I do so enjoy participating in Cricket’s Slice Of Life. If you haven’t given it a go yet, you really should.
This week one of the prompts is a matter of choice.
I’ve always thought that lying is a choice.
To lie or not to lie.
It’s not always a matter of ethics or even honesty. Sometimes it can be a way of protecting someone from a negative outcome.
I have lied many, many times. To stop myself from getting into trouble as a child. To prevent someone’s feelings from being hurt. Because sometimes the truth is more glaring and shameless than a little white lie. Or a big fat one.
Stacey Stapleton was the Imelda Marcos of my High School. When she was 17 she had more than a hundred pairs of shoes. She had a walk-in wardrobe full of them. When I used to go over to her place I would spend ages looking at all the different styles and colours, imagining myself wearing them.
Whenever we went out or to parties, Stacey always looked fantastic. She wore the latest fashions and of course, the latest shoes. She could afford them, her father was a doctor. A well-respected member of the community. Her mother was a lush.
I don’t ever remember Stacey’s mother being sober. When we used to come home from school she always had that little buzz about her, that forced sense of casualness that only comes from gin. ‘How’s it going, gals?’ she used to say, like she was our best mate and cool to boot. ‘I made you some afternoon tea.’
Afternoon tea usually consisted of orange cordial that was so sweet you felt your teeth ache and cheese sandwiches where the cheese looked like it had been hacked by a saw and dropped on the floor a few times before it landed on the bread.
We retreated to the sanctuary of Stacey’s room and her shoes very quickly, but the chink of bottles and glasses was never completely out of earshot no matter how much we cranked up our Cure records.
One day Stacey came to school wearing a sweatshirt. Not an unusual occurrence, you might think, except that it was the middle of summer and forty degrees. As the day wore on she grew red-faced and clammy. When Miss Markham insisted she remove her sweatshirt before she fainted, we all gasped at the series of bruises and welts on Stacey’s arms.
‘What happened, Stacey?’ asked Miss Markham.
‘I fell over,’ Stacey replied.
Some of the welts were indented at the edges as if someone had dug a long fingernail deep into the skin. I thought of Stacey’s mother, holding her glass of gin on the rocks, her long red nails wet with condensation. For the rest of the lesson I felt sick, slightly panicked, with a low-lying, brooding kind of anger.
When the bell rang I pulled Stacey into the locker room and confronted her.
‘Did your mother do this to you?’ I asked. ‘Did she hurt you?’
‘I told you, I fell,’ Stacey replied, but the pain in her eyes was palpable.
When I got home that afternoon I learned that Stacey’s father had moved out of home the week before. It was the talk of the town. I saw him the next day in Woolworths where I worked three afternoons a week, buying towels and a kettle. For his new life.
I wanted to rush up to him, to shout aloud : ‘I think your wife is hurting Stacey,’ but I couldn’t. I was frightened if I said it aloud that it would be true. I was frightened if I approached him he would say he already knew and that was why he had left. Then I would think he was a monster too, for leaving his only daughter alone with a woman who should be kept on a leash.
Stacey wasn’t at school the next day. Or the day after that. Or the one after that.
I walked past her house after my shift at Woolworths even though it was completely out of my way, trying to gauge the lay of the land by how the curtains had been drawn or whether or not the mail had been collected. Everything appeared to be normal. Apart from the deep, cloying silence.
The next day was Saturday. I was alone in the house as my sisters and parents had decided to go to the beach. I had stayed at home because I had an essay due and I was planning to check up on Stacey.
I was halfway through my essay when there was a light tap at the window. It was Stacey. She was carrying a suitcase. She looked like she’d been crying.
‘I’m running away to my Grandma’s,’ she said. ‘She’s sent me a plane ticket but I need you to drive me to the airport. I don’t have enough money for a cab.’
It all came out on the drive to the airport. The extent of her mother’s drinking, her unadulterated cruelty, her disdain for her husband, his abandonment.
‘He left me in the lurch,’ Stacey said. ‘I don’t think I can ever forgive him.’
We hugged and wept as Stacey’s flight was annnounced. She was wearing a white dress with little pink flowers on it and pink strappy sandals. You wouldn’t have known to look at her that she had a broken heart.
When I got home my mother was sitting grim-faced on the couch. Stacey’s mother was sitting opposite her, nursing a cup of tea that had long gone cold. A thin film of cooled milk was forming on the surface.
‘Where is she?’ she shouted when she saw me, getting to her feet so quickly that several drops of tea spattered on my Mum’s best white rug. I saw my Mum’s eyes widen and Stacey’s mother’s hand fly to her mouth, the red nails glistening like talons dipped in blood.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Oh, I think you do,’ Stacey’s mother wasn’t going to give up that easily.
‘I told you. I don’t know. I haven’t seen Stacey for days.’
‘I will sue you if you’re lying,’ Stacey’s mother was verging on hysteria. She began to rant and harangue me but I stood firm. The sight of those red nails tethered my resolve. At that moment telling the truth or telling a lie became not just a matter of choice, but a matter of survival. Stacey’s survival.
I did not falter. I did not tell. Stacey made it to her Grandmother’s where she lived amid laughter and sunlight. She did not encounter the stark mercilessness of her mother ever again. I lied for her. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.