Image: Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Katy Thornton has just graduated with a First Class Honours in her MA in Creative Writing in December, and is currently working on short fiction, as well as a longer piece of work about the Magdalene Laundries in the 1980s. Her hobbies include mostly reading and writing, as well as editing – she spent last year as the fiction editor of The HCE Review, a quarterly literary journal. She’s had three short stories published, “7 Minutes” with Headstuff, “Scotch and Cigarettes” with JCS Press and most recently, “The Indiscernible Mother” with Cold Coffee Stand. This story previously appeared in the MA anthology We Can Walk Into Others.
Five Baked Beans
My Americanised Dublin-born friends liked to call my ever-extending work leave a “sabbatical,” although I don’t expect most people would be spending it in Portadown if that is indeed what they were doing. I was three weeks into said sabbatical when Nanny announced that her wedding ring was missing and had been for a while.
I spent a lot of time looking at Nanny’s hands. Her veins were puckered like squiggling purple worms under tracing paper. The skin was bruised, though it had been months since her last fall, and her fingers were gnarled as tree twigs with arthritis. Indeed, now that I looked properly, I noticed her ring finger was indeed ringless, leaving behind a white line only a hair lighter than the rest of her skin. Gone was the stout woman who had helped raise my brother and I when Mum had died, though she must have been going through something equally painful, losing a child of thirty-seven years.
Each time I walked into Fields Nursing Home I hoped that woman would be sitting there instead of this skeletal figure, who had fat hanging awkwardly from her bones, as though it knew it should no longer be there but had nowhere to go.
I’d never been pleased about Nanny coming here, but we’d had to be realistic, my brother and me. I never wanted anything to change, never wanted to stop visiting her little bungalow snug in a small housing estate in Gilford with all its childhood memories enclosed in dozens of photo frames. But it was either move her to a home or some paramedic finding her dead, face down on the floor, trying to answer the phone, as she could never just let it ring out, always desperate for a chat. Always hoping one of her grandchildren was calling, though our calls had become frequently infrequent as we grew up and started careers and moved out and on.
I asked Nanny how long the ring had been gone, a strange feeling stirring in my stomach, like I’d been shocked with electricity. My eyes were suddenly wide open, ears perked, posture straightened.
“Oh, a few weeks at least, maybe a month or two,” she said, with some, but not an overwhelming amount of dismay.
“Are you sure, Nanny? Maybe it was bothering you and the nurses took it off…” I tried to reason but she was shaking her head; she was disappointed in me. My brother and I were my Nanny’s favourite people, in fact, I believed, the only people she could stand at all. This knowledge tugged something inside my chest whenever she looked at me with that grim embitterment; I’d broken an unspoken rule asking this question. Nanny was frail and sometimes, when standing, appeared so hunched over she might just snap but there was nothing wrong with the woman’s memory. It wasn’t like when Grandad had been put into a fold, as they call it here, when his Alzheimer’s had turned the gentle giant I’d known as a kid into a giant more resembling the one from Jack and the Beanstalk. Sometimes I think Nanny wished her memory would start to sieve, bring her back to when she’d been happy, before she’d lost her only daughter. The last time I’d seen Grandad he’d called me Sharon, though I looked very little like my mother, having too much of my father’s family in me. Surely, he was happier thinking she was still alive.
“I’ll go speak to one of the nurses, find out what’s going on,” I told her, feeling the rush of blood through my legs after so many hours of sitting. “I’ll be right back, I promise.” Nanny always got a frightened look in her eyes whenever I left, worried I wouldn’t come back. Worried I’d catch a life-threatening bug and be dead in a week, just like Mum. Or maybe she was worried she would be alone when her calling to the great beyond finally came. I squeezed her hand on my way out.
I found myself getting a little more than frustrated with the nurses when they could tell me nothing about the ring. The third nurse I spoke to was particularly young, probably in college, perhaps on placement, her eyes still sparkling with dreams of the difference she hoped to make in the world. She had glossy pink lips and a swishy ponytail and a pair of thick rimmed glasses that I recognised from the Penneys’ accessories section. She held a bottle of Coke Zero in her dainty hands and spoke to me breathlessly, like a girl run off her feet. She made the grave mistake of suggesting Nanny was confused, the same one I had made, so it was perhaps a little hypocritical of me to spend the better part of ten minutes explaining to her that she absolutely wasn’t, that she could remember what I’d been wearing yesterday enough to say this morning, “Thank God you’re not wearing those awful red boots again,” therefore proving her memory was crystal. The wee girl’s eyes had filled with tears and she’d scooted off to get her manager, shaken by the shrill tone my voice had taken. I snapped the hair-tie I kept around my wrist as I waited, and resisted the urge to take out my phone, reluctant to find any missed calls, as I almost surely would. I hadn’t called back my boss, and Linda the secretary had left two voicemails yesterday.
