DAMP SPOTS AND DEATH

It struck me as I lie on the bed, doona up to my chin and my socked feet sticking out the other end. I have all this time and no idea what to do. A mythical calendar appears in my imagination, huge and white. Unmarked by those little jottings people fill in the squares with; ‘lunch with Magda’, ‘dinner at the Pugh’s’,’Simon – tennis’. I can’t think what I would write in those squares now. The calendar sheets start to rustle in an imaginary breeze, May sprouts a set of wings like angels and then June does the same. By the time I reach August I feel giddy.

Like a pie whose filling has been sucked out. What with Julia back at Agricultural College and her father dead. Simon dead? Why would he do that? We always discussed everything at length, every decision we might have to make. From big things like which house would we buy or holiday destinations, to small things like where to buy the best organic tomatoes. I hadn’t been in on the death conversation.

I watch the dust motes dance in the stream of sunlight looking like the beam from a flashlight. I notice the bedroom curtains need a wash and as I look up I see a damp spot. What did one do with a damp spot? Take a hairdryer to it? Apply blotting paper? There were so many things a 56 year old woman should have picked up and I hadn’t. We may have been equals in decision making but anything involving grouting or WD40, strictly Simon’s territory.

Such a fit man, tennis and jogging round the park every morning. Even the occasional yoga class. He’d been popping out in his lunch hour, Gayle from the office had said, for today’s newspaper and a packet of chewies. It hadn’t been a bus, just one of those four wheel drives everyone seems to have, with big clumsy bars at the front. BANG! CRUNCH! What was that? Your husband, love.

Miriam Flowers, the unlikely name of the woman driving the four wheel drive. She was distraught apparently. Came into town once in a blue moon for a spot of shopping, runs over middle-aged man. Poor Simon. Poor me. Not poor Miriam. I don’t think. At least she gets to go home to Mr Flowers.

I wriggle my pink-socked toes to stop them going numb. Next door’s car starts up. Gerald, as in Gerald-and-Susan. Now I am half a couple I resent the snugness of others. Gerald, a school teacher, drives a Camry and wears a bow tie. A bow tie that would probably be quite hard to tie. Not one of those ones on elastic. I hate that bow tie. He is making a statement with it, I’m not sure what kind of statement. Susan works in credit control, whatever that is. Working in a publisher’s office I’d never heard of such things.

I expect I should be weeping into my pillow, mourning poor Simon. But I’m not. I can only liken it to an operation, having something surgically removed but there’s no visible scar. I move my legs across to Simon’s side of the bed, cold and alien. I only ever ventured over to his side of the bed when he was there. The odd the things that catch you, filling you with a sense of loss, hearing something absurd or amusing and having no one to share it with at the days end.

Simon loved the absurd. He would have enjoyed the banality of his death. Of crossing the road to get a paper then being knocked down by Miriam Flowers. He used to read out the oddities of life from the paper while I cooked dinner. His strange bark like laugher and my high pitched giggle joining him while I sautéed potatoes or poured red wine into a casserole.

I hear the lock turn and a muffled slam.

“Celia! It’s only me! Are you up?”

Fiona, my sister, checking that I haven’t topped myself during the night. I have two sisters, Fiona and Emily. Both older, wiser and hideously efficient. Emily is more tactful, she’s the middle one. A willowy blonde who moves through my house silently, washing dishes I have let pile up. Cereal stuck like cement to ceramics. I find I eat a lot of cereal these days. It’s so much easier than cooking. Who wants to spend an hour or two rustling up something from a Nigella Lawson’s when I can just slide my fingers across the top of a box and pour. I believe Nigella’s husband has a fondness for Weetabix. I have variety, I buy a great many of the cereals displayed gaudily on the shelves of supermarkets. I run my trolley past and knock each type straight into it. It’s very satisfying.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Emily. She puts my washing in the machine, only once a week now. There was a time when the machine was on every day. When Julia was home. When Simon had work clothes, tennis clothes and gardening clothes. And those dreadful velour leisure suits that were in vogue for a while that I wore, a uniform for the middle aged. Emily does yoga and she’s a dressmaker, fingers neat and nimble. They alternate days to check I’m getting out of bed and making an effort. Fiona and Emily. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be making an effort for.

