The Key

Thistle Memorial Gardens

Thistle, sunset, Memorial Gardens

 

The 52 week short story project has been bobbing ineffectually on the sea of daily life ever since I received the court papers informing me that my former tenant is suing me — accusing me of having destroyed or stolen something close to nine thousand dollars worth of his personal possessions.  The claim has, for the past three months, successfully swamped anything I could write.

As we approach the trial date, and with my case prepared, I am again sighting if not a whole continent at least an island on which to stand. Hence the story posted below along with hopes that I am back to a regular schedule.

It was supposed to be a dark, unfortunately it is not.

 

 

The Key

On Monday the teacher asks why I ran away. Now, I’m not sure you can call it running away when your mother comes with you, but what I say is “It’s a long story.”

“Tell me ,”  she says.

It started just before dinner. I was doing my homework at the kitchen table. The sun was making everything golden and my mom was standing by the sink holding up a glass in the light. She had to do that because my stepfather didn’t like it if there were spots or fingerprints on them. The week before he got really mad and waved a glass in her face. “What do I let you stay at home all day for?” he yelled.

I have to tell you I didn’t like that one bit.

Anyway, my mom was holding up this glass and it was making rainbows all over the walls. I guess it was a crystal glass because someone told me that crystal makes the best rainbows and my stepfather always says he likes to give himself the very best. I don’t think he likes crystal because it makes the best rainbows, but because it costs a lot of money. He’s like that.

My mom saw me looking at the rainbows. She looked really pretty and her eyes had little sparkles in them and I smiled at her. I don’t know what my mother was thinking while I was smiling at her, but when she heard the key in the front door, she jumped. It was a big old house, with a big old door and a big old lock and you could hear things rattle and creak and hit each other every time someone opened the door. Crash went the glass.

The rainbows did this crazy dance down the wall. They were beautiful.

We knew my stepfather would be coming down the hall to the kitchen to get a glass of wine like he always did before he went to sit in front of the TV to watch the news and he’d be really mad about the broken glass, it being crystal and all, but we just kept looking at the glass on the floor like we were playing Statues or something. It was the first time I was ever glad it was such a big house. Usually I didn’t like it because it has lots of empty rooms and things that never get opened. Once my stepfather told me that when his family bought the house about a hundred years ago, they found a little child’s skeleton in a cupboard. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not because afterwards he laughed.

Just when my stepfather got to the other side of  the kitchen door, my mother bent down and scooped up the pieces of glass with her hands and dumped them in washing machine. No way my stepfather, Brian was his name, was ever going to open the washing machine. She got the pieces in there just as he came through the door.

Smart, but sneaky.

He walked in and kind of brushed my mom’s cheek with his. You could already see whiskers on his cheeks. Close up they look like little black bits like thorns and he always had them by dinner time. When they got engaged I told my mother I would never marry a man who had whiskers like that, but she said she kind of liked them. I don’t think she liked them anymore, because she pulled her cheek away. Just a little. You had to be really looking to notice.

I was so busy hoping my stepfather wouldn’t figure out about the glass, that I didn’t see Stuart come into the room at first. Stuart is Brian’s son. Now I really like Stuart. Most boys my age are pretty bad. My mom says I’ll like them when I get older and anyway they change. Stuart’s different. I think it is because he was born with something wrong with his legs and he wear braces. He says when he first went to school kids teased him because he couldn’t run around and play like everybody else. He says it made him learn to be nice, so they wanted to be his friend anyway. And he is too.

When he changed to my school there were these kids and they started to bully him. They always pick on somebody, but they were worse with him. He told his mum. His mom told him to tell the teacher. We did, but it didn’t do any good. I guess teachers can’t watch everybody all the time. The bullying made him really unhappy and he started to stay in the classroom when everyone else was outside fooling around at breaks. He got even more unhappy being inside, but I think the teachers thought they’d get in trouble if they made him go outside because of him having trouble walking and all. When my mother realized what was going on, she was really good. She had this long talk with Stuart. She told him that she thought bullies were really afraid. “If you show how strong you are, they’ll stop.”

My mom can be really convincing when she wants to be.

Stuart started to go outside again no matter what they said to him. He was getting happier being with the other kids and the bullies were getting madder. One day they grabbed one of his crutches and wouldn’t tell where it was. I wanted to tell the teacher, but Stuart said no. At the end of break time, he used the one he had left and the walls to get back to the classroom. It took him a long time, but when he got there the other kids all smiled and the teacher didn’t even get mad. The bullies stopped after that. Stuart got to be kind of a hero. Molly, my friend who lives across the road, she’s very popular, told me that she had a crush on him.

Way to go Stuart.

Anyway that evening Stuart came into the kitchen and raised an eyebrow at me. He thinks it looks cool. Sometimes I tell him it looks stupid, but this time I was just worried there was a piece of glass on the floor or something. I looked down but I didn’t see anything. Stuart nodded in the direction of the washing machine and I saw that there was a big red mark on the door. My mom must’ve cut herself on the glass. My stepfather didn’t notice because he was holding up another glass before he poured his wine into it. Stuart went over to the washing machine and stood in front of it, casual like. My stepfather poured wine into the glass, grunted down at Stuart that he’d better get his homework done and went out. My mom smiled a thank you smile and wiped off the washing machine.

