Her hands were not really made to hold knitting needles; there was nothing thin and dexterous about Penny’s rough, swollen fingers – and her feet were even worse. Like slabs of marbled steak. David used to call them her “trotters”; affectionately though, and he didn’t mind rubbing warmth back into them at the end of a long day. She wore woollen slipper socks now, to force heat back into her frozen toes. Poor circulation. “Lazy blood” – that was another of David’s sayings. Penny and her lazy blood that couldn’t be bothered to pump around her whole body.
After he died, Karen sent her the slipper socks. Apparently they were all the rage in Canada amongst the geriatrics. Ridiculous things, really; bright pink and stripped with yellow. There had even been pom-poms – just the memory brought back a faint shudder – but Penny snipped them off as soon as they were out of the parcel. She didn’t know why she wore them – David’s thick farm socks were still upstairs. But she did, and stared at them as she stuck out her toes in front of the gas fire.
The knitting sat on her lap, chiding her with its soft weight. She’d left it too late. Long ago, when Karen was little, she’d been able to dash off a cardigan or a jumper in a couple of nights. Not now. Now, with these blasted fingers, it took an evening just to do a sleeve. And it might not even fit. Were Canadian babies particularly fat? Penny thought of Bill, Karen’s husband, with his robust, Alberta health. Another shudder.
Five o’clock and the heating clicked on. Thank Christ, Penny sighed inwardly and let the quilt fall from her shoulders. She’d give up on the knitting for now and think about braving the kitchen for tea. The home-help – was it Nancy today? – should have left out a meal ready for the microwave. Just as long as she didn’t have to stumble into the pantry, where frost tried to crawl up the window; white spider webs of ice straining to connect over the glass pane. Perhaps she should have let David brick the window up, but replacing light with dark was not something Penny could do.
Nancy had left the frame near the arm chair and Penny reached out for it now. She pulled herself up slowly, resentfully. How odd it was to hate your own body. It disappointed her daily, with its crumbling and sagging; arms once strong were now doughy and fat, legs that tramped to the north field without pause struggled to carry her to the bedroom or – much worse – the bathroom. Penny pushed a memory away, grinding her teeth. She thought again about shutting up the rest of the house and living in just the one room.
As she edged towards the kitchen, she wondered about Karen’s body, now her own child had felt the push of a baby and the sear of his birth. Karen’s age must have made things complicated, but Penny had not liked to ask. She still marvelled that her daughter, in her early forties, had finally fallen pregnant. How strange it must have been for her, to feel those sensations and movements, disturbing the calm of forty-one years. And babies tended to rub away the borders of self. Their need for milk and warmth flattened out the lines between their own soft forms and the heave of their mothers’ chests. As she reached for the frozen lasagne, Penny remembered the way Karen used to turn in her arms, mouth open for a feed, and the prickle that lit up her skin beneath her bra. It was only later that distance came, when the borders between mother and daughter were reset. Penny closed the microwave door, watching the plastic dish turn.
George must be five months now, she thought. A pity David had not met him. The boy had his grandfather’s eyes, so Karen said. It was difficult to tell in the photographs. Bill had tried to talk Penny into buying a computer and getting connected to something called the “interswept” – at least, she thought that’s what he called it. But all that talk of cables and buttons, and wires running down the walls – Penny had hummed down the phone for a little while and then changed the subject. She liked the thought of her little cottage being left alone, if it was all the same.
Ping. A watery lasagne. Penny slid it out of the microwave and onto a tray, and balanced the tray on the top of her frame. She swayed heavily back into the living room and creaked onto her chair. She stared down at her plate resentfully. When did I become so useless? she wondered. When Karen was at home I cooked huge meals, plates and plates of meat and vegetables, too much for the three of us. Karen used to take cold beef sandwiches to school. And now I’ve got to eat lukewarm pasta with chewy mince smeared in the middle. The bolognese doesn’t even reach the damn sides.
Penny turned the plastic pasta over on her tongue and decided she should ask Nancy to get her some shopping. Ready-meals were all very well, but Karen would turn up her nose, and as for Bill – well, that towering hunk of a man ate more than anyone Penny had ever met. The pile of mash he put on his plate! David used to say that Bill liked to build a wall of food around him at the table, so he wouldn’t have to speak too much to his in-laws. Perhaps he wasn’t joking. Penny put her fork down, the food and memory sour in her mouth. Having that man here for a week would be expensive.
And Karen would want to talk. Always striving for a connection, that one. Even before she left home, she’d badger for a conversation, for a game of “remember when” and a foray into the past. Belonging was important to Karen. Sometimes, though, such talk was too much, especially now David was gone. Penny had started to feign tiredness when the conversation drifted that way. That or a comment about the cost of the call.
Penny pushed the lasagne away and sat back in her chair. The threat of a migraine throbbed behind her eyes. Karen would probably phone tonight, before they left for the airport. There was a topic she kept returning to in recent months, since Penny’s latest fall. Normally so placid, Karen had become a little shrill when they spoke. Penny put it down to hormones at first, remembering those frantic first weeks when they brought Karen home from the hospital. New mothers said unexpected things.
But Karen returned to it, again and again. Alberta wasn’t always cold, Bill could afford to pay for a live-in carer. Ok, they lived some distance from the town, the centre of things, but Karen had learnt to drive and they could take trips out. And there was George. It would be good for Penny to be around him, while she could still pick him up.
Penny sighed and stroked the frayed cotton of the armchair. She knew the first thing Karen would say when she saw the state of the farm and the house. “Why didn’t you tell me, Mum, that it was getting so tough? When will you ever learn to reach out and ask for help?”
Outside the night began to settle about the stone building. It was getting colder and snow was in the air. David always knew when it was coming. He used to stand in the yard and open out his arms, beckoning the heavy clouds towards him. Watching from the kitchen window, Penny thought he was mad. Why encourage a deluge or a force he could not control?
The clock above the empty hearth clicked round to six. In just over twenty-four hours Karen and her family would be here. Little George, the new centre of his mother’s world, would meet his grandmother for the first time. Karen’s questions, the pestering would begin again. Trying to keep warm by the gas fire, Penny stared down at her slipper-socks. They wrapped around her heavy calves, squeezing, squeezing her flesh, pink and yellow hoops of possibility.
Rebecca Burns is a married mum-of-two who has no time. She writes at night when the kids are in bed, and when she should be tidying the house or paying attention to her husband. In a previous life she gained a Ph.D. in English Literature; now her textbooks make useful bricks with which her children build roads and dens. Her short stories have been published in print and online journals including The London Magazine, Per Contra, Menda City Review and The Linnet’s Wings.