Copyrite: Christine Stanley
Friday, December 17, 2010
from - Burying Me
North London 2000
He reaches for her and she runs around him, down the path between the bushes. Muttering to himself, cursing under his breath, he follows. She squeezes through the slackened wires of the broken fence. Immediately, she wishes she'd not come this way. The narrow sheep track slopes downwards to where she knows the waves crash onto unforgiving rocks. She feels a pounding in her chest, spray on her face. Trailing her left hand along the bank, she edges down the path. On her right she feels nothing. Clutching at a sheaf of flax she stifles a cry as razor sharp leaves slice into her hand. Eyes straining against the darkness, she reaches out for tufts of grass. Listens for him. Licks at the warm, sticky mess coating her palm. Above the thumping in her head she hears the crashing of waves. Sees the moonlit foam far down below. The white tipped crests out to sea. She crouches low, clinging to the broken stump of a tree. Sees him.
Maureen Tiller woke with a start knowing full well that the man she’d just buried was not her husband. Heart pounding, face damp, she lay still, breathing heavily, waiting for the familiar images to recede. The curtains were still drawn but a shaft of late afternoon sunlight defiantly slipped between them like a laser beam. It lit up the dust in the air, bounced off the edge of the dressing table and petered out at the foot of the bed. She settled into the pillows and closed her eyes. After a few minutes she turned her head to gaze at the empty space beside her. Greg hadn't slept there for months, but still she couldn't get used to the expanse of undisturbed bedding. She tended to sleep on her side and hardly encroached onto his space at all, except to feel the cool emptiness with her outstretched hand. The sheets had been changed so often that she couldn't even smell him anymore. The scent that she associated with him now was a mixture of disinfectant, hospital food and chemicals. The taste of him, when she thought of brushing her lips over his swollen cheek, was metallic.
At the end she'd begged him to let go. I'll be alright, she'd whispered to him. Let go, my love. Don't fight it anymore. It's funny, she thought now, squeezing back the warm wetness that ran slowly down her cheek, how you have that desperate urge to stop the suffering. But you can't imagine how you are going to feel when they've gone. When it dawns on you that there's no coming back. Then you feel like saying you didn't mean it.
The last guests had left. Are mourners guests? Maureen wondered. A few colleagues from her office, some of Greg's friends from where he used to work and one or two neighbours. Not a huge gathering. A card had arrived from Canada. Sandra wouldn't be able to make it, but that was understandable, she'd only met Greg once. A flying visit on a business trip with her husband. You couldn't really call us close sisters, Maureen thought. A card at Christmas and birthdays. A phone call now and then. But we must have been close at one time, when we were young. If she hadn't gone off to Canada... would things have been different? There was no one else left. And certainly no one on Greg's side.
It used to upset her that Joanne had no aunties and uncles around. No cousins or grandparents. She felt they might have been closer if their relationship had been less intense. If she'd been able to share her with other people. Right from the start they'd seemed destined to walk different paths. And she'd never blamed Jo. How else was a hungry babe supposed to feel when her mother couldn't feed her? Thirty eight years on, she hoped Joanne understood that this traumatic start to their relationship was never intentional. And it hadn't stopped her loving her. She was just not very good at showing it. How can you make up for something like that? Of course, now women get help. Greg had tried. He'd been a good father. They'd always enjoyed being with each other. Maureen had envied them that.
The sound of voices drifted up the stairs. The tone, not the content. Joanne's voice rising and falling, fielding offers of help and gestures of sympathy. A car started up in the drive. The front door closed and she heard Joanne talking to Dylan, the clatter of the cutlery drawer. They'd forgotten all about him. He'd spent the afternoon out in the shed. She knew that as soon as the hall door opened he'd come bounding up the stairs looking for her. He'd leap up at the bed, his little Corgi legs unable to make the height, and make laughing noises in his throat until she reached down and put a hand underneath his bottom to help him scramble up. Then his whole body would quiver as he licked her neck and face. Already he'd accepted Greg's absence.
She must get changed. She didn't want dog hairs all over her black skirt. As she swung her legs off the bed she noticed a pair of Greg's slippers poking out from underneath the valance. Old ones, with splatters of white paint on them from when he last did some decorating. She remembered buying him new ones to go into hospital. But these were his favourite. With her foot, she nudged them out of sight. That chore was yet to come. Sorting out his stuff.
In front of the mirror she took off her skirt and blouse and stood looking at herself, black slip straining slightly over hips and thighs. Just a gentle thickening, she told her reflection. Only to be expected at her age. She could do something about it if she wanted to. Her hair, cut short and lightly tinted, was still her best feature. Her upper arms were beginning to sag a bit and there was nothing she could do about the neck. As she studied herself in the mirror she trailed a hand over her shoulders, down her arms, over her breasts. She missed the intimacy. She was nearly sixty and on her own. Whenever she thought of this fact, and she did so often despite her efforts to suppress it, she felt a sudden draught coming over her shoulder, from behind somewhere.
