Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lullaby

She glances at the sleeping child beside her.  The little girl is the image of her father. Her soft cheeks bathed in morning sunlight, and sweet lips that remind her stirring mother of a night to remember. The body of a boy against hers and the sudden rush of emotion that followed the first orgasm they shared together. A moment so precious in her mind, so selfish in his.

Jake had been the envy of her friends at College . The athletic good catch, academically gifted - a genuine all-rounder with a head on his shoulders and already a gift for picking stocks. He was in his final year of economics, she the cute librarian who never quite made it to University. She wasn’t aware of his penchant for the pencil skirt and reading glasses when he first winked at her. Simone was attractive. Her blonde, hair swirled loosely and pinned with a tortoiseshell clasp, neatly dressed with a tantalising glimpse of cleavage as she scanned his reference books; a glimpse Jake Russell wasted no time in savouring. 

“Fancy a coffee?” It was an innocent enough request which morphed into lunch, then movies, dinner and before she knew it, she’s sleeping with him. She knew he didn’t love her. She knew he wouldn’t stay. He liked the fast life, motorbikes, risk-taking and she was dull by comparison. Jake never thought so, but Simone’s insecurities had been born of a life of dependency on her looks and a metaphorical fear of the dark…she’d never learned to fly in the Jungian sense.

Being with Jake allowed her to soar without risk, to live vicariously in his wonderful shadow. She doesn’t remember the exact moment when she decided to trap him into a loveless marriage, but trap him she did.

He stuck with her during the pregnancy, doing the ‘right thing’ and marrying her for the unborn child’s sake, and to keep the peace between their families; neither of which would have tolerated the shame of a termination. Simone and her religious conviction wouldn’t have considered such a path. And frankly, wild as he was, Jake was made of strong moral fibre and a sense of responsibility reaching beyond his 24 years.

As Simone Russell strokes a dark curl from her daughter’s brow, she also remembers the infidelity of a young man locked in a reluctant marriage; the fights, the tears. What was a wonderful beginning, soon soured with post-natal depression and post-coital suspicion. She barely shed a tear when he was killed, taking a corner too fast on a motorcycle too powerful. Besides, she had Jasmine, the product of a once delicious embrace gone sour. But even she, is a handful lately. Being a single parent is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Simone is needier than most.

Still, Jake had been a good father and provider. She would romanticise about her late husband; tell the child that her father was a hero, a good  man. Indeed, he’d loved his daughter more as the affection for his wife waned. Simone had become demanding, jealous, and increasingly suspicious of her husband, literally driving him into the arms of others. Jake, despite his extracurricular activities, adored his daughter. He’d taken on the lion’s share in caring for his child, largely due to Simone’s increasing depressive episodes. It was he who held Jasmine when she cried, mended her grazed knee or countered the odd tantrum. It was he who put the child to bed while Simone passed out on Xanax.

 “My sweet princess,” he’d whisper as he sang his little one to sleep.

Lula Lula Lula Lula bye bye,
you’ve got the moon to play with,
the stars to run away with,
hush now don't you cry,
Lula Lula Lula Lula bye bye,
in your daddy's arms a creeping
mummy watch is keeping
in Lula Lula Lula land
.

A doting father’s sudden absence from the six year old’s life left a deep emotional scar. The child became inconsolable at night. Not just stirring, but screaming, sobbing; making frequent intrusions into her mother’s bed. Simone tolerates the addition of a small child between her sheets at first. The little body is consoling and she feels for the child, once so close to her father. She understands her feelings of separation, she’d felt them herself long before Jake died.

It’s black, save the glow of the gibbous moon. Fingerling fronds from the branches beyond the casement window tap against the glass in Jasmine’s room, reflecting ghastly shadows on the unadorned walls. She whimpers. She mustn’t move. She wants to be brave against the choir of the night. She wants to blow away the singing shadows and rolls sideways to face the photograph of a handsome young man smiling from the frame on her nightstand.

 “Daddy…” she whispers, each soft sob catching and punctuating her words… “Come and sing to me…”

She swears she sees the picture smile, the young man wink as the song filters above the shadows,

Lula Lula Lula Lula bye bye,,
in your daddy's arms a creeping
mummy watch is keeping
in Lula Lula Lula land

As she closes sleepy eyes, she feels his breath upon her cheek, his reassuring hand upon her face. She sleeps.

