Sunday Sit Down – Grab a coffee, comfy chair and have a read. Creative Writing to boost the soul. I wrote this story, Lily, for the Swords Writers Inaugural Short Story Competition in 2011 which was judged by Jacinta McDevitt. It won first place, I’m pleased to say. Evocative and descriptive, this is one of my favourite pieces I’ve written. Let me know what you think of Lily.
~~~ Lily ~~~
Lily keeps herself in thoughts of freshly cut grass and rose gardens.
These are the things she misses as she grows old in this building of blank walls and detached residents. But this is now home and home is what you make it, or so her mother used to say.
So Lily listens and she smells and she creates a sense of home. Here in the blank canvas of plain rooms and unadorned hallways, Lily smells cinnamon floating through the corridors instead of the janitor’s watered down antiseptic cleaner. She hears laughter and the sound of dancing feet in the assembly room instead of dulcet moaning and oftentimes silent crying. She see’s people she knew a lifetime ago playing chess and cheating at poker.
In the rec room Lily sits under the fluorescent bulbs that are on from 6am until 8pm every day; except for Saturdays when they stay on until 9pm which is movie night even when movies aren’t shown. Moths dance around the long rectangular light, bouncing off the hot plastic, singeing themselves until eventually one dies and falls into the crease of the book Lily pretends to read. She runs her finger along its closed wings. It feels like paper, brittle under her light touch.
“How are we today Lily,” Dr Branagh asks crouching down beside her. She stays focused on the moth which leaves a dust print on the book, its own durable shadow.
Lily hasn’t spoken to anyone in eighteen years. She was brought to Dr Branagh when her family decided they couldn’t cope with a mute insomniac ten years earlier. In all this time, Dr Branagh has yet to have a proper conversation with her.
“There’s someone here who’s come a long way to see you. Would you like a visitor?” He expectantly looks at her but Lily has no intention of approving or disapproving a visitor.
“It’s been a while, so I thought maybe you’d enjoy it.”
Lily rarely receives visitors. A relative who stays mute and repressive can be tedious. So her sister, who is older in body and mind than Lily, no longer visits, alluding to bad arthritis and an appropriate lack of time. And her nephews don’t have a sense of duty to their Aunt having never spent long enough in her company to be troubled by guilt.
“You could play checkers together for a while.”
When anyone does arrive, they rarely stay long but she’d rather sit in silence remembering how her parents’ living room smelt of daisies.
“Would you prefer to do this another time?”
She flicks the moth from the book onto the floor and goes back to staring at the words on the page.
“Well, ok then” he says, knees cracking as he stands up, “If it’s OK with you, I’ll just go get him.”
Him? She hasn’t had a visitor in so long, yet alone a man. Lily doesn’t know any men, Lily doesn’t want to know any men.
She jerks her head up quickly in an attempt to let Dr Branagh know she doesn’t want this visitor. But his figure doesn’t cover the bright light above his head and it burns Lily’s eyes sending an instant sharp jab to the front of her skull. She catches the pain with the opened book, pressing its pages onto her forehead to relieve the dull throbbing.
“Lily, are you ok?”
He never gets answers but asks anyway. She has grown fond of Dr Branagh. He often sits beside her shuffling a pack of cards before tea time. He attempts to shake conversation out of her on every occasion. There are days when he reads to her from the Tribune or whatever novel he’s reading that week.
They’ve had conversations about Scandinavian wood pine, earth tremors and uses for rock salt. There’s something comforting about their one sided conversations because even though Lily doesn’t say anything and often looks limply past Dr Branagh’s shoulders, out of the window to where the starlings gather on the ledge, she’s listening and he knows that. Lily hears everything he says. Sometimes she laughs. Sometimes she opens her mouth silently like she’s taunting him with an almost said sentence. But there’s always a glint of entertainment in her eyes.
A gentle whimper clears itself out of Lily’s throat.
“It’s ok, Lily,” Dr Branagh’s hand rests on her shoulder. The pain strikes her head like a match. He calls to a nurse to bring a yogurt and crushed ibuprofen. She’s never swallowed a tablet since she’s been in Dr Branagh’s care. He doesn’t know why, but he knows this is the best way to soothe her aggravating headaches.
He stirs the dust into the pot and gently, after prising the book from Lily’s head, feeds her with a white plastic spoon. She hums as she swallows the soothing strawberry and peach yogurt.
“Lily, talk to me,” he whispers as though he’s almost ready to give up. He’s heard Lily sing when she’s alone in the canteen or out in the gardens where the dense trees trap her soulful voice. She knows he’s there, standing behind the door or at the garden gates. Her singing is tender and wonderfully out of tune but that doesn’t matter. For Lily, it’s less about the singing and more about the sounds that reach higher than a voice can. For him, its the only time he hears her.
He first heard her sing Ave Maria in her room when the lights were out and the residents were all asleep. He stopped at her door thinking a radio was on but realised it was Lily when she laughed halfway through. She knew he was there, decided he shouldn’t be listening and so wouldn’t continue until she knew he wasn’t.
