Mother of Pearl

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Picture credit capsulebooks.com autumn-gloom

Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway was not supposed to die first.

Margo pulled the front door shut and hobbled out onto the veranda. She put her mug of hot tea onto the table then pulled out one of the plastic chairs. Fastening her fingers around the handles, she began to lower her fragile body on to the seat. She held her breath, knuckles white under the patio light, arms trembling, but her elbows buckled and gave way. She gasped. Her bottom hit the seat with a thud. The chair skidded backwards – with Margo holding on for dear life – and its four legs scraped the concrete, ripping a roar into the night. She sat rigid, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She blew out a long whistling sigh. Clumsy old fool. A large brown moth tapped the light above her head. She watched as it hovered and tapped and hovered then dived, down towards her face. Unfastening her fingers from the chair, she swiped the air. The moth darted back into the light. Shug would have scolded her for swiping the moth, “God created this world for all living creatures, not just the pretty ones.”

            “Oh Shug,” she wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulders shook and tears welled in her eyes. She coughed out her sorrow in a whisper.

            “Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”

            She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dressing gown and inhaled the night. Autumn had begun to creep into the corners of the garden in little cold curls, and the air smelled of damp foliage and chimney soot. Margo looked out into the darkness and saw the moon, a white eyelash resting on a purple blanket.

            The tea was hot. Margo held the mug to her chest and twirls of steam rose into the air, dampening her face. She turned away and caught her reflection in the patio window. How time had altered her face, it used to be so soft and smooth but now it hung in folds of sagging flesh. And those lips – sucked dry into a shrivelled line. She swept a strand of hair that had blown onto her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. How she missed her long fiery curls, her most defining feature back in the day. Now her hair was as grey as the chimney smoke chugging the air. Shug had barely noticed her changing though. “You’re bonnier than the sunset o’er the Forth of Firth,” he’d say, “as bonny now, as the day we met.” Shug had gone grey first. He was only twenty-three when it happened. In a single year, Shug’s hair transformed from bold black into fading grey. It was the year after Pearl died.  Margo sipped her tea from trembling fingers. She heard the sound of a door opening, closing, and then footsteps. In the darkness, she could see the silhouette of a tall slim man walking down the pavement. It was Billy, her friend’s Grandson.

            “Evening Mrs Galloway,” he waved, “Starting to get a bit nippy out eh?”

            “Aye Son, it is.”

            “Aye.”

            He continued walking. She watched as he stopped at the far end of her fence and lit a cigarette. The flash of orange light glowed for a moment, then he disappeared into the night. All that remained was the sound of his footsteps and a dancing orange dot. The smell of tobacco drifted through the air, lingered for a few seconds and she felt a flutter in her chest. She inhaled deeply. Margo had never smoked, never even tried it, but she had grown used to the smell of a newly lit cigarette. It reminded her of the first day that she had met Shug.

***

It was a warm afternoon in the spring of 1964. She was working from home at the time, a seamstress by all accounts, though a self-trained one. She had even built herself quite a reputation in the village where she lived. A craftswoman, the locals called her, “with an eye as sharp as a needle and fingers that can turn a tattie sack into a gown.” When Shug turned up at the foot of her steps, a handsome young man with a pair of trousers draped over his left arm and a cigarette paper balancing between two fingers, she stood in the doorway and watched him. He knew she was watching, but his eyes were focused on his fingers while he tore the wiry brown tobacco, spread it into a line then folded the paper, rolling and licking and rolling again. When he was done, he put the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and looked up.

            “Are you Margo McNabb?” he cocked his head to one side.

            “Aye.” She blushed and looked at the trousers over his arm.

            “Great, my Maw said you could maybe take up the hem of my trousers,” he held them out. “Can you do it for me?”

            Margo looked at the trousers and then at her visitor. He was short and stocky and the trousers would have been a good two inches too long. She sniggered.

            “Aye okay,” she turned her back, leaving the door ajar, “Come on in.”

