The hiss of the kettle brought Maeve out of her reverie. Steam clouded the window as she made her cup of tea. Picking up the plain blue mug that was her favourite, she moved back over to the rocking chair. This was her evening ritual.
The chair was varnished to a smooth shine. It was huge, with a straight back and clumsy roses carved into the arms, and it balanced on two huge curves. Maeve had colourful pillows and blankets piled upon the seat. As she lowered herself carefully into it, she heard the familiar creaking she knew so well. She’d always found the noises made by this chair soothing. They were consistent, familiar. Maeve had never been the kind to say no to a bit of adventure – but even still, it was nice to have something to rely on.
Forwards…and back…and forwards…and back…
The first time she’d seen this chair, of course, it had looked like nothing but a hunk of firewood. She and Jim had just been married, and they were in their first home, a tiny little place near the city centre. Maeve had been painting the windowsills on the front of the house. She should have been inside unpacking, really, but as she’d stood there with suitcases piled around her, suddenly painting the windowsills had seemed so very important.
Next thing she knew, Jim was staggering up the road, trying to carry this massive rocking chair. It looked ancient, and any previous varnish had faded, so the wood was dull and dead looking.
Never mind that he’d been on his way out to buy a saucepan. It was just like Jim to come back with some sort of surprise. Once, he’d bought her five different types of fancy cake instead of taking her out to dinner.
“Well?” Maeve asked, her paintbrush hanging from her hand.
“What d’you mean, what?” She couldn’t help laughing. “What did you buy that for?”
“It was free,” Jim said, really chuffed with himself, “some old lady was going to throw it out. We’ll paint it up, put a few cushions on it, and it’ll be lovely. Promise.”
Maeve just shook her head at him, a smile tugging at her mouth – in fairness she hadn’t done much better at her own job, just look at those gleaming windowsills – and he caught her in his arms and kissed her, right there on the street, getting paint all over his shirt.
They painted the chair white, dotted with tiny blue flowers. Jim was right, it did look lovely. Maeve sat in it every night, when they had a cup of tea and a biscuit before bed. She fell asleep there once when she was waiting for the bath to run, and woke up, warm and comfy in her robe, to a flooded floor and two hours’ worth of mopping. When Jim broke his leg one time and couldn’t walk, he lived out of that chair for two weeks. His own armchair wasn’t wide enough for both him and his cast. He’d been hanging curtains before the break and had fallen off the ladder, which Maeve found hilarious. She teased him all the while she was making a fuss of him.
It was to the chair that Maeve crept, seeking refuge, after their first proper fight as a married couple. She rocked herself slowly, listening to Jim stomping about upstairs and banging doors as the tears ran down her face. She soon forgot what the fight had been about. But she’d always remember the miserable, wretched feeling of sitting there in the dark, guilt and love and hurt churning inside her.
A few years on and they’d finally saved enough to move to a bigger house, with three bedrooms and a back garden. When Maeve walked into the front room, daunted and uncomfortable thanks to their sophisticated new neighbours, she found that Jim had already put the rocking chair with its blue flowers in place. That one familiar thing was all she needed to see.
Each of their children had been rocked to sleep in that chair, to dream to the gentle rhythm of backwards-forwards and out-of-tune lullabies. Even when the babies grew out of babyhood, the chair was always the place to be comforted, where Maeve had held her children in her arms as they cried. A difficulty making friends, that dreaded left-out feeling, stress over homework…and, later, broken hearts. Jack sensibly refused to confide in Maeve about his girlfriends, but Anna was in and out of love all the time. At the age of fifteen, Eve curled up in her mother’s arms and whispered that she liked girls in that way.
The children were all reared and gone by now, of course. For a time, Maeve and Jim lived together peacefully. They took things slower than they had done. Before, they had set off in their tiny, bashed up car and picked places to go based on which towns had the funniest names, eaten picnics in the car and frequently gotten lost; instead, they booked their hotel room a few weeks beforehand, and chose towns by throwing a pin at the map. Before, they played Spoons or Spit to pass the time together; instead, they did crosswords. Maeve quit coffee and switched to decaf tea. Jim took up golf. The paint on the chair was so badly faded, they cleaned it off and replaced it with varnish.
But nothing really changed between them. They still loved each other. They’d worked at their relationship, they both had, worked to keep their romance alive. Maeve was quite proud of that.
Jim was just about to retire when it happened. Maeve had stopped working three months before him (he’d blown a week’s wages buying her a necklace) and they’d booked a cruise for the beginning of their “impending freedom”, as Jim had called it. Towards the end of his last week at work, Maeve ordered a cake from the posh bakery up the road, and had a bottle of champagne ready on the counter. She was nearly finished the packing, and had made a neat little shopping list (sun cream, summer pyjamas, toothpaste) that she couldn’t seem to find anywhere. Jim was delighted with himself and the world in general; he’d made a habit of kissing Maeve every time he passed her. They were both in such a good mood at having nothing to do with the rest of their lives but be together.
