Between my bedroom curtains large tufts of cumulus drifted across the clean blue sky like galleons in full sail. Below them, the tree tops hazed with the green of spring buds and from the field next door I could hear an industrious woodpecker drilling for his breakfast. Next to me, in the bed, Roger roused, yawned, and burrowed back under the duvet. Heedless of my lazy, bed-hogging dog, my mind was on yesterday’s sunlight falling through another window into a bright room that seemed to have taken on a darker, shadowy texture in my memory. In that room, four waifs huddled, trying to keep their dignity in the face of the one thing they never wanted to see – the tiny little coffin on a plinth in front of them.
I was one of those waifs.
For fourteen years my sister, St Francis, had been neighbours with Betty. Private and solitary, unless her children were visiting, Betty would have remained out of our reach if it wasn’t for Rufus. That great feline flirt took a fancy to Betty and spent many of his days in her house or snoring under her hydrangea bushes. He became a part of her family much as he was a part of ours and come Christmas, he sent her a card and a gift. Betty thought St F was daft for doing such a thing but St F maintained that she had nothing to do with it … Betty never fed Rufus, she was very strict about that. He had a home to go to and come the appropriate time, she’d shoo him out the door and tell him to come back the next day. And he did. Year in, year out, Rufus shared himself between us. Betty retired from her job with plans to spend her time gardening, Rufus got skinny and arthritic. The two pals were growing old together. Outside, in the warm westcountry summers, Betty would potter about under her straw hat looking, for all the world, like an animated mushroom and the cat would follow her. Chatting away, Betty warned him not to tread all over her plants or fall off the stone bridge in the rockery until he got too hot, then he’d head for the shade of the bushes.
‘That’s right,’ Betty would call after him. ‘You go and have a lie down, Roofdus.’ She always called him Roofdus.
When Betty became a little frail, St F and I helped out in the garden. We cut down the odd dead tree, mowed the lawn and I spent three painful days removing the six-foot-high brambles that had shot up through the Hydrangea. Our reward was always a cup of coffee and chocolate biscuits. It seemed a fair exchange.
There were shopping trips and lunches out and trips to the dentist and Betty came ever closer to us. We don’t have parents, St F and I – well we do but that’s a whole other story – so Betty came to fulfill a motherly role for us in that we could give her the care and attention that we would have given our own mother who is the same age. Not that Betty needed anymore kids. Her son and daughter were regular visitors and whilst not a demonstrative woman, she was clearly proud of both of them. Despite being geographically far apart, they were a close family. St F and I were gatecrashers but no one seemed to mind.
I wrote a post a short while ago called, I’m Old But I AIn’t Fell Over – Yet, in which I explained how St F and I discovered that Betty had fallen and was unable to get up one day. (in that post I called her The Morrighan for the sake of her privacy but now …) We visited her the following Saturday and it was good to see Betty firing on all cylinders. She laughed at us and we laughed at her and the memory of a frail but determined old lady in her nightwear trying (and failing) to roll herself a cigarette whilst the ambulance crew waited to take her to hospital hid at the back for a bit. We already knew, though, as we were laughing with her, that she had terminal cancer. That was why she’d been so poorly.
As Rufus approached his 21st birthday last year, St F and I wondered how we’d ever break the news to Betty if he died. And, what would we do come Christmastime? We came up with the idea that we would tell her that Rufus had left a will detailing the presents he wanted her to have for the next twenty Christmases. We never imagined it’d be other way around. We never dreamed we’d have to watch Betty’s tear-streaked son gather Rufus into his arms and whisper into is ear, ‘Mum’s gone.’ but six days after our hospital visit that’s how it was.
There were others who could have come and shared that sunlit chapel. Other bouquets that could have laid next ours and the one from from Rufus but that wasn’t what Betty had wanted. Private to the end, it was only her two children that she wanted at her funeral – and the two middle-aged orphans who’d borrowed her for a while.
Lying in my bed, the next morning, gazing at the world outside my window, Betty was the first thing I thought about. Idly rubbing the dog’s ear, I remembered how, when the curtain slid in front of the coffin towards the end of the service, I felt my head shake involuntarily. Inside I was saying, ‘no, no, don’t take her yet.’ It makes my chest hitch to think of it. To calm myself I moved to another memory. To how, when the vicar intoned ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ I had to fight an impulse to lean over to ST F and whisper, ‘if the dope don’t get you, the acid’s a must.’ That made me smile. It made me laugh when I imagined Betty saying to me, ‘Lorraine, I do sometimes wish you’d grow up.’
‘Toodle pip.’ That’s how she ended her phone calls. ‘Toodle pip.’ We put it on the card with our flowers.
Toodle pip, Betty. From St F and me. And Roofdus XX