PANELLING IS A THEME BY MIRANDA
I'm Lex. I'm a 22 year-old Editorial Assistant with a degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from De Montfort University. I currently live and work in Staffordshire.
posts tagged "short story:"
I drum my fingers on the grey plastic window ledge impatiently. We’ve stopped. Not at a station, just in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like I’m in a rush to get home, but still.
The bloke opposite looks really pissed off, typing out furious messages on his Blackberry. I wonder if it’s the delay or something else. He’s not a bad-looking guy; he’s got that designer stubble and suit look about him, straight out of a pricey aftershave advert. Could be woman trouble, or maybe he’s going to be late for an important meeting with a client. The conductor (are they still called that? They have ‘train managers’ now so probably not) comes down the aisle, murmuring apologies. He’s not as old as the usual type I see on here, but I’d be willing to bet he’s someone’s dad; he’s got that weathered parent look. He has a cheerful face but his mouth is a bit pulled down at the corners, like a dreaming dog.
“Excuse me,” says the woman in front, “What’s the hold up? I have a meeting at 4 o’clock.” She’s wearing a burgundy trouser-suit, which was a mistake with her pinkish colouring.
He mumbles something to her and I lean forward eagerly, but only manage to catch one word: fatality. In other words, someone’s topped themselves by jumping in front of a train. Oh dear. Definitely not how I’d choose to go. I wonder why they did it. Mr Stubble has been earwigging too, and now looks even more pissed off.
“So we could be here hours while they scrape it off the track!” he moans in disgust.
A few people in surrounding seats give him filthy looks. Some of them are eating Virgin Trains sandwiches though, so it’s their own fault if they feel sick now.
The conductor is not amused.
“Sir, a tragedy has occurred here and I do not appreciate your flippancy,” he says.
“How long will it be till we’re moving again?” shouts a voice from further back in the carriage.
“At the present time, we don’t know.”
“Oh, fucking marvellous,” says Stubble, pulling out his Blackberry again.
“There are children on board this service sir,” the conductor reminds him.
I’m really starting to regret not bringing a book. A good thriller would’ve been preferable to the view out of the window; an old brick wall covered in graffiti, and piles of rubbish pushed onto the gravel at the side of the track - not exactly the picturesque British countryside. Trouser-suit is on the phone, talking loudly to Mr Winterthorpe’s PA about inconvenience and rescheduling.
I wish I had a pressing meeting to reschedule, or someone waiting for me at the station. The only thing waiting for me at home is Rolo, my golden retriever. The grandkids like to waste my loo roll recreating that daft advert with him. Truth is, I didn’t have a reason to go up to the city today. I just couldn’t stand the sight of the four walls anymore. I spend half my time staring at the dated flowery wallpaper that my Maudie was always asking me to replace and wondering why I never did. Even that’s better than watching TV these days. All they do is shout, these dozy presenters. Maybe they think we’re all deaf. Every other programme is about houses; sell your house, buy a house in the country, have your house done up, move to a house in Australia. What happened to make do and mend? It worked well for us. The rationing mentality – you can’t spend what you haven’t got.
It makes me laugh, thinking about my mum trying to stretch clothing coupons to keep us all in school uniform, while looking at Mr Suave Stubble over there who probably spends more on clothes per week than I do on monthly heating bills. He’s got his iPad out now. My grandson Toby has one. He came over and showed it to me like it was the cure for the common cold. I asked him what it was for, and I didn’t understand half of the gobbledy gook he came out with. I’m not senile; I know what that Facebook is. I just don’t see the point in it.
Where was I anyway, oh yes, my front room. It’s got a patterned carpet, which went out with the Ark if you pay attention to these makeover shows. The telly’s not that old, my eldest Simon got it for me a couple of years ago, but the way technology moves these days it’s practically obsolete. I don’t see the point in this HD, 3D, whatever it is. I already need glasses to read the paper, I don’t want to wear them to watch the telly as well! I’ve got a nice leather recliner that I can move up and down with a little remote. It’s done wonders for my back. There’s a settee as well, the last remnant of our old coral three piece that Maudie picked out all those years ago. It’s seen some wear and tear from five kids and twelve grandchildren, that’s for sure.
I’m still thinking about the ‘fatality’. Why do it? Such a nasty way to die, and terrible for those you leave behind. Maybe they didn’t have anyone. It makes me terribly sad, reading about young people who kill themselves. They’ve got all that life to live, and they go and throw it away. Then there’s me, sitting in my recliner leafing through old photo albums and wishing I could be twenty-one all over again. I look up at the wedding picture of me and Maudie, in its big silver frame over the mantelpiece, and relive that day, the best day of my life. The frame is the most-looked after thing in the house – Cora, our youngest, comes round and polishes it for me every week without fail. Sometimes she does a bit of dusting for me too, and teases me that I’m well enough to go gallivanting off on train journeys but I have her in to clean. She gets the kids to call me Old Lazy Lump Grandad.
