‘I think tonight’s the night, my dear.’
Bethany wiggled into her nylon tights, pulling them up over her hips and snapping the elastic against her stomach.
‘OK, Mum,’ she said, glancing at her reflection in the mirror. A few strands of hair had come loose as she’d pulled on her uniform. She picked up a hair grip from the dresser and captured the errant strands.
‘I mean it. My heart won’t last through the night.’
‘Mmm,’ said Bethany as she located her flat, sensible work shoes under her bed where she’d kicked them at the end of her last shift.
‘So when you get back tomorrow morning I’ll be dead.’
Bethany rummaged around on her dresser, shifting make-up pots and crumpled tissues.
‘Mum, have you seen my keys?’ she asked.
‘They’re in the back door,’ her mother answered. ‘Did you hear what else I said?’
‘Thanks, Mum,’ said Bethany as she raced past her mother, who was standing in the doorway wearing a white, floor length nightie. ‘Sleep well.’
The sole light in the factory car park flickered on and off as Bethany made her way to the staff entrance. Her shoes sloshed through dark puddles she couldn’t see. Her shoulders sank as the doorway came into sight; another long night of assembling dreadful meat products. If only people knew what went into their chicken Kievs, they’d be horrified.
Bethany placed her handbag in her locker and closed the metal door. Behind her Annie was telling everyone about her catastrophic love life. Bethany groaned; would that girl never learn? This must be the sixth heart break in as many months. Surely you got tougher every time something sad happened. At the rate Annie was going she should only be feeling mild disappointment by this stage.
Bethany had only been heartbroken once. Well, twice if she included Dave leaving her, which Bethany didn’t because she’d only cried for a few days and then she’d just got on with it. It hadn’t said much for the state of her marriage that she’d been more upset about the staggering divorce costs than her husband bonking his secretary.
The time that truly counted was when Dad, darling, gentle George, had keeled over while tending to his beloved courgette plants. Thirteen years on and Bethany still shed a tear when standing next to his veg patch, now overrun with weeds.
Mum first started predicting her own death four months after George had gone. She’d put on her very best M&S nightie, because Mum didn’t want to be caught dead in anything from Primark, and had taken herself off to bed, declaring her heart was about to give out. Bethany had coaxed her out of bed and rushed her to hospital. The staff had been kind but firm; there was nothing wrong with Mum. By the sixth time it happened the kindness of the nursing staff was still there but the firmness was bordering on the edge of exasperation so Bethany stopped taking her.
The predictions were coming with increasing regularity and by the law of averages she would one day be right. Bethany shook her head; she did not want that day to come. The world would be a much duller place without her crazy but sweet mother. She’d ring her at break time to see how she was getting on. Mum didn’t sleep well when Bethany was on night shifts and they often had a little chat.
Annie sniffed her way through the first shift and broke down into wailing during break. Bethany took herself off to a corner of the staff room and rang home. The shrill dial sounded in her ear but after eight rings only the answer machine picked up.
‘She’s probably asleep, thought Bethany, ‘I’ll try later.’
There was only so much interest Bethany could fake in Annie’s problems so she was very grateful when the bell sounded and everyone shuffled back to the factory floor. Just before Bethany reached the door Annie tapped her on the arm and said, ‘Owen wants to see you upstairs.’
‘Oo er,’ laughed someone else. ‘Can’t think what the boss wants with you, all alone, at night in his private office.’ The joker waggled his eyes suggestively and the group around Bethany laughed.
Cheeks burning Bethany turned and pushed through her colleagues. Why had Annie waited until the end of break to tell her? Now her line would be behind.
She ran up the flight of stairs to the offices, her breath coming in little gasps. What did Owen want with her? Was she about to be made redundant? She couldn’t afford to lose her job; Mum’s pension wouldn’t come close the paying the bills.
By the time she made it to the office corridor she was breathless. She stopped and leaned her head against the dark window. She took a few deep breaths and willed her pulse to stop racing. She was wasting time: she needed to get back to the floor; or go home.
She knocked lightly on Owen’s door and let herself in. Owen was seated behind his desk, his paunch just visible behind the stacks of paperwork.
‘Ah, here you are, Bethany,’ he said.
‘You’re probably wondering why I’ve asked you up here.’
‘Perhaps you’d like to take a seat.’
Bethany sat and waited.
‘As you know we’ve had some staffing difficulties recently.’
Bethany nodded. Owen stopped talking and shuffled some papers on his desk. Was he gearing himself up to let her go? Bethany wiped her palms on her uniform.
‘We’ve been watching you at work,’ Owen finally continued, ‘and your performance, coupled with the experience outlined on your CV suggests you’d be an ideal candidate to move to an office role.’
Owen paused again and Bethany gaped at him.
‘Are you interested?’
‘Good,’ Owen went on to list the benefits: more money; day work; the chance of promotion. But Bethany wasn’t really listening; she was already in a future in which offal didn’t feature, where she could spend her evenings with Mum.
As soon as she was out of Owen’s office she phoned home; Mum would be thrilled. The dial sounded again but Mum still didn’t pick up. Still sleeping, Bethany decided.
Bethany raced down the flight of stairs and onto the factory floor. She had to work extra hard to catch up with everyone else but by the end of her shift she’d managed it.
The sky was just turning a dull grey as she sat in her car and rang home one more time. There was no answer. This time Bethany felt fear. Mum always answered at least once during the night. What had happened to her?
Bethany was lucky hardly anyone was up yet because she could barely concentrate on the drive home. She willed time to pass faster but when she arrived she just sat in her car, looking at the house. The curtains were still drawn. Mum wasn’t up.
Finally she made herself unlock the front door. Mum normally had a cup of tea waiting for Bethany when she came in. This morning the house was still.
Bethany slipped off her shoes and quietly climbed the stairs.
The door to Mum’s room was slightly ajar. Bethany stepped into the room and saw Mum lying still and silent on the bed.
Tears swam in Bethany’s eyes. Why hadn’t she listened to Mum last night? Instead of ignoring her, she should have taken her to hospital. Who cares if the nurses thought she was a timewaster. She was Bethany’s mother and the only person left whom Bethany truly loved.
She drifted over to the bed and reached out to touch Mum’s face.
Mum’s eyes snapped open.
‘Aaaargh! Bethany, what are you doing? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?’
‘Oh, Mum,’ said Bethany, her voice shaking. ‘Why aren’t you up? It’s 8 o’clock.’
‘I slept badly. Some company kept cold calling. By the time I picked up the phone the rotters had gone.’
‘It was me, Mum.’
‘Well, why didn’t you leave a message?’
‘Well, no matter. Let me get you some tea, and then you can get some sleep.’
‘It’s OK, Mum. Why don’t you stay here and rest.’
‘Don’t be daft, I can rest when I’m dead, which won’t be long now. It’s my heart, you see…’