from Wonder Wheel (a novel in progress)by Marie Carter Robin
“This is Constable Tyler at the Callander police station. I’m calling about your mother.”
“She tried to kill herself again?”
“How did you know?” he asks, surprise and perhaps suspicion creeping into his voice.
“This is not the first time she’s tried,” I tell him. “It’ll be in on her record.”
“Well,” he says, clearing his throat, “this time she succeeded.”
A few hours later, I get a call from a lawyer, informing me my mother has left me everything in her will.
I ask Alex to cover for me at work and pack lightly. I drive the car up north on my own with the hope I won’t have to stay at my mother’s house long.
The roads become remote once I get off the motorway from Edinburgh. Clouds form behind hills hiding their razor sharp peaks. There is a thunderstorm so I play a tape to block out the noise. If Scotland didn’t rain so much, it would be paradise. The beaches are clean and stretch out toward the Atlantic and there are round bumpy hills that spread out for miles. Today the landscape feels claustrophobic, as though the hills are leaning in towards me. The haar shifts over the hills, making driving impossible. At least I know the roads well, despite not having been on this route for ten years. My hand shakes at the wheel from the shock. The car feels unstable on these winding roads.
Later, it rains and when I get out the car I have to pull the hood on my Mac so tight I can barely see in front of me. The snack stop is a wooden shack selling the usual assortment of Cadbury’s and tartan kitsch. The man at the counter talks for ages about weather predictions and good climbing conditions. He thinks I’ll be climbing the hills—in this weather.
It’s a good five hours, perhaps a little longer before I reach the house. When I enter, I feel like an intruder. The carpets are blue and thick, but I can only remember varnished wooden floors. The lights are dimmed enough so that by her eyesight she could just about see. Inside it is so quiet, I can hear the radiators filling with liquid. I can still smell the smoke from her cigarettes. The white paint on the wall is yellowing from nicotine. The kitchen stinks of dying herbs. I’ll bin them later. On the wall behind me, is a portrait of Jesus on the cross; blood is trickling down his face and arms. After my father’s death, I used to imagine I could see his face in that portrait.
I throw my luggage in the bedroom and switch on more lights. Outside, it is pitch black, apart from the lights of the motorway far in the distance. Alex once told me over a drink in a smoky jazz bar that Octavio Paz wrote “light is time thinking about itself.” What is darkness then? When no thought takes place and fright creeps in. I am shivering in my jumper that now has that damp wool smell. I tap the radiators, turn up the heat a little, then go through to the kitchen to fill the kettle with water.
As I sink into the bath, I am alone with time to contemplate my body. My toenails are growing too long and my legs have not been shaved in months. I am sickened by my small breasts and belly like two rubber tires. I want to shrink into myself. I want someone to find me shriveled in the water. I have a gaunt face compared to the rest of my body. Gray eyes, long curly black hair to hide the thinness of my face. I am five foot five. A very dull height. I wonder what Alex sees in me.
I flip over in the bath to observe the corner where my mother took the razors to her wrist. It is clean now but I imagine blood must have been everywhere seeping into the tiles and the bathroom towels. They must have used a lot of Mr. Muscle to get those stains out. All the towels have been removed from the room, and the bathroom mat. The sink is sparkling.
“Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
You might as well live.”
Alex showed me that poem while studying Dorothy Parker. I flip back over and pull the plug with my feet, then sit huddled and shivering in the bath while the water drains away.
In the morning the weather clears, so I go for a walk in the garden. There is so much work to be done on her land and I don’t want to do it. I make a mental note to discuss this with the real estate agent. I am sitting on the bench by the herbs when he shows up. His limp gray hair is slicked into a cowlick and his face is purple, possibly from the tightness of the collar round his neck. I knew he would arrive at some point, but I thought he would have phoned beforehand at least.
“Someone told me you were here. I thought I’d come at once in case you were wondering how to plan the funeral. It’s quite a drive!” he said, looking round the place as though he’d never been here before.
“I talked to her lawyer. He gave me all the details of her will,” I say.
“I trust she wanted to be cremated at our church,” he smiles, brimming with confidence. I wish I could have contradicted him.
“Yes, she did,” I say.
