She was sat in her chair. She’d dressed herself, although I knew that meant no more than to put limbs and head through the holes of the clothing which my brother had ironed and laid out for her the previous night. I thought about the moments between the ironing and her getting dressed. I wondered over which surface the clothes had been draped; had she looked at them during that time; had she thought of them simply as the clothes she would be wearing tomorrow, or as the clothes in which she would say goodbye to her brother?
I leant down to kiss her cheek, but she lifted and turned her head as I did so, and my lips half landed on her lips. ‘You look nice.’ I told her. She did. She wasn’t wearing black, but she looked smart. Dave and I were both cheered to see that she had managed so much of what needed to be done ahead of our arrival. I looked down to make a quick scan of the floor from wall to wall – a habit of old, from when the first job of any visit would be to run the mop across the section of floor flooded with cat piss. But the last of the cats died a long time ago, and the tiles had long since been replaced. Where once there had been puddles of urine and the stench of neglect, there were now just lightly worn squares of brown linoleum and the bounce of soft morning light. I noticed that the hem of my right trouser leg had once more come undone.
I watched Mum get up from her chair: a slow process which never failed to make me feel the full failure of my lean eff0rts to do more for her. She tipped her weight forward into the frame and together they moved from one room to another. I heard her rummaging around in drawers and then calling from the bedroom to say she couldn’t find a needle and thread. ‘Don’t worry; it’ll be fine.’ When, ten or twenty minutes later, she asked me to fetch a book for her, I went into the same room that she had searched to no avail. I found the book in the top drawer of the chest and as I pushed it shut I noticed on top of the chest a small card wrapped with five different colours of cotton thread and skewered with a needle through its centre, and it was a discovery which brought cheer and sadness in equal measure.
There are three chairs in Mum’s living room (as a boy, I had never liked the word ‘lounge’; today, it still strikes me as the most unsuitable term for the room in which Mum does most of her living). I sat down and repaired the bottom of the trouser leg with a needle and black thread. Mum was sat in the chair next to me, leaning forward in her seat as Dave took a brush through her hair. She winced once or twice, pulling the same face that my daughters pull as I brush theirs. When I had finished, I hopped to the kitchen and found a pair of yellow-handled scissors amongst an assortment of other items in the fruit bowl. I trimmed the thread, tied a knot to hold the final stitch in place and then placed the card of cottons with the needle attached into the fruit bowl, along with the yellow-handled scissors, next to the medicines and the keys and those miscellaneous things which, en masse, so often have that habit of looking like they belong to a place they don’t really belong to.
I returned to the living room. Mum was getting into her boots. They were soft and stretchy and they yielded to her heavy, swollen feet as she slid them gingerly inside. The next taxi was due to arrive in ten minutes. Dave still had to get dressed into the suit he had brought over with him, but Mum was nearly ready. She was together. She seemed so peaceful in that moment – as beautiful as I could remember her looking in a long time. My memories, thinly spread as they are, are becoming memories of memories. Recollections of memories of the last time I saw her face. Copies of prints, always fading. But I know she was beautiful.
I looked to the doorway, where her twin brother used to stand at Christmases and at birthdays, only ever halfway inside the home of his sister, standing there so as not to have to sit down; an indication that he would be on his way almost as soon as he had arrived. His face was a mirror of hers, but his was always smiling. There he would stand, smiling, and doing just enough. I was no different: just enough. I wished he could have seen her in that moment: as beautiful as she was; so together and ready to show her love for her brother that one last time. That moment, that ‘now’, which is the greatest of artifices of time as we experience it, which never lasts, which is destined to be the past before we can possibly realise that the promises of the future have deceived us. I wish that now could have lasted, for him to see what I could see. No piss streaking the floor. No stench hanging in the air. No washing stacked in standing water in the sink. No wet bed sheets piled next to the washing machine or in the bath tub. No furnace blast of heat from the fire and not the crimson shins of his sister next to it. Not his sister: dishevelled, or not yet out of bedclothes, or waiting to be washed or served dinner or brought tea. Not the widow. Not the mother of his three nephews. Just his sister. Just his sister: his beautiful twin sister.