Misplaced

2nd in the 'The Inside Story 2020' competition

I still make my tea the way Mother made it for me. Two sugars, a dash of milk, teabag jilted occasionally to emanate dark ebony swirls. I do the same for my daughter. Ephemeral wisps of vapour entangle themselves as I carefully balance the tray on my hip.

Meandering down the hallway, I pause to admire her baby prints. How small she once was! My hand reaches to touch each perfect, minute digit; the vibrant yellow hue of the paint a reminder of the happiness of times gone by.

Upon entering the sitting room, I gently sigh; sheet music litters the floor. I am transported to her first piano recital. Gap-toothed, she clutched my hand as skinny six-year-old knees jittered with nerves. A tentative Minuet resonated in the recital room, polite applause, my cheeks flushed with warming pride.

Now, hesitant rays of sunlight slip through gossamer curtains. As I pause at her door, my gaze falls on the mirror opposite. Has my hair always been this grey? My brow is furrowed, silver creases running deep on the map of my visage.

Bewildered, I compose myself, before knocking tenderly. My stare fixates on the crooked lines denoting height on the doorframe, the dates lovingly etched in varying shades of Sharpie. 2002…2008…My mind defaults to tea-parties and times tables, bedtime stories and painted fingernails. I linger on 2009. The year she broke her arm. Stoically, she refused to cry. I vividly recall the cool, starched white of the hospital sheets against her clammy forehead. Dopey with anaesthetic, she had mumbled “I love you” before being taken away. I had captured those words, savoured the sweetness of childish dependence.

In her room, I fumbled with the thick curtains obscuring the window. The air is still; dust mites suspended in watery fingers of sun. I can sense the sticky, sleepless night she must have had; and recall when, at thirteen, she would share those heavy summer evenings with me, drinking lemonade on the patio, telling me of innocent crushes.

How naïve I had been, believing it would always be that way.

Slowly, I draw back her coverlet.

I close my eyes.

I open them, knowing what I will find.

A picture. The edges curled from lovingly being thumbed, the image faded. A girl, eighteen, squinting at the camera, a conduit of my best memory.

The cup of tea I made for her will go cold, as it has every day for over fifty years. The sheets will always remain perfectly creased, as the weight of a body no longer occupies them. These hands, born to protect, have failed futilely. This heart, born to love, is shrivelled, hollow.

Long have I pleaded with Death, begging him to take me, draw me closer to her. He taunts me, his cool hands caressing my collarbones, her name always on his lips. Enigmatic cruelty abounds.

I pick up the photo with wavering hands. Gently press lips to her forehead. Time is a thief. Memory is our only shield.

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