Sunday, 8 August 2010
Another piece that needs more work. My tutor tells me there are too many adverbs and it is too "writerly". These are the things I aim to address although I think the concept of this story is a good one. It is just the style that needs attention.
The wallpaper in the room was the same as Diane remembered. Heavy purple flock only with bald patches worn in over time. The amateur painting of Ayers Rock hung crooked above the cream tiled fireplace. The vibrant colours made her think of her mother.
She lifted it from the hook and placed it in a plain covered chair away from the chaos of the background and stood back to look at it. No. She didn't want it. She put it back. Perhaps she should have tried to find her parents to tell them of Granny's death but she didn't know where to start and she didn't see the point. Australia was a big place and they probably weren't interested. She didn't know where to find Granny's distant cousins either. She'd only met Aunt Kathy and Uncle Dick once. Diane asked Granny where they lived when she was taken to the Home but she just said : “Oh, they moved down south years ago and I don't bloody want them here anyway.”
Diane should have got in touch. At least if they had been at the funeral, it would have made up the numbers. Only Stella, Granny's carer, and the nursing home manager were there and he kept looking at his watch throughout the short service.
Diane dipped into her pocket and pulled out a roll of bin liners. She shook one open. The sideboard seemed a good place to start. The drawers contained old bills, like the TV licence from 1975, cards, and newspapers. Diane shook her head and tipped the junk straight into the bin liner. A scarred, pillar box red OXO tin jumped free, the lid bounced open, and the sewing kit inside scattered on the floor. As the pins and needles flew in all directions, she remembered that slap. The finger marks long gone, Granny's rage still fresh.
“It's all too much for a woman of my age. If it wasn't for me you'd be a home!” she raged as she sewed and then raged some more when she pricked her finger.
Diane knew she shouldn't have worn that new dress for climbing trees. It was bound to get ripped, however careful she was, and it caused a rancid end to a nice stay that time when Aunt Kathy and Uncle Dick came over. They had a daughter a bit younger than Diane, a quiet, shy girl, who didn't want to play and sat close to Aunt Kathy sucking her thumb. Diane coaxed her upstairs with the promise that she could wear her plastic toy high heels. The little girl, whose name she couldn't remember, squealed with delight as she clip-clopped around the room. She let her wear them the next day when they went to the park. The girl watched and waited as Diane climbed her favourite tree and then giggled, one finger sticking out of the side of her mouth, as Diane gripped her legs around a thick branch. She did a somersault and heard the rip as the cotton caught on a twig as she came right side up. Her hand covered the damage as she she sneaked in, the girl behind her. Granny's hawk eye swooped on them like caught field mice.
“What's that?” She pulled Diane's hand away from the bottom of the dress and saw the tear.
“Did you do this?” she looked angry. Her pokey nose close to the girl's face.
Diane protested that it wasn't the little girl's fault. She'd been showing off but Granny said she didn't care. “In it together, I wouldn't be surprised,” she said.
The girl started crying. Aunt Kathy and Uncle Dick came rushing in from the living room.
“What's all this?” Aunt Kathy shouted.
Her daughter ran to her and hugged her legs. Kathy looked short, squashy and comfy. Granny was skinny with a withered face and her mouth looked like it had been made upside down. There wasn't much of a family resemblance except they both had wiry grey hair with black strands.
“You spoil her far too much and it shows”. Granny let go of Diane, put her hand on her bony hip and faced Kathy. Her head shook up and down.
“What are you talking about?” Kathy was stroking the girl's hair.
“She's obviously egged our Diane on. Brand new this dress is and look at it! And I'm still paying the catalogue bill for it. You know I'm struggling. There's two of you and one of me. You could help out more.”
Uncle Dick turned to his wife. “I told you we shouldn't have come here.”
Diane remembered his silver hair flattened back with Brylcreem. He was a nice man. He bought her sweets when he came to the house and kept saying how pretty she looked. She didn't know why he kept touching her hands and face, and her bottom once, every time he talked to her. The thought walked down her spine and made her shudder.
Diane had scraped that Oxo tin lid in temper as Granny moaned and sewed after Kathy and Dick left the house. The marks were still there. Now rusty outlines of the brand name etched into the metal. She clipped the tin shut, and threw it in the liner, twisted the bag and knotted it. Hands on hips, she moved swiftly to the cupboards beneath the drawers which were stacked with magazines. It appeared Woman's Weekly was Granny's favourite and she liked the TV Times. Diane hauled them out. A cover story about Australia made her sit back on her thighs and start reading. Her eyes touched over the photos of Sydney Harbour and settled on one of Aborigines. Their suspicious eyes narrowed toward the camera which captured the barren landscape behind. It looked like the end of the earth to Diane. She slapped the magazine shut and binned it. Like Granny had said. It was best not to think about “them.”
She said it when Diane told her about that dream.
