A beautiful, evocative, well written, fiction story from Australian writer Catriona McKeown. This piece was given a commendation in a WA short story competition recently. The painting above entitled “Under The Arches, Mangles Bay” by artist Rosemary Singleton was the inspiration and springboard for this story. Make a cup of tea and spend 10 minutes with these memorable characters.
The most important thing Rosemary Carter remembered, was that she had a problem remembering things. The fact she remembered this wasn’t something she appreciated as much as she should have, for there were times when it may well have saved her life. After all, not remembering why one walked into the room rarely causes more than mere inconvenience. But forgetting one’s name, or place of residence, is something quite different altogether.
Sitting on a beach as Rosemary found herself to be one particular day, it was as though she had woken from a strange dream and didn’t know how she had gotten there. A large rimmed white hat flapped above her eyes and white sandals wrapped around her feet highlighting what she considered to be over-sized ankles. She scoffed at herself; she was wearing the shoes of an old woman, just like her mother had done. She looked up and with a squint, reviewed her surroundings. There was something familiar about the beach, about the pier over to her right, and about the boats resting out in the harbour. But that was about the extent of her initial recollections.
Rather than indulge in a rising panic, Rosemary chose to remind herself that she didn’t remember things well any more. That was the type of woman she was: calm, composed. She had always considered the way a person responds in a crisis to say more about their personality than a hundred conversations ever revealed.
But nothing came.
She breathed in the salty air to calm herself, fighting the sense of panic welling inside her. It was all she could do to stay sitting on the beach, but that was what her mother had taught her to do when she was a child, in case she got lost. She was to stay sitting until someone came to find her.
Besides, it wasn’t Rosemary’s style to go asking for help. Better to sit and look like she knew who she was, where she was, exactly what she was doing, than to look a fool, even to strangers. There was no one here but two boys playing in the water to ask for help anyway.
It was good that she at least knew she didn’t remember things well any more. Someone had probably told her to wait here for them. But who? And why here, when she didn’t know the place?
Rosemary focused her attention to picking up sand and allowing it to slide out of her clenched fist. It was then that she noticed the plastic bracelet on her arm. On it, someone had written Rosemary Carter and then Please contact followed by a phone number. That was her name! Rosemary Carter. And that was her daughter’s handwriting. Her daughter, Grace. Yes, she remembered now; Grace was here. She turned the plastic bracelet over and read Seahaven Palm Beach Apartments, Rockingham. Yes, Grace; they were on a trip together. It must have been Grace that left her here on the beach. Rosemary eased back into the sand a little. She was Rosemary Carter and she was on holidays with her daughter in Rockingham.
Only, this didn’t look like Rockingham.
Rockingham was where she had met her husband, Grace’s father, Walter. They’d had other children too. A boy, Harold. And another daughter, Meg. But Meg had died when she was seven years old. It was after Meg had died that they’d left Rockingham and moved to Perth. Rosemary had not been back since. Or so she thought.
Rosemary remembered Meg, her daughter who had sported the most amazing red curly hair, freckles had dotted her nose and her forget-me-not blue eyes had sparkled like stars on a moonless night. She had been so beautiful. And talented! She was destined for greatness. Singing, dancing, gymnastics. She could have done it all. Rosemary smiled and twirled her fingers around in the sand as though Meg were her dancing fingers. She laughed at her fingers, at Meg, and sung a simple song for her. Just as she had done when Meg was seven.
Rosemary sighed. It was comforting to live in the past, where everything was clear and easy to understand.
Back at the beginning, Rosemary’s memory loss had arrived in patches. A name, a face she couldn’t quite place. A bill she’d missed that she hadn’t remembered getting. Putting the kettle on four or five times, before remembering to follow it up with making herself a cup of tea.
But that was the kind of forgetting she was doing when Harold was still visiting her.
Today, the worse kind of forgetting was still the faces she couldn’t place, but oh! – the faces. Her grand-children’s names. Her friends and neighbours at the home. Her son-in-law’s birthday. People she had just met. Janice, her longest friend, had to tell her three times that she had been away, visiting her newest great-grandchild. Or, at least, so Janice had told her afterwards.
Rosemary scratched her head and looked back out into the water. The two boys were splashing under the arches, pulling up handfuls of seagrass and piling it onto the shore. She had loved to do that too, when she had been a child.
When she was a child; she had been here before, she remembered. But it looked different now. It had changed, though she couldn’t say how.
Rosemary had played in the same water with her two older sisters. Maybe even under the same arches, while their father was out fishing. They would build a giant sandcastle and decorate it with the seagrass. Or create faces in the sand, placing the seagrass over the heads for hair and shells for eyes and noses. Her sisters were Mary and Helen. But Rosemary was sure they were dead now.
“Sometimes you can live for too long,” Helen used to say. That was about their mother, who had lived until 92, but knew none of them when she died. Helen had said she would rather die than end up like their mother had. Rosemary wondered what Helen would think of her younger sister now.
