This was written in response to a challenge entitled ‘Things My Mother Told Me’ at LancerWriters.groups.io.
Word count: 3290
The rain wakes Murdoch before he’s ready, the usual glow of dawn a muted grey. Warm beneath the blankets, he takes a moment, listens to the patter of droplets on glass, the soft tick of the timepiece on the bedside table, the faint whistle of breath through his nostrils. It’s Sunday, the day of rest, the only day of the week that doesn’t require the usual early start.
Someone ought to tell the weather that.
He swings his legs over the edge of the bed, wriggles his toes into the warmth of his slippers and thinks about the day ahead. He needs to finish reading the draft proposals for the contract Scott’s negotiated. It’s the fifteenth of October today, and they need to be on their way to the lawyer for perusal by tomorrow.
The fifteenth of October.
The date niggles at him like a lump in the mattress. It’s not just the deadline, but something more – something intangible that he can’t quite grasp. Too many cobwebs crowd the old brain these days.
Speaking of old…he gropes beneath the bed for the used chamber pot and slides it carefully out. When did he reach an age where not a single night could pass without the need to pee at some point during the wee hours? He smiles at the pun. It didn’t seem so long ago that he could consume his body weight in his liquid of choice before collapsing into bed, not rising until close to midday without so much as a twinge of protest from his bladder. Much like those two sons of his would do today if he permitted it.
In the upstairs hall, the rain’s not loud. He’s dressed comfortably and the soles of his slippers slap against the polished wooden floors as he makes his way along the wide airy passage, chamber pot in hand. Every bedroom door is tightly shut but he can hear someone snoring. Johnny or Scott. Surely not Teresa.
Twenty minutes later Murdoch relaxes in the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee made, the fire going, and the latest newspaper, already several days old, spread open on the table. Every Sunday Maria has the day off and they pretty much fend for themselves. Sometimes Cipriano’s daughter will come and help Teresa with the dinner. Sometimes Murdoch himself will cook. He doesn’t mind. He likes it. Reminds him of the early days with Catherine, who really couldn’t cook, before they could afford to pay someone to help in the house. He smiles, remembering how impressed she’d been the first time he’d made her dinner, even though it was the simple beef, neets and tatties his mother had taught him to cook as a boy.
The fifteenth of October.
It comes to him in a gust that blows the cobwebs away. Today is…was….his mother’s birthday. Agnes Mary Lancer would be seventy-five years old today, if she lived. He’s filled with a sense of shame that he’d forgotten the significance of the date, and the shame gives way to loss as he realises he can no longer conjure her face and see the detail, such as the pink blush of her cheeks or the exact shade of her eyes. She’s an outline, an auburn-haired figure pegging washing on the line, a plump, warm body for a little boy to snuggle against during those long, cold Scottish winters. At the docks, amongst the bustle, she’s the woman in blue wearing her best hat, trying not to cry as the ship bound for the North Atlantic cuts a swell through the busy and polluted waters of the port. That was the last time he’d seen his mother, but he’d not accepted the truth of it then. He’d thought there would always be time. It never occurred to him he could forget.
Teresa’s chirpy tone jolts him from his melancholy. She’s not dressed yet but wears a pink, floor length robe that’s knotted tight around her slim waist, perfectly respectable given the chances of her bumping into anyone, apart from him, this early on a Sunday morning.
“What awful weather!” She stands in front of the crackling fire but her gaze is fixed on the window and the endless squiggles of rain racing down the pane. “You’re not going to make us go to church in this, are you?”
He smiles and shakes his head. He has his faith, but also faith that God will forgive them if they don’t make the long drive to Green River in these conditions. Teresa looks relieved and makes a start on breakfast, leaving him to his newspaper and thoughts of the past.
He hasn’t marked his mother’s birthday for the past few years, he realises with sadness. Last year was around the time Paul was killed and he was shot, so maybe it’d be harsh to judge himself on that one. He should have remembered those other years though, should have spared her a thought time to time. Instead he has let her go from his life in a way more permanent than death. He has forgotten.
