Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Savage Writing: 1967

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This week’s topic was Ancestral History.

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Mary often touches her wedding ring for support, and is always surprised if she finds it is not there. The cleaning solutions at work have begun to tarnish it, so after neary twenty years she has started to leave it in her pocket when she cleans, and when she washes the dishes, and on her bedside table, next to the picture of him in his navy uniform. She’s sure Charles would have understood, if he knew how hard she worked. If he knew how hard it were.

It is Sunday lunch. She has made roast chicken, potatoes, and carrots – a palmful of each, spread out on the plates to look bigger. Given everything that has happened this week, it is the best she could do. Four places are set out on the six-person table, and only three of those places are taken. John has been given the largest portion of the chicken breast, and John’s seat is the one which is empty.

Mary’s two daughters sit, and glare at her, and do not touch their food.

Mary touches her left ring finger with her left thumb, and feels only skin and the ghostly sensation of loss. She has left the ring by the cooker again. It is tempting to go and fetch it, but she knows either of the girls might blow up if she moves. So she touches the space where her ring should be, and prays that Charles will understand, and prays that he or God will give her some comfort, some solace in her actions. He agree with me, if he were here, she thinks. It was the only right thing to do.

Alice has been crying all week. She is a hunched ball of red: red cheeks, red eyes, red hands, red underwear. Ever since she came back from hospital, she has not shared more than a glance with her mother, not when Mary gave her those new clothes, those pads for her leaking breasts, or any of the things which cost so much of their miniscule budget. Instead, Alice stares down at her plate with a pained frown that is sure to leave wrinkles.

Mary looks her over, worrying again about the fat on her daughter’s flesh, wondering if many people have figured out how Alice has suddenly gained such weight when everyone knows how stretched they are. That’s why Alice’s portion is smallest, she says to herself, and it’s good that she’s not even touching it. It wouldn’t do for her to stay that way, and never find a husband, not after they’ve gone to all this trouble to keep her name pure.

Alice has always refused tell her the name of the boy, or else Mary might have insisted she marry him. Well, perhaps. It’s not as if many people listen to widowed school cleaners. And sixteen is too young to marry, she thinks. She wants to keep her sweet eldest girl beside her for a little while longer – even if Alice doesn’t appreciate her right now. She’ll understand when she’s older, she thinks, touching her ring finger again.

Mary feels Helen’s eyes piercing her, and allows herself a glance at her youngest daughter. But she doesn’t like to do more than glance. If she ever expects trouble, she expects it from Helen, not Alice. The girl does nothing but complain – about John, about Mary working, about the teachers caning her at school. She spends half her days walking the neighbour’s dogs up the moors, often not coming home until dark. Mary is always quite relieved when Helen is out of sight. Charles had been excited by the idea of a third child, and he hadn’t shared her enthusiasm for another boy – either would be tops, he had said. Mary had looked forward to it herself, once upon a time. But then the old gunshot wounds in his back festered again, and Mary was left all alone, with a kicking girl in her belly and no-one to rely on but herself. She can’t disentangle the two events of death and birth. She wants to forget that time entirely.

Helen is upset for her sister, but Helen is upset at everything, because she’s a difficult child. And of course, she’s not eating her dinner, because food is another thing Helen complains about. She is sinewy as a hare, and she has combined Mary’s plain features and Charles’s good looks into her own form of small-eyed, sharp-cheeked beauty, and truly, Lord, she would have expected this from her in a couple of years, and not from her placid, embroidering Alice.

Mary looks at her plate, and feels no appetite. She wonders what punishment life will dole out to her next.

The door bangs open, and John walks in. Mary smiles at him, but he doesn’t look at her as he strides up to his place. He grabs a piece of chicken with his hands, and tears at it with his teeth.

‘Hi mum,’ he says, mouth full. ‘I’m going out to Jimmy’s the night, and I won’t be back til late.’

‘That’s fine, dear,’ Mary says, as he helps himself to another slice of meat. ‘Let yourself in whenever you want.’

‘Alright. Bye!’

He takes another slice of chicken and stuffs it in his mouth as he turns and leaves, as abruptly as he came.

Helen’s glare has grown stronger. Mary awaits the inevitable.

‘You’d never let me do that,’ she says, crossing her arms. ‘If I want to go out, you always tell me I have to sit down and eat everything on the plate.’

‘He’s a growing lad,’ Mary says. ‘He needs what he needs.’

‘And you never let me stay out late,’ Helen continues.

‘Well, for good reason! Look at what happens when I do!’ Mary snaps.

Alice starts sniffling.

‘It’s not fair,’ Helen says, standing up, her ridiculous long hair swaying over her plate. ‘You let him away with everything, just because he’s a boy. You’re still stuck in the Victorian age!’

She scrapes her chair in.

‘I’m going out.’

‘Don’t you dare, young lady, you have housework to do – Helen, come back here this instant!’

But Helen is gone. Probably out to one of those parties young folk are always having these days, with their long hair and loud music. They don’t know they’re born, she thinks. When Helen grows up, she’ll realise that life is easier for boys, and she’ll thank her mother for helping her understand that early. When war next breaks out, and she has to take care of a family on her own, she’ll appreciate everything I’ve done for her.

Alice is quietly crying. Mary touches her ring finger, prays to God to support her, and lifts her knife and fork. Mechanically, she spears every last bite until it is gone, though she tastes nothing. She tells herself she has earnt it.

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Written by G.J.

14/11/2013 at 12:24 am

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