Good Old Mavis
Mavis breathed in the smell of daffodils from the planters, then pressed the button on the Sunshine Nursing Home's intercom.
"Mavis Bradley to see Gloria Tomes," she said into the metal box. A buzz, a click, and the door opened.
"Good Morning, Mrs. Bradley." Susan's bright welcome sounded above the piped music. "You know the routine."
Mavis pushed her handbag up her arm and signed the official record of her visit.
"I was sorry to hear about your husband. Gloria was upset, but today she’s pretty lucid.” Susan leaned closer and mouthed. “Not one of her shouting days.”
Mavis sent up a silent prayer for it to remain that way.
She loosened her purple scarf. The last present from her husband, Fred. It hurt deep inside whenever she thought of him. It might have been two months since his fatal heart attack, but it felt like last week.
The corridor lights flickered as she passed a line of closed doors. The paper shopping bag containing Gloria's treats banged against her leg.
She could talk about Fred to Gloria. They’d all been friends for forty years. Silence fell in rooms when she entered. Family and friends afraid to talk about Fred in front of her. Not wanting to upset her. She wanted to shout, don’t bury our life together, but she didn’t.
The depth of her loss had surprised her. He’d traveled extensively for work, and she’d often been alone. Even when he retired, he maintained a traveling lecture schedule and golf trips.
Her nose wrinkled at the stale smell rising from the worn hall carpet. This was a place where the uncherished ended their days. No chatter from visiting family or running feet from great grandchildren. It felt cut off from the rest of life; from the living.
Gloria’s forays outside were curtailed after that last incident. She'd become confused and disorientated.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” she’d shouted. Murmurs run around the Mall’s coffee shop.
“Well!” She’d continued standing over a man at the next table before drowning him with coffee. Mavis tried apologizing, causing Gloria to become more angry and use language Mavis had never heard before. The manager had called the police, and they were returned to Sunshine in a patrol car.
Mavis paused outside the room. Took a deep breath and knocked before entering.
"Hello. It's only me," she said.
"That young nurse didn’t believe they used to called me - The Body, and men adored me," Gloria said.
Mavis groaned internally.
"What a way you have of talking." It was true. Gloria’s body was film star quality; however, her beaked nose, small beady eyes and a prominent square chin were not.
Mavis’s nose twitched and her throat tickled in the overheated dusty room.
"Showered me with gifts and affection." Gloria's arm whirled around.
Mavis perched in an armchair and smoothed her skirt. She couldn't take an afternoon of Gloria describing intimate details of her affairs. A photo album lay in her friend's lap. The staff encouraged its use to remind Gloria of her past life.
"Even now they lust after this.” Gloria ran her hands from her chest to her lap, all her standard issue wheelchair would allow.
Mavis glanced around. The rooms were decorated identically, except for the very occasional personal item. Gloria’s red silk bedspread hid the beige, pulled blankets. Postcards were arranged on a large, white poster-board. A collage of famous places – the Sydney Opera House in Australia; the Eiffel Tower in Paris; Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
"I hate visiting Gloria at Sunshine." Mavis had admitted to her daughter, Jill "It reeks of neglect. The pink paint is peeling, and it's hard to tell pattern from stain on the carpet."
"You return smelling of perming solution mixed with violets," Jill said. "Why do you go? She rarely recognizes you."
"I remember when she could sashay into a room and take command.” Images of Gloria strutting on the arm of many different wealthy executives sprang to mind. She'd broken hearts and marriages.
Jill tutted. "She's always seemed spiteful and selfish to me. She doesn't deserve you as a
“I can’t abandon her when she so alone.”
So, here they sat in this dismal room. Gloria's wizened body sagged in folds and occupied half the wheelchair’s seat. Her clothes were stained and several sizes too big. Moisture filled Mavis’s eyes. Gloria had been a fashion diva in her haute couture.
The window captured Mavis’s reflection. Her trim figure, due to the many years of yoga, was the envy of her friends. She looked ten years younger than her eighty years.
"Are you listening to me?" Gloria slammed the album shut.
Mavis massaged her cold hands. Had Gloria taken her pills yet?
"Of course, I’m listening." Mavis patted her friend's hand.
Mavis had been the pretty one,Gloria the sparkle men flocked to - until Fred. Gloria had wanted him, but he'd chosen Mavis.
"I've brought you some chocolates, soap and shampoo?" Mavis said, emptying the shopping bag onto the bed.
"What's that?" Gloria pointed at the cruise brochure Mavis had been reading it on the train.
"Dolly gave it to me. You remember her?”
Gloria continued to stare at Mavis.
“She's wants me to go on a cruise with her. But Jill will expect me to have the kids during spring break, and there's the Luncheon Club. I can’t let them down."
"Good old Mavis. Never a thought for yourself.” Gloria's dry laughter turned into a racking cough. She slumped back.
The album sliding to the floor.
