After … ’til death

(100 words story)

Not many people embrace death like Joan did. Andrew’s passing started her simultaneous love and fear affair with it.

Three months following Andrew’s burial, Joan made her first new friend; friends were not previously welcomed in the marital home.  After forty-six years of solitude she was rusty at small talk, especially with other men. Fortunately Simon was patient. However, Joan was impatient with herself and surprised Simon after six months with a lingering kiss that ended in morning coffee.

Loving life Joan didn’t want to die, her children wouldn’t understand her need for a separate grave from their father.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018
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Thursday

“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.”

“Sorry.”

“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?”

“Me, too.”

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 …”

“What for?”

“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?”

“Yes, Love?”

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.

“Yes, Mum.”

“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.

“Hello?”

“Mum?”

“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.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“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

Room

“Let’s do it.” Liv was decisive.

“Are you sure?” Casey reached across the table and intertwined her slender fingers into the open hand of her partner. She smiled at Liv’s face that was glowing back at her.

“Yes, I’m sure. We deserve this, don’t we?”

“Hell yeah!” Liv squeezed Casey’s fingers tightly and enjoyed the feeling that the anticipation of their plans had on her body.

“Hold on,” Casey laughed as she watched while Olivia released the hold on her hand and stretched  backwards over the café chair in the busy hotel restaurant. “Let’s get to the room first.”

“Oh my God!” Casey leaned forward across the table, still laughing. She whispered, “You’re already turned on, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am! You know what I’m like, I can’t wait … can we go now?”

“I’m going to finish my coffee first,” Casey stated, “you go ahead.”

“OK. But don’t keep me waiting too long. I might have to start without you and that’ll be a waste of …”

“Liv! Keep your voice down, babe. Don’t tell everyone what we’re planning. They’ll get jealous.” They laughed conspiratorially. “Seriously, go and get us a room. Don’t forget to text me the door number. I’ll be right there.”

“You really should be drinking water, not coffee,” Olivia smiled as she pushed her chair under the table and gathered up her coat and bag. Leaning across the table she kissed Casey and winked over her shoulder as she started to weave between the tables and make her way to the reception desk.

Yes, she was excited. She could hardly keep still while she spoke with the receptionist to book the special room. They shared a knowing smile as she took the key card. In the lift she text Casey, “Room 42. Get your key card from reception, use my name. Don’t be long. Drink some water, you’re going to need it!”

The next text simply said, “I’m already dripping!”

Her clothes were discarded as soon as she entered the room.

As she sat in the sauna waiting for Casey she remembered her initial reserve when they had first met nearly two years earlier. This was like an early anniversary surprise for them both.

Olivia was at a work’s conference and had one session still to attend, but when Casey had arrived unexpectedly she behaved like a child and skipped out of the last programme item to have coffee with her. She’d been away for a week and a half and had a train booked home that evening, but this was better. Leaning back on the wooden slats with half closed eyes, her whole body began to get to the temperature of her mind.

Hearing the door open she listened for Casey and knew it wouldn’t be long.

Looking up she saw Casey in the doorway, naked and grinning.

“Oh, this is lovely. I could eat you up!”

“Please do.” Liv chortled.

“Come here now,” Liv extended her hand and Casey smoothly closed the sauna door.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

Advertising

Complaints are frequent

when

commercial entities cross boundaries

of decency and good taste

to advertise

their wares

yet

we

oft

remain

silent

upon encountering the brass person

on the street

in our homes

in the mirror

who

does

the

same

thing

behaviour is an advert

of personality

catching the attention

and anchoring in one’s mind

honed from childhood

we become skilled

at

promoting aspects of character

that are appealing to others

burying less favourable actions

for later discovery

once the audience

is hooked

buyer beware.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

Elegant

Her constructed elegance

was weak scaffolding

against her deep pain

the painted-on beauty

peeled

away more quickly

with each layer

it took years to understand

that the ersatz show of contentment

hid the decades-long struggle

within her mind

between boredom and personal disappointment

the vampire-like infusion of other people’s

joy

peace

happiness and love

never took hold in her

she discarded their drained bodies in her wake

frustrated that the dawn mirror

always told her the truth

as she remodelled

her decaying frame anew

without success.

