With a child’s mind, I hated her, almost as much as I hated him. At least, I thought I did. It was easy to think this way when the image of your mother, wide-eyed and naked, stared back at you each time you closed your eyes. In a young boy’s mind, it sounded fierce and certain, for it was not an easy pill to swallow. I knew this, as I raced breathlessly around the side of the house, seeking refuge for my tears under the umbrella of the Weeping Elm. Let the birds stand witness to my mothers’ shame, I needed to know why
The front door slammed and a man’s voice sizzled the air with a string of curses. The gate shook and then a car door signaled his exit. All of this was followed with a screech of tyres.
It seemed an age before I heard my mother’s voice call my name for supper. I could smell fried chicken cooking as the tweeting birds came and went in my private place. The smell was tantalizing. She had probably used the last of the food stamps for such a treat and with reluctance I dusted myself off, and went inside. I couldn’t meet her eyes in fear that I would begin crying again, but Alice made it easy
She carried on as though it was just another day. Chatting as she plated the chicken, heaping a generous serving of fresh salad on the side. It was in a way, a silent apology. It suited me, for didn’t want to speak of it either. I was at a loss in understanding, why a man, she so vehemently loathed was lying naked in her bed.
How many times had she told me, ‘Stay away from the Landlord.’, spitting the words out like shards of broken glass into my face. Now, the bewildered look I must have given her from across the table earned me a sad look.
“I think we’ll have an early night Walter. It’s been a long day my dear, and we could both do with the rest.” It was a motherly comment, spoken with a gentle caress to the words.
I nodded and kept on eating. I would find out the why, if it took me a lifetime. “Yes Mum. I am feeling a little tired.”
Our lives continued on, as it did like all ordinary folk living in Cottesloe. School with its familiar smells and sounds, lessons and play helped take my mind off the Landlord and my mother. Frank Schoffield’s unruly antics left me in stitches on those days, when he played the fool. Practical jokes were the order of the day, flying rubber bands bounced back and forth across the classroom, stinging ears and the back of everyone’s necks. The boy’s muffled their laughter, and it wasn’t until Nancy Jackman, stung with a long ranged blow from a thick rubber band, that the game came to a sudden halt.
Frank and I stood, as we waited our turn to see the Headmaster and his famous cane. Our hands stuffed tightly into our pockets, we each silently imagined the coming blows. Another mark against my name, more shame in the whispers of my boyish pranks of the other children’s lips. Thank goodness, my mother did not know, she had enough of her own shame to carry. I believe it is important to note, that the years did not lessen my thinking, and the image of her nakedness never truly went away.
Alice was careful after that fateful mistake. Never did she mention the word Landlord in my hearing again, nor did I see the man on the streets outside our house. Loitering in his car, like he used to, as he waited for me to leave. I have over the years of remembering, believed that my mother did her best to make amends, but I could not forget. The why haunted me. So, I watched her every move and bided my time for the opportune moment where it would all make sense.
I continued to excel in my studies, intent on making her proud, for I loved my mother still. Wartime left little room to brood, or spy for that matter. Rationing gave me the chance to earn a little money after school. Mrs. Beckett, one of my mother’s customers, cheerfully gave me a few coins each week for running errands and sweeping leaves. Mrs. Lassiter set me to walking her dog. ‘My legs ache.’ She complained, but I took the money anyway.
The extra coins gave Frank Schoffield, Tommy Rufus and I an outing like no other. We would meet up and catch a bus to the Capitol Theatre on William Street in the city of Perth. The afternoon was spent at the Cinema for the Saturday afternoon Matinees. It was exciting and bold, for we had to convince our parents that we were worthy of such a long trip. Three young boys on a bus, dressed in our best with the promise of popcorn and soda at the end of the journey. One film in particular – the Cowboy and the Lady – starring Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon had us visiting the Capitol a good three times running. Guns and cowboys, and the romance kept us blushing in the dark. It was the best of times, and for a while the Landlord and my mother faded into a background of teenage up and downs.
