Thu | Mar 22, 2018

Scented trouble

Published:Sunday | April 24, 2016 | 12:00 AMDitta Sylvester

Katherine wanted to go. Needed to go and badly. She squeezed her legs together and the car leaped forward. Geez!

Finally, home. There it was, the red brick house at the end of the drive. She slammed the brakes on and the car screeched to a halt. Flying her door open, she ran up the steps, through the front door and into the powder room. She had made it. Whew!

Serene, expectant, she relaxed and waited for the soothing scents of soaps and potpourri to caress her. The bathrooms in this house were always beautifully kept. Mom had seen to that, even before the family could afford a helper.

Kathy's eyelids flew open and she frowned. A foreign scent? She sniffed again, deeper this time. How the hell did this ugly, putrid scent find its way into this house? How upsetting. Like finding a mangy mongrel among fine purebreds.

Vaguely, she could remember having once encountered this smell. What an unpleasant surprise! Was Miss Bertha beginning to slacken off on her cleaning? Dismissing that sweet old lady was the last thing ...


"I'm in the bathroom, Mom."

"I knew I heard you come in," Margaret said.

"With you in a minute, okay?"

"Of course, Dear. I'll be in the kitchen."

Minutes later, Kathy sat facing her mother across the kitchen table. She had replaced her pants suit with shorts and a T-shirt. "Do I smell curry goat?"


Margaret Sutherland smiled. "Yes, you do."

She was a dark-skinned woman of 58 whose pretty, sensitive face was an older version of her daughter's. But while Margaret was of slender build, Kathy was voluptuous.

"I know you like your curry, Kath."

"Thanks, Mom."

As Margaret deftly assembled and prepared the spices for the pot, Kathy studied her. Mom did not look good. But she knew that if she broached the subject, her mother would blame it all on Charles' death.

The tragic passing of Charles Sutherland had taken its toll on them all - Margaret, Kathy and her brother, Ron. Charles the strong, Charles the invincible soldier - with his unassuming style, corny jokes, and a voice which reminded Kathy of babbling brooks and the touch of fleece. On his way from a football match some miles out of Grantham, he had lost his life when his car collided with a drunk driver's.

Time did not stop with her father's passing as Kathy had half-expected. Life quickly resumed its normal pace and even Mom had become much like her old self again.

That is, up until a month or two ago when Kathy began to notice a steady decline in her mother's looks. Margaret kept losing weight and the lines in her face seemed to deepen more every day.

"So how was your day?" Margaret asked, her attention focused on what she was doing.

"The usual. How was yours?"

"Good. I managed to do a little gardening earlier."

"So that is why you look so tired."

Margaret paused and stared at her daughter. "Don't start, Kathy."

"Start what, Mom?"

"Don't start with your mothering now. Stop trying to tell me I am sick."

"But I didn't. You do look tired."

"And you never get tired, I suppose?"

"Of course I do. It was a mad house in the office today. Lost files, clients complaining, you wouldn't believe it! The minute I finish eating, I am going straight to bed. Everybody gets tired, Mom."

Margaret smiled. "I know dear. I know you are just looking out for your old mom."

"Who says you are old?"

Margaret giggled. "Ron called today, Kathy."

"Yeah? What about?"

"Your sister-in-law is pregnant."

"Vicky? What!"

"Yup. Finally I am going to have a grandchild."

"You don't say! Are they planning to visit anytime soon?'"

"Yes, Ron. But he has to get time off from work."


Kathy fully shared Margaret's excitement. Right now, though, she was much more interested in sitting down with her brother to discuss their mother's health.

"And when will you be giving me a grandchild, young lady?" Margaret teased. "Full time you got married."

"Oh, Mom!"

"You are not getting any younger, you know."

"Talking about old age, did Miss Bertha come in to clean this week?"

"Changing the subject as usual, eh? But, yes. Miss Bertha was here this morning. Why?"

"Really? Did she clean the bathrooms? All three?"

"Yes, Kathy. Is there a problem? Bertha always does a thorough job. You know that."

"She didn't today," Kathy said firmly. "Not that bathroom in the hall."

"What are you talking about?"

"The powder room, Mom. You called out to me when I was in there, remember?"

"Of course, I remember. And let me repeat slowly: Bertha cleaned all three bathrooms today." Margaret's tone was laced with sarcasm. "Did you find a dead body inside there, my dear?"

n Ditta Sylvester is the author of "Puss Food and other Jamaican stories" and "Shameful Shadows" published by LMH Publishing.

