Postcard

By Janet Olearski

IMG_6018In some distant country, in the back of beyond, when Christina stood pushing her postcards into an empty metal post box, hearing them clatter onto its hollow floor, she remembered Sonia. Sonia flitted into her mind like a soul without a home.

It was Sonia who had appeared in shows, auditioned, sung at concerts, and travelled to film studios together with Christina’s grandmother Kay. The two women, Sonia and Kay, had been almost inseparable. Sonia was not at all flamboyant in the way that Kay had been, but she was of the same essence. Theatricality is in the blood, they say. Except everyone ruled that out when they met Christina.

Christina thought back to the winter when Sonia had contacted her mother. It had been agreed that she and her mother should pay a visit. Christina was not especially keen. She worried that her mother might be showing her off, and that Sonia would be expecting her to be just like her grandmother. It seemed to Christina that she would disappoint them both. She protested, but her mother had got it into her head that they had to go and was ready for a stroll down memory lane. Christina sulked – as she did in those days – but they went anyway.

Over time, people lose the details of experiences and events. They think they’ll remember, but they don’t. Those details are gone. When she looked back, Christina could not recall if the day of that meeting they had taken the bus one stop too far, or not far enough. She had studied the relevant pages from the A to Z, turning it sideways and upside down to get her bearings. Her mother tried to spot street names as the bus trundled along under an overcast sky. When they finally arrived, they found Sonia there in the street waiting for them, concerned they might get lost. She had come out into the cold to find them and guide them back to her front room, where tea in fine rose-patterned china cups and Viennese cakes on matching plates awaited.

It was at a time when Christina must have been at university, or perhaps was about to go. She was journeying back and forth to stay in some arid Calabrian coastal town, to be with a man, pointlessly so. It was all costing a good bit of money. The man was having fine times at Christina’s expense.

‘I wish I could have done the same at her age,’ her mother would say, whenever she learned that Christina was off again to Italy – as if this were an acceptable thing, a young woman taking herself away to visit a man who never once thought to come and visit her. That was part of Christina’s embarrassment. She had nothing to report to Sonia, only that she had a boyfriend from there. She had enough sense not to let slip that she – Kay’s granddaughter no less – was seeing a man who was separated, but not yet divorced. And him a foreigner at that. Years later it pained her to think about it. Sometimes people know things are wrong and, because they’re wrong, the ‘being wrong’ isolates them. They’re slapped over with the paint of guilt and it won’t wash off.

When they got into the light and warmth of the flat, Sonia couldn’t take her eyes off Christina. She was looking for the resemblance, almost in awe. Christina could not gauge how much she did, or did not, look like her grandmother. That was for others to perceive. Christina reminded Sonia of someone. It was partly Kay, but it was also someone else. Sonia stared and thought as she poured the tea. In an armchair, in a corner of the room, sat her husband, reading his newspaper.

‘Who does Christina remind you of, Bernard?’ she asked him more than once. Bernard looked at Christina over his glasses, said nothing, and continued reading.

Christina was drawn into an interrogation for which she was ill-prepared. Sonia wanted to hear all about how much she liked Calabria. In truth Christina hated it, but could not say. She only went because of the man. Sonia wanted hear about Christina’s interests, her studies, her aspirations. Everything had seemed perfectly clear until Sonia had asked her. How could she answer when she did not really know? She didn’t know her own mind either, which was worse. When she thought back to that time, she did not despise the Christina of the past for her ignorance. She felt compassion for her.

In the midst of this, there was a sudden flash of recognition in Sonia’s expression. She knew without a shadow of a doubt who it was Christina reminded her of.

‘Vivien Leigh!’ she said. ‘That’s who you look like. A young Vivien Leigh.’

Christina was immediately evaluated by three pairs of eyes.

‘Who?’ said Christina.

‘Can’t you see it, Bernard?’ Sonia said, turning to her husband. ‘Vivien Leigh, Gone With The Wind. Remember?’

He rattled his newspaper. ‘Maybe,’ he conceded.

‘Look,’ said Sonia to Christina’s mother, ‘can’t you see it? The similarity.’

Christina’s mother was flattered, if not surprised, that a daughter of hers should have come out looking like Vivien Leigh.

‘Oh yes!’ she said, seeing it for the first time.

‘Oh yes,’ said Sonia. ‘Definitely Vivien Leigh!’

And there were the two of them staring at Christina, admiring her, wondering at the coincidence.

‘It’s the eyes,’ said Sonia, ‘and the shape of her face …’ Christina could have been Vivien Leigh’s stand-in. Sonia knew. She had worked on Ship of Fools and had seen the real Vivien. So, who could argue with her? But there was something demeaning about being compared to someone who, even at Christina’s age, was renowned, when Christina herself was not, and probably never would be. Christina was the first insignificant one of her kind, but the millionth Vivien Leigh look-alike. There’s something not quite right about that. But not to Sonia’s mind. It brought her immense pleasure this discovery.

