Elaine stared listlessly ahead of her. The pile of baking on the table had mounted to astounding levels. This was partly due to the constant throughput of neighbours and relatives who were bringing food round as they always did in times of need or crisis. It was also due to her mother’s insistence that she had to bake the main cakes of Gwendoline’s daily intake.
“I dunno why you bother, you know,” she said as her mother flashed past with a pair of oven gloves on. “The Queen of Barf will have that lot floating around the toilet bowl before you can say zimmer frame.”
Her mother stopped in her tracks and stared at Elaine. “I do not want to hear that Elaine. That is entirely untrue,” she hissed. “Gwendoline is a sensitive and delicate young lady who needs careful tending and feeding. Your comments are very unhelpful. It’s all down to your jealousy and I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
“Oh yeah, I’m really jealous. I’d just love my own personal eating disorder. I mean, how cool to stay in bed all day and do eff-all.”
“Just stop it Elaine. I’m sick of your attention seeking! I don’t have time for your negativity.” Margaret’s tray of hot baking wobbled dangerously.
“What about Dad then? Have you got time for him? They can’t find him mum. What if he doesn’t come back?” To her eternal embarrassment and in the face of all the rules of nonchalant, cool detachment, Elaine started to cry.
Margaret’s mask of annoyance flickered briefly. “He chose that life,” she replied. “He chose his job, just like his father, and you know what that job can mean. I’ve had to live with that for the last twenty-five years. I thought when we married that we would go away, to the mainland. Maybe even the city. He could have got an office job. We could have had dinner parties and sophisticated friends, but oh no! Your granny put a stop to that. We can’t have the Morrison menfolk doing anything safe, can we?. Life is meant to be tough. Once an islander always an islander, that’s how she saw it. Well this is how it goes. They won’t find him. He’s gone just like I knew he always would one day, ever since the day his father died and he decided to keep on with the boats. I had time for him but he’s never been here. And you’re the same you know. Always off, and never time to give your mother a hug. Always away in your own head. For years all I’ve had is Gwendoline. She’s the only one who ever had smiles and laughter for me. And now she needs me! You and your father can do for yourselves – it’s way too late for me to be bothering with you now.”
Margaret slammed the tray on the table. “Oh dear god!” she shouted suddenly. “I’ve run out of eggs! How could I be so stupid?”. She grabbed her purse and ran out of the back door, leaving it standing open. Elaine leant forward on her hands and tried to stop herself from crying.
Gwendoline lay back in her room, Sunlight filtered through the lacy curtains and ran fingers of warmth over her bed. She gratefully spread her own manicured fingers out to catch the heat. She felt so dreadfully cold these days. And she seemed to need such an awful lot of sleep. She rested so much but it always felt like there was such a weight on her. And there was so much to do: all the things that needed to be done for her body, to keep it in perfect shape. It was looking lovely now. It was worth it. No horrible masculine muscularity to it at all, not like Elaine’s. You could actually see Elaine’s arms work when she picked heavy things up. How awful for her. Lifting was man’s work. A lady should not be expected to do anything so vulgar. Heaven only knows what her legs were like. Gwendoline suppressed a shudder at the thought. She looked towards the door. “I do wish someone would come. Where is everyone? Maybe they don’t want to tire me. I should have a little rest. Malcolm might come later and beg for forgiveness.” She reclined fully and began to imagine Malcolm prostrate on the floor, waving a ring at her while tears of remorse poured down his face.
Elaine leaned over the bathroom sink and furiously splashed water over her face. She dried herself and began ferreting around in the bathroom cupboard for a sanitary towel. “I need a hot water bottle,” she muttered to herself while rubbing at her guts. “This is hellish.” She sat down on the toilet and dealt with her unfeasibly heavy period. A rattling of the doorhandle interrupted her efforts.
“I have needs!” whined Gwendoline “Come out at once.”
“Christ almighty Gwen, I’m going as fast as I can. I’ve only been in a minute,” she replied while attempting to put her knickers back in place and remain over the toilet at the same time.
“I’ll tell mum you’re being insensitive to my condition!” screeched Gwendoline.
“One minute. Just leave me in peace for one bloody minute will you!” replied Elaine, finally completing the tricky manoeuvre without spillage. She gave her hands a cursory wash and unlocked the door. Gwendoline glowered over her walker as Elaine stomped towards her bedroom.
Elaine collapsed on the bed in the foetal position, rubbing her swollen guts. She considered the possibilities of a hysterectomy. There must be some easier way to reproduce than this, she thought. A wee button you could press if you wanted to get pregnant or something. Mind you, then the human race would probably die out. I mean what if one day I have one and it ends up being like Gwen. Too bloody risky. She began calculating the amount of her life which was going to be taken up with PMS and the joys of womanhood. Suddenly there was a piercing wail from the bathroom. There was a brief silence. Probably found another spider, thought Elaine, closing her eyes again. Then something soft struck her on the side of her head. Opening her eyes and sitting up she looked up in surprise to see her sister standing inside the doorway of her room.
