She hears the fat thump from down the hallway and pokes her head out from the kitchen. Sighs. Then reaches to turn the turnips down and throw her oven mitts on the tabletop. The dead weight of Granny, sunk into the wall, makes Irene’s back ache. Granny, crying, sorry, is dripping tears onto her shoes. Irene wipes Granny’s face with her sleeve and heaves her up, grunting with the force of it. Adding more layers of tired to her worn-out bones. Irene pinches her thigh. Bites the inside of her cheek. Leads Granny down the hall and into bed.
Irene pulls the chairs in around the kitchen table and sets the turnips boiling again. She hears George come in with the kids and puts on the peas, the carrots, the beans and potatoes. Two kinds of meat. Cheese. Soup and sandwiches. Milk and water and juice. Four menus for six people. Butter cookies for dessert. The kitchen windows are dripping, dripping. Irene is sweating, turning, what don’t you like, George? Yes, I can make a little more steak. Yes, a bit more well done.
George’s brother is home, late, asking for dinner. Irene sets the table again. He’s a bachelor, George had said. A paycheque. And Irene — desperate, defeated — had emptied the hall closet. Set up the cot. Moved Dana into the room that wasn’t a room. Put Uncle in with Ralph, the man with the boy. Her children are tenants, stuffed into spaces.
Irene pulls the tray from the oven to find the turnip bottoms burnt. She pours milk into the glass and winces, shaken, as she bumps into the table, spilling the last few drops. She mutters sorry to Uncle, who grunts and asks for more bread. Just two slices left in the bin. Irene breaks the last one in half and hides the pieces. She saves them, with a little butter and jam, turnip bits, milk in a thermos, for the kids’ lunches.
Granny’s early bedtime leaves Ralph, the eldest, with the gift of new bathwater. Dana gets near enough to new — foggy and skimmed with the scum of a twelve-year-old’s day, but still. Cleaner than usual. Warmer than normal. Irene scrubs Ralph’s ears a little less, leaves faint mud circles under his feet. She gives Dana, the youngest, the last, the inheritor of leftovers, her best bath yet. Irene dries her up with the good towel and combs her hair — smelling faintly, for once, of olive-oil soap. Dana, sleeper of dungeons, now queen of almost clean.
Irene tucks Dana in and closes the closet door. She leaves a blinking streak of black-and-white light across the cot, an invasion from the living room. Dana turns to the wall and sighs. Irene feels a twinge in her back and reaches around, rubbing familiar flesh. She blows Dana an unseen kiss.
Across the hall, now, Irene shuts Ralph’s light and smoothes the stray strands on the sides of his head. She knows that, much later, Uncle will come in and turn the light back on. Drop his shoes, light his last cigarette of the night. Ralph will stir and cough in his sleep, reaching for his pump. And Irene will hear it roll, roll, roll under the bed. Hear his rattling lungs. Listen for the peace or, when it doesn’t come, get up to help him fight.
At midnight, Irene shuts Uncle’s light, fixes Ralph’s near-to-clean tufts again, and heads to the living room. She fetches the sheets. Unfolds the hide-away couch. Rouses George from his slumber in the corner chair and crawls in beside him.
And she cries. Tears for the family she had and the family she inherited. For the babies she bore and the grown-up children she’s burdened with. And for her good husband who’d promised everything, everything and, in the end, did his duty before keeping his word.
Irene sleeps. She doesn’t dream.
Tina Wayland is a stay-at-home mom, freelance copywriter and out-of-the-closet fiction writer. She’s got her fingers in a few pies and hopes to net herself a few publishing plums.