Looking at Lily
I knocked softly and stepped inside. She was sitting at the back of the room, looking vacantly at the space I walked into. The smell of disinfectant hung heavy in the air, masking something worse. I took an awkward position on her footstool. I vaguely noted that the tasseled hem decorating the bottom of the stool, had come loose.
‘You must be careful not to trip on that, Cathy’ I offered. She turned her gaze toward the loop of tassels draped across the floor, but said nothing. I leaned over to hold her hand. It was cold and silky to touch, a colourful scribble of veins bulged through milky and transparent skin.
‘Are you feeling better today?’ I asked, looking into her face. She did look a bit better, the grey colour that had alarmed me the day before had become a pale peach, and her eyes, though sunken, were brighter and followed my movements. She didn’t acknowledge my question but again switched her gaze towards where my hand had rested over hers. A strange crack erupted from her mouth.
‘I-I did trip.’ She spoke in a small, broken voice, her breath quickening and catching in her throat.
‘When?’ I asked, worry making it sound a little more aggressive than I intended. Without replying, she looked away, towards the window which boasted a few wilting flowers. I waited another few seconds for a reply, but none came. I gently squeezed her hand.
I sat with her for around two hours, mostly in silence. A nurse came by once and dropped off some anaemic tea, which she didn’t drink. I wondered if she had ever told them that she takes her tea black. The painting was still there, but seemed more ordinary that day, framed so simply and propped up against her wardrobe. I studied it for a while, reluctantly listening to her irregular breath. The child looked up out of the picture, as if she had been posed a question. Green eyes flecked with amber protruded from a round and open face. Dark hair tangled around a blue collar, which was done up around angular shoulders. I looked back towards Cathy. She had started shaking faintly and an excess of fluid was gathering on her lips. I got up to leave, kissing her on both cheeks. She was so fragile. I told her I’d be back when I could and left.
She took a turn for the worse and died two weeks later. I had a call from the home at around one-a.m saying that she didn’t have long. I got in the car immediately, but it was a forty minute drive and when I got there she was already dead. They allowed me to see her even so, and I sat with her for a short while. I felt frightened being alone with her body, as if she may have come back to life, though why I was afraid of that I’m not sure. The flesh on her face had dropped around her skull and changed her appearance entirely. Her mouth was a little too far open to be dignified. I said a prayer for her, though it was self-conscious and insincere. I felt He knew I was a fraud.
As I sat with her body I focused on snatches of memories I had with her. The day we had first met, I had been living in the next door bungalow for almost three months. I had been taking the bins down the narrow path which leads from my home to the street, and over the privet hedge had seen her doing the same. Her bins had been very neat and I remember feeling embarrassed of mine; stinking, bursting out over the top of the lid and clinking with far too many empty wine bottles. She was struggling with her bin, so I offered to help her- she must have been in her late seventies. She told me that she felt useless and asked if I wanted tea, but I politely declined. About a week later, I ran into her again and when she offered tea this time I could think of no excuse quickly, so followed her into her home.
Her house was strange. It was not like a normal house inhabited by the elderly. There was no William Morris patterned wallpaper, no mahogany ornament cupboards, no tassel hemmed sofas or gilt framed paintings on the walls. There was no clutter of a life lived, no accumulation of trinkets and no picture frames filled with toothless, grinning grandchildren getting older. It didn’t have a musty, mothy smell, or in fact a clinical one. The air was like the house; light, clean, soft. The furniture was light beech wood and the walls were mostly bare, the space interrupted only by the odd mirror, plain framed and strategically placed to give the illusion of yet more empty space. It unnerved me as I sat, desperately looking for something on which to rest my eyes.
We drank black tea and talked mostly about the weather, tennis and politicians. She voted Conservative. Conversation was stilted. I wanted to be back in my bungalow, reading my book under a fleecy blanket.
‘How long have you been here?’ She asked me.
‘About three months now’ I replied.
‘It’s a nice area-’
‘-Yeah. It is.’
‘I feel safe here.’ She looked down at her tea and took a sip of the hot air swirling above it. She wasn’t in the room, but somewhere else entirely. Her expression saddened and her eyes became wet and blinked. I felt uncomfortable so tried to change the subject. She ignored me.
‘It is such a wonderful thing, feeling safe. Many take it for granted.’
I nodded in agreement.