One of the boys looked up from in the water and smiled at Rosemary. She chuckled a little and smiled back. The people in the aged care facility where she lived were always complaining about the young people today, about their rudeness, their lack of respect. But Rosemary didn’t share their bitterness. Young people reminded her of what it was like to have the whole world at your feet, to have your future ahead of you, to be starting out again at the beginning.
Second chances. That is what young people reminded her of. To be young enough to be given a second chance.
If she had been given a second chance, she wouldn’t have mourned for so long. She would have forgiven Walter for Meg’s death and allowed him to heal along side her, instead of pushing him away. She would have spent more time with Harold, making sure he was okay. She would have lived more in the now instead of longing for the past.
Rosemary winced. She wished she had lived in the now back then, and now, she longed to live back in the then. Back when it was easy. When she remembered everyone and everything and she knew who she was and what she wanted.
If only she had known what she had wanted.
A tear escaped her reddened eyes and Rosemary allowed it to trickle down and find its way onto her lips. She tasted its saltiness. The boy who had waved to her looked up and frowned. He must have only been about nine years old. He had a wise look about him, for one so young. She watched him nudge the other boy in the water and he also looked over at Rosemary, a frown on his face.
Rosemary looked around behind her. Were they looking at her? She felt her face, wiping any remnant of the tear away. Had the boys noticed her crying? Were they concerned for her? She chuckled. If only the residents at her home could see her now. She smiled again at the boys and waved. They waved back. The other boy, also smiling and waving to her, looked so much like Harold. His sandy-blonde hair, the way his eyes dipped a little at the ends making him look a little sad even when he was smiling. A stab of pain shot through her heart. She hadn’t seen Harold since Michael had thrown Grace her fortieth birthday party. Grace’s husband was Michael; he was such a wonderful son-in-law. That was when Harold had yelled at her in front of all those people. The boy could have been Harold’s son, if the idea of his son being here hadn’t been so preposterous. She struggled to hold back another tear as the boys went back to their creation.
Harold. Grace. Meg. Three children. But only Grace was still in her life. Perhaps Helen was right. Perhaps sometimes you can live for too long.
The boys under the arches had washed their hands and were heading her way up the beach. They chatted to themselves, and as they approached she could hear they were arguing. She felt around her dress, wondering if she was carrying a purse, hoping they weren’t going to ask her for money. Was she an easy target, sitting here on the beach on her own? There was no one else in sight. Her heart raced as she closed her eyes, trying to imagine herself on her old kitchen floor, dancing with Meg, a baby Harold crawling around their feet.
“Gran,” one of the boys said. Rosemary opened her eyes and looked at the boy. She felt the urge to again look around behind her, but he held her gaze so sincerely that she simply looked at him and smiled. “Gran, it’s me, Robbie,” he said again. “Grace’s grandson. Robbie.”
A light bulb went on in Rosemary’s mind and she smiled and chuckled. “O, Robbie. Yes dear.” He was Grace’s grandson. Yes, she knew that now. She looked at the other boy, waiting for an explanation. “And this is Paul,” Robbie said. “Remember, Gran? Harold’s son.”
Rosemary nodded slowly. “Harold’s son?”
Robbie looked at the other boy and said, “She gets better the longer you’ve known her. She’ll take a while to remember you, but she will eventually. Then you’ll be right for the rest of the day. We just left her on her own for too long.” Robbie held his hand out to Rosemary. “Come on, Gran,” he said, pulling her up to her feet. “It’s time to head back to the apartment.”
Rosemary struggled to find her footing in the sand and Robbie took her arm to steady her. She looked at the other boy; what was his name again? He sure did look like Harold.
Robbie continued to hold her hand as they left the beach and walked along the footpath. She looked at him and smiled. “Did you have a nice time on the beach?”
“Totes, Gran,” Robbie said, then paused for a moment. “We love playing under the arches at Mangles Bay. Remember that is where you met Grandpa?”
Rosemary chuckled. “Yes, I did. This is Mangles Bay? I thought it looked familiar.” She looked again at the other boy. “What did you say your name was, dear?”
“It’s Paul,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. His cheeks turned a little red.
“Sorry Paul,” Rosemary said. “I don’t have a very good memory these days, you know.”
Paul nodded. “Sorry.”
“You don’t need to be sorry. It’s not your fault.” Rosemary looked up the road ahead. It was a quiet street with shrubs lining the kerb. If this was Mangles Bay, there wasn’t much of it that looked similar to the last time she was here. The last time she remembered being here. “And you’re Harold’s son?” She looked back at Paul. “Aren’t you a little, young, to be his son?”
Paul turned a deeper shade of red. “Mum’s only forty-five.”
“Forty-five? And your father? How old is my Harold these days? It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen him.”
Paul coughed and she heard Robbie chuckle a little behind her. “He’ll be fifty seven in April.”
“Fifty-seven! Well, well, Harold; you are more like your father than I gave you credit,” Rosemary laughed. “I was almost ten years younger than my husband, you know.” Robbie nodded, Paul just blushed again. “Quite the scandal, we were. And you two, you’re the same age?”
“I’m a year older than Robbie,” Paul said, standing up straighter as he walked.
“I can see that you must be,” Rosemary smiled. They walked along in silence for a moment. “Is it far to where we are staying?”
