Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Treasure in Heaven

“My spirit is alive and enhanced with joy!”
My mother-in-law Jill, trailing hippy scarves and asphyxiating perfume, flings the door open, gesturing for us to come inside. Then kisses from her sticky raspberry lips, a matching pair of stains on both cheeks for Kieran and I as we step over the threshold.
“Darlings!” She sing-songs. “Don’t you just sense the beauty and transience of life?”
Well, frankly, no. Kieran and I are going through a sticky patch, one of the ‘downs’ in the ups and downs everyone promised us marriage would deliver. Not Kieran’s fault, really. Not mine, either. It’s just that the temptation to blame - or shift blame - pulls us daily into silent resentment, or guilt-loaded words that escape from our mouths before we can stop them, tearing into the innocence of trust. “If you’d listened to me and slowed down a bit, it might not have happened.” He says to me. “If you’d been home instead of working late again, I might have got to the hospital in time.” I say to him. None of this is true, of course. The doctor told us: “One in three pregnancies end in miscarriage. It’s nothing you did wrong. The baby simply wasn’t viable.” A medical endorsement to try again, perhaps in six months or so, he suggests. A thought to console ourselves with as we avoid the bedroom as much as possible until it’s time to sleep, although, six months having passed, it is time to try again. Maybe in another six months, everything will be all better. The damage of those words healed and forgotten.
Suffice it to say, after a day of petty rows (Kieran said some horrible things), then hiding from one another in our tiny flat, the last thing we needed was an invitation round to dinner at his loopy parent’s. A roast, apparently - that is, a nut one - since Jill won’t tolerate anything that once had entrails in her house. She whimpers when required to chop a carrot, lamenting its lost destiny and all the baby carrots abandoned in some distant field as their mother is being butchered on the chopping board. I picture her leaning over it and whispering, “You had a bright future, my love. But now it cannot be.” while my father-in-law rolls his eyes and gets on with bottling his dodgy date wine.
“Gerald is creating in his studio.” Jill confides as we stand in the hall, her pale eyes bright with an edge of annoyance. Despite the fact that her spirit is alive and enhanced with joy.
“What’s he creating, now?” Says Kieran. “Mulled frog wine? Bat testicle brew?”
“Really, Kieran.” Says his mother. Clearly, Kieran’s jokes aren’t vegetarian enough. “Your father’s not that bad at home brewing. You only had a slightly poorly tummy after the elderberry brandy.” Actually, Kieran was throwing up for days afterwards. But I say nothing.
Kieran’s theory used to be our in-joke - back in the days when we still made jokes - and remains quite plausible. I picture Gerald in his ‘studio’, his bottom of the garden lair, cackling over the latest lethal concoction to slip his wife of a bedtime, a slow, untraceable poisoning of carefully researched substances that is gradually turning her blood to a dark sludge in her veins. I see his witching fingers nipping at the keys of his computer, his eyes greedily drinking in every how-to poisoning guideline Google can provide. Who says the internet is for porn.
My in-law’s house is vast, a shambling damp-trap of multiple rooms, each one thickly cloying with petulli and decay. The living room is crowded with mismatched furniture, odd, ethnic ornaments
and enough hippy cushions to get buried under. (If the poisoning option doesn’t work, Gerald can always suffocate his wife.) There are lots of photographs, mostly of Jill and Gerald on their India and Thailand travels, both considerably younger and thinner, both looking happy. Not pretend happy (“We must embrace the true jollity of life!”), but real happy.
“Can I use your loo?” I mutter. Other than feigning death, it’s my only actual escape plan.
Jill looks delighted. “Of course, darling!”
Gerald has recently been successfully nagged into doing it up, so that it resembles the marble floored bathrooms at the Hilton in Mumbai, where they had once stayed. (“One gets tired of no running water after a while, darling.”)
Locking the door behind me and leaning against it, I let the tears flow. I remember Kieran and I honeymooning in India, the pulse and flow of our days, the long nights of intimacy, sticky with love. The heat, the rain, the card games. (Kieran was a master at Pontoon.) The beginning of our adventure. Back then, we had scoffed at people’s warnings about ‘ups and downs’.
Suddenly exhausted and not ready to return, I close the seat of the purple toilet (where did they find a purple loo?) and sit down. My tears show no sign of slowing down, hot rivers of tension, anger and self-disgust that have been dammed up for the last week. I look up and see, between the statues of a glum-looking Buddha and a maniacally-starring Ganesh, a childishly daubed and strangely old fashioned painting of Jesus. He is smiling gently, apparently at me, His ethnically inaccurate blue eyes are filled with tenderness. Underneath are the words: ‘Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.’
