Number four child left on his first ever solo adventure a couple of days ago. After 27 years of having at least one at home, that was bound to create some upheavals in his mother’s heart. But not quite in the way I expected.
He was supposed to make sure his room was ‘sparkling’ clean before he left.
Instead, his sister visited and created somewhat of a loving distraction. We left early for the airport, and I didn’t check his room – or even that end of the house, where his room is adjacent to my office.
The next morning, as I went to my office I couldn’t help but notice through his wide-open bedroom door that his room looked like a train-wreck.
So, I did what mothers who are left with a suddenly empty house might do. I ignored my writing and went into his room to do a bit of a tidy–a rare event in this house.
I headed towards his bed to change the sheets to summer-weight sheets. But a grocery bag at the end of the bed stole my attention. In it were two bottles of Coke.
I hate Coke.
Possibly a remnant of living in Memphis for long enough to discover that a typical Memphis breakfast was Coke and donuts, I have developed an aversion to Coke – much to the disdain of my sons. They know I hate it. They know I’ve banned it from bedrooms. And if they want to bring it here into my house, it’s on rations – like wine or beer or anything that to me should be a ‘sometimes’ thing.
So, grumpy me grabbed the bag, pulled the two two-litre bottles of Coke out of the bag and took them to the kitchen. One of them was full.
Unfortunately, it was the full bottle that I chose to up-end first into the drain of the sink. As the top of the bottle neared the lowest part of the sink, I loosened the cap.
What I probably should have realized was that the Coke was warm. And travelling from one end of the house to the other, it was slightly shaken up. And tipping it upside-down into the sink exacerbated the shaking up process.
But I didn’t think about that until…
Let’s just say that an exploding, previously unopened, warm and shaken up two-litre bottle of Coke sprays E V E R Y W H E R E !!!!!!
I had only just had my shower. But now Coke was in my hair and up my nose; in my eyes and trickling down the inside and outside of my glasses; my shirt was soaked through–my trousers were too.
I dripped all the way down to the bathroom where I had my second shower and shampoo in five minutes.
And then I returned to the kitchen.
WHAT A MESS!
Coke was on the bench and on the walls, all over the ceiling and the floor, over the windows and the door. I returned at least seven times to the kitchen only to find more splashes of Coke over cupboards and utensils up to three metres away.
Ted and Mae’s plan was already in tatters—and Ted hadn’t even begun the first step. By 22:10 he was supposed to have secured the quilt—folded like a road map under his left arm—and strolled into the darkened corridor. But it was already 22:25. South Wing was still lit up and the last of the nurses on the late-shift were only just leaving, almost half-an-hour late.
In a lot of ways it would have been more logical for Mae to make her way to Ted’s room, instead of the other way round. Her night vision was better and so was her health. But Ted’s rapport with the nurses in the rest home was more likely to get him out of trouble if he was discovered.
In Room 3 East, Mae waited…and waited.
She had purchased a new night-gown for the occasion. And she made sure she was wearing a tiny bit of the pink lipstick Ted said he liked, that first day she’d felt alive again— the first time in forty-four years that a gentleman had been kind to her, or had taken any notice of her at all.
Their friendship blossomed almost from the beginning – when Ted first noticed her ‘gardening’ in the courtyard shared by the South and East wings.
‘You’d better not let Fred catch you stealing his flowers,’ he said.
‘Oh, I’m planting, not stealing. See?’ Mae held up a tiny trowel and a packet of poppy seeds.
But the next day, and the next day… and the next, Ted noticed her doing the same thing, though in a different place each morning. It was a week before he realised that she was indeed ‘planting’— but the poppy seed packet was a cover-up for the pills she refused to swallow.
While the nurses thought she was sweet, if a little eccentric, Ted found her delightful. The more he got to know her, the more he liked her. They discovered a mutual love of gardening, history and reading.
Before long, they were sharing all of their meals and spending much of each day sitting together in the garden or, on rainy days, in the sunniest spots by the windows. Ted read aloud while Mae stitched.
Two weeks ago, Ted proposed an after-hours rendezvous. Mae responded that she was ‘a bit-old-fashioned that way.’
‘Well marry me, then,’ he said.
‘Okay, I will. Thank you for asking.’
Ted announced it to his family the next day. They could not have been happier for him. It was good that he was here, well cared for and with great medical facilities nearby, in case his heart skipped a beat again. Best of all, he was close enough that his daughter and the grand-kids could walk there to visit.
Yet he hadn’t really settled. Until recently.
They had noticed something about him was different. There was a new spark; something that had been missing since their mum died … it must be Mae.
But Mae’s son Eric, ever-protective of his inheritance, threatened to stop her from seeing her two grandchildren if she went ahead with the marriage.
Mae’s sweet demeanour always disappeared after conversations with Eric. This conversation was rowdier than usual – heard all the way down the corridor. Ted fully expected Mae to stay in her room for days afterwards.
Yet she surprised Ted the next morning by greeting him at the breakfast table and announcing, ‘I had forty-four years of being bossed around by his father. I’m bothered if I’m going to be bossed around by him.’ Then she whispered, ‘Let’s not allow anything to get in our way. I have an idea.’
Ted leaned over and listened as Mae revealed her plan. ‘Whether or not it’s true is a bit contentious,’ Mae explained, ‘but the story goes that during the time of slavery in America, women stitched secret codes into quilts to guide the slaves to safety. I’ve decided to sew a quilt so you can find me in the middle of the night.’
Mae couldn’t sit still. She sat on the edge of her bed. Then she sat in her arm-chair. She turned her main light on and off and on again. She smoothed out every wrinkle on her bed, pressed and re-pressed the folds of her quilt, and adjusted the pillows… again.
Nurse Rosie noticed the light going on and off and went in to check that Mae was okay. Mae made up a story about needing to mark the page in the book she was reading, climbed into bed and asked Nurse Rosie to turn the light off, please.
‘Dear ol’ thing,’ Nurse Rosie said to the other nurse when she returned to the desk. ‘I saw her doing some embroidery the other night – the most unusual stitches I’ve ever seen. Said she was making a ‘quilt-as-you-go’ quilt. I’ve seen some of her other work – very intricate and detailed. This was more ‘folksy’. You know, thick wool, coarse and lumpy stitches. Not my cup of tea. But each to her own, I s’pose.’
It was now 22:45 and still, no Ted. It was unlikely he would be able to make it in the next half hour because the nurses tended to do another round between 22:50 and 23:10.
A tear dropped from Mae’s face onto her pillow. She had not cried for twenty years.
A scream shattered the silence of West Wing. Three nurses rushed to Room 3. One turned on the lights. Another raised the security alarm. They found Mrs Campbell attacking an intruder who was now cowering under cover of a grey-brown quilt.
A nurse yanked off the quilt.
‘Mr Collins! What on earth…?’
Another nurse steered Mrs Campbell to an armchair as nurses, guards and available staff appeared at the doorway. Nurse Rosie arrived last – just in time to see a security guard manoeuvring Ted out of the room, and carrying the quilt.
‘Hold on,’ said Nurse Rosie. ‘I recognise that quilt. What are you doing with it?’
‘I…I can explain,’ said Ted, but not quickly enough to stop Nurse Rosie from grabbing the quilt and returning it to Mae in 3 East.
‘Oh dear,’ said Mae as spread the quilt out on her bed. Then, out of her sewing basket, she took a hand-drawn map. Mae traced the map with her finger; then matched it, block by block, against the stitches on the quilt.
‘Oh no!’ she said. ‘It’s all my fault. Here! Block 3D. I’ve turned it left instead of right. He’s gone to the right room in the wrong wing!’