Friday, 3 April 2009

'Flower' by Elaine AM Smith - Chapter One - posting the other book - any thoughts much appreciated

Chapter One
Life goes on

Rivulets of water streamed down the glass pane and puddled on the white sill outside; not the dribble of dot-to-dot drops that make lazy progress down the transparent sheet like we’d had earlier on in the morning this was the constant stream blown sideways by the blustering breeze. Tracking the movement of mini torrents my eyes were drawn to swirls and eddies in the flow. Prodding ineffectually with my index finger at the glass to stop, force, change or otherwise affect the racing flood I had just about as much success as I have had with every other aspect of my life these days On the up side the rain should rule out any possibility of going for a walk this afternoon so that ‘helping’ strategy should be off for a while. On the downside that did mean I’d have to wait in the house with the ‘fosters’ not literally,‘The Fosters’, just the family who were doing their best to be welcoming and helpful.
Thinking about them made me look from the window to where they – intact and happy - carried on with their life as if the world had not infact ended. Amy and Hannah were lying by the TV playing with pretty-pink dolls complete with free-form, biro, facial tattoos (I’d noticed that they liked personalising most of their stuff that way) batting the heads to the ever present cartoon DVD. Their mother I could just see out of the corner of my eye leaning on the kitchen counter that acted as a partition to separate the long family room into the usual units. As I watched she smiled indulgently, lovingly - a look of adoration and acceptance; I felt the razor blade of loss cut a new groove into my heart. I knew that look. I’d once owned a face that looked like that at me. It had looked like that at me and I hadn’t known that it was something to be treasured. I pushed my back into the edge of the wall that met the patio window and grated my spine with a sideways motion that balanced the pain in my heart and replaced it with an ache that was much easier to deal with.
Joy next began to scan the room, I watched her turning her head to seek me out but was fascinated to see her head turning long before her eyes were ready to leave her girls. I knew my moments of solitude were numbered and, hoping to make them last a little longer, I reached for the rose pink drapes that hung full length beside the window to frame the garden and make the room so much more cosy in the colder evenings and dragged it swiftly around me. Not a bad idea as these things go but hardly subtle and the motion attracted her attention all the quicker.
“Flower?” she whispered as she approached, “are you alright honey? Can I get you anything?”
Flower, that would be a sweet and endearing nick name like ‘honey’ wouldn’t it? Sadly not. Flower - just the title: not Poppy, Daisy, Rose or Foxglove – Flower – me.
And then I realised that the combination of care and over-careful hesitation was beginning to do that thing to me – again. I could feel it growing starting as a small sick feeling but then stretching through my stomach like an over extended balloon: anger, desolation and, worst of all, the ever present tears that hovered just waiting to well in my eyes and somehow my head was rhythmically banging against the wall again.
“We could all go out for a bit of a walk,” she suggested and to do Amy and Hannah justice they didn’t even groan although they, like I, were well aware that the sombre clouds were now throwing down the rain at a ferocious rate and the wind was cutting rather than refreshing.
“Rather not,” I forced through lips and teeth that barely moved and tried not to feel the waves of relief rolling down from the TV end of the room.
“Well, not long now,” whispered Joy as she rubbed gently at my upper arm and straightened up to return to the kitchen to complete the preparations for the evening meal. She’d not long returned to the task when I felt a little plastic head rubbing my arm in the exact same spot.
“Flower? Do ya’ wan’ my doll?” lisped Hannah making her ultimate sacrifice; she was making a habit of this.
“Cheers, Babe!” I responded quietly as I reached for the doll - experience had shown it was the quickest way back to solitude and it made her feel better. But this time I was forced to open one eye as I noticed that an entirely new head was rubbing at my arm as Hannah now sat with me in the curtain. I realised it made me feel a little better too. For the first time in 17 days the ghost of a smile flitted across my lips.
The peel of the doorbell chime took away even that little bit of happiness and it seemed that everyone in the room held their breath.