“It was dark and really cold,” she'd said as Granny sat down at the breakfast table. “I was looking down at my feet swinging over the edge of a wooden bench. I don't know where it was but my shoes were all posh and polished like I was going somewhere special. One sock kept falling down because the elastic had gone. I felt comfort on my face as I snuggled into the crook of mum's arm, her fur coat as soft and lovely as my bed. It was so real. She was smoking and I was trying to copy her with my breath in the cold air. Mum opened her coat and snuggled it around me.
“All wrapped up like a baby,” she said to me. The sound of her heartbeat in my ear sent me to sleep. The next thing I knew I was dreaming in my dream. Soaring high over fields of flowers, reds, oranges, and scarlets and I flew over the sun. Then your face was over me, lifting me into the back of a taxi in the drizzling rain.”
Granny didn't say anything, she just chewed on her toast, her jaw swinging, as if she was trying to find teeth to grind it among less than a full set.
The old woman seemed to simmer at first and then red blotches began to appear on her turkey neck. Her chair screeched across the tiled floor as she pushed it back from the table. She stood, paused with her mouth open as if to speak, but then she didn't say a word. She cleared away her half eaten breakfast and spoke as she crashed the plates into the sink.
“It's best not to think about them – even in a dream,” she said. “Just be grateful that you've got me. God knows where you'd end up otherwise.”
Diane put the bin bags together by the door. She glanced at the crucifix on Granny's mantlepiece, and the two glazed pot shire horses each side that as a child she'd bought the old woman one year for her birthday. She'd leave those. She took a last look into the living room and was about the close the door on it when she remembered the small drawer in the coffee table. More old bills and club payment cards but nothing useful like an address book. It wouldn't hurt to write to Kathy and Dick and tell them the news. They might want to know after all this time.
Diane wondered if Granny also drove her parents away. She'd chased off everyone else she'd ever got close to including her only serious boyfriend Ian.
“You either come with me now or it's over,” he'd said one day after a silly row with Granny over a bacon sandwich.
“That bacon cost me three pounds a pack and it won't last two minutes if that greedy swine doesn't stop packing that buttie,” she was always worrying about money.
Ian yelled that he was entitled because he contributed financially to the household. Diane wasn't sure whose side to come down on.
Granny grabbed the bacon and threw it at Ian. “Here have it then!” she said.
A slice slapped itself around his face. He wasn't amused.
“Come on Diane,” he said as he peeled it off.
Diane moved towards him. Granny suddenly clutched her chest, staggered sideways and flopped into a chair. Diane rushed over to help her and screamed at Ian to call an ambulance. But he just stood there and watched and waited for an answer : “Well? Are you coming or not?”
She spent all night with Granny in the hospital. Her suspected heart attack was diagnosed as trapped wind. What life would have been like if she had left with Ian had often haunted Diane. She bumped into him soon after the funeral. He introduced her to his wife, Susan, who said “hellooo” before she drifted off to look at a black polyester skirt on the sale rail in the clothing department. Diane thought she looked like a wet dishcloth. Tall, with lank mousey hair, a thin face, and big feet in flat shoes.
Ian had gained weight and looked shorter than Diane remembered. The lens in his glasses had got thicker. He'd gone bald and the wisps of hair combed down at the front looked odd. They chatted small talk about the weather, his new job as a railway booking clerk, his two kids, both at school, and he made the right noises about how sorry he was to hear of Granny's death.
“Whatever you saw in that gormless, four eyed git, is beyond me,” Granny had said as Diane sobbed in her lap after he walked out.
She giggled as the words came back to her now and almost tripped on the worn Axminster stair carpet which still had the same hole in the step, third from the bottom. A sharp right turn at the top and she was in Granny's bedroom, relieved the job was nearly over. The house could go up for sale as soon as it was cleared.
Faded chintz matched the bedspread and curtains, the faint smell of urine and mold hung on the suffocating air but she couldn't open the window. It was painted shut. She tore off a liner from the roll and headed toward the large double wardrobe at the side of the bed. Diane threw clothes, skirts, blouses, fleece jackets, and Granny's favourite crimplene trousers into a liner. A pair of black court shoes, brown, fur-lined suede boots with a zip up the front, and a pair of worn, navy blue Jesus sandals were piled at the bottom. Too old and battered for a charity shop, she thought. Diane wondered if she should strip the bed or leave it for the clearance people. Granny's drawer on her bedside table stored the things she needed to hand like her medicine and hand cream. It was cleared when she went to the home. The junior school photo of Diane as a child, that sat on the top, also went with Granny when she left. Her will stipulated that the the photo should be buried with her. Diane got all emotional when the solicitor read that out. The thought made her eyes water again.
