Sunday, December 30, 2007

Love Letter

Following on from the previous post, here is the story that did make it into the pages of Quadrant. Found it after all. Found all sorts of other forgotten stories too. Some are okay... others are not so okay.


“Jesus. It’s big. What is it?”
“Open it,” Jim replies with an almost graceful jerk of the head. “Go on, love, unwrap it.” He is pleased with her curiosity. Usually she is right on to him. Not this time. The corners of his mouth crease with satisfaction.
Brenda removes the cigarette from her lips, straightening her arm and lowering it to her side in a slow, easy sweep. She juts her jaw and blows smoke into the air. She squints at the gift almost with suspicion. She uses the cigarette hand to fix a strand of lank hair behind her ear.
Jim scratches the back of his hand with the bristles on his chin as he watches her. He thinks again about beauty. He knows Brenda is not beautiful in the accepted sense, and yet he sees something beautiful in her. Something... different, on the inside, some small... thing... she’s strong on the outside, more or less functional, built for a purpose, or many purposes, but on the inside he knows she’s... oh, not weak, but sort of... er... fragile? No, not fragile. Vulnerable? Maybe. Bugger words, Jim thinks, frowning now. Then he thinks: it’s like the way you might call a bloody great cliff face beautiful when you see it in the right light. He smiles to himself. That’s it. That’s it, more or less, exactly.
“Well I’m buggered if I know what it is,” Brenda says at last. She kneels down in front of the object, which is leaning against the wall. She thinks it must be a painting or something, perhaps he got one of my paintings framed. She taps it with a knuckle. Nup, hard like glass. A big mirror? But what did he get me a bloody big mirror for?
Brenda starts to peel the bright paper away. She pauses as she gets her first glimpse of the thing. She looks over her shoulder for a moment then continues tearing the paper away. When the gift is completely unwrapped, the curled scraps of paper scattered about like fallen leaves, she gets to her feet and steps back. They both stare in silence.
“Well Bren?” Jim says when he can’t stand her silence any longer. “What do you think?”
Brenda turns and looks at him with an expression he has never seen before.
“A headstone?” she says. “You got me a headstone?”
“Yeah. Beauty isn’t it.”
Brenda turns back to the headstone. She runs a hand through her hair. “An actual headstone with our names on it and everything.”
“You never would have guessed, would you?”
“No, Jimbo, never would have guessed. Not something a girl ever expects her bloke to... and look, everything’s there. Our birth dates, our full names, and... the date of death. You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you.”
Jim is aware that he is smiling like a fool, but he just can’t stop. Brenda is always complaining that no one is original anymore, but he is pretty sure she thinks this is original.
“Do you like it, love?”
She nods slowly. “Yeah,” she says vaguely. “It’s...”
She stops looking at the headstone, but she doesn’t look at Jim. She looks around the room. She bends and pats the newspapers on the coffee table, checks her pockets, finds her cigarette lighter on the television. She stubs her lit cigarette in a full ashtray, then walks across to Jim. She kisses him on the cheek, gently touching the other cheek with her fingertips.
“Got to go,” she tells him as she turns away, tucking the cigarette pack and lighter into her shirt pocket. “Got to finish that picture.”
“Righto,” Jim replies, frowning again because he’s not sure how Brenda is feeling. “I’ll start making us some tea then.”
Jim walks across to the screen door it pulls it shut. He has to lift it to shut it properly because he still hasn’t fixed the hinge. He watches Brenda through the dusty screen as she walks down the yard to the shed. He watches really hard, but he’s damned if he can tell what she is thinking.

They eat lamb shank stew and drink a bottle of red. The wine is a big shiraz – a wine with balls, as Brenda would say. If she was saying anything. They eat in silence, which is not entirely unusual because Brenda often goes quiet when she is working on a picture. Like quiet music, there’s just the gentle slurp of broth, the gurgle of pouring wine, the small sighs of satisfaction. Brenda ignores the headstone. Once Jim thinks she’s about to look at it, but she catches herself and looks away. By now he’s beginning to suspect that she doesn’t even know what it really is.

They take their clothes off, switch off the light and climb into bed. They lie beside each other in silence, blinking into the dark. Jim decides that because she seems to be in a funny mood he’d better say goodnight and tell her that he loves her. He rolls onto his side, reaches across to her, and suddenly they are hugging.
“I’m sorry,” Jim tells Brenda because he knows that at this particular moment his sudden and unexpected erection is inappropriate. “I just meant to say goodnight. That’s all. I didn’t mean to...”
“Funny way of saying good night.”
They move together and lose themselves in writhing sex. They finish with lingering caresses and exhausted breath, rolling back to opposite sides of the bed. Brenda finds a T-shirt at the foot of the bed which she stuffs between her legs. Jim wipes some sweat from one eye.
“That was good,” Jim says eventually.
“Good? I thought the top of my head was going to come off. Whatever else,” Brenda goes on as she swings her legs out of bed, “you’re no dud root.”
Jim smiles at this as Brenda waddles from the room with the shirt clamped between her thighs. Then, listening to the trickle echoing in the bathroom, he starts to frown. Whatever else? What does that mean?

