For my 26th birthday my husband bought me the "short story writing course" at SA Writers' College to reignite my passion for writing. Since I was little I have loved writing stories; my parents were always amazed by my overactive imagination. Although I would have loved to study literature and Greek mythology, I chose the 'safe' route and went for a business degree, and ended up working as a footwear and accessories buyer for one of the ladies fashion retailers.
As with most people, life is crazy and you hardly have a moment for yourself, let alone time to write a story! The course was great because it forced me to allocate time to something that I love, and once I turned on that creative tap it was impossible to turn it off.
I am so excited to start the novel writing course (Part of the SAWC prize) next month. So move over JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer!
Pieces of Peony Painted Teacups by Shelley Blignaut
I can still remember the day we met. Pregnant clouds hung low, their swollen bellies darkened the sky. I remember looking up and smelling the muggy air, waiting for the rain. February brought thunderstorms, the crazy kind that left even Dawson, the Great Dane of number nine, whimpering outside the kitchen door. It had been a long January, the Meyer’s had moved out just after Christmas and they had taken Molly with them. It was understandable since she was their daughter, but she was also my best friend. And so it was this day, with the threatening rain and the heavy air, with number four standing empty and me on the pavement mourning the loss of my friend, that February brought something else. It brought Grace.
You would probably say that she had potential to grow into a beauty, and since I would never see her grow, let us just say she did. But when she stepped out the car that day you would have to search hard for the potential. Her hair was mousy and her skin fair. Her eyes were small and brown and they were separated by a little nose that crinkled when she spoke. She was a wisp of a girl and I was afraid that the sound of the thunder might topple her over.
At first Grace didn’t see me, or perhaps she was ignoring me, but that night after the rain came, I slipped through the gate separating number four and number five, sloshed up their driveway and went to sit next to her on the top step of their veranda.
“ Shouldn’t you be in bed?” She asked without looking up.
“Shouldn’t you?” I replied.
She smiled guiltily.
“I’m Grace” she held a little hand out. It was clammy and warm when I held it.
“I’m Emily.” I said.
I saw a tiny speck of gold flash in her brown eyes.
“I’ve always wanted a sister called Emily.”
“Very well then we shall be sisters.” I shook her little clammy hand and we were inseparable.
Autumn leaves rusted on the boughs of trees until they fell to streak the lawns with colours of saffron and beetroot. The mugginess was replaced with chilly winds that whipped through windbreakers and chilled you from the inside. Grace and I would spend hours at the river at the bottom of her house squashing the muddy banks with our Wellingtons. It was on one of these autumn days by the river that we found a raven upturned on the banks. It was dead. Grace looked up at me with brown eyes filled with loss, “ We will have to bury it, Em.”
I had no particular love for Ravens, especially dead one’s. Days had eaten at this one’s feathers. Its blackness had no lustre and its eyes had been picked out to reveal gaping wells of nothingness. But Grace’s nose crinkled when she asked again and I would do anything to make her happy. So we took it’s still, stiff body and laid it in a shallow grave dug by a polystyrene cup that we found. Grace said a few words and then we sung the first line of “Abide with me” because she said that was what they sung at funerals. After we had hummed the rest of the hymn, she turned to me and asked,
“Em, if you die will you promise to come back for me and take me to where you are?”
“I’ll never leave you Gracie, we’ll be together forever.”
I know now that fate was laughing. I believed then that she needed me more than I needed her and so I told her what she needed to hear. How I have wondered through days of loss: would it have been any different if I had asked her to promise the same? Would she have left me? How these unanswered questions prolong the loneliness as they gnaw through justifications and create gaping holes of “what ifs?”
Grace’s mom came then, stalking down the hill, calling for her to come eat dinner. I don’t think Grace’s parents liked me much, they thought that Grace spent far too much time with me and would rather her play with her school friends. They largely ignored me so I did the same to them.
“You better go Gracie.” I said
“Will you stay and pat down the grave.”
“Make sure that it is packed nice and tight and maybe pick some daisies from the garden to lay on top, that’s what they put on Sarah’s grave. Momma wanted roses but Sarah’s always liked yellow daisies.”
