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Live Encounters Aotearoa New Zealand Poets & Writers April 2023
Stilled Life with Blue Slippers, short story by Lauren Roche
You stand upon a stony shore, looking across the dark water. Your mortal life has ended, yet here you are, living, all senses alert. Your skin feels a slight chill, and breath wraiths in front of your face. The fur they have given you is scented; as your body warms it, you can smell oils, musk, perhaps the slightest hint of spice. Across the water, a bird calls and is answered. It is dusk; no heavenly bodies grace the space above you—the only light is smuggled through a cleft in the tall, shining cliffs and reflected off the many facets of the water that laps gently at your feet. A red rowboat approaches shore; the boatman is bearded and grey-clad; he is singing a song your mother once rocked your cradle to.
Hush, little baby, don’t you cry, you know your Mama was born to die.
His is a pleasant voice; his oar strokes match the slow beat.
You’d never really listened to the words before. The tune was enough, sung by loving, soft Mama as she rocked you and butterflied your cheek with kisses.
It’s been many years since you felt so safe.
You wonder if your mother is over there, waiting for you.
* * *
You’re wearing the worn blue slippers that you had on when you fell, stone-dead in front of the kitchen table. You’d just popped some bread in the toaster, and were warming the butter, ready to spread. You can’t have preserves any more—your hands are too stiff to open the jars. How you’d love a smear of lime marmalade.
You feel dizzy, but that’s not unusual, and your heart skips like a spring lamb. You make yourself a nice cup of tea rather than your usual morning coffee.
‘It’s like Irish dancing,’ you once described your heartbeat to a G. P. ‘Jigging around, quite happily. Leaves me breathless like I’d been leaping about too.’ He listened gravely to your chest, then rolled up his stethoscope and put you on the waiting list to see a heart specialist. You won’t hold your breath. The health service is underfunded, and you understand and barely resent that money needs to be rationed and spent on the young.
You go to sit in the kitchen chair, your heart pausing for a few beats, then racing away, fluttering like a moth in a web. Then you fall, slowly, autumnally, to the floor. You try to place your cup of tea on the table to keep things tidy, but it sloshes down your front in a sedate winding-down motion. Down and out. You feel no pain, just a fading, then a dawning awareness that perhaps this is it. And oh, good heavens, you might have peed yourself, but maybe the puddle of tea will disguise that when they find you.
You smile at the kind person who walks in without knocking and raises you to your feet: you could swear you almost recognise them. They mop from your nightdress the tea and pee you slopped in your fall, brush your hair flat, make sure you are steady on your feet.
They butter your toast for you, hand it over, still warm.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve got any chocolate biscuits?’ they ask. ‘It’s just my friend has a fancy for them.’
‘There’s a packet in the fridge. I was saving them for my son.’
‘I’m guessing he’ll have more on his mind when he sees you next.’
‘Right you are; help yourself.’
Your new friend opens the fridge door; the cool light glows on the lump on the floor, wearing your wet nightie. The biscuits are unopened—Mint Tim Tams, perfect for dipping into coffee. Your companion hides them in a deep pocket in their coat.
‘Oh, these’ll touch the spot. He’ll be very grateful. Right, we’d best get going.’
You grab your pink quilted dressing gown from the end of the bed. Even though your life is over, you wouldn’t dream of leaving your house in just your nightie. Your chaperone takes your hand, leads you towards the front entryway. You pass the ball-point marks on the kitchen doorframe, each showing your son’s height on subsequent birthdays. The top one was done when he was fifteen and already tall enough to rest his chin on the top of your head when you hugged him.
The morning sun slants through the panes beside the door. From the angle and the way the light strokes the hall mat, it must be around five.
‘I should leave my boy a note. He’ll wonder where I’ve gone.’
Your kind companion touches your shoulder, and turns you around: you can see your old self, stricken, pallid, lying on the kitchen lino.
‘He’ll know, dear.’
You look down at your shell. ‘Am I dreaming?’
‘No, no. Your time here is over. Come, someone is waiting.’
They smile at you, the light bright on their neat teeth. You strain to remember where you know them from.
Of course, you think, this is Death, and they have left their grey horse to graze, knowing I would have trouble hauling myself into the saddle. How thoughtful.
You step together through the open door, down the uneven garden path, past the dry marigolds; you’ve been waiting for them to seed, become immortal. They’re such cheerful little souls, and what a display they put on. They’ve dropped their petals at your feet, creating a golden red carpet that guides you to the gate. You take a last look back at your house. Of course, your son will sell the place; use the money to upgrade his own. You hope the next owner will love the small garden as you have.
The paperboy rides his bicycle, whistling down the pavement. He throws a morning newspaper towards your front step; it slices right through you. The cat looks up, mews at your shade, then walks away, tail high, seeking someone still capable of feeding him.
‘Cupboard love,’ you mutter. Your companion chuckles. ‘Is it far?’ you ask. ‘It’s just I’ve still got my slippers on, and my stick’s by the front door.’
‘Just around the corner and down the lane, love.’
‘What’s the worst that could happen? I might catch my death.’ You look coyly at your new friend, who laughs in response.
In their coat and hat, your guide looks almost regal. Indeed, the most trustworthy person you have ever met. You know, implicitly, that they will never harm you. You decide to accept their familiarity. You’ve repeatedly told the grocer off for calling you ‘love’. The words in your new companion’s mouth sound courtly, not condescending.