Under the bed was clear. She stepped up onto the mattress and balanced and bounced on her tiptoes to get a view of the top of the wardrobe to check that she hadn't missed anything. A small case was just visible and pushed right back to the wall. Diane couldn't reach it from the bed and so she grabbed the wooden dining chair from the corner of the small room to stand on. It was difficult to reach the handle of the case but she eased it forward with the tips of her fingers until she could clutch them around it and grasp it with her palm. She lifted it down with her other hand underneath to steady it's transition and placed it onto the bed. It was dusty and indented. From the 1960s, Diane guessed. She brushed the cobwebs away with her hand. The red piping around it was worn and exposed the cardboard underneath the cracked plastic. The clasps were rusty. Diane pressed both thumbs on each side and pushed. They flicked open more easily than she thought they would.
On top of the paperwork lay an old photo of a beautiful young woman who looked in her early 20s. It looked like mum in the dream. Even though it was mostly black and white, there was a touch of rouge on the woman's cheeks and the trace of red on her lips. Diane saw a cigarette dangling from that mouth. She sat on the bed. Maybe it was older than she thought. Perhaps it was an old colour photo of Granny when she was young that had faded. There was a certain similarity. Diane couldn't be sure. Her own memory of her mother was too vague. She was only three or four when her parents left her. She lifted the photo out and put it on the bed next to the case. Underneath the photo was a brown envelope, a few letters, an old newspaper, and at the bottom, a postcard. The reds and scarlets caught her attention and she pulled it out. It was the same image of Ayers Rock that had been used for the painting that hung in the living room on that awful wallpaper.
The handwriting on the back was just legible and was similar to her own scrawl which made it possible to read. “Got the job! All's going well and everything's ready. I'll be back on Nov 26th. to pick you up and I'll go straight to the station when I arrive. We can have a couple of days in London before going to the docks. Be ready with Di Di, give her a kiss from me, and look after squiggle. All my love always, Bill xxx”
Diane shivered. Her head was banging. The smell of the room and stale air made her feel nauseous.
She saw mummy sitting in the yard, the postcard tucked into the bottom of the easel as she brushed strokes in colours on the canvas. Mummy stopped to light a cigarette, drew on it, and then rested it in an ashtray on a small table at her side where she kept the oils and brushes. Diane saw it all and herself skipping as she watched mummy paint and smoke in the hot sun.
She wiped her forehead with a tissue that she dragged from her pocket and cleared her throat. June 1962 dated the postcard. “Squiggle?” She had no idea what that meant and loosely recalled an old dog they used to have.
Diane dug back into the case. The letters were love notes between her mum, Marion, and her dad, Bill. He'd obviously got a job in opal mining. His letters mentioned that a lot. There was talk of being a “one pound pom”. Bill said how great it was that they had this opportunity of a new life. Marion said how upset Granny was that they were leaving to go to the other side of the world. Daddy had even got a school in mind for her.
Rain crashed against the bedroom window like drummer boys marching across the glass. Diane zipped up her fleece. It was dusk outside. She got up from the bed and flicked on the light switch by the bedroom door. The glare of false light made her eyes squint. She rubbed them hard and everything went blurred for a minute until they adjusted.
The headline of the newspaper was magnified under the new light which made it visible to see from where from she stood. “Man killed as widow waited,” it screamed. She picked it up and saw three photos. The one of the young woman in the photograph that now lay on the bed, one of a young man about the same age, he had Diane's nose and a smile that flashed from ear to ear. The third photo was Granny. Diane recognised her face like wrinkled fruit. The same face that loomed over her as she was lifted into the back of the taxi. “Grandmother, Mrs Violet Cummings, delivered news as mother and daughter wait at the station,” the caption read.
The room began to spin, Diane's throat was dry, dust and grime clung to the back of it, she baulked. Hand over mouth, she dashed to the bathroom, wretched into the toilet. Her eyes were screwed shut and watered as she puked.
She saw mum looking at her watch. She dropped her stump on the floor, uncrossed her stockinged legs, and twisted her foot over the tab end. A spark escaped the crush and Diane watched it fizzle away in a second. The smell of train diesel that came with the memory made her wretch into the toilet again. She saw it all clearly. She was at the station with Mummy waiting for Daddy to come. They were there ages. She wanted to stay awake but she fell asleep. Granny came and got them.
Diane sat on the floor by the bowl. Her heart beat rapidly, as if trying to punch it's way out of her chest. A strand of hair hung down by her eye, sweat pumped out of her face, and dribbled along her neck line. She stood, slowly, and then went to the sink.
She splashed her face and became a child again. Mummy sploshed the water in the bath as Diane giggled and tried to flatten the bubbles.
“Not long now Di Di,” she'd said. “We've got a lovely new house and the baby will be the first proper Australian in the family.”
Diane looked up into the mirror, stared into her own eyes and saw them change.
