GARGLING WITH GRAVEL

He gets up earlier then me, shuffles around softly.  Thinks I cannot hear but how can I sleep?  It’s barely light and our bedroom is still grey, a light tapping on the window suggests rain.  He zips up his trousers as I roll on my side, offering my back.

Oh God, the meal last night, James’s boss and his wife.  Did I accuse James of flirting with the waitress or did I ask about the new receptionist at work?  James, flushed cheeks, biting his bottom lip.  His boss’s face blank, his wife, Beth, a subservient name which suits her, fucking powder blue cardigan and neat pearls around her neck.  Her nostrils flaring in disgust.  Shame hits my chest and my stomach.

I can hear the kettle boiling, my mouth feels as if I have been gargling with gravel.  Does she work in his office, is it the girl on the front desk?  I wouldn’t blame him, slutty red lips and heels that stab.  My heart.  Or worse, someone older with a degree and an office of her own. They have sex on her desk.

James creeps in carrying a cup of coffee, he places it down tenderly on my bedside table.  My eyes, bloodshot and pleading forgiveness.  He doesn’t speak but he kisses my forehead and closes the door behind him.  I hear the front door clunk shut and the powerful surge of a motor come to life, as James drives away, leaving me.

I fill the kettle and peer onto the street.  Cars still parked affluently on the driveways.  The husbands haven’t left for work, nor have their wives.  The house prices too high for young families on one income.  Nothing flashy, discreet and understated, from the highlights in the hair of the women to the glinting cuff links in their men’s sleeves.  Groomed.

The kettle boils and I pat my hair, matted together with roots that a badger would envy.   Coffee, strong and bitter, to stand a spoon up in, to stop the clock and wind it backwards.  My hands shake and hot liquid spills.  “Shit.”  I run my hand under the cold tap, my mind scrapes up the past.  What happened to the earnest young woman who swore she’d never drink?

I open the fridge, I need to eat.  It’s empty apart from half a carton of milk and an unopened bottle of wine.  Bloody pathetic, I can’t even keep the fridge stocked.  I pull on a coat and leave the house, catching a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror.  My face the ghost of Christmas past, of all my past etched in deepening lines.  No make-up and my hair a nest for vipers.  It’s only around the corner, I’ll walk.  I think I may be still over the limit.  My dad never drunk and drove.

My dad, always a big hit at parties, spending money at the pub, buying every sod who claimed to be his friend a drink.  “Money we don’t have.  That’s your new school shoes gone down someone’s throat.”

I didn’t want to hear my mum complain about him, he was my dad, my hero.  Years later when mum got sick I took over the role of picking him up at closing time.  I’d find him alone, sitting on a bar stool, not a friend in sight.  Friend?  What friend would take advantage of a roaring alcoholic?  Seeing my dad, tie loose around his neck, face flushed with booze singing ‘My Funny Valentine’, broke my young heart.

When mum died, I looked after him.  He no longer drank but you could see the damage.  Sometimes he’d wander off, wearing only his striped pajamas, if I forgot to put the latch on.  Once I found him swaying on the curb of the arterial road, gusts from the semi-trailers like dragons breath filled with dust.  My dad inches from death.

“Come on, Daddy.  Let’s go home.”

“Is that you Jean?” I’d nod a lie.

I miss him every single day, whereas my mother, my good saintly mother, buttoned up to her chin, only slips into my memory occasionally.

I return with the essentials.  The man who runs the shops had raised his eyebrows.  “Big night was it?”

What makes an alcoholic?  How many drinks does it take?  How early in the day do you start, because it’s 8.30 in the morning and I’d bloody love a restorative red, the hair of the dog that bit me.

I have to find something to fill the day, harder since I was sacked.  Then I managed to hold it together until five o’clock, wine o’clock, all of us off to the Elephant Bar.  The women matching the men, drink for drink, no one more than me.

“For a beautiful woman, you can be so ugly.”  James said one time he’d picked me up.  He must have had a call from Steve, my boss.  I had no idea what I had said or done that night, and many others if I’m honest, parts of my life stolen or given away.  I gladly swapped fragments of time for the path to oblivion.

After a few drinks I transformed into a sharp, urbane and witty woman, happy to be centre stage.  For a sliver of time it worked, before I became a monster with black lips and teeth stained from the sediment at the bottom of my glass, diluted blood running in my veins.  Screaming like a hag at James because another woman, a nicer, kinder woman than me, had smiled at him in sympathy.

I line the shelves of the fridge with bread and milk.  There’s the bottle cooling in the door.  Will one sip leave a mark or go unnoticed?

Should I scour the shower to keep my hands busy?  Wipe the mould from the tiles, sweep the grit from the kitchen floor.  The phone rings and I let it as I look at the bright shiny photo frames holding pictures of me and James.  They grace the walls and sit on the mantelpiece, hopeful faces, clear eyes and bright smiles.  I pick up our wedding photo.  We are toasting the camera with glasses of champagne, our future.  I throw it to the floor.  It hits the tiles and small fragments fly.  A shard sliver of glass in the side of my foot, blood seeps.  I bend down unsteadily to pull it out, there is blood on the cream carpet.

I press a band aid to my wound, sit in the chair with my foot up on the ottoman, remote in hand.  I watch Days of our Lives with the sound turned down and the telephone rings again.

Five months since the CEO of Richardson Brokers marched me from my window office after a lunchtime session in the pub.  I clung to a thirsty pot plant and a small box containing Dido cd’s, shouting obscenities, making threats.  I walked to the corner and burst into tears.  Poor James.  He married a sweet girl from the suburbs who’d turned herself into a festering pile of unresolved issues.

I turn the television off, hobble to the kitchen, open the fridge.  A half decent New Zealand white, buttery to the taste.  Its frosted glass shows a slight yellow colour, like my skin.  The chill would touch my throat like an icy hand stroking.  Hitting my stomach with a buzz of well-being but I know it’s a lie.  I slam the fridge door and take the stairs two at a time.  In our bedroom I gulp the air and when I am calmer, take a couple of sleeping pills.  I drift off to the sound of a telephone ringing.

I wake hours later, cotton wool head.  I roll onto my back and the ceiling stares back, saying nothing.  I feel my forehead with clammy hands.  I need to feel cold air on my body but not I decide the shock of icy wine flooding me.  I am still dressed in jeans and a thin jumper.  My foot, sticky with blood, the band aid stuck to the sheet.  Dried blood gets caught in the carpet tufts, pulling the wound to gaping.

On the back step I overlook the patch of grass we optimistically call the garden.  My breath clouds on the breeze, reminds me of cigarette smoke.  As a child I would pretend to blow smoke from a pencil clutched in my hand.  I don’t hear the car pull up but I hear James.

“Bloody house.  It feels like a crypt.  Hope?  Where are you?”

Kind of ironic but my mother named me because I was hers.  Hope.  Bless her, she had it in short supply.

“I’m here, James.  The back step.”

He strides in, coat still on.  “Hope, I’ve been ringing.  Why didn’t you answer?”

The tears I have held onto are finally let go, they run in lines and drip from my chin.  My arms clasp my knees and I rock from side to side.  I look up into his white face and his eyes full of concern, not disgust.  “James.  I need help.”

He doesn’t smile, he sits down beside me, holds me in his arms and cries with me.

An Alsation on Rollerskates

This story was shortlisted for the Fish Prize in 2013.

He chose the café. It has no view, not even a terrace to watch the world go by. I can hear traffic from here. There are three small tables looking on to the street. It’s raining and all the front seats are taken. I would have chosen one of the places by the river, one with a beautiful name. Café Sorrento, Vanilla, Poetry under the Trees. Even on an inclement day the river would look better than this. Red brick paving stones neatly edging a green strip of water, barely flowing.

He’s late. I knew he would be. People who organise others are rarely organised themselves. He chose everything. The place to meet, the day, the time.

“It’ll be good for you to meet someone decisive.” Verity said. “It takes you ages to make your mind up these days.” She was fishing in her handbag for her car keys, not meeting my gaze. Always hurrying off. ‘I can’t stay long’, is her usual greeting.

When she was born, I couldn’t decide between Felicity and Verity. Felicity meant happiness and Verity truth. What would be more important for my daughter in her life? I went with truth, mores the pity. Graeme was no good. He could never make a decision, he wasn’t a thinker. His face had been pale as he sat by my bedside as I held his daughter against my breast, tears running down my cheeks. Poor man, always in the background. Until he faded away, not leaving a dent.

My days are more structured since Graeme died, not less. Thursday and Fridays at the wool shop, Monday I have coffee with Beverly, my friend from school. She gets on my nerves a bit, but I’ve known her for so long. I’m too old for a clear out of friends and they seem to be doing that themselves by dying off. Tuesday is my cleaning day and Wednesday I do what I like. Which isn’t much. I had expected my life to be filled with grandchildren.

I fiddle with a sugar sachet. I’d got here early and didn’t know whether to wait for my mystery man or just go ahead and order my coffee. A caffeine headache had its steely grip round the front of my head, so I placed my order at the counter, where a bright eyed girl looked to the left and right of me. Anywhere but at me. I’m invisible to youth.

I chose a table with some difficulty. There’s no shortage of them away from the window but should I overlook the girl at work? I never could bear to have my back to people. Good manners or a fear of what people might do to me when I couldn’t see them. Run up behind me and make me jump. Stab me? The tables are wooden, round mostly which is quite old fashioned. The walls are painted a palatable yellow. I can see what they’ve tried to do. Making it cheerful. The counter is clean but lacks style. There’s an old photograph of Melina Mercouri on the wall. The girl is picking at her nails. She wears a black apron over her jeans and jumper. It’s not flattering.

An older woman stalks up to the counter. I reckon she won’t have any trouble deciding what to drink. Her hair is home dyed blonde, her scarlet lip-sticked smile turns down slightly at the corners. She looks like a clown on her day off. She raises a hand to a man wearing a red jumper, nods her head to indicate a table. He dutifully slides into his seat.