But after a month, the constant waking begins to take its toll, and the deprivation of sleep has a tired and cantankerous mother marching the child back nightly, tucking the recalcitrant insomniac tightly into her own bed. The appearance of a new man in Simone’s life increases her need to have the child tamed and in her own bed.

***

Ron Dixon can only be described as a predator. He’s done well over the years, preying on the emotions of others. He sits in the coffee shop licking cappuccino froth from his thin lips and studies the obituary column with the intensity of a professional punter. His preferred prey being young widows. Although the last had been 15 years his senior, she had been useful in funding his extravagant lifestyle. He’d still be with her, had a meddling accountant not alerted her to some spurious transactions in her checking account. Her early demise attributed by the coroner as an ‘accidental death’. Ron was more than pissed that she had not written him into her Will despite promising to do so. Time to move on, devious, murderous yet Teflon coated once again.

He glances at each obituary, stopping momentarily as a recent entry draws a wry smile… “Jacob Russell, father to Jasmine, loving husband of Simone. Loved by all. 1975-2011. No flowers. Memorial to be held Thursday 25th June at St Martins”

A quick search on Google, Linked In, Facebook and Twitter and young Jacob’s life is exposed. A hopeful with a passion for life in the fast lane. A young entrepreneur, married six years, a daughter…lovely house in a desirable suburb…surely insured and with assets worth liquidating, He would have left his attractive widow with a healthy inheritance. Photos of the family on Picasa proved to be encouraging. Simone is a pretty bottle blonde with slightly plastic, cheerleader good looks; slim, feminine, not at all unpleasant on the eye. The child is an unfortunate impediment but young enough to hoodwink if everything goes to plan. The side of his mouth curls as he flips his laptop closed and leaves an optimistic tip for a waitress who frankly, does not deserve it. Yes, Simone is his next target. Sex and money, both irresistible aphrodisiacs.

Since introducing himself as one of Jake’s old school friends at the funeral, Ron has been a regular visitor to the Russell household. Jas thinks he’s creepy but her mother dotes on him. She doesn’t see the threatening scowls or the sly verbal abuse directed at her daughter. She doesn’t seem to mind that the photograph of a handsome young man who died too soon has been turned face down in a nightstand drawer, and replaced by one of the new happy family. Ron, standing proud with a po-faced Jasmine on his shoulders, Simone smiling up at them both in what could be a stock photo of the perfect family. She doesn’t notice the recalcitrance on her daughter’s face. She is blissfully ignorant of the strange shadowy figure in the photograph’s background; the figure of a man beneath a distant tree, hurling something resembling a rope over one of its more sturdy boughs.

She has no idea that the man who shares her bed has no ‘fatherly’ interest in her child. On the contrary, Ron sneers at the kid and instills fear. His shadow often looms threateningly above her. No goodnight lullaby, no consolation for a distressed child.

 “Shut the fuck up you little brat…” he’d whisper out of Simone’s earshot, “I’ll lock your door and the bad shadows will take you away!”

Her mother is also blissfully unaware of the slow embezzlement taking place beneath her nose or the sell-down negotiations for Jake’s assets. It’s been a long time since anyone paid her the attention that Ron does, and she’s rendered blind by misguided trust as the cowl of romance prevents insight. She’s only too happy to finance his ‘business ventures’, share her passwords as well as her bed. Simone has never ‘done’ being alone very well. She’s meek and naive and trusts him implicitly.

***

The weather lately is inclement. Howling winds and driving rain, typical of September in the Antipodes. Jasmine is terrified of such nights but her mother’s scolding at bedtime has her afraid to resist as she’s tucked in so tight and warns,

 “Stay in your own bed tonight baby…Ronnie’s staying for a while so you can’t come into mine.”

As as a nail-polished hand slides from view, beyond a closing door, a tiny bottom lip trembles.

The terrors of the night repeat. The taps on the window pane become louder, the shadows more menacing, the whistle of wind from the casement gaps providing an eerie symphony to the dancing choir upon the wall. Jas wide-eyed as tentacles crawl across the ceiling. She imagines bony phalanges pulling at her hair, grabbing her ankle and is deafened by her own scream.

