“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.
“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.
“Come through, and don’t forget to close the door properly. You know it’s hard for me to be getting up and down to open the door, that’s why you still have the key. I don’t know why you won’t just use it. It’ll save me some of this pain.”
“Your easy ‘sorry’s’ don’t help my arthritis feel any better, Louisa. It’s been playing up lately. I told you what the doctor said. I did tell you, didn’t I? I saw him on Thursday, or was it Friday? One of those days, this week it was for sure. I think I left a message for you. It had to be a message because you’re always too busy to answer the phone to me. What are you so busy doing all the time, anyway? Too busy to talk to me for even five minutes? Your own mother. It’s so sad. And I can’t tell anyone about it. It’s too shameful. Yes, that’s right, I feel ashamed that I don’t know where you are and what you’re up to from one year to the next. I don’t even know if you’re in the country most of the time what with your high flying job. Are you still at the same job in the city? That accountants? Or is it the computer company now? I never know. Your dad would turn in his grave if he could see us.” This is indirect speech, no shared eye contact – they don’t do that any more. No face to face communication, no familiarity.
Whenever Louisa does find the courage to come back home she is afraid of finding her mother dead. It’s a simple and horrible fact that she feels like an orphan and she is just waiting for another body to prove her feelings true. Ignoring her mum for long periods is practice for the inevitable she tells herself, but she still holds the house key firmly in the palm of her hand whenever she gets to the front door. It just never gets the chance to scrape and turn in the lock of the building that she used to call home. Yet she is ready to use it if she hears a touch of urgency or familiarity in her mother’s voice from inside. Permanent absence is one of her secret fears that she never allows to register on her face. Instead she feigns laziness, preoccupation and forgetfulness when she arrives there.
Ringing the bell twice and knocking the door three times is her new routine. She forces herself to stand on the doorstep until she hears the muttering and slow movement towards the front door; she no longer cares what the neighbours say when she is gone. Exhaling with relief at the eventual sound of movement she steels herself for the inevitable onslaught of words. Today she hears an additional unsteady tap, tap, tap of what sounds like a walking stick along the tiled hallway floor. That’s new. Her brow furrows. Have I missed a message about this?
The last time she used the key unannounced was when she made a surprise visit home after a few months at university and found her mum entertaining Frank Winters. He always gave her the creeps – even when Dad was around, but much more so after he’d gone.
“I don’t know why you won’t call him ‘Uncle Frank’,” Ruth says to her daughter one day that seems a few sunsets too soon since her father died. Her father’s shape and scent is still in the house, but it is slowly going missing in the chair that Frank now likes to sit in.
“Frank has been so helpful around the house since your dad passed,” Ruth says with a curious wistful smile that Louisa only fully understands a few years later. He is her dad’s friend, his fishing friend, they also used to work together at the engineering company at the south edge of town. It’s the town’s biggest employer and Frank still works there, but he doesn’t visit Ruth as often as he used to, not since she had Bell’s palsy and the rumours about him started up in the neighbourhood.
Louisa stands opposite the sofa where Ruth has slowly lowered herself and struggles to remember which occurred first.
She quickly glances over at her mum. Ruth’s face is more or less even again. Her beauty is symmetrical once more. She was always beautiful Louisa thinks, remembering when, as a child, the smiles seemed to be permanently etched into her mum’s face. They were there from morning until nighttime she seems to remember.
The paralysis of the palsy was temporary yet Louisa senses that old guilt revisiting her again because she was happy that Frank disliked her mother’s droopy face enough to stay away until his absence became habitual.
“How are you feeling today, Mum? Can I get you a cup of tea or something to eat?”
“Are you staying long enough to eat something? That’ll make a change.”
“Yes, Mum.” Louisa visibly winces at Ruth’s sharp observation of her usual behaviour.
They look at each other like gladiators across the arena.
Automatically Louisa shifts on her feet uncomfortably, she has not sat down yet. She is hovering by the bookcase unsure about what to do next. Her reflexes want to volley a barbed comment at her mother, but she thinks not today, Louisa, not today – she internally chides herself and forces her face to soften. She was going to wait until later, but decides to act straightaway.
Reaching into her bag, she feels for the photo album of them, back at a time when happiness was not a foreign concept to her.
She pulls it out and immediately regrets the big yellow bow she fixed to the front of it. It’s too much. It smacks of trying too hard. But she can’t take it off now, it’s tied on firmly. Grimacing she steps forwards and hands the package to her mum, “I’ve got this for you. It’s, it’s … just something. You know, one of those memory things. It’s about … us really. Here, take it. Happy … everyday, Mum.” She tries a smile, but fails.
Ruth looks at her in disbelief at the words then adjusts her glasses to look through the middle section of her varifocal lenses and then gently accepts the book. When she eventually got used to the fact that her husband had been killed in an accident and her daughter had moved away never to return, Ruth began to age rapidly and spent more time at the doctors than anywhere else. The house and her body become mausoleums.
