Delighted to be sharing the much requested follow up to Topper’s Shop.
Forget About Me
by Iseult Murphy
Eliza looked out the car window at the building Eve had recommended to her, while her mother fussed in the passenger seat beside her, trying to unbuckle her seatbelt. It didn’t look like the other home care shops she had been to since her mother’s dementia had worsened, buying an endless supply of items to make both their lives easier. The facade was painted black, even the large windows and the glass panels of the door, and in gold letters on the lintel, almost too small to see from the curb, were the words Topper’s Shop.
“You should take Bernie here.” Eve’s fingers had flown over her phone as she text Eliza the address. “I know you’re worried that the time has come to put her in a home, but you might find something here that will help delay the inevitable.”
Now, looking at the surrounding derelict buildings and rubbish strewn streets, Eliza wondered if she had become a victim of an elaborate hoax.
“When’s Mam coming to get me?”
Bernie stopped trying to free herself and looked forlornly out the window, her face scrunched into an expression that better suited a four-year-old than a woman almost twenty times that age.
I must be mad to have brought her here, Eliza thought. She rubbed her mother’s shoulder. “Grammy’s been dead for over two decades, Mum.”
Suspicion stole over Bernie’s face. Eliza got out of the car and ran around to the passenger door to help her mother out of the vehicle.
“Where’s the gift, Alice? I can’t find it, and we can’t go to the party without a present.” Bernie looked around the car and resisted Eliza’s efforts to unbuckle her.
She hated when her mother thought she was Aunt Alice. “It’s me, Mum, your daughter. Eliza.”
Bernie’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not my daughter.”
Eliza sighed. With difficulty, she got Bernie out of the car. Her mother leaned heavily on her as they shuffled to the shop, causing Eliza’s already painful back to scream in protest.
“I don’t like this place.” Bernie looked around at the street. “It smells. Does your father know you’ve brought me here?”
“Let’s go inside, we might find something useful.” Eliza tried to keep her voice bright. She was of one mind with her mother, and was already thinking up some choice words for Eve when she saw her that evening.
The interior of the shop was dimly lit, and contained none of the clinical plastic wrapped bundles that Eliza expected to see packing the shelves. Instead she saw skeins of brightly colored fabrics, wicker shoes with long noses that twisted back over the tongues, and rows of books. Egg shaped chairs with shadowed interiors lined the wall beside pastel scooters and push bikes. If the items hadn’t looked brand new, Eliza would have thought it was a second-hand shop filled with a hodgepodge of junk.
Bernie was entranced by the displays, her eyes sparkling as she stumbled down the nearest aisle, supporting herself on the matt black shelves and trailing her fingers over the enticing assortment of products.
“Come on, Mum, there’s nothing for us here.”
With difficulty, she dragged her mother’s attention away from the shelves and guided her towards the door. Her heart skipped when she saw a very tall, broad shouldered man with bright red hair standing between her and the exit. Where had be come from?
Eliza hadn’t seen the dimples in her mother’s cheeks in years.
“I am Topper, and welcome to my shop.” The giant swept his shovel sized hands to encompass the entire store. He smiled, and the genuine warmth in his expression made him look slightly less frightening. “How can I help you today?”
It annoyed Eliza that the shop keeper had cornered her in the empty shop. Now she’d feel obliged to buy some of his tat and, while she couldn’t see any price tags, she was sure it was expensive.
“I’m sorry, I’m sure your shop is lovely, but it’s not what I thought it would be.” Eliza tried to drag her mother around Topper to the door.
“Leaving so soon? That’s a shame. Why don’t you look around while you’re here? You might see something that you like.”
Eliza shook her head. Bernie seemed captivated by the man and refused to budge. Eliza’s smile grew strained on her face. She was too tired for this. Maybe it was time to put her mother in a care facility. She was still a young woman, it wasn’t too late to start her own family. What was the point of wasting away the last of her good years on a woman who didn’t even know who she was?
“No thank you,” Eliza said through gritted teeth.
“I see your mother has found something she likes.”
Was he referring to himself? Eliza let a scathing retort die on her lips when she noticed the notebook clutched in her mother’s hand. It was a large square, with stiff white cardboard covers bound with a silver spiral. Written in golden glitter in cursive across the front of the book was the word Life. When had she got her hands on that?
“Ok, Mum, put that back on the shelf. We’re leaving now.”
