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email: anthonysteyning59 at gmail dot com

 

 Mars has the landscape ancient fundamentlists left behind, tenderness what the lives in my story lost

 

       A Literary Short Story

    QUARTER TO FOUR

 

(Unedited)

by

Anthony Steyning

It was late afternoon, a pale sun working its way through her transparent curtains and casting long shadows into her living room. The shadows created by the vases in her windows and running right across her round dining-room table where she sat writing Christmas cards. Her fake Louis XVI clock chimed only once, it was a quarter to four. The cards to be mailed before the middle of the month the Post Office had told her. She still had a few to go, though the list got smaller every year as people, mainly older neighbours, had moved away, died or simply disappeared. She barely spoke to the remaining ones during the rest of the year, but ritual obliged her to send that piece of paper containing all too evident wishes and even though in some cases they would live less than fifty yards away and a handshake or a knock on their door would have been much more genuine. And then there were the few former colleagues from her pastry shop days, or the car dealership where her husband still works. Or the people she and her husband had met more recently, on bus tours or the odd river cruise. But that was pretty well it and yet a huge job, taken very seriously by her.

 

Then again she took everything very seriously, it's her character. She’d just changed her radio to some mid-century nostalgia piece, the music pleasing her as she remembered how her mother had hummed along with the same tune when she was a small child, allowing her to do her homework at the dining room table next to her, not upstairs, in her own room, which was unheated and where in winter she would sleep with vapour rising from her mouth. That was when they were home alone and her mother more relaxed, her father at work for once or else frequenting pubs where he laid down the law and ran conversations on religion, on politics or on corporate abuse. Her mother taking time off work when she was sure he wouldn’t be home so she wouldn’t bump into him and could do what she, that daughter, was doing at what would have been the same time of year, early November or so. Also the hour her mother would prepare supper on the off chance her father would show up on time, though either way they rarely had supper at precisely 6.00 pm like everyone else in town, which bothered her, not fond of being different as if in that alone there was reassurance to be found. Her father not showing up representing moments of short-lived peace for both women but something they could never be sure of till late and so in the end really no peace at all, the waiting getting tense as evenings wore on. It was why once married, she got on so well with her own husband, a man rather more settled and sensible than her father. She had made sure of that, searching behind those light blue eyes of his, trying to read his mind and to establish his mood, his stability, quite soon after acquainting him.

 

The air today thin as then, thin as those transparent living room curtains, the heating switched on, but only a tad. In the kitchen water nearly boiling so she could get up to finish preparing herself a small cup of tea, when she had only just sat down back from attending to the radio. She didn’t feel like listening to the scientific nonsense that had followed the previous show, preferring something easy and familiar, jazz by Bing Crosby, old-style and not so harsh, or possibly something classical by Strauss. Yes, a waltz figure-skaters practiced to when she was young with her never getting a pair of skates of her own as nobody wanted to go to a rink with her and stand there for hours, while on blades she would try and learn how to ice dance. And speaking of science, of course she knows that light, just like people, consists of matter and moves just like us, except much, much faster. She knew this when she was a little girl and something that was evidenced by those small sparks in her closed eyes, shining on and on and by themselves, long after she had switched off her reading lamp, upstairs in the dark. She definitely needed no proof of that phenomenon by Einstein, some smart radio host or anyone else. Not now not then, the years her parents would only come to verbal blows downstairs: very intelligent these two, but always at odds because her father drank too much and without fail would manage to make her mother very cross, who, next day, would stay on at work as long as she could, working late to avoid confronting him again. She was an insurance agent, making up for this by staying home on other days or whenever she could. As soon as possible getting her daughter out of the house and into an anodyne job and responsible in this manner for the lass not going on to study to keep her from a father and husband reigning and raging between jobs landed and lost. A man unable to deal with authority it seemed, though clearly having no problem dishing it out. Not that he was a bad, bad apple, hitting the two of them or worse. It was just that he was severely self-absorbed, constantly berating his wife when not belittling his daughter, life being what it is better off perhaps had he not married at all. He had a degree in history, even taught for a while, but his temperament always tripped him up: he loved issues and causes but found people a nuisance, including them, his family as it turned out. The reason she herself came to feel like a living and breathing inconvenience, many, many times wishing she was invisible so both her parents would fail to notice her at all. Now, looking back at things, explaining her mother’s attitude towards her and the aversion they both developed against people with the smarts, like that father and husband, irascible, harsh.

