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.

Love Florence

Florence packed her rucksack filling it with a purple feather boa, two jumpers and a packet of marshmallow snowballs; her collection of postcards, including one of Buckingham Palace, the Uffizi Gallery, Florence from a school trip and a dog-eared card from Bondi Beach sent by her father. She also packed three books: Animal Farm, Gone with the Wind and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Florence took a train to London with £100 in her pocket and a slowly shrinking feeling of despair.
Florence felt a bit sad for her mother, but she had Gary and her job as a psychologist. Sonya Redmond was often on the radio telling the nation how to deal with adolescents which brought to mind black pots and kettles.
“Mum, I’m not happy. I…”
“Sorry, Flo. Just ironing my dress for the university dinner. What do you reckon? Flat or heels?”
“Mum, I need you to…”
“Have you seen the file I left on the table? The red one? You’re looking a bit thin. Would you like some toast? Don’t go anorexic on me, young lady.”
There was one thing worse than a mother who never listened. A mother who believes she listens but doesn’t hear a word.
As the train jolted along the tracks to London, Florence allowed herself to cry. Silently and still, a jiggle between shakes on the tracks, a sigh between breaths with a song spinning between her ears, an old Beatles tune about jars and doors. ‘All the lonely people…’
Florence had visited London with her mum and dad when she was small. The zoo, the Science Museum but most of all, embossed in her memory, the Queen’s palace with the shining gold statue of an angel outside the gates and the red roads that led to anywhere. Florence was very taken with the red roads. They ran along St James’s Park with its bandstand and green river, its birdlife and couples holding hands. London had seemed so sophisticated and grand but now as the train shuddered and slowed past the backs of buildings which could have been drawn in charcoal, it just looked dirty. Where on earth was she going to stay?
Florence was 20 and had worked in a gift shop in her home town until the boredom threatened to roll her in a sack and bury her forever. She was a girl without a plan.
London is a city of millions of people yet Florence had found an empty corner. She had wandered into the waiting room on St Pancras Station looking for somewhere to think. The room smelled of sick. Florence cried noisily as no one was there to hear.
“What are you doing? You can’t stay here.”
“It’s a waiting room.”
“I have to clean.”
Florence looked up into the brown eyes of a young woman dressed in unflattering overalls. “I left home and have nowhere to stay.”
“You in trouble?”
“No.” Florence’s long brown hair hung limply around her face.
“My name is Verda. What’s your story? Everyone has a story, no?”
“Florence.” She held her hand out curling her fingertips to hide her bitten nails. “I don’t really have a story yet.”
“Everybody has a story, Florence. I came to London from Turkey with my brother. We live in Acton. It’s not as beautiful as our village in Turkey. We make money to send home. In my country I am a teacher, here I clean up after drunks and lazy people.”
“That’s not fair.”
Verda shrugged. “It’s okay. I will go home someday and never think of London again.” She stood and picked up her mop. “You can stay with me tonight. No one else in this terrible city will look after you. I clean. When I finish, we go home.”
“Why would you want to help me? Nobody is helping you.”
“You can help me. You can help me clean.”
Florence helped Verda clean the waiting room and when they had finished she helped her vacuum the deserted café.
“People think cleaning is too good for them. But if I don’t do it, it will look awful.”
Florence wondered how much more awful it could look, this was a part of London she didn’t remember. Verda took her on the tube. Florence watched as the names of places she had only heard in books and films whipped past her eyes. Marble Arch and Lancaster Gate, Notting Hill and Holland Park. When they emerged from their underground warren, Florence noticed that the roads to Verda’s house, shiny wet from rain, were black, not red.
Verda and her brother, Ari, lived in North Acton. It was west, a little too west, of London. Their two-bedroom flat smelt of old ladies and mice. Here Florence slept on the sofa under thick grey blankets which itched. She fell asleep thinking ‘I’m here, I can’t believe it’.
Her first day in London started early. Ari was up and about. Florence opened her eyes. Thin grey fingers of daylight crept up, stealing the night away.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” Ari stood in the space between the tiny kitchen and the living room where she lay. Florence cleared her throat. “That’s okay. I was already awake.” She was aware of him, a stranger, and the intimacy of the scene. Florence wrapped the blanket around her and swept a hand over her hair which still stuck up messily from sleep. She was grateful Ari hadn’t switched the light on. It felt odd, the two of them alone, without Verda. But not unpleasant.
“Coffee? Good Turkish coffee, not your English shit.”
“Yes. Please.” Florence only drank instant at home.
He placed the wooden tray with two small coffee cups on the coffee table. The dark hair and eyes she’d noticed the evening before were almost hidden in the half light. “No milk but there’s sugar if you like.” He pointed to a green ceramic dish on the tray.
Ari pulled the curtains back on a deserted street, not even a bird sang. He passed the brown earthenware cup to Florence. “It’s the mornings when I miss Turkey so much. The light is bright but soft. The sun on the sea shines like a thousand stars. And the smell of coffee, cardamom, salt from the harbour, I would sit and watch the boats coming in and out.”
They sat in silence for a moment. “I have to go to work now.”
“What do you do?”
“I work at the vegetable market in Wandsworth, New Covent Garden. I unload the trucks.”
“Is that what you did in Turkey?”
Ari smiled, a snake that slid across his face, no hint of pleasure. “Of course not.”
He picked up his bag and left while Florence still held her coffee cup in her hands. It smelled of cardamom. These kind people who worked hard for little money, and she had so much more. Was she wrong to want a mother who listened to her, or a father who wanted to stay in touch?
Florence threw on a pair of track pants and one of her jumpers, the pink one to add some colour. She washed the coffee cups in the plastic kitchen sink. Verda slept on, her shift didn’t start until 2.00pm. The kitchen cupboards stored a netted bag of onions and a stale box of cereal stuck together in one lump. The wonderful coffee was stored in the fridge along with a jar of black olives and a fruit cake wrapped in a calico bag. She smiled. She would repay Verda’s kindness by doing a grocery shop. She left a note for her new friend and shook out her clothes and books from the backpack to accommodate the groceries.
Florence walked softly down the uncarpeted stairs and past the table by the front door where bills in brown envelopes gathered. Different names from different countries, people who were fighting to make a life in a place that didn’t welcome strangers. It was 8.00am when she closed the door behind her, realising that she wouldn’t be able to get back in if Verda went out. What about her possessions, shabby as they were, they meant a lot to Florence. She might not get them back.
The morning was still abrupt in its coldness. It bit at Florence’s ears as she pulled on a hat and gloves she had knitted herself, following but not sticking to a pattern she’d found, in last years colours of aubergine and sky blue. She walked past red brick buildings with concrete steps leading to front doors where old prams and tricycles jostled for position. From a second floor window she saw a child with honey skin, dark eyes staring, hypnotized by the ebb and flow of traffic as it jockeyed for order and waited at the lights.
Florence heard a cacophony of languages, some melodic, some faster, more urgent, annoyed. The smell of curry, burnt toast, coffee and fried food, overwhelmed her senses.
Her father had lived briefly in London, on the south side. Mortlake, morte meant death in Italian, as he was to her now. He’d lived there before he’d emigrated to Australia and was never seen again. Florence’s last memory of him was of his back as he’d walked away whistling. Why had he whistled? Her mum had taken up with Gary from the philosophy department at the university. Gary who couldn’t put a shelf up, who needed a manual to change the oil in his car.
Her dad had been a carpenter, she must take after him. She was good with her hands but her mind swam. It flowed like florescent ribbons, colourful and playful but not a mind for focus or deep thinking. Florence wondered if this mattered. Her mother thought it did.
At the convenience store run by an Indian couple, she bought mandarins and potatoes, feta cheese and chocolate chip cookies. Butter and a loaf of grainy bread. Sardines and a jar of plum jam. A wonderful mixed up meal for Florence hadn’t yet learned to cook.
She distributed the weight of the bags in her hands but still the tight plastic handles dug into her fingers. On the way home the streets seemed more ordinary, they had lost some of their mystery and Florence wondered why. Had London taken these people from cultures of colour and rich aromas and made them greyer, absorbed them rather than letting them brighten up the gloomy cut-outs of a city of inadequate light.
Later when Verda had gone to work and Ari sat with her drinking more coffee, she asked him what it had been like for him arriving in England.
“England was okay. From the ferry the bus drove through green hills and villages. But when we got to London it was as if its grim self reached into the sky. Dense particles of grit like unwashed curtains draping the streets.” He laughed, not a happy laugh.
“Why stay?”
“I am making money to send home to my family, Verda too. She will go home soon, next summer. She is to be married.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. She must miss him.”
Ari frowned. “She hasn’t met him.”
“An arranged marriage?” Florence gasped.
“It’s the way it’s done. I don’t see England is happier with so much freedom of choice.”
“And you, Ari?”
“I am free to make a choice. My family would like me to go home and marry a Turkish girl but they also like the money. I may stay here.”
The next day Florence woke late wondering where she was. She lay looking at a foreign ceiling, listening to the sudden sound of a milk float outside the bay window and was sad she had missed Ari.
When she came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her head she collided with Verda.
“Hello, Florence.” Verda smiled brightly.
“Hello Verda. I hope you don’t mind me staying a second night.”
Verda looked thoughtful. “We need to find you work. I am free until this evening. Let’s go for a walk.”
They walked the same route to the shops that Florence had taken the day before. Past the convenience store with exotic smells and the polite Indian couple and a bookies which smelt only of cigarette smoke. They reached a newsagents with a window full of cards. Things wanted and unwanted, things to find and things to lose. There were cards asking for au pairs, cleaners and shop assistants. Nothing interested Florence. Verda pointed out a card with a thumbnail sketch of a dog on it.
“Look at that Florence.”
“It doesn’t pay much.”
“You wouldn’t need much living with me and Ari. If you don’t mind the couch as a bed.” Verda tucked Florence’s arm through hers. A feeling swept through Florence, a warmth she hadn’t had since childhood.
“Let’s go and eat too much ice-cream!” Verda said, leading the way to an Italian ice-creamery painted in pastels. The only colours in the streets of grey.
When Florence got home she placed her three treasured postcards on the mantelpiece and her three favourite books on the old, lopsided shelf unit by the sofa.
A few days later Florence walked the streets again, A-Z tucked under her arm, she stopped every now and then to find her way. The man on the other end of the phone told her his name was Brian and he worked from home. He had recently separated from his wife and needed someone to walk their dog, a Great Dane called Rainbow. His wife had been a free-spirit, Brian explained awkwardly, so much so that she had disappeared to New Zealand leaving Rainbow behind. Florence understood what it was like to be abandoned.
Number 57 Orchard Street was a pale bricked townhouse with five steps leading to the front door, painted black. Florence rang the door bell. The door opened and an enormous dog poked his head out ahead of his owner. He appeared to be well trained, Florence would have feared for her bones if Rainbow had jumped up at her.
“Hello, Florence,” Brian was going thin on top and sported a grey beard. Everything about him seemed to apologise.
“Hello, Brian. Pleased to meet you.” She stuck out her hand to her new boss. Whatever her mother had lacked in parenting skills, she hadn’t stinted on teaching her daughter manners. “And I’m pleased to meet you too, Rainbow.” She stroked the dog.
On Sunday over a quiet breakfast, Verda was sleeping after a late shift cleaning an office building and Ari was already at work, Florence noticed something stuck between two sauce bottles. A card written in biro. It said, ‘I finish at 10.00am and will be home by the time you’ve walked Rainbow. Fancy a trip to see the Queen? Ari’. Florence turned the postcard over. The other side had a large yellow smiley face but she was already smiling.
They took the Central Line to Notting Hill then the circle line to St James’s Park. They walked up and down Birdcage Walk, Florence’s request, to savour the red roads she loved, before they went up to the gates of the palace. This time they couldn’t afford to go on a tour but there was an unspoken promise that they would one day. Ari took her hand from the bars and gave it a squeeze. Florence whispered, “thank you.” They found a bench in St James’s Park and sat down.
Ari held Florence’s hand again. “I was a fisherman in my village but now the boats are used to ferry tourists around. I was angry at first but as I heard these English speaking people talk about their lives I found I wanted to see what I had only seen with words. Now I work hard to buy my own stall at the market, life is hard but it’s bigger somehow.” Florence understood completely.
When they got home and Ari was in the kitchen making his special coffee for them both, Florence took down the postcard of Buckingham Palace she had asked her mum to buy many years before. She knew what to write.
‘Dear Mum, I don’t need to keep this postcard as I live quite near it. I don’t want to be anywhere else but maybe one day I’ll send you the card from the Uffizi Gallery or even one from Bondi. I’ll phone soon. Love, Florence’.

