‘As I lay me down to sleep.’ It was the beginning of a prayer and one that I had been saying to steady the fear in me whilst I lay dying. I had worked so hard all these years, building a business that would ensure my son a future. Striving upwards and onwards, never looking back. Convincing myself, that everything I did and all that I had endured was for the right reasons.
I have often wondered what a life with Malcolm would have been like. Together, we could have ridden a dream, with Hugh at the forefront of a splendid life. Would it have worked? Even with Patton’s rape in the way, could we have survived? This is a question, I ponder as I lay in this bed, watching my beautiful boy sleep in the chair beside me.
My life, post Patton had been a collection of successful sales, each one a guarantee to living an easier way. Sex for money, after all men were just men and my cosmetics were mine and the ticket to a better future. A boon from my mother, a legacy of what was now my past. Now, I lay prostrate, a vulnerable being consumed by cancer and the memories that I have tried so hard to suppress are calling to me through a dream haze of morphine.
They called it the Glory Box, a small space in the wall where only the very special things were ever kept. My father called me his treasure and in the game of hidey-go-seek, that is where I always hid.
For the first eight years of my young life, I was through childish games taught to hide away in its dark, cool void. Curling around the blocks of cheese my mother made and the two wooden boxes – one full of gold and the other silver coins. My father, a dark haired man would tickle my cheek with his bristly beard, making me swoon and giggle, as I twisted to free my small body from his arms. It was a game I loved, and in those glorious memories, even as I lay dying I breathed a little easier.
It was 1911 and living in Ukraine with a Jewish father, meant that our family was forced to take up a house in The Pale of Settlement. Existence at its best was tenuous, poverty and hardship gripped us all, no one was spared. My parents did their best to shield me from the harsh reality of having a Jewish parent. My mother still smiled, despite being forced to live away from her people, and my life, though poor, was filled with love.
We lived in a place called Trochenbrod, a rural village in Ukraine and my house, though small looked like all the other houses – run down and in need of repair. Father spent most of his days looking for work, and my mother spent hers keeping us afloat.
Aneta was Ukrainian, pure to the very roots of her soft, beautiful blonde hair and she spoke with a voice that sounded to me like the tinkling of water. She was fresh-faced with green eyes, who shocked everyone by marrying a Jew. It was disgraceful and in the typical manner of the Ukrainian people, they banished the couple to The Pale of Settlement.
I didn’t know what a Jew was. All I knew was that my father was a kind man, a loving husband to his wife and child. I had the best of times and it was in this house, for the first seven years of my life, that I knew true happiness. Times were hard and our small garden out the back became the life-blood to our little family. Mother and I laughed together in that garden of ours, planting and harvesting herbs and vegetables, filling pots and jars with flowers to make our house full of colour. In my hazy morphine dream, I knew this was why I did the same, except for one small difference – I turned all that decay into life.
Then, it changed and the turn of events that shook my world, shaped me into the person I am today – one who merely blinks at what others consider harrowing.
This is a part of my life that I could never share with Hugh. I do admit, that I spoke to Malcolm of my past and now, as I lay here dying, the cancer eating me as each day passes, I feel a chilling relief that Malcolm is dead – my secret can remain mine. It is not shame that makes me feel this way. I cannot be called a Jew for my mother was Ukrainian, or at least that is what my Aunty told me. In this day and age, there can be no blame attached to having a Jewish parent; those days are long gone. The pogroms are now just a black memory, one that I have been more than happy to ignore.
He had thought her asleep. Ellen was certainly weak and it wouldn’t be long now, but she was a strong woman and determined to remain awake until the end. She needed to keep her eyes open, Hugh’s face had to be the last thing she saw before taking death’s hand. The morphine dripped again, sliding down the IV tube and into the back of her hand. Her eye’s fluttered and she slipped back to the beginning. A place she had avoided all her life and now, in this dream-like state, one she could not avoid.
It was late. The sky had been dark for hours and Hugh, finally finding a comfortable spot in the large chair next to her bed, was snoring softly. She permitted herself a small smile. He was so handsome and she, so terribly sad. She would not be around to see him become a man – not that he wasn’t shaping up well – but the boy was only twenty-one. What would he do without her? This was her regret. Not the past of her youth and Lord knows, she had much to be sorry for.
