Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Short story: Oh what a Tangled Web

I could not believe what I’d just heard.

We – that is, my parents, my Aunty Audrey, my sister Rosie and I – were all squeezed into Grandma’s hospital room. We shouldn’t all have been there because the rules said no more than three visitors at a time, but the staff on duty were turning a blind eye because Grandma was in an individual room and anyway, Grandma was dying. She’d always had a bad chest since she’d suffered from pneumonia as a child, and now she was in her nineties and had been in and out of hospital over the last few years with one infection after another. This time it was particularly serious and she was very frail. We’d been told to expect the worst – not that she couldn’t recover, the doctor had explained, just that it was unlikely she would pull through, especially at her time of life. I knew she was old, but it just didn’t seem possible that she soon wouldn’t be there at all.

So we were spending as much time with her as possible. Even my elder brother Adrian, who lived in Toronto, had made a brief visit to say his final goodbyes before hot-footing it back home to his wife, Gill, who was expecting twins. The rest of us came in as much as we could and this gloomy Saturday afternoon saw Mum and Aunty Audrey sitting on chairs either side of the bed, each holding one of her tiny, papery hands in theirs, me leaning on the window-ledge, Rosie perched on a table in the corner, swinging her legs like a seven-year-old instead of the twenty-seven she actually was. Dad stood at the foot of the bed or paced the area by the door. He was never very good in confined spaces, or situations where people shared their feelings, and now he was dealing with both together.

Grandma lay there quietly, apparently drifting between wakefulness and sleep as we reminisced about all sorts of family occasions. Aunty Audrey’s sixtieth last year. Adrian and Gill’s wedding in Canada.  Mum and Dad’s silver wedding party.  The holiday we’d all gone on to Devon, back when Grandad and Uncle Derek were still alive, where it had rained so much we’d barely left the cottage for a whole week but had still had a fantastic time relaxing, reading and playing an on-going, killer game of Monopoly which Grandma had eventually won. We moved on to talking about upcoming events: Rosie was about to receive her PhD and, of course, Adrian and Gill’s twins were due. And then, suddenly, Rosie blurted it out.

“And Polly’s getting married!”

I stared at her in confusion, then realised that everyone else had turned to stare at me.

Are you, Polly?” asked Aunty Audrey.

Rosie was widening her eyes and nodding in Grandma’s direction.

“Mm – yes,” I managed. “Although I don’t know how soon it will be.”

I’ve never been good at telling lies in the vicinity of my mother, although surely that was a half-truth at the very least? I did want to get married, at some point, but I certainly had no idea how soon it would be – since, unbeknown to the rest of my family, I didn’t actually even have a boyfriend. When I met Nathan, who had claimed that title until recently, he was generous, thoughtful and every inch the charming, friendly young man you’d be happy to introduce to your parents. He had then proceeded to spend the next two years transforming himself into what can only be described as a childish and obnoxious twonk. The change was so subtle, so insidious, that I’m ashamed to say I’d hardly noticed, although my flatmate had ventured to ask why I more often came back from seeing him looking like I’d been crying, rather than walking on air. Then one evening, a week or so before Grandma’s latest hospitalisation, we’d been on the phone and he’d started to moan about the number of commitments I had coming up. He said that we might as well finish altogether if we were never going to see one another. I told him he was probably right and put the phone down. It was totally unexpected but by the time he’d recovered the power of speech and phoned me back I’d had time to think about it and realised it made perfect sense. I’d had a bit of a cry about it but to be honest by the time Grandma went into hospital I’d already begun to see how much better off I was without him.

But I hadn’t actually shared this news with anyone who was in the room with me now, mainly because sharing it with any of them would mean sharing it with Mum. Who wasn’t going to take it well.

Pol-leeee!” she crooned. “How loveleeee! Haven’t you got a ring? Doesn’t seem like Nathan to have overlooked something like that.”

Yes, that’s right – my parents were still convinced that Nathan was the Wonderful Catch he appeared to be at first, partly because whenever he met them he turned on the charm, but mainly because those meetings were few and far between, as Nathan didn’t actually like spending time with my family (which was one of the reasons he grumbled so much about our never seeing one another).

“Oh, he’s not had chance yet – it was very spontaneous,” I mumbled, shooting Rosie a glare.

“Ooooh, how romantic,” gushed Aunty Audrey. “How did he do it? Where were you?”

