Exploring Shame

Creative writing submission from the Rest Less community – submit your entry here.

Exploring Shame


Lisa

Lisa answered the door to Julia, her probably perfect but grossly annoying neighbour.

“Sorry Lisa. Do you have our grocery delivery? Only they left a note and we were at the wholesalers, and we’ve only just got back. Sorry to interrupt things at home.”

She reached for the box, passed it to Julia and closed the door, managing the whole exchange with facial expression only.

Why does she have to start every sentence with “I’m sorry”.  It makes her sound pathetic.

Lisa returned to her daughter’s bedroom. It was a nice light room with big patio doors onto the garden, but then it used to be the dining room. It was her favourite room in the house when they bought it. Was she sorry it is now her daughter’s bedroom? No. She wasn’t sorry for that. She had nothing to be sorry for. Lisa had sold the dining room furniture, and didn’t see the sense in keeping it. They hardly used it anyway and they needed space for Jo. The hospital had recommended a motorised bed, and Lisa had bought new curtains to make sure the room was dark at night.

Lisa checked the planner hanging on the end of the bed, for the fifth time that day. One hour reading then one-hour bed bath and massage. 12:00 lunch, the afternoon play on the radio and a nap. After dinner, a quiz show, then maybe a film. Everything was on the planner.

It was 10:00AM. Time to read. Lisa started to read a few pages of a novel aloud. It was one of the books she had found in Jo’s old bedroom, so she assumed they would be OK. Lisa didn’t like them at all, and thought they were utter drivel. But the doctor had said regular communication was important, and he had suggested reading to her daily. So, she did.

Somewhere along the way Lisa had learned to read words on a page without actually reading anything. She found her mind drifting to a day exactly two years ago when Derek had insisted they have Portuguese wine to celebrate their anniversary. Lisa had lost the taste for alcohol after Jo was born. She couldn’t understand why he had insisted on the phone call.

She put the book down, took the bed shirt off Jo and washed her methodically. The council had provided a hoist, but Lisa preferred to do the lifting herself. Jo was only light anyway, so she wasn’t much more than a bird. Well if you’re just lying there, you lose muscle, Lisa supposed.

She took a large, soft sponge and squeezed it in warm soapy water. A continuous sweeping motion, her eyes focused on the job in hand, so as not to miss any part of the flesh. Limb by limb, body, neck and face. A faint smell of lavender. It wasn’t that Lisa avoided looking at Jo’s face. She just couldn’t. What could she say?

When she saw people in the village, the ones who were brave enough to actually speak, always apologised.

“I’m so sorry to hear about Jo. Such a pretty girl and so young. All her life ahead of her; it must be awful.”

Lisa, a master of facial expression, didn’t usually answer, but she wanted to. She wanted to scream at their pitiful attempts at polite concern. She wanted to slap them hard across the face to make them understand this was not something dismissed in an apology, like a few crosswords or a missed coffee morning. That this lasted longer than the words, that this was now her life and possibly Jo’s. She wanted to shout.

“Why are you sorry? It wasn’t you that rang while she was driving.”

“What age is appropriate to crash your car and become a vegetable?”

Lisa went into the kitchen to make soup. She saw Derek sat in his chair reading the paper, but didn’t ask him if he wanted any; she just made it. She did not wish him a happy anniversary. There were no cards anymore. She applied herself to the routine of chopping vegetables, fried them gently in butter slowly to release the flavours, then added stock and reduced on a low heat for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Apologies are just throw-away words now, something you say when you bump into someone in the street or interrupt the waiter in a restaurant. Why are the really important words so hard to say? Derek had offered an excuse at the time of the accident. He’d said he was trying to make sure I got the wine I liked. The one we had on our honeymoon. He’d said he couldn’t remember whether he’d asked her to bring it, so he told me to ring her. Was that supposed to be some kind of apology? It doesn’t even start to recognise how that one thought led to a chain of events that would irrevocably change our lives.

At that moment, the washing machine announced the end of its washing cycle with a set of beeps, so Lisa emptied the drum into a basket and went outside to hang the bedding. As she pegged the sheets, Lisa concentrated on the job in hand; doubling the corners then allowing one peg for one side in the centre to allow the wind to get through. She had always been pragmatic, but now daily routine was quite rigid, dictated by Jo’s care, but also offered Lisa an environment where she still had some element of control.

Lisa had dealt with difficult times before; her mother’s death to cancer, her father’s stroke then subsequent fatal heart attack, selling the family home. She had learned to focus on the practicalities of the situation. There was a lot to do so she just got on with it: filled planners with lists, appointments and used her time effectively. She felt emotion was an option and didn’t want it to distract her from tying up all the loose ends.

Of course, there was a lot of emotion in the beginning. We were just getting ready for the anniversary dinner when the police came. Derek had invited the neighbours and we were waiting for Jo. I was busy in the kitchen of course. When I saw them, I couldn’t quite understand why they were in the sitting room. I couldn’t quite make any sense out of what they were saying. I understood all the words, but the sentence didn’t seem right. Then all I heard was screaming. Later when Derek brought me some tea, he told me what the police said. She’d answered the phone.

It wasn’t an accusation because he hadn’t realised. It was me that realised. It was a week later when he mentioned the wine from Portugal again; said he regretted asking about it; asked me not to blame myself. I haven’t really spoken to him since then; can’t bear to look at him. Derek and I dance around polite essential conversation but he has no idea. When Jo finally opens her eyes, what exactly does he expect? Are we all to sit around the bed discussing old times when I suddenly drop in with, “By the way, I’m sorry I ruined your life”?

