NOTE: “The Story Of The Month” changes every month OR bi-monthly and might also have been featured in my collection DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2017 and available on Amazon, or might be an Extract from my two novels RACING WITH THE RAIN and JUNTA.
FOR MORE WRITING LIKE THIS CHECK OUT
Down Independence Boulevard: and other stories
by Ken Puddicombe
December -The Touch Of Peace
Jan – The Interview
Feb – The Underground [2nd Prize Polaris Magazine]
Mar -Welcome To Punta Canada
APR – Return Of The Prodigal [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
MAY- No Thank You
JUNE – The Shoplifter
JULY/ AUGUST: The Last Straw [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
SEPTEMBER/ OCTOBER: Relics In The Attic [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
RELICS IN THE ATTIC ©
[featured in DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD AND OTHER STORIES available at Amazon and in eReaders]
“Lillian, are you okay? You don’t look too well,” Shirley said.
“Yes,” Anita said, “I’ve never seen you looking so drawn and pale. And skinny, or mawgre, as Father would say.”
“I’ll be okay,” Lillian said. “I just need to sit down for a while.”
Late that afternoonwas the first time Lillian had been able to relax, and when she sat on the large sofa in the living room, the stress, not only of the day, but of the entire week seemed to overwhelm her. It was then she realised how much she had neglected her own well-being in catering to all the visitors who had come to the house after the funeral.“Wow, I thought they would never leave,” Shirley said, as she plopped onto the sofa with Lillian. There was a perceptible groan from the springs of the sofa.
“I know,” Anita said. She was sitting across from her two sisters. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many people from Guyana in one place. Where did they all come from? Most of them I’ve never seen before in my life. For a while I thought they were coming out of the woodwork.” She looked around, down the hallway, into the kitchen, up the ramp to the top floor where the bedrooms were located, then back to her two sisters. She giggled. “Are you sure some of them didn’t move in?”
Shirley sucked her teeth. “I bet you half of them didn’t even know Father. They must be friends of friends of friends. All you have to do is spread the word that somebody dead, and they all turn up.”
“I for one am glad he had such a good turnout,” Lillian said.
Anita laughed. “Do you think they came for the free food and the coffee and biscuits?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Shirley sucked her teeth, again. “You know how Guyanese people stay. They turn every occasion into a social event. And look at the mess they made all over the house.” She waved at the plastic cups and plates lying around, in stacks on the kitchen table, on top of the china cabinet, a few balanced on the heating grill.
“Father would have been pleased, though,” Lillian said.
Anita chuckled. “Only because it wasn’t too expensive to do it.”
“That’s true,” Lillian said.
“It’s a good thing we didn’t have any rum,” Shirley said. “That’s the way they hold a wake in Guyana, you know. Father told me. They pitch a tent in the front yard and the whole village turn up. They bring out bottles of rum and they drink and play dominoes all night, way into the morning. Sometimes they even end up fighting.”
“Only, Father wouldn’t say way into the morning. He would say: Until fowl cock crow,”Anita said.
Shirley scowled. “It goes on like that for days and days. They have music, and sometimes they play drums and sing. Late at night they bring out coffee and have biscuits with it. Is all like one big party. Nobody want to go home.”
“It was the same when mummy died, back there,” Lillian said. Nineteen sixty-six; twenty-four years ago. She remembered it well, as well as an eleven year old can recall something that changed her life, forever.
Lillian found it hard to believe her father was no longer around, even though it was less than six hours ago she had seen his body lowered into the cold, unforgiving earth. She’d never given much thought to what life would be like without his constant presence in the house and almost everything reminded her of him. The wheelchair was there, in its usual spot by the window in the living room. It was where he sat to see the comings and goings on the street. His footrest was still in front of the chair, so was the end table where he would reach over with his one good left hand for his teacup. On top of the end table was a lamp—he read the newspapers late into the evening with the light from that lamp.
“Well, I’m glad it’s all over,” Shirley said. She shifted her weight on the sofa and the springs screeched, again.
“Yes,” Anita said. “Funerals are so long and stressful.”
“That sounds like something Father would have said,” Lillian mumbled.
“Yes,” Anita said, and laughed. She stood up, pulled her spectacles down to the base of her nose bridge and looked over the top. “Do you remember how many times over the last few years that he said: I want a simple funeral, just a simple funeral, just something with minimum fuss.” She snorted and dropped back onto her seat.
“He always said there was no practical reason to spend too much money on a funeral,” Lillian said. “He felt the same way about weddings. Why spend too much money? After all, you never know if the marriage is going to last.”
Anita laughed. She took a deep breath, exhaled and cleared her throat before she began. “If ah didn’ waste money when ah was living, why do it when I’m dead. If no one want to bury me, then you can just chuck me body out in de street. Let the government tekh care of me. After all, what they goin’ do—allow my body to remain in the street and rot?” Then, she held her stomach and laughed uncontrollably, her pearl earrings bobbing up and down on her long ear lobes.
The sounds of children playing drifted through the open window and mingled with Anita’s convulsive laughter. Father loved to sit by the window and watch the children. He sat there, long into the summer night, sipping the tea Lillian kept replenishing. She wondered at times what he was thinking. Did it take him back to his own upbringing in British Guiana, to the childhood he said he never had? It was something he was most proud of—out of school at thirteen when his father died of malaria, into the workforce to help support the family, yet managing to complete his education by way of evening classes.
After Anita’s laughter subsided, there was silence in the room. They all seemed to be buried in their own thoughts.
It was a stillness that ran deep and absolute for Lillian. For the first time since her father’s death, three days ago, she was now feeling the void. It reminded her of the house on Punt Trench Road, La Penitence, back in colonial days. She had lived there for the first fifteen years of her life, before they came to Toronto. She remembered the punts passing every day in the canal in front of the house, pulled by huge Massey-Ferguson tractors, the large wheels sometimes spinning in the deep morass created in the dirt road during the rainy season. For most of those years, she had lived with the deafening resonance of engines labouring to haul the convoy of punts laden with sugar-cane stalks or molasses. In-between the sound of the tractors, was the occasional clang of metal and the frequent jangle of chains as the punts banged against one another or the chains grazed against the wooden partofffortifying the road from the incursion of the canal. After a while it became a part of her subconscious. Then, one day, the sugar estate closed, the canal was filled in with dirt the name changed to Independence Boulevard, and the punts stopped coming. In the eerie ensuing silence, she thought there was something missing from her life.
Shirley said: “Actually, I meant, I’m glad it’s all over. I’m glad he’s dead and gone.”
The two sisters looked up quickly. Anita frowned. Lillian stared, not really believing her sister could say something so cruel, despite her brusque reputation.
“Don’t look at me like that. The two of you think the same way, too. You can’t tell me you’re not glad he’s finally out of his misery. Especially you, Lillian—you had the brunt of it ever since the accident. You had all the cooking, washing and cleaning up after him; every single day and night. And the amount of times he had you running back and forth to take him food and medicine. For eighteen years you put up with this. You must have grown fed up over the whole situation.”
The part about having to take care of him was true. Ever since he lost his right arm in the blender at the pharmaceutical company where he worked, she’d dropped out of school and taken care of him. It hadn’t been easy over the years, the problem compounded when he developed diabetes. First, he lost all his toes, then both legs had to be amputated and he was confined to a wheelchair. But, as rough as it was, she’d never been discontented about the time she spent caring for him.
“That’s not fair, Shirl,” Anita said. “I never did hear Lill complain, not once.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t mean she liked what she was doing,” Shirley said. “And besides, I didn’t hear you make any offers to relieve her during all that time.”
“And neither did you…”
Lillian interrupted them. “I did it all for Father. He deserved it, after the hard life he had back in Guyana.” An awful sense of loneliness suddenly crushed her. She took a deep breath, exhaled, and shook her head. She could feel her lips quiver, as she added: “The two of you were much too young to know about that.”
