May 22nd 2009.
Gwen watched her mother's wheelchair edge closer to the precipice. Her heart was in her mouth, even though she had been through the process several times before. This was Maude's yearly ritual, carried out for as long as Gwen could remember, though this was only the sixth year that Gwen had been permitted to attend, and the third that her mother had been in the wheelchair. She's so old, Gwen thought, then chuckled, realising she had been abusing the term middle-aged herself.
Stray words floated her way, bourne on the stinging wind, but nothing Gwen could make out. She wanted to get back into the car but felt like she would be letting her mother down if she allowed the gusts to chase her into shelter.
Eventually her mother finished and gave a jaunty wave to summon Gwen over.
"All done for another year?" Gwen asked.
Her mother nodded, her expression difficult to read.
"I'll be retiring soon, and Terry asked me to visit him in Australia. You'll come too. We could be there, this time next year. Wouldn't you like to spend some time with your grandson?"
"And his partner?" Maude asked with a wicked grin.
"Yes, and Richie."
"He's a lovely boy. Very well-built."
"I'm sure your grandson - remember him? - would be glad you approve. What do you say, mum? Think of all that sunshine."
Maude sighed. "You should go, love. I'm fine where I am. Settled. I have my routine..."
"Go on, mum, Richie will find a hunky Australian senior for you."
"Gwen, dear, I'm not ready for romancing down by the billabong."
"Chance'd be a fine thing at your age. What about Canada? I was talking to John last week and he said he begged you to come over."
"Oh no, lovie. Polar bears! I'd sooner be mauled by an Aussie... I think..."
They laughed, Maude's throaty chuckle quickly turning into a rattling cough. Gwen laid her hand on her mother's shoulder, pressing through layers of wool and nylon until she discovered a bony clavicle. She hugged her mother awkwardly around the wheelchair, until the coughing subsided. The smell of lilac-scented soap was strong, triggering random thoughts.
John was Gwen's half-brother, eleven years her junior, and he was responsible for Maude's trademark aroma. Since Christmas of 1978, when one Bailey's Irish Cream too many had led her mother to over-enthusiastically praise a hastily bought gift-basket, John had been diligently lavishing her with variations on lilac-themed toiletries ever since. Christmas, birthday and Mothering Sunday, every single year. In '92 the birthday consignment was lost in the mail, but Maude had said nothing, fearful of how he might over-compensate the loss.
Cupboards bulged and shelves heaved under unwanted soaps, sprays, candles and bubble bath. Maude didn't have the heart to throw any of it away, but she was not particularly fond of lilacs. Then, fortuitously, disaster struck. One of her, ever more frequent, medical procedures caused her to suffer anosmia. She lost her sense of smell. Undaunted, she saw this as an opportunity to chip away at her lilac-scented stockpile.
Gwen pulled the wheelchair back even further from the edge, before turning it towards the car. Just before they reached it, she asked, "Want to stay at mine tonight? I'll phone to let them know."
Maude reached back to pat her daughter's hand. "That sounds lovely, dear."
There was more laughter back at Gwen's home. Wrapped in blankets until the central heating was at full throttle, they toasted their day with nips of brandy that graduated into fully-fledged bites by the third round. They told and re-told their stories, allowing familiar tales to cushion the here-and-now, like the many layers of Maude's clothing. Every so often Maude would laugh so hard that she would choke, waving Gwen's concerns away, then continue with her anecdote as if nothing had happened.
It was almost midnight when Gwen helped her mother into bed. She kissed Maude on the forehead and made to leave but the old woman held tightly to her arm. Gwen sat by her on the bed.
"What is it, mum?"
So Maude told her. She told her why this day was special. She told her why she came to the cliffside each year. She told her the history they had never discussed, stumbling over the words until late into the night when they both finally collapsed into sleep.
In the morning Gwen phoned her mother's doctor, sobbing and almost incoherent with grief. Maude had celebrated her anniversary for the final time.
May 22nd, 2010.
Looking back, Gwen didn't know where the year had gone, but more importantly she was struggling to understand why she was back here again. This had been her mother's ritual, something they had only shared because the old woman hadn't been physically capable in her later years of coping on her own.
Gwen got out of the car and walked to the edge of the cliff.
"I didn't know you," she said, speaking into the wind as it cut at her face, though it wasn't the salty air that dampened her eyes. "Mum never wanted to talk about you, and I never asked her, but I knew she came here because of you. I thought how much she must miss you, how important you must have been. I thought it was some glorious love that made her trek back here year after year. I felt so sorry for her."
Gwen blinked away tears.
"What you did made my mother miserable, but she got over it. She had a good life, a wonderful life. She laughed harder and brought more joy to the people around her than anyone had a right to. I miss her every single day. You threw that away. She found a good man to love her, and when the time came, she was... we all were able to say good-bye to him, properly."
She pulled the sleeves of her jumper over her palms and rubbed the tears from her eyes.
"She loved us so much, and we loved her back just as fiercely. And every year that she came back here, she was counting her blessings for a life lived completely and surrounded by love. Don't you wish you'd known how that felt?"
Gwen started back to the car then, after a few paces, paused and turned back to look out over the cliff.
"Would it really have been so bad to see me grow up?"
When she got into the car and pulled the door shut, just as she was laying her head on the steering wheel and surrendering to heaving tears, Gwen thought she caught the merest whiff of lilac. It was enough to bring a smile to her face, even as she wept.