Under a pewter grey sky I stand at the bottom of the lane, letting the churl of December wind claw at my face. Through the blur of smoky pearl the house is just about visible, its slate roof a dark, forbidding shadow against the dim light.
She will be there. Scathing and scolding, sending barbs of brittle poison into the air between us. Dad will dance his usual jig of embarrassment. A shuffle of brown corduroy and faded knitwear, he will already have been banished to his space in the corner of the kitchen. Like a naughty toddler he will scan my face for sympathy, but my expression will already have reshaped itself into the mask I wear when paying them a visit.
The curl of my fist as I knock on the door is met with silence. I am forced to knock again. She likes to keep me waiting. The keen edges of her disappointment in my failures have worn away to tolerance, but my yearly visits allow her to sharpen her taunts. Like long unused tools, she takes her recriminations out of their box and practises saying them aloud, savouring the flavour of bitterness as each word flies off her tongue.
“You came then?”
She has not properly opened the door before the question is asked, her voice a tinny croak, deceptive in its quiet. Behind the furred grime of the window, she has been watching and waiting.
“Dad in the kitchen?”
I try to keep my voice even, but I can hear the slight hesitation between words, the wariness that creeps in uninvited. There is no answer, so I head into the cobweb gloom of the corridor, repelled as always by the stale smell of damp, and the fustiness that will cling to my skin for days afterwards. Dad is blending into his space in the margins of the room, spectacles sellotaped at the bridge of his nose, tufts of grey hair curling unkempt behind his ears.
“Hannah, is that you?”
His voice has aged, crinkling like worn out scripture. He is too tired for this year’s test, for the annual trial she puts us through. He is ready to capitulate, to bend like a reed to her torment.
“Yes Dad, it’s me. How’re things?”
He glances towards the emptiness of the hallway, looking for the blur of her shadow before answering.
“The same. The same as always.”
He motions to a wooden chair, greasy and cracked which I pull from beneath the curve of the kitchen table. Sitting down strips me of my strength. I am thirty years younger, a girl of fifteen explaining away poor grades, a maths problem that evades me, a detention slip that sucks tentacle-like to the bottom of my school bag. The hand that grips my shoulder has fingers that claw into the pulpy flesh of my shoulder blade, my clavicle left decorated by long strips of blue. But now her withered hand is a mockery of past cruelty. As she passes my chair, she lets her hand reach for my shoulder, a gesture of habit. There is no strength behind her urge to bruise me, merely a sensation which has the power to burn my skin in spite of her weakness.
“Here you go, Love.”
Dad places a mug of black tea in front of me. He never forgets my intolerance to milk, always remembers to make my tea strong, in spite of the torture that coils itself around him. I smile as a take a sip, but the tea tastes bitter and is already cold. I place my mug back on the table and Dad’s small smile is full of sorrow.
I sense her glee that everyday rituals, cups of tea and tender offerings can be culled, but also her resentment that Dad’s smiles can be a salve to my wounds.. Her shadow lingers by my side before lurching towards the pantry. From within the wailing starts, low pitched at first, like a chorus of bees humming in the garden. It grows louder and higher until she appears in the doorway, her eyes a harrow of hatred. She fumbles towards me, fingers ready to pinch, but there is no substance behind her fragility. Instead, she drifts towards my father, whose body shudders as she passes.
“It’s best you go, Love,” he whispers. “There’s no telling what might happen now she’s riled. Easier for us both if you just slip away.”
“I can’t just leave you here, not again, not with her like this.”
He flicks my protests away and stands firm.
“I’ve lived my life. You must learn to live yours.”
Grabbing my coat and bag, he practically pushes me out of the cottage.
The path that takes me towards the station passes the local church. My visit home has been short and I decide to visit the churchyard, just to make sure… Through a tangle of brambles I find it. We had asked for the headstone to be placed away from other graves, unsure if death would be enough to stop the power of her poison from spreading. She was buried five years ago, yet our neglect of her grave has been long enough to cause an overgrowth of thistles and thorns, which only she can penetrate. My mother. The monster.
Lisa Tippings is a Welsh writer who is passionate about drawing attention to the lives of marginalised women through history. Her book on the suffrage movement in Wales will be published in January 2019.