Best Friends

 

Best Friends

Allen was scared. It was not the type of fear that resulted in an immediate desire to run for his life – although he had experienced that – this was an old, familiar fear that he thought he had left in his teenage years. This ancient, buried dread crawled up out of the ground and grasped his ankles without warning. All the fight had departed from him, so he just gave in and accepted it.

The message he received was the touch paper to this episode. That morning his own reaction surprised him. In fact for the past five years, he had believed that he’d stopped caring about other people’s opinions, then that name from the past appeared on his screen and had jolted him back in time, and he was newly confused and as nervous as a teenager about to go on a first date.

His sister had text him that she’d seen a friend of his in their home town. George.

George was not just any friend, George was his best friend. They were like two sides of a coin – always together. But it was obvious that they weren’t related because they looked so different, but they were still like twins with their behaviour, emerging teenage style and strong opinions about everything from what real music was, the best drugs and everything about sex. George’s unruly ginger hair was almost equal in size to Allen’s neatly trimmed afro, they also somehow managed to end up with similar clothes as well – probably due to the few shopping options in their small town, and the fact that their mothers often met in the High Street.

‘George,’ Allen said.

‘Yeah, mate.’ The reply was absentminded, easy and casual like everything between them.

‘D’you wanna go fishing tomorrow?’

‘Yeah. Why not? Got nothing else on.’

‘Cool. I’ll get the stuff ready tonight – we’ll have to go early like, alright?’

‘Sure. Whatever.’ George paused and looked up from the games console, ‘You’re so serious about fishing and I always get the best catch – every time! I don’t know why you keep trying so hard. I’m always gonna beat you.’

They laughed together, and Allen smiled because he knew George was right, as usual, he did get the biggest fish, but Allen didn’t care, he just like hanging out with George.

‘It’s funny!’ George observed, suddenly being unusually serious for his teenage self, ‘I’m better at things that you like doing, and you’re better at things that I like. We’re a right pair of wally’s!’ The statement was accompanied with his usual laughter aimed at Allen –  but not spitefully. They messed around, but not to permanently hurt each other. They never fell out for more than a day. That’s not what they did, not who they were.

They had left school with duplicate Technical Certificates and went into similar  apprenticeship jobs, so it was not unusual to see them together, at either parents’ house. They knew that they would have a meal saved for them every night whichever house they ended up in;  both sets of parents had informally adopted the other boy. The boys themselves hadn’t questioned it or expected anything else. They just continued the friendship that they had started when they met in the first term of secondary school.

As close as they were, they did have time apart when puberty and girlfriends appeared on the scene, but never more than a few evenings without seeing each other. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

‘Oh! Morning George,’ said Mrs Mason bumping into him outside the bathroom.

‘Morning, Mrs Mason.’ His slow response reflected his desire to still be asleep but he knew he couldn’t miss any more days at work, his attendance record was not as good as Allen’s who never missed a day.

‘I didn’t know you stayed over last night. You two must have got back late. Did you ring your mother?’

‘Yes, of course. Allen made me!’

‘Good. Don’t be late to work – that’s both of you! Best you both get up and get out quickly, it’s nearly 8 o’clock. See you two later?’

‘’Spect so. Bye.’

The conversations were reversed when Allen stayed at George’s house, with the exception that he didn’t have to be asked if he called home – he always did. He was always conscientious of other people’s feelings. At George’s he used the spare sleeping bag on the floor and George would use the pull out bed when he was at the Mason’s house.

Initially when Allen moved away for work they called and met up at weekends or went on holidays together and with other friends. They remained tight for years until Allen’s 25th birthday party in Birmingham.

After that George started calling Allen ‘Jester’ whenever he went home for the weekend, and then they started slipping out of each other’s lives without fanfare.

It was at a surprise encounter after three years before George suddenly said, ‘So, what’s this Jester’s bar you’re always at?’ It was like he was jabbing a knife at Allen’s chest.

‘What you talking about?’ Allen was surprised and confused.

‘The Jester, you plonker! Don’t act thick’

Everything was strained between them. There was no friendly greeting, just the verbal assault. George knew why things had changed, he had seen something new and found out a secret, but he never said anything before that Sunday years later.

Allen flushed. It was difficult for most people to see when he was embarrassed because of his dark complexion, but George knew him. He knew he’d hit a nerve, so he jabbed again.

‘At your 25th. When you were first in Brum, The Jester.’

Allen felt like a boxer suddenly on the ropes. He floundered.

What did George think? What did he really know? What did this mean to them?

Immediately Allen fully understood the silence that had grown between them.

‘One of your mates, from your work you said, the one with the pink shirt and way too neat hair, him, he said he’d see you at the ‘Jester as usual’. You didn’t know that I’d heard? Obviously …’

‘George … mate,’ Allen faltered to find the words he needed. But they evaporated from his throat before he could form them, and George threw his final combination blows that further winded Allen.

‘You could have told me! I thought I was your best mate. How could you?!’

‘George, I wanted to … I mean, I tried to … you know, say something, but …’

‘But what, Allen?! You couldn’t find the right time? Is that the excuse you’re going with?’

‘Well, yeah. But it’s not an excu …’

‘Oh, shut up!’ George’s face had reddened to complement the colour of his hair. He was shouting now. Allen was both sad and happy that he was with George and they were talking, well shouting at that exact moment, but it was a connection and he’d missed the familiar feel of being around someone who knew him before he’d started to discover himself. Of course he’d made new friends since moving to Birmingham, but they weren’t the right shape to fit into the best friend gap he held carefully in his chest.

‘It’s the weakest shitting excuse ever,’ George fumed. He had held his sadness quietly for years, and now he released it like a tornado. He wanted to explain how he’d missed Allen, but he had no-one to tell. His new mates didn’t understand people like Allen. They didn’t know he was … just Allen. Nothing else. Just Allen. His mate.

‘You just pissed off and said nothing. Like fucking blue mist! What was I supposed to think? What was I supposed to do?’

Allen realised he had been too busy looking from his cloudy side of life’s mirror to notice that George had been on the other side trying to get to him. Allen felt the tears on his face but didn’t know when they had started. He didn’t care. He was shaking on the inside and was afraid his organs were going to react to the disturbance and relocate in his body. Everything hurt like he’d been in a vehicle collision. ‘So, this is sadness,’ he mused. ‘It sucks.’

He instinctively knew he had just encountered a different kind of heart break to the one he had imagined would destroy him or the kind he felt when he broke up his short relationships. This new type of pain was core deep and one that even welding did not seem able to address. All he wanted to do was get back on the train and go to his flat in Birmingham, and close the door. His friendship had cracked into hundreds of splinter sharp pieces of honeycomb because he’d been distracted by himself.

Then, like a sudden break in the clouds, George’s face reverted to the face of his seventeen year old self and Allen felt a serge of hope and wiping his face awkwardly, he offered, ‘I didn’t know what you’d think if I told you the …’

George unexpectedly hardened his face immediately and scowled at his one-time friend, then he turned smartly on his heel and walked off throwing a parting comment over his shoulder, ‘You didn’t know? You didn’t know?! Like I said. Fucking excuses. All that time we spent together – for fuck’s sake, Allen! You’re a wanker! I though … I thought we were friends. How wrong was I?’

Allen again looked at the text  from his sister, ‘You never guess who I saw last week?! George. Your friend George from school. He’s back in town. He asked about you. I said you were fine, but said he should call you himself. He said he didn’t have your number (why???!), but gave me his for you to contact him. Here it is …’

So, Allen stared at his phone, and the words and numbers became hieroglyphics and cave paintings in his hand as he regressed to the nascent fear that pervaded his everyday decisions and routine self-presentation. He had finally chosen to be honest with himself in his third decade, but – like a teenager – he still cared what George thought of him. George who he had shared so many secrets with, George who was the brother he never had, the same George who had disappeared and taken a whole portion of Allen’s life with him. That George wanted to get in touch with him again.

Allen wondered if best friends remained best friends for life, and concluded that calling the number would answer that question for George, because Allen, the grown man with the sensitive teenager’s heart, had never removed the ‘best friend’ label from George’s name even when he was suffocating in fear.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

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Realisations

She heard the noise around her.  It seemed to have always been like this as long as she could remember.  Today was possibly the worse as the sounds felt like they had morphed into a personalised attack on her brain as she searched for a fragment of peace and stillness.  A new string of thoughts appeared out of a wormhole somewhere in her left arm. It had been happening for … a period that had no start or end, so she could not put a structure or name to it. The first thought she recognised was persistent: this is madness.  The others shape-shifting thoughts followed in rapid succession without leaving her breathing space. All these people. They were everywhere. No room that she wandered into was every empty of the mysterious blurred faces.What were they doing in their house?  Who let them in?  Where were her children?  Where was her husband?

The lack of immediate answers to these questions created a deep fear that something inside of her was not working correctly and that there was going to be a messy explosion of all of her organs any minute. Her instinct was to grab hold of anything solid nearby – like the oak bed that dominated the middle of the room – but instead she sat perfectly still facing a mirror as her sister adjusted the large-brimmed hat that was crookedly perched on her head.  Looking at what should have been her own reflection Patricia struggled to identify herself in the ashen image she saw. She could not even remember getting dressed that morning.  Remembering anything was hard. Forgetting was easier.  As she sat there like a tailor’s dummy she instinctively knew there was a day – that she could just about remember the edges of – when they were a whole family. Somewhere in that day lay the foundations of the foggy tunnel she was currently lost in.

She started to focus on the pinhead of its origins that she could still make out, and when it began to become clear in her mind she blinked rapidly and then stubbornly refused to allow the memory to be reborn. ‘If I don’t know it, then it can’t be true,’ she tried to persuade herself as she automatically raised her hand and wiped the tears from the corner of her eyes. ‘It’s not real. That’s right. It’s not real. Everything is normal.’ The fresh tears created dark rivulets of mascara down her sunken face ruining the make-up recently applied there by her sister.

Too tired to summon the effort to keep wiping her face she dropped her head to one side and closed her eyes. She hoped the dream world that she was in would disappear when she woke up. This endeavour to realign the planets needed a determined effort that created deep furrows in her forehead as she concentrated, and for a splinter of a moment she was where everything was boringly ordinary.  As she settled comfortably into her memory the atmosphere she yearned for was broken on the turn of the isolated second she had just captured by a cold hand reaching into her calm seclusion and touching her gently, but firmly, on her left shoulder. 

This had been recurring for an unending number of days – every time she grasped hold of a shattered memory someone would touch her, and break her dream spell so delicate threads of smoke from before now were blown into extinction.  Whenever she opened her eyes she saw a multitude of faces, both strangely familiar and strangely strange, staring at her.  They all told the same story: it was real. She tried to reject the truth in the downcast faces of all her watchers, but they would not stop shouting the dense permanence of her new reality. Patricia’s mind recoiled against her body and she shuddered.

Tiredly she opened her eyes again. She accidentally caught the sympathetic gaze of an unknown woman who stood by her bedroom door and spontaneously the tears fell again, but this time they felt unusually heavy – more like blood than water – as they continued dripping down her face and fell weightily into her lap. 