That was it till we sat down for dinner.

The glasses sparkled and the food smelled really good. My mom looked pretty. The sun caught her hair and made little orange flames in it. But it was the worst dinner we ever had. When they first got married my step father would tell stories at dinner time and make my mother laugh. I thought maybe that’s why she married him.  Because he made her laugh. But when you listened long enough you noticed there was something wrong with everyone in his stories but him. They were funny, but they were mean. My mother must’ve noticed it too, because she stopped laughing so much and when my stepfather noticed that she wasn’t laughing anymore he stopped telling his stories.

He started to complain instead. At first it was just about people who worked for him. But lately it was about us too. My mother didn’t keep the house clean enough; I made too much noise; Stuart thought he was so smart. My stepfather would complain, my mother would try to change the subject and me and Stuart — when he was there — would try to eat fast so we could leave the table. But this evening m stepfather only opened his mouth to put the food in. At first I was relieved. But after a few minutes I got really uncomfortable. It was like there was this thunder cloud over him and we were just waiting for the lightening. I started wishing he would go back to complaining. He put another bottle of wine on the table and didn’t even offer any to my mother. He kept his eyes on his plate except when he put more wine in his glass.

Believe me I was getting worried.

Stuart looked at me hard. I knew he wanted to know if they’d had another fight. Stuart always asks me because he lives with his mom and never sleeps over. I shrugged my shoulders. I hadn’t heard anything, but really, you never know. Stuart raised an eyebrow. I think he was asking me what was wrong then. I didn’t have any idea. So I mouthed “I don’t know.” But my stepfather looked up just then to pour himself some more wine and he saw me. “I won’t have whispering at the table.”

That wasn’t fair. “I wasn’t whispering,” I said.

I thought it would be right to stand up for myself. I knew it was rude to whisper. But that made my stepfather mad. He leaned right across the table and for a minute I thought he was going to hit me, even though he’s never done that before.

I guess my mother thought the same thing because she reached over to try to grab him. I saw her do it and I saw her knock over the bottle of wine. It spilled all over the table and all over my step father. It was a nice shade of red. Well my stepfather jumped back from the table so at least I wasn’t in danger of getting hit. Even if he’d never done it before he still scared me. “You stupid, clumsy git,” he yelled. Only he was looking at Stuart. I don’t know why he thought that Stuart had spilled the wine but he did. “You get down there and wipe that up.”

Now Brian knew and my mother knew and I knew that there was no way Stuart could crawl around on the floor wiping up the wine. Stuart was staring straight ahead. Which meant that he was looking straight at my mother. I guess that’s why he didn’t say anything about who really spilled the wine. My mother looked like she was going to cry.

My stepfather got madder. He was so mad it was almost like he was jumping up and down. And he had this big wet spot on the front of his pants, like he’d wet himself or something, so he looked silly. It would make you laugh if you weren’t worried about what he would do next. And what he did next was grab Stuart by the arm and pull him up from the table and bend over really close to him. “You can’t even say sorry, can you?” Then he let go so that Stuart fell back into the chair.

It must’ve hurt.

My stepfather stepped back. “I’ll teach you.  You come with me. ”

He walked back to the kitchen. Stuart got up on his crutches.  Stuart followed Brian out without saying a word. He was slow. I looked at my mother. I wanted her to tell Stuart not to go. But she wouldn’t look at me. She had put the bottle of wine back up and trying to mop up the spill with napkins. I wanted to yell at her that it didn’t matter, but then I saw that her hand was shaking so hard she couldn’t even get it to the table. I took my napkin and helped my mother wipe up the wine, all the time trying to listen for what was going on in the kitchen. I couldn’t hear anything. I guessed that meant he wasn’t hitting Stuart or anything.

After a few minutes my stepfather came back into the room and sat down at the table. He didn’t say anything but he put this key next to his plate It was one of those big old keys like they had in that house and I recognised it because it had a curly top. It belonged to the cupboard where my stepfather said they had found the child’s skeleton. He was going to keep Stuart in there forever. I reached for the key, but my stepfather slapped his hand over it really fast. “Don’t even think about it,” he said with a kind of a smile, but not a nice one.

He kept his hand on the key and started to eat again. He was shoving food into his mouth. I guess he wanted to show us that he wasn’t bothered, but it looked pretty disgusting, little bits of mashed potato were sticking to his face and he had this look like he was enjoying himself, like the bullies at school.

I looked at my mother. Her hands were on the table, but they weren’t shaking any more. Maybe it was the white bits sticking in his whiskers and the corners of Brian’s mouth made him look stupid.

“Where is he?” she asked. Her voice was really quiet. I knew when she talked like that things were really serious. Maybe you had to know her really, really well to see that; maybe my stepfather didn’t really know her so well after all because he just said, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

I wondered if my mom thought he looked like a bully, because she was so good on bullies. She didn’t say anything, just sat there really quiet. To tell you the truth I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I was thinking about that cupboard and worrying about if Stuart could breathe all right and stuff and how Stuart wasn’t even the one that spilled the wine. Now I know you’re not supposed to shout in the house and you’re not supposed to shout at grown-ups. But really she had to do something. So I shouted. “Don’t you see Mom, he’s being a bully.”

