As she was falling asleep, old Mrs. Tompkins thought to herself. Perhaps they would let her out this time? Release, or discharge, or whatever they liked to call it, she would be having her way. Old Mrs. Tompkins felt this might as well be her last chance to persuade Mrs. -what was her name anyway?- that she should be allowed to go back home. Of course, it would be no easy task, for the woman was a formidable opponent if she could be called that; a woman who seemed almost impossible to be talked into or out of anything. Many a time had she tried in vain to convince her, to talk her into something she could not clearly remember now. Perhaps her memory was failing her; but surely she would think something up. Younger people, however much younger the woman might be, for she was herself middle-aged, past fifty if she was a day, tended to consider themselves smarter and fitter than any elderly lady on the market. And maybe she was, which did not necessarily mean they had absolute power over the old but for the fact that this particular woman was somehow (for reasons old Mrs. Tompkins could not clearly remember; could not, actually) to decide for her wellbeing. To add to her rival’s apparent superiority, at least in the eyes of everyone around her, there was the fact that her body had begun to fail her. Little by little, time after time, old Mrs. Tompkins was heading for an imminent downfall. It is not wise to try to deceive anyone when one will not fool oneself, or even find the means to mask or disguise the signs to a confusing minimum. Her eyesight was not as sharp as it once had been, she was certainly a little ‘hard of hearing’ as she would put it, and she now had the need to pass water so frequently that she wondered how she would manage to make it through the length of the meeting without excusing herself -or disgracing herself.
The nurses felt rather sorry for her, an elderly lady whose health was weak (weaker than she knew, for that matter), and whose mind was going, too. Surely she could be rough at times, but they attributed that to her feeble consciousness. Back in the day, that toughness had been the very spine of her character; but how were they or anyone to know or guess when all they could see now was a rather senile lady? Even the most ordinary and unskilled orderly could tell the abrupt violence of delirium in even the kindest senior. She was more to be pitied than blamed, they said low to one another. What they did not know was how Mrs. Tompkins had been before she was admitted into the Home.
Winifred Tompkins had been a mean, calculating woman, brought up to exacting Victorian standards -and clearly falling short of them. She had lived a long life, throughout which she had ruled her family with an iron fist. She had not been the soft, rather quiet lady everyone thought she was at heart. Now she was only worn out, next to exhaustion. She had made most around her suffer, and so she was paying her dues by being cared for at a home for the elderly -an uninviting old building (if costly for a home; the unspoken questions of why this was usually so, whether those institutions were so on purpose, and naturally, and why children chose such places to lodge their aging parents, whether out of pure and austere intentions or half-witting revenge in the reversal of fortune, to remain unanswered), far-flung into the rural countryside.
The woman who came to visit -she seldom did, however Mrs. Tompkins might have felt it, for her visits were in actuality few and far between- was none other than her own daughter. The reason why she, Winifred Tompkins, could not remember her name, was that she had always used her married name (last name only, for she would not use her Christian name lest her mother should remember who she was). And of course, the reasons why she would not recognise her own daughter, most obvious to anyone, were for the most part the mother’s advanced state of mental decay, most ratified in this fact than upon any professional considerations, not to leave aside the fact that the younger, nee Tompkins, had had a few alterations (“improvements”) to her face and body, along with a few subtle guises she donned whenever the time came to visit.
Why was her daughter so cold and merciless to her? Was there no love left in her heart? Certainly Mrs. Tompkins had instilled little, if any, feeling of affection in her own children. The reasons, unfathomed to them, and certainly tiresome and past their due time to extricate; each had moved on in life and built themselves a brighter present only awaiting an always quieter future than the past had been, never wanting to go back there, even in actual recollection. All in all, she had made them suffer greatly; and now her daughter (who was left in charge of her) was surely retaliating, or at least acting accordingly, in a way. But Mrs. Tompkins would not see it; she was losing the grasp of things, more than a little, and as she became worse, she more and more portrayed everyone around her fantastically. Hence her seeing her own daughter as a social worker -sometimes a lawyer- who came to check on her from time to time. She might not even remember how many children she had had, or whether she had at all on any given day. Hence her entreaties to be discharged, for she usually thought she was in hospital recovering from some disease or other, oblivious of her lack of a bigger picture in which she might have known where or what she was to come back to.
Only once had the director of the Home made bold to ask her daughter why it was all being handled that way. She had simply answered her mother had been a hard woman with a wicked sense of duty, and they all had suffered much because of her. That much she was able to say at a stretch without the need to leap back and dig out dormant ghosts from their graves. Her father had been so desperate, she elaborated; he had died an untimely death, eaten up by cancer, suffering the unspeakable as her mother insisted he was only paying for what he had done to her in youth -whatever that could have been (this could not have been enlarged on, for nobody had ever really known or dared to ask even much later what on earth it had been). Her younger sister, a sickly child, had drowned herself at fourteen, turning her mother all the more sour and embittered. She had remained her mother’s sole companion. But as Mrs. Tompkins had endeavoured to be so ruthlessly strict on her, she had eventually found herself a suitor and eloped at twenty-one. There was a brother, but he lived far out and away, and could not care less, unnatural as it might sound to anyone, or not so.
Mrs. Fairbanks had not ever again spoken of their past, and not much of her mother’s present really, other than bare necessities about her health. Her last words on family affairs had been that her mother had made her bed and now she must lie on it. The doctors acquiesced as far as the management of the institution saw all expenses covered, and they were, and everyone let sleeping dogs lie for after all it was a business and it had to keep going and the fewer the questions the calmer the going, and it worked for all that way.
As she woke up, the nurse reminded her of Mrs. Fairbanks’ visit later that morning. Mrs. Tompkins could faintly remember a lawyer -or was it a social worker? – would come over to the hospital to see her; let alone recall what for. With great difficulty she got ready to go down to the dining-room; and to her surprise, as she got there she found it deserted. She looked up at the clock on the wall: it was close to eleven in the morning. Impossible! It must be wrong; she had just got out of her room.
On leaving the dining-room she came across a middle-aged lady who seemed intently concerned at finding her there and then. Her face rang faintly familiar. Could she be..? No, certainly not her second cousin Margaret.
“Mrs. Tompkins, I have been waiting for you in the lounge forever. Where’ve you been?” the woman said, coldly. “Certainly, Mrs. who did you say? Thompson? I think I remember meeting a Mrs. Thompson, of course a mighty long time ago… when was it? Anyway, who are you. . . and, who are you looking for, dear?” Her daughter closed her eyes for a lingering moment, pressing her lids tightly together in a confused mixture of pain and relief.
Going… going… gone.