‘It’s time,’ a floating voice said as it broke through into her maze of thoughts. It sounded like her sister Sandra had sounded when they were children. But she could not be sure of whose voice it was today. With assistance she stood and walked through the throngs of bodies lining her walls looking like strange black fruit.  Time was still misbehaving when she finally reached downstairs and was led to the front door; after the comforting dimness of their bedroom the harsh brightness of the sky outside temporarily blinded her. Momentary panic set in followed by a wish that she would never see anything again. As her sight adjusted to the light she saw repeated long rows of blurred black and white images before her.  She let herself be directed towards the centre of them. Her children trailed behind her. They were like a line of ants following spilt sugar. Every action was automatic.

As she stepped into the car her will finally collapsed.

In her last resolution she resolved never to resolve again.  From that first moment in the glaring sunlight the day went according to somebody’s well prepared plan and she played her enforced part in it: the chess board Queen.

Patricia’s mind remained elsewhere.

The people started to arrive at the church early. The official start time was 2:00 p.m., but the deacons had opened the main doors from noon when there were half a dozen people already waiting outside the building.  They had come early to ensure a good seat where they could hear and see every movement of the proceedings – they also wanted to be seen. 

Brother and Sister Mackenzie were among the first people there, they were official funeral-goers.  Their church attendance for weddings, christenings and especially funerals, had become a habit like depositing time in a high interest savings account from which they expected to make a withdrawal of respect in their too near future. They knew Tony from the day he was born, he called them Aunty and Uncle when he learnt how to speak. Tony’s parents, their friends and countrymen, said they fit together like a pot and its lid.

Joe Mackenzie was a ripe septuagenarian and still walked without a stick.  He was the quieter one of the pair. His wife, of 51 years, mostly known as ‘Miss Ivy’ used her walking stick to enhance her self-appointed status as a wise and righteous older woman.  Her supporting rod was a carved ebony structure that she had purchased on a special trip to the Holy Land in her younger, more sprightly years.  She had bought it before she physically needed to use it, but as she always said ‘yu hab fi mek sure dat tum-morrow nuh ketch yu a nap, fi wen ‘im sneak up, ‘im will mek yu drop, sudden suh!’  Miss Ivy had been the most vocal since they met when she was 19, Joe knew he was lucky that she chose him and happily accepted that they grew into themselves and their increasingly lined faces at the same time they grew their own children. 

In the church the moments between noon and 1 p.m. passed like time had been anaesthetised. So between naps Miss Ivy looked around the sanctuary, taking in the detail of things she liked and other things that she was not too keen on.  She saw many familiar faces, but even more faces that were strange to her entered the church. Some were obviously from out of town. When there were about a hundred people present, the noise level started to rise where before it had been a reverently quiet whisper that crept around the beautifully arranged flowers.  Now they were all laughing and calling to each other across the church.

‘Yu still ‘ere?  Mi ‘ear seh yu dead lang time!’

‘No sah!  Mi ‘till ah batta batta galang.’

The joking banter was as scripted as the behaviour of the older men who always found a corner, outside of whichever church they were at, to assemble on and reminisce about the old days while they awaited the arrival of the family.  The grey haired, felt-hatted men dressed lavishly.  Their jackets were unfashionably long, their starched shirts were pure cotton and whiter than imaginable by any detergent advertiser.  Their trousers were always coal black with creases sharper than a chef’s paring knife.  They dressed as smartly as they always had in their youth even though they were now living at the turn of the century; they were ready for their own time to come. 

The younger men – of all ages from forties down to the teenagers – were in their own natty uniforms, the style of their trousers was the main dividing line as it reflected  what was vogue at their own masculine peak. However, there was no uniformity to be found in the attire of the women mourners who wore a variety of dresses, skirts, blouses, and trousers topped off with a matching hat if they were over fifty. Before the day was over half of the assembled women would weep as if it was their own spouse being buried, the other half would behave like robots to make sure everything was organised and all the food was cooked and served to the crowds of people at the wake in the evening.

By 1:30 p.m. the church was full with friends, relatives and work colleagues.  Some people had travelled for days from the other side of the world after hearing about the sudden accidental departure, and they sat pristine in their grief as they waited for the ceremony of  thanks for Tony’s life to begin.  There was no long illness, or time to acclimatise to this passing. Tony’s death was an unwelcome surprise – especially to him as he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the lorry approaching him at the roundabout at an unexpected speed.

Anyone who arrived less than half an hour before the allocated start time was deemed a late-comer. The they entered the church they started to look hopefully at seats sandwiched between people in the middle of rows.  As they edged optimistically towards the seat they were invariably told that the seat was taken and that the owner had gone for a quick toilet break before the family arrived with the coffin.  Some late arrivals, although disappointed that they would have to stand for the length of the service in the heat of the crowded church, nevertheless found themselves a space to lean on against the cold brick walls.  Others, aware of their predicament, but prepared to take a risk, went to the front three rows of clearly marked reserved seats and guaranteed themselves the wrath of every other mourner for the entire day. They chose to be selectively deaf to the murmurs of, ‘Dem too bad-mind’ and ‘Dem kyan read?’

A short while after 2:25 p.m. a sudden hush came over the church as the young, old-looking Patricia entered followed by her small children.  The silence moved across the heads of the seated congregation and settled in the darkened vestry portal and then, as the wife, now a widow, was led to her seat in the front row, a low murmuring spread through the congregation as they commented to each other on how ‘she look draw’ and ‘wat a burden fi bear at such a tender age.’ Tony’s parents – sat numbly in the front pew of the church – carried their own version of grief: the type used only by people who had to bury their children.

As Patricia took her seat the women in the congregation, simultaneously, as if their movements were directed by an invisible conductor, reached into their bags or pockets for stored handkerchiefs, which  – depending on their age  – were either well pressed cotton squares or small packets of tissues.  They all came prepared for either their tears or someone else’s.

The organist started playing a sombre tune and an air of uncertainty and gloom pervaded the brightly decorated interior, and like a visiting spectre it lightly touched every person within hearing distance. While from outside the church the voice of the young pastor was heard speaking clearly as he read from the Bible.  Douglas Reid was preceding the coffin into the church.  His face was sombre and he looked older than his young 35 years as the responsibility of officiating over the funeral of his friend Anthony Barrett weighed heavily on his shoulders.  The pall bearers were also struggling with a weight: the coffin itself.  It was the heaviest, widest, and most expensive coffin to have entered that church in the last decade. Tony’s family only wanted to give the best display for his sudden farewell. So they had selected the immense black and silver American-styled casket that had ornate silver decorations evenly placed along the length of each side through which long ebony carrying poles were situated.

The six pallbearers, Tony’s family and closest friends, listened to the instructions of John Stephens, the funeral director, as they lowered the huge coffin from their shoulders in order to get it through the church door. They tried not to show that they were struggling with the task, but their fearful gasps and whispered comments to each other were audible above the low hum of chatter from the congregation that watched with curious anticipation. They wore immaculately sharp dark suits, highly polished shoes, and dark sunglasses which they wore throughout the service while they sat with heads mostly bowed, and they resembled the brothers of the Nation of Islam but without the bow ties.

The older men who followed the procession – some of whom had left their corner outside of the church – bowed their heads and held their hats in front of their chests like a guard of honour.  The younger men chose to silently decorate the church foyer as they stood in their designer suits contemplating the weight of death.  It seemed that everybody, including the smallest of children, who were already getting warm and restless in the overcrowded church, were aware of the awkward specialness of this occasion. They frequently looked upwards to their parents’ altered faces with questions that were met with a gentle pat on the back or a momentary rocking that signified that silence and quietness was necessary. 

As the coffin was eventually laid on the trestles at the front of the church, the early-arrivers like Joe and Ivy Mackenzie could see the visible shaking of Patricia’s body – this is why they had strategically chosen their seats: to later discuss every detail of the service at the wake with those who did not have a good view or were only following the service via the PA system, it made them central to life for a short while.

Patricia, like the other people in the packed church, felt the presence and oppression of death after the coffin was raised on stilts in front of them. Pastor Douglas Reid, a family friend since he had graduated from Bible College, stood before the pulpit and closed his eyes while holding his left hand aloft.

‘Brethren,’ he started. En masse the gathered people shifted their focus from each other and looked towards him, all the while fanning themselves to disperse the heat. Their actions resembled the uniformed behaviour of meerkats on the lookout. ‘We are gathered here today together, united in grief …’

Yet only Patricia and Tony’s parents Renée and Benjamin felt entirely stripped naked by their grief. Patricia experienced the sensation of being exposed and vulnerable enough to break at even the slightest touch. The intense rawness of death’s reality hit her as she knew she would never physically be this close to Tony again for the rest of her life. Together they had had so many plans for the future.  Now she was alone.  Their joint designs, drawn together in private intimacy and hope, now seemed liked deflated balloons being blown into country hedgerows. Anger at Tony’s absence frightened her, then she felt hatred for those men who were still there – for their wives and children. ‘It’s not fair!’ She wailed silently to herself as she judged them and then discarded her handkerchief and left her tears to flow unstopped. The heat and humidity of the church did not affect the coldness in her bones. It was the same type of cold that came in bursts and had buffeted her from the moment that she had heard of his death, since then she had remained in a state of shock – suspended between belief and disbelief. 

The church service itself was rousing. Pastor Reid spoke with the passion of familiarity and love about life and death.  The songs were sung with extra gusto,  and the prayers were greeted with loud ‘Ah-mens’. But, it was the eulogy that brought firstly silence, then more profuse tears from men and women alike, and then a low, almost constant murmuring of agreement at all that was said.  Patricia stood, or rather leaned heavily against the pulpit.  She was supported by her sister as she tried to speak about Tony. Her repeated attempts did not succeed.  She broke down into a fresh burst of tears.  Patricia had never been keen on public speaking but tradition had dictated that she set aside her grief and face the sea of eyes staring at her to talk about the only person she wanted to talk to. Sandra spoke in her place.

Patricia was helped back to her seat as family and friends lined up to share a memory about Tony. Comforting arms surrounded her as she sat in a daze listening to all the words, such beautiful past tense words that held no hope of a future for her and Tony. She tried not to think too hard about the content and the meaning of those letters that were being strung together.  They only meant one thing to her.  He was dead. She had lost the lid to her pot.

When the last prayer had been offered the pastor asked those who wanted to, to file past the open casket to say a final good-bye.  The funeral director had propped the split lid of the casket open and Tony was there, in front of her, with his head unmoving and cushioned by the finest silk embroidery in the interior of the Royal Casket: her King.

The increasing heat of the church after the extended service aligned with the short tempers of the impatient people who started pushing and raising their voices to get in line to view the casket. ‘Brethren,’ Elder Bennett spoke gently into the PA system, ‘please remember Tony’s family is still here in the sanctuary. Please wait patiently to pay your last respects.’ Five minutes later the lead Elder returned to the microphone, ‘The funeral director has informed me that we will have to close the casket now as time is getting on. However, those of you who have not said a personal ‘goodbye’ here in the church may do so at the cemetery.’ Despite his words nobody left the long line of viewers, so he continued hopefully, ‘Thank you for your co-operation in this matter. If you could now make your way to the car park and prepare to attend the burial, the deacons situated on the doors will give you full directions. Thank you.’

