Her grandmother was dead. The finality came like a hammer. As Emma stood there with her tea tray, staring at the husk that had contained a soul last night, a single emotion welled up in her. Pure raging anger.
The black notebook had an elastic tape attached to the back cover and designed to keep it closed, or for use as a bookmark. But this one was just wrapped around inside the cover. Emma stretched it out to close the book for the last time, and a small key fell from the inside pocket. She knew that key, even though she had never seen it before. Her grandmother’s box in the wardrobe had always been locked, and Emma had wondered but never pried. But today, grandma, there would be no more secrets.
Inside the box, she found banknotes, lots of them. They were bound into messy bunches with rubber bands. The notes were not new; this collection had taken decades. Under the bundles, was a piece of paper creased in half, with her own name on the outside.
A little more than an hour earlier, when Emma had brought the tray upstairs and had felt that sharp anger, she had tried to dilute her rage by imagining the dead woman’s spirit hovering behind her shoulder and reading her mind.
The imagine-a-spirit thing didn’t work. Emma wasn’t that kind of person. She forced her trembling hands to put the tray down on the side table. For the sake of the ghost that she had failed to conjure, Emma searched her memory for something positive. Nothing. The flames just grew. They produced two fruits. Pain and loss. Hard, solid, immovable, hot pain. And the loss of all those conversations she had needed, but now could not possibly have.
No spirit. No ghost. Nothing about this desiccated specimen was capable of understanding or caring now. The one-sided conversations that Emma’s anger had been fueling for three decades with some tiny possibility of closure, had now lost any flickering hope. All that lay here and now in the bed would never acknowledge or atone for the harm she had done to her granddaughter.
Grandma had known it was going on. She must have known. Or maybe she hadn’t. Pain: Sharp. Fucking. Empty. Solid. Pain. This old woman, the one in the dead body, had done nothing to prevent all that. Why had she done nothing? Emma had told herself a hundred times that things had been different two generations back. Morals were different; beliefs were different. Even so, while she was alive, reconciliation had been possible.
Not now though. Now a peaceful body lay in the bed to greet Emma with her tray of tea. Serene. How dare she be so fucking serene?
For a moment, Emma’s anger shook her like a puppet. Somehow she found herself with the hot teapot in her hands – about to smash it into her grandmother’s dead face. She saw the old woman’s brittle skull crushed and broken. But no. Decades of denial weren’t about to be shipwrecked on a moment of anger. Even in that flash, she knew that it wouldn’t do any good anyway. And then: What would her kids say? And the doctor? And the magistrate? Her pain stabbed her again and the pot fell. She watched as a puddle of hot tea soaked into the bedclothes. Then she surprised herself with a laugh of stupid relief. Wet warm yellow bed sheets – aren’t people supposed to piss themselves anyway when they die? At least this was something she could explain away. She had dropped a teapot when she discovered her grandmother had died.
Emma picked up the pot, replaced it on the tray, and pulled back the wet bedsheets. And so it was that she discovered her grandmother’s hand still clutching the notebook. The book she had guarded so closely in life. The one Emma had forbidden her own children to see – “No, you can’t look in great grandma’s notebook. You wouldn’t want anyone reading your diary would you?” And Emma was fair. She wouldn’t do herself what she denied to others.
The thought struck her that the world was different now. Maybe the old woman could still speak to her after all. Perhaps she could explain. She sat down in the bedside chair and opened it. The edges of the pages were wet from the tea, and many had been torn out. The ink had run, but all was still legible.
These notes were like the far side of the moon – she could not remember a single time her grandmother had shown any emotions like this in life. Here was a mire of regret and misery. Guilt. Apologies for the old woman’s inability to speak to her granddaughter. There was even mention of times when she had wanted to talk to Emma. And the torn pages had been . . . what? Were these where dread secrets had been described, and the pages destroyed because they were too dangerous to exist? Or had they been failed attempts, so timid that they had been rejected by their author?
And so it was almost an hour before Emma put the notebook down, her eyes still dry. Burning dry.
“That was pathetic, you old shit.” she whispered aloud. “It’s not enough. You wrote this for your selfish bloody self, not for me. It doesn’t help me. And it doesn’t let you off the hook.”
At last she wept. It was then that she decided to close the book forever and destroy it. It was then that she found the key, and the box, and the money. Twenty thousand! And under all the cash was that scrap of folded paper — grandmother’s last chance. Emma unfolded the note.
“My dear Emma. I suppose you will wonder why I am doing this. I can’t pay for what you have gone through or buy salvation for myself. The collection I will make in this box will be to mark my regret. I want to make it better – but I can’t. So this box will be my confessional. Use it for something good, my child. Your grandmother.”
She counted it again. Twenty. Bloody. Thousand. She hated it. She didn’t understand it or want to understand it. Her grandmother had used this filthy worthless paper as an excuse to avoid speaking to her. Money? What had the woman been thinking! She wanted to burn it, but of course she didn’t. Would all this money bring happiness? Certainly not to her.
A week later, Emma would receive an email thanking her for her generosity. The email would be from a charity she would choose because it was one that her grandmother had hated. But for now, she had other things to do. Emma picked up the phone to call the doctor.