“Just around the corner,” Robbie said. “Do you remember why we are here?”
Rosemary shook her head.
“The family has got together for your birthday. We’re having a party.”
Rosemary looked across at Paul and back to Robbie. “Harold?”
“Yep, Gran. Even Uncle Harold is here.”
Rosemary’s heart raced and she squeezed Robbie’s hand a little tighter. “Does he know about me?”
“You mean, about your memory?”
“He does, Gran. You’ve been talking on the phone with him every week since he came to visit you last year. The two of you sorted things out. He said he was sorry.”
Rosemary smiled a little, trying to mask the shock. Harold – apologised? A family gathering, to celebrate what? Her? A weekend of people she couldn’t remember, telling her things she wouldn’t know if it were true or not. She shivered.
Paul pulled something out of his back pocket and looked at it for a moment. “Here,” he said, holding the device to her face. “Aunty Grace took this photo last night of you, me and Dad.”
Rosemary looked at the photo and both laughed and cried at the same time. She looked at Paul again. “You look just like your father did when he was your age.”
Paul nodded. “You’ve told me that three times already.”
Rosemary felt Robbie clip his cousin’s shoulder behind her back. She smiled when she saw the looks they gave each other.
“Can you get the photo off that thing?” Rosemary asked. “I’d love to take it to my home to show the other residents. They’ve only met Grace, you see.”
“Gran,” Robbie said. “You don’t live at the home any more. You live with Mum, Dad and me now. Grace and Michael live in a granny flat at the back of the house. Remember?”
But Rosemary just looked at him blankly.
“You’re a clever young man,” she said to Robbie. “You could pretty much tell me whatever you wanted to, and I’d have no choice but to believe you.”
Robbie laughed. “But then I’d have deal with Mum, and Nan. And then you. The joke wouldn’t be worth the wrath.”
Rosemary nodded. “I like you. I like you both.” She looked across at Paul. “I can see you’re going to have some fun at this family party. It’s my birthday, you say? How old am I turning?”
“Ninety,” Paul said.
Rosemary laughed. “Now I know you’re telling me the fibbs.”
“It’s true,” Paul said. “Robbie -”
“You’re turning ninety, Gran,” Robbie nodded. “The day after tomorrow.”
Rosemary huffed. “Ninety. Boy, where does the time go when you can’t remember anything? Seems like only yesterday I was turning seventy-five.” Rosemary smiled when the boys laughed, but looking down at her hands the aged spots and wrinkles suggested the boys were telling the truth. “Did I say I wanted a party for my birthday?” Rosemary had always hated parties hosted in her honour, though Walter had insisted on throwing her a few over the years, back when they’d been happy together. Was that something about herself that had changed since, well, since she didn’t remember things so well any more?
“Nan suggested it. We thought we’d make it a surprise.”
“But you’re telling me about it now?”
Robbie smirked. “Yeah, but you know. By tomorrow -”
“What – by tomorrow I’ll have forgotten anyway?”
Robbie laughed. “There are some advantages to having a Gran who forgets things all the time. Besides, I thought you should have a bit of warning. Especially since Uncle Harold and Paul are here – I want you to remember them.”
Rosemary looked at Paul. “Now how could I forget such a striking young man as you?”
Paul hung his head and smiled.
“Nan had suggested we all meet here, at Mangles Bay,” Robbie said. “I think she hoped it would help you remember things better.”
“Is it working?” Rosemary asked.
Robbie shrugged. “You remembered me quick enough. But I don’t think sitting on the beach helped you any, did it?”
Rosemary shook her head. She didn’t remember sitting on the beach; was that why her toes felt funny?
“What’s it like?” Paul asked. “Not having your memory?”
Robbie shot him a dirty look, but Rosemary patted her great-grandson on the arm. “Oh, you know. It’s not so bad. For one thing, I get to meet all you lovely people over and over again.” She looked at Paul and then at Robbie and smiled. “There are worse things that could happen.”
As they rounded the bend a street of cars laced the curbs out the front of a large apartment block. She squeezed Robbie’s hand again.
“It’s okay. You may have forgotten a lot of them, but none of us have forgotten you.”
Rosemary smiled and took a deep breath. She supposed she should have been used to doing this, if she could remember having done it before. Paul opened the door and stood to the side for her to walk in; a sea of smiling faces looked back at her.
She smiled, looking slowly from face to face, some faces older, some younger. A baby cried in the distance. Rosemary steadied herself and concentrated on her breathing. She felt Robbie squeeze her hand. She took a deep breath and with a steady voice filled with the allusion of confidence she announced, “Now which one of you would be my Harold?”
This story was entered in the Rockingham (WA) Short Story competition in 2014 and received a commendation.
Thank you Catriona for sending us your beautiful piece of writing.
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About the author: Catriona McKeown
Catriona is a freelance writer, aspiring author, teacher, wife and the mother of three exceptional children. She lives on the Fraser Coast in Queensland, but has a passion for Western Australia, especially the Kimberley, where she and her family had the privilege of living for twelve months in the remote town of Halls Creek.