My mom looked at me. Not like she was mad at me for shouting or anything, she just looked and then she smiled. She pushed back her chair and got up. She went around the table to where my stepfather was sitting and held out her hand. She didn’t say anything. She just stood there with her hand out. I was scared of what my stepfather might do, but I was proud too. She was standing up to the bully, only my stepfather was a lot bigger than the bullies at school.  My stepfather wouldn’t look at her. So my mother reached down, moved his hand and picked up the key and handed it to me.

I don’t know what I expected when I opened the door. Gasping Stuart, crying Stuart. I don’t know. But he was just sitting there, cool like.   He said “thank you” when I got him his crutches and first thing he did was go over to where my mother kept her purse and take out the car keys. Then he went to the coat rack and got my mom’s coat, and his coat and my coat and handed them to me.

We went back to the dining room. My mother was still standing there looking down at my stepfather. He wasn’t looking at her; he just kept fiddling with the knife and fork on his plate, changing their places over and over again.

Stuart handed my mother her bag and the car keys. I handed her her coat. She smiled at my step father. That surprised me, but there were no sparkles in her eyes. “Good bye.” she said and we left.

Outside the sun was just below the top of the hills and the sky was all orange and pink. We drove toward the hills to take Stuart home, like in some old move, off into the sunset. We didn’t go back.

The teacher is waiting. “It was beautiful,” I tell her.

The Empty Chair

 

Deserted Land Agency Cottage May 20100123_0009-2

Deserted Land Agency Cottage, County Mayo

 

 

I have fallen behind badly on the write-a-short-story-a-week-52-short-stories-can’t-be-all-bad project.  More tenant trouble.  But there is light at the end of that particular tunnel and I am again struggling with fiercer and more important battles.  I am hoping to go back to the 52 story project with a Sunday/Monday deadline.  We shall see.

This week’s story is based on an event following the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, noted at the time of his death as much for his Spiritualist beliefs as he was for Sherlock Holmes.  Five days after he died a memorial was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London in which believers expected Conan Doyle to appear.   At least six thousand people attended and many accounts exist of the proceedings.  It took a long time for the medium to say the words “He is here…” and I’ve always felt the time lag suspect  and strange that the message was for his elder daughter that he had done so much to reject.

For far better descriptions of what it might be like to be a medium I recommend Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black.  Masterful and terrifying.

 I used an Irish turn of phrase in the lead because Conan Doyle himself came from Irish Catholic stock, although he certainly was not (when I did my degree) celebrated among the Irish/ Anglo Irish writing canon.

 

The Empty Chair

You’d think death would put manners on them. But no. When you start it’s like a small room with everyone trying to get your attention, jumping up and down, waving their hands, shouting, calling each other names. Sometimes you can’t hear for the noise. It makes you want to cover your ears, not that it would do any good. You learn to carry on.

 
He’s introducing me.

 
A spirit sensitive, he says. That’s for certain. A street sweeper is hovering somewhere near my left eyebrow, demanding his share of the time. I try to wave him away. He comes back on the other side. See it as a gift my mother said. It’s made me a living. Hard enough, yes, but easier than scrubbing floors.

 
Tonight an experiment never before tried. You’d think he was serving up a sideshow at a fun fair. All my working life I’ve tried to stay away from the fakes. Keep away from the tricks, be honest, people trust you. You want that.
The last bit’s all right.  Respected, Sir Arthur’s personal choice.

 
They sing another hymn and I move forward. In front of me rows and rows of white faces fading toward the back. Royal Albert Hall is full to the rafters, well wishers and scoffers alike. It is an opportunity for those of us who believe to show the truth.  An opportunity for me as well. I would not be honest if I didn’t admit that, to be the first person through whom he speaks will be an honour that will not soon be forgotten.

 
The family is on the stage behind me. I can  catch them from the corner of my eye. The widow in dove grey. With her are the two sons and the two daughters, only one of the daughters hers. You’d know there was a difference even if you didn’t. They keep a little apart from her.  She has her eyes down. She’s from the first wife, named  Mary, after his mother.  She wanted to be singer, but the new wife didn’t like that. He left her a pittance, the fortune went to the others.

 
The widow sits to the left of an empty chair. On the chair is a piece of cardboard with his name on it. I can read the Conan Doyle from the corner of my eye. Cardboard. He was a good man. He did what he thought was right. Yes, a little foolish over the fairy business, but brave and truthful as he saw it. They gave him two full minutes of silence, not a sound in the house. You’d think they’d have put his name on brass engraved in best Copperplate hand. That would be more fitting.

 
Maybe Lady Doyle wrote it out herself. Maybe she thought it would summon him. She was young, a beauty. She gave him her youth. He was smitten. It’s hard to see the beauty in the matron. The corners of her mouth turn down. She waited ten years for him to marry her. That’s what it took the first wife to die. What kind of woman would do that? She has a will you’d give her that; you might obey too if she summoned you.

