Short Story: The Cycle

By M.T.C.

Published in the Age, Melbourne

18 February 1933

Paid £1/10

David was lonely – he’d been lonely for thirty five years. It has started when the first baby was born and as each of the remainder of their five children had arrived he had gone further into the background. He supposed it was the natural place for a man with as capable a wife and mother as Martha. Strange how a woman gives herself to her children, almost loses her identity in them and leaves the man who so filled her life outside.

He looked at her, sitting opposite him in the soft evening light, doing fine crochet work with such patient ease – that was how she did everything, that was how she had brought up her children, and they were a credit to her – all married now from Lenore, the eldest, who had four small daughters, down to Dorothy, Martha’s baby who had been married a month.

David knew that Martha was fretting for Dorothy – she had been her baby so long. Being some years younger than the rest of the children, Dorothy had always been a home-girl, and mother and daughter had seldom been separated, even for a day. There had been a wonderful palship between them that David had envied at times. Well, Dorothy was married now.

“You’re not minding any of the grandchildren to-night, Martha?” David asked, breaking the stillness.

“No.”

“Then – then would you care for a walk? – we might climb to the top of the hill and look over the lights of Melbourne. Do you remember how fond we were of the heights when we were young?” His tone was uncertain – he and Martha hadn’t set out to take a walk for many a year.

“No – I’m going round to see Dorothy; she was getting the rest of her curtains home from the maker to-day, and will be probably wanting to put them up this evening – she is very anxious to see her home quite settled, and I know she will want my help.”

“Couldn’t George help her?”

“A husband as new as George doesn’t know anything about putting up curtains.”

Martha folded up her work and stowed it neatly away in her neat sewing box, then she went to get her hat and returned in a few minutes ready to walk the two blocks to Dorothy’s new home.

David went with her as far as the front gate – ostensibly to look at the flower beds in the fast fading daylight, but really because he wanted her company as long as possible. The old home had been very quiet since the last of the fledglings had flown, and he was realising, more than ever, just what a lonely old man he was. His children had never been comrades to him as they had been to Martha. She had had a knack of drawing their confidences, and they had leant on her while he, handicapped with a natural quietness and dearth of words, had been an onlooker. Still, he knew that they were not lacking in love and respect, and he had contented himself.

He watched his wife until she was out of sight, and he saw that she had lost a lot of her spring and life, had grown older, since Dorothy had gone. She had lived for that girl, especially after the others had married and she had become not only the baby but the only one, and now Dorothy was living for another. It must be a terrible wrench for a mother to know that she was no longer necessary to an adored daughter’s life. Maybe, the loneliness he had suffered all these years was nothing to what Martha was suffering now. He wished that he had insisted on their going for the walk – still, it was years since he had insisted on Martha doing anything.

He strolled round the cool dimness of his garden, suddenly glad of the peace and gentleness about him. Usually, at this hour, the voices of some of the grandchildren, shrill and penetrating, were echoing through this quiet retreat. It was often Martha’s lot to mind her children’s children while the parents went seeking diversion after the modern custom, and David marvelled at the patience with which she handled these up-to-the-minute imps.

After all, Martha was getting old, too and, having devoted her own life so exclusively to her children, it didn’t seem quite fair that she should devote her old age to her children’s children. Nevertheless, she was always more than willing to take charge of the small fry; it was only David who had any objections, and these he hid deep in his heart. The hope that he might claim his wife again when the nest was empty died in the light of the claim of the grandchildren.

He was surprised half an hour later to hear the gate click and see Martha return. He was sitting in a comfortable wicker chair on the verandah smoking, and though he could not see her face in the gloom, he knew by her footsteps that there was a weary droop about her.

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The Cycle The Age, Melbourne, 18 February 1933.

“You weren’t away long,” he said. “Were Dorothy and George out?”

“No, but they were going for a walk to the top of the hill – to look out over the city lights.” Her voice was weary, and David wondered if the halt in it held a hint of tears. Martha was not the type that cries easily.

“Did you tell them you’d come to help with the curtains?”

“Yes, but – but Dorothy said that George was having a half-holiday to-morrow, and he was going to help her. They seemed to be looking forward to – to doing it together.”

“Didn’t they suggest you going for a walk with them? It’s such a pleasant evening.”

“I – I guess they’re too much in love to want me along. I – I felt so lonesome walking home by myself, David – I’m so used to having Dorothy at my side. I felt as though I’d lost something, but it’s only natural that George should be first, and I guess I should be thankful to see her so – so happy.”

David would have liked to have squeezed her hand and told her that he was lonely, too – that he’d been lonely for years; but it was so long since he’d squeezed her hand that he was afraid she might think it foolish.

Just then there came the sound of children’s voices down the street; they drew nearer and the gate clicked again. It was Lenore, their eldest, with her four small girls.

“Just brought my four chicks round here for the evening,” she said, as she came up the path. “Tom and I want to go to the pictures – marvellous show on. By the way, mother, will you watch that Joan doesn’t eat anything that will disagree with her – she hasn’t been too well all day – and if it gets chilly later will you see that Betty puts on her cardigan.”

David felt suddenly tired; the dim peace of his garden that had seemed so gentle and kind was to be broken; it had ever been the same – there had always been something to crowd him away from his wife.

He started when Martha stood up. “Sorry, Lenore,” she said, “but I can’t mind them to-night; your father and I were just thinking of taking a little walk.” Defiantly she picked up her hat where she had thrown it on the verandah seat. “Come on, David,” she said.

Bewildered, but conscious that something big was happening, David followed her.

She slid her arm through his as the gate closed after them, and David had a sudden queer sensation as though he were back in that night of long ago when he and Martha had walked down the aisle of the church newly-made man and wife, and she had clasped his arm with tender confidence just as she was clasping it now.

“We won’t climb the hill to look at the lights,” she said, “that’s for those who are just at the beginning of life; we’ll take the track around the river; it’s so peaceful there and friendly – not lonesome like the heights.”

David drew her hand into his and squeezed it gently.