Love Is a Rose?
We swung off the tarseal and crunched down the drive, loaded with camping gear and Coronas. I braked hard at the shed door and laid on the horn. I sat, stilling myself in a deep breath and let my sister jump out ahead of me. Her first trip in two years.
Our eighty-year-old mother appeared then at the edge of the shed, lopsided and listing to the left, steered by the breeze. She wore Capris, was barefoot. Her blondish hair, long now and stringy, swayed backwards off her bony skull.
‘Noisy bitches!’ she snorted, and went first to Sue.
When she turned to me she stopped.
‘Haven’t I just seen you?’
‘I was here three weeks ago.’
‘Thought so. Do you like my hair long like this?’ She scowled then and struck a pose, fingers dragging upward to the side of her head. She pushed thin strands back from her eyes, enhanced now with black Cleopatra liner.
I’d given my sister an update while we’d driven down from the North Island. Much can change in two years. Or three weeks.
Cleopatra led us across the lawn, giving a talk on her native shrubs while we both glanced around for Hughie. We found him in the kitchen pouring wine. He laughed when we stepped inside and held up two matching wooden goblets.
‘Only ten bucks each!’
They had expected us yesterday, according to the half-eaten, wrinkled lemon meringue pie on display. It sweated in the late afternoon sun.
‘Lemon meringue!’ I was impressed.
‘Took her all day to make that!’ Hughie whispered. Loudly. ‘Hey. The boys’ll be here tomorrow, they want to see you two.’ He enjoyed these rare gatherings. ‘We’ll go up to Wilson’s for a meal. I hear they have a good chef now.’
We took to the settees in the sun room and Mum sat between us, but closer to Sue. We laughed, we told stories. She listened, turning her head like a bird, this way and that, smiling from one to the other. Then she did something I’d never seen her do. Sitting hunched over her knees, and with her bare feet, she did this fast sudden drumming on the floor, excited, like a child. Then she stopped, smiled at each of us, and started drumming again. So happy.
We lost track of how many wines we had before dinner and I know Mum lost count after the first. And those wooden goblets held a lot. She listed off towards the kitchen.
Scrape . . . scrape . . . ‘Supper!’
‘What’s she doing in there?’
I went in to see her scraping burnt bits of spare ribs off the bottom of the pan and spooning a pile onto her plate.
‘Mum! What are you doing? You never eat burnt scraps like that. It’s bad for you.’
‘Oh go away!’
I’d noticed these last summers her diet had changed, along with her youthful figure.
‘What day is it today?’ Mum asked each morning, studying the calendar. ‘Did you say we’re going out for supper?’ She scuttled into her bedroom then and we found her rifling through her wardrobe. ‘I have so many clothes I just don’t wear any more. Only to funerals.’
‘You said you never went to funerals.’ I watched from the door.
She brought out her newly altered pants and tried them on to show Sue, something they’d always done together. Mum did her pose, with raised heel, fingers splayed on her thigh. Her pants had an odd V-shaped gusset poking out the back like a duck’s arse. Sue had an earthy laugh.
‘We have this marvellous seamstress up the street. Glenda.’
‘Mum!’ I frowned at the duck’s arse. ‘What the hell’s she done to those good jeans? I paid three dollars for those at the Op Shop.’
‘Oh shush. Before I had to wear them with the fly undone.’
‘She’s ruined them! They looked good on you.’
‘They’ll be fine, I’ll wear them tonight. Anyway, Glenda does alterations on all our pants. Our waists have expanded and sagged. You don’t know how it feels to have drooping, spreading waistlines and tits down to your belly.’
‘That’s all that bacon grease you pour on your bread.’
‘Hey a piano!’ I flipped open the lid.
‘I like that sign,’ the youngest step-brother said and we settled in with our drinks, claiming the white tablecloth below WILSON’S HOTEL – all framed up like an artwork; a peeling palimpsest in historic maroon and gold.
‘That’s the original,’ the oldest one said, and he’d know.
I tried telling them about the painting our mother had hanging there once in that same spot, but they were all talking like Welshmen and kept cutting me off.
