âStart from the beginning, Annie.â
Henry and I were walking through the endless corridors of the empty building, where the lights always flickered and the doors always creaked. Only the humming of the vending machine could be heard. We scrubbed, polished and dusted, until the business people came with their briefcases and their loud clonking heels, and their coffees, and their insincere âGood morning!âs.
Iâd throw out the rubbish as usual because Henry could never be bothered. This was a reoccurring problem with past cleaners too. First there was Bruce, then James… My husband always said I was too much of a pushover.
On my way home in the dreary dribbling weather, Iâd stop off at Mumâs. Everything would be just how Iâd left it the day before â pillows carefully placed on the worn sofa, ornaments on the shelf collecting dust. However, the kitchen seemed more active, lived in â washed plates and mugs, the kettle freshly boiled, still puffing out streams of steam. The boiler had just been turned on, clanking loudly, struggling to function. The carer wouldâve been here to help Mum get washed and changed and just left.
Sometimes I hear Mum wheezing in her armchair. Asthma. I get her extra inhaler out of my bag and walk towards her, kneeling down. Her eyes look at me, vacant â Iâm only familiar enough to not protest an intrusion today.
âMum, itâs me, Annie.â
Her eyes begin to warm and she nods very slowly.
âBreathe in,â I say as I put the inhaler to her mouth and give her two puffs.
I turn on the tele, which always needs a bash on the side, and sit back on the sofa as her breathing begins to lessen. I flick through documentaries, shopping channels and sitcoms, not really focusing on anything. On the top of the tele is a picture of my Dad in his army uniform.
âDo you want a cup of tea, Mum?â
âNo thank you, dear.â she says, staring into space.
Once I get to my flat I have a shower and then check the lottery numbers â bad luck mostly except for that time I won fifty quid, which went straight toward rent. The day would go on into darkness until the only light left was from the glowing TV screen.
At night before I go to bed I look at the picture of my husband I keep on top of the window sill in his uniform and hope I donât end up like Mum. The carer would be back at hers in the evening to help her into bed. I couldâve been her full time carer but I was too scared â scared of her… almost lifelessness rubbing off on me. And that would be an average day.
I woke up to the sound of the alarm clock and immediately tapped snooze. Couldnât go back to sleep though, the bird outside was chirping too loudly, tempting me to grab my sonâs old slingshot. Every morning I get up and walk pass his room. Just how he left it before he moved out. Dark Gothic duvet. Polaroids of him and his friends. A poster of Megan Fox â âMy future wife,â he used to say. I miss them both, my boys. Weâd stopped watching news coverage on the war ever since. But it never feels like neither of them have gone. One day theyâll burst through the door reeking of booze and Iâll say I only made dinner for myself and theyâll get an Indian takeaway and gobble it all up until they feel like theyâre going to be sick any second â âNot on the new carpet!â
That would be an average weekend when our son would come to visit and show us his new art projects. âHeâll be famous soon,â his dad would say. Itâs true â one day Iâll see him on the news and his work would be so brilliant, the whole world will come to a standstill, and all the wars and fascism and famine will end, to marvel at his talent. Somehow. If only he hadnât gotten married so young, Iâd see him more often.
But this day was different. The one Iâm meant to be talking about. The one no one believes me about. This was not an average day.
The receptionist had come in early.
âMorning,â she said bluntly as I pretended to finish polishing her desk.
I didnât reply. I never did. Not after the time she told me to stop talking to the employees â
âThe centre manager wouldnât be happy about you distracting their work, causing a rise of complaints from clients,â she had said, with that dark look on her face that only I had the honour of seeing. All I had done was agreed with one of them that it was nice to finally see the sun shoo away the clouds.
I was to clean and stay invisible. End of.
Thatâs why this morning, when I had heard her platform heeled footsteps charging down the corridor toward the reception office, I was gathering up my things so quickly youâd think a stampede was coming. To be frank, Iâd rather a stampede was coming. But she had come in just before I was about to put the polish back in my little trolley, so I decided to use it in case sheâd know of my sweet escape plan. I was polishing fast enough so the awkwardness filling up the room wouldnât suffocate me. Itâs my fault sheâs early enough for me to be in her presence according to the annoyance on her face.
Why should I care? Sheâs half my age!
Anyway she leaves the office and I suddenly remember that I hadnât done the toilets at the back. So I go back there and Iâm wiping and scrubbing and flushing. Then I go back into the office and I see movement on the CCTV screen above the water dispenser.
âWeâve been patient, Annie,â you say.
And now youâre listening very closely.
Weâre both tired, sharing sleepless nights trying to find the answer.
All eyes are on me, all ears connected to the sound of my voice, all fingers twitching nervously.
I saw two figures. The quality wasnât perfect but I could tell one was a man and the other was a woman. They stood side by side for a while, their arms moving around frantically, argumentatively. I was only watching for this long because usually when I glace up at the screen during a shift, thereâs nothing to be seen except for the alleyway at the back of the building. Maybe sheâs being mugged, I thought. But then they were hugging, making up. Maybe he was her boyfriend. But why meet in an alleyway?
When they part from their embrace, she flops to the ground.
âYour motherâs condition…â
âWe believe you were hallucinating,â you say. âBlocking out any memories you donât want to remember.â
If I could block out memories, Iâd believe my husband was still alive. And what has any of this got to do with Mumâs condition?
I stood staring at the screen. At the still body lying on the ground, my jaw clenched shut, my fists clasped on to the trolley. Nothing moved. She never moved. I couldnât move. But I had to â I canât be seeing this, I thought, I canât be seeing more deaths. I ran out of the office, tripping over the receptionistâs handbag sheâd carelessly placed on the floor.
âDoes anyone else know?â you say.
âAnnie,â you sigh, agititated, âHenryâs your hoover.â
What are you talking about?
Police. Theyâre normally the oneâs you contact in these situations. I had wasted so much time rushing home she was probably already, fully, past the mark, dead. I stared at my telephone next to the picture of my son at five years old.
âWhy didnât you phone us immediately?â
I blink back at you, unable to answer my own thoughts let alone your questions.
I went to Mumâs house, wanting company. The carer was there, putting a blanket around her while she napped.
He looked up, surprised, âYouâre early. Is everything OK?â
âYes thanks, you can go now.â
He packs up and leaves slowly, frowning at me. When the door closes I sit down, listening to Mumâs ancient clock ticking away as time moves on. But weâre here, frozen.
âWe had a talk with your motherâs carer,â you say, âand he stated that you were very distressed that day.â
âOf course I was â Iâd just seen a murder!â
You rub your eyes and run your hands through your hair, âYou didnât like the receptionist much, did you?â
âDoesnât mean I killed her!â
When Mum wakes up she looks at me and smiles. Itâs the first time Iâve seen her smile in years. It was like she knew. Her mother-instinct had kicked in and she was smiling to reassure me. She knew.
âThe knife was covered in your fingerprints!â Youâre getting angry, even though the doctor told you not to.
And then I remember.
Washing my hands.
Watching the blood swirl down the plug hole.