“Good morning, Murdoch.”
Murdoch makes a point of looking up from the papers on his desk to stare at the Grandfather clock. “Just about, my son, just about.”
Scott grins. “It’s ten o’clock, sir.” He’s not as chirpy as Teresa certainly, but his tone is cheerful enough to suggest he’s no worse for wear from his late night out with Johnny in Morro Coyo. He’s dressed, beige shirt tucked in. He’s shaved, hair combed.
“Yes, but some of us have been up for hours.”
“Well, if you don’t mind me saying, perhaps some of us need to find something more interesting to do with their Saturday night.”
Murdoch opens his mouth to rebuke Scott for the smart remark, before remembering he fell asleep in the armchair last night before he’d even finished the first chapter of his new book. He settles for, “Hmmm,” with just enough growl to send Scott from the room.
It’s just after eleven o’clock when he decides enough is enough; Johnny will sleep the day away if given the chance. It’s not that Murdoch begrudges either of his sons their rest, but he knows – remembers – from experience that it only makes the following full day of work that much harder.
He raps on Johnny’s bedroom door but there’s no reply. He presses his ear against the wood but can’t hear anything, so perhaps Johnny took the back stairs straight to the kitchen. Murdoch opens the door a few inches and peers in.
The drapes at Johnny’s window remain closed and so the light is dim and murky. The inclement weather and the absence of sunlight might explain why Johnny’s still sound asleep, and although Murdoch can’t see his son’s face, he can hear the steady inhale and exhale of his breathing. There’s no air left in the room, just a layer of stale alcohol breath and sweat that seems to hover directly level with Murdoch’s nose.
There’s no response from the bed and Murdoch’s almost tempted to return downstairs rather than step any further inside, but the room needs fresh air, rain or no, and so he enters and closes the door softly behind him. Pinching his nose, he strides forward – straight into something hard and unforgiving. The soft cushioned toe of his right slipper offers little protection against hard wood and the impact makes him gasp a lungful of the very air he was trying not to breathe. He grunts his annoyance, big toe throbbing, as he looks down to see the heavy, wooden trunk that is usually positioned at the foot of Johnny’s bed, stationed instead in the middle of the room. His toe continues to pulse with pain as he limps to the window, tears the drapes open and releases the latch to breathe in a mouthful of damp, but considerably fresher air. It’s still raining, although it’s eased somewhat now. The smell of wet grass and straw is pungent, and the grey sky looks calmer and no longer appears to be grumbling as it rolls from the hills, headed this way.
Murdoch takes one more pleasant breath before turning away from the window. Johnny may have spoken but it doesn’t look like he’s damn well moved, not even the slightest bit of modesty in mind sprawled naked on his stomach, the scrunched up bedsheet covering his feet to his calves and absolutely nothing else.
“Cover yourself up, Johnny.”
Johnny nods with a blurry gaze and then buries his head out of sight beneath the pillow. The sheet remains where it is.
Murdoch wants to sigh but resists, because that would involve another big lungful of air that he’s not prepared to inhale unless he turns back to the window. Instead he looks around his son’s bedroom and moves his hands to his hips. In addition to the out of position trunk, the bedroom floor is littered with last night’s clothes, yesterday’s work clothes, the boots Johnny’s supposed to leave by the back door, several pairs of socks and the long johns he could be wearing in bed. On the bedside table, there’s a plate dusted with crumbs, a toppled glass and subsequent puddle of water on the floor. He could swear that when he walked past Johnny’s open door yesterday afternoon, the room had looked lived in, but absolutely nothing like this.
He limps to the bed, grasps his son by the shoulder and shakes just a little harder than necessary. When Johnny first came home, Murdoch wouldn’t have dared perform such an action, but the distrustful gunfighter side of his son rarely appears around him these days. He doesn’t cease with the shaking until Johnny gives in and removes the pillow from his head.
“Alright, alright, I’m getting up.”
“Good. You’ve slept all morning.”
