The Woman Who Loved Flowers

The room is quiet. It usually is. The furniture we bought when we married has survived this far but is fading with age. The polished dining room table has weathered scratches, the colour scheme belongs to another century, the clock above the mantelpiece, the round face surrounded by golden points, is back in fashion. It ticks away, pin pricks in the stillness.
We didn’t used to eat in silence. Roy and I chatted about work and funny things that had happened during our day. Like when Wayne Drysdale had backed into the boss’s Saab. Roy could hardly tell me for laughing. He works at Manning’s as a car detailer. Making sure the cars that leave the yard are in the best condition. Funny work really, a small part in the selling of cars but he likes to be part of a team. Our friends have always found it funnier that I’m a florist what with Roy’s hay fever.
There is little laughter in the house these days and we have become taciturn. Did we draw less joy from each day or from each other? Had we become lazy, the effort to communicate insurmountable? I try to make an effort.
“Gill came into work today. With the baby.”
Roy looked up wiping the gravy from his chin. He looked tired. “Oh. She happy?”
“Yeah. She was grinning the whole time. Showing off the bub, Barnaby. What a name!”
He drew back, surprised at my outburst, looking down at his newspaper folded neatly beside his dinner place, waiting. Was he ready for my latest news?
“Are you done?” I looked at his empty plate.
An expression of guilt strolled across Roy’s face, like shadow on a sundial. He cleared his throat. “Shall I wash?”
I waited only a moment. “No, I’ll do it.”
He went back to his paper, unable to see the fight that was going on before his eyes. He didn’t even look at me. If he had would he see fear in my eyes, the new lines drawn on my face? Were there more grey hairs than yesterday?
Yesterday I had moved about my day with the gait of a disappointed wife. One who rarely felt the hands of another on her body. I had stayed home for the dishwasher man. It had been filling up with black slime which coated its insides. The man, Richard, was tall, the sort of man who improved with age. I leant over him, lightly brushing his arm with mine, as I placed a cup of coffee on the work bench. He didn’t notice, I didn’t want him to. My skin tingled with neglect.
After he left I took a shower. That is where I found it, as I carefully soaped my breasts, not daring to feel the fear that gathered in my veins.
In bed with Roy, both of us in our own space, I clench my fists and risk my voice in the darkness. “Do you still love me, Roy?”
“What’s got into you, Carol?”
“Can’t you just answer?” My throat betrays me, it wobbles and sways. It has lost its beat, its rhythm. It implores and beseeches.
“We’ve been together for 15 years. I spend everyday with you. Is this about children again?”
A small voice in the dark. Mine. “No, not children. We agreed.”
I lay there immobile as the sound of Roy’s breathing develops into snores that surge and crash. He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t bloody say it.
I had been prettier when younger, never a looker but I had possessed a wholesome beauty some men liked. Men who liked to be safe, men who didn’t like surprises.

As I walk home from the florists where I work, holding two carrier bags, one with steaks for dinner, the other with vegetables, I stop outside a shop freshly painted royal blue and white. Sailing colours. I check out the posters in the window: Athens, Morocco, Naples. It used to be a solicitors office. The sign now reads ‘The Happy Traveler’. The name makes me smile.
I am frying the steaks when Roy walks in. He takes off his shoes and grunts hello. Tenderly he places his newspaper next to his dinner plate and goes through to wash his hands.
We sit down, at least I do. Roy notices something amiss. “Where’s my paper? What’s this?” He waves a shiny brochure in his right hand.
“I thought we would look at it together.”
He flicks through it furiously, scarcely seeing the brightly coloured photographs. “Flowers? I don’t hold much with flowers.”
“No, you don’t.” His constant sneezing and red eyes a let down for a woman who loves flowers. Misery and disappointment, with an unhealthy dose of regret, boiled inside me. I need to stay calm. It won’t help if I’m stressed all the time. All that anger, perhaps it got together and became something else. A mass, a poisonous mass.
I bang the plates down on the draining board and head for the upstairs bathroom. I sit on the toilet seat, my hands shaking with a mix of emotions I can’t separate, all coiling into a blackness so strong. Like a baby of anti-matter, this may be the only thing I give birth to. I steady my breath and look at the poster hung on the back of the bathroom door; a market stall with buckets overflowing with flowers. Poppies, peonies, sunflowers. Cyclamen and roses of every shade. Throbbing reds through to peaceful white. A seed already planted unknowingly in my brain begins to push a green shoot through the darkness.
I telephone Donna at the shop the next morning, after Roy leaves for work. He’d kissed me goodbye. I was startled.
“We’re still going to the Isle of Wight for our holidays, aren’t we Carol?”
I nod. Not daring to speak. I have a timetable to work to and if I feel a little guilt it is nothing to the thrill that thrives inside me. I will deal with the rot later, all of it. It will be there whether I get on that boat or not.
As the ferry leaves Harwich several hours later, I cling to the railing on the upper deck. The North Sea, a murky soup of slate grey, looks beautiful to me. I hold onto my woolen hat against the breeze, my small suitcase at my feet and a bubble of delight turning over in my belly.
It’s a big world, but I think there is as much going on inside our bodies as outside, a crude Disney battle of good fighting evil. It’s just a matter of time, always time. There would be no one to remember me when I was gone and why should there be? I’m just a suburban wife who’ll be particular about the flowers on her casket.
Marion, the lady in the travel agents had booked me into the Hotel Acro, in the centre of Amsterdam. I carry my own case from the front desk after checking in. The room is neat and spartan, there are no flowers or baskets of fruit. Perhaps that only happens in films. A small double bed with sheets and blankets faces a television set. From the window I can see a hundred roof tops under an overcast sky. It looks so different from home, foreign. What are the people like in Holland, in a big city like Amsterdam? Is there someone like me here, someone small and busy who works in a shop? Someone called Greta or the Dutch equivalent of Carol. Married to a man who had given up too young. A man who didn’t like surprises, let alone shocks.
Later I wander the streets, taking in the architecture, the houses built so close to each other. Some are not much wider than a door, especially those that ran along the canal. I pass inviting cafes where serious looking men drink coffee and pretty girls with backpacks eat their lunches. Bicycles are everywhere and there are flowers at the café tables and in buckets outside the shops.
The Isle of Wight indeed! We’d been there on our holidays for the last ten years. I let it happen, too lazy or weak to argue. Roy needed a good kick up the backside to change, but me. I had no excuse.
I find a café I like the look of, set back from the canal. I order a coffee and a sandwich of gouda and ham with pickles. I hadn’t left a note for Roy, I didn’t know what to write. Would he even care beyond the inconvenience of not having his dinner ready? Left to his own devices he could read the newspaper without interruption.
But I know this isn’t fair. Roy isn’t a bad man. He’s a man who fears life, who finds change difficult. The more he resists it the bigger the fear becomes and I am as guilty as him. We had sidestepped the fears that children would bring by not having them. Now we were flying headlong towards old age and there was no turning back, from life or death and everything in between.
We had met in the queue for the cinema, both delighted to find someone else who loved to disappear during the day. We both came from large families and loved privacy. These were not natural bedfellows but it turned out that we were. Happy in our quiet world just the two of us, but you can have too much quiet.
I choose a big bunch of red tulips from a flower shop near the hotel, to brighten up my room. I find a white vase when I get back, arrange them and place them on the glass coffee table. They look sensual and bold. The tulip is a passionate flower, it reminds me of a young woman, her sex unfurling. It seems inappropriate, here in a city of liberal values, and me alone.
I am booked onto the coach trip to the tulip fields in the morning. The coach will leave at 9.00am from the front of the hotel. I order dinner in my room and have an early night.
For once I am comfortable with silence, I don’t try to engage the strangers on the bus in meaningless conversation. I find I like the space it gives me, as if my mind has stretched.
The flower fields are magnificent. Creamy white tulips run from my feet to the windmill on the horizon, like snow but waving in a light breeze. The red tulips, vibrant crimson across the flat, a blush across the land, as if a child had drawn the rows with a scarlet crayon. They stand to attention, thrusting their faces to the sun. There are other flowers: daffodils, hyacinths and narcissus, but tulips have long been my favourite. They possess a beauty that is almost human.
I could stay here, get a job in a florists in Amsterdam. Rent a room in one of those narrow houses, the attic room. Change my name, devour chocolate and drink Amstell beer. Eat off paper plates and never do the washing up again. I can see myself finding a notice in a shop window, asking for a mature lady tenant to rent a room. Snow gently falling like in one of those souvenir snow domes. Roy losing weight as he waits for me to return and cook his dinner.
What is he doing now? Has he taken the day off work or carried on as if everything was normal. Does he know whether I’m coming back because I’m not sure I do.
I take a cab to the Hook of Holland. I have bought no souvenirs, taken no photographs. The ferry back to Harwich is calm. A blue sky overhead and butterflies in my stomach. I keep the ticket from the ferry trip and place it in my purse. The only proof I have that I’d ever left.
Roy sits at the dining room table, his fingers steepled, frowning. He doesn’t say anything at first but he holds me in his arms in silent thanks. “I didn’t know if you were coming back, love.”
I take his hand and hold it to my breast. “Neither of us likes change, Roy, but nothing will ever be the same now.” I guide his hand under my blouse, to the lump I had found in the shower two days before and we cling to each other in preparation for an uncertain future.

