Still Life

Tilly could have died, but she didn’t. Angie had to grip on to the last part of the sentence, but this seemed harder for her than anyone else, including Tilly.

That morning Tilly was getting ready for school as though nothing had happened. For Angie, the beep of Tilly’s alarm clock sounded like the heart monitor they’d attached to her daughter’s narrow ribs at the hospital. The steam choking out of the coffee machine sounded like her precious child gasping for breath.

Watching Tilly gobble down toast at breakfast, Angie assessed her pale face, the dark circles under her eyes. ‘You don’t have to go in today, love. Why don’t you stay at home with me?’

‘Nah.’ Tilly dropped a crust onto the plate and stood, leaving it for the kitchen fairies to clear up later. ‘Verity started talking to Jude last night and I don’t want to miss the drama.’

‘Why wasn’t she talking to Jude before? He’s in your form, isn’t he? Had they fallen out?’

Tilly’s eyes rolled skywards. ‘Talking, not talking.’

Angie took the plate to the food bin and tipped in the crust. ‘Ah, right,’ she said, remembering the word’s new usage. ‘Talking is the preamble before dating, right?’ She turned, hopeful Tilly wouldn’t have that disdainful look she wore most of the time, but her seat was empty.

Minutes later there was a thundering of feet down the stairs, a shout of, ‘See ya,’ and the slam of the front door. Angie rushed into the hall, but when her hand was on the cold door handle, she paused. All the words she wanted to shout after Tilly, have you got your inhaler? Did you take the steroids? Call me if you start to wheeze. Call me…to tell me you’re safe stumbled up her throat but came to a stop in her mouth, colliding into each other, pushing the air out of her lips in a sigh.

She made herself turn away from the door. Tilly was sixteen. Old enough to remember to take the brown and blue inhalers at the right times. Old enough to let someone know if she was struggling to breathe. Yesterday had been an anomaly. The cold air mixed with the long netball tournament had set off the attack. The nice doctor who’d handed Angie tissues as she watched the mask being placed over Tilly’s white face said as much. Even Angie had to admit that the nebuliser worked quickly, and Tilly’s breathing had returned to normal sooner than she could have hoped.

But that hadn’t helped Angie sleep last night and she didn’t seem able to stop the thoughts spiralling in her head now. What if the teacher hadn’t got Tilly to hospital in time? What if it happened again, in the middle of the night, and Tilly wasn’t able to let Angie know? Would she walk into her daughter’s bedroom one morning and find her lying still, blue-faced and lifeless?

She went back into the kitchen and took her phone from where it was charging on the worksurface. She tapped onto messages and scrolled to see if Chloe had texted. She hadn’t. Chloe had probably messaged Tilly on her phone. She knew her daughters contacted each other regularly and was ashamed to admit this left her feeling like an outsider.

She’d read a parenting book when Chloe was four and Tilly was new-born and vividly remembered a chapter about how important it was to allow your children to interact with each other without your interference. Before this, Angie hadn’t considered that her two would have an independent relationship; one that excluded her. Now she couldn’t imagine them including her.

Her mind went back to the hospital last night, when she’d called Chloe at her halls of residence to tell her Tilly was fine. Chloe had asked to speak to Tilly. Angie handed over her phone and soon the sisters were chatting away, Tilly snorting at some joke that Angie would never hear the punchline of.

When Tilly eventually handed the phone back, Angie held it to her ear, hoping to say goodbye to her eldest daughter, but the line was dead.

A knock at the door brought her back to the present.

‘Gordon.’ She was surprised to see the white-haired man, wearing his trademark paisley cravat, standing on her doorstep. ‘Come in.’

Gordon dangled an enormous, old-fashioned key on a chain in front of his face. ‘Thought I’d bring this back.’

Angie’s mind returned to yesterday when she’d got the call from the school receptionist telling her Tilly was on her way to A & E. She’d been in the middle of tutoring a still-life drawing session at the church hall and had thrown the key at…she couldn’t remember who. It was all a blur. She remembered people screwing the caps on her acrylics and dismantling her easel, but she couldn’t recall any details other than her heart pounding and a desperate need to get to her daughter.

‘How is your girl?’ Gordon’s brow furrowed.

Angie closed the door and gestured for him to follow her through to the kitchen. ‘Right as rain, thanks. Cuppa?’ Gordon nodded. ‘She’s just gone off to school. Made of sturdy stuff, that one.’

‘Like her mum, then.’

Gordon was smiling and there was something in his kind expression that made tears well in Angie’s eyes. She flapped her hand in front of her face. ‘Ignore me. I don’t know why I’m crying. She’s fine, really she is.’

‘Sit down,’ Gordon said. ‘I’ll make the tea.’

