“I don’t remember there being a jellyfish beside Jesus’s crib,” said Grandpa.
Mum was stitching silvery stuff onto an old petticoat for my nativity play. The sewing machine stopped and Mum gave Grandpa a cross look. “Not now, Dad. Not in front of Jessica.” She patted my head.
“Sorry I spoke,” Grandpa said, and winked at me.
The sewing machine buzz started again.
I knew I wouldn’t be chosen for Mary or an angel. My hair was too frizzy, my teeth too sticky out, my limping leg too limpy. All Miss Draper’s class were in the play. She’d asked Jason what he’d like to be and he’d said a jellyfish, and bounced up and down clapping his hands. “Well, we’ll have two jellyfish, I think,” Miss Draper said, smiling her teacher smile. “You can both stand near the back of the stage and wriggle.” Jason wiggled all the time. Miss Draper said we could join in the carols, but Jason mustn’t shout.
“You have to be very graceful to be a jellyfish,” Mum said, patting my head as I tripped over the sewing machine flex. I often tripped up. One leg turned inwards and was shorter than the other.
Mum had struggled to find anything to make jellyfish tentacles out of. Luckily, Dad brought some silver material home from the factory yard where he worked. It was shiny and springy, and wobbled the way tentacles should. It did have a funny smell though.
I tried the costume on and the tentacles looked amazing as I span around.
“Careful Jessica,” Grandpa said, untangling me. “Where did you get this stuff, Melanie love? It smells like tar. Are you sure it’s okay?”
“Course,” Mum said, clearing up the sewing machine.
When I took the costume in for the dress rehearsal, everybody went, “Wow,” at my outfit. I think some of the donkeys and angels would have liked to swap.
All except Mary who flicked the tentacles and wrinkled her nose, “It smells. I wouldn’t want to wear that thing.” But her fingers stroked the tentacles as if she did like it really. Her costume was plain blue.
I never did wear the jellyfish outfit. Mary came out in a rash before the show. They said she’d had an allergy to something.
Because we were the same size and my jellyfish costume had disappeared, they let me be Mary instead. I didn’t even drop baby Jesus.
Since Teddy’s death, she slept on his side of the bed, so that in the morning she’d look out through the bay of the bedroom window, imagining she saw what he’d seen. She was aware of the dip in the mattress his body had moulded and thought of his head on the same pillow. It eased the ache of missing him, which tumbled like a stone inside her. Through his illness he’d described the daily changes of the cherry tree outside to her. Observed its spreading branches, the way it caught the light; its buds and blossoms through the seasons. They’d rarely closed the curtains, as they weren’t overlooked at the front.
Sundays were the quietest days when she’d lie in bed for longer, listening. The piping of a blackbird’s song, the whinny of a horse, breeze stirring the cherry tree. The froth of pink blossom was long gone, the leaves starting to change from green to deep red. It would not be long before they fell.
On Sundays, there wasn’t agitation of rush hour cars, and traffic on the bypass was more hum than roar.
Village children weren’t chattering as they made their way to the bus stop for school. Even the family who’d recently moved next door weren’t yet up. Teenage arguments and pounding music hadn’t begun to penetrate the party wall.
Yes, in some ways she liked Sundays best.
As she made her breakfast; two slices of toast and marmalade, tea poured from a pot into a china cup, the sun came out. A wedge of light lit the patio area so she loaded a tray and took her meal outside. The back garden had been neglected. She should mow the lawn one last time before the winter. However, it seemed a shame. The grass was long but brightened by shaggy golden dandelions. They were a cheerful flower and she could never resist blowing the clocks they left, reminding her of childhood days, when life had been simple.
The autumnal damp intensified the garden aroma, the elders and old roses mingled with something else; the scent of change.
She and Teddy had often talked about planting a tree, but could never agree on what to choose; there were so many options for a small garden. Across the fence was a mighty oak tree which they loved. It was always a topic of conversation when they’d sat in the garden, never failing to amaze with its perpetual cycle of change.
She returned to the kitchen, switched on the radio before washing up. Pushing her sleeves up she noticed a brown scab on her forearm. It was the size and shape of her thumb print. She put her finger on it, feeling its roughness. It reminded her of a knot in wood. It didn’t hurt or irritate. She didn’t think any more about it, as her attention was taken up by a politician making a statement on a radio programme. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” she shouted. The radio panel ignored her outburst.
