Martha bought a pair of those things. What are they called? Tongs. Went to an antique store on the mainland and came back with silver tongs she polished up and started using for sugar. This meant she had to buy cubes.
I don’t recall having seen sugar tongs being used in any of the episodes of Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders we watched on Thursdays, but Martha must have. She noticed all sorts of things before the tongs, too. Cardigans, for one. Those we wore already, but we didn’t call them that, and we put our arms in the sleeves for the most part. After a few weeks of Miss Jane Marple, Martha was wearing hers around her shoulders with just the top button done up, like a little cape some gentleman had thought to warm her with.
It was about halfway through the Inspector Morse series that she started saying, “Well.” “Well,” she’d say at the end of the show, “that’s that then.” Before, when I’d report to her on developments at the Up Island Sewing Circle, she used to say, “You don’t say.” Now it was always, “Well!”
And then we stopped using mugs, only cups and saucers. And then came the tongs.
Martha’s husband, Jase, stopped drinking tea with us after the first attempt with cups and saucers. “Your fingers look like a gorilla’s holding that cup,” I said, turning everyone’s attention his way because mine sort of did too. I thought he’d take it better than he did. He’s my little brother. Then again he’s 56. He put the teacup down on the table, not even on the saucer, and went to the kitchen. My husband, Tom, excused himself too, and pretty soon we heard the caps coming off a couple of beers.
“Well,” Martha said, replacing Jase’s cup on its saucer, turning its handle so he could pick it up with ease in case he chose to return and drain the cold dregs.
“It tastes better, don’t you think?” she asked me over her own cup’s rim before sipping again.
“It does,” I told her. “Why is that?”
“Well, I imagine it’s the effect of not having to negotiate a quarter inch of stoneware to get to the taste.”
Martha has no idea how funny she is.
If that had been everything, I think we all could have adjusted. After 26 years of marriage she and Jase had weathered worse. In fact, he wasn’t a problem once he had removed himself from our teatimes. Martha started calling and saying, “Ladies’ tea?” and I knew she had our cups and saucers on a tray to take into the living room already. The problem was Tom.
The clouds gathered when I bought a skirt to wear to tea with Martha. She had started wearing them, and I ended up feeling like I didn’t belong in the picture without one, now that we were using cups and saucers and tongs.
On the day Tom reacted, Martha and I had been talking about the Up Island White Elephant Sale and how we were going to try not to buy much this year. It was early May, muddy, gray. As I approached our house—Martha and Jase’s was walking distance away—my mind was full of open windows and the spring-cleaning to come when the sun finally agreed to visit again. I was plotting to completely reorganize the shed as a surprise for Tom, and listing the moderately useful but unattractive things I would put in the sale. The heavy handmade hors d’oeuvre plate—turquoise and khaki green—I bought to support the wheelchair fund. The boots I had inexplicably grown out of. The –
“What’s that?” asked Tom as I came up the driveway. He had been raking the gravel even because he was sure it wouldn’t rain much anymore.
I looked down at myself in case there was something strange hanging off me from the walk, touched my head in case I’d forgotten about a silly hat. My mother had Alzheimer’s, so even this early I’m always on alert for signs of dementia.
“That,” he said, pointing at my skirt.
I looked at him, knowing I didn’t need to say anything.
“You don’t wear skirts, Jean.”
“Yes I do.” I started walking by him.
“You don’t. Martha does.” That landed on me like a gob of spit. I walked by, focused on the back door of the house.
I knew what Tom was thinking: If you can’t go for tea at a friend’s house in your usual clothes, what kind of person are you? I sort of put the question to Martha on the phone the next day.
“What did you feel when I showed up in a skirt yesterday?” She thought for a moment. “I felt you respected the situation.”
“Oh,” I said. “Tom thinks I’m copying you because I don’t have a strong personality of my own.”
“Well. Are you?”
“I wanted to see how it felt.”
“How did it feel?”
A cardinal flashed by the window, which always lifts my heart because they’re said to mate for life.
“It felt new, but appropriate.”
“There you go then.”
“Do you know what the Queen Mother said when asked on her hundredth birthday what the most important thing is in life?”
When I think back about the change in Martha, I realize it had to do above all with our positions. Our physical positions. For decades, when the four of us ended up together for a meal or tea, Martha and I were standing. Not hovering; a little apart. If it was dinner, of course we’d eat with Tom and Jase, but we’d usually take our dessert in the kitchen after serving them theirs. Chamomile tea for us, leaning our hips against the counter and reaching idly with our free hands to wipe a small spill, line up the salt and pepper shakers, dislodge a hardened cornflake, equally at home in the other’s kitchen as our own.
