It was too early to go to bed; not even seven o’clock yet. And she had dozed in the afternoon for more than an hour. But what was there to do? She had just swallowed the few bites of soggy bread and butter she usually had for dinner, so eating as an option was out. The TV didn’t interest her anymore; she had long ago given up her habit of following the soap operas and the quiz shows. They bored her and tired her; even if she had cared to follow the storyline her eyes would have started to hurt after a few minutes, anyway.
It was her eyes that had made reading impossible long ago, and now even the watching of the screen gave her pain. It was for the same reason that embroidering, her favorite pastime, had for long been out of the question. As to taking a walk, she wasn’t supposed to go out alone unless there was an emergency; groceries and medication were delivered to her on a weekly basis.
Mrs. Varna sat on the brown plush divan as she was thinking of this, her tiny frame hunched, her wizened hands in her lap, her head tilted to one side, very much resembling a battered cuddly toy with her fuzzy silver hair, with eyes unnaturally large and round behind her strong glasses, and with that round little body waiting in vain to be hugged—the very image of the silver teddy bear with the checkered patch on its elbow that she had bought for Linda ever so many years ago.
She tried to think of what she would be doing if she were back in her old house down in the country instead of being a prisoner in this nondescript urban flat on the ninth floor of a living block—surrounded by identical living blocks, without a blade of grass around and only the stink of fumes and that of the hot dirty concrete instead of wood-smoke awaiting her nostrils whenever she stuck her head out of the window in search of fresh air. This was no place for old men—she would have agreed with Yeats about that.
But then why did she have to give up her beloved cottage? Why was she forced to live like some caged animal when it would soon be the death of her? Or was that what they wanted—to suffocate her, to bury her in this urban tomb and pretend it was all for her own good? Well, as far as she could see, her daughters Irene and Kathy had become so uninterested in her that they wouldn’t even have bothered killing her off. Darling Linda, on the other hand, was full of good intentions and whenever she showed up—usually at ten-day intervals—she was convinced that the present abode was the best possible solution for her grandma under the circumstances.
What circumstances? Bob had been dead for two years, and the loss of her son—however big a burden he had apparently been to his ageing mother with his nervous breakdown and his need to be fended for in his late fifties—left her more forlorn than she would have imagined. She had two more children and a grandchild so it hadn’t been a matter of course that she would remain all alone when Bob was gone. But so it happened. What had seemed to be a burden turned out to be a reason and a way to live as soon as it was gone; taking care of her son had given her something to live for and someone to be with. Although he hadn’t been fit to live alone, he could still be of help when it came to doing menial things around the house. This was how she had been able to manage her little patch of a garden, where she had grown tomatoes and carrots and had cultivated roses and had even had a cherry tree that yielded enough to make preserves.
Oh, how she missed that decrepit house, how she pined for her ridiculous little garden, how she even wished she could be barked at by the neighbor’s ferocious dog—that ugly shaggy creature with the fearful snarl and the caked saliva and mud on his dirty black fur. Not that she had any illusions about the place; it had been moldy and small and the neighbors had never been friendly—nay, they had been positively happy when she was forced to sell the house to them for half price and they got the land for themselves and got rid of her into the bargain. (It went without saying that they had all along been planning to pull the house down.) Regardless of illusions, she had adored her house; it had been her home for the last sixty years, after all, and every little nook had a story to tell. Just sitting between its four musty walls had been eventful enough, what with all the memories that each detail evoked.
Not so very long ago Mrs. Varna had been the center of a fairly large and loving family. Seven years ago, for example, Bob had not yet had his nervous breakdown, and Irene’s excesses with anti-depressants hadn’t yet started, either, and Kathy had been still out and about—no sign of the phobia she had developed in the last four years, which made her incapable of leaving her flat or of accepting visitors. Her darling grandchild, Irene’s little Linda, was twelve at the time, and she loved spending her days at her grandma’s house. And she had been, of course, still active and enthusiastic—the very center of their universe, the retired cook who lived to feed her beloved ones till they swore they would burst.
There were Sunday lunches every week, and the living room of her little house was so crowded that it was hard to move. The table was, of course, too small to host everyone at the same time, so they ate in turns, four at a time. Several hungry friends of her family came as well, and they always said that her cooking even exceeded their expectations based on the stories they had been told by the family members. Her pancakes were legendary, her stuffed cabbages were the best in the whole of Eastern Europe, her chicken soup had the most beautiful golden color ever seen, and her potato gnocchi with ewe cheese would have put an Italian to shame.
