“Green and Violet Budgies” by Michael Creese
Michael Creese “Big Sur California” (2010)
a massively extended version of ruthlesscalculus’ post
Loretta O’Malley was not a lonely woman. She reminded herself of this every morning, when the first beam of sunlight peeked through her window and kissed the sleep from her eyes. On this particular summer day, she rested a few minutes before rising from bed and making her way to the kitchen. As she carefully sliced a grapefruit in half, she inwardly rejoiced at the singularity of her actions. She sprinkled the dark pink fruit with a few pinches of sugar, poured herself a glass of orange juice and slipped out the glass doors onto the back deck.
Sinking into the cushioned lounge chair, Loretta did not think about sharing this moment with another being. Instead, she dug into the flushed center of her grapefruit and relished in the simplicity of its preparation. She delighted in the fact that she had only herself to take into consideration. Long gone were the days when she spent the entirety of the morning rousing the household. As the sun began to make its way past the horizon, Loretta reminded herself to savor each moment of its beauty. For most of her life, her mornings had been devoted to others and a sunrise was not a luxury she could afford.
Loretta finished her grapefruit with a satisfied smile, and downed her orange juice in one gulp. The sun had risen much higher in the sky when she scurried down the rickety staircase and made her way across the cool green grass. Nimble fingers sought the rusting latch, deftly avoiding the frayed splinters of wooden gate that separated her lawn from the overgrown path leading to the beach. Swinging the gate wide, Loretta strode down the narrow path briskly. Her hips swung as she hastened forward, a cotton towel hanging loosely over her shoulder. Loretta did not falter as the soft earth gave way to stony pebbles, nor did she flinch when a cold wave broke on her bare feet. Tossing her towel up behind her on the warm sand, she took a deep breath and plunged headfirst into the sea.
She swam to the pale red buoy that bobbed a good distance from the shore, alternating her strokes as was her custom. The appearance of a distant figure on the beach led Loretta to abandon her usual routine and hasten back to the shore. Her eyes narrowed as she waded out of the water and onto the beach. A young man sauntered towards her, a sheepish smile on his face.
“You’re early.” Loretta remarked.
“I was hoping to do some sight seeing after I get settled in.” he said simply, thrusting his hands deep into the pockets of his shorts.
“There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow,” Loretta said briskly, motioning for the young man to follow her, “Let’s head up to the house and I’ll show you around.”
He followed her obediently up the winding path, and around the side of the house to an inset door. Loretta flipped the doormat over, and retrieved a set of keys which she turned promptly in the lock.
“All yours,” she swung the door wide and tossed the keyring at him. He caught it deftly with one hand and a boyish grin.
She led him through the three room apartment quickly, pointing out his bedroom, the bathroom and a modest but comfortable living room.
“I’ll let you get settled in,” she turned and headed for the stairs, “Lunch is at noon”
Loretta headed back out the door and up into her own house. Any other day she would wash way the remnants of her swim in a few deft minutes, but on this particular day she found herself lingering in the warm shower.
At the behest of her daughter, she had agreed to board the young man for the summer in exchange for help around the house. He was the son of a family friend, and she briefly recalled his presence at a few of her granddaughters’ birthday parties. She was not entirely thrilled with the prospect, and at first had been adamantly opposed to the idea. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when she nearly fell off a ladder trying to clean the gutter that she admitted that a bit of help wouldn’t be amiss.
As the warm water washed the salt from her hair, she considered the young man. She wondered how he would react to the remoteness of his new residence, there weren’t many others his age nearby. It certainly would be strange to have another person in such close quarters, she had been living alone for nearly forty years now. Loretta was quite fond of her solitude and found herself hoping that he did not infringe upon her too much.
A frigid gush of water startled her out of meditation and she reluctantly turned the shower off. A few minutes later, she was bustling around the kitchen and preparing lunch. Much to her chagrin, she had agreed to provide meals for the boy. She sighed as she examined the contents of the refrigerator.
Her brow furrowed as she pulled four slices of bread from the bag instead of the usual two. She had forgotten what it was like to be responsible for another person. Her annoyance grew as she popped the first two slices into the toaster and waited impatiently.
