A Dutiful Wife

A Dutiful Wife

January’s a downer. I guess if you make New Year resolutions they give it a focal point. I
don’t, so it’s just same shit, different year. For instance, I can predict the scene each
morning when I get up: Martin drinking tea, engrossed in some supplement or other, the
cat unfed, the kettle nearly empty.
‘You might have refilled the kettle.’
‘Sorry. I forgot,’ he says, glancing up.
That’s all I usually get these days, a glance.
I gazed out at the slate grey January morning as the kettle raced to boiling point. When
had Martin gone off the boil? We’d stopped sharing a bed several years ago; he said he
was a restless sleeper. Our love life had been pedestrian before that, now it was
non-existent and not open to discussion. All I know is I haven’t let myself go and I’m sure he hasn’t got another woman. Apart from going to work, which is a ten minute journey from here, he only ventures out to visit DIY stores and suchlike. When he’s at home he can
usually be found in his shed, though his stomach always tells him when its mealtimes. A
creature of habit. My friend Julie said he might seem dull but he’s dutiful, unlike her ex.
‘Are you doing the weekly shop as usual today?’ Martin said, as I joined him at the
table.

Those last three words echo in my mind. It’s Thursday, it’s expected as I don’t work
Thursdays I will do the weekly shopping. Spontaneity is being excised from my life. I’m
on the verge of saying, ‘No. I’m going out to drink, dance and flirt with unsuitable men,’
but the rebellion is smaller.
‘I’ve a few things to do here today. I’ll go tomorrow.’
‘Ok,’ he said, and planted a perfunctory kiss on my cheek. ‘I’ll see you later.’
Fantasizing about being kissed properly, I began to clear the table. Perhaps I would go
shopping ; there were no urgent jobs to attend to at home. I picked up the supplement
Martin had been reading. Glancing at the contents, one heading caught my eye, Love
Online: Jane, Sandra and Polly Speak. I found the page and quickly read these women’s
stories. They were not what my mother would call flibbertigibbets, but women with jobs and lives similar to mine. On impulse, I ran upstairs and turned on my computer. My fingers hovered over the keys. From the wall above, the photos of our two girls, Hannah and Lauren, in their graduation gowns smiled down on me. For so long they’d been the focus of my life, my loving duty, that I’d hardly noticed the years passing, but my fiftieth was looming and I wanted, in the words of a pop song, ‘horses to stamp on my floor’ before it was too late. It wouldn’t do any harm to look at the site.

It was easy registering with Love Online and for once sex discrimination worked in my
favour, it was free for women. I stretched the truth a little by knocking five years off my
age then, surprised at my own daring, I phoned my closest friend, Maggie. There was a split second silence and I prayed she didn’t disapprove.
‘You understand, don’t you?’ I said.
‘Yes, of course, you just caught me unawares. But, Debbie, please be careful. You
know, Martin and all that. Keep it away from home if you meet anyone.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘though I don’t think Martin would notice if I walked around naked.
As for anyone, I’m looking for a George Clooney lookalike.’
‘You wish. You’re not using your real name, are you?’
‘No. I’m calling myself Crazy Lady.’
She laughed. ‘If you meet anyone, make it a lunchtime date.’
Shortly after, wandering round the aisles of the supermarket, I wondered if anyone
would make contact. I contemplated the soup selection. If they did, would I have the
nerve to meet them? I threw a couple of cans of soup in the trolley and made my way to the
checkout.Exercising a great deal of self-control, I resisted the urge to go online for a couple of days. The perfect opportunity came after Sunday lunch.

‘The shed needs a sort out,’ Martin said, pulling on his boots. ‘I’ll be an hour or two.’
Lured on by the fantasy of what might await me, I logged on. I stared at the screen in
amazement; nine men had left messages and two more had ‘winked’ at me. I quickly logged off and ran a bath. I find lying in the scented steam of a warm bath a good place to think, and I was thinking of David, my first love, the man whose face I still carried in my heart. Those heady days: the kisses, the love-notes, the bracelet engraved To My Crazy Lady and the inevitability of its ending.
The last time he’d held me he said, ‘You know how I feel about you, but I have
obligations to Sue and the children. I’m torn.’
The next day I made the decision for us both; I vanished from his life.

