Neil Coppen

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SMOTHERING

October30

“She’s dead”, wails Elaine into the telephone
“What?” replies Catherine, all mock shock and horror
“Rosy,” she blubs uncontrollably, ‘Rosy’
“Dead?”
“Yes” her mother sobs “dead, dead, dead.’

Though she pretends to be, Catherine is hardly surprised at the news. Sadly she has anticipated or rather dreaded a call of this nature for some time. If anything, she is amazed it has taken so long. What chance did the poor creature have beneath her mothers suffocating wing? She is all too aware that such forms of kindness though carried out with the best of intentions are just another form of thinly disguised obsession- love suffused with paranoia. Recently Catherine has come to the understanding that each successive generation of a family is akin to a marathon runner, forwarding a baton grasped and passed down by the sweaty palm of history. That we are all somehow selected as haulers of our ancestor’s luggage, is something her sister Linda can confirm only she wryly suggests the replacement of the word ‘luggage’ with the more cumbersome synonym ‘baggage’. Both Catherine and Linda can remember their grandmother Olive as an even more harrowed version of their mother. An eighty -three year old who used to watch over them both with an oppressive intensity. It was only in later years that they discovered Granny Olive first child had drowned in a swimming pool which went a long way in explaining her obsession with filling family swimming pools with concrete and never permitting her grandchildren to leave the asylum of their padded play rooms.

Elaine is now a retired radio actress. The collapse of Springbok Radio years back has left her destitute, seeking solace in the act and art of useless recollection. Here the glory days are recalled in their every excruciating detail. Incited by a few glassed of wine at dinner parties, Elaine had been known to clear whole rooms with her laborious reminiscing. Now all that remains is a shelf of rusty awards, some stretched cassette tapes and an ailing memory through which to recall them. The cat used to help her to forget, the cat used to momentarily distract her from the trappings of such debilitating nostalgia. Now that the cat had gone, her daughters understandably fear the worst.

On hanging up the phone to her mother, Catherine is thankful it is the cat’s life and not hers; she has made it out alive. The lucky one then, her late father’s (an accountants) child: rational, practical, uncomplicated. One might call Catherine colorless and dour for the legacy of her father’s placidity but she does not mind, no rather she remains extremely grateful. Her elder sister Linda has survived the ordeal that is their upbringing less scathed. One might say that biology has dealt her the cruel hand: the inheritance of her mother’s unstable and loose fitting genes. Upon leaving high school she has subsequently lead a life of rebellion and defiance: flunking varsity, dabbling in narcotics and finally, much to the horror of her mother, falling pregnant with her Tantric instructor’s child. Linda’s current hard forged equanimity comes in the form of new age therapy (Elaine the centre of her visualizations, as the bull’s eye might be to the dart board.) Linda finds solace in these alternative forms of healing: ritual cleansing, moon dancing, crystal rubbing. Sordid sounding acts of redemption as her mother once called them ‘The type of phyco- cults that end up with everyone having sex in Teepees.’

Still Elaine can’t contain her curiosity, her meddling, she must investigate, pry- she must attend one of these weekend therapy sessions to know for sure. Linda agrees, reluctantly at first -She prefers the absolute minimum of contact with her mother but later she comes to embrace the idea: its high time mother and daughter confront their demons out in the wilderness.

So together they head off to Hermanus. Things go well on the first day. Elaine appears relaxed, partakes in the discussions, gathers sacred eagle fathers, even joins in the group hug. Linda is pleasantly surprised, briefly wonders whether her mother has achieved the impossible, mellowed out in her old age. The evening is less of a success. Elaine is taking a shower when the team leader Chris enters and begins showering alongside her. Of course Linda has conveniently failed to mention that the weekend involves bouts of communal showering. Elaine has not been naked in the presence of a man for over twenty years, she is horrified. While the man chats nonchalantly she makes every possible effort to conceal her breasts. Her heaps of withered exposed flesh.

“So how you finding the course Mrs T?” he asks sweetly
‘Oh fine,’ she stammers, ‘just fine’
Now eyeballing the ablution exit, the man smiling back at her with one hand innocently soaping his groin. She doesn’t know where to put her eyes, thanks god shampoo is running into them. She gropes for the nearest towel, gropes the man by mistake. The rest of the evening is spent horizontal back in the tent ,hyper ventilating. She refuses to elaborate to Elaine of the horror that was the shower. She packs her bags, leaving at first light, her suspicions confirmed.

Now back home in Durban, with her two daughters flown or rather fled to Cape Town from the nest, Elaine is left with only the cat to torment. Ever since her husbands passing she has threatened to relocate, a suggestion to which both Linda and Catherine have unanimously but politely vetoed. Catherine (the laat lametjie) and last to take the long walk to freedom, leaves her mother a farewell gift upon her departure- a sacrifice. A cat to ease the attentions, the intrusions she will attempt to wreak upon their adult lives. It has helped, a little. Though she still phones twice a day, at least now the conversation revolves around the ailing feline rather than interrogations into her and her sister’s private lives.

But now that the cat is no dead, what now? Linda suggests an Iguana as she’s heard they live forever. But she just as promptly retracts her comment claiming that nothing, not even the resilience of Iguanas’ might outlast their mother’s insufferable affections. Both sisters’ fear the worst. Now that their mother has poisoned the cat’s system with antibiotics it did not need, fed it more then it could hope to digest: Woolies ostrich meat, fresh tuna, full cream milk. Yes it was kindness but kindness tainted by cunning. ‘Immobility,’ quips Linda ‘her way of ensuring captivity.’ They can do nothing but empathise, with the cat rather than their mother. A majority of their childhood had been spent in doctors’ waiting rooms; grazed knees the cause for comprehensive X- rays. They were the only children in school to have never missed a day, sadly not out of choice but necessity. Rather hide their measles, cough discreetly into pillows, then arouse the attention of their mothers hyper reactive imagination.

For the cat it has been no different: each fatty lump- a burgeoning tumor, each meow - a cry of agony. Till eventually it had relented and turned belly up. Linda claims it was suicide, after all what chance did the poor thing stand? It couldn’t just get on a plane to Cape Town, screen phone calls- this was its only way out. The vet however rather considerately cites old age as the cause but Elaine is not so easily duped: the cat was barley three years old! Dissatisfied she decides she must get the bottom of it, scour the internet for alternative explanations eventually settling on a website that subscribes a rare human disease, passed from owner to animal. Now she must prove that she is the carrier, the culprit- the cat killer. She wracks up exorbitant medical bills going for tests. Second, third, forth opinions all arrive with the same answer: No, she does not carry the disease, the disease is in fact a cyber space speculation to which there is no founding medical basis.

Once again she turns her torment toward the long suffering Veterinarian
‘I want to know,” she demands “I want to know what killed my Rosy, and don’t give me that old age nonsense”.
He is apprehensive. He has had the misfortune of dealing with a grieving Mrs Thomas before. The last time however involved a manic depressive parakeet, the same parakeet which Rosy, the cat had promptly put out of its misery by devouring.
He fidgets with his pen.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea Mrs Thomas” he assures her, but she persists
‘I can handle it, help me to put her to rest for once and for all”
A nervous silence ensues, he clears his throat.
“It was a break down.’
‘I beg your pardon’ says Elaine, hand pressed to heart, her face the perfect portrait of despair.
‘Your Rosy died of a nervous breakdown Mrs Thomas.”

Naturally she is distraught, devastated. So much so that the vet and his assistant have to carry her to her car. Bed ridden, breaking out in cold sweats, intoxicated with grief, Elaine resolves to fill her days with ‘woe is me’ weeping, self flagellation. Adorn her walls with the felines portrait. Gold plaques: In loving memory of. She will let the guilt manifest, knot, rot at her from the inside. ‘I will die in bed’ she concedes, ‘Yes die of a heavy broken heart.’

Weeks pass, numb on mypradol, she passes the days watching damp stains forming on the ceiling. Until a revelation, sign- If anything that dreaded weekend away in Hermanus was useful in learning how to identify these cosmic indicators. She has read ‘The Alchemist’ under Linda’s recommendations, she has learnt all about omens and their significance. She must turn this into a positive, yes a positive, interpret Rosy’s untimely passing to be a cryptic blessing. She must pack up her bags, her life, book a ticket- relocate to Cape Town. Old age better spent in the company of her needy daughters.

posted under Short stories

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