Stuart met Michael, something clicked and they made a connection. A pattern emerged: the pictures, dinner out, walks in the countryside, dinner in, sex. The relationship deepened, or did it merely become a habit? Time moved on and they moved in together.
Once a year Michael journeys to Scotland to visit the mother he otherwise communicates with via the Hallmark Greetings Card Company on high days and holidays, such as birthdays and Christmas. Stuart had no family of his own; his parents had long since passed the eternal boundary. He missed the bond that linked you to some other subliminal part of yourself. Some while after he and Mike move in together; when a Scottish journey was imminent, he said, “I’ll come with you. I’d love to meet your mother.”
Michael shook his head, “I’d rather go alone. Maybe next time.”
“You always say that. I’m beginning to think you’re ashamed of me; of us.”
“She just wouldn’t understand about us and I really don’t want to talk about it Stu.”
A kiss shelved the subject. More time passed.
On a warm June evening, after a brief phone conversation, Michael pressed the receiver back into its cradle. His eyes strayed to a stain on the polished tabletop, a white heat ring, the result of a carelessly placed coffee mug. He studied it. It wasn’t a stain as such, but rather condensation that had been trapped in the wood fibres, difficult to rectify though. The secret was to try and unlock the moisture, allow it to escape rather than try to mask it.
In the sitting room Stuart continued to read, curled up in his favourite chair by the French window. The clock on the mantelpiece did its duty ticking a message of time passing, second by second, keeping friendly rhythm with the words on the page as they filtered through his mind. After a while the ticking began to intrude and to move out of step, interrupting the pattern so that the words lost their fluency. Stuart was conscious only that twenty minutes had passed since the return click of the phone receiver and Michael had not yet come back into the room. Setting aside the verbal delights of ‘Carol Shields,’ Stuart left ‘Larry’s Party’ and walked out into the narrow hall. Michael was standing by the phone table, bathed in a pool of glass filtered sunlight, his right hand still resting lightly on the receiver, as if he had just that moment put it down.
Unease rippled through Stuart. “Who was on the phone?”
“Aha.” The green eyes registered slight emotion for a second, “he actually deigned to speak to me.”
“What did he want?”
“To tell me that my mother is dead,” said in a ‘isn’t the weather fine for the time of year’ sort of voice.
Stuart experienced a flashback of pain to the moment when someone had told him the same thing. He started forward. “God, Michael, I’m so sorry, how?”
Michael neatly sidestepped both the question and the intended embrace by heading upstairs. “I’m going to have a bath.” He didn’t glance back.
Stuart hastened after him, only to have the bathroom door shut in his face and locked. He sat on the top stair. He could hear the tick of the clock downstairs in the living room. A minute...ten minutes…fifteen. Stuart listened for the sound of the bathroom door opening, but heard only the ticking of the clock. “Michael,” he eventually knocked on the door, “are you alright?”
He knocked again, more insistently. “Michael?” The sound of water draining away caused a surge of relief.
Emerging from the bathroom Michael dumped the clothes he’d been wearing in the laundry hamper that stood on the landing. Then without so much as a word he walked into the bedroom and lay down on the bed.
Stuart lay down beside him, stroking the damp hair back from his brow. “Don’t shut me out Mikey. Tell me what happened.”
“She hanged herself.”
The stark statement was followed by a harsh unexpected kiss cutting off words of shock and sympathy. Sex was unadorned. Afterwards, Michael turned away from Stuart, curling on his side to sleep. “I love you,” Stuart caressed and then kissed his shoulder. There was no response. He lay for a moment gazing at the ceiling and then got up, going to the bathroom to shower.
The note arrived the day after Michael heard the news. ‘Free at last,’ she wrote in her flowing handwriting, its elaborate peaks and troughs so reminiscent of the woman herself. ‘By the time you read this I’ll be free at last. Remember only that I love you.’ Carefully folding the note into a neat square he slipped it into his wallet.
Stuart finally got to accompany Michael to Scotland. “What was she like,” he pulled his gaze away from the flow of verdant countryside beyond the car window, “your mother?”
“I’d rather not talk about her just now.”
She looked peaceful in her coffin, something she had never been in life. Michael gazed down at her. He felt no correlation. He turned away.