The dog could be heard bounding up the stairs. As he pushed his way into the room, Maureen bent to greet him. She scooped him up and tossed him onto the bed where his whole body took on the action of the absent tail, gyrating from side to side.
A voice called from downstairs. "Sorry about that, Mum. I couldn't stop him."
"That's alright. Come on up, I'm just getting changed."
Joanne Tiller hesitated at the foot of the stairs. There was an awkwardness now that her father was gone. She didn't want it to be that way, but there you are, it just was. She'd already decided to leave next day. No point in dragging things out. But she'd not mentioned it to her mother yet. Moving back to help with her father's illness had seemed right at the time but it was never intended to be a permanent arrangement. They'd been very understanding at her school but she needed to pick up the reins again. And she'd be glad to get back to her own place. Chrissie, her housemate, had come to the funeral today. That was nice of her.
Maureen was hanging up clothes when Joanne walked in. She didn't turn. Jo sat on the end of the bed and struggled for something bright to say. "The hat looked good. Bridget from Dad’s office couldn't resist trying it on just now."
"What was she on about?"
"Oh, you know... 'Go and have a hot bath, get an early night, life must go on...,' that sort of thing."
"She means well."
"I know she does. But I can do without it."
Joanne watched her mother pull on a pair of track suit bottoms and a shocking pink I've been to California sweatshirt that screamed at her, it was such a contrast to the sombre clothes she was wearing herself. And anyway, Jo knew she hadn't. Been to California, that is. 'Colour lifts the spirit', her father used to say. ‘It makes up for the grey skies’. And her mother went out of her way to please him. So Joanne had learnt to hide her embarrassment at the school gate where her mother always stood out from the crowd. She'd been forced to become a 'colours of the world' child and had embraced a quietly Gothic look ever since. She wore her deep auburn hair long and loose despite everyone telling her that at her age she ought to do something with it. Today there was a Munch look about her. Dark and drawn. She wore a long slim skirt that reached the top of her black ankle boots. Her hair was caught up at the back in an elasticated 'scrunchie'. A long loose cardigan covered a low necked top that made her skin seem paler than usual. She had a habit of gripping the cuff of her sleeve between fingers and thumb, stretching it downwards to cover her hand. 'What's the matter,' her father used to say. 'Are you cold?'
"Are you hungry?" Maureen asked. "I can't face anything myself, but what about you?"
"No, I'm not hungry."
"Are you sure? There’s stuff left over."
"No, really, let's just chill out. Finish off the wine."
She lay back on the bed. The dog crept up to rest his head on her arm, his little back legs stretched out straight behind him. Joanne never worried about dog hairs.
The late news was finishing on BBC1. The rest of the world was going about its business unaware that someone important had just been buried. More than anything, it seemed to Maureen, that showed how insignificant we all are in the grand scheme. She left the picture on but turned the sound down. Somehow the moving images were comforting.
They were into their second bottle of wine and tears came easily. Maureen lay full length on the sofa, glass in hand. Joanne stretched out on the carpet. Beside her was an old chocolate box of photographs and some albums. Slowly, they were working their way through their family history. There wasn't much to show. The photograph albums reflected Maureen's preoccupation with clean surfaces and order. One or two prints to a page, neatly captioned. Holidays, year by year. Me and Jo... Greg and Jo.... And later, Me and Greg, taken by Jo. Hand in hand, arms around each other, sometimes headless but always close. Stiff school photographs, year by year. And now and then, a formal family group taken at a studio.
The chocolate box represented life before Joanne. Maureen slid off the sofa and sat on the carpet with the box between her outstretched legs. One by one she picked out photos and passed them over to Joanne. Sepia-toned formals, black and white holiday snaps, edges curling and creased. A small girl astride a grey donkey on a grey beach. Not grey in her memory. There the sun is shining. She can smell the shrimp nets and candy floss and feel the sensation of sitting astride the donkey in wet knickers because no one will listen to her when she says she needs to go to the lavatory. You see... she's not laughing, she's crying. And afterwards the donkey man had scowled at her because the saddle was wet. Her father had tugged at her arm roughly as they walked back to the boarding house. She knew she'd spoilt the day.
"That's me." Maureen pointed at the image. "Southport. We used to go there regularly."
"And who's this?" Joanne had seen them all before but couldn't remember the names. And anyway, it was nice to get her mother reminiscing. She didn't do it very often.
"Oh, God. What a sight. That's Janice's wedding. Will you look at that hat!” She looked thoughtful. Picked up another photograph. "There's me and Sandra. Must be at a dance somewhere. We used to go regularly." Two young women, arms linked, grinning into the camera. There, you see, we did do things together. But Sandra always went off with an older group when they got there and Maureen would lie to their father to cover for her. She passed the photo to Joanne. "Soon after that was taken Sandra went to Canada and met your Uncle Chas. You've got cousins there you've never met. Me neither. Maybe one day, eh."