“That’ll be the door,” said Joy looking again at me and I opened both eyes to look at her but no power on earth was powerful enough to make me look at the door. Because if you don’t look then you don’t see and if you don’t see then it isn’t so and I wouldn’t have to start my new life again.
“He’s early,” commented Joy as she made her way slowly towards the front door, “That’s a good sign.”
She spoke with most of her attention, and her head, turned toward me almost, but not quite, hidden by the floor length curtain, and I felt my head rise in slow motion. I dragged my eyes past pink knit slippers, ‘mom’ high-cut jeans, passed the pink sweatshirt, and her neck passed the whole of her face right up to the kindly eyes that seemed to beg me to believe. Believe it could be alright, believe he might just want me, believe I’d get beyond this and believe that I might not literally die. But how could that be as I’d seen the suitcase in passing and the lilac folder on the top balanced on my new padded jacket. So how was it going to be alright? I didn’t even feel it could be alright here, just 20 minutes from my house that wasn’t really mine anymore - so how could it be better when I’d be 20 hours further away from it by the end of tomorrow?
But life went on. That’s what I’d been learning all about in the last 17 days: parents go out and life goes on – they don’t come back and life goes on – on past services and cemeteries, and fairy cakes and wills and still life goes on. How that was still happening was the most bemusing thing of all.
But now the door was open and there were more voices to tune out and plenty more things not to think about or do.
“Amy, take the DVD upstairs with Hannah for a little,” suggested Joy, “Thanks honey.”
They collected it from the player and Hannah from under my arm; how had she gotten there? Then I heard the soft slippery sound of padded feet fade up the stairs and along the landing to the front of the house and Hannah asking when she’d be let back down to see me.
I heard the sound of whispered murmuring and the settling sounds as two people made themselves comfortable on the soft grey leather sofa and arm chair. Then I waited whilst the next piece of my heart prepared to be detached and all the while the little murmured nonsenses continued both upstairs and down: to settle the little ones and allow me time to ‘adjust’ I expect.
The voices were all familiar and I didn’t quite understand why. Janice (senior social worker) I knew her reasonable, measured, almost musical voice. She was talking in full flow so, obviously, at least one more person than me needed calming today. Joy, of course, I could hear as she made sure her children knew what was and was not acceptable ‘at this most delicate time’ upstairs.
What I couldn’t understand was why the other voice was registering as ‘known’. Had he been to see me? When? At the hospital or the bad day or here at Joy’s? He must have been here then; one of the many sorrowful, sympathetic hands that had patted my head or arm or knee at some point and his significance had not registered with me at the time.
“Flower?” said Joy, “It’s time to meet your uncle. Remember he is ‘Great’ after all.”
This was a joke she’d used before but I appreciated the effort as she reached out for my hand as well. The sheer force of will, or more accurately positive belief, in her steady, calm brown eyes had me reaching up to clasp her hand before, I think, I had actually considered making a choice.
Neither of us looked at Janice who, I knew, was not holding her breath or being at all interested and was certainly not paying attention to us at all - much. Joy continued to tow me over to the other, much more uncomfortable looking figure who sat centrally on the sofa making no effort to look like this was not a major moment at all. His large feet were covered in sandals – sandals and socks, then jeans on legs that ranged up and then still up – long legs, uncomfortably framed by the coffee table. A cream knit cardi with lumps and ropes that distracted me as I found my eyes swirling to follow a loop held in tracks until they drew my eyes still further upward to the face I knew must crown the top of this figure. Up then to the craggy, pensive, mobile face where emotions seemed to hover then chase in quick succession and the deep blue eyes that seemed the most expressive things of all. He had a long face too; long forehead – the bald probably helped with that. Lastly, I took in the white curled close cropped hair – uncle.
“Flower, this is your Great Uncle Will, your Mum’s Uncle Will,” she continued.
And I felt it fall, that detached piece of heart I’d prepared earlier because she’d said it, the two little words that I could hardly bare when put together.
“Oh!” I breathed and it seemed to be taken as speech.
“Hello,” the soft, deep voice seemed to think I’d communicated, “I’m here for you,” he continued. (And I caught every one of his meanings.) “We don’t have to do this now you know?”
