As the sun beat down on the back of her neck, Anne gradually eased herself back into a squatting position rather than the down on all fours pose that she had adopted in order to get closer to the roots of the weeds. As she did so she felt the muted stiffness signalling in the lower left hand part of her back. The old war wound playing up. It was always there, of course, and she had acknowledged that as the years had passed the vague pain had risen in volume slightly, but it was still only really background noise. She smiled and wondered how long that would remain the case. Hopefully a while longer, as her youngest still required picking up and comforting and as the girl was now three that was no longer a small weight. Her eldest sometimes asked to be carried and lugged about too, but at seven, her mother felt that she no longer had it in her. The girl was at least two thirds of her height now. Nope, that was a job for her father.
Both girls were with her in the warm garden, helping with various bits and pieces of chores. Well, “helping” in their own special manner at least. Her eldest child, Laura, was lost in thought, her mother could tell. The vagueness with which she lightly stroked the trowel against the soil and the distant look in her dark eyes confirmed this. Damn it if she does not look like me, Anne thought. She could see the forming of the worry line between her daughter’s eyebrows and this in turn caused her to crease her own well worn worry line. With her right hand she scooped up a small heap of earth and gently threw it in the direction of her daughter. Her aim was precise as the dirt fell back to earth with a faint plip in front of Laura’s knees and within her line of vision. The movement catching her eye as her mother had intended and disturbing her from her distant contemplation.
“What’s the matter, Monkey?” Laura now focused her wide brown eyes onto her mother.
“Well, actually,” she paused, and Anne held her breath, “what does happen when people die, Mummy?”
Oh. Um. Ah. Um. Not out loud but inside Anne could hear her own faltering reaction at this unexpected, yet completely natural question. Of course she had expected the question, but not so soon. As she rapidly began to consider how on earth she should begin to answer it, she realised that she had not spoken for a few seconds and in that time
Her daughter had grown inpatient.
“Why do you ask baby?” This seemed as good a place as any to start.
“Because of Mrs Ingham”
Mrs Ingham? Who was Mrs Ingham? Anne tried to mentally count down all the names of importance in her daughter’s life, the list being long and most likely very wrong in places. She had never expected that having children would bring with it this problem. She was bad enough at remembering names as it was, let alone having to remember all the many and varied characters that passed in and out of her daughters’ lives. Part of the problem was that sometimes the names were never to be mentioned again, or indeed they were fictional. “Well Henry thinks I should have a rabbit!” That one had stuck out. “Who’s Henry?” she had enquired. Her daughter’s new best friend? An imaginary friend? A character off Neighbours?
“You know HEN-RY!” her daughter had exclaimed before storming off. Oh excellent, that explains it. Henry was never mentioned again. Perhaps she had stopped speaking to him after his reference did not result in a rabbit. Or un-imagined him. Laura interrupted the memory with
“Mrs Ingham died”
“Who is Mrs Ingham, darling?”
She knew she was risking further wrath from her daughter at this point, and she was vaguely aware that she was using a lot of endearing terms to try and keep an upbeat, comforting tone. But within the small pause that followed Anne felt her heart speed up as she began to worry who this woman was. How close was she to her daughter? Would this affect her? She was not her teacher that much was certain. That’s Mrs Whatsherface, Mrs Pimplebrooke rather. But another teacher? A Music teacher perhaps? Or a beloved class room helper? Why hadn’t there been a letter? Surely the school should have sent a letter. Something along the lines of ‘Please be aware that your child watched their dear Grandmotherly Librarian fall down the school steps and smash her head open, leaving her brain matter smeared all over the floor and as such your child may be experiencing some grief related stress or indeed may have some of Miss Tweedlebum on his or her shoes or clothing.’ Something to that affect.
“The dinner lady.” Anne noted with a quiet relief that her daughter did not seem terribly grief stricken by the passing of Mrs Ingham. But she was troubled and questioning, and understandably so. She was still annoyed that the school had not sent home a letter. Having said that... had they? When was the last time that she had checked the book bag? Useless Mummy.
“Oh dear. How did she die?”
