About this story: Many of my short stories explore themes including mental illness, loss, trauma, abuse, death – sudden death, uncertain death, slow death, suicide – and the nature of our relationship with these events when they occur in our lives. This story is one of them.
It was 10am before Peggy got out of the house. Late today. Ha! That was nothing unusual. Her mother had always said she’d be late for her own funeral.
She usually left just after Tony left for work. She liked to make sure his shirt was ironed and his lunch packed in the mornings. Sometimes it felt so 1950’s, this domesticity, but he appreciated that Peggy cared for him in this way and she liked that he liked it. But once he’d left, there was nothing in particular for her to do.
This morning there had been unexpected phone calls, demands for her to participate in mundane things that had disrupted her routine and made her late for her drive. Her drives had become a daily routine, an essential part of her day since the… well, since the Thing. They gave her some comfort. It was a small thing, but every little thing helped.
The CD changer whirred and chose a disc at random. She liked to keep an eclectic mix of music in the car so that there would be a little surprise in her day. It might choose punk or techno. Today it was classical.
Classical was interesting. The city moved silently past, parting neatly for the car as it glided along to the music. It gave her an eerie, slightly surreal feeling to sit in her calm, serene bubble of music from an extinct time and place, a period in history way before cities like this existed with their cars and roads and high rise buildings, and watch the chaos of ordinary, modern life pass her by.
Life often felt as though it was passing her by. Especially since the Thing. She hadn’t always felt like this; once she’d been wild. Untameable. A free spirit. She’d had a passion for life, a fire in the belly, creative yearnings. What had happened to all that? Now she was tamed. Docile. Domesticated. Numb.
Her mother had always told her, in a tone of disapproval, that it wasn’t easy to be “different”. Peggy remembered a time when she was quite young, maybe 10 and in trouble for something. As an explanation for whatever she’d done wrong, she’d asked her mother whether she had ever loved, really loved something so much that it physically hurt, in the hopes that her mother would understand when she realised how passionate she felt. Her mother had looked at her strangely for some time, her mouth drawn into a tight line, her forehead wrinkled with frowning. And said no. Peggy didn’t remember what she was in trouble for, she just remembered her mothers’ lack of response to her passion. And how crushing it had been.
Over the years, she’d learnt to hide that passion. To bury it. Nobody seemed to want to know about it; so many people saw passion as unnecessary, messy, too difficult. Some people said she’d let what others thought change her, take away who she was. Maybe they were right. She certainly didn’t show too much passion with Tony. He was not the wild sort. He valued self-discipline, composure and perfection far more than spontaneity and unfettered creative expression. He liked to be in control of things and he liked everything to be controlled. Although lately he often complained that she was more distant and aloof than usual. That she often didn’t seem to be there even when she was. Present but not present. He was more right than he knew. Life, she felt, was something that happened to other people now.
Peggy wondered if Tony ever thought about the Thing. She thought about it all the time. It was all she ever thought about really. It was hard not to. And yet, she suspected he never thought about it at all. Had quite forgotten. Probably immediately. After all, it didn’t affect him. Not really. His life had remained unchanged, just as he’d wanted.
He had his work to occupy and consume him. She’d had a job, a career, years ago. That was before she’d met him, when she’d needed to work to survive. Since she’d caught him (or had he caught her? Peggy didn’t know), she no longer needed to work. “What a catch”, her mother had said. “Handsome, charming and rich! Well well. I’m amazed he can put up with the likes of you. What on earth does he see in you?”
Waiting at the lights, a sudden movement in the car next to her caused Peggy to look around. A young girl, maybe 17 or 18, huddled against the window. Dressed in a black singlet top and thin leather choker, with a shock of brittle blonde hair, her thin, drawn face already bore the tell-tale signs of a smoker. A huge, menacing man with a shaved head and bare tattooed chest was in the drivers seat, punching the steering wheel and screaming at the girl, his face red with rage, as she cowered away from him.
Peggy couldn’t hear anything other than her serene classical soundtrack and she watched this bizarre scene with benign curiosity. Suddenly the man grabbed the back of the girls head and smashed it violently into the window. Peggy and the girl stared at each other for a moment, blood smearing the window between them. The girl mouthed something – was it a message for Peggy or was she cursing the man? Then the arrow went green and they were gone.
Peggy wondered idly if she should have done something. But what could she have done? She’d felt a bit sorry for the girl but nothing much else; a vague sense of unease, a kind of fear but certainly not enough to warrant putting herself in danger and playing the hero. The girl had made her choice and would have to get herself out of the situation. The main thing Peggy felt was a sense of relief. After all, it could easily have been her in that girls seat, if her life hadn’t changed and she hadn’t found Tony.