At Christmas time she would unearth the foldable imitation Christmas tree that had served more than three generations. It was a full meter in height, with exactly twelve branches that could be bent any way one liked, and twenty red and yellow baubles, and a golden garland, and another garland of little lights that had four different kinds of bulbs—red, yellow, blue, and green—and twinkled ever so cheerfully. She would start the preparations weeks ahead, rushing around the local market to buy the ingredients, baking cakes and cookies by the hundreds, fumbling with the wrapping paper so as to give a lovely look to the humble presents that she could afford, and, at intervals, sitting in her little parlor, feverishly thinking over the things still to be done, excited like a little girl.
In those days she had good enough health to travel up to the city as often as she liked and visit her family members. She used to spend many afternoons with Linda, helping her with her homework to the best of her abilities—her forte was to listen to the girl read aloud or recount something she would have to learn by heart—as well as making sure she had an afternoon snack and, also, lending her grandchild a hand with the chores that she had to do around the house. As to this latter activity, it was of a clandestine nature because Irene would have been very cross with both of them had she known.
Old Mrs. Varna had to admit that her eagerness to be of use had often driven her to excesses and her help had been taken as meddling by her children. It was beyond her to catch sight of an untidy room and not put things in order—her kind of order, which often resulted in hours of exasperated search on the part of the “perpetrator” of the mess to find a piece of clothing or any other object. She was incapable of sitting comfortably while others were struggling with a task she could and would love to do, and it was even more impossible for her to leave something undone as long as she could do it.
It was in this way that she had first come upon Irene’s batch of pills. The old woman, having decided to whip up a few dozen pancakes while waiting for Linda to come home from school, went to the bathroom to wash her hands. The place was a mess; perfume bottles, hairbrushes, sprays, sponges, and, most importantly, many many boxes of pills lay scattered all around the basin and even on the floor. Irene must have left for work in a greater hurry than usual and she hadn’t even bothered hiding the pills. At that time Mrs. Varna hadn’t as yet been forced to take as much medication for her various ailments as nowadays and so she hadn’t known very much about pills, but the sheer amount of them lying around the cramped messy bathroom was frightening enough. Linda mustn’t know, she decided, and quickly put all of the pills in a plastic bag and shoved it in her handbag. She had meant to put it in Irene’s bedside drawer, but she forgot and only noticed it when already back at her own place.
Irene had been beside herself with anger and her voice on the phone was terrible; for the first time she had cursed her own mother, shouting and screaming and swearing at the poor old lady who had wept bitterly that night, not yet suspecting how regular an occurrence such phone calls would become in time. Now she knew that a call from Irene would always be fuelled by a large dose of all kinds of pills taken at random and washed down by whatever hard liquor was at hand and so it would necessarily be such a painful ordeal for both mother and daughter that it would be impossible to look forward to the next time the latter decided to call again.
There hadn’t been any phone calls for more than two months now. Mrs. Varna, after the first month of silence, had tried to call, but there had been no answer. Linda, she knew, was at her father’s place in Slovakia for the summer break, trying to bond with her stepsister. Irene, therefore, had been living by herself for the last two months, which surely was a great temptation to go to even greater extremes than when her daughter was around.
Irene had disappeared from her mother’s life for longer stretches than this before and she had already been forced by her employer to undergo a treatment—all in vain. Mrs. Varna had been sick with worry, but the whole situation had been going on for so long that she had almost become immune to the sharp pain that her daughter’s behavior caused her; it had turned into a dull sort of pain that was even worse than the intense agony she had felt earlier because this dull misery never left her and it seemed to make her incapable of finding relief in tears.
The rupture with Kathy was of a different kind. Mrs. Varna’s older daughter had never made a scene, had never disappeared and than appeared again; it hadn’t been like the roller-coaster ride to which Irene had subjected her. Kathy had gradually ceased to go out, that was all. In the first stage she would phone and say that she couldn’t make it to the Sunday lunch that week. Then she would phone again and again canceling whatever program had been looming on the horizon. Then she wouldn’t even call, but would still pick up the phone and explain that she simply didn’t feel up to going out or meeting anyone. Next she wouldn’t even pick up the phone.
