Paula stared through the window as her dad drove them across the state. He kept up a constant stream of bland jokes and observations, desperate for a smile or even a sigh of exasperation. Nothing. His baby girl was as impassive as a terracotta warrior. The heat hadn’t helped, the final assault of a summer that they’d all been grateful for it’s ending. Some winters are a blessing, if you can see the way ahead.
Tommy’s mother, Paula’s grandmother, Rebecca lived alone in the house built by her husband. She’d been the cheerful dictator of a society disparate enough to be called a family – born, raised, fed and even buried some of them.
This was part of why Tommy had insisted on taking Paula to see her. Gwen was against the idea but Tommy saw how that was the only way she could define herself against the intersection of two long shadows that fell upon her like a bad day. His mother and his first wife, Deidre, rendered forever saintly by a drunk housewife with a Hummer. Cycling to bring soup for an ailing neighbour. Tommy had quietly gone about the matter and even Gwen had backed down when he had told her that it was all he could think of to do.
To save his little girl.
They pulled up outside just before noon. Tommy opened the door for her, swallowed his sadness when she recoiled from his attempt to touch her. Her hair was two broken ravens wings worn like the headdress of the saddest Shaman, but her eyes still held a luminosity and her skin was clear as spring water, white as milk. The sweater hung off her and her fingers curled inside the bell sized sleeves.
‘I’ve made lunch.’
Tommy smiled. Rebecca’s voice was a precise instruction, confident in never needing to be raised above a polite question. She wore her white hair long and she still had that rangy strength to her, corded muscles in her arms in a white man’s shirt rolled to the elbows with black slacks and bare feet.
They walked up, Tommy kissed her dutifully on the left cheek. She smelled of talc and oranges, still. Rebecca did not try to embrace Paula but instead asked her if she’d like to help. Paula shrugged mechanically and Tommy said he’d look at the light in the bathroom, relieved that he had something to do. A way to feel useful to someone.
In the large, well lit kitchen, Paula retreated to the corner like a timid spider, arms crossed over her budding chest.
‘Knife on the side. Slice the tomatoes, would you?’
‘You sure you want me to do that?’
Her voice was thin and dusty with lack of use, but Rebecca smiled.
‘You didn’t throw yourself from the car, did you?’
If anyone had been there to see the small smile that Paula gave, they’d have been aghast, but Rebecca kept rinsing the head of rocket under the faucet.
Paula picked up the knife. A good chefs knife, worn and scarred with use but still true. She balanced the thick, firm beefsteak tomato in her palm and set it on to the chopping board.
Her hands trembled but she cut it into even slices and before she’d finished, Rebecca had passed a cucumber to her.
‘These look weird.’
Paula looked across at her. Rebecca had a warm slightly wearied grin on her face and Paula swallowed before she spoke again.
‘You’re not going to give me a lecture?’
Rebecca shrugged and pointed to the cucumber.
‘Less talking, more chopping.’
Rebecca had her working until she had diced, chopped and sliced a pile of vegetables into a coarse, mountain of foliage in a wooden bowl. Rebecca poured out a glass of something golden and sparkling and passed it to her.
Paula spluttered and looked over her shoulder.
‘I’m not supposed to drink, grandma. ‘
Rebecca waved her off and pressed the glass into Paula’s hand.
‘If you are old enough to decide whether you want to live then you’re old enough to drink with me. Enough.’
Paula looked at the bubbles rising with fascination before she took a sip. Dry and clean with a pungency that made her mouth sting. She relished the play of the bubbles and the liquid on her tongue.
Rebecca leaned over and looked towards the stairs.
‘I took a fuse out. Let’s you and I sit for a spell whilst he figures that out.’
Paula cringed but Rebecca patted her on the shoulder as they walked out.
‘Best thing to give a man is a job to make him feel useful. A full stomach or an orgasm works too, but we’re not that kind of close.’
The garden was a study of production. Flowers were deployed to ward and encourage, herbs for cooking and chipped saucers of dark beer for slugs. Rebecca knelt and rubbed soil between her fingertips.
She looked out at the sky, then up at her granddaughter.
‘I had planned on doing it when I was twelve.’
Paula shivered despite the heat. She didn’t disrespect her by asking and she was too shocked to do more than nod.
‘My mother was a cunt. Awful word and I’d beat your father black and blue if he’d used it, but it fits some people. My father was a ghost that no one had told to move on and die. I had nothing and no one.’
An elder brother who took liberties with her. Nightmare movie of the week stuff. All the worse for the clear recollection of it.
Paula hadn’t been allowed to go see All Time Low at the Civic Centre.
‘What stopped you?’
Rebecca stopped and smiled to herself.
‘I decided to wait for spring. Ed was going into the army and I figured if that stopped, then -‘
Paula was disturbed by the feeling of relief that someone was dead before you had ever met them.
‘Then it was okay?’
Paula had resisted therapy entirely, but here, amongst plants and earth, something unlocked in her chest. The way a cough changes when you start to shift the mucus after a heavy infection.