POETRY IN PROGRESS

Olive walks from Embankment station, smiling as she strolls across Blackfriars Bridge. Immersed in grey, from the concrete pavement at her feet to the arc of woolly sky above, like a dome, the lid of her world, she is on her way to work.

I feel safe in London, it’s been here for ever
Before me or the Queen or even the Queen Mum
What have you seen, my London?
Fires and plagues, ceremonies and fun runs
Westminster Abbey, Buck House et al
And when I’m dust it will be here still
So don’t say London Town,
It’s not provincial, it’s magnificent
And proud.

It’s Monday but Olive doesn’t mind. She stops, takes a notebook from her pocket and looks for a blank page. Grasps a pen and leans on the stone bridge centuries old. Her face is clean of make-up, her hair pulled tightly into a clasp, she almost disappears into the landscape. White skin to the point of translucency, her attempt at invisibility is deliberate.
Olive’s love of London goes back to childhood movies of spies and slightly dodgy east end characters, against a backdrop of Westminster and red buses, black cabs and the murky ribbon of the Thames.
On Olive’s eighth birthday her mother had promised her a party, her first. Only her mother had forgotten to send out the invitations which left Olive sitting surrounded by pink balloons and sitting behind a big shop-bought cake in the middle of the dining room table.
Her mum grabs her hand, her eyes black. “Don’t look at me like that. You don’t know what I have to go through.”
Words hung in the air around Olive as she tried to make sense of her disappointment.
I can smell the sweetness of my cake
See the pink balloons bobbing in the room
But I can’t hear the shrieks of happy girls
Or feel the warm fuzzy feeling of having friends
Best keep quiet, mother will be cross
I can always share my birthday with her
As I always do
Happy birthday, Olive.
Olive longed for a hug and promises of future birthday parties. Even now she couldn’t look at pink icing without feeling sad but she found an outlet for her disappointment. She began to write poetry.

Mummy gave me lemon curd sandwiches again
No one wants to swap with me
Mummy picked me up from school
In her purple trousers
I love her, I hate her

As Olive grew older she wrote of unrequited love and later still, of requited love, equally as painful. These days Olive writes, among other things, of loneliness and her boss, Keith, the most insensitive man she has ever met. That included her father, who on the day Olive’s mother had told him she was pregnant, declared, “I’m off. Find some other poor sap to sponge off.” And was never seen again.
Olive could write about anything, the wife of the man who ran the corner shop, Battersea Power Station and a day in the life of a tube driver on the District Line. But one thing linked them all. Olive’s poetry was awful. Over twenty years her poems had improved a little, but for Olive it wasn’t really the point. Her poetry kept her sane and tied her to the world, linked her to a life that didn’t quite fit. Poetry made her feel real and it made her smile.
Today Olive walks to work, to a five story building on the wrong end of Fleet Street. Her boss is Keith, the ego-centric and grumpy head of Mutual & Friendly who sold insurance policies to unwitting victims or clients as they are traditionally known. Olive answers the phone, makes the tea, fills in forms and adds up columns of figures. Sometimes she pops out to get Keith’s shoe re-heeled. Keith walks with a half-swagger which wears down one shoe quicker than the other. Olive spends valuable moments of her life, which she will never get back, trying to find a shoe mender who is prepared to repair one shoe.
“You’re kidding me, Miss? I need to see the other shoe. My reputation’s at stake.”
This is Central London, as much as Fleet Street is Central London, which it isn’t. About as much as Aldershot isn’t Guildford and Slough isn’t Maidenhead.
Three years earlier, an unhappy break-up, a disappointing career (some things hadn’t changed), and a batty mother had sent Olive scuttling south. She knew of only one person in London, a friend of a friend who lived in Battersea, Cressida. Armed with a scrap of paper with Cressida’s address on it, an A-Z and a bunch of droopy service station roses, she knocked on the front door.
The door opened to reveal a pale woman with red hair whose purple bra straps had slipped down her shoulders. Her eyelids had been slashed with a line of kohl and she was wearing stilettos.
“Yeah?”
“Who is it, Cress?” A voice from within the flat, deep and raspy.
“Give ‘us a chance, Billy.”
She turned her Cleopatra eyes on Olive. “Who are you?”
Olive blushed, taking in the sight of the disheveled woman in front of her. “Sorry. Bad time.” Olive turned away, Cressida grabbed her arm.
“It’s alright, love. Are you in trouble?”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
Cressida dragged Olive in from the door step. “Shut the door on your way out, Billy.”
Over tea and digestives, Olive told Cressida about her recent break-up, her odd mother and Jenny who’d given her Cressida’s address.
That night, over a dinner of cocktail sausages and anecdotes of a single girl’s life in the city, Cressida gave Olive a quick initiation to city life. Such sage advice as never wearing your stilettos with jeans, taking your chewing gum out before kissing a man and what sort of hat to wear on a bad hair day. A bemused Olive fell asleep, confused.
Olive slept on Cressida’s sofa and ate the strange but comforting meals that Cressida provided, pilchards and curry powder, cold cuts and crumpets. She found a job working for an accountant and made friends with a girl called Sally whose flat mate had plans to travel to Australia, following a bloke who did shifts in the post room at her work. He came from South Australia and wore t-shirts with iron-on transfers of endangered animals. Bilby’s, bandicoots and dugongs. Sally needed a new flat mate. Olive and her suitcase moved in on Sunday after a tearful scene with Cressida.
“What am I gunna do without you?” wailed Cressida. It was a shame that Cressida couldn’t have crossed paths with the guy from South Australia, thought Olive. They would have made a better match and Sally’s former flat mate tired of him before their flight landed in Adelaide.

It’s the colour of her; bright, brash and buxom
Just when I think life is black and white
She comes along and puts me right
I don’t know what she sees in me as a friend
But she does.