It’s funny, how even when you’re not in a rush, you get irritated when a train stops. It’s like the motion of the train keeps the cogs in your brain going. For these youngsters, the train gets you from A to B. For me, it’s a distraction. It keeps me from going stir-crazy. At least if I’m out, mixing with people, being noticed, then I know I’m still alive.
A girl plonks herself in the seat next to me. I say hello but she ignores me. She’s plugged into headphones so she probably can’t hear a thing. She’s about the same age as Lucy, my granddaughter, in the usual uniform of jeans and hoodie.
Trouser-suit turns round and pops her head over the seat.
“Have you heard why we’re stuck?” she says to Not-Lucy.
“Old feller topped himself,” she nods.
She didn’t have any trouble hearing that, I notice. Well, it was an old bloke then. Slightly less tragic, but still a nasty way to go. Maybe he was gaga, just wandered out onto the track without thinking.
The train’s engines kick in, and a cheer goes up. We’re finally moving. Oh, we’re going into a tunnel. I hate it when it goes dark and you can’t see anything. Maudie used to hate it too; she’d hold her breath and squeeze my hand until we came out into the light again. I can almost feel her fingernails digging into my palm.
We’re sitting in our usual spot at the back of the café. Three grotty wooden tables, ringed with tea stains, are shoved together by the wall with a flimsy paper sign in the middle saying “reserved”.
“Well, I think we should read something classic next month,” sniffs Bettina, the chubby fiftysomething with the dodgy fringe. “How about a nice Dickens?”
“Dickens is boring.”
“Boring! You children don’t know anything about literature.”
“I’m nineteen!” complains Lois, the sullen student in serious black-rimmed specs.
“Well, you did pick the last book Lois,” I say, trying to be the voice of reason as always.
“See, even Jane’s on my side.”
“I do quite like Dickens,” I admit. “Great Expectations is a favourite of mine.”
“He’s alright,” says Ray, the balding double-glazing salesman. “But I’d rather read Licence to Kill, personally.”
“No more Bond, please!” begs Annabel, sipping milky tea out of a chipped white mug.
“Certainly not Bond,” agrees Bettina. “It’s Jane’s turn to choose, so seeing as she’s a Dickens fan…”
“Hang on,” I cut in. “I’d rather read something more contemporary next month. Edgar Allan Poe was a bit heavy for my bedtime reading.”
Lois scowls. I watch her bitten fingernails worrying at the fabric cover of the chair, pulling out strands of the coarse red polyester and winding them round her knuckles. She always fiddles with something; her hair, a necklace, a napkin.
“I hope you’re not going to pick something really long,” pipes up Annabel. “It’s hard to find time to read with three kids to look after!”
She makes this same plea every month, and I’m sorry to say we feel inclined to ignore it.
“I was thinking maybe one of the Orange Prize nominees,” I say.
All four of them stare at me blankly.
“You know, the Orange Prize for Fiction? It’s an award, they have a longlist of female authors every year, then the shortlist comes out…” I pause. No one has any earthly idea what I’m talking about.
“How about a nice Jane Austen then?” breezes Bettina, as if I haven’t spoken.
“Ok,” I concede weakly. “Mansfield Park?”
“I was thinking Pride and Prejudice. Such a classic, don’t you agree?”
Lois is still methodically pulling clumps out of the chair.
“I did that for GCSE,” she moans.
“You’ll enjoy it more now you’re older,” says Bettina chirpily. “So that’s settled then. Pride and Prejudice it is.”
Ray pulls a face. “It’s my pick after Jane’s isn’t it?”
They start squabbling about how much Ian Fleming Ray has subjected us to. I tune out and stare at the grubby net curtains, soaking up the mildew on the sill.
“I’m off,” says Annabel suddenly. “I need to pick the kids up from my mum’s.” She hurries out, her scuffed court shoes squeaking on the aged lino.
“I’d better get going too,” I say, not bothering to make up an excuse. I nearly trip over Bettina’s gargantuan purple handbag in my haste to escape.
I pull into my drive about fifteen minutes later, abandoning the battered Poe in the glove box of my equally battered Astra.
“I don’t know why you still bother with that book club,” announces Kelly as I enter the kitchen. She’s peeling spuds over the sink.
“What’s for tea?” I say, avoiding the prickly book club subject. She’s not about to let me off the hook that easily though. Here we go again.