“At home,” I said, hoping that if I was blushing as much as I thought I was they’d take it as coyness about the proposal I was about to invent, rather than shame at the fact that I was inventing it. But I couldn’t see what else I could do while Grandma was there. “It wasn’t anything much – we were watching a film and there was a wedding in that, and Nathan just sort of said should we get married. We haven’t really got any further than that with thinking about it.”

“Oh.” Aunty Audrey sounded distinctly let down. “Doesn’t sound like Nathan’s style.”

No, I thought, crossly, because Nathan’s style was never to ask at all. But at least it put them off asking any more questions, leaving me glowering at Rosie and wondering how I was going to break it to them all.

*

Eventually visiting hours were over and even we, with our special treatment for the soon-to-be-bereaved, had to leave. As we queued at the hand-sanitizer machine at the door of the ward, I gave Rosie a hard pinch on the arm. We may be in our late twenties but we’re not beyond a physical fight when we fall out.

Ow! What was that for?”

“Why did you have to say I was getting married?” I whispered.

“I just wanted you to have something nice for Grandma too,” she whined. “Adrian’s got the babies and I’ve got my doctorate – I just thought how lovely it would be if you had some nice news too.”

“And my life is so empty you had to make something up?”

“Well – I don’t know, I thought -”

We followed the rest of the family out into the main corridor towards the lifts.

“The thing is, Rosie, I have got news – Nathan and I have split up.”

It was one of those moments where everyone suddenly goes quiet just as you say the one thing you didn’t want people to overhear. For the second time that day, everyone turned to stare at me.

What?” demanded our mother after a shocked silence.

“We’ve split up. A few weeks ago. I was going to tell you but then Grandma…” I tailed off, not liking the look on her face.

“And you dared to sit in there and give us all the impression that you were engaged?” she thundered, as if it were the worst kind outrage she had ever encountered.

“Well, it was Rosie who -”

“Don’t blame your sister for this! You must have done something to give her the impression you were getting married!”

Standing behind her, Rosie smirked. This always happened. I opened my mouth to defend myself but Mum was off again.

“This is just typical of you, Polly. You’re a classic Middle Child. You have to be the centre of attention and yet you do nothing to deserve it.”

“Now, come on, Maureen,” began my Dad.

“No, it’s true, Philip. What about that time she jumped in the paddling pool at Rosie’s birthday party and splashed all those poor little children?”

Not this again. I was six at the time, Rosie was four. For the record, Golden Boy Adrian, then ten, had actually pushed me in, but that part wasn’t in Mum’s version of events.

“She’s vying for attention constantly, and it’s got worse since Rosie and Adrian have excelled in ways she hasn’t managed to.”

Translation: Adrian was a lawyer, married with children on the way, Rosie was about to become Doctor Rosie having discovered a brand new chemical compound and I’d decided to become a photographer which, according to Mum, is “messing about”.

The conversation continued in the lift and out into the car park.

“So what did you do to put Nathan off?”

I finished with him, actually, because he’s become more and more difficult to please recently. He wants everything his own way and he doesn’t like it when I do things without him.”

“So you split up with him because you’re not prepared to compromise from time to time? Relationships take work, Polly! Everyone has to put up with things they don’t like.”

“I know, and I did. He was the one that didn’t want to compromise.”

Mum folded her arms. “I can’t believe that of Nathan. I don’t think you tried hard enough. Anyway, if it was you who finished it, you can soon put things right. Phone him up and tell him you made a mistake. He’s such a lovely man I’m sure he’ll give you another chance. Tell him about Grandma and perhaps you really could get engaged.”

“Well we couldn’t, because he’s got another girlfriend now.” (Oh yes, he didn’t waste his time. In fact I’m still not sure how much overlap there was between us). “But I don’t want to marry him, anyway. He wasn’t very nice to me.”

“You see! You’re doing it again! You have to be nice to him, Polly, rather than just sitting there expecting to be treated like royalty! Honestly, I despair of you. You’re twenty-nine, for Heaven’s sake. How am I ever going to have any grandchildren at this rate?”

“You’re going to have two, in about six weeks’ time!”

“And what good are they to me, thousands of miles away across the sea? I want some grandchildren here, where I can spend time with them. Gracious, isn’t that the whole point of having daughters?”