“I’ve ordered for you, John.”

Poor John. Poor me. I don’t know what I was thinking. Waiting for a man who’s late while I sit here with a performing circus in my stomach. I’ve even manifested a female clown on her RDO. I keep checking the time on my mobile. I’m doing it too often, even ‘Bright Eyes’ has noticed. She drops her gaze and starts wiping a surface. Clown Woman is drumming her nails on the table. Fuscia pink nail varnish. Chipped.

Oh bother. I’ve knocked over the pot thing with the sugars in it. I try to jam them back in. The little sachets seem to have grown with their unexpected freedom. I will get them back in. I catch Bright Eyes giving me a look.

The last internet date I tried was with a man called Barry. At least this one’s called Adam. A strong, sexy name. I met Barry for lunch at the fish restaurant in town. He forgot his wallet. I paid, never saw him again. Verity had laughed. “A whiff of romance and you’re a soft target.” My name is Desiree, but I’d have preferred Susan. There’s so much expectation on me, being called Desiree, the bane of my life. I mean I’m not Rita Hayworth.

Clown Woman is clasping her hands together like a priest who can’t commit to prayer. She makes no sound, but I can see her from the corner of my eye. John takes a notepad and pen from his inside pocket. He clicks the top of the pen off, then on. Very quickly. Click-click, click-click. I may have to kill them both.

I never had much luck with men. A late starter my mum used to call me, after all she did, giving me a floozy’s name. Well there were some things that I never really got started on. Graeme didn’t seem to mind. In fact, I think he was relieved when our poor excuse for a sex life dwindled off fairly early in the piece. “Not to worry, Desiree. You just keep on with your jigsaw.” At least I think that’s what he said. There are times when I think I may have invented a lot of my past. No one else seems to have similar memories. Especially not Verity and she tells the truth.

I do love a jigsaw, but they can be a trial when you have friends over and Sissinghurst Garden is covering the table. I don’t trust those rolling mats so when it’s just me I have a tray on my legs to eat my dinner off. I had my jigsaws and Graeme had his detective novels.

I lied about my age with that internet dating site for mature people. I’ve been doing it for years anyway after I’d read that men preferred younger women. Adam is five years younger than me, it said so on his profile. I’ve looked after myself. Eaten the right foods and never been overweight. I buy Elizabeth Arden for my face and wear soft pastels. Verity hates it.

“I look at you and it’s like the women’s movement never happened. What were you doing when your friends were marching? Organising your accessories?”

The women’s movement is all well and good but a poor excuse for a bad haircut. Verity cuts her own. You can tell.

Adam’s bio said he likes canal walks and entertaining friends. He’s more of a Beatles fan than a Rolling Stones. He doesn’t know much about art, but he knows what he likes. He sounds exciting. I think exciting is what I need. He could be the one. I had years of dull. Growing up I always thought I’d meet a man who wrote poetry and liked to listen to classical music. I love a bit of Debussy me, Clair de la Lune. I wonder if Adam lied about his age.

The fidgety couple are still and quiet now but the looks between them are pure hate. Sometimes years together can make your partner seem irritating. The broiling in our guts full of resentment of what the other has prevented us from doing. You marry the first person who asks, bear children, no thought to a career or passion. Staying together because of the kids. It goes rancid between family holidays and graduations. The freshness of youth is full of maggots before you know it. What a waste.

Verity isn’t married. She doesn’t have kids. I don’t think she’ll attract a man with that haircut.

Bright Eyes behind the counter has a tattoo. Is that hygienic? ‘Jasper’ on the inside of her forearm in black ink, on a scroll. Neither tasteful nor original. She looks bored. One of the window seat people is paying their bill. Should I take up the free seat they have vacated or stay here? If I get up and someone comes in, beats me to the seat it could go all wrong and I’ll look silly. There’s more to see from there. Here it’s just Bright Eyes and the Clowns. The man at the counter paying is having trouble getting the coins out of his wallet. His fingers are too big for the little pocket. Still you can’t have them in your jacket pocket. Coins ruin your suit, they leave a greasy film. I know. I used to work in a dry cleaners before I had Verity.  Now he’s dropped his money on the floor. Bright Eyes is looking at him. I should help. But I don’t. This café does seem to attract old people. There’s an underlying stench of antiseptic wipes and custard creams.

Adam chose this place and he didn’t look old. Late sixties isn’t old any more, it’s positively sprightly. When my mum was in her late sixties, she had a stick and a colostomy bag. It was hell getting her out and about. But I couldn’t have her move in with us. She smelt of moth balls and vinegar, it would have gone right through the house. Verity thought I was mean. She was up there every other day. Those two were always thick as thieves. Graeme said nothing. She had a lovely house near the river, my mum. Three storeys. I mean three storeys with a limp and a colostomy bag. It wasn’t right. She was on the list for a bungalow but died before she got to the top. I sold the house. It didn’t fetch as much as it should have. Mum didn’t look after it and I didn’t have time. It did pay our mortgage off and help with the down payment on Verity’s little flat. It’s what Mum would have wanted.

The door opens, the sound of traffic in rain drifts in. I love that sound. It feels alive somehow. A man emerges from under an umbrella, tartan. Chainstore. He turns and shakes it in the doorway. He has a full head of hair the colour of sand. That empty window seat is made for him. He puts his brolly down on a chair to save his seat and heads for Bright Eyes. He smiles widely at her and she looks in his eyes. Some men keep their charm into old age. Not that this chap is particularly old. Sean Connery has kept his looks. Marlon Brando didn’t, and he was beautiful as a young man. I can only see the back of the sandy haired man, he’s about to order. Studying a menu. I looked at it. It’s nothing special. His hair is just like Robert Redford’s. I wonder.

Graeme’s hair was an indiscriminate colour. Sometimes it looked fair and at other times darker. I don’t think he washed it enough. Verity got his hair, but she dyes it. ‘Passion Pink’ it says on the box, I had a peek. Looks like she’s run it through with beetroot juice. Might be healthier if she did. I have mine done at the place on the edge of town. It’s a bit run down but Shirley keeps it nice inside. Lots of glass, chrome washstands, very modern. I have it lightened now, like Ingrid Bergman. The lighter shades have fewer chemicals they say. So, Shirley says.

Sandy, the new chap, sits down. His back is still facing me, and I can’t see his face. It’s frustrating. Maybe if I move to the other side of the table, face the front, I would be able to see him better. Not sure if I dare, it might look odd. What the hell. I shift into the seat on my right, trying not to make a noise. The bloody chair scrapes. Sandy looks up. “Nicer view from here.” I venture. My face flushes. “I mean from the window.” Hands flailing, I only go and knock the vase over next. Daisies. “I’ll get it”. I shout to Bright Eyes. She looks over. “I’d rather you didn’t.” She’s over in a flash, mopping up smelly flower water.

“Could you take it away, please?”

Sandy looks over and I catch him. He smiles weakly. His face is a disappointment. He sports a grey moustache and enormous glasses in need of a good clean. I wish I hadn’t moved seats now. At least I’ll be able to spot Adam when he comes in. Only the light is shining on me now. Showing up all those thin lines on my face, like creases. I’ve always had such a pale, creamy complexion but age comes to us all eventually. Even Joanna Lumley.

I’ve forgotten his sign. Maybe he’s already here. It can be a flower in your buttonhole, a newspaper or magazine. Mine’s a poppy. Lucky it’s November. One popped through the door with an envelope asking for money only last week. Plastic but cheerful. I prefer plastic or silk to real. Plastic is easy to keep clean. I can’t remember Adam’s sign. Barry’s was a rolled-up copy of Anglers Monthly.

I can see the street from here. Not the wet tarmac or the oppressive sky, but the people who hurry past. None of them is smiling. The rain in November wouldn’t make anyone smile. Clown Woman and John are sipping their beverages. I can see him more clearly now, he has his back to the window. His face is in shadow, but his eyes are soft. Not hateful. He has a lovely face. Thin but fleshy. Tidy eyebrows. Not like Sandy’s. His could do with a bit of work.

Where is he? Bloody Adam. Could he be Sandy? Or that man a couple of seats behind me who looks like he’s hiding. I’d remember if Adam’s sign was a tartan umbrella, sticks in your mind, a detail like that. The rest of the customers in here are women, except for John and no blind date would bring his wife along. Blind date. I’ve said it. All week I’ve been calling it ‘my meeting’. Verity smirking behind my back. She likes to be straight with words. When my sister, Bianca, went on a blind date years ago, she made a couple of girlfriends sit in different places, discreetly. They met in a pub, Bianca was no stranger to alcohol. Martin, her date, was a cop and didn’t fall for her friends sneaking around the place. He spotted them almost immediately, invited them over, ended up marrying Bianca’s friend, Marion.

Nearly eleven o’clock. I’ve been here since ten. I’m always early. Unfashionable Verity calls it. She believes in being fifteen minutes late. But if we all went round doing that we’d never actually meet, and time would have no meaning. He must have been unavoidably detained. Perhaps his dog is sick, or he’s had an important call from work. Adam’s a vet so maybe those reasons could be combined. Excuses not reasons. His wife used to work with him. He’s widowed like me.

I told him I work in fashion. Actually, I mind the till in the wool shop, ‘Snipping Yarns’, on Thursdays and Fridays but fashion sounds more glamorous. My phone rings. I rummage in my bag for my glasses. I never answer unless I know who it is. Just before it rings off, I see it’s from our Verity. She’ll ring back. I won’t wear my glasses out unless I have to. They’re a bit old-fashioned but they work fine. No need to buy new. At least they’re clean, not like Sandy’s. My coffee has gone cold. I’ve been keeping some in the bottom of the cup, so I don’t feel pressured to buy another. Bright Eyes has been hovering.

