This is one of my earliest stories. It’s never won anything but I feel great affection for it.
The children ran towards the brow of the hill, each desperate to be the first to spot the gleaming strip of silver betwix the pebbles and the angry grey sky of the Essex coastline. Rust coloured pebbles guaranteed to cut. Their feet shod in the plastic sandals I had bought back from the market, firmly strapped to their feet. The kids would have been happy to fling themselves down upon the first free patch of stones. Their father, however, had other ideas. He would walk in search of virgin territory, uninhabited by that most hated of all things, other-people’s-children.
“Margaret, there is one thing I cannot abide.”
We always took our holidays in term time to avoid contamination. Armed with rug, buckets, spades, the picnic hamper and the most essential of items; windbreak and a mallet. As the chill breeze whipped across the shore of Old Blighty, we would be snug, huddled in a group to conserve warmth. Cardigans buttoned-up over our bathers and still the sound of teeth chatter was deafening.
I packed sandwiches, tomato if I had them in, paste if I didn’t. The sandwiches, wrapped in the bread bag had that distinctive smell of plastic and white bread. Bread soggy with tomato juice tasted like a meal fit for Gods on our day at the beach.
We arrived by train, filling our nostrils with sea-air. My husband didn’t get a license until his fortieth year.
“Too many accidents, Margaret.”
He would repeat his now famous mantra, whilst I pushed a double pushchair and struggled to maintain a grip on two other sets of grubby, little hands.
“Quite so, Nigel.” I would reply through gritted teeth.
We lived in a pleasant red brick suburban house not unlike all the others in our street. Decorated in the mushrooms and mustards of the 1970’s with a tasteful archway gracing the living room. Double-bricked and tiled against the elements. Home, a strange place for the children with no friends allowed back to play. Not since Carol’s friend Jane had walked in on Nigel dressing.
The poor child wandered about looking for the bathroom. Carol, unhelpfully, had left her to it. She tried the first door on the right at the top of the stairs. The room although dark, light enough to register the father-like shape in his underpants. She froze. The two hapless figures stood there, in horror. Neither moving for some minutes. Father shouted. Out in the garden as I was at the time, pegging clothes on the line, I heard him as clear as if he stood next to me, which thankfully he wasn’t.
“Get out! You sniveling child. How dare you enter my room?”
And that was that. No more friends home, not even in the holidays. Father forbade it.
“Nosiness, Margaret. Curiousity is a curse with some children.”
I shrugged and went about my work. My hands always busy; kneading bread, washing plates, chopping vegetables or pummeling the wet clothes on the laundry slab. My hands, red with the sores of work and with being in water constantly. I liked to wear stockings but had stopped. I only had to run my hands along the length of silk for them to snag and tear. I really minded what had happened to my hands. What marriage and children had done to their soft, silky whiteness.
“Washing machine?” Father bellowed. “What do we need a washing machine for? The devil’s work those new machines. Leaving time for idle hands.”
My lip curled then surrendered to it’s wobble as I fought back bitter tears. The children went on playing games in the garden, avoiding the sterile air of the house. Sterility brought on I admit by my constant cleaning and re-arranging. I felt if I worked for long enough I could erase the very fabric of my life. Rub it out until it became nothing, void, a big black empty hole.
Nigel laid a patio at the back of the house. Said simply like that makes it sound like a straightforward task. It wasn’t. You’d have thought he was constructing the Globe theatre or the EiffelTower. If only he took the time over me as he had over those slabs of pink and yellow concrete. He wouldn’t let anyone help. Not even nice Mr Robson from number 14 who offered, most kindly, I thought. When eventually it was completed I would serve meals out there and of an evening we would sit and drink Mateus Rose. Nigel surveying the back garden and his precious patio, master of all he surveyed.
“Margaret, this is what life is about, eh?”
I wouldn’t have time to answer of course. There was always something else he required.
“Have we got any of those salty crackers left, Margaret?”
