Detta climbed the stairs for the fifth time. She moved slowly, partly because she did not want to spill the bowl of soup she was trying to balance on a tray, but mainly because her aching limbs were beginning to rebel against the repetitive, upward struggle. Her ribs strained painfully above the expanse of her pregnant stomach, for Detta was due her third child any day soon.
She reached her mother’s bedroom with some trepidation and held her breath, her heart pounding as she turned the brass door handle.
“Mammy,” she called softly. “Are you awake?”
The small cluttered room was shrouded in darkness, and that terrible silence that she feared so much prevailed. Detta stood still in the open doorway, unable to move a single muscle until the fragile silhouette of the woman in the bed shifted slightly. This simple action was enough to allay for now that awful dread that she carried in her heart each day now; the fear of coming into this room and not getting any response at all.
“I’m pulling back the curtains now, Mam,” she said gently. “Don’t open your eyes yet.”
Outside the window, a gentle breeze was blowing, and in the garden below, a cherry blossom tree flowered in a profusion of delicate pink blooms, luscious branches extending upwards to tap a stealthy rhythm against the clear glass pane of the bedroom window. Detta’s two sons, aged just two and three years, played happily on the soft green lawn below, their carefree laughter both soothing and infectious. Drawn to their exuberance, Detta opened the window and let the fresh, bracing air come rushing in to softly caress her skin; to fill her tired lungs. The sound of the children’s merry-making carried on and up to reach the old lady’s ears and she propelled herself from the shadowy trance that had long ago replaced her normal sleep, the heaviness lifting from Detta’s heart for a moment as her mother smiled at her.
“Ah now, that’s a beautiful sound to wake up to,” her Mam sighed weakly. “What time is it pet?”
Detta swallowed hard at the sound of her mother’s voice. Small and hushed, it was not the tone that she had grown up listening to. Gone was the firm, no-nonsense pitch that could sometimes put the fear of God into her, and at others, win her everlasting respect. Like the woman herself, that voice had once been strong and in control. Now it was neither.
A tiny bundle of flesh and bones, her mother’s hunched shoulders were wrapped snugly in a crocheted bed-jacket, her thin white hair limp and dull against the freshly laundered pillowcases. Even the muted sunlight that streamed delicately through the lace curtains could not soften the stark appearance of her blanched skin.
“It’s time to eat, Mammy,” Detta said brightly. “I made you some soup, carrot and ginger, and I let it cool, the way you like it.” She padded the bedside chair with a cushion to support her back and sat close to her mother, breaking up the bread into bite-size pieces to drop into the warm soup.
“You’re a good daughter, Detta,” her mother whispered, “The best for putting up with me the way you do.” The old woman paused at the exertion of even a simple sentence when trying to sit up. “It’ll be all done soon pet, trouble over, and the house is yours.” She paused again as Detta propped her up with pillows. “I suppose they’ll all want a piece of it, but you’re here, now. Sell it if you want.”
“Mammy, please don’t start all that again!” Detta took a deep breath, calming down her rising panic and trying so hard not to communicate the sudden irritation that crept over her. “You’re no trouble to me and I don’t want to hear about the house.” She avoided her mother’s searching gaze. “Now come on, grab my arms.” she said firmly, but with tenderness as she lifted her mother further up into a sitting position and placed a towel around her chest and shoulders to catch the drops of soup that she knew her mother would not be able to hold in her mouth. Her movements were quick and methodical, for Detta had been carrying out this routine for three months now.
At the onset of her mother’s illness, the prospect of caring for her had not posed any major concerns for Detta. Looking after her was second nature to her, a natural extension of the love and affection that she lavished on her two small sons. Her mother’s vehement wish was that she would not be allowed to die in an impersonal, sanitised hospital, but with peace and dignity in her own home. Her doctors had voiced no objections and had readily admitted that they could do no more for her now; except to dose her with painkilling injections that sometimes left her delirious.
But now, with the drugs becoming less effective day by day, and with Detta forced to watch her mother suffer such awful pain, she had become overwhelmed, burdened by it all, the final stage of her life now enveloped by a cruel and relentless illness. Detta was feeling the strain.
How she loved her mother, and yet, in the last few weeks, she had sometimes had to bite her tongue for fear of venting her growing feelings of frustration on the one person who did not deserve it; the one person who needed her most.
It wasn’t fair, is just wasn’t. This ought to be a wonderful time for them all; a time of looking forward to the imminent birth of her child. Detta ought to be basking in the elated feelings of an expectant mother; should be blossoming in health and happiness.
Instead, she was constantly tired, depressed and lacking in any semblance of optimism, and couldn’t wait to escape from this room which once filled her with happy memories. Mammy’s bedroom, with the wallpaper pattern of yellow and pink roses that she used to find so comforting, yet now wanted to rip from the walls, and that candlewick bedspread, how she relished the thought of burning it now, just as soon as her Mammy…
Detta’s anguish was compounded by the fact that she knew why her mother was deliberately clinging to her life in this tortured way, even when all the odds were stacked against her survival. And Detta felt powerless to do anything about it. “I can’t pass on until I see your baby born,” her mother told her every new day that she had the strength to open her eyes, “And it will be a girl this time – I just know it will, a doll for my Detta, and I will hold her in my arms before I go.”
The strength of conviction in those trusting eyes melted Detta’s heart every single time. She had even begun to hope that her baby would come early and that it would be a girl. At least then, her mammy would have no reason to cling on in this agonising way. But the baby had not come early, though its restlessness and kicking made Detta wonder if her unborn child was somehow aware of the turmoil and mounting urgency that surrounded its imminent birth.
“The sun is going down,” she sighed as she watched through the window, a soft amber haze disappearing behind shredded pearly clouds to darken the bedroom. “Will I draw the curtains now?” She didn’t wait for a reply as she wearily pulled the heavy drapes together and in the process, cloaked the little room in darkness.
“Can I have the radio on?” her mother asked, her voice so soft it was barely audible. Detta switched on the old-fashioned Bush radio that her mother kept on the mahogany bedside locker. She always liked to listen to music with her eyes closed, but Detta suspected now that this was her mother’s way of being with her very private thoughts, so trapped in her present and frightening world; so trapped inside these four walls; so trapped in a useless shell of a body that no longer functioned for her. Detta wanted to cry now, but could not. Pain welled up inside her at the thought of the seventy-three year-old woman visualising her own death.
Detta slumped into the chair beside her with a nagging ache in the small of her back. She desperately wanted to soak in a nice warm bath and then simply go to bed, but it would be another hour or two before her mother drifted off to sleep, and she would have to sit with her until then.
She used this time of the evening to read the newspaper by dim lamplight while her husband put the boys to bed. Sometimes, she read a paragraph or chose an item of interest that she thought her mother might like to listen to, but mostly, she read in silence. She was so grateful for that radio now, for it helped to drown out that hollow, rattling sound that emanated from her mother’s chest as she tried to keep her breathing under control. And how well she managed it, except for when the pain became so unbearable that she could not contain herself and moaned, never loudly, and always with such dignity and bravery that Detta would have to clench her teeth and wilfully stop her hands from moving up to cover her eyes and ears to drown it all out.
In the dim hue of the bedside lamp, she noticed that her mother was crying and her heart swelled as she took her mother’s hand. “It’s all right, Mammy, it’s all right.” Detta tried desperately to lift the tone of her voice. “Forgot to tell you what the boys were getting up to yesterday, wait until you hear this…“ She had barely begun to speak when the pains started. Detta gasped at the sharpness of each one.
“Detta – oh dear – Detta!” she heard her mother cry as she slumped to the floor on her knees, holding her sides. “Is it time now? Please God, let it be so!”
While Detta echoed her mother’s wish, she suddenly felt very afraid. She wanted this baby so badly, ached to hold it in her arms. And yet, by the very fact of this new life beginning, another would surely end. And Detta realised in an instant that she was not ready to say goodbye.
Caroline Farrell is a writer and filmmaker from Dublin, Ireland. ARKYNE, STORY OF A VAMPIRE is her first novel. She has also written several feature length and short screenplays and has co-produced two short films of her work, ADAM  and the multi-award winning IN RIBBONS . She is currently working on her second novel. Caroline is a member of the Irish Writers Guild and the Irish Film and Television Academy.