When Mrs. Varna had first paid Kathy an unannounced visit after a whole afternoon of dialing the latter’s number in vain, she had been made to feel very unwelcome; Kathy had been a most ungracious hostess, almost too reluctant to let her own mother in. In retrospect, however, it had still been a better scenario than the stage she had reached since. Kathy Varna hadn’t opened the door for anyone for the last four years and was only disposed to communicate with her family members from time to time, mostly by phone, and only when she initiated the call. It was only the postman and the delivery boy—the former with her pension money and the latter with groceries or a hot meal from a cheap eatery—who had the privilege of seeing her door open and half her torso emerge from behind it.
Kathy was a clean freak and it was, therefore, highly likely that she kept her apartment in order at least. It was something like a shoebox as to its size, and the living block in which it was to be found was just as depressingly nondescript as the urban prison where Mrs. Varna had been kept since her removal from her beloved country house. No one knew what Kathy was up to the whole day, how she lived, what she thought, but, apart from Mrs. Varna, nobody seemed to care anyway—even Linda, so good-natured at all times, had declared that she washed her hands of her crazy aunt after the latter had told her in a most violent manner to mind her own bloody business.
The old woman had visited Kathy many times before, standing outside and talking to her through the door, but it had been to no avail and the neighbors started complaining; they didn’t like her mumbling in the staircase and didn’t see why she wouldn’t let Kathy alone. Miss Varna was a good neighbor, never making any noise, never having any scandalous visitors, never complaining, never bothering them in the least—she was as if she didn’t even exist and what better neighbor was there than that?
Then Mrs. Varna had gradually lost her strength and it became impossible for her to climb the four flights of stairs leading up to Kathy’s flat. (The house couldn’t boast of an elevator and some said it was better so because it never was out of order at least.)
Whenever around, Linda was a godsend. She was a placid apple-faced girl with long chestnut hair reaching all the way down to the middle of her back. She was pretty in a homely unpretentious way; she never wore makeup, she never dyed her hair, she had a hearty appetite and a consequently rounded figure that never bothered her in the least—attributes that made her a favorite with boys who preferred the “real thing” to some sham, however decorative. Considering her problematic mother and aunt—and even the grandmother was becoming ever more difficult—it was a miracle that she had managed to retain her serenity and openness; she was neither depressed nor ashamed about any of it. Not blessed with a mother Teresa complex but having a great good heart nevertheless, Linda, when not hanging out with her girlfriends or her current boyfriend, made valiant attempts at cheering up both her mother and her grandma and keeping an eye on both households.
Mrs. Varna had never been able to accustom herself to the sight of Linda doing chores that she used to do for her little grandchild not that long ago; Linda scrubbing the toilet and vacuuming the two rooms of her grandma’s place was a sight that always made Mrs. Varna’s eyes water with shame, exasperation, and gratitude. What a burden she’d become to her family! What a shame it was that she didn’t have strength enough to take care of such basic things at least! What an angel her Linda was!
Her feeling of shame always got the better of her and as soon as Linda had left, Mrs. Varna never failed to resolve to tackle some things at least so as to lighten Linda’s load the next time she came. This is how she had fallen off a chair when she tried to take clean sheets from the upper cupboard on one occasion; or how she had almost cut her finger off with a broken plate when dealing with the washing up at another time; the most innocuous thing she’d done was the watering of all the plants in the flat—artificial ones included, which had made Linda both laugh and cry when she saw the puddles of water under a pot hosting a plastic palm tree and another giving home to a fake rosebush.
Of course Linda couldn’t tell her not to do any housework at all because poor Mrs. Varna couldn’t wait around for her grandchild to come whenever something had to be done; even without the vacuuming and the sheets and the plants, there were things to do every day and all of them were potentially dangerous—the washing up, for example, couldn’t wait for weeks in the sink even if she might cut a finger off.
Now that Linda was gone Mrs. Varna had all the more reason to try and fend for herself. Not that Linda had abandoned her to her fate without making some arrangements; the conscientious girl had made a deal with a girlfriend of hers to come and help her grandma once every two weeks, lending the friend a stack of her favorite dresses in return. But the girlfriend, however nice, was a stranger, and Mrs. Varna’s feeling of shame knew no bounds even at the mere thought of accepting such help. She had told Linda that it would be alright, but the very first time the strange girl appeared Mrs. Varna, to the ill-disguised relief of the former, had told her she didn’t need any help, thanks ever so much.
