This is still a VERY rough draft…bear with me
Cuttings – NANOWRIMO novel 2013 –
This house is a familiar to her as her own skin, sometimes as comfortable as an old pair of jeans, faded, over washed, but soft to the touch and sometimes chaffing, restricting, making it difficult to breathe, scratching against her, making her prickly, angry.
But today, it is just familiar.
She moves from room to room, taking a pleasure from the physical memory when you fingers move automatically to light switches with no conscious thought, , remembering the third creaky stair, the kitchen cupboard drawer that must be lifted, just an inch or two, before it will slide smoothly in runners.
Even the smell of the house wraps her in a fug of comfort, unopened windows, imperfectly washed up dishes, cheap air freshener sprayed by the carer in lieu of proper, deep cleaning and a top note of tobacco, everywhere the lingering of cigarette smoke, in the carpets, the curtains, the sofa. The smell of a life time smoker, an unabashed, un-reformed smoker.
The smell and the memory it unleashes is so strong that for the first time on over a decade, she wants, really wants a cigarette, goes as far as checking the drawer of the sideboard, just in case there is an over-looked, dried out, opened packet, left there for such an emergency.
But of course there isn’t and instead she digs around in her bag, finds a crumpled packet of mints and pops two into her mouth and takes a deep breath.
She has a list, simple, numbered;
Sort out stuff
Pack away stuff
Charity shop the stuff
She has time, five days compassionate leave, granted the day after she stood in her classroom and without even realizing what she was doing, began to cry and cried until some of the girls, the nicer Year 9 girls, frightened, went in search of a more senior member of the department.
In the staff room, still crying, refusing offers of cheap coffee and even cheaper tea, she remembers wanting a cigarette then and pushing down the longing until she was able to drive, slowly, still observing the school car park speed limits, out onto the main road and home.
Now, standing, one hand still on the sideboard drawer, she realizes that in the last 3 months, she has wanted a cigarette, wanted to smoke, to feel the comfort of the fire in her mouth, dragged deep into her lungs on exactly 4 occasions in the last 3 months
She shakes her head, clears it, roots in her bag again, and pulls out milk, calorie free sweetener and a jar of instant coffee.
A hot drink and then on with the list.
The kitchen has changed since she was last here, then it was full of neighbors, trays of catered sandwiches, paper plates, offerings of cakes and puddings and incongruously a huge trifle, decorated with hundreds and thousands, an escapee from a better happier event than this one.
Now, the kitchen is clean, surfaces wiped, but growing dusty. The cloth draped over the tap is stiff, its fold set, sculptured and all the plants, the seedlings have vanished from the window sill.
There is something else missing and it takes her a few moments to work out what it is and then, of course, she realizes, the kitchen is silent, the steady hum of the ageing fridge freezer absent. She takes the 3 steps across the tiled floor and opens its’ door, a smell of stale sanitized air, the hint of long lost vegetables and then she click the plug and the fridge throbs back into life and the kitchen regains its’ familiar sound backdrop. Placing the milk inside in the special demarcated place, re-assures her and she takes the 3 steps back and without needing to look, plugs in the kettle and makes a cup of coffee.
The plan for the next 5 days, such as it is, is simple. Go through the house, sort out possessions, paperwork, put everything about him away, and tidy the grief into something manageable, something that will allow her to go back to her life, allow her to settle back comfortably into the space she has, so carefully, created for herself.
She might as well start in the kitchen she thinks and flick the switch on the plug where the digital radio [Christmas present 2004] sits. The sound when it comes is disconcertingly loud, she can’t help smiling, remembering his vehement arguments that he wasn’t going deaf, people were just mumbling more.
The radio is tuned to a local station, adverts for double glazing, used cars and traffic warnings about holds ups on the flyover and all interspersed by hits from the 80s.
It is all surprisingly far more soothing than radio 4 and although she could re-tune the radio, listen to Women’s’ Hour, instead she gyrates, ever so slightly, to Wham and opens the first kitchen cupboard.
Plates, bowls, side plates, all neatly piled on shelves, the not so good plates.
The good plates, their outings limited to very specific events, live in a separate space in the dining room itself.
Her parents, habitually careful with china, had few breakages over the years and each one noted, mourned.
She can remember her mother, almost in tears when she smashed one of the willow pattern plates and then regretfully dropping the pieces, dutifully wrapped in newspaper, to ensure no danger to the dustbin men, into the outside bin.
The crockery does not need any special attention; none of it is good enough for anything except a charity shop.
She is about to close the cupboard door, move onto the bigger challenge of the under the sink cupboard when she notices a scrap of paper stuck with a drawing pin to the inside of the door. She looks more closely, it is a headline from the local paper, from the front page, just the headline, no story, and no indication why it is there.
Puzzled, her parents were not hoarders, did not, even in extreme old age, demonstrate any funny behavior, had, as far as she know, no real interest in local affairs. Thinking back, she wasn’t even sure if they has the local paper delivered, even at a time when every 2nd boy had a paper round and to have your photo in the local press was your 15 minutes of fame or infamy.
But, somehow, her mother or even her father has at some point, read the story attached to this headline and then for reasons she cannot presently fathom, cut out the headline and using 4 drawing pins [so clearly the cutting was placed for permanence, not a throw away action] has stuck it to the inside of the not so fancy crockery cupboard.
Of course, she reads the headline and it doesn’t help. It’s not about someone they know or local to this street, this neighborhood, not even about somewhere her father, and in the 70s and 80s and beyond, greatly daring once she was seen as old enough to cope after school, or her mother worked.
In plain black type, the headline is simply confusing; she cannot see how it would possibly have any connection to her parents.
“Tiger kills woman keeper – Attacked from behind whilst cleaning cage”
Without really thinking, she crumples up the yellowing scrap of paper and shoves it into her jeans pocket and then she hits the kettle switch again and bends to better reach the under sink cupboard.
She didn’t remember falling asleep and for a moment when she woke, she had no idea where she actually was. It took her several seconds to place herself, the sitting room, the sofa, her parents’ house and breathe.
She sat up, cold, shoulders stiff from her uncomfortable nap.
Her sleep had been unsettled, dreams of tigers, of hot feline breath, the stink of caged animals and something else, something just out of reach, a story of cats and, no she cannot hold onto it.
She was not even really sure what time it was and was surprised to see it was light, for a moment she wondered if she had slept all night, slept into the next day, but untangling herself from the sofa, she checked her watch.
2 hours, she had slept for 2 hours, reassured; she stood up, stretched and headed back into the kitchen, trying to remember how far she had got on the tasks there.
The kitchen was surprisingly comforting, stacks of sorted stuff, bleached surfaces, the comforting thrum of the fridge.
Automatically, she switched on the kettle and saw that she had left the little newspaper clipping, the carefully cut headline, on the work surface.
She read it again…a woman killed while she cleaned a tigers’ cage.
It still meant nothing, but did explain the tiger that had padded through her dreams.
Without thinking too hard, without examining this action too carefully, she turned away, reached into her bag and pulled out her moleskin notebook, her writing notebook and placed the little clipping inside.
She thought back to a recent class, the tutor had been clear; anything could be used as inspiration, as a starting point for creativity. He stressed the need for a notebook, a place to keep triggers, single words, overheard conversations and after the class, she had spent a happy hour in Paperchase, bought a notebook very similar to his, a selection of good pens and a pack of tiny highlighters.
In truth, she hadn’t used the notebook much, but kept it in her bag, carefully placed it next to her bed at night, but inspiration had, so far, been thin on the ground.
The little clipping, newsprint faded to a soft yellow, was almost the same color as the butter yellow pages of the notebook. She dug around, found a paper clip and attached the slip to the page.
The words, the mini narrative had connected with her. She made a decision, she would spend another hour finishing off the kitchen and then she would try and write the story of the woman killed by the tiger.
And here, in the empty house, with only the kettle for company, she found herself smiling with anticipation.
THE FIRST NARRATIVE…..WOMAN KILLED BY TIGER
At first, the smell appalls her, its musk strength, so strong that she can almost taste it. The smell of captivity and anger and sheer animal power.
But, like everything in life, she gets used to it, stops even noticing it and is slightly surprised when the audience come looking at the animals before the show and take one step into the tent before covering their noses and mouths.
But, she never gets used to the tigers themselves, never bores of looking at them, following the stripes and markings on their coats, never stops marveling at them.
Sometimes, when she has finished work, finished all the mopping and sweeping and tidying, she stands, brush or shovel or mop in hand and just watches them. Stares into their golden eyes. Tries to make a connection. Wants to understand their snarls and growls, but they are almost completely unknowable, unfathomable, mysterious.
She wonders if they even notice her as she goes about her unskilled, non-performer, non-circus folk, and non-person day.
She knows where she fits into the circus hierarchy, just above the women who staff the box office and far below everybody else.
Sometimes, in the off season, when she returns home and old school friends ask her what she does now, she is tempted to embroider, to make more of her life, but her bone deep honesty means that she shrugs, mumbles something about being a skivvy with a circus, but when she looks into their faces, childhood memories ignited, she knows they want more, more glitter, more sparkle, just more, so she tells them about the tigers and she knows that they are grateful, taken out of their own lives for just a few moments.
She always promises tickets when/if the circus comes to town and is secretly relieved that this town is too small, too off the beaten track to be any part of the constant looping journey of the show.
And when she returns to the circus, she watches the woman who works the cats, watches how she moves towards them, notices how they, even as they snarl, step back and move away.
Sometimes, late at night, in the cramped and chaotic caravan she shares with 2 dressers and the girl who does the sound, she practices the tiger moves in her head. Imagines standing in the cage, the tigers backing away, eyes locked on her, tails twisting and turning in barely repressed anger.
She never goes as far as imagining actually performing the act with them, she knows she is not a performer, has no hunger for an audience, no craving for applause, for attention, but, she longs to be closer to the cats, longs to know them.
She gets told off for taking too long in the cats’ tent, being too slow, letting other jobs drift.
She feels the eyes of the cat woman burn into her back when she has to pause, has to look at the tigers, has to let her eyes burn in the orange of their burnished pelts.
She becomes more careful, more discreet, chooses her times to watch them more carefully, and waits for the dead times, early morning, the gap between afternoon and evening shows, but she cannot keep away.
She likes to watch them, even when they sleep.
Even then, their tails flick in private exasperation, unconscious annoyance. She is entranced.
Sometimes, when she is sure that nobody will come, she sits beside the bars, fights an overwhelming urge to put her hands into the cage, to allow the biggest tiger to sniff and lick her hands.
She can imagine the roughness of her tongue, can almost smell the cloying stench of rotting meat from her mouth, and can hear the purr of pleasure.
Instead, she talks to her, in a voice different from the real cat woman, less guttural, gentler, even sing song.
The cat begins to respond to her, seems to recognize her, even moves to the front of the cage, when on silent summer mornings, just before the sun comes up, she creeps into the tent.
On those mornings, the cat watches her, ears always flickering, hearing sounds that she cannot, tip of tail twitching.
They stand one inside the cage, one outside and regard each other, carefully, with measuring glances.
At night, she dreams of sleeping between the tigress’ paws, claws sheathed, their weight on her shoulders, cat breath on her shoulders, warm, comforting and she wakes, completely refreshed.
She sings songs to the cat, songs she makes up, songs of cleaning and sweeping and mopping, songs of her day, her life and the animal seems to enjoy them. Her eyes half close, she hunkers down on her haunches, leans towards the singer and the song.
And then one day, they tell her that she will not be needed any modem that times are difficult, that the circus needs to cut costs that they do not need staff that cannot perform too.
They tell her that she will finish at the end of the week.
That night, she sits in a dark corner of the cat tent, listens to the end of the show, the familiar sounds of the crew putting the acts to bed, the departing feet of the audience and then, quietly, carefully she stands up and walks towards the cage.
The tigers are dozing, knowing there will be no food, no demands on them for many hours.
She stretches up, undoes the top bolt, bends and pulls at the door handle.
As she opens the door, the tigress wakes, is instantly and completely awake and coils onto her back legs, eyes wide open.
The woman turns her back to lock the cage and at that moment, the tigress springs, a blur of black and orange and gold and the woman falls back into her embrace.
She stops writing, her hands ache; she is simply not used to using a pen for this long.
She is almost scared to read back what she has written, doesn’t know where the story came from, and cannot tell whether it’s good or bad.
It’s got dark while she has been scribbling, she is not sure how much time has passed, but is suddenly aware that she is starving, she needs to eat now.
So, she stands, surprised that she feels so cold, so stiff, clearly hours have passed.
Standing in the kitchen, she cannot decide what to eat. She has brought provisions, good bread, cheeses, little bowls of olives, sun dried tomatoes, but none of these feel right, none of these feel as if they will go any way to fill this gnawing hunger.
She realizes that what she wants, the only thing that can possibly satisfy her is her mothers’ staple dish offered when any illness, heartbreak, disappointment loomed. She wants to eat Heinz Cream of tomato soup, served with fingers of toast and when she was particularly lucky, Laughing Cow cheese triangles.
She can see the tray in front of her, special poorly girl soup bowl, toast fingers laid out like party food and on the side, a Wagon Wheel biscuit.
Her mother would sit on the side of the bed or perch on the sofa, watching her eat, sipping at a cup of tea and then, with quick, neat bites, she too would devour a Wagon Wheel too.
” We won’t tell your father” she would say” this is just a treat for us” and she would smile back, complicit and feel the marshmallow melt in her soup warmed mouth.
Now, standing in the kitchen, she almost tastes the chocolate again, she doesn’t eat biscuits or cakes or chocolate. She is proud, in her early 40s of her still neat size 10 body, is happy to make the small sacrifices needed to maintain it, but at this very moment, she could, she knows, devour packets of the cheap biscuits that represented treats in their home.
She wonders what might still be in the larder.
The larder was her mothers’ preserve. Not a food hoarder as such, just someone who remembered war time restrictions, the frugal 50s, someone who took a quiet pleasure in well stocked shelves, bargains bought and put aside for a rainy day.
Her parents made jams; it was the only kitchen task her father got involved with. She suspects that he liked the science, the maths of jam making and after her mother died, he continued to make jams, widened his repertoire to include marmalade, chutneys and pickles.
At the end of every visit, he would hand her a small box, 6, 7 jars, each carefully labeled, and dated. He overestimated the quantity of jams that a single careful eating woman can actually consume and she was reduced at some point each term in leaving a selection in the staff room, a post-it stuck on a jar ” help yourselves, – enjoy”.
The longing for tomato soup is so strong that she finds herself opening the larder door and staring, hopefully at the shelves.
Someone, a carer, one of the volunteers who visited him, has been here.
The vegetable rack has been emptied, washed out, the shelves has been wiped, dusted and the tins, the larder standbys so beloved of her mother, have gone.
But, the jams, black currant, gooseberry, damson, all dated 2 years ago, before he drifted into confusion, before he was deemed not safe enough to use a cooker without supervision, before he forgot to eat for days on end, are still there.
Neat, serried rows, evidence of purposeful activity, busyness.
Of course, there is no tomato soup, no white sliced bread and for a moment she feels like a small child again, has to bite back tears of disappointment.
To gather herself, she runs her fingers across the jars of jam and then stops.
There is another of the little newspaper clippings, again stuck firmly, this time to the shelf itself and this time, even more difficult to understand.
This time it is not even a headline, a story, this time it is an advert but from before her father was even born.
She removes the drawing pins, lifts the scrap of paper.
It shows a smiling woman, clutching a baby to her chest, an advert for some sort of nerve tonic, calmer, obviously aimed at new mothers.
Without thinking, she pops this advert, this clipping into her jeans pocket and then, suddenly decisive, remembers the corner shop, sure to have Heinz tinned soup, cheap sliced bread.
She will fill this hunger with childhood food, may even see if Wagon Wheels still even exist and knows that if they do, she will buy a packet and eat them, wrapped in a duvet, on her parents’ sofa.
And knows that, somehow, this comfort food will make her feel better.
Later, stomach full, hands still warm from the cupped heat of the soup bowl and with the almost gritty taste of chocolate and marshmallow lingering on her tongue, she lies back on the sofa and considers what she should do next.
The dining room she thinks, that would be easy.
The dining room was a strangely impersonal space, not a room where anyone lingered over leisurely Sunday lunches or sat, nose buried in a book, nibbling on carefully sliced fruits, crumbs of exotic cheese.
Her over-biding memory of the room is in fact not about eating at all. It was the room, in which, for years, she did her homework, books, jotters spread across the table, her father making loud comments about the waste of lights as he passed the door.
But the room is uncluttered, only a sideboard and a bookcase, never more than half filled which will need any serious sorting.
The table and chairs, bought in the 1970s are G Plan, her mothers’ brief foray into modernism, before her fathers’ insistence on good solid, built to last furniture won out and her mother gave up, allowed the house, its contents to stay unchanging, comfortable.
She knows them to be collectible, even covetable and briefly wonders what they would look like in her tiny terraced house, but shrugs the thought away; she prefers the shabby chic, restored items she finds in junk shops, on internet auction sites.
She is not sure what time it is, has forgotten to charge her phone, but rather likes this sense of being disconnected and she reasons, it doesn’t really matter what time she sleeps or works, she has days to get the tasks completed and for someone whose working life has been ruled by bells and timetables, this freedom from clock tyranny is actually exhilarating.
Without really knowing what she is doing, she finds herself pulling the little clipped advert from her pocket. It’s not quaint or funny or even, as far as she knows, in any way connected to her fathers’ life.
“Virol and Milk for Nerves – over 40 million prescribed in hospitals and infant clinics”
She has never heard of the product, assumes it to be some form of calmer, Prozac for [as her year 8 boys out it] the olden days, is not even sure if it’s for women or their children, but its careful placing in the larder suggests that at some level it meant something to her father and so, she leans over to root in her bag, pulls out the notebook and carefully copies the advert onto a clean page.
Virol and Milk for Nerves……………
“it’s the crying really” the woman is gaunt, hands thread over and around each other, a constant twisting of the thin, cheap wedding band.
“When he cries, I just don’t know what to do…” her voice tails off and she stares hopelessly at the doctor, waiting for a pronouncement, a solution.
The doctor, all too aware of the over-full waiting room, the house visits, the paper work, tries, just a little, to hide his annoyance, probably fails.
He shuffles for his prescription pad
“This” he says “This will help Mrs. Ummmm” and hands over the sheet.
Her fingers cease, for a moment, their constant movement and she carefully folds the paper, places it in her bag and stands.
He nods reassuringly, hoping that this will speed her exit, allow him to see the next and the next and the next patient.
She is too ashamed to call at the nearest chemist, so walks, on a bitingly cold November day, another 2 miles, just to be sure that she will be safely anonymous and even then, she ducks her head down, refuses to make eye contact with the chemist and of course, the baby has slept throughout the whole errand, the baby always sleeps whenever they are out and about, makes a liar of her.
But the moment, the moment she closes the front door, he starts, a gentle whimper, which she knows will build and build until it feels as if the whole room, the whole house is full of his screaming.
She scoops him from the pram, sometimes, occasionally, draping him over her shoulders seems to help and leaves her hands free for other things and so, while he lies there, a pink, angry and slightly damp human stole, she pulls out the bottle and examines the label carefully
“Don’t be a frayed knot….Virol & Milk….makes parenting easy” and carefully tied around the bottle neck, a tiny spoon.
The baby is getting louder now and quickly, before she can fall into the despair that his sobbing usually causes, she unscrews the bottle and with shaking hands, pours a dosage and drinks it down and to her surprise, it is not bitter, not chalky. It is in fact, delicious, sweet, light, with a hint of strawberries and something else, something, she realizes, that is the very essence of summer.
She is tempted to have another spoonful, but the baby’s’ dampness is becoming too pressing to ignore.
As she carries him upstairs, she finds herself, almost, but not quite, humming out loud.
Powdered, changed, face mopped, the baby looks for a brief moment almost attractive, his legs, bicycling madly on the changing mat are comical rather than slightly menacing.
She smiles down at him and is rewarded by a huge toothless grin; she cannot remember the baby smiling before and for a few minutes they are both satisfied to stare at each other.
It doesn’t last of course, within half an hour, she is scurrying around the kitchen, trying to make a chicken pie and mustard mash from scratch [the deal they struck when she didn’t go back to work – “Be a stay home mum ” said her husband ” I like proper home cooked food”] while desperately trying to jiggle the baby in his bouncer and then she remembers the glass bottle and the dosage – “take one spoon when it all seems too much”.
