Grandma had large white hands. Before the illness, she liked to bake. Often she’d get flour on her face. She’d talk like her mouth was full of sultanas. When she was nervous she moved her hands quickly, twisting and turning them into different shapes. Making pictures in the air. Grandma reminded me of those frantic butterflies, you know, the kind they keep in those humid rooms at the zoo. The ones that flutter and stammer and grumble and then land on top of you because they’re too exhausted for anything else. Pink butterflies. Orange butterflies. Red butterflies with bits of black. But Grandma wasn’t made of colours. She was white and grey and tired looking. She had long eyes that drooped down her face. Sagging, as though she had wilted in the heat. She’d nap in the afternoons, normally around 3pm, and I’d watch the way her arms rubbed against her chest. When she woke, she’d blink, and push her fingers into her eyes and look at me as though she didn’t understand. She’d say things in a croaky voice and then she’d reach over the table for her medicine. And I’d look at her, and I’d wonder about the hundreds of people she must have met, and all the bruises she must have collected, even though there was nothing on her skin. Grandma’s skin was transparent, as though she was simply fading away. It was like every passing minute a part of her body was falling into thin air.
Before Grandma got sick, she used to work in the garden. Throwing her hands into dirt and pulling out potatoes. She said she liked the way homegrown spuds tasted, different to that supermarket crap. But Grandma was funny, because she’d still go to the shops and cart around a bright red shopping basket, and she’d fill it with corn, and pumpkin, and spinach, and if I asked why, she’d simply shake her head. She said it wasn’t polite to ask questions but Grandma was always asking questions. She wanted to know why I kept coming over, and when would I leave, and did I really have to stay so long.
Grandma died in her favourite chair. The green one, with the yellow spirals. She was leaning back and her hands were pushed together. The window was open, and the breeze was cool, and I was glad about that because Grandma had never liked the heat. Her eyes were open, and they looked like tiny prunes, and when the paramedics carried her out I wondered what her eyes would be doing if they could still see. What would Grandma have been focusing on? Would she have seen the same things I was
seeing? But Grandma and me never saw eye to eye. She’d often bend her arms, until they were limping strangely down the side of her body, look right into my face, and say nothing. Inside that nothing I knew she was disagreeing with me.
‘Grandma,’ I said to her once. She blinked, and rubbed her eyes, and then got up and put the kettle on. She had a blue kettle. She kept it next to the biscuits.
‘Katie,’ she said.
‘I just thought, maybe, we could go out for a while?’
Grandma shook her head and for a second I wondered if she was trying to shake something out. A bad thought, an uncomfortable idea.
‘You know I don’t like to go outside,’ she said, sighing and bringing her hands into one. ‘We talked about what’s out there.’ She pressed her lips together tightly.
‘Yeah, well I know,’ I said. I poured water into two yellow cups and dangled the teabags up and down. ‘But Grandma, it’s not real. I mean, there’s nobody out there who wants to get you.’
Grandma took a sip of her tea and sat down again. She was wearing grey slippers and a pink dressing gown. She pulled the gown tighter around her chest.
‘Zombies,’ she said slowly. Her hands went to her face and I stared at the wrinkles covering them. ‘I know they’re out there.’
‘Grandma,’ I said. ‘They’re not.’ But my voice sounded weak and unconvincing, and I let myself, just for a minute, wonder what it would be like if they were. What would they look like? How would they sound? Grandma frowned and closed her eyes. She looked little sitting there even she wasn’t a little person. In her younger days she had
played basketball. She had trophies in a cabinet. She never took them out though. She didn’t like to talk about the past.
‘I know you think I’m losing my marbles,’ she said, opening her eyes. ‘But they’re out there, hiding, and they will get me. They’ll get you as well. All of us, at some point.’
I took a sip of my own tea. ‘You’re saying that the dead can come alive?’
Grandma rolled her eyes. ‘I have cancer, you know. But that doesn’t mean I’m mad.’ She looked mad though, sitting there with her hair pointing up, her face bent forward.
‘But Grandma,’ I said, struggling to find the right words and feeling them move around in my throat.
‘Look,’ she raised a hand. ‘I know what’s out there, even if you don’t.’ Then she stood and went to the window, pressing her face against the glass like she was a dog. I stared at her mug of tea, the steam rising from the top, and shook my head. I wondered what she was thinking, if she was pulling thoughts around in her head. After a bit she drew herself away and came back to me.
‘Grandma,’ I said. I held out her tea. She waggled her finger at me.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m sick of tea.’
‘Oh,’ I didn’t know what to say. She tried to straighten her back.
‘I’ll prove it, Katie.’
‘The zombies,’ she said. She picked up her walking stick and waddled towards the door. I watched her shape move. Suddenly she seemed irretrievable. She stood out on the driveway, tyres of cars scratching the scant gravel of the road around her. I sat and watched her, linking my fingers together. She just stood there, staring at the road, at the blue and red cars flashing past. Every so often her mouth would flap open, as though she didn’t have control of it. Eventually I exhaled loudly and went out to stand next to her.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked. The sun was warm and thick on my face, the trees surrounding us dripped pink, and I stretched my arms out, trying to pretend everything was normal.
‘Shh,’ she said, planting her finger over her lips.
‘Grandma,’ I said, trying to swallow my annoyance unsuccessfully. ‘Come back inside? I’ll make more tea.’
She flapped her arms up and down. ‘Katie,’ she snapped. ‘I don’t want any more dammed tea.’
I shook my head. ‘You can’t stay out all day.’
She looked at me then, as if I was crazy, and smiled. ‘I don’t plan to,’ she said. ‘I’m waiting.’
‘Waiting for what?’
She shook her head again. ‘The zombies. I told you, they’re out here.’
‘Grandma, there’s no such thing as a zombie.’ I tried to pull on her sleeve but she was too strong. She folded her arms across her chest and stared straight ahead.
‘You think you understand life,’ she said. ‘But when I was young I wore orange halter-tops and kissed strange men in pubs. Did you know that? I had boys chasing after me. I used to sit out in the sun and drink beer like I was one of the lads. And there were peace protests down the main street we sometimes went to. You’ve never even seen a protest before. Not a real one, where it matters.’
I fidgeted awkwardly, pushing my hands into my pockets and then taking them out again.
‘Do you have any smokes?’ she asked. ‘We used to smoke a lot when I was younger. I’d like one now.’
‘What,’ I said. ‘You don’t smoke.’
‘No,’ she sighed. ‘I guess I don’t.’
‘Come on Grandma, please, let’s go back inside. There’s nobody coming out here to get you.’
She turned to me again, her face flushed and red. I wondered if she was going to have a heart attack, maybe fall down. But she didn’t. Instead, she brought her hand into a fist and pulled it down into the air. Thumping the empty space around us.
‘Jesus Katie,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to go inside and I’m not crazy, okay? You go inside and have more tea, if it means so much to you.’
‘But you said before you don’t even like it outside,’ I persisted.
‘Can’t a woman change her mind for pete’s sake?’ Grandma growled.
I opened my mouth to say something but when I couldn’t think of anything, I closed it again and slowly, hesitantly, went back indoors.
I watched Grandma from my place on the couch, standing there underneath the trees, clutching her walking stick. The traffic on the road gradually disappeared and the sun shifted into the moon. I wondered when she would come inside.