Fiona, she’s the loud one. I can hear her now; crashing cutlery into the sink, turning the hot on full pelt. Singing something Christian. My sisters. Like Wagner and Debussy. But united in their care of me.

I gave their telephone numbers to the kind policewoman. They had sat either side of me, talking, not talking, holding my shaking hands. Emily rang Julia and gently told her what had happened. She took the train home, Fiona met her at the station.

Julia, tall and broad, practical and precise. Now 20 she had grown past the age when Simon and I embarrassed her. Our way of seeing the funny side of everything. I felt angry that her father had been wrenched from her life, torn away quickly like a sticking plaster.

Julia stayed for the funeral. A cremation; Simon’s choice. Followed by neat sandwiches, cake and tea served from teapots, back at the house. Fiona and Emily did the catering, Julia served the tea. I sat in Simon’s armchair, not speaking, not smiling and barely breathing. Julia and I were like two points of a triangle. When she returned to college Fiona and Emily formed a small cluster around me.

“Celia, we want to help you through this season.” Emily, always gentle. “We don’t want you to feel alone.” I could see she had been crying however she was a woman who could cry and not look puffy with piggy eyes.

So they came and they stayed. Cleaning my kitchen, making me cups of tea, being there, giving me someone to talk to when there would have been no one. They bought books and placed them around my house. Books on grieving; Christian ones from Fiona and New Age ones from Emily. Leaflets on local support groups lay on the kitchen table. All their good intentions building soft walls of cotton wool around me.

Several months later I’m at the in-between phase, much like a child growing, only sadder. I had passed through the shock, dealt with the absence as best I could and I didn’t know what came next. It felt like driving along a bitumen road which suddenly disappears into the ground, along with the familiar points of the landscape; houses, signposts and boundary fences. Stuck. Stuck being minded by Fiona and Emily, unable to forge my own way forward, held by loving sisterly-ties.

“Celiaaah. Are you alright? Shall I come up?” Fiona is a nurse. The thought of her bedside manner helping me put my knickers on is too awful.

“No, Fee. Just getting dressed.”

I’m lying in bed while I visualise my wardrobe. I wish I still had one of those velour leisure suits or maybe a primary coloured jump suit. Something I could just jump into and zip up. Why hasn’t someone thought of that before. So easy. Sort of Play School meets prison.

Eventually I enter my kitchen dressed in something shapeless and grey. Its some minutes before Fiona even notices me. I shuffle over to a chair. It’s the chair legs scraping on the tiles that alert her to my presence. The singing stops.

“Oh! Celia, I didn’t know you were there.” She takes in the greyness of me. “You should have worn something a bit more cheery.”

Fiona stands there with a wide illuminating smile, dishrag in hand. A large lady, dressed in fuchsia. On reflection I prefer grey. I have an issue with clothes wearing people rather than the other way round. Like Gerald and his bow tie. Guess I’ll have to re-think those jumpsuits.

“Now, what are we having for breakfast?”

“I don’t know about you but I’m having coco pops.” This is just the sort of thing I would have told Simon later. Pertinence in the face of the matronly sister.

Fiona throws open the pantry door and gasps. Every shelf is crammed full of multi- coloured cereal boxes after yesterdays shop and in an Andy Warhol way they are quite beautiful.

“Oh, Celia.” Fiona bursts into tears.

“Come on, Fee. Sit down.”

“I’m sorry, it should be you weeping not me.”

I pass my sister a box of tissues.

“We didn’t know what else to do, Emily and I. We couldn’t imagine losing our husbands. We wanted to make you feel better. To make it all go away.”

