The First Time Series: The carriage, last but one

Published on September 5, 2012

‘I can’t begin to tell you,’ the woman says, ‘how wonderful it was, that first marriage.’

She stares out of the carriage window as a whip of rushes upbraids the glass. We are passing low over some creek or brook. We pass a heartbeat view of a dry waterbed, bearded with grasses, and then are back in open farmlands again.

‘That first time I was carried over the threshold,’ she continues, ‘oh, we only lived in a two room hut, but I’ll never forget it.’

Her hair is bobbed in a style that suits younger women. Perhaps she has not yet realised that she is old. The green of her dress rests uneasily against the red-brown leather of the seats. She speaks with a bedraggled cheer as annoying to me as the sound of a honey bee trapped against a pane of glass.

‘Arthur was away a lot, doing his painting, but baby and I didn’t mind. Except when one of us was sick. Then we minded an awful lot, because it was a very long walk to the nearest doctor, up the steepest hill imaginable.’

I nod, resting my book on my knee. I am tired, and want nothing more than to disappear into the calming patterns of words and typeface.

‘When he wasn’t painting, he could be so cruel, to the baby and me, just out of being unhappy. But mostly it was good times, taking the baby out for ices when we had the money. And then of course, we had more children…’ the woman says, ‘and things were very tight. It was hard on Arthur. I was doing embroidery, but so little of it sold.’

I look down at my hands, the same shape as my mothers, only missing the wrinkles and scratches that have marked hers as far back as I can remember. A seeping ache in my chest and my left ankle reminds me of where I’ve just been. There’s a bandage over the ankle, but my boot covers it, and it’s not sore enough to make me limp. I have been away so long my mother’s dog had not recognised my smell, and had thrown itself upon my ankle as I entered the gate, giving me a crushing bruise through the leather of my boot. Uncle Graham had to rescue me from her, and because he was there, I knew my mother was already dead.

‘When we lost our little boy, Arthur couldn’t cope. Disappeared one night. I had a telegraph from his mother he’d joined the Navy, and another three weeks later that he was dead in a training accident. I couldn’t believe it, the two of them so soon like that. Didn’t even make it to the war, poor Arthur.’

I shake my head, unable to pay attention to what she is saying. ‘Excuse me,’ I say, ‘would you mind my book? I need to visit the washroom.’

‘Is it important to you?’ She asks, holding her hand out for the book. ‘You’ve been nursing it like a child.’

‘My mother’s,’ I say, and leave the carriage. In the aisle between the carriages is the best view. I am able to see it now that things are concluded. On the way to the house, all I could concentrate on was the conversation I wanted to have with my mother before she died. Now I can notice the befitting starkness of sun-browned fields, and the black and white birds that race along between the sparse trees as the train passes. Somewhere very far away inside me I am grateful to be going home.

In the washroom, the mirror reflects a stern face. My father’s features are stamped upon it like it is nothing more than a wax seal. Below this face is another; my mother’s favourite cameo hanging about my neck. Suddenly I am sick to my stomach. I spit the salty taste into the sink, and run the water, splashing it on my face. What delusions my carriage companion has to look back over her marriage like it’s an album. Living her life as though the swarm of little biting cruelties and abandonment are nothing, as though they are something just short of happiness. She’s old enough to be my mother, and by their age they both should have known better. I dab a handkerchief over my face. The cool water helps only a little.

As soon as I sit down and reclaim my book, she begins again, onto the oration of the second husband and his sins now. The book on my lap is warm beneath my palm, she has said I am nursing it like a child, but I am not. I am holding it as I would have my mother’s hand.

‘Terrible to outlive a husband,’ she says.

I turn my eyes upon her and she leans back suddenly. Perhaps the look on my face is very terrible.

‘It was my dearest wish for my mother,’ I tell her, ‘to outlive hers.’

She looks at me closely and I see her eyes travel down the length of my black clothes. Her face closes in on itself, a meat safe shutting out the flies. In the quiet, I open my mother’s favourite book to a random page, and for the first time I see that the margins of the pages are filled with her spider-sure handwriting.