THE ART OF MOTHERING

Jessica
It’s a wonder Liam still finds me attractive. But how I look and how I feel is so far apart there is no link. I have never felt as sensual, so alive, my senses on overload. I can’t walk through a shopping mall food court without smelling botulism but the taste of fresh strawberries sizzles on my tongue.
My creative world still surrounds me. I love to escape to my studio at the bottom of the garden. I quickly get my hands wet and mould and shape pieces for my collection, I’ve called ‘Bloom’. A series of vases that I will fire and paint an earthy red. But for once there is another creation that takes over my heart.
I place my hands on my hard belly and cannot wait to hold my son. At night when my small frame aches from the extra weight, I imagine his face. He will have blue eyes and Liam’s blonde hair. My hot temper or his father’s calming air.
The nights are long. I need to pee every 10 minutes. Last night I woke Liam whilst trying to rise gracefully from our bed and drift through the air like music. I must have sounded like the cymbals in the 1812 Overture. My dear man smiled, gave me a neck rub and gently placed a pillow under the lump that will be our first born.
Liz
Hannah is in her highchair, throwing pieces of toast on the shiny white tiles. Our house, chosen before she was born, with its whites and creams, marble and glass. Hannah is 18 months old. Curled red hair and big brown eyes, Botticelli angel but I know the truth.
Before she was born and I was not yet a mother, I had a taste for Bollinger champagne and snails in garlic sauce. I was funny, I was smart, I had a career in marketing. I had handbags that matched shoes. Then I put my feet in stirrups and my trust in an obstetrician. I purged my body of blood and bone, flesh and tiny fingertips. And I disappeared. I ran until I was as small as a dot and became part of the line on the horizon. But this wasn’t the tragedy. The tragedy was that no one noticed I was gone. Everyone noticed her.
My daughter is more demanding than any former boss. She is more critical, she lives to make me look bad. I see her fix me slyly with a half-smile before she screams or pushes out her crocodile tears. Her needs make the difficult tasks of my former life seem like an endless summer. Before the birds are awake, I pick her out of bed in the morning, screaming. I feed, water and wipe the shit away. I push her through the shopping centre, ply her with chocolate buttons, and deal with her tantrums that make people stare. “She can’t cope. Look at that woman, she can’t cope’. They should see me on the floor, trying to play with my child. Wearing track suit bottoms covered in snot and pureed food. When I’m down there with her I feel at my lowest.
Hannah has demands north and south of her, whilst my despair, has become the wicked witch of the east and west. The whole damn motherhood thing coats my life as far as the eye can see.
Breakfast is nearly finished but then so am I. I scarcely notice Pete give his daughter a kiss, deftly avoiding vegemite fingers. She smiles for him, the little b….. His lips barely brush the top of my head and he’s gone. Hannah’s being here doesn’t seem to have marked him. With his shiny shoes and his smart briefcase he heads to an office cleaned by others. Even his waste paper bin will have been emptied miraculously by invisible strangers. A light scent of air freshener will hang in the air. How I envy him.
Kate
Time doesn’t run out, it runs away. 25, 30, 35 then before you’ve put your knickers back on you’re 42. The man by your side is younger. That doesn’t matter, your friends say you pass for 30. God only knows the age that runs through you like rings on a tree. The only way to pin an age to a tree is to cut it down. Nobody was cutting you down. But there’s more than one way to fell a tree.
‘I was too busy carving out a career’ is the catch-cry sweeping the nation, but it’s true. I worked so hard to become good, to be better than a hack. Head down, bum up. ‘No one told me when to run’ is how the song goes. I’d have worn sensible shoes if I’d even known that it was a race. I look for meanings everywhere, whereas before ‘what the hell’ was always the right answer.
Bill wants babies but he doesn’t know it yet. He’s my last chance, he has to be The One. I want to be his family not his last wet dream before he settles down with someone called Tiffany who works in accounts.
I compare my eggs to making a pavlova and saving the leftover yolks in a cup in the fridge. You intend to make a cake or a golden omelette. You never do and five days later they have shrunk, clinging together with a distorted layer hardening, protecting their fragility. A slight whiff about them. Useless.
Jessica
I awake late with the sun on my pillow. It must be after nine and I need to pee again. I carefully shower, dress in one of the voluminous dresses my sister gave me, five years out of fashion but practical. Deirdre’s babies are all at school.
Liam has laid out the breakfast things. In the fridge there is fresh orange juice my heartburn would not thank me for. There doesn’t seem to be much room for food in me. I manage a bowl of cocoa pops and a cup of tea.
It is sunny in our kitchen. I love warm colours of orange, red and yellow, colours of a spring garden or the sun itself as dawn turns to day and day to dusk. I could linger here all day but today I have a hospital appointment at half past ten. I go through the house locking up and notice that Liam has left the screen door open. I nearly missed it. I have arranged many of my pots in our lounge room. I’d hate to lose them. Liam laughs and says that thieves only want things to sell, computers, plasma screens. They are not cultured, they wouldn’t want my works of art.