            He followed her and closed the door.

            “Who’s your Maw?” Margo asked taking the trousers and nodding her head to an empty seat.

            “Betty, Betty Galloway. She said you two were pals during the war. Do you mind if I…?” he pointed to his cigarette and raised his eyebrows.

            “Aye go ahead, but you’ll need to take it into the scullery. Do you want a cup of tea?”

            “Go on then.”

            He got up from the seat and followed her through. Margo filled the kettle and put it on to boil.

            “So you’re Betty’s laddie. Stanley is it?” she asked dropping two teabags into the teapot.

            “Aye, but call me Shug, hardly anyone calls me Stanley anymore.”

            “Alright Shug,” she leaned back against the wall and folded her arms. Shug lit his cigarette. He took a long draw and blew the smoke up to the ceiling.

            “Nice place you have, Mrs McNabb.”

            “Not Mrs,” she felt her face burning, so she turned to the cooker and fidgeted with the kettle, “Just Margo will do.”

“Just Margo eh? Interesting.”

She turned back around and watched as he blew little hoops of smoke into the room.

            “Me and your Maw, we had some good times together, she used to wash and iron the clothes that I fixed, she was always singing, kept us all going so she did.”

“I bet you could hold a tune yourself,” he winked.

            “Well I tried.” She twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. “Anyway, those were hard times back then, nae money for luxuries and all that.”

            “Make do and mend,” he said, “Aye, she still goes on about it.”

***

A car engine rattled, snapping Margo out of her memory, and abruptly back to 2010. She jumped, and looked out into the street. It was normally so quiet at this time of the night. The car drove past. Lifting her mug, she took a gulp of tea but it was almost cold. She put the mug back on the table.  Television lights flickered in the window opposite and an upstairs light in the house on the left, turned on. A curtain twitched. She watched for a moment then stretched her legs out in front of her.  Flopping her head back, she looked up at the darkening sky. She closed her eyes and sighed, letting her thoughts drift off again. ‘Make do and mend’, she thought, ‘just like our wedding.’ In the space of a year, they had gone from talking in the scullery to walking down the aisle. It was a shame it had been such a small ceremony. Not many people approved of the twenty-seven year age gap. Shug had looked so charming in his taken-up trousers and suit jacket, while she had worn a dress she made herself. Oh and how wonderful she had felt in that beautiful dress, satin and lace that expertly skimmed her three-month baby bump.

***

Pearl was born in the back of an ambulance, eight days late, and after seventeen hours of labour. She was a scrawny little pink bundle – with a temper as fierce as her fiery hair. And those eyes, those little blue eyes that looked up at her Mother and filled her joy. They had fallen in love instantly. Margo remembered bringing her home, swaddled in a crocheted shawl. It took Shug a few days to hold his daughter on his own though.

“She’s not a bomb for goodness sake,” she took the baby from him and told him how to position his arms. He sat back in the rocking chair, and she placed the little bundle back into his arms. He stared down at her, a new twinkle in his eyes.

“She’s a gem.”

“Aye,” Margo smiled, “She really is. Are we giving her a name?”

“Pearl,” Shug replied, “Her name is Pearl.”

***

“Pearl.” Margo whispered her daughter’s name into the night. “I’ve missed you all these years.”

A cold breeze ruffled her hair and tickled her face. It felt  like tiny ghost fingers touching her playfully. With her eyes still closed, she held on to the lingering chill. She touched the pendant that hung on a silver chain around her neck. Shug had bought it for her birthday in 1968, the year that Pearl died. She could still remember him dropping the pendant into her hand and closing her fingers around it. The stone had felt as heavy as the ache in her chest.

“I don’t want it.” She threw the pendant back at Shug. She hadn’t even remembered it was her birthday. After all, she had only buried her daughter three weeks earlier.

 “But it’s Mother of Pearl,” he placed it on the bed side table, “Like you, the Mother of Pearl. It’s to remember our little girl.”

