|P. D. R. Lindsay|
The Paper Nautilus
read by nic sebastian
I promised you one and today I find it. You ought to be standing beside me to see it. A paper nautilus. It floats in towards the shore on the quiet low tide, bobbing and swaying with the rhythm of the ripples that are scarcely waves. I wade out to rescue it before it grounds and holes itself then change my mind. I stop and wait, ankle deep, letting it sail towards me, one lilt forwards and half a slide back, prolonging the joy of finally having a paper nautilus within my grasp. White, lucent, ribbed and knobbed, its lustrous splendour leaves me breathless. I sigh. I can imagine your delight on holding it. My pleasure in these natural things, my ability to appreciate their perfection, comes from you and what you showed me.
"A paper nautilus," you said, "is the egg case of a primitive squid. The spiral end holds the eggs and the rest is space for mum to hide in whilst she protects them." That was when I was five. "I could do with a shell to hide in," you added as you lifted me nearer the lambent white curve. It had been a wet May Saturday and we escaped boredom visiting the Natural History Museum. "They live in warm shallow seas like parts of the Pacific," you said. "We'll go and find one when you're older." You hated grey days, louring clouds and the eternal English rain. It was only Pop's job that kept us in London and you yearned for your New Zealand home.
The Natural History Museum became a familiar place to us by the time I was nine. And always you would stop at the case of nautilus shells and breathe out gustily. "I wish I could find one," you would say wistfully. The money for your trip home, our trip to see Gran and Grandad, was spent on my school fees. And Gran died before I met her. I was eleven then and old enough to realize that adults could cry. But I was bewildered by your tears and my inability to stop them.
That was the year I tried for a scholarship so that you could finish with full-time employment in the bank. My scholarship and your part-time work would still allow you to save some money for your trip home. Together we laboured at the English, art and science folios I had to complete for the entrance exam. Pop provided folders, thick bonded paper and wonderful coloured board, but you helped me plan, write and present. Of course I chose the paper nautilus for my science folder. Old enough to be intrigued by sex, I sniggered over a mental picture of the tiny male nautilus who rarely exceeded four centimetres, mating with a female ten times that size. I drew a pair life size and under them wrestled to paint the light white purity of their egg case, that beautiful paper nautilus shell. Finally I made a detailed drawing of the female nautilus showing her two special arms, their fan-shaped ends clutching her new-made home full of eggs. "Another perfect mother," you said as you helped me place the shading and shadows to make a three-dimensional appearance on the flat paper. I enjoyed that project. It didn't win me a scholarship though. The collection of dark-suited, straight-spined, beautifully enunciating females who were the examiners' panel questioned me closely.
© Francesco Minghetti
"Ah, why exactly did you choose this creature, this...ah...nautilus?"
I groped for an answer. You were not permitted to be present to help me. "Mum liked them or Pop thought them beautiful," you had warned me were not the answers this group wanted to hear. "They're very old," I managed. "Linked to the ammonites and - inspired by your comment about perfect mothers - such good mothers."
Spines stiffened and eyebrows raised. They told you that I was probably not the right material for their particular girls' school because I seemed somewhat domestically inclined. You snorted and stayed on as a full-time bank clerk to pay my fees. Not once did you berate me for failing to win that scholarship. Pop tried working longer hours but you insisted that he stop. "We don't see you on Saturdays as it is," you complained. "I want my husband beside me in ten years time, not six feet under."
You were right about the school. I grumbled fiercely over the uniform, the stupid panama hat and that scratchy straw boater, but the education was beyond any monetary value. I never told you that, I didn't know myself until later, at university.
Our trips to the Natural History Museum extended into trips to the British Museum and the V. and A. Then I found friends to accompany me. You stayed home at the weekends and grew roly-poly round, sitting quietly knitting or sewing for me.
You were knitting a sweater for Pop when I told you of my chance for a university scholarship in Vancouver. "Marine biology," I explained, half pleading and half proud. "It was my knowledge of the paper nautilus which impressed the professor."
The needles clicked but you were silent. Then you smiled. "And will you find me a nautilus shell on one of your ventures?"
I cried with relief and hugged you so tightly that the knitting squeezed off the needles.
You almost made it to Canada. Between us we booked the tickets and I found you a place to house-sit whilst the owner was in the States. We were both excited. Pop rang two days before your flight. I didn't recognize his voice, a flat monotone, husky inflections gone. "They've made me redundant," he said. Pop, who trained and studied and kept ahead of all trends.
"Come," I begged, "just come and relax. Forget your problems here and maybe even find a job and stay." But he was obdurate, shell-shocked.
"Must start looking now," he said and handed the 'phone over to you.