* * *
I could hardly breath, his weight bore down on me. His limbs sagged around me and his thick chest was suffocating. I searched for air between each movement, annoyed I was here again. This one was monstrous, a layer of fat encircled a pack of muscle which had clearly been gained by artificial means. I was bored by him, bored by his need to terrify and dominate. I could imagine him, stalking around the seedy bars in town, picking fights with other brutes like himself, and slapping the arses of young girls in tight skirts. His face was as ugly as his personality, he had big floppy lips, which hung loosely away from his face. His eyes were pulled down in the corners, and his nose was short and bulbous. I felt drowsy, I was so drunk, I could hardly feel anything, and he was going at it like a pneumatic drill. I could see he felt like a hero, he was imagining I could barely take him, he was imagining me urging him to fuck harder, wildly caught up in the pain and pleasure of his masculinity. I was mildly entertained by his expression, a sweaty, glazed, determination. I lay in silence, watching him. He was drunk too, he kept losing his balance and rhythm. Eventually it stopped, he gave up. I waited for him to fall asleep, gathered up my things and left.
Stepping into the cold, saliva rushed into my mouth. I threw up on a tree. It was already 7.30am. An old woman stared at me, I stared back, daring her to speak, though I was mortified. I had to meet a woman later. I couldn’t remember her name. She had called me about three weeks before asking if we could meet. My Grandmother had died, she said she’d been trying to find me for months. I felt shocked at the time, and said I didn’t want to meet her. But I changed my mind.
We met in a coffee shop in town. It felt very public, I hadn’t had time to shower. I felt sure I smelt sickly, of sugary alcohol and sex. When I arrived she was already there, sitting reading a book by the window. She was older than she had sounded on the phone. Her hair was long, wavy and loose, it looked as though it used to be red, but had dulled to brown. She couldn’t have been very interested in her book as she looked up the moment I walked in. She smiled at me, an open smile which made me instantly warm to her. She got up as I came over and held her hand out, I shook it awkwardly but she had a reassuring grip. She introduced herself as Iris, and ushered me to sit down. Though she was friendly, there was something reserved in her behaviour, a respectful formality towards me that I wasn’t used to. She explained why she had called me. She had been my Grandmother’s neighbour, and friend. I tried to picture my Grandmother’s face, but I could only imagine the old woman who had stared disapprovingly at me earlier in the day. She had been asked to search through her things, and had found some of my Mum’s belongings.
That frightened me. I felt energy rush to my legs, I wanted to run. She missed my discomfort and continued. There was a painting, she said, and she thinks my Mum painted it. Though the signature was sprawled, she said.
* * *
Meeting Lily was strange. She wasn’t as I expected, I had heard from Cathy in the early part of our relationship that she was a troubled young woman. I had imagined a surly and mature face riven with hardship and coarsened by the elements. In fact, she looked young. I knew she was twenty-seven, but she looked about nineteen. She was very slight, with thin skin which had the same peachy glow as Cathy. She was quite beautiful in a haunting way. Her hair was dark and hung lank around her face. I felt quite sure now that the painting was of her, though her eyes seemed darker, a mossy green, and the bright amber flecks had dulled to mottled rust. She looked tired and bleary eyed and she smelled of stale smoke. I didn’t know how to approach the subject of her Mum. Cathy had told me what she knew of the story. She told me that Lily’s Mum, Annie, had left her when Lily was very young. Too young to be without a mother. One night Annie had asked Lily to go to her friends house for the evening, but had never picked her up. Later it was discovered that whilst Lily happily played, Annie took the car to a shadowy spot. There, she had used carbon monoxide to quietly kill herself.
I remember Cathy telling me about Annie one evening, as she sat across her kitchen table from me. It’d been late and I’d been exhausted.
‘She didn’t feel- safe’ Cathy said. ‘It started when she was about seventeen. She always checked the cupboards before bed..- would ask me secret questions when I wanted to speak to her. Like she was making sure I wasn’t an impostor. Her world was so frightening.’
Her fingernails scraped away a small smudge of food left on the table.
‘Then it sort of-... went away. She started doing better, needed less medication. She seemed almost- h-happy. Mindful. She started painting, though she never let me see.’ She went quiet and shifted in her chair. Her eyes were almost fully closed and her eyelashes glistened.
‘Then she fell pregnant with Lily.’ Another pause, as if waiting for me to gasp in horror.