She evaluates, yes, it is all too much. She puts down the rolling-pin, stops jiggling the baby and reaches across to the bottle and the tiny spoon.
This time, to her surprise, the medicine tastes of…she pauses, tests the sticky liquid against her tongue, yes, the medicine tastes of…Christmas, that sugary, mincemeat, Satsuma, warm port, brandy butter all rolled into one perfect teaspoon.
She smiles, savors the moment and noticing that the baby is still yowling, she scoops him up, holds him close to her and surprised, he stops crying, the noise reduced to a few hiccups.
She wanders back into the kitchen, looks around at the debris of baking and making, the pastry has dried out, hardened. She should really make fresh and then she captures the very last taste of the tonic and shrugs, there is plenty of time to get to the chip ship, pick up chips, mushy peas and a steak pie.
Her mouth waters at the very thought of food made by someone else.
She grabs the baby and her purse and heads down the road.
Tea is a silent affair.
The baby is happily distracted by a small bowl of beans and rubs them enthusiastically into his hair and face.
Her husband eats, with deep suspicion, poking at the steak pie, cross examining the chips, but he says nothing and when she offers an elderly banana for his desert, he simply stands, sighs and goes upstairs and seconds later, she hears the ping of his lap top powering up.
She sleeps well and when at 2 or 3 in the morning, the baby wakes and fills the house with his early morning misery; she is able, somehow, to simply roll over, deftly remove the duvet from her husband and administer a sharp kick to his shin.
He is shocked into wakefulness, the sound of the baby becoming louder and louder while she snoozes on serenely and finally, feet shuffling into slippers, he pads towards the baby’s’ room.
And then, there is silence.
She doesn’t know what time it is when she wakes, but lies for a moment relishing this new feeling, which she suddenly understands is not being exhausted.
Downstairs , her husband is half-dressed, shirt crumpled, he is used to her middle of the night ironing, bread making, light tidying, seems to have forgotten that only a few months ago, she too would have been rushing around, trying to get out, trying to start that working day.
He stares at her, hands her the baby and walks stiffly back to the bedroom, he doesn’t say goodbye when he leaves.
She makes some toast, puts the kettle on, allows the baby to lie on the Habitat rug while she drinks coffee and eats toast and damson jam.
The little tonic bottle sits prettily on the window sill, the sunlight catching the deep purple of the medicine inside.
She smiles and then repeats the dosage advice
” To be taken when it all seems too much”, it is extremely comforting.
She wonders if it is too cold to take the baby to feed the ducks.
She slept more soundly than she has done for weeks.
At home her sleep is disturbed, the cats have become used to her nocturnal prowling, have joined her as she makes another cup of tea, twining around her legs, hopeful for a scattering of cat treats in their neat little pink bowls.
On far too many mornings, she has watched the sun come up and then bone tired, dragged herself out of bed and headed, eyes gritty, head pounding, to another day at work.
But here, in a nest of duvets, cushions off the other sofa, the one that no-one ever sits on, she has slept well, woken refreshed.
She had planned to take herself upstairs, to sleep in her bedroom, the single bed unchanged, her 6th form books still on the small wooden bookcase, but sleep had over-taken her and now she lies for a moment, luxuriating in the warmth, the weight of bedding enveloping her.
She stretches, misses the cat presence, reminds herself that she must ring her neighbor today, check on their well-being, offer more thanks, a definite day of return and then she remembers the story, scribbled quickly into the notebook, the little clipping still paper clipped to the page, a strange prompt for a modern fairy tale.
Babies, she has never written about babies before, has never really thought about the care of small children and is surprised that somehow a baby has forced itself into the notebook.
Her own childlessness was not planned, in her 20s, still in love with her profession, determined to make a difference, to connect with the classes, she was, she reasoned, far too busy, too selfish to make any kind of mother and as she drifted into her 30s and friends, colleagues, neighbors fell into relationships, pregnancies, parenthood, somehow, she got left behind.
Of course there were boyfriends, lovers, significant others, even one or two that earned the title – my partner, but there was never any real sense of permanence, any sense that this relationship, this melding of bones, of bodies would, could, result in a baby, a family.
Her parents never asked although her mother always kept her up to date with the news of old school friends, other people’s’ daughters, but with a light touch and then before her mother could completely give up hope of grandparent status, she was gone and the 40s arrived and the lovers became thinner on the ground and her father stopped asking after especially favored ex-boyfriends, the ones who played sport, knew about cars, didn’t work in teaching.
Her childlessness, her sporadic singleness has, she realizes, become a comfort to her. The lie, that she likes her own company, is too selfish to share her life, has become a sort of truth.
But, this morning, without all the scaffolding that holds her life together, huddled under someone else’s’ duvet, she wonders, just for a moment, what her life would have been like, if one of the Jakes or Richards or Steve’s could have become important enough, could have made a baby.
experimentally, she crooks her arm, imagines holding a baby, imagines the scrunched face looking up at her and feels…..nothing.
It is time to get up, time to start on the side board, time to put the kettle on.
Mug of tea in hand, she dresses downstairs, knows that really she should have a shower, wash her hair but rationalizes that she will only get grubby later.
She looks at her own body as she pulls on yesterdays’ jeans.
generally, she is pleased with what she sees, legs gym toned, stomach flat enough, there are benefits from childlessness, this is only one of them. Her skin still has the hint of a tan from a week in Turkey at half term, her breasts are neat, nothing to attract attention, but sufficient to justify her addiction to expensive underwear.
It is a body which embodies [and she smiles at the unintentional internal wordplay] neatness, function. Never one to inspire either passion or loathing, it has, she reflect, served her well enough, she can see no reason why it will not continue it quiet effectiveness.
And with that thought, she stand stretches, consider tidying the sitting room, putting the bedding away, plumping the cushions, even the ones on the sofa that no-one sits on, but then she shrugs, there is no-one to complain, no-one to raise an eyebrow. She can feel herself slipping back into teenage mode, a comforting clutter of possessions around her, cups; plates, books and this time no parent to sigh at her. She leaves her mug balanced on the arm of the sofa and wanders, barefoot into the dining room to sort the sorting there.
The bookcase does not take long, her parents, inveterate library users did not acquire books over their lifetimes, there are at best 200 books, some that she recognizes as Christmas, birthday gifts from her, still looking unread, unhandled.
Most will go straight to a charity shop she decides and piles them neatly onto the dining table. Some of the pristine hardbacks she will take home try to shoehorn them into her own over-stuffed shelves, find time to read them in the next holiday.
The sideboard is more of a challenge, it has become, over the years, a sort of home office, important papers sit next to canteens of cutlery, rarely used wine glasses, place mats, a small box of glass Christmas tree decorations.
She pauses for a moment and lifts out some of the baubles, she remembers these so clearly from childhood, the tear drops of red and green glass, the glitter filled special baubles that only her mother would hang on the tree. These, she decides, will come home with her; will decorate her tree this year, although she can see that many of them will not fit with her usual spartan clear glass and white lights arrangements.
She shrugs, this year, good taste can be left at the door, this year the theme will be retro, multi coloured, even a little tacky.
She puts the box next to the tethering pile of books and considers the piles of papers, bank statements, gas bills going back 20 plus years. She knows that much of this will be rubbish, fit only for the bin liners that she has, unaccountably, forgotten to bring with her and is relieved that this absence of attention means that she cannot, with a good conscience, start that task now.
Instead, she starts to move the glasses, the flat leather boxes containing the good cutlery onto the table. She remembers these from special occasions, the rare times her parents entertained, Christmas and birthday meals. This green box, she knows, contains cake knives and forks, a special knife for cutting special cakes, she wonders, just for a moment, where the 3 layered cake stand is and then opens the box, looks down on the ivory handles nesting in the faded green velvet and is not surprised, not really, to find another clipping, carefully placed beneath the first fork.
“Step Father cut off my hands with a razor – maimed child receives £5,000″
There is nothing else, no story, no date, no clue as to why her father and she suddenly wonders if all of this is her fathers’ doing or if these pieces of paper have been her mothers’ handwork, left, lost, perhaps not even noticed by her father in the years when he lived here alone.
The headline is so odd, so disturbing that she has to stop, sits at the table, reading and re-reading the few words and then she stands, walks back into the sitting room and fully dressed, but suddenly cold, crawls back under the duvet and picks up her notebook and begins to write.
The Girl with glass hands.
Once upon a time, far, far away, in a kingdom across the sea, in a village where nothing ever, ever happened, a girl with glass hands walked down the dusty main street and arrived in the square at the heart of everything.
People stared, although they pretended that they did not.
The glass hands were beautiful, delicate, nails, lines; even the creases where skin should have been were etched on the glass, which was itself tinted with the lightest touch of pink, so that in some lights, the glass seemed to have some warmth, some life within it.
She stops writing; the image of the girl, the glass hands is so grotesque, so horrible that it brings her up short.
She didn’t know that such images even existed in her. This is not her writing, she has no idea what gothic fairy tale she is channeling, did not expect that the old headline would cause this story to surface.
She takes a deep breath, rubs her hand over her face, notes, even in the middle of this possession, that she has forgotten to moisturize.
And then, she grips her pen more firmly, she will write this story, see where the narrative takes her.
She will allow her fathers’ or is it her mothers’ gift to guide her.
The Girl with glass hands.
Once upon a time, far, far away, in a kingdom across the sea, in a village where nothing ever, ever happened, a girl with glass hands walked down the dusty main street and arrived in the square at the heart of everything.
People stared, although they pretended that they did not.
The glass hands were beautiful, delicate, nails, lines; even the creases where skin should have been were etched on the glass, which was itself tinted with the lightest touch of pink, so that in some lights, the glass seemed to have some warmth, some life within it.
The villagers, unused to any new faces, watched her from behind curtains, watched as she sat in the only cafe in town, watched as she ordered a glass of milk and watched, in horrid fascination as the glass hands lifted the beaker to her mouth and watched as her slim white throat moved as she swallowed the milk.
Without speaking, many of them moved towards their front door, stood, arms folded, not looking at each other, still watching her, sitting, self-possessed at the cafe table.
Children pointed, started to speak and were shushed, sometimes gently, sometimes less so.
Everybody waited to see what would happen next.
The girl stood up, stretched the glass hands over her head, and stretched, the morning sun, catching on the glass, making her hands shine and sparkle.
Her dress, black, dusty, travel-stained, was at first glance ordinary, even a little shabby, but the women could see that there was something different, something indefinable, something, that even without the extraordinary hands, marked her as different, other.
More than one young man found himself wondering what it would feel like to have those hands, those glass hands, run through his hair, tease shapes on the small of his back and then recollecting themselves, would remind himself of the Hannah or Lise, or Elizabeth with her strong sunburnt, work marked hands and look down at the ground, face averted, in case any of his neighbors could read his thoughts.
The girl called to the cafe owner and all the villagers craned their necks forward, trying desperately to hear the conversation. It went on for a few moments, the cafe owner looked at first hesitant, but then the girl withdrew a full purse and his demeanor changed, suddenly he was smiling, bowing, gesturing for her to follow him as they both moved toward the back of the cafe, out of sight of all the onlookers and towards the stairs which led to the rooms he occasionally rented out to travellers, peddlers and the drifters who sometimes needed a nights’ shelter.
There was a pause, no-body in the village wanted to appear too nosy, too interested in what had just happened.
Women disappeared back indoors, reappeared with baskets, heading for the bakers, conveniently situated next door to the cafe.
Men straightened up, found themselves with a sudden thirst for the strong black coffee served in the cafe or a glass of the cheap, thin red wine he sold and calling something indistinct into the open doors, began to walk towards the cafe.
Within minutes, almost all the villagers had arrived there and then they stood, waiting for Albert, the cafe owner, to reappear from the back of the cafe.
He, red-faced from such unusual morning exertion and still toying with the gold coins nestled in his apron pocket, struggled with the two opposing thoughts battling inside him, his desire to be at the center of village news, to actually have something worth saying and the new need to keep his profitable, if mysterious, guest.
Avarice or fame by association?
Fame, the desire for fame, even this vicarious fame, wins out.
He sat at his usual table, poured himself a glass of the wine he doesn’t offer the villagers and then he begins
” She comes from the city, is tired of the hustle & bustle, wants to be peaceful” There is a pause, while he tries to find other things to say
“She’s rich, you can tell quality”
There is another pause and everyone waits for more, finally, one of the women, sturdy, mother to a brood, wife to a man who spends more time here at this table than he does around his own scarred kitchen table, speaks
“But the hands, what about the hands?”
There is another pause and then, his head down, voice dropping, the cafe owner is forced to admit
” I didn’t like to ask her, I didn’t know what words to use”
And this response, it seems, becomes everyone’s’ experience.
The girl stays; a bag arrives from the city, containing more dusty black dresses.
If the village women hoped for displays of big city finery, they were sorely disappointed.
She walks in the hills, takes her meals in her room, the cafe owner says she has a bird like appetite and occasionally, sits at a table in the cafe as the summer light dims and sips the good wine out of a green glass goblet that she holds between slim, elegant glass fingers.
And no-body can find the words to ask what has happened to her hands.
The young and in some cases, not so young, men are entranced. They find themselves looking for her as they move the goats & sheep in the hills, as they start the harvest, pick the summer fruits and when they meet her, they are unaccountably shy, tongue-tied and become too aware of their own hands, try to hide them behind their backs while looking at hers and imagining the feel of that cool glass on their skin as the sun beats down on them.
She is always polite, asks after the crops, often remembers their names and smiles a cool, tight smile before walking away.
The women, the mothers, dig deep into memory, rediscover the symbol of the evil eye, and make the shape as she passes them. When the girl reaches down and absently stokes a small child’s head, the mother is quick to grab the child away, making a sign of the cross over their hair as they drag them, protesting, indoors.
But, it is the young women who are most discomfited by her, they see how their future husbands look at her; see the thoughts that chase across their open, uncomplicated faces. They know that she is changing something, unsettling their planned futures, their journeys from this to motherhood to their place at the well, in the bakery shop queue.
They know, when they lie in their young men’s arms, sticky in the summer heat, that their lovers are thinking, not of them, not of their sturdy health, their sunburnt limbs, but of her, her icy paleness, the cool touch of her glass hands and they feel their men slip away from their far more earthbound presence.
And then one day, she is gone.
Nobody sees her leave, not even Albert, despite his fawning attentions, the wine glass washed every time she uses it, the trays of food, carefully, almost lovingly carried to her room.
Even he misses her leaving.
It is as if she has simply vanished, slipped away and if it were not for the final pieces of gold left under the green goblet, the bag packed and taken away, the room left tidy, empty, village gossip might have decided that there was some mystery to her leaving, but there is no mystery.
She has, quite simply, decided to move on.
But in her place, when perhaps it would be hoped that everything now would return to normal, there is an absence, a depth of loss.
Even the village wives feel it, miss the ritual of crossing the road when they saw her coming, of spitting on the path, of the old ritual of warding off the evil eye.
Their lives feel, somehow, less magical now that she has gone.
The men, late at night, when their mouths are dry from drinking cheap rough wine, make cautious eye contact, start sentences they cannot, dare not finish and find that they drink more and feel somehow bereft although they have lost nothing.
The young women expect to celebrate, to rejoice in her leaving, but discover that she has taken something with her.
Their men, the lusty young village lovers have become shy, distracted, and no longer able for uncomplicated coupling, the thrust of flesh on flesh.
The young women mourn their losses, wonder how they can refind what is lost.
And then, early, even by village standards, everyone is woken by the most terrible keening and screaming and sobbing.
The sounds bounce off the low cottages, fill the square with a cacophony of noise.
Half dressed, undressed, the villagers run towards whatever is making these terrible noises.
There standing, shaking is the bakers’ daughter and her hands have been smashed beyond repair, pushed, although God alone know how, through the wash house mangle.
As the days and weeks go on, she is only the first of many.
She reads the last sentence back carefully and for once, her writing doesn’t make her wince or feel that frisson of shame.
She resists the urge to go back through the piece, mental red pen in hand, finding errors, clumsy sentences, could do betters.
Instead, she lets the story sit, reviews its shape in her head and is still pleased.
Thinks, that she may, when her life has returned to its normal shape and pattern, take it to her writing class, even volunteer to read it out, to wait for criticism.
There will be no need, she thinks, to share the trigger, the clipping and her days spent away from the world, putting her parents’ house to bed.
Her writing group is a serious one, members submit short stories, take part in competitions, talk about agents, book deals, she doesn’t want to bring this almost whimsical, perhaps other worldly inspiration to the table and besides, she is very aware that her 2 publications to date, 2 short stories in a teachers magazine put her in a very junior standing amongst the other members. She doesn’t think that talking about the strange newspaper clippings and their impact on her will help that status and although she tries sometimes to pretend it doesn’t, actually these people’s’ opinion of her does, a great deal.
Writing has become, over the last few years, the thing she does.
At first quietly, secretly, something to pass the time, a new take on knitting or hand crafting Christmas cards, but, she has begun to believe in it, has begun, on days when the classroom noise is actually intolerable, when meetings are so painful that she wants to stand up and scream, to nurse fantasies of success and escape.
She can see the dust jacket
“X used to teach, now, she writes full-time and lives with her cats in an idyllic rural setting and is working on her 3rd novel”.
Even this day-dream, she realizes, is rooted in some reality.
She doesn’t hope for JK Rowling level fame or income, film deals, appearance of chat shows, although, of course, Women’s’ Hour would be nice.
Instead, she hopes for, on some days prays for, escape from school, escape from the noise and tedium of teenage minds and teenage bodies.
She has become, she understands, one of those kind of teachers, mid 40s, neatly dressed, career stalled and doing exactly what is required, no more and no less.
She finds herself counting down to each holiday, knowing on the first day of any term exactly how many days there are until the next escape, the next release date.
She sits in day long training sessions, trying hard not to roll her eyes or sigh audibly as yet another power point presentation highlights a new list of goals and targets and acronyms and nu-speak.
She doesn’t bother, very often, learning the names of the new young teachers, she knows that they will, in 2 or 3 years, move on, following some self-imposed career trajectory and that she will be there, counting down the days to half term.
So, the writing is important, if only to fuel her day’s dreams of something else, something better.
She is hungry and wonders when exactly she last ate something. She can remember the tomato soup, the chocolate biscuits, but her body tells her that this was some time ago. She doesn’t remember the last time that she ate in such a disorganized way, no longer keeping a mental note of calories in, calories out. It is both refreshing and a little scary, reminds her of eating in the days before she got a grip, and took control.
She is suddenly hit with a memory from this house, her mother and she, curled up on the sofa together, but not this sofa, with its faintly tweed, faintly brown presence. This would have been 2 maybe 3 sofas back, flowery, she thinks, stiff cushions that slipped from behind your back, not really comfortable, not designed for sprawling, more a sofa to sit neatly on, feet together, almost touching the floor.
But it is that sofa that the memory is linked to, the memory of eating shop bought cakes.
Her mother was old enough to feel shame or at least mild anxiety if she didn’t produce at least a bare minimum of home-baked goodies and in fact she did, dutifully, produce scone, sponge cakes, apple pies, but their shared secret, the little vice was shop bought and not just shop bought, baked on the premises, but picketed cakes, especially Mr. Kipling.
They would sit together, a fondant fancy, Viennese whirl, lemon slice on a plate and take quick bites, try hard not to show too much pleasure in these inferior products and of course the whole packet must be eaten so that the evidence can be hidden in the bin, mouth and faces wiped tea plates put away.
The memory is both vividly pleasurable, the pinks, yellows, strange foamy cream fillings and tinged with guilt.
She wonder who exactly they were hiding the eating from, her father, mild-mannered, showed no interest in anything domestic and she cannot imagine him looking through cupboards for evidence of foolish spending.
She needs to organize some proper food, maybe even go grocery shopping, but that will mean leaving the house, dressing properly, meeting other people’s eyes, having to hear them shout at their children, husbands, and truculent teens dragging behind.
It is the thought of the teens which decides her.
She will not go out today, she will survive on coffee and the remaining wagon wheels and for old times’ sake, she will crumple up the packet and hide it deep in the bin, hide the evidence of shop bought treats.
She puts the kettle on, eats the first of the chocolate biscuits and stares out at the winter garden, bedraggled and browning in the autumn frost.
Revived, she stands at the kitchen door, tries to decide which room she should start on.
She cannot yet face the intimacy of her parents’ bedroom, needs to stay somewhere safe, somewhere neutral.