"At least we can live on my salary," you said and refused to leave Pop although you wanted so badly to see me. "He needs me to support him and I can help him."
"But, Mum, what about you?" And me, I wanted to say, I need to see you.
I could hear the smile in your voice. "I'm a good wife and mother, there'll be time for me later, I'm earning it now."
My wedding we held in London. You still hadn't been able to visit. But Pop was full of confidence and vigour as he worked his way, with your encouragement, through a computer degree. He stood proudly at my side to give me away to Gordon. A company had promised employment when he graduated and the salary was double both your previous incomes.
"I told you my time would come," you said, kissing me off on my honeymoon. And for over a year you both enjoyed being comfortable and took a long holiday with us in South America. Then you went home to New Zealand to see your father and he died whilst you were there. You never told me if it was hard to leave your old home in the warm Bay of Plenty to return to wintery London. You just offered us your newly inherited house when you heard that our scientific ventures were taking us to New Zealand. We didn't even manage to snatch a few days together there for you had to fly out early. Pop had fallen at work and hit his head. All your hopes of finding him a job in Hamilton, so that you could live in New Zealand and spend weekends in the sea side house which had been your home, vanished. It wasn't a simple fall. Pop had a form of cancerous brain disease. It took three years to destroy his clever mind but left him with all his strength. It took another two years for that to go. And you, without that expensive comprehensive health cover in the land of the welfare state, were his nurse twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.
I raged. It was you who remained calm. "It isn't fair, I cried, "that you are trapped now just when you should be able to do the things you want to."
"He hasn't much time left," you said. And, "He's much easier to manage since his body has deteriorated. He's gone, it's only his husk which remains." Then you wept. And I clutched the receiver and wept with you. Seven months pregnant with our second child, another boy, I couldn't even fly over to help you. Pop was such a big man and the doctor could only get you nursing help for one week of every year. The odd cheque I sent was not enough to pay for the qualified help you needed. You spent it on tapes and children's books to share with Pop.
We trailed over to the funeral three years later, Gordon and I, and our two small sons. "When's my granddaughter arriving?" you demanded. You'll need a woman's support with all these men in the family." Tired and wrinkled though you were you enjoyed playing with the boys. Of course we visited the Natural History Museum. "Haven't you found me a paper nautilus yet?" you asked. The boys all clamoured for the right to hunt one for their Gran.
"I've never spotted one," I told you. "We've not been in the right place when the eggs hatch." You looked at me over the top of the glass case. My boys peered through it and all three pairs of eyes were disappointed. I should have made an effort to find you one. I knew how much you wanted to hold the fragile shell and marvel at the strength of the nautilus mother who held and protected her eggs within the paper-thin walls.
Now I have found you one. My toes are reddish-pink in the cold water. It is, after all, early April. The rest of each foot is white. The paper nautilus floats over my right foot and its whiteness makes my foot a less pure pinkish-white in comparison. I stoop carefully and cup my hands around the shell, sheltering it from the light autumn breeze. Even my breath stirs it and the pale cool sun shines through the wafered walls. My eyes fill with tears. They drip off my nose and splash roundly into the sea. Salt tears to salt water. Bitter feelings dissolving in bitter brine. I straighten up cautiously but my active little daughter kicks me soundly anyway. She is a daughter. I had a scan so that we could tell you.
I turn the nautilus shell around in my hands to view the other side. It is not intact. The shock I feel is so physical that my heart bumps and little daughter squirms in protest. There is a hole, a jagged round hole, where the coil begins to widen out. Some predator has known just where to smash in and get at the mother when she was most vulnerable. I can't give this paper nautilus to you, it's not perfect. But I can't give it to you anyway. You went to sleep the night I 'phoned and told you we knew it was a girl. You didn't wake up. "Heart simply stopped," the doctor said. "Worn out with all that nursing, lifting and supporting. It's a bloody disgrace." His voice was full of anger. "I tried to get nursing help for her but the Government have stopped paying for it."
I couldn't even fly over to see you, too pregnant again to go. Gordon went and brought your ashes back. Today I had intended to scatter them here on your childhood beach.
My tears are still dripping into the sea. It is not just anger which I feel. I am afraid. Fear coils in my gut and grips my bowels. Will I too end up like you and live my life only for others, waiting for my time, to do what I want to do, and will it never come? The nautilus shell gives as my hands tighten. You never once complained. You never said that you were unhappy. You loved loving. I turn the nautilus shell again. A whole side, a shattered side. It's like tossing a coin. Like life itself. You didn't know what would happen. I can't know what will happen. Placing your ashes in this shell is the only way I have of giving you a paper nautilus. And if I take the shell home perhaps when I have to make the difficult choices, like those which you made, I will be reminded of the cost.