Notes From the Lost Property Department by Bridget Pitt is a novel about the ordinary complexities of a mother-daughter relationship, with the extra tumult of brain injury.
In the excerpt below Iris, for who the effects of a near-fatal childhood fall still linger, gets the news that her elderly mother, Grace, has suffered a stroke. Because of her brain injury, Iris has always been the “Little Sister” who is “not equipped to deal with fallen mothers”. But as her elder sister, Jess, is away on an important business trip, Iris has no choice but to take control.
Pitt’s expression of state of Iris’s thoughts, and the nature of relationships between Iris, Jess and Grace in beautiful and strikingly life-like.
Read the excerpt:
* * * * * * * *
Her phone is croaking again. Iris eyes it warily. She’d thought that a frog sound would be soothing, but the croak is somehow more ominous than the bicycle bell ringtone that she’d had before. She’d ignored the last call, but the caller is apparently not easily deterred. She snatches up the phone and silences its croak with her thumb. ‘Hello?’ she suggests, tentatively.
‘Hello? Hello? Is that Miss … uh Langley?’ The voice is loud, nasal and institutional, bringing to mind the rubber feet on walking aids, the chilly humiliation of a bedpan.
‘This is Sister Samson from Lavender Lodge Frail Care Facility. Is Mrs Grace Langley your mother?’
‘Yes … Yes, she is.’ Iris sounds doubtful, as if apprehensive about what complications owning this relationship might subject her to.
‘Uh, I’m sorry to tell you that your mother is not well. She has had a cerebrovascular accident.’
‘A stroke, Miss Langley. Your mother has had a stroke.’
‘Did you call my sister? You should call my sister.’ Iris squeezes the words out past a ballooning bubble of panic. She is Little Sister, fifty-two years old or not. Little Sister is not equipped to deal with fallen mothers.
‘Mrs Thornton is overseas, Miss … uh … Langley. She gave us your number.’ Jess? Overseas? Oh damn, so she is, way over on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean.
‘Oh … Well, is my mother ok?’
‘No, she is not good. She has been admitted to the Parktown Clinic – you can call her doctor for more information. Can I give you the number?’
‘Wait … uh … How did it happen?’
‘She was found in the rose garden.’
‘The rose garden?’
‘Yes. She would wander you know … She made it difficult for us to manage her. Gideon found her. Our, um, security employer … uh … employee. We don’t know for how long she was lying there. He got her this afternoon at four o’clock. There is nothing we can do, you know, if they won’t stay in the day lounge. And your mother is very restless.’
Her voice has taken on a defensive whine. Sister Samson knows that children can turn vicious when the custodians of their aged parents are suspected of neglect. This is how they exonerate themselves of their own guilt, real or imagined. We are paying you good money, these children say, to keep her safe.
But Iris’s mind is elsewhere, hovering between picturing this Gideon stumbling over her mother in a rose garden and considering Sister Samson’s thinly veiled disgust at her mother’s insistence on being struck in the garden, rather than in the ‘Day Lounge’ or wherever cooperative geriatrics suffer cerebral accidents.
‘Is she conscious?’
‘Yes … um, but not talking—’
‘Will she recover?’
‘I cannot say. Here is Dr Steyn’s number.’
Iris finds a scrap of paper and a pen that doesn’t work and tries to write the number down by scoring the paper with the tip of the ballpoint. As Sister Samson slithers off the phone, the Draken roars in Iris’s ears and fills her brain with smoke, forcing her to drop the pen and curl up in a small coil on the carpet. The Draken came to her at the age of eleven, when she fell off a cliff in the Drakensberg Mountains – that imposing spine that curls itself around South Africa’s eastern flank. (As a small child, she’d been told that Drakensberg meant Dragon Mountains, by which she understood that they housed a specific type of dragon called the Draken.)