SWIMWEAR OPTIONAL, STOMPING ESSENTIAL

This story was gleaned from a real life experience. A long afternoon I spent years ago now. I have embellished some of the events (scarily – not many) and have changed the names to protect the bewildered and the slightly annoying. I don’t wish to offend, this is merely my take on a strange afternoon, which I think probably says more about me than the characters within it. Hope you enjoy it.

“I’m holding a woman’s group on Sunday at my place.  Would you like to come?”

     Skye smiled an over bright smile whilst stirring honey into her tea.  Skye is my yoga teacher and we have become friends.  We have coffee together after class.  Well, I have coffee, Skye has a soy chai.  Younger than me and vibrant, she wears a lot of orange.  Orange silk pants, orange singlets, even on occasion orange lipstick.  Her daughter, Nisha, is in Tom’s class at school.  He thinks her name sounds like a sneeze.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go but I said yes.

     I mentioned it to Adam.  He raised an eyebrow.

     “Syke?  Yoga Skye?”

     “Yes.  What’s wrong with that?  It might be fun.”

     He smirked and I made up my mind.  I didn’t know any of Skye’s friends.  I wondered if I should take a bottle of wine but decided to bake.  I chose my dress carefully as only a new girl would.  Neither revealing nor matronly.  And colour too, somehow I knew this wasn’t a navy kind of do.

     On the day I chose a pale lemon cotton shift dress, formal and understated with flat white shoes with a buckle.  I grabbed my plate of wholemeal muffins and headed for the car, waving my free hand goodbye to Adam and Tom in the shed.  I watched their heads bent together over some project, Adam’s brown head against our son’s golden one and thought it would be a good thing for me to spend some time in female company.  Syke called it honouring my inner goddess.

     Although she lived barely a kilometre away I had problems finding her home.  Skye rented an old school house on acreage.  At the main gate I encountered a huddle of lively  mailboxes.  Pillar box red, a green dragon and a milk churn with a masterpiece painted on its side depicting Friesian cows on pasture.  My smile at their quirkiness soon disappeared as I realised that the houses weren’t numbered and I had no way of matching Skye’s brilliant purple mailbox with her house.  I pulled into the driveway of one house which could have been Skye’s.  It had a small studio across the drive from the house.  Skye had told me she had a yoga studio for her individual clients.  A short disheveled man came out to meet me.

     “Hello.  Does Skye live here?”

     “No.  You here for the woman’s thing?  The next house on the left, up the hill.”

     He smiled broadly looking me up and down.  “I’m Shaun.  Skye and I, we’re…”

     “Oh, yes of course.  Pleased to meet you, Shaun.  Gabby.  Thank you.”

     Skye had mentioned Shaun, he was an artist, hence the studio.  She told me they had an open relationship which made me feel suburban and dull right down to my sensible sandals.  At least I hadn’t brought the matching handbag.  Shaun watched me too closely as I walked to my car and drove away.  I felt uncomfortable.

     A lovely house set on a large patch of green with vegetable gardens on each side of the house.  I parked the car and Skye came out, skipping towards me, down the red painted front steps.  She wore a floaty orange dress tied at each shoulder.  Her bangles tinkled and I caught a flash of sunlight on her gold ankle chain.  She embraced me.  A musky smell filled my nostrils, patchouli oil or sweat, perhaps both, with an impressive sprout of hair under each armpit.  Skye took my hand and pulled me up the path to her home.

     “The girls are here already.  Come, I’ll introduce you.”

     Outside the door rows of exotic footwear gathered, pink satin slip-ons, black and gold embroidered shoes and a pair of thongs with a single large frangipani on each. 

     “Would you mind taking your shoes off, Gabby?”

     “No, of course not.  You want to keep your floors clean.”

     “No, no, a yoga thing.”

     I passed the plate to Skye and fiddled clumsily with the buckles on my plain white shoes. 

     Inside there a small crowd of women gathered in a long and narrow kitchen.  Shelves hung on every bare patch of wall, filled with glass jars containing exotic herbs, spices and herbal teas.

     “Everyone one this is Gabby.  Gabby, let me introduce Calypso.”

     Skye’s bangled arm pointed in the direction of a bosomy woman wearing a peacock blue sarong.  She clutched a box to her chest which I assumed held her sarong in place.   Ochre had long copper coloured hair which fell in waves to her waist and a tight little smile.  Willow a serious looking blonde wearing white who didn’t smile at all.  Jacinta, dressed in purple with matching eye shadow and Miriam, a thin woman wearing a lime green dress. 

     “What I thought we’d do is to sit on the veranda for a while.  Get to know each other.” 

     Skye smiled her enormous smile and wafted in a cloud of orange out to the side deck.  She had arranged large decorative cushions of turquoise and gold, glittering with sequins on an ethnic rug around a small wooden table set with a jug of water, lemons slices and coriander.  Half a dozen glasses formed a circle around the jug.  Willow and Ochre brought out a bowl of cashews and some vegetable sticks.

     “Oh, at last.  Something I can eat.”  Calypso put down the box and picked up a carrot stick.

     “Well done you for sticking to it.” 

     “Thank you, Skye.”

     “What exactly can you eat?”  Jacinta reached across, took a handful of cashews and shoved them all into her mouth.

     “Well, I have five juices a day but they all have to made with green vegetables.  And I can have just about any raw vegetables for dinner.”

     “Why?”  My words, sharp and pointy.

     Calypso raised her head and with a condescending look said to me, “I forgot, you’re new.  What’s your name again?”

     “Gabby.”

     “Well Gabby, I am on a cleansing diet devised by a scientist from the beginning of last century.  Have you heard of Dr Fabricatorian? 

     “Er, no.”

     “Thought not.  I have some skin problems.  Possibly cancerous.”

     “Have you seen a doctor?”

     A wave of laughter erupted around the table.  “Gabby!  We don’t use doctors.  Doctors are dangerous.”

     A sudden noise hit the air abruptly.  The sound of clashing metal, loud and vibrating.  Skye was on her feet with a small symbol held in each hand.  “Now we shall gather some wood for the fire.”

     The December heat bore down in a cauldron of heat.  Willow noticed my frown and spoke to me as to a small child.

     “A cleansing fire which we will set in the fire pit.”  She pointed out a circle of bricks around a space.  I decided I might be a little out of my depth but I dutifully joined the others in collecting branches and twigs for kindling from the bush surrounding Skye’s cottage.  The pile of twigs I had gathered was prickling my arms and dirtying my lemon dress but I felt it would be churlish to complain.  All the others seemed to smiling with faraway looks in their eyes as they were meditating. 

     “Wow!  Look at the dam.”  Miriam headed down the hill to the deep green pool in the distance.  She stepped out of her lime green dress which vanished in the green of the grass and Miriam, thin, white and naked dived into the dam. 

     Calypso and Willow walked down to the dam, waving at Miriam while Jacinta and Skye linked arms, laughed together, without gathering any kindling.  Ochre sat on a tree stump her arms stretched out in front of her with her eyes closed lightly humming as I gathered more sticks in the heat and swore under my breath.  I had been expecting cake and coffee and a good gossip.  I wonder what Dr Fabrication would think of that. 

     It was time for the next phase as Skye announced suddenly; “Now we will move indoors for sharing.”

     Skye and the others, with the exception of Miriam, stood at the fire pit, now holding a decent amount of wood.  Certainly enough for a cleansing fire, whatever that was.  And what exactly was ‘sharing’?  Tom often took things from nature into school for sharing, shells from the beach, river stones.  I felt like a child who hadn’t done her homework.

     We trooped into the house.  The lounge room which must have originally been the classroom in the school, Skye had laid out in a similar fashion to the veranda.  A larger table, bare except for a deck of cards which she had spread out face down around the edges.  We sat on the cushions and Calypso placed the wooden box on the table with reverence, her face solemn.  The box, big and solid, took up a fair portion of the low oval glass table.

     Skye spoke.  “I want to bring this gathering of peaceful souls to a joyful start.  We will travel around the table, each one of us will take one of the goddess cards and flow naturally into sharing.  Sharing whatever you wish to share.”  She closed her eyes, her eyelids painted gold.  “Shanti, shanti, shanti.”

     Her eyes opened and she took a card, looked at it and breathed deeply through her nose.

     “I have drawn Kali.  The goddess of endings and beginnings.”

     Ochre draped an arm theatrically round Skye’s neck, her copper hair getting in Skye’s eyes.  She pulled away.

     “For those of you who don’t know, my landlord has decided to sell the land I am living on.  My ending, alas my beginning has yet to show itself to me.”

     Ochre spoke.  “I want to honour and thank you, Skye.  For the time you have lived here and how you have shared it with me.  You have been a great custodian of this land.”

     “Thank you, Ochre.”

      The room fell silent.  Then a heavy clomping approached the table.  Skye turned her head.

     “What the hell!  Take your bloody boots on!”

     Out of the sunlight appeared Shaun, still smirking.  “Oh sorry, Skye.  Just wondered if you wanted this.”  He held a painting beside him.  A nude.  On closer inspection I realised it was of Skye.

     “No Shaun.  We will talk later.”  She pointed a finger to the direction Shaun had come from, the finger looking like a spike for all its forcefulness.  And the small smirking man left.  I heard laughter as Shaun walked back down the pathway.

       Skye recovered her composure, wriggling her shoulders in a small movement.  “Calypso.  Would you like to share?”

     Calypso looked around at everybody, meeting us all eye-to-eye, as if something significant might take place.  “I want to introduce my treasure box to the table.”  She lifted the wooden box and placed it beside her on the table.  “A gift from my mother, every time I have a special moment, I place a symbol in the box to remember it.”

     She opened the box and took a few feathers from its depths and placed them on the table, along with a shark’s tooth, some crystals, pieces of driftwood, decorated bangles and several locks of hair tied up with coloured ribbon.

     “I take this box to all the women’s gatherings I attend, it goes everywhere with me.”

     “You must miss her.”  I said.

     “Who?”  Calypso frowned.

     “Your mother.”

     “She only lives in Brisbane, Gabby.”

     “Sorry, I misunderstood.  You must be very close then.”

     She gave me a strange look, puzzled and irritated.  “No.”

     “Do you want to take a card, Calypso?”

     “No, Skye.  I just wanted to share this special box.”

   I took a deep breath and the smells of incense assaulted me, a strong scent of sandalwood. 

     Miriam appeared, light- stepping and smiling.  “Wow.  What a swim.  The dam is unreal.”  She towel dried her hair and plonked herself down next to Calypso, crossing her agile legs.  Miriam grabbed the big box in front of her.

     “Mind if I move this?”

     A shocked silence fell like a dark shadow.  Calypso, furious, grabbed the box from Miriam possessively as if it contained a loved one’s ashes.  “Don’t you touch!”  Eyes narrowed, shooting poison in Miriam’s direction.

     “This box is a part of me.”

     “Oh, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to offend you.  Really I didn’t, I’m so sorry.”

     The room crackled with static.  The thought of slipping out of the open door behind me floated through my mind but the strangeness of the situation held me in a vice.  Willow broke the silence.

     “Before I share I want to bring in the bush animals and forest sprites.  The roos, the bilby’s and the native birds, all here before us.” 