Frank Schoffield left school. He never did have the aptitude for lessons and found himself happier working with his dad. I didn’t mind, for I still got to see him on my trips to the news agency. My errands took me past the store quite often as not, walking the dog for Mrs. Lassiter.
I out grew my clothes, almost daily it felt like and the only good thing about it was, that I got to wear long pants instead of the short ones all boys were made to wear. The errands, that were few became many, for Alice could see the advantage in using me as a delivery boy for her cosmetics
At first I balked at the idea, “What? Me peddling cosmetics? Mum surely you can’t be serious. What do I know of women’s cosmetics?
She laughed. I liked to hear the sound of her laugh for it reminded me of happier times, of our family walks together. We would tramp around the neighborhood, with Mum sampling the local plants and flowers daring to grow over and through fences. We would come home with our arms full, giggling like small children caught with their hands in the jar.
“Walter dear. I am not asking to parade the streets wearing my latest shade of lipstick, or to have your cheeks rouged in the painted style becoming most young women. But, I do need your help, and having you knock on doors will save me time. I can carry on here with my work. It is after all what keeps the wolves from our doors.”
I actually felt myself blush under such reasonable persuasion and of course, I could not say no.
“Very well. Do you have a list?”
Without a moment’s hesitation Alice handed me a piece of paper, it was a beautifully written list of all her clients and the addresses to each house. Some of these ladies were well to do, while others had to save their pennies to afford my mother’s beauty products. She wasn’t finished. Alice had a box packed and set on the table. I finished reading and looked at her, she laughed at the horror in my eyes.
“Now?” I almost whined the word. I had other plans. I wanted to meet Billy.
She didn’t need to say a word. A look was what I got and I picked up the box. The sudden urge to sulk crept up on me
“Don’t forget my cigarettes.”
I pushed the screen door open and hit the footpath. With the box in my arms I went in search of Mrs. Burgundy’s house. Little did I know, that becoming mum’s errand boy would shape my future into something I never could have dreamt of.
Mum’s business had always been her own. I had never in all my young days and even into my later years – when we had realized that her life would not grow into old age – questioned her past. Cancer, the very word still chills me. I kept the Landlord and his disgusting arrangement with Alice to myself. The shame ran deep and I fear, that not even as she lay dying, could I bring myself to ask the question. It was suffice, to say that as an adult, I now understood.
It is not a wonder that I have such a distrust of women. For in those impressionable years of being mum’s errand boy, I was given a window to peer through. At times, it seemed as if I was an extra in an Alice picture show, not like the ones we watched as children in the front stalls of the Capitol Theatre, but a darker flick, an almost adult rated movie
When I walked in on mum and Mr. Wright in our lounge room, I had an inkling there was more to her than met the eye. The young man in me recognized, that my mother was more than just – a mother. There were undercurrents to this person, who did more than feed and clothe me. She was a healthy, young woman who had needs, adult needs.
This was when I began to finally see her. Past the mixing and blending of her homemade cosmetics: far beyond the easy smile on her beautiful face. I began to suspect each home I visited, held secrets. Questions and underlying comments were subtly dropped, all relating to the welfare of my mother, all assumingly full of innocence. But, as the months passed, I began to see what everyone else saw.
One afternoon, I left school early. I didn’t know why it was important to do so, but I trusted that quiet voice inside my head, so I Begged off with stomach cramps and convincing the nurse, that my mother would not wish a call, I feigned feeling sick. It would be easier all round I told the woman with her steady stare, if I walked quietly home by myself. Frank Schoffield helped to make my eyes red and weepy. Just a little crushed chilli, he had said. My god, what a stupid thing to do.
I was just about to round the corner, when I heard our gate go. It was a familiar click. I stopped short and listened. The sound of my mother’s shoes rang loudly in my ears. She was going out. The moment had come and perhaps now, that looming question of why would be answered. I crossed the road, and I have to admit thinking on it, that I had never felt so afraid. Of all the trials and tribulations of my past, following my mother was the greatest.
She walked with total ease. A summer dress of yellow and green fluttering behind her, as she floated down the street. A hat of equal beauty sat on her head and underneath it, I knew her hair would be coiled and pinned in a fashionable swirl. My mother’s entire wardrobe was a statement, but for who, I was yet to find out.
