All That Then

by Jay Merill
 
 

Foot pressed forward. Foot pressed down. Right foot. Left foot. Got to get there fast. These are the motions of two feet pushing hard against the pedals, driving the wheels of the bike along a too-wet road. Summer storm hitting Rudge Mill Common. A bike, a pedaler pedaling. A body leaning forward in a yellow plastic mac. Yellow plastic mac flapping in the windy rain. Lightning striking. A falling tree. Yellow mac still. A stretcher, an ambulance, a fallen tree.

#

In the summer I often went with my mother to somewhere she described as a ravine. It had tall cliff sides straggly with creepers. I loved the word and the place too. To me it all seemed magical. Huge clumps of pampas grass towered over the walkways. And I always thought how I’d like to live there in a tent. At the centre of the ravine was a hidden away flowery grove with a sundial. If you walked right past this you then went along a sheltered avenue till at last you came to a promenade. Next to the promenade was a wide beach of silvery sand and beyond that a bed of stones and beyond that – the sea itself. To get to the sea you had to walk over the stones. Doing this made your feet ache. I found a stone the shape of a kangaroo and another one that looked like a coiled around snake. A patch of sand attached itself to my leg where I’d been sitting. As though it were a second skin. Later, when we got back to the promenade my mother brushed it off me with a rolled up towel. There on the pavement it looked no more than greyish dust. I was disappointed as before that I’d believed seaside sand was a very special substance. Something bewitched in fact. At that moment I came to see it was nothing other than a pile of finely powdered grit.

#

We had other outings too. One time I remember standing with my bare feet on the cool tiled bathroom floor. My mother was sitting at her dressing table studying herself in the mirror. I could see her through the doorway. She was combing her long wavy hair and getting ready for the evening. We were going out to dinner and we both looked forward to this. As we sat in the restaurant though, I’d felt awkward because my mother held her elbows at the very edge of the table her fingers splayed out in front of her. She was showing off her rings. Her hands flew forward from time to time making me think of a bird of prey. A falcon, or a hawk – which were the only ones I’d heard of. First one and then the other they darted across the white tablecloth and snatched up a morsel of bread or a curl of butter. The rings glinted and flashed. I shivered. But I was spellbound by the sight of her elegant bony fingers as she lifted up her wine glass and sipped.

My mother was someone who always seemed to be waiting for something to happen, but I didn’t know what it was. And she was constantly on the lookout for strangers to stop and speak to and was in her element if they turned out to be from a far distant land. These things about my mother confused me at the time. Now I understand she was searching for excitement. She relished the idea of being able to travel far beyond the clockwork tedium of her usual world where she could tap into something less mundane. Her eyes would be all of a sparkle at the thought of new adventures. I think she was bored by the normality of her daily life and was seeking something magical.

#

I see myself as a ten year old girl sitting by the sea-wall. The dress I am wearing is vivid blue. It has straps over the shoulders. Only straps, so that the sun can get through. It is a sundress. But the sky is overcast. I reach for my cardigan. The cardigan is yellow, which is not my favourite colour. And it does not go with the dress. This doesn’t please me but I am chilly so feel the need to put it on. Next minute the sun comes flaring out again. I take off the cardigan; see my own pale skin.

I am at the beach with family friends: Mr. and Mrs. Gordon and their two children, Becky and Lyle. Here we are at the end of the promenade, all sitting in a warm sandy space with no stones. There are a lot of stones on this beach but Mr. and Mrs. Gordon always know where to find the sandy parts. You have to walk all the way down the promenade till you get to the end. Halfway along stands a café but we do not go in as Mr. and Mrs. Gordon live on a tight budget.

‘Here we are again,’ Mrs Gordon says when we arrive at the designated spot. I think she likes saying these words for she always repeats the same thing.

I can’t remember what any single member of the family looked like. They moved to Australia when I was eleven years old, going in pursuit of more sand and sunshine. It is a long time ago.

#

I had a friend called Trisha. Trisha dared me to eat a ladybird. We were in the Botanical Gardens at the time. The ladybird was sitting on my hand. My tongue slicked over its polished back and then its wings fluffed out. It flew away.

‘You did that on purpose,’ Trish said, her head hanging down. She was taller than me. I could feel her breath on my neck. ‘You made it fly off like that.’

We were standing by an ornamental fish pond but the water wasn’t spurting as it usually did. My mother told us there was something wrong with the mechanism. She flipped her hand in a dismissive way because she never liked to think of things breaking down. Now she was in the cafeteria sipping her coffee. We could see her through the window. She wasn’t doing her showy restaurant pose. I was glad about that as Trisha would have laughed and I’d have been hurt for my mother’s sake and embarrassed for me because I was her daughter. I said to Trisha I wasn’t afraid to taste the ladybird but she didn’t believe me. I can’t remember if I believed myself.

#

I was a bit younger than this the afternoon I walked home across Rudge Mill Common with my mother. We were holding hands and we were singing Incy Wincy Spider. There was a taste of marshmallow in my mouth and a dryness from biscuit crumbs. We had been to Johnny Dean’s birthday party. My mother was Johnny’s mother’s friend. So I always got invited to his birthday parties though he was three years older than me. When his school friends were there he didn’t want to speak to me but when they weren’t he did.

Maybe that was the birthday when I told all the other kids the Angel Fairy was coming out of the oak tree in the lane at four o clock and they’d believed me. Or maybe it was the birthday when Johnny Dean had measles or mumps and the party had to be cancelled at the last minute. We were allowed to take away all the cakes and pastries we wanted and Johnny poked his tongue out at us through the upstairs window of his house as we walked down his driveway laden with party treats. Or a different birthday altogether. I’m not quite sure.

#

But I know that later we came to a footpath. There were shiny red poppies growing along the edges. We were not holding hands now because the path was too narrow and we had to go single file. My mother was in front of me. She was wearing her favourite paisley dress which swished each time she placed a foot on the ground. The material was crepe and not at all shiny. The dress was red too but it was a different shade of red from the poppies. Cherry not orangey. As we walked along I kept on trying to decide which I liked the best. But I couldn’t.

The late afternoon sun was hot against my back. But then a big change happened. The sun had been everywhere and then all of a sudden it wasn’t anywhere because just like that the sky had turned to dark. The two of us hurried down the pathway till we came to the road which would take us home. Here and there we even ran. We had no breath left in us for singing. I can’t remember if we were carrying anything. But I do remember the strikes of lightning and how we were rushing. Rushing along to beat the storm. Rushing. Rushing. A cyclist in a yellow mac swerved passed us as we went.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 
Jay Merill is published in 3:AM Magazine, Corium, Entropy, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, matchbook, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Wigleaf and other great publications. She is a 2017 Write Well Award nominee, a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Salt Prize. Her short-story collections are ‘God of the Pigeons’ and ‘Astral Bodies’.

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