Towards the Lighthouse
The air is bloated with the summer sun. Amidst the yellow haze, hundreds of tiny particles drift weightlessly like miniature astronauts. Eleanor watches them, follows one intently, loses it and picks another until she loses that too, and on it goes. She smiles at the game, remembering how she used to play this as a girl with her sisters in Dunchurch Road, all lined up in the garden in their deckchairs, glasses of homemade lemonade at their feet. There’s a photograph of them in that position somewhere.
She picks up her own lemonade glass, cool in her hand, and finishes it. But thirst still holds her, its grip tighter than is comfortable, and she runs her finger along the glass’s length to gather the condensation, and brings her glistening fingertip to her mouth. She briefly welcomes the moisture but is left wanting more.
Unslipping her feet from her flip-flops, the parched ground is warm against the soles of her feet. She gently brushes them backwards and forwards along the rough remnants of the dry grass under her toes and the hard skin where her shoes have rubbed. There are only traces of green blades left of the lawn, the colour blanched by the sun, leaving the ground pale and beginning to crack. She looks out beyond the garden, past the Ha-Ha on to the farmer’s field. There the crops are laid out in rows as if they are sunbathing too. The shimmering haze hovering just above them distorts her vision. A butterfly comes into view. Black and red, it darts in front of her but then is gone.
Lawrence interrupts her gaze as he pushes the wheelbarrow from the top of the garden, past the beds on either side of him, towards her. Dressed in his gardening clothes, an old checked shirt and brown cords, he’s been pruning and tidying, turning the earth in the flowerbeds. She said it was too hot to do the gardening today but he wouldn’t listen; he’s never been one to sit still. He said he wanted to get it done before they go back to their chalet in Cromer.
Resting the wheelbarrow down by her, he wipes his brow with his forearm, and brushes back stray hairs that have flopped forward.
‘Hot,’ he says.
She nods and wraps her fingers round the glass, now warmer, on her lap.
The sun is behind him. It shelters her from its glare but silhouettes his face so she can’t see his features. She waits for her eyes to become accustomed to the change in light so she can see him clearly again but they don’t.
‘Lawrence,’ she says. ‘I can’t see your face.’ There’s panic in her voice.
He shifts and she is struck by the sun’s piercing bright light. Sharp, as if she’d been slapped. She raises her hand to cover her eyes and abruptly turns away.
‘Eleanor,’ he says. ‘Are you alright?’
She doesn’t answer, the burnt on dark image left by the sun remains on her retina; she can’t see properly. Dipping her head, her hand still covering her face, she feels his hand on her arm.
‘Eleanor,’ he says. ‘Can you hear me, Eleanor? Are you OK?’
His voice is distant, odd. He repeats the question but he sounds even further away.
She flickers her eyes open, gingerly testing them against the brightness. The light has dimmed; it’s more manageable now. There’s a man in an open white coat holding her hand. It feels like a blink since she saw Lawrence but he’s no longer here.
‘Eleanor? Can you hear me? You’re alright now.’ The voice is clearer.
He pats the back of her hand with his; his ring feels hard against her skin, and she thinks about withdrawing from him but doesn’t.
‘Where’s Lawrence?’ she asks. Her voice sounds strange. It has shifted, off kilter as if separated from herself a fraction.
It’s still warm but she’s inside now and the sunshine is coming through the tall window next to her. There’s nothing familiar about this place. It’s all very white: white walls, white window frame. She looks down at the white sheet covering her legs.
‘Lawrence is her husband,’ a woman says. ‘Was,’ she adds.
Eleanor turns to her: she’s dressed in dark blue and holding a clipboard. What did she say about Lawrence? She looks like a nurse: got one of those upside down watches clipped to her top.
Eleanor slowly scans the room: there are rows of beds opposite and more further along from her own. Yes, she remembers now. Hospital, but she can’t quite recall why she is here, or when she came, yet takes some comfort in that she knows that it will come to her. But she does know that she doesn’t like it here.
The man in the white coat must be the doctor. He smiles and leaves her with the nurse who rearranges the bedding for her, and sees to the woman in the next bed.
Eleanor rests her head against the pillow, and images of a familiar living room flutter in her mind and then steady, like a film reel slowing. There’s a TV in the corner, on the right a gas fire set into the wall, above which is a cream-coloured mantelpiece. On it are photos either side of a delicate, gold framed carriage clock: Lawrence and her out for dinner with their daughter, Jill, Lawrence in his Plus-Fours just back from the golf club, his cheeks rather red wine ruddy, a black and white faded photo that she knows is from their wedding day although she’s not wearing a white wedding dress. She’s in a skirt suit, and has 1940s hair and lips.
It starts to come back to her. This was where she lived now. In this flat. She’d moved here after Lawrence passed away. The memory still makes her start. The house they’d shared in Lavenham was too big on her own, too big for just the two of them really, but they’d been there for over thirty years and they’d grown used to it. It fitted them, like comfortable clothes. Her sisters were no longer alive and there was no one else. And so she moved to Leeds, to be near Jill. There was a tacit understanding that Jill would look after her.
She’d brought as much with her as she could, as much as the space would allow, crammed into this new doll’s house. She imagines herself in Lavenham, on her chaise longue, looking out through the French windows to the garden as she sips the sherry that Lawrence had brought her. Jill had wanted her to leave it behind, along with so much else when she moved here, but she couldn’t bear to be parted from it. Stupid, she knows. Not enough room. This one indulgence, she’d said.
Jill arrives at the ward, her face flushed, and a little out of breath. She leans in to kiss Eleanor on her forehead, and catches a whiff of her mother’s stale breath but ignores it, or just accepts it now.
‘Alright?’ she says, putting her bags down by the bed.
Eleanor smiles. ‘Quite well,’ she says. ‘I’ll get my things, shall I? Thought you’d have been here a while ago.’
‘To take me home. Isn’t that what we’re doing today?’
‘Not yet. I’ll speak to the nurse, see what she says.’
Eleanor sinks back into her pillow, her head descending slowly into the meat of it, her arms by her side, palms turned upwards.
Jill takes her mother’s hand, feeble and unresponsive in hers. She longs to be able to take her home, to go out for coffees or lunch like they’ve been doing up until recently. She looks at her mother, a ridiculously young 90. That age seems to have been the cut off point for her, a threshold. It wasn’t until then that she admitted her age to strangers. Then she willingly volunteered the information, and beamed to see their response.
‘Surely not,’ they would say, shaking their head with astonishment.
She dressed like a woman thirty years her junior, often in pink or pale blue, and the collars on her blouses always up, like Jazz hands, as if saying, ‘Ta-da! Here I am.’
Jill tells her she watched a film yesterday. ‘With Katharine Hepburn. You like her.’ There’s no response. ‘You could have been sisters you two,’ she adds.
Eleanor’s hand twitches. She had a look of her in her younger days. She carried herself in the same way: proud, elegant.
Six months ago, after complaining about a pain in her hip, the doctor advised her to walk with a stick. She had brittle bones, he said. She bought a knobbly, polished walking stick more suited to ramblers than to an old lady.
Then, when they went out, Jill would drop Eleanor off by the restaurant’s entrance and watch her shuffle into it, before parking the car and joining her. Each time, she sat watching her mother’s ailing movements, remembers doing so now, and her various smart outfits: blue slacks and blazer, her thick winter coat, that black skirt and pink blouse. She remembers how quickly over the recent months that Eleanor’s shape changed under her clothes, how they eventually engulfed her, how her shoulders began to arch over, how her feet barely left the floor as she walked as if gradually she was closing up like a shell.
For the days they didn’t go out for lunch, and for the few occasions when Eleanor felt like something to eat in the evening, Jill would fetch her shopping. Simple food that required minimal preparation: soup, an M&S salad (one of her favourites), or a ready meal that she could pop into the oven. She ate less and less, and children’s portions were beginning to become too much.
When she became eligible for a disabled parking disc, Eleanor asked what she needed one of them for. Their first trip out was a Wednesday, and she eyed Jill as they parked up for lunch in the designated bay.
