‘The Light of Day’ by Becky Tipper
Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Light of Day’ by Becky Tipper.
“It keeps startling Evelyn – the fact that she’s really here. For a second, she’ll forget where she is, but then she’ll catch something sweet and bitter in the air, or notice the brilliance in the light, and remember that she’s abroad.”
Becky Tipper was born in the West Midlands and currently lives with her family in the United States. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies and have won the Bridport Prize and a Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Award. She reviews short fiction - and is Reviews Editor - at the online literary magazine The Short Story. beckytipper.com
The Light of Day
It keeps startling Evelyn – the fact that she’s really here. For a second, she’ll forget where she is, but then she’ll catch something sweet and bitter in the air, or notice the brilliance in the light, and remember that she’s abroad.
Hard to believe that only the day before yesterday she was at the market in West Brom, getting sun-cream and some sweets for the flight. She remembers how the man asked if she was off somewhere nice and was astonished when she told him. ‘Americker?!’ he said. ‘All right for some!’
It was one of those blustery, changeable days with the wind chasing the clouds across the sky like a film on fast-forward. Lovely one minute, dark and ominous the next – she’d put her washing out before she got the bus into town and then fretted about it the whole time she was out.
‘Cor mek up its mind today, eh?’ the market man said, glancing up at the sky. ‘Well, I bet yow’ll have some nice weather in Texas, wo’ ya?’
He was right; it’s been glorious so far. And over here, of course, there’s no question about what the weather’s going to do next – its mind is clearly made up. Even when she set out from the hotel first thing this morning, the pavements were already white-hot, the sky assertively, undeniably blue.
It’s funny, then, that indoors it’s so chilly. In the diner, the bright light streams through the windows but overhead the ceiling fans are whipping up a frenzied breeze, and under the table an air conditioner is pumping frigid air onto her bare legs.
Although, Evelyn thinks, things do seem to be that way here – a peculiar mix of opposites. The massive cars and the city skyscrapers are practically futuristic, but then the odd little plug sockets with no off-switch seem so old-fashioned. Even the brown plastic water beakers on the table are straight out of the 1970s.
She sips iced water from a beaker, and watches as the waitress squeezes behind a man whose chair is pushed out two feet from the table to accommodate his belly.
She’d expected people would be heavy, of course, although she’s been surprised at quite how big some of them are. Bigger even than Pam over-the-road who was once in one of those clips on the news about the obesity crisis. (Pam had been filmed, unawares, as she walked through the Bull Ring – just her middle of course, and not her face – but when it was on the telly, everyone who knew Pam recognised her immediately by her clothes. Pam was beside herself.)
Evelyn feels a bit out of place all on her own, although she’s also glad Neil’s not here yet. She’s grateful for a moment to gather her thoughts. In truth, she’s quite nervous – it feels almost like a date, although of course it’s not. And it’s been donkey’s years since she did anything like that. But then it does seem lately that she’s been going back to all sorts of things she hasn’t done for ages. Almost as if she’s picking up her life where she left off.
She’d been afraid that it would leave her at sea, being without her mom for the first time in her life. Sixty-seven years together, and for the last twenty of those Mom couldn’t be left for a minute. Eventually, they even slept in the same room, in case Mom needed anything in the night.
She has grieved of course – cried her eyes out when her mother finally went. But, although she can barely say it to herself, as much as anything she’s felt relieved. As if she’s just come out of a long, dark tunnel. And in any case she’s been so busy she hasn’t had time to dwell on it. Already, she’s moved into a new place of her own and, for the first time in years, she’s been away; just since Christmas she’s gone on a couple of package holidays to Spain and Portugal with an old work friend and had a trip up to Scotland with her neighbour. And there’s been time to take up hobbies, like looking into the family history, which of course is why she’s here at all.