I wonder if Sandy’s dirty glasses are preventing him from seeing my poppy. I know Adam’s sign isn’t a tartan umbrella, but it could be big glasses. Or that tangerine silk hanky I can see sticking up out of his breast pocket. I can feel my face turning pink and I know that under my smart jacket there are wet rings under the arms of my blouse. Feel the fear and do it anyway, Verity says. So, I get up, taking my bag with me. It’s my good one. I walk over discreetly, only I find I’m sort of lurching forward like someone in the jungle. I’m only missing my elephant gun.

“Excuse me.” He looks up, a bit startled but his face is kind. “Are you from Autumn Rendezvous?”

His brow wrinkles so I repeat myself in case he didn’t hear the first time. The frown disappears and I think I can see a spark of pity in his eyes. I’ve got it completely wrong. I don’t look around, but I feel eyes upon me and I catch a whiff of something unsavoury under my signature scent. My phone rings again.

“Hi Mum. What are you up to?”

I’m surprised she doesn’t know. I’ve been worrying about it all week. “I’m in the café but I can’t remember his sign.”

“Whose sign?”

I don’t want to talk too loudly. I’m still standing near Sandy’s seat. “Adam’s”.

“It’s a dog lead. But he won’t be coming.”

What would she know about it? “Oh. And why not?”

“Because it’s Tuesday.” There’s exasperation in her voice now.

“No, it’s not. It’s Wednesday.” But I realise it is Tuesday. Verity’s right. I thought the kitchen floor had looked a bit grimy.

I pay for my coffee, but I still have the headache. I try not to think how long it had taken me get dressed this morning. I feel like an elderly woman playing dress-ups. I’d laddered two pairs of tights. Fawn. I walk carefully from the car park. I’m not used to the heels, they’re not even that high. Not like Verity wears when she goes out with her friend Carol. Great big black shiny things they are. Not good with her thick ankles. I also don’t want to splash rainwater up the back of my tights. You can see the splatters with fawn, and I won’t wear black. Traffic wardens and prostitutes wear black stockings. No point telling Verity that.

I can’t believe I’ve mucked the day up. “I was sure he’d said Wednesday.” I’d told Verity on the phone.

“He did. But today is Tuesday. Are you alright, Mum? You sound a bit more batty than usual.” That’s when I put the phone down. You can’t slam it anymore. You have to swipe the button and that’s not the same. Not very dramatic if you need to make a point. It’s all words these days, we use words rather than dramatic gestures. Verity says I’m good at dramatic gestures. Slamming phones, doors. Stomping. Leaving the room with an air of theatre, flouncing. I’m not that good with words. Or rather I use a lot of them but often get the wrong word for the meaning. Verity’s good with words. She writes. Not for any magazine or paper I’ve heard of. Feminist. It’s called Lesbos Ladies, something to do with Greece. She sends me a copy, but I bin it still in its plastic wrap. I’ve met some of her colleagues too. No men of course. I don’t how she’s going to find a man. She doesn’t work with them, she doesn’t socialise with them. And here’s me ready to have a second go.

Have I got the energy to get ready for another meeting? Blind date. Do I really want to go through all this again tomorrow? Finding something comfortable to wear that doesn’t age me. It has to be subtle. That’s why I like pastels, they’re kinder to the face. I don’t go in for all those bright colours some women wear. They look ridiculous. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. No. I like pastels. And fawn hosiery. My shoes are tan. Not American Tan like the tights we wore in the seventies. Those were more orange than tan and why they blamed it on the Americans I’ll never know.

By the time I get to the car I wish I’d bought a cake. Bright Eyes had had a few in her display counter. But I want something with cream and meringue. I want something to cheer me up, a sugar hit. I head for Angel Cakes in the high street and order the biggest, stickiest meringue they have.

“Here or take away?” The girl behind the counter doesn’t have bright eyes but I think she has alopecia. I look around. There are two tables in the small space the shop offers. One is empty and at the other one is an old dear buttoned up to her neck in tweed. She’s slumped over a sausage roll, staring at it, not eating. She grips a plastic fork in her claw-like right hand.

“I’ll take it with me. Thanks.”

The funniest thing. As I try to count out the coins, I can’t remember which is the higher value. Is it the larger or the smaller? This sometimes happens to me and then I remember. Stupid girl I am, I’ve only been counting coins daily for the last fifty years. I worked in the stationers in my adolescence. Alopecia girl is staring at me, not unkindly. I offer a hand filled with all the coins I have in my purse and she takes some of them.

“Thank you, Mrs Stone.”

She knows me but I can’t place her. I used to help out at the school, I played the piano for Music and Movement. She might know me from Infants. She’s much younger than Verity. I nod. “Thank you, dear.”

I squeeze into the car, catching the seatbelt in the door. Open the paper bag, cram the cake in. It explodes. Lovely. I don’t eat all of it. Quite a bit of it ends up down my front. My lilac suit will need to be dry cleaned.

I jam the key in the lock. My legs feel a bit shaky.

“What are you doing here?”

Verity is waiting at the bottom of the stairs. She smiles but I know that face.

“What’s wrong?”

“I just thought I’d come round and see you.” She’s dressed in a powder blue velour two piece. Particularly unflattering, she’s thicker around the middle than me.

“You turned up for your date a day early.”

“Oh that. Put the kettle on love.” I struggle to unbutton my jacket. It’s sticky.

“Oh, Mum. Look at that.”

“Don’t start. I’ve always been messy. It’s not as if I’ve forgotten where my mouth is.”

I can hear the sound of crockery and glass from the kitchen. I raise my eyebrows at Verity. It’s Carol.

“We thought you might like some company.”

Carol is wearing a similarly hideous outfit but hers is in pale rose.

“Hello, Mum.”

I wish she wouldn’t call me that. I’m not her mum. Her mum lives in a hamlet outside Colchester.

Suddenly inertia creeps up on my bones. I feel so tired. Surely if I can come up with words like inertia and still do the Sudoku what I fear is happening can’t be. I can remember all the members of the pop group Herman’s Hermits but I’m damned if I can recall where I put my car keys.

I sit. Carol slides across a cup of over-milky tea. I take it black. She sits too close, I can feel her breath. I can smell her fear. And mine. I didn’t ask for any of this. Any of it. Being single, Verity’s quite obviously not being single. She’s not waiting for the right man. Carol is the right man. While I’m sliding into old age with about as much grace as an Alsatian on roller skates. Parts of my brain no longer link up. You’d think medical science could find something to join those loose bits together again. The brain equivalent of Blu-tack. They have successfully used teleportation on rats. Admittedly the rat was a bit poorly afterwards but still, quite an achievement. While my grey matter falls into its own gravy.

“I don’t think it’s anything sinister, Mum. Just the usual. Getting older, memory banks filling up.”

Finally, Verity lies to me. Or to herself, I’m not sure. Is this my choice of her name coming back to mock me? Is this the first untruth of many? Who am I kidding? Going out there again, meeting another man. Starting another story. I’d even picked one younger than me. Perhaps I can point to the intimate body parts I no remember the names of.

I’m very enlightened for someone who won’t admit her daughter is on the other bus. Lesbian is such an ugly word, but I’ve heard worse. I can see Verity and Carol are close, loving even. I mean if she’d stayed with Gary from the co-op I wouldn’t think about them having sex. But it’s been hard for me to look at the pair of them and not wonder what goes where and why.

“Who was that writer who wanted old people put to sleep in their sixties? Was it Timothy Leary?”

“Aldous Huxley, I think, Mum. Brave New World.” Verity looks tired herself.

“I think he had a point.”

They sit there, their mouths working but not knowing what to say. I laugh. Put them out of their misery. Not everything has to be so serious. “I’m not doolally yet. I’d love a drink. I think I still have some of that Pinochet Grissle you gave me, Carol.”

“But Mum, it’s noon.”

“I don’t care. I still have so much to fit in.”

We sit around my Formica table in the kitchen, it’s so old it’s come back in fashion.

“Can you girls help me out with what I should wear to meet Adam tomorrow? Only I don’t really do casual.” I nod towards their leisure suits. “And if I catch you lying to me again Verity, you’ll swing for it. I could have named you Felicity, the point is I didn’t.”

Too Old to Runaway

“There’s an outdoor setting on the deck out the side here, if you fancy sitting in the sun.” Mrs Flynn said. The white plastic looks unappealing. I have a thing about chairs. I won’t buy coffee from a café with cheap chairs.

I arrived in the night, the day before, not knowing what to expect. The salt air welcome after city smells of exhaust fumes and stale food. The only sound the abrupt breaking of endless waves, a breath of silence between each.

I collect the key from the grocery store Mrs Flynn runs on the ocean front. A crescent moon hangs in the sky offering scant light. Thursday, declares a poster in the window, is late night shopping but the shop is empty of customers. On the veranda a straggle of thin teenagers sit at a plastic table under a blue light bulb, eating chips, it gives them a ghost-like glow.

Mrs Flynn cashes up the till inside, a small woman with a big smile and wild hair.  She smells of cake, icing sugar. Pale pink skirt and cardigan to match. A young girl with scruffy hair runs round the shop like a flurry of snowflakes. “If I get hold of you, Lucy, I’ll give you a smack.”

I walk up to the counter. Mrs Flynn flushes. The child gives a smirk and skips through the front door, dirty blonde hair flowing behind her. A bit late in the evening for girl of that age.

“Hannah isn’t it? You’ll want your key.”

I nod, leave abruptly with the key in a brown envelope. I don’t want to get into a conversation. I find directions to the small cottage in the envelope. The lock’s stiff and the door bowed, probably because of the damp sea air. I had almost changed my mind about coming, uncertainty made me late. I drop my bag in the narrow entrance way. The house is frowsty with other people’s smells. Fumbling I find a light switch which lights the long passageway painted yellow, faded somewhere between primrose and nicotine.  The grey carpet leads to a dark space at the end; doors run along the hallway like lights on a landing strip. I feel like Alice choosing which door to open first.  I ignore them all.  I reckon the dark space at the end is the kitchen. I need a hot drink.

