I took a step inside the room while the door was closed swiftly behind me. I was overwhelmed by the smell of rot and decay. Every part of the roof seeped a murky brown gel that dripped steadily into the array of pots and pans spread across the floor. It was as if the whole room was melting and would collapse at any moment, taking with it its inhabitants never to be seen again. I shivered involuntarily. She noticed the movement and gestured for me to come closer to the bed. I didn’t want to but it was too late to back out. Grandfather would be able to tell somehow. He always could.
‘Jeremiah? That you boy?’ My grandmother rasped. Her chest heaved up and down as if this simple greeting took a lot out of her.
‘No Grandma, it’s Wren. Jeremiah couldn’t make it.’ I lied to her. Jem is actually standing outside the room but is too afraid to come inside and see the woman he idolised dying in her squalid hollow.
Her skeleton fingers grasped my hand and held onto it tightly. Her frozen touch sent goose bumps up my arm. She smiles widely and moves her head side to side as if remembering the tune of a song.
‘Wren! My darling Wren. My how deep your voice has gotten. You must be looking more and more like your father. Let me feel your face.’ She reaches forward and clings onto my shirt. My funeral shirt.
Reluctantly, I bring her hand toward my face and let her slowly run her fingertips across my features. She smiles again and declares me handsome. I cannot think of anything to say that will change her circumstances. This is not the way she wanted to bow out. She would have preferred to die young and in a bizarre fashion. Definitely not lying in a mould infested room, blind, with only the occasional family visit to look forward to until eventually dying. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m coming across as if I hate the woman. In fact I loved her. She was my stand-in mother when the real one bailed. She was there for every failed report card, bandaged every scrap and checked under the bed for monsters every night. But who knew the real monster was actually death? He does not lurk under the bed but rather lies in wait inside all of us, waiting for our weakest moment. Death always wins.
‘I brought you Zosia’s lemon squares. Granddad has them.’ I say to fill in the silence we have drifted into. I stand awkwardly by the bed since the only chair is damp and covered in towels.
‘You’re a good boy Wren. You were always my favourite but don’t tell your brother. Lord knows Jeremiah needs to be the special one.’ She chuckles hoarsely. I laugh in unison with her and feel that familiar tug in my chest. That tugging rope with a noose around my heart. As soon as she dies the chair gets kicked away and my heart is left to suffer.
‘No Wren. Don’t pity this old woman. Tell me, is there a girl in your life?’ She lets her first tear fall. She is realising that she won’t be here much longer to hear about these pointless stories and new people in my life.
‘You’re the only woman in my life Grams.’ I say tightly, not wanting to cry. She doesn’t have much longer left. That is plain to see.
‘Do me a favour before you go Wren, my love.’ She pleads.
‘Anything. I’d do anything for you.’ I say, meaning it.
‘Over by the dresser. Do you see a brown jewellery box?’ She said.
The dresser was a jumble of clothes and water stained photographs. On top of the pile was a tiny box, big enough to fit in one hand easily.
‘I have it.’ I said, pressing the box into her reaching hands. She fumbles with the latch for a moment before flipping it open and taking out its contents. It was one of those miniscule conch shells I used to collect on the beach. A thick piece of twine curled through a hole to turn the shell into a necklace. Grandma pressed it into my hand and held it there tightly, not letting go. She looked so desperate, yet a contented smile spread across her face.
‘I have pearls and rubies Wren. I have Swarovski crystal earrings that cost more than I’d care to admit, but none of it compares to this necklace. Do you remember it?’ She asks me hopefully.
‘I made it.’ I replied in a whisper. I used to collect hundreds of shells on our beach holidays. I would keep them in a box under my bed. Then one day my father asked me why I didn’t make anything out of them. So he got the twine and we got to work together. It was the last good memory I had of my father. The very first necklace I made, I knew who to give it to.
‘You were so happy. Such a little boy… I kept it safe, even wore it most days. You keep it now. Remember me when I’m gone.’ She said. Tears rolled down her face from her blank eyes and into the pillow.
‘Of course I’ll remember you. I’ll never be able to forget you. I love you Grams.’ I put every emotion I was capable of into my words. Usually I would never betray myself in such a fashion, I prided myself on the fact that no one could ever tell how I was feeling by my expression or word choice but now it was like my last confession. I only had moments to tell her everything I felt and how much love I held for her. More love than my heart weighs.
‘You’ll always be my favourite person.’ I tell her forcefully as I steel myself to turn from her frail body and head out the door to the real world where clocks still tick and time moves on.
‘One last thing Wren, your Grandpa finds it hard to express his emotions. He’s like Jem. He loves you, he’d just never say it.’
‘Goodbye Grams.’ I kiss her tenderly on the forehead and push her straggly hair back against the pillow.
‘Goodbye Wren. Stay safe. I love you.’ She kisses my hand and lets it go, shaking slightly. I shuffle toward the door in the dim light and re-join the others in the stuffy hall. I stand by myself in the corner of the room. The necklace is warm in my hand, like it is radiating heat. I tell myself it’s her. I put it on, double knotting it at the back and letting the shell fall directly over my heart. My Grandma died that night and took with her a fraction of my heart.