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THE OPAL SEAM

Beth regretted taking a table at the front of the café, in full view of city types, men and women dressed in black or navy blue hurrying along with purpose, carrying sandwiches in white paper bags and café lattes to go. No Cathy. Beth felt self-conscious, dressed in a flower-print dress which at least today wasn’t garnished with baby sick. Why did Cathy make her come into the city? It made her feel outside of her sister’s life. This wasn’t about Cathy, it wasn’t about Cathy at all.
Beth spotted her sister wearing grey. “How dull,” their mother would say. Ursula loved orange, sling-backed sandals and fairy tales. Floppy hats and men who made her laugh.
Cathy walked fast. Perhaps all those meetings she attended made her brisk and hasty, quick and testy. Her high heels snapped on the concrete, her brief case was held against her side.
“Hello, Beth. I won’t kiss you, I’ve got a summer cold.”
Cathy sat down efficiently in the empty chair, took her mobile phone out of her bag and put it on the table.
“Don’t give me that look. I’m expecting an important call.”
Beth didn’t ask what could be more important than this. But she thought it, in capitals, with a full stop after each letter. She placed a large envelope on the table in front of them. An envelope stuffed full of a daunting future.
Cathy slid the brochure from the envelope. “Valley Springs. You’ve seen this place?”
Beth nodded. “You didn’t turn up.”
“I had an urgent meeting.”
A waiter appeared dressed in black, they barely noticed him. He coughed.
“A short black. Beth?”
“A skinny latte, please.”
Cathy read from the brochure. ‘Our aim is to provide a clean, efficient environment but also a nurturing one, homely and most of all fun. Each guest…’ Cathy raised a well-plucked eyebrow at her sister.
“Oh for God’s sake, it doesn’t smell of overcooked cabbage and lavender furniture polish.”
“‘We boast excellent social facilities held in our games room, including yoga, tai chi and ballroom dancing.’ Ballroom dancing is for stiffs, Mum loves the flamenco. And it’s expensive.”
“Tell me about it, there goes my kid’s private schooling.” She couldn’t help feel resentful that Cathy would easily make the payments. Beth’s husband, Michael worked selling cleaning goods to small businesses, commission only, whilst she was on a career break from the surgery where she worked as a nurse, bringing up twins.
“I know what you’re thinking, believe it or not I will have to make sacrifices too.”
Beth looked down at her own nails, bitten to the quick. Yes, getting her low-lights done at a cheaper salon or having one less manicure a month.
“You’ve got that thin-lip look, like when we were kids if you thought I’d got more of something.” Cathy laughed good naturedly. “How are Charlie and Flora?”
Beth smiled, “They’re great. Bloody hard work though.”
“My clients seem rather like my children.”
“They don’t vomit on you and wake you during the night.”
“Have you said anything to Mum?” Cathy stared directly at her sister.
“How will it be for her, losing her freedom?”
Cathy’s spoke softly. “We don’t have a choice. She left the gas on. It you hadn’t arrived early…”
Beth thought back to their childhood. Ursula used to turn the dining room table upside down and they would pretend it was a boat. She would pack a picnic and they would spend all morning on the high seas.
“Remember Mum’s picnics?”
Cathy smiled. “She was the best Mum. She’s only sixty-five.”
“They found her at the bus stop in her nightie. She can’t live on her own any more.”
After their father had left, when the girls were still small, the dining room table stayed permanently upside down. They ate every meal off-shore from a different country, escaping to another world where their father didn’t bark, “You’re nuts, woman! I can’t get promoted at the bank with a fruit loop for a wife.”
Beth and Cathy knew she wasn’t a fruit loop. Beth shuddered. “One day Charlie and Flora could be here discussing whether to send me to Valley Springs.”
“How would you feel about that?”
“I’d rather die.”
Ursula, the free-spirit who, when the girls were teenagers, popped out for a capsicum and didn’t get home until the following morning. She’d run into friends celebrating, drinks flowed into dinner then she’d slept on the floor of a friend’s apartment. The girls were used to it, proud to have an unconventional mother. Their friend’s mothers were predictable. Although Beth knew that sometimes Cathy craved stability. She looked at her sister now, her sharp suit and reliability. Was Mum the reason Cathy spent her days banging her head on the glass ceiling? Looking for acceptance and being somewhere she felt a good fit.
“Do you remember when I brought home my first boyfriend and she threatened to set fire to his hair if he didn’t look after me.” Cathy chuckled.
“Dean Prentice. No wonder he didn’t stick around for long. She gave Michael a packet of condoms. He was so embarrassed.”
The sisters fell silent, searching silently for ways they could save their mother from her fate.
“Let’s order lunch, Beth. I don’t think we have much more to discuss, except how to break it to her.”
When plates of Caesar salad and green tea noodles arrived, the two women ate quietly, each playing snippets of family memories like movie vignettes through their minds.
“Do you remember those spectacle frames she wore, the ones with no lenses?”
Cathy snorted. “She used to scratch her eye through where the glass should be, in mid-conversation queuing at the butchers or picking up a lotto ticket from the newsagents. Nobody knew how to take her.”
“And the time she invited us for Christmas dinner, with no food or presents as she had donated the money to the Salvo’s.”
“Beth, she will still be Mum in that place? I couldn’t bear it if she just gave up.”
She put her hand on her sister’s arm. “We don’t know what it will be like. This will be new for all three of us. I wish I could give you reassurance, Cath, but I can’t. Who knows what’s ahead.”
Cathy looked down at her lunch, stopped in her tracks. Beth wondered if Cathy ever stopped to think about her life.
“All of us have our moments of darkness, Cathy. We have dreams but even if we achieve those dreams it doesn’t feel like we had imagined.”
“You always wanted a family.”
“Yes I did and it’s great. But I’d imagined sweet scented sleeping babies in a house full of calm. Life is messier, dirty nappies, and pureed food up their nostrils.”
“Sometimes I wouldn’t mind a bit of mess.”
Beth smiled. “Do you know what Mum’s dream was?”
“To join the circus, be a magician’s assistant? Anything with a sparkly costume.”
“She wanted to fall so deeply in love that it hurt.”
“Mum? She never needed a man.”
“It wasn’t about need.”
Beth saw Cathy’s face remember. “Tom.”
“At least they had five years before the accident. At least her experience of love wasn’t just dad.” Tom had fell off a friend’s boat deep sea fishing, washed up on the beach a few days later.
As lunchtime business eased, Cathy picked up her mobile phone, turned it off and slipped it into her handbag.
“Thanks, Cathy.”
Tears slid soundlessly down Cathy’s face. “I thought her life was sad, that she suffered so much pain. I didn’t want that, I wanted a structured life which didn’t allow for hurt.”
“Not being sad doesn’t mean you’re happy.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Beth takes Cathy’s hand, her eyes watering, thinking of their beautiful mother. Of how she lived in clutter, in a Bohemian way, gorgeous dresses draped over chairs and mirrors. Piles of books where you’d least expect them. Beth had once seen a pair of tights flung over the ceiling fan.
“Mum is such an individual, I hope they don’t confuse her character with her condition.”
“Cathy, she has dementia, do you know what that means?”
Cathy shifted in her seat and shook you head. “Not really.”
“It means that we are going to lose Mum bit by bit, before she dies. She may be aggressive with us, not even know who we are. It will happen, it’s just a matter of time. And this will be the hardest thing for Mum since Tom died.”
“This should have been our time, the two of us.” Ursula had repeated whilst raising her third or fourth glass of wine. She would cry, sometimes for an hour. Nothing consoled her. Their lovely mother, her red hair unbrushed and her eyes swollen and bloodshot.
Beth and Cathy stayed with her, went to uni close to home. Beth studied nursing and Cathy a business degree.
“My sensible girls, you don’t get it from me. Maybe a sensible life brings happiness but I live for the highs and lows, when grief or love rips through me like an opal seam.”

