This story came second in The Pages Short Story Competition (UK) March 2009 and was published in their anthology
The morning light seems starker. I hold a memory where it has a pinker glow and feels like fingertips which massage my limbs to life. Now the light falls like shards of glass, sudden and brutal; a rude awakening. The sound of crows cawing outside the window with its inadequate curtains; something else I should get round to. Light peeps through the holes rather like daytime stars. Katie would have loved that. Daytime stars, her face shining with pleasure trying to touch them. Not a day goes by when she is not my first thought. I hope she is one of those stars now, perhaps one shining on me now or in the indigo skies of night.
I take my breakfast a little later, sitting at the gnarled kitchen table. It bears the scars of years as I do. From the table I see the lane outside my house and the field beyond framed by gum trees. A painting the artist neglected to put people in. No distractions, that’s a good thing. Except this morning the artist has been busy with his brush. A young father chases after a child. A girl, wearing a red coat with mittens sewn on string and a green beanie pulled over her hair. Loose and dark, curls flowing like streamers behind her. I feel something sharp hit my breastbone. This girl is allowed to run with her father, why not Katie? Then anger. A house in a private lane, the reason I bought it. I didn’t sign up for distractions and uncomfortable feelings. The girl disappears from view and the man waves and smiles at someone not in the frame just yet.
Mrs Abercrombie on her bicycle, overdressed and wearing a scarf longer than can be safe, she stops and shoves a copy of The Tribune in my mailbox then rides away. Mrs Abercrombie produces The Tribune from her kitchen table, rather like the one I am sitting at now I imagine. Her daughter helps her with the computer work, professionally printed and sponsored by local businesses. I don’t read The Tribune but it is delivered on Tuesdays. I have very few markers to distinguish the days. Mrs Abercrombie on Tuesday, Trents deliver on Thursday. For me most days bring only work.
After breakfast I make myself a cup of coffee and sit down at the computer. I no longer smoke. I have to pay for the groceries and the electricity. Sitting down at the computer is like plugging into my life support machine, I have a gift for it. Love, motherhood; I failed. If I didn’t have my column I would have no voice. Imagine a life of silence, nothing to say, and nothing to hear. My voice has a name; Victoria O’Hara. Victoria has an acid tongue. She reports, sometimes scathingly, on the news of the day. Sharp tongued, smart suited, cutting her way through policy changes and the swapping of wives. My alter-ego. But Margaret Johnson would never have been so bold. Margaret Johnson is the one who makes the coffee and neglects to sew up the holes in the curtains.
First I look up the days headlines; easier now the papers are on the net. Another top bank in financial trouble; let me get my hands on the CEO. Mother stages kidnap of her own child; dig up all the dirt from friends and family. Actor in bar room brawl; any photos on phones? This world we live in keeps me busy. Political scandals, extramarital affairs, whose doing what to whom. How addictive is this nonsense served to us. Larger than life, larger than our lives.
I sit back with my coffee and take a break; cast an eye over my home of the last five years. Faded and bleached by the sun. Cornflower walls now baby blue, the rugs threadbare, reds and oranges now indistinguishable browns. I have worked too hard to pay attention to it. I was sadder when I first came here. My spark had gone out, stars hidden behind cloud. I’d always been a career girl. Worked in the city, mini-skirted, make-up troweled on, with a cigarette like an extra finger. I hadn’t reckoned on love. Gil, my editor, wavy sandy hair, hard and sure. I’d had lots of affairs but Gil was special. He made me feel worshipped. He had an apartment in town, a nice one, not like mine. I was nearly forty and I fell pregnant. It was a shock for both of us but we adapted, gave up both apartments and bought a house in the suburbs.
Life changed. I expected to go back to work and take on a nanny but pregnancy changed me, I lost my edge. My body was taking me somewhere new with its expanding and softening. I became emotional and I reveled in it. When Katie was born I thought I would explode with joy. This perfect child I had given birth to. My articles and columns had always been hard and gritty, with Katie I had produced pliant beauty, wriggling and squirming with a dimpled smile. I marveled over her sandy hair and eyes the colour of the sky. But I always felt she wasn’t mine forever. Too perfect, too lovely, a child the angels wouldn’t be able to resist. And so my prophesy was fulfilled.
