This story was awarded a Highly Commended in the Global Short Story Competition (UK) September 2011
It’s important to choose the right earrings to go with my new dress. Diamonds mean he’ll come, rubies mean he won’t. I hold to the light the gold hoop from which a tear shaped diamond clings. They were given to me by Ralph before he walked out smelling of some girl’s cheap scent.
Nevertheless they are the right choice for tonight. I can see a story in the facets, my new blue dress fragmented and the morning sun is framed in diamond shapes. A similar effect can be had by taking Valium and half a bottle gin. The door behind me opens and in walks Evie. She walks across my bedroom, she’s wearing jeans, not dressed for my special dinner yet. She sits down uninvited.
“What?” I am sharp, she is not my favourite.
“I don’t want you to be hurt again.”
The word ‘again’ echoes between us like loose talk in an alleyway. I ignore her, outlining my lips in a light brown shade, trying to decide on a colour to fill them in with. Pink is too wishy-washy, too expectant. Bright red too trashy. I pick up a golden cylinder from my make-up bag and twist to reveal a dark red, like dried blood. A colour to make them sit up, a colour which adds gravitas, a serious note to the occasion. I stand and twirl.
“Do you like my new dress, Evie?”
“It’s lovely, Mum. Is it silk?”
She thinks it too grand for a birthday dinner at home. “You asked him?”
Her face appears to collapse on itself, weighed down by doubt and fear. As a child she was always the cautious one, the one trying not hurt us. I think she lost herself in the care of others. I expected to call her Eve when she grew up but she never matured. I kept back that name, I kept it along with my approval. It’s hard for a woman with a daughter. They overshadow or stay in the shade and Evie wears a lot of grey.
Simon was the one who sat beside me as a child, helped pick out the strands of pearls to match my dress. He’d work the clasp as his tiny breaths warmed my neck.
“What about this one, Mummy?” Cultured pearls in white or oyster, black ones alternated with balls of silver. When he was six he made me a necklace from cut-up coloured straws threaded on a thin piece of elastic. I wore it until the elastic frayed.
“It’s not natural, Joy.” Ralph would bleat. “This link between the two of you.” It made me think of lines of precious pearls, chasing around into eternity. “It won’t do him any favours.”
Evie hesitated in corners, not daring to enter rooms. She once saved up for a bottle of almond essence for my birthday because she liked the picture on the front. A woman with red hair, like mine, smiling out from her small bottle prison. Evie placed the bottle in a tartan box lined with crumpled tissue paper and tied it with a bow. I put it on the shelf in the kitchen. I never used it. Evie looked every day to see if I’d opened it, to see me put drops into cakes or biscuits until it drove me mad. I hated baking, I hated the smell of the essence. I once read that cyanide smelt of almonds. Evie would have that hopeful look which pushed her lips apart, it made her look gormless. I emptied the bottle down the drain. There’s no point in harbouring false hopes. Girls like Evie, colourless and pleading, for them life would not be kind. My mother had raised me not to be hopeful, she said I would never be disappointed. I believed her then but now I think disappointment sits with those who expect it and it stays.
“I’ll ring Simon again, Mum. He’s driving down from Brisbane, he said he’s hoping to drop in.”
I’d forgotten she was there. My daughter leaves the room and I don’t say a word. I feel a heaviness gathering on my chest, a fizzy feeling rising to my face, reaching my eyes. It must be for Simon, these tears, I haven’t seen him for ages. He’s been busy. It can’t be Evie.
“Couldn’t you give her something? A morsel dropped from the table while you’re giving it all to Simon. You’re turning him into a self-centered prick.” Ralph, the voice of reason. He couldn’t hack it in the end.
An unwelcome image of Evie as a teenager, pulling her sleeves down, trying to hide her arms from me. I clasped her wrists roughly, pull up her jumper sleeves up beyond her elbows. Neat cuts crossed the bluish insides of her elbows, a ladder leading nowhere.
I’ve sat here for most of the day, sponging foundation on my face, filling the cracks, running my hand through my red curls, only red now with the aid of a bottle. The grey roots appear faster and faster, as time roars on. The sun is setting. Lights shine from neighbouring houses, white squares on black cloth. It’s nearly seven, time to go down.
I haven’t helped Evie with dinner, I seldom do. I remember my own mother saying, “Boys do so much more for their mums.” I felt slighted but I understand now. It’s not about practical things, it’s emotional.
