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A Mile in her Shoes

Shannon Savvas

I walked in to Mama’s ward straight from the airport. Fetid with excreta and death, Mama looked as empty in the dying as she had looked in life. I gagged. Jesus wept. My instinct to not break my self-imposed exile for the woman who made my growing up miserable, had been right.

Mama’s neighbour Trixie Patterson had called six, seven days, nights ago (who keeps track across time zones, hemispheres and borderline bankruptcy?).

‘Rosie? We’re in the Emergency Department. Bridie fell in the shower. I think she’s busted her leg.’

‘Let’s hope she hasn’t. Thanks, Mrs Patterson. Keep me posted.’

Silence.

‘Mrs Patterson?’

‘You should be here.’

‘Between you and the hospital, what more can I offer?’

Silence but for her forty-a-day breaths.

‘Look, Mrs Patterson…’

‘Goddammit, she’s your mother.’

Trixie cut the line.

I’d thought that was the end of it.

Four days later, Trixie’s second phone call, and my confit de canard arrived together. I was desolate and bored, on a date with Sam, the fifty-going-on-thirty Director of Electronic and Virtual Arts at a third-rate south of the Thames Institute for Technical and Creative Arts. The same place I made a show of teaching creative writing to kids weighed down by labels society inflicted on them but who pulsed with more talent than I would ever possess. Sam smelt of Werther’s Originals and failed academia; his ripped jeans and paunch packed in a Howlin’ Wolf tee shirt were embarrassing, but I kept drinking, hopeful the fumbled sex for afters would be less so.

‘Hang on,’ I told Trixie, giving Sam the give-me-a-minute finger. I left the clatter and conversation to join smokers huddled under blankets and heaters outside doing their best to ruin any chance of fresh air. At least it was quiet.

‘Okay, Mrs Patterson, how’s Mama?’ 

‘Her hip’s broke and no one’s done a goddamned thing about it. She needs you to come. She needs her daughter.’

Resentment fizzed on my skin. It had taken years to heal from her indifference. Heal? I didn’t feel healthy. But Trixie guilted me enough to chance my overdraft on the cost of an economy ticket to New Zealand.

And so I found myself an Auckland hospital, at my mother’s bedside, wondering what I was doing there.

Mama’s free hand clawed the oxygen tube looping her face. Saline dripped into the other, splinted and bound on the bed. She cried out when I touched her, a silent litany trembling on her lips. The fluid filling her lungs bubbled and crackled.

In the next bed, a woman was dying quieter and less messy than Mama. Why didn’t my mother have the decency to die the way she’d always lived, quietly?

‘Frances has pneumonia,’ the Charge Nurse, Brian said.

‘I told them, it’s Bridie, not Frances,’ Trixie said. ‘No wonder she’s confused.’

He looked at her chart. ‘Frances Bridget McFadden.’

‘She’s known as Bridie,’ I said. Jetlag sat in my bones with the heft of heavy metals.

‘Right,’ he said.

‘And she didn’t have pneumonia when she came in,’ Trixie said, her voice flinty with anger and tobacco.

‘Five days you’ve left her.’

Head pounding, ankles swollen, too tired to fight, I handed Trixie her coat. ‘Go home, Mrs Patterson.’

Brian walked me away from Mama’s bedside.

‘Her prognosis isn’t good and she’s signed a DNR.’ I looked at him. ‘Do Not Resuscitate. As next of kin, we need your input.’

I talked with her doctors. We agreed keep her comfortable, no heroics. My mother had never been one for heroics. I called Trixie to let her know I would be staying at the hospital. That I would see her the next day.

Late afternoon, a priest, plumped with religious certitude arrived.

‘I’ve come to hear Bridie’s last confession.’

‘Extreme Unction? Who asked you?’

‘Trixie Patterson. These days, we call it Anointing the Sick.’

He kissed his stole, placed it around his neck. Dipping his thumb into a pot of snake oil, he cast his spells, making the sign of the cross on Mama’s forehead. The same gesture she’d branded on my brow every morning and every night of my childhood.

‘Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit...’

Her murmurs became frantic and incoherent with his incantation. ‘Mother I’m sorry…Lily...Lily...punish me...Holy Mother forgive me...I tried...Father...’

My neck hairs bristled. I slipped outside as Mama quieted under his voice.

 

She died in the early hours while I slept on blue plastic chairs in the waiting room.

I cried by her bed. Not for Mama. Not because I didn’t get what I’d journeyed for but because I didn’t know what I’d journeyed for. I cried because I didn’t know how to say goodbye. I cried because I didn’t know how to leave.

A nurse slipped in beside me, whispered in my ear, her breath stale from a night inhaling incontinence and death.

‘You should leave. We need the bed.’

Thank God.

Sadness shuddered through me. Mama was gone. God knows why I did a Lot’s wife as I walked away, but I turned as the nurse covered Mama’s face. The sheet pulled short, exposing Mama’s feet and the glassy, pink maggots criss-crossing her cracked soles. Ridged scars, a fresh one halted in its healing, accused then splintered my indifference.

I asked the nurse itemising Mama’s meagre belongings into a plastic sack, about her feet.

