Illustration Copyright © 2015 by Marlo Hunte.
SMELL LEAKED OFF OF HER like disease. Those who sat close by held their bodies away, unconsciously taking shallow breaths, consciously wishing that she would soon leave. Young mothers shifted in their seats, momentarily aware that the flesh just above the waistline of their jeans rested on plastic backs that seemed designed to hold onto sickness and anxiety. It would not do, though, to move away from this spot. Only to lose your place? Better to ignore the smell and quietly rising indignation and resettle into the wait.
She began to mumble instructions—no one turned to listen to them—that told of her need to keep the rest of the day in place and herself securely rooted in it. “Doan let that man cheat you on apples again. Apples should sell for a dollar, not a dollar twenty-five. Got to ask if the drink machine working.” She punctuated her monologue by delicately lifting her right buttock off the chair to break wind and then slumped back into silence.
Her milky-eyed stare came back to her surroundings. Her slow blinking took in the hunched shoulders of seasoned pensioners, the hairless smooth calves of self-conscious mothers, and the motionless hands of wage-earning homemakers. Her eyes came to rest on her own fingers, bunched at the joints, dark spots growing outward from the base of her nails from too much scrubbing.
The darkness of her fingernails became submerged in a liquid blackness, visceral and immediate, that spread along her forearms and splashed up her elbows. She leaned forward into its familiarity, which was both comfortable and unwanted. Her body followed the route of this sensation through her memory to the moment, sitting, knees spread wide, with greyish suds sliding down her own hairless claves and pulling her fingers through the slick surface at the end of another day’s washing when she noticed the rot beginning at the corner of her nails.
“An honest day’s work,” she said carefully, her chin close to her chest, waiting for the rest of the words to come. “It was all we had to do outside of diggin’ potatoes or picking cotton, which was alright once Fielding had his truck, but when he got the post-office work, he sell it for a motorcycle. No more drops. If he see you by the road, it was just a wave and a honk. Had to catch bus and walk. Which I didn’t mind. Walking ain’t nutten. But by the time I get to Mrs Hinkson, it would be seven in the evening and she would be telling me she have her own children to feed and she need extra if Myrtle is to get tea as well. Some days I had. Other days….” The sigh made her chin sink closer to her chest.
“So that was when I decided to take in washing.” Her voice lifted even though her chin stayed in place. “Myrtle could be wid me, wouldn’t have to pay nobody to mind she. And she would see me working for the both of us. She would see what it is to have a mother.”
The woman looked toward the careless, relaxed body of a child asleep across the thick thighs of her neighbour. Her words seemed to be directed at this open, trusting form. “I would rub so much so that I couldn’t remember my hands. My body would just be parts, and pain would be my whole. And there was nothing to do but take it so my girl could see her mother was strong.”
The small head, as though in support of this obliterating selflessness, began to nod. A smile started at this unintentional acknowledgment. But the child’s movements were a signal of sudden restlessness, a disquiet that seemed ready to snatch away the physical laxness. Stillness was just as suddenly regained with the gentle weight of the young mother’s hand on her child’s back, moving back and forth rhythmically, with absentminded confidence.
The sight of those splayed fingers, their smooth flesh disturbed only by a web-work of plump veins, brought the eager speaker into another moment of recognition. She was sitting with uncompromising stillness, reminiscent of an indifferent goddess awaiting tribute. Her adult daughter sat before her, perfumed and hairless except for the bone-straight blackness attached to her scalp with great skill and expense in order to highlight her “natural” European features. The young woman’s posture was a model of studied elegance in store-bought newness and a careful indifference to the novelty of it. The stillness that had then held her in place began to creep through her in the present moment, turning her body rigid. A similar stiffness held up the young woman’s words – without it, her quietness could be mistaken for patient devotion, her formality for deference. With her daughter’s pronouncement, the older woman saw her error: it was her child that held the bearing of a withdrawn deity and her own stillness was that of a graceless devotee become stone by the words cast over her. The only ability within her control seemed to be noticing the unmarred smoothness of her daughter’s hands. Delicate pink shells for fingernails and each joint almost unnoticeable even when the fingers curled and flexed. The left hand supported an impersonal glint and iridescence on its ring finger. As she spoke, this shininess seemed to wink malevolently at the older woman, daring her to speak: “And she tell me it was this man that make her strong. She was going to be somebody, going to be somebody’s wife. He was making sacrifice so that she din’ have to suffer, she wouldn’t have to be without.”
