Crone

Chain Border

Today had started as one of Maria's better days. Today she hadn't felt like plunging the bar-heater into her morning bathwater. There were many days that she looked long and hard at that heater. Pleading with herself to find the courage to just lift and drop. She would welcome the unimaginable sensation of electricity shooting through her viscera, thrilling her nerve endings with its alien amplitude and stilling her stubborn heart forever. But not today. This morning her eye had rested briefly on the heater and she only wished that she could afford to turn it on.

Maria's needs were scant and her days bleak. Every day that passed now was just another step on the journey from birth to death, another step closer. When life had been good she hadn't seen it that way, but how could she have? When you're young and vital, immortality is part of the deal. Dying would be too messy. Too many people would care. It would be like tearing a hole in the centre of a vibrant and colourful tapestry, the threads would pull and snag and the thing would be ruined forever. Now though the tapestry was faded and worn and she was nothing more than a pale strand at the edge, barely connected to the warp and weft of the world she lived in. One little snip and nobody would notice. If she were gone, then she wouldn't have to continue existing in the vacuum left by that which had been taken away.

I didn't know what to say. A cup of coffee cooled on the desk in front of me and someone walked by, squeezing my shoulder gently to get my attention. I jumped slightly and turned to see a kind face miming 'Are you OK?' with panto-exageration. I nodded and gave a thumbs-up which jarred against the gravity of the moment. I concentrated on Maria somewhere in out-there-land on the other end of the phone.

'What's got you feeling this way?' I asked.

'Everything,' came the quiet reply, 'everything that's ever happened.'

Born in small-town Texas, the unwanted result of a drunken coupling between her Mexican mother and handsome farm-labourer father, Maria's childhood had been harsh. She soon realised that the tiny town of Decatur didn't want her around and she vowed that as soon as she was old enough, she'd give them what they all wanted and just leave. It wasn't the sort of place she wanted to be anyway, even if she had been welcome. Built around a standard American town square, Decatur roasted under the Texan sun, parched and irritable through the interminable summers; exposed and insignificant on the vast plains through the harsh winters. The Wise County Courthouse loomed imposing in the middle of the town square, its massive shadow patrolling each side every day, as if checking on the strict morals of the town. Whilst those fine values shunned the likes of Maria and her whoring mother, the good, god-fearing folk of Decatur seemed willing to turn a blind eye to any amount of wife-beating and cousin-fucking. Famous for its courthouse, its whorehouse, and for hosting more than it's share of multiple hangings, Decatur was just somewhere that Maria was always going to have to leave. It wasn't a question of plucking up courage; it was a question of waiting for the opportunity and grabbing it.

One day, when she was fifteen, a glimmer of an opportunity presented itself. She noticed a Chevrolet woodie truck parked just off Main Street. Maria didn't know much, but she could read and she knew an Iowa licence plate when she saw one. Beyond that, she had no idea. She knew neither where Iowa was nor what she would find there. But she knew that Iowa wasn't Decatur, Texas. It was far away. Chances were, that this Iowa registered truck would be heading home sometime soon. Not much came and went from Decatur, but when this truck went, she could go with it. The year was 1949, this would be the year that Maria started again.

Sick with excitement and almost hysterical at the prospect of missing her chance, Maria kept a wary eye on the truck throughout the day. Its shadow stalking round it before lengthening and bleeding into the gathering dusk. It was a strange standoff. The truck began to represent everything to her. It was the ark that could carry her to her future. It was the only thing that mattered. She had got close enough to see that the back contained various pieces of equipment that she didn't recognise, but which were loosely covered with canvas sheets. She could easily hide herself under those, she thought, before retreating again.

'You have to understand,' she said 'an out-of-town truck was a big deal in a place like Decatur.' She pronounced it Decayder. 'Unless you've lived in a small town you probably can't imagine how little goes on.'

I wanted to ask what a 'woodie' truck was because I was finding it hard to visualise what Maria was telling me. But this wasn't about me, it was about her and she wasn't done yet.

She gathered up the few dollars she'd managed to hide from her mother and waited. Night fell as it always did with its oppressive humidity; the constant calling cicadas ringing in her ears like a siren. Without a backward glance at Decatur, she slipped silently and un-noticed under the rough canvas in the back of the truck. She knew she'd never return, and she'd never be missed. It would be days before her mother even noticed she'd gone.