Mavis stooped to retrieve it, smiling at the photo of Gloria forty years ago wearing a Channel suit that showed off her amazing curves. Her arms wrapped around a man with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Somebody else’s husband, Mavis thought closing the album. She leaned forward to place it on the nightstand but stopped halfway. Reopening the album, she turned pages, her heart beating faster. The images swam before her eyes. Each page was a new destination, mostly abroad. Gloria in her thirties through to her seventies draped around the same
man – Fred.
"You’re not allowed to look. It’s a secret." Gloria's words filtered through the fog settling
in Mavis's mind. For sixty years . . .
"It's not possible," she whispered.
It couldn't be. He would never . . . Never!
"You and he . . But you’re my friend.”
"You and I shared him your entire married life and you never suspected. I used to go on his trips around the world, while you stayed happily at home with your children."
Mavis let the album drop.
"I don't understand?" She stared at a photo of Fred outside the Sydney Opera House.
He'd been a guest speaker at a finance conference. He’d wanted her to go.
"We’ll add an extra week and vacation,” Fred had said, wrapping his arms around her.
"Jill has exams. I can't leave her alone."
"She'll be fine with your mother. Let's have a little fun." He'd angled his mouth to kiss her, but she'd turned her head.
"We'll have plenty of opportunity later."
"We’ll never make another trip to Sydney," he said, letting her go.
"I wouldn't enjoy the trip for worrying about Jill."
"The cost of motherhood," he'd said, turning on the T.V.
He’d never asked her again, not even after the children left home. She'd enjoyed her time without him. She’d lost her desire for sex after Jill was born. It was a relief when he left and took his demands with him.
"Fred came every fortnight,” Gloria said.
"Stop it!" Mavis fumbled trying to open her handbag.
"Didn't you wonder why my vacations and his work trip coincided? "
Mavis twisted her wedding band. This wasn't right. She had to think. Did Gloria’s vacations happen when Fred was away? The album was full of photos of them together over so many years.
Gloria stared at the postcard collage. "You were never meant to find out. The nurse was supposed to replace the album." Gloria glanced at the door. "I’d thought Fred was coming today. He liked to talk about the photos." She dabbed at her eye. "I loved him too."
"None of this is true." Mavis's stomach churned and her face felt flushed.
"He wouldn't marry me, but he couldn’t give me up. He said I'd had too many other men in my life to be his wife.” Gloria's voice dropped and she sank back. "I miss him." Her whole body trembled, and tears flowed down her wrinkled cheeks.
Mavis stumbled towards the door. Her life was a fraud. She'd given up everything for Fred’s career. All her own hopes and dreams denied and for what? So, this woman could travel the world with him, leaving Mavis at home to struggle with little money and no help.
"You both betrayed my trust." Mavis reached for the doorknob with her trembling hand.
She closed her eyes briefly, and then faced Gloria. “I’ve never judged you or your life-style. I’ve always been a good and loyal friend. Whenever you needed me, I was there for you, but I can’t forgive this." Mavis walked out the door.
Gloria's voice echoed down the long corridor as Mavis headed for the main exit.
"Mavis, please . . ."
Mavis collapsed on the bench under the large oak tree. Her whole body shook. She remembered the pride and joy in Fred's eyes when she accepted his proposal. Walking down the aisle to meet him, there’d a big grin on his face that dimpled his cheeks.They’d shared the excitement of becoming parents and she'd felt pride watching him spending time with Jill and Tom. A whole life together full of joy, tears, laughter and pain, but now all her
memories would be tainted with the thought of Gloria and Fred? How could all those years have been a lie? Had Fred ever loved her, or had she been the face of respectability? The dinner party wife and mother. Was life with Gloria the excitement he’d have preferred?
She wanted to curl up on the bench and disappear into the dark empty place growing inside her. Why couldn't she have been left with her happy memories?
Mavis tried to smoother a voice reminding her of the evidence she’d found of his infidelities. The times she’d found hotel invoices for double occupancy and had ripped them up. Or the smell of perfume lingering in his suitcase. She’d buried her suspicions, never wanting to confront him. Afraid of the truth and its consequences.
The sun's first tentative beams broke through the gray cloud cover and bathed her like a gentle caress. She took a tissue from her handbag and wiped her eyes. Was it her fault? Had she driven him into the arms of Gloria?
No! She wasn’t 'Good Old Mavis'.
Heading for the train station a rainbow arched across the sky. A sign of awakening. Her eyes had been fully opened to new truths and knowledge today she couldn’t ignore.
She climbed down the steps away from the Sunshine Nursing Home and Gloria and sat on a platform bench. The rails buzzed and litter fluttered along the track. Fred, Gloria and their betrayal whirled in her head. A train's whistle sounded close as the express hurtle down the track heading for the shore.
Her fingers cramped around Dolly’s brochure. She let it fall as the draft from the express swirled her hair. She didn’t want a vacation away from her family.
Gloria thought they’d shared Fred. It wasn’t true. In the hospital he squeezed her hand telling her that he’d always loved her and the children. He was sorry they hadn’t spent more time together as a family. He’d asked her to forgive him. She’d been confused, but now she understood he’d been asking for forgiveness of his secret life with Gloria.
The children would never know, but her pain ran too deep for forgiveness, perhaps in time and with her family’s love it might be possible.