©Marjorie H Morgan 2017

Lilly Coleman’s Masquerade

 Lilly Coleman’s Masquerade

by Marjorie H Morgan

‘I can remember you, and I want you to remember me, the way it was in the age of the rituals and normal time …’ my thoughts are interrupted by your movement across the room. This is part of the conversation that I plan to have with you later.

You stand beside me, staring at me. I saw your shape cross the shaft of light through the red vessels in my eyelids. I know where you are even when you do not speak. This is the way we have always been. Connected. Full of energy we chased each other around the house always managing to evade capture until we reached the bed, then we fell, laughing together in entwined limbs. Sensing the lightness below the surface and urging it out. But now, in this world of burnt orange I cannot see you anymore. Your eyes still speak the truth. I don’t want you to know me now. I am tired and weak. I was sick again in the night. I moved quietly to the bathroom to avoid disturbing your sleep. The doctor said that I would have pain; he didn’t say that you should share it too. I want you to see me then. Look back, please. That is where I am. There I nearly found freedom.

‘Lilly? Lilly dearest…’

I can hear you. But I will not answer.

It is not time to speak.

‘Lilly? Lilly?’ You refuse to be refused entry to my world. You wait for me. The sigh is unusual. It almost breaks my resolve. Maybe you can see my pupils dashing around under my closed lids. I will not view you. My dreams are my life. I have no other.

I am dancing. I am dancing.

In the wings I pant as I regain my breath. The orchestra soars. I take my position and am revealed.

Plié follows two grand jetés and I stand with attitude as the music breathes.  Mercury approves. Seconds later my body responds on cue to the music that soaks through my mind.  From centre stage I jump and twist. Electricity soars through my veins. No blood remains. The strength in my limbs is due to adrenalin manufactured by nerves. I am free.

As my dancing self I laugh: loud and long. Drinking champagne between rehearsals to remain focussed and relaxed. The future was far away then. We smiled through our eyes. Our ordered lives regulated by fixed music and performance schedules. Bliss. Tchaikovsky and Bach were never far away from our thoughts.

As my sick self I stay silent. The time has caught me. Present.

My beauty is gone. I refuse to wear the wig you bought me. You lie to my face. Aesthetics evade my bone-house. You are not blind. Neither am I. I choose not to see while you lie.

I am a rebel at 31; though not in the Cuban sense. My defiance may not fit with usual patterns. I am well acquainted with familial etiquette. This is not it. My parents still do not understand me. Father refuses to visit any longer and I am glad. I surprised myself when the diseased person took control. I let me do it. I had the choice and I accepted the invasion. I was suddenly tired and willing to rest. I am now a disappointment to my family, except for Jonathan, he smiled at me. He approves of dissent. He was the only one who confirmed that I existed as me, so I will not miss the withdrawing parents.

I know I still have you.

‘Lilly? Dear Heart … Please talk to me. I know you can hear me. I know you are not asleep. Please Lilly!’ The sound of your desperation jars me for a smooth second. Why are you crying? I am well. I am not here. You are here with my sick self. I am dancing. I am dancing.

Only 10 days remain. Are your days longer than mine? Do your hours drag while you watch me appearing to be still? My hours have a different shape. They enthusiastically invite me to touch and be renewed by each moment… and the moments between moments.

I have no penance… except the sorrow I sent you.

Even though misery has made us strangers yet still you linger at my side taking my hand and my heart in hope. I only resist to save you from the dissension within my body. I alone will handle that. I am not used to doing things by myself.

Since we met at the dance academy, in the corridors between classes, 17 years ago, alone has been a thing of the historical past. Of course, neither of our families thought it would last; a teenage fancy was their definition on kind days. But we found each other and persevered. My ego bowed to yours and in reverse I accepted your praise. We made it this far, we made it this far. I love you.

