Frank, tall and spare, with sparkling black eyes and thick silvery hair is married to short, airy Geraldine who has pale blue eyes and a wild mop of dyed-red hair. Geraldine is already shouting as they enter our apartment block, “Is your scar healing? How is your brother’s dementia? Have you managed all week without a drink?” She shouts a barrage of noise and personal revelation all the way up the single flight of stairs to our apartment. This is the way Geraldine shows she cares about our happiness and wellbeing, as she cares about everyone’s happiness and wellbeing, as she carries everyone’s happiness and wellbeing on her narrow, curved shoulders. This is why I tell Geraldine what I don’t want others to know.
I all but shove her through our front door and shut it as fast as I can. I say, “Please, Geraldine, Please. We don’t talk about our personal matters in the public spaces. We don’t tell our neighbours our business.”
Geraldine looks confused and sorry and hangs her head like an old dog, scolded for peeing on the carpet. I feel pity and ask how she is.
Instead of responding, she admires my paintings and interior design, praises the enticing smell of food coming from in my kitchen, and wonders I still have enough energy to invite people for a meal. This even though I’m ten years her junior.
“You do so many things so well, Alice,” she says, and now the oft-repeated longer list follows. There’s no stopping her until she comes to her habitual, “I can’t do any of those things.”
Geraldine praises me copiously, almost poetically, as if celebrating a royal function.
I ask again how she is.
Frank looks down onto Geraldine’s unruly hair. Another man might look ashamed or try to quieten his wife or answer the question for her. My husband would chide me. But there is only kindness on Frank’s face, and his devotion’s so intense it fills the room.
The qualities and achievements that Geraldine so admires in me are nothing compared with those I admire in her. She teaches refugee women the local language and customs three mornings a week, spends two mornings a week with an old woman without friends or relations who is in hospital, and still manages to fetch her grandchildren from school and entertain them through the afternoon almost every day so her daughter can work. But Geraldine gives me no chance to tell her. I am unable to force my words through the barrage of her praise for me.
Geraldine and Frank have one adopted daughter, Serena, who was conceived at the original Glastonbury music festival after which her biological parents never met again. Serena breeds with partners as unworldly as her birth parents, three children by three different fathers, each of which she married, each of which was adopted, like herself.
Over dinner, Geraldine bursts into a monologue of questions. “What will happen in this latest relationship? Why must Serena always choose someone she has to look after? How will she manage when we are gone?” She asks these questions every time we meet. It’s another barrage I cannot penetrate.
When she stops for breath, Frank says, “We have provided for Serena.”
“But the children? What will happen to the children?”
“We have provided for the children,” Frank says, his voice measured, reassuring.
“She thinks she’ll bind the men to her with children,” Geraldine says, “but she doesn’t succeed. The first went off with another woman and the second disappeared.” She is again repeating words she’s said many times before. I’d like to talk about the weather, or something I’ve watched on television, or how they are building too many towers in our small town.
“What Serena does is instinctive, not conscious,” Frank says, his voice dark chocolate. “She’s trying to heal her own wound.” He’s said these words before too, many times.
Geraldine praises my mushroom risotto and asks for the recipe. It’s one she gave me a long time ago, but she has forgotten.
Meanwhile, my husband is silent. He’s always silent, unless he’s drunk.
I saw a bull elephant in the Kruger Park once, huge, almost black, proceeding in rapid, purposeful paces towards a metal fence that rose several feet above his head. It was the boundary of a private game park. His pace uninterrupted, the elephant walked over the fence with huge feet, laying it flat.
That’s Frank’s devotion to Geraldine. Nothing gets in its way.
Joy Manné links flash fictions into short stories, writing in parts: solos, duets, choruses; different views of the whole experienced by different characters as the story builds, arcs and reaches its ending. She also writes classical flash. She won the 2015 Geneva Writers Group prize for Non-Fiction and was one of three finalists in the Arkansas International 2017 Emerging Writer’s Prize in Fiction. She has also published children’s books.
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