Decision Time


by Barbara Latham
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I wish they weren’t at odds, each so sure of knowing what Raewyn wants. It puts me in a hell of a spot.
All I see in my girl are small shudders and a few twitches. The doctors say she is definitely not conscious, but her sister has near death and out of body tales to tell, and insists we sing to Raewyn, though I feel a fool.
Right from the start Colleen was a determined wee thing, while Raewyn rather went along with us. Even if she could speak now, I’d not bet on her being certain. She never made up her mind in a hurry, and sounded undecided when she rang before the accident.
She would expect me to be fair, though, and to see her boyfriend’s point of view. Harry’s not my flesh, whereas both daughters tug inside me, though the years have generated kettle fur to let through less intensity. I certainly can’t do much now to keep either of them safe. Whatever protectiveness I feel, I’m on the sidelines, despite lingering illusions that I’ll be strong and always there for them.

Raewyn hadn’t turned to me in a while, and when she rang, asking if she could talk, I knew it wasn’t her weekly chat. She obviously didn’t intend to share happiness, there would only be sorrow to offload which I’d be unable to put right. I’m clear what she told me, but was that her final word? Her sister insists it was, but we can’t assume such clarity.
My wife used to say, “Colleen has a weakness for self-preoccupation; her subject is the closed circuit of herself.” It’s hard to know if she is trying to smash Harry because she had some row with him. She says Raewyn also fought with him. If so, maybe that’s my responsibility. Perhaps I should not have suggested that it sounded like crunch time, and if Raewyn wasn’t sure about Harry, perhaps she should not have him move into her flat. Mostly I gave advice about protecting her investment in the property. I’m less optimistic it’s what she was looking for. Possibly she was just passing on nervy agitation. She has the air on occasions that it’s my task to rescue whenever she needs it, though it never feels entirely serious. She’s a grown woman who takes responsibility for herself, yet can over-egg still being my girl. I hate to watch her this vulnerable and realise I can’t help.
Thank goodness the girls have each other; they grew very close during the five years of their mother’s illness, and I’m proud of how well they coped. They have so much ahead. For me it’s a sack at my back, a weight of sadness and loneliness. I took early retirement to be with my wife while I could. Now that she is gone, I’m just tired. There’s hardly a lot to like in inexorable decline, with death lapping round my days.
Not that it’s all melancholy, and I was determined that to hang on my daughters was not an option. They got on. Raewyn bought that flat with her mother’s money. Colleen used hers to have a baby solo, which would have horrified my wife. There is a bloke somewhere and I gather he sees Oskar. I haven’t been told but get the feeling he’s gay.
Raewyn helps with Oskar. If it had been the other way round, I doubt Colleen would have been as obliging. It’s not that she’s selfish, just uninterested in pleasing others. Her mother, who tried to help everyone, didn’t understand it. She said once, “that girl is reducing to rubble all my heart’s investment,” as Colleen left home wanting next to no family contact. And this after several years of mocking Raewyn’s need for a net of friends, telling her she should rely on family, that mates were only there as long as the friendship suited them. Colleen can seem high-handed, almost cynical, cold and warm in cycles. Growing up she astonished us with warm-hearted kindness towards her sister, although you couldn’t rely on it.
Raewyn’s taken time becoming a woman and because her mother had done it the same slow way, she felt at ease with her younger child, and loved it that the girl stayed close. With Colleen it came as a shock when, in a matter of months, as she turned sixteen, we had an apparently full blown woman who was an outrageous flirt. She was gorgeous and knew it, and was out to make the most of it. Men sensed her sexual availability even walking to school. She gave it off and heads turned.
My wife tried to rein her in but Colleen began to stand her ground and reject our ways. It took courage. Never-the-less she didn’t seem grateful to her mother for anything, and finally it all blew up between them over something small. Colleen marched off with fight in her shoulders.
She didn’t really return to us till her mother became ill, though she’d taken intermittent interest in Raewyn. Recently she’s gathered in her sister, but Raewyn has begun to recognise that Colleen can move away, cutting her out, and Oskar can’t be the heart of her life. She liked the part of loving aunt in her sister’s play but is starting to want one of her own. Whether or not this was to be with Harry we can’t know. He behaves as if it’s quite decided and Colleen is absolute that it’s not.

Part of me wants to pick Raewyn up in my arms and run and run and never stop, and I can hardly touch her at all. Colleen is surprisingly soft, brushing Raewyn’s hair, stroking her face and putting on creams, talking gently all the while. I wouldn’t begin to take over my grown daughter’s body. I did it for my wife and that was hard for us both. She was dying, yet preferred a lover’s attention, not a busybody managing her corrupting flesh. If Harry wants to do it for Raewyn, though, perhaps he should. It’s a real commitment to her.
I can barely stand being back in a hospital and, that first morning, I threw up. I got to the ward door and my legs simply didn’t continue. Colleen had hold of me, trying to ease me in. It was a tussle to get out of her grip. As I rushed to a toilet I heard her shout. I thought it was at me, but apparently not: that bloke who drove into Raewyn had been about to introduce himself. Colleen says he’s too pushy with apologies to make himself look better when it comes to court. Harry disagrees and meets with him. I’m in no hurry. I can’t take in what’s happened to my girl, and that is quite enough to be getting on with. Harry is taking things in his stride. Perhaps he’ll collapse later.
What if he takes Raewyn, to look after her in the flat, then has a reaction?
I managed things when my wife died. I kept telling myself “this is the very, very worst, yet I’m getting through it” – just – “concentrating on arrangements and the girls – it can only get easier step by step away from here.” I was wrong, and with the immediate drama over, it spiralled way past grim. A weird disorientation set in. Through it all the body simply carries on, though you can’t understand why it bothers.
Both girls were considerate. I was glad they had no idea how tough it was, but it seemed unfair of them to be asking for some enthusiasm. I never went in for much jumping about, over-pleased with life, but this was hard; the fear of being pushed so far under water, never to resurface.
People are showing concern again, you hear the false tone of it. Relations and friends turn up with serious faces and tales of great recoveries, or their own brush with disaster. It’s exhausting and I know what I didn’t before my wife died – that nothing makes you feel more desperately alone than other people’s offerings of understanding.

An image is lodged in my thoughts. There was a striking and profuse plant dripping off a building in the distance. It seemed to be hanging off our old home though that wasn’t what I noticed. It was the leaves. From afar they looked stunning, then, up closer, they unnerved me – was each leaf simply half green, half pale yellow, and that was how they should be, just very different, like Colleen and Raewyn – or was one side albino with something drained out?
When I gazed on an unresponsive Raewyn that dream came back. She is still lovely, but bleached of all vitality.
I used to tell people how well my girls handled being without their mother. Colleen went the devil-may-care way – if we might all die soon, seize the moment was her line. She felt ready for a baby and had no wish to hang around for the right man. Raewyn grew more careful of herself. Harry is her cautious choice.
I’d like for Raewyn the passion there once was between her mother and myself. I wouldn’t want her rescued by a decent enough chap then feel bound to stay with him.
When we were all in Spain over the summer it made me wistful that Oskar brought Raewyn more alive than Harry could. The pair might have been married a decade. Possibly Raewyn was embarrassed round me and hiding sexual pleasure. Certainly there wasn’t much tension, but then I saw no friction between Harry and Colleen either.
If only their mother was here to help me think it through.
Stupid thought – if she was alive there’d be no question of anyone else nursing Raewyn.
She never got used to how her baby had grown.
Colleen has stayed like the tiny stamper, protesting at clothes she didn’t like. You could put anything on Raewyn. No doubt she was easier, yet I admired Colleen’s spirit. It seemed safer somehow. Not that her self-will always opted for her own best interests. And it doesn’t help her to be judicious on Raewyn’s behalf.

•   •   •  

Rae needs to be in her own place. She loves having a flat and could be there with familiar music. The doctors say it’s likely to be very helpful, if we can manage. I did Red Cross training ten years ago and was the designated Health and Safety rep at work. I’m sure I could quickly learn whatever else is needed. She used to say that being in her space felt vital; she’ll come back more easily if we can give it to her.
Rae is a giver and now is the time for me to give her all I can. Her sister might be a gracious member of the species, but she’s a bloodsucker all the same. She attracts people to take from them. She gives just enough to keep her crucial place in Rae’s life. I got sick of Rae being pulled in when Colleen didn’t wish to be alone, or to look after Oskar. Guaranteed she won’t do the same for us when Rae and I have kids.
I went along with Colleen to start. It was what Rae expected and I wanted to please, besides I didn’t see clearly then.
Finally I stood up to her. I’d had a belly-full of the imperious assumption that we were there to fit in with what suited her. What I hadn’t expected was Rae becoming distraught over it. You’d think Colleen and I had forced an all or nothing choice on her.
I didn’t know Rae at the time of her mother’s death but friends tell me she clung to Colleen afterwards as a substitute. The sisters hadn’t been involved with each other before and, until she needed solidarity, Rae saw Colleen for what she was: self-centred and unappreciative of her parents.
When I challenged Colleen’s high handedness, only sticking up for myself as any man would, Rae flipped. She might have been dangling from a cliff face, just holding on, and I’d started prising fingers loose. I’d never seen her like it before. It was unbelievable.
She looked at me as if I’d flayed her beloved mother, and when I tried to pin her down to calm her she started shrieking. That is what the neighbours must have overheard. She rushed to the bathroom and locked herself in. I didn’t know whether to break the door or ring for help, but what if she wasn’t taking pills or slicing herself with a razor?
She refused to answer me but when I heard her on her mobile I thought it better to back off. I tried an apology through the bathroom door. I shouldn’t have called Colleen an unreliable bitch, and maybe it was stupid to attempt to get hold of her while she was upset. I hoped a hug might work. Lately, if she’s distressed, she pummels my chest for a bit, then gives in and sobs her eyes out about her mother. She seemed to be heading into grief, not getting away from it. This night she was much more agitated, but I assumed it could end the same: instead she locked herself away.
Around 6 am I woke, needing a pee, but she didn’t respond until I suggested going out for fresh bread. There’s a bakery behind us and she hadn’t eaten dinner. But as soon as I left, she must have dashed off.
When I got back I rang Colleen, or she phoned me. We were both worried enough to put our differences aside.

Someone said Rae is just dreaming. She used to remember images when she woke, especially if it was her mother. She kept seeing her, then waking, seemed not entirely sure if her mother was alive or not. I had to be careful: whatever I said it ended in tears. And she went on about these houses she dreamt of, where there were always more rooms to them. For me, the minute my eyes open, the night gets wiped off the slate.

Dennis asked what sort of condition Rae was in and didn’t know what a coma meant.
I feel sorry for him. Colleen and her father refuse to see him but he’s in a bad way. He keeps saying he admires me, for wanting to nurse her, I guess. The police say there is no doubt it will come to court because she was on the crossing. Dennis cut it too fine. He’d already slowed right up, though, and only continued driving after Rae was no longer on his side of the road. Another car was cruising up the other way. Dennis says the driver was obviously stopping, but Rae must have panicked. She startled backwards, as though it was going to mow her down, then half turned and ran right into Dennis.
I don’t mean it as though he’s not also culpable. But I’d say Dennis caves in too easily. Certainly over this he takes all the responsibility. Colleen knows Rae was beside herself, yet she shouted at him to leave her father alone, after I’d advised him that Rae’s dad would be more reasonable than the sister.
Their father is still shocked and can’t get his mind round things. I don’t believe he’ll stay in Colleen’s pocket after he’s had time to get the picture. He doesn’t know me that well but Rae and I had several holidays with him in Spain. He respects me, though it’s possible he doesn’t get how serious Rae and I were about each other, that we’re going to marry and start a family as soon as possible.