"There're no old ones of Dad."
"Yes there are, look at this. That's us in Bournemouth. He must have been about twenty-seven then. I was pregnant with you." Maureen peered at the photograph. Wiped the dust off it with a screwed up tissue.
"But no childhood ones of him?"
Lost, her father had said. In various moves.
"No." Maureen changed the subject. "Will you just look at this!"
"You didn't have much of a wedding, did you? Is this all there is?" Joanne picked out a black and white photograph of her parents standing side by side in front of a group of trees. Her father is wearing a suit and her mother a knee length coat and pill-box hat. She's holding a small posy of flowers. There was another of her father carrying her mother on his shoulders, cave-man fashion. They're both laughing. She'd seen them before. As a child it had disappointed her that they didn't have any big, formal wedding photographs, like her friends' mothers had. These were no more than snapshots. On Ealing Common her mother had said, after they'd been to Acton Registry Office. When she'd asked her father who took the photos he said he'd forgotten. 'Ask your mother,' he'd said. But she couldn't remember either.
Maureen didn't respond. She was deep in thought, trying to put names to faces.
"What's this then?" Joanne reached for a brown envelope at the bottom of the box. It looked old, fragile even, unsealed. Carefully, she pulled out a bundle of postcards, amongst them, a few black and white photographs. A group of dead fish on a beach. The day we went to Piha, it said on the back. A wooden colonial-style house with a verandah - Izzie and Warren's place. Waitemuku – 1961. A group at a beach - she recognized her father immediately, young and brash, posing laddishly in swimming trunks. But the inscription said - Frank at the beach, Piha. Another one, on a verandah. An older man with his bandaged leg propped up on a stool - people behind him, in the shadows, and a dog walking out of the picture. Someone is drinking from a bottle, face obscured by hair. And there's her father with a guitar. On the back it says - Frank at Warren's place, Waitemuku. "Mum, look at these."
Maureen didn't answer. Joanne flicked through more photos. At the Domain, Auckland. Rangitoto in the background. Dig the hairdo!!! Two young men are standing in what looks like a park. Behind them the land drops away. Rooftops, dockyards, the sea. There's an island in the background, long and low, rising to a peak in the centre. But it was the men who held Jo's attention. Identical. Different clothes, but identical features. It was like looking at two images of her father.
"Mum, look at these." She held up another. Frank and me, 1961. There's her mother, slim with shoulder length hair. Skirt just above her knees, white gloves. She's standing beside her father who has his arm around her shoulder. She's smiling at the camera. Confused, Joanne tugged at her mother's sleeve. "I didn’t know you’d been to New Zealand.”
"What?" Maureen was suddenly alert. She leaned sideways, snatching the photos from Joanne. Her eyes darted across the images. Her forehead creased in pain. "No, no," she cried. "He shouldn't have kept these. He promised."
"Mum, what is it?"
On her knees, Maureen reached for the chocolate box and frantically collected up the photographs. She struggled to see without her glasses. The wine had made her unsteady and as she tried to get to her feet she lost her balance. The box slipped from her hands and the photographs slid across the carpet. Desperately, she gathered them together, scooped them up, clutched them to her California sweatshirt.
"Leave them, leave them alone," she cried. "They're nothing. They're private. They're not something you should see."
And then the sobs. Hopeless, despairing sobs that made her whole body shake, so that she had to steady herself on the arm of the sofa.
Joanne stared, shocked and embarrassed, as her mother tried to force the photographs back into the envelope. She was all fingers and thumbs.
"Mum, you'll ruin them, let me help."
"No, get away. These are private," Maureen sobbed. "Go to bed. Leave me, just leave me alone."
Maureen sat rocking backwards and forwards, her face wet with tears. Eyes closed, she pressed the bundle of photographs to her chest. They shouldn't have started the second bottle, Joanne thought. Too much emotion, too little food. She could see that her mother was not prepared to share whatever was troubling her. She'd check on her later. Perhaps she really did need some time to herself. She'd seen this before. Not the tears and nothing to do with photographs, but occasions when Maureen had shut herself off from them both - from her and her father. She'd just ignore them. And they'd learnt to give her time to snap out of it. That was the best way to handle it, her father had said.
"I'll go upstairs then,” Jo said. “I think we've both had too much wine." Maureen didn't look up. Just nodded. "I'll see you in the morning then. Okay? Mum? Don’t stay up too long.”
Suddenly weary, Maureen sighed. She didn't notice Joanne leave the room. She leant against the arm of the sofa, loosened her grip on the photographs and watched them slide to the floor. It had been a long day. She tried to imagine when Greg might have put the envelope in the box. They'd agreed there should be no reminders. She picked up a photograph and peered closely at the image. A young man on a beach in swimming trunks. He's piling sand onto a mound from which a head is poking. The head is thrown back laughing. The faces are identical. Maureen turned the photograph over and read the inscription. Burying me.
Copyrite: Christine Stanley