The Lilac Line by Rhiannon Jones

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

My mother had been complaining again: nobody visited her; she was alone every day with only the television for company; she’d be dead in a month and nobody cared.

‘D’you know Sandra – Fat Sandra?’ she’d asked. ‘Well, last week her daughter took her on this train. Oh, lovely, she said it was. It was all made to look like it did when we were young. Oh, she said it was ever so nice. They do an awful lot for her, Sandra’s daughters. They really take care of their mum.’ 

So it was, we faced each other in the carriage of a train nobody caught if they actually wanted to go somewhere, but which trundled between two stations, each decked with hanging baskets and wartime adverts for cocoa and Pear’s soap. It was named the Lilac Line. A drying Corn Flake clung to the lap of my mother’s polyester skirt.

‘It’s too hot,’ she said. ‘I can’t be doing with this heat.’

‘We’re nearly there, Mum. We’ll get off and have some lunch and then I’ll have to drive you home because I’m working tonight.’

My mother fanned a Lilac Line leaflet towards her face. ‘You’re working a lot at the moment, aren’t you? Are they busy?’

‘Not really.’

‘You don’t know what to do with yourself now Birdie’s gone, do you?’

I hated the implication that I had nothing in my life now my daughter was no longer sick and had moved away to live with a boy she’d met in an Internet chat room.

‘There’s plenty I can do,’ I said. ‘I’m going to get into drawing again, for a start.’

Before Birdie became ill I’d gone to life drawing lessons in a room above a pub. I’d loved recreating the shadows of other people’s bodies. The teacher said I had a talent for it. My mother said the teachers said that to all the new starters to keep them coming.

‘And I’m going to do lots of cooking–’

‘You should’ve taught Birdie how to cook. What’s she going to cook for this lad she’s moved in with?’

‘It’s not the old days,’ I said. ‘Men can cook their own food.’ But I knew Birdie would choose to live on instant noodles and takeaways.

‘I’ll believe that when I see it,’ my mother grumbled. ‘Your father didn’t cook a day in his life.’

She looked at my stomach, at the pale band where my t-shirt had wrinkled upwards. I pulled its hem down and she looked away, not out the window at the lilacs planted on either side of the tracks, but at other families: the grandparents who brought their small grandchildren; the adult grandchildren who brought their grandparents.

She looked at me as the train wheezed into the station. She said, ‘I know someone else who’s put on weight.’

‘Mum!’

‘I didn’t say you.’

A murmur of pleasure arose from the carriage as the train halted and breathed smoke. The carriage got to its feet slowly. Pale hands gripped arms, or steadied themselves against the backs of seats. It didn’t stop the trembling. In twenty years I would be like them.

The door hissed open, a man affixed a ramp to the train, and feet shuffled towards it with soft reminders from younger relatives to take their time, to go easy now. ‘It’s not a race, Granny,’ a man chuckled. ‘And if it was, we’d all lose.’

Sunlight made the tea room dark. We sat at a table already piled with the debris of others: torn sugar sachets; the remains of tea in cups like calderas. A waiter wiped it down with quick, uneven strokes and pushed laminated menus into our hands. We were positioned near the toilets, though the markings distinguishing the ladies’ from gentlemen’s had worn away until there was nothing where a woman once stood primly, and the man had been decapitated. His shoulders hunched forwards where the decals peeled away. As we ordered our food I saw the way my mother’s lower eyelids drooped infection-pink, I saw the broken lattice of her skin.

She looked closer to death than I had seen her in a long time.

She had grown up poor, spent her married life poor, and she ate as though expecting a waiter to whip away her food and say not for you

‘You shouldn’t eat so fast,’ I said. Her shaking forefinger brushed salmon onto her fork, leaving a film of pinkish oil on her skin.

She nodded towards a young couple on the platform. ‘Eh, look,’ she said. A boy balanced on one knee, squinting in the sun; he held an open box like a promise to a girl whose hair was pinned and sprayed into an approximation of Victory rolls. They were in their late teens perhaps, a year or two younger than Birdie.

‘He needs to cut his hair,’ my mother said. She frowned as she pulled something thin and pale from her mouth. ‘There’s still bones in this salmon,’ she tutted. ‘You should make a complaint.’    

Other people looked at the couple now. They smiled expectantly. The girl looked away from the boy: they were surrounded. The boy wobbled as he tried to hold the pose, his jaw clenched, his brow twitched into a frown.

The audience awaited rapture.

‘I hope it’s Birdie next,’ my mother said. ‘Getting married. I’d been married a year already when I was her age.’

‘Give her chance,’ I said. ‘She’s only just moved in with him.’

My mother lifted a cup to her mouth. ‘Birdie deserves some happiness,’ she said. ‘What she’s been through.’ Her hand trembled; milky tea splashed onto her skirt.

‘She hasn’t said yes.’

‘What?’

‘Look at her,’ I said, pointing through the window at the girl with Victory rolls. Some spectators held up their phones to record the moment. ‘Poor girl looks scared stiff.’

