Elizabeth held her breath as she walked through the door. The too-strong smell of bleach made her head ache. The echoes of her squeaking boots bounced off the shiny floors and multiplied up the beige walls before coming back to her sensitive ears. She shuddered; the sound of approaching feet had always meant trouble when she was inside. She glanced at the mauve curtains framing the single-glazed windows. This had been a hotel before it was converted into a residential home. The main foyer featured manifold, uninspiring artworks. They were all nature scenes, rainbows, and rivers that would have been dazzling if they hadn’t all been rendered in solemn sepia tones. She rang the service bell with its polite ting! It was odd, that they should still have such an old-fashioned bell when the beep and hum of modern medical equipment was loud enough to overshadow the cheery radio on the reception desk.
‘I’m here to see my mother - Mrs Doe.’
‘We didn’t think she had any relatives.’
‘Could you give me her room number?’
‘She’s in room 105, third floor on the left. You won’t be able to take those in. Infection control.’ Elizabeth looked down at the flowers in her hand. They were divine. A gorgeous bunch of cerise Stargazer lilies. Their elegant, emerald stems supported a host of voluptuous fuchsia petals. The orange pollen coating the protruding stamens was poisonous to cats and dogs. To humans too, but not enough to kill them. There were other plants for that.
‘I’ve spent a lot of money on these flowers, I’ll be taking them in.’
‘It’s against the rules.’
‘Then the rules are fucking wrong.’
Elizabeth hadn’t raised her voice. If anything, she’d spoken more quietly than before. But the hand wrapped around the flowers was shaking and the tendons stood proudly in the side of her neck. She made direct eye contact with the receptionist for a few moments until the other woman looked down. Then she turned slowly towards the lift carrying her illicit bouquet.
The elevator was situated next to a grand staircase. Its ornate oak bannister was covered in intricate filigree that had faded almost beyond recognition. She would take the stairs. She had no intention of going in a lift for the rest of her life. She’d had more than enough of grey walls with no windows. Her black, sturdy footwear disturbed dust motes from the khaki carpet; it was the mottled combination of greens vaguely reminiscent of a forest floor. Phony foliage to complement the plastic plants strategically arranged on each landing. She stopped to touch one, sliding her fingers along the edge of a never-living, polymerised Peace Lily. It had no smell, strange when everything else here smelt of decay.
It was difficult to make out door numbers in the weak offering of a single strip light. She was on the third floor. Somehow the journey had been longer than expected. Fifteen years longer. Elizabeth strode silently along the corridor. She turned left, straight into the reflection of a gold, bevel-edged mirror that dominated the hallway. She grimaced as she examined her diminutive figure. The poor illumination exaggerated the puffy bags under her eyes. The streaks of white creeping prematurely into her otherwise raven hair.
The flowers she carried seemed to mock her with their exorbitant display of colour. She frowned at them. How easy it would be to snap their fragile necks. One by one. But they were her mother’s favourites. She carried on walking, past what must have been the hotel ballroom. The rich, red swag curtains draped onto the chestnut parquet dancefloor. A couple of residents waltzed along to a crackling record that was spinning seventy-eight rounds per minute on an old grammar phone. They laughed and hugged and smiled at each other. Genuine smiles; not the bared-teeth grin of a wolf assessing a new-born lamb.
She hurried on. Faster now, down the homogenous corridors. Peering left to right at the embossed digits on the peeling entrances. She wondered briefly what kind of people lived in those rooms. Did they choose to be here? Was it convenient for them, close to family perhaps? Or was it all they could afford? She was getting closer, room 103, 104. Here. Her heart beat in jagged synchronicity with her fist as she knocked on the door. One, two, three times. She waited. Could she hear something? It was impossible to tell over the cacophonous surge of blood preparing her body to run or to fight. She reached for the door handle. It was a burnished bronze oval, you could still smell the polish.
Elizabeth pushed the door open but didn’t cross the threshold. On the wall opposite the door hung a large crucifix. She couldn’t meet the baleful eyes crying crimson tears down the wooden cross. She hesitated, caught in that liminal space like a vampire waiting to be invited in.
