The party had broken up some hours ago when the last guest stormed out. Elly had curled up in the basement, going through her old photograph albums and crying. She knew now that her life hadn’t been that bad – in fact, by most people’s standards, she’d had a pretty good time – and that her constant complaining and overreactions had left deep scars. John had avoided her for years, preferring the company of the figurines who populated his tiny train world. Mike and Elizabeth struggled to behave like functioning adults capable of making their own decisions without racing back to Mom for guidance and approval. April was a mystery; Elly knew that she should have tried harder with her youngest – with all of them. Claire seemed the most mature and, well, normal of all her children, and Elly acknowledged with a rueful smile that that was in no small part due to Claire having been adopted.
Elly had kept her photograph albums organized for years. She loved putting the photos in order, setting the events into a line, seeing her family story come to life, four photos to a page, until nearly a decade ago when she lost interest. The unfiled photos now filled several boxes, many in chronological order in their separate envelopes, but Elly had found that the closer she came to the present, the more the photos had been thrown randomly into boxes, the carefully arranged story of her life turning disjointed and jumbled, photos of her grandchildren interrupted by prints made from the slides of nearly 30 years earlier. Elly wasn’t even certain that she felt strong enough to sort out the mess her Patterson saga had become. She ran her hands through her hair. No one had even commented that she’d finally cut it, replaced her tired bun with a short, loosely curled hairstyle: according to her therapist, a visible sign of her growing confidence and her determination to make a clean break from past behaviours and attitudes.
She popped open the rings on the special album she had set aside for Elizabeth’s wedding photos. She had chosen this album many years before the ceremony. She was still working at Lilliput’s then and when she saw this photo album with its ivory silk cover, arriving in a shipment with all the pre-Christmas sales stock, she knew it would be perfect for her daughter’s wedding. Elly remembered showing it to John and how they’d shared a rare close moment imagining Elizabeth’s wedding, both confiding almost simultaneously that they hoped Elizabeth would marry Anthony: after all, hadn’t they reunited to spend New Year’s Eve at his father’s work?
Elly drew the wedding reception photos from the envelope. Annie had done a great job turning around the Empire Hotel ballroom for the night, and the food had been wonderful. Chicken Kiev: one of her favourites and a genuinely classy meal for a wedding, plenty of carrots on the side – with extras for April.
Her stomach ached at the thought of the reception spread and Elly blamed the ‘shark and fried’ from the Thai place. Maybe she shouldn’t have eaten almost all of those not-butter tarts and the proper English fish and chips, but she was convinced that it was the foreign stuff now causing the indigestion. Perhaps something light would settle her stomach.
Elly went upstairs, stopping to survey the remains of the party. She felt like screaming, but her throat was too sore. She used to have far better stamina. All those months away left her vocal cords unprepared for John and the kids. She sighed, contemplating the amount of cleaning ahead of her.
She was still carrying the wedding album but didn’t dare put it down near the pools of congealing sauces on the table, so snapped the rings shut and placed it on the kitchen counter, wondering in passing why there had been a brass locomotive sitting there earlier. Probably because John had rearranged her kitchen to the way Carrie would have done it, but couldn’t resist adding something train-related. She scowled and considered the way he never appreciated all the things she did for him, then caught herself and tried to be more understanding. She didn’t want to undo any further all the progress she’d made, even though the night had been a disaster.
The fridge interior was no cleaner and no better organized than the rest of the house. How could John live like this? Elly couldn’t find anything for making a sundae. She took out some Havarti which hadn’t yet passed its expiry date and rooted around in the cupboards for some Triscuits. She sliced some cheese and ate her snack over the sink so she’d have one less plate to wash, but the food just made her thirsty and she couldn’t finish. She dumped the remains into Eddie’s dish, called his name, retrieved the remaining not-butter tart she’d hidden earlier, then poured the dregs of the afternoon’s coffee into her “You Put The ‘Grand’ In ‘Grandma’” mug and shoved it into the microwave.
She re-opened the album as she waited and, as she planned the layout for the wedding photos, noticed that the rings had overlapped when she closed the album and now were snagging the pages. Elly boggled her eyes at the album: she’d spent nearly $30 on this – plus tax! She yanked the rings open again and tried to see where they had become bent and if it looked like an easy job to force them back into place. The microwave beeped. Elly took out the steaming mug, balanced the not-butter tart on top and picked up the album. John must have pliers stored somewhere. She walked back through the dining room and across the living room to the top of the basement stairs – and straight into Connie.
