A Fish Without a Bicycle*
"Ridge, Ridge don't tell me Geraldine never told you. The twins aren't yours; they're the love children of her and …"
One afternoon Marilla Cuthbert was knitting in her warm kitchen a cold cup of coffee by her side, the flood of mellow June sunlight dancing over the scuffed mossy green linoleum floor. She'd rushed to town that morning to buy the week's groceries and had made sure she returned home in time for her show. A semi-frozen chicken lay wrapped in the refrigerator, ready to be thawed in the microwave; that and a can of mushroom soup on the green Formica countertop would be the main ingredients of that night's dinner. It was no work to assemble and pop the dish into the oven**. Matthew would be pleased, chicken a la king was his favourite.
Marilla was intently listening to her favourite radio play The Young and The Irritable, frowning at the poor grammar; better for the big reveal she supposed, even if the syntax was wanting. She'd followed the show for years, kidding herself that it was a step up from watching soapies on the television; ever since she'd inadvertently overheard a plot twist whilst looking for the news one Tuesday afternoon years earlier, namely the uncertain parentage of the aforementioned twins. It was nonsense really, she reminded herself as she turned on the dial every Tuesday; but it kept her entertained on those quiet afternoons when nothing much else was happening. With Anne off to Redmond and Matthew pottering about in the fields; a woman could get mighty lonely hereabouts.
She'd stared in the mirror earlier that morning angling it away from the dawn sunlight slanting in through the window. Blonde dye fading from her long grey hair. Stroking her cheeks, she examined herself intently before putting her glasses on for a closer look, was that another wrinkle? She stroked the laughter lines by her right eye. She was getting old; was old. Dressed in a sleeveless faded denim dress, a string of Indian beads around her neck and old leather sandals, Marilla's bare legs and tanned arms were peeling a little where she had gotten sunburnt the week before, she rubbed some Nivea onto her skin. She wore her hair in a plait today on account of the heat though often left it brushed out, proud of its length.
Now glancing down at her chest she wondered if she had made a mistake. She had stared for a long while at her bra that morning, had even taken it in her hands, but the expected warmth forced her hand and she had left it in the drawer. If Matthew noticed her sagging chest, he made no comment over his breakfast muesli. Her mother always nagged her about her appearance, but she was the product of a different generation bless her soul. Their parents had passed a few years back and while it had been their time, she missed them. Matthew was slow and steady and not much company of an evening. Thank goodness for the radio, without it Green Gables would be exceedingly quiet.
Matthew had grumbled about the milking machine that morning, it wasn't working properly. Marilla sighed, that would be a day's work lost as he tried to mend it. She hoped it was repairable, they could hardly afford a new one or to get a mechanic over to fix it. Still he was pretty handy, she was quite sure he would get it sorted. Of course time was a factor, it had to be ready by that night's milking. Lord knew she didn't want to spend hours hand milking upset cows.
"What are you implying?" Ridge interrupted. Anything to drag the denouement out thought Marilla wearily, c'mon get on with it. Finally, it appeared as if her years of patient listening was going to pay off as the climax of the radio story line approached. She stopped knitting, waiting for Ridge's reaction to the information. He should have known, the twins had bright red hair so different to his own black curls and strangely similar to the hair his neighbour sported; a point they made often enough down the years. Not only was Ridge cuckolded, Marilla mused, he was as dense as two planks. Honestly, he was so dim he deserved to be deceived.
"Yes, it's true they're really…" Just at that moment on the edge of her hearing another noise barged in, the familiar rattle of her neighbour Rachel Lynde's old Dodge truck. Rachel had pleaded with her husband Thomas to replace the truck on many occasions, but he always refused saying, "why would I waste money on a lousy woman driver?" The upshot was that its rattily engine always announced Rachel's arrival; on the days she reached her destination at all. Many was the time she had to leave it on the side of the road after it had conked out. Thankfully Marilla lived just up the road a piece, a trip the Dodge usually managed without a hitch.
Something that for lack of any other name might be called friendship existed and always had existed between Marilla Cuthbert and Mrs Rachel, in spite of – or perhaps because of – their dissimilarity. Where Marilla was quiet and, some might say unkindly, skinny; Rachel was Rubenesque and chatty, yet despite their differences they remained good chums.
Blast, Marilla thought rolling her eyes, talk about rotten timing. She tried to tune back into the radio show, but she had missed his initial reaction and now the ever-stupid Ridge was voicing his incredulity. Surely his wife Geraldine would never behave in that manner, "she could never be unfaithful," he said plaintively. Oh, for goodness sake, Marilla thought as she switched the radio off and headed out the front door. Still shaking her head, she watched as Rachel drove her truck up the driveway, red gravel scattering under the wheels.
