‘Cards have arrived from the family and the few friends who survive and remember,’ wrote Elizabeth Frobisher. ‘There is a bouquet from the children and I suspect Alison chose the arrangement, a gaudy and overblown thing of giant chrysanthemums. It quite swamps my sitting room, and I daresay I will have to find vases at some point, once I have checked it for any hidden listening devices. I expressly forbade any fuss. The flowers and the cards will do, and Titan and I will have a perfectly pleasant time of it together. It is my day and I do not choose to share it with others.’
What would we write in our diaries and journals if we knew that entry was to be the last? Would it be something uplifting? Something poignant? A terrifying insight? Or would we be content to remark on the unremarkable?
‘Came home, knackered as usual. Made tea, phoned Mum, bed.’ Perhaps.
‘Took Nemo for his shots. He tried to bite the vet. Watched NCIS.’ Maybe.
Or there might even be a hint of something darker among the commonplace:
‘Re-arranged my sock drawer. Left note for B. Answer machine on. Now I shall go and run that bath.’
Happily though, we are seldom aware that we are about to make that final addition to the register of our lives.
On April 10th Elizabeth Frobisher unwittingly made the last entry in her occasional journal. It contained a collection of random thoughts, observations, musings. And concerns. However this date merited a special mention and she wrote:
‘I am eighty today. Eighty. I like the number, an eight and a nought, it has a pleasing symmetry. In China eight is the number of good fortune, whereas in Greece when laid on its side it means infinity. Nought, which has no beginning or end, can also mean the infinite, or the finite.’
As she wrote the only sounds in the living room of her first floor apartment were the elderly Cross pen travelling over the featherweight blue paper and Titan, her equally aged cat, purring away in his favoured spot. She continued:
‘I am sure the number will be auspicious for me, and that my luck will hold for my eighty first year. There were times I was convinced I would not live to see this day. THEY are still out there, I know that for a fact. I will not listen to the transistor radio again because THEY interrupt the signal and make the voices crackle, and sometimes there is a high-pitched whine when I listen to music. I will not have a television set for I know all about the subliminal messages THEY send out during the advertisements, although I daresay even the British Broadcasting Corporation itself is not beyond suspicion. Then there is Boots the Chemist. Too easy for them to tamper. Who can you trust? Nobody is above reproach. I wonder if the children are in league with them. Is that why Alison wants me to have a television? Vigilance is the key. Which reminds me, I must ask Mrs Hadden to return mine.’
The three ‘theys’ she underlined, then wrote on:
‘There is sunshine and my boy sits in his favourite place on the window seat enjoying the warmth. How handsome he is.’
She replaced the top on her pen, and put the journal into a brown leather folder that bore her husband’s initials: AGH. Alexander Graham Frobisher. The journal rested among the ephemera of a life at the threshold of its eighty-first year. There were cheque books, old electricity bills and handwritten recipes; some snapshots of her children when they were small and she still liked and trusted them, and one or two of her grandchildren. There were reminders from the dentist for her check up – all the Frobishers were blessed with strong and perfect teeth – newspaper cuttings and lists of car registration numbers that she had seen near her home and intended to copy into her journal at a later date. She liked to cross-reference.
The day continued much as she had hoped, and peace and tranquillity reigned. She read the Daily Telegraph looking for items of particular interest and was rewarded with a paragraph about Henri Paul and his alleged use of cocaine. This would have further impaired his judgement, she thought, when the white Fiat clipped the Mercedes he had been driving. Poor, silly Diana.
At a small drop leaf table she laid her place for lunch with cutlery, a china side plate and a linen napkin in a silver napkin ring. This was her normal routine, and not in honour of her birthday, for standards must be maintained. After a bowl of chicken soup with one slice of toasted white bread followed by eight grapes, she washed up and then returned to her favourite armchair with the cryptic crossword, wherein she looked for hidden messages. Finding none, she imitated Titan’s example: she relaxed and dozed.
Snapped into sudden and unwanted wakefulness, Elizabeth Frobisher recoiled as her worst nightmares were all made manifest.
