Note: This is an extract from a novel about an elderly Alzheimer’s sufferer – Maud – who is convinced that her friend Elizabeth has gone missing. Dismissed as forgetful, Maud is determined to investigate anyway, spurred on by the memory of her sister’s disappearance in the 1940s.
I don’t know where we are. I can see it’s a restaurant – waiters in black and white, marble-topped tables – but which one? I have an awful feeling I’m supposed to know and that this is some kind of treat. I don’t think it’s my birthday. Perhaps it’s an anniversary. Patrick’s death? It would be just like Helen to remember and make it a ‘special occasion’. But it’s winter and Patrick died in the spring, so it can’t be that. The menu says The Olive Grill. It’s heavy, the cover leathery. I can’t keep it upright; the end of the spine slips on the tabletop. I pull it onto my lap and read it aloud: ‘Butternut squash soup. Tomato and mozzarella salad.
Garlic mushrooms. Parma ham and melon—’
‘Yep, thanks Mum,’ Helen says. ‘I can read the menu myself.’
My daughter doesn’t like me reading things out. She always sighs and rolls her eyes. Sometimes she makes gestures behind my back. I’ve seen her in mirrors pretending to strangle me. She lowers her menu now, but keeps her eyes on it.
‘What are you going to have? You usually like soup.’
‘I have soup at Elizabeth’s sometimes,’ I say, a thought coming to me.
I still haven’t heard from Elizabeth. Not a word. I can’t understand it; she never goes away. Something must have happened. ‘Elizabeth is missing. Did I tell you?’ I am looking at Helen, but she isn’t looking at me.
‘You said. What are you going to eat?’
I sit staring over the top of my menu. The restaurant is a blur of colours. The walls are red and blue streaked, and the side plates are black. I suppose that must be fashionable. One of the walls seems just to be glass; it makes me nervous.
‘Mum? You’ve got to order.’
A waiter comes and stands by our table, notepad out ready. He bends right over to ask us what we want, his face unnecessarily close to mine. I lean away from him. ‘Helen, you haven’t heard anything about Elizabeth, have you?’ I say. ‘You would tell me if you had?’
‘Yes, Mum. What are you going to eat?’
‘It’s not like she can go off on holiday,’ I say, closing the menu and looking for somewhere to rest it. I can’t find a space. There are too many things on the table. Shiny things. I can’t think what they are.
‘Something must have happened to her. If she’d had a fall I wouldn’t know you see. I doubt her son would bother to tell me.’
The waiter straightens up and takes the menu from my hands. Helen smiles at him and orders for us both – I don’t know what. He nods and wanders off, still writing.
‘This is the problem,’ I say, not wanting to forget my subject. ‘Families are informed but not friends. Not at our age anyway.’
‘This used to be a Chophouse, d’you remember, Mum?’ Helen breaks in.
What was I saying? I can’t remember. Something. Something something something …
‘Do you remember?’
‘You used to meet Dad here, didn’t you?’
I look around the room. There are two old women at a table by a bluestreaked wall. ‘Elizabeth is missing,’ I say.
‘When it was a Chophouse. For tea.’
‘Her phone rings and rings … ‘
‘A Chophouse. Remember? Oh, never mind.’
Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously. Imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking – that I’ve lost my marbles. That Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things – I know that – but I’m not mad.
Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say.
My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth. I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other and a wine glass starts to topple. Helen catches it.
‘Mum,’ she says. ‘Be careful. You’ll break something.’
I don’t answer; my teeth are still tight together. I feel I might start screaming. But breaking something. That’s a good idea. That’s exactly what I want to do. I pick up my butter knife and stab it into my plate. The china breaks. Helen says something. Swearing I think. And somebody rushes towards me. I keep looking at the plate. The middle has crumbled slightly. It looks like a broken record. A broken gramophone record. I found some once in our back garden.
They were in the vegetable patch, smashed to bits and all jumbled together. Ma had sent me out to help Dad when I’d got back from school. He was at the end of the garden, digging a trench for runner beans and I was sowing radish seeds. The records were almost the same colour as the soil and I wouldn’t have found them, only the shards got caught between the prongs of my garden fork.
When I realised what they were I scraped all the bits out of the earth and dropped them into a sunny patch of grass to dry. Then I brushed the dirt off and began to fit them back together, not because I thought they’d play, just to see which ones they were. I couldn’t think where they’d come from; only Douglas, our lodger, had a gramophone and I thought he’d have said if any of his records had broken, and he wasn’t the sort to dump things in the garden anyway.