     I looked around.  Did she mean literally?  No animals appeared in the room.  Willow picked up a card and smiled broadly, the first time I’d seen her smile.  I think I preferred her serious face, she looked mean and hungry.  She picked up a card with great flourish.

     “Ixchel.  I knew it.  Medicine Woman.  It says here that I am a channel for divine healing power.”

     A hush descended.  Willow cast a puzzled face around the circle of women.  “Dhama, my psychic, says I have the gift of healing.”

     And so it went on.  Jacinta shared her recent break-up and how she was so over him as she sobbed, her head hanging down for five whole minutes.  Ochre told us about her deteriorating relationship with her father and Miriam how she couldn’t get her ex to acknowledge their daughter.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t sympathise, but I couldn’t help but feel exposed.  And then it was my turn.  I picked up a card hesitantly wondering what was to come.  “Kuan Yin.  Compassion.”

     “Go on, Gabby.”  Skye encouraged.

     “It says release judgements about yourself and others, and focus on the love and light that is within everyone.”

     “Beautiful.”  “Amen to that.”  Whilst the others made their comments I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated.  Love and light.  Love and light.

     “Would you like to share something of yourself with us, Gabby?”

     I opened my eyes to see Skye gently prompting me.  Love and light.  Love and light.  Calypso with her weird diet and her box, Willow with her healing hands.  Skye the custodian of this land.  The only thing I could see in my mind was Adam, curled up with mirth, tears rolling down his cheeks when I tell him about my afternoon.

     “No.”  I said.  “Thank you”.  I sensed a coolness around me where before it had only been caution. 

     Later we gathered round the cleansing fire, Skye handed us small scraps of paper on which she instructed us to write something we wanted to release and throw into the fire.  Each woman threw their much scrawled scraps to burn whilst I couldn’t even pretend.  The paper stayed curled in my tight fist, blank.  Calypso took a bird’s nest from her large handbag and held it up to the sky. 

     “This nest symbolises home, woman is home.”  She looked at our faces gathered around the fire before continuing.  “I will burn the bones of a home to let it be known that home is not a physical thing.  It is of the spirit.”

     With that Calypso threw the nest onto the fire.  It smoldered and spat for a moment,  blazed and disappeared.  It was quiet for a moment, each I supposed reflecting the letting go of whatever they had written on those scraps of paper.  Whilst I felt mine screwed up in the palm of my hand. 

     Jacinta perked up.  “Lets have a group hug”.

     I stood somewhere in the midst of half a dozen strange unshaven armpits thinking it couldn’t get any worse.  When it did.

     “Oooommmm.”  Someone began.  “Oooommmm.”  We vibrated in a huddle of chanting.   

     Then Calypso brought her uniqueness to the gathering.  “Hooommmeee, hooommmmeee.”  I for one wanted to go home.  When it was over I turned to Skye.  “I’ve got to go.  Adam’s expecting me.”

     “We haven’t done the stomping yet.”

     The faces of Jacinta, Calypso and Miriam.  Willow and Ochre.  Pinched and frowning, not friendly or understanding.  I looked at Skye, lost.

     “We’ve got some tribal drums and we stomp around the fire.  You can’t go, you’ll spoil it!”

I ran up the steps and in through the open door, dumped my bag on the floor and took a large wine glass from the shelf.  I poured myself a generous splash from a bottle of red.  How did I feel?  Abused?  In shock?  I looked around at my normal house.  The sofa against the wall, the television, bookshelves and a coffee table.  No forest sprites or cleansing fires. 

     “Oh, darling.  I didn’t hear you come in.  How did it go?”

     Adam laughed helplessly as I recounted my experience.  I watched him rolled up on the sofa, hugging his knees as I told all. 

     A month or so later I heard that Skye had found a place on a friends land, a small cottage.  We crossed paths occasionally but kept it short.  Last week I spotted a poster on the school notice board.  A gathering of the tribe to celebrate our new home.  Swimwear optional.  Stomping essential.

 

NOT A BAD MOTHER

I love my family. I marvel how I managed to produce two delightful people, my children, Dan and Amy, with my husband of course. My lovely, hardworking, generous husband. But, and it’s a big one, sometimes I want a moment to myself. It might be a quiet coffee on the terrace over looking our sun drenched back yard or after the rain when the colours sparkle like jewels. Or when I put the dinner on and I have a spare ten minutes while dinner simmers or marinades.

“Mum, can you read a story?” Amy, tall and sandy-haired, like her father.

“Amy, I’m having a moment.”

“I’ll get Dan?”

I sigh and guilt gets the better of me. They won’t always want to me to read them a story, my inner-mother bleats. “Yes, get Dan.” And the time labeled mine drifts into the evening breeze.

Later as the house is blanketed in hush, I lie on my back staring at a ceiling I cannot see but know is there. At last, this is my time.

“Cath, you awake?”
And because I cannot pretend, because I am an honest woman, I reply, “Yes,” very sweetly.

It wasn’t always like this. Before Dan and Amy when Bill was away on courses I hated those silences. I filled them with noise: television, music, radios. My life had no stitching without this incessant babbling or crooning. I don’t recognise that woman now.

I work in a busy office. My job has shrunk in importance since I had children while Bill has been promoted to Head of Year at the school where he works. I’m no longer in the city, making deals, finding companies to negotiate, one larger one swallowing up the smaller. A merger, as two minds fuse together. Or two bodies, like a marriage.

Now I work for a small company, Opulent Realty, who sell high-end resort units to the rich and infamous. Possibly to the CEOs of the merger corporations I used to deal with. I tackle the legal end of things. It’s still a merger of type to me. Rich people swallowing up areas of land and property, property that the locals couldn’t afford after a lifetime of living here. I try not to be bitter or cynical. I’m an interloper too, and I need the cash.

What of my merger? My marriage to Bill. Conjugal, co-joined, partners in life. When he gets home from work his day is done. He pours himself a gin and tonic and waits for me to arrive, chasing my tail, the kids in tow after I’d picked them up from their daycare mum. I send them up to their rooms for music practice whilst I start dinner, in my suit, chopping vegetables, searing meat and preparing rice or couscous. I juggle with pots and pans, whisks and basters. At times I feel that’s exactly what I do. Throwing one pan higher than the rest, turning around and catching it, perhaps between my teeth. The crowd calls out for more.

Bill sits in his chair, The Australian in one hand and his glass in the other. His sandy hair falls across his eyes, his face smiles. I’m waiting for the day when he asks me to re-fill his glass, whilst I’m up. I think it crosses his mind, I’ve seen him look up hopefully and then look down again.
I heard a joke the other day. A son asks his mother why brides wear white. “To show purity,” his mother replies. He doesn’t understand what this means but his mother is busy so he asks his dad who answers, “all kitchen appliances are white, son.”

Not, I have decided, a funny joke and hopefully not an accurate one but it makes you think, we daughters of feminists, when a joke like that is still in circulation.

My mother had it all but she never had a moment to herself. Out every night for yoga or classes at uni, in the name of freedom. She didn’t seem free to me. I think time means freedom. Time to get lost in, the time we had as adolescents which even then I suspected might be as good as it got. I yearn for quiet, save for the sound of nature.

I press the blender button to make a puree to bake the meat in. Mechanical whirring, these kitchen appliances were invented to give us more time not make us slaves to them. We take them apart and wash them up, scrubbing laboriously at some small metallic part you can’t quite reach.

“Mum, I need help to make a costume for our play.”

“When is it, darling?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Ah. And what part are you playing, Dan?”

“An octopus, Mum.” That radiant smile, the belief that mum can do anything.

“Er, right, let’s see. We’ll need newspapers and green paint.”

After dinner the three of us, Dan, Amy and myself, make papier mache whilst Bill watches the news. The English teacher who seldom helps with our children’s homework although he is better qualified. While I see the symbolism between the octopus and me, the working mother, with all those arms in the air.

“Wasn’t there an interview with that writer you like on tonight?”

