Before Irena, Maria, and Anna came to the family home for part of their summer vacation they contacted each other to make sure that they didn’t all arrive on the same day as they had done the previous year. To do so would stress Barbara, their mother. Instead, they would come at two-day intervals, with Irena, who brought her car, arriving first and collecting her sisters in succession from the nearby railway station, with Maria arriving last. They also decided that only one of them, Anna, who lived abroad, would bring her son, for the same reason – too many kids would get on their mother’s nerves. But when they eventually gathered, their mother said that coming in drips and drabs made life in the house chaotic, as she was always waiting for somebody and it was difficult to plan meals, not knowing how much potatoes and meat to cook for dinner when, one day, there were only two people at the table and, on the next, five. There was no point in reminding Barbara that last year, when they all arrived at her house over the space of a few hours, she had told them that their visit made her feel like being under siege. Neither did it make any sense to tell their mother that she didn’t need to cook for them – they would be happy to take turns in the kitchen, because, for her, this would be the first step towards banning her from her own house. There was also no point in suggesting that they go to the local restaurant for supper, because what would the people in the village make of a family made up of four women who couldn’t or didn’t want to cook?
Maria asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if one of us didn’t come this summer at all?’, to which there was a silence. Irena was thinking that this was a question which they were not allowed to ask in Barbara’s house because children should yearn to see their parents, especially those like Barbara, who brought them up, sacrificing so much. Irena was expecting tears in Barbara’s eyes, which duly appeared, as she heard the familiar, rhetorical question:
‘Maybe it will be better to just put me in a nursing home and forget about me?’
‘This is not what Maria meant,’ said Anna. ‘She only suggested that fewer people at home means less trouble for you mum.’
Irena was giving her sister a sign to stop – trying to solve their mother’s problems wasn’t the best way to make them go away. Half of the time their mother wanted her problems to stay and be acknowledged by her daughters.
This year the problems were piling up. The first day it was a leaking tap in the kitchen. Maria who was very dexterous with practical tasks went to the local DIY store to buy a gasket but when she tried to install it, the rusted armature gave way and she ended up having to call a plumber. It took a good couple of hours to fix everything — the rust seemed to penetrate into the depth of the pipes and nothing wanted to stick. During this time Barbara, Irena and Maria were sitting in the kitchen, waiting for the plumber to finish his job, until the guy asked them to leave, as their poking their noses into his work was getting on his nerves.
‘What a rude man,’ said Barbara when he left. ‘If it wasn’t for the lack of plumbers, I wouldn’t put up with such a boor. And he even didn’t know his craft. The best plumbers do not screw and unscrew things over and over again. They do it once and well. People don’t want to work these days and the last who still do are only semi-competent. The world is going to the dogs.’
However, the tap was working perfectly and to celebrate it in the evening the daughters sat on the patio drinking cherry liquor and rum with soda, except for Alex, Anna’s son, who was drinking Coca Cola, before quietly slipping off to the bedroom which he shared with his mother.
‘Days like this remind me of when I used to sit up with your father after you went to bed or sometimes he kept one of you on his lap, usually Maria, as you were the one who didn’t want to go to sleep.’
The sisters smiled to each other, as it wasn’t like they remembered their childhood. But they didn’t say anything.
‘Maria, do you sleep well now?’ asked Irena.
‘No, I don’t. I have to take sleeping pills to fall asleep. I never travel without them’, said Maria.
‘I can’t sleep either. Normally I stay awake the whole night and fall asleep only in the morning, but I’m not taking sleeping pills, as they change me into a zombie. I can’t imagine, Maria, how you can work being constantly on sleeping pills.’
‘It is thanks to them that I can go to work and function normally’, replied Maria.
‘Did you go to the doctor to ask why you can’t sleep?’
‘I did, but there are no simple answers.’
‘And you, why can’t you sleep, mum?’ asked Anna.