“What? You think a stupid necklace is a replacement for my baby? Really?” her body convulsed and tears fell from her swollen eyes.

“You’ll always be her Mum, Margo. You will.”

“Her Mum? But it was my job to look after her, not to dilly dally at some stupid ladies group.  She was only three, for Christ’s sake, my only child. I should have been with her.”

            “It’s not your fault,” he sobbed, “I should have been watching.”

            Margo looked away from him and clenched her teeth.

            “I only took my eyes off her for a second to roll my fag. I didn’t see her run. I didn’t see the car.”

            “Stop.”

            “Come on Margo, you have to believe I’d never have let anything happen to our wee girl, not on purpose.”

            “Too late. Where is she now Shug, eh? Where is my bairn?”

            Shug bent down to touch her face. She swiped his hand away.

            “Don’t touch me!” She shouted and pulled the covers up to her neck. “Just don’t”

            “I’m so sorry,” he fell no his knees and wept into his hands, “I’m so sorry. Oh God. Oh God!”

***

Margo could still remember his cries, even now – forty-two years later. She shook her head, dropped the pendant onto her chest, and stared out into the darkness. Poor Shug. He’d never been the same after the accident. It hadn’t been easy for either of them to – just get on. But they did – get on – or at least they did their best. The television had stopped flickering in the window across the road. All the other windows were dark. She was alone.

Margo had always imagined that she would die first. Shug had joked about how he would go off and travel the world with all of their money when she was gone. After all, the success of her sewing business had allowed her to save for many years; so much so that she had comfortably retired at sixty. She remembered asking Shug to consider early retirement from his job in the carpet factory.

“I’ve plenty years in me yet.”

“But we can afford it, and you’ve worked so hard for all these years, don’t you want to spend more time at the dancing? You love the dancing.”

“We can dance anytime. Look,” he took her hand and pulled her into an embrace, then spun her around, catching her and kissing her on the nose.

Margo giggled.

“But we could do other things. You know. Together.”

“Like?”

“Get on a train and go somewhere new. My goodness, we could travel the world.”

“I already told you,” he slapped her bottom, “I’m going to travel the world when you’re dead and gone. What else am I going to do with all that money you’ve got stashed.”

“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you are a bad man.”

 But alas, it wasn’t to be. Shug was forced to retire in 2004 due to ill health. He was diagnosed with emphysema and heart problems. It had begun as a cough that had lasted for three months.

“Is it no about time you gave up on the cigarettes?” she’d asked him, knowing full well that he wouldn’t.

“How am I supposed to give up the fags now,” he said, “I’ve been smoking since I was eight.”

Shug had often recalled his early childhood memories to her. He had worked in his uncle’s cigarette factory when he was just a boy. He told her how he would sweep under the machines, collecting the loose tobacco in a paper bag so him and his pals could meet in the hay field after school and smoke the scraps. Margo had laughed about it, and people didn’t know the risks back in the fifties, and most of the boys did it.

            Margo worried. Shug had lost his appetite and had grown thin, adding years to his face. His bottom lip was tinged in blue. He spent much of the day asleep or sitting up in his armchair reading the paper. Margo began to sleep in a chair beside his bed. One night, at the beginning of 2005, his heart stopped.

***

“I saw her Margo. I saw her standing there, waiting for me,” he gripped her hand through the bars of the hospital bed.

            “Pearl?”

            “She’s waiting, I saw her, and she was smiling.” Shug tried to sit up, but she put her hand on his shoulder and bent over him. Her back ached and her eyes filled with tears.

            “She forgives me, my little girl.” He closed his eyes.

            “It’s not time yet.” She said and kissed his finger then held them to her lips. “I’m taking you home.”

            “Oh Margo, I’m ready to go now,” he turned his head towards her but never opened his eyes, “Don’t let them bring me back next time. Promise me?”

            “I, I don’t know.” She whispered.