“Squiggle!” She remembered it all, lying in bed with mummy, and not being able to get her tiny arm around Mummy's big fat belly. Watching mummy get into the ambulance with her overnight case. This case.
“She's in Australia now with Daddy,” Granny had said when Mummy didn't come back. “Be happy that they are together.”
Diane felt as if she was looking at someone else's reflection in the mirror. “Of course!” she said aloud.
She dashed back to the bedroom and scrabbled among the paperwork, there had to be something here somewhere. She grabbed the brown envelope and ripped it open. Mum and dad's marriage certificate, her birth certificate, her father's death certificate, and then a clump of documents all held together with a paper clip.
She took a huge breath, and read intently, silent tears involuntarily dripped down her face as she went through the paperwork. Mum died giving birth to a baby girl who was born in January 1963. Both certificates told Diane as much as she needed to know. Dad died coming to get them. Mum died having a baby. She had a sister.
The final document in the batch was an adoption paper. The little girl was called Daisy.
“Of course! Daisy! That was her name!” Diane saw again that shy child who sat so close to Aunt Kathy. Daisy. Her sister. Packed off to live with distant, childless relatives. No one cared. A child brought up by an old couple. A child like Diane who needed someone.
“They were here when I needed them but I won't be getting in touch until she apologises,” Granny's voice came back to her.
“Selfish bitch,” Diane growled aloud.
She read each line of the adoption certificate and found what she was looking for. A starting point. An address in Bournemouth. Somewhere in that town was a child, a woman now, maybe even married with children of her own.
Diane gathered up all of the paperwork, the photo, the newspaper, the documents, and packed them back into the small worn out case. She wiped her sleeve across her face to smudge the tears and sat on the bed for a while. Cold set in around her and she hadn't noticed how black it was outside or how bleak this room looked in the naked light. Her shadow grew against the wall as she stood and stretched. She felt stiff and hobbled downstairs, tripped on the worn step, but managed to catch her balance and not drop the case she clutched tightly to her chest with one arm. She paused by the front door for a moment before going back into the living room. She lifted the painting off the hook and wedged it underneath her other arm. She stepped out of the front door and filled her lungs with fresh, clean air and then blew out heavily. What she had found was a beginning. The truth was always the best place to start.
Saturday, 7 August 2010
This story was submitted as an assignment a few months ago. Time away from it has helped me to see some of its faults and it's one that I'm still busy working on.
Jackie turned the rings on her finger so hard they moved like a Chinese burn. The sound of train wheels rolling over iron tracks forged a rhythm to her rage. Bleak countryside raced behind the slanted rain drops, which filled the window like grey net curtains.
“It’s horrible isn’t it?“ came a voice from above. A young man shook out his coat before lifting it up on the rack.
She looked up annoyed : “Yes, obviously!”
His smile disappeared : “I was only trying to be friendly.”
“Sorry. I didn‘t mean to be rude. I had a late night. Tired.”
No point in taking it out on him, she thought.
“No problem. I’ll leave you in peace. You don’t mind if I ….” He sided into the seat opposite and laid a slim case on the table between them.
“No, no, please do.” Her smile was weak.
Warmth from the big sloppy cardigan, that she normally buried herself in while lounging around the house, spread down through her body and cuddled her. The pattering of the man’s fingers on his keyboard soothed like a lullabye. She closed her eyes and drifted, details from the morning’s row replayed in time to the tracks. A train screamed past in the opposite direction, so close it felt she would be skinned alive. Her head jerked back as if struck. Her eyes forced open.
“Sorry? Did you say something?” The young man looked up.
Jackie looked startled.
“No… I hope I wasn’t thinking aloud.”
“It’s probably that lot,” he threw his head backwards to indicate to a group of teenagers laughing and giggling further up the aisle.
Jackie peered out from her seat. Two girls sitting opposite Beavis and Butthead-types looked heavenward, folded their arms and chewed on gum. Pony-tailed heads met as they gossiped; big circle earrings touched and bounced, hands flapped as they talked. She imagined the wearer of the earring she had found that morning. It was cheap artificial tin metal the sort that brought you out in rash. Just like its owner, she thought. An intense soreness burned from her finger which was red and chafed. She tugged and pulled her rings off, and felt instant relief.
“Noisy, aren’t they?”
“Just kids. Mine were just the same.”
The man looked up from behind his laptop. She continued : “They’re older now. Grown up and left home. Got their own families.”
“I‘ll be getting married soon but we won‘t be starting a family yet. My fiancée is committed to her job for the next five years.” His face suddenly spread and his eyes glazed as a ping indicated an email had arrived.
“That’s her now. She’s meeting me at the station.”
He hunched over his keyboard, his whole face a smile. His excitement would have been infectious if Jackie hadn’t seen it all before. Love had nothing to do with any of it. She turned back to the window, thinking of the earring and Kev‘s denial, and that punch she gave him.
“Well go on, then. Go on, fuck you if you can’t discuss this properly!” he’d said as he picked up scattered clothes and threw them in Jackie’s bag as she packed in fury, blood trickling down from his nostril, tears slicing through her mascara.
“Have you been married long?” The man looked up again.
“30 years.” She wanted to add with hard labour but didn’t.
“Wow. My parents never made it that long but it’s nice to see a living example of people who can obviously live happily together their whole lives.”
Jackie forced a smile. She looked back to the window and the man went back to his lap top.
She thought she’d forgotten how to cry and she hadn’t seen Kev so angry. At least it was a reaction. Better than his usual “grunts” for yes to a cup of tea, or “nah” on second time of asking when he didn’t acknowledge her at all. Her life had been servitude to a man who didn’t care and kids who couldn’t be bothered. She looked at her hands. Rough like worn leather. Her finger felt cold. Dry skin flaked in the ridge on her finger where the rings had been.
A young woman walked along the aisle with a baby clutched to her side. She held him with one arm and used her other hand to put pieces of paper on the tables.
“Excuse me that I don’t speak English. I am a homeless. I came here for better life but I am forced to beg to feed my child. Please help.”
The woman stood waiting. Jackie dug in her purse, pinched out a pound coin and held it out. Long, slender brown fingers grasped it from her hand. The woman smiled and nodded her head but said nothing in English or her Mother tongue.
“They make me sick, those people,” the lap-top man said as she moved up the aisle.
“It’s not nice to have no home … ” Jackie replied, “.. and it’s not the baby’s fault.”
“They shouldn’t have kids if they can’t look after them.”
Jackie leaned back in her seat, the train rhythm soothed her irritation. Bringing up kids was the hardest thing she’d ever done and it must be harder for those poor women on their own.
The thought of her own baby took her by surprise. For a moment she couldn’t breathe. Panic pushed itself out in a cough that was followed by a sneezing fit.
“Oh dear. It sounds like you’re getting a cold.”
“Stress,” Jackie said before she blew into a tissue. “The dusty train air doesn’t help.”
The train slowly rumbled into King’s Cross Station and forced her to focus on what was going to happen next. The lap top man reached up to the luggage rack and offered to help with her bag. He stepped onto the platform, walked ahead of her, and hovered outside the station shops by the entrance.
Cigarette smoke hit Jackie as she made her way outside and she inhaled deeply through her nose. Kev hated her smoking and she’d given up for him, but she missed it and turned back towards the newsagent’s, to get a packet of her favourite brand,. The lap-top man and a suited young woman with a brief case between her feet were kissing. Even with heels, his girlfriend had to tip toe to engage. She sucked her lip as she bent to pick up her briefcase. They turned hand in hand and walked off. Jackie said hello but the lap-top man didn’t see her.
Fear followed as she walked out onto the Euston Road. London had changed since her honeymoon. It was starting to get dark. She pulled her coat collar up, placed her handbag around her shoulder and held it close with one hand s she pulled her small suitcase behind her with the other. Lights from a big building drew her across a small evergreen park, spattered with dead branches from big trees. She walked the pathway between sad looking flower beds, bordered with winter pansies. Tourists with back-packs entered the brightly-lit hotel across the square. Jackie followed them in. They were German.
“Yes, we stay in London for two nights and then we go to Scotland,” they told the woman behind the desk, her hair gleaming and tied up in a neat French knot, smart uniform with badge that said Suzanne Jones, Head Receptionist.
She looked up and smiled, perfect white teeth on show, as she handed them their door pass.
“Have a nice stay!”
Jackie approached. The receptionist looked her up and down as the smile faded.
“Just one night, I expect,“ Jackie said.
“What’s the purpose of your stay?”
“R+R, and anything else I fancy.”
The receptionist handed Jackie her pass.
“Floor 4. Check out at 10am”
Jackie just made the lift. The Germans were talking in German but stopped and said “hello“ as she entered. They smiled and resumed their foreign conversation. Jackie always wanted to travel when the kids left home but Kev wasn’t very adventurous. Moments later, the lift pinged and the doors opened.
The room was down the hall. Three attempts later and she managed to open the door with the card pass.
"Whatever happened to keys!" she said aloud.
Suitcase heaved onto the bed with relief, she sat next to it for a moment, brushed her greying, shoulder length hair back from her face and dragged out the bobble that was slipping through the thick and unkempt style.
Jeans, jumper and a change of underwear were set aside from a mismatch of nothing useful from her case and Jackie headed for the shower. The strong spray of hot water
cascaded over her head and down her body and rinsed away any remnants of bad feeling. Soap ran into her finger. Jackie held it under the water to relieve the sting and then turned off the tap and got out.
