Marie Milligan – Three short stories

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Three short stories by Marie Milligan

THE LETTER

She dreaded opening the envelope, her fingers numb and fumbling. God! she hoped she was wrong, but the stamp with the Queen’s profile confirmed her fears. They were coming alright! The dates jumped at her from the page. How was she going to cope! She’d be on the mark of the cross with himself. It wasn’t so much the shortage of money that worried her. It was having to contend with the silences. The moodiness. That constipated maytred air he could exude! That look that could boil tripe without a flame.

And of course – it’d be all her fault! Wasn’t she encouraging them, with her regular letters! And weren’t they her relations anyway- nothing to do with him! Encouraging them! Her own brother and his new wife! Her baby brother Joe. The last one to leave and join the R.A.F. Doing them both a favour! Leaving the door open for them to finally tie the knot. And himself then – like the Cheshire cat, only too willing to lay down his hat!

It all boiled down to just one fact, – and it wasn’t the inconvenience. Or that they were her relations, or even that the poor girl was English! It was because Joe’s young bride was a Protestant. Joe’s new wife belonged to the Church of England! Tramps, thieves, vagabonds would be more acceptable in his eyes so long as they had been baptised into the “One True Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Wasn’t it all there in black and white! All there in the new green cathicism! Over the fifteen years of their marriage she’d learnt that his Catholic perception came in three infallible shades – black, white and green!

“That the post I hear?” his sleepy muffled voice from the bedroom made her heart jerk. “Just the usual junk- go back asleep, we can get the 12 o’clock!”
God, she didn’t want him getting up yet. Her head was a marley! She needed time to think. She shoved the letter into her apron pocket and poured herself another cup. She needed to make some kind of decision about it all – and soon. She could show the letter to him now and be done with it, but instinctively she knew there could be hell to pay. No, that definitely wasn’t an option! But what was the alternative? Leave it for a few days and hope for a miracle? That somehow they might change their minds? But she wanted them to come. Longed for them to come. Ever since Joe had sent the wedding photos she’d been filled with a painful yearning, just to see him for herself happy and settled.

The children were delighted too. ” Is that what a Protestant looked like?” they wanted to know! Like some film star. Grace Kelly, or was it Doris Day? They babbled with excitement only to be quickly silenced by that haloed sanctimonious look, for they were well used to his regimented ways, his strict adherence to everything religious. Sodality meetings, prayer meetings, Legion of Mary meetings, novenas, benedictions. The rosary recited every night – plus the trimmings. His insistence on attending mass on Saturdays as well as Sundays. But they took it in their stride and rarely complained. She was proud of them for that. They were mad about him and he was a good father. A good man. A good husband too – if only she could get behind that stubborn veneer!

“Look! look! you missed this one!” She was so preoccupied she hadn’t realised
he was standing in the doorway, waving a white envelope. She half turned, guiltily smoothing her apron, – failing completely to see the look of expectancy on his face as he handed it to her.

“Well, open it! Open it!” he urged.
Her hands trembled slightly as she took out a red and gold card.
“To my Darling wife on Valentines Day.” Valentines day! How had she forgotten!
She just stood there – staring blankly at it. At the verse he had so tidily printed out in black fountain pen. Words once familiar, quivered now before her misted eyes.
“I love you for looking at life as you do
I love you for seeing my own point of view
I love you for liking the things I like too
But mostly I love you for just being you!”

How could she ever forget those words! He’d written them on the very first Valentine he’d sent her in the early days of their courtship. Around the time he’d told her about his failed vocation, after a year away in the seminary. He’d poured it all out to her then. His feelings of guilt. Guilt at wanting something else – wanting someone else. Wanting her. At loving God – and wanting her! God – and guilt – and her!…….

“We can still make the 10 mass if we hurry.” He was coming towards her now scooping her into his arms.
” I took today off because I thought we might get the bus straight into town before the kids get home. Pay a visit to Cleary’s and get those leather boots I heard you talking about. The ones in the sale. I can afford them now what with the overtime money. What do you say eh!”
He twirled her around the kitchen till she was breathless. They landed laughing in a heap on the floor. As he helped her up she saw the letter – just at his feet. She tried to reach it, but it was already in his hand.
“What’s this?” he said. His mood changing, his voice suddenly a demand.

He read the silence in her eyes and slowly opened the letter. She cupped her face with her hands, and wished they could cup her whole body. The tears were flowing relentlessly now, but still she held her hands there. She was aware then of his voice, of his hands, prising hers gently from her face.
” Love, Love don’t cry! Please don’t cry!” He was whispering now. Gently whispering the way he often did when the kids were sick or troubled. His hands smoothing away her tears. His lips on her face, in her hair, on her mouth.

