Short Story: A Distant Place
While I'm enjoying the sunshine in Southern Spain, hoping to write more of my current work-in-progress and not really feeling the vibe I decide to share this short story that I wrote a few years ago. It reached the final ten shortlist in a Writing Magazine competition which I was pretty pleased about!
The house is so still and silent without Jack. His gym bag sits in the corner by the front door; his school fleece folds around the post at the foot of the stairs. I can pretend he’s upstairs, doing his homework, but I know he’s not. The distinct lack of Guns ‘n Roses pulsating through every wall in the house, like a strong beating heart, tells me this.
Jack’s heart stopped beating. The house is silent now, cold; hostile even. Ellie is silent too. She retreated to a distant place when Jack’s heart stopped.
I watch her this morning, robotically eating cornflakes, at the kitchen table. Her long hair is a chocolate silk veil, framing her face. Her large blue eyes, once alive with a mischievous twinkle, are now still, fathomless pools. I squeeze her shoulder gently as I pass.
‘I’ve invited Rose and Lauren over after school today,’ I say.
Ellie’s spoon stops, midway from bowl to mouth.
‘Is that ok with you?’ I ask as I sit across the table from her. ‘A little company will be good for us.’
‘Whatever,’ Ellie mumbles pushing her chair back.
The short car journey to school is silent. Ellie fiddles with her iPod. I don’t know what to say to her.
Lauren is waiting for us at the gate. She links arms with Ellie as they walk through. I beep the horn, smile, and wave. Lauren turns and waves, but not Ellie.
I try to focus on today’s tasks. I’m making Ellie’s favourite for tea, shepherd’s pie with creamy mashed potato and a nice thick layer of cheese, followed by chocolate cake, topped with real chocolate and filled with a rich chocolate filling. I don’t ever do much baking. Being a single mum, working full time and ferrying two kids around, never left me much time for baking.
Tony, my manager at P&P Life Insurance, gave me extended leave after Jack died. I know he cares for me, but I don’t need a man complicating my life, or my children’s lives, not now, not yet.
A salty tear splashes onto the kitchen table. I brush at my face not realising the tears are falling. My heart is thumping, a constant beat, deafening in the silent kitchen. I have only one child to look after now. How do I reach her? She is locked in her own world since Jack went and I can’t find the key.
Rose is collecting the girls from school. She has been my best friend since we were six years old. Now Lauren, her daughter is Ellie’s best friend too. This evening is Rose’s idea.
‘We’ll play a game; watch a girlie movie in our pyjamas, laugh, and cry together. It could be good for Ellie... you too,’ she’d said.
I’m not convinced it will work, but if Rose thinks she can break into Ellie’s lonely place, I’m willing to try.
I hear the car crunching on the gravel outside, the squeak of the front door opening. There is no chattering voices, no high-pitched giggles today. Ellie and Lauren head straight up the stairs.
Rose finds me in the kitchen and gives me a comforting hug. ‘How are you?’ she asks. Her hands are on my shoulders, her eyes scanning my face intensely. ‘Carol, why is Jack’s gym bag still in the hall? That can’t be good for Ellie, nor you.’
‘I know, I know.’ I feel the lump building in my throat and the familiar stinging sensation behind my eyes.
‘Ok.’ She hugs me again. ‘We’ll talk later, for now let’s get the girls down stairs and eat. It smells divine and I’m starving.’
Rose and Lauren devour the shepherd’s pie with gusto, while Ellie and I push it around on our plate, pecking at it, like the colourful finches that visit the bird-table in our garden.
Rose takes charge, as she so often does. ‘Right girls, set up the scrabble board while we load the dishwasher,’ she says in her best schoolmistress voice.
‘I’m tired.’ Ellie announces. ‘I’m not playing.’
‘Oh, come on Ellie, humour me,’ Rose cajoles, putting an arm across Ellie’s shoulders. ‘Just for an hour... I promise not to cheat.’
Ellie relents and takes seven tiles from the bag. I watch as she arranges, and then re-arranges them.
‘I’ve got rubbish letters as usual,’ Rose grumbles laying the first tiles, H-A-V-E.
Ellie places her tiles, purposefully, using the H...E-A-R-T. I see her pain.
Why that word Ellie? I ask silently.