The water was cooling. I’d always been a good wife, conformed, perhaps I should
delete everything. I wrapped myself in my bathrobe and ‘phoned Maggie.
‘It’d be a miracle if you found, David,’ she said.
‘I know, and he might be pot-bellied and bald, but I can’t help hoping.’
The next morning was the same old same old. I waited to hear the door close as
Martin left for work and ran upstairs. There were nineteen messages, most of them
unremarkable. ‘I’m looking for affection…’ and so on, but one was witty and caught my
attention. My heart racing like a sixteen year old’s, I began to tap out an answer. Hearing a
slight noise, I swung round. Martin was standing in the doorway.
‘What are you doing with that hammer?’ I asked.

2nd Lt. Herbert Q. Howard, DCM, 1897-1918

2nd Lt. Herbert Q. Howard, DCM, 1897-1918

Here, where the skylark rises wrapped in song
Above the serried graves, I searched to find
Something intangible, some part of you, long
Gone but still alive. Evidence, a sign
That you were more than just your mother’s tears,
A medal in a box, a scroll, one name
Carved on that panel weathered by the years,
Unvisited by kin until I came.

Just one among the millions buried here
Or scattered to the winds with no known grave.
Just one: a subaltern, a fusilier
Who left his home when duty called and gave
His life for comrades and firmly held ideals –
An end to war, freedom. Ideals betrayed
For war still stalks the earth, its death knell peals
Continuously above the cannonade.

The birdsong rippled back towards the ground
Which yet gives back the bombs and bones of men,
And in the peace of Picardy I found
A simple truth I had not grasped till then.
A part of you is flowing in my veins,
Lives on, was not destroyed by shot and shell;
Though what you died for has not been attained,
I must believe one day all will be well.

howard2
Maureen’s Great Uncle, who served in the Cambridgeshire Regiment from 1914-18

His Rocking Chair

His Rocking Chair

The house is almost cleared. Boxes are packed
With clothes and linen from now empty drawers
And near your friend, the radio, I’ve stacked
Memorabilia from three distant wars:
A helmet from the Somme, a letter signed
By Ike, a tribesman’s dagger from Afghan,
And all your gleaming medals left behind
For me to cherish as their guardian.

I find my hands more work, sorting cassettes
Of music that you loved and played too loud,
And numerous photographs. I now forget
Your rank with P and O, but you were proud
Recalling all the countries you had seen,
The famous folk you’d met. You smile at me
From Sydney Harbour Bridge, standing between
Two pretty girls in 1933.

So dashing then; a welcome in each port
And broken hearts galore. Checking the place
I find your glasses; one silver hair caught
In the hinge, an inky thumb print on the case.
The doorbell rings, bringing removal men
Brushing past your topcoat in the hall. I keep
A smile upon my face, act brave, but when
They carry out your rocking chair I weep.

 

Something Missing

Something Missing *

A certain something’s missing and I’ve tried
To name it, but the words won’t come to mind;
Intangible, but nonetheless I find
The notion nags and will not be denied.

By contrast, I’ve a lengthy list of things
Of substance, shape and form that somehow strayed;
The pain of loss with time begins to fade –
Material goods to which I tried to cling.

What happened to them I may never know;
The precious book loaned to an erstwhile friend,
The antique brooch he gave me one weekend,
A lover I misplaced some years ago.

And nowadays I find that I care less;
Such losses are a trivial affair,
The sum of us is not invested there,
It’s what we are and not what we possess.

The process of ‘becoming’ never ends;
This sense of something missing is a part
Of the small and hidden corner at the heart
Of the mystery we cannot comprehend.

 

* Acknowledging Kierkegaard who emphasized something missing as the true
interpretative key to his life, and believed that we are always in the process of
becoming

Damn Cinderella

Damn Cinderella

I put the blame at Cinderella’s door,
her and that fine glass slipper, dainty feet;
such fairy tales have much to answer for.

I passed my teenage years convinced I’d meet
a prince, maybe the clichéd perfect knight
with firmly muscled legs astride a horse,
who’d know I was his true love at first sight
and beg my father for my hand.

Of course,
no prince appeared and carried me away
to live with him in some enchanted land.
Most met I met were dull, none distingue,
predictably a lot were second-hand;
and none of them came bearing dainty shoes
of any kind which, with my generous feet,
was just as well.

I’m not the type men choose to idealize,
and I refuse to tune my heart
to someone else’s beat.

Evensong at Ely

Evensong at Ely

The organ’s music rolls across the nave,
Voices soar in harmony, sweet and clear,
With measured tread, expressions aptly grave,
Two by two the cathedral choir appears.

Long shadows trace the carvings on the stalls
Where they assemble, gowned in red and white;
We revel in their singing quite enthralled
By angelic faces framed in candlelight.

Some hours ago they ran out on the field,
Got mud-stained, bruised and tattered, fought and won,
Now washed and brushed – all injuries concealed –
They sing the praises of God’s holy Son,
Within the compass of this hallowed place,
Which rises from the fenland’s soft embrace.

ely

Better Things To Do

Better Things To Do

The kitchen sink’s piled high with cups and plates,
Old cobwebs lace the corners of each room,
But primal instincts wake the urge to mate,
And birdsong sweeps away tired winter’s gloom.

The flowers are shaking out their filmy skirts,
The trees, once gaunt, are dressed in vibrant green;
These feelings that the changing year exerts
Are not connected with an urge to clean.

The thoughts that fill my mind ignore the frame
Now battered by the march of time and tide;
The rising sap still sets my flesh aflame
Compelling me to put all chores aside.

Too soon the dust and I will coalesce,
To waste the time till then is to transgress.

An Egg

An Egg

We both wanted the double yolked egg but, of course, my mother gave it to my brother. He was a handsome child with wavy blonde hair and blue eyes and, though inquisitive and naughty, in my parents’ eyes, unlike me, he could do no wrong. One of his favourite pranks was hiding, sometimes for hours, causing them to fear he’d been abducted. Then, all innocence, he’d reappear, revelling in their relief.

Being a girl, the menial chores fell to me. The one I most loathed was taking our washing to the local laundry. The metallic clanking of the machines hurt my ears. Clouds of foul smelling steam billowed out, stinging my eyes, making me cough. Sometimes a toothless crone emerged, blinking, and grabbed the laundry bag.

My tales of the laundry enthralled my brother; I knew they would. He begged to be allowed to accompany me. At first my mother said, ‘No’, but she could refuse him little. One November morning she bundled him up in his coat and scarf and handed me the washing.
‘I expect you to take good care of him,’ she said, as we set off under a sombre sky.

I tried, I really did, but he slipped away into the bowels of the laundry, lured by its sounds and smells.

‘Count to ten,’ he called.

I’d reached one hundred when I heard the machines groan and grind to a halt. I picked up the shoe that rolled under a screen and began the walk home.

 

Nighthawks – The Woman’s Tale

Nighthawks – The Woman’s Tale

The view from the hotel window was breathtaking. I feed my eyes on it like someone whose sight has just been restored, savouring every detail. It’s June, Nancy, and the trees of Central Park are in full leaf, leaves of every conceivable shade of green. People, mostly couples, appear then as quickly disappear, swallowed up in another cluster of trees. I hope none of them will be separated by war as Joe and I were. My aching legs tell me I’ve left it a bit late, but I had to come here, for a day or two, to be near him. This is the same room where we spent our brief honeymoon, where we made love together for the very first time.