After a while he released her. They sat there in silence until he finally said gently.
” I can’t believe you were trying to hide that letter from me! You were, weren’t you?” She gave him a tentative nod, like it was all she had left of the guilt still festering inside her.
” And you thought I’d be angry about them coming – about the Protestant thing?” Again she nodded. He knelt down in front of her now, taking her hands in his.
“I’m so sorry love, I care so much for you and the kids. I just want things to be right for them – for you. You’ve brought a joy into my life, that I never expected. I thought a different road was mapped out for me, and even now after fifteen years I sometimes feel such guilt at turning my back on that road. There’s a compulsion there for me to try to get everything right – as if that somehow makes up for the guilt. Do you understand?”

She squeezed his fingers now in affirmation.
” Look, tell Joe we’re delighted he’s coming ok? If I know Joe he’ll have picked a great girl – only not half as great as the girl I picked.”
He was plamasing her, she knew, but somehow she didn’t mind at all – not now.
” And maybe when we get into town we’ll pick out some wall paper for the spare bedroom? I think I could manage to get it done in time. Now, come on, get yourself ready or we’ll miss Mass!”

And, as she followed him upstairs she had a reassuring feeling that today wasn’t just Valentines Day – but one she would remember in the years to come. One that had started the thaw, that slow mellowing that would last, if they were lucky, well into their old age.

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THE PROBLEM

The first time I saw Dr. Louise Madden I had the funny feeling that I was definitely on a
wild goose chase. True, she had come highly recommended and I suppose I was a bit desperate for a solution to my problem but the dark haired woman in the grey designer suit smiling at me from across the desk looked much more like a solicitor or a publicity agent. To be perfectly honest I really didn’t know anything about her only that she was a reputable alternative practitioner and suspecting my GP would probably fob me off with a few tablets I decided to give her a try. I don’t really know what I was expecting that morning – some stereotypical hippy in denim and cheesecloth I suppose, but any notions I may have had of candles, dream catchers and incense were quickly dispersed by the distinctive whiff of Chanel No 5 as Dr. Madden straightened her pen and waited for me to speak.

“My name is Joan Moran” I said forgetting of course that she already knew my name
“I don’t know if you can help” I blurted stupidly, “it’s really not a big problem”
“Oh God!” I was thinking – this is all wrong I should have just gone to the GP.
Dr. Madden avoided my eyes, while her own rested for a second or two on a box canvas seascape on the wall somewhere above my head Then she relaxed comfortably back in her chair like someone waiting in an audience for the curtain to rise while I shifted in mine feeling unsure and apprehensive
“Do you like music?” she said finally.
I opened my mouth to reply but the question was obviously rhetorical, for with a quick flick or her wrist on the intercom the invigorating sound of a vaguely familiar piece of music filled the room. Then to my utter amazement Dr. Madden raised her right arm and began to wave it from side to side as if conducting an imaginary orchestra. I just sat there completely baffled as she continued her face totally animated by the melodious strains.
“Beautiful don’t you think” she sighed dramatically
I managed a hesitant nod.

“You know music is one of the great loves of my life followed closely by art. When I was younger I wanted to be either a famous singer or painter.
Didn’t you notice the paintings on the reception walls? I encourage local artists to display their work here!”
Of course I thought that was it – the paintings on the walls -the piece of music I recognised that now, Ravel’s popular orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” And that’s what this whole place reminded me of- not a surgery or a doctor’s practice but a gallery- a strange kind of art gallery.
The whiter than white walls that wound their way around the reception desk in the oval shaped waiting room displayed some of the most striking paintings I had seen in a long time. Oils mostly with some abstract pastels.
Waiting, I hadn’t time to study them all but there were some that really appealed to me. A series of wild landscapes in oil had caught my eye and I’d noticed that the artist although using quite a vivid palette had somehow managed to create a stark almost ethereal mood. The style I thought was quite unique.
Dr. Madden was looking at me expectantly
“Yes, yes of course I noticed, and they’re quite an impressive collection I particularly liked the ones by Lydia….. Moore?”
There was a flicker of approval in Dr. Madden’s eyes as I gushed on
“Not that I’d be a great judge but I know what I like. Because you see I’ve just started to take up art myself in the last few months since I retired. Like you I’ve always liked it – only now it’s become a problem and I may have to give it up……and”…..
I broke off then the reality of my problem hitting home again
Dr. Madden flicked the intercom into silence, looked at me squarely and said
“Why don’t you tell me all about it?”

So I started my story. I told her how I’d seen the ad for private art lessons in the local supermarket. How I drove out every Friday to a beautiful place called Kilacken where Sarah Bowman a retired art teacher held classes in the studio she had built in the garden of her home. There were four other women who were already pupils of Sarah’s and we had become good friends over the weeks. Sarah introduced me to media of acrylic and confirmed what I’d hopefully suspected – ability and a good creative eye.
“Good” Dr. Madden interjected coaxingly “and then what?”
“Well after a while I started to feel …sort of odd?”
“In what way?” Dr. Madden inquired
“After about twenty minutes of painting I’d experience a funny taste in my mouth, my lips became dry and I’d begin to feel slightly nauseous.
Then I’d develop a headache which would last for some hours even after I went home.” “Did this ever happen to you before?” she asked
“No, no never!

