The Gift- Theresa Ryder

‘We made up stories’.

This time a longer pause.

The red record light patiently threw out a pulsing aura, keeping beat with the metallic cough of the grandfather clock.

Frank found the rhythm of the old clock comforting.  An eternal mission to count us out second by second, he thought.

‘Go on’. Adrian deftly swept up his long hair into a ponytail and sealed it with a rubber band, checking time on an industrial wristwatch.

Frank sank back into creaking leather, his cardiganed frame snug in the deep chair. He cleared this throat and took a sip of the whiskey, given poured over ice but now warm in his clasp. Raising his chin, like a setter scenting prey, he took in the faint aura of leather mingled with the deeper taint of old tobacco and book mould. He had always liked this room, the old walls were solid like the grandfather clock, which stood floor to ceiling with ionic authority.  A few decent landscape pictures hung dimly visible in the yellow glow of library lamps.  Dominating one wall, a black-licked marble fireplace protected an empty grate.  The low swish of town traffic was muffled by heavy drapes through which a slit of late afternoon sunlight drew a golden dagger across the deep carpet.  In the semi-dark, the red pulse demanded Frank’s attention.  He rubbed a firm hand over grey-flecked stubble and began again.

‘We always used my mother’s house.  I kept the house going when she passed, lighting occasional fires in the Aga and letting taps drip in cold spells, that sort of thing.  We were always discreet, of course. Arriving from different roads, meeting at the crossroad where the tall poplars began and we parked our cars at the back by the conservatory door’.

Frank took a longer sip, teeth clicking against crystal. ‘We used my old childhood bedroom. It gave us a view up the avenue. You could see the road through a gap in the bay hedges’.

Frank closed his eyes to see again the mustard yellow patterned wallpaper and mismatched eiderdown on the white iron bed.  To hear the sharp cry of the ravens, guarding their territory in the abandoned outhouses. ‘We felt safe there’.

Frank looked into the glass, swirling the dark liquid.  He remembered how the view from where they lay was compromised in summer by the mass of foxgloves. Those tall, pink fingers wagging in the slightest breeze outside the low-ledged sash window. He preferred the wet weather.  Cocooned behind rain-dashed glass.  She had been more available in bad weather. The spasmodic nature of summer farming had too often kept her away. He closed his eyes again to recall.  Her. Lying with her head between his chin and shoulder, wild curls irritating his face. The joy of those mornings.  Always mid-morning, mid-week, set to an alarm.  They would lie and plot an impossible future, held hands reaching up toward the ceiling, studying each other’s entwined fingers.

Frank could once again hear the clink of her charm bracelet as it slid from wrist to sinewed forearm. The charms, glinting silver, jangled with the slightest move. Especially when she laughed, mimicking her. It was the only gift he had ever given her. Bought online, he had deleted the history, waylaid the postman.

He would rub the scar at the base of her thumb, the product of an accident with the whipping twine of a hay baler. Her farmer hands were calloused from rein and tools.  She would place her tough palm against his, highlighting his smooth, long fingers and manicured nails. Mocking him, she said his hands were feminine.

‘You should have been a pianist, she said.

‘I can’t play.  Would that matter’?

‘Probably a bit.  Or you could be a hand model’.

‘Is that a thing’?

‘Mmm. Big thing.  You’d be rich and we could live like Heidi away on a mountain’.

‘With goats’?

‘With goats’.

‘We wouldn’t have to mow.  Where do I sign up’?

All those ridiculous scenarios. Stories invented for a future beyond the reach of their outstretched arms.

‘Frank’?  Adrian stopped himself from snapping his fingers.

‘Sorry, I’m ready now’.  Frank sat upright and addressed the pulsing red light.

‘We’d have a picnic lunch from whatever we could snatch from home. Eat at the long oak kitchen table’.

Frank leaned toward Adrian as if to confide, his voice low, ‘I remember as a child, I used to sit at that table and watch the housekeeper pound out soda bread and scones. Timed to perfection by the old wall clock.  You could smell the rising dust from the flour sack as it met with the constant steam from the range kettle. Wonderful high teas were served there every Sunday.  It was part of the familiar routine of bath, rosary, bed.

Frank sank back into the chair and took another sip.  Plucking dust flecks from woolen trouser he continued, ‘Three of us children had grown up in that house.  I was the eldest.   Next Andrew, dead at 21 from a car accident on his way home from college.  A combination of bad weather, a tractor and a sharp bend.  He had travelled for four hours and died ten minutes from home. Imagine that’.

‘Hmm, sounds great’, said Adrian, thumbnail scraping a paint stain on his precisely ripped jeans.

‘Catherine, the youngest didn’t stay around long after Andrew passed.  There was nothing here for her.  It was arranged that she would go to an aunt in Canada and she never came back.  She rarely writes.  Our middle age lives have little in common’.

Adrian, hunkering down to adjust cables, huffed out a long sigh.