•   •   •  

There were times Raewyn wept over feeling too alone – I rarely minded that sense of being on my own. She hated it, and now look at her – totally cut off from the rest of us. It was one of her fears. She had this nightmare of floating disconnected in outer space, and now might as well be.
Even with friends she made too much nervy effort, always quick to be helpful, as if that could guarantee her staying in favour. She hadn’t outgrown schoolgirl anxiety of being the one excluded from the group, and then, from when she was twenty, our mother’s gradual dying inevitably put her outside the preoccupations of peers.
It was from fearfulness that Raewyn kept hold of Harry. She longed for something more and felt their relationship was unsatisfying, talking to him was too like talking to herself, she said, yet couldn’t begin the miserable unwinding and recriminations. She was starting to hanker for a baby and it had to be with a father, so was worried she might not find anyone else before it was too late. But she’s got plenty of time, she’s just turned twenty-eight.
“It’s OK for you,” she said to me, “but I couldn’t bear to bring one up on my own. And definitely not an only child, I’ve always planned on two close together.”

Harry tells people Raewyn and I were estranged, but it’s simply not true, although I was foolish and bitterly regret it. I didn’t tell her what had gone on between Harry and myself, but when she tentatively opened up breaking off with him, I said too much. I couldn’t resist.
How dare he assume I’d welcome any sexual attention from him? He came onto me. There was not a hint of chemistry, nothing erotic, just his crass need to prove himself. It made him an object of contempt, and while I didn’t blab what he’d done, I gave Raewyn a cross opinion of him. She replied, rightly, that I needn’t trash her first love affair, even if it was ending.
If we hadn’t had that spat she’d have turned to me sooner. Instead, it was Dad who alerted me the day before the accident. She rang him, bothered about Harry trying to move into her flat. Dad could tell she was more upset than she was letting on, and asked me if he should come from Spain. If only I had gone straight round. I left a message but she didn’t get back to me until something had already happened.
Dad spoke to her about the property rather than Harry. She was ambivalent over that flat. She bought it because our mother’s money was there and she felt she had to use it in a grown up way, as a deposit on her future. Before that she had no hope of buying and at twenty-five would have continued sharing with friends, which suited her better. She became semi-separated from her gang of single women after she got her place and the relationship with Harry took on a seriousness too soon. Instead of being one of the passing boyfriends in a flat of girls, where young men came and went, he hung around the small flat and became indispensible company.
I didn’t think buying immediately such a good plan, but Dad encouraged her; he hoped one of his girls would do what our mother might have wanted. Maybe he was wrong; although she was a worrier who couldn’t trust us to live our lives, she also said we were lucky to be able to play the field, not settle for the first serious man who came along. Whatever her immediate reaction to the idea of my baby, Oskar would have won her around. She’d have found him irresistible. He’s melted Raewyn. It was scary observing how she shut down through mother’s decline: only if she turned to stone could she make it endurable. She came back to more of herself with Oskar. There was nothing else I could offer her. Stones don’t ask for much.
It made our mother sad to see Raewyn close down before she’d even bloomed. She was late menstruating and is even later beginning to discover lust and find confidence in her body. It came naturally to me to throw myself in as a full player, so it was hard to understand why she didn’t enter that game of desire.
Because I came alive through who and what I wanted, before I left home I told her to look out there. Life wasn’t tucked under her bed for her to uncover alone.
Back then I didn’t appreciate our difference and worried she was in semi-seclusion through her teens, to be a good girl for our parents because I’d been a bad one. But I was hardly wicked, just ravenous for something.
There was this row of small houses, close to the road, all the same, each with its tiny front yard. In one of them a horse stood on a patch of grass just big enough for its four legs. It had to lower its head to go in through the front door. I rushed to follow it in, wanting to belong somewhere surprising.
It’s an old image, but not forgotten. I was positive I’d actually seen that horse and touched foam at its wet mouth, though I knew it was a dream. I could vividly recall the coarse texture of dark mane and the rich brown of its neck.
As I dozed at Raewyn’s bedside it came back, but with the house tiny and the horse so enlarged only its ears could get through the door. So perhaps I’d better not rely on my sense of proportion!

