Chapter 10 - 1918: Helen
When Helen woke, the sun was long above the horizon. The house sat still. She rolled to her side and gazed at the clock next to the bed. It was nearly nine.
She stripped off the previous day’s clothes and walked naked down the hall, a slight smile on her face. If her father was home, he was in for a surprise. While her past self would have cringed at such a thought, Helen was in control now. In charge. She grinned as she filled the bathtub and stepped in, reveling in the silky warmth of the water enveloping her curvy form, grateful for the luxury of the gas water heater. She stared at her full breasts as they floated on the water’s surface. She wondered what it would feel like to undress as Matilda, to see her breasts, to touch them…
Dressed and wearing her new hairstyle held in place by a clip in front, Helen went downstairs. She was alone. By the look of things, her father hadn’t eaten breakfast. She started a pot of coffee and fried a couple of eggs.
When she was full and content, Helen left the house with letters her mother had written to various relatives and walked into town. She supposed her family would find out the truth of her mother’s death soon enough. They would, perhaps, find it odd to receive correspondence from a deceased woman, but Helen brought the letters along as a good excuse to meet Matilda. She wondered if she should have written to her relatives about her mother’s death, but the thought fled as fast as it had come. Leave that bit of fun to my father. It’s his problem now.
The hour just passed ten when she arrived at the post office. She was relieved she had awakened in time to get to her meeting with Matilda. Nibbling on pastries and sipping tea at Ethel’s Teahouse yesterday afternoon seemed an eternity ago. She posted the letters and exited the small building, receiving a handful of stares from passersby.
Do you like my hair? Or is it too much for a little town like Hurston? She giggled.
“Helen, is that you?”
Helen snapped her gaze away from the group of young mothers with buggies who had passed.
Matilda stood not five feet away, a basket clutched in her gloved hands. Her mouth formed the perfect little O. A pin-striped navy-blue serge suit hugged her petite body. A large golden brooch clasped the ruffles of her white blouse, which poked out between the V-cut of her suit coat, flanked by collars. A matching hat with a large white bow, tilted slightly to the left, completed the ensemble.
“Good morning, Matilda.”
“I almost didn’t recognize you. Why, your hair, it’s...it’s so, so...fashionable.” Matilda smiled.
Helen’s heart warmed as a blush covered her cheeks. “Do you like it?” she asked in a girly voice, primping herself.
“I do, very much. I’ve thought of getting a bob for some time now, ever since Irene Castle cut her hair off.”
“That was two years ago.”
“Very good. You know your fashion.”
Helen laughed. “My parents forbade me from having any fashion magazines in the house, but that didn’t keep me from looking whenever I ventured into town. It was quite the scandal when a woman cut her hair, even someone as famous as Irene Castle.”
“Shall we walk?”
They strolled down the promenade in front of the shops. “So, your parents don’t approve of your hair? When did you have it done? The beauty shop would have been closed by the time we parted yesterday, and it’s just opening as we speak.”
“I did it myself. And actually, my parents haven’t seen it yet.” Well, Father has...in a manner of speaking. And Mother won’t be seeing much of anything but the dirt and the inside of a casket. The moment the words crossed her mind, unbidden grief touched her like a hot poker. Why now? Still now? No, she’s dead. She’s been dead to me for years. Helen wished she could change her mindset like flipping a railroad switch, redirecting the train of her thoughts as she pleased.
“Is something the matter?” Matilda’s blond brow furrowed.
Helen’s eyes shifted to her feet, then to a couple of businessmen on her left. She met her friend’s gaze after a few seconds and took a deep breath. “I don’t suppose there’s somewhere more private we might talk?”
“Ethel’s is open. We could have brunch. My treat.” Matilda offered her arm.
Helen half-smiled and took it. “That would be lovely. Thank you. You’re too kind.”
Matilda waved her off with her free hand. “Nonsense. I feel we will soon become the best of friends. It seems strange, but I truly feel like I know you well already.”
“The feeling is mutual.” You have no idea.
They entered Ethel’s and took seats. Matilda ordered a pot of breakfast tea and a plate of scones. After everything was laid out, she gestured toward Helen. “Do you have something on your mind?”
Helen nibbled a scone. “I have too much on my mind. Do you wish to know the truth?”
“Of course.” Matilda sipped her tea. She placed the cup on the saucer, the china clinking.
“My mother passed away last night.” The words left Helen’s mouth like a breath stolen by the breeze. Her eyes remained on the tea in her friend’s cup as the sting of a rebel tear formed.
The warmth of Matilda’s now-gloveless hands enveloped Helen’s hand on the table. A gentle squeeze. Then: “Oh, darling, I am so very sorry. Why on earth are you here instead of mourning at home? Are you quite certain you’re all right?”
The questions Helen wished to avoid pelted her like hail. She shook her head, hating the tear tracking down her flushed cheek. “I need to go on living.”
Matilda seemed to consider this. “And what of your father?”
“My father has...taken care of things. I am certain he will make the necessary arrangements for her funeral. Being a pastor, he’s familiar with the work involved.”
“You speak so candidly, Helen. You’re hiding your feelings, even from yourself, dear. Were you not close to your mother?”
Helen shook her head. She could almost feel Matilda’s emotions as if they were her own--that honest concern, that good nature that put others before herself. She shook herself again, pushing down those feelings. “I am afraid not. My parents and I, let’s just say we seldom saw eye to eye on matters. You remember me telling you that my mother was ill for quite some time?”
“Then you understand it wasn’t completely unexpected that she might pass.”