Her eyes closed, the morphine saturated her worn out mind taking her back to that place, a time when it all went wrong. A time when she lost what was most precious.
Food was scarce and quite often my father didn’t eat: sometimes my mother went hungry too. Conditions in The Pale of Settlement were getting worse. My parents spoke in whispers and the once bright kitchen and common room was dark, a pale shade of its cheery self, the windows shuttered and the door barred. I felt afraid.
I remember it well, for it was just after my birthday. We had new neighbors; in fact, there were many new neighbors, sour faced and Russian. I remember their faces, angry men and women. But why were they angry? I tried to ask my parents, but both of them shook their heads and placed a finger to my lips bidding me silent.
Shouts and the cracking of wood lifted my mother’s head. She had been slicing potatoes.
“Ellen” Mother hissed. “Go to the Glory Box. NOW!”
I was startled – I had never been spoken to this way and the urgency in her voice brought tears to my eyes.
“Why Mum? Why?” I did not understand.
The shouting got closer, it sounded as though a crowd of panicked people were rushing for our door. Mother’s hands were shaking as she pushed me forward. I nearly tripped and bumped into my father, as he stepped into the room
“Do as you mother says.” His anguish broke me and the tears flowed.
He dropped to his knees and roughly hugged me, “We love you Ellen. You must never forget this and you MUST -no matter what you hear – remain in the Glory Box. Your mother or myself will fetch you when the time is right.”
His face was blurry through the tears.
“Do you hear me child?”
I nodded and he stood up. Unlocking the secret latch was easy and the door swung open to his touch.
“Now get inside and quickly make yourself comfortable. It may be a while before you are asked to come out.”
I nodded again and pushed my way into the secret hole. I would do as my father bid.
The pain lost its edge and as I made my way back to the present, I saw that Hugh was no longer in the chair. I panicked. How much longer did I have?
“Hugh, Hugh where are you?” My voice was weak and sounded strained.
His warm, firm hand took my cold one. “I’m here Mum. I was just stretching my legs.”
“What time is it dear?” I tried to make polite conversation, but noticed as I did so, that my son was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. “Have you not gone home to change?”
“I’m fine Mum. I had a wash while you slept, but I have to say that I’m not too keen on the hospital food. How do you stomach it?” He remained positive in the face of my feverish pallor.
I knew my smile was wan, but it was the best I could do. “Well, I don’t seem to have much of a choice now, do I?”
Hugh looked on fondly, his eyes bright with suppressed tears, “I suppose you don’t Mum.”
He took to his seat again, wriggling about and positioning the cushions.
“You’re not going to stay here all night are you dear? Not for my sake, please. I am feeling much better today and I am quite sure, that if you leave now, you would find your bed a lot more comfortable than a hospital chair.
Staunch right to the end. Ellen was made of steel. She had worked tirelessly in providing for me. Sacrificing herself in order to give me all that I could wish for.
Silence fell. We had no need to fill the air will useless words. Ours was a companionship of blood and loving bonds, a lifetime worth of familiarity; so deep that it was enough just to sit next to each other. We waited for time to steal my mother away.
Once again, that dreaded morphine flooded my veins and lI ooked at Hugh, who with that young man’s ease was back to snoring again. It all faded as my eyes closed.
It was very dark in the Glory Box. There was no candlelight to keep me company and the sounds outside, although muffled, were still distinguishable. I heard my mother and father speaking in urgent tones. I could hear banging and then screaming. I shoved a handful of fingers into my mouth, for my father had begged me upon closing the door that I had to remain quiet, no matter what.
It suddenly felt hot in the hole, and then suddenly the front door banged shut. My parents had gone outside. Perhaps to see what the commotion was about, so I waited just as I was told to do. The screaming got louder, a man’s voice shouted and then, abruptly it stopped. I heard cheering and the clapping of many hands. It was all over. Soon my father would release the latch and everything would go back to normal.
The scraping of furniture next to the Glory Box startled me and I bit down on those fingers, shoved tight between my teeth. The voices were not my parents. I didn’t know them at all. Crockery broke and what seemed like an argument harried more tears. I sobbed quietly. I was so very afraid and so very hot.
I must have fallen asleep. When I woke, it was silent. I couldn’t help it, there was no air left for me to breathe in the hole, or at least that was what my mind said, so with a flick to the left, I pushed the door outwards. It was becoming dark and from the window outside, I remember the pale pink of a sunset. It was strange, for all the shutters were now open.