One day, bored beyond measure with her job at the accountants, Olive found herself in a pub just off Fleet Street, staring into her Cinzano and lemonade, looking for the future in its pale effervescence.
“Hello, young lady. Why so crestfallen?”
Olive looked up, but not very far. A short man with blow-dried hair wavered unsteadily above her head.
“Sorry, do I know you?”
“Allow me to introduce myself, Keith Morris.”
“Olive Preston. Do you always talk like this?”
Keith shoved a business card in Olive’s face. It said ‘Keith Morris, Managing Director, Mutual & Friendly, Central London Branch’.
“Insurance company?”
“Yep.” Keith, sitting at Olive’s table by now, flipped a beer mat and failed to catch it. “I need a new assistant.”
“How did you know I was looking for another job?”
Keith’s head dropped to the table where he protected it from imaginary hazards by wrapping his arms around it. Olive wondered if insurance could be any less boring than accountancy. She left Keith to his stupor but took his business card with her.
Olive has the flat all to herself since her flat mate, Sally, moved to Abergavenny. Olive’s landlord travels overseas a lot and rarely remembers he owns the flat so the rent doesn’t get raised. Most people would be whooping for joy but Olive isn’t most people. She feels as if she is living on borrowed time and the day will come when a man, possibly in uniform, will place a heavy hand on her shoulder and say, “You’re nicked, young lady.” Olive watches too many black and white films and has a preference for Ealing Comedies.
Despite this imaginary timer Olive sees dangling above her head she has made the best of her home. She has painted the kitchen wall orange and hung a picture of a woman in a rowing boat next to the stove, the stove where Olive cooks stir-fries on weekdays and pancakes on Sunday mornings. Her face creams and a pink disposable razor sit haphazardly on a glass shelf in the bathroom. Her books pile to overflowing on an old wooden bookcase, arranged in colours, warm colours to cool, starting with reds and ending in blues. Piles of small notebooks are heaped on the coffee table like a burial mound. In each notebook you will find poem after poem. Olive is now manic with them, picking up ideas from all around her. Eavesdropping in coffee shops, sitting on park benches and people watching. It is all there, she just has to get it down on paper as quickly as each idea sprouts.
Apart from her book shelf, Olive’s home is messy. She gets an idea and she leaves the gas on, forgets to turn taps off. She doesn’t have many visitors. Just her mum when she travels down from Luton and keeps her coat on, handbag balanced on her knees as if she may flee screaming at any moment, which happens from time to time when Olive wants to talk to her.
Olive doesn’t invite many men back to her flat. The dates she goes on rarely get that far, they find her too strange. And Olive fails to see why she should use the word date which conjures up images of something plump and sweet. Why does she never meet kind men?
Fleet Street is a shadow of its former self since the newspapers moved to Wapping but the buildings haven’t changed. Brick buildings of shabby grandeur. Olive takes the lift to the fourth floor where Keith is already behind his desk, pretending to be busy.
“Hi, Cherub.” Olive grimaces at his choice of endearment. “Bring in a couple of coffees and we’ll go over the post.”
His marriage has ended and he doesn’t get to see his kids as often as he would like. Olive knows about loneliness and she’d feel sorry for him if he wasn’t so irritating
She endures another day in the office, it’s only the thought of drinks with Cressida after work that gets her through it, that and her notebook. Olive pulls it out and starts scribbling.

Eating up my own shoe leather
Looking for a cobbler
Who will take Keith’s single brogue
Is it my fault he walks like a game show host?
Where do I find them?
These misfits drawn to me
Are they a mirror of me?
I bloody hope not.

She turns up 10 minutes late due to a last minute meeting with Keith but she still arrives before Cressida, who falls through the door in an assault of colour, magenta and gold, as Olive sits down.
“Sorry. Got my stiletto caught in the escalator. I had to be rescued by a very good-looking man in uniform.”
Olive takes her purse from her bag and goes to the bar. She returns with a Malibu and pineapple juice for Cressida and a Cinzano and lemonade for herself. Cressida looks guilty.
“This fell out of your bag, Olive.”
Olive recognises a scrappy piece of paper on which she had written a poem and hopes it’s the one about Keith, not The Ballad of Cressida & Billy.
“You should do something with it, send it to someone. You could be the new Elizabeth Barrack Bryning.”
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”
“I think its great, Olive. Wish I had the gift of creativity.”
Olive laughs. “You have quite enough gifts already, Cressida.”
She takes the tube home and picks up a copy of The Evening Standard. Olive loves the obituaries and makes up stories based on the names she reads. In the ‘opportunities’ section she sees an ad for a magazine called PoetNow. ‘Attention all poets, submit your micro-poems to Alan Laing, Editor. Don’t be shy.’
On Thursday morning she sits on the train, trapped in a tunnel between Waterloo Station and The Embankment. Avoiding eye contact with her fellow passengers and trying not to look at her reflection in the blankness of the window, words spiral through her mind.
Stuck between stations on the District Line
Buried under the city
In a snake of metal and glass
At least the lights are on.
At work Keith is due to attend a big meeting. He keeps changing his PowerPoint presentation, re-arranging the order of his slides until it makes very little sense. Eventually Keith leaves Olive with the office in chaos. She makes herself a cup of Instant and sits for a moment.
Boss man left in a whirl
Has a point to make
Swagger, lurch, swagger, lurch
What will they think of him?
Dunking custard creams in their bad coffee,
Who are they to judge?
Who am I?
As the week progressed little verses came to Olive; walking in the rain without an umbrella, buying a single-girls supper at the corner shop, pondering on the merits of getting a cat. At home the opportunities section of The Evening Standard lies open on the kitchen table and she is ignoring the three by four inch ad. Even when Olive can’t see it, she knows it’s there. When she starts to talk to it she knows it’s time to make a decision.

Dear Alan,
My name is Olive but I’m not bitter
I work in an office but I have another life
A secret life where words spill out of me
Gushing and pouring, fizzing and frothing
In my head and scrawled on paper
They hum with life and intensity
My words need hope, they want to live
I can’t give them what they want
Can you?

She presses send and tries to forget about it.
Olive tries not to build her hopes up. And when she’s barely finished constructing her ship of hope, it develops a leak and sinks within the hour. Who is she kidding? Who would want to publish her third rate poetry? But still she found herself playing with words which flap through her head like bunting.
“You’re a natural, Olive.” Cressida’s words encouraged her but she wasn’t sure that her friend knew what she was talking about.
“Let me read that.” Her mother had said when she was little more than 10 years old. “What nonsense. No Preston ever amounted to anything.
And Keith who had one day caught her writing poetry when she should have been typing letters. “Don’t know much about poetry except it’s supposed to rhyme. What’s this one about?”
Every night she rushed home to see if there was an email and every night her inbox started emptily at her. By Wednesday she had given up looking. Olive picked up the newspaper from the table and shredded it viciously. She turned off her computer to stop herself checking it. Friday she arrived a home, after a drinks with Keith, just so she didn’t have to come home early. She fired up her pc and stared at her inbox. Sitting there, dated two days earlier, was an email from Alan Laing.

Dear Olive,
I’m no magician but I’ll try to help
To set your words free
To see them dance and dip and sway
They must live in stranger’s heads, trip on anonymous tongues
Meet me in the Red Lion & Pineapple, Acton on Thursday
I’ll be dressed casually but my intentions are serious
Yours Alan Laing.