“Fee, you’ve both wonderful. Don’t think I don’t appreciate everything you have done. But after 30 years of marriage…”

“Have you heard of the five phases of grief. Number one is…”

“No, Fee. I’m going to do this my way. You can’t honestly see me going to therapy and reading self-help books can you?”

Fiona managed a weak, watery smile.

“If I want to eat just cereal for a while I will. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this but I do know, if I need someone to sit with me while I cry or someone to talk to I will call you and Emily. Okay?”

Fiona nods, shaking more tears loose, tears which mark her silk blouse. We sit there in silence listening to the breeze combing through the leaves on the trees and the sound of children playing in the street.

“Fee, you don’t know anything about damp spots do you?”

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HER NAME WAS LOLA…

Do you have a theme tune to your life? Does it skip through your head as you walk down the street (like John Travolta swaying his hips to Staying Alive)? Do you sing opera in the shower?

When I was born I’m Alive by The Hollies was number one in the UK charts. Quite apt. However I don’t remember it. The song I first remember was I’ll Never Fall in Love Again by Bobbie Gentry, playing loudly as I watched a carousel spin round in a fairground in Ramsgate, on a family holiday. I’m sure you have similar memories.

I grew up in the 70s. When I was about six my Dad borrowed a record from a colleague and played it for me. I fell in love immediately. It was Puppy Love by Donny Osmond. There followed years of crappy pop music that stirred my young, tank-top covered, heart. Sugar Baby Love by the Rubettes, Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks and who could forget David Cassidy taking that bloody puppy for a walk. I waded through David Essex claiming he could make me a star, persevered as Barry Manilow called me Mandy and endured Tony Orlando begging me to Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. It was a wild ride.

There followed a brief period of me trying to locate the horribly old-fashioned tartan skirts of the year before and cutting them up into lengths of scarves. Rushing home from school to watch something called ‘Shang-a-Lang’. Then came a mercifully brief period of disco music and finally, good sense prevailed. All that pop music and wet balladry hadn’t entirely turned my brain to discarded washing-up water.

They came dressed in ripped jeans with chains attached. Their mouths were dirty and they weren’t pretty. But I was in heaven. My puberty hit at the same time as Johnny Rotten was being rude about the Queen. They came with wonderful names; The Skids, X-Ray Spex, The Vibrators, Stiff Little Fingers, Siouxie and the Banshees. They yelled and screamed, well, like Banshees. They dyed their hair paraffin blue, rocket red, bile green. They wore safety pins in their ears, draped their bodies in bin liners and when they weren’t screaming from a place of deep inner pain, they were using words I had never heard of but sounded BAAAAADDDDD.

I played the black vinyl to a level where my record player (oh the innocence!) shook across the room. I can’t remember my mum and dad having a problem with Sid Vicious dribbling and moaning through Sinatra’s finest or Jean-Jacques Burnel being saucy. They would look at each other with an affectionate smile and agree. “It’s just one of her phases.”

Well it bloody wasn’t. I was a punk to the core and I would die a punk. I would live hard and die fast and I wouldn’t take any prisoners. I should type that out again and replace the words punk with ‘hippie’ (make love and eat quiche), ‘heavy metal fan’ (get down and dirty with leather and studs), ‘Progressive Rockster’ (dream sequences and concept art) ‘Electric  Folk Fan’ (yes – really). ‘Opera Chick’, and any other music you can think of. Except country and western (obviously).

And rap. Sounds dreadful, words are crap. But it’s all No.1 Son listens to. Those years when we danced to Andy Williams on a Friday night are definitely over. When he was nine I spent a manic Sunday morning ‘educating’ him. “You can’t know Elvis until you’ve heard the blues. You can’t appreciate Oasis without listening to The Beatles.” Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Undertones. Poor child listened to it all then slunk off at the first opportunity to plug in his ipod and nod his head knowingly to Eminem. It had worked better for my Dad and Donny Osmond.

