October 2017 Contest Winner
Helen Kreeger was born and raised in London, where she worked as a registered nurse and earned a degree in sociology from the London School of Economics. She has been living in Israel for twenty-three years. She and her husband have three sabra children, assorted animals and full-time jobs. Helen has been published in Blunt Moms (USA), and ARC 25 (Israel), as well as being a runner-up in Striking 13.
A Lie In
Molly had been lying awake for an hour waiting for the light, or for her husband to wake, whichever came first. She wondered, not for the first time, how he was able to change a lifetime of inescapable routine so easily – she found it almost treacherous. So many years of hard slog, based on a work ethic generations old, were all for what? Pieces of silver?
They’d married in 1940. Davey was twenty and had already been on the coal face for five years. She was barely eighteen and had already loved him for three years. She loved him still.
Davey had been wearing his church suit when he took her out walking on the back hills the evening he’d proposed. Yes, she remembered now, that was the day he’d been into the city to try to get the army to take him off the reserved list. He’d argued with them, he told her, saying that a man of nearly twenty should be fighting for his country, not continuing with his life as if nothing had changed. They wouldn’t budge though – they said that without coal the war couldn’t be fought, let alone won. He was to stay in the pit.
Davey’s slurred speech that evening had surprised her; he wasn’t a drinking man, other than for weddings and baptisms, and even then nothing hard. As he stammered out his big plan for their life together she’d assumed that it was Dutch courage. Now, as she lay in the still dark room thinking back to that evening, she wasn’t so sure of her romantic take on his inebriation. More likely he went for a drink to souse his misery at not being called up. It had been hard for him to see his brother in uniform while he had to accept being on the reserved occupation list.
He didn’t mope around though. Soon, he had himself attached to the local home front for the duration of the war. Molly was glad for that; she couldn’t abide seeing people feel sorrow for themselves for long. What with his home front work and his long hours down the pit, they didn’t have a lot of time for fun in the early years of their marriage, but she understood how lucky she was – her man came home most nights, even if it was only to wash off the coal dust and change into his uniform.
The few birds that braved her back garden were beginning to welcome the dawn. She got up and pulled the curtains open a little. Back in bed she plumped up her pillow to allow herself to see the moment the sun made it to the top of the slag heap which was less than half a mile away. She supposed that they would remove it somehow, once the mine was closed for good in six months. She squeezed shut her eyes against the pictures of Aberfan that were developing in her mind. Do parents ever manage to recover something of their lives after grieving for children, she wondered.
She turned back to look at her husband. He’d gone to Aberfan with his whole crew the minute the news came in. The heap had moved so fast that there was little chance of anyone getting out of its way. He didn’t come home for two days, and then with torn knees, hands and fingers. He told her terrible stories about the school. Children were huddled under desks, some were wrapped in their teachers’ arms – all dead. They’d taken over a hundred children out of that tomb.
She reached her fingers towards her husband’s head. He hadn’t been able to sleep for weeks after Aberfan, she’d feared for his mind. She allowed her fingertips to just touch his hair – her hero was totally grey now.
Having a lie-in was always considered a great treat. Davey said that it made him feel like a rich man for a few hours – no sandwiches to make, no boots to tie, no pit. For Molly though there was always an element of the shameful that went with staying in bed.
It was the perfect opportunity for making love, Davey always said. He was clean, rested, and didn’t have to run off to the centre of the earth the moment they were done. She, on the other hand was always in fear of one of the children hearing them. Even when they had the house to themselves, she worried about getting caught. He would laugh at her, tease her, and seduce her. Davey could always make her forget about accidental eavesdroppers for a while.
Early redundancy three months previously had stolen away the urgency to take opportunities for intimacy – or maybe they were getting too old. Molly was surprised that she missed those moments, but would never say so. Had Davey guessed, because he’d mentioned only the day before that they needed time to adjust to having so much time on their hands.
Having a lie-in just for the sake of it was too decadent for Molly’s taste. Watching the clock move silently past the alarm time made her fidgety. Some habits were hard to break. Much harder than quitting smoking, she thought, grateful that she’d packed in the cigarettes last year.
The relentless moving from task to task had always been part of her life. Even as a girl she’d had chores before and after school. The idea of not pulling her weight sat heavily. Her daughter once told her it was because she was afraid of what she would find if she allowed herself to think. Molly should have felt proud that her daughter was taking her psychiatric nursing studies so seriously, but she wanted to clip the girl’s ear instead.
She smiled at the memory. Her daughter had been home for a weekend and had caught her mother scrubbing sheets on the washboard in the scullery. A pristine washing machine had been sitting in the kitchen for three months.
Her husband shifting his position brought her back to the present. She held her breath, as if her quiet intaking of air could bring him out of his easy sleep. He settled down facing her and she resumed breathing.
The room was getting light quite fast now. The sun had breached the top of the man-made mountain, though failed to make it beautiful. Davey’s face was inches from her own – she had to push herself away a few inches to be able to focus on it. Leisurely, she studied his still handsome features. Her fingers hovered over the faint scar on his right temple from falling off his bike during an air raid, then moved to the reddened patch of skin near his left ear where their son had accidently knocked him out with a cricket bat, and finally to the two lines that had appeared between his eyebrows after Aberfan.
Since stopping work in the pit, Davey talked often about getting out just in time. Not many men managed decades of mining without an accident or black lung, he’d been telling anyone who asked about his retirement. She hadn’t realized that these fears were lurking in his head. It was a fact of a miner’s life she’d always thought, no more. Had Davey been worried about pushing his luck? What else had she failed to notice while she’d been so busy being busy.
Molly peered at Davey’s skin, noticing the slightly darkened areas in the creases around his nose and on his forehead. It was still there, in his pores. The pit. It had left its mark by tattooing coal dust onto his skin – subtle, but there.
Davey’s eyes opened. Again she held her breath – maybe he wasn’t really awake and would fall asleep again. But when his eyes crinkled at the corners with his beautiful smile Molly took a long breath of him and smiled back. He pulled her to him – she only worried about the open curtains for a moment.
People close to you in life - family or friends - will always tell you that they will be there if they need help, but when the time comes, they’re not around, or they’re too wrapped up in themselves and their own grief to be of any help to you at all. Sometimes you have to heal alone, sometimes you heal together. Sometimes all you need is a bit of catharsis. I suppose that’s what Whittling, Man was about, and that’s what it was for me as well.
Growing up without roots, you never fully bloom. You may find the sun, rain, or wind on your face, but it only burns, wets, and batters. Nothing takes hold, burrows into a community, blossoms out of purpose. That's how I came to be here. I'm no more than a dandelion seed, standing in the middle of the road in a small town in South Dakota, ready to blow away on the next breeze. It doesn't matter. Not a bit. One town looks the same as another after a while.