“Connie!” she gasped. “I nearly spilt my coffee!”
“Why didn’t you invite me?” Connie demanded. Edgar poked his head around the corner and, spying Connie and Elly, trotted over to see if they had some food.
“For coffee?” Elly was confused. “Did you want some? I could make some more. Did you want a butter tart?” She hated to part with it – she’d been looking forward to it – but Connie seemed upset about something.
“No, not for coffee,” Connie answered, carefully taking the not-butter tart. Elly saw crumbs fall into her coffee. Eddie licked his lips. “Why didn’t you invite me for the dinner? Why everyone else but me?”
“Oh, the dinner. Well, you came anyway, so you saw the whole sorry spectacle. It was for family only, so…” She could smell Connie’s breath. “Have you been drinking?”
Connie ignored the question. “Am I not closer to you than any of your family?! Who do you turn to whenever you need advice or a shoulder to cry on or just a friend to listen? Me. Not John, not your kids, not your father, not Annie: me. Me.”
“I’m sorry,” Elly said. “I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but I really do mean it. And I would like to beg your forgiveness for my actions over all the years we’ve known each other…” repeating what she had learned in therapy “…so we can rebuild our relationship on a solid foundation of honest and open dialogue and mutual respect…”
“I mean, don’t you get it?” Connie started pacing. “Look at this…” she went back into the dining room and returned with the brass locomotive. “Your husband spent over $1000 on this and for what? It’s for himself. Like that time he bought two stereos in six months, or all the cars he bought without asking you first. He’s selfish and sexist and never appreciated anything you did. Not like I did.”
“No, that’s not right,” Elly began. “I used to think that, and maybe there’s some truth in it, but it’s also fair to say that I wasn’t the best partner to him. Maybe I should have spent more time talking to him about what I felt instead of keeping it bottled up or talking about it to you.”
“Stop it,” Connie tried to make a stop gesture and the not-butter tart crumbled and fell to the floor. Eddie shot forward with a surprising agility for a dog of his age and devoured it. Connie shook the remnants from her hand. “Just stop it. I don’t want to hear this therapy-speak. You’ve been brainwashed. John put you into the centre to destroy your individuality.”
The strangest feeling enveloped Elly: she could think clearly at last. Connie was wrong. Connie had always been wrong. Elly had spent too much time concerned about Connie’s opinion of her and not enough time thinking for herself. “No. No, that’s wrong. Maybe he put me there to get rid of me, maybe some part of him still felt some affection for me and he wanted me to get help. Whatever his motives, it worked. I feel better. I feel stronger. Taking a year and a bit away from Milborough, from this reality, has actually really helped me. I feel like, even if I can’t ever make amends for all the damage I’ve done in the past, I still have a good future ahead of me and I can do it alone if I have to.” Eddie sat down at Elly’s feet and wagged his tail: maybe she would feed him too.
“Oh, that’s just great,” Connie sneered. “Off you go, the world will fall at your feet because you’ve earned it after all you’ve been through, Miss Sense-of-Entitlement. And where does that leave me? Hum? Just a bloody sidekick without a superhero? Why do you think I’ve listened to you talk, talk, talk for years, never taking the time to really ask me how I’m doing, how I manage to juggle work and home, how my marriage is, about my child’s relationships unless you want some dirt to share with Annie?”
Elly paused. “Well, why did you do it? If it was that bad, why did you stay?”
“Why does anyone stay in a bad relationship? Because they believe that one day it will get better and the person they love will change!”
She suddenly understood. “No, Connie, oh no…I never knew…I’m sorry…I don’t feel…”
“JUST SHUT UP!!” Without thinking, Connie swung her arm to slap Elly. The brass locomotive cracked against Elly’s cheekbone, the cow catcher cutting deeply into her skin. Elly staggered back, dazed, blood sliding down her face, and tripped over Edgar. As she pitched forward into the stairwell, she screamed, the photo album and the mug sailing out of her arms into the empty space in front of her. She felt the hot coffee burn her as she fell forward into it, saw the bottom of the stairs racing towards her face. A horrible crack from somewhere behind her jaw and then the abrupt silence as her scream was cut off. And the pain. Oh the pain. As the blackness flooded her vision, her last sight was of the photo albums, and her life flashed before her eyes like so many pages in a photo album, four pictures at a time, over and over unto eternity.