She landed on the top of her head, crushing her parietal and frontal lobes, with further damage caused by her brain ricocheting around her skull, the swelling and bleeding after the injury, and the meningitis that followed. There are medical terms for what happened to her. But for Iris, it is a complex and confusing narrative, in which the Drakens cracked her skull like an egg and scattered her brain onto the mountainside, leaving her mother to gather up all the lost fragments. She and her mother painstakingly cobbled these bits into some imperfect version of herself, but there is still something missing. She pictures this as a small golden key that will click the misplaced pieces into their correct sequence and restore her to her true self.
The Drakens also left some version of themselves in her brain: a raging chaos that clouded her mind for months after her accident. This caused her thoughts and sensations to fragment and slide over each other like writhing scales wreathed in smoke, and any but the gentlest sounds to coalesce and expand into a deafening roar, which could only be drowned out by a roar of her own. Iris tried to explain this to her partner, Tom, some twenty years after her fall. When she saw Tom’s expression, she quickly added, ‘It’s just a story,’ and laughed. Tom was not fooled by her laugh. ‘Then you should create another story about yourself,’ he said. ‘One that is more rewarding.’
‘I can’t do that!’
‘A story doesn’t own you – when you don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist. You keep it alive by obsessing over it. It’s not mystical, it’s biological. The more you practise a thought, the stronger the neural pathways leading to it. So practise a different thought.’ Tom is an ornithologist, but there is nothing feather-brained about him. His mind illuminates the obscure mysteries of the world, bringing them into sharp focus, without shadows or misty outlines.
So Iris worked diligently at making up different stories, about herself battling the Draken and coming out all the stronger for it. But, however much she has tried to vanquish or tame it, when there is a crisis – sometimes even quite a small one, like a burst pipe or a bird trapped in the house – the Draken returns with its sickening tilt of smoke and scales, routing all sensible solutions. Some doctors think the Draken is caused by her injury, some say it’s post-traumatic stress. They don’t really know, but they all have opinions. Her mother knows. Her mother has firm views about Iris. ‘You’re not crazy, darling,’ she says, in that infuriatingly soothing tone. ‘Just injured.’
Iris has never told the doctors, or her mother, or Tom about that other gift – or curse – left by the mountains: something planted in her brain, like an extra organ of perception, that enables her to perceive the energy of things, which may come to her as sounds, sights or smells. And with this comes the secret conviction that even inanimate objects harbour some inner intention. Iris worries that revealing this might lead others to categorise her as insane rather than eccentric. And there are times, in the presence of highly toxic people and their objects, that she feels their energy might in fact drive her insane. At these moments the Draken is a friend, blanketing her in white smoke and incinerating the toxin with its fiery breath. Now the phone in Iris’s hands is belching a sulphurous energy, generated by the news of her mother’s stroke, and her mind is a clash of claw and smoke and scale. If she were on the farm, she could walk into the aviary and imbibe the stillness of the owls. But here she is, five storeys up in her friend’s flat, lying on her back staring up at the dingy curds of the stuccoed ceiling, the phone flung into some far corner that is not nearly far enough.
Five storeys up … she sings to herself, to pull her brain back into functioning. Five layers of strangers’ lives separating her from earth. Five layers densely packed with dreams and obsessions of other selves. Their energy seeps through the walls like black mould, carried by dislocated sounds: flushing lavatories, the angry scolding of wailing children, the hollow bonhomie of television. How curious, she thinks, listening to her neighbour apparently throwing pots against a wall, that the sounds of other humans can conjure up such piercing and inconsolable loneliness.
Some small sensible voice is claiming her attention. Phone Jess. Jess is good at clearing fogs. She tries to remember why Jess is in Boston … what did she call it? A course in ‘corporate governance’ or some such. ‘But you’re so good at governing already,’ Iris had protested, when Jess told her. Jess has governed Iris to distraction her entire life. Jess doesn’t answer at first. Iris rings three times, hanging up just before she gets the voicemail, until she hears Jess’s live voice.
‘Hey, Iris, is it urgent? I ran out of a seminar to answer.’
‘Jess, it’s Mum—’ Iris finds herself suddenly unable to talk.