It couldn’t be more different from those days stuck in the house with her mom – almost idle but never a moment’s rest either, when Evelyn hardly ever got out on her own apart from the shopping. It’s taken a little getting used to, though. She remembers when the chance to go to America came up, it was incredible to realise that she could actually say ‘yes’. That she could, if she wanted, just get up and go.
The waitress comes over with a menu and asks if Evelyn wants coffee, a pot poised in her hand. And Evelyn explains that she’s meeting someone, but yes, why not, she’ll have one while she waits.
As she empties a little carton of cream into the cup, it occurs to Evelyn that she has no idea how she’ll recognise Neil when he gets here. Only that she had a half-formed thought that she’d somehow just know because he’s her cousin. And she might, of course, see their grandparents in him, or his mother Amy – her mom’s sister who left for America when Evelyn was eight and who they never saw again. Which, she thinks, was how people used to emigrate, isn’t it? Maybe a letter once in a while, but most likely that was the last you’d see of them.
Evelyn has always known that Neil existed, but she’s never met him. And after Amy died – years ago now – they’d not heard a thing from anyone in America, until a couple of months ago when Neil found Evelyn on the family history website and got in touch.
She’s enjoyed their emails – Neil knows lots of family names and dates, but she’s been able to tell him little details. She’s told him about their grandparents who he never met – their mothers’ mom and dad. And how their grandparents, and later their moms, were all at Albright and Wilson, the chemical works. That the area’s called the Black Country because of all the industry, although a lot of it’s gone. How people say ‘mom’ not ‘mum’ round there – just like the Americans – and call everyone ‘bab’.
Because of the name, they’ve talked a lot about their grandfather Cornelius. Their grandad used to go by ‘Con’, but Neil’s found his own way to shorten it. She can understand – it’s probably too much to call yourself Cornelius every day, to carry yourself about in a cumbersome name like that. A name like heavy, carved furniture that you could never shift or properly dust. Not that her own is much different, of course –she’s come to peace with it now, but as a girl she’d have done anything to be called something ordinary, like Sue or Linda.
In the emails, Neil mentioned that the actor Chevy Chase’s real name is Cornelius, and that there was a Victorian billionaire called Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Trump of his day, Neil said, and Evelyn had almost asked him then what he made of Trump, but thought better of it. It’s the kind of thing you don’t want to get into until you know people a bit, she thinks. Like Brexit. (Evelyn voted ‘leave’ herself, in the end, but she’s had some rather heated conversations with Pam over-the-road about that.) So instead she just said, in the emails, that she’d never realised that Americans said ‘named for’ instead of ‘named after’.
She’s brought some photos to show Neil – she even managed to dig out one of their Grandad Con. It’s bleached and crumpled, but you can just about make out his face, more serious than she remembers him. It’s so old, though, from such another time, that it’s hard to believe she ever actually knew him. Evelyn shuffles her photos into a neat pile and gazes out the window.
Outside the diner there’s the same spiky grass that she saw at her hotel, thick and plasticky, and the bright pink flowers she’s seen everywhere. She thinks perhaps they’re oleanders, but a lot of the plants and animals here are new to her. This morning, before she got the bus, she walked around the hotel grounds and basked in the early warmth of the bright, sure-footed day, until a sudden flurry of black birds abruptly shattered the peace – a cloud of wild, raucous creatures that set about roosting and shrieking in the trees. When she mentioned it afterwards to the lady at reception, she learned the birds were grackles. What a lovely word, Evelyn said to the lady, savouring the sound of it. Cackling, demonic grackles.
The hotel, of course, has been something of a surprise. It’s posher than anything she’d ever have booked for herself, but then again, she isn’t paying for it.
Neil said it was the least he could do after that little mix-up.
She hasn’t actually told anyone back home what happened – how Neil had been so encouraging in the emails (‘Come and see us! It’ll be a mini family reunion!’ he’d said) and like an idiot she’d taken the plunge and just booked a plane ticket one day, thinking all the time that he meant he’d put her up. But when she emailed and told him her flight times and thanked him for his hospitality and said she was excited to see his house, she was horribly embarrassed to realise that he hadn’t, in fact, been inviting her to stay with him.