At this her daughter looked up at her in that honest manner that made Anne feel that she was somehow the child and her daughter a little fountain of wisdom, some little Buddha reincarnated in the body of a seven year old.
“Well, I don’t know!”
Fair enough. It was a bit of stupid question to ask. Laura was hardly likely to react to the news with CSI style questioning, “So what exactly was the cause of death, Mrs Perrywinkle?” (Or whatever that blasted teacher’s name was.) Still, a guilty relief began to flood through Anne’s system as it started to dawn on her that her daughter’s first conceit of death had come in a more usual, distanced form, not like for her, not like
That sunny July day many years ago
She pushed her forefinger into her right eye as if to blot out the memory before it rose up, distorting her vision of now. The memory was neither repressed nor acutely painful in that sense. It was just that since she had brought her daughters into this world, Anne’s experiences, her memories, had taken on extra meaning
I don’t want that for her. Please God don’t let that happen to her.
Strange that no one had ever mentioned that. But then, nobody really ever mentions anything. You tend to find out in your own time and have to be reassured that yes, it is entirely normal. In addition Anne had begun to learn that you had to let people work things out on their own. Otherwise there was no learning experience, no development. She sighed.
Despite this she could hardly dismiss her daughter’s question with a knowing, mysterious wink and imply that one day she would work it all out, just as Anne had. Because the thing was, there was no right answer, exactly. Maybe if she had a religious belief it would be easier. You die and you go to heaven, baby, and that’s that! But even then she would like to think that despite her own belief system she would encourage her children to believe in whatever the Hell they wanted to believe in. Anne felt that she would support her daughters in any choice that they made. If Laura weighed up the evidence and decided that after all is said and done, she believed that Gracklar the Lord of the Lower Demon Dimension was our great ruler and that after we drop off this mortal coil we return to his dungeons to make nightmares out of shadows, that would be absolutely cool in her book. As long as felt that Laura had thought it through and come to that conclusion on her own. Although she would of course prefer it if her daughters eventually reached similar ideas on infinity to her own, and those of their father, which were actually very similar. But both Anne and her husband had reached those conclusions on their own. Or at least began to develop them individually and then perhaps influenced one another’s thinking in the natural way that couples might grow together. Or at least that is how Anne saw it.
She looked over at her other daughter, Scarlet, and wondered if she was debating bigger questions on the why and wherefores of reality just yet. As if to answer her question, Scarlet locked eyes with her mother, allowing the cheeky shimmery appearance of them to warn her that mischief was afoot. She then promptly stuck her right fist, which happened to be filled with soil, into her smiling mouth. Perhaps not then. Scarlet’s eyes gleamed with apparent joy at her own naughtiness. So much like her father Anne thought. So much so that whilst Anne knew she should probably intervene before her daughter decided that this was such a good game she compacted her entire skull with their lawn, once again Anne was confronted with the internal struggle of hiding her own amusement at her youngest's actions in order to issue some kind of warning and/ or telling off. It was never any use to attempt to get Scarlet’s father involved in such matters, as long as the actions were not truly naughty or dangerous his eyes tended to flash with pride at his daughters misadventures...
“MUM!” Laura shouted, shattering her mother’s daydream. Quite rightly, in fact, as Anne had drifted off into her own thoughts so much that she had once again failed to speak for a short while and Laura was beginning to grow frustrated by her mother’s apparent lack of interest.
“Hang on a sec,” Anne blustered, “your sister is playing up” implying that this had been the sole cause of her distraction.
Anne scurried over on her knees and sat in front of Scarlet.
“Spit that out please Monkey, it’s not very good for you”
Anne felt her cheeks burn as she remembered happily and hypocritically munching away on mud pies herself in a garden much like this one, over thirty years ago now. Her daughter’s face darkened. Tears threatened. The chin quiver began. Oh for Fuck’s sake, Anne thought. She’s upset because I don’t want her to eat dirt? But Anne hated seeing daughter upset, especially over something trivial. She changed tack at this point. Taking Scarlet’s (grubby) hands in her own, Anne soothed
“It won’t hurt you and you’re not in trouble Monkey, it’s just, people don’t eat soil.”
