Mark sighed as he eased himself onto the chair and rested his elbows on the kitchen table. The day had taken its toll and he was physically spent. It said a lot that his mind, exhausted from the last five days, was too tired for his aching muscles to make it more so.
His hand ached from the well-meaning shakes received through the service and afterwards, his back weakened from bending down to accept all the offered hugs and his eyes burned from all the tears he did not cry.
He had remained strong since receiving the news. He had to for Elizabeth and Carla. Especially now it was just the three of them.
He turned down the offer of his parents coming to stay, and the same offer from his mother in law. Although he didn’t know exactly what relation she was to him now. He supposed it didn’t matter. It was important, more so now than before, that she remain in their lives. But he didn’t want her, or his parents, living here. He didn’t want the girls to learn to rely on their grandparents always being around.
The thought stirred the memories of when he told them the news. Elizabeth, like him, still hadn’t cried. It was just too big for her to take in, but even so he could tell she was as exhausted as he was. Each night she was fast asleep before he laid her head on the pillow, tired out after a day of just thinking, and remembering.
But Carla, she was starting to worry Mark. She also hadn’t cried, even after he told her Mummy wouldn’t be coming home ever again. Her lip had quivered a little when he put her to bed, something that Angie usually did, but she fell asleep all the same. The following morning she nearly skipped into the kitchen, giving him a big kiss on the cheek.
He asked her if she was alright, and she told him she was fine, that Mummy had come to tuck her in after he left. ‘Mummy told me she loved me, and gave me a big kiss on the forehead.’ That broke his heart, and was the only time he’d shed a tear. He blinked and left quickly. Carla looked so happy as she overfilled a bow with Cornflakes. He couldn’t bear tell her it was just a dream.
The next morning she was the same. It seemed as if that one imagined moment each night was enough to get her through the day. He didn’t have the strength to take that away from her. He thought about it and decided to leave her until after the funeral, thinking it was just denial on her part. That seeing Mummy for the last time would, well, cure her.
It was the same routine each day at breakfast, including that morning. Elizabeth would ignore him, silently staring at her cereal, and Carla would hop in, all smiles and laughter.
As he tucked Carla in bed that night she gave him a huge hug, holding him tight around the neck. ‘Do you want me to say hello to Mummy from you?’ she said.
‘If it would make you happy,’ he said, trying to smile, and kissed her good night.
And now he sat at the kitchen table, wondering what the morning would bring.
The hall door opened giving him a start. Carla pattered in, eyes blurry from sleep, and walked to the fridge. He was surprised, since a baby Carla had slept through so he didn’t think to tell her to get some slippers so her bare feet weren’t on the tiles. She took the milk carton from the fridge door and a glass from the cupboard and sat herself at the table across from Mark, pouring one into the other.
‘Sweetie, are you alright?’ he said, when she didn’t register his presence.
‘Fine, Daddy.’ She drank her milk.
‘Couldn’t sleep?’ he said. He was expecting that, one reason he was still in his shirt and tie at the table.
‘No, Daddy. Just thirsty.’ She finished the glass.
There was a vacant look in her eyes that he’d never seen before. The past week, the news, today, everything must have caught up with her. It would be a mercy, he though, if her imaginings had stopped.
‘Mummy says hi, by the way,’ she said, taking him by surprise.
It took all of his willpower to curl his lips into a smile. ‘That’s nice.’
Carla got down from the chair and put the used glass in the sink, and the milk into the fridge. She tottered over to Mark and stood on tip toes to plant a light kiss on his cheek.
‘Good night, Daddy.’
‘Good night, sweetie.’
He watched walk to the door, her arms outstretched in balance while she stayed on her tip toes. At the door she stopped and turned, one fingers pressed into her chin dimple thinking hard. ‘Mummy also said to say that everything will be alright,’ She beamed at him, eyes filled with a small child’s pride in remembering.
A hard sob rose up Mark’s throat. He tried to swallow it, but it was too quick. ‘That’s right, sweetie, it’ll be fine.’ His voice trembled wildly and he had to sniff back tears.
Carla beamed back at him. ‘Good night, Daddy.’ She waved. ‘And good night, Mummy,’ she waved again, to a spot just behind him, before turning and tottering out of the room.
He didn’t see her leave, disappearing into the gloom of the hallway. His eyes were following the course of her gaze, to just above and behind his right shoulder.
He closed his eyes, screwed them shut and prayed for either the strength to tell his little girl Mummy would never come back again, or for a cold, familiar hand to lay on his shoulder.
Michael Grey’s personal writing blog can be found at http://michaelgrey.blog.com.
The Australian Literature Review