It was after 4:30 p.m. before the main congregation started to leave the church.  Most people wanted to catch up with friends they had not seen for months or years and in doing so they blocked the doors and exits as they greeted each other with a hug, a laugh or a friendly pinch or slap on the back.

As the people spilled into the street outside the church they surrounded the two black horses with long feathered plumes that were standing in front of the highly polished wooden and etched glass hearse; the horses were waiting patiently for their load. The hearse driver, in his sombre black hat and tails, stood next to the blinkered but increasingly restless horse nearest the kerb and tried to calm it down as the volume of the people finally released from the belly of the church increased. Both of the horses started to move around nervously in the car-lined street as old friends and relatives called out to each other across the crowds. Death connected them all, and there were no awkward silences that habitually arise when new strangers meet.

‘Ah yu dat?!’

‘Bwoy, ah lang time mi nuh see yu!’

‘Mek wi nock sum domino later, yu hear?’

‘Is Aunty here?’

‘How you doing, Smithy?’

‘Come here let me squeeze you …’

‘You look well!’

‘I’ve missed you.’

‘That’s never Junior, is it? He’s so big!’

‘I’ve been away for far too long.’

‘We must keep in touch more.’

‘Poor Patricia … and the children.’

‘It’s just so sad.’

‘Save me a place at the graveside.’

‘Mi soon come.’

‘Hey, Sully. You have room in your car me can kotch?’

‘Have you got a drink? I’m parched. Not water, the hard stuff.’

‘Come, come with me. I need to talk to you.’

‘How are you? I’ve missed you.’

‘I really can’t deal with this today …’

‘Do you have directions to the burying ground?’

‘Follow me, man. Follow me. That’s my whip there. Me and the boys’re gonna chip soon.’

‘D’yu have a light?’

‘That stuff will kill you … sorry. Bad timing. You know what I mean.’

‘Have you spoken to her yet?’

‘Gurrrrrl! You look fierce!’

‘I try. Even on days like this.’

‘You’re rocking black. Is that insensitive?’

‘Carol, I’ve run out of tissues. Is that shop still around the corner?’

‘Pat looks so mashed!’

‘Wait for me. I’ll be back in a minute. I’ve got to catch John before he disappears again.’

Just outside the church building was the starting block where old rifts were healed, but new ones had already replaced them by the end of the evening. Later in the hall where the wake was held, unwise love affairs were started in desperation to avoid the seeping grief. Although everyone tried to ignore it, the emotional balance of all of them was in turmoil for the whole day.

The children who had been allowed to attend the funeral, not Tony and Patricia’s children – they had no choice – the other children who were released to run free for a few minutes gravitated towards the large horses that stood out to them as an unusual sight for the grey urban street. The happiness of the children had not been stunted by either age or a sense of occasion. They wanted to touch and ride the horses. The hearse driver gently dissuaded them.

‘They’re working right now. Sorry. They’re not horses for riding, just for pulling the … carriage.’

‘Can I touch him?’

‘Can I feed him?’

‘He’s not hungry. He had his meal this morning. Thank you though. That’s a kind thought.’

John Stephens eventually had to ask the people to keep back from the horses when the coffin was exiting the church. For a moment they appeared to listen politely and then, turning their attention back to their previous focus point, they did whatever they wanted to. This was the way they always behaved at any funeral – for them it was a time to learn new facts about the deceased and a time to be self-centred because they were still alive in the midst of death.

It took nearly half an hour before the family wreaths were being replaced on top of the coffin in the hearse, the funeral director was looking nervously at his watch ever conscious that the booked time at the graveyard was rapidly passing.  Years of practice had taught John Stephens that these Caribbean funerals had a regular habit of running over the allotted time as the grieving practices of the small island people seemed to differ from the short sharp service of some of the older indigenous British Isles folk.  As he assessed the size of the crowd he thought ahead to the graveyard and envisaged that the hundreds of people in attendance at this funeral was going to be an absolute nightmare to control, but he said nothing and retained his mask of calm serenity that he had donned along with his black coat that morning. 

Once the hearse was closed, without overt unseemly behaviour, John Stephens moved silently and unobtrusively through the crowd to Patricia Barrett’s side, he gently touched her elbow as he leaned slightly towards her and, in a well exercised manner and low tones, he informed her that the lead family car was ready for her and the immediate family to follow the hearse the few miles through the city.  She looked dazed as she tried to focus on his face and words, but nevertheless she nodded and one of her guardians, who had overheard the information, steered her toward the opened car door. Once seated in the car Patricia saw only blurred human shapes as her eyes were focused on the middle distance of her life, yet she held her children to her with an uncomfortable tightness.

It still took another fifteen minutes of persuasion before the three family cars were fully occupied as people were busy sharing words of condolence with whoever they could.  As the convoy of cars moved smoothly along the road Patricia thought of how Tony would have enjoyed the ride in the limousine: a heavy tear fell from her eye as she thought of the reality of the situation.

The Barrett mourners arrived at the cemetery at the same time as a later funeral party did. There was the expected confusion over the parking and, in their desperation to get to the graveside before the coffin was lowered, the Barrett family mourners left their cars on verges and along the side of the cemetery entry road; they stopped wherever they could find a space big enough to get even a wheel or a wing of their car into.

At the cemetery the colour purple was dotted, in a speckled-hen fashion, among the black and white landscape of the hundreds of mourners: some old traditionalists had chosen to grieve in the style of ancient kings and were bedecked from head to foot by matching shades of plum that bobbed and dived in the monochrome horizon. They headed towards the middle of the graveyard where a newly dug hole had appeared that morning. It looked like the ground had been sick and ejected its contents around the fresh gap in the earth.

A few of the older people slowly made their own zigzag path towards Tony’s plot instead of following the straight narrow concrete lanes; they passed and sometimes paused at the graves of other friends and family members who had their final resting place in what many of them still saw as a hostile land. Flowers were straightened and handfuls of over-running grass were removed and discarded from the personal monuments to the dead.

Patricia was lead to the head of Tony’s grave. Her sister, Sandra, who had not left her side for the past three days, was supporting her with her arm around her waist. Today she cried with her sister. Before the church service she had silently mourned with Patricia since the news came through. In the weeks since the news was delivered Sandra had only cried privately before she slept, because her love for Tony was more than that of a brother-in-law. She wished he had chosen her instead of her sister, she had tried – even after the wedding – to make him change his mind. Sandra was driven by the lifelong malice she held for her younger sister Patricia. However, today even though her sorrow was gorge deep she could only show the flattened sanitised version of her grief in public.

As the crowds get deeper around Patricia and her close family at the graveside the air becomes more solemn as it fills with people’s own personal sadness at their failed plans and frustrated dreams that they carry on their shoulders to every funeral. The fear-lined laughter fades away as the mourners forsake their attempts at hiding their own fragile mortality. 

Joe and Ivy Mackenzie and others, who had arrived in England in the first half of the century with the intention of staying for a maximum of five years, were now there for their friends who were burying their only son, Tony. None of them had intended to stay in England long enough to have children, and especially not long enough to bury anyone. Yet they had all found themselves trapped by the poverty of their situation in Britain and handcuffed to the promise  to those they had left in their Caribbean home who were relying on them.  As the years went by their growing children put down roots that made them think seriously about moving back to the place they still romantically thought of as home after over 40 years apart. Now they were burying a man child who should have outlived them, but had died without even visiting their wrinkled memory of home.

The crowd took the song sheets handed to them and a momentary air of intense tiredness fell on every soul as the coffin juddered when it was lowered into the gaping hole. Eerily, to chase their individual terrors away, two stout motherly figures at different ends of the open grave, started singing the same hymn:

When we all get to heaven,

what a day of rejoicing that will be . . .’

The hopeful words had no effect on Patricia who despite loving her children deeply only wanted to be left alone to go to sleep with her husband. She did not want to say a final good-bye.  She knew in the cloud of her grief that to admit that this was really the end would be to accept that her future existence would be full of unmanageable and unimaginable sorrow. She felt dehydrated as she continued to cry, but she could  not get the words past her parched throat to ask for a drink of water. So Patricia existed in a new suspended state as half an hour of loud and tuneless singing ensued. The self-appointed song leaders had hoarse voices from the shouting-singing that they were leading: they called out the words for those without papers.  The response was strong and multi-layered with people around the grave starting each line as if they were part of a Mexican wave. It was jarring.

The official council grave-diggers stood redundantly by as the sunglassed young men shovelled spades full of dirt and clay on top of the box that was finally laid in the ground. Other people threw handfuls of soil into the hole as they contributed to burying their own.  Each thud on the black and silver coffin renewed the pain in Patricia’s head.  She felt a new layer of grief land inside her heart like she had been hit by a cannonball.  A heavy loneliness engulfed her and left her further weakened.

The numerous floral tributes that had arrived in the past days were laid on and immediately around the rough protruding mound.  It looked, to Patricia, as if he shouldn’t be in the ground because it wasn’t as flat and even as the other surrounding graves.  She continued to watch from behind sheets of her semi-consciousness as the flowers were formed into attractive pyral pyramids.  The colours were vibrant.  He was dead. He was buried. These final thoughts travelled from her head to her battle-worn heart when she voluntarily and thankfully fainted.

When she awoke in their bedroom some hours later she saw the same looks on the faces peering at her as she had seen for days through her hazy existence.  As reassuring voices told her everything was alright she uttered a guttural sound that would have been a sardonic laugh if it had escaped her body.  Her aunts, who were now taking their turn to watch her, interpreted the sound as a query and responded that her children were all being looked after downstairs.  She stared at them and they continued to nervously talk at her.  They told her that everybody at the hall had had plenty to eat and drink and coach loads of people were now travelling back across country to their various destinations.

Patricia turned over on the bed so that she could no longer see them in the corners of her eyes.  Suddenly startled by a clear thought she jumped up, and shakily hurried into the adjoining bathroom.  Opening the laundry basket she pulled out the bed sheets that were on her bed when she had risen from her sleepless night to the sound of birds singing their usual happy dawn chorus the day Tony had gone.

‘Yes, they still have Tony’s smell on them,’ she thought as she inhaled deeply.

Clutching them to her breasts she stumbled back to the room and lay down heavily on his side of the bed.

‘Please,’ she whispered after a few minutes, ‘please . . . leave me alone now.’

‘But . . . Pat mi dear, yu nuh . . .’

Again she spoke quietly ‘Please . . . just leave me alone for a while.’ 

Hesitatingly they withdrew one by one, all shaking their heads in disagreement at her request but reluctantly respecting it nonetheless as it was the first time she had spoken for days beyond an empty weak ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  As Aunty Sue left the room Patricia spoke again.

‘Aunt, . . . could you send my children to me in about half an hour, please? We need to be together . . . alone.’

