Quality Street Toffee Finger

Imogen Hermes Gowar, submitted via email

My mum’s great aunt was born around 1900, but in the early 90s – when I was a child – she still lived in her own flat and did a lot of travelling. She had been up in a hot air balloon and had lost a finger falling off a tram, which I thought was very glamorous. She was utterly unpatronising to me: I loved to visit her and thought the marshmallow teacakes she put out were food she always ate and not bought for my benefit. I vaguely knew she had done something humanitarian during the war, but generally I understood her to be a brainy, intrepid woman of great independence.

I’m not sure how old I was when she had the stroke – 7 or 8 – but more followed. Almost overnight she became very deaf and nearly immobile. If she didn’t also have dementia, her other symptoms greatly limited her interaction and understanding; she sat silently in the care home she’d had to move into while my mother bellowed pleasantries at her. What a nice day – lovely flowers – look how tall I’d got. I felt embarrassed and angry on my aunt’s behalf; to me, her situation seemed a terrible indignity. I couldn’t understand why my mother did not seem to see the horribleness of it all.

One day we went to the home, my mum extravagantly upbeat, leading reluctant me into the fug of wee that pervaded everything. Our aunt was expecting us, the staff said, big smiles, she’d be so pleased to see us. My mum knocked on her door, pushed it open, and there she was, slewed over to the side in her chair, in a way that didn’t look right at all.
My mother cried out her name and ran over to her; somebody else whisked me out of the room before I could see anything more. Nurses were saying it was all right, don’t worry, but I was dumb with shock. I thought she must be dead. I was taken into the office and they got out a tub of Quality Street, something nurses always have. I didn’t want one, but I took a Toffee Finger and ate it very slowly and without pleasure, nibbling the chocolate until the toffee was entirely stripped. I didn’t know if my aunt was all right; I didn’t know where my mother was, but that visceral moment she cried my aunt’s name and let go of my hand had betrayed her; she was frightened, deep down. I felt furious with this stale grey building, with everybody going about pretending things were not awful. I could not believe my aunt was being allowed to fade away in this manner.
Now I’m an adult I understand more. That the care home was a good one; that my mother and her great-aunt still cherished their meetings; that people can be stripped of a great many things and love still remains. I’ve no idea whether my aunt was satisfied with her quality of life in those last few years, but I know that my fury was to do with me, not her. I was a little child and I had never seen somebody grow old and infirm, never had to contemplate the prospect of death.
Quality Street still make me feel a bit shuddery, but nowadays I always choose the Toffee Finger on principle. And I think of her without fail, every time.
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