‘What? What’s happened? Oh God, she’s not—’
Jess catches herself, and puts on her best fog-clearing Big Sister voice.
‘Izzie, take a deep breath, and tell me. Has she died?’
‘No. She’s had a stroke. She’s not talking. They sent her to hospital.’
‘That’s sounds bad. How much brain damage is there?’
‘I don’t know. I just spoke to that Sister Samson. She couldn’t tell me much.’
‘Well, phone Dr Steyn. I’m surprised he didn’t phone you. He should have.’
‘Can’t you phone him, Jess? I get muddled. He’s much better with you. You know him.’
‘Izzie, stop being a ninny.’ (Being a ninny is a capital offence in Jess’s book.) ‘I’m in Boston and I’m in the middle of a seminar. Phone him and let me know what he says, ok? Phone him now. And Iris?’
‘Tell him, no heroics.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Mum didn’t want to be kept alive artificially. We discussed this a lot. If this stroke has seriously compromised her quality of life, we should get her out of hospital and—’
‘Let her die?’
‘Well, that’s putting it baldly, but I guess. Help her to die. Get the hospice in. Keep her comfortable …’
Jess’s voice is burbling on, but Iris can’t hear it because the smoke has rolled in again and swallowed all sound. Her tongue is thick in her mouth; her ears hum with white noise.
‘Shut up!’ she yells.
‘We have to face it, Izzie.’
‘Shut up shut up shut up,’ roars Iris. ‘Come home and tell Dr Steyn all this yourself or shut up. She’s not a list to be ticked, she’s Grace and she’s dying, and they found her lying in the rose garden and that Sister Samson is the biggest bitch and I can’t believe we left her to rot in that place.’
‘Iris, for Christ’s sake, don’t start this again. We didn’t leave her to rot – it’s a perfectly nice retirement home. Besides, what was I supposed to do?’
‘Why couldn’t she just stay in her own house?’
‘And who was going to check every five minutes that she wasn’t lying in an alcoholic stupor, or knocked out somewhere? Jesus, you drive me mad. You are so unrealistic. Surely even you can see that it was untenable.’
‘It’s easy for you. You didn’t even have to think about it, but I’ve had to do everything so I think you can stop laying trips—’
‘I’m not laying trips, you are.’ The Draken roars. Iris takes a deep breath to calm it. ‘I’m not laying trips, Jess, I’m not, really. Go do your seminar now, ok? ok? I’ll phone Dr Steyn. Go do your seminar … go do your seminar thing.’
‘She’ll be ok. I’m sorry, I just went off … she’ll be fine. Just call the doctor. If you need to go to Jo’burg, you can stay in my house. Noah’s away at school, but Lulu’s coming in every day. You can stay there and use the car.’
‘I can’t, Jess … I can’t do all that …’
‘You have to, Iz. I’m sorry, I need you to do this for me. I’ve held the fort all these years. I just can’t make it this time – you have no idea of the sexist bullshit I get from some of the male executives. They were totally opposed to the firm sending me on this course, and if I left now, it would just prove their insistence that women always put family before work. My job depends on this.’
