by Marjorie H Morgan
It was quiet. As quiet as you can get at 2.30 am on the first official day of spring. Everything was at once old and new. The wildness of the change came first as silence. Sara pressed the tuner to find a local station as she was passing Oxford. An blast of sound surrounded her. It was music, well that’s what they defined as music nowadays. Anything was better than the spoken word just now. That was her usual listening mode. Words. But tonight everything was different. She needed things to feel different, to be different, because she was on a journey away from her past. The beat from the tuner was fast, the DJ spoke fast, everything about the station’s output was contrasting her mood. The sound was the Lancelot to her discomfort. The loud silence retreated.
Sara accepted the tiredness that sat tightly on her shoulders and neck. She had spent all day in a busy house. She knew that she needed to be alone for a while, then, and only then, could she make sense of the detachment that she had experienced for the past ten hours. The drive was the way to achieve this. The new road made the journey shorter. And for the first time Sara wished that the roadwork’s had not yet been completed. She was driving from one home to another. And neither of them offered her comfort at the moment.
Three months ago she had received a call to ask for her help in organising a dinner. It was not going to be a surprise event because the caller, her younger sister, was the one who would be the guest of honour at the meal. Sara was the fixer in the family. She positioned herself into bridge-form to breach old arguments and soothe aged tensions. This time it took eight of those preceding weeks to even get a ‘maybe’ response from any of the siblings. She faced this challenge with determination.
‘Is Phil going to be there?’ John questioned.
‘I don’t know,’ Sara sighed quietly to herself, ‘he hasn’t replied to my messages yet. But I’m glad that I’ve got hold of you at last. Did you get the other messages that I left on your phone?’
‘Yep. Just been a bit busy you know…’
‘Yeah, I guessed as much that’s why I called again. Anyhow,’ it was difficult for her to keep her frustration under control but she called on the memories of previous occasions when her spoken words were required to be emollient to the hearer; the game players took up their positions for the usual prologue, ‘anyhow, it’s changed venue again, I left the details on your phone. Are you coming?’
‘I’m still not sure. You know how difficult it is for me.’
‘Yes. I do. That’s why I thought I’d ring you on the mobile instead of on the landline. This is costing me a bomb you know.’
‘Sorry Sara, but you know how it is.’
‘OK. Just let me know as soon as you do. I need to confirm the places at the restaurant before next week. They’re always busy there.’
‘Alright. Don’t pressure me.’
‘I’m not pressuring you! Come on. Give me a break. She’s your sister too. And she wants you there. I’m just asking for numbers, that’s all. It’s her big day I’m only trying to help that’s all.’
‘It’s just logistics. Timing and everything you know.’
‘OK John, you give me a call by Sunday to let me know. You sort your end out and let me know the numbers. OK? I’ve gotta go now. Got more calls to make. Speak to you later.’
It was a similar but different conversation with each of them. Apart from Joan. She didn’t bother to reply to any of Sara’s messages. Because Sara had recently failed to be compliant with an issue to do with the main family home so she was temporarily excommunicated. But having no choice she went on checking who was going to be there, who was going with them. Just family she was told. Just family.
But her family was not allowed. It was unspoken but clear.
It was Claire’s 30th birthday. The last time the sisters and brothers all came together was when their mother had died. Eighteen months ago. They were still all raw with emotion. Sealed in their own silences.
‘It will give us something to celebrate,’ Claire suggested, ‘something to be happy about. After all, I’m officially an adult now!’ she laughed at her own joke. The youngest yet seriously scarred in most emotional matters Claire stopped sharing confidences with her siblings. She acted the role of family baby to feed her desire for knowledge. But the siblings never told the real secrets of their hearts.
Unspoken rule number 53: all the real emotions had to be kept to yourself.
Each person had their own mountains to climb and no passengers were allowed in this family. Struggle alone. But let outsiders think they were unshakeably close. So it went.
It was only at times of deep distress that the real feelings were slightly uncovered and harshly demonstrated. The code followed prescribed patterns:
‘You have no idea what I have been going through.’
‘No. I don’t, you’re right, so please tell me. Maybe I could help.’
‘I can’t talk about it. It’s too painful.’
‘I think I have an idea of the pain you are in because…’
‘No! You could never understand this, after all you don’t have children.’
It was true. Sara was childless. It was a choice. She could have had many children. All the offers she received to be bedded and wedded were rejected. Sara still managed to obtain children by proximity. And the time when she was practically raped, the only hope that she had then was that there would be a child that she could love and call her own. And then maybe get over the fact that the child’s father was a bastard. But all she got the following month was just blood. She wanted to die then. As she had wanted to die so many times before and since, but like so many other women, and unlike wounded animals, she bled regularly and still failed to die. Sara thought that her given family worked well to reject her and annihilate her being. She was spiritually alone from the age of three, but her mother, their mother, the last connecting element in the family, she alone had shown some consistency towards Sara. No matter what any of them did, Shirley always had significant more love to show towards them. A mother and her cubs. They were all safer then.