“ Who’s Sarah, Gracie?”
She looked away from the daisies and stared right at me. Her brown eyes glazing over with a film of tears.
“ I’ve gotto go Em, remember the daisies.”
And with that her she ran up the hill to the house where she would eat dinner with the parents that wouldn’t talk to me.
Sarah’s name didn’t come up for a long time. There were times when Grace would fade into a world of her own and stare blankly through me, I thought that she was probably thinking about her and I would feel a touch of jealousy for someone I didn’t know existed. There was only one other time when I heard Sarah’s name mentioned and that was the day I lost Grace. It was one of those rare warm winter’s days, Grace and I were drinking tea in the garden. We sat underneath a bougainvillea awning and the sun spilt purple patterns on our tablecloth as it poured through the leaves. We drank the tea out of Grace’s favorite peony-painted teacups. Of course there was no tea, but there is a blurry line between make-believe and real in a child’s mind and so we sipped and slurped and talked of the fairies we were still to catch and the princes we were yet to meet.
And we were happy. Grace was happy.
But how a moment can change a lifetime.
Grace’s mother came home. She looked thinner and dark rings had smudged grey-black under her eyes. Her forehead was permanently pinched into two crinkles that not even a smile could iron out. She marched straight up to us,
“Grace what are you doing?”
“I’m drinking tea, Momma. Emily’s here.”
Grace gestured to me and smiled. Her mother did not bother to look in my direction but I could see her shoulders tense.
“There is no tea in those tea cups Grace.” She said slowly, impatience seeping through her pores.
“Of course there is Momma, and there is sugar….” She stretched across the table and pinched a block of air between her thumb and forefinger and dropped it in her teacup.
“… And milk” Grace reached over to the empty milk jug.
“Enough already Gracie!” Her mother screamed, the last drops of patience now evaporated. “There is no sugar or milk or tea!”
And with that she swept her hand across the table, the teacups smashed to the ground. Shards of peonies landed at my feet.
“And there is no Emily! This is all made-up Grace. You have to understand that we live in the real world, a world where imaginary sisters do not exist. Emily does not exist. You had a sister Grace, but Sarah is dead, you cannot replace her with some figment of your imagination. Do you understand?”
She was kneeling now, holding Grace by the shoulders and shaking her so that wisps of her mousy hair stuck to the blobs of tears that spilt from her eyes. Grace’s mom kept mumbling, “She’s dead Gracie, she’s dead.”
I waited for Grace’s defense. I waited for her to tell her mom that she was wrong that we were sisters that there is no definitive line between real and make-believe, that that was some bizarre concept made up by adults to lay down boundaries in children’s minds.
But no rebuttal came.
And I watched as Grace chose reality. I had seen it many times, the slow, unfolding realization of where the adults line is, and I knew that she would be slipping away. It hurt so much with Grace; with the others it was a slower process; I knew it was coming and I would have time to prepare. They would forget me on the lopsided tire swing and go play with their other friends, or maybe not call for me for a day or two, but a nasty remark from a classmate or a fight with their parents would always bring them back until the day they did not call at all. But with Grace it all happened so suddenly that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Her mom drew her in and hugged her tightly, Graces big brown eyes looked up at me from her mothers shoulders and I knew she was gone. She couldn’t see me. I called her name, softly at first them screaming it, but still she would not look. Instead she nuzzled her head into her mothers’ neck and then let her carry her to the house.
I was left holding the pieces of my peony-painted teacup staring up as Grace got carried away. How fickle the human brain is, that it would believe in the intangible one-day and choose sinew and blood the next.
I visited her for a short while after that; I would climb the trellis to her bedroom window and watch as the cheesecloth moon reflected a fluorescent glow on her pale cheeks. I would whisper to her, call for her and hope childishly that she would awake and forget this silly idea of ‘reality’. I did hear her call my name once, I turned, ready to forgive all and welcome her back, but it was only in the subconscious land of dreaming that she still saw me, and perhaps that is where I belong.