‘I’m old. In old age everything becomes difficult. But you are unable to appreciate this. You come here thinking that this is like in the old days, when you were kids. You come and you expect everything to be ready for you and you don’t even bother to flush the toilet.’
‘Who doesn’t flush the toilet?’ asked Maria.
‘I don’t know, but when I got up at night, there was a piece of toilet paper floating in the water and another one, probably used, lying on the floor. Did you come from a mud hut, like some Bronte sisters, not knowing how to use a toilet? Or do you do such things to upset me?’
‘It was probably Alex. He has a tendency to sleepwalk,’ said Anna.
‘You shouldn’t allow him to do that, not in my home, anyway,’ said Barbara.
‘Easier said than done. Children are not robots’, said Anna.
Nobody said anything for a while, until Irena said: ‘Such a beautiful evening. The sky is full of stars, like in a fairy-tale.’
‘So we better go to bed, to be ready for the next day’, said Anna.
The next morning, as Irena returned from the supermarket, Barbara was standing in front of the house, with one hand calling her oldest daughter to come closer. When she did so, Barbara pointed to the wall and said: ‘The ants. Tell your sisters to get up and come here to see them.’
‘Do they need to see them now?’
‘Yes, of course’ said Barbara. ‘I don’t want to face this calamity on my own.’
Ten minutes later the four women stood in a row and looked at the insects climbing up the white wall. Subsequently Barbara took them to her bedroom where the ants were crawling out from the floor, next to a large wardrobe.
‘This is the worst place one can find them, as it is almost impossible to move the wardrobe; I will need an army of men for the task. See how huge these creatures are? How vicious? They attack me both from the outside and inside. There is nowhere to hide from them.’
‘They are indeed big, but I’m not sure they are vicious,’ said Anna. ‘They don’t target you. If somebody else was living here, they would do the same. They do what all insects do – try to survive as long as possible and multiply. They have no control over their destiny.’
‘They might be so big because of climate change,’ added Maria. ‘The pests grow larger, I’ve read so many times. There are now super-mice, super-rats, super-pigeons, even super-squirrels chasing people in the urban areas.’
‘Maybe we can get super-rats to eat our super-ants?’ said Anna.
‘The poisons got better too,’ said Maria. ‘I know one which works very well, as my neighbour used it in her summer house. They sell it in the specialist shops. We can go to the town and buy some.’
‘There is no need to buy any. I’ve tried these magic poisons, but they were useless. They didn’t kill the ants, and are toxic to people; I had stomach ache and diarrhea for weeks after using them as they clearly got into the food chain, despite me washing everything. The best way is for you to take turns to killing the ants outdoors with this spray and to keep covering the places indoors with baking powder. Anna, you should ask Alex to do it. It will be fun for him. Boys enjoy killing animals.’
‘Well, he is not that kind of boy. Besides, I don’t want him to do it. We don’t go on holiday for an ant safari.’
Irena was again gesturing to Anna to stop, as she felt a quarrel was about to begin. Luckily, at the same time, a neighbour arrived asking Barbara to look after her cats when she went away, bringing with her a large bag of cat food. Then they engaged in a polite conversation about the weather. The distraction gave Anna the opportunity to leave for a walk, taking Alex with her. As the neighbour said her goodbyes, Barbara turned to Irena:
‘Let’s check what you have bought.’
Irena showed her all her shopping, put it away, finishing with a cupboard for cereals, to which she added a bag of rice and two bags of noodles, saying:
‘They didn’t have those packets of rice with plastic bags with holes and the egg noodles weren’t of the brand you mentioned, but I was thinking that it would be okay to buy large quantities, given that there are so many of us, and Irena and Maria don’t mind which brand of egg noodles we eat.’
‘But I do,’ said Barbara. ‘In future, if they don’t have what I asked you to buy, don’t buy an alternative. It is easier for me to ask the neighbour to do my shopping as he follows my instructions precisely. In this way not only do I get what I need, but I also don’t accumulate anything which I don’t, like the apple vinegar and chestnut butter which you bought last year and which got rancid and made my fridge smell.’