“Fish pie. Seriously Jane, come on. You pay subs to that dingy caff every month so Bettina can bully you all for an hour! And you never even get to choose the books you want.”
“Sometimes I do.”
“Right, what’s up next month then?” says asks snippily. “Wuthering Heights or Nicholas Nickelby?”
“Pride and Prejudice.”
“Ha! You don’t even like Jane Austen.”
“She’s alright,” I grumble.
“I thought you were picking something contemporary?”
“Oh for God’s sake. Kick her out, Jane!”
“Well cancel the whole bloody charade then!” she turns, wielding the peeler maniacally. “You don’t even like any of them. Big fat Ray, and that drippy baby machine Annabel. Pathetic bunch of losers. That’s what you get for advertising in the Herald!”
“I don’t want to cancel it…”
“Oh why, because The Man with the Golden Gun’s coming up soon? Get some backbone woman!”
I have to laugh. “Poor old Ray. I reckon Bettina wants him to be husband number four.”
“It’ll be your fault if she snares him! That’s a fate worse than death.”
Kelly’s never met any of the Oldbury Book Club, but with my bitching every month she reckons she could spot them in a crowd. Her favourite is Lois, the moody vegetarian who spends half the meeting ogling bacon sarnies on the next table while chewing her fingers. The worst one of course, is Bettina. It’s quite strange, having an arch-nemesis that I advertised for in the local paper. Bettina Fitzgerald-Hampton was the first respondent to my little ad, and she quickly took over proceedings to the point that the rest of the group often forget who started the meetings (and pays the subs).
The café, Digby’s, is tucked down a side road that runs off Oldbury Main Street. Its unique blend of bacon fat and damp lingers on your clothes long after you’ve left. Its once-white exterior is now a faded muddy beige, the same shade as its lacklustre coffees. The owners, Mr Ronald Digby and his wife Lorraine, wear identical red and white striped aprons and weak smiles. Every month without fail, Lorraine makes a joke about how our subs and drinks orders keep them in business. Judging by the scarcity of customers, this may not be far from the truth.
“You never cease to amaze me, Jane,” says Kelly. “If we go out for a meal, you’d never hesitate to take food back if you didn’t like it. And how many times have you gone storming back into shops for a refund? Now, you spend an hour each month getting belittled and talked down to by a crazy divorcee, yet you persist in keeping this stupid club going because – well, I don’t know. It’s nothing like you wanted or expected it to be. The people aren’t what you advertised for; they’re not your kind of people at all. You don’t even get to talk about the kind of books you like!”
“I haven’t finished yet. It’s a waste of your time and money. And now you’ve got these nutters clinging to you like limpets, phoning you up, asking for lifts…”
“That was when Ray’s mum was in hospital, and he wanted to go and see her!”
“So he hasn’t heard of taxis then? Or buses? You’re too nice for your own good. That Lois is always texting you, as well.”
“There are things you don’t know.”
“Oh I know all too well. She’s a loon! A creepy, stalker loon with no mates. You’ve lumbered yourself with these freaks and now you’ve only got one option – cut them loose!” she gives a final dramatic waggle of the peeler to illustrate her point.
In some ways, she’s right. But at the same time, even though Bettina, Lois, Ray and Annabel aren’t the well-read, educated literary companions I had in mind, they’ve become my friends. I bought Lois some worry beads to help with her OCD. I went to the park last weekend with Annabel and her sticky-fingered trio of tots. I went to Ray’s mum’s 80th birthday party and socialised with pensioners - one of them gave me a knitting pattern and a recipe for carrot cake. And yes, Bettina’s a bossy cow. But I happen to know for a fact that aside from book club, she spends most of her time arguing with the Loose Women from the comfort of her armchair.
Okay, they haven’t heard of the Orange Prize. Ray is obsessed with James Bond and wants to test drive an Aston Martin for his birthday. Lois doesn’t eat enough. Annabel whines more than her kids do. Bettina’s overbearing. But how do I know Lois doesn’t get home and tell her cat that I need to grow a backbone so we don’t always have to read pre-20th century literature? Or Annabel doesn’t think I’m a snob because my shoes are M & S and hers are George at Asda? At least Bettina tells it like it is, laughs at my car and tells me my haircut makes me look too old. Our little quintet isn’t exactly Sex and the City, but I feel needed. And that’s good enough for me.
Four monologues that tie in with my original short story, A Grave Situation.
Monologue #1 – Clare
“Hi Clare, how are you feeling today?” reads the display on my Blackberry. How am I feeling? Seriously? Well, my mum’s just been carted off to the nuthouse because she won’t put down the hazardous cleaning materials and step away from the bathroom. So yeah thanks, I’m fantastic. Not even an answer like that would stop Kent in his tracks though. “Oh I’m so sorry to hear that, Clare,” he’d probably say, “Shall I bring you some flowers?” Clueless spade. He hasn’t left me alone since Mum got ill, searching out the scent of victim like a police sniffer dog.
