For this week’s Fiction Friday, I’m sharing the short story that was short-listed for the Grace Dieu Writers’ Circle competition, but (as I found out earlier this week) was not one of the 5 winners. I was disappointed, but to be honest I’m honoured that it was short-listed in the first place. Would love to hear from anyone else who entered – there are lots of competitions coming up in August so I might have another stab with this.
A Life Unpredicted
The house where my mother lived her whole life stands proudly to the side of a walled rose-garden. This garden, alive with heavily scented blooms, was the love of her life. As I weave along the cracked path and duck under a low willow archway, the damp heat frizzes my hair into a halo. The scent of the roses almost hurts my nose. This smell will always remind me of my mother.
My brother is here already. The roses and their significance would be lost on him; he wears his cold rationality like a badge of honour. Before the funeral we hadn’t seen each other in five years. I wish I didn’t have to see him now.
My mother’s house is as gloomy inside as it is sunny outside. Mark hasn’t bothered to put on any lights – perhaps he wants to spare the expense. She wouldn’t have been inside on a day like this anyway. There need only be a slant of sunlight through the cherry blossom and she would gather up her newspaper and her tea and set up camp on one of the benches which dotted her garden, petals lining her path like confetti.
If my mother’s fingers were green, my brother’s are grey: battleship grey. He holds his hand out to me as I enter the kitchen and I shake it limply, an odd greeting for siblings in their thirties.
He says, ‘We’d better get on with it then,’ and I nod.
Mark regards me impatiently out of our father’s eyes. ‘It has to be done, Elizabeth. If not us, who?’
Who indeed? I tell him, in a tone that allows no argument, that I will start at the top of the house and he should begin in the kitchen. This is partly out of a desire to be as far away from him as possible, and partly because I know where our mother’s most personal possessions are stowed. I want to protect them from his calculating eyes.
There is a rickety loft-ladder, permanently pulled down, leading to the cramped attic space. At five foot two I don’t have to duck but there is still scant room to manoeuvre the cardboard boxes, wooden chests and scrappy sticks of furniture. Through the thin floors I can hear Mark clattering about below. It makes me nervous. My brother probably finds the sorting of our mother’s possessions no more onerous than clearing out his garage. I picture him making three piles: throw, sell, keep. The keep pile will be small and made up of faux sentimental items he imagines his wife or daughter might get a kick out of. He won’t think about me. The sell pile will be even smaller: our mother always said her most prized possession was her sense of humour.
I have two piles: deal with now and deal with later. So far the second pile is the largest. I work through my tears, stopping every now and then to wipe my face on a scratchy crocheted blanket. It’s only when I drag a rusty sewing machine out from a corner, disturbing a family of tiny spiders and revealing a faded cardboard box with a label pasted to the side, that I am forced to stop.
Lizzie’s School Reports and Certificates is printed in my mother’s careful hand. I picture her painstakingly writing out the label, and the image is so vivid I feel I could reach out and touch her. I miss her more in this moment than I have before or might again.
I cry silently, my face strained up towards the dusty rafters, one hand hovering near my mouth as if to catch the pain should it leak out. The worse thing that could happen now would be for Mark to find me like this. He is in the sitting room, I can track his movements, he makes no attempt at quiet. I wonder whether I will find a box labelled Mark’s Reports but then remember I won’t. He took them with him when he left home. I can’t recall why, but I can imagine the curling pages filed away neatly in a black metal filing cabinet. If he kept them at all, that is.
The box opens easily, its contents regularly thumbed. This makes me smile and it makes me sad.
Before I can delve any deeper, two things happen simultaneously: my mobile phone rings and Mark calls up from the landing: Would I like some tea?
I ignore him and answer the phone without looking at the display. My boss. Bad choice.
‘Elizabeth? Where are you?’
I stroke the label in front of me and try to remember the last time anybody called me Lizzie.
‘It’s Saturday,’ I say faintly.
‘I know what bloody day it is. I’ll email you the details later, but what I need you to do is–’
I listen with one ear only, the other trained on the screaming of my mother’s ancient kettle below. At the bottom of the stepladder I see my brother’s balding head as he noisily deposits a tray on the landing. Now he thinks I’m ignorant as well as stupid.
‘I need this on my desk Monday morning at the latest,’ the tinny voice in my ear demands. He ends the call without a goodbye and I stare at the phone, fighting the urge to hurl it across the attic.
My boss never asks how I am. He knows nothing about me – not even that my mother, the only person I was close to, died suddenly in her sleep fifteen days ago. And if he did know, he wouldn’t care.
A woman of my age, I should be married with a couple of kids, living in a semi in the suburbs. I should at least have a career of my own, a proper job. Something more than glorified dogsbody.
