When Gloria Was Here
When the two of you end up together, people call you chalk and cheese, say opposites attract, and whisper that the baby will be along soon. Perhaps they suspect that your older brother, Jack-the-Lad, they call him, seduced her and did a runner. Gloria’s father rants from the rafters, bruises kiss her cheeks and you, good boy, do what your mother urges, and offer to marry her. Keep it in the family.
You have another motive, sly perhaps, and more pressing than honour or duty. The caramel flesh of her makes you leap inside and out. And it doesn’t hurt, seeing disbelief on the faces of girls who’ve turned you down and boys who’ve dreamt, as you have, of that soft mouth.
Chalk and Cheese. Your pale face and gingery whiskers; her damson eyes and dark hair. You are neat, lean, finely turned like the wood you work. She looks as though she’s just fallen out of bed or tumbled from a haystack, arriving always late and slightly breathless. Buttons on her blouse burst open unaided. You are quiet, held in, tree trunk solid. She is blossom, new green shoots and roses overblown. Words, grand ideas, plans, causes, songs froth from her. She sets them free, like balloons let go.
It isn’t how you think it will be, marriage to Gloria, though, if truth be told, you haven’t thought much beyond the wedding night. She works hard. Heaps of fabrics, other people’s clothes to mend or make, hang round the place like uninvited guests. She fills the house with sweet scents, cakes of cinnamon and chocolate. Noise bubbles from her. Humming, banging pots, laughing at the radio, laughing at you. She sings, blending the Beatles with snatches of opera; Christmas carols in the summer.
In bed, she calls you Teddy.
She says, “I like the way you smell, like sap and sawdust. Male.”
It’s messy, the way her body blows about, limbs this way and that, across the bed; and the sounds she makes, they inflame you and shame you, at the same time.
Late in pregnancy, her honey skin billows. She leaks milk and tears and revels in it. The birth is wild, a thunderous bloody business. The baying that comes from the depths of her, an animal howling, makes the very earth shudder. It scares you. The power of her scares you.
Before William is walking, she starts to talk about another baby, but you can’t do it, not again, watch her split into two people. She fills the house with other people’s children instead; baking, finger painting; a constant clamour, clutter, a labyrinth of toddlers, mewling and whining. Balls and bricks spew across the floor, conspiring to trip you; wooden train tracks reach out to grab your ankles and trap you in the chaos.
You start coming home from work and straight out to the garden, planting beans and mowing grass or sitting in the shed, fixing everything she’s broken. You hear her still from the open kitchen window. Pans clatter. Her voice rings gleeful, arguing with the radio or singing along, the tune mostly right, the words of her own invention. The bed sheets on the line swell from the whirlwind she creates as she reaches out to you across the garden. The smell of dinner cooking, earthy stew and sweet, light pudding, brings you in.
With William at school, she keeps busy, setting herself up as a wedding cake maker. And if you want money raised, she’s your woman. Her jumble sales are legendary. Strangers’ cast-offs colonise the house. Flowing streams of chirruping females turn up for Tupperware or Avon parties laced with sherry. You head to the pub and sit in solid silence with other husbands, men you’ve known since boyhood, now looking like their fathers.
When William is nearly grown his friends are there all the time, half-men buzzing round her. She teases them and feeds them honey cake. They watch her in the same way you did. You know their thoughts and want to swat them; except for one, brave enough to reach out a sweaty palm to stroke her arm. Him, you want to crush beneath your boot but Gloria shoos him away before you get the chance.
The day William leaves home you are braced for change. Some tears, perhaps; maybe a quieter life. But, no. You come home to a storm. The radio shrieking, air cloudy with burning cake, and a lipstick-kissed empty sherry glass. You see her through the window, out in the garden, freeing sheets from the line.
In the hall, her arms full of washing, you press against her, breathing in the grassy clean. Her hair, held up with half a pencil, is coming loose.
“Help me make the bed, Teddy?” she says.
The day you lose your job, coming home early, you stop at the doorstep wondering should you leave, be Jack-the-Lad for a change. How will you stand to be home, with all the noise and mess?
But, no. You are still dutiful and, less pressing, perhaps, than twenty five years before, there’s a whispering need of her. You turn the key.
The house is quiet, calm. Your wife is asleep on the sofa. Perhaps it’s always like this when you’re absent. Perhaps Gloria only turns the volume up when you’re due home.
She opens her eyes and strains to sit. You say you have something to tell her.
“Me too,” she says.
“Such a gentleman, Ted.” She smiles, almost shy. “Such a good man.”
She’s speaking quieter than you ever thought she could. You bend your head closer to hear. Her breath falls on your neck.
“I want to thank you for the life you gave me and William. Not many men would’ve done what you did. I’m sorry I didn’t turn out how you wanted.”
You say nothing. Whatever you expected, it wasn’t that.
She sighs at your customary silence and asks what it is you want to tell her.
But losing your job has shrunk.
“What are you saying?” you ask.
“I’m saying thank you.”
“And goodbye? It sounds like goodbye.” There’s a quiver in your voice. You are thinking again of Jack-the-Lad. Is he back on the scene, set to reclaim her? Is she running off with one of William’s friends? Has she met someone else? Someone less silent, less solid.
But, no, none of them will take her from you. It is cancer, dancing through her. Slow. Slow. Quick, quick. Slow. Leading her away, step by step, piece by piece.
If you’d turned to go that day on the doorstep, you’d have carried her with you as she always was. You’d have her singing the wrong words and breathing loudly in her sleep. You wouldn’t have caught her whispered thank you or heard her sleeping breath evaporate into silence.
After she’s gone, the world is still. The kitchen is tidy. The radio is quiet. All you can hear is the ticking of the clocks. In every room, you hear the ticking of the clocks. They’ve always been there. It’s just you never heard them, when Gloria was here.
Kathryn Clark writes short stories and YA fiction. She has just started the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. You can follow her blog at http://www.thegreatprocrastinator.co.uk/and on twitter at https://twitter.com/KClarkwriter
A collection of her short stories will be published by Inktears in 2015 http://www.inktears.com/