You walk along the familiar footpath, across the pedestrian crossing. It’s quiet as the grave; too early for commuter traffic.
The air thins, and suddenly your feet are on a woodland path, sloping downwards. You slide your hand along the wooden rail, worn shiny. You imagine countless others descending before you. Dark trees arch overhead; ferns kiss the carpet of leaves; the tunnel is green, twilit, the earth redolent. A rabbit quivers across the path in front of you, butterflies sparkle.
There is life everywhere, you realise, your senses afire. When did you last see, hear, feel, smell, or move so well? How magnificent marmalade might taste to you at the moment. You still have a little buttery toast. You take another bite. It is heavenly. Life quickens in you.
Down through the old Holloway, the trees become sparer, bright leaves replaced by needles and the scent of pine. The sides of the tunnel are now rocky; they seem carved from jade. The light follows behind you, casting a long shadow before your feet. Your guide is unshaded. You notice this, but it does not puzzle you. The answer is there, in the depths of your subconscious.
You descend still; you must be well under the city by now. The air is chill, and despite your dressing gown, tied tightly under your breasts, your skin is goose-pimpled and your breath clouds. Death stops at a small tollbooth. It’s made of ancient rocks, stacked, and mossy. No one sits there. Death reaches into a large wooden chest for a cape of silver fur and drapes it over your shoulders. They pass a carved stick to you and a mug of soup, the perfect temperature to warm your hands and insides. Smoky steam lifts from the surface. There is crumbly bread, thickly buttered, a welcome chaser to your toast. The communion of bread and soup smells like heaven and tastes like nothing on earth. ‘To die for,’ your grandson might have said. You sit on the low wall to savour it.
‘This is one of the Underworld’s treasure chests,’ says Death. ‘When they reach this point, some people realise that their coins, fur, jewels and priceless collectables have no value. Finally, aware that they can’t take it with them, they drop what was once most precious along the path; I gather the valuables that might make others more comfortable. I once had to rescue a herd of hogs from an abandoned string of pearls. They’d have skated their way to eternity.’ Death shook their head. ‘The coins people bring for the boatman are useless to him because he can’t leave the Underworld to spend them. We pop them in the chest, and I do a grocery run Earthside when needed. It works well. Watch your step: that root’s a bit gnarly. Just there, between the pines, you’ll see our destination.’
The water, when you see it, is a surprise. It’s the deep purple of drowned amethyst. Willows weep at the edge, and some very tall, almost black, yews stand sentinel on the far fringes. What little light has oozed this far below ground lights the wavelets. You are bathed in a moonless twilight in a place that feels like it has never been fully warm. A small green circlet writhes on the shingle, a snake that appears to be eating itself.
There is another stone building, a cottage, beneath the trees. Firelight flickers in a window, and smoke rises from the chimney. You don’t turn towards habitation but to the rowboat. You know you belong on a further shore than this.
The boatman tips his cap, pulls alongside, and Death hands you to him.
‘Watch your slippers,’ they say, helping you lift your feet clear of the tide. ‘Tuck yourself in.’
An orange kitten winds itself around your ankles then leaps into your lap. It kneads your knees with strong, sheathed toes, then settles, faintly vibrating, on your cape.
‘Good night for it,’ says the boatman. ‘Not as lumpy as some crossings I’ve made. Spot you later, mate.’
‘She’s brought, you some Tim Tams.’ Death throws the biscuits. The packet tumbles end over end, and Charon catches it with an expert hand.
‘You’re a Queen among women,’ he says to you. ‘Finer than rubies.’
The boatman waves at Death, who stands on the shore.
‘Funny one, that,’ he mutters to you. ‘Loves dressing up. Never know whom they’ll turn up as. Great mate, and a right hard worker, but changes like the blimming wind.’
‘I thought it was my old vicar, then a doctor, then the Queen. Funny how your mind works.’
‘Aye, it’s a funny old world, all right. Ready for this?’
You nod. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be.’
‘That’s the spirit, love.’
The boatman takes a big bite of his biscuit, pushes off, and rows steadily as he sings.
If living were a thing that money could buy
You know the rich would live,
And the poor would die.
You see chocolate on his teeth and smile to yourself, snug in the fur, the little purring cat in your lap.
This is the life, you think, more comfortable than you’ve been in years, and reach across to swipe yourself a Tim Tam.
© Lauren Roche
I am 61, author of Bent Not Broken and Life on the Line (Memoir, Steele Roberts, 2000, 2001), and Mila and the Bone Man (Fiction, QWP, 2022). In 2020 my short piece The Graverobber’s Apprentice was highly commended in the Lilian Ida Smith Award. In June 2022, my micro-fiction piece Arise won 1st prize in the Whangārei Library Flash and Micro Fiction competition. In 2023 Mayhem Journal published Birdman – speculative short fiction. There are several more book-length works on my hard drive.
I began writing fiction after my father – a little sick of memoirs – begged me to ‘please pick on someone else’s family next time’. I retired from doctoring in August 2019 after a spinal cord injury sustained during routine back surgery. Writing was the only other passion I felt I could pursue full-time. I graduated with a Master of Creative Writing (AUT) in 2021 with James George as my mentor. A two-time Ironman finisher, I now read stories of long treks as my injury means I can no longer do them. My partner Graham and I live on the Tutukākā Cost with Bill, the cat, and Lucy Jordan, the dog.