The two women sat opposite in the train carriage. Catherine sat with her back to the front of the train, even though it wasn’t her preference. Lucy’s mother, Charlotte faced forward and spent most of the journey looking out the window. The passing view slowly transformed from open fields to market gardens on the fringe of the city, then to housing, increasingly cluttered.
“It is such a vast city these days,” Catherine said. “I remember when this area was still marshland and mangroves.”
Charlotte nodded as she spoke. “Indeed, it can be a daunting place.”
“And so much energy too,” Catherine said trying to keep things upbeat. “Perhaps we can take in a trip to the movie theatre together? When Lucy is working. They do matinees on Tuesdays.” Catherine’s mind turned to a dark hall and wondered if this was the best idea. “I do also love a walk along the beach in St Kilda. The light and the air makes me feel so alive.”
“I’d like that,” Lucy’s mother responded. Catherine was unsure which idea she was supportive of but allowed herself a moment to relax a little.
The train slowed and the warehouses inched past and away from them as they rolled into the Terminus.
“We can change trains here and again at Flinders St. Or walk there? It might be nice to stretch our legs.”
They navigated the busy sidewalk, arms linked like they were facing a powerful wind. Office workers, servicemen, school children swirled around and past them in both directions. Each woman carried a small suitcase in their free hand. Catherine had arranged for the largest bag to be sent by road. She wondered if the idea of stretching their legs was a poor choice. Charlotte seemed to shrink as the city’s bluestone building towered over them, the afternoon shadows purple and heavy.
“I need to rest,” Charlotte said. “I don’t think I have walked so far in years. I am quite out of breath.”
Catherine realised her oversight. She looked at the woman in front of her, as she lowered herself onto the timber slats of a public seat, but it was the first time she truly saw her. Now, amongst the muscular movement of the city, she was thin and quite frail. All that time away from the world reduces anyone, no matter their inner strength, she thought.
“I am so sorry, my dear,” she said squatting as best a woman of her age could manage. “I should have been more thoughtful. We shall hail a cab and get you comfortable. Come to my home and spend a day or so. Build up your strength. When you are ready, we can reach out to your husband and your daughter and explain what has happened.”
Catherine walked to the edge of the street and raised her arm high.
The house was filled with silent exhaustion. The roof creaked. The timber walls defied their weight. Catherine barely had the energy to make tea as she sat, strapped into her armchair by the excess gravity of the moment. She didn’t need to do anything, but her mind prodded and pushed against her unwillingness.
Her new guest slept long and deep. At one point, Catherine became concerned. She hadn’t heard even a wrinkle of sound disturb the silence of the hallway. Catherine propped herself there for a time in an anxious bid for the smallest of signals. She moved directly outside the guest bedroom and was about to turn the brass handle that felt frigid in her fingers, when she heard Charlotte exhale a long deep breath. Not a snore, or that rasping sound from the back of one’s throat. Just a deep contented flow of air that signalled to Catherine nothing but a sense of relief, a relief so forceful it washed under the door and across her slipperless feet. She made her way back to the sitting room and soon fell asleep herself, her head cricked into the firm rest.
When she woke, the heavy silence was being gradually erased by the rising sound of the kettle. There was also soft tuneful whistling in the background – Catherine always thought men were the only people who made such a sound – but this didn’t have the hallmarks of a human chortle, instead, being more like soft bird song. But as it increased in volume, Catherine knew its source and smiled. She went to rise but her neck was stiff like it needed its brittle woodiness cleaved before she could move. She let her head move slowly from side to side, then leaned her back forward a little, before shifting her hands to the thick arms of the chair, about to push off.
“Don’t get up. You stay right there.” Catherine in her slightly foggy state thought Lucy had arrived. Instead, Charlotte was crossing the room, teacup and saucer tinkling in her hands below a bright smile.
“You are so kind, Charlotte.”
“I think that’s the pot calling the kettle back. I feel like I’ve been asleep for a week. I pulled back the covers and felt light as a feather. It is so nice to be in a house – a home again. I can never thank you enough”
Catherine put the cup to her lips, her eyes drawn to the sight of Charlotte walking back towards the kitchen like the house was her own. As if reading Catherine’s thoughts, Charlotte spoke back over her shoulder.
“I hope you don’t mind me pottering in your kitchen. I haven’t had the luxury of such a space for so long.”
“No of course. Make yourself at home.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary – I shall be back in my own place soon enough.”
Catherine felt a slurry of feelings curdle in her stomach. A mix of pride – surely this display reassured her that the best thing for Lucy’s mum was to be out of the institution – combined with a load of fear and guilt – it was presumptuous to take Charlotte out of care without even consulting the family. She hope Lucy would be delighted. She worried about her father’s response, especially given his work pressures. But, it was a means to an end, and that end was in sight, and looked and felt brightest from where she stood – or sat – right now as she listened to Charlotte coming to life in her kitchen.
November 1, 11pm
There is little light in my world. The house is empty. The city is restless and my mind even more so.
I know not where my daughter is tonight. Nor my wife.
I am a husband only in that a sheet of paper in my shoebox shows the name of my wife, and the date we were joined. Until death do us part. I have let her down and now she could be anywhere, with any person. I know neither. I should have kept her close these past years, but failed to step up and took the easy path. Voices of doctors louder than my own courage made me buckle at the knees.
I am a father only in that I have a daughter. A young woman now who in my absence of thought and deed has found her own way. Much to her credit, little to mine. But this night of all nights, I hope she has found her way to somewhere safe. Perhaps being away from me is her haven.
I am a policeman only in that I have a badge, a set of issue clothing that hangs in my wardrobe in the next room. The men I once called colleagues, now only call me rat or spook. If they care to focus on me at all. They are too busy with their own agitation, which I should be supportive, but have no way or audience to give that a voice.
If we could only retrace and rewrite our lives, what decisions would we make? Or would every road always lead to a muddied field.
- : Historical Fiction
- : More out of order scenery - apols