It changed when you went for a walk 30 days ago.

‘Here you are my darling,’ you whispered as your lips brushed my ear, ‘it’s spring already.’

The daffodils were beautiful. The crystal vase was prismatic. And after the door had closed I opened my eyes and savoured them. I said ‘goodbye’ but you could never hear my voice behind my closed heart.

Your fingerprint was on the glass and I caressed it. We no longer touch each other. My body is an aberration to you. And to me. I saw the yellow reflected in your clear eyes the last time I looked at you. Your fear shows in my skin. I lay here matched by daffodils and the new bed cover.

You left the bedroom window open to give me some fresh spring air. Thank you. You changed my lives. My soul responded to the sound from a neighbour’s stereo. My body was invited to move. That was to be the last time.

Freewheeling around the bedroom I was engulfed by the immediate vatic power of this vibrant work of art. Redemption. It discovered me and I wondered why it left it so late. My senses were a pincushion to the fluid rhythms. Instinctively I responded. No thought was necessary; it was release and acceptance all within the moment between moments. I am now relentless for that joy. That fix has fixed my mind and my body always follows. I was suspended behind time, almost resistant when consciousness struck me with my true weakened image through the mirror, but the music continued to creep upon me with its sweet air. I closed my eyes and I moved by heart. I laughed myself inside out. My passion can no longer be held within my frame. New life has come to me.

The discovery shifts my memory to when I first met you. The same wonder and rightness mounts my heart.

But I know that you are with her right now. Do you walk together and drink champagne from the single glass as we once did?

Light on your feet you plunged into my heart.

‘Hello,’ you blushed as you pretended to retrieve the invisible dropped item from by my narrow legs. You forced me to stop and wait. I would have done that willingly if you asked. Your hair was damp from the exercise. At sixteen you were one of the oldest pupils. All the girls talked about you in the changing rooms, they had plans for you. I had you wanting me, without even knowing it. Instantly I reflected your glow. Petronia and Felicity giggled behind me. I did not know how to dream before you taught me how to see.

‘Hello,’ I responded to your call. Despite the heat surrounding us the coolness of surety pierced me, as it has never done since that day: 25th July 1981. It became our first anniversary. We had so many firsts to celebrate together. ‘Our firsts’ we called them. Who will celebrate them now?

My heart is cold … The moment that held almost two decades of life has passed.

The week that Mother stayed, while you were away for that important meeting in Moscow, that was when I decided. I boxed up the pink satin pointe shoes that I wore for the final performance of the Nutcracker in September. They had been mocking me from the stand.

My only possession, my body, has failed me. I am used to perpetual motion but the sacrifice was too great. The kingdom of dance gave me no reward for my years of barre work, for my precision arabesques and pirouettes. I eat now, but my bones and liver do not care. My efforts are too delayed. My body belongs to my sick self now.

I spoke to her. I told her that I knew. The shock that sat on her jowls was fleeting and painful – for us both. She cried for me. She cried for herself. The sun moved in the sky as we saw each other for the first time. We had never had a conversation before. That afternoon my mother and I began to know each other, but it will always be too late.

Mother never missed a performance. Her bridge group accompanied her to her act in the stalls: proud mother. She was always magnificent and kept all the reviews. I was on stage. So were you.

Together – then.

Mother understood and promised never to breathe a word. She sat scarred by comprehension of history’s joke.

‘Father was the same,’ she paused, ‘is, Lilly; Father is the same.’

‘The increase in flowers are usually the sign…’ she continued, ‘then he wants to talk. Something we are not practiced at. He constantly asks me how I am. Who have I seen recently… he wants to know my solitude is in tact.’

‘Yes, Mother. I see the signs,’ then reluctantly I added, ‘and I knew about Father.’