What kind of mother doesn’t protect her child?

Derek

Derek woke at 6:05AM. He always woke at that time. Had spent years getting up early to avoid the busy commute to work but since retirement the habit stuck. He got dressed quietly so as not to wake Lisa and went downstairs. He made coffee, silently entered Jo’s bedroom and sat in the chair next to the bed.

His daughter lay, apparently asleep, exactly as she had done for the last 18 months since leaving hospital. He took her hand and held it while he drank his coffee. The doctor had suggested communication, but he couldn’t speak to her. Not like this. When she opened her eyes, he would speak. There was a lot to say. He cast his eyes down the bed and caught sight of the planner hanging over the end.

Derek hated the planner. It was Lisa’s idea. She had done it before, when her Dad was ill. Nigel came to live with them after his stroke so that Lisa could care for him, in the same room actually. It used to be the dining room, but Derek could barely remember eating there now.

Staring at the planner, Derek noticed the date and realised it was exactly two years since the accident. He knew because it was also their wedding anniversary, not that it was celebrated anymore. There would be no gifts or cards. What could he write in the card? “Happy anniversary, at least we’ve not lost Jo!”

What was the point of writing the same thing every day in a planner? Derek had never read the bloody thing but knew exactly what it said. Planning was Lisa’s way of dealing with the situation; writing lists, making appointments, but it didn’t help Derek. Derek didn’t get involved in caring for his daughter; not because he didn’t want to, but because it was Lisa’s domain. She controlled it. She controlled most things to be honest. He wanted to help but recognised the effect on Lisa would be catastrophic. She bristled if he picked up a tea towel.

Derek rinsed his cup and left it by the sink, put on his boots and coat then left the house for a walk across the moors. He did this daily. The house backed onto the Peak District National Park and Derek enjoyed a seven mile circuit that included the lake, open ground and a small copse of trees. During the walk he ran through the conversation as he always did. He needed to be prepared, when Jo woke up.

As he left the trees, Derek was struck by the sunlight highlighting a spot in front of the lake. It reminded him of their wedding pictures. 28 years today. They’d celebrated 25 anniversaries but the 26th was the day of the accident. Derek winced at the word accident. According to the dictionary, an accident was an unfortunate incident, typically resulting in damage or injury. He couldn’t argue with the definition. It was unfortunate that Jo was in a coma. She was injured and there was a lot of damage. But there was also blame and guilt too.

Derek got back, took a shower, then collected the newspaper and went to the sitting room. He could hear Lisa bathing Jo. It must be 11:00AM, he mused.

In the chair he read the paper cover to cover. Somewhere along the way Derek had learned to read words on a page without reading anything. He found his mind drifting to a day exactly two years ago when Derek asked Lisa to ring Jo and check she’d got the wine for their anniversary dinner. He remembered he was trying to be thoughtful. It was the wine they had in Portugal, on their honeymoon.

Derek heard Lisa walk into the kitchen and start preparing soup. He could have taken the opportunity to look over his paper as she walked past. But say what? Do you want any help? Happy anniversary? Truth was he had no idea what to say to her anymore, and the silence had taken such a hold that breaking it seemed the equivalent to lighting touch paper. As if offering to make the soup would invoke two years’ worth of anger and resentment. The noise emanating from the kitchen seemed loud in the silence. He listened to the pattern of her movements; chop, chop, scrape, chop, chop, scrape, chop, chop, scrape. Stir twice pause, stir twice pause.

It was an issue. Derek knew when it had started, the obsessive behaviour. Looking after Nigel had been very tough on Lisa and Derek had been working then so couldn’t offer much practical help. At the weekend Derek had taken the paper in to Nigel and tried to read to him but it felt awkward so then he moved the bed towards the patio doors and sat next to him bird watching, pointing out all the birds he could see, describing them in detail. He quite enjoyed it and developed a keen interest himself during the 6 months. Lisa wasn’t interested in birds. She felt the open doors would encourage infection and insisted he was wrapped in scarves. He looked like he was wearing a turban.

She was quite rigid then, but Derek assumed it was doctor’s orders. She had a rhythm about her, never still, never rushed but always moving. If he was musically talented, he could probably have made something of the beat she created around her life, dancing at a distance to avoid interaction.  The washing machine beeped at her and heard her load the basket. She took the washing outside.

She was very emotional in the beginning. We were just getting ready for the anniversary dinner with the neighbours. Jo was on her way when the police came. I invited them in. Lisa was in the kitchen of course. When she saw the police, she went into shock., They told us about the car, Jo was in hospital and it was very serious. Lisa wouldn’t stop screaming.  At the hospital of course there was a lot to take in. We waited for news. There was a lot of waiting. The police arrived and said they thought it was caused by the phone; said that Jo answered a phone call. I took Lisa some tea and told her what the police said. Nothing. I tried to talk about a week or so later, but she was like stone. As if she had built a wall.

Derek was brought back to the present by the draft coming from the kitchen door. Maybe he should go out too. Try to talk to her. He imagined he would take her some tea; they would sit on the bench in the sunshine and he would put his arms around her and they would sit comfortable that way for a while. Then he would tell her how sorry he was for not being able to say the right thing and they would talk about the accident, and how it had affected them, and how they were the ones damaged, and then they would share their gratitude that Jo was still here and share plans of their life together when Jo opens her eyes.


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