"Close," Kathy shot back. "The smell of that place was worse than a morgue."

Margaret stood stiff, motionless, her face a portrait of pain. The glare in her eyes had become a hollow, blind stare as she peered into her own soul.

Kathy watched, perplexed. Her mother looked dazed, lost, crushed even. "Did anyone visit you today, Mom? Did a stranger use that bathroom before I came in?"

The fire frolicked bright and blue. Steam gushed, warm and playful up and over the pot while the comforting smell of spicy food swirled sweetly around the kitchen. The pendulum of the great clock swung quiet, constant, unwavering and the painful silence lengthened.

Each woman's eyes bored into that of the other as they faced each other tense, frozen, fear of the unsaid tying both their tongues. Margaret eventually managed to look away, a bitter smile twisting her lips.

"It was no stranger, Kathy," she said brokenly. "I used that bathroom before you came in."


Plagued by guilt and worry, Kathy barely slept

that night. She woke late that Thursday morning, quickly showered and dressed and went in search of her mother. Margaret was nowhere in sight. It was unlike her to be still in bed.

Kathy knocked on her mother's door. "Mom? Are you awake.?"

"You still here, Kathy?"

"Morning, Mom. I woke up late. May I come in?"

"But you are already late, dear. Don't bother. I'll see you when you get home."

Kathy was disappointed. "You sure you are okay, Mom?"

"Of course I am! Don't fuss, Kathy."

Margaret's was clearly becoming irritable. Kathy wanted - needed to look into her mother's face, if only to ensure that the unpleasantness of last night was really over. But she decided not to push it.

"Later then, Mom. Take care. I'll call you."

"Bye, Kath."

Kathy hurried away.

"You don't look yourself today, Miss Sutherland," Collins remarked, as she exited the elevator.

Collins was the middle-aged doorman who doubled as messenger when the work load got really heavy. A tall overweight mountain of a man, his manner was mild yet engaging.

Kathy forced a smile. "Tough night, Mr. Collins."

"Yeah, girl!" Mistaking her meanly, Collins snorted lewdly, exposing big, brown teeth. "You too bad!"

Kathy eyed him, her expression cold.

"Your boss is out, by the way," Collins said, peering at his watch. "He left about ... almost an hour ago."

Kathy nodded stiffly. At least she would be spared having to explain her lateness. She could feel the door man ogling her rear as she headed for her office.

The day turned out better than she had dared to hope. Her mind frequently wandered to her mother but those lapses were brief and she was able to focus well enough to accomplish the tasks at hand.

It was almost 2:30 when her phone rang.



"Mom! What's up? Are you okay?"

"I am at the hospital."

"What! Why? What happened?"

"Now don't get excited. I simply came to Dr. Hamilton for a check-up."

"Great. Buy why didn't you tell me? I would have taken you."

"Not necessary. I called a cab. I need something, though."

"What, Mom?"

"John Hamilton says he needs to run some tests on me. I need to stay overnight for that, so-"


"Yes, and stop worrying. I want you to bring me a few things - a nightie, bed slippers, and the like."

Silence. Why the urgency? Kathy was thinking. Why do these tests have to be done now? What could be wrong with Mom?

"Kathy, I can hear you worrying. Cut it out. You hear me? If I am really sick - and I say 'if'. If I am ill I am going to need your strength to get me through it."

Kathy's throat felt tight.


She cleared her throat and swallowed. "Yes ... yes, Mom. I'm fine. I'll leave now to pick up your things at the house."

"But it's not even three o'clock yet and you must have been late this morning."

"I am coming, Mom. Right now."

"Thanks, Kath."

She cleared her desk, grabbed her handbag and told the boss she had an emergency. She was gone before he could decide whether or not to object.

Collins leered at her as she approached. Kathy stared him down and his eyes dipped to the floor. They both stood stiffly silent till the empty elevator jerked to a halt and Kathy got in. The doors were about to close when Collins looked up quickly, gave her a naughty wink and waddled hurriedly away, his paunch jiggling.

The door closed and Kathy burst out laughing.

At exactly five past four, she drove into the parking lot of the Grantham County Hospital. She found her mother was in the waiting room, Dr Hamilton beside her.

"Kathrine!" The doctor's gaunt face lit up as he extended his hand. His arm, like the rest of him, was lean and hairy. "How long has it been?"