Hopefully Raewyn will be one of those women who suddenly quiver with readiness for everything as they head into mid-thirties. If she gets the chance. Most of it is bruising, and will repair, they say, but there could be some permanent brain damage. They can’t be sure yet. And while she is completely passive, Harry wants to claim her.
My father doesn’t see it my way, but to me it’s simply insidious and creepy. Dad’s one for compromise and being reasonable, yet as he listens to Harry and to me, it seems he has fixed his picture of me when I was a strident sixteen. I danced a dash down the courtship route, just didn’t settle for anyone. Like Dad, Raewyn is a romantic and longed to give soul and body to the right man.
My poor father. Quite apart from Raewyn, watching him this week envelopes me in silken tenderness. Weeping saturates my head and fills lung capacity, yet finds no outlet. Choked breath takes none of it away and tears refuse to flow. He went to Spain partly to escape an empty home and empty days, to make a complete break, but also to spare us. I’m used to going headfirst with my own plans, so didn’t think to interfere with his. Perhaps he wishes we’d asked him not to go.

I run through that last phone conversation again and again. At first she was incoherent but kept repeating he attacked her.
I don’t think anyone has ever hit her before. She was so shocked. Because it seemed inconceivable she meant Harry, I assumed a stranger assaulted her.
Suddenly she flipped to emphatic: it was Harry. He got out of control.
He lashed the wall and went for her. She managed to lock herself in the bathroom then rang me.
I should have just woken Oskar and leapt in a mini cab, but she said “No! I need to leave here. I’ll come over.” She sounded so definite.
“Get a cab,” were my last words to her.
Maybe we both took for granted Harry would be ashamed and leave. If I’d not badmouthed Harry and offended her, I’d probably have dashed over. But I felt paralysed, and feared intruding again.
I kept ringing her phone and Harry’s. Not knowing hers had run out of battery, when neither answered I hoped they’d made up.
I now know neighbours heard her screaming, then she stayed locked in, waiting for him to go, over six hours.
When she just ran, in slippers, she didn’t even look for her flat keys to lock up. She must have worked herself into terror.
She was so nearly at my place when that car hit her.
I should speak with the driver but not quite yet. Harry has made such a mate of him, it’s nauseating. He behaves as if it’s up to him to forgive the poor guy and buddy him through the court case.

It’s not my place to lay the finger, and with all the bruising from the accident it’s hard to prove, but I’d swear on oath Harry lost it and attacked her. She said she told him she wasn’t ready to have him move in, and fury erupted. As he slammed the wall he cursed my influence. But it was Dad who had advised not to let Harry pay any bills or he could end up claiming half the property. I’d not have thought of that. I rent. Dad also suggested it sounded time to decide because getting him out might not be easy. He blames himself if there was a fight, but if I hadn’t been cavalier about her relationship, she’d have rung me sooner and I’d have felt more entitled to override her and just hurry to get her.
Harry knew his work was insecure and wasn’t honest about it being a pressure for him to move in. His rent is expensive. I hear he has now lost his job and is telling friends it’s because he needed time off for Raewyn.
His violence came from nowhere. When he’s driving you see licks of aggression but for the rest he seems disconnected and rather wet. He definitely had not struck her before. I never imagined he would, and I’m more worldly than Raewyn.
It was the utter unpredictability which threw her so completely.
His violence shattered what she believed could be relied on. Little wonder she couldn’t trust a car to stop.
I’m certain she no longer knew what to expect from anyone.
She was only half a block from me, with her sense of familiar order totally wiped out, and simply lost her nerve on that crossing.

•   •   •  

  One Response to “Decision Time”

  1. Powerful story. Moving. Thank you.

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