I flick a switch and a harsh strip-light buzzes into life introducing the spartan kitchen. Once white units line the wall and a plastic jug kettle sits on the top of a Formica bench top. A predictable selection of tea, instant coffee and the just-add-water variety of hot chocolate; all in sachets shoved unceremoniously in a plastic beaker. I try the windows. They’re stiff, not opened in a while.

A wine bottle on the bench top, cheap red with a note.  Will it say ‘drink me’?  I laugh, a hollow sound. The note says ‘Welcome to Sea Breeze.  Have a nice stay’.  My lips turn down at the crassness of the name, as if giving your house a name wasn’t crass enough.  At least it isn’t ‘Shangri-la’ or ‘Dunroamin’’. In the absence of a decent cup of coffee, I open the bottle. Wine glass in hand I mean to explore the house but only get as far as an old faux-suede sofa in the lounge room. I slump into its softness. The imprint of others makes the place seem lonely. I had imagined my escape would be brave. If Jake were here, he would laugh. The brown and tan décor, the staleness and the landlady who smells of cake. Jake would have bought something to eat, filled this empty space with life. Why did I come? I don’t like to be alone. I take a breath, drain my glass and pour another.

A chink of light bursts through the gap in the curtains. Empty wine glass, empty bottle. An empty space next to me in the bed. The wine glass has satanic looking sediment at the bottom. I think Jake is out getting coffee before I remember. It’s just me.  At least I had made it to bed.  Nothing dignified in waking up face down on the bathroom tiles.  My head aches. I don’t want this day to start.  If I hold my breath maybe it won’t.  The air will stop flowing and the hands on the clock will come slowly to a stop.

A knock at the front door. I groan and slide my legs across the bed.  I’m wearing yesterday’s jeans. I hobble to the front door. A draft blows in from a gap at the bottom, I trip over my suitcase which blocks the passageway. “Fuck.”

I squint at a figure on the doorstep. A sugary smell fills my nostrils.

“Hello, Hannah dear. Hope you slept well. Bought you a few essentials.” Mrs Flynn bustles through the door. “You should move that suitcase. Deathtrap.”

In the kitchen Mrs Flynn puts away the groceries stridently after placing an overlarge handbag on the kitchen bench. “Oh, dear. You drank all the wine.” A brittle smile. “Mind if I put the kettle on?  I’m gasping.”

She shoves the kettle under the tap before I can reply.  I slide onto one of the stools filed along the breakfast bar. What do I have to do to get some peace?

We sit on opposite sides of the countertop, each holding a cup of instant coffee. That’s when Mrs Flynn points out the white plastic table and two chairs, identical to those outside the shop, set out on a small wooden deck on one side of the kitchen. One is upside down. Cheap coffee hits my stomach bringing on a wave of nausea.

“Look at that, a chair has blown over. You’re from the city, aren’t you?” She accuses.

“Sydney.”

“What are you doing all the way down here? Is it a man, dear? Never trust a man.” She gives me a knowing look. “It’s out of season, there’s not much to do.”

“It’s perfect, Mrs Flynn, I need a place to think. I’d like to do some walking.”

“Well you can do plenty of that around here without stumbling across another soul if that’s what you want. Call me Peg.”

Peg grabs her handbag and heaves it onto her shoulder.  “If you ever need company you know where to find me.”

“Thank you.” Not on your bloody life.

She walks to the front door. “Are you expecting visitors? It’s okay if you are. I’m very broadminded.”

I doubted that. Heat rises in me. I don’t want to be here. It’s Jake fault. But I know this isn’t true. In the lounge room an old piano is tucked away next to the back window. There are music sheets all over the floor, one with a red wine mark on it. The lid is up so I must have sat here last night, feeling guilty about letting my students down. The sheet with the wine stain is ‘Solitaire’.

I don’t think Jake noticed how things had changed between us. I’m not sure I had until Grace’s thirtieth birthday party She’d pushed the chairs back along the walls to make room for dancing. Neither Jake nor I liked dancing, so we sat down, a vacant chair between us. Symbolic of the space between us?  He didn’t notice. In the car on the way home our seats seemed to be pushed up against our opposing doors. Once he would have leaned across, squeezed my knee. Jake went straight up to bed without a word. I didn’t sleep.

I don’t pick up the music sheets, I sit in the kitchen. A weak sun is shining on the deck. Too cool to sit out. All four chairs are arranged untidily upside down on the deck. Did I do that?

I lock the door to and put the key in my bag. I feel fresher but the pain behind my eyes persists. Rows of houses sit back from the ocean front, single storey and old. Shabby. I walk along a footpath that leads to the beach. A wind whips up sending ripples through my cotton dress. I take off my deck shoes, barefoot on wet sand. The beach spans a fair distance. I walk briskly until my breath labours, I find a mossy rock to sit on. No one knows where I am.

There’s a caravan park on the grassy headland. A ghost town with spectre-like teenagers and wild children. The wind whistles a haunting song. Grey waves, angry and foaming. And me, dressed in thin cotton with a jacket pulled around me. It feels good and bad. Right and wrong.

If Jake were here, he would give me his coat, keep my insides from falling apart by holding me tight. At least he would have once. My head hurts. I can’t organise my thoughts into the right order. Should I go back and pretend nothing has happened? Jake would think me mad about the chairs. Was it meaningless? Was I expecting too much? I always expect too much. I can’t do this anymore. Something has to change.

Rain falls as I walk back along the beach, horizontal in the wind, assaulting my forehead, stinging my eyes. I change into dry clothes, wrap my hair in a towel. The plastic chairs are now lined up behind each other, like a train made by a child. Peg must have rearranged them. I frown as I sip my awful coffee. I can’t survive on the landlady’s supplies.

I drive. I don’t know where I am going but Bayside General Store holds nothing for me. Midday: Jake will be at his desk, making advertising copy or meeting with clients. His absence a soreness I hadn’t expected to feel. I hadn’t expected it to miss him at all.

We met at a railway station. The train was late. We stood next to one another. It could have been the guy in the brown suit or the lad wearing a skull tee-shirt.  But it was Jake. Tall, fair, with hair that never did what he wanted it to. Huge smile, slightly crooked teeth.

“I’m supposed to be going to my nephew’s Christmas play.” He looked tense but smiled.

“I’m meeting a girlfriend in town. She’ll kill me if I’m late.”

It was Christmas. Parties, smiling people, excited kids. Jake introduced me to his family. April had us lugging boxes into our apartment near the river. It was good. For a long time.

“Hannah, can you please try to mop up the lumps of toothpaste from around the basin?”

“Darling, I can’t find the coffee table for books. Why not put them in neat piles like this?”

“Hannah, for Christ’s sake, is another glass absolutely necessary?”

My foibles had lost their charm.

I balance the box on my knee and turn the key in the lock with one hand.  I have fair-trade coffee, organic chocolate, preservative-free wine. Cherries and oranges. A picnic spoiled by store bought lasagna. I unwrap the shiny new coffee plunger from tissue paper.

I stand, cup in my hand and face the deck. The chairs are stacked on top of the table, as waiting for the cleaners. I can be seen clearly through the glass doors. I’m afraid. It’s my imagination. Keep busy. Put the lasagne in the oven. Organise the chairs on either side of the table and pour a glass of wine to take outside. This is normal. The air is cool, and the rain clouds have blown out to sea. The first glass goes down too easily. I don’t pour another just yet. I check on supper and retrieve my sweater from the bedroom. Cashmere, a present from Jake. I hear a noise, leave the sweater and head for the kitchen in time to catch a glimpse of a little girl, around ten years old, placing the chairs back to back.

“Hey!”  I yell.

The child looks up and starts to bolt. I open the sliding door and sprint after her across the lawn.

“Leave me alone!”

“Leave you alone?” I grasp her bony arm. “What on earth do you think you are up to?” Scared I yell at her but stop when I notice her tears. She wears a frayed red tee-shirt which clearly hasn’t seen a wash in a while.

“Okay, come and sit down. I’ll stop shouting. You’re in luck, I’ve been shopping.  Do you want a juice?” She nods and wipes her face with the back of her arm. Tear stained and dirty, I lead her over and point to a chair. Minutes later I am back with a glass of orange juice. She gulps it down. “My name is Hannah.”

“Lucy.” The girl from the general store the night before.

“Okay, Lucy.  Why have you been moving my chairs around?” Lucy’s twirls her long thin hair around her fingers. “Lucy?”

“They’re not your chairs.” Her eyes narrow.

“While I’m staying here, they’re my chairs.”

“I wasn’t doing any harm. I didn’t take anything, did I?”

“No. You didn’t. What were you thinking?  What are you doing here?”

“I’ve run away.” Lucy lowers her head, sinks her chin into her thin chest then looks up at me. Defiant. “Have you got any food?”

Will I ever be left alone?

Lucy devours the plastic tasting lasagne like it was a culinary triumph. I wonder when she had last eaten.

“So?”

“I had a row with my dad. He says I’m moody and doesn’t want to deal with it.”

“What about your mother?”

“She left ages ago.” Lucy looks at nonchalantly then shoots back at me. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to get away, to think”

Lucy saw through my adult words. “You’ve run away too!”

“Do you want to ring your dad?”

“No. I run away all the time. I live in the caravan park.”

“The one on the headland?”

“Thanks for dinner.” Her pale face ghostly in the half-light. “Aren’t you a bit old to run away?”

Before I can reply Lucy is gone, out through the glass door and into the dusk. She’s struck a chord, I feel foolish.  I reach for my mobile phone, turn it on. Six messages from Jake, four from Grace.

“Hi.  It’s me.”

“Hannah!  Thank God.  Where are you?”

My hand shakes as I hold the phone to my ear. “On the coast.”

“Come back.”

“Why?”

Silence. “I don’t know.  But we won’t find out with you a hundred kilometres away. Come home. You can’t just run away.”

In the morning I feel refreshed, as if I have grown a new skin.  I drive away with the caravan park on the headland in my rear-view mirror. I fancy there is a small figure in red on the hillside.  I smile thank

COUNTING PEGS    

This story won first prize in the Write Around the Murray Festival in 2013. I thought I’d give it another outing.