At first we thought that I might be allergic to the oils or varnish so Sarah kept them well out of my reach but it made no difference. It was even suggested that I spend time painting at home going through the motions to see if I experienced the same symptoms there”
“And did you?” asked Dr Madden
“No I was fine- it only seems to happen at the class”
“Now that’s interesting!” Dr. Madden surmised…
“Tell me what kind of a structure is it this studio- I mean describe it to me?”
So I went ahead describing the wooden structure that was Sara’s studio. I told her every detail from seating arrangements to washing facilities to shelves to layout. Even describing the wild beauty of the surrounding countryside getting totally carried away.

Dr Madden seemed very interested particularly in the seating arrangements and the layout
She began doodling what looked like some kind of rough graph on her notepad squinting every now and then as if calculating something in her head.
Then selecting a clean pad she wrote something down signed it, folded it, and handed it to me.
“This is the medication you’re prescribing for me?” I asked
“Oh God, no,” she laughed “its just a very good herbal potion that I recommend for general relaxation and well being Great stuff really I give it to all my clients. You can pick it up in any the nature shops. No, the solution to your problem is far simpler. You see I’m almost sure are suffering from what we alternate people call geographic stress.”
“Geographic stress!” I exclaimed incredulously

“Yes, indeed you are sitting in the wrong place it’s a simple as that, and by swopping with one of the other women I’m sure that you’ll find your problem will be solved. Do you think someone would swop with you?”
“Yes, yes I’m sure that can be arranged but surely whoever changes with me will experience the same thing?”
“No, I don’t think that’s likely –you see not everyone is sensitive to geographic stress. There’s actually something in that exact spot where you’re sitting disturbing the natural geomagnetic field – like water or many some type of mineral counter-activating you chakras’. Move away and the problem is solved! Simple really!” Noticing my bewildered look she added. “Look trust me if this doesn’t work just come back and we’ll pursue other options. Ok?” She smiled confidently. Then grasping my hand warmly she said “Keep up the art and when you’re more experienced bring along some of you work and I’ll be only too happy to hang it in my gallery- maybe some of your fellow artists would like to exhibit too. Anyway you have my details.”
“Yes, yes of course I’d be delighted” I stuttered as I made my way out.

Outside in the car I opened the prescription form. The signature caught my eye immediately. The flowing curved letters- now where had I seen them before? Then it hit me the similarity, the signature on the paintings- the ones I’d admired by Lydia Moore Louise Madden, Lydia Moore artist and doctor, one and the same. After spending a less than thirty minutes in her company nothing should surprise me about this unusual woman.

She was right of course Dr. Louise Madden. Back at Sara’s they were all only too happy to offer me their seats when I related my strange encounter. They were pretty sceptical about the outcome of course but it was worth a try and anyway what had I got to lose.
I chose May’s seat in the end, as it’s between a window and a door – more of a flow I thought. Now this is my forth week sitting here and I feel a fit as a fiddle. We’re on our lunch break now and as I look around the studio the strains of “Pictures at an Exhibition” come back into my head and there’s an image of Louise Madden aka Lydia More waving a large paint brush as she conducts her imaginary orchestra around the room while the music flows freely through my now responsive chakras. Oh! I almost forgot there’s not a bother on May!

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THE CLOSED DOOR

There was something almost furtive in the way she closed the door that alarmed me – in the way she rested herself against it as if all energy had drained from her body. I noticed too that she avoided my eyes and there was a slight quiver to her smile as she waved me into the kitchen. Had she been crying I wondered? There was something wrong. I was sure of it. Whatever it was I would have to be patient. She would let it out eventually I knew, after all we were best friends.
“John taking the kids for their swimming lesson?” I inquired cheerfully, “I saw the car leaving as I pulled up.”
“Yes, Yes, they’ll be gone for a couple of hours.”
I noticed her hand shook as she poured the tea.
“It’s great to see the weather improving at last, any plans for holidays yet?”
“Holidays! the way John is working himself at the moment I’m lucky to see him for an hour at the end of the day!”
This bitterness, this isn’t Ann I thought?

I looked directly at her then, sitting across from me at the table and realised she was angry- controlled, but definitely angry. I began to feel edgy.
“Look Ann is there something up? Have I done something. Is it because I haven’t called for a while- tell me.”
“No, no it’s not that- it’s nothing like that!”
She stood up from the table and began to pace around the room like a spring uncoiling.
“Ann tell me, you have me worried- please tell me!”
“Is it one of the kids? Is it you – God you’re not sick or anything?”
She stood still for a second her back to me and when she turned round she looked like a child, an agitated frightened child. I’d never seen her like that before.
“Oh Jean I think I’m going mad I can’t bear it anymore!” The words were a strangled sob!
“I think John is having an affair!”