Scarlet unscrewed her face, which was a good start at least, and looked quite earnestly into her mother’s
“Why?” she asked.
That interminable question! It was worse than when her children had learnt the word ‘No’. Anne had never felt more incapable in her life than when her children asked her “why”. As usual the deep chasm of unknowing opened up beneath her. Before having children she had never felt quite so ill informed. ‘Why is the sky blue, Mummy?’ Because it’s something vaguely to do with gases in the atmosphere and the way that light travels, is, apparently, not a valid response. Especially when it leads to more questions, ‘what does atmosphere mean?’ ‘Does light travel?’ At that point she usually wants to scream, ‘I don’t care, why should you, go and watch the TV why not?!’ But of course, she does nothing of the sort. How dare she be inconvenienced that her children wanted to learn, that they actually think about these things. Isn’t that all she had ever wanted? But you cannot pretend that you have all the answers when you clearly do not, and you cannot lie. So a different path has to be taken...
“Well, why did you eat it?”
“Cus I want’d to t’ste it”. Her voice was muffled by the compacted earth in her cheeks. Anne felt her hand rise towards Scarlet’s mouth as if to remove the soil herself and then pushed it to outwards before it reached its destination, mildly swatting a passing bee before returning it to her daughter’s grasp. The bee went zub, zub, zubbing in the opposite direction, trajectory all confused, and she heard Laura produce a small yelp as it passed near to her.
“And, what did it taste like?”
At which point Scarlet inhaled deeply and swallowed her mouthful.
Ok-aaaay then, Anne thought. She widened her eyes slightly and turned her head, looking fondly at her odd, odd daughter.
“Well, that’s pretty much why we don’t eat it. And eating a little bit won’t do you any harm” a bit too late now if it would anyway “but too much can make you poorly.”
Scarlet looked thoughtful for a moment then seemed to accept this and immediately her eyes unfocused, she let go of her mother’s hands and turned her attention back to her little plastic spade. Anne smiled. Her daughter looked up and beamed at her
“I wunt to colour in”.
“Well if you go the study you can ask your Daddy for some crayons. Don’t you want to help Mummy anymore?”
“Noo!” Scarlet responded, still smiling.
Anne had long ago learnt not to take offence at such honesty. Children usually told you exactly what they wanted or were feeling, with no concept of how it would make you feel. Complete innocence. Scarlet had a way to go before she would start to worry over how the things she said could be perceived by others. How people could take offence by over-analysing what you meant and using it to reinforce their own paranoia. Humans really are very insecure, Anne most definitely included. But then, this is another thing that had changed for her since having children. Anne was now more inclined to believe that when someone said 'I want to do this instead of this', that it genuinely did not mean anything but that. It had nothing to do with not wanting to be with her. Anne had learnt through her children not to take her loved ones choices as rejections.
"Okay then, off you go."
Scarlett wriggled forwards, pushing her bum off the floor as she began the assent to her feet.
"Ooop!" said Anne as she had a sudden thought and reached to scoop up her daughter's tippy cup and pass it to her.
Once Scarlett had reached a vertical position, Anne handed her the beaker. Scarlet took the squat green tub of plastic automatically and plopped the well gnawed nib into her mucky mouth. Scarlet breathed in deeply as she sucked the orange squash up through the beaker lid. It made the usual weird wooshing, wailing noise as the liquid struggled through the bitten down holes. Once done, she released the tippy cup with a sweet exhale and then proceeded to let out a sloppy hacking cough which reminded Anne of her long gone Grandfather. Small children and mucus. They generally seemed to be synonymous with each other. Did it mean that she had a cold? Most likely not. It’s just small children and mucus.