I use my forearm to wipe glue from my face. “Not to worry, I’m sure they’ll repeat it.”

Once the kids are in bed, I pour a glass of wine and join Bill on the sofa.

“It’s nice to see you relaxing.”

“You could get involved now and again, Bill.”

“But you’re so good at it.” He drapes his arm round my shoulders and kisses the top of my head. I want to retort that I just get on with it but Bill’s moved on, laughing at a comedian on the television and I’m too tired to make a fuss.

The next morning as we’re rushing out the door Dan shrieks, “One of my tentacles has fallen off,” his freckled face shiny with tears.

“Seven-tentacled octopuses are very rare.”

Dan stares at me, tyring to decide whether I’m lying or not. I hold my breath.

“I’m a special octopus!” As my grinning child heads for the car wearing his costume, his mother prays that the other tentacles will hold.

Amy looks at me in exasperation, winding chewing gum around her fingers. “That was so lame.”

“Shush. Your brother’s happy.”

As the only parent in the office I often get called upon for extra duties. The fathers don’t get asked, they’re not the ones who take days off when their children are sick or help with homework on week nights. I often feel like a hamster in stilettos running round my wheel. If a cake is required to celebrate someone’s birthday, it’s me who’s asked to bake it. As if I am an earth mother who bakes and cooks, makes underwater creature outfits at a moments notice, who is also a manager who churns out legal documents for satisfied customers but can still find time to pop round to Zoe’s when she not feeling well, with a card from the office, signed by everybody, even Cliff the security man.

I remember what it’s like to dash home, have a quick shower, put on my make-up using the rear view mirror when the traffic slowed. Going to meet friends at a bar in town or a blind date with someone called Simon. Actually that was a disaster. Simon’s mate had got his wires crossed. He wasn’t expecting a stumpy size 14 who couldn’t get up on the bar stool without a leg-up from a very disappointed Simon.

On Thursdays I work a half day in lieu of Saturday mornings. A lot of my negotiations happen on a Saturday, the only time the Captains of Industry or Women of Substance have time to getaway. Usually on these Thursday afternoons I grocery shop or collect dry cleaning. Once in a while I’ll pop into the bottle shop and stock-up on wine and gin. I have five hours to myself.

Five whole hours. Five whole hours I’m starting to think that I may be wasting. Surely there must be something I could do for me? Time on the beach with a cheap novel? Visiting art galleries or shops filled with over-priced objet d’art. What if I rented a room in one of the resorts? I could spend some time on my own, no distractions, lie on plumped up pillows in a colour coordinated room. Close my eyes and let my mind fly. I could meditate or imagine myself floating in a boat on a river. Light a scented candle and bask in solitude.

Thursday at twelve I left the office and arrived at Saltair Resorts & Appartments at 12.20pm.

“Good afternoon, Madam.” A sunny blonde with bright red lipstick smiled widely at me.

“I’d like to rent a room for the afternoon.”

Skye, her name badge reads, she looked at me raising an eyebrow.

How I longed to say, ‘It’s for me and my young lover to go at it like rabbits.’ “For work…I…I’m a writer. I’m a writer and I need my solitude.”

She gave me an exorbitant figure which I assumed included the young lover. I paid and she passed me a key. Only they’re not keys these days, they’re cards. Cards which flash red and green in the lock and sometimes give out a weak beeping noise.

The room resembled an over-decorated prison cell. Pastel coloured art-works of flowering meadows and a still life involving a watering can and a pair of gardening gloves. The view was over the roof of the shopping centre.

I took my candle from its tissue paper wrapping, I’d even remembered to buy matches. I put the votive glass down on one of the bedside tables and lit it. I climbed onto the bed and let out a big sigh. I lay on plumped up pillows in the soundless room. No buzzing or whirring machinery, no constant chatter. Just me in a room with nothing to think about. Bliss.

And for a few moments I drowned in that bliss. The clock radio on the bedside cabinet declared the time to 12:40, rudely in red. Four hours until I had to make the journey to pick up Dan and Amy. I looked up at the ceiling. It was laid with tiles that looked like carpet but you could tell they weren’t. They must have a name, probably something with eco in it, Tileco or Eco-Tiles. How ridiculous. I didn’t spend all that money to stare at a ceiling and play guess the name of the ceiling tile.

12:45. I close my eyes and I’m lying on the boat, floating while I drag one hand in the water. It feels cool to the touch. Do I have a cushion under me? I think I must do otherwise I would be too uncomfortable. I pretend to open my eyes and watch a fictitious sky dotted with the clouds as if from a child’s picture book. All is peace and tranquility. Now what? I mean solitude is all very well but what happens next? Nature abhors a vacuum, right?

Damn and blast. It’s me, isn’t it? Something is wrong with me. My eyes are wide open, the room is still neat and decorated in pale peaceful lavender. Why then do I want to scream?

12:53. I should try crossing my legs and chanting. Joining two fingers in each hand in a circle and draping them on my knees. Ooooommmmm. Oooooommmm.

It reminds me of one of the school mums who wears a sarong to pick up her child. Dan took me to one side and begged me never to do this. Sarong woman’s child is called Elderflower or Paprika, something awful. The mum has a flowing mane of golden frizz which leads to me to think of her armpits. She’s a stranger to deodorants.

By 1:05 I’m in tears. The thing I have longed for, which almost defines me as a mother, is time. Time and peace and quiet. Now I have it I find it boring. Does that mean I have spent years with my children, wishing I was somewhere else, for no reason? Does that make me a bad mother?

I sob loud and messy for five minutes. My body is consumed with jerks and jangles. When I eventually stop my body hums from the intensity but it feels good. I had expected to have come undone by the grief, grief for lost time, lost moments, moments when I didn’t give of myself completely.

I leave the room at 1:30 and drop the keys at reception. Skye looked at my face. I realised my eyes must be red and my cheeks blotchy. “They don’t all have happy endings.” I grin at her.

Home is quiet except for next door doing a spot of hammering and a baby crying somewhere. I phone Bill.

“No, there’s nothing wrong. Please could you pick up the kids today?”

I take out a take-away menu from the kitchen drawer, pour a glass of wine and sit in Bill’s chair, my feet on the ottoman. So that’s what it feels like.

DADDY, MUMMY AND BABY MAKES THREE

I order a coffee from the woman behind the counter. Wooden tables have replaced the dirty yellow formica and ceramic tiles have been laid on top of lino of the 60s and 70s. I didn’t think the café, a favourite haunt of Mum and Auntie Annie’s, would still be here. I sit waiting and remember another table.

Teatime, Mother fried chops to go with mashed potatoes, which are usually lumpy with too much margarine, and tinned peas. I am doing my homework although how my brain works on this kind of food surprises me. I have taken over a part of the formica topped table in the middle of the kitchen which annoys her.

“Mary! Have you finished? The table wants setting.”

My mother, Audrey, wears an apron over a thick shapeless grey dress. The sort of dress which should have been prison regulation The apron is the only bright thing about her. I made it in needlework class with lots of help from Mrs Beale who said I wasn’t a natural needlewoman. I chose orange as it is a happy colour.

Mother doesn’t look happy. The bright orange apron tied over the awful dress, two spots of pink appear on her cheeks. A hand pushes unwashed hair back from her forehead as the other one turns the chops with a fish slice. Three chops. One for Daddy, one for Mummy and baby makes three. A little rhyme Daddy used to say. That’s who we are waiting for, Daddy. Neither of us says it out loud. The big hand of the kitchen clock moves in small jerks towards the six at the bottom, which makes it half past. He’s home at the latest by quarter past usually.

Mother arranges the table mats and the cruet set around my books. We exchange a look. Mine curious, hers daring me to ask. I don’t. She sits down and smokes a cigarette still pushing back her greasy hair.

“I like that apron on you, Mum.”

“Get away with you”. She looks cross but when she gets up to check the chops she bends down and kisses my head.

