“Granny, do you think I should marry Roger?”
Ella’s grandmother looks up from her knitting and regards her granddaughter. “Has he asked you?”
Life has never seemed brighter since the day Ella and Roger first saw each other. Happiness cast a golden glow around the young couple as their eyes met across the room in a crowded KFC; the clamour of the customers sounded sweeter than birdsong; and even the pouring rain outside couldn’t dampen their delight at having found each other. It seemed like the perfect fairy tale – but happy endings rarely happen in real life. Ella doesn’t want to look back in years to come and wonder exactly when her twenty-five-year-old prince transformed into a fifty-year old toad.
The long delay before she nods isn’t the reaction of a girl who’s got her heart’s desire.
“What do you want?” Granny asks.
Images dance in Ella’s mind: she wants sunshine and rose petals; cradles and lullabies. She wants a man who will love her unconditionally and fight dragons to win her hand. And she wants a life of her own: a career she can be proud of, something more than being just a wife and mother.
“You want it all,” Granny says. She pauses. “Show me your palm.”
“He’s been offered a promotion at work,” Ella says conversationally as she offers her right hand. “That’s why he’s proposed. He’s relocating to Chicago and he wants me to go with him.”
Again, Granny asks, “What do you want?”
She wants certainty: an insurance policy that guarantees the happy ever after. Marrying Roger now will mean putting an end to her fledgling career; but perhaps that would be a price worth paying if she knows the two of them can have the fairy tale future she’s dreamed of.
Granny’s gnarled fingers trace the lines on her granddaughter’s outstretched palm. “Your fate line crosses your head line here,” she murmurs. “That suggests wealth and success.” A pause. “Show me your other hand,” she demands.
Ella extends her left hand and Granny once more traces the lines with her fingers.
“Now this is interesting,” she says. “I see a different future for you here, Child. Do you see where your fate line crosses your heart line? That’s a meaningful relationship.”
“So you’re saying I should marry Roger?”
“Are you left-handed or right-handed?” Granny asks, ignoring the question.
“Um, both, I suppose. I write with my left, but I draw and paint with my right. I’m lefthanded when I throw underarm and righthanded when I throw overarm. I can only hold a spoon and fork in my left and a knife in my right. What difference does it make?”
Granny sighs. “When your left and right palms show different futures, the one marked by the dominant hand is usually the path chosen for you. But if neither hand is dominant, the choice is yours.”
Picking up a discarded knitting needle, she draws a doorway in the air. The blue outline shimmers, pulsing with energy.
“That,” says Granny, “is one possible future. If you take that path, you will be successful and happy, but you won’t have love.”
Her knitting needle moves again. This time, the doorway glows with a soft green light.
“And if you take that one…” She pauses for effect. “If you take that one, you will marry Roger, but you won’t be happy. It’s not ‘happy ever after’, Child: it’s ‘happy’ or ‘ever after’. It’s one or the other: you can’t have both.”
Time stills as Ella makes her decision. Love or happiness? Surely everyone would choose to be happy? She walks towards the blue door and steps into her future.
She finds herself on a deserted beach, the waves lapping the shoreline, silver sand soft between her toes. Sun beats down from a brilliant blue sky contrasting with the turquoise water that rings the atoll. It’s a dream destination: the sort of place celebrities pick for a romantic honeymoon. For a moment, she thinks she confused the doors, but when she checks her hand, the third finger is ringless. So, not married, then. Nevertheless, she feels a sense of deep contentment, despite being on her own. This must be what a ‘happy’ future is like.
Time shifts and she’s in her thirties, running her own business developing a line of skincare products that proves popular with the rich and famous. As she enters her forties, she branches out into fashion, designing a range of casual yet chic outfits for women like herself. Several major department stores compete for exclusive rights to her brand, and it’s not long before she finds herself in a huge auditorium, receiving awards and accolades for being the ‘Businesswoman of the Year’. Her star is rising, and she’s proved that single women can be successful and happy.
By now, she can’t go outside without being snapped by paparazzi. The media hounds her constantly, forever asking if she has a partner, hoping to catch her with some new love interest. It’s partly to quieten them that she writes what will rapidly become a bestseller. Sales of ‘Happily Single’ rocket through the roof and the press hounds are replaced with calls from TV channels desperate to interview her.
It’s during one of these TV interviews that Oprah asks her asked if she’s ever thought of getting married. “I nearly did, once,” Ella replies. “I was in my early twenties and so was he, but I turned him down. I haven’t seen him since, and I don’t know what happened to him.”
“Do you regret that?” Oprah asks.
The studio audience waits expectantly.
“Not a bit,” Ella declares. “I can truly say not getting married was the best decision I ever made.”
The audience cheers and whistles approvingly. “You go, girl!” yells a large black lady from Louisiana whilst a coachload of people at the front hold up a banner that proclaims ‘Solidarity for Single Sisters'.
This, Ella thinks as she gazes about her, is what life’s supposed to be like. I’m happy – but I’m making other people happy too.
Time folds in on itself and she’s back in the present. “So,” Granny says for the umpteenth time this evening, “what do you want?”
Ella pauses. She’s pretty sure she wants the ‘happy’ version of her life, but a thread of curiosity makes her ask, “Can I see what’s through the other door too?”
Before Granny can stop her, she steps through the swirling green outline and into a future vastly different from the one she’s just seen.