It was true. Shirley was six, Anita just five when their mother passed away. After their mother’s death back in 1966 Lillian had the responsibility of raising her two younger sisters and it was the same when they came to Canada.
From where she sat, Lillian’s field of vision took in the ground floor: the dining room, the living room, the ramp leading up to Father’s bedroom. Three other bedrooms made up the back split. She had one and her sisters the other two, until they were married and moved out.
Suddenly, Anita grew excited. Her voice came across energized and high-pitched. She said: “Do you remember when we went to New York? All three of us?”
“Sure I remember. And, how can Lill forget it. That’s about the only time Father ever let her out of his sight. And only after we begged and pleaded with him.”
“Yes,” Anita said. “He kept saying: You don’ know the perils a single girl with no experience can face in a big city like that. That was so funny. There was Lill, older than both of us, and Father was worried that she might get into trouble. Meanwhile, he never gave a second thought to the two of us, just because we were already married.”
“Father was just old-fashioned in his ways,” Lillian said.
“It was more like he was concerned about who would take care of him when you were gone,” Shirley said.
Anita snickered. “Little did he know—we were the ones who planned the whole thing from the very start. Can you remember the night Doreen arranged for the trip to the night-club, and we took Lill with us?”
“Of course I remember. I remember Doreen too—the scheming witch, trying to fix up Lillian with her brother-in-law, Amar.”
“Well, you made a few plans on your own too, didn’t you?” Anita said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’re the one who arranged for our husbands to go to Times Square, fully knowing they would jump to the idea and end up in a strip joint, leaving us free to go to a nightclub on our own.”
“Yes, that part of it worked out good,” Shirley said. “But still, Doreen should never have planned that hook-up with her brother-in-law in the first place.”
“Well, she’s yoursister-in-law. You should have known what she was up to.”
“How did you expect me to know? I don’t read minds.”
“Well, we had fun, anyhow. Girl, I never seen Lill having such a good time. Our big sister, dancing up a storm and flirting with Doreen’s brother-in-law.”
Lillian had her own reasons for remembering the trip.
Since coming to Canada, it was the first time she was going to be away from home, and yet, indecision had plagued her, because she was leaving Father alone—the first time since the accident. Even after she had arranged for someone to come in and care for him, she was still reluctant to go, because she knew that if he suddenly took ill while she was away, she would be racked by guilt for the rest of her life.
So, they had gone to the El Dorado Nightclub in Brooklyn; she, her two sisters and Doreen. Amar had turned up later.
Anita, Shirley and Doreen went off to the dance floor and she was left alone at the table with Amar, worried that he might ask her to dance, yet hoping that he would. They sat there, the two of them, not looking at each other at first, and slowly sipping their drinks. It was her first glass of wine. She had hesitated, worried about what Father would say if he found out she had been drinking alcohol. And when Amar finally asked her to dance, she had jumped to his request and gone to the dance floor. It was the closest she’d ever been to a man.
Shirley broke into Lillian’s thoughts. “It’s a pity you didn’t manage to persuade Father to turn over the property to us before he died.”
Anita cleared her throat. “Don’t you think it’s a bit too early to be talking about that? The man’s just been buried!”
“What do you mean by early? We’ve been talking about this for a long time. You know what a big problem it is to get an estate settled and the inheritance taxes you have to pay. It would have been so much easier if he’d just turned it over to us while he was alive.”
“I still can’t understand why he didn’t do it,” Anita said.
“It’s because he was just a selfish old man who didn’t care for anyone else but himself. He was always like that. All through his life.”
“That’s a very cruel thing to say about Father,” Lillian said. “He’s the reason why we’re here in Canada. We’re lucky that we’re not back in Guyana.”
“I did ask him about it once,” Anita said. She cocked her head to the left and raised her eyebrows high, looking over her glasses. “Eh eh, little girl, is not time for me to bite the dust just yet.And you know, he wouldn’t talk to me anymore about it.”
Shirley turned to her older sister. “Did he discuss it with you, Lill?”
“I did ask him, as recently as last month.”
“So, what did he say?”
