Ether

Short Story by T.D. Calvin

Ether

December 1990

She heard Ruth lock the front door behind them. In the hall Fiona caught the smell of varnish, a hint of juniper and that human odour of someone else’s home. It felt like warmth was barred from leaving, winter kept outside and the rest of her evening secure in the heat of those rooms. She set her bag down and Ruth helped her out of her coat without offering – her friend never waited for permission to be considerate. Fiona then started to pick her gloves off, wincing at the bite of nerves in both hands as she did.

“Everything alright?”

Gloves removed, Fiona opened her hands and showed Ruth the state of them, skin across her knuckles shot through with purple and fingertips the colour of Vaseline.

“What’s up with you?”

“Raynaud’s phenomenon,” Fiona said. “Problem with the circulation.”

“Right.”

“It’s the cold that does it,” she said. “This time of year it gets worse.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“Neither had I,” Fiona said. “The doctor told me. Turns out there’s no cure.”

“That’s a sin,” Ruth said. The words sounded instinctive, her focus elsewhere. She nodded at the door to her left and lifted Fiona’s duffel bag. “Go on through and get a seat, I’ll take this upstairs.”

“Don’t be daft, I’ll get it.”

“You’re fine.”

“It’s no bother –”

“I’ll get it,” Ruth said, voice harder. “Away and sit down.”

Fiona had to relent. She’d often got the sense Ruth was too used to her decisions being final, short of patience for contradiction or disagreement. It was tough to imagine anyone with enough gall to challenge her, someone who could win her round to an idea that wasn’t her own. If Fiona was honest, though, she would’ve had to say she felt thankful for the force of Ruth’s resolve – it made Fiona sure of where she stood, assured her things were under control.

In the living room she switched on the light and checked if her expectations of Ruth’s home proved correct. She smiled at the glass vase of yellow roses on the coffee table, a shout of colour at the room’s centre; but other than that, there wasn’t as much order or as many touches of care as she’d presumed there would be. The place seemed like it couldn’t contain itself, space tight between the potted ferns, pine sideboards and display cabinets mobbed with Royal Doulton figurines. Dozens of local and national newspapers were wedged into a magazine rack on the sheepskin rug, others scattershot over the armrests and cushions of the three-piece suite, some editions dated months or years prior.

What didn’t surprise Fiona was that the room had committed Paul to memory – brass-framed photos of his twenty-two years spanned the far wall and mantel. In one shot Ruth’s boy couldn’t have been more than two or three, his hand in his mother’s as they waded through snow in their garden; the picture alongside showed a bright-skied day on some seaside promenade, vicious slaps of acne on Paul’s cheeks and chin, Ruth’s arm slipped around his; while Paul’s graduation portrait from Strathclyde rested on top of the television, an image of a young lad sceptical of his own smile, Ruth at his side with a hand on his shoulder. Mother and son stared back at Fiona and she had an urge to apologise, sad to admit she knew their future when both of them didn’t.

She made a round of the room, rubbing her fingers to restore blood and sensation, unable to avoid thoughts of Martin. The silence between them had lasted for near enough two days, silence she’d pulled with her from Barrhead through the Lowlands and over the border. On the train to Carlisle she’d had a notion to try and count up the miles that separated them, acres full of everything she and Martin refused to say. She turned her back on the living room window and the dark of Cumbria, debating again if she was in the wrong, until confronted by the sight of a World War Two gas mask on a corner table, attached by its straps to a metal stand. Stoor clouded its lenses and Fiona detected the elderly stench of the mask’s rubber as she closed in to inspect it.

“That was my mum’s,” Ruth said from the doorway. “They dug her out from under a tenement after Clydebank got bombed and that was all she had on her.” Ruth gave the mask another glance and sniffed. “She held onto it all her days, told me to keep it for luck. Wish I could tell her all the good it’s done me.”

Ruth skimmed the curtains closed and crossed the floor to select a disc from the strata of compilation albums next to the stereo. “Putting some music on,” she said. “I always have it on in the evenings.”

“That’s fine.”