“My fiancé’s mother is taking care of everything,” she heard her daughter say calmly. “She has a friend that can get the announcement in the society pages. The notice will feature his parents prominently to show our gratitude for all that they’ve done for us: ‘Son of former senator and staff nurse to wed young, self-made assistant manager.’”
At this point, the young woman’s posture relaxed, a discernible softening that gave the older one a light-hearted hopefulness: here was the moment just before the unpuzzling that would allow her to move again. Here would come the vital missing part. The young woman’s voice contained a smile that the old woman’s lips tried to follow and slowly gave up on as the voice continued. “We had a picture taken to accompany the notice. It’s so beautiful, mum. Me, my husband-to-be and his parents, we look like a real family.” The shining hand came up to touch her chest for a moment. “I feel so blessed and loved right now, at this very moment.” When her daughter’s smile broke loose, it seemed to the older woman as though she faced a brilliant, brittle creature, an aged fountain statue, spewing flotsam.
Like a grey and green mermaid. Serene and oblivious in the garden bath of a well-to-do home. She had seen such a cool beauty in and around the houses that made up the “good” neighbourhoods she would have to visit once in a while to collect or deliver washing. And if it were an early morning during the week, she and her girl would visit these surreal spaces of tranquillity and easy living together, because sometimes she would need help carrying those bundles. An extra pair of hands to ease the load.
It became easier when Mrytle was going to school in town. Daybreak would find them going through those tree-lined avenues, glowing pristine in the weak morning light. In those moments, she felt a peace and wonderment—she was a woman without the help of a man or a mother, supporting herself by her own efforts, by what she carried in her hands, and bringing up her child, who was no doubt going to do better, be better. She was going to finish school.
Waiting patiently with her as she completed the business end of her errands, her daughter, in the blouse and skirt of a well-established school, seemed to belong to these surroundings. There were a few occasions when her daughter had been addressed as “young miss” by a maid or gardener who had not first met the mother. And it was an easy mistake: fair-skinned (the only gift the father had, unwittingly, bestowed upon her) and serious, with delicate features and a bookish vocabulary, the girl did not reveal her humble circumstances in her demeanour and rarely by her own admission. The woman saw her daughter’s reticence as shyness, a natural slowness to trust that can come from being an only child. So she was grateful and relieved when her daughter found a close friend at school who would invite her girl to spend time—a weekend at the family’s beach house, a few days at the house in town, from which they could travel to school together.
And it was on one of these visits, as she made her way up the pebbly driveway of this family’s house close to town, that she pondered the heaven-sent generosity of these people who were willing to give her girl-child a few of the good things, opportunities, she needed to make a better life. Things she wished her love could produce, but she knew money could bring. She noticed the coolness of the sweat patches across her back and under her arms, but these brought no comfort from the stinging heat of an early afternoon sun. She felt the effort of the walk up to the house and reconciled this to the fact that she would usually meet her daughter on the main road, where there was some shade. But on this day, she was a little early and she did not mind meeting her child at the house—it would give her a chance to once again thank the barrister and his wife who had made themselves like kin to her daughter.
As she was about to come into view of the house, she heard the words and intuitively knew the voice but did not recognize the girl who said them as her daughter. It took catching sight of her slim shoulders, hunched in the way that telegraphed her exasperation, and her hands balled into her waist to accept the reality of what she was hearing.
“It’s just so embarrassing! Why can’t I have a rich mother?”
The girl stood facing her friend, the barrister’s daughter, whose expression of sympathy and discomfiture was directed at a gaping tear along the side of the girl’s skirt. The mother took in the scene of two adolescents on a veranda in studiously casual attire that suggested a planned outing. She observed that her daughter wore what was her most fashionable town outfit, made so by the now offensive skirt. It had been just another item in her workload before it had joined the household laundry—rescued from a client’s routine wardrobe overhaul. It had been prized by her daughter as one of the few clothes which she possessed that had not been homemade.
