Short Story

BN Oakman

          Never read a suicide note. How often had she heard Frank say so?  It is not from the world we know, he would say. It will make no sense. Except to the disturbed. Throw it onto the fire. Never read it. Never.                            

            Frank should know. A clergyman burns and buries quite a few suicides in a working life. And Frank does lots of funerals. He's so good at them. Everybody says so. Takes care of everything. Nothing for you to worry about. But she refused to believe anybody heeded his advice about the notes. Curiosity plus guilt equals compulsion. That's what she thought.

           She sat stiff and straight on the edge of the settee and sipped some Chinese tea from a small china cup. Frank asked few questions. Consequently he was presumed wise. Frank wanted few of the things of this world. Comfortable poverty in return for a respectable place. A good bargain for Frank. But not for her. From a hundred metres she could tell silk from polyester. The squelch of synthetic soles made her shudder. She was reassured by the bold thwack of leather on polished timber floors. Plastic carry-bags rustle. They herald the advance of a certain type, sloppy, utilitarian, the sort for whom the end actually does justify the means. Yet by joining Frank in his happy servitude she had placed herself just one decent outfit away from dowdy, for forty years.

            By nature she was cruelly ill-equipped for duty as a clergyman's wife. She had a perfect ear for tone and pitch. Christ must forgive the cracked sopranos and jackhammer baritones of church choirs, for she could not. Frank, although tone deaf, was vigorous in songs of praise. How he laughed when she asked him to lower the volume. He even laughed off-key. She was missing the point. Enthusiasm was what mattered. And accepting people how you find them. You block the path to happiness if you are over-critical. Accept, darling. Accept.

            Critical she certainly was. You cannot win all those pianoforte medals in your youth, then spend the rest of your life listening to musical murder without so much as a wince. But since her last trip to the concert hall it had become unbearable. A Schubert recital. Lila Armstruther was accompanying a German tenor.   Lila had quite a reputation these days for someone who got the second prizes when they were young. She wept all the way home on the bus and she didn't tell Frank about the concert. We never get all we want in life, darling. That's what Frank would say.

            After the children left home she had attempted to play Beethoven again. It will be an interest for her, Frank said. It was purgatory. Sufficient skill remained to remind her how good she had been, enough to tell her how much had escaped, more than she could hope to recapture even with the most rigorous practice. She locked the piano. Frank told her not to allow Beethoven to upset her like that.

            She returned her cup and saucer to the coffee table. Only when she took tea alone did she use the fine china set. Frank and his visitors liked mugs of milky, sugary slop. If they wanted more she just poured hot water over the soggy tea leaves still in the pot. Nobody ever complained.

            The first child was born nine months after their wedding, the second the following year. That was when she stopped serious piano study and went school teaching for the money. She played at church socials for polite applause until Frank said that a few singalong numbers would most suit the occasion. Love, she thought, can be a terrible thing.

            In a vicarage the telephone rings a lot. Always there are people who drop in to see the vicar. The toilet must be clean. They need their mugs of warm slop. She must listen to them. Show an interest. Playing vicarage, she called it. Somebody with initiative could turn it into a board game. Forgot to put out the biscuits?  Do not pass go.

            She remembered the morning, twisting the fingers of her left hand inside those of her right beneath the table, when she told Frank his visitors bored her. To death, she said. Frank looked up from his newspaper which covered the breakfast table. Why did she feel that way?  Never could she answer such questions. At last she said she was just not interested in their problems. You'll get over it, darling, said Frank. She shuffled her feet and kicked him. Not surprising because his legs took as much space underneath the table as his newspaper did on top. Sorry, she said.

            Frank is a good vicar. Everybody says so. Particularly for funerals. Leave it all to Frank. Smiling, hand clasping, kiss on the cheek Frank. A good bloke who likes a beer and a yarn. (The sound of his own voice an unkind person might say. Although none did. Not to her.)  But Frank's sermons sounded messy, just muddles of words to her. Once she asked him to write what he wanted to say on the back of an envelope. He laughed. He thought none the less of her if she could not follow him, he said.