The door closed quietly as they tip-toed away. Even though she was now awake and coherent they regarded her as more fragile than ever. An hour later the children edged the bedroom door open and jumped on to the bed in their usual manner, they hugged their mother in the midst of tears and nervous laughter.  They were happy to be with her and she was looking a bit more like her old familiar self, but they were also sad because they could see that she was still crying.  They quietly held each other trying not to focus on who was not there.

‘I miss Daddy,’ the youngest child eventually said. The others answered with tears. Reassuring squeezes were passed like warm handshakes and the burden of her love for her offspring caused Patricia to sigh deeply as she realised they each had their own needs and sorrows.

In a single minute she had become a lone parent, and her children were fatherless – they were all floundering.


She looked at her children on the marital oak bed with the crumpled sheets entwined around them all and remembered the joy that had created each new person. The uncertainty in their eyes told her that they did not know how to behave in the current circumstances; she felt like them – lost and unsure.

‘Somehow,’ she whispered, not believing herself, ‘somehow, we’ll . . . we’ll make it. I miss Daddy, too.’  She managed a weak unconvincing smile while thinking, ’Oh God! How the hell is this life going to work?’

Later she understood that Tony’s death had caused their rebirth, because they all had to become transformed people with new routines as their past life had gone. Patricia felt she had to at least try to live, even if it was from her precarious unfamiliar position on the knife edge of sanity.

Back at her own home that night, Sandra packed a bag and left. She never had a reason to return.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

Sticks and Stones

Endings.
‘Mummy, what did she mean when she said I was different? What’s wrong with my nose? Mummy? Mummy? Why are you crying?’

‘Mummy? Talk to me Mummy!
You’re walking too fast Mummy, I can’t keep up… Mummy?’

As the years passed me by in the village so the questions dried up. They were never answered anyway. I knew but didn’t know all of it. But I would. Oh yes, I would know. They wanted me to know. And the others didn’t want me to know. I wanted to know and at the same time I didn’t want to know. So this is how I found out with my clumsy discovery. Some people were happy and some were sadder than a farmer in a drought when they knew I really knew.

Rachel Stitch. That was the girl that first spoke out. We were playing Poo Sticks at the bridge near the barley field by Milk Lane Cottage. Rachel was older than me, she was seven and I was only six, but we were best friends. How long do best friends stay best friends? Why are best friends only best for a while? What comes after best? I found out that Sunday morning.

We were on our way home from church, it was a normal Sunday morning; a bright, but cold, spring day, we were wearing hand-knitted hats, scarves and gloves as we crunched through the lanes on the way home.
Rachel and I ran to the bridge, we always did this, it was our routine every week. We hurried ahead missing the puddles, while our mothers talked and walked at a slower pace. At the usual point we grabbed sticks from the hedges at the side of the lane and raced back to the middle of the small stone bridge.

‘Ready, steady, go!’ We shouted together as we dropped the sticks into the fast flowing water. It was fun. This was like the stories we had read together, but it was our special game. Me and Rachel together in our easy intimacy. We had a common past: this was our world. Suddenly a dark shadow made me turn to my right and I looked up; it was nothing more than an old bird, a big old bird. I laughed as a blackbird swooped across the path in front of us. That was when Rachel said it. That was when my world cracked and the fissure never healed. The San Andreas fault originated in my chest after the beautiful music from the church organ had not yet gone to sleep for another week. Songs of the world at one rang in my mind: la la la lah la la la lah. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…

‘You look like that bird,’ she skipped along at my side as we turned to run to the other side of the bridge to watch the sticks appear, ‘but your nose is different. Your nose is too big for a bird. You have the biggest nose I’ve ever seen in my life.’
Suddenly she stopped and looked directly at me. We had looked at each other hundreds of times before, all the days of all the years that were my short childhood, but today Rachel’s eyes were like dead fish eyes to me, they were flat and cold. There was a glaze of distance behind her lids as she blinked. She was somebody else, so was I. We stood two feet apart but thousands of miles away. I did not know what a mile was. It was further than I had ever been. But I felt far away without moving an inch. I was in my dream again. The dream I had before I was here. I was in that dream.
‘Why is your nose so big and why are you so black?’ those were her words. Were they a question or something bigger than a question can ever be? The sticks floating beneath us did not pause except to navigate a rock or clump of reeds.

I thought it was a game and I looked at her with a puzzled frown, I was trying to remember what I was supposed to say next. We always played games together. We read each other’s minds. I was surprised because suddenly all I felt was an ancient yearning for someone I did not know. I moved my eyes to look for the answer. There was nothing in my head. I was lost.
Since she was my best friend, and since that was the last day that she was going to be my best friend, Rachel just carried on talking. She must have been trying to help me out with the game. I smiled at her as I stood opposite her on the cold stone bridge. Our parents had been walking behind us and they were now within earshot of us.

‘You are as black as soot – that’s what my dad says and Mum tells him to be careful in case walls have ears, do wall have ears? And you have a nose like a monkey because you’re the monkey’s cousin…. Is that true that you came from a mud hut in the jungle?’ Paralysed by the absence of joy the gloom of the moment clung to me, it seeped into me like clothes that have taken on the smell of cooking or burning. Unbidden voices told me that I wouldn’t forget this moment in a long while.

‘Look! You won!’ Rachel turned and hugged me. She didn’t know. I wasn’t sure but I felt the change moving in on me and I couldn’t stop it. The tornado of difference lifted me up, flung me around into the star filled night on the other side of the world and then set me back down in the same place as if nothing had happened. The second inside the second that it took for my travels made my feet burn as if I was a Buddhist monk walking across hot coals. I reached a new age but I was harmed.
‘My turn to win next,’ Rachel bubbled as she ran to get more sticks.

I stood leaning on the cold stone bridge afraid to move. I knew I would break into a thousand pieces of dust if I breathed or flinched. My gloves offered me no protection and my coat was like a silk sheet against a blizzard. I stood on the bridge totally exposed: to myself and to Rachel.
My ears were hurting with the words. I didn’t understand. My world was now unstable. I missed what I didn’t know. I understood nothing.
I was startled when I thought I was safe; before I knew what unsafe was I felt it.
I remained fixed to the spot afraid the bridge would buckle if I moved and my mother had to grab me hard to dislocate me. I was torn from the bridge, separated from the skipping child that was me who had run on to it.
I was deaf to my mother’s voice, the only sound available to me was my blood as it exploded and collided inside of me as I experienced the aftershock of seeing myself from outside of myself for the first time. I was using Mr Stitch’s eyes. I was no longer as black as Rachel had said I had turned an ashen grey because I was confused and still only six. I looked up at Mummy and asked her the said questions. Adding ‘Is is true what Rachel says Mummy?’ she never answered me, but held my hand firmly and with a curt nod to Mrs Stitch she pulled me quickly along the lane mumbling something about eggs. That was all she said. Nothing about being black, or having a big nose, or living in the jungle with monkey cousins, all Mummy spoke about was eggs. Got to get to the shop to get eggs. All the way to the shop to get eggs that we didn’t need. We had eggs at home. I knew that, Mummy knew that, but eggs were the first thing she said so off we went, back the opposite way from Rachel and her Mum to get the unneeded eggs. My legs were tired when we got home because we had to walk too fast and Mummy would not let go of my hand. She held it so tight that it hurt a lot but I didn’t say anything else after we passed the church because Mummy was quiet and her eyes had changed to the colour of cold metal.
Mummy was scared, I saw it in her claret cheeks and felt it in her abnormally long strides as I flew along beside her.

Mummy and Mrs Stitch were good friends as well as me and Rachel. But after that day they didn’t like to talk for too long. A whole life of shared memories stopped for all of us after the blackbird. Mummy and Mrs Stitch had longer lives and memories than me and Rachel, but the big people grew as frosty as a winter’s day to each other. They usually only nodded and rushed in different directions. Time made people walk faster. Away, away, away from me. This happened a lot when Mummy and Mrs Stitch were in the High Street. There were only four shops in our village and everybody knew everything about everybody else. But after the Sunday when me and Rachel stopped being best friends, after that day, they, all the people in the village started looking different. They looked whiter and longer than they had before. I felt shorter and darker. I felt black. I was different and I didn’t know what different was. But once I felt it, once the words were out from the plaster on the walls with ears, once everybody knew that I knew, then the sheen of kindness vanished like vapour from an extinct volcano.

I was in a castle all alone. The walls were erected instinctively. I hadn’t been taught.

At six years old I had no insulation against raw hatred for just being me.
I was outside. I was marked from the outside. In my village I was out of place because I fitted better in another country that I didn’t know.

When was I old enough to know that I was not seen as the same and that the grey and blue eyes that saw me didn’t want to see me so close to them? It was on that Sunday when Rachel and I dropped the sticks into the water and after the blackbird eclipsed the light in front of me. I hate Sundays. I hate blackbirds.

Alchemy.
‘Marilyn, it won’t work,’ I could hear the exasperation in his voice, ‘just think about it. It’s the same with the animals, they’ll isolate her.’
I remember when Jeff said that to me but Molly looked so cute that I couldn’t hear reason, I believed that love and understanding are stronger than bad reason so I went ahead. I brought her home. And I was right. And I was wrong.
And Jeff was right and Jeff was wrong.

The first four years were bliss. Nothing better on this earth than being in Flax Cottage with Jeff and Molly. I had friends then. I thought I had friends anyhow. When do you know if a friendship is real? Is there always a litmus test moment? I would have told Molly to look out for it if I had known what I know now. Hindsight is always clear vision. But I had lived in the village as long as I had life. It was my home and now it was Molly’s as well. My little darling, Molly. I called her Molly because she looked fragile like a small doll and she gurgled for hours, content in my arms. Her fat little fingers explored my face with gentleness. I had never had such a smooth innocent touch on my skin before. Molly my angel, my gift from God.

I prayed for a baby and Molly came. God gave me Molly but He didn’t warn me that the bliss could shake after a few years. She was in the paper. Somebody needed me to take care of her. I cried for a week after I first saw her. I didn’t think she would ever be mine. And she isn’t. But I thought she was mine and I sometimes tell myself she is mine even though I know the same as they know. And now, now, even Molly knows, but once she did love me as if she was mine and I was hers. We loved each other without explanation from our first meeting.

I told Jeff that Molly was special and nothing could break the love shield around us three. I was wrong, again. I believed in good. I was too young to know any better. I see that now but I still believe that it is wrong that I could be wrong. I should have been right, love said so. Maybe I didn’t love enough? Maybe it’s my fault … if I had more love then Molly would be safe, not alone, without me, without … anybody.
Molly told me that I lied to her. She said, ‘It’s not true you know, they hurt…’
‘What hurts, darling?’ I knew the answer but as I played for time with my useless question I was searching for another bigger truth to absolve her pain.
‘Sticks and stones do break bones… and names, yes, names always hurt you. I’m sorry Mum,’ she raced on not giving me a chance to speak. I had no words anyway so I was glad for her need to express her anger, ‘But they hurt too bad…’ Her tears and my tears were the same colour. As they flowed they prevented us from speaking or hearing any more. But I could never cry enough to wash away all her pain. She has been gone for fifteen years. Just a phone call at Christmas and on my birthday. She never let me call her on her birthday, but I always sent her cards, for the first years at least. The tradition stopped when the past swooped down and eclipsed the present.
‘It reminds me of what I haven’t got to get a card from you, Mum’. From 1979 I kept the unsent cards that I persisted in buying for her; maybe one day she will see them. My only way through is to look at the same moon and feel her absence. I know I am missing part of me – without Molly there is no point.