The spare room, she thinks, the box room.
That will be the next task.
Climbing the stairs, she looks up at the 3 closed doors, her parents’ room, her room, the spare room. She has made this journey so many times over the years, doesn’t even have to think about the number of steps, the sharp bend before the last 3 stairs and then the slightly higher step, the one that takes you to the landing and then the 4 steps to her bedroom door and sanctuary.
She remembers the angry retreats she would make as a teenager, door slammed just so, a fling of limbs onto the bed and a sense of injustice so strong that she can still, 25 years on, almost taste the emotion, although she cannot remember any particular battle, just an over-riding sense of not being understood.
As she reaches the landing today, she revisits other times, drunk at 18 or maybe 19, creeping up on bare feet, trying hard not to giggle, not to fall against the wall, wake her parents and later, when boyfriends were allowed to stay, as long as they had passed some unspoken parental rule, but always in the spare room, tiptoeing across the landing, trying to actually float past her parents room and then whispered, strangely passionate sex in the too narrow bed while old stuffed toys starred on.
The spare room has had other names, the guest room, although there were rarely any guests that got to use the special good towels, the ones kept for best and only hung on the bathroom radiator if a visitor was deemed important or worrying enough, so always for her fathers’ own mother, less so for her other grandmother.
Then the box room, when her parents became more relaxed about their lives, when, thinking back, both their own sets of parents were dead and visitors stayed for supper and usually lived close enough to simply walk home. As a box room, it became as most of them do, a place to put things, to hide anything unfinished, half started projects. A halfway house between the home proper and the shed, the place where objects go to die.
It was only as an adult that she understood that for years the spare room had another name, another identity – the new baby’s’ room, waiting for a brother or a sister who never came. She can’t remember when the rabbit curtains came down, replaced by something cream, something neutral, but one day they were there and then, gone.
Standing, one hand on the door handle, she realizes that she has never and now will never, speak to her parents about her only child status. As a child herself, she took for granted her single status, enjoyed it, had no urge to share their attention and when her father died and she, an orphan, saw that she was the last of a small suburban line, it was too late to suddenly want a brother, a younger sister and anyway, the patterns of onliness were too deeply entrenched.
But, just for a moment, now, standing here, she wonders what this process would be like with someone else to share it, she wonders what they would make of the newspaper clipping and then, suddenly possessive of the cuttings and the stories , she is profoundly glad that is just her.
The spare room has become shabby over the years, the room her parents and then just her father didn’t worry about, didn’t struggle to keep on top of.
The wall paper is a slightly faded floral, autumnal pinks and browns; the carpet has begun to fray where the door catches on it. It feels like a room where nobody has opened the door for some time and for a moment, she considers simply shutting the door herself and finding a less depressing task, but, she reasons, this is exactly why she is here and if she is being completely honest, she hopes, wishes, needs to find another newspaper cutting.
The house clearing has become like a scavenger hunt, even when she is not really sure if there is any more treasure to find, is not even sure if there is a treasure hunt to join.
She starts with determination, using the narrow, stripped bed as a sorting area, she pulls boxes, neatly piled carrier bags toward her, makes three piles – keep, donate, chuck.
The keep pile stays stubbornly small and she hopes, needs, to find things amongst all these forgotten items that will speak to her, tell her that they need her, need to be taken home, loved, valued, put somewhere safe and warm.
On the other hand, the donate pile gets larger and larger, towels, spare bedding, her mothers’ sewing machine, she lingers over this, wonders if she could find a space for it, even pictures herself sewing, making something, but the something remains obstinately vague and in heart of hearts she knows that the baby blue singer machine will simply end up in another spare room, gathering dust.
She ploughs on and finally does hit a kind of treasure, photograph albums and then of course she has to stop, curl on the corner of the bed, shove piles out of her way and fall back into her childhood.
The photographs are, for the most part, neatly arranged in albums.
The cast is small, her, her parents and sometimes her grandparents. It strikes her, not for the first time, how friendless her parents were, how happily self-contained they seemed to be.
The photographs are arranged chronologically, her as a new-born, a baby, toddler and then school, holiday and high days.
She sees for the first time, now she herself is older, how much like her mother she looks, even their stance is similar, head often cocked to one side, listening carefully or looking for escape, in many of these photographs, she cannot tell which.
Of course, her father is mostly absent, clearly he was the main photographer and when she thinks back, she has vivid memories of her father choreographing, almost dragooning them into position
“Smile, just look a little happier” he would mutter at her, not understanding that her serious face was a mark of her concentration on the event, her desire to not miss any element of the experience on hand.
There are muddles of unsorted photos in the final album and she shakes them out, curious to see which pictures did not make it into an album.
She doesn’t quite know what to feel when she begins to recognize the images; they are all photos that she has sent her parents over the years.
Holidays she has been on, parties, barbeques, the cats, weddings she has attended as a guest, a bridesmaid and more recently a maid of honor.
There are even pictures of her and boyfriends over the years in a changing backdrop of different sitting rooms.
And then and she smiles with pleasure, although there is no=one to see it, a newspaper cutting flutter onto the bed spread, she pounces on it, excited and then stops.
The clipping is of part of an obituary, just a headline and a blurred black and white photo – a man, more moustache than facial features, eyes hard, staring out at the reader and the headline
“Director dies at his desk – it’s what he would have wanted”
The Next Narrative – The Man Who loved His Job More Than His Wife
The widow dabs at her eyes, sniffs and faces the journalist again.
“It’ s what he would have wanted ” she repeats the platitude ” He lived for his work” and she sees the journalist, young, stumbling shorthand, nod and she wants to scream, to shake him, to make him hear the raw truth in her words, but instead, she offer a cup of tea, tells him that he can smoke if he wants, he has the look of a smoker, drawn and hungry and they sit on opposite sofas, facing each other……..
The Next Narrative – The Man Who loved His Job More Than His Wife
The widow dabs at her eyes, sniffs and faces the journalist again.
“It’ s what he would have wanted ” she repeats the platitude ” He lived for his work” and she sees the journalist, young, stumbling shorthand, nod and she wants to scream, to shake him, to make him hear the raw truth in her words, but instead, she offer a cup of tea, tells him that he can smoke if he wants, he has the look of a smoker, drawn and hungry and they sit on opposite sofas, facing each other…
She sniffs longingly at his cigarette, remembers her own love affair with Sobranie Russian and instead sips her green tea, composes herself and begins
” it’s what I first liked about him, he was ambitious, pushy, even my dad said he was a grafter, good husband material”, she pauses, notices that the young journalist is not writing anything down, she coughs, stares meaningfully at his note-book and is pleased when he starts, stubs out his fag and clicks his biro into action.
She leans back on the sofa and begins the story of the man who loved his job more than his wife.
” we got married quick, we didn’t have to mind you” and here she fixes the young man with a stare, wondering for moment if he has any idea of what she means, she watches day time TV, knows how much the world has changed in a few short years.
” it was sexy, at the beginning, he was so focused, driven, would come home at night, tell me stories of how he had bested the other salesmen, palmed off dead contracts onto them, hit his sales targets, beaten his sales targets and the money, the money was great”
She waves a hand around the room, the cream Italian leather sofas, the glass tables, gold lamps, real paintings painted by real artists. Thinks about her kitchen, huge cream Aga, granite work surfaces, under floor heating and the microwave, the only thing she really uses to heat her calorie counted Marks & Spencer’s ready meals.
The journalist is nodding, encouraging her to go on, so she does
” he started getting promotions, bigger and bigger promotions, worked longer and longer hours, but he kept saying he was doing it for me, for us, for the kiddies that would come along, given time”
She closes her eyes for a minute, remembers those dreadful times, calendar watching, seeing each window of possibility lost with every sales conference, every emergency board meeting, every weekend emergency and then she goes on, voice a little flattened
” and then he went independent, said he was going to take the big boys on, beat them at their own game and he did, started making so much money, he didn’t know what to do with it”
For a second she is catapulted back to Barbados or Antigua – she can’t remember which now, all those luxury beach holidays finally just blended together, she, alone, in some pool side bar, sipping on a rum based cocktail, while he prowled the resort, looking for a phone line, reliable internet access, conference calling and the smiles of the young black men, always happy to keep a bored housewife company.
“he got famous, well, in the world of sales anyway, started being quoted in the press, invited to dinners, yes” she pauses at his questioning face
“yes, they were glamorous, lovely food and I always wore the most beautiful frocks, we even got photographed in some of those posh papers”
Best not to share the rows beforehand, the tense silences afterwards, the pulling of tiny bottles of vodka out of her Laboutin evening bag, the accusatory glances and finally the unspoken agreement that her presence was not required, any more.
“he never missed a day, you know, he was famous for it, every day in the office, even Christmas Day, New Years’ day, somehow he got there even when the whole country was under snow. Everybody respected him, he was legendary, a role model”
The journalist nods again, tries to hide his boredom, but she is clearly so lonely, so devastated by grief that it seems rude to walk away and besides there may be some dirt, something to sell to the bigger tabloids, perhaps even his passport to bigger and better things.
She has stopped talking, is obviously lost in memories, he coughs gently, trying to get her back on track
“Do you know when, i knew, really knew that he loved his job more than me””
The young man sits up, this sounds more like it, more of a story, and he makes strong eye contact, smiles and waits for her to continue
” I thought he had a mistress, he never came home, had phones I didn’t know about, a forest of “his people” between us, so, one day – New Years’ Eve, when I knew he would be the only person at the office or at least that would be what he would tell me” she grimaces and then goes on
” I dressed up, really sexy; stockings, basque, and a little leather whip…”
Now the young man is not making eye contact at all, he is trying very hard not to blush or squirm, but, he has already noticed that she is, for a woman the same age as his mum, actually very fit and he doesn’t want to start imagining her in stockings and suspenders
” I took the Merc, drove to the office, covered the outfit up with a sable coat”
The journalists’ mouth is dry; he takes a sip of luke warm tea
“The car park was empty of course, just his BMW and i took the life to the penthouse, sure that I would find some little floozy, both of them spread-eagled on a desk or worse”
She is speaking quicker and quicker now, in the memory, not really aware of his presence at all, as his pen drops from his fingers
” I walked into his office and there he was, completely alone, staring at a computer screen, jabbing at the keyboard, he didn’t even notice me at first, so I coughed and he looked up, and then I did it”
The young mans’ mouth is hanging open, he desperately hopes that he doesn’t need to stand up any time soon
” I dropped the coat to the floor and I walked towards him and neither of us said a word and I leant across the desk, ran the whip gently across his face and do you know what happened next?”
Suddenly she is looking directly at him, eyes burning with something and he doesn’t trust himself to speak, just shakes his head
” he stretched his arm towards me and picked up the file behind my elbow”
There is a silence as both the woman and the very young man stare at each other
“So, I left him to his love affair and I went to find mine, many, many times”
And then she smiles, very slowly at the journalist and stands up, walks towards him, still smiling.
Bin bags, she thinks, that’s what she needs and so she goes back into the kitchen, admires the empty work surfaces, the lack of clutter, and the neat lines.
This house is beginning to resemble her own, everything in a place and a place for everything.
She resolves that in a few days, when this is over, that she will go home and go through her possessions, neatness, she decides is not enough, there must be more order, no possibility of stray objects for strangers to go through, to make snap decisions about her based on what is left in the cutlery draw.
It suddenly hits her, hits her so hard that she has to sit down, legs folding, almost collapsing onto a chair, that when she dies, it will be strangers, at best, friends, colleagues who will go through her home, make the three piles, bag things up and dispose of them, dispose of what remains of her life.
It is a horribly sobering thought. She shakes her head, tries to physically dislodge this thought, the path that this way of thinking will take her.
She has been alone for too many days, not spoken to anyone, not eaten enough, been too caught up with this task and with her notebook, the mysterious clippings.
She needs, really needs to get a grip.
Why, she wonders, is she assuming a future of loneliness, singlehoodness, a death alone?
For gods’ sake, she’s 41, she could meet someone tomorrow, fall madly in love, even have a baby, maybe two.
Her life could be filled with children, grandchildren.
She is not going alone, unmourn, that sort of thinking belongs to a Victorian novel.
She abandons the binbags, instead picks up her phone from the kitchen table, first she will eat and then she will ring a couple of friends, remind herself that, even in this house of death, she is very much still alive.
An hour later, replete with pepperoni pizza, garlic bread and a healthy measure of her parents’ emergency brandy and soothed by a silly, inconsequential catch up with a friend, she feels the ghost of future loneliness fading away.
She feels strong, nurtured and a second glass of brandy is slipping down easily, warming her.
Sipping it, she moves to the sofa, recklessly ups the thermostat on the central heating and refuses to allow her fathers’ voice, his carefulness to stop her taking care of herself. Then she wraps the duvet around her shoulders and begins to read the latest story.
She has to remind herself that she has written these, that they are her work. The process has been so intense, so strange that she could, if she allowed herself to indulge in further fancifulness, almost feel that the stories have written themselves.
This one – “The man who loved his work more than his wife”, surprises her less than some of the others. It has a ring of familiarity, of personal truth.
She remembers sitting at her own kitchen table, the inevitable pile of marking next to the tea pot with the hand knitted ironic tea cozy and the Spitting Image mugs, listening to Josh and his plans for the English Dept., which were, if you listened carefully, actually plans for Josh, promotions, study, recognition, headship before he hit 40 and the way his eyes lit up, entranced by the vision for his future that he was creating as he sat there and her realization that this vision did not, actually, include her at all.
Since Josh, she has been careful to choose men with little ambition, little drive. She fiends their company soothing, easy on the mind and her own ambition, never a very robust plant, has quietly withered and has been, at least by her, mostly unmourn.
Her head drops and she allows herself to slip into the delicious almost sleep, stretches luxuriously, considers simply falling properly asleep, but the unfinished task, the piles of sorted object, just awaiting bagging, nudges at her. She knows that she will not settle, not properly, until the task is finished.
She grimaces, annoyed with herself, her inability to just let things slip and heads back into the kitchen to grab the black bags and complete the first sort of the spare room.
The house is, for the first time since she arrived, warm enough and stopping to unplug the kitchen radio, she needs some music, some noise, she starts to head out of the door and then stops, retraces her steps, and looks more carefully at the plug socket.
The kitchen radio has lived on the breakfast cereal shelf for as long as she can remember. The radios themselves have changed over the years, but their location has never varied, placed between glass jar one and two, of three, each filled with a different breakfast, carefully decanted from boxes straight after the big weekly shop.
Under jar 1 – usually corn flakes, sometimes those mini shredded wheat, there is a carefully folded piece of newsprint, the jar firmly over it, making sure that there is no chance of the paper moving, getting lost.
She leans across, tilts the jar and picks up the clipping, unfolding it, smoothing it and reading the headline.
She carries the slip of paper back to the table, sits down and wishes that she still smoked, wants something to mark this moment, but instead she lets her hand hover over the last remaining chocolate biscuit and then she carefully unfolds the square of newsprint,
” lady dwarf named as co-respondent in circus strong mans’ divorce petition”
and then she laughs out loud, the sound bouncing off the tiled walls, sounding louder than it really is.
She shakes her head, reminds herself that there is no-one to see this action and re-reads the headline, still smiling.
It is a gift of sorts, she can, see her mother, or perhaps father, carefully cutting the headline, choosing a resting place for it and then, but it is the then that pulls her up. who exactly was it meant for? Was it meant for anyone? or is it just evidence of mis-firing synapses, her parents’ gentle fall into mild confusion, quiet loss and her fathers’ baffled expression as he tried, and failed, to keep on top of names, dates, and constantly vanishing personal possessions.
She shrugs, it’s all too late now, she cannot have these questions answered, so has to take the cuttings in face value, left for someone to do something with and as there is no-body else then she will take them as hers, her gift and to what she can with them.
This one is already pulling at her, a thread of a story beginning to unwind. She knows that now is the best time to start, so takes a bite of the biscuit which she has been absently holding, licks the melted chocolate off her fingers and sits for a moment, absolutely still, waiting for the story to emerge.
The Next Narrative – When God gives you lemons……
I heard that once, that saying and I thought, that’s me, that’s my life and God knows, he’s thrown plenty of lemons my way and I like to think that I’ve made lemonade.
I didn’t ask for any of this, like you didn’t ask to be blond or left-handed or blue-eyed, it’s just what we get given and it’s what we do with it that matters.
So, I’m small, really, really small, but and I say so myself, perfect, a bonsai version of a woman, everything in proportion, but tiny and take it from me, that’s just not true of many of the dwarves I know.
They look unfinished, lumpy, hands too big, head too big, but me, and I’m a porcelain doll of perfection.
And yeah, I use the word dwarf, hell, why not. In my mind it’s like those black kids using the word n****, I’m just reclaiming it, making it my own and I like to see your faces when I use the word, like to see you look away, try to hide your embarrassment, try to hide your desire.
And right again, this is my chosen career, my profession, like I said, you get lemons and I tried the big world, tried an office job, everyone being kind to me, trying not to stare when I used a foot step to turn the lights on and off. I was the one everyone came to, poured their hearts out, because none of them ever thought I had that kind of life, real, raw, dirty. To them I was just a doll, something to talk to and I learnt to not see the men’s’ eyes on me, learnt to ignore the unspoken questions, the barely thought about, cos thinking about that stuff makes you feel like a bad man, a wrong man, a pervert, physical pondering.
And I’d probably still be there, wearing my age 3 to 4 clothes and do you know how hard it is to find black trousers in that size?, if it hadn’t had been for the freak show and yeah, I know what you’re thinking, freak show, in this day and age. How exploitative, how un PC, how very not modern, but you’d be wrong.
This was the new freaks – freak show run by freaks for freaks, making lemonade, hell, we were making champagne from the lemons we got given.
And I loved it, loved being around people who saw that what I had was special, saw that I was special, made me feel special and the money was great and people looked at me and I looked right back at them and dared them to stare.
We ran late at night, carried good security, ejected the drunks, the pity whores and became cool, stylish, invited to the right parties, got to wear tiny versions of designer outfits, there was even talk of me becoming a Vivienne Westwood muse.
Sometimes, people, who am I fooling here, men, it was always men, wanted to touch me, to hold me, offered me a lot of money and hey why have lemonade when you can have Chivas Regal?
So, I became a teeny tiny courtesan, Polly in your pocket and yeah, it’s maybe not the career path my mother dreamed for me, but she’s not the one who has to live my life and besides and you probably didn’t know this, but dwarves, well, let’s just say, we’re not known for our longevity.
Besides, it’s not like any of the men mattered, none of them got to me. I stayed pure, clean, in my head I was still the porcelain doll.
I didn’t know it, but love was coming, love would fill me, love would lift me up.
See, you need to understand something about the New Age freaks, most of us, well, our bodies are different, born that way and we’re cautious about the others, the ones who do it for themselves, it’s almost as if they’re cheating, but, we need them, they add color, glamour, so we have the tattooed lady, the starving man, the geek and of course a strong man. They change a new geek every summer, a different strong man. they come and go, but we, we are constant.
Listen to me; I’ve gone all thoughtful, big words. I’m tiny, but I’m not stupid, I just pretend, it makes me more doll-like, more delicate.
But, the strong man, well, one went away and a new one came and i noticed him, all us girls did, because he was drop dead beautiful and I started watching him, watching him perform, spying on him training, feasting my eyes on his perfect body.
Yeah, you’re right; it was something about the scale of him, the space he took up.
I found myself dreaming about him, his arms wrapped round me, his biceps bigger Than my head, but it was more than that, there was something else, something that made me shy and I gotta tell you, I don’t do shy, no way Jose, but I couldn’t talk to him.
I just watched and waited, waited for the right moment, knew it would come…….
Her pen slows, stutters and then stops.
She sits for a moment, waiting and then slowly, unwillingly, she puts the pen down and stares at the page, willing something to happen.
She doesn’t know where this story is going, has lost the voice of the porcelain doll of a woman, doesn’t know what to write next.
She feels betrayed, even angry, so far the cuttings, the gifts have delivered. It has felt as if they are actually writing themselves, a painless process, but now she is in all too familiar territory, pulling out words one, by one. Each sentence a battle to complete.
She sits for a moment, staring straight ahead, experimentally, she picks up her pen again, wills the story to continue, but nothing, just a blank page and a gnawing feeling of doubt, of being lost.
What is it about these characters that are not allowing them to speak to her?
And then she has a memory, an image so strong that she feels the shame of the actual event.
