Chiaroscuro

By Julie Oldham

 

Sign here please…and here… and here. The solicitor shuffles the papers and that’s that. My home has gone. Forty years pulled from under me, and now this building, this once cluttered hallway is no longer mine, but a hollow shell, echoing with the sound of your footsteps upstairs. You are making a final check in the bathroom. Now you’re walking into your old bedroom – having one last look before we leave.

The footsteps stop. Silence – apart from all the bloody noise.

… ‘Get that dog into the kitchen.’ Bicycles scraping dado rails. Running up the stairs. ‘I’ll be late tonight Ann’. Piano arpeggios. ‘Elaine, make sure your brother cleans his teeth.’ ‘Jamie, stop annoying your sister.’ Radio in the conservatory. Wasps trapped behind glass. Running up the stairs. Cat coughing fur balls. Westminster chimes. Paintbrushes in jam jars. ‘Your children will be home soon, Ann.’ ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Paintbrushes bleeding into water. Running up the stairs…

Slam. Christ.

The letter box. That’s all it is. The letter box.

‘I’ll get it, Mum.’

You walk past me and stoop down to pick up the cellophane wrapped envelope from the floor. Of course, just the letter box. I shift position to relieve the stiffness in my hip.

‘Have you finished upstairs?’

Your brow furrows as you read. I shift my weight again. You didn’t hear what I said did you Elaine? You make a faint, snorting sound.

‘It says do you want to go on a ‘voyage of discovery’ to Easter Island?’

That’s amused you.

But didn’t you arrange for the redirection of the post from today, Elaine? Not an oversight surely? And now you’re panicking – where are you going to put the brochure? No side table now. No letter rack. Not even a mat to hide it under. Keep calm. That’s it – into your handbag.

‘A click of a mouse, a signature, and it’s gone.’

‘Sorry, Mum, what did you say?’

‘I asked if you’ve finished upstairs.’

‘Are you alright, Mum?’

‘I’m fine.’

I wait for you to lock the front door behind me. Christ it’s cold out here – everything covered in snow. You rattle the door handle. So that’s it then.

‘Like, oh my god…no way.’

I look up. A young woman is picking her way across the end of the drive. She has a mobile phone against her ear and is wearing a tight, black miniskirt. Her red, stiletto heels are shining – bright as holly berries against the snow.

‘Like…oh my god, so what did he do then?’

You are watching the girl too. No comment about the neighborhood Elaine? Not even a tut?

‘Do you want to take my arm, Mum? The drive’s really slippery.’

‘I’m fine. Don’t fuss.’

You walk ahead and open the car door, put my stick onto the back seat, close my door, then get in yourself.

The bloody seatbelt won’t fit into the slot.

‘It’s Ok Mum, let me do that. There, that’s got it.’

Christ Elaine.

We reverse to turn, then inch down the drive and out onto the road – and we’re off. Off, off, off in a motor car. In a People Carrier. People Carrier. What a wonderful expression that is. Your shoulders tense as we pull forward. The Avenue is deserted. The girl in the red heels has gone.

We crawl past the front garden: past the tree which will have the perfect, waxy flowers in the spring – I’ll remember its name in a minute. Beside the tree, my For Sale sign is leaning over at a slight angle. Magnolia. That’s its name – Magnolia Denudata. And the shrub under the window that will have blue flowers – that’s called Ceanothus.

Snow suddenly begins to fall in big, quiet flakes. I have – had – a snowstorm ornament on my bedroom windowsill. Derek gave it to me. When you shake it, the snow whirls inside its dome, filling the sky with a flock of tiny seagulls. Where have they put it? What did they do with Derek’s hats? It wasn’t daft of me keeping them hanging on the rack in the hall, Elaine. Yes I know your father has been dead for years, but I couldn’t just get rid of them.

Oh God, that’s me.

There – in the wing mirror. Me. Christ I’m so old, my hair white like the snow. Snow white. I took you to see that film on your seventh birthday Elaine: Snow White. There were seven dwarves: Sneezy, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy and Grumpy. I think it was Grumpy. There were two more…

            ‘Go back to sleep, you’ve got school in the morning.’

‘But Mum, make her go away.’

‘Don’t be silly there’s nothing there.’

You crawl under the blankets.

‘But she is there, the wicked queen – in the wardrobe mirror.’

I try to prise your fingers off the covers…

            Bashful. That was one of them.

The high street is almost empty, the hairdressers closed. We turn the corner – there she is again, the girl with the phone, still teetering through the snow; still loving the stilettos, and not minding if she catches her death in that skirt. She crosses the market square, then walks past the two adjacent charity shops, but pays no attention to their bargain filled windows.

I’m on sale there too at the moment. I’m in the one on the left – the better one. The one where my neighbours will soon be taking their unwanted, spring-cleaned, Alexon jackets.

