Friday, May 28, 2010

Bad Decisions

It wasn't like me to say anything, but I'd been drowning my sorrows with a succession of one-drink-too-manys since just after noon and it was now who-gives-a-fuck o'clock.

"Watch who you're shoving," I said, as an elephant slumped onto the stool to my right, jostling my hand on the drink I'd been cradling for at least the last forty five seconds.

He laid a mitt on me that blotted out half my forearm, then gave it a squeeze that threatened to pop my fingertips. His knuckles stood out like bony boulders, mashed and whitened with scar tissue.

"Sorry, pal," he said, his voice a low rasp. I glanced his way and half-sobered up at the sight. Wide blue eyes regarded me from under a cliff of creased and sweaty brow. His nose had unwisely decided to settle in the middle of a pock-marked, ruddy battlefield and looked like it had thrown itself under a bus, but he had a big soft mouth and thankfully it was almost grinning at me.

"No problem... sorry," I said, reverting to type.

"Ain't we a couple of sorry characters," he said, squeezing my arm again. I flinched, afraid that an exploding fingernail might have an eye out. My fight or flight instinct had already taken a vote, but with his meaty fingers digging into my arm, my brain was too stunned to come up with a witty reply. Or a reply. For the first time I think I truly understood why a trapped animal will gnaw off a limb to escape.

"Did ya spill your drink?" he asked, eyes locked on mine, while he gestured at the bartender. I noticed how he pushed words through his mouth like it took an effort.

"No," I managed to say, but not before another glass had been set before me. I saw that the bartender had also placed a tall glass in front of him, filled with ice and burnt-caramel colored liquor.

"What ya doing in this dive?" he asked, "I ain't seen ya before, and I'm always here... ain't I always here?" This last directed at the bartender, who I could see was uncomfortable.

"Sure are, Pete," the bartender said, his back pressed up against the bench behind him, straining to be as far from my neighbour as possible.

The gorilla still had his hand on my arm, so I reached across with my left to get my old drink, threw it down in one and reached for the newest. My hand hovered over it for a moment before I grasped it, but I didn't bring it to my lips.

"I think I did something stupid," I said. "I think I screwed up my life today."

"Oh, ya sure did, kid," he agreed. "Ya sure did. Know why?"

"Why?" I asked, wondering who would identify my corpse.

He released his grip on my arm so he could pat it, twice, then clamped back on. "Every day we do stuff that screws up our lives. Ya make the right choices every day, ya gets to be a billionaire, dying in your eighties, kids fighting with a twenty year old widow over the money." He winked at me, natural as a bear doing a handstand, then took over half of his drink in a single gulp. He moaned with satisfaction. "That hits the spot. Know many billionaires?"

"I guess not."

"Bad decisions. We all make'em. Some you live with, some you don't." He squeezed yet again, but my hand had already gone numb.

"No going back?" I asked.

"Up to you, kid," he said. "Sure, it depends, but one bad decision doesn't stop ya making a bunch of good ones."

I drifted away, thoughts racing, then a wave of reality helped clear my head. I stood, and as I did so he released my arm, after just one more bone-crushing squeeze.

"What's her name, pal?" he asked.

I tried to say, but the word choked in my throat. I couldn't declare her name until I'd spoken to her, and made things right. He seemed to understand.

"I get it," he said. "Do what ya gotta, pal. No more bad decisions, right?"

I wanted to say something, but the alcohol hit me again. Fear may have momentarily driven the effects away but now they were back with a vengeance. I swayed, lips goldfishing, while my arms hung at my sides, forgotten.

"Promise," I managed, but I kept looking at him. I wanted to leave but I had forgotten where the door was. Everything was swirling. Thankfully, the bartender put his arm around my shoulder and guided me towards the exit.

"You're bleeding," I said, staring at the smears on my palms as he pushed me towards the door.

"Get out!" he snarled at me. "I'll leave you if I have to."

My hands and arms were covered in blood. I stared at them, feet trudging diligently in step with the bartender as he escorted me from the near-empty bar. I sensed, but didn't really see, the people who pushed past us on their way into the bar.

"Am I bleeding?" I asked. I could see gray light through a half open doorway. It was early evening. The night was still young.

The bartender shoved me into the half-night, throwing the door shut behind him. I felt fine.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


May 22nd 2009.

Gwen watched her mother's wheelchair edge closer to the precipice. Her heart was in her mouth, even though she had been through the process several times before. This was Maude's yearly ritual, carried out for as long as Gwen could remember, though this was only the sixth year that Gwen had been permitted to attend, and the third that her mother had been in the wheelchair. She's so old, Gwen thought, then chuckled, realising she had been abusing the term middle-aged herself.

Stray words floated her way, bourne on the stinging wind, but nothing Gwen could make out. She wanted to get back into the car but felt like she would be letting her mother down if she allowed the gusts to chase her into shelter.

