Authors: Sarah Painter
Gwen’s head bent over her task and she watched carefully as Iris showed her how to pound the mixture with the pestle and then stir in the melted beeswax and almond oil to make a cream. Iris approved of the careful, thorough way she combined the mixture, her hand made tinier still against the large mixing bowl and wooden spoon. She tilted the bowl while Iris scooped the mixture into a clean jar and poured a layer of oil on the top to keep it fresh. ‘This is good for dry or sore skin,’ Iris said, sticking a label onto the jar, ‘but you must never ever eat it. Poisonous.’
Gwen’s serious little face grew more solemn. ‘Poison kills people,’ she said.
‘Yes, it can. Or it makes you very, very poorly.’
Gwen stayed quiet, digesting this, so Iris continued. ‘But there are lots of things that are good for you in a little dose, or when you’ve got a particular thing wrong with you, that are very, very bad in other circumstances. Nothing in life is straightforward good or bad, healthy or poisonous.’
Gwen nodded. ‘I was sick last week.’
‘Were you?’ Iris had turned back to her plants. She had several batches to make and Gloria had said she’d pick the girls up in an hour. It must’ve been over that, by now.
‘Everything had to go into the washing machine,’ Gwen said. ‘Even Winnie-the-Pooh.’
‘Oh, well,’ Iris said.
‘His fur isn’t fluffy any more and one of his arms is empty.’
‘The stuffing moved,’ Gloria said from the doorway. ‘In the machine. I’m sorry, sweetie.’ She dropped a kiss onto Gwen’s head. ‘I told you I was very sorry about that.’
Gwen looked solemn. ‘You didn’t know it would happen to Pooh bear.’
‘No,’ Gloria said, more impatient now. She wanted to be gone. ‘Get your things together, give Auntie Iris a kiss goodbye.’
Gwen did as she was told and Iris was surprised to realise that she was disappointed the child was leaving.
Gloria lifted her chin. ‘Thanks for having them.’
‘It was a pleasure,’ Iris said. She wanted to ask Gloria if she was still with that man, the one who had the forehead of a Neanderthal, and whether she’d gone ahead and started charging cash for telling lies instead of fortunes, but she didn’t want to spoil the peace. Didn’t want to scare her away for good. She only wanted to ask because she cared, but caring was like nutmeg. Too much of it could kill you.
Bex was finding it difficult to keep busy. She’d tidied up the kitchen and even thought about cooking, but her dad was away for the night and she couldn’t quite summon the energy. At this time of the day, she would usually be feeding Carly and Tarquin their tea, making fruit faces to entice Carly into eating. Banana slices for the eyes, half a grape for a nose and an apple-slice mouth.
Bex decided she would pay Iris Harper a quick visit. Just to check on the old girl.
She wasn’t doing it because Jon had suggested it, Bex decided. She was doing it to be a good citizen. Iris had been in pain earlier and she was an old woman alone. She would do a good deed and it would take her mind off things at the same time. And, a small voice added, perhaps Iris would be so impressed by her kindness, she’d agree to help her after all.
The garden at End House, which had looked overgrown but lush with exotic produce earlier, was drooping and forlorn. There were thick brambles where Bex could’ve sworn she’d seen a bed of bright marigolds in amongst the pea plants. Doubting her own sanity, Bex looked closer and, sure enough, there were the pea canes buried within the thicket. Leaves choked and dying and the occasional green pod. There was no way all of that could’ve grown overnight. It wasn’t possible. Perhaps she’d been mistaken and was thinking of a different part of the garden. She turned around, scanning the garden and the path and the position of the house. No, she was definitely in the same place.
To the left of the peas, there had been peppers and aubergines. Bex had clocked that they ought not to be growing outside in spring, in England, and sure enough they were no longer thriving. Bex felt a stab of guilt, as if she’d caused them to fail by thinking that way, and she stepped forward, parting the overgrown foliage to get a closer look. The plants weren’t just drooping, though, they were black and swollen, flies buzzing around the burst fruit in a way that looked almost obscene. Bex felt sick and, with this feeling, came the total certainty that something was very wrong.
Bex knocked loudly, but didn’t wait for an answer, pushing open the door and calling out. ‘Hello. It’s me, Bex.’
The first thing she saw was Iris’s chair, tipped over. Halfway through the open door of the kitchen, there was a shape on the floor. It was Iris and she wasn’t moving. The room was freezing, far colder than outside, but the part of Bex’s brain that was registering her breath fogging in the air was buried under the more pressing demands of running through her first-aid training. She checked for breathing and for a pulse, surprised when she found both. The woman was frozen to the touch and her skin waxy and yellow.
