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Do No Harm

Mum used to talk to the birds. She would stand at the back door and scold them for squabbling over the crumbs she had put out, or remind them to wash themselves thoroughly on their visits to the bird bath. Then she would giggle delightedly as they sprayed water around with their frantic fluttering. She loved them like children.

She had a penchant for bright colours and floaty tunics. Tie-dye was a prominent feature of her wardrobe, often by her own hand. She collected jewellery like a magpie, scouring car boot fairs and markets for clunky beaded bangles and sparkly garlands. Often she would wear half her collection all at once. She had long blonde hair, which she trimmed herself, normally slightly unevenly, and she wore it loose, allowing it to flow down her back or stream away in the wind.

Her house was cluttered. Every surface was laden with photo frames, some of whose pictures were so faded they could barely be seen. The walls were festooned with paintings and sketches, even the odd collage or two. Most of it was done by Mum. If she ran out of canvasses, she would just paint straight onto the wall. It was chaotic, confused, wonderful.

During prolonged heatwaves she would take a blanket and bed roll and sleep in the old tree house at the bottom of the garden. The tree house must have been thirty years old and, since Dad had died, had received little in the way of maintenance. It worried me silly.

She sang in public. She could. She had a beautiful voice that could find even the highest note. She never did it for effect. She sang because she was happy, or because something had inspired her. And she would dance, her skirts swirling around her legs, her paint splattered boots moving with all the speed and grace of ballet slippers. If she felt joy, she expressed it. That frightened some people, amused others. It seemed to me the most rational thing in the world to do.

In autumn she collected blackberries from the hedgerows, along with rosehips and sloes. But she would only ever take as many as she needed, insisting that there should always be plenty left for the birds and insects. She made jams and jellies, wine and gin. Something was always bubbling or brewing in the kitchen. The counter tops would be strewn with tubes, pots, homemade jelly stands, kilner jars and spilled sticky confections. The predominant smell was caramelised sugar, with a heady twist of whichever fruit was being prepared that day.

She even tried her hand at spinning, collecting little tufts of sheep's wool from the fields where she walked. I can picture her now, a multi-hued sprite, dancing, skipping, humming as she made her way through the fields, scrambling over stiles and fences. And bouncing against her bottom would be a low-hanging floppy bag, crammed with her bounty. I don't think she ever collected enough wool to make anything, but it pleased her enormously to try.

At Christmas time her house would be transformed into a magical grotto of bright twinkling lights. Arranged in golden bowls in the lounge and dining room would be sweets she had lovingly made: Turkish Delight, toffee, peppermint creams dipped in chocolate. The oven turned out an unending stream of mince pies, and mulled wine simmered on the stove. If there was an essence of Christmas, it resided in Mum's house, from the day she opened the first window on her advent calendar through to twelfth night.

While Dad was alive he protected her, shielded her against the cruel and lazy ignorance, the suspicion and even revulsion, that the rest of the world seemed to feel for her. Her childlike ways, her innocence, her refusal to bow to convention and be something less than she was, fostered an animosity among neighbours and strangers alike that went beyond rationale. Their distrust of her was unfathomable and, apparently, limitless. I understand it now. I understand their fear, their envy. But I cannot forgive it.

After Dad's death I tried my best to step into his shoes, but I lived a good hour away, had a family of my own, a demanding job, and a wife who, truth be told, never totally understood Mum's eccentricities. I visited two or three times a week, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough.

Like hungry predators sensing vulnerability in their prey, the miserable hags of her neighbourhood moved in for the kill. They collected 'evidence' over the months, noting in diaries each episode of 'abnormal behaviour', taking covert photographs of her dancing around the garden in her nightshirt, one even used a mobile phone to record her singing in the high street.

And then, with no word, no warning, they struck. They turned her over to the authorities. The presiding committee gave her case full consideration in a long and at times heated debate. What clinched it for these learned gentlemen and ladies was the video footage of her clambering on the roof in one of the long skirts she favoured. She was up there to replace a bracket on her aerial. She was actually amazingly adept at climbing, and was as surefooted as the most experienced roofer. Fixing the bracket represented no great challenge to her, but the committee didn't know that, didn't really want to hear it, could not possibly believe that a woman of her age might be capable of such an endeavour.

On January 9th she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. At least she got to have a last Christmas at home. She was carted forcibly away to a secure institution for her own safety. The neighbours lined the streets as the car took her away from her home, her paintings, her birds. They didn't cheer, they had at least retained a modicum of decency, but there were smiles and collective sighs of relief.

She lasted two months in the institution. She withered in front of my eyes, folding in on herself. The windows were so high that she couldn't even see the birds, let alone feed them, talk to them, scold them. There were no fields, no sheep, no twinkling lights, no hedgerow fruits to pick.

I don't know how long she would have lived had those frightened and ignorant people left her to her own devices, but I suspect I would still have been supping mulled wine through toffee entangled teeth at Christmas long into my retirement.

I've kept the house. I visit it two or three times a week. While I'm there I feed the birds and remind them to bathe properly and share their food. At Christmas time I carefully hang the lights and lay out the golden bowls. The essence has gone: I have no idea how to make toffee, or Turkish Delight. But the memory of that sweet, gentle soul who did no harm, ever, lives on.


© 2011 Kay Lawrence.

line Earl
18th October 2011

Pretty insightful. Thanks!


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