The Boat in the Picture
It’s morning. I know this because the clock says 7.23 and a finger of light is trying to pull back the curtains. My room faces east. So that makes it morning. This much I know and am certain of. The hands in front of me are desiccated and clutch the bedclothes too tightly. My hands. I know this. Beside my bed a glass of water sits undisturbed. I recognise the feeling in my throat. It is thirst. The water helps. On the wall, a sailboat tosses about on an eager sea. The wallpaper is cream and pitted. (Not mine, then. I like colour in the bedroom. Blue to soothe, green to fire the mind.)
. A soft knock at the door before it opens.
. “All right Mrs March? Can I come in?”
. “If you must.”
. The girl walks in, pirouettes on her toes and closes the door behind her. She holds a cup of steaming tea in her hand. She is fragile, with red hair and small, wanting eyes. Her lips are too shiny – enhanced by some sticky gloss. They look ridiculous on her tiny face.
. “I’m Doreen, Mrs March.” The girl is shouting. I am not deaf.
. “I’m not deaf,” I say.
. She mumbles something. “Speak up,” I say, but my voice does not betray my irritation at her insolence.
. “I just said: breakfast is ready when you are. Would you like me to help you get dressed?”
. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I say, but when I pull back the covers my legs don’t do what I expect of them.
. “What’s wrong with me?” I ask the girl with the button eyes. What was her name?
. “It’s okay,” she coos, strutting now, with her shiny lips. “You just took a bit of a fall. You’ll be right in a jiffy. Just let me help you get dressed.”
. She swings my legs – knotty and useless, and when did they get so thin? – to the floor and my gaze wanders up to the picture on the cream wall. It is a sailboat, being thrown about on a melancholy sea…
… I remember now. We called the boat Ivy, after his mother. She died young, in a car accident, in the days when there weren’t many cars to speak of, and those there were travelled so slowly it’s a wonder anyone was killed. But the car left the road and barrelled down a cliff, into the waiting ocean.
. He waxed that boat until it glistened, even on a grey day. Even at night, if the moon was out, and we decided to take it for a midnight sail, back then, back when we were young and there were no children or worries. The feel of the salt on my skin, making it tight, the darkness somehow making the sea taste different, more pleasurable; the taste of danger, even though I knew I was safe with him.
. That was before we were married. We didn’t go out at night after the babies were born, at least, I didn’t. He would sometimes slip away on a bright night, a kiss on my cheek, and come back in the early hours, smelling of the wind and the sea. I didn’t mind. He would pull me, sleepy and warm, into his arms and we would make love on a stormy bed.
. He rose quickly through the ranks at his law firm, and on the weekends we entertained – his clients, his colleagues, the partners. I liked nothing better than to put on my red lipstick, a bright yellow dress with a full skirt. If we hosted a daytime party I laughed behind dark glasses. Other women didn’t know I watched them as they watched me. Their husbands liked to stare. If those women only knew how much time I put into my appearance, they wouldn’t begrudge me those admiring glances. They could have learned a thing or two from me, if they’d only asked. Like the fact that my auburn hair was mouse-brown underneath the dye and that I rolled my hair painfully into curlers every night, then brushed it and sprayed it until the curls were big and sleek and perfect. My husband didn’t mind the time I took – he was proud of me. On trips away he would bring me a scarf for my vanity. My collection grew to such a size that I could wear a different one every week – in the boldest patterns and colours, to match my eyes, or my hair, or my favourite handbag or shoes. I wanted to surround myself with colour, to stimulate, to admire, to love.
. In the summer we took the children and sailed away for weeks at a time, finding deserted bays, or, more likely, when we were feeling sociable, we found bays that contained friends and their boats: new friends, old friends, boat friends, work friends. We drank martinis after the children had gone to bed and smoked cigarettes and every summer my husband took photographs so we had albums full of our holidays, but mostly of me, smiling into the sun with my sunglasses on and a scarf wrapped around my hair, pedal pushers and flat shoes, a drink in my hand. On wet nights in winter we would bring those albums out and look at them around the fire, planning our next summer’s holiday.
