Mrs. Winter’s Last Supper / Short Story

Mrs. Winter’s Last Supper / Short Story

The mourners filed past like a slow, solemn snake. Caps doffed and knees buckling they resembled beggars more than the recently bereaved by proxy. Begging you to accept their sympathy and hoping you would throw them a scrap or two of admiration for their perfectly honed puppy dog eyes and sincere condolences.

Mrs Winter had never been one for insincerity and she wondered how long she could stand receiving such an onslaught of it on a day like this.

Daisy stood shivering on the other side of the open grave, her skeletal frame looking like it might fall forward any moment from the weight of her head which sat precariously positioned atop her thin neck like a wilting tulip.

Even here, graveside watching her fragile daughter, Mrs Winter had no trouble remembering the wave of relief she had felt waving goodbye all those years ago.

Daisy had stood buffeted by the wind outside the majestic doors of her new boarding school. The big, fat, confused tears rolling down her cheeks should have been heart-breaking to watch, but they tugged not a single heartstring. Mrs Winter kept her eyes firmly on the road ahead as Mr Winter steered the car slowly away down the tree lined gravel road.

The mourners had all filed past now and she could feel Mrs Cowley’s hand on the small of her back gently nudging her forward.

‘May I have a moment,’ Mrs Winter said, nodding almost imperceptibly towards the grave.

‘But yes of course, my dear!’ Mrs Cowley sounded horrified, as if the nudge she had given her could have been perceived as trying to push her in with Mr Winter. Mrs Winter couldn’t muster the energy to make her feel better, just proffered a curt nod and made her way around to Daisy.

She was talking to one of the few childhood friends she’d made on the handful of holidays she’d spent at home on the farm. Daisy’s friend bade a hasty goodbye when she saw Mrs Winter approaching and offered her a half smile before scuttling off.

They stood there for a long time, side by side in silence. As was their way.

‘I didn’t know’ Daisy said – almost inaudibly. Mrs Winter’ didn’t break the quiet that followed.

Daisy’s eyes rested on her mother’s shoes. They were brand new; slim black wedges with a small, sparkling butterfly on the delicate front buckle.

Mrs Winter thought back to the summer when Daisy was ten. She was staying at home for two whole weeks. Usually Mrs Winter tried to limit her stays at home to a maximum of one week, but Mr Winter had insisted she stay for longer this time. ‘She’s old enough to help on the farm now,’ he said.

Mrs Winter told Mr Winter in those rosy first few months of marriage that she would never send her future children to boarding school, even if that was ‘the way it was done here’. How could she bear to be without them? As it was, Daisy was an only child and Mrs Winter had sent her away.

Mr Winter was of course only too happy to ship her off and did not question the change of mind. Money was no object after all and in his mind Daisy was nothing more than an addition to the yapping beagles he was surrounded by day and night – except perhaps he had more love and patience reserved for them.

Like that summer he threw Daisy out of their bed one morning after she’d crawled in, deliriously delighted to be back home snug and warm under mummy and daddy’s duvet. The dogs had stayed, lazily looking up at their master as he ordered them not to move from the foot of the bed.

It took a week before he tried to lay a hand on Daisy. Mrs Winter could see the rage growing in him after he caught her walking into the kitchen still wearing her muddy welly boots.

Mrs Winter had frozen halfway down the stairs when she saw his arm raised above his head ready to strike. Before she had time to think, she threw the heavy wooden basket intended for their raspberry picking later that day towards Mr Winter, where it struck him over the head and knocked him sideways onto the kitchen counter. All she could think was that the sound of his head hitting the cold marble was curiously loud and quiet at the same time.

Daisy had looked up at her mother, eyes bulging with fear and confusion. She had never seen her father strike her mother, but now she had seen her mother strike her father.

Mrs Winter knew she didn’t have much time. After checking he was still breathing, she phoned the mother of one of Daisy’s boarding school friends and asked for Daisy to stay with them the rest of the summer, dropping her off immediately. She’d cited bereavement abroad as the reason and the mother probably took the cold urgency in Mrs Winter’s voice as that of someone in shock and swiftly agreed to the arrangement.

Mrs Winter knelt down before her daughter and made her promise not to speak a word of this to anyone. Maybe it was the steely look in her mother’s usually loving eyes, maybe it was the soft, delicate fingers now digging into her shoulders like claws, but Daisy kept her promise.

That was the last summer she spoke to her mother and Mrs Winter never tried to change her mind. There was a certain safety in silence she decided.

The months of beatings and abuse Mrs Winter endured as punishment for hitting him with the basket was nothing compared to the punishment that was to come. The few times Daisy came home for a short stay Mr Winter took enormous pleasure in parading his newfound ‘loving’ relationship with his daughter in front of Mrs Winter.

It was Daisy’s idea never to stay too long; she couldn’t bear to be around the person who had hurt her father in such an awful way and who’d never apologised or even tried to explain. Mrs Winter never buckled; she stayed as silent as her daughter.

In the years that passed, Mrs Winter felt content enough with the thought that Mr Winter never did strike Daisy that day – and never had since. If he did, he knew he would lose Daisy’s devotion and then how could he punish Mrs Winter in such a delicious way?

The long silences she endured when she and Daisy were alone were filled in her mind with all the wonderful conversations they would have had if they were free from Mr Winter. Yes, she had made the right choice.

