It was the shingely way the wind did it, rippling through beech trees, through scrawny grass. Mary felt peace and she wanted that peace to continue, for somewhere inside herself she felt it might not, she wanted to lie in the grass, lie with the wind, she wanted not to care, just to lie there for a long time, possibly forever. Just there on the moor.
Everything came down to wanting all the time and Mary knew that getting what she wanted required supreme will. And she was never bending like the reed, but always pushing. Pushing and wanting, wanting wanting wanting like a thirsty panting dog, wanting her daughters to come and stay because their dad was ill, wanting to avoid the disapproval they felt towards their frazzled mother, wanting to avoid their cold looks and turning away, wanting them to show warmth, wanting warmth, not cold, not that, not the cold. Yet Mary’s family had always grown up cold somehow. It was a family not brought up on love.
In fact Mary’s daughters always irritated her, although at times she could be in awe of them. At times she wanted to be, at times she wanted to be like a child and defer to their experience, their wisdom. But these times were rare. Jayne, the youngest, was a nutcase who wouldn’t cut her hair and still acted as though she was twelve and hadn’t reached puberty. The older, Mary Ann, was settled but rejecting, wanting nothing of the mother, sounding off about the mother to Jayne, frustrated at the mother’s lack of phone calls or the frequency of them.
She never calls or if she does she always phones the land line and that’s in the bedroom and I never hear it.
Your sister never answers when I ring Jayne, I’m sure she had the land line installed in her bedroom on purpose. I’m not going to bother anymore, there’s no point and she never calls me.
Yet, Mary thought, she and her oldest at least had a relationship. They fought each other, accused each other behind one another’s backs, shouted and sighed and blamed each other for the same actions and were each other’s mirror, though neither would ever admit it, least not to themselves. But from Jayne, nothing, thought Mary. She was afraid and would not fight and enter in the game, therefore she became a douche. Or a bin for the family’s rubbish. Mary worried about her but helplessly really.
Mary sighed and watched a young girl proudly ride past on a shiny black stud, her phone blaring out Beyonce. Her cheeks were puffed as though filled with cucumber sandwiches. For a moment Mary wished they could swap bodies and histories. She wished she could disappear into someone else’s life, it would free her up, make her reckless. Because life played tricks. When her own parents died she thought she’d feel free. Like kids let out of school early and into a world free of disapproving teachers. But the opposite happened, the disapproval intensified and transferred itself onto her daughters. In time Mary came to realise the disapproving voice came from herself and it was a cursed voice she could never get rid of.
She thought back to last night. It had been touch and go with Derek who was in recovery after a serious operation. For hours he lay unconscious in tin foil and blankets whilst the paramedic team worked to raise his body temperature. Every half hour she called the hospital but he was still the same. At last, not knowing what to do, she stood alone at the end of the garden looking out into the field at the lame mare. She was a 16 hander, pregnant, large with it and limping. She felt sorry for herself too and when she saw Mary, a shadowy presence by the wall, she meandered slowly over towards her and laid her heavy head on her shoulder.
The two females stood there, face against face, their manes blowing in the wind, Mary holding her breath and not daring to move in case the mare startled and cracked her skull with her huge muzzle. But Mary had not been touched by anything for a long time and the horse comforted her. Her arms missed the hugs she might have given her daughters or asked them for, the dog was aloof and he, Derek, he certainly did not touch. She thought she remembered the last time, when her dad died and she burst out crying. He’d hugged her then but that was a long time ago. She remembered crying by the double bed and hating herself for the spectacle. What she really wanted was for him to make love to her but his arms around her were heavy with duty not care.
He could have died last night. She was not sure whether she wanted him to or not and was shocked at her own admission. At first when he had become ill in the early stages, she had a peculiar power over him. He became like a child and she became the mother. But he hated this actually. She thought it enabled her to love him and him her but he secretly hated her more. All the time behind his acquiescing eyes he was saying, Yes, I am weak now, giving into you now, but you wait, it won’t last.
But Mary didn’t see it. She thought it gave her a chance to show love again and although she was afraid, she was excited. Excited by this opportunity life was giving her to live again, to love again. But it went wrong somehow.
The night before his operation Derek was unreachable. Lying there in the hospital bed his smiles were grim politeness. As Mary reached in to him he turned away and joined the nurse’s reprimanding when she tried to sit on his bed.
But this is my husband, I want to hug him goodnight.
But you can’t sit on the bed can you, it’s against hospital rules darling.