I didn’t move in here alone, I moved in with a grief so big it covered all like a blanket, or a desert. All or nothing, consumed or blocked out? I’d had five years away from journalism but they welcomed me back. Gil had moved on. He had stayed with me until Katie died, each blaming the other for not noticing the illness which took her. Gil had mentally left years before. He hadn’t reckoned on a home mum, where was his hard-headed woman, but I found I couldn’t leave Katie. I am thankful I gave into that impulse; I had five solid years with my angel child. Remembered each new tooth, each strand of hair. I sang to her and read her nursery rhymes. Built towers of wooden blocks and knocked them down. Shared her tears, her laughter and even relished her tantrums.
I keep a framed photo at my desk. A fair-haired child smiling back at me. Her mouth is open, the word she is saying trapped in time. Mummy.
A loud and sudden knock from the screen door makes me jump.
“Hello! Margaret Johnson? It’s Joe Trent from town.”
The Trents didn’t usually make social calls. I put my cup down and walked slowly to the door. “Can I help you?” My voice slightly snooty. “Yes.” A pause. “Dad asked me to pick up any outstanding accounts. The mail isn’t so reliable. I hope it isn’t inconvenient.”
I snort. “I have got somewhat behind. You better come in while I look for my cheque book.”
Joe, tall, thin and copper haired, strode confidently across the threshold. He looked a little chilled, weather for apple cheeks. “Would you like a coffee? I just brewed a pot of the good stuff.”
A smile spread across Joe Trent’s freckled face. “That would be great. There’s a hell of a cold breeze today.”
“Sit down.” He sat and I poured two cups, using the only china I possessed. It was decent; emerald green and rimmed with gold.
“Thank you. Do you mind if I call you Margaret?”
“I prefer Maggie but I use a pen name in my job so I’m used to being called Victoria.”
“Are you an author? Would I have read anything of yours?” Joe leaned forward, obviously a reader.
“No, at least not yet. I’m a journalist.”
“You look like a Victoria. Which paper do you write for?”
“The Age. Do you read it?”
“No. I don’t get much further than The Tribune. I like books though”
“What do you read?”
Joe relaxed. “Fiction; Winton, Carey but what I can get hold of in the library usually.”
“What holds you in a small town like this?”
“I figure one place is much the same as the next.” “I can’t imagine this town would be like one of the big cities.”
“Oh, the things people do and see are different certainly. But I don’t think people differ greatly. They have the same needs, the same hopes. Why do you stay here, Victoria?”
“I’m not sure. Can’t picture being anywhere else. People leave me alone. I like that.”
When we had both finished the coffee I filled in a cheque and handed it to Joe. I had made a friend.
Later that week I worked on a story of a young actress who jumped from the 25th floor of a building. Nobody; friends or family knew that this beautiful woman was anything but happy. The sun shone brightly through the windows behind my computer and I bathed in the warmth, looked at the emerald green of the grass beyond the glass and wondered what could be terrible enough to make this woman take her own life. Then I remembered. I remembered what it felt like when Katie died. It wasn’t the pain that hurt, rather the lack of feeling, the numbness. I would never feel again so what was the point of being alive? I moved past this stage and I sit here now passing judgment on another woman’s pain. It didn’t seem right.
“Hello, Victoria! Are you in?” Joe’s voice rang out like a favourite tune.
“Yes. Have I forgotten again?”
“No. I thought I’d save you the bother of putting a cheque in an envelope and see if you had any of that great coffee.” I opened the door to a smiling Joe. His copper hair framed like a halo by the sun.
“Come in kind sir. I’ll put the pot on.”
“Why did you never marry, Victoria?” Straight to the point. We sat around the table; Joe had bought some biscuits from the store which I put on a plate. We held our coffee cups in our hands, breathing in the aroma. You have to get the coffee to the right heat without burning it. Burn it and it’s ruined.
“I don’t really know. I had a child once and that was the closest I came.”
“A child?” Joe leaned forward frowning.
“Katie. She died. Cancer.” That sadness, like a cloak again.
“That’s awful. I’m so sorry, Victoria.”
“Yes. Still is.”
“How old was she?”
“Five, almost six. I came here after she died.”