There was no point in disagreeing, or saying anything about Rosie’s lack of contribution in that area, because of course she had been far too busy doing Important Things. I just had to leave Mum standing there, lips pursed, as I climbed into my car and drove away.

*

The next thing that happened was a phone call from Rosie the following morning.

“Mum isn’t speaking to you,” she began. “But she wants you to know that the hospital called. Grandma’s doing much better! She started breathing better in the night and this morning she’s had something to eat!”

“So, she might not die?”

“We still have to remember she’s very old, Pol. But they think maybe the antibiotics have worked again this time, so she’ll have a little bit longer.”

“That’s brilliant!”

“Yeah. Polly?” she sounded uncomfortable and I could hear whispering in the background.

“What?”

“Mum says to tell you that you’re not to say anything about you and Nathan. She says it’s probably the news of the wedding that’s helped her rally round, and if you tell her what’s really happened you’ll break her heart.” More whispering. “And would you want that on your conscience, along with everything else?”

Marvellous. “So what am I supposed to do?”

Rosie relayed the question.

“She says you have to pretend. And if you can find someone else to marry that would be good too. Don’t worry, Pol, I think Grandma was asleep when I said it yesterday. She probably won’t even remember.”

*

She did remember. That afternoon’s visit was a much more optimistic occasion, with Grandma joining in the conversation from time to time. Nobody mentioned my forthcoming nuptials, but just as we were about to leave, she took hold of my hand.

“Pop in by yourself sometime soon, Polly,” she said, kindly. “I want to chat to you about this wedding.”

I plastered what I hoped was a convincing grin to my face and nodded. “I’ll do my best,” I said.

Mum was glaring at me when we came out. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave…” she said, in a very preachy way, clearly forgetting that she wasn’t meant to be talking to me.

“It was your idea to carry on with this whole stupid farce,” I replied.

“Only for Grandma’s sake,” she snapped. “You shouldn’t have been going round pretending to be getting married in the first place. Now you jolly well go along with this to keep her happy for a decent length of time until she might be well enough to be told you’ve parted company. Or, with any luck, we’ve found you someone else to marry.”

Super. So now not only was I pretending to be engaged, I was about to find myself entering an arranged marriage organised by Mum.

“Grandma’s not stupid. Even if you did manage to do that, you can’t just change the name of the groom and carry on like nothing’s happened.”

“And whose fault is that? We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, don’t upset her.”

The last thing I wanted was to upset Grandma, or to break her heart. But I knew that if I spent much time with her, before long the truth would come out. Like I’d said to Mum, she wasn’t stupid and in fact where I was concerned she was extremely perceptive. It was Grandma who had known that an academic education wasn’t going to be for me, and had suggested photography, firstly as a hobby and then as a career. She said I had Grandad’s eye for detail and people certainly seemed to enjoy the work that I did, both for weddings and special occasions and also the wildlife photography I did in my spare time and sold as prints and postcards. Grandma loved them and had several around her house. She was always so kind and encouraging with all of us. I asked her once why she was so much nicer to me than Mum but she wouldn’t take sides. She just said that it was the privilege of being a Grandma that she didn’t have to tell me off.

*

I didn’t know what to do. I tried visiting with other people as much as I could, but every time I went I became more and more worried about the conversation she wanted to have. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was going to say to her. After a few days I woke up with a bad cold – the stress, no doubt – and was no longer able to visit the hospital in case I passed it on. Obviously I was unhappy not to be able to see Grandma, but I knew she was making good progress and I couldn’t help feeling relieved that the inevitable had been delayed for a few days.

“Probably for the best,” said Mum on the phone. “It will give you time to get your story straight. Also, Dorothy says Jonathan’s coming to visit at the weekend, so I’ll invite them round and you can come over and see him again. He’s an accountant, and still single.”

“Mum!” I protested. “I’m not being fixed up with your next-door-neighbour’s geeky nephew just so we don’t have to admit we lied to Grandma, it’s ridiculous.”

“How do you know you won’t like him? You haven’t seen him since he was fifteen, he might have changed.”

“I don’t care if he’s turned into Orlando Bloom’s double, I wouldn’t go out with him. You can’t pair me off just like that. And if you’re so bothered about grandchildren, fix Rosie up with him.”