Perhaps it’s fair enough. After all, he doesn’t know her from Adam. It was obvious he felt awful and wanted to make it up to her, so he said the hotel was on him – his treat. He had some points on his credit card he’d use, he said. No trouble at all.
And of course, the hotel is lovely and it’s right in town. Although she thinks now that it would have made sense for them to meet there, wouldn’t it? Or that he might at least have suggested they meet somewhere nearby, instead of making her come all the way out here.
It was quite a journey, too. She had to leave early to get the bus – it went from outside her hotel right to the diner, but it took absolutely ages. Although it’s dawning on her that buses are different over here. People are funny about them for a start – the receptionist at the hotel was horrified that Evelyn was even thinking of getting a bus and tried to call a taxi for her instead. Neil was the same when she mentioned it in an email. But it seemed straightforward enough – Evelyn had looked it all up and planned it out and felt quite pleased with herself.
In the event, the bus was actually a bit strange. Evelyn couldn’t help but notice how most of the passengers were black, even though in the city she’d seen a wide mix of people. One or two of the passengers were talking to themselves, and there was one massive chap in an electric wheelchair all decorated with cuddly toys and little flags.
Once the bus started to move, she’d felt uncertain for a moment and turned and asked the man beside her if it was definitely going where she needed to go. But then someone recognised her accent and there was a ripple of excitement amongst all the passengers – several people craned around to ask her, fascinated, if she really was British, and the two women in front of her burst into laughter every time she spoke. Several people took it upon themselves to call out when the bus finally reached her stop – an unremarkable cluster of shops at the side of the busy dual carriageway – and to point out the diner itself, which was tucked between a nail salon and a Chinese restaurant.
As she got off, she could see some kind of commotion near the shops, although she didn’t understand, at first, what was going on.
A small crowd of people had gathered outside what looked to be a clinic. She could see a family holding hands, the mother and daughters in long skirts and headscarves, and several people with signs. Either side of the door were two stony-faced women in pink tabards.
A man was wheeling a cart along towards the crowd. It was an old-fashioned handcart that reminded Evelyn of something you might have sold fruit and veg from at a market, except it was covered with a hodgepodge of pictures and posters. She realised, from the signs, that the pictures were supposed to be babies, but you’d hardly have known – all she could make out was a sense of flesh and the blood-shimmer of them, like meat. The man parked his cart a little distance from the other people and began to read from a bible, his voice loud and undulating.
‘For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb,’ he cried with the musical rise and fall of a preacher. ‘I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made! Your works are wonderful! Praise the Lord!’
A woman walked past, holding her son by the hand, and shaking her head as she took in the man and his cart. (And Evelyn thought to herself, how do you explain to a child what all that’s about? Worse, surely, than explaining any other sadness or horror. Perhaps because for a child it’s not so long ago that they themselves were not-yet-born; because it seems as if they might even remember what that was like.)
Evelyn watched as the woman pulled her little boy close and shouted over to the man with his cart, ‘You’re sick, you know that? Jesus thinks you’re vile. Ain’t no Jesus in what you’re selling.’
But the man didn’t even seem to notice. He just clutched his bible to his chest, closed his eyes, and continued shouting from memory, ‘Lord, I was woven in the depths of the earth and your eyes saw my unformed body! You saw me, Lord!’
Neil’s half an hour late now.
She looks at the menu again. It’s all eggs and she’s not really a fan of eggs. One of the omelettes even has chicken in it, which doesn’t seem right at all. In any case, it seems to her that an omelette’s something you’d have for tea, not breakfast.
The waitress refills her coffee and Evelyn apologises for sitting here so long.