This is my husband and I am going to sit on his bed.
Sorry but you have to get up. Rules are rules.
The nurse looked at Mary shaking her head in disbelief as if telling off a small child and Mary looked at Derek, expecting his support surely but he only said,
Yes Mary, don’t sit on the bed.
He was pleased, she told herself, he liked that the nurse confirmed his own terrible opinion of her. Mary stared at her husband but he sank his head into the pillows and watched the nurse smoothing down the crumpled sheets with smug hands. When she left Mary felt she should say something but Derek’s gaze rested on the door.
Well, I hope you’ll be alright Derek?
Yes, Mary, yes, in a voice which asked, Why shouldn’t I be?
There was so much he could say but he would never say it. Or perhaps with Mary he had simply stopped thinking and there were no words. Sometimes Mary felt Derek blamed her for everything. Blamed her for their loveless marriage, blamed her when lust evaporated and he found there was nothing to fill the gap. They hadn’t after all, joined up the gaps between lust and love and not even children made any difference.
Killjoy, he stared to call Mary, when she objected to his drunken weekends spent boozing and wandering the fields filled with cows in the dark. And when she stopped wanting to sleep with him, he looked elsewhere. He was as uncouth as any D H Lawrence character and any other woman would have filed for a divorce, or would they? Now may be, but not then. And it was easier said than done. Still, Mary felt her friends blamed her presence for Derek’s violent outbursts and bad tempers. It was always, You shouldn’t provoke him.
There had been a small love affair to offer consolation but it was one that never really got going. In times of hardship and even now, 30 years later, Mary still thought of him. Sometimes and especially of late, she caught herself fantasising about little impossible scenarios. Driving back from the hospital she day dreamed he was waiting for her and she’d sink into his arms and even though they were both in their sixties, he’d still carry her to bed like she dreamed he would in her youth, and he would comfort her and be tender. Mary cringed that her fantasies were so predictable and knew her daughters would laugh if they knew- she had to remind herself that they didn’t. The last time she’d allowed herself to look at him- playing the voyeur because that was all she had left of him- was when he was singing live on TV. Even now she remembered his slow smile softly breaking over his face, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. He was so beautiful she wanted to cry although she knew really that the tears were for herself. It reminded her of the last time their eyes met and he smiled such a smile- open, trusting. Trust, that was it. He trusted so much and it made him so vulnerable, vulnerable to the likes of her. Unable to let him go she grasped and grabbed and became mean, petty, even spiteful. He was bigger than her she realised. She knew she needed him in those few months when she was a rehearsal pianist for a show he was in, but she also knew she kidded herself that he might come. He walked in different worlds where the women were sophisticated, glamorous- his behaviour towards her was full of compassion, empathy and she made it into something else. Her heart knew she could learn from him but she was like a dormant caterpillar strangled by its own chrysalis, choking on its own need to flourish and transform. If he had given her the nod, a sign, she would have left Derek, may be even the children. Yes, may be even the children. But he gave nothing and when, quietly hating herself for such desperation and weakness, she finally revealed her feelings for him, he said they were just friends. She was stung because her intuition told her it was something more but that he daren’t let himself, or couldn’t. He had his own reasons, or simply, she thought as the years inevitably began to pass, he did not love her enough or even have feelings at all.
When she got home a cold house awaited. It was summer but the place never seemed to recognise the light or the sun. Initially she felt they’d been lucky, formerly belonging to the Queen’s Veterinary Surgeon, the house was still lavishly decked out with thick carpets and walk in bathrooms, there were enough rooms for her and Derek to live privately away from each other and they felt safe, the place was kitted out with hi tech security cameras. But she could feel the remnants of the Surgeon somehow, the locals talked about him and his penchant for exotic animals in hushed tones, they entered her dreams as rainbow coloured horses and brightly shining sheep. But now the fields were mostly empty apart from the lonely mare and there was a certain wistfulness about the place. In a mad idea she suddenly thought of tethering the lonely horse in the conservatory and giving her a good grooming with the brushes left behind by the old vet. She needed it. The two could keep each other company during the dark hours and she would feed her pony nuts and in the morning she’d ring the farmer and ask him to do something about the limp. But it was a warm crazy fantasy to comfort herself with, the dog staring at her from the corner of the room.
The answer machine was bleeping. By instinct she checked her mobile. 3 missed calls from Jayne. She knew the voice mail would be impatient, wondering why, especially now, Mary wasn’t answering her mobile. But she’d long since got herself out of the habit, she used to catch herself checking her mobile every 15 minutes for calls that never came and trained herself to stop. She only looked now in case the hospital rang.
