“I want to go home now. Can you take me home?”
“You know I can’t take you home Mam. Why don’t you come away from that window and have a cup of tea? I’ll get the nice man to make one for you.”
“He’ll be here soon.”
Mam never answered. She just continued to peer out of the second-floor window, down on to the car park below. Lauren had long given up trying to get her mother to sit still. Ever since she’d arrived at Springmeadows Nursing Home two years ago, Mam had taken to standing at the window for hours on end.
Lauren shifted to get comfy on Mam’s bed and reopened the TV Weekly she’d been reading. Mam finally turned from the window but as soon as her gaze had broken away from the slow evening scene outside, there was a growl of an engine and a squeak of car brakes. Mam spun around quickly and darted back to the vista.
“Damn. It not him,” she quipped. “He said he’d come for me soon.”
“So you keep saying, Mam. There’s no Emmerdale tonight, by the way. There’s football on instead.”
Mam gave up, shuffled across the wooden floor and lowered herself slowly into her little-used arm chair.
“Bloody football. That’s all there ever is on telly. Stupid bloody game.”
“Dad used to love it.”
“Tell me about it,” said Mam. “That’s all I ever heard about. That’s one thing I don’t miss.”
“Football?” asked Lauren.
“The constant conversations about it. Like I was bloody interested! Anyway. He’ll be here soon. It’s been a lonely six years.”
Lauren looked up from the TV listings.
“Dad died seven years ago, Mam.”
Mam looked a little confused and then looked down at her crinkled fingers in her lap. Lauren laid the magazine on the bed and stood up.
“I’m going to get you a cup of tea before I go. Richard will be picking me soon.”
Lauren made her way to the kitchen down the corridor, where she found Pete, the nurse. He had a kind face and a chapel-grey voice that would wrap its arms around you and give you a big squeezy hug when you needed it most.
“Am I able to get Mam a cup of tea?” asked Lauren.
“Yes, of course. Do you want one?”
“I’ve got time for a last cup of tea with her. A quick one though. I need to be going soon. It’s getting late.”
Lauren paused for a moment, looking concerned.
“What are we doing to do about Mam?”
Pete set about making two cups of tea while they spoke.
“What do you mean?”
“About the fact that she’s always at the window. Waiting.”
“I know. Nothing seems to have changed since the last time we spoke about it. I think it’s just one of those things.”
“Are you able to get her some different books from the library downstairs? I think she’s lost the plot. She’s reading too much of that Mills & Boon rubbish. She used to love a good ol’ Catherine Cookson book before she got into that saccharine happily-ever after nonsense. Or maybe they’ve got some Agatha Christie down there? A good old murder mystery might distract her from standing at the window all day.”
“I’ll take a look for you.”
“Do you think it’s dementia?”
“I’m not so sure. It doesn’t really fit with dementia. We found her at the window the other night and it took us a while to get her back to bed.”
“Who is she waiting for? Has she ever said?”
“No idea. Whenever a car or van pulls up outside, she’s there at the window,” said Pete.
“You won’t let her wander off will you? Knowing her, she’s probably met some fancy man on the internet. I don’t want any old stranger turning up and taking her away.”
“I wouldn’t worry. I don’t think she even knows what the internet is. And our security is top notch. It’s like Fort Knox down there. We don’t let anyone in and we don’t let anyone out unless we say so!”
Pete finished making the two cups of tea and held them out to Lauren.
“Here you go.”
“I’ve got a cup of tea here for you.” Lauren found Mam back at the window.
“I never asked for one,” Mam snapped without dropping her gaze.
Lauren sighed. She couldn’t win. She placed the two cups of tea down on the bedside table and resumed her place on the bed.
“I’ve asked Pete to get you some new books from the library,” she said, picking up one of Mam’s Mills & Boon books. She looked it over, almost with disgust.
“I’m enjoying the ones I’ve got, thank you.”
“They’re not healthy for you. They’re not real life.”
“They take me back to my happy days,” said Mam. Lauren took a look at the man on the front cover. The illustration of the man, shirt unbuttoned to the waist, stood over a pretty woman, looking helplessly up at him. Lauren couldn’t imagine Dad in such dashing pose. Lauren read the title out aloud.
“A Beautiful Mess.”
Mam peered out of the window.
“It was a beautiful mess,” said Mam. “I just fell in love,” she muttered.
“So you keep telling us.”
“I didn’t mean to fall in love. It just happened.”
“Happens to us all,” Lauren sighed.
“We never existed in the real world,” said Mam. There was a slight smile on her face. Her mind was miles away.
“We’d go for walks. Long, endless walks. And then we’d stop and kiss. And those kisses – boy -the world would melt away. It’d just be us and the stars.”
“You said Dad was a rubbish kisser.”
Mam turned and looked at Lauren.
“I’m not taking about your father.”
Lauren’s head jolted back slightly.
“I don’t think Dad would have been happy with that, Mam.”
“He had no idea.”
As Mam looked longingly out of the window once more, Lauren scooped up the books and quietly slipped them into her tote bag and stood up.
“I need to get going. Richard’s on his way – he’s waiting to go golfing. I’ll come and see you tomorrow.”