Ma came out to collect some washing and found me kneeling over the pieces.
‘What on earth are they?’ she asked.
When I told her she said she thought it must be the neighbours who’d chucked them over the fence.
‘I’ll have a word with them,’ she said. ‘It’s not the first time I’ve found their rubbish out here.’ She looked down at the records. ‘Fancy breaking all these. Good for nothing now. Hey, Maud, put them in the bottom of the runner bean trench. For drainage.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I just want to put them together first.’
‘Why? You making stepping stones for the lawn?’
‘Don’t be daft.’
She laughed and stepped daintily from one broken bit to another, the washing basket on her hip, until she was at the kitchen door. It didn’t take me long to connect all the pieces, and it was nice work in the sun; just like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except that even when I’d finished there were still some bits missing. I could read the labels now though: Virginia, Cruel is He and I’m Nobody’s Baby. I sat back on my heels. They were all my sister’s favourites, the ones she often asked Douglas to play. And now here they were, smashed up and buried amongst the rhubarb and onions. I couldn’t think who would do it or why. I shuffled the bits together again and took them to Dad, scattering them into the trench. When I walked back to the house I saw Douglas standing at his window staring down at me.
I can’t think now whether that was before or after my sister disappeared.
I’m finishing an ice cream. It’s nice and cold against my tongue, but I can’t work out what flavour it’s meant to be. Strawberry, I suppose, from the colour.
Helen is getting her coat on. ‘I have to pick Katy up in less than half an hour,’ she says.
I need the loo. I wonder where the ladies’ is. I wonder if I’ve been to this restaurant before. It reminds me of the lovely old Chophouse that Patrick and I used to meet in. It wasn’t expensive, didn’t have exotic food or white tablecloths, but everything was nicely cooked and well laid out. I used to wait at a table by the window and Patrick would come loping along, hair swept about and cheeks red, and he’d grin as soon as he saw me. No one grins at me like that now.
‘Do you need the loo, Mum?’ Helen’s holding my coat out for me.
‘Haven’t I been?’
‘Have you? OK then,’ she shrugs. ‘Let’s go.’
She’s not very pleased with me. I’ve obviously done something. Was it embarrassing? Did I say something to the waiter? I don’t like to ask. I told a woman once that her teeth made her look like a horse. I remember Helen telling me I’d said it, but I don’t remember saying it.
‘Are we going home?’ I ask instead.
In the car I look out of the window. The sun went down while we were eating and the sky is an inky colour. I can still see the road signs though, and am reading them aloud before I know it: ‘Give Way. Level Crossing. Reduce your speed.’ Helen’s hands go white on the steering wheel. She doesn’t speak to me. I shift in my seat, suddenly aware of my full bladder.
‘Are we going home?’
Helen sighs. This means I’ve asked before. As we turn onto my street I realise how urgent my need to go is. I can’t sit any longer.
‘Drop me here,’ I say to Helen, scrabbling at the door handle.
‘Don’t be silly, we’re nearly there now,’ she says.
I open the door anyway. Helen stops the car with a jerk.
‘What the hell d’you think you’re doing?’ she says. I scramble out of the car and make off down the road. ‘Mum?’ Helen calls, but I don’t turn round.
I hurry towards my door, body bent forward. Every few seconds an extra hard squeeze of the muscles is required. The pressure in my bladder seems greater the closer I come to home. I unbutton my coat as I walk and grope desperately for my key. At the door I shift from foot to foot, frantically twisting the key in the lock. Something is stopping it from turning properly.
‘Oh no oh no,’ I moan aloud.
Finally I feel it catch and turn. I fall through the door and slam it behind me, handbag thudding to the floor. Clawing at the banister, I rush up the stairs, coat sailing down to the bottom as I shrug it off. I get to the bathroom. But it’s too late; hand on my waistband, I begin to wee.
I tear down my trousers, but have no time for the rest, and so sit on the loo urinating through my cotton knickers. For a few moments I let myself slump forward, head on hands, elbows on knees, the sodden trousers clinging round my ankles. Then slowly and awkwardly I kick off my shoes and pull the thick wet fabric over my feet, dropping it into the bath.
There are no lights on in the house – I’d no time to switch any on – and so I sit in the dark. And begin to cry.