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Nestled down a quiet cul-de-sac, this gem awaits you.
Below the catchline was a picture of the gem. The house looked perfect, but it was the tree, large, leafy and abundant, that had decided Sally. She sat under it now, sipping her afternoon coffee and reading down the checklist provided by the insurance brokers six years back when they’d moved in. Each item had a box, checked or unchecked, and quantities and values were penned in columns headed Bedrooms, Study, Kitchen, Hall . . .
              Bar Fridge
              Bar Stool

       The list ran to five pages. Sally counted three hundred and three items. Good to have a number on the thing, something finite to circumscribe life which never seemed to line up.
              Tumble Dryer
       Check, check, check, check . . .
       The word took her back to a classroom of girls tapping away like convicts in a quarry. Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow!—seven hateful words that contained all the letters of the alphabet. She’d typed them over, under the unforgiving thumb of Sister Una. She could still sense the approach of those thick-strapped sandals, coming to find fault, scold and shame; still sense the hooded presence bearing down, shadowing the day. Sphinx of black quartz: Sister Una Mary Joseph. It was a name determined to cover all bases, as the insurance inventory did—as Sally herself did, with her lists and timetables. Competent, practical Sal—the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog—not a letter missing. There wouldn't have been many boxes checked in Sister Una's list. Few in fact. How airy that must feel.
       Typewriter—no tick in that box. Computer corrected typos now, and did so much else it was a wonder there was an insurance list at all. But there was, and one required
              Vacuum Cleaner
              Washing Machine
       In fact, she should have been occupied with one of them right now, but here she was musing over the material proof of her life, totting up its worth. Reflection had become something of a pastime lately. A solitary affair, it couldn’t be shared with David really, nor the children, who weren't children but teenagers, she reminded herself, and clicked into Taxi-Mother mode. Katelyn: Swimming; Barnaby: Extra Math. She grabbed the keys and made for the door. She wouldn’t be late, Sally never was.
Sally lay in bed all day one day watching the curtain move and the light on the ceiling, getting up to peck in the fridge and bring back mugs of tea. “I felt like it,” she told David. Hiding bewilderment, he was wonderfully sympathetic and brought her more tea. Katelyn and Barnaby frowned.
       A short while after this wrinkle in the custard, a Monday—Karate / Ballet—there was a crease in the cream. Sally drove the children home, got out of the car, walked down the road, and didn’t go home till nine. “Im ok sweetheart see you later suppers in the fridge,” she messaged, then turned off her phone. David was a little startled, but what made him blink was the lack of commas and capitals; that just wasn't Sally, not even in an SMS. He dealt with dinner, stacked the dishwasher, and waited. “I went for a walk,” is all she would say. “I just felt like going for a walk,” and in fact there was no other explanation she could give. It had everyone in a small frenzy. “Cool down. Can't a person go for a walk?”
       After this, when the children couldn’t get their way, they would taunt her—“You look tired. Why don't you spend the day in bed? Go for a nice walk, we don't need you”—and she’d smart and be unable to defend herself. Yet a part of her stood back, and felt nothing.
There was a space in the day that fell somewhere between morning mandatories and afternoon roster of runarounds, a small clearing after the Hoover had had its say, and before the evening meal was taken out to thaw—a space that was hers. She’d flop on the couch, flip through a magazine or chat on the phone to her pal Diana. Lately this space had widened. Some days she did nothing at all. She sat passing the time, time passing, or wandered about, or stood in a room, there and not there, just being where she was.
       She discovered it was interesting to do something different in a room that was always the same. Anything. She’d lie on the floor or stand on a table and look around—and the familiar would become less familiar, and ordinary objects less so. Not everything had to be anchored to its function. A bath plug or doorstop could exist outside its story. Bit by bit, these little discoveries crept into her other world, interrupting its sheen. And so, all alone in the placid waters of an afternoon, Sally would allow the boat to drift, unanchored.

