Gail is boring and prudish her husband says, and well . . . she just doesn’t turn him on. What else is there to do but prove him wrong?
Anna loses a baby at nineteen weeks’ gestation, the sixth in a line of pregnancy failures. Surely the Universe is punishing her, and it must be her mother’s fault.
Carole agrees to share the stories of her past and Anna hears of a time when decisions weren’t easily categorised into right and wrong.
Can these three women help each other, and where does Carole’s mother Jean fit in?
Anna opens her notebook to a fresh page ready to write her mother’s words.
‘I don’t know what my mother leaving my father has to do with your miscarriages, Anna, but my father wasn’t a nice man.’ Carole puts a plate of toast in front of Anna, and takes another bite of her own.
‘For a long time nobody told me what he was like, and I worried.’ She pauses, but when Anna doesn’t speak, Carole continues. ‘I worried about when he came home, on the day we left. I pictured him walking through the house, at first slowly, and then running and calling out our names. I imagined him searching my empty cot, frantic about where I was.’ Carole laughs. ‘I can’t remember the house we had, and I don’t even know if I had a cot, but that picture of him has always been clear. Well, it was . . .’
‘I heard what he was really like.’
‘So he did bad things?’
Carole tells the story and Anna doesn’t write a word.
‘Have you been smoking?’
Can he smell the smoke or has he asked as a test? Jean gives him nothing.
Perhaps he’s noticed that the window in the lounge room is open past sunset on a cool autumn evening when it should be shut. How can he know that this is the window she stands at to suck smoke into her lungs and blow it over the rooftops?
She holds his gaze with her hands clasped to keep them steady. It’s not right that he get to see them shake.
‘Give me your bag,’ he says.
Jean hugs it to her chest. ‘No.’ She’s been practising in the mirror—the unwavering, steady no.
‘Give me your bag.’
‘It’s my bag.’
‘Give it to me now.’
Jean pulls it to her side, under her right arm, and leans at him with her left shoulder and left elbow, as if she were a rugby player bracing for a tackle.
He steps in and too easily snatches the bag, then the zip is open and her grip on the strap does nothing to stop him shaking her belongings out. He’s tall, and strong, with a thick belly as if he’s eaten her happiness and stored it as fat around his girth.
The bag’s contents spill onto the corner of the Laminex table that sits awkwardly in the lounge room. A few jubes roll onto the floor, a pen, and a featherless dart from the room at the pub where she works. He glances at the dart and then at her, his eyes daring her to pick it up, but she’s not stupid—they’ve been here before.
The twisted strap pinches her hand, so she lets it go because it’s useless now to hold on. No cigarette packet has fallen out. He pulls at the lining, limp and grubby, and turns her bag inside out. He didn’t used to be like this . . . or was it just that she didn’t see? He loved her. He said he did. But they were both confused about love.
Three buttons rattle onto the table, a pellet of chewing gum and two pennies. He watches her as the objects fall, because he likes to see her scared. She knows that. Jean clenches her fists as reassurance that she is strong, and sets herself not to show her fear.
When he throws the bag she clutches it to her chest, but it’s flimsy and useless as protection. If only she’d kept the dart in her pocket—she would stab it in his eye.
He up-ends her make-up purse onto the table with the rest of her things. Now added to the pile are two lipsticks, a gold powder compact he gave her last Christmas, a comb, eye-shadow, eyeliner, and three perfect home-rolled cigarettes wrapped in paper and a length of string.
He dangles the cigarettes, smirks into the space between them, and pulls a lighter out of his pocket. It fits neatly in his palm. Her eyes are drawn to his hands by the slow and deliberate way he unties the string. He should be on the stage he craves the drama so much.
One cigarette is between his lips. He lets the other two fall on the floor where he grinds them into the carpet with his shoe.
‘I don’t know why you keep disobeying,’ he mumbles. ‘I’ve told you not to smoke.’ His inhalation is long and slow as the lighter flares at the durry, drawing the moment in with the suck of his breath.
He’s going to hurt her, he always does.
The tip of the cigarette puffs yellow and then orange where the tobacco flames and curls in a fire lick that reaches upwards in a fine line of smoke. He takes the cigarette from his mouth with a reverse-peace-V of his fingers and laughs at the little flutter of her eyelids.
‘Give me your hand.’
She doesn’t obey. Both hands are clasped into fists that are buried in the vinyl of her bag.
‘Give me your hand,’ he repeats in a quiet voice because she has nowhere to go. She turns from the smoke, just enough to catch fresh air, because she will not be the one to look away.
A step around the table.
He reaches for her hand.
‘No,’ Jean says and moves back, but she will not run.
He wrests her hand from the bag at her chest.
‘You do this to yourself, you know,’ he mumbles through the durry, unfolding her fingers to expose her palm. Another suck and the red burns to orange, and yellow, and she re-clenches her hand in a fist.
He smiles. ‘Open it.’
He forces her—hand upturned as if she were catching raindrops from an absent sky.
