by Moira Burgess
A one word title draws the reader to Moira Burgess’ short story and at first gives little away about its meaning. You need to read the whole story before its significance becomes clear: it explains the actions of our main character Marina, who instead of killing her own abusive and housebound mother transfers her anger to killing a replacement. The surrogate is a completely unwitting and innocent victim, killed it seems only because she is old and has a name similar to that of Marina’s mother.
The information is presented to the reader in a very subtle and effective way. The opening words are the revelation around which the whole story centres:
‘There’s someone, ’the old woman said, ‘who knows exactly what I do and when I do it.’
The old lady, it appears, is the victim of a stalker. On first reading it is not immediately obvious that the victim is in any real danger until the second last paragraph of the story but the clues are there from the very first sentences that Marina is the culprit:
…I said, looking concerned. I was really rather interested to hear what she’d say.
We are led to believe that this is the first face-to-face contact between the two: their first meeting. Certainly the old lady does not know whom she is talking to, but Marina, we later learn, does. When you look back at the dialogue after reading the story it is clear that there have been ambiguities and clues that the relationship between the two is not all that it seems. Hints that Marina is not ‘concerned’ for the right reasons are revealed in the way that she refers to the old lady, not in terms of endearment but as an ‘old bag of bones’. Our first hints that she feels contempt for the old lady are intermittent and almost lost in the rest of the dialogue, so that the reader hardly notices there is something wrong.
The story centres upon the dialogue between the two in the waiting room of their doctor’s surgery. They sit side-by-side and, when others go into their appointment, are left together. The old lady initiates the dialogue but Marina’s interest propels and leads the conversation quite deliberately to unnerve the old lady. By the end of their encounter in the surgery the old lady is shaking. Marina can see that she has gone as far as to cause her palpitations. She gets the old lady into this state by prompting information on how the stalker must have gotten her information:
‘What I would wonder about those phone calls, if I were you, is how the person knows your number.’
Marina herself wants to ‘tip the balance’, to keep in control and be empowered by invoking fear into the lady which renders her powerless. The idea of such a deliberate manipulation of a 79-year-old lady seems both odd and inexplicable but when we learn in the next page about Marina’s home circumstances and that she is the carer for her elderly and demanding mother, we begin to see how her attitude to this old lady might be explained, and why she might even be the stalker.
Marina is an interesting character. Her interview with the doctor gives us a little insight into her state of mind. His diagnosis is that she is suffering: ‘tension signs’. You can see that she is in control of the interview with him as well. When she complains: ‘I’m sorry to say I didn’t get the attention I deserve,’ this tells us is that she is looking for attention, perhaps for someone to notice her. She does not get what she wants, however, and leaves with more tranquilisers. It is within this interview that we hear a snippet of what her life is and where her anxiety comes from. She has plans when her mother dies to radically change her life: ‘When mother died and I moved into a flat of my own, I would call myself Jane.’
What makes the story work so well is that we do not see the whole picture: we have to piece it together. From the opening we know that she is over forty. In the doctor’s she reveals that her mother suffers from chronic angina and she cares for her. It is easy to see how a woman could feel under particular pressure from an overbearing 80-year-old mother, who demands attention and care ‘24-7’ and restricts her freedom.
We learn too that she was intelligent enough to go to University and that the burden of care began at a time in her life when she should have been moving out and setting up home. However, when her mother learned of Marina’s dangerous pursuit of hill walking, anxiety for her daughter’s safety brought on her first heart attack and Marina, the cause of the anxiety, had to go home to nurse her mother. Her mother, from that point, became dependant upon her, suppressing her and her development as an individual and adult.
Marina waits for the old lady to come out of the surgery so that she ‘might learn’ more. Does the reader already suspect an ulterior motive? The offer to walk her home might seem innocent enough to the old lady but the reader wonders why she pretended to ‘forget’ certain items in order to delay her departure from the shop. As she walks with the lady the dialogue disappears and we go inside Marina’s head and hear what Marina’s mother would say to her. It becomes clearer that the relationship between mother and daughter is not good and that the old woman is very demanding and hard on Marina. You also begin to see the inherent difficulties in being a full-time carer and having no freedom:
‘Marina is that you? You’ve been nearly an hour! Where have you been?’
As the walk becomes uncomfortable for the old lady, the sense that something is not quite right increases. Marina, lost in her thoughts about her mother and dream of freedom and escape, has marched the old lady up the hill. The narration at this point is mixed between the voice of Marina and the mother: they almost merge and the syntax becomes broken and jarred.
The conclusion of the story is extremely clever: it is understated, subtle and yet powerful too. Moira Burgess switches from the narration to a description of backdrop- the narrator deliberately takes a step back and therefore the reader is lulled into a false sense of security. The old lady arrives at her house and Marina carries the shopping down into the basement flat for her:
It only took one push, and as her head struck the corner of the sink there was one hard thud.’
She kills the old lady in that push and leaves her there to return to mother. It is a deliberate action and the final sentence shows that the action is calculated and cold-blooded. The story ends:
I closed the door firmly so that the lock clicked, and went back home to mother.
The final sentence is so understated it is a complete shock to the reader. On first reading there are not many truly surprising stories that defy being foretold by a clever readership – this however does. The final words are chilling, concise and offer an abrupt closure that adds to the impact of the shock. On reflection and further reading, it is clearly an inevitable ending because all the clues were there all along (although the ambiguity is not perceived on first reading).
The use throughout of first person narration gives you her insight but in a detached way – the detachment fits the requirement that the murderer has to be unhinged mentally. Usually 1st person narration reveals a great deal about the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, and you get the whole story – here Moira Burgess is deliberately feeding us just what we need to know to keep the tension of the story going and her choice of character – a respectable, educated, gentle, well-mannered, middle aged woman – the least likely murderer, is deliberately designed to mislead us. But to succeed in a plan of this kind requires a character such as this, one with a very dark side.