by Cora Tate
Rick brought the girls, when they came up the mountain to get away from the tsunami the scientists had predicted. They were adult women, but Edith, in her late sixties, thought of them as girls. Nice girls, young ladies, but still very young, neither of them much over twenty-five. Far from home, if their homes even still existed, they both needed some mothering and Edith felt happy to give it. She never got to see her grandchildren as often as she wanted, and now she worried about them and their mother, Edith’s daughter.
Both of the boys were fine, after spending the night of the tsunami up the mountain with their parents. Their sister, Susan, elected to spend that night on top of Mount Bartle Frere. That should have set Edith’s mind at rest, since Bartle Frere provided the highest sanctuary available, at least within Queensland. That mountaintop stood almost two thousand feet higher than where Susan’s brothers and parents sat out the disaster, but cellphones stopped working and Edith hadn’t heard from her daughter since that terrifying night, for several long and worry-filled days.
Never one to snap at people, Edith caught herself being rather short with her sons and Cyrill, her long-suffering husband. She knew her irritation stemmed from her worrying about Susan—and she knew her family knew that, too, but she still felt embarrassed and guilty. They don’t deserve that, she thought, and if I keep that up with them, one of these days I’ll say something thoughtless to Rick or the girls—and they’re guests. Edith promised herself she would keep her concerns private and her tongue and her worries under control.
Sensing his wife’s unease and deducing the reason, Cyrill suggested he and Rick and the boys begin clearing the tsunami debris from the roads between them and Bartle Frere. The other three quickly agreed and set out the next morning. Candy went to work with the men—She’s soft on Rick, Edith observed, and doesn’t want to let him out of her sight. Alice stayed at Cyrill and Edith’s hillside home to help Edith. Sweet of her to stay, Edith thought. I don’t really need any help, but I’m glad to have her company with everyone else away.
Edith soon recognized Alice also felt a strong attraction to Rick. Hardly surprising, Edith thought, “he’s a handsome and very talented man, and a very nice, friendly person. The idea that both Alice and Candy wanted their delightful companion Rick Job seemed at odds with the obvious affection the girls felt for each other. Edith didn’t devote a great amount of time to pondering that topic, but she did revisit it at least every day. All the while, she enjoyed Alice’s company, and more so as they got to know each other better.
Alice left Edith to her own devices on the day that would remain forever etched in Edith’s mind. Having spent most of the day clearing the Topaz Road, Cyrill and the boys—and Alice and Candy and Rick, of course—returned with Susan and her family in tow. Edith hadn’t felt so excited since the births of her grandchildren, and she felt enormous gratitude toward all those who had helped clear the roads. She also felt enormous relief and thought that, if she looked in a mirror, she would see the stress falling away from her.
No longer feeling anxious about Susan—except in the sense that she worried about everyone because of the continual darkness and rain—Edith found herself worrying more about “the girls”. Two women wanting one man is bound to end in disaster, she thought, no matter how much they like each other. Edith saw no solution to the problem, so kept those thoughts in the ‘too hard’ basket and ignored them as much as she could.
They obviously like each other and care a great deal about each other, Edith thought, but they also both want Rick. What ever are they going to do?
Edith worried about Candace and Alice as if they were her own children. She felt comforted almost every day, however, to see how well they got along, how much they obviously cared about each other. That’s amazing, she often thought, remembering the intense rivalry she felt, when her friend Alana evinced an interest in Cyrill in the days when all three attended the local high school.
Does it mean they don’t love Rick as much as I loved Cyrill—as much as I still love Cyrill, I mean, Edith wondered. She knew both Alice and Candy well enough to recognize each of them loved Rick at least as much as she loved Cyrill—which was a lot. How on earth can either of them abide the other one sleeping with Rick as though they were man and wife?
Edith pondered the question almost every day or night but struggled to find an answer that made sense to her. The appearance of Mac on the scene made the situation at once more complicated and more tractable. One of the group who spent the night of the tsunami on Bartle Frere with Suzanne and her family, Mac obviously had designs on Alice, or at least a serious interest in the sweet girl Edith thought of as Rick’s second girlfriend.
The confusing relationship of these three young people—Rick was probably at least fifty, but Edith still thought of him as one of the young people—puzzled and worried Edith, but she consistently felt comforted to see they continued to care about each other and enjoy each other’s company. Do they all three get together in bed? Edith sometimes wondered.