How had she caught him, the wild little thing that she’d been then? It sometimes felt like a strange fairytale, a little Pygmalion. He’d liked her fighting spirit, her determination to reject him and all he stood for. She’d challenged him and he’d decided to go for the conquest, to tame her, turn her from wild child into trophy wife. He’d said he could see the untapped potential in her that nobody else had the courage to release. He’d told her he could offer her everything she could wish for and more. He’d promised that nobody else would ever love her like he would. And he was right. Here she was. Tamed. A kept woman, the perfect trophy wife, with everything she could ever want, and yet with nothing.
She’d never wanted to settle down, get married, have kids before she’d met him. That had all seemed too mundane and normal. Not her cup of tea. But somehow, when he’d come along, all that had changed. Strange new yearnings grew within her heart. It must have been love. People say it does funny things to your head, changes you. He’d swept her off her feet, dazzled her with riches, talked her into getting married. He’d bought her a fancy house, a luxury car, a big rock to wear on her finger. She’d let him propel her down this track as if in an aspirational dream. It had felt as though it was happening to someone else; she’d kept expecting someone to come knocking one day, pull the plug and slap her back to reality.
He’d insisted she give up her career and be a lady of leisure. What did she need a job for? He would look after her now. Tony didn’t like the idea of his wife working; he wanted her to stay home and be occupied with nothing but keeping herself and their house beautiful. He asked only that she always be immaculately groomed, keep herself fit and slim and be ready to have sex whenever he wanted it. In the beginning, Peggy had thought his odd traditionalism was endearingly quaint and sweet. And she’d taken to this lifestyle of pampered indulgence with relish. Until the Thing.
She wondered what it would be like to die and whether it would feel better or worse than this. She rarely felt anything anymore. Sometimes she felt as though she was already dead. Living dead. The perfect zombie. How would it feel, dying? She didn’t know. But she did know how it felt to kill. It felt dead.
Peggy had arrived at her destination; the same destination every day. She parked in her usual spot. The police officer who was always there, watching out for potential suiciders, nodded at her. “Morning Peggy. A late walk for you today?”
She smiled at him. “Morning Tom. Yes I am a bit late this morning. Stopped any jumpers today?” There are some kinds of danger it’s ok to flirt with.
“No jumpers yet, Ma’am. But you never know – it’s still early. You enjoy your walk. And don’t do anything stupid like jump off, ok?” He grinned at his joke, the same joke he made every morning.
She walked away along the path that edged the cliffs, heading for the lookout. Joggers ran past, people walked dogs and rode bikes. Parents anxiously held their children; being too close to the edge made them nervous. And with good reason. These cliffs were exhilarating but notorious. And windy. The gusts that came whistling up the cliffs were strong enough to blow a person off. This morning, a pair of sea eagles were riding the updrafts.
Peggy watched them for a while. She wished she could jump off the cliffs and float on the wind like that. She’d read a book once, long ago, about a seagull learning to fly. Only it wasn’t really about a seagull; the seagull was a metaphor. She remembered something about how the secret to being able to fly was to know that you could, and that all you had to do was believe in yourself and step off the cliff. Then you would find you had wings. Or something like that. But if she stepped off this cliff, she knew she wouldn’t fly; she’d drop like a stone and smash into a meaty mess on the rocks below. Would she feel anything as she fell? Or when she hit the bottom? Would Tony feel anything if she died? Maybe. She didn’t know.
There was a woman sitting on her bench at the lookout when she arrived, breastfeeding a tiny baby. The baby’s toes curled in pleasure as it suckled, one hand possessively gripping the breast. Peggy sucked in her breath and stared for a moment, then looked away. There was another place she liked to sit sometimes. It would be more suitable now anyway.
Not far past the lookout, there was a break in the high cyclone wire fence. It was a rough patch of ground, where the clifftops suddenly spiked up in a jagged outcrop topped with thick stunted saltbushes. Maybe the powers that be felt it was too difficult to fence this bit, or that it would be too hard for potential jumpers to get to the edge along there anyway. A kind of natural barrier. In which case, Peggy thought, the authorities had thoroughly underestimated the nature of determination and intent.
There was a tunnel of sorts under the saltbushes. Just big enough for a dog, or a woman willing to crawl a few metres. It was quite steep and hard going. She emerged, breathless and covered in dirt and leaves, in a little clearing on the edge of the cliff. She smiled a little to herself; Tony would not approve of the state she was in. A sudden gust of wind blew her backwards as she straightened up. She grabbed for the bushes to steady herself and laughed at the irony of it. And that, she realised, was the first time she’d laughed since the Thing. More irony.
She stood barefoot at the edge and looked out over the ocean. The waves crashed against the rocks far below. The wind blew her hair around crazily. The eagles spiraled silently in the sky. It felt so free and wonderful standing there on the edge like that. She felt more alive, more her true self, than she had for years. It’s surprisingly easy to lose oneself, Peggy thought. But painfully difficult to find oneself again. It requires so much effort and remembering and letting go and forgiving and healing and so many other things that she just had no energy for. Better to stay lost.