“The rooms are nice, she doesn’t have to share. There’s space for a lot of her things.” Beth spoke between mouthfuls of croutons.
“I bet the décor is calming blues and greens. Mum says those colours make her nauseous.”
Beth sighed. “There’s not a lot I can do about that. Of course, its pastels, they all are. At least it’s not mission brown.”
“It won’t be so bad if she can have her things. What about Venus?”
“They won’t allow pets. Could you have her? Cats are unpredictable around babies.”
“I’d love to have her but Mum will be heartbroken.”
“Cathy, is dementia is genetic?”
“I don’t know. Maybe something happened to her, a trauma perhaps, which could have contributed to it. God, wasn’t she stunning when she was younger?”
“She still is. Do you think she’ll meet someone new at Valley Springs?”
Both women stifled a laugh then Beth grabbed Cathy’s hand.
“This is nothing, Mum’s going to go ballistic.”
Beth started to sob, slowly at first then fear and grief coursed through her chest. Cathy put her arms around her younger sister, held her tight. When it was over they sat back in their chairs.
“You’re wearing you lunch on your blouse.”
Cathy looked down at spinach stains, “Perhaps it is time to get messy. Come on, I’ll get the bill. Let’s go and see Mum.”
“What about work? The call you’re expecting?”
“I’ll ring in sick.”
The women walk out of the café, one stained with lunch, the other with tears, both thinking of one woman. And her opal seam.

LESS THAN

Everything looks the same. The clock ticks mechanically above the fire place and not one piece of furniture rearranged. The expensive damask curtains frame the windows perfectly, the glass chandelier catches the light.
He stands opposite me, hands in his trouser pockets. My husband. My Jack.
“There’s someone else.”
I look into his eyes, pools of pity but his mouth is set in a thin line. I stand by the bench in the kitchen, using a hand to steady me. His shoulders sag and he waits. Waits for his wife to say something. What should I say? “Oh, well done!” or “That’s okay, we’ve had a good run. Pop your key on the hall table on your way out.” Should I be stoical, understanding or kind? Or scream and shout and threaten to kill him with a household object.
The dining table; breakfast things, dirty and abandoned. Red ceramics with green and blue floral designs, congealed egg yolk would be hard to shift. We had eaten our eggs and sipped our coffee as man and wife only this morning. Before. We had sex, good sex as it happens, in our bed on Tuesday. Before. Last Saturday we went to Bunnings together. Holding hands, choosing colour palettes for doing up the spare bedroom. Before.
“Her name is Rose. I’m moving into her flat.”
Did his foot just kick my guts? Was it a blade he pushed to the hilt into my chest? I hurt. I hurt and I missed my line. My chance to be righteous. Or forgiving. If I had said the right words then maybe the idea of Rose would have clouded over, become opaque, ceased to exist. Too late now, no words of mine will take her back, into the past like a vanishing point. Pfft. No more. And his qualifier, his,“it meant nothing” or, “I made a terrible mistake. It only happened the once.”
No. Rose is the one. It had to be Rose, not Belinda or Mary. Sensible names with sensible shoes. Girls to go to the bar with. Rose. Fragrant and delicate, sensual in sheets. I can see her beauty reclining, beckoning to Jack with soft white fingers. Jack and Rose. Did I know this Rose, the woman who had greedily nibbled at my life? All the sex making her hungry. Was she a character from a book or a film? A Bond girl no doubt. The femme fatale slinking up to Jack in the back of a speed boat.
Five years ago, a boat on a lake, this one has oars. A different story, mine. No Rose in my story, only a Jack. Jack and me, Spring on the lake. Cool breezes gently play on the surface of deep water. The sun bright, soft and coaxing but not yet warming. Jack gave me his coat, wrapped it around my body as an antidote to chill. I hoped I looked tiny folded in pure new wool. I sat back and smiled. Jack put down the oars, pale skin, eyes as black as his hair, his wonderful thick wavy hair.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height.” He tugged a burgundy coloured box from his trouser pocket. Opened the lid and the jewels of light glistening on the lake had competition. A small diamond and the opening lines of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. And then “Marry me, Kate.”
His mother’s garden, adorned with lilies, not the funereal type. Chilled cucumber soup and salmon with salsa verde. Classical musicians pick their strings where we promise to love forever. Intertwine our lives and possessions. Fuse, weave and braid, two lives becoming one.
Dressed in what seems an acre of duchess silk, cream not white, white is so stark against the skin. Jack in a handmade suit, thick black hair like Byron. The photos show our faces gleaming with hope. The sun shines and the children dance. The loveliest day, everyone said so. Nearly everyone. My mother tries too hard in too-bright turquoise and many accessories. Jack’s mother isn’t trying hard enough. She has one of her heads. The fathers; mine apologetic, his surly.
Was this where the rot began? At the edges like a mould eating its way in, soiling and destroying.
We share Christmas’s and birthdays. We have rituals. Making love on the crumpled wrapping paper once the presents are opened. A good bottle of champagne with our festive breakfast. On birthdays we eat out. Sometimes just us and sometimes with friends. The Olive Tree, Saffron Sky and Jo’s Place around the corner. The waiters, who know us, expect us. “Where have you been? We’ve missed you.”
I still have my friends from before Jack. Not so many, all I need is our cosy marriage. I love it, it feels certain. I have something to come home to.
“Have I met her?” I look for clues in his face. He shakes his head, his lips still grim. My eyes look towards the door where I know he will head as soon as is polite. The suitcase with his coat flung across the top waits for him. Had it been there as we ate our married breakfast? With the orange hemp napkins his sister bought back from Bali on our laps as we sipped our coffee from wedding present china. How do you severe one life into two? Is it split down the middle? Does one get more back than the other? Do the bits shrink to their original shape, like lycra in the wash, or perhaps signs of dismembering gapes like open wounds?
I didn’t know Rose but I knew he had packed. I didn’t know of their secret trysts, their kisses and more. It’s the more I cannot think of. Jack and Rose had known it all. They knew this was coming when I had not.
“How long?” My voice trembles like it has Parkinson’s disease.
“Since Christmas.”
Through the New Years party with fireworks at friends, Valentines Day and Easter at his folks. A secret life for Jack and Rose, quick urgent meetings and lots of sex. Now he will leave me to winter alone. Cold, with no one to cook for, to make cocoa for and surely no sex. No one there at the end of the day or first thing in the morning when the light shines through curtains we picked. In different orbits where once we were one star.
He walked to the door, hung his coat over one arm and took his suitcase with a free hand. Silent he shrugged, looked culpable and left.
I wasn’t brave, I didn’t try to be. I lay on our sofa, the one we bought in Richmond, too big to go through the front door. We had to carry it, trying not to giggle, up the steps to the deck and through the French doors. Amused at how silly we had been, not to have measured it in the showroom. I lay on that sofa, the one we had sweated and laughed over, finally cooing over as if it were a large elaborate child. I covered myself with an old scratchy blanket and watched television around the clock. My freelance work dwindles. I eat toasted cheese sandwiches until I am fat.
I watch soap operas, chat shows and the usual junk. The news in Italian, the weather in Greek and movies with sub-titles. Does it stop the internal movie; the one starring Jack and Rose? From playing in my head with no title or plot. They go to restaurants and walk along the beach. Not talking, just holding hands and taking in every particle of each other. Those early days when every piece of your lover seems a miracle created only for you.
I cry a lot and hurt a lot, this grief for my husband who isn’t dead. Does she know he likes his shoulders rubbed without having to ask? Or how he loves Salvador Dali and the sound of a Celtic harp? Does she know we planned children called Henry and Alice? Phantom children with no hope of being born. What hurts more? What could have been or what had been? Tragic country and western songs spool between my ears.
The endless misery months, but they belong to me in a place where so much has been stolen. No word from Jack, just a monthly amount paid for our house. Guilt money. But any money is good while I sit indoors getting bigger and more morose.
One day, a Friday, between the Italian news and the weather in Europe, a reprieve sticks its small head over the deck seeking attention. The air feels different, not fetid or chilled but bright, soft and coaxing. The breath of resurgence blows through my house.
I throw back my squalid blanket sending old crusts to the floor. I turn off the telly, run to the shower, and while I don’t sing, the sad songs have stopped. I dress in jeans and orange jersey and leave the house, with my key in my pocket.
I start slowly after months of stillness when my muscles seized with sorrow. As I eat up the metres of concrete my body shakes its cloak of apathy free. I start to feel separate; separate from my sedentary self but as I go on I feel separate from my wifely self too. The thoughts forming are mine. Perhaps I have choices after all. I can travel to faraway places; places fragrant with aromas peculiar to each one. Food and spices, smells that drift in warm air. Or I could visit my parents without Jack sneaking looks at his watch, tapping his right foot on the floorboards, when he wanted to go, when he’d had enough. They would be sad we had split but so grateful I had come. I could stay overnight, Jack never would. Sleep in my old bedroom kept the same since my teens.
The house doesn’t have to stay mine, I could downsize or live out of a suitcase with friends or overseas, using the Italian I’d picked up over the winter, Greek too. Who says television isn’t educational. Venice, Lake Como or Rome. Athens, Hydra or Cos. My mind is brimful of plans and dreams.
The path ends by the river. I stand by the willow on the bank of a familiar place. I would have loved it if things had stayed the same. I would have been happy married and sharing. But with sharing there is always one that gives more and one who profits from that. It seemed a fair trade for someone like Jack, from someone like me. The river flows constantly, flowing fast as if late. I stand still and let all around me move. The river, leaves on the trees, birds skittish, people walking by.
I’d always thought of myself as less than. Not quite hitting the spot. My father who apologised before entering a room, as if he were sorry for taking up space, and my mother who tried so hard to keep up. Aided by Jack I had ridiculed them but I was the same, giving too much, making up for my shortfall. I resolve, by this river where I had swum and fished with the husband who left, to change. To be me and to hell with it. His leaving had seemed my fault for being less than, perhaps it was Jack who lacked after all.