 

It’s why she had just moved around that radio dial, muttering like her mother did, scoffing at Einstein, his gravity and his light particles, before finding the music she liked. She detests getting stressed out by knowledge and brains never got her father very far. She even stopped reading newspapers at one point, especially the one where her father had worked for a short while but got fired from, trying to organise editorial workers there. Of course she isn’t the first to conclude that know-how and awareness creates anxiety, but one of relatively few, who, because of this, factually lives in a self-created vacuum. Reducing her world to an absolute minimum and although in possession of a good mind, out of discomfort and deliberately, never allowing herself to get inspired by anything. Not exactly gormless as much as a one-track minded secular nun who had nevertheless managed to get herself knocked up, producing a daughter of her own. Yet still not wanting to know what goes on, remembering a few names like that Einstein fellow or who is Prime Minister these days, but otherwise completely relying on her own husband who’s far less bright or on that very daughter who has just made her escape but rings her every two weeks.

She also wouldn't bother to vote, quietly looking down on those who do or did. Come to think of it she doesn’t have much regard for anyone, because of this clutching a handbag containing hardly any money at all when making her way to the grocery store. On foot, acting as if all the world’s against her, or as if everyone’s a criminal. It never occurring to her that if she’s the one who has been robbed twice, it was as a direct result of this visible uneasiness of hers and it making absolutely no difference which route to the store she would take. Avoiding dogs and other pedestrians or some unsavoury but otherwise anonymous character lying underneath his car probably pretending to fix his exhaust pipe or whatever it is they call these things. Because what she doesn’t know, wilfully lacking the slightest bit of street-smarts, is that a good thief pinpoints his victims, even putting up a sign in the Underground saying Beware of Pickpockets, then watch how some people reach for their wallet making sure the thing’s still in place. But at the same time indicating where they carry it, so facilitating the nefarious observer’s job fifty yards down the platform, going in for the ‘kill’ just before the train's doors close and all of it making that clutching a handbag with no State secrets in it, just doesn’t work with boys like these.

 

Of course she can be smart but also terribly innocent, her own daughter claims. The one who gave up shopping with her before moving out saying she never buys anything, doesn’t like crowds and only clings to her arm. A few months ago moving to another city to study, which doesn’t please her at all: why couldn’t that girl just stay at home and find herself a simple man as a guard and a provider of butter and toast? A man who will hail a cab for her when the weather gets bad, or travel along once a year to some safe place on reliable dates, by train, never by plane, on reserved seats, on a holiday where with luck they would meet quiet people, people not speaking too much who would be down for breakfast right on time and had travel insurance in case something went wrong and so nobody would have to get stuck helping them. She was convinced this studying business wasn’t likely to find her girl happiness, though the finding of a husband at university her secret hope for her. Otherwise all real ambition humbug and below a good woman’s dignity, surrounded by clever but mostly uncouth primitives at university only good for one thing for reasons explained and something she never, ever contemplated for herself.. Though why it was her daughter appeared to be taking after her own recalcitrant father, she couldn’t quite figure out. The man who had just walked out one day, her mother soon marrying another insurance clerk and no longer caring for her in quite the same way. The father perhaps having secretly hoped for a boy, at any rate both parents realising that what they had created together was a child somewhat vapid but with beautiful eyes, who in a very quiet way was able to take care of herself. That child, herself mother now of a daughter of contrary mind, one who had just finished ringing her and sounded all right, which pleased her not unsuitably as she licked a Christmas card envelope closed.

