“Hello, Mum,” she says to her mum’s back, then adds a sarcastic “Nice to see you, too.” This is under her breath when she gets no response.
Ruth is stiffly walking away from the opened front door towards the sitting room. The taut gait seems exaggerated to Louisa but she bites her lip and watches her mum’s act.
“Why don’t you use your key?”
“I don’t know.” Louisa lies before the visit has properly begun. She has promised herself honesty today. The failure to keep her word hits her hard before she even takes her coat off. They both deserve the truth.
This is not the start she wants, or the one she has planned for the past three weeks.
“Come through, and don’t forget to close the door properly. You know it’s hard for me to be getting up and down to open the door, that’s why you still have the key. I don’t know why you won’t just use it. It’ll save me some of this pain.”
“Your easy ‘sorry’s’ don’t help my arthritis feel any better, Louisa. It’s been playing up lately. I told you what the doctor said. I did tell you, didn’t I? I saw him on Thursday, or was it Friday? One of those days, this week it was for sure. I think I left a message for you. It had to be a message because you’re always too busy to answer the phone to me. What are you so busy doing all the time, anyway? Too busy to talk to me for even five minutes? Your own mother. It’s so sad. And I can’t tell anyone about it. It’s too shameful. Yes, that’s right, I feel ashamed that I don’t know where you are and what you’re up to from one year to the next. I don’t even know if you’re in the country most of the time what with your high flying job. Are you still at the same job in the city? That accountants? Or is it the computer company now? I never know. Your dad would turn in his grave if he could see us.” This is indirect speech, no shared eye contact – they don’t do that any more. No face to face communication, no familiarity.
Whenever Louisa does find the courage to come back home she is afraid of finding her mother dead. It’s a simple and horrible fact that she feels like an orphan and she is just waiting for another body to prove her feelings true. Ignoring her mum for long periods is practice for the inevitable she tells herself, but she still holds the house key firmly in the palm of her hand whenever she gets to the front door. It just never gets the chance to scrape and turn in the lock of the building that she used to call home. Yet she is ready to use it if she hears a touch of urgency or familiarity in her mother’s voice from inside. Permanent absence is one of her secret fears that she never allows to register on her face. Instead she feigns laziness, preoccupation and forgetfulness when she arrives there.
Ringing the bell twice and knocking the door three times is her new routine. She forces herself to stand on the doorstep until she hears the muttering and slow movement towards the front door; she no longer cares what the neighbours say when she is gone. Exhaling with relief at the eventual sound of movement she steels herself for the inevitable onslaught of words. Today she hears an additional unsteady tap, tap, tap of what sounds like a walking stick along the tiled hallway floor. That’s new. Her brow furrows. Have I missed a message about this?
The last time she used the key unannounced was when she made a surprise visit home after a few months at university and found her mum entertaining Frank Winters. He always gave her the creeps – even when Dad was around, but much more so after he’d gone.
“I don’t know why you won’t call him ‘Uncle Frank’,” Ruth says to her daughter one day that seems a few sunsets too soon since her father died. Her father’s shape and scent is still in the house, but it is slowly going missing in the chair that Frank now likes to sit in.
“Frank has been so helpful around the house since your dad passed,” Ruth says with a curious wistful smile that Louisa only fully understands a few years later. He is her dad’s friend, his fishing friend, they also used to work together at the engineering company at the south edge of town. It’s the town’s biggest employer and Frank still works there, but he doesn’t visit Ruth as often as he used to, not since she had Bell’s palsy and the rumours about him started up in the neighbourhood.
Louisa stands opposite the sofa where Ruth has slowly lowered herself and struggles to remember which occurred first.
She quickly glances over at her mum. Ruth’s face is more or less even again. Her beauty is symmetrical once more. She was always beautiful Louisa thinks, remembering when, as a child, the smiles seemed to be permanently etched into her mum’s face. They were there from morning until nighttime she seems to remember.