But something isn’t right. A ruffling sound, a dark shape in the corner of my eye. A starling is flying in a circle, trying to catch up with the ceiling fan. Fear steps out from the sunshine and I run back to the kitchen, closing the dividing door with a slam. I was a child when a blackbird flew in my face, where I was trapped behind a table. Somebody’s birthday, lots of noise, no one heard my screams. I have to get it out, I can’t leave it here.
I take a slice of bread from the packet on the table. I slowly open the door and dash toward the open screen, ready to throw the bread outside on the deck. The bird has the same idea. It flies towards me, skittish. I drop the slice and run back to the kitchen.
I sit for a few minutes, panting, swallow great gulps of air, clutching the edge of the table until I’m ready to try again.
Liz
I know I’m a bad mother. I read those books whilst pregnant, the dangers to small brains of watching television, how breast is best, homemade toys are so much more imaginative and making faces out of baby’s food is fun. Fuck you, Dr Miriam Stoppard.
I pick up Hannah from her highchair. She holds her hands above her head, pointing at the ceiling, her little body stiff. I dump her unceremoniously in front of ‘The Night Garden’ or some such nonsense. Child psychologists write this shit. The characters talk only in vowels. Surely most one year olds can cope with a consonant or two. Has the world gone mad, or is it just me?
I tidy away the bright toxic plastic blocks into the toy box, knowing I should have sought wooden ones. I sweep the crusts from under Hannah’s chair and wonder how long I have to wait for a glass of wine. I can’t face food and I need to throw up. Kneeling, head bent over the toilet, I notice we are out of paper. The thought of a trip to the local shop overwhelms me.
I pack too much, for a dozen potential scenarios which may play out. Enough nappies, spare clothes, warm clothes, layers. Band aids, toys, food. She takes up all the room, there is nowhere for left me. Pete usually frowns at me, thinks I’ve lost the plot. He’s right. When it’s his turn he picks her up, swings her around, puts her in the pushchair and they’re away. It’s not like that for me. I never used to worry. What’s happening to me?
I check my face. In the mirror I am various shades of yellow. I add a couple of dashes of red lipstick. I look like hell.
Hannah is sitting neatly, watching a show in primary colours which would be great on acid. I have prepared the pushchair and a bulging bag of possibilities.
“Hannah. We are going shopping. Won’t that be fun?” My voice is like a circus freak show. Shrill and false, wearing a mask.
“No-oo-oo-oo!”
My daughter, she’s in charge. Hate slices through me. I need help or God help me.
Kate
Bill asks me to a party at the house of friends. They live smartly in the suburbs, he’s a tax accountant, I’m not sure what she does. We arrive late. My conception temperature was optimal, we did it in the car at the end of a cul-de-sac on the way. Bill thinks I’m a nymphomaniac not a desperate woman with a cunning plan. I chose Bill for his looks, I have the brains. I will stay home and write, read or stare at the garden I never get a chance to look at, with a beautiful child in a Moses basket, breathing lightly, nearby. Baby would fit snugly beside the table at book signings and people would say how good he was. “You’re a natural, how do you do it?”
Tim answered the door, looked me up and down and roared at Bill, clapped him on the back, called him Bro. I winced. Bill shakes Tim heartily by the hand.
“Tim, this is Kate Young.”
Tim took my hand, smeared his lips across it and leered.
I was dumped in the kitchen with the girls. The boys were outside, stoking the barbecue and each others egos, smoking cigars.
Jenny, Cheryl, Dawn and Emma. Nurse, nurse, teacher, model. Younger. Ugly antiques displayed on Ikea shelves.
“Kate, what do you do?”
“I’m a journalist, Jenny.”
“For what paper?” Cheryl asked between sips of tea.
“Freelance mostly. Some stuff for the Guardian.”
“Would I have heard of you?” Emma, the model, yawned the question. Her type brought out the worst in me.
“I wrote a book.”
“You’re not K S Young?” Tim stands in the doorway with a bottle. I nod and thought I saw him shudder.
“Speak, one of you. What book?” Jenny asked us both but looked at Tim.
“`Society of the Damned: Prognosis for a Future’.”
“You have that book on your nightstand. I thought you said it was written by a bloke.”
“Apparently not, Jenny. K S Young. Is that your real name, Kate? ”
It might have been me but I’m sure he emphasised the word Young.
“Yes. It worked for A S Byatt and P D James. Even J K Rowling. Men rarely read books written by women.” I take a glass from the counter and the bottle from Tim’s hand. Slosh a healthy amount of Chardy and head outside. A collective gasp follows me out.
I find Bill with his chums, still trying to light the fire.
“Darling, when I’ve finished this glass of discount wine I am leaving. That gives you a couple of minutes to make up your mind whether you are coming with me.”
No one says a word as I drain my glass. I pick up my jacket from the coat rack so quietly Tim and Jenny in the next room don’t hear.