"Too long," Kathy said, as she took his hand.

"Twenty-seven years to be exact," Margaret chimed in.

"Eh?" The doctor looked at her and back at Kathy. "What's your mother talking about?"

"You delivered my daughter, John," Margaret said. "Or have you forgotten?"

The doctor thumped his head. "Ooh! And that was 27 years ago? Impossible!"

The women tittered.

"I am an old, old toad!" he chided himself. "No wonder my memory is gone. How is Ron, by the way?"

"He is fine," Margaret responded.

"I delivered him too, Kathy," Dr Hamilton said proudly. "Five years before you, at the start of my first year in Grantham." He paused, reflecting. "But enough about me. Your mom told you about her ... situation, Kathy?"

"Mom says you want her to do some tests. Immediately. Is something wrong?"

"We won't know till the test results have returned. And I'd like to have her around for a day or two. Just for observation."

"Sounds serious," Kathy said.

"Don't jump to conclusions," Margaret warned.

"I am more than your family doctor," the doctor said brightly. "Charles was my lifelong friend. I attended his wedding, delivered his children, carried his cas-"

Dr Hamilton caught himself. His mouth fell open and he stared anxiously at Margaret.

"Relax, John," Margaret giggled. "You will not be carrying my casket any time soon. You will be the one to die if you don't cure me of this sickness! Right, Kathy?"

The doctor was grateful for her levity. Kathy was frightened.

Night had fallen when Kathy eventually left the

hospital. Under the nurse's direction, she had installed her mother on ward eight at the northern end of the Grantham County Hospital.

She had kissed Margaret goodnight, promised to inform Ron and was on her way to her car when somebody in a wheelchair called out to her:

"Can you help me get back inside, Miss?"

The young woman was petite, of brownish complexion with a wistful expression on her elf-like face.

Kathy walked over to her. "Of course. Where do we want to go?"

"To the gynaecology ward, please." She smiled as Kathy took hold of the chair and began to push.

"I am Kathy. What's your name?"

"Eve. Like in the Bible."

"Well hello, Eve like in the Bible. You seem to have strayed far from your bed."

"Yes. Sorry. I was so depressed. Turn left here, please."

"Sure. No need to be sorry, Eve, We'll get there."

"I have cancer," Eve informed her. "Cervical cancer."

"Oh dear! I am so sorry. Is your treatment working?"

"Kinda but I am past stage three and ... ."

Kathy made an unintelligible sound. What does one say in a situation like this? 'Sorry' sounded so inadequate.

"Here we are," Eve said as a big blue door came into view. "Thank you, Kathy. You are so kind."

"Hardly. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Well ... " Eve hesitated.

"Speak up," Kathy urged. "Wouldn't you help me if I were sick?"

"Can you take me to the bathroom, please?"

"Of course."

So she helped Eve to the bathroom and back into bed.

Now, dressed in a lacy little nightie, her hair in curlers, Kathy stood gazing at herself in the mirror. She was trying without much success to push thoughts of her mother and Eve out of her mind. Eve was not much older than herself, mid-30s at most. Would that girl even live to see 40? And Mom ... dear God, "Mom!"

Tears streamed down her face. For she now knew what was making her mother sick. She had identified the smell. The scent emanating from Eve was the same as that which lay on Mama Pearl, a former neighbour of theirs - the scent of yesterday's powder room.

When Kathy was 12, Margaret had taken her to visit their neighbour.

What's wrong with Mama Pearl?" she asked her mother on their way back home.

"Cancer, Kath," Margaret shook her head sadly. "You learnt about the cervix at school?"

Kathy nodded. "That's where she has the cancer?"

"Yes, dear."

"That's why she smells like that?"


Mama Pearl died less than a fortnight later.

And now Mom. A woman who so loved sweetness and beauty. Now Mom herself wore that scent, a prelude to death and doom.

"Not fair!" Sobbing, Kathy shouted into the stillness. "Not my mom..."She groaned, hugging herself, as the sobs wracked her body. If only Daddy were here!

Suddenly she leaned forward and, in one angry, fluid motion, sent the articles on her dresser, flying and tumbling through the air.

"Noooo!" Diving wildly after her treasured things, she grabbed and splattered them madly against the wall. "Not my mother," Kathy wailed. "Noooo!"

Shattered glass, debris, and cream littered the carpet. The sheer, white curtains fluttered merrily at the windows, heedless of Kathy's tirade.