I peered out and then not surprisingly, I fainted. Hanging on the end of two lengths of rope, from the porch rafters were my mother and father.
Its funny the things you think about as you lay, waiting for judgment. Moments of pure clarity ring, as a truth never seen before. I wanted to confess my sadness to my son, unburdening my grief of the murder of his grandparents, but I could not bring myself to do so. It would have been cruel to add pain to Hugh’s bleeding heart.
For a time Ellen stared at the ceiling. Thinking about her past transgressions, in particular the killing of Patton. Looking back, it had been an easy thing to do and she had walked away, as easily as she had given sex to all those men. Nothing could shock her ever again.
Her parent’s death had most certainly been traumatic, who could not deny the damage done to a young mind, but it had served to shape Ellen into an individual bent on survival. And fate, as a result had led her to the choices she had made to protect not only herself, but also her loving son, Hugh. She could see that now. Perhaps everything happens for a reason. Perhaps dying was part of the plan.
Turning her head, Ellen looked at Hugh and considered that it may be time to speak of it all. Maybe the release would help her passing. And, just as that thought began to take solid form, a nurse began pushing and probing at the tubes in her arm.
“I’m sorry dear, but you’re running a little low on the painkillers.” She twisted a few knobs and clucked her tongue in satisfaction. “There now, you’ll be asleep in a minute and you won’t have to worry about the pain for a bit.”
Her uniform was like the room, sterile, white and boring.
“Is morning close by?” I whispered this, for I did not wish to wake my son.
“We have a few hours yet before sunrise. Don’t worry, I’ll be back with some breakfast for the both of you.” Again, she clucked that annoying tongue as if to reassure me that we would not go hungry – as if I cared!
I fell victim once more to the addiction of this wonderful, numbing drug. As I floated in its embrace, I felt as though I was free from cancer and the world would be as it should be. Hugh would be back at his studies where he belonged, Cambridge University in England and she, fussing about her business in Fremantle.
England – the word slurred and came back round again, her home after, The Pale of Settlement. She floated in the calm. Knowing that it wasn’t long and most of all, Ellen knew she was loved. Just like when she was a child, by her parents and after that, her Aunty Olena. The young man sitting next to her carried that same flame. She was lucky: she had been a survivor.
Her mother’s sister had migrated from the Ukraine while Ellen was sill in the womb. Her grandfather, upon finding his daughter dead and hanging like cured ham, did what he had thought best. Her small under-nourished self was quietly removed from the only home she had ever known and sent to a world, both strange and in all truthfulness, exciting.
Ellen never asked how the old man knew of the Glory Box. In fact, she never spoke about that day or any other moment relating to the death of her parents with anyone. She remained silent in the face of her new relatives, while they fussed over her, for she had, after all her mother’s looks. Fair and easily, English.
She now, had England and an Aunty. Ellen even under the throes of the morphine smiled. She had loved Olena, as much as she could love anyone and together they had lived a good life. Her Aunt had a modest home in Bethnal Green; at least that’s what she called it. To Ellen it was a palace. Hot and cold running water, three stories high with a room just for her. It was heaven.
Soon the nightmares faded and with them, so did the faces of her parents. Ellen went to school and fostered friendships, telling everyone she was English along the way. This was for her a way to put it all to rest. She found it easy to accept the unacceptable and in that, Ellen found peace.
She passed through her teenage years with little upset and finished school with such good grades that her future looked as bright as gold. How excited she was and weeks later, much to her delight, Ellen took on the role of secretary at the Imperial Brew who was a large tea importer in the East End of London, and from there, she fell in love with Malcolm Lewis.
The sun peeked through the window and Ellen took a shuddering breath. Hugh woke startled, “Nurse? Nurse, please come quick. It’s my Mum.”
“Hugh don’t fuss so.” I stretched out a shaky hand. I was feeling terribly weak. My voice was a whisper and life, now seemed so much harder.
My son was quietly crying. He was not ashamed to show his love and that was enough. It was time to go. I had to let go and with that letting go, my past would slip away with me. It was the only secret I had left; everything else was in a letter for him.
I closed my eyes and felt the morphine carry me away again. This time I would not return, so I surrendered. Down the road I skipped, singing brightly for I was a child again and standing on the porch was my father waving – I was home.