Mother always has things to do. Gilly’s mum reads stories to her. They spend hours reading after school. Sometimes her mum forgets to put the dinner on, so immersed in fairy tales they are; Arabian Nights and The Shoemaker and his Elves. Our dinner is always on time, 6.15pm sharp. When I came home from school Mother was already peeling spuds with her pink rubber gloves on. Strange that someone so set on hygiene should smoke so much. And in the kitchen too. Her index and ring fingers on her right hand are a rusty colour like her skin had leaked something poisonous.

Linda’s mum works in a shop so she goes there after school. She talks to the kids of the ladies who shop there. Her dad works away a lot, selling things. Linda and her mum are like sisters, they’re that close.

I look at my mum. Harassed that her routine has been disrupted, washing down bench tops that already gleam. She doesn’t go in for conversation, even with Daddy. They don’t talk or laugh or tell each other jokes. When I went to Gilly’s on the weekend her mum laughs and says. “Oh, stop Gerald! I’ll wet my knickers I will”

Mother waited until the big hand clicked into place, seven o’clock. Time to serve the chops. She laid three plates on the kitchen table. One for Daddy, one for Mummy and baby makes three. She didn’t recite the rhyme, only Daddy ever did that. Mother was silent, a busy silent. I imagined the room was filled with those speech bubbles with different comments written in them, with none of them attached to Mother’s lips. They just floated around, putting different ideas in my head.

Mother brought the blackened fry pan to the table and plonked each chop on a different plate. I look up, she looks down, her eyes still daring me to say something. I say nothing. Mother dumped and ladled the vegetables next to the chops and gave the nod to start eating.

She removed the orange apron and hung it up on the hook Daddy had screwed into the wall. She seemed to disappear into the drabness of her dress. Perhaps that’s why Daddy hadn’t come home, he couldn’t see her. But what about me? Surely he could see me.

I saw through the pale meat. I don’t think it will have much taste left now, I’d better eat it though, Mother went to a lot of trouble cooking and what with Daddy being late. My mind sorted through the possibilities. Had he been in an accident? We didn’t have a car but Daddy could have been mown down by a maniac who veered off the road and mounted the pavement. I stopped eating to consider this. I liked the word maniac, as I liked the word berserk but I didn’t like to think of my Daddy mown down.

Or he could have got into a fight with one of the customers who came into the printers where he worked. Daddy worked in the office which meant he wore a tie to work. I was very proud of this. I even learnt to tie his tie myself so I could help him in the mornings. Daddy pretended not to know how to tie his tie and I pretended not to know that he was pretending. I especially like the dark yellow tie with criss-cross patterns. Most of the children in my class, their daddy’s wear overalls to work. Some didn’t even have daddies, imagine that.

I watch my mother, her blank face. I’ve heard people say about wiping the smile off their faces. Mother had wiped hers off forever. Her eyes stared straight ahead as she chewed each piece of meat many times before swallowing it. Even the gristle. Sometimes I’d watch her in the mornings when I was tying Daddy’s tie, in the reflection of the mirror on the wardrobe. Standing there looking like she wanted to say something, to join in but she always walks away silently, as if she had never been there at all.

Where was my Daddy? I wanted to yell out the question burning a hole in my brain but I had a feeling Mother didn’t know either. I couldn’t read the expression on her face as she didn’t hold with expressions, but I could feel the disappointment.

Aliens. Maybe Daddy had been taken by aliens. That would be it. Daddy was interesting enough to be taken by aliens, for their experiments. He read books, not magazines like mother. “Mary, would you look at all these books!” My Daddy would stand in the good room, sweeping his arm like an actor in a play. He’d nod and tap a finger on the side of his nose. “That’s the secret, pumpkin. Broaden your horizons. The pen is mightier than the sword.”

He’d pick me up and twirl me around the room. I liked that. It made me feel dizzy and loved at the same time. I didn’t know what horizons were apart from that line you watched between the sea and the sky, when you didn’t want to be sea-sick. And as for pens being mightier than swords I wasn’t sure that could be right. All those bic biros Daddy bought home from work and I’d seen a real sword on the telly, rusty but looking mightier than an old biro, especially one that leaked in your top pocket. And you wouldn’t lose a sword down the back of the couch.

But Rory Baxter said aliens didn’t exist, his brother Martin said so. Anyway I didn’t want aliens to take my Dad. What about the time difference. Half an hour for them could be like a hundred years for us. And I couldn’t see me living until one hundred and eight. Well, maybe if I gave up ice cream and played more sport. No. It wasn’t aliens.

“Eat your dinner Mary. Don’t let it go cold.”

My mother’s voice finally hooks up to one of those speech bubbles. I look into her eyes, her eyes were grey like mine. It was like seeing a sadder, older me staring back.

Later, as we wash the dishes; Mother washing, me wiping because I miss bits, I look at her again. A tear escapes down my cheek and I feel my lips start to wobble.

“Don’t you give me one of your soppy looks, Mary Shaunessy. I don’t know any more than you do.”

“But couldn’t you go down to Preston’s, see if he had to work late?”

“The Prince Alfred, I shouldn’t wonder.” Mother’s lips tightened, pursing like the rubber thing we push our tea towels into.

“I’ll go.”

“Oh you will, will ya? I’ve never chased after a man in my life, my girl. I don’t suggest you do either.”

“Mother. It’s important.”

She put her hands on my shoulders and attempted a kind face.

“This is grown-up stuff, Mary. Don’t you be worrying about it.”

But I did worry about it. Daddy didn’t come home that night, or the next. I even went into the police station on my way home from school. Constable Reed, who was on the front desk, wrote down stuff, the particulars, but he had an odd look about him. Half-arsed Daddy would have said.

The days dragged by as if they had drawn to a stop altogether. I didn’t mention it to Gilly or Linda at school, they had been my best friends since start of primary but I felt ashamed. I wasn’t good enough for my Daddy to come home and I didn’t want to talk about it. About three weeks later as I crept into the house after school, I heard voices from the good room.

“Oh, Josie. What am I gonna do?”

“Audrey, I could skin him. My own brother. Going off with that Annie Taylor. Shameful it is.”

Annie Taylor? Aunt Annie. She wasn’t my real auntie, like Auntie Josie, but she had been friends with mum for years. They went to see films and had coffee in town sometimes. During the school holidays she dragged me along. Auntie Annie had a little girl, about seven, Rita. She always had a snotty nose and she never said a word. What would my Dad be doing with Auntie Annie? I dropped my satchel to the floor. It made a thump noise.

“Mary? Is that you?” I couldn’t speak.

“Oh bloody hell, Audrey! Do you think she heard me? God, I’m sorry.”

Mum came through to the hallway where I stood, at the bottom of the stairs. I had turned on the waterworks as my Dad would have said, if he’d been here. If he’d been here I wouldn’t be crying though.

“Oh, Mary! I’m sorry. I know it’s hard and that you miss your Daddy but I’m sure he’ll get in touch with you love. You know he loves you. It’s me he has the problem with.”

She put her cheek on my cheek. I could feel a flame burn under my skin. Mother took me up to my bed and put me under the covers, fully dressed. I slept for hours and when I woke up she didn’t make me eat my dinner. She made me cheese sandwiches which I love. She sat on my bed, quite suddenly, the look on her face as if she was as startled as I was to see her there. Her head bent, she struggled to speak, in panic and gasping for breath, like when you swim in the deep end and you can’t reach the side.

“My mother died the year I turned ten, ill for months, lying in her bed and us kids thinking she couldn’t be bothered. We weren’t told that she had cancer. One day she wasn’t there when I got home from school. My dad sat in his threadbare armchair by the fire and drank. Alcohol I mean, Mary. He was an alcoholic, do you know what that means?”

I nodded. I knew she was trying to make me feel better but it didn’t work like that. She’d had a hard life but it didn’t make things any easier for me knowing that. All the time she spoke I thought of my dad. Not in an accident or taken by aliens. In a seaside hotel maybe, with Auntie Annie and snotty Rita. Twirling Rita around so she felt dizzy and loved, letting her tie his tie when he wore one. I couldn’t feel anything, as if I was made of plastic. Auntie Annie with her bright tight clothing and her yellow hair, smelling of perfume and wearing pointy shoes.