And that was when they found out. Jim had cancer.
Then there was just a haze of flowers and people and condolences and handshakes and a deep, black hole inside her that nothing could drown out.
But her family were good to her. Maeve and her kids, they pulled through it together. Jim had always been practical about emotions. If it’s a good feeling, you get the best you can out of it, you let it shoot you to the stars. If it’s bad, well, you lump it and you still have to cook the supper. After he died came the first time in a long while that Maeve forgot how to carry on.
It was around the year mark that things got more difficult. All the friends and family constantly at her side, who’d been taking care of her and dropping in with casseroles and touching regularity to make sure she was all right, all faded slowly away until she was alone. The pain had ebbed enough that Maeve could be practical again, and she busied herself with endless clubs and evening classes and volunteer work and, for a while, a part time job in the corner shop. She was doing well. She was living again. But every night she’d sit in the rocking chair with her cuppa and her biscuit, staring at the empty seat opposite her and feeling the loneliness inside her that would never quite fade.
Getting older is no fun when you’re alone. Gradually, as his tenth anniversary passed, and then his fifteenth, Maeve had to drop all her activities. She didn’t have the energy to keep them up, but she had nothing to replace them with. She was still healthy, with too much energy to simply wander the house, but anything more than doing her shopping tired her too quickly. It was no easy task to fill all those empty hours. These days, Maeve teetered between meticulous tidiness and anything that would rescue her from boredom. She didn’t think she’d ever read so many books in her life. The house was always far tidier than it needed to be. She’d always sworn she would never be able to knit, but she managed to teach herself somehow. She played endless games of cards. Her weekends were filled with terrible television.
Maeve didn’t see very much of her family. It wasn’t that her kids didn’t love her, but they’d all moved too far away to visit very often. Only one of her grandchildren lived nearby, a nice girl, she was going to the university a few neighbourhoods away. She was a great talker, but whenever she came to visit and sat chatting away, Maeve watched the girl’s foot jiggling with impatience. She knew her granddaughter was dying to get back to her own life, that she dropped in because of a sense of obligation rather than an actual desire. Therefore Maeve never kept her long, although the second the door closed the silence and emptiness filled the house once more.
Ever since she was a child, Maeve had done her best to really live her life. Any pain was just part of living, and was lost in the next happy moment. But some part of her had died with Jim, that carefree spirit he’d shown her in herself and which she’d found in him. She’d managed to keep going without him. But now, without anything substantial to fill her days, there didn’t seem to be much point. Had she become one of those people whose only purpose was to wait for death?
And what about death? It could be quick, a heart attack, maybe, over and done with in a second. Or it could be horrible, slow. Even before death, she wouldn’t always have this energy, this restlessness. If she were already more of a hindrance than an asset to her family, what would it be like when she couldn’t walk? What if her eyes went first? What if she couldn’t see well enough to read or play cards or watch television anymore? How would she pass the time then?
Or, worst of all, what if her mind went? What if she forgot everything? What if she forgot Jim?
Either way she would become less independent. Eventually her poor relatives would stick her in an old folks’ home. Maeve shuddered to herself.
So what options were left to her, then?
The rocking chair was now positioned in such a way that she could see right out onto the main road in front of the house. Maeve sat there for a long time, her tea gone cold, watching the cars rushing past.
Finally, she rose from her seat. She put on her coat, her hat, her scarf, then returned to the sitting room and stood looking through the window for several long seconds, her hand resting on the chair. Jerkily she moved away, towards the door.
Her hand had set the chair in motion. It rocked gently forwards…
Anyone sitting in the chair at that moment would have seen Maeve make her way to the edge of the road.
The chair moved back…
She was about to cross.
She stepped into the road.
There was a screech of tyres.
People were screaming.
It was an accident. Only an accident.
The rocking chair became still. It didn’t move again for a long time.
Carol McGill lives in Dublin where she makes to-do lists and then avoids doing things. However, she does occasionally have productive periods which result in things being written. To aid her procrastination from increasing schoolwork, she also writes a blog. https://treasuretimesten.wordpress.com/ She enjoys chocolate and pretty stationery. Her work has been published in the anthology Words To Tie To Bricks as well as in Germ, the online magazine. She has been shortlisted and longlisted in the Brilliant Flash Fiction writing competitions, and in May she won the Puffin/RTÉ Guide teen writing competition in Ireland. Most recently, her short story Coveted Nightmare was published in Silver Apples Magazine.