He turns his back, hoping Johnny will take the hint and dress.
“It’s Scott’s fault,” Johnny grumbles as he gropes on the floor for his pants. Murdoch listens for the jingle of his belt buckle before he turns back around. “At the saloon last night he went upsta—” Johnny breaks off and flashes a grin. “He went and bought a bottle of that whisky he likes just as I came…just as I was gettin’ ready to come home.”
“Uh-huh.” It sounds like Scott has the right idea – ladies first, drinks after. Not that Murdoch would ever voice that opinion of course. He looks down at his young son who has still only got as far as putting on his pants. “And if Scott jumped off a cliff, would you?”
Johnny sighs and runs a hand through his tousled hair. “No,” he concedes.
“You think it’s gonna rain all day?”
Murdoch thinks of the calmer sky coming off those hills. “It looks like it might clear this afternoon.”
“That’s good. I want to take Barranca out for a short ride today. His legs lookin’ better.”
“If you think your head can cope with that…”
Johnny grins and Murdoch bites back his own burgeoning smile. He turns to leave, only for his left foot to glide through the puddle of water and bash into the leg of the bedside table. It’s only sheer luck and his son’s fast reflexes that stop him losing his balance completely and joining the rest of the mess on the floor.
“You okay there, Murdoch?” Johnny’s hand remains gripped to his arm, a look of concern on his face that’s fading fast into amusement as it becomes apparent there’s no serious damage done.
Serious damage or not, there’s a throb in both big toes now and Murdoch must have a hole in the sole of his slipper because he can feel the water seeping in. It doesn’t take much to muster a glare. “No, I am not okay, John,” he says through gritted teeth, “and I’ll tell you something else for free – you’re not going anywhere today until you’ve tidied this room!”
Later, as the clock strikes one, Murdoch is back at his desk reading through the proposals Scott has put together for the contract. Credit where credit’s due, his elder son has a flare for the business side of ranching, even if his ideas are occasionally too fanciful or experimental for Murdoch’s tastes. Like now for example, Scott has been talking his ear off for the past twenty minutes about the latest developments in irrigation systems, not something Murdoch wants to dwell on while they’re in the middle of the rainy season, and not something he thinks they can afford. He’s all for progress – at his own pace of course.
“Well, Murdoch? What do you think?”
“It’s a strong contract. You’ve done a great job.”
“Thank you, but I meant the irrigation system. The benefits of dust suppression alone would be—”
“Expensive,” Murdoch finishes for him. “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know, Scott.”
Scott raises his eyebrows, his expression not hiding how ridiculous he finds that concept. “I’m aware of that, Murdoch,” he says slowly, in the same way one might speak to a small child. “Just as I’m aware we’re not made of money as you so often tell me. Just read the article, that’s all I ask.”
Scott offers Murdoch the paper article, his expression one of almost pity.
“Fine.” Murdoch takes the paper and puts it on top of the rest of the paperwork that sits on the right hand side of his desk. Appeased for now, Scott wanders off to find something else to improve or promote. Murdoch moves the article on irrigation to the bottom of the pile and focuses once more on the contract. It is indeed sound and he’s pleased to find there is nothing for him to add or amend. His thoughts return to Scott’s flare for business, no doubt cultivated at the knee of Harlan Garrett and he can’t help but wonder if that’s affecting him more than it should when it comes to viewing Scott’s drive to move with the times. For the final time, Murdoch moves the article – back to the top of the pile.
Dinner is a casual affair, although not so casual that he’ll let Johnny sit there with his elbows on the table or let Teresa leave carrots on her plate without being reminded that they’ll help her see in the dark – a well-used phrase that she finishes for him with a roll of her eyes, a bright smile, and a gentle rebuke that she’s sixteen, not six. He laughs at that, Scott smiles, and Johnny leans back in his chair with a look that suggests his old man is going plain loco.
