“The Marian Gate”
‘Thank God that’s over.’ Shiva consulted her watch and followed her father out of the church. She hung back, brushing imaginary flecks from her coat while her mother and the others moved further down the drive.
‘Siobhan?’ Shiva looked up. A stranger in a long coat had come close and brushed against her. She felt the warmth of his arm against hers while together they watched the coffin disappear into the hearse. He blew his nose noisily then passed her a small card which she stuffed absently into her bag.
‘He was proud of you.’
‘You knew him well then?’ she snapped, doubting that anyone had really known her father well.
He was an awkward young man – a colleague perhaps, wearing a coat that was too big for him, borrowed no doubt for the occasion. And as though reading her thoughts he looked down at his coat and smiled. ‘My father’s,’ he said with a shrug, and offered her a cough sweet from his pocket.
Shiva glanced at him blankly. He frowned as though searching for something more to say then, sensing her indifference, hurried off down the drive and into a waiting car.
Shiva un-wrapped the sweet and pressed it against her palate with her tongue. Its pungent juice dribbled from the sides of her mouth, reminiscent of cherries and bringing with it her earliest memory. They had always been her favourite fruit, had even decorated the curtains in her room; little bunches of them on glazed cotton, bright and exotic, in a very ordinary room in a very ordinary house where nothing ever changed. She would watch them brighten whenever moonlight flooded the room. One night, unable to sleep, she had gone to the window and stood in the little gap between the curtains for they never quite met. Touched by the light, she imagined herself made transparent and bright like the cherries. Soon she floated down the stairs in her nightdress, weightless as a ghost, and hovered by the open door, quivering like a cat about to pounce on a leaf. The moon cast long shadows across the garden. Her father stood smoking, his gaze fixed on a lone star. Sensing her presence he turned suddenly.
‘Hey, Shiva!’ He reached down and gently lifted her up, pulling his jacket around her. She burrowed inside for warmth and its rough tweed collar tickled her cheek.
‘See the Great Bear?’ He began to draw a shape in the sky with his finger and when she peered out from his jacket the sky was now full of stars.
Shiva bit into the sweet, its edges now rough against her tongue. All that was thirty years ago.
A crowd had gathered around her mother now. ‘We’ll miss dear old Ted,’ they said, patting her hand.
‘Old bastard,’ Shiva muttered, spitting out the last of the sweet. She edged round the side of the church and squatted on a gravestone, breathing in the cold November air. She rummaged crossly in her bag for a tissue and, finding none, dabbed her eyes with her sleeve and brought out instead a brown leather wallet. Instinctively she looked around her and, seeing no-one there, opened it. She felt inside its lining and drew out an old paper driving licence, then carefully removed a photograph concealed in its folds; its worn edges suggested that it had been there for years. She narrowed her eyes, taking in every detail: a young woman in a blue dress smiled back at her nervously. She was undeniably beautiful, wearing lipstick and pearl earrings, her hair dressed in the style of thirty years ago. On her lap sat a small boy with a serious face; a boy who must now be almost as old as she was.
Only a week ago she had collected her father’s belongings from the hospital: an old tweed jacket and the wallet which for days she had kept close, turning it out from time to time in the vain hope that it might offer up some clue to the unfamiliar couple. A name perhaps, or a telephone number: anything to end the giddy suspicion that her life was about to change.
The photograph, she decided, was not for her mother’s eyes. Soon she knew the wretched thing by heart, every detail – the crumpled edges, the blue eyes, just a shade darker than the dress, the nervous smile; even the boy’s dimpled knees. It lay heavy in her hand. And finding it both familiar and unsettling she was unable somehow to throw it away and would return it to the wallet, where it lay hidden once more in the folds of the licence. Her father’s secret – for that is what it seemed – had now become her own.
‘Siobhan, where are you? We’re leaving.’ Hearing her name, Shiva shifted uncomfortably on the cold stone. In the distance car doors slammed as the cortège headed off for the Crematorium. A sudden wave of anger swept her to her feet and she ran in the other direction, footsteps clattering on the flagstones.
Leaving the churchyard she stumbled up the hill to Starlings Rise. They had walked here often, Shiva and her father. The air up here was raw and halfway up she paused to lean against an iron gate, her face stinging with cold. Here, half hidden by brambles, a rusty plaque caught her eye: The Marian Gate. Entrance to the garden 1d.
She tried the gate, puzzled that she had never found it before, but it held fast. Bolted to it was a slot machine for old pennies and she searched in her purse for a coin that might fit. Nothing. So, forgetting her funeral clothes she scrambled up the gate, tearing her tights and scuffing her shoes. She fell heavily into the walled garden and caught her knee on a stone and cursed. But the grass was soft underfoot and she sat down, peeling off her ruined tights and began to relax a little, despite her self. Although winter, the air here was unusually warm, and heavy with the scent of jasmine. There were sweet peas and daffodils, bushes of blackberry and lavender. It was truly a garden for all seasons. Sunlight touched her face and she sat, shading her eyes, for a long time.
