Nicola Jennings was short listed for the Sunday Tribune Hennessy Literary Awards 2008. Her story Muscle Memory was included in The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015. Her short stories have been published in The Stinging Fly, Waterford Review, Ireland’s Own, Woman’s Way, Suburb Magazine, Whispers and Shouts, Abbey Echoes One, and Ireland’s Issues. She has also been a contributor to Sunday Miscellany (RTE). Her collection of short stories Horse made the final in the 2012 Eludia Awards in Philadelphia. She is a member of Airfield Writers, Dundrum, Dublin.
By Nicola Jennings
She didn’t look back when she left the house for the last time. Not once. Life stretched out in front of her and she was eager to embrace it and all it had to offer. She didn’t look back but, instead, stepped with enthusiasm into the unknown. Perhaps she should have looked, if only just to say goodbye, to engrave on her memory all that had taken place in that house. Instead she shut the door on everything in the past, relieved to see it go. It had been a past of tumbles and falls, of broken bones and tantrums and outright rebellion. She didn’t tolerate correction well, and there had been a lot of that.
Her dream was to break free from the burden of her family, and to leave it behind her, all those Sundays when she was required to be present for roast beef and gravy, the expectation that she should respect her older relatives and remember to turn up clean and neat for special occasions. She rebelled now against all of this, the rules and regulations of her school days, the scratchiness of her school uniform on her bare knees, the agony of hours spent on the hockey pitch chasing a ball she could not strike, the pressure of exams. She threw it all away. She began to take herself off on foreign holidays, the further away the better. She drank until her head was spinning, and mixed her drinks far too often. Brandy Alexanders. Margaritas. Vodka Martinis. Sometimes one after the other. She wore flowered earrings, and silver heels, so high she could hardly walk, a gleam in her eye. Her skirts grew shorter and shorter. She was always far too busy to come when needed. She unplugged her phone whenever she thought she might be summoned. Weekends she disappeared, across the country sometimes, without a word of warning.
She was building a life of independence and freedom for herself, but she couldn’t escape the fact that she still carried with her the red curly hair of her oldest aunt, and the bright blue eyes of her father. These she couldn’t leave behind any more than she could ignore the family traits that made her love reading, and art, but not music or dancing. She was awkward, clumsy and uncoordinated. She had her mother’s angular knees and her grandmother’s love of hoarding. These all came with her, whether she realised it or not, and would remain with her as long as she lived, a genetic heritage she could not lose.
That freedom ended when she met her husband.
‘Bugger it,’ had been the first words he spoke to her, as he knocked against her table in Bewleys and sent her teacup, full of hot tea, flying. She felt an instant kinship with his clumsiness, so like her own, warmed to him at once and believed him to be as anarchic as herself.
“I’m a clumsy oaf!” he declared, while doing nothing to clear up the mess.
She said, “Yes, indeed you are,” looking up at him and smiling, confident that he would know she understood.
It was inevitable that “May I join you?” would be his next sentence, and he drew up a chair without waiting for an answer.
It was sealed in that moment, in that small gesture, her fate, her future, her submission and her subservience. She lost her spark, her voice; she almost lost herself, in the years that followed.
He was not her ideal man in any way. He wasn’t adventurous, wasn’t even fun loving. He wore tweeds, and drove an ancient blue Toyota. He looked just like his father – or so she imagined – never having met his father who was long dead. His mother was real enough, though, wore tweeds as well, and openly disapproved of her. Was it in order to thwart his mother that she agreed to settle down, to lose all that precious independence?
Together they were a binding of two, tying each other together, holding each other down. Was he ever as awkward as she? Was he too lost? She never knew. She never asked. He never said. It was as though a vow of silence bound them both.
Chameleon-like she changed her skin to please him, to become something she was not, and could never be, house-proud, devoted. Slowly, bit by bit, she tried to adapt to domesticity. She sewed curtains, with difficulty. She gave birth to strapping babies, had sleepless nights, endless school runs, helped at school fetes, baked cakes when required.
Meanwhile he blundered his way through life, glass broken, china smashed, the car scraped and dented. The air was blue with racy expletives. Nothing was safe. Was he too trying to be someone he wasn’t? Couldn’t ever be? He drank whiskey and put on weight, stumbled more, and she feared for him.
Her children outnumbered and outgrew her. They were wild and unmanageable, built in her image if she could only see it, with no sense of decorum. She never let them see how much she shared with them but, instead, imposed the same rules and regulations that had been imposed upon her. She shouted at them, ‘Pick it up! Put it away! Do your homework!’ It was as though no one was listening, as though they were all deaf, or she was invisible. She cooked meals for them that no one wanted to eat. She knew she had failed in so many ways, failed herself most of all. It was a recipe for disaster.
Her anarchy expressed itself in subtle ways at first, barely noticeable, a sudden refusal to cook a meal, or dust, a cake baked with wild untidy icing dripping down the sides, a fierce walk along cliffs or a rocky shore. Her clothes became wild and chaotic. Her jewellery was overdone, chains and beads, and thick chunky rings. Costume jewellery all of it, bought at flea markets, no value in any of it. Her lipstick was scarlet and crooked. Her perfume was heavy and cloying. Only she recognised them for what they were, the sound of her own voice, thin and small, at last clamouring to be heard.
When he fell down the stairs, and was fatally injured, and she saw the pool of darkening arterial blood spread across the parquet floor of the hall, she heard herself give one great scream of grief, as though her heart was sundered. For a while her children grieved around her, with her. Sometimes they held her hands and stroked her. Sometimes they caressed her hair, and told her they loved her. Then they were gone, away. She moved on alone, like before.
Time began to draw her back to the past, to a serenity she didn’t remember had ever existed, to the high granite walls and enclosed gardens of her childhood that she had hated, the discipline of the polished corridors and imprisoning classrooms of her schooldays, to a solitude which was not loneliness but a safe and secret place. She found herself retreating, returning, almost deconstructing, and she was once again running away.
Now she walked in a garden filled with the sweet scents of her childhood. Holly Blue butterflies bobbed between the flowers. Nettles flourished. Weed killers were banned. She encouraged the dandelions to flower and seed, colourful ringed snails to increase and multiply. The pond was filled with tadpoles. Box hedges grew lank and straggly. The holly trees reached to the sky. She remembered the names of the plants her father had cherished, roses, peonies, a white hibiscus, the warm feel of ripe apples on the tree, the sound of a blackbird at dawn. There was wisteria flowering over the doorways of her mind, and heavily scented honeysuckle entwined in the hedges. She was going full circle, and she knew it, back to where she had begun. She allowed it to happen, lived in a mist of dream and forgetfulness.
Sometimes she strolled on empty shingly beaches, skipping pebbles across the waves. Or she followed paths across fields and through woodlands, surprised by a fox slinking past, a hen pheasant startled out of the undergrowth.
Sometimes she fled to the wide open spaces of a lake, drifting in a grey heavy clinker-built rowing boat with her dead father as he lifted and laid a slow fishing line and lure across the water. Floating in a time when the evening calm fell upon the lake, watching the waters settle to utter stillness. It was a stillness that reached into her soul.
If the seasons no longer kept their order she didn’t care. She was rebellious in her thoughts, quiet in her being. Her anarchy continued in small acts of disobedience. Food sat cooling on her tray. She wouldn’t eat. The television became a silent blur in the distance. Books lay unread upon her bedside locker. She no longer knew what day of the week it was, or what time. The walking frame stood idle in a corner of the room or unused by her bed side.
“I won’t walk. I won’t take my medication. I will not. I will not.”
She disappeared one day into the long grasses and bog cotton of her mind, a skylark singing crazily overhead.