He pressed the buzzer and then strained to hear dim chimes echoing at the rear of the house. From a cheap radio played the faint sounds of mid-morning. He was prepared to press the buzzer a few times and had calculated a suitable pause between harassments, but one attempt was sufficient as he caught the disturbance of approaching small feet muffled by carpet. The door opened and a wary face scrutinized him from behind a protective metal screen. He recognized her. She had aged beyond his comprehension. Her body was shrunken and thin. He remembered a vibrant presence, commanding attention at any social gathering, her loud laugh and ribald stories a rude awakening for his then young mind. The house smelled familiar through the door

“Angela?” It was her—he wondered why he made it a question. “It’s Russell. Russell Harper, Ann’s son.”

She unlocked the screen door and peered up at him. Her eyes were blue and clear. “My God, Russell,” and she stepped towards him and he put his arms around her with care so as not to break what was left. She moved away and attempted to arrange her frayed grey hair.

“I’m sorry for coming without calling,” he said. “I was in the area and I have some free time and I thought I’d just chance a visit.”

“Come in, come in,” she said, and he followed her into the passage. He closed the door. He had to strain his eyes as he followed her towards the rear of the house. The kitchen looked over the suburb from its high position. It was neat and clean. Steam escaped from a thin kettle. She placed another cup on the bench and gave it some milk. Then she lifted the kettle and poured hot water over each tea bag. Her arm began to shake, but he was careful not to help her. She set down the kettle with a sigh and concentrated on lifting the saucer to hand to him. He reached out and accepted the tea when it was still close to her.

“I was just preparing a hot water bottle. I can’t seem to sit without the thing.” She gathered the rubber item, wrapped it in a tea-towel, and then shuffled over to a low couch. Russell surveyed the possibilities and opted for a chair within arm’s reach. He placed the cup and saucer on the floor in front of him. She turned off the radio and the house became silent.

“I spoke with Tim a few weeks ago,” he said.

“He told you I was sick. That I had this.” She gestured at her body with undisguised contempt. She mentioned what ailed her; some scientific sounding name, foreign and threatening. Cancer inside her bones, melting her from within.

“They reckon only 58 people in the world have it. 58! Can you believe that? What are the chances?” She shook her head. “I only get special when I’m dying. They told me nobody survived it longer than five years. Well, that was twelve years ago. Twelve years I’ve been living with this.”

She lifted up her gown without warning. Russell breathed out with care as she exposed a weeping wound on her stomach. “Coming through the skin it is. They don’t know what to do about it. They look at me and shake their heads and take pictures and here I am still. I roll over at night and they break and then there’s this horrible crap all over the bed.”

He didn’t know what to say. “It’s not on your face at least,” he volunteered.

“Not yet!” Her look was wild and triumphant. “But they reckon that it will be. Can you believe my own specialist—at least that’s what he calls himself—I reckon he’s only special because it’s him that’s said so. My own specialist says to me, he says, ‘What are you going to do when it passes to your face?’ And so I looked him in the eye and then I said, ‘Why, I’ll just have to get one of them burkas like all them Muslims are wearing!’”

Russell couldn’t help laughing. “What did he say to that?”

“His eyes went wide and then he storms out of the room! And I’m sitting there wondering what the hell I’ve done and then his nurse comes in and wants to know what I’ve said to the doctor. So I tell her and she’s shocked, and then she tells me that his wife’s a Muslim. So I end up having to apologize to him.”

Russell shook his head.

“How’s your mother?” she asked.

“I haven’t spoken to her in five years.” There was a brief silence and then he continued. “The last time was when I called her to let her know I was getting married. She hung up on me about a minute into the conversation.”

Angela’s eyes brimmed with tears and she looked away to the side of the room. “Let you off the hook, she did. She was never right in the head. But I didn’t ever think she would push you away as well. Do you know, I had a party here one night many years ago. There was a bunch of sailors here all dressed up in some fancy dress theme like women. It was all a laugh, all good fun. They were friends of Tim. Anyways, we’re downstairs and your mother is here and she starts throwing darts at ‘em.”

“In their general direction?”

“Straight at ‘em.” She made a motion with her arm and aimed at an imaginary board. Then her arm dropped down to the couch. “Lucky for her, she wasn’t a good shot.”

“Why the hell was she doing that?”

“How the hell should I know? Not right in the head.”

He took a sip of his tea and then cradled the cup on his knees. The saucer sat alone on the carpet. “You always threw the best parties,” he said. “I remember them from when I was a kid.”

“How long were you gone?” she said.

“Fifteen years.”

She repeated the number with amazement in her voice. “And now you’re back.”

“I bumped into Tim. He gave me your number, but I misplaced it so I thought I’d just pop around.”

“He’s a good boy. Thankfully, he doesn’t take after his bloody father. You know, I remember sitting here one time when I was still married to the bastard. I knew he’d been screwing around and I finally had the nerve to confront him. I said, ‘You’ve been buggering around for ten years!’ And he holds up this stern finger, and he looks me in the eye, and he says, ‘No! Nine.’”

They both laughed and he began to tell her about what he was doing with his life, but as he spoke, she began searching through a pile of documents and papers, and her hands shook and she seemed more desperate than ever to find what she was seeking.

“What are you looking for?” he said.

“It’s here somewhere.” She brought out a small envelope. Her fingers scrambled for the opening but it eluded her. Russell reached over and took out a small collection of photos. She reached for them and sorted the group into an order to her liking and then she showed him.

“Here’s when the pus was really bad. This one is the giant one that I had on my back. I still have the scar.” Photo after photo, she recounted the details of her disease, of the life she led alone in the big house where she had raised six children after her husband had walked out on her.

“Do they come and see you?” he said.

“Oh yes, they come. But I suppose they’re just waiting for me to die. They’ll sell this place and then it’ll be ripped down and they’ll stick a pile of apartments here or something. It’s the same bloody carpet, Russell. The same carpet for thirty years.”

“I thought I recognized it.”

“And I need to paint the house, inside and out. They reckon it’ll cost ten thousand dollars. Can you believe that? I said to them, what’s the point? What’s the point?”

Her eyes were bright and aware, staring back at him from the wasted body suspended in the vastness of the couch. She didn’t want to die, but now that was all she knew.

Russell turned his arm so he would be able to catch a glimpse of his watch.