“Keeps me calm,” Ruth said.

The speakers released the sound of Dionne Warwick, who just didn’t know what to do with herself, vocals smoothing over the air. Ruth cleared the couch of its scrum of newspapers and instructed Fiona to have a seat.

“You’ve a lovely place here.”

“It used to be,” Ruth said. “Doesn’t feel much like home anymore.”

“Of course.”

“I mind when the police were here searching,” Ruth said. “They put their hands on everything as if none of it belonged to us. I was sat right here.”

“They did the same in our house,” Fiona said. “They reckon you don’t have to look far to find the person to blame.”

“True.”

Ruth turned on the electric fire and Fiona watched its light welling up beneath ridges of artificial coals in the grate, a mirage of flames refracted onto the chimney’s wall.

“Your hands are looking better,” Ruth said.

Fiona examined her fingers, each one a livid pink from surges of blood. “It’s that strange,” she said. “When they go white, I can run the hot tap in our kitchen until the water would scald you and, I swear to God, I can put a finger under the water and I don’t feel anything.”

“Really.”

“Nothing to be done about it though,” Fiona said. “It’s the way it is.” She fit her hands together in her lap and recognised that, away from Martin, she had the confidence to be sincere, a level of conviction that she could speak and believe she’d be listened to, not that this gave her any modicum of satisfaction – it made her husband a defect in her life, a fault in its design, and Fiona didn’t yet feel capable of allowing that to be true.

She exhaled and smiled at Ruth, a thought occurring to her as she faced their surroundings. “So, when’re you putting your Christmas decorations up?”

“I’m not,” Ruth said. “I’ve not had them up in three years.” Her tone had an edge of incredulity. “Nothing to celebrate.”

Fiona’s face warmed as she speculated on what Ruth might have said if she wasn’t as civil. “Sorry,” she said. “Wasn’t thinking.”

“I’ll get us some tea.”

Ruth walked out via the kitchen door and Fiona considered following, anxious to acknowledge Ruth shouldn’t have had to explain herself; but she chose to let her be, nervous of chancing more bother. It was frustrating that Fiona of all people hadn’t been attuned to the circumstances, given she and Martin had seen out three Christmases since Alanna went missing. Weeks after their first, deep into January of ’88, the Christmas tree had stood its ground at their bungalow’s bay window well after twelfth night. At the foot of the tree, each of Alanna’s presents had looked content in its wrapping and happy to wait. For hundreds of hours Fiona had stationed herself on the couch in close proximity, everything in that room oblivious of events while she sat beside the phone and prayed that, if the moment came, she wouldn’t be afraid to answer it. With no word of Alanna for a month and a half, there’d come a point when Fiona began fixating on the manic flashes of the tree’s fairy lights and realised she couldn’t stomach another second of their colours. By the time Martin had returned later that night, having driven an ever-wider radius of Greater Glasgow to show folk Alanna’s photo, he’d found Fiona stripping the tree of its ornaments and treated her like an intruder.

“What’re you playing at?”

“It needs taken down.”

“Fiona, we’re leaving it there.”

“We can’t leave it up.”

“She’s due a Christmas,” he’d said. “And there’ll be one here for her.”

“It’s unlucky.”

Martin had stopped speaking to her, the first of many silences. She’d gone ahead and dismantled the tree regardless but shifted their daughter’s presents to a spare corner of the front room. From Januaries to Novembers since she’d dusted the packages with a cloth, the whole lot readied for the next December and the day she’d carry them back to the base of the tree.

Dionne Warwick’s voice began singing about trains and boats and planes as Ruth eased the kitchen door open with her elbow, a mug of tea per hand. Fiona accepted one with thanks and sipped from it, the taste an over-sweetened burn – she didn’t take sugar but concluded it wasn’t worth mentioning. Ruth planted herself in one of the armchairs, raking tabloids out of her road.

“I’m always checking these in case I’ve missed something,” she said, scanning a loose page of the Mirror. Fiona had hoped Ruth would account for the stash of newspapers, too reluctant earlier to ask for clarification, but she’d no clue if she was supposed to understand.