              Food Processor

Galoshes. She sat in the kitchen and looked at a pair. They stood next to the cupboard where she hung her dust-coat and an armory of sponges, mops and squeegees. The galoshes themselves were spotless. Bare and bald, with bulbous toes—the preposterous shoes of a clown. They reminded her of parts of a plastic spaceman Barnaby once dismembered. Stout as a sentry they stood, but empty. They were feet without feet, the galoshes of a ghost, huge but hollow. You couldn't tell left from right—and with a rubbery aura all their own, an aura of the absurd. It drew her. She suddenly had an urge to add a third boot. A perverse notion—yet appealing. Delightful, in fact, the more she thought about it, delightful to unnerve the logic of things, and naughty to rattle the cage. The microwave pinged her back to duty. She slipped a hand into her panda-paw oven mitt, a gift from the children.
The shampoo slogan—Naturally perfect. Always—came with guilt. The motto had the same weight as any of the strictures Sister Una and her clan had hammered home. Body, bounce and sheen were life goals. Long hair, she’d been told, would detract from her shortcomings. She detangled daily. Split ends were rare as nun’s fun. Nor was Sally a wife who ran out of Sunlight, Beam or Fresh. She plumped cushions, diarized dentists, paired socks. Deeper needs had long since been tidied. But, now and then, as she wiped the bloom of dust from a sill or lowered a blind, it was as if she discerned a faint enlivening music from some far room.
David—Diana called him a catch. Yet Sally felt that she, herself, was the one caught, and it didn’t help knowing she was complicit in her own abduction. Ronald, Diana claimed, didn't notice if she cut her hair and wouldn't care if the roof blew off. Ronald spent the budget on guy stuff— golf clubs, fishing gear, power tools, cycling clobber—a list of another sort, Sally could see. David was a catch: affectionate, affable, reliable. He overlooked her many flaws. She was lucky to have him. Sexually obliging, it was as if he’d taken a course in lovemaking, as well as the one in husband skills. So what if his jog followed the same route each time. Dearest David . . . but still there was something missing as she calmly shelved groceries or defrosted the fridge. Though she hid this from David, he sensed it. But husband school didn’t teach things like that, and he didn’t know what to do except carry on in the same sincere way.
       Sally and David were so steadfast in their duties that these were taken as a given by Katelyn and Barnaby, stuck in the swamps and tropics of adolescence. They saw their parents either as serving or impeding their urgent needs and happiness. Asked to do a chore, Katelyn might sulk and Barnaby scowl, but that was about as bad as it got. And yet Katelyn was never wholehearted; a sparkling edge got in the way. And Barnaby seemed to carry something heavy inside himself. Happiness found its limits in their cheerful, bright, sad mother and well-meaning, unexcitable father.
Sally's parents were coming for supper. She’d prepared a new dish, and picked flowers from the garden. She would take care they'd notice the attention she gave her husband. She'd mention the children's accomplishments. She’d tease her father, and be sympathetic to her mother’s issue with the neighbor, the business with the telephone bill, the annoyingly irregular newspaper delivery. She’d be at her best for them.
      Sally sat in the dark. Downstairs, the food was simmering, the table was set. Barnaby, in his room practicing his recorder, piped a plaintive line over and over, its resolution suspended like an unexpressed sob. She thought about her son, how this phrase of homeless notes was possibly the nearest he got to a state of introspection. There was no slot in her own schedule for introspection, but she was taking a bit of timeout now and giving it a go. There were other sounds: leaves rustling just outside the window, the world of the tree, her tree, alive in the night . . . the fizz from the garden hose, David watering the lawn . . . Katelyn making bossy phone-calls. They came to her as if from a very far distance. Invisible in the dark, the house was insubstantial. Huge, but hollow.
       A clump of thuds reached her: David kicking off his wet shoes. There—his tread on the stairs—coming up to wash before supper. Almost here. The door swung open and the light clicked on.
       “What are you doing here?—In the dark! He sounded incredulous, as if she’d transgressed a fundamental tenet: no dark.
       Sally didn’t have to make up an answer because instantly he chuckled, dismissing the scene as one of her little contrary whims that he would never understand, not in a million years, and which he knew best not to question. No dark. And no questions.
One day, on a real whim, Sally put a pinch of salt in the sugar bowl. She just did it, and then did not undo it. The delinquent deed lit something in her and made her feel lighter. This is childish, she thought, grinning, but tried another lark a few days later. This time she pressed a tiny dead beetle into a cake of soap. Nobody noticed. The frisson of thrill was ridiculously fortifying. She decided she’d do one of these little acts every Monday. The secret, silly, harmless capers would set her up for the week, like a tonic.
Sorting the knives and forks one morning, she recalled a visit to her grandmother. Gran had shown her how napkins must be folded: “Exactly so. Exactly so.” Left alone to practice, Sally had gone to the sideboard and flicked open the lizard-clasp on the special compartmentalized silverware box that was lined with purple baize. She'd lifted the lid, taken a spoon, and slipped it up a sleeve. She wasn't found out; she wasn’t punished; and the spoon—buried in the garden—wasn’t even missed. And afterwards when Gran told her to be a good girl, and how to be one, she’d think of the spoon and was able to be. Exactly so.
One Monday Sally tore out the last page of a novel. She placed the sheet in the exact center of the Living Room, under the carpet. Furniture had to be moved and the carpet rolled back to reach the spot. It felt as if she were offering a sacrifice as she suffocated the pale sheet under the soft weight, extinguishing its words with darkness.
       The transgressions gave her secret energy. Secrecy was part of their power, a theater of sacrilege performed behind the curtain. Acts were daft, dark, willful; some were planned, some improvised. Just for fun, she gave them a pretentious name—actions—as if they were political acts or conceptual artworks. She pronounced the word with a French accent.
       She laid her land-mines and took to signing them S.—S. for saboteur, sniper, spy—S. for Sally. The letter was a fragment not a whole, but it was an identity; she had a codename, compact as a charm, that was hers alone. Switching roles from Sally to S. was as simple as flicking the toggle on the blender.

