Em & Lucy

We stopped outside the square building. Lucy’s hand clamped around mine. When I look back, I think that was one of the last times she held my hand. She was twelve then. I remember because I had decided I would tell her when she turned twelve.

The winter cold crept in through the collars and sleeves of our coats. There was a feeble layer of snow on the ground. Too thin for Lucy to take her sledge out that weekend.

‘Sidney Lust’s drive-in theatre,’ Lucy read aloud from the large lettering lined and studded by lightbulbs. I looked up at the two theatrical mask faces on the building wall; one with an upturned grin, the other with a downturned grimace. I wondered how Lucy would respond to my words, whether there would be tears or smiles.

‘Sidney Lust’s drive in,’ I repeated, ‘I used to come here a lot in the summer I turned seventeen.’ I noticed how I tried to keep my tone light and cheerful but a hidden weight pulled it down.
‘Did you? What movies did you see here?’ Lucy had that great knack of showing interest no matter the topic of conversation.

But I didn’t tell her about the movies, because memories of all the nights I’d spent there, sitting in a car seat, gazing up at the stretch of screen, scooping popcorn into my mouth, all blurred into one. Into the night I spent there with Stevie, the night Lucy was conceived.

And that was what I answered with. I had avoided discussing it for years, wanted to wait until she could make sense of it, until she could swallow the fact that she was a result of a careless teenage fumble in the backseat of a Ford Fiesta.

‘I was just an accident. You didn’t want me.’ Four years later, her sixteen year old voice rings through the apartment followed by the slam of the front door.

I didn’t see Lucy for three weeks after that stormy exit. Every night, exhausted from the desperate phonecalls I had made to ascertain her whereabouts, I would lie awake in bed, tears striping my cheeks, wondering what I could have done differently.

When she was a little girl, she used to sleep by my side, enclosed like a small warm animal in the folds of the duvet.

I must have fallen asleep that Thursday evening because I woke up to find her sitting on the edge of the bed, with her denim jacket still on and her backpack by her feet.

She looked down at me sadly, must have seen the heavy rings under my eyes. We didn’t say anything, there was no need in that moment. She reached for my hand and held it. Her palm was clammy and unwashed but the contact of her skin with mine pricked my throat with tears.

She said I could make her breakfast and comb her hair after she had showered. I was still in my dressing gown, sipping my morning coffee as I waited outside the bathroom door. I listened closely to the thick, humming rush of water that confirmed that she was there.

Maurice & Bettie aka The Pancakes (extended)

“I’m going to go for the smoked salmon bagel, I think,” Maurice said smiling as he drummed his fingers on the laminate table top. Bettie’s cheeks flushed. He spoke those exact words every single time they came for Sunday brunch at Roni’s. And he’d have a filter coffee, an orange juice, finishing with a jam-filled doughnut.

When Donny, the owner’s grandson, came to take their order, Maurice reeled off his request, which Donny dutifully noted down on his pad, just as he did every Sunday.

“And you Mrs Abrahams, what will you be having?” Bettie looked up at the young man, his sparkly eyes, nose dotted with freckles. She bit her lip. Donny raised his eyebrows. The tempo of Maurice’s drumming fingers increased.

“Well,” she said slowly, deliberately, “I think I’ll try the pancakes—with maple syrup.” The drumming stopped. Maurice extended a claw across the table, pressed her hand. “No, no, don’t be silly. She’ll have her usual cream cheese bagel with cucumber sliced not-too-thick-not-too-thin.”

“No, dear. I’d like to try the pancakes today,” Bettie said, smiling stiffly.

Donny’s eyes darted from the woman to her husband. “Uh, should I come back in a minute? Give you folks a bit more time to decide?”

“Yes, son. That’d be best,” Maurice replied, in what Bettie called his teacher tone. Donny, who had indeed been one of Maurice’s history students just before he retired, nodded and walked back to the counter.

“Bettie, what’s got into you?”

“Into me? Oh, Maurice, don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud. I’ve been eating cream cheese bagels every Sunday for the last thirty-eight years. Can’t I try something different for a change?”

“I’m not trying anything different, am I?” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Do you see me going around ordering something new? No. Just same old smoked salmon bagel and coffee for me. Same as always.”

Bettie sighed, “But…”

“Come on. You’re not feeling yourself. Just stick with your usual and you’ll feel a whole lot better.”

“I feel fine, Maurice,” her eyes searched his face, “But, if it makes you happy…”

“That’s my girl,” said Maurice, patting her arm. He waved to Donny, who returned with pencil and pad in hand.