Bernie wouldn’t relinquish the notebook. She pressed it to her chest, her face bunching into a frown, her lower lip sticking out in a petulant pout that signaled tears were not far.
Eliza sighed. “All right, how much for the book?”
Topper reached out and brushed his thumb tenderly across Bernie’s cheek, making the elderly woman giggle and blush. “For her, nothing.”
Eliza tried to support her mother with one arm and pull her purse out of her handbag with the other. “I don’t need charity. I’d much rather pay, thank you very much.”
“You’ve paid enough already.” Topper produced a box of crayons, seemingly out of thin air, but Eliza was sure he had hidden it in his massive hand, and presented it to Bernie. “Don’t forget these.”
Bernie took the box and, to Eliza’s disgust, batted her eyelashes at him. “Thank you.”
Topper held the door open for them, and Bernie waved goodbye as Eliza hustled her back to the car. By the time Eliza ran around to the driver’s side of the car and got into her seat, Bernie had taken the crayons out of the box and started coloring furiously. The waxy smell of the crayons irritated the back of Eliza’s throat.
“Put that away Mum, we have to go home now.” Eliza reached for the notebook, but Bernie leaned away from her, still pushing the pigment across the paper with surprising ease for her arthritic fingers. Eliza thought the notebook was blank, but she saw black lines twirled across the white page, forming pictures of two women sitting in a car. It was a coloring book, but there was something familiar about the figures. Eliza blinked. They looked a lot like her and her mum.
With astonishing speed and accuracy, Bernie filled the blank spaces and turned the page. Another picture, this time a woman in a bed, looking sad, while two younger women ignored her as they chatted to each other. The picture on the opposite page showed an older and a younger woman crying in what looked like a doctor’s office.
Between blinks, the crayons seemed to melt onto the page. Bernie filled each picture with color before moving onto the next, almost too fast to comprehend, where black lines welled out of the blank paper to make new images. Line drawings of Bernie with her husband, Frank. Bernie, Frank and Eliza at their last Christmas together, laughing. Bernie and Frank on holiday together in Greece, embracing in silhouette before a golden sunset.
With each new page, the pictures of Bernie grew younger. Eliza rubbed her eyes, not sure what she was seeing, and afraid that she was experiencing a stroke. When she looked up again, the pictures showed a middle-aged Bernie smiling tenderly at a toddling Eliza, leaning on her mother’s hands for her first steps.
It happened so fast, Eliza had almost missed it, but her mother’s hands were no longer swollen and awkward. A much younger woman sat in the passenger seat, a version of Bernie that Eliza hadn’t seen in decades, her fingers flying even faster across the pages, biting her lip in concentration with the tip of her tongue protruding slightly from the corner of her mouth.
“This can’t be happening.” Eliza blinked again, and now her mother was a teenager, beautiful, flawless, a woman Eliza had only seen in photographs. She was filling the images so fast that Eliza couldn’t even register the pictures before the page was turned.
“Stop, Mum, stop this.” Eliza didn’t know if her mother could hear her. She seemed lost in the moment, blurry and shrinking as Eliza watched, frightening her that if she didn’t do something, her mother would soon disappear. She tried to grab the coloring book, but she wasn’t sure where it was going to be when she reached for it. She stuck out her hands to where she hoped her mother’s hands would be, took hold of something solid, and pulled it to her with all her strength. She felt caught in a vortex, the breath wrenched from her lungs, and just when she thought she was going to be swept up into the maelstrom, the book came loose and she fell back against the car door, breathless, the torn coloring book covers in each hand, the pages scattered around the car.
She looked at the passenger seat and saw a small child, four or five years old, peeping from the heavy woolen clothes that swamped her.
The child raised her hands from the gaping collar of the shirt that enveloped her, and dropped the nubs of the crayons, her fingers covered with a brightly colored waxy residue. “Where are we?”
Eliza leaned over and arranged the shirt so that it covered Bernie. She pulled her arms through the sleeves, rolling them up so that her hands were visible. The child looked up at her trustingly. Eliza kissed her mother’s smooth forehead.
“Can we go home?”
Eliza nodded and smiled. “Yes, let’s go home.”
The child was too small to travel safely in the passenger seat. Eliza settled her into the back seat of the car, then got into the driver’s seat and started the engine. She looked in the rear-view mirror and smiled at Bernie.
“Ok in the back?”
“Yes. Can we get ice cream on the way home, Mam?”
Eliza sighed as she pulled out into the flow of traffic. Seventy years younger, and she still didn’t know who she was.