Helen was in the garden again. Counting pegs. Some days she’d count them as she put out her washing but once she had begun to put them in colour order too. Warms to cools to white. White was the coldest being the colour of snow. From then on, she not only counted pegs but followed her colours too.

Sometimes she could hear the baby scream. She didn’t rush inside, not until she’d finished. Then she would run, holding the washing basket in one hand and the peg basket in the other. Across the grass and the terrace, stumbling past earthenware pots crammed with Lobelias and Impatiens, and up the steps to the French doors. She wouldn’t leave the unused pegs outside. Once inside she would count the pegs left over and add up the scores to make sure all pegs were accounted for. Only then would she see to the baby. Scoop him up and unhook the ugly bra, the only one that fitted. Hugo latched on and sucked noisily. Finn would start to yell at the top of his lungs. He’d spent a lot more time at home since the baby arrived.

She hadn’t talked to Alan about the pegs. And the pegs were just a part of it. There were days when Helen sat at the kitchen table, holding her chin in her hands, her eyes squeezed shut. Shutting her mind to her house filled with smooth surfaces, bench tops and tables, now covered with the debris of family life.

“Are you alright, Mummy?” Finn’s voice, curious but not concerned, he was only three and half after all. “Can I watch TV, Mummy?” Helen swept her hands through her hair and stopped at the matted curls which held them prisoner. She looked up at the innocent but still manipulating face of her first born. His white blonde hair cut short on the sides. The glint in his eyes told her that he knew he had won, even before she spoke softly. “Yes”.  She wondered if she had the energy to care whether he watched too much telly anymore.  Her previous regimes seemed to belong to someone else, someone military perhaps.

How Alan hadn’t noticed was astonishing to her. He must have a lot on at work, she’d stopped asking. Or he’d been screwing one of the paralegals, she had no feelings either way. Helen felt invisible, her form was completely transparent, a substance like cellophane stopped her innards from leaking onto the new carpet.

She hadn’t always been like this, she thought to herself for who was there to listen. The strains of ‘Bob the Builder’ could be heard from the other room and Helen could weep at how her life had shrunk to this. Even the face of her angel baby didn’t touch the fibres of her anymore.

She had once been a girl who’d broken men’s hearts, who refused to bow to convention. She’d wanted to be free but in time ended up behaving like the men she looked down upon, leaving before her one-night stand awoke, drinking too much. One man did stand out, not Alan, he came later. This one had been called Dave, they’d met at medical school. When they moved in together, she swapped their traditional roles. Helen would wash the car on Sunday mornings while Dave would sweat over a roast, trying not to burn the gravy. It turned out that Dave was a terrible cook and she hated cleaning the car. Even now she drove round in a car whose bonnet was marked by rotting fruit dropped from trees, while the inside looked as if she had strewn the contents of a litter bin evenly over seats and in the foot wells. Wet food dried slowly on the baby’s car seat.

She hadn’t even wanted children. She wanted to travel the world, save the planet, dance in Rio, and meditate in the Himalayas. At the end of the day even Helen the brave became a slave to her body, her urges, and the chemical compositions of her. When she met Alan, she had recently shaved her head for charity but he saw through the stubble to the woman Helen really was. He saw what no one had seen before. She wasn’t an easy lay who was great fun at parties. She was all heart and soul. And the sight of her scared the be-Jesus out of his mother which could only be a good thing.

She’d been attracted by Alan’s fair hair, his face which turned pink when he was flustered. It touched her insides that he was a vulnerable man. She had no time for heroes. Helen could see in his eyes that he knew she didn’t believe him when he pretended to be the tough guy.

Now Alan came home to a woman with dried milk and cereal stains on her clothes. He tried to help, bunching discarded clothing and carefully folded soiled nappies and putting them down somewhere else. When Helen made a supreme effort and showered, her lank hair curled with tongs for extra body, she had no interest in laying down her besieged self for her husband. She was the hand servant of infants and there was nothing left for anyone else. Least of all herself.

Helen’s mind drifted to the women she used to welcome into her surgery, sad women with washed out faces, limp clothing. She would flash her confident and slightly smug smile at them, prescribe tablets and talk to them in her dulcet tones. “You’ll be fine. Make sure you shower in the morning, it’ll make you feel better. Buy flowers for yourself and don’t expect to be perfect.” She thought she’d got it nailed, the post-baby blues. Now Helen could only imagine how those poor women must have hated her.

After Hugo’s birth but before the pegs she had made up tunes in her head, noises to shut the demons out. Helen hadn’t planned the counting. She was out at the clothesline during one of those wonderfully warm and blustery days, perfect for laundry. She was attempting Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, the notes crowding her brain when she realised that as she pegged each item of clothing numbers flew from her frontal lobe. Numbers clear and certain against a backdrop of mess and madness, they stood up tall and proud, very clean. The sounds of music and Hugo’s wails slipped off beyond the mountains. Only digits ruled here.

After work Alan stormed through the kitchen, effing and blinding. “Damn, damn. I forgot to get those papers to the bank for signing.” Vague thoughts of re-mortgaging floated through Helen’s mind. They missed her doctor’s salary, had fallen behind. Alan looked over at her, a skeptical expression on his face. “I don’t suppose you…? Fuck it, Helen. You’ll have to. It’s just a case of signing them in front of the mortgage manager. Nice girl.” The rosy colour in his panicked face didn’t make her glow anymore. Helen felt numb.

Alan didn’t know that it’d been a month since his wife had left the house. A month since the front door had clicked safely behind her. She’d been buying groceries on-line and festering in a range of nightwear during the day since that awful time in the post office. She didn’t want to tell him, but she didn’t want to go out either. She had to keep her secret or the contempt he held in his eyes for her could well evolve into pity. Helen would not be pitied.

She planned her maneuvers overnight, while Alan slept. She prepared the bag for the baby, spare nappies, clothes, teething gel and a rattle. She placed them in the bottom of her Mclaren stroller, the Rolls Royce of buggies. Alan had bought it himself, proudly showed her its features. Yet another status symbol where the cheaper option would have done just as well. Helen placed a book and a pop gun in the basket for Finn. For herself she packed a bottle of rosemary essential oil for nerves and threw in one of those miniature bottles of scotch Alan brought home from mini bars in hotels. He still hadn’t realised he was charged for them.

Helen sat on a dining room chair next to the stroller and heard Hugo’s faint cries, growing more frantic. She ran up to his room, Alan hadn’t wanted their newborn in their bedroom, he couldn’t sleep. If he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t work. And someone had to. Helen felt her inner soul become less visible than it already was. She sat downstairs, baby at her breast, tears on her face. Afterwards she crawled into bed beside her sleeping husband who had no clue to the world Helen now inhabited.

Alan had left before Helen opened her puffy eyes. Finn was sitting crossed legged on the bed, poking sticky fingers at her cheeks. Alan must have given him breakfast. Helen wiped a crusty line that ran from her mouth to the pillow. “Mummy! Hugo was screaming and screaming.”

Helen only heard the sound of next doors car reversing sharply from their driveway. “No, sweetheart. He’s quiet.”

Finn grinned. “He is now. He might be dead.” He began to jump on the bed.

There was no fear at the core of her, only a sense of right and wrong. It would be wrong to go back sleep before checking on Hugo. She launched across the bedroom carpet and ran into the baby’s room. Hugo was passed out on his back, his tears still wet on his cheeks. The room stank of shit.

 

Helen sat with her coat buttoned up and Hugo in the stroller next to her. Finn ran around with his hoodie on backwards. Surely that was dangerous. All she could think of was how she could murder a cigarette, but she’d given up years ago, there were none in the house. She remembered her first boyfriend, older, who had smoked, and she’d nicked one of his cigarettes and put it in her jewelry box, along with an American dollar from a childhood holiday in the States. If she still had that ciggy it would be very stale.

She shook her shoulders and wheeled Hugo out to the car, transferred the documents from the basket at the bottom of the stroller to the passenger seat. She un-strapped Hugo and placed his moist, limp body in his seat. Then she went to collect Finn who had his head in the fridge begging for orange juice. “No darling. We have to go out now. Remember, we’re helping Daddy.”

That seemed to work, his face split in a grin. He closed the fridge door and placed his pudgy little hand in hers, it was still covered in honey from breakfast. Why did she not feel overwhelmed with love for this cherub of hers? She didn’t feel safe with him, didn’t know what he was going to do next. Helen’s mind drifted to the laundry she had put on early that morning and found the strength to leave the house, lock all the doors, making sure she had her front door key in her pocket.

The bank was in the centre of town, near the town hall and the library. Parking was difficult unless you got lucky or you used the supermarket car park. On the way there Finn counted trees which Helen understood. She would have counted them herself if she hadn’t needed to keep her eyes on the road. It came from long car trips before Hugo was born when Finn would get bored. Alan asked him to count trees and it worked. “Two, Six, Three!”. She tried not to let the jumbled sequence bother her.

“Look at the play park, Mummy. It’s shiny and new.”

He was right, they had stopped going to the play park because of broken and faded equipment and that awful time when Helen’s friend’s daughter, Freya had picked up a syringe and pricked her hand. Monica had to take Freya for a HIV test which mercifully turned out negative. Now it had a fence round it and slippery dips and swings in reds, blues and yellows, turrets around the top of the slide. Finn loved castles.

As they approached the town, Railway Street, where men and women bustled on both sides of the road, her hands became clammy and sweat beads melted in lines from her forehead. If there’s no parking in the town she would go straight home, Helen didn’t want to crawl curbs looking for spaces. She begged the parking fairies not to find anything, she wanted to go home and stand in the garden, the wind whipping up her skirts, the peg basket in one hand.

And there it was, opened up like a dark chasm, a shady spot where the sun didn’t shine. There were no contenders. No other hurried drivers needing to get their wages from the bank, return that overdue library book, late for their life drawing class at the town hall. It was only Helen. She circled once more for luck and when no one came she slid effortlessly into the spot, as if it were made for her 2005 model Land Rover.