“You agree with me, don’t you Teddy?” She looked at his photo sitting on the window sill, smiling at her. She’d given up worrying about talking to Teddy. Knew she wasn’t going mad. Of course, Teddy hadn’t always agreed with her, he liked to play the devil’s advocate.
Sunday was a day for a little housekeeping, watching a film in the afternoon, a hand or two of patience and an early bath before bed. As she dried herself, she noticed other brown scabs on her legs and stomach. Perhaps she should make an appointment with a doctor.
Every week day she walked to the country park; taking a route through the streets of the village. They’d moved here when first married, fifty years ago. It hadn’t changed much. Some new front doors and double glazing, an extension or conservatory. There was still a corner shop. It was a mini supermarket now. The young cashiers were polite, but didn’t talk much, unlike Mrs Brown in the old days.
She liked the familiarity of the walk, the one that had been their daily ritual when Teddy was alive.
Going through the metal gates into the park, she decided on which route to take, clockwise or anticlockwise and started a circuit to the lake at the top. The trees were smouldering into yellow and amber. Spent horse chestnut husks littered the ground. She looked for a shining brown conker but there were none left today. If she’d found one, she’d have picked it up, smoothed it in her fingers then left it by the willow at the far side of the lake. That’s where she sat. On Teddy’s bench; the metal plaque winking in the sunshine.
They’d started to come here in the early days of their marriage. Making plans. Imagining bringing a family for picnics, teaching them the names of the trees and plants. But children hadn’t come.
She looked up at the willow tree, that rose beside her. Leaves which last week had been silvery, were now glinting gold in the slant of sunshine through its boughs. Its trunk reached out bending into the water, trailing its leaves to make dimples in the surface. Whispering as it moved. On one of its branches, there was an oval mark, so like an eye; she could never curb the feeling that it was watching her. This was where she had sprinkled Teddy’s ashes.
She reached to pat the tree trunk, and noticed another crusty brown scab on the back of her hand. She remembered Teddy stroking her skin, could almost sense his touch. “Like alabaster,” he’d murmured.
As soon as she got home, she phoned the doctor’s surgery.
The receptionist said, “The doctor is only seeing urgent cases at the moment. Is it urgent?”
“Well no, but…”
“Can you take a photo on your phone, send it in?”
“I don’t have a mobile.”
“What about a friend, a son, daughter?”
“No, there’s nobody.”
“Well I could suggest a video call on your computer, but not to worry.”
She was going to say, she might be able to do a video call on her PC, given a bit of time to work it out.
But the receptionist was already saying, “Phone again if the symptoms deteriorate.”
And the line beeped her dismissal.
The following week after a bath, she noticed her toenails had turned a strange colour, yellowed, thick and horny. They didn’t hurt though, as long as she didn’t put on shoes or slippers. She took to walking in the house barefoot, amused by the tik-tak-tik sound of her nails against the tiles. She did a tap dance to a song on the radio and laughed. She hadn’t danced for such a long time. Teddy had loved to jive with her, spinning her around until she was dizzy, her long auburn hair swirling in a cloud. Though her hair was grey now, when she closed her eyes it felt the same, brushing through the air.
In the mornings she started to find it more difficult to climb out of bed, her joints were stiff and aching. Her skin continued to scab in bigger areas of brown so it was no longer supple.
As she washed up her breakfast crockery, her arms began to cramp.
Tomorrow, she’d have to phone the doctor’s again.
The Sunday chat show was in full swing when she switched the radio on. People were chuntering about the news and what should be done. She tried to speak, say “Rubbish, rubbish, what are you talking about?” but the sound was merely a croak. Her throat felt rough and rusty. She tried another sentence but she could only whisper. She wouldn’t be able to speak to the doctor’s receptionist unless her throat eased before tomorrow morning.
She made a cup of lemon tea with honey to take outside. Perhaps it would relieve her throat and the sunlight might help her skin.
She shuffled to the back door. Then sat and sipped her tea. A great tit called from the fence and chirruped, ‘Do it, Do it,’ as if encouraging her to walk further.
Easing herself up out of the chair, she hobbled down the garden. The branches of elder and leylandii hedging swayed like a welcoming wave. Brambles and swathes of ivy reached out long shoots as if trying to embrace her.
