In the Shadows of the Silver Oaks
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
- Rilke, September 1902
-------The child stirs. She smells her father, and then she does not. So she turns to her side. The earthy smell of the home-grown cotton tufts under the sun-bleached pillowcase drifts into her waking mind. In the dark she feels the contours of her mother’s body, slings her one lazy foot over her mother’s waist and latches her arm around her mother’s neck. Smiling, she buries her head in the warmth; of her mother’s back, of naked skin. Somewhere beyond, her toes touch upon a stranger’s presence. The child’s curly head clears of all half-wakefulness. Unsure, with her little heart aflutter, she turns back to the lifeless pillows, lying motionless in the still sea of clumped sheets. And there she lies until the bed stops rocking and the soft cries cease. Stifling a cough, the stranger rises. He is leaving. For a minute she forgets to breathe. If there was light, it would have shown her pupils, peppercorns in their cratered, brown irises contracting with fear – of uncertainty, of betrayal inscrutable in the dark. In another two days, her father would be back. She bites down the tremor starting in her lips. It is the child’s first lesson in infidelity, in indiscretion; virginal etchings on a tabula rasa, of the betrayal of elders, of the tainting of innocence. It is also her first lesson in the certainty of escape within the comfort of silence.
Now, at sixty-seven, she fights the succour of an inviting sleep, a brief reprieve from an unrelenting guilt. She whispers urgently to her son, but cannot hear her voice. She fights to control her thoughts which dissipate like waves on a shore where her memories are but bursts of ephemeral bubbles. In desperation, she tries to speak again. She wants him to know. She wants to be forgiven. ----------
He didn’t want any more shadows dancing his mind, tormenting his already beleaguered conscience, so he opened the door rather than let the knock go unanswered.
In a pale blue housedress, her hair a crown of snowy fuzz, cheeks rouged from cooking, stood Mrs Wilson with a steaming dish. ‘Here’s lunch. And, your mail.’
Unhinged by her unexpected appearance, he stared at her outstretched hands and quickly composed himself with a smile. ‘Please come in,’ he said, taking the letters from her. His lunch, now so severely plain next to Mrs Wilson’s vibrant yellow quiche with its congealed flotsam of parsley sprigs and pink ham. Edward was touched.
She followed him in. ‘How’re you doing dear?’ she asked, placing the quiche on the potholder.
He was glad her gaze hadn’t lingered long on the kitchen benchtop. ‘Work’s been busy,’ he replied. ‘I volunteered some extra hours at the clinic.’ He couldn’t bear another word of pity, so he pivoted to guide her to the sofa. But she ignored the hint, stayed put, arms tied behind her back.
‘Has he been in touch?’ Her grey eyes studied him.
Baffled for an answer, Edward fumbled through his mind for one appropriate enough. ‘No,’ he said finally. ‘She might not have wanted it.’
‘I’d watch the two of you cycle up and down the pavement. You must’ve been what, ‘bout three? Always hoped they’d get back together.’ She sighed. ‘Never knew why they split up in the first place. She was never one to give much away. A lot like you.’ Her lips puckered into a knowing smile.
Edward wanted her to go on, would’ve liked to hear more about his father because he didn’t recollect much and his mother had divulged even less.
‘Well, I better leave. Gosh!’ She pointed upwards, ‘Who’d have thought she’d be the first to go.’
He escorted her to the door. Edward thought he might as well ask while he had the chance. ‘Mrs Wilson, did Mum ever mention an Adnan to you?’
‘Some kind of Persian name that?’ She stopped, turned around with a frown.
‘Not too sure,’ he replied vaguely, not intending to make much of it. Edward wasn’t surprised. Thirty years of living next door to each other and Mrs Wilson was still unaware of his mother’s maiden name.
He walked her out. ‘Thanks Mrs Wilson,’ he called out, as she padded on through her driveway and up the steps. Edward waited until she was out of sight before shutting the front door and walking back to the kitchen.
The quiche was a godsend. He surveyed the mess that would be his and Abbey’s lunch. The woeful chicken sat on the cutting board, the mushrooms lay untouched in the brown paper bag. There was always the Pinot noir to fall back on in case he ruined the lunch.
Abbey arrived in a wine-coloured lace dress with matching burgundy highlights in her dark hair which she kept cropped since her breakup. Her flawless face was heavily blushed, and when she took off her shoes at the door Edward noticed its telltale tag. A new pair. He felt guilty for her efforts would be wasted on a plain meal not unlike the hundreds they’d shared during their medical school friendship. He’d wanted this one to be special. It was his thank you to her for having helped organize the funeral, now a blur he wanted buried.
