Aunt Eleanor always had beautiful hands.
Even when her face became lined and yellowed, her throat sagged to resemble that of a turkey, and her chest was covered in tissue-thin skin that collapsed when she folded her arms, her hands remained smooth and white, her fingers long and lithe and her wrists as dainty as those of a china doll.
It was as though her hands had been grafted on years later, though sometimes I wondered whether the reality was the other way round.
She pampered them, rubbing them with cucumber or lemon, creaming them, sleeping in white cotton gloves. Sometimes when I visited I would catch her admiring them as we chatted.
Her cat, McManus, seemed to worship her hands too, taking every opportunity to insinuate himself beneath them, purring, rubbing. And watching. From his cushion on the chair opposite, he never shifted his gaze from those elegant white appendages, even when they lay completely still, folded in her lap.
When, at the age of 90, she was admitted to hospital, I visited her often. We’d always been close, and it was painful to watch as her body began to fail her.
Her beautiful hands plucked restlessly at the cotton bedspread, occasionally wandering over towards me, as if pleading for comfort. I would seize them in my own, and it seemed to soothe her, and them, if I gently massaged them, working her expensive creams into the skin.
Even as I did so, I couldn’t help but contrast my own work-worn, freckled and rough hands with hers. There were just less than 40 years between us, and yet her hands were those of a woman half my age.
When she died, Aunt Eleanor left me her house, McManus and, the will said, her hands.
The first two were welcome bequests, and whilst I thought the last was one of her little jokes, knowing how much I had admired them, I was uneasy. I took care to check, when I said goodbye to her at the funeral parlour, that her beautiful hands were still in place.
There they were, folded across her narrow chest, still, white and slender. They were, it seemed, at peace.
I moved into the house shortly after the burial, selecting a room on the eastern side of the house for my own. Though I fed and groomed McManus he didn’t want to spend time with me, as he had with Aunt Eleanor, preferring to spend time crouched by the door to the bedroom where she’d slept for the last forty years of her life. I’d see him sometimes cocking his head to one side as though he were listening, or trying to figure something out.
On the night of my 50th birthday I’d retired to bed at midnight after eating out with friends. As I moved along the landing towards my room I passed McManus, still crouched beside Aunt Eleanor’s bedroom door, and mewling pathetically as if waiting to be let in.
I bent down to pick him up, and for once he neither spat nor struggled, just started to purr loudly. I don’t know why, it just seemed a good idea to show him that Aunt Eleanor wasn’t in the bedroom, so I quietly opened the door and went in.
The light from the landing spilled across the room and onto the bed, where, nestling on the rose-sprigged quilt lay Aunt Eleanor’s hands.
As the light reached them, they beckoned me to move further into the room, and McManus leapt from my arms and onto the bed with a chirp of welcoming delight.
I think I must have had some kind of a blackout, for when I awoke next morning I was in my own bed, the light streaming through the window onto McManus’s furry head which was gently butting against my hands.
Well, not my hands, of course …
I think I may move into Aunt Eleanor’s bedroom today; McManus would like that.