In exactly two months, it would be her ninety-ninth birthday. This they murmured repeatedly, although sometimes she thought it had been only once. Between bouts of dozing, her eyes wandered over the walls and ceiling, often returning to a tiny wisp of abandoned cobweb in one corner. She liked to let her gaze rest upon it, this small disregarded scrap of almost nothing. It was reassuring to find it there every time, always in the same place, shuddering slightly in invisible air movements.
At other times, when she felt more alert, she itemised the small sensations that added up to her overall discomfort: the sheets that were cold everywhere but just beneath her shrunken body; her nightdress, one of many presents from her sons, which was soft and thick, but felt rough against her withered skin; the aches that littered her body; the swell and ebb of her belaboured digestion; the weary whine of her spine. She could no longer uncurl her fingers, and veins in the backs of her hands were so dark and broad that the blood seemed to have clotted beneath the surface.
She did not know anymore how long ago her husband had died. It had not been a surprise, or even a shock. They had both been very old; but she had continued to get older, whereas he had stopped. When he had been old and still alive, she had always been awake. Even at night she had hardly slept. She had lain beside him for years, listening to him breathe, terrified that he would stop and grow cold. During the day, she had always been in a hurry, running, bustling. She did not like to make him wait.
When he was not there anymore, the tiredness had come. It had settled upon her like a blanket, but one that was not comforting, and was too heavy: an endless weariness, spreading gradually through her mind and limbs. Then she had begun to lose herself. She would suddenly find herself sitting on a chair or bed, or on the side of the bathtub, in the cold, silent house, with time blending into itself. She noticed that it was chilly, but forgot that she had not put on the heating. She realised that she was hungry, but forgot to prepare meals for herself.
Her sons noticed the change in her when she began to ask them why they came so seldom, even though they visited her every day. They asked her why the house was cold and looked at her strangely. Sometimes, when she passed the mirror in the hall, she stopped and looked. The woman looking back at her was familiar, and yet was not, with her loose dry skin and the wrinkles scoring each feature like a child’s scribbles, bones jutting out, flesh subsiding between them. She put up a curled finger and touched the sparse gossamer hair, expecting to feel a mass of chestnut curls, even though she could see that they were no longer there.
One day, she had tumbled down, helpless as a puppet whose strings have been cut. She had lain in a tangle of confusion and sharp, beating pain, listening to her own moans without recognising her voice, until her sons had found her.
A while after they had operated on her broken hip, her sons had come to her with guilty looks. They had said they thought it best that she stay where she was, in the retirement home. They told her that, at ninety-three, she was too old to live alone anymore. She agreed, pretending to look pleased with their decision, but in reality feeling confused, for it was not possible that she could be so ancient.
After that, it was easier, for a while, to have less space to negotiate. People visited her sometimes. She knew who they were – her sons, their children – but she avoided names, certain that she would get them wrong. When there was nobody with her, she gazed at the sky through the window, following its constant variations, drifting between wakefulness and sleep.
By the time she heard them saying that she would be ninety-nine, she had stopped looking at anything but the scrap of cobweb. Most of the time, she was too tired to open her eyes at all. There was a heaviness to one of her shoulders. Once, when she did open her eyes, she saw a narrow tube snaking out from under the sheets. Beyond it sat a young woman with a pale, distraught face who seemed to be reading something aloud. The words were indistinguishable, but the hum of the voice was soothing. She closed her eyes again and allowed herself to drift away again.
She heard her sons talking. She would have recognised their voices anywhere, even though they were no longer the treble tones of their boyhood selves. The tenor voice said, “She was always so selfless, always doing things for other people… She never thought of herself…”
She repeated the words to herself, softly, over and over. Then she thought, No.
It surprised her. She had not said no to anything for a long time. She could not remember the last time she had said the word.
She began to examine it, that no, turning it over. There was something behind it, although it crumbled as she searched, like a pile of ashes brushed by a fingertip. There was the importance of a straight line, and there was rain, the sensation of it, splashing unpleasantly on her calves, but also: the echo of some forbidden pleasure, a luxurious gold-and-cream bathroom, a scent of jasmine. She watched her younger, unmottled hands draw a package from her handbag. Then she remembered: it was the pair of silk stockings.
Suddenly she felt again that exquisite sensation of being scandalous. It had been the only time in her life she had felt that way. She remembered how she had imagined her mother-in-law’s outrage if she could have seen her in that fancy bathroom, with its embossed mirror and velvet armchair. She had checked the lock three times, afraid that someone might come in and see her unrolling the silk stockings gingerly up her legs.
