Peace Lily – a story about family, love and loss. One of the winners of Stroud Short Stories 2020.
The clock on the wall was white – functional, just like her room. When she first came here I’d brought in curtains from home, some cushions, a few plants. Tried to make it look homely. It never did.
My sister, Jenny, needed something to do, so she’d brought knitting with her. Her hands nimble and quick across each stitch. She sat upright in the chair as if sitting on the bus waiting for her stop.
‘I didn’t know how long we’d be here,’ she said. Knit one, purl two, the clack of the knitting needles in time with the ticking of the clock.
I moved my chair closer to the bed and stroked Mum’s arm.
‘She’s chilly.’ I put her arm under the cover leaving out the tip of her hand. The nurse had clipped a monitor to her finger.
‘It’s the lack of oxygen, it’ll make her feel colder than usual,’ mumbled my brother, Tom.
He stood up and walked over to the small window, which looked out onto the car park.
I tucked the bed cover in a little tighter.
Knit one, purl two, knit one.
‘It’s a blessing, I guess,’ I said. ‘That’s what everyone says, isn’t it?’
I looked at the pot plant which sat on the corner of her dressing table. Its leaves had once bounced with life but were now yellow and hung down.
‘Peace Lily,’ I said. ‘Aren’t they meant to thrive anywhere?’
‘No idea,’ my sister said. ‘Chuck it in the bin.’
‘There’s life in it yet.’ I walked over and picked up the plant, gently pulling off the worst leaves. ‘No wonder. It’s bone dry.’
I took it into the en-suite and manoeuvred the pot under the cold tap, watching bubbles of water jump out of the soil and splash into the sink. The water left a trail of brown dirt as it drained away.
‘Waste of time,’ said my brother as I placed the plant back onto the dressing table.
‘There’s always hope,’ I said.
‘For fuck’s sake.’ He spun around, picked up the plant and threw it in the bin. ‘I’m going for a smoke.’
We both watched as the pneumatic closer slowly set the door in its frame.
‘He hates this,’ said Jenny, halting her knitting for a moment.
‘He never visited her once,’ I said, bending down to retrieve the plant.
Jenny started up the click-clacking once more and shrugged her shoulders.
‘We’re not all so… capable,’ she said.
I sat with the plant on my lap. Water seeped out from the bottom leaving a mark on my skirt.
The door opened and a nurse walked in, efficient and stiff. I stood up so she could take Mum’s pulse and straighten her covers.
‘Do you have any idea how long it could be?’ Jenny asked. ‘I need to be somewhere this evening?’
‘I’m afraid not. At least she’s peaceful.’
The nurse tucked Mum in and then walked towards the door.
‘Let me know if you need anything,’ she said as she left the room.
I moved over to the window and put the plant down on the sill. I could see Tom talking to a couple of nurses in the car park. They were laughing at something he’d said. One nurse put a hand on Tom’s arm and leant in towards him.
‘He’s flirting with them. Even today.’
Knit one, slip stitch over. Jenny concentrated on her stitches. Tom looked up and saw me in the window, took a step back from the nurse and threw his cigarette on the floor, grinding it into the ground with his foot.
‘Going anywhere nice this evening?’ I asked as I turned away from the window and moved back towards the bed.
‘It was arranged a month ago.’
‘I just thought….’
‘What?’ She put her knitting down on her lap. That I’d change my plans? Damn, I’ve dropped a stitch.’
‘She couldn’t even feed herself.’
‘She had you,’ said Jenny.
Tom walked back in the room; the smell of smoke clung to his jacket.
‘The nurse is bringing us some tea,’ he said and hung his jacket over the back of the chair.
‘The nurse you were chatting up just now?” I said, as I sat back down in my chair. I brushed my hand over the stain the plant had made on my skirt. ‘How’s Jilly? Still living with her sister?’
The knitting needles stopped. The ticking clock filled the silence in the room.
‘You know Jilly’s not been well,’ said Jenny.
‘I know Tom’s moved out and left Jilly’s sister to look after her.’
I turned towards him.
‘You’re good at that, aren’t you – leaving?’ I said.
Tom moved towards me. He placed a hand on each arm of my chair and leant down. I could smell smoke on his breath.
‘You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.’
He spoke slowly, emphasising each word. I turned away from his stale breath and stroked Mum’s hair.
‘Leaving is easy,’ I said.
The nurse who’d been talking to Tom in the car park came in with three cups of tea on a tray. Her blue starched uniform shushed as she walked. She placed the tray on Mum’s dressing table, spilling a little out of each cup as she manoeuvred it into place. Tom stepped back, avoiding her gaze.
‘That’s so kind, thank you,’ chirped Jenny as she carried on with her knitting.
‘I’ll just check on Mum, if that’s OK?’
I walked into the en-suite to get paper towels from the dispenser. I could see the nurse holding Mum’s wrist.
I wiped the bottom of each cup and placed Jenny’s on the over-bed table, next to her handbag. I handed a cup to Tom but he shook his head, so I held it in both hands, letting the warmth turn my fingers red.
The nurse took one last look at Tom before leaving.
Tom shifted in his chair.
‘I need to go,’ he said. ‘I promised Jilly I’d pop by.’
He looked at me but I said nothing and sat back down in the chair next to the bed. Jenny glanced up at the clock.
‘I didn’t think we’d be here this long.’
‘Why don’t you both go,’ I said, stroking Mum’s arm. ‘Go home.’
Jenny looked at Tom.
‘We don’t want to leave you,’ she said. ‘If only it wasn’t today, I really do have to go to this dinner with Gerry, it’s important to him. Could mean promotion.’
Tom stood up and put on his jacket. He briefly touched Jenny’s shoulder before walking over to me.
‘Get in touch if anything changes,’ he said and walked out the door.
I thought I heard him say I’m sorry as it closed behind him, but it may have been the sigh of the door closer. Jenny was stuffing the knitting into her bag. She stood up and slugged back the last few gulps of tea, walked towards the dressing table mirror and checked her appearance.
‘Hope I’ve got enough time to sort this mop out,’ she said as she tucked her hair behind her ears.
She placed her handbag on the side and picked out a gold-capped lipstick which she applied, blotting her lips together before dropping the lipstick back into her handbag.
‘Are you sure you’ll be OK?’ she asked. ‘At least you haven’t got anyone at home waiting for you. Gerry goes mad if I’m late.’
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Yes. Well then…’ She paused by the bed for a moment and reached out her hand towards Mum, hesitated, then touched my arm.
‘Text me when… you know…’ And then she left the room.
Everything was quiet, apart from the clock on the wall. I looked over towards the dressing table. Jenny’s knitting had slipped out of her bag, probably when she was searching for her lipstick. It lay on the floor, a pile of jumbled stitches. A few had slipped off the needle. I picked up the knitting and slowly, carefully knitted them back on. The tension wasn’t the same, but at least they were back together.
Mum made a small puffing sound. I dropped the knitting and turned around to face her. Her chest was still, completely still. I sat down heavy in the chair and held her hand, I don’t know how long for, the two of us, together, in silence, until the nurse walked in.