It was Anna who bought these things, but Irena didn’t mention this. Neither did Irena mention that she’d bought jars of chestnut butter, tahini and low-sugar marmalade for her youngest sister, but she took them straight to Anna’s bedroom, asking her not to bring them to the kitchen.
Next day, however, Anna disobeyed spectacularly, bringing to the breakfast all these jars plus the cereal she got for Alex. Barbara, however, did not say anything, only asked Anna to try her strawberry jam she made herself.
‘It is very good, mum,’ said Anna, ‘just a bit too sweet for Alex and me.’
‘We will go to the lake for the rest of the day,’ said Maria. ‘Of course, you can come with us, mum, if you want.’
‘No, you go without me. I have things to do here.’
‘We will be back for supper,’ said Irena as they packed up their stuff.
‘Anna, take these magazines with you,’ said Barbara as they were leaving. ‘This has a fascinating article about Finnish collaboration with Germany during the Second World War, and this one about the future of philosophy.’
‘Mum, the internet is full of articles on these subjects and I’m not particularly interested in any of them.’
‘But you wouldn’t take the internet to the lake,’ said Barbara.
‘I would. Everybody does,’ said Anna.
‘I will be happy to take these magazines,’ said Irena.
‘We have to do something with these ants’, said Anna after they laid their towels and deckchairs out on the beach. ‘Otherwise she will go crazy.’
‘She will go crazy whatever we do,’ said Maria, ‘Or rather she is crazy already. So better not to do anything. Let her deal with it, with her baking powder and voodoo dolls.’
‘What do you think, Irena?’ asked Anna.
‘I think we need to get rid of the ants, for her sake and the house. They are eating into the wooden floor. It will cost a fortune to replace it. It just needs to be done wisely.’
‘Do it wisely then, you wise sister’, said Maria.
‘I will. I think we can make it happen when I take her to that quack who cures back pain. It will take most of the day. The pest control will need to have finished the job before we return. I can arrange for him to come, but you will need to clean the house afterwards.’
‘We can do it’, said Anna.
‘Or order a cleaner to do it’, said Maria. ‘Bear in mind mother never appreciates what we do, especially our level of hygiene.’
‘Arranging a cleaner will make it more complicated. Moreover, mother disapproves of what we do not because of what we do, but because we do it’, said Irena.
‘Sure, this reminds her of how perfectly this would be done by her aborted son. I’m sure he would be all up to fixing taps, moving heavy furniture, and running around with ladders’, said Maria.
‘Don’t be sarcastic’, said Irena. ‘She didn’t have an easy life. Bringing up three kids and looking after a sick and philandering husband wasn’t an easy task.’
‘It’s not an excuse to be mean’, said Maria. ‘And she is the way she is because we indulge her. We accept her restrictions on us, rather than fighting them. You, Irena, especially, as if you wanted to be some Holy Mary.’
‘You want to start a war with her, go ahead, but not when I’m around,’ said Irena.
‘Okay, let’s leave it’, said Anna and went swimming with Alex.
After twenty minutes, they reached the edge of the swimming part of the lake. For Alex it was not enough. He had to go through the muddy area, to reach the other shore, while Anna was waiting for him in the clearer water.
‘When I first managed to do it, I wondered how many lakes I will cross in my life. Guess how many?’ asked Anna.
‘Five’, said Alex.
‘No, only one. This one. I didn’t often swim in lakes afterwards and those in which I did were too large to risk crossing. Or maybe this is the story of my life: everything of importance comes in singular, like you – my single child. I’m a one-trick pony.’
‘Maybe we can cross another one; this one adjoining?’ asked Alex.
‘It is much larger. It would take over an hour to swim from shore to shore. I don’t know if I can muster enough courage to swim so far.’
‘Okay, so leave it’, said Alex.
‘What are your kids doing this summer?’ asked Anna, when they returned, turning to Maria.
‘They went for a diving expedition with their father and to visit his folks,’ said Maria.
