Maire Fisher

Heat

Nose to the wind, Astrid sniffs the new day. A brisk walk, a good way to start as she means to continue. New day, new leaf, new life. She’ll treat herself to a coffee at the Deli, the only place open this early. She hasn’t been there since she and Mark … No! Astrid tells herself. She concentrates on her footsteps. Pad, pad, go her trainers on the walkway, a solid reassuring sound. She’ll keep walking.

But she hadn’t expected it to be this windy. With gleeful malice the South Easter tears strands of hair free and whips them across her face with stinging flicks. It slices through her t-shirt, prods her with icy fingers, pushing her across the road to the sheltered overhang of the buildings. Astrid looks down Main Road to the Deli and quickens her pace.

A wave of sound as she pushes open the door. The café is filled with early morning regulars, some ready for a leisurely breakfast, others grabbing a quick coffee before dashing out to catch the train to Cape Town.

‘One coffee to go, please. Milk, no sugar,’ she says to the woman behind the till. She’ll head home sipping it, and its warmth will keep the wind at bay.

She used to love sugar in her coffee, before Mark took her in hand. Her face, her figure, her clothes. By the time he left, she scored almost perfect marks. Some things, though, she couldn’t change. She shakes her head. The waitress pauses. Astrid smiles quickly. She has to stop these endless internal monologues, cataloguing what she’d done wrong, tried so hard to do right. People look at her oddly these days as she growls under her breath.

How simple life was before Mark. How stupid she had been to think he loved who she was. It’s taken a month of sleepless nights, of dragging herself through grey days. Only this last week has she begun to notice again what delights her – the smell of the sea curling under her door, the sound of her neighbour practising the cello, children in the park rushing from swings to seesaw. This morning the sun rose, tingeing the sky a hopeful gold, coaxing her outside.

Behind her a laugh. She doesn’t need to turn her head to know Mark is here. Heat rises from her throat to meet the pink sweatiness of her cheeks. She sees herself in the mirror behind the counter: baggy sweat pants, sloppy t-shirt, rattails of hair hanging from a scraggly ponytail, face like a boiled tomato. He laughs again, sniggering, derisive. Her heart speeds up, her palms sweat. Laughing, like he used to … at her, his eyes flat and assessing. And then he’d ruffle her hair, tell her how sweet she was. Sweet, but not quite sweet enough. She, always begging, panting for his approval. Watching herself slip away, bit by tiny bit, as he whittled her into shape. Hating herself for craving his approval. Vowing time and time again that she’d stand up to him; show him she didn’t need him. And then, without fail, her will would bend under his.

Astrid turns sideways and sees his broad back, the hair curling over his collar. A new shirt, one she’s never seen before. Probably a gift from the blonde sitting across the table. She’s smiling; a smile Astrid recognises only too well – lips parted as she hangs on every word he says. Five weeks, and already he’s found someone better, younger, prettier.

The new girl is pretty. Glossy. She’s looking at him like an eager puppy, waiting to be petted. She’s stoking his hand now. Astrid knows the feel of his skin, fine-grained and smooth. As smooth and sleek as he is. He leans towards the blonde; her face lights up. And he laughs again.

‘Actually,’ Astrid says, ‘make that no milk.’ Her voice snarls, and the waitress recoils. Astrid rearranges her face.

The coffee arrives, steaming in its cardboard container. Astrid reaches into her pocket and pulls out a crumpled note. ‘Keep the change,’ she says. Holding the cup carefully, she walks towards them.

The blonde looks up, her eyes as blue as a cliché. Astrid taps him on the shoulder. ‘How’s your sex life, Mark?’ she asks, and pours the coffee into his lap.

He yelps in horror and leaps to his feet, clutching at the scalding stain.

Astrid yelps too. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘so sorry. I though you were someone else.’

‘Are you fucking insane?’ he yells.

The blonde is on her feet too, dabbing at his jeans with a paper napkin. ‘Andy? Are you okay, doll?’ she whines. He pushes her away, sinks to his seat, whimpering. ‘I don’t understand,’ she says to Astrid. ‘Why?’

‘Don’t talk to that mad bitch,’ he says. ‘Can’t you see she’s lost her bloody marbles?’

