Dishpan Hands

Dishpan Hands appeared in I Can See My House From Here, UTS Writers’ Anthology, 2010

‘I want to die when I want to die,’ Margaret Manetti said aloud as she washed the dishes, but not loud enough for her husband to hear. Joe was watching the game in the neighbouring TV room with the volume turned up loud like a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. Margaret put the plastic colander upside down on the dish rack. She looked at her reflection in the window directly above the sink: the tortoiseshell reading glasses she wore even when she wasn’t reading, her silvery-white bob. She scanned the face looking back at her, wondering if she’d ever have the expression she saw on her mother’s face at the nursing home only a few hours earlier.

She’d often teased her mother, Gracie, with threats of a nursing home, although neither of them ever believed she’d put her in one. Then, when Gracie was still living in her own house, she fell three times. When she slipped in the shower, Margaret tried not to fuss. She stuck non-slip strips on the tiles and got Joe to mount a chunky metal handle diagonally along the wall. When Gracie tripped over the hall runner, Joe rolled up all the rugs and stored them in their garage. The third time she fell, Gracie lay on her kitchen floor in a urine-soaked nightie for six hours before her neighbour heard her calling out. Margaret decided it was enough.

‘You can’t do that,’ said Joe.

‘What choice is there? You want her to live here?’

Joe looked at her like she was mad and went to watch TV.

Like everything else, they argued about it for weeks. At the same time, she quietly asked friends, did research, followed tips—she even visited one nursing home at lunchtime to see if her mother could stomach the food. She walked along an endless linoleum hallway and peeped through a propped open door. Inside was a purple-haired woman folded over in a wheelchair; the old lady lifted her head and reached out to touch Margaret as if she was trying to grasp hold of her life. A male nurse saw Margaret and answered her questions by rote, nodding his head hypnotically. He spoke slowly and calmly, as if she were a child, not someone’s adult daughter—with a 20-year-old son of her own. She wanted to tell him that she already knew all about institutions, that she had a son who needed 24-hour care.

When Tall Trees approved of her mother—Margaret discovered this was just as vital as her approval of them—she cleared out Gracie’s inter-war worker’s cottage, sold the three-times re-upholstered furniture and sent crates of mismatched crockery and cookware to St Vinnie’s. She hired a builder’s skip and threw out all the faded Vogues and unopened boxes of flesh-coloured stockings. She got friends to help her heave out the single mattress and the Singer sewing table and the two televisions her mother never watched. She gave the op shop a jewellery box full of marcasite brooches and two fox-fur collars with gaping jaws and dangling paws.

The real estate agent stabbed his ‘For Sale’ sign into the once-envied ‘Best Front Garden’. It was now so overgrown with weeds, all that remained of the orange-tipped Queen Mary roses was a gnarly crown of thorns.

Within weeks, Gracie’s front door key was traded for a mechanical bed in an airless room and a $250,000 bond to keep her there. Smoky the cat moved in with the cat lady down the road and all Margaret kept of her mother’s belongings was a tall colonial corner cabinet with tiered shelves, and fifty-two cherished porcelain figurines. After Mr Sheening the maple shelves, Margaret carefully angled the cabinet into her station wagon. She packed the figures head-to-toe in a milk crate with a tea towel between each layer and strapped the crate into the passenger seat, as if it were a young child, then drove as slow as a hearse to the nursing home. Margaret parked in the ‘No Stopping’ zone right out front and dragged the shelves up the ramped pathway, into the elevator—more spacious than Gracie’s room, she thought—past the nurse’s station and into her mother’s new home. She wedged it into position in the corner between the bed and the sealed window.

Even with the shrill of scraping furniture, Gracie was deep asleep, her mouth slack and gummy. Margaret tried to coax it shut, but it fell wide again. She closed the curtains and kissed Gracie’s forehead, then went back to the car and brought the figurines up.

