Fiction September 2012

Onward

Love happens, like age or weather. It’s not hard to do, only to endure, sometimes.
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Though the child hasn’t had her nap, Caroline takes her out, while the rain is holding off. “Pam pam,” wails Pet. Her memory is getting longer; the pram was pawned three weeks ago. (Uncle Fred doesn’t seem to have noticed.)

“You’re a great big girl now, you can walk,” says Caroline, with one of those smiles that are too hard around the edges. Pet wanders in long spirals, trips over a pinecone. “Come along, my sweet. This way.” The air’s bad today, damp and sulfurous. “On we go!” After a minute, Caroline dips to lift her daughter onto her hip. When they reach Brompton Park, Pet struggles to get down and chases sparrows with the lumbering merriment of a drunk. She coughs with excitement, picks up a branch covered in curled yellow leaves, and shakes it like a standard. Caroline wonders if the brown boots are pinching. She thinks of Chinese ladies with their ghastly little feet. For winter she could always line that thin coat with a flannel petticoat of her own … but then it mightn’t button up at the front.

“Birdies! Mamma, birdies!”

“That’s right, pretty birdies.”

A spattering of rain. On the way home, they pass two women on a bench, whose conversation halts. Eyes flicker, then avert. The chat starts up again in graver tones.

Does Caroline hear her name? She keeps her gaze at the level of her daughter’s face. “Look, a snail,” she remarks inanely.

“Nail,” echoes Pet, bending to examine it.

But her mother jerks her hand. “On we go, the rain’s coming.”

Caroline doesn’t care, not for herself. There’s an automatic searing of the cheeks, at moments like these; occasionally on waking, a leaden sense of her fate that presses her against the pillow. But no shame. What time in her day has she for shame?

“Nail,” cries Pet again, squatting to reach for something that looks very much like dog dirt.

“Time for cocoa,” says Caroline, hauling her onto her hip with one arm.

Fallen. It’s not like in the novels, or on the stage; it’s as ordinary as darning. What has Caroline ever done but what she had to, since she was nineteen and she found herself alone with a nine-year-old brother to raise? The road never seemed to fork. She’s put one foot in front of the other and this is where they have led her, this moment, fat drops of rain falling into her collar as she rushes along the blotched footpath with Pet laughing on her hip. Onward, onward, because backward is impossible. Fallen, like leaves that can’t be stuck back on the trees again.

And it strikes Caroline now that everything the child learns is a step closer to misery. When will Pet begin to register the neighbors’ words? At four? Five? Coming home with her face streaked with knowledge: I heard a bad word. Cruel misnamings of what she is, or rather, what her mother is; the falsity of fact. And what will Caroline tell her then? What fiction, what feeble justification? She wishes absurdly that Pet would stay light enough to carry on her hip; would shrink, in fact, falling back month by month into the plump oblivion of infancy.

Usually only two visitors a day; she can’t cut down any more than that and still make the books balance. No strangers, no boors; she has her standards.

At home, the afternoon goes smoothly: a small mercy. The girl takes Pet up for a nap, while Caroline glances at yesterday’s paper. Stowaway Found Accidentally Stifled in Salt Barrel Three Days Out From Liverpool, says a headline; Caroline winces, and turns the page. She screws up her eyes to read tiny advertisements for items she can’t afford.

By the time her second visitor knocks, Pet and the maid are playing with paper dolls in the parlor. This one only ever speaks about the weather; she agrees with him that the rain will get heavier before dark. Never more than three visitors a day, and usually only two; she can’t cut down any more than that and still make the books balance. No strangers, no boors; she has her standards.

Caroline has bathed, and dismissed the girl, and tidied up, hours before Fred comes home soaked to the ankles. (She can’t find the bouquet of lilies, though it lingers on the air; the girl must have thrown it out, a piece of quiet tact that surprises Caroline.) Her brother apologizes for being late; the rain always causes traffic jams. He likes the way she’s moved the easy chair a little closer to the window. “It’s these small touches,” Fred assures her. “Lets me enjoy the view, while I’m polishing my shoes.”

The view, as if their window looked onto an alpine lake, instead of one of Brompton’s meaner terraces.

Pet’s got him singing that song about the blacksmith again.

Toiling—rejoicing—sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes …

His voice is hoarser after the long day. It was her little brother, Fred, who taught her to be a mother, long before Pet. Love happens, like age or weather. It’s not hard to do, only to endure, sometimes.

Caroline always asks about his work, though there’s not much to say about the drawings on which he’s engaged; mostly he passes on gossip about the architects. In return Fred inquires about her reading; he’s created a sort of fiction that his sister’s day is divided between the care of her child and intellectual advancement. (Caroline sometimes leaves a book on her desk for a few days, then returns it to the library unread. It is not that the visitors take up so much of her day, but until they are dealt with and banished to the other side of the front door again, she can’t settle to anything else.)

She tries not to recall the moment four years ago when she told Fred his training contract would have to be canceled, his face like a starched sheet. There’s no one in particular to blame, which makes it worse. Not the man she lived with for nine years, seeing to his accounts as well as every other wifely duty; he would have gone on supporting her and her brother for the rest of his life, she’s sure, had his business not failed. He’d have married her, in fact, if he hadn’t had the bad luck to be married already. Caroline can’t blame herself, either. When she was nineteen she gambled all she had, but hardly recklessly; for nine years it seemed a decent bargain. What did abstractions like honor matter, compared with realities: white bread in a child’s wet mouth?

“Tired, Sis?”

“Not really,” she says, rousing herself to smile. Fred still looks like a boy, especially when he puts on that avuncular face.

“Shall we have a game of cards?”

“Oh yes,” she says, mustering a tone of delight. Ersatz, every word, and yet all meant in good earnest.

“This is very snug,” says Fred, poking the fire. “Nothing so jolly as an autumn evening in the bosom of the family.”

She wishes he wouldn’t overdo it. Every evening is just like this, unless there’s some drama such as Pet coming down with mumps or a bird banging about in the chimney. They can’t afford any amusements, and they have no friends. Fred claims to get on well enough with the other draftsmen, but he’s never going to risk inviting one home to meet his “widowed” sister. As for Caroline, no woman of her own sort would know her, and she doesn’t want to know the other sort. She lives in the crack between two worlds.

This cozy-nest stuff is not exactly a lie, though. More like a show: a play to entertain Pet. She’s the one who knows least, and so matters most. Again, Caroline feels that queer impulse to shut those bright eyes with her hand, cover those shell-pink ears, close that curious mouth. To beckon her daughter back inside her. To squeeze her like a pearl locked up in its oyster. To—

No, not that. Caroline can never wish Pet unbegun. That’s the paradox that tires her brain, strains her heart: the best thing in her life has sprung from the worst. So though Caroline can’t bear her life, she wouldn’t swap it for any other.

A heavy sweetness; she turns her head sharply.

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