I never thought she’d move away. Not my Birdie. There was nothing much left for me in the village now. Just the ease of the drive to my mother’s house, and a job I could pick up anywhere in the country. Every day my brother Mark jogged past my house, where I had moved when Birdie was curled like a mollusc in my womb; where beneath the wallpaper she had scribbled her hieroglyphs on plaster: her names, her heights, her favourite boy bands beating inside uneven hearts; where we buried rabbits in the garden.

‘And he’s a good lad, is he, this Tom?’

‘Tim,’ I corrected.

A wave of exhaustion soaked me: the heat, the lack of sleep from my night shift, the anticipation of the oncoming shift. The first time I had met Tim had been in a Chinese restaurant. He showed intense interest in what Birdie ordered from the menu. He said ‘we’ more than ‘I’, and I liked him for that. His eyes were small; his brow furrowed at twenty-one.

People said Mark was A Good Lad, but sometimes when he ran past my window I could taste blood. Feel the terror I felt when he broke my sister’s nose, and the shame. Once again I stood at a cold sink trying to wash blood from the lines in my hands.

A cheer burst from the small crowd. The girl with Victory rolls fixed a smile to her face.

I wanted to believe Birdie would tell me if he hurt her. If anyone hurt her. We named her Frances, after an aunt I loved, but we called her Birdie since she was a few weeks old, from the way she opened her wet lips like a small bird when I fed her, the way she turned them toward me.

I swallowed and asked, ‘Why did you say that we lied?’

I might have expected her to put down her fork and ask why I was bringing up something from thirty-eight years ago. Or maybe I’d see, at least, an almost indiscernible faltering, one only a daughter would notice after decades of sitting opposite her mother and asking the same question. Her fork would stop scratching the plate. Her fingers would stop trembling. Instead she carried on and said, with a mouth full of gravy-drenched potato, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘When Mark broke Dawn’s–’ I began, then stopped myself. ‘Yes you do.’ I spoke in a whisper.

‘I’m an old woman,’ she said, ‘I probably won’t be around this time next week, and my body’ll be rotting in my bed because no one’ll have come to check up on me. Why do you want to bring up the past and blame me for everything? I was a widow twice over by the time I was your age, you forget that. And I didn’t have a moment to myself, not with you and your brother and your sister, and looking after that damned house, and not with my mam being ill and I was the only one who’d lift a finger to help her. And your dad didn’t leave me any money when he went, did he? He’d put it all behind the bar at The Ship.’

It was the same story I’d heard over and over.

‘If you’re so convinced you’re going to die soon–’ I stammered, the air tightening around me. ‘If you can’t be honest at the end of your life–’

‘You’ve always been so angry. I hate to say it, I do, but I wasn’t surprised when he left you.’

She didn’t hate to say it. She had devoured every detail: had I seen it coming (no); was there someone else involved (no); was I absolutely sure there was no one else involved, men don’t just get up and leave like that (no); where were we when it happened (at a communal table in a café); what was I eating (hard sandwiches); how much did they charge me for those (What?); and what did I say to him when he said he wanted a divorce (nothing, I said nothing, I stared at the tourists sat opposite us as they traced their fingers over a map and made plans. It took me a few moments to recognise the shapes of home beneath the Kanji print). People didn’t just get divorced in her day (I know, Mum, I know).

This is how she makes me surrender.

‘Leave it all in the past,’ she said. A rivulet of gravy moved down her chin as she chewed. ‘Where it belongs. I know you’ll never forgive me a single thing. I’ve given up hope of that. I could be dead this time tomorrow, and then you’ll regret it.’ She coughed and covered her mouth. Her face began to flush red. ‘I’ve got,’ she said. She pointed to her throat. ‘It’s a–’ She coughed harder, leaning over her plate, letting saliva drip onto the tablecloth. ‘A bone.’ She grasped for her glass but it was empty. She fixed her red-rimmed eyes on me. ‘Do. Something,’ she choked. ‘You stupid. Girl. Do. Something.’

Mark organised the cremation and gave a speech, then emptied our mother’s house of everything he suspected was valuable. I washed teacups in our mother’s kitchen. From the other side of the wall I heard Birdie laughing with her cousins as they looked through old photographs my mother kept in shoe boxes and torn envelopes. There had been years in which I took the sound of Birdie’s laughter for granted, and years in which I cried in the night for it.

I supposed now our mother was dead I’d have no reason to ever speak to Mark. And now Birdie had recovered and moved away, it no longer felt important to live near the hospital and its lonely beeps, and Birdie’s cold hands, and the gnawing hope that one day our waiting would mean something. I could pack my things and move away. To the coast, perhaps. I could swim in cold water. I could learn to not be afraid of the waves. 

Outside my mother’s garden lay wrinkled like a picnic blanket at the end of an afternoon. The sky had sweetened to lilac.

About The Author

Rhiannon Jones has been published by Hobart, Maudlin House, Lunate, Reflex Press and elsewhere.

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