Frank sipped.  All that family history had been comfortably stored in memory, rarely visited.  But once, against his better judgement he had toyed with the idea that the table, the house, the land it sat on, the lives, the deaths, had all been devised for him and for her. That it was all inevitable.

‘Preordained? Really?’ She said.  Her chin puckered when she was trying not to laugh.

‘I thought you’d like the idea of a Pagan destiny’.

‘No, everything in life is an accident.  We’re chaff in the wind’.

She had said it so casually, content to leave it at that. But the concept nibbled at him.  He often woke with it.  Wondering what was next? What was right?

‘Keep going Frank, you’re doing fine.  Tell me about the end’, Adrian toyed with the timer on his wristwatch.

Frank considered his response, rubbing a shaky hand through grey-flecked stubble.  The end had come suddenly.  He had moved away when the final crowbar shove of their combined guilt prized them apart.  Any simmering hint of scandal had been dissolved by higher authority into smooth waters.

‘There was never an argument between us. Never a tear or reprimand. Eventually we just stopped. I moved away. Rented out mother’s house’.

Frank gave a wry smile at the simplicity of that statement.  How difficult it had been to hand the new tenants freshly cut keys, allowing them control of that sanctuary, that sacred space.  He had wanted to pocket the very air of the room that still held trace of her musky perfume. Take it away. Hide it like a treasured snapshot held in a wallet.  He had stood for a while in the bedroom, watching the slow rotation of dust motes in a band of sunlight that broke through the partly drawn curtains. Her dust. Her skin cells.  Rising and falling, sealed in the slumbering air. The temptation was to casually lie and tell them someone had died in that front bedroom.  Keep them out.  But how could he, of all people, say that? Instead he had asked them to tend the foxgloves and drove away. Taking nothing. Leaving everything.

Frank drained the whiskey, wincing through its burning course.  ‘I live by the sea now in a small town kept alive by tourists.  It can be hard to make a living in winter. It’s an alien view to me, you know, the grey landscape of the sea. But I find comfort in the ships sirens as they steer out beyond the harbour.  They’re moving on, you see.  They have a purpose’.

He nodded to himself, satisfied with that notion. Sighing, he rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger, squeezing them closed.  At night he would lie awake for hours listening to the shush of water on the pebbled inlet.  A lonely sound. But it steered his mind from thoughts of her. If he heard the soft hoo of a wood pigeon or the hiss of wind in tall poplars then he knew he would break.  He was better off here with these foreign sounds that wouldn’t pick at his soul like carrion birds on a half dead beast.  And his soul was his only concern now.  He nurtured it, kept it safe. Worked on it, like a half written story, padding it out with each visit. Not necessarily making it better.  Not offering it to another for judgement.

Frank tipped the empty whiskey glass toward him and peered inside, ‘I knew she still lived back there. She’s bound to the land of her father and brother, you see’.  He paused, biting a corner of his lip. ‘I knew she thought of me. Bonds like that don’t break. Sometimes I would catch a hint of her scent.  But it’s a common enough perfume, I suppose. Or I would see her, walking on the sand or moving through the arcade.  But of course it never is her, just some neat woman with dark curls. And it’s the version of her from twelve years ago.  Women change more than men with time, don’t they?’

‘I guess they do’.  Adrian, losing patience, poured Frank another whiskey on the rocks. Drink loosened cautious tongues.

Taking the offered drink, Frank’s calm demeanor was betrayed by the rattle of ice against glass. ‘Last summer we were lucky to have a long dry spell. The hotels and restaurants along the shore were hiring any young person left in town. Ah, you should see the promenade at high season, alive with colour and activity. Families packed onto the beach’.

‘Yea, I’ve seen it.  Nice place’, Adrian slowly rolled a length of cable between hand and elbow.

‘The two churches were as good as full on those Sundays with the devout tourists.  A lot of them come down from the country, you see.  Even early mass, usually the domain of old ladies who rise early and meet for tea after checking in with their maker’.  Frank gave a quick grin, momentarily slipping into the charming character beloved of those old ladies.

‘Then it happened’. Frank took a long draft, sucking his teeth as ice cubes hit.

Adrian leaned in, elbows on knees.

The red record light blinked.

Frank closed his eyes, nostrils flaring with each deep breath. The memory of a long suppressed fantasy had immobilised him the day she walked toward him along the centre aisle.  The fantasy distorted.  No white dress. No bouquet.  Instead she steered a boy ahead of her, her hand to his elbow. The boy was shoulder height to her.  He had wondered if her dark curls irritated the boy’s ear.  When she reached him she gently nudged the boy ahead, like an offering, and with that movement he heard the evocative jangle of a charm bracelet. His reflex gasp was thankfully drowned out by the shuffling crowd. He placed the host into the boy’s open-cupped hand.  As his fingertips brushed the boy’s palm he saw that it was not yet calloused from rein and tools.  The boy plucked the host from his palm with long slender fingers, placed it on his tongue and muttered a ritual response.

‘When he grows up he could be a pianist.  Or a hand model’, Frank whispered, staring into an empty glass.

The red record light winked.

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