ONLY THE LONELY

Karen walked purposely toward the fitting room at the rear of the shop carrying a green dress. Sally examined a pencil skirt, holding it up against her hips. She thought she’d try it on and if it didn’t fit it was because it was made in China, not because of those late night nibbles.
Karen looked up into a face of a woman walking towards her. As if someone had cut out a memory and pasted it in the present on a different body. Shiny Sally, cardigan rolled up to her elbows and the sweet smell of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. Well, not so shiny now. She looked worn down and ordinary, overweight.
“Sally? I don’t believe it! It’s me, Karen, Montford High. God, it is you, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry? You do look familiar.” Sally lied as she struggled to place the other woman. A quick scan took in killer heels, hosiery-ed legs, a seemingly flat stomach, although she could have been holding it in, and a face painted in youthful pinks. She must be forty. “Karen, Karen Logan?”
“That’s it. Only I spell if with a ‘C’ and an ‘I’ now. C.a.r.i.n.”
“Of course. How nice to see you.” No it wasn’t. It was bloody inconvenient. Her first free Saturday in forever and she was trying to avoid talking to anyone at all.
At that moment both women looked down at the garments they were holding in their respective hands, each one at least a size too small.
“Who’re we kidding? Why don’t we forget shopping and go for coffee next door?” Carin smiled encouragement.
Sally didn’t want to but she couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to.
Next door was Francoise’s Café run by a woman with flinty eyes called Frances who wished she hadn’t taken business advice from a thin reedy woman with French leanings. It cost a fortune to buy in those tiny pastries and Madeleine’s. And the menu written in French didn’t go down too well in Basingstoke but at least her waitress was fluent.
“Allo, Mesdames. Qu’est que vous desirez?”
“Oh how gorgeous. I’m such a Francophile.”
I’d never have guessed thought Sally cattily.
“I haven’t been in here since Ray had the place. Fry-ups and extra strong tea.” Carin looked around the room. “I love the new décor. Tres chic.”
Sally smiled mildly. “Long black please.”
The waitress scribbled on her pad LB for long black or lardy bottom, who could tell.
“Chocolate au chaud, s’il te plait.”
Sally wasn’t going to pick her up on her use of the familiar, prolonging this painful outing.
“You didn’t go to the last reunion, Sally?”
Sally would rather have removed her own appendix without anesthetic. “No, busy with the kids.”
Carin fussed with her hair, and checked her face in the window. The café was painted in white and had bistro chairs. They looked sophisticated but were uncomfortable to sit on.
“You missed a great night. You’ll never guess! Sean Henson got caught out the back with Deanna Wilson.”
“Oh? Isn’t he married?”
“Yes, his wife wasn’t too pleased.”
Sally’s cheeks coloured.
“I’m being insensitive. I heard that you’d separated from your husband.” Carin leaned across, patted Sally’s hand. “It’s not your fault he went off with that young vet who put your dog down.” Carin looked at Sally’s granite face. “Mum told me. Is it true?”
“It wasn’t quite that simple. Things hadn’t been good for a while. We were both…” What was she doing? Explaining herself to an awful woman she’d briefly shared a Bunsen burner with half a lifetime ago. “Do you have kids, Carin?” Sally thought of Zoe and Emma, losing their beloved dog and their father moving out in the same week.
“No. The world doesn’t need to get bigger. I’ve never actually been to China but working in television…” Carin’s voice trailed off.
“You work in television?”
“Local network, outskirts of Bristol. Magazine shows, makeovers, gardening, fashion for the over 40s. it’s not all glamour.”
“Where does China come in?”
“It doesn’t. But you hear stories.” Carin flicked her hair extensions leaving Sally torn between manic laughter and finding a place to hide.
“So not having children was an ethical choice?”
“Ethnic? I suppose.” Carin frowned then blew the froth off her chocolate au chaud.
Sally remembered her. A skinny girl, always third wheel, never quite fitting in.
“Are you on facebook?”
“No. Doesn’t seem to be time. Work, kids, never any time.” Wouldn’t be caught dead on it. Virtual friends, Sally had enough problems with real ones.
“What do you do?” Carin gave a big smile which said I bet you don’t have a job as glamorous as me and Sally longed to tell her she was a high class hooker.
“Solicitor.”
“Oh? I thought only dusty old men did that? You know, Dobson, Dobson and Willis as if Willis was brought in at the last minute to save the family business.”
