Mornings like this morning were Iris’s favourite kind. Tom always preferred springtime, when the sun was high, and everything was burgeoning and bursting. Of the two of them, he was the lay-a-bed, groaning with reluctance at the early starts the farm required, and had done since they were small children. But he hated it just a bit less in the spring and summer, as it was light, and there was no chill in the air when you threw back the blanket. Autumn days were Iris’s. It made no difference to her that the tip of her nose was often cold when she woke up, and it was still dark outside. She liked the mists and the nip in the air, the colours of the leaves and the crunch of them under her boots once they’d fallen.
Tom said she was contrary and melancholy in her choice. But he still sat on the fence in the yard with her, in the few minutes before work started, both clasping a cup of hot tea with their whole hands, warming their fingers, not talking much as they came round.
Most of their friends in the village came from much larger families, often with six or seven other siblings. But it had always been just her and Tom. Irish twins, people called them, Tom just ten months older than her. There had been two more, born when Iris was barely old enough to remember her mother’s round belly and tired face, but both those boys had been born already dead. After the births, her mother had been pale and tearful and quiet for what felt like forever, and Iris remembered her and Tom climbing up into the bed she shared with their father and, each on one side of her, trying to cuddle her into a smile or a tender touch, tears streaming down her face. Iris didn’t know why there had been no more babies after that last loss. It was just the four of them, and it was just her and Tom.
Everything was about to change. She knew it. It was all anyone talked about these days. Everyone huddled around the radio and pored over the newspapers and talked about war. Her parents and the other older people – they all remembered the last time, and seemed full of dread, gaunt-looking and anxious. They saw it differently from some of her and Tom’s friends, gung-ho to stop Mr Hitler. Ignorant bravado, their father called it, willing Mr Chamberlain on last autumn when he’d promised peace for our time. No one seemed to doubt, though, that there would soon be war. Mothers were red-eyed in the grocer’s, especially now they were talking about conscription in the spring. And everything would change once it started. She didn’t want it to, but, at the same time, there was an inexplicable excitement, a horribly guilty feeling you daren’t say out loud because you couldn’t even explain it to yourself. Sometimes, before the war had started to loom large, Iris thought she loved that nothing ever changed – that the landscape of her childhood was the vista of her almost-adulthood – and, sometimes, that thought had been unbearable. As she looked out this September morning, on the land she knew so well, her brother hunching his shoulders against the early chill, she only wondered how their lives would be . . .
She’s called Iris.
She’s Gran to me. Mum to my mother. Mrs Garroway to the doctors and the administrators, and to these burly, kind men in green uniforms lifting her out of the back of the ambulance now, in a way that was far gentler than their size suggested. A patient. A bed blocker.
But she’s Iris. Iris Mary Rose Garroway. She was born in the spring of 1921, on 3 April. She doesn’t know for sure, because she never asked, but she was almost certainly born at home, because people were, then. At home on a farm.
She’s ninety‑five years old.
She weighs just a pound or two over eight stone. Far, far less than she should. She was bigger once – curvy even, with broader hips than she ever liked, although she was always just a bit proud of her waist, trim even after my mother was born, she said, and photographs showed it. She doesn’t eat enough now. She has no appetite to speak of, and in hospital the nurses haven’t had the time, or the inclination perhaps, to sit with her and feed her. Even when I’ve gone in, with morsels of things I know she loves, she hasn’t been very interested, nibbling to be polite, because she still remembers politeness, even if she doesn’t know to whom she is showing it. She was taller too. Five foot six. It’s amazing how old people shrink. She’s barely five foot now, but seems much, much shorter, because osteoporosis has bent her spine into a cruel curl that directs her face towards the floor and hunches her shoulders. Her cardigan hangs off her, and her feet look too narrow for the sheepskin slippers they wear. Her eyes were very blue, before the yellowy film of age covered them over. She must have been born with them that blue: her mother chose the name because of them. She was supposed to be called Rose, but her mother changed her mind. It wasn’t just the colour of them that was pretty. They’d shone and twinkled when she laughed, crinkling at the edges, always upwards, so she looked perpetually optimistic and cheerful. She’s been old all of my life: she was sixty when I was born, and even in my earliest memories the hair that had once been thick and chestnut-brown – you could see it in photographs – was salt-and-pepper-grey. But I do remember the sparkling eyes.
She wasn’t always this desiccated old lady, hunched, fragile, frightened, you know. Of course not. None of them ever were. None of the people in this new place where she’s come to live – the last place, most likely, where she will ever live. She was all of the things we are, and have been. She was a girl, a young woman, a bride, a mother, a friend. She ran, and swam, and rode a bicycle. She laughed, and she loved. She lived.
But she can’t remember that now, not most of the time, anyway. There are moments of lucidity, but they are fleeting, and they happen less and less often. They torture us less and less often. When she’s lucid, you wonder if she knows where she is, and what she’s become, and it’s an unbearable thought. It’s easier when she’s absent. She remembers her mother, a crochet shawl around her shoulders, rocking a stillborn baby she can’t yet accept has no need of rocking. She remembers tastes and smells from her childhood on the farm – she’d still know how to milk a cow, although she hasn’t done it for decades, or make a daisy chain on a lazy summer afternoon. She knows all the words to her favourite hymn – ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ – but she doesn’t know who the Prime Minister is, or how she got to this place, or at whose behest she is here.