“Maybe a visitor isn’t a good idea today. What do you think Lily?“ Dr Branagh asks, questioning whether to introduce Lily to her visitor once the yogurt is gone and the pain in her head subsides.
“You don’t know him,” he explains, “so I’ll tell him to come back another time once I’ve talked to you about him first. Ok, Lily?” She picks her book up off the floor where Dr Branagh left it and flicks to the page with the moth’s long-lasting blueprint.
“I’m sure Mr Caldwell will call again. We’ll talk later.” He stands, intent on asking the young man who waits in his office to leave, but Lily grabs his arm and pulls him back down until his back is bent and his ear is almost touching her lips.
“No,” she says in an almost hushed breath. He can barely hear her over the noise of the patients’ constant babble and the television in the corner. Lily’s eyes are wide with a brilliance and exuberance like a child on Christmas morning. Dr Branagh stays silent, motionless. He’s been struck with Lily’s greatest weapon and it’s frozen him solid.
“Him,” she whispers, “here,” and she points to the floor where the moth lies on its back. The name Caldwell, she knows it or at least knew it. She wants to know who this Caldwell is and why he wants to see her.
“Are you sure? We don’t know him Lily, but he says he’d like to talk to you, that you may have known someone important to him. I didn’t think it was a good idea, but…”
She nods her head and squeezes his arm.
“Ok then, I’ll send him up.”
Lily dog ears the book and shoves it under the armchair leaving it protruding ever so slightly so she can feel it against her heel. After sitting up straight and smoothing out the front of her paisley dress she rests her hands on her lap and watches the door. It’s been a while since she’s had to wait for anything, unless waiting for tea or dinner counted. She never liked the feeling of anticipation. It seemed to creep up through the veins in her legs until it wrapped around her heart, making it beat quicker than her small frame could handle. Her legs shake in an effort to cast off the feeling and by the time the young man opens the door opposite her, Dr Branagh in tow, she’s wringing her hands and tapping her feet.
“Lily, this is Jonathon Caldwell.” The man’s hand outstretches in genial courtesy.
Her legs stop and her hands sit placidly on her lap, ignoring his pending handshake. He’s not what she expects but then she expected a man. This is more of a boy, a tall boy who’s skin smells of vanilla bean and sweet pea. Lily’s skin smells either of cold air or warm figs. Here she washes with lukewarm sponges and plain soap. She misses the soft lather as though she’ll never smell the sweet fragrance of lilac and juniper dance on her fresh skin.
Jonathon retracts his hand and places it firmly in his jeans pocket. He carries an A4 sized plastic folder under his arm. Through the clear purple plastic Lily can see it’s choked with papers and documents. All of which intrigues Lily more than the over-sized boy himself.
“Can Jonathon show you a few things?” Dr Branagh asks. His eyes plead with her to say yes or no. She stays quiet. He crouches down to the side of the armchair leaning in to Lily, whispering out of politeness so as not to offend the guest.
“Lily, if you’re not happy or you want to go, just let me know, ok?” Lily can see the hopefulness in Dr Branagh’s eyes. He’s hoping the visitor will open up a storm of words.
Jonathon takes her silence as consent and pulls a small table and chair in front of her armchair. He places the plastic folder on the table and sits directly opposite Lily as though they are about to play checkers or chess.
On the table, Jonathon spreads a dozen photographs and many letters all addressed from a Ms Lillian Bennett in beautiful calligraphy. It’s the writing of a young woman, a woman Lily decided to forget.
“This is my father,” Jonathon shows Lily an old black and white photograph. A man of about forty years holds on to a small boy on a large bicycle. The child is laughing, his legs float high above the pedals and his arms reach out for the handle bars that are much too far away from him.
“The boy, that’s my father.”
Lily holds the photograph in her hand, pinching the end hard enough for the card to bend.
“This is him when he was 16,” he shows her another photograph, equally worn and old. A boy much like Jonathon stands at the end of a pier with a red sunset striking the ground behind him. “And 21,” more photographs come out from the purple folder, the same face peers up at Lily. The boy in the photo’s held a smell she will never forget. A smell that was more like home than any rose garden or juniper soap.
“Edward,” she says before pushing herself back as far as possible into the hard worn armchair, attempting to disappear into its fabric as her heart swells and almost weeps.
“You know him, you knew my father? Can you tell me about him. He died before I was born and I…” Jonathon’s anxious brown eyes look across at Lily, almost as though he’s trying to read the memories that are surfacing for her.
“You look so much like him,” she says. Dr Branagh’s heart races. Lily is speaking.
Reaching out, she moves the photos around, edges curled and discoloured with age, so she can see the familiar face. Each photo has the same eyes staring back at her. She runs her finger along the jaw line of a teenage boy holding on to the reigns of a grey horse.
“Casper,” she says lightly, like the ghost itself has taken over her voice.