The screams from Jasmine’s room become all too frequent, as does Ron’s presence, forcing the child to deal with the patterns on the wall and the knocking at the casement. Winter’s last attempt to push away the onslaught of Spring brings violent winds. Shutters soon to be dressed in red geraniums rattle against their restraints. Branches dance as if possessed sending flamenco fingers across the ceiling.

“Mummy…..MUMMYYYY” The words are broken by desperate sobs as fright takes hold.

“Jas, you have to stop this,” the firmness of Simone’s voice lost on a sobbing child.

“Sing that song that Daddy knew…” Her daughter’s request denied, although Simone knows the tune, she never bothered to listen to the lyric.

Simone reads books on toddler taming, controlled crying and night terrors. Night after night of reassurances, the introduction of a teddy bear, cajolement and threats. There is no peace for the wicked, a frightened child or a sleep deprived mother.  Little has an effect on the wakeful child. Even as the weather calms and spring breezes ease, the shadows and sobs persist. The tree is trimmed, shades drawn, the casement sealed, the bedroom door locked to prevent interruptions to Simone’s carnal desires.

“You’re a big girl now Jas. It’s just the wind. Just shadows cast by the moon. You look out of the window when you get scared and remember Daddy’s song, OK? And here…”

Simone plugs something into the power socket adjacent to Jasmine’s bed.

“It’s a pretty night light. Look, it turns around and makes moon and star shadows on your wall and plays your favourite song.”

 For a moment, the child is soothed. For a moment she thinks everything will be alright.

Simone lies sleepless gazing at the ceiling having already comforted the child two or three times. “Ride it through,” she thinks. “No child has ever died through crying”….small consolation as she hears tiny fists pummelling a now-locked door accompanying the waning music box strains of a once-loved melody.

Simone calls out in desperation, her ears and heart pained and tired of the racket.

 “Jasmine! Go to sleep. Please, please just be quiet and go to sleep!” 

She turns towards the naked and slumbering body beside her, wondering how he sleeps through such noise, and buries her head beneath a pillow. Ron however is not asleep, just quietly seething.

“Simone, I’ve had enough of this. What’s wrong with that brat?”

He throws back the covers and dons his dressing gown and storms towards the door.

“Ron…leave her she’ll settle.”

“Damn right she will!” he spits before exiting the bedroom. Simone too tired to resist rolls over and closes her eyes as if that one act will render her deaf to the child’s pleas.

A brute of a man rages into Jasmine’s room. The anger in his voiced muffled so as not to be overheard but quite clear. He places a rough hand on the terrified child’s mouth. He picks her up kicking and screaming before he tosses her like so much baggage onto her bed.

“Shut it kid. You aren’t part of my plan. You’re just a nuisance, an irritation.” He pulls the pillow from beneath the child’s head and covers her face, pressing hard on either side and straddling her tiny body to reduce her thrashing.

A universe of stars and moons revolve around the room and the music box chimes begin to distort. Stars morph into angry dancers as a full moon illuminates the furthest corner nearest a locked door. Jasmine is fighting for her tiny life as a furious man tries to extinguish it. He remains focused and is oblivious to the rising of a menacing shadow as it emerges from the corner of the room. First small, then spreading like ink on blotting paper until its shape towers above an oblivious man and a kicking child.

Through the casement window a shadow moves across the moon. Branches recently trimmed form tendrils penetrating the glass as a pane shatters. Ron is momentarily distracted. His head raised he feels the constriction on his throat and releases the pillow.

