The day school started, sun blazed in the autumn sky. Beatrice’s morning sickness was over. She’d learned how to operate the wringer washer in the dirt-floored cellar without mangling her arms. And in the heat of summer, hanging load upon load of damp laundry hadn’t been so bad.
‘For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’.
Weary of housework, back aching from picking rocks from the cherry orchard, she decided to repaint their name on the mailbox. The red flag was up; fresh mail. Tucking the paintbrush into her hair and the bottle of India ink into the crook of her elbow, Beatrice flipped open the box and pulled out some utility bills, a postcard from her just-married sister in New York and a blue airmail envelope. Curious, she flipped it over. The return address was Mosely, Birmingham, England, written in a school-marmish hand. A woman’s hand. A black cat had been drawn across the envelope flap. Underneath the tail was printed a tiny number XXVI. She’d seen that handwriting before. Years before, actually, when she’d been searching in a desk drawer for their cheque book. A stack of crisp envelopes secured with a rubber band. On top of a studio portrait of a curly-haired blond cuddling a little dog under her chin.
Beatrice gasped. The bottle of ink tumbled down her side, leaving a wet gash of black along her flowered house dress and staining the outside of her calf. When, exactly? Her gaze shifted to the patch of devil’s paintbrush growing in the culvert at her feet as she sifted through her memory. It had been a few months after she’d refused to move the family to Liberia. She kicked the empty bottle into the ditch, raced back to the house and turned the heat on under the kettle, praying that Anthony’s correspondent had used permanent ink.
“Dearest Tony,” she read. He’d always insisted Beatrice call him Anthony. “Thank you for the pretty hankies. Mam and Sis appreciated the thoughtful gifts. I bought a lovely new blouse with the five pounds you sent. Eddie and the blokes from the pub were asking after you. The printing plant and metalworks factory are running adverts in the paper for maintenance men. They’re giving preferences to vets still, so think about that. Our Alice and I went dancing at the Palais last weekend. It’s not the same without you, though.”
Beatrice clutched her belly and sank into a chair. Tears ran down her cheeks. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn something lovely and new. No, she did remember. Her wedding day.
‘Forsaking all others.’ She’d never had an ‘other’ to forsake.
It was the shouts of the children in the yard that brought her out of her stupor. Leaping to her feet, she scrubbed the ink from her skin with a dishrag then grabbed a bottle of mucilage, pressed a thin line of adhesive to the letter flap and pressed it shut with the flat of her wedding band. She made a bundle of the fresh mail and some opened envelopes, crumpling it between her fingers before tossing everything down and dragging it across the tiles with the toe of her shoe. She picked the papers from the floor and organized them into a tidy pile. If Anthony asked what happened, she’d make something up. She’d dropped the mail in the yard and had to grab the letters before the wind blew everything away. But he didn’t ask.
Beatrice stopped keeping track. The children were always hungry. As darkness came earlier and earlier, being housebound made them more rambunctious. Except for the walleyed egg man and the milkman who still drove a horse and buggy, she had no visitors. The Ukrainian and Polish farmers’ wives in the vicinity had twice as many children. Even if they’d understood English, there was no time or energy for socializing. Never-ending mending. Air leaked through chinks in the walls and shovels of coal had to be fed into the furnace around the clock. Anthony worked overtime, read three books a week and wrote poetry and letters every day. His nightmares returned; he often slept on the couch. They didn’t talk much, but the children’s chatter and his melancholy filled the spaces where marital congeniality had been. On New Year’s Day, she slipped carrying a pail from the indoor privy to the outhouse. He found her in the trampled snow half an hour later, big belly-up, spattered with frozen shit, tears pooled beneath her shuttered eyes like icy commas.
Their last child was delivered in hospital, in the midst of a blizzard. Beatrice was glad for the week of enforced rest. The cards from her family and the tug of that sweet fat boy at her breast reminded her of love. She’d been faithful. The Lord would provide. She pressed the heads of the flowers her husband brought her between the pages of her Sunday Missal and got on with it.
Anthony never got around to teaching his wife to drive the car. It was lonely for her on the farm. Those were the reasons he gave when, during Easter dinner two years later, he announced he was selling the property. They were moving into an apartment above the pharmacy in town. The children balked at leaving school and friends and the freedom of roaming the countryside. He sent them to bed without dessert. Beatrice looked forward to starting afresh with hot and cold running water, flush toilets and steam heat. No more wrestling with the tractor while Anthony wielded the sprayer. No more packing fruit in frilly purple cups for hours on end, getting stung by wasps. No more bathing last in a tin tub of lukewarm soap-scummed water.
For a time, the family rubbed along in the small apartment, lulled by town comforts like a laundromat, a public library, playgrounds and sweets from the Italian bakery. Anthony got a second job. Beatrice joined the Catholic Women’s League and knit socks for prisoners of war in Korea. He bought a newer used car and more books. She got a second-hand sewing machine. There were four stacks of airmail envelopes in the desk: she’d checked. While the ties that should have bound them frayed, Beatrice kept silent. She had no experience with couple-hood and feared whatever she did or said would be wrong. His moody silences she could endure. He didn’t beat her or booze it up. So what if their bed had grown cold? There was no knock-down, drag-out fighting in front of the children. They’d manage.
And they did, until she discovered the large dark suitcase—half-packed with his poems, the letters and his good clothes—under their bed.
‘Until death us do part’.
He’d hung his head and paced the room like it was a cage. She wrung her hands and begged him to think of the children.
“It’s all too much,” he moaned, waving his arms. “The noise, the demands. I can’t take it.”
“When?” Dry-eyed, she closed the door and leaned against the jamb. “What will we do?”
“I have a ticket. For the day after tomorrow.” He tried on a smile. Beatrice looked away. “Don’t worry, it will just be for a while.”
Their story ended with a lie, too.