Posted: Thursday, May 12, 2011
Word Count: 2096
Summary: This is an idea I am working on for a radio play but I wondered if it would work in short story format.
Pauline pushed past the tray laden pensioners in the crowded cafe and tapped her late sister, Muriel on the shoulder.
Muriel turned around and looked down at the shorter, rounder woman who by now was sweating profusely and simply said, ‘Yes can I help you?’
Pauline had been a widow for just a year when she lost her only sister Muriel. Only yesterday she’d visited her at the cemetery for a little graveside chat.
‘I’m the last one now duck, the last of the Jacksons.’ she whispered as she tidied the vase of fading flowers at her sister’s grave.
Although they looked nothing alike the two sisters could not have been closer, that’s what Pauline’s husband Brian always said. Muriel was tall and slim with wavy auburn coloured hair. When she was a girl and her hair was long people often remarked she looked a bit like Rita Hayworth, a poor man’s Rita Hayworth, that’s what Brian had called her. As the years past and she grew into a woman she wore it short with little corkscrew curls clamped to her head.
Pauline on the other hand was plump and round with fine hair that could never adapt to a style. She was shorter too, the runt of the family her parents always joked.
As she stood by the grave, Pauline wiped the beads of perspiration off her brow with her sleeve. Ladies don’t sweat they perspire she could hear her mother say. Well Pauline was a sweater, the slightest exertion soon created damp dark patches on her clothes. She’d had to catch two buses and walk for 15 minutes to get to the cemetery, what a pity she never learned how to drive. Brian had been the driver of the house, ferrying her to the shops, picking her up from the bingo, dropping her off at work before she retired.
She missed their weekend day trips. British Heritage castles, splendid gardens, cream teas in fancy tea shoppes. She hadn’t even bothered renewing the British Heritage membership; when the girl phoned asking if she’d like to take advantage of their special Summer offer she’d said, no point dear, not now and that was that.
Her sister, Muriel drove; she’d had a little blue fiat and was forever zipping about in it, when she lost her Martin she could still get about, until she was too ill that is. ‘Learn to drive Pauline’, she always said, ‘it’ll give you some freedom’. but Pauline never did. Pauline and Brian hadn’t had a family of their own; it just never happened so they stopped bothering and got a dog. Several dogs, one to replace the other over the years when the last one Sadie died a few months after Brian, Pauline decided enough dogs. Pauline bent down and brushed some dirt off the headstone then straightened up and said, ‘I’m going on a day trip tomorrow Muriel, a little journey. The Community centre have organised it, all the oldies are going up to the Tumpley Viewpoint , there’s a museum there and a little cafe, just for a few hours back by 4, might as well eh? Not much else to do. ‘
The coach was air conditioned which made Pauline sneeze, only Pauline- no one else and there’s only so many times one can say ‘bless you’ before finding it unnecessary. Everyone onboard seemed to know each other, they chatted happily while she sneezed. The men talked about their sheds and the cricket and the women yabbad on about the telly and the weather. While the couples, well they just pointed out landmarks and ummed and ahhed every so often.
The view from Tumpley Hill was lovely if you like that kind of thing, the museum was brimming with local knowledge and the cafe did a very nice pot of tea and a plate of assorted biscuits.
It was just as Pauline took a bite out of her custard cream that she saw her- and the shock caused her to cough and splutter biscuit crumbs all over the table.
It can’t be, she thought, it can’t be! But there she was standing by the counter, tall and slim with those short cork screw curls, Muriel, my god it was her late sister Muriel!
‘Yes can I help you?’ repeated Muriel.
But of course it wasn’t Muriel. The resemblance was astounding even down to the Royal blue jacket with mock naval appliqués.
‘I’m sorry, I thought you were...someone else.’’ Pauline stammered.
‘No afraid not, just me.’
‘Are you all right?’
Pauline looked puzzled.
‘You seem flushed, are you feeling all right dear?’ asked the familiar stranger.
Now Pauline was even more embarrassed.
‘The heat, I’m not very good in the heat. It’s very warm out there.’
Pauline caught sight of her reflection and was aghast at the seeping stains growing bigger under her arm pits, but she couldn’t let the likeness pass.
‘I hope you don’t mind me prying but you’re not related to the Jacksons are you?’ asked Pauline.
‘No, no Jacksons, I’m a Johnson, Janet Johnson. ‘She smiled and extended her hand.
Pauline blushed again, er..’Pauline Meadows... are you on the coach too?’
Despite the awkwardness, Pauline surprised herself by inviting her sister’s doppelganger to join her for tea. The two women sat at a small table by the door and made polite small talk.
Janet it transpired had driven to the viewpoint by herself on a whim. She often did things like that when it took her fancy, a whim woman she described herself. The two women chatted and browsed the small museum together and on hearing Pauline lived but a mile away from Janet’s new home and having already established the terrible hardship the air conditioning can cause on a coach, Janet offered Pauline a lift home.
Janet drove one of those zippy little Ka cars, it was shiny silver and much smoother than Brian’s old Vauxhall and Janet was very confident on the road.
‘Oh I’ve been driving since I was 17, so that’s hundreds of years, couldn’t live without my car, I’d be useless.’
