As soon as he was ensconced as manager behind the coveted walnut desk of the local bank branch, he knew he had arrived exactly where he belonged, and he made sure she knew her place in his world. She bore two children and raised them with love despite the odds stacked against her, and she never had to go out to work again. On that matter, she simply had no say – he would not allow her to return to nursing. He considered it an entirely unsuitable profession for the wife of the local bank manager, despite the extra income it would bring in. Once the children left home, her life became devoid of meaning.
Her kindly doctor knew just what to prescribe, and for a number of years, his remedy worked. The pills were such a blessing. They took away the sharp edges, blurred all her emotions, kept her cocooned in a meaningless little world of running errands, washing and ironing, cooking and baking, when most women were managing all that and far more.
It took her ten years to come to her senses. And still she hesitated. Divorce was such an ugly word. Mutual, amicable separation was what she had secretly hoped for, but it was never to be. She was too afraid. She had always been afraid, she belatedly acknowledged. His bite was worse than his bark, but even his children did not know that. The bite was reserved for her, behind closed doors. She had been cowed, subjugated, squashed under a fist of fury for so many years that it had become utterly, terrifyingly, normal. And even now, at her age, she continued to live with it.
How did it happen, she asked herself?
How did that young woman bubbling over with such joi de vivre become the meek, grey haired woman that sat here in this dreadful breakfast room smiling vacantly at the egg-splattered face sitting opposite her?
Twenty years ago, her mother had asked her the same question. It sent her mind reeling, her hand reaching for the medicine cabinet for the little white pills that kept that question at bay. Her mother stayed her hand, and told her, with quiet authority, to think carefully about how she wanted to live the rest of her life now that her children were grown up and their need for her was no longer what it had been. Besides, they all lived so far away, she had added pointedly.
How Bryony had wished one of her daughters had stayed close by, but they had all moved so far away that it did beg the question why. Over the years, their visits had become more and more infrequent, until they were purely perfunctory dutiful motions to be got out of the way as quickly as possible. She knew it was not because of her. Her children loved her. She had been a good mother. Perhaps, in hindsight, a little weak-willed in allowing him to override her authority on one occasion too many.
A few years later, her mother spoke to her again.
“I see you’ve done nothing about your situation,” she remarked drily.
“What situation? I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she blustered. But of course she knew. Her mother raised the subject every so often. Recently she was raising it almost weekly.
“Twenty more years, Bryony, twenty more years of this? You’re fit as a fiddle, your kids are grown up, what are you waiting for? Death? It won’t come early for you. Look at me. You have my genes in you, girl. You’ll live to see another twenty years or more. Twenty more years of him? Is that what you’re going to settle for?”
“Mother!” she had exclaimed, shocked by the outburst. “I’m fine, we’re fine, and I’ll thank you for minding your own business. Now shall I plump up the pillows for you?” A recent hip replacement operation had kept her usually sprightly mother bored and bed-bound. Now she was champing at the bit to be let out and about. They were so different, she and her mother.
“No, you won’t thank me for it. I’m fed up with minding my own business! He will never let you leave him now, Bryony. Do something!” She ordered her. Then her eyes had narrowed. “Not still on those happy pills, are you?”
How had she guessed? “Of course not!” but what was the use in denying her desperation. “That was a long time ago, Mum,” she lied.
Though there was no one else in the room, her mother’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Bake him one of your very special berry puddings. I know you know lots of good recipes, and he likes puddings, doesn’t he? Make it sweet, so he wants more. Let him eat his fill, let him gorge on it, let him eat it all.”
She had looked aghast at her mother. Surely she was not suggesting what she thought she was suggesting. Surely not. Not her own mother.
But she was.
Illustrated by Kemi Athene Pennicott.
Savita Kalhan’s new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror, will be published by Troika Books on 1 May 2018.