Perhaps it had been through too many washings; perhaps it was not made to be worn often. It had lost its value and it had done so, given the disgust and hurt in her daughter’s voice and the look of awkward sympathy on the friend’s face, in a very public way. The woman felt the sharpness of her daughter’s pain and something else, which kept her from moving toward the house. She could not make her way onto the veranda where the two girls were in conversation.
Instead, she found that she had drifted into a side-garden, where the shimmer and blur across her vision softened the stony outline of the mermaid fount spouting water noisily into its bath. She moved closer to the fountain, close enough to receive the castoff droplets. “Was this always hey? How come I din see it? How it get to be so...?”
She now felt coolness across the back of the hands that occupied her lap. She looked down at the sculpted perfection of her daughter’s fingers pressed into the warm, leathery pillows that hid her own joints. She felt coolness on her cheeks with the words: “Now, it can all be forgotten, the shame and pain—all in the past! All forgotten!” She watched droplets break apart on the smooth surface of young hands. On feeling this muted contribution from the older woman, the younger woman clasped her hands tighter. It was her daughter’s turn to misunderstand.
“Work done from then. Couldn’t, though I wanted to. My hands....” Those who cared to look would have observed a bleary-eyed, wrinkled woman in a blouse stretched tight across her sagging breasts, wringing her large hands between wide-spread knees covered in painfully bright print. With her head slightly bowed, she appeared as an anxious supplicant, caught between faith and doubt.
A toneless voice, delivering an incantation of alien names, seemed to confirm the religious solemnity of this moment. Standing before the row of plastic chairs, in sensible shoes to match a gabardine tunic of bristling white with the orange epaulettes of a nursing assistant, was a stern portly woman. With each name that she sounded, a chair emptied, its former occupant disappearing from the waiting room. Even though the room still contained many who had not yet been released from their uncomfortable waiting, the old woman found herself in the centre of a vacant circle of seats. This emptiness in her immediate vicinity seemed to disconcert her enough to approach, without being summoned, the desk at which the woman in white sat looking reproachfully at those who remained.
“Nurse, nurse, the doctor tell me to come back if it get worse. He giv’ me all sorts of tablets but dis pain got me so bad. Cyan use muh hands, cyan wash nuttin’ prop’ly no more. And my head turn round….” She hurried forward, these words tumbling out, close to incoherent. The woman to whom she spoke held her palm up at stiff arm’s length in front of her as though calling a halt to traffic. From her seated position, she seemed to look down at the old woman and her confusion. “No need to come. No need to come.” The erect palm now became a swatter, shooing the old woman back. “Just drop your appointment card in the box by the door.” Intermittently, the swatter became a sign-post, directing her away from the desk. “It’s a big, white card. It should have your patient number on it. A white card.”
The old woman felt herself clutching at a large card now protruding from the cleavage of her blouse. She grabbed for it several times, feebly, before it skittered to the floor and slid below the desk, where the nurse’s assistant retrieved it with a huff of frustration. She scanned it quickly, already drawing on her store of ready disapproval. She began curtly, “This is not white! This, this….” She stopped short, trying to understand what she was reading. She held up the card, staring at its golden writing in relief, as the older woman came to lean heavily on the desk “…Is a wedding invitation.” Her disapproval shifted to perplexity. “With today’s date.” A square of crème-coloured note paper dropped to the desk. Bordered by incredibly slender champagne flutes, spilling delicate, celebratory bubbles, was a neatly hand-printed message:
I know that you have not been feeling well lately.
You need not come. Feel better soon.
The nurse’s assistant returned her gaze to the old woman who, now propped against the desk, was slightly swaying as though unsure of the very floor beneath her. She noticed that the old woman held her large hands to her chest, just above her heart. She held them as though they were precious and useless. The old woman said in a faraway voice, “I know I’d forgotten something important. It come to me now. Nurse, you can tell me if the drink machine working?”