She stayed for two hours, arranging and rearranging the ceramic statues on the shelves, clustering them to make narratives: a group of dainty art deco women huddled together like old friends, royal characters from every period rubbing shoulders, a quartet of Victorian ladies in corsets and crinolines trading secrets. The rest of the statues were children, presents her son had given to Gracie each Christmas after he turned five. Margaret would take him to David Jones’ and steer him towards little princes, Bunnykins figures, characters from children’s literature, but he always chose sad-faced children—a Dickensian toddler with a scruffy dog, a nineteenth century flower-seller, a pauper in tattered clothes. They lay on the floor looking at her. Margaret struggled to give meaning to the collection of lost children and placed them in a circle on the top shelf.

Standing back to look at the cabinet, she thought, ‘Mother will be so happy when she wakes.’

Tall Trees was close enough for Margaret to drop in after work. Near enough if ever there was ever a sudden late-night call. The home was located in the same suburb that her old school friend lived in. Elaine was all long fair hair, new-agey and girlish, even though she was fifty-eight and hadn’t had any work done. A year after Gracie had moved in to Tall Trees, Elaine said to her, between sips of hot water, which was all she ever drank, ‘You know, when they do finally pass over, they almost always do it at three in the morning or three in the afternoon.’

‘Always?’ Margaret said, looking for the teabag she had secreted in her handbag especially for these visits.

‘Almost, and mostly in the dead of night.’ Surprised by her own flagrant use of the D-word, she quickly added, ‘It’s a biorhythm thing.’

‘She’s got to go soon,’ Margaret said, giving up on the idea of tea.

‘You can’t be sure.’ Elaine poured water into a teacup and pushed the delicate cup and saucer across the table to Margaret. ‘You have a mother who should let go, but won’t. And a son who should live, but doesn’t want to.’

Margaret wanted to throw the cup of hot water at Elaine. Instead, she picked up the teaspoon and stirred the water ’round and ’round.

From then on, despite her attempts not to, Margaret woke every night and stopped every day at three o’clock. Gracie—who had always been a stickler for punctuality—was now making everyone wait. She kept hanging on, month after month, eating up her daily dose of drugs and beating her biorhythms. Gracie ticked off every twelve-hour cycle with drowsy TV and long, drawn-out guessing games on who the stranger at the end of the bed was.

Gracie had started to fade from the first day she arrived at Tall Trees. She seemed bored at first, then absent, then looked like she needed to remember something—as if she was trying to work out the answer to a crossword question she couldn’t quite get. Margaret blamed herself for Gracie’s sudden dementia. She thought it was Gracie’s survival strategy for being put in there.

As much as her mother no longer recognised her, Margaret didn’t recognise her mother, either. She had the same fairy-floss hair, still insisted on wearing her diamante-studded reading glasses—although her sight was so bad, she hadn’t read in years—and re-applied her apricot frosted lipstick after every meal. But where was the woman who was tall and straight-backed and walked four miles a day? Where was the woman who’d raised her daughter on her own by making evening gowns for idle society wives? Where was the woman who kept working as a seamstress until she was 83, who was so afraid of losing her independence, she’d said, ‘I’d rather be dead, thank you,’ when the government offered her the war widows’ pension if only she’d agree to stop working? Gracie had become generic, just another elderly woman in a floral housecoat.

Margaret had seen death before; she’d lost friends to cancer, a colleague to AIDS. She knew the process of dying could itself be another type of living. Only Gracie had already gone and Margaret knew her mother wouldn’t experience any of that.

Margaret liked washing the dishes. Liked the meditation of it. She was obsessive about her household cleaning rituals and had a system for all her chores. Keeping an immaculate home made her feel as if she still had some control. When she was doing the dishes, she’d first stack the cutlery and plates into the dishwasher. Then handwash the serving bowls, utensils and pots in that order, while the water was at its hottest. She’d drain the sink clear and wash the glasses under running water until they squeaked. Tonight she forgot to empty the sink, she had too many other things on her mind.