Thursday night swung by with the velocity of wet concrete. Olive walked from the tube to the Red Lion and Pineapple, to clear her head. She ordered an apple juice and didn’t hear the door open and shut but she noticed a tall shape looming. The shape had brown hair, wore sneakers but no tie. “Hello, Olive. I’m Alan.”
They sat and talked. “I can’t pay you I’m afraid but I can get your work out there, read by people.”
Olive the poet. She’d have to get a long flowing scarf and of course she already had a floppy hat, a red one, waiting in her wardrobe for an occasion such as this. She would wear both, riding a bicycle with a basket on the front.
“You see,” continued Alan, “what makes you different is your voice. It’s fresh and innocent.”
Olive looked down at her grey suit and white blouse and felt suburban. Alan offered her a toffee from a crumpled bag in his jacket pocket, she took one. He had tufts of hair growing in different directions from his head but he smiled at her without a bored expression in his eyes, unlike most men she met. Alan raised his glass of ginger beer. “To Olive, the poet.”
And if you see a young woman dressed in scarlets and emerald greens, with a faraway expression on her face, carrying one shoe under her arm, don’t say hello. You may be interrupting poetry in progress.

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FIRST STAR

Sitting on the verandah with our morning cuppa, a light breeze ruffled the trees making everything cooler. Something caught the corner of my eye. I’ve been told that this is a glimpse of the afterlife but a large brown dog trotted over our meadow, very much still with us.
“Sam? Do you see that?”
“It’s a bloody dog! Where did it come from?”
I felt nervous, you never know with dogs. And this was a big one. But Sam got up and walked slowly towards it, talking all the time, some nonsense about being a good dog. The dog responded happily, wagging its tail and panting. Sam threw it a few sticks and then it followed him around all morning, breathing on the back of his knees while he worked on the property. He pretended to be irritated. I know because when he wasn’t aware I watched he made a big fuss of it. Sam’s big hands looked so gentle, stroking the dog. I’d almost forgotten what those hands felt like. I set out a bowl of water.
“What do you think her name is?”
“Oh, you’re so sure she’s a girl are you?”
“Apart from the fact that she’s in love with you, I checked. No dingle.”
Sam snorted. “Dingle?”
“I’m going to call her Barbara.”
Sam cast a sidelong look in my direction, eyes narrowed. “Ridiculous name for a big country dog like this one”
“We have to call her something. And I like it.”
“How about Felicity?”
“After your mother! She’d love that.”
“Lady?”
“Too obvious.”
“She won’t answer to any name we give her anyway.” Sam ruffled my hair and went back to fixing the mower. After lunch he went into town in the ute. He took Barbara with him. She sat up front, next to Sam, like a queen. I would make up some posters and put them up around town. I’d take her photo when she came home. Meanwhile I had work to do.
I took a spade out to the veggie patch. I had already marked the area with rocks. I wanted to dig it over to plant seedlings. Bending over in the sun wearing my work hat from which stubborn locks of red hair refused to be restrained. Pushing my boots onto the spade over and over, turning the soil. Tough work when we hadn’t had rain for a while. It felt great when I had finished, although I couldn’t stand upright. I hoped I’d applied enough sunscreen, I was prone to freckle.
It was the spring holidays but I’d only been back at work a term. I taught at the local high school. I’d been off work for a while. Our baby had died. Almost a year ago.
Still covered in dirt and with my muscles aching I poured myself a generous glass of wine and sat on the verandah, waiting for Sam and the Queen of Sheba’s return. We had bought the property the previous March with big plans for a veggie garden. We both managed to get teaching jobs locally. Sam worked with special needs kids and I taught drama. The house needed work, as did the land. We began weeding and digging, even picked out vibrant colours to cover up the browns and beiges of the inside of the house. Then life slowed down, joyfully and almost without noticing, I fell pregnant.
I could hear the sound of a motor at the top of the drive. A slight misfiring, throaty. The ute drove around the bend and stopped under the cluster of trees where we usually parked. A frangipani, various gums and a bottle brush jostled together in the breeze like tall men at a footy game.
“You were ages! I dug over the veggie patch.”
Sam walked towards me. “Oh, sorry Jen. I meant to help you.”
“I’m not made of glass, Sam.” As I held my glass in my hand frowning at him. I didn’t want to be treated like something fragile. I was strong.
“I know. I asked around town to see if anyone recognised the dog.”
“Any luck?”
“No.”
“I thought I’d take a photo of her and make some posters. Stick them up around, here and there.”
Sam rubbed his hands over Barbara’s back. “I guess so. You don’t want to keep her then?”
“No. She’s not ours.” I took a sip from the glass.
“Okay. Got one of those for me?” He nodded at my wine.
“Sure. Did you pick up the compost I ordered?”
Sam swore. “Damn, I forgot.”
We sat either side of the small round table on the verandah, overlooking the land we had bought, quite spontaneously, being city dwellers for so long. Sam kept the grass short but the weeds were taking over. I had tackled them the year before but they grow back fast if you don’t plant something in their place. When I should have been planting I lay in a hospital bed, praying hard that everything would be okay. And the seedlings didn’t get put in the ground so their roots could grow like invisible veins in mother earth. Like the veins in the body of my child, who had stopped growing inside me. My dream of cooking up batches of pumpkin soup in the winter, with a baby on my hip became just that. A dream.
Too tired to make the posters I made a bed for Barbara, like a four legged house guest, using towels in place of white Sheridan sheets. I put her bed next to Sam on the verandah and a couple of large potatoes in the oven. I poured us both a glass of wine and we sat to watch the first star appear. In silence, listening to Barbara’s panting, watching the sky change from lilac to indigo, looking up until our necks ached.
“I see it! Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” I smiled the smug smile of a winner.
“Damn! You’re good at this.” Sam smiled.
What would I do without Sam? How would I be defined? He’s solid, real and sometimes reliable. A lucky girl and yet the cloak of my life was being gently nibbled at, tiny pieces lost almost without noticing. I noticed. What would I use my wish for? An end to all wars, rain for the garden or a box of child’s toys in the corner of the room? I broke the silence.
“We can go into town in the morning. I’ll make up the posters after breakfast. How does that sound?”
Sam and his lopsided smile. “Can we take Barbara?” Just then she appeared, stick between her jaws, ready to play.
“Yes, you wuss. What breed do you think she is?”
“I don’t know. A Great Dane crossed with a horse by the look of her.”
We ate our supper out front under an observatory of stars. Later in bed we lay side by side on our backs. Not touching, my skin tingling with neglect. With nothing to swerve our thoughts away from what lay at the centre of us both. Barbara in her new bed outside, watched by the stars. And we lay there with darkness draped over us like gossamer cloth, neither of us spoke as we fell silently into sleep.
She had been so small. Everything about her had been perfect; rose bud lips, tiny limbs and toes like cotton bud tips. She took one, maybe two, breaths then she went.
Barbara stood at the door when I opened it, almost sending her flying. I refilled her bowl and laid out the breakfast things. I poached a couple of eggs at the stove and wondered if we should feed her. I wasn’t sure how long a dog could go without food. It had only been a day. I put bread in the toaster, took the butter from the fridge to soften and called for Sam.
Tucking into our breakfast I asked, “Should we feed her?” Sam thought for a minute as he swirled his toast in runny yolk.
“Let’s leave it until we get back from town. I’ll take the photo. You’ll cut her head off.”
I took a terrible photo. Later I listened to Sam trying to get Barbara still. In the end the photo showed the dog with a stick between her jaws with large chocolate eyes of hope.
Soon we three were bumping along the forest road, like a family of misfits. But aren’t all families a little odd? Cobbled together with the occasional resemblance to one another. Roman noses and widows peaks. We try so hard and so long to make sense of it but does it really matter? Who says it has to make sense?
We named her Flora, such a delicate flower. She had been planted in me and then ripped away too soon. I didn’t want her to be in eternal darkness, never having seen light. She deserved to see the sun, and to grow, the loveliest flower in the garden. I wanted her to help me in our garden, chubby fingers smeared with dirt. A pair of small boots next to ours on the back step. Instead, a tiny plot in the local cemetery with a service, just Sam and I. I don’t go there any more but Sam, he takes her brightly coloured flowers and puts them in a stone jug. A white cross marks her grave. It says simply ‘Flora’.
Sam nailed a couple of the plastic covered posters we had made to some trees along the forest road. In town we asked the friendly fruit sellers, Glen and Gladys. We put one on the notice board outside the chicken shop, chatting with everyone about our visitor. No one knew her.
Last stop was the Mountain View café. I climbed the steps to the counter and asked Melanie.
“My dog goes missing all the time. He wanders off. The RSPCA know me by name now. By all means stick the poster up but you should call the RSPCA.