She’s not brought it up, but she imagines Neil must know about the other Cornelius – the baby Mom had, the older brother Evelyn never knew. It would have shown up on the family tree websites because he had a birth certificate, even though he only lived a few weeks. A little baby with that same old-man name.
Evelyn’s mom didn’t speak about it often. But every now and then she’d bring it up, as if it were a precious thing wrapped in tissue paper and kept at the back of a cupboard, which you’d pull out from time to time to look at. Each time, her mom would say the same things: that the health visitor had said a fly must have landed on the baby’s bottle and laid its eggs and that was why he’d got poorly. Barely saw the light of day, her mom would say. And then her mother would put the story away until she needed to remember it again, to remind herself that those things had once happened.
Towards the end, Evelyn’s mom began to talk a lot about people who were long gone – Evelyn’s dad, Mom’s own parents, Aunty Amy. And the baby. Sometimes she was so mithered that she’d start to heft herself up out of bed to look for him – ‘I must check on the babby, he’s been so poorly’– and Evelyn would have to settle her back down and tell her that everything was all right, that she didn’t need to worry about the baby anymore.
In a funny way, that’s all part of the reason she started to look into the family history. She remembers how after Mom died, it seemed suddenly very important that someone should write everything down, once and for all. Record all the people who had come and gone.
Although, truth be told, she hasn’t gone very far back with it. She’s looked up her mom and dad and all their brothers and sisters, and all her grandparents’ full names and dates, and she’s stopped there. Neil loves to go on about how he’s found people going back to the seventeen-hundreds, but she’s satisfied with her little list. It feels neat and tidy. Somehow reassuring. And she knows something about each of those people, even if it’s only small: that Grandad Con was never the same after the war, that Aunty Amy left and never looked back, that the baby barely saw the light of day.
And it’s strange, she thinks, that Neil exists here with that same name, while her brother isn’t anywhere at all. She wonders what her brother would have called himself – how he would have lived with that clunky old name.
It always hung over her, Mom’s story. And, although it wasn’t why Evelyn never had children, perhaps it did make her afraid to open herself up. Maybe it made her too aware of all the risks and the griefs. And perhaps, too, her mom clung a little tighter to Evelyn than she would have otherwise, especially after Evelyn’s dad died so young too. And when her dad died right at the same time that things fell through with her own chap, it seemed only natural that Evelyn would stay with her mom.
She doesn’t think about him often, her chap. He married a girl from his work in the end, and they seemed happy enough. For a while, Evelyn would see him in town now and then, and they’d say hello as if nothing had happened, as if they’d never made all those plans that had fallen through. And it strikes her what a funny phrase that is – as if the thing you’d planned for just dropped through a trap-door before you could grasp hold of it. As if it still exists, gathering dust somewhere, even though you can never reach it.
In any case, that’s how it turned out, and before she knew it she was in her forties, and Mom went downhill so quickly that Evelyn had to stop working to care for her, and never quite got started on her own life. And like the people on her list, if there’s a little tagline that sums everyone up, that would be hers, wouldn’t it? People even said it sometimes, admiring and sad, that Evelyn’s never had a life of her own.
She catches herself, almost saying all of this aloud, as if she’s rehearsing it. Which, she supposes, she is. After all, she doesn’t meet that many people nowadays who require a potted history of her life, who you have to explain yourself to. It’s not exactly a pleasant feeling, either, she thinks. To see all your time, all your decisions laid out like that.
The waitress is back at Evelyn’s table. ‘Are you ready to order?’
Evelyn’s conscious that she probably should – she’s been sitting here for forty-five minutes now. And, anyway, Neil can get something when he comes, can’t he? She hesitates over the menu and then orders an omelette after all.
‘What kind of toast?’ asks the waitress.
‘Oh,’ Evelyn says. ‘I didn’t see it came with toast. Brown I think, yes.’
The waitress looks baffled. ‘Sure, we can brown it for you, but what kind?’
