NEIL LEADBEATER (1)
Why Jill Can’t Shimmy Like Her Sister Kate
INTRODUCTION: This is the first chapter of a novel I could not bring myself to complete. The subject matter was to be how we deal with grief. In the end, it was published as a standalone short story in an anthology entitled Words to Remember: Printed Words Anthology (edited by Amanda Steel), 2020. The proceeds from the anthology are being donated to a range of cancer charities.
Getting out of bed was not going to be easy. Jill had thought about it for weeks now and for some reason best known to her, today was the day to do it. A part of her was looking forward to it. Going downstairs would be an experience. It would be good to see the living room again. It was, after all, the summer holidays, and Jeff was home from school. She wanted so much to prove to him that she could still manage the stairs. She also wanted to prove to herself that it was within her capability.
Turning the corner there was a straight view of the descending stairs. To you and me it was only a matter of thirteen steps but to Jill it was a long way down and she was more determined than ever to do it. Jeff heard her moving about. He ran upstairs to see if she was alright.
“What are you doing, mother?” he asked.
“I’m coming downstairs,” she said, “please help me.”
She tried not to think about how she would make the return journey. All her energy was directed at getting to the bottom of the stairs…to walk across the hall again and into the living room. Something she had not done for over a year. That would be quite a feat.
Jeff held her gently in his arms. She swayed ever so slightly against him. He managed to move her to a place of safety against the banister rail. She clung to it like a small child and was afraid to let go for fear of falling over.
“Take your time, mother,” said Jeff. “We’ve got the whole afternoon ahead of us.”
“I know, dear,” she said, “I know.”
Eventually she gained the courage to let go. Jeff helped her down on to the floor. They both decided that the best way to do this was to sit on each step in turn. The effort of moving from one step to another meant that Jill had to take frequent rests to let her body catch up with her.
Jill looked down into the abyss. The hall looked more distant than ever. It seemed a long way off. A sense of disconnectedness disturbed her equilibrium. It was the terrible pain that pounded like a wave in the back of her head that brought this on. She felt nauseous again.
After a while, when they had negotiated the first three steps, they rested. There was plenty of time. A slight breeze wafted through the window. It was a reminder of the summer that was out there. This would be their last big adventure together. Just the two of them. And they had all the time in the world.
A little later they were nearly halfway down. Jeff could see what an effort it was for his mother.. He bathed her forehead with a cool facecloth and gently squeezed her hand.
He first knew that something was wrong when his father arrived one day at his school. It was an unexpected call. “Your mother’s not very well,” he said. “She’s been in hospital but is now back at home. It will take time for her to recover.” Jeff did not know anything about the world of hospitals. He had not encountered illness before. It was through ignorance and fear that he did not press his father for any further detail. He was too scared to find the words to carry on the conversation.
Jeff didn’t know whether to believe in God or not but after this visit, he made a habit of going into the school chapel in the afternoons when there was no-one else around. Inside, he would walk up to the communion rail and kneel to pray. He wanted to be right up near the altar so that God could hear him clearly. His prayers were hesitant. He would often qualify them with something like “if you exist, God….” and then he would go on to ask God to make his mother better. Afterwards, he would think of his mother lying on her side in her bed at home in a world that was slipping away from her faster than he could ever imagine and then his eyes would fill with tears. No-one in school had any idea what was going on inside him. They had no understanding. How could they?
After he had got his mother settled in her familiar chair he went into the kitchen to make some tea. When he returned she was sleeping. It was late afternoon when she woke again. She seemed surprised to find herself in the living room. She was pleased to reacquaint herself with the fixtures and fittings and took some comfort in running her hands over the curtain fabric and getting to know once more the feel of the cushions beside her.
After tea, she asked Jeff if he would open up one of the drawers in the writing desk. There was a box that she wanted him to give to him which was full of old photographs. Jeff handed her the box and she took off the lid and brought out one particular photograph for his inspection. It was a picture of his aunt and she was all dressed up for an evening out. She looked quite the part and was very glamorous. She seemed to be dancing round the room, shaking her shoulders and hips. On the back of the photograph she had written these words to her sister. “This is me being naughty. They’re playing our song and I’m shaking my chemise. Maybe next year you can come to London and we can do the shimmy together. Affectionately, K.”
