“Once again, Pearl, this process starts by me asking you a few questions.”
“Hurry up, then. I haven’t got all day.”
He looked into her deep-set eyes, draped as they were, with wrinkled folds of skin. “Ok, take your time. This is important,” he said, brackets appearing either side of a gentle smile. Sometimes, he could coax the best out of a newcomer by letting the soft timbre of his voice soak into a crusty exterior. Butter on toast, he imagined, though this one was more of a crouton. Silk purse and sow’s ear sprung to mind next, but no, he wasn’t giving up on her.
“Have you made peace with yourself, forgiven your enemies, liberated yourself from life’s burdens yet?”
Pearl pulled her chin into her neck and cocked her head, causing the wattles beneath it to quiver. Her brows slid into the middle of her forehead. “Why on earth would I do that?”
“On earth, you mightn’t but it’s something that you’ll need to reconcile - so you can move forward. Trust me, it’s transformative.”
This statement was met with a gasp of bewilderment as Pearl’s head swayed side to side. “I have no reason to move forward, upwards, downwards or sideways but I would like to move on from this tiring conversation. You remind me of the old bitch who lives next door. If she catches me out the front, I’m stuck hearing about her grandchildren which she parades around like little trophies – despite them being unattractive. ‘They love my bright yellow front door,’ she says. Who has a yellow front door? It’s childish. It looks like the goddamned Pokeroo lives there.”
“Maybe your neighbour is just trying to be nice - to be friendly. Do you have grandchildren, Pearl?”
“Yes, somewhere, but I don’t bore people by yammering on about how adorable they are – which they were when they were babies. I liked them then. Now they’re mouthy and follow my husband’s side of the family who all have a nose worth apologizing for. When I told my daughter-in-law that, she took offense and now I never see them. She’s a piece of work herself, walking around dressed like a common slut trying to tease men. I warned my son not to buy the cow if he was getting the milk for free. Did he listen? No. Now she’s turned them all against me.”
“Have you ever thought of being less judgmental - doing something nice for them? They might like to be with you more.”
“I’m not a politician or a Prom queen. I don’t need to be popular.”
A chuckle escaped from him, catching them both by surprise. “I would never have mistaken you for either but think about it, Pearl, a hateful heart finds no solace.”
Pearl swung her head away from his gaze, punctuating the air with a, “Puh!”
Steph took the paint sheets off the reclining chair that the previous owner had left and allowed it to swallow her aching body. It wasn’t perfect but it would be useful in the nursery. She looked around the old house as she rubbed her swollen belly, noting an elbow tracking its way from one side of her to another. The house needed far more therapy than a coat of paint, but it was satisfying to appreciate how it had pulled the dark corners out from their hiding places.
Jack swept through the front door, clapping his hands together with glee. “I’ve put the pumpkins out and moved the porch furniture to make room for a crowd of kids. Come on then, we’ll order in and crack open a couple of beers to celebrate our first Hallowe’en here. In a coupla years we’ll be out trick or treating with our own kid.”
Steph patted her belly, making him gobble his words back up. “Riiiight, he said. “I’ll have a couple of beers and you can have sparkling water?”
Steph gestured to the kitchen. “The lady next door dropped off a casserole. What a sweetheart she is.”
“Wow, I didn’t know people did that anymore. We’re gonna love this house, babe. 66 Glamis Street is ours!”
Steph smiled and relished the thought that that might happen. After being out-bid on every other house, desperation had set in and she pushed aside her misgivings about “the feel” of the place. This was no time for flighty pronouncements about the cold, unwelcoming atmosphere or the smell that, while not unpleasant, disturbed her senses in ways that she couldn’t express with any degree of clarity or reason. Was it mothballs? She wasn’t sure because she’d never actually smelled any.
The house groaned and whined underneath her feet as if complaining about her presence. Walking into an empty room, she imagined that someone had turned a cold shoulder and walked out of it. None of this could be said in any sensible way to Jack who bounced around the house like Tigger in the Hundred Acre Woods. He was giddy with happiness. His voice seemed to possess the perky timbre of a television home renovator, banging on door frames and walls and declaring that they were to be moved, constantly muttering about future plans.
“Pearl, there is no joy in you, yet you’ve had a lot of good fortune in your life – a good husband and children whom you should have cherished with much more vigour than you seem to have allowed yourself. “
Pearl sighed and stared back at him with a resolute expression. “Are we done? You’re not saying anything helpful. I’m going now.”
“One day, Pearl I would like to invite you inside. You’d like it, here if you gave it a chance.”
“Sure, when I’m in the mood for a sermon from the likes of you, I’ll look you up. Bye, bye!”