And I would bustle off to get him another cushion, top up his wine or move the position of the sun slightly to the left.
As Nigel grew older he developed an obsession with leaves on the driveway. Feverishly he would sweep away the plant debris from the concrete drive leading to the house. Once I arrived home early to see him out there sweeping away those golden sheathes of nature to expose the ugliness of grey concrete. I suppressed the urge to run him down. Plough into him and his self-satisfied smile. How I hated the way his tongue would poke out of the side of his mouth as he worked away, refusing to be beaten.
“I can’t abide mess, Margaret. You know that.”
How could I not know? At the end of the day the children and I in a mad scramble to have the house looking immaculate before he walked through the door. We would hold our breath as he swept into the room, looked around for flagrant signs of mess, sometimes running his fingers along a surface or two until he nodded a sign of approval and everyone breathed again.
Nigel also had a thing about socks. A pair for each day of the week, brown for Monday, blue with white spots for Tuesday, beige with fawn zigzags for Wednesday, black and white chevrons for Thursday and the yellow and blue Argyle pattern for Friday. If he didn’t have the right socks he didn’t know what day it was. I tried to keep with the correct days, I really did. I scrubbed away, washing and drying socks.
“Now don’t forget we have Fitzgibbons from accounts and his wife for dinner this evening.” Nigel was on his third attempt at knotting his tie. It was a sage green knitted creation his mother had made him. Impossible to knot but Nigel loved it.
“But darling, that’s tomorrow night, isn’t it?” I replied sweetly.
“No, no. We agreed on Thursday.” Came the curt reply.
“Today is Wednesday, Nigel.”
“No, no. You’re quite wrong.” Nigel looked down at his socks, the chevrons, I clasped my hand over my mouth in horror. “Bloody hell woman, if you can’t manage to get the right socks how in God’s name do you expect me to know what day it is?”
I would have laughed but it was my life you see. My actual life. Not a sitcom on the television for all it’s calamity.
I started to imagine Nigel’s head when I chopped the vegetables for the evening meal or kneaded dough for his sodding sandwiches. It was his head I held in my hands as I pummeled the wet laundry on the slab.
The Mateus rose bottle was opened earlier and earlier in the day. I topped it up with water and food colouring in a bid to fool Nigel. I could hardly wait to shoo the kids from the house to the school bus, eager for the oblivion the rose-coloured liquid afforded me. Happy times. Floating around the house in flowered housecoats, imagining how life could have been. What I could have become. An artist, a successful business woman, actress, daytime chat show host. A new day, a new fantasy.
I couldn’t keep up with the housework. I fell behind with the socks. Life took on a new shape. It had less form and the stuffing was coming out of it. Stitches bursting, material wearing thin.
We argued, Nigel unhappy with the disorder at home, a man who needed things neatly arranged, a place for everything kind of man. I started to have doubts, I no longer knew where things belonged, where I belonged. The children stayed out in the garden playing for longer. The rows distressed them and the empty silences even more so. I could see their little faces pinched with concern. The evenings in shared companionship on the patio died away. The Mateus rose bottle now permanently empty and Nigel started to come home later from work. He confessed that he had been seeing his secretary, Joan Leadbetter, a small, efficient woman who would be able to keep up with the sock wash.
“I’m leaving you, Margaret. You no longer make me happy.”
He and Joan found a nice semi on the other side of town. I drove past it a few times after Nigel left, a red-brick suburban house identical to ours. I caught sight of Joan once, pegging socks on the line. Her face set with a determined look. Those socks weren’t going to get the better of her. Joan is a much more solid name than Margaret, don’t you think? A name you could depend on.
Slowly the children followed their father in moving out. Finally I was all alone. I stopped kneading bread, washing plates, chopping vegetables and pummeling the wet clothes on the laundry slab. I ate out and saved up for a washing machine. Now I sat alone on the patio of an evening.
“Got any of those salty crackers, Margaret?” I’d giggle drunkenly to myself.