“What the?” His sentence stalled by the appearance of a shadowy form, a familiar yet pixelled face. “Jake?” The noose tightens around a murderer’s throat. Sheer terror and disbelief drains colour from his face as he’s dragged from Jasmine’s bed across the floor by a spectral Jacob. Every vein protruding as Ron’s body tries uselessly to resist the surprising power of the supernatural. His face contorting through pain and disbelief as his last breath coincides with a total lunar eclipse

 Jasmine stares once more at the disappearing moon. A circle becomes a crescent as the bedroom fades to black. She feels familiar warmth upon her face, a soothing melody washes over as she feels comforting arms enfold her and he begins to croon.
                                        
Lula Lula Lula Lula bye bye,
in your daddy's arms a creeping
mummy watch is keeping
in Lula Lula Lula land
.
                                                                          
The cries diminish but Simone still hears the muffled sobs through the layer of gyprock dividing mother and child. Finally, silence. Persistence has paid off. Or perhaps Ron has managed to finally master the soothing song and quiet her daughter

Birdsong and shafts of spring light wake Simone. Ron  is nowhere to be seen. She stretches cat like. Shapely legs emerge from beneath the covers as her blind feet feel for slippers. The house is quiet and she relishes the peace as she walks towards the window, opening it wide to allow the sun to kiss her face. “Thank you Jus, for the sleep in…” she whispers to the sun.

She glides a silk robe over tanned shoulders and ties its sash around her waist before moving towards Jasmine’s room.  “Poor mite…” she thinks as a pang of guilt for not tending to the child’s plight during the night crosses her mind. She turns the latch and frowns quizzically. She was sure she’d locked it the night before but doubts her memory. She pushes the bedroom door forward but it’s meeting some resistance.

“Jas? You fall asleep behind the door honey?”

There’s no sound.

“Ron? You there?”

The door refuses to budge as she puts all her weight behind it. Whatever’s blocking its arc is larger than her six year old, and the effort she’s pushing with, would wake the dead.

“Jas! Jasmine!” She’s scared. Something’s wrong and one extreme push opens the door far enough for Simone to squeeze through the gap. Immediately the colour drains from her face. Ron’s body, frozen with ghoulish fear, is blocking the door. She muffles a scream with her own hand and scans the room for her daughter. The terror of the prospect of her daughter suffering a similar fate overrides the horror of her lover’s demise.

“Jasmine?” Her voice a tremulous whisper, “Are you hiding?”

She frenetically tears the duvet from the bed…lifts pillows, crouches beneath it…nothing. She scours the wardrobe, opens the window and inspects the ledge, her desperate voice echoing across the street as she screams, “Jasmine! Where are you!”

She avoids looking at the terrified corpse and takes one more look beneath the bed. There, lying face down, is a photo frame. Within it, an almost stock photo of the perfect family. Her wayward yet long-gone husband, now replacing Ron’s image. Jasmine perched atop his shoulders, happy, gigging and Simone smiling at both. Behind them, the blurred outline of a shadowy figure, hanging from a sturdy oak bough, the grimace of a violent death upon his loping head.

A message is scrawled on the back of the frame, as if rushed but clear, “Mummy. Come play with us…”

 Created for The Tenth Daughter Of Memory "Choirs of Shadow Flying by Violent Eclipse"

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Moments Inbetween

It’s a crazy time that between a death and resurrection. She doubts the resurrection bit. After hours in a hospital and no resuscitation, she’s desperate, confused. White coats and weird commiserations she finds herself in the arms of Patrick Byrne. Who’s Patrick Byrne. A fucking Franciscan monk that’s who… whoa baby…rewind.

On hearing the devastating news that the unconscious husband she saw ushered into an ambulance is well on his way to meet his maker. She hopes there is a god rather than an invisible pink unicorn but…she doubts it. Years of Catholic education have rendered her an awesome atheist.  Right now, she’s praying.  Praying to an entity in which she doesn’t believe. Stupid stuff. Then the voice in her head whispers ‘what if you’re wrong’ and the doubt seeps, especially at moments like these. As if she’s ever had a moment like this.  Confusion rains, panic, fear and she’s piled into another ambulance screaming after the first and whispering above the sirens , “Don’t die, please God don’t let him die.”
Green tiled walls, the smell of phenol. She waits. She waits for news she knows in her heart is not going to be good.

