The manager at the nursing home said it was almost time, so Meg picked up Allie on the way and they drove up there. It was winter; their grandmother was near death. She was holding on and making attempts to talk, but her lungs were too wet for sense and the nurses didn’t have time to listen, anyway. It stung Meg to hear such an admission from the manager – she wondered if the woman had spoken out of turn. On the drive over to Allie’s house it made her weep, to think that, even at the end of a woman’s life, a bed-pan or a bed sore took priority.
“I don’t think she meant to tell you that,” Allie said, smoothing down her skirt as Meg bounced the car up country roads. “Maybe she said it to get us there quickly.”
Meg sniffed. The heater rattled out a thin dribble of warm air and there was frost on the windscreen. She smeared it away, thinking of Allie’s Landrover, with its soft seats and air-conditioning that made her feel as though she was underwater.
They talked, a little, as the blizzard rolled in. The road took them past the entrance to an estate, a collection of new-builds about a mile from the care home. Shiny cars stood redundantly in driveways; snow, the great leveller, fell across them, hiding their shapes. Empty hanging baskets swung in the night air. A flag fluttered on the grass verge, “Franklin Island” printed in blue. The sisters’ heads turned slightly as Meg drove past, slower than she would have liked due to the slush. She opened her mouth to speak but Allie leaned forward and turned up the radio, so she said nothing.
They parked up and trudged across the carpark, their ears blocked by wind and winter. The nursing home, a smart modern building, seemed a nub of silence in the gathering snow and Meg bit back on an urge to shout out, to cut through the stillness. The manager met them at the door. A smell of boiled cabbage and disinfectant slid out. Meg, who had not eaten since taking the call, felt her mouth water. Absurdly, the scent also made her tearful; she swallowed as the manager extended her hand and motioned them inside.
She was a pointy little woman, wearing an ill-fitting trouser suit and huge, pink earrings that dangled down to her shoulders. She seemed out of place against the flowered wallpaper and tepid watercolours dotted along the hallway, but she looked at Meg sympathetically.
“I know how close you both are to her,” and she handed Meg a tissue, producing it with a magician’s flourish.
Allie clicked her tongue, glancing stonily down at her sister. “We’d like to see her.”
“Of course,” and the manager led them towards their grandmother’s room. In contrast to outside, it was broiling hot in the home and the sisters sweated into their coats. The manager did not seem to notice. She stood outside their grandmother’s door, one hand splayed over the wood. “The deterioration has been fast. The doctor said kidney failure. Add that to her ongoing health problems…well, you’ll see.”
She stood back and let them in. Allie went first, holding a hand to her mouth, and Meg followed. The manager watched them enter the room fully and then, nodding to herself, went on her way. They heard her heels clicking down the corridor.
“Oh, Nana,” Allie said in a strangled voice and approached her grandmother’s bed.
Their Nana lay on her back with her eyes closed, mouth slightly open so they could see her two brown teeth. Bushy white hair rested softly against the pillow, pale gleam of scalp shining through. Her skin was smooth and still. She was not smiling today, not creasing up the folds around her eyes, not wrinkling up her large forehead in a way that reminded her granddaughters of the rippled surface of a chocolate digestive. Meg let the tears go and sat down on the bed, nudging aside tubes and a bag of urine draped over the edge.
“Nana, we’re here,” and she took the old woman’s hand gently. The skin was stained with purple bruises, from where blood had been taken.
“Nana, can you hear us?” Allie sat down on the other side and took a hand, too, so that the three women’s limbs formed two sides of a triangle.
The eyelids fluttered and they thought she was waking up. But, stillness again. The curtains were open and snow filled the carpark. The air in the room felt compressed. Even the rasp of their grandmother’s breath sounded smooth, rounded off.
“Do you think she’ll wake up?” Meg asked.
Allie shook her head. “I don’t know. She looks peaceful.”
Meg leaned forward to kiss the old woman’s forehead. Nana’s skin smelt sour and Meg wondered if it had been a while since she had bathed.
Then, the eyes moved again, though did not open fully, and their grandmother began to mutter. Meg, lips still close to Nana’s forehead, strained to hear. “What is it, darling, what are you trying to say?”
A noise, a harshness, like water rattling through old pipes, and Nana’s mouth moved. Allie leaned in, too, smoothing back the old woman’s hair.
