Nikesh Murali: Mama
The morning the police told me they found Mama’s rotting body in the house at Erskine street was exactly how I imagined it would be – grey and windy.
I was sheltered under the bridge, looking through a piss stained Woman’s Day magazine fished from the garbage near the RSL, when the police officers strolled up to me.
“Is your name Julie Banley, ma’am?” the man said.
I looked at them both blankly and then returned my attention to the Chilli Crab recipe on page 88. I had never eaten one. Wasn’t likely I would ever eat one. Still, it was good to look at.
“We are looking for Julie Banley. We need to inform her of something really important. Are you Julie?” the woman said.
“You found Mama?” I said.
Mama was once alive. She was a right mess because of the dementia. But she was alive.
We lived in a public housing unit in a leafy neighbourhood where people in their rich clothes and fancy cars suffered people like us, the souls who couldn’t get a decent break.
Mama always had terrible memory and it worsened with age. I just assumed that’s what happened to old people.
I refused to accept the doctor’s verdict that she had dementia and things would get worse. It wasn’t real. It was a curse someone, somewhere else had to bear. Not my Mama.
But his warnings were realised a few months later, when Mama climbed up on the couch, lifted her skirt and pissed all over it thinking it was the loo.
I had a theory that Mama’s brain cells started dying because she had a horrible life not worthy of remembering. Born to junkie parents, she was raped by two of her dad’s mates when she was a teenager. She ran away from home and started a new life in this city a long time back. She worked at a local factory for thirty years on minimum wage before it shut down, took up with a few men who didn’t stay around for too long, bore four children and survived a bout of cancer. She never took a holiday, my Mama. It was all about making sure that we kids were loved and did not suffer like her. I remember her crying to sleep every night when we were kids.
My poor Mama.
The rate at which her condition deteriorated was frightening. Time and place became a plaything of her fancy. She brought back those who were dead or had moved on. If you dropped your guard, she would quietly slip out of the house in search of places she had once regularly visited like the factory where she worked or the bakery run by Old Joe, which had burned down a decade ago.
“Soon she will forget who you are,” the doctor had said.
I was not prepared for that day.
I could understand her forgetting my three siblings. But, I had always been with Mama. We were best friends. Soul mates even.
Mama and I – we were truly family.
I have three siblings –Janice, Jennifer and Jason.
Janice is married to a lawyer in Melbourne where she carts her four children around in a Mercedes van to ballet and piano classes and soccer. She always sent me photos of the expensive birthday parties they threw for the children, but never any invitations, cheques or queries about Mama.
Jennifer is a yoga teacher in Byron Bay. She would ring me once in a blue moon to find out how my soul was doing. I would hum through her hippie bullshit before asking why she hadn’t visited or helped out in a decade. That ensured the line went dead.
Jason was the only one of the three, who turned up regularly. But I wished he didn’t.
During the last visit, he had been off his medication for a week. When I stepped out to buy milk, he chased Mama into the bedroom with a kitchen knife. She locked herself in. When I returned he was stabbing the door, ranting about how she had destroyed his music career.
Jason’s illness made him believe he was a recording artist and the reason his music hadn’t reached the masses was because Mama and the music labels were out to screw over his legacy.
He carted around an awful sounding, cheap guitar he bought from Big W everywhere he went, but couldn’t play a tune.
He had been to the mental hospital dozens of times and to minimum-security prison once, but he had never once stepped foot on a stage.
I had three siblings, but it always felt like it was just Mama and I, alone in the world, alone in this house with its dismal paint job and four small rooms. Mama in the stuffy bedroom and me on the couch, growing numb as the days ticked over.
I worked as a cleaner at a local Caltex. The largest one in the whole state as manager Mark liked to remind us.
“We generate a lot of cash for the company and we serve a lot of people. This means we can’t drop the ball when it comes to quality. I need commitment. I need good work ethic from all of youse. That’s what youse are paid for.”
I wouldn’t call my pay handsome because it was barely enough to pay for food and Mama’s medicines. I couldn’t work long hours because of her illness. The cleaning job was a luxury I could afford thanks to Rose, the elderly neighbour, who accompanied Mama when I was away.
The two oldies watched Dr Phil and Dr Oz and Ellen DeGeneres and Judge Judy on a small TV and munched on chippies I brought home from the store.
