Once a Woman

Slipping into insanity was like sinking into quicksand. Struggling against it, just as futile.’ 

Slowly Ellie lowered the page and closed her eyes against the confession that it represented. For so long she had thought of her mother as just that, a mother, not as a person who craved love and gentle affection as much as anyone. Now, after so very long, there was no denying that her mother had revealed herself as more of a woman than she had ever imagined her to be. Reluctantly she opened her eyes and continued to read the letter.

‘Every day I knew what I was doing was madness but I couldn’t stop. I’d say to myself this is the last time but of course it wasn’t nor was the next time or the time after that. Absolute madness it was. I once thought that marriage was forever and I had made a vow and I would stick to it. People of my generation were brought up to think like that, Ellie. But the thing is, forever is a long time to be unhappy. Your father was always a hard man but at the start that didn’t matter. I was too young and naïve to see the difference between passion and violence, although I did learn after a while. It was only later when it became a daily event that I realised he was sick.’

Ellie’s eyes stopped reading the words and saw instead in her memory the fury with which her father reacted to a late meal or imperfectly ironed shirt. Little things really but the aftershocks for her mother were always massive. Throughout it all, though, her mother had remained placid and bore it all in silence. Ellie had always thought of her as a woman without personality, passion or will. The closest her mother had even come to mentioning the violence was when she made an oblique recommendation for Ellie to be sure of any man she allowed into her life. Ellie had brushed off that advice at the time, knowing with the certainty of youth that she was too intelligent to get caught in that trap. To know now that her mother had been desperate and struggling to cope seemed somehow cruel. After all, it was far too late to help her and the memory of her own self absorbed callousness shamed her. It had been so easy to walk away and not even stop to think of the mother she left behind.

As if hearing her thoughts the letter continued:  “Don’t pity me, Ellie. As it turned out I managed to secure for myself almost a year of joy and the kind of love I had always dreamed of and I don’t regret what I did for a minute. I don’t want you to think that the reason you are reading this letter was that I regretted the time I had with Ben. I never did. I know that this may make you hate me but I can’t say I’m sorry that it happened. Your father is a harsh man and there was nothing I could have done to change him. He didn’t love me, I don’t know if he ever did and after everything that he did to me, I certainly didn’t love him anymore.’

Ellie pressed her lips together in a mix of dismay and sadness as she read those lines of blatant admittance of guilt. While she hadn’t seen much of her mother in the preceding months, she had noticed a suppressed spark in her eye and her movements but had not thought to ask what it signified. Somewhere inside her Ellie felt her soul constrict as she thought about the loneliness and the pain of a loveless relationship. The few false starts Ellie had experienced in the world of love and passion had been difficult enough but compared to this they seemed havens of bliss and comfort. Ellie had not shared those experiences with her mother but she knew now that her mother would have understood. Respect, love, passion and companionship seemed scarce enough to find by themselves but combined in the one person was virtually impossibly rare. To discover you had another chance to experience them would be tempting whatever your martial circumstances. But still, her mother…

‘I don’t expect you to understand this, Ellie, after all you only know Arthur as your father not as a man but please believe me when I say that I know him all too well. Unlike your father, Ben found me good company and we had so much fun together in the little time we could get together. Ben is everything I ever wished your father would be. He is different from Arthur in every conceivable way, sweet, considerate, kind and non judgmental. I suppose I shouldn’t tell you things like that, I suppose I should be fair to your father but the times when he was those things to me are so far in the past it feels like it happened to someone else. All I wanted was to be with someone who loved me and who wanted to be with me forever. What I had though was the forever in one man and the love in another.