THE GIFT

I have a child, a daughter. Twelve years old forever. Her name is Eve and I haven’t seen her for 10 years. She would be a woman now if she still roams the earth. I haven’t seen her since a winter’s day on the beach.
If I had born a son I suspect I would have called him Adam. But I had a daughter and her name was Eve. Born in 1985 in a hospital in Byron Bay, the mid-wife passed her to me and my life began. Life had been an endurance to me. Splashes of sunlight in a dark place but that all changed with Eve, as if all parts of my life were waiting for this moment. Life was all about Eve. My husband, if he ever deserved such a title, had long abandoned me. Not for him the howling of a child or wet nappies in the bathroom. “I’m a romantic,” he informed me.
A sunny child who played in the meadows, gathering wild flowers and singing nursery rhymes, Eve had a head of red curls and the palest cheeks, dotted with magical freckles. Her eyes were the colour of topaz and just one look from those fringed jewels had me giving her whatever she desired.
While Eve was emerging from her chrysalis I discovered I could write. I wrote stories for children and made my living from it. I spent the days, Eve close by, weaving magic for young minds. Fairy stories of enchanted gardens and castles made of ice. Eve loved mythical creatures; unicorns and dragons, King Neptune in the ocean, wet and wild and mermaids. A world of hidden jewels and shipwrecks of long ago.