“That right?” she said.

A frown seeped over Ruth’s face. “Paul might be in the background of some photo,” she said. “Or he might’ve turned up somewhere not knowing who he is and they’ve put an appeal out.”

“Got you,” Fiona said. “I hadn’t thought about that.” She posited her tea on the coffee table and sat forward. “I’m wondering if I should try and give Martin a call.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“It’s just so he’s not worrying.”

“If you call him, you’ll have to say where you are,” Ruth said. “Mind I said I’d rather he didn’t show up at my door.”

“He wouldn’t,” Fiona said. “He’s not like that.”

“All the same,” Ruth said. “I’m not wanting trouble. I thought you left him a note.”

“Aye, I did – I said I’d be away a couple of days.”

“Then that’s fine, he knows what’s happening,” Ruth said. “Give him some space.”

Fiona wouldn’t have said Ruth put her mind at rest but didn’t give her doubts much chance against her friend’s perspective. She supped more tea and laughed to herself, thinking of the route out of Carlisle that evening, Ruth at the wheel, her house a thirty-minute drive spanning Cumbrian fields, ice-encrusted briars and single-track roads. “You know what, I couldn’t even tell you exactly where I am.”

Ruth folded the page of the Mirror and let it waft to the floor. “The border,” she said. “You could call it north or south or neither.”

“You’ll need to keep a lookout for Martin,” Fiona said. “He might drive past you one of these days.”

“What?”

“Did I not say to you? The other weekend he ended up in Manchester. He was in Newton Mearns looking for Alanna and then he decides to head onto the motorway and just keeps going. He got to Manchester after midnight and that was him, driving about the city centre ’til the sun came up.”

“Really.”

“He won’t stop,” Fiona said. “It’s like he thinks she’ll cross the road in front of him.”

“That’d be something else.”

“I want it to happen,” Fiona said. “But it’s not going to.”

“So he should stop looking for her?”

Fiona raised a fingertip to her mouth to nip at the nail. “If you asked him, he’d say we have to keep looking because nobody else will.”

“I’m asking you,” Ruth said.

Fiona propped her head up with her palms, eyes shut. “He’s wanting me at home in case we get a call about her. But I feel like saying to him I can’t sit by the phone for the rest of my life. If he’s not working, he’s off driving somewhere else and I’m left in the house. More often than not it’s like I’ve lost him and all.” Her voice jarred and she paused, adamant she wouldn’t greet. “I’m wishing somebody could tell me what to do.”

“What we do is up to us.”

Fiona opened her eyes to see Ruth settled in the armchair, every cell of her body composed. Her cardigan softened the taut structure of her torso and weight loss had sapped at the contours of her face, the skin telling of four decades and stress despite a layer of foundation. She looked leftward at Fiona, bemusement shading her expression.

“I was thinking the other day,” she said. “All this time and I still don’t feel like I know the first thing about Alanna. You should give me more details.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“Didn’t you say to me she was in a drama club at school?”

“That’s right.”

“Good at acting, then.”

“Aye, me and Martin thought she’d make a career of it,” Fiona said. “She was due to finish sixth year and she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, and we told her she should try for the RSAMD. She wasn’t that keen but we kept on at her ’til she applied. She failed the audition.” Fiona began to dislodge a small stub of dry skin beside her thumbnail. “She said it was the last time she’d let us make her mind up for her.”

“Bit harsh,” Ruth said.

“She was upset.” Fiona detached the dod of skin from her thumb and blood dashed into the minute gap it had left. “I think she stopped trusting us after that. She didn’t want to tell us anything.”

“Keeping things to herself,” Ruth said.

“Aye, mind I said to you she went to Paris for an Easter weekend and didn’t let us know ’til she got back. That’ll be near four years ago now.”

Ruth’s fingers riffed on top of her armrest. “How often did you see her?”

“Now and then,” Fiona said. “She was always that busy.”