But I fought off the panic and the echoing pain and knew it might as well be now because never - because the wish part – the wish that I really wanted just wasn’t an option that was inside the realm of things that were possible.
“No. I’m good,” and I indicated towards my suitcase and the little pile of bits everyone in the room could see, “I’ve gotten everything ready.”
“Well,” chirped in Janice. “Let’s just sit here and go over your welcome pack again. Maybe some tea?”
This last was aimed at Joy who was already heading off that way. I felt my brow furrow as I struggled to remember another time when I’d looked through the pack. Wouldn’t Uncle Will have been here while I did that?
Everyone else looked unsurprised at the idea of that other meeting so I guessed that it must have happened. I tried to keep my face blank while I rewound back through my life to look for the time when that meeting had taken place. It took minutes of meaningless stilted whatever-they-weres of conversation, which I think I took part in, for me to realise that I was never going to be able to find the lost meeting. I presumed it must have been on the bad day, or one either side of it. That memory was obviously lost in the same place where I’d put the funeral and I wasn’t going anywhere near that black corner of my mind.
“Yes, Will, it was Flower’s 15th birthday in May.” continued Janice. “Let me reassure you, as I said before, if you have any difficulties at all those are the contact numbers. Shelley, who you met for the home study, is the contact in the office and she will always be willing to help.”
I looked vaguely bemused because the time had passed again and the conversation seemed to have reached its conclusion. I knew because there were empty cups and biscuit crumbs on side plates and shuffling of paper and the scrape of plastic as some part of my life was being filed away. Uncle Will was standing shaking hands with Janice but Joy was nowhere immediately in sight. He was also looking over to the area by the door where my single case waited to be moved out and into the car.
“Shall I pop out with this to the car?” he asked both Janice and I with his head moving from one to the other.
I looked at my case with a deep pinched grove between my eyes as I waited for the answer to that question to occur to me.
“Yes. I think that would be a good idea,” replied Janice while I looked back to her and concentrated on being very still. She went to hold the door open for him and I watched Uncle Will reach for my case.
He seemed incredibly lean and tall as he began to fold himself over to reach down to the carrying handle at the side of the case. His snowy, white hair showing a little thinning section to me as his head stooped low. Briefly, I had the impression that he was bowing. Then the moment was gone and he straightened up with suitcase under his left arm and my handbag and coat in the other. He struggled to maintain his hold on the other things - those bundled up bits of something I refused to look at but knew must be mine from my house and then he headed out the door. He was tall. Very tall. He ducked with a self-conscious air as he went out through the door towards the black car in the middle of the drive way. I don’t know how long it took him to drop the case, coat and clusters of other oddments tied up together with string into the boot of his car but I heard his splattering feet as he hurried back in to escape the lash of rain.
He dipped again on entry and paused as he caught my eye - I watched as the merest hint of a smile ghosted around his lips. It was then that I realised that he knew this was the one moment, of all the time we’d spent together today, that he was sure I was actually fully there. I got the impression that he felt that the soggy outing - which had left raindrops glistening on the arran cardigan and his wiry, white hair - been worth the trouble.
My head drifted left as I realised that Joy was now returning back downstairs with Amy. They both wore matching expressions of sadness tinged with resignation because ‘fosters’ moved on. Hannah was a lot less experienced with this. She was held high in her mother’s arms with her legs wrapped tightly around Joy’s waist and her arms in a similar strangle hold around her neck. She didn’t want me to go but she clung on to the one thing she couldn’t bare to be parted from; that one I got.
I went towards them.
“Good bye, Joy,” I whispered as I met her eyes and, frankly, clinging like a limpet looked good to me right then. “See you, Amy.” I turned towards her and she looked up
slightly more and smiled. Then I stroked my hand down Hannah’s silky curls. “Bye, Babes,” I whispered as she sobbed into her mother’s neck.
Joy’s free arm and hand hugged me tightly to her left side and the comfort registered along with Hannah’s right slipper digging into my ribs. Then Amy’s thin arms wound around us all and, bless them, I think I actually felt a little closer to normal.