I missed her when she started school. Sometimes I walked past her school at recess and stole glimpses of my cherub running barefoot in the school grounds, organising the other children in their games.
Chubby fingers grew slender and white. Her curls gave way to waves and then straightened to a long band of burnished copper. The buds on her chest began to grow into breasts. She could be found always, ducking her chores, sitting on the swing in the garden, hung from the big old jacaranda. Strong ropes and timber seat. Her head in a book, sighing as I called her to sweep floors or wash dishes. Such a princess should not have to do such chores but I needed her help, I couldn’t do everything. My daughter had to help and learn the way of the world. We cannot spend all day spinning straw into gold or making daisy chains. We have work to do. She still loved my stories, begging me to write faster so she could read them.
We lived in a small cottage by the sea. Eve collected shells and pebbles from the beach. Her jewelry box groaned with them. She loved the shape of the shells and the texture of the pebbles. She would run their coolness through her fingers. She had gone to the shore to add to her collection that day. Carrying a small basket in her hand which she swung through the air, in which she would hoard her quarry. The morning was shrouded in black leaden clouds, turning the ocean gun metal-grey. I could smell a storm on its way.
“Darling, the weather looks set to turn. Please stay by the house.” I pleaded.
“Mum, you worry too much. I’ll be fine. Promise.” She smiled and left.
I sighed. “I’ll be down as soon as I’ve finished washing the dishes.”
I watched her head down to the edge of the sea while I scrubbed the breakfast bowls clean. I wiped my hands when I had finished and went to collect my shawl, wrapped it around myself and headed for the beach.
The ocean lay before me like a wide belt of mercury, the beach deserted. Had Eve evaporated like droplets of the sea, absorbed into those heavy clouds? My heart beat faster, I called her name. Only the gulls replied. Where had she gone? The beach stretched out right and left of me, as far as the eye could see. A lone figure with a dog approached.
“Did you see a girl?” I blurted out to the elderly man, white haired and smiling.
“No love. Sheba and I haven’t seen a soul this morning, have we girl?” He addressed the black Labrador by his side, as black as he was white. He continued his coast-side amble and I went back to shouting Eve’s name into the wind.
I stayed on the beach, through the breaking of the storm, I hardly noticed the rain, until cold bit into my bones. Alone on this winter’s day with no sign of Eve or her wicker basket.
I don’t think I slept for weeks after she disappeared. I wrote of lovely girls taken by jealous queens or besotted princes. Of children who sprouted wings and flew away with the birds to other realms.
One day Eve’s school mistress came to see me, wondering where her star pupil had got to. I wasn’t making much sense, the police were called. They offered a verdict of drowning. But Eve had been a strong swimmer.
I inhabited another world by then. A world of make-believe. A world of good and evil. Beautiful princesses and wicked sorceresses. I wrote fast. The stories became successful and I made a lot of money. But I rarely left the house, relying on kind neighbours to collect my groceries. The only exception was a solitary walk along the shore every morning, searching for my daughter. Calling her name into the blankness of the sky. Through winter frosts and the scent of summer. Cloudless skies and pelting rain. I found shells and pebbles, pieces of wave-worn driftwood, garlands of seaweed but no Eve.
Grief became me and I became it. The pain of her loss was sewn into the fabric of my life like fine thread. She haunted my dreams and my waking hours. Sadness seeped in and stayed. I grew thin and pale. Tears splashed and filled my home like Alice’s had. But this was no wonderland.
I lit a candle for her on her birthday. I made a wish for her safe return. Her thirteenth, fourteenth, eighteenth and twentieth years. I celebrated without gifts or parties, excited shrieks nor gasps of wonder. Only a house echoing in the emptiness and a lonely woman getting older. Would she look like me now or had she left this world a child? Did she miss me, yearn for me as I did for her?
Sometimes I think if I had called her Jane or Mary, she would be here with me still. And sometimes I think that I don’t have a daughter whose name is Eve. Maybe I fantasised those twelve glorious years. Imagined her pre-Raphaelite beauty and her love of books.
I walk on the beach ten years after I last saw her, my mind skipping and fluttering like a dancing flame. Perhaps Eve is a mermaid now. Adorned with necklaces of coral and pearl. Iridescent and ethereal. Now you see her, now you don’t. Has she become a star, burning bright and strong but many light years from now? A ghost star perhaps, burnt out long ago but still visible and alive to me. I often look up at the night sky and wonder which one is my Eve. Are the stars close together or far apart? Is she alone? Is she afraid?
I beachcombe in my favourite place, the beautiful bay where I live, the bay that may have swallowed her whole. At my feet I find a feather of pure white, as white as Eve’s face. The pebbles on the shore dot the beach like the freckles on her face. The red of the setting sun reminds me of her hair. Like a fire that licked at her face.
A white bird lands at my feet. A dove perhaps. Now I know where my feather came from. It looks at me and sings a song. Is it trying to tell me something? The sadness lifts a little, the pain is less intense. Somehow I know that Eve is alright. She is at peace, wherever she is. She has moved on and now it is my turn. The tears spring from my tired eyes like the tide coming in. I think of my beautiful girl and I know I will never forget her.
I have a daughter and her name is Eve.

THE ODYSSEY

Jasmine ran a bath in the old tub, letting her fingers fall under the brass faucet, testing the temperature of the water. She loved that the bath was in the bedroom. It felt decadent, like a Parisian brothel. The water was hot and steamy and she added her own concoction of oils; olive, ginger and lemon. Then she sprinkled rose petals in the water and climbed slowly into the tub, adjusting her body to the heat.
So what now? What was she going to do with today and all the days that stretched out relentlessly in front of her? She looked down at the crimson and deep pink rose petals floating around her. Perhaps jasmine flowers would have been appropriate given her Christian name but rose petals felt more exotic. Tea was steeping in the china cup. Jasmine didn’t believe in tea bags or supermarket ceramics. She reached out her hand for the flowery teacup and sipped from it, savouring the taste of herbs, breathing in the fruity scent of her bath while lying in her own tub. She now had her own fragment of the world, where things could be arranged as she wanted them. Her life belonged to her, it seemed.
She smiled but a shadow, was ever present, at the edge of consciousness, clouding the brightness like the mountain she could see from the bathroom window. It was majestic, powerful and slightly overwhelming. She could hear the breeze catching the wind chimes she had hung from the rickety wooden awning that morning. Their musical tinkling made her feel at home.
Home. Would this be the one? She’d moved into the cottage after years of wandering.
A couple of years in Byron Bay, sleeping on the sofas and off the goodwill of friends. She’d worked the markets once her savings had been spent. Savings accumulated from a job in a dress shop, serving spoilt middle-aged women. Evening she walked along one of the most beautiful beaches at sunrise and in the mornings she’d watch the early morning yoga enthusiasts saluting to the sun.
She’d briefly moved in with a guy, appropriately named Storm. She’d met him through the sofa-offering friends and moved into his small place out at Mullumbimby. He turned out to be a man manifested from her mother’s warnings.
Jasmine’s mother, Olivia, was still beautiful, however that beauty had been buried beneath layers of bitterness like a jewel covered with dust and grime, no longer able to shine.
