If one door slams…

 

I gripped the letter with such force it split down the middle. The paper fluttered autumnally to the ground. I was as discarded as the carpet of leaves outside.

Watching the raindrops roll down the glass I allowed the heavens to do my crying for me. I was too angry to acknowledge the sadness pulsing behind my eyes. The years felt brittle as yesterday. When did I start pinning my dreams on Richard? I had always been fiercely independent. My Father had predicted that I would be an old maid if I kept it up. Men wanted to feel needed. Nothing good could come from an independent woman. And I thought I could cheat destiny even if I had to contort myself to avoid it.

Richard hypnotised me with his azure eyes and his toothpaste commercial smile. He was everything I had avoided for years. Popular, beautiful and irreverent, he radiated confidence and had a following reminiscent of a messiah. I prided myself a loner, following anyone or anything except a story, was not a possibility.

The night we met I was sipping a cocktail surrounded by the journalists of the newspaper I served but immersed in my own thoughts. My colleagues had learnt to give me a wide berth. The war had made it starkly evident that all was not equal and I was still bristling from the meeting with Doug.

“Too dangerous!” Douglas, our editor had bellowed, his handlebar moustache trembling with indignation. “God, woman, look around. Men are getting blown to bits and you want to join them? Bring me the fashion piece I asked you for days ago. Women will never make war correspondent on my paper.” And he dismissed me with a flick of his wrist.

I was peevish with disappointment and observed this man in uniform strut like a pigeon. My face must have been as dark as my thoughts because he broke from his adoring disciples and marched over to me.

“Hello beautiful lady, why so serious?” His face crinkled into a lopsided smile. I struggled to maintain my scowl. “Point out the rascal and I will sort him out.” He said smacking his fist into his palm.

His gaze never wavered that night. It was a light shining onto my face. I felt seen for the first time. We spent stolen moments from his military engagements intertwined like vines. I resented his easy comings and goings. I felt rooted, earth bound by him. No man had ever entered my soul as he did. I was trapped as surely as a gazelle in the jaws of a lion.

Years of screaming sirens and distant explosions muffled the waiting, nights of passion amongst the bleeding and the pain. I never realised how much I waited. How could I put my life on hold for something so prosaic?

“Colette, God sake, woman where are you? Dreaming into space. That’s why women would make God awful soldiers.” I had been miles away dreaming of languishing in Richard’s arms. I resolved to put him from my mind until his jaunty rat-a-tat on my door but he remained on the periphery of my thoughts always.

Now he has put me outside his life. The letter informing me of his impending marriage was sour with memories of his kisses. I turned back to the window. The rain had stopped and a shaft of sunlight lit up my desk. I shifted my chair and sought the heat on my face.

I read once ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to never to have loved at all.’ One day I may feel that way but for now I needed to erase the smell of him. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly as if breathing in the rays of the sun.

“Colette!” I opened my eyes with a start. “You still want to be a war correspondent?” Douglas’s protuberant eyes bored into me.

“Ye…Yes.” I stammered.

“Stupidest idea ever but the board want a woman on the front. Woman’s perspective my arse…! Apologies, Colette but you want the job, it’s yours.”

Abruptly the gloom of moments before was bleached by sunlight. This was my destiny. The one I had always longed for. One door closed as another opened. The invitation was to step through this open door.

I didn’t hesitate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stiff upper lip…

 

Then let me bravely leap into the shadows alone I thought looking out of the window. An oak tree was tapping on the glass, its bough heavy with acorns. Dr Ashbury was still staring sympathetically at me, his pen half-mast between the desk and his ear as if he was unsure what to do next. He had delivered a severe blow and I was not reacting as he was expecting.

It is a matter of honour that I process bad news in the sanctity of my own home. Public displays of emotion are vulgar and I hardly know this man sitting across from me. I can still feel his cool fingers palpating my breast. Nobody has touched me there since Dennis and he’s been gone for eleven years, six months and three days already. And now Dr Ashbury with his clipped moustache and lanky limbs has had the honour. I am not about to bestow any further on the man.

“Thank you.” I said standing and held out my hand to shake his. He scrambled up from his chair almost stumbling over his legs to cradle my hand with both of his. I gave him a tight smile although I was desperate to leave this place.