“Look at that!” Gwendoline screamed.“ Just look at that! You filthy horrible creature!” She was pointing at an unravelled, bloodstained hanky that she had just hurled at Elaine’s head.
“For fuck’s sake, it’s only a sanny pad Gwen. Take it easy. I mean, it’s wrapped in toilet paper. You rushed me in the bathroom you know. God, I thought you’d found a tarantula or something.” She re-wrapped the offending item and chucked it into the waste-basket. “Well piss off then – away you go.”
“You are disgusting,” hissed Gwen, her face white with rage. “You are abnormal. Ladies DON’T bleed like that!”
“Uh … I think you’ll find they do you know,” Elaine quietly replied, wondering if by some weird accident Gwen had missed the “How babies are made” talks in school.
“THEY DON’T, THEY DON’T, YOU ARE A LIAR,” Gwen screamed. She lifted up the zimmer frame and, with a strength born out of searing anger, brought it straight down on her sister’s head.
“You need the comfort of the Lord in times like this Margaret,” Betty said, with the beatific smile of the holy righteous glued to her features. “He will always be at hand to help you in times of crisis.”
They began to move away from the car which Betty had just parked in the driveway of Avalon. She took a deep breath and started to launch herself fully into the subject of how tragedy shows us that we really should be in church more. The screaming that started to emanate from Avalon curtailed her in mid sentence – something which had not occurred since her senile uncle had danced off into the sea minus his clothing.
“GWENDOLINE, I’M COMING,” howled Margaret as she ran down the drive and burst in the door. She was thrown aside into the living room as Betty pushed past, moving with a nurse’s calm but incredibly quick strides. In the bedroom Elaine was sprawled across the bed with blood trickling out of her mouth. Betty seized hold of the zimmer frame and yanked it out of Gwendoline’s furious grasp just before she could give her sister a second blow. In an uncontrollable rage she flung herself at Betty, who only just managed to hold the painted nails away from her face. Margaret swayed in the doorway, her head turned slightly away from the scene of carnage. She stood aside as Betty dragged a kicking Gwendoline out into the hall and into her own room. After a short time, the exhaustion of such unaccustomed physical activity combined with the substantial weight of Betty calmed her into some semblance of order. Leaving her weeping on her bed, Betty summoned Margaret to stand guard.
Back in the other room she checked Elaine for signs of damage. Aside from having bitten her tongue in shock and having a very tender arm from protecting her head, she seemed physically intact.
“She went nuts … utterly bonkers,” she was saying, a slightly dazed look on her face.
“Yes dear,” replied Betty. “I noticed that. Don’t you worry now. Just sit there a while and later on you can get your things together. I’m going over to the Port in an hour or so and I think you should come over with me. I’ll take you to your cousin’s. It might be better if you have a few days away from your sister. It’s a trying time for all of you at the moment.” She patted Elaine’s shoulder. “I’m going to check on Gwen and have a wee word with your mother.”
After Betty had ascertained that the attempt at homicide was not going to be repeated, she corralled Margaret into the kitchen.
“Now Margaret,” she began. “I think we’re going to have to get some outside help on this. Gwen’s quite ill at the moment you know. I think she’s having a bit of a breakdown and I don’t think home is quite the best place for her at the moment. They have some excellent specialists over in Galness hospital on the mainland. I’m going to talk to Dr Burns about her having a wee spell over the water.”
Margaret continued to stare glassily across the table. She twitched suddenly and looked up. “No,” she said quietly. “I can look after her – she’s my daughter. I know what she needs. Elaine must have provoked that episode. She’s been absolutely foul lately. She can go to her cousin’s. You are not taking Gwen away.”
She stared Betty in the eye. Betty looked down. This was not at all easy, not with poor Charlie missing. She thought for a moment then finally she spoke. “Dr Burns is coming on Monday. We’re both going to tell him all about this, and then we’ll see what he has to say. And I do hope there’s news of Charlie by then. I remember the waiting you know. That’s what really affects you – not knowing. I remember that Margaret.” She squeezed Margaret’s arm with one hand and wiped an unaccustomed tear away with the other. “We’ll leave it till Monday,” she repeated. “But you promise me that if there’s any more sign of anything like this – any strange mood or hint of violence – you’ll tell me straight away. Do you understand?” She looked up with her nursing exterior firmly back in place.
“We’ll be fine,” replied Margaret. “But I know where you are if I need you.”
“Good. As long as that’s understood,” said Betty. “And I’ll be in every day anyway. I’m also going to call in on the way back from the Port to see if she’s still calm.” She stood up and smoothed her skirt. Returning to the living room she fetched a rather dazed Elaine and helped her gather some belongings together. Margaret was sitting beside the sleeping Gwen.
“We’re going now,” Betty informed her. “I like to be in plenty of time for the ferry. Come along now dear.” Elaine followed the nurse’s ample form out of the house and into the car, which dipped as Betty’s bum hit the seat. She switched on Radio 2, started the car and drove towards the Mara Geal and the ferry.