The Way We Lied

Caroline saw a few heads bent in concentration over their work, voices gently murmuring, faces shyly smiling. In a corner of the room a man in a shabby suit stared out at the garden, his hands trembling as they fingered a set of beads. She had not realised this before, but now she could see that Mary’s determination and strength could be gently protective too. And at last she began to understand how Mary’s past had given her life direction.
It did not matter to Caroline, nor it seemed to Mary, which of the two women in her life, Evelyn and Mo, had actually given birth to her. All that mattered was which one had nurtured and inspired her.
“I cannot be certain of the truth,” she had said when Caroline had finally asked her outright if Evelyn was really her mother. “Her name is on my birth certificate, but both she and Aunt Mo had relationships with my father. I also know that at different times they had both had the misfortune of giving birth to stillborn children fathered by him. And so I can’t really be sure if my aunt is my mother or my mother is actually my aunt.
“But it honestly doesn’t matter to me. Aunt Mo cared for me for most of my childhood, whenever Evelyn was away or recovering from illness. Aunt Mo was the one who taught me how to overcome the hurdles of life and how to live. She survived my father’s abandonment and continued to have a fulfilling life, while Evelyn has always dwelt on her misery and blamed others for what she considers to be her misfortune.”
“But Evelyn must have some inner strength to have lived so long,” Caroline said, remembering the old lady’s spirited words. “And Evelyn is still here while your aunt isn’t.”
Mary shrugged. “Oh Evelyn’s body endures, certainly, but she never really learnt how to live a full life alone. She has survived because she persuaded George Tinwell to marry her and provide for her, but she never could have lived this long on her own. Do you know, when my father was sent away to an internment camp on the Isle of Man during the war, along with many other innocent refugees, she just moped and complained about the unjustness of her abandonment while Aunt Mo actively campaigned to have him released. Can you see how different they were and why I don’t admire Evelyn? Aunt Mo could accept my father for who he was. And she understood he would need his freedom after that experience. She didn’t try to change him or hold him back. She just let him be true to himself.”
“But didn’t your aunt want to go to Paris with him after the war?”
“She may have wanted to, but she chose to stay here and take care of me. She knew she had to let him go, so he could be free. I think he’d had enough of any kind of restriction by then. She admired his talent and his art and knew that he needed complete freedom to do his best work. I respect her for that.”
“I think I am beginning to understand,” Caroline said. “Although it sounds as he wasn’t very considerate and sympathetic to the women in his life.”
“But he was was honest about his feelings and he was a survivor,” Mary said, with a shrug. “He had to find a way to live again after the war, after losing so many relatives and friends. And although it may not have been the best way for everyone around him, it was his way of living. I respect survivors because of him and I decided I would like to find ways of helping other people survive and rebuild their lives too.”
So this was what she meant, thought Caroline, absorbing the calm, healing atmosphere of the Foundation and the studio. She looked at the work displayed on these walls too and suddenly noticed a framed oil painting quite unlike the other pictures on display. In sombre colours, it depicted a gaunt, hungry looking man holding a crust of grey bread.
“That portrait has a completely different style to all the other pictures,” she said, turning to her guide. “Was that painted by one of the clients who come here?”
“Ah yes, our Grozny,” her young guide replied. “It is different. It is actually a gift. It was donated recently by a most generous benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous. I understand that it is a portrait of Miss Reid’s uncle, and that it was painted by Miss Reid’s father. Some people may find it rather depressing at first sight, but Miss Reid has encouraged us to view it as an illustration of an act of totally unselfish generosity.”
Caroline gazed at it, seeing the outstretched hand and the ragged garments, wondering whether she could see a likeness in those hollow cheeks. She thought again of how Mary said she had been inspired by her father and his work and she felt that she too was hearing him speak of the need to endure and survive, whilst retaining one’s humanity.
“And look,” said Caroline’s guide, “when our clients finally leave us they are invited to contribute a parting message to our tree of life.” He pointed to a painting of a large tree on the opposite wall, its leaves created from paper shapes in various shades of green and yellow, each leaf bearing some handwritten words of thanks and of hope.
Then Caroline’s eyes fell on one particular leaf which read, “Mary, you will always be in my heart.” And Caroline finally understood and echoed these words in silence deep within her own heart.


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