But children never were the only expression of love. As Ruth showed.
This new kind of loneliness that Sara bore was heavy. She sat cross-legged in a circle of sadness completed since her mother had gone. Sara had not shared her truths with her mother, not until she was lying sick in the nursing home after the third stroke. Then Sara would sit and hold her mother’s hand while she spoke of her own fragile happiness.
‘You always knew didn’t you Mummy? I know that you always knew.’
There was never any response from her mother’s lips, but the memory of the gentle squeeze on Sara’s hand was reassurance for her in the bleak times between her visits to the bedside.
‘I just couldn’t say it before, but I know that you guessed. I saw the way you looked at me. And I saw the smiles. I know you are happy that I’m happy. Aren’t you Mummy? Aren’t you?’
The one way conversations were standard on the visits. Sara convinced herself that the flickering eyelids and the slight movements from the left side of her mother’s ravaged body were the signs of approval and assent at her own happiness.
The sudden darkness of the road made Sara become more alert. She had been visiting a far-off present while she sat there in her metal box as the movement and shadows flew around her. As she passed the scattering of villages she saw the steady orange glow of street lights hovering on the distant horizon. Nearly home. Nearly there.
‘I hope I made the right decision coming back tonight,’ she thought.
Strangely, she didn’t feel the tiredness that she had expected after such an exhausting day. Refreshed by that thought she leaned across the passenger seat and took a bag of mints from the glove compartment. The clear roads meant that the slight swerve that she made did not cause any loud objections from other road users. In fact, in the past hour, she reflected to herself, she only remembered being temporarily blinded by headlights a few times. Released momentarily from her consuming thoughts Sara realised she was not fully conscious of any other traffic although she knew that she had not been alone on the road. She was struck awake; away from her mind’s separate journey. As she left the profound solitude of her thinking that had taken her to mute mountain paths Sara fixed her eyes on the white lines that slithered along the darkened grass verge and determined to stay attentive for the rest of her passage. The road yawned ahead and disappeared. She turned the radio off. Too much noise in her present.
The stillness around her was the first observation. It was a falsely quiet night. The change of season when all things became new. All the clocks jumping forward and everyone losing an hour of their lives at the decree of distant shadowy figures veiled in the mystery of government. Yet still the people were obedient. Sara put her left arm through the spokes of the steering wheel and adjusted the clock. A moment and an hour had gone. Never to be recaptured. How easy it was to lose time. 02:47, press a button, 03:47.
The sky was cloudless and the stars made a pattern in the firmaments. Sara acknowledged the altering beauty above her but she did not understand it. The Chaldeans would look at the sky and know what to do next. She, however, continued to drive between her unknown past and future.
Half a day ago she had been on the same road, going in the opposite direction. Going to her given family nest.
It had been hard to stir herself that morning. She blamed her period which had come earlier than expected. But for once she was pleased. It was not as painful as usual, but they weren’t to know that. For a few hours, as she pusillanimously lay in front of the TV she had pondered how to make that call to say that the pain was so bad that she couldn’t travel. And not to say that if she could have bought her chosen family with her then it would not have been a problem or even a consideration. But Sara remained silent on the sofa. The phone didn’t ring and she didn’t dial. She suddenly wished that she had perfected the art of lying. Now that she needed its help she realised how inept she was. They would know, of course, so she had a leisurely bath, wishing pain on herself, and slowly dressed. She knew she was OK to travel. To drive herself those hours across the country. Yet she yearned to stay at home. The pull of traditional obedience to the family rules won the day.
Four hours after getting out of bed Sara got into her car and drove off leaving her heart and life behind her. Duty won the day. But it was a hard assignment.
Driving was a time of freedom from the stress at both ends of the day’s journey. Sara now drove purposefully through the darkness. Speed was not essential at this moment. Thought was the only necessity. Clear thought. About how to progress. The stationary cars and quiet houses were disguised in darkness and seemed to lean back into the fields as she weaved her way through the grid of the countryside.
Only an hour after arriving in the bosom of her family that afternoon Sara had borrowed her oldest sister’s car keys and gone on an errand to get petrol. The truth was Sara was suffocating in the layers of false gaiety that assailed her every movement through the house. It was hard for her to pretend today as she was too disturbed to take on her usual role of clown and bridge. It took nearly 90 minutes of driving through vaguely familiar streets to find the strength to return to the house and by that time more people had arrived. Nephews, nieces, cousins and their families. Happy units slotting into the big picture. Sara bounced off them like a jigsaw piece placed in the wrong box. Air kisses were exchanged and light hugs passed around the group. It was the children that saved Sara. She was drawn to them for their innocence and unfettered acceptance. For the next two hours she read stories and played games with the under 10s; always careful to be in the sight of another adult in case of more misunderstandings.