Sometime later, still in Decatur, Maria was jolted awake by the rumble of the engine chugging into life. Incredulous that she'd fallen asleep, she felt the lurch as the gears engaged and she started the first few inches of a journey for which she had no itinerary.

So, the driver hadn't had to put anything in the back of the truck before he departed. He hadn't seen her. Maybe it was luck, maybe it was fate. It didn't matter, she was on her way.

The engine rumbled on. Its drone her only companion. Her own discomfort and hunger nudging at her. Reminding her that this was dangerous. She would be caught, she would have to eat. This was crazy.

Of course she was caught. The driver, inevitably, lifted the canvass at the back of the truck and Maria, to her surprise, found that she was totally calm. A small argument ensued at the dusty roadside. The driver seemed shocked rather than angry. Perhaps he felt responsible for this underage stowaway. Maria begged not to be taken back and assured the driver that she'd only run away again and at least she'd got this far safely this time, so what was the point of turning round? Secretly glad of the company, the man - Dwight - agreed to take Maria as far as his next stop, Wichita, Kansas. To Maria it sounded unfamiliar and glamorous, and she never forgot Dwight or his act of kindness. It was the first real kindness she had been shown, and she was acutely aware that Dwight could have behaved in any way he had chosen. Her journey could have panned out very differently. But Dwight's generosity didn't end when they got to Wichita - Maria by then riding in the front of the truck; he introduced Maria to a woman called Arlene who ran a diner and seemed to believe Maria when she said she was eighteen. To appease his conscience at leaving this child in a strange town, Dwight sweet-talked Arlene into giving Maria a job in the kitchen.

Although the work was hard and the pay meagre, Maria stayed there for almost two years. Wichita was as far removed from Decatur as a young girl could possibly imagine. In her scarce free time she would walk around the streets marvelling at the difference of the place. It was so big, and although the heat still stifled everything during the summer months, it was a dry heat and the air smelled different. She didn't make friends - that wasn't why she was there - but she was happy none-the-less. Maria knew, though, that this was a stepping-stone. Unlike Decatur, there was a huge transit of people and goods through Wichita, indeed it had started life as a trading post, and for the last eighty years had been connected by rail to what Maria could only think of as elsewhere. She often sat and looked at those glittering lines shooting off into the distance, and knew that they were the umbilicus that connected her to the future, to elsewhere. As time went on, she began to wonder what that elsewhere might be like.

Two things convinced her to move on. Her exotic looks were attracting a little too much attention and there was one man in particular that was having difficulty in taking no for an answer. She had no idea how to handle the situation and she was scared. She was thinking of moving on but the decider came when a tornado struck the North side of Wichita in the early fall of 1951. Six people were killed. Maria had just never imagined a tornado could do that. She'd lived her whole life in tornado alley, but they never hit Decatur. It was a speck on the map and hardly worth a tornado bothering with. When she saw for herself what that twister did in Wichita she decided that she hadn't come this far just to be picked off by Mother Nature. She left a note for Arlene, thanking her for her help and apologising for the sudden departure, and within twenty-four hours she was in that massive silver train. A legitimate passenger this time, riding toward a new beginning.

'Am I boring you?' she said suddenly. I realised that I hadn't spoken for a while. I was intrigued by this woman's story but I knew that what I really should do was get her back to now, today, and what the present - rather than the past - meant to her.

'Not at all,' I assured her. 'I'd like to ask how-'

'I went to New York,' she interrupted and I let her.

Perhaps it had always been at the back of her mind, or perhaps it was spur of the moment. She was never sure, but when her train terminated and she found herself in a Greyhound bus depot somewhere in Missouri, she used most of the money she'd saved, on a one-way ticket to New York. It was the word 'New' that got her attention and it just felt like the right thing to do.

As she stepped off the bus and into the brand new Port Authority Bus Terminal her jaw actually dropped in awe. This place was huge. The backs of her legs were dimpled from the textured vinyl bus seats and she rubbed absent-mindedly at them as she gazed around herself. For a while she had to just sit on her case and take it all in. Not, of course, that she had anywhere to go. It seemed like it would take her all day just to walk round the bus terminal, let alone find her way into the city. The scale of it was beyond her. A New York Telephone Company poster on the wall announced that there were one-hundred-and-seventy-seven payphones in the terminal, the largest payphone installation in the history of the Bell system. There were over thirty escalators. Maria had only ever seen one escalator before in her life, and had been too scared to step onto it. There were florists, drug stores, bookstores, bakers, there was even a bowling alley and this was all still within the bus terminal. It was like a whole city under one roof. It was an hour before Maria stepped out onto Forty-second Street.

