‘She kept a journal you know’
And there it was, the door handle comment that I knew was coming. Her lip chewing gaze diversions, the pauses in conversation, the hesitancy in the handover of personal effects and the awkwardness with which she empathized, all leading her to that last moment of opportunity, where the twist of a door handle would have allowed me depart for good, with nothing but a red cardboard box decorated with daisies beneath my arm, and the shadows of sorrow and guilt as my walking companions.
But she had not let the moment pass, choosing instead to utter the information she wasn’t quite sure I should hear.
It was then that I knew her to be one.
She was The Reader.
And as such, she knew me like no other.
But yet she had chosen to tell me, and in finding in my favor, she was to introduce me to a walk that would pilot me back to the fabled normality of life, and succor my tattered heart by bathing it in the life joy that was Kez, the little sister I had left there, laughing like bilio as I pretended to get stuck in the gate.
The gate that I had closed behind me.
‘Kez couldn’t write’, I replied, as I closed the door and let the handle spring back to attention.
The Reader had turned away in her chair, the light from the warped panes of glass, that structured the Georgian window she looked through, highlighted the auburn hue of her hair. I watched her ears move back slightly and I knew her to be smiling. She waved at somebody in the gardens below, a playful relaxed wave, not self conscious of my presence like she had been before, and I guessed she was waving at one of the ‘friends’ she had talked about.
She swung her chair back to me, the whale tail of silver that hung from a strip of black leather around her neck lifting from the cavity of her collarbone. I watched it settle back and then reddened at the suspicion that she may presume me to be breast watching.
She joined her hands in front of her and her green eyes sparkled with a confidence of somebody relieved at making a decision, or perhaps it was a result of my embarrassment.
‘Lines in the sand have become my story’, she said, repeating one of the sentences I had written in my letters to Kez.
I remembered writing it. Alone, afraid, wanting Kez to smile at me, wanting to hug her and tell her stories. The sand and the fear, and the lines in the sand that kept me alive.
I sat back on the chair and put my cap on the desk. The Reader moved it aside. She placed it next to a pile of painted sea shells and penne pasta dipped in gold paint.
‘So you are the Reader’, I said as I loosened my tie and wondered what she thought of me.
‘Why did you wear your uniform today Lieutenant?’ she responded as she opened a drawer and removed a bottle of whiskey and two mugs with names painted on them. She handed me the one that said KEZ, allowing me time. She poured whiskey into the one that said CAL, my name, and then grew impatient waiting for my answer.
‘Kez insisted that when I read her your letters I had to drink tea from this mug’, she said as she held up my name in shined ceramic. ’It was her way of placing you with her as she heard your words. She imagined you into her room’.
The Reader leaned back and put her foot on the open drawer. A tattoo on her ankle drew me to her leg, a Ladybird of black and red, and I felt myself flush again.
‘It’s been a while since you talked to a girl isn’t it Cal?’
Her question made me smile. She was enjoying having me on the ropes, knowing that she had the upper hand. She knew everything about me and I knew nothing of her, and she knew that I knew it too. I also suspected she was angry with me. I wondered was she angry for Kez.
It pushed me to like her.
‘Afghanistan’, I replied as I removed my jacket and threw it to the other chair more dramatically than I had intended, the battalion flash and rank pips staring up to the ceiling. ‘Not a lot of socializing’
‘Thought you Special Forces guys partied hard?’, she smirked as she gestured towards the whiskey bottle. I was going to have to pour my own.
I didn’t answer, I was damn sure I’d never mentioned anything operational in my letters. I gave her my surprised look.
‘C’mon Cal, you’ve just shaved a beard, the bottom half of your face is white. I reckon you haven’t worn a uniform in months and you couldn’t make the funeral of the little Downs Syndrome sister you cherished more than anything in the world. And then here you show up, a week after enemy number one is taken out and you’re acting all ‘Ma’am” and ‘Shucks’. Save it. I read your letters to her Cal. Remember?’
I drank down the whiskey and felt the nectar that it was, scurry to my fingertips and heat my belly. Her confidence and sassiness was refreshing and the deep sadness and guilt I was feeling was a catalyst to an emotion I had not experienced in a long time. I found myself trusting. I searched my brain for what was left of the brother that Kez saw leave, and then I breathed in the air that she had lived in. I felt it’s tonic. The Reader watched me. If she noticed the dropping of my shoulders or the relaxation in my posture, she didn’t say. But she took her foot from the drawer and let her whale tail swing forward again.
‘You ready now?’
‘Who chose you?’ I asked her as she pushed back the chair quickly and surprisingly reached for my hand.
‘To be The Reader, why Kez of course Cal. Who are we, if we don’t have our choices after all?’