They stumble over their mutual confusion for what seems a long time until the waitress says, exasperated, ‘What kind of bread? White, rye, whole wheat, honey oat, multigrain?’ She speaks slowly and loudly as if Evelyn doesn’t understand English. She takes the menu from Evelyn’s hand and points to it impatiently, ‘Here’s the breads we have.’
Evelyn says, ‘Oh whole wheat I suppose I mean, then. We call it brown, you see.’
The waitress doesn’t reply. Evelyn asks her if they have the internet, so she can check her email and see if Neil’s been in touch. The waitress points to the Wi-Fi password taped to a revolving glass case of pies near the counter.
Evelyn knew she wouldn’t be able to use her phone as a phone here. But it works fine for checking her emails. She opens it up and is glad to see there’s a message from Neil.
He’s very sorry, the email says, but something has come up and he can’t make it today. Evelyn can see he sent the message ten minutes before they were due to meet. What’s the point in that? she thinks. No time for her to make other arrangements if she’d wanted to. Let’s do it in the next couple of days, he says. And drop me a line so I know you’ve gotten this.
Evelyn doesn’t reply. She shuts off her phone and sets it on the table.
She starts to feel slightly shaky and it strikes her that coming here all on her own has possibly been a bit daft. That this is nothing like the package holidays.
She bends down to put her phone back into her handbag that’s tucked under the chair. And as she straightens up she becomes aware that the woman at the next table is looking at her.
The woman must be close to Evelyn’s age, but she has her grey hair in a long plait like a little girl. The waitress glides past and refills the woman’s coffee, and the woman catches Evelyn’s eye. ‘I heard your accent,’ the woman says. ‘Are you visiting from England?’
‘Yes,’ says Evelyn.
‘Oh, I love England!’ says the woman. Then she leans in, clearly settling down to talk, and Evelyn feels lighter at once. She’s been quite alone these last two days, and so concerned with the weight of the past that it’s a relief to chat about ordinary things with a stranger, like where they’re from and where you’re from.
‘Where in England are you from?’ asks the woman, smiling and wide-eyed.
Evelyn tells her, from near Birmingham, which she pronounces Birming-um.
‘Birming-he-am?’ the woman repeats, almost as if she’s correcting Evelyn. ‘Now, where’s that?’
‘In the West Midlands,’ says Evelyn. The woman looks blank. ‘The middle of the country really. And you, are you from here?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m from here,’ the woman says, but it’s evident that here isn’t what she wants to talk about. ‘You see, I lived in London for two years, back in – oh, it must have been 1980 to 1982. Well, I say London, but we lived in Surrey, so just outside. We’d go into the city on the underground – the tube.’ She laughs. ‘The tyoob, as you say.’
‘Oh, lovely. I can’t say as I know London. Were you there for work?’
‘My husband was. Oh yes, I just loved England. I didn’t have a job myself, so I stayed home with my son. He even started school there, in fact. And, my goodness, it rained all the time! I couldn’t believe how much it rained. We’d go out walking, always with our umbrellas!’ The woman laughs brightly as if umbrellas are ridiculous things that belong to another time and place. ‘What do you call them? “Brollies”?’
‘Yes, and we’d go to the park and feed ducks, and he’d splash in the puddles. He even started to talk like a little English boy! “Mummy” he’d call me.’
‘We say “mom” where I’m from, actually. Like you.’
‘Is that so?’ The woman smiles and gazes over Evelyn’s shoulder.
Evelyn thinks of the woman’s son – a middle-aged American man now, of course – who used to skip about in the English rain and who once called his mother ‘Mummy’. And she wonders what he makes of all that now, or if he even remembers. ‘Where does your son live?’ she asks.
The woman smiles oddly. ‘Oh, unfortunately he passed, my son – when he was five.’
The fact is like a violence and Evelyn has no idea what to say.
‘We were there, in London, when it happened.’
The woman looks at Evelyn, frank and unflinching, and it’s more than Evelyn can bear.