              Standing Lamp
              Step Stool
              Trash Can
Sally arranged David’s roses—one dozen, long-stemmed, red—and set them in the center of the table. She stood back and looked at them, then briskly pulled on her yellow gloves, sealed a garbage bag with a wire twist, and took it out to the bin. A dead mouse lay on the paving. She knelt down and peered. Even alive it must have looked dull. Dust-brown hair raked back from the sensitive nose down the length of the body. Whiskers catching the sun, eyes dark and dead. She turned it over. The feet had fleshy pink pads and tiny claws, frozen and sad. She watched a tenacious ant deflect its path round the body. Then, although a Wednesday, she picked it up by its stiff tail, took it inside, and hid it in the center of the lovely roses. She fished it out next day, before the stench gave it away.
       It was the habit of the thing: the institution of the roses, the deadening sameness of their number, the obligatory delight. David could have given her daisies or a cactus—anything different would have made her happy. Yet it was not David she was attacking.
       Her actions made her feel the world was not set and stale and done with, and that she was not trapped like a silver spoon in a coffin lined with purple cloth. And, as they expanded in daring, her spirits lifted. David picked up more poise, and less pep and positivity. She stopped keeping the conversation going at meals. She encouraged the children less. He noticed a dreamy, glazed look.
A term of Mondays went by. And here it was again, on the dot, with its small chaos of taps and toilets, banging doors, last-minute sprints, reminders and instructions. David kissed her goodbye, activated the gate, and drove away . . . and they were gone. Space expanded, ownership changed hands. She set her program on Auto: do the dishes, change the sheets, load the washer—then, while the machine ticked over in a humphy rumble, she paused to gather her energies for the task ahead. Katelyn and Barnaby, rehearsing for a school play, would be out till supper. She had a whole free day.
       S. pinned her hair back and tugged on her yellow gloves. She felt like freshening up the passage. She turned the carpet runner over, then set it back face down. She stood back: the hairy under-felt was a new look. Why not? Her eye was bright as an oily olive.
       It was a busy day. Next, she tore the address book into two halves, put one in soapy water and the other in the freezer. She lifted the wedding photo from its frame, taking care not to damage it—the bride and groom—flipped it over, and put it back upside down, with a silver paperclip trapped like an insect between the picture and the glass. Then she got the pliers and, in a fit of giggles, cut the washing lines. They dangled slackly. She was on a roll.
The white galoshes shone in the early twilight. They stood waiting like a visitor, in the middle of the welcome mat, facing the front door. David, back from work, put his briefcase down, and moved them aside. He turned the key and opened the door. For a fogged moment he sensed something odd. Then he stared. A path of shoes led from his feet across the hall, through the door, and into the dining room—his own shoes, and Sally's, Katelyn's, Barnaby’s; footsteps alternating left, right, left, right . . . A joke, maybe? A surprise? But something in him trembled.
       He did as he was bid and followed the march of steps—they’d been laid out with care—into the dining room where they circled the table. At some point other objects took the place of shoes—socks, a packet of sugar, the toilet brush, a bullet of lipstick, the bedside clock—a miscellany of displaced articles pointing a path. He followed it, impelled as if by an endless sentence, hanging on for the final clause that would give purpose to its parts—into the passage and up the stairs—a vase smashed behind him—and along the landing toward the open window. “Sally!”—it was panic now—“Sally?” There, perched on the sill, black and sharp-angled like a starling, was a single high-heeled shoe—and, as he lurched to grasp the ledge and lean out, it toppled over the edge of the world and fell tumbling downward. Sally was sitting on the garden bench. She reached an arm toward him, lifting it with effort.
       She sat with her hands in her lap like someone in a waiting room. She was placid, contained as a nun—Sally Mary Joseph—her yellow gloves beside her on the wooden slats, palm to palm, in prayer, or perhaps in stilled applause. Her hair, hacked short, stuck out in tufts.
       She was calm, but he saw she’d been crying. He sat beside her, and waited.
       “I can’t,” she said.
       It was like putting a pet down: a kindness, ghastly, unendurable, never forgotten.