Jayne’s voice, detailing her arrival at the station tomorrow, sounded like it was a taut string about to break, there was a confidence and authority in the girl’s voice Mary hadn’t heard before and she suddenly felt afraid.
There was a mutual silence in the car as Mary drove from the station to the hospital. Mary used to welcome these silences with her daughter, she used to think it meant there was a compatibility between them, she thought they were like how lovers should be. Now she worried about what her daughter was thinking, she interpreted the silence as off hand, hostile, even resentful. She threw a look at Jayne, hair straggling as usual, jeans, a combat jacket, a sort of Patti Smith look. She had bags under her eyes too. She remembered the girl she’d seen on the horse, it was as though Jayne was from a different planet.
There’s something I need to talk to you about, began Jayne abruptly. Something came up in therapy.
Mary struggled with Jayne’s suddenness, there was never any warning, any lead up or subtlety about Jayne. Mary found that a bit boring.
I didn’t know you were in therapy, Mary believed she really didn’t know.
I did tell you Mother.
Jayne always used the noun to address Mary when she was angry, never the more misleading adjective, which Mary preferred.
Can it wait after the hospital visit?
Well why not? What harm’s a little longer?
What ever could she mean, thought Mary. She suddenly wished Derek were here, she a feeling she wouldn’t like what Jayne wanted to say, it would feel better even with him around.
I’d better prepare you, she said suddenly, wanting to wound Jayne somewhat. He doesn’t look himself.
Sure, Jayne replied without a flinch. She gazed coolly at the horizon but one finger fiddled nervously with the buttons on her jacket.
He is your dad, reiterated Mary but Jayne just stared out of the window.
At the hospital though, Mary thought she saw something break in Jayne. Derek was normally a mountain of a man, not particularly tall but imposing, square shoulders, a hard scowling face, a staring presence, and now he was curled up like a thin foetus in a womb, less than half his size. Jayne visibly gawped, she knew this would be how he would look in death.
Mary was unable to move. The nurses bustling around with their pleasant cold professionalism made her nervous, made her feel even less in control, she shrank into herself and lost her stature as wife and any authority she had. She was frightened they had more power over him now. Derek’s bed was dirty and Jayne kept waiting for Mary to stop a nurse but she was incapable. She stood looking at Derek helplessly, like a gold fish opening and closing its mouth.
Finally Derek awoke and Mary let out an excited sigh.
Derek, it’s me and Jayne. Can you hear me? It’s me Mary.
She spoke as though Derek had just come out of a coma, thought Jayne and her voice was unnecessarily loud. Mary was eager, quickly pulling up a chair close to Derek’s face.
Yes, I can hear you, Derek rattled.
Mary took one of Derek’s hands.
They’re still cold! Feel how cold they are Jayne!
But Derek quietly withdrew his wizened hand before Jayne could take hold. Derek rested pale eyes on Jayne.
Hi Jayne, his voice was softer this time but his look was uncertain, nervous, unsure, downcast, wanting pity and trying not to see it on her face. Jayne did feel pity, suddenly and unexpectedly, a lump rose in her throat, water burned the back of her eyes, but he must not see that, damn it. She said nothing. Derek was vulnerable and he knew it and Jayne felt stupid, stupid again and used, stupid he could pull on her when she knew what he was like off the hospital bed, how he was in real life. But love came sometimes when it was least wanted or desired.
Jayne found herself moving forward and clasping the hand he’d taken away. This wasn’t what she’d planned but she had no choice.
If he rejects me now, she thought, if he rejects me now, that’s it. But if he doesn’t, then it’s OK between us.
Derek looked vacantly at Jayne, there was no recognition in his eyes, no glimmer of fatherly love. He withdrew the hand again, snatching it away suddenly so that Jayne started and Mary began to babble. She thought she saw some way into her husband, she thought these little physical touches might be a sign, a sign that, after nearly dying in the recovery room, he did after all need human comfort, he did after all wish for intimacy with his family. He was after all gazing at Mary now. Everything was after all. Mary could barely get her words out quick enough.
I’m here for you Derek, don’t worry. Everything’s going to be alright, you’re going to be alright OK?
I know, Derek whispered but in the whisper Jayne was sure she heard contempt, she was sure she saw him shaking Mary viciously like a lion shaking dead its prey. She wanted to warn her mother but Mary seemed oblivious. In a flash Jayne suddenly saw why. Derek was dependent on her for the first time in his life. And though he didn’t like it, there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t afford to push Mary away entirely and she knew that. She knew she had rope to play with.
Mary had hold of Derek’s hand again and this time he let it lie there. His fingers curled round Mary’s but they didn’t seem to grip. A happy smile spread across Mary’s face, it almost seemed like triumph and if Derek saw it he didn’t let on. Jayne felt invisible, she felt bitten half and as her parents looked at each other, she subsided into a shadow.
In the car Mary drove recklessly, pulling out quickly in front of oncoming vehicles, hogging the middle lane on the motorway, honking at anyone in her way. Jayne shrank into her seat.
I’ve had a little chat with him you know. I’ve said to him this is an opportunity for us to start again. We’ll go away when he’s better, it’ll be our second honeymoon I said. And he said yes, yes, we can start again Mary, that’s what he said.
All because he’s ill, thought Jayne. That’s a reason for him to decide to start over?
She knew Mary was trying to recover something when the man was down and out but did she blame her?
Anyway, continued Mary, sure she was able to give her daughter all her attention now, what was it you wanted to tell me?
Jayne felt there was no choice but to come right out with it.
I wanted to tell you that I think dad abused me and my sister.
Mary jammed on the brakes and pulled into the lay by, the car coming to a jolting halt. For a few seconds Mary sat still as a stone, breathing hard.
He did not, she said.
He did Mum/
Lots of times.
I never saw him.
You did, you even tried to stop him once/
I did not, you’re imaging things.
but most times you just let him.
There was a pause, Mary’s hands gripped the steering wheel. Jayne cowered by the door, looking ready to bolt.
How dare you! Mary said finally. After all the years we’ve looked after you, cared for you.
It’s what parents do.. Jayne began to cry, she was quick to tears. And anyway, what about him, hitting me for no reason, dragging me by the hair, provoking me, trying to get me to hit him so he could hit me back..
He had to let it out somehow!
On me! On his child! Your child! On a child? He hit my breasts! Is that OK?
Mary went white. She saw everything she was trying to build collapse like buildings in an earthquake. She refused to open her eyes.
No no no! No Jayne! You have to forget it all now, it happened in the past. You have to move on.
Move on? How can I move on Mum? How?
I’ve moved on.
I mean why should I? And it didn’t happen to you. You’ve no idea what it’s done, how I fight it everyday..
Mary tried to grab Jayne’s hands.
I don’t want to hear this now, I don’t want this now!
Mary was snarling, curling back her lips and showing her teeth.
You never want to hear it. And you know what, you are as much to blame for the abuse as he is Mum!
Mary opened the car door and pushed Jayne out, throwing a torch after her. It was pitch black now, it was pissing down, it was a treacherous bit of bypass going over the moorland.
You can walk home. I’m not taking you.
But I can’t see, it’s dangerous.
I’m not taking you. You’re not stepping foot in this car again and you can jolly well pack your bags and go back to London tomorrow and never come back.
Mary started up the car and roared off. Jayne stared after her and then fell down onto her knees and howled.
At home Mary parked the car, threw on the lights, let out the dog, turned on the heating, switched on the TV and downed a large whisky. Her hand trembled so much it spilt onto the carpet. She wasn’t going to have it, she wasn’t. She was just on the verge, after years of patiently trying, of getting her marriage and life back together with this man and she wasn’t having it. Nothing must come in the way. She turned up the TV. She wasn’t going to think about it. She mustn’t. Derek must come back to her, she would care for him, he would love her again, they’d return to those few first years of marital bliss…but Jayne’s words shone a beam too clearly, too harshly. Was she culpable? She mustn’t think. There was the sound of the key in the lock, the dog barking and then Jayne’s footsteps approaching. The door behind her opened and there was a pause. Mary knew she was close.
I’m sorry Mum. Jayne’s voice sounded tiny, much smaller than the confident young woman on the phone the day before.
Mary kept her back straight and continued to stare at the TV, her mouth clamped shut. She moved her finger and switched channels. Jayne stood behind her, tears streaming unabashed down her cheeks.
I’m going back tomorrow OK? I am sorry, really I am. I shouldn’t have said anything.
Mary took a gulp of her whisky, hoping her hand was steady. When she looked round Jayne had gone. She returned back to the TV. You have to move on Jayne, she thought. You just have to move on.