His full name’s Theophilus Apollo Kent, but he’s commonly known as plain old Kent. Unfortunate really, given its similarity to a rather unpleasant word. If you hadn’t guessed, he fancies me. I hate that word; it reminds me of biro-stained pencil cases. Helen, on the next desk, is fond of cooing it. “Ooh Clare, he doesn’t half fancy you, that creepy Kent.” I laugh it off, inwardly cringing. He got hold of my number from my personnel file (I know, stalker alert!) and now he’s sending me these texts, just innocent ‘how are you’ bollocks, but still. I wish he’d leave me alone. I took the week off work for a reason.
I’ve just been to visit Mum at Pinewood – no, not the BBC studios, the ‘community’ she’s been committed to because she was “neglecting to take adequate care of herself in regard to feeding, washing and other basic needs”, according to the nurse’s report. If you want it in laymen’s terms, she was so busy unleashing the contents of the under-stairs cupboard on the bathroom lino, she forgot she needed to shower and eat. Not that she smelt bad; when they picked her up they must’ve thought she’d started embalming herself in preparation for the end. I can’t even get a whiff of toilet duck these days without picturing startled health workers trying to wrestle Mum out of the bathroom, and her fending them off with the bog brush.
Another text from Kent: “Do you want to go to the cinema tonight Clare? There’s a great documentary showing about cattle farming in the US.” Oh Christ, cattle farming? Hold me back! Terrifyingly, that’s more tempting than the last invite he sent me, which involved “accompanying him to the supermarket to pick up some cleaning stuff for his mum”. I think even Kent realised how insensitive that was, because his next offering was a picture message of a kitten. Obviously because I’m female, I love cats. Bloody spoon. I tell you what though, I’m getting desperate enough for human company that I might actually go and discover the joys of cattle farming.
I mean okay, he looks like Jon Tickle (Big Brother 4 contestant…what? Did I mention I have no life?) and he has the social skills of a cucumber sandwich, but at least he wants to spend time with me. What’s the worst that could happen?
Monologue #2 – Mark
“Mr Whitman, your sister’s on the phone for you,” chirps my PA, Lucille, over the intercom.
“Tell her I’m in a meeting,” I reply. I wonder what my crazy mother’s gone and done now. She’s turned loopy over the last few months, almost choking herself to death on bleach fumes scrubbing the pattern off the lino. There’s a knock at the door and Lucille pops her head round.
“Sir…” she falters.
“Come on, out with it,” I snap, more harshly than I meant.
“It’s your mother.”
“Go on, what’s she done? Nipped into Tesco starkers to get some Dettol?”
“She’s… She’s been sectioned sir.”
“Erm… I’m ever so sorry sir.”
“I’m going out, Lucille. If anyone phones, tell them… tell them to go to hell.”
And with that I storm out, leaving poor little Lucille quaking in her sensible Clarks brogues. Sectioned? My God. I knew she was bad, well only from what Clare’s been telling me. Yes that’s right, I haven’t been to visit her. String me up, terrible son alert. Truth is, the idea of seeing her fucking terrifies me. I’ve only been round a handful of times since Dad croaked. I couldn’t bear it, seeing her like that; pale, fragile, prone to random outpourings of grief. And nowadays, reeking of every oxide and chloride the supermarket has on offer.
She was always the strong one. My dad, Alf, wasn’t exactly in good nick – angina, asthma, arthritis – all the A’s, basically. But she was constantly there, rallying round him, fetching his pills, inhalers, that fucking useless copper bracelet that someone on the market told her would boost his circulation.
He just sat there in his chair, waiting for death to come. It was like he’d given up. It drove her bonkers, I could almost see the resentment burning in her eyes.
My phone’s been ringing nonstop since I left the office; Lucille’s obviously clued Andrea in on the situation. That’s the peril of having your ex-wife’s bezzie mate on the payroll. I answer it.
“Fuck off, Andrea,” I say, in as cheerful a tone as I can manage.
“I’m worried about you, Mark,” she says. “Lucille told me about your mum.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me,” she says, giving it the full Trisha Goddard bit. “I want to help.”
“Leave me alone, then!”
I end the call. Nosey cow just wants the full scoop on Mum so she can Facebook it to all her pals. “Ex-mother in law in the loony bin, can you believe it?” No I can’t, as it goes. I don’t want to picture my mum in restraints, in a fucking padded room, crying out for a Brillo pad.