Eventually, spent and dishevelled, she sat down on her bed and gazed at the mess she had made. Somehow, it gave her a strange sense of peace. The healing properties of madness? she wondered vaguely.

Awkwardly, she wiped her face with the back of her hands. She made her way into the bathroom, washed her face and towelled it dry. Then she crawled into bed and tightly hugged her pillow.

As the minutes went by, Kathy's worries returned full-force. She closed her eyes tightly, whispered a prayer and pulled the comforter closer.

The fragrance of spilt lotions and perfumes began to sooth her senses, lolling her to sleep.

It was months later and a Friday morning. On the crisp, clean air, the flowery essences of Margaret's garden mingled with the steamy smell of cooking. Kathy was on special leave and Miss Bertha was in the house.

"Morning, Miss Kath," she greeted Kathy, bright eyes shining in her craggy little face. "You slept okay?"

Kathy yawned. "Hi Miss Bertha. Yes, I slept quite well, thanks." She perched herself on the stool next to the counter. "Anything to eat?"

"Coming right up."

Slightly stooped, Miss Bertha continued preparing breakfast, her veined hands moving with practised ease. Her head was tied and a frilly apron circled her middle.

"How is Miss Margaret doing?" she asked Kathy.

"Fairly well, under the circumstances. The surgery went okay but the chemo and radiation are very hard on her."

"Your Mom is a strong lady. We must hope for the best."

"That's true."

"Now eat up." The elderly woman placed a tray in front of Kathy. "You have to keep strong."

Kathy dug into the food. The toast was light brown and perfect; the eggs - an enticing mass of yellow and white dotted with black pepper and sprinkles of cheese. She tasted her coffee and smiled. "Thanks, Miss Bertha. This is great."

"Glad you like it. Your brother was leaving as I came in this morning."

Kathy nodded, her mouth full. Ron had taken up living between his own home and this house, since his mother had been in hospital and Kathy was grateful. She had almost finished eating when Miss Bertha brought in the mail.

More bills. It was frightening. Charles had left his wife well provided for but treating cancer was expensive and despite financial input from Ron and Kathy, the bills were beginning to pile up. The next logical move was to seek a loan using this house as collateral.

Like Ron and her mother, Kathy hated the idea. What if they lost the house?

"I plan to fix up this house real special, Miss Kathy."

"Eh? Oh. But what for, Miss Bertha?"

The old lady grinned. "For your mom's home-coming of course. Guess that will be very soon now, right?"

Kathy gripped her cup and gulped cold coffee.

It was near midday when Dr Hamilton left the maternity ward. Outside, the sun was hot and the AC unit laboured tiredly.

Vicky's room was cool and clinical with a light scent of talcum powder. Ron, slim built like his mother but with his father's sharp features, sat at the edge of her bed. Fondly he watched as his mom and sister coo over his newborn son.

"What's his name?' Margaret asked.

"Charles Ronald Sutherland," he informed them.

Kathy chirped with delight and tear rolled down Margaret's cheek.

"We have so much to be thankful for," Kathy observed. "We are almost out of debt, we have a brand new Charley and Mom has beaten the odds and recovered. What more can we ask for?"

"I ask for a new wig," Margaret quipped.

"But you look just fine," Vicky said. "From head to toe. Even better than before you got sick, as Ron and I were saying."

"And we could go shopping for a new wig Saturday," Kathy suggested.

"Thanks, Vicky, but no thanks, Kath. My own hair is fast growing back anyway. Thanks to you all for your support through this difficult time. But there is something that I must say and please don't fight me on this."

"Sounds ominous," Kathy muttered.

"Though I feel perfectly well now," Margaret continued, "there is still a chance that the cancer will return. If it does return, I am not going to fight it again. I have had a good life, I have seen my grandchild and I am satisfied."

The room went quiet. Like Margaret had dropped a bomb.

Ron was the first to speak: "You can't mean that, Mom."

"You fought it before and won," Vicky argued. "So why not again?"

Kathy just stared.

Margaret sighed. "I guess it's natural for you all to react like that, but look at things from my standpoint. It was a long, expensive fight and I am tired now. I just want-"

"Have you been feeling ill again?" Kathy demanded.

. "No, Kathy, I haven't. It's just that..." Margaret hesitated. "Having seen your Charley, Ron, I am ready to go to mine."