“Some things you need to make time for,” Ruth said. “Even when Paul was at Strathclyde, he used to come back down here every Friday to stay for the weekend.” She aimed her eyes at the fireplace and its glare shone against her pupils. “I did tell him I’d move back to Glasgow. I was going to sell up and move so I’d be near him.”

“Away, that’s some dedication,” Fiona said, adding a laugh.

“It’s love,” Ruth said. Her lips tensed, as if she had a daily quota of words and feared she’d run low. Fiona had the impression she’d just humiliated herself in front of Ruth, ignorant of the true necessities of affection. She didn’t accept this was fair – no scenario had ever come about to spur Fiona into proving how much Alanna was loved. She’d trusted there’d been no need, that it had gone without saying.

Any conversation faded and Fiona was at a loss on how to do away with the quiet, Ruth absorbed by her own thoughts, indifferent to present company. It wasn’t Fiona’s place to comment but Ruth did tend to have these swerves into silence that made Fiona wonder if her pal wouldn’t rather be alone. It made her recall meeting up with Ruth in Glasgow not long after they’d come into contact, Ruth the one who’d insisted on making the drive north so they could get together for coffee. They’d spent an afternoon in a bookshop café comparing experiences, two mothers who used to have children, and Ruth had voiced resentment at the perception that nobody cared what had happened to her boy.

“No one’s interested in a story that doesn’t have an ending,” she’d said.

Fiona had comprehended what she meant – there’d been no denying that desk sergeants, journalists and family friends had assumed tones and expressions of bored tolerance at the mention of Alanna’s name in the years after she’d gone missing. It had seemed that some sort of limit had been reached, with no further public appeals, the investigation scaled back and a dimming of moral support. Her daughter’s life had become no better than some mathematical problem people had given up trying to calculate. Nonetheless Fiona hadn’t seen the use in railing against those who’d done only what they could, none culpable for the fact Alanna had stopped existing.

“Empathy,” she’d said to Ruth. “People have empathy.”

“And look at all the good that does us.”

It had been then that Ruth’s mood had altered, granting Fiona the bare minimum of replies, and she’d done her best to talk enough for the two of them, fearful she was responsible for Ruth shutting herself off from discussion. She’d learned her friend often went through these phases and it was down to Fiona to endure them, though she forgave Ruth that because it was the least she could do. The woman gave Fiona the time of day – more than could be said of Martin – and shared with her an understanding impossible to replicate.

It didn’t feel plausible to think of her and Ruth as ever being strangers, even if their relationship only dated back six months, its source a single phone call Ruth had made in April. For a year she’d been volunteering at a charity called Spaces that ran a missing persons helpline, her work concentrated on statistics and material for press releases, and in the archives she’d happened upon the original report of Alanna’s disappearance, the appeals for information and the photo of her used in the media. Following further research, Ruth had traced the family’s number and called to introduce herself, querying if Fiona had ever heard of her son Paul. Fiona had confessed she’d no knowledge of him, in hindsight regretting having to disappoint her. It had transpired Ruth’s boy and Fiona’s daughter had gone missing two days and ninety miles apart, evaporated in the cold of the same December, Paul last sighted in Carlisle and Alanna later in Glasgow. The pair of them were graduates of Glaswegian universities, each an only child and a similar age. Their mothers had discussed those coincidences for over an hour, and amid her surprise Fiona had felt a grateful sadness toward the idea she and Ruth had been dealt the same hand, lives centred on who wasn’t there.

From then on Fiona had spoken to Ruth by phone twice a week, comforted by the routine and her new pal’s attention. Ruth had come across as a serious individual, careful with every sentence, her Scottish accent intact despite half a lifetime down south, married young but Paul’s father out of the picture. She wasn’t given to severe emotion, not the type for sentimentality, so it had been all the more meaningful when she’d sent flowers to the house on Fiona’s birthday, a delivery of yellow roses with a card that wished her many happy returns. It had moved Fiona to tears, the only gift she received that day as the occasion had slipped Martin’s mind. She hadn’t brought it up – nothing had been said.