We had a shoe box in which we put all the photos before putting them in albums, but no one got around to doing it. At home I spent all my time in those shoe boxes, looking for photos of my Dad, for a sign in his face that he planned to leave us. A wistful glance or a sad face. Ordinary family snaps, on the beach, at the shows and in the back yard. One day I came home from school and Mother wasn’t in the house. I panicked, running through to each room twice before I noticed the back door open. Mother stood over a pile of wood and grass, putting clothes on top. Dad’s clothes. We didn’t speak as she lit a match and threw it into the bottom of the pile. I had already rescued the dark yellow tie with the criss-cross pattern. I had it under my pillow. It made me dream of Dad so at least I got to see him sometimes.

A week or two later I received a postcard from the seaside, in my Dad’s writing. He didn’t say much, didn’t mention Auntie Annie or Rita. He told me about the big ships which sat on the horizon and the fish he’d caught. He finished by saying he’d be seeing me.

A few weeks after that he drove up, unannounced, in a car. Dad said it was an Austin, red with spots of rust. Excited and happy I jumped into his arms as Mother stood on the doorstep, smoking a cigarette.

“See you passed your test, Dennis.” Her eyes narrowed.

“Yes, Audrey. How else was I to see my little girl? You’ve been getting the money I sent?” Dad looked tired and pale. I wasn’t sure if Auntie Annie knew how to cook.

“Oh yes. I’ve been getting it. Make sure Mary’s not late for her dinner.” And with that the door slammed.

Dad shrugged and smiled at me. Picked me up and twirled me round but it didn’t feel the same. He took me for a drive in the country then to a cafe in the town where he bought me a chocolate shake and two jelly snakes.

“This is the café Mother and Auntie Annie used to come to.”

Dad reddened, his lips straightening into a thin line. “I know it’s difficult, Mary but you’ll understand one day.”

I nod but in my head I wished those aliens had taken him. It would have been easier that way. Nothing would ever be the same now. It hadn’t occurred to me that my Daddy would disappear one day and if he did that it would be because he had chosen another family to be in.

He only came to see me a couple times after that. A few years later my real Auntie Josie told Mum and me that Dad and Auntie Annie had had a baby. A boy, Dennis, after my dad. I finished high school and got a job in the city, left Mum the same as my Dad had. We were never close. Dad leaving hadn’t bridged that gap.

I see her now and then over the years and as I got older I understood how painful it had been for her, but Mum being Mum she just couldn’t show it.

I sit at the table with my coffee. The dregs cold, undrinkable. I still wait. The door opens and an icy draught blows in from the street.

“Mary, love. Are you okay?”

Yes, darling. I’m fine.” I look into the eyes of my husband. Ben and Jess stand behind him, obscured by the bunch of flowers they are holding, lilies. Orange; a happy colour.

“Mummy! Mummy! Can we have a milk shake?”

“Yes, kids. Then we’ll go to see Granny, hey?”

DAMP SPOTS AND DEATH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hear the lock turn and a muffled slam.

“Celia! It’s only me! Are you up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, Fee. Just getting dressed.”

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

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

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

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

“Now, what are we having for breakfast?”

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

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

“Oh, Celia.” Fiona bursts into tears.

“Come on, Fee. Sit down.”

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

I pass my sister a box of tissues.

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

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

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

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

Fiona managed a weak, watery smile.

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

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

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

SEEING STARS

This story came second in The Pages Short Story Competition (UK) March 2009 and was published in their anthology

The morning light seems starker. I hold a memory where it has a pinker glow and feels like fingertips which massage my limbs to life. Now the light falls like shards of glass, sudden and brutal; a rude awakening. The sound of crows cawing outside the window with its inadequate curtains; something else I should get round to. Light peeps through the holes rather like daytime stars. Katie would have loved that. Daytime stars, her face shining with pleasure trying to touch them. Not a day goes by when she is not my first thought. I hope she is one of those stars now, perhaps one shining on me now or in the indigo skies of night.

I take my breakfast a little later, sitting at the gnarled kitchen table. It bears the scars of years as I do. From the table I see the lane outside my house and the field beyond framed by gum trees. A painting the artist neglected to put people in. No distractions, that’s a good thing. Except this morning the artist has been busy with his brush. A young father chases after a child. A girl, wearing a red coat with mittens sewn on string and a green beanie pulled over her hair. Loose and dark, curls flowing like streamers behind her. I feel something sharp hit my breastbone. This girl is allowed to run with her father, why not Katie? Then anger. A house in a private lane, the reason I bought it. I didn’t sign up for distractions and uncomfortable feelings. The girl disappears from view and the man waves and smiles at someone not in the frame just yet.

Mrs Abercrombie on her bicycle, overdressed and wearing a scarf longer than can be safe, she stops and shoves a copy of The Tribune in my mailbox then rides away. Mrs Abercrombie produces The Tribune from her kitchen table, rather like the one I am sitting at now I imagine. Her daughter helps her with the computer work, professionally printed and sponsored by local businesses. I don’t read The Tribune but it is delivered on Tuesdays. I have very few markers to distinguish the days. Mrs Abercrombie on Tuesday, Trents deliver on Thursday. For me most days bring only work.

After breakfast I make myself a cup of coffee and sit down at the computer. I no longer smoke. I have to pay for the groceries and the electricity. Sitting down at the computer is like plugging into my life support machine, I have a gift for it. Love, motherhood; I failed. If I didn’t have my column I would have no voice. Imagine a life of silence, nothing to say, and nothing to hear. My voice has a name; Victoria O’Hara. Victoria has an acid tongue. She reports, sometimes scathingly, on the news of the day. Sharp tongued, smart suited, cutting her way through policy changes and the swapping of wives. My alter-ego. But Margaret Johnson would never have been so bold. Margaret Johnson is the one who makes the coffee and neglects to sew up the holes in the curtains.

First I look up the days headlines; easier now the papers are on the net. Another top bank in financial trouble; let me get my hands on the CEO. Mother stages kidnap of her own child; dig up all the dirt from friends and family. Actor in bar room brawl; any photos on phones? This world we live in keeps me busy. Political scandals, extramarital affairs, whose doing what to whom. How addictive is this nonsense served to us. Larger than life, larger than our lives.

I sit back with my coffee and take a break; cast an eye over my home of the last five years. Faded and bleached by the sun. Cornflower walls now baby blue, the rugs threadbare, reds and oranges now indistinguishable browns. I have worked too hard to pay attention to it. I was sadder when I first came here. My spark had gone out, stars hidden behind cloud. I’d always been a career girl. Worked in the city, mini-skirted, make-up troweled on, with a cigarette like an extra finger. I hadn’t reckoned on love. Gil, my editor, wavy sandy hair, hard and sure. I’d had lots of affairs but Gil was special. He made me feel worshipped. He had an apartment in town, a nice one, not like mine. I was nearly forty and I fell pregnant. It was a shock for both of us but we adapted, gave up both apartments and bought a house in the suburbs.

Life changed. I expected to go back to work and take on a nanny but pregnancy changed me, I lost my edge. My body was taking me somewhere new with its expanding and softening. I became emotional and I reveled in it. When Katie was born I thought I would explode with joy. This perfect child I had given birth to. My articles and columns had always been hard and gritty, with Katie I had produced pliant beauty, wriggling and squirming with a dimpled smile. I marveled over her sandy hair and eyes the colour of the sky. But I always felt she wasn’t mine forever. Too perfect, too lovely, a child the angels wouldn’t be able to resist. And so my prophesy was fulfilled.

I didn’t move in here alone, I moved in with a grief so big it covered all like a blanket, or a desert. All or nothing, consumed or blocked out? I’d had five years away from journalism but they welcomed me back. Gil had moved on. He had stayed with me until Katie died, each blaming the other for not noticing the illness which took her. Gil had mentally left years before. He hadn’t reckoned on a home mum, where was his hard-headed woman, but I found I couldn’t leave Katie. I am thankful I gave into that impulse; I had five solid years with my angel child. Remembered each new tooth, each strand of hair. I sang to her and read her nursery rhymes. Built towers of wooden blocks and knocked them down. Shared her tears, her laughter and even relished her tantrums.