Iris sits gripping her phone, as if it might retain traces of Jess’s vast competence, and thinks about Jess holding the fort. Iris knows nothing about holding forts. In her hands, it is sure to be dropped or lost or overrun, or whatever happens to forts that are not firmly held. Well, how is she supposed to know about holding forts, she demands of the unlovely ceiling. Her mother has always done it for her. Grace remade her, after her accident. Reconstructed all her memories, taught her to walk, to talk, to read, to think. Did her best to filter out life’s clamouring demands, to transform them into a soothing hum that would not overwhelm Iris’s damaged cortex. Attempted to map out Iris’s existence in neatly ordered squares, all sharp edges removed. Not that Iris hadn’t tried to break away, to hold her own fort. When she left with Tom more than twenty years ago. And now, leaving Tom to make this feeble stab at independence, in the deathby-stucco flat. But her mother has always hovered in the background, like the shadow of a mountain, sometimes blocking the sun and the view, but also shielding her from the storms: a place she could run to if the wind blew too hard. Iris holds herself still, trying to invoke the irritating but reassuring bulk of her mother’s intervention in her life, but perceives (with a sudden lurch of panic) only a void. When did that happen? Just now, with this stroke? Or has Grace’s hold been imperceptibly but steadily shrinking, like a rocky shoreline worn down by the tides? Iris conjures up her last visit … was it really five months ago? Sitting with Grace in the garden at Lavender Lodge, chuckling together at the tottering train of the senile dementias on their daily walk. Grace conquered the indignities of her situation as she conquered all her demons, by disarming them with her gentle dry humour, as if all the inmates of Lavender Lodge were mounting a comedy exclusively for her amusement. But her laughter was skating on the brittle edge of desperation. ‘But are you really ok, living here, Mum?’ Iris had asked, not really wanting to know the answer, because what could she do if her mother said no?
‘Never mind me, I’m in good order,’ said Grace. ‘But how about you, darling? Is everything fine with you? You look a bit tired—’
‘I’m fine, Mum.’ A wince from Grace at the sharpness of her tone, prompting Iris to make a placatory offer, ‘Listen, why don’t you come and stay on the farm with us for a bit?’
‘Oh, don’t worry about me, honey. I’d just get under your feet – perhaps I’ll come when these silly old legs are a bit sturdier. I’m fine here. Really. Edie’s here, and we have a good laugh. Besides, she needs me, now that she’s unwell. It’s not so bad. It’s like meeting new people every day because they never remember that I just had lunch with them.’ When Iris left, Grace stood at the gate holding onto her walker and smiled that smile of hers, that smile that she’d worn through all the unravelling years of Iris’s teens, stitched over all her sorrow and anger and despair. How hard it was to locate Grace behind that smile.
And Iris had walked away, both freed and gutted by that smile. She carried it back to Cape Town on the plane with her; she carries it still, in all its painful ambiguity. After that, Iris had stumbled into the familiar sinkholes of anxiety and despair, and the best she could do for Grace was to keep from her that she’d left Tom. But Grace knew something was wrong. She always knew.
‘Perhaps I should come to see you, darling. You sound like you need a bit of TLC. I’m sure I could manage the journey if I took a wheelchair at the airport.’
‘I’m fine, Mom.’
‘Well, you don’t sound fine. It would be nice to see you anyway … it’s been a while.’
‘It’s just not a good time right now—’
‘I knew something was wrong!’
‘Nothing’s wrong, Mom. I’m just staying with a friend in town—’
‘Are you having problems with Tom?’
‘No. Jesus, Mom. Why must you always assume my life is on the verge of falling apart? He’s … um … he’s on a long field trip. I didn’t want to stay on the farm by myself.’
‘Iris, you’re not having one of your … you know … bad patches, are you?’
‘Mom, I’m fine, please. How are you – how’s it there? Do you miss Edie terribly?’
There was a pause, and a soft sound – perhaps the intake of breath. ‘Everything’s good here, darling. Just missing you, that’s all.’
And Iris had stopped phoning her so that she didn’t have to lie any more. You see, she tells the ceiling. She’s still trying to manage me. No wonder I never grew up. But the ceiling is not sympathetic. You’ve been a bad daughter, it replies. That’s all there is to it. Maybe Grace needed you, for a change. Imagine how shitty she’s been feeling since Edie died. She wouldn’t even be in Lavender Lodge if she hadn’t been living on her own and drinking so much, and she wouldn’t have been living on her own and drinking if she hadn’t sacrificed everything, including her marriage, to save you after you stupidly fell off a mountain. Iris tries to ignore the ceiling (whose refrain is hardly new, anyway) and thinks instead about this dark thing that has swooped down on her mother. Stroke. The same calamity that deprived her of a father, striking him with such vengeance, they said, that he was dead before he hit the ground. And yet the word is so mild, suggesting a caress rather than a volcanic eruption in the brain. Her mother has shrunk to a small sparrow in the rose garden of Iris’s mind, lying on its back in the soil, its little head flopping to the side. She pictures this Gideon lifting the sparrow of her mother, cradling it in his hand. Stroking it back to life. Stroke.