‘I’m so sorry. So sorry for you.’
‘Oh, no. Don’t be sorry, honey. It was a long time ago.’
And for an absurd moment, Evelyn thinks that perhaps she’s conjured this woman into existence by thinking so much about her own brother who didn’t live, or that the woman has shared her story because she somehow sensed what was on Evelyn’s mind.
‘I like to speak about it,’ the woman says. ‘Remember those times.’
The waitress brings the woman’s bill and the woman is silent for a moment while she counts out her money.
Evelyn wants to say that her mom grieved for a lost child too, and that it was her cousin who shares that baby’s name that she was going to meet today. But when the woman looks up again, she has an expression of almost maniacal happiness and Evelyn sees she has no need of comfort or sympathy. No need to find sameness in her tragedy.
They chat a little longer and then the woman stands up and says she hopes Evelyn has a good vacation.
She walks over and shakes Evelyn’s hand. Goodbye, she says. Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you too, says Evelyn.
Evelyn picks at her omelette but she doesn’t really feel like it anymore. She pays, and leaves what she hopes is enough of a tip. The first night at the hotel, she had a bite to eat in the bar and left a dollar like you might leave a pound, but then the waiter rushed after her and blocked her way out, asking was everything all right with her meal, all shirty as if she’d been terribly rude to him.
Outside, the sun is high. The people from the clinic have left and there’s no sound except for the whizz of traffic. The sunlight bounces so brightly off the passing cars that if Evelyn looks at them she feels she’s been dazzled by a camera flash.
On the way here, the bus dropped her on this side of the road, but she needs to cross over to go back towards the city centre. She can’t see yet where the crossing is, but she starts off along the pavement, leaving the little cluster of shops behind her. The light is relentless, and she wishes there was a bit of shade, but the pavement is bordered by a wide, flat car park, and there’s not a tree to be seen.
As she walks, she thinks about the woman in the café and her sad, sudden story. And how, at the very end, the woman said casually, ‘Do you have children yourself?’
People do ask her that from time to time, of course. And for years, whenever the question comes up, Evelyn has always said that her mom’s been like her baby. That she poured all that love back to her mother instead of having her own family.
But today, for the first time, that seemed an absurd thing to say.
‘No,’ she said to the woman. ‘No, I don’t. I suppose it just didn’t happen for me.’
She can actually see the bus stop she needs on the other side.
There’s a man waiting there – there doesn’t seem to be any pavement, so he’s standing on a patch of dry, dead grass in front of a brightly painted Mexican restaurant. But although she can see the stop, she can’t for the life of her work out where she should cross – there’s no pedestrian crossing in sight. But there must be one somewhere, mustn’t there?
She could go back and ask inside the diner, although most likely they’d tell her to get a taxi instead. She wishes she could ask the man at the bus stop – shout across and ask how she might get over there too. But it’s too far and there are two lanes of traffic going each way.
No way you could even make yourself heard.
A panic starts to rise in her, fills her head with blood and tightens her chest so that she can’t quite catch her breath. She closes her eyes for a second against the heat and the dazzle of the cars. And in that blink of darkness, the world shut out, she sees herself suddenly as someone else might see her: a silly old woman standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, reckless and ridiculous.
It dawns on her what she has to do: as soon as she gets back to the hotel, she’ll phone and see if she can change her flight and go home early. Perhaps she can even get back tomorrow. It’s clear as day and she can’t believe she didn’t see it before – that coming here was absolutely bloody stupid.
Something she might have done years ago. But not now.
If there was someone else out here, she could ask them how to get over to the other side of the road. Apart from the cars, though, the place is deserted. Evelyn peers ahead along the pavement, covering her eyes with her hand and squinting against the sun, but there’s no one at all.
She can see quite clearly she’s alone.
She turns around and looks back to see if anyone’s coming up behind her, but there’s no one there either.