Recently I saw a light flicker in No.2 Son’s eyes when he heard Time by Pink Floyd. I pounced. I took him through his musical education on You Tube. I made him sit through Robert Plant straining Stairway to Heaven, bare-chested wearing hipster pants and screaming poetry. I sat back after that final note, the last ‘heaven’, expecting tears, proclamations of brilliance. “It’s very old-fashioned Mum”.

I wore liquid kohl and ripped tights. Satin skirts slashed to the thigh. My jeans were ripped at the knees years before it was fashionable. Perhaps I’ll ply my children with Elvis Costello singing Pump it Up! I reckon he’s still got it.

The alternative? Admit defeat and slide into pastel coloured slacks and cashmere cardi’s. Sounds quite attractive actually. Where did I put that old tartan rug?

 

 

 

 

 

THE TWIST OF A KALEIDOSCOPE

A young woman stands on a cliff wearing a grey dress as thin as gossamer.  Her white face from this distance a mass of straight lines, her eyes half-closed.  A sketch of a woman.  The wind whips the dress around her stick-like legs.  Her name is Martha and three weeks ago you wouldn’t have found her on the edge of a cliff or the edge of anywhere.

     Martha lived an ordinary life.  She lived in a small house, a cottage you might say, which had an open fire and coloured glass windows of magenta and green.  Martha owned a dog called Stephen, a border collie named after an ex-boyfriend she had been particularly fond of.

     She worked for a large organisation based in the city.  They made cardboard containers used for carrying takeaway coffee cups and merchandising stands.  Martha was the marketing manager and she often worked from home, as the commute was long, putting together presentations for new products.  On Fridays she traveled into the city to join her colleagues for drinks after work.  Martha didn’t have a busy social life, the occasional dinner with old friends.  Sometimes those friends would set her up at dinner parties with single men.  Men mostly called Simon or Gareth who worked in IT.

     Friday night did mean traveling home alone after dark, which felt a little dangerous to Martha but she practiced her theory that if one didn’t think of bad things then bad things wouldn’t happen to one. 

     This particular Friday she dozed off on the train.  There were few people in the carriage and the train, an express, didn’t make many stops which was why it was a shock for Martha when she jerked awake unexpectedly when it stopped.  She opened her eyes and saw a smiling, untidy man sitting opposite her.  He looked at her as if they were halfway through a conversation and he waited for her answer.  He leaned forward, his mouth open, eyes bright and expectant, although a little bloodshot.  “I thought you’d never wake up.”

     Confused Martha straightened her clothing and wiped the line of dribble from the edge of her mouth.  “Do I know you?”

     “I don’t think so,” he grinned cheekily.

     “Why were you waiting for me to wake up?”

     The man frowned.  “I didn’t say I was waiting for you to wake up, I just didn’t think you were going to wake up.”

     Martha began to lose patience.  “So you thought I was dead?”

     “I didn’t think you were dead.”

     Martha was put out to be having such a ridiculous conversation on waking.  Especially after two or three glasses of cheap wine at the pub.

     “Is your name Alice?”

     Oh, God, him again.  “No.”

     “I thought while you were asleep that you look like an Alice.”

     “I’m concerned that you’d think it okay to stare at a young woman while she slept.  It’s disturbing.”

     “I’m sorry you feel that way, Alice.”

     Martha stared stonily at the young man.  She was beginning to think he had escaped from an institution or forgotten his medication.  In a low voice she replied, “I’m not called Alice.  I’m Martha.”

     He offered a hand with dirty bitten down finger nails.  “I’m Barnaby.”

     Martha wanted to stick her nose in the air, a cock-a-snoot her Aunt Phyllis had called it, but she was far too polite to do anything of the sort.  She stuck out a clean white hand.  “Pleased to meet you, Barnaby.”

     Barnaby grinned, stood up and grabbed a brown paper package from the luggage rack above their heads.  “Well, Martha, this is my stop.  Goodbye.”