So, a scene in Sonia’s front room: Christina and her mother sipping their Earl Grey and eating dainty European pastries; Bernard sitting in his armchair and reading his newspaper, glancing from time to time at the visitors without saying a word; Sonia telling them about her holidays in Capri, and how she’d sing medleys of old favourites at the piano in some Italian trattoria to the delight of the proprietor. And Sonia remembering Kay, her eyes becoming glassy as she considered the loss of her old friend so long gone. For a few moments, they all sat silently in that memory.

Christina knew her mother wanted to get back to give her father his dinner. Sonia urged them to stay, but they could not. Christina’s mother said they would definitely come again. She would come on her own, or with Christina … if Christina was back from Italy. She was leaving again in a few days’ time. Another reason why Christina hadn’t wanted to visit that day: there were things to do, a suitcase to pack. But people can always find time for the things that matter. As Christina later discovered.  

Sonia hurried into another room and brought back an address book and a postcard. She had an old friend in Taormina. Perhaps when Christina got there, to wherever she was going, she would post a card to him from Sonia. Christina was not going anywhere remotely near. The card would have arrived sooner from England. Despite that, Christina agreed. Sonia was, in any case, already scribbling her message. Christina had the vaguest impression that Bernard raised his head for a moment to look in their direction.

Sonia wanted to give Christina the money. For a postcard? Christina said not to worry – she would take care of it.

And then they left, Sonia insisting on accompanying them up the road.

‘You’ll make yourself ill,’ said Bernard. ‘I’ll go.’

‘No, you’ll make yourself ill,’ said Sonia. ‘You stay here and read your paper.’

And she went with them in the cold all the way to the bus stop, hugged them both, made them promise to come back. Christina was relieved to get away, as she always was, even years later, whenever she went to visit anyone. She was no sooner there than she wanted to be gone. And yet, in retrospect, she had enjoyed that day. She didn’t know if she had enjoyed it for what had been said, or because she had done a good deed and had been there to give some satisfaction to an old lady.

The two women both came away with the sense of a job well done. Somehow, though, Christina could not really see herself returning. They watched Sonia standing in the darkness waving to them as they sat in the bus. And then they were off, heading home through the unknown territories of Hampstead. When someone doesn’t own a car – and they didn’t – even places that are near seem light years away. Christina would fly for three and a half hours to see her Italian, but twenty-five minutes on the bus in a freezing English winter seemed an eternity.

She took Sonia’s postcard with her to Calabria. She was miles from the nearest post office, she had no transport. She relied on him. Whatever her initial intentions back in London, she did not dare ask the man about buying stamps. He didn’t consider things like that important. Christina had the wrong kind of relationship with him, she realized. If she couldn’t ask him to buy her a stamp, what kind of a relationship was it? On the last day, her conscience got the better of her, and she asked him. Please, she said, please could he post this card for her? It was very important.

He scrutinised the postcard and the message. He sat for a long time trying to decipher it. Every so often he looked up at her, then back again at the card. His expression was stern, but otherwise deadpan. That’s the way he was. But he was shut out, too, from her language and her world: he had shut himself out. Christina knew what he was thinking, that she might have written it herself … to a secret boyfriend.

She said, ‘I know what you’re thinking.’

He said, ‘What am I thinking?’

‘That I’ve written the card to some man I know,’ she said. ‘Anyway, you can see it’s not my writing.’

‘Isn’t it?’ he said. He could be very awkward when he wanted to be.

‘I’d hardly give it to you to post if it was to a boyfriend, would I?’

‘You might,’ he said, ‘to make me jealous.’

Christina wanted to do one of her sarcastic laughs and say, ‘You can’t be serious,’ but she didn’t. Scorn was wasted on him. Either he didn’t get it or he didn’t want to get it. In the end he took the card and posted it. It was a game he was playing, but the trouble was Christina never knew where the game began and where it ended. And that was always the problem.

Back in England, Bernard phoned Christina’s mother. He told her Sonia had collapsed and died just the week after their visit. He had not known where to lay his hands on their number. In the end, he had found it in one of Sonia’s address books, but by the time Christina’s mother had had the news, Sonia was dead and buried. And it was probably around that time that Sonia’s postcard, her last postcard, had reached its destination.

*

‘Did you ever post that card for her?’ Christina’s mother, increasingly forgetful, often asked her daughter. And Christina, whose trips now were always for business, never for pleasure, thought how the recipient, whoever he was, had had a postcard from a dead woman, sent on her behalf by a poor imitation of a deceased film star.

But the Christina of those times was long gone, of course.