Later, with the oil lamps lit and the shadows inky blue, Murdoch takes a stroll around the grounds of the hacienda, the first time he’s set foot outside all day. Rubbing his hands together to spark some warmth in the October chill, he takes comfort in the familiar – the chatter and laughter of many men drifting across the fields with the smoke from the bunkhouse chimney, the snorts of the horses and the haunting bellows of cattle out on the range. He walks around the hacienda, treading in the soft orange glow from the windows, or the silver puddles of moonlight the rain left dotted about in the gravel.
He reaches the kitchen door, pauses when he hears his sons’ voices. He can see them through the window – Scott’s making a hot drink; milk if he’s sensible, coffee if he’s not, and Johnny’s leaning against the counter, eating a sandwich like he hadn’t finished dinner less than an hour before.
“You know what he did today?”
“Enlighten me,” Scott says as he grabs a couple of mugs from the shelf.
“He told me I wasn’t going anywhere ‘til I’d tidied my room. Like I’m a kid or something.”
“It wasn’t even that messy.”
Murdoch’s glad he’s standing in the shadows so they can’t see his grin.
“I suspect your definition of mess and Murdoch’s, are two completely different things, little brother.”
Johnny frowns. He’s finished the sandwich and set the plate down.
“He used a new one on me too today as it happens.”
“Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“What? Who would think that it does?”
“I have no idea.”
“If you jumped off a cliff, would I jump too?”
“Hell no, what d’you think I said?”
“Well, I would have thought it would depend on the situation. If, for example, there was a chance of saving me then I’d hope you’d at least consider it. Or if there was a swimming hole at the bottom of said cliff, then you’d probably follow my lead…”
It’s Scott’s turn to grin as he hands Johnny a steaming mug and brings his own to his lips.
“Where d’you think he gets these sayings from, anyhow?”
“His own parents probably. I know Grandfather had his own stock phrases he’d trot out from time to time.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Children should be seen and not heard, is one that springs to mind. What about your mother, did she have any?”
Johnny dips his head and Murdoch edges closer to the window, holding his breath because any detail about Johnny’s time with Maria is rare.
“Aún no tienes alas y ya quieres volar,” he says finally, looking up with a soft smile. “It means you don’t yet have wings and already want to fly. Wait, prepare yourself, be patient.”
“That’s good advice.”
“Yeah. I got that one a lot. Came in handy later.”
“Stop cryin’ or I’ll give you something to cry about. Got that one a lot, too.” Johnny sips the hot drink, but there’s a familiar smirk playing on his lips that takes the sting from his words.
In the shadows Murdoch retreats and raises his head to the darkening sky. All this time and he hadn’t realised – his mother is with him always. For it is Agnes Lancer’s sayings and pearls of sometimes nonsensical wisdom that he’s been imparting to his sons since stumbling back onto this road called fatherhood. Much to their chagrin and sometimes baffled amusement, he knows now. How many times had he rolled his eyes (not in view of his mother) or seethed with exasperation when told that the thing he so desperately wanted, they couldn’t afford because money didn’t grow on trees, or that he wasn’t to leave the house unless he’d tidied his room, even though he shared it with three younger brothers who were all messier than him. In his mind he sees his mother at the docks again, only this time he can recall standing with her as she picks pieces of fluff from his jacket and runs through the list of everything he should remember for the thousandth time. “Remember…” she says as he picks up his bag to leave. There are tears in her powder blue eyes but she holds them back as they embrace. Her usually rose-white cheeks are ruddy with cold. “…it’s a lang road that’s no goat a turnin’.” And then she’s stepping back and he’s the one turning, headed for the ship’s gangplank and his new life.
“Murdoch, what you doing out here? You’re gonna catch your death!”
He turns to see his sons in the doorway, staring at him like he’s a mad fool to be out in this chill without a coat. Possibly he is. Waving them back inside, he takes one last look up at the Californian sky. “Co-latha breith sona màthair,” (Happy Birthday mother) he says, before heading back into the warmth.
Scottish saying: It’s a lang road that’s no goat a turnin’
Translation: Don’t lose heart in dark times, things can’t keep going in the same direction forever. (goat = got)
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Sam directly.