The Secret Bluebells
The Secret Bluebells
My father died last month. Shortly after his death, my mother began to behave very strangely. She started to mutter to herself and tap the furniture as if waiting for an answer. She moved things around and put them in obscure places. I found a book in the fridge and a pair of my father’s shoes in the shower. If one of us asked her anything, she pursed her lips and pretended that she hadn’t heard, so that getting any kind of an answer from her was nigh impossible.
Presently, she was sitting in her favourite chair by the window and staring out at the garden. She was eighty years old, yet still exhibited the beauty that had propelled her into a modelling career. Indeed, she had adorned the covers of many leading fashion magazines and graced catwalks all over the world. None of her children, including me, had been blessed with those fine bones.
Naturally, we put her odd behaviour down to dad’s death; after all, they had been married for over fifty years. Like her, he had been tall and blonde – a perfect match. I was the only daughter out of four offspring.
We were at a loss as to what to do.
Mother got worse. She had begun to point at things, jabbing her finger angrily at some distant object. If she looked like getting up from her chair and one of us went to help, she waved us away. But if we didn’t make an effort to help her, she sulked and wouldn’t speak to us for the rest of the day. When we made food for her she wouldn’t eat it. If we turned on the television she would ignore it. If we didn’t turn it on she’d sit and stare at the blank screen.
My brothers, and I can’t say I blamed them, visited less frequently.
As I was the only one currently not in a relationship, and the one who lived closest to our mother, the onus fell on me to look after her. And it was a living nightmare.
She shunned me in a way that verged on cruelty, upsetting me so much that the day came when I’d had quite enough. She wasn’t my mother anymore; she was an alien.
I called the surgery. I needed advice on how to deal with her, I think I said. The words came out wrong, I know, but I was at the end of my tether.
I discussed my mother’s behaviour with her doctor, who confirmed that it was probably just grief and that time would, as always, be the healer. He also intimated that she could possibly be experiencing the onset of dementia and decided that he would give me a letter so that I could make an appointment at the hospital for her to do some simple tests. These would give an indication of the stage, if any, at which my mother was experiencing dementia. Should the outcome show that this was the case, the doctor suggested that I may have to think about moving her into specialised care, or perhaps employing a full-time carer if she would be happier living at home.
I returned to my mother’s, all the while wondering how I would get her to the hospital in the first place. And even if I succeeded, would she actually do all these tests? I doubted it.
I sighed and walked into the lounge. Her chair was empty, her tea untouched. On the dining room table I noticed a cut crystal vase packed full of bluebells, the water threatening to overflow at so much as the breath of a passing butterfly.
She had picked flowers? That was promising. Mum had always loved flowers. The thought was poignant and I suddenly felt sad. I just wanted her back, the way she had always been, caring and funny.
I walked around the house calling for her, pushing doors open to all of the rooms. The house was empty. Therefore, she must be outside. I opened the back door and stood on the step, appraising the garden, the path, the tool shed, and any other places that might give a clue as to her whereabouts.
At the bottom of the long garden I perceived movement, so I began to walk along the path, thinking that it was about time it was weeded.
It was a lovely day. Spring flooded the air and my spirits rose, filling me with hope. Warmth caressed my face and I loved how the young sun was coaxing the flowers and plants to open their buds and flaunt their beauty. There was scent in the air too – the delicate perfume from early arrivals. I felt a breeze linger on my cheek as I watched the sun’s rays sparkle through the trees, over the garden and beyond. Blackbirds and thrushes sang, and when not singing, diligently picked up bits of grass and twigs for fledgling nests.
Where was my mother?
I glimpsed her underneath the oak tree, standing in a bed of bluebells. I couldn’t believe how many there were; a sea of violet-blue flowers, nodding at her in the breeze like an appreciative audience.
I found myself creeping up silently, like a sniper. She was bent over, picking bluebells with one hand, resting the other on the oak tree.
I hadn’t made a sound but she knew I was there.
“He used to love bluebells, darling.”
Really? It was the first I knew about it. In fact, associating Thomas Piers Swift with anything other than a golf club in his hand was hard to imagine. Certainly not bluebells.
“Oh. Okay, mum.”
“But of course you never met him.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. So this was what dementia was about. The doctor was right.
I couldn’t speak. I walked up to her and touched her arm. I pointed at the bluebells around her feet… would you like me to pick some for you?