Loretta’s mind drifted. She did not hear the faint knock at the door, or the pop of the toaster as it propelled the toast upwards. Loretta slipped into the memory like a trance, the blue paint on the walls morphing into flowered yellow wallpaper, the gleaming oak cabinets dissolving into harsh linoleum counters. It was 1983 and she was bent over the stove, the spatula poised to flip a pancake.
She heard the patter of feet as her children chased each other down the halls, squealing with mirth. She flipped the egg easily and pulled a container of milk from the refrigerator. She sighed at the heavy footsteps of her husband staggering down the hallway, undoubtedly still drunk from the night before. She could smell the liquor on his breath as he stumbled into the kitchen. He wore the same clothes from last night, and his thick fists clenched a suitcase.
She gaped at him. His words were slurred when he told her that he was leaving her - this time for good. Then the tears welled in her eyes, and left her throat burning. White hot anger surged through her body, a string of curses rising in her mouth. She couldn’t be sure if it was the unattended pan that caught flame that choked down her words, but she was silent as he walked out without looking back.
Loretta O’Malley found herself startled out of her daydream by a loud knock. The young man stood in the doorway, grinning wildly at her.
She ushered him inside, and set him down at the table.
“Hope you like turkey,” she said and placed a sandwich and glass of milk down in front of him. Taking a seat across from him, her lips tugged upwards despite herself. It had been a long time since her grandchildren had sat in those chairs, and an even longer time since her own children had sat there.
“Thank you,” he cleared his throat, “For everything Loretta,”
“Don’t thank me yet,” she said dryly, “I still haven’t told you what is expected of you - there are a lot of things around here that need fixing.”
Loretta spent most of the afternoon showing the boy around, explaining where she kept things and how to use certain tools that were a bit old fashioned. The boy proved to be a quick learner and a good listener. But as it turned out, there wasn’t a great deal of things that need to be done that very day.
“I suppose there isn’t much more to be done today,” she said with reluctance, “You are free to do whatever you please for the rest of the day”
He thanked her fervently, and his eyes gleamed with childish excitement. She wasn’t sure why she felt a pang when he told her not to expect him for dinner.
When Loretta sat down at the table a few hours later, she felt uncertain, for the first time in many years. The bleakness of the empty chair stared back at her. She chewed slowly and without her usual vigor. It was tasteless. The sky was a blend of colors swirling and melding together into a beautiful sunset. Loretta O’Malley did not remind herself to savor the quiet mix. Instead she turned on the radio and turned to face the blank blue wall.
I think I’ve gone over the details of that summer in my head a million times. It’s like trying to remember a dream, I can grasp parts of it but it just keeps fading away. Every so often, a little memory triggers another and I fall back into it like a trance
Dying of grief. An expression I had always correlated with pity - three simple words that I had perhaps taken too lightly. I did not perceive it as substantial, rather a feeble excuse for women who were either too lazy or too weak to move on. Love was an asset, a luxury even - but it never was a necessity. Air was a necessity, one needed air to breathe; but love? Love was never an essential to being. And so these women with their broken hearts were buried within the confines of my mind. Only to be sporadically surveyed with distaste and spite. Society pitied them, and I shunned them.
Perhaps I was too critical of those wimpy, simpering women. Too quick in my assumptions that they were vacant, spineless women who had not the courage to speak up for themselves. It had always been clear in my mind that these women were the most destitute of character. Incapable of independence, of self will. I had resigned to never be reduced to depending on a man. I was young and headstrong and bold. I would not be like Them, so meek and immersed in self pity. I would not wallow in my own misery. No man would have the power to defeat me.
Despite my disdain, I had to recognize the possibility that this wretchedness might not completely be the fault of these women. Perhaps it was something of their character, of their weak disposition that had doomed them to such a fate. I deemed myself safe.