Johnson was leaning against the side of the Bentley and he leapt away when he saw me, his cap wedged under his armpit. His balding head glistened in the midday sun. He opened the car door with a bow. I was too tired to be irritated. Dennis had tried for years to get the staff to stop this antiquated behaviour. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes and I blinked them away. Johnson drove smoothly, intermittently sneaking a look at me in the rear view mirror. I kept my face neutral sitting upright with my hands in my lap.

Mrs Melville was waiting at the door as I stepped from the car. She took my coat.

“I took the liberty of arranging tea in the drawing room, Ma’am. It’s nice this time of year. The sun does shine so prettily…”

“Thank you but I am not hungry. Please ensure I am not disturbed. I have a headache.” Mrs Melville has a habit of rambling on and whereas I indulge her often today was not one of those days.

“Oh dear can I get you an aspirin Ma’am?” She wrung her hands like a vaudeville actor.

“You may, thank you.” I said walking up the stairs holding the bannisters tightly. My legs felt shaky. I dropped my handbag on the writing desk and waited, feeling light headed. I hoped she would not be long with the aspirin. I did not know whether I could keep standing. She entered with Daisy carrying a tray.

“I’ve taken the liberty of….” Mrs Melville began.

“Yes, Yes!” My voice was sharp and her eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry I have the most dreadful headache. Thank you Mrs Melville, and Daisy, thank you.” I said. Mrs Melville nodded not quite forgiving me. Daisy smiled, curtsied and they closed the door with a click.

I poured milk into a cup and picked up the teapot. My wrist buckled and scalding tea splashed over my hand. I dropped the teapot onto the tray with a whimper. Tears that I had controlled throughout the day seemed to burst from me and I sobbed like a child.

I cried because I have breast cancer and because Dennis who had sworn to love and protect me forever was not here to fulfil his promise. I mourned the loss of his strong arms and the smell of his pipe and the scratchiness of his chin. We were supposed to grow old together instead he has stayed forever in his prime while I grow older and frailer. Alone.

I cried the tears that for eleven years, six months and three days I had been unable to shed.

Atonement.

My chest fills with the thin mountain air of Tibet and my orange robe sways gently in the afternoon breeze. I have been here for eight months already and my past is finally fading into insignificance. I was older coming into this meditative life, all of twenty years. Most of the monks come as children.

It is quiet in the gardens as most of the others are resting in their quarters having been up since four this morning for prayers. I cannot sleep preferring to study the Buddhist texts under a tree. I have so much to learn. I still receive the odd thwack between the shoulder blades for yawning during morning prayers.

My mind wanders and I close my eyes to regain the sense of peace I had moments before. It eludes me and I put the heavy book down on the cool grass and lean against the trunk of the tree. Bells tinkle in the breeze and the smell of apple blossom suffuses the air.

I remember the day I arrived at the ornate doors of the monastery. The deep rumble of monks chanting evening prayers seemed to swirl in the valley. I was exhausted, dehydrated and near death. I fell down at the foot of the door weakly hammering the heavy wood. The chanting was without pause but someone lifted me up. I remember drifting in and out of consciousness as a cool hand mopped my brow or coaxed warm soup between my lips. Later I heard that it was many days that my sickness lasted. They asked no questions and I gave no explanations.

It is as though no time has passed and I am plunged back into that time.

My parents were simple farmers in the mountains. I had loftier ideals and left for the city to seek adventure and wealth. I met a man called Hassid with stubble on his chin and a shifty eye but I noticed only the coins he held out so willingly. If I had known accepting his money would lead me down a path so dark and painful, I would have turned away to look no more on his face. But I did not. He took me to a man he called Hakima, whose mouth held much cruelty and his eyes knowledge of evil that up to that point I had no inkling.

“You are now mine.” He said handing me a wad of more money than I had ever seen. I ignored the uneasiness in my body.

It was not even a day before I was ordered to deliver and pick up packages all over town. I did not open them preferring not to know what they contained. It was through Hassid that I took my orders.

“You go to Hakima now.” He said one morning and his mouth was sulky.

“I don’t want to.” I said, afraid.

“You go now or you go nowhere ever again.” He said ominously.

Hakima was like a tiger circling me. I held my breath as he prodded my chest with his finger.

“I am happy with your work but it is now time to prove your loyalty to me. You will go with Sadat and follow his instructions.” He held out a handgun. I shied away but he took a step towards me. I took the pistol from his hand although I trembled.