The sun shone as the coffin was lowered into the fresh grave. It should be raining, thought Stuart. The sky should be leaden, with water pouring and dripping through the branches of the trees. He wasn’t quite sure why, perhaps because it had rained on the day of his own mother’s funeral, and it had felt appropriate. The sun had no right to shine, it was disrespectful somehow, but shine it did from a clear blue sky. The birds sang, and the distant murmur of traffic filtering through the cemetery walls served as a reminder that life marched on regardless. The Minister intoned the final rites. Picking up a handful of soil he sprinkled it on top of the coffin, inviting the other mourners to do the same. All but Michael followed the Minister’s example and then began drifting away from the grave. Michael stayed where he was looking down at the pine box that contained the empty shell of the woman who had borne him.
“Come on sweetheart,” Stuart took Michael’s arm, “it’s time to go.” He guided him to the car that was waiting to take them back to his uncle’s house for the customary funeral tea.
Michael ate nothing. Standing with china cup and saucer in hand, he let the subdued funereal conversations accompanied by the chink of cutlery sweep over him. He felt numb, lost in a strange limbo that stretched back to a telephone call and his uncle’s voice telling him that his mother had taken her own life. There had been a swell of angry indignation in the voice, as if she had done it just to shame and inconvenience him. His mother had always said that nothing she did would ever please her family, unless it was dying, and only then if it adhered to prescribed rules. Gazing out of the window towards the hills he felt the emptiness of his birthplace press around him. His father still resided here, but there was no connection between them. His father had chosen to sever it when Michael made known he was gay. All that had been here was gone to the grave with his mother. He should have felt released, but instead felt confined, as if he too were under a mound of soil.
Stuart made strained but polite conversation with people he didn’t know, all the while casting anxious glances towards Michael who stood motionless by the window. As soon as was decently possible he made excuses and ushered Michael away to the hotel they had booked into for the night.
Un-knotting his black tie with a sigh of relief, Stuart dragged it off and then unfastened his top shirt button. He went to the mini bar. “Would you like a drink love, whisky?”
Michael nodded. Sipping at the amber fluid, he sat cross-legged on the floor staring at the two cardboard boxes that the psychiatric staff had given to him. His mother’s few possessions. The sum total of a person’s life packed into two cardboard boxes. She herself now neatly boxed and cleared away, labelled and closeted, much as she had been for years past. He closed his eyes remembering a childhood event: a picnic at midnight in the rare heat of high summer, walking barefoot on the grass outside. He also remembered the disapproval that followed and the tainting of a special moment when with shining eyes he told about the midnight excursions. The exchanged looks above his head, the pursed lips and the first inkling that his mother was not quite like other mothers. She’d gone away for a while after that, he missed her and he wished he hadn’t told.
Stuart studied Michael’s face, admiring the eyelashes that would grace a girl; lush dark crescents on high, pale cheekbones. He had barely spoken, barely eaten, since the phone call over a week ago. “Don’t fight your grief Mike. It’s okay to cry.”
“Is it?” The lashes flicked up from their lowered position. “Maybe I don’t have the right to cry.”
“We all have the right to cry when we need to.”
“Maybe I don’t need to, and anyway I don’t want to talk about it.”
So Stuart didn’t press him to talk and Michael didn’t cry. They resumed the pattern of their lives.
June passed the baton to July who raced into August and then September. The days shortened, the nights lengthened and the ticking of the clock marked a growing distance between lovers. Stuart read words on a printed page while Michael flicked through the picture book of memory: a boy standing at school gates waiting for a woman who didn’t come because she’d lost track of time. A young man visiting a grey hospital ward where a dull-eyed woman stared at him without recognition, a temporary effect of electrical impulses passing through her brain in an effort to make her into someone acceptable. She had not wanted the treatment; it had been imposed on her. It didn’t work anyway. She stayed the same. He despised her and went away to university cutting all connection for three long years.
October merged into November leaving a trail of damp leaves and aching silences. Even the clock no longer spoke. It hunched miserably on the mantelpiece waiting for someone to do what was necessary to reconnect its voice. Even without the aid of the clock, time did what it had to do and moved on. It could do no more. How it was used was beyond its power. Two men went through the motions of daily life, picking up the milk from the doorstep, exchanging small talk with neighbours and workmates while ignoring each other. Stuart moved into the spare room to sleep in the single bed that felt less lonely than the bed he shared with Michael. The gap between their turned backs had become an unbridgeable chasm. He tried to discuss it with Michael, but as ever he didn’t want to talk about it. The green eyes were blank shutters securely fastened from within. Stuart ached for a man who had been his friend and lover and was now just someone he shared a roof with.