Speaking to the manager proved to be much more controlled, but she couldn’t help either – these things just happen, she said with a touch of sympathy but not enough that accepted blame. She looked at me curiously, probably wondering where I’d been for the first two years Nanny had been at Fields. Probably thinking what gave me the right to chastise her staff. It was as well for her she didn’t ask, and I returned to Nanny’s room, empty-handed and defeated. I felt my eyes begin to pull close again even though the jittery feeling in my tummy hadn’t subsided as we went back to our routine of watching The Chaseand sitting in not entirely comfortable silence, only broken by the odd quip at what I was wearing.
Today, it was about the earrings, that apparently looked like frayed knotted string.
I had started wearing earrings again, after the break-up. Not that I hadn’t worn earrings because of him – I’m sure we never had a conversation about it. I guess at some point I’d grown out of wearing my green-skin inducing costume jewellery and decided only to wear jewellery with sentimental value. I had an array of gifts from him, necklaces for my birthday or Christmas, bracelets for our anniversary, that one special ring in the velvet black box; nine years-worth of rose, gold and silver. I didn’t feel the need to wear anything else. I never received earrings from him, so maybe that was a subtle indication that he didn’t like them. Whatever the reason, it occurred to me that I had stopped wearing them and five months into the split, I started pushing the tiny metal swords into my earlobes once more; a range of large hoops, or miniscule pearls, or sapphire birthstones, for September because my actual birthstone was an ugly brownish colour.
I couldn’t say it gave me a pep in my step, or made me feel any less desolate, but there was something that changed by the weight of the earrings, or the texture as they brushed against my neck when I walked around the office – perhaps they were reminding me I was still alive.
I loved my Nanny, but old people generally frightened me. Those longing puppy-dog eyes that didn’t even know what they were wishing for. Death, companionship… maybe just another bowl of custard. It was now six weeks into my “sabbatical” and I was sitting with Nanny as she had her dinner – had to hand it to the staff, it always looked scrumptious, better than the £4.99 microwave meals I picked up in the Stop & Shop on the way home from Fields. I’d sit at Nanny’s table, where I used to sit as a child, eating moist fillet steaks and boiled potatoes and carrots and swede, all covered in molten gravy, and instead dig into a lasagne or Shepherd’s Pie, that became liquified in the microwave, the mince charred, burnt to the plastic tray. Nanny’s house, which had once felt like the closest I could get to home, was now a place that looked like it should be familiar but wasn’t, like the set of a movie about my life that didn’t quite ring true.
The nurse came in at around two o’clock. She scolded Nanny; she’d eaten just the meat and a scrape off the mound of mash which I’d been salivating over even as I took forkful after forkful and presented it to my grandmother’s lips. Nanny hated this part and I knew part of her hated me for not only bearing witness to her humiliation but for being the hand that replaced her own. The nurse cleared the tray and then told me discreetly, but routinely, it was time to change Nanny’s colostomy bag. I knew this was my cue to leave – it was one thing to help my Nanny feed herself, it was quite another to be present while her faeces were being discarded.
Later that day I took Nanny in a wheelchair – her walking wasn’t so good – around to the sunroom. There weren’t many things she liked anymore but she did enjoy having the sun coat her face; it always lulled her into a contented sleep. She would nap for several hours, leaving me to sit awkwardly beside her, amongst the other residents – sitting on a pin for an hour would’ve been more comfortable. I checked my phone, maybe I’d play a bit of Solitaire, but there was an incoming call from work, not the first of the day, and it wouldn’t be the last, so I elected to switch it off instead. I had, for the past four days, sat at my laptop after visiting Nanny, trying to write an article on polyamorous relationships with little to no research, and only written less than two hundred words before giving up. Linda hadn’t even asked about my progress on the article last time I was on the phone to her, just when I was coming home. I went to snap the hair-tie around my wrist, but I didn’t have one on today. I pinched my skin between my thumb and forefinger instead, but it didn’t provide the same release. I was only wearing plain diamanté studs today, to avoid Nanny’s ruthless comments, and I fiddled with the clasp, pushing it back and forth onto my ear.
