A Short Story by
© Carole Hayman 2009
A Leap of Faith
There was an almighty crash. Sonia leapt bolt upright in bed, sweat starting from every pore, her hair stuck clammily to her forehead. ‘Wha.. wha..’ she mumbled with dry tongue. In the other bed Annie stirred and turned over, sighing, ‘Jackie Boy,’ in her sleep. Sonia blinked and cleared her eyes. The room was in semi-darkness, a sliver of dawn light parting the curtains. Soon the ambiguous shadows would coalesce into chest of drawers, wash stand, dried flower arrangement. She leaned against the bed head and put a hand on her thumping heart. Silly. No intruder. Imagination only. But surely.. that crash had been real? Swinging her legs over the side of the bed she groped for her espadrilles and padded softly across the room. The little house was silent. Outside she could hear the morning chorus begin and the buzz of the milk float as it whirred down the street. Nothing.
Sonia got back into bed, chilly now and dug about for the lukewarm hot water bottle. She had been dreaming. What now? Aah yes, another anxiety dream. In this one she’d been in prison, for murder it seemed. There was a scene where, dressed as a poor nineteenth century peasant, she had begged the governor to tell her whether she would be hung there or taken to another prison. For some reason it had been terribly important to know. As she twisted her hands at the governor’s desk she had seen them erecting the scaffold through his window. Then time had switched. It was modern day. Holloway perhaps? She was on death row but to be paroled to make her final arrangements. She’d been in a flat, she remembered, it seemed to be her mother’s. Her mother was characteristically more worried about what time she would be in for tea than the fact that in two days her teas would cease forever. What happened after that she couldn’t remember. The crash had startled her out of the dream and must have been part of it.. a guillotine? Sonia put her hands to her throat and swallowed. Then she rubbed the rigid back of her neck, re-settled the pillows and drifted into a wakeful doze ‘til morning.
A clattering saucepan lid woke her legitimately at 9.30. She fuzzily took in that the sun was now brazening through the half open curtains, that the other bed was empty and that, judging by the sounds and smells, Annie was downstairs frying bacon. This was shortly corroborated by Annie’s voice as from the foot of the stairs, she briefly announced, ‘Breakfast’.
Sitting opposite her sister, Sonia drank good strong coffee and toyed with the bacon sandwich.
‘Eat it don’t play with it.’ Said Annie, in nursery tones.
Sonia guiltily took a bite, Annie was losing patience with her she knew. It was one thing to offer seaside bed and board to a family member recovering from a tiresome illness, another to have a listless and frequently tearful neurotic, prey to a hundred daily anxieties and a thousand nightly terrors, actually staying in your house.
‘Sleep alright?’ said Annie, more generously.
‘Umm. Had a bit of a dream.’
‘Not another! What was it this time? All alone on a raft with a killer whale approaching?’
Annie’s full throated laugh crashed round the cottage. The laugh of a positively comatose sleeper, thought Sonia. It was coarse of Annie to refer to the giant goldfish incident – Sonia had fallen asleep in the bath – but then she always had been insensitive. Annie loved her she knew, but it was a love shot through with older sister superiority and the grating disregard of the practical person (stable manager) for the needs of the suffering artist.
Sonia went into the hall intending to go upstairs and dress, but also to get away from Annie’s familiar banter. On the doormat she saw, for the first time, the large brown package. So large, she wondered how it had got through the narrow letter box. Of course! That was the culprit! The postman had forced it through and the noise as it had hit the floor was the crash that had woken her. She knew without looking what it was; her novel, returned to her from yet another publisher. A frank or a kindly note would accompany it.. ‘Dear Ms Loveless, thank you for sending.. much as I enjoyed.. after careful consideration.. unable to place..’ Worse were the ones that attempted advice. ‘Your novel has little substance. Why not write about real events, your own experience,’ etc.
What was her own experience? Thirty, alone, no children, a cat, a broken marriage, an illness, a couple of stories published. It wasn’t interesting. Her dreams were much more alive and vivid, but you couldn’t write about dreams, could you?
As Sonia slowly mounted the stairs her thoughts returned to the strange dream of that morning. Whom had she murdered, she wondered; her lover? Her child? Both were true metaphorically speaking, if you counted an early abortion. Perhaps it was her cat. Heaven knows, she wished the little beast dead often enough, when it fouled on her bed or the carpet. If only her dreams were more explicit. Gave her a proper – what was the word they all used? “Genre”. A murder story for instance would be hard for a publisher to reject.
‘See you later,’ sang Annie’s voice as she clattered through the hall. ‘Won’t be back ‘til seven-ish tonight, Jackie Boy needs a good run and I’ve got late riders coming.’ The front door slammed behind her and then the iron gate scraped and clanged. Sonia stood quite still in the bedroom ‘til the flying atoms had settled.
After a bath and twenty minutes yoga, Sonia decided on a walk on the cliffs. It was a fine bright breezy day and as Annie kept telling her, there was no point in being at the seaside if you didn’t take in the sea air. She thought she would stroll along the front and ask Laurel, an acquaintance of Annie’s, if she wanted to accompany her. Laurel too was a writer, a success at children’s fiction – though she had none of her own – rather patronising of Sonia’s efforts, (‘Well darling.. you’re just not a proper writer..’) but a witty conversationalist and always up for a gossip on the doings of the little town.
These were surprisingly lurid, as recounted by Laurel, who was always full of who was having whose wife, how there’d been a punch up at the Indian, which pub allowed late night drinking and who’d been seen losing two hundred pounds in the almost local casino. No wonder, thought Sonia, her fiction sold well, she hardly had to make up any of it.