I put the phone down and rang the hospital so they could tell Grandma why I wouldn’t be in for a couple of days. They put me through to the ward and I spoke to James, one of the nurses who’d been looking after her. We’d met him several times on our mass family visits and it had struck me how nursing seemed so much more than a job to him – he really seemed to care about what was happening to Grandma, and all the other patients we saw him with. He said he’d pass the message on and gave me a quick update on how she’d been doing.

“Tell her I’m really sorry, and I’ll be in when I’m better,” I said, feeling guilty about being slightly pleased I didn’t have to talk to her just now.

“I will. Don’t worry, Polly, it can’t be helped, and you’re doing the sensible thing.”

That made me feel even more guilty, so I thanked him quickly and hung up.

I spent the next few days planning how I was going to break the news to Grandma. She was going to be so disappointed – she’d said plenty of times before that she’d like to see all three of us “settled” in her lifetime, and it never did any good to try to persuade her that nowadays you could be perfectly settled without being in a relationship, let alone married. From her perspective, that was what made life complete.

Despite having plenty of time to think it through – I didn’t have much work on anyway, and I managed to get a friend to do the couple of family portraits I’d got booked in, because it doesn’t look very professional to come in reeking of Olbas oil, or to be snuffling and sneezing all over the place – I still didn’t know exactly what I was going to say. I was still phoning the hospital every day to get them to let Grandma know I was thinking of her, and to get an update on her condition, and it sounded like she would soon be able to go home. Then I’d really have no excuse – not to mention the fact that I was almost back to being fit and well myself. I was going to have to steel myself and come clean, whatever Mum said.

*

On the Saturday morning I decided to go out for the whole day, just in case Mum did decide to put Project Jonathan into action. The weather was beautiful, so I planned to cycle down to the canal with a picnic and take some pictures of the boats, which were always very pretty, as well as any birds and animals that came my way. As I passed the hospital it occurred to me that I hadn’t made my daily phone-call, so I stopped at the side of the road and got out my mobile. I was still looking up the number when I heard someone speaking to me, quite close.

“Hi – Polly, isn’t it – Beatrice Matthews’ granddaughter?”

I looked up, and there stood James, Grandma’s nurse. “Hi!” I said. “Are you just going to work?”

“On my break, actually – I started work at four so this is kind of lunch!”

“Ouch! I thought I was an early-riser!”

“Occupational hazard, I guess – I can’t say I didn’t have plenty of warning about the down-sides but it’s all worth it! It’s good to see you out and about again, although you’re a bit early for visiting.”

I looked away, guiltily. I knew I was fully recovered and I didn’t want him to know I wasn’t planning on visiting Grandma today.

“Hmm,” he said. “Something wrong?”

“No, no,” I said airily. “I was on my way somewhere else, but then I remembered I hadn’t phoned up as usual… Look, don’t let me keep you from your break.”

“Not at all,” he said. “I just wondered… your grandmother’s really missed you, you know.”

“And I’ve missed her. I’ve felt terrible not being able to see her, it’s just -”

“I’ve got a great idea. I’ll take you up now, you can see her before you go wherever it is you’re going.” He grinned at me and raised his eyebrows, looking like an excited toddler. “What do you say?”

“Oh! Yes – I would, but -” I stammered. I didn’t know what to say. I just wasn’t ready to talk to Grandma.

“OK,” he said cautiously. “I’m heading across the road to that café. They do a fantastic bacon sandwich and great coffee. If it would help to talk to someone, I’m a very good listener.”

I didn’t think it could do any harm, so I chained up my bike and followed him across the road to the café. Over bacon sandwiches and coffee which were every bit as good as he’d promised, I poured out the whole story of Nathan, my parents, Rosie’s sudden declaration and all the aftermath. James was as good a listener as he’d promised , too. When I’d finished, he looked at me for a few moments without speaking. Then he gave me a smile.

“You already know what you need to do, don’t you?”

“Of course I do – but how can I? She’ll be so disappointed, and she’s so frail still. What if it makes her worse again? Mum said it would break her heart, that she might -”

He smiled again and put a hand on top of mine. Its weight felt comforting and secure. “You have nothing to worry about,” he assured me. “You’re not going to harm her by telling her the truth. She loves you – she wants you to be happy, and she’ll understand. To be honest, the way she’s been worrying about you the last few days is likely to harm her more – and you, too. You just have to pluck up your courage and tell her.”

I nodded. I knew he was right – I’d always known this was the right thing to do, and now I had his word for it that I wouldn’t be putting her at risk by disappointing her, I just had to go and see her.

