I lay back in the bath and tried to relax. A vase of Mum’s camellias dropped petals onto the tiles. Early blossoms. It was three days after Christmas. My brother was moving about down the hall, the floorboards creaked beneath his restless boots. Matthew had met us on the front porch, his moustache twitching. There was some confusion over rooms. He had moved in downstairs, the room we used to share.
Mum was too sick to look after herself, he said. He looked angry, wizened.
The neighbours peered from behind their curtains, inside a row of dirty weatherboards identical to Mum’s. I thought of the baubles of citrus knocking against the window as we slept, Matthew on the bunk above me.
I don’t want to sleep on the couch, I said.
Matthew stared. My daughter fidgeted beside me in her long socks, her Joy Division t-shirt.
In the end, I’d taken Mum’s room. Magda was on a foldout in the study. Matthew dropped the linen on the bed in silence.
The service was small. Matthew carried the coffin with men I’d never met. I was convinced they’d drop it. The priest was nice, red hair and young. His neck strained out of its collar, his Christian nodding.
I chose a verse from Isaiah to read. ‘The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.’ Chapter forty, verse eight.
I felt like a hypocrite but Mum would have liked it. Magda stared up at me. The black dress we bought her from Vinnies was too big.
Afterwards there was warm salmon on stale bits of toast, cheese on Jatz, sticks of carrot and French onion dip. I skirted the room, avoiding Matthew. Magda didn’t protest when I clung to her. Her grandma was just a face in a photograph. But she was strong, like Mum. Her face sharp beneath her fringe, her bobbed black hair. No-one could deny she was a Bowles.
Then everyone was gone and the washing up drained in the rack. Magda was plugged into Bowie. Matthew was muttering about the house, some lawyer. His tight face.
Did Mum know we were coming? I asked.
He stopped. I didn’t want to alarm her.
It was cold outside. I wrapped Mum’s cardie around me. The camellias glowed in the last light. I stooped, pulled at the weeds, tossed them into the long grass. I tried not to think what I would have said if we’d made it in time. Whether the face in the coffin would have been happy to see me, or just frightened.