But Astrid isn’t mad, or lost, not any more. She leans over and pats the blonde on the shoulder. ‘Your boyfriend has a nasty laugh,’ she says.

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Maire Fisher

The murmur of lost

I had never seen my mother’s desk as a place of secrets. It was simply a no-go zone, where an invisible barrier kept the distractions of the outside world at a safe distance. As a child, I was warned never to go into her study unless absolutely necessary and never, ever, to touch her papers. When she’d finished working she would tidy everything away, close the desk and lock it with a small ornate key.

And now, I hold the key in my hand.  But I hesitate before turning it. My mother was an intensely private person, and this, far more than sorting through underwear, shoes and books, is a violation of her privacy.

My father and I were inhabitants of the world she kept at bay. It wasn’t that she didn’t care for us – I had everything I needed; a perfectly cooked meal greeted my father every evening on his return from campus. And if this caring was helped by a live-in maid, a full-time cook, the au pair who arrived when I was seven, well, she was a busy woman, busier by far than my father. Highly revered in her field, constant demands were made on her: to travel the world, deliver papers, conduct seminars.  ‘Mommy’s work’ was a member of our family – one that took more space than my father or I did.  

My father didn’t seem to mind that my mother’s work removed her so thoroughly from our lives. Once I asked why she had missed my first school open day. He sat on my bed, a book balancing on his bony knees,

‘Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved,’ he declared in a deep voice. I giggled as he flicked to the end of my favourite story:

‘But when he has done that, and between times, and when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone.’

I looked at him, puzzled. ‘Your mother needs to walk by her wild lone,’ he said. It makes her happy. It helps her.’

‘Helps her, Dad?’ I couldn’t imagine my mother ever needing anything, anyone.

I learned then the first of many lessons in letting my mother be. We lived, a unit of one and a unit of two, generally amicable, and generally content.

I rest my hand on the whorled rosewood lid and see her, blonde hair shining under the goose-necked lamp, her hand moving smoothly and rapidly, covering sheet after sheet of the thick creamy paper she bought by the ream.

I skim the notes my mother was making before a blinding headache sent her stumbling and afraid, to call me to her.  And another lost memory emerges.

On my way to the bathroom for a drink of water, my parents’ bedroom door ajar.  My father, holding my mother, rocking her. ‘I know, I know,’ he murmurs over and over. Forgetting my thirst, running back to my room. Back in my bed, closing my eyes, seeing my mother’s tear-stained face, my father’s gentle hands rubbing her back.

At the airport Jim had hugged me, laid his cheek against mine. ‘Stay as long as you need to, sweetheart. The boys and I will be fine.’

It wasn’t that long, in the end. My mother had ignored the small signs. A slight dizziness; the sudden blurring of words in front of her eyes. She decided emphatically that she did not want any treatment and asked me stay to care for her at home. For all of ten days I was closer to my mother than I had ever been. She tired easily, wasn’t able to talk much, but one evening as I sat next to her, she rested her hand on mine. Her touch was still hers, firm and cool.

‘I’m glad you’re here.’

‘I am too,’ I said. ‘Very glad.’  I looked into her eyes, filmed now and almost blind.

‘Always loved you,’ she said.  ‘Loved you all, too much.’  I smoothed her hair back from her forehead.

 ‘Your father …’ She moved restlessly, plucking and worrying the heavy cotton sheet.

My hand gentled hers. ‘Sssh,’ I said, ‘Mom.’
.

Her breathing deepened and I thought she might sleep. I sat staring, wishing my father was there to explain.

‘Jim and the boys,’ she said. ‘You’re happy?’

‘Very,’ I said.

‘Good.’ A faint smile and then so quietly I could barely hear, ‘My little girls.’
I was sure I had misheard her, until I discover the gaily tartanned old Walker’s shortbread tin in her desk. It must have been opened and closed many times before, the lid slips off so easily.

There isn’t much. Some colour photos, a few black and white. She was sturdy-legged, her hair as dark as mine is fair. Her eyes, the same pale grey as my mother’s and mine. A birth certificate. She was born in 1952, five years before me, and three years before my parents moved to South Africa. A death certificate. She had died of meningitis.