Her husband had been away at the war. Letters had been scarce. The boys had been little and demanding, growing rapidly, and it had difficult to keep up with their lengthening limbs, to find them shoes and coats. There was never anything nice to eat, and never quite enough of anything else. She was always running, scrambling, finding solutions when she could but often failing. Her mother-in-law, who lived with them, constantly criticised her, reprimanded her for not being economical enough, demanded what she was feeding the boys, claimed that they not sleeping enough, that they should be doing better in school…
Her edges had begun to dissolve. She had stopped being able to distinguish where she ended and others began. She would wake in the morning feeling solid, but as the day passed, she would gradually become absorbed into other people. By the evenings, there would be almost nothing left of her.
One day, a small package arrived for her. Somehow she managed to get hold of it before her mother-in-law or the boys saw it and hide it in the kitchen cupboard behind the saucepans. When the boys left for school at last and her mother-in-law was in the lavatory, she had taken it out. She had recognised her brother’s handwriting immediately, and for a moment she had traced the inked loops with a fingertip. He was in the Navy; she did not know where. The letter just said, Something beautiful for my Beautiful Sis.
She had kept the package in her handbag until one rainy dark afternoon, when she told her mother-in-law that she needed to go in to town to buy groceries. It was a time-consuming task the older woman hated. She knew she would be alone.
By the time the bus came, her rough darned stockings were already damp with the puddles that had splashed up at her as she had walked to the bus stop. She rode standing up, then trudged from shop to shop, queuing until her feet ached. Her clammy shoes and clothes stuck to her like a bad smell. She tried to protect the paper packages from the rain. She noticed how colourless people had become, and how everyone’s eyes drifted over everyone else without really seeing them. In her pocket was a stub of red lipstick left over from before she had been married.
She had allowed herself a half an hour. Then she would have to catch the bus home. She had never entered this hotel, although she had sometimes imagined stepping lightly up its front steps in a lovely gown and high-heeled shoes, her hand on her husband’s arm. She would sit opposite him in the tearoom, a delicate cup between her fingers, warmed by the tea, and they would gaze at each other, just the two of them, alone.
First she went into the bathroom, which was more luxurious that any bathroom she had ever seen. At first she just sat in the armchair – she had never seen an armchair in a bathroom before – not daring to pull up her skirt in case someone banged on the door just as she was most exposed, and demanded how she dared to enter such a place. Eventually, she reached up under her skirt and slip, shyly trying not to pull them too far up her thighs, and undid the garter fastenings. Grime from the streets was grainy under her fingers as she rolled the damp unpleasant stockings down her legs. She washed her hands with jasmine soap before she took her brother’s package out of her handbag.
The light in the bathroom was dim, but there was enough to bring out the sheen of the silk stockings when she held them up. She savoured the sensation under her fingers as she smoothed them over her legs, making sure the line up the back was straight. A wild desire gripped her, to throw her darned old stockings scornfully into the wastepaper basket, but instead she put them into her handbag, tightly rolled in her handkerchief to protect her other belongings from the damp oozing out of them.
It was years since she had been able to examine herself in a mirror. At home, there were always children pulling her in several ways at once, and her mother-in-law’s disdainful eyes upon her. She cleaned her shoes of rain and mud as best she could. Finally, she pulled out the lipstick and carefully smeared the last of it over her lips, using her little finger to even out the outline.
Her clothes were as drab as ever, but in the glamorous stockings, her legs seemed as shapely as those of a Hollywood princess. When she looked up at her face, it was as radiant as if she had not a care in the world.
With dignity, she gathered up her groceries and crossed the foyer to the tearoom. The waiter’s serious face and sonorous voice would usually have intimidated her, but now she looked directly into his eyes and smiled as he greeted her, and in response he bowed his head in welcome and led her to a table by the window. It was exactly the table she would have chosen if he had asked her. She felt people looking at her and wondering why she was on her own and it made her want to laugh like a girl. The tea was so delicious that she missed her bus.
The nurse straightened up. “I think she said no,” she said, not asking the question for which nobody present had an answer. She looked from one to the other of the two brothers. “I’m afraid she’s gone,” she added gently. Then she stepped back to allow them to approach the bed.
The younger man repeated tearfully, “She never thought of herself…” The elder, silent, reached out and took his dead mother’s hand.
Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Her prize-winning stories have been published in The Irish Literary Review, the Sunday Business Post, the Nivalis 2016 anthology, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Anthology 2017, the Lakeview International Journal of Literature and the Arts, and Bare Fiction Magazine. ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ was shortisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2016.