The gasp escaped before she could control it. Behind her rouge the blood vessels reddened. Quickly she walked to the window. Always so elegant, my mother. I admired her as I sat up in the bed. I wondered how long she had known and performed so well. I would never know.

‘How long have you…?’ hesitantly she did a half turn to me, not daring to finish the question.

‘Not long,’ I lied. I am used to lying. You both taught me so well. I have only known of three of Father’s ‘friends’, but I guessed there were many more; belief created many shadows. He began to get careless when I was at home on rare visits. The study door was not always closed and I have constantly walked quietly. Nancy, Clarissa and Charlotte: the names of the shadows. Charlotte. Father whispered your name and the surprise brought me to a halt outside the door. When I heard him speak so gently I believed you had fallen in love for the first time. But you were in the conservatory when I bounced through the house.  Although seeing you reading while the sun freckled your face through the window made me sad, I pasted on my performance smile for your continual loss. You wear oblivion well, Mother, you wear it so well. It must have been easier for him to finally have someone with the same name as you. Pretence comes naturally to us all.

You will never leave him; I know that. I will never leave Stephan. Not today, at least.

I danced to forget. To avoid it all. To avoid you, yes, even you Mother. You took away my life and gave me ballet – it was your dream. I hated every position and combination until they suffocated me with routine and I forgot. Then I could really smile. Forgetfulness is like madness; you live as a different person. Eventually the exercise became my drug and it took me over giving me a new dream: if I was thin enough I could disappear. Away from you all. Food was difficult to control at first, but envy and hatred were stronger impulses. I desired to be the leanest dancer, to be like Marie Carmago: perfect.

Jonathan was sent to boarding school. His letters were short and infrequent but he remained closer than you or Father. He knew too. I missed him more than he missed me; he soon replaced his void with others. He was also natural. Naturally disobedient, you said, although with a penchant for sports. Always running, as if to escape. The holidays at home were too long for him; he preferred to stay with friends. He had his friends. I had my competition from the age of three. Before I went to school I could bend and stretch better than Mrs Cuthbert’s daughter, Amanda. You appreciated the status that I gave you. You prompted me each day to practice. You said I was born with this ‘natural ability’ to be a ballet dancer: I was thin and small. I expected to like it, as you did. I missed that inheritance. I was weak and afraid to disappoint so I complied without complaint. There were years of moonshine in your eyes when you watched me dance. I did it for you.

‘Mother,’ I think this because I can never ask you, ‘Mother, what were you afraid of? What was absent in your life? Did I succeed in making you happy?’

I am doing this for me now. I am dancing. I am dancing.

Stephan, my long love, you gave me my last first: the freedom in my soul. You did not intend to deceive me with your tears; I sense that. You have found a different future. I am now exiled from our unity. I thought we were for keeps. But tomorrow will go like yesterday. There was a time when I believed that you belonged to me. But Lilly is a love memory from your distant past. I am not her. The teardrops have started as I unhook your heart. My sensibilities prevent me from denying you your responsibilities to yourself: be happy, my love. I am. Now, I am.

Thank her for me; your new premiere danseur. Without her taking you for walks, I would never have known that I was understood and belonged. This is a new language that I identify. I know certainty and am safe inside this sound, this world of measured recklessness. I have become me. I claim myself.

I thought I knew music until my contaminated frame heard and understood ‘The Dream’ of David Sanborn. I comprehend and am no longer a divided person. My parents chose the music that had framed my mind for these past 30 years. I was not independent. This new life is pleasure. My mind accepts. I believe because I feel the proof …and still the wonder grows. I will share with you, my darling Stephan, the conviction. This is my destiny: jazz. My light has arrived to snuff out the darkness of my sick self. I don’t feel lost any longer.

There are no further collisions as my first and last carnivals combine. With joy I realise that I am impenitent for my other life. My masquerade is complete. There is life after life…

I am dancing. I am dancing. I am dancing in my head.

(2003)

Copyright © Marjorie H Morgan 2017