’s finding there… ‘It’s Millie… your daughter. Please say you remember.’
‘I don’t have a daughter. I have twin sons.’
John rubs a hand across his forehead. The gesture is familiar, as is the face, vaguely. ‘Maggie, please try to remember.’
His face lights. ‘Yes, John. Your husband. This is our daughter, Millie.’
I reach out to touch Millie’s cheek. Soft like down. ‘You’re very pretty.’
Millie smiles. ‘They say I look like you, Mum. You do know me, don’t you?’
I smile and nod. It seems to appease them. I’ve no idea who they are. Who did they say they were? It’s gone, like the caramel cheesecake. Just another hole in the wall. I wish I could have another slice. ‘Where’s Simon? Is he bringing the twins?’
The man takes my hand in his. His face is wet. He raises my hand to his lips and kisses it. ‘Do you need anything, Maggie?’
He nods as if he understands, but how can he? ‘Simon can’t come, today. I’m here instead.’
The young woman is shaking her head. ‘I can’t do this, Dad. You have to tell her.’
‘I can’t.’ He lowers his voice but I’m senile, not deaf. ‘It’ll break her heart.’
Tell me what?
‘Simon left you, Mum. Years ago, after the fire. You met Dad and got married again after the divorce. You had me. Mum, you have to remember, please. We can’t keep doing this. Simon isn’t coming. Not ever.’
But he promised, didn’t he? The words are there on the tip of my tongue and I can’t stop them. ‘But he promised.’
The woman is angry now. ‘He divorced you. He doesn’t love you anymore.’
‘Millie, for God’s sake.’ Now the man is angry. ‘This isn’t your mum’s fault. She can’t help it. It’s this damn disease.’
The woman wipes away a tear. ‘I know. I’m sorry… it’s just… so damned hard.’
There’s something pulling at my heart. Something I need to know. I can’t bear the empty pain, the unfinished conversation. The things I should have said. ‘Where’s Simon? When’s he coming? There’s something I need to tell him. Something I didn’t say.’
The man squeezes my hand. ‘I’ll ask him to come, Maggie. I’ll see you at the weekend, as usual. Okay?’
As if I have a say in anything. Holding onto the salt pot was my one small achievement for the day. They leave. They didn’t stay long. I don’t get visitors. Who did they say they were?
I return to the journal. It’s someone’s life, but I’m not sure whose. It falls open at a page.
February 29th Our wedding anniversary. Simon laughs about only having to remember it once every four years. We’d have been married twenty years. The boys would have been eighteen this year. I wonder what they’d have been like. Handsome like Simon, I expect. They’d have girlfriends, maybe going to university, now, their lives ahead of them. I shouldn’t dwell on the past, but it’s hard not to. I thank God daily for John, and the gift of Millie. How would I have survived without them? Millie’s fourteen in a couple of weeks. She wants a pony. Takes after her mother.
I’d forgotten the pony. Sunset… a glorious chestnut. Sweet-natured thing. Was that John and Millie who just left? Why didn’t they stay longer? I expect they’re busy. Millie’s grown into a beautiful young woman. How old is she now? I try to count the years but they evade me.
‘My daughter, Judy’s, husband is head of department in a big electronics firm.’
‘My daughter, Millie, is studying genetic medicine at…’ The name of the university escapes me. Another thing to disappear into a hole in the wall along with Millie’s age. Why didn’t she and John stay longer? ‘Have we had supper?’
‘You should know.’ Her… Connie’s voice is sharp with resentment. ‘You ate the last slice of cheesecake.’
‘The one at supper.’ Her voices rises and rasps in my ear. ‘It was my slice.’
The salt pot wasn’t my only achievement then.
February crossed out March 18th The daffodils are glorious. My favourite flower, and yellow is my favourite colour. It’s cold though… looks like snow.
Why do they insist on playing old-time swing music when most of us were sixties’ rock chicks and even the oldest amongst us would prefer Bill Haley and the Comets, and Rock Around the Clock?
Millie and John have gone to feed Sunset and check her rugs. She’s not a young pony and needs looking after. I must go and put dinner on. They’ll be hungry and perished when they get in. Note to self: John’s favourite meal is roast beef and Yorkshire pud. The recipe for the pud is in the Oxo Book of Meat Cookery. Bottom shelf, right-hand side. Millie likes Toad in the Hole. I’ve had that book since I was fifteen. It’s worn and well-thumbed, like me. Where have the years gone?
Gone, like the shards of my mind, into that hole in the bloody wall, along with Millie’s toad. I wonder what toad tastes like? Some days I realise what I’m losing, piece by painful piece… those aren’t the good days, like they tell me they are: the days when I remember who I am. The good days are when I don’t know what I’ve lost. When I’m happy to stare at the walls that are a particularly horrible shade of… that colour, and the wonky picture of… fields and things. ‘Did we have supper?’
‘George is a big cheese in a huge electronics firm… you know, computers and things. He’s very clever… Judy says…’
I shut her out. Is today Monday? Not that it matters, one day is much like another, except maybe at the weekend Simon will come.
Note to self: I mustn’t forget them, any of them. Simon, Garth and Luke may not be here anymore but we were a family once and we were happy. Life doesn’t always play out as you expect. You have to grab each day and run with it, make it count. Not waste a second of it. Tomorrow may not come. John and Millie are my family, now. I always wanted a little girl, a sister for Luke and… Luke and… dammit, dammit, dammit. I’m losing them, aren’t I? But I wrote it down. I must have written it down. Garth… Phew! I have photos of them I must keep safe: the boys at the park. Simon and me on our wedding day. The twins’ christening. No, the photos were lost in the fire. I have to keep their faces in my head. I must. I must. Fair hair, blue eyes, cherubic smiles and plump cheeks. His name’s Jake, not Luke. Jake and Garth. Oh God, please don’t let me forget them.
‘Is John coming today, Maggie?’ The girl with the blonde hair puts a cup on the little table at my side. I knew her name yesterday. She’s Polish. ‘And your daughter?’
I look up blankly. What’s she talking about? ‘Is it Monday?’
‘No, Maggie. It’s Saturday. John comes on Saturdays.’
‘Is Simon coming?’
She tilts her head to one side like a little bird. ‘Who’s Simon?’
‘He’s…’ I concentrate on his face. ‘He’s my husband and I have to tell him I love him while I still can.’ I should have told him years ago. I need him to know. I shouldn’t have let him run off with Roxy Mitchell.
‘I thought you were married to John.’
A man walks through the door. I know him, don’t I? A nurse looks my way and points in my direction. ‘Maggie?’
His voice sends shivers down my spine and makes my heart race. ‘It’s you. It is you. You came.’ I want to feel his arms around me, just once more before I die. ‘Simon… I…’
He raises his eyebrows. ‘John said you might not know me. He said you wanted to tell me something.’ He looks uncomfortable. ‘How are you?’
I pat the chair beside me. ‘It’s been so long. I wanted to tell you… I need to tell you…’
‘What, Maggie?’ His voice is gentle but his eyes seem distant. He doesn’t move to embrace me. ‘What’s so important?’
His coldness throws me. It isn’t how I imagined it would be. ‘I knew what it was. Wait… please wait. It’s important. So very important. I can rest easy then, once you know.’
He nods and smiles. ‘It’s all right. Take your time.’
‘I wanted to say… I needed to tell you…’ My mind has gone blank. I said it in the dream, but the dream has faded and gone. I look up, suddenly confused and anxious. ‘Who did you say you were?’