The paralysis of the palsy was temporary yet Louisa senses that old guilt revisiting her again because she was happy that Frank disliked her mother’s droopy face enough to stay away until his absence became habitual.
“How are you feeling today, Mum? Can I get you a cup of tea or something to eat?”
“Are you staying long enough to eat something? That’ll make a change.”
“Yes, Mum.” Louisa visibly winces at Ruth’s sharp observation of her usual behaviour.
They look at each other like gladiators across the arena.
Automatically Louisa shifts on her feet uncomfortably, she has not sat down yet. She is hovering by the bookcase unsure about what to do next. Her reflexes want to volley a barbed comment at her mother, but she thinks not today, Louisa, not today – she internally chides herself and forces her face to soften. She was going to wait until later, but decides to act straightaway.
Reaching into her bag, she feels for the photo album of them, back at a time when happiness was not a foreign concept to her.
She pulls it out and immediately regrets the big yellow bow she fixed to the front of it. It’s too much. It smacks of trying too hard. But she can’t take it off now, it’s tied on firmly. Grimacing she steps forwards and hands the package to her mum, “I’ve got this for you. It’s, it’s … just something. You know, one of those memory things. It’s about … us really. Here, take it. Happy … everyday, Mum.” She tries a smile, but fails.
Ruth looks at her in disbelief at the words then adjusts her glasses to look through the middle section of her varifocal lenses and then gently accepts the book. When she eventually got used to the fact that her husband had been killed in an accident and her daughter had moved away never to return, Ruth began to age rapidly and spent more time at the doctors than anywhere else. The house and her body become mausoleums.
Silent tears fall down her face as she carefully undoes the bow and opens the album turning through page after page of memories. The unstopped waterfall makes it difficult for her to see the photos clearly, but she doesn’t need to after the first few pages, she feels them. She clearly remembers those times with just the three of them.
The special phrase is running across the top of each page, it’s the phrase she used to say to Louisa at the start and end of each day: happy everyday.
“We really were happy then,” Ruth’s voice wavers as she holds the book open at a page where the three of them are holding ice-creams and laughing directly at the camera. She turns it to face her daughter who hasn’t taken her eyes off her mum.
“Who took this? Do you remember, Lou-Lou? Wasn’t it that day we went to Hunstanton on your dad’s annual work trip?”
The old familiar smile is growing on her face, it starts at her eyes and now Louisa starts to mirror her mum’s silent crying, “Yes, Mum. It was.”
“I was only twelve then, it was just before Dad’s birthday and you bought him that camera as an early birthday present.”
“That’s right, I remember.” Ruth wipes the mixed tears of sadness and joy away. “Can I keep this? Is it for me?”
“Yes, Mum. I made it up for you. I borrowed the photo albums last time I was here. Sorry. I should have asked. I wanted to see …” Tears mix up her words, so she tries again, “I wanted to remember us when we were … happy together. I forgot who I was, where I came from. I forgot you and da…”
“Come here, Lou-Lou …” Ruth stretches out her arm, opening and closing the finger on her hand in the familiar beckoning gesture.
Louisa comes and sits on the floor at Ruth’s feet and timidly leans towards her mum before placing her head on her mum’s lap.
They sit like this until their tears have gone.
“I really miss your dad, you know?”
They stay still in silence for another long time. It’s the most peace they have had together for years. There is no pointed anger in the quietness that they inhabit today. The usual sad awkwardness towards each other that they wake up wearing is slipping away.
“I’m sorry, Lou-Lou …”
“For … all of it. After Dad died. You know, Frank and all that.”
“Oh!” That name stabs her into cat-like alertness. Her heart starts palpitating like she’s just been for a run. She remembers what she learnt in her yoga classes and forces herself to start the deep breathing routine to calm herself down before she can think about speaking.
Another eternity later she finds her voice, “Mum?”
The fact that they are not looking at each other makes this easier.
