Carousel, Short Fiction by Helen Campbell

“Terrible shame about Marianne,” my mother says out of the blue. 

“What do you mean?” I’m preoccupied, rooting in her wardrobe. Among the clothes on the shelf, I’m trying to find something that actually belongs to her. I wonder where the blue cashmere cardigan I gave her for Christmas is gone.

“Dead!”  The word shoots across the room. She is quite emphatic, sitting rigidly straight, smoothing flat the top sheet on the bed, fingers spread, daring it to crinkle up again. “Suddenly, no warning. Just gone.” 

 “Who told you that, Mam?” 

“Oh, for goodness sake, everybody knows. Sure even you must have heard about it. Mind you,” she’s on a roll now, “she wasn’t that easy to get on with, you know. I haven’t seen her in ages. We had a big row. Can’t remember for the life of me what it was about.”

I remember what it was about. Me bringing her to this place.

“Well, you know what I always say – what goes round, comes round.” She sniffs her all-knowing sniff.

“Yes, Mam, that’s what you always say.” I determine to be reasonable, a triumph of wishful thinking over experience. I sit down on the edge of her bed, carefully modulating my voice.

“If you mean me, Mam, I’m not dead. I’m here.” 

My mother looks at me for a long moment. Her eyes narrow with suspicion.

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course I don’t mean you.  I’m talking about Marianne, my daughter. How could I mean you?” 

Indeed, how could she mean me, Marianne, her daughter?  Apart from the odd moment of lucidity, she hasn’t known me for a long time. In spite of my resolutions, I feel my shoulders tensing up.

“So, who do you think I am then?” I almost shout, till I remember where we are.

However, she decides that the subject is closed. She moves on. 

“I need to go to the toilet.” 

“Okay, hang on; I’ll call a nurse.”

“Can’t you bring me?” 

“No!” I sound too loud. “I’d better call a nurse – I’d be afraid I might let you fall.” 

I practically run for the door, pouncing on a nurse hurrying down the corridor. She comes at once, her upbeat tone having none of the underlying desperation I detect in my own voice.  Sometimes I’d give my right arm to be able to cajole people to do things they don’t want to do.

While they adjourn to the bathroom, I stand by the window, leaning my forehead against the cool glass. The attempt at a Zen garden outside is obviously intended to induce calm; but to me the few scrawny conifers struggling to survive among the pale stones reinforce the bleakness I feel. I check my watch, only forty minutes before I can reasonably say I have to dash home to the kids.

All too soon they are back; the nurse gently helps Mam into the bed, smiling at her as she checks that the top sheet is straight.

“Your mother is a real lady.” Her voice tinkles like glass, her Filipino accent clear as crystal. “She likes things just so.” 

She smooths down my mother’s hair. “You should spend more time sitting out with everyone else, Margaret. It’s not good for you to spend all day in bed.” 

“I prefer my own company, thank you.” 

The nurse turns to me. “Maybe you could persuade Margaret to join in some of our activities. We have a lot of things going on.”  I smile ruefully at her. Full marks for trying.

My mother sinks back on the pillow as the nurse leaves the room. Suddenly, she opens her eyes wide.   “I don’t like it here. It’s not a nice place.”  

“Oh Mam, it’s lovely. You’re always saying the food is delicious.”  A slight exaggeration on my part. 

“It’s not the food – it’s the people.” Clutching at the bed covers, she pulls herself forward to whisper. 

“They’re all having sex!” 

Jesus, I suppress a snort – of laughter or hysteria, I’m not sure. Sex was not a word we were ever permitted to utter in our house. 

“What are you talking about, Mam?” I try to sound serene, keep my voice even.

“I’m telling you, that bitch in reception is having sex with all the men.” 

“Ah, Mam, come on, you’re making this up.” Now I am shocked.

“Don’t be ridiculous, don’t I hear them at it all night.” She’s becoming very agitated. “It’s disgusting.” 

I’d have to agree with her there. The ‘bitch’ in reception is the glamorous owner of the nursing home, a highly organised woman.  She churns out instructions and accounts with the same ruthless efficiency. While they advertise person centred care, somehow I doubt that it stretches this far.

“So can I go home now? I can’t stand it any longer.”

We are back on familiar turf again.

“The doctor says it’s too soon, Mam. A few more weeks.” 

“Sure he’s been saying that for months.” She insists.  “The grass must need cutting by now. And the poor cat, she’ll be wondering if I’m ever coming come back.”

“The cat is fine, Mam. We feed her every day.” How easily the lie slips out. The poor cat has long gone to meet its maker under the wheels of a neighbour’s car. 

“Do you know what, Mam – I think it’s high time we did your nails?”

It works. It always works.

 “Oh that would be nice.” She sits back against the pillow; a faint smile lifts her face. 

“You remember the article in your magazine, Mam, with all the instructions?” 

“Course I do.” 

That’s good. It was a long time ago; I was still a teenager when the article caught our fancy for some reason. Doing our nails became a ritual between us. Now, it’s the only personal service I can willingly do for her, the only pleasurable activity we share.

She stretches out her hands obediently. No rings, they have long gone missing as she shuttled back and forth between care homes and hospitals. Despite the deep blue veins and the liver spots, her hands are still beautiful, the fingers long and tapered.  The nails unbitten. Nail-biting was high on the list of deadly sins in our family.  And the list was a lot longer than seven. 

On the bedside table, I set out the tools of the trade, in strict order, the nail polish standing proud at the end of the line.  ‘Carousel’ in bright letters on the label.  I switch my phone to silent – previous experience having indicated that it doesn’t do to be interrupted while wielding a brush dripping with rose red nail polish. Her eyes follow me as I fill the bowl with warm water from the hand basin and place it on the tray. Turning up the sleeves of her bed jacket, we embark on the ceremony. 

First, taking each finger at a time, I file the nails to a neat oval shape.   Neatness was one of the most prized attributes in my mother’s esteem.  Poor grooming was generally regarded as a sign of moral decay. After that, a gentle rubbing in of exfoliator. According to the article, which I still remember word for word, ‘the removal of dead cells is a prerequisite to healthy skin’.  My mother’s hands feel like small birds, filaments of bone barely held together with skin so transparent you can almost see right through it. It’s as if you only had to squeeze lightly to crush her hands into fragments.  Then I place both hands into the warm water for the exfoliator to do its work.  She doesn’t stir. I check my watch – time matters in these instances. According to the instructions – between five and ten minutes is optimal.  I softly swish the water round the bowl. These are the hands that sewed my clothes, baked the cakes, sorted the laundry, administered the odd slap for long forgotten crimes.  I find myself in danger of becoming maudlin, so I hurry on the process.

I pat her hands dry with the soft towel I brought, rub in some cuticle cream then begin to massage her hands and arms with lavender scented hand cream.  As our fingers meld together in the fragrance, I realise how rarely we have ever held hands. 

Mortified, I recall the awkward hug I tried to give her when I first brought her here a year ago.  She pulled away from me, well aware of my treachery. Anyway, we were never a touchy-feely family.  

I gently push back the cuticles with the orange stick then go over each nail with cotton wool dipped in varnish remover to prepare for the final application. 

“Nearly there now, Mam.” 

But she knows that and keeps her eyes closed. I often wonder where she goes in that dreamy state. I hope it’s a good place. I spread the towel under her hands. With great care, I lift each finger and brush on the base coat. She opens her eyes and glances down. She nods to herself, satisfied that I am performing the task properly. 

Reverently, I unscrew the top of the nail polish bottle. I always use Carousel. Dipping in the brush, tapping it on the edge of the bottle, I carefully draw the rosy red polish down each nail – cotton bud at the ready in case I stray onto the skin. Mam doesn’t move a muscle. By the time I have finished both hands, the first nails are almost dry. Now it only remains to apply the top coat.

“Now for a long-lasting shine,” I say, as always.  We smile at each other in complicity, whisked back for an instant to another era, when we played out different roles. 

“You have lovely hands Mam.” 

“You got my long fingers, you know.” 

I’m caught off guard. I reach out my hands and our fingers touch. She’s right. I have inherited her long fingers and a lot of other qualities I’d find it hard to acknowledge. I see time passing across our hands.  For a brief moment, I recognise the person I used to know.  And I catch a glimpse of the person I am becoming.

  A nurse appears with a tea tray. I pour the tea; Mam waves her fingers in front of her, blowing on them to make sure they are dry. We drink our tea and she nibbles a bourbon cream. The others she asks me to pop into her handbag for later. To join the rest of the crumbs residing there. 

Surreptitiously I begin to gather my things together to leave, hoping she won’t notice. She does.

“Sure you’ve only just arrived.”

“Mam, I have to get back to sort out dinner for the kids.” 

“How are they? It’s been ages since I saw them.” 

I can’t explain to her that I prefer to visit her on my own.  Totally unreasonable, I know. But I can’t bear anyone else to witness the sort of person I am with my mother. And the betrayal I see in her eyes each time I say goodbye. And the tears of guilt I shed in the car on the way home.

“They’re busy studying for their exams.” 

“I’ll say a prayer for them. And sure I’ll be ready to go back with you next week.” 

“We’ll see, Mam.” I pull on my jacket. 

She studies her hands again. “Why did you change the colour?”

“I didn’t – it’s the same colour we always use – Carousel.”

“No, this is definitely much brighter. It’s too pink.” She purses her lips. “I think it looks a bit common.” Being common was the worst sin of all.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Mam, you’re never happy with anything I do.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I only said I prefer the other colour.”

“What other colour?” 

And we’re off again, on the eternal merry go round. 

About the contributor

Helen Campbell lives in Dublin. Some years ago, she had plays broadcast on RTE Radio and fiction on BBC Radio 4. Then writing paused as work took over. Currently completing an MA in Creative Writing in DCU, her story Carousel was shortlisted for Words by Water in 2019.

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