Joe’s face showed a mixture of horror and sadness as if he knew a little of how it felt to experience that measure of loss.
“I never wanted to go back out there. I didn’t want my life threaded with others. I lost the love of my life and my only child. I don’t believe in second chances.” I had a vision of Gil with a wife and new children. That route wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to repeat something as wonderful as what we had.
Joe came a few days later, this time bringing my groceries in a box. We didn’t speak of Katie again.
“Where do you get that coffee from? I know we don’t stock it.”
I laughed. “No. I get it mail-order from the city. It’s good, isn’t it?”
We drank our coffee and talked of deeper things. Not gossip or hearsay but the meanings behind choices and the details that make us what we are. Spring and Autumn, we were, each with our own weathers and characteristics.
One day when Joe was here the little girl and her father ran past again, playing the same game. Childish laughter filled our ears. “Those two again. I can’t bear the sound. I wish they’d go away.”
“Why do you want to stop people’s happiness? Just because yours has been destroyed?” Joe looked deep into my eyes which I was sure were cold and cruel.
“What would you know? Don’t suppose you’ve had anything bad happen to you in your short, carefree life. Don’t stand in judgment of those who’ve lost someone. You’ve no idea.” My words like poison seeped into the tableau of two friends chewing the fat over a warming drink.
Joe stopped and the room fell silent, like after the first snow, muffled and deadened. “Actually I do. My mum died. Three months ago.”
“Oh, Joe! God, I’m sorry. I had no idea. Why didn’t you say something?”
“Same reason you don’t talk freely of Katie I suppose. If I don’t say it out loud, maybe it’s not true. Maybe her old car with its squeaky brakes, which she never bothered to get fixed, will draw up outside and everything will be as it was. Mum and dad working side by side in the shop. Dad making awful jokes, mum laughing and pulling faces at me when he wasn’t looking. Christmas, when mum would buy me far too many presents and play Christmas songs on the music system from November driving us mad. Now we’re just two empty cotton reels rattling around in a box.”
“How did it happen?”
“Cancer, same as Katie. It’s terrible to watch someone you love so much slowly fade away, but not painlessly. She didn’t even get to have that. I look after dad now; mum would have liked that, her boys helping each other through. I guess that’s a good reason to stay.”
Joe and I had struck up a strange friendship, loosely passed off with deliveries and payments as excuses. We had death and loss in common but I think we would have been friends regardless. A shared love of coffee and books; I leant him a few of mine which lay around the place unread. We swapped photos of our childhoods and some of me in my twenties, globe-trotting. The obligatory shot in front of the Taj Mahal, another shooting the breeze with black clad Greek men in island villages. Joe brought pictures of his mother, young and dressed in mini-skirts with a copper-haired toddler balanced on one hip.
“What was her name, Joe?”
“Felicity. I think it means happiness in Italian.”
More family snaps; trips to the seaside in their old Holden, Joe’s dad with only one arm suntanned. Eventually I shared photos of Katie with him. We said nothing, just passed them between us. Robust and full of fun before disease claimed her. By then I was with her around the clock but still she managed to sneak away without saying goodbye. One day when the first warm breeze of summer filled the house, Joe arrived to find me packing boxes.
I put one arm across my arms to shield them from the sun. “Yeah. Busy day in the shop. How about you?”
“Packing some things away. Do you want my computer?”
“Are you moving?”
“Not exactly. Hey, it’s a bit late for coffee. Do you fancy a glass of wine?”
I set a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table on the veranda, pulling up the two bistro chairs. I’d hardly used them. It’s not quite the same watching the sun go down with a glass of wine alone.
“So?” Joe’s eyebrow lifted almost to his hairline.
“So, I’ve decided to try my hand at travel writing. I plan to visit different countries and the paper will pay me to write about them.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“I only just made the decision. Squared it with the editor this afternoon. You can stay here if you like. Housesit.”
“I might do that. Won’t be the same without you.”
“I know it’s sudden but I don’t have any anchors to keep me tied to one place.”
Joe spoke softly. “Aren’t I an anchor?”
“No, you’re a friend. I won’t be away forever. And who knows, you might want to join me at some point. I’ll show you how different people and places can be.”
“You look different. Softer. Am I to call you Maggie now?” I raise my glass and smile thank you.