How dreadfully wrong I was
There is a musty smell emanating from the book, an odor mingled with the faintest hint of lavendar. The scent belongs to meticulous flipping of pages that are both crisp and white. It belongs to each and every book nestled in droves in the bookstore on the outskirts of the seaside village. But the faint scent belongs especially to the worn romance novel, long ago rebound from usage. It belongs to the hollow oak along the brook where it was frequently re-read.
But most of all it belonged to Blaine. Was it not she who had flipped through the pages endlessly, each time devouring the fairytale with renewed wonder? Was it not she who had mended the tear, willingly enduring hours of careful stitches. Was it not she who had only departed with the book for a few hours since her ninth birthday? One thing was for sure, if Blaine had one shred of consistency in her life, it was the presence of that book.
The clear tinkling of bells and the creak of the heavy door invaded the comfortable silence. Blaine sat up abruptly, setting down her book and attempted to appear attentive. She was genuinely surprised, it was rather early for customers. Only a few minutes shy of eight. Her dark blue eyes flickered across the room lazily, her gaze resting on the two dark shadows who had slipped over the threshold.
Bare fingers sought the milky white stone that rested in the hollow of her collarbone. It was difficult not to become distracted by the cool exterior. She lifted her gaze, glancing up through her dark eyelashes at the crisp sky. She smiled to herself, carmine red and beige sienna for the dark pink sky and a contrasting goldenrod for the glowing sun. Her hands found their way from the necklace to her satchel, and she rifled through the clutter of papers, retrieving her new oil paints. She bit her lip, her slender arm extending as she deliberately splattered the thin paint onto the bare canvas. The perforated surface was darkened with shadow, and she swiveled around, her face crinkling into a broad smile.
“Lia,” his polite greeting was resonating with genuine pleasure.
She smiled cheekily up at him, “Missed me already?”
“Barely, you’re rather boring to be honest,” a smile was fighting to spread across his face.
“Which explains why you seek me out after merely an hour of separation,” she winked at him, slowly gathering up her paints and packing up her canvas.
“I got a letter from my mum,” his voice is serious now, “I have to go home earlier then expected,”
“When are you leaving,” her eyes are pleading
“Tomorrow morning,” he subconsciously ran his hands through his tousled hair, frowning.
She is silent for a few minutes, thinking about the news.
“Well what are we waiting for?” her eyes are sparkling with mischief, “Time is wasting”
Michael Sullivan was frustrated, mostly with himself. He figured it wouldn’t be very hard to find his unusual friend in the small village, so he hadn’t bothered to suggest a place to meet. It had all seemed very logical to him, how could he not bump into her? But now, after scouring several shops, the crowded market and asking countless strangers if they had seen her, it seemed rather idiotic on his part. It wasn’t like he was so desperate to see her personally, it was just that he had absolutely nothing else to do. This morning the elder woman from the apartment above his had scolded him for making such a ruckus. He rolled his eyes at thought of her brandishing her frying pan at him and insisting he get out of her sight. He supposed the painters were in, but then blanched at the thought. He slipped up and down the crowded docks, only to find it empty of Liadan. He sighed before making his way to the playground, stopping only to help an older man retrieve the contents of the basket he accidentally dropped. There was a tidal wave of children at the newer playground, and only a scarce few at the old fashioned playground that they had gone to the night before. But there was no Liadan.
He was practically ready to give up as he stumbled down a dusty trail lined with large oaks, when he heard her husky voice calling his name. He skidded to a stop, turning around to find that she was nowhere in sight.
“Look up silly,” her laughter floated down from a thick tree on his left.
He grinned as she tucked a notebook into her satchel and swung lithely down the branches, jumping from the lowest one to land easily on her feet.
“Want to go on an adventure?” her eyes were beaming, and her hair shimmering in the sunlight.
Her bare feet were scalded by the hot sand, but she welcomed the perpetual warmth. It was a relief after the cool exterior of moss, and the ice cold water that numbed her feet. After the familiar trip down the worn shady trail, and his silence as they carefully crossed the creek, she had come to a decision. He was definitely worthy of the cave. The entire journey up until the trail opened up into sandy beach, he had remained silent, devoid of complaint. She thought back to her childhood friend Mara who had whined about practically everything, squealing in fear of crossing the river, and grumbling at the scattered rocks on the path. It had been years since she had even thought of taking someone to the cave, and even then she had always decided by the end of the trip that they did not deserve the beauty of her secret recluse. This will be different, she decided as the pair walked down the beach, lulled by the steady crash of the waves.