Whatever I’d expected her to say it certainly wasn’t this! My mouth felt dry and I just stared back at her stunned. For a moment neither of us spoke. I was still trying to digest what she said, what the implications were, when she added. “The stupid thing is I have no proof- no way of knowing really- ironical isn’t it? They say the wife is always the last to know but maybe not the last to suspect! Because that’s all it is Jean a suspicion.”
“God Ann, John of all people? No! I can’t believe ……Look you’re upset you can’t be thinking straight!
“Of course I’m not thinking straight ! Do you think I don’t know that! You’re my friend. I don’t need you to patronise- what I do need is for you to listen to me and tell me I’m not going insane.

“Ann look you’re the sanest person I know, a rock compared to me- we both know that?” I knew I should put my arms around her, reassure her, tell her that whatever her suspicions were she had to be mistaken. Instead I blurted “You surely don’t suspect someone do you?”
“Why have you got someone in mind?” she retorted quickly. The remark took me by surprise! Was she trying to sound me out? Did she think I knew something?
“No! Of course I haven’t. Look will you just sit down and tell me about it while we still have time before John and the kids come home. I glanced at the kitchen clock. “We have at least an hour”

She sat down then her hands bunched into tight fists which she clenched and unclenched until she finally said. It’s Margaret, I think! You know Margaret Kelly, his marketing manager!
“You mean Margaret Kelly the woman whose husband died sometime last year?” But she’s -she’s much….
Older! Yes I know
And why in God’s name do you think it’s her ?
“Jean look things have been pretty bad with the business for quite some time now. John has been under so much stress since the recession having to put in longer hours, having to bring in more orders. I’ve been helping him with the books myself as well as the house and the kids. It’s pretty exhausting for both of us I can tell you. Most nights I just come home and leave him battling on. Eventually before you’re aware things begin to suffer”
“What things?”
“You know things -the physical side”
“You mean sex?”
She nodded.
“You tell yourself it’ll get better as soon as things start to pick up again but what you don’t realise that you’ve formed a habit -closed a door that gets harder to open as time goes on. Don’t get me wrong there have been moments but they become scarcer and scarcer till it seems like there’s a bloody Berlin Wall down the centre of the bed!
She paused then, lifting her hand to cover her mouth as if she’d revealed too much

“Then last year Margaret’s husband died suddenly and of course John was there to support her -we both were. I had her over to the house once or twice a week for dinner and sometimes she’d often offer to go back to the office to help him afterwards if there was a problem. I never thought anything of it. I suppose I always thought of her as plain pleasant woman. I never considered her in any way a threat. So I didn’t pick up on the signs. That she’d been losing weight. That she was dressing trendier, looking younger.

One day when the kids were on an outing with the school I decided to treat myself to dinner. So I popped into to Flannigan’s thinking I’d see John there. They were both there. I was going to approach their table but something in the way they were together stopped me Something cushy – cosy I don’t know – just something. I couldn’t see John but I could see her- she was facing me and she looked beautiful. So that’s it, you see nothing but a feeling, an observation. But ever since it happened I can’t get the image out of my head. It’s eating me up inside and I don’t know what to do about it!”

“Ann just listen to me will you. You asked for my advice. As far as I can see there’s nothing in any of this that implicates John in any way. You said yourself that you couldn’t see his face. Maybe this woman does have a crush on him and maybe you’re right about that -but there’s not a thing to prove that its reciprocated by John in any way. So look just trust -me I know John too you know. He’s a good man. Believe me he loves you. You’ve been both under stress. It’s put a big strain on you both. But things are going to improve. Trust me I know they will.”

“Do you really think so! Oh thanks Jean, thanks! I feel better already just getting it off my chest. Sharing my fears with someone who cares. The relief oh I can’t believe it! You’re a friend in a million!” She threw her arms around me while I stood there like a poker. “I’d better be going, I said,” John and the kids will be back and you need time to recoup it’s been a tough morning for you.”
“I know she said, but thanks again Jean for all you’ve done!”

I watched carefully from the car till she waved and finally closed the door. Once the coast was clear I took out my mobile and dialled The voice at the other end said “Look Jean I can’t talk now I have the kids and I’m driving.”
“I know that John but just stop the car and listen to me! I waited a few seconds till he said, “Jean what is it ?
” Just listen to me John – its over between us. Do you understand? It was a mistake. A big mistake! You have a wife, a great wife who loves you more than you know. So just get back there and start loving her in the way she deserves. Don’t try to contact me again – it’s over for good. I turned the phone off and sat there and waited for the tears that I knew would eventually come.

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