Edith wasn’t about to discuss such a topic with Cyrill. Even so, she thought about what he would say if she did. She imagined his reply to the question she would never ask, thinking he would probably say something like, “I s’pose they might. Maybe that’s the modern way. Girls that age are bound to be modern in how they think and how they do things.” Then, perhaps projecting her own thoughts onto her husband, she imagined he would add, “But, nahhh. I reckon they take turns.”
At almost seventy, Edith found these modern relationships confusing, disturbing, puzzling. At the same time, she thought of Rick, Candace, and Alice as decent, honest, upstanding individuals. They weren’t tramps, none of them, they were upright, good people— just different to what Edith had grown up with. Even so, she wondered, How can those girls abide knowing someone they love feels just as close, just as devoted, to someone else?
Edith honestly recognized and accepted her own feelings. She found Rick attractive and exciting. Especially when he sang for them, Edith found desire welling in her as it did decades ago for Cyrill. She understood the desire the girls she thought of as her adopted daughters felt for that very special man. She nevertheless wondered how they could share something so intimate.
But maybe if the only way I could have Cyrill was to share him with someone else, and if she was someone I really liked anyway . . . I don’t know—maybe I would. At the same time, she felt glad she didn’t have to.
When the big engineer, Mac, appeared on the scene and could hardly take his eyes off Alice, Edith worried about a rivalry between him and Rick. To her surprise, the two young men seemed to get along almost as well as the girls. When Alice began showing an equally obvious interest in the big engineer, Edith worried anew that Rick might resent the competition and felt surprised all over again that he didn’t seem at all concerned.
She puzzled, worried, and wondered, and laughed at herself for acting like a bitch protecting her pups or at least thinking that way. She began observing Rick more carefully, hoping to get some clue to his feelings about the girls—and Mac. To complicate matters, and Edith’s thoughts, even more, she learned that both girls were pregnant. That, surely, will lead to some kind of uproar, she thought, but it didn’t.
Edith caught herself hovering over the girls like a mother hen and chided herself with, You silly old bat! You’ve gone all clucky. She shook her head and chuckled and continued watching all three—all four, when Mac was visiting—of the young people. Rick seemed consistently as attentive to Alice as he was to Candace, but Edith noticed he and Candy relished the additional time they shared during Mac’s visits.
In Mac’s absence, Edith thought Rick displayed every bit as much affection and passion for Alice as he did for Candy. When Mac visited, Edith thought she noticed Rick feeling glad to relinquish responsibility for the second relationship. Aha! she thought, he doesn’t resent Mac because he wants to focus on Candace. Edith felt glad to have an explanation that made sense and that could provide a happy ending for all of the young folks. At the same time, she worried about Alice’s pregnancy and wondered if it would discourage Mac from forming a serious relationship with the girl. Maybe she won’t tell him, Edith thought. She could just pretend it’s his.
Edith wanted to ask Alice how she intended to deal with the situation but stopped herself with, It’s none of my business, and asking Alice might upset her. One day, when Edith and Alice were in the house alone together, their conversation somehow touched on Mac, and Edith said, “He seems like a very nice young man.”
“He does,” Alice replied, “and I think he is.” Alice paused a moment and then surprised Edith by saying, “He isn’t Rick Job, but Mac is very nice.”
“He thinks the world of you.”
“Do you think so?”
“Everyone can see it, dear,” Edith told her young friend. “Of course, Rick does, too.” Edith wondered if she had made a mistake in mentioning Rick and watched her guest for any sign of upset.
“Yes, I think that’s true,” Alice said, not sounding upset, “but he and I will never have what he and Candy have. There’s something really special between those two.” That caught Edith by surprise, even though she had thought the same thing herself. She couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Do you feel neglected sometimes?” and then hoped she hadn’t been rude to ask.
“No, never. Rick always makes sure I don’t feel neglected. I think he really does love me. It’s just that we don’t have the special … I don’t know … chemistry? magic? … whatever it is he has with Candy.” Alice seemed a little emotional, when she finished expressing those thoughts, and Edith hugged her around her shoulders.
“Might be just as well,” the older woman said. “It could be confusing—too complicated anyway—to have two nice men in love with you.”
Alice leaned her head on Edith’s shoulder and said, “Thank you, Edith. Yes, you’re right.” A short moment later, she added, “I’m glad Mac likes me.”
Emboldened by their sharing, Edith asked, “Have you talked to Mac about your …” She didn’t complete her question but gently patted Alice’s belly.
