leading-string (noun): strings with which children used to be guided when learning to walk
They developed a system. Galina came up with it in those weeks after the last infection and those days, around Bill’s anniversary, when Mia didn’t rise from her chair.
‘Hen,’ Galina said, with that guttural noise that sounded like phlegm. ‘You have to eat, you have to move.’
She unfurled wool and cut it into lengths. One end was attached, with a small square of tape, to the wooden table beside Mia’s armchair. The other end led to the things she’d need through the day: the cling-filmed sandwich on the kitchen counter; the TV pages over on the windowsill; the saucer of pills on the folded-down dining table. The wool was colour-coded: red for practicalities, blue for entertainment.
‘I’m not senile,’ Mia protested.
‘Just a wee bit, lovely lady,’ Galina said, and the first part sounded so snipped and Glaswegian and the second so rounded and foreign, that Mia forgot her anger.
Her son, Robert, usually came in the afternoon. When he first saw the wool stretched hither-and-yon, he made a comment about James Bond and laser tripwire, but he soon came to use the system too – red wool to her dinner in the microwave, blue to her book and nightdress on the adjustable bed in the dining room. The wool never continued up the stairs; Mia’s legs weren’t in a fit state for steps, so he’d put dust-sheets over everything up there and they now thought of the house as a bungalow.
Galina always came a little after eight, in the morning, and helped Mia to the bathroom. They changed the dressings on her legs – there was always seepage through the night – then Galina ran the hoover through the downstairs while Mia ate a slice of toast and drank a mug of milky coffee. Galina spent ten minutes hanging the strings. Then she went off to see to the rest of her ‘lovely hens’ – she sometimes got mixed up – and Mia was left to unravel the wool of the next seven hours.
Robert arrived around four; after work and anxious to beat the traffic home. He worked in the IT department of a school and had never decided whether he should dress like the teachers or the kids. A shirt and tie would be paired with a zip-up hoody, jeans with formal shoes. Mia mentioned it daily.
By that time, Mia had usually followed all of Galina’s strings to their ends. Robert would stretch them to their new destinations and then set her up with a DVD and a single Highland Toffee. The sweety never changed, but the films varied wildly depending on what was closest to the sliding doors in Robert’s local library. Mia liked the type of film with jokes based on chaos and misunderstanding, but she tended to get ones with titles about wives or notebooks – and often ones with black-and-white scenes in concentration camps.
Halfway through her film, after Robert had left, Mia would go and heat her dinner. While it cooled, she changed into her nightdress. She carefully wound the lengths of wool and placed them into her pocket. She insisted that Robert buy her nightdresses with pockets.
When the streetlights came on, Mia raised herself from the armchair and turned off the film-credits. She twitched the curtains closed. Robert thought that the next part of her routine was going to bed with a book. He would have been horrified to know the truth.
Going upstairs took her an age. She shuffled up sideways, both hands on the bannister. Beneath her dressings, the scabbed skin on her legs cracked and ruptured, but she felt it only as warmth. The pain would come later. And, tomorrow, Galina would again despair at the inability of Mia’s skin to fuse, to knit, to heal.
At the top, Mia placed her forehead against the cool of the wall and waited for her breathing to slow. It was now that the pain crept in. She kept her eyes closed. Then, when she was ready, she opened her eyes and looked over to her bedroom. There was a cat’s cradle of blue and red wool pulled over every available surface; under the plastic sheeting and tight across the mid-air between dresser and bed. These lengths of wool, yard after yard, were the reason Galina had to keep replenishing the knitting basket.
Red was for Robert, blue for Galina. Long ago, she’d tied a length of blue to each of the rings in her jewellery box but she now remembered that there was also a bracelet in the second drawer of her dresser. It would look good on Galina’s slender wrist. And in the spare room, across the hall, was the framed lino-print that Bill had made her for their silver wedding anniversary. Robert should have that.
It wasn’t always as simple as trailing the wool out to the hallway where she’d written her instructions, in black felt-tip, halfway up the magnolia wall. Sometimes the paths – into the bathroom and the boxroom that still held Bill’s binders of sketches – meant that she needed to tie two or three lengths end-to-end. The reused squares of sellotape often didn’t stick either. When that happened, Mia took her square of toffee, wet it under the tap, and kneaded it until it formed a sticky putty.
She didn’t want the threads to run straight. The whole idea was that it would take the two of them some time. The red that led to the folder of deeds in the boxroom and the blue that was tied to the carriage clock in the spare room intersected behind the toilet cistern. The blue from one album of photographs, in the bedroom, was tangled with the red of the album that sat next to it, but the knots and snarls of it would have to be unpicked in the hallway. They would have to spend time, side-by-side, those two who usually arrived at different ends of the day.
After she’d finished laying the wool, Mia stood for a moment in the hallway. It was like standing in the middle of a loom. Threads ran towards her, away from her; disappeared under rugs, reappeared from behind the wardrobe. Each and every one of them ended on that magnolia wall, where small squares of sellotape and great globs of toffee stuck them next to the words, ‘Robert is red, Galina is blue’.
Every night, before she made her slow descent, Mia would finish the Valentine’s rhyme. ‘Time for grandkids, you two,’ she’d say. Or ‘Sit my ashes in the front pew’. She always said it just loud enough that her voice would carry through to the boxroom. And every night she thought she heard that cackle of laughter, that rustle of papers, that sound of her Bill scrapping his chair back and finally coming to bed.