As Happy As…
A short story
Zizi was dabbing perfume below her nostrils, before entering the cottage, when she saw Bill peering curiously through the glass in the front door. As she let herself in, ammonia burned her throat and eyes.
‘Where is she, Bill?’ Zizi asked, blinking and swallowing.
Bill grunted and waddled away, his fat backside lurching left and right, and his breathing laboured.
‘Rude pig,’ she snapped, pulling her feet up and away from the newspaper sheets that were sticking and tearing as she walked into the kitchen.
‘Mum?! It’s me.’
Bill sighed and settled himself in his favourite place in front of the hot stove, watching Zizi struggle, with exaggerated steps, across the cluttered floor. She filled the kettle and removed a bucket of poultry food from the table. Then she grimaced into stained cups and tilted up an empty washing-up liquid bottle, repeatedly squeezing it in vain.
‘Ziziphus Jujuba! My darling! My little fruit of love! How delightful!’ Cynthia appeared from the garden, ducks and chickens at her heels, and with a bunch of sweet peas in one hand, threw her arms wide and hooted at her daughter in a sing-song voice as if she was clucking over a baby.
Zizi dipped her head and endured her mother’s cooing and petting. A noise resembling a faulty car exhaust escaped from Bill as he turned his head away in apparent disgust and closed his eyes.
‘Oh, Bill. It’s my baby – my little baby! Don’t be jealous.’
‘Mother. It stinks. It really stinks. THEY stink…’ She clapped the birds out of the house, ‘…and HE stinks.’ Zizi stared at Bill. ‘I know you love him in your own little way but…’
‘I love him in EVERY way. My darling little Billy. How could she say such things.’ Cynthia looked lovingly over at the rumbling mass.
‘ “Ev-ery way”? Ugh. Next you’ll be telling me you sleep with him!’
‘Don’t be silly. He’d never get up onto the bed!’ Cynthia laughed. ‘Anyway. Bill knows I sleep with Rose from the Post Office.’
‘It’s not funny, mother.’
‘I know it’s not. Her husband threatened to shove one of my chickens up my rear if word ever got out.’
Cynthia shuffled slowly to the sink with the sweet peas and tried to lift a vase from the cupboard below. She winced and Zizi heard a sharp intake of breath.
‘What’s wrong, Mum?’ Zizi took the flowers and bossily pointed her mother into a chair. Cynthia groaned gently as the weight shifted.
‘Oh, it’s just my hips. Happens to us all eventually.’
‘You shouldn’t be running around after that stupid pig all day. And the chickens. And geese. And ducks. And heavens knows whatever else you’ve acquired since last time I was here.’
‘They’re my grandchildren substitute.’ Cynthia laughed a little too loudly and cocked her head provokingly.
‘That’s a bit below the belt. Anyway – you’re terrible with children. You can’t even name them properly – or take into consideration the terrible bullying consequences.’ Zizi plonked the flowers on the table and turned back to make tea.
‘Oh, come on,’ Cynthia protested, ‘unusual names are all the rage.’
‘These days, yes, but not Latin tree names – in the seventies mother, when everyone else at school was called Kevin, Maria and Deborah.’ She stirred the drinks then set them down on the table and pulled out a seat for herself. ‘At least they smell nice.’ She nodded at the sweet peas, then opened her bag and took out some sheets of paper. Placing them in front of her mother, she began her rehearsed speech.
Cynthia felt tired and let the first few sentences wash over her as she continued watching her favourite old pig resting on the floor but she soon realised what Zizi was getting at and looked down at the papers. ‘A terraced bungalow?’ she interrupted. ‘How boring. How samey. How… Horizontal. Move? I’ve no intention of ever moving.’
‘Not even for my sake?’ Zizi pleaded. ‘I worry about you all the time. Wondering if you’ve had a fall or caught a nasty disease. You must know that this isn’t hygienic?’ She gestured around her. ‘It’s not clean. It’s not safe. Sometimes I wonder if… If you’re coping.’
‘Of course I’m coping. It’s just that one’s priorities about appearances change as one gets older. And you don’t need to worry about me. I’ve got Rose.’
David’s valiant attempts at an amorous connection later that night were in vain as Zizi lay on her back trying to blink away vision after vision of her mother’s stinking, cluttered house, the dangerously unhygienic kitchen, the pig’s huge hairy black backside lurching left, right, left, right, left right rhythmically. Although David still carried the familiar faint smell of hospital, she had not lost the smell from her mother’s cottage and – feeling as if she was in two places at once – struggled to ignore how her husband’s heaving sounding like Bill the pig’s laboured waddle. Then her imagination gave her images of her mother falling on the kitchen floor, of the poultry taking over the kitchen, of animal waste filling the house up and up and up and…
…And the phone rang.
‘Bill’s having a heart attack. Can David come?’
‘He’s a doctor, mother, not a vet.’
‘Yes but I owe the vet money and he won’t come again. Farmer Gavinski offered to put a bullet in his head – Bill, not the vet – but I need more time. There are things I need to say to him first. Please, Ziziphus, please.’
As they entered the cottage the sun was rising and the chill of the night had dulled the stench of animal waste. They could see Cynthia on a chair by the kitchen door, bent over in front of the stove and heard her mumbling softly.
But she wasn’t alone. A man was sat at the kitchen table, drinking from a mug and a woman was filling and cleaning something at the sink. The dawn surrounded the woman with hazy pink and her thick, curly grey, bobbed hair bounced at her shoulders. Her soft pink cashmere cardigan sleeves were rolled up to reveal well-tanned arms and beneath the ties of her apron strings, Zizzy could make out a small waist and well-rounded hips and buttocks inside a thin, pink, flower-print skirt.
She’d never looked at her mother’s friend that way before.
Rose turned and smiled softly. ‘He’s going,’ she whispered. ‘The vet’s sedated him.’
The vet raised one hand silently to identify himself.
‘Did you pay?’ was all Zizi could think to say.
Rose nodded. ‘I sent for him. I wish she’d told me sooner.’
The kitchen still smelled of pig and poultry, and from the piles of paper on the floor, it was clear there’d been some parting ablutions from Bill, but the stronger smell of disinfectant was taking over and Rose had obviously brought her own cleaning products, and was quickly making the place brighter. As she moved closer to Zizi and David to offer them tea, Zizi could smell the gentle scent of pink Camay soap.
Zizi backed into the hall and beckoned to Rose as David went into the kitchen to sit with the vet.
‘Will she leave now? Can I get her to move now? Nearer to us? She can’t look after herself anymore. I need to keep an eye on her.’
Zizi watched Rose’s puzzled eyes narrow then widen again as if in realisation. The vet appeared in the doorway and indicated it was all over. He thanked Rose for the tea and left.
‘But she doesn’t want you to keep an eye on her,’ Rose whispered. ‘Or worry about her. She’s a very independent woman – she has her own way of doing things and she loves it here.’
Rose walked back into the kitchen, removed one rubber glove to stroke Cynthia’s hair and then set to work filling a black bin liner with soiled newspapers.
Zizi drew a chair up close to her mother and held her hand, patting it, with nothing to say.
‘I’m happy here, Zizi. Happy as I can be,’ her mother whispered, not looking up.
Bill lay still, his head on Cynthia’s feet, and under his back legs, Zizi could just make out the estate agent’s property details that she’d brought round earlier, streaked with brown.
If she didn’t know better she’d have said Bill was grinning.
Ziziphus jujuba is a chinese date tree (and why not)