     And off he went.  Not into the sunset because it was already dark.    

As Martha got into bed, pulling up the bedclothes she had aired that morning, she thought of Barnaby, of their odd conversation on the train.  She sifted through the puzzle of him as she slowly drifted off to sleep.

     In the morning she made her Saturday breakfast, a poached egg on toast with a glass of orange juice.  After a good strong cup of coffee she took down Stephen’s lead from the coat peg near the front door, he came running immediately and she fastened it to his collar and closed the door behind them.  Closed it on neatness and order, into the wild of the outside, where anything can happen.  Of course it rarely did, but there it was; infinite possibilities.

     Martha walked until she arrived at a fork in the path.  One way led to the beach and the other to the cliff top.  The cliff top walk frightened her so she always took the beach path.  It was perfect day, although a little chilly in the breeze.  Picture book clouds gathered in a sky the colour of cornflowers.

     Martha stopped and Stephen stopped beside her.  “Blow it, Stephen.  I’m bored of the beach path.  Nothing ever happens.  Let’s try the cliff top.”

     Little did Martha know that this small diversion from habitual events would change her life, ever so slightly.  Because that is all it takes, a small change and like the twist of a kaleidoscope, the scene changes completely.

     The weekend passed uneventfully except for this seemingly invisible change leading her to sit in the same seat she had taken the week before, the seat opposite Barnaby.

     Drinks after work were loud and merry, they usually took Martha out of herself.  Tonight she wanted them over so she could get the train home.  She politely refused offers of lifts to the station.  Martha wanted to walk.  She wanted to think, to question, did she really want to see Barnaby again?  The unsettled gurgling in her stomach gave her an answer she mis-trusted.  After all Barnaby was an impertinent, scruffy man.

     The train, again, was almost empty as Martha checked the carriages, trying to remember exactly where she had sat the week before.  When she had decided on the seat most likely she made herself comfortable.  The guard blew the whistle and the train jolted to life.  Martha sat neatly in her seat, waiting.  The thought occurred to her that perhaps Barnaby didn’t catch this train regularly.  Perhaps it had been a one-off.  He could have been meeting someone in the city for drinks, or an early dinner.  A female person.  Martha felt disappointment run through her bones.  She turned to face the window, its darkness mirrored her own face back at her, in the glass beyond where blackness lay.  An ordinary face Martha thought, staring at her pale complexion and limp blonde hair.  She turned away from the window.

     “Alice through the looking glass.” 

     Martha started.  “I’m not Alice, I told you.  I’m Martha.”

     “I know.  But Martha didn’t go through the looking glass.”

     Within minutes Martha wondered why she had made so much effort to bump into Barnaby again.  But since she had she would make the best of it.

     “What do you do, Barnaby?”  Martha inspected her fingernails.

     “Do?  What do I do?  What does that mean?  I breathe, I sleep at night, I eat three meals a day and occasionally have a biscuit with my mid-morning coffee.”

     “Don’t be belligerent.  I mean how do you earn a living?”

     “Perhaps I am belligerent; perhaps I get paid for it.” 

     Martha’s face fell into a peeved expression.

     “Sorry.  I went too far.”  Barnaby grinned.  “I run a second-hand vintage clothes shop.  1920s flapper dresses, ball gowns, that sort of thing.”

     “You’re joking, aren’t you?”

     “No.  Odd job for a man, is that what you’re thinking?”

     “Yes.  I mean, no.  Sounds great.”

     “I like it.  I have a fascination for period haute couture.”  Martha blinked and Barnaby continued.  “I don’t wear them or anything, only on the rare occasion we get menswear donated.  A Hugo Boss suit from the 1980s or something from Saville Row.  What about you?”

     “I’m the marketing manager for Cardboard-A-Go-Go.”

     Barnaby spluttered.  “Sorry, I’m sure it’s a good job.  But Cardboard-A-Go-Go!”