“There are a few female solicitors these days. Someone has to make the coffee.”
“Quite. Oh look, someone’s left their newspaper behind open on the horoscope page. What are you?” Apart from hard work.
A bloody Martian, “Aries.”
“Yes, I can see that.” Shiny Sally is still self-centered, impatient, quick tempered, Carin mused. “Some days you wished you’d hidden under the duvet and stayed there until tea-time. Funny.” Carin wrinkled her nose. “I’m Pisces.”
A wet fish, Sally could see that.
‘“Carpe diem’. What’s that supposed to mean?” Carin shrugged. “It’s your day for getting out and about. You will make good decisions’.”
“Well, it’s been lovely but I have to go.” Sally stood while Carin rummaged in her handbag. She retrieved a business card, bright pink. The words Carin Logan were embossed in gold. Sally took it and left before Carin could ask for hers.
Carin went next door to buy that dress as Sally trudged home empty handed. Joe had the kids on Saturday. She’d traveled into town on the bus, leaving the car at home. She thought the fresh air might calm her mind. It was the early days of separation and Sally lurched between anger and melancholy, while Joe appeared sheepish with her and out of his depth with the girls. It was the first time he had arranged their food and entertainment and hadn’t quite mastered it. Zoe and Emma, aged 10 and 11, usually arrived home on Sundays with indignant tales of puppet shows and visits to McDonalds.
Under Sally’s reign they went to the theatre and ate sushi. Joe behaved like an out of touch uncle who bought them presents several years too young for them, not like a father who had, until recently, lived with them fulltime.
The role of a mother was filled with invisible trails of love. Two pieces of fruit in every lunch box, Emma doesn’t like sandwiches and Zoe won’t eat cheese. Music lessons, remember instruments plus after school snack and bottle of water. No tomatoes in any meals with the exception of ketchup. Reading Harry Potter to Emma before bed gave her nightmares.
Stop thinking about them, Sally told herself. They’re fine. Joe may be a philandering bastard but he’s still a reasonably competent man. Sally had wondered why he had stopped complaining about the vet bills.
And finally Sally’s mind fell tentatively upon Karen. Caaarin. Still as nervy and eager to please but she looked good. She had that sheen, the lacquer that came with the extra effort of grooming accumulated over the years. Sally could imagine Carin painting her toe-nails with cotton wool pieces jammed between each toe, the phone squeezed between her shoulder and jaw as she talked to a new boyfriend or a much younger girlfriend. Surely there couldn’t be many women of Carin’s age still doing the same stuff they had done at 20. Sally wondered if she should have botox.
Carin bought the emerald green dress with the diamante belt. Another dress that would probably never get worn. The invitations weren’t so prolific these days. Everyone had grown up and got married, had children. Mind you, there were many whose marriages had become casualties. Women like Sally.
Carin thought about Sally as she chose a new lipstick to go with her dress, in the chemists across the road from the dress shop. She wasn’t sure about her old school friend. Although to be honest Sally had never been her friend. Carin still hadn’t got the hang of friendships and Sally had that same superior air she’d had at school. Okay, so she was a solicitor and Carin worked for a superficial television channel but she could tell Sally was as miserable as she was.
Once home Carin shoved the bright blue cardboard bag containing her new purchase to the back of the wardrobe. The small apartment was immaculate, walls painted white to make it appear spacious and sophisticated, only ever made it feel cold.
Carin’s bed boasted hospital corners and she slept on a simple wooden bed designed in Scandinavia and brought home in a flat-pack. The advertisement had promised endless nights of restful sleep but Carin hadn’t slept so well recently. Her bed was shared less and less, as was her life. She wondered if she had ever truly shared anything. And with every year came another number. The idea of aging horrified her, the decay, flesh crimpling and folding until it could slide off the bone. She shuddered as she placed thin slivers of cheese on toast before sliding them under the grill. Running her fingers along the spines of her dvd collection, while she waited for her supper. Romantic comedies and nature programmes, procreation and fornication. It hadn’t happened for her. She irritated people, even her mother bristled if she was around her for too long. Carin wasn’t sure what it was that people didn’t want to be around, and she wasn’t stupid, she’d seen that look in Sally’s eyes. Contempt and sympathy in equal measure. She wasn’t sure she could bear to see that same expression on another person’s face. The cheese was starting to burn under the grill while Carin turned over a small bottle of pills in her hands. A black thought tumbled through her mind. No one would miss her.