‘Don’t fight,’ he says, but one day she imagines she will. She’ll tie him down with long lengths of something strong and gloat over his fear.
This will be the last time, she repeats in her head. The last time, and she focuses her hate.
The durry is back in his mouth for a suck to flare the tip. He turns the cigarette perpendicular to her palm, and presses down. Heat boils the perspiration to a sizzle on her skin and the smell of burning flesh fills the room for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and Jean is weeping.
She drops to her knees.
‘Will you do it again?’ he asks.
And she wills a memory in herself so strong that her daughters and their daughters will have it as a part of them.
Her answer is a whispered ‘no’.
He sucks again on the cigarette and then places its length across her palm, closing her fingers around it.
‘Will you do it again?’
‘No,’ she says, the word strong in her mind but it comes out as a whimper.
‘No,’ she cries and spits on the carpet at his feet.
He drops her hand. ‘Now clean up the mess.’
The front door closes softly behind him but Jean stays on her knees. This is the last time, she repeats until the words exist outside of her head. They swirl around the room and lift her to her feet. Carry her to the kitchen. Raise her hand to the tap.
The last time, the cool water says.
The last time, from the walls.
And Jean makes plans for how she and her daughters will leave.
‘He forgets my name but he always tells me he loves me.’ The wife turns to him and takes his hand. ‘We’ve had a good life, haven’t we love.’ It’s not a question—it’s a statement they’ve agreed on before.
The man nods, a smile touches his lips, but his eyes are vacant of the thought his lips have heard. Then he’s lost again until his wife speaks and something flickers, and another half-smile comes.
‘How much water does he need to drink?’ she asks.
‘Enough to see his prostate through his bladder.’
It’s usually an easy scan for Gail, to see the prostate gland, but with this man everything is hard. Without his wife the scan would be impossible because he doesn’t hear Gail. Or he doesn’t comprehend. What a relief it might be to hear only words that make sense.
The wife nods and holds the glass of water to her husband’s lips. ‘Drink it, honey,’ she says, nodding and smiling. He takes a sip, stares blankly and pulls away. She encourages him and he sips again. He’s in and out and it’s only when his wife speaks of ‘them’ and of ‘love’ that he floats back. Words about the test scare him. For Gail, life is the other way around.
She is reminded of the nursing home where her grandfather lived, and the visits with her mother, even after he stopped remembering who they were. It was Gail’s name that first confused him. He called her Carole for a reason nobody ever explained, until there was no name left in his mind to give her. Gail’s mother kept him real for Gail by telling stories of what a good man he was so that when he died his love for them was the biggest part of him Gail knew.
His name was Ted.
‘Here you go,’ the wife says again, cheerful and encouraging, still with the smile and the nod. ‘Drink up.’ Recognition comes as she lifts the cup to his lips but by the time it gets there, or just after, he forgets and stops. She repeats her words, her nod, her smile and her encouragement. Sometimes she pushes at the bottom of the cup, tipping it toward his mouth, but he pulls back in shock like a game of peek-a-boo has revealed the wrong face.
When Gail rests the transducer over his bladder he tenses and the blankness in his eyes changes to a threat. Suddenly he’s hard and unpredictable, and Gail sees his fear. She catches her breath and pulls away, but then his wife speaks and he softens into another glimpse of who he was.
‘Where do you think he goes?’ Gail asks the wife when they stand together at the toilet door waiting for him to empty his bladder.
‘I don’t think he goes anywhere. I think he’s still inside and it’s more that he can’t get out.’
The toilet flushes and the door opens. His fly is undone and his shirt hangs out. His wife takes his hand and leads him back to the bed.
‘One more?’ she asks Gail.
‘Yes. Just one more.’
‘And no more water to drink, I promise,’ Gail says to the man but his face remains blank.
‘They call it the long slow goodbye,’ the wife says. Gail turns, not sure what she means. ‘Alzheimer’s . . . the long slow goodbye.’
Gail nods and turns to scan his perfect bladder, in his perfect body. Is this what real love is?
‘Would he have done this for you, do you think?’ Gail keeps her eyes on the screen.
The wife reaches over and pats her husband’s arm. ‘Oh yes, he would absolutely have done this for me. He always loved me more.’
‘Do you still love him, when he’s like this?’ It’s not an appropriate question to ask a stranger, but sometimes in the low light of an ultrasound room the deepest questions feel right.
The wife sighs. ‘Not like I did, no. This is the obligation of a past love . . . sometimes you just can’t let people down.’
The abruptness of Gail’s move away from Tim is confronting. When was it, exactly, that they first let each other down? Maybe it happened way before he betrayed her with the sex.
I wonder, she thinks, who will be sitting by my side at the end?
Julie has won a Varuna Fellowship, been shortlisted in the Finch Memoir and Affirm Press Mentorship prizes, and highly commended in the ASA Mentorship Prize. In 2014, Julie won the Walter Stone Life Writing prize for her memoir, Swimming Across Myself. Sweetheart is her first novel.
To contact the author email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +61 (0)408 214 571.