Last night Shiva had taken out the photograph and placed it against a clock on the bedside table. The woman and the boy looked awkward in their unfamiliar setting where nothing had ever changed, where the glazed cotton curtains, though faded, bore the same little bunches of cherries she’d loved as a child.
She didn’t hear the door, nor notice the photograph fall to the ground, dislodged by a current of air.
Her mother stood, silent, in the doorway and the woman with the nervous smile looked up at them both.
Shiva snatched up the photograph (it lay, sticky, in her palm) and searched her mother’s face for some hint of reassurance. But she had closed her eyes as if to wipe out the image of the mysterious woman and her child. Then finally she spoke: ‘Her name was Helen.’
‘Was?’ The old clock ticked in the unchanged room and the cherries rippled on the curtains as her mother closed the door behind her.
‘She died five years ago.’
‘And – the boy?’ Shiva’s thoughts swerved dangerously as part of her, sensing alarm, raced down the stairs. Her words seemed to come from somewhere far off. ‘Who is he?’
Shiva repeated the name, her father’s name. ‘Edward?’
‘Yes. Edward is his son.’
Her mother’s lips continued to move but Shiva had ceased to hear. She was now too far away. She had escaped from her ordinary life and the unchanged room and was running, as if to save her life – her old life – where secrets and affairs and half-brothers and cheating fathers didn’t exist. Those things just didn’t happen to people like them. The picture still lay in her hand and she wished only to crush it, to crease the perfect face so it was no longer beautiful.
‘Would you like to keep it?’ Her mother stood near, stroking her daughter’s face, but her words were a long way off too. ‘He did love us all, you know.’
Back in the warm garden, a great weight had settled in Shiva’s chest. How could she ever forgive, as her mother had seemed to? She imagined Edward, tucked inside her father’s tweed jacket, sharing a sky full of stars, stealing her own special moment. She had been snatched from his heart by the boy with dimpled knees. She found a tissue, tucked up her sleeve, and blew her nose noisily. Suddenly remembering the young man at the church, she reached for her bag and pulled out a small, crumpled card.
The handwriting was unaffected, simple and straight. The kind of hand you would immediately trust. My name is Edward, the message began.
Just then a gardener appeared from behind a rose bush. His white hair shone in the afternoon sun. ‘I see you came in the hard way.’
Startled, Shiva stood up and blood began to trickle down her leg from the graze.
‘You mean there’s another way in?’
He laughed. ‘Of course, isn’t there always?’ There was such a brightness about him that she felt lumpish and dull in her funeral clothes.
He stepped forward without a word and, raising his hand, passed it in front of her chest, as though swatting a cloud of gnats. Then, without a word, he returned to the rose bush and disappeared as quickly as he had come. The heaviness in her chest had lifted completely and, studying the little card once more, she continued to read:
Like you, Edward had written, I never knew till now. You are as much a surprise to me as I am to you.
From beyond the rose bush where the gardener had appeared comes the distant sound of drumming, each beat growing louder than the last, and filling the silence.
At the edge of Shiva’s vision a young woman in a blue dress takes form. The folds of her dress are pulsating with the same steady rhythm as the drum. Shiva’s heart thunders with anticipation. And dropping the card, she realises there is no need to know more – only that Helen had left and in the course of time married Tom; the man Edward calls dad.
Now the blue dress fades and the woman too, but in her place stands a small marble Madonna with outstretched arms. Her father is there too with his rough jacket and his love for a son that he barely knew and, suddenly, his arms, like hers, are open wide.
‘Come home, Shiva,’ he seems to say, and there is, she knows, room in his arms for them all. The statue smiles.
Something inside her takes its last breath and, all anger and jealousy gone, she looks down at her knee and sees that the wound has gone too, not the faintest trace remains.
When the gardener returned the sun had sunk behind the trees.
‘Are you ready?’ he asked and, taking her hand, led Shiva through the garden until they reached the Marian Gate once more. ‘They’ll be missing you.’ He touched the gate and it whinged open with ease.
Home! She imagined them all, warming their hands by an open fire and tea passed around, laced with whisky, and little trays of sponge cake and buttered scones.
‘Do you remember?’ they might ask, and remind one another what a good life old Ted had lived. And perhaps he had after all.
‘I have a brother,’ Shiva thought, seeing the young man in his stepfather’s coat and her magnificent mother serving him tea, adding a drop more whisky for the cold. ‘Imagine,’ she said aloud, ‘a brother!’
Outside the garden the wind had risen and rain was coming in from the sea. As the gate swung shut Shiva turned to thank him, but the gardener had already gone. Then, kicking up the gravel on the path, she hurried, spiralling down the hill, her feet barely touching the ground.
‘I’m coming home,’ she sang and her voice was carried on the wind, lifted up like a kite. ‘Home… home…’ echoed around the hills and the cliff walks and danced with the air currents until it was almost lost amidst the seabirds’ cries. And, as the tide broke against the rocks, the sound of her own voice rose up and stirred her heart. ‘I’m coming home!’