It’s a party, one of those cusp parties, house still over-full, people sitting on stairs, spilling out of the kitchen, but the wine is a little better, the food less chaotic and although there is music, it is beginning to become a soundtrack, background noise, rather than the reason to be there and dancing will happen, but it is starting to become slightly self-conscious, tinged with irony.
They are only a few months, years away from dinner parties, from discussions about house prices, school choices, arranging visits to farmers markets.
She is there with there then boyfriend, a man she knows is just a little too good-looking for her, just a little out of her league.
Sometimes it makes her feel good, powerful, when she walks beside him, notices the looks from other women, admiring, trying to catch his eye, but at other times the looks become calculating, trying to fathom why he is with her, what they would need to do, to say, to attract his attention and then she becomes anxious, clingy, all the things that she knows will eventually push him away.
And this party, this, we are almost too old for this kind of party; party is full of those calculating women. Their eyes slide over her, score her accurately, cruelly, before turning to him, blinding him with high octane smiles, tiny hand gestures, the offer of food, wine attention.
She is standing, watching him dance, post irony, post self-consciousness and she watches the women watching him and feels completely wretched and almost hopes that they will split up soon, so that this feeling , this know of anxiety in her stomach will go and instead, she can get on with the familiar and practiced agony of a broken heart.
That’s what her story needs, not the porcelain doll, not the oiled perfection of the strong man, it needs a gawky, awkward other women, someone to stand in the shadows, to watch the narrative unfold, she needs to place herself or a version of herself into the freak show and she picks up her pen, suddenly sure again and starts to write.
When God gives you lemons……Continued
But what happens was not what i was planning, not even near, what happens is that his wife appears, comes to join him for this summer gig, comes to hang out with the freaks.
She is all angles, straight edges, neat lines, the kind of woman who irons her jeans, hell; she probably irons her socks too.
One day, she just arrives, neat, neat car, neat bags, neat hair, everything about her screams normal and part of me, the bit that likes to sit in cafes and watch the world go by, and that’s a harder trick than it sounds when the whole world wants to stop and stare at you, wants to know what brought them together, but, but, his body has crept into my dreams, worse has crept into my work.
Some nights and let’s face it, men only come to me late at night, their desire belongs to the dark, to lonely streets, some nights I have found myself thinking of him, loosing focus, letting the performances slip, the mask fall away from the perfect china doll.
I go on watching him, but now I watch them, watch her casual cruelty to him and his beaten down responses, the way his head dips when she speaks to him, huge hands knotting and unknotting, a giant, oiled child, while she, 5’3 of spiky anger pokes and prods him with her voice.
I need to do something, I am disordered with desire, for a small women I have a whole lot of desire, a whole lot of need, and a whole lot of something that has not been filled.
I become more open in my watching, step out of the shadows, stand, one tiny hand on my tiny hip, a perfect child parodying, channeling, a kind of grown woman and of course he notices, begins to wait for me to arrive before he starts his warm up, asks my opinion, watches me as he lifts heavier and heavier weights.
Grunt and stare and drop.
20 and 30 repetitions and his eyes always returning to me.
The suggestion, when it comes, falls naturally from his lips, he doesn’t notice how carefully I have planted the thought, watched it grow, nurtured it as carefully as any seedling and I pretend to think, pretend to mull it over.
Why don’t I become part of his act????
My act is private, behind heavy velvet curtains, the men come, one by one, led by word of mouth, photographs shared in chat rooms, bars at the edge of what the real world does. They stare, licking their lips, eyes heavy with desire and some, those who don’t repulse me, those who hunger doesn’t scare me, those get to stay, to touch, to play out their fantasies, but, it is a performance, perforce, without an audience and a part of me, I want to say a tiny part of me, but that’s a given, see, I can even make myself laugh out loud, sometimes.
A part of me, wants to have an audience, wants to play out this performance in public, so I agree, well of course i agree, I’ve spent 3 weeks putting the idea into his head.
The act isn’t complicated, but I need to train, need to build muscles, to look the part, so we work out together and my body starts to change.
I am building muscle, tiny, tiny muscles, a doll with definition and I like it, like the hardness of my body, the proof of work, my devotion to the love of the strong man.
We choose a costume, something to show off my abs, my perfectly formed butt, the tone of my thighs.
Before the first show, he oils my body, his hands covering me in a few short strokes and I glow and it’s not just the oil, I’m glowing from the inside too.
The show goes well – he walks on, strikes a few poses, shows off every perfectly dileanted muscle, he is like an anatomical drawing brought to life and then approaches the weights.
But he cannot lift , , the crowd start to laugh and then, I appear, dainty, tiny, but to those who know, I am ripped, fit and do I walk over to the weight bar and
and lift and laugh as I toss the fake foam weight around and everyone laughs and applauds and he does the act and then performs some serious weighs with me, straddling her shoulders, a pocket Venus.
Of course, we touch, we have to touch, it’s the act, I can see him telling himself that, night after night as his hands wrap round my thighs, his fingers on my glistening skin and night after night I feel his fingers shake, almost vibrate with pleasure, with denial and I wait, sure that I will get what I want.
She waits too, stands at the side of the stage, watches, but she’s watching me, not him and I feel her eyes burning into me and I don’t care, I just don’t care………..
(to be continued).
She has to stop writing, her wrist is aching, neck stiff and more importantly, and she has no idea where this story is going.
She stands up and stretches tries to untie the knots in her spine.
She needs to take a break, she needs to eat and she knows exactly what she wants.
she will Walk down the hill, to the fish and chip shop that’s been there forever.
she can remember walking there with her father, eating the chips out of the paper, she can remember hanging around outside in those difficult mid teen years, too old to play, too young to do anything else.
She will eat chips out of the paper, lick the vinegar off her fingers and remember their father and these stolen moments of pure food pleasure and she will try and find her way back to the story.
As she goes to get her coat, she realizes that she is humming to herself.
Her sleep is unsatisfying, fractured; she wakes several times in the night, unsure of the time.
She wants to blame the food, heavy, greasy, an unfamiliar weight in her stomach, but when, finally, at 5 am, she gives up all pretense of sleep, she is able to identify the feelings that heave so disturbed her and to almost, but not quite4, catch the tail of the final dream, the one that woke her, has left her, sitting up on the sofa.
The dream is confused, there is a tiger, prowling through the dream scape, the tinny soundtrack of circus music and the strong man is here, muscles oiled body taut, sinewy. Everything looks a little wrong, a little off. Awake now, she understands that she is seeing everything from the dwarfesses’ eye line, so furniture looks too large, the strong man himself towers amongst the circus tent fabric and overhanging the whole dream is a feeling of desire and need.
Even now, awake, she wants to stretch out her hands , to reach, to touch, to desire, but there is no-body here and suddenly, for the first time, she realizes that she is alone, completely alone and that she will be just as alone when she returns to her own home, with just her cat as a counterpoint to this loneliness and now, she is le to weep, in a way she couldn’t at his funeral, so weighed down with the responsibility of getting everything right.
When this job, the sorting and bagging and selling is finished, she will sell this house and go home and if she chooses to, she will not have to work full time anymore and she has no idea, no idea at all how she will fill her time, the rest of her life and this fills her full, not of joy or a happy anticipation, but absolute blind terror.
She tries to reason with herself, it is 5am, never a time to embrace thee sensible, the positive.
everything will be fine, everything will be ok, she rocks herself gently, crooning this mantra to herself, everything WILL be fine, and it WILL be fine.
She jumps up, movement seems essential, anything to break this cycle. She takes comfort in the familiar, puts the kettle on, checks the fridge for milk, takes refuge in this ballet of normality and then mug held in both hands, she takes herself back to warmth the of the duvet and starts to write.
When God gives you lemons……Continued
Well, the dance of desire goes on, it’s awkward, 3 of us, when there ought to be 2. We step around each other, always watching, always knowing where the others are, eyes locked, all trapped in the shape and form of the dance.
But, I smile to myself, look her in the eye, because, I know that I will win.
How can I lose?
Mine is the body he touches every night, my body is the one he looks at day after day, my tiny, perfect body, and how can she compete with that?
But, he is so slow and I guess I’m getting inpatient. I’m not a good waiter, never have been, never will and I need to do something to move this on.
The season is ending; we are moving on, there is talk of a bigger booking, more specialist, no room for the ordinary and the chance to make real, serious money.
So, I’m running out of time and I decide to try something real simple, almost embarrassing in its approach.
I complain of a pain, an ache in my shoulder, tell him I have pulled something, show him my brave little shoulder face and sigh sadly, wonder out loud if I should get a massage, a back rub and of course he offers to make it better for me.
I lie on a nest of cushions, t-shirt pulled decorously down to expose my shoulders and he kneels beside me, warms his hands and starts to rub, to knead the muscles. he is so gentle, respectful of my size, using just 3 of his fingers to push and pummel.
Lower I say, the pain, the tightness is lower and almost absently I wriggle, pull the t-shirt down lower until my whole back is exposed.
His hands are beginning to be more tentative now, he is less sure of himself, less sure of the landscape before him, but I life myself, twitch off the t-shirt and whoops, there I am, tiny and completely naked and then I roll over and look directly at him with a slow, lazy, practiced smile.
Child body and very knowing eyes and he looks at me and for the first time, really, really sees me and he can’t help himself, he moves further towards me and my hips move, a muscular jerk of invitation and I’m ready, waiting, but there’s a pause and that’s not what I’m expecting at all.
I look up at him and what I should see is desire and awe and a touch, just a touch of fear, but his face is turned away, expression twisted with disgust and then she stands up, pushes me away with his foot and I’m sitting up now, wondering what’s going on, why everything’s gone so wrong?
He goes to walk away and just before he moves out of sight, he turns and looks at me and manages one sentence, sounds like every single word is being pulled from his throat, letter by letter.
“You look like a child……I can’t”
And then he is gone and I lie there, suddenly cold and I need to wrap the t-shirt around my shoulders and my teeth are chattering.
No-body, none of the men, none of my special audience have ever said that, have ever worn the same expression of horror and loathing and tiny, repressed desire.
He doesn’t return, she doesn’t return.
Nobody knows where they have gone.
The show moves 5 days later and my special gentlemen find me, they always find me and like I said, make lemonade.
My new, hard body is much admired; I keep on with the exercises he showed me, keep my self-ripped, and keep myself fit.
She doesn’t know it, will never know it, but there will be stories that she misses, scraps of newsprint that will fall into drawers, slip behind furniture, fall prey to damp or the nibbling of insects.
When, in 2 or 3 or 4 days’ time, she stands at the front door, car carrying an additional box or 2 of items she is choosing to take home to her other life, her real life, last charity shop run completed, a few, a very few items of furniture labeled “keep”, everything else left for the clearance men, she will think that she has found all the stories, interrogated them, made some sense of this nonsense scavenger hunt, but she will be wrong.
The house will fall back into silence, waiting and only the house will know the full story and it will say nothing.
The clearance men, the professional cleaners that follow them, just before the estate agents, all chattering phones and clattering heels, they are used to picking up the pieces, will be far more through than she was. They will find the remaining tiny pieces of paper, drop them into refuse sacks, move on, and leave a house empty of history, empty of any stories at all.
They will notice nothing at all.
The house will become something else for somebody else, new again, fresh paint, new windows, a different color scheme.
Other furniture will learn its place, leave its mark on walls, plant its feet on other carpets, and settle in.
New people will use the house differently, navigate a new map of movement, and learn different dance steps as they move around the re-modeled kitchen.
They will learn to walk easy on the 3rd step, will learn that the airing cupboard doors will, on some nights, for no reason, swing open, and will learn that nothing can make the dining room a joyous place.
And she will take home the little pine china cabinet and place it in her hallway, but somehow, it will never sit happily there, will always look just slightly out-of-place, marginally too large for the space it now occupies.
The good china will jostle for shelf room, she will, self-consciously try to use it for high days and holidays, will make efforts to take care of them, wash them by hand and more and more will wonder what will happen to them when she too is gone.
Eventually, these objects, even the china cabinet will become part of the landscape of her own home, no longer remarkable, not even really noticed.
But, the Christmas baubles, each one wrapped in tissue, ceremoniously revealed one by one each Christmas eve, these will never lose their strength, their ability to place her back in childhood and when, as will be inevitable over the years, they crack and break, she will be hard pressed not to cry.
But all of this is in the future, now is now.
A neat woman, toe nails painted a surprising rock chick purple is sitting on the sofa reading the latest story, wondering when it wandered away from her, when it became, not the mildly erotic narrative she was hoping for, but another story of loss and loneliness.
She sits for a moment, eyes half closed, seeing the strong man, imagining her hands on him, the sense of strength in his core and then shrugs, smiles.
She should have known it would be impossible to write anything about sex in this house.
She remembers, remembers clearly, the day she realized that parents, her parents had, at some point at least, had sex.
No earth shattering formative experience, just that sex education film in top juniors, the one they showed just before you went to big school. The one with the cartoons and the women really giving birth and her sitting in the big hall, the one they used for dinners and music and movement trying to imagine her parents, people she had never seen with no clothes on, never seen touch each other, actually doing that and somehow, more horrifyingly with each other.
Over the years, she had tried, in some cases, tried quite hard, to have sex in this house, but somehow, it, that act, had always seemed too noisy, too messy, actually simply too joyous.
She sits for a moment longer, day dreaming, wasting time, knowing she should get on, but luxuriating in this idleness.
She remembers her panic about not working full-time anymore, her nighttime terrors of only a few days ago and wonders, in the clear light of this winter morning, why that thought had scared her so much.
She can view it quite differently now, leisurely breakfasts, time to make her house nice, neat as a pin and even the phrase makes her smile, reminds her of her mother, allows her to edit out the frantic cleaning of bathrooms with even the threat of visitors, the rushed hiding of any sign of life in any room, the plumping of cushions and the lips tightened as the doorbell rang.
Maybe this future will be less bleak, less empty than she has imagined it. She is not her mother, she is comfortable with other people, likes to share her space, likes to leave traces of projects, unfinished tasks on tables and chairs.
She is not her mother.
The house is transitioning, mid-point between home and shell, still hiding the stories that she will not write down, will not know about, the stories that will not become part of the moleskin note-book.
The house has hidden the next narrative, fallen behind the silent washing machine, lying still, crumpled beside the dust bunnies of shame.
If the house could speak, it would tell this story, a clipping from page 12 of a faded, brittle newspaper.
A slight story, even amongst those other slight tales.
The story of a man who went away and came back and what stayed the same and what was changed.
The next narrative – The return of the hat rack man
The Un told narrative – The hat rack man returns
Everyone told him, don’t expect things to stay the same, again and again they drummed it in to him, things will be different, don’t look for what used to be there, accept change, but now he’s here, now he’s walking down the street, all he can see is sameness, nothing has changed, not really.
If he squints a little, blurs the sharp focus, it all looks the same.
yeah, for sure, the shops have different names now, different facades, brighter colors, but look past that, look past the brighter colors, the swirls of other language on the signage and it’s all just the same.
he takes a deep breath, watches his out breath hang, like dragon smoke on the air and smiles to himself.
It is going to be alright, he can feel it, and everything is going to be alright.
before he left, before he went away, this was his world, he knew every inch of pavement, he had swept it often enough, he could walk the length of the parade with his eyes closed and know exactly which shop he was outside.
different sounds, different smells, a change of tone, of purpose, he can still see the shops as they were, then. He counts them off on his fingers, runs through the oh so familiar list.
Greengrocer – open early, the burly woman hefting down sacks of onions and carrots from the delivery van. Her labor and strength unremarked, un-noticed, while her husband, permanently bent into an unfiltered woodbine, wrapped himself around the till, watched her, never offered to help.
Butchers – china cow, carefully placed on plastic grass in the middle of the window and around it, great lumps of its real cousins and behind the counter, the butcher and his boy, aprons blood spattered, but everything else gleaming, a temple of white tiles and precision cutting.
The lines of women, always women, buying cuts of meat that nobody understands anymore.
Shin of beef
Skirt of lamb
and at Christmas, the turkeys, necks yellowed, hanging on huge hooks, paid for week by week and collected on Christmas eve, ready to be jammed into roasting tins always 2 inches too small.
Newsagent, paper boy tamer, eyes in the back of his head all the better to catch the bad children sneaking handfuls of penny sweets into blazer pockets, but not him, never a bad boy.
Newsagent and the progression, Beano, Eagle and first day at work, the Sun rammed into a back pocket and later magazines from the top shelf, hidden under mattress, removed late at night in that back bedroom, in that single bed.
The Betting shop, his mother always took his hand here, dragged him smartly past, holding her breath as if the very air was contaminated.
The horse racing commentators’ voice spilling out from the shop on warm early evening and the men, eyes fixed on the screens, sometimes heads in hands, sometimes and little shuffles of joy.
When the neighborhood started to change, the men spilled out, stood, backs against the wall, cigarettes smoked between thumb and forefinger, went to walk away and then turn back, re-enter the shop, hands fumbling into back pockets.
The chemist, a wooden backed chair provided for that wait while medication is made up. Sharp smells and the rattle of pill counting.
The shame of head lice solution, bottle hidden in a brown paper bag, taken home so his mother can tear through his hair with the comb with the sharp teeth, her anger at where they live travelling down her arm, into her hand and then onto his smarting scalp.
The Rimmell lipsticks, his mother would, as she waited for service, carefully untwist the tester, pucker her lips and try an unfamiliar color and then laughing at her own reflection and then wipe it off and re-apply soft rose.
He bought his first after shave here, before there was any real need, but did not buy his first condoms here, even when there was a need.
The grocery shop, open at 9 am, closed at 5 pm and took an hour at lunchtime and nobody minded. When he was very small and very good, the grocer, dressed in a neat brown overall would, when he, proud to be trusted, had handed over the list, dip into the box of broken biscuits on the wooden counter and hand over a slightly chipped chocolate biscuit, flavored with all the other biscuits in the box and somehow all the more delicious because of it.
The grocery shop, always dim, soft lighting to stage the pyramids of tins and packages, Anger delight, Birds custard and the introduction of the freezer and his mothers’ cautious experiments with frozen peas.
The dress shop, with the constant sign “Join our saving club, lay away available”.
In summer a display of sensible, modest summer dresses, no plunging necklines, no hems above the knee, soft pastels, in winter, fur lined ankle boots and a winter coat made to last, to see out many winters, always brown or black or grey.
The barbers, where every fortnight for 40 years, his father had the same haircut, not too much off the top and a length never allowed to creep beyond the very top of his collar.
He went on the day before each term started, with all the boys, hair neatened, tamed, and ready for another block of something that passed for learning.
Brush, comb, scissors placed into the auto sterilization between each client, the ceremonial sweep of the cape before the cut and afterwards, mirror to the back of the neck and his fathers’ voice, a little more of the length I think and the barbers’ dutiful nod.
And finally, his fathers’ shop, the hat shop, “The Hat Rack” – people said his dad, will always need hats, people said his dad, meaning men of course, are not properly dressed without a hat and even when, the people, the men, stopped needing hats, stopped feeling improperly dressed without them, the shop remained, unchanged.
3 wooden heads in the very center of the window display, his job to polish them each week and obeying his fathers’ unchanging seasonal rituals.
The cloth cap
And that was then and this is now and the hat shop, the hat rack is his and he walks slowly up the parade, side stepping the boys on bikes that seem oddly too small for them, making way for the veiled women who push their prams between the shops.
The paint has faded on the shop facade, but, the 3 wooden heads are still there, naked, hat less and somehow this is more shocking than the actual death of his father.
He has real no idea of what to do next, but he finds his hands have automatically dug the key from his pocket and opened the door of the shop.
He shoves the pile of pizza menus and taxi cards away from the mat and steps inside.
For the first day or two, he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. He is camping, he cannot call it living, in the flat above the shop, moving around the few pieces of furniture left by the previous tenants, the people who moved in after his parents died and whose rent allowed him to keep moving, keep travelling, to keep staying away.
The electricity is still on, a few bare light bulbs, a tiny plug-in fan heater, but no cooker, no fridge; It is neither better nor worse than many of the places he has stayed over the last decade. He unrolls his sleeping bag on the saggy sofa, leans his rucksack against the table and drinks a cup of water from the tap.
He knows he should do stuff, contact the solicitor, tell the electricity board that he lives here now, buy a kettle, visit his parents’ graves, but he does none of this, instead, he stays curled up in the sleeping bag, reading a battered paper back he found in a hotel room in Amsterdam.