‘She did a painting of the three gay boys who used to own this hotel.’ They turned to listen. ‘It hung there above the piano for a few years, right, Mum?’
She was sipping a tall gin through a straw.
‘Hey, you’ll get pissed. Then one of the boys ran off with a woman. Somebody’s wife. To Christchurch . . . and the other two asked Mum to paint him out of the picture.’
The whole table laughed.
‘And a few months later he returned so she had to paint him back in again.’
‘Hey, Mum.’ Sue nodded at the piano.
Mum looked at the piano, then at her gin, took a long suck, shifted her bones and was away. Her piano playing was so familiar, our response so spontaneous. We sang shamelessly into the empty dining room, breaking only for a dusky brown-eyed girl to take our orders. A few locals wandered through to sit at distant tables and Liberace started up again, playing everything we threw at her: ‘Lovesick Blues’, ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’. Petula Clark. Harry Belafonte. When she wavered between numbers Sue offered her a sip of liquid refreshment, then her music filled us again.
We sang on.
I remember scanning the roomful of diners, but only once. Diners, immersed in their own parties, who ignored our spirited concert, our collective musical memory of country and honky-tonk.
We ordered more gins.
In an hour our meals of pork belly, blue cod and chips arrived, and our party of blended parents and offspring continued to sing, a cappella, while the pianist joined us to dine.
Mum’s talents hadn’t gone unnoticed in the small town, we discovered in the Post Office the next morning.
‘We really enjoyed your piano playing last night, Ida!’
‘Oh.’ She looked to Sue. ‘Was I playing the piano?’
‘What an exhilarating evening!’ said Hughie from his settee, warming in the morning sun.
‘I woke up singing,’ I said.
‘I bet you did. You were wound up tighter than a three-dollar guitar.’
‘. . . and Mum, you entertained the whole restaurant.’
‘I did? What was I playing?’
‘. . . Hank Williams . . . Tom Jones. Sue started singing “Why, why, why, Delilah!”, and we tossed our knickers into the crowd.’
‘You did not!’
‘. . . do you remember we were all drinking wine here afterwards and dancing to Dean Martin?’
‘Really?’ She sat frowning out her window. ‘Well that was a night to remember . . . if only I could.’
‘She’s practising living in the now,’ I said to Sue a few nights later, over in the sleepout.
She laughed, then was solemn. ‘She’s been wearing those old cargoes for the entire time we’ve been here. Soon she’ll forget to shower and wash. Eat.’
‘Her sense of time is really askew.’
‘Like she’s mowed the lawns three times this week? It’s sad to watch.’
I was trying to understand how Mum’s memory was working and then I felt sorry. I realised she was recalling our conversations from a month ago, or events from her other life thirty years ago, but was inserting them into our present, confusing conversations.
‘She has no perception of time in space … you know?’
‘No wonder she sounds loopy . . . but those temper tantrums?’
‘It’s a big load for him. At ninety-two.’
‘So what do we do?’
‘We’ll go see Margaret, the dementia nurse over at the hospital. You’ll like her.’
‘Then we’ll leave town!’
Next morning we went over to the house as usual. Her face appeared ghoulish with misery. When I spoke, her entire body visibly sighed.
Hughie was singing. He flapped a handful of loose pages at me. ‘Look what I found! My old music! . . . You’ve got to . . . kiss an angel good morning . . .’
I laughed and started singing too.
‘Bloody hell. All this noise first thing in the morning. Can you just stop . . . stop!’
But I didn’t stop. ‘Ramblin’ rose . . .’
‘Christ!’ Then she spotted something across the room. ‘My boots!’ She stooped and ran for her hiking boots that waited by her chair. ‘I need to get out.’
‘. . . where you ramble . . .’
‘Incredible. You never could carry a tune.’
In desperation she laced her boots, quickly. From her chair she faced outwards to the property’s broom and willows that obscured the river. Her outside world. Bolting from her seat she was at the door, running from the panic in her head, fleeing from an out-of-tune ‘Ramblin’ Rose’ and swearing back at us.
An hour later she was home, all peace and happiness. We stood on the back porch and she turned to me, then she offered up her face like a little girl and kissed my cheek.
Maybe she thought I was Sue.