“No time like the present,” he said, standing up and holding out a hand to me. I took it and he pulled me to my feet, then we paid for our food and headed back across the road.

“Thanks,” I said to him, as we walked through the hospital lobby towards the lifts. “It was really kind of you to listen to me, and everything.”

He gave me another beaming smile. “My pleasure. Anyway, Beatrice is one of my patients. It’s my job to make sure she’s as settled and happy as she can be, and I know she’ll be more comfortable once she’s seen you.”

“Of course.” For some reason, I felt slightly disappointed by that. It made me feel – well, less special, as if spending time with me had been a chore or a duty. It hadn’t seemed like that a few minutes ago.

The lift arrived. I pushed the button for Grandma’s floor and we stood in silence. As the doors opened and I stepped out, he cleared his throat.

“Um – Polly,” he said. I turned back to face him. He raked a hand through his hair nervously. “I was wondering if you’d be back from wherever you’re going by about five?”

It was my turn to smile. “I think I can manage that. What did you have in mind?”

We continued our conversation as he walked with me as far as Grandma’s room and then he squeezed my shoulder at the door.

“Good luck,” he smiled. “Just tell the truth and it will be fine. I’ll see you later.”

I went into the room and Grandma looked up with delight in her eyes.

“Polly! What a lovely surprise! What are you doing here so early?”

“Well, I was just passing and I bumped into that nurse, James, and he let me pop up and see you while it’s been so long. Listen, Grandma -” I began, eager to say what I come for, before I lost my nerve. The thought of her disappointed face made me feel like running away again.

“He’s got his eye on you, you know, that one,” she cut in.

Her words stopped me in my tracks. “Who has?”

“James, the nurse. He’s been asking about you ever since I’ve been in here. Well, since I’ve been up to conversation, anyway.”

“Really? Definitely me, not Rosie?” I knew this was fishing for compliments, given our recent conversation, but it was nice to hear it from someone else.

“Oh yes, definitely you. Sit down here, chicken, that brings me to what I wanted to say to you.” She patted the edge of the bed, so I sat down and she took my hand in hers. It was so lovely to cuddle close to her again, and wonderful that she was going to be around to cuddle for a little while yet.

“What I want to say is that you don’t have to marry Nathan just because he’s asked,” she said, seriously.

What?” I almost shouted in surprise.

“If you really love him, just say so, and I’ll shut up. But this just proves it – you’re a lovely girl, there’s plenty of men who’ll be interested. Don’t throw yourself away on that fool just because you’ve spent two years with him and you’re worried about being left on the shelf.”

I began to laugh. I couldn’t help it – the mixture of surprise and relief hit me all at once and I sat there on the bed, convulsed with giggles while Grandma stared at me in confusion. Eventually I managed to explain, and before long she was whooping with laughter as well. We hugged each other and shook with mirth until James poked his head round the door and reminded us that I wasn’t supposed to be there and that people might not be happy if they thought someone was getting special treatment. We put on our sober faces and promised to behave.

“Everything OK, then?” he said to me, and I nodded. He closed the door, and I turned back to Grandma.

“I can’t believe I’ve been so worried about this!” I said. “Why didn’t you say anything about Nathan before?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t want to be rude, I suppose. I kept thinking it would run its course, but when Rosie said you were marrying him I knew I had to say something before it was too late. It was better you realised yourself, though.”

“I should have known you’d guess,” I said, hugging her again. “You always seem to know everything.

She drew back and held me at arms’ length. “Let that be a lesson to you, then,” she scolded, smiling. “You can’t pull the wool over my eyes. Your mother still thinks she can, but I’m not as easily fooled as I let her think.”

I didn’t doubt it. “She’s been trying to fix me up with someone else in the hope you wouldn’t notice,” I told her.

Grandma shrieked with laughter and then clapped a hand over her mouth. “Maybe you should get going – you’re a bad influence on me. We’ll have that young man back in here. Or is that what you want?”  She narrowed her eyes at me.

“Oh, for goodness sake, Grandma!” I didn’t need to tell her. We were only having dinner, after all – hardly worth making any announcements about. And anyway, I had no doubt that by the time I got back for evening visiting she’d have worked it out for herself.

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2 responses to “Short story: Oh what a Tangled Web

  1. Fiona says:

    I’ve told you this before, but I’ll say it again – I think this is wonderful! xxx

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