‘It was so unexpected, but I was- I was thrilled. It was selfish. I think perhaps I thought it might help. Give her meaning- you know? She had certainly given me mine. It was too much for her though. I tried to help as much as I could- but she turned on me. Shut me out completely. She wouldn’t let the poor child out of her sight. She stopped bringing her round. Then she stopped taking her to school. I told social services, and they took Lily away from her for a while. Annie never forgave me for that. She said she was just trying to protect Lily. I told her that it was her that Lily needed protection from. I didn’t mean it though, I was upset. I was glad when she got her back.’ Cathy stopped again. I stifled a yawn, sleep was fast encroaching. It was very late.
‘After she- Annie died, I looked after Lily, but she was crushed. She didn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t tell her how ill her Mother was. She was so angry, she wouldn’t have heard it. It was all left unspoken, always an uncomfortable presence which I tried to suppress. I should have told her.’ Cathy looked so frail as she spoke, but yet she was so eloquent. I tried to stop the approaching yawn once more.
‘I’m sorry. You are tired, you should go home, to sleep. I have prattled on for hours.’ She straightened up and wiped over her face with her hands. I apologised and told her to carry on, but she had already lifted herself and was getting my coat.
* * *
The second time I met with Iris I felt more relaxed. I had showered and washed my hair. This time she picked me up in her car- it was the rustiest car I had ever seen. But it smelt like lavender and there were Rolo’s in the glove compartment, which she made me eat. I felt like a child again, though it wasn’t her fault. We drove for about an hour and we talked a lot. I asked if she was married and if she had kids. She told me cheerily that she wasn’t married, but would like to be someday. She said she loved children, but that she had never found the right man. I wondered if it was too late for her, the front strands of her hair had begun to turn silver.
We arrived at her house and went inside. The smell of lavender was even stronger here. Her house was cluttered and colourful. There was an open fireplace with a stack of wood next to it. I could see the painting resting against the sofa, but it was facing away from me so I couldn’t see the picture. It made me feel strange. Sort of happy and sort of frightened. I never knew my mother had painted. Pretending I hadn’t noticed it, I carried on talking to Iris, gratefully taking the tea she handed to me. She followed my eye line though and lead me round to look at the painting.
I stared at the image in the frame. Iris was right, it was definitely me. I had seen a few pictures of myself when I was that age, and it was a very careful painting. My heart fluttered a little and I felt sick.
* * *
Cathy asked me to help her sort through her things when she moved into the home. I happily agreed. Sorting through her immaculate, empty house would surely be a far easier job than it would be sorting through my own house, which was brimming with ‘things’ I hadn’t been able to let go.
I hadn’t bargained for an attic. The ceiling was low and it was dim lit and dusty. Papers, clothes, photographs, christmas decorations. I brought everything down and consulted Cathy on the fate of each. As I got towards the back of the attic I came across Annie’s paintings. There were so many of them, and they were powerful and beautiful. But they were of such disturbing images. One showed a black cat, which was screaming and had blood dripping from it’s eyes. It’s throat was cut open and a pair of hands were reaching out of the wound as if they were drowning. Another showed a jovial summer scene, but by a tree in the background there stood a black hooded figure, and around the figure the colours were confused and merged into a dark and sticky purple. Only one was framed though, and it was so different to the others. It was done in water colours where the others were in thick acrylic. It was so bright, and serene, so attentive- and so life-like. It was the picture of Lily.
* * *
I told Iris a bit about my life. That I had left my Grandmother’s house when I was seventeen. About the boyfriend I had met that she didn’t approve of- he had had a tattoo of a burning crown on his chest and he smoked a lot. That I didn’t like living with her. I likened it to a therapists office. Everything had been beige and calm. She’d always glided around silently, not wanting to make any sudden moves in case somebody topped themselves. When I said that, Iris laughed and said she understood what I meant.
She told me there were more paintings, which I could see if I wanted. I did want, but I still couldn’t stop shaking. I said I wanted to look at them on my own. I liked Iris a lot, but I was worried I might cry. I was far too old for that. Iris told me where they were and said she would pop out to the shops, then. I sat with them cross legged on the floor.
One by one I looked through them. They were so dark and frightening. I studied them very carefully. They were strangely beautiful. So horrible, but beautiful. The world within them was bleak and joyless. Except the one of me, which was different. There was no fear, no confusion. The frame had covered some writing. The handwriting was sprawled, but I think I understood. ‘Lily’ it read, ‘Lily. My child, I will protect you’.