“Mum,” Louisa hesitates and shifts a little uncomfortably, “Mum, there’s something I need to tell you about Frank …”
“I know, Love.” Ruth’s hand continues to caress Louisa’s head. She feels like she is a child again. Ruth’s fingers feel straight, pain free and strong. That’s how she feels. Strong again.
“Lou-Lou, did he ever … I mean, did Frank, you know …”
The air becomes oppressive around them both, even the sunshine streaming through the bay window does not stop them both from shuddering.
“I didn’t know he was like that, Lou-Lou. I didn’t know. He was your Dad’s best friend. He was always polite and kind when James was around. It was years after you’d left home that I heard what he’d done to Mrs Chambers’ daughter. You know, the girl who was never quite right … I think he did that. Did he … did he do … anything to you?”
They are now listening to each other beyond the mere edges of their words, a practice they automatically embraced when death visited their family and took James.
“Don’t worry, Mum. It’s OK. He didn’t touch me,” Louisa quickly tells the half lie that has become her survival truth. “He did show me his thing a few times, when you were out of the room. It was when I was in senior school. I tried to tell you, but the words wouldn’t come out easily and you seemed so happy with him. Not like with Dad, but sort of not sad all the time.” That’s all she dares to tell her today. She doesn’t want their connection to break apart as they are just beginning to fix themselves.
“Oh! Louisa, I’m so sorry. I remember that day, when I was sewing and you kept saying you wanted to talk, but then he came around and you never did tell me what was on your mind. Not even later that evening when I asked you again. I’m so sorry, Love.”
“I thought you forgot Dad.”
“How could I? Don’t be silly, Lou. Frank was a good friend to start of with, he reminded me of James by sharing stories of when we were younger and all went to the dances at the Rialto. Those were fun days. Frank and Millie, me and your Dad. We had some good times.”
Ruth pauses, and her hand stops on the crown on Louisa’s head. “Then, then things changed between us. But only after you Dad had been gone for years.”
“Mhhhhmm.” Louisa is not comfortable with full words again yet. She is intent on listening and getting to know her mum again. She nods, and adjusts herself on the floor so she is still physically connected to her mum, but can also now see her face.
She’s missed her beauty. Not just the made-up beauty that comes out of the many bottle and tubes on her dressing table, but the simple beauty of kindness, love and attachment. The beauty that was part of the person she called Mummy.
Her Mummy used to bake every week, make clothes with her, and tell her a new chapter of their made-up stories every night at bedtime. Her tickles and kisses were like butterflies and sugar – Louisa’s favourite childhood things.
Ruth catches Louisa looking at her and recognises the return of her love. The link that had been lost for years is back at last. They clasp hands, squeeze tightly and then start to relax together. The coldness that Louisa used to hold in her eyes cut Ruth’s heart to ribbons each time they met, but she never said anything. She thought she deserved it because she had after all looked away from their family for a moment.
“After Dad I was lonely, and vulnerable I guess. He knew that. Frank I mean, he knew that. After a while none of my married friends wanted me around their husbands – not that they were anything special or that I was interested in them in that way!” She laughs a dry laugh.
“Your dad, my James, was …” A deep sigh escapes from her lips and fires across the room settling in his chair that’s still there by the window as a monument to him after all these years. “He, he was the love of my life. No, I’m not just saying that. He was. He is. He always will be.”
“I’m sorry, Mum. It must be, you know, hard for you. I didn’t realise that … ”
“I don’t think you understand, Lou-Lou. I never told you this before. I thought you were too young to know this, at fourteen. That’s too young. It’s bad enough that your dad’s died much less listening to my grief as well. I, I, well I was trying to do my best for you. You see, I promised him, your dad I mean, I promised him that I’d always take care of you, his precious flower. Remember when he used to sing, “Lou-Lou Daisy to you? That’s his own song. He made that up just for you. And me. He loved me so much. But I messed up. It’s not easy to say this. It’s been my burden for years … ”
“Mum, it’s alright, you don’t have to say anything. It’s alright. I get it now.”