“I can’t make out what she’s saying, Allie,” and Meg’s eyes were full of tears. “What if it’s important?”
“Hush, now,” and Allie pressed her ear to Nana’s mouth. They fell silent and they listened to whispers, like the sound of paper being moved in a room far away.
Then Allie sat up. She looked down at her grandmother. Nana seemed to have fallen into a thick sleep and her breath was heavy.
“What did she say, Allie?”
Allie shook her head slowly. “It must be the drugs she’s on. Delirious.”
“What did she say?”
“It didn’t make much sense. She was muttering ‘airman’ and ‘Kansas’.”
“It’s what she said. No sense at all. And then, just at the end, ‘I never told her’. I’ve no idea what she’s on about.”
Meg looked tenderly down at their grandmother. She had never seen the old woman asleep; not at the allotment they helped her tend, not in the late evenings when they were adults, sitting around her gas fire drinking rum. Not even as children – in the middle of the night when Meg had wet the bed, she would find Nana up, moving calmly around the room to fetch clean bedclothes. Now, in the nursing home, Meg had a strong desire to lie down next to her, to curl her frame around the old bones one last time.
“She’s resting,” Allie said. “We should leave her for a while. A sleep might do her some good.”
Meg didn’t think so and remembered what the manager had told her, but she didn’t like to argue with Allie, so got up. A look over her shoulder when they got to the door, and then back out to the corridor.
They found the breakfast room further along, though it was empty at that time of night. Meg switched on a light and a bright strip woke up above them. It was too harsh; they could see their pale reflections in the windows. So she switched it off again. Allie found a kettle and they waited for it to boil, taking their tea in near darkness.
“She said something about an airman and Kansas?” Meg asked again.
Allie curved her hands around the mug. “I don’t suppose it means anything, Megan. She’s on all kinds of drugs.”
Meg noted the use of her full name but, this time, ploughed on. She felt like closing her eyes, like she did during her swimming lessons as a child; the chlorine always stung. “It might not be the drugs. What if this really is it for Nana and she wants to tell us something?”
Allie said nothing. Upstairs they heard a bang, and a rolling, settling sound, as though a bowl had been dropped and was turning round on itself until it came to rest. The snow and wind continued to whip about the building.
“Who do you think she meant, when she said she never told her?” The muscles behind Meg’s eyes ached; tears were weighty.
Allie hitched in her breath. “Who else? Mum.”
It seemed odd to Meg, sitting across from her sister, to see Allie’s mouth shape that word. They had not spoken about their mother in almost five years, not since Meg saw her in the department store in town and lurked behind a display of drills until she had passed. Even then, when she told Allie, the conversation had been brief; sometimes Meg thought Allie preferred to believe their mother had died, rather than what had really happened.
The way Allie said the word – her mouth seemed to move in an exaggerated way, Meg thought, as though Allie was attempting French or Spanish, reading aloud from a menu to a patient waiter.
“She still comes to see Nana, you know,” Allie said, raising the mug to her face. “The manager told me, a long time ago. Once a month, for a couple of hours.”
“Nana never said.”
“She wouldn’t. Not to us. Remember when she tried to get us to talk to each other, that time in her garden?”
Meg did remember, but wanted her sister to describe it to her again. It was so unlike Allie to talk in such a way.
But Allie was done. She folded herself around her tea, large shoulders squeezing in as though she was being hugged by a ghost. She looked around the room, at the ceiling, anywhere but her sister’s face.
The manager found them a short while later. They heard her clipping her way down the hallway before she came in, a file wedged into the crook of her arm.
She snapped the light on and came and sat at their table, the sisters squinting in the aggressive glare. A cough, and shake of the garish pink earrings. “So you’ve been to see her. She’s peaceful, that’s something.”
It was easy for Meg to see the woman was on edge. She saw how the manager held herself primly, the line of her suit perfectly placed and laundered. Meg’s fingers stiffened, holding back from touching her own clothes, which were creased and stale. She knew Allie had noticed she was wearing a shirt that was a week old, though her sister had not mentioned it.
Allie had said nothing, either, in response to the manager. Meg nodded, exaggeratedly.
“She does, that’s right. But she tried to speak to us. Didn’t she Allie?”
Allie continued to sit in silence. But Meg’s tongue had come unstuck and she had the run of it.
“Has she spoken to the nurses, at all? Any of them? She said something just now about an airman. And Kansas!”