She frowned.

‘You didn’t see the scars?’

‘There’s nothing in the notes,’ she said.

 

I threw everything in my Toyota rental and headed for my childhood home, a 1920s conjoined cottage under the railway bridge, abutting a busy road and school playing fields. Mama’s calla lilies bloomed an informal wall between her garden and Trixie’s.

Trixie welcomed me with shuddering hugs and stewed tea slopping on the carpet.

‘Stay here, lovey. Tomorrow will be soon enough to go next door.’

My mother’s friendship with four-foot-eleven Trixie had been enigmatic. Trixie wore too much make-up, regularly blew the rent on a new blouse or unsuitable shoes to wear to the racetrack. She’d been thirty years younger than her husband Jim, docker, union organiser and Friday night wife-beater. She’d watched his right then left leg rot and fall off unnoticed by his seventy-year-old brain curdled courtesy of Park Drive roll-ups and rum. When he died, she’d rejoiced, unashamed. Trixie embodied all that my Catholic mama with Calvinist undertones shunned. Yet they were fast friends.

 

That afternoon, I walked to Whitstone and Son, Funeral Directors, on the other side of the park.

‘Burial or cremation?’ the sixty-year-old son asked.

‘Cremation. As soon as possible.’

He made some calls.

‘Waikumete Cemetery has an unexpected slot next Thursday,’ he said.

‘Unexpected?’

‘A cancellation.’

‘Someone get cold feet?’

‘The family preferred a burial.’

‘Pity. I had hoped for a resurrection.’ I stifled a snigger.

No hint of a smile cracked his face.

‘What sort of service would you like?’

‘None.’

‘Newspaper notices?’

‘None.’

‘Catering?’

‘None.’

‘Flowers?’

‘None.’

He glanced at me over the rim of his half-moon glasses. ‘What type of coffin?’

‘It’s going up in flames anyway. Cardboard.’

‘Urn?’

‘No.’

‘Would you like the ashes strewn in the gardens?’

‘Yes.’

I could wrap up and be gone by Friday.

 

That night, Mama’s feet trampled my sleep like a hokey sixties horror movie on LSD. By dawn, I was sitting in Trixie’s back garden coffee and cigarettes to hand. Mama’s wounds weren’t accidental, but with her Catholic notions of guilt and punishment, she’d never succumb to the unholy act of self-cutting.

I recalled nights alone listening to trains hammering overhead while Mama cleaned pubs downtown until five in the morning, her setting thick mugs of mahogany tea and porridge on the table, insisting I eat breakfast before school and her evening cross-examinations of my day over stale meat pies or glutinous stews pilfered from the hotels. Weekends while she weeded her precious lilies, I read and studied and every evening we knelt in front of the Sacred Heart to recite the rosary.

We lived in gloom. Mama never, never lifted the blinds or opened the windows. People are nosy enough without inviting them in, she’d say.

School and Church were my only social life. Fridays, Mama and I walked to evening Benediction and Confession. Saturday mornings I played goalkeeper in the school netball team. Sundays we attended early Mass; the afternoons were for homework. I had no beach days, no cinema trips, no family gatherings, no birthday parties. Sleepovers at home or elsewhere were forbidden. The grandest outing in the year was our annual bus ride into Karangahape Road during sale time to buy my clothes and shoes for the year. After, we would have high tea in Rendall’s department store, waitress service with white linen tablecloths, silver teapots and sugar cubes.

These days, social services would be all over us, but back then, as long as I wasn’t starving and attended school, no one asked questions. Being seen at Mass and lighting candles were great reassurances for our limited circle.

I bided my time, preparing to slip my moorings. The day I started university, I moved out, leaving behind Mama, my morals, common sense and Masses on Sunday. I let them all drift out to sea and for the first time in my life, had fun.

Mama had taught me the patience of Job. I studied, worked, slept with every boy who’d have me and saved. Degree in hand, I bought a one-way ticket to London and the glittering life I was certain was waiting for me beyond the confines of New Zealand stuck in the bottom half of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Trixie brought me the house key with tea and toast.

‘Time you went home.’

No. It wasn’t.

‘Call someone – a house clearer – I want nothing. Give her clothes to St Vinnie’s. Mrs Patter–’

‘Also, time you called me Trixie,’ she said.

‘Trixie. What happened to Mama’s feet?’

Trixie’s gnarled hands scrubbed her face.

I waited.

‘I don’t know. Years ago, I caught her doing it. She denied it, at first.’

‘What?’

‘Every day she put a speck of stone in her shoe.’

I thought of Mama’s slow, deliberate walk.

‘And–’

‘She said it was to remember.’ Trixie sat down.

‘What?’

‘Wouldn’t say, but she said I should be punished for forgetting Jim.’

‘Did you forget him?’

‘I tried. Removed my wedding ring, burnt his clothes, his books, our wedding pictures.’ Trixie looked down at her hands, unadorned but for her fuchsia pink, bad-girl talons. ‘She told me not to wipe his existence. Remember the dead. For good or ill.’ She patted my shoulder. ‘You owe it to your mama, to remember.’