“No.” Ruth presses her plum red lips firmly together, “No. Listen Lou-Lou. It’s time we talked about this. You need to know.”
Ruth has her full face on today, the same as she has every weekend. It’s her just-in-case make up face, her hopeful face that hardly anyone ever sees. Her cheeks are now slightly smudged from the tears and from rubbing her eyes,
“Mum, I’m just going to get some water. I’m parched. Do you want anything?”
“I don’t want to forget what I’ve got to say to you.”
“I don’t want you to either. I’ve missed this … you know, talking stuff. Just us stuff.”
“Me too, Love.”
Ruth watches as her prodigal daughter stretches her cramped long limbs and walks towards the kitchen. She looks more relaxed that she should have been having sat on the floor for the past hour. She takes after her father in her height and flexibility.
“Lou-Lou?” Ruth calls towards the kitchen from her seat on the sofa.
“Do you want some biscuits?”
“Only if you made them.”
“I did, Love. They’re in the green tin on the side by the flowers.”
“You baked? Really? Why? You don’t even like sweet things that much …” Louisa comes to the door with the biscuit tin. She pries it open and bursts into tears, “My favourites!” she exclaims as she looks inside and sees heart-shaped strawberry shortbreads and half-chocolate Viennese Whirls. I haven’t had any good ones of these in years. No-one else makes them just like you. Not even me … and I’ve tried!”
Laughingly Ruth remarks, “Well, I’ve had years of practice, Love. I make them all the time, you know. I could make them in my sleep!”
I’ll make more of those on Monday, she thinks. The shelter is used to them now, I can’t miss sending some over this week. Her heart swells with joy as Louisa comes back into the room and curls up on the sofa next to her.
“Awww, Mum – these are delicious! Just like you used to make for me and dad every weekend.” Ruth reaches across and gently brushes the crumbs of the Viennese Whirl away from Louisa’s bottom lip.
“Thanks Mum. I’m… I’m glad to be home. I’ve missed … this.”
“Me too, Honey. Me too.”
“Now, let me finish telling you what we were talking about before …”
“You don’t have to … It’s O.K. We can just …” Louisa quietly and hesitantly tries to dissuade Ruth from picking up the pre-biscuit conversation.
“No, Lou-Lou. We need this. Here, let me have one of those Whirls …”
“I’m not sure I can spare any, they’re delicious!”
The sound of their spontaneous joint laughter is so unusual that momentarily they both pause and look at each other. Ruth smiles first, Louisa follows her lead and relaxes a little.
Ruth takes this as a signal to open up the buried past so she takes a deep breath, reaches out and comfortingly pats her daughter’s arm. Then she begins.
“Losing your dad is my life’s wound. I’ll never heal. I don’t want to.”
“Oh, Mum!” Louisa’s shaky voice gets quiet again as her face loses its peaceful composure. She feels embarrassed because she remembers she lost all her faith in her mum’s love for years and only kept coming back to the house every few months because of an old obligation to her dream of family. Her anger kept the distance between them perfectly sterile for a long time. She was the one who chose to make her childhood home a jail.
“Did I tell you the story of when we first met?” There is now a smile in Ruth’s voice.
“Remind me …” Louisa munches on her third biscuit and smiles at her mum. She knows the story so well, she’s never forgotten it. That was where her hope lived, in the story of their past. In the happy everyday that they had before her Dad’s accident.
Both her mum and dad told her their story so many times, it seemed they had a secret that tickled them at each airing because their eyes sparkled every time they recalled it. The only thing they loved as passionately as their story of love was their only child: Louisa Ruth Treadwell. Born on a Thursday.