‘Just to get nearer the restaurant door, eh? Cheeky thing.’
Jill laughed and went round to help Eleanor out of the car, but she was already on her feet.
‘You alright, Mum?’ Jill asked, taking her arm as they walked to Bettys tea rooms.
Eleanor raised her chin, sped up briefly and said, ‘Come on. We haven’t got all day.’
Then Eleanor burnt the milk.
The smoke alarm was screaming as Jill walked through the flat’s door, that morning, bags of shopping in each hand, their weight thinning out the handles and ingraining themselves on the length of her fingers. Eleanor was in her seat by the gas fire, her eyes wide in fear and confusion. The air was rich with the smell of almonds.
‘It’s OK, Mum,’ she said before rushing to the kitchen. She turned off the hob and threw a damp tea towel over pan, just like the advert she’d seen as a little girl advised her to do. She stood in front of the pan now and folded her arms, her breath beginning to slow, as she delayed for as long as she could before she would confront her mother. Then, taken away from this time, she smiled to herself as the thought entered her mind about how proud her mother would have been at her little daughter’s swift action. She wouldn’t have said anything then, and was unable to do so now.
Back in the living room, Jill told her not to get out of her seat although Eleanor had started the difficult exercise.
‘I only nodded off for a minute,’ Eleanor insisted. ‘Could have happened to anyone.’
Jill crouched down next to her and studied her mother’s face, the lines around her hopeful eyes, her drawn cheeks. Odd phrase to use, she thought: ‘Could have happened to anyone.’ Her neck was saggy, as if she was too small for the body she inhabited. Prominent lines were etched into her.
‘I felt so tired,’ Eleanor said. ‘You know I could have sworn it was evening.’
Jill was surprised by the vulnerability in Eleanor’s voice. There was an unfamiliar weakness there, a faint acceptance. She lightly squeezed her hand and smiled.
‘To be on the safe side,’ Jill said, raising her eyes to her mother’s as she tried to pitch her voice at the right tone. ‘Maybe it’s best not to cook if you’re on your own.’ She paused and then added tentatively: ‘Do you think…Do you think we should start finding you somewhere else. Somewhere where there is help on site all the time?’ She could see she was losing Eleanor, and hurriedly said, forcing a lightness in her voice, ‘So you don’t have to worry about anything.’
Eleanor snatched her hand away, the red rings surrounding her eyes flashing briefly and then holding Jill’s gaze before turning away and staring into the distance.
It was a couple of months later, if that (how quickly all this had arrived to be where they are now) that Eleanor had a stroke. They’d been sitting in the flat, having just returned from a coffee at nearby Caffe Umbria, one of Eleanor’s favourites. Jill was about to leave, and remembers observing her mother and thinking how much better she looked. It didn’t seem right that it should happen now, just after a normal morning; there was no portent to the event.
Afterwards in the hospital, Eleanor was quiet, and when she did speak, quietly and deliberately (Jill found some solace that she had not lost the ability to converse), she complained about a sore throat and a difficulty in swallowing. Doctor Williams said this was normal following a stroke, a side-effect Jill hadn’t heard of before.
But she couldn’t move her left leg or arm. This was also normal, and the movement should return, the doctor told her. Eleanor liked Doctor Williams. She’d become increasingly taciturn but perked up when he appeared, and would rearrange her hair when she spotted him at the end of the corridor as he conducted his rounds.
A feeding tube was inserted to ensure she received the nutrients she needed. She didn’t like it but acquiesced for Doctor Williams. Afterwards, she laid her head back on the pillow, her cheeks sallow and sunken, and stared up at the ceiling.
The following day, when the doctor asked whether she could move her arm or leg now, she replied: ‘Of course,’ but she made no attempt to prove it.
‘Show me,’ he said. His voice and manner were gentle. Jill felt a warmth towards him like a cloud clearing, allowing the sun to shine briefly.
Eleanor’s eyes narrowed as she strained to move, and, when she found she couldn’t, they closed and she shifted her head away from him. The same question was repeated with the same patience each day, and after the third, she found she could just perceptibly move both. Jill smiled broadly and raised her eyes to see her mother mirroring her own look, with excitement and surprise.
‘Ask the doctor,’ Eleanor says to Jill as she arrives the following week. She hasn’t taken her coat off yet and Eleanor continues, obviously saving up what she wanted to say for when Jill arrived. She does this more and more. She has been here for over a month now. ‘Ask him when they’re going to let me out of this place.’ She whispers. ‘Just look at it. The state of these old women.’ She sweeps her other hand across the room to demonstrate. ‘Half of them look dead. You can see the nurses thinking I don’t belong in a place like this. I can’t believe you let me stay here.’
‘I know, Mum.’ Jill squeezes Eleanor’s thin hand, the pale skin loosely covering her, like a bed sheet thrown half-heartedly over her. Her veins are purple and prominent and, mixed with her visible bones, make her hand look robotic. ‘You had to come here after the stroke. I’ll ask about when you can leave,’ she says.
But Jill knows she can’t move back on her own. Eleanor is doubly incontinent now and can’t look after herself.
‘And you hear about that MRSPCA.’ Eleanor pulls her in nearer and says quietly, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’
Jill doesn’t correct her, and when she tries to move her hand away Eleanor keeps it clasped in hers for a minute, surprisingly strong, before freeing it.
Lawrence often appears during the long hours when she’s on her own. Sometimes she hears his voice, but she was already aware he was there; the sound is just another confirmation of his presence. She turns her head towards the window and he’s there lying beside her, sheltering her from the bright rays. And she can just make out his smile; it warms her, like it always did.
The feeding tube has been in for six weeks now. Eleanor has counted each day it has been there and has asked each day when it is going to be removed. She doesn’t have much appetite but longs to eat properly, to taste food again: beef casserole (Jill used to call the bouquet garni inside the dish a teabag), Spotted Dick, plaice and chips, egg on toast, a bacon butty, Simnel cake.
She’s not felt hungry for some time now; she’s not sure for how long. It feels too exhausting to work it out. She’s subdued by tiredness.
Doctor Williams is standing by Eleanor’s bed when Jill arrives. His face doesn’t break into its normal smile. She glances over to Eleanor; she is sleeping.
‘Everything alright?’ she asks.
‘Your mother’s a feisty woman,’ he says, glancing back at Eleanor. ‘But her weight,’ he begins. Jill concentrates on his mouth, focusing on the shapes it makes, on taking in everything he tells her. He reiterates that Eleanor was already thin when she arrived at the hospital. She knows this already; it had been commented on before.
‘Too thin,’ Jill adds. ‘I was always urging her to eat more, but she would never finish a meal.’ She feels the need to justify herself, in case she is being judged unfairly now. It had felt odd to persuade her mother to eat more; she wasn’t ready for the role reversal.
‘We’d hoped that the feeding tube would make her put on weight.’ Jill waits for him to continue, her foot tapping at the floor. ‘But she’s going the other way,’ he says. Jill glances up at him. ‘She weighs less now than she did when she arrived.’
He shakes his head. ‘We’ve conducted tests, but they’ve come back with nothing. We won’t know more without carrying out invasive procedures.’ He pauses. ‘I don’t think that your mother is up to that.’
Jill turns towards Eleanor whose eyes flicker lightly as if a breeze has passed over them. She wants to hold her and make her better.
‘No. She wouldn’t want to go through that.’ There is momentary silence between them, then Jill says: ‘Before she came here, before the stroke, I went to see a place. Somewhere for her. The Grange.’
He nodded. ‘I’ve heard good things about it.’
She is relieved. She knows her mother wouldn’t like it; she wants to be at home.
He makes a flat smile, forcing his lips together into a reserved expression that she knows does not bode well, and he then gestures for them to move. Jill thinks he means to the end of the bed, and she follows him but he keeps on going. Her legs weaken with each step behind him, past the other beds, past the nurses’ station and out through the double doors and into the cool corridor.
