“Breaking Wheels” by Meg Clavel

Fiction, Short Stories

Siobhan already made two appearances in the parlour room to pick up the extension that morning. Her husband Frank, preoccupied with his garden, gave her ample time to ring Luke. Perhaps invite him over for tea if he could spare some time before the train. In each attempt, she managed to pull only four digits of the sequence. As she watched the dial tick back around, she knew it was just a matter of time before she resolved to hang up. The telephone, hidden in the back corner of the parlour, no longer seemed so discrete when she entered the room again for the third time. This time, she was accompanied by a rag and some polish. Buffing the polish in a circular motion, she worked in sections. Meticulous as she was, the phone’s brass fixtures would shine before she tried him again.

Luke had always made her feel this way, a feeling she couldn’t quite explain. Mopping floors were customary when he grew inside her belly. The sweep of a mop across the floor or soap suds arched around the window pane felt like a necessity even in times of complete exhaustion. With her all-consuming condition, which seemed to appear overnight, the blissful pregnancy she expected was not her reality. Childbirth was not to be discussed; her own mother had educated her well. The torments of Siobhan’s term were spoken of only in her mind and even there it felt her mother would be in earshot. Confinement was what it was called, because that is exactly what it was. She learned every crack in the house during those months, contrary to her mother’s incessant advice. There were corners of the floor that collected more dust. The removal of carpet stains, from tea spills to food remnants of long-ago parties, became experiments that helped pass the time. She would rummage together glass jars to store her creative compounds, often pilfering chemicals from Frank’s garage. She worked the house clean, day and night. Her chest felt heavy, her steps slowed; she couldn’t stop. 

Labour came early, but Luke grew strong. He was like her, though she would not admit it. He was clever though. Often she struggled to find the right words to praise him. When she couldn’t, silence became her default. She sat with him across the round table when he completed his arithmetic after school. His brow relaxed no matter how difficult the equation. On rare occasions she might offer cornbread, knowing that was all she could offer him. Academia didn’t interest Luke as it did not interest her. When he came home to the typical after school snack of tea and toast, his Mother didn’t stop to greet him. She would fuss over household tasks to be done. With her apron tied so tight, everything else just seemed to drape over it, like ruffles on an old canopy bed. On some days he would find her bleaching the base boards. The smell gave him a headache. When supper was over, she would whirl past him with a sudden need to polish the silver. A leaking roof that had yet to be repaired, but a sideboard full of silver, inherited from his grandmother, now deceased. Her delusion was a puzzle he wanted to solve. At fourteen Luke left school to work for their neighbor, Mr. Owen. A successful automobile mechanic by trade, Siobhan ignored Frank when he said Mr. Owen owned half the town. Luke took note of his father’s warning, but learned from his mother that it was best not to ask questions. 

Rows from the Owen household echoed down the block at all hours of the night. Siobhan was happy when Mr. Owen took her son on, regardless of his family’s reputation throughout the neighborhood. The day Luke came home in a suit, she remarked only on the suit itself. Crimson curtains were delivered one afternoon. The house carpets, still cleaned daily, were replaced with chic rugs. She accepted Luke’s gifts with thanks, but the silence that had grown between them was deafening. On nights when her son didn’t come home until long after supper, she would wait for him. Transfixed by the muted glow of the street lamps, she peered through the glass of their oculus window, wondering if her son might ever return. 

When he did return, she found in her a voice that could shout louder than all the members of the Owen household combined. Her accusations of his tardiness seemed useless. A stain on his suit, not of tire grease, but what he claimed was spilt red wine came with a request for assistance. These requests carried such weight, that Siobhan’s hopes grew high once more. While knowing the stain was not red wine at all, she scrubbed the fabric clean over the sink, imagining Luke standing beside her as she taught her son household cleaning remedies as her mother taught her. This was never the case. Instead her son, now fully grown sat at the table. Head in hand, as he iced his swollen brow. Sometimes, she got greedy with offers to polish his rings, but he snapped at those offerings. They would be polished at the jewelry store in town free of charge, but not before he removed what might be remnants of the previous night’s tavern brawl. At eighteen he moved out, sending a cleaning woman daily for his Mother, except Sundays. Sunday became Siobhan’s favourite day of the week, though her glass jars had not been refilled of late. A good day’s work put her at ease. She had the buckets in the attic too, which needed emptying when it rained. Small pockets of rest until Luke took up space once more. 

On the morning of his train, Luke lingered in his flat in hopes of a grand farewell, though no one knew of his departure. He examined the envelope, mysteriously left in the breast pocket of his suit, which contained one train ticket. It was placed without a note, a dead giveaway as to who left it for him. This was just his Mother’s way, he accepted. There was still a silence, but today it seemed less loud. Clutching the envelope in hand, his suit was all he left behind. He boarded the train in jeans and a t-shirt, an intentional uniform where he would not be recognized. As the train pulled out, he let out a deep breath he felt he had been holding his whole life. With the top window of the cabin open, he smelled the fresh sea air of his home town one last time. With a jolt of the engine, the train went in reverse for a couple hundred yards, its wheels switching tracks. Then, they were moving forward. 

Siobhan returned the brass polish to its home under the kitchen sink. Luke had boarded the train, this she knew. The train was far away now, yet she could somehow hear its wheels moving at a steady pace. Never screeching to a halt, but roaming through hills and valleys of places she did not know. Luke needn’t come back and she wouldn’t follow, unless invited. A distance between them, a clean break. She put her feet up that afternoon. The drapes, though dusty, stayed on their hooks.

MEG CLAVEL is an aspiring writer from Toronto, Ontario. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Concordia University and a diploma in Makeup Artistry. Her passions include makeup design, creative writing and photography.

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