‘You are lucky that he takes care of them so much’, said Irena.
‘He has no choice. He has to take care of them or he will lose them. It is not like in the old times, when you begged your man to stay’, said Maria.
‘I will beg my man to stay with me if I have two or three kids with him,’ said Irena.
‘Maybe because of your attitude you have no kids – saved you being a double doormat’, said Maria.
‘Shut up’, said Anna. ‘Why do you always have to be so nasty? Do you want to end up like our mother?’
It was the anniversary of the death of Barbara’s husband and they were all going to the cemetery to put flowers and candles on his grave. It took them over an hour to get ready because Alex didn’t want to get up and when he was eventually set to go, in the cupboard where she kept candles, Barbara found a bowl of fruit covered with fruit flies.
‘Who put these here?’ she asked.
‘I did,’ said Anna.
‘Because you said not to leave fruit lying around to rot.’
‘This is not what I meant. The point was not to expose them to insects. I already have problems with ants and fruit flies is the last thing I need at home. Putting fruits inside the cupboard where they can be forgotten is worse than leaving them lying around’, said Barbara.
‘I must have misunderstood you, mum’, said Anna.
‘What is wrong with you lot? You seem to be unable to understand the simplest of instructions. Being with you is like dealing with complete aliens. I have to explain everything to you over and over again and you still do things your own way.’
‘Should we go back to the car, mum, as we want to go to the lake before it gets too hot’, said Irena.
‘You only think about your pleasures. Swimming, cycling, spending God knows how much time on your phones, and never about helping me.’
‘Well, should we just go?’, asked Maria. ‘Otherwise the flowers will wilt before we put them on the grave.’
Eventually all five got squeezed into Irena’s car, with Barbara sitting next to her oldest daughter and Maria, Anna and Alex at the back.
‘Difficult to believe your father died almost thirty years ago. It feels like he is still around, asking me not to overstretch myself.’
‘For sure, he didn’t overstretch himself, at least not in the work department’, said Maria, but Barbara pretended not to hear.
‘Don’t stand here like some statues’, said Barbara. ‘Move.’
Irena was already moving, bringing water from the cemetery pump and Anna and Alex were lighting some candles, while Barbara swept the grave.
When the job was done, Anna asked: ‘Mum, can you show us the grave of your neighbour, Mr. T.?’ Last year he repaired Alex’s bike and gave him some old comic books. Alex was very upset to learn that he died only two months after we saw him last and we brought a special candle to put on his grave.’
Irena noticed that there were tears in Barbara’s eyes as Anna said this and then she heard what she expected to hear: ‘Looks like the neighbour is more important to you than your own father. Did you bring a special candle for your father too? Did you explain to your son who his grandfather was?’
‘I told him, but not recently. Father died a long time ago and Alex never met him. Isn’t it a good thing that Alex wants to pay respect to this good man?’ asked Anna.
Without responding Barbara took the daughters to the grave of Mr. T., where Alex put a match to a wide candle made of blue, green and red wax, while Barbara said: ‘He was indeed a good man. There are no neighbours like him anymore. I will bring some flowers for his grave when I come again’, and then, turning to Anna:
‘You shouldn’t put such candles on the graves. They are for decorating tables, not for graves. When the wax melts, it will stay on the marble and it’ll take a knife to clean the surface. Bear in mind Mr. T. had no close relatives, so I will have to come and clean it.’
‘Sorry mum, we didn’t think about it. We bought it on our trip to Portugal and liked the mixture of colours; they reminded us of the colours of the flowers in his garden.’
Back at home Barbara, Irena and Maria went to the orchard to collect some fruit for plum jam, while Anna and Alex returned to their bed to watch some videos on YouTube.
‘What happened to your brother, mum?’ asked Alex.
‘Nothing happened. We never had a brother’, said Anna.
‘Auntie Maria said he was aborted.’
‘Well, we are not sure.’
‘So why did she say that?’
‘This is because when grannie was angry with any of us, she would always say that her life would be much easier if she had a son instead.’
