On the morning I am due to return to Sydney, dread strikes the instant I wake, my eyes squeezed tightly as anxiety launches its missiles. When the worst has passed, I peek through one eye at my familiar surrounds: the ink-stained desk where I crammed for my studies, the old crimson sofa and use to hang out with my friends. Gratitude hits like a giant wave. Mum ensured I had my freedom – even a separate entrance onto a little courtyard where an old-fashioned swing chair sits empty.
It’s going to take a miracle for me to leave. As usual, she will have slept on the couch – her eyes will be bloated sacks. The greys crept a little deeper into her brunette hair; her souring skin loosened a little more.
I shower – one of us must lest we both end up perched on that damn feral couch gawking at the TV – no volume, just pictures: Cuckoo’s Nest inmates.
Five days after my father left and my mother is still useless, only now she eats like a starved person, scoffing everything I present – I suspect if I give her cat food she would eat it.
It’s ridiculous to think she will be okay, but the idea of cancelling my flight and forgoing Max’s “special reunion” is unthinkable.
‘Morning,’ I announce, adopting the sing-song tone of a talk-show host.
When I open the blinds, daylight splinters the room.
Squatting, I search for Mum’s hand. ‘Did you sleep?’ Easing the doona from her face, those bloodshot eyes confirming she barely got a wink.
Her stale breath is biting; her body odour rank. Perhaps a sponge bath – or how about a light hose? For fuck sake, I am not a nurse. Trust my father to time his escape so I could catch her.
‘C’mon, today is wash day!’ Maintaining my note of cheer, I peel the doona from her body. Her wretched robe is gaping. Her nightie bunches around her waist, exposing fleshy hips and dimpled thighs, days old cotton knickers. If only she could muster some shame.
‘Off we go.’ When I clasp her hands and heave her off the couch, her slack body complies like a child’s, I am overwhelmed with tenderness.
One foot forward and the next, her body leaning into mine, we finally make it to the bathroom.
‘Will you be alright now?’ I ask.
Standing passive in the centre of the tiled floor, she says, ‘Yes, yes… thank you, my love.’
Buoyed by thsi evidence of speech, I close the door and listen for activity.
‘How are you going?’ When I open I find her sitting on the edge of the bath, a sodden nest of tissues in her hand. My romantic reunion is looking dire. ‘How about a bath instead.’ I turn the taps on full-bore. ‘What about some bubbles? Unwinds tired minds. Ooh, I’d say you could do with a truck load of that!’ I upend the entire pack, and watch the swirling water turn unholy green.
About to tell her to get in, I catch her eyeing the water. This unleashes a new surge of panic. Visions of her under water, her sparse hair fanned, those glassy eyes wide open.
‘I wouldn’t, you know,’ she says, staring at me. Too late, I have decided to stay.
‘Righto, let’s do it.’ I slide the sleeves from her arms and toss her gown and nightie to the floor. ‘Lift up.’
Her breasts are shapeless; her stomach and hips etched with white squiggly lines.
‘Stand up… now off with your knickers.’ I’ve never seen her fully naked and never imagined I would – if I pretend I am a nurse we might survive this with some dignity intact.
I fight the urge to cry, to hug her and reassure her that everything is fine. But I’m not sure it will be.
She eases herself into the water. This woman who birthed me. The woman my father betrayed. ‘I miss him,’ she says.
I trickle hot water down her back with the face-washer, the way she did for me when I was small. ‘If you lie back I’ll wash your hair,’ I say, and fetch the shampoo from the shower.
The face-washer is floating above her pubic hair; her arms are folded across her breasts. I am heartened by this gesture of modesty.
As I massage in the shampoo, her brow begins to relax. Briefly I glimpse the mother I have always known: composed and contained. But something different, like a thread has snapped.
I face the chair from the bath so she can soak in private. Sounds of water sloshing as she attends her body.
Dribble pools in the corner of my mouth. My chin has drooped to my chest. Slumped and exhausted, I have been asleep beside my mother’s bath. It is dead quiet.
I twist my arm back and slide my fingers into the lukewarm water. Again, a vision of her under the surface. Glassy eyes wide open.
When her fingers wind through mine I clutch them tightly, no stopping the tears.
Later, I call Max to tell him Mum is unwell and that I have to stay. He says he misses me and hates being apart. Wants to know how long I’ll be. I am shocked when he asks if there is someone else.
Dr Stephens shines a torch in my mother’s eyes. After the usual checks he asks if she has behaved like this before, if she has a ‘history.’
‘My father just left her,’ I say. ‘She’s in shock.’
‘I suspect you’re right, my dear. How are you coping?’
I resent being called ‘dear’ by a stranger. ‘Fine.’
He looks at me pointedly. ‘Your father loves you, you know.’ Dr Stephen’s is my father’s GP. Is he aware that my father is gay? Maybe everyone knows but Mum and me.
‘I expect he does. In his way,’ I say, although what that is I can’t say. The Gay Way?
‘I’m prescribing anti-depressants for your mother,’ he says. ‘She must take one each morning. We’ll increase the dose in two weeks.’
‘That’s it? Drugs?’ His stupidity is baffling. ‘Who will mend her broken heart then?’ I want him to leave.
‘Give her some time,’ he says, packing his toolkit. ‘Now… what about you?’
I picture the notes he’s scribbling, his illegible doctorish hand: Daughter, Ruth, twenty-one years old, aggressive, unresolved parental issues, uptight.
‘Are you sleeping?’ His bushy eyebrow peaks to a V.
‘I can look after myself.’
Maybe he is gay too. Maybe there is a secret gay club.
I whisk him to the door.
Over the next two weeks, Mum slowly reemerges – talks, cooks, cleans – even manages a smile. Eerie impersonations of her former version. I want that self-absorbed, driven mother back.
‘I’m happy with her progress,’ Dr Stephen says, at his visit five days later.
‘She’s not the same person. You didn’t know her before.’
I assure you she will be fine. Please pass this on to your father.’ As he hands me his account, Mum materializes from the bedroom.
Coaxing her hair into a semblance of order, she says, ‘He’s right, you know. I will be fine.’ Trying to convince us she is well. ‘I’ll take care of that,’ she says, snatching the bill from his hand.
At breakfast next morning, my mother’s eyes still glazed, she says, ‘Go, Ruthie. Go back to your life. Back to that young man of yours. I will be fine.’ She starts stacking our bowls into the dish washer, as if loading is proof. ‘Really.’ The dishwasher whirs into action.
And with Max in my sights, I leave.
The Bath is adapted from a much longer manuscript. It was published in Visible Ink’s 2009 Lost & Found anthology: http://visibleinkanthology.com/buyit/