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July 2016, vol 12 no 2

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Claire Everett

The Red Pen

Looking back over the story, I wonder how credible it is. Write what you know, they say. Fiction can be a strange kind of truth and sometimes more believable. I'm tempted to delete the whole of the first marriage. Yes, that’s where our heroine cut her teeth on adulthood, but after the first happy years, perhaps the whole narrative starts to flounder; I mean, would she really have stuck around when the beatings started? Yes, women do all the time. But for so long? Well, it was the fear wasn't it? It’s like she was colour blind and she was going to have to defuse a bomb. Sometimes it’s easier to wait it out, keep your head down and hope it’s a dud. And when there are children involved, it’s a whole lot trickier. All the more reason to leave? And fast. So, let’s say I rehash it and have her walk out on him years ago: then what? Some of the children are never born. Or maybe they’re born to someone else, but then of course they won’t be the same children at all. They won’t fight to make their way in the world. No, I can’t play God with who makes the final draft and who doesn't. Every last one of those kids is a Chekhov’s gun.

Then there’s the lover who complicates a year or two after the escape from the brutal marriage. I could cut a good ten thousand words there, no problem. But she learns a lot about herself during that time, even if most of it lies at the bottom of a vodka glass. She suspects all along he’s a player, but he’s always got an alibi. And he’s clever and bookish, with sea-blue eyes that lament the suicide of his last girlfriend even when his mouth doesn't utter a word. (Then there’s the spinal condition and the limp). He cooks for her, too: whenever did she get treated like that? Mussels in white wine. And he’s crooning old love songs to her like she’s his very own Molly Malone. But no good came of that story either. So it unfolds: the ‘other woman’ turns out to be two. Could our heroine really have been that dumb? Yes. Because he never once raised his voice to her, let alone a fist. That’s the point she realises she’s hit a new low. The wife-beater thought she should be grateful he’d never been unfaithful. The philanderer said there were worse things than adultery. She decides her mother must be right: all men are swines. She might as well order her wimple now. So yes, the lover, deleted out of her life though he may be, must occupy a few chapters. (The break-up scene is quite a page-turner, though I say it myself).

So all men are swines. Is that the line she’s going to feed her daughters? Is that what she’s going to hold in her heart when she walks beside her sons? The one she calls her ‘rock’ is already starting to hate himself because of his gender. The middle chapters are about her being a mother first. Not all men are bad, then, but most of them can’t be trusted. Does it ring true that it’s the children that sign her up for that online dating site? Yes, because she’s their friend as much as she is their mum. And they think it’s a real hoot, especially when she starts off as something of a chick magnet because they didn't tell her the default setting was ‘interested in females’. It’s her ‘rock’ she tells first when she’s got a date planned. He says he guessed already. It’s just after New Year and they’re drinking Apple Jacks.

That’s when he asks her, “Do you regret things in your life, mum, choices you've made?”

She shakes her head. “Used to. But I'm with Edith now all the way.” She breaks into song, garbles the French. “Take one thing out, good or bad and everything changes. Remove a single domino and the whole cascade will grind to a halt. Someone, or something, had a hell of a lot of patience setting that whole thing up.”

So then she’s getting all nervous about her date. It’s like she’s sixteen again. But who’d want that? That was the age she was when her father died and that was what sent her headlong into the arms of the charmer who was destined to become husband number one . . .

as a summer’s day
in Reykjavik is long
yet, blind to the magic
we make our own

carrot tops
nibbled by the reindeer . . .
the Tooth Fairy's coin . . .
the years go door to door
pedalling their wares

truth and lies
find their rhythm
in incantation
this is the house that Jack built
the child takes up the chant

a hat for the bard,
the editor, the wizard . . .
my letters
(and my life) in order,
I have learned to spell