. Things began to change after our tenth wedding anniversary. The entertaining came to a sudden end – one week we had a pool party, the next there was nothing, not even an invitation to a pot luck dinner. I continued on the committee for the YWCA, but the other women changed towards me. They became kinder. They began to comment favourably on my clothing, or on the shade of lipstick I had chosen, or on one of the many scarves that I was now recycling because my husband had told me he would not be buying me any more.
. It wasn’t just the change in attitude of the ladies of the YWCA that worried me. There was a shift within the marriage. He would get up and go to work each morning as usual, but he was slower, and he didn’t thank me for ironing his shirts anymore. When he returned home in the evening he was listless and after dinner parked himself by the radio in his study, ignoring my attempts at conversation. He wouldn’t even play cards with me, or drink a martini. I don’t know how he would have behaved in company because even our regular bridge night was cancelled, and no other invitations arrived. But he didn’t seem to care.
. When I finally talked to him about it, as I stood shivering in the doorway to his study with my hair in curlers, he listened intently to how I was feeling. How I missed the parties we threw, how they gave me more than something to do, they gave me a reason for life. Couldn’t he see? Couldn’t he understand that we all need to find some meaning? His was work. Mine was our home, our entertaining. I wanted an explanation, but he just stood and sighed and patted my hand on the way past. “I’m sorry, love,” he said just before he disappeared into the bathroom. “I don’t know what’s got into me. I’ll try and perk up a bit.”
If you asked that nurse over there, she would probably tell you he was depressed, but we didn’t use words like that back then. If something got you down, you picked yourself up again. If you stopped kissing your wife hello and good-bye, she tried harder to make you happy.
. So I paid even more attention to my appearance. I spent money on new clothes, went to a hair salon every week, had my nails buffed and polished. I cooked for him – elaborate meals from a cordon bleu cookbook, home-made cakes and pies and tarts. Slowly I seemed to be getting through to him. He looked at me now when he spoke to me, although he was excessively polite. He began to spring out of bed in the mornings, and he no longer seemed scared to start each day. But then he also began to come home late. And then later. One night he did not come home at all. I should have questioned him, but I didn’t, and he didn’t offer any explanation. And that was when I knew.
. It is a cliché, for the wife wronged, I know, but I followed him one morning when he left for work earlier than usual. If he was going to meet another woman before he started his day, I wanted to see for myself. He drove east, toward the coast, toward the myriad sleazy motels lined up along the esplanade. I felt as though I were an actress in a film I had seen a million times, and a bad one at that, because I couldn’t in my heart find the conviction to behave as a woman wronged and I still held out much optimism that my husband loved me and was faithful.
. I knew this route because we had driven it many times. When he turned right and into the marina carpark I pulled to the side of the road and got out. It took me a few minutes to wend my way through the different docks, counting my way so I wouldn’t get lost among the sloops and launches. When I had almost reached the Ivy he was not on deck but the hatch was open. I waited, hovering, not hiding but still making sure that it would be difficult to be seen. He emerged at a clip, his work clothes discarded, a rag in one hand and some polish in the other. He was whistling. It took me a moment to register what I was looking at, but in the end it was nothing more than a man in canvas shorts and boat shoes cleaning his yacht, polishing it until it shone like fresh spit. I stood there long after he was due at the office. There was no woman, just a man and the boat named for his mother.
Of course I should have read the signs: the way our life changed so swiftly; the hollowed out shell he became, then another change, something less tangible. I thought like an idiot that it must be another woman, but who else could give him what I could in that department? I was the perfect wife. It was just that a perfect wife, or a woman at all, was not what he needed.
. I had left him to his polishing and gone home. I couldn’t function that day – I just paced around the house, or tried to sit and read a magazine, but the pictures held no interest for me and I couldn’t concentrate on the words. Finally I heard his key in the lock and he found me, standing in the middle of the living room, a glass of scotch in my hand, which I gave him.