In one photo she is held by a young woman, and with a jolt I recognise my mother. Laughing. 

Maire Fisher

Ocean-crossing

 

Mommy’s sitting in the rocking chair.   She doesn’t see Katy standing in the doorway.  Daddy says don’t disturb Mommy when she’s InHere. But Katy’s going to. She’s going to walk right up and say Hi Mommy! She is. And Mommy won’t speak all quiet and whispery. And scary. Like another Mommy has got right into her body. A mommy with the same long brown curly hair as Katy’s – such a nuisance to keep tidy, but we’d never cut it would we, Katy-Kate? That’s what Mommy used to say when she brushed Katy’s hair for school.

 Mommy sits, quiet as mouse, looking into the garden.  Everyone is quiet nowdays.  The only time anyone talks loudly is when Granny comes and cooks up a storm, filling the freezer, because heaven knows someone has to get some nurrishint into the child. Only thing is, Mommy forgets to open the freezer, and then Granny goes oh dearie me and rustles up something quick and easy. Most days she opens Katy’s rucksack and checks the message book and writes in it. Yesterday she wrote for a long time. This morning, when Miss Adams read it, she smiled at Katy and asked her if she’d like to play in the Wendyhouse. The other children all looked at Katy, and she felt funny, like their eyes were crawling on her, because we all know, don’t we children, that we can only play in the Wendyhouse if we have been very good, and finished all our work. It’s a Very Special Treat. And Katy hadn’t even started her drawing. So she just shook her head and picked up her crayons, the special ones Mommy bought because she was starting big school. 

Katy leans against the doorframe. Round-tummied teddybears dressed in sailor-suits tumble around the pale blue walls of the small room.  A mobile hangs from the ceiling. Sometimes, when Mommy is InHere, she winds it up and the bright tinkling notes of Teddybear’s Picnic scamper out of the room, down the passage to where Katy plays by herself in her own bedroom.

Katy touches the blue carpet with her big toe. Her thumb creeps to her mouth. She mustn’t suck her thumb, that’s not what big girls do, and she wants to set a good example to her little brother doesn’t she? But he isn’t here, so Katy can’t show him all the special things from her secret drawer – like the snakeskin Josie and her found, and Katy’s shoes from when she was a baby, only she was going to give them to him. Tucked right at the back of the drawer, folded tight, is the list Miss Adams helped Katy to write. Her favourite boys’ names in all the world. Zak and Max and Tim. Little names for a little baby. Miss Adams said they would stretch as he got bigger. Daddy said she was an absolute genius, because Mommy was besotted with ‘Theodore’, and nothing Daddy said could budge her. But when she read Katy’s list she looked down at her big tummy and said hello little Max, can you hear me?

Katy hides her thumb behind her back and looks at Mommy.  Mommy is stroking the arm of the chair, her fingers moving round and round, like her hand doesn’t know what it is doing. Other times it moves to her tummy and makes circles there. Until Daddy puts his arms around her and hugs her tightly. Katy watches them. That’s when they ask her to play in her room. And their voices sound far, far, away, as if they were talking to her from the bottom of the sea, way deeper than Katy would ever be allowed to go.

Granny says they’ll get Overit.  But Katy doesn’t want them to get Overit, because it sounds horrible, and they mustn’t have any more terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, like Alexander in Katy’s best book ever, the one Daddy knows off-by-heart.

Katy takes a deep breath, filling her lungs, like when Josie and her see who can stay underwater the longest. Most times Josie wins, but sometimes she giggles and bubbles come out of her mouth in a whoosh. Katy’s tummy flutters the way it always does when she is nervous or excited. Like the day she started school. Butterflies in your tummy Mommy said, and she took Katy’s hand. Feel Katy, I’ve got a butterfly in my tummy. And Katy giggled because she knew it was something quite different, another word beginning with b. Buh is for bike and bubbles. Baby and boy.
Katy puts one foot forward. She’s going to walk right up and say Hi Mommy! The carpet stretches ahead of her like an ocean, deep and blue.

Katy breathes deeply and takes another step. Mommy turns in her chair.

‘Katy-Kate?’