Remembering Beth

Fiction
Sarah Turner


Image of a woman in a knee-length red raincoat and knee-high black boots walking on a rain-slicked sidewalk toward the photographer. A red bag is slung over her right shoulder. Her left hand is tucked into her pocket and her right hand holds the handle of an umbrella. The umbrella, along with the top of her head, is out of frame. Her face is obscured by shadow. The background cityscape includes other people carrying umbrellas on the sidewalk, vehicles including a yellow taxi and white van on the street, and tall buildings on both sides.

Photo Credit: Xiang Chen/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Frank had said it in passing, but I couldn’t let it go. I stood up, paced to the window and said, ‘I don’t think that’s fair. Our mother was very fond of Beth.’ It was an understatement and as soon as I’d said it, I wanted to say more, but my chest was tight with the weight of everything I was feeling about Beth and I was struggling to stay calm. Frank was a stranger, I reminded myself; he had no right to make judgments like this about my family. Besides, it was years since he’d really known Beth. All the same, he had said it with so much authority, I couldn’t shake it off.

He was watching me closely as I turned back and he must have seen the agitation in my face, but he didn’t soften his tone. He said, ‘Fond? Oh yes, I’m sure she was, but one tends to expect more from one’s own mother. Beth did, anyway. She needed more.’

Our eyes met and I wished I hadn’t come to see him. It was too soon after Beth had died. Frank pushed at his glasses, closing his eyes for a second behind them, and focused on me again, rearranging a strand of white hair, as though suddenly conscious that I was watching him.

‘You know, Beth had no confidence when she first got to New York,’ he said. ‘At home, she’d always been the black sheep of the family.’ He had given the phrase ‘black sheep’ an ironic emphasis, suggesting that it was the kind of thing I might say, but that he would not. For a moment, I was almost amused by this assumption, but then it occurred to me that when he talked about Beth to people who knew nothing about us, this was how he would explain it. Beth’s family had been repressive, he would say; we had stifled her.

‘That isn’t true,’ I said. ‘Mum was proud of her. We all were.’

I’d turned to him as I said it, but I looked away almost immediately, because the half-amused, half-saddened smile on his face annoyed me as much as anything he’d said. He was toying with my memories of Beth, making me feel as though I’d hardly known her.

He turned his hand over with a slight yawn, examining the blemishes on it. His face was more angular than it had seemed in Beth’s photographs. He sat back in his chair with his legs crossed and swung one of them forwards from the knee repeatedly. It was the first sign I’d seen that he was not quite relaxed.

‘Oh sure,’ he said. ‘Everyone was proud in the end. But it was different when she was just starting out. She had no self-belief. She would’ve stopped acting altogether, I think, if Lucy hadn’t given her a little confidence.’ His eyes passed over me, to the window. ‘Lucy was a mother to her, as well as a friend.’

‘Beth already had a mother,’ I said.

He didn’t reply immediately. Outside, in the December sunshine, a crow landed on a rooftop with a twig in its beak. I watched as it dropped it and felt for it again. Frank sighed and carried on talking in the room behind me.

Beth had felt like a failure until she was in her mid-twenties, he said. ‘Your mother was so academic. It was important to her. But Beth—she just wasn’t like that.’ He shrugged, explaining that his wife had felt an immediate connection with Beth, that she’d talked to her endlessly, discussing her plans. She, more than anyone Beth had known up to that point, had given her confidence, convincing her that she could become an actress. ‘Helping her was one of the things Lucy was proudest of,’ he said. ‘Beth had so much potential. She just needed someone to unlock it, it had been buried so deep at home.’

All the time he was saying this, I wanted him to stop. He was pushing the past into a shape I didn’t recognise, relentlessly lifting and dropping it like a garden worker turning earth, shaking my sense that I had been close to Beth. I tried to gauge from his face why he was saying these things, but his expression was perfectly composed and I could see no emotion in it. He was talking in a measured way, as if he was listing simple facts. I glanced at the clock and wished again that I hadn’t come.

Ironically, it had been my mother who had asked me to visit Frank while I was in New York and I’d agreed because he’d been so good to Beth. Frank had not been able to come to Beth’s funeral. He had been too fragile, after an operation for prostate cancer, to take a transatlantic flight, but he’d sent a letter that brought Beth back to me more vividly than any of the other cards or notes we’d had at the time. Most of the letters had upset me; it had struck me as peculiar that people should outline Beth’s qualities in them, as though they were trying to justify our grief to us. My sister had died before she was forty. I didn’t need anyone to justify the way I felt.

