A walk by the sea (57)

Dinner was consumed in a profound silence broken only by cutlery meeting plate, food being masticated slowly, and the funny, but universally accepted noise of wine trickling down human throats. Eileen was tired, as usual, Joseph was too absorbed in his work problems to contribute to the conversation, and despite Andrew’s honest endeavours, Mary did not feel at ease that night.

The whole day, she had been feeling slightly ill. Restless, sad without any apparent reason, homesick. A burden to everyone around her, just like everyone else was a burden to her. She yearned for her privacy, for her solitary walks on her favourite path, and for the quiet certainty of rain pattering on windows, of flames crackling on logs, and of Marshmallow purring in her sleep. Her occasional visits to the tiny, silent church, and her daily walks by the sea.

-Don said they arranged everything, and that judging from the preliminary calls, there will be huge interest –Andrew’s words forced her back to a place she was less and less enthusiastic about.

She smiled at him gratefully, drinking some wine. It tasted acrid. It only made her more thirsty.

-Any chance of painting new ones, in case these are sold in no time? –Andrew asked, leaning back in his chair.

Mary placed her glass and fork down.

-I’m not sure I can paint any more… –she uttered the words that finally startled both Joseph and Eileen, let alone Andrew.

-Don’t say that mom, you’re scaring me –Jo laughed nervously, gulping down his wine. –Can I have more, please, hon?

Eileen poured without a word, looking at her mother-in-law.

-You have worked a lot lately, it is only natural you should feel exhausted –Andrew nodded, his words soft like balm on wound.

-I don’t think it’s that, really –she shrugged indifferently. –I feel like I wasted time with it… so much time.

-You cannot be serious, two days before your own exhibition opens –Jo said, slightly indignant. –What got into you, mother?

-Jo –Eileen said quietly.

-What? It’s true. It’s unfair to Andrew’s work, to Don’s work, and to everyone else who indulged in her… passion for so many years –Jo said, wiping his mouth with his napkin.

Mary looked at her son, who now was more a stranger to her than ever before. He spat the words out without feeling, but there was hardly anything she could reproach him: it was all her fault, hers only. Her years of neglect, of begrudging him love were finally coming together to spill over her like waves in a storm. In fact, she would have deserved it a long time ago.

-You are perfectly right –was all she said. She sat motionless for a while, feeling tiny and useless. But it had to happen. –I was given a chance to find myself and make the best of my life, and instead… I wasted it… –she wanted to go on, but words refused to come.

-No, you’re wrong, Mary –Eileen grabbed Mary’s old hand affectionately. –How can you be so hard on yourself? We all have a life to live and… well, this was your life. It still is. Your paintings are wonderful… they give pleasure to so many people, you shouldn’t ignore that.

-How can I possibly think of art as a blessing when…

No, she could not say it. And hurt him even more than she had already had. She swallowed her tears in shame and solitude, wishing she could be alone, back in her own house, to live her despicable life without hurting anyone else.

-I loved my paintings more than I loved my own son –the words pushed themselves out of her mouth. It felt like labour, only a thousand times more painful, as giving birth to truth hurts that who utters it, and that which receives it. She should have been relieved after the confession she had withheld for she did not remember how long; but instead, her eyes filled with tears and she couldn’t stop them from falling.

Saying it out loud, in front of Joseph made it sound so horrible that she covered her mouth in despair. She could not face that young man who sat numbed across her. She felt his silent reproach, but surprisingly, she felt it less now than she had felt it all those years when she had persuaded herself everything was perfect. Or if not perfect, then tolerable. She had never had anything perfect in her life, except…

-Nothing I say or do will ever make this right… or the countless years I never gave you real love –she sighed, closing her eyes. –I’m so sorry. So very sorry.

When she opened them, she saw Jo looking at her with tearstained cheeks. She desperately wanted to look away, but she knew that Eileen’s eyes, accusing in their sympathy would meet her on the left, and Andrew’s quiet support would receive her on the right. She had nowhere to run, so she braved her son’s pained look, and wished her heart could break in two.

-I was wondering if you’d ever admit it, mom –Jo said, swallowing his tears.

She knew the moment was close, so close, and she wished it with all her might. Let the earth gobble her up alive, let the soil cover her and bury her, body and soul. The pain she had mindlessly caused was returning to her with such fortitude that she could hardly breathe.

-But I don’t mind, mom. I never did, really. I knew it for a fact, and accepted it –Jo added, fumbling with his fork, staring into his half-empty plate. –Dad was strange… from the very beginning… and I figured, when he left, that I reminded you of him…

Mary stared in shock at Jo.

-No… I… –she stammered.

-Well, it’s your one excuse I can actually accept –he laughed, wiping his eyes. –Later I thought that… well, maybe not everyone is supposed to be a mother. Right? Women think they are all supposed to be mothers… but some of them are not. Why do you think dad was gay, mom? Maybe he was meant to be… to help your decision.

-But… I wanted children… –Mary wept silently. –I was happy when you were born…

-I don’t think you ever did –Jo smiled sadly. –Or if you did, something went very wrong somewhere… but it’s fine, it really is. I’m not unhappy, I’ve got Eileen, I’ve got Andy, and my work. I’ve got you –he added, laughing a little, and his tears started falling again.

Mary was not sure whether she wanted to die or embrace her long lost son: either alternative seemed petty and ridiculous compared to the whirlwind of emotions in her soul. Her past was undoing itself in front of her eyes, and things she never understood were beginning to show clearer than ever. Questions she had never asked herself were answered without her noticing. Her broken marriage, her strict, cold way of bringing Jo up, her desperate search for something to believe in, anything that would show her beauty, when there was none inside herself.

-And you know what, mom? Even though this will sound very cruel… I am very thankful. I should hate you… but I don’t, and I can’t. First, because you’re my mother, and second…. because… because you showed me how to be a good parent –Joseph finished, calmly looking at her.

There was no need for him to say more, as she knew exactly what he meant. It was a last, perhaps ruthless blow that she knew she must take without flinching. Yes, she taught him what not to do as a father. In the end, that was an accomplishment. So she smiled at him wanly, relinquishing the idea of hugging him, ever. He would never want it.

She stood up weakly, disregarding Eileen’s desperate fretting, Joseph’s quiet sniffling and Andrew’s dejected hunch.

-I think I will retire –she spoke mechanically. –Andrew, you told me you had a surprise… it can wait. Tomorrow, you will tell me. Goodnight.

The gentleman stood up and waited until Mary left the room, but she didn’t notice. She walked as one already departed from the living. Her feet took her, and she let them, until she dropped on her bed, hardly conscious.