READ "RED" BY DERBHILE DROMEY
After the rains, she walks; she dons her green Wellington boots and duffle coat, wraps the children up warmly and walks in search of puddles. She watches the skies darken and when at last the rain begins feels the excitement, the hope rising within her. Each droplet of water, detonating on her skin holds so many possibilities. She takes the children along bridle paths and public footpaths in search of the perfect puddle: the puddle that holds the chance of beginning life all over again.
Polly and Ben look forward to each new adventure as they run along picking blackberries until their fingers are stained purple with juice, before bursting each plump fruit against the backs of their teeth with their tongues. They look for the squirrels jumping from branch to branch as they gather acorns, before lifting arms full of golden leaves over each others heads. Everything in life is a game, every game is fun.
They investigate puddles for their mother and when they find one, they call to her, waiting eagerly for the ritual. Annie examines their find, carefully looking for clear puddles with calm surfaces and good reflection. If, when standing at the edge, they can see themselves and the world they live in quite clearly, she takes tight hold of their gloved hands, never letting go, and as they jump into the water she asks for the life they truly deserve.
Each splash produces squeals of delight from Polly and Ben as their faces are sprayed with mud. They run off in search of another. Annie feels only disappointment, but disguises it with a smile and moves on. It is vital her children remain ignorant of what she is doing. They could not know, must never know, what she’s already done.
For something extraordinary happens when the right one is found: it gives a glimpse of another reality. It beckons to all who care to look; to all who dare to dream of the same life lived differently. Annie had been living her life differently for five years, always searching for something better than she had.
She was a tubby teenager, the butt of jokes. With each pregnancy she gained weight that never went away. Stephen loved her the way she was, but Annie couldn’t see. The discipline of dieting was too difficult and the restriction of food too depressing.
When she discovered her children were being bullied because they had a whale for a mother, she was inconsolable. In desperation and grief at being the cause of her children’s misery, she went for a walk with Charlie, her faithful Labrador. It had been raining heavily and the pot holes were filled with water. She stood at the edge of a particularly large hole and stared hard at her reflection; looked with loathing at the way her clothes failed to disguise the ripples at her hips and waist. She saw her double chins and dimpled fingers and wept. If she wasn’t so big she thought, she could drown in a puddle that size: in reality she’d simply be beached.
On impulse, she leapt forward, feet together, eyes closed. Instead of landing hard and hearing the slap of water all around her, she found herself falling through as though swallowed up whole. It washed over her, consumed her and was gone again. When at last she opened her eyes, surprised by what she thought had happened, everything was as it had always been.
Between the shimmer of the ripples she could see her reflection distorted, but it was not until the surface of the water calmed and she gazed into the puddle for a second time that she realised something had happened. The reflection she saw was not of a woman in a size twenty-four coat and jogging bottoms, but of a svelte size ten in duffle coat and jeans.
She looked at Charlie in disbelief, expecting him not to recognise her, but he wagged his tail. Half running home, her head filled with confusion. She climbed the stairs two at a time, stripping off her clothes one by one, leaving them where they fell, until she was in front of the mirror in her bra and pants, without an inch of fat, a stretch mark or saggy breast in sight.
Her wardrobes were filled with beautiful clothes: trousers that zipped all the way up without her having to holding her breath first and sensual delicate lingerie in soft feminine colours. By the bed stood a family photo of a confident woman surrounded by smiling children and on the other side, a wedding photograph that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Hello!
When her children arrived home from school, their faces were no longer tear-stained and they talked happily of school friends and birthday party invitations. No one but Annie knew what had happened, not even good old Charlie.
As time went by, and the novelty wore off, Annie again grew dissatisfied with her life and its many imperfections. She wanted to look younger as well as slimmer, join the PTA, perhaps have some interesting friends to spend afternoons with.
She found her next puddle in the car park of the local library, close to the bottle banks where she dumped the empties. As she passed though the water, she felt absorbed, renewed by it and knew her wish would be fulfilled. Her cream trousers where splashed with muddy water, but she really didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay.
On the way home, her phone began to ring, friends invited her to lunch on this day and that. When she gazed into her rear view mirror, a vision of youthful health stared back: crow’s feet and laughter lines all gone. Annie looked and felt radiant and with new found popularity her days were filled with activity.
