Bury the Box by Letitia Payne

Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

Drag your feet back to the house with the dead plants. Your heels sink awkwardly into the gravel as you walk up to the warmth of the porch light. Fumble with your keys at the door, buy some time. Replay the day, from the moment the fresh edge of the morning air hit you until the half hour you spent listening to Mumford And Sons in your car after work. The key clicks in the lock, and you finally push the door open. Light floods onto the porch. 

Your daughter sits crosslegged on the living room floor with a shoebox resting on her lap. Tiny clusters of mould creep up its sides. You stand there, keys dangling from your fingers, the mud from your shoes seeping into the welcome mat. She’s clutching a polaroid in her hand, the image of the woman mottled by dust. You know this woman, the one who likes to sit on the edge of things. Always perched just out of your reach, in the corner of your eye. Your heart beats in your fingertips, each breath only reaches your teeth. 

No doors are locked in this house, you knew that when you hid the box in the trunk under the TV. This had felt safe, also less dramatic than burying the damn thing in the garden. 

‘How come I’ve never seen these before?’ she says, brushing aside the dust with her thumb. You want to scream at her to put it down, to get out, to go and do that assignment you know she stuffed into the bottom drawer of her desk. But you don’t. 

‘They’re of an old friend, haven’t seen her in ages.’ Kick off your shoes, hang up your coat, find the routine again. Collect the photographs scattered across the carpet. Bundle them up into the memories they belonged to and put them back into the box. Shut the lid on it. Feel her watching you as you do, she doesn’t try to stop you. You can hear the sound of cupboards shutting and pans clanging against each other in the kitchen. As you inhale, you smell citrus and thyme filling the air. You should have buried the box in the garden. 

Walk loudly, but you need more ways to release frustration than thumping your feet against the carpet. Buy more plants, complain how they all die on you, no matter how much you water them or play classical music in hopes that Chopin can succeed where your nurturing has failed. Snap at your daughter more, there’s always something eating at you, and soon she’ll have to run out of answers. But make sure you avoid being in the same room as your husband; you feel like he can see every new line guilt has struck across your face.

Sit on your bathroom floor with the shoebox by your side. Your head resting back on the edge of the bathtub, eyes closed, the cool acrylic of the tub caressing the back of your neck. The heartbeat you felt in your fingertips is everywhere: your thighs, your brow, the back of your tongue. Think of her again, the woman on the edge. If you try, you can still feel her hair on your fingers, the burnt copper of it all. On that first morning, you’d noticed how her freckles stretched like constellations across her shoulders. You’d made coffee, but it sat on her nightstand growing cold. She told you she wanted to be a photographer, that she liked catching people off guard. You cringed at that, but she became one anyway. The photographs don’t do her justice. 

She’d always talked of taking you to Athens, she showed you the pictures of the buildings in their yellow and peach hues, of the balconies with their emerald railings like vines sprouting from stone. Try to imagine the warmth of the sun on your face, the humidity in the air, your flushed cheek resting in her palm.

Someone taps on the bathroom door.

‘Did the food not agree with you?’ You hear the gentle thud of his forehead against the door. 

‘Oh- No, I’m fine. Just shaving my legs, I’ll be out in a minute.’ 

‘Alright, I’m just going to head to bed.’ He says on a long exhale. 

‘Okay, night.’ 

‘Night.’ 

There’s a shuffle on the other side of the door, followed by the sound of his slippers padding away. Release the breath you didn’t realise you were holding. Sit there as panic filters from your limbs. Remember to shave your legs. 

On your way to your bedroom, you pause at the top of the landing. The door to your daughter’s room is ajar. When you look inside, you expect to see the steady rise and fall of her chest beneath her winter quilt. Instead she’s lying there awake in the dark, eyes wide, looking back at you. 

You put the box in the shed the next morning, it’s covered by a stack of damp moving boxes he keeps on telling you that you’ll need again. Your daughter is sitting at the kitchen table with two freshly bleached strands of blonde in her hair. She never acknowledges when you enter a room, no matter how heavy your feet. But today she looks up from the blue glow of her laptop screen. 

‘Morning.’ She folds down the screen. There are a few remnants of crusted sleep in the corners of her eyes. They’re accompanied by the grey shadow of yesterday’s mascara.

‘Your hair will fall out soon.’ Is all you can think to say. 

She blinks, recoiling slightly. You see her chewing the inside of her cheek. When you sit down at the table with her, it’s one of those rare moments she doesn’t get up to leave. You pick at a splinter jutting out from the tabletop. 

‘Probably,’ She tucks a blonde strand behind her ear. ‘Mum, about yesterday-’

‘Go wash your face.’ Don’t look at her, focus on the splinter. Curl your hands into fists so that she can’t see them shake. The legs of her chair scrape against the tiles of the kitchen floor. She doesn’t say goodbye, and neither do you. 

At work, your colleague touches your wrist, she says you’re not yourself. Say that you’re tired. You’ve been thinking about the box all day, the rainwater seeping through the lid, the mould creeping up cardboard. It’s punctuated every stroke of your fingers across your keyboard. She tells you that teenagers are always difficult, that hers have gone to university, and so will yours. 

That evening, as you wipe your shoes across the welcome mat, he tells you that she’s gone to stay with a friend. You hate the relief that washes over you as he says it. There is peace in the desolate house, but it feels foreign. There is no pillar to hurl your frustration on, no eye to the storm. Drift in and out of her room like a ghost. 

Try not to be drawn to the shed. Read a book, that one you’ve been carrying around in your bag for months. Ines Of My Soul with all the folded page corners and the frayed edges from where you took it into the bath with you. The way you treat your books annoys your daughter, sometimes she slips her receipts from the corner shop onto one of your folded pages. But you like books when they feel lived in. You can smell the musk of the tattered pages as you lift it out of your bag with the loose Maltesers at the bottom. Sit on the edge of your bed, it envelops you. 

There, stuck with a corner of white tack to the page you last read, is a polaroid. Your heart claws up your throat, desperate to catch a glimpse. Peel it off the page with caution, place your thumb over the clear streak where the dust had been wiped clean. When you flip it over, you feel the sickening crescendo of panic begin to build once more. There’s a note. You know the handwriting as if it were your own. 

It’s okay.’

That’s it, that’s all it says.

And you remember your daughter with her feet folded beneath her on the living room floor. The faded fragments of you in her lap. Guilt sits beside you on the bed, you feel his weight sinking into the mattress. It’s pulling you, lean into it. Think of her sliding the photograph into her jumper sleeve as you snatched up the pieces. Perhaps she spent hours looking at it, tying it all together, or maybe she knew from the moment she opened the box. You remember her lying awake at night as you peered into her room. The floor creaked as you tiptoed away. For once, you tried to silence the sound of your feet on the carpet.

About The Author

With an upbringing in Greece and a background in theatre, when Letitia isn’t writing about familial conflict she’s delving into adaptations of the Greek classics. Currently she is preparing for her Creative Writing MA with the University Of Essex and is based in Norwich, UK. She has a soft spot for cats and anything by Michael Morpurgo.

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