Second Prize

Second Prize Story Winner
2022 Short Story Competition 

By Joyce Lobban

“Today’s the day Mum,” Tom says, “carpe diem and all that.”
He waves his hand in front of my eyes, “it’s me, your son, remember?
Driving lesson in twenty minutes!” I look at him blankly.
Tom grins, and rolls his eyes.
“How do you do that Mum?”
“Do what?”
“Vanish in the middle of a conversation?”
“I was thinking about being twenty and pregnant with you. And knowing once you were born everything would be alright.”
“Oh please!” he’s embarrassed now.
“I’ll go and clean my teeth, ok?”

His father had made all the decisions in our marriage.
Cheque signer, Card holder, his yes or no was definitive.
Holidays for example.
How I hated those long journeys to Mahia.
Blue sea, golden sand, stuffy tents, sunburn, ice cream
“Tom stop teasing your sister! Kirsty, don’t cry, you know he didn’t mean it.”
John’s too quiet voice cutting through.
“Shut those kids up Ann or I will.”
Panic squeezing my heart, I try to breathe slowly.
“Shall I pull this car over?!”
He says it to the kids, not me. Immediate silence.

“I don’t believe it,” Tom’s hand waves in front of my eyes,
“Mum, you’re going to be late!”
He turns off the tap and takes my toothbrush, his voice is impatient.
When I look at Tom, I don’t see his father. But sometimes I hear him.

“You know the staff dinner starts at five. ”
John is standing by the door in his grey suit, clenching and unclenching the car keys.
“I’m almost done ,” I mumble.
He comes closer, the force of his aftershave is overpowering.
“This is a staff dinner Ann. You could have made an effort to be ready.”
“Just my lipstick dear. ”
The keys relax for a moment.
“Your lipstick…?” his voice is almost a caress.
I put the lipstick down and fumble for my shoes.
It’s difficult to breathe.
“I won’t use lipstick then,” I mumble.
John looks down at me, with eyes that once seemed wise and good.
“ Oh but you will. I’ll do it.”
His fingers dig into my bare shoulders.

“Hey Mum,” Tom squeezes my arm gently, “are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” I smile at him, he looks upset.
“ I made you think of Dad didn’t I?” Tom knows me too well, “I sounded like him again.”
“Nonsense,” I try changing the subject, “have you heard from Kirsty this week?”
He shakes his head.

Kirsty is the quiet one.
Standing there, her fingers knotted in her cardigan as John slowly reads her school report. He looks at it silently, then folds the report, and puts it in the envelope where it will stay until he decides to read it out loud and comment on perceived failure.

There’s a toot, the driving-school car is waiting.
“Go on Mum.” Tom smiles at me,“you’ll be great.”
The path to the front gate seems shorter than usual.
“You’re Ann?” asks the Instructor, “please get in.”
I pull the seat belt on as slowly as I can.
I feel breathless.
I fumble in my pocket for my inhaler.

“You don’t need to drive darling,” John says on the first day of our honeymoon.
We are heading up the long angle of a bay towards some beach he calls Mahia.
He is thirty, and I am seventeen.

This time last year he was my history teacher, and out of all the girls in our form he noticed me. He smiled with his eyes, went over my homework with me on my own.
Said his name was John. Sometimes his hand brushed mine.
I wrote about him in my diary.
“Dear Diary, today J’s face was so close I thought my heart was actually going to burst!. I’ve taken the Brad Pitt poster off my wall.”
John said he dreamed about me and that something was happening between us that would change our lives forever. I didn’t understand then that it would.

Dad said no I was too young, he was really upset.
Until John told him something in secret that made Dad agree.
I bought a magazine with bride dresses but John said that sort of wedding took too long and we couldn’t wait could we. Mr McKenzie the JP would marry us, he said.
And Dad kept on telling me to rest, and asking if I felt well.
On our wedding day he looked right at me and said,
“Do you really want this Ann?”
I nodded. He handed me flowers from Mum’s garden.

“That man should be struck off for touching you. Just as well your mother isn’t alive.
Look I’m willing to help you look after it. I’ll support you Ann. Or if you don’t want to, people will always adopt.”
“What do you mean?” I stared at him.
John came and stood behind me.
And I thought Dad suddenly looked small and tired.
When Mr McKenzie asked who was giving me away, Dad whispered,
“It’s not too late to back out love.”
“Pardon me?” Mr McKenzie looked confused.
“He said he will,” said John loudly.
But Dad hadn’t said yes.
That was yesterday.
Last night was our first night alone.
John said it was special for him because it was my first time.
It was different to how I dreamed it would be.

I look at him now, beside me in the car, his profile outlined against the window.
“Please teach me to drive.” I plead.
“I said no,” John says quietly, “I’ll always take you where you need to go,”
he smiles at me and my insides cling to my bones, but I’m seventeen and I don’t let things go that easily.
“ What if you are away sometime, or you’re at work? Wouldn’t it be a good idea for me to drive?”
His face is so beautiful that I reach out my hand to touch his cheek but he brushes it roughly away and pulls the car into the shade of a pine plantation.
“I said you don’t need to drive,” he says.
His voice is gentle, but when he looks at me, his eyes are not.
He turns off the ignition and pushes me back on the seat.
Suddenly the darkness of the trees has entered the car, and their shadow overwhelms me, cold and terrible and hurting, suffocating my joy.
Later we drive up the road to the peninsular.

Twenty years later John leaves after breakfast .
“We’ll discuss it tonight,” he snaps. The door shuts.
Tom’s dream of theatre school reflects my failure as a mother.
“He’s got my bloody life planned out,” Tom shouts angrily,
“I’ll wash the dishes Mum,” murmurs Kirsty her hands gripping a plate.

Later the phone rings. It will be John checking in on me no doubt.

“Here,” I say, “as always.”
But it is Chris Smith from school.
“Ann, it’s John… hospital, heart attack.”
“There must be a mistake,” I say calmly, “he’s never sick.”
Chris’s voice is warm with sympathy,
“ Everyone knows how close you two are, envy of the staff. Look I’ll send someone to drive you there.”
Harriet arrives from the History department, visibly upset.
“Poor John. He’s my hero that guy. The kids adore him.”
“Of course they do,” I say.
He has never lost his charm in the world.

My husband has wires connected all over his grey skin.
His breath shudders.
I am strangely moved.
“Mrs Sherrer?” the doctor wears a white coat and a mask, “ Your husband’s had a massive coronary event. If he’d come in sooner, might’ve had a chance of recovery, did he have any warning signs?”
“John is always well,” I say, “only weak people get sick.”
The doctor gives me a strange look and leaves.
I sit with John in silence. I don’t talk to him, or touch him.
Sometime during the night he flatlines, there is nothing more they can do.

“Shall we do this another day then Ann?” the driving instructor shifts in her seat.
But Tom taps on the window of the car.
“It’s Claiming Independence Day, remember?”
I look into his eyes.

We are standing beside John’s open grave. Tom, Kirsty and me.
Surrounded by sympathy, looking down into the quiet earth.
The trees above us caste a shadow on the coffin.
Kirsty holds my hand.

Tom leans in and kisses me on the cheek through the car window
“Dad’s gone Mum. It’s o.k to do this now.”
I look up at him, and I know that it’s true.
“So how do we begin?” I ask the instructor.