It is hunger that drives him to action, drives him to stand up and leave the flat. He needs to eat something, needs to buy cigarette papers, maybe even a newspaper.
when he finally emerges into daylight, carefully walking through the empty shop, locking the door behind him, he is surprised by how weak and tired he feels. His plans to head towards the city center seem too much now, instead, he decides to see what the parade offers, he reasons that there must be food shops, at least a convenience store and so he turns right, heads down the road.
As he walks, he begins to see just how much the parade has changed, all the old shops have gone, but their shape remains, the ghost of what they used to be and in their place, something quite different, but completely familiar to him and for a moment, he wonders if he has actually traveled home at all or is still somewhere else, somewhere far more foreign.
The smell of good food, matar paneer, samosas, cumin and coriander catch at his nose and he breathes them in deeply, almost feeling nourished in scent alone.
There is an Indian sweet shop where the dress shop used to be, windows piled high with pyramids of cream colored barfi, a line of women and children snaking out the door and each time the door opens, that smell again, sharp lime cutting against the underlying musk of condensed milk.
He joins the line and inside orders far too much food, is so hungry that he has already started eating the hot, oily samosa before he has even left the shop, takes huge bites, cramming the food in as quickly as he can.
The women watch him from behind veils; one of them sees his hunger, his pleasure in the food
“Good eh” she says and her accent is completely of this place, she sounds like all the girls he went to school with.
He nods smiles and her eyes crinkle, nikab twitching in a grin.
He stands outside the shop, another samosa, bharji, chili, consumed in a few short bites. He begins to feel more human, more himself, walks on down the parade.
It is both different and exactly the same, small shops, family businesses, he can see old patterns repeated, new shapes imposed.
There is a halal butchers shop, chickens hanging in the window, an old man yielding a huge blade slicing down on lumps of meat, a sign in the window certifying that all the meat inside is pure halal, certified.
The green grocers has been replaced by a sari shop, the orange and greens of carrots and apples and leeks replicated in shocking silk and patterned cotton. A girl stands at the window, staring in, and all her attention on a pair of jeweled sandals which lean carelessly on a bolt of cerise fabric, so bright it almost hurts his teeth.
The barber’s shop remains and is still a man only space, two men, boys really are gesticulating in the air, hands describing the exact tracks they want cut into their hair and the barbers nod, lean forward to the task, eye brows furrowed in concentration.
An RB track plays, something he has heard quite recently, but he cannot quite place either the tune or what city he heard it in.
He continues walking, wonders what his parents made of these changes, wonders if they fought in or surrendered, packed up and went away.
He cannot imagine his father closing the shop, had always assumed that it was old age that had caused the final decline, but now he can see another narrative. He shrugs, he went way, and they stayed.
There is a hardware store, goods spilling onto the pavement, he pauses, considers buying a kettle, maybe even a better heater, but that sort of purchase seem to indicate a level of commitment, an agreement, he doesn’t know who to, that he is planning to stay, to make some sort of home.
He shakes his head, not today; he does not need to make any firm decision today.
There is a convenience store cum dry cleaners cum post office cum off license and he suddenly realizes that for all of his childhood, boyhood, early manhood, before he learnt to run away and stay away, that there was never any alcohol on sale at the parade.
His mouth feels dry, he can almost taste the sharp sweetness of cold lager and he walks inside, looks for the cooler cabinet he knows he will find at the back of the store and nods to the man leaning on the till.
He buys traveler essentials, biscuits, chocolate, sliced bread and sliced cheese, fag papers and 4 cans of strong, cheap lager and as an afterthought a half bottle of vodka, something to keep out the cold, keep out the ghosts.
He starts to walk slowly back up the parade, wondering what he will do next, wondering how long he will stay, wondering how long before the sky begins to press down on him, pushing him back into movement, constant, constant movement.
At The Hatrack, he stops, looks into the almost empty window display again, it seems even greyer, sadder than when he walked out a few moments ago.
Inside the shop, he drops his carrier bags onto the floor and not really knowing what he is doing or why he is doing it, he begins to scoop up all the junk mail and take it out to the dustbin.
Rooting around in the almost empty kitchen cupboards, he finds a cloth and a tin of polish and walks back downstairs to the shop and with no thought, no analysis, nothing in his head, he finds himself leaning into the window display, polishing the naked wooden heads.
The siting room is beginning to resemble the bedroom of her teenage years in this house.
There is a crumple, a huddle of unmade bedding, clothes are draped over the sofa that no-one sits on, plates have migrated here and stack, unwashed and unreturned to the tidy kitchen.
She has not lived like this for many years, even as a student she took pleasure from neatness, order and she wonders if she is imbibing some strange miasma from the house itself, becoming her teenage self again.
She remembers the regular battles with her mother over her bedroom, the threats to go in there and sort it out, her spirited returns that it was her room and she could do there what she liked and the unspoken words ,the ones that said, from her side, that her mother was dull, provincial, interested only in domestic tasks, keeping up appearances, worrying about what the neighbors would say, but that she, well, she was more than that, a free spirit, a feminist, someone who was going to do more, be more than her mother had even been.
The cruelty of her actions hits her, not for the first time and just for a moment, she wishes, really wishes that she could apologize, make amends and then she considers her life, still in the medium-sized town, a professional life of blameless low achievement, a house which even her mother would approve of, would see the order in and she wonder s if her whole adult life has, in so many ways, actually been a life of apologies for her brief teenage rebellion.
She considers spending a few minutes tidying up, but rationalizes that this room will have to be done properly before the week is out and anyway, she shrugs, she is finding the mess comforting, it feels like she is camping out, living on top of rather than in this house. If she makes it too comfortable, she may settle in, stay longer than is strictly necessary and that thought scares her.
She realizes that she hasn’t thought about her own home for several days, hasn’t worried about the cats, even about work, it is as if all of that is happening somewhere else to somebody else. She resolves to make phone calls later and then she pauses, home, her home is really not very far away, she could, quite easily, simply go home, sleep in her own bed, return here tomorrow, but even as she thinks this, she knows that this task, this final putting away of her parents’ lives needs her full attention, needs her to be here until the end.
Thinking about her teenage bedroom has made the next room clearing decision easy, it’s the turn of her own bedroom today, somehow this energizes her and she almost leaps up, grabs a slightly less crumpled shirt from her bag, even considers a clean pair of trousers, but there is something delightfully sloth like about slipping back into clothing that has been worn for days, so instead, she dons the same jeans as yesterday and the day before and actually, she realizes, the day before that too.
Tea, she thinks, tea, toast and something else, her mouth puckers, trying to summon up, to nail the taste, the texture she is craving. Bacon, she shakes her head in surprise, she cannot remember the last time she ate or even thought about meat.
Her vegetarianism started here, in this house, a fad, her mother said, something to complicate meal times, something to provide more work, more worry. Her father, a man who habitually expressed complete indifference to food and eating, just shrugged and ignored the battle of will between his wife and daughter.
But, today, she can almost smell bacon; can imagine the pleasure of soft white bread, ketchup and biting down into the crisp salty flesh.
She makes a decision, if the corner shop, a shop that has survived incarnation, re-incarnation, name changes, but which was still known as Palmers to her parents, years, perhaps even decades after Mr. Palmer had stopped guarding the sweet counter, stopped calculating the paper bill with a pencil he kept behind his ear, stopped buying in chocolate covered ginger especially for her mother, had, in fact, stopped being there at all, if the corner shop has the makings of a bacon sandwich, then she will, with a clear conscience, but bread, bacon, ketchup and allow herself this treat.
The shop has changed name, again, but the facade is the same, slightly faded red paint, from the last time she called when she spent 4, or was it 5 days with her father, before the ever-changing bevy of professional carers, volunteers, coordinators stepped in.
The woman in the shop recognizes her, but distantly, knows she is not a resident and so her nod is perfunctory, polite, just enough.
It takes her just a few minutes to collect everything she needs and a few surprising extras, she finds that she craves chocolate, biscuits, sweets and for the first time in years, she simply picks up the things she wants, pay for them, sees them placed in a carrier bag and heads back to the house.
She is surprised that, for a moment, she found herself thinking of this return journey as heading home.
Today is obviously a day of unexpected thought and actions.
contrary to popular thinking, the craved food is every bit as good as she hoped, she uses an extra slice of bread to mop up bacon juice, spurted ketchup and then bites into a bar of chocolate and sighs with satisfaction and then she lifts the last item from the carrier bag and carefully, deliberately removes the cellophane wrapper, pulls out the silver foil and holds a cigarette between thumb and fore finger.
She has remembered to buy matches too and that sound, the strike of match against box, the hiss of the flame against the cigarette end take her back to this house circa 1978. Her head stuck out of her bedroom window, inhaling, almost inhaling one of the precious Players No 6 she hides in her sock drawer.
She manages 3 drags of the fag before she has to stop and stub it out, but she feels somehow vindicated, in touch with a side of herself that she has long put away and there is a simple pleasure from stubbing the still smoldering cigarette into the flowered pattern on the plate.
She stops only to grab a packet of biscuits to take with her, somehow, she suspects that snacks may be needed to complete the work in her own bedroom and then, leaving plate, mug, buttery knife beside the sofa, she heads upstairs.
The bedroom is not unfamiliar, she has on many overnight stays slept here, has even squashed boyfriends, best girl chums, college mates in to the neat single bed, but the room feels chilly, dusty. It strikes her that someone, her mum, her dad continued cleaning the room, opening the windows, keeping the cob webs at bay long after they might expect her to sat here.
The last visit was in its own way a vigil, she napped on the sofa, the doctors’ mobile number on speed dial. Her need to feel like or at least be able to go through the motions, of adulthood, had meant that she could not consider sleeping in this bedroom, her bedroom.
So, she calculates in her fingers, it has been at least a year, maybe longer. since anyone has even opened the door and the room has that smell, not quite damp or decay or even dirt, just a whiff of neglect, of being forgotten.
Her first action is to step up onto the bed and open the window, even the slightly damp November day is fresher than the room and, if she is being honest, she is calculating the levels of guilt versus pleasure that she would experience from sitting, barefoot, legs crossed, on the bed smoking a cigarette.
But first she will need to move the grey plush donkey that still takes center stage in the middle of the bed.
She picks him up; hands find the soft velvet that lines his ears and without even being aware, her fingers start to stroke, almost knead the faded pink fabric. It is enormously soothing and for just a second, she wonder what would happen if she just slid down the bed and lay there, donkey in hand, her nose rubbing against his plush grey body. She has to fight hard against the seductive power of donkey, but does place him carefully, reverentially at the start of the keep and take home pile.
She starts on the bookcase. It’s been emptied, sorted, packed and unpacked before of course.
Moves to college, back home and then away again have meant that the books have travelled to, but there have always been the ones that got left behind, left here, safely with some vague thought that at some point in the future, there would be a child, children, someone she would read her complete collection of Enid Blyton to, would share the joys of the pony stories, the plucky sailors and the girl detectives.
Now, knowing there hasn’t been and probably won’t be, not now, not ever, anyone to read to, to read with, pauses her as she runs her finger over the battered, many times read stories and she pulls them off the shelf in wobbly armfuls, pitches them into a bin bag she has already, in her head, labeled Charity shop.
She tries hard not to look at the individual titles, the drawings on the covers. All of the books have memories, little messages written in the front covers, each book a specials occasion, from the days when books were bought for birthdays, Christmas, not ordered casually from somewhere out there on the internet.
She has a sudden clear memory of a Christmas, wet, grey, damp and her fathers’ outrage about the speed with which she has read her new book, unwrapped only that morning and completed even before they have tackled the mound of turkey sandwiches and mince pies which each year signal the end of Christmas day.
She wants to share the joys of a new book with her father, wants to explain that speed reading is essential, a gorging on new words. That it has not taken away the glory of the small stack of books in her Christmas pile, but he, a man who reads the local paper from cover to cover each day, even the small ads, is, she knows, somehow disappointed, had hoped that she would ration this gift, make it last, get her moneys’ worth.
Even now she reads quickly, cramming the words in. She reads the way other people eat fast food, mouth busy while they arrange the next mouthful, she is almost turning the page as she reads the last but 3 sentences, desperate to know what happens next.
As she pulls books off the shelf, she knows that she is also looking out for another newspaper cutting, she cannot imagine that there will not be one here, is sure that whoever has left these has left them for her and will of course have left one here, in her own bedroom for her to find.
The book shelf yields nothing, she has a couple of false alarms, but they turn out to be ageing scraps of paper, old bus tickets used as book marks.
She is still optimistic, even when all the books have been bagged and she has managed to resist the lure of half an hour curled up on this bed, the once center of her world, with “In the fourth at Mallory Towers”, but t she has stayed strong, consigned the book to a black bag and is now ready to start on the wardrobe.
She has no real idea of what will be in there. She cannot imagine that her parents have kept any of her teenage clothes, they seemed to cause enough offence when she wore them, tried her best to put together some form of suburban punk sensibility without going too far, getting too much attention.
She remembers her Doc Martens, ox blood-red, many laces and actually so painful that they made her heels bleed for weeks, she washed the bloodstains from her socks, never complained, the agony was bearable only because she knew how much they offended the very core of her mother, what was a little blood, a little scarring when every time she left the house, she saw her mother wince.
The wardrobe has become a resting place, midway between proper rooms and the forgotten corners of the spare, spare room.
The top shelf is piled with bedding, old coverlets, and soft fuzzy blankets, the ones she can just remember from poorly days off school, wrapped and cossetted on the sofa. There are pillows, bolsters and a neat pile of sheets, all folded, edges lined up against the back of the wardrobe and as she pulls them out, wonders is any will be useful, worth taking home, she can hear her mothers’ voice
“You can never have enough towels or bedding”
As they fall onto the floor, so does another slip of paper, another newspaper cutting.
This one is larger, a headline, a photograph and a short part of longer story.
“family get new home – first family to move into brand new corporation homes”,
the photo shows a couple, looking older than she knows they really are, man in suit and brylcreemed hair, the women all peroxide and hard line lipstick.
He is staring at her, whilst she is looking out, directly into the camera.
The Next Narrative – In my father’s house there are many bathrooms.
My dad said she wouldn’t make me happy, looked me in the eye, face serious
“Son, she’s not right for you, trust me on this one”
Problem was his timing, because there we were, first row in the church, standing, waiting for her and the flower girls and the bridesmaids to arrive.
I’m not sure what he expected me to do, turn tail, mumble out some apology to everybody and run, leaving him and mum to cope with 100 sit down dinners, finger buffet for 250 and the Blue Horizons Disco man, so I just stared back, there was a pause and then Celine Dion filled the church and away we went.
That was the problem with my dad really, often good advice, but his timing, it was like hearing a really good joke, but told badly, so you knew it was funny, but the delivery took all the joy away, made it impossible to laugh.
It was like when I wanted to join the army, he saw me running every night, lifting weights, watching what i was eating and then he waited until I got in and then, then, he says
“You won’t like it, you’re not a soldier”
So, of course, I had to prove him wrong, prove to him that I could do it.
2 years, the most miserable 2 years of my life, because he was right, but I had to stay until I could tell him and myself that it was my decision to leave, nothing to do with him.
Even at work, he’d watch me do something, wait until I was 90% through the job and then, then, he’d fix me with his look and tell me what i was doing wrong and sometimes I just wanted to scream
“Why the bloody hell didn’t you tell me earlier?”
So, when he choose 5 minutes before I got married to tell me that she was the wrong girl, I wasn’t that surprised, really and again, I wanted to prove him wrong, wanted to knock that told you so gleam out of his eyes when down the line I got what he was talking about.
I met Justine in a bar, on a Friday night, me and the other guys, just kicking back, settling into the week-end and I saw her, well, me and every other man in that bar saw her, we did that cartoon thing, when the jaw hits the table and the tongue unfolds
“Hbba, hubba hubba”
Because she was something else, tall and slim and more than that, she looked like all those girls in the magazines that my little sisters read and suddenly every guy in the place was sucking in his gut, rolling up sleeves to show off a bicep, making extra journeys to the bar, trying to catch her eye.
Me, yeah, I looked, but I knew the score, 2 years in the Para’s, working in my dads’ plumbing business, living at home, out of my league.
So, I got on with my evening, bullshit banter with the lads, some promise of 5 s side footie on Sunday morning, the usual debate, kebabs or curry or stay and do after shocks, get drunk, get drunker.
Which was why I was at the bar when she was there and it was heaving and I don’t know why, but I did this weird gentlemanly thing, sort of ushering her with my arm?
“After you” I said, just polite, no hitting on, nothing and I guess she could sense it and she got her drinks and she nodded and walked away and it took me 10 more bloody minutes to get served.
I thought about her more than I should have over the next week, nothing weird, nothing stalker like, I’d just find myself standing staring at a radiator or sitting in the van, waiting for my dad, and I’d see her face and it made me feel good, made me feel, well, excited, as if I had something to look forward to.
So, Friday night comes and there was a big match on, so the plan was into town, watch the match, drink. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it seemed good enough and at the back of my mind was the thought that I might see her, might even actually get to speak to her.
It all went wrong of course, the bar was rammed with loonies, we couldn’t get a seat, couldn’t even get served, so we fell back on Plan B, usual bar, drink, banter, curry or kebabs and a bit of me really hoped, well, I’m not sure, now, if I even I knew what I hoped for
I’m reading this back now and Jesus, I sound like such a loser, but it wasn’t like that and I’m going to cut to the chase, cos this is not the bit I want to tell you, this is not the important bit at all.
So, shorthand then
She was there.
I rang her
She remembered who I was – bonus
We went out for dinner.
We went out for drinks
We started dating
She met my mates
I met hers [it’s a test girls make you do – I must have passed]
We were a couple.
And my life changed and yeah, I know exactly how gay that sounds, but it was true, cos there I was with this girl, who’s fit and funny and clever and well yes, classy and when we walked into places, men looked at her and then they looked at me and I just walked taller, felt like a real man.
Which is why, I didn’t take her home to meet my mum and dad for as long as I could get away with, cos i was scared that my dad would do that thing he did, tell me that I’m not good enough for her and he’d be right, cos he pretty much always is, it’s just his timing that’s’ off and then I’d just wait for her to dump me..
It seemed to go ok, my mum liked her, in fairness, and my mum likes everybody,
“If you’ve got nothing good to say, then don’t say anything” isn’t just a fridge magnet to my mum – it’s a rule for life.
My sister liked her; they had one of those girl type talks about shoes.
My dad didn’t say anything, anything at all. I waited, waited for the comment, the look, but nothing.
I should have known that he was biding his time, waiting for the worst possible moment and fucks sake, he definitely choose it.
5 minutes before the” I dos”, but crafty git, he’d planted the seed, the doubt. He knew I’d do the rest myself.
I got married and I waited for the marriage to fall apart, waited for my dad to be right, again.
Our first house, terraced, cozy, central heating and new boiler installed by me and my dad as a wedding present, ikea furniture and the biggest bed we could fit into the front bedroom and i waited for things to go wrong, for her to change.
Part of me was living this life, this new marriage and the other part, that part was standing in the shadows, watching, and waiting.
And nothing happened……………you hear me, nothing happened.
Yeah we had rows, I didn’t put the toilet seat down, she talked all through the semifinal, I liked getting drunk with the lads on Friday nights, she still spent too much money on shoes and more pairs of black trousers than any women could possibly need , but and but and but
We were happy, normal bimbling along happy and that’s the point of this letter, this story, that I’m going to leave for you, for you to read at your leisure, in your own time, Dad.
That’s’ the point of this, I could write down all the good stuff that’s happened since then, the kids, the bigger house and then the even bigger house – the one with 3 bathrooms you said was jerry built- me taking over the business and guess what, I may be a shite plumber, but I can run a business and the holidays and the simple fact that every night I get into bed with my wife, the one YOU said would never make me happy and we talk and I snore and she kicks me and sometimes, we have sex and it’s all good.
And I was going to write even more down for you, type it all up, but actually, it only needs one sentence, so that’s what I’m going to write
“SOMETIMES DAD – YOU’RE JUST WRONG!”
and that’s the slip of paper I’m going to slide into the pocket of your best suit, before everyone else turns up, before we get on with the rest of the day.
When she finishes writing, she realizes that she has had the battered plush donkey on her lap and has been absently stroking his ears with the hand that has not been gripping the pen, racing to get the words down. Her fingers feel roughened by the nap of the velvet, but she is curiously soothed, almost dozing now.
