The Birthday

 

“I see you’ve put the plant on her table. Not sure what it is. Gazania, I think… but I’m no expert. .” As Claudia closed the door to the bedroom and stepped into the kitchen the reek of her perfume made Jean’s nostrils twitch.

“It’s a lovely colour… Thank you for giving it to her.”

The daisy-like blooms were a deep orange. “A colour as solid as iron,” Jean thought, as she bustled about stacking dirty plates and putting away uneaten food. She noticed that she had patches of mud on the knees of her trousers and wished she’d had time to change before the party. She felt self-conscious as she watched Claudia stroke some imaginary contamination from her pencil-line skirt and smooth her cerise polo-neck, stretching it proudly over the sausage of fat around her midriff. She refused to wear the Agency uniform unless an inspection was imminent.

“She’s fat and her clothes are hideous: more money than taste,” Jean thought “but she’s always so confident.”

“I’m done,” Claudia said, taking a stride towards the door. “Nice cake. Not too many candles,” she added, noticing the cake on the table, its rosy ‘Happy Birthday’ girdle unwound, a wedge missing to reveal the golden walls of softly textured sponge layered with jam and cream.

“Ninety-eight would have been a few too many.”

“Yes, rather.”

Jean paused from loading the dishwasher and, still slightly hunched, looked up at Claudia.

“I often think about my mother…..”

Jean said nothing. It was unusual for Claudia to appear so pensive or to linger before making her exit.

“She liked cooking. Gardening, too….. She was lovely….. I still miss her….”

“Has she been gone long?”

“Yea,” Claudia said, gazing passed Jean in a deliberate disconnect.

Jean envied Claudia. “How lovely it would be,” she thought “to have had a mother one could remember with such respect and affection.”

“I was only twelve when she passed on….. Cancer…..She’d been ill for two years.”

“It must have been hard for you.”

“We got on with things. We had to on the farm….But I often wonder what might have been, if she’d lived.”

“My mother wasn’t around much, either.”

“I was just at that age when a girl needs a mother… someone to turn to for advice about clothes, boyfriends, periods… personal things.”

“I missed out on that, too. Mostly, she wasn’t around…. but even when she was just quoted Biblical texts at me.”

Jean began to feel sorry for herself. It was that old feeling … the one that made her feel so guilty… that gap between the warmth she felt she ought to have for her mother and how she actually felt about her. It was a gap she’d had to fill with duty instead of love.

“The trouble with having a parent who is mentally ill,” Jean said “is that despite all the violence, the ugly scenes, the desertions,” the words came spontaneously, like steam from a boiling kettle, “the child feels expected not only to honour the parent but also to feel sorry for them. After all, they’re ill, aren’t they? They didn’t know what they were doing. None of it was their fault.”

Jean knew that Claudia wouldn’t understand.

And she didn’t. Her words merely had the effect of jerking Claudia out of her reverie.

“Next time you’re out, your mother needs new laces for her shoes. She’s lost one. Can’t think what she’s done with it.” Claudia smiled in a manner that suggested she would be tolerant of anything a mother did so long as she stayed alive.

“I’m back in the morning and I’ll change her bedding.”

Jean thought of the enormous mound of laundry Claudia would leave. It wouldn’t be just the sheets. Every washable item in the room would be piled up and left for Jean to deal with.

“I’ll be off next week.”

“Going anywhere nice?”

“Tenerife, again. Enjoy a spot of sunshine. Especially welcome at this time of year.”

Jean nodded.

“I haven’t seen the roster. Don’t know who they’ll send. Best of luck…,” Claudia said, walking briskly out of the house.

Jean closed the dishwasher and pressed the buttons. “I hope,” she thought, “that one day I’ll be cleansed of the anger, the hurt.” “It was,” she mused, “a pernicious weed with tap roots deeply embedded in her psyche.” And all she’d wanted was a competent mother, reliable and worldlier.

 

Elizabeth Kelland

 

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