And now she can’t even remember me. It’s been weeks since she used my name, except to repeat it when I’ve said it, quizzically, rolling the syllables as if she’s hearing them for the first time. Sometimes I think she’s forgotten me entirely, although I still hope – hope for the little, occasional miracles of her knowing me without being distressed about who and where and how she is now.
And I don’t think she will ever know this baby – her great-grandchild – I have growing inside me. I want to whisper it to her. I haven’t told anyone, and I haven’t wanted to, not yet, but, standing here now, I want to lean in and whisper it to her. But I don’t. Because I don’t think I can bear it if she doesn’t react. I have so needed her, all my life, and now, when I think I may need her more than ever before, I don’t want to face the truth that I can’t have her.
'I have so needed her, all my life, and now, when I think I may need her more than ever before, I don’t want to face the truth that I can’t have her.'
London was suddenly Christmassy. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness gave way almost overnight to the season of spending on credit and hot chocolate with whipped cream. Bonfire Night was over, and the city apparently couldn’t wait to wrap itself in fairy lights, knowing how much prettier it looked when it twinkled. It lent the damp, chilly weather–nights drawing in fast – and the grey buildings the magical veneer of cheer and the promise of festivities to come. The windows of the West End were dressed for the season in jewel‑bright colours and sparkle. Tourists were meandering through Carnaby Street, taking it all in through a selfie lens. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry.
Except for Tess, who was in a crashing hurry. She’d been in back‑to‑back meetings staring at a flipchart since lunchtime – which had been, for her, a rather hurried warm lettuce and dried‑out falafel affair at her desk – and now, released at last, she was weaving her way impatiently through the lackadaisical crowds. It had felt like a day without end – more problems than solutions, and hardly a moment to sit at her desk and actually think. It wasn’t that she hated her job – part of a Human Resources team in a City firm – she was good at it, and most of the time she enjoyed what she did. Right now, though, the company was restructuring after a large merger, and it seemed like major, and often painful, decisions were being taken on a daily basis. It was hard to keep up with the schedule being imposed from above. And at the moment it was simply interfering just a bit too much with her actual life. Taking up space in her brain she very badly needed for thinking about other things. Those being, in no particular order: the precise whereabouts of her difficult mother, her very poorly grandmother, her boyfriend and, oh yes, who’d leave it until last on the list? Her new, very, very new pregnancy. Confirmed as of just a few hours ago, between the falafel at lunch and a Kit Kat at tea break. The pregnancy test she’d bought had been burning a hole in her desk drawer, until she’d peed on it in the bathroom, telling her‑self it would almost certainly be a negative and she could get back to worrying about all the other stuff she was worrying about. A plan that had not gone terribly well when it came out positive, and she’d had to punch both her knees in the stall to stop her legs from shaking. And go back to the meeting. And talk about cost per square foot, and bodies per floor. At that point taking the test at home had seemed like a much better idea, hindsight as beneficial as ever. Bloody hell. She realized as she walked that she was muttering her list. And swearing gently.
It almost made her laugh out loud, that listing of preoccupations. She’d read somewhere that creative people did it more than other types, because processing out loud made things clearer or something. Not true. Not true at all. None of it was clear. She was too old to let a difficult relationship with her mother distract her from her everyday adult life: that was the stuff of teenage years, when shared domesticity made it impossible to ignore. She hadn’t lived with Donna for – God – fifteen years or something. She was too old to be so invested in, and vulnerable about, the health of her beloved, but undeniably elderly, grandmother. It wasn’t like it hadn’t been coming. She was ninety‑five, for Christ’s sake. Tess was afraid she was too sad. Was it right that it hurt her this much? Right that she should be so very terrified of the only ending that was possible now? Even in this new age of living longer, that was a hell of an innings, as the crass saying went. The boyfriend thing was odd too. She should feel wonderful about him, not anx‑ ious. He was a great guy (didn’t everyone say so? Okay, nearly everyone . . .), they were happy enough, it was all how it was meant to be . . . The pregnancy – okay – so that was a curveball of elephantine proportions. But she was thirty‑five. She was sexually active. Not exactly an immaculate conception. But still, bloody hell.
Tess realized that she was breathless, and sweating, despite the damp chill in the air. Neither was a good look. Or a classy way to arrive. And she wasn’t quite as late as she thought she might be. Bugger it. There was an empty park bench with her name on it (actually, it had someone else’s name on it, but they weren’t using it, so for now it was hers), and she sat down gratefully. Just for a minute. She closed her eyes, and willed the swirling thoughts in her brain to settle and still. She concentrated on breathing in and out. She’d read about it in some article on Mindfulness in the hairdresser’s a couple of months ago. Be present, Tess. And other aphorisms for ‘calm the hell down’. It worked, though. She felt her heart rate slow, and the breathing steadied. She felt marginally, and no doubt temporarily, less crushed by the weight of everything.
One thing at a time. Get tonight over with. The rest would have to wait a while longer.