“Well, as you know, it was a Thursday …”
“Will you be coming back?” Ruth tried to hide the desperation in her voice, but gave up as the words got jumbled. “I mean, soon. Will you be coming back soon …”
She stared at Louisa who smiled as she stood with her hand on the door while the taxi driver pumped the horn for the third time. Ruth stepped forward and reached out to hug her again.
“Lou-Lou …” then she viewed the adult in front of her, who was once her small child, with a look of deepest endearment and silently prayed to all the gods she had ever heard of – and those she did not yet know – that her daughter would return with the same openness that they had shared that afternoon.
As the taxi drove away Ruth stayed by the front door listening to the house and feeling a lightness and warmth in her body that she hadn’t experienced for a while. Something had shifted in her, and it was later when she was again sat alone in the sitting room that she recognised that she had had her hope renewed. At that very same moment she realised that the emotion she had just welcomed was also the everlasting curse of having a human heart that has been acquainted with the reality of love.
‘Baking,’ she thought, in an attempt to distract herself and focus on brighter things, ’she liked the baking. I must do more of those biscuits for next time.’ Realising once again that she didn’t know when the next time would be, her mood immediately sank because time had a way of extending both wonderful and terrible events.
As practised as Ruth had become of letting go, today she didn’t want to lose any of the new memories. Picking up the photo album she starts to look through it again, this time lingering over each photograph. Her right index finger lovingly traces the outline of James’ face in the shot of the three of them with ice cream cones. She smiles and even laughs a little.
The phone interrupts her thoughts.
“Oh! Hello love. Are you alright? Did something happen?” Worry is Ruth’s first response with any unexpected phone calls. Her heart beat is instantly rapid.
“No, Mum. Don’t panic. Everything’s fine. I just called to say I’m at the train station and … and I’m glad we had that time today. That’s all.”
“Me too, love. Me too.”
“Anyway, it’s just a quick call…” Ruth’s heart was seesawing between emotions.
Louisa continued, “I just remembered I have a couple of days holiday due to me that I have to take before the end of the quarter, so I was wondering, I mean I thought, if it’s OK with you that is, I mean I thought that I could stay a day or so next time I’m home …”
“Oh Lou-Lou! There’s no need to ask love, just come and stay. This is your home! It always will be. I’ll be here. It’ll be great to have you home again. I mean, for you to stay for a while.” Ruth started talking rapidly with unchecked thoughts much like she had earlier. She paused and took a deep breath as she reminded herself not to be too excited because disappointment was usually around the next corner.
There was a little laugh from the other end of the line.
“OK. Thanks. I thought it’d be OK. I just wanted to check in case … you know, in case you were planning a world cruise or something.”
“As if!” Ruth exclaimed. “I guess I could do with some sun for this arthritis, but no, I’m not going anywhere just yet. Although Judith and Patricia, you remember them? From the church… well, they keep saying I have to get out and do something exciting! I mean at my age!” Ruth found speaking on the phone to Louisa even easier than when they had been in the same room.
“OK, Mum. Yes, I remember Patricia. Aunty Pat, I mean. Sorry can we talk later? I mean in the week … or soon? The train’s just pulled in and I’ve got to go.”
“Of course, love. I love you. Travel safe.”
“I know. Me too. Bye, bye Mum.” She was not yet able to say the three words.
In the last year Louisa always took the train from her small Woking flat back to her family home. It was insurance, or more like a guarantee. There were so many road junctions, roundabouts and motorway diversions between both places that she had the label home that occasionally, and repeatedly, she never successfully made it between the two locations. Whenever she had set out early in her car, with a heart fixed towards good intentions and reconciliation, a sudden random memory spiralled into a thought that would be too big for her to drive with in the car so she had frequently ended up stopping at the nearest convenient location. In Louisa’s mind this unexpected journey break required a reason so she justified the travel pauses as breathing spaces. Then the five minute stop extended and she began exploring the villages or towns that became temporary oases on her longer journey.