Clare’s taken it badly. She may not think I know, but this ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ stiff-upper lip bollocks doesn’t fly with me, little sister. That’s why I didn’t speak to her on the phone, can’t cope with the whole charade. “Mum’s in the nuthouse. Anyway, I’m having a shit day at work and can’t believe they’ve put the price of petrol up again, can you?” She’s just like Mum. Shit. I’d better get round to her flat and confiscate the Fairy liquid…
Monologue #3 – Ernie
“You’re popular today Alf,” I mutter to the granite headstone as I see the figure approaching.
The bloke stops, startled by something. At first I think it’s me, but no, he’s staring at the fresh flowers on the grave. I move over to another plot (Mrs Dorothy Allingham, if you’re wondering) and uproot a straggly clump of nasturtiums. I keep my eye on matey boy though. I know, I’m a nosey old bugger, but you don’t half get some good tales to tell from being the graveyard gardener.
He’s checking the bunch of daffs for a card. I could tell him that they’re from Clare, but then the jig would be up on my eavesdropping game.
“Hi Dad,” he says. “I’m sorry it’s been so long.”
Long is right, I think to myself. Before the other one turned up this morning, old Alf’s grave had been bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. She wasn’t holding it together quite as well as me laddo here though. She was a right sorry mess, no make-up on, hair all over. They often turn up here like that. I’ve had people in their pyjamas rock up to say morning to Grandma.
“I don’t know what to do, Dad,” he’s saying. He looks like a businessman of some sort; sharp suit, expensive shoes, city-boy haircut. I bet he’s been all bravado about losing his dad, acting the hard man. The mask’s well and truly off now though.
“They’ve taken Mum away. I know I should’ve been to see her more often, tried to help… Clare said she could handle it. I thought it was just grief, old age, I thought… I’ve been a terrible son.” His voice cracks. I’m less than ten feet away but he’s got his back to me – it seems like he wouldn’t care anyway, he’s reached breaking point. He wipes his eyes with a handkerchief.
“I see Clare’s been to visit,” he says with a false brightness. It never fails to amaze me, the way they speak to the stone as though poor old Dad’s just laid up in hospital and he’ll be back watching the racing in a couple of weeks. I’ve seen widows delivering the sports pages for their husbands every Sunday, when it’s been years since they ever could’ve read them.
I’m starting to feel bad for this bloke. I thought he was just some daft spiv in a suit who’s too busy to visit his dad, but now I’m listening to this, he puts me in mind of my boy, Anthony.
“I know what you’d say Dad, if you could,” he pauses, wipes his eyes again. They always do that too, speak for the dead. “You’d tell me to man up, go and visit her, talk to Clare. I’m supposed to be the head of the family now, right?” He sighs and holds his head in his hands. “I couldn’t even keep my own family together. I’ll never forget the disappointment on your face when I told you Andrea was leaving me and I was going to be a weekend dad to my kids. You were ashamed of me, and I… I was such an arrogant arsehole. I never should’ve said those things. I’m sorry, Dad.” He’s crying openly now, a sight that I’ve seen many a time but nevertheless hard to watch.
“I never appreciated what you and Mum did for us. You were always there, and I can’t…” he chokes on a sob. “I can’t even muster up the courage to visit my own mother.”
He stands up. “I didn’t even bring flowers!” he shouts in disgust.
A little old lady a few rows down looks up in alarm, and watches him stalk off towards the gate. She walks over to the grave, and quietly places a lily alongside the daffodils.
Monologue #4 - Martha
I’m sitting on one of the nasty salmon-pink chairs in the staff room, pretending I haven’t noticed the green light blinking on the alert panel. Sandra walks in and clocks it straight away.
“Martha, Mrs Whitman’s calling for assistance,” she says.
“I’ll be right there,” I sigh, downing the dregs of my too-sweet tea. I decide to nip outside for a quick fag. There’s no point in me going to check on her, she’s only going to tell me that she really needs to get home and make a start on the cleaning. Barmy old bag. No wonder her kids don’t want to visit. I spoke to her daughter on the phone this morning. She was giving me the third degree on what pills we’ve got her mum on, what the food’s like, you name it, but she soon clammed up once I mentioned visiting hours. She came in on the day her mum was first admitted, and it probably scared the shit out of her. It did me, the first time I came here; the smell of sweat and stale disinfectant ingrained into the peeling walls, the muffled screams echoing off the squeaky floors.
I might jack this in and go on jobseekers’ like my mate Kayleigh. She gets by on it so I don’t see why I shouldn’t, instead of wiping arses and fighting off crazy old folks who think I’m their long-lost daughter, or spending all morning trying to get nutty Neddy to put some clothes on, or listening to Doris tell me for the 300th time that her Donald likes a nice bit of fish for his tea.
