Beatrice takes Lorraine to the park after lunch most days. The park is nestled in the hollow between two hills. It used to be covered in trees and grasses. Once a man escaped from the police cells and it was suspected that he hid there for days. As a child, Beatrice was told never to go there alone and never at night but wasn’t told why; heads were shaken and lips were pursed but not before tutts escaped. Now the trees have been felled and the grasses clipped; it is exposed. The state houses’ windows look onto the park like many suspecting eyes, and watch the flying fox, swings, see-saw, and the long slide whose metal frame starts at the top of the hill and stretches to the bottom. Lorraine is too small for the slide, but she watches the other children swoop past her, and claps her hands in delight. Beatrice picks Lorraine up and puts her on the see-saw while another child weighs in at the other end, before realising that being on a see-saw with someone so light is no fun at all. But Lorraine doesn’t notice, she jumps up and down in the still seat, and giggles in the anticipation of movement. The other child leaves Lorraine sitting and bouncing. Beatrice stands, stretches, and turns around safe in the knowledge that her daughter’s hands are held fast to the metal handle of the see-saw.
From the playground Beatrice can see the sea, and the sea sees me, she thinks, a half forgotten nursery rhyme or just something her mother use to say, she’s not sure. The light blue ocean seems drawn-in like a pre-schoolers painting; flat with a beginning and end, no suggestion of the sea continuing beyond the line of sight, instead it meets up with the sky in a straight thin line. Corrugated iron and tiled roofs spread out before her, before the sea, straining for a patch of blue, standing on tippy-toe for a panoramic view. If she squints her eyes she can see the park where she stood and waited for the Queen to drive through. The rustling of the trees’ leaves competed with the sound of fluttering union jacks. She can still feel the dampness of the grass seeping through her shoes as she stood and waited, the crowd synched in like a dress around the Queen’s waist. She had only managed the briefest of glimpses; a head and crown. She may as well have stayed at home and looked at a postage stamp. Her shoes were ruined. At least she didn’t have to go to London to visit the Queen; another nursery rhyme? Since she had Lorraine fragments of rhyme flit through her head but she doesn’t remember them in their entirety; parts rather than the whole.
It’s nice in the sun. She closes her eyes briefly to feel the intensity of heat; funny how when you close your eyes you see red from the light filtering through your eyelids. She was shown a painting once, a picture of a painting, at school. It was of a girl who had her eyes closed while sitting in the sun. The teacher had asked them what they thought of the painting, did they think anything was wrong with the girl? There were guesses: she was poor (Beatrice then saw the torn dress), she was tired (Beatrice then saw the shadows under her eyes), she was hard working (Beatrice then saw the lines on her hands). The teacher finally said that the girl is blind. Beatrice didn’t believe it and still doesn’t really, the girl was just shutting her eyes and momentarily enjoying the heat of the sun.
Lorraine squeals, a good squeal, excited, it makes Beatrice open her eyes. Lorraine is pushing the seat of the see-saw against the half-tyre that acts as a landing pad. It bangs a little, sounds an expelled breath – a huffing kind of sound that Lorraine enjoys and smiles to, impressed at her own strength, at cause and effect.
The fairy flowers are out; their frail and fuzzy heads poke up amongst the long grass waiting for the wind to whisk them away. Beatrice leans down and picks one, tears the stem, which is stronger than she had anticipated, and brings the flower towards Lorraine. Beatrice blows at the flowering bud and watches Lorraine. She tries to keep track of each fairy flake as they fly to find a position in the wind drift. Lorraine smiles her two tooth smile and Beatrice becomes aware of her false teeth fixed in her mouth.
Beatrice sits down on the grass beside the see-saw. Lorraine stands and wobbles towards her, grabs hold of Beatrice’s face, and peers into her eyes, up so close that Lorraine appears cross-eyed to Beatrice, who pulls her away gently and sits her on her lap. Beatrice reaches for a buttercup, snaps its head off and rubs the flower against Lorraine’s neck to see if she likes butter. Is that all it proved in the playground? A slight tinge of yellow does shine on Lorraine’s neck like a shadow of sunshine. Lorraine grabs the flower and attempts to rub it on her mother’s neck. Beatrice feels the pressure of the flower against her throat but will wait until she gets home to see whether it proves she likes butter.
Beatrice wraps Lorraine up in a hug before standing and putting her in the pram. She protests a little but the promise of food persuades as does the promise of daisy chains tomorrow. Beatrice pushes the pram up the steep hillside of the playground; from the hollow to the top. She pauses for breath at the Tweedy Park sign and thinks for the hundredth time what a strange name it is. She turns her head around and sees if the park is clothed in flecks of colour: there is clay, and grass, and dandelions, and blue swings, and green see-saws. So, yes, she supposes it is a little tweed-like, and the pollen and dust can be itchy and leave skin red. She brings her hand up to her neck and feels where Lorraine rubbed her with the flower, and can feel little bumps and a thickening of the skin. She looks at her daughter, at her neck, and sees yellow – the pollen has not affected her. Her breath caught Beatrice puts her hands on the handle of the pram and continues walking along the street.
There are patches of dirt on the wide footpath that have sprouted thin blades of grass that shudder in the breeze. Their fragility exposed. In the middle of the dirt there is a young sapling, a tree that Beatrice can’t name. Its trunk is thin and will snap, she thinks, in the first nor’wester, despite the wooden post that it’s tied to for support. Everything is new here: new neighbourhood, new footpaths, new houses, and gardens yet to be established. There are no roots crawling beneath the ground, everything is shallow, easily pulled out.