“Never rely on anyone else, Jasmine. Everyone will let you down in the end.” She would put a finger to her nose as if parting with sage advice but succeeding only in looking comical. The wine glass would have been filled and emptied a good many times by now. Always a negative woman, she would become almost Shakespearean in her tragic gestures after a cheap bottle of red.
It was as if with Storm, Jasmine had pushed all the ‘don’t’s’ into a big machine which had projected an image on a wall. The image of Storm. She had so loved that name. Tempestuous, exciting. Like the metallic smell which emanates when thunder beckons. Electric. Dangerous. With gun metal grey and purple bruises under her eyes, shocked at how much she had accepted and passed off as her own fault, she’d packed her red holdall and taken a bus south. Not knowing where to get out she had taken a series of buses going south, until she arrived at the small town of Bega, southern New South Wales.
Creeks wound their way through the green paddocks straight out of the pages of picture books, with cows and horses grazing. Mountains thickly covered with trees. She’d found lodgings in the house of an eccentric local woman called Imogen. Imogen could sniff out a suffering soul with the air of an aristocratic cat sniffing out lunch, and welcomed Jasmine into her home. She’d named the house Nanda, the Sanskrit word for joy. Jasmine enjoyed her time there, mixing with all the broken people who turned up at Imogen’s door, getting drunk on rhubarb wine and surviving on a diet of homemade soup. The wine and the soup endlessly supplied by the obliging Imogen. Like birds with broken wings they healed themselves before it was time to take flight again.
Jasmine stayed there until the frosts began. The cold was too much for Jasmine and the outer scars, if not the one’s that went deeper, had healed. It was time to move on.
This morning she had woken with the kookaburra’s and padded barefoot through to her very own kitchen. Ran her hands over wooden cupboards feeling the grooves and pulled out her old teapot from one of them. She held the teapot under the tap to warm it before adding dandelion leaves. It was ancient and tannin stained. Her maternal grandmother, Freya Spring, had left it to her. She had been a kind woman, so different from her sour daughter, Jasmine’s mother. She had tipped the boiling water over the leaves and left it to brew. The special cornflower blue teapot, the only possession that had always been with her on her journeys. The teapot had been wrapped in newspaper and placed with care in her red holdall many times.
As she waited, various cities and country towns filled the corners of her mind with fractured memories of friends made and lost once she’d moved on, always with broken promises to keep in touch. May be she’d inherited her wanderlust from her father. She’d never known him but her mother had said that he was a sailor. Of course at other times her phantom father had been a circus performer, a writer or an artist. Depending on her mother’s mood and the story she was telling. Still her words rang in Jasmine’s ears.
“You’re just like your father.”
Words not said with pride but spat with reproof. She imagined a tall man, too sensitive to stay around Olivia’s sharp tongue. But what sort of man would leave his child?
Once the tea was poured she added honey from a warmed teaspoon to the amber fluid in her cup. She wrapped her hands around it and breathed in the herby aroma before carrying it carefully through to her room to run her morning bath.
Now surrounded by the petals of roses she allowed her mind to wander. She had lived by the sea, taking long walks along the shore, beachcombing for treasures cast adrift. Wood washed smooth by the sea and tiny seashells. She’d lived in the hills where the air is cooler, surrounded by trees and odd people hiding from life. She’d tried cities where everyone wore uniforms of neutrals; black, grey and navy. No time to stop, marching on like sombre soldiers, unsmiling and upright. Then there were the country towns which had driven her half crazy with their narrow mindedness and slow, drawling music.
The cottage she had moved into earlier that week was small and timber clad. She’d made her mark on it by painting the walls in her favourite shades of lilac, lime green and aubergine. Hung posters, pastel scenes from Europe with French writing, on the wall. Covered the plain chairs with Indian silk throws and blankets knitted in brightly coloured wool. Rolled out rugs, collected from a handful of overseas trips, on the worn floorboards.
She didn’t have much to do that day. Jasmine had put the house in order like a small hurricane working backwards. Fixing things up and enhancing the charm already there. She’d given herself a week to settle before she approached the local market. Jasmine made ornamental hair clips covered in glass beads and silk flowers. She planned to sell them on a stall at the market. She had begun to make decorative hand mirrors and brushes on to which she glued pearls and shaped wire. Her grandmother had always said that Jasmine would have been happy in another century, with her love of delicate beauty and fine antique lace.
It had been an abrupt exit from her last home. She had been renting a room in a poet’s house in a small town called Bellingen, nestled in the hills like a jeweled necklace in the décolletage of a lovely woman. She’d loved the river winding through the town, the Bohemian feel and the local people.
The poet had been interesting; older and quiet. Their relationship had been unexpected. He was a confirmed bachelor living a solitary existence and Jasmine danced in with her henna tattooed feet which didn’t keep still for long. She had intrigued Oscar, the poet whose work was no longer fashionable. He had already made money as a stock broker and lived on the proceeds. Jasmine reminded him of women of the past, although not his past. She swept through the rooms of his house, her hair seeming to flow like party streamers. Her skin smelt of lemons and spices.
Jasmine couldn’t say what had made her leave. She had become comfortable with Oscar and Bellingen. A feeling she wasn’t used to. Fear of loss made her sever the ties she had forged. Now she wasn’t sure whether she felt grief or relief. But first came guilt as she pictured Oscar, making sandwiches for her journey, her journey away from him. His kind face offering assurances of a commitment not asked for. He had a wonderful way of being grateful for whatever she offered him, no matter how small or inconsequential. And what did she feel for him? This man who respected her as no other had before him. Through the idyllic first days of a new love affair still the voice of her mother echoing through the joy.
“Never rely on anyone else, Jasmine. Everyone will let you down in the end.”
And hadn’t they? So far.
Much later she sat on the deck, her long red hair pulled back and held by a tortoise-shell clip. Dressed in an emerald green silk robe, her pale face drawn into a frown. Jasmine placed her damask covered journal on the table, took out a pen filled with violet ink and began to write. Since childhood Jasmine had written in her journal every day. It gave an anchor point to her turbulent life. A life sailing on the breeze like a leaf. Or a magic cloak which landed when the wind died down and stayed until it took it up again, soaring through the air, never looking back, always looking toward the next place. She pulled her graceful legs under her as elegant fingers ran a pen nimbly across a blank page.
The sun was going down between the trees by the dam. Jasmine squinted as it slowly sunk away, giving in to the indigo velvet sky of dusk. Pen clamped between her teeth, thinking about what to write and what to leave out. A stray curl brushed her face. Jasmine immediately tucked it behind one ear.
As with all change there was re-birth. Jasmine’s life was playing it’s song with her accompanying the notes with her own voice. Giving it depth and a timbre not there before. All this coming together whilst Jasmine sat, unaware of the tiny flicker of life starting to grow within her. Oscar would leave his mark yet.

