The China Shepherdess
by Dani Redd
He's opened the window to let the smell of sleep out, and fresh cool air rushes in through the gap between the curtains. I sit up, tousle-headed, the creases of the pillowcase imprinted on my face, and he hands me a tray. Two boiled eggs, toast, salt and pepper. A cup of tea. He's put a jug of milk next to the cup—a blue jug, like the Cornish sea or cornflowers—and somehow the colour makes the milk feel fresher. I pour a white parabola into the brown liquid. A golden bloom, a supernova. Steam rises, sleepily, and disappears. As I sip the tea my eyes alight on that china figurine of the shepherdess on the shelf in the corner. It was his grandmother's, and I tried unsuccessfully to get him to give it away before, disliking her porcelain innocence against the hard edges of our television and our stereo. She is a pale incongruity amidst the bright curved bronze figures and the splashes of colour of those vast vivid abstract paintings that I liked to collect once. But this morning she seems to fit, somehow, and everything else feels extraneous, wrong. Perhaps it is the sounds of birdsong and children playing outside, or the Englishness of my breakfast, setting a scene that is far older than I am. Perhaps it is that the blue of her skirt matches the chink of sky I can see through the window, or that the painted roses on her cheeks seem to tell a story of long, wind-blown walks over the rolling hills. I pull off the covers and move towards the window, longing to be out there with her…we could go for a pub lunch, I think, and take the dog. Walk as if we have all the time in the world. But we don't have all the time in the world, not today. I have promised Elodie I'll take her shoe shopping.
After dressing, and the morning ritual that involves the smearing on of moisturising cream (one of the ones with the impossible promises, of smoothness, of youth, written in small print on the side), I go into the kitchen. Elodie is already awake, made up and dressed in her usual oversized jumper and leggings, with a silver stud glinting in her nose. She's on the phone. Usually as soon as I enter the room when she's on the phone she glares at me and flounces out, but today she does not. My daughter seems upset; she sounds younger than usual, that flirtatious edge gone from her voice, a little girl again. "Are you ok? Your voice sounds different to the way it does normally…oh, you're just tired…..yep, yep…sounds very busy. I guess that explains why you haven't been in touch in a while…do you still want to meet tomorrow? What? Yes, we did arrange it, remember…because you can't be around on my birthday….
You can't. Oh.
Well…um…do let me know…when you're free, that is. I miss you, you know.
Ok. You too. Bye…bye…bye…."
She slams down the phone and looks as if she is about to cry. "Maybe he is busy," I tell her. She glares at me, and I notice that her eyes, too, are the same colour of the shepherdess's skirt (it is obviously a blue morning). But Elodie's boyfriend isn't just a busy man. He's a married man, and today she's going to tell me all about it.
Elodie asks me to drive today. Normally she likes to drive, and to choose the music too, something tuneless, that makes the windows rattle with the throbbing bass. But today she doesn't make a fuss when I put on Joni Mitchell, or even when I start singing along. Softly, of course. A little dignity has to be preserved in middle age; there's little else left to preserve. The body isn't worth veneration any more (although he still does, sometimes). We drive down streets smooth as butter, past the chip shop and the park, where ducks turn in slow circles on the pond under the sky. I park the car ("Mum, there's no need to man-ooooo-ver. It doesn't matter if it's straight or not.") and we begin our slow crawl past the shops, their glass fronts separating us from stick thin mannequins frozen into position, swathed in pastel clothes. We examine rows upon rows of shoes; smart patent leather boots, those ethnic, beaded sandals that seem to fall apart so quickly, bright white trainers. None seem quite right, somehow. Too ugly, too high, too square at the toe. Or too expensive. Even though I'm buying the shoes, she doesn't want them to be expensive. But darling, you're priceless, I want to tell her. And don't. It would only embarrass her.
The silence lasts for a while, until I watch her start to lick her lips, half form breathless sentences. I wait, patiently, as I've been waiting these past couple of months, standing in front of her closed bedroom door, wondering if this once, she'll let me in. "Declan's married," she says.
"What?" I reply, stupidly. Darling, I know.
"Declan. He's married."
"He's married and I don't know what to do," she wails, and now I know that this is the time to take her in my arms, and feel her body shuddering against mine. I stroke her hair, there in the street, and warn staring passersby away with my eyes. When she pulls away I see that her mascara is smudged; it reminds me of when she was younger and used to find my make-up bag and smear it all over her face. I hand her a tissue.