“You see, darling. That’s what happens when a girl is overeducated. She expects too much.”
I take the car, Bill can make his own way home. I want a baby but not that much.
Jessica
“Jessica Boyd?”
I put down an ancient copy of Hello!, where the wedding covered had long since ended in divorce and follow the mid-wife into her room.
“Your blood pressure is high.”
“It’s never high!” I protest.
“Did anything happen this morning? A shock?”
That damn bird. I lay on the bed. The room was a soothing shade of lavender with a newly painted ceiling. No clutter. The mid-wife, Gloria, presses down on my belly. Her hands are cold, she had forgotten to warm them. “How many weeks?” She frowns.
“37. Is anything wrong?”
“The baby has turned.”
“Breech?”
“Posterior. I’ll give you an exercise sheet which should help.”
“Will I need a caesarian?”
“Probably not. All done.”
I slowly swing my legs around and place my feet on the step.
“What happened before caesarians?”
“A lot of dead babies.”
“And mothers”
Gloria smiles distractedly and hands me a sheet with stick figures in various positions on it.
Outside I decide to have a cup of tea at the hospital café. They are a few seats in the sun. As I stir the sugar and try to make sense of everything I am reminded of the ghost train near the holiday apartments where I had stayed with my parents as a child. Sitting strapped in safely, when suddenly the doors crashed open. The car headed down the slope into darkness. Anticipation, fear, excitement; all mixed up like trifle. There was no getting off.
I laugh out loud. Not a hollow laugh but a lusty one. I draw stares from an elderly couple and a man in a business suit. In a corner near the door a woman feeds her child. She looks up, takes in the whole of me. She smiles and there is warmth in her eyes. I finish my tea.
Liz
“I don’t think I can do this anymore.” My chest heaves, my heart, if I still have one, is in shreds. Dr Rodrigues waits for me to stop. She has a lovely face. Just looking at her makes me feel calmer.
“It’s alright, Liz. Take your time.”
Her voice soothes and her smooth hand strokes mine. I had looked her up in the telephone directory. Too ashamed to ask Pete for help and I couldn’t think of a friend of mine who would sink as low this. I didn’t want questions so I had left Hannah with a neighbour I knew only casually, telling her I had a dental appointment.
It pours out of me like bile. I tell her how everyday is hell. I wake up at the bottom of a black pit. The monotonous tasks like torture that await me, my hatred for my little girl. “What sort of monster am I?”
Dr Rodrigues sits quietly, very still. My pulse slows and blood drains from my head.
“Good.” She smiled. “You’ve taken an enormous step today. Well done.”
Had she been listening? Surely she realises I’m crazy? She looks into my eyes, she isn’t smiling now.
“It will pass. I promise you.”
“But…”
“Liz, whatever you feel now will pass. Do you believe me?”
“I want to.”
“Many mothers suffer from post-natal depression. It can be a chemical problem treated with medication or therapy, or both. In most cases this will help tremendously. You were very brave to come to see me.”
I leave Dr Rodrigues’s rooms and walk out into a cloudy day. I feel flat but with a prescription in my handbag and an appointment scrawled in my diary for the end of the week, I don’t feel wretched or guilty. I stop off for coffee on the way home, in a mall where I can pick up the medication.
I look around at all the different people, some alone, others in groups. Strangers. I wondered how many others had drifted as far as I had.
A teenage girl is standing outside the shoe shop. She seems impatient, tapping her heels on the tiles. A middle-aged woman with graying hair and brown shoes walks towards her. The girl smiles. “Mum! You’re late.”
Arm in arm they walk towards the café, chatting and laughing. That could be Hannah and I in a decade or so. I almost smile.
Kate
“There’s no doubt about it. You’re pregnant.” The doctor had said.
I manage the walk to the car but when I get there I can’t work out how to turn the key in the ignition. There’s a knack to it but I can’t remember what it is. My hands shake and panic pricks my skin.
I lock the car and decide on a walk. Instinctively I reach for a cigarette inside the tortoise-shell cigarette case I’d had since I was 20. I shouldn’t. Last one. If I keep it. My hands won’t stay still enough to light the bloody thing.
I walk until my legs ache. Past the bright glare of shops about to close for the day, the smell of family dinners, doors wide open, welcoming the summer evening inside. I walk until my path comes to a natural end and I find a bench to sit on. I take off my shoes and rub my foot, flexing it. I squeeze my big toe and my fingers find a hole in my tights. I stick my finger in it.
Commitment has always been an issue for me. Men, dogs, car leases. If I go through with this there will be no backing out. I finish with my left foot and take my right foot in my hands which are warm now.
Stop seeing that man, don’t sign the forms, flush out the seed. I don’t have to make my decision now.
A man sits down next to me. A man whose life has fallen in on him. He wears an old coat which smells faintly of horses, and his trousers are tied up messily with string.
“Gotta a ciggy, love?”
I nod and rummage in my bag to find the treasured cigarette case and extract a cigarette. On impulse I hand him the case, along with a slim silver lighter which is heavier than it looks, and walk back to my car.