“Someone has reported a Rhodesian Ridgeback missing.” Sam came into the kitchen where I sat at the table, planning the vegetable garden on large pieces of paper with Barbara lapping at a bowl of oats and milk noisily.
“You called them. How do you know Barbara is a Rhodesian Ridgeback?”
“I looked it up on the internet. Jen, you’re not getting too attached to her are you?”
Hot tears came from nowhere. I turned and escaped to the bedroom, lay down on the bed where we had given life to our daughter and I wept loudly. Ugly sobs, my chest in a staccato rhythm. So consumed that for a while I didn’t feel Sam’s gentle hand stroking my head, pushing strands of hair wet with tears from my face. I looked up. My face felt inside out.
“I failed. I couldn’t keep Flora alive. I gave her life but I couldn’t keep her here.”
“That’s not your fault.” Sam struggled to say the right thing. His big, brown face frowning, hair pushed back from his forehead.
I asked a question that had formed in my head some time ago. “How do you go on? How do you deal with the pain?”
“Jen, I just let it run through me.” He reached for my face, takes it in his hands. “Maybe Flora is a star in the sky, the one that twinkles the most.”
I sat up slowly fearing I had come undone. I took his hands from my face and held them. “Do you talk to her when you take the flowers?”
“Yes. But I talk to her everywhere. I say good morning quietly as if I might have slipped into her bedroom not wanting to wake her. I wish her goodnight.” Sam looked sheepish and his cheeks coloured slightly. “Don’t laugh but sometimes I tell her fairy stories at the grave.”
“Which ones.”
“The ‘Princess and the Pea’, ‘The Little Mermaid.’ But her favourite is ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. You see, she takes after her mother who loves to laugh.”
The thought of Sam telling stories for Flora was magical. It lifted me, ever so slightly. The cloak of grief loosened at the front. Perhaps I will laugh again.

I make tea for us. We sit at the kitchen table. Sam hands me a scrap of paper with a local telephone number scrawled across it.
“What’s this?”
“A lady called Sally. She’s Barbara’s owner. Shall I call?”
“Okay. But first can we spend some time with her? Throwing sticks.”
Barbara’s owner picked her up later that afternoon. She was lying on the verandah, exhausted after our games. Sally a young woman with facial piercings lived around the corner but still a good trek for a dog. Barbara jumped in the back of the car. Just before Sally turned to go I put a hand on her arm.
“What’s her name?”
“Maiden.”
“I was calling her Barbara.”
Sally laughed. “Did she answer to Barbara?”
“No.” I smiled and watched them drive off. Sam walked up behind me and held me in his arms.
“You’re going to miss her?”
“Maybe…”
“I preferred Barbara to Maiden.”
“You did?”
As we stepped back into the house holding hands, our thoughts were far from stray dogs and vegetable patches.