Sally looked around her house, a 1930’s semi. Dishes piled on the kitchen bench, cereal congealing, drying up until it would be impossible to remove. She would have to fill each bowl with water and leave them to soak. Books belonging to the girls and Sally’s home improvement magazines spilled from the coffee table to the floor. A layer of dust settled on every surface. Sally wished she could suck in great gulps of air and lift the dust, swallow it up. A fitting way, for a woman who struggled with housework, to die. ‘Woman chokes on own filth. Family wades through weeks of free catalogues to reach her. Tragic end to woman who joined Roberts, Roberts & Burke to help out with beverages.’ Sally thought of Carin. She was an odd one, a girl in a woman’s body. And although she didn’t mean to be funny she was, once you got over your annoyance. Like a child saying the first thing that came into her mind without adult censorship. Unexpectedly Sally found herself smiling for the first time in weeks.
She poured herself a large glass of her favourite wine, left it on the table and went through to the kitchen to soak the breakfast things. Opening cupboard doors which needed re-hanging, searching for something to eat. A tin of smoked mussels which had come in a hamper bought years ago and a half-finished packet of soggy seaweed crackers. The fridge offered nothing but limp lettuce and a hard chunk of cheese. She’d really let herself go. If she listened carefully she could hear social services beating a path to her door. Sally held back a sob and retrieved a pizza menu from the drawer next to the stove and, as if weak with the effort, slid to the floor.
She sat there for half an hour, amid the debris of her life which somehow she never had time to sweep away. Her body shook and her hair grew damp with salty tears. What had happened to that hopeful couple who had moved in? Five months pregnant with Zoe, no clue to the petty arguments to come, the loss of youth and finally the death of all hope. Joe didn’t even like animals. Heidi had been Sally’s dog. The thought of Joe’s new girlfriend giving her beloved pet a lethal injection, being there in her final moments in place of Sally, that had been the worst betrayal of all.
She stopped crying. Her insides felt raw as if jealousy and grief had run through her like battery acid, cleansing and stripping away her last defenses. She didn’t want to be alone right now.
But who could she call? Her friends seemed reluctant to get in touch. Couples love even numbers; Shelley and Mike, Richard and Nina. No space at their tables for an odd Sally. Who knew what a woman on her own was capable of? Best to leave her off the guest list, we were never sure of her anyway. She thought herself too good for us.
And it was true, she had. But it was hard to be smug sitting amongst toast crusts and spilt orange juice.
Carin wasn’t sure what had first roused her from the darkness, the smell of burning cheese or the shrill ring of the phone. The last person she had expected to hear from and once supper was tossed in the bin, Carin slipped into her shoes and left the building.
Later Sally claimed that Carin had saved her life. Carin didn’t say anything but maybe one day she would. Only she knew how close it had been.

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7 thoughts on “ONLY THE LONELY

  1. Oh WOW !!! Welcome to (a bit of) my life! … where do you get all this from, Julie? you are so much all of us … how do you do it, see it, sense it? … Amazing, yet again.

  2. You’re thanking me … ??? Don’t ever stop writing. I think you help us with the pain of the extra-ordinariness of the ordinary “stuff” … not making sense … 😉

    • I tend to write about pain more than happy stuff. I write what comes to me. And of course I came to it from a place of pain. I started writing when I was suffering horrible depression.I don’t think I could stop. Sometimes its the only thing that makes sense. XXX

  3. Through pain you connect; and enable us to share (it). Carry on. xxx (please). Lots of hugs xxx
    Off-line update soon

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