For that first afternoon, she just wandered round. Occasionally stopping to sit on her suitcase and laugh. She wasn't sure why she was laughing, but something about the skyscrapers sent her searching for a reaction that she didn't have available and so she sat and laughed. Not only had she not seen buildings like that before, she hadn't seen anything like that before. Where she came from, anything that grew, grew sideways. There was virtually unlimited space for buildings, towns, and cities to spread out. Nothing ever went up. Seeing this strange city that was as vertical as horizontal left her shaking her head and smiling inanely. For a girl that grew up with every action frowned upon and scorned it was incredibly liberating to wander round grinning and laughing without anyone seeming to notice. She couldn't stop craning her neck up. She'd only ever looked up before to see a whole lot of sky. As she walked along Fifth Avenue, she approached the Empire State Building, the tallest in New York, she felt that here she could make a new start. The year was 1951, and Maria was starting again.

Fresh starts and aspirations are all very well, but big cities can be cruel, and Maria was not used to the pace of life. Having paid in advance for a small room, she had used all her money and couldn't afford to eat. For a week and a half she resisted the temptation to steal but did, to her shame, take someone's half eaten sandwich out of a trashcan. In her attempts to find work she had encountered an unexpected barrier. Her accent, which she had never even considered, singled her out from the crowd. People heard her slow drawl, and dismissed her as a country rube. Maria had overcome larger problems than that in the past and determination to take root in that mighty city showed itself and she found a break. By the end of her second week in New York, she was working as an usherette at the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street, where 'Call Me Madam' was playing nightly to packed houses.

If at first New York kept more from Maria than it gave her, it soon started giving back. She would wander round, watching the world go by. The women, with their copied European dresses, like the Givenchy and Dior ones she sometimes saw in magazines, the men in their grey flannel. She was just an interloper, but she befriended a few of the other usherettes - with their pinched waists, high heels and pony tails - and sometimes they'd go out, laughing and joking and drinking cocktails. Those were giddy evenings. Maria would try to mimic her friends' accents and emulate their style but they told her to just relax and be herself. Much as Maria had been through a lot in her short life, she hadn't constructed an identity for herself; it seemed like a luxury she couldn't afford.

Window-shopping and introspection went on the back burner for a while. Inevitably, Maria met a man. He was an actor in the play for which Maria seated the audience every night and she had seen him on stage. His name was Owen Pemberton and she met him because of the accent that she tried so hard to disguise. One evening, Maria and her friend Jeannie had stepped into a corridor so that Jeannie could sneak an illicit cigarette. It was a popular corridor for this, as the usherettes were not allowed to be seen smoking on duty. As they stood and Jeannie hurriedly drew on her Lucky Strike, Owen Pemberton strode along, and as he drew level with the two girls he stopped, paused, then lit a cigarette himself.

He later admitted that it was Maria's accent that had caused him to stop. He was taking a role later in the season that required a Texan accent, and he hadn't mastered it. He wanted to spend some time with Maria to absorb her sounds. This was fine by Maria. This handsome English stranger, with the glossy chestnut hair was more than welcome to buy her dinners and hear her speak. She didn't know what to say to him and was very shy in conversation, so sometimes he would give her things to read. But often as she spoke, rather than listen to her voice he just watched her lips move. Maria and Owen fell in love. He told her she was beautiful, which nobody had told her before, and he bought her clothes and makeup and she became quite the envy of the other usherettes whose nightly mission was to catch an actor's eye. Still very much a girl from Texas, Maria whirled round New York on the arm of her handsome man, meeting the other actors and actresses and dropping into this party and that event, this restaurant and that show. It was a surreal blur to a girl who once spent a day transfixed by a truck from out of town. As Adlai Stevenson lost the presidential race to Eisenhower, Owen swept Maria off her feet.

I didn't have to see Maria to know that she was smiling as she spoke about Owen. I noticed, though, that she was furnishing her story with less and less detail. She had told me about such things as the shadow of the truck and the sound of the cicadas in Decatur, but she hadn't told me how old Owen was or a single word that passed between them. In retrospect, I think she needed to do it that way.