Rose was getting on a bit, so I would make sure I got back home as early as possible. Something Mark frowned upon.
“I think your personal situation gets in the way of you doing a good job for us Julie. Your shifts seem to be getting shorter and shorter. But, I understand.”
It was half criticism, half compassion. And that pissed me off.
But he didn’t anger me as much as old Mrs. Darcy. She turned up to work in her neatly ironed light blue shirt and navy trouser pulled all the way up to her belly button. It looked rather comical because she had a belly as large as a pumpkin. She would glare at everyone through her judgemental owl glasses and spew bitterness every time she opened her mouth.
Even knowing that’s the way she was, it still hurt me when I overheard her saying I had nothing to complain about since I was cashing the carer’s cheques from Centrelink.
“That lazy sod must be making a neat sum off her mother’s plight.”
Mrs. Darcy wouldn’t have said that if she spent a day with Mama and me.
I never considered myself attractive.
Mama said I was the prettiest of her girls. But when I looked in the mirror I saw tired eyes, mousy brown hair spun by lazy spiders and skin scarred by pimples from my teenage years. I hated the love handles, which grew bigger every Christmas and my flat ass. If my short, stumpy legs could be replaced, I would have done so already.
I had slept with a few blokes, but never had a boyfriend. Never met anyone I really liked. Didn’t have the time or the interest. That is what I told myself anyways when I saw couples walking hand in hand.
Then one fine day, this tall, skinny guy came into the shop and slipped on the floor where I had placed a yellow board, which said ‘Cleaning in progress.’
I was tempted to ask him if he was blind, but looking at his kind and handsome face, all I could come up with was an apology.
“My fault. I have always been blind and clumsy,” he said with a smile.
He talked to me every time he dropped into the store for the next few weeks about his weekend misadventures, the cranky boss at his work site and funny stories he read on the Internet.
I enjoyed listening to him and watching him laugh at his own jokes.
Then one day, he asked me out.
We met at the local pub. Talked about pretty much the same things we always talked about. Only this time he was nervous.
He had to down five beers before he got the courage to tell me that I looked pretty.
I was mighty pleased to hear that because I had put in a lot of effort in front of the mirror, asking Mama every five minutes what she thought of my face.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” Mama had said.
Seeing my date had gotten real uncomfortable after complimenting me, I squeezed his hand to assure him.
He gave me a relieved smile.
Our conversation returned to the familiar.
We gave each other a little kiss on the mouth that night before we parted ways.
When I got home, I gave Rose a big hug for looking after Mama and making the date possible.
She teased me about the date and was not happy I was not forthcoming with the details.
“I would have told you if something juicy had happened,” I said.
When she left, I lay on the couch and listened to Mama’s mutter and snore in her sleep. That’s how she kept me awake most nights, but I didn’t mind it tonight, because I wanted to relive the moment he told me I was pretty in my mind, many times over till dawn.
The next date was at a local Chinese restaurant.
We mostly talked about our families.
I told him about Mama and my siblings. He seemed ok about the fact that I was Mama’s carer.
He showed me some funny cat videos on Facebook as we dug into our special fried rice and ginger chicken.
I invited him over that evening and he seemed mighty thrilled about it.
I was giddy with excitement as I debated how I was going to introduce him to Mama and Rose. I realised if things got a bit raunchy later, we might have to go to his place to do the deed.
My heart sank when the car arrived at Erskine Street.
There was an ambulance in front of the house and paramedics were treating Rose. Mama had broken her nose with a pan. She was apparently infuriated that the old woman had stolen an imaginary jar of Nutella.
By the time the neighbours arrived to Rose’s screams, Mama was distressed and smearing shit on the walls.
My date patted my back like I was a pet dog, while I apologised to Rose, who was being treated by paramedics. She was weeping and beside herself.
He waited with me till the ambulance departed.
“I will call you later,” he said.
He jumped in his car and sped off without a parting kiss.
I cried and cursed Mama all night, not because of the stinky filth I was wiping off the walls. I knew in my heart I would never hear from the man with the kind face and the wonderful laugh ever again.
“No, Rose did not go to the Police,” I said.
“Thank the universe,” Jennifer said.
“Mama and I need you. I am really struggling Jen.”
“I told you about the retreat. I have paid for the tickets and accommodation. It wasn’t cheap.”
