Contest #221 shortlist ⭐️

The Space Between Lines

Submitted into Contest #221 in response to: Write a story where ghosts and the living coexist.... view prompt

5 comments

Fiction

Every morning for 72 years, Len’s analog alarm clock beeped its staccato rhythm at precisely 5:00 a.m. He’d fold over the covers, careful not to wake Mary next to him, shower and don his suit for the day. Pants, shirt, tie, belt, socks and shoes in exactly that order.


He steeped his tea for four minutes. No shorter, no longer. Add just enough honey to round the sharp edge of the bitterness. His toast popped and he cut the crusts off just so before sitting at the table and opening the newspaper, the world's messiness spread before him in columns of words and ink.


He’d hear Mary before he saw her. She’d hum a tuneless ditty until she got to the bathroom, after which she’d crescendo into a full ballad, always horrendously, beautifully out of tune. The soundtrack to his morning for more than half a century.


When he’d finished his tea and toast and closed the paper, Mary would sweep into their spotlessly clean kitchen, kiss him on top of his head, and throw open the pantry and kitchen doors. She’d ponder briefly, her index finger tapping her lip, and then toss whatever was to be that day’s breakfast onto the benchtop. Sometimes eggs, sometimes muesli, sometimes pancake mix, and sometimes an entirely new concoction – how has she got flour everywhere already?


Len folded his newspaper under his arm and draped his coat over the other before walking to Mary and kissing her lightly on the cheek. ‘Enjoy your day, dear,” he’d say on his way out, leaving her to her breakfast.


It was a 32-minute walk to the market where he ran his fruit stall, rows of apples and oranges and bananas and more laid out in neat rows. He no longer caught the train to the market. Not since they told him he was no longer fit enough to walk the carriages, punching tickets and keeping the train to its meticulous schedule.


It was his work as a conductor that brought him to Mary. Him in his trousers, waistcoat, and perfectly shined shoes. Her in a blue polka dot dress, blonde hair curling to her shoulders under a hat that was far too big, pleading with Len for clemency for forgetting her ticket.


“I’m sorry, ma’am”, he said. “But I must issue you a fine. It’s policy.”


“But that’s not fare,” she said. “Get it? Fare?” She laughed, looking up at Len through her lashes, attempting to coax a similar laugh from him. And despite himself, she succeeded. A simple, silly joke, but looking back he knew from that moment he was smitten. 


The following weeks passed by in a string of shared milkshakes, drive-in movies, and picnics among the bees at the park, the summer feeling like it would last forever. He was the rails, all structure and straight lines, and her the wheels, movement and energy and motion.


He arrived home at 4:30 p.m., put his coat on the hook, and then moved to the kitchen, where he wiped down the table and the kitchen bench while Mary would make tea. Her own attempts at cleaning were woefully inadequate as far as Len was concerned. 


“Bloody Con again,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve told him to keep his vegetables in his own stall. I’m sick and tired of picking up after him. And the shouting. I don’t need to hear any more about the price of his blasted tomatoes.”


“They are lovely though,” she said. 


“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I need them all over my stall.” 


He finished cleaning and sat at the table with a sigh. “Enough about Con. How was your day, dear?”


He’d drink his tea and listen to Mary speak about whatever project she’d worked on that day, painting or ceramics or gardening. It didn’t matter. Her hands waved as she spoke, her voice reaching inside and breathing into the space that had been deflated while he was away from her.


After he finished his tea and placed the cup in the dishwasher, he carefully rolled up his shirtsleeves and entered the shed from the side door, pulling the mower and lawn edger from their nook.


“Didn’t you mow the lawn a couple of days ago?” Mary asked.


“It just needs a little trim,” he insisted. “I’ll only be a little while.”


As he pulled the cord on the mower, its engine spluttering to life, a breeze picked up, a hint of colder weather in its breath.


“It’s starting to get chilly,” Mary said.


Len nodded. “Autumn will be here before we know it.”


After a year of dating, they’d moved in together in the autumn. Into a house with a big red door in a leafy suburb with maples lining the road. The leaves fell with the sunshine, turning the street into a tree-lined hallway tinged amber. The evening sunlight as thick and as sweet as honey.


Mary would laugh as she tried to catch the falling leaves, dancing through the leaf banks, strewing them everywhere. It surely annoyed the neighbours, and truth be told, it would probably annoy Len if he was one of them. Instead, he couldn’t help but laugh at her joy, a blooming in his chest as she ran back to him and wrapped her arms around his.


They were married in a church at the top of a hill on a windy day. Windy enough to almost tear the veil from Mary’s hair, but she didn’t care. She just grabbed it and waved it above her head like a sail, the wind guiding them onward. As he watched her, he knew it was this remarkable ability to turn any irritation into an opportunity to express herself that he loved the most.


In the breeze that blew as he pushed the mower and trimmed the lawn, there was a hint of that wind from decades ago – within it an echo of that glorious day on the top of the hill when he’d made Mary his wife.