She has never written anything so fast before, knows it’s not great literature, contains no great truths, no important messages, but she has enjoyed the process of writing it and as she reads it back, sees, all too clearly, that she has levered her own father into the story, made him the dad who nearly always gets it right, except when it really matters.
Her father basked in his own omniscience.
Ask him a question, any question and he would always have an answer, presented as complete fact, the truth.
As a child she believed that her father knew everything, had all the facts of the world at his fingertips, but of course, as she got older, she learnt to doubt him, to even, as her life took her further away, to understand that on some, many occasions, he was actually totally wrong.
She wonders how he would have coped with grandchildren hooked into the digital age, the knowing of everything, actually everything only one click away and how he would have saved face when his answers were challenged.
She closes her eyes for a moment, note-book and donkey balanced against her knees, she doesn’t mean to fall asleep, juts to rest her eyes, but when she wakes it is dark and for a few moments she is so bewildered by finding herself in her childhood bedroom that she is both unsure of the place and even the date, her age, who she is.
She feels like a teenager again, the presence of donkey and her notebook simply reinforcing this. She can almost imagine that she is revising, waiting for her mother to call up the stairs, to tell her that supper is ready and then she remembers why she is here and the re-learning of the loss hurts almost as much as the first knowing did.
There is no-body downstairs to make her a meal, no-body to leave a little plate of biscuits, a milky coffee outside her door in the days when A levels threatened to overwhelm her. There is no-body at all and she sits for a moment, hands wrapped around her knees before the sobs erupt, shaking her body, leaving her gasping for breath, clutching the soft toy so hard that it hurts her fingers.
She has no choice but to wait until the storm subsides, until there are just hiccups and snot and eyes that burn and then, shakily, like an invalid that has spent long, fractious days in bed; she puts her feet to the floor and stands, almost expecting her knees to buckle, waiting for collapse.
But of course she doesn’t, she is her parents’ daughter, made for stoicism and instead she looks around the room, notes the neat piles of books, the half emptied wardrobe and sniffing back the last year, she goes back to work.
An hour later, the room has been reduced to heaps, all sorted, given a destination, all she needs now are boxes. There are a small jumble of soft toys, rescued from the very far reaches of the wardrobe, these will be sent to a Charity Shop tomorrow and she lifts up donkey, meaning to drop him into the pile, but she cannot, he will have to come home with her, be found a space on a shelf, dusted occasionally and sometimes, just sometimes, held tight when the night seems too dark and the morning just too far away.
Going downstairs, in search of the boxes she is sure are in the garage, she realizes that she is hungry, again.
As an adult, She has never been so aware of her hunger, so aware of her need to eat the food of her childhood as she has been over the last few days. She remembers the hunger in her teens, overwhelming her, sending her into the larder to eat slice after slice of bread, before she made decisions, made choices, took control and promised herself that she, not food, would always be in control from now on.
The hunger is panicking her, but, she reasons, this is not real time, not her real life and so, anything that happens here can be ignored, put away, and not examined too carefully.
There is a window halfway down the stairs, its sill a place for ornaments, knick knacks. She has rarely looked at it, rarely even noticed exactly what is there, but now, she pauses, looks at her reflection in the darkening glass. Her face is a mess, eyes puffy, neck still red. She stands and stares at herself, tries to smile and fails and then she notices another clipping, sticking out from underneath a wooden duck, which has stood there, facing left for as long as she can remember.
She needs the distraction, unfolds the paper, not a news story this time, but an illustrated advert, a line drawing of a woman, decorous black one piece swimming costume and the advert heading, but not the rest
“An Important Message to Figure Conscious Men & Women”.
This time her smile is wobbly, but genuine, she will order a pizza, justifying that she is far too much of a mess to leave the house and then she will write the story of this advert, she nods at its familiarity, this is a story she knows how to tell.
The next narrative – “An Important Message to Figure Conscious Men & Women”.
She’s doing the maths in her head, being careful to round down, not up.
Small banana, say 50 calories, coffee, well, that’s nothing really, rice and salad, can’t be more than 200 calories, so that leaves 300 calories for her evening meal.
Gym after work, 20 minutes on the cross trainer, that must be at least 500 calories, power walk and then 20 lengths, gotta be over 1,00 calories in total.
So, that gives her 1,300 calories for the rest of the day or, she does the sum again, if she can keep this up until Friday, that would be 3,000 spare calories….she pauses for a minute, checks the calorie counting app on her phone, is 3, 00 calories enough for a pepperoni pizza, she can taste the warm cheese, feel the heat of the box as she carries it from the front door to the kitchen.
It’s ok, she will be good, no garlic bread, and no cookie dough ice cream and besides, she’s 3,000 calories ahead and she will definitely go to the gym on Sunday morning.
So, 300 calories for tonight, inside her head, she reviews the contents of her fridge. Tomatoes – good Cucumber – good Low Cal, fat free dressing – very good Lettuce – good
Let’s say 100 calories for a salad, another 50 for a banana, that leaves 150 even before she gets to the gym, so she can have a 2 fingered Kit Kat with her afternoon coffee and still be ahead.
She smiles to herself, if she can keep to this, this time she will definitely lose weight, more counting, this time she has to use her fingers to help. If she sheds 2 lbs. this week and really, she can probably call it 3 lbs., especially with all this gym going, that’s definitely, completely going to happen. 3lbs this week, let’s say 12lbs over the month, that’s nearly a stone, so she shrugs to herself, let’s call it a stone, by October she will be 4 stone lighter, she will be slim.
She closes her eyes for a moment, the better to visualize this new slim self and smiles.
More counting, so, if she’s a size 18 now, each stone lost should mean at least a dress size down, let’s see, she thinks
One stone – size 16
Two stone – size 14
Three stone – size 12
Four stone, and she can hardly say it, does the counting again in her head, just to make sure. In October, she will be a size 10; it will all be worth it.
3.30 pm – time for a break, time for a Kit Kat, she hopes that the vending machine has the small ones, but then she shrugs, it’s all ok, she’s 1,000 calories ahead, it won’t matter if she gets a bigger one and besides she’s starving.
As she walks through the office, she wonders why she left school thinking she was bad at maths, she seems to spend her whole life counting.
The piece is short, shorter than she hoped, but she shrugs and as she lays down the pen, the doorbell rings and her mouth salivates at the thought of pizza and warm bread and a sated stomach.
She stands up, fumbles for her purse in her bag as the doorbell rings again and then goes to answer the door.
And while she lays on the sofa, sated, stomach warm from melted cheese and soft doughy bread and still with the tang, the bite of garlic on her breath, the house is settling down for the night.
Pipes gurgle, floorboards in the kitchen contract, just a fraction, a cold wind blows against the glass of the conservatory, rattles the blinds.
The house notices that lights have been left on, it considers her wasteful, profligate , but it remembers that she has always slept with the lights on, always left doors open so that heat flees out, always used too much hot water, left the radiators luke warm, the water tank empty, gasping.
The house likes to be taken care of, cleaned, polished, a regular routine of maintenance and small repairs. It has noticed that these things have happened less frequently, has noticed the cob webs in the corners, the unswept, unused rooms, the worrying noise that the boiler has developed, but, the house has been here before, has seen the residents grow old, fail, go away, always to be replaced by new people who dust and clean and sand and paint, so, the house is confident that things will get better and it waits.
The house is very good at waiting.
It has counted all the stories placed around it, knows there are exactly 30, although it has no idea why these pieces of newsprint have been placed so carefully around it, but then the house rarely understands anything and is satisfied to watch without comprehension.
It knows exactly where they are, these little squares of other peoples’ lives;
Underneath the bedside table lamp in the big bedroom.
Pushed into an ugly green vase on the book-case in the dining room
On the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, next to a pink shiny box of elderly rose scented talcum powder
In the glass bowl of the food processor, held in place by the small plastic blades
Slap, bang in the center of the dressing table, flanked by a hair brush, a china shepherdess and a comb that has been missing 2 teeth forever.
The house wonders how many of these she will find, how many will lie quietly, undisturbed and what will happen to them and then, because it is night-time and the house knows that night-time means stories even when no-one can hear, it composes itself and starts another narrative.
The Next Untold Narrative –” Twins not quads for Mrs. Fletcher”
She has to ask him to say it again, she has heard the words, his tone is loud, confident, but they have simply made no sense, just a jumble of sounds and so she sits up and looks directly at him
“What, sorry, I don’t understand??”
He turns away from the sink, where he is busy washing his hands, faces her
“I said, looks to me like there’s more than 2 babies in there, we’ll need to send you in for a scan, but I’M pretty sure you’re having quads”
There is a pause and then he speaks again
“Quads, that’s 4 babies”
A tiny part of her, the part that is not completely submerged in trying to process this new information, wants to snap at him. tell him she knows what bloody quads are thank you very much, but she bites it back and waits for him to continue speaking.
” We’ll need to get you off to the hospital, get a proper scan, just to confirm, but congratulations, well done you and Mr. Fletcher, of course” and he smiles, that bloke type smile and because there isn’t another man here, she tries to smile back in kind.
She doesn’t really remember leaving the surgery, heading up the road, through the estate, all the houses with the same red front doors, towards her own red door.
It’s a warm day, the sun is comforting on the back of her neck and as she walks, she absently strokes her belly, wondering what exactly is going on in there, for a second she has an image of tangled limbs, but that’s so unsettling that she shakes her head to dislodge it and continues walking up the hill.
The gardens are full of children too small for school, every garden awash with plastic toys, paddling pools, buckets and spades and of course the mothers, many of them young, so young, bikini clad, catching rays , drinking tea, chatting over fences and for once she isn’t jealous, doesn’t want to scream out her anger and hunger and loneliness.
Because she knows something that they don’t, she has achieved something that none of them have, she is carrying not one, not two, not 3, but 4 babies.
After all this time, the waiting and the trying and the sideways glances and the half asked questions, she is going to show them all.
She is going to be a little bit famous; she is going to be the women who had quads.
She’s not stupid, knows that 4 babies is unusual but not really extra-ordinary, but it’s enough for some local fame, some local attention, maybe even her picture in the paper, but it will be enough and she smiles at the anticipation.
No more poor Mrs. Fletcher, no more of Kens’ simmering anger as she monitors her temperature, counts days, weeps at the end of every month or waits for the inevitable 5 or 6 week fail.
He will feel pride that dumb mail pride, he’s better than other men, not firing blanks at all, his is super sperm, not just one baby but 4. She can imagine him, in the pub, head help high, shoulders back, all man.
At the front door she fumbles for her keys. the door is stiff, warping in the heat and she has to shove it hard, use her shoulder and then the door gives and she almost falls into the hallway.
Immediately, her hands come forward, ready to protect her stomach, keep them, and she savors that word, them, not just him or her, them, her babies.
“Ken” she shouts up the stairs, knowing that he will probably still be in bed, a tangle of sweaty sheets, hairy man, stale air in a room where the windows need opening
“Ken, I need to talk to you , now” and she heads up the stairs and then stops, dead still , 3 steps from the top, realizing that she has no idea of how to actually tell him.
She takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders and walks into the bedroom.
Ken is still asleep, but the heat of the day has roused him enough so that he has pushed the duvet away and is lying, a white chubby starfish, filling the whole of the bed.
She calls out
“Ken, wake up, wake up now, it’s important”
There is a movement and a mumbling and slowly, very slowly, he begins to emerge from sleep.
Finally, he sits up, rubs his eyes, scratched his crotch and automatically reaches out for fags and a lighter.
Bitter experience has taught her that Ken is not a morning person and so she waits hands across her belly until he has had the first drag, the first cough and then she tells him and when he doesn’t seem to understand, tells him again.
There is a pause, Ken smokes and she stands, looking down at him and then a smile cracks his face
“See, I told you it wasn’t me, told you I wasn’t firing blanks” and he is grinning, a big shit eating grin and finally she feels confident enough to move across to the bed, sit down next to him and take her hands away from her stomach.
Ken lights another fag off the stub of the first and lies back, blows a smoke ring, sighs
“This has gotta be worth something, never been that many babies born to one woman on this estate, least ways, not that I know. I need to think about this”
and his face closes down, deep in money-making thoughts, her presence forgotten.
She stands up, mutters something about putting the kettle on and he pays her some attention, does the little boy smile, the one that used to make her stomach flip and says that a bacon cob would hit the spot.
Downstairs, kettle on, frying pan fat jumping, she lets her shoulders slump, this was not what she was hoping for, for a split second as she walked home, she visualized quite a different scene, her lying on the bed, her feet up while he, solicitously, lovingly, is here now, tea making, finding a nice cup, even a biscuit to go with it.
She rubs her belly
” hey babies, how you all doing in there?” and she smiles, imagining 4 little faces all looking up at the sound of her voice.
Ken is on the phone when she brings him tea and his bacon cob, deep in conversation, he just points to a space next to the bed to leave his breakfast and continues his conversation
“Yeah man, innit, safe”
he is doing that fake gangster voice, the one he knows she hates, but she can hear the pride in his voice and so, she perches on the bed, wishes she brought another cup of tea for herself and risks a sip of his even though she knows it will be too sweet.
Suddenly Kens’ voice changes, become business like, harder
” Yeah man, gonna ring the paper now” and then he laughs” True bro, 6 would have been better…yeah….yeah…….maybe next time……..yeah laters”
before he can make another call, the phone rings, he answers it, voice going from gangsta to his more usual midlands whine in 2 words
“Yes, we’ll be there, 9.30 – no problems, thank you”
and then he turns to her
“they want us to go into the hospital tomorrow, get the babies scanned”
he has never used the word us or ours throughout this pregnancy, hasn’t been up and out of the house before midday for as long as she can remember
he pats her stomach
“you never know, they might find another one”
and then he gets busy with the bacon, mouth biting into the bread and red sauce, leaving a trail of crumbs on her side of the bed.
The day goes on, she cleans up, a bit, makes herself a slice of toast and then, thinking about the 4 mouths inside her, has a second and then a third piece.
Ken appears downstairs, finally, but is dressed properly, as if for a Saturday night, she wonders if they are going out, maybe a celebration, wonders if her black dress still fits and then he is gone with shouts of laters and babe and she sits on the sofa, flicking from channel to channel, but with a feeling of excitement.
She half watches East Enders, but the little bubble of something is moving in her chest, making it hard to concentrate and then he is back, stinking of beer and weed, but clutching a McDonalds bag
“here babe, got this for you” his words are slightly slurred, but not enough to make her anxious” gotta keep your strength up now”
The food is cold, chips greasy, but she eats them anyway, smiles and remembers to say thank you.
They sit together, while he shouts at the TV and digs a quarter bottle of vodka from the carrier bag at his feet and she tastes and re-tastes the cold burger and strokes and pets her stomach.
It is the most peaceful evening she can ever remember.
She stays on the sofa with him, because for once, it feels safe and warm, for once it feels like they could be a real family and for once he actually offers to make her a cup of tea.
He smokes a couple of spliffs, but is gentle with her, almost considerate and she leans into him, enjoying the feel of him against her skin.
He is convincing himself that the scan will find more babies, 5, maybe even 6, is planning a future of talk shows, photo shoots, reality TV, fame.
It’s making him happy and so she says nothing, just allows him to lean his hand against her belly as the other hand texts and rings the boys, talks through the future he sees ahead of them.
She decides to let it go, let him have this night, decides that she will deal with tomorrow when it comes and while he talks, shouts down the phone, she whispers to her babies, visualizes their faces, their arms wrapped around each other, sleeping soundly.
When she can stay awake no longer, he comes to bed with her, the first time since her pregnancy started to show and they lie together, dozing and waiting for morning.
She falls asleep and when she wakes, terrified that she has overslept, missed the appointment, he is up, dressed, not in joggers but his good jeans, he smiles at her, asks how she feels and she is overwhelmed with love for him, grateful for his attention.
He says they should go into town early, get breakfast, digs into his stash money and says he will take her anywhere, buy her anything she wants.
He even stands at the window when he lights a fag, doesn’t moan when she says she feels sick.
They leave the house together, it’s cold and she pulls her jacket around her, it doesn’t reach across her middle anymore and before yesterday, that would have annoyed him, made him call her a fat cow, but today he laughs, says they will go to Primark, buy her a new jacket after the scan.
She can’t remember the last time she had breakfast in town, month ago, before she lost her job, before she stopped leaving the house, before he took control of the money.
The milky latte is comforting, warming and she sips it slowly, savoring it. She feels to nauseous to eat anything, but watches him devour eggs, bacon, black pudding, beans and slice after slice of toast.
Afterwards, he sighs with pleasure, leans back in his chair and pats her hand, public affection, her heart feels fit to burst.
He checks his phone, for texts and the time and says that they have enough time to get her a jacket, to make sure that the babies are warm enough and as they walk toward the precinct, he doesn’t stride ahead, occasionally looking back to check she is trotting to keep up, instead he walks at her side.
She catches sight of the two of them in a shop window, they look like a real couple, they look like everybody else and she smiles at their reflections.
He takes time to choose a jacket for her, slips it over her shoulders, makes sure it has enough room to allow for all the babies, makes sure it will keep her arm and when they go to pay he tells the girl on the till that his missus is expecting 4 maybe 5 babies and she thinks that at this moment she could actually die of happiness.
The ante-natal clinic is busy, lines of women, some, not very many men, but they are expected, ushered through into the scan area.
He loves it, loves the attention, the feeling of importance, she see him grow, fill the space and she smiles at him and for once he smiles back, pats her hand and then they are called in.
There are 2 radiographers and a doctor in attendance, a feeling of excitement and for the first time in her life she is at the center of something. She is not sure how she feels about this and is relieved when she is told to get undressed and climb onto the couch.
It is familiar to be told what to do and she lies there, looking up at the faces around the bed. Ken is holding her hand and she grips tight, although not bad is happening, just to enjoy the feeling of his hand in hers.
They start the scan and there is a pause and then the older radiographer does it again and then another pause and the doctor moves away, starts to talk to both women.
She knows then that something is wrong, the wrongness catches in her throat, and she grips Ken’s hand, because something bad is happening now.
There is another pause and then the doctor is back and he’s speaking, hands extended, and offering apologies.
It takes her a moment of two to understand exactly what he’s saying. There’s been a mistake, her own doctor has been mistaken, and there are not 4 babies, just 2, 2 identical twins.
Ken understands far quicker than she does, sees everything he has planned, the mapped out future turn to dust, fall away, again.
He looks down at her
“You fucking useless fat cow, you couldn’t even get this right” and then he is gone.
There is an embarrassed silence and then the doctor suggests that she gets dressed, goes home. None of them look at her.
The walk back to the estate takes a long time; she knows she is dragging her feet. She has tried texting him, calling, but his phone is switched off.
She knows it’s going to be bad, probably very bad, but just for a moment, she relives this morning, his gentleness, him spending money on her, she strokes the shiny fabric of her new jacket, rests her hands on her baby belly, smiles.
This morning has been one of the best times in her life.
It dawns on her, as she surfaces and then only because the salty, oiliness of the pizza has made her wake suddenly, desperately thirsty, stomach still full of food, her only thought that she must get a drink of water.
It dawns on her; as she pads into the kitchen, still fully dressed, having slept in her clothes, all her attention focused on tap, water, glass, drink.
It dawns on her as she peers bleary eyed out of the window, surprised to see daylight, no idea of what time it is, how long she has slept, even what day it is.
it dawns on her that she is living some kind of teenage life, not the teenage life she remembers, but something far more akin to the lives of the children she teaches.
They talk casually about spending whole weekends in their pajamas, casually ordering food to be delivered, paid for on parents’ credit cards, friends arriving in onesies, clutching bottles of wine liberated from their middle class parents pine wine racks and it would seem never missed.
Their weekends bear no relation to the weekends she remembers at their age, makes her feel old and when, in the staff room, her younger colleagues discuss weekends that sound almost exactly like their students, she feels not old, but ancient.
She was a dutiful daughter, with no brothers or sisters to deflect from her parents’ attention.
Weekends meant homework, helping her mother with the chores, church on Sunday and then Sunday lunch and unless the weather was truly appalling, a family walk afterwards.
Her only tiny burst of rebellion came after tea, Radio 1, top 40, the last of her homework and the weekly conversation with her father
“Terrible din” he would say, turning down the volume on the radio ” Mind it doesn’t distract you from your studying” and then he would wander off, to do his only domestic task, the washing up of Sunday lunch and Sunday tea pots and she would turn the volume up and bend her head, dutifully, towards her green math’s exercise book.