‘Iris, can you hear me?’ Bex’s voice echoed strangely in the room, far louder and harsher than she expected.
The panic was there, too, but Bex shoved it away. She put Iris into the recovery position, horrified at how light she felt. She couldn’t stop thinking about brittle bones, and was terrified of hurting Iris further.
‘Gwen?’ Iris’s voice was quiet but clear.
‘It’s Bex,’ Bex said. ‘I’m going to call for an ambulance.’
Iris’s eyes snapped open. ‘No!’ She began to push herself up to a sitting position.
‘Stay still,’ Bex said, relieved and alarmed all at once. ‘You might have broken something.’
‘I think I’d know if I had,’ Iris said. ‘Ouch.’ She rubbed her arm. The colour was coming back into her face. She was looking less dead with every moment.
‘Look, I need to call someone. Get you checked out properly. You’re not in your right mind.’
‘Don’t be cheeky,’ Iris said. ‘I just had a little fall. I’m fine.’
Bex gave her a long, steady look. The one that she used on Carly when she was having a meltdown over putting her shoes on.
Iris looked away. ‘I’ll be fine in a bit, anyway. Just need a drink.’
‘I don’t know if you should –’
‘Please,’ Iris said. ‘I’m very thirsty.’
Bex filled a glass with water and gave it to Iris on the floor, then she went to the hallway, ignoring Iris’s calls of protest.
The phone in the hallway was the old-fashioned kind with a clunky, heavy handset and dial.
‘Call my doctor, not the ambulance,’ Iris yelled, her voice surprisingly strong.
Bex hesitated. It no longer felt like a blue-light emergency, but Iris was so stubborn Bex wouldn’t have been surprised if she had broken something and was just keeping quiet. On the other hand, Bex’s own grandmother had gone into hospital, caught an infection and never come home.
Doctor Hathaway’s number was on the note block next to the phone. She rang it and hoped she wasn’t doing the wrong thing.
‘Iris Harper?’ the doctor said, when Bex had hastily and breathily explained. ‘I’ll be right there.’
‘Should I call nine-nine-nine? She was unconscious when I arrived. I don’t know how long she’s been lying on the floor.’
‘Not if Iris doesn’t want you to. I’ll be five minutes.’
The doctor was as good as her word, but even in that short time, Iris continued to recover. Bex was feeling increasingly stupid, and the terror she’d felt was ebbing from her body, leaving her shaky.
‘I’m sorry about the fuss,’ Iris said to Hathaway. She glared at Bex. ‘She panicked. And she won’t let me get up. It’s cold down here.’
Bex had covered Iris with a blanket and put a pillow under her head, but Iris was still managing to imply that Bex had violated the Human Rights Act.
‘She did exactly the right thing,’ Hathaway said, gently checking Iris over. ‘You are severely dehydrated. When did you last take a drink?’
‘Ten minutes ago,’ Iris said.
‘And before that?’
Iris looked away. ‘I had tea this morning.’
Bex looked on the counter. There was a full mug of cold tea on the side, the milk, which had separated slightly, giving it an unpleasant, scummy look.
‘You made it, but I don’t think you drank it.’
Iris narrowed her eyes and Bex cut in before she could say something she might regret. ‘I’m just saying.’
The doctor was taking Iris’s blood pressure and she gave them both a warning look. After a moment of silence, she put away the meter. ‘You need to be hydrated. Easiest would be an overnight at the Royal United.’
‘No hospital.’ Iris pressed her lips together in a stubborn line.
‘Up to bed, then?’
‘Yes,’ Iris said, already trying to stand up. Between them, the doctor and Bex got Iris upstairs and into her room. ‘I don’t need to get changed, just my shoes off.’
They helped Iris into bed, although this mainly involved Iris shooing them away and telling them ‘not to fuss’. The doctor gave instructions for mixing up an electrolyte-replacing drink. ‘You need an IV, really,’ she said, shaking her head.
‘I promise to take tiny sips at regular intervals for the next twelve hours,’ Iris said.
‘You can’t promise that. You’ll fall asleep,’ Bex said, then ducked out of the bedroom in case Iris decided to throw something at her. She went downstairs to mix the drink and, as she left the room, she heard the doctor say: ‘Fine. Have it your way.’