‘Mum?’ A woman sat, small in a straight-backed dun-coloured armchair. The room was Spartan. There was no comfort here. The few items present were generic, impersonal. A cream bedspread adorned a pine bed frame. A commode loitered in the corner as if it was embarrassed to be there. Various bibles and hymn books were stacked neatly on a set of utilitarian shelves, they were alphabetised, all present and correct. No fiction and definitely no crime. The blank canvas of the magnolia walls made the silver gilt picture frame all the more conspicuous. Elaborate hearts and curlicues encircled the image of a woman hugging a grinning man. All of the man’s teeth were showing. The woman was wearing too much make-up. Along the edge of her jaw you could just make out the creeping tendril of a purple bruise. The tarnished photo had been torn and painstakingly repaired until the damage was barely visible.
‘Are you one of my new nurses?’
‘No mum, it’s me, Lizzy.’ The cross around her mother’s neck glinted. It was as pristine as the day she had bought it for her. Elizabeth remembered taking money out of the church collection dish to buy it. Just a few dollars here and there.
‘I don’t know any Lizzy. My nurse’s name is Tabitha. Have you worked here long?’
‘I don’t work here mum, I’m your daughter, Elizabeth. I brought flowers.’ She looked briefly for a vase, but there was nothing here. Only him in that damned picture. Only him, and her mother, and God. Just like it had always been. Her mother’s confused gaze held no recognition. Elizabeth inched into the room, she laid the flowers down onto the smooth wood of the desk near the door and knelt close to her mother’s face.
‘They told me your memory wasn’t good mum. That’s why I was allowed to come here. To see you one last time. I kept thinking you would visit me or write me a letter. I used to pray for that.’ Her mother’s grip tightened on the chair.
‘You have no right to pray for anything!’ she hissed, ‘You tore this family apart. What you did can never be forgiven. Never.’ The tears ran silently down Elizabeth’s face. She didn’t make any noise, she knew not to draw attention to herself.
‘Isn’t your God all about forgiveness mum?’ Her mother clutched at the cross around her neck, rocking back and forth on the chair.
‘Oh God, deliver me from my enemies,’ she stammered, ‘deliver me from evildoers. He was your father Lizzy, your own father.’
‘I know. That only makes it worse how he treated you. He would have killed you eventually. That knife cut straight through his bullshit. Such a small blade to expose such a big lie.’ Her mother was crying as well now. Great, gasping sobs that ripped themselves free of her chest.
‘Why have you come here? Are you finally going to say sorry?’
‘I am sorry mum. Sorry that you were caught up in this. Sorry that you’ve ended up in this shithole. I know you were just as afraid as I was.’
‘Get out. I don’t have to listen to your vitriol.’
‘I love you mum, I wish you could love me too.’
‘Get out and take those flowers with you.’ A blue-clad nurse had appeared in the doorway.
‘Are you alright Mrs Doe? The couple next door rang down to say they could hear raised voices.’
‘Tabitha, you’ve got to make her leave. She’s a criminal. She snuck in here to kill me. She’ll poison my food so I can’t struggle. She looks so small but she’s malicious.’ The nurse pulled a small bottle inscribed ‘Donepezil’ from her pocket.
‘It’s alright Mrs Doe, there’s no need to be upset, I think you’re a bit late taking your medication tonight. How about we give you something to help you sleep as well?’
The nurse turned to Elizabeth, ‘I think it’s better if you leave her now sorry. She gets very confused later in the evening.’
‘You don’t need to apologise for her. I know it’s not her fault.’ Elizabeth stood. She collected the flowers. They were already drooping. The lack of water and sunlight had robbed them of their vitality. ‘I wish I could have come more often.’
‘Is this your friend Tabitha? Why isn’t she wearing a nurse’s uniform? Just started here I expect.’ Elizabeth looked back at what was left of her mother. The tears had gone now, evaporated along with the history they had once shared. She walked back the way she had come. Down the corridor, turn right. Past the mirror and through the jungle of fake flora. Music drifted toward her from the old ballroom. It pulled her inexorably onwards, through the glass doors. She jumped when the stylus lifted off the clicking record and swung itself gracefully up and over onto its waiting bracket. The couple had already chosen their next song and set it tenderly spinning. She didn’t recognise it but the melody was smooth and repetitive. The man smiled.
