The story of Roman & Millie.
© David Milligan-Croft
Ethan died back in ‘48. But his two brothers managed to live right through till the ‘80s, though God knows how. Admittedly, they weren’t in the best of health and, Roman, the eldest, has been housebound for the past fifteen years. Luke could just about manage some chores around the house and garden but, would soon tire and have to rest on the verandah with a cold glass of lemonade that Millie had made.
Millie came up from the town each and every day to clean up the place and cook the old boys some food. In all probability she would have to clean Roman’s bed as he would have soiled it.
Today, she was baking a steak pie with onions, mushrooms and kidneys. The brothers would like that, she thought. Seeing as though she was baking, she may as well rustle up a blackberry pie as it wouldn’t be too much extra trouble for her.
Millie busied herself in the kitchen getting flour on just about everything from her nose to the light shade. The sun was splitting through the Black Willow trees and bathed Millie in an aura of light that made her look like some old angel as she worked at the kitchen table. She had been a very beautiful woman in her youth, but most of her golden hair had turned white as snow now. She still kept her figure though – slim as a twig she was.
She was off in a daydream – probably thinking about Roman. And how they used to go on bicycle rides down to the river and fish for freshwater crabs using a mussel on a piece of string as bait. Roman would dangle the string over the side of the jetty and let the mussel nestle between the rocks. Soon enough, a crab would tippy-toe along and grab hold of it with its claws. Roman would slowly pull the mussel out of the water, with the stubborn crab still attached. He would go on about how stupid crabs were when he was putting them in his bucket. A little smile crept across Millie’s face when, all of a sudden, she was startled by a rap on the window. Millie nearly jumped out of her skin with fright. Lucy’s dazzling smile almost blinded her. In her outstretched fists she held two Jack rabbits. Millie held both her palms to her bosom trying to calm down.
‘Come inside, you silly girl,’ Millie said. ‘You scared me half to death.’
‘Look what I got!’ Lucy shrieked.
‘You ought not to go sneaking up on people like that. Especially if they’re working.’
‘Look what I caught down by the stream. They’d be great in a pie or stew or something, don’t you think?’
‘Just you think now what would have happened if Luke or Roman were sitting here while you did that? I’ll tell you exactly what would’ve happened, they wouldn’t be here to tell the tale, that’s what.’
‘Oh relax, Millie. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing. Well, not all the birds aren’t singing, ’cause I bagged a couple of pheasants earlier this afternoon. But I gave one to Mrs Taylor and I sold the other one to Midway Johnson.’
‘You shouldn’t be exploiting Mr Johnson that way. His mind ain’t what it used to be.’ Millie was inspecting the rabbits. Feeling how much meat was on them, how old they were. She even sniffed the fur. ‘Lucy, where exactly did you catch these rabbits?’
‘I told you. Down by the creek.’
‘This one’s turning,’ Millie said.
Lucy began to shift on her feet and fumble with the tails of her grubby cotton shirt. ‘I caught them with my own bare hands.’ Lucy proffered her dirty hands to Millie for inspection.
‘How exactly did you catch them?’
‘You know – the usual way – with a trap.’
‘What kind of trap?’
‘What difference does it make what type of trap I used!’
‘You no more caught these than I climbed Mount Entwhistle before breakfast. Now you just go and take them back to exactly where you took them from,’ Millie said. ‘Before the old boys see them. They’ll have them skinned and eaten before I get a chance to warm a pot.’
Lucy smiled a little. ‘They are silly old birds aren’t they? Maybe I should return one of them and you could cook the other?’
‘Millie, if one of the old boys tells the postman that he ate rabbit stew for supper, then Jack Parker will tell everyone in town ’cause there isn’t enough gossip as it is. Then whoever you took them from will find out. And who will they coming looking for, Lucy? Me, that’s who. They won’t be looking for Lucy Langdon, oh no, they’ll be looking for Millie Preston.’
‘Alright, alright! I’ll take them back. You don’t have to go on about it.’
‘And if you’re quick about it, you might make it back in time for some blackberry pie.’
Lucy’s eyes lit up as she grabbed the two rabbits and darted out of the kitchen door. Millie smiled as she watched her vault the fence at the end of the vegetable garden and tear a trail through the corn field.
Lucy Langdon was an orphan. No one really knew how old she was. Least of all Lucy. But Millie reckoned she must be in her fifteenth summer by now. Her folks were killed in the mud slide of ‘48. Her aunt Angeline cared for her until it all got too much and she moved away. By that time, Lucy was fairly well able to look after herself. Whether it was by catching things, stealing things or doing the odd job for people in town. She still lives in Angeline’s old house at the edge of town, but it’s pretty much a shell now it needs so much work doing to it.
There’d been a rumour that she’d got hooked up with a vagrant but, like everyone else, he seemed to move on. She wasn’t much of a catch for anyone. Her blonde straggly hair hadn’t seen water, except for rain water of course, for many a year. And you could grow sweet potatoes with the dirt from under her fingernails.
Luke doddered into the kitchen, completely ignoring Millie, with a bed pan that he tipped into the sink.
‘What on earth are you doing!’ Millie cried.
Luke almost fell over with fright. ‘Good God, woman! Don’t be sneaking up on me like that. Are you insane?’
Luke was slavering as he spoke. Millie thought it was due to one of the minor strokes the doctor kept telling her about. He already had a limp in his left leg and didn’t have much use from his right hand anymore.
Millie sighed. ‘Luke, why are you pouring a bed pan down the sink?’
‘It’s Roman’s. He’s all messed up again.’
‘You know you shouldn’t be doing that.’ Millie clutched the front of her apron and moved towards the door. ‘Thank you for trying to help, Luke,’ she said as she climbed the stairs.
When Millie got to Roman’s bedroom she almost wretched on the stench. She pulled back the curtains and swung open the windows. Sunlight streamed into the room, highlighting a dust cloud from the curtains. Roman groaned and stirred, shielding his eyes from the light.
‘Is that you, Millie?’ he asked.
‘Yes, dear, it is.’
‘Go away! I don’t want you to see me like this.’
‘Don’t be silly, Roman. I’ve seen you in worse states.’
‘It’s not right. It’s humiliating.’
Millie sat down on the edge of the bed and held Roman’s hand between her palms.
‘Why can’t you just let me die?’’ he pleaded.
‘Because you’re not ready to leave me just yet,’ she said. ‘Besides, what would Luke do without you?’
‘You’d look after him.’
‘Not all the time, I couldn’t.’
‘He’d manage. He’s completely insane you know. He should be the one locked up in a darkened room all day.’
‘Don’t be saying that about your own brother. You know you don’t mean it. Now move over this side a little so I can pull the sheet from under you.’
After Millie had washed up and finished cleaning Roman she went back to the kitchen to pop the pies in the oven and peel some vegetables. It was while she was scraping the skin off some potatoes that her mind began to wander back to when she and Roman used to go walking together. Millie and Roman had been sweethearts ever since they were children.
Roman, being the eldest, always looked out for his two brothers. Maybe this is what Millie liked in him. He was a big man, with the gentlest of touches. He would hold Millie’s hand like he was cradling a fledgling. They would’ve married too if it hadn’t been for the accident up at the goldmine.
Back in ’48 there had been a terrible rain. The rain seemed to last for weeks, though it only actually lasted for eight days. But for that eight days it sheeted down relentlessly, causing a mist, like a net curtain, over the whole town.
Eventually, the mountain had enough of the rain and decided to move on. It looked like half of Mount Entwhistle slid down into the river. Two mine shafts collapsed, killing twenty nine miners. That’s when Ethan died. Roman was one of the last to be dug out of the mud. When they eventually found him underneath a support beam, his spine had been broken clean in two. Luke had never been the same since. Roman says it’s on account of all the mud that seeped into his brain. But Millie knew that it was because of seeing all of their friends die like that. Right there in front of them. Screaming as they were engulfed by the liquified mud.
There wasn’t one person in the whole town that didn’t know someone who had been killed or injured in the mudslide. The town grieved for years after.
To add insult to injury; the mining company closed down the mine, leaving most of the men in the surrounding area unemployed, and without even a sniff of compensation. The owners said it was an act of God, and that they weren’t liable. So everyone prayed to God on Sunday, but he wasn’t liable and didn’t give them any compensation either.
