by Denise O’Hagan
As the old woman peered through the window at the screen of mist and drizzle, she made out a small figure hurrying towards the steps of her apartment. She smiled. Children intrigued her: not that they were little angels; they were naïve as yet, perhaps, but, she reflected, far from innocent.
Gathering her shawl around her, she made her laborious way across to the other side of the room to open the door. A girl stepped in, her coat casting fine beads of water around as she slid it off.
‘How kind of you to come in this weather!’ The old woman held her close. ‘Sit down, my dear. Would you like some cake and tea?’
‘Oh, yes, please!’ The girl placed her coat over a chair and beside it a small parcel, and threw herself down on the sofa. Her red velvet dress with black trimming seemed to light up the room. She picked up her patent leather handbag, took out a comb and tugged it through her dark, damp hair. Now that she had reached her teens she was growing up fast, the old woman noted.
Outside, the rain was pouring steadily, driving uneven little rivers against the window pane. The girl tucked her comb and handbag aside and sank back into the comfort of the sofa, arms crossed about her slim body as if jealous of the warmth.
The old woman pulled up a small table with a bowl of fruit and placed on it a pot of steaming tea and a sponge cake laced with almonds. She clicked the lamp on and lowered herself into her chair, grimacing with the effort.
For a moment, neither spoke, and all that could be heard was the muted sound of city traffic and the rain splashing against the window. The glow of the lamplight softened the girl’s angular little face, revealing, the woman observed, the emerging lines of womanhood.
The old woman watched the girl munch her cake. ‘Was the restaurant busy tonight, my dear?’ she enquired as she prepared tea.
‘It was mad,’ the girl said flatly. ‘We always have some difficult customers, but tonight one group was really loud and kept changing their minds until I was ready to throw soup at them. I made sure they got the stale bread, though.’
The old woman chuckled as she put her teacup down.
‘Still, Dad said I could take any evening I want off next week to catch up before my exams. Oh, I nearly forgot: I brought you a present!’ The girl jumped up, and picked up her parcel from the chair. Bashfully, she held it out.
‘Oh, but you shouldn’t!’ The old woman shook her head gently as she laid the parcel on her lap. ‘Do you know,’ she murmured, half to herself, ‘your parents have been so very kind to me over the years; I who am not even a relation! I remember the day I met your mother. We were both temporaries, working at the same office; she was about to leave, whereas I had just arrived.’
She stared past the girl, unseeing. ‘She was the only one who was young, who had any spark to her. All the others were broken down by financial or personal problems. The war had left no one unscathed. She saw that I was nervous and told me whom to watch out for and whom I could trust, and was generous to me in uncountable ways. Without her, I doubt I would have lasted as long as I did there.’
She paused. ‘Even later, when your parents’ restaurant business took off, she always made time for me, brought me little things.’ The old woman’s eyes filled with tears as she became aware of the parcel in her lap and of her young companion, head down, patiently scraping her plate clean.
‘Goodness, how I become distracted these days,’ she said. ‘Well, it comes with age. Have another piece of cake, my dear, while I open my present.’
‘Yes, do open it!’ the girl said. ‘This is all from me, not my mother.’
The old woman smiled, her aged fingers plucking at the tape.
‘Here, I’ll do it for you.’ The girl pulled the tape free with one rapid movement, and the white paper floated to the floor. ‘I don’t know what sort of flowers they are. But it doesn’t really matter because they’re so pretty, aren’t they?’
‘Beautiful, my dear.’ The old woman’s hands were shaking as she gazed down at the limp orange and white flowers.
‘They didn’t get much crushed.’ The girl gathered them up and laid them out carefully, like dolls, on the sofa. ‘Can I put them into that vase by the window?’
The old woman nodded and watched as the girl grasped the flowers, deftly coaxing their narrow stalks into the vase, one after the other, their petals reaching out in a ragged halo of orange and white.
As the girl made a space for them near the window, the old woman looked at the clutter around her. ‘I have been meaning to do some tidying up, but my back has been bad. I’ve kept too much: books, letters, photos, drawings, paintings...’ Her voice trailed off as the girl turned her head around.
‘Your drawings are still in that box, though, aren’t they?’ The girl’s eyes were on the bookshelf.