“I came over wondering if you were in need of counseling. Some members of the family tend to bottle things up, especially when managing everything on their own. It’s not good to hold your feelings inside. Your mother’s death is a delicate situation. I thought you should know I’m prepared to give you any counseling you might need.” His hands are together, poised and tucked in front of him.
“I’m managing fine,” I say.
He nods. He is waiting for me to say more, but I continue to gaze at my mother’s coriander. I want him to disappear. An unreasonable part of me wants to blame him for her death.
“I assume you want me to conduct the funeral service?”
“Yes, but I’d prefer it if the ceremony was kept short.”
“Would you like to say the epitaph?” he asks.
“No,” I say.
“Good. It’s unusual for women to speak at funerals, but I had to ask since you were the only living relative. You are the only living relative?”
“Yes,” I say. My hands fumble at the beads around my neck. “Actually,” I say, “maybe I should say something at the funeral.”
“Well, you don’t have to.”
“No,” I say firmly. “I will.”
“Very well,” he says. “Maybe I could run through the lines with you?”
“Okay, but before I go, I thought we could say a prayer for your mother.”
“No. I don’t want to.”
“Oh.” He seems surprised. He waits around for a moment more, his eyelids blinking rapidly. “When will your husband get here?”
“I don’t have a husband,” I say.
“Strange,” he says. “Your mother said you had one. Did you get a divorce?”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “There’s no one.”
“Well, I guess there’s plenty of time for you to settle down.”
“I’m thirty-years-old,” I say, smiling.
“Right,” he says, backing toward his car. “Perhaps you could call me later on today when you’re feeling more settled and we can talk about the funeral.”
“I want to set a date as early as possible. How’s Thursday?” I say anxiously.
He shakes his head as though marveling over something. “Thursday might be fine, I think. Call me. We’ll talk it over.”
“Okay,” I say. I look toward the roof where ivy and vine spiral upwards encasing the house.
There was a time when my mother was livelier. A time before my father died. I have a clear memory from the age of seven, when I heard them coming back from a party. My sitter had fallen asleep on the couch while waiting for them to arrive home. When I heard the car roaring up the driveway, I opened my curtains a slot and looked out at the head beams. I could hear my mother giggling and the sound of her scuffling feet, followed by the sound of her running to the bathroom and throwing up. Afterwards she’d lay in bed for days without speaking.
I am driven to the funeral in a hearse during bleak weather; pure Scottish drizzle—dense and foggy. I’ve forgotten my umbrella, but it seems appropriate because it makes me look more miserable than I am. I am standing at the front of the church and my outfit and hair are soaked. I am wearing black jeans, a red jumper and a black beret. In my hurry to get up here, I forgot to pack a black suit and there are no clothes stores within easy distance from the house. I would have borrowed one of my mother’s suits, but she was a couple of sizes too small for me, and besides, it was just too morbid.
The minister starts off with some predictable hymns. In front of us, is the coffin with its closed lid, just as I had asked. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing my mother’s face again or seeing what they’d done with her wrists.
The minister begins reading a passage from The Book of Ruth.
“Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
I do not look up while he reads. The organist plays Greckis Symphony No. 3 and the congregation has to stand while she does so. The door is open and above the music I can hear rain lashing down.
Finally the minister calls on me to make my “speech.” Last night I had puzzled over what to say and decided I would just read a Rossetti poem that I liked; something about not grieving for someone, but rather remembering them with happiness.
At the end of the funeral we stand outside in the rain. The minister seems pissed off because he has to be followed around with an enormous umbrella. He shakes my hand and tells me to visit the church again. Funerals are a perfect opportunity to convert people’s faith.
The attendees are hovering around expecting to see flowers, but I haven’t ordered any. What do they expect from a failed artist? I sort of nod to them and mutter, “Thanks for coming.” Heather, my childhood friend comes forward to say hello.
“I saw the obituary in the local newspaper and thought I’d come. See if you needed any support. Besides, it’s been years. I wanted to see how you’d turned out.” Her voice is pleasant and cheerful, which makes the other funeral dwellers frown. They want morbidity. They want me to break down.
“I didn’t recognize you at first, with your wooly hair grown out. It looks lovely.” I grin forcefully, noticing Heather and I are wearing matching yellow Macs.
