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.


“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.


“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.”


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