Starting Over

Katherine Atkinson

The day Frances and I left for the big island, my mother came with my younger sister to the airport to say goodbye. We stood in the open air departure lounge, waiting and not saying much. The tinny arrival announcement was nearly drowned by the roar of the Dash 8.  

Frances stood to go through customs. Her parents had not come. I had not expected them to, but I think she had held out some hope that they would make an appearance. She tolerated my mother’s embrace, but she was uncomfortable and pulled away as soon as she could do so without causing offense.  My mother turned to me, grasped my shoulders and searched my face with a close-mouthed smile. It was as if she were memorising my features. When it seemed she was satisfied, she pulled a kerchief bundle from her bag and handed it to me.

“Take it. Your brother and me put a little something together for you.”

“Ma, I can’t,” I said, realising it was money. “You need it.”

“You need it more, ish mwe,” she said, and pulled me to her quickly before turning to go. My little sister looked up at me, “Kiki, bring me something when you come back, nuh?”

I smiled. She wrapped her arms around my hips and then followed my mother. Frances was already at the desk. I could hear the tired, mechanical click of the stamp on her passport. The official waved her through the doors. Her posture was erect, but I knew she was feeling it.

We found a place to stay quickly. Mrs. Morris, an elderly woman, was letting a small apartment tucked under the front stairs of her home. It was a bit far from the city, but on a good bus route, and safe and clean. Mrs. Morris had been taken with Frances’s manners and had determined us to be from good families.

“Don’t leave every light in the house burning, and no loud music, and …” Though she cleared her throat, her voice still seemed choked on phlegm. “No gentlemen callers.” She told us that she was a Christian woman who wanted nice, quiet tenants who paid their rent on time. 

We giggled at her assessment once we closed the door behind us. The apartment was dark and clean but smelled musty. It was furnished with stiff, upright furniture and draped with church lady floral print curtains. A small, decrepit refrigerator wheezed in the corner and there was an element on a rickety table next to it. A bedroom and bath led off the main room.

Frances collapsed onto an awkward chair and groaned at its hardness. She reached over to turn on the standing fan and it made a whirring noise, but the blades wouldn’t spin. “Great,” she said.

I collapsed on the floor between her legs and looked up at her. My face ached from the smile that had crept on to it once I realised that what we had done was real. I looked up at Frances, charged with all the possibility we had created for ourselves, and lifted myself to lean over her. Frances looked up at me with an openness she hadn’t shared in a while. I bent over to kiss her and felt her body surrender into the uncomfortable chair. She groaned again, this time with pleasure, and encouraged me. I continued to kiss her, trailing a damp path under her ear and down her neck. I reached under her shirt and tugged at her bra. 

The blades of the fan suddenly found momentum, startling me, and a warm breeze billowed over us. Frances laughed and helped me unhook her bra, then took off her shirt. I could feel her eyes on my face as I pulled her pants off. In all our time together, we’d never seen each other naked. We had had stolen moments in her car, and once at her parents’ when they had been away, but we had been so conditioned to anticipate interruption, that even then we didn’t linger in our love making. I looked over her body for a moment before removing my own clothing. 

I had always known just how to make Frances come. In bed with her, I felt most sure in the world, most in control. I knew when breath and a light touch were what she needed, and how to push through the resistance of her body, and with how much pressure. When she came that afternoon, on that miserable chair in that damp little room, I had to cover her mouth.  When she opened her eyes I fell onto her belly, slick with sweat. We laughed.  

The bubble lasted for weeks. We knew no one, had no responsibilities to anyone but ourselves. Frances and I freed our bodies to each other in ways we hadn’t been able to at home.

I couldn’t find work as a teacher. It turned out that schools didn’t take A-Level graduates like at home.  Teachers were required by the ministry to have certificates. However, the principal of one of the schools I went to enquire at was a kindly woman whose brother worked at a newspaper. She said they were looking for young reporters to serve an internship, and while the money wasn’t much, it could turn into something. She said she would call him and tell him to expect me the next day. 

Frances was having a harder time finding work. I don’t think she realised how difficult it would be, and her A-level transcript did nothing to sell her. She was best in person. Every morning she got up and dressed with me, and we walked to the bus stand together. Every day I wished her luck, and every day she came home dejected. Each evening, as I walked into the driveway, I would feel a dull ache and tightening in my chest.