Tom took coffee after dinner, sitting at the table with Jase, the two of them talking low, agreeing with each other. When he kissed me before bed I could taste the coffee like an envelope around his meal.
Once we were into skirts and tongs, though, Martha and I were sitting and the men were on their feet and, after a while, not there at all.
Now it makes sense to me that Martha left the island right before my Paula’s wedding. It was the end of June, and there was less of a need for cardigans but with all the clearing and moving, scrubbing and repairing that comes with the end of rain and mud, we had a ferocious thirst for tea. I worried whether Paula’s wedding day would be in the middle of black fly season, and had nasty daydreams of one taking a chunk out of her cheek as she said, “I do.” I saw a happy tear coursing down one cheek and blood down the other. My thoughts about her have always been very intense. I only had the one child.
So did Martha. She had Burke, the most beautiful child anyone had ever seen, and not just on the island. You could look through any magazine, watch any TV show, and you’d never find anyone to compare. His eyes were teal with yellow flecks and his black eyelashes curled energetically out of their way. His lips were clearly defined, soft, red. Straight nose. Even as a toddler he had a promising frame. Puberty didn’t ruin him; it made him. He was a breathtaking man.
Martha didn’t want Burke lobstering with Jase, and had wanted him to leave the island, at least for a while. Jase said, “Don’t push the boy, Martha,” and Martha came to my house and screamed. Burke did go away for a bit, but barely. Just over on the mainland, he got qualified to be a ranger. So that’s what he was doing when he drowned. He patrolled the lonely islands in the bay. It’s possible he was lobstering illegally as well. The autopsy showed he’d had a heart attack, but that didn’t explain why he was so tangled in buoy line. Maybe he was investigating illegal lobstering, maybe he was doing it. The detective who came over never got to the bottom of it, but he fell in love with Paula, so it was Paula who left. I would have liked her to stay, but Martha called me selfish.
Being the ferry captain, it was Tom who told me Martha was gone. Two big suitcases and a spine as straight as a plumb line, he said. She left no number for anyone. I got through the wedding as best I could. There were no black flies. Paula had left the earrings she wanted to wear at home so she had to wear my best pair, but this was no tragedy at all. On the contrary. Her detective had had his hair cut too short and it made my heart go out to him.
And then about a week later I received an invitation, a beautiful creamy card, like an index card but no lines, and a matching envelope. Martha had written the invitation herself, and I could see she had used faint pencil lines to make sure she wrote it perfectly.
I hesitated over the skirt question but finally decided to wear one, telling myself it was because the weather was hot. I made myself stand outside on the ferry for as long as I could bear the wind whipping around my shivering thighs, then went up to finish the trip on the little bridge with Tom. He put his arm around my waist and neither of us said anything until he had to scold some foolhardy sea kayakers with the horn. One long blast to slap them from a distance; five short blasts up close to say You go under, not my fault.
“Kind of thing you did when you were young,” I said to his hunched shoulder.
“People change,” I said.
Once we had passed the crazily bobbing kayaks, he slid his hand back around my waist, showing me he wasn’t going to fuss about the skirt this time. I wanted to stay on the boat and ride it back home with Tom, but he had to let me go to dock the boat, so I went back downstairs, and disembarked.
Back on the island afterwards, I stopped at Martha’s house to see Jase. I walked in through the kitchen calling his name, and found him deep in his chair in the living room, the chair I had perched on the edge of so many times for Ladies’ Tea.
“You okay, Bub?” I asked.
“I’m thirsty,” he said, so I went and got him a bottle of beer. With all the work I do it still rips my skin twisting those tops off, so I handed it to him unopened and he left it that way. He was sitting, like the men used to, and I was standing and serving, but we were half our former selves.
“She’s fine,” I told him. I touched his hair and left.
So now I’m home, sitting on the couch with Tom. He’s watching the news and I’m staring at my shoes. I know I’ll be up late tonight. I drank so much tea sitting in Martha’s one-room apartment, amazed that she’d permed her hair and sprayed its new waves, amazed that she had found a foxhunting print to put on the wall, amazed, above all, by the Jack Russell terrier chewing at the corner of the forgettable rug. She talked about the walks they took, said they “bashed” through the fields, came home “dripping.” I didn’t bring up Paula’s wedding. We talked about the little dog, and I don’t know how many times I used the tongs, but it was lots.
When I told Martha I needed to get going she finally looked at me at length, and at first I felt the warmth from her eyes going straight into my heart, and the gratitude, and then her eyes sparkled, and it was like a cardinal had just flown by.