CHOOSING EVE

This story was shortlisted for the 2011 Doris Gooderson Award

I’ve been coming here for a few days. Watching the children play. Brightly coloured like so many butterflies. Only noisier. Each one making their delight or disdain known with volume. I know I shouldn’t be here. Punishing myself, spying on the angels at play. I have found my feet leading me here, almost against my wishes, over the past few weeks. I teach English to foreign students at the local language school. It’s mostly evening work which leaves my days free. Long and empty. I like to come here. Despite the sadness I feel my heart is momentary lifted as I drink the laughter of the children. How spontaneous they are, no hidden agendas here.
There is one particular girl who catches my eye. A little slower than the rest, she doesn’t quite keep up with the others’ games. Her dark hair falls in two plaits, tied with red ribbons. She’s in her own world and appears quite happy there. Chattering to herself and skipping, Her mother is on the edge of the playground, distracted, chatting to a group of other mothers. Smug with the acceptance of fertility, as if it is their birthright. They are all dressed in the uniform of tracksuits and sporting attire. All that is missing are the whistles around their necks.
The child had arrived late, her face flustered, her mother agitated. She had stayed close to her mother until the woman finally lost her temper, yelled at her young cherub in exasperation.
“Will you just go and play! I can’t bear you to be under my feet constantly.”
The girl fled to the play equipment, bottom lip wobbling. Comforting arms around the vexed mother, understanding words uttered from her comrades. I was shocked at the little outburst. I would never have spoken to my child like that. I wonder how that mother would feel if her child was spirited away, never to be seen again. Would she feel relief that the girl was no longer under her feet?
My motives are coiled up like a snake inside me, lying deep and desperate, A beast that mostly sleeps, with wakefulness and attack lurking beneath it’s passiveness.
I wasn’t always a bitter shell. I started out with hopes and dreams, much like anyone else. Hopes that were slowly destroyed over time, worn away almost unnoticed until one day I realised they’d all gone, dissolved in a soup of disappointment, putting up with men who were damaged as if I could make them whole. Concentrating on their problems was so much easier than facing my own. Month after month, each period turned up, the only reliable thing in my life. Months soon turned to years which sped along of their own accord. My own child would have been wonderful. It’s too late for me now. I am dried up, useless. But that little girl, it’s not too late for her. In her eyes are dreams and fairytales, magic and wonder. If only she would come nearer.
The mother isn’t watching. She wouldn’t notice if I took her child’s hand. Would the girl cry out? I’m sure I could think of something that would stop her. Little girls can be very curious and love a secret.
My mother never watched me, not properly and not out of concern, only to catch me out, to confirm her suspicions of my uselessness. I have a clear memory of her dressed up in midnight blue taffeta applying the reddest lipstick I have ever seen. Lost in her world, mesmerised by her own beauty, heady with the knowledge of her power over men. I watched from the doorway. Suddenly she caught sight of my face, spying on her. Guilt flashed over her perfect features.
“Go away! Don’t spy on me, you freak!”
Sobbing I ran back to my bed where the rental grey of my bedroom walls enveloped me. Surrounded by secondhand furnishings and things no one wanted, neatly placed about the room, as if they were beautiful, special.
I have already prepared a room for my would-be child. Painted in shades of magenta and violet, I have painted fairies and flower on the walls. I even moved in my childhood bed where she would lay her beautiful head. I would call her Eve. I would bake her cupcakes and we would decorate them with butter icing in pastel colours. Eve would be more special than other children. Didn’t I choose her myself; hand picked her from among the other butterflies in the playground.
“Eve always slept through the night”
“Oh yes, I had such trouble when Eve was teething.”
I can hear myself telling the mothers at the school gates. Creating a history for Eve and me. I can see us gathering wild flowers in the spring, splashing through puddles in our gum boots in the rain, kicking up the golden leaves in the park in the Autumn. We could create our own fairyland which would be infinitely better than this world. Where one only had to think of something they desired and it would appear. Where everyone smiled and was nice to each other. Where dreams came true and hopes were realised. Even the light would be softer, pinker and it would never be too cold or too hot.
“You’re crying. Why are you sad?”
Startled I look up to see Eve with her plaits swinging as she hops from foot to foot. My hand touches my face which is wet with tears. Eve looks at me, her big eyes widening in concern. This is it. This is my chance. I have her attention now I just have to create something to hold it, to take her away from her complacent mother and into the world I can conjure up for us. Her face is so innocent and without malice. She would trust me I’m sure. Suddenly my mind is made up. I know what I must do, a delicious moment passes.
“Sweetheart, your mother is calling you.” I breathe to my would-be child.
Eve frowns. “I can’t hear her.”
She looks over to the group of huddled mothers, cold air steam coming from their mouths as if they were a group of dragons. I point towards them.
“I heard her call. It’s time for you to go.”
She chooses to believe me. Runs off, little legs hitting the ground daintily and then she turns and waves to me. My heart is heavy and hurting but I know I have done the right thing. I see Eve take her mother’s hand and her mother’s face split into a huge smile, the love for her child evident. No nonchalance there. Only love. Love only a moment ago I hadn’t been able to see.

TEA WITH AUNT JULIA

The drive down to her parents’ house in Dorset was a slow one. For three hours Sasha drove behind Volvos filled with kids waving from the rear window, and elderly drivers in the left hand lane of the M3. She had lunch at Blandford Forum and arrived mid-afternoon.
Gilbert and Anna Waresley were in the garden dead-heading roses, both wearing ridiculous hats.
“Hello darling! Was the traffic ghastly?”
Sasha knew that meant her mother thought she was late. She nodded, not wanting to mention the hangover she was still nursing, and succumbed to her mother’s thin arms, almost choking from a liberal dose of Christian Dior’s Dolce Vita. Her father waited his turn.
“Hello Sash. Look at you.” Dressed in gardening clothes which wouldn’t look out of a place on a Guy Fawkes dummy, he beamed at her. Any interruption was welcome. Her father detested gardening as much as her mother loved it, but like everything since their retirement, they did it together. “Come on, it must be five o’clock somewhere. Let’s have a drink.”
They went through to the conservatory at the back where tea was usually served. Gilbert, however, was having none of it and poured gin and tonics, generous on the gin.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“How are things at uni, darling?” Anna arranged her features into a face that appeared interested but Sasha knew that her mother was bewildered by her choice of subject.
“Good, mum. It’s getting really interesting.”
“I’ve not quite grasped what cultural studies actually means.”
“Mum, we’ve been through this. We cover politics, sociology, media theory, cultural anthropology…”
“And what are you going to do with that young lady? Can you teach?”
Sasha shifted in her chair. “I don’t want to teach.”
“Of course, you don’t Sash. You’re a doer. I for one want to know what you’re up to. Ignore your mother, she has no poetry in her soul.”
Anna smiled at her husband and stayed quiet.
“I need to interview a mature person about their life. Obviously it has to be as interesting as possible. It’s a fabulous challenge, especially if I’m going to be a writer but I’ve drawn a blank on who I could write about.” Sasha’s face dropped for a moment. “What have you guys been up to?”
“Oh, the usual. Appearing to be sweet natured pensioners while knocking off the odd visitor and burying them in the garden.”
“Never mind him, darling. I’m feeling a bit giddy after all that gin. What say we have dinner early?”
So many of Sasha’s friends hated going home for weekends, complaining about feeling claustrophobic under their parents love and their transparent way of living their lives through their off-spring. Anna and Gilbert were both strong characters. They loved her dearly but they had their own lives.
“What about Julia?” Gilbert had a mouth full of meat. Sasha and her mother waited while he finished chewing.
“Julia? Wouldn’t she be perfect?”
“Aunt Julia? The elderly grey-haired spinster woman?”
Anna laughed. “She may be old but she has lived, my girl.”
“I hope you don’t shock easily, Sash.”