Her dark blue eyes scanned the looming cliffs, searching for the hidden entrance. She tugged on his arm when she finally spotted it, and motioned for him to follow her. Her slender arms extended outwards when she reached the base of the cliff, blindly grasping vines. Then she pulled back the ivy covering the bare rock, fumbling at first, before sighing impatiently and moving slightly to the left. Her hands clenched in triumph when she finally uncovered the black hole; large enough for a person to crawl through if they crouched. She glanced over her shoulder, and her lips tugged into a smile at his bewildered face.
Without saying a word, she dropped into a crouch and disappeared into the hollowed archway. A few moments later she heard his wary footsteps following her up the slight slant. Her hands fumbled in her satchel until she found a match and a candle. A bright light emanated from the candlestick and illuminated the dark tunnel, casting ghastly shadows. The passageway cut from the cliff wound up and around, and she smiled at the thought that her friend had no idea what was in store for him. It seemed like moments before the winding passage finally opened up, but she was sure it seemed like eternity for Michael. Her eyes danced at the sound of the awed gasp from behind her. She could hardly be surprised; her own reaction to the tranquil beauty was rather similar.
“It’s beautiful,” he murmured, finally finding his voice. His muffled reply echoed through the hollowed cave, fading into a whisper. He was sure he had never seen anything quite as beautiful in his entire life. The tunnel in itself was astounding, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the cave. The stone walls were embedded with crystals, stalactites that seemed as if they were composed of light grew from the ceiling, and their counterparts sprung up from the edges of the floor. Everything around him sparkled and glistened like the sun, and the silence was not hollow but rather full of presence. If it could even be possible, the view was even more breathtaking than the magic of the cave. At the other side of the cave, the walls were cut ruggedly in the shape of an archway and as he stepped closer he could see the foaming waves of the sea. The sky was a dark pink in contrast with the bluish green water, the sand hundreds of feet beneath them.
“Be careful around the edge,” she blushed impishly, “I nearly fell once,”
“How did you find this place,” he took a few feet from the edge, for his own self preservation as much as because she told him too.
“My dad showed me it; he found it when he was just a boy,”
He nodded, carefully catching her eye. Her dark blue eyes were guarded but thoughtful, and he wondered briefly if she would tell him more. He could tell she was weighing the options, perhaps sifting through what ought to be left out. He could not help but be curious, the gleam in her eye suggested that there was much more to this story then she intended to let on. She did not disappoint him though, instead continuing as if she had never paused.
“He found it when he was six or so, he always tells me he imagined himself to be Tom Sawyer” she laughed, sitting down cross legged on the floor, “He used to bring my mum here,”
He sat down also, waiting for a sign that she wanted to change subject. But he wasn’t picking up any discomfort, just mild indifference.
“I can’t remember why you never came along with us, for all the summers we spent here,”
His smile disappeared into a grimace.
“I suppose your mum,” she withdrew her lost gaze from his visage and stared out at sea, “We were so close Michael,” Her voice was hoarse, but her eyes sparkled, “What happened to us, I don’t even know you anymore,”
“I’ve changed a lot Lia - we were only kids,” his voice was raspy from lack of use, or maybe worrying about saying the wrong thing.
“It’s strange when I think about it” she tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, “You left with barely a week warning, and barely an explanation,”
“That was a long time ago,” he shifted nervously, the question spilling out, “Did you hate me?”
“I could never hate you,” a smile spreads across her face, “I wasn’t exactly pleased with you, but wasn’t as if you wanted to leave,”
“I’m sorry I didn’t write,”
“I got over it,” she wrung her hands nervously, “But it was hard you know, losing my best friend,”
“It wasn’t easy for me either,” his voice was tense, “I was very selfish, I didn’t want to remember you; it was easier to forget”