When he placed the steaming drink in front of her, he said. ‘So, your daughter’s really alright?’

‘She is. They put her on the nebuliser and her breathing was back to normal in no time.’ She smiled and brought the mug to her lips.

‘And what about you?’

Angie swallowed and looked at Gordon, confused. ‘What do you mean? I haven’t got asthma, thank goodness. One in the house is enough.’ She rolled her eyes and took another sip.

‘I meant, how are you doing? It must’ve been upsetting, yesterday, seeing your child suffering like that.’

His soft blue eyes narrowed, and she felt the urge to cry again. ‘Watching’s not the same as going through it, is it?’ I’m alright.’ She dragged the sleeve of her T-Shirt across her eyes. ‘I’m going daft. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe it’s ‘cos it’s nearly the anniversary of losing dad.’

‘You nursed him, didn’t you?’

Angie nodded, biting on her bottom lip to try to stop the tears. ‘For a couple of years.’

‘Who’s looking after you, Angie?’

She laughed. He’d clearly never been a single parent. ‘Me. I’m looking after me, along with everyone else. That’s my job.’ She stood and took a tissue from the box on top of the microwave and blew her nose.

Gordon cupped his hands around his mug. ‘The reason I ask is, well, just before my wife passed away, a nurse, lovely girl, asked me if I was alright. It seemed like an absurd question to me. There was my Sally, riddled with cancer, and this slip of a girl was asking how I was. I must’ve looked befuddled because she started talking about caring for the carers, and it made sense. Who does?’

He shrugged. ‘What I’m getting at is that you look after everyone, don’t you? The girls,’ He put his hand up to stop her when she opened her mouth to speak, ‘I know your eldest is at university, but that doesn’t stop you worrying about her, maybe even more now she’s not at home?’

Angie smiled. ‘You’re not wrong.’

‘And at the classes, you look after us, you make sure we’re all getting on alright.’

‘That’s my job.’ She was aware she was repeating herself.

‘But who takes care of you, Angie, love?’

Letting out a long breath, she realised just how drained she was. She closed her eyes. ‘Nobody.’ She was a fifty-five-year-old divorcee who had made her family her life. And she’d been fine with that, until her dad died, and the girls started to leave her too, step by quiet step.

She opened her eyes and glanced around her small, square kitchen. Apart from the art classes, somehow, she’d allowed her life to shrink to not much more than these four walls.

‘Do you know what,’ she said, then paused before making her confession, ‘I sometimes walk down the High Street and try to catch people’s eyes,’ She smiled weakly and shook her head, ‘Just to prove to myself that I’m not actually invisible.’ The tears came again when she felt Gordon’s warm hand over hers, ‘And the awful thing is, quite often, I can go the whole length of the street without any evidence a single person has seen me.’

‘Angie, look at me.’ She shifted her gaze to Gordon’s gentle, lined face and saw that his eyes were wet too. ‘I see you,’ he said, ‘I wish I could show you how much you mean to us all.’

***

The following week, Angie greeted Gordon with a warm hug when he wandered into the bright church hall with his bag of art supplies.

‘Do you mind if I take this spot?’ he asked, pointing to the space Angie usually set up. She’d kept today’s display simple, just a pot of red amaryllis that had bloomed on her windowsill the week before, bringing colour to the bleak January weather. ‘Would you be alright here?’ He took her easel and placed it behind the amaryllis.

‘I suppose so,’ Angie said. ‘But I won’t be able to see everyone’s_’

‘Just for today,’ he interrupted, then turned to greet the others trickling into the hall.

They started with some quick sketches then Angie walked around the group, admiring the work and giving tips on perspective and how to catch the different tones of red on the petals.

‘Now we’ll spend an hour on a more detailed study,’ she said. Classic FM played quietly in the background and, for the first time since Tilly’s asthma attack, Angie lost herself in the flow of shape and light and colour. When the alarm on her phone went off signalling the hour was up, she jumped.

Usually, everyone would be looking at their work, tipping their heads to the side, or stepping back to get a different view. But today they were all looking at her and smiling.

Before she could ask what was going on, Gordon’s voice boomed, ‘Turn your work, people.’ Everyone in the room twisted their easel to face Angie. She gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.

Every picture was of her. She blinked away tears to look at each one in turn: a detailed pencil study, a chaotic sketch with charcoals, a colourful board daubed with acrylics. All of them were brilliantly, unmistakably her.

‘You are not alone, Angie,’ said Gordon, smiling at the chorus of voices joining his. ‘We see you, my lovely. We all see you.’

(If you enjoyed this short story, you can meet Angie again in ‘Her Mother’s Lies’ by clicking the link below. She only plays a small part in the book, but there are lots of other interesting characters I would love you to meet)

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