Most of the residents were asleep, mouths noisy as the nozzle of a hoover. One was wearing a ring, I could just about see, on her wedding finger – it looked rather new and shiny against the dull patchwork of the woman’s quilt. I always looked at people’s ring fingers, it was a nosy habit I wished to break but hadn’t managed to yet. I wasn’t so much interested in the ring’s appearance, just in the person, their attachments, or potential attachments. In my experience rings on fingers didn’t have any effect on how they acted. There was another woman, possibly in her late seventies, being enfolded in bear-hugs by several family members, with Australian accents, all come to see their daft Great-Aunt.
I decided to wander off for a wee, though I hated using the toilet facilities, with the many pieces of white, plastic helping equipment for those who struggled to sit on the seat, those who were lucky enough to still be somewhat in control of their bowels. I always worried I wouldn’t be fast enough and what would one of the ladies do if they arrived at the toilet and it was occupied.
A woman, a resident, was coming out of the toilets as I reached them – her posture wasn’t good but not as bad as most of the women in here. A smell of smoggy potpourri accompanied her.
“Oh, there you are, would you mind helping me back to my room Claire?” The woman clearly hadn’t considered I needed the bathroom or that I wasn’t Claire. I was struck immediately by the length of her hair, which was a steel grey and plaited right down to her waist.
I dug my nails, over-grown and in need of filing, into my palms as I tried to figure out how to get out of this situation but upon realising there wasn’t another option, I put out my arm for her and together we hobbled into her room where the white board stated she was Myra Gleeson. I felt the instant regret of this decision, like harsh indigestion, and then reprimanded myself for not being more compassionate.
Myra spoke as though she knew me well and I wondered what kind of dementia had come for her. As I sat her down into an armchair identical to Nanny’s, I noticed on her finger, a silver ring with a pale diamond, encrusted at the edges with little sparkling stones – Nanny’s ring. I had almost forgotten, or perhaps tried to forget about the missing ring; it fit Myra’s finger quite handsomely – the last time I’d noticed Nanny wearing it, it had orbited hers.
“That’s a nice ring,” I began delicately as I positioned myself not too comfortably on the edge of the vacant bed, which let out a creaking of springs that made me wince – Myra either hadn’t heard or didn’t care, already used to the sound.
Her smile deepened and peeled back to reveal yellowish teeth that were all still intact, even the ones in the very back of her whitish gums.
“Oh yes, it is, isn’t it? Funny, I get a bit of a surprise every time I see it, though I’ve been wearing it for forty odd years.”
“Forty years?” I hoped at first that I was wrong about the ring, maybe it was only similar. The skin on my palms was burning a little. “Would you mind if I looked at it for a moment?”
The old lady yanked it off – she seemed to have the opposite problem to Nanny – brain like mush but the strength of an ox. I noticed as she handed it to me that there was no discolouration on her ring finger, no pale band of sheltered skin as there was on Nanny’s.
“It’s funny, dear. I sometimes have these dreams – well not even dreams but horrible nightmares. About my marriage, my marriage to Larry, you know Larry,” the old woman told me as I turned the ring over in my hands, becoming increasingly certain that this ring did not belong to Myra. “I dream of these terrible arguments, and Larry saying these awful things, and eventually he grabs his suitcase and goes right out the door, without ever looking back. I dream that he’s left me for someone else and I cry and cry and cry – sometimes I even wake up crying. It can’t be true, say it isn’t true, I’m sometimes even talking out loud, the nurses say. And yet, I wake up and there’s the ring, my ring, as though it was moulded for me, and I wonder about this old noggin of mine – it’s not quite what it used to be. It’s playing tricks.”
“And where is Larry now?” I asked, voice thick, heart pounding so loudly in my ears I wondered how she couldn’t hear it too.
Myra’s face crumpled a little, her eyes shifted from side to side. Her lips quivered for a solid minute, opening and closing, desperate for an answer that might’ve been on the edge of her tongue, but wasn’t. She didn’t know. She didn’t know where Larry was now. “I suppose he’ll be around to visit… any minute… now… Marriage truly is wonderful Claire. Tell me, I forget so much these days, are you married yourself, nice young lady like you, you ought to be.”
