This small collection of short stories from my book Phoenix Rising concentrates on the themes of love, death and rebirth. Centered around female relationships and reflecting many different aspects of femininity and what it means to be a woman - mother, daughter and sister; this collection explores the concept of of re-inventing yourself - whether consciously, or by unexpected love, or luck.
I hope the characters draw you into their lives and help you reflect upon your own.
May you too, give birth to a new you.
The Red Commode
Emily opened the door to Mom’s room and we both tentatively stepped through, the smell of Dove soap and powder greeting us as we entered.
The room was shrouded in darkness as the floral curtains were still drawn and it had the look and feel of something once loved but now discarded. My elder sister hurried to pull the curtains back and open the windows, letting in the cool breeze. I took a deep breath and looked around, slowly absorbing the details: the photo frames on her bedside table, the glass lamp for which Em and I had saved one whole year’s pocket-money to buy for her birthday. The bed covers were in disarray. There was a nightie lying crumpled on the floor. There had been no time to clean the room and Dad had not been in here since Mom’s heart-attack. It had all happened so quickly and the man who had always coped and carried the burden and responsibilities in the family, the man who had always taken charge and made the decisions, had collapsed and faded into a shadow of his former self. He was lost without her and, existing on a diet of tinned soup and denial, he had left his two daughters to pick up the pieces of his broken life. So, here we were on this cold Sunday morning, with the dreaded task of clearing out our mother’s room.
‘Meg,” Emily called, her words shocking me back into the moment. ”Let’s start with the cupboard, shall we?”
“Get the bags.” she instructed, while her eyes darted around the room and her mind made mental to-do lists. I brought the black plastic bags and sat next to Emily as she methodically went through our mother’s wardrobe, sifting through all her clothes and deciding in a matter of minutes which dress was worthy of the charity shop and which should get thrown out.
All my mother’s dresses hung in a neat row. All her shoes were still packed in boxes and two pairs had never been worn and still had their price-tags on them.
“I am not surprised, a bit too sexy for mom.” Emily stated, suspiciously holding up a black stiletto.
I watched my sister with astonishment as she went into leader mode and managed to shut out all emotion. After four miscarriages and a recent divorce, she was better equipped to deal with loss than me. I sat there, numb, thinking about the woman who had been my den as a young child, my sounding board and greatest fan, the woman who had evolved from being my care-giver to my friend. How could she be gone? She was quiet and always in the background, hurrying around taking care of everyone. She was the glue that kept this family together. What would become of us?
My mother was a simple woman with simple needs and so it did not take us long to clear out her cupboards.
Emily sat down on the floor and let out a long sigh. Her eyes started to fill with water but she gathered herself together and, in an irritated tone, remarked, “I think it is rather cowardly of Dad to not do this himself.”
I ignored her comment as I had wandered off to the mahogany chest-of-drawers my folks had been given as a wedding present. Just touching the French-style commode seemed to spark memories. My mother had never been particularly fond of dark wood and so in a spontaneous moment after a few glasses of Champagne five years ago, she had borrowed some paint from her artist neighbour and painted it bright red (the only colour he apparently had enough of at the time). She had then replaced the handles with crystal ones from the antique market in town. A few weeks after this event, while stirring a large pot of Chicken Korma, my mother remarked how she had learnt two things; one was that Champagne did not agree with her and the other was that the colour red actually went with most things.
I opened the first drawer and began to sift through neatly lined rows of folded panties and bras, separated with scented sachets and soap. I fought back the feeling of intruding on her space. My mother, a private woman, would not have been comfortable with this scene. I heard a sniff and looked back at my sister, the protective layers around her starting to fray. Emily had picked up the nightie from the floor and I caught her bringing it to her nose and breathing in deeply. The first thing you miss when someone close to you dies is the way they smell. Their unique scent is something you take for granted, but unlike photographs and recorded videos, you can never keep the smell of someone alive.
The second drawer contained nighties and jerseys and yet another black bag was needed as we emptied out more of my mother’s belongings. I found her old woolly brown jumper that had been around for about fifteen years, as my mother seldom cleared out her cupboards or bought new clothes. I remembered the day she had worn her new brown jersey to the school to meet with my class teacher. Mrs Johnson, a real tyrant had summoned my mother to the school in order to discuss my disobedience and non-attendance in the classroom for the last two days. My mother explained she had been ill and as her husband had been away on business, she had turned to her youngest daughter to nurse her. Being so ill, she had forgotten to write a note explaining the situation and of course was terribly sorry about it all and she reassured Mrs Johnson it would not happen again. In reality I had bunked school to spend the two days with my best friend, Joe, who was about to leave with his family to live in Australia. Over summer evenings filled with the smell of watermelon and the sound of children playing cricket in the street, Joe and I had become friends and, as months turned into years, we had become inseparable. Joe and I would get up to all kinds of mischief, running around the streets, ringing doorbells and chasing cats, but mostly we would pass the hours by sitting up in his cupboard, reading books and listening to music. We may have only been fourteen but we were soul mates, if ever there was such a thing. Up until that day I had thought my mom hadn’t actually known what I was up to or where I was most of the time. Her actions though had brought about a new found respect in me for my mother. I had learnt that my mother may have been quiet, but she was a shrewd woman who understood more than I had ever given her credit for. She had covered for me as she had empathised, and she had cared more about my feelings than any rules. My mother’s fake alibi and her quiet understanding were the best gifts she could ever have given me. I can still see her now standing in the kitchen, warming some minestrone and saying, “Meg, your dad needn’t know about this, your secret is safe with me.” This was quickly followed by a firm “and I know you will start behaving better from now on and not try something like this again, won’t you my girl?”