Scarlet plodded off down the stone steps at the corner of the garden, across the cobbles and into the porch. Her journey disturbed one of the cats who had been happily dozing underneath the window in there. Anne knew that at this time of day the sun would hit the ceramic tiles, warming them as if in an oven making them very cosy and toasty to curl up on. She would probably do this herself occasionally if she would not have to fight the cats for prime position. Subuteo the cat strutted past in a manner which implied pure indignation at being rousted from her nap. She gave Anne the look that said ‘someone will pay for this, and you are there, so it may be you.’ Daft old fat cat that she was. She didn’t even catch mice any more, just generally waited for one of the younger ones to and then stood beside them like a Beauty Pageant Mom expecting deflected praise. Anne encouraged their friends and neighbours to believe that they let the children name the pets. This was entirely false. She had liked the name Subuteo for years. But it was much less embarrassing to let people believe otherwise. Her daughters’ suggestions for names were always disappointing predictable. Tabby? Tickles? Why not just call them all John Smith or A. Name and have done with it!
Anne sighed and tried to collect her thoughts. She looked over at Laura, who had busied herself making flower shapes in the fresh soil with her thumb whilst Anne had intervened in Scarlet’s taste exploration of the garden. What to say? How to approach this? If Anne was honest with herself, and she always was, she was going to approach this in the same way she had approached everything so far in the wonderful world of parenting... Work it out as she went along. The technical term for this approach to parenting was of course ‘Winging it.’ But Anne did not like this term, because it pretty much implied that you were taking that approach because you had not put enough thought or care into it. This could not be further from the truth. The thing is that each person, each situation, each event, is relative, so there is no set method for dealing with anything, not really. You had to take each occurrence on a case by case basis. Therefore, Anne and her husband had grown to realise that the only way you could come to a solution for each problem their children presented them with was to break it down and work through it, just as you would with each other. Or of course there was the alternative ‘Go ask your insert other parents name here’. The most evil of all cop outs. Anne never actually did this, well, only in jest. Another sigh, here we go...
Anne stood and walked back over towards Laura to sit on the ground beside her, crossing her legs. Anne gently stroked her daughter’s back to gain her attention. Laura stopped what she was doing and turned her honest, almost sorrowful face back at her mother. Once again Anne was struck by how she must appear when agitated or preoccupied. No wonder people had always told her to worry less. Laura began picking at her sandals distractedly, fidgeting at the holes in the plastic where flecks of dirt had accumulated. Anne loved those sandals. They were an electric blue colour and Anne had chosen them for her daughter simply because they reminded her of some flip flops that she had lost years ago. The only difference being that her flip flops had a pink dragonfly on the front. Anne really did miss those flip flops. Silly little things that once misplaced are never replaced. The older Anne got the more she found comfort in objects and smells that resembled those of her childhood. Maybe it was the sense of familiarity, of feeling safe. Or maybe it is just that cool stuff is cool stuff and is often not appreciated at the time until it’s too late.
“What do you think happens when people die, Laura?”
Laura tipped her head to one side and her frown deepened.
“I don’t know Mummy, that’s why I asked you”
Maybe not such a clever approach then... But Anne still did not suddenly have the answers to life after death, so she persevered.
“Well, Mrs Ingham dying, what do you think that means?”
Argh. Hmm. Not the most eloquent or coherent you’ve ever been, thought Anne. You sound like you’re asking her the same question that she asked you! All at once Anne wished that she was in the bath or reading or just that this conversation would go away and her daughter would go back to playing without a care in the world (Actually when was the last time that she had taken a bath?) Anne had found the transition from the way she used to be when she was childless to motherhood quite difficult, even after all these years. She was naturally a person who enjoyed her own thoughts. She used to spend hours happily pottering away, having the time and the freedom to indulge in whatever the hell she wanted to do. Having children meant that she could not merry away her days in the same old manner, she could not put off until tomorrow what she could do today. She had to be there, she had to focus, and she had to be on her game. Children absorb your attention and your time in a way Anne could not even have conceived of before. Some people took to it like a duck to water. It was like there was always a gap there that children filled just right. Anne was different. Anne was aware that she could have rattled on into old age with her lover and still been very happy with her choice.
But Anne had wanted to meet her children, so had her husband. They had wanted more people like them in the world. Like them, only better. So whilst Anne was aware that she lacked certain fuzzy wuzzy mother hen-esque elements in her make up, she loved those girls, more than she had ever loved anything, accepting their father. But the fact that her love was a part of them and they were a part of him, and her, only intensified her love for the lot of them. It was indescribably awesome. So she had vowed to be the only mother she could be, and took very seriously her responsibility not to slack off and disappear up to the shed at the top of the garden every time the hard questions came out.
