Laughter

(A lightly edited version of the piece I wrote for the weekly writing challenge my friend Sarah and I set each other.)

She’d laughed a lot in the early days. She was young and she was beautiful—the sort of woman men would gaze at, unable to help themselves. Then they’d realise what they were doing, and turn away, embarrassed. That was one of the things that made her laugh, but only a little, because she was tender-hearted, after all. Mostly she laughed for the sheer joy of life. Her husband was rich, and he adored her. Fortune had smiled on her in every way since she had been born, and so she laughed–the carefree, delighted laugh of a child–in return.

As she grew older, however, she laughed less. Worry buried itself ever deeper inside her as another year left her figure as lithe and slim as it had always been. She saw the expanding stomachs of other women, and then their radiant faces as they held their babies in their arms, and she could no longer laugh. With each grey hair she grew a little sadder, and a little more bitter.

And then one day, she did laugh again, but not for joy. Three strangers had come to visit, and as she sat in the tent, she listened as hard as she could to the conversation outside, curious as to who these men were and what they had to say to her husband. “Soon,” one of the strangers confidently pronounced, “your wife will have a son.” And she thought of her wrinkled breasts and the flow of blood that never came any more and of her elderly husband and she laughed in sheer astonishment at the stranger’s audacity. And she thought of the years of promises—empty promises—that had been made to her husband and she laughed in bitterness. That old tale again.

But when, the following year, she held her tiny son in her arms, after she’d stared at him with tear-filled eyes for what seemed like forever, she threw back her head and laughed in peals more beautiful and joyous than even those of her happy youth.

And she named her baby Laughter.

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St Andrew’s, Waterhill (Part 2)

Meg crouched beside a tiny headstone and traced the epitaph with her finger:

In Memory of Charlotte Smith

Born and Died on 1 August 1853

Dearly Loved

She moved on. At the end of the row, under the shadow of the laurel bushes, was a grey cross with another simple statement:

Thomas Foster

Died 3 September 1844, aged 10

A Victor

 Meg thought of her nephew Mark’s blue eyes and loud laugher and tried to imagine him lying dead like Thomas. What had he died of? Had it hurt? Oh, but they died so young then. Meg exhaled slowly, more of a sigh than a breath.

But not everyone had died young. Here was an imposing headstone in a family-sized plot.

Sacred to the Memory of George Smith, Carpenter

Born in this Village on 12 April 1822

And Died in the Same on 11 October 1885.

Mourned by his Devoted Wife and Children

 A carpenter? Meg smiled. Reminds me of Uncle Mike. I loved watching him work, watching a block of wood become something beautiful. He was amazing. It was like everything he touched became a work of art. Not just in carpentry either. In his whole life.

Wish that could be said about me. But no—my blocks of wood have become piles of shavings. Yup, shavings are all I have to show for my effort. Shavings and bloody fingers.

Meg was stiff now from squatting, but as she walked back to her bench one last headstone caught her eye.

In Loving Memory of Elizabeth Grace Mills

21 June 1802 – 14 December 1855

A Devoted Daughter, Sister, and Aunt.

“More are the children of the desolate

than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord”

Meg’s eyes ran over the verse again and again. Cold comfort. But perhaps it had not been that way for Elizabeth Mills. Meg could picture a brisk, cheery middle-aged woman who was everyone’s favourite aunt.

Back on the bench, she stretched out lengthways and closed her eyes. Somewhere in the hedgerow, a bird was talking to itself. Meg’s thoughts wended their way back to the graves.

No, graveyards were not sad places. Those headstones…. They marked the end of sadness. That is, if the cross had marked their lives as well as their graves.

The “dearly loved” Charlotte’s mother and father have her back. Little Tom Foster is probably laughing about whatever it was that killed him when he was ten. Elizabeth Mills no longer grieves that she never married. However terrible the story, it’s over.

I suppose I shall look back and laugh too.

Meg shivered and opened her eyes. It had clouded over. Running a hand through her hair, she walked back to the car, back to the shavings that she’d wanted to be a work of art, back to all her unknowns.

But I know what will happen in the end, she realised, with a glance behind her. Whatever happens in the middle, the end is always death. And then? Why, she said it every Sunday: the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

And in the meantime?

Meg slammed the car door and checked the time. 5:45 PM. Still enough time to eat and shower before going to Rebecca’s for dinner. She’d stop off at school on the way and grab that letter. Mr Davidson had been out of the office all day, so he’d be none the wiser.

Guess I’ll keep chipping away.

St Andrew’s, Waterhill (Part 1)

Meg’s hand was shaking as she turned the key and pushed open her front door. She stood in the hallway of the house she shared with a friend and let her handbag drop to the floor.

What have I done? O God, what have I done?

Not that there was any need to ask God, really. She knew what she’d done. She’d handed in her notice because after five years of teaching history to teenagers, she couldn’t take it any more. The paperwork. The crowd control. The “like I care” attitude of her class. The discouragement and blameshifting amongst the staff after an inspection that had almost placed the school in special measures. Her colleague’s cutting words.

She’d left a letter of resignation on the principal’s desk on her way out today.

And she had no idea what she’d be doing next.

The warm breeze floating through the still-open door roused her, caressing her cheek and enticing her outside. She pushed back a copper curl. “I’m going for a walk,” she announced to the empty hallway. “I may not know what I’m doing next month, or after the holidays, or,“—as she slammed the door after her—“next year, but I’m going for a walk today.”

Getting back into her car, Meg reversed down the driveway and onto the road. Ten minutes later, she was in Waterhill. She abandoned her car on a grass verge and began walking up the hill, squinting her eyes in the sun. She let out a long breath. It was quiet here, so quiet. She could almost imagine that teenagers didn’t exist. She brushed her hand across the thick leaves of the hedge on her right hand side. Don’t think, don’t think, she told herself. Just relax.

A few minutes later, Meg had reached the top of the hill, where tiny St Andrew’s stood with its grey walls covered in lichen. Meg pushed open the wooden gate. It creaked. She tiptoed down the mossy path to the bench underneath the oak tree. She liked graveyards—one of the more bizarre characteristics of history lovers, or so her sister had informed her.

But graveyards are risky places, too. In the silence, there’s nothing to drown out the voices inside you that you’re trying to hush. Meg ran a hand across her forehead.

Why couldn’t I do it? History is awesome. Why couldn’t I pass that excitement on to my students?

The jerks. If only I could have been at a nice, private school with students who care.

But isn’t it my job to make them care?

Why didn’t the planning get any easier? Everyone said it would. But I put in hours and hours more than my colleagues.

They told me to chill, that I was a perfectionist.

I know I am. But isn’t it right to try to do my job well? And I tried. I really tried.

But I’m sick of trying.

So I’m a quitter.

No! She pulled up a solitary dandelion and began savagely pulling off petals. I did it for five years. You’re not a quitter if you keep at something you hate for five years.

But now what? The shorn dandelion slipped through the fingers of her left hand.

A left hand without a ring.

Thanks for nothing, Brian.

Meg blew her nose fiercely. Why could she still not think about it without crying? It was ridiculous. She scrunched up her tissue. It was time to look at some gravestones.

(Check back later this week for the rest of the story….)