Sideways


“I was quite partial to oysters,” the old lady said, eyes narrowing as she peered into the tunnel that occasionally turned itself inside out into the present even as the actual present was swallowed whole.

Her mind tumbled to unexpected locations, some of which she thought she had forgotten, as indeed she had. For a period, they had lost relevance and therefore a place in her present, amongst the daily traffic of shopping, keeping house, washing and feeding herself, until these activities became unnecessary, now performed by the nurses.

These days, she wandered an unfamiliar landscape populated by figures both living and dead who presented in startling combinations. She now stared at the youngish woman on a metal chair beside her bed. It could have been anyone, and probably was.

“But we were speaking of oysters,” Auntie continued. “I had the proper little forks, silver tines, bone handles, so pretty,” she said, testing. “They’re in the top drawer of the dresser, as you might remember, along with the little glass dishes for the condiments. Lemon and pepper only, oysters are best natural.”

“I remember, Auntie.”

The old woman wanted to ask her outright, which child of whose child she was, but this would have given away more than she was willing to surrender.

She said, “I must tell that dreadful nurse person to get me a dozen.”

The visitor said, “No, I’ll get them. It’ll be a pleasure.”

Ah, Clarissa thought, unlike that creature Wilson, this girl is eager to oblige a whim.

She searched the eyes of her visitor, mapping the face to establish a connection along the bloodlines of family. It had to be a family member, for no one else came, just those wretched long-faced ewes who only now felt a certain obligation to subject themselves to the torture of this bare room, to natter about this and that, stare at what remained of her, and having done sufficient penance and proffering good wishes and a threadbare excuse, to slink away from the stench of disinfectant, the sullen linoleum and the inevitability of her encroaching demise. It gave her great satisfaction to put these self-sacrificing women to this small task or that, be it straightening pillows, fetching a magazine she would never read, a piece of fruit she would never eat.

These she used to bribe the one nurse she did like, Sister Jane, to sometimes sit with her when a curious sense of desolation seized her and the legs of the metallic furniture seemed to stab the gloom like so many stiff reeds in a frozen linoleum pond.

This visitor, she observed, had greenish eyes that looked directly into her own, unlike many others who chased butterflies.

“Stand up straight and look people in the eye,” Papa had always said. “Let people know who you are and that you’re as good as any of ‘em.”

When he had died, two of his children had gradually softened into a state of puffy, mothlike dissolution at the hands of a mother who, overnight, had turned into a pale, quivering rabbit with pink eyes. The youngest, Maisie, had decided that she was incapable of any action whatsoever, a decision she stood by even after she was married and until the babies came and she was forced to some degree, to perform, whilst still maintaining that charming, doll-like dependency on her husband. Their brother, Arthur, whom they called Bunny, eventually took up drink and pedophilia. Clarissa and the eldest, Charlie, fended manfully for themselves.

Clarissa drifted back, feeling that this was hardly a familiar face, yet one that provoked a visceral tug between them—affection? She sat easy on the stiff chair, leaning slightly forward, her face gentle, but bright.

“Intelligence I can distinguish,” Clarissa thought with satisfaction, “it’s in the eyes.”

Clarissa continued, her speech slightly hampered by a drooping lower lip. “Not what you would call a nice person, that Wilson. Devious. And of course, they won’t have decent oyster forks in here,” she said, peevish. “They have the effrontery to give you plastic cups!”

No, Wilson had the hands of a farm labourer albeit uncalloused. Capable hands, large enough to span an octave or to handle tools. There was nothing refined about her and nothing spiritual. She was the peasant standing outside the frame of Millet’s picture of rustic piety, head erect, picking her nose. Yet she went about her duties with a perverse sense of religiosity, regarding her work as a set of sacred rituals to be performed identically each day. Sister Wilson’s feet trod a grid along which she motored, stolid and unflurried as a tramcar. However, that other one, Sister Wood, despite the name, was made of stuff less stern.

“But they are looking after you, no?” the visitor said. “Mother chose this . . .” and here she stumbled for an appropriate term, “. . . here, I mean, because of its reputation.”

Clarissa now remembered a soothing ambassadorial voice assuring her that “the family” thought it best. “Not having to worry about every little thing, you know,” the emissary had bleated. “Time someone looked after you.”

As none of the so-called family felt that this duty actually fell to them, this was the solution.

The patient clenched down on her memory, forcing it to surrender a name. Marie, that was it, the elder daughter of Sylvia, the one who had conspired to remove her from all that was precious to this ignominy for no reason whatsoever.