A tightening in her chest that she hadn’t even been aware of relaxed as she soaked up the scent and sounds around her. Her lungs moved in steady, rhythmic motion. Her breaths deep, absorbing the garden essence. She liked the sound each exhalation made; it reminded her of the whisper of the willow tree.
On the lawn, the grass came up to her ankles, she knocked dandelion clocks and their down floated like ash.
When she paused, it seemed quite natural that her rooty nails wriggled down in to the earth. She laughed because the soil tickled as her toes bedded in.
Though her feet were fixed she found she could sway, dancing with the breeze. Her hair thickening into twigs, twisted about her.
As it got darker, she felt no impulse to move back to the house. She watched as the full Harvest moon made her limbs glow silver.
The next day it rained but she was well protected with her crusty bark, the drops danced on her. Pattering a tune which was soothing, reminding her of the way Teddy’s heart beat in rhythm with hers when they’d made love. Refreshing; healing.
She closed her eyes and felt them begin to seal. This made her anxious, as she wanted to be able to see. But though her vision altered, perception of light and movement remained.
Time appeared to matter less, without the need to wake and sleep. She was centred and content. Although she couldn’t speak, she gradually became aware of networking. It began as a tremble in her roots, as if electric wiring had connected. Words weren’t spoken but she was sure the question, “Are you alright?” was asked by the oak in the next garden. She responded, “Yes,” by a mechanism she didn’t understand. Thus, in time she was introduced to other local trees. Had many a long conversation.
It might have been spring when she received a message from a willow in the country park.
The days after my mother’s cremation are dry, as if the whole world has been scorched. My body shrivels; eczema returning, making my skin flake and irritate, sore as sunburn. When my fingers pull through my hair, it fizzes with static and breaks. However many cups of tea I drink, my thirst is not quenched, my mouth remains ashy. Food tastes like cardboard so I don’t eat and my bones are angles and ridges, reminding me of carcasses in deserts.
I cough and choke when I enter her house to clear it. Everything is cobwebs and dust, the air desiccates around me. I ignore the unfinished jigsaw puzzle on her card table. We used to love completing them together, mother and daughter, working in quiet companionship. Such a simple activity, but one which brought us joy. Now the scattered shards of puzzle look abandoned.
I start in the bedroom; bagging up cast off clothing, then filling boxes with books. Bedding crackles as I shove sheets into black sacks. In the kitchen crockery and cutlery glint and make jangling echoes through the empty house.
When I sit at her desk, the top creaks as it opens, the hinges unoiled. Her documents and letters are parched and crack as I sort through them, the ink dried in the fountain pen. Postcards I’ve sent her break when touched. Their foreign stamps flip and fall away like dead leaves.
I finish in the lounge. Clouds of dust rise up when I move her things. I pull the curtains across, trying to block the frazzle of sunshine. But it still twists in, lighting up the motes in the air so I half hope that they will coalesce into a vision of her.
Eventually I come to the cabinet where she kept the jigsaw puzzles. She saved them all. My first; five pieces of wood which formed a donkey. Then more complicated ones. The clock face which had moving hands to add on when completed, from which I learnt to tell the time. Maps of Britain and then the World, so each day was a trip of discovery in our own front room.
Later, I would give her a puzzle at every birthday; her favourites birds or butterflies or flowers. I remember how she examined each piece, even when her eyesight was poor, her fingers sensing the outline, weighing it up and then placing it in the correct position. She’d say, “I love how all these little bits which mean nothing on their own; fit together to make something whole, something beautiful.”
The abandoned jigsaw is a circular one, which when finished will depict a single rose in full bloom. I put in one bit and then continue, my fingers easing as the puzzle grows. As I place the last piece in the central spot, a tear drop of water falls onto the perfect petals. Then more follow, like a summer shower. The drought is over.
I was lucky enough to return to Hastings this year as part of my prize from winning last year’s short story competition. Does the sun always shine in Hastings? It was another sunshine filled two days.
On Friday I attended 2 workshops, ‘Writing difference,’ with Char March and ‘Preparing your Novel for Submission,’ with Hannah Sheppard. Both were excellent. With insight, and plenty of ideas to work through. They will both help me with novel No 4, which is currently in first draft stage. I’ve got renewed energy to work on it now.
On Saturday I had a table at the Book Fair. It was great to meet other authors there, talk to visitors and sell some books.