I rarely ever post any fiction, even though that’s primarily what I write. Posting fiction is far more terrifying to me than posting an essay or my thoughts on wealth disparity in the 21st century. Much like Steve Rogers, I’m always honest, but there’s the tactful honesty by which I live my life, and then there’s fiction writing, which is exposing my imagination–the only part of myself that no one can take away from me. But I promised myself I would do this, because I certainly don’t agonize over words and made-up people for my health, so here is an excerpt from an old version of a piece of forever unpublished fiction. I don’t think context is required, but it’s set in England, c. 2010.
I needed another perspective, so later that day, I called Caroline.
“Colin asked me if I had ever been in therapy.”
“Yeah, he said it was for a school project, and he assumed I had been in therapy. Is it weirder that he assumed I had, or weirder that I haven’t?”
“I think it’d be pretty normal to see a therapist after someone in your family tries to, you know.”
“I think we all sort of managed to cope on our own,” I said, the words ringing hollow. I didn’t want to say what I was really thinking, that even though dad had been devastated, and Rhi, Jack, and I had been some combination of bereft, angry, and guilty, none of us were ultimately surprised that mum tried to kill herself.
“Well, sometimes you don’t realize how much you were affected by something until years later. I’m just saying, even now, it wouldn’t be weird if you wanted to see a therapist.”
“And it’s not weird that I haven’t?”
“You’ve always seemed totally normal to me. Your family’s never seemed as weird as you make them out to be.”
Maybe we weren’t weird, or any weirder than any other family, but the idea didn’t leave me—the idea that maybe we all assumed mum would end her own life, a matter of when and not if. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, but I went for a walk after I hung up with Caroline and wound up near a bookshop just as the afternoon rain shower started. I ducked into the shop initially for cover from the rain, but I wound up leaving with another of mum’s books.
This one was about the history of polo, titled Riding Off. The cover of the book had a polo scene on it, but the players weren’t in normal polo costume. They were carrying polo sticks and the whole thing was in sepia tones to give off the impression of vintage. I bet mum hated the cover.
Rhi was home when I got back. When she saw I had a bag from the bookshop, she got a knowing look on her face.
“Another of mum’s books?”
“Yeah. Have you ever read any of them?”
“No, but I read part of her play.”
“The one that she and dad met on. Dad had a copy of the script and mum told me I could read it.”
“What was it about?”
“It was sort of a modern fairy tale. It had a lot of American slang from the ’70s in it, so I didn’t understand most of it.”
“Oh,” I said. I had forgotten that there was yet another work of mum’s that I hadn’t read. “And you never wanted to read any of her books?”
“Stephie, you know I don’t read. She could tell me the stories anyway.”
And that summed up the difference between Rhi’s relationship to mum and mine. If Rhi wanted to read one of mum’s books, she would just ask her to retell it. And mum would do it. She would do the same if I asked, but I knew I never would. I needed to read her words for myself. Because it was never really about the stories for me.
My stomach lurched with that realization as I opened the book and started to read.
It begins as all stories begin. With a woman.
This particular woman was a handsome woman, but no one would call her beautiful. Her younger brother Henry called her ‘the hawk’, pretending to do so behind her back but was always purposefully within earshot. This nickname was mostly due to the slight hook in her nose making her features less than delicate, but also, and wittingly on Henry’s part, because of her intense, piercing eyes, frequently looking at the people around her as if they were prey.
It was not without merit as she was an excellent judge of character. It just so happened the people around her, namely her family and the staff they employed, were of poor character. Instead of feasting upon her prey, she observed, she noted; she could see a secret from a remarkable distance, and she filed them away. Blackmail was beneath her, of course, but the threat of blackmail was not.
Privileged from birth, the daughter of a commodore and a baroness, she was properly educated in literature, geography, art, the pianoforte, and horse riding. The only leisure time she spent with her father was fox hunting. Women didn’t usually take part, but once George became of age and took his position as a Midshipman in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, the Commodore tried to fill the void his son left behind, at least until Henry was old enough to take part.
The only time she ever felt alive was when she rode. The temptation of allowing the dumb beast to keeping going, never harnessing the reins, letting nature take over – it was only these sweet moments when everything else that she was ceased to exist.
She was a woman of good breeding, and marriage was the primary expectation for a young woman of her ilk, another one of those expectations was catering to her father’s whims, and so when the family was taken to the Indian Empire, she had no choice but to go with them. There simply was no time to marry her off before the ship left port, and she suspected her mother wanted to keep her company.
I had no idea if mum had ever been to India. In 20 years, I couldn’t remember hearing her mention any interest in polo, although dad occasionally attended a match at the behest of a client. Mum would tease him and tell him not to pick up any prostitutes. But I couldn’t picture mum at a match. Or in India. I had seen her out in public about ten times in as many years.
Her own experiences informed her other books—the theater, the small town, the family torn apart by war—this story was something different and in a way I couldn’t place.