“Are you still in touch with some of the folk from school?” I ask.
“Not too many,” she says. “Most of them have moved away from the town. It’s just their parents and grandparents who have stayed on. So what do you do in Edinburgh now?” she asks.
“I work in a candle shop.”
“After all that hard work you put into your degree? And are you married?” she asks.
“No. I don’t want to be, either. I think I’m happy doing as I please. What about you? What do you do?”
“I’m bringing up three children and I’m still broody for more. I know a lot of women think I should be making my own money and letting someone else look after the kids, but I like being a housewife.”
“No. It’s all right to be a housewife if that’s what you want with your life.”
She seems perplexed. “I thought since you have a degree and everything, you’d look down on someone wanting to be a housewife.”
“I thought the whole point of feminism is women have the freedom to do what they want.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“Listen,” I say, “Do you want to go for a drink? I’m a little washed-out today and I could use something to pick me up.”
“I don’t think I could. It wouldn’t feel right,” she says, wincing. “But I am sorry about your mum. I didn’t know her too well. Were you close?”
“Still, she was your mother. I’m sure you miss her anyway.”
When I get back in, I pour a little whisky and go to the bathroom, to the spot where she died. I keep expecting a large red spot to appear, as though her ghost were coming back to haunt the place. I try to reconstruct her death. To what extent was it preconceived? How many months had she spent planning it?
She would have gone to the library beforehand to investigate her options, to look up recipes for poisons and that sort of thing. I imagine she would have waited until midnight, when she was sure no one else would visit or phone. She would have taken off her wedding ring for the first time in six or seven years and placed it in her jewelry box for me to find, as I did. She chose nice clothes to die in. A long satin white robe. She took a bath, then brushed her hair and teeth, keeping all her actions simple so by the time it came to slitting her wrists, it would have seemed incredibly easy.
She would have said a prayer to God, then mumbled a passage from the Bible, one of the passages that would contradict the other passage that says suicide is a sin. Perhaps she would have dimmed the lights so she didn’t have to see the blood. She would have selected the sharpest-looking razor from the pack she bought, sat huddled in the corner examining the veins in her wrist, and then made the first cut.
In the early evening, I make an effort to finish the work that is left in the house. I want to tackle my mother’s phone book again. My curiosity is aroused by one particularly long number for a place called Brighton Beach—obviously a long distance number, possibly someone from my grandmother’s American days.
The phone line purrs long and low. At first, I think there is no one home, and I am about to hang up when after six or seven rings, an Eastern European accent answers.
“Can I talk to Claudia Gayazova?”
“Yes. This is Claudia.”
“I’m calling from Scotland. I’m Mary Stewart’s daughter. Possibly you know her as Mary Dietrich. I called to tell you she passed away last week. She died of a heart attack.”
There is a long pause.
Still no answer.
The phone goes dead. The fridge begins droning in the background.
One night my mum and dad couldn’t find a sitter so they decided to take me to a party. I fell asleep on the woman’s couch after the first hour. None of the adults were talking to me and I was dead tired. When I woke a couple of hours later, my father was gazing down on me. He was stroking my hair. “All right, hen. You had a good long sleep, eh?” He had alcohol on his breath and he was supposed to be driving that night.
“I have to go the toilet,” I told him and got up stumbling toward the kitchen area. In the kitchen, my mother was whispering and giggling into some man’s ear. There was a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other. She frowned at me as I walked past. She was staggering on the floor and her party outfit looked a little ruffled. The mascara around her eyes was smudged.
The roar of the car meant my father was taking my mother to the pub. He always came back without her and sat telling me stories for hours. He was a builder and occasionally had to leave town to go on jobs. On those days, my mother would sit around the house. She kept to herself and rarely made an effort to talk to me. One day, I went outside to put out the garbage and found rows upon rows of bottles at the back of the bins. I could see my reflection in the bottles, my neck squeezed tight.
I am washing dishes the morning after the funeral when I hear a knock on the window and see the face of a red-cheeked elderly lady. She is wearing a hat that looks like a garden has been pulled up by its roots and plonked on the top of the hat’s wicker frame. The woman is waving, as though she knows me.
I open the door. “Hello? Do I know you?”
“Not really. But your mother had told me all about you.”
“Who are you?”
