"Plum-Picking with Niamh Clune."
Since childhood, her habit had been to draw a bristle brush through her long, now silver-grey hair. ‘One hundred strokes every day keeps your hair a healthy way,’ she muttered under her breath as though it were an incantation. She said it rhythmically, keeping time with the brush. Her actions were an instinctive remnant of her mother’s careful conditioning.
She re-placed the brush on the dressing table. As if seeing herself for the first time in a long time, she stared into her grey eyes. Once, they had been filled with light, had danced, and sparkled merrily with the unbridled expectancy of all that life yet held in store. When did she become so old? Time had traced its scars across her her once lovely face.
She stood and moved across the darkened room. She liked the room that way. She didn’t like the light. It showed only worn, dirty walls and threadbare carpets. Her movements were graceful still, and lithe. She corrected her posture as if, once again, she heard the ghostly voice of her mother scolding, ‘straighten up!’
Her mother had lived long. This had been her room. Her things were still here. Margaret could not find it within herself to clear them. After her mother’s passing, Margaret claimed the room, moved into her mother’s things, wore her mother’s clothes, slept between her mother’s sheets, and used her mother’s hairbrush, whilst repeating her mother’s meaningless mantra.
She moved to the window, careful to remain hidden behind the heavy, Edwardian lace curtain. It was snowing outside. Already, thin bicycle tracks appeared and curved precariously. In this cul-de-sac, the only cars that passed were those driven blindly by misdirected motorists or by those that lived in one of the semis. This was a safe road for children.
Margaret watched them gathering beneath her window. They were excited by the snow. It had not yet fallen sufficiently for the making of snowballs. But they laughed and shrieked none-the-less and made Margaret jump nearly out of her skin. She backed away. Her hands flew up to her ears. She rocked her head from side -to-side. ‘Mummy,’ she whimpered. But mummy wasn’t there. No one was. Only the quiet house answered in creaks and groans. She curled up on the bed in a foetal position, drawing her knees up under her chin.
Somehow, the holidays were more unbearable than the usual drawn-out, bland, ordinariness of non-holidays. People came, went, bustled, laughed, held hands, and carried bags of shopping destined for splendid family feasts. They passed her opaque windows oblivious to her existence. ‘Why don’t they know that I am here?’ she screamed inwardly.
All her ranting was inward. That was the safest place to rail against the lonely nights, the lonely days of never-ending emptiness. She did not cry out anymore. It made her feel worse. Sorrow had become a vicious beast that snarled back and hit her hard with its stark reality. ‘Mummy,’ she whimpered again.
‘Mad Woman,’ the children shouted up at the window, their favourite street haunt. They loved gathering there and taunting her – ‘Mad Marge, the old woman who lived in a shoe and didn’t know what to do!’
Once upon a time, she had wanted a daughter of her very own. That man…what was his name, the one who wanted to marry her? She couldn’t remember now. But Mummy had become ill at the thought of it. She had developed a crippling disease and could do nothing for herself. Margaret couldn’t leave her to go off with the man whom she had loved. Who would brush Mummy’s hair?
Margaret lay staring into the gloom and shut her ears to the sounds of children’s laughter. Why did people think of laughter as being happy? It was a taunt, a shrieking, shrill torment. It reverberated off her loneliness to pierce the uninhabited world in which she existed.
What was that sound? She thought herself mistaken, but was it a knock on the door? She froze. What should she do? And again. There it was again. Someone was trying to break into her world. She was not safe. She must hide. She clambered off the bed and onto the floor. On her belly, she slid beneath the bed. And there she stayed until the gloom turned to night.
Outside, the snow fell. Soon it covered Mrs Jones’ footprints, and covered the plate of mince pies she had left on the doorstep.