November died quietly, unlamented.
December came and brought the dark days. On a cold frosty morning Michael silently packed his possessions into bags and boxes. He had announced his intention to leave the day before. He’d rented a place, it was for the best, he said, and no, he didn’t want to talk about it. Stuart didn’t press him and neither did he go to bed that night. He sat in the armchair downstairs keeping vigil with the aphonic clock. Morning came. He hesitated outside the bedroom where Michael was gathering together the last of his things. He wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the words. Going back downstairs he stood in the room he had occupied all night feeling its emptiness press around him. Without the tick of the clock the room was soulless. He stared at its reproachful face and suddenly knew what he had to do. Rummaging in a drawer he found the key made the connection and gave the clock back its voice. It smiled ten past ten gratitude and filled the room with words; words that told of a space of time…seven years shared with Michael. He went back upstairs.
“Have you found someone else?” He finally asked the question that had been tugging at his mind for weeks. There was truth in the unembellished reply.
“I love you. I don’t want you to leave. I want us to work this out, together.”
Michael didn’t respond, instead he placed a large pink seashell on top of the box he had just packed and lifted it up.
Stuart ran an agitated hand through thick dark hair. It couldn’t end like this...seven years packed silently into bags and boxes. “Michael, please, if there’s to be any chance for us you have to trust me. Tell me what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking. Surely you owe me that much?”
“I’m sorry, it’s too late and I...”
“Don’t want to talk about it, I know!” Anger suddenly surged through Stuart. “Well tough, because I do want to fucking talk about it and I will fucking talk about it. I’ve invested seven years of my life in this relationship and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you just walk away without at least TRYING to salvage it. You’ve called all the shots throughout our time together, shutting me up and shutting me out whenever it suited you. No more though.” Grabbing the box from Michael’s arms he dumped it roughly on the bed, dislodging the seashell in the process. It bounced off the mattress spinning for a second in the air before hitting the wooden floor and shattering. With a shrill cry of dismay Michael dropped to his knees among the fragments of shell. The damn burst at last and tears streamed down his face, sobs tearing from his throat as he gathered up the pale pink shards, cradling them in his hands. Stuart quickly knelt beside him, apologising, reaching out his arms, half expecting to be rebuffed, and experiencing a rush of relief as the offer of comfort was grasped.
The sobs eased and faded. Lying in the protective circle of Stuart’s arms Michael at last gave voice to the pain he held inside. He told of the mother he had loved and hated at one and the same time, who was never quite like other mothers, which when you’re very young is wonderful. He told of time passing and how the child in him died and the emerging adult became tainted with the world’s prejudices. He told how he learned to be embarrassed and ashamed of a mother who had woken him at midnight to go for walks and picnics in the garden, who took him to the seaside instead of to school, and who just didn’t seem able to connect with the corporal world for any length of time. He spoke of the guilt he felt at being unwilling to accept what she was, and of his guilt for the times she was forcibly shut away, not just in hospital wards but also in a corner of his mind, and how he learned to disconnect so he couldn’t be hurt.
The kiss was soft, sensual and healing.
“I love you,” the peaceful postcoital silence was broken as Michael, for the first time, returned to Stuart a gift of three words, confirming at long last that their relationship was more than mere habit.
Time did its duty ushering seasons in and seasons out, turning the year full circle to June again.
After placing flowers on his mother’s grave, Michael lifted his face to the sky, shading his eyes against the glare of the sun to watch a skylark wheel and turn in the air for a moment. Setting aside the conditioned shame, the embarrassment and the confusion, he remembered with joy and love a woman who gave him midnight memories of moonlight picnics, who ran barefoot across sandy beaches, who scrambled recklessly over sea-washed rocks to find a pink seashell so that he could hear the sound of the ocean whenever he wanted, and who made him promise never to be ashamed of who he was. She had told him to own himself with pride and demand recognition and respect, things that she herself had finally given up on. She had chosen to disconnect from a world that had constantly pressured her to conform to its norms, and which had hurt and shunned her when she didn’t. He glanced at the quiet grave. She was free at last.
Time did what it was compelled to do, moving on, and taking Michael and Stuart with it, together.
Copyright Fabian Black 2009 (email@example.com)
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