I started taking the ring off a few months before it happened – I thought it was annoying to type with, it clanged against the endless mugs of coffee I’d consume as I wrote up a new column, the diamond often turning around and cutting the inside of my palm. I started removing it at work, told myself when I got the time I would buy a chain to go with it and wear it around my neck instead.
“Where’s your ring?” he’d asked, one Saturday morning over breakfast, eyes peeking belligerently over the newspaper.
“Must’ve left it at the office – you know how it bothers me when I’m writing,” I replied calmly, nonchalantly even and I’m unsure if this is what made the situation worse or the fact that one of my mother’s silver rings was permanently attached to my middle finger on my right hand, typing or not – he replied with a hmmmphh noise and we said no more to each other while we sipped our coffee and ate our marmalade toast.
When I gave the ring back, it didn’t shock him, it couldn’t have, but still he erupted. Only a couple of days later his mother, a fiercely opinionated psychologist I had only ever pretended to like, left a voicemail on my phone.
“You’re damaged goods Sam. You don’t know what’s good for you and I don’t think you ever will. You’re just so heartless, the way you’ve treated my son. I always knew you were just cold, through and through. You know children who lose their parents at a young age are more likely to have marriages end in divorce – well good for you, you couldn’t even make it down the aisle. Saved everyone a lot of hassle and money.”
A few weeks after he’d moved out, I found the Argento chain he’d bought me, still in the little red box, untouched. I’d left the ring at the office again and by the time I’d worn it home, I’d forgotten to put the ring onto the chain… or maybe I just knew I needn’t bother.
The chain was still in my apartment in Dublin, still in its unwrapped bag, the silky white ribbon discarded someplace. It sat at the very back of my bedside locker, mostly out of sight, but it would peek out occasionally, reminding me. Over my fish pie in Nanny’s that night, I thought about a friend of mine, who’s birthday was coming up. Maybe she would like it – she always complained she never got jewellery.
Nanny wasn’t where I’d left her that night, after I’d been with Myra; she was back in her room.
“Where’ve you been?” It was nearly five o’clock by this stage, she rarely made it past seven. We would watch Home and Awayon RTE2 and she would be asleep before the credits rolled. Soon her tea would be arriving and I’d have to stop myself from asking for some of her sausages and beans even though she’d never finish them. I had a fish pie waiting in the freezer which never seemed to heat entirely no matter how long I left it in the oven for.
“Oh, just wandering,” I said, “wondered if maybe your ring would be around somewhere.”
“And why would you do that? It’s long gone I’m sure, someone thieved it, probably one of the young ones,” Nanny snorted.
“Just didn’t think it was right for you not to have it, is all. Must hold some nice memories for you.”
“And why?” Nanny asked, suddenly more serious, although not stern. “I have it all up here, don’t I?” she said, tapping her temple with slow deliberation. “Finding that ring wouldn’t do any good now. And sure, you were gone for hours and you didn’t find it, did you?”
“No, no I didn’t,” the words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them and to my surprise, Nanny didn’t even appear disappointed by my answer. She just nodded, triumphant that she’d been right, and asked me to pull her bib on.
After Home and Away, and Nanny had eaten exactly five baked beans, half a sausage and all her strawberry ice-cream, I kissed her on the forehead and left for the night.
I walked past Myra’s door, but the old woman was asleep, her lights turned out already. Her hands were folded on her lap, the ring gleaming. On her cheeks there were tears gleaming too and her face was contorted as though she was having one of those bad nightmares. I was ashamed that I had considered taking the ring, if she’d happened to leave it off her finger, and returning it to Nanny, where it belonged. If she said anything the woman wouldn’t be believed; they would probably just up her meds. But seeing Myra like that changed my mind, and I could feel the anxiety begin to leak out of me, slowly, like a burst pen haemorrhaging ink. I drove home from Fields that night, and phoned my editor directly, leaving a message to update her on my progress with the article, and giving an estimation of when I would be home. I pulled the elastic band I always kept in my car onto my wrist and snapped it a few times to get me through the call, but I was feeling okay. I was rest-assured that Myra at least would wake up and see the ring and be happy, even though her memories had twisted in her mind, a jig-saw puzzle that she was incapable of filling in. I snapped the band one more time before going inside to my gloopy fish-pie, but it didn’t provide the same relief, because there was nothing there to relieve.
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