 In all our time together, we’d never seen each other naked. We had had stolen moments in her car, and once at her parents’ when they had been away, but we had been so conditioned to anticipate interruption, that even then we didn’t linger in our love making.

“Look at this,” she said one day, holding up the classified ads. She had circled a few possibilities, but one had a star next to it drawn with childish ebullience.

“What is it?” I was encouraged. She hadn’t been this animated in a while. 

Frances read the ad to me triumphantly, “Seeking independent, motivated individual for high volume sales position. Hours flexible; commission-based.” She jumped onto our bed and kissed me. “That’s me, independent and motivated! That’s exactly what I did back home at the distillery for my parents. I’ve found it!”

I kissed her back. The ache was gone and I felt light. We sank into the bed, making love with a new playfulness.

The next evening, I came home to find her sitting in the dark. “Frances, what’s wrong?” I said, reaching for the table lamp, dread gripping my chest again. 

She turned from the light and curled into herself. 

“Frances?” I sat next to her and put my hand on her arm. 

She shrugged it off. Frances had always had her moods. The exuberant, sociable Frances who could talk to anyone, anytime, had moments, and I recognised this as one of them. I got up and went into the room to change out of my work clothes. When I came back out she hadn’t moved. I puttered around our half kitchen and tried to pull something together to eat. I was irritated that she hadn’t fixed anything for us, but I knew that she needed compassion; this was trying for her. By the time I’d fried up the corned beef and onions over our small element, Frances had come around. She stood behind me and kissed my neck.

“Make up some toast, nuh?” I said, still a little vex. She looked at the pan and grumbled. I looked at her sharply. We sat at the table and ate in silence.  

We finished eating and I said, “We going to talk about this?” I gestured between us.

 Frances shrugged.

 “How was things today?” I asked.

“They wanted me to push a fucking ice cream cart at the bus depots.”

Her vehemence startled me. “Something better will come.” I said. I didn’t bother to ask if she had taken the job. It irked me that she wouldn’t take something in the meantime. The money her parents had dismissed her with was running out. .

“I thought it’d be easier,” she said.

“Me too, but these things take time. People don’t know you here. They don’t know how good you are at what you do.”

Frances sighed. I chewed the inside of my cheek and reached for her hand. 

After a while, Frances stopped getting up in the mornings with me. Her moods became more intense and I found myself coaxing and cajoling her. I hated myself for doing it, and I know she resented me for it too. I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted to yell at her. Take the fucking ice cream cart job. Learn for the rest of us what it means to have to work.

I was enjoying my job. There was a sense of urgency there that kept me engaged. I liked the deadlines. I liked the unpredictability of each day. I hadn’t written any articles of my own, but worked with one of the reporters, Wayne, to call interviewees, check facts and sometimes do some editing. He seemed to like my work. Though everyone at the paper was quite brusque about the work, during the downtimes they were friendly. One day, they invited me to come on their Wednesday night lime.  I was excited until I thought about Frances. Part of me felt I should invite her, that maybe this would bring her out of herself, but I didn’t want to have to mind her, and it felt increasingly like that was what I was doing. The next morning, I got dressed with the curtains pulled and the room dark. Frances was awake, but turned from me. Fine, let her wallow, I thought to myself, but then felt bad.

“Some people from work are going by Shadow’s Bar tonight for pool and drinks,” I said. 

She didn’t stir. 

“Frances, how long is this going to go on for?”

She turned and her face was wet with tears. I kneeled back down on the bed. “Don’t cry, Frances.” The resentment I’d been allowing to tangle up inside me unknotted itself. “Why you don’t come and meet us, nuh?  It’ll be fun. You need to get out of this place.” 

She still hadn’t said anything. 

“Well fine. You know where I’ll be.”

When we left work, I tried not to think about Frances, but the image of her curled in the dark and crying bothered me. I turned to Wayne and was about to make up an excuse not to go.

“Nah, don’t give me that look. We been working hard. We drinking tonight.” He stood with his arms crossed and his face stern. 

I burst into a laugh and shook my head. “Alright. Alright.” He put his arm around my neck and we walked toward the bar. 

When we got there, I could hear her before I could see her. She sounded like she was in the common room at school, holding court. I couldn’t stop the smile from taking over. She looked up and saw me. Her face was open and her eyes bright, and my heart tightened at the sight of her. She looked over at Wayne, his arm still across my shoulders and raised her eyebrows. I tilted my chin in a mock challenge and nodded. She grinned. 

