Sally closed her mother’s bedroom door quietly and as she stood in the darkness of the hallway, felt the weight of exhaustion descend. After they had watched the tail lights of the police car disappear around the corner, Hannah had allowed herself to be put back to bed without complaint but also without apology.
Unwilling to return to bed yet herself, Sally drifted to the kitchen. As she passed the phone in the hall, she wondered what her next move should be. She had already had a pay phone installed after Hannah had rung up bills of hundreds of pounds phoning her daughters in Israel, America and New Zealand but it hadn’t stopped Hannah from dialling 999 again tonight. Her eyes adjusted to the dark as she filled the kettle and set it on the stove, shutting her eyes and leaning against the kitchen units as she waited for it to boil. The tiles felt cold under her feet as for the first time, she noticed that she had not had time to put slippers on before answering the door an hour or so before. In the darkness, she caught sight of her reflection in the window and, aware of the ridiculous vanity of the impulse, smoothed down her hair.
Of course, she understood Hannah’s actions: her mother’s hatred and distrust of men, all men, was the product of a marriage which had left her traumatised. At 16, in spite of having others ready to kill (literally) for her hand, her parents married her off to a charming hustler from Burma. They soon discovered him to be without the fortune of which he had assured them, and Hannah discovered him to be without the faith he had pledged to her, when she caught him in flagrante with a chambermaid on their honeymoon. Was there worse? Violence against her perhaps? Though she had only found the courage to divorce him after her daughter, Esther, had led the way in 1960, it was a miserable marriage and her pathological mistrust suggested events of which she could never speak.
Sally wandered out into the dining room. It was too dark to see the pictures on the walls but she knew them by heart: the narrow street in Venice, grand but dilapidated houses rising up on either side of the canal; the bridge over the river in Chartres, tiny ducks in the foreground and the turrets of the cathedral rising behind; the portrait of her niece, Esther’s daughter, and many more around the room and along the hall. Franz had sent them to her, one every couple of years or so while he was still able.
Sally had not married – how could she? Her mother had moved in with her when she first arrived in England, in 1958, and had never left. If there were such a thing as the love of one’s life, she supposed that hers was Franz. They had swept her off her naïve, teenaged feet back in Calcutta, taking her dancing and satisfying her thirsty soul with talk of art and love. They continued to write lengthy, passionate letters after he left. He was older, dashing, sophisticated, and she was devastated when he married someone else. But the letters between them continued. When he took her on holiday, after the break-up of his first marriage, she had allowed herself to think, foolishly, that he might propose to her. Instead, when he sat her down by the Trevi fountain at sunset, he had told her that he was engaged to someone else.
Somehow, she didn’t quite know how, their relationship persisted. Perhaps she just wasn’t cut out for conventionality; perhaps she didn’t feel she deserved to be loved with someone’s whole heart. They still holidayed together annually, through his second, third and fourth marriages, her younger sister, Elizabeth, coming over from Israel to look after their mother, and Sally still looked forward to these weeks away, though with rather mixed feelings now. At first they had been the most dazzling trips. Franz was wealthy, and the luxury of the hotels, the exoticism of the destinations and the passion of her days and nights with him, enabled her to find the joy in the rest of her year. Now, though the resorts were still luxurious, Franz was increasingly infirm and her role was less that of glamorous lover than it was free nurse. Like Hannah at home, he was irritable and argumentative, rude even, in his infirmity. Busman’s holiday.
Of course there had been others. Before Hannah had become ill, she’d even come close to marrying one or two of them but when it came down to it, there was too much to sacrifice. In spite of its apparent difficulties, Sally had no complaints about her life. She loved her work – not so much the job itself as the ‘her’ it made possible. She had a knack with people, was naturally gregarious, warm and humorous, put others at their ease instantly, as she had with the two embarrassed police that night. This, together with her talent for organisation, had made her a valuable PA in the US forces and then the insurance business over the years and she was proud of this capable woman over whom the bosses vied.
Plus, it wasn’t only duty that kept her with Hannah; she loved her, admired her strength and tenacity and though, she could be irascible, they enjoyed each other’s company. There was no denying though, that things were getting more complicated.
As soon as the kettle started to whistle, Sally snatched it from the stove, anxious not to wake Hannah again. She took out the Nescafe and spooned it into the mug, knowing as she poured in the boiling water that she would be asleep again long before it cooled enough to drink it.
As Sally lay back down on the rumpled sheets from which she had been so abruptly roused, she wondered, half asleep already, how long she would be able to continue like this. Hannah was becoming more difficult as she aged, her idiosyncrasies sliding into delusion and dementia. Only recently she had overheard Hannah telling her great-granddaughter, sitting rapt on a small stool at her feet, about a ring given to her by her ‘second husband, a wonderful man, so kind, so generous’ and so completely fictional, as even the young girl had suspected as she caught Sally’s eye with a questioning look.
And then there were the 999 calls. Tonight’s had not been the first but it had followed the usual pattern. Not long after falling asleep, Sally had been woken by an insistent ringing at the doorbell. Struggling to come to, she’d reached for her glasses, pulled on her dressing gown and opened the door to the sight of two uniformed police officers, a man and a woman. They’d first asked her, with concern, whether she was all right, and on being assured that she was, had asked to come in and search the house, having been tipped off by a frantic Hannah that a man had broken in through the window and was raping her daughter. The first time this had happened, the police search had been urgent and thorough, under the beds, in the cupboards, through the border of large shrubs in their garden. This time, now that Hannah had form, it was less so – the weary constables took a cursory glance into each of the rooms in the bungalow, flicking the lights on and off as they did so, then stood awkwardly in the hall, reassuring a still worried Hannah but at the same time gently suggesting that she might be sure of her facts before ringing the emergency services again. Sally could tell they thought Hannah a senile old woman and their comments to Sally herself, suggested she needed to do more to prevent this happening again.
She turned over and pulled the covers up so that the rough blanket touched the side of her face and slept.