Stirring the stew, Edward watched Abbey as she stood by the sink, her sleeves pulled up to her elbows, washing mushrooms under the tap. He was happy to have her there, wearing his mother’s apron, infusing life and warmth into the kitchen as only a woman knew. As only a woman could.
‘Any chance of making your mum’s mushroom salad?’ asked Abbey.
Edward pointed to the recipe books stacked on the shelf above the refrigerator. ‘Help yourself. There’s some feta and cheddar in the fridge,’ he said, striking an egg against the rim of the steel bowl a little too hard as Abbey climbed onto a stool.
‘Is this yours, Edward?’ she asked, a few minutes on.
He’d just raked out the last stubborn shell shard from the bowl. Edward dropped the fork into the sink and walked over. The book’s title jolted him into a fresh snowfall of misery. Taking the book from Abbey, he sat down on the stool and leafed through the pages in a fog of despair.
Recipes for death, antithetic to a healer’s core value of primum non nocere: ‘first, do no harm’. Edward peeled off the mail order receipt of the euthanasia guide still stuck to a page. A chill settled into his stomach. He checked the date again. Cloistered inside, the ink hadn’t faded in the least. Edward quietly slipped the receipt into his pocket.
A sachet of powdered Nembutal, labelled in his mother’s writing, was sticky-taped to the back cover. The thought of her negotiating a deal in some shady alley for the drug sickened him. He was mortified that Abbey had made the discovery. He felt exposed, when there was nothing to hide. Over at the stove, Abbey had taken over. Edward smelt the burnt tomato, the singed spices, but didn’t move, couldn’t move.
‘Feels done to me,’ Abbey said, removing the chicken casserole from the stove. ‘I’ll whip up a quick omelette. That’ll do us.’
‘How did she ever get her hands on this,’ he said aloud, sniffing the Nembutal, hit by the incongruity, the absurdness.
Abbey wouldn’t meet his eye, instead whisking the eggs briskly, chopping up the mushrooms with her back to him. With no reassuring words from her, he felt the need to explain. ‘I didn’t get it for her, in case –‘
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, with a tilt of her head. The overheated frying pan sizzled and spat the egg mixture. She gave a sidelong glance at the book, flipped the omelette with a neat turn of her wrist. ‘Maybe this is what she wanted. She was a strong woman, Edward. Like you, she might’ve believed in her rights.’
His throat went dry at the pointed reminder. Was she implying he was complicit in some way? Bits of fevered classroom discussions from years ago floated into his head. Edward arguing for the legalization of euthanasia. Why should a loved one suffer? To Abbey, raised a Catholic, euthanasia was immoral, deeply sinful. It had split them for a week. A few years on, it resurfaced the day Abbey’s beagle was euthanized. An inadvertent remark that had Abbey in tears, and Edward looking every bit the insensitive fool.
Abbey switched off the stove. ‘Don’t beat yourself up too much. You did your bit in moving back here to be with her. Which mother wouldn’t want that?’
She had read his mind, he was partly relieved. His moving back had more to do with him and less about her, but Abbey wouldn’t know that. ‘It’s near impossible to know what goes on in someone’s mind. You of all people ought to know,’ Abbey continued.
‘If she’d wanted to talk things over, I was there —’ he started, defensively.
‘I don’t think you understand how aloof you can be, even when you’re around,’ she said, a little exasperated, wiping her hands on the dishcloth. ‘It’s impossible to figure you even if you’re right there. A wall to sound off, but impermeable.’ She knocked on a kitchen tile with her knuckles, wagged a finger at him to make her point. ‘I wish I knew the meaning of this lunch, Edward. It was all I thought about on my train ride here. You make others work hard to try and gauge you, if at all. All the time, let me tell you.’
He stared blankly, disheartened by her appraisal. This was meant to be a new chapter in his life; to appreciate people, having learnt from past mistakes.
‘ It’s not that I’m blaming you for anything that’s happened. I’ve said too much already.’ She took off the apron and came around to surprise him with a rare hug. Her arms strayed around his neck, her stockinged knee leaned in against his thigh where he sat dumbfounded on the stool in an afternoon where until a moment ago he had salvaged peace for the first time in weeks.
‘It’s strange coming in here and not see your mum. Always worried she didn’t approve of me. I’d look up and she’d be watching me as if some part of her knew. I could tell she was a little too happy when I got engaged.’
‘That’s silly. She was always fond of you,’ he lied. For whatever reasons, his mother had never warmed to Abbey the way she did with others.
