Maddy Said by Louise Wilford

On Friday, it was over.

It was early afternoon when the doorbell rang. Sarah was standing in front of the mirror, staring without interest at her reflection. Her dress was the colour of wet slate. It had been her mother’s. She thought of her now, fleetingly, the woman who’d bequeathed her the dress and the looks.

‘Always dress down,’ had been her advice. ‘When you’re truly beautiful, you don’t need fancy clothes.’

So Sarah dressed in muted greys and beiges, almost blacks and nearly browns, trying to dampen the effects of her full lips, large eyes, generous curves and hair like spun-gold. All those clich├ęs. For she knew she was the fairytale princess: Rapunzel in her tower, Cinderella in the scullery, Snow White under glass. She wondered whether she was really there at all, and thought of the Lady of Shalott spinning fantasies while she watched the world at second-hand.

The mirror was set in a gilded frame. She remembered the day he’d bought it for her at an auction house in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It was the same day he’d asked her to marry him as they sat in a restaurant overlooking the river. There’d been swans on the water, the thick down rippling on their supple necks, their terracotta beaks snapping at each other in boredom.

‘We’re made for each other,’ he’d said. She’d smiled, thinking of lego bricks and halves of Easter eggs, and said yes.

The mirror had been perfect. She remembered agreeing with him that it was somehow precisely right for her. It’s generous gilded curves seemed appropriate for her luscious reflection. It had a fairytale quality too, rather larger than life, as if it had slid into her world of slate-grey dresses and ‘dressing down’ from some other dimension.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: who’s the fairest of them all?

The doorbell rang again. It was Maddy. She was wearing a bright red blouse which stretched over the curve of her belly like the canvas on a hot air balloon. She didn’t dress down. She didn’t have to dampen down her looks like her sister did.

Now she looked pale and shaken as if she’d been in an accident. But she was the accident, the imminent explosion.

‘Come in,’ said Sarah, half-knowing what Maddy had come to say, but not wanting to hear it.

They’d planned it together, the child. For years, it was all she’d thought of. Her child. And then Maddy had offered to help them.

They had lunch on the patio but neither of them ate much. Beyond the garden wall there was a school and a mist of disembodied children’s voices floated towards them as they talked. Looking back later, Sarah wondered at her calmness, at the cool way she listened to her sister’s trembling explanation. And all the time the knowledge that it was his burned in her stomach.

It had been her idea to find a substitute, once she’d realised she could never give him children. He wanted a child so much. In the early days of their marriage, they’d talked about it endlessly, making plans, speculating. They’d even started a book, with cardboard pages interleaved with sheets of fine tissue paper that clung to their fingers as they turned the pages, like a baby’s blind grasp. They wrote in it the names they liked and schools they’d heard were good, photographs of their life together, of places they would take the child after it was born.

Later the book became a record of their failed attempts at IVF, the endless undulation of anticipation and disappointment. She now kept the book at the back of a drawer, unread, unloved for years. He thought it had been thrown out long ago.

She always knew he’d look elsewhere. Her beauty wasn’t enough to keep him. It was a lie, an outward sign of fecundity and health, an empty promise. She felt as brittle as an egg-shell. She imagined hundreds of hair-line cracks spreading across her creamy skin, starting at the belly, mushrooming down her thighs, up over her breasts, until she was covered with an intricate pattern of delicate lines like a crackle-glazed vase.

Then - one by one at first, but quickly escalating - each tiny piece would crumble away, scales falling, vanishing in a puff of air like vampire dust, until there was nothing left of her but a memory – or maybe not even that.

No matter how much gold she spun, her child was always stolen away. No matter how many names she guessed, it was never the right one. No matter how many stories she told, she always had to think up a new one by sunset.

So she’d persuaded her sister, who didn’t have her beauty but whose ovaries worked, to be her substitute.

Maddy had said she’d do it. Maddy had said she’d lend her eggs to create their child, her womb to incubate it.

It was the greatest gift a woman could ever give her beautiful, barren sister.

Now here she was, ripe as a melon, her mind changed.

‘I can’t give it up, Sarah.’

She couldn’t look her in the face; she stared down at her twisting fingers resting over her taut belly.

‘No, no, no…!’ Sarah heard her own voice, veined with a sudden screeching petulance that was unfamiliar to her. ‘If you even think it, I’ll….’

‘I have no choice.’ Maddy was sobbing now. ‘I’m so sorry, Sarah. I’m so sorry.’

‘But you said.’ She clutched her sister’s arms, shaking her. ‘You said…’

Later, when Maddy had gone, still sobbing on every other breath like a car stuck in second, Sarah returned to the bedroom, their bedroom, and took out the book, their book, and leafed through its discoloured pages. Their hopes and dreams. Then she waited for the blind despair to lift.

I’m so sorry, Sarah, Maddy had said.

I’m so sorry.

No matter how many warnings he gave her, she still opened the forbidden door.

Sitting on the bed, dishevelled and tear-stained, glaring down at the book, she caught sight of herself through the edge of her gorgeous princess’s eye, a glimpse of her reflection in the gilded mirror. Even in distress her beauty glowed like a lighthouse lamp, a warning to the unwary – yet it was also a siren call, a lure. A hollow covenant. There was no point to it. Every woman she met envied her, wanted her face, her body – this pearl, this moonstone, this diamond – the golden curve of it, the cherry lips, the violet eyes, the heart-shaped face, the goddess’s body. It was power. It made men weak. It made them compete so she could pick out the best. It made her invincible.

But it couldn’t make the one thing he wanted.

And Maddy had said she would.

I’m so, so sorry, Maddy said.

Sarah flung the book at her reflection, the corner of its spine smacking against the glass with a tinkling thud.

The mirror cracked from side to side.

The book exploded, pages scattering like dead leaves, spilling like dropped playing cards across the bedroom carpet. She thought of Carmen in the opera, shaken to the depths of her dark soul by the Ace of Spades. She knelt, gathered up the bent pages, not allowing her gaze to snag on any word or image that might randomly appear in the confusion of memories in her hands, then stuffed them into the waste-paper bin beside the bed.

A moment later, she thought better of this, feeling the hated faces in the photographs staring up at her like demons. She picked up the bin, strode across to the open window and tipped it up, watching the broken fragments spiralling down through the sunlit air to land on the patio below. Some landed on the table where the remains of the lunch she and Maddy had failed to eat still stood. The edges of the twisted pages twitched fitfully in the summer breeze.

The thing he wanted turned out to be Maddy.

As she stared out over the lawn, over the trees that skirted the school, up into the wide blue sky, she saw two swans flying past. She remembered the swans on the Avon that day he asked her to marry him. Beauty that stopped the breath in your throat. Gliding, thick downy necks arching in muscular elegance, bright black eyes like jet, gliding, gliding – like snow, like icing sugar, like clouds, like whipped cream. But they snapped their terracotta beaks in boredom, their reflections in the ripples beneath them failing to enchant their own eyes.

She gripped the windowsill so tightly the skin on her slender fingers blanched bone-white.

Selected: March Short Story Contest

Published in Issue #28

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