"Has he got children?"
"One little boy. He's called Alex, he's three. I actually saw them in town when we went out for your birthday meal the other week. With her. He looked happy enough."
Of course he looked happy enough. He probably was happy enough, with a small child and a woman standing next to him. Status symbols. Success and solidity. His relationship with Elodie, I knew from experience, belonged to an altogether more shadowy category of happiness.
"Is he going to leave her?" I ask, already knowing the answer.
"He says he loves me." Oh darling. Whatever he tells you, whatever he says, just before or just afterwards, you are disposable. "You're going away to university in September," I say instead. "You'll meet a whole host of boys your own age. You'll have fun, don't you want to have fun?"
It sounds weak, even to me. We all know the feeling of feeling there are hundreds, no thousands, of bodies on display, and having that inexplicable desire for only one of them.
"I want to be sensible. I can't believe this happened to me, that I'm in love with a married man! I didn't do it on purpose."
Nobody ever does it on purpose. Especially not her. She's so young, my little girl.
"He won't leave his wife." I say. "It's hard, when you get older, and you're not quite sure if you're happy, but you're too scared to leave. It's difficult when you're so comfortable, so settled."
"But there are exceptions."
" Very few, Elodie. You can't waste time trying to be an exception."
"But you were an exception," she says. "You left".
How did she know? We thought we were so careful, waiting for what we considered a decent amount of time before he was introduced as "my partner." Waiting for even longer before we moved in together. He waited so long, for me.
"I was unhappy long before I met your step-father," I told her.
"Maybe Declan was unhappy long before he met me, too."
It's difficult to think of the right words to say now, because you never know, she could be right. But she's only eighteen years old, life stretches out like a promise. She's like the china shepherdess on the shelf, and I don't want anything to touch her.
"It takes years, you know. Years to extract yourself from that kind of relationship, to get a divorce, sell your house, decide who'll look after the children. And after that he might make you feel guilty, for making him leave, or you might feel guilty, for not wanting to stay with him. Are you prepared for that?"
I want to tell her why it takes so long to leave, why it took me so long. It was you, I want to say. You who stopped me, long after everything had fallen apart and we were both circling each other like planets, locked into different orbits. Every night I would come into your bedroom when you were asleep and realise how heartbroken you would be if you woke up and I wasn't there. "When are you coming home?" you'd ask, every time I left the house, and I felt as if you knew. I want to tell her these things; all of these things, and more. I want to tell her that every day for months I woke up with aching teeth, from grinding them together in my sleep, out of worry. How hard it was, before, afterwards, and that waking up next to him was the only reward. But my head is full of all the things I can't, or won't say. I imagine everyone's is.
"I love him," she says. But it sounds hollow, as if her voice is echoing down the telephone and she's in a country far away. "I just want a normal boyfriend!" she bursts out.
For the rest of the morning, as we shop, she makes plans for the summer, and I help her. Places she'll visit with her friends. Picnics, festivals, short trips to the beach or to faraway cities. Sunshine and peach flesh. A summer job. We even go into a cafe with a "waitress needed" sign on, and I notice that she's already caught the eye of another boy working there, someone about her own age, with dark eyes and a sleepy smile. Someone a lot less dangerous. Someone suitable. I imagine hands touching across the expresso machine. Earnest, late night conversations at the local pub, blocking everyone else out. I'd like to tell her as well that I envy her her youth, a little. But it's yet another thing I don't say. So instead we carry on looking at the shoes on this bright spring morning, rows upon rows of them, all slightly different. Eventually, a pair is chosen—some squashy leather boots with buttons up the side, and flat heels. They are paid for and wrapped up in tissue paper, and placed in a box. This decision has been made. But what of the other? Perhaps she'll have a moment of weakness, then another. I want to tell her not to worry. She'll know when she wakes up with the right pair of arms round her. She'll know, just like I knew. Because she'll feel how I felt about the shepherdess this morning; that feeling of finally fitting in, somehow better than before.
Dani Redd lives in the UK, in a small town in the south, called Totnes. It is close to the sea and an area of moorland known as Dartmoor, upon which she is constructing a series of story walks. She works as a horticultural support worker on a farm which provides an educational day service for adults with disabilities. She writes avidly in her spare time, and hopes one day to provide a therapeutic creative writing service for people who need it.