            “Don’t let them bring me back.”

***

Margo looked up at the sky. It had turned black.  She was glad that Shug had managed another six years after that, and although he began to fade away, his love never faltered. And he learned to laugh again. “You better get spending that money, Mrs Galloway.”

She reached for her mug; it was as cold as stone. Pouring the remaining tea into the wilting fuchsia in the flower box, she sighed deeply. She pushed her arms against the plastic chair and steadied herself. Her legs trembled and she shivered. The night had sunk into her dressing gown. She had waited long enough. Straightening her back, she walked slowly into the house. It was just as she had left it. The armchair, the ashtray filled with cigarette ends, and Shug. She kissed his cheek, closed his eyes, and watched another white eyelash fall to his purple blanket.

            “Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”

Tears rolled down her face. She picked up the phone.

            “Emergency services, how may I help you?”

            “My husband has died.”

            “Are you sure that he is dead?”

            “I’m sure.”

©EilidhGClark

Mother of Pearl, is now published in the Autumn edition of Capsule books. Here is the link to purchase the full 106 page autumn edition – CapsuleBooksAutumnEdition.

If I Can’t Find You, I’ll Try To Find Myself

Everything is hushed, even the waves hemming the sand seems to hold their breath. Dawn is breaking and teasing the horizon. The world seems warmer. Tiny orange  crabs scurry sideways into jagged rocks and now I am alone. I feel naked. Alive. All that I hold are my most intimate thoughts and a new respect for life.

Visiting the Maldives had been a distant dream of mine, since – well since forever. I had lost my mother seven months earlier. Her sudden departure from my life was not only tragic but deeply confusing. Life as I knew it had changed. I found myself searching for answers instead of comfort and could not see beyond the noise. Seven months had passed and I found myself frustrated. I spent too much time sitting on my doorstep, looking to the sky and searching. I found nothing. Waiting for nothing is the most desperate way to pass the time. You feel the outside expanding rapidly from your doorstep while you slowly shrink inside your own head. After receiving a small windfall, it didn’t take me long to find my escape. “If I can’t find you, I’ll try to find myself.”

I watch the sun climb. Shocking red and orange slices flash upon the placid sea. Blood rushes around my body; my head feels light and my skin tingles. I want to grab this vision and stamp it urgently in my memory; nothing had been or ever could be this beautiful.

Sunrise is followed by nature. The salt water and wet sand creep up and swallow my legs. Schools of fish swim daringly close to me examining by pale white limbs. I enjoy teasing them with my toes.  A stingray skims the surface of the shore, round , large and flat like a piece of old leather being carried by the waves. I stand up and follow it until it disappears into deeper water. “Time is irrelevant. Time is unconnected to the world outside. The world outside is now extinct”.

I am walking. My island has opened up to people. Swimwear –  bright and cheerful which somehow looks dishonest here. Every soul I see equally treasures the silence. I see the emotion on every face that turns toward me. Passion has touched their soul. Passion has touched my soul.

I find a spot under a palm tree. It is a light relief from the burning sun as the fan like branches shade my skin. A tiny lizard scurries up the rough bark and hides from me. I have stolen its place. I close my eyes and breathe in a smell of warm salty sea and dry foliage. It is the pure and clean smell of the natural world, stripped back to its rawness, undeveloped and unpolluted.  Unspoiled.  All of my senses are kick-started. I am alive.

Hours pass, or perhaps it is just seconds but the next thing happens alarmingly quick. The brilliant blue horizon turns charcoal grey. In the blink of an eye the neighbouring island vanishes. The atmosphere feels instantly charged. Excitement and fear presses heavily on my skin and I watch in wonder as the sea trembles and spits out her waves as she chokes in the dense air. Colossal globes of water pelt from the heavens onto the world below. All at once I am alone again. Noise booms in my ears from the waves and rain and the intense screeching from the unhappy bird high above my head in my palm tree. I am motionless. I watch the storm gather itself, teasing my island with its wildness and ferocity, and I long for it. My heart pounds in my chest, my ears scream as I suck in the humid air and hold it as my body wretches. My eyes explode with tears cascading from deep inside my broken heart. I clench my fists and my eyes stare ahead, finally seeing myself through my blurred vision. I sob for my mother, I weep for the loneliness I feel without her and for my uncertain future.