Then there’s this one, Jean. I’d better go and see if she’s okay. She came in a couple of weeks ago after being sectioned for her own safety. I feel sorry for her like, but there’s only so much of it I can take. I wasn’t made for care work, only took the job on to pay for our Morgan’s Christmas presents. Truth is, she reminds me of my nanna, always going on about the cleaning. It upsets me, but you can’t show it in this job. You’ve got to be a robot, like Sandra. They should’ve mentioned it in the job listing: “nerves of steel required to change old geezers’ nappies.”
That said, the incapable ones are probably the easiest. At least they don’t get their knob out to show you it’s still in working order, and say they’ll slip you a tenner to help them out. Makes me feel sick. I don’t tell Mam about stuff like that, though she’d probably understand why I want to leave if I did. She gets worried when I don’t have a job, tells me I’ll end up with four kids by different dads like Tiffany over the road.
I’m at Mrs Whitman’s door now. I feel sticky in my heavy nurse’s tunic, an ugly shade of lilac like my nanna’s bathroom curtains.
“Mrs Whitman? It’s Martha.” No answer.
“Can I come in?” Still no reply.
I open the door. The light’s not on so I wonder if she’s asleep. I don’t really want to disturb her. I can’t make out anything in the gloom so I switch the light on. I scream.
The bed’s been upended, and Jean is swinging from it on a makeshift noose of sheets. I’ve never seen anything so awful in my life. I pull the emergency cord then make a run for it, heading for the stairs, the front door, fresh air.
I’m never going back.
Jean hummed to herself as she scrubbed. She heard the back door slam but didn’t look up.
“I’m up here!” she called.
“You never stop cleaning that bathroom,” said Clare as she came up the stairs.
The lemon scent of Flash All-In-One hit Clare’s nostrils. She held her nose and leaned over to open the window.
“The Devil makes work for idle hands,” chirped Jean, standing up and peeling off her marigolds.
“Have you been to the florist’s yet, or are we stopping on the way?”
“You haven’t forgotten what day it is have you?”
Jean frowned at the lino.
“Mum! It’s a year today since Dad died.”
“Is it?” said Jean. “I wonder if Dettol floor wipes would get it out. This Flash isn’t much cop.”
“What? Mum, we’re going to the cemetery remember? You’re not even dressed.”
“Well Alf is hardly going to mind if we’re late is he.”
“I’ll make a cup of tea while you get ready,” she huffed, and went down to the kitchen.
She lit a cigarette as she waited for the ancient kettle to boil. Her phone rang.
“Hi Mark. No we’re not on our way, I got here and she was cleaning in her nightie again…
I know. She didn’t even seem to know it was today…”
Jean appeared in the doorway, dressed but still in her slippers.
“That posh mop you got me for Christmas is no good Clare. I want my old one back, where is it?”
“We threw it away Mum, remember? It was broken. Mark just phoned, we’re meeting him at Dad’s grave.”
“Alf’s grave?” Jean looked puzzled.
“Mum! I just told you what day it is!”
“Oh, yes. The thirteenth, how could I forget? Unlucky for some, unlucky for Alf.”
Clare stared at her.
“Let’s get in the car, okay Mum? We can go and get Dad’s flowers.”
“Your dad didn’t even like flowers!”
“His grave looks bare compared to the others. We need to go and pay our respects.”
“I don’t think so dear, not today.”
“Why are you being like this? I don’t understand.”
“I’m not coming, there’s cleaning needs doing.”
“Now, where did I put those Dettol wipes?” she said, rummaging in the cupboard under the sink.
Jean returned to the bathroom, ignoring Clare’s protestations. She got down on her knees, ripped open the floor wipes and started to scrub. She poured some neat bleach on top and frantically cleaned, cracking the scabs on her red raw hands.
“Why won’t you just go away!” she screamed. “What do I have to do to get rid of you?”
“Mum?” Clare was beside her. “I can’t go without you, what will people think?”
She stopped, taking in her mother’s haunted expression.
“I can’t get rid of it, Clare,” she whispered. “It just keeps coming back.”
“What does? What keeps coming back?”
“The stain,” she hissed, pointing to the floor.
Clare scanned the spotless lino in bewilderment.
“But Mum…There’s nothing there.”
“Oi, wake up,” said Marcus, tugging on his girlfriend’s sleeve.
“Get lost,” she hissed. She hadn’t been properly asleep anyway. It wasn’t easy to get comfortable on a cold metal bench with armrests in between each seat.
Lauren uncurled slowly, her spine protesting at the way it had been twisted. Her face was red-lined from being mashed into her rucksack.