It was a month later, as the air cooled and leaves changed colour silently on the trees that Sasha followed Aunt Julia’s instructions on how to find her flat. A Victorian house divided into apartments, just off the Chiswick High Road with a communal front door displaying a line of labeled door bells. Sasha pushed the one marked Julia Cadogan. It was some minutes before the door opened. Sasha noted that the old woman had walked down two flights of stairs using a walking stick. She followed her back up to her flat, Julia silent in response to Sasha’s nervous chatter. She wasn’t her real aunt, Julia was an old friend of her parents. Her hair had turned white but it was still worn elegantly pinned at her neck. Sasha remembered seeing her one evening whilst staying at her parents’ house, sitting on the guest bed, combing a river of silver hair which reached beyond her waist.
Julia walked shakily through the door of her home and using her stick, pointed to an armchair. “Tea?”
“That would be lovely, Aunt Julia. Do you want me to make it?”
A withering stare answered her question. “I may be old but I manage to look after myself. If you let others help, you lose your abilities. I need to keep all my muscles taut, especially this one.” Her free hand tapped her temple. She was dressed in black as if in mourning and although thin, did not look frail.
Whilst Julia moved about in her small kitchen, Sasha took out her notebook and glanced around the apartment. Every wall was painted a bright colour; vermillion, peacock blue, orange and what looked like William Morris wallpaper, gold leaves on a burgundy background. She was pleased to see several floor to ceiling shelves crammed full of books. Paintings signed by C P Lawrence hung against this vibrant backdrop, mostly nudes with a few of a young woman dressed in a black, a black shirt as it turned out.
Julia appeared with a tray, she had dispensed with the stick. She put the tray down on the dark wood coffee table in front of Sasha.
“I only need the blasted stick for the stairs.” She sat in the armchair to the left of Sasha. The early afternoon sun shone through the window, obscuring Julia’s face, framing her hair in the light.
“Don’t worry child, I won’t bite. Lapsang souchong?” Sasha nodded. “What do you want to know?”
“I have been asked to interview a mature person, who has lived an interesting life for part of my cultural studies degree.”
“And you thought of me?” Julia sat back in her chair, clutching her tea cup with a look on her face Sasha couldn’t place. Was it scorn or amusement? Sasha cleared her throat. “Mum and Dad suggested you. I don’t know much about you, to be honest.” Sasha’s face reddened. “They said you were a fascist.” To anyone else this would be an insult, maybe even to Julia.
“I am a fascist, girl. I’m not dead yet.”
Sasha thought back to the conversation she’d had with her parents a few weeks ago.
“A fascist! How the hell did you meet a fascist?”
Anna placed her wine glass over a gravy stain on the tablecloth. “We were on the tube, traveling from Richmond to Liverpool Street.”
“No, dear, we lived in Barnes then and we were going to Blackfriars.”
“Who’s telling this story, Gilbert? And when has accuracy been necessary in a good story?”
“I want the truth, Mum.”
“The bits I can’t remember, I’ll make up. Not the important bits, of course, I always remember those. Anyway, we were sitting opposite a woman, middle aged but very elegant. Her hair was swept up into a chignon and she held an un-lit cigarette, waving it around and chatting to a bunch of unsavoury looking youths.”
Sasha’s father took over. “They were skin heads, the real McCoy. Shaven heads, high-waisted jeans worn half-mast over Dr Marten boots, braces over their t-shirts. Quite obviously BNP.”
“They were National Front in those days, Gilbert. They were listening to Julia, completely swept up in her charm. They asked her back to their flat in Bethnal Green to show her their Nazi memorabilia.”
“And she was quite keen to go. Even though we didn’t know her, we had to intervene.”
“How did you stop her?”
“We had tickets for an experimental theatre in Liverpool Street.”
“Blackfriars, dear.”
“What’s an experimental theatre?”
Anna stifled a laugh. “The actors were naked, darling. Your father gave his ticket to Julia.”
“Julia loves a bit of nudity, even over entertaining a mob of skinheads.”
“And they were happy for her to go?”
“Julia insisted they exchange telephone numbers of course, never passed up an opportunity to talk shop. I don’t know whether she followed it up.
“What did you do, Dad?”
“I waited in the coffee shop across the road.”
“We joined him for doughnuts afterwards.”