Almost as quickly as it begins, the rain stops. The world stops. Only for a moment.Like I am caught between when time began and when time ended. I am nothing but am everything. The sea throws its last wave onto the wet sand then lies still,  tranquil. Silent.  Before my eyes is a florescent sea. A bright shocking bath of glory against a cruel bleak sky.

My eyes dry. The grey moves along the horizon until all that remains is a flawless sky that never ends. The sun lies down  on the clear and rested water and time resumes.For the first time in a long time I understand. My close encounter with a tropical storm has awakened me. Like the storm, my grief is fierce but beautiful and will eventually pass. I am alive. I can be whole.

©Eilidh G Clark

The Lesson

Our heaving lungs suck the air as we climb.

Higher, higher.

Aching legs and numb feet scramble over boulders and broken branches.

Rain, wind, and a glimmer of sun. A distant mist descending

from the sullen sky onto the earth, erasing a castle, a monument

a city.

Leaves shake violently in the cutting wind. Noise.

Squelching mud, snapping twigs,

unnatural sound, we create it.

On the cliff top, the landscape is our canvas.

Acorns and chestnuts, branches and stones, litter the floor

like a countryside collage  hung on a  classroom wall. Winters decay.

Carcasses of cream coloured leaves, consumed by insects, lie randomly

forming delicate lace arrangements.

Brown mud, brown leaves, brown bark, paint the backdrop

of a multi coloured woodland.

Green moss on a broken wall,

orange, yellow and grey foliage A tiny shoot, pushes through the earth.

Layers of  life on death, death on life. The liberty of nature.

Nature is shrinking, the colours rinsed out by

buildings, roads, litter, wire fences

hemming in the farmers cows

hemming in history.

Humanity’s smell is pungent,

food and  people

people and food.

Through the wind, a distant drilling is heard.

©Eilidh G Clark

Free Day

I sat on the doorstep. My head was filled with a itchy buzz that drowned out the noise from the road fifty yards away. The afternoon was damp and humid and a smell of rotten leaves hung thick. The air licked my skin and my scalp prickled as I sucked life into my lungs, attempting to clear the fog that stifled  brain. I had been grinding my teeth ever since I received the phone call at 11am that morning and now my jaw ached. Outside, the doorstep was my reprieve, a place to escape. The mourning. It was the crying; the fear, it was the look of desperation etched on faces; pale, ashen and distorted. Outside I was alone, raw and separated from the solid hugging arms of collective grief and crumpled bodies. Fat blobs of rain began to fall, and I looked up to charcoal clouds scribbled over the sky.

“This,” I thought, “is how the sky ought to look today’.

From behind the rooftops of an adjacent tenement block of flats, a single black helium balloon appeared. I watched it stagger over the sky, bashing into thick air then sucked into jets of cold.For a moment it hesitated.

“Where are you Mum?”  I shook my head and watched as the balloon skittered off into the distance. The world above was black and white.

How was I meant to feel today? How are you supposed react when you get a call at 11am on a Sunday morning telling you that your Mum is dead?

Death.

Grief.

I had often tried to imagine how I would feel when this day arrived, especially more so in the last year as I noticed how fragile my mother looked and how tiny she had become. One thing was certain; I had always known my heart would break.  What I did not expect was confusion, fear, emptiness and a feeling of no longer being safe. I got up and went back into a house that was no longer home.

Loss. I had experienced it before.

