Flowers On The Windowsill
“Surprise!” Jacqueline said when she came to spend the weekend exploring Sydney with her daughter.
“Oh. Mum... Hi!” May fumbled for words.
Jacqueline hugged her daughter, and May wished she’d shut the door on her.
The other visits, at least her mum had called before arriving at her door. It gave May time to wash her face, put on sunglasses, and a cotton mask. Time to throw on a jumper and pull its hood over her head.
“I’m gonna get ready in the bathroom.” May ushered her mum into the lounge before she rushed off to do her hair and makeup. Thank goodness, her mum hadn’t commented on how she hid her bare face.
Jacqueline, was a short, scrawny woman with greying hair and visible crow’s feet. Her stick-thin arms would get strangers offering her help to carry milk bottles, and her tattooed eyebrows stood out on her shrivelled skin. It lingered on May’s mind whether her dad, Eric, would have ever approached her mum if she looked as aged as she did today. Eric used to tell May bedtime stories as she lay on his lap, one of which was how he had met her mum.
He had approached Jacqueline during their university orientation week. Though Eric was average in height, he stood tall with impeccably straight posture and slicked-back hair. He was standing near the library entrance with a map in one hand and a hot drink in the other. Jacqueline had come out of the library, waving goodbye to a friend, and he looked across. Her hands were slender. She had dark, silky hair in a high ponytail, and her red hair tie matched the russet brown colour of her doe eyes. She had a neatly curved nose and rosebud lips. As the Dux of an all-boys high school, Eric intuitively pocketed the map in his hand and went up to Jacqueline.
“Excuse me, do you know where the law building is?” It was difficult for him to face her up close, and he fiddled with his drink. His cheeks heated up.
“Sorry, I’m a first year, so I don’t know my way around.” Jacqueline looked up at him. There was a sweet tone to her voice. “But I’m also interested in finding the law building.”
“Oh.” Eric had to contain his smile in case he scared her away. “That’s a coincidence. Do you want to look for it together then?”
And sure enough, they also had their classes, lunch breaks, and study sessions together. They’d argue over the judgments of the Speluncean Explorers case and fall asleep on open textbooks during finals.
Eric had told young May about how he’d watch her mum as she slept beside the library window. Jacqueline had a particular charm. She made him want to keep looking at her, and every time he looked, he fell a little deeper. Hearing this, young May would shift from her dad’s lap to view her parent’s wedding photo on the wall. When would she meet the person who’d look at her the way her dad looked at her mum?
How about never. Though May had gone to university like her parents, she attended classes and studied alone. She joined a few societies but all the contacts she’d made drifted by the end of each semester. After graduating, she moved interstate to work at a Sydney accounting firm and would come home to have dinner with the clock on her apartment wall. While it was the only thing that responded to her ramblings, she took it down after it grew too loud. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
Time haunted her, and now she gagged, taking off her mask to look into the bathroom mirror. Sunken cheeks, shadows beneath her eyes, wrinkles on her forehead... Why did people always pick the freshest flowers from the florist on Valentine’s Day? May’s stomach clenched as she reached for the retinol serum in the cabinet. She had to work harder than most to date with her aging looks. She promised never to let herself leave the apartment without getting dolled up, but with her mum tapping her feet in the lounge, May wanted to shrink away and hide. She and her mum shared the same eyes, nose, and lip shape; even their stature was the same. But Jacqueline had found love during her prime, while May was left to wither alone. Having her mum around reminded her that she’d missed her prime.
“Are you ok in there?” Jacqueline yelled out from the lounge. “Have you eaten yet?”
“No, not yet.” Did her mum hear her gagging?
“Want me to make breakfast while you take your time?”
“No, it’s ok. I’ll make breakfast for us when I’m done.” Although May tried to sound stable, her hands were trembling as she placed the retinol serum back into the cabinet, beside a photoshopped image of herself. She took out a tub of Murad Intense Recovery Cream to layer onto her skin. May couldn’t have her mum in the kitchen. All her mum needed to do was open the fridge to see all the skincare she had stocked up or snoop around the kitchen shelves to find her collagen pills and biotin supplements. What about the sticky note on her calendar: “Botox – Friday, 5:15 pm”? But also the lock on her bathroom door was broken, so it could have been worse if her mum –
The bathroom door swung open. “I’m making breakfast anyway!”
May froze. She turned her head. Her mum had seen her reflection in the mirror. May’s chest pounded, and she struggled to breathe. She dropped the recovery cream into the sink and darted out towards her room.
May hid between her bed and a wall in the dark, shivering, rocking back and forth with her knees to her chest and arms around them.
Jacqueline ran after her, and when she found May, she crouched down to meet her daughter’s gaze.
“No, please.” May couldn’t speak without stuttering. She covered her face, turned away. Love had fallen into her mum’s lap. Would she laugh knowing how much effort her daughter had put into her appearance to become worthy of a chance at love?
No, her mum took her shaky hand with a firm grip and pulled her out. “It’s ok. Let’s just open the window for some fresh air.”
And with her legs buckling, May stood up and drew the curtains.
There was a long pause where the sunlight fell upon her mum’s face, highlighting every spot, crack, and crevice on her gaunt cheeks. Her eyelids were droopy, making the left eye look smaller than the right. Her scarlet lips were wrinkled like prunes, yet her hair, which flowed down to her collarbones, glistened in its full, frosted state. Could that have been what May’s dad meant when he spoke about her mum’s charm? Though Jacqueline no longer had the pretty face of the girl at the university library, she had the face of the woman Eric committed to, May’s saviour. She had the wrinkled, blemished face of laughter and pain, of memories, compassion and love that blossomed with each passing day. A beauty no one could keep their eyes off.
“Take your time,” Jacqueline said and May, realising, turned back to slide open the window. Did she stare for too long? Perhaps, but who had been looking back at her the way she always wanted?