Later, Bettie glared, silent, through the car window at the leafy avenues. Then the cramps began. Maurice backed their three-door hatchback into the driveway. The one they had exchanged for the station wagon after Eddie and Monty had finally left for college. Maurice nursed it as if it were a vintage Alfa Romeo.

By the time Maurice found his front door key, a pool of saliva had gathered in Bettie’s mouth and she clamped her hand over her lips. She staggered into the downstairs washroom. The choice of paint hue for this tiny room, converted from a broom cupboard, had been the source of much contention, three years prior. Bettie had been keen on Wysteria; Maurice insisted on Coral. Maurice got his way.

Bettie didn’t notice the shade now as she stumbled between its pink walls. She lifted the lavatory lid with her free hand and retched into the ceramic bowl. A gush of sour, orange juice, half-chewed, doughy lumps of bagel, which caught in her throat and green slivers of undigested cucumber skin ejected from her clenching belly in foul, thick waves.

Her forehead beaded with sweat, she spat out the last stubborn chunks. She stood up, her knees weak and numb from the hard floor tiles, and reached for the flush. As the water rushed into the bowl, she glimpsed what looked like a perfect ring of gold shining amidst the swirling vomit. Yes a ring, with what looked like three pinprick diamonds, just like the ones on her wedding band.

“Upset stomach?” Maurice was waiting in the kitchen. “Oh dear,” he said, theatrically sympathetic. “Goodness. You don’t think the cream cheese was off? I’d have to make a complaint to Roni, of course. Why, he’d probably offer us a free month of Sunday brunches!” Bettie’s face blanched as her husband chuckled.

“Have a glass of water, honey,” he said, as he placed a full, chilled tumbler on the table.

Next morning, Maurice trotted into the kitchen. Bettie was always up before him. He found the glass, still full, weighing down a handwritten note. Bye Maurice. I’ve gone for pancakes.

An hour later, with his cornflakes dissolving in their half-fat milk, he sat drumming his fingers, awaiting the purr of the engine in the driveway. It never came.

Sylvie & Owen

_GBD1866

She fell into his arms, soft, crumbling, like grains of rice tumbling from a split sack. She fell to pieces and assumed that only he could gather her up, put her together. He could not. He gaped and stared at the trembling wreck she had become and though his heart meant well, he saw not how he could gather every last fragment of her pitiful, weeping being; so far spread and wrecked was she.

So he held her for as long as he felt he could, then he got up to go and left her to ponder the shattered pieces of herself and to wonder how to fit them back together like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box to guide her.

She struggled for hours, days, lifting up each tiny shard, watching how it glinted in the light, what message it held and then absorbed it into herself, flinching with the sweet, sultry pain as it reconnected with the other hidden parts of herself.Read More »

Angie & Harry

Door close up

The back door. Blue paint peeling reveals dull grey wood beneath. Concrete steps, two of them, where I sit and peel the spuds on the warmer evenings. I don’t want to go back inside. When I close the door behind me, I feel like a rat trapped in a cage.

If I stand here for long enough, they’ll all come home. The kids will run in, breathless from the school day. They’ll sling their bags onto the kitchen table and charge out onto the lawn. If I stand still enough they may not even see me, they’ll just kick the football around me like a stray goalpost.
Then he’ll arrive, the sharp smell of sweat around him, carrying the mood of his day into the house.

When I was ten years old, I wanted to be a movie star like those smooth haired beauties in the sepia photographs my Uncle Marv had pinned on his garage wall. He used to go in there to secretly smoke his roll-ups while Aunt Sadie was out doing the shopping.

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James & Katy

For two years, James had been living with the one-pointed mind of a buddhist monk. His focus not on the elusive void, but on the repetitious rhythm of working life on a commercial fishing boat. His senses were finely tuned to the cold, wet slap of fish on fish, the geometry of the great expanses of netting, the salty bite of sea air in the nostrils and the ever present, ever distant line of the horizon.

Fishing nets - Alvor Harbour - The Algarve, Portugal

Two years of sweating over the nets as the pay checks trickled steadily into his bank account had left James feeling like little more than a machine in man’s clothing. He lived and breathed this work but inside was empty. A shell discarded by its inhabitant.
So, that September morning when the boat docked to unload its haul, James stepped onto the California harbour for the first time in weeks and kept walking. He walked until he could no longer feel the swell of the tides under his feet. He walked until he could no longer smell the sea in the air, although the scent of fish still stained his fingers.
He longed to see grass, shrubs and trees and for the horizon to be jagged and unpredictable. He headed for the mountains, walking and hitching rides until he reached the foothills.

Dusk was falling as he entered the forest. Exhaustion hit like a brick.
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