 
I start with the audience, the voices in your head are quieter once you begin and I’m listening among them  for a soft Scottish burr. I don’t hear it. With the audience it’s the usual: a young man in Khaki, twenty four, with a message for his Uncle Fred. He knows its difficult times; he’s doing his best to help. A daughter and her father near the front. The father and the mother are together again. There is a sister there too. The street sweeper is hoovering, demanding his time, but there is no one here for him and he’s started to bang on my head.

 

Lady Doyle looks at me. Her head tilts just enough for me to see it. I shake my head ‘no’. The corners of her mouth push further down, her eyes black as jet. Does she blame me?

 
The woman killed almost twenty years ago by King’s horse at the Epsom Derby greets her friend, but some in the audience are growing restive. There are feet scrapings in the second row, a cough in the first tier. I wish the street sweeper would shut up. I take a breath and look around. No sign of Sir Arthur.

 
One of the sons said his father’s death was no more than if he had gone to Australia. If he only knew. Australia or whatever you want to call it, I wonder what’s delaying him. Maybe something on the other side. That happens. The first wife it is sometimes. They can be sitting around a table hands clasped, waiting for the dear departed with the soft cooing of love and what I hear is a row, voices crowding each other out with anger. You promised. No I didn’t. How could you? How could you? And of course you can’t tell the waiting family that. You move on, leave it. Try for something better next time. But I can’t do that here. Lady Doyle’s eyes feel like knives. The daughter from the first marriage catches that look. She looks at me, gives a little smile. She runs his Psychic Bookshop, she understands these things.

 
There is some grumbling by the spirits who have been left out, others are thanking me for me work, but the Scottish gentleman, dear, honest Arthur Conan Doyle is not among them.

 

 

A few people in the audience are leaving. Lady Conan Doyle is tapping her foot, both the sons are scowling.
The street sweeper is a few feet a front of me like a small grey cloud. I can hear his voice. He has an Irish accent. Come on now he says. Do what she wants and get it over with. No that’s not right. The faces in front of me weave and wave. My mouth is dry. I open it.  “He’s here,” I say. The fun fair sideshow after all.
The Orchestra is tuning up.  Lady Jean relaxes and smiles.    I move over to her.   He says, I lean over her and speak into her ear, tell Mary…. Lady Doyle looks startled,  ….tell Mary that he’s sorry.   Very sorry.

The music starts.

Exile: a love story

Barcelona courtyard  (1 of 1) copy

Barcelona Courtyard (c) Carole Craig

A story every ten days, doesn’t have the same zing.  However that seems to be closer to the truth.  This is another story that I have never gotten quite right and am trying again. The gas tank explosion and, of course, the 1985 earthquake are real events, although the time line has been collapsed slightly.

Exile: A love story.

She felt the earth move and opened her eyes. No, that was before. This was the jolt of an unexpected waking, cup against cup, a voice too loud. Here the wall were rock steady. Joke. Rocks had moved, bounced around like children’s balls. This was a haven, hospital: blankets institutional green, sheets stiff and clean, a bouquet of roses, dark heads drooping, a square of pale Northern sun on the polished floor.

It wasn’t the convulsions of the earth that had brought her here. Of her life? Perhaps. Better heart. Although how that particular organ came to be a metaphor for love she wasn’t sure. Once, somewhere, it had been liver. She liked the idea of liver, messier, more like the real thing.

Aren’t you tough?

 
They sat on her couch. ‘Cold’ he called her, while she was screaming inside. “You can’t do this to me,” he said.

 
“I’m not doing it to you, I doing it.”

 
Later when she’d told him — more times than she could count — that she was going to have the baby, he laid his head on her shoulder, hot shot photographer slipping away at last. “I’m confused, give me time. I need time.”

 
Pressing into him, arms around his neck. I’ll give you anything, but not the baby.
Time hadn’t healed. There were a ew more magic nights in the big bed that she used to think of as floating above the city and above the gritty day-to-day about which they could never agree. Magical and improbable as the tiny garden beneath the window where birds sang her awake, a miracle in the chaotic heart (that word again) of the city slowly sinking into the Aztec mud. She put his sleeping hand over where she thought the baby was. This child will have been touched by its father. She lay in the morning memorising his face. Eyes closed, lips, the shape of his ears, ran her hand over his skin trying to carry its smoothness so that she would know it again if she met it in their child.

 
He curled around her in the bed. “I’ve decided if you’re going through we should get married.”

 

Her heart, if that’s what it was, leapt, then danced.

 

“You’ll be a bohemian, unfit mother. I must be there to watch things.”

 
Thud. “No.”

 
It got worse. Outside some expensive Mexico City restaurant, his idea of a special treat, never mind that nothing stayed in her stomach, never mind it was midnight. Never mind the man in the shadows, his matches, his single cigarette for sale still spread carefully in front of him on the pavement. Someone else going home on an empty stomach.

 
Miguel turned toward her, streetlight outlining his face, his beautiful, ancient-mask face. She reached up her hand. “Suppose I don’t marry you? Suppose I don’t live with you?” Her fingers traced his cheek. “You’re not offering love, you know.”
He bent, she could feel the warmth of his breath. “Then I’ll take the baby.”
Her hand dropped, stepping back was a long silent fall. She wanted to echo him “you can’t do this to me,” but he could. Here children belonged to their fathers. De Valle Narrate, Colonia Roma, Zona Rosa, like someone singing a corridor of exile, full of longings for home.