“Mrs. McGinty.” She emphasizes the Mrs. part of her name. “I’m the florist at the church. I wanted to know how you were getting on. I have to say I was so worried about you. Your mother said you were such a quiet woman, that you tended to keep your problems to yourself. Your mother said you were a troubled girl.” Her face crumples when she says that.
“She said you were always quiet around her. As though you had things on your mind you didn’t want to tell her.”
“Were you close to my mother?” I ask, finally letting the woman in the door.
“We just talked on the occasion in church. But I wanted to come round straight away and tell you how sorry I am for your loss. I know what you must be going through. Here, give me a hug.”
I try to pull away, but it is too late.
“I know it must be hard for you. I was the one who mentioned it to the minister when she didn’t turn up the other Sunday. She never missed a week of church, you know.”
“I can imagine,” I say, pulling away. “I didn’t see you at the funeral.”
“I wanted to come, but I only heard yesterday.”
“What else did my mother tell you about me?” I ask.
“I don’t remember much. She said you were in Edinburgh. Did she say you were married? I don’t know. I can never remember half the time,” she says laughing. “I suppose this is a big change for you, now that you have all this property and everything. Do you think you’ll come back here or will you buy a place in Edinburgh?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “I think it’s time for a big change.” I have a dishcloth and a cup in my hand that I keep wiping while I am talking. My hands go round and round the dish stirring the bubbles.
“So, what is it you’re doing in Edinburgh now?”
“I work in a candle shop—and I’m a sculptor.” She frowns. In this town, artist equals failure. I should have a “real” job, like working in a bank. No wonder your mother committed suicide, her face seems to say.
Suddenly, we are surprised to hear a knock at the door.
“You’re getting a lot of visitors today,” Mrs. McGinty comments.
A man is standing at the door with a large bouquet of roses. They are so beautiful; they make me feel undeserving of them.
“Sign here,” the man says. I open the card before going back through to Mrs. McGinty. I’m here for you. Loads of sympathy, Alex.
I tuck the roses away in the kitchen.
“Who was that?” asks Mrs. McGinty.
“The postman,” I reply.
The next day I decide to tackle the last area of the house that hasn’t been dealt with. I plan to leave tomorrow. The attic is large, but very ordered and almost bare. Towards the back I can see a neat pile of five or six boxes. I move towards them like a ghost. I don’t have a knife or scissors with me so I open them slowly with my hands. The tape slides away easily.
The first box contains some folded clothes; I recognize them at once. There are pajamas from my kindergarten days and my first booties. I also find the metamorphoses book that I used to love, the one with mutating bodies. I used to spend hours at the age of six musing over how the head of a dog, could have the body of a ballerina and the stiff uniform legs of a soldier. Even from that small age I loved to complicate things, turning and returning the pages, until some of them fell off and the colors of the characters would begin fading. It was one of the few resounding punishments that held weight with me as a small child. If I was badly behaved my mother would put the pages back to normal and take the book away while I cried over my life which I thought was so boring, so ordinary. It is strange that my mother has kept these things since she bore no affection toward me growing up. Perhaps it was my father who kept these things and my mother forgot to throw them out.
I put the box with my childhood things aside. The other boxes look heavy and I try opening them from the stack trying to prevent any heavy lifting on my part. I am aware of being alone in the old house, and if I am injured I’ll be frightfully alone. How must it have been for my mother? She was only fifty-two years old, but an old fifty-two, who barely cared for herself. She smoked heavily and often forgot to eat. Her skin was so translucent you could see her bones.
My thumbs continue to fumble over the box, but it is stubborn and I feel angered it is not sliding open as effortlessly as I want it to. When it finally opens the box breathes with pleasure. It is full of books and then I realize some of them are the journals she used to work on. I open one page. It is all in German.
“Ich habe Tote, und ich ließ sie hin und war estaunt, sie so getrost zu sehn, so rasch zuhaus im Totsein, so gerecht, so anders als ihr Ruf. Nur du, du kehrst zuruck?.”
I am startled by the sound of the phone ringing. I scramble down the ladders as the phone continues bleating. The phone rings for a long time and when I finally pick it up, I can hear heavy breathing on the line. It takes a long while for the speaker to answer.
“You’re her daughter?”
