This is the other story that didn’t win the Country Style Short Story Competition. Most of it was written here in the schoolhouse, with some input from Kel. I started writing it just after 37 year old Olga Neubert was fatally shot by her ex-husband in Hobart in May this year.
White Ribbon Day is on Nov 25th, pop it in your diaries.
Violence against women is NEVER OK.
MRS MARY WINTERS
Mrs Mary Winters was my neighbour for seven years. From her front verandah, Mary saw me newlywed, pregnant, dancing with toddlers and hustle-mustering children to school. She saw my smiles and my frowns, my overwrought, rushabout towns, my give me some space face and my hold me tights, never let me go. She watched my blushes turn to wishes, belonging to longing, and that bit when you stop the car and wonder if you can just stay there in the sealed quiet, maybe forever.
She saw my bothered, blurry edges and the contents of my grocery bags roll about her nature strip. Once, when I was too overwhelmed to remember her reliable presence, she saw my husband laugh as I crouched by my dying daisies to cry.
Not once did she utter a single word.
Early on, I went up her steps, with my home cooked meal and overzeal, put my hand on her small, folded ones, impossibly soft, and introduced myself, loudly. “We’ve just moved in. I do hope you will call on us should you need anything”. She looked so old I found myself speaking like someone out of the Regency. Condescension with pretension.
“Another useless idea,” my husband said when I told him. “She’s just a batty old woman.” He sighed, rolled his eyes. I thought about my daisies. No one kills daisies. Useless.
“She has advanced dementia”, one of Mary’s nurses told me in a loud whisper. “It has progressed into the deeper areas of her brain, which means her emotional functioning is impaired. Also her speech. She’s a ghost before she’s gone poor darling.” “Oh, poor Mary,” I whispered back, and imagined the deeper parts of my brain losing light and not being able to find the signals for a sigh, the cry or the why oh why. Perhaps uselessness would be justified.
Years later, having become accustomed to calling out news to Mary and receiving no response, she became a welcome familiar. Sometimes I sat and read to her. Sometime I just sat. Sometimes I asked questions, so many questions. “Why am I so sad Mary? Are my emotions in overdrive? Sometimes I’m so confused. Why am I not grateful for expensive clothes and jewels? Why do I hide in libraries? Are you happy Mary? How do you not kill daisies?” I wanted her to stroke my hair, tell me nothing is fair, and to ask me about the bruises on my arms.
She’d seen my husband not see her and I felt obliged to explain. “He’s very busy, they say he’s done wonderful things for the company. Sometimes he doesn’t see me either. He loves me though, fiercely.”
The day he left for a rare work trip, he loved me gently. He kissed me and closed the door softly as if to prelude the sort of silence that is static with yearning. But I was breathless with the space of it all, and without eggshells beneath my feet I wanted to prance, to dance, take a chance.
There was an invitation in a school bag, addressed to me. ‘Girls’ Night Out!’ I called my sister before chance darkened into risk.
“A girl’s night!” She said, “What next, the libarary AGM?”
“Shut up and lend me some clothes.”
“Of course, take everything, just give me the kids and don’t pick them up ‘til afternoon. Halleluiah! Hang on, you need clothes?” Yes I did. I didn’t want to go as that me.
I eventually got myself out the door, propelled by a swig of vodka and my startling reflection (a miniskirted rebel, taller, with life in her eyes). Mary had been taken indoors but I wished she could see me breezing past with my sequined purse and clippy-heeled walk. “Just going out with the girls”, I might have called, like a usual, useful kind of woman.
My appearance at an event without children and sausages was evidently surprising. The stares of the ‘girls’ sent me directly to the bar. It wasn’t long before I was three sheets to the wind and in a spin. I talked, laughed, danced, talked more; grandiose, verbose, too close.
Somewhere after eleven, when things were getting wavy and I wobbled off my heels, I felt a sinking horror. Out of bounds, out of line and falling, falling from cloud nine. I pulled at my skirt and sidled out the door.