With these thoughts she’s not angry any more. Just sad. If only she’d swept Grace up the last time she’d seen her and brought her home instead of the memory of her painful smile. Installed her in the spare room at the farm, sat with her looking out over the valley dipping between the Groot Drakenstein Mountains, laughing at the owls as they delicately dismembered their dinners (doesn’t he look justlike Grandpa Ted nibbling at the Christmas turkey), at the overblown hysteria of the guinea fowl over their offspring – the Mothers’ Union, Grace called them. It should have been so simple. But it wasn’t. Whenever Grace had come to stay on the farm in the years before, once or twice a year, everything would be lovely. For two, maybe three days. Then Grace would ask Iris once too often if she was tired, or feeling overwhelmed, and Iris would feel herself being sucked back into those days when life was a leaky raft on an unpredictable sea. Sometimes, it was just something in Grace’s expression. Iris would get brooding and tempestuous; Grace’s voice would take on that carefully modulated soothing tone, until Iris could not wait to put her mother on the plane. But even as she was waving goodbye, she’d start missing her, wondering why they couldn’t share the same space when they loved each other so much.
Well, too late for all that. Now she has to hold the fort. She’s not sure what this entails, but she has learnt over the years that, when any undertaking makes her brain bulge, it is helpful to carve it into a sequence of smaller actions. She borrows Jess’s bossy intonation to instruct herself: She must phone Dr Steyn. She must not let her voice squeak when she talks to him; she must keep the smoke from her brain and the Draken’s roar from her throat. She must find out where her mother lies, no longer in a rose garden but in a side ward, attached to tubes and bleeping things. She must catch an aeroplane, spirit herself to Jess’s faux-Tuscan house and hang her clothes in the spare-room wardrobe. She must drive herself in Jess’s Mercedes to wherever her mother is. She must walk into the hospital ward carrying something suitable for a mother whose brain has been eaten by some dragon of her own – a glossy magazine perhaps, and grapes and a facecloth. No, forget the magazine, a poetry book. Yeats, or that one she made Adji for her sixteenth birthday. She must demand straight talk from the medical staff and tell them no heroics … The instructions begin to multiply, each one spawning a litter of mini-instructions, which run around and refuse to march in line. An instruction without proper order is a hopeless thing, she reminds herself. Sequence is everything. She cannot bring her mother a facecloth until she has booked a plane ticket. She must focus on instruction number one, and perhaps the others will fall into place and trot along behind. And instruction one has been provided by Jess: Phone Dr Steyn.
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Extracted from Notes From the Lost Property Department by Bridget Pitt (Penguin)
Hour of Darkness by Michéle Rowe is a spine-chilling thriller set in Cape Town in the context of Earth Hour.
Last time, we brought you an extract from Hour of Darkness which focused on a robbery in Clicks in the Constantia Village mall. In the second excerpt, we catch a glimpse of Fred Splinters, a cold-blooded killer who enjoys coming home to a serene domestic setting and where he can slip into his Woolworths robe.
In this chapter, Fred is sitting in his car, watching as all the houses, his own included, go dark as everyone in his cosy neighbourhood prepares for Earth Hour.
Read Part 2 of the extract:
* * * * * * * *
Fred sat in his car and watched the lights go off in the houses on the street. One by one. He checked his dashboard clock. Eight p.m. exactly. Then the light in his house went off. Natasha would take something like Earth Hour seriously. She’d got some weird ideas in her head. He didn’t mind. It was best to do what everyone else in this neighbourhood did, and not stand out in any way.
