She was brought up among people who couldn’t understand her. Why, at the age of three, she would demand crayons to draw stick men – almost an obsession. Gradually they took on eyes, noses, and mouths – now neat but at the same time scary. Then facial expressions, ears, hair, feet and hands, and clothes.
Then aged four, Elizabeth would shut herself away, writing words, gradually stringing them into sentences, accompanied by little pictures in green, red and yellow crayon. ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ ‘The bat sat on the cat.’
“Lizzy, why don’t you want to go and play with your friends? Little Josephine next door, she likes you. I’ll take you to the park together.”
“It’s OK, mum,” she’d say, now five, going to her room and writing and drawing on her notepad. ‘The black-as-soot vampire bat dive-bombed the funny tabby cat.’
But the kids at school didn’t want a ‘clever clogs’ in their class and she knew her mother and father had to struggle to feed her and her two siblings. Writing, painting and drawing came low on their menu of survival. And so Elizabeth learned to dumb down her precociousness, to be more like the other kids. She’d read instead, soaking up the art of Shakespeare along with the imagination of Ray Bradbury and the horror of H. P. Lovecraft, and take her little Jack Russell, Winnie, for walks.
Now it was 2018 and she was sixty years old. She traced the lines on her cheeks and jaws in the mirror, wondering where the time had gone. Wondering what had happened to that little girl with the world at her feet.
She felt her eyes moisten as she remembered the death of her mother. Something imprinted on her mind forever. It was the day before her fourteenth birthday when she’d watched her mother’s back going out of the door. Her mother wore a red coat with fur trim and a matching red hat. “I’ll just be ten minutes love, be good!”
It had been December 1972 – she remembered Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain was playing on the radio – and her mother was wearing black leather boots; there’d been snow on the ground. She was just going for some cigarettes but she never came back. A van had skidded on ice and careered onto the pavement, crushing her against a post box. Elizabeth wiped her eyes, putting out of her mind the awful week of visiting her mother in hospital, whilst she fought, in vain, for her life.
Dad had taken it badly. He would come home from work and drink himself into oblivion. She’d had to look after her two younger siblings – her sister, Sally, four years younger than her, and a brother, David, six years younger.
An aunt had made an occasional appearance but they’d had to survive on their own, so she’d taken a job at sixteen. Working on the checkout at Woolworths. But she’d done well there. Promoted to supervisor a year later, then to branch manager a couple of years after that.
Then had come Kenneth. She sighed. He’d seemed so wonderful. She knew she was no glamour queen and she’d been flattered with his attentions.
“Ken, darling, guess what?”
“What, sweetheart, did you hear from your dad?”
“No, better than that. I’m pregnant!”
And so little Abraham had been born. Only to be diagnosed with severe autism a few years later when it was found he could barely read or write. Then Arthur. He too had been autistic, though not so severe. But she’d loved them both and done all she could to help them grow up and develop. When Abe was ten had come the second great shock of her life. Ken had suffered a heart attack in the street and dropped down dead at the age of thirty-six.
She pulled down on her left cheek, just below the eyelid. Licking a finger, she rotated a contact lens, trying to improve the focus. Her hair was blonde with just a touch of grey in the odd place, still natural. She presumed it wouldn’t be long before she’d need chemical help. It was just these damned ‘marionette lines’ on her chin. She’d only recently learned the term but now, whenever she looked in the mirror, she thought of an ageing Lady Penelope from the puppet show Thunderbirds she’d loved as a child.
She looked once more at the envelope she’d rested on the toilet cistern and shivered. It was stamped ‘Mortimer Frampton.’
Sarah smiled. “Lizzy, you should get out more!”
“I’m OK, I’ve got my quilting to work on.”
“Jan and I are signed up for a creative writing course at the Walled Garden. What about you? You could come too.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I … I used to write when I was a little kid, then … then life got in the way.” She gave a hollow laugh. No point in telling Sarah her life story. “I’ll think about it.”
“Lizzy, you always say that!”
But she’d done more than think about it. Writing had become a part of her life now, a world she could retreat to, away from the mundane, grim reality. A year down the line she’d submitted a children’s story to half a dozen publishers, thanks to her tutor’s encouragement, but not really expecting a reply.
That was eight months ago. She’d given up hope, but now, today, this. And Mortimer Frampton, the most prestigious of the lot! She took their reply and held it up to the light, as if hoping to see the response through the thick cream envelope.
She rubbed the smooth paper against her cheek, then took it into her bedroom and switched on the shredder. It would break her heart to read a rejection letter and anyway, she didn’t need fame and fortune. She’d grown used to the solitude and the silence and, after all, there was her quilt to work on.
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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