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Short Story: The Road Home

Short Story: The Road Home

The hardscrabble challenge of living off the land and maintaining a relationship is brought sharply into focus when a woman returns to the city for life-saving surgery.

Short Story: The Road Home

She had undergone the tests earlier in the week and now sat with her hands clasped in her lap. Her gut already knew what the results would be.

“I’m sorry, Izzy.” Izzy felt the words float over her, bubbles that burst lightly on impact.

Dr Young’s mouth kept moving but Izzy did not hear what she said. Somehow she found herself back on the main street outside the small surgery where life continued as if nothing had changed: the rise and fall of chatter from the café next door, the steady sound of morning traffic, and the incessant jingle of the door every time someone went into the pharmacy.

Izzy put her head down and hurried to the car, not wanting to speak to anybody. Then again, it was not as if she knew many people. Even after nearly three years, she still felt like a visitor to the area. Just one of the tourists passing through, stopping for second-rate coffee and a sandwich on the way to somewhere more interesting.

She was relieved when the old Datsun kicked to life first go. She eased it from the curb and a few minutes later was on the highway, trailing dark smoke. She rolled her eyes at the irony. Here they were in the bloody sticks to get away from the polluting influences of urban living, blackening the clean, pure air. Her jaw tightened and she gripped the steering wheel when she thought about telling Wilf her news.

Izzy drove up the rutted drive, hands vibrating, jaw clenched. Their timber home sat lopsided in the dirt, the verandah a threadbare skirt in need of repair, one window a bloodshot eye where the glass had cracked. She imagined the lump under her skin pulsing with a life of its own and felt a trickle of perspiration slide down between her breasts. She wrinkled her brow, stepped out of the car and banged the door shut. The sound was like a gunshot echoing in the still air.

She made her way up the steps to the front door that peeled like sunburn, strips of blue paint curled after sweating through years of summers. The kitchen was just how she had left it this morning. Two dirty bowls in the sink, the mounting pile of yellowing bills at one end of the table while an endless list of chores aged under a magnet on the shuddering fridge. It was the abandoned cobweb hanging loose from one corner that nearly undid Izzy. Forsaken for a place with better prospects, she thought to herself. She filled the kettle, flicked it on and slumped in one of the kitchen chairs.

“Izzy, you’re home.”

Wilf came in through the back. His boots were heavy on the tired, scuffed boards. She stood up, pulled two mugs off the shelf and dropped a teabag in each one. She opened the fridge with a soft click to grab the milk. She did not turn to look at him. “I have to go to the city, see a specialist.”

Wilf took a step towards her but she edged away. “I’m going, Wilf. I want to do this.”

He opened his arms in a helpless gesture. “Stay, Izzy. Forget the bloody hospital and all that crap they want to pour into your body. Let’s do this together, find a different path, do things the natural way.”

Izzy felt the emotions from the day rise up into her throat. She walked into the bedroom, pulled down the battered case and started to pack. Wilf watched her, his arms folded tight across his chest. He did
not speak for the rest of the evening.

The next day, Izzy drove down the dirt road to the hospital in the city. She felt her teeth jar with the corrugations. In the side mirror, she could see Wilf’s silhouette in the doorframe. She continued past the half-completed wall that he was building rock by painful rock and let the hum of the engine fill the space between her ears. Her nostrils were full of dust. When the bitumen felt smooth beneath her, she let her breath out.

She had never driven to the city on her own before. Wilf’s disapproval was loud in her ears so she turned on the stereo and let U2’s ‘It’s a Beautiful Day’, pulse through the car.

The antiseptic smells of the hospital assaulted her the moment the glass doors slid open. Izzy hesitated in the busy foyer. Her hand moved up to her breast where the lump waited, poised for a takeover. She closed her eyes for a moment then pushed her shoulders back and stepped towards the desk to fill out the necessary forms.

In her room she changed into her nightie, the roses washed from red to a faded pink. She slid under the cool sheets and it felt like being trapped in a tight cocoon. She responded to the endless questions from the surgeon, the anaesthetist, the nurses and felt numb and alone.

After the surgery, Izzy was aware of a throb under the bandage and it was a strange relief to feel something again. She looked down at the whiteness of the dressing and felt clean and fresh. She declined the white tablets they offered her for pain. She smiled and relaxed against the high, slippery pillows. The image of Wilf leaning against the doorframe came to her and she pushed it away, wanting to stay firmly in the now. She stared out the window at the blue rectangle of sky and imagined herself to be a white cloud, floating and free.

After Izzy was discharged, she decided to stay and go to her treatments alone. She rented a tiny apartment in the city and found a job in an office nearby. At first, she went home to Wilf every weekend, then only every month. He seemed adrift, outside the reach of connections and communication. Her shoulders tightened when she recalled her last visit. She had wanted to talk about the treatments, about the future but he had launched into his big plans and continued the whole time without taking a breath.

“We’ll plant the limes here and maybe some other citrus. Mandarins or pink grapefruit.”

He gestured in a grandiose way, filled the empty spaces where the orchards would be planted. “We might focus on exotic fruits. Chocolate fruit, dragon fruit. Have you tried it? Sort of like a cross between a kiwifruit and watermelon.”