I squeeze my feet into heels. Is it odd to wear tights and shoes in your own house? I shuffle onto the landing and hear Evie and her husband, Brendan, in my kitchen. Their children are running up and down the hallway, no doubt pressing dirty fingers on my walls.
Brendan’s voice rises above the mayhem, over the crooning of my Funny Valentine by Frank Sinatra, my favourite, playing from the living room. “How can a woman called Joy cause so much pain?” The sound of laughter, first his, then hers. Evie stops laughing “It doesn’t hurt anymore.” She opens her arms for her husband.
The scene is distant from me, as if held in a snow dome. I reach the bottom step before they realise I’m there. On my birthday you’d think someone would pay attention to me.
Evie’s head jerks up from its nesting place. “Mum, I didn’t hear you come down.” She looks down at my shoes, falters before looking up again. Eyes steady in her head, they’re green. Like mine, clear and pale. “Fancy a drink? Gin and tonic?”
I nod and glance around at the table set with a white tablecloth, cutlery laid in order, three wine glasses and two tumblers for the kid’s lemonade. Three gold candles in pewter candle sticks, throwing light and shadow across the damask.
“Mum, I’m so sorry. Simon had to fly off to Melbourne for a meeting.” Evie frowns, not meeting my eyes. She looks stressed, pink cheeks, she scratches her hand.
Evie hands me a glass and I watch the lemon slice fall slowly to the bottom. “You could have let me speak to him. He is my son.”
Those green eyes, like mine and yet they’re not. There’s no fear in them, I see pity. Ice cubes hit the edge of my glass, Evie takes it from me.
“Mum, why don’t you sit down. We’ll join you. I just have to chop some herbs. There you go.”
I catch her looking at Brendan with pleading eyes.
“I’ll join you, Mum.” He sits down opposite me. I see him realise too late that we are positioned eye-to-eye in confrontation. “Girls! Sit down now. Draw a picture for Granny.”
Alice peeks her head around the door jamb, ten years old, or is it eleven? She looks like her mother, hair straight as a plum line. She looks at me, defiant. “I don’t know what to draw.”
“Ask your sister.” Brendan turns away from her. “Kids. Always running around, so much energy, eh Mum?”
“I don’t remember it like that. Simon and Evie were quiet.” It occurs to me that they were probably terrified. I couldn’t stand noise. Simon kept me onside and Evie played in the shadows. How lonely it was. In the days when mothers would chuck their kids out first thing and not expect them back until dinner time. No wonder a lot of us drank and took sedatives. Afternoon quiz shows looked shinier through the glassy frame of a Quaalude. Shepherds pie had been made by mid-morning, sprinkled with cheese and popped in the oven to heat up in late afternoon. Perfect family gathered round the table when Dad got home at six. And when Dad stopped coming home, Evie took beef burgers from the freezer compartment. She vacuumed around me, out of my mind, sprawled out in my chair, holding a glass of gin.
“Mum, are you alright? I’ll get you some crackers. You’ve hardly eaten a thing.”
Evie put down a bowl of crackers and bowl of something sludgy next to it. It tastes surprisingly good. She’s right, I haven’t eaten all day. It didn’t seem that long but I knew it was as I tracked the height of the sun. It’s so easy to slip under a blanket of the past and it’s not one of those soft wool blankets, oh no, it scratches my skin until its red and raised into welts. As I live in my memories the real world goes on.
“Here you are, Granny.” Mary, the younger one appears at my elbow holding a sheet of paper. I take it, a drawing of five figures, our names scribbled underneath; Mum, Dad, Alice, Mary and Granny. You can tell it’s me because of the curly strokes of a red crayon. She’s drawn a grin from ear to ear. I hug her and she smiles smugly at me beneath long lashes. “Alice hasn’t finished hers yet.”
Evie looks at me, she’s still wearing her jeans but with a silky short sleeved top. I can’t help it, I look down at her arms. In the light of the candles I can see traces of silvery lines. Evie catches my eyes and grabs one of my hands. “Happy Birthday, Mum.”
Brendan brings through the beef for carving and the girls appear, bumping and jumping, faces shining as only young ones do. “I want to sit next to Granny.” “No, it’s my turn.”
“Girls, you can sit either side of her. Just move your glasses without spilling your drinks.”
My heart hangs in my chest as if I’ve worked out what it’s for. I was a lousy mother but I’m a damn fine Granny.