by Sandra Arnold
When she put the phone down Ann had three thoughts. The first was that her mother’s belief in brisk walks as a curative had proved false. Headache? Cold? Go for a walk. Exam stress? Broken heart? A good walk will put you right. Nasty dose of flu? – a rare event in her family – three days in bed followed by a good long walk. And now all those years of gruelling hikes along dusty country roads, charging up hills, sprinting down dales, trying to keep up with her mother, who had never taken so much as an aspirin in her life, had led to this? Ann’s second thought was that she couldn’t remember her mother ever being ill. Her third was that she needed to walk on the beach to see if it led to the end of anything.
So here she was striding over the grey sand, stepping over bleached logs scattered like picked bones, running up dunes, trying to remember how to leap high in the air and land in the soft sand at the bottom. But too many years had passed and her father was no longer waiting for her to make sure she didn’t hurt herself.
At the edge of the sea she looked back at her footsteps dissolving in the wash of the waves. Her mother all those years ago: ‘They’re just words. Let them wash over you. Remember he’d walk to the ends of the earth for you.’ She walked on, the words of the phone call jostling for space with images she’d tried hard to delete. She was twelve. She had rearranged her bedroom furniture. Stuck posters of rock stars on the wall above her bed. Stepped back to admire the effect. Heard her father’s footsteps on the stairs. Without looking at her he moved everything back the way it had been. Then he pulled the pictures off the wall, screwed them into balls and tossed them across the floor. His finger jabbing. ‘While you live under my roof, you’ll abide by my rules.’
Her mother knitting by the fire, frowning in concentration. Her sister playing on the floor. Her father’s footsteps on the gravel outside. A sigh from her mother. Her sister glancing up at them both.
School reports stated ‘could do better’. Words like introspective, withdrawn, solitary were whispered in his ear at Parent-Teacher meetings. Which led to torrents of words: How privileged she was. How hard he worked. How many sacrifices he made. She jumped out of her chair to leave the room and the back of his hand across her face and a bloodied nose emphasised her mistake. Her mother kneeling by her bed at night. ‘Shush shush. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.’
At eighteen she swallowed a bottle of aspirins then panicked and told someone. The stomach pump. Water running down her throat through a tube passed through her nose while she vomited into a dish. A nurse’s bored voice: ‘Boyfriend trouble I suppose?’ The rattling of wheels down corridors on brown linoleum smelling of disinfectant. Doors opening and shutting. Hands lifting her onto starched white sheets. Curtains pulled around her and footsteps fading away. White walls. Lights on long cords hanging from a shiny ceiling. Metallic gleam of cold steel. An old lady’s hacking cough and a whimpered ‘Nurse. Nurse.’ A door squealing on its hinges.
Footsteps walking slowly to the bed. A slight hesitation and the curtains pulled aside. She turned her head, or several heads, on the pillow and saw him. The white face. The dead white disbelieving face. She floated away and words came in snatches over great distances. Did she realise what she had done to her mother? The police on the doorstep. Her mother had not been able to walk up the stairs to bed unaided. If her grandmother got to know? The neighbours? Did she know what she’d done was a crime? She could be sent to prison. At best a psychiatric hospital. Her place at university would be cancelled if they found out. The newspapers. He would see the doctor in charge immediately. He would say she had been having severe headaches. Pressure of exams. Didn’t realise how many aspirins… When she got home he made her apologise to her mother who then took her for a walk and told her to put it all behind her.
A seagull glided on the wind, its mournful cries echoing over the sea. She watched it remembering another death. Her grandmother’s funeral. All the black clad relatives gathering in the sitting room of her aunt’s house. Curtains drawn and piano lid closed. The silence broken by someone bringing in trays of sandwiches, cakes and cups of tea. The air filling with cigarette smoke, gossip and laughter. Turning to her father. ‘Can we leave? Go for a walk?’ He nodded and walked with her through disapproving murmurs. He held her hand on the beach without speaking.
At the airport, his last words: ‘Please don’t settle in New Zealand. For your mother’s sake.’
Specks of dust on sunlight. Shadows of trees on the wall. Slow rhythmical lapping of the cat at her milk. The ticking of the clock in the silent room. Outside in the garden her children laughing. Her father’s letter on the table. ‘Your mother and I read your last letter. The only emotion I have had since reading your words is one of complete emptiness. I could not believe what I was reading. All I ever wanted...’ She screwed the letter into a ball and tossed it in the fire. Dave put a cup of coffee in front of her. He wrapped her fingers around the cup, covering them with his own and sat beside her.
‘Why did you write all that stuff?’
‘I wanted them to know that words do hurt. And all the walks in the world can’t fix that.’
‘Why does it matter now?’
His letters were infrequent after that. She put the oblique references to her mother’s ill health down to trying to make her feel guilty and her mother’s silence as disapproval.
‘I don’t believe she’s ill. She’s never ill. She’s just protecting his ego.’
‘She has to live with him.’
There were no more letters for six weeks. She looked at her children, thought about memory-making and swore she wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
Then a letter arrived. After remarks about the weather, enquiries about her health, the children, it ended with, ‘I’m asking you Ann, forget it ever happened. Let’s put all those words behind us and be back as we always were.’
She showed it to Dave. ‘If I didn’t know better I’d say it was an apology.’
‘Seems you got through to him.’
She began a letter in reply, asking her mother why she hadn’t written, was she still feeling unwell? She found some photographs of the children she’d been meaning to send. When she returned from posting the letter she found one from her father in the letter box. She opened it and as she walked up the drive her eyes scanned the page.
‘I hardly know how to tell you…there was a fifty-fifty chance of recovery…the doctor told me today, three months at the most…forgive me…I wanted to spare you as long as possible, knowing how you’d feel so far away… ‘
The letter was post-dated ten days ago. That evening her sister rang from England to say it was over. ‘I wanted to tell you how ill she was so you could get back in time, but they wouldn’t let me. They wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening. He’s a mess, Ann. A total mess.’
When she reached the end of the beach she gathered all the words she could muster and tossed them into the wind. Shush shush said the sea. Shush shush.
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is the author of A Distraction of Opposites, Tomorrow’s Empire and Sing no Sad Songs. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her short stories have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand, published in literary journals including Landfall, Sport and Takahe and anthologised in Social Alternatives, Dreadlocks and The Best New Zealand Fiction, amongst others. Her awards include the 2014 Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writers Residency and the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. Her flash fiction won second place in the July 2016 The Short Story Flash500 Competition and the September 2016 Zero Flash Competition. She was long-listed in the 2016 Flash Frontier Competition, Highly Commended in the 2016 North & South Competition and was a Notable Contender in the 2016 Bristol Prize. Her flash fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Flash Frontier, The Linnet’s Wings, Flashflood Journal, The Story Shack, Fewer than 500, Fictive Dream, Olentangy Review, Zero Fiction, We are a Website, North & South, Spontaneity, Spelk, The Baby Shoes Project, The Incubator, Firefly and The Airgonaut.
Sandra has been nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2017. Learn more at http://authors.org.nz/author/sandraarnold