Existing in my current lack of her I know I love her more that I did when she was one and I could feel her warm breath on my cheeks. I knew that love got bigger. I was right about that. I grew my love to cover her, and me, and Jeff. But it was not enough.

Molly was nineteen when she first told me how much she loved me and hated me at the same time.

‘You are the first one in the family to ever go to university,’ I proudly stated as I sat at the bottom of her bed and watched her pack to leave home.
‘What family?’
My smile fell like a parachutist without a chute.
‘Who do I belong to … really?’
The pause was longer than my life.
‘I feel… incomplete…’ she faded away with her words.
All the little questions were there. All the protection was blown away. I was exposed as a fraud. My love was ersatz.

I looked at her and remembered the lies that I had told her. They were to protect her not to harm her, but they took hold of our lives and it’s now impossible to go back to where we came from. The truth is back there, the truth is in the past that is a foreign place; it’s here too.
I told myself lies as well, lies to make the truth go away. The truth about myself and about Molly’s other mother. I didn’t want Molly to ever leave me so I made this new world the best place for her to be, with me, with me and not with them. I needed Molly as much as she needed me. We were right for each other, are right for each other. How do I tell her that they did want her back but I couldn’t let her go because I would cease to live without her?
It’s not true that if you love something enough you will let it go because I was afraid that Molly would not ever come back to me. For years I remembered the lies and watched for a word from her world. It only ever came in my dreams.

‘Nothing has ever reflected me here in the village… how do I reconstruct myself from nothing?’ What answers were possible to the unknown? My lips trembled as she lowered her head and allowed herself to sag onto the bed. The folded clothes spewed onto the floor as her leg dangled over the edge of the loaded bed.
‘Sorry, Mum. I’m not saying this to hurt you, I know you love me, and have done your best, but I don’t know who I am.’
I was silent. Not even tears helped me through that valley of solitude. I was between the question and the piercing look that was travelling over my face like a solitary searchlight for a lost child in a forest.
‘I’m glad I’ve had you, no, what I mean is that I’m glad you had me, but I have to wonder what was the rest of my past like. Do they think of me any more? Am I missed or loved?… you never told me why Grandma stopped coming. I’m old enough now, tell me today, please. Tell me now. I need to know if I should bother to look for them, if I should bother to expect them to come back again.’
Her call to me receives a sad response. I echo her grief. I know it is no longer hidden.
‘Molly,’ her name came easily to my lips, however, I stuttered on the next word for a long hot moment and eventually gave it up; it was not to be mine. I was grasping for solutions to fix her life. I knew this day was due but it is always too soon when you are not ready.

I had practised this moment for years and never wanted to have to act it out. I started again.
‘You are really special to me…’
‘You are my daughter, Molly…’
It all sounded lame. I couldn’t finish a sentence. Speech was heavy and as sharp as flames.
It was then that I knew there were no words, in any language, in any world, to explain. My memories have found me wanting. They were suddenly upon me like an overtaking car on a hairpin bend.
I felt the greatness of my gift from God was now pure bitter herbs.

We sat in the tense room. The bags remained unpacked.

‘They hated me too you know? That’s why your dad left because he couldn’t stand the ridicule any more. They said you were really mine, for that I couldn’t be angry, but they said that Jeff was a fool to keep us both under his roof and that hurt him more.’
‘Molly, I didn’t know. I can’t be blamed for not knowing people had flint words held in their hearts to throw at us, to throw at you. I did try to stop them, Molly. I tried to keep you safe, but the world is bigger than my heart can reach. I’m sorry I failed you, darling, I’m sorry. I only wanted to continue loving you. That’s what I did, that’s what I will always do, keep on loving you. I did my best and tried to make love grow here in the village; it did for a while then the storm of unpleasantness came and nothing was upright any more.’
‘Was that when we stopped going to church? When all this ‘unpleasantness’ started?’ I tried not to notice the sarcasm in her voice, the dam of her indignation was opened.
‘Yes. That was it. I wanted you to learn from me and not them. It was the best I could think of at the time. I’m sorry, darling.’ Even to me the words sounded empty. I looked towards her with empty hope. Molly rose from the bed and came towards me.
‘Oh, Mum!’ With her arms around my neck I felt able to move again. Thank God it was not all lost, I still had my gift.
‘Sorry is too small for this,’ her voice was low and I realised that she was in the past. I had hoped too soon. She sighed and shook then spoke slowly, ‘you’ll never know how I really feel, no matter how sad you are for me, it never happens to you, the look, the pressure on the word, the loose laugh, it’s not meant for you. Mum, you’ll never know.’
Another long life pause was placed between us.
‘Did you know that the look from a stranger, one who is strange for a multitude of reasons, often by choice like personal estrangement, that look, did you know that it lacks the kindness contained in the look from a friend?’ Her eyes did not meet mine. But her question was like a dagger in my heart: I could not ignore it.
Unknown to me her resolve was already set in stone. She was lost to me and that day Molly let me go to find the missing truths. I was abandoned with my lies and my lonely love as company. I was bereft but I saw that it was Molly who was shipwrecked.
I couldn’t reach her because it was then she turned away from me.
‘I still had to go to school on my own Mum, everyday. I was not OK all the time. There are some things you can’t keep away from me, some things you can never feel. You see, Mum, you are different to me too.’

She let go, and I let go too.
I had to wait from then on. I had to wait and watch for a change. Molly left me. I was alone, with my rock heart.

Beginnings.
My name is… I don’t know the answer to that simple truth. I don’t know who I am. I have a name, in fact I have several names, but they don’t relate to anything I know or knew. I am ignorant of myself.

What is the shape of wisdom?
I knew everything when I was six, or so I thought, then I was emptied of light. I was on a bridge and although I wanted to fly into my dreams I couldn’t move. It was a crisp Sunday. I had started my journey to the underground city of refuge as a creature newly born and blind. It’s hard to find the answer when you never knew the question. Inches of discovery took years as I learned the language of warm stone. I folded up inside of myself on the bridge, like origami I kept folding.
Suspense had hung over me for years. I strained my neck trying to see what was there but it never revealed itself to me in any form and neither would it remove its claws from my back.
I remember standing on the bridge, I remember being ignorant and invalid; I had no capability to alter anything but I was in the last moment of my childhood and I clung on to it; I was unfit for the journey ahead. Are we all unprepared for the wall that slams into us? Suddenly I was in a different land, I had not blinked but I had travelled, there was no going back. In this land I was ignorant of any of the rules. Mum couldn’t help me. The blank times were the most frightening. I tried to map my own facts but had no honesty to work with. My memory was blank. It was that simple. My co-ordinates were lost.

A few times I saw strangers that looked as lost as me on the television, no one similar came to the village after I was nine. The old lady with the skin like wrinkled leather who used to come, she unsettled me with her truth, her tight squeezes and her long bright clothes.
She wanted me to go back with her, but I didn’t know where back was. Rachel could have been right. I was afraid. I had to stay where I was confined and visible. She was my family but still a stranger. I didn’t know what to do, I was a child. But I had to take each step alone.
School was the concentration of terror and loneliness. No more best friends. Even Rachel became distant. But most of all I became distant from myself. I didn’t trust myself to know them. I became a watcher and a seeker.

I grew up as resistant as mountains although I still responded to the yearning in my mother’s eyes because she wore her jagged fear there. When I was at school or in the garden the instant she next saw me she would quest my face to see if copies of Rachel’s words had built a way into my life. I hid the fences filled with poisonous darts away from her gaze.
I kept my face fitted out with clean and simple acts of deceit to salve her desire for normality. We never spoke of the heavy words on the bridge, or in the playground, or those words that hung in the air like slaughtered beasts in the barns. We never shared things she didn’t want to know.
The Jesus who we sang about was absent in our house. Mummy cried but didn’t go to visit Him.
Daddy scowled and repeated ‘I told you so, I warned you!’
Life was reborn each day in a clean and simple smock of innocence. I was six years old and Sunday had not yet come. Then I would open my eyes and the dream would vanish.
When I entered a room too quickly and surprised Mummy I would recognise the same old shadow slipping from her eyes as she remembered and tried to understand where I, the child, was buried.

Even her best will could not protect me from my life. My portion of it was due, due to me alone. She was not a filter to my safety.
I was not in a position to forget the clear Sunday adventure into my new world. The record was in my face, in my father’s face, in my mother’s face from then until I stopped looking. Even then, when my eyes closed to the brightness of spring’s cruel birth, even then after the sharp shock had stopped stinging my face, I had no luxury. I was not in a position to forget.

I am so tired, so tired of feeling the weight of every second. It’s time to disappear.

I hid myself within myself within myself within myself like a Russian doll. I am successful at hiding from myself. I don’t recognise my true self now; I have gone so deep within.

I am to be found in the centre of granite. I leave the map to me.

My birth certificate says Mariama Nwakwaluzo. Who is she? I know Molly. I see Molly everyday but I am told that Mariama means a gift from God – to who? I ask if I can be a gift to myself. Who do I belong to? Who owns me as theirs? Who do I claim as mine? Will I ever discover myself? Without me my past was invented. I can find my meaning there or make my own here in the centre of this granite.
I have missed the pleasure of belonging to someone. The advantage of ownership was stolen from me. The day will not be created that makes me understand this theft.

Childhood passed years ago but still I cannot decipher the elusive record of my past for I am still blind. Could any missing information have saved me from now?

It took five years of living as a shadow among shadows in the university to realise that I can’t just burn my past away I must salvage it and claim the finders fee to move forwards. My training as an archaeologist proves mysteries remain in stone for centuries. I search deeply to uncover time and remove ancient power from the stones. The silence of now helps to carry the true memory forward. The mystery of myself is less of a mystery now. I am a stoneshaper.
Gently brushing the dust away I sit back on my heels and reflect; the scars from the stones look like tribal signs. We have all been in a battle and are marked.

It’s not what was meant that matters, it’s what was done – that’s what matters. There is no greater truth than appearance; I wonder if Oscar Wilde knew this truth as he was set in his harbour of stones.

My whole existence is like a watermark, visible and distinguished. I feel right, not wrong.

I have sat at the desk and I watch the Sunday morning grow before me. In front of me lie the doodles of my black ink, they are instructions to myself, to be deciphered from within; they are directions from myself before I knew myself.
Rocks and branches populate the paper giving it a black edge.

