THE TASTE OF STRAWBERRIES
This is her favourite chair; the green-flocked, high-backed one by the window. She gets annoyed if any of the others sit in it and likes to think of it as her own. It affords a good view of the gardens, which are adequately tended by the staff and she can watch the general comings and goings of the street. She casts a glance around the day room. A woman, who she believes is called May, sits with her legs wide apart, head lolling in sleep, with a look of child-like concentration on her face.
She would like to drink her tea, which is cooling; a milky film forming on its surface, but that careless girl has left it just out of arm’s reach. Crossing her legs at the ankle, she brushes an invisible speck from her dress and leans her head against the nook of the chair. The roses could do with a prune. She wishes they wouldn’t plant pink with yellow. It’s a tawdry mix. She always preferred wild flowers that knew when to come in the right order; violets and primroses giving way to the triumphant gold of daffodils and then bluebells; their honeyed scent of a morning. She can remember Alice picking cowslips from the verge, back when they grew like weeds.
“Not drinking your tea, Marian?”
A voice too loud, a face too close. She shifts in her chair, pulling her cardigan around herself and stares blankly while her eyes focus.
“How many times must I tell you people? My name is Mrs Dawes!”
She tries to get back to the image in her mind, only a moment ago. She has a picture book, a photo album in her head and when she pauses on a page she likes to linger for a while. She can see it now. Alice, her young daughter is playing in the middle of the dirt road that carves the village in two. It is stained with the markings of dung from the many animals that pass by that way. Either side is a muddy bank that leads to the small brick cottages that line it. They are mean little dwellings but sturdy, aware of their own longevity. A clump of geese roam about noisily.
Alice is bare-legged and wearing a dress the colour of clotted cream. Her hair has been corralled into two tufty pigtails, although it is hardly long enough. She turns when her name is called. For what? To come in for her tea, to stay out of the muck, to watch the baby for a minute? Perhaps it is to put her finger on a parcel while it is tied fast with a length of coarse twine, that springs and writhes like a snake.
In a moment the postman will arrive with an envelope. Inside will be some money — no explanation, no news, no signature. But Marian duly opens it each week, knowing who has sent it and what it is for. Most envelopes contain hand-written letters in a looping cursive. Or typed messages, their ink sometimes smudged. But not this one. Alice asks if it is from the queen or a fairy godmother? Has she lost a tooth? Or is it like the poem. Oh, how does it go? Something about honey and plenty of money, wrapped up in a five-pound note.
Alice asks her if they will stay or if they will go away again like they did before, when they left the old house, when Daddy wasn’t there. Marian thinks of that morning too, how she had waited until he’d gone to work before bundling clothes into the suitcase, buttoning her coat with shaking hands. It was the first time she had allowed Alice to push the baby in his pram because she was so laden down with bags. They hadn’t even eaten breakfast.
“Are you Alice? Where is Alice? Where is my daughter?”
Stella eases herself down into the chair next to her grandmother, smiling her thanks to the care assistant who has brought her a glass of water. The warm, sweet fug of the place, which always hits her when she first arrives, is starting to diminish.
“She lives in New Zealand now, remember? I’m Stella. Gran, it’s Stella, your grand daughter.”
She tries hard to keep the sing-song out of her voice and talk normally.
“And Robbie? Will he be home for his tea soon? When is he coming?”
Stella sighs and her voice drops an octave.
“I’m sorry Gran. He died. Uncle Robert died a few years ago. Do you remember his funeral?”
A shadow crosses the old woman’s face.
“Oh. Oh dear.”
And in this way, Marian loses her son again and again, each month.
Stella reaches over to the bunch of flowers she has brought — they’re not the best but she doesn’t like to come empty-handed — and places them gently in her grandmother’s lap.
“Gran, I wanted to ask you something.”
“You’re having a baby!”
Stella’s hand moves to her swollen belly and she laughs.
“Yes, that’s right, I’m pregnant. Still. Not long to go now.” She shifts in her seat and leans forwards. “Gran, I wanted to ask you if the name V R Dawes means anything to you? I had a letter. Do you think he could be some kind of relation?”
“Pass me my purse, Alice. I’ll give you some money. You can run along to the shop and buy us a block of ice cream.”
“No, Gran, it’s Stella. Alice’s daughter.”
“She can’t have any!”
Stella takes a breath and tries to let it out slowly. She reaches for a sip of the water which tastes metallic. The glass tumbler is scratched and opaque as though it has been washed by the sea. When she’d received the letter, over a week ago now, the shaky fountain-pen style of it had made her pause. She never receives hand-written post any more. How antiquated it seemed.
I hope you don’t mind my contacting you but I am writing in the hope that you may be able to help me with a personal matter. I am trying to trace some relatives of mine and my investigations have led me to you.
I would be very grateful if you would agree to meet me, at a time and place convenient with you, so that we might be able to exchange information.
I am afraid I am not on the telephone but can be reached at the above address.
Thank you in advance.
V R Dawes.