 

With the leftover water she would have a second cup 10 minutes later, reheating it some. Her daughter having grown up more quickly than she herself she feels, telephoning her at precisely 3 o’clock the way she does every second Thursday, knowing it’s the day her mother does her shopping, getting home at 2.30 pm, leaving her 30 minutes to undo her packages, put away the food, neatly arrange the lot on their kitchen shelves and in the refrigerator, folding empty bags so later they can be used all over again. Frugality everything and punctuality also gratifying to her, it is abundantly clear to both. She herself thinks in this regard they, mother and daughter, resemble each other perfectly, it not entering her mind these habits infuriate a girl having great difficulty keeping track of all her quirks. Calling and this time to indirectly say hello to her father, who she knows gets home at 6.30 pm, off the 6.00 pm commuter train, just to have it over with, and because of this the couple eating a bit later than the rest of the town. But a man at least showing up when he’s supposed to, about whom nobody needs to worry. Such a sweet girl her mother insists, so concerned about her parents, though once she upset them terribly by not ringing in the afternoon at all because that particular day she had bought a bicycle. Not understanding why she couldn’t have bought a bicycle before 3.00 pm or on some other day, but that’s what young people are known for, not being altogether responsible. Apart from this singular incident the girl ringing every other Thursday, rain or shine, and the best day as their schedule doesn’t permit otherwise, and the father so remaining discreetly in the background, except for when there was an upsetting change in this routine, and he got pulled into the fray like that time with the bicycle. Her daughter had sounded impatient, already too much on her mind, but she had to learn things simply had to be fixed beforehand, even their phone calls, otherwise everything got chaotic and nervous and un-manageable and she, the mother, otherwise having great difficulty handling it all.

She had never worked in an office or some other hectic spot, she wasn’t conditioned to circumstances of the sort and wouldn’t have liked to be either. Pastry was all she had ever handled, one at the time and not subject to deadlines at all.

 

“As an outsider, what do you think of humanity?” her daughter once joking sarcastically, leaving her feeling hurt, sounding just like the girl’s grandfather that time, ill-tempered almost, even a bit vulgar like him. Didn’t she understand things always go wrong when left unplanned, because she knows very well what the youngster had been alluding to, her precision with everything. Still, she felt she was right, things just never worked out in the absence of order, like the time the milkman was sick for almost a month and his temporary replacement not calling at the exact same hour. The man, not his replacement, nearly losing his left hand in a traffic accident, his little helper boy almost getting killed: It was a terrible time, she didn’t know what to do, twice she didn’t have milk for the coffee and once the yoghurt was spoilt. 

 

She knows her husband will be hungry as he arrives, two slices of bread with ham or cheese and an apple on his job not quite enough for him. But he couldn’t take more to work as a larger lunch package wouldn’t fit in his briefcase and carrying it in a small separate bag interfering with his umbrella. Today they would eat two small pork-chops with spinach and potatoes, the way they also did every Thursday. She had bought him a small bottle of beer by way of surprise, she looked forward to seeing the delight on his face as he sat down, not knowing why she didn’t do this more often. She had everything ready so they could eat straight away. Later he had to clean his trombone, so on Saturday morning he could play it at rehearsal in the army reserve band he  was a member of since he was a boy. She had put an old newspaper on the edge of their bed where he did this and where last time he had made such a mess. That way she would get no grease on her bed-spread, because those instruments were always sticky, especially the mouthpiece, and she hated that. It wasn’t her newspaper, it must have been 5 years old, she'd found it in the back of a cupboard, a corner she must have missed while cleaning, she never brought one home, couldn’t care less what happened in Belgrade or Birmingham. They had a plastic cover on the sofa, but on the bed the thing had kept sliding off, hence that newspaper. They didn’t have a work-room, or a hobby-room or anything like that, and anyway it would only clash with the rest of their tidy, proper lay-out for which they had saved all their life. Their daughter didn’t care for all those precautions which she didn’t understand, it would soon be her birthday, she was glad she had found a card in a supermarket for her with a beautiful poem in it, and would mail it Saturday morning while her husband was busy at the armoury, playing his instrument, though perhaps he could also mail it on his way there.  