“She’s gone away and is not coming to be back.” Laura said carefully. Well, not such a bad question after all, thought Anne. Maybe it’s just that, even at seven, Laura already knew her Mother well enough to know what she had meant.
“But why, where has she gone?”
The why bit put Anne on surer ground. Perhaps she did not hate that word so much after all. Gawd bless you, good old reliable why!
“Because we grew up and we get older and our bodies get older, and there are lots of people in the world, and lots of babies being born, and we need to make room for them, so we have to go one day.”
Anne felt rather pleased with this jam packed summary. The old one in/ one out system! Then Anne’s mind threw up its own why... Why do we get old at all? How does our biology understand this reasoning against over population? Because it does not of course, it’s bollocks. We’re just designed to die after a few years, just like any other animal. How is it that even when she was self consciously trying not to offer up rationalisations and fairy tales about the nature of reality she had walked straight into one because she wanted to tell her daughter the truth in the least hurtful manner that she could think of. Which is why she followed it up before her daughter could respond with
“But that’s just why some of us think that we get old and die. We don’t really know why. We grow up and we get older and we die, just like animals do. Only we usually live longer than most of the animals.”
Anne felt happier with this. It was far more puzzling for her daughter to hear, she was sure, but at least it was not a convenient answer.
“So you die when you get old?”
“No baby. Sometimes we die before we are old. The things that make old people die can make young people die sometimes, and it is very sad because everyone wants to live a long life and stay with their family for a long time. It is far rarer for people to die young though.”
Her daughter did not seem to take this revelation too badly. It was still a remote concept to her of course. To be told that young people can die is far removed from the reality of it. It's like saying that some people can find themselves homeless, unless you have first-hand experience of it, it is the sort of thing that you still would never imagine could happen to you. Anne felt confident that despite this event, Laura would still have far greater concerns if she were to hear that Father Christmas was fictional than she would do concerns over her own mortality. As it should be really. Although Laura won't be believing in the ole' present spewing entity of December for much longer, Anne supposed. Even now she had the faintest idea that her daughter was only humouring them on Christmas Eve when she watched her parents attempt to whip up a frenzy of excitement over the forthcoming entrance of a strange man into their house in the middle of the night via the chimney. Anne's husband tended to be so effective at this that even the dogs picked up on the tension in the room and would run around in confused circles and howl at the curtains.
“Missus Pimplebrooke says that she believes that when we die we go to Heaven. Is that what you think?”
Slyly getting your belief system in there, eh, Pimple Face, using the old ‘I believe’ routine. As if there is any difference between ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’ to ‘It is’ when a teacher is speaking to a child. But then, why was Anne annoyed by this? So the woman tried to explain death in the context of how she understood it. Was that not exactly what Anne was doing?
“Mrs Pimplebrooke is a Christian darling, which is why she believes in heaven. I’m not a Christian, I don’t believe in Heaven.”
“What do you believe Mummy?”
Anne did consider that they had been talking for a little while now and her daughter had not got any closer to an answer to her question. But how to break it down in a more understandable manner? Oh screw it, here goes
“I believe that the people we are in our minds do not just disappear. I believe that even though we are not here in our body anymore, we are still part of the world, in a way. But I don’t think we can understand how until we are dead, and then we can’t come back to tell people! I will tell you a bit more when you’re older. But being remembered by your family and friends means that you are still here a little bit, because they still love you and think of you.”
That seemed as close to what Anne wanted to say as possible. The most appropriate tip of the iceberg to share. Anne’s weird and wonderful ideas on the nature of time, reality, dimensions, empathy, matter and the whole shebang were, she felt, not appropriate to share at this point. Anne’s personal beliefs had been formed as a result of everything she had ever heard and observed. A whole world of influence, filtered through her perspective, resulting in her ideas. Anne wanted Laura and Scarlet to have the same opportunity. Anne wanted to be part of that influence, but not the only part.
