(from Genuine Cherry Red)
Marta searched her brain for a purpose. Maybe something for Ena and Len when they got back that afternoon – she had always liked to watch their faces when they opened the gifts she had made for them, or presented them with some unexpected project she had created. She knew it wasn’t because she was a good person, or generous. In fact, she often felt selfish because the only reason she did things for them was because she loved their glowing faces when she did. So she would focus on a surprise for Ena and Len. Len’s treatment days always seemed to leave Ena pinched and pale, and Len always looked thinner when Ena wheeled him home. Marta knew it was more than just pills. There were injections sometimes and other treatments that beamed into his body to kill the cancer.
And Ena watched it all. Every pain and burning sensation went through her until her eyes stung and her legs shook with weakness. And then she dragged them both home and returned to the comfort that was her familiar routine. And the place where Len would thrive again. Because he had before.
So all the days that they had pushed their way up to the house after the hospital visits, Marta had seen the lifelessness and grey skin from the real world, before they could all slip back into their limbo. She had loved Ena and Len since they had first walked her home through the woods, each humming their own private songs and smiling down at her busy face, so a present for them was the logical purpose for a productive afternoon.
She went to Ena’s huge wooden sewing box in the sitting room. Small cartons of mixed buttons were neatly packed alongside twists of tapestry wool and a rainbow of embroidery thread. There were fabric paints and elastic and pins, bags of rags and an arsenal of scissors. And ribbon. A mass of ribbon.
Red was Len’s favourite colour. Pure bright red. Marta extracted all the red ribbon from the bundle – thick silky lengths and thin lacy strings – every single piece of scarlet ribbon in the big chest. And she knew what she would do with them. She worked for hours – cutting and measuring, tearing strips of tape, and running up and down the stairs over and over again. Then she found some red material – a yellowing paper bag containing a sheet of gauzy crimson fabric that was buried at the bottom of the sewing box. Marta cut the cloth into rough strips – some tapered, some wide, some crooked and erratic – then more trips up and down the stairs and then along the verandah until there was nothing red left in Ena’s trunk or lying in the sitting room. And Marta was able to rest with the fatigue of the accomplished.
She took a cold drink to the verandah to wait. If previous trips were an indication, it wouldn’t be long before Ena and Len appeared from the woods.
Ena pushed Len’s chair as briskly along the path through the trees as she could manage. The tiredness of her red eyes seeped down through her body and collected in her aching knees and sore feet. But they were almost home – where she could lock out all the discussions and consultations and treatments, where phrases like clinical trials and biological therapy were never even whispered. And where Len had talked and laughed and made decisions for years and years. Ena let those memories outweigh the more recent ones. Her reality was the three of them at family dinners teasing and laughing, Marta and Len writing Grey Bob stories together in his study, and the way – when Ena finally sat down in her chair for a meal – Len would get up to fetch her glass of sherry and gently rest his hand on her shoulder as he passed. She could not see that today was real. This whole thing could only be a minor detour. They would soon be back to way things genuinely were.
But for now she was drained. Depleted. She could barely lift her eyes to see the pathway ahead.
From fields away, it was obvious. From the top of the hill it was unmistakable. Something might even have been visible from that same point in space where the green hill could be seen protruding from its flat surroundings.
The house stood with every window and door flung open. The wind blew straight through from the back of the house, and from around every window and every paling along the verandah flowed waving scarlet ribbons. Hundreds of bands of rippling red streaked towards the pathway that led to the front door. Pointing, almost beckoning. They pulsed and snapped, each with their own rhythm, gyrating with life like licking tongues or writhing serpents – all coaxed by the whipping wind that was pouring through the house. Streams of bright red danced out into the air. The house was so covered with swirling crimson ribbon and cloth that the walls were barely visible. It was a sea of red.
Marta stood on the verandah, leaning out to see Ena and Len’s faces as they moved up the path. She beamed her shining welcome so vibrantly, her rosy cheeks looked as if they might pop. She watched Ena push the wheelchair slowly and deliberately up the path.
The moments creaked by.
The ribbons flapped noisily in the gusting breeze.
Marta leaned out further. They crunched along the rough lane – almost at the house. A blast of wind suddenly squalled up from the pathway. It striped Marta’s face with the longer ribbons dangling from above her. She tilted her head back and let the streaks of satin paint her – across her neck, in her mouth, brushing over her skin. Her smiling white teeth were framed by bands of red. And abruptly, the wind changed back and the ribbons were gone – now dancing out away from the house again. Marta looked down to the foot of the stairs. Ena had begun to manoeuvre the chair methodically up the first few steps. Marta swung around and jumped down to help, lifting the front of the chair as much as she could. She glanced up at Ena’s face – it was old and heavy. Ena was looking only at Len, at the chair, at the job to be done. Looking at getting this transition behind them.
At the top, Marta rested the front of the wheelchair on the verandah and stood up expectantly. For recognition, for inspection. Ena gave the last push and stepped up onto the wooden floorboards. She put her hand momentarily on Marta’s arm and patted her.
“Alright, my lamb”, she said distractedly, confirming Marta’s presence. And then Ena pushed Len through the front door and disappeared.
And in the morning all the ribbons and cloth had gone.
And no one ever mentioned them.