 

Thank God he shined his own uniform shoes, leaving them outside their kitchen door, hanging in a plastic bag. She doesn’t like shining shoes, which is peculiar because she cleans nearly everything else, all day long, in the house. Except those Thursday afternoons when she does her grocery shopping, afterwards waiting for her daughter to call if it’s the right week. She had soaped down all the cupboard doors last week and put away their summer clothes, tomorrow she had to vacuum the entire apartment and hoped the weather would hold so she could keep the windows open and wipe them down too, with ammoniac, on the outside. It would be winter soon and she would be cooked up inside even more and if the windows were too grimy and she wouldn’t be able to look out, what would she do? Although…what was there to look at? Her curtains were due to be washed right after New Year’s, she would spend days ironing them, they were so delicate, but besides this? Plan their Spring break?

 

Her husband doesn’t have time for this with his job as stock-room supervisor at a large automobile dealership on the other side of town, so she always had to do everything. She gets nervous just thinking about it. The friends who travelled with them last year had begged off, indicating that barring the unforeseen they weren’t going anywhere next year. The unforeseen? How could they live like that? She finds this bizarre, because they’re such wonderful people, never once showing up late. The only thing she didn’t like, their bringing along a small dog. Though they seemed to love the animal very much, walking him three times a day at precisely 9.37 in the morning, then at 2.37 in the afternoon and finally at 8.37 at night. Something she admired, but had trouble understanding her daughter’s remark, after telling her about them. With her saying that if she were that dog, she would have committed suicide, at some crazy, random hour, say 9.37 in the morning or so.

 

Funny girl, what did she mean by that? Sometimes she couldn’t figure out what was eating her! Anyway, so exact these people, and now they were banking on the unknown? Planning in her blood, she herself definitely couldn’t live like that. Perhaps they would still change their mind and come along with them again next time. The man’s a book-keeping assistant and a bit of a dare-devil. He owns a mountain-bike and wears a helmet, leaving the bicycle path in their huge central city park, dangerously riding between the trees sometimes coming back home all splashed with mud and covered with small leaves and twigs, especially if it had rained. It seems out of character for him, but we all have our quirks, except her she believes. And she doesn’t know how his wife puts up with him coming home dirty like that. Or what if he has an accident and hits a tree? But the wife’s also a bit of a wild one, taking the bus downtown sometimes, sitting down all alone somewhere to have tea with plum-cake without getting scared! She has no idea how those two met, but she’s certain it wasn’t at Church. Probably some cafeteria, she thinks, shuddering at the thought. They’re nice, but not very smart. Probably don’t even know who Bismarck was. Instituting the first universal state pension anywhere in the world, in recently united, nineteenth century Germany. As a humanitarian gesture, given that during those years and in old age people had a miserable time of it. She remembers her father carrying on about that when he wasn’t with drink. Also saying the plan was completely ridiculous, kicking in at sixty-five when the average life-span Germans then enjoyed was forty-nine... Her father knew a lot, almost talking to her like a boy, until the moment her mother would tell him to leave her alone, not to confuse her with useless facts, fearing she would turn out like him. At which time he would say he loved to be anywhere where he wasn’t expected: an evasiveness she recognised somewhere along the line, she had inherited from him. Even dressing her own husband like her father and like old times: he never left the house without a hat, blue tie and blue shirt under an anthracite suit. In charge of a stock room and groomed by her: at work items perfectly indexed and stored, getting compliments every day, but a system thought out by her after one disastrous day he had been reprimanded some car parts couldn’t be found, delaying an important client who had yelled at him, furious his Mercedes hadn’t been fixed. But no more! The day her husband had come home and told her about it they hadn’t slept a wink, but she eventually found a solution to their woes. Wasn’t she the brains of the family and wouldn’t she prove that to her education craving daughter one day? Common sense is what guides the world, simplicity its balm. She has no doubts, having worked out everything. Despite her daughter accusing her of being too darn sure about methods, trying to be living proof that method justifies all acts, although this wasn’t the language the girl had used and it had shocked her utterly.