Bex mixed the powder into some water and stirred it until the grains had dissolved, then she took it back upstairs. She passed the glass to Iris who sipped some and looked at them both defiantly. ‘You can go now. I’m perfectly fine.’
‘I’ll check in on you in the morning,’ Hathaway said, closing the bedroom door.
They walked downstairs, silent by tacit agreement. Bex didn’t want Iris to overhear. ‘You can’t leave her. Shouldn’t we call an ambulance, anyway?’
‘She’ll be all right. I’ve seen her in a worse state than this.’
‘That’s terrible,’ Bex said. ‘Aren’t there community nurses and stuff?’
The doctor shook her head. ‘Iris won’t take help.’
‘She’s too stubborn for her own good.’
Hathaway smiled. ‘I think she’s doing so well because she’s stubborn. Can you stay around for bit, though? Make sure she drinks the rest of that glass and make her up another one?’
How did this happen? One day out of work and she was volunteering as outreach for the elderly. Her mother was right; she was a sucker.
‘I can stay for an hour,’ Bex said.
‘Great.’ Hathaway was packing things away into her bag. ‘She likes you, I can tell.’
When Iris woke it was early morning. Light was coming through the gap in the curtains and the air was filled with rampant birdsong. Iris loved hearing them, especially in the spring when their enthusiasm was tinged with a manic energy. She got up slowly, waiting for the ache in her back to reignite to yesterday’s level of unpleasantness.
After she’d managed to wash and dress and get downstairs without incident, she felt a lift of triumph. Which was quickly squashed by what she saw through her living room door. The girl, Rebecca Adams, was asleep on her sofa. ‘I’m not running a hostel,’ she said, loudly, and enjoyed the sight of the girl sitting straight up as if she’d been electrocuted.
‘Bloody hell,’ she said. She rubbed her eyes. ‘That wasn’t very nice.’
‘Neither is squatting. What are you doing here?’
‘Don’t you remember? Last night?’
‘I remember perfectly well,’ Iris said, wishing she didn’t. Humiliation. That’s what old age brought. Continual low-grade humiliation with occasional spikes of acute embarrassment. ‘I don’t recall asking you to stay.’
‘Doctor Hathaway did.’ The girl stood up and stretched. A loud cracking sound came from her shoulders. ‘And you were in no state to be left alone.’
‘Nonsense,’ Iris said. ‘You are making a fuss about nothing.’
‘I’ve got to go,’ she said. ‘You should call someone. Seriously.’
Iris made a shooing motion with her hands. She didn’t need help from anybody. It would ruin her reputation, for starters.
Iris frowned. ‘My great-niece. Do you know her?’
‘No,’ Bex shook her head. ‘You said her name when I came in last night, that’s all.’
‘Oh.’ Iris looked away. ‘Her mother, Gloria, lived with me for a while.’
‘We never became close,’ Iris said, ‘but she used to bring her girls round to see me. Ruby and Gwen.’
‘That was nice,’ Bex said.
‘Ruby was nothing special, but Gwen was very talented.’ Iris said.
‘Wow, poor Ruby,’ Bex said, her hand on the door handle. ‘You can be very harsh, you know.’
The child knew nothing. ‘I’m just being honest. It’s generally for the best.’
Having managed to shoo Rebecca from the house, Iris tried to get back to normal. The girl’s words haunted her, though. Had she grown mean in her old age? She hadn’t been once, she knew. Once she’d been a kind person. A person worth loving.
James Farrier had been everything that Iris hadn’t even known she’d wanted. He’d looked at her as if she were truly precious and it had warmed her right through to her bones. The wedding date had been set and Iris was counting down the days until she became Mrs Farrier. She’d told James about her affliction and he’d called her a silly goose, said that it was just like her to give people things, that he loved her generous nature. Iris had meant to correct him, to explain more fully that it had nothing to do with generosity, but the words had died in her throat. She wanted him so much. She wanted to be happy.
The women in the Harper family often had a gift. Iris’s mother spat out discarded jewellery at the breakfast table, Gloria had an uncanny knack for fortune telling and her daughter Gwen found lost things. Iris, like a distant relative of mother’s, had The Giving. Not all of the time, but more often than was convenient, a horrible itching feeling would creep across her body and, with it, a terrible compulsion to give a certain thing to a certain person. When it started, at aged fourteen, Iris often had no idea what she was doing or why she was giving certain things, but her knowledge grew quickly. Soon she knew far more than was ladylike.