She turned into Mrs. Brompton’s house, but she had no packages to deliver. She had long ago given that job to me, so what was she doing here? My heart missed a couple of beats. Perhaps the lady of the house had asked my mother to tea. It would solve the many fears rattling about my head. I prayed for Mrs. Brompton to open the front door.
Alice stopped short, just before the steps that led up onto the porch. She opened her purse and pulled out a small compact, flicked it open and proceeded to check herself in the mirror. She pursed her lips, checking her lipstick and then, with careful precision took off her hat. My mother primped and touched her hair, until at last satisfied that all was in place, took to those steps.
I held my breath and waited as she rung the bell. I swear to this day that I heard it ring into the bowels of that house. Waiting for Mrs. Brompton to greet my mother. I didn’t have to wait long, before the door pulled opened. To my horror, it was Mr. Brompton, who stood in its frame. A smug smile graced his lips and I wanted, in that moment to rush the man down and knock it clean away.
His hand left the doorway and rested its beefy self on my mother’s back and instead of pushing it away, she stepped into him. They were gone. Just like that, Alice went inside with Mr. Brompton.
My shame knew no ends. I had found the why to a lot of questions. Asked all those years ago as a small boy, it even wrapped itself into the how of many things. How my mother was able to put those extra trimmings on the table. How I was able to get the small, extra things I mentioned in our quiet moments. How we survived all these years with no husband and no father.
I hid from the house, but watched and waited. An hour passed and Alice emerged, looking just as beautiful as when Mr. Brompton had slipped his hand around her back. I felt a surge of jealousy, but he was nowhere to be seen. Without a backward glance, she set off back home with her dress fluttering again in the breeze, that fabulous hat snug on her pinned up hair
I didn’t follow her home. After all, it wasn’t time for me to leave school, but I knew a place I could go without any questions asked. Frank sat at the counter, a cigarette in his mouth and a newspaper open. He flicked through the advertising without looking up.
“Hey Walt.” I didn’t flick him off like I usually did at the abbreviation of my name. I was too consumed with the why of it all and Frank, being Frank didn’t notice.
“Hi.” I pulled up a stool, one of two near the counter and joined him.
He passed me a licorice stick and together we chomped away in mutual silence. Frank was not the nosy kind and I think, that was why I appreciated his friendship. I needed the quiet to work out in my head, the best way to deal with it all.
I took a leaf out of my mother’s book and ignored it all. I rationalized, that she had her life and I had mine but together we shared a family. It also dawned on me, that she must have had a very good reason to do what she did. Even with all the other visits to all the other women’s husbands, did I think this way! What could I do; give her and myself grief by standing toe to toe with the woman who had done nothing but care and shelter me all my life.
So the years passed. I grew up and became a young man and my mother fell sick, terribly sick, and all I could give her was love.
Sitting now with Mr. Stokes in his office, he on one side of his desk and me on the other, I never dreamed of what was to come. Placing the teacup gently down on his darkly stained desk, I thought about pushing my chair away. It was finished, my mother was now at peace and her Will, having been read, meant that I could go my own way.
“Walter before you leave there is something extra I must give you. There is an envelope here and I was instructed that upon your mother’s death, I was to give it to give you.” His tobacco stained fingers held it out for me to take.
My hand trembled slightly, for this was indeed a surprise.
“I’ll leave you for a moment Walter, if you don’t mind. There are some papers I must see to.” He left without a reply, shutting the door quietly behind him.
A clean rip and a letter revealed itself. I read it’s contents and the sadness closed my throat, threatening to become tears. It was all there. I peered into what I believed to be an empty package and saw another piece of paper. Can I take anymore?’ This silent question nearly stopped me from pulling it free.
But it was from Alice and as such, I had no choice but to read her last words.
It was a single sentence, nothing more. Meant only for me, and whether it was to shock or to beg excuse for the contents in the other letter, I will never know.
It read, ‘Forgive me Walter, but surely you must have known that I have always LOVED YOU!’