Laurel drove them to the foot of a cliff-top beauty spot and they toiled up the wild chalky path to a breathtaking view of rolling, corn covered downs and green-blue winking sea, with perfect foamy wave-lets and here and there the bright dash of a coloured sail. Both heaved sighs. ‘Perfect,’ murmured Laurel.
‘Mm,’ agreed Sonia, with less conviction, she was still breathing heavily from the climb.
The path wound on past wild sweet pea and ripening bramble. Beyond the stiff grasses Sonia saw a cloud of seagulls lift squawking behind a tractor which was ploughing up the rich dark soil. The ground curled away from the furrow like chocolate butter icing. Shortly they came to a sign warning of cliff-top danger. It always made Sonia giggle; a little peg-man, more surprised than hurt, was tumbling comically from the crumbling cliff-side, his arms waving at but not grasping, a bouncing boulder at his side. Sonia stifled her laughter, turning it into a sneeze, she didn’t want Laurel to think she was unfeeling.
Laurel was telling some (to Sonia) incomprehensible story of a local small-time gangster. Apparently he’d appeared recently at a party and had entertained everyone vastly by grabbing the band’s mike and singing word-perfect old time music hall. Astonishing what hidden depths people had, opined Laurel.
‘Astonishing,’ granted Sonia, averting her eyes from a well-endowed nudist who’d just reared up to the left of them.
She badly wanted to ask Laurel’s advice about the novel, but didn’t know how to open the subject without being bald or importunate. Usually Laurel was very free with criticism, but since Sonia had given her a manuscript to read, she’d remained remarkably silent. Did she hate it? Sonia wondered. Was it too bad to warrant comment? Perhaps it was too good, and Laurel was jealous? Yes, that she would prefer to believe.
‘My novel was returned this morning,’ she finally broached, as they stopped to get their breath back.
‘Uhhuh.’ Laurel drew deeply on a cigarette.
‘The letter said it lacked conviction.’
‘I can’t stay out long, I’ve got a deadline,’ said Laurel.
She took a small trowel out of her handbag and kneeling down began stabbing at the dry earth sharply. ‘I want a piece of this wild Broome for my rockery, it’ll make a marvellous windbreak.’
Sonia stood awkwardly at her side, irresolutely kicking at a tuft of dune grass. She felt absurdly annoyed by Laurel’s action. The writer was always whipping out her implement and raiding perfectly innocent bits of the country, it was a matter of honour with her never to pay for what she could steal, besides, she was being evasive.
‘What did you think of it?’ she blurted quite rudely, at the same time giving a particularly accurate kick to the grass clump. Fine sandy dust flew up into Laurel’s face, causing her to cough and blink.
‘Well,’ she said, after she had cleared her throat, ‘if you really want to know, I thought it was pretty awful.’
Sonia swallowed, she had certainly asked for it.
‘It’s not just that it’s formless and amateurish..’ once started, Laurel was not to be hindered.. ‘I could put up with the windy vocabulary and the strained similes..’
Sonia turned to face the horizon.
‘But what is truly unforgivable, is that it’s not about anything!’ Laurel stopped, as though her verbal clockwork had run-down and resumed her digging activity.
Sonia stared at a little red sail as it battled with the waves. Somewhere clinging to it was a tiny human, a wind-surfer, but she could make out only a faceless blob as it dipped, then collapsed in the water.
‘I hope you don’t mind my saying.. you did ask,’ queried Laurel, without a hint of remorse in her voice.
Sonia shook her head, sadly she knew Laurel was right. ‘I don’t know what to write about.’ She said lamely, ‘I know I want to write.. can write, but I just don’t have any stories.’
Laurel looked at her as though she was fit to be hospitalised. ‘That’s ridiculous! Things happen. Anything makes a good story if you tell it imaginatively.’ Laurel was living proof of that. ‘What about your marriage..?’
Sonia shrugged, ‘Boring, he went off with a secretary from the BBC.’
‘Mm, bit of a cliché,’ admitted Laurel, puffing on her Gauloise.
‘Family? School? Holidays? Accidents?’
Sonia remained doubtful, ‘Nothing ever happens when I’m around. Nothing.’
At length Laurel dried up and gave an exasperated poke at the Broome root. ‘The only important thing,’ she began, with finality, as she got both arms around the plant and pulled, ‘is to write from your own experience.’
‘You don’t.’ Sonia couldn’t resist. ‘You write about children and you’ve never had any.’ Annie had mentioned to Sonia Laurel’s unhappy affair with a married man; her regret at not having had children.
Laurel’s face flushed a dark, unhealthy red. ‘That’s completely different,’ she barked, through wreaths of smoke. ‘Children are all around us, I take my observations from life.’
She gave an exclamatory heave to the Broome plant, as though to enforce the point, then a sudden stagger back, as, without warning, it shot out of the loosened earth and overbalanced her.
‘Careful,’ cried Sonia, Laurel was awfully near the edge. ‘ There’s a crumbly bit behind you.’
Laurel was righting herself as Sonia’s hand extended to help her. The hand contacted the end of the burning Gauloise, flailed wildly and struck Laurel a forcible blow on the chin. Without a sound she went over the edge, the Broome bush still clutched to her bosom. For a moment she hung suspended, more surprised than hurt, in the exact attitude of the little peg-man. So much so, that this time Sonia could not suppress a loud giggle, which froze mid-peal, as Laurel, eyes and mouth wide open, disappeared from view and a thin howl came from the cliff-side.
Sonia stood stunned for what seemed like hours but was probably only a second, then with sick stomach and dizzy head, she dropped to her knees and carefully crawled to the danger point. Far below on the foamy rocks was the still, faceless, peg-man body of Laurel. Now, thought Sonia, her heart pounding wildly, for the first time, she indisputably had something to write about.