On today’s visit, Gracie was lucid. When Margaret walked into her room, Gracie pushed herself higher up on the pillows and gestured for her to come closer. Margaret took the dentures out of the glass and placed them into Gracie’s mouth.

‘Maggie,’ she said, patting a spot on the bed (her mother hadn’t called her that since she was a child). Margaret sat down next to her mother’s shrunken body. ‘Get rid of those stupid statues.’

Margaret looked at the corner cabinet, at the congregation of figurines she’d lovingly arranged over a year ago. Statues that her mother had collected, that had been given to her by so many people, over so many decades. Statues that she’d accepted so graciously, had fawned over, every Christmas and birthday and Mother’s Day.

Gracie grimaced. ‘All of them.’

Margaret sat back. She’d saved for weeks for a rare Royal Doulton piece that she’d bought for her mother’s ninetieth birthday only two years earlier.

‘I’ve never liked those little people,’ her mother spat as she tried to lurch herself towards the shelves, her upper body shaking with convulsions.

‘Relax, Ma.’ Margaret went to the cabinet and picked up a hand-painted figurine.

‘Stop fussing, Maggie! Smash ’em!’ Gracie yelled out, jigging in her mechanical bed, clapping her hands.

‘I’ll get rid of them, Ma, I promise.’ Margaret pressed the nurse’s bell to ask for a cardboard box.

Gracie leaned back and let out a deep sigh. She closed her eyes, the expression on her face—usually so tight and bitter—gave way to relief. She looked at peace, suddenly free. As if she’d been given a moment of clarity, a chance to come clean.

The nurse appeared with a small paper cup. Margaret pulled her by the wrist into the corridor and, taking the cup from her hand, said, ‘Please, just let her go.’

‘That’s not how we do it here,’ the nurse pursed her lips and held the palm of her hand out flat.

‘She’s ready,’ Margaret held the cup behind her like a child keeping a toy from another child. ‘It’s not right, keeping her alive like this.’

‘It’s not right not to,’ said the nurse, as she snatched the cup back and walked into Gracie’s room.

Margaret went home and cooked the usual spaghetti and meatballs, which she ate with Joe in front of the telly—he, being Sicilian, said it was one of the few Italian dishes she was allowed to make. She didn’t tell him about the figurines. She didn’t mention the look on her mother’s face.

After Margaret washed the pots, she forgot to run her finger, brail-like, along the bottom of the sink to find the plug’s little metal chain and yank it out to drain the dirty water. She swished warm sudsy water inside a glass. She’d always thought wine glasses were too fragile for the dishwasher, yet she couldn’t think how, if she placed the glasses gently enough into their plastic cradle, the dishwasher could actually manage to break them.

The doorbell rang above the roar of the game. ‘Joe will get it’, she thought. She looked up at the window, but couldn’t see beyond her bright reflection. Shiraz sediments stuck inside the belly of the glass as if they’d been sandblasted into it. She scrubbed at the sediment harder, the glass crushing in her palm like a hollow Easter egg. A glassy shard speared the mound at the base of her thumb. Margaret’s blood seeped into the sink, blushing the suds the same colour as the bathwater she’d found her son floating in, seven years earlier. Gabriel wasn’t their biological son. They’d tried for years to have kids, and when Margaret turned 35, Joe insisted they adopt. He did the paperwork, and because they were a nice couple with respectable jobs and Christian values, they only had to wait a year.

Margaret had loved her instant boy, but Gracie made a point of loving him more. She called Gabriel ‘her little angel’ and made him sailor suits and golliwogs, knitting him a new pair of woollen slippers with pompoms each winter. Gabriel liked being spoiled by his grandmother, and Gracie enjoyed winning his affection over Margaret. Eventually, Margaret gave in. She blamed herself for not having a stronger bond because he hadn’t been in her womb or fed from her breast. She felt guilty when his cries didn’t bother her the way she thought a baby’s should. She blamed his moods and introversion on her inability to give him brothers and sisters.