“He didn’t see the need to rush things.”
Shirley pouted. “Rush things, my big foot. He just didn’t want to make things too easy for us, did he?”
Lillian thought about it. She recalled her father’s reaction. Eh eh, girl,you plotting with you two sisters to turn me out of the house an’ dump me in a nursing home? What you think, I come to this country to go live with a bunch of old people? She tried to reassure him she would never allow this to happen but he refused to discuss the matter further.
“We must decide what we’re going to do with all his stuff,” Shirley said.
Anita groaned. “Oooh, can’t we leave it for another day? I’m dead tired from all that standing and walking today.”
“What are you so tired about? If anyone should be tired, it should be me, and Lill. We did most of the work over the last three days.”
Anita laughed. “Your tiredness got nothing to do with the amount of work. Is because of all that weight you put on. Even the sofa can feel it when you sit down!”
Shirley’s face turned red. Her eyes narrowed. She crossed her legs on the sofa. “My full body still looks better than your skinny ass in that cheap black dress you wearing.”
Anita ignored the remark. “I still think we should do it later.”
“When are we going to find time? We’re both busy rushing around all over the place with our kids these days. No, now that we’re staying over the night with Lill, this is the best time. Besides, we’re going to have to start cleaning it up sooner or later, if we’re to sell the house and divide the money.”
“I suppose there’s no better time than now,” Lillian said. “Better to get it over with.”
“Then, we must start in the attic,” Shirley said.
Lillian collected the bunch of keys from the top drawer of her father’s desk. She and her two sisters squeezed, single file, up the narrow flight of stairs to the attic.
A sudden rush of dank, musty air assaulted her nostrils and sent her into a coughing fit as she opened the door. Her throat constricted and her eyes watered.
Anita shrank away from the entrance to the attic. “Good God, what did he keep up here, anyway. It smells like something died and went to hell,” she said, as she clamped and unclamped her long, thin nose with her fingers.
Lillian stepped into the room, found the wall switch and flipped it. Anita and Shirley followed. The glow from the overhead bulbs combined with the afternoon sunlight streaming through the skylight, was enough light for Lillian to be able to take in the area with a sweeping glance.
The entire attic was filled with her father’s possessions and the atmosphere reeked of his presence. It was the one place in the house he never allowed her to clean or rearrange. It was now his pharaoh’s tomb—his very own preserve he might have been keeping for an afterlife. Even after he was confined to his wheelchair, he would not allow her to touch anything. If it had been up to her, she would have tossed out many of the items long ago. She thought it was strange: an attic of relics accumulated by a man who made light banter about the disposal of his own remains.
Lillian watched as her sisters rushed around like two children let lose in a toy store. They poked and prodded, shifted and lifted stuff, uncovering items that were draped with sheets of plastic or old, discarded bed-sheets. They seemed to have forgotten the main purpose of their visit as they went on a voyage of discovery.
“Look at all these newspapers,” Anita said from the far corner, under the part of the roof just where the ceiling sloped into a sixty-degree angle. “What was he keeping all these for?” There were several towers of newspapers, all neatly stacked against the wall.
“Father didn’t believe in throwing out things,” Lillian said. She knew there were items in the attic brought over from Guyana. Her father’s sentimental attachment to the old country had never wavered, despite all his ranting and raving about the tyrannical aspects of the post-independence period, regardless of his assertion that he was never going back to That God Forsaken Place.
“Ah, this is what he was doing,” Anita said. She had picked up and opened a large binder lying on the floor next to the newspapers. “He was making a scrap book about Guyana. There must be some interesting stories in here—I’m going to keep it.”
Lillian noticed items she had encountered in her rare visits to the attic: a small writing desk with three legs, one end held up by stacks of newspapers; an old green sofa against a wall—its arms were missing. She walked over and took a seat on the sofa. Next to the sofa was a polished wood cabinet with missing doors, drawers still intact. So many items, all there, it seemed, as mute testimony to a man who might have been hoarding things for old age instead of someone who was turning eighty-two at the time of his death.