But not all of me, because Mr. Saunders ( I still remember names despite what Jamie said on the phone) Mr. Saunders – who arranges house clearances, and is such a nice man ( whom I’m sure to like ) – called and made arrangements for my disposal…

‘Do you want to see the study now Mr. Saunders? Will you stay in here, Mum?’

Mr. Saunders should play the piano, or the flute, with long fingers like those.

‘No, I want to come.’

‘I’ll just fetch my clipboard.’

Mr. Saunders leans towards me, his voice practiced. ‘I do know how hard this must be for you Mrs. Fletcher-Brown. May I call you Ann?’ His fingers are long, but the nails are yellow and thickened – the joints arthritic.

Elaine wheels me to the study door, opens it and pushes me inside.

‘This is the study, Mr. Saunders. I’m sorry it’s so cold. My mother isn’t using the room at the moment.’…

            Yes, most of me has already been rationalized, relocated, or disposed of, including the paintings. But it really doesn’t matter. Life isn’t about things – not ordinary ones – and anyway, you and your brother wouldn’t have listened if I’d said anything.

We pull up at the next set of lights and you look left – expecting it to be there – in the window of the antiques centre: the auction isn’t until the 4th – but it’s gone. A green woodland has replaced its gouged, lurid colours.

‘The painting must have been moved, Mum. Did the auctioneers phone you? It’s strange, I thought they wanted maximum publicity.’…

            ‘It’s dark in here. I’ll put the light on.’ Elaine flicks the switch.

The study is exposed in yellow light – and there I am.

But Mr. Saunders does not flinch, or turn away from the fireplace like the para-medics did. Sagging flesh in lurid colours, splayed legs, contorted breasts, are not easy to look at.

‘Fran Newman isn’t it? I’ve not seen it before. It’s stunning. Unmistakable brushwork and the colours are wonderful. How did you come by it?’

‘A gift.’

‘Lucky you. Do you know who the subject is?’

He thought he could know you Fran – could categorize and understand. Could clip you onto his board. He can’t.

Elaine straightens a letter on my desk.

.            ‘I should have to have it verified before sale, but I would be happy to arrange for a valuation,’

Elaine hovers.

‘Take it,’ I say…

            The lights change and we inch forwards. One gear up on ice like your father advised – avoid using the brakes, read the conditions. Such sensible advice Derek, and so different from that you gave me during our first summers together: ‘Be who you are Ann; do what you want.’

‘Oh Christ, Derek!’ The MG screaming. My mouth open – gasping it all in, tasting the salt. You howling above the wind. Pulling on the handbrake just before the end of the jetty. Your tongue in my mouth. The sea invisible in the dark.

That’s it Elaine, check the rear view mirror. Have you even heard of a handbrake turn Elaine? Have you ever done anything worth doing? And your brother is an insurance broker for Christ’s sake.

‘Maybe we should give the auctioneer a call and see what’s happening with the picture.’

‘Yes, maybe we should.’

You surprised me Mr. Saunders: I think you actually appreciated the painting. It wasn’t just about the value. Maybe you saw what was there.

You wipe your brush, then hang the rag on the hook on the bottom of the easel. A smear of vermillion on the cloth. Now you put the brush into the water pot. Colour bleeds into the water. You flex your fingers.

‘Your children will be home in a moment, Ann. Are you sure you want to carry on?’

‘Of course Fran, it doesn’t matter. They will amuse themselves.’

‘Well in that case Ann be quiet. I need to concentrate.’…

 

‘Would you like a mint, Mum? I’m afraid it’s going to take a while to get there in this weather.’

I accept the mint.

That’s better. You’re happy now – happy about everything, because we’ve found the perfect solution to the problem which affects us all: a nice new bungalow for me to live in, with a warden, and an emergency alarm cord. And it’s not just that it will make things easier if Jamie accepts the promotion, it’s clear I’m not really coping since my fall – just look at the state of the kitchen. It’s not hygienic since Mrs. Swinburne left, so it makes sense for me to move out of this house which is far too big for me…

‘Hygienic. Oh for God’s sake Elaine, what the fuck does it matter?’

‘Mum, Elaine was just…’

Elaine makes us all a drink. Jamie talks about his new job.

‘Japan Jamie? Really? Japan.’

I swallow the tea and accept the Digestive.

‘Thanks …what I mean is, what the hell does it matter if the house isn’t perfect? And Mrs. Swinburne is a moron. I won’t have that woman interfering with my paperwork, and using that bloody hoover and prattling when I’m trying to listen to music.’

Neither of you can hear me. I’m back in my goldfish bowl. Mouth opening and closing. Down the back of the sofa goes my explanation.