. “What is this?” he asked.
. “Please sit,” I said, and sat in the sofa opposite him. “I saw you. On the boat. You need to tell me what is happening.”
. He took a large swig of his scotch and turned the glass around in his hands, staring into the ice before he spoke.
. “Everything will be fine,” he said to me. When he looked up he was smiling, a sort of maniacal grin that I had never seen before. “I have a plan, love.” He put down the glass and stood. Then he spread his arms wide. “We’re going to see the world. The world! I’ve been getting Ivy ready. She’s all set to go. We’re going to sail to America! What do you think of that?”
. I just stared at him, wondering how I could have been so blind. His face was too tanned and weather-beaten for this time of year and his hands when he eventually stepped forward to grab my wrists were more calloused than a lawyer’s hands should be in spring. Then he shook me and I let him. The less I reacted, the more he shook, and I flopped around on that sofa like a blancmange. He shook me so hard I fell to the floor, where I lay, breathing hard. I didn’t want to ask him the question at the front of my mind. Just who did he mean by we? But I didn’t care to know.
. He stood over me for a few seconds, staring at me as if I were a stranger on the floor of his home. Then he tossed his head, picked up his keys and was gone. His car growled in the driveway. He did not come home that night. I continued my evening as if nothing had happened, prepared our dinner of meatloaf, peas, carrots and potatoes and sat down at the dining table with the children to eat it. His serving curled and dried in the oven. When I went to bed I left the hallway light on for him and ascended the stairs.
. It was only when he didn’t come home the following night that I began to worry. I called his office, knowing by now that he wouldn’t be there, that he had left. I spoke to his secretary, Wilma, who told me that he hadn’t worked there for some time. He had lost a big case some months before and the partners had squeezed him out. She couldn’t believe that I didn’t know. I could scarcely believe it myself.
. He drowned, they said. Slipped off the boat and hit his head on the way down. They thought perhaps he was setting sail for somewhere: he had untied the ropes that confined her and she was found knocking about the dock. The galley was stocked with tins and packets of food – enough for a few weeks for two people, much longer for one. Of this, I asked the police to tell nobody.
. My whole life I have tried to forget his face as he lay in the mortuary: inky, terrible, his mouth slack and blue. The cold was overwhelming. As I gripped the metal bench on which he lay, unable to trust my legs to support me, the shock felt remarkably like relief. And that is something I never want to remember.
It is morning. I know this because the clock says 7.43 and the sun is beginning to lap at the walls. The curtains are open and I am sitting on my bed. There is a knock at the door and it opens before I can answer. A wheelchair nudges into the room, pushed by a girl, a nurse by the look of her, with red hair and small, wanting eyes. Her lips shine obscenely as though she has been licking them. She sees me looking at her, must see the look on my face. She nods as if I have asked her a question.
. “Morning, Mrs March. I’m Doreen. I’ll be looking after you today.”
. I watched my mother die. It took a long time. For months she simply faded like a photograph until there was nothing left in her mind to keep her body alive. She clung on to the past – these things she could remember, and she relived again and again her most joyous moments, and on some occasions – horrible, dark days they were, when those memories lingered in her cells – the worst.
. For a moment I am gripped by the idea that I am my mother, that we have traded bodies. I will walk in the door any minute with a rug I have crocheted for her. We will chat about the old days, about my children, and she will seem to be her old self again. She will ask what my husband does for a living and I will tell her about the day he drowned. She will laugh at a joke I told her earlier and then ask me what my husband does for a living. I will tell her that he drowned and she will laugh. Except that she is me and I will watch it all from inside her eyes.
. But I am not her. I have my own life, my own memories, somewhere, just out of reach, like beautiful piano music being played in another room.
. As the nurse settles me into the chair in this strange, bland place, I look up at a picture on the wall: a boat, dancing on a hopeful sea. I do remember something. The boat was named Ivy, after his mother. It’s coming back to me now.
Rachael King is the Programme Director at WORD Christchurch
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