 
All night she lay curled on the couch, staring into the blackness that was her garden. The shock came as the sky turned pink, a roll of thunder that travelled through the earth. Silence, then a cacophony of sirens heading north.

 
Her press card moved her through police lies. Fireman, ambulance workers, police worked in a desert of dust, the round gas tanks hanging above them like full moons except for the jagged curve of the one that had exploded raining hell on the hand-built houses of the centurion de misery that surround them.

 

She took her notes, ashamed as the old elation returned.

 
She listened to a man telling her about his wife and baby son. The man ha left at dawn to walk to work. When the thunder rolled, he ran back. How far? A mile or two to through a rain of fire. “But this is all there was,” his arm circling an upturned iron bedstead and a room knee deep in ash.

 

“If you see them,” the lost father said, “please tell him I am here.” He sat down in his doorway, hands on his knees, palms up, waiting.

 
“Of course,” she said.

 
Later she saw Miguel, head bent, camera at his side. She started toward him, in the midst of fear and death she could make him understand. A white figure steeped between them waving his arms. An ambulance passed, straining as it gathered speed in reverse. Another followed. A police car. Then men came running. Another tank might go. She turned and joined the exodus. She ran, one hand over the baby, afraid of falling on the uneven ground. A car stopped and she climbed in.

 
She left Mexico the next day.

 
It was raining in Ireland when she arrived and she felt it rained every day that she waited for the baby. Her skin shrivelled without the sun, her mind became dry a dust, her heart withered.

 
She was  already in hospital when the earthquake shattered the heart of Mexico. She watched the endless loops of shaking buildings, cascading rocks, white wrapped bodies being carried down  the mountains of rubble and searched the crowds for familiar faces.  It was as though her dearest friend had died and she had not turned up at the bedside or the funeral.

 

Someone brought her a magazine. Miguel’s photographs spread over the inside pages.

 

“Aren’t you glad you missed it?” they asked. “Aren’t you glad you’re safe?”
No, yes. How to explain? I could help people, I could tell their stories. Too self serving. I liked the danger in my life. Too selfish. Whatever it was, it was gone. She shrugged an answer and they went away.
In the plastic cot the baby moved. Eyes squinted, a fist searched for his own mouth. She picked him up. He smelled of newness and birth. She held him a little easy from her; he squirmed, his eyes struggled to focus. She wanted to sing him a lullaby for comfort, but she didn’t know any. She remembered something she’s read somewhere. “It’s all right,” she nuzzled his neck. “We two form a multitude.”

Happiness

 

botticelli-primavera

Botticelli, Primavera, Uffizi, Florence, Italy

When I taught journalism my fellow lecturer and I joked that we should offer a course in excuses for missed deadlines, a tool that every journalist needs.

My excuse for missing my (own) Monday deadline this week: contact from The Tenant whose anger has ruled my life for the past four months. He had, fortunately, decided to collect his mountain of belongings, but, given the history, even relatively benign interaction with him is enough to make me adopt a foetal position under the bed from where no writing emerges.

As Brenda Ueland (in If You Want to Write, first published in 1938 and still going) explains this is a mistake. She tells the story of a violin teacher who wrote her book on music every night between midnight and 5 am.

One day she came to me with a very bad cold. “Oh lie down quick,” I exclaimed, “and I will get you some hot lemonade and put a shawl over yourself.”

She opened her eyes wide at me and said, almost with horror in her voice:

“That is no way to treat a cold! No, I slumped a little yesterday and so I caught it. But I worked all night and it is so much, much better now.”

Now, you see, Ueland concludes, I have established a reason for your working at writing, not in a trifling weak way but with affection and endurance.

However I am still learning this and what I am posting this week is an old story, gone through again.

Happiness (unpublished) is from the days when women’s magazines still printed light fiction instead of the current trend in (although I believe sometimes equally fictitious) ‘true stories’.

Happiness

“You have no idea how nice it is to be finished with all of that,” my mother said rubbing lip balm vigorously into her upper lip.
There are rules governing conversations with my mother. The first is that she always begins in the middle of a thought; the second is that if you ask what is talking about she gets to talk about whatever it is as long as she wants. Even before my father died that could be a very long time — “after all you asked.” But if you restrain your curiosity longer than she can restrain her desire to talk, she only goes on as long as you look like you want to listen.

 

I waited.
She finished her upper lip and turned a little, examining herself in the mirror. She looked a very good sixty. There were lines of course — she had held forth at length on why plastic surgery showed a lack of fortitude — but her figure was still outstanding and her clothes enviable.  I can count on the fingers of two hands the times in my  life I had seen her with so much as a hair out of place.

 

She started to rub lip balm into her lower lip. “Do you think I should go back to lipstick?” she asked meditatively. “No,” she answered herself, “it’s such a relief that it’s done and dusted.”
I gave up. “What?” I asked.

 

She smiled triumphantly. “Love and the rest of it, of course.”
I should have guessed. We were at my cousin’s wedding, more accurately, the wedding breakfast — indifferent food at a hotel so close to the airport that the best man’s speech took an extra twenty minutes because he had to stop every time a plane flew over.