No, neither of you ever hear me. But I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said the F word Elaine – it just slipped out. Like bugger did when I scalded my hand that time, and you nearly fainted. Maybe I have Tourette’s (I think that’s what they call it). Or maybe I am just ‘making a point’.

And maybe I should have kept on top of things more when you and Jamie were children – been more like your grandmother. That’s what all this ‘nice and tidy, not hygienic’ stuff is really about isn’t it?

You were always so smiley at your gran’s. Always giggling when I came into the room. You and your grandmother were peas in a pod, Elaine. But life is more than just eating your dinner off kitchen floors, and not wearing silly frocks at my age. New Age they call it. Your father understood.

‘Sorry Elaine?’

‘I asked if you want another mint, Mum.’

‘A mint. No I don’t want another bloody mint.’

We leave the town and head out along the ring road. I close my eyes…

 

‘Your friend Fran says you are not to worry. She is happy now on the other side.’

Dolores sits opposite me fingering your watch. Dolores, an utterly perfect name for her with her jet black hair and crocheted cushions.

We break suddenly and I open my eyes.

‘Sorry, Mum. I don’t think this bit has been gritted properly.’

You adjust your new glasses, which don’t suit you. You look tired today.

I close my eyes again.

            The psychic, what was her name now? God, I had it a minute ago. I’m tired today, that’s all. Dolores, Yes, Dolores, that’s it. Dolores said Fran was ‘happy on the other side’. Utterly ridiculous…

‘Did it help talking to her?’

‘No, Derek. In fact I felt pathetic going there. It’s utter crap – like all religion, all superstition. This life is all there is, all there ever will be, and that’s why we need to grasp it – really live it.’

‘No matter what the cost.’

‘Yes – you understand that.’

 

A white hand lying silent on top of the sheet. Long delicate fingers. I cover them with mine. I don’t understand Fran. It’s not fair. How can you leave me like this? No explanation, no warning- a black hole swallowing me. Like dusting and bleaching and cooking proper meals and doing what’s right swallows you if you let it. We have to live, that’s what you said. So why Fran?

I open my eyes. You are checking your rear view mirror again. Thank God the airbags are poised for disaster.

Your father would have hated the thought of airbags – all that cautious middle aged driver stuff wasn’t really him. Not really. He believed life is for living. Never condemned me. And he understood. Even when I was lost, unreachable, he held me – took me to see that woman with the black hair.

‘Are you still asleep, Mum?’

Yes Elaine, you carry on thinking I’m having a ‘nice little nap’. It’s easier, and I’ve nothing left to say, because today I’m moving on, because my home is impractical, and I wouldn’t make the effort with that nice Mrs. Swinburne.

Music now permeating the air-conditioning: Pavarotti. Turned down nice and quietly.

 

We drive into the Residents and Visitors’ Only parking area. This is it then. We’re here. Your breath of relief is audible.

The lawns surrounding us are smooth with snow and picketed by signs: Warden’s office. No ball games. Access needed at all times. No cold callers.

How reassuring.

And there it is: my new bungalow.

Bungalow. An horrific word, like cul-de-sac and kitchenette. Two words actually: new bungalow – with guest accommodation, double glazing and a communal meeting room, should I wish to use it – which I should, because they are all so friendly and supportive here, and on Wednesdays they play board games. And of course, I will still have my independence, which is so important.

 

‘Oh Mum. You’re awake. We’re here. Are you warm enough?’

‘Oh shut up, Elaine. Look at that robin. There, on the grass.’

You stare ahead. You don’t see the bird’s red breast, crashing like cymbals against the snow. The last stiletto heels we might ever wear.

‘I know this is difficult for you, but there isn’t any need to be rude.’ You struggled to say that.

 

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

We drink the tea sitting on adjacent chairs in the nice new sitting room- the emergency cord hanging between us.

‘You stay here, Mum. I’ll go and make the bed.’

I finish my tea and wait; wait for the crash.

You sit down next to me again, hold your hands in a knot.

‘How could you? I thought at last…I don’t understand. Where did it come from?’

‘I contacted the showroom and withdrew it from sale.’

‘But Mum, what if?

‘What if what Elaine?’

‘You just had to didn’t you? You have to win. Have to make a point.’

‘It’s not about winning Elaine, it’s about me. It is me. What I was – still am. Your father would have understood.’

‘Would he?’

‘Yes of course.’

‘No, Mum. He just never said anything.’

‘Ridiculous. Deep down your father was a free spirit.’

.            ‘No Mum. You never understood him. It was always about you. You never listened.’

It’s beginning to snow again – and almost dark. Crepuscular shadows on the snow. Crepuscular. You loved that word Fran. Chiaroscuro, you loved that too – languished in the pronunciation. I looked up the meaning after we saw the Caravaggio exhibition. You made fun of me because I didn’t know how to pronounce it. Do you remember?