Eventually her mother finished and gave a jaunty wave to summon Gwen over.

"All done for another year?" Gwen asked.

Her mother nodded, her expression difficult to read.

"I'll be retiring soon, and Terry asked me to visit him in Australia. You'll come too. We could be there, this time next year. Wouldn't you like to spend some time with your grandson?"

"And his partner?" Maude asked with a wicked grin.

"Yes, and Richie."

"He's a lovely boy. Very well-built."

"I'm sure your grandson - remember him? - would be glad you approve. What do you say, mum? Think of all that sunshine."

Maude sighed. "You should go, love. I'm fine where I am. Settled. I have my routine..."

"Go on, mum, Richie will find a hunky Australian senior for you."

"Gwen, dear, I'm not ready for romancing down by the billabong."

"Chance'd be a fine thing at your age. What about Canada? I was talking to John last week and he said he begged you to come over."

"Oh no, lovie. Polar bears! I'd sooner be mauled by an Aussie... I think..."

They laughed, Maude's throaty chuckle quickly turning into a rattling cough. Gwen laid her hand on her mother's shoulder, pressing through layers of wool and nylon until she discovered a bony clavicle. She hugged her mother awkwardly around the wheelchair, until the coughing subsided. The smell of lilac-scented soap was strong, triggering random thoughts.

John was Gwen's half-brother, eleven years her junior, and he was responsible for Maude's trademark aroma. Since Christmas of 1978, when one Bailey's Irish Cream too many had led her mother to over-enthusiastically praise a hastily bought gift-basket, John had been diligently lavishing her with variations on lilac-themed toiletries ever since. Christmas, birthday and Mothering Sunday, every single year. In '92 the birthday consignment was lost in the mail, but Maude had said nothing, fearful of how he might over-compensate the loss.

Cupboards bulged and shelves heaved under unwanted soaps, sprays, candles and bubble bath. Maude didn't have the heart to throw any of it away, but she was not particularly fond of lilacs. Then, fortuitously, disaster struck. One of her, ever more frequent, medical procedures caused her to suffer anosmia. She lost her sense of smell. Undaunted, she saw this as an opportunity to chip away at her lilac-scented stockpile.

Gwen pulled the wheelchair back even further from the edge, before turning it towards the car. Just before they reached it, she asked, "Want to stay at mine tonight? I'll phone to let them know."

Maude reached back to pat her daughter's hand. "That sounds lovely, dear."

There was more laughter back at Gwen's home. Wrapped in blankets until the central heating was at full throttle, they toasted their day with nips of brandy that graduated into fully-fledged bites by the third round. They told and re-told their stories, allowing familiar tales to cushion the here-and-now, like the many layers of Maude's clothing. Every so often Maude would laugh so hard that she would choke, waving Gwen's concerns away, then continue with her anecdote as if nothing had happened.

It was almost midnight when Gwen helped her mother into bed. She kissed Maude on the forehead and made to leave but the old woman held tightly to her arm. Gwen sat by her on the bed.

"What is it, mum?"

So Maude told her. She told her why this day was special. She told her why she came to the cliffside each year. She told her the history they had never discussed, stumbling over the words until late into the night when they both finally collapsed into sleep.

In the morning Gwen phoned her mother's doctor, sobbing and almost incoherent with grief. Maude had celebrated her anniversary for the final time.


May 22nd, 2010.

Looking back, Gwen didn't know where the year had gone, but more importantly she was struggling to understand why she was back here again. This had been her mother's ritual, something they had only shared because the old woman hadn't been physically capable in her later years of coping on her own.

Gwen got out of the car and walked to the edge of the cliff.

"I didn't know you," she said, speaking into the wind as it cut at her face, though it wasn't the salty air that dampened her eyes. "Mum never wanted to talk about you, and I never asked her, but I knew she came here because of you. I thought how much she must miss you, how important you must have been. I thought it was some glorious love that made her trek back here year after year. I felt so sorry for her."

Gwen blinked away tears.

"What you did made my mother miserable, but she got over it. She had a good life, a wonderful life. She laughed harder and brought more joy to the people around her than anyone had a right to. I miss her every single day. You threw that away. She found a good man to love her, and when the time came, she was... we all were able to say good-bye to him, properly."

She pulled the sleeves of her jumper over her palms and rubbed the tears from her eyes.

"She loved us so much, and we loved her back just as fiercely. And every year that she came back here, she was counting her blessings for a life lived completely and surrounded by love. Don't you wish you'd known how that felt?"

Gwen started back to the car then, after a few paces, paused and turned back to look out over the cliff.

"Would it really have been so bad to see me grow up?"

When she got into the car and pulled the door shut, just as she was laying her head on the steering wheel and surrendering to heaving tears, Gwen thought she caught the merest whiff of lilac. It was enough to bring a smile to her face, even as she wept.