He strode across to the hard, unyielding garden beds. “We’ll grow our own veggies here. It’s warm enough to have produce most of the year and we can dry and preserve the rest.”

Izzy gave a brief nod. She felt uneasy about the cairns of rocks littering the perimeter of their block. With each visit they grew smaller while Wilf’s wall gained altitude. Relief flooded Izzy the moment she arrived back to the buzz of the city. She ignored the guilt that threatened her resolve and found pleasure in the street lights, pavements and brightly lit stores. She enjoyed long, wasteful showers, bought herself pretty dresses in soft fabrics and relished their softness against her skin, the way the skirts swished when she walked. Izzy started to wear impractical shiny shoes with spiky heels and listened to them click-clack along the corridors at work. It made her happy to complete tasks, to tick them off and watch the balance in her newly opened bank account grow. It felt delicious and extravagant to buy her lunch, go on coffee runs for the office and splash out on glossy magazines, lipstick and perfume. Her appointments were scheduled further and further apart and she allowed herself to dream of a future again. On weekends, she went to the art gallery and cinema. She coloured her lips red, joined the pulse of the morning rush hour, disappeared into the ebb and flow of people on the streets.

She touched the space where the solid core of her own grief had been excised. It felt hollow and she dared to reach inside and explore the fragile, tender edges of loss. Izzy returned to all the places that had shaped her early days with Wilf. The tiny café where they met and shared their first kiss, the art-house cinema where they lounged in bean bags sharing pizza, wine and dreams of a shared future, a family. She stood on the thumbprint of land in the bend of the river where they made promises for better or for worse before a small group of friends.

At the apartment, Izzy pulled out her box of mementos: photographs and small notes with his looping calligraphy, always ending with a large W and a row of kisses. She stuck them into a blank book then closed it and tied it up with a ribbon and put it away.

Mutinous clouds layered darkness over the sky. Izzy pressed her face against the window and a single drop poised in the centre of the pane. For an instant, she saw herself perfectly reflected inside its orb, then turned and wiped her cheek. A moment later, rain lashed the building and people below scuttled for cover, dodging the growing cascade of water rushing down the gutters.

The next morning, Izzy sat at her regular café. She inhaled the rich aroma of roasting coffee beans and warming pastries. Water sloshed noisily down the drains and everything seemed renewed. She thought about their house squatting in the hard dirt, the faded prayer flags hanging limp in the heat and the withered stalks of the struggling veggie garden – feeble human endeavors that could be swept away in one breath. She shivered and recalled how suddenly her own life had been wrenched from secure moorings and set adrift. A train clattered past in the distance and conversations rose and fell around her.

“One latte, one cherry Danish?” Izzy smiled at the hip young waitress. “Thank you.”

She let a piece of buttery pastry dissolve on her tongue. She paused to taste the richness, to savour it. She listened to the cheerful umbrella flap in the breeze. She lifted her mug, inhaled the intoxicating aroma before scooping off a pillow of foam. The simple joy of each moment made her skin tingle. This is what it is to be alive, she realised with the clarity of clear glass.

One year to the day she sat in the hospital waiting room at Outpatients, careful not to look at the scatter of women waiting in plastic chairs against the walls. Some stared at the suspended screen with its endless news cycle, others flicked through frayed magazines.

“Isabelle Newman.”

The doctor was a tall young woman with brown hair clipped short. Izzy stood up and followed the doctor into a cheerless consulting room, then sat and folded her hands in her lap. Her breath was calm, her heartbeat steady. She was prepared for the results this time.

“All clear, Mrs Newman.” The doctor smiled and it softened her face, crinkled the skin around her eyes. She leant towards Izzy and shook her hand. “Let’s make an appointment for six months.” She handed Izzy a slip of paper. Izzy stood and walked out. She strode into the busy street and joined the hectic flurry of activity while the news percolated into her being. Six months? She imagined all the living she could fit into six months. Sunlight slipped between grey buildings and kissed her skin. A warmth spread though her like warmed honey. She went to her apartment and pulled down the battered case. She wanted to drive back and tell Wilf. It was another chance. A fresh start.

When she reached the rough final stretch of dirt road, she saw that his wall was nearly complete, defiant and grey. Behind it, the house looked tired. Izzy stepped out of the car. Her sharp, shiny heels pierced the dirt.

She glanced up at the cloudless sky that scorned the struggling veggie patch. It was like she had left only yesterday. She half expected Wilf to be leaning on the doorframe watching her leave, his arms crossed. She looked down at the dirt on her polished shoes and turned away. Her heart squeezed with regret. “I’m sorry, Wilf,” she whispered under her breath.

She slid into the driver’s seat, put the car into reverse and backed past Wilf’s wall. She put her foot down on the accelerator and turned onto the smooth bitumen. Her chest filled with air again. She followed the curve of the road.

About the author

Jo Skinner  is a Brisbane-based GP. She is married with three teenagers, a dog and a cat and has  moved more times than she cares to remember. She is a keen runner and has completed 42 marathons and counting.  Writing is her other passion. She is currently editing an anthology about experiences of COVID-19.

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