Her head sunk in the pillow, Eleanor waits until their footsteps have receded before gingerly opening one eye, a narrow slit from which to view them without being discovered, to check they have gone. Alone now, she shuffles and wriggles in her bed pulling herself up until at last she is sitting upright. Her heart beats faster from the effort, and her head begins to ache. Eleanor contemplates all she has heard, and all that she really knows already. It crosses her mind briefly to ask Jill whether she’ll ever see her flat again, but she knows the answer. What was that place she mentioned? The Grange? She recoils at the name. One of those awful places you hear about where you’re left to dribble in a chair in front of the TV all day. Her fingers clasp together into a small fist and then finally release.
She tucks her feet in until she is kneeling up. How much higher she is now, how much more clearly she can see from here. She pauses as she waits to catch her breath. One last push, she mutters, and surprises herself as she begins to rise.
‘The feeding tube is keeping her alive,’ he says.
Jill stares into his eyes, searching for something behind his comments, but there is nothing. Nurses, patients, and visitors pass by them following the coloured lines on the floor. They are full of movement, while she and this puppy of a doctor remain fixed in their place as if in a photograph where only they are in focus.
Jill opens her mouth to ask one of the myriad of questions swirling round her mind like demented dust but all she utters is, ‘I had no idea.’ Her voice is quiet. She sounds pathetic, even to herself. But it was appropriate, it was right. She didn’t have any idea.
‘You need to consider whether it should be removed. You are aware of the consequences of doing so?’
Jill raises her eyes to him. They are warm. They are professional. Yes, she is aware of the consequences, even if she wishes she weren’t.
‘Should I tell my mother?’
‘Ultimately that’s your decision. But, I would suggest not.’
A silence hangs briefly in the air.
It crosses her mind that he might gently place his hand on her arm as a sign that everything will be alright, but of course he doesn’t.
‘It’s hard to say. There is no timetable. She will feel no pain. She’ll just…’ He pauses, as if trying to locate the right phrase. ‘Fade away.’
Eleanor is in Cromer again, walking up the hill to the lighthouse from their summer chalet, the grass warm under her bare feet, her flip-flops hanging from her fingers. The sun is high, and a light breeze gently lifts her hair and tickles her neck. She’s wearing her favourite pale blue dress that reaches down to her calves, the one with the large white buttons at the front. Lawrence said he’d join her soon, in the next few days all being well. He is often delayed by work. She doesn’t mind, as long as it’s only a few days. As she strides on, she longs to see him again, hurries her pace as if just over the ridge and the dunes, he’ll be there to surprise her.
The wind picks up, rushing round her like an excited child as she reaches the top. The sea roars, as if in greeting, pushing towards her, rolling and prostrating itself repeatedly. Then, in the distance, she spots Lawrence on the beach. He is waving wildly at her, beckoning her to join him. His trousers are rolled up to his knees, his shoes next to him on the sand. He still has a shirt and tie on, as if he’s just arrived from the office. She jumps up and cries out to him, the wind growing ever more fierce so that she can hardly breathe. It begins to tug at her clothes, trying to pull her down, and she struggles to remain upright. There are voices in the distance calling out her name but the sound of the wind and the sea together growl ever louder and drown them out. She escapes the pull of the wind and runs down the hill to him, her toes catching the warm sand, shifting underfoot. She’s moving faster than she can manage, propelled by gravity, faster than her legs can travel. For a second her feet leave the ground, and she slowly, oh so slowly, glides towards him, watching his expectant face, his gesticulating arms.
But then she lands. Just short of him. The sand is harder than she expects; there’s no give at all. The fall has taken away her breath. She waits for a cry to start, like she did as a girl, but it doesn’t come.
She lies there face down in the stillness. The sand spreads and begins to crawl over her fingertips, through her toes, along her ankles, her calves, creeping up the small of her back, her arms, and then reaching up to her neck and her cheeks. The voices calling her name briefly return, and she gingerly lifts up her head. Grains of sand cling to her cheeks, dusting them like blusher. Some have entered the corner of her mouth.
Lawrence is crouched down in front of her, the bright sun outlined against the shape of his head. Then his features become sharper. He is smiling and he reaches out for her; his hand is beautifully warm in hers. She squeezes it tightly and slowly closes her eyes.