For two months now, the old woman had been alone, trying to survive and not lose her will to live. Every day was a blend of struggle and boredom, and every day it became more and more difficult to see the point in continuing the struggle. What would she be missing out on? And who would miss her? Even Linda would feel relieved, she was sure.
But she was too religious—and perhaps also a little too scared—to think of doing away with herself and, moreover, she felt she couldn’t leave without seeing her darlings for the last time. In a few weeks more Linda would come to her, but what about her daughters? Could they be convinced to visit her if they knew it would be for the last time? And how could she assure them it was for the last time? Even if she had a good explanation handy, they would have to pick up the phone first!
Mrs. Varna stood up from the brown divan, driven by the sudden urge to make those calls. She stood up so fast that she almost lost her balance and fell face forward. Sinking back on the divan she sat for another few minutes, collecting strength to try getting up again. As soon as that mission had been accomplished, she shambled to the lowboy containing her tattered notebook with her daughters’ phone numbers. She used to know them by heart, but her memory had been failing her lately and, after having several times ended up calling wrong numbers and infuriating strangers, she at last decided to stick to using her notebook.
She tried Irene’s number first and, by some miracle, the fifth attempt resulted in somebody answering the phone:
“Yeah?” It was more of a hostile grunt than an actual word, and it certainly sounded more like a man than a woman. Mrs. Varna hesitated. Had she once again dialed the wrong number?
“Oh, uh, I am looking for Irene, uh…I’m not sure whether this is the right number…” Without answering her directly, the belligerent individual could be heard to shout to someone in the background. “Steve, go and tell Irene that some woman’s on the phone wanting to talk to her.” Jesus. Two men at Irene’s flat! Mrs. Varna felt her heart in her throat. After a minute or two she heard another male voice shout:
“Irene’s in the bathtub and tells me to tell you to tell the woman to call back.”
“Lady…” The man who had answered the call said to Mrs. Varna “you’ll have to call back. Irene’s busy.”
“Oh, please mister, tell her it is very urgent. I really have to talk to her now.” The old woman felt that she could not afford to lose the opportunity; maybe next time nobody would answer the phone; maybe she would never again be able to call back. The room was reeling with her and she felt sweat beads running down her back.
Once again without answering her, the man shouted to his friend:
“This crazy bitch doesn’t wanna give up, she wants Irene. Get that whore out of that bloody tub or I’ll drag her out by her hair.” Mrs. Varna almost fainted as she heard all this, but she steeled herself against any such weakness that would prevent her from speaking to her daughter. Oh, what awful company she was keeping! What kind of danger might she be running in letting such criminals into her apartment! Mrs. Varna was simultaneously shivering and sweating by now.
Another minute elapsed and the man named Steve roared out of the bathroom:
“Irene says you should just hang up instead of nagging her. And she tells me to tell you not to call her whore.”
“But she is a whore. Anyway…” and here the line broke; the man had hung up.
It took Mrs. Varna a full hour to recover from the shock that the call had given her. She was surprised, hurt, frightened, and disheartened. She had never heard anything about Irene’s love-life before. She certainly hadn’t expected any further complications besides the pills and the alcohol, especially not in the shape of rough men treating her like a whore. How long had this been going on? Did Linda know any of this?
The palpitations that came upon her at the thought of this weakened her so much that she closed her eyes and tried to find comfort in the fact that the young girl was, at least for the moment, safely out of it at her father’s place.
By a great effort the old woman forced her attention towards her other daughter. Oh, what if Kathy was secretly engaged in some similar monstrosity at her place? Even if the neighbors didn’t hear anything there might be all kinds of terrible things going on in there. She must call Kathy! She must call right now!
With trembling fingers she dialed the number of her older daughter’s flat and waited, listening to the ring-tone until the well-known automatic voice informed her that there was no answer and the call got disconnected. She repeated the call fifteen times at least before she became convinced that there never would be an answer.