‘To whom did she say it?’
‘Me or auntie Maria. Probably to auntie Maria most often, therefore she remembers it best.’
‘Grannie shouldn’t say that. It isn’t the right thing to say.’
‘Well, this is how grannie is. One couldn’t change her. She’s had a hard life, which has made her bitter. Maybe we should admire her for being so frank. Neither of us has such courage to say so directly what we think.’
‘Don’t you regret not having a brother?’
‘No, I don’t. Neither of us do. We think with four children grannie would be either more resentful about her life or favour her son at our expense. Maybe she would even disinherit us to give him the entire house. Women of her generation tend to be very patriarchal.’
‘So you are happy that there are three of you? What if there were only two or only you?’
‘We don’t think about it. We are happy to be three. We love each other dearly.’
It took the ant exterminator less than two hours to treat the ants in the house. Before he left, he gave final instructions: ‘Please don’t clean the surfaces for at least three days and most importantly don’t use water. Water will bring the ants back to life and reconnect them with each other. We don’t want that. You have to wait up to a week for the ants to disappear. In a year’s time we will need to repeat the procedure, irrespective of whether you see any ants in the house or not.’
‘Thanks a lot’, said Maria and Anna paid him.
They were happy to see that the poison the man used looked like the baking powder Barbara spread around the house. The only difference was that he used it more generously. If Barbara asked them why there was so much white powder everywhere, they would tell her that they put more of it where they saw a new nest of ants.
Irena was worried that her mother would see the work but she didn’t as she was so occupied with the work the quack had done on her back. Although she ached all over it was only proof that the job was done properly. ‘I feel as if he strengthened every bone in my body and put it back where it belonged.’
‘This is what he said he would do, mum’, said Irena.
‘You must take me back to see him before Christmas. He is worth every penny.’
‘Of course I will take you’, said Irena.
‘And what you were up to when we were away?’ asked Barbara.
‘We went cycling’, said Anna ‘and got rid of the nettles from around the plum trees.’
‘You shouldn’t have. It is Mr. F.’s job. I pay him to do the gardening.’
‘But there were so many nettles in the orchard that Alex didn’t want to go there’, said Anna.
‘You should encourage him to go there. What will he grow up like if you clear all obstacles from his road? He will not grow up a man, for sure’, said Barbara.
‘Showing cruelty and malice is not the best way to bring up children’, said Anna.
It was only on the day when Irena left that the ants disappeared from Barbara’s house. This was also the day the gardener came to cut the grass.
‘Please, come here Mr. F.’, said Barbara, showing him the white wall and then taking him around the house to prove that there were no more ants.
‘After all it might not be necessary to move the great wardrobe, at least not for another year’, she said. ‘It is such a relief as I will need four workers to move this piece of furniture.’
‘Indeed, it is good news Mrs. B.’
‘Well, the ants have disappeared, but do you see the huge mound in front of the house, Mr. F.? Now a mole is attacking me. I hate moles – they are ugly, insensitive, blind yet arrogant. Is there anybody in the world who has such a hard life as me? It was such a mistake not to sell the house when my husband died, as the prices were very high then and I could have bought a large apartment in the city which would now be worth millions. But I wanted to keep the house for my daughters so they would have a nice place to return for holidays. Unfortunately, they don’t appreciate it. They take it as a given, coming when they want, making a mess and then leaving, promising that they will return whenever they can, as if they are doing me a favour. In fact, they got on my nerves so much this year that I told them to come next year just for a week. Mr. F., make sure to take the ladder propped against the large plum tree back to the shed. I have three daughters but it didn’t occur to any of them to return the ladder to where it belongs.’
The gardener didn’t say anything, only adjusted his thick glasses on his nose and put his headphones back in his ears before switching on the lawn mower. Barbara thought it was very rude of him to do so as in this way he couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she didn’t tell him off. Handymen were extremely difficult to get these days and he already threatened her twice with discontinuing his service.