When Frances was on, she was on. She outplayed the fellas at pool, but finessed them so well with her old talk that they didn’t mind losing. She was a storyteller par excellence: charismatic, vivid and compelling, and I loved her then. 

I stood across from the pool table nursing a shandy and talking to some colleagues while she kept a group in her thrall. Wayne came over and teased me for not having a big-people-drink. “This has alcohol,” I said.  

He took the bottle from me and read from the label, “1.2% alcohol.” He shook his head. “Best served in a baby bottle to children.” 

I cut my eyes at him. “Ha ha. Is jokes.”

I felt good. His teasing signalled that I belonged. Wayne looked at me and nodded towards Frances, “So Kasia, what really going with y’all?”

I sputtered. It had been a while since I had had to field that question and my guard was down. My jaw tensed. He put his hand on my shoulder. His voice was kind, “Doh worry yourself. We good.”

I looked up at Wayne with gratitude and turned back to the pool table just in time to catch Frances’s eye. She smiled, but not before I saw the look. I knew this would come up again. The old me would have stayed close and reassured her, but right then, I realised old me didn’t fit anymore. 

Frances offered to buy a round that we could ill afford. I ordered a big-people-drink, and by the time the night was done I had had another three. I think this threw Frances off. It was always she who would have too much to drink and me who would have to take care of her.

It was late when Wayne dropped us home.  We stumbled down the driveway, trying to be quiet, but the light that came on in the old lady’s front room told us we weren’t successful. I stood behind Frances as she searched her pockets for the keys. Her neck smelled like baby powder and rum. I reached my hand down the front of her pants and she squirmed. I didn’t stop. When she turned, I pinned her to the door and kissed her. 

“Wait,” Frances said,“the old woman.” Her voice was a strained squeak.

‘Fuck the old woman,’ I whispered. We giggled. She kissed me hard and then opened the door. I walked straight to the bedroom and collapsed onto the bed.   

The next morning I woke undressed and under the covers. My head was cloudy. Frances wasn’t in bed, but I could smell eggs cooking. In spite of the hangover that I knew loomed, I felt light and happy.

That night floated us for a few days, and Frances renewed her efforts to look for work. I felt that we were finally settling in, that we could make a life. The feeling was short-lived. Frances came home successively indignant after each work lead. Wayne had put her in touch with a friend at the ice factory, but she had shot down the job saying that it was an insult to her abilities. I couldn’t make her understand that this wasn’t like home. Nobody knew or cared who she was.

Instead of the despair of before, Frances was now angry all the time. I didn’t know which I preferred. One evening I said something about her making some food for when I got home.

“I know what you think of me,” she said through gritted teeth.

“What Frances? What do I think of you?”

“That you are better than me.”

“What shit you talking?”

“No, serious. Because you get up and go to work every morning.”

“Frances, now you not making no sense.”

?And that fella, Wayne?”

“What about him?”

“Don’t think I don’t know.”

“Know what?”

“You want to make me say.”

“Yes, Frances, because if it’s what I think you want to say, you have to hear for yourself how ridiculous it is.”

“You’re fucking him.”

“I’m fucking him?”

“Yes.”

I sucked my teeth so hard, it stopped her. “Frances, listen to yourself nuh, woman. What you want from me? You know I doh have nothing with Wayne. You just looking for reasons to be vex because you can’t face who most you need to be vex with.”

Mrs. Morris was sitting on her verandah when I closed the door to the apartment. I waved and said good morning. She looked at me as though assessing me, but did not respond. Fine, old fowl, I thought. 

“What?”  She was shouting now.

My voice rose to match hers. “You hear me. Each job they offer you, you consider it’s beneath you. What you expect? You not Agnes and Henry’s daughter here. You just Frances; you have no backing. You want to be independent? You want your parents to stop interfering with your life? Well you cah have it both ways, because it’s them you been coasting on all this time.” I stopped, shocked that I had gone this far. 

Frances stood there quietly, her eyes dark as ackee seeds, and for the first time in our relationship I was a little afraid. I breathed hard and paced the room trying to let go, but I realised I wasn’t finished. “And what? You could handle things when I was the country girl and you in charge, but now you cah take it to see me handle myself? Huh?” When I turned back to Frances her face was blanched. The sight of her stopped me from continuing. “Frances?” My voice was low, unsure. 