There was a large picture-frame stuck between the vent pipe and the wall. It was a wedding picture of her father and mother. Their eyes seemed to follow her movement around the room. She remembered it hanging on a wall in the house back in Guyana, and then it had disappeared. He didn’t want to be reminded, her father had said. As she glanced at the picture, she thought of the number of times people had told her of her resemblance to her mother. About how she had the same flushed cheeks of a young bride; eyes that danced in the sunlight; a smile that lit up a room when she entered.
“Oh, look: a picture of mummy and daddy when they were married,” Anita said. “I want this one.” She picked up the picture, wiped the dust from the glass with her sleeve, just as the top portion of the frame disconnected from the body. The frame fell to the floor and the glass shattered, sending a mushroom of dust rising in the air.
“Oh no,” Anita said. “Maybe Father’s still up here, somewhere.” She looked around and made a three hundred and sixty degree sweep of the attic.
“Don’t be stupid, girl,” Shirley said. “The man done dead and gone. He’s never coming back.”
“May he rest in peace,” Lillian whispered.
At the far end of the attic, Lillian saw a huge trunk on the floor. It was the trunk her father had brought with him from Guyana. There were also two old wheelchairs with broken arms, facing each other, as if they were both engaged in a conspiracy to keep intimate secrets from her and her sisters. All he had ever done in his later years was to sit in his wheelchair in the living room, his lap covered with a thick woollen blanket.
There was a vagrant breeze whispering through the eaves. She was sure she heard her father’s voice. “Lill, girl, would it be too much trouble fuh you to bring me some more hot tea?” His commands were always couched in solicitous language, but there was no denying the implication: she lived under his roof and was there to serve him.
She’d always kept a pot on the stove. He liked his tea brewed strong and served piping hot. No tea bags for him, and no fancy china. He liked it in a large mug, his fingers wrapped around as he blew and sipped, inhaling the steam spiralling upwards in concentric rings.
Something scampered along the wall—a mouse perhaps. A floorboard squeaked. Anita was digging deeper into the stacks of newspapers. Shirley was moving stuff around, sorting them into two piles, one she meant to take with her, the other to be relegated to the scrap heap.
Several large buckets were filled with empty vials. Over the years he had accumulated enough to start his own pharmacy. And she thought it was ironic—the way he collected things and stuck them in the attic when they were no longer usable. She thought of her mother—a twenty-year old in an arranged marriage to a forty-year old man. After his three daughters were born, her father had divorced her mother and left her to fend for herself.
The large trunk: She wondered what was inside.
It was locked: a large padlock hanging from the latch. She pulled out the bunch of keys from her pocket and checked out several, until she came to a key that opened it.
There was a top layer of clothes in the trunk, green khaki shirts with the name of the company he worked for, Future Pharmaceuticals emblazoned on them. Below the shirts was a tier of green pants, then, green t-shirts. She had no idea why he had stored all the old company uniforms. It was not as if he was going to return to work—he couldn’t, not with one good arm and a body that was shattered after the accident. She started to peel away the clothing, stacking the pieces neatly on the end table. They would be of use to the Salvation Army.
In-between two of the layers a package fell on the floor, kicking up a minor dust storm, sending her into a sneezing fit. She sat down on the table and covered her face with her scarf.
At first, Lillian thought it might be documents her father had brought from Guyana, but as she picked up the package and examined it, she realised it was a bundle of envelopes, all strapped together neatly, the edges even and flat, the scent of the old clothes clinging with stubbornness. The elastic bands holding the bundle snapped easily at the edges as she tried to pry the letters apart, as if they were satisfied they had done their duty and could now pass on their burden. Even after pieces of elastic fell to the floor the envelopes clung together and she fanned them in her hands, like a bank teller would agitate a bundle of freshly minted notes to take them apart.
She saw shadows passing across the bundle and she turned to see Shirley and Anita standing over her.
“Is it something important?” Shirley said.
“No, just a bundle of old letters,” Lillian replied.