Back to the cassocked man….he’s Patrick Byrne alright,  a young priest from a wealthy family in New Zealand.  He’s the son of a racing stud owner, and a man who once lived the life of Riley…bad pun.  As a child he witnesses the pain and certain demise of a mare with a breach birth and says a prayer. “Please God, let her live. She’s my favourite, please, don’t let her die…”

 At the moment of euthanasia, the animal suddenly stands sending the vet proffering a syringe of green dream flying across the stable. One mighty push and the mare drops the foal they’ve tried for hours to release from the ailing mare's vice like grip. This is more than a 10 year old can comprehend. He’s convinced that it’s a miracle, an act of God.  A horse on the verge of death, gives birth to a foal that should be dead, yet both are alive. Whinnying and licking, loving and warm, broken free from a pink placenta, now resting on golden hay. He thinks it’s God’s work. This one moment is the miraculous beginning to a life of devotion. He decides he’s going to be a priest. 

Today he’s the wrong priest, but the right priest. Her Patrick Byrne married them, Christened her children, was old and looking towards retirement. Who knew that the young Franciscan Patrick Byrne had been assigned to her local parish? Actually, he hadn’t.

She only attended Mass occasionally and only because her kids were being raised that way. A nuptial promise based on a flawed premise.  He’d asked that his children be raised as Catholics and she didn’t see any harm in complying.  She didn’t care. She wanted to be married on a beach or in a garden. He felt it necessary to adhere to the mores of religion. The full shebang.  She’d loved the dress, the pomp, the ceremony, the service…but no….God was not in her vocabulary. Omnipotent or interventionist, God does not exist. No more than fabled creatures or magical powers. God to her was just a concept to control, subjugate and riddle lives with guilt. 

In her moment of greatest need and confusion, arrives 'St Frances'. What? That’s what he looks like. He’s wearing a coarse brown cassock with hood, gathered with a knotted belt and a large wooden cross hanging from a piece of rope around his neck. His feet, despite the chilly March morning, are swathed only in Jesus sandals. He is young and has the face (dare she think it without believing) of an Angel. 

He reaches for her hands and takes both in his, “Helen? I’m Pat…I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Words spoken a thousand times she thinks. But hey, it was on her instruction he was contacted. The good nurse bidding terrible news had asked should she call someone. “Yes, a priest” the novice widow had replied. The well-meaning nurse, just managed to call the wrong priest. 

 “Yes. That's me.  Thank you for coming but who are you? I asked for our Parish priest, Father Patrick Byrne.”

“Oh…there seems to have been some confusion…you live in King’s Park?”

“Yes…”

“I’m the parish priest there… the hospital called me.”

“There's been a mistake. My Parish is St Michaels. Father Byrne has been around since Job was a baby,”

She’s embarrassed at the levity of her response. Then reality hits. It’s like that.Up…Down…High…Low….and her tears flow. She's a mess and doesn't care as long as someone reads his last rites.

“I’m sorry." She collects, or so she thinks, "Please, he would have liked to have seen a priest." She can’t finish the sentence before the floodgate opens again. 

The man in brown understands. He’s seen bereavement before and embraces her as she sinks her face into the course wool of his medieval garment. She’s not sure whether to laugh at this man or respect his faith. For now, he’s a shoulder, and at times like these, any shoulder will do.

Her mother races down the green tiled, phenol scented corridors, followed calmly by her father. The big man is attempting valiantly to halt the water in his eyes, and provide support. The frantic matriarch racing with arms outstretched. The priest has gone to do what must be done.

“He’s a Franciscan monk!” she tells her mother. Such stupid words at a confusing time but that’s exactly what she said.

“Oh my darling. Oh my God…” is all her mother has in response. It’s a shock. He was barely 35 years old, healthy, strong, quiet, gentle. He was the perfect foil to their hot tempered and passionate daughter. How could THIS happen.

All she thinks about is the priest. What’s he saying? What’s he doing? The rite is over and ‘Patrick call me Pat’, swings by and hugs her once again. “Anything. . . anything at all, please call me…”
He issues a plain and cheaply printed card. “I mean it Helen, any time of day or night. If you need to talk, have questions…just call. I’m sorry for the confusion. Apparently Father Byrne from St Michaels is on leave. They found my name and number, put it together with your address and assumed that you were one of my parishioners. I’m so sorry if I intruded in any way…rest assured. Your husband has had the rites. He is at peace and in the bosom of a forgiving God.”

With that, he flurries away, kicking the tails of a cassock with scantily leather clad feet, reaches for his hood and leaves like a member of the Spanish Inquisition. 