    Martha bristled.  “It’s a dynamic place to work.”

     Barnaby spluttered again.  Silence fell.  They stared at each other, then at the invisible fluff on their clothes and the black window which reflected themselves back at them.  A snort escaped from Barnaby.  A loud, impossible to suppress, kind of snort.  He giggled,  Martha was indignant, furious.  But then she let out a high pitched noise, alarmingly loud.  They clutched their stomachs at their own ridiculousness and somewhere in the distance, if you really listened, you could hear a hammer striking ice and the wonderful splintering sound this made.  

Martha and Stephen’s Saturday morning cliff walk went up a notch when Martha let her dog off his lead.  She watched him to make sure he didn’t go too close to the edge but he was a sensible dog.  However, another shift had happened.  It sounded, if it had a sound, like a rock being moved from the mouth of a cave.  An open sesame sound, like rocks yawning.

     On Sunday Martha didn’t stay at home preparing her presentation on cardboard display stands for cuppa-soup.  She took herself off to the local cinema and watched back-to-back rom-com’s. 

     A bright and bouncy Martha turned up at the office that week, full of innovative ideas for cardboard display stands for cuppa-soup.  Her complexion still pale but with bright pink circles on her cheeks, her hair shiny and full.  Her colleagues caught each others eyes and winked. 

     At the end of a productive week at Cardboard-A-Go-Go the Friday night crowd buzzed.  Martha’s thoughts were elsewhere, residing with a scruffy, bedraggled man.  A belligerent and somewhat rude man.  A man who had made her laugh, who showed her a space deep inside her she didn’t know she had.

     Martha took her usual seat on the train.  She played with her hair, straightened her skirt, she sang the lyrics of selected works from Oliver The Musical in her head with her eyes closed.  Barnaby’s seat remained empty. 

     Martha’s weekend was flat.  At the fork in the path she couldn’t decide so she took the road into town.  She tied Stephen up outside the cake shop and cheered herself with a vanilla slice, tucking into the layers of pastry and custard with a light layer of toasted almonds on top.  She’d read it wrong. She was just a girl on a train.  Even her name had disappointed him. 

     On Sunday she worked on a slide presentation for a new product, cardboard shoe horns.  But it all seemed futile and pointless.  Perhaps she should buy herself a cat and name it after him, it had worked with Stephen. 

     Martha’s pink circles faded.  She worked from home that week.  On Friday the clock swept over the numbers, slices of time she would never get back.  Hadn’t she wasted enough, escaping to her bolt hole, with its sparkling door knobs and colour coordinated linen cupboard?  Where every item, no matter how small, had its home.  Did it matter?  The last twist of the kaleidoscope?  It was only five o’clock and there was still time.

     The platform heaved with Friday night crowds full of promise for the weekend, dark suits and brief cases, high heels and silk blouses, cramming into the train Martha had alighted from.  In the days of steam he would have emerged from a cloud of it.  Messy hair and wearing brown corduroys, an unlikely suitor, he suited Martha.  

     They stood hanging on to the overhead straps.

     “Sorry about last week.  I had a house clearance in the suburbs.  I got back late.”

     They faced each other, afraid to spoil it with inappropriate comments.  Until they reached Barnaby’s stop.

     “That’s me.”

     “I thought you might come home with me,” Martha blushed.

     He shook his head.  “I’ve something to do.  I’ll meet you tomorrow on the cliff top.”

     “But how do you know…?”

     “I’ve seen you there on Saturday mornings, walking your dog.”

The wind whips her hair.  She’s fearless and if you come closer you’ll see a smile.  He has been here before, on her cliff, overlooking her beach.  The air is cool but inside Martha she glows. 

     And then he stands next to her with a small white dog.  Martha knows her dogs and this one’s from the pound.

     “He’s gorgeous.  What’s his name?”

     “Veronica.  Don’t ask.”