I keep a framed photo at my desk. A fair-haired child smiling back at me. Her mouth is open, the word she is saying trapped in time. Mummy.

A loud and sudden knock from the screen door makes me jump.

“Hello! Margaret Johnson? It’s Joe Trent from town.”

The Trents didn’t usually make social calls. I put my cup down and walked slowly to the door. “Can I help you?” My voice slightly snooty. “Yes.” A pause. “Dad asked me to pick up any outstanding accounts. The mail isn’t so reliable. I hope it isn’t inconvenient.”

I snort. “I have got somewhat behind. You better come in while I look for my cheque book.”

Joe, tall, thin and copper haired, strode confidently across the threshold. He looked a little chilled, weather for apple cheeks. “Would you like a coffee? I just brewed a pot of the good stuff.”

A smile spread across Joe Trent’s freckled face. “That would be great. There’s a hell of a cold breeze today.”

“Sit down.” He sat and I poured two cups, using the only china I possessed. It was decent; emerald green and rimmed with gold.

“Thank you. Do you mind if I call you Margaret?”

“I prefer Maggie but I use a pen name in my job so I’m used to being called Victoria.”

“Are you an author? Would I have read anything of yours?” Joe leaned forward, obviously a reader.

“No, at least not yet. I’m a journalist.”

“You look like a Victoria. Which paper do you write for?”

“The Age. Do you read it?”

“No. I don’t get much further than The Tribune. I like books though”

“What do you read?”

Joe relaxed. “Fiction; Winton, Carey but what I can get hold of in the library usually.”

“What holds you in a small town like this?”

“I figure one place is much the same as the next.” “I can’t imagine this town would be like one of the big cities.”

“Oh, the things people do and see are different certainly. But I don’t think people differ greatly. They have the same needs, the same hopes. Why do you stay here, Victoria?”

“I’m not sure. Can’t picture being anywhere else. People leave me alone. I like that.”

When we had both finished the coffee I filled in a cheque and handed it to Joe. I had made a friend.

Later that week I worked on a story of a young actress who jumped from the 25th floor of a building. Nobody; friends or family knew that this beautiful woman was anything but happy. The sun shone brightly through the windows behind my computer and I bathed in the warmth, looked at the emerald green of the grass beyond the glass and wondered what could be terrible enough to make this woman take her own life. Then I remembered. I remembered what it felt like when Katie died. It wasn’t the pain that hurt, rather the lack of feeling, the numbness. I would never feel again so what was the point of being alive? I moved past this stage and I sit here now passing judgment on another woman’s pain. It didn’t seem right.

“Hello, Victoria! Are you in?” Joe’s voice rang out like a favourite tune.

“Yes. Have I forgotten again?”

“No. I thought I’d save you the bother of putting a cheque in an envelope and see if you had any of that great coffee.” I opened the door to a smiling Joe. His copper hair framed like a halo by the sun.

“Come in kind sir. I’ll put the pot on.”

“Why did you never marry, Victoria?” Straight to the point. We sat around the table; Joe had bought some biscuits from the store which I put on a plate. We held our coffee cups in our hands, breathing in the aroma. You have to get the coffee to the right heat without burning it. Burn it and it’s ruined.

“I don’t really know. I had a child once and that was the closest I came.”

“A child?” Joe leaned forward frowning.

“Katie. She died. Cancer.” That sadness, like a cloak again.

“That’s awful. I’m so sorry, Victoria.”

“Yes. Still is.”

“How old was she?”

“Five, almost six. I came here after she died.”

Joe’s face showed a mixture of horror and sadness as if he knew a little of how it felt to experience that measure of loss.

“I never wanted to go back out there. I didn’t want my life threaded with others. I lost the love of my life and my only child. I don’t believe in second chances.” I had a vision of Gil with a wife and new children. That route wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to repeat something as wonderful as what we had.

Joe came a few days later, this time bringing my groceries in a box. We didn’t speak of Katie again.

“Where do you get that coffee from? I know we don’t stock it.”

I laughed. “No. I get it mail-order from the city. It’s good, isn’t it?”

We drank our coffee and talked of deeper things. Not gossip or hearsay but the meanings behind choices and the details that make us what we are. Spring and Autumn, we were, each with our own weathers and characteristics.

One day when Joe was here the little girl and her father ran past again, playing the same game. Childish laughter filled our ears. “Those two again. I can’t bear the sound. I wish they’d go away.”

“Why do you want to stop people’s happiness? Just because yours has been destroyed?” Joe looked deep into my eyes which I was sure were cold and cruel.

“What would you know? Don’t suppose you’ve had anything bad happen to you in your short, carefree life. Don’t stand in judgment of those who’ve lost someone. You’ve no idea.” My words like poison seeped into the tableau of two friends chewing the fat over a warming drink.

Joe stopped and the room fell silent, like after the first snow, muffled and deadened. “Actually I do. My mum died. Three months ago.”

“Oh, Joe! God, I’m sorry. I had no idea. Why didn’t you say something?”

“Same reason you don’t talk freely of Katie I suppose. If I don’t say it out loud, maybe it’s not true. Maybe her old car with its squeaky brakes, which she never bothered to get fixed, will draw up outside and everything will be as it was. Mum and dad working side by side in the shop. Dad making awful jokes, mum laughing and pulling faces at me when he wasn’t looking. Christmas, when mum would buy me far too many presents and play Christmas songs on the music system from November driving us mad. Now we’re just two empty cotton reels rattling around in a box.”

“How did it happen?”

“Cancer, same as Katie. It’s terrible to watch someone you love so much slowly fade away, but not painlessly. She didn’t even get to have that. I look after dad now; mum would have liked that, her boys helping each other through. I guess that’s a good reason to stay.”

Joe and I had struck up a strange friendship, loosely passed off with deliveries and payments as excuses. We had death and loss in common but I think we would have been friends regardless. A shared love of coffee and books; I leant him a few of mine which lay around the place unread. We swapped photos of our childhoods and some of me in my twenties, globe-trotting. The obligatory shot in front of the Taj Mahal, another shooting the breeze with black clad Greek men in island villages. Joe brought pictures of his mother, young and dressed in mini-skirts with a copper-haired toddler balanced on one hip.

“What was her name, Joe?”

“Felicity. I think it means happiness in Italian.”

More family snaps; trips to the seaside in their old Holden, Joe’s dad with only one arm suntanned. Eventually I shared photos of Katie with him. We said nothing, just passed them between us. Robust and full of fun before disease claimed her. By then I was with her around the clock but still she managed to sneak away without saying goodbye. One day when the first warm breeze of summer filled the house, Joe arrived to find me packing boxes.

“You’re late.”

I put one arm across my arms to shield them from the sun. “Yeah. Busy day in the shop. How about you?”

“Packing some things away. Do you want my computer?”

“Are you moving?”

“Not exactly. Hey, it’s a bit late for coffee. Do you fancy a glass of wine?”

I set a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table on the veranda, pulling up the two bistro chairs. I’d hardly used them. It’s not quite the same watching the sun go down with a glass of wine alone.

“So?” Joe’s eyebrow lifted almost to his hairline.

“So, I’ve decided to try my hand at travel writing. I plan to visit different countries and the paper will pay me to write about them.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“I only just made the decision. Squared it with the editor this afternoon. You can stay here if you like. Housesit.”

“I might do that. Won’t be the same without you.”

“I know it’s sudden but I don’t have any anchors to keep me tied to one place.”

Joe spoke softly. “Aren’t I an anchor?”

“No, you’re a friend. I won’t be away forever. And who knows, you might want to join me at some point. I’ll show you how different people and places can be.”

“You look different. Softer. Am I to call you Maggie now?” I raise my glass and smile thank you.