At first it was as though she were sleeping a minute or two. Her neck stiffened – she turned her head to the other side. The towel pressed into her face. The massage-bed was uncomfortable; lying on her front she had nowhere to put her head. In the middle was a hole, she could dip her face in there. A hole to cry into she thought. Not for speaking, crying. Or swimming lessons at dawn, when you had to dunk your head under the water.
From time to time the masseur would ask whether it hurt, and then continue speaking about all sorts of chakras and reflex points. She wasn’t paying any attention again, tied down with thoughts.
She had a thin, bony body and a sharp straight nose. Were she not lying on her front but on her back we would also see that her skin was a little creased from childbirth, her breasts sagged. When dressed though she looked pretty good.
She had been coming for foot massages for two years, essentially because of migraines. The migraines had disappeared since then, in fact it was this January with the death of her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law had been unwell for eight years, the last months of which she spent in the hospital, but for the four years before that she stayed with them in their flat.
The bouts of migraines started when her husband had his mum move in. The old lady spent the entire day sitting on the couch and dozing, or dishing out orders. Nothing satisfied her, nothing would settle her down. She kept her walking stick beside her and when something came to mind she would beat it frantically. She bickered – quarrelled with long-dead acquaintances – wailed at the children coming home from school. She sat there miserably, while resentment and the smell of urine seeped out of her. Behind her head a great, dark stain had spread on the wall. With the renovation it had now been painted over, but from time to time when she looked over there she imagined that she could still make it out.
The masseur asked again whether it hurt, then began pressing the soles of her feet with such force as though he wanted it to hurt. Apparently he could feel knots in the middle.
Still she enjoyed it – she’d been on her feet all day. She’d had to pack away the whole wardrobe and the children’s things, luckily both were at camp so at least she didn’t have to cook. Her husband was busy with his mother’s flat – it had to be emptied out for renting. It was a shambles, but lucky that it wasn’t up to her to do it.
The masseur told her about some seaside work that he’d almost been swindled into – it was a good thing he hadn’t taken it. The selling point was that he could holiday there for free but he would have to give massages on the beach and give a percentage to the owner. A mate of his went but came back when he realised the whole thing was a load of garbage, the chinks ran the show on every beach. Eventually he found work but it wasn’t great, he’d had to take pictures in costume with little kids on the beach. Who’d want that eh? Wouldn’t you rather just head down to Lake Balaton?
The woman replied – you would. You don’t have to accept everything. There are things which you just have to say no to. She wanted to talk about something entirely different but she didn’t have the courage, not even with her head down like this. She wanted to say that her husband was leaving. Then when at last she’d brought herself round to starting, the man sprinkled some talcum powder on her feet and told her they’re done. The woman slipped into her shoes, and paid.
She’d completely forgotten about the talcum powder when she got into the flat and left floury prints behind her on the freshly polished parquet. She turned on her mobile – called up her husband to get some bread. She had no desire to chat with him – she knew that every Thursday he met with that little slut.
She also knew that the little slut was called Helga. If she wanted to she could call her. But she didn’t – she switched the mobile off.
Now, where’d she gone? She left the living room. Let’s follow the white prints!
She went into the grandmother’s room, which of course was no longer the grandmother’s room. She wanted to check how it looked all empty. Whether she could still make out the stain.
She went in – turned towards the couch. There, looming above the back of the couch she saw a dirty grey circle. Where her head used to be! She switched on the light – stepped closer – looked at it. Nothing. Put out the light – stepped back – turned around: there it is again!
Again she put on the light, stepped closer, and looked up at the ceiling – at the old-fashioned globe lamp. Suddenly for no reason she began to laugh, switching the light on and off, over and over. When she put it off, from the dim glow of the street outside, the globe lamp cast a faint shadow on the wall. Roughly there, right above the sofa, where the grandmother’s head used to be. The shadow even had a thin stem, but barely noticeable. It was as though the whole thing was the dead granny’s bad joke. The woman even laughed at it, perhaps a little too long: it wasn’t that funny. She sat down on the sofa in the dark.
A few minutes passed like this, her sitting in the granny’s spot. She thought how this whole fucked up four years with that old woman was all in vain, her husband was leaving her. While they were here both tending to his mother’s every need he wasn’t able to. But now he will – this Helga girl won’t wait any longer.
A deadly tiredness came over her and she couldn’t call to mind whether in the end she’d actually phoned about the bread or had just meant to. Right then suddenly something occurred to her. Everything seemed so clear and simple that suddenly she sprang up bursting with energy.
She went into the pantry for the strap which the workers had used to shift the wardrobe. There it was in a basket – fairly grubby. Not a big deal. She went into the bedroom, pulled the strap through the highest ledge of the bookshelf they’d drilled to the wall. Then checked to see whether it would hold, specifically for the children’s sake she’d asked the workers to fasten it well. The little aluminium ladder was still standing there – she’d used it to pack away the books that afternoon. Carefully, she stood it up – all the while grinning mischievously – like someone who’d managed to think up a joke better than grandma’s. It also occurred to her how many times her husband used that expression that somebody has both feet firmly on the ground. Well, this Helga, for sure she’s just that.
She stood up, crossed herself, and pushed off. One of her legs frantically searched for the top of the stepladder – then slid down the side. The other kicked around so much it was as though somebody were tickling her in the air.
Her husband didn’t get home until after midnight. Irritated, he let in the cat which for some reason was outside. He took off his shoes – marvelled at the white footprints on the parquet. The light in the bedroom was on – he went closer. The first thing he noticed from the doorway was the soles of the feet. Then the smell of urine hit him as well. Like this, in this hanging state, the woman seemed even thinner, almost like a little girl. Above the dangling body the freshly painted ceiling was strewn with deep scratches.