            Love. Bloody love. Of course she loved the children whose growing years crowded out her days. Both of them were good at school. Neither of them had any ear for music. And how Frank loved them. Always listening to the boy's stories from school. Always telling the girl how good she was. She was getting mugs of slops for visitors before she was nine.

            The children were still of school age private school, cheap rates, benefit of clergy the night she said she wanted to leave. The three of them sat around the table waiting to be fed. She stood by the sink. The boy looked incredulous, like Frank. The girl looked worried. Such a long silence. Then Frank said that if she really felt that way then she'd best go. Fight me you bastard, she screamed. Do me the fucking honour. She slammed a plate into the sink. It did not break, just slid into the grey water. Frank said it was not the time or place to discuss this. Not at the dinner table. Not in front of the children. They must not be upset. Of course she stayed. Love and duty and cowardice. Terrible things all of them.

            Church itself got worse after they changed the bible. The sonority of King James had pleased her. She still whispered the old words while Frank read the new with his flat and loud voice. Frank had been delighted to introduce a new bible with relevant language. Nobody goes to church for poetry, darling, he said.

            But she must not be too hard. Frank was honest and loyal and kind and strong. A here and now man, not a dreamy type. Her mother Frank did her funeral too used say he was just what she needed. Her father was surprised to find a real man disguised as a sky-pilot. He and Frank talked a lot. Never had an argument. One of them would need to listen for that to happen. She smiled and put down her cup.

            She wondered, as she removed the lid from a Milo tin, if she needed Frank to make up her shortcomings: timidity, vagueness, weakness, her stumbling over words characteristics which had seemed not to matter when she was at the piano. But away from it she cowered under heavy bombardment. Words. Words. Routine infatuations of clergy. Words beloved of Frank and friends. Unreliable, cunning, twisting things. Unlike notes. True or untrue. Perfect or off. People's tones were kindly when they told her she could not possibly mean what she had said. Not exactly. Then Frank would explain what she really meant while she cleared the coffee table.

            Recently Frank said they should give the piano to Fiona, their granddaughter who was taking lessons. We don't need it any more. He might have been talking about an old frying pan. It was futile, she told him, because Fiona has no ear. Give the kid a go, darling, said Frank.

            She loved flowers. Small flowers with delicate petals which bloom for but a short time. Gardening was tiring though. She prevailed on Frank to leave a small bed for her, for her favourites. But he was always tidying up. It looked just like a weed, darling, he said frequently. He was a lawn and shrubs man himself. Tidy path, neat edges, a few gladioli and hydrangeas for show. Those things of yours. They're unsuited to conditions here. They die easily. It's silly to fight nature, he shouted above the roar of his lawnmower.

            Undeniably she was weak. No doubt about it. Frank held her together, for public display at least. He'd taken her over, sorted her out, like he did at those funerals. But she still hated that awful advice about suicide notes. It was so unfair. Listen to me. Listen. Just this once. Try to understand, pleads the suicide. And Frank commits the message to the flames unread. A message as foolish, as incomprehensible, as the act itself. The living must not be disturbed. Survivors need grant no quarter to the dead.

            She tipped her hoard of tablets onto a plate. (Frank did not drink Milo.)  Then, one at a time, she swallowed them and washed each down with a sip of tea. She made herself comfortable on the settee, put her feet up, closed her eyes. After a few seconds she opened them to glance at a pale grey envelope propped against the teapot. She closed her eyes again.

           When Frank finds her, he lunges at her, scatters the tea set, smashes some china. He shakes her. Darling. Darling. What have you done?  Jesus. Oh Jesus. What have you done?  Shaking her. Shaking her. Why?  Why? Jesus. Why?

            At last he lets her rest. He sits and holds her long thin hands in his. Frank weeps. He weeps while her hands turn cold. After his panic he feels nothing. The worst is to come, that is the way of things. Gently, very gently, he folds her hands. He kisses her cheek. When he stands up he tramples on an envelope which has fallen to the floor. He picks it up. There is nothing written on it. He takes it to the kitchen and drops it in the rubbish bin. It is summer. There is no fire.

            The doctor says there must be a post mortem. The ambulance comes and they take her away. Frank goes to the kitchen and takes the envelope from the bin and tears it open. Inside is a sheet of pale grey paper. Blank on both sides.

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