Granny Applewhite

Kelly found solace among her colleagues during rough periods. Discreet and seldom apparently in need of assistance in any form herself, Kelly found listening to the marital and childrearing problems of others made any of her own seem to diminish by comparison.

The exception was when the topic turned to mothers-in-law. Kelly knew no-one could top her, although she seldom let slip more than a hint of the crabbiness of Paul’s mother. She had endured the grating presence of Granny Applewhite for over forty years and felt it more constricting with each visit until she sometimes found it difficult to breathe in the woman’s company.

Granny Applewhite was the reason she and Paul had waited nearly ten years before getting married: there was his career to consider, after all. What had always been made clear enough to Kelly was that Granny Applewhite had fervently hoped that once he became immersed in the field of law, Paul would fall in love with someone more appropriate with a more clearly established pedigreed background than Kelly could offer. “It’s all in the breeding, you know,” Granny Applewhite would murmur over one of her several gin and tonics.

Throughout her married life Kelly had been constantly reminded that school teaching was something “anyone can do, really” and that her father’s compact dairy farm in the Midlands was small beer when compared with the vast estates of the Applewhite connections in both the Northern and Western Cape.

“It was so unfortunate that my dear Ian was the youngest son,” she sometimes sniffed over the obligatory Sunday dinner. “He never stood a chance of inheriting that beautiful fruit farm near Barrydale.”

Depending on how much wine she had imbibed, Granny Applewhite’s eyes would occasionally mist over and tears would glisten in the corners, giving her a strange reptilian look. She had once turned towards Paul, gulped the last of her wine and shocked the family by admitting, “I even suggested to Ian that he should bump David off.” She shook her head sadly and sniffed self-righteously. “Of course he wouldn’t – and I couldn’t. Everyone knew my feelings about him!”

“Mother! Were you suggesting that Dad actually murder his own brother in order to inherit the farm?” Paul’s voice was hoarse with incredulity.

“Not murder,” Granny Applewhite held up her glass for more wine. “Accidental death. No-one would have been any the wiser. David drank heavily – and quite openly too – so being found in the swimming pool, the fish pond or even an irrigation ditch would have aroused no suspicions.”

That conversation from twenty years before continued to bubble into the conscious part of Kelly’s brain from time to time, especially when she was feeling exhausted and the old lady was being particularly demanding. Even now, as she gazed at the clawed hands weighed down with rings, the thin wrinkly arms alive with a collection of gold bracelets Granny Applewhite added to every year, Kelly felt the roast chicken stick in her throat. Once again this woman was not only dominating the conversation at table, but she had secured the full attention of her son all morning.

A well-worn list rose unbiddingly in Kelly’s mind of the accusations levelled against her over the years: she did not come from a moneyed background; her chosen profession did not add value to Paul’s; her decision to continue working not only made her a bad mother, but gave the impression Paul was not successful enough to take care of his family; it was important to keep having babies until she produced a son – this branch of the Applewhites would “die out” if there was no son to take the name into the next generation.

That brought tears to Kelly’s eyes which she covered with a coughing fit. She discreetly dropped the chicken into her serviette and rose quickly from the table. Paul looked at her with concern; Granny Applewhite continued talking without a break.

Kelly splashed her face with cold water, brushed her hair and applied fresh lipstick. That witch had no inkling of the despair she and Paul had endured after each of the three miscarriages that had shattered their hopes for a large family. Tarryn’s healthy arrival seven years after Christine’s birth had been such a miracle.
“Why did you have only one child?” Kelly smiled enquiringly at her mother-in-law once they had settled into the shade next to the swimming pool.

“We had our son.” Granny Applewhite accepted her cup of black tea in which floated a thin slice of lemon. “Paul was our world and besides, childbirth is such a messy business.”

Kelly removed her colourful sarong and joined her husband and daughters splashing in the pool. “A messy business indeed,” she thought angrily. “Our world!” Is that why she wouldn’t let her son go?

Christmas had never been an event to look forward to. Kelly did what she could to make each year a memorable occasion for her daughters: they decorated a Christmas tree; she baked the traditional fruit cake, mince pies and shortbread; and took great care over the wrapping of presents and setting the festive table.

Every Christmas morning was spoiled almost as soon as Granny Applewhite arrived: the first complaint would be that the girls had opened their presents without waiting for her. Paul had told her several times that the focus of Christmas should be on the children and that they could not be expected to wait until their grandmother decided to arrive.

Everyone’s attention was supposed to settle on Granny Applewhite. Fresh tea would be brewed while she grandly handed out her gifts. Kelly knew hers were recycled from previous years and accepted them with a well-oiled expression of admiration and gratitude. Her daughters would thank their grandmother politely for the gifts that suggested they were incapable of growing up. The worst was the excruciating slowness with which Granny Applewhite would unwrap her own gifts. Finally she would give what they all preferred to regard as an appreciative sniff and turn her over-powdered cheek for her granddaughters to kiss.

This Christmas was so exceptionally hot that Granny Applewhite demanded a gin and tonic before she had even finished her tea. Kelly made sure it was a stiff one before retreating to the kitchen to finish roasting the potatoes. She poured glasses of pale sherry and served the chilled avocado soup before calling the family to the table – deliberately ignoring the little brass bell Granny Applewhite had pointedly given her years before with the words “shouting is so unladylike.”

Granny Applewhite had finished her soup and was on her second sherry before Kelly had even sat down. Having helped herself to a third sherry, she demanded to be served the next course first. Kelly piled her plate and then watched with a pleasurable disgust as the older woman wolfed down the food. Paul always chose good wine to accompany special meals. Today was too hot to enjoy it and Kelly deliberately added two cubes of ice to her glass, knowing it would irk the old lady who regarded such behaviour as ‘peasantish’.

Paul and the girls swam after dinner, leaving Kelly to tidy up while her mother-in-law dozed on the lounger next to the pool. Tea and fruitcake followed at four. It was already six o’clock when Paul caught Kelly in the kitchen. “Mother wants to spend the night here. She says she’s enjoyed being with the family and will go home after breakfast.”

“Paul!” Kelly could barely control her breathing. “How can she do this to me?” Her mind was already racing ahead to cleaning the guest room, making the bed, having to rustle up something fancy for breakfast and, heaven forbid, dreaming up a supper dish that would meet with approval from the old bat.

“I’ve already told her we’ll be having leftovers for supper, Kell.” Paul looked at her with a mixture of anxiety and frustration as his mother’s shrill voice demanded his attention. “I’m all she has,” he mumbled apologetically. “We can’t turn her away. Besides, she’s been drinking like a fish all day.”

The evening seemed never-ending to Kelly, who envied the girls for being able to slip away to watch television and then slink off to bed. Paul helped clear away the food and bid his mother goodnight. He shook his head at her refusal to allow him to escort her to her bedroom door, already invitingly open only a few steps away. “I’m not a child and am perfectly capable of looking after myself!” The old lady defiantly raised a fresh gin and tonic to her lips as Kelly began clearing the drinks from the poolside table.

A few minutes later, Kelly kissed her sleeping daughters goodnight, hugged her husband and turned on the shower. She rubbed her shoulder vigorously where she had accidently bumped the old woman who had unexpectedly moved towards her in the half light. Kelly had deliberately not looked back after hearing the splash, but had switched off the kitchen light and had come straight upstairs.

By morning Granny Applewhite would be no more and Kelly would start to breathe again.

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