Vivien Leigh***

‘Postcard’ was one of the winners of the National Newspaper Short Story Competition in association with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, and was published online by The National in 2013.

The Older Short-Haired Female

By Janet Olearski

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She was the older, short-haired female. A rather aggressive species, he thought. Older, and therefore experienced. It was fearsome for him to consider – and so he did not – the lives she had lived, might have lived, lives she had enjoyed and destroyed, the wiliness of her moves directed by her knowledge of things past and carried forward now into the future.

He had spotted her from afar, blue-winged and scarlet in her habitat, a high-flying estuary bird of a kind he had rarely observed before.

He should have known better. The older, short-haired female is not to be meddled with. Not by the likes of him. She fluttered seductively in men’s paths, knowing what she knew and applying it to her advantage. Unlike the past, when she had applied it to her disadvantage. For she had once been the prey of man. Easy prey. But then she was the younger, long-haired female, a delicate, pale creature, verging on the anorexic, easy to have, easy to please, easy to leave and take another.

Now she was a more evolved specimen, not as sleek perhaps, weathered – maybe hardened – possibly, but also, and resoundingly, magnetic, compulsive, charismatic, alluring, luring the helpless man-beast to her nest, entrapping and entangling the hopeless, hapless male in his inevitable flight towards an undefined fulfilment. But with one certainty: that once ensnared, he was never to escape. As surely as the sparrow hawk preyed on smaller birds, who ate the grubs in the earth, who ate the nutrients of the soil, the older, short-haired female played her part in the chain of man’s downfall, but perhaps also his redemption.

She sits at a mirror, a distant captive behind the wrought iron bars of her balcony. He watches her, captivated. She lifts her brush and pulls it carefully through glistening plumage. She turns her face this way and that, staring into her reflection. He experiences a private ecstasy, reserved for secret observers. Viewing her in silence, his home a hide with slits and peep holes, his home a hive of excited anticipation, as her robe floats feather-like to the carpet, he knows he must have her. And, when her silhouette slips from view, his hand caresses the curved inanimate surfaces of stolen eggs on the rich polished wood of the dresser in his bedroom, and he believes himself all powerful, a licensed thief of nature.

You must not move about or make a noise.

This is not conducive to the intimate study of birds.

It is a long-term project. He observes her habits, notes her displays. He knows little of her mating patterns, but he waits. He prepares himself for her broody promiscuity, knowing that it will disappoint him. Such is the species, but his is a scientific approach. He always bases action on careful research. When action is necessary, he takes it.

He passes her on the stairs. She looks at him, but does not see. He nods his head in acknowledgement. Her coat brushes his. She is there and, with a faint rustle, she is gone. He hears the door close behind her.

A case history. He watches and takes note. She is totally self-centred, an arrogant, intimidating creature. All the more intriguing for this. He observes. She preens herself with conviction and commitment.

You must always take care to keep your distance.

She is in her kitchen. She takes something from a cupboard. She turns her head and inclines it, as if listening. She stands immobile. She moves to the window. She pulls down the blind.

You, of all people, must comprehend the problems facing wild birds, the threats to their environment, the violation of their natural habitats.

Field observation. She is unlocking her car. She looks up as he passes. He would like to see her at close hand. He needs to know what she is like, her behaviour. The older, short-haired female always stands her ground. She stares you right in the eye. He lowers his eyes and moves on.  

There are many ways to attract wild birds, but these methods cannot

be relied upon. Frequently birds are heard but not seen.

As you must certainly know, they often appear when least expected.

He stands behind the door in the darkness of his hall. There is a circular marking of light around his eye. He watches her through his spy hole as she waits for his response to her call. He notes her restlessness and this gives him pleasure. She rings the bell, but he does not answer. He knows she will return. She will come closer and closer… until she is close enough to touch. He will wait and watch. He knows his chance will come.

‘I live across the courtyard,’ she tells him.

‘Ah, yes,’ he says.

‘I wondered if I might…’

‘Of course,’ he says.

Good fortune and a rapport with birds have brought her to him. He is masterful with birds. Silently he listens as she reports the fault from the phone in his study.

You believe in conservation. Beware. The conservation of memory and desire belongs only to human-kind. It is folly to seek in others what you find in yourself.

‘Your glove,’ he says.

‘I never missed it,’ she tells him. What she loses – or has lost – is of no consequence to her.

Yes, he will accept a drink.

He stands in her living room. He has never seen this room before. It is not within his range.

The bird is an unpredictable creature. You cannot be sure how it may react

when threatened. Take care not to alarm it.

Her flight is late.

‘I hope you won’t think me rude,’ he says, as he stands in her doorway. ‘I’ve cooked enough for two.’

He has always shown a concern for the protection and welfare of the wild bird.