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TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY…

…Scarlet O’Hara famously said. I’m with her on that one. I am a procrastinator. There. I said it.

I have to-do lists on my computer that lap and spool into another year. Cleaning. Nothing makes me clean better than shame. Visitors expected and I’ll de-cobweb, wash floors and scrape the mould off the cheddar.

I detest phoning people. It’s almost a phobia now but it’s a sad side effect from old depressions when speaking was impossible. Before I was the sort of girl my friends screened when I called. Had they got a spare three hours to chat? Or not? One close friend once told me that sometimes she would have loved to have called me up for a chat but she just didn’t have enough hours in the day. Well now that’s over. I’ll text, email, send a pigeon, create smoke signals. But I can’t call even my closest friends. I’ll sit by the phone summoning the nerve, sweating from pores I didn’t know I had. Nope. Phone calls are now only for emergencies.

I hate those glib little sayings that people trot out regarding procrastination, with a knowing glint in their eyes. ‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’ ‘Someday is not a day of the week’. ‘You may delay but time will not’. Arghhhh!

Doctors appointments, opening bank statements, those little jobs around the house. Scrubbing behind the taps with a toothbrush, dusting the dog, emptying the car of broken cd cases.

But the biggest one of all is putting off writing. Whether it is a short story or a longer piece. First draft or a bit of last minute tweaking and suddenly almost anything is more attractive. Lining up my mugs in order of sets or colour, dividing my books between read, unread and not bloody likely. Looking for stale food in my youngest son’s room (I recruit the dog as assistant for this chore). Finding old photos to put on facebook. Staring at a favourite blade of grass in the garden for hours. I’ll do the hand washing before said articles spawn new varieties of mushroom.

Drinking coffee to help me think, going through the marketing crap from supermarkets, pulling hairs from my legs individually using tweezers whose ends don’t quite meet. I can write the blog okay as its mainly rants and moans which come naturally to us poms.

I don’t know why I do it but I’m among the great and the good on this one. Mark Twain, Erica Jong, Oscar Wilde. I suppose I shouldn’t really have my email and facebook account minimised in the background. I’m five minutes away from a distraction at any time. Marvelous. Important stuff like what a woman I once met in a crowded shop had for breakfast that day. An email from another rugby mum asking if I’d inadvertently gone home with her child’s sock/mouth guard/snotty handkerchief. And there’s always those simply hilarious clips of children/animals/over-stressed mothers.