She glanced at the huge wall clock and groaned internally – it had only been twenty minutes since she last checked the time.
“What time’s the train?”
“Half past six,” said Marcus.
She pulled a face at him but he pretended not to notice.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she moaned.
“Well it is, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop bitching on about it. It’s just as much your fault as it is mine.”
Lauren didn’t have the energy to argue.
It seemed like weeks ago that they’d got on the train to Manchester Airport. Lauren had sorted out cheap flights to Frankfurt online, and the plan was to get the train to Würzburg where Marcus’s friend Tom was living on his gap year. He was going to let them stay for a few days, for free.
Check in was fine; they’d mooched around the shops, stocked up on magazines and boiled sweets. It was afterwards, sitting in the departure lounge waiting for their boarding announcement, when things started to go tits up.
“This is a passenger announcement. Flight BE2392 to Frankfurt has been delayed.”
For the first hour, they were quite optimistic.
“As long as we’re in Frankfurt before half 8, it’ll be fine,” Marcus said.
“Okay,” Lauren agreed brightly, starting her second magazine.
By two hours, they were getting a bit worried.
“What’s another word for ask?” said Lauren, frowning over a puzzle.
“Don’t know,” said Marcus distractedly, looking from his watch to the departures board, and back again.
Three hours later, when they finally boarded the plane, they were relieved.
“We land at 8ish,” said Marcus reassuringly, “so we’ll definitely get the half 8 train, and be in Würzburg by ten o’clock.”
When the plane landed, the weary passengers were herded onto a shuttle bus by apologetic staff. Lauren pulled her panda hat down over her eyes and leaned against Marcus, who was furtively trying to switch his phone back on. It was dead. He sighed and shoved it back into his pocket. No need to worry Lauren, he thought. Tom will be at the station to meet us anyway.
Inside the airport, Lauren squinted at the brightly-lit wall map.
“I don’t get it,” she complained. “There’s no you-are-here arrow, so I don’t know where we are.”
He nudged her out of the way impatiently. “Right, we need to head towards the rear terminal exit and there’s a lift that will take us down to the station level.”
It became clear ten minutes later that they were lost.
“It was your fault,” announced Marcus, “You wouldn’t ask that bloke for directions.”
“I didn’t know enough German!”
Lauren stretched, her bones cracking painfully.
“These seats are agony.”
“You’ve got a GCSE in German,” Marcus reminded her unhelpfully.
“Yeah alright, well I was nervous!”
There was a brief pause. Marcus fiddled with his watch – it had been a birthday present from Lauren. He wouldn’t have chosen it himself; he preferred a no-nonsense Casio that bleeped on the hour.
“I need to stretch my legs,” said Lauren.
She wandered around the corner to the vending machines. It was about as far away as she could get from him, unless she wanted to walk round the town centre in the dark at 2am. The vending machine she was looking at was full of weird-sounding foods she’d never seen. She put in 70 cents and got something that looked like a fruity biscuit.
When she got back to the bench, Marcus had his lifeless phone in his hand and was prodding at it.
“There’s no point doing that, you can’t charge it with friction Marcus,” she sneered.
He’d grudgingly revealed on the train that his phone was dead.
“What? You’re joking right? Please tell me you’ve written Tom’s number down somewhere.”
But he hadn’t, and he hadn’t written down the address either. So when they’d finally got to Würzburg station and Tom wasn’t there, they were screwed.
“I can’t believe Tom didn’t wait for us.”
“Why would he? He would’ve been waiting since nine. I don’t blame him one bit for getting out of this shithole as soon as he could,” said Lauren, taking a bite out of the strange biscuit.
She pulled a face. “Oh God, this is disgusting!”
“I’ll have it.”
Lauren snatched it back out of his hand. “No you won’t. I paid for it.”
She slowly chewed the mouthful of biscuit.
“It tastes like compost. Ugh. Germans are freaks.”
“Shhh!” he hissed at her.
There were a few people around, unbelievable as it seemed. The Polizei had been nosing around just after they acquired their bench, evicting sleeping tramps and questioning stragglers in rapid German. Lauren had been terrified one of them would speak to her and Marcus would make her answer, but the policemen had ignored them. They were probably trained to recognise the scent of desperate tourist.
“I’m going to the toilet,” said Marcus.
“They’re locked up for the night, I just checked,” said Lauren.
“Oh brilliant. I’ll just piss myself then, shall I?”
“There’s no need to be a knob about it, you’ll just have to wait.”
“I’m going outside to find somewhere.”
And with that, he walked off and left her.