She thought her safety was assured in her own home. It was quite bad enough that one of them came to visit nearly every day, and more fool her for letting them in. But the sight of them, every single one of them, arriving together, unheralded and uninvited, it simply would not do.
No! And again, no!
Her hands gripped the chair arms as she saw spilling into the small apartment, her three horrible children: the doctor, the solicitor, the priest. Naturally in the lead was Alison accompanied by Patrick, her perma-tanned husband. In the thirty-four years he’d been married to her only daughter, she had seldom seen him without bronzed skin. It was like being in the presence of a newly minted penny, and sometimes the colour hurt her eyes. Her late husband described him as ‘burnished.’ They were followed by Donald and his consort, the listless Edwina, who was as pale as Patrick was not; next came the youngest Frobisher, Joseph, from his presbytery in Ladbroke Grove. Fancy a man of the cloth conspiring to make her life a misery! And if all that was not bad enough Alison’s daughter, Lucy, pushed in with her husband James. Allegedly an actor, he only seemed to work three weeks in any year. (The critic from The Stage had written: ‘Good is not the word to describe James Lamont’s Romeo.’ The cutting was in the brown leather folder.) Naturally they brought their noisy, feral twins, with the silly, pretentious names, Ophelia and Orlando. She was never entirely sure which twin was which, as they both had long dark curls and were dressed like small soldiers. Ophelia, or possibly Orlando, tottered towards her, a toddler’s imitation of a drunken sailor. In a mucky fist, he/she clutched a bunch of freesias. After chrysanthemums these were her least favourite flowers for the scent reminded her of old ladies. The living room was beginning to resemble a chapel of rest. Everyone carried a present, one of which appeared to be some kind of walking aid. They waved oversized cards and champagne bottles, and shrieked and whooped and screamed ‘Sur-pri-ise!’ at her as if she were deaf or senile.
She registered the sights and sounds and scents and colours as her blood pressure soared. What were they all doing here? It was intolerable. No fuss, she had said. How did they get in? The only other key holder was Mrs Hadden downstairs, and that was to be used solely in the event of an emergency. It was all such a muddle.
The unwelcome guests launched into the opening bars of ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ led by James, centre stage. Ophelia or Orlando completed her/his journey, dropped the flowers on to her lap leaving a smear of chocolate (or was it something else?) on her camel coloured skirt and the glistening Patrick leaned over, lips puckered for the obligatory birthday kiss. Sometimes there was one to be endured at Christmas too. The family members leered and pranced like characters in Bedlam and she felt a tightening in her chest; something hammered inside her ribcage. Hot, sharp needles of pain shot up her left arm.
‘Nnnnnghhh,’ she tried to say, and only succeeded in baring her teeth. Lucy knelt beside her with her twins, and the very last words she heard anyone speak were:
‘Oh look, darlings, Nana’s smiling at you.’
With macabre synchronicity the final notes of ‘Happy Birthday’ died at the same time as Elizabeth Frobisher. The room was paralysed. Fourteen eyes were locked on her, and seven mouths were agape. Ophelia and Orlando were not included in this equation, and the only signs of life came from them as they giggled and poked at their newly deceased great-grandmother’s knees, just in case she wanted to play. The elderly overweight cat clambered down from the windowsill, approached his mistress, and banged his head against her lower legs to attract attention. When none was forthcoming he arched his back as if to say, ‘Well, don’t all stand there, somebody do something.’ James, showing unwonted initiative, scooped up his children and accompanied by Titan, they withdrew to another part of the flat.
A small crackle of life seeped through the others as if the elements had been harnessed to provide some energy. Somebody coughed, another sighed, while a third whistled through front teeth. Doctor Alison stifled a noise, somewhere between a laugh and possibly a sob. She looked at Doctor Patrick, his face as inscrutable as a Japanese nobleman. Holding her mother’s wrist she felt for a pulse, knowing there would be none, and so slid a practised hand down over Elizabeth’s eyes to close them. Her red painted nails caught in a shaft of afternoon sunlight and glittered like fresh gouts of blood.
‘Oh, Mummy, how could you? It wasn’t meant to be like this.’ She stayed by her mother for a moment longer and the room froze once more.