‘What’s in that?’ The girl was pointing at a blue folder in the top shelf, partly obscured by an intricately patterned piece of fabric draped over it.
‘Nothing much. Just some old things from long ago.’
‘Oh, can I see them? Are they the paintings you used to promise to show me ages ago and never did?’ She stood up and took a step towards the bookshelf.
Startled, the girl twisted around. The old woman was also on her feet, the silver knife in her hand glinting in the lamplight.
‘Here, peel this apple while I get the folder down. Too much cake is not good for young ladies!’ The old woman smiled, her composure returning so completely that the girl felt confused.
She returned to the sofa and began slicing up the fruit, with tidy, obedient movements. From the corner of her eye, she watched as the old woman walked over to the bookshelf.
‘The table is small. Let’s spread the paintings over the floor together, shall we?’
Rising, the girl made space on the carpet, and they carefully placed the folder down. They opened it, releasing a play of dust motes over watercolours of fruit and flowers, cats and birds, painted landscapes and sketches of towns, and the occasional charcoal portrait.
She paused at a painting of a beach scene: a sparkling blue-grey sea, its waves iced with the white foam of breakers, a pale sky, and on the beach a few children building a castle in the sand. It was a simple painting, and the subject hardly original, yet it caught the vast expanse of land, the heat, the light.
‘How beautiful!’ the girl breathed, surveying it with undisguised delight. ‘Where is it?’
‘I used to visit the beach a long, long time ago, when I was a girl like you.’ A shadow passed over the old woman’s face, and she turned to the next painting.
‘Oh, wait, tell me more!’ The girl clasped her hands together in excitement.
‘Well, really, there’s nothing much to tell. My family and I simply used to spend our summers at the coast. I would go down to that beach, play in the sand, and swim.’ A note of pride crept into her voice. ‘I was not a bad swimmer. The days were very hot, you see, and staying in the water was the easiest way to keep cool. No matter how hard the sun shone, that sea was like a reservoir of cold, especially out in the deeper waters.’
‘But’ — the girl’s voice was puzzled — ‘why did you leave? Why did you leave and come to this big, ugly city? Sometimes,’ she confided, ‘I dream of living somewhere like that, with sun and beaches.’
The old woman smiled, a quizzical and impenetrable smile. ‘When you grow as old as I am,’ she said quietly, ‘you will realise that there are many reasons people leave their homes. You cannot always understand other people’s motives; it is enough just to fathom your own.’
But the girl was scrutinising the painting again. ‘What big cliffs!’
‘Yes, indeed they were. It used to get very windy up there.’
‘I wouldn’t want to be there in a strong wind!’ The girl laughed with a pleasurable thrill.
The old woman turned her head and looked at the girl. ‘No, it could be a very dangerous place in bad weather.’
A sudden and violent burst of thunder made them both look up. Outside, the sky was darkening, and the clouds piling up like giant, sodden balls of cotton wool.
The girl stood up reluctantly, stretched, and walked over to the window. Squinting, she could just see the dull stone of the buildings opposite and the green cushion of treetops below.
‘The rain’s stopped. I had better go now, or I’ll be late. That painting is wonderful: it’s funny you never showed it to me before, isn’t it?’ She slipped into her coat and buttoned it up. Her hair, now dry, fell across her face as she knelt down to pick up her handbag.
The old woman, who had been sitting immobile, got shakily to her feet. She shivered and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders as she followed the girl to the door and unfastened it. A draught of cold air slapped the wall, stirring the leaves of the plants on the window sill.
‘Thank you for the flowers, my dear, you are very kind.’ She smiled and kissed the girl goodbye. ‘Give your mother my love, and tell her I shall be in touch.’
Softly the old woman closed the door behind her, and silence filled the room again. Silence, except for the clock ticking. The old woman did not mind the quiet; she was used to it and found it peaceful. A few crumbs on the table and a faint trace of perfume were all that was left of her young visitor. And the chrysanthemums, of course.
As she gathered up the paintings still strewn over the floor, the old woman paused over the seascape which her young friend had so admired. Under the uneven glow of the lamp, the colours in the painting seemed to dance, the sea to sparkle, and the sand to glisten and beckon.