Anita was always the spontaneous one. “Oh, this is where all those letters disappeared to,” she said. And then, she suddenly gasped, covered her mouth and looked at Shirley, who promptly sucked her teeth.
“What letters are you talking about?” Lillian said.
There was no response and Lillian returned to the bundle, rifling through the envelopes, checking the addresses. Here were a couple of letters to her father; one to Shirley; one for Anita. Most of them were for her, addressed to Miss Lillian Persaud, 9999 Dunn Avenue, Toronto. They had all been slit-opened at the top. How could this be, she wondered. She’d never received them.
The envelopes all had U.S. stamps with thick lines wavering across the postmark. “What letters are you talking about?” Lillian said, again, her curiosity fast turning to puzzlement. But there was no response from her sisters.
Lillian took the top envelope from the heap, opened it and extracted the letter. She unfolded the crisp paper and spread it on her lap. It was dated 5thApril, 1988.
“Dear Lillian,” she read, “I am writing you again. Your memory is still fresh in my mind, as fresh as that night we met-up on your visit to New York.
“You danced so well that night. I found it hard to believe that it was your first time. And when you told me that you take care of your father full time, I started thinking that you must be the kindest person I ever did meet. I know you might find this hard to believe, but until I meet up with you, I never had the nerve to ask anyone for a dance before. Maybe it was being alone with you that gave me the courage. Something told me that you were lonely like me, that you also needed someone badly too…”
She looked at the other envelopes in the stack. The memories came rushing back. She thought: how could this have happened?
They had danced in the club, so crowded that movement was restricted to a slow shuffle on the floor—once around and back again for every song. Amar held her so close that she could feel his warmth seeping through her dress and invading every part of her body. When they finally came back to the table, he sat next to her, held her hand, rubbed his leg against hers and whispered for her to go outside with him. She had hesitated, scared about what going outside might mean to him, to her, about how her sisters would react, and what Father would say if he ever found out?
Even as she had given it a second thought, Shirley said it was time to leave. Anita quickly agreed.
Over the next two days Amar had come to the house where they were staying in New York, supposedly to visit his brother and sister-in-law, but she always felt that he was coming to see her.
“I was even more pleased to see you at my brother’s place before you returned to Canada and I started thinking we might have a future together, especially after you give me your address when I said I wanted to write you. I been writing these letters over the last three years hoping you might still reply. I even write direct to your father, asking him for your hand in marriage. I was thinking that he might agree to my proposal if I take this approach—you did tell me he still had old-fashioned ways from Guyana.”
She had thought of Amar long after her return to Toronto. For several weeks, she went around like someone who had been given another lease on life after a close brush with death. Even Father had said that she looked different—he noticed her eating habits had changed and commented that she was even putting on weight. But, as the weeks passed, the images of the trip became more fleeting, just so many thoughts slipping through her grasp, a flash through the brain cells, here, then gone, the memory haunting her for the rest of the day. And, always she ended up thinking things might have been different if she had remained a few more days and seen more of Amar.
“I even write to your two sisters, Anita and Shirley. At first, I was thinking that the address must be wrong, but when none of my letters come back to me, I realise that you must be receiving them and don’t want anything to do with me. I realise that it was all a fantasy, something that could never be reality. So, this will be my last letter to you…Amar.”
She folded the letter—it collapsed easily, once along the length, once across the width and then it looked flat and neat, like one of the working shirts that she had to iron for Father on Sunday night in preparation for the working week ahead. She picked up the stack of envelopes and counted them. There were twelve letters—the first one dated the same year of her visit to New York.
She looked up to see both Shirley and Anita staring at her. Shirley was pouting—her thick bottom lip protruding in her usual obstreperous and defiant way. Anita was speechless—the first time in a long time Lillian could recall her sister being at a loss for words.
“It was for your own good, anyhow,” Shirley said.
For a moment, Lillian stared at the bundle, then she shook her head and tried to stem the flow of tears that cascaded down her cheeks onto the envelope. By the time she was ready to put the envelope away, her name was smudged and obliterated beyond recognition.