The interior of the car was pristine and smelled of lemons. The radio was tuned to Radio 4 and Janet asked Pauline if she minded if they listened to a programme she was fond of.
Pauline agreed of course, and leaned back in her seat as a man with a Scottish accent talked about the importance of Robert Burns’s work and what an iconic figure he had become. The man recited some of Burns’s poetry and Pauline felt transported to another world. When she went on driving trips with Brian, he inflicted loud sports commentators on her or cheesy music that she’d never really taken too.
When they arrived at Pauline’s little bungalow she surprised herself once again by asking Janet in for light refreshments and the opportunity to use the bathroom.
Janet, acting completely out of character took up the kind offer and followed her new acquaintance inside.
After lime cordial and ham sandwiches, Pauline showed her guest some photos of her beloved only sister Muriel.
‘My, my’, remarked Janet,’ We are alike aren’t we?’
‘And here when she was 21.’
‘Goodness, she looks like that actress...’
‘Yes, how funny. People have said that about me, years ago of course.’
Pauline nodded feeling slightly foolish that she felt so comfortable in this other woman’s company.
‘She was 75 when we lost her, such a long time to have someone in your life eh?’
‘Indeed,’ agreed Janet,’ I’m an only child, hah child listen to me, I’ll be 72 in July.’
‘Really,’ said Pauline ‘me too, the 25th.’
‘Where were you born?’ asked Janet.
‘Here at Buddley.’
‘I mean which hospital?’
‘The old one they pulled down, Garden Hope.’
Janet flinched, for the first time her natural calm seemed to desert her and she noticed something her sub conscious had tuned into hours before, how could she have dismissed it so easily? The same meek demeanour, the same big brown eyes...they reminded her of another’s eyes, eyes only too ready to look away, to not see, to deny the damage that was being done. Then she knew, while Pauline saw her big sister in Janet, Janet saw her cowardly mother in Pauline.
‘I really must be going Pauline, it’s getting late.’
Pauline nodded and after exchanging phone numbers she saw her new friend out. Had she imagined the sudden change in the other woman’s demeanour? The slight stiffness when they said goodbye? Pauline watched as Janet drove away, she couldn’t stop and kept watching until the little silver car had disappeared out of sight.
She put the photo album back on the shelf and felt that terrible pang of longing once more. On days like this when the dreadful loneliness and feelings of a wasted life began to take hold, Pauline did what she always had done. She closed her eyes and thought of all the suffering in the world, the starving children, those killed by wars and famine and she tried so hard to feel grateful for the life she’d had.
‘It’s not been so bad’, she said aloud.
Janet being the sort of person she was began to investigate immediately. She made enquires, spoke to the right people and when she was sure as sure as she could be without the official evidence she knocked on Pauline’s door and broke the news to her.
‘What do you mean the wrong families?’ said a bewildered Pauline.
And Janet explained how in those days back when there was less care taken and very little information stored that someone's entire identity and their future often rested on the accurate memory of which ever nurse was on duty. Sometimes they got confused, sometimes they put down the right baby and when they returned to give the little one back to its mummy they picked up the wrong baby.
And now in an ironic ‘of all the bars in all the world’ fashion these two very different elderly women who had grown up in the other’s family had finally met 72 years later.
Pauline fell back against the kitchen bench causing the little Chinese figurine salt and pepper shakers to nod their heads in agreement at the bizarre coincidence.
‘I need a drink,’ she managed.
Janet breathed a heavy sigh as she sat next to Pauline; the two women sipped their G & Ts and the errors of the past exploded into the present. As the tears began to flow, Janet blurted out everything; her miserable childhood, the beatings, the unspeakable finally spoken after all these years. She told Pauline about the broken battered mother who looked away. The beast who shouldn’t have been her father. He, who she believed was the reason for her never finding love; just lunging from one unsatisfying relationship to another. Perhaps he saw it too, that she wasn’t his, Pauline shuddered as she realised this could have been her fate.
But it wasn’t, Janet listened when Pauline told her how happy they’d all been, yes Muriel had been the favourite. She was the eldest, the prettiest, that was natural wasn’t it? Or had they suspected the truth but knew there was nothing to be done about it. Just put up with, that’s what they did, that stoic generation of war survivors, they put up with her. Kept calm and carried on.
So now at three score year and ten, two lonely old women know the truth. Janet can’t blame Pauline it wasn’t her fault she stole her life. Yet when she looks at her the pain returns. Pauline shouldn’t feel guilty that Janet took her place; would her real mother have looked away if it had been her? Would she have dared, surely every fibre of her being would not have allowed it. She‘d have leapt between them a human shield wouldn’t she? But every time Pauline looks at Janet she does feel guilt. The knowledge is too much to bear alone; something good must come of it.
They still meet every week, it has become a ritual and because Janet is Janet she had to have an excuse, a purpose if you like. Now with no one else these two women both need each other.
Janet pulled down the car’s sun visor and checked her makeup in the mirror, before folding it back up, and turning to Pauline, ‘Again Pauline again, slowly, remember Mirror, signal, manoeuvre, let’s go.’ The little silver car juddered away and the journey began.