It’s time to write a letter to my mother.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

This will hurt …

My partner, Sue, she loves museums. She says it’s educational. So we often walk around the exhibits at weekends, or when we are on holiday. There was one exhibition that she took us all to a few weeks ago, it was a history of dentistry. It was more like a horror show that an informative journey into the past. I only managed to stay in there for about ten minutes. Then I felt sick and had to leave. Sue found me sitting on the wall outside an hour later when they had finished walking around the entire exhibition. The boys were laughing at me again. They know that the strangest things make me feel odd.

It was after that visit that my toothache started. A coincidence? I don’t think so.

Sue says it’s the sweets that I eat everyday but I don’t agree. Yes, I do have a sweet tooth, but if the dentists’ have their way I won’t have any teeth at all!

The pain all kicked off a few days ago. A little at first, then it got worse, quickly.

I felt an ache in my jaw. Let me just tell you that I hate the dentist. Absolutely hate them. And I’ve been to enough of them to make that statement. Maybe that’s why I hate them, because none of them make me feel any better and the pain is always there.

This new pain, the one that started a few days ago, is in my lower right jaw. Where my molars are. I think they’re called molars. I wish I paid more attention when I was at school. Those biology lessons were boring. Maybe because the teachers were as bored as us. The only lesson that had people pretending to pay even a little bit of attention was the one about sex education. And they didn’t really tell you anything you didn’t already know.

The worse thing was that they separated the boys and the girls for these lessons. But we meet in the playgrounds afterward to swap notes, as well as saliva. That’s our practical lessons.

The teachers talked about pollination and plant reproduction and we could never figure why that was in a human biology lesson and how that helped us to understand our own bodies. That’s why we experimented for ourselves behind the bike sheds. Knowing what trees and rabbit do to reproduce was not interesting. Feeling the girls up was much more fun. I wanted them to feel me, too. What 15 year old boy doesn’t. But that’s another story. I digress.

My point is that I can’t remember anything much about teeth and looking after them. I ate what I liked, drank what I like and only really started brushing my teeth once girls started responding to my advances. I know my mum had told me for years to brush my teeth properly, and I suppose I did when I was in primary school when she had more control over me, but when I was a teenager I didn’t have time to spend in the bathroom brushing my teeth. Bed was my favourite thing – especially in the school week. I hated school and so I left everything to the last minute – eating, dressing, and getting to school. Most mornings I washed my mouth out with orange juice before I dragged myself to school. I would grab a piece of toast and jump on my blue and red chopper bike and get there just as the bell rang, or just after. Chewing gum was my tooth care and breath freshener all in one. Wrigley juicy fruit five stick packs were essential, especially because we liked to smoke at break times as well. I seem to remember one of their adverts said something about being able to ‘kiss a little longer’ – in those days all I wanted was at least one decent snog, and a french kiss would have been good, too.

So, although I did eventually have my fair share of snogs and feels before I left school I have been a bit remiss with my dental hygiene, so I wasn’t surprised that my teeth were aching again. In fact, I could be one of those under cover mystery shoppers who do surveys on dental practices because I visit so many with my problems. I don’t trust them. None of them. They seem to get off on causing me pain. It’s not that I haven’t had a fair share of pain in my time because I’ve been big on rugby and martial arts for years, but this pain, the throbbing ache in my mouth, it’s like having a nail in my shoe while going for a run. If there was a secret dental society, like the Freemasons, they would probably have my name on a list of people to avoid. All I want is someone to fix the pain, it’s not too much to ask, is it?

“Do you want me to call them for you?” Sue is exasperated with me, but tries not to show it. I’ve been rolling around in bed all night and even the pain killers she got for me around three in the morning didn’t help. I didn’t sleep much. I guess she didn’t either.

She has the list of new surgeries up on the computer screen.

“How about this one?” she asks pointing at a photo she has enlarged.

“They look OK.” I admit.

“How long have they been open?”

“Three years.”

“How come I’ve never heard of them before?”

“Well, you’ve never needed them before now.” I married her because she loves me – despite myself – she is also gorgeous, kind and has the patience of a saint with both me and our boys; she is showing that now, even through her tiredness. I’m glad it’s the weekend, at least she can rest for a little today while I sort out the dentist. We don’t have anything special planned for the weekend, apart from my final fitting for a suit that afternoon.

“OK. I’ll give them a call. What’s the number?”

“Here …”

“The name sounds dodgy. Are you sure they’re proper?”

“Seems OK from these top reviews under here.” Sue points out some five star reviews and scrolls through them. Although they are dated are few months ago I’m impressed, I relax and start to dial the number.

“Hello?”

“Good morning, Bright Smile Dental Hub, how can I help you?”

“Oh, hello. I was wondering if you had any appointments?”

“Are you registered with us already?”

“No, not yet. I just wanted a check up. I’ve got a really bad toothache. It’s been hurting for a few days now.”

“Well, we could fit you in later today if you can make it to the surgery between three and four this afternoon or …”

“Oh, that’s quick. I was expecting something later in the week. I’ve got an appointment this afternoon that I can’t cancel, can you do anything another day?”

“We have appointments tomorrow morning …”

“Oh, OK. That’s great. What time?”

“Anytime from 10.30.”

“”Great, thanks. Can I just check the address?”

“Yes, we’re on the corner of Abbey Street and Long Lane. If you give me your number I’ll text the address to you for your SatNav.”

“Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Stacey.”

“Thank you, Stacey.”

“Can I take your name as well, please? For our appointment records.”

“Dennis, with two n’s, Dennis Young.”

“OK then Dennis, we’ll see you tomorrow at 10.30. Just come into the reception area and let the receptionist on duty know you’ve arrived and the dentist will see you as soon as possible. Thank you for calling Bright Smile. Bye now.”

“Thank you. See you tomorrow.”

“Bye.”

“I don’t believe that,” I turn to Sue who has heard my half of the conversation, “They’re open on a Sunday! I can get this pain sorted out quicker than expected.”

Sue smiled at me with a look of relief on her face. She did look a bit tired, but then it was the weekend and she didn’t have her full face of warpaint on, so she looked different anyway. I preferred the natural look on her, but she insisted on ‘putting her face on’ when she went to work. Not that I objected to her glam look – it was a bit of a turn on, especially when she had the ‘face’ on and hardly anything else except for that red and black basque with black fishnet stockings and high heels. That only comes out when the boys are staying over with one of the sets of grandparents. But, I digress. Again.

So, here I am at the dentist. Sunday morning. 10.30 on the dot – I like being punctual now. It’s probably because my dad beat it into me after I missed so much of school and then one of my final exams. I mean, he literally beat it into me, but that’s another story.

I eventually get to see the dentist at 11.45. He is a tall man, probably about three or four inches taller than me, and I’m nearly six foot. But he’s not the only one in this tiny room that I enter. It’s a bit like a reverse Tardis. The building is big, but this surgery is like a cupboard, and there are already four people in there when I go in.

I’m frustrated at the long wait, but I also may be a bit nervous because I quip, “Oh, is there a party that I didn’t know about?”

Nobody smiles. I couldn’t see the dentist’s mouth anyway as he already had his mask on.

“Hello,” he turns to look at the notes, “Dennis. Hello. Take a seat here, please.”

I oblige.

“First time here?”

The chair goes back without warning.

“I understand you are emergency,” he says from behind the mask.

I always forget how disconcerting it is to talk to people face to face when I can’t see their mouths. They remind me of bank robbers, or some other unsavoury characters. But I’m sure you know what I mean when I say they look like they are up to no good, because they usually are when they are looking into my mouth.

“No.” I respond with a confused look. “I’m just here for a check up because I have a toothache.”

“It say here,” English is obviously not his first language. The fact that he speaks more than one language and is trained as a dentist should make me feel comfortable. It doesn’t.

“No, it say emergency appointment on notes.”

The four people look at me. I feel small, the same way I did when I had to have braces fitted when I was at junior school and ended up kicking the dentist, wrestling with the nurse and running out of the surgery hotly pursued by my mum.

One of them, who is not wearing a mask, is sat on a stool right by the door – everything is right by the door in here – and she is making notes. I wonder what she is writing because nothing has happened as far as I can see.

“Where is your pain?” the dentist asks.

“Put your head back and open, please.”

I point to my jaw and start to speak when he prods around with the sharp silver instrument he has inserted into my mouth.

“Ow!” I exclaim as he jabs at the area that is causing me the most pain. I just miss clamping his gloved hand in between my front teeth.

“We need X-ray. OK?”

“Yes, OK.” I agree.

I’m already uncomfortable with this Bright Smile Dental Hub, but I’m in the chair, surrounded on all sides and I seem to have lost my voice.

I have the x-ray. In fact I have two because they say they need them.

“What are you looking for?” I query.

“Standard emergency appointment procedure,” that’s all he says to me. I’m not satisfied. I try to get an answer again. “Excuse me,” I attempt to inject the usual British politeness into the proceedings, I am hoping that it will get me some answers from one of the four people who are now back to their standing positions around me. “Excuse me,” I say again looking up into his dark beady eyes. He glances down at me and then resumes his conversation over my head with a dismissive, “Have to check X-rays. Nurse will explain later.”

I’m not use to this, I don’t like it at all. I force the upper part of my body upwards, it’s awkward because the leg section of the chair is still raised and my knees are now at the same height as my chest. I feel like I’m in the middle section of an accordion.

I pull the torn blue paper towel from my neck and swing my legs to the side.

“No,” I insist.”I need someone to explain this to me now. What’s going on? You’ve been prodding around in my mouth for ages mumbling about gum disease and abscesses but I still haven’t had any clear indication about what you’ve found. About what’s causing this pain. Can you even do anything to help me? Can anyone please,” I look at each of them in turn, “please tell me what’s going on!”

I am firmer than I anticipated, it sounds like I’m shouting. Maybe I am. So I continue. My voice is naturally deep – it would make a good singing bass I’ve been told – and now it is extremely loud. It sounds like a rumble of thunder.

“Look,” I’m on a roll now, so I go for it, “I want to talk to the practice manager. This is ridiculous. There are four of you in here and I can’t get one clear answer. All you do is push these pieces of card in front of me, they don’t explain anything. I just want an answer – preferable in plain English (I immediately regret that part of my rant in case I’m viewed as racist but that doesn’t stop me) – just tell me what the f… Sorry. I mean, what the hell is going on!”

“Hold on, sir. Sorry. We are just discussing your treatment plan,” this is the dental nurse speaking directly to me. The only other things she has done since I’ve been in this box-like room is to tie what looks like blue kitchen towel around my neck and push laminated information cards in front of my previously reclined head.

The person with the notebook suddenly leaves the room and within a few minutes – that consists only of strained silence and unnecessary rearrangement of dental tools – she returns behind another man in a mask. I feel like I’m beginning to develop claustrophobia as they all stand around me. The notebook girl stands with her hand on the handle of the open door. That’s some relief.

The person who is now in front of me and extends his hand. His glove looks like it’s been submerged in water, it is stuck to his thick hairy hands.

“Mr Young?” he asks after looking at the notes. 

“Yes, that’s me. Who are you?”