Hair wrapped in a towel, she sat on the bed and worked some cream in while wondering what she could do in London. She reached for her cigarettes and sneered at the No Smoking sign on the polished dressing table. There was a smoke alarm on the ceiling and a window that opened wide. Hanging her head and half her body out, she drew in heavily, holding the smoke in for a moment before letting it out with a huge pleasurable sigh. Her life, her choice, she could smoke herself to death if she wanted. Busy people went about their lives below Jackie’s window as she smoked. A woman loaded with shopping struggled to the bus stop and dropped the bags with relief when she arrived. A suited man with open camel coat talked rapidly on a mobile and, without breaking step, negotiated himself around a tramp laid out on the pavement by the park in a wrap of blankets.
A happy looking couple chatted across the road, stopped talking and then embraced. The woman was heavily pregnant and the man had to lean over her bump to get close enough to kiss her. Jackie smiled. Kev had made such a fuss of her when she told him about the baby she was expecting.
“You’ll have to say yes now,” he’d said.
She told herself it would be fine even though she was so young. She was very fond of Kev. It wasn’t the sort of love that pins you up against the wall and grabs you by the throat but it was honest, loyal, hard working. Kev fussed and nannied her, brought her breakfast in bed, suffocated her, and said she should give up her job but she wouldn’t. It was on the bus home that the pain started. Heavy and unspoken grief haunted his face as he arrived by her bedside in the labour suite to witness their first-born coming into the world all sloppy and wet. It should have been pride. Jackie almost died with her son. Kev cried more when he thought he was losing her too. She opened her eyes to see him sitting on the end of her bed, praying. Him. Praying. For her. Their son lying cold in a crib by the window with dried blood still stuck in patches to what would have been a fine head of hair. She didn’t dare touch him but Kev picked him up, held his tiny, wrinkled body close, and sat next to Jackie. He loosened one arm and reached out to her , bringing her hand in to touch their son’s face with her palm, as if by a miracle they could warm the life back into him. That was the last time she had cried.
Tired eyes hurt and Jackie rubbed away the memory she didn’t want to dwell on. She laid on the bed and switched on the TV using the remote to flick through channels. She settled on the news. It was late ...
… Something round and silver lies on the ground… fingers reach for it …almost …what’s that?…her eyes are drawn to something else that glitters …shines and blinds .. She can barely see what it is…her hand reaches out…it’s a gem…a red stone…and another…just out of reach… precious ... side by side…
Jackie’s arm dropped over the side of the bed. She woke and thought of her rings as soon as her eyes opened. The TV was playing a cooking show to itself. She turned, felt for the remote and switched it off. Throwing the covers back, she moved to the dressing table and picked up her bag. She saw the red stones of her engagement ring glitter when she opened a zipped compartment and dug in for her wedding ring. She slipped them back on her finger .
Her phone buzzed gently in her bag. A missed call from Home and several other messages from Kev showed up as she flicked through. Staring at the phone a moment; her fingers hovered over the keyboard. Jackie slapped the phone shut, threw it aside, and curled up in bed with the blankets hugged around her. She hoped it wouldn’t rain tomorrow .
This story was published in the NTU Creative Writing MA student anthology Kapow (Laundrette Books. 2009) and originally titled The Farmer's Last Breath.
By Pat Nurse
Jane took a deep breath and paused to steel herself before entering Henry’s bedroom. She could hear his whistling gasps sucking in and blowing out air. She pushed through the door and saw his hollow, grey and ashen face as she went in. His sunken eyes were wide. Her once strong, proud and honourable husband looked like a weak and terrified child.
Henry knew death would claim him soon. Each laboured, agonising breath could be his last. He had to make sure his conscience was clear and repent or he would burn for eternity in hell fire's damnation. Jane knew nothing of his secret. He had been so clever in keeping it to himself but now the time had come to confess.
“Here you are , dear,” Jane said gently. She put a tray down on a bedside table, and fluffed up her husband’s pillows, chattering as if it was a normal day and he had nothing worse than a cold. Thoughts circled her mind and she tried not to think the worst. She couldn’t bear to lose Henry after 35 years of marriage.
“You’ll be fine, my dear heart. Everything is being taken care of until you are well. Ned is doing a grand job on the farm so you don’t need to worry.“ She gently eased sips of soup into his mouth.
Changing the subject will cheer him up, she thought, before launching into the latest village gossip : “Oh, and Mrs Thomas’ boy James has gone to the Somme. She’s rightly proud but she’s wept every day since he left. So many young men dead already. We can only pray for them.“
Henry’s eyes bulged though paper thin lids at the mention of death. He was afraid. He grabbed Jane’s collar as she bent over him. “Listen… I have something … I must tell you …” His words were buried in a choking cough and drowned in phlegm that wouldn‘t shift. Jane watched his pathetic effort to breathe. Her heart was breaking but she couldn’t let it show.