Squinting, the old woman held the picture closer. Distant memories sprang up and gradually came into focus. Had she been Maria’s age or older? Not that she had ever compared herself to her. Oh no, Maria was the ordinary child she had never been. The many summers she had spent at the beach merged into a single, nebulous memory, hazy and indistinct as the sand itself.
Tilting the painting, the colours darkened, the waves rushed towards her, gathering force, spattering her face with cold. A child again, she was standing beside her brother on that beach. They had been swimming and were standing, exhausted, by the sea, warm and panting after their swim.
Their mother called to them but, defiant, she ran into the shallows again, taunting her brother. She knew he wasn’t as strong a swimmer as she, and he was two years younger. She dived into the glistening mirror of water, hard and cold as a gem to look at, soft and warm once you were in it.
Behind her, she heard her brother call. Was he catching up? She ducked and swam through the deep green water, faster, harder. There was no limit to what she could do. She was at one with the swirling mass beneath, above and around her; no longer an enemy to be overcome, it supported and carried her. Surfacing again, she swam in a big horseshoe, riding the crest of the waves, which embraced her and made her feel invincible.
Finally, exhilarated, she came out. She rested in the shade for a moment, before walking over to the rocks which skirted the cliffs. With fearless agility, she climbed upwards, until she commanded a view over both beach and sea. Sheltering her face from the white glare of the sun, she looked around at the scene spread out beneath her. Tomorrow, strangers would walk over the beach, leaving a string of litter in their wake; but now, just for a moment, it all belonged to her alone; she was a queen surveying her lands.
She felt something tickle her foot. Looking down, she saw a beetle labouring slowly and patiently across the slab of stone on which she was standing. She bent down, and with one neat gesture flicked it over towards a thicket. It landed, as she knew it would, on its back; she observed it waving its legs frantically and uselessly in the air. It would go on doing this until it died. She straightened her body, and directed her attention once again towards the sea.
She scanned the ocean to the fine line where sea met sky. Suddenly she frowned; she could see no trace of her brother. She stared on. Slowly she climbed down to a lower rock, and stopped. A distant, muffled yell could be heard; one pink arm emerged and lay on the sparkling sea. It rose briefly, then subsided, as if drawn inevitably down by the seething mass of water enveloping it.
She stretched up higher, her eyes narrowing. Her toe drew a pattern in the sand. A bush stirred faintly in the breeze, and a strand of hair blew across her face. The sea lay before her, a vast, shimmering expanse of immeasurable depth and mystery. It gave no sign of human contact, or indeed of anything at all. She took a deep breath, pushed back her hair, and weaved her way carefully up the cliff in the direction of her family’s house.
Under the lamplight, the old woman lowered her head, a tiny figure standing in the midst of a cluttered, rented room. Her shoulders slumped, her shawl slipped down, and her hands began trembling involuntarily. The painting she had been holding fell unnoticed from her grasp to the floor.
She reached out one arm to the lampstand, to steady herself. The lamp tottered, but held, and the movement was caught by the mirror in the hall. Its flickering, uneven light exposed the contours of the old woman in merciless detail: the crevices and valleys of her wasted face, the puckered gathering of folds in her neck. Her hair, pinned up neatly that morning, now fell in a mock white cascade down one side of her face.
Tearing her eyes from the mirror, she touched the runaway strands, unconsciously resorting to a familiar gesture, and lowered herself into the sofa.
She held out her hands in front of her and stared at them in amazement, as if for the first time. These withered, curved fingers, parchment-like, these tired old wrists, criss-crossed with little ridges of blue veins. They belonged to her; no, they were her. They too, had taken part in that brief heartlessness, that sudden, inexplicable cruelty. That girl on the beach, she was here now, though only she knew it; that was her penance.
The old woman frowned in the unaccustomed grappling with memories and images. Young Maria, proudly holding out a bunch of chrysanthemums, a small boy struggling in the sea, the clock ticking on a pile of books on the floor. The trapped images whirled around incessantly in the old woman’s mind.
She raised her head, gathering her hair and clipping it back into place. Draping her shawl around herself, she put the paintings away and dried the dishes at the sink. In a silent and private ritual, she rearranged the chrysanthemums at the window, and looked up. The sky was dark, a huge canopy of cloud suspended over the city, punctuated by light from a few lone stars. The night-time murmur of the city was dulled by the rain, which had begun to fall again.
Copyright © 2018 by Denise O’Hagan