 

Mama’s house was thick with loneliness. I pulled the Venetian-blinds. Slats rasped, loosening a volley of dust in the slices of sunlight. Our velour sofa was shinier, the cream skirting boards yellower and, on the wall, the Sacred Heart of Jesus no longer burned bright. The pitted kitchen lino transported me back to unheated winters, bare feet and Mama’s stomach-dumping stodgy breakfasts.

In Mama’s bedroom, Granny Mairi’s big old kauri wardrobe crowded the far wall dwarfing her single bed, with its balding pink cover, pulled smooth with ascetic precision. Above her bed, the print of Gabriel Max’s St Veronica’s Handkerchief, nailed like Christ to her wall. Mama promised me Christ’s eyes would open and look into mine, if I was good enough. I’d spent hours plucking tufts from her candlewick, staring at the thorn-crowned head of Jesus. He never opened his eyes. I was never good enough.

The other wall bloomed with newspaper clippings about my minor successes, holiday postcards, and my dutiful Christmas and birthday greetings which substituted for letters. On her bookshelf, magazines, thin anthologies and two poor-selling paperbacks of fiction bearing my name spoke of my almost successful life as a writer and spoke volumes on the consistency of my failures.

I sat on her bed, trying to understand. Trixie stood at the door. I gestured at the wall.

‘Why?’

‘She loved you. Missed you.’

‘Really?’

Trixie pulled a sailor’s diddy box from the wardrobe. ‘I think her answers are in here.’

I ran my hands over the smooth, honeyed wood. ‘It’s locked.’

‘The key is on her crucifix necklace.’ Trixie said.

I fetched the hospital sack from the car and upended it on Mama’s bed: black brogues, thick darned socks, trousers muddy-kneed, pilled Aran cardigan, flabby underpants and vest. Wedged in the toe of one shoe, the nub of a sharp little stone; interred in the other, a chubby brass key and cross on a cheap chain.

Trixie left, softly closing the door.

The box held a black journal I’d remembered from childhood, its scarlet spine slick with perspirant smelt musty. I flicked through the pages, expecting to hear Rose Patricia McFadden, do not touch what’s not yours. I flinched at the memory of her wooden ruler. You are a sneak, like your father. I’d been eleven years old and spent the afternoon sucking my bleeding knuckles. Wedged inside the diary, a deckled, black and white photograph of a beautiful couple – a man-boy in a US sailor’s uniform, dark-haired and smiling, his arm around a very young Mama, gorgeous and frivolous in satin dress, sash and a paste diamanté crown. Written on the back, To Frankie from Johnny. Under the journal, a postcard of Singapore addressed to Queen Frankie, The Peter Pan Ballroom, Auckland, New Zealand, dated 08-15-1963.

 

Frankie babe, I drank too much and behaved like an animal. I’m sorry if I hurt you bad. Like the song says, I did you wrong. But we had fun, mostly, didn’t we?

Johnny.

Frankie and Johnny were lovers. This didn’t sound like love.

Underneath, tissue paper swaddled a pair of white woollen booties threaded with pink ribbon; internment and time had ironed them flat, like felt cut-outs. Beneath them, three manila envelopes freckled and frayed, labelled Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

The first held a birth certificate. Mine.

     Name: Rose Patricia McFadden.

     DoB: 12th May 1964.

     Father: Unknown

I’d been ten-years-old before I had dared ask who my dad was.

The devil. And you’re the devil’s child.

I never asked again.

I opened the second, same date of birth, same unknown father, different name. Lily Mairi McFadden. Born two hours later.

I had a twin?

‘Shit. Shit, Mama.’ I stared at my sister’s birth certificate and the handsome sailor with a cocky smile looking for answers. ‘Rose and Lily. What else didn’t you tell me?’

The third envelope.

Lily’s death certificate. She died six hours after birth: Asphyxia due to traumatic labour.

I lay on Mama’s bed. Low vibrations of grief and anger, loneliness and loss thrummed through my body and brain, finding my heart, clotting it with unrecognisable sensations. If Mama’s feet disturbed me, her box of clung to memories made me cry.

 

Thursday morning, I picked all the lilies from the garden and tied the booties to their stems. Mama would have something to give Lily. The funeral was brief, and I was relieved to leave the sanitised necropolis of trees and gardens with its tasteful plaques and discreet urns. At home, Trixie and I cracked a bottle of lower-end Champagne and drank. Followed up with a couple of bottles of Church Road Merlot and a kebab from the Greek place across the road.

The next morning, I hugged Trixie goodbye and crunched down the gravel path to the car. When Trixie’s front door snipped shut, I bent down, picked a small sharp stone from the path and slipped it into my shoe.

Shannon Savvas is a New Zealand writer who divides her life between New Zealand, England and Cyprus. Winner of Reflex Fiction (2017), the Cuirt New Writing Prize (2019), Flash500 flash fiction (Summer 2019).

Shortlisted 2020 Bath Flash Fiction/Short Story Awards.

Published in print/online including Headland, Into the Void, Gulf Coast, Fictive Dream, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Anti-heroin Chic, and a clutch of anthologies. 

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