Jill turned it over and over in her hands. She looked longingly at the photograph of her younger sister. In many ways, it was like looking at a photograph of herself. The two were so alike. People had said on many occasions how difficult it was to tell them apart, they were so close to each other. The look was not a look of sadness. It did not say “if only…” It was a look of total love.
“Do you like it, Jeff? I don’t think I’ve ever shown it to you before. I did have a life before all this. I want you to remember that. I’ve had a very happy life. And my happiest moment was having you.” This is the real reason I wanted to come downstairs today. We can go back up again now.”
It was not until Christmas morning that Jeff found out what was wrong with his mother. His father, who could be very direct at times, told him over breakfast. Jeff was on the point of going upstairs to give his mother presents and to open some of his own when he heard his father suddenly say “Your mother has cancer.” Jeff wondered how long he had known. His first thought was for his father before the truth had really sunk in. How long he had lived with this awful truth. Perhaps it was a relief for him not to have to keep it secret any longer. “She mustn’t ever know.”
“You mean she doesn’t know?” Jeff sounded incredulous.
“I don’t think so,” his father said. “She has never given me reason to suppose otherwise.”
Jeff did not know very much about cancer. No-one ever talked about that sort of thing. He looked across the table at his father as if seeking an explanation but all his father said was “it’s a brain tumour.”
Jeff sat there stunned. He did not know what to say.
“That time she went into hospital,” his father continued, “they tried to remove it. At first they were successful, but it has come back. It has spread to other places.” He did not say any more. He judged somehow that that was enough information to give at this stage. He was not given to talking about matters to do with health.
“Why don’t you go along and give your mother those presents?” he said. “It will cheer her up. You know she loves to see you.”
Jeff got up from the table and took the presents with him. The only thing that he knew about cancer was that it was something horrible that grew inside you and had to be taken out. He was very frightened but there was no-one he could talk to, or turn to, for help.
He still did not understand that she would die from it. Incredibly he was still of an age where death just did not feature in the greater scheme of things. Parents did not die. They simply went on living.
One day, he took up the Sunday lunch to her. All she could manage now was a few breadcrumbs. He tried placing them one by one in her mouth but they kept falling out on to her nightdress. It was like trying to feed an injured blackbird. She was beyond making any sound at all.
Going down the stairs, Jeff kept all these things to himself. What could he say to his father? “Father, I have given mother her lunch”. It was then that the possibility that she might actually die slowly began to crowd into him.
One evening in July, when the air was still and the sun was going down behind the trees he was sitting in his bedroom reading a book. His father was downstairs watching television. It was then that Jeff knew that something had happened. It was the silence. The terrible sound of her coughing had stopped. He put his book aside. He knew that his mother was dead.
He walked across the landing and into her room and knelt down at the side of the bed. She was lying on her back with her head turned to the ceiling but the life-force had gone right out of her. He was no longer looking at his mother. He was only looking at her shell. She had gone elsewhere. And at that moment, he believed.
Something had swept through the house that night. It had entered silently through closed doors and had done this thing with a kindness beyond all human understanding. And there was nothing fearful or terrifying about it, just an amazing peace.
He went downstairs and told his father what had happened. His father came upstairs quickly and, after looking into the bedroom, he went to the bathroom and came back with a small mirror. He placed the mirror in front of her nose and mouth and held it there for what seemed like an eternity. When he turned the mirror over to look at the glass no breath had misted it over.
Jeff sat with his father in the living room. Neither of them spoke for a while. The ambulance men went about their business soundlessly upstairs. Neither Jeff nor his father left the room until the paramedics were placing the stretcher into the back of the ambulance. There was a brief exchange of words in hushed voices. Jeff walked out into the road and watched the tail-lights of the vehicle as it disappeared from view. It was the height of summer and it was nearly dark. It was a moment he would never forget for as long as he lived.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages.
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