Best not think about heaven, or I’ll never stop crying. Our baby had been a little girl. We named her Erin Elizabeth. Was there a heaven and if so, was Erin there? Or was her tiny body just maggot food, manure for the roses? I remember the last lines of a poem I had once read, written for the poet’s dead niece, who had committed suicide: ‘No longer ours. Kept pure for the dust.’ I drag the freshly gathering tears from my swollen eyes with the heel of my hand. Pull yourself together, idiot. I blow my nose and inspect the evidence of my misery in the mirror. Staring into the shattered self I see there, I will my reflection to disappear. Without me, I do not exist. It isn’t the first time I’ve tried to step outside myself, remove myself into forgetfulness. It doesn’t work. I can never get away from me, even in sleep; my dreams are exhausting, frantic and guilt-heavy. When I wake up, I’m hungover with the effort of my starring role. This morning, it took an exhumation order to get me out of bed.
“Lucy!” Kieran calls, an edge in his voice. Time to face the horror of nut roast and in-laws. I’m hardly fit for public viewing. You’d have to be deeply insensitive or profoundly self-absorbed not to notice that I’ve been crying my eyes out for the last twenty minutes. Fortunately, Gerald and Jill are such people.
“What’s the matter?” Kieran hisses at me, seeing my face.
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
“Time to dine!” Jill sing-songs, ushering us into the dusty dining room. She had cleared a space for four on the huge, cluttered oak table, gesturing elaborately for us to sit. The detritus of their everyday lays piled at the other end - magazines, letters, a half-completed puzzle of a unicorn and empty labelled bottles ready to receive Gerald’s latest Russian-roulette brew.
Kieran and I look at each other, fear sparking between us. During the course of the meal either Jill or Gerald - or both - will be bound to mention the unmentionable, because Jill is of the opinion that ‘these things should be discussed openly’ and Gerald doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.
He has been heard to remark that children are ‘a sexually transmitted disease’.
To distract myself, I look around the familiar dark room. On the equally vast sideboard (which hasn’t encountered a duster for a while), next to the Tibetan singing bowls, is an old school photo of Kieran’s sister, Matilda. She is never mentioned these days, having upped-sticks to Canary Wharf, utterly betraying her Egalitarian roots by becoming a Hedge Fund Manager. So much for ‘discussing these things openly’.
With a flourish, the nut roast is presented. It sits in the middle of the table, looking defeated and deeply reluctant. I know how it feels.
Jill is talking again, a monologue that doesn’t require much response - something about Indian head massage and aligned chaqures. Certainly, no response is forthcoming from her husband and Kieran’s head is down, concentrating on serving himself nut roast. As Jill’s one remaining listener, I make some appropriately polite noises while my attention - and my gaze - wanders. I find myself looking at the framed print just above Jill’s head, a sombre, pasty portrait of Edward Plantagenet. He has a combative glint in his eye, staring me out across history. Jill tells us every time we come round that she is descended in a direct line from this nasty-faced monarch, while Kieran and his father roll their eyes.
She follows my gaze now and says: “When you two do manage to have a baby, he can be proud of his heritage, can’t he?”
I stare hard at the nut roast, aware of Kieran’s eyes on me. He is watching my nails scraping at the edge of the wooden table, a thought in translation. He is afraid that what I’m thinking may become words, words that shouldn’t be spoken, exploding out of my mouth. I look up and gaze blindly at my mother-in-law, her face an unseen blur, hearing only her casual dismissal of our baby girl, replacing her as if she’d never been…
I’m afraid of those words, too - so I scrape back my chair and run out of the room.
And then I find myself out in the garden. The day is easing itself into the spectral light of dusk, the sun burning low on the horizon. The trees are silhouetted against a luminous sky. My heart still pounding, I breathe in the drowsy, maddening scents of late summer, the mown grass, the low-hanging buddleia.
A weary peace settles on me like dew, drenching, penetrating. I sit down on the grass.
And then I see her, Erin, our little girl. She is young, maybe four or five. Her ash-blond hair bobbs about her shoulders as she plays and her blue eyes twinkle with delighted anticipation. She is smiling at me, telling me everything is alright. The words sound in my head: ‘Lay up for yourself treasure in heaven.’ “Lucy!”
It’s Kieran, come to find me. I stiffen, waiting for his rebuke. He hates it when I flounce off. Instead, I hear him sigh as he sits down beside me. He slips his arm around my shoulder and says, “Sorry about my mum. She doesn’t mean any harm.”
“I know.” I turn to him, smiling into his darkened eyes. “It’s alright, Kieran. About Erin, I mean.” That name has lain between us like an open grave for months, now. The air seems to quiver with the shock of hearing it spoken, before absorbing the sound back into its peace.
Kieran smiles too, uncertain. “What do you mean?”
I tell him what I’ve seen, what I now know. “She’s waiting for us. We will see her again.” I’m not sure if he believes me, but he picks up my hand and kisses it. He rests his head on my shoulder as we watch the last bright traces of the day disappear into the horizon, until there is no stain left of its memory.
A sudden sharp bird cry stirs us both out of our trance. We sigh, get up, hug.
“Sorry about today, Lucy.” Kieran whispers. “I was a pig.”
I smile ruefully. “Sorry about every day for the last six months.”
“Start again?”
I cast one glance back into the darkness, where I saw Erin. “Let’s go and face that nut roast.” I say.

The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings. 22.1.15

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