Joy, always aware that change was inevitable, necessary and due began to step forward and with out easing up on the pressure from her hug she turned me once again towards the door.
My uncle smiled encouragingly as he stepped towards the door that Janice was again holding. He left his right hand trailing behind him as if it were a guide to show the way.
We moved to close the distance and our little group only disbanded slightly as Amy switched to hold onto the belt at the back of my black jeans. With this looser arrangement we only had to make a slight turn sideways and we could all stay together, one unit, as we made our way towards the car. It said a lot that Joy didn’t think to reach for a jacket to cover Hannah’s head when we went out into the downpour.
The rain certainly hurried things up.
I went to the passenger side and opened the door right away. Joy hugged me lopsidedly again and reminded me not to forget to write or call if I wanted anything or I needed anything – any time.
And she lingered.
Then became aware of the rain.
Then little Hannah, in her arms, straining down to reach me, and the anguish on my face.
Then she kissed me.
She didn’t turn but she hurried back towards the house towing Amy. They stopped at the covered doorway and there they stood. Uncle Will took longer to fold his long legs carefully into the car and under the steering wheel so I was able to look at the silhouettes of the family who had cared. They stepped back up onto the step and into the house but stayed there, by the door, while Uncle Will started the car and began to reverse back off the drive and onto the road. However, just when he was ready to drive Amy broke and ran further inside leaving Joy and Hannah to see me off. I was ,once again, unaware that I was rhythmically banging my head this time on the headrest at the back of my seat.
The car moved smoothly away from the curb and we began our drive. The car engine was quiet obviously built for long distance travel. The inside seemed to echo with many distinct noises: the swish of wiper and rain on window and under tyres from the road. My uncle
breathing in and out through long nose and into deep chest. My silence and the unknown rhythmic bumping.
“Um! Flower? Shall I put some music on?” Uncle Will inquired inventively.
“Flower? Do you think it’s time for a little radio?” he tried again.
I didn’t answer as the question didn’t exactly compute. I wanted to be able to get that one right but I didn’t know the answer and I felt my foot begin to tap an ever faster rhythm and that other noise – the bumping that got quicker too.
Oh but radios. Think about the answer to that one ….
But I never got to the answer the question and it’s importance quickly passed because it wasn’t the music I became aware of but a white corner house. I pass – passed - that house every day when I lived in my old house. I heard a separate little solitary voice inside me make that comment. My eyes were still on the house even though we were passed because if we turned left we’d get to that other place.
And the car turned left.
So Uncle Will had broken through with out words at all. I stopped my head’s incessant movement and glared straight ahead because if I didn’t know better I’d swear we were heading to the other place.
My eyes were locked forward. I held my breath. And I swear my heart stopped beating as we turned in at the bottom of that other street; the one from my other life – the place where I’d li…. that word.
“I’ve got the key,” Uncle Will began. “We don’t have to go in. Or, we could if you want to.” He had obviously decided this would be a good thing. “I thought you might like to call in to see if you want to collect anything before we start the long drive.”
But his voice, which started off defensively loud, got ever quieter as he continued. He got slow and cautious, “It’s a long way back if you want to have any of your other things with you.”
Other things - in the other place - from the other time.
“What do you think? Shall we?”
I stared at the familiar black varnished door set in the narrow terraced house. Then at the windows where the lowered blinds held back stares rather than light.
Did I want to leave this car, step up to the door like I’d done a million times before? Did I want to walk somewhere I’d never walked before? In that place – in that house – where my mum couldn’t be?
But yes.
A tear traced down my right cheek - the left tear left behind. Then I looked across, then up, to meet the unfamiliar face so filled with gentle regard and I thought.
Should I go inside? Could I physically do it?
I rocked a little back and forward while I tried to see myself take each painful step from car to path – and path to door – and up the step and through it.
I pictured every step again and again and having seen my self survive it, and with eyes stretched wide and painfully still, I carefully nodded my head.

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