The Wild Rose and The China Doll
On a frozen beach, brown waves thundering under a gritty pier and a grittier sky, God got his own back and I burst, sparkling, into life. Eileen felt it, the sudden zing of it. Then she saw the trap of it, and tumbled right there and then from the dizzy up-draughts of her new freedom. Jim did not. Not yet anyway. But then he was not a mother. Neither was Eileen, but the expectations of head-scarved legions wove withering fetters of convention, tying off the fresh buds of love and escape, like wild roses strangled by murderous brambles.
Jim and Eileen are newlyweds, embarking on a joined life that even the Catholic church could not discourage. He is back from the war. She is a machinist, escaping industrial drudgery and a household in which she is, like the furniture, utilitarian. It is 1946. Had it been 1986, we would not be here, in this place. She vomited her way through a pregnancy that inflated her out of her smooth, fashionable pleats, and dumped her into the barrage balloons they called maternity frocks. She called herself “fat.” Jim called her his baby factory, and put away three-pence a week for baby things.
The fire is taking hold; flames licking, flicking over the curtains, and dancing among the blankets on the cot. There are firemen with hoses, with hatchets, chipping at bits of burning wood and purging them with water.
:This is hot,” one of them hollers, pointing at the cooker. “This is where it started.” But he is wrong. The cooker is part of the conspiracy though, along with the fireplace that barely draws a draught, so this place stays cold as cave mud, and the gas lamps that do not light because the bills are not paid. Along too, with the cracked windows that Jim stuffs with newspapers to keep the chill fingers of night out of their one room. The cooker is complicit by silently heating the half strength feed they are making up. Eileen has not read the instructions because she stopped reading when the nuns started beating her. Jim will not read them because baby food is a woman’s job.
Eileen’s days stink of child-rearing. Feces-encrusted nappies to wash in the stone sink under biting cold water. Clothes to drip and never quite dry before a fire darkening from lack of fuel. Feed to make up on a cooker that stutters and stays silent about important things. Jim shares the stink at night. At night, he wears his overcoat and socks in bed, and gets up to growl at neighbors who hammer on the door to complain about the baby’s screaming.
Yesterday, the rent collector called. Eileen handed to him the crumpled note and the rent book from the biscuit tin that has no crumbs in it. The man signed the rent book and handed it back. Eileen returned it to the biscuit tin. Then she closed the door, clicked over the latch, and turned to look at the piles of fetid nappies, chilled to rigidity on the stone floor. She looked at the empty grate where the fire should be. At the shrieking infant, pulling in icy air and bawling clouds of freezing mist back out over its grey blanket.
‘Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.’
She put on her coat and buttoned it tight. She unlatched the door and slipped slick as mercury out into the rain, to walk where ghosts showed her the way. Later, Jim’s arms warmed Eileen when he found her sitting in a pool of lamp light outside the dance hall in town. But they could not warm their blue and white porcelain doll in its cot when they returned.
“Get a fire going, Jim, the baby’s cold.”
Now, they’re standing clutching each other. She with empty eyes you could lose your life in; he with a face blank as moors fog. They are the fleeting stars of a tragedy, picked out like burnished ectoplasm in the dancing light. Later, they will make sense of it all, but I can see – I already knew – that they didn’t need me. Wrapped tight in each other, they are already forgetting.
Dr. Suzanne Conboy-Hill has been all sorts of things and expects to be all sorts of more things before she finally stops bothering everyone. The nice people at Zouche, The Other Room, Ether Books, and Every Day Fiction, among others, have published stories, and the whole mongrel assortment can be accessed from here: http://conboyhillfiction.wordpress.com/wheres-my-published-stuff/.