“Still, I am sorry. Now I feel awful having spoken of my good relationship with my parents yesterday.”
“You’re fortunate to have loving parents. I must admit some envy on my part, but I don’t begrudge you your happiness. Perhaps meeting you and getting to know you will fill a void that my parents couldn’t.”
“Perhaps, but you must be saddened. I see it in your eyes.”
Helen’s throat closed. Her chest constricted. She hated her body’s betrayal of her emotions. “Y-yes,” she croaked. It’s her emotions filling me. It has to be. I don’t care about my mother. I don’t.
Matilda offered her handkerchief to Helen, who took it and wiped at her eyes and nose. When she composed herself, she said, “I apologize. Perhaps we ought to talk about something else.”
“If you’re quite sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I need a distraction.” Helen gave a watery smile.
“I will do my best. Perhaps this is just what you need, Helen. A morning out with a friend, a walk in the sunshine…”
“A reminder that life goes on.”
Matilda gave an easy nod. The other young woman’s kindness was a balm, but it was only a bandage applied with little effort to cover the wound. Deep inside, Helen knew Matilda couldn’t fix her. A wound that remained open as long as hers never healed.
They spent the rest of the morning talking over tea. They ordered finger sandwiches for lunch. When the grandmother clock struck three, Matilda paid the bill and they exited.
Once they were outside, they walked in companionable silence until they reached the edge of the downtown area. Beyond Main Street, Hurston stretched for several miles in all directions. Strolling under the shade of maples that lined the street, they passed a few century-old homes with deep front porches. The cobbled road gave way to gravel and dirt.
Once they were far beyond the center of town, Matilda asked, “How are you holding up, dear?”
Helen stopped. “Much better than if I remained at home.”
Matilda took her hand, entangling their fingers. A jolt shot through Helen, which settled in her core like the warm tea and food.
“I am glad,” Matilda said.
As Helen was about to reply, a cold voice said, “I see you have made a new friend.”
An old fear gripped Helen. She suppressed it and glared up at her father, who stood at a safe distance. He shifted from one foot to the other, his valise clutched in one shuddering hand and his Bible held to his chest like a shield. The wide brim of his hat rendered his face in shadow.
Matilda gave a little start, then recovered when she realized it was Helen’s father. “Good afternoon, Pastor Hawkins. I am Matilda Forkins, and yes, I’ve had the pleasure of making your lovely daughter’s acquaintance.” She released Helen’s hand and held out her own.
The pastor’s head moved an inch. Maybe he stared at the proffered hand. Just as Helen thought he wouldn’t shake her friend’s hand, he did the polite thing. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Forkins.” He didn’t release Matilda’s hand. “Your family doesn’t attend my church. Are you Catholic?”
Matilda kept her smile plastered to her face. “I am, but I’m sure that is neither here nor there. I am sorry to hear of your dear wife’s passing, Pastor.”
Pastor Hawkins released Matilda’s hand as if he’d been burned. “Thank you for your condolences.” Helen felt his gaze on her. “The arrangements have been made. The funeral will be in two day’s time. A private graveside service.”
“Of course,” Helen said. “Now, if that is all, Father, I’ll be home in time to make dinner.”
“Don’t bother yourself, Helen. I shall find something in town.”
You think I might poison you? A wicked grin formed on her lips.
Her father turned on his heel without another word.
They watched him go. Matilda turned to Helen. “I can see why you aren’t close to your father. He is a rather cold man, especially for a pastor.” She grew quiet, then added as she stroked her chin, “But it’s odd. I’ve heard much talk around town that your father is dedicated to the people, a comfort during hard times. Doesn’t he run a weekly soup kitchen?”
Helen sighed. “Oh, yes, he does all manner of wonderful things.” The words tasted of rotten apples. “Perhaps he is devoted to his parishioners. Perhaps it gives him a warm feeling knowing he’s seen doing good, but are you familiar with the Bible verses that speak of whitewashed tombs?”
Matilda nodded. “The priest reads scripture every Sunday, so it’s familiar. Wasn’t Jesus referring to the Pharisees?”
“That’s right.” They walked along the path. “The Pharisees looked pure and good on the outside, but on the inside, they were dirty, disgusting, just like a whitewashed tomb that appears beautiful on the outside, but it holds only decay and bones on the inside.”
Matilda gazed at Helen with large eyes. “So, you’re saying your father is a hypocrite?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. The least he could do is reflect the truth, whether for good or evil. That would be the honest thing.” But you’re too ashamed of the monster you are, Father. I’ve seen your heart, buried in years of lies. You may have even convinced yourself of your supposed goodness. Or maybe it’s a lie you tell yourself because you don’t really believe in the God you claim to serve. What’s left but to serve yourself? And you’ve done that plenty of times when you’ve...
“Yes?” Helen snapped out of her thoughts and focused on the hazel eyes that seemed to stare straight into her soul.
“Are you...all right? You seemed somewhere else.”
Helen forced a smile. “I’m quite all right, as long as I’m with you.” She blushed.
Matilda giggled and clasped her friend’s hand, swinging their arms between them. “I am so very glad we’re friends. It seems to me we’re of a like mind. As for your father, we don’t need to talk about him if you don’t wish, but know that should you feel you need to confide anything in me, I will always listen.”
“You’re too good to me, you know that?” But that’s why I want to be with you. That’s why...I want to be you.
Matilda gave a little giggle and waved her off. “Come on, the day is still ahead of us for a few hours. Let us enjoy the breeze and sunshine before it fades.”