The whirl continued and didn't stop until Owen and Maria were living in his flat in Great Portland Street, London, and they were married. Maria spent those first years in London living and laughing and she dedicated herself to enjoying life. It was the first time she'd felt that way. Owen was a hedonist, and oh how he made her laugh. He was not faithful to her and although every single infidelity slashed at her like a razor, she knew, deep down that it would always be the way. One look into those deep hazel eyes could disable her sensibilities and she was in his spell. They were crazy times. If Owen were working, she'd meet him after the show and they'd go to Wheeler's restaurant and then onto The Colony Room or The Gargoyle Club; smoke filled dens full of witty creative types, daringly living the ideals of the sixties before the sixties even happened. One night they would be drinking with Francis Bacon, the next attending some actor-friend's show, kissing in doorways and always, always laughing. For three years they lived like this, against the stuffiness of the fifties, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the rebuilding of London and the choking London smogs, Owen and Maria simply lived.

They would frequently argue. Great passionate bust ups, usually drunk and often in the street outside some Soho hostelry. They were a part of their communication and simply a component of the fabric of daily life. But one night after such an argument Owen didn't come home. This in itself was nothing unusual and Maria wasn't worried until there was a knock at her door and a nervous policeman explained that Owen had choked on his own vomit in a flat in Bayswater. She didn't need to ask whether it was a woman's flat, and the policeman didn't say.

Maria didn't go outside for a week. The year was 1955, she was a widow and she was being forced to start again. Ever since she'd been in London she'd been Owen's sidekick and she hadn't been in control. From the day she had crept under the canvas of that Chevvy truck in Decatur until the day she met Owen she had, at least, been in control of her own destiny and now she was going to have to take charge again. But oh, she missed that man. Her glamorous laughing hero who had sped her from virtual poverty to the heart of a different culture and then left her there. Owen had left her with money and a previously untapped capacity to love which now had no outlet. She was only twenty-one.

1955 saw some of the worst smogs in London's history, and in an effort to escape the worst of the choking pollution, Maria sold her Great Portland Street flat and moved out to Finchley, where she lived happily for seven years. She attended a secretarial course, and worked in the typing pool of an investment bank in the city. It was there that her exotic looks caught the eye of a young accountant named Tom Hobart.

Maria resisted Tom's attentions at first, but he wore her down and they began courting. Theirs was a very standard, starchy courtship compared with Maria's previous experience. These were polite meetings in Joe Lyon's new espresso bars and the occasional trip to the cinema. Once in a while he would drive his Morris Oxford into London and take Maria out to Henley or Windsor for a picnic. It was all very chaste, passions never rising to anything more than handholding and a goodnight kiss. However, he was attentive and decent and he became her second husband and father of her only child.

When, on February the 4th 1967, Maria gave birth to Peter she felt she would burst with pride. For there, in her arms was the small bundle of perfection that she had created. Whatever her life had been up until then, here, she felt, she had put a stake in the ground. This was an achievement - a new life had been created and she couldn't have loved anything more than those seven pounds and five ounces of baby boy.

Life with Tom was stable. Security was what Maria craved and with Tom she got it. It may not have held the blistering highs and lows that life with Owen had, but at least she knew where she'd be from one day to the next. She'd be in the modern two-storey house in Stanwell with the newly fitted kitchen that they'd bought a year before Peter was born. Sometimes she stood in the garden and watched the planes skimming over on their way from nearby Heathrow airport, speculating about the elsewhere they were heading for. Elsewhere was not for her any more. Here was fine. Here was dependable and safe. Here there was a husband who didn't send her into giddying spirals of emotion that left her breathless and weakened. Here was a new automatic washing machine. Here was a garden that her son could play in. It was everything she needed and Maria was content at last. If she missed the giddy days of Owen and Soho she had her memories and they were enough.

Peter grew to be a handsome boy and then a man. Every second since his birth he had been at the very centre of Maria's world and she would embarrass him with kisses and with her protective pride. Whatever happened, she would always love Peter and would always stand by him. He was, she realised, her reason for being and the purpose behind everything she did.

Relations with Tom remained conventional. They orbited around the same house living more-or-less separate lives, united by their shared love for their son. Maria stood by Tom when he started out in business on his own. She forgave him one minor affair and thanked him for the dozen red roses he bought her every anniversary. She didn't need anything else, but life hadn't finished holding up hoops for her to jump through.

