An Original Short Story by Marilyn Messik
He was no spring chicken, certainly not what I’d expected, but he had a great reputation. He was, so they said, the best.
“Can you take it all off please” I said.
“As I’ll ever be.” It wasn’t true, but for what he was going to charge I didn’t expect to play twenty questions.
“There’s no going back.” He smiled at me in the mirror.
“Please.” It came out needle sharp, harsher than I’d intended, nerves I suppose. “Let’s just do it.” My fingers were beating a rhythm of impatience against my thigh. At forty-one, things acquire an urgency and sense of time slip sliding away felt not quite so keenly a few years back. When he’d finished, I hated it.
“Brilliant.” I said, as he passed the mirror around the back of my head where I was already feeling the chill wind of change on my freshly exposed neck. “Thank you so much.”
I stepped carefully over the tinted, highlighted remains lying as lankly on the floor as they always had on my head, testimony to every volumising promise not kept by the beauty industry. I paid his exorbitant bill and included a cravenly generous tip. I smiled brightly as the blood-nailed receptionist slid my coat up over my arms, agreed that indeed I did feel like a new woman and then I went home. I didn’t cry, that would have been ridiculous – I wasn’t Rapunzel! I was though pretty down in the dumps. Nothing new there then. Come to think, nothing new in the whole sorry business. How hackneyed, how boringly unoriginal, the oldest tale in the book for which I’d fallen – hook, line and blinkered.
With an ease that retrospectively hurt more than everything else put together, I suppose he’d simply flattered me into bed. Goodness only knows, flattery had been a bit thin on the ground up to that point, or maybe it was just that I’d simply been too busy, hauling myself hand over hand up my publishing career ladder. First into the office every morning, last to leave laden with slush-pile manuscripts which, along with my chores for Mother, took me gritty-eyed late into the night.
Not that I’m grumbling, hard work and a flair for spotting potential best sellers in my particular area of murder and mayhem – not so much whodunits but why, how and would they get away with its – had been early recognised and well rewarded. Only when the top rung of the ladder was in touching distance did I pause, look down and wonder whether that was what I really wanted after all, an endless round of launches and lunches that I’d stopped enjoying too many glasses of white wine ago.
And each night home to Mother. Closed windows, shuttered mind. She felt the cold, and the higher than necessary central heating concentrated not only the all-pervasive, sickly scents of rose talc and Shalimar, but the endless litany of barbed complaint. And not only from her. Mrs Harper, employed at a rate high enough to make working for my acid-tongued parent just bearable, nevertheless invariably greeted me in our hot hallway with a list of the day’s tribulations and the omnipresent threat of imminent resignation.
I’d never really got along with Mother. Not many people did, including my father who’d shaken off this mortal coil with, I’m sure I’m not wrong, a sigh of relief when I was just fifteen. His premature departure should have brought us closer she and I. I’d anticipated the cessation of her constant sniping, provoked and counter-pointed as it was by his anxious appeasement. I’d thought, and the very warmth of that thought counteracted the chill of the chapel as we sat dry-eyed through his impersonal funeral service. I’d thought, the alteration in our circumstances might change her. She’d never ever taken the opportunity nor the time, to appreciate the glowing reports I brought home at school term’s end. She’d ignored or perhaps simply not noticed, painstakingly achieved exam results, my scrupulously immaculate bedroom, my impeccable manners. I thought everything might be different now, I thought she might come to appreciate me. It was a hope both false and foolish.
Sadly, nothing was ever quite good enough for Mother, there was invariably a shortfall, a disappointment, an omission, some way in which everyone let her down; everyone, every single time. Naturally, as I was the person she spent most time with, I let her down more than most. Striving through my early years, my conviction was if I could just push myself, stretch that fraction of an inch further I’d make it right; she’d be pleased.
I suppose it wasn’t until in my late twenties that I turned a corner and understanding hit me slap bang in the face, showed me that whatever effort I made, it would only ever scratch the surface of an infinite iceberg. I was never going to make her happy whatever I did, and with maturity came the realisation that it wasn’t my shortcoming, it was hers.
Was it guilt then that kept me with her through my adult years when I could, as her physical condition deteriorated, have easily afforded to provide refuge in one of the nicer residential homes? Maybe it was simply that it’s not my nature to admit defeat of any kind. Perhaps it became a quiet obsession, to find in her some redeeming warmth. She was after all, my mother, flesh of my flesh and it mattered, so I didn’t give up.
My professional success cut no ice with Mum, promotions and salary rises that allowed us to live as we did, went studiously unacknowledged. She did however, stoutly and ever more frequently, maintain that missing any chance of husband and offspring was down, not just to my nondescript looks and lack of personality, but a malicious determination on my part to deprive her of grandchildren in her old age. Would her lethally sharp tongue have softened for a new generation? I’d never know now. Perhaps she didn’t realise – or maybe she did – the pain inflicted by those continual lemon-juice stings dripped into unhealed hurts. Not about my looks, I’m a realist, no false vanities there. But as time marched on, I was acutely aware that somehow, when I was looking the other way, the parade had passed me by and my streets now were empty and quiet.