COUNTING PEGS

This story recently won the Albury City Award as part of the Write Around the Murray festival

Helen was in the garden again. Counting pegs. Some days she’d count them as she put out her washing but once she had begun to put them in colour order too. Warms to cools to white. White was the coldest being the colour of snow. From then on she not only counted pegs but followed her colours too.
Sometimes she could hear the baby scream. She didn’t rush inside, not until she’d finished. Then she would run, holding the washing basket in one hand and the peg basket in the other. Across the grass and the terrace, stumbling past earthenware pots crammed with Lobelias and Impatiens, and up the steps to the French doors. She wouldn’t leave the unused pegs outside. Once inside she would count the pegs left over and add up the scores to make sure all pegs were accounted for. Only then would she see to the baby. Scoop him up and unhook the ugly bra, the only one that fitted. Hugo latched on and sucked noisily. Finn would start to yell at the top of his lungs. He’d spent a lot more time at home since the baby arrived.
She hadn’t talked to Alan about the pegs. And the pegs were just a part of it. There were days when Helen sat at the kitchen table, holding her chin in her hands, her eyes squeezed shut. Shutting her mind to her house filled with smooth surfaces, bench tops and tables, now covered with the debris of family life.
“Are you alright, Mummy?” Finn’s voice, curious but not concerned, he was only three and half after all. “Can I watch TV, Mummy?” Helen swept her hands through her hair and stopped at the matted curls which held them prisoner. She looked up at the innocent but still manipulating face of her first born. His white blonde hair cut short on the sides. The glint in his eyes told her that he knew he had won, even before she spoke softly. “Yes”. She wondered if she had the energy to care whether he watched too much telly anymore. Her previous regimes seemed to belong to someone else, someone military perhaps.
How Alan hadn’t noticed was astonishing to her. He must have a lot on at work, she’d stopped asking. Or he’d been screwing one of the paralegals, she had no feelings either way. Helen felt invisible, her form was completely transparent, a substance like cellophane stopped her innards from leaking onto the new carpet.
She hadn’t always been like this, she thought to herself for who was there to listen. The strains of ‘Bob the Builder’ could be heard from the other room and Helen could weep at how her life had shrunk to this. Even the face of her angel baby didn’t touch the fibres of her any more.
She had once been a girl who’d broken men’s hearts, who refused to bow to convention. She’d wanted to be free but in time ended up behaving like the men she looked down upon, leaving before her one night stand awoke, drinking too much. One man did stand out, not Alan, he came later. This one had been called Dave, they’d met at medical school. When they moved in together she swapped their traditional roles. Helen would wash the car on Sunday mornings while Dave would sweat over a roast, trying not to burn the gravy. It turned out that Dave was a terrible cook and she hated cleaning the car. Even now she drove round in a car whose bonnet was marked by rotting fruit dropped from trees, while the inside looked as if she had strewn the contents of a litter bin evenly over seats and in the foot wells. Wet food dried slowly on the baby’s car seat.
She hadn’t even wanted children. She wanted to travel the world, save the planet, dance in Rio, and meditate in the Himalayas. At the end of the day even Helen the brave became a slave to her body, her urges, and the chemical compositions of her. When she met Alan she had recently shaved her head for charity but he saw through the stubble to the woman Helen really was. He saw what no one had seen before. She wasn’t an easy lay who was great fun at parties. She was all heart and soul. And the sight of her scared the be-Jesus out of his mother which could only be a good thing.
She’d been attracted by Alan’s fair hair, his face which turned pink when he was flustered. It touched her insides that he was a vulnerable man. She had no time for heroes. Helen could see in his eyes that he knew she didn’t believe him when he pretended to be the tough guy.
Now Alan came home to a woman with dried milk and cereal stains on her clothes. He tried to help, bunching discarded clothing and carefully folded soiled nappies and putting them down somewhere else. When Helen made a supreme effort and showered, her lank hair curled with tongs for extra body, she had no interest in laying down her besieged self for her husband. She was the hand servant of infants and there was nothing left for anyone else. Least of all herself.
Helen’s mind drifted to the women she used to welcome into her surgery, sad women with washed out faces, limp clothing. She would flash her confident and slightly smug smile at them, prescribe tablets and talk to them in her dulcet tones. “You’ll be fine. Make sure you shower in the morning, it’ll make you feel better. Buy flowers for yourself and don’t expect to be perfect.” She thought she’d got it nailed, the post-baby blues. Now Helen could only imagine how those poor women must have hated her.
After Hugo’s birth but before the pegs she had made up tunes in her head, noises to shut the demons out. Helen hadn’t planned the counting. She was out at the clothes line during one of those wonderfully warm and blustery days, perfect for laundry. She was attempting Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, the notes crowding her brain when she realised that as she pegged each item of clothing numbers flew from her frontal lobe. Numbers clear and certain against a backdrop of mess and madness, they stood up tall and proud, very clean. The sounds of music and Hugo’s wails slipped off beyond the mountains. Only digits ruled here.
After work Alan stormed through the kitchen, effing and blinding. “Damn, damn. I forgot to get those papers to the bank for signing.” Vague thoughts of re-mortgaging floated through Helen’s mind. They missed her doctor’s salary, had fallen behind. Alan looked over at her, a skeptical expression on his face. “I don’t suppose you…? Fuck it, Helen. You’ll have to. It’s just a case of signing them in front of the mortgage manager. Nice girl.” The rosy colour in his panicked face didn’t make her glow any more. Helen felt numb.
Alan didn’t know that it’d been a month since his wife had left the house. A month since the front door had clicked safely behind her. She’d been buying groceries on-line and festering in a range of nightwear during the day since that awful time in the post office. She didn’t want to tell him but she didn’t want to go out either. She had to keep her secret or the contempt he held in his eyes for her could well evolve into pity. Helen would not be pitied.
She planned her moves overnight, while Alan slept. She prepared the bag for the baby, spare nappies, clothes, teething gel and a rattle. She placed them in the bottom of her Mclaren stroller, the Rolls Royce of buggies. Alan had bought it himself, proudly showed her its features. Yet another status symbol where the cheaper option would have done just as well. Helen placed a book and a pop gun in the basket for Finn. For herself she packed a bottle of rosemary essential oil for nerves and threw in one of those miniature bottles of scotch Alan brought home from mini-bars in hotels. He still hadn’t realised he was charged for them.
Helen sat on a dining room chair next to the stroller and heard Hugo’s faint cries, growing more frantic. She ran up to his room, Alan hadn’t wanted their newborn in their bedroom, he couldn’t sleep. If he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t work. And someone had to. Helen felt her inner soul become less visible than it already was. She sat downstairs, baby at her breast, tears on her face. Afterwards she crawled into bed beside her sleeping husband who had no clue to the world Helen now inhabited.
Alan had left before Helen opened her puffy eyes. Finn was sitting crossed legged on the bed, poking sticky fingers at her cheeks. Alan must have given him breakfast. Helen wiped a crusty line that ran from her mouth to the pillow. “Mummy! Hugo was screaming and screaming.”
Helen only heard the sound of next doors car reversing sharply from their driveway. “No, sweetheart. He’s quiet.”
Finn grinned. “He is now. He might be dead.” He began to jump on the bed.
There was no fear at the core of her, only a sense of right and wrong. It would be wrong to go back sleep before checking on Hugo. She launched across the bedroom carpet and ran into the baby’s room. Hugo was passed out on his back, his tears still wet on his cheeks. The room stank of shit.

Helen sat with her coat buttoned up and Hugo in the stroller next to her. Finn ran around with his hoodie on backwards. Surely that was dangerous. All she could think of was how she could murder a cigarette but she’d given up years ago, there were none in the house. She remembered her first boyfriend, older, who had smoked and she’d nicked one of his cigarettes and put it in her jewelry box, along with an American dollar from a childhood holiday in the States. If she still had that ciggy it would be very stale.
She shook her shoulders and wheeled Hugo out to the car, transferred the documents from the basket at the bottom of the stroller to the passenger seat. She un-strapped Hugo and placed his moist, limp body in his seat. Then she went to collect Finn who had his head in the fridge begging for orange juice. “No darling. We have to go out now. Remember, we’re helping Daddy.”
That seemed to work, his face split in a grin. He closed the fridge door and placed his pudgy little hand in hers, it was still covered in honey from breakfast. Why did she not feel overwhelmed with love for this cherub of hers? She didn’t feel safe with him, didn’t know what he was going to do next. Helen’s mind drifted to the laundry she had put on early that morning and found the strength to leave the house, lock all the doors, making sure she had her front door key in her pocket.
The bank was in the centre of town, near the town hall and the library. Parking was difficult unless you got lucky or you used the supermarket car park. On the way there Finn counted trees which Helen understood. She would have counted them herself if she hadn’t needed to keep her eyes on the road. It came from long car trips before Hugo was born when Finn would get bored. Alan asked him to count trees and it worked. “Two, Six, Three!“ She tried not to let the jumbled sequence bother her.
“Look at the play park, Mummy. It’s shiny and new.”
He was right, they had stopped going to the play park because of broken and faded equipment and that awful time when Helen’s friend’s daughter, Freya had picked up a syringe and pricked her hand. Monica had to take Freya for a HIV test which mercifully turned out negative. Now it had a fence round it and slippery dips and swings in reds, blues and yellows, turrets around the top of the slide. Finn loved castles.
As they approached the town, Railway Street, where men and women bustled on both sides of the road, her hands became clammy and sweat beads melted in lines from her forehead. If there’s no parking in the town she would go straight home, Helen didn’t want to crawl curbs looking for spaces. She begged the parking fairies not to find anything, she wanted to go home and stand in the garden, the wind whipping up her skirts, the peg basket in one hand.
And there it was, opened up like a dark chasm, a shady spot where the sun didn’t shine. There were no contenders. No other hurried drivers needing to get their wages from the bank, return that overdue library book, late for their life drawing class at the town hall. It was only Helen. She circled once more for luck and when no one came she slid effortlessly into the spot, as if it were made for her 2005 model Land Rover.
Her heart pounded in her ribcage, she looked at the manila envelope on the passenger seat. Her breath became shallow and the sound of waves filled Helen’s inner ear. Finn stopped counting trees and Hugo began to whimper. He was still slightly pink from his screams of this morning. One whole month, four long weeks, she had stayed at home going quietly mad, becoming lonelier by the day. Friends stopped trying to visit, she’d been hostile at their attempts and couldn’t blame them.
Helen’s damp hands gripped the steering wheel. She knew there was no way she could get out of the car and walk into a building as austere as this bank, with a noisy toddler and fretful baby, her face slippery with sweat, dark wet spots under her arms, to meet this ‘nice girl’ Alan had spoken of. Helen wasn’t a nice girl.
The last time she had left the house she had queued in the post office for a passport for Hugo. The line had been long and Helen held her mewling baby in one arm and restrained a restless Finn with the other. They could travel to the places they had before kids, couldn’t they? Vietnam, India, Nepal. The passport papers were clamped between her teeth as she breathed through her nose. When she eventually reached the man at the counter and handed him the slightly grubby forms he raised an eyebrow and turned down his lips. “Madam, we like our forms in better order. You’ll have to fill in another and re-join the line.”
She didn’t know what possessed her but instead of arguing assertively and getting her own way, Helen burst into tears. Not pretty tears but big globs of salty water, her eyes squeezed in on themselves. The man had shrugged. Helen was determined that today would end on a more positive note. ‘I’m not doing this’ an inner voice struggled to be heard. Helen started the engine and drove back along Railway Street, turned right into The Avenue.
At the park Hugo slept in her arms while Finn ran round in circles, his arms stretched out and his brain full of sugar from the doughnuts she had bought from the bakery.
“Mummy, I’m outside! I’m outside!” Helen couldn’t stop a smile from creeping onto her naked face. She wiped the sugar carefully from her lips, trying not to wake Hugo. Alan would be livid about the paperwork but she would gladly swap him, the house and the Land Rover for the look on Finn’s face. And somewhere at the back of Helen’s mind lurked that basket of wet clothes. It was a breezy day and the sun shone brightly, another perfect day for laundry.