The thing is when I get down to it there is no better place for me to be than putting words on a blank page. It keeps the demons away and makes my heart soar. So, why do I do it? Why do I put off turning a not-quite-finished story into something that makes me smile way beyond my daily coffee. Starting a story is like being pregnant and finishing it is similar (well almost) to falling in love with your child. But without the leaky breasts and nappies of the brown variety. Search me. I’m off to peg socks on the Hills Hoist in size and colour order. You think I’m joking?

ONLY THE LONELY

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

QUANDO QUANDO QUANDO

I grew up in England. That’s the tiny little place in the middle of cold and murky seas. The place where we still have Queens and Kings, Princes and Princesses. Where humour was invented to get through bad weather. The land of many regional accents and builders tea. Of Wordsworth and Boris Johnson.

France has Paris and artists starving in garrets. Spain has paella and fabulous dancing. Italy has mountains that reach lakes and an entire city built on water. Holland has its broadminded people and it’s dykes and I could go on and on. England has wonderful things too but its location is not to be sniffed at. It’s in a fantastic spot to travel from.

In my very early 30s, me and the husband moved to Australia. It had been a possibility since I’d met him. I’d spent five years thinking, oh if it comes up it’ll be great. Not ever really believing it. After all the husband was a salesmen and I’d worked with salesmen. That big deal was forever on the precipice, threatening to come in but rarely doing so.

It did come in and within two months we were gone. To the other side of the world. Beautiful weather, stunning beaches, one of the wonders of the world. Great. Fantastic.

Except Australia’s location isn’t the best. I’m assuming you know where it is. Tucked away in the bottom right hand corner of the map, that’s where the Europeans have put it. And in England if you dig a hole in your back garden for long enough you will get through to Australia. In the end. In Australia if you dig that same hole, you come out at China. Apparently.

What I hadn’t factored in while I packed my case, gave away books and my winter coat, was just how far I would be from the rest of the world. Australia is massive. You can get on a plane and travel for hours and still be hovering over the same country. In the UK people walk from Land’s End to John O Groats (top end to the bottom). Not too many people do that over here. Not even using the shortest route. It’s too big, too hot, too deserty. Perth is allegedly the most remote city in the world. I went there once. I liked it but I had a bit of a panic attack realising that on one side there was nothing but desert and the other the Indian Ocean. For miles and miles and miles. I’m getting short of breath thinking about it now.

When I lived in England I hadn’t got my travel mojo working. I was never the type to backpack across Europe or go youth hostelling somewhere remote. But I wanted to see places and I would have got round to it. I mean I’d been to Scotland and Wales. The south of France, the Alps and the north. The Algarve and I’d spent a very long day in Seville after an argument with an ex. I’d been on business trips to Rotterdam and an expenses paid lunch in Amsterdam, flown in from London. I’d driven through Geneva once, had lunch at a lake there. My first fondue was in a restaurant on a mountain in Switzerland as snow began to fall. We honeymooned on the Greek Island of Thassos and I’d spent a couple of sweaty weeks in Jamaica in the early 90s.

But that’s it. Embarrassing for someone who likes to think she’s cosmopolitan. In the last 16 years I’ve not been far at all. A couple of trips to the old country, a wedding in Hong Kong, Christmas in New Zealand with family.

I have a yearning to go to Italy. I’m saving up all my spare coins in a jar. I’ve been learning the language for some years. I read Italian novels. I can’t eat the food. All those carbs go to my bum and hips. But I am a little obsessed.

I’m not comfortable being in one country all the time, not now I’m so far from anywhere else. I miss the different smells, cultures and the music of a new language being spoken around me. Down to different shaped tomatoes and the haunting sounds of a local choir. I watch foreign language films and speak aloud the different sounds. French and Italian. Spanish. And Danish of course.

My jar has a picture of the Italian flag on it with the words ‘Mum’s Italy Trip’ stamped below it. It may take me 20 years to save up, currently I have enough for a one-way bus trip to Rockhampton. But I have faith. I have to have faith. George Michael wasn’t wrong there. I can imagine myself drinking coffee in Florence, standing on one of Venice’s bridges. Looking up Salvo Montalbano in Sicily. And one day I will. I tell myself this every day as I empty my purse of shrapnel into my jar of hope.

“I ordered a coffee and a little something to eat and savored the warmth and dryness. Somewhere in the background Nat King Cole sang a perky tune. I watched the rain beat down on the road outside and told myself that one day this would be twenty years ago.”
― Bill Bryson.