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A Room for Freya

Friday, 27th January 2012

Categories: Moving Stories

Author: Peter Barry

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition

Written by Rebecca Burns

“We should paint this room. Yellow. Freya always liked yellow.”

“When she was little, yes.”

“She still does. I’m sure of it. Besides, it will brighten the place up a bit.”

Owen stopped flicking through the box of albums and sat back on his heels. He looked at his wife. “Do you think so, love? What about the smell?”

Catherine sighed. “We’ll leave the windows open over night. It’s hot enough anyway.”

Owen turned back to the box. “If you like, love.”

Outside the neighbours were washing their car. Old Gordy, sponge in hand, laughed at his grandson and the wheezy cackle drifted through the open bedroom window. “Not like that, Matt! You’re putting all the dirty water back on the car! Use the hosepipe to wash it off. Jeez…”

Down on the floor, Owen snickered softly. His fingers were numb from the edges of old records. He pulled out a battered copy of Thriller.

He turned round to show Catherine. “Remember when Freya and Craig played this all summer? The pair of them moon-walking on Gordy’s precious lawn?”

Catherine sat up, leaning on an elbow. “Yeah. They were inseparable for a while, weren’t they? Gordy used to joke they’d get married and we’d be related.”

“Maybe they should have. Might have worked out better in the end. And I liked Craig.” Owen put the album slowly back in the box.

“Me too. Matt has his nose.”

Owen made a Pinocchio gesture and, in spite of themselves, they laughed.

Catherine lay down again. “She’ll be glad we still have that record. She’ll probably want it on when she gets home.”

Owen stared at the carpet. His stomach hurt. “Think so, love?”

“Think so.”

A white space settled between them. Before, these quiet moments had been an important part of their marriage. Cell-like, the minutes where neither spoke but both understood were leukocytes, a love-made immune system against the outside world. Shared silences surged in the body of their union, drawing them closer together as they read the newspaper, rocked the children to sleep, dressed in the dark. But now – now these silent moments jutted out conspicuously. Giant icebergs in the frigid calm, dangerous and foreboding.

Owen cleared his throat. “I’ve finished here. Want me to sort through the books? I bet there’s some she won’t mind if we send to the Sally Army.”

Catherine bounced her head slowly from side to side, feeling the bobbled cotton of the pillowcases against her cheek. “Leave them. Freya can take a look. I think we should buy some new sheets as well. These ones feel rough.”

Owen stood up, knees popping. He looked down at his wife, stretched out on the bed like a swan. The last of the evening light shone through the window in orange streaks, tainting the sallow walls. “If you want. What time will she be here?”

“She said ten o’clock tomorrow.”

“You spoke to her then?”

Catherine squeezed her eyes shut as the sunlight lapped her cheeks and forehead. “No. Caroline called.”

Owen nodded, understanding now. He raised his hand, hovering over Catherine’s foot. She wore pop-socks and he could see the wrinkled gathering of flesh around her ankles. He wanted to touch her. He wanted to smooth out the creases. But instead he said, “remember how many books she took up with her to Edinburgh? And that look on her face when she realised she’d have to share a room.”

Catherine shook her head. “You told me.”

“She was furious.” Owen drew his hand back to his side. “But, she wanted a room in catered Halls. I told her she’d either have to learn to cook or learn to bite her lip.”

“Ah yes, her temper.” Catherine sat up again and shuffled up the bed, so her back leaned against the headboard. She stared outside, where Gordy and little Matt were now polishing the car. “She used to scream when we took her to be measured for shoes.”

“Or when someone cut her up when she was driving.”

“And if she couldn’t watch her cartoons.”

Owen hesitated. “I imagine she lost it when she found out about Callum and that woman.” He watched Catherine carefully.

“I had to take her home from toddler-group that one time, remember? She’d pushed a little boy off the slide.” Catherine didn’t look at him. “I think Freya will always be a wilful little madam.”

“Cath, love. She’s thirty-one. She’s not a little madam anymore.”

Catherine flapped her hand. “You know what I mean.”

Owen did. He understood but could not say. Beside the bed, a photo of Freya as a baby sat in a pink frame. He had wanted to replace it – have one of her when she graduated, or from a holiday. Not from her wedding. But Catherine had refused and the photo stayed where it was.

He opened the door to the slim wardrobe. Catherine had wiped the shelves and drawers, and an artificial, forced antiseptic smell slid out into the room. “Do you think there’s enough space in here?”

Catherine drew up her knees and rested her chin against them. “Should be. I know she got rid of a lot of her dresses when Callum left. He’d bought them, you know.”

Owen thought of his son-in-law and a little muscle in his jaw beginning to throb. “Guilt.”

“Yep. She’s bought the odd new thing, but nothing much.”

“Well, as long as she has enough space.” He finally sat on the edge of the bed, back to his wife. “What about her house? All the furniture? Has that been packed up?”

Catherine shrugged. “Callum took what he wanted. The rest Freya kept. I expect she’ll need us to help sort it…later.”

Later. Such a disappointing, portentous word. Owen picked at his nails, sagging about his middle like a wet sack. He’d speak to his daughter about her failing marriage…later. He’d find out where his son-in-law was shacked up with his new girlfriend…later. He’d tell Catherine how their inability to talk hurt him and worried him and gnawed at him like an illness…later.

But now, maybe, things had to be different. Still with his back to Catherine, he spoke. “Do you think…do you think we’re doing the right thing, love?”

“What do you mean?” Catherine’s voice was light.

“Having Freya here. I mean, of course we want her back with us after what’s happened with Callum, but – there’s everything else. Do you think we’re doing the right thing?”

Catherine ground her teeth, the gravelly sound carrying in the warm room. “Of course we are. Our baby needs us. We’re her parents.”

“Yes, love, we are. But Freya isn’t a baby anymore.”

“Oh you know what I mean!”

“Yes, I do, Cath. I do.” And then Owen turned to face her. His mouth fell into a heavy line and he had never felt so sad in all his life. “I know you think by having her here you can nurse her again, make her a child again. Maybe you think you can make her well. But you can’t.”

“Oh Owen.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound so harsh.” Owen passed a hand shakily through his hair. His chest and stomach seemed to buckle and he wondered if he might be sick. “But I want you to understand, Cath. She’s not going to get better. That complete shit she married realised that and took off. I think the floozy he took up with was just an escape. But she’s not going to get better, love. Our Freya’s almost gone.”

He cried then, and Catherine cried with him. Separated, wrapped around only themselves, they let the tears fall and hated each other a little. The distrust between them cooled the air.

Moments passed and Catherine wiped her face. She stared down the bed at her husband. “Freya’s coming home. That’s all there is to it.”

“Right.” Owen avoided her gaze and focused on the carpet instead. “And where will we put the oxygen? And the drip? And Caroline? The hospice were good to let her work her shifts here, but she needs a room. She can’t be expected to sleep on a chair.”

“Our room, then. Caroline can take our room. We can sleep downstairs.”

“Fine.” Owen stood up. “You have it all figured out.”

“I do.” And Catherine began to cry again. “Besides, it won’t – it won’t be for long, will it?”

And as her shoulders began to shake, as happy sounds from outside flowed into the room, the white clarity of Catherine’s grief stung Owen with sharpened understanding. It wouldn’t be long. The yellow walls would still be fresh, little Matt would still be spending his summer afternoons with his grandfather. The thirty-one years of Freya’s brief life were rushing towards a moment not too far away, and there was not a thing her parents could do.

Owen watched his wife, aching with sorrow. And, somewhere, an iceberg out in the Arctic began to melt.   

Written by Rebecca Burns

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition