His sister called in the afternoon to say their mother might be dead. She didn’t say those words exactly, never actually mentioned the word ‘dead’, but they both understood the subtext.
“She’s not picking up her either phone,” she said, “and I’ve been calling for hours.”
Maybe she was at the shops, he said. Doing some gardening. Taking a very, very long nap.
“Usually, I’d think that too,” she said. “Except I called her last night, and she didn’t pick up then either. Then I called this morning, and I’ve called over ten times since then. Nothing.”
This worried the brother. Immediately, his mind went back to the day before, and the last phone call he’d had with his mother. During the course of the conversation, she had stated the following things:
- They did not call her enough;
- She resented the fact they did not call her enough;
- No one returned her calls any more and she may as well be dead; and
- If she were to die, how would anyone know?
It wasn’t exactly a pleasant conversation and, so, ironically, didn’t provide much incentive for him to stay on the line. Considering the chat centered on how no one apparently called her, the phone call struck him as a precise, borderline-genius exercise in self-sabotage and passive aggression. Well played, he’d thought at the time. Well played. Then midway through the conversation, he became frustrated and exasperated—and a little bit bored—and told her he needed to go. When she insisted on talking more, he said cheerful goodbye and promptly hung up on her.
Recalling the conversation now, he started to sweat. Usually when he sweated, he didn’t smell any differently than normal, but if he became nervous or frightened, his armpits begin to secrete an odour that was not unlike garbage. In his mind, it was like a defence mechanism, similar to a skunk’s. If someone was to attack him in a dark alley way, he would smell this way. He smelled like that now, the thought crossing his mind that he’d inadvertently killed his mother, or at least driven her to suicide. If the purpose of the weird armpit smell was a defence mechanism, right now, it was defending him against accusations of murder.
Both he and his sister lived over an hour’s drive away from their mother. They could not possibly know whether she was dead or not. Neither of them said this out loud.
They called their other sister. The mother and the other sister were arch enemies. But for inexplicable reasons, she was the only sibling who lived within a 20 kilometre radius. They asked whether she could drive by, to ensure their mother wasn’t dead. Again, they avoided the word ‘dead’, and instead told her to check whether their mother was ‘okay’—which, by extension, implied ‘alive’.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” the other sister said. “But I don’t have the keys.”
The first sister explained that their mother kept emergency keys, and gave her precise directions as to where to find them.
After the other sister started to drive off, the brother started calling the mother again—on the landline, on the mobile—leaving messages on the answering machine, even though he knew she wasn’t there. As always, the greeting made the mother sound like she was caught in a blizzard, a thousand miles away, at the ends of the earth, somewhere where satellite reception was fading fast. He left messages—Where are you? Are you dead? Why do you even have a phone?—and kept calling and calling and calling, the same way someone continues with CPR long after they know their loved one is dead, long gone, kaput.
When the other sister arrived at their mother’s house, she called back.
“I’ve rung the doorbell, no response,” she said. “I’m about to go inside now with the emergency keys. I’ll call you back again.”
She hung up on him before he could say anything, and he quickly realised they should have stayed on the line together. What was the point of hanging up? Was she going to call back only after she’d found their mother’s corpse, dangling from the rafters like an effigy? Was she going to call back when she’d found her vomit-stained body on the linoleum floor, still convulsing from having forcefully ingested bleach? Was she going to call back when she found their mother’s electrified cadaver in the bath, a faulty appliance still plugged into the wall and—
The phone rang.
“She’s not here,” his other sister said on the phone. “No one’s home.”
She’d checked the garage too. The doors were locked. The blinds were closed. The phone and purse had been taken. These were all the things their mother did before she left the house. Nevertheless, the brother started calling hospitals. Each of the hospitals said the same thing, before transferring him to another line: “You’ll want the emergency ward, then.” All the hospitals said no one had been admitted under their mother’s name, but things like this happened all the time, and for them not to worry.
Together, the siblings waited in silence, their phones in their hands.
When the mother eventually returned from the shops, where she’d been for the past five hours, she was irate that the other sister had entered the house without her permission.
“But we thought you were dead,” the other sister said.
“Well, I’m not dead,” the mother said. “Not that anybody’s interested.”
She hadn’t recharged her phone battery, and on her way out, it had died. Out of everyone, she was not afraid to use the word. My phone battery was dead. But I’m not dead. And even if I was dead, would you even care? Care that I was dead?
Days later, they would discover she had done it all on purpose. But even before he’d known the details, the brother had a lot of things to say to her, some of which made sense, others not so much. You need to keep your phone charged. You are irresponsible. My armpits smell like a bin. You need to grow up. I have spent the last three hours on the phone. I’m hungry. We have no food in the pantry. Maybe I should buy some eggs. Do you realise how worried we were?
“Hold the line,” he told his other sister. “I want to speak to her.”
At that moment, the mother was coming out the bathroom and was about to receive his call. He would say all of these things to her, he realised.
And just at that moment, his phone battery went dead too.