Fiona finished off her tea and replaced the cup on the table. Ruth sat contemplating Paul’s snapshots on the mantel, arrayed between Chinese bowls of juniper potpourri, before she piped up: “Do you reckon Alanna was more like you or her dad?”

“I don’t know about that,” Fiona said. “She was her own person.”

“But you’d see yourself in her, would you not.”

“We were different,” Fiona said. “It was hard keeping up with her, to be honest.”

“Do you think she wanted to live up to your example?”

“I hope not. I couldn’t say for definite.”

“Pity.”

Fiona slid the nail of her pinkie between her teeth to bite its edge – one side fractured and she could peel part of it free.

“Does that not bother you?” Ruth said. “Pulling off a bit of your own body?”

Fiona lowered her hand and apologised.

“Did Alanna bite her nails?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure of much, are you.”

Fiona’s stomach flinched and she looked at her knees, frightened that someone other than her might think she deserved to feel shame. She had a sudden impulse to hide or pretend she’d misheard.

“I didn’t let Paul bite his nails,” Ruth said. “It’s not on.” She kept her eyes ahead as she spoke, surveying the fireplace and its contortions of light. “He didn’t need telling twice. And we had no secrets either.” She pried some tassels off the cushion trapped under her hip. “We were more than family. You take these things for granted though. You get it into your head this is the way it’ll always be and then everything turns. That’s how it was with him. His final year at uni he does a Jekyll and Hyde – he’s away out when I phone or he puts off coming down here for weeks at a time or it happens he’s going on holiday but I’m not welcome. That was the first holiday we missed in sixteen years. Then he starts coming out with wanting to stay in Glasgow after graduation when he’s supposed to move back here. I drive up there to give him what for but he ends up tearing strips off me in the car park.”

Minus a reply, Fiona nodded and murmured in sympathy.

“Course he did move back here in the end, didn’t he,” Ruth said. “A fortnight on he shows up acting like nothing’s happened. And I’m pulling my hair out because he won’t tell me what’s wrong. He’s crying himself to sleep every night but keeps saying he’s fine – that’s the line he stuck with right up to the day he didn’t come home.” She made a fist and touched her lips to it, sighing through her nose. “But it wasn’t his fault.”

Fatigue had started to weigh on Fiona’s limbs, and she’d lost her certainty that Ruth was someone who wouldn’t make her upset. She focused on the roses in their vase on the coffee table, each petal’s shape, stems bowed beneath them – it hadn’t dawned on her until then that the flowers were made of plastic.

“You know I’ve never had an operation?” Ruth announced. “I’ve never been under anaesthetic.”

Fiona’s perplexity nudged onto her face.

“It’s thanks to my gran,” Ruth said. “I’ve took care of myself because of her. She got appendicitis when she was twelve and the doctor operated on her in the house, right on the dining table. That’s how things were done. But when they were getting her prepped she started panicking – she’d got a whiff of the ether and she was scared if they gave it to her then that would be her, she might not wake up, so she told them she didn’t want any. If they had to cut her open she was going to lie there and bear it. Took three folk to pin her down in the end, put a cloth over her mouth, make her breathe in the ether.”

Ruth straightened her posture in the chair, chin held higher. “I think she was right enough. I mean, it shouldn’t be a case of one minute you’re in a bad way, next minute you’re not. We can’t be copping out from pain. It’s not natural.” She dabbed a morsel of oose from the sleeve of her cardigan and pinched it between forefinger and thumb. “I bet your Martin would agree with me.”

“I’m going to call it a night,” Fiona said. “I’m not feeling that rosy.”

She experienced a second or two of lag between thought and movement, body dragging behind her brain as she stood up. Blood teemed in her head like electrical interference. She craved an empty room, a mattress and some distance from Ruth’s opinions, not confident the woman registered the effects of what she persisted in saying. Ruth shot her a look, a glint of amusement.

“Aye, away and get an early night,” she said. “You’re wanting the room at the far end upstairs.”

The music continued to play at Fiona’s back, Dionne Warwick’s song about a little prayer. At the door she mumbled a goodnight and Ruth told her to sleep well, demeanor relaxed, newspapers curled up on the floor around her slippers and the gas mask staring over her shoulder from its corner.