The jersey went into the plastic bag with all the others and, wiping away a tear with the back of my hand, I opened the bottom drawer. The drawer felt stuck and needed quite a tug to get it open. Unlike the other two drawers this one was stuffed full of cards and letters, photographs and little keepsakes. I grabbed a crimson cushion off the bed and made myself comfortable. “Em, what do you want to do about all of this?”
Emily took a look in and said, “Let’s just make little piles and show Dad afterwards. Perhaps he’ll want this stuff, or maybe we will. I don’t know, Meg. Just pass me something.”
She, too, grabbed a cushion and together we sorted through our mother’s most cherished possessions. I felt like I was uncovering hidden treasure but each discovery brought with it a memory that caused my heart to grow heavier. I found a pressed flower I had given Mom one Mother’s Day, a pink knitted baby’s booty and a white lace bib, a wedding photo of my mom as a glowing bride, an old brooch belonging to my Grandmother and a piece of wedding cake all wrapped in cellophane from Em’s wedding, which she proceeded to grab from me while cynically muttering, “Well, we can chuck this out!”
Digging further into the drawer I found a pencil sketch of pansies that I had drawn for my mom while studying at art school, a blank postcard with a photograph of the Sistine Chapel on it from my parents’ one and only holiday in Italy, a few baby photos and more photographs of happier times holidaying by the sea. I stared at Emily’s sand-covered face and my cheeky grin. Only 13 months apart, we looked like twins in the photos. I remembered the sand-castle building competition my mom used to arrange, the taste and feel of the cold salty water and the coke-floats we would drink on the hot days. When I looked at the photos I could not hide the pain any longer and just let the tears slide down my face. Apart from the wedding photo, all the others were of my dad, Emily and me. My mom was always behind the camera and so we had few family photos or photos of just her. Suddenly I regretted that. I wanted to see her face, to imagine touching her, looking into her wise old eyes. I put the photos aside and sat back against the bed. “I can’t continue, Emily, you take over.”
Emily’s eyes were filled with tears too, but my older sister did what she did best and took charge, rummaging through the rest of my mom’s personal items. A few ribbons, a gold chain, a packet of Halls sweets, a bottle of pink blush nail polish, and at the back, a sealed manilla envelope, bulging and tied with string. Emily pulled out the envelope and carefully untied the string.
“Wait!” I suddenly cried out. ‘What if this is something private, something for Dad’s eyes only.”
“Meg, the envelope is addressed to Mom and anyway, Dad told us to sort everything out. Besides, this is mom we are talking about. I doubt there will be anything risqué in here. Stop being a prude.”
She tore the envelope open and out fell a silver locket, a black and white photograph and a few hand-written letters.
‘Hmmn,’ we both said in unison.
I reached for the locket. I had never seen it before. It was heart-shaped with an intricate design on the front. I opened it but it was empty. I looked up at Emily who was busy reading one of the letters. Her face wore a frown, her eyes appeared dark. “Meg, you need to see this”, she said, handing some letters to me with a shaking hand.
I took the letters and skimmed over them, words like ‘love’, ‘passion’ stood out, and ‘I can’t sleep without dreaming about you’ starred up at me. I blinked and re-read them. I tried to place the time and scene. This was our mother the writer had been talking about, but it may have well been a stranger.
Shaking, I put the letters down and held the black and white photo in my hand. It was well-worn, as if it had been folded and kept in a pocket. It showed a close-up of my mother and an attractive man, faces pressed against each other. From the strange angle it looked like it had been taken using one hand, in order to have them both in the frame. Her hair was long, dark and hung loose around her face. She looked young and relaxed. She was smiling into the camera, her eyes sparkling in a way I could barely remember them ever doing. The man next to her was dark with wild, wavy hair, chiseled jawline and an attractive smile. On the back of the photo was written a quote by Pablo Neruda,
‘I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”
The photo, evidence of love, a forbidden love, must have been about twenty five years old.
Ever the speed-reader, Emily had ferociously made her way through the fourth and last letter. “She had an affair Meg! It lasted a couple of years by the looks of things and only ended because he left the country.”
“Look how happy she was” was all I could say, holding up the old photograph.
“I can’t believe she did this to Dad. I can’t believe she’d have done such a thing and with someone like him!”
“It happens Emily.” I said. “People do crazy things for love and to feel alive. When do you ever remember mom being alive?”
“Maybe we never knew her?” said Emily, sounding distraught.
“Of course we knew her Em,” I softly reassured my sister.
Suddenly I was the calm one. “We just never saw this side to her. But you know what, I am glad she had it, glad she got to experience this kind of love. Look into her eyes Em, she was happy, really happy. I feel content knowing mom had this, that her life was about more than just taking care of us and dad. Her life was not a waste.”
There was a click as the door slowly opened and my father walked in to the room. He hesitantly looked around, his pale face tired and weary.
‘Everything ok, girls?” he asked.
I had taken the photo and hidden it under the cushion, but cautiously observed Emily, still holding the letters in her hands.
‘Did you find anything we should keep?”
“Well,” Emily began, just before I reached out and touched her arm, silencing her.
“We can manage Dad.” I replied. “There isn’t anything worth holding on to anyway. Go back and rest, while we take care of things.”
My father nodded and gave a faint smile. He looked tired, old and relieved. As he closed the door I pulled the photograph out from under the cushion. Starring into my mother’s sparkling eyes, I made a promise to her, just as she had done for me all those years ago, “Don’t you worry Mom, your secret is safe with me”.