She took a deep breath. ‘So, how do you feel about me, Edward?’ she asked, her eyes trained on him, a mixture of anticipation, of trust.
Alarmed, Edward’s mind raced to keep up as she continued, ‘You think I’d have gone out with anyone else let alone get engaged, ever?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I kept looking for something from you all those years. With the time you had away from college, I hoped you’d see things differently when you got back. Don’t tell me you didn’t know,’ she said, twirling the hair on the nape of his neck. For the life of him, Edward couldn’t recall anything this suggestive, even remotely overt.
Together, the two of them had survived the rigours of exam nerves, tutorials and the many drunken nights of med school. Edward had been surprised when Abbey, a pharmacist’s daughter from Bath, had chosen to stick around him after orientation day. Along with Sid, another friend Edward had made, the three formed an easy friendship hanging out in cafés, trawling through the Portobello Road market, lounging in book stores till lights were switched off and they were shown the door. When each forked off into their specializations, they relied on pub catch-ups, emails and phone calls, staying connected though their tragedies and triumphs. With the break-up of Abbey’s engagement, Sid’s marriage and Edward’s mum’s illness, Abbey was around Edward a lot more. Somehow he must have been too preoccupied to have seen this coming.
Pretending ease with such intimacy from her was a stretch, given the timing of the book’s discovery. Edward ransacked his mind for a way to neutralize a situation falling way out of line and away from him. Abbey was waiting for his answer. Up so close, Abbey’s perfume, a familiar floral, usually soothing, was unnaturally intense. Her eyes, her mouth, the blue-hued vein on her neck impossible to ignore. Her hands, low on his collar, wandered over his chest. Words eluded him. Stifled, Edward returned her hug with a light embrace, hoping she wouldn’t take it further.
Instead, Abbey rested her head on his shoulder, wound her arms around his waist. Edward couldn’t commit, not for a day, not even in his desperation to feel cared for and loved as vulnerable as he was. When she raised her head, he placed a firm hand on her wrist. Pulling away would have been disconcerting, even to him. She withdrew abruptly, her face flushed, and headed over to her handbag on the sofa.
‘Abbey, please!’ Edward knew it would have taken her every ounce of courage to do what he had just spurned.
With trembling hands, she slipped her shoe back on. ‘Why bother?’ She waved at the stove, the kitchen, black tears ruining her face. ‘You think this is some kind of consolation lunch, do you?’ She wiped her eye with the back of her hand. ‘Look at you,’ she berated, ‘cooped up inside your head. Damn you Edward! If you ever so slightly cared as much as others care about you, who knows, maybe your mum might not have killed herself taking tips from a goddamn guide.’ She slammed the door, leaving him bewildered and shell shocked from the uncharacteristic nasty lashing. Edward couldn’t think of what he could say to right her humiliation when he too felt equally stung. He could catch her before she reached the station, but he made no attempt to run. Was it really his fault that she had wanted more, when they had been happy with what they had?
But she was right - he couldn’t bare his soul or open up his mind the way she did. Edward pulled out the receipt from his pocket. He couldn’t chase her down the road to tell her that his mother had got the euthanasia handbook way before her diagnosis. It didn’t make sense. Right then, nothing did.
Edward’s first instinct was to rip the book apart. Using the kitchen shears, he cut sheaves of pages at a time, snipping his little finger in his haste. He dumped the unruly heap into the bin, and churned the pieces in with a chopstick until they were indistinguishable, smeared in grease, wet blood, sodden tea bags and floppy celery sticks. Prising off the sachet of Nembutal, he walked across the hall and emptied its contents into the toilet. Watching the powder dissolve in the whirlpool of a flush did not absolve him from the guilt, shame and remorse. Smarting from Abbey’s rebuke, he hadn’t bothered to measure the pentobarbiturate. What good would that have done?
His mother’s vehement opposition to autopsies in the preceding weeks, getting him to promise that no one would ‘dissect her like a laboratory frog splayed open on a cold steel tray’ - had she feigned her deterioration well ahead? Edward shuddered. Had he been an aloof carer, blasé about her illness, making her feel unwanted, unloved when the opposite was true? Somewhere between his self-absorption and presumption that she understood him, he had failed his mother enough for her to call out to an ‘Adnan’ in her final minutes at the hospice. His mother hadn’t remembered Edward’s name. He had been gutted.
Edward buried his face in his hands, blood-stained, still trembling. Nothing was as it seemed. He felt as though he was looking through a peephole at shadows moving across a shifting floor.