***

It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was off school. I wasn’t even sure why my Mum had let me have a free day but it was bound to be great. I got to pick my own clothes because Mum had gone out to see Granny in hospital. Before she left, Mum told me to be good and remember to brush my teeth. When I went downstairs to see who was looking after me, loads of aunties and uncles had come to visit. I felt really excited because that usually meant a party. The room was filled with pipe smoke and old lady smell.

“I got a free day off school,” I said, and tried to squeeze in between Uncle Jimmy and Auntie Agnes.

Everyone was looking at me and pulling weird faces. Auntie Phamie was crying. Auntie Isa had a crumpled up face and was looking at the floor. Uncle John coughed and left the room. I was afraid I had done something wrong.

“Your Granny died this morning,” Auntie Isa said, looking up.

I laughed because I didn’t believe her. My Granny was in hospital. Auntie Phamie started wailing so I turned around and stood in the corner.

“Poor Eleanor, not getting there on time,” Uncle Roberts voice came from near the kitchen.

I knew my Mum was called Eleanor, and I wondered if she had missed the bus this morning.

“And Chic, poor man, going home to an empty house,” one of the Aunties said. I wondered who Chic was and if he’d been burgled like the folk on Jackanory yesterday. I nervously picked wood-chip off the wall, and it fell in between my feet and on to the green carpet. I was hungry because no one had made me anything to eat. This didn’t seem like a party to me at all. I was scared to turn around, partly because I could still hear Auntie Phamie sniffing and grunting, and also because there was now a pile of wood-chip on the floor at my feet. I stood and looked at the mess for ages and thought about my Grannie. Why did they say she was dead? I thought this was a nasty lie to tell.

After what felt like hours, I heard the front door open and turned around.  Mum walked in with Auntie Nan and Papa and everyone got up and started cuddling, just like at Christmas, except no one was singing. Papa was crying, and I felt like I should be crying as well but didn’t know why. My Mum took ages to come over and see me and when she did she crouched down so her face was close to mine. I wondered if my Mum would like what I had picked to wear.

“Your Granny died this morning,” she said.

I frowned and turned my back on my Mum, then felt warm pee dribble down my leg and into my sock.

©Eilidh G Clark

My World in a Ring

For Helen

It was not mine when it caught my eye,

I had never seen treasure like this before;

An opal stone set firmly in gold

Had lured me into the antique store.

 

Now it sat in a box amongst breakfast and tea,

Eight slices of toast with a message in cheese;

Toast perfectly buttered and words written neat,

Marry me?

 

Such a mighty feast adorned my table

That my brain was not quite comprehending,

The offer of marriage in edible love

And the unanswered question still pending.

 

My eyes filled with tears and the word “yes” escaped

And the ring flashed like sun and like fire,

She tenderly slipped the ring onto my finger,

For my love, I just could not deny her.

 

I mused over the jewel that now circled my finger;

Of its journey, its life and it’s past,

Who wore it before me, and who gave it up?

Was it a symbol of love that still lasts?

 

Was it owned by a lady who travelled the world,

Who read Shakespeare and Milton and Pope?

Did she write words with new inspiration?

Did the ring give her courage and hope?

 

Did she sit in a café and hold hands with her love?

Did they fill life with lobster and wine?

Did they explore foreign lands, discover by chance

The opal amongst darkened mines?

 

My ring holds the secret to questions I pose

Locked tight in six claws of rich gold,

The oval shaped opal like a world filled with fire,

And serpents and magic and wonder untold.

 

The magic consumed me as I strolled to the light,

The stone changed from fire into ocean,

Its sky filled with morning, with sunbeams

And clouds and a light show of pleasure and motion.

 

 

My gem is unique in this world, like no other,

It’s a rainbow enclosed in a stone,

Revealed to the world through endurance and skill,

It’s a lifetime of pleasure I own.

 

I wear it with pride on my left hand, fourth finger,

I imagine the gem’s sweet voice sing,

“You are unique, you are precious and have

fire in your soul, and your world will live on in this ring.”

 

©Eilidh G Clark