Silent tears fall down her face as she carefully undoes the bow and opens the album turning through page after page of memories. The unstopped waterfall makes it difficult for her to see the photos clearly, but she doesn’t need to after the first few pages, she feels them. She clearly remembers those times with just the three of them.
The special phrase is running across the top of each page, it’s the phrase she used to say to Louisa at the start and end of each day: happy everyday.
“We really were happy then,” Ruth’s voice wavers as she holds the book open at a page where the three of them are holding ice-creams and laughing directly at the camera. She turns it to face her daughter who hasn’t taken her eyes off her mum.
“Who took this? Do you remember, Lou-Lou? Wasn’t it that day we went to Oxwich Bay on your dad’s annual work trip?”
The old familiar smile is growing on her face, it starts at her eyes and now Louisa starts to mirror her mum’s silent crying, “Yes, Mum. It was.”
“I was only twelve then, it was just before Dad’s birthday and you bought him that camera as an early birthday present.”
“That’s right, I remember.” Ruth wipes the mixed tears of sadness and joy away. “Can I keep this? Is it for me?”
“Yes, Mum. I made it up for you. I borrowed the photo albums last time I was here. Sorry. I should have asked. I wanted to see …” Tears mix up her words, so she tries again, “I wanted to remember us when we were … happy together. I forgot who I was, where I came from. I forgot you and da…”
“Come here, Lou-Lou …” Ruth stretches out her arm, opening and closing the finger on her hand in the familiar beckoning gesture.
Louisa comes and sits on the floor at Ruth’s feet and timidly leans towards her mum before placing her head on her mum’s lap.
They sit like this until their tears have gone.
“I really miss your dad, you know?”
They stay still in silence for another long time. It’s the most peace they have had together for years. There is no pointed anger in the quietness that they inhabit today. The usual sad awkwardness towards each other that they wake up wearing is slipping away.
“I’m sorry, Lou-Lou …”
“For … all of it. After Dad died. You know, Frank and all that.”
“Oh!” That name stabs her into cat-like alertness. Her heart starts palpitating like she’s just been for a run. She remembers what she learnt in her yoga classes and forces herself to start the deep breathing routine to calm herself down before she can think about speaking.
Another eternity later she finds her voice, “Mum?”
The fact that they are not looking at each other makes this easier.
“Mum,” Louisa hesitates and shifts a little uncomfortably, “Mum, there’s something I need to tell you about Frank …”
“I know, Love.” Ruth’s hand continues to caress Louisa’s head. She feels like she is a child again. Ruth’s fingers feel straight, pain free and strong. That’s how she feels. Strong again.
“Lou-Lou, did he ever … I mean, did Frank, you know …”
The air becomes oppressive around them both, even the sunshine streaming through the bay window does not stop them both from shuddering.
“I didn’t know he was like that, Lou-Lou. I didn’t know. He was your Dad’s best friend. He was always polite and kind when James was around. It was years after you’d left home that I heard what he’d done to Mrs Chambers’ daughter. You know, the girl who was never quite right … I think he did that. Did he … did he do … anything to you?”
They are now listening to each other beyond the mere edges of their words, a practice they automatically embraced when death visited their family and took James.
“Don’t worry, Mum. It’s OK. He didn’t touch me,” Louisa quickly tells the half lie that has become her survival truth. “He did show me his thing a few times, when you were out of the room. It was when I was in senior school. I tried to tell you, but the words wouldn’t come out easily and you seemed so happy with him. Not like with Dad, but sort of not sad all the time.” That’s all she dares to tell her today. She doesn’t want their connection to break apart as they are just beginning to fix themselves.
“Oh! Louisa, I’m so sorry. I remember that day, when I was sewing and you kept saying you wanted to talk, but then he came around and you never did tell me what was on your mind. Not even later that evening when I asked you again. I’m so sorry, Love.”
“I thought you forgot Dad.”
“How could I? Don’t be silly, Lou. Frank was a good friend to start of with, he reminded me of James by sharing stories of when we were younger and all went to the dances at the Rialto. Those were fun days. Frank and Millie, me and your Dad. We had some good times.”
Ruth pauses, and her hand stops on the crown on Louisa’s head. “Then, then things changed between us. But only after you Dad had been gone for years.”
“Mhhhhmm.” Louisa is not comfortable with full words again yet. She is intent on listening and getting to know her mum again. She nods, and adjusts herself on the floor so she is still physically connected to her mum, but can also now see her face.
She’s missed her beauty. Not just the made-up beauty that comes out of the many bottle and tubes on her dressing table, but the simple beauty of kindness, love and attachment. The beauty that was part of the person she called Mummy.
Her Mummy used to bake every week, make clothes with her, and tell her a new chapter of their made-up stories every night at bedtime. Her tickles and kisses were like butterflies and sugar – Louisa’s favourite childhood things.
Ruth catches Louisa looking at her and recognises the return of her love. The link that had been lost for years is back at last. They clasp hands, squeeze tightly and then start to relax together. The coldness that Louisa used to hold in her eyes cut Ruth’s heart to ribbons each time they met, but she never said anything. She thought she deserved it because she had after all looked away from their family for a moment.