The flurry of flowers and commiserations precede the funeral. The misery of loss and adaptation. The questioning of a faith unfelt.  All this and the appearance of familiars confuse the young widow. An owl on a streetlight has poignancy. The quietness of children who don’t understand the activity almost Svengali - the hugs and commiserations of strangers anger - the solace of friends and alcohol induce soporificity. There’s laughter and tears and rememberance and, the connection with old friends. Emotions tumble like tangled lovers and angry foes.

Then he walks in. He's come to see how she is and ask whether she's found someone to complete the service. She hasn't, and she's pleased to see him. It’s a sunny afternoon. Friends and family are on the patio commiserating, remembering, laughing, crying. So odd is this brown clad man who slips back his hood to reveal the face of a 20 something. So young to be a priest. So inexperienced to be a counsellor but she trusts him. She likes him.

Moments alone are few but they do exist. Sitting by the hearth they talk. She questions his faith and hopes there is a god, a heaven and all its wonders. He assures her that there is, but there’s doubt in his eyes. He comes every day for four days, just to talk, console and listen to her ramblings. Many made under the influence of wine, too much wine.

The funeral’s arranged and in those heady days of mourning and outpouring of emotion, food arrives in quantity, gifts from well-meaning but interfering mourners.  Floral tributes fill the lounge room with their perfume, so quickly turning to sickening stench. Why send flowers? Just write a note or call. Tell her how wonderful he was, how much he was valued, loved, appreciated.

It’s evening and the commotion rendered silent by the lateness of the hour. They share a moment. 

“I need some air. I need to get out of here…” She takes his hand as naturally as if he were a lover and leads him beneath the trees. 

Leviathons of leaf and bark reach heavenly as she crooks back her neck and stares at the night sky. The brightness of the Southern Cross made more so by the absence of a moon.

“Is there a heaven? Do you really believe in heaven?”

The response is unexpected.“I did…I want to…”

This is not the response she needed from the faithful. She’s ready to change, ready to acknowledge that the father of her children, the love of her life has something greater to look forward to.

“I had an email today. My sister is dying.”

She instinctively turns and embraces him. Felt the warmth beneath the wool. The wetness of his tears against her cheeks.

“Oh Pat, I’m so sorry. And here you are ministering to strangers when you should be with her.”

His face says it all. He’s about to minister at a funeral for a 35 year old man and attempt to console his 30 year old faithless widow.  A man who shouldn’t have died, yet all he’s thinking about is a sister who’s demise is imminent.  Another young woman dealt a deadly hand while God stands by and idly watches. For the first time in a long time, he’s questioning his faith.

“I’m sorry…” she whispers. Her breath upon his neck, her arms around his waist. Unconscious, consolation and she is oblivious to the inappropriateness of her behaviour.

He kisses her beneath the stars. The bereaved and the bereft. A moment, quiet and sweet. Gentle as the lamb of God. A moment that has both questioning everything.  She questions her lack of spirituality and beliefs. She wants to believe. He questions his acknowledgement of what some refer to as the ‘invisible pink unicorn,’ the existence and faith in something unheard, unseen, intangible and ridiculous.  The encounter is brief and gentle but they pull apart and wipe their mouths in a moment of abject embarrassment.  

“I should go home after this,” is all he says.

“I should move on after this,” is all she says.

 She saw him once again after the funeral. She went to his Church to watch him preach. The service was sweet, the voices strong and he smiled at her, even though she was in the furthermost pew. She queued with the others to shake his hand. He held both her hands once again and placed his whispering lipls against her cheek, “I’m going home tomorrow…” he said. “This is my last service.”

She let him go, wishing him luck and asking him to keep in touch. He never does. She never found out whether he left the priesthood, whether his sister died or whether he managed to hold onto his faith. She does know that she let go of any remnant of hers. God is a furphy, a unicorn, a fantasy. But she remembers him often and wonders whether he kept the faith or succumbed to the fantasy.

She feels slightly guilty in her blasphemy. And slightly smug that she kissed a man of the cloth.

Posted for The Tenth Daughter of Memory "Blasphemy and Unicorns"