The wait was painfully long. Sara’s mind was over a hundred miles away. She played the role of ‘Auntie’ to perfection. But all she really wanted was her own family, her chosen family, the one’s who defined her positively, not these people who were surrounding her, these people who were related by birth and had no other connection. Sara wanted to feel comfortable and loved. Shivering, she gazed into the past few hours and wished she had had the courage to stay in her real home. The link to her reality seemed to snap and disappear as she sat curled up on the carpet with a book and three young eager sets of eyes peering at her. A nervous smile made its way to her lips while tears started to burn at the corners of her eyes.
‘This is the last time,’ she thought to herself, ‘I can’t afford to do this any longer.’
‘Now, where did we get to?’ she asked turning to a bright page filled with dancing pixies.
The meal was delayed because John had set out even later than everyone else. Nobody told Sara. Claire rang the restaurant because she wanted everyone there at the same time. In the meantime the remnants of the lavish lunch she had prepared sat waiting for the tardy arrivals. To pass the time, after the usual enquiries had faded, the latest holiday photos were passed around amid polite laughter. John had eventually decided to bring one daughter with him, Denise, she was the only one who did not object to his new partner Felicity. Sara noticed that the ‘siblings-only’ rule and the ‘just-family’ command were ignored yet again as Felicity was embraced and made welcomed. Sara felt her pain being gorged open anew.
Phil, the eldest brother, never did make it although he rang with his apologies and rearranged a special date for him and Claire to meet up and celebrate a ‘together-not-on-a birthday’ day.
The restaurant was busy and lively. There was laughter around the table as old stories were shared. Ends of conversations were heard in triplicate as happiness simmered in the atmosphere. Then someone suggested that the bills be separated according to family sub-groups and Sara had no present group to belong to. She had her bill alone. The stark reality was waiting for her at each turn. She was not invited to be part of anyone else’s group and she didn’t ask. She was not about to ignore the truth. She was sure this would never happen again. That unnerving shiver passed through her body afresh and left over her shoulders. She looked around to see if the door was opened, but she knew it was inside her that was unsettled. Suddenly, after ordering a substantial meal, her appetite was gone. Food would no longer satisfy her or appease that feeling of emptiness.
‘Period pains,’ she stated with an appropriate grimace in response to queries about the wasted food. Two pineapple juices and a few pompadoms later she was ready to go. It was a tortuous time. Sara had started looking at her watch from the moment the order was taken. Three hours later they were the only party left in the restaurant.
‘It’s the last time,’ she chanted quietly to herself, ‘enjoy their company while you can. It’s the last time.’ But Sara was not enjoying anything about that evening. She sensed a mistake had been made.
The goodnights were rapid.
‘No point in settling down as I have a long drive ahead of me,’ Sara insisted when they returned to Claire’s home.
‘But you always have Tony’s bed. You have to stay. It won’t be the same without you.’
‘No,’ thought Sara, ‘No, it won’t. There will be nobody to rush around after you all in the morning. Nobody to tidy up the kitchen after the meals.’
‘No.’ Quietly but firmly Sara said goodbye to everybody and went out to her car. The noise of her siblings and their children and partners stormed her ears as she closed the door behind her. No greetings were given to her to take away.
It was quiet in the car. Just what she needed. A weary sigh crept from her lips as she strapped herself in.
Looking back at the darkening house she saw her eight year old nephew Tony waving happily from the bedroom window. He would miss her more than most. She always had time for him.
Sara looked at the illuminated dials in front of her.
‘Damn,’ she uttered as she moved off down the road. In her rush to escape them earlier that day she had forgotten to refill her own car with fuel so she visited the petrol station once more before leaving the city. On her way out she slowed down as she passed the nursing home where her mother had spent her last days.
‘Bye Mummy,’ she breathed, ‘Bye all of you.’
Two or three hours later she parked her car. The street was quiet. Only the student houses were still alight. Clutching her keys Sara glanced along the road. As she opened the front door she felt herself shiver. The house was cold.
The small lamp was on expectantly in the lounge but tonight it looked stark. Only clocks ticking and deep breathing could be heard around her. Her heart struck her chest in time with every second jump of the gold-edged clock by the kitchen door. Sara drank a glass of water. Too quickly. She spluttered and coughed, then paused in case she heard footsteps. Nobody stirred.
Slowly walking upstairs, to avoid the creaking on the fourth and ninth steps, Sara put her emergency overnight bag in the spare room. She had not used it or even told her family that she had been half prepared to stay. Again she paused and listened. As she continued to move around there was a sense of difference in the air. The house felt empty.
When she eventually settled down and crawled into bed, the sleeping form beside her was breathing deeply but Sara felt the warmth was missing. Unconsciousness did not come to her rapidly that night. The day was showing again in her mind.
The choice had been made many times that day. Sara had moved, but in the wrong direction. The call had been false. The chack from her family had suffocated the whisper from her side. She lay still and cried quietly. The bed was devoid of love. The bed was cold. Her sudden sweat was one of fear and loss. She turned to face the wall as she acknowledged that throughout the past five years she had slowly murdered her only hope. She heard, too late, that she was not the only one to feel.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2012