Gabriel’s first suicide attempt was at fourteen. He’d kept the tap running long enough for water to pool under the bathroom door, soaking the chocolate shag pile Joe had proudly laid himself along the upstairs hallway. Margaret opened the door to scold him, but her voice skipped with a staccato scream when she saw his bleeding wrists. Pink bubbles circled in a corner of the bath, while his body lay splayed across the rim, limp as the pietà. She ran downstairs and called triple 0, and went back to the bathroom, took the little blade from his fist and wrapped a hand towel tightly around the incisions—neat as a surgeon’s—to hold back the bleeding. She sat on the edge of the bath and held him as she waited for the paramedics to arrive.

Gabriel developed a talent for it. At fifteen, he went to Margaret’s en-suite cabinet and took all the blister packs and bottles of sedatives she’d started taking. He hid in the cupboard under the stairs and swallowed them all with a big glass of Milo. Buster, the family dog—who for once had lived up to his name—barked at the cupboard so incessantly that Margaret opened it expecting to release a trapped cat. When Gabriel fell out, she knew what number to call. Feeling helpless, she squeezed his hand while the paramedics pumped his stomach 20 minutes later.

When he was seventeen, she came home early from work one day. She lifted the garage roller door to park her car and was overwhelmed by the smell of petrol. Gabriel’s six hundred dollar Datsun was parked inside with the engine running and a hose snaking from the exhaust into the slightly open rear window. Coughing, she opened the side doors and turned off the ignition. She had just enough strength to drag Gabriel’s dead weight from the car out to the lawn.

A few days later, as Gabriel was recovering in hospital, the doctor called Joe and asked him to come in. They both went to the sterile offices in the hospital annexe an hour later.

‘Please, sit down, Mr and Mrs Manetti,’ the doctor gestured to the plastic chairs. The doctor was a short, round man who tugged on his long eyebrow hairs as he spoke. ‘Gabriel snuck out of the hospital yesterday. We’ve got him back now, but he upset a few people.’

‘How?’ Margaret asked.

The doctor plucked out one of the hairs and looked at it. ‘He stopped people on the street and asked if God believed in them.’

Joe breathed out heavily, ‘Gabe’s not a practising …’

‘It doesn’t matter, he’s hearing things.’ The doctor passed Joe a clipboard. ‘He needs medication and observation. He’s a minor, so I need your permission.’

Gabriel came home after six weeks with an ongoing prescription. He stayed two days then left the pills on the dresser and a note that just said, ‘Sorry.’

Four years later, Margaret still lay in bed every night wishing that the front door would open and she would hear his Doc Marten boots clomping up the stairs. She lay stiffly with Joe snoring beside her, unaware that her mind was whirling with visions of Gabriel’s death. What if he’s already done it? Who’ll find him?

Every night she played out a different scenario—electrocution, drowning, firearms, asphyxiation—and reassured herself with stories of how she would save him. Fear consumed her every thought. She read every newspaper article that mentioned suicide and analysed survival statistics. She managed panic as a constant emotion until it became normal. If anyone noticed, they didn’t say, but she knew she was close to the edge: quick to anger if she got stuck in traffic, rude to shop girls, disinterested in Joe’s attempts to have sex, less tolerant of Gracie.

The doorbell rang again. No one they knew would come by at this hour. No salesman would continue ringing the bell like that.

‘Can you get it?’ Margaret called out as she picked the shard of glass from her hand.

‘Who’s bugging us so late?’ Joe yelled as he walked towards the front door.

Margaret raised the kitchen window until her reflection disappeared. Looking out to the street, she could see a police car parked across their driveway and two police officers waiting under the Italianate portico Joe insisted on building at the front door. Both officers took their hats off as soon as Joe stepped out on the landing. Suddenly Joe doubled over like he’d been punched in the stomach, then fell to his knees and howled like a speared animal.

Margaret knew there was nothing she could do. She closed the window, bringing her reflection into view again. Her expression was just like Gracie’s.

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