“So, Julia, were you born or created?” It was a risk but Sasha felt Julia wouldn’t respond to Bourgeois questions. Julia chuckled darkly.
“Very good, dear. I was born in 1918, in London, at the end of a very messy war. Between the wars, as it turned out to be, was a promiscuous time, as if we knew it was the last hurrah.”
“What about you? Did you meet anyone interesting?”
Julia laughed, a strangled noise collecting at the back of her throat. “Oh, yes, I met someone. At a party in London, in the late 1930s. Cedric, my lover, was an artist and strongly right wing. He believed that if Marxism ever took off in England then it would be the end of us. The Bolshevik’s were a fearsome breed and Cedric was an idealist. I was 19 when I started posing for him. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Sasha shook her head, not wanting to interrupt the flow as she struggled to keep up her notes.
“There was more social freedom, of course, higher hemlines than the previous generation, higher life, higher ideals. Cedric had heard from friends of the Italian prime minister who was one of the key figures in something called Fascism.
“Mussolini?”
“Of course.” Julia put out her cigarette and closed her eyes for a moment. “He had previously been involved in the Marxist movement but he had a change of heart after a spell in the military. He studied the works of Plato and Nietzsche, among others, which formed the basis for Fascism. You heard of Nietzsche, Sasha?”
“Not one of my favourite philosophers, God is dead as an excuse to behave immorally.”
Julia smiled. “I like him for just that reason. Mussolini wanted to raise Italy up to the levels of its great Roman past. It was very exciting. And then in 1932 when the BUF was created by Oswald Mosley, we had our own movement in England.” Julia paused and Sasha watched her. She had the look of someone who had discovered religion not rejected it. A light shone behind her eyes making her appear younger.
Sasha knew about the British Union of Fascists, they were anti-communist and racist, protecting their own race, as they saw it. Copying Mussolini, they wore the all black uniform.
“We always clashed with the Communists and the Jews but when the Black Shirts stepped in and removed the hecklers using force at the Olympia rally, let’s just say it didn’t go down well.”
“But you weren’t there, you were too young. Strong-arm tactics lost the election. They were bullies, even then. How can racism and anti-Semitism be right? 20 million people lost their lives, surely you can see how evil that was?”
“It was to protect the purity of race. Mussolini didn’t believe in a perfect race, he felt we were already tainted but Hitler really believed we could wipe out the mistakes of the past and start again, shiny and new.”
“You make it sound like an informed choice, it wasn’t. Hitler, Mussolini, Mosley, all monsters!”
“But Sasha, it was an informed choice. We were nearly elected. Diana Mitford, part of British aristocracy, married Mosley. Prince Edward and his new wife were sympathisers.” Julia laughed. “I loved her. The Princes’ American wife.”
“I still don’t see…” I still don’t see why my parents befriended you, thought Sasha and she had said so the last time she had visited them.
“Sash, whatever Julia was isn’t relevant anymore. There have been many people with high ideals throughout history, who have been manipulated by wicked leaders and dictators. It’s not Julia’s role to take the blame for all that loss.” Gilbert’s face was serious for once.
“She’s very proud, darling, but she’s not bad. That bloody lover of hers should have shouldered a lot of the blame. Her parents refused to see her, she hasn’t had anything like family in her adult life. But she’s always had a place here, in our house. It was the right thing to do.” Sasha wasn’t so sure.
Julia was starting to tire, her lined face appeared to slip further down her cheek bones.
“One can make anything plausible if it you present it in the right light. The 30’s were a very political time, war on the horizon. We needed strong leaders. Today our leaders are weak, fat and self-satisfied. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, what sort of examples are they to our young? Margaret Thatcher, now there was a leader.”
Thatcher was hardly a memory for Sasha and was an old woman herself now. She knew that the Iron Lady had few sympathisers among her parents generation, although maybe some who wouldn’t admit support now had put their cross in the Tories box way back then.
“You’re confusing bullying with strength.”
“I kept diaries.”
A gnawing sensation passed through Sasha’s insides, of both desire and disgust. Desire to see those diaries, she was under no illusion as to the value of them, and disgust for the madness they would be filled with. What else could explain the exclusion and worse, of so many innocent people? To protect the race, what about Jews, blacks, homosexuals, gypsies? Even writers were robbed of their voice.
Sasha planted a dutiful goodbye kiss on Julia’s furrowed cheek. “You look tired, I’ll go. What happened to Cedric?”
“He went back to his wife. He wasn’t as strong as I had hoped.”
With two forces alive in her belly, Sasha drove back to campus. This was wrong, her cheeks were aflame as if she were guilty of Julia’s past. Her stomach churned as if she were infected with sores of shame. She still longed to see those diaries, what was the matter with her? Reading them could only make her feel worse. It would be best to let them die with the old woman than poison her own mind.
One of the last things Aunt Julia had said to her had been about Mussolini’s death. Italian partisans had found him and his mistress and shot them by Lake Como. Their bodies were taken to Milan where they were hung by their feet with piano wire in Piazza Loreto for all to see. Italy rejoiced, over 400,000 Italians had died because of this man. So much for protection, so much for leadership.
Months later Sasha picked up the phone, it was her mother to tell her that Julia had died. Sasha didn’t go to the funeral and after she had handed in her assignment, she tried not to think of Julia at all.
The following summer, sitting in the garden at her parents’ house, her mother handed her a blue ceramic urn and a note.
“Not Aunt Julia’s ashes?”
“Read the note.” Her mother urged.
Sasha slowly extracted a piece of flimsy paper from its envelope. Julia had addressed the note to her.
“I never wanted anyone to read my diaries, I hadn’t even considered it until I met you. I want to thank you for the most interesting afternoon I’ve had in years. I don’t have many friends still living now, apart from your dear parents who took me under their wing, despite my ideals. Don’t blame them for this. And although I may pick at the scab of Fascism from time to time, not even I wish to open up old wounds. Our ideals caused suffering. I have made many mistakes in my life and most of them are here in my diaries. They would make a great record of a terrible time but here is what is left of them. You won’t have to read them now. Better dead than read, darling. Be good. Julia.”
Sasha wiped away a tear. “Why did she leave this to me? I want to forget her. I can’t feel fondness for someone with such terrible beliefs”
But when Sasha got back to London she placed the ashes of Julia’s words on her desk. She wasn’t sure why and she meant to throw them out. But as the weeks passed, putting distance between time and her uncomfortable memories, Sasha thought that perhaps the academic views of Julia’s idealism were not part of Fascism itself. Maybe it wasn’t so clear cut. Could Sasha have respect for Julia and not for her beliefs? After all, her parents had been kind enough to see through that black shirt to the heart of a gutsy woman. She left the urn where it was, for now

CODE OF FRIENDSHIP

A dark night on the festival of lanterns, the black cold of June twinkling like tiny fingers. Lanterns glow, painted and oiled, held in the small hands of children. Colours stream under the moonlight, whilst others lurk in shadows. The stalls sell exotic sweets or hot pastries and the aroma dances on the breeze. Glow in the dark necklaces, perfect circles around perfect necks. What a wonderful scene for murder. Blood seeping under the door, leaking into this winter tableau.
I can’t stop, not now and I feel no guilt, she always steals from me. The code, anything goes, except each others boyfriends. I reach the plush entrance hall, smelling of new carpet and paint. The walls in duck egg blue, a colour to calm, I am not calm. The lift doors open and I enter, press the number seven. Seven, lucky number, lucky Fleur. It’s quiet, there’s no one around.

He shopped at the same greengrocers where I went after work, looking to buy something for dinner, something last minute for a single girl. I’d seen him a few times. Tall with black hair, blue eyes. He looked shy but not awkward. He looked at me but he did not speak.
“Hi. You live around here?”
He looked startled. Was that too strong? “Yes. Just moved here, for work.” He held out a hand. “Drew.”
“Bridget. What do you do?”
“I’m a journalist.”
The beginning, a beautiful man and me, chatting over onions. Layers that bring out tears, should have seen it coming.

I got up and made myself a coffee, hungry but unable to keep anything down. As I sat at my kitchen table, lights off, only the grey light of pre-dawn for company. I could make it look like suicide. Crush pills and put them in her drink. Then push more down her throat when she became drowsy. Weed killer. I would tell her it was a new herbal brew. For strength, the one thing that Fleur always lacked. Like most beautiful things she was delicate, she wouldn’t be hard to snuff out.
Night falls around me, red and white, scarlet and pearly, blood-stained tiles. Images of half-baked plans of murder.