 

Between the planes and the tribute band — tribute to whom I was afraid to ask — there wasn’t much getting-to-know-you going on in the ballroom. Not that I thought you’d want to get to know the new in-laws. A part from a few ageing Rockers, I didn’t think anyone did Hippy any more. But there they were: men in pony tails and suit that hadn’t been out of the back of the closet in twenty years, a few even wore beads for Heaven’s sake. The women tended toward flower prints and flat shoes. I worried about my cousin, her MBA newly minted, marrying into a family like that.

 

Our family was on its third generation of strait and narrow banker. If you saw us in the street you’d believe we ran funeral homes. Earlier I asked my cousin if they dressed that way for some sort of in-joke. She appeared puzzled, shook her head, and looked adoringly in the direction of her new, and very good looking, husband. He was talking to an uncle but looked adoringly back.

 

I had noticed that uncle before, you couldn’t help it. No beads, thank god, but a Santa Claus stomach and a laugh that could be heard across the room, planes and tribute bands notwithstanding. I couldn’t imagine anything could be that funny. But when he laughed everyone who heard him smiled.

 

I realised I was drifting and turned my attention back to my mother, expecting to find her in full flow. But she was standing by the door back to the ballroom. I thought I knew the reason for her unusual restraint. Love, the romantic kind, had not been kind to my mother. My father was not, to understate, the domestic type In the end he didn’t even trouble to hide his affairs. My mother wasn’t a martyr, no sighs or rolling eyes. She liked doing what she called ‘the right thing’: welcoming strangers, helping neighbours in times of need, pouring oil on troubled waters. And in her marriage she explained that is what she had done — ‘the right thing’. Only in marriage I don’t think ‘the right thing’ had made her exactly happy. I wasn’t sure when I had heard my mother laugh.
I held the door and we went back to the ballroom. The band — maybe they were an ABBA tribute, but I’m not sure — were going furiously. Five or six couples from the new in-laws were up and dancing, the men windmilling their arms and the women standing more or less out of harm’s way gently rocking back and forth, eyes half closed. Our side, those who weren’t scrambling at the free bar, were looking on with a variety of expressions, none complementary. One of our ten-year olds and his sister had taken to the floor and were doing a fair invitation of the windmilling couples. I don’t think it was out of admiration.
The bride was standing in a corner with her brother. She didn’t look happy and had one hand on his arm. From the way she was nodding in the direction of her new in-laws, I guessed she was trying to make him cross the divide and dance. But he, with a large drink clutched in one hand, was shaking his head.
“Not very promising,” my mother said, taking it all in. “I’ll see you later.” She marched across the floor straight to the uncle with the belly laugh and the next thing they were dancing. Fortunately the band was on a slow number so he didn’t endanger her with the windmill routine.
I said a little prayer and picked one with beads. It turned out he wasn’t at all a bad dancer. His day job was insurance, but I stopped paying too much attention to his life story because we had closed in on my mother and the uncle and I began to hear a joke that the uncle was telling.

 

“Newly wed couple,”the uncle said as we turned away and back. “Honeymoon.” We turned again. “Didn’t come out of the cabin for five days.” Turn. “Finally the landlord knocks on the door.” Turn. “We’re living on the fruits of love the groom shouts back.” I stopped my partner so I could get the punch line. “The landlord answered, ‘I guessed as much. But would you please stop throwing the peelings out the window. They’re choking the chickens.’”
Not bad I thought even if he was laughing at it himself, but it was my mother’s response that surprised me. She threw back her head and laughed. She was laughing so hard she had to sit down. The uncle sat next to her, patting her hand. Then my partner spun me around at the beginning of a fast song and I lost track.
It was an hour before I caught sight of my mother again, still with the uncle, still dancing. If I hadn’t been looking for her, I might not have recognised her. Her hair, which had been neatly pinned up, tumbled around her face, and her mouth —  red, glossy lips — was shaped in something like a grin.
Four hours later, as the band was packing up and the uncle was handing her into the car, I swear I saw a smudge of the same red on his mouth.

 

“Well,” my mother settled back into the seat, “perhaps not quite.”

 

I didn’t ask.

 

 

And two notes: 

On the visual: for the Greeks joy and frivolity were represented by one of the three Graces, Euphrosyine, depicted dancing in Botticelli’s Primavera.

On feedback:  I see these as sketches which at some point will become better.  One of my dearest (and dearly respected) friends said she would not have finished We Ate Chinese if she hadn’t felt an obligation.  The problem as she saw it was that there was not enough information about the old woman to make her interesting.  This is helpful and comments about anything I post will be gratefully received and considered.

Ouija

Winter Thistle, Dodder

Winter Thistle, Dodder (c) Carole Craig

Two, or was it three, years ago I was admitted to an MFA programme in creative writing at American College in Dublin.  I wanted to go because I respected the people who taught it, but my mother’s accident, then her death, then the tenant catastrophe of the past six months have all prevented my enrolling.  The college, ever considerate, has delayed my enrolment but I have begun to wonder in the morass of life being consumed by the living of it whether it is something I could do.

To test myself I have taken Ray Bradbury’s advice in Zen and the Art of Writing “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row” which,  inevitably, has a very nice Facebook page devoted to it: Ray Bradbury’s 52 week short story challenge to aspiring writers.