Initially the pauses were mere pit stops to stretch her legs and clear her mind, but they quickly became whole mornings of thinking and wistful wanderings, followed by a body fortifying lunch and then the inevitable realisation that it was already too late to get to her mum’s and back home before whatever she had purposefully planned for the next day needed her attention. Being lost was more attractive to her than following the familiar route home. The old family home was not somewhere that you happened to pass on a drive anywhere else; Lowestoft is so far to the east of England that you had to have a reason to go there. As a child the geography of the area had always confused Louisa because she was repeatedly told it was England’s most easterly point but it was situated on the North Sea. To her the whole of Norfolk felt like it was a section of the country jutting out into the water that was a landing strip to oblivion.
Fortunately Louisa rarely told her mother when she was planning a visit so the only explanations she made about her lost days were to herself. Over time she accumulated a chest full of excuses and reasons why things were broken between her and her mother. The excuses were as shapeless as water and just as dangerous in their growing mass. It just took one barbed thought, usually an unexpected thought, that would then dive into the depths of her sunken memory and eventually surface, gasping for breath, this resurrected image then linked to other memories that were also all gnarled and knotted up together in her head. What used to be beautiful simplicity – their family life and her dreams of the time before the end, was now taken over by these ivy-like notions.
Each month she tried once, maybe more times, to make it home. Failure was like self-flagellation for something someone somewhere had done, and in her mind, it wasn’t her. Nevertheless, the route home after those days – to her own home, the new address that she had chosen with help from a temporary lover, was often filled with tears that obscured her view of the roads and necessitated more unplanned stops. Those days were endlessly tiring and unfulfilling.
The train journey had a tight and limited timetable so she reasoned that she was more likely to end up at her destination if she did not drive. The presence of other rail passengers ensured that she wouldn’t cry for the whole day while she was travelling, no matter what her state of mind was. She sat for the entire four and a half hours looking out of the window, pretending to sleep or staring at a book, without turning the page. It was a strategy that worked for many months. However, it was the prospect of the walk from the train station back to the family home that became the hardest part of the journey. It was short enough distance to walk, a mere fifteen minute reminder of childhood days and happier times. So she always took a taxi to avoid the extra memories.
Nobody was forcing Louisa to go home, that’s what haunted her the most when she woke up alone and wanted to be there, back in time. Inevitably the home life of her childhood was different to the home life of her late teenage years, and now it took time to work up to facing the reality of the changes. In her mind she was in limbo between them both – at a happy time. Memory and reality were always fighting in her head, that’s what her therapist said to her, anyway.
Ruth stood at the doorway to Louisa’s bedroom. She opened the curtains in there every morning and closed them each evening. Apart from a light dusting and occasional vacuuming she didn’t alter anything else in there. It was an almost empty quiet shrine.
In the fading evening light Ruth saw an indentation in the duvet cover and knew that Louisa had sat on her old bed at some time that day. She went to straighten the wrinkles out, but then left it and walked to the chair at the end of the bed. Sitting on the edge of it, so as not to disturb the cushions and the remaining relicts of her daughter, she closed her eyes in prayer to the Virgin Mary in a plea for intercession on her behalf. She woke up with a stiff neck and saw that the sun had already gone down. Arising slowly she reached for her walking stick before realising that she had left it downstairs in the sitting room. Usually she didn’t go anywhere without it because of the pain, but somehow those thoughts of being physically uncomfortable had been replaced that evening.
The next few weeks saw her revisiting that Thursday and their conversations – mostly in her mind. But she also gave the positive highlights to her friends. She was beyond tired and embarrassed by their pitying looks and whispered conversations that were always just out of earshot. The first person she called was Pamela Henshaw; not because they were exceptionally close friends, but because Pamela could be relied upon to gossip about anything. Making an extra effort to go out that first week Ruth arranged an appointment at the hairdressers because she knew she would have something to talk about with the stylist.
The parts she did not share with friends and strangers were replayed in her mind like an unsettling film – it wasn’t any better or worse than what she had imagined for all the years of their mostly silent standoff. She flushed when she recalled a rare moment of open anger between them.