Mary admired the yard. “I didn’t think it was needed but it does look better,” she said. “Oh, and I did notice a few weeds at the back of the garden, if you don’t mind.


"I think I’m tired of roses. Next year I’m thinking of carrots and lettuce. Maybe I could even set up a stall next to yours, give Con a run for his money,” she finished with a laugh.


Later, he collected the lawn trimmings and made his way down the side of the house to the compost bin, the sound of a basketball slapping the driveway next door. Len looked over the fence and noticed the neighbour’s son playing.


“Hello, Mr. Petrov,” the boy said as he threw the ball at the hoop.


“Good evening, Thomas.”


Thomas curled his lip. “It’s just Tom, sir. Mrs. Petrov always remembered.”


Len just looked down his nose at the boy. What was wrong with the kids today? The cheek. Much to his chagrin, Mary had doted far too much on the child. But Len avoided him whenever he could. To him, some things were better left behind.


Len and Mary were compatible in every conceivable way except the one that mattered most. At first, they thought it was just bad luck, that, given enough time, they would receive the gift that they so desperately wanted. But years passed and eventually their doctor confirmed that it wasn’t just luck, but a permanent absence. An absence that built a grief in Mary that Len couldn’t contain. It was like she’d lost something. Like a punched ticket with a hole in it that he could never replace. The rooms of their home became silent, the barren winter maples lurked like skeletons outside their window, and in each one a face they’d never meet.


Len didn’t know if something that never was could be a ghost, but Mary was haunted by it just the same, so he packed up their possessions and they left the house with the big red door.


They moved from the suburbs. They went to a place bright and verdant where the trees stayed green all year round and the air smelled of cut grass and magnolia. To a house with a large lawn and wide open spaces. Len installed a garden and constructed a shed in which he partitioned off an art studio.


While Len rode the trains, Mary stayed home to grow and create, slowly drawing herself out of her ennui. She set up a stall at the same market where Len would later work, sharing her gifts with the local community. A community that came to love her almost as much as Len did.


In the falling dusk light, Len cast a critical eye over the line of the back lawn where it met the footpath.


“Looks a little crooked to me,” Mary teased.


“Hmph, I’ll have to fix it tomorrow. It’s getting too dark now. I also think the tree behind the shed could use a shear.”


Len walked to Mary’s favourite spot by the garden. It was only a year past, on an evening much like this one, that she had sat here herself, easel set before her holding a canvas replete with riotous colour. Her paints and brushes on the small table beside her.


“Len, after all these years, I think I’ve finally realised something,” she murmured as she examined the canvas.


“What’s that, dear?”


“Truthfully, I’ve never quite realised why we’ve worked so well. But now I know I’ve always needed the lines in which to paint. Unbound I don’t know what I’d do. I’d be like a blowing leaf untethered from its tree.” She rested her head against the firmness of his arm. “Thank you.”


Len didn’t quite understand what she meant but as he stood there, the sweet smell of her filling his lungs, he looked at the painting. At the colour and creativity and depth that filled the empty space between those lines and thought that maybe she was right.


“Take me into our home,” she whispered.


Soon it wasn’t just Mary in her wheelchair that he moved inside, but the easel and brushes and paints too. The colours lost none of their vividness but the brushstrokes grew weaker, became stunted until it was all Mary could do to lift the brush, and something once so vibrant became confined to a dark room and later a bed.


Until this late summer evening, with autumn closing in, when Mary was again outside in her favourite spot by her garden. He knelt beside her and brushed the lawn clippings from the burnished bronze plaque inlaid into the heart of small stone wall that held back the garden. The words there etched carefully with his own hand.


Here lie the ashes of Mary Louanne Petrov

Beloved wife of Lenin Petrov


He stood up, the lines of his arms and legs unfolding, still holding. He straightened, his back erect, shoulders back. Moved towards the house.


‘Don’t forget to lock the door when you come in, dear,” he said over his shoulder.


But he knew she’d forget. She always did.



October 28, 2023 03:27

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5 comments

Shirley Medhurst
21:47 Nov 02, 2023

Thank you for sharing this beautiful love story. There are some lovely poetic parts - I particularly liked the phrase: « They were married in a church at the top of a hill on a windy day »

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Andrea Corwin
21:54 Nov 01, 2023

This is an absolutely wonderful love story. I had to skim back to the top to understand the part about the wheelchair and then! I saw the reference! - such good writing!! Beautiful prose: Like a punched ticket with a hole in it that he could never replace. The rooms of their home became silent, the barren winter maples lurked like skeletons outside their window, and in each one a face they’d never meet.

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10:19 Nov 08, 2023

Beautiful. 💜🤍❤️💙 Congratulations on the shortlist. 🥲😍

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Philip Ebuluofor
14:40 Nov 05, 2023

I suspect it happens that way at times in some societies. Congrats.

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Mary Bendickson
21:19 Nov 04, 2023

Beautiful. Congrats on the shortlist.

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