‘Come here Mrs Geraghty,’ he said, sweeping me up in his arms and carrying me over the threshold.
‘Mrs Anna Geraghty,’ I said, relishing the taste of my new name.
He kissed my hand. The slim gold band glinted in the light.
‘Do you know why a wedding ring’s worn on that finger?’
I shook my head.
‘Because a vein in that finger runs straight to the heart.’
I didn’t know if that was true, still don’t, but I liked the sound of it.
Still holding my hand he drew me over to the window.
‘I booked a room with a view. Come and get an eyeful of this before it gets dark.’
The view was as breathtaking then as it is now. Fall was approaching and flashes of red and yellow were visible in the vast green canopy.
‘It’s lovely,’ I murmured.
‘And so are you,’ he said, holding me close.
I could have stood there like that for hours, Nancy, I always felt safe in his arms.
He was still asleep when I awoke the next morning. I pulled on a wrap and tiptoed across to the window. It was a bright day and the sun shone through the window warming my bare feet. I didn’t know Joe had got out of bed until he spoke.
‘Close your eyes and don’t turn around until I tell you.’
I felt his hands around my neck, something cool against my skin.
‘You can look now.’
I opened my eyes. Joe was holding a mirror in front of me. I was wearing a string of milky pearls.
For a moment I was speechless.
‘Do you like them? They were my mother’s’.
‘I love them. No one’s ever given me anything so beautiful before.’
‘They were mom’s favourites. If she’s up there watching, I’m sure she’s smiling now.’

We only had five nights together before Joe had to join his ship, the Arizona, in Hawaii. On our last night we went to a small club and danced. I wore my red dress – Joe’s favourite – and the pearls. The last dance was Artie Shaw’s Stardust, one of our special tunes. I wanted to hold on to Joe, never let him go. There was war in Europe and rumours that we might become involved. He laughed them off saying things would be fine.

We didn’t talk much as we packed the next morning, though we were full of words.
‘I’ll write you often,’ he said. ‘By Christmas, maybe New Year, I’ll be back.’
‘I’ll try and fix the apartment, make it cosy,’ I said.
‘Don’t leave until I’m gone,’ he said. ‘I want to remember you in this room, standing near the window.’

Somehow I filled the days. We were renting a small apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After work, in the evenings, I made drapes and cushions, polished furniture, painted walls. Weekends were more difficult. My folks were miles away, just outside Minneapolis.
Sometimes I’d get together with a girlfriend and we’d go to a movie, but mostly I’d write long letters to Joe. His to me were the high point of each week, especially the one saying he thought he’d be home for Christmas. I spent the following evening writing Christmas cards. It gave me a buzz seeing our names laid side by side.

When I got up the next morning, I didn’t feel too good. I put it down to excitement at the prospect of being with Joe again. However, as soon as I reached work I had to rush to the washroom, overcome with nausea.
Martha Coben was coming out of a cubicle as I wiped my mouth.
‘You pregnant, Anna?’
I looked up from the basin, dumbstruck.
‘I was like that for months when I was carrying Frank.’
The denial I was about to utter died in my throat. Perhaps I was pregnant. I’d been feeling sort of different in ways I couldn’t explain for a couple of weeks.
‘Here. Have a mint,’ Martha said, passing a pack to me. ‘I used to find they helped.’
I made an appointment with a doctor on Fulton Street, and the following week tests confirmed I was pregnant.
‘You’ll be pleased to know you’re going to have a baby,’ he said, extending a large, pink hand to clasp mine.
But I wasn’t instantly happy; so many questions were racing through my mind. How would we fit a baby into our small apartment? Would I be able to keep my job? How would Joe feel?
‘He’ll be delighted,’ my mom said when I phoned. ’Write him tonight.’
‘But we never discussed babies,’ I said.
‘It’ll be fine; you’ll see. He’ll be delighted.’
She was right, Nancy. His letter said he was ‘over the moon’, and from that moment so was I.
I kept quiet about my condition at work. Martha smiled knowingly when some mornings I made frequent trips to the washroom, but she said nothing.