The moment this had become clear to her she knew she would go to her daughter, no matter what. So she carefully stood up and shuffled to the entrance door, grabbing her handbag as she went. Her determination lent her more strength than she’d possessed for years and she got down to the corner of the street without any hitch—hitch, that is, concerning her progress towards Kathy’s house; whether she’d locked her door or taken enough money with her or her notebook with numbers and addresses in case her memory once again played tricks on her was another matter. As long as her legs carried her and they carried her in the right direction nothing else mattered.
It was pitch dark and the air was still very stuffy despite it being past nine o’clock in the evening. Mrs. Varna, as if in a trance, glided onward, taking the right-hand turn that was needed so as to get to the bus stop, and climbing on the bus that had been standing still while it had been waiting for the appointed time to depart. There were only four other people on the dirty old bus; a greasy-haired teenager with a headphone blasting some violent guitar music, an old man holding on to the seat in front of him and mumbling to himself, and a couple passionately kissing and fondling each other with accompanying groans. Mrs. Varna didn’t seem to see them; she sat down mechanically and stared ahead.
Three times did Mrs. Varna have to change her means of transportation; the bus-ride was followed by a longish journey on a tram, which was, in turn, followed by yet another wait on yet another bus. By the time she had reached the third stage and crawled on to the second bus, all the strength that had miraculously come to her aid at the outset of her journey had left her. She sank down on a seat, not noticing it had been smeared with melted ice-cream, and rested her head against the window that was too dirty to be transparent anymore. This bus was deserted and it waited for a long time before leaving the station. Not that Mrs. Varna had noticed; she had fallen into a kind of stupor and was awakened by the driver insistently tapping on her shoulder:
“Lady, you have to get off. This is the final stop.” His voice was rough but kind. The sight of the tiny old lady sitting there with her eyes closed, forlorn and exhausted, had moved him. But he was also tired, it was the end of his shift, and he really didn’t need any complications. Still, he would be as kind to the poor creature as he could. He helped her get off the bus, escorting her uncertain steps, and then bade her goodnight.
The kindness of the bus driver had been the only gesture of goodwill Mrs. Varna had experienced for the last two months and it filled her with a strange hope that gave her a jolt of energy similar to that which she had got from her determination to go to Kathy earlier that evening. Her temporary stupor had passed away and she once again trod the street with miraculously certain steps. Fortunately it was the final bus stop that she needed anyway and so she was not in the least lost. This part of the city was less dark than the one where her apartment was to be found and she made her way with relative ease through the neon-lit street that was to lead her to Kathy’s place.
Number nineteen was the lowest building around, but it didn’t fool Mrs. Varna; she knew what climbing four flights of stairs meant and even the mere thought of it drained her of half the energy that had filled her at the bus stop. She undertook to reach the first floor at one go and then sit down on the stairs to rest. The plan was carried out and as she sat gasping for air, her success made her optimistic.
Reaching the second floor was also a mission completed, but the shortness of breath was of a different kind this time. She felt a sharp pain in her chest and she was overcome with dizziness. But while the first floor had witnessed her optimism, the second floor failed to strike her in the spirit of “a glass half full”; being half way up meant that she had the same amount of work ahead—the glass seemed half empty.
The third floor was reached on hands and knees, and the matter for rejoicing was that she didn’t meet anyone on the stairs; no one saw her shameful crawl.
During the progress towards the fourth floor all feeling of shame left her and the only thing she was conscious of was that she simply had to make it to the top. She didn’t even know and cared even less what she would do once she was up there. Could she persuade Kathy to let her in? Should she go on making a noise in the middle of the night so as to force her daughter to open her door and thereby prevent scandalizing her sleeping neighbors? And would she have the required amount of strength to make such noise?
The last three steps felt cold and smooth to the touch, like a gravestone. Her gnarled fingers clutched onto them like the person drowning clutches at a lifeline. She was on top. She had made it. With a smile on her face that resembled the grimace of one in pain, Mrs. Varna dragged herself on all fours to Kathy’s door and laid her face on the doormat that bade “welcome” to visitors in red letters. The letters were so large that even her weak eyes had no difficulty in reading them. The irony of it struck her and she even emitted a little laugh before it all began turning into a bright blur. Then the lights were getting dimmer and dimmer and finally, while darkness was falling on her fast, it crossed her mind that the light bulb in the staircase might be going out.