She reached for my finger, the one with my father’s wedding ring.
‘Kez always told me that when you went for walks with her she held your ‘married finger’. She said you were married to your Dad, bless her. When we walked into her journal every day she held my ring finger too. It was a comfort thing. I miss it’
‘Walked into her journal?’ I asked unsure if I had heard her correctly.
‘Lines in the sand have become my story’, the Reader repeated, ‘something you wrote when you were telling Kez about talking to the locals and drawing pictures in the sand as a way to communicate’. She let my hand drop and walked towards the door.
‘I’ll show you. We call it the ‘Bolgán Dearg’.
As we entered the grounds of the residence the hazy sunshine and floral perfume made the air look smokey and dreamy. The Reader walked ahead of me, stopping to talk to the friends that wanted to show her they’re drawings or tell her their news, allowing me time to drink in the world that I was now walking in, where Kez had walked, in the place that her older brother had left her.
And then a hand suddenly slipped into mine.
I jerked to alertness with the training that had kept me alive. The hand retracted in fright and a young girl with the epicantic eyes and smiling mouth that Kez once had, ran to the safety of a skyward sunflower. She hid behind its stalk and began to sway in the breeze, in time with the dancing yellow crown of the sun-face that hid her head from me. Only her eyes peeped through the gaps.
‘I’m Cal, Kez’s brother’ I said as I outstretched my hand and smiled in an effort to retrieve my shame. The face didn’t move, just continued swaying from side to side with the rhythm of the sunflower, eyes peering at me from between golden petals.
The Reader gestured me onward. I followed.
We stopped at an Oak tree, its acorns piled into patterns beneath its twisted boughs. The Reader picked one up and placed it in a circle.
‘Fairy rings’, she said ‘some of my friends like making them. Now sit down here for a sec Cal if you don’t mind, and we’ll let Ruby forgive you for frightening the shite out of her shall we?’
I smiled at her summary of what had just happened and as I sat beside her the young girl she had called Ruby appeared from the sunflower and walked slowly in our direction. She was Kez’s age, probably around twenty five, with the same small stature and sloping shoulders that people with Downs Syndrome have. Just like Kez she had the larger tongue that made her smile and the eyes that always reminded me of laughter. She walked like Kez did too, without pretense or ego, and I felt my eyes begin to water up, for I had yet to cry with her grief.
‘Ruby will join us if you don’t mind Cal. Kez sometimes let her walk the journal with her. She told Ruby about you. That’s why she held your hand’
Ruby walked to the Reader and sat down quickly. She looked at me and I held out my hand again, leaning over the Reader, smelling her scent of apple shampoo. The Reader sat back as Ruby put her small webbed fingers into mine, the dry skin transporting me back to the hand massages I shared with Kez, the moments of storytelling as I rubbed cream into her palms and fingers.
My tear dropped to the Readers whale tail.
‘Just like in Hollywood eh?’, the Reader said with a smile. I rubbed my eyes. Ruby reached over and stroked my face.
‘Ok Rubes, whatya reckon we show John Wayne here the journal that Kez kept?’
Ruby stood up and pulled my hand and spoke for the first time in a raspy voice
‘Bolgán Dearg, here we come’
The path continued for a hundred yards and then veered left into what looked like a wall of yew. Ruby ran on ahead, into the hedge, disappearing from view.
‘It’s our very own secret garden’ the Reader said as she invited me through a gap in the bush.
‘This is what she spent your money on’, the Reader said smiling as the garden appeared before me. Ruby jumped with excitement, obviously knowing that surprise would turn to joy as I saw what lay before me.
It was the size of a tennis court, bordered by a yellow wall and bright paving along its edges that reminded me of the sands of Afghanistan. In the middle was a raised foliage garden, elongated and sloped with luscious green and silver leaves and spikes that punctured the air in defiance. A bench was buried within its heart.
Five smaller circles sunk themselves into the paving, each containing various herbs and flowers. I rubbed my hands along the top of the leaves and the smell of basil filled the air.
‘It’s your footprint Cal’. the Reader said.I looked at her quizzically.
‘You told Kez about the footprints your boots made in the sand, and that to make sure you weren’t followed you would take them off and walk barefoot, just like the goat herders. You told her about the shape your sole made and the circles from your toes. That’s what the raised garden is. Your sole. And the circles in the paving? They’re your toes Cal’
My speechlessness ensured they left me alone as I walked to the bench. I don’t know how long I sat there, looking at the plants through watered eyes, smelling the fragrances that juiced from the leaves and the earth. I rolled up the legs of my dress uniform and put my polished up boots beneath the bench seat. I walked amongst the growth, the freshness and I heard Ruby laugh. I began to laugh with her.