She looks into the houses she passes and wonders where all the people are. Are they sitting in their lounges listening to the wireless or are they in their gardens planting for the coming season? She wonders if they have the same wallpaper, the same layout of furniture because all the houses look the same – have been built the same: two by fours, and struts, angled towards the sun.
She walks up her own identical path and goes around to the back door. She pulls the pram backwards up the steps and parks it in the washhouse beside the wringer. She lifts Lorraine’s fat little body from the pram, carries her through to the kitchen, and sits her in the high-chair. Through the venetian blinds Beatrice watches the children walk home from the school across the road. Some children walk on top of the thick red brick fence. The fence is not level; every so often it drops a step. Beatrice tenses as she watches the children because she doesn’t know whether they can see where the level drops. She holds her breath as if that will stop them falling onto the concrete footpath. They never fall.
While she waits for the kettle to boil Beatrice walks towards the mirror that hangs on the wall above her chair, beside the condiment cupboard. There is a red mark where Lorraine rubbed her with the flower. She touches it and feels the small bumps of infection like bubbles of tweed, and wonders whether witch hazel will soothe it. When she hears the water rumble to a boil, she walks away from the mirror and prepares the tea pot for herself, and puts some milk in a cup for Lorraine. She gets two sticks of shortbread from the biscuit tin and puts one on her plate and the other in Lorraine’s hands. Lorraine sucks on the shortbread. Her small fingers hold either side of the biscuit and her forehead creases with concentration. The street is quiet again. Beatrice pours her tea.
The crumbs of the shortbread stick to Lorraine’s lips but she is oblivious to them. Lorraine feels no rush to wipe them away, Beatrice thinks, as she dabs at the corners of her own mouth as if her daughter’s face is a mirror. Lorraine hasn’t really noticed that her father isn’t there – it hasn’t interrupted the routine of her day. If the brush of his hand or lips on her cheek when he walks in for dinner has been missed Beatrice has seen no sign of it. Beatrice looks at the kitchen door and in her mind’s eye sees him walk through and wonders if that’s the only way she’ll see him again, as some shadowy figment of her imagination. That the weight of his body on hers, which is always surprising, will never happen again, and she wonders if it’s because when it happened the first time she had felt like his weight was going to suffocate her, until he had raised himself onto his elbows releasing the pressure from her chest. Perhaps he had sensed the suffocation. She turns back to the kitchen table in the realisation that she has no idea what he thinks, that it’s only their bodies that have been close, and even then it is fleeting.
Beatrice should have just bathed with Lorraine but today she feels like having the water deep and hot and to herself. She perches herself on the side of the bath and is transfixed with the gush from the tap as if it were some sublime waterfall instead of water pouring into white enamel. She thinks of the freedom of the flowing liquid and the fear of never being able to turn the tap off; she reaches out, holds the stainless steel faucet that is warm from the heat of the water and lets it warm her hand, turns the tap slowly to make sure it will turn off, and that she won’t be left with a bathroom under water. With her other hand she shakes a wire mesh soap holder, which she usually uses in the kitchen sink for detergent for the dishes, under the rushing water in an attempt to make bubbles; as if she were a plate that needed wiping of the day’s accumulation of grease. She keeps her other hand on the tap for balance.
She only appreciates how loud the running water is when she turns the taps off. After momentarily enjoying the silence, she hastily removes her clothes and throws them on top of the pile of laundry, lowers her body gently into the water, absorbing the initial intensity of heat that only lessens when she is fully immersed. Beatrice moves her legs slowly up and down; the motion of the gentle waves soothe and wash over her. She closes her eyes.
She can hear Lorraine, who sits on the bathroom floor, chattering to herself and banging the toys against the bath. Beatrice lowers her ears beneath the water and the sound of Lorraine’s play becomes mellow, deep, almost rhythmical. Beatrice draws her hand to her abdomen and traces her stretch marks; the squiggly lines along her belly look like some incomprehensible road map. She draws her hand up to her waist, its scoop, and imagines Errol’s hand sliding down it.
It doesn’t take long for the suds to disappear. They float and then dissolve leaving a film around the bath’s rim. It always strikes her how the water can make you feel so weightless and yet so aware of your own body; the buoyancy that lifts you almost out of the water so that you can see yourself, and the hot water evaporating off your skin. The knowledge enters her head that it’s all meant to be seen by someone else and not just kept for herself. Errol has never really looked at her, bathed with her. If he walked through the door now he would be embarrassed and apologise and hastily walk out. The dimpled glass in the door would rattle and reflect captured and released light. She wouldn’t react quickly enough to ask him to wait, stop. She draws her right hand over her left breast and looks at the stretch marks near her arm pit and closes her eyes.
The splash of Lorraine’s doll in the bath breaks Beatrice’s reverie. Lorraine explains that the doll is dirty that it needs a wash like mummy. Beatrice smiles, picks up the doll and puts her on the floor mat. Lorraine reaches for her mother’s towel, and dries her doll’s plastic face with the painted-on smile, who keeps smiling even while drowning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Styles completed the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2011 where she was writing a novel entitled Fathom. She also writes short stories, one of which was published in The Best New Zealand Fiction: Six (2009).