The idea for this story, marking the beginning, comes from the American writer Alice Adams’s story Roses, Rhododendron combined with an exercise from What if…. exercises for fiction writers by Bernays and Painter.   The exercise tells you to write the opening sentence of a story, then write a second sentence containing at least two elements/words from the first, the third repeating the elements of the second and so on.  

It is an enlightening  lesson in technique and, while I don’t think what I did with it is a success, today is my posting deadline and  I am comforted by David Bayles and his invaluable Art and Fear  “You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around.”

 

OUIJA

It is not that I believed the Ouija board. Does anyone over the age of eight and under the age of eighty believe a Ouija board? I was neither under eight or over eighty when my husband ran off at the muddy end of a Massachusetts winter with someone seventeen years my junior. I was the magical four-0 and at seventeen years younger than me the spring chicken was old enough to know what she was doing, but I didn’t. I mean I didn’t know what I should do.

One thing I knew I wasn’t doing, was putting up the shutters and mourning. My daughter, ten at the time, didn’t believe the Ouija board either but using it showed her, I hope it showed her, that I was trying to do something, for god’s sake, anything.

I’m not sure how the Ouija ended up spelling out that we should, like my erstwhile but not former husband, go South. South to the Carolinas where I’d never been or thought of going. Honestly, I’m not sure it spelled Carolinas or even Carolina at all. Carolinas might have just been the closest word to sense that came out of those sessions in which I held one side of the last of my wedding present Waterford Crystal white wine glasses and my daughter held the other while we burned a long white candle in the semi-dark. Semi-dark because part of the money my husband used for his flit south — New Orleans to be exact— had been destined to be pay for our heat and light.

If your husband spent the heat and light money on his paramour seventeen years your junior and if you and your child are living in the semi-dark, it is much easier to do it in the  South than in New England even at the tail end of winter, even when it is coming up to mud season.

In spite of the general ease of life and the lack of anything you could really call a winter to have a tail end, I wasn’t certain I liked the South once we got there. I didn’t like the softness of Southern people who seemed sapped by their serene air and their languid streams and their big leaf plants nodding in the perpetual warmth.

I bought my daughter a bicycle which she rode past the streams, muddy like home, and the big leafed plants and came upon some of those soft people that she liked in a farmhouse that had a vegetable garden and chickens to feed. The soft people — lawyer husband, book reviewing wife, and their daughter as dark as mine was blonde — took her in. After awhile it felt like that family didn’t take her in, but took her away to their life of  book reading, vegetables planting, and chicken feeding.

While my daughter read books and fed chickens, I drove around the country buying antiques. I arranged the antiques tastefully on the sun porch where people driving past, mostly Northerners, could see them and would stop to buy. In spite of the Northerns admiring the items on my porch and enough money to keep the lights turned on, the truth was I still didn’t know what I should be doing.

Every once in a while, I would dim lights, light a white candle and take that last one of the wedding present white wine glasses off the shelf and sit down to the Ouija board by myself. It didn’t work because it wasn’t the Ouija I wanted.  Instead of the Ouija, I wanted a magic mirror like the wicked queen in Snow White  that would tell me that I was the fairest mother of them all and, better still, let me watch my daughter in the hill top farmhouse.

 

I brought my friend Dolly to help with the Ouija. Dolly admired the remaining wine glass as we pushed it around the board but we all we got was a sequence of nonsense letters, except for one group which might have spelled divorce.

 

I had not thought of divorce before. When I mentioned divorce to my daughter, home in the late evening after the farmhouse dinner, she was not perturbed. In fact, my daughter was more interested in describing that evening’s farmhouse dinner conversation which had been, as nearly as I could tell, about the novels of Anthony Trollope.

 

I wrote a letter to my husband, telling him about his daughter and her friends in the farmhouse and suggesting that it might be the time for divorce. My letter must have set something off, because he rang me in the middle of a an end of summer thunderstorm but I wouldn’t answer the phone. His letter, which arrived ten days later, made no mention of the girl seventeen years my junior. It told me he had a good job near San Francisco and asked me and  our daughter to  join him there.
I thought about San Francisco in the evenings as I listened to my daughter’s description of dinner at the farmhouse, of the books they read, of the garden and the mother whose white hair she said, looking at mine, had never been dyed. I wondered if what attracted her to them was not the books or the garden or the chicken or a mother with ordinary greying hair, but the fact that there were three of them — the holy triumvirate: man, woman and child — but I didn’t know.
My daughter was home for dinner at the end of the week and I poured wine into wedding present white wine glass. When I finished drinking my wine, I rinsed the glass, bought out the Ouija board and lit the white candle. My daughter held one side of the glass — there was a curve of garden dirt underneath one of her nails —  I held the other  and we closed our eyes.

Even with my eyes closed, I know the board so well that I can’t say that I didn’t push the glass toward the ‘S’ or the ‘A’, the ‘N’ or the ‘F’, ‘R’ or ‘S’ or ‘O’.

oh antic God….