“You go to Bali every year for that yoga crap. Would it kill you to come for two days and give me a bit of a break?” My voice trembled the whole time I spoke to Jennifer on the phone.
“I am not in a space to deal with this now,” Jennifer said. I heard her breathe deeply and then she cut the phone.
I didn’t even bother ringing Janice because she had been ignoring my calls for several months now. She would come back in a few weeks with some bullshit reason – “we were holidaying in France” or “Martin is working on this huge commercial contract and I am really struggling to manage the household by myself” or “the kids were all sick from that new tummy bug”.
I slumped into the chair outside the hospital ward and wept silently. Even though the air conditioner was on full blast, I felt like I was boiling in a cauldron.
Mama had tripped and damaged her wrist. I didn’t cope too well with the regular trips to the hospital. It was a depressing place.
I needed to get out of there for some fresh air and a bite to eat.
I went to the bathroom to wash my face before I headed out. I looked like a walking corpse in the mirror – dark circles under my eyes, dry flaky skin and sunken cheeks.
Between the splitting headaches and the anxiety attacks that left me glued to the floor for hours, I was struggling.
I had quit my job. Rose had understandably stopped looking after Mum. “Your Mama needs to be in one of those special aged care places. Even a part time carer won’t do,” she had advised.
I couldn’t let Mama be amongst strangers who wouldn’t love her as much as I did, who wouldn’t take care of her like I did, but I was coming to terms with the fact I wasn’t doing a stellar job myself. There was also the issue of my fading sanity.
“Mama, I talked to this social worker lady about getting you more help.” I sat on the couch facing away from Mama, who was standing in the kitchen, when I said this. I didn’t want her to see my tears.
“Have we got Nutella? I got a big tub the other day. The rats must have gotten to it,” Mama said.
“She was telling me that in your condition, you will need special care, twenty four hours a day.”
Mama sucked her fingers one after the other.
“There is a long waiting list to get into those places. But I got to do this. I can’t…I am sick, I think. I am down. I am not looking after you well Mama. I feel helpless. I am always sad Mama.”
“Big tub it was. I got it from Woolies on my way back from the factory.”
“Do you understand what I am saying Mama?” I said between sobs.
Suddenly, I felt faint. I slid down the couch and fell to the floor.
A cold sensation gripped my body and held me down. All I could feel were the tears on my face.
I couldn’t move.
I couldn’t move when I saw Mama slowly climb on top of the kitchen bench and wildly open and close the cabinets, looking for her jar of Nutella.
I couldn’t move when she wobbled precariously on the edge.
I couldn’t even scream when she fell backwards.
I heard a sickening crunch.
I was thankful the couch was blocking my view, because I heard her breath rattle and slow as the life drained out of her, and that alone was going to stay with me for all eternity.
I stroked her head for nearly an hour before I pulled the white sheet over her.
I took some bread and water, locked the door behind me and left home.
For days, I wandered the streets in a daze. When my bread ran out, I ate scraps from fast-food restaurant bins.
Then I made a little sign that said homeless and sat on a different intersection every day to beg for coins.
There wasn’t much going on in my mind. It felt like someone had turned down the volume in my head.
People didn’t have faces and I felt like I couldn’t reach out to them.
I never cried in all those days.
I lived like a shadow in this world till the two police officers came looking for me.
I got into the squad car.
They were taking me to the station. I hoped they wouldn’t show me any photos of Mama’s corpse or take me back to the house.
It felt like the dam holding back the grief in me was going to burst open. I took in a deep breath and clenched my fists to contain the sensation.
Soon shops and churches and houses and parks raced past my window.
When we stopped at the lights, I saw a middle aged woman dressed in business clothes help an elderly woman, who was about Mama’s age, cross the road.
The old woman was clutching a Bible. I thought she smiled at me as she passed.
I didn’t care to think much of God or forgiveness. Even if I did, I didn’t know if anyone, whether a supreme being or a mere human, would forgive me for what I had done.
But it felt like Mama was smiling at me through this woman.
I examined my dirty hands, which had once hugged, brushed, fed and washed Mama. Big, warm teardrops fell on them.
“Would you forgive me Mama?” I said to myself.
I let out a sad sigh.
When I looked up, I saw the policeman watching me in the mirror. I saw kindness.
I liked what I saw in his eyes.