2 glasses of water gulped down, she begins to feel better, wonders if actually she has been missing something all these years with her weekends of chores and marking and projects.
She wanders back to the sofa, absently moves the pizza box and discovering 2 uneaten pieces, perches on the arm and eats them and finds them delicious. It is, she thinks, the most unhealthy breakfast she has allowed herself in years.
For a moment, she thinks about her usual weekends, up by 8 am at the latest, Radio 4 on, pot of real coffee, muesli, fresh fruit and a plan for the day sketched out in front of her, a list of things to do.
Moving the pizza box has unearthed her notebook and because she is lolly gagging, putting off the real list of chores she must achieve today, she begins to flick through it, reading and re-reading what she has written and then she is brought up short.
The latest story, the tale of the quads that weren’t is in her hand, her careful, teacher trained legible handwriting, but, she has no memory of writing it. Reading it is like reading something written by someone else. The story makes her sad; it is such an awful description of someone stuck in a life which is so far away from hers. If she had read it in a collection of short stories, she might have been tempted to skip through it, say it was too depressing, too like real life, too like a Mike Leigh film.
And she has no idea when she wrote it, knows that she has not found a newspaper clipping with this story. It is a complete mystery, the only solution she can come up with and she knows it sounds, actually is, a little mad, a little far-fetched, is that somehow, she has written this in her sleep.
She sits very still for a moment and then, very carefully, she leans into her bag, pulls out her phone and checks the time and day. It suddenly seems very important to know this, to root herself back in the everyday, the normal.
Wednesday, she thinks, its Wednesday, it’s 8.37 am. On Friday the house clearance people are coming to move the big furniture and the for sale sign will go up and I will go home.
She needs to say this several times before the words actually have meaning, before they become comforting, give a shape to the next few days.
I need to get a grip, she thinks, I am running out of time, but still she sits, absently finishing off the final crumbs of cold pizza although she knows that she is not hungry, does not need this food.
It takes a huge effort of will to lever herself off the sofa, leave the warm comfort of the duvet and actually get on, get on with the plan.
As she walks up the stairs, she finds herself talking out loud
” I will finish my bedroom, take bags to the charity shop, get out of the house, label furniture, ” She wants to stop already, this list feels overwhelming, the lure of sleep is so strong that she almost takes a step down, back toward the sofa, her notebook, but, she pulls herself together and takes a deep breath.
Her bedroom is both less and more sorted; piles of books, clothes, blankets have been piled haphazardly on the single bed.
There is no sign of any sorting, any organization, she sighs and bends down to pick up yet another roll of black bin bags and starts stuffing objects, not even looking at what she is placing in the bags, it is enough to see things vanish into the black plastic.
The growing pile of bin bags, stuffed full of things that have been unused for so long comforts her, she feels as if she is returning to the person she was just a few days ago, organized, focused, someone who gets on with stuff.
She doesn’t recognize, doesn’t want to recognize this other woman, the one who sleeps in the day time, hides under bedding, eats at strange times, reads stories in her own notebook she has no memory of writing.
This woman scares her, makes her realize how thin the layers of competency are, how quickly they dissolve when everything else that underpins them is taken away.
She resolves to keep busy for the rest of the stay, keep on track.
She wonders what she will do if she finds anymore of the strange little clippings and feels instantly conflicted. A part of her still believes that they are some sort of message from one or both of her parents, something important that she should ignore at her peril.
For a moment, she has a mad image, her parents sitting at the dining room table, the orange handled kitchen scissors between them, cutting these headlines from a teetering pile of old newspapers while they discuss the best hiding places, not too obvious, not so challenging that she will miss them.
But, she knows that this scene is impossible, her mother had left speech behind long before she died and her father, quietly failing, had shown no signs of anything outside of the normal on her dutiful daughter visits.
She shrugs, this is not the type of thinking she should be falling into now, and she must stay in the present, stay within the list of tasks to be done, use a red pen to tick things off as they are achieved.
There is an elderly cardboard box right at the back of the wardrobe, it is half wedged against the wood and she has to tug hard to get it out, almost unbalances and falls backwards.
The box has been taped up with sellotape, ageing now, yellowing, losing its hold on the cardboard edges and as she pulls, it comes apart, revealing the contents.
The box is full of tiny china animals, each one wrapped in tissue paper, placed carefully on top of each other to ensure that none of them will chip or break.
They are hers, the little animals she collected, collected obsessively throughout her childhood and beyond.
She remembers them, lined up on the window sill, the book cases, even on top of the wardrobe, the favored ones, kept carefully under her pillow at night and sometimes held tight in her sleeping hand.
She knows she shouldn’t, knows she has far too much to do, but the lure is too strong and she kneels down, the new , but becoming familiar twinge in her knees as she hits the carpet no longer surprising her.
She will just look for a few moments, choose a handful to take with her, they will, she reasons; look sweet on the shelf in the bathroom.
Like dipping into a lucky dip at a summer fete, she doesn’t even look, just grabs a handful and drops them gently, carefully onto the carpet in front of her and then bends nearer the little pile to unwrap them.
Two rabbits, rabbits were always her second favorite, a mute reminder to her parents about her lack of pets, a quiet, understated demand for a real bunny, for something to hug and cuddle.
A cat and 3 puppies, a chicken, that one surely a gift, she cannot remember ever having any interest in chickens and then the best animal, the ones she collected the most, the ones most likely to spend their evenings clutched in her warm hands, the horses.
She can, if she lets herself, remember these horses quite clearly, knows that if she sits here quietly for a moment or two that their names will float into her mind as if they have never, ever been away from her.
Midnight and Flicka and Ghost and Champion, she picks up the little black pony and trots him across the carpet, her throat re-finding the little clicking noise she used to make to replicate the sound of trotting as the ponies and horses went about their complicated story lives.
She cannot help herself now and digs again into the box, pulls out more and as she unwraps them, she remembers them all and finds herself putting them back into the families they lived in, lined up carefully according to the rules of her complicated china world.
She is so engrossed with these memories, the actual physical reality of the china animals that she almost misses the slip of newspaper, slid between a red squirrel and a slightly chipped china mouse, but there it is and really, she is unsurprised.
This box is so much of her, of her childhood, that anyone who wanted to make sure that she would find a clipping would have placed one here.
Before she unfolds it, she wonder for a minute if this one will be somehow more personal, will give her some clue to the purpose of this little game, treasure hunt, whatever it is, but it is just like all the rest, a headline, no explanation, no date, no story, simply a few words, an outline of an event without the event itself.
She reads the few words.
” Police Chief wrote his own death note”
Nothing else, she cannot tell if this is an obituary, a new story, she re-reads them as if this will make anything clearer and now of course the non-story is worming its way into her head, pushing her to use it, to write something and she knows that this is not the time, knows that really she must get on, but it’s too late, this mornings’ focus is slipping away.
She stands up, glad to straighten her legs, take the weight off her knees, wonders for a moment when her body decided to slip into middle age and then she stops, she cannot leave all the animal lying around the floor, she cannot put them in bin bags and so, she spends minutes wrapping them up again, putting them back in the box, but she keeps a few out, the best horses, a grey rabbit and her best rabbit, black and white and slightly bigger than the other bunnies, always a perfect size to clutch in a palm and these she takes downstairs, wastes a few moments carefully arranging them on the coffee table, smiles at them and then pulls out her notebook and pen and starts to write.
The Next Narrative – The Police Chief who wrote his own death note
This is a simple story of greed and every day folk. The story of what happens to an ordinary man when he gets greedy; when he thinks he can have it all. It’s my story and i am a very ordinary man indeed.
I always knew I’d be a police officer, not in some superhero fighting crime in Gotham sort of way, not in a personally tortured, booze loving, opera listening sort of way, not even in a slap the bitch, drive the motor around and around that one deserted car park/wasteland so beloved by 70s TV show makers sort of way.
No, it was much sadder than that, I wanted to be a police officer so that I could help people, so that I could do good. I didn’t want to be a detective or a dog handler or a member of the SWOT team, I wanted to be a proper bobby on the beat, walking out in all weathers, measured footsteps, knowing every inch of my patch, my people.
And that’s what I got, for more than 10 years; I was the model beat officer. I took real pride in what I did, the nods from the passersby, the waves from the kiddies in the primary school playground, the nose, the eye, those things they can’t teach you, but once you’ve got them, they never leave you, that sense of when something, someone is amiss, a wrong un.
And yeah, some days, it was tough, even occasionally, a little dangerous, more often, quite tedious, but he liked it, liked the quiet respect, the patterns of his days, the routines and rituals.
Patsy‘s given up on me now, has her own glittering career and just smiles when I tell her about my day
“ stick in the mud” she calls me, it’s affectionate and besides it’s true, but just sometimes, I get that urge, the itch, to show her that there’s more to me than she knows , which is why I suppose that I said yes, why I’m sitting here now and why I’m writing this down.
It sounded like a joke at first or something out of a science fiction film, Robo cop, but we kept being sent on these courses and seeing these training films and eventually it dawned on me that there was a Robo Cop, but it wasn’t some huge killing machine, it was being designed to replace the likes of me.
And of course, we all laughed, shook our heads as we sat in the canteen over chips and mugs of tea, I mean how can a machine be a beat officer? How can a lump of metal deal with people and situations and well, stuff?
Then they told us that they were looking for experienced officers to pilot the Robo cops, well my first reaction was thank you very much, but no thank you and then I just saw Patsy’s’ face, that slight, fleeting look of boredom when I described what I’d been up to and I thought, that would show her, prove I’m not as dull as she thinks, give us something new to talk about.
So, to cut a long story short, I said I’d give it a go, I’d take one of these machines out on the beat with me, give it a go and then the scientists turned up and it was a bit like Doctor Who.
Loads of white coats and computers and things that went ping and they followed me around on the beat and took photographs and every day when i went home i had something new to tell Patsy and we took to sitting over a glass of wine at the kitchen table and it was, well, nice.
Eventually, the chief scientist, decent bloke really, said they were ready and that Robo Cop [it wasn’t it’s real name. just a joke really, but it stuck] would do its’ first session on the beat the next day and that I should be ready, alert and on my toes.
At home I told Patsy, we had a second glass of wine each, said we were celebrating, didn’t meet each other’s’ eyes and when we went to bed I couldn’t sleep.
I just wanted the morning to come, get it over with, take Robo Cop out on the beat and I wanted him/it to fail. i wanted to come home that night, smile, shrug and tell Patsy that I wasn’t that easy to replace.
The Next Narrative – the Police Chief who signed his own death note – (continued)
I didn’t quite know what to expect, the science blokes had kept it all under wraps, big secret, but in my head I’d sort of imagined some kind of big robot thing, some kind of Robo Cop, but when they took me into the briefing room, he/it wasn’t what I expected at all.
He was shorter than me, human shaped, head, arms, legs, but not human, not even trying to look human, more like a doll really, an approximation of a human.
The scientists explained, at length, what the focus groups had told them, nothing scary, nothing that might be mistaken for a person, people wanted him to look a little like them, but no confusion, no replicant.
He stood in the middle of the room, lots of men and women in white coats clustering around him, tapping on screens and reading through printouts, all of them focused, an under-current of excitement and crowding in at the door, every single person in the station who could find a reason to walk past the briefing room and quite a few who shouldn’t have been there at all.
They all had that look on their faces, the one you see on those people who stand outside murder houses, rubber neck as they drive slowly past pile ups on the motorway, a sort of grim fascination, a knowing that they shouldn’t be staring, but doing it anyway.
And then the big brass arrived, a flurry of briefcases and PR smiles and I get beckoned over, it’s a photo opportunity, me and Robo Cop and the men in white coats and more senior police officers than I’ve ever seen in my life and I smile and smile and then I look at him, I mean really look at him, for the first time and he’s just blank, he’s got sort of facial features but they’re blurred, almost human, but not, not enough.
They talk through what they want us to do that morning, just a trial run, a walk around the beat, make sure his GPS is working, check out how well the main frame is interfacing with his data base and I nod, like I’m really sure what most of this means, a man who had to get the community bobby to reset my phone when I couldn’t change the ring tone.
I’m told that he has a working vocabulary, they have carefully identified the most used phrases in a beat officer’s vocabulary, I can’t help wondering if they include
“fancy a cuppa” and “who do you fancy for the match?”, but I keep my mouth shut and eventually we head off into the streets.
His pace exactly matches mine and just for a second I wonder if I walk like a robot or he walks like a beat bobby, his head moves from side to side, there’s a faint whirring noise, at first I notice it every time he moves, but after a while it stops registering, bit like when you stop noticing the sniff or the cough that used to drive you mad in a new bloke at the station.
We walk up the road, it’s a good day, the kind of day when I might do a quick detour to the park, check out on the kids skiving off school, give them a push in the right direction, say hello to the elderly Asian man who always feeds the pigeons and just have a few moments in the sunshine and so, after thinking for a few seconds, I tell Robo Cop what we’re doing and there’s a pause
“This is not on the schedule”
And I sigh and explain that it’s community policing and this must be one of his key phrases because he turns and waits for me and we walk towards the park gates.
The usual knot of boys who are too cool for school are sprawling on the bench nearest the water fountain, I see them and they see me and my presence gives some of them the nudge, the excuse they need to mutter something, stand, but not too fast and shamble off in the direction of the school at the bottom of the hill. The others, well, they aren’t looking at me, but I know that they know exactly where I am and yeah, I could go over, read them the riot act, take down all their names, like I don’t already know them already, but they don’t want to go to school and by all accounts the school doesn’t want them to turn up, so, we have an agreement, of sorts.
They don’t get too visible and I pretend I can’t see them, but of course Robo Cop doesn’t know any of this and when he sees them, well, he stiffens, reminds me of my dads’ lurcher, the one he had when we were kids, the one he used to take rabbiting, she would do this, whole body pointing towards her prey.
He starts moving towards them and I have to jump in front of him, explain that this is not real crime and there’s another pause, you can almost hear him absorbing and evaluating this information and then he stops and just stands still and we both stand for a moment and then I start walking toward the row of benches next to the cricket pavilion, because, there are things I do at the park and Robo Cop or no Robo Cop, I’m keeping to my stick in the mud routine.
Mr. Ali is sitting in his normal place, staring straight ahead, hands placed just so on his knees and I nod and sit next to him. We don’t talk, he hasn’t got much English and I haven’t got any Gujarati, but it’s a companionable sort of silence, usually. Today, the presence of Robo Cop is a new thing, which both Mr. Ali and I do our best to ignore and then after 10 or so minutes I stand up and very casually, I leave 3 pound coins next to him and I walk away.
I can feel the question before Robo Cop speaks, so I try to get an answer out before he asks the wrong thing
“It’s his daughter in law” I start and already I can hear that this does not sound very police ish, but I plough on “She kicks him out at 8 am, doesn’t let him back in until 6pm, doesn’t give him any lunch, so, it’s just a thing we do, me and the other lads….” I tail off, wonder if I should have said that he’s an informant, and make it sound like proper policing.
Another pause, I’m getting used to these and then he speaks, slowly, carefully
“What is the benefit to the local policing profile by this action?”
And then it’s me that pauses, because I’m trying to put it into words, words that will mean something to someone who has a GPS and access to the mainframe and finally I manage to mumble something about beat policing being about more than just crime, it’s about community liaison and building links with ethnic minority communities, but really I want to tell him the truth, the reason we give the old bloke some lunch money is because we feel sorry for him and we all know what it feels like to be under the feet of a woman, but I don’t think that’s on the mainframe, so I don’t.
We continue the patrol, he spots 3 untaxed cars, I would have let the Datsun slip because I know who owns it and I know they’ve just been made redundant, again and I know they will sort it out as soon as they can, but, he’s started the paperwork, generate an e-mail while he stands there, so I just shrug.
We walk past a group of the local bad lads and I’m about to give him chapter and verse, but he gets there before me, tells two of them they have unpaid fines and stands there, patient, unmoving while he phones through to the courts and books sessions for them to go in and make payments. It’s not as if he’s loud or assertive or even menacing, he’s very polite and very, very calm, but you just know that he isn’t going to move any time soon.
When we get back to the station, the scientists can’t wait to drag him away, analyze his data, evaluate his performance, get feedback and all the lads are waiting for me, bursting with questions and I don’t really know what to say, in fairness, he’s no worse and no better than any new officer, he hasn’t done anything stupid or dangerous, he doesn’t moan or pick his nose, but, but, he’s not one of us, never will be.
And I want to tell the lads that he’s a disaster, that we have nothing to worry about, but a tiny voice in my head, says that maybe we do have something to worry about, but I let them point and joke and I join in and then we all go to the pub and when I get home Patsy gives me the look and I fall into bed and try not to think about it and I wonder what tomorrow will bring
The Next Narrative – the Police Chief who signed his own death note – (continued)
So, the trial continues, every morning, there he is [and yes, I’ve started thinking of him as a him, not an it, you can’t work all day with an it], white coated boffins trailing behind him, all printouts and charts and beeping lap tops and every day we head out, onto the streets and he knows everything, knows everything before I can tell him.
We walk past a house and I’m just about to give him the heads up, talk about the family who live there, but before I can even open my mouth there’s a faint whirring noise, or maybe I imagine it, and his flat voice starts listing the occupants and their records and their unpaid fines and what court cases they have pending and we walk on, just a silence between us.
Of course, he gets it wrong sometimes, we’re walking past a non-descript terraced house one morning and suddenly he stiffens, turns and says in his flat voice
“Ongoing tag malfunction” and before I can say, do anything, he’s up the little garden path and the doors been lifted off its hinges and he’s in the house and up the stairs, pushing past a couple of terrified children.
The man who appears is stark bollock naked and there’s a lot of shouting, well shouting from tag man and his missus, both trying to explain that the tag beeps if it gets wet, the only one not shouting is Robo Cop, who just keep repeating that removing the tag is a court infringement.
After that they take him away for a few days, fiddle with his circuits, prod and poke him or whatever and by now of course, the tag story has gone all round the nick and most of us, the lads, are secretly hoping that this is the last of him and I just get back into my old routines, start relaxing into my job again when he’s back and off we go again.
I’ve stopped talking about work at home, our dinners have become more silent, Patsy’s gone back to bringing her lap top to the table and I’ve gone back to drinking cheap, strong lager and staring into space.
One morning, it’s raining, I mean really raining, pouring down, so I do what I always do on this kind of day, I head over to the Community Centre, you could call it intelligence gathering, well that’s what always put on my time sheets, but actually what it is , is the best bacon buttie in the city and a mug of tea so strong that you could stand your spoon in it and Mavis, lovely Mavis, a generous hand with the bacon and the sugar.
So, I’m just easing myself into a seat, mouth-watering at the very thought of the crusty bread and the butter melting into the bacon and I look around and see that nice Mrs. Patel, the one who got robbed last year and that reminds me that I need to speak to her about the company her youngest son is keeping and then I spot Bella, hands wrapped around a mug and I smile, knowing that I need to ask her if the local yobs are still playing knock door run at her house and I should check, but carefully, if she’s still taking her medication.
Robo Cop is still standing, scanning the room, and I know that he can see every criminal record, every unpaid fine, every parking ticket shoved in a glove compartment, but he can’t see any of the things that I can see.
And then I understand, really understand that I’m signing my own death note here; I’m signing the death note of very beat bobby in the city, in the world.
This one, this Robo Cop, he’s not it, but the next one of the one after that, and they’ll be the ones.
Think about it , a bobby that never gets tired, never sneaks off for a crafty fag, never forgets anything, never makes a mistake with his paperwork, well, that’s the future isn’t it?
And despite the 3 slices of bacon in my belly and the warmth of the mug against my hands, I suddenly feel very cold and very afraid.
She stops writing, stretches, wiggles her fingers, she is not used to so much writing by hand, has forgotten the wrist ache, the stiff fingers and the wonderful release when you shake out the tension, stop writing.
This has been productive, proper writing, beginning, middle, end, even a stab at a genre story, and the kind of work she could take to her writing group, read out loud, get feedback, and make improvements.
No more strangeness, no more stories written in her sleep. She has gone a little strange she thinks, too much time on her own, too little structure, but today, today, she feels much better.
Today, she can get on, work toward the countdown when all the other players in this last act of her parents’ lives will arrive and the house will no longer be theirs and she will go home.
Today, she will, finally, attack the room she has been avoiding since she arrived; today she will clear her parents’ bed room.