She’s walking down the aisle in a mass of tulle and silk. Six adorable bridesmaids-cum-rose girls follow her, flinging petals over everything in sight. She reaches the altar and Roger catches her eye. His look promises eternity. Together, they pledge themselves to love each other “for better, for worse” and “till death do us part”, but she’s surprised to hear herself also promise to obey her husband.
Time fast forwards and she finds herself pregnant, her belly swelling with the life inside her; but even in her ninth month, her head is still bent over the toilet, letting morning sickness take its toll. Her waters break and the baby’s coming too quickly. The pain she feels as contractions rip through her body fade into nothingness against the far deeper agony she feels when a lifeless body is placed in her arms. Stillborn. She needs Roger to comfort her, to put his arms around her and tell her it’s not her fault; but Roger’s far away, finding comfort in the arms of another woman, and so she has to cry alone.
As the years drag on, miscarriage follows miscarriage; and each time, she feels more of a failure and each time Roger seems to love her less. He starts drinking heavily, the empty wine bottles forming a wall between them; she tries to peer round it, but there’s no sign of the man who once loved her. And when she finally carries a child to term, Roger isn’t there for the birth of his son. His love for her has turned to indifference, and she loves him with a determination verging on despair.
Still, she throws herself into motherhood, pouring all her love into the tiny scrap of humanity that is totally dependent on her. Her son thrives as her marriage withers; and even when Roger’s drunken bouts turn to violence, she knows she can’t walk away. She’s locked into this marriage ‘for ever after’ and she must see it through to the bitter end.
She struggles now to remember exactly why she once found him so attractive. If time were a patchwork quilt, hers would be stitched with regret: the once bright moments of their first meeting, their first date, their first kiss are hard to see amidst the dull and dingy squares that form her present. Sometimes, she examines the past, wrapping her memories around her in an attempt to feel warmer; but the threadbare tatters of her marriage offer little comfort: it is as thin and careworn as she is herself. She thinks of him now: no longer dreaming of his hair, of his eyes – a brown so deep you could drown in them – of his smile; but attempting to blot out the memory of his words and his fists and the way that both have bruised her beyond repair. He is the monster from her childhood nightmares, but there is no one to dry her tears and tell her it will all be okay; and the mildewed walls that surround her remind her that her fairy tale palace has become a prison where she is serving a life sentence for the crime of falling in love.
Years pass and her son is no longer a baby. The pride she feels at his milestones – his first steps, his first word, his first day at school – are tinged with remorse that he’ll always be an only child. And as he goes through school and high school and then on to university, she begins to feel him slipping away; but Roger’s words and his fists continue to bruise as each day she dies a little more inside. She needs a fairy godmother to wave her wand and make everything all right; or, failing that, at least a Disneyfied version of her life with a few catchy songs to make her believe the happy ending’s still a possibility. A quarter of a century has elapsed since she accepted his proposal; and the girl Roger now sees twice a week is young enough to be their daughter and selfish enough not to care that he’s married; and Ella knows she can’t compete with short skirts and long legs and a sexy wiggle; so she stays silent when he doesn’t come home and pretends the lipstick on his collar is her own. And she’s lived a hundred years already in this miserable future, and Granny and her knitting needles have faded into a forgotten past. The Ella that’s left wonders, if she could have seen this future back when she was young and naïve, would she still have kissed him, wanted him, married him? She knows in her heart that she wouldn’t have listened if someone had warned her what lay ahead: when you’re young and in love, the future seems bright and the possibilities are endless; nevertheless, from time to time she wishes someone could have shown her the truth; but love is a magic mirror, reflecting only what we want to believe, so she papers her house with lies and decorates it with her unshed tears; and the girl Roger proposed to all those years ago is no longer recognisable.
Home from university, her son hears the arguments and sees the bruises. Wrapping his mother in his arms, he says he’ll take care of her; and his love for her is so simple and so unexpected that she cries.
She doesn’t leave Roger: he leaves her – not intentionally, but because the amount of alcohol he’s drunk before getting in his car makes him incapable of braking in time to avoid the articulated lorry that ploughs into him and ends his life. The tears she cries at the funeral are more from relief than sorrow.
Time swirls and she staggers back to reality, a part of her still aching with the pain of the ‘ever after’. She’d thought love was a two-way street not a non-stop highway to misery.
“So,” Granny says again, “what do you want?”
Ella looks up, her finger brushing away the tears from her eyes. “I’m going to marry Roger,” she says.
“Are you sure?” Granny asks. “Sure you want the ‘ever after’ and not the ‘happy’ future?”
Ella nods. “I know Roger’s going to fall out of love with me pretty quickly,” she says, “and that he’ll be unfaithful and a drunk and not the husband I wanted.”
“Then why, Child?” Granny sounds mystified.
“Because,” and here Ella’s face takes on a dreamy expression, “the child I saw in my future was better by far than anything I could have imagined. The pain and heartache I’ll go through will be worth it if it means I end up with my son. You see,” she says to Gran, “you were wrong: I can have both ‘happy’ and ‘ever after’ at the same time, only it’s with my child and not my husband.”
Ella nods. The memories of Roger are already fading, but she can still feel her child’s arms around her. This is the memory that will sustain her in the future when romantic love dies and motherhood blooms in its place.