Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Broken Connections

by Myra King                                 

Abby dips her toe in the bath like someone testing the water at the beach. But she does not stop, and plunges in with the rest of her body. The water smells of vinegar (her mother had told her it was the best disinfectant) and she glances at the empty bottle sitting on the floor. White brand from the supermarket. Everything she buys is on special or home brand. When there are eight to feed it is a struggle to make any money stretch far enough.
The latest hit song echoes from her transistor radio like applause. We shall overcome, we shall overcome…we shall overcome…someday…
Abby shivers and lays back, sees her stomach, which is slightly swollen, sitting above the water like a tiny white island.
The water is so cold. The sort of cold you could only find down south. Like her mother would say when the tourists came for their warm winters in her home town of Leonora, Western Australia. ‘Look at those people, off to the swimming pool and its only twenty-five degrees. They must be from down south.’
When Abby met Brandon, one of those visitors from South Australia, and he told her his profession she thought it was the most romantic thing she had ever heard. A lighthouse keeper. Such a noble calling. Saving all those people.

Now she hunches in the bath with her knees drawn up under her chin, arms wrapped around them in a sort of sitting foetal position. Immobilized. But she knows she has to move soon, make her arm reach out for her bag, the one with the paisley tapestry design, the one chattering with pins, needles, reels of cotton of every hue and all the buttons of her lifetime. Lost shirt buttons found long after the shirt had been made into rags. Buttons unpicked from babies’ garments little more than dust-cloths. Material covered buttons so big that she had let her children teethe on them. Everything has its use. Some have several. Her mother taught her that too.  

Before running the bath and getting the vinegar from the pantry, Abby had waited until her youngest boy, Hamish, was tucked up in his cot. Everything normal. The same bedtime story: The Very Hungry Caterpillar. ‘So much food he eats, mama.’ Then the plaintive and predictable, I’m hungry, so she’d gone to the kitchen, hoping she wouldn’t wake any of the other five children while she looked for something she could bring him. She prayed Hamish would be asleep, and he was, by the time she returned with a half cup of watered down milk. Then she’d put her mind on hold, readying it for the final task of the evening.

They live so far from anywhere. A white stone cottage coupling with a lighthouse of the same construction, on an island outcrop. Twenty acres wide. And they have been ‘working for the lights’ for so long now that Abby has almost forgotten what before was like. The only other people living on the island are an old couple, inured and comfortable in their seclusion. They rarely socialise.
Their only communication is a thin radio connection in predetermined hours. The operator on the mainland goes home after 7pm.
Abby’s husband, Brandon, is up in the tower. Checking, always checking. The light, with its many facets has to be kept burning. The ships have to be saved. He is their lifeline.

Abby presses her lips together and leans forward in the icy bath. She grabs the bag of many buttons and it slips from her grasp. She is mildly grateful that it remains closed and the contents have not been spilled. She retrieves the bag and places it on her knees. With hands which do not feel like they belong to her, Abby takes out one of the large cloth-covered buttons and places it between her teeth. Then she reaches in and takes out what else she needs.
Now she is someone else. She recalls what her mother told her to do. Her fingers delve and open, and she tries, with the rug-hook held tightly, to find the same pain she had felt when the doctor inserted that IUD four years ago.
It had not worked. Hamish was born with it grown onto his wrist like a bracelet.
He still bears the scar. But now, and she closes her eyes at this thought, it looks like a tiny question mark, whiter than his skin.
Abby clamps her teeth on the button. She feels the material slip a little, senses the structure of hardness beneath. Her jaw aches.
With fingers stretching, she pushes against herself, feels something burst in a lightning of pain and then it is over and just beginning all at the same time.
She lies back and watches the red, swirling from her as it warms the water. Her mother was wrong, she thinks distractedly, the cold water has not slowed the bleeding.
The batteries in her transistor seem to be fading, the voices like broken connections. But she sees the face of Brandon above her and, as if in a vacuum, she hears his cry. Now he is her lifeline.

Later she learns how he climbs the tower, flashes the light… three short, three long, three short… and thanks god that those he has saved so often are still familiar with the Code.

* * * * *

"Broken Connections" is part of Myra King's collection City Paddock & other stories.

Myra King lives along the coast of South Australia with her writer husband, David, and their greyhound, Sparky. Her poems and short stories, some of which have won awards, have been published in the UK, USA, Ireland and Australia in many literary magazines, books and anthologies. Myra has another short story collection, Uneasy Castles, and two YA novels: The Journey of Velvet Brown, and The Diaries of Velvet Brown, all published by Ginninderra Press, Adelaide, Australia. Her novel, Cyber Rules, was published by Certys UK.

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