It wasn’t long before the town dried up, both literally and metaphorically. With the mainstay of the town gone, so had most of the families. Now, it was mostly populated by old folks and a few middle-class people who wanted a little bolt-hole in the country.
Millie looked out of the window and saw Luke pottering about in the garden, between the tomato vines and the artichoke stems. Probably doing more harm than good. She could smell the pastry from the oven.
She went to the refrigerator and made a fresh jug of lemonade, listening to the ice cubes clink as she stirred them around the glass.
Just then, Lucy came bounding in, her grubby yellow blouse sticking to her skin. ‘I put them back, Millie!’ she exclaimed.
‘Good girl. Now go and wash-up, dinner’s almost ready.
‘Awww, do I have to?’
‘If you don’t scrub those filthy nails you won’t get any dessert,’ she gave Lucy a whack on the behind with a tea towel as she ran past, up the staircase, taking them two at a time.
There was silence for a while, then the screech of copper pipes as the hot water started running. Suddenly, there was an almighty crash.
Millie threw down her apron and scurried up the stairs. Lucy was standing on the landing with her hands clamped across her mouth staring into Roman’s bedroom.
‘What on earth happened, Lucy?’
Lucy turned on her heels and bolted past Millie, who could now see what Lucy had been looking at. Roman had fallen out of bed onto the porcelain bedpan shattering it into a thousand pieces, whist managing to pull the dresser on top of him for good measure. Tiny porcelain fragments were protruding from his pyjamas and blood began to spread across the fabric. Millie rushed up, dragged the dresser off, and rolled him onto his back cradling his bruised face in her hands.
‘You silly thing! What on earth were you trying to do?’
‘I saw this on the dresser and I wanted to look at it.’ Roman held out his bleeding palm to show her a small framed photograph.
The glass was cracked and small splinters had embedded themselves into his fingers. Millie looked at the picture. It was an old sepia photo of Roman and Millie when they were in their late teens. She was wearing a floral dress and holding a straw hat in front of her, while he stood behind, hands upon her shoulders in his best blue linen suit. The picture had been taken the day they’d got engaged.
Just about the whole town came to the party. Long trestle tables had been set up in the garden. There was music and dancing. (Jerome had brought his fiddle.) They roasted a whole pig on the spit and baked stuffed beef tomatoes – as big as your fist – on the coals. Everyone had had a great day. There hadn’t been a wedding in the town since Helena Phelps married Butcher Bob Fielding, eight years previous.
The date had been set for June 1st, 1948. But that, as fate would have it, was eight days after the rain came. And the mud that washed away their lives.
Tears began to slip down Millie’s cheek onto the back of her wrinkled wrist.
‘You look so handsome,’ she said.
‘And you look as beautiful now as you did back then,’ he said stroking her cheek with the back of his hand.
‘Don’t be teasing,’ she said wiping her nose and sniffling.
‘I’m not teasing, Millie. I’d marry you tomorrow if it wasn’t for all of this,’ he said gesturing at his prone state.
‘You dozy dunderhead, I wasn’t bothered what physical state you were in,’ she said, slapping him with her tea towel. ‘Besides, we’re too old for all of that.’
‘I guess you’re right,’ he said, fingering the hem of her cotton dress.
Millie looked down at Roman, stroking his greying black hair. ‘Anyway,’ she said. ‘I’ve been coming here for the past thirty years. That’s probably more than any woman could stand in a marriage.’
‘That’s not like a marriage.’
‘How’s it different?’
‘You know. We were never… intimate.’
‘You were intimate enough in the back row of the Odeon!’
‘That was just fooling around. We weren’t proper intimate like married couples are.’
‘I think you still have some of that mud in your head. Anyways, I didn’t care about your back. It’s what’s in here that counts,’ she said, tapping his skull with her knuckles.
‘You mean, you’d still have married me?’
‘Course I would.’
‘Guess that’s all as maybe now,’ he said.
Millie wiped away a trickle of blood from Roman’s nose. ‘Besides, I don’t think my wedding dress would fit me anymore.’
‘You still have it?’
‘Of course I do.’ Millie smiled. ‘I wonder if it would fit Lucy. It would make a right little madam out of her for the day.’
‘As a bridesmaid?’
‘No, you silly old fool. I thought you could marry her!’ she said batting him with the tea towel again.