One day in October 1987, Tom was late home from work. This was nothing unusual, but what followed was. He arrived home at 11pm, blind drunk and tearful. The stock market had crashed and he was forced out of business. Worse, he had registered their house as an asset, and although it was Maria's money that bought it, it would have to be sold to meet the debt. She could barely look at him after that and within a year they were divorced. By 1988 Maria was living in a council house and married security was only a memory.

Maria told me all this without shedding a tear. Her voice came down the phone line carrying the weight of a lifetime of disappointment. But now she paused and seemed unable to start again. She was still there, I could hear her breathing and I sensed that she was summoning the strength to go on with her story. I asked her how she was feeling and she didn't dignify my question with a response. The silence lengthened and I took a sip of my cold coffee. When her voice returned it was faint, she wasn't vocalising this for my benefit but for hers.

'Peter died,' she said.

Life in the little council house, although a reduction in circumstance for Maria, was nothing she couldn't handle. She had a roof over her head and she could afford to live. She wasn't interested in marrying again and she was at peace with herself. Peter became a student, studying at Goldsmith's college in London and he would come home during the holidays and sometimes at the weekend. She lived for those times, when she would sit and talk to her handsome son and ruffle his hair and cook for him. When he left she'd always cry for an hour or so, but she always had the next visit to look forward to.

When the phone rang in the middle of the night she knew instantly that something was terribly wrong, and she only took in the occasional word of what was said to her, but she heard 'Middlesex Hospital…coma…should be here,' and she was on her way.

When she saw Peter in the hospital bed, deathly pale with tubes in his nose and arms, her knees went from under her and she had to be helped to a chair. She stayed at his side for the next thirty-two hours, never sleeping, just holding his hand and trying not to let him hear her cry. Peter was beyond hearing though. He had taken one tab of ecstasy and had simply overheated. He had collapsed and been rushed to hospital and he was going to die. It was just too late.

Maria stopped living that day and started grieving. A grief which pulled her down and down until all she could see was blackness. Every time she felt she might one day pull herself out of the pit she had dug into, the grief monster would bare its drooling fangs and snap and take hold, pulling her down again. Maria spent five years incapacitated by loss, until she was taken into psychiatric care and pumped full of anti-depressants which tickled her brain into reluctant sensation. As she tried to comprehend these new feather-light kisses of chemical happiness, she found herself scaling the sides of the pit of depression and grief monster couldn't get its teeth into someone that simply wasn't all there. In this fragmented state - definitely the least sane she had ever been - Maria was released from care to go back to what was left of her life.

Her first decision was to stop taking the pills. She owed it to Peter to experience the pain of his loss, not mask its unpalatable flavour with sugary pills. The pain returned but this small act of control left her better able to deal with it. She took to walking, long isolated walks for hours at a time. Often when she got back home she couldn't remember where she'd been, she just knew that the process of putting one foot in front of the other had passed the time and another day was over.

If she wasn't aware of what a tragic figure she struck - an overweight 64-year-old woman shuffling around the streets in clothes dating back to the previous decade - the neighbourhood kids were quick to tell her. Their shouts of 'fucking crazy old bag' and 'stinky bitch' simply washed over her as she walked. How could words hurt her?

One day, as she walked over the wasteland behind the flats, a little white kitten tumbled out of the undergrowth in front of her, in pursuit of a butterfly. It stopped when it saw Maria, cocked its head and waited while it decided whether or not this woman could be even more fun than a butterfly. Maria gathered her woollen coat around her and bent down making kissy noises to keep the kitten's attention. She found - to her amazement - that she was smiling. The kitten was so innocent and quizzical and as she played at pulling her coat's belt along the ground so the little cat could chase it she experienced a brief moment of joy. It was like a long cool drink after a drought. Maria had found something to love.

When the kitten, which she named Loopy, grew tired of its play Maria followed it. Loopy led her to a site near the municipal dump, and a whole colony of stray cats. She stayed there for hours. Many of the cats were hostile, hissing at her staring at her with inscrutable eyes, but Maria was entranced.

She returned the next day with two tins of economy cat food, which was all she could afford. The cats hungrily devoured the food and one of the kittens, perhaps one of Loopy's brothers or sisters, fell asleep in a fold of her coat. Maria began naming the cats and noticing the differences in their personalities and she found that when she went home she was still thinking about them and looking forward to seeing them the next day. It became a daily mission for her. Every morning she would set off with a tin of food and a can-opener. She would deposit little bits of food here and there so that it could be shared equally. In time, the cats would flock to her when she arrived and she greeted them all by name, stroking those that would allow her to and giving a respectful nod to those that wouldn't. Each animal had a place in Maria's heart whether they were affectionate or not.