We play on quietly, with none of the usual teasing and name calling On Ellie’s next turn she lays the tiles F-A-U-L-T. By her third turn I’m getting concerned, S-O-R-R-Y. I study her face; she’s not with us at all. She is in some distant place, just methodically choosing her tiles and placing them on the board.
I flee to the kitchen, fighting back the tears. Struggling with emotion overload, I piece the words together. What does she mean? Is she trying to make sense of what happened to Jack?
‘Carol, come quick, it’s Ellie!’ Lauren’s panicky voice makes me jump. A crimson river of wine flows across the worktop, as I knock my glass to the ground.
‘Where is she? What’s happened?’
‘She just swiped all the tiles off the board and ran upstairs.’ Lauren is tripping over her words, anxious to help her friend. ‘Mum ran after her, but she’s gone into Jack’s room.’
I race up the stairs to find Rose talking to the firmly closed door.
‘If I can’t come in, then, let your mum in Ellie,’ she pleads.
The door opens a fraction. Rose gives me a gentle push.
‘Lauren and I will be downstairs,’ she whispers.
I haven’t been in Jack’s room since he’s been gone. I couldn’t bear it. Not just jet. Touching his things, tidying up his mess, I just couldn’t.
Ellie is sitting on the floor behind the door, knees hugged to her chest, her head down. I sink to the floor beside her, not touching, copying her pose. We sit in silence as the minutes tick by. It’s hard not to speak, not to ask questions. But I know this could be the turning point, a critical moment for Ellie, accepting that Jack has gone; understanding that he will not be coming back. Her words on the scrabble board catapult around my head, but I have to wait. Ellie is in control now.
‘I was the baddie,’ Ellie’s muffled whisper breaks the silence.
I turn to her. She still has her head buried in her knees.
‘I pushed him, backwards, onto the bed.’
I look across at Jack’s bed, remembering Ellie’s cries of Jack won’t wake up, as I had raced up the stairs that day.
‘It was my fault his heart stopped...I sat on top of him...beating his chest with my fists.’
What does she mean? What did she do? I fight to keep locked inside, the words I want to shout.
‘He pushed me off and I ran away to hide in my room.’
I wait, not daring to touch her, I know she needs to finish.
‘I couldn’t wake him up. I tried and tried.’ She looks up at the bed as if seeing him there, then turns to me, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. ‘It’s...my...fault,’ the words come out and the tears escape. ‘I think... I think I killed him,’ she whispers between the gulping sobs.
I grab hold of her, squeezing her so tightly I can feel the beat of her heart against my chest.
‘You didn’t, of course you didn’t,’ I tell her. We cry together, for how long, I don’t know.
Much later, I gently wash Ellie’s face and help her into bed. I explain again, what the doctor told us, that Jack had an undetected heart condition.
‘His heart just stopped, it could have happened anytime. It wasn’t your fault Ellie, it wasn’t anyone’s fault.’ I hope my words are reassuring her. ‘It’s just you and me now. We have to look after each other.’
Rose is coming upstairs, just as I close Ellie’s bedroom door.
‘You both okay?’ she asks.
‘We will be.’
‘Call if you need me. Lauren and I are going to head off home.’
I wave goodnight and lock the front door. I pick up Jack’s gym bag, hugging it to me for a brief moment, before taking it upstairs. In his room, I straighten the duvet and pick up the clothes that are still as he left them, in a heap on the floor. I allow myself the luxury of running my hands across the books on the shelf. I place my hand where his hand had been, around the mouse on his desk. The computer screen leaps to life, Jack and Ellie smile out at me. The tightness in my throat and the throbbing of the huge lump, that seems to be a permanent fixture these days launch their attack once more.
Downstairs the kitchen is spotless. I say a silent thank you to Rose and switch on the kettle. The tiles from the scrabble game have been gathered up and packed away neatly in the box, that now lies on the kitchen table. Only the boiling kettle breaks the silence. The tea is a hot torrent, navigating the lump as I swallow. Ellie’s words are still consuming my brain. I take out the scrabble board and spill the tiles across the table, searching for the letters I need. I place them strategically on the board, hoping to communicate with Ellie her way. Hoping I can help her find the way home.
H-E-A-R-T - F-A-I-L-U-R-E - N-O-T - Y-O-U - E-L-L-I-E