Frank’s letter had been different: he had not attempted to sum her up, but had simply described his strongest memories of her, beginning with her as a shy young woman meeting him for the first time in their apartment, when she’d come to talk about the nannying job. He had written about her long hair falling over an unbelted raincoat, the mini-dress beneath it, and the sudden, magnetising smile she’d given when his daughter first appeared. He’d described the long conversations she’d had with his wife late in the evenings, after he’d gone to bed, outlined the intense friendship that had developed between them, and then described the first time he’d ever seen her on stage and realised just how talented she was. ‘Hard to believe it about someone you know,’ he had written. ‘But there was no denying it. I miss her. Please look me up next time you’re in New York.’

His letter had been concise but extraordinarily detailed. I’d liked him instantly, on the strength of it, and had looked forward to meeting him. I suppose I’d thought he would reinforce my memories of Beth in some way, or that talking to him would bring me closer to her, giving me access to the years she’d spent here, away from us.

Remembering this now, I softened and said, ‘She enjoyed her time here. It was important to her.’

He nodded, but though he smiled briefly, the expression was quickly replaced by a thoughtful severity. ‘It was very important, I think, because it was so good for her. She started to develop here—it was like she hadn’t been allowed to before. My wife understood Beth so much more clearly than her own mother had.’

My heart beat faster—my mother had adored Beth—and when I looked down at my hand, I saw that it was clenched. I let my nails dig deeper into my palm and deliberately calmed my tone,

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ I said. ‘My parents wanted Beth to get some qualifications so she’d have something to fall back on, but really, it was just accepted: she wanted to be an actress and we all knew she would. No one tried to hold her back.’

He didn’t seem to have taken this in; he was nodding as I said it, but rather distantly, looking at the light that was flooding in through the upper panes of the window.

‘Oh, I’m sure you’re right,’ he said eventually, in a remote, distracted way. ‘In retrospect it must seem like that. But at the time it was different. Beth was always negatively compared to you. She had very little confidence when she first arrived.’

He had looped back to the beginning of our conversation, repeating what he had said then almost word for word, as though he had taken in none of what I’d told him. His certainty about my family annoyed me. Beth and I had been close, and I knew she hadn’t come to America to run away, so much as for the opportunities she’d thought she might have here. Her letters and calls from that time were energetic and enthused. Just before she’d left for New York she’d been excited, blissfully optimistic, planning it all out in the kitchen with my mother. She would attend acting classes here, get to know people who could help her. All of us had gone out of our way to help her prepare.

I told Frank some of this, and he explained, in his careful, roundabout way, that it couldn’t be true, and we went on like this for another ten minutes, both of us eager not just to make our point, but actually to make the other admit that they were wrong, until I gave up and, in a depressed attempt to change the subject, asked him how his own children were. He glanced at me and hesitated. For a moment, I thought he was so determined to talk about Beth that he wouldn’t let himself be diverted, but then he shifted in his chair, shrugged, and began to tell me about his daughter, who was an attorney in Washington, and his son, who worked for a magazine downtown.

It was difficult for me to focus; I was still distracted by what he’d said about Beth. I thought of my mother holding my arm at Beth’s funeral as we followed the coffin into the church, her lips pursed, and her eyes entirely blank. Nothing any of us could say could help her. Her own brother had been killed during the Second World War, and when they’d received the news, in the tiny Northumbrian village where they lived, her mother had pushed her arm away as she’d tried to comfort her and flatly said,

‘I have nothing to live for now.’

It had been the largest, most devastating rejection of my mother’s life, and she didn’t repeat those words to any of us as we walked into the church, but I thought that perhaps she’d understood them for the first time: they were there in her eyes and in her shattered face.

Frank couldn’t have talked like this if he’d seen her then, I thought, but he hadn’t come to the funeral—he’d only seen her composed, punctual reply to his letter. It had been restrained and dignified, but I suspected that he’d seen only coldness in it, a lack of feeling that confirmed everything his wife had told him.

I wanted him to stop talking, so that I could begin the story with him again and make him see how loved Beth had been, but I couldn’t find a way to start, and I knew I wouldn’t convince him, in any case. He was saying that his son came over to see him often, that his children were a comfort to him, now that his wife had died. I said again how sorry we had been to hear that news. It was a little more than five years since it had happened. Beth had been extremely upset. He nodded, rubbing his left eye with a finger beneath his spectacles and glanced past me, at the window again.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well, there we have it. We’ve both been through it.’

I recognised the sparseness of his reply. He was shutting himself off just as I had done after Beth had died, when what I’d felt had been so devastating and at the same time so commonplace, that I hadn’t found a way to discuss it with anyone.

We sat facing each other for several minutes without speaking. Eventually, he asked whether I’d like more coffee, and then said, tentatively, as though he was suddenly conscious of the tension between us,

‘I have some photos—of her time here. I don’t know if you’d like to see them?’

It was the kind of thing I’d hoped for when I’d first called him. ‘I’d love to,’ I said.

Frank disappeared into a room off the hall, closing the door behind him. When he came out, he was carrying three photograph albums and he gestured towards the sofa, indicating that I should join him there. As he lifted the cover of the first album, I was almost nervous. I suppose I was afraid that I might cry. I bit the inside of my cheek, hard.