“There might be some of Paul’s stuff lying about,” she called. “I had to go through his things after he’d gone. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”

Fiona kept a hand against the bannister as she ascended the staircase, coping with mild nausea and a concern that visiting Ruth had been unfriendly to her well-being. It wasn’t as if she’d pressed for an invite – it had been Ruth’s suggestion that she come south after the latest dispute with Martin. Nothing that had occurred over recent days had been her intention, not least Martin’s reaction when she’d gathered up Alanna’s presents in the front room, saying maybe it was time to put them in the loft. He’d asked if she was kidding, his manner like someone who’d been spat on, and claimed if she was that desperate to be rid of them she shouldn’t hold back, chuck them out or build a bonfire. Fiona had wanted to blurt out that however he felt, she didn’t feel it any less than he did – he’d no right to act like she’d never had the decency to grieve. But instead she’d kept schtum, waiting for him to vacate the room before she dialed Ruth’s number.

She’d cottoned on that there was no end to the things she wouldn’t say to Martin, no amount of realities she wouldn’t disclose. The less she shared, the less she had to defend, so they didn’t discuss Ruth, or the future, or Fiona’s trip to the bus shelter on Glasgow’s Gordon Street. She’d not once let on that she’d gone there the past December, a solo excursion on the anniversary of Alanna’s final day to the spot where she was last seen. Fiona had sat there a while, southbound buses and taxis gusting past, and imagined Alanna beside her on the lookout for the next service to Shawlands, Discman headphones clapped on her ears. Fiona had often visualised the scenery of Alanna’s evening – heavy fog at street level, frost inching over the tarmac, rows of streetlights like signal fires – and hoped the weather would repeat itself, another onrush of fog that could approach the shelter and touch that space where Alanna had stood, tracing her daughter’s outline, a hollow of air, as though the elements remembered her. Though it would’ve been easier to deny, Fiona had become aware she hadn’t asked her daughter enough questions, a person she should’ve known better than herself; but it was a fact beyond rectifying, irrespective of her distress or contrition. As much as she’d desired to do otherwise, she’d had to leave the shelter, walk away from where something had happened, because anything more wasn’t humanly possible.

Upstairs she managed to push open the door Ruth had directed her to. Inside an Anglepoise lamp was at peace with its light and offered some clarity of the interior and furnishings – Matchbox cars queued on the windowsill, copies of the Beano and Christmas annuals overloaded the bookshelves and a man’s waterproof hung by its hood from the wardrobe’s doorknob. Even in the midst of her disorientation Fiona had an instinct to retreat, alarmed she’d breached terrain that had belonged to Ruth’s boy and stumped as to why her duffel bag had been dumped on his bedcovers. The indication appeared too blatant to be misconstrued, but it wasn’t feasible that Ruth expected her to spend a night in Paul’s bed – if it was all the same to her, Fiona would make her excuses and get a taxi to speed her in any direction. She stepped within reach of her bag to seize its handles, troubled by her balance, and spotted a Polaroid lying on top of the sheets. Initially she thought it was a mistake on her part, identifying Alanna’s features on another woman’s face, someone pictured leaning her head against Paul’s shoulder. Despite her refusal to believe an image incompatible with reality, Alanna and Paul continued to smile up at Fiona as though it was ordinary and innocent, smile together in a brush of sunlight in front of the Pantheon.

She flopped to the carpet like a bird that had struck a window. Surfaces around her kept their colours but no definition, her eyesight turning to fluid. Fiona was alert to the need for words, crucial she raise her voice – had Martin been close she would’ve shouted on him, compelled him to listen and follow. She did try to get a fix on anyone who might’ve known she was there, at an address she couldn’t name, before she heard footsteps on the stairs.

About the Author

T.D. Calvin

T.D. Calvin is a writer from western Scotland who currently works as an English teacher in Southeast Asia. His work has previously been published by the online journals 'Typishly', the 'Scarlet Leaf Review' and 'Literally Stories.'