Her heart pounded in her ribcage, she looked at the manila envelope on the passenger seat. Her breath became shallow and the sound of waves filled Helen’s inner ear. Finn stopped counting trees and Hugo began to whimper. He was still slightly pink from his screams of this morning. One whole month, four long weeks, she had stayed at home going quietly mad, becoming lonelier by the day. Friends stopped trying to visit, she’d been hostile at their attempts and couldn’t blame them.

Helen’s damp hands gripped the steering wheel. She knew there was no way she could get out of the car and walk into a building as austere as this bank, with a noisy toddler and fretful baby, her face slippery with sweat, dark wet spots under her arms, to meet this ‘nice girl’ Alan had spoken of. Helen wasn’t a nice girl.

The last time she had left the house she had queued in the post office for a passport for Hugo. The line had been long, and Helen held her mewling baby in one arm and restrained a restless Finn with the other. They could travel to the places they had before kids, couldn’t they? Vietnam, India, Nepal. The passport papers were clamped between her teeth as she breathed through her nose. When she eventually reached the man at the counter and handed him the slightly grubby forms, he raised an eyebrow and turned down his lips. “Madam, we like our forms in better order. You’ll have to fill in another and re-join the line.”

She didn’t know what possessed her but instead of arguing assertively and getting her own way, Helen burst into tears. Not pretty tears but big globs of salty water, her eyes squeezed in on themselves. The man had shrugged. Helen was determined that today would end on a more positive note. ‘I’m not doing this’ an inner voice struggled to be heard. Helen started the engine and drove back along Railway Street, turned right into The Avenue.

At the park Hugo slept in her arms while Finn ran round in circles, his arms stretched out and his brain full of sugar from the doughnuts she had bought from the bakery.

“Mummy, I’m outside! I’m outside!” Helen couldn’t stop a smile from creeping onto her naked face. She wiped the sugar carefully from her lips, trying not to wake Hugo.  Alan would be livid about the paperwork, but she would gladly swap him, the house and the Land Rover for the look on Finn’s face. And somewhere at the back of Helen’s mind lurked that basket of wet clothes. It was a breezy day and the sun shone brightly, another perfect day for laundry.