I climb down to retrieve the tray: dark tea and half a packet of my mother’s ginger biscuits. When she’d opened this packet she would have expected to finish them herself.
I shout a belated thank you downstairs and Mark appears looking dusty and dishevelled.
‘How are you getting on?’ he asks.
‘I’ve hardly made a dent,’ I tell him truthfully.
‘I’ll come up and help soon. I’m nearly finished down here. I’ve just found a pile of newspapers that date back to the dark ages,’ he says, rolling his eyes.
I climb back up to the attic and resume my position next to the carton of school reports. Picking one out at random, I begin to read.
Class 5B July 1987
Lizzie is a gifted pupil who shows great promise and a rare understanding of the texts we have studied this year. I am sure she will do well whatever her chosen career, but I strongly advise that Lizzie considers teaching.
Well! I’d always thought my English teacher despised me. A warm glow of pride spreads across my chest and I dare to pick up another.
Biology – Group A
Lizzie is a natural leader and is very popular with her school mates. She is always helpful and polite and contributes to group discussions. I am confident that this pupil is destined for a successful and fulfilling career, probably in the field of medicine.
Popular? Was I? I’m sure I was helpful and polite – mainly because I was terrified of Mrs Mason. Just as well she taught biology and not geography: she had my future mapped out all wrong.
I realise it is silent downstairs and I wonder what my brother has found to absorb him. Maybe he’s just taking a break. I picture him staring blankly at the wall while he sips his stewed tea. Will the familiar pattern of the wallpaper, etched in our minds since childhood, begin to wear him down? The quiet seeps up through my feet and I get that feeling I always have in libraries and museums: edgy and suddenly bone-tired. A yawn stretches at my face.
I pick up another report and unfold it warily.
Lizzie has grown in confidence this year and proved adept at performing, both in character roles and as the lead. If she keeps up the hard work I see no reason why she shouldn’t pursue her dream of working in the theatre. Her love of the craft and her enthusiasm will take her far.
My dream? Well, there it is, laid out before me in the spidery hand of my drama teacher. For a moment I am back in her class: the mustiness of the wooden floor; the long, yellowing benches lining the walls. I hear her calm voice calling out directions. I am happy.
Tears fall in fat, round balls, splashing onto the school report, blurring the words into pale blue smudges. Who am I crying for now? My mother or myself?
I hadn’t expected this. I hadn’t expected to find myself – versions of what I might have been – in my mother’s attic. A teacher, a doctor, an actress? They each thought they could see around my abilities to the road ahead, and each one made me in her own image. But none of them were right.
I scan the rest of the reports, curious to know whether anyone had predicted secretary-stroke-gofer as a career choice. No one had. But their generous, hopeful words pile up on me and fill my body with a sharp, heavy sadness. I don’t know what to do with it.
I finish up quickly, probably taking less care now than my brother. I call him to help with the boxes. He sees my face but says nothing. Wise. I’m not really angry at him anymore, and can’t remember too clearly why I was to begin with. Jealousy, perhaps? That he has so much and is so defined by what he does? Whereas I am defined by what I didn’t do.
We carry the throw pile out first and load up Mark’s Mercedes. The exercise brings my body back to life and I enjoy the ache in my muscles. When a bag of rubbish splits and a mixture of old tea bags and flour explode onto the pristine interior of Mark’s car, I even manage a sharp laugh.
‘She was a hoarder,’ I tell him seriously.
‘You don’t say!’
My mouth twitches some more as my brother uses his jacket to mop up. That suit probably cost more than my entire wardrobe.
When the house is half emptied we stop for more tea.
‘I’ll have to do a journey to the tip first,’ Mark tells me. ‘And then come back for the rest.’
I wave him off from the garden gate.
When he comes back I’ll invite him for dinner, not at my flat but at that restaurant I pass on my way to work every morning. My treat. I think he’d like that.
When my boss calls me again, which he will, I’ll tell him he needs to find a new dogsbody. I might even use that word, and a few more for good measure. He will be shocked. I picture his wobbling, surprised face and laugh out loud. I like the sound it makes in my mother’s garden. I imagine her laughing and happy here.
And then I’ll make a plan. I hug the small pile of papers to my chest and think how reassuring it feels to hold them there. In the words of my past I’ll find the key to my future. I’ll make my own predictions, and I’ll make one come true. Maybe one of my teachers will turn out to be right, but I don’t care what I become. I just care about trying.
A breeze blows over the garden, bending the rose-heads sedately in its path. I reach out and cup a large-petalled bloom and hold it close to my nose. It brings my senses to life and fills my head with colour. This smell will always remind me of who I really am.