Sunday, July 03, 2005

Better off dead

Silence. Hesitantly, she knocks again. And again. And finally hears the gruff "Come In!" she was waiting for. Tentatively she pushes the door open wider, and walks in. The room smells musty. But wonderful. Like old books. Of course, new books smell nice as well, but it’s the old books which give off that all-permeating scent, which once experienced, is difficult to forget. Memories peek out from hidden corners, and start flitting about inside her head. That one time in the second-hand store when Ted had managed to knock over an entire bookcase while trying to pull a magazine out from the very bottom of the pile on the topmost shelf. And those uncountable hours spent whispering and giggling in the school library while the assistant librarian glared disapprovingly and the head librarian smiled indulgently. And of course, the first time that Ted, nervous and excited, had brought her home to meet his family. It was in this room that she’d been introduced to his grandfather - the man who had been Ted’s boyhood idol and mentor in youth. But that was a long time ago. She slowly brushes off the cobwebs of memory and tries to collect her thoughts as his voice intrudes.
"What do you want?"
"Good afternoon Grandpa," she offers - as always, unsure in his presence.
"Don’t waste my time, girl. Just tell me what you want. And then get the hell out of here."
She draws a deep breath. She had known that this would not be easy. But she hadn’t expected outright hostility, either. She decides to forgo the words that she had been rehearsing in her head for the past seven years. She had always wanted to come up to the house and talk to him and Ted’s parents herself. But Ted had begged her not to. He hadn’t forbidden her - he’d known her too well. He had just asked, knowing that she would not be able to refuse. And after his death, when the letter had arrived, saying that she need not bother trying to bury his body with the rest of the family, she’d been too hurt to try and speak to them. Instead, she’d found him a nice green corner to rest, and sworn never to speak to them again. And after that, it had been too late.
Until now. When she has no more pride left.
"I don’t have a job any more, Grandpa. And soon Mimi and I won’t have a roof over our heads either. We need your help," she manages in a weak voice as the morning’s toast and coffee churns inside her stomach. And focuses her eyes furiously on a tear in the dusty carpet.
But his harsh laughter startles her. She looks up to see him take the pipe out of his mouth and shake his head vigorously.
"Help?" he asks as he guffaws.
"Yes," she says.
Uncertain and unnerved, she looks around her quickly, to assure herself that the door is still there in case she decides to run.
"No," comes the answer when the cackling laughter finally dies out.
She stares in shock. She had expected the answer, but hadn’t expected the stamp of finality on his withered and wrinkled face.
"Please, Grandpa…" she tries again. But he forestalls her words with an imperious wave of his hand.
"Don’t start with all that crap about that freak being my flesh and blood. Teddy tried it. But it won’t work. He should have listened to us. That abomination should not have been born."
She shivers and winces as his words penetrate through the fogs of despair clouding her head. How can they be so cold? Why can’t they see the beautiful girl who is so full of love and joy despite her suffering? Ted and she had loved their baby girl since the day the doctor had said that she was on the way. And they had loved her even more since that morning in the hospital when the doctor had said that perhaps an abortion might be the best option given the results of the ultrasonographs. But she and Ted had refused. And she had fought death to bring her baby into this world. And now the poor child was going to pay for their selfishness in bringing her into a world that cared so little.
"I told Ted to kill her when I saw her. He should have listened to me, and put a pillow on her face and got rid of her. She’s better off dead."
She blanches. She had always imagined that Ted had been exaggerating when he said that his parents wished their grandchild dead. Never had she truly believed that they could have deliberately suggested killing her. And suddenly a wave of nausea roils over her as she imagines their money playing any part in her child’s life. Ted had been right to cut himself off from these murderers. So she turns to leave, hating the heartless bastard pacing to and fro, his face twisted in rage.

Dusk. Late birds and early bats circle the skies above her head as she walks down the slope of the hill to the beach, holding Mimi by her hand. The evening smells of wet earth and a tangy breeze.
Mimi snatches her tiny hand away from hers as soon as they reach level ground and sets off in an ungainly sprint towards her favourite spot on the beach - a semi-circle of rocks and boulders that reach up to her waist, facing away from the water; in there, she can build sandcastles with the help of her friends, and they don’t get washed away by the waves.
She watches her daughter play in the sand for a few moments, and then stares out across the curving bay. Her whole body going slack, she watches until the lilac of the sky turns to purple, and the orange turns to red. As red as Mimi’s frock.
And then, unable to hold back any longer, she bursts into tears. Strangled gasps wrack her body as she struggles with days, months and years of grief. And anger. And guilt. Most of all, guilt. All of a sudden she hates Ted as well. Why had he agreed to let their child be born? Why hadn’t he tried to convince her as the doctor had that it would be an injustice to the child itself to make it suffer so? They hadn’t listened to the doctor, either of them. They had been young, and headstrong, and had believed that their love would be enough to overcome all odds. Stupid, delusional youth. And now this poor child was paying for her parents’ arrogance. The stares of curious eyes as they walked on the streets. The hushed whispers as they entered shops. The restaurants refusing to serve any more as Mimi struggled to eat at the table. The Sunday picnics that they would not be invited to as Mimi could not cope with so many people. All those schools refusing admission to a "special" child. All those times that Mimi fell down playing and could not pick her misshapen body up again like the other kids. All those birthdays that they could not buy her presents as all the money was spent paying for her medication. All those nights when Mimi screamed in pain, unable to sleep. All those days of keeping silent when her body kept her prisoner in bed as she thrashed wildly in agony. Keeping silent so that they would not have to acknowledge that she would be better off dead.

Better off dead. Better off dead. Better off dead.
The words hijack her, and she can’t think any more. She curls up into a ball and lies down. Wishing she could bury her head in it. Like an ostrich. And she flinches when Mimi comes and touches her on her shoulder. And she can’t bear the hurt in her daughter’s eyes. Mimi knows that people shrink back when they see or touch her. But she had never believed that her Mommy would do that, too.
"I’m sorry, baby. Sorry," is all she can say over and over again as she holds her frail frame tight against her body.
"O.K," is all that Mimi can say. And when her mother finally lets go of her, Mimi asks, the corners of her mouth turning down, "My back hurts real bad. Can we go home, Mommy?"
Home? Home? Mimi wants to go home! Where would be home in a month from now? She was destitute. There would be no home. Where would she take Mimi then, when it began to hurt real bad?
"It’s raining, Mommy. Let’s go home."
The pleading in her daughter’s voice draws her attention to the drizzle that will soon turn into a full-fledged downpour. The sea goes dark and stormy, and the waves become angry, as they thrash against the rocks. And she is drawn. To lose herself in the middle of that comforting storm. Oblivion is bliss.
Unconsciously she walks towards the sea, deaf for once to her daughter’s cries of discomfort and confusion. And when she feels the little hand tugging at her brown dress, she takes hold of it, and pulls her along into the water.
"Mommy! What are you doing?" Mimi cries plaintively.
"It’s a game, baby. It’s a game. We’ll play with the waves."
The waves are up to thighs knees now. And up to Mimi’s chest, as she straggles unwillingly, tears of terror and pain running down her face.
"Mommy! I’m scared. Please, take me home…"
"Shush, baby. Just a little bit further. A wee bit more…"

Better off dead. Better off dead. Better off dead.