Now I imagine her seated again, as composed as her hair. She eats something dainty for her dinner. Meanwhile, Jase sits deep in his chair. I’ll take care of our Jase. She knows that.
I’m remembering when Tom and Jase mended the weir our fathers had built when we were little kids, just out from Big Tree Beach. There had been one huge mackerel run back then. Then years passed, but no mackerel did. It was a good weir though. Its poles stayed straight. Island boys played a drinking game, throwing stones at them, drinking if they missed. The more they drank, the more they missed, the more they drank.
Drinking together, thirty years later, Tom and Jase got it into their heads that it would be a good idea to mend the weir. Jase told Tom the haul back then had brought an extra $35,000 into the community. Given that Tom had reached the peak of his career opportunities on the island, I can understand why something like this appealed to him. They worked out that they could get the lumber at a discount if they helped Randall Mays – still a carpenter at the time – clear his back meadow and do a big burn of the grasses and brush.
It took a few weeks for them to get everything they needed, and they were like little boys. Martha said they were like Burke when he knew what he was getting for his birthday. He’d talk about what he would do with it, how he’d feel, what other people would think. It made her want to give it to him before the date, but he wouldn’t let her because the imagining was so sweet.
Off they went, every Sunday. We never complained to their faces, but to each other we underlined how she and I only mended things that were guaranteed to benefit the family. Clothes. Chicken wire. Promises to the children. Old quilts. Soles. We only barely tolerated those Sundays away. Then Tom talked in his sleep once, about a skylight. I had no idea there were skylights in his brain. Over the weeks that followed, I reminded myself of this dream whenever I felt put upon. Who was I to deny my husband a possible view of stars?
Nearly fifteen years later, no mackerel have ever been captured in the weir. One summer Herb and Myrna Derby came all around the island with buckets and buckets of mackerel in the back of their truck. The sun glinted off the front of the truck when they turned into our driveway. There was sun on their teeth too, they were smiling so much, sharing such fresh bounty, caught off their boat, nowhere near the weir.
I cleaned the fish at the old picnic table in the back yard. I like my fish headless and gutted. The sun made the mackerel skin look like mercury as they slipped around in my hands. About halfway through the dozen or so we’d been given, I chopped off a head and a smaller silver fish slid out of the mackerel’s body, open-eyed and intact. I gasped at this birth, feeling the sun like a little halo around the event. After a moment I realized it didn’t make sense at all. Fish lay eggs. And second of all, if they had been in the business of live births the head would have been pointing at the tail. I readjusted my perspective, and realized I had just delivered that mackerel’s lunch back into the world. A sort of rebirth, then. So unlike a death.
As I sit here looking at my shoes thinking about Martha and her dog and how they behaved and how we sat and the light in Martha’s eyes, I believe we’re both remembering letting the men dream about the weir, remembering cooking dinner for husbands who thought they were big businessmen for a season. And they would have been, if the mackerel had run like they did for our dads. Now Martha was building something of her own, something harebrained to Jason and Tom. They would grumble. But who knew? I felt the sun shining off her.
About the Contributor
Alison Jean Lester is a British-American writer. After 25 years in Asia, she now makes her home in Worcestershire. She is the author of the novels Lillian on Life and Yuki Means Happiness. Her short fiction has appeared in Ecotone, Good Housekeeping, Barrelhouse and Synaesthesia.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies - John Boyne
Beginning before the narrator’s birth and ending with his death, it takes in 70-odd years of changing attitudes toward sexuality, first of all in Ireland, where our hero, Cyril, is given up by his teenage mother at birth after she has been thrown out of her family, her church, her village, and where Cyril has to navigate growing up gay in Dublin. In Amsterdam and New York, Cyril watches AIDS snuff out life after life, and also loses his beloved partner when the pair are violently attacked by homophobes in Central Park. Loss, loss, loss, loss, loss. His struggles to come to terms with a son he learns about in middle age, and with the fact that his mother has been nearby all along – so much time lost! – are very uncomfortable, and very good.
More from Issue Six:
- Give Sorrow Words by Anna Vaught
- Pull me in by Melissa Fu
- Variations on Girl with a Red Balloon by Tessa Torgeson
- Written in Advance by Nathan Fidler
- Mrs Fox by Marian Womack
- Tomorrow by Vivienne Burgess
- The Kulaks Of Chelsea by Tadhg Muller
- Some Kind Of Happiness by Heidi James
- Dust Covers and Margins by Jennie E. Owen
- Sitting, Standing, Mending by Alison Jean Lester
- Ghosts by Catherine Mitchell
- And I was filled with such delight by Catherine Edmunds