Not long after this, Sally moved into a small apartment. She marveled she needed so little. Her timetable opened up, and she left the gaps free. They were full of time. She observed her straining will relax. The nervy penumbra softened. She learned to live without lists and roles, and she found she did not have to please her mother and father and long-dead grandmother, or nuns of any name.
       Her thoughts took her to places she’d never been, and to possibilities. They often wandered back to the past. She ventured into backlands there, dark forest, and silent wind-swept rooms—she’d listen for an echo, open a door, or put an arm round a small sad girl. She brought back fragments—a shard, the edge in a voice, a leaf from a story—fragments actual to her as the lemon she’d set to ripen on the sill.
She saw David and Katelyn and Barnaby regularly, but their absence was an aching presence. When Sally surrendered the game, the children were shaken. The system had been certain and now nothing was safe. Katelyn was angry for a long time. She became even more like her mother had been: adept, styled, scared. But Barnaby hurt in a different way. He began to feel things more directly, and to be in the world confused but alive. When he visited his mother—his mother, Sally—they did not count the present or the future as fixed, and now when they talked there were no secrets.
And Diana had been so kind at that terrible time, helping poor David and the children, and she left Ron who took up paragliding, and after a suitable period she married David, and they were fairly happy, and that was that.
The lemon lay on its side, a single lemon—but that was what gave it glow. One was enough—as one sun was, one moon—there, on the sill in the early lemony light, apart, particular, and whole. She gazed at it often. It changed day by day, ripening slowly, and it changed through the day in light tender or sharp or wan. It was never the same. She drew her fingertips over its pebbled skin, touching lemon, touching light. The fine, high scent . . . and oh the deft little stem at one end, a grace note, a garnish. An ordinary lemon, just itself, yet somehow crucial. So still and giving.
Sally's apartment had a small enclosed garden with a single lemon tree. It was nothing like the great grand tree at the house, but she treasured it. Barnaby borrowed the shears from the toolshed for her. She showed him how to cut away deadwood, and where to make the cut, and the best way to shape straggling branches. It had to be a “hard” prune, and when they were done the tree looked bare. But she knew to leave one healthy sprig of green amongst the gray wood so that the sun could reach and renew it. Barnaby had studied photosynthesis at school, and he gently explained some of the science to Sally—how light energy from the sun is converted into chemical energy, and how the reaction centers contain green chlorophyll pigments that are held inside organelles called chloroplasts which are plentiful in leaf cells. He explained all this with lovely patience—it had the wholeness of a small piece of music played with grave tender feeling—and Sally felt abundant.


  © Michael Pettit 2022

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