Short stories

Battleaxe

By

Helen Monks Takhar

VERONICA watches her hand send a hot iron over a priest’s red chasuble. She slips the pressed outer vestment onto a waiting wooden hanger, surrounds it with a suit bag, raises the zip and awaits the usual sigh of satisfaction. It does not arrive. Through the small window of the utility room, the sight of husband Graham on another break from marking essays, smoking in the garden with his back to their fine Edwardian house, has stymied any sense of gratification. 

‘WORK SHIRT!’

Veronica flusters, eyeing the tower of men’s clothes awaiting her attention as her son enters her space. Ollie snatches a ball of greyish cotton from the top of the pile, ‘Bloody hell, Mum.’

Veronica considers apologising, she recognises things have been slipping recently, but Ollie has already stomped back to his room and will not hear her. Now she sees her hands are gripping a dirty shirt with a force that flattens the veins normally standing high on the back of them. She drops the shirt and busies her hands more usefully, freeing a tangle of baby grows from the dryer and stuffing them deep into a laundry bag as though they were the hot thoughts she wished would not invade her days. 

She hoists the bag onto one broad shoulder, hooks the suit bag onto her finger and passes through the dining room without acknowledging the dresser strewn with the brown paper detritus of a dozen or so recent deliveries, a mess she has somehow found neither the time nor will to clear. Veronica leaves the house without her husband or son realising she is gone.

Before long, Veronica walks down the high street and past a sunshine-yellow door to the flat above the florists. A golden lion waits on the door to summon the man of the house, but Veronica does not need to use the knocker. She has her own key.

The door calls to her. She yearns to open it immediately, but she cannot go through it yet.

Poppy waits with her baby for Veronica on a pavement café nearby. Veronica hands over the heavy laundry bag, expecting no thanks. None arrives. Poppy is sensing something of Veronica’s desperation today, and with it a chance to ask her for more.

‘Couldn’t have him in the morning, could you?’

Veronica hesitates. She’s worried she may already have too much to do tomorrow. Things are already beginning to slip.

‘Anything you could bounce?’ Tiredness radiates off the young mother, an exhaustion Veronica understands.

The greatest among you shall be your servant, Veronica reminds herself. She tells Poppy she will take the baby to the park tomorrow.

She pays for Poppy’s coffee, then takes the clean vestments to church. On the way, her body skims the air in front of the yellow door once more, her blood quickening and her soul floating through the bright wood and up the stairs behind it.

To Andrew.

Though she does not have long to wait now, away from him it is always too much time.

At church, Veronica lifts dead flowers from their vases on the altar, praying she will be able to perform her duties untroubled today, but the parishioners she was hoping to avoid enter the vestibule. New to the parish, the younger women underestimate the acoustics of the old building.

‘Battleaxe, again.’

‘Come back later?’

Battleaxe.

Away from Andrew, this is what her womanhood is reduced to, so distant from allure as to be frightening. The two women retreat as Veronica gathers the spent stems, her base exhaustion chased away by a rage that thumps through her with a force reflecting its gathering of power on the perimeter of her consciousness for some time. Now, she is truly struggling to know herself. Though there is barely enough time for confession and the penance she knows will follow, Veronica must find it.

She confesses the growing darkness of her recent thoughts. Her priest reminds Veronica of the pressure she’s been under this year, all those leaning on her, the many reasons she might be tipped into despair, plunged into anger. The priest tells her she is forgiven by God, but she does not absolve herself. She must whisper her penance over an anger that refuses to dissipate. It almost, but not quite, breaches the surface as she passes the younger parishioners on the way to the next place she is required to be.

Veronica places tiny pieces of toast on her helpless father-in-law’s lower lip. Occasionally, his tongue retrieves a morsel, but most find their way into the dimples of the Ox Blood Chesterfield, the same chair he sat in when she was first introduced to him, more than thirty years ago. She takes him, the man who never believed she was bright enough for his son, to the toilet.

Veronica goes to clear the Chesterfield and watches her fingers pinching crumbs from the leather seams before abandoning the task long before it is finished; standards slipping before her eyes. She cannot delay going through the yellow door and to Andrew a moment longer.

So close now. She glances over her shoulder as she takes her key from her coat’s inner pocket, worried Graham might spot her on his post-lunch stroll. She scans the pavements behind her, breath hot and fast until she finally lets herself inside.

Dappled light floods the staircase. Dreamlike. Veronica climbs the stairs to a charming sitting room, a chalk-painted table and chairs at its centre, where a butter-coloured teapot and two cups wait.

Andrew emerges. Time shifts.

As stunned by his beauty as she was the first time she ever saw it, she is almost afraid to look Andrew’s way as he approaches her. He could not look, or be, any less like Graham.

‘You should have let me,’ he tells her softly as she fills her teacup. Readying himself to watch her drink, he cradles his face with long, beautiful fingers. ‘How are things at church? That new lot behaving themselves yet?’

She shakes her head, more to dismiss his concerns than confirm them.

‘Reminds me. I bought you something. Should be with you tomorrow.’