Louisa had said, “I needed your support, Mum. I had no-one. I felt like an orphan when you took up with … that man!”
“Now wait a minute, Louisa,” Ruth turned to look directly at her daughter. Something resembling rage started to surface in her face. It was an alien emotion between them. They had reserved their mutual unspoken hostility towards each other for their each of their own tight circles of friends, neighbours and acquaintances – generations and miles apart.
“I didn’t abandon you. You shut me out. You went to University and then ,,, then you moved on from there to … I don’t know where. You know I’ve never been to your new home? Yes, I have the address, but it could be on the moon as far as I know. You just disappeared from my life, from our home. You left me here. I only had the memories of your father, I was just getting used to missing him and then it was like you were dead to me as well. No, don’t interrupt me. Let me finish.” After that sharp maternal imperative Ruth reached for her cup of tea, the brown liquid was now cold but she sipped it anyway. Her throat felt like it was a narrowing mile long tube of rough rocks and the scarce saliva from her mouth was being delivered to it drop by drop using a fragile glass pipette.
“There are things you don’t know. Things I couldn’t tell you back then. I needed to talk to someone …”
“So did I!” Louisa interrupted, “I wanted to talk to you. How could I when you were always crying … or with him!”
“I think you’ve got that wrong, Louisa. I was there for you. You know that. In your heart you must know that that’s true. I was just so … so sad. For a long time. Just sad. I wanted to do more but I was broken. So all I could do was watch you growing away from me, spending all that time at Cassandra’s house too. I didn’t like that, but you were growing up and I didn’t know what to do for the best. I’ll admit that I was lost and … frightened. Yes, I was afraid. You see,” she paused and squinted her eyes in an attempt to see the past clearly, “You see, I knew you’d leave home one day, I just didn’t expect it to be like that. You know, so abrupt. All parents have to let go of their children one day. It’s part of life. You may know that wrench yourself soon. Are you seeing anyone? Do you want children? I don’t even know that. Will I be a grandmother anytime?”
“Not now, Mum. We can save that for another conversation. We’re not there yet.”
“You and me. I’m not talking about anyone else.” Hesitantly Louisa continued, “We need to talk about just us before we include other people.”
“Are there other people to include?” Ruth quickly asked.
“Seriously! Mum. What were you saying before?”
“I’m your mum. Don’t forget that I’ve known you longer than you’ve been alive. I felt you growing inside me. I talked to you, I sang to you, when you were growing …”
“I know that, Mum.”
“I still talk to you now. Even when you can’t hear me. No, I’m not going mad. I have a few health issues for sure, but my mental health isn’t one of them.”
“I was disappointed.” The words just sat there between them.
Louise kept her head downcast. This was the only place she didn’t hold her head high, when she was with her mother, talking about the past. Her therapist’s words came to mind, ‘Louisa, do you think you need to forgive yourself and your mother? Maybe an open conversation would be the best start. You were both different people then. Listen, without judgement. Talk without blame.’
What she wanted to say was, ‘I was too young to know so much about life, death and loss. I didn’t expect to lose Dad and you so soon.’ She felt that her dad became a shadow in their lives far too quickly. She struggled to keep his image alive in her head because she was unprepared for him not to be a living part of her story for more of her life.
What she did say was, “I felt lost and I didn’t understand how you could spend any time with that man so soon, no, ever, after Dad died. He was barely cold in the ground before Frank was settling into his armchair. I hated seeing him in this house. I hated you smiling at him. I even hated you for a while …” Her voice trails away, her head is still bowed. She hears her mum’s tears, but refuses to look up and see them. She only remembers the feeling of abandonment that sharpened her ability to hate and judge others with speed.
“Oh, Louisa! I hoped somehow that you still loved me. Hearing that’s just broken my heart all over again.”