Daisy straightened her neck and looked up at the pink streaked, gunmetal grey sky resting above the church yard. It was only four o’clock, but the days were shorter in December and the nights drew in almost without detection.

‘It was a quick journey,’ Daisy said, ‘the new fast train has halved the time.’ Mrs Winter knew. She looked up at her pale daughter; the long neck she’d inherited from her father; the strong, straight lips came from her.

Daisy lowered her head and met her mother’s gaze. Mrs Winter wondered where her fierce intelligence came from. Not everyone who goes to a good boarding school ends up going up to Cambridge, but Daisy had.

Mrs Winter had felt so proud when she’d listened to Daisy’s excited voice telling her father over a New Year lunch four years ago that she had been accepted; she’d had to leave the table so as not to reveal the tears that were streaming down her face.

Overt emotion was not something Mrs Winter did. Her emotional life had to exist neatly concealed on the inside, in hidden rooms only to be opened in private very rarely so as not to forget how to love. She could never become so numb that she stopped loving her daughter. Even if Daisy didn’t know it, Mrs Winter was the only parent who carried real feelings for her.

Daisy became consumed with her studies at university and came home even less often. Being a medical student at one of the world’s most prestigious universities ate up all her time and energy. She appeared thinner and thinner each time they saw her, and Mrs Winter worried something was very wrong.

It was the only time Mrs Winter spoke to her directly since she was ten. She sat down next to her by the kitchen table and rested a soft hand on her slim wrist; ‘Are you ill?’ Daisy didn’t answer, just picked up her cup of tea and moved into the sitting room with a trail of beagles behind her.

‘I didn’t want to make a fuss,’ Daisy’s voice sounded as far away as the light that was dimming around them. The churchyard was empty now.

‘Last October I mean. I’d forgotten to tell you about the new fast train and arrived earlier than anticipated. The taxi was just standing there…’ Her voice trailed off.

Mrs Winter looked down at the grave which was now just a black hole. She would never forget the horror she saw in her daughter’s face that night.

The kitchen door was already open when Daisy arrived; Mr Winter had just been outside fetching a particularly nice piece of wood to use and forgot to close it. Daisy thought afterwards it had been like seeing a mirage; the darkness all around her in the courtyard, the light streaming out of the door of the cosy country kitchen; her mother tied half-naked to the kitchen table, everywhere but lower arms, chest and face covered in bruises and cuts. Her father with his back to the door holding a log. She couldn’t see his grin, but she could feel the icy satisfaction in his stance, legs spread apart, one hand on his hip.

Daisy had caught her mother’s eyes as she approached the doorway; the look in them had been the same it always was when Mrs Winter looked at her.

The impact propelled her backwards into the courtyard where she ran until her legs gave in, her father’s last words ringing in her ears;

‘Let’s wrap things up before we have to pick up Daisy, shall we?’

Mr Winter never found out she was there.  Mrs Winter told him there had been a message on the telephone saying she couldn’t make it after all due to some exam or other, and that she had accidentally deleted the message.

They didn’t hear anything from Daisy for weeks, not until the parcels started arriving in December. Tiny little parcels filled with the most delicious home baked treats. All they said were ‘Daisy’s homemade advent treats for the Daddy who deserves them.’

Mr Winter savoured each one slowly in front of his wife at the end of supper. ‘Another special treat from Daisy,’ he’d say. ‘Doesn’t she take good care of her old man?’  His satisfied grin beamed across the table to Mrs Winter. She stayed silent.

The last treat arrived on Christmas Eve. Mr Winter didn’t eat much that evening; ‘I’m not fond of sea bass anyway’ he said as he brusquely moved the plate aside and took another big swig of his wine.

He’d been feeling unwell for a while but couldn’t admit it as ill health was a sign of weakness in his eyes.

‘Another parcel arrived for you today,’ Mrs Winter said, leaning across the table to pass him the beautifully wrapped present.

‘Ah, my sweet Daisy,’ he said, his high-pitched voice cracking slightly as he bent backwards to catch his breath.

He opened the parcel slowly, imagining how painful it must be for Mrs Winter to watch. Inside was a single, heart shaped little chocolate.

‘All good things come in small packages,’ he proclaimed and popped the chocolate into his mouth.

Mrs Winter stayed as still as she always was. Not even when he moved across the table to grasp her arm, his eyes wild with panic, did her gaze change.

‘Thank you,’ Mrs Winter said, and took her daughters freezing cold hand in hers. They could see Mrs Cowley moving up the path to check on them.

‘Mrs Winter, is everything alright?’ Had it been lighter they would have seen Mrs Cowley’s cheeks go red from the unfortunate turn of phrase.

‘Oh I’ve had my last supper as Mrs Winter, it’s Ms Summer now,’ she said, gripping Daisy’s hand tightly. Mrs Cowley looked up at her like a startled deer and stumbled over a few words before she managed to put together a whole sentence.

‘I see, yes, well, carrying on the name can be a bit like carrying on the grief I suppose.’

Ms Summer let go of her daughter’s hand and put the neatly ironed and folded tissue she’d been carrying back in her purse.

‘Yes, a bit like that,’ she said smiling, taking hold of Daisy’s hand again before moving down the path.

Mrs Cowley rubbed her red cheeks and let her eyes rest on the two women moving away from her on the icy path. With the light now nearly gone and Daisy’s tiny frame barely visible at her mother’s side, it looked like they were melding into one another.