THE GHOST OF ELVIS

I  wrote this story some years ago. It’s about the 70s, and family holidays on the East Coast of England.
I’d like to Google-map a particular time and place; Felixstowe, Suffolk, England. August 1977. Home in on the floral gardens on the seafront, the many caravan roofs of our caravan site. The ice cream parlour with a giant Mr Whippy out the front. The rickety roller coaster and the inflatable bouncy moon in the fairground.
We’d arrive by train, carrying our suitcases from the station. A dark bricked affair with more than a nod to the Gothic. We crossed the brow of the hill with an excited feeling hitting our stomachs as the sea appeared between sky and shingle. We owned one of the bigger caravans in the Beach Caravan Park which gave a superior bounce to our step. There was a social club. We never went — my parents weren’t. A swimming pool and the kiosk which sold boiled sweets and ice lollies. My younger brother, Karl, screamed for the toilet every time his bum hit the water. The damp concrete changing rooms where once I’d heard a couple of older girls, singing The Rubette’s Sugar Baby Love. Beautiful, full figured girls. To my daggy twelve year old self they were angels.
The caravan was an eight-berth, and there were five of us of varying sizes. Mum and Dad’s bed converted into the place where we ate breakfast. Cornflakes and sterilised milk, lunches of cheese sandwiches or the helpfully named, Luncheon Meat. My mind has drawn a veil over most of the dinners my mother made on the tiny gas stove. I can only imagine what they were from the memory of television advertisements on our set at home. The boy who grew up advertising beef burgers. Cheese and ham Findus Crispy Pancakes; baby food in a crunchy coat. The sweaty, dampness of processed cheese.
The table turned miraculously into a double bed. We never saw this, just as we’d never seen our parents’ bedroom at home.
“Perhaps they’re robots and don’t need sleep.” Karl said as he pushed Grace and me on the roundabout at the playground. He was a huge Doctor Who fan but had recently fallen off the slide in the play park twice, so I ignored his comment, considering it childish and possibly the result of brain damage.
Karl pushed the roundabout and with a loud thump, jumped on one of the spare seats. I felt sick from the spinning. “Don’t be stupid.” My eyes rolled to the sky which was grey and intense although no rain had fallen yet.
“Boys are stupid, aren’t they Jude?” My sister, Grace, two years younger, open to suggestion. “There’s a gloom in the sky. Something’s going to happen.” She could almost tell the future sometimes, only not her own. Something her husband later took advantage of.
Karl gave Grace a shove and she fell from the roundabout. “Oh, look Grace. It already has.”
“Oh please, children.” I stretched on the grass, and yawned, as if I wasn’t one. Grace scrabbled to her feet, bottom lip wobbling.
“Can I pick the gravel out of your grazes?” Grace nodded at Karl’s request, forgetting he was the cause of them. She sat down, I marveled at her braveness. Her fists were clenched but her eyes were dry.
Three older boys approached the park that had been ours that morning. One tall and gangly with ginger hair, wearing a badly chosen red tee shirt. The others were both dark and shorter. One sat on the swing, he delved into his bomber jacket and took out a dark packet I recognised. Placed a cigarette between his lips. John Player Special — Dad had a packet hidden behind a shelf at the back of our garage at home. Secret ciggies. I loved the fruity smell of the foil tucked in the packet. The boy pulled the collar of his jacket up and waited. He wore a cheap anorak, similar to the boys at school, and nudged the redhead with his elbow who then produced a brightly coloured lighter. He lit the cigarette dangling between his friend’s lips. The boy smirked and blew smoke from his nose. I felt the kind of excitement I normally only got as the big dipper in the amusement park tipped over the top into oblivion.
He looked like Elvis. I had a poster of Elvis on my bedroom wall at home, dressed in black leather with his collar up just like Cigarette Boy. I imagined the music from the film, King Creole, rise around me. Bad boy music.
“Jude. You’re staring.” Grace hissed from the patch of grass where Karl was still picking away at her raw knees.
I wanted to go back to the caravan, not wait for Dad to call us in for dinner. Dad was alright but he was very uncool. His hair slicked with Brylcreem. I watched him in the morning sometimes. Combing the white cream into his black hair until it set, not a hair out of place. I didn’t want this vision of adolescent boyhood to laugh at me. My nylon polo neck and homemade trousers were starting to itch my skin.
Cigarette Boy raised his head and looked straight at me. My insides went liquid.
“You’re still staring, Jude.”
The boy looked right at me. I was in love.
Later I told Grace about it. “But he can’t be your first love. That’s Elvis.”
“This is different.”
“How?” She wound a line of gum around her index finger as we sat on the front steps of our caravan. I looked at her with pity.
“It’s about probability.” We’d covered it at school the previous term. “I’m not likely to meet Elvis now am I? I mean he lives in America and he’s forty-two.”
There was more to it but I didn’t want to discuss it with anyone. Not even Grace. I could touch this boy, maybe even kiss him. A tingly feeling ran through me. Elvis songs and the films they showed in the holidays, the black leather suit and later, the white jumpsuit covered in rhinestones. He had a look that made my knees melt but I could never breathe the same air as Elvis.
My parents had just finished painting our caravan and the air was strong with the smell of it. They liked green, my folks. It was green before but they’d changed it to a different shade of green.
“Girls, want to go for a walk?”
I shook my head at my dad. The others went while I sat quietly daydreaming about The Boy with the Cigarette. His eyes were brown, although they could have been blue or green, I hadn’t got close enough. How could I get him to notice me? I looked down at my skinny body, my chest looked like I’d shoved a couple of conkers up my jumper. Boys like that preferred a woman’s body. Boys like that could get any girl they wanted. I regretted my savage holiday hair cut as I ran my hand through its roughness. Grace had lovely hair. Blonde and smooth.
I curled up in bed that night my mind spinning with images of Cigarette Boy. He calls me over, tells his friends to get lost. Pushes me down onto the swing, towers over me. Places his hand on the back of my neck, kisses me roughly. Me, plain old Jude Sullivan, with my cheap clothes and underfed body. Someone like him could like me, want to wrap his arms around me and never let go. Cigarette Boy proposed to me from the top of the park slide as I held on tight to railings, not believing it was really happening. Clouds spun like sugar while he held out a ring with a rock the size of Priscilla’s.
As I opened my eyes I fancied there were sea horses galloping by my face. The sound of heavy rain beating down on the caravan roof. The light had changed, as if we were under water.
A sharp knock on the door brings me fully conscious. Dad came in holding a folded copy of The Sun newspaper in his hand, Mum’s favourite. This was new. He dropped the top part of the paper to reveal the front-page, without a word to cushion the blow.
‘Elvis Dead at 42’. A photo of my hero holding a towel to his bloated face. I made a gagging noise and clutched at my heart.
“Jude, are you alright?” Grace shot a look at our Dad. “What were you thinking of breaking it to her like that?”
Dad smiled. “Breakfast in five minutes.” Dad had never approved of my obsession with The King of Rock and Roll. He had found love letters I had written to Elvis when I was ten. I’d put them on the window sill as a homage to my love. I had meant to hide them but I’d forgotten. His face had turned white when he found them. Dad was five years younger than Elvis. I’d listened at the living room door while he talked with Mum.
“Jean, do you think Jude should talk to someone about this. It’s not right. A girl being in love with a fully grown man.”
“Derek, don’t be silly. It’s just a girlish fixation. Mine was Buddy Holly.”
“I don’t know. She’s a bit of a worry that one.”
I found something black to wear. I wasn’t allowed to wear black but I’d picked up some bits and pieces at the Girl Guides jumble sale as it was for a ‘good cause’. I had on a black pencil skirt neither of my parents had laid eyes on and a navy jumper. Grace put her arm round my shoulder, she had to stand on tip toes to reach it.
“Clear a place for Jude. She’s devastated.” She’s never lost her knack for drama.
Mum and Dad moved the cruet set to one of the seats. My brother looked up at me, eyes wide, wondering what I would do next. “Sorry for your loss,” Karl said before giggling under his breath. Mum cuffed him round the face. Grace stared at him. “You are so cold.”
I remember a strained breakfast. My first experience of loss to the backdrop of stilted conversation, and soggy cereal. Loss followed me around in later teenage years. Three years later I became obsessed with The Beatles, my favourite was John Lennon. Most people learnt about death from their pets, but we weren’t allowed pets.
After we had finished eating everyone cleared the table around me while I sat there, hopefully looking sad and majestic. The air was close, and I was starting to sweat under my nylon jumper. The only alternative was a pink one with Dumbo the elephant on it. “Do you want anything from the shops, Mum? I want to take a walk.” Grace started scurrying around. “Alone.” Her face dropped. I felt sorry for her, but I felt the need to brood, to process sad thoughts.
“We could always do with more sterilised milk.” Mum gave me more coins than needed. “Get something for yourself, sweetheart.”
I found my knitted beret but decided I would look more the romantic heroine if my hair got wet, the only time it would lie flat. It looked longer that way too.
As I left the caravan Mum shouted. “Take your brolly, Jude. There’s no point looking tragic if you catch your death.”
It was one of those dome umbrellas. The idea being that you could see through the plastic as you walked. It was completely blurred, and you couldn’t see through it even when it wasn’t raining. They quickly went out of fashion after people collided in the street, but my mother had a knack for picking up things from the bargain bins.
“Hey look everyone. Pencil animals to cheer up your pencils and make you smile.” “Jude, jelly shoes. Cheap at half the price.” “Broken biscuits!” None of us would eat broken biscuits. They ended up in the bottom of the cup when you dunked.
I dumped the umbrella in the margarine tub by the door. It was meant to be filled with rainwater to water the plants Mum had planted. “Jean, those plants are looking good.” Dad hadn’t realised that Mum had planted plastic flowers. She was hopeless at gardening.
It wasn’t far to the general store. ‘General store’ reminded me of America and America of Elvis. Heart attack at forty-two. Tragic. Of course, at that stage no one knew the ultimate tragedy, this beautiful, troubled man had died on the toilet.
By the time I got to the shop I was wet and steaming. The temperature was rising and the rain more than the usual steady drizzle. The shop smelt of fun. Bon-bons in jars and liquorice sticks. I loved to look at the magazines stuffed with free gifts. Last week I had found a Jackie comic with free sunglasses. My latest edition had a story about a girl who put her boyfriend off by being totally obsessed with David Essex. Worth making a note. I had enough things going against me; I didn’t want to put a boy off with any of my obsessions. Elvis wasn’t the only one. I had a girl-crush on Marie Osmond and had already decided I would have twins, when the time came, and I’d call them Donny and Marie. I couldn’t call a child Elvis, it wouldn’t go down well at Wood Green Infants.
I picked up a copy of Diana, the magazine for young ladies, and walked past the papers to get to the milk. The daily headlines held me in their grip. The King is Dead: Elvis. Elvis is Dead, next to a picture of my hero covered in sweat, pasty and fat. Elvis, King of Rock. Dies at 42. Where was the man in black leather who danced and made my legs turn to water? Where was the King of Rock and Roll? This man wasn’t him.
If I didn’t pick up a newspaper it wouldn’t be true. If this could happen then life was rubbish and God didn’t exist. My stupid magazine fell to the floor. I felt sick.
A hand grasped my shoulder firmly. I could smell juicy fruit chewing gum and stale cigarettes. The ghost of Elvis?
“I know how you feel. He was the King. The coolest.” Not an American voice. The ghost of Elvis took my hand and squeezed it until it hurt. The grip loosened and I looked up into the eyes of The Cigarette Boy.
Eventually Ernie who ran the store coughed. “You kids gonna buy anything? I’m not running a grief counseling group.”
Cigarette Boy turned to me. “You wanna hang out?”
Oh yes. “Yes. Please.”
The rain was heavier now, and no one was about. Cigarette Boy, still clutching my hand, pulled me along to the play park.
“You don’t mind the rain do you, Elvis Girl?” My heart swelled.
I shook my head and my hair, which was plastered to the side of my face, sent out a spray of raindrops. He stopped at the roundabout and let go of my hand. “Come on.” He sat on one of the triangle seats, beckoning me to sit on another. We were soaked through.
“No one understands. My Dad had the newspaper out on the breakfast table. Not a word. He knows I love Elvis.”
I found it surprising that Cigarette Boy would have parents. Such a thought seemed too bourgeois. I’d imagined he roamed the park alone, surviving on hot chips and the generosity of besotted housewives.
“Mine came in holding up the newspaper as if it were a joke.” Cigarette Boy spat out something green in reply. It landed on the grass a foot from us. “They don’t take us seriously. I swear my Dad was never young.” He held out his hand. “Mark. Mark Baker. But I’m thinking of changing it to Presley. By deed poll.”
I nodded, wearing my cool face. “Jude Sullivan.” I took his hand and my stomach flipped.
The rain was easing off as Mark started patting down his pockets. “Fancy a smoke?”
“No. I’m trying to give them up.” I hadn’t done anything more dangerous in my life that cramming two Crème eggs into my mouth at the same time, but Mark wasn’t to know. He nodded and gave me a ‘too right’ kind of look.
Just then Mum appeared from our caravan waving an umbrella furiously.
“Your old dear?” asked Mark.
“Yep.” My face reddened under my sopping hair. I gave a ‘coming in a minute’ wave in Mum’s direction. I wasn’t sure about calling her ‘old dear’. My mum was funny and good at parties. I wanted to grow up to be like her but she wouldn’t be best pleased I’d forgotten the sterilised milk “If it’s sunny tomorrow, do you fancy going for a swim at the pool with me?”
I could hardly believe my ears. I nodded vigorously and started to run off. “Nice paint job.” Mark pointed at our caravan sniggering.
“Elvis brought you together.” Grace said with confidence later. We were at the pier devouring Mr Whippies. Ice cream ran down our arms as we tried to lick it away in time. Mum and Dad dragged us all out for a walk along the promenade once the rain had stopped. Dad was too tight to buy 99’s.
“I can tell you’re smitten. Is his name Byron?”
“Mark Baker. But he might change it to Presley. By deed poll.” Grace nodded sagely but I could tell she didn’t know what it meant. Nor did I for that matter. I imagined Mark’s arm draped round my shoulder as we hung out at the swimming pool. Older girls giving me daggers as he whispered something clever and funny in my ear.
When I reached the pool the following day, my towel wrapped firmly around my skinny frame, I had no intention of getting into the water, I still wore a one-piece, Mum thought I was too young for a bikini. I spotted Mark leaning against a wall as far away from the pool as he could be, I approved. I walked towards him. His eyes were dark, nearly black, and he was wearing a pair of brief swimming trunks, also black. He was a lot skinnier than I’d thought. He wasn’t smoking, nowhere to put his cigarettes, but I could tell he wanted to.
“Hello, Mark.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Jude. Jude Sullivan.”
He nodded. Two girls walked by, spilling out of their bikinis. They burst into giggles when they saw Mark. I expected him to say something suave like; “Hello, Ladies.” But instead he seemed annoyed.
“What are you doing here, Jude?” His eyes were darker than I remembered. His mouth unsmiling.
My heart caught in my mouth. “You asked me. Yesterday. On the roundabout.”
Mark turned towards me and spat out a reply, his chin jutted in my direction. “Piss off.”
I looked down at myself. Regulation black swimsuit, and tatty old towel. I had to get away from there. I’d already paid the five pence entry fee. I felt a fool. I passed the giggling girls on my way out. One smiled at me and walked over. How could I ever have thought that a boy like that would be interested in me. “Don’t worry about Moody Mark. He’s always like that. Blows hot and cold all the time.”
. “Come and join us on the swings. I’m Carla.” She slipped her arm through mine. Another girl sitting on the grass said her name was Donna. Carla was already on the swings, she swung through the air with freedom. They were my angels. I told them my name, my voice shaking.
“All the girls fancy him at first, but he doesn’t even notice it. He just loves Elvis.” said Donna.
“I love Elvis too. That’s why we got talking in the shop yesterday.”
‘Mark lives on site during the season, his dad is the bingo caller in the social club.”
Carla chipped in. “He’s been saying all summer that his real dad is Elvis. He looks like him a bit, don’t you think.”
He did. He really did. A thinner, paler version of Elvis. The ghost of Elvis.
“We all believed it a little bit, we wanted to. Glamour’s hard to come by in Felixstowe.”
“But it’s obvious now that he’s not. I mean he would have been whisked off to Graceland by now.” I thought outloud.
I walked back to the caravan. Grace was skipping towards me. “How was the date, Jude?”
“Pooh on toast.”
She grinned. “It’s true, you should never meet your heroes.”
I’d lost two heroes in two days, but I’d made a couple of friends. Swings and roundabouts. And slides — if you counted my brother Karl.

STRANGE DAYS INDEED

A hard time to write. My head is a vacuum with only coping strategies to fill it. Ideas a one-way street. My once a week trip is to the grocery store, I find no muse among the cashiers or shelf stackers, although I do find grit and bravery. Just about everyone who’s allowed out for work is wearing a uniform, a necessary barrier between us. No creativity there but essential services. Looking after us, saving our lives.

I’ve never spent so much time at home. Although, to be honest I have, when mental illness was a cloak I wore. Cue the Walker Brothers. This is different. My constants; my husband, my sons, the dog. The tv remote, pages of a drawing book waiting to be filled. A blank page on my laptop. Constantly looking at my phone, for news, when there is only one story. Regurgitated through social media. I’ve done that many stupid Facebook quizzes. I’m Doris Day, my husband is Keanu Reeves. I’m an oblong, a sunset, a patch of gravel near the lawn.

Another constant is our homes. Mine is new. We moved in as the virus grounded us. It has lots of delights but no old treasures to find. No old pens or coin down the back of the sofa, or an ancient, rolled up magazine behind the heater. Everything in this house was chosen carefully by me.

A home like a huge eye that looks out, and no one looks in. I can see the sky, but can the sky see me? I’ve lived in 22 houses. Beachside units, a McMansion, a garden flat. Water views, acreage, green hills and a mountain that disappears in misty weather.

I marvel that the people in my psychological thrillers and dramas on the telly are still allowed out. Where is their social distancing? Where do they buy their toilet rolls from? Then I remember, my reality is now science fiction fact. What will our world look like in the future? Will we go back to normal, or will our stories change forever?

Will nature take back what we have ruined? Is this the in breath before a completely new outbreath? All questions, no answers.

I awake every morning and the virus is still not the first thing I think of. It’s the second. It takes a moment to form. I try not to think about it too much for it’s always been what we don’t know that frightens us. I get up and shower, sometimes I put makeup on. I exercise, I make tea, drink coffee. Eat three meals a day. I read, I watch. I wait. How about you? What colour is the sky in your world?

MAKING A CLEAN BREAST OF IT

I think I must be entering my second childhood. I always thought this meant going back to childish ways; dribbling your food, banging cutlery on the table. Wetting your pants. But at the grand old age of 52 (believe me it doesn’t seem like much from where I’m sitting) I’m missing the wild part of me that I spent years trying to forget.

I’m never going to go bra-less under a tight tee-shirt again but I may start wearing clothing with statements emblazoned across my chest. My sister has bought me many over the years and I regret I didn’t have the confidence to wear WONDER WOMAN out and about. I wore it for exercise and knocking around the house. It was my nick-name for a while in my London days.

Today I wore my REVOLUTION a la Russell Brand tee-shirt to pick up a prescription from the chemists. A silver haired man engaged me in conversation. It felt good and safe that he wanted to know all about revolution and not just to stare at my ‘charlies’. I may dig out that PARIS IS A STATE OF MIND I’ve always felt too awkward to wear. Just because I’ve never visited said city, but I do have plans to. So there.

I asked my husband for a leather biker jacket for my birthday. Of course I had one, back in the day. With a leather fringe which went out of fashion too soon. I wore it to the Anti-Heroin festival in Crystal Palace, and on the back of BSA’s, Triumph’s and Suzuki’s. Holding on to long haired boys while my own waist-length mane twirled into knots in the wind.

Thinking about it I used to wear a lot of statement tee-shirts – the one with tyre marks that I wore to Stonehenge Free Festival. And the rather scary graveyard one that I leant to my cousin and never saw again.

I wore stockings of every colour and print, coupled with mini-skirts before they came back in fashion. If I had been born later I would have worn them with shorts but I stopped wearing shorts ten years ago. I donned ripped jeans because I’d climbed mountains in them, gate crashed parties by crawling under fences with an opened bottle of French red in one hand. I’d earned those rips. The store-bought, ready-made torn jeans of today wouldn’t suit me. It’s been a long time since my ‘scotch eggs’ (rhyming slang) were skinny.

A couple of years ago I started buying scarves (which I hadn’t previously got the hang of – what to do with them?). Not just to hide my ageing neck, they suddenly seemed like a good idea. And I love them still but I want to wear them with my Connies and my kick-arse second childhood threads. I’ve discussed dyeing my hair purple (once the grey arrives) with the husband. He’s not sure but I want to be Helena Bonham-Carter not Jackie O. There’s life in the pre-menopausal, temperature-challenged, slightly moody old cow yet.

Christmastime, oh Christmastime

Christmastime and the past festive times are snugly bedfellows. As parents we try to bring, or avoid, our Dickensian ghosts of Christmas past. The husband lived in a huge house and the family Christmas tree was tall enough to reach two floors – the living area had a galley that ran around the top. High enough for many a childhood accident, and to put the angel on top of the tree I suppose.

Christmas Day involved three trips to church and presents were given out by Pop after the Queen’s Speech by the warmth of the fireside.

Meanwhile in the shires, our new build (updated every year or so) was without a fireplace. Father Christmas was clever enough to dump a Santa sack filled with toys at the end of our beds. Presents from family and friends were neatly wrapped, but for some reason (economics and time probably) my practical Dad decided not to wrap the gifts from him and Mum. There were a lot of them and this decision made access easy, after midnight when the man in red left the house. Shouts and the turning on of lights regularly disturbed the remaining night until dawn arrived and we all gave up.

Our tree was made of plastic, and green and silver tinsel. It was placed on a table to give it stature. Dates and nuts gathered round its red plastic pot.

No Queen’s speech for us. Top of the Pops was king. Waiting to hear who’d made the top slot in the charts before lunch. Slade and Wizard dancing energetically on a tiny stage. Looking back at the disc jockeys who presented it our 70’s childhoods has a dark side now.

In the present, no pun intended, we have our traditions on the other side of the globe. Stockings on the mantelpiece after dark on Christmas Eve. Gaudy tinsel blowing in Queensland’s humid breeze. The real tree I insist on, although huge, not as big as the husband’s childhood one, the bigger presents jostle for space under it. It took me and the kids years to talk the husband into opening the presents earlier in the day. Especially since the Queen’s Speech isn’t shown until bedtime.

We have Christmas pop songs playing from late November, our family lunch out, our Boxing Day cinema date. And on Christmas Eve I’m massaging butter under the skin of the turkey, muttering under my breath and listening to shouts of joy coming from the pool.  Even the dog’s in there.

Christmas morning I’m cooking a lunch which really belongs in the Northern Hemisphere. We play board games after lunch but now the boys are almost grown. Son no.1 has a girlfriend and they will make their own traditions. I remember the husband, when he was just the boyfriend, and our Christmas Eve tradition of cheese fondue and Drop Dead Fred on the telly. I implore my kids to spend at least one future Christmas in the colder climes. There’s nothing quite like it.

WOMAN WARMING

This morning, the last day of January, two thirds into summer I looked up and noticed the light streaming through the trees into our home. Why had I not noticed this before? Why had I not visited the beach? (Dot-to-dot patterns of tiny moles and freckles might have had something to do with it.) Why was I smiling again?

The temperature at 9.00am was below mid 20’s. The needle hadn’t pointed to 30 at eight in the morning. I can choose to take a dip in the pool – my life doesn’t depend on it. I won’t have to spend the day in wet soggy swimmers in order to get my chores done. I am free.

Every summer seems to get hotter as I let the flame of menopause lick my boiling head.  We live in the hinterland, miles from sea breezes. Our house is nestled in a small valley. Our cottage is full of holes – all the better for snakes to get in but without basic insulation. “We can’t put in a air-conditioner. It won’t work unless everything is sealed,” the husband says. I’ll seal him if he doesn’t watch it.

Pool dips, cold water splashes. Sitting under fans. Mild heatstroke which had me peering into a bucket expecting a vegetarian panini to resurface.

I have an arsenal of cooling devices for bedtime. Ceiling fan, two pedestal fans strapped to the foot rest of our bed. A very loud machine with an internal fan. We filled it with ice and water and directed its flow to be swept up by the two aforementioned fans. Before bed I had a total immersion shower and headed upstairs with an ice bucket. I soaked a sarong in the water and draped it over my poor hot body. Soaked a small towel and placed it over my middle-aged glow-in-the-dark neck. The whole operation took about half an hour. I laid awake wondering how the husband had talked me into moving to Queensland.

We missed our lovely trip to New Zealand, cool breezes and cold oceans, because the husband broke his leg, had four operations and complications just before Christmas. He asked the doctor if air travel was possible. He mouthed the words DEATH and TRAP.

It’s getting worse for me every year but this year the husband kissed my beetroot coloured head before he went off to sleep, muttering something about research. Air-conditioner. Next year. I think I heard.

February please be kind. And hopefully next summer I’ll drift off to sleep in a polar blast of icy air, and my face will no longer be heart attack purple.

 

 

 

SEASONS END

I’m a rugby mum. I have two strapping teenage boys who charge the field; tackling, going hard, ripping the pill, fending and running fast.

But I’m a nerd, a book worm. Was always last to be picked in sports. I remember the shame as my back prickled with horror as it rubbed against the fence while I made myself as small as possible. Skinny and pale from lack of sun. My two don’t get their sporting genes from me.

From February to September I drive my boys to training. I’m there at the school gates, kit bags packed, snacks at the ready. My youngest and my eldest, a friend or two, pile in. I drive a round trip of an hour and a half to get them there. And back home again. The car less fragrant after training. Rugby socks and sweaty armpits, the scent of them clog my nostrils.

Games on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. The jersey wash. Rep rugby runs simultaneously with the club season. Weekend tournaments on the Gold Coast, driving to Kempsey. Scary motel rooms.

During the season I see myself as supportive mummy. A woman of integrity and grace. Chatting to parents on the sidelines. Clapping politely when either team score. I am a pacifist. I wear a half-smile. I’m a woman of substance.

Until the Grand Finals.

I turn into a lunatic. I scream, I shout, I bellow. I punch the air aggressively. Blood runs steaming hot through my body. I jump up and catcall while everyone else remains seated. But I can’t stop.

And I cry. Sob even. My youngest, the captain, giving a speech. A speech he is teased for by his mates. The low voice-breaking wobble. Forgetting to thank everyone. To me he’s Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill. Bono.

I bawl my eyes out win or lose. Then comes the realisation that I’m free. I don’t have to live in my car for the next five months. Six layers of clothes in the foot well, three changes of shoes. I can be home before dark. Have time to cook.

But first comes the post-rugby season blues. That rugby shaped hole at my centre. I try to reconcile graceful mummy with the crazy witch from the weekend.

“You’re very aggressive, Mum.” My eldest tells me. My bottom lip wobbles. He smiles. “But in a good way.”