flying monkeys

‘She’s just in the bathroom but she’ll be out in a minute. Please – take a seat.’
Gillian shows me through to the living room, then goes to check up on her sister.
The living room is a warm, well-appointed place, the entire length of one wall given over to books of every kind; on the wall opposite, a decadently carved, antique rococo mirror. A lemon tree is growing in a large, ceramic pot in the bay window, thriving in the lush afternoon sunshine, its foliage partially obscuring a crouching statue. At first I think it’s a reclaimed gargoyle, but the clothing of the creature is odd, too modern – something like a bell hop, with a pill-box hat and braided jacket. And then I realise what it is: a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz.
 ‘She’s just coming,’ says Gillian, suddenly appearing in the doorway. ‘You know the story, I suppose?’
‘I think so. Discharged from hospital yesterday, another fall this morning, struggling a little…’
‘I meant about the drinking.’
‘There was some mention of that.’
‘Maxine has an alcohol problem. Has done for a while. I think because she was in hospital overnight without access to any, she simply had to have something as soon as I picked her up.’
‘How much, roughly?’
‘Most of the bottle.’
‘Wine or spirits?’
‘Vodka. The detox programme is supposed to start in a day or two. But she can’t just stop, you see. She gets these terrible shakes and hallucinations.’
‘It must be hard.’
‘It’s been devastating. Completely devastating. She certainly can’t teach anymore.’
‘What did she teach?’
‘Religious education.’
The door opens and Maxine comes through.
‘Sorry about that!’ she says, rubbing her hands. She looks dreadful: a middle-aged woman preternaturally aged, stooped and sallow, with a haunted, hunted look. She takes up a seat at the far end of the sofa, and takes a sip from the Evian bottle Gillian hands her.
‘I was just telling Jim about the drinking,’ says Gillian.
‘Oh?’ says Maxine. She smiles, then raises the bottle . ‘Don’t worry,’ she says, screwing on the cap. ‘It’s water.’

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