It was funny, she thought, how the one thing she could still feel was the one thing she couldn’t – wouldn’t – allow herself to feel. The main thing she tried to squeeze out of existence, to deny the existence of, was the one thing she’d really wanted from her life with Tony. The Thing had taught her the reality of that fantasy.
People say you never notice something until it’s foremost in your mind, and then you can’t not notice it. Then it’s everywhere, all around, and you wonder why you never noticed how much of it there was before. It wasn’t so much the number of pregnant women that hurt, it was the number of tiny babies. They also say that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone. But Peggy knew what she had. And she’d “made it go away”. That was the Thing.
Everybody else had babies. Where was her baby? Why didn’t she have a baby? Oh that’s right. She’d killed her baby. Not Tony, although he’d made it very clear that he didn’t want a baby – noisy, demanding expensive things he’d said, completely unnecessary. It was Peggy who’d done it. She hadn’t told Tony until afterwards.
Why had she done it? Was it to spite Tony, to teach him a lesson? Maybe. She’d wanted him to want it as much as she did. His reaction when she’d announced that she was pregnant had shocked her to the core. It was true that they hadn’t really talked about having kids, even though they’d been married four years by then. It was true that she had been on the pill. But accidents happen, don’t they?
It turned out Tony didn’t want kids, had no intention of having kids, couldn’t imagine anything worse. Having a baby would ruin her figure, destroy her tits and her cunt (yes he’d used that coarse word), make her old. Worse, make him old. They wouldn’t be able to have sex for who knew how long – he’d heard that some women went off sex completely when pregnant or breastfeeding – and he wasn’t having any of that. Not to mention the impact on his own life. The mess! The noise! The inconvenience of it all! No, it certainly wasn’t something he would come round to, it wasn’t something he would be happy about, it wasn’t something he would learn to love. She had tricked him, she must have stopped taking the pill, deliberately mislead him. Or maybe she had been sleeping around? Was it even his? He couldn’t trust her anymore.
He’d been so angry and cold, had refused to speak to her or even look at her for weeks, except to say that she would have to deal with it herself, she was on her own, he wanted no part in it, this child of hers. God knows, there are enough breeders and unwanted children in the world already. Peggy had been angry and hurt and rejected. So she’d dealt with it; she got rid of it. There would be no child for him to hate her for.
It hadn’t been easy, going to the clinic on her own. So many questions and the scrutiny! She’d felt judged and disapproved of. She’d felt like a naughty teenager who should have known better than to get herself into this mess in the first place. She’d felt the silent disgust at a happily married woman who didn’t want her husbands child. Nobody ever suggested Tony might have a role to play here; the fault lay entirely with her.
Secretly she’d hoped that terminating the pregnancy without telling him would shock him into changing his mind. She didn’t really think that was what he’d meant when he’d told her to deal with it on her own. She’d wanted to hurt him the way he’d hurt her. But all he’d said, when she’d told him, was “Oh, so you dealt with it then? And now it’s all good? We can go back to normal?” And he’d taken her in his arms for the first time in weeks, kissed her and told her he loved her. He’d never mentioned it, or having kids, again. That was that, as far as he was concerned. But not for her. Never for her.
She’d never spoken of it though. Not to him. Not to anyone. No one else knew. Who would she tell? Her mother? No! Her friends? They were all too busy having their own babies. What could she say anyway? People didn’t know what to do with information like that. It just made people uncomfortable. People knew what to do with accidental death, but not deliberate death. Even people who were pro choice couldn’t always conceal their shock. And she didn’t need anymore judgement or guilt. She had enough of that already.
The cliffs and their solid certainty were so tempting. If she did step off, all this would stop. There’d be no more endless guilt, no more pretence, no more loneliness. Just freedom. She was standing right on the edge now, her toes hanging over a little. The wind buffeted her, rocking her slightly. She closed her eyes and stretched her arms out sideways. Just believe you can fly and take that step, she thought. Believe! I believe! I want to fly!
Suddenly the wind dropped and the strangeness of it unbalanced her. One foot shifted slightly and she fell backwards, sprawling awkwardly on the grass. She lay there, quite breathless, unsure whether to laugh or cry, and watched the eagles soar. Once again, she had passed the test and failed to actually go through with it. Willing to kill her baby; not willing to kill herself. Not today anyway.
Peggy sighed. She was utterly exhausted. As she slowly put her shoes back on, she thought about that girl from the car, the blood smeared across her face, the menacing man she was with, maybe even loved or thought loved her. Life could be worse, Peggy thought. At least Tony would never treat her badly. He’d never laid a finger on her, never threatened her. He wasn’t violent or mean. They had a beautiful house and a nice life. He looked after her. And he did love her.
Would it really matter that much if she never had a child? Was it really the end of the world? Peggy wondered whether that girl had ever thought about killing herself or had tried and failed. A song started playing in her head, “You can’t always get what you want.” She got everything else she asked for. She was too hard on Tony. She had a lot to be grateful for really and it was all thanks to him. It was time to go home and make herself ready for Tony.
© Bea Pierce, 2015