December 1941 arrived. I outlined the day of Joe’s homecoming, the 23rd, in red. I was so excited I could hardly wait. I posted the cards that first week and on the Friday, coming home from work, I picked up a Christmas tree. It filled a corner of the apartment, and I spent much of the weekend decorating it with trinkets and tinsel. I stood back to check it breathing in the smell of pine; all that was missing was a crowning star.
Martha rushed up to me when I arrived at work on Monday.
‘Have you heard the news, Anna?’
Her eyes were large in her pale face. She pushed a newspaper towards me.
US Declares War, Pacific Battle Widens.
I felt the paper shaking in my hands.
‘The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour,’ she said. ‘Your Joe’s there, isn’t he? I’m frightened Frank will be drafted.’
My eyes were fixed on the phrase: 1,500 Dead in Hawaii.
Joe couldn’t be one of those. I loved him too much; nothing could happen to him.
I bought a star on the way home, but didn’t buy my usual newspaper. Reading the bad stuff would only make it real. A letter from Joe was waiting when I got home. I read it over and over; each word was a reassurance.

The telegram arrived the next day. I was leaning up to fix the star on top of the tree when the doorbell rang. When I saw the Western Union boy I knew Joe wasn’t coming back. I wanted to run after the boy, push the telegram into his hands, tell him he’d made a mistake, it wasn’t for me.
I don’t think I slept that night. I remember curling up on the bed, hugging one of Joe’s jerseys, burying my damp face in his smell. I watched dawn shoulder its way through a gap in the drapes, spilling itself like sour milk on the floor. I slept then, waking mid-afternoon convinced there’d been a mistake, that Joe was still alive. I put on coffee and checked the mail. There was one item. I seized it and kissed the broad, strong handwriting. Joe wasn’t dead, here was the proof. I read the letter repeatedly, every loving, upbeat phrase. It was still in my hand when Martha arrived.
‘Are you all right, Anna? I didn’t expect you at work, but I haven’t heard from you. I was worried.’
I told her about the telegram then held out Joe’s letter.
‘He’s written to me. They’ve got it wrong, must have muddled him up with some other guy.’
She glanced at it then hugged me. ‘I’m sorry, Anna, look, 6 December. It was written the day before the attack.’

The next few weeks are largely a blur. I began drinking to get me through the evenings. I knew I should stop, Nancy, but it helped deaden the pain. One night I found myself sitting near two guys in a diner. I was wearing Joe’s favourite dress, the red one. The guy nearest to me moved closer, began a conversation. I don’t remember much – I’d had several shots of bourbon back at the apartment – except that he said he was up from Cincinnati. Somehow I found myself walking with him back to his hotel room. I shouldn’t have done but I let him put an arm around me, whisper in my ear that I was foxy. I guess in my alcoholic state I was trying to pretend it was Joe. It didn’t work. When he put his hands round my neck to raise my face to his I felt the pearls rub against his fingers, Joe’s pearls. I grabbed my purse and hightailed it, hearing him cursing me, calling me crazy. Maybe I was. Out on the sidewalk I sat on a bench and wept properly for the first time. I was emptied out, or so I thought until, Nancy, back in the apartment I felt you move for the first time. That kick brought me back to earth. I got out of bed and poured the bourbon away.

In a week or two you’ll be born. One day I’ll bring you back here where you were conceived and tell you our story yet again. By then you may have heard it so many times you’ll beg me to stop. I won’t mind, I’ll probably laugh, but I hope you’ll love the view. Look! There’s a pair of blue jays with their young in that nearby tree.

Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg

To My Daughter, My Books

To My Daughter, My Books

When I have vanished like a dream
And sleep beneath some Fenland sod,
Don’t bring me wreaths of evergreen
Or weep and wail and blaspheme God.
I leave you treasure that was mine,
The culture of each bygone age,
Laid down in books like vintage wine,
Pouring out from every page.

Books were my life’s delight and led
To riches far beyond my dreams:
Not earthly wealth, but fountainheads
Of philosophic thought, bright seams
Of wisdom, voices of the past
Which lit my way, sometimes amused
Or caused a tear to fall. A vast
Miscellany. Take them and use
Them well, each one has been a friend,
And may the truths you find console.
In these, and in the books I’ve penned,
You’ll find the substance of my soul.

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