“There, there, dear, don’t trouble yourself. Save your energy and use it to get better,” Jane eased him back onto his pillow. She put the soup down and sat on the edge of his bed.
Henry fought to sit up with surprising strength for a man dying of cancer. “I must tell you …. I must … “
“Why Henry, what is it, my love? It‘s as if the devil has got you!“
Holding on to her as if his soul depended on it, he drew in a breath as big as he could before bursting out a complete sentence in a rush : “Don‘t let the devil take me for what I did to May Wrangle.” The effort of speech was too much. Exhausted he lay back on his pillow.
Jane soothed his brow with a cold cloth. “Sleep, my love. Have no fear. You did what you could.” It must be his fever revisiting the ghosts of his past, she thought to herself.
Henry closed his eyes and drifted back 30 years to the summer of 1886. The harvest was ripening in the fields and the Wrangles were taking hay from him, if they paid up. That scoundrel Jack Wrangle never paid his debts and he owed rent. Henry would have thrown him out but for May and her son Ned. They didn’t deserve to go to the poor house.
As he walked towards the Wrangle’s small cottage homestead, Henry saw May churning butter. He watched her work for a while. Sweat slid down her pretty face. She was 40 but still with good looks. He tried not to notice the buxom shape that once drove him mad with passion which ended when she took Jack Wrangle into her bed. Jack stole her heart, married her and then treated her worse than a pig. Henry never regretted marrying Jane who had been a devoted wife, but May had broken his heart and he never really recovered.
He walked up to May who turned her head to speak as she worked: “Oohh, this job’ ll kill me one day but I got to gerrit t’market tomorrow. I’m almost dun.”
“Where’s Jack, then, and my rent?” Henry was angry.
“He took it. Sed he wuz tekking it to you. That bastard.” May pushed the churning handle away in temper and flopped on the floor in tears. Henry watched her crying and his heart melted. He took a hanky from his pocket and handed it to her. She wiped her eyes, stood up and went back to making butter.
“If I dunt get this dun, I’ll be fur it when ‘e gets ‘ome. Most likely ‘e be having a brick in his hat. A slave to ‘is bottle, that one. Damn that cursed drink! “
May began to package some of the butter ready for the next day. She wiped the sweat off her brow, and squinted her eyes to look up at the dying sun in the first throws of evening.
Henry hated to see this fine woman worked so hard for Jack to take the money : “You tell that drunkard that I’ll be back tomorrow and I expect him to be here.” He marched off without looking back.
Henry walked through the golden fields of his past as he drifted towards the last hours of his life. The heat of hell fired in his throat and jolted him awake. He coughed and puked. His throat felt like parched sand. His mind soared like a condor back in time and over the Wrangle’s cottage. Memory drew him back to the door and he heard himself knocking. It opened and the light that had flooded over Henry was blocked out by May who stood in the doorway, her hand partially hiding her face.
“What is all this? What has that scoundrel done to you? Where is he?“ Henry demanded.
May swung around and moved her hand away to her side. She pointed to some pudding set on the stove. “Made this fur ‘im, I did and he said ‘e dint wannit. Gunna go to waste coz we dunt like it, me and Ned. Dun it fur ‘im, special.”
Henry could see her eye was black and bruised. He moved swiftly towards her but she backed off. “It’s nowt, really, just dun it me sen. Hit the door with me eye as I went into the pantry… it’s nowt, really, nowt …” May picked up the basket of fresh butter. “I gotta geroff t’market. Tek sum of that pudding if you wanna to the missus. Needs using. Rest can stay theyar til ‘e ‘as it.”
May left the house leaving Henry alone with the pudding. He sat at the table for a while brooding and then he moved towards the pan. He dipped his finger into the mixture and tasted its sweetness. It reminded him of his first kiss with May.
Next morning, Henry woke to the sound of frantic banging on his door. “Alright, alright, I’m coming.” He pulled on some clothes and went downstairs. Behind the door was May and Jack’s 12 year-old son Ned.
“Come quick mister! Ma’s in trouble. They think she killed our ole man. She never dun it. She wunt do it. Poison in the pudding they said… but she never, she never wud a dunnit. “ He began to cry and Henry led him into the parlour.
“Here, lad, sit down, let’s see if we can sort this out with the police.”
The local bobby, PC Hunter , told Henry that Jack had died in excruciating agony the night before : “Dun got the doctor down theyar and he dun said she dunnit. She musta put arsenic in his pudding what ‘e ate when he gor ‘ome las’ night. She never ate none so she musta dun it and he sed she did. “Hates me the wench does,” he sed, did Jack. Condemned her with his last words, he did. She be before the judge tomorrow but it’ll be a hanging, I’m bound.”
Henry’s face reddened. The news outraged Jane.
“We will write to the bishop and ask him to pardon her. We’ll tell him what that Jack was like. They can’t hang a mother surely to God they won’t?” Jane said. She knew of Henry’s young romance with May but that was years ago. She shared his pity for the poor woman now.