In the taxi I felt nauseus and traitorous. City lights streamed and flared, car horns blared. I heard my husband’s voice. What were you thinking, going out drinking? I felt myself shrinking.
At home, small again and stumbly, I couldn’t find the house key. It was nowhere, the house was sealed up like a bank and I was at a loss. There was no garden to shelter in, no heroic husband and – I realised with a pang – no pluck. “Didn’t there used to be spirit in this frame?” I thought, “Didn’t I used to climb trees?” I wondered whether I’d had all the courage loved out of me.
There was enough Dutch courage left to keep my reasoning in liquid form. With a light on in her hallway, the orangey glass of Mary’s front door was irresistibly warm against my forlorn. I found the hidden key left out by the nurses and walked into a house scented with washed linens and cloves and relief.
In a room I knew not to be Mary’s, I found a single bed, made up with yellow sheets and a bosomy, bossy eiderdown. There was an overwhelming sense of assurance and in it I lay, and slept.
I was woken by a leaden, armageddon head and a pale morning light. I blinked and stared at flocked wallpaper. Thought was viscous. “How are you feeling?” I jumped, squinted in pain at a figure, sitting by the door. A young woman with blonde curls and a flowered dress.
“It’s alright,” her voice was gentle. “Rest. And have some water – there’s some beside you, with lemon. I’ll get you an ice press.” She smiled and left the room. I drank. Anxiety came with the lemon, and just as sour. Children? With sister. Husband? Away. But my heart bounded, pounded and scolded – ‘Out of control, out of control, body and soul out of control…’
The blonde woman returned with ice in a frilled bag and saw my face. “There are worse things.” She rested a hand on my shoulder. I closed my eyes and let my bumping heart believe her. “I once drank too much sherry and told my mother in law I didn’t like her madeleines”, her laugh tinkled. I listened and wished suddenly that this woman was my best friend; that I knew her secrets.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m a lowdown drunken intruder and you should be seeing to Mary.”
She looked at me. “You have very many wounds.” Her voice was louder.
“Those dumb shoes.” I waved at my sister’s black heels and touched a scrape on my elbow.
“Inside wounds,” she said and touched her chest. “These sorts of wounds take a very, very long time to heal. Yours are not healing at all because he is tearing them open every day.”
I was genuinely confused. She knelt by the bed and pressed her small, soft hand on mine. “My husband was a decorated soldier. They said he was impossibly brave. I couldn’t believe he loved me. And I was right, he didn’t. He loved the me that he’d shaped and coloured. And he wasn’t impossibly brave, just impossible.”
She squeezed my hand. “What shape are you? What colour are you?”
“I’m a small, rigid, cube. No colour.” The words came from a place ten thousand miles away. They surprised me. “Alone, I’m a wobbly circle, black and blue.” Tears came too. She let me cry.
“What did you do?” I asked her once the sobs began to subside.
“I told him my dreams. It took all my courage, quite literally. He scoffed, got cross, I deflated. I was terrified he’d leave me and then I’d be no one at all.”
“My children are beginning to not see me”, I said, through sobs.
“It’s time then”, she took my hand, brushed my tears and helped me up from the bed.
“Did he ever stop?” I asked in the hallway. “No. No he didn’t.” Her pretty face was troubled.
“So what did you do?”
“I vanished altogether.” She said, and looked up at my face, her eyes an intense, impossible blue.
I was half way down the front steps when I stopped abruptly. Ghost before she’s gone; the words rang in my ears.
“Mary?” I turned back.
She smiled at me from the verandah and said. “Daisies need fresh soil, love and courage.”
Mary died not too long after that. But I wasn’t there to say goodbye. My children and I live miles and miles from there now, in a place with animals and mess and a weedy garden filled with climbing trees and daisies. Sometimes I am a vibrant yellow sphere and sometimes a ball of determined red. Less and less I feel my edges fading from view, blurring through or turning blue.