He showed me all the photos quickly, starting with the early ones of his children before Beth arrived—the little girl already walking, the boy wrapped in blankets in his mother’s arms—but didn’t comment on them, glancing down at the pages with a self-conscious detachment, as though these photos had very little to do with him. I wondered briefly whether that was how it seemed to him. Beth had given me the impression that he’d seen very little of his children when they were small, and I was careful, as he turned the pages, not to ask anything that might hurt him, now that his wife had died, or remind him of things he would rather forget.

‘Ah, here we are,’ he said. ‘This was Central Park, and quite early on. Look, you can see she’s still wearing English clothes.’ It wasn’t clear to me how he knew they were British—she was in a skirt and boots that could have come from anywhere—but I let it pass. Beth’s front foot was angled sideways in front of her. Her hair was down across her shoulders and the big smile on her face was for Nicole, who was waving at her from the top of a climbing frame.

It was some time since I’d seen a photo of Beth at this age, and the excited rush of recognition it brought back to me was quickly followed by sadness. There were more photos of her with the children; one of her looking serious, painting with Nicole at a small easel, and one of her sitting reading on a bed with both children. They were leaning against her, laughing. He paused at a photo of Beth and an older woman sitting in deckchairs amongst pots of geraniums, staring at it for several seconds before he could go on.

‘That’s Lucy—on the roof of the apartment we had then. They used to sit out there a lot after the kids had gone to bed. That would’ve been the first summer Beth was here. I was working a lot at that time.’

I scanned the photo several times. Lucy had short, very dark hair. She was in a knee-length skirt and sandals with a cigarette raised to her mouth, frowning at the camera. Beside her, Beth had been unexpectedly disturbed in conversation. I’d forgotten how she’d moved her hand like that to make a point at that age; it was a gesture she’d had for a while, and then discarded. She looked happy. I looked at her face for some time, trying to work out what she’d been feeling, and why she’d talked about her family in the way she had.

I’d seen very little of Beth while she’d been away. The first year she was in America she’d come back twice, once at Christmas, and again in July, but I’d been away myself in the summer, and in the second year I hadn’t seen her at all. She’d seemed different when she’d moved back, it was true—more determined, more sure of herself—and I wondered, thinking about what Frank had said, whether there had also been a new absence in her.

Coming home had marked the beginning of her success as an actress, and I wondered for the first time now whether she’d had to make some sort of mental break with us in order for that to happen. I hadn’t been conscious of her doing that at the time, and I stalled on that fact, not letting myself think further. I looked at her face again, and turned the page quickly, but though I sat with Frank for another half an hour and though the conversation moved on to other subjects, I couldn’t stop thinking about Beth.

As we talked, I told myself that he was wrong, that all of us had been close to Beth, but as long as I knew he thought otherwise, I couldn’t convince myself that it was true. Even as I left I was regretting the fact that I hadn’t been able to make him admit he was wrong. I walked across Lexington and Fifth avenues to the park preoccupied, wanting, in short, angry bursts, to go back to his apartment and make him go through it all again.

The morning frost had melted in a bright sunshine and the streets were full of people. I threaded my way amongst them, waiting at the edges of pavements for the lights to change, but I barely saw anything; my mind was still on Beth. When I got to the park I walked for a long time, moving quickly until, circling back towards the lake, I remembered that Beth had walked here often, and a sudden, vivid, memory of her as she’d been then made me feel calmer.

The lake was empty and very still. There were leaves on its surface and here and there, around the edges, there were patches of ice. I climbed onto a rock next to it, looking across at the buildings opposite, trying to work out why I was in this state.

I stood still, wanting to deal with this easily. I reminded myself that Frank was still grieving, too. It was important to him to preserve his memories of his wife, important to believe she’d helped Beth more than anyone else, but it seemed to me that Frank had distorted my memories of Beth, pushing her further away from me. He’d raised issues Beth and I could never resolve. I wished I could forget everything he’d said.

I went on for a long time, until I had circled the lake completely, and was walking south, past the horse carriages and the hotels by the time I realised that thinking like this had unleashed something in me and I was remembering Beth more clearly than I had for some time. Incidents I thought I’d forgotten were flooding back to me now, and they made her seem fuller, more real, than she had since she’d died.

At the skating rink, small groups of people were circling the ice. I stood in the sunshine, where it was warm, watching them, focusing especially on two little girls in matching hats and scarves who were holding hands, laughing together at something one of them had said. It didn’t seem long since Beth and I had been that age. I stood watching the skaters until long after the girls had gone, thinking about Beth—the whole of Beth—and piecing my memories of her together again.

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Sarah Turner studied English at the University of Oxford and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is working on her first novel, This Is Not a Confession. Email: sarahturnerfiction[at]gmail.com

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