When the case got to court, May sat silently with her head bowed in the dock listening passively as accusations abounded about her hatred of her husband. It was as if she wasn’t really there. In her mind she revisited the meadow she played in as a child with Henry. For a moment she had her feet in the stream that cut through the cornflowers, buttercups and daisies and she was laughing. She looked up to see the judge donning the black cap and the water turned murky and dark.
“You will be taken to prison and from thence to a place where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. You are a wicked woman and the world is better without harlots like you. Take her down!”
“I never killed no-one, I dint. I dint kill him..” she screamed as she was dragged down to the bowels of the court.
Henry, sitting in the public gallery, could hear the echo of her cries and screams for “Justice, justice, Lord gimme justice,” carried on hollow air . He hung his head and stared at the floor.
Jane began to petition for her release with Henry’s less than enthusiastic support. He is so busy with the farm and the tenants, she told herself, that he hasn’t the will for this sort of fight. She rallied round friends, family and even the local clergyman to secure a stay of execution. She wouldn’t give up on May. Jack was a bully and if May killed him, then there was good reason. She visited May in the condemned cell as often as she could. She campaigned tirelessly for her cause, writing letters to anyone with influence who would listen.
“Keep hope, May, Salvation must come,” Jane told her.
May seemed cheered by this news. “I‘m not gunna die. All‘s gunna be well,” she told Ned after Jane arranged his visit. “They‘ll see it wunt me whut dunnit.”
Singing happily to herself, May knew it would only be question of time before she would be free. God loved her and he wouldn‘t give her soul to the devil. But without warning, her cell door was thrown open early the next morning and the priest, the guards, and the hangman stood behind it.
The priest spoke : “May Wrangle, you were sentenced by the court to hang until you are dead. Your appeal failed and now the time has come for you to confess your sins and enter the Kingdom of Heaven with a clean soul,”
“Nooooooo ! No, no, no! This is murder. I never dun it why dunt you listen!” The guards dragged the poor woman out of her cell as she kicked and struggled with all her strength and little hope. The priest chanted as he walked behind her and prayed for her soul. She could barely breathe such was her terror and panic. Fighting for her life was futile but she gave her all to the battle.
“’Urry up and get ‘er on the scaffold. We don’t want her passing out with fright. The public ‘as to see this evil harridan get what she deserves…” said a guard.
The hangman supported a weak and trembling May as he slipped the noose around her neck. Within a minute, there was a bang, a crack and a snap. Silence fell upon the crowd as May swung lifeless from the creaking rope. Jane couldn't bear to watch but Henry was there. He moved forward and watched the macabre scene. A tear fell down his cheek. He lowered his shame, put his arm around Ned, and moved him away. An hour later May was cut down and taken off to be buried in the prison churchyard alone. Henry and Jane took Ned in and treated him like their own son. They had no other children and loved him dearly. Jane was content and happy with her new family. Even though it came to her by foul means, she felt complete and she was indeed a good mother and grandmother.
Henry’s eyes opened and the past was gone. He looked at Jane sitting on the edge of his bed. There were others there now as well. The rev Hipplecote was saying prayers, Dr Puddick was feeling his pulse. A wave of panic ran through him and he knew this was his final chance. His Salvation depended on the truth. In a weak, barely audible and hoarse voice, he whispered and motioned the clergyman to come near. The priest put his ear so close he could feel the warmth of Henry’s breath. His nose turned up at the putrid smell coming from Henry’s mouth.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…” he began.. “ The devil will have me ... I must speak. . .. I should have saved May ..” Henry began to puke and wretch and cough as if he was turning inside out : “Damn, damn …” he said in frustration that he could not confess and save his soul.
“There, there dear,” said Jane. “Don’t upset yourself. It wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have stopped her. You couldn’t have saved Jack.” Jane turned to the clergyman. “He always blamed himself for what happened but it’s not as if he put the poison in the pudding is it..?
Henry’s eyes widened so much, it looked like they would explode. He tried to speak but nothing but air came from his mouth. When it was all expended, he was gone. The priest closed his eyelids and put pennies over them : “He was a good man. God rest his soul,” he said.
Jane cried and buried her face in her hands.
Thursday, 5 August 2010
A new blog with my fictional stories and tales. I figured that now my MA is coming to an end, I need a reason to keep writing. Hopefully this blog will be it.
My dissertation script is a perfectionist's breath away from completed and I'll be handing it in soon. It may get picked up for development or it may not. If not, then I'll need a reason to keep motivated to write.
While studying fiction, I had to write a story every month so that will be my target for updating this blog.
As soon as I have sorted some design and information issues, the blog will be up and running.
Meanwhile I hope you enjoy the idea of reading some of my fictional work.