Her favourite, though, was a smallish black and white female that she named Paloma. Paloma would always be the first to rush up to Maria when she arrived, and wound herself around her ankles purring loudly and murmuring in welcome. She was hard to resist. Paloma would allow herself to be stroked endlessly, and so Maria became very close to her. Maria felt the difference in Paloma's side very early on. There was a new solidity to her. Paloma was pregnant. Maria always made sure that Paloma got extra food for the next few weeks.

'It sounds like Paloma came to mean a great deal to you,' I said. Maria didn't answer, she just went on with her story.

As Paloma grew and grew, Maria knew that the birth was imminent. She thought that perhaps, when the kittens were old enough, she might take one and keep it with her at home, to give it a better life than it would have in the feral community. But when she saw a black and white shape motionless at the side of the road, she knew that it would never happen. Paloma's jaw was hanging grotesquely from her head and there was a clearly defined tyre print up her white nose. She was quite dead. One glassy eye stared up at grey sky. Maria sat at Paloma's side and cried. The grief monster was back, the world turned into shades of grey and she could feel herself sinking into the pit.

She was aware of voices behind her. Two young girls were giggling and whispering. It barely registered with Maria. When she stood up she saw that they had written a word on the pavement in chalk, with an arrow pointing toward the spot in which she had been sitting. The word was 'CRONE'. It meant nothing. The two girls ran at Maria, knocking her over and grabbing the carrier bag of cat food. Maria picked herself up. It still didn't matter.

'That's why I called you,' she said. I stayed silent. 'I can't keep doing this. I…can't do it again.'

I didn't have any words for her, so I stayed silent.

'Everything I love is taken away, and if I have nothing to love I see no point in going on.' Her voice was thin and clear and sounded much younger than I knew her to be.

'Are you considering ending your life?' I asked. This question is at the core of everything we Listeners do. We are a voluntary organisation that provides a listening ear for people in crisis.

'No,' she said, 'I'm not considering it, I'm going to do it.' There was only the very slightest trace of an American accent in there. 'And I don't want you to feel sorry for me or talk me out of it.'

'I won't do that,' I said. 'Can you tell me how you're feeling at the moment?'

'Actually,' she said, 'I'm feeling quite happy. I'm not going to go into the pit again. I'm not going to suffer again. I'm not going to lose something I love ever again. You probably think that sounds crazy.'

'Does it sound crazy to you?' I asked, dodging the question.

'No,' Maria was quite emphatic, 'it's the first clear and logical decision I've made for a long time. It feels right.'

I could have asked her if she had planned how she was going to kill herself. I could have asked if she felt it was her only option. I could have asked what the act of suicide would give her. I should have asked all those things, but she stopped me before I got the chance.

'If you don't mind, I don't really want to talk about that.' She said. 'I appreciate your questions and your time, but I've made the decision.'

'That's OK,' I said, my breathing sounding loud to me against the receiver. 'It's your decision.' I then asked a question that I wouldn't normally ask, but I felt I owed Maria something. I felt the world owed her something and right now it seemed that I was her last contact with the world. 'Do you want me to stay with you?'

'No,' she said, 'it wouldn't be fair on you.' And that undid me I'm afraid. I'd held it together this far, but the kindness in this tragic woman despite all she'd been through was too much. I put my hand over the mouthpiece and sobbed. I didn't want her to hear me.

Eventually, I was able to speak again. 'It's not about me. But I do respect your decision. It's up to you how long this call lasts.'

'Thank you,' she said, 'and I'm sorry to have taken up so much of your time, but I had to tell someone.'

'There's no need to apologise. How do you feel now that you've told me your story?'

'I feel like it's time. Until I told you, there wasn't a person on this planet that knew my story. I wanted someone to know that I'm not a crone sitting in the gutter; I'm not a mad old bag. I'm a woman who always took chances. I wasn't always like this. I have lived. I had a story to tell. Thank you so much for listening to it.'

The dial tone was loud in my ear and jolted me. I slowly put the phone down.

I will never know whether Maria took her life, but it was hers to take. I was nothing more than a bit-player in, perhaps, her closing scene.

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