Her thoughts swiftly left the machinations of Ridge and Geraldine as Rachel slowly emerged from the truck wincing as if in pain. As much as she tried, there was no ignoring the fresh black eye she exhibited, nor her fat lip. "Oh, my dear," Marilla blurted. She ran swiftly over to her friend reaching her arms out, Rachel speechlessly burrowed her head into her shoulder. Marilla hugged Rachel's waist gently as she led her inside.
Sitting her friend down at the kitchen table, Marilla rummaged in the icebox for the steak set by for another night. Once she located it, she wrapped it in a wash cloth and handed it over. Rachel received it gratefully and put the cold meat up to her eye. They sat at the kitchen table together, Rachel holding the steak to her face with her right hand, Marilla clasping her left. It was not the first time, nor she suspected the last, but she would always support her friend.
"You fink I'm a thool," Rachel eventually said around her swelling lip, unsuccessfully trying to wipe the drool spilling down her split lip.
"No, I don't think you're a fool. I think you're trapped," Marilla replied grimly, fetching a hanky and wiping Rachel's chin for her.
Rachel lowered the steak and looked at Marilla through her rapidly closing eye. "You fink I thould leave him." Gingerly she felt around her mouth with her tongue, had she lost a tooth? The way she lisped made her suspect as much; to her relief they were all still in situ.
"Shh, shh," Marilla placated.
Leaving Thomas was not an option, not if Rachel wanted to see her kids again. Rachel knew it and what's more Thomas used it to his advantage. Marilla didn't even bother asking what had set him off. It could be any one of a number of minor infractions. Perhaps Rachel had appeared less enthusiastic about his approaches, perhaps a child had misbehaved, perhaps there was a speck of dust on the floor? It didn't take much provocation for his fists to fly.
Marilla had known Thomas for many years and hated him with a vengeance. The man was a narcissist who loved nothing more than belittling his wife. As far as Marilla could make out, he didn't even like children all that much; what he did like was the hold it gave him over her. So long as Rachel loved those children, and until the law changed, she was stuck with him.
Rachel and Thomas had married many years before. He had been charming while they dated and shortly after they married, but his mean spiritedness had become apparent shortly thereafter. Several children followed in short order. Marilla, whom love had left behind, watched on from afar silently envious. But as Rachel churned out baby after baby every eighteen months or so; her envy turned to pity. It was obvious after about the fourth that Rachel had little say in the matter. A vehemently religious man, Thomas Lynde believed the will of God should not be denied when it came to procreation and resolutely refused to use any form of contraception. After lifetime of farming he was a strong man with wide shoulders and big biceps. Some might call him handsome with his bright blue eyes and strong jawline, but Marilla could not see past the violence he exhibited towards his wife.
Marilla stood up and walked over to the bureau in the sitting room. When she returned, she placed a pack of cigarettes on the table and took two out. Balancing one on her bottom lip, she lit her lighter and then the cigarette, holding it between her two fingers she sucked briefly to get the tobacco to glow. This first one she delicately plucked from her mouth and placed in Rachel's. Rachel lopsidedly smiled her thanks and said thickly, "Thomas doesn't approve you know." To which Marilla replied with no more than a raised eyebrow as if to say, good, as she repeated the action for herself. Rachel enjoyed the warm glow of the nicotine as it traced down to her lungs then the usual slight headiness. She relaxed imperceptibly and sighed as the smoke escaped, closing her eyes for a moment. Marilla always knew just how to look after her. The smoke traced upwards in intricate swirling lines, eventually settling on the roof in a blue cloud where it bobbed about losing any form or structure.
Matthew came in for his afternoon tea a while later, he'd seen Rachel's twin-tone blue dodge parked in the driveway so he was not surprised to find his sister and Rachel sitting in a haze of blue smoke, the cigarette pack between them, dregs of coffee in cups and the table littered with cake crumbs. They were roaring with laughter about something but he was sad to see Rachel's battered state. Matthew would no more hit a woman than knowingly hurt a wounded animal. In fact, at times Rachel reminded him of a trapped animal. He'd witnessed her journey over the years. He and Marilla often spoke about it at night after she left. "Why won't she just leave?" Matthew repeatedly asked shaking his head. Marilla glanced up at him, her blue eyes sparking in the bright light, "you know she's trapped. If leaves him, she'll lose those children."
* Quote attributed to Gloria Steinem, the full quote is "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."
** Let it be known that that I do not agree with turning canned soup into casseroles. I use canned soup to make soup.