The manager pulled out some forms from her file, looking to be distracted. “I’m not aware of it.”
“But anyone else? It didn’t make any sense to us.”
“Sometimes they say things. It’s the drugs, you know.” The manager popped the top of a pen. “I’m sorry to have to do this at this time, but there are certain things we need to have set in place.”
Meg ignored the offered papers. “It’s just that…we’ve never heard her talk like that, have we Allie? Nana has always been so sharp. That’s right, isn’t it Allie?”
She heard the note of pleading in her voice and tried to swallow it. And, as ever, she thought of a car, pulling away, a lady’s painted fingers resting on the open window frame. Bare-legged, socks sagging around her ankles, school skirt smeared with glue and posterpaint: Meg had been holding a catapult made earlier that day. She had stretched out the elastic as the car drove away, but not to let the weapon fly. Instead she had imagined wrapping the elastic around the towbar – the one that had never pulled a caravan – and tugging the car back to her.
The manager cleared her throat. “Most of these forms have been completed. There’s very little to do, but your grandmother was clear about some things. She’d like you to sort through her clothes and find the purple dress she was so fond of.”
“Excuse me?” Bewildered. Meg.
“Nana wants to wear it. After,” Allie said, hollowly.
The manager tilted her head, deliberately, her mouth a little button of faux sympathy. “The rest of your grandmother’s possessions are to be collected by…” she skimmed down to the bottom of the form, “…Miss Oates of Franklin Avenue.”
The buzz of the strip lighting was the only sound for a few minutes. Wired, static, a fly trapped inside a glass; the room seemed to pile on top of the sisters, wadding their ears with cotton.
The manager kept her eyes down and, smoothly, continued. “Miss Oates is Mrs Kendle daughter, am I right?”
“And our mother,” and Meg’s breath came out in a rush.
“Excuse me, but do you know why this arrangement is in place?” Allie asked. She spoke carefully, her voice resting on each word like it was ice. Her hands were pressed against the formica table.
“Well, I understand that Miss Oates is a regular visitor and it is something that your grandmother wanted.” The manager had yet to lift her eyes from her forms. She filled in a couple of empty boxes with a flourish and then turned the papers around to Allie. “Would you mind signing here, please? And there. Then you can spend the rest of the time with your grandmother.”
“It was only a few words, Megan. Drop it.”
They were sitting next to their grandmother again. Meg had folded her fingers into the old woman’s clawed fist, trying to make her hand small enough to slip inside, under Nana’s palm. But she was too big now. The thought tingled her nose and she thought of what would come later, when it was over. The grief that would sit on her chest and make her breathless; how no amount of longing or imaging would bring a person back.
Allie sat on the edge of the bed, too, coat back on and tightly belted, even though the room was roasting.
“But I want to know what she meant,” Meg said again. She wished again she could fit her hand inside Nana’s grasp, just like she used to do. “Mum was born at the end of the war, wasn’t she?”
Allie blinked, slowly.
“Do you think there might have been someone else, other than Grandad?” Meg panted a little. “An American?”
“Honestly, Meg, we have so little to go on. She only said a few words.”
“Yes, but still. What’s Kansas like, anyway? You’ve been to America.”
“Florida,” Allie said faintly.
“I only things I know about Kansas are from The Wizard of Oz,” and Meg thought back to an afternoon, drinking milky tea, wedged in a high-backed chair, singeing her legs against a gas fire. The blaze of colours when Dorothy opened her front door, and Nana gasping, delighted. “Empty, flat spaces. That’s what I know of Kansas.”
Meg nodded. “Yes. Ripping up from nowhere, turning the house upside down. Stripy tights, all squashed. Allie, what if Nana really does want us to know something?”
“And what if she does?” Allie finally looked at her sister. The tendons in her neck stood out, her jaw flexed.
“What would we do with it? What is the point in knowing something if we can’t do anything with it?”
“But – but it would mean our family is different. Not what we thought. Genes and all that.”
Allie fixed her sister with a stare. “Would it really be any different, Meg?”
To which Meg had no answer, or no answer she could give. The little bubble of courage deflated easily and she lay down next to her grandmother, aware but not caring that she lay across a tube that carried urine from the old lady’s body. She pushed her nose into the hollow scoop of Nana’s neck.
They waited and, outside, the snow came.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”, a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.
© 2016, Rebecca Burns