I facetime Nanna—expecting loose jowls and the ceiling cornices—but she sits in profile, clutching a hankie, like Whistler’s mother if she wore a housedress flowering with pixilated hydrangeas. Her best telephone voice, then a smile and a cooee and a queenly wiggle of crinkly fingers and knuckle bulbs. I reach out. She grasps me, pulls me through
and we’re in her garden. She’s looser, laughing, corset’s gone, and her pores gleam like a clementine. We embrace—I’m careful not to crush the blooms on her dress, they are real petals, softer than a broad bean bed or the inside of my daughter’s wrist. Still, I prick my finger on a hidden thorn; Nanna catches the drops of blood and they filigree across her palm, leaving a rusty print when she grips the patio table and stands to fetch us a drink. We sip from cut crystal, serenaded by wood pigeons and tinkling ice, rainbows dancing on our skin. A collared dove lands in her hair, pecks at the crumbs she scatters. It flies away, wings cracking like wet sheets. Who tarmacked over my roses? And the box hedge has blight. I follow her gaze to the ribs of its bare branches, the exposed heart of an abandoned nest. It starts to beat.
The thump of bass in my chest, syncopated notes on a breeze, snatches of familiar lyrics. What a racket! Nanna’s up again, climbing the rockery, beckoning. We stand at the summit, toes buried in the creeping phlox, watch a murmuration of starlings swoop above a festival crowd and form a giant arrow in the sky. Cooee. I zoom in and there’s Auntie Mavis and Auntie Jacqui bookending the make-shift bar, elegantly smoking gold-filtered cigarettes, sipping martinis: one raises her hand in a glittering greeting; the other blows me a kiss with an exaggerated pucker of her lips.
The sun dips behind the stage in a final orange blaze. Lou Reed sings about satellites, Bowie joins in for the chorus. Now the sky is a purple bruise. A flash of Mum’s grin lights the moon, and I see her clearly before she turns away to watch, her arm flung across an unfamiliar shoulder. The stranger is skinny and bronzed, incandescent with 70s soft-focus, with a profile I half-recognise. Her name forms on my tongue’s tip, in the pause between breaths.
The screen goes black. I pick at the scab on my finger until it bleeds, but Nanna’s gone. They’ve all gone.
© Gemma Downing March 2021
Illustration: Claire Palmer