"Nonsense!" snapped Ron. "Mom, you are not thinking straight. Shouldn't little Charley have even one grandparent?"

"He'll have Vicky's parents," Margaret said doggedly. "And again, the cancer may never return."

"So why bring it up at all?" Kathy asked.

"Because I want you to be prepared, in case it does."

The room was uncomfortably still as Margaret placed the baby back into his mother's arms. She kissed him and looked at Kathy. "Can we go home now, dear?"

Without a word, Kathy stalked out of the room. Margaret watched bewildered as she hurried down the corridor, her heels pounding out a noisy rhythm.

Kathy got into her car and sped off. She had to get home before her mother. For it seemed like Mom was getting sick again.

Kathy felt like a dog - a low-down sniffer dog. Still, she just had to find out if that smell had returned.


A year passed and then two. Little Charley had become the most interesting member of the Sutherland family, his grandmother.

Kathy was overjoyed to run into Eve at a nearby shopping centre some months ago. Obviously recovered, she looked wonderful.

Charley was almost three when Vicky announced her second pregnancy. Margaret had not long returned from visiting him one Saturday when she called Kathy into her room.

"What's up, Mom?" She took the chair next to her mother's bed.

"How has your day been?" Margaret asked. She was removing something from a drawer.

"Fine. What's that?"

Margaret handed Kathy what she had been holding. "This is what I wore, when I had you, Kath."

Eyes wide, Kathy gently fondled the silky, blouse-like garment. She didn't know what to say.

"I saved it for you," Margaret continued. "And it's time you had it."

"Thanks," Kathy muttered uncertainly. She was deeply moved and slightly bewildered. "I do appreciate this, Mom. Any particular reason why you are giving me this now?"

"Because it's yours, dear. And because..."Gently, she touch Kathy's hand.

Kathy frowned as she noticed how thin and withered her mother's hand was. She studied Margaret's face, noting the drawn, pale features. Was the cancer back? A feeling of panic began to take hold of her. Subduing it, she asked, "And because what, Mom?"

Margaret smiled indulgently. "Because it's time you, too, got married and pregnant, Kath."

"You are incorrigible!" Kathy chuckled. "But you sure you're okay, Mom? You look kinda...."

"You remember my gold earrings? You always liked them and I want you to have them. Also that necklace your father gave to me when-"

"Mom! Why are you giving your things away? What's wrong?"

"Don't get excited. I don't need jewellery at my age."

"Is the cancer back?"

"Did Hamilton speak to you?"


"You are too melodramatic," Margaret said, dismissively. "I am old now and before I die, I want to be sure that my valuables are distributed the way I would-" She broke off as Kathy headed for the door. "Kathrine! I am speaking to you. Where are you going?"

"To call Doctor Hamilton."

"Come back here! Where are your manners?"

Kathy turned, walked back and stared down at her. "Well?"

Margaret hesitated.

"Mom, I need to know."

"Yes, you do. I know." Resignedly, Margaret met her gaze. "Use my bathroom, Kathy."


"Go," Margaret pointed. "Go into my bathroom, dear. I just used it. Check if it's okay."

Kathy stared at the bathroom door. What the devil was Mom talking about? Then she knew. Her lips began to tremble as she looked back at her mother. Margaret smiled encouragingly, almost blissfully, nodding toward the bathroom.

Kathy's heart pounded as she walked. She suddenly remembered a movie she had watched about a man on his way to the gallows. The Green Mile? Or was it one of those Westerns her father liked to watch?

The sound of her footsteps thundered in her head as she dragged her feet across the shiny, hardwood floor. At the door, she paused uncertainly and looked back. Margaret was watching her, smiling. "It will be okay, Honey. I love you."

Kathy choked back a sob and stepped in. She closed the door and, as she expected, it was there. Like a nasty violent wave, the now familiar scent of sickness, engulfed her. Her knees buckled, landing her on the floor where she wept hopelessly.

The cancer was back and Mom was ready to give up. Mercy! Kathy closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Suddenly, she was very, very angry. Why should this demon thing be allowed to destroy her mother? "Like hell! ... like bloody, stinking hell!"

Mom would have to change her mind. She had to. Mom would find the strength to continue fighting for she, Kathy, would give her that strength. She would beg, borrow, steal even, to find the money to fight this evil thing. She would move heaven, earth and anything else standing in her way, before letting her mother go.

Kathy leaped up from the floor and hurried out to her mother.