I watch the snowflakes waltzing in the street lights.

Elaine gets up and closes the curtains.

‘I’m sorry. I don’t mean to upset you.’

‘I’m not upset.’

So what are you planning for dinner?’

‘I haven’t even thought yet.’

I walk into the kitchen. ‘Would you like a glass of Pinot?’ I call through.

‘I’m driving, Mum. You know I don’t drink when I drive.’

‘Yes. Of course.’ You are looking at your mobile phone. Duty done. Time to get away.

Your hair was so thick Fran, dyed the colour of pomegranate seeds. And heavy when I lifted it off your shoulders; so smooth as it slips through my fingers and I twist it, tug at it. My clothes strewn on the study floor.

‘Your children will be home soon, Ann.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

Paintbrushes bleeding into the water.

Derek understood. Of course he did. He loved me. His lips are soft, the sky above us huge, the sea invisible in the dark. Kissing me.

But not like you kissed me, Fran. Or touched me. No jolt as my body clenched, like it did the first time you stroked my thigh. Conventionality swallows us. We have to be ourselves.

‘Right Mum, do you want anything before I go?

‘No I don’t want anything,’

 

 

It is so deliciously warm in here, in the place with the tiles where you wash. It doesn’t matter. I’m tired that’s all.

The water flows across my shoulders and stomach. So warm. So smooth. Rivulets of water run between my breasts as I sit on my fold down seat, which takes all the worry out of bathing. Everyone is happy now. Everyone has done the right thing. There is an alarm cord in here too: a thin red line in the steam. Of course Derek understood. No matter what the cost. It was a statement, Derek, not a question. Of course it was.

The phone rings. I wrap myself in a towel and walk into the sitting room. The ringing stops. Bugger. I will have to remember to take the phone into the bathroom with me. I pour another glass of wine, switch on my laptop, and wait for the phone to ring again.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘No really. So how are you settling in?’

‘Just having another glass of wine.’

Silence, then, ‘It’s only 6 o’clock you know. Do you think you should?’

Silence again.

‘I know you think I fuss Mum, but I don’t apologise for caring about you. I’m just trying to help. Maybe I seem bossy, but I don’t mean to be – it’s just the way I am. Surely you should respect that? Are you there, Mum?’

‘Yes I’m here. Thank you for today, Elaine. I …it was good of you to drive.’

I go into the bedroom and put on my dressing gown.

Of course you understood, Derek.

I pick up a book from the shelf beside my bed. Jamie put the shelf up last week – his contribution. Japan: such an opportunity. I move his picture a fraction to the left and look up.

There I am. Me. Hanging above my bed in all my splendour. And you are there too: in the paint, in the brush strokes. There in the dark edges of the room. But on the other side. And you are happy now. Of course you are.

You wipe your brush on the cloth, put it into the jar, and pick up your pencil. Vermilion seeps into the water. Your eyes look into mine. You walk across the study and kiss me. Somewhere outside us there is a sound. I look over your shoulder and see Elaine’s mesmerized eyes watching us. Her school jumper had a stain on it.

 

My laptop screen shines in the twilight of the sitting room. You would have noticed the contrast, used that word that means light and dark.

I begin to scroll through the holiday companies.

            Absorb the island’s unique culture and atmosphere, or enjoy the superb Pacific beaches. Discover the imposing, human-like figures with oversized heads which are believed to be representations of the indigenous people’s ancestors.

            It’s true: these statues are imposing, fascinating – standing staring out to sea; their eyes hollow, their faces pitted.

            ‘I’ve always thought Ann that sculpture is for artists who can’t paint. What do you think?’ You run your hand over the contours of the Henry Moor. Your hair shines in the sunshine.

It’s warm in the sculpture park – and busy with irritable families. Derek was right: better not to force the children to come if they don’t want to. Anyway, Elaine will be loving it at her grandma’s: Monopoly and Welsh rarebit.

            ‘Listen to this Ann.’ You read from the catalogue.

‘ “It isn’t true (as Leonardo claimed) that Sculpture is missing the beauty and perspective of colors and the confusion of boundaries of things distant from the eye.” But it does Ann.’

 

Maybe that’s true Fran. But Fran, these sculptures are different. These rows of silent men standing there, watching the sea. You will love running your fingers across them, absorbing them.

Your long white fingers – so cold now, lying still on top of the sheet. I cover them with mine.

Your eyes look up at me: you crawl under the blankets.

‘But she is there, the wicked queen – in the wardrobe mirror.’

I try to prise your fingers off the covers.

*           *           *

Julie Oldham is a teacher. She lives in West Yorkshire and writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. She has been published in Artificium Journal and her story ‘ The Memory Mouse’ will appear in the next edition of Bare Fiction Magazine.

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