The following day Jim accepts that Brenda doesn’t think much of the headstone. ‘Whatever else’ means that he’s got lousy taste in gifts, that he hasn’t got a bloody clue. When he was only trying to be original. When he was only trying to tell her how much – just how much – he loves her. There are the words, there is the message written in stone. Still.
“Bloody words,” Jim mutters as he lifts the granite panel. “Only ever get a bloke into trouble.”

Brenda pauses as the screen door closes behind her. She looks at the top of the door.
“You fixed the hinge,” she says.
“Thought it was about time.”
Brenda nods. “What’ve you done to the dishwasher? Thought you were going to get the dishwasher bloke in.”
“Bugger the dishwasher bloke. Been telling you it’s just the pump. Had some shit caught in it, that’s all. Just about finished.”
Brenda lights up. She looks around the tidied room, her gaze lingering on the space the headstone had been occupying.
“Kids still coming over tonight?” she asks.
“Yep. Thought we’d crank up the barbie. Good night for it.”
“But isn’t it – “
“Fixed it.”
“And the gas bottle – “
“Filled it.”
“Hm. Did you get some steak?”
Brenda laughs at this. Jim smirks, but doesn’t let himself go. On his knees, he puts his head back behind the dismantled dishwasher. Brenda looks at his denim-clad bum. She thinks about slapping it. She decides not to, she’ll have a shower instead and save bum-slapping for when he’s in a better mood.

They lie in the warm darkness and listen to the Irish couple next door in the throes of another beer-fuelled argument. There is always noise coming from their home, either drunken fights or wild laughter. They don’t know easy silence, only celebration or conflict.
“You still awake?” Brenda asks in a lazy murmur.
“Yep. Still awake.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“I don’t know. People. What make them stay together.”
“Them next door?”
“Them. James and Karen.”
“You don’t think the kids will last?”
“Who knows. They might. They’ve lasted this long. I just don’t understand the ... what the thing is that keeps them together.”
“The thing?”
“Yeah. The kind of ... the mechanism that drives the relationship.”
“You silly old bugger. It’s not a mechanism, it’s love.”
“You thinks so? You think those two next door love each other? You really think James loves Karen? Because I think that most people these days don’t know what love is. They’ve forgotten all about love. They haven’t got time for love. How do you think James shows his love for Karen? That ring doesn’t mean anything. Not really. It’s just a purchased object.”
“Mm. What kind of a gift is a diamond ring?”
Jim doesn’t have anything to say to this. In any case, he thinks, it’s – what – rhetorical? Yeah, rhetorical. He remains silent and hopes that Brenda will either change the subject or fall asleep.
“If it isn’t love,” Brenda says, “then what is it?”
Less rhetorical, Jim thinks. “That’s what I was wondering.”
Maybe now she’ll fall asleep. The silence grows. Even the Irish couple is silent. Jim feels his eye lids close over.
“I just don’t understand why, of all things, you gave me a headstone. I mean, I know what you mean about diamonds, but a headstone?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m sorry. I’ll get rid of it.” Jim wonders why she doesn’t see it for what it is. When did she stop understanding him?
“You don’t have to get rid of it. It’s, you know, quite nice, for what it is. But you have to admit it’s a bit unusual. Don’t you think?”
“I suppose. I just thought... when I was getting the vase fixed on Mum and Dad’s grave I saw all the headstones in the stonemason’s yard and I couldn’t believe how many there were. New ones, old ones waiting to have names added to the spaces and, well, one thing lead to another. I just thought it would be nice to see what it was going to look like. I mean, we’re going to be down there for a long time. I wasn’t keen on the heading – they all say ‘in loving memory of’ – so I got the bloke to shorten it.”
“In Love.”
“Brenda and Jim.”
“And the date of death? Why that date?”
“I liked the way the bloke did threes and fives. He does good threes and fives. And his sevens are pretty good too.” She’s close, Jim thinks; the date of death is the whole point. She has to get it.
“Jesus you’re a funny one Jim,” Brenda slurs, almost asleep. “I do like it. I wonder...”
“Wonder what it would look like on a grave. Wonder what it’ll look like.”
Soon they are snoring softly.