IVORY SILK AND BUTTONS OF PEARL

I run the ivory silk through my fingertips. Feel its slippery touch. The pearl buttons down the front of the dress iridescent but yellow with age. A bit like their owner. I had taken my wedding dress from the large satin covered box stored on top of the wardrobe where it has been languishing for sixty years. The cake has been eaten, the champagne drained, the groom in the ground but the bride still remains. I am the remains of that bride.
At the bottom of the box is my tiara. Diamonds set in silver. Droplets of ice dancing to their own tune. Here I have also stored the miniature bride and groom that graced the top of our three-tiered cake. The groom in a morning suit and the bride with a fake veil of net.
It was a very big do, my wedding. The wedding of the year. Appeared in the society columns. Absurdly extravagant. I reveled in it. Belle of the ball. Waltzing around the ballroom on the arms of the handsome groom. I was spoilt. This was what I had expected, nothing less.
What I hadn’t expected was the groom’s cruel streak. His infidelities. Then hands which stopped caressing and began striking his lovely young wife. He loved to see her porcelain skin tarnished at his own hands. Cunningly choosing places no one but he would see. Tops of thighs, upper arms, even breasts were not sacred. No one knew. He so handsome and successful. And his fairytale bride in ivory silk with buttons of pearl.
I met Roger at my cousin’s house. He had the kind of looks that stemmed the flow of words from your lips. He knew it, of course. But he was so charming. And rich. I was running down the staircase, late for a game of tennis. David was at the bottom of the stairs talking to an elegant young man. I had thought him one of David’s boys but as soon as I looked into his green eyes I knew he wasn’t. He had fair hair which curled giving him the appearance of goodness. His skin was golden, tanned from a holiday abroad and from his mouth came the most deliciously wicked smile. We were married before the year was over.
Now I leaf through the old wedding album. A sea of smiling faces partially obscured by my water-filled eyes. The photographer had taken a picture of each table. Faded now and sepia-tinged. Old family members sprang to life from the pages. Friends long since departed made real again. My mother with her ever-present smirk of disproval, father laughing despite his unhappiness. My sisters, all three, bridesmaids. In full skirts of palest blue taffeta and Chantilly lace. As fair as bleached meadows in the summer sun. Uncles and aunts gleefully waiting for the wedding breakfast. Cousins, young and playful, now old and incontinent.
Dear Cousin David, delicate and fine. Fragile slim fingered-hands. Skin almost translucent. I have such memories of him as a child. We played monopoly together, learnt to ride and discovered our love of boys at around the same time. He drove his Bentley into a brick wall. Couldn’t live with his homosexuality, the life of an outcast. A sore upon society’s unblemished skin.
Bella, elegant and lovely. Her pretty face smiling, unadorned but still a sparkling jewel set amongst the brassy gold of other girls her age, whose mothers had allowed them to be painted with rouge. I stare at the photograph. Searching for clues of what was to come. A virgin then, before her heroin addiction made her turn, in desperation, to prostitution. How cruel the passing of time can be. And still the bride and groom waltz endlessly in my dreams. Don’t stop turning, keep the beautiful music playing, my full skirt twirling and my husband, keep him looking at me in adoration.
At the corner of a photograph I see my best friend, Nancy, looking at Roger haughtily. My closest friend and my new husband already shared more than me in common. They had shared a love of gin and a bed. It wasn’t long after our wedding day that I found them in flagrante as the expression goes. Both too drunk to care about hiding their lust for each other. I close the wedding album as a stark image of the two of them dulls any desire to continue looking within its faded pages, each one protected with a flimsy sheet of rice paper.
The upper middle class dream in our red-brick semi in a leafy suburb of North London. A flight of white painted stone steps led to our hospitable door. We held the smartest dinner parties, wearing our brightest, shiniest smiles. Danced to the latest tunes with vigour. Embraced the illusion of the daring young things. A thin veneer brushed upon the ugly reality. A reality made up of sordid couplings and icy retorts. Hate ran through our veins like hot water through copper piping.
Through the murkiness of forgotten memories a face rises up like a phoenix, haunting me. He didn’t have Roger’s too-perfect looks. His hair dark but peppered with grey. Wiry, never laying the right way. I remembered touching it, trying to tame its wildness. A comfortable face with kind eyes that seemed to smile at me without needing the curve of his lips. We had but one afternoon in Green Park, holding hands and sharing precious fragments of our inner-most secret selves. He didn’t look at me with adoration but with a quiet knowing which saw through to the essence of me. I didn’t want him to look inside me. To uncover the dark places I was afraid might be found. Here I felt unlovely and raw.
“Can’t you stay?” Robert referring to the lateness of the afternoon but I knew he meant more than today. I shook my head feebly.
“But why? What is it that keeps you going back to him?”
“I’m afraid that leaving him would make me disappear.”
He shrugged and I saw pain in that small gesture which appeared casual. He turned and walked away, leaving me standing, rooted in my misery. Too honourable a man to get involved with a married woman. And me too afraid to leave a loveless union which defined me. Without the appearance of respectability who was I? I wasn’t brave enough to walk that path so the chapter ended, as suddenly as it had begun.
The affairs were many. Casualties littered the passage that our marriage carved out. As time moved on they became fewer and finally stopped, with it Roger’s hand scarring my skin. Perhaps it was guilt that drove him to it. Guilt and disgust. The sins of his flesh which manifested on my flesh. Roger became, while not warm or loving, but kinder. I had thought him incapable of love, of feeling, of tenderness. Until the end when his worn-out body no longer functioned and he relied on me for most things, then he seemed to mellow and was thankful for my presence. Those last days together made me think that maybe there had been something between us, something small and vulnerable that we’d overlooked. Somewhere near the end I had stumbled at his bedside. Tired and sad I had lost my footing on my way to refill his water glass. His hands grabbed at me and his eyes bored into mine with an intensity I had seldom seen in them.
“Lay with me, Flora”.
And I did. I lay down beside my husband for the last time as we held each other awkwardly, as if strangers. We stayed there barely moving all that afternoon. Watching the shadows on the wall grow and fade until evening turned the air cool. I put the extra blanket over his sleeping form and sat in the winged-back chair beside the bed. Maybe this was love. We’d spent a lifetime searching elsewhere and perhaps all the time it was here, at home, our semi in Islington. Begging for nurture and sustenance amongst the flowers that flourished. Searching for light, this delicate flower, overlooked and undeserved of attention.
We never had children. For that I am grateful. Perhaps the seed of his loins couldn’t have grown within me all the time such hatred and distrust existed between us. In the end he became my child. Someone to look after and do as they were told. His gratefulness pathetic, a glimpse of the man he had been. Not a nice man, or a kind one but a powerful one nevertheless. And my man, of course.