‘Have you got your bag with you?’ she asked her husband. Patrick risked a surreptitious glance in the over mantle mirror to check his hair. He had felt a lock dislodge from the immaculate coif when he applied the birthday buss.
‘Christ no, never had a call for it? You?’
‘No, I needed room for shopping, for all this.’ She indicated the carrier bags from Waitrose that held the party food, and the cheerily festooned Zimmer frame, which was to have been Elizabeth’s present.
Donald, the middle child, stood back as his glasses misted over. He left it to the brace of doctors, the experts, and besides Edwina needed a pat on the shoulder, although he couldn’t remember when he had last touched his wife. She sat on the sofa, wringing a tissue in her bony hands and rocking backwards and forwards.
‘We should have told her we were coming, we should have, it was too much of a shock for her. Oh God, what have we done?’
Edwina rocked and sobbed, and sobbed and rocked, and generally behaved as the recently bereaved are supposed to, with much noise and little decorum.
‘Oh poor, poor Elizabeth, poor, poor Mum, poor Granny, poor Nana,’ she continued. Confused and stunned by grief she named all her mother-in-law’s titles, unsure which was the most appropriate.
‘Shut up Edwina, we have to think.’ Alison took control. She was small, flinty, dynamic, and when she spoke others invariably listened. Apart from her mother.
Father Joseph chewed the inside of his mouth, a habit since childhood. He was tall, had inherited his father’s height, and the same wide-eyed look of permanent surprise. Topped off with brown unmanageable curls, he had the appearance of a forty-eight year old schoolboy.
‘We need a doctor, a proper doctor,’ he said. Owl-eyed Donald nodded his agreement.
His sister glared at them.
‘I am a proper doctor for fuck’s sake. I just haven’t got my bag with me. I can pronounce her dead without a little black bag you know. I have been doing this for thirty years.’
Patrick spoke, his crowning glory now restored.
‘Really, darling, we should dial nine-nine-nine, leave it to the authorities.’
He had kicked over the traces of his Nottingham accent decades ago while still a student, and in his navy suit, white on white shirt and burgundy spot silk tie, he gave off an air of authority as easily as roses give off perfume.
‘Yes, yes, yes. I know. I know we should,’ said his wife.
Donald rubbed at something on the back of his neck. He sighed. Edwina bawled. Lucy sucked at her hair. Joseph prowled as best he could in a room that measured only thirteen feet square, and wondered if perhaps he should administer the Last Rites, although he wasn’t really dressed for it. The dog collar and the Holy Oils were all back at Ladbroke Grove as he hadn’t been expecting to perform Extreme Unction. One time he had arrived in full clerical attire to collect his mother and she had barricaded herself in. His mistake had been in wearing dark glasses and she had not recognised him, believing him to be an emissary sent by Them. She barred entry to her flat, and would have dialled nine-nine-nine if only she felt that the police were to be trusted.
James came back into the room.
‘I’ve propped the kids up on her bed, they’ve got the cat to play with, might keep them quiet for a bit.’ Not that anybody was interested apart from Lucy. He looked at the old lady, wedged into her favourite chair, which faced the living room door. She always liked to be ready, she never wanted to be taken unawares though this had certainly been one surprise too many. ‘Christ, she looks like something out of ‘Psycho’,’ he said. Comedy timing had never been his forte.
‘Jim-Jams!’ reprimanded his pretty little wife, before Alison could scythe him down. Despite some good roles in provincial theatres and a few small parts in television dramas, most casting directors had thus far managed to resist his bland good looks. With his dark brown hair, deep blue eyes and a curly upper lip, he was pretty rather than heroic. Too matinee idol. Too old fashioned. And as one director had put it: ‘He’s shite.’
Lucy made room for him on the sofa, as they always sat beside each other, never opposite or at diagonals. They liked to touch each other a lot. Besides it separated her from the limp rag that was Edwina.
‘Right, here’s the way I see it,’ said Alison, assuming control as the eldest child of Elizabeth and Alexander Frobisher. There were invariably two ways of doing a thing: the wrong way and hers.