This story, about a friendship between a young mother and her elderly neighbour, appeared in Issue 8 of Pushing Out the Boat: North-East Scotland’s Magazine of New Writing.
by Christine Laennec
I’ll never forget our years on Abergeldie Avenue – not just because the children were babies there, but because of Mrs. Milne. We’d only been there a few weeks when we formally met. I’d seen her leaving her house, a bit tottery but always elegantly dressed and swinging her walking stick as if it was an optional accessory. “I hope I look that good when I’m her age,” I’d said to David. Odd now to think that her looks were the least important of her qualities.
I’d been unloading the car when she came out of her gate.
“Lovely day,” I said – old people always like to remark on the weather. She extended a gloved hand:
“And you are Mrs. –?” Her eyes were keen, appraising. I wasn’t about to say, Oh we think marriage is a useless social convention.
“Please just call me Elisabeth,” I replied. “And that’s Jack, asleep in the car.”
“I’m Mrs. Milne. It’s very nice to make your acquaintance,” she said with a slight bob of her straw hat. Then she went up the stairs to her door, with a straight back and a strong grip on the railing.
We said hello often after that. I noticed she went out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and always to church on Sundays. Sometimes when I was in the back garden with Jack, she would wave to us from her window. Then, our first summer there, Jack began to act strangely. One afternoon I’d taken him out to play. He was walking by then, and loved trying to kick a ball. But this afternoon he went over to the stone wall, and began to drag his head along it. He wouldn’t stop until I reached him, and even then he seemed a million miles away. I looked up and thought I saw a shadow moving in Mrs. Milne’s window.
Within weeks our happy, smiling little boy had left us nearly completely. And Mrs. Milne had invited me for a cup of tea. I went over one evening after Jack was asleep, dreading what this summons would entail. But Mrs. Milne’s house was cosy, and Mrs. Milne was very welcoming. There was a tray ready, covered with a beaded net.
“Elisabeth, would you be so kind as to fill the teapot for me and bring it through? You’ll find the kettle’s just boiled.” She indicated the kitchen with a papery hand, and I realised she wasn’t strong enough to carry the pot of tea herself. When she unveiled the tray, I gasped. Her tea set was exquisite, with bright hand-painted 1920s flowers and gold handles. My reaction pleased her greatly.
“This was my mother’s tea set. I always think tea tastes better in a china cup, don’t you?” I lied and said yes, wondering if I had a single china cup in the house.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked her.
“All my life!” she said, almost laughing. “I’ve never left The Avenue.” It took me a second to realise that “The Avenue” referred to our street. “In fact, I was born right here in the house.”
Her sitting room shifted in my eyes – to a household before World War I. I saw a crying newborn in its mother’s bed, a little girl looking out the window, a young woman bounding down the stairs – all of them Mrs. Milne.
“How unusual!” I said. “It’s not often that you meet someone who’s lived in the same house all their life.” Mrs. Milne smiled.
“I suppose that must be so,” she said. She asked me where I was from (Devon) and why I was here (Scottish husband) and didn’t I miss my family? Yes, I said – not that much, I thought to myself.
I wanted to ask her about her family, but was afraid in case the answer would be a sad one. But she read my thoughts:
“Yes, I’m here all alone now. It’s funny to think I was always a piner as a child. I spent months at a time in bed, with diphtheria and the whooping cough – but I’ve outlived the lot of them! My dear husband died nearly 20 years ago. But you know, I believe we are never alone. Do please have another biscuit. These are my favourites.”
She asked after David and wee Jack, but ever so lightly, and she didn’t pry. When it was time to leave, I took the tea things back to her immaculate kitchen and helped wash up. At the door she clasped my hand in both of hers.
“Thank you for coming to see me, Elisabeth. It’s very dear of you to make time for an old lady when you have such a busy life.”
I said, Not at all, and invited her to come to ours. Her face was pensive. “Well. That’s terribly kind. But – as long as you don’t mind being the tea-maker, it’s much easier if you come to me.” Her hands quivered lightly around mine, and I gave them a squeeze.
“And please,” she said at the door, “Call me Moira.”
“I hope that old woman isn’t going to get her claws into you,” David said. “We have enough to cope with.” And we did. Jack was getting worse all the time. He was just a year and a half. When the GP said, Somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum, I sat on the orange plastic chair with Jack on my lap, shocked. He said he would refer us to a specialist at the hospital, but that it would be a six to eight-month wait. When we got home, David went straight to the internet. Jack started screaming.
“Could you help me with this child please?” I shouted, but David wouldn’t turn around. His shoulders were shaking. I took Jack outside into the cold air. He stopped screaming and pointed to the moon. When we came back in, David took us both in his arms and held us tight.
That evening was the “every other Wednesday,” my night to go have a cuppa with Mrs. Milne.
“You don’t have to go see her, you know,” David said. “Just tell her you’re too tired.” But I wanted to go. Unlike the women at the two’s group, Mrs. Milne didn’t suggest a hundred different things I should be doing. To her I was more than just Jack’s Mum. I’d been looking forward to the cosy sitting room and the 1920s tea set – and Mrs. Milne – all day.
Of course she had noticed. When he wasn’t sitting doing the same thing over and over, Jack would sometimes scream and scream. But she only asked a few questions, and listened to my answers. She didn’t pretend to have a solution, and then we would talk about other things. I loved to ask her about the past: she described the posh department stores, and dancing, and blackout blinds. And she loved to talk about the present. “I can’t make heads or tails of this devolution business, Elisabeth. What do you think? I’m a Scot through and through, but I was brought up to be proud to be British.” She was glad to know that not all families were like the ones on daytime t.v. talk shows. I sometimes felt like an interpreter.
