This story is by E.D. Human and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Joan’s step faltered when she saw Alison examining the cream envelope. Holding it this way and that, trying to discern its contents.
Giving herself a mental shake, Joan plastered a smile on her face and entered the kitchen with a breezy, “Good morning!”
Alison had the grace to look a little shamefaced but still prodded the envelope as she slid it across the kitchen table to her mother.
“Looks like an invite,” she proffered, her shrewd eyes boring into Joan’s.
“Hmmm,” said Joan noncommittally. Busying herself with pouring a cup of tea from the pot.
After a moment’s silence, Alison blew out an exasperated huff. “Well, aren’t you going to open it, Mum?”
Joan sat down and drew the envelope closer, feeling the thick, creamy paper between her fingers. Expensive. Acutely aware of her daughter’s scrutiny, Joan tried to suppress a shudder, a prickle centipeded over her scalp. She imperceptibly tightened her grip on the handle of the teacup, hoping her daughter wouldn’t notice the trembling in her hands.
“Might be from the Peterson’s.” With a nonchalance she didn’t feel, she brandished the offending invite in front of Alison’s face. “I do believe they have a silver anniversary coming up.”
The frown on her daughter’s brow deepened. Looking skeptical, Alison opened her mouth, ready to make some retort, when Joan’s granddaughter waltzed into the room. A welcome interruption, catching the tail-end of the conversation.
“Or maybe Nan has a secret admirer and it’s a love letter.” With a girlish giggle, her granddaughter planted a kiss on Joan’s cheek, wishing her a good morning.
The tight look on Alison’s face relaxed and she laughed back at her daughter.
Joan’s smile froze, her heart beating erratically against her ribs, but the girls didn’t pay her any heed and failed to notice her sudden disquiet. Time skipped and faltered. Joan was only vaguely aware of the playful banter between the girls and took the moment to steal away upstairs to her room. After discreetly slipping the creamy envelope into her cardigan pocket.
Once in the sanctuary of her bedroom, Joan slumped in front of her dressing table. Smoothing tired hands over her worn face, she contemplated her own reflection. Her eyes looked like a deer’s, caught in the headlights. Wide and startled. Her mouth pinched. She felt old, much older than her sixty-eight years. The axis of her life wobbled, listing precariously out of her control. Pursing her lips, she gingerly extracted the envelope from her pocket and placed it carefully on the glass top of the dresser. With trembling fingers, she flipped the envelope over, her thumb tracing the embossed family crest on the back flap.
Her mouth pulled into a wry grin. She remembered the day clearly as if it was yesterday: the sea breeze lifting her skirt, fanning her hair into a golden halo around her head. They had been goofing around, laughing that their love was exactly like a Cinderella fairy-tale. He, the handsome rich prince, come to rescue her from the ashes of her poverty-stricken life. She had said it flippantly, making a joke out of it, part of her daring him to contradict her, but he had only responded by dropping to his knees in a mock proposal. Removing her pink flip-flop from her beach sand-encrusted foot and holding it up as an offering to her. Proclaiming in a sing-song falsetto that he had found his one true love, and would she marry him.
Joan held up the envelope to the window, unconsciously mirroring her daughter from earlier that morning. Looking through the thick paper with unseeing eyes. Ruminating on what could have been. In that split-second, she had wanted him to be serious. Later, he would ask why she had gone so quiet. She had said it was nothing, she was tired from the sea air was all.
With a bone-weary sigh, Joan’s eyes refocussed on the myriad of silver-framed family photos arranged artfully behind her. Photos of her late husband, Alison, and her brother, much younger then. The darling grandkids, even the family dog who was long since gone.
And yet …none of him.
When had he stopped being her North star? But she knew exactly when – her heart clenching in a spasm of grief. With a sigh she got up, her body protesting with unfamiliar aches and pains, and slipped the latest invitation into her underwear drawer. Nestled intimately between all her silks and satins and the more recently favoured cottons. With the rest of the other discarded invitations.
She made her way cautiously over the marbled floor, taking care not to slip. Smoothing her hands nervously over her black skirt. The mausoleum echoing with her footfalls.
He turned to face her, a tremulous smile on his still-handsome features. Old age had looked more favourably on him, she thought bitterly.
“I didn’t know if you would come this time,” he said without preamble.
With exaggerated care, she took the invite from her bag and flicked it across to him. It landed with a soft plop at his feet.
“You need to stop sending these.” Her voice sharper than she had intended it to be.
Searching her face, he bent down and retrieved the invite. “Don’t worry. It’ll be the last time”.
Answering her quizzical look with a shrug, he averted his gaze and looked across to the small crypt in front of him. “The doctor says it’s -,” his voice hitched, then caught. “Terminal. I have maybe three…five months, tops.” He delicately traced the name engraved on the plaque of the tiny door.
Swallowing past the sudden lump in her throat she studied him more carefully. Noticing for the first time the sallow pallor under his golf-tan.
“Does your current wife know? “
She could’ve offered him condolences, given him some measure of sympathy, but the passing years had crystallized all that resentment, her cold anger, into stone.
“About the cancer ,do you mean? Or this? He indicated the crypt. “Yes. On both counts. It’s also why I wanted to see you.”
When Joan didn’t respond he went on. “I’ve left instructions that I want to be interred with my son. Our son,” he quickly amended, finally turning to face her. “With your permission,” he clasped his hands together as if in supplication, “and your blessing.”
Joan stood, stunned.
Casting her mind back to all those years ago, hearing his mother telling her, in her strident plum voice, that it was for the best, that nature had a way of weeding out the weakest.
And him. Just standing there. Looking somehow smaller than he was.
After that, nothing mattered.
Months later he had suggested that perhaps they should start seeing other people. She hadn’t protested. She had been unable to let go, whereas he had seemed eager to move on. The only link between them, the annual commemoration of the brief life – and eternal death – of their son.
She had stopped attending after the fifth year, whereas as far as she knew, he had religiously held the memorial ever since. He had been a better father in her son’s death than he had been in his short life.
She gave a slow nod. Yes.
Linda Barrows says
Sad and beautifully told.