Book stall Madrid, Spain)

Book Stall, Madrid (c) Carole Craig

 

oh antic God, return to me my mother in her thirties —  Lucille Clifton

A year and a day: put off the black, fold back the weeping veil. It is finished, final, over, done. The ashes are scattered, the book is closed, the bell takes back its tongue.

I find nothing final in this moment. There is the slow seep of sadness and a fresh mingling of my mother’s life and mine.

In San Francisco I have taken to selling things. Not by choice. I rented to a tenant who took me in dangerous dislike – I am told he wants to see me bleed. Among his many revenges was the building inspector and thereby the discovery of a myriad of things done to my mother’s house as acts of love and friendship, as acts of gratitude to Faith Petric folksinger that must now be undone, repaired, rectified, approved and stamped.

It will cost more money than I personally have. Her second best guitar will go, the ‘guilute’ she carried and played in Ireland more times than I can count, the large, loved Morris Graves painting, the small collection of silver dollars, the Chinese figures, books and more books, both hers and mine.

For making me really look at the books, I can be almost grateful to the tenant. They would have languished forever on the ToDo shelf, unmarked and undiscovered. I never would have known, for example, that her father gave her a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam for Christmas in 1939. She was deeply angry at him all of my life, for good reason I believe, and I never heard a good word about him. I don’t know if he gave her The Rubaiyat because it was popular then or if it was unusual and he recognised that it would suit his unusual, intelligent, estranged, daughter. It is the Edward Fitzgerald version, boxed and illustrated. It might fetch a pretty penny, but won’t be going. For the first time ever, I have a link with my grandfather.

The ten small blue volumes of the World’s Thousand best Poems (1929 and arranged alphabetically) will go, without regret, but I am sorry to lose the leather bound Scrapbook of Elbert Hubbard, socialist, anarchist and follower of William Morris.

That sadness is not just because the book, printed on Hubbard’s own press in true Arts and Crafts fashion, is a symbol of much that I hold dear, but because it, and so much else in the collection, represents my mother’s younger, intellectually aroused self.

By the time she and I could have real conversations, she held her ideas firmly and saw my desire to discuss them as a threat. The variety of books is comforting, they show me that we once had that need to question in common after all.

In fact, as I come speedily up to my 70th birthday, I see the same questions for my life that I see in my dead mother’s: what gives meaning and coherence to living?

I find among her things a note written to herself at 2am on the 7th of July, 1949. “It is as if, through all my life,” she writes, “there has run a kind of paralysis. I am sitting in a room at 223 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, doing nothing. (Nothing, that is, that ‘matters’ or of the things I tell myself I should do ….)”

I inhabit that feeling intimately, life consumed in the living of it.

For my mother in July of 1949 it was her messy drawers, my toys that needed mending. Later, it was “her desk” and reading and answering endless, endless emails.

I don’t know, – because she never, aloud, admitted she was dying, never summed up, imparted wisdom, said goodbye – if at the end she thought she had done what mattered. Whether for her,  her life trailed off into a mist of undone “should’s” or felt complete, finished, done.

 

oh antic God – Lucille Clifton

oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties
leaned across the front porch
the huge pillow of her breasts
pressing against the rail
summoning me in for bed.

I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.

I can barely recall her song
the scent of her hands
though her wild hair scratches my dreams
at night. return to me, oh Lord of then
and now, my mother’s calling,
her young voice humming my name.

Coming for to carry me home

sunrise, passage grave, Loughcrew, Ireland (c) Carole Craig

sunrise, passage grave, Loughcrew, Ireland (c) Carole Craig

 

31st July
Tonight —  five thousand miles away and, in my mind’s eye, juggling fire — the circus are putting some of my mother’s ashes in the river at Orfino, Idaho. She has come full circle.

In Ireland, unable to travel because of a stupid fall over a bad book, I am filled with memories. They are of ‘early’ mother: when she sang Methodist hymns and cowboy songs and Burl Ives songs and Leadbelly songs and “My name it is Sam Hall” on which I was allowed – greatly thrilled — to join in on the chorus of “I hate you one and all/ God damn your eyes.”

It is the hymns that I am hearing now. The night that’s in it, I suppose, and my grandfather the itinerate preacher, and my great grandfather the same, and my firm belief that, bad as she found it, as gleefully as she rejected it, religion can take substantial credit for her formation.

Not the religion of the superficial questions: such as whether there is a god or not; or whether said god is male or female; whether he/she/it is human or elephant; or the vexed argument of how humankind is supposed to engage in worship, if worship is required.

But the more profound religious sense: that to be properly human raises the question of a moral life, of trying to be good, to be just, to leave the place better than you found it. If she were still alive, she’d be marching for Gaza, not, of course, with the expectation that this would solve the problem. But to try again. Fail again. Fail better.

And thank you New Old Time Chautauqua, she enjoyed it very much, I’m sure.

 

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Well, now I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Comin’ for to carry me home
There was a band of angels a comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

Well, I’m sometimes up and I’m sometimes down
Comin’ for to carry me home
But I know my soul is heavenly bound
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

Well, now if you get there before I do
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all of my friends that I’m a comin’ too
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Well, now they’re comin’ for to carry me home

 

Written by Wallas Willis described as both slave and freeman of a Chowtaw Narive American and sung frequently during the struggle for civil rights (my mother would like that)