“I’m Arthur Franklin, the Practice Manager. Now, what’s happened here is …”

“I have questions,” I interject.

“Please let me explain our emergency appointment procedure to you.”

“You know what?” I interrupt again.

I’m annoyed now and I’m no longer hiding it, “I’m just here for a check up, NOT an emergency appointment.”

“We only do emergency appointments on Sunday’s,” Arthur Franklin states. “That would have been fully explained to you before you came here today – that’s our normal procedure.”

“No, nobody told me that. I asked for a check up. I am not an emergency. I have pain, yes, but it’s not an emergency it’s just painful. I spoke with Tracy, no Stacey, yesterday. I told her what I wanted. Check. Go on, check your records. She took my number and sent me a confirmation message of my check up appointment with your post code for directions.”

“Let me see,” Arthur Franklin squeezes himself to stand between the chair and the computer screen again. “Ah yes,” he says, “there’s been a mistake.”

He moves away a few steps and stands in front of the window which has Bright Smile Dental Hub etched across it. Of course, I’m looking at it backwards now but I’m trying to calm myself down so that’s what I focus on, something that’s not staring at me.

Eventually, although it’s only a mere 30 seconds later, I look him up and down. I say up and down, but there isn’t much of him. He’s a small man, in height at least. He may be 5ft 1” or 5ft 2” at the most, and nearly the same in width. Well, maybe not quite that wide but he has unusual proportions and a terrible dress sense.

I only notice this because I’m a tailor, and clothes are my business. He is the only one, apart from the note-taker, who doesn’t have green or blue scrubs on, his mask is around his neck. His brown leather shoes are scuffed and worn down on the outsides and he has bright red socks on under his baggy blue serge trousers which have at least a two inch gap between the top of his shoes and his trouser hem. I can also see the hair on his sweaty chest because his shirt is a few sizes too small and missing an essential closure where his belly button should be.

“Come with me,” he says, “to reception. We’ll sort this out there.”

“When the x-rays are back,” he says talking to the beady-eyed dentist, “we’ll revisit this, Jakub. In the meantime maybe you can see the next patient while I talk with Mr Young …”

“Yes, good idea Artur.” He says. His eyes seem to have hardened and he looks glad to see the back of me.

“While we are waiting for the X-rays,” Arthur Franklin says to me, he is propped up against the receptionists’ desk just looking over the top at the seated heads of the two women there, “I’d suggest you make the payment for the complete treatment. The initial examination that Jakub undertook suggests that you have progressive gum disease, and you also need a replacement filling and treatment for that abscess. So that will be, let me see … Janice, can you do a bill for Mr Young? And can you make an appointment for … sorry, can you turn the screen around, thank you. Yes, this afternoon at three. Everything will be clear and ready to proceed by then.”

I am towering above him but I still feel small. I don’t like talking to the top of his head, so I take a step backwards.

“Yes, that’s fine. How much is it? I’ll pay now and you’ll finish the treatment this afternoon? Is that right?”

“Yes, yes. That’s right.”

“Thank you, Janice.”

“There you go, Mr Young, your bill.” He hands me the information.

I look at the piece of paper and reach for my wallet. It seems a bit steep but I’m afraid to talk anymore.

“Do you take cards?” I say this to the woman with the name tag ‘Janice’.

“Yes, of course.”

She charges my card after I punch my number in, reminds me of my later appointment and then says brightly, “See you this afternoon at three.” I take my receipt and leave.

I have just over two hours to calm down.

I call Sue as soon as I’m outside.

She listens without comment, then says, “Denny, it sounds rough, but looks like you’re going to get it sorted. I’m sorry that they didn’t make the whole process clear at first.” She pauses for me to respond, I grunt.

“I’m going to the shop to get a drink.”

“Do you think having a Coke is the best thing between dental appointments?”

“No.”

“But you’re going to do it anyway?”

“Yes.”

“OK. Will you be home for lunch or shall we start without you?”

“Aw, Sue. Can you leave mine in the oven? I’m just going to go to the shop and come back here to get this over and done with. I’ll eat later. Can you tell the boys I’ll be back soon? Please don’t tell them that I’m behaving like a wuss. This pain is no joke! I’l take them out for football in the park later. Promise.”

“OK, love.” She hesitated, I knew she hadn’t finished speaking.

“Yeah?” I said.

“I was just wondering if it didn’t make sense to come back and eat now because you might be in pain later if you have a filling and an injection. Just a thought …”

“You’re right. It does make sense, but when did I ever make sense about seemingly logical things? You married the wrong man if you’re looking for sense!” I laughed even though I didn’t feel like it.

“No, Sue. Thanks for the thought, love. I’ll be back as soon as they’ve finished. If I left now by the time I get home and quickly throw some food down my throat, I’ll have to be back across here and the traffic is heavy today because of the match.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot. OK darling, see you later. Keep me updated. Love you.”

“Love you back,” I smiled. Sue had the ability to find some joy in me even when I was at my grumpiest. And the dentist made me feel like all the photos of Grumpy Cat that have ever been seen.

I was back at the dentist at 2.45 because I ran out of things to do around that area, and I didn’t want to do any impulse shopping because I’m always telling Sue not to do that, and I would have to think of a good excuse for whatever I bought. I sat with my phone and watched the match. I had my headphones in so I didn’t hear them when they called me at first. They called me in exactly at three o’clock.

Once I was back in the chair I noticed that the room was strangely empty. There was only me and the dental nurse. She was in the same green scrubs that she had on earlier in the day. Her hair was now tied up in a neat knot behind her head.

“The dentist will be a few more minutes, Mr Young. Sorry he’s been delayed.”

“I noticed there were a lot more people in reception,” I tried to make conversation but I felt the sarcasm was starting to build already. “Did you have a lot of emergencies come in today?” There was no way I could make it sound neutral. I’m sure that she remembered the earlier conversation.

“We’re usually busy on Sunday’s,” was her diplomatic answer.

“Oh.”

Three quiet minutes passed and we both shifted uncomfortably because there was nothing to look at, apart from the ceiling tiles and the radio was playing too low to hear either music or conversation.

I felt I should ask her her name but she spoke before I could, “It say’s here you’re a tailor.” She was obviously looking at my records on the computer. I had filled the new patient form in when I was waiting the first time I was in reception.

“Yes,” I responded.

“That must be interesting.”

“It is. I love it. It was an unexpected career choice – it even surprised me! But, I really love what I get to do every day. I make people look their best. I mean, just the other day I got to measure up a suit for …”

The door flew open and Jakob burst in, I stopped mid sentence.

He looked like he had been swimming or had just got out of the shower. His blue scrubs were two different shades: dark and wet and light and dry. The wet sections were winning. There were droplets of water all over his face and his forearms. The blond hairs on his arms glistened with sweat. It reminded me of being in a scrum – the only thing missing was the mud.

“Sorry to keep you,” he panted. “Hard case – emergency. Now, let me see.”

He paused as he looked at the screen.

“Oh yes. Mr Young.” He sat down on the stool beside me and reached for his tools. Then he used his forearm to wipe away some of the sweat from his head. His success rate at removing the moisture was poor. I saw more drops forming on his brow above the plastic glasses that he had now placed there.

I sat up.

“Sit back, please.”

“What? What do you think you’re doing?” My voice returned to the volume it was before I left the box room surgery earlier.

“We are late, we need to do injection for filling.” He said. “It will hurt without …”

Turning to the dental assistant, he said something technical and she started preparing the treatment somewhere behind my head.

“No! No!” I repeated.

“You’re not working on me. Look at the state of you! My God … you’ve got to be joking, right? Is this one of those candid camera shows? The next thing would be you drip your dirty sweat into my mouth!”

I was standing up by now.

The thoughts running through my head were a mixture of both horror and fear. The sight of him as he’d entered made me wonder if I was in the right place. I instinctively knew I wasn’t. My adrenalin kicked in. The fight or flight response that I experienced told me to question what sort of dental procedure he could have just undertaken in another, possibly also tiny, room that necessitated the physical exertion obviously required to create that much sweat. I was worried for the person he had just seen, but most of all I was worried for me – his next potential victim.

The images from the recent museum visit started to crowd my mind. I felt nausea rising up in me again.

“I can’t believe this. I’m leaving. There is no way you are working on me looking like that. This is so unprofessional.”

Jakob used his arm to wipe his head again and removed his plastic glasses to stare at me.

“Please,” he said, “please sit and we continue.”

“Can’t you hear me? Can you understand me?” I was still shouting.

“Get me that bloke from this morning. The Practice Manager. Whatshisname Franklin. I want my money back. I’m not paying for this mis-treatment. You’re ridiculous. The whole lot of you. This is stupid. I really can’t believe you plan to work on me looking … and smelling like that!”

Arthur Franklin returns to the reception area. He looks at me with tired eyes. He has the same crumpled and soiled mask around his neck, and the gloves he is wearing have puffed up with the increased amount of moisture between him and the plastic material. That should have been a sign to me earlier. The pain that I’ve been feeling has obviously stopped my perception skills.

“I want my money back.” I demand. “I’m not paying for this – did you see that man? He was sweating … I mean, literally sweating on to me  as I sat in the chair!”

This bit is not strictly true, but it would have been if I had stayed in the chair for even a minute longer. I had a lucky escape. So did he. I didn’t get my black belt in Taekwondo without knowing how to use my feet and fists.

There is silence in the packed waiting room. I’ve had my say, and all the other people have heard me. I could say more, but I won’t, not today. It’s time for me to go before I do something I regret.

Before I left they insisted that I pay for the X-rays, but they gave me back the rest of the nearly £200 I had signed over a few hours earlier. So I was £25 lighter, I had lost half of my Sunday and I still had a horrible toothache.

Sue laughed when I told her. She said I was exaggerating, but I’m not. I tell you, I would have hurt him if he dropped his smelly sweat into my mouth. It really would have hurt. I don’t know how they get away with it.

I’m going to write a review about them now. Where do I start …

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

Victimised x 2

My refuge is in the centre of silence

because

outside

of me

in the place of words

I remain isolated and alone

as

there is no belief

in

the unimaginable event

I

used strings of syllables

to describe

for

they disturb tender ears and hearts

after

the physical (act)attack damaged my body and mind

 

your shock

behind the wall of your doubt

was the second violation

of me

 

so

 

it’s now

that I am

again

helpless, powerlesss

and mute

 

like when I silently negotiated

the theft of my sex

for my life

 

but you can’t hear me

because you are judging me

for surviving

 

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

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

Bread

Who knew it could take so long to choose a loaf of bread. She has no clue which one to select. After all the bread is not even for her, it is her good deed but at this moment it feels like a heavy task. She stands looking at the rows and rows of bread before her.

“Why didn’t I just walk on the other side of the road?” Mae questions herself.

It is a cold day, the first week of November. Not autumn but also not yet in the depths of winter. It is the sort of day that warrants a hat, scarf and gloves along with the warmest coat in reach on the hallway coat stand. She is just on the way to the post office, a quick trip and then right back home. But then she thinks it makes sense to stop off at the doctor’s to drop in the repeat prescription form that needs refilling. Over the previous two weeks Mae has recognised that she is beginning to tire earlier and earlier each evening without any corresponding increase in activity during the day. However, it was only two days previously that she remember that she hadn’t been taking her iron and vitamin tablets like she is supposed to.

“That could be why I’m so tired.” She says aloud to herself.

There was no-one at home to remind her or to discuss the situation with, not even a disinterested cat.

At the post office Mae greets Angela with more joviality than she is feeling. Their salutations don’t feel real to either of them. Angela smiles a practiced business greeting back at Mae. They mention the weather while weighing the packages. The woman behind the counter is as slender as she could be without people mentioning that she looks unwell. Angela is printed on her name tag.

Mae stands on the public side of the counter and observes Angela who is focused on her work with the three packages. Her thick auburn hair is always immaculate and her clothes would not look out of place in any of the Michelin starred restaurants in the city centre, but she never goes to any of them. The post office and the shop business, her husband – who may have been acquainted with kindness in his younger days, and their now adult twin children, are the only things that gain her attention, apart from her house and garden. She thinks of the house as just hers because she is the only one to call that place home. It is her area of safety. When she is there, away from the people in and out of the post office all day, she knows she isn’t watched anymore and can take off her carefully coiffured wig and relax to unending reality television in her jogging bottoms, accompanied only by a glass or two of Bombay Sapphire gin on the coffee table. She never jogs anywhere. Chris, her husband, is not in the shop section of the post office today. He is an infrequent visitor, and today he is away on business again, so Angela says. Angela has encouraged him to attend business meetings and conferences all over the country, and to go on regular golfing holidays. It suits them both. They had married before they had the chance to get to really know each other or themselves. They later found out that they had significant differences which did nothing to reignite the attraction to each other after twenty years of marriage. So they slipped into a silent agreement to grow up separately but be together in the same house for some of the time as they got older.

Outside the winter sun and blue skies are co-conspirators in an elaborate lie  today. The fresh cold air burns into Mae’s exposed cheeks as soon as she leaves the house. When she turns to lock the front door she almost goes back into the house, it is only the letters in her hand that force her to walk down her short path to the street and keep going towards the shops.

Mae walks rapidly down to the end of her street, then turns right. This is her daily exercise time; an afternoon walk to the shops and back to her desk. The post office is not even a mile away so she doesn’t want to drive today. It seems like such a waste of petrol to start the car up to travel a distance that is only a brisk five minutes walk away. As she turns into the adjacent street she again muses that the area has the feel of a village, but it is still only three miles from the city centre and yet has a totally different vibe. It is so quiet, both inside the small retail unit and on the bright streets; the day feels like a television weather warning has been issued stating that the cold atmosphere will pervade all areas and therefore people and animals are encouraged to stay inside buildings unless the journey is absolutely necessary.

The months of November through to the middle of February have the tendency to make Mae wish that she once again had the anonymity of a stranger in her recently adopted city. For the first three of the five years she has been here she made it her business to avoid the connectivity of being known as it made her vulnerable to look for and expect kindness. That’s what she had left behind.

Although she has not yet attended any street barbecues or accepted the numerous invitations to birthday drinks from her friendly neighbours, she does now know the names of a few people in the houses linked to hers, and the names of the people in the post office as well since typed letters and packages are now her preferred forms of communication. However it sometimes makes life awkward when she is not in the mood to have her privacy violated because someone knows her name.

Leaving the post office her mind is crowded with regrets. It is a convenient location for both her business of writing greeting cards and the private post that she has to send. Now she fears she has become too familiar and caused friction. She asked where one of the clerks was that afternoon and had tried to make a joke about man flu but the person in question was Angela’s adult son Jason. Mae did not know they were related when she first encountered Jason a few weeks earlier. He bears no resemblance to his mother that she could see. He has the physique of an international rugby player who has retired early because of injury. He recently returned to the city without his wife and would occasionally work with his mother behind the post office counter. He coughed continually when Mae was in the post office the previous Tuesday, and he had remained huddled in his coat and scarf as if he was about to leave, although at the time he said, “I’ve just got here, but I’m not feeling well.” Any hope that he had had the Monday before that it was a 24 hour bug had been replaced by the firm resignation that he would have the cold for the rest of the week at least. His rugged face had started to show signs of calm since he settled into his own flat, but all sickness has a way of reminding people of their mortality and isolation when health matters occur. In a hurry to get away Mae proffered the usual sympathies and platitudes then left the post office without the new book of stamps that she needed. Today she chastens herself for forgetting that no matter what age someone’s offspring is she should always remember not to make any jokes about them to their parents. Now she will have to use the other post office for a while while they both forget her faux pas. The distance of the nearest alternative means that she will have to drive there regardless of what the weather is.

It is this error that causes her to be forgetful and leads to her standing in the shop looking at white bread. Wanting to rebalance her day and remove the guilt and negativity that was suffocating her brain Mae reduced her pace and spoke to the man sat on the wall. He always smiled at her. Ever since the first day when she had seen him standing in the supermarket car park by the trolley bay they had connected in the way that strangers sometimes do – usually across the road or as she rushed by on her way somewhere else, like the doctor’s surgery. This time, distracted from the negative post office interaction, she is walking more slowly than usual. He catches her eye and arranges his face in a big smile.

The wall around him shows that he is sat on several layers of free supermarket magazines. They are his buffer from the cold she supposes. Guilt surfaces again and she tightens her grip on her coat. He isn’t even wearing a hat, but he does have a warm coat on she thinks as she assesses him from head to foot. He looks better than he looked the last time she saw him.

When she is parallel to him she stops.

“Hello Joseph,” she says. He had told her that was his name about six months ago. He never looked like a Joseph to her, he said he was from Romania and staying with a friend a few streets away, but he is not allowed to stay in the house in the day, so he stays outside the local supermarkets smiling at people with hope.

“Any change?” Had been his first words to her at the trolley bay the year before.

“No, sorry. It’s a token.” She gesticulated to the slot near the handle of the trolley. “I haven’t got any cash, sorry.” It was an easy lie. Her wallet was bulging with money. It was the act of a coward, an act of self-defence because she didn’t want to explain herself to a strange man or open her wallet. She lowered her head and struggled as she pushed her trolley back into the row of returned trollies. Then she pocketed the token before leaving him standing there as if they had not just spoken to each other, and walked away to her car. After that encounter she avoided eye contact with him around the local supermarkets for months and judged him from afar.

Today he looks up at her, the smile had not moved.

“How are you?”

“O.K. O.K.” He says slowly, he shakes his head from side to side while talking. His actions confuse her. Was he O.K. or not?

“You must be cold out here …”

Feeling stupid at stating the obvious she looks at her feet. Her boots are warm, but then so are his. At least they appear to be. He has on a nice pair of yellow and black new trainers, they don’t really go with his brown puffa jacket. They look at each other in silence. They are both thinking.

Mae’s thoughts are all questions. What is he doing out here in this weather? What should she do? How is she supposed to walk away now?

“I wish I could help you, but I don’t have any change on me. See, I’ve just used my card for these few things from the chemist.”

“O.K.” Joseph responded. The smile is now reducing to a thin line on his face, but his eyes still shine – they are somehow reflecting the cold sun in the sky. He has a half empty cup of tea or coffee in one hand and the other is hugging his waist in what appears like a desperate attempt to give himself some warmth and comfort. Mae thinks, “I wonder when he was last hugged or touched by another person?”

He looks isolated the way a statue is on a busy street. People see him and walk pass him as if his humanity doesn’t exist.

“Why did I have to stop?” Mae questions herself again.

Hesitantly she speaks to him again, this is the only way she can feel less awkward about standing there and she cannot bring herself to walk away just yet, “I’m going into that shop, can I get you something? I’ve only got my card with me so I can’t give you any money.”

“Please. Yes. Thank you.”

“What would you like? What can I get you?”

“Anything good. Thank you.” Joseph is shaking his head again, his curly black hair has a tousled look to it. It appears clean but uncombed, it is not the sort of hair that you would regularly comb really, unless you use your fingers. It falls loosely to just below his ears. He looks about the age her son could be now if she had had children when she had the opportunity. He has a light scattering of facial hair that is trying to form a moustache and sideburns, however it was obvious that he will not be successful in growing enough hair on his face to style into even the smallest goatee – his face will not be blessed with anything can be used for a temporary disguise or even warmth on a cold day.

“Tea? Bread? Milk?”

“Bread. Please.” More head shaking accompanies his sparse words.

“What type of bread do you like?” Suddenly Mae recognises that she is talking quickly and is probably not making herself clear to Joseph whose mother tongue is evidently not English.

“White, brown? What bread?” She asks again.

“White? Please. Thank you.” Joseph’s smile has now completely gone after the flurry of words directed at him and he looks concerned. Mae is worried that she has offended him by her offer of food. She feels hot, despite the cold. Maybe he was cold. He must be cold she thought.

“O.K. White. O.K. I’ll be right back.” Mae nervously still speaks rapidly.

It has been years since she has picked up a loaf of white bread. She wants to get a loaf of multigrain brown bread for him because that is what she always buys for herself, but she had asked him what he wanted and he said white. There are so many white loaves on the shelf. Thick cut, thin cut, half loaves, full loaves, medium slice, toastie, old English, so many different brands and choices. Mae just wants to go straight home and get on with her work and not think about white bread or man flu, but she knows Joseph will be out there on the cold wall expecting her to come back. Or maybe he won’t. She remembers the last time she bought something for someone she’d talked to outside of a shop, and when she had paid for it and come out the woman had gone, and Mae had been left with a pack of energy drinks and some donuts that she would never drink or eat or have a chance to offer to anyone – especially as at that time she hadn’t had a visitor to her home for two years. 

At the till she unloads the contents of her basket onto the conveyor belt. There is broccoli, carrots, brown basmati and wild rice, onions, garlic, red peppers, tofu, blueberries, bananas, oats

and a loaf of thick cut white bread in a bright orange and white packet. Just looking at it makes her feel bad because she knows she is being judgemental again.

She puts the bread into her bag last of all because it is coming out as soon as she exits the shop, but she doesn’t feel good about it. Even when she hands the loaf to Joseph she feels unsettled.

“Here you go, “ she says triumphantly, “one loaf of white bread. I hope you enjoy it.”

He takes it, shakes his head in the confusing way that means neither yes or no to Mae, smiles a small smile that does not reach his eyes, and says a muted, “Thank you.”

Neither of them look happy.

Before Mae turns to head back to her warm centrally-heated house she sees Joseph put the loaf of bread onto one of the opened magazines on the wall to his right. Then he looks straight ahead of him like the statue that he has become, with the now empty polystyrene cup held out in front of him.

Mae turns away from him, quickly dodges past a group of school children who are looking at her and Joseph curiously and proceeds to hurry home with her bag of righteous shopping and a heavy guilty judgemental conscience.

As she closes the door behind her she drops the shopping bag by the hall radiator and leaning her back against the warmth rising from the panels she silently wishes she never wrote those letters or went out.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017