“After Dad I was lonely, and vulnerable I guess. He knew that. Frank I mean, he knew that. After a while none of my married friends wanted me around their husbands – not that they were anything special or that I was interested in them in that way!” She laughs a dry laugh.
“Your dad, my James, was …” A deep sigh escapes from her lips and fires across the room settling in his chair that’s still there by the window as a monument to him after all these years. “He, he was the love of my life. No, I’m not just saying that. He was. He is. He always will be.”
“I’m sorry, Mum. It must be, you know, hard for you. I didn’t realise that … ”
“I don’t think you understand, Lou-Lou. I never told you this before. I thought you were too young to know this, at fourteen. That’s too young. It’s bad enough that your dad’s died much less listening to my grief as well. I, I, well I was trying to do my best for you. You see, I promised him, your dad I mean, I promised him that I’d always take care of you, his precious flower. Remember when he used to sing, “Lou-Lou Daisy to you? That’s his own song. He made that up just for you. And me. He loved me so much. But I messed up. It’s not easy to say this. It’s been my burden for years … ”
“Mum, it’s alright, you don’t have to say anything. It’s alright. I get it now.”
“No.” Ruth presses her plum red lips firmly together, “No. Listen Lou-Lou. It’s time we talked about this. You need to know.”
Ruth has her full face on today, the same as she has every weekend. It’s her just-in-case make up face, her hopeful face that hardly anyone ever sees. Her cheeks are now slightly smudged from the tears and from rubbing her eyes,
“Mum, I’m just going to get some water. I’m parched. Do you want anything?”
“I don’t want to forget what I’ve got to say to you.”
“I don’t want you to either. I’ve missed this … you know, talking stuff. Just us stuff.”
“Me too, Love.”
Ruth watches as her prodigal daughter stretches her cramped long limbs and walks towards the kitchen. She looks more relaxed that she should have been having sat on the floor for the past hour. She takes after her father in her height and flexibility.
“Lou-Lou?” Ruth calls towards the kitchen from her seat on the sofa.
“Do you want some biscuits?”
“Only if you made them.”
“I did, Love. They’re in the green tin on the side by the flowers.”
“You baked? Really? Why? You don’t even like sweet things that much …” Louisa comes to the door with the biscuit tin. She pries it open and bursts into tears, “My favourites!” she exclaims as she looks inside and sees heart-shaped strawberry shortbreads and half-chocolate Viennese Whirls. I haven’t had any good ones of these in years. No-one else makes them just like you. Not even me … and I’ve tried!”
Laughingly Ruth remarks, “Well, I’ve had years of practice, Love. I make them all the time, you know. I could make them in my sleep!”
I’ll make more of those on Monday, she thinks. The shelter is used to them now, I can’t miss sending some over this week. Her heart swells with joy as Louisa comes back into the room and curls up on the sofa next to her.
“Awww, Mum – these are delicious! Just like you used to make for me and dad every weekend.” Ruth reaches across and gently brushes the crumbs of the Viennese Whirl away from Louisa’s bottom lip.
“Thanks Mum. I’m… I’m glad to be home. I’ve missed … this.”
“Me too, Honey. Me too.”
“Now, let me finish telling you what we were talking about before …”
“You don’t have to … It’s O.K. We can just …” Louisa quietly and hesitantly tries to dissuade Ruth from picking up the pre-biscuit conversation.
“No, Lou-Lou. We need this. Here, let me have one of those Whirls …”
“I’m not sure I can spare any, they’re delicious!”
The sound of their spontaneous joint laughter is so unusual that momentarily they both pause and look at each other. Ruth smiles first, Louisa follows her lead and relaxes a little.
Ruth takes this as a signal to open up the buried past so she takes a deep breath, reaches out and comfortingly pats her daughter’s arm. Then she begins.
“Losing your dad is my life’s wound. I’ll never heal. I don’t want to.”
“Oh, Mum!” Louisa’s shaky voice gets quiet again as her face loses its peaceful composure. She feels embarrassed because she remembers she lost all her faith in her mum’s love for years and only kept coming back to the house every few months because of an old obligation to her dream of family. Her anger kept the distance between them perfectly sterile for a long time. She was the one who chose to make her childhood home a jail.
“Did I tell you the story of when we first met?” There is now a smile in Ruth’s voice.
“Remind me …” Louisa munches on her third biscuit and smiles at her mum. She knows the story so well, she’s never forgotten it. That was where her hope lived, in the story of their past. In the happy everyday that they had before her Dad’s accident.
Both her mum and dad told her their story so many times, it seemed they had a secret that tickled them at each airing because their eyes sparkled every time they recalled it. The only thing they loved as passionately as their story of love was their only child: Louisa Ruth Treadwell. Born on a Thursday.
“Well, as you know, it was a Thursday …”
© Marjorie H Morgan 2017