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Jo'Burg Days: Ailsa Doesn't Live Here Anymore

...What an end to a kind woman’s life. In a few hours, there’d be nothing to show for all those years of loving and living in this closeknit community; nothing for those who’d known her to remember her by, and no trace of her many kindnesses over the years...

Barbara Durlacher’s tale concerns one of the saddest days in any human life.

To read lots more of Barbara’s quality stories and articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/

The woman sat in the old wooden rocker on the sagging front porch. Through a gap in the hedge she could see the people in the house opposite. Gossip had told her that old Mrs Ailsa Johnson was becoming very confused and forgetting things. Failing to eat and drink; leaving the stove switched on, walking down the street at midday in her night clothes and stepping out into the traffic without any idea of where she was going or what she was doing. It was obvious she was quite unaware of the danger of her odd behaviour and how she was putting herself at risk.

Returning from her weekly visit to the shops one day, Tricia had seen Ailsa leaning weakly against the steps, her face a blotch of tears and mud where she’d rubbed her dirty hands over her cheeks. She was moaning softly. She’d forgotten which key opened her front door and after nearly an hour of trying one after another from the bunch in her hand, unable to recognise which was correct, she’d collapsed sobbing onto her front steps.

‘Ailsa dear, whatever’s the matter?’ she’d enquired in a soft voice, placing her parcels on the broken cement path and putting a hand on the woman’s shoulder.

‘Get away, get away! Don’t touch me! How dare you touch me?’ her one-time friend had cried, throwing the hand off her shoulder and turning her body away from her sympathetic gesture. Uncertain what to do, Tricia sat down quietly on the steps next to Ailsa and, talking softly, had tried to distract her.

‘Look dear, such a lovely day. The roses are in bloom, and the magnolias are opening. The cottage gardens are full of lavender and everything is full of colour. It smells wonderful after the rains. I do love the early summer, it’s so very special’, she’d burbled on, not expecting an answer or pausing for a reply.

‘When I called on the butcher this morning, he gave me a nice couple of chops and I’ve bought a dozen fresh eggs as well. Mrs Ford keeps hens, you know,’ she continued in an easy voice. ‘She sells her extra produce to the butcher when her hens are laying well. She also grows her own vegetables, and today the butcher had some lovely fresh carrots and spinach. Now, I’m going to make something for supper and we’ll have a nice hot meal.’

Chatting quietly in this way, she hummed softly and sang a couple of easy nursery rhymes, before quietly taking the bunch of keys out of Ailsa’s unresisting hand. After fitting two or three, she soon had the door open. Then, propping open the screen-door with a small flower-pot, she stepped inside. Turning towards the woman still sitting on the steps, she’d called out firmly,

‘Ailsa, come inside now, it’s time for your rest. Wash your hands and go upstairs and lie down for half-an-hour. I’ll call you when I’m ready.’

Turning towards her, Ailsa rose obediently and with eyes downcast, said ‘Yes Mother’, in an inaudible voice and walked inside. Working fast, Tricia had cooked the chops and vegetables and brewed a large pot of strong tea. Then she called Ailsa again and fed her the first solid meal she’d had in weeks.

Since then, she knew the slow progression of the illness had taken its toll and today she sat watching as Ailsa’s daughter from Wichita Falls cleared out the house. It seemed that the family had decided Ailsa needed to go into a home, one of those soulless, disinfectant smelling places where the nurses treated everyone alike. They never seemed to have time for anyone, yet were always to be found chatting cosily in their duty rooms, tv turned to their favourite serial, a pot of tea on the table, and a slice of cake on each plate.

She sat in the old wooden rocking chair on her sagging porch and drank it all in, greedy for news and sensation. When the daughter came outside carrying a bottle of champagne in one hand and an earthenware bottle of Dutch gin in the other, she watched carefully, thinking that maybe a small glimmer of her fondness for her mother was left and mother and daughter would enjoy and drink and a laugh together before the house was finally cleared out.

But no, it was nothing like that.

Glancing quickly around to see where her mother sat so silently and unobtrusively, the daughter opened the bottles and poured the contents onto the ground. Then she silently put the empty bottles into the bin. A number of trips later, she’d thrown away the best part of two dozen bottles of wine and assorted spirits and the growing collection of bottles was overflowing the bin.

‘What a dreadful waste!’ Tricia commented, thinking how welcome a small ‘thank you’ gift of a bottle of wine or champagne would have been to the friends who’d looked after Ailsa during her declining years. Horrified at this wanton waste, she wondered that Ailsa’s daughter could be so mean when her mother had always been so generous. A woman who’d loved entertaining, and although she hardly drank herself, always kept a bottle of good wine to offer her friends. Someone who always helped those in need, she would never have hesitated to give superfluous or unwanted objects to those who’d appreciate and value them.

Watching as the house was dismantled and cherished family objects were thrown in the bin, elegant evening dresses and hardly worn town clothes tagged and bagged for distribution to the poor, she shook her head sadly. As another load of furniture and effects was stacked on the pavement ready for the for mover’s lorry, her eyes filled with tears. What an end to a kind woman’s life. In a few hours, there’d be nothing to show for all those years of loving and living in this closeknit community; nothing for those who’d known her to remember her by, and no trace of her many kindnesses over the years.

Through it all, Ailsa sat alone in the small front garden, head resolutely turned away, looking vacantly into space, her eyes and mind blank. If she turned her head she’d have to acknowledge what had brought her to this point and how life here was ending so ignominiously and sadly.

Watching the activity across the street, Tricia shuddered. Silently vowing to keep this final humiliation at bay for as long as she was able, she dusted off her hands, and with creaking joints rose from her seat. Then she turned on the computer, the television and the lights and lit a cigarette. Pouring herself a large gin and tonic, she sat down to complete her novel.

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