Deborah was onto something with the cleaning. Tidying the house and tossing out everything they no longer needed.
The idea resurfaced when she sat with Maurice at the dining table one night.
“I know nothing seems to work now,” she began, “but what sort of things used to make you happy, Maurice? Things like writing?”
He said that had been untrue for a long time now, as soon as it became classified as ‘work’ – with exceptions made for every time someone recognised him and gave him compliments without making too much of a spectacle.
“I find that I like to keep busy when I’m stressed,” Deborah said, and Maurice nodded. “Maybe there’s something we could go and do together to get your mind off things.”
“I’m sorry,” he said first, “I appreciate what you want to do, but I’m not sure I’m fit to leave the house for awhile. I’d… I’d rather not deal with rumours or anything, I’m afraid I would say something wrong.”
“Okay, then we’ll find something here to do. We could,” she cleared her throat, “we should involve the twins as well, shouldn’t we?”
“Yeah. You could do with being a bit less busy.”
She stood and shoved in her chair; Maurice was afraid he had offended her. She walked to the sink and rearranged the dishes inside it.
“Let’s hire a chef for a night. You could do with a proper meal – I think we all could – and then we could relax and talk. What about that?”
Then there it was, the shy and stumbling little laugh neither of them had heard in years. Maurice felt like he had to talk over it as soon as he could.
“Really? Isn’t that a bit–?”
“It probably is, but maybe that can be a start.”
Two nights and several phone calls later, the four of them stood in the kitchen, rushing to match it to Deborah’s definition of ‘presentable.’ The laughter resurfaced several times, becoming more comfortable with each repetition.
The doorman followed her to the car, and loaded the boot with the suitcases. She was occupied by listening. She returned to the older tapes, the memories, and pressed the headphones close until the foam stuck in her ears, heavy and humid.
‘Thank you,’ passed automatically from her lips, as she locked the doors and turned the key. She slid the final cassette into the car’s deck.
She was trying to hear it. The moment Maurice ran out of life. It must’ve clicked somewhere, at a specific moment, and she wanted to get close. Or work backward to bridge the gap between happy-sounding memories and the sad ones. There had to be a day when it stopped, and she felt somewhat bad for missing it entirely, ignoring it in favour of artificial happiness and moving too fast.
This tape contained the beach holiday. She swore she could hear grains of sand catching between the reel and the teeth, but no sadness. She remembered the way the sun fought through clouds, the exact colour of Amy’s swimming costume, the box of snacks and inventions Donald helped her pack that morning, but no sadness. Recalling Maurice’s face was a struggle; he sponsored so many recordings but succumbed to so few photographs. Had he been happy? Neutral, even?
Maurice, her recorded voice said, get the happiness machine!
And he laughed, brittle and shy. His laugh had always been that way, although she could not place the last time she’d heard it.
Amy! he began, Amy, wait for me!
The recording ended, and the car ejected the finished tape. Deborah sighed heavily and pressed it in again.
While she had a lot of questions and inconsistencies, she was certain of one thing. She was glad that Maurice got to Amy first, to the point she cried with relief.
“Wait for me,” she said softly.
OHGOD, Sally, this kills me so hard. That thing of not being able to recall, and feeling like she ought to, searching for a moment, a specific moment, because then she could at least… something. Knowing that Maurice’s laugh had always sounded like that, but not being able to remember the last time she heard it. Suddenly doubting her own memories, whether the ones that had felt happy at the time, that sounded happy in the recordings– had they been? Or had Maurice been helpless and miserable even then? Had she chosen to ignore it with her own coping methods of frantic, forced happiness?
OH MY GODDDDDD, OH MY GOD. But then recognising that bond between Amy and Maurice and being so, so thankful for that, at least. Even if everything else is incomprehensible and frightening, at least there’s that.