“I’m going to kill you, old woman.”
The old woman smiled. She could see her reflection in the ornate, gold-framed mirror that hung above the mantelpiece. She saw herself nod.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure you will.”
She looked again at her reflection. She saw her short greying hair and the frill of crinkles around her lipless mouth. Age had leached the colour from her irises, which were now the same dull grey as her thinning hair. Her eyelashes were almost hairless, as were her eyebrows, although there were sprouts of silver on her chin and upper lip. She reached up to touch her face. Her hand was small and bony and she could see the blotches and stains that covered its crepe-paper skin. She didn’t recognise the hand as her own. She watched as a long, curved and unpainted fingernail traced a line that ran from her nose down to her chin and beyond. A cockleshell of wrinkles appeared beside her eyes as she smiled and shook her head in wonder.
The woman turned away from the mirror. She rested her hand on the cold tile of the mantelpiece, steadying herself. The bones of her hips ground against each other, sending sharp stabs of pain all around her body and and making her movements jointed, like a badly made puppet. She listed alternately left and right as she turned, lifting each foot and placing it back down with a heavy, painful stamp as she made her way to the high-backed chair facing the fire. She turned and grasped the bare wooden ends of the the chair arms and lowered herself on to the many-cushioned seat, falling into it as her knees failed. The effort left her gasping for a few minutes as she struggled to get her breath back. She listened to the soft ticking of the wall clock and tried to get her breathing and her heartbeat into a matching rhythm.
The face in the mirror was a daily surprise. Inside, where she really lived, she was still a young woman, a girl. She could still sing the old songs, could still hold a conversation, still had things that she wanted to do. She could do sums in her head faster than the young people she knew, even with their fancy gadgets. The old girl in the mirror, the bent and bowed body she saw, that wasn’t her. That was just wrapping that had got a bit frayed around the edges. She wasn’t bitter though. That was how things were, you couldn’t change them. It was just a buggeration. You just had to get on with it.
This was more than a buggeration, though.
“Are you ready?”
She sighed. “Ready for what?” she said. The high-pitched wheeze of her voice found no resonance in the cluttered and curtained room. It hardly seemed to get any further than her lips. “Ready to die? Of course I am! Good and ready! Get on with it.”
An unbearable pain suddenly burst inside her, as if someone had taken a jagged knife and dragged it in a ragged line across her belly. Her lips peeled back from her teeth and a low moan rose up from deep inside her. She placed both hands on her stomach and looked down. Her abdomen pushed out against the constraints of the loose fitting skirt she wore, parting the thick-knit cardigan like a curtain. The pain came again, wave after wave of it, hurt and pause, hurt and pause, as if her body was being subject to vicious torture.
“Bastard,” she said. “You bastard.”
She leaned her head back into the chair and fought against the faintness that the waves of pain brought on. She dragged air in through her dentures and blew it back out, her cheeks bulging with each expulsion. Her hands moved from her abdomen to the skin-polished wooden chair arms and she gripped them as if they would save her life. The papery skin on her hands tightened and became shiny until they seemed to be carved from some exotic blue-veined marble. After a few moments the pain eased and she began to regain control of her breathing.
She looked down at the bulge of her belly.
“Why do you need to do that?” she said.
“You know what,” she said. “The pain. What does that get you? What’s that for?”
“It’s what I do.”
“That’s no answer,” she said. She was breathing steadily now, in control again. “No answer at all. There has to be a reason for something like that. There has to be a reason for pain.”
She closed her eyes and thought.
“Yes,” she said. “There is a reason.”
“What’s that, then?”
“It’s so you know you’re alive,” said the old woman. “Pain is the price we pay for being alive. Sad pain and love pain and your kind of pain, hurt pain, they all tell us we’re alive.”
There was silence. In the quiet, she thought about her pain.
“Can you feel anything?’
“No,” she said. She noticed the clock had stopped.