Her legs start jittering again as the anticipation comes back.
“No,” she says shaking her head and gripping the edge of the table.
It’s securely placed in front of her so she has no easy way to get out. She scratches her ankle on the side of the book under the armchair, enough to take the edge off her anxiety.
“What was he like?” Jonathon asks leaning forward holding up another picture for Lily. “How long did you know him? Were you…?
“No,” she says again, thrusting her heels into the floor and pushing at the table, “No, Edward, no, go.”
“Lily, are you alright? Nurse help me here.” They pull the table away and help Lily to her feet.
A gentle shuffle starts to shift its way through the room as the patients are either nervous, scared or intrigued.
“She’s trembling. Bring her to her room and get her some tea. Have someone stay with her.”
“Please, I need to know, there‘s no one else who knew him, my mother‘s gone and you…” Jonathon pleads as a nurse helps Lily to her bedroom, “These letters, they’re all from you, aren’t they?”
“Jonathon, I’m sorry, she’s just not ready for this sort of thing.” Dr Branagh holds Jonathon back from rushing on Lily.
“Please,” Jonathon shouts over the noise of the other residents who have all grown interested in Lily’s voice and the young man who is opening wounds that never healed.
“You loved him,” he calls out, “I’m his son, I never got to love him.”
“Another time ok, lets not upset her more.”
“No,” Lily says turning around as they reach the door, “I love him. I‘ll show you,” she beckons to Jonathon to follow her. He gathers up the photographs and the letters placing them haphazardly inside the purple folder.
Dr Branagh and Jonathon both walk the short corridor to Lily’s room and as Jonathon takes a seat by the lone dresser, she pushes Dr Branagh out of the room.
“No,” she says, a word she has repeated more in the last twenty minutes than she has in almost her whole life, “no, no, go, him only. Now, go,” Lily closes the door so the two are left alone.
She picks up the purple folder and sifts through the letters. It’s a long time since she held them but she still remembers every single word written on those pages.
“I was told you didn’t speak, I thought you…” Jonathon says as Lily rummages around the room.
“And I thought you wanted to talk?” she says opening and closing drawers and presses.
She pulls open the stiff bottom drawer of the dresser, pushing Jonathon’s feet out of the way and picks up a shoe box covered in old beige wallpaper tied with a corrugated brown ribbon. Lily runs her fingers along a fine layer of dust that sits on the lid revealing the words Lily and Ed written a hundred times in different styles and colours. She smiles.
The box is full of letters, receipts and theatre stubs. Sea shells and rocks lay at the bottom with crisp winter leaves that crackle and break when she picks them up.
Lily hands Jonathon a letter. Dried blue rose petals fall out of the envelope, their sweet scent long gone.
“This is my fathers writing.”
“He had beautiful writing. And he wrote beautiful letters.”
“So, you too were… friends?”
“Yes, we were friends, very good friends. I loved him since I was younger than you,” she says. She remembers how he’d bring with him the smell of cold wood chips into her parents’ kitchen from the back garden, whistling to the tunes of Vera Lynn.
She hands Jonathon another envelope. Watermarks lift the paper where a young Lily’s tears dropped.
“But he broke my heart in three sentences.”
He reads the letter as Lily plays with the sea shells she and Edward collected from the harbour. He was a sailor and she was often left standing on a pier watching as his ship sailed away, running her fingers over the soft chalk-like shells as she does now.
My Dearest Lilian, the letter read.
I’m afraid my words will seem as rough as the waters we’ve travelled these last few weeks. But the sea has changed me more than I could ever have imagined. We’ve been apart for so long and as I’m unsure as to when I’ll return, I don’t believe it fair to you to keep you waiting.
All my love
“When he died, I was told he still loved me, and wrote that letter in haste. That he always loved me.”
“Who told you?” Jonathon asked folding the creased letter but not letting it go.
“Your mother. She told me at his funeral. I hadn’t realised she was gone too.” Lily threw the shells back into the box and gathered the dried rose petals that lay on the bed.
“I was four when she died. I don’t remember much about her except for the way she caught her hair up in a scarf. I’m not sure if she ever talked about dad.”
“I never knew her but she was beautiful,” a single tear drops from Lily’s cheek to her paisley dress, “So was he.” Lily’s tired of talking and remembering. She places the lid on the box and lands it on Jonathon‘s lap.
“What I know of your father is written in all of these letters. Take them.”
“Can’t we just talk?”
“No. You’ll learn more about him from these than from me.”
“I can’t, they’re yours.”
“They’re all in my head, I can never forget them.” Reluctantly Jonathon takes the box.
“Thank you Lily,” Jonathon says, his hand on the door handle disinclined to leave, “Is he the reason you don’t talk?” Lily smiles, a gentle teasing curve of the mouth that Dr Branagh knows perfectly.
“Well, words hurt Jonathon. And someday someone might write them down, and you can never take them back.”
Geraldine Walsh © Over Heaven’s Hill