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Bennet was forever falling. Walls, architraves, doors, tables and stools, everything seemed equally fated to attract.
Her forehead was a scuff mark of barely-healed wounds, bruises, the softpink glaze of scar tissue.
When she turned ten and fell onto a wall at school, her mother had her tested for ADD while her father laughed, said they’d have to buy an inflatable rubber wall as a birthday gift. If they’d only known, thought Bennet, of the hair-tossing trick, the vanity which led to that fall.
Marg, Bennet’s still Titian haired mother, is a diabetic. When Bennet tempts her children with moist chocolate fudge, pumpkin fruit cake, date scones, Marg sits sniffing with disapproval.
Not much good to me, she says, and asks if there’s any chance of getting a good strong cup of coffee. Then as Bennet fills the kettle Only when you’re ready, dear.
First to go was greatgran who only seemed to out stay her welcome. It wasn’t as if senility was an illness back then.
Bennet can recall the funeral she wasn’t allowed to attend for fear it would upset. The day was as-normal except for classmates staring and a house jammed with sombre relatives after the walk home from school.
Months later, distracted from a tadpole hunt, she’d wandered through the town graveyard and found her great-grandmother. Mary Elizabeth Louise. A Peet, though that was her husband’s name. Bennet had greeted the headstone, said goodbye to a woman who, for as long as she could remember, confused her with Marg.
Bedridden in a south-facing room, greatgran had the look of a mole around her squinty eyes the last time she’d gone to see her.
Go outside and play with the boys, Marg, greatgran said to Bennet. And Bennet had gone, with a sideways look at Marg to reassure herself they were nothing, not one bit, alike.
Opal and Acacia, Bennet’s two children, are a constant affront to Marg. She will not address them by name.
Girls, she says, commmanding, querulous all in one.
The children call her Ma-ma and say she will be dead soon with all that smoking.
Marg, lighter held aloft, is aghast. Now wherever did you get that from? she asks with a look to skewer Bennet.
Smoking coupled with diabetes, that’s what finished Louisa. After dropping a book on her toe, she’d developed gangrene and whop went the leg.
Bennet’s grandmother had wheeled herself daily to the smoker’s room in the hospital, a large off-grey space with out-of-reach windows that denied any possibility of a view. Smokers sat with their backs to the walls, turned inward in contemplative intent and smoked. A rank grey cloud bank built above their heads. Bennet saw that her grandmother, too, was turning grey. Then Louisa was dead.
Norman only visits if he’s sure Marg won’t be there. The old gorgonzola, he calls his ex-wife. The old cheese. And to the children, the gorgon.
Opal and Acacia offer sunflower smiles to their Poppy. Both are white-blonde, burnished alongside Norman’s steelspecked hair.
There is a bottle of scotch in Bennet’s pantry left over from the last time Norman came to stay.
Your mother drove me to the bottle, he is heard to say, late at night, petulant at Bennet’s suggestion he’s had enough. Then he’ll stumble into the spare room, laugh and fall upon the bed. D’you remember, he speaks up to Bennet as if she is now the authority figure, the parent. D’you remember how you always used to fall?
Of course Bennet remembers, but what use is it to bring up these things now? It’s a stowed relic. That’s what she tells John when they are safe together in their bed.
Falling, always falling. Bennet remembers blood that flowed into an eye. She thought at first the wound was her eye. There was a trip to hospital in the back of Marg’s Peugeot that had her screaming at each corner, every stop sign. Somewhere along the way Marg had stopped for petrol just in case.
Just in case of what? wonders Bennet, held tight in John’s arms.
She remembers a picnic in the park when Opal was a toddler and the wails from Marg who was suddenly clutching a limp and crumpled child.
What’s wrong? shouted Bennet as her mother ran towards her, lipstick-mouth open and klaxoncalling. She had been suffused with calm indifference in the presence of blood and her mother’s panic, strapped her still silent daughter in the carseat and the three of them headed straight for Princess Margaret.
What do you think – Bennet froze her smirk when she caught sight of Marg’s expression. She’d been about to say shall I stop for petrol just in case?
In bed with John tonight, Bennet listens to the grain of his sleepbreath, and each time she begins to doze, there she is again, falling.
It was Louisa who became obsessive about illness and death. Louisa who sent birthday cards to Bennet primed with news from home of sick friends, dead cousins, and details, circumstances surrounding these calamities.
She’s bloody morbid, said Marg to Norman after an account of one childhood friend’s electrocution sent Bennet to her room for a lie down. They left her door open.
Louisa will have to be told, said Norman.
To stop, of course.
Norman, you’re shouting.
There came a murmur. It’s starting to affect Bennet.
Well don’t look at me.
She’s your bloody mother.
Bennet keeps an eye on her daughters, watches for signs of the behaviour she sees as belonging to the Peets. She also watches herself.
Umbrellas aren’t allowed inside the house. Spilt salt is thrown over a shoulder. Tea must be brewed in a heated teapot. Shoes are left by the front door. The dog must have a daily walk. Rain comes in scuds. And butter is always best. These are greatgranma Peet’s patterns, Bennet knows, but cannot stop a lifetime of habit.
Beware the Ides of March, says Marg, and seems horrified when Bennet asks what the saying means.
It’s a portent, says Marg, and refuses to be drawn further.
In Louisa’s letters there were children killed on their way home from school. Children who stepped from behind buses without looking. There was a burn victim, a paraplegic, a husband who killed himself after the death of his wife.
Worse was to come.
Uncle Orson was involved in a head-on collision that killed a neighbour’s son, seventeeen years old, only got his licence that day. Orson had been drinking, was driving on the wrong side of the road.
At that, Marg phoned Louisa to say she had to be out of her mind…
In their Christmas card that year, the last addressed to the three of them as a family, Louisa wrote of the cancer that had destroyed her bowels, left her with a bag that filled and stank and pressed against her abdomen.
In tears, Bennet rang Marg who was still at work.
It’s blackmail, raved Norman that evening. She’s getting at you through Bennet.
Marg sat slumped, weak from crying.
You’re just like the rest of them, Norman shouted. A whole family of lunatics, cranks and crazies. She should be locked up –
It was the table lamp that aided punctuation. Bennet watched the glass sphere arc through space, golden as a sceptre, before a tug sent the whole thing falling. Haloed lamp, metal stand, the entire works came down, pulled short by a cable plugged into the wall. There was a slow motion glass shower. Filaments burst and scattered, borne across terracotta like stones skipping water. And then came the noise.
Norman calls it dropsy when he’s had too much to drink and begins to stumble.
I’m falling, he yells to Bennet. I’ve got a case of the dropsy.
Dropsy be buggered, says Bennet, thinking of all those falls.
Call it lack of coordination, growth spurts, awkward adolescence, Bennet’s considered theories but come to blame her parents for a childhood state of disorientation. All those trips in the car with her backseated, immobilised. An unwilling spectator to the fights up front.
Bennet swore she’d never marry.
And so she hasn’t – another fall.
Marg gave up prompting after Acacia’s birth. She and Norman, ill-at-ease in the same room together after years spent apart, drank too many toasts too quickly. The swaddled newborn woke screaming in Marg’s unsteady grip.
Well I guess that’s it, then, said Marg.
Only Norman seemed to be listening while Bennet settled the now-howling infant. The face he presented to Marg was expectant, mild and slightly foolish.
Marg leaned towards him, conspiratorial. I guess there won’t be any wedding, she said.