The cemetery is vast and still, small hills and shallow valleys, gentle undulations of death. They stand side by side, silent in the heat, and gaze around at the crosses and angels and obelisks broken in half for the young lives cut short. Scattered throughout these thousands of monuments are members of the living, remembering the dead. Just a short distance along this row there is an old lady down on her knees. She looks up and nods solemnly at Brenda and Jim, then continues to trim weeds and fuss with flowers, muttering a quiet monologue to the lost husband, mother or child.
“You expect it to be sad,” Brenda says quietly. “But it’s not. It’s peaceful.”
Jim nods in agreement. He can’t imagine a more peaceful place. He breathes in and notes the faint odour of a distant bush fire, a smell he enjoys and which always takes him back to when he was a boy.
“Do you still want to do it?” Jim asks.
“Yeah,” Brenda replies slowly, thinking. “Yeah, I do. So long as we don’t get caught.”
“Should be all right, if I hurry.”
The stonemason came across as a bit of a sorry bastard, dead keen for a chat. One of those tradesmen who likes to show you how easily they can do their job, at the same time letting you know that it’s not as easy as it looks. He talked and talked and showed Jim how to remove a granite panel from the concrete headstone and how to put it back on. Jim is relieved to find that it is in fact almost as easy as it had looked. He lays his parents’ headstone on the grass behind the grave. With Brenda nervously keeping watch, Jim is soon using the wooden handle of his mallet to gently tap their headstone into place. He hides the tools behind the grave and flicks the few chips of concrete away. He moves back to look at his handiwork. Standing beside Brenda, he nods to himself. Yes, he nods, there it is. There we are.
Time passes. They stand and stare, side by side. They think about themselves, about each other. They think about their life together, how even through the hard times, those rough patches, they somehow knew they would stay together. Even in the mundane times when life doesn’t seem to amount to much, love is still there and you realize this at unexpected moments, watching the other one reading the morning paper or hanging out the washing or trying to get the lid off a jar. They think about how truly lonely life would be without the other to share things with.
Jim thinks he hears something. He turns his head a few degrees. “Bren? You all right?”
“Yeah. Why?”
“I... thought you sniffed.”
“Why would I sniff? It’s not like it’s a real headstone. Not a headstone at all, is it?”
Jim smiles to himself. “No he says. “No it’s not.”
Jim decides they’d better put the real headstone back on before they get into trouble. Just as he starts to bend, Brenda grips his forearm.
Jim straightens. “What’s wrong?”
Brenda nods her head sideways. Jim turns and sees the mourner from down the row making her way towards them. She has finished her duties for the day.
“You want to wait until she’s gone?” Jim asks.
“We’d better, just in case.”
“But she won’t even know what we’re doing,” Jim says, wondering why their voices have dropped to urgent whispers.
“It just feels wrong. Just... just act natural.”
Jim snorts at this. “But it’s us. We can’t – “
“Sh. Just until she’s gone.”
They stand and read the inscription again as the old woman makes her way along the row of graves. She shuffles along at a painfully slow pace. Jim breathes deeply, the char-tainted air whistling through his nose hairs. He folds his arms and raises one hand to his lips. He pinches his lips, presses them hard together because suddenly he feels like he’s going to piss himself laughing. He feels his eyes start to water.
Brenda sniffs. Jim turns his head a few degrees. “Bren? He says, his voice shaking a little. “You okay?”
Brenda shakes her head slowly. She is biting her bottom lip. Her eyes are full.
“Shit,” Jim whispers because he knows that Brenda is about to piss herself too. We can’t do this, he thinks, we can’t laugh, not here, not now.
One makes a sound which starts the other off. They try to conceal their faces. Brenda makes a quiet, high-pitched warble. Jim is breathless and silent with the hardest laugh he’s had in his life. He makes a rasping draw back, and Brenda repeats her high pitched song. Jim pulls a hanky out of his pocket and hands it to Brenda. She covers her face. The old woman is upon them now. Jim’s face is twisted and he looks at the woman through glistening eyes. She looks at the headstone, then back at Jim and Brenda. She cocks her head to one side and offers an expression of pure and heartfelt sympathy. Jim finds himself nodding back at her. In an inspired bit of improvisation he even indicates to the headstone with a kind of shrug that conveys the message that the loss is just too great to bear. This is too much for Brenda who doubles over, howling. The woman continues to shuffle along, that expression lingering because she knows, she knows. She leaves them to deal with their sorrow alone.
And Jim and Brenda hold each other as their voices swirl around the crosses and angels, their laughter dancing and dancing.


Y said...

Glad you managed to find this story! Truly enjoyed reading it..

quick said...

Why thank you, Y. It's a remix of a scene from a novel manuscript from ages ago. I liked the idea of laughter in a cemetery, and these characters are the ones who turned up to indulge me in that scene.

Anonymous said...

That is such a beautiful story.

"They think about their life together, how even through the hard times, those rough patches, they somehow knew they would stay together. Even in the mundane times when life doesn’t seem to amount to much, love is still there and you realize this at unexpected moments, watching the other one reading the morning paper or hanging out the washing or trying to get the lid off a jar. They think about how truly lonely life would be without the other to share things with."

I so love this paragraph. It's perfect in its description of a long term relationship and the way love waxes and wanes.

It's such an original story yet so poignant. Almost makes me want to buy a headstone for me and my boy. Although with his hypochondria, I'd so live to regret it.