On and on she jumped, making changes here and there. It appeared that she could have anything she wanted merely by puddle jumping. Each time she stood at the rim of a puddle she felt it was her final jump, allowing her to be the happy person she knew she really was. But after a few days, things would cease to be quite so perfect and she would find herself dissatisfied again. Always, she found herself searching for yet another puddle.
The more she used the puddles, the fewer there seemed to be and the harder they were to find. Charlie no longer accompanied her: he had been lost three jumps back. Her walks became a lonely and desperate search.
The last puddle she jumped was on the golf course: a recent interest. Annie was no longer happy to merely attend lunches and functions, she wanted power too. This drive led her to play golf on the day of a huge storm in anticipation of the perfect puddle. So great was her desperation that she ignored the risk of being struck by lightning and took shelter under a large oak tree to wait for the puddles to form.
The grass began to shimmer as the water collected, whilst she sat under the leafless branches, her feet twitching, waiting for the rain to stop. Slowly, the clouds cleared and a rainbow arced its way across the sky. There was a translucent sheen across the green and she knew she had to act quickly before the water drained away. When the last drops fell and the puddles became tranquil, she ran wildly from one to the next. She became more and more frantic until at last she found exactly what she was looking for, what she needed to be happy. She jumped.
As she jumped she didn’t see the tiny imperfection, the single droplet that distorted the image. But she felt the difference instantly. For the first time, in place of the euphoric delirium, her throat tightened her mouth was parched. Sensing that things had changed, she ran home to her bedroom. In the mirror, the same illusion looked back, but her eyes were no longer bright, were clouded by anxiety. There was gray amongst the auburn.
She couldn’t immediately see what was wrong, but the fear remained. Her clothes, her jewelry, her diary packed with thank you cards and appointments all looked the same. There was a neat ream of personalized stationary on her dressing table beside a pile of unopened letters.
Annie sank on to her bed, unsettled, and it was from there her eyes fell upon the family portrait. One of her children was missing from the photograph. Running from room to room frantically looking for evidence of Barnaby, there was none to be found. He was gone, her baby son was gone.
Stephen’s wardrobe was empty. At first she thought he had taken Barnaby somewhere, perhaps on holiday, to give her some time. He was good like that. But from a newspaper cutting, she learned Barnaby had been killed by a hit and run driver whilst sitting outside the school gates waiting for her to collect him. Running late all day with one committee meeting after another, she’d arrived only as the ambulance took him away. Stephen’s face stared out from the window of the ambulance as it disappeared from view. Annie stood in the road, alone.
He never came out of the coma and Stephen turned off the life support when it became apparent there was to be no hope. Annie had been unable to let go, but Stephen thanked the nurses and doctors and kissed the still soft cheek of his young son before walking quietly away.
He was disappointed and angry with her. The woman he had loved was long gone and Stephen hadn’t been able to forgive her. The mother of his children left their son to sit on a wall outside the school gates for forty minutes and because he could no longer love her, he left.
Looking again in the mirror she catches Dorian Gray, though the monstrous picture is in her heart rather than in the attic. Her reflection, a mirage concealing the corruption behind eyes that no longer cry. The ashes of her son are in her mouth, and memories of him whither in her parched mind.
It is with her when she wakes, as she sleeps and it will not let her forget what she has done. She sees it when she looks upon the faces of her two remaining children and in the empty eyes of their father when he comes to collect them on Sundays.
So after the rains she walks. She knows now that you do not always get what you are looking for and that happiness is not always waiting, but she walks all the same. It comes with a price that is sometimes too high and often paid by the people loved most. Polly and Ben, oblivious to their mother’s motives, are always kept close by as she searches for the puddle that will return her to the life she once had, with a husband, three beautiful children and a dog called Charlie.
Born and educated in Manchester, England, Allison McVety has written poetry and prose for several years. Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies and recent pieces have been accepted for forthcoming editions of Literary Potpourri, Eclectica, Flash Me and Defenestration. She lives in Berkshire, UK. N. B. The forthcoming editions are in September 2004, October 2004 and April 2004. Contact Allison.