Ruth secretly views Louisa through the railings that are her wet eyelashes. And then she waits. Waits for her tears to go, and the responses to come.
However, sometimes silence is the only answer.
They sit in it uncomfortably.
“I’m … I’m sorry, Mum. Let’s forget it. That was a long time ago. Can we forget it? I’m sorry I said that. I guess I didn’t really hate you, I mean I just didn’t know what was going on.”
“James would be so sad. God rest his soul.” Ruth crossed herself as she said his name. She had started doing that again recently. Her hand rested on her chest “He was such a kind man, he didn’t hate anyone, ever. I don’t know where you learnt that from. It definitely wasn’t from either of us. See, that’s what all that never-ending education malarkey gets you – filling your head with ideas that say it’s alright to hate your parents. Even divorce them. Yes, I heard that on the news one day. A boy actually took his parents to court to divorce them! I mean, what is the world coming to?!” Shaking her head and wiping her eyes Ruth takes another sip of cold tea and looks out of the window.
“When I was at Uni I didn’t know … well, I was a bit confused to be honest. I didn’t know what direction to go in, and I didn’t have anyone to ask. I mean, anyone who really cared about me – if you cared. I wasn’t sure most of the time. That hurt more than anything.” The truth was that Louisa had used her estrangement from her mother to focus on self-invention and hard-core rebellion against everything she had left behind her. She gained a reputation for having a good time without any obvious morning-after guilt, but her therapist heard the other side of the story.
Ruth sighed, a familiar sound made by people who feel redundant, “I was here, I was waiting for you. How could I ever stop loving you? Don’t you know you and your dad were my world? It shattered when he died, but then it’s as if you took the splinters and stuck them straight in my heart when you decided not to come back home – ever.”
A dark moment loomed over them both until Ruth spoke again.
“But that’s the past. Isn’t it? We’re past that now, aren’t we? I am. I hope you are.” Ruth used a reassuring tone that she felt was appropriate. She wanted her daughter back. She knew she had to grow up and forgive them both for the painful past. Even though over a decade of patchy communications had passed and the person in front of her was a success in her field, she still saw her little Lou-Lou in there somewhere.
“I miss you. Everyday.” Ruth wanted to settle back into her role as Louisa’s mother. It was a different fit to the one she had been used to in the past, but they had both grown out of their old skins. She recognised a new vulnerability in Louisa and desperately wanted to turn back time and cradle her. Instead she gently patted her head and held her hand.
Some people need a lot more reassurance, love and comfort than others. Louisa was one of those people. Her family fairy tale glass castle had been broken early in life and she never stopped trying to glue the pieces back together again. From the time her father died her anxiety was endless, it started to spiral out of control when she was taking her exams. It was about that time that she discovered alcohol. She went to her friend Cassie’s house more and more – on the pretext of studying together – they experimented, laughed, got drunk and high. Cassandra’s parents were more relaxed about everything that they could do in their home, they even rolled joints and shared them with the girls on the understanding that Louisa’s mother never found out. They were dealing with the invasion of grief the way they dealt with most things, they relaxed into it with a spliff.
Later, at university and the start of employment, Louisa included hard drugs and sex to forget to remember her previous life, but no fix lasted long enough to completely obliterate her thoughts. So the circle started again because she responded to every call to embrace wild abandon. Increasingly she became unfamiliar with intimacy but her group of casual acquaintances was large. She knew that over time her mum would only learn about the positive aspects of her life and career because some secrets of her soul would never be exposed.
Even in the haze of forced forgetfulness she knew there was a missing part of her whole life – not simply the death of her father, although no death is ever simple – it was more like the reason she had for being.
She finally sensed the start of truth in a session with Charlie, her therapist, when she admitted that the reality of her hope was razor thin and hidden in the back left corner of her heart, it alone had somehow protected her from completely letting go. It was there, in that small space of her core that she had kept a fragment of love alive.
She hoped that that would be enough for them to become close again.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2017