Mam turned around with a wry smile on her face. Then she returned her eyes to the disappearing day outside.
It was just a short walk for Lauren from the main entrance of the nursing home to Richard’s car, where he sat waiting. Lauren stopped and looked up at Mam’s window. She was there – of course she was there – and she gave a little wave.
The evenings were getting noticeably brighter now. The deep blue hue that saturated the car park comforted Lauren. Warmer, longer, and easier days were on their way.
A blackbird hopped up on to the picket fence and let a short flute-like song. It quickly glanced at Lauren and then dashed off into the nearby bushes. Lauren inhaled a chestful of the clean spring air, thanked the blackbird for his song, and got into her husband’s car.
At first, Lauren couldn’t figure out which phone was ringing. She lifted her head off her pillow and caught sight of her mobile phone buzzing on her bedside table. She reached over and groggily answered.
“Hi. Lauren. It’s Pete. I’m so sorry to bother you. Can you come to the home?”
“I’d rather tell you face to face.”
“Pete. I can’t do suspense. Just tell me now. What’s happened?”
Pete paused. “She’s gone.”
“What do you mean gone? Gone where? Who took her?”
“No. I mean she’s gone. She’s passed.”
Lauren couldn’t compute the words that she’d just heard.
“I’m so, so sorry,” said Pete.
There was a pause as Lauren tried to articulate the thoughts that were thumping around her head.
“Are you still there?” asked Pete.
“Yes. Erm…just thinking practicalities. Richard’s been drinking.” She looked at him snoring, oblivious to the awful news.
“Shall I come pick you up?” asked Pete. “You’re not too far away.”
Lauren thought for a moment.
“Erm. No. It’s ok. I’ll wait until first light. I’ll get a taxi down. There’s nothing I can do by being there. Thank you.”
“They’ll have taken her by then.”
Lauren sighed. She thought back to the wave she’d got from the window just a few hours earlier.
Lauren was sat on Mam’s bed. She could hear the blackbird’s morning song outside and the room was quiet and still.
Pete was stood in the doorway. His cheery face looked sullen.
“I just can’t believe it,” said Lauren, clutching Mam’s cardigan.
“We can’t either. Are you ok?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Sorry. Stupid question. Take as long as you want. There’s no rush. I’ll be in the room next door if you need me.”
Pete turned but stopped.
“Oh. She was clutching this when we found her. We thought you’d want it back for the family album.”
Pete gently waved a thin, long strip of black and white photo booth photos at her.”
“I’ll just pop it down here.” Pete leaned forward and placed the photographs on Mam’s bedside table. Lauren stood and went to the window, where Mam has spent so many hours. She tried to imagine the things that Mam would have been thinking.
There was a sudden squeak of car brakes and Lauren instinctively looked down. The postman got out of his van and went around to the back to open his doors. Though it felt like it, life hadn’t stopped.
Lauren came away from the window and looked down at the book on the bedside table. A contraband Mills & Boon special. She picked it up and scrunched up her mouth at it.
“So he never came after all? Even imaginary men are a let-down.”
She put the book back down and looked around the room. There was a vase of plastic flowers; a bottle of unopened face cream; the TV Weekly, still open on the previous day’s listings, and with Mam’s favourite shows circled.
Lauren slumped onto the bed. She picked up Mam’s pillow and put her face in it. She took a long inhale and then placed the pillow back. Then she picked up the photo that Pete had placed there. She held it up to her face.
Her eyebrows dropped. The corner of her mouth skewed. And then she let out an audible gasp.
She put her hand to her mouth for a few moments. Then looked for Pete.
“Pete!” she called out. There was no immediate answer.
“Peter!” Pete appeared in the doorway.
Lauren held the strip of photos up to show him.
“Who is this man?”
“Your father, isn’t it?”
Lauren looked at the photo again.
“No. Absolutely not!”
Pete moved in closer.
“Well who is it?” he asked.
“That’s what I’m asking you!”
Pete sat on the bed next to Lauren and together, they sat in silence, studying the photos.
The strip contained three photo booth photos. Mum was clearly sitting on this man’s lap and in the first photo, they were staring directly into the camera together. The second photo, Mam was looking adoringly at the stranger who was still smiling at the camera. And in the final one, they were kissing. A moment in time, captured forever.
“She looks so happy,” murmured Pete.
“Almost too happy,” said Lauren. She had never seen her mother look so happy and radiant. Never seen her so content. So in love.
And there was a look in Mum’s eye. Lauren recognised it instantly. It was the same look she herself had when she had fallen in love with someone she shouldn’t have.
“Did you read the note?”
Pete pointed at a piece of paper that was lying next to the Mills & Boon book.
She took it and unfolded it. It was unmistakably Mam’s writing. Lauren recognised the beautiful swirls and elegant lines. And for once, it was written with total clarity, like she used to, back in the day.
Lauren read out what was written:
“He’s here! He here! He’s finally here!”
Lauren sat in silence for a few moments and glanced at the photo. Then she turned to Pete.
“So he was real,” she said quietly. “And he did come for her.”