I often lean back in my swivel chair, and note my fingerprints on the glass desk that I work on. It is a dark, almost black, thick and beautifully large piece of glass balanced on two ‘A Frame’ cast iron stands. It takes four people to move it. But the metaphor here, for me, is that despite its strength and its apparent transparency, it is left with evidence that I was there – daily.
When I think of the stains left on me by those who have been strong enough to do so – I also cant help but wonder who’s lives I have left my finger prints on. Logically, we attach emotion to those finger prints. Those scars. Those flashes of guilt or pleasure or pain.
On some days, as grateful as I am for the colour that exists within me because I have experienced so much – I would like, just for five minutes, to remember nothing. Open up my skull and pour in bleach. Feel it seep into every space, and wipe out all that I know.
There is a page missing, in my About Me menu. It is more than just a page. Its more like concrete that is barbed wired to my ankles, and I am slow in walking or breathing when I look down and see the finger prints. They are mine. I wrapped the rusted and spiked fencing around the slabs of hurt and I weighted myself to the memory.
Her name was ‘Pearl’. She was 96 years old. I had answered an advert in a classified. A grandson of an elderly lady needed a care giver to come and live in and run her home – in all aspects. It was the live in part that appealed to me the most as I had recently gotten off a bus, having left my bastard husband down in Devon – the bottom of England. I had near no money and very little to call my own – so I applied.
On arrival at her home to be interviewed, I saw that she was a very wealthy Jewish lady, and it was explained that she was in the early stages of Alzheimers. She didn’t like me at all, and wasn’t shy about stating as much. I wasn’t Jewish, to start off with – and I looked more like a boy, which to this very well kept and immaculate woman was a huge no no. But the grandson liked me, and I was hired starting the next day.
Her routine became my routine. I was up early preparing tea and breakfast, in time to get her cleaned up, dressed and out into the dining room. Getting up early for me is like torture – so it took me a while to get into the swing of that – and in my efforts to do it all right – I never quite managed to please Pearl. She would correct me when I spoke, in my pronunciation and in my word order.
She continuously commented on my wild hair and my lack of dress sense. If I cooked a meal that was not perfect, she would simply push it away and tell me to do it again. We had some rip roarer arguments, and she said some very mean things. The community as a whole was Jewish, and I struggled when it came to buying specific foods. But I tried, and I got better at the pronunciation of the various things. I got better at the cooking and the ‘grooming to perfection’ when it came to Pearl.
Her hair, her nails, became as familiar to me as my own. She grew to trust that I would not drop her, and I started to be invited to sit beside her at the dinner table, and we had conversations about more than just my flaws and my failures.
Then, one day – her daughter came to visit. I will never forget the knot in my stomach that over took me when this very large and abrasive woman came strolling into her mother’s home. She has almost neon shocking red hair and lipstick that was thick and pasty. She has false eye lashes and more make up on her face than an entire run way of models would have. She spoke to her mother like she was an irritant, and then, in front of Pearl, told me that when Pearl kicked the bucket – the house and all that was in it would be hers.
That was the first pang of protectiveness I felt for Pearl, and I realised that the reason her grandson was my employer was because her own daughter really didn’t care. It made me angry. Fran, the daughter – then decided that when her mother was out at some old people gathering – I should come with her to lunch or to her house or shopping. I will never forget watching her take one of those powder puff things that you put on your face – and she stuck it in her pants to ‘perfume herself’ for lack of a better explanation, then under her armpits and THEN on her face. I was horrified.
Her house was a collection of mugs full of black coffee and cigarette butts that had been dropped in. I was a smoker – and even then I was grossed out. Her kitchen was worthy of quarantine and I pretty much became a glorified borrowed maid.
On the day when I allowed myself to get too angry about it, I would drop one of her priceless antiques, and she would eventually tell me NOT to touch ANYTHING. Which solved the cleaning problem.
Pearl confided in me that Fran had never been kind to her and that although she loved her – she didn’t like her very much. I became the company that Pearl kept. We grew from pretty much hating each other to loving each other. I loved her. Her difficult outbursts. Her blunt criticisms. Her arthritic hands, Her high maintenance routine.
Her room was at the end of the hall, and mine was just next to it. The glass window above her door told me if she had a light on or not. She was unable to move her whole body but had enough strength to put the lamp on her bed beside her, and turn it off when she was done reading. I would go on, sit next to her and we would chat about the day and then I would kiss her forehead goodnight and trundle off to bed, having turned the baby monitor on in case she needed me during the night.
On weekends, I would prepare the entire weekends meals and leave strict instructions for the nurses that would come in to take care of her. I would stay with friends on the other side of London, and return late Sunday night. And routine would continue.
One the Friday afternoon, after preparing her meals, getting her ready for bed, and chatting for a bit she did something she had never done before. She put her swollen arthritis ridden hands on my cheeks, kissed me and said ‘I love you.’. A moment that I will always over think in so many ways.
