Her mother’s at the door, criticising the litter of mouldy leaves and walking boots on the porch. But then she smiles.
‘The last Christmas I spent with you was the best since your father died,’ she says. Her daughter nods, and reminds her mother how her husband made them laugh throughout the Christmas meal. How afterwards, they’d watched an animation of ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’, the story of a shepherd who, after the First World War, restored a desolate valley by planting acorns.
‘We both planted so many different species of trees after that programme.’ She points to the olive tree growing in the front garden. ‘I’ve made oil from the olives on this tree you gave me. One bottle each year. I always think of you.’
‘Fancy an olive tree fruiting in this climate,’ her mother says.
The daughter doesn’t tell her about global warming, or that fruiting olive trees are common in England now.
Her mother potters around, picks a sprig of holly and hums a Christmas carol. She admires a rusty metal chicken askew in a tub, tilts it forward so it looks as if it’s pecking real food.
‘It’s lovely being able to spend Christmas with you now we’re both the same age,’ she says. ‘I don’t mind if you’re still vegetarian. I’m only eating manna these days.’
‘I’ve yogurt in the fridge. I expect that’s similar.’
‘Lovely,’ her mother says, as if she’s forgotten that she would never touch yoghurt when she was alive.
They’re about to go into the house when the little brown and black dog, the daughter’s beloved childhood pet, trots up, reeking of cow dung. Together, they wash it in the kitchen sink, like they used to years before. The daughter holds the dog’s shivering head and her mother’s at its rear, with the soap. It hurts their fingers now they both have arthritic joints. When it’s dry, the dog lies between them on the sofa and they settle in for a chat. The Christmas pudding the daughter stuffed with lucky silver sixpences, as if she had guests to share it with, steams on the stove.
‘Shall I tell you what’s happening in the world these days?’ she says, her face grave.
The mother looks worried. She grasps for a word.
‘Not quite, but it’s flammable and flooding. Plague, too. Fire, water, or disease could kill us just as easily as nuclear weapons.’ She hides the remote so her mother won’t see today’s grisly news. ‘The climate’s gone crazy. There’s a virus, killing millions.’
‘You must look after yourself,’ her mother says and hugs her. Something she never used to do. ‘That’s all you can do. And be kind.’
‘I could have been kinder to you.’
‘You were kind enough.’
The daughter cries a little, because the thought she was mean to her mother has haunted her for years. She fetches the yogurt. ‘Try it,’ she says.‘It might be better than manna.’
‘Mm-mm,’ her mother says after each mouthful. ‘I could get a taste for living.’
But however many spoons the daughter feeds her, the yogurt doesn’t keep her mother there. She’s fading, becoming transparent. And just as the timer pings to say the pudding’s ready, she and the dog have gone.
The daughter sits for a long while, wishing the dog was still lying next to her and she could feel the warmth of her mother’s unexpected hug. Logs spit and crackle in the fire. No other noise. A spicy smell drifts in from the kitchen. But she doesn’t go in to check the pudding. She knows, even if she cut a slice and found a lucky sixpence, it won’t bring them back.
Jude Higgins is a flash fiction writer and event organiser. Her chapbook The Chemist’s House was published by V.Press in 2017. She is widely published in magazines and anthologies, including Best Microfictions 2022, Pigeonholes, Moonpark Review, New Flash Fiction Review, Fictive Dream, and Ellipsis Zine. She directs the short fiction press, Ad Hoc Fiction and Flash Fiction Festivals, UK. Find her online at judehiggins.com and on Twitter @judehwriter.