Another parcel waiting on the dresser, another note to hide from Graham. How long can this go on? We probably have to stop this soon, my love, she should tell him. But then, there it is, the feel of Andrew’s hand on hers, in hers. No. Not now. Not yet. Not ever. Her eyes close, her heart swells. Veronica is nowhere near to having enough of him.

Later, in Andrew’s bed, Veronica falls into the deepest of sleeps until he rouses her.

‘Time to go. See you next week. I miss you.’

As she pulls on her skirt, Veronica cannot find the vocabulary to describe how infinite each day without him feels.

Later, at home, at the dinner Veronica prepared, Graham holds a book flat with one hand and forks his plate with the other. Ollie, meanwhile, grabs his plate from his place and takes it and himself to the sofa in the adjacent room. Graham checks their son is not listening.

‘You saw Poppy today? Everything OK?’

Veronica nods.

Graham lays down his fork to squeeze her shoulder over the table, his head still turned to his book. This is not a conversation to acknowledge or prolong.

In the morning, Veronica sits on a park bench, watching Poppy’s baby boy asleep in his buggy, and imagines what Andrew would make of this scene. He would remind her how Poppy is only one of the many who ask too much and give too little. Andrew is right, but without her, Poppy has no one local to invite into her support bubble. She would be lost. And if Veronica refused to care for her diminished father-in-law, a rostrum of carers would come and go every day and where might that leave him? Then, the thought of the week’s labour sends a sweep of tiredness through her, her muscles seem to melt into the wooden slats where she sits. Her guard down, the rage re-enters.

I’m thinking of hurting him again, Father. I’m thinking about it right now.

And now Veronica no longer wants to see things slip, in this moment, she wants to slam them all to the ground.

She takes the baby back to Poppy hours earlier than promised, shoving the buggy into her hallway without explanation or apology. Poppy calls Veronica as soon as she runs away from her, but Veronica ignores this and the many calls that follow, Poppy’s and Graham’s. 

The rest of the afternoon passes less in a blur than a blaze. She walks fast, up and down the high street over and over, the key to Andrew’s flat in her sweat-slicked fingers. Again and again, she passes the gateway to her other world but does not let herself enter it. What if Andrew isn’t there today? What if, in her state of rage, he can no longer see the beauty he has told Veronica is hers?

It’s almost dark when she allows her cold legs to take her home. She is anxious but calmer somehow, knowing Graham will be hungry, Ollie too. She will have something recognisable to do, needs to be serviced. But Ollie’s bike is gone from the hall, he must have left the house in search of food, and Graham is standing tense in the dining room, next to the dresser.  

‘I had to go and see Dad. You just left him today? And Poppy? What happened to your phone?’

Veronica apologises, tells Graham she’ll do better, get back on track, begging herself to rediscover the greatest in service, so she might know she can feel loved, or needed at least, beyond Andrew.

‘What you do every week at the flat,’ Graham cannot look at his wife, ‘and the presents, another one today,’ he gestures towards the latest parcel, a large box on the dresser amongst the spent brown paper, ‘All of it. It’s time it stopped.’

He leaves Veronica and walks out into the garden with a cigarette, unable to stand the sight of her crying again, or unwrapping the latest delivery and pocketing the accompanying note furtively as if any of what Veronica does is a secret from him.

Alone, she reads the latest note.

A gift just like you: beauty, strength, utility

My love forever, your Andrew x

She slits the box tape with her key. Steel and ornate brass glint through scrunches of stiff grey packing paper and her tears. She lifts the gift free.

She begins to see it all through Andrew’s view now, a film playing behind her eyes of the night that changed everything.

Andrew pulls into the drive, on a mission to surprise her, but she is at church. Graham, however, is home. At first, Andrew doesn’t know what he’s looking at. Graham lies face down on the sofa, clothes in odd disarray. Then, a young, female body is revealed below him, Poppy’s.

Andrew’s father groans. A book drops to the floor.

Andrew runs back to his car. Veronica’s perfect boy disgusted and desperate to escape the scene of his father and his student. He drives too fast into the night and crashes.

Graham’s actions killed their son while creating two more people dependent on her care, Poppy and her baby.

Andrew’s was life over, but his beautiful home remained. A lifeline. She begins to let herself into her son’s flat and allows herself to feel the wonder of his energy about her once more.

She has forced herself not to seek sanctuary there every day, only permitting herself a single visit each week, at its midpoint, when she does not know if she’ll last until mass on Sunday. In his flat, she gives her son voice again, imagines the conversations they might have had and organises gifts with the words she knows he would have sent her. In her son’s bed, she sleeps, sometimes resting so well she thinks she will never rise again. If Graham blocks her only access to Andrew now, Veronica is as good as dead anyway.

The wooden handle of the battleaxe is suddenly light and cool against her damp palms. She follows Graham out into the garden. Viewing his back to their house, she does not feel the chill of night around her, only the heat between her hand and the battleaxe.

‘I’m ready for this to stop.’

Copyright Helen Monks Takhar, November 2020