For months I risked discovery with every meeting and I shudder to think what your father would have done if he had caught us together. It was very stressful but against what I had found, there was no real question that I would keep doing it. It seemed so strange, so crazy, to have spent my life trying to keep everything just so to avoid your father’s temper then turning around and doing the one thing that would have been guaranteed to send him absolutely beyond rage. There came a time though when I finally realised Ben was not going to suddenly disappear on me one day, and I decided to face your father and tell him what was going on. He was utterly furious, of course, I just can’t explain to you how angry he was. I asked him for a divorce but he decided it would embarrass him and he was not going to be having any of that. I begged him to let me go but all he did was burn the things of mine I might have been able to sell for a little money, just to make sure I didn’t have the means to leave. The things of monetary value of mine that he burnt were not the only things he destroyed, he wrecked my grandmother’s jewellery too, every single piece of it. I’m afraid that broke my heart, Ellie, and I couldn’t go on. Ben told me that sort of thing, money that is, didn’t matter to him and that we’d be alright. But I am almost fifty nine now and know that the chances of me getting work again are beyond remote and I can’t stay here. Ben is only forty one and still has his whole life ahead of him and shouldn’t be dragged back by someone like me. He deserves a young woman who can give him the fun, happiness and future of a great relationship, maybe even a family and I tried to make him see that. He argued with me, would you believe, my darling Ben did. But reality is still reality so I decided to give him the space he needed and to finally find peace myself. I’m sorry for the pain but what else can I do?’  

Again, Ellie stopped reading, her eyes filled with hot, helpless tears. The loneliness was almost radiating from the pages in her shaking fingers, burning into her soul with the intensity of a branding iron. She wanted to take this hurting woman in her arms and comfort her like a child but that wasn’t really possible now. It was all so wrong. This woman she had barely known despite living every day with her for eighteen and a half years, had been breaking apart in full view of the world and practically nobody cared. The one man that did couldn’t convince her that she mattered and that fifty eight was far too young to abandon hope and life itself. Ellie couldn’t even begin to comprehend that level of despair. It scared her to think that her mother was so bereft of hope that she could only think of one way to deal with her situation. Never in her life had Ellie felt that way and there was no way she could understand what must have been in her mother’s thoughts that turned her to suicide rather than just walking away. The destruction of a few material, if sentimental, things should have been a minor blow. But somehow it just wasn’t.

‘Please believe me when I say that my decision is a reflection on no one but myself. I am writing this only to give you some reason for what I have done. I know this is a hard thing to deal with but I can’t see anything else that can be done. I want you to know that I love you and always have and will. I hope that you achieve everything you have ever wanted in your life and that you have the great joy and happiness that you deserve. I want you to know that I’ve always been very proud of you and -’ the pen blotted a little ‘I hope that you can forgive me. Love your Mum.’  And her name signed below that.

For a long moment, she remained still, gazing at the careful signature at the bottom of the page. Even to the end, and despite everything that had gone before, her mother could not abandon the restraint that had marked her life. Somehow she had written that letter, conscientiously addressed it and lay it on top of her handbag on the kitchen table before going to the bathroom and, after laying out towels on the floor and benches, deliberately drew a craft knife across her veins, first one wrist then the other. It seemed impossible that she had seen that as her only option and as a solution, it was as extreme as it was unbelievable.

Finally Ellie folded up the letter, wondering if she would ever have the strength to lay her eyes on those words again, marvelling at the courage it must have taken to confess it all, and lay it on the bedside table. Then she took her mother’s hand gently in hers careful not to strain the bandages wadded around the wrist and was answered with a vague flutter of her mother’s eyelids but her eyes remained closed. Unconsciousness smoothed her lines and shed years from her face leaving her appearing peaceful considering the circumstances that led her to be there. A movement made Ellie look up to see a not quite middle aged man, a stranger, opening the door and quietly slipping into the room. Silently he considered her for a moment, then shifted his gaze to the woman lying in the hospital bed and his attention was caught so completely that Ellie may as well have not existed. He took her mother’s other hand with great care and stroked her hair with a gentleness that brought tears to Ellie’s eyes.

‘Oh honey, what were you thinking?’ he murmured. Her mother turned her head towards the voice although her eyes remained shut. This obviously was Ben, the man who induced her mother to adultery; who, despite the risk of running into her father, called on her mother after not being able to contact her, to find her bleeding to death on the floor of the bathroom of her otherwise immaculate home. After a moment, her mother opened her eyes and as she gazed at the man before her, Ellie knew that whatever else the future held for her mother, it was definitely, finally, going to include a man who truly adored her.