I asked Drew to go for a drink with me. He shrugged which I took as a yes. We arranged to meet at Harry’s Bar in town. I dressed carefully in black with a red beret to keep my head warm. My body trembled at the thought of him, I wondered about the smell of him, the touch. I walked there despite stilettos and waited at the bar sipping my drink, which was red too. I stared at my watch as the hand slipped towards the appointed hour. He wasn’t coming.
But he did and he looked serious, dressed in black, like a mourner, like me. Had anybody died?
“I wasn’t sure you were coming.”
“I said I would. Sorry I’m a bit late.” No explanation. “What are you drinking?” He nodded to my empty glass.
“A Bloody Mary. Please.”
In the quiet of Harry’s Tuesday night trade we hit it off, I thought. At least we drank too much and ended up in bed. His place. It was closer.
The soft yellowy light of dawn fell across the room. The curtains hadn’t been drawn. Awake before him I shielded my eyes from the light and turned to look at my prize. I watched him until his eyelids flickered. His dark hair disheveled as always, the blackest lashes on blue eyes. He stretched and groaned.
“Oh, shit. God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
My heart sank to my naked toes. “Thanks a lot.” I said, not meaning it. “Do you have any food?”
“I’ll make coffee.”
We sat across from each another at his kitchen table, each nursing a cup of coffee. His flat, sparsely furnished with piles of paper on the table and the breakfast bar; bills, photography magazines, A4 notepads filled with spider-like script.
Weeks passed and I didn’t tell Fleur, I didn’t want to dilute our experience but really I didn’t want questions. He hadn’t called. One day she rang me, full of news. She’d met a beautiful man. She told me he was a writer who buys her unusual presents, bright coloured journals, postcards of Paris, an exceptional man she says.
We arranged to meet at Harry’s Bar, her choice. I walked in wearing my black suit and white blouse and found them sitting in a booth, hands reaching across to each other. And I just knew he hadn’t arrived late for her.
Fleur saw me first, dressed in pale blue, she waved. “Bridge. Drew, meet my best friend. Bridge, this is Drew.” She smiled, she shined.
He stood to meet his lover’s best friend. Tall and dark, he cast a shadow over me, at least that’s how I remember it. Drew. My Drew, who’d never called. He looked at me and recognition hit behind the eyes.
“I’m sorry. I have to go to the bathroom.” I dragged myself to the ladies. Wrapped my arms around cold porcelain, my head leant on the toilet seat. Tears stung my eyes. Fleur could have anyone. Why him? Bridge, this is Drew, she said. Am I her bridge to Drew? What about the code? No crossing lines to get to each other’s boyfriends. Of course it only works one way; no boyfriend of Fleur’s has even been interested in me.
I washed my face and made my way back to the happy couple. They don’t see me at first, hands clasped, eyes searching one another’s. Drew frowned and Fleur turned her pretty head. She smiled, she had reason to.
“I’m feeling a bit off-colour. I think I’ll go. Nice to meet you, Drew.”
“Oh, Bridge. You poor thing. Will you be alright getting home?”
I nodded feebly and walked out of the noise and warmth of Harry’s into the coldness. Spring never felt so icy, leached of colour, dull though the sun is out.
My nightmare began, my own private hell. I imagined them together. His hand gentle in the small of her back, guiding her through expensive restaurants. Having breakfast together, Fleur wearing his dressing gown. So unlike our breakfast of bitter coffee and silent recriminations amid prayers for a hangover cure. Fleur would have orange juice and pancakes, real coffee.
I thought of her, how it easy it was, how men wanted to give everything to her. Did it come down to her looks? I knew the answer. She was a lovely girl, a lovely girl I’d like dead.
They asked me for lunch. Just me, at his apartment. I arrived early. I’d been awake since five, the lonely hour before dawn, the time when lovers turn to one another to keep the fears away.
“Oh Bridge! I’m so glad you came. No trouble finding it?”
No, I had no problem finding it. I noticed Fleur had tidied up. Papers cleared away, photographic magazines on the shelf, those notebooks put away somewhere safe. Drew appeared less disheveled than usual. Had she tidied him up too? He said hello and we sat down at the table.
Fleur had prepared a seafood banquet. Lobster, prawns and crab meat. The lobster flesh exquisite but when I closed my eyes Fleur’s flesh swims before me. Only her white flesh has a bluish quality to it. Dead meat.
“Are you okay Bridge?”
“Yes. I think so. I haven’t been so well since that night at Harry’s.”
“The night you met Drew?”
“Well. It was that night. But it wasn’t the first time we’d met.”
Drew shifted in his seat, his face flinching in preparation. Would I be that cruel?
“Isn’t that right, Drew?”
Fleur looked between the two of us, a shadow of fear in her eyes. Oh, how lovely. I had them both holding their breath.
“We shop at the same greengrocers. Don’t you remember, Drew? You must recognise me.”
“Yes, of course. I thought you looked familiar.”
I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief between them. Drew stared at me, eyes loaded with meaning. “Oh, course, I don’t shop there anymore.”
“Really? I wonder why.” I used an acid tone that might pop up in Fleur’s subconscious, late at night when night nurtures doubt.

Standing in the kitchen at the centre of a storm, devoid of movement whilst all around us spins and spins. Fleur’s fitted kitchen, white cabinets, the orange walls which stimulate appetite. Outside the dark night marked only by children holding lanterns for the town festival. Candlelight blurred into rings, thin red rings.
I lunge, the small fish knife in my right hand. There is a flicker of recognition before the knife slips easily into her white neck. It turns red, the colour of blood red roses. There is an arch of it, the devils rainbow. Her arms reach out for me. For me, imagine it! She falls to her knees, her eyes bulging in her face, green eyes that men love. Fear in them, panic. She slumps forward onto her white shiny tiles which are usually so clean.

Fleur rang, those nighttime doubts, and we met for coffee. Her pretty face looked pinched, white areas where she frowns and her hair isn’t as shiny as usual.
“Bridge. Before I met Drew, was there anything between you?”
I counted to thirty in my head. Flirty thirty. Hurty thirty. I smiled. “What do you mean? Did Drew say something?”
“No.” Fleur stared down into her cup, brimming with blackest coffee. Was she staring into hell too? She stirred it with a spoon.
“He looks uncomfortable when I mention your name. Do you know why?”
“Sorry. I don’t. Why would he look uncomfortable?”
“I get the feeling he’s hiding something.”
Fleur looked up as if in pain. Well, we can’t have that can we? “You’re different too,” she accused.
I shrugged, mumbled something about having to go. I left Fleur in the café next to the theatre. Plastic flowers in tiny glass vases at every table. Where you picked your food from photographs on a laminated menu. Good coffee, I don’t know how long Fleur sat there stirring hers. Maybe a tear or two fell to the formica table top. I’m glad I held back with the fish knife. I imagined the contract I had on her life dissolving until gone. No longer consumed in hate I still can’t bear to see her face, the face I would have had underground.
We don’t see each other for a while. One day Fleur phoned me and wanted to meet in the park and I figure I owed her that. Winter again, the skeleton branches silhouetted against a white sky, we wandered through the park, the ground frost twinkling in the opaque light. Our fingers pressed deep inside our pockets, our words suspended in the breath of an icy cloud.
“We’ve split up.”
“What?”
“Drew and I. We broke up last week.”
“Why?”
“There was something he was hiding.”
“Do you know what it was?” My heart beats in my cold ears.
“A girl he couldn’t forget.”
“Who?”
“I don’t know. He only spent a night with her. I don’t know her name.”
Drew did nothing and neither did I. But I thought about it, late at night, when being alone laboured my breath and I sobbed until my bones ached.

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.

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.