‘Kez and Ruby planted everything here you know’, the Reader smiled at me as I walked back through my ‘sole garden’ and stopped at the circles that were my toes.
Ruby put her hand in mine again and pulled me towards the yellow walls.
‘This is her journal Cal’, the Reader said as I noticed the pictures that had been scraped into the render.
‘We did a section after each of your letters. We mixed up the render and spread it on to the bricks and then Kez drew her journal entry on to it by scraping her finger through the wet plaster. It was great fun wasn’t it Ruby?’
Ruby pulled me closer to the wall and traced her fingers into the patterns. She pulled my hand up and placed it into the grooves that Kez had made. She stepped back to the Reader and let me be alone, to feel my way though the words of my baby sister.
‘It began with the letter you wrote telling her about reading your new satellite laptop after a bad day at the Arab office, and how you found some writers that made you feel less lonely’
I was barely listening to the Reader as I noticed the shapes that Kez had drawn on that first day of her journal. I put both hands on to the wall and I felt a cello with it strings as it played to a bell with an open notebook, a love heart watched over them as a jewel hung from a sprig of holly and a little bird sang a song, another blue bird hovered close by, as if made for the wall it now flew upon. It was smooth and perfect, it was the women from Melbourne, the writers that had accompanied me in the cold of the desert stars. And this was how Kez had seen them.
I looked back at the Reader. She nodded at me.
‘Did it all herself, she couldn’t wait to get your letters to see what else you would tell her about’
I walked a few paces to the next journal entry and noticed a twisted tail that was drawn down the render and I smiled as I recalled telling her of the tales that some talented people weaved with words that made me smile, stories of wasps and fingers, women and men, with twisted endings that surprised and lingered, and took my mind away from the tension of alert muscles and the suspicion of a covered face.
Next to the tail was a river, meandering its way across the wall, reminding me of the watercolors I had seen from artists that had grown before my eyes, drawing me into their world and away from mine, and I remember telling Kez how I imagined their pictures when I couldn’t sleep at night.
She had drawn a bear that looked like Pooh and what seemed to be a comic strip of matchstick men and women.
The Reader appeared beside me
‘You told her about reading something about graphic novels, a girl had shared her thoughts on it and you were taken with the idea. You told her it would be something you would like to try when you came home. As you can see, Kez got some sneaky practice in’
Beside it was a picture of a dog. I traced the long pointed ears and I knew it to be the photograph of the Husky I had told her about. It seemed to be eating sticky banana cake and drinking from a teacup.
‘I believe you also read a Kerrymans poetry, my home town you know. On the subject of poetry, if I remember correctly, there was a lady you told Kez about that wrote a poem about turning a nothing into a something. That’s’ what Kez always tried to do. She was a special girl Cal.
I nodded and I listened to the Reader as she waved her arm at the walls that surrounded the garden, months of journals engraved on to the facades, the sole plants dancing in the light breeze, the herbs from my toe circles wafting their calmness to me.
‘Why don’t you and Ruby continue on, you can come find me later’, the Reader finally said as she put her arms around Rubys shoulders.
‘We’ll see you back in the office, I left her red box there.’ I replied as Ruby moved to the next journal wall pulling me with her.
‘No it’s my day off today Cal, you wouldn’t think I’d drink whiskey on duty would you! I might be Irish but c’mon!
I’ll be under the oak tree with some friends. Take your time. we’ll fetch the box on the way out.’
As the Reader walked away I stopped Ruby and gestured for her to wait a second. I walked my barefoot steps back to the Reader and touched her shoulder. She turned and I grabbed her finger, the one with the ring. I kissed her a thank you on the mouth.
She reddened as I had done earlier and we looked at each other differently. I smiled at how such an hour had changed me and I watched her play with her whale tail.
‘What does Bolgán Dearg mean? I finally asked through the awkwardness I was delighted to feel.
‘Oh that was Kez’s idea. I’ve been teaching her a ‘cupla focal’, a couple of Irish words.
Well that’s just Irish for Redbubble’
You know I had a long meaningful description typed about this one, about why I wrote it, but really it’s just a thank you. I recently read a post by Bellmusker with links to short story competitions, one of which was to begin – ‘She had a Journal you know’, so that’s where this one began.
But it travelled differently.
I read this morning that some RB’rs are meeting up for a weekend workshop on writing and I was a jealous as hell. I don’t have friends that write and I can only imagine how much fun it would be to have friends that share the same passions. But hey that’s where RB comes in.
So that’s why I wrote this. As a thank you to all who comment and read, to those who give their time and those that share. You’re all an inspiration.