She smiled. “Oh, yes. I’d quite like another vase full.” She sighed. “Oh, I do wish you could have met him, Cathy, but of course, it wasn’t possible.” She paused. “Or was it? Oh, I don’t know, it’s all so confusing. Anyway, it’s too late now.”
My mother had spoken more in those few moments than she had in the past month.
“Well, I’m sure dad would have appreciated the bluebells.”
She laughed. “Your father? Oh, don’t be so ridiculous Cathy. He wasn’t interested in flowers, you know that. He would probably have mowed them down with those bloody golf clubs of his.”
I stared at her in astonishment. “But mum, who are you talking about?” Light dawned and it wasn’t welcome. “Look, I know things weren’t always great …”
She pushed herself upright and stared into my eyes. “Do you really? What things, Cathy?”
What strange questions. With moist eyes and a sinking feeling, I asked, “Are you saying there was someone else, mum?”
She smiled and she looked beautiful. She appraised me with soft green eyes, “Oh, Cathy, if only you knew…”
I wiped away an angry tear. I didn’t want to be having this conversation. I grabbed the bluebells from her hand and dashed them to the ground.
Instantly, she slapped me across the face. “How dare you! Now pick them up!”
I stared at her, stunned.
“I said pick them up!” Her eyes blazed with anger, but they showed something else too. Hurt, perhaps? Betrayal?
I bent down and picked up the scattered flowers, rearranged them as best I could and handed them back to her.
She angrily snatched them from me and began to stride back to the house, every now and then in danger of careering off the path.
I didn’t go after her. I was rooted to the spot, shocked.
The sun glinted off something requiring my attention. I noticed metal between the roots of the oak tree, almost hidden by the bluebells. I stepped gingerly through the flowers to the object. I didn’t care about secrets any more and I unhesitatingly yanked it out of the soil. It yielded easily – this had been done many times before. It was a small silver box.
I opened the lid and found myself staring at a photograph of my mother with a man, both of them dressed in tan safari outfits. I frowned. I had certainly never seen her wearing safari clothes before.
The picture was in colour and looked fairly recent. I wondered where it had been taken and who had given it to my mother. Him, I guessed. He was a good-looking man, grey-haired, with a moustache. I didn’t know him. Underneath this picture was another, then another, all the way back to black and white photographs. He became more darkly handsome and she more beautiful as the years peeled away. There were trinkets in the box, too. Among them I found a gold ring adorned with an amethyst stone. My heart missed a beat – an engagement ring? Underneath it was a dried flower; a bluebell. There were private letters too, addressed to ‘My darling Esme’. Many of them were old and the paper had become yellow, the writing barely legible. I replaced them quickly. I had no desire to read intimate love letters, especially my mother’s.
I returned the box to its home at the bottom of the oak tree, then sank to the ground and sat back against its sturdy trunk, staring at the birds, the weeds growing in the path – and the bluebells. I wondered if dad had known, or at least suspected anything. Had he also had a lover? And if so, had he given her bluebells too? I began to cry.
Eventually, I got up and walked slowly back to the house, leaving my mother’s retreat and her lover. As I approached, I glimpsed her watching me through the window.
I walked into the lounge. “Who is he?” I asked.
She shook her head, her eyes brimming with tears. “It no longer matters, darling.”
“It does to me.”
Her tears spilled. “Was, darling. He died last month, just a day after your father. Can you believe that? Anyway, the first flowers he ever gave me were bluebells.” She looked down at the ones in her hands. “I am so sorry for slapping you and for my recent behaviour. It’s just that I have so many memories… of your father… and of Peter. To lose them both at the same time was just unbearable, and I couldn’t tell you, none of you.” She touched my hand. “I just wanted to be on my own with my memories and to think back on all the wonderful times.” She turned the ring on her finger. At least she was still wearing dad’s wedding ring. “And I miss them so much.” She looked at me. “I want you to understand that I loved your father, Cathy, and that I would have walked to the ends of the earth for all of you.” Her gaze returned to the window, and beyond.
I let my mother dream. I wanted to ask her so many questions but I wasn’t sure where to begin and now wasn’t the time; it was clear that she didn’t want to be disturbed. I stared at the bluebells in the vase instead, feeling numb and isolated, and believing them to be more important than me, or my brothers.
I was still staring at them when my mother began to speak. “I met Peter at the same party as your father, Cathy. Oh, what a fabulous evening it was. Such fun!” She chuckled, “And, do you know what?… I fell in love with them both.”
“I see,” I said.
I took the doctor’s letter from my handbag and tore it in half.
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