I left, and caught a train to Lewisham, and soaked in the freedom of the open air and the change of pace. I slept on my friends couch and we ate and laughed and walked and talked and enjoyed our time together. I always made sure I caught the last train back to Stanmore, at the end of the Jubilee Line, which was a five minute walk from Pearl’s home.
I let myself in, and put my stuff in my room. The light was on in Pearl’s room. She had waited up for me. But it was just before midnight so I didn’t go in. I didn’t turn the baby monitor on. I didn’t kiss her good night. I didn’t do any of the things that I should have done or that I usually do because I was tired.
I closed my eyes, and I went to sleep.
I opened my eyes, and coughed at the same time. I had tossed and turned a few times, but I was very dizzy. There was black smoke whispering under my door. My immediate thought was that something was burning in the kitchen, and as I opened my bedroom door, it slammed into me like thick solid hands trying to hold me back. I made my way to the kitchen… and I couldn’t see anything, so I managed to get to the sliding door in the lounge and open it. The smoke literally rushed past me and out and up the building.
I headed back to the kitchen and in desperation put my hands directly on the stove tops and in the oven to see where it was coming from. But it wasn’t the kitchen. The ONLY light I could see facing into the blackness of the house was through the glass panel above Pearl’s bedroom door.
I threw up. Realising that it was fire and not a bed light I pushed through to her door. I burned my hand trying to hold on to the handle, and whenever I managed to get the door open even a centimeter, it would slam closed with pressure. It felt like eternity…. and I tried. I tried until I don’t remember anymore. I woke up on the grass outside the building.
A window washer had seen the smoke bellowing from the house and come in, knowing that Pearl and me lived there. He says he found me on my knees, slouched over in front of her door and he dragged me out. He also tried to get into her room, and he couldn’t either. He has called the fire department and I know that when I woke up I could hear sirens but I was already running straight back into the house. The window washer had to lift me off my feet and I scratched him, and I was aware of screaming. But it was me, and I wasn’t consciously doing it.
Firemen flooded the building. I sat on a short wall and watched what was like a surreal movie. I was wearing a t shirt and underwear and was unaware until a fireman came to me with a blanket that I was half dressed. He gave me something to drink, and said that I must stay there. I remember thinking that ‘I live here… where else would I go?’
Then, in slow motion, they dragged Pearl down the passage into the lounge, wrapped in a curtain. A black swollen hand, fingers curled, stuck out from the curtain. Her wedding ring still on, and her perfect red nails…
I don’t remember getting off the wall, and I don’t remember fighting. I just remember needing to get to Pearl. I have bursts of memory of being told I cant touch her. Of being held above the ground. Of a fireman’s face trying hard to talk to me.
‘Can you call her family?’ – were the words that stopped me from losing control.
I was handed a emergency list that of numbers that one of the fireman has pulled off a wall in the kitchen.
‘Can I see Pearl?’
‘No, thats not a good idea.’
‘No. Would you like us to make the call?’
I felt like I was falling backwards off a high building and I had no way of looking over my shoulder. ‘No I will’.
As I was dialing a man who I later knew to be an investigator questioned me. I cant remember what he asked me but I know that because the window washer found me like he did and because his memory of the order of things was different to mine – that some how made me innocent – and there was no foul play.
‘Greg. Hi. It’s Sam. There was a fire. Your gran…’ He hung up. I knew he would come.
‘Fran, there was a fire. Your mom… she is dead’. Fran said she would be right there. She just had to SHOWER FIRST. I remember feeling like I was going to be sick… and one of the fireman asked me why no one had invited me into their homes to comfort me. I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know.
The rest of the day was surreal. Greg’s face was one of hopeless anguish. Fran arrived in a fur coat and draped herself over a fireman. I sat for what must have been hours… just…. floating that part of my mind where scariness goes.
‘Do you have somewhere to go?’ A fireman asked me. ‘I can take you in to get a few things but I have to accompany you’.
‘Yes’. And I believed what I was saying when I said it. But I wasn’t thinking… so he went with me and I packed a satchel with nothing that made any sense… and I put my house keys in my coat pocket- like…. I was going to be able to come back.
The fireman stopped at my bedroom door… and the look on his face was … shocked. My bedroom was white. The wall. The carpet. all of it… and the rest of the house was BLACK. It was that moment that guilt rose in me like poison.
I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to vomit all the guilt out. I wanted to die.
I chose to be homeless and lived in a doorway at the exit of an underground tube station in London with two wino’s that – when I still had a job and money – I would buy them bagels and sit with them for a while. The man was an astrologer, and the woman was a florist. Or they were, before they lost what they had to a bottle of whiskey in a brown paper bag. I never did get their names, as it wasn’t important. Strangely, they didn’t ask mine either. They just opened up arms and let me sleep beside them.
That was ten years ago.
I am sorry Pearl. I love you. You left finger prints on me that make me human.