Katherine Mansfield Sparkling Prose 2023 – 1st place
And so, after everything, after all of the long years of waiting without hope, all of the attempts, the missteps, the seemingly endless gaps and silences, Esther is at last here, in the agreed place – Le Café Bleu on Boulevard Charles Guillaumont. She is drinking her third black coffee in a row (‘noir’, they call it), picking at a slice of amandier, licking crumbs from her lips, and she is waiting for a meeting she has longed for all her life, and desperately wants to flee. She has taken one of the outside tables, literally on the beach, between the café and a row of deckchairs. The day is hot and still. Although her table is shaded by a grey umbrella (they all are) she worries that she will perspire through her cotton blouse, that her guest will arrive and find her unkempt – hair in clumps, mascara running, shabbily dressed, unworthy little girl grown into unworthy woman.
They have arranged to meet here, she and her mother, or ‘mother’, for this is the woman who gave her up, who left her to her other parents, who did not stay in contact, did not search, waited to be traced and found. ‘Birth mother’ – that is the phrase, though it seems hardly adequate for someone who has conceived you, carried you within her body (what greater intimacy?), and then has let you go; ‘birth’ not as beginning, not as potential, but as termination. She has so many questions for this woman, whose name is Manel, a name that seems French but not quite. From the letters – yes, letters, written on paper that smells faintly of lilac – she has learned that this woman, Manel, was very young, and could not keep a child, for reasons that have not been stated but might be guessed at: matters of means, social circumstance, perhaps religion – these things might become clearer over lunch.
She glances back through the windows into the café, waiting for this woman, Manel, who is in her fifties, and will be dressed (she has promised) in a knee-length coat, fine wool, dyed the colour of the sky. But Manel is not here. The café has filled with little family groups, mothers and fathers with children who look bored but sit up primly, taking dainty bites of croque madame while billowing white napkins protect their shirts and dresses. The door opens; people look up to see who is entering, and at the nearest table a boy takes advantage of this distraction, leaning over, bending his little head, delicately licking his sister’s egg – but the person who enters is a man, completely bald, also an egg. He looks around distractedly, then smiles, joins his family at a table.
Esther checks her phone; it is already a quarter past the agreed hour. She has been waiting much longer, had arrived early in a bustle of anticipation, had been so nervous she had dropped the keys to her rented Uno, nearly kicked them into a grate, then spilled the first coffee and the glass of sparkling water that came with it, all the while muttering “Pardon! Pardon!”, begging forgiveness not so much for the coffee as for the mess of her existence.
“Madame?” The waiter appears – a new one, with handsome features, eyes the colour of almonds, slender hands which clear her coffee and plate. “Rien d’autre?” he asks. “Un apéro? Vous attendez quelqu’un?”
She uses her one phrase of French: “Je ne parle pas français.” Then, again, “Pardon.” She is about to add “Je suis désolée!” but he interrupts.
“That is okay, Madame. Would you like something more – perhaps a wine? Or a liqueur? Something more to eat?”
She looks at him dumbly, unable to think.
The waiter smiles. “Are you waiting for someone? A beautiful woman cannot be long alone.”
She nods. “Yes,” she says. “For someone.” Her hands are trembling. The waiter is kind, but not sincere – she cannot be beautiful, not her; she attracts only the wrong kinds, the ones who pursue her wildly, unhinge her, and leave. Sooner or later, everybody leaves. This is the one thing she knows. Her father left, her ‘adoptive’ father that is, before she could even say his name. Her mother (‘adoptive’) held on for longer, alternately drawing her close, muttering little endearments (‘my little pixie!’), using her (‘I have such a headache, darling; be a dear, run me a bath, massage my feet!’), and pushing her away (‘for goodness’ sake, can’t you be quiet, you are such a nuisance!’). She, too, went away, when Esther was barely sixteen: three words into another melodramatic sentence she stopped, opened her eyes wide in an expression that seemed to convey fear and hostility in equal parts, and fell down on the kitchen floor. Dead of an aneurism.
Esther turns towards the ocean and looks out. Somewhere out there is Africa, where this Manel might be from – perhaps from Tangiers, perhaps from Oran or Dakar; no one has told her these things, no one has told her exactly where she is from, where her ancestors are from, why her skin is different from her mother’s and father’s, how exactly she ended up with a mother (‘mother’) on the other side of the world – only that her parents (‘adoptive’), like so many others, were migrants from the United Kingdom, refugees from British winter to warmer southern climes. Esther’s life, she thinks, mainly comprises gaps – gaps in her knowledge, things she does not even know to ask (‘who are you?’, ‘where are you from?’); gaps where people could have been, should have been, but were not.