And she will start as she means to go on, so she folds up the duvet on the sofa, tidies her draped and dropped clothes away into a neat pile, scoops up dirty dishes and plates and washes them as the kettle boils and as she makes a cup of sugar less, black coffee.
She ponders for a moment, perhaps a brisk walk before she starts, but she recognizes this for what it is, displacement and instead tells herself that if the work goes well, she will reward herself with a walk later, some sensible food shopping, a stocking up of fresh fruit, brown bread, bottled water.
Coffee drunk, she heads up the stairs.
She remembers clearly the last time she was in their room, the morning after her father died, sent here by the undertaker to collect his good suit, tie, smart socks, the outfit he had chosen to be buried in.
Then, she hardly noticed the room, was grateful that the carers had stripped the bed, taken away the flotsam and jetsam of old age and illness and had been heartily glad to shut the door and walk away.
The bedroom door was always shut to her, even as a small child, no Sunday morning bouncing on the bed to wake her parents, no creeping in between their sleep warmed sheets when nightmares sent her cold and disoriented onto the landing. This room, their room was firmly demarcated as an adult space, a private space, so much so that as a teenager she took any opportunity presented to her to snoop, to touch things, to sit at her mothers’ dressing table and stare at her own reflection in the mirror.
The room is cold, with that slightly damp, unused feeling, she wonders when the door was last opened, wonders if she was the very last person to be here and
then , recognizing that she is about to slip into a place of complete sadness and blackness, she moves instead, deliberately over to the wardrobe and begins to pull clothes out, throwing then over her shoulder onto the stripped bed.
She realizes immediately that some sorting has already taken place, her father had, before he too became too lost, too confused, taken some, maybe nearly all of her mothers’ clothes somewhere and when she thinks about it, she does have some memory of him discussing taking them to Age Concern, but the conversation moving on quickly, before it became too bogged down.
What are left are clothes he, or maybe she, had some emotional link to, but she is surprised by what he has kept hold of, not, she knows the items that her mother kept for best, her good clothes, but instead a collection of summer frocks, a pink beaded cardigan and a rather severe black dress she has no memory of ever seeing her mother wear. It is another small mystery and she knows that she could let herself fall into this one, but today is about purpose and clear thinking and so instead, she just stuffs the dresses into a bin bag.
She knows there will be nothing valuable, no secret treasures. Her mother’s will was clear and simple, a few pieces of jewelry, her own small savings, some items from the house shared out between her daughter and the daughters of cousins. She has, but doesn’t wear, a rather nice ruby and emerald ring, she was pleased to get it, it was the best of the rings as befitted her blood status, but knows that she will never wear it.
Her father’s side of the wardrobe is more chaotic, looks as if someone might step into the room at any time and hang the shirts more accurately, pull out a cardigan, change shoes.
Again, she grabs, bundles, but pauses at a fawn cardigan, wool bobbling with age, those leather buttons that always reminded her of half chewed toffees. For years it was her fathers’ favorite garment, even when he discovered fleece and micro fabrics, he would still return fondly and with a sense of relief to this cardigan.
She drapes it around her shoulders, enjoys its weight on her, she will keep it she decides, because she cannot bear the idea of some stranger wearing it.
And then she finds his box of cuff links, tie pins, two watches and a surprisingly gaudy ring, these she puts aside, these will come home with her , to be looked at more carefully, later on.
Moving the leather box raises a small cloud of that fluffy cupboard dust and exposes another newspaper clipping, this time, not a headline or a new story or even an advert, this one show a full length photo of a young woman, soulful, long haired, staring artfully into middle distance, it’s some sort of profile piece, but the story has been clipped away, leaving just a fragment of the first sentence.
” The girl who paints sad pictures and feels the sadness when they are painted”
The Next Narrative -” I paint your pain and feel it for you”
The Next Narrative -” I paint your pain and feel it for you”
One upon a time, there was a sin eater, well not quite a sin eater, this girl was a pain eater, she could take your pain and feel it for you and leave you light and joyous and free of all the pain that weighed you down.
Of course, she didn’t know, not at first, that she was a pain eater. She thought that she would be a great artist, a portrait artist and that she would travel the world, painting the rich and famous and would by degree become rich and famous herself.
At art school, staff and students found her ambitions remarkably old-fashioned. They didn’t understand art that had no concept, art that couldn’t be assembled from ready mades, they mocked her lack of digital involvement, her paint spattered jeans, her lack of Saatchi sponsorship.
Sometimes they would stand at the door way to her little work area at the unfashionable end of the college, dangerously close to the illustrators and the graphic designers and watch her, yield paint and brushes produce images that looked exactly like the objects in front of her easel.
“But, what’s it for?” they asked” What’s’ the point of painting things that look exactly like real life?”
Sometimes, she tried to explain, tried to share the joy and mystery of manipulating tone and shade and color, but mostly she just ducked her head and went back to painting her fruit bowls and kittens and her own hands and feet.
Some of the young men and not so young tutors saw beyond this tragic affection for the life-like, they noticed her raven dark hair, her snow-white skin, her rosebud lips. They liked to watch her work, often found that afterwards, walking home, late at night, they felt somehow lighter, better. Sometimes, they wondered about trying painting themselves, but in the harsh light of day, in seminar rooms where they listened to lectures on the marketing of art, the hype of the self, they shook their heads and applied themselves to the getting of an agent and a cover on The Face magazine.
She didn’t attend these seminars, floated instead from her tiny attic room to her painting room, ignored the awkward silences when tutors faced with a perfect rendition of a hand or a pewter jar, had nothing to say and simply smiled when other students invited her to take part in digital installation pieces or community projects on dingy east London estates.
She graduated, mostly because no-body could find any real reason to not award her a degree, her final degree show, medium sized canvases, portraits of the cleaners and canteen staff form around the college gained a sort of notoriety, the only show that year not bought up in its entirety by the Saatchi gallery. The cleaners, however liked the paintings, offered her small sums of money and hung the pictures above their fire places, next to their flat screen TVs and she went out into the big bad art world.
And she struggled, the people who liked her paintings were not the kind of people who bought art and finally, she was reduced to painting pet portraits, it was an art form where accuracy, realism was all important and she discovered that people who would never buy a painting of themselves, were, oddly, more than happy to hand over their hard-won cash for a pencil sketch of their pug, their horse rendered in acrylic, even , but not often enough, a full size oil of the cats.
However, she might never have found her gift, the gift of pain eating, if it hadn’t been for Mctavish.
Mctavish was a cat, an elderly, ailing cat, whose owner wanted more than the usual pet portrait deal, wanted the artist to meet the cat, spend time with him, understand his intrinsic cat being. So, unusually, the artist came to draw the cat from life, came to produce a proper portrait.
Mctavish, sat on a cushion, eyes clouded from pained joints, fur thinning, he was usually still and silent, almost a perfect portrait sitter and while his owner fussed in the background, the young artist painted him, carefully, accurately, using all her skill with paints and light and shade and something miraculous happened.
As the portrait developed, from rough pencil sketches to tentative brush strokes, the real life Mctavish began to blossom, his fur regained its gloss, eyes brightened and on the very last day of painting, suddenly he stretched to his full length and leapt with one fluid, elegant movement from the sofa where he had lain for so long, onto a book-case, up the curtains and then out of the cat flap and onto the dewy grass of the garden, where he stood, statue still for a moment before pouncing on a unsuspecting blackbird and then dragging his victim into the thicket of blackcurrant bushes at the bottom of the garden.
After that, pet portrait commissions came in thick and fast and always the same outcome, an ancient horse turning away from the artist and her easel and cantering across a field, kicking his heels in the delight of movement, a dog re-discovering the pleasure of fetch and sticks and rubber balls.
The word went round, the young artist could not only produce a life-like painting, the kind of thing that made a pleasant addition to any sitting room, but the very process of portraiture would give your pet many more years of health and happiness.
She tried to ignore all of this, tried too to ignore the occasional ache in her hips, the sight that sometimes, just for a few moments would blur, become cloudy. She focused on her paints, her brushstrokes, her need to paint exactly what she could see.
She became an extremely skilled animal portrait maker, a journey man artist and made a good, even excellent living and felt that she could be happy.
And then, one day, the inevitable happened.
She received a phone call, a well-known captain of industry, a great and gooder, but now elderly, frail, failing, asked her, no, summoned ,her to paint his portrait.
The Next Narrative -” I paint your pain and feel it for you”
The process of painting a portrait of a being that can actually answer back has some novelty at first. She moves around him, looking at angles, shapes, how his body fits together. The absence of fur or hair or feathers is a little dis concerting until she gets her eyes in; learn to see form under skin.
He doesn’t actually speak much, there is a strange intensity to his gaze on her, almost as if the roles have been reversed, as if it is him painting her, his eyes dart between her eyes and her hands and sometimes he leans back, shift his weight and sighs with pleasure.
The painting stutters on, her hands hurt, her head hurts, she has trouble seeing straight and she is trying to not see the changes in him, trying not to see his back straighten, his hands unfurl, the lines etched on his face relax, slip away.
Somehow, whatever she has done with the pets is much more marked in him, harder to ignore, because, deep down, she knows his interest is not in her, not in the art, not even in his own portrait, he has purchased not her skill with paint, but the miracle, the promise and delivery of new life, pain-free and rejuvenated.
When they finally part, he is upright, skin taut on his face, handshake firm, whist she, she is exhausted, hardly able to stand, hands shaking, lips moving constantly as she tries to remember everything she wants to say to him.
But once she is free, away from the canvas, away from him, it is another miracle
She stretches up, feels her back move freely, her shoulders unstiffen and she stands for a moment, enjoys the feeling of the sun against her strong young body and then she sits down on a bench and thinks very carefully and very deliberately about what has happened and what she needs to do next.
Her thinking surprises her, she was not aware of this steel at her core, did not know that she could be so business like, so pragmatic about this gift, so focused on her own ambition, but she shrugs, maybe after all, she is no better than the conceptualist boys, always looking for the thing that will set them apart, make their names.
She walks home, towards her comfortable garden flat, mind already turning to that glass of wine, her own cats on her lap, the daily cigarette and the smoking ritual that goes along with it.
She knows what she should do, princesses, fairies; good angels have a clear career path in the stories. She should offer her gift up the greater good, relieve suffering, help the lame and poor, make happy endings,
“Bugger that” she says, almost aloud and before she can think about it too hard, she has dived into a newsagent and bought an extravagant 20 cigarettes and a new lighter and is walking down the street, smoking in public, even blowing a defiant and perfect smoke ring.
Later at home, she makes more plans, she will need an agent, a gallery, but with great discretion, the story always only half told, only half understood and she will choose the subjects and they will pay her a great deal of money, but more importantly, they will hang her paintings, her life-like accurate representations in every major gallery in the world.
She will change the course of art history, just her, alone.
People will learn to paint again and she will be the most famous artist in the world.
But, of course, you know all of this, well, the last bit , the bit about the savior of the art world and all that , you must know, after all how many days have you stood in line waiting to see the collected works of the worlds’ greatest living artist and yes, I can see your clutching your ticket, after all it’s worth a huge prize, a life changing prize, you chance to have your portrait painted by the mistress, if god willing, her health holds out for long enough.
She knows she is running out of steam, the writing is coming harder and harder, each word pulled sticking and protesting from her pen, the nib threatens to pierce holes in the fine cream paper of her special note-book, her writers’ notebook.
She wants to stop, unsure why she even started this, no longer getting any pleasure from this writing, each piece now is a knee jerk reaction to the newspaper clipping and she knows, in the terrible law of diminishing returns, that the writing is getting poorer and poorer, more perfunctory, but she cannot stop, needs to complete the project, although, of course, she cannot complete a project when she doesn’t know the parameters, for all she knows there are hundreds, maybe thousands of newspaper cutting, hidden all over the house.
She looks around her parents’ bedroom again, looks at it as perspective purchasers will see it. A square, substantial room, painted a serviceable cream just after her mother died, just after her father started sleeping alone for the first time in over 40 years. The furniture is old, not antique, not quirky, just chosen to last, to be functional, comforting in its unchangingness.
She sits, perches really on her mothers’ special seat at the dressing table. she can remember her mothers’ quick glances into the mirror, her look of dissatisfaction, the sense that her reflection, her appearance was a quiet let down, a disappointment, but that she contained her vanity, made sure that she didn’t give it too much house room, so only the smallest amount of time could ever be allocated to this daily checking, this daily evaluation.
She can feel herself drifting again, needs to remind herself that she has only until tomorrow morning and sometime must be given to multiple charity shop drop off, she does not have time to wander down memory lane, to lose herself in childhood.
So, she grabs piles of cloths from the wardrobe, doesn’t even really look at them, becomes a machine, stuff into another of the growing mountain of black bags, move onto the next one and the next one and she knows that she is crying, but she doesn’t stop, not until she pulls out her fathers’ favorite scarf, a surprisingly luxurious item, soft wool, maybe even cashmere, warm muted colors, orange and brown and grey. She knows it was a Christmas present, given the first year she went away. She can remember the box it came in, the scarf itself wrapped in tissue paper and the way her mother wrapped it carefully, gently around his neck and the smile they exchanged and his mock horror at the extravagance and it suddenly hits her.
They had, her mum and dad, a happy marriage, short on demonstration, on declaration, but a little like this functional bedroom furniture, fit for purpose, designed for the long haul and she has stopped crying, is smiling instead, wrapping the scarf around her own neck, enjoying its’ softness. She will keep this she decides, will wear it on cold winter days, will wrap it with love around her own neck.
There are no mysteries, no hidden stories in this room, just the things that get left behind, the things that other people have to tidy away and so she does, occasionally adding something to the little pile of things that she will keep, will take home with her, will look at in days and months and years to come.
She knows now that she will never understand the newspaper clippings, will never know who or how or why, but it doesn’t really matter.
She stops for a break, makes a coffee and sits on her parents’ bed, such a bitter-sweet moment and wishes with a hunger that surprises her, that just once, she could have sat with them, sipped a drink, talked about the everyday, but then she shrugs, imagines the look of horror and invasion that her fathers’ face would have held if she had ever tried to break into the tiny circle of intimacy that this bedroom, this bed, this closed door represented.
Instead, she flicks through the stories she has written over the last few, strange days, sees clumsy phrases, clunky paragraphs, unwieldy sentences, but also tiny bits that please her, that make her want to go home right now and sit at her little scrubbed wood desk and write and re-write all of these stories into something better.
She understands that this is not finished, that this gift of other people’s’ narratives, wherever it came from, is just a starting point and she smiles, looks at her reflection smiling in the bedroom mirror and then she finishes her coffee and starts dragging the bin bag mountain down the stairs and towards the front door.
The woman stands in the doorway; her hand is raised in a half wave, caught in mid movement, unsure if the correct response as the battered removal van pulls into the driveway.
The house clearance men have arrived and she is, by the skin of her teeth, ready for them, final cargo of boxes and bin liners delivered to the nearest charity shop only an hour ago. She feels their weight lift from her shoulders, feels lighter than she has done for days.
In the hallway, there is a neat stack of boxes, yet more black bags, it reminds her of her first move from this house, the shift to college and student living, a pile of books and posters and the items listed in the helpful University handbook as essential for 1st year student living and this, this pile, is the final move, the shift from daughter to, her tongue stumbles to connect to the correct, accurate word and then she finds it, orphan. Experimentally, she rolls the word around her mouth, orphan, it feels both familiar and completely strange at the same time.
“Orphan” this time she says it out loud as she walks toward the 2 men who have jumped out of the van and are heading towards the front door.
They are not quite what she expects, in her mind she had conjured up some Del Boy, wide boy character, so, their quiet offer of condolences wrong foot her, leave her speechless, biting her lip, the word orphan still bitter in her mouth, on her teeth.
She needs to get another taste, some sweetness, comfort
“Tea?” she asks, expecting requests for sugar, biscuits, but they confound her again. The older man smiles, shakes her deadlocked head and asks if they can herbal tea and so they sit, 3 of them, an echo of every breakfast of her childhood, at the kitchen table and they sip peppermint tea from tea bags they have brought in from their van, while she sips over sugared coffee and is the only one to dip into the packet of biscuits.
She had hoped that they would be smokers, that she could, with a shame faced grimace, scrounge a fag, smoke it while they carry out the furniture that no-body has any need of to their van to be sold to strangers, but, seeing them now, in the flesh and not the scenario that she has invented, she knows that there will be no smokes, no re-tuning the radio to radio 1 and so, she stands up and the men follow suit and the younger one smiles and asks her if she has marked any special items that she wants to keep and then the older looks directly at her and suggests that she goes for a walk or a drive, gets away for a while and then looks her up and down and asks when she last ate and she realizes that she is starving and so, gently chaperoned towards her car, she finds herself heading toward the shopping Centre, in search of breakfast.
The coffee shop, generic chain, she is not even sure which one, is busy, coffee machine steaming, filling the space with the smell of warm milk. she joins the line, orders a cappuccino, an apricot Danish pastry and finds a table in the corner. The coffee is good, strong, hot and the sweetness of the cake wipes away the ashy taste this morning has left in her mouth. She looks around, most of the tables are full of people on their own, plugged into phones and gadgets, avoiding eye contact, fuelling up for a work a day work day. She wonders, just for a moment, what would happen if she stood up and said out loud
“I’m sitting here while 2 Buddhist removal men are taking away all my dead parents’ furniture and I’ve just realized that I’m an orphan”,
wonders if anyone would actually notice, take their eyes away from the screens for long enough to register what she has said, but instead, she stands up, return to the counter, orders another coffee and a pain au chocolate, takes a copy of the free newspaper and sits as the work day crowd ebb and flow and finally, when she is sure that she has allowed enough time, she leaves and drives very slowly, very carefully back to the house.
The men are standing in the garden, clearly waiting for her to return, but they greet her with smiles and walk her through the empty house, rooms echoing, marks in the carpets where wooden legs have rooted for so long. The house feels impersonal, just a space where people used to live, it is hard to imagine her parents here, harder even to imagine her life in this house.
The clearance men show her the packed van and then there is a moment of exquisite awkwardness and the older one digs into his jeans pocket and produces a wad of notes and hands them to her, she wonder s if she is meant to haggle, to count them out, instead she shoves them into her own pocket. They sit uncomfortably, digging into her hip bones and then the men are gone and she is left, standing in the garden, not really sure what to do next.
She is not quite sure how long she stands there, but suddenly realizes that she is cold, very, very cold and she moves quickly into the house, understands that motion, constant motion is the only way to manage this, so grabs the first box, throws it into the boot and then the next and the next, until the car is packed, stuffed and she is panting, out of breath, warm, but alive, very alive.
She goes back into the sitting room to collect her bag, the last few items of clothing and crams them onto the passenger seat, goes back and checks doors, windows, locks, a parody of her mothers’ leaving the house routine and then she gets into her car and starts to reverse down the drive way, but stops, engine still running and digs into her bag, locates the note-book and places it carefully on the seat beside her, pats it with one finger, smiles and drives away.
The house watches the woman drive slowly towards the road, the back seat of her car is piled high with boxes and bags, obscuring her view, making her an even more cautious driver than usual, the house observes as she waits for a gap large enough for her to inch forward and drive away.
The house relaxes, would, if it could, breathe out, fall back onto its haunches, but instead, of course, it is still, quiet, thoughtful.
It lets its’ awareness, its’ sense of self roam around the house, move from room to room, note the emptiness, the silence after the hours of bumping and banging and the last few days of the woman moving around, taking all traces of the last caretakers away.
The house has been here before, seen this packing process happen again and again.
It finds these periods unsettling, worries about the new caretakers, wonders if they will be as careful as these last ones. It hopes they are, it has felt safe, nurtured over the last 40 years and has in its’ own way tried to repay this, tried to provide a sanctuary, kept them warm and safe even on the coldest winter nights.
It knows that it will have no choice in who moves here next, but, it has its’ own ways. It can make itself colder, darker, a shade less welcoming to those it distrusts, those it fears will not understands its’ needs and so far, it has never been wrong.
So, now, it waits, hopes for the best and although the woman was scrupulous in her closing of windows and doors, there is a draft, a breeze, it ruffles the remaining curtains, the ones left only on the front windows, left to preserve the houses’ sense of modesty, of decency and from nowhere or somewhere very well hidden, one and two and three and four and five and six yellowing, brittle newspaper cuttings flutter in this breeze and find themselves new places to wait, new places where they will be discovered.
The house is content and awaits its’ new life.