 

‘What acts,’ she had asked? ‘Mum, you don’t know the meaning of that bloody word,’ the girl had shouted, rushing out, slamming the door behind her. Still, she would rather have nothing to do with directionless vitality, writing off that incomprehensible rebelliousness to the girl’s age, knowing exquisitely well how to write off everything, one of her best ‘acts’ one might say. Writing off and pushing ‘way.

 

She had met her husband at the pastry shop where she worked as a young girl. An older lady client had commended her on her beautiful eyes, and made it a point to ask her innocent personal questions about where she came from, what she was doing for Christmas, if she ever went to the beach with friends, only to suddenly show up with her son one day. He hadn’t opened his mouth, staying put behind his mother, fixing his blue eyes on his shoes and throughout.  By the looks of him the young man was five years older than her, thin and with spectacles, and a bit taller. It turned out he worked for that car dealership nearby and on every second weekend was allowed to drive a company demonstrator model, from 10 in the morning till 3 in the afternoon when a married colleague took over from him. This wasn’t very good as he was an army reserve cadet still active because he played the trombone in the army corps band and had to rehearse till 11 in the morning, also on Saturdays. So that he lost that one hour with the car every second week, but since he was alone and had no one to drive but his mother, who didn’t care much for riding along, the idea emerged that one day perhaps she could go with the shy stock-room supervisor, seeing she was off on Saturdays, or at least had been noted not to work on that day, which was entirely true, as she worked Wednesday afternoons while another shop-girl was off.

 

And so one day she promised to join that mother-and-son team on a small excursion to a river look-out place with easy parking and a terrace nearby, at 11.30 on a Saturday morning, still giving her time to go to the hairdresser’s at 9.00. The mother of the young gentleman had so often insisted that there was no way round it anymore and for good order did come along, but only that first time she reassured them as she had too many other things to do on that day. They had promptly returned because that car had to be brought back, but not before spending a reasonably enjoyable couple of hours counting the ocean-going ships passing by the light eatery & drinks place where they had parked and sat outside. With her noting the flags they flew, that is what country the ship’s home port was in, what country they had arrived from and where they were sailing to, impressing them to no end with her knowledge which to be true was not expected from a pastry shop assistant. But while her own parents didn’t get along they were both very well informed and she had learned a lot just listening to them the exceptional days they were not in discord.

 

So mysterious, so fascinating those boats she had added, both mother and son looking at her in awe, but that was a long time ago, she had slowed down since then, at one point marrying the chap mainly because he didn’t drink and never upset her and she hadn’t spoken to a great number of other men before, except those who bought meringues for their girl-friends or wives and secretly tried looking at her legs when she had her back turned, on the other side of the display counter, wrapping in fancy paper that which they had just bought. Her legs a bit heavy from all that standing in the shop, but there was nothing she could do about that and wearing slacks was not permitted in those days. Some men pretending or at least letting on they liked what they saw, others hiding the fact they had ogled her at all, but more of them giving her the feeling that somehow she was overdone or had paddock legs from having spent too much time in the stable, at the time not producing a great deal of self-esteem in her. But now she was more balanced and secure and anyway after her wedding never wore a skirt again.  

 

“I want to have someone to chauffeur!” her future husband had said with down-cast eyes, referring to the driving part, which she understood to be ‘I want to have someone to show for…’ and knowing how shy he and how clever she was, immediately taking this as an awkward marriage proposal.

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Fall 2006 draft

 

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