Sadat was a big man with a shaved head and I followed him without speaking. He walked fast and purposefully up and down deserted alleyways. I followed tripping to keep up with him. He stopped and took out a pistol tucked into his belt. The gun Hakima had given me was still clasped in my hand.

A fat man with sparse strands of hair plastered wetly over his scalp was standing smoking a cigar and talking to three men listening with furrowed brows.

“This comes compliments from Hakima!” Shouted Sadat and his gun exploded and the man fell to the ground. I dropped the gun and ran. I ran for days without food, drinking from stagnant puddles and finally dropped at the doors of the Monastery.

The bells ring out the start of evening prayers bringing me back to this place. I pick up the manuscript and walk back inside. The Monastery is my sanctuary. I have been called to this life of quiet contemplation and I will live out my days here.

What if…?

There was something about the way the light fell across the room that reminded me of her. Sixty years have passed since I saw her last but my body lifts as though in greeting. Genevieve, my sister was my muse. She danced when I walked stolid as suet. She floated through her inadequate allotment of years and left me gasping for more.

“Tea, Ma’am?” The waiter said navigating the imaginary pebbles in his mouth. I nodded, resentful of his intrusion.

He bowed and left but she had already fled. Tears filled my eyes although I know I have mourned more than was good for me. When would I stop missing her? Time has done nothing to fill the hole that she left although I have lived an expansive life. As she predicted I would without her.

I squeezed my eyes shut and when I opened them she stood once more in front of me. A shaft of sunlight touched her flaxen hair tenderly and a grin flickered in her green eyes. The years and my aching joints have vanished and we are scampering up the wooden stairs and squealing like piglets. Gina weaves away from my grasping fingers.

“Girls! Decorum at all times! Genevieve, Madeleine stop that noise and come downstairs this instant.” Miss Claudine’s voice is a sharp bark. Gina flicks her head and disappears. I am frozen to the banister.

That was the first of three private schools we were asked to leave and not for running on the stairs to be fair to those institutions.

Father was in name only. His involvement with us was brief and brutal. If we were to continue to disrupt his work we would be placed in a reformatory. We had one last chance at becoming ladies. It was our choice. His moustache, stiff with wax, trembled but his blue eyes were cold.

He never forgave us for killing our mother.

It wasn’t murder but bad judgment. Although whose fault it was is debatable. We came together, Gina and me. It proved too much for her. We had one sepia photograph of our delicate mother, which we pored over to commit her into our memories forever. It was the only possession we fought over. Almost translucent from our yearning, it also pricked at our guilt and made us fractious with each other.

The new school was even further from Father than before. I decided that perhaps the way into his heart was to become a lady. Genevieve struggled to conform. Her body juddered with the effort of sitting still. I shook my head at her attempts to lure me into mischief. I placed my finger on my lips to silence her inappropriate outbursts.

“Maddy, I can’t do this. I should never have come.” Gina said tears flowing down her cheeks. I refused to walk arm in arm with her anymore. I made other friends and spoke in modulated tones. I flushed when they pointed fingers at my sister’s solitary wanderings in the manicured gardens but said nothing in her defence.

She crept into my bed at night and we slept in each other’s arms. When alone together we held our mother’s photograph and each other. One night about three weeks into the term Gina turned to me. The moonlight shone on her hair forming a silver halo around her head. She smelt of peppermint and sunshine.

“Maddy,” She said. “It is time for me to leave. I’ve always muscled in where I shouldn’t be. Even in the womb. I don’t belong here but you do. You will live a bigger life when I’m gone”

“Don’t be silly.” I said. “Maybe it was me who muscled in? One way or another we were destined to be together. We will both have a big life, you’ll see. Go to sleep.” Then I turned onto my side away from her and fell asleep.

It was dark outside when I awoke and the moon was gone. So was Gina. I leant over and touched her bed. It was empty. ‘It’s time for me to leave’, her words echoed in my mind and I felt my way to the door. I was struggling to breathe and a painful band was tightening around my ribs.

The hallway light illuminated the staircase and I pattered downstairs. The front door was gently drumming against the doorstopper keeping it open. I walked outside.

A cool summer breeze lifted the edge of my nightdress. I heard a faint sound above me and looked up. Gina was on the roof standing close to the edge. It took me a few moments to realise her chilling intention.

“Gina no!” I screamed as she flew in slow motion, the white nightdress buffeting like wings behind her.

The waiter placed the bone china cup and saucer down in front of me and I stared down at the amber liquid and wiped my eyes.