He asked softly, 'Come to visit your parents, is it? Those flowers are beautiful. We’re not allowed them in here. Infection control. Me and my Viv have been doing a roaring trade in succulents for the last few years. Easy to keep them going indoors you see.’
‘I was visiting my mother, but I won’t be able to come again.’
‘It’s not so bad here, sure the building needs a freshen up but you wouldn’t get a ballroom like this anywhere else. We were champions in our day, ‘‘The Magnificent Marlon and Vivien.’’ We even had a sprung floor fitted in our old house. Then Viv started forgetting things. She’d wander outside in the nights. In the end, I had to lock the doors like a prison.’ Elizabeth felt the tears welling. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. Here, let me show you some moves.’ The man spun her around with surprising agility and went to slip her coat off her shoulders.
‘No!’ She wrenched the jacket back. It was too late. She heard him gasp as his hazel eyes absorbed the shock. She felt the caress of the warm Texan breeze exploring the scars that bisected her back at every angle. Fifty lashes her father had inflicted on her for stealing that collection money. He’d never told her mother why he’d done it. Elizabeth had seen him wrapping the silver cross. She’d stayed silent when he’d presented it to her mother and she’d said it was the best gift he’d ever gotten her.
She’d been fifteen at the time. It was only a month later that she’d enrolled as a Private. On her second tour of Afghanistan she’d found them. There had been rumours and red herrings but finally she’d got the real thing. She’d been patient, disciplined when her tour ended and she’d come home. She’d cultivated the trumpet-shaped yellow flowers in her room under an overpriced hydroponic light system. Two hundred and forty watts with eighty percent humidity. She’d never forget the formula. When they’d finally flowered they looked like little buttercups and their waxy leaves were tasteless. Her father was a big man, it had taken several doses before the diarrhoea and depression had disabled him. Her mother had run upstairs to pack a bag for the hospital.
‘Where’s that useless bitch gone?’ he’d spat. ‘I’ll be out later tonight. What’s she packing a bag for?’
He’d gripped Elizabeth’s wrist. His fingers encircled it easily. ‘I know you had something to do with this. I saw those fucking flowers in your room. Never been green-fingered before. Light fingered maybe.’ He snorted at his own joke. ‘Maybe not even fifty lashes will be enough for this girl. Maybe fifty for your mother as well.’ His grip had tightened on her arm. What if he was right? What if they didn’t keep him in? His hand had constricted her. He was going to break her wrist. She’d felt the bones grating together. How was this happening again? A steak knife had still been on the table from his dinner. She’d picked it up.
‘Let me go.’
‘Think you’re strong now with all your medals, soldier girl? You’ll never be stronger than me.’ The knife had punctuated his sentence with a full stop. She’d heard the footsteps and the thud as the suitcase hit the floor. Her mother’s screams still ricochet through her memory, a discordant harmony to her father’s rattling groans.
Marlon cleared his throat, bringing her back to the living. Elizabeth shrugged the jacket back onto her shoulders.
‘I’m sorry I shouted at you, Marlon. Please give these flowers to Viv, I can’t take them with me.’ He hesitated, then gently accepted them.
‘God bless you,’ he whispered.
Elizabeth sighed. She walked down the stairs and back through the foyer. The receptionist had made herself scarce. Outside they were waiting to put her handcuffs back on. They tightened them until the metal cut the skin. Four armed officers escorted her at all times. She’d been a PR nightmare, war hero turned murderer. They shoved her into the back of the police car. No one looked at her. No one spoke. The glowing orb of the moon bathed the streets. She tried to look out of the car window but they pushed her roughly away. It didn’t go down well, killing a priest. Pre-meditated murder. Life.
Kimberley Deer currently lives in Newport, South Wales with her husband and small menagerie of unruly animals. She works for a regional newspaper whilst studying her degree in English Literature and Creative writing through the Open University. After graduation Kimberley hopes to teach Creative Writing and continue her novel which is a modern retelling of a classical myth.