“Claudia?” I ask, guessing at the accent.
“I’m sorry I hung up on you yesterday. I was a little shocked. Old ghosts or something. I hadn’t seen your mother since Robert, your grandfather died.” I could hear her throat clearing.
“You were a friend of my grandfather’s?”
“Yes. I met Robert when I lived in Köln. I also knew Dana, your grandmother.”
“I really wish I had met my grandparents. What was my grandmother like?”
“We weren’t close. I lived at her family house for a while before I came to New York. Robert visited with Mary a couple of times after she died. She was fairly independent. She didn’t talk a lot; at least not to me, she didn’t.”
“And you knew Robert well?”
She hesitates. “I’m sorry about your mother. Did you get on with her?”
“No. In fact, I barely knew her.”
“Did she—tell you about me?”
“No. She never mentioned your name.”
“Oh, I just wondered. This must be a hard time for you. Is your partner with you?”
“No. I don’t have a partner,” I lie. I like the way she says “partner” though.
“Good,” she says. “It’s better if you’re independent. What do you think you’ll do with yourself now?”
“Go home,” I say confidently. I pause for a while; I want to ask her questions but don’t know what they are. “Can I call you again?” I ask.
Two days later, I leave the house, dropping the keys off with the real estate agent. I have given everything else away apart from the boxes of journals and a few of my father’s possessions. I discovered, as I rifled through the notebooks last night, that all of them are written in German. It scares me—I don’t want to be without access to her previous life. I feel I am owed an explanation.
My father told me stories when I was a child, about my great grandmother who was The Tallest Woman in the World at Coney Island. He made it sound like a fairy-tale. He told me she had eyes the color of salmon, a pinkish complexion, and long eyelashes. She lived in a fairground among castles, a dream tower, elephants in glitter, dwarves, long-necked women from the Philippines and men with skin the color of cornflowers. She was freakish, scary to men who may have loved her had she not been so strong, so tall, so utterly domineering.
“Did she marry my great-granddad?” I asked. I wanted a Cinderella ending, but my father didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me what became of her.
“A story that doesn’t have an ending is a lousy story,” I said.
My father laughed. “But this isn’t a story,” he said. “It was real life and real life doesn’t have an ending.”
“Yes, it does,” I said. “It ends in death.”
He had his first operation to remove his lung cancer when I was nine. When he regained consciousness there were wires sticking out his body and he seemed nauseous. My mother was not there. For a while, he didn’t seem to recognize me. He fell back asleep again, leaving me alone with the hospital smells and white, hygienic-looking walls.
My mother was not present when he came home either. I coped on my own, checking the scars on his chest to see they were healing, going for walks with him, watching him bend at the hip and circulate his arms over his head. He seemed to be making a good recovery until he went for surgery a second time.
The last time I saw him alive he called me to his bed. He sounded wild and erratic. He was moaning that the “fucking nurse hadn’t brought his tea.” He was ranting that the man in the next bed stank of piss and that the nurses were not good-looking enough. Finally, he calmed down, then looked at me strangely. “Your ma loves you, you ken.” Then he asked if she was there and I said “yes,” but he didn’t question my reply. His eyes were still a brilliant blue right up until the point of his death. He rubbed my hair and called me his “cat.”
I arrive home in Edinburgh as the drunks are already making their way to the Cowgate. The castle gleams from its perch. I drive up the cobbled streets where the rain is glistening off my car lights. The buildings everywhere are pointed with spirals like the scene of a Victorian crime novel. Everything seems dark, menacing and unfamiliar. I am still in the past.
I am grateful to get back to the familiarity of my bed-sit. I can smell the waft of my own plants when I get back in. I am glad to see tasteful art on the wall; a Georgia O’Keefe, a Modigliani nude, photographs of Rodin sculptures. The mess everywhere from my paints, clay and chiseled wood heaped on old newspapers. I can finally use dishes that are mine and I can expect calls from people who know me. I make tea, sit in a chair and read my mail. Alex has left a card for me. Call me when you’re back. I hope you noticed I didn’t kill any plants while you were gone.
Marie Carter is the editor of Word Jig: New Fiction from Scotland (Hanging Loose Press). She lives in Brooklyn.
ContributorMarie Carter Robin