She is glad of the offer.      

The light is dimmed. She perches on a stool in his kitchen. She pecks at her food, watching him. He offers her food from his own plate. Just a taste. If she will.

She will.

She grasps his hand in hers. Her nails are long and polished. She takes the food with her teeth and tongue. She is lit by the candlelight. Her eyes glint, her pupils wide and dark. His fingertips stretch towards the transparent down of eyebrows, and then to the soft pink of her lips.

‘I have her,’ he thinks. ‘I have… her.’

And one, or the other, is captivated.

He wakes in the half-light of the morning. There is a distant electric dawn. She is an early bird, humming as she splashes under his shower. He hears her voice and closes his eyes. He feels her presence in the room, an emperor and his nightingale. She rustles close by. In his dream, he turns to watch her as she bends towards the telescope. She speaks softly.

‘A perfect view,’ she says, ‘perfect,’ and her words dissolve into melodious, singing laughter. He smiles in his sleep.

Light floods his room. On the floor there is crushed eggshell, but it hardly matters. He views her through his binoculars and knows she will see him. Is this wise? She is speaking on the phone. She turns, catches sight and waves to him. She is smiling. He waves back. He is, of course, a tamer of wild birds.

‘I’ll be away. A day or two,’ she says when he calls.

‘I’ll miss you,’ he says.

‘I’ll miss you too.’

Generally, birds do not display their emotions.

 He knows this, but he has forgotten.

‘I’ll call you,’ she tells him. ‘Or you call me.’

He goes about his business. Common birds are dots in the distance, looking dark and colourless. They hardly interest him. She is his obsession now. He is aware that the migratory bird is at risk abroad and this troubles him. At his office he waits to be called, but his phone is silent. He calls her.

‘You’re back,’ he says.

Yes, she’s back.

Perhaps his feeling for birds has failed him.

But she is joyful. She longs to be with him. She says.

‘We’ll see each other soon,’ she says. ‘Call me. Any time. Day or night.’

These creatures come and go airily. They snatch what they can. They are erratic. They flit here and there. They swoop, they steal, they mislead. They are elusive. They soar out of reach. They abandon you.

Being an expert in the field does not equip you to manage it.

You have been, and were intended to be, an observer, not a participator.

He trains his telescope on her windows. Her shutters are closed.

He calls her. The answering machine engages, and he hears her voice. The sullen, serious voice of the older, short-haired female.

‘Leave a message,’ the voice tells him.

Leave a thought, an aspiration, a fear? He cannot abide his words gliding on this limbo of airways.

You must surely remember the raptors. There is a link through time, forgotten

or ignored as desires replace wisdom, as greed cancels caution.

When handling predators, you must mind the talons.

He thinks on these matters as he waits, illuminated only by his hallway’s prehistoric glow. Across the courtyard, her shutters open. It takes him by surprise. He focuses the lenses. She faces him directly. Her arm is raised. She is pointing, identifying him to others – to the men standing by her side. Waiting to spot him.

And then comes the moment when, in its impotence, as beating wings descend,

the prey is paralysed by the cognizance of its fate.

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‘The Older Short-Haired Female’ first appeared in Bare Fiction Magazine, April 2014.

Getting Your Stories Published

Some words of encouragement for those of you who have been trying to get your work published.

Submitting stories for publication can be a long and thankless task, but it is immensely uplifting when a story is accepted. It means that someone has read your work and has, in a sense, validated it. One of my favourite stories: A Cure For Snakebites, was sent out a total of 30 times to different literary journals between 2011 and 2017. I re-wrote the story multiple times, but essentially the heart of it remained the same. I had a message to convey and somewhere the message was embedded in that story.  Sometimes when we start writing a story – or even when we have written the first few drafts – we are not sure what our story is about. We cling to that tale because our heart says we must.

I stuck with this story for that reason. I would take it out, re-read it, tweak it, and experience a range of ‘Aha!’ moments as I began to understand what it meant for me. The writer Dorothea Brande said, “Writing is re-writing.” We need to re-write in order to dig deeply and find out what is in the pit of our subconscious. So, don’t write your story and say that you are done with it after the first draft. Look again and you will see something new. 

For readers, our stories may have many different meanings. We can explain up to a point what we were trying to say, but ultimately it must be for the reader to search and find what they are looking for in that story.

A Cure For Snakebites was finally accepted on the 31st try, by the literary journal Litro at the beginning of 2017, and I later republished it under the title Charmed in the collection  A Brief History of Several Boyfriends.

3 A Brief History of Several Boyfriends - janet Olearski

Part of the key to getting your stories published is finding the right match between your style of writing and the journal to which you are submitting. That means reading the material they publish to see if your story is likely to fit. Don’t submit at random. Your story, if you love it, deserves better than that.