This answer, at least, seemed to give Laura pause for consideration. She pouted slightly as she mulled over her mother’s words. As Anne waited for her response, she watched her daughter’s hair sparkle as it moved in the slight breeze and the blazing sunlight. Laura’s hair was so dark it was almost black. Anne’s hair had been blonde when she was born and had only got darker over the years, she was nearly nine before she had become a fully paid up brunette. Laura’s father’s hair, by contrast, was every colour, somehow, just like his eyes. But Laura’s hair was as dark when she was born as her mother’s grew to be. You’re already so different to me, thought Anne, so similar, yet so different. Who knows what you’ll work out?
Then Laura responded with “I think, I don’t know. But it makes me sad.”
This was about the most fitting answer Anne felt that anyone could ever really give on the subject. Although she was fairly sure that her daughter would develop different opinions as she grew, there was time enough for that. For now, there was the garden. Laura gave her mother a small smile, despite what she had just said, Anne could tell that the issue was as resolved for Laura as it was going to be for now. And as such, Anne felt it was time to move on from the subject to happier things.
“You going to stay and help Mummy with the garden?” Anne asked.
“Mmmm hmmm,” Laura nodded, and then her eyes flashed as clearly an idea had occurred to her “but Mummy, can I have some lemonade please?”
Excellent idea my young Padawan! “Of course Monkey, can you pour some for me too?”
“Yup. Can it be the pink lemonade…?” Anne did not know what made pink lemonade, or yellow lemonade so much more special than clear lemonade, but they were most definitely superior.
“Sounds good to me. Oooh! How about some jaffa cakes too? You can put them on the flowery tray thing, are you okay carrying that?”
“Oh yes! Can we really have jaffa cakes?!”
We can because I want them was Anne’s honest answer, but she went with the far less evil “I think we deserve them because we’ve been working very hard this afternoon.”
“O-KAY!” Laura exclaimed, and ran off towards the same steps that Scarlet has descended down, her sandals making a smacking sound as she rounded the corner and raced across the cobbled yard and into the porch.
“Be careful…” Anne called after her. Although she realised that she was already speaking to herself at this point. Pink lemonade and jaffa cakes appeared to warrant light speed reflexes, most likely because Laura was afraid that this offer may be revoked for some incomprehensible adult reason. Whilst Anne was not much of Indian giver, Laura appeared to be taking no chances on this.
Anne uncrossed her legs and stood up, brushing away bits of garden from her jeans. Not that she could brush away the grass stains that she had accrued during the day of course. Anne heard her daughter singing away to herself through the open kitchen windows whilst she prepared their snack, and Anne felt that glow start. Every time her daughters did something that impressed her, or moved her, she felt the ‘glow’ start. The ‘glow’ referred to that feeling Anne got in her belly. It was a warm sensation, which immediately seemed to shoot upwards to catch the back of her throat, which in turn stung her eyes with tears. Not bad tears, but happy tears. Anne was proud of her daughter. Proud of the way she had dealt with this event, and pleased with herself that she had managed to answer the resulting questions without causing too much confusion or dismay. But mostly she was just pleased with Laura. She is such a little dude, thought Anne, and she is my little dude! Well, sort of. For a bit anyway. She won’t need her mother forever though, Anne knew, but that was partly what made the whole thing so amazing. Anne was quite excited at the prospect that one day her daughter would not look to her for answers in the same way, and whilst she knew that this would be hard initially (who does not like to be considered an authority in any instance?) it would mean that she and her husband had done their jobs adequately.
Anne knew that she did not have the answers to life, the universe and all the bits in between, she just had her answers, her ideas. One day Laura would find her own answers, as would Scarlet. Perhaps Scarlet would invent a kind of soil that could be eaten safely in large quantities, to the joy of intrepid children the world over, just to prove a point to her mother. Anne felt that this would be the kind of thing Scarlet might do given that she had seemed to have inherited her father’s defiant nature. Anne looked up into the blue sky and grinned. Her children could grow up to be anything, and that, thought Anne, was pretty much the whole point.