It was coming up to Christmas. It was becoming very clear that Jack needed predictability and routine, and this meant a very low-key celebration with no surprises. It meant more or less cancelling Christmas.
“I’m so sorry for your troubles, my darling,” she said when I told her, and I burst into tears at her understanding. I felt absolutely battered by diagnoses and hands-off compassion.
“Thank you, Moira,” I sniffled. “It’s not really so much Christmas that I mind about. The worst thing is, it’s like a death. It’s as if the real Jack has died and there’s a robot in his place.”
She reached over and squeezed my hand. “Jack is still there. Never lose sight of that. God never does. And remember, the Bible tells us that we are surrounded by an unseen host.”
“Well I wish they would show themselves then, and do something to help!” She chuckled at my outburst.
“Don’t I know, dearie. The times I’ve argued with God! But still – I’ve had some strange experiences. You know, my mother died in this very room. And just before she drew her last breath, I heard a whispering, a kind of rustling. We all of us heard it. Now what do you suppose that was?”
After that, I found it comforting to imagine Jack surrounded by angels. I even asked them to help him calm down, and perhaps it was my imagination, but it did seem to make a difference.
And then she fell. It was on her way to church, and her walking stick slipped from under her on a patch of ice. We went to visit her in hospital, taking turns so Jack wouldn’t upset anyone. When David came back to the car, he said, “That Mrs. Milne is such a sweet lady. Do you know what she told me? She said, ‘Your son has a shining soul. I watch him carefully gather up wee stones and place them around your flowerbeds. And he touches the hydrangea so lovingly. I think he likes flowers.’”
Once she was back home, it was David’s idea to get her shopping for her. “What would I do without you dear people?” she would say. “My Tuesday friends think you are just marvellous.” Each shopping list included: “Fancy piece – whatever E’s heart desires”. By March she was much stronger and could hobble about her house, but she didn’t go out. She gave me money to buy a pot of daffodil bulbs for Jack. She had seen what had escaped us. He loved them at every stage, and tended them assiduously. When they wilted and we planted them out, he seemed already to know that they would come again.
One day when I was bringing her shopping upstairs, I heard her crying in the sitting room. I flew to her side and folded her in my arms.
“What’s wrong, Moira? Are you in pain?” She sobbed into my shoulder and then sat up, wiping her eyes with a violet hanky.
“It’s Ethel.” Her best friend had died.
“My dear,” she said to me one day, “You have no idea what it’s like to be 93.”
“That’s true. But I hope I get to find out!”
“Mornings are simply hell these days. Do you know –” and her eyes were bright and fierce “– that young doctor asked me, ‘Do you think you’re suffering from depression?’ ‘No!’ I said to him. ‘It’s a sin to be depressed!’”
We sat looking out the window at the poplar trees behind both our gardens. It was still very light at 8:00 in the evening now.
“Mr. and Mrs. Crow have raised a fine family this year,” she said. We’d discovered we both loved watching the crows nest and raise their young.
“Perhaps they are Mr. and Ms. Crow,” I suggested, teasing. Moira laughed. “Yes indeed. In fact I think all birds are modern that way! But you know, we are all equal in God’s eyes. And equally loved. That hasn’t changed, nor will it ever.”
We sat watching the parent crows coming and going. And she spoke again: “I wonder what it’s like to die.” Her grey eyes fixed on mine. I put my teacup down and gave it some thought.
“Perhaps it’s like being born,” I said.
“Yes, you might be right. I think –” and then she looked almost through me “—I think it will be like going home.”
When I left that day she told me to take the tea set. I refused, on the grounds that I loved having tea with her from it too much.
“But I want you to have it. Otherwise my nephew will just sell it on.”
The next time I came, we drank from different china cups, and the tea set was parcelled up by the door for me.
“Elisabeth, I had the most wonderful dream,” Moira told me, and her eyes were shining. “I was singing in a choir. You know, I used to have a fine voice. We were in a huge room, a bit like the Beach Ballroom, with light coming down. And I sang the most beautiful song. It isn’t one I’ve ever heard before.” And then in a wavery voice she sang to me:
“Lord hear our prayers
Take away our cares
And fill our hearts
When this was finished she sank back into her chair, suffused with happiness, and perplexity. “What do you think it means?”
“I think –” and here I cast my mind out for assistance from the unseen host. “I think it means you have an important part to play.”
She closed her eyes, smiling. “Oh Elisabeth, thank you.”
It happened – just happened to happen – the next time I was due to visit her. Jack was at his special nursery and I went to get the shopping list. She lay twisted in her chair, but still conscious. She gripped my hand as the ambulance drove us to the hospital. They told me to wait. When I was finally allowed in, she lay unresponsive in a hospital gown. I stroked her hand, and sang softly to her. I sang the song from her dream.
David came, with Jack. Jack was in a quiet mood and kept saying “Moya,” over and over. “It’s time to say goodbye to Mrs. Milne,” we told him, and he solemnly leaned from David’s arms and waved bye-bye. My turn was last. I was trying to be brave and not cry, because I wanted to speak clearly. Her face looked calm, and she was breathing very softly, hardly at all. But I felt she was still there. I kissed her beautiful face and said, “Thank you for everything. I’ll miss you terribly. And I want you to know, if it’s a girl, we’re going to call her Moira.”
Published in Pushing Out the Boat: North-East Scotland’s Magazine of New Writing, Issue 8, 2009. © Christine Laennec 2009.