Winner: Short Story Competition
by Megan Lloyd
Lily gazed through the bars at her great-great-aunt’s withered fingers, which were laying out digestive biscuits on a cracked plastic tray.
‘Eat’, came the croaking voice, and her aunt gingerly placed the tray into the rotating wooden cubby hole, which with the turn of a handle would allow Lily to reach in and lift one of the stale snacks to her lips. She chewed slowly as she gazed at the high ceiling, eyes roaming across the visiting room. A tarnished gold crucifix looked back at her, an eternal witness in this place. Tall pillars guarded the entrance, and shafts of light peeked through crevices in the weathered door. She looked back towards the bars separat- ing her and her aunt, the barrier which they could never cross, save for clumsily clasping hands through the gaps when Lily arrived.
‘Mmm, delicious…’ she trailed off through the crumbs, trying not to let her face give away that it was like chewing cardboard. She wondered how long those biscuits had been there. She guessed that they saved them for visitors, and goodness knows there weren’t many of those.
Her aunt’s pale skin betrayed the fact that she hadn’t seen the out- side world for almost seventy years, aside from the increasing number of occasions when she received special dispensation for trips to the hospital. She had joined the monastery when she was sixteen, and by entering a closed order she had cut herself off from the outside world. Lily couldn’t even begin to imagine spending that many years behind locked doors, never again able to embrace a loved one, or feel the sea breeze on your skin. She imagined that within these dusty walls it would be easy to forget that the ocean was just a few minutes walk away. She searched her aunt’s face for signs of boredom or misery, but as usual she couldn’t see beyond the watery blue eyes and benevolent smile. Maybe the brain had to shut down after so many years of near solitude. But no, that didn’t feel quite right. Her aunt’s expression was placid and content; she didn’t seem at all perturbed by the silence that was ringing in Lily’s ears.
Their lives couldn’t have been more different from one another. Her aunt’s last memories of the outside world were of a small village in the centre of Malta in the early 1940s, when World War II ravaged the island and it became the most bombed country on earth. It’s strategic position in the Mediterranean made it a constant target and air raids were a daily occurrence for months on end. In a country so tiny, each explosion changed the face of the land she knew. Perhaps it was that loss that convinced her aunt to dedicate her life to God.
Since then, she had lived and cleaned and prayed every day of every year, her unwavering dedication meaning that she eventually became the Mother Superior, the leader of her small community.
Lily smiled, taking in the hunched figure of her aunt sitting in front of her. Her own life felt impossibly busy when she reflected on it here in the monastery. How could she even begin to explain it to someone who hadn’t been a part of society since 1942? Rather than with quiet meditation, her mornings began to the relentless soundtrack of central Birmingham. She would gulp down a green smoothie she had made the night before in an attempt to feel that she was adhering to her new year’s resolutions, and clatter out of the door, inevitably arriving at work a few minutes late. She lived in a world of constant media overload, but somehow the stillness of the visiting room felt even more overwhelming.
Whilst these two vastly dissimilar experiences might suggest that there was much for them to share and learn from each other, there was one almost insurmountable obstacle. When Lily’s aunt had joined the monastery it was during a time of rationing, when military forces were trying to starve Malta’s inhabitants into submission. Understandably, for families struggling with mouths to feed, learning English hadn’t been a priority. Lily, on the other hand, had decided that French lessons in school were probably a more practical use of her time than learning an incredibly complex language spoken only by the inhabitants of a miniscule island. In this moment she was regretting that decision.
‘So, how are you?’, she ventured tentatively. Crap, she chastised herself inwardly. What an inconsequential question. Her aunt lived a life that was part of a rich and declining cultural history, of her cultural history. Couldn’t she think of something more profound to say? With the absence of her Nanna, who usually acted as interpreter, it wasn’t so easy. Lily scrambled for some simple words that could convey how much she wanted to connect, to show her love and respect, but her aunt’s frail voice answered first.
‘I pray for you every day, my child’, came the slow and laboured response. Lily knew it to be true. She could say with almost absolute certainty that if questioned, her aunt would not know her name, even after years of summer visits. But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t included in her prayers. In a large Catholic family like theirs, to pray for the whole was more efficient than to dwell on each relative individually. Lily felt a warmth spread through her stomach. Someone was asking God to smile on her every day. That had to count for something. Admittedly, she wasn’t sure if she believed in God. At this thought, the image of the Virgin Mary that she wore on a gold pendant around her neck felt suddenly heavy. She glanced up at the crucifix again, fidgeting in her seat.
Lily’s eyes were once again drawn to her aunt’s fingers, as she noticed the affection with which her aunt idly rotated the tarnished ring on her wedding finger. Her aunt noticed, and sat up smiling, appearing much taller.
‘Try it, try it’ she smiled, fumbling the words. She slipped the ring off easily, her hand’s bony with age, and passed it through a small gap in the bars between them. Lily took it carefully, and slid it on to her own finger, holding up her hand to show it off.
‘My husband!’ her aunt responded gleefully, pointing at the cross. There was such love in her expression, Lily realised, as her aunt’s already impossibly crinkled skin became even more lined as she beamed. What Lily herself sometimes saw as an institution of isolation had been everything to her aunt, who was now waiting for the day when she would join God in heaven. To unite with Him whom she had made her eternal friend, husband, and father, and be welcomed by His warm embrace.
For Lily, who found life so endlessly rich and full of possibility, this would never be something she could understand. She was glad, though, that her aunt awaited the end of her life without fear, and she continued to make small talk, as much as they were able. She reached for her aunt’s hands once again, and found that her own were gripped tightly in return.
‘Thank you, goodbye, I will pray for you too’, she assured, as she stood up from the low chair and waved a final farewell. Lily never prayed, but she always made an exception after these visits, just in case someone was listening. As she pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped out onto the street, she was blinded by the sun.
She hoped that this wouldn’t be her last visit, as she did each with each passing year. Lily knew that the way she imagined her aunt and the life she had lived was probably far from the reality. But, as families do, she would continue to visit for as long as she could, so that they might continue trying to find common ground in their misimagining of each other.
Lily and her Nena Aquilina.