So yes indeed, probably all those factors combined to ensure I made a fool of myself with Howard. Saw what I wanted to see, heard what I chose, and abandoning any kind of common-sense caution flung myself headlong down a flight of fancy. I genuinely believed for those eight heated months, that beyond obvious practical problems – his wife for one, my mother for another – the glow of a mutual future lurked just over the horizon. Blinded by a depth of feeling I hadn’t suspected existed in my prosaic soul, softened by whisper of unfamiliar endearment, I was able for the duration and for the first time in my life to tune out ongoing maternal jibes.
I didn’t even care that we were office gossip fodder. I accepted blithely that those who’d marked my steady professional rise with green eyes, would note my freefall into infatuation with delicious amusement. The cutting of my hair that day was more than symbolic; it was the line drawn beneath a chapter that closed with Howard, tender and loving as ever one day, telling me joyfully the next, that his wife was expecting their first child.
Mother died two days later querulous to the end, her last words a feebler, hoarser echo of so many gone before, her mouth stroke-twisted but still in full working order. Why on earth, she’d grumbled, as I sat by her bed in a small oasis of curtained calm as the hospital bustle swirled round us, had I chosen to wear that old grey jacket? Did I not know by now how draining it was for my shade of sallow? Had I, she asked, not thought it might perk her up a little to see a splash of colour in this dreadful place, and would it hurt not to have on me, a face like a slapped backside?
It wasn’t she pointed out, as if I hadn’t known he was married, so I’d only my own fool self to blame. And why in God’s good name had I brought along grapes which I knew she couldn’t possibly eat because their wretched skins always caught her in the back of the throat?
It was on that note that the second stroke hit and she passed, uncomplaining only because she was unconscious, to the great big Customer Service section in the sky, where I had no doubt, her grievance list would be lengthening by the minute, even as I rose quietly from my chair to summon a nurse.
I wore my new hair, a black suit and my bereft-on-two-counts status to the office, with defiance. People commiserated quietly on the loss of my mother and silently, with a squeeze of the hand, on the loss of the other. Gossip is only good until the next scandal breaks and at least I had a solid record of success, albeit commercial rather than emotional to take to the bank. Howard, on the other hand, hadn’t been with the company that long. He was indisputably a good, charismatic editor and excellent with his authors. But no one’s indispensable and I’d resolved, even as he’d stumbled clumsily through the grating closing phrases of our relationship, he’d be on his way before too long.
Editorial meetings, once a week on a Friday had always been informal. I even kept a percolator in my office, hoping perhaps that coffee and cake might go some way towards softening my reputation as a tough cookie. Two of those in my department were women, both longer-serving than I. Luke and Howard made up the rest of the team.
I was on an author-appease call when, in response to my beckoning gesture, everyone filed in and settled in their normal places, struggling to keep paper rustling to a minimum. I grimaced apology and mouthed a name. Sympathetic eyes were raised ceiling-ward, this author was known to be a hot-house flower and, understanding they were in for a wait, they began talking quietly amongst themselves. I’d swivelled my high-backed chair around to face the window where rain wept greyly down the glass, but so used was I to watching Howard, wherever he was in a room, that his reflection was my focus as he extracted the snapshot from his wallet. I swung my chair gently back to face the room again, still oozing soothing, raised an eyebrow, held out a hand, and the atmosphere suddenly tautened round me.
The reaction of the others, rather than what I could make out of the grainy black and white image told me what it was I held. I was rather proud of myself. I copied what I’d seen the others do; I smiled and made an ahh expression, putting my head to one side, as if to better take in the shape of the tiny, comma curled embryo. I mimed and nodded congratulations as I carefully handed back the scan and an involuntary, slightly sheepish grin touched Howard’s lips briefly, the smile of a man already besotted. I turned my attention back to the phone and a collective, silent sigh of relief swept the room – she wasn’t going to make a scene – thank God for that, how embarrassing would that have been?
Over the years I’d become adept at listening to complaint. In automatic mode I knew instinctively when a sympathetic mmm was called for, when a concerned really was preferable, and all the occasions in between when a tut was just enough, so it really didn’t stop me from getting on with things. Cradling the phone between ear and hunched shoulder, I bent to pull my briefcase out from under my desk, putting away some papers and extracting others before putting it back. Then, listening only enough to know when to murmur, I went to the sideboard to pour the fresh-brewed coffee, another nice touch I felt – me waiting on them at the meetings.
I’ve always prided myself on being a swift and stick-to-it decision maker and as luck would have it I’d still had mother’s warfarin tablets in my case. When I withdrew her daily dosage, I’d substituted same-size, same-shape vitamin pills. She’d not noticed, I never imagined she would. It had taken just over a week for her blood to thicken and clot enough to bring on the first stroke.
I wondered now how long and how many doses it would take for the medication to affect healthy blood, thinning it to the point of haemorrhage. It is, you probably know, the poison of choice for rats. Howard appeared beside me, the familiar scent of his aftershave even now evoking memories best buried. As he reached for a slice of Madeira sponge, we exchanged the uniquely polite, small smiles of people who once were very close. I stirred it well, then handed him his coffee.
* end *