Her lip quivered, and in a moment the old irritation surged and I thought, no, not the fucking tears. 

Frances collapsed to the floor and wrapped her arms around my knees and sobbed. 

“Get off me,” I said. My voice was a surprise to my own ears. I shook her off and went into the bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I flung myself onto the bed and cried. I could hear a staccato rap at our front door. Frances didn’t answer, but it was persistent. Mrs. Morris, the old bitch. 

I heard Frances open the door and a querulous inquiry from the old woman. Frances’ voice was a low mumble. Mrs. Morris seemed to have a lot to say, “wicked, no brought-upsy, christian, sin.” I didn’t have the energy. Let Frances handle it. I drifted to sleep. When I woke, the place was in darkness and the tree frogs’ chirping was deafening. Frances was sitting outside the bedroom door, calling my name.

“Kasia. Please. I’m sorry.”

I opened my eyes and adjusted to the dark, stretched, and sat up on the bed. My head was heavy from too long a sleep. I yawned and passed my hand over my face, then got up to open the door. Frances almost fell into the room.

“Get up,” I said and got back into the bed and curled on my side. She crawled in beside me and reached her arms around my waist.

“Kiki, I’m sorry.”

I reached my hand back and put it on top of hers. “I’m so tired, Frances.”

“I know,” she said and inched her body closer to mine.

“You have to take one of these jobs, at least until something better comes along.”

“I know,” she said and kissed the back of my neck.

“It isn’t just the money. It’s for you, so you have something to go to. So you don’t slip into one of your moods.”

Frances propped herself up and over me. “I know.” Then she lowered herself to my belly and kissed a path down to my inner thigh.

“Frances, no,” I said as I reached to pull her back up.

“Yes,” she insisted. Frances’s caresses were slow and deliberate and stopped my breath. She traced patterns over my body, first with her fingers and then with her mouth, as though she were memorising it. I wanted to touch her, but she wouldn’t let me.

The next morning I kissed her forehead and whispered goodbye. She barely stirred. Mrs. Morris was sitting on her verandah when I closed the door to the apartment. I waved and said good morning. She looked at me as though assessing me, but did not respond. Fine, old fowl, I thought.  The smell of night jasmine still sweetened the air, and a pair of butterflies flirted in the long grass on the side of the road. When I arrived at work, Wayne was smiling even more broadly than me.

“What you so smiley about, eh?” I asked him. 

He handed me a file. “It’s nothing big, but it’s a start.”

“What? You mean?”

“Yeah, don’t fuck this up and the boss might,” he stressed, “might give you a chance. Something you can sink your teeth into.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I hugged him instead. “Thank you, Wayne. Thank you. I won’t let you down.”

“You better not,” he said.

It was a piece on the new water treatment plant. Nothing glamorous, but a real assignment. I worked through the day with such absorption that it wasn’t until Wayne came round to say he was knocking off that I realised how late it was. I couldn’t wait to get home to tell Frances. If I could do this, if I could prove to the editor that I could handle this, it would mean a real job offer and better money. Frances could re-do her A’s if she wanted. We could leave Mrs. Morris’s apartment. 

I hardly knew how I got home that evening. When I arrived, the door was locked. I thought Frances might be in the shower so I let myself in. The blades of the standing fan were hiccuping in the corner, trying to gain enough momentum for a full rotation. The room was neater than it had ever been. 

I was in the bedroom before I noticed the absence of Frances—not just her person, but her things. There was a note on the night stand. I shrugged my bag off my shoulder and grabbed the scrap of paper. I knew already what it would say.  

I’m sorry, Kasia. Forgive me. I can’t. Mrs. Morris is right. You’re better off without me.

Mrs. Morris? What? I didn’t understand. I sank onto the bed and crumpled the paper. “I’m so tired,” I said out loud and pulled a corner of the sheet over me. It smelled of her. I cried until my voice was hoarse and my throat hurt, the release of months of holding it together. After the tears were done, there was only something that felt like relief. 

Image credit: Sheena Rose, 2017. From the Notebook series.

Katherine Atkinson is a Saint Lucian writer and teacher. Her fiction has been published in The Caribbean Writer, sx salon, and by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and was shortlisted for the Hollick Arvon Prize in 2013.  

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