Alice surprised her hostess with an animated reply. “No, not yet, but he’s s’posed to come up this week. We’re going to have a long, serious talk, and I’ll tell him then.” She took a deep breath and said, “I’ll just have to see what he decides.”
“He seems awfully stuck on you,” Edith said. “I bet he’ll be fine with it.”
“Oh, I hope so, Edith. I think.”
“Well, I’d really like to raise this baby with Rick. If I’m with Mac, though, I’ll have him all to myself, and that would be nice, too.”
So they do find it confusing, too, Edith thought. Hardly surprising. Aloud, she said, “And he does seem very nice—and he and Rick get along so well.” That’ll be good, if Mac is raising Rick’s child, she thought but said nothing.
“They do,” Alice agreed with obvious enthusiasm.
The two women began the culinary project deferred since they commenced their heart-to heart talk, occasionally sharing thoughts and feelings about relationships but mostly making small talk or keeping their focus on the project. Mac arrived the following afternoon, and Edith didn’t see Alice for two days. The morning after the big engineer departed, with everyone else away on an expedition to recover fuel from flooded tanks, Edith and Alice again found themselves alone in the house. Hoping she didn’t sound like a busybody, Edith asked, “How did it go?”
Alice beamed at her hostess and said, “Oh, he really is so nice. He said he thinks Rick is great—I guess we all do—” Edith smiled and nodded and Alice continued. “And he would feel honored to participate in raising Rick’s son or daughter.”
“Why, that’s wonderful.”
“It is.” Alice said no more, but her smile illuminated the room.
Edith thought she probably felt almost as much relief as Alice did, as the two completed a couple of minor domestic projects and then returned to a project Edith had begun two weeks earlier: teaching Alice how to knit. The younger woman had already demonstrated a knack for the craft and, while not as fast as her mentor, already produced good, even work. They spent almost two hours on that, with Edith librating between commenting—occasionally with suggestions or instructions but more often with praise—on Alice’s work and offering congratulatory remarks regarding the younger one’s new relationship.
That the strange relationship between her three fondly welcomed guests seemed to have begun settling into a pair of more conventional relationships allowed Edith to relax a part of her mind that had been worrying about her young friends. At the same time, that change enabled her to appreciate and enjoy her own very conventional and lately much improved relationship with Cyril more than she had in years.
Perhaps inspired by Alice’s and Rick’s and Candace’s example, Edith and Cyril had begun talking—for the first time in their nearly-four decades together—about their feelings, their relationship, their likes and dislikes. At first, both found the new sharing frightening, although Cyril would never have used that word. Even after several weeks of a new kind and new level of sharing, one or the other or both often felt a little nervous about discussing intimate subjects.
Nevertheless, to their credit and increased happiness, they managed to discussing topics they never had before.
Edith regularly thanked her beloved husband and told him how impressed she felt with his bravery in being able to talk about things people so often avoid. The improvement in their conjugal relations alone would have been well worth the effort, but every aspect of their relationship benefited from their new sharing. Each of them appreciated the other more than ever before and likewise demonstrated that appreciation more.
Edith found herself thinking, I hope things get back to normal and we both survive all this. It would be such a shame to waste all that we’ve learned and all the love we can now share. As had become their standard practice, Edith shared her thoughts with Cyril. He chuckled and said, “I guess that’s no surprise, now that we’ve become closer, ’cause I was thinkin’ the same thing—and, y’know, with the sun shining more and our garden thriving, I think we’re prob’ly gonna make it.”
Cyril’s words proved prophetic: he and Edith got to enjoy another two decades before three quarters of a century of too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt, and not enough physical exercise caused his heart to cease beating after ninety-one years of faithful service. Edith, then not quite eighty-eight, enjoyed her grandchildren for another six-plus years. Both are fondly remembered by those grandchildren and several great-grandchildren and, through many oft-told stories, by Rick’s and Candace’s and Alice’s children.
Educated as a scientist, graduated as a mathematician, Cora Tate has earned her living as a full-time professional entertainer most of her life, including a stint as a regular on the prestigious Grand Ole Opry. Cora’s repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city planner, among other occupations. Cora lives, writes, and continues to improve her dzonkha vocabulary and pronunciation in Bhutan but visits the US, Europe, or Australia to perform and thereby to recharge her bank account. Cora has written five novels, five novellas (of which two have been published), six novelettes (two published, one forthcoming), and about a hundred short stories, of which sixty-eight have been published by seventy-seven literary journals in ten countries.
Photo: Gaspar Uhas/Unsplash