Oh, how she feels it! Now that she is allowed to, has allowed herself to. That, too, was a gap: all the things she could not feel. It has taken her years, but now she can almost inhabit her body, almost; she longs to feel all of the feelings, all of them, sharp and defined, one as true as the other – grief, loss, anger, love, shame, so many more she still cannot name; to truly know the sensations that rise in her – the welling in her stomach; the clenching of her thighs; the tightening around the heart; the strings of pain that knife her throat – oh, if she could speak them, name them, before they steal her breath, swamp her under their tide. Who even is she? Who exists to feel? Where, in this swell, might she locate her self?
The waiter brings her a lemonade, which she sips absently as she glances back into the café. The egg-licking boy has gone; the table is now occupied by three purple-faced men in pastel-blue suits. Identical. The door opens and someone leaves. It is now forty-five minutes past the agreed time. She opens her purse, pulls out a sheaf of folded paper, inhaling its scent, reads and re-reads: yes Le Café Bleu; yes 11 o’clock.
“Mademoiselle?” She looks up at the woman who has addressed her. Not Manel; thin, pale, elegant in a tan coat. “English?” She nods, though ‘English’ is not how she sees herself, nor French, nor really much of anything. “May I join you? There are no more tables. I will be quiet.”
She considers for a moment, waves her hand; at least she will not be alone. The woman sits, calls the waiter, orders white wine and a salad.
“Are you eating?”
She is not sure, but why not? Yes, also a salad. And some pomme frites to share? Another lemonade?
“Were you waiting for someone?”
“It is dreadful.”
“I don’t know.”
This woman has silver hair, cut in a short bob; she must be in her fifties, but seems younger – her skin is taut, as if she spent her days visiting spas, swimming, doing yoga in the sun.
“Christine,” she says, extending her hand.
“You are beautiful, Esther. Why do you bother with a mother who cannot make it to lunch?”
“I’ve never met her before.”
“But she is your mother? Is this lost in translation?”
“Mother from birth.”
“That is a long story.”
“I have a long time.”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“The beginning will do.”
So she begins, but the words spill out sideways, she hardly knows herself what she is saying, how to piece things together, and she finds herself talking about secret drinking, nights in front of television, workaholism, lovers who come and go, the constant sense of never quite fitting in, of never fully being one thing or another. Then she spends quite some time talking about her ‘adoptive’ mother, her eccentricities and moods, her contrasting tendencies towards kindness and abuse. As Esther speaks she feels unburdened, untethered, yet also guilty, anxious, disloyal – this is her first time speaking openly about the harshness she experienced, the sense of never truly having been loved, never quite fitting in, never truly having been a child.
“I was once allowed a dog,” she says. “A small one, a spaniel, but it was too friendly and my mother sent it away.”
When, finally, she was worked her way backwards, beyond the current of her story, she thinks of Manel, and recognises a secret anger burning in her heart, and not a small one but something immense, so hot its flame burns clear. An anger that can never be expressed. She describes this Manel, and she describes her memories, her afternoons spent waiting for her real mother to show up.
“It is like a gap,” she says, finally, “an absence; an emptiness that can never be filled.”
The woman, Christine, listens to all of this, attentive to the last: her eyes alight, her pose adjusting to the twists and turns of the story, her delicate mouth uttering little sounds, ‘oh!’ and ‘ah’, as each new event is revealed. When the story is done she says “Oh, I feel this!” She reaches across, and they sit for a moment, hands clasped, looking; seeing each other. At last, Christine breaks the silence: “It is all very shameful,” she says, “for you, for her, for everyone.”
Then she, too, must leave; that is the story. She suddenly breaks off, checks her watch, exclaims “Oh my goodness” and rises; she opens her purse, takes out a card and places it on the table. “Please call me,” she says, “I’m sorry. I must go. I would like to see you again.” But this will not happen, Esther knows this; she will not call, will not see Christine. It would only hurt.
Instead, as Christine leaves, Esther turns away, pointedly, towards the ocean. She stares past the deckchairs, past the bathers on the golden beach, to the translucent blue water, its gentle waves, its white-tipped breakers and, above this a pretty sky, cloudless, spacious, its empty blueness spilling over everything – past the Spanish islands, out past Algiers. Out into the endless dead Sahara, out over the great desolation of it all. She finishes her lemonade, opens her purse, leaves cash on the table and walks down onto the burning beach.
Bernard Steeds is twice winner of the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, and was shortlisted for The Moth International Short Story Prize 2022. His work has also appeared in the collection Water and in several anthologies and journals including The Penguin New Zealand Anthology: 50 stories for 50 years in Aotearoa, and The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories.