(from Genuine Cherry Red)
Marta sat on the verandah with her legs crossed as she sewed a tear in her pale orange dress. It had caught on a branch when she had been running home the day before. Late for something Ena had organised, but Marta couldn’t remember what. She was very diligent about fixing things she’d broken and making sure all the things in the household that she was responsible for were taken care of. And the orange dress was one of her favourites. It was so worn that it felt like the wind when her fingers brushed against it. Its long full skirt floated like the wings of a huge bird when Marta spun in circles. Ena made her wear a petticoat underneath it because she said it was almost see‑through, so Marta couldn’t feel the orange air against her legs anymore, but it still drifted beside her as she ran – as if it could almost make Marta glide through the air. If she could just run a little faster, Marta knew that she all she would have to do was reach down every so often to give herself an extra push with her toes when she needed a boost. She never moved so freely as when she was wearing her orange dress.
The long shadows stretched across the floorboards as Marta stitched in the dull light. The rustle of fallen leaves attacked by gusts of wind swirled across the evening insect drone. Marta allowed herself a pause. She closed her eyes and breathed the cool air. The sweet smells of flowers and night and peace mingled in her head. And for just a few seconds, she held it. She hung there with only a fog of fragrant colours floating in her brain. That meant nothing and led to nothing. And for once she broke out before she slipped. She didn’t try to add something or analyze the pureness of the moment. She just stopped. And went back to lists of tasks to complete and places in the woods that needed visiting. She quickly replaced the transient calm with other things – busy, ordered constructive things. Marta could never leave her brain to have more than a moment of gentle nothing before it began to race again through the labyrinth inside her head. So she filled herself with careful thoughts of everyday events and wondered if there was another stitch that she could have used that would have made the tear in her orange dress less obvious.
Ena’s footsteps circling the kitchen, beating the solid rhythm that accompanied the preparation of jam tarts, had changed without Marta noticing, until the last two loud thumps shook next to her and dissolved into silence. Marta looked up. Ena was wiping her hands on her apron, her head lost in the haze of evening shadows that now smothered the verandah.
“What happened to your dress?”
Marta wondered if she was required to answer, or whether Ena was just opening the conversation with a remark of mutual interest. Clothing torn by thoughtless or reckless behaviour was almost as natural and regular an occurrence in Marta’s day as breathing. She waited. Then, deciding a response must be expected, she started to speak. But just as the first squeak of a syllable cracked her breath, she was stopped.
“It’s about time we got you into another class, don’t you think?”
Ena’s visit had found its meaning.
Marta said nothing. Her opinion was not needed.
Ena looked out into the dusk, going through some mental list. “Now … some sort of group activity might be good … maybe a Book Club?” She looked down at Marta. “We seem to be running out of things to do in town. We might have to start something up ourselves.”
Marta shuddered. The thought of participation and organisation made her feel sick. She didn’t want people coming here. To her place. She didn’t want to be forced to do something if she didn’t feel like it, and if the others came to her, she’d never be able to just not turn up. Because there they’d be. Every Tuesday evening or Saturday afternoon. When she might be doing something else. When she might be doing absolutely nothing at all – and want to keep it that way. Ena seemed to be waiting, her eyebrows raised to add an extra question mark. Marta was expected to comment – approvingly – on the Book Club concept.
“Well … no one else would want to,” Marta suggested haltingly. “No one in town would want to do that.”
Ena’s lips thinned.
For some, presumably masochistic, reason, Marta continued. “There were only three people in English Literature, … and nobody read the books by the time they were supposed to anyway.”
“Marta, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Just because some things don’t work perfectly the first time, that doesn’t mean that everything you try won’t work. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should just stop trying … does it?”
Marta sort of thought that it did. But she didn’t say that. Aloud.
Ena was back to her list. “Perhaps a Book Club isn’t exactly the right thing. Perhaps something you don’t have to do a lot of homework for. Maybe a cooking workshop – where we each share our favourite recipes … probably some exotic ones so we can learn about other cultures and traditions. … And everyone bakes … whatever it is … at someone’s house, and takes it home. … Yes. Yes. That’s quite good.” Ena was off. She didn’t need anyone’s approval but her own. She hurried away to plot and plan. And Marta was left alone again.
Normally Marta would lapse back into herself and blot out the episode, but this time she couldn’t. She was sick of being organised, sick of being treated like a child that needed prodding and pushing in directions decided by other people. Why couldn’t she move through life at her own pace? Why did she always have to jump hurdles and confront obstacles? It was easy to be angry with Ena.
Marta pounded up the stairs, but her guilt followed. And suddenly she was incensed with more than just Ena’s interference. She cringed. In that moment, Marta hated her life. It was pointless and childish and riddled with destructive self‑indulgence.
Marta slammed the door of her bedroom behind her – she couldn’t even remember coming up the stairs. Something in her was forcing its way out. Her teeth ground together, her fingernails dug into her palms and there was no breath left in her body. Just this furious screaming that suddenly burst out of her and flung itself around the room. And – as if she was sucked into some kind of maniacal parade – Marta followed it. She leapt at the childish posters on the walls and ripped them down, ran to her bed and dragged off the frilly eiderdown, wiped the stupid china animals off her bookshelf. She followed her scream until she had caught up and they stood in the room together and split the air with the yawning hole that broke around them.
Marta was sick of being a child. She was sick of letting herself be mothered by Ena, and she was sick of being hardly there at all. Disconnected from anything real. Just floating.
And always floating away.
The room was suddenly silent. The jagged scream had stopped. Marta lips were taut and her cheeks clenched. She swallowed decisively and sucked air in through her nose. She held it for a moment, suspended. Then her lips made a firm circle and she blew the air out noisily.
There was a sound in the hallway. Marta turned. The door was open and Ena’s apron string flicked into the vacant space before disappearing back down the hall.
Marta’s shoulders slumped. But in a way it felt good to have emptied herself. Like some kind of preparation. She looked around the room. And she was glad to see the debris. Everything could go.
Marta walked lightly down the stairs and into the kitchen. Ena was poring over her recipe cards at the kitchen table – as if she had been there for hours. She didn’t look up when Marta walked behind her and opened the cupboard and took out a large garbage bag. There was an unexpectedly easy silence between them – almost a kind of understanding.
The torn strips of the posters were easy to clear up. And Marta was genuinely glad to see them go. But the pieces of broken china had a bittersweetness about them. There had been a time when the infantile army of friends had brought some comfort.
But now they were just the past.
Once everything was tied into the bag, the room looked sparse and clean. Marta scooped the bag up from the floor. It must have been sitting on something because suddenly a dark lump slid across the floor and rattled against the wall under the window. Marta put the bag down again and walked across the room. The sky was black now but the moon was full and simmering directly above Marta’s window. She reached down and picked the object up. A cassette tape. It was one that Len had recorded for her typing practice. His spidery ink was scrawled across the label – “Grey Bob and the Rescue from Spiral Canyon.”
Marta put it into her bedside drawer and slid it carefully closed. Her hand rested on top of the cabinet for just a moment.
Then she took the juvenile remnants downstairs and outside. And she threw them onto the heap of rubbish that decomposed behind the house.
* * * * *
The days were long now, and there were hours in the evening when the bronze warmth of the setting sun washed over everything. Those were solitary times. Noises were intrusive and it was natural to move quietly and thoughtfully. The only sounds were those of the world relaxing with the sunset – gently, gradually – and each person felt as if they were alone on the earth with the only human noise, their own thick breath pulsing through their body.
At those times, Ena might, once in a while, think of the glowing life surrounding her, and the cold defeat that seemed to lay heavily in Len’s upstairs room. Then the painful irony would cut through her and leave her breathless. She could not allow such thinking. Nothing developed through negativity. But, all the same, occasionally those thoughts would intrude, and sometimes lurked much longer than they should.
Marta stayed outside in the shadows, letting streams of bright sun jet into her eyes so she could feel them radiate and shine. She watched the light on the earth, across the poppy field, and over on the hill as it made patterns that moved like ever‑changing creatures cracking through the earth as the sun warmed and wakened them from their dormant prison under the ground. She pushed her toes into the warm soil and dragged her fingers through sparkling water, and bathed and bathed in the sunset as if she were just a body with no thoughts and no plans. Just a creature moving through the world with no sense of beginnings or ends or work or time. Just being. Released for now from the creaking shadows that could hang so incessantly inside her. In these moments, she was smooth and clean. Away from the clutter and abrasion that spun like jagged windmills in her head.
To be so lost was everything. For Marta, to feel such nothing was close to perfect. And times like that could never last.
It was on one of those long warm evenings that seemed to flow together in an infinite chain that things changed. For everyone. And by the time it was dark that night, nothing would ever be the same again for Marta and Ena and Len.
Marta scuffed her bare feet along the pathway to the house. By now her soles were leather and rough pebbles made no impression. She was looking down, trying to seek out another flash of movement from the grasshopper that had leapt across her gaze seconds before.
Then somewhere in the distance, she heard a laugh. The low grumble of a man’s laugh. It sounded familiar and she couldn’t ignore it. It had intruded on the peace of the summer evening in a way that nothing ever had. She stopped. Her eyes moved in small flickers, synchronised in some way with her speculative thoughts. And the laugh came again. This time it rippled through the air over and over.
It was Len’s laugh. Floating over Marta’s head and sprinkling itself across the poppy fields in the distance.
Marta ran. Towards the house. To Len. And as she ran, she began to laugh in a way she hadn’t allowed herself to for a long time. And for a moment it was as if she was twelve again and Len was waiting on the verandah to take her berry picking. But as Marta got close to the house, she could see someone else on the verandah. Len was there, but someone else was sitting with him and the two of them were chuckling quietly with the familiarity of old friends. Marta stopped. She watched silently for a moment and then began to walk carefully towards the men. Her eyes were locked on them both, flitting from one figure to the other. She longed to see Len’s smiling face – with the eyes that had been still and frozen for so long – flashing with life, and his head tilted to the side but slightly nodding as he listened. His thoughts would be impatiently dancing inside his head until it was his turn to speak, and his body would rock in time with their dance. And when he couldn’t wait any longer, his warm creased hand would gently reach to tap the knee of his companion with some urgency and, at the same time, the ideas would bubble excitedly from his lips, spilling over his friend’s words with the affability of a rain shower on a warm evening.
The thought that Len was back drew Marta’s eyes to the verandah like magnets. When she reached the foot of the stairs, she could see Len leaning forward with a smile that almost split his face, softly whispering, the man beside him with his grey shirt and grey chaps quietly listening.
And as Marta walked up the stairs, she saw the grey hat lying on the wooden floorboards. She stopped.
And Grey Bob turned and smiled.