Pearl was irritated with this man whom she assessed as having all the charm and career potential of a lower-level salesman. She had dealt with these types before and always managed to put them firmly in their place. She turned, sniffed and spoke slowly, as if speaking to someone of lower intellect. Leaning into his face, she said, “YOU, are a nosey, ill-dressed, odd little man who for some reason is obsessed with bothering people who have no interest in what you have to say. You’re like those people who hand out samples in the mall then try to get you to buy something. I know your game and I’m not playing it.“ She fluttered her hand in front of his face and dropped a clipped, “Begone.”
His head dropped to his chest but rallied to ask, “Where do you think you are going to go?”
Pearl looked confused for a moment and then answered, “My house, 66 Glamis.”
One number short of appropriate, he thought.
Pearl paced back and forth, arms piercing the air like swords. “It’s Hallowe’en. There are teenagers roaming the streets tonight causing trouble. They bang on the walls, cackling like orangutans as if they’re in the house itself. If I’m not there to chase them away, there’ll be toilet paper all over my lawn because I don’t throw good money away on candy for kids and pimply teenagers. Madam next door decorates her house to attract them with nonsense like witches, and coffins – come to think of it, I can’t wait for her to be carried out in one. That’ll be worth watching. A small victory for me to outlive her and finally have some peace in my own front yard.”
“But Pearl, you are confused. I offer you eternal peace! All you need to do is try to be worthy. Try to be better than this. If you don’t want to be here, why do you keep coming back?”
Pearl’s lip trembled slightly but she quickly clasped it under her teeth. She wasn’t about to show any weakness at this point in the discussion. “To aggravate you. Why else?”
Watching her wonder off into the mist, he thought, she’s lost.
Steph was happy that the baby was beginning to latch on to the breast. There had been long nights of pacing, rocking, pleading for her to settle so that they could catch more than moments of sleep. If they released the child from their touch, she would wake and scream far beyond their ability to endure it.
Jack tried his best to do his share but the incessant wails of the baby rattled the house. The doctor called it colic. In his notes, he observed that both young parents were anxious, isolated, and demoralized.
Exhaustion took them further in its grasp. Steph’s head would nod forward if she sat in one place for more than a minute and when Jack’s car went off the road and into a ditch, they set up a bed in the basement for him, so that his long commute to a pressurized work place would not be endangered by fatigue.
Routinely, Jack would throw something in a pan at eight o' clock at night when food held no interest for Steph. He’d do as much of the washing and cleaning as he could before descending into the basement with the baby for the last couple of hours of the night.
Steph looked at the old food in the sink that Jack had not thought to clear. She gathered her greasy hair a ponytail and although she could smell the acrid odour from her armpits, she couldn’t seem to navigate a shower into her day. She shuffled upstairs and threw herself onto the tear-stained pillow of her bed, still able to hear the baby’s crying over the tv soundtrack. She set her alarm for twelve midnight so that she could relieve Jack.
The alarm had to work hard to rouse her from the deep sleep that had overtaken her. Her eyes stung and her breath was shallow as she threw cold water onto her face. Jack looked apologetic as she grasped the baby from his arms. Steph kissed his forehead and mimed a fond, “Sleep well.”
When Steph finally had the courage to put the babe in her crib, she climbed onto the old reclining chair. She let her eyes close for just a few precious minutes.
A murmur roused her in the middle of the night. She squinted in the dim light bathing the crib. An old woman hovered over it with her hand stroking the child’s head. The babe was cooing with delight, eyes transfixed on the woman, who raised her index finger to her mouth to gesture, ‘quiet’. Steph felt no need to ask who she was. There was the unspoken acknowledgment that this was a dream and such introductions were not necessary. Instead, she smiled thankfully and slid back into sleep until the sound of the shower running woke her. She bolted up from the chair to check on the baby who slept, arms spread out in a sleepy welcome. Steph tip-toed out of the bedroom to tell Jack that his daughter had slept through the night.
“Pearl slept through the night?” he said. “This is the beginning of getting our lives back – well our sleep anyway. He kissed her and she melted into his chest.
“I don’t suppose you want to have sex,” he said, adding an “only kidding!” just before she slapped him.
She giggled and nodded her head. “I don’t think we should ever use our genitals again.”
“Are you planning to stay there forever, Pearl? At some point they won’t need you anymore and you’ll become a nuisance. I think you’ve made some very positive steps to enable your transition. You’ve done a good thing – even if it was a long time coming.”
“Like you said before, we’re on E.S.T. - Eternal Standard Time. I’ll come when I’m good and ready. Back off, and don’t give me that saintly shit, Peter.”
“Well Pearl, it sort of comes with the job.”