The Elephant Peg by Sian Brighal

The letter is short, precise, almost clinical. My impulse is to screw it up, throw it away, burn it. It seems cruel to offer this blunt statement: now you’re dead. What am I supposed to do with it? I can’t refuse it, hurt you and feel avenged. I can’t accept it and forgive you. I leave it on the kitchen table, make a cuppa, stare at the tiny birds sitting on the bare branches silhouetted against the dull grey clouds. You wanted the sink moved; something irritated you about standing here, in front of the wide window while washing dishes. You bought the bushes, planted them so close to the house…and that seemed to satisfy. Now it’s my house, I want to rip them out…see the rolling hills that I know are just beyond the twisting bars of branches.

It’s not until past dinner that I sit back down and read the letter again. Maybe the red wine helps, or the deep clean, the honest labour, or the need I thought long dead to try to understand just what happened between us. That ever hungry ‘why?’ still eats away at me.

I finally admit the letter must’ve hurt to write. Being cold was probably the only way you could get through it, but I’m used to your cold, so the appreciation is merely that: it hurt. I will not forgive you just because you did this. Telling me the why you couldn’t love me isn’t an apology, and certainly not what I need. 

You start with our holiday in Thailand. Our one and only holiday abroad when I was eight. And thinking about it, yes. I noticed the change then and the growing distance between us. You did your jobs, tasks, fulfilled your role as mother, but there was nothing beyond that. It was as deep and as real as your reflection in the mirror. Dad hinted at it before he left, but he never defined it. He remarried, so never felt the need. But me? I couldn’t find another mother like he could find another wife.

You tell me I was your elephant peg. I googled what you mean, but I think I already knew the answer. It’s good that I’d read the whole letter before confirming my guess. The pain is so much less. I knew I wasn’t planned. Dad had said as much in one of the rows you’d had. That had hurt. Not so much that I wasn’t planned, but the underlying hint and unspoken admission that I wasn’t wanted, even now.

I drain my glass and refill for the closing paragraph. Your sorry is there. And despite everything, I believe you. I can almost feel what you must have when you saw that adult elephant held in place, broken and empty and docile, by nothing but a thin rope and a wooden spike any child could pull up. And then when you saw yourself! Held in place, in a marriage, in a life until you lost all will to leave and escape, firm in your belief that you were happy and where you wanted to be. And me…the tiny peg that fooled you.

Your sorry is there, but it’s not really for me. Maybe it’s for all that could have and should have been. Sorry for a motherhood you couldn’t appreciate once it had all that pretty duty and propriety stripped away. I down my glass. Would it have been different if you’d wanted me? Or would that have made it much worse?

My eyes sting, vision blurring as the tears finally gather heavy on my lashes. The last lines are lost, distorting in my grief and anger and loss and hurt. I know what they say. 

I’m sorry I couldn’t forgive you. All those years seeing you as my elephant peg, when you should have been a part of my everything.

The letter is dated the 17th June. Two days before you died and almost one month after my last visit. I can still see you, sitting straight in the chair, asking why I bother to come. Why I don’t just move on? Haven’t I got better things to do? Duty is such a weak excuse for anything. The nurses at least got paid to visit and care for a dying woman.

I gathered up my things and stormed out and never went back. I thought I was hurting you, punishing you, but I think I was doing the opposite. Some part of me hopes that‘s the case. Now, at the end of things, I hope I did something you approved of. 

I go to pour another glass and stop. I feel the tug of a rope. Instead, I walk to the sink, empty the bottle. Then the one waiting on the worktop: bought on a whim on the way home. A whim. I laugh wryly. A whim that means the off-licence staff know my name and my favourite tipple. 

I look out of the window. Thin, black fingers seem to claw at the dark sky. Tomorrow, I’ll pull those bushes out. I want to see the hills I know are there. And I’ll visit your grave. After so many years, I guess it’ll need some tidying. Your letter is still in my hand. It’s worn, crumpled and smoothed flat so many times since you died. Parts are lost to the tears that have poured on it. But I know what it says. And maybe now I’m beginning to understand what you meant.

I rinse the sink, the sweet acid tang fading. Two emptied bottles join the others under the sink…where it’s so easy not to see how many gather there. Sighing, but oddly content, I carefully fold your letter and slip it into the bin. Duty is a weak excuse for living, especially when there are so many good and beautiful reasons. I take another step…feel so many pegs start to give. Tomorrow, I’ll accept it all and we can rest in peace.

Sian Brighal currently lives in Germany with her family and is using the break in teaching to delve into flash fiction writing. She can be found on twitter under @sian_ink.