The house looked unlived-in from the outside: a seventies, split-level affair with wood and slasto details. Only a rental, as impermanent as every other place Fred Splinters had occupied. He deserved something better by now. It gave him a sour taste in his mouth to think he might be a failure. It was not a good thought, not a helpful thought. Why had Natasha insisted on this area? She liked the ‘ordinariness’, she’d said, that she could walk to the shops. However, it was also close to Diep River Police Station, only four blocks away, which did not suit Fred at all. He preferred to give the law a wide berth. He clicked the gate remote. The metal gate shuddered, partially opened, and then stuck. It was just one of the many things about the dump that set his teeth on edge. It meant he had to get out of the car – a late-model Camry sedan (a deliberately unremarkable choice) – and shift the gate himself, giving it a little shove to dislodge it. Try as he might, he could never discover the exact place where it stuck. He’d tried everything: oiling it with 3-in-1, dismantling and reassembling it, checking the rails and runners. He didn’t want to call in a professional repairman – he never allowed workmen to snoop around at the house if he wasn’t there. He couldn’t trust Natasha not to draw attention to herself the minute his back was turned.
He parked the car and switched off the lights and ignition, taking his time and gathering his thoughts. Unpleasant ones were preoccupying his mind at the moment. Natasha had been more nervous than usual lately. Jumpy almost, since they moved into the house.
He had let himself in one day, when she was out, and gone through her things, finding nothing unusual apart from an old, chipped cup hidden at the back of the kitchen cupboard. Inside was an envelope, and inside that a key. A key for a post-office box he had no knowledge of. His first impulse had been to collect more information first, so that he was well armed beforehand. But the temptation to immediately confront Natasha with the evidence of her perfidy proved too tempting.
Natasha had stared at the key lying in the palm of his outstretched hand, then lowered her eyes. It gave him a thrill, the way she tried to hide her fear. She should be fucking scared. Fred had a nose for fear. He could smell it, like an animal scented danger.
‘Never seen it before,’ she lied, wiping her hair behind her ear. Another one of the nervous habits he’d tried to wean her off.
She was a small woman, slightly built and narrow-hipped, and looked pretty good considering how rough she’d had it. Before Fred came to her rescue.
He shoved it in her face, inches from her nose. ‘You’re telling me you’ve never seen this before?’
Her dumb-animal headshake did nothing to reassure him. She wouldn’t be scared unless she had something to hide.
So he had gone to the nearest post office, which was Plumstead, and tried all the boxes. Eventually, one had fitted. Box 1240. It was empty. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. But the knowledge of it would serve as extra leverage against Natasha.
He wouldn’t rock the boat for the moment. He must be patient with her, soothe her into letting her guard down, and then act.
She would be getting nervous now, wondering what Fred was doing, waiting for him to get out of the car. She would time it so that she was opening the door for him as he came up the stairs from the garage. Fred liked to think she spent all day waiting for the moment when he came home. The least she could do when you thought about everything he had done for her. Saved her from the filth and poverty of life on the street. He shuddered at the thought of the diseases she might have been carrying. Fortunately, he had not defiled himself with her, or any other woman for that matter. He had never enjoyed intimacy. Killing was already a very intimate act, and he did more than enough of that.
Fred’s domestic life was the only refuge he had from his demanding job. He liked to come home and let Natasha bring him a drink as he sat in his La-Z-Boy in his Woolworths robe, feet up, dstv on. She would have his meal ready and would sit next to him, ready to jump for whatever he wanted. Pondering her usual domestic acquiescence, Fred found it difficult to believe Natasha would actually hide anything from him. The thought of it was like a hot needle in his heart. Deep down, he clung to the hope that she was innocent.
But Fred’s assessment of human beings was a cynical one. And nothing in his life had ever challenged that conclusion. Perhaps it was the nature of his work, but he found that people only truly responded to force. He did not necessarily enjoy exercising violence on others. It just happened to be what he did, was second nature to him. He never got emotional, or took it personally. That’s why he had a good reputation.
He watched the flicker of candlelight warm the window of the living room. Then he got out of the car and went inside the house to where Natasha waited for him.
* * * * * * * *
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Extracted from Hour of Darkness by Michéle Rowe (Penguin)