I wrote this story five years ago. It was awarded a Commended in the Short Story Section of the 2011 Eyre Writers Award.
I watch the ocean. Grip the cold steel of the rail. Clouds heavy with rain. Shades of monochrome. Silver, pewter and layers of grey. The eerie sadness of the abandoned fairground. I hear the forgotten echo of children’s laughter, the laughter of my children, now grown. I find a bench to sit and unwrap my meagre picnic. Soup in a flask and a bread roll leftover from yesterday’s lunch. A small hunk of slightly furry cheese.
Still sore from surgery, bruised and cut, I can’t move my arm much. Can’t raise it in an energetic wave or launch a glass of something bubbly skywards. Not that I feel like celebrating and I am quite alone. No one to wave to.
Incomplete. A fraud of a woman. It was ugly, the scar. Angry in reds and purples. Rough to the touch. Tight but not tidy. My appearance has always been so important to me. Perhaps this is my punishment for vanity. Nothing would be the same again. I feel angry, like the sea, like my scar. I want to surge and flood. Spoil somebody else’s life. I know that this isn’t bravery but it is honest. Real in a world where nothing is as it was. Maybe I would die anyway and the offering of my left breast would be a futile one.
I shake my head as if to banish such thoughts. My hair flies around me in the cold breeze, unwashed and matted. I no longer care. I take a woolen hat out of my pocket and pull it down tightly over my ears for warmth. Stretch my fingers around the mug of soup. Minestrone. Homemade. The saltiness of the parmesan tingling in my mouth. There are a few boats out, bobbing on the briny. Fishing trawlers. I feel as if the ground I am on has turned to liquid. Uncertain. I am at the mercy of its temperament. Tossing around as if I too am bobbing on the briny.
I had taken care getting dressed that day. Choosing clothes that would disguise rather than enhance. I padded round my bedroom with a victim’s stance, accepting my fate as it had been delivered, as if deserved. The fear in my daughters faces always there, peripheral. I remembered the shock they had worn when I had told them the news. I had taken them to lunch, somewhere swish. I had wanted something positive for them to remember. Jenny had turned to me questioningly.
“What’s the big occasion, Mum?”
Her beautiful face shining in smiles alongside her younger sister Kate’s, in anticipation of wonderful news. A new man, a promotion or a cruise on the Adriatic? Cancer. A brief glimpse of fear flickered on their faces before they gathered their features into the concerned but solid masks that still face me today. I preferred their fear, it echoed how I felt and I had no time for pretences now.
The breeze bites my face and I try not to lick the salt from my lips. My eyes hold the horizon like a seasick fisherman as my mind drifts like the tide. Neil. Neil who hadn’t appeared in my thoughts for decades. Neil who loved me for myself or perhaps despite it. Neil who I had let go. We had gone out for six months, a winter much like this one but thirty years ago. A winter of staring at each other across old tables in country pubs, of bracing walks over silver fields, collars turned up against a chill wind. The wind for me which signaled a change. I left Neil for someone else. That someone I couldn’t remember. Couldn’t recall a face or name. Only Neil remained, preserved in memory like onions in pickling vinegar.
The girl’s father had been called Phil. I had met him at an evening class; Cultivating Herbs. He had sat at the back looking morose. I thought him deep, interesting. Now I think he was just miserable. He had walked out when the girls were barely more than babies. Never to be seen again. Not that I missed him. Couldn’t miss what you never had.
We had formed a tight circle, the girls and I. Shared our sorrows and triumphs over hot chocolate and homemade lemonade. Camped out in the lounge room in sleeping bags eating marshmallows toasted on the fire until we felt sick. We had grown together, through the heartbreak of first boyfriends, the heady uni days and job interview nerves. But what if anything happened to me? I couldn’t bear to think of my girls as orphans.
The mammogram had been a last thought action. At my age I had to start thinking of my body as it began to wear, slowly eroding, disintegrating as time pulled me reluctantly through my fifth decade. The doctor, a model of efficiency in starched white, hands clasped on the desk wearing his benevolent smile like a hat he might take out on Sundays. I sat in his rooms in a smarter suburb of town as he called time on my life. Rang a bell over the bar, started a giant stopwatch I hadn’t noticed before. How could I not have noticed it? Do we all go blindly through life ignoring the inevitable? Why are we not contemplating our demise, trying to explain the futility of our lives? We seem to hurry through life in a series of elaborate distractions, too busy to see the shadow of the man in black.
I reflect on the choices I have made and how I would change them, make things better. Would I have stopped backing losers and started putting my money on the first ones past the post? Would I have stayed with Neil and borne his children, different from the ones I had? If I had seen through Phil’s black moods, seen them for what they were, not imagined them something more exciting, more dangerous. I couldn’t imagine a life without Jenny and Kate in it. Not other children. I didn’t want perfect kids, I wanted my flawed cherubs with smeared faces, making mistakes and laughing it off. I had never been a perfectionist and it was too late to start.
And what now? Was I to welcome the enigmatic stranger and take what he had planned for my future? My girls faces again. The wedding days I wouldn’t be buying hats for, the babysitting duties I wouldn’t be resenting. No, I must choose to live. I would allow myself just one day to brood and reminisce. To reflect on past mistakes and errors of judgment. Then I would stand tall, push my shoulders back and go into battle. Fight this disease which had ignited within me. Not as young or as beautiful as I once was but still strong and at least as stubborn.
A child, wrapped in woolens, plays on the sand, now grey with winter. His father stands close by, hands deep in his pockets. Patient, letting the child play until he grows bored and moves onto the next adventure. A young couple walk by, eyes holding each other, laughter spilling from them. How beautiful that time is, sacred, fleeting. Time marches on, the tide ebbs and flows. How different are we to our mothers or grandmothers? How different are we to a woman in another century? Another country? As I stare at the long shadows cast by strangers ambling past, I savour every taste of my picnic, as if devouring a feast. No small thing will be taken for granted; every wonder must be marveled at.
It turns colder. What light there is fading slowly and inevitably towards darkness. I replace the lid on my flask, take a long look at the ocean and walk away.