She perched awkwardly on the icy-cold bench, hugging her black parka round her. It was a good job her mum had intervened and stopped her from travelling in that flimsy raincoat.
Her phone bleeped. “Off to bed now, keep yourself warm and get on the first flight home tomorrow. We’ll pay Marcus back. Dad x” read the message.
Lauren smiled. The first thing she did when the prospect of sleeping here loomed was phone her parents, but as they were in Cornwall and didn’t have Tom’s number, there wasn’t much they could do. Their suggestion of finding a hotel had been a good one, but it had come to nothing – both the nearest hotels were closed for the night with no one answering the bell. They found a Pension (Bed and Breakfast) a bit further up the road that was still open, but they were fully booked.
“It’s still raining,” Marcus said when he returned, though it was obvious from the droplets trickling down his messy brown hair into his collar.
He sat down next to her, tucking his soggy shoelaces into his trainers.
Lauren turned to him.
“If you’d have just written down the address, even the number-“
“Don’t,” he cut in. “What’s the point? I didn’t write it down. I fucked up. Now we’re here. Deal with it.”
“You prick!” Lauren couldn’t believe how callous he was being.
“My mum and dad have got to pay nearly three-hundred quid tomorrow for my return flight, because you were idiotic enough to rely on technology.”
“Oh dear, poor mummy and daddy. It’s not like they can’t afford it Lauren.”
She stared at him in shock.
“That’s not the point, the point is-“
“That I’m a useless bastard, yeah I got that. Thanks.”
“Oh yeah, just sulk and feel sorry for yourself. That’s a great idea. So you’ve got a problem with my parents now?”
He shook his head slowly, scattering rainwater.
“Yes, they’re well-off,” she continued. “They worked hard for that money, so they shouldn’t have to waste it because of your piss-poor planning skills!”
“Forget it,” he said, defeated.
“Since we met, you’ve had a huge chip on your shoulder because my family have got money. Admit it!”
Marcus stared at his shoes.
“You’re pathetic,” Lauren scowled, and stalked off to the vending machines again.
Marcus sighed. He’d always been useless at comforting women, like when his sister Cassie came home from school crying because someone had nicked her Polly Pocket lunchbox.
“Shit happens,” he’d decreed, and went back to playing on his N64.
He did have a problem with Lauren’s family having money – it made him jealous, because he couldn’t spoil her like they did, because she could spend her student loan on having her hair done and his went on rent and bills. It made him incredibly angry and frustrated, and she’d never understand why.
On top of that, he was angry with himself for this – they should be at Tom’s right now, cuddled up on his fold out sofa-bed, too excited to sleep. Lauren had been eager to explore the German markets.
He got up to see what she was doing, and almost collided with her coming back round the corner.
“Watch it! Oh well done dimbo, just leave the bag there. They’ll think it’s a bomb and get rid of it!”
They sat back down on the bench. Lauren offered Marcus a sip of her Sprite – a tentative peace offering.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled into his jacket.
“It’s okay.” It was obvious from her tone that he wasn’t quite forgiven yet.
“Your parents don’t have to pay me back for the ticket,” he said quietly.
“Don’t be daft, you can’t afford that! You can barely afford your own.”
He winced from the swift blow to his male pride.
“I’ll do some extra shifts at work.”
“Then I’ll never see you!” she complained.
He bit his tongue, wishing he could tell her that giving up free time was the price you paid if you wanted to afford anything nice on minimum wage.
“I don’t want to take their money,” he said stiffly.
“Well tough. Dad doesn’t mind paying it anyway; he sent me a text to say so.”
Marcus nodded. She might as well chop his bollocks off and keep them in a jar on Daddy’s desk.
Lauren pulled off her hat, unleashing clouds of static chestnut hair. She rummaged in the purple rucksack for a hairbrush, moaning something about hat hair.
“You look fine,” he assured her vaguely, but secretly wondering why it mattered if she looked a state in front of some German tramps.
He loved to look at Lauren. She was a beautiful girl, but he saw something different now as he watched her face. Her mouth, set in a hard line as she tamed her hair, had an unfriendly sneer to it that he’d never noticed before.
“What are you staring at?” she asked, smoothing down her fringe with French manicured fingernails.
“Well stop gawping at me with your mouth open then, unless you’re trying to catch flies.”
She was always doing that, making little snide digs at him that an outsider wouldn’t even pick up on. It was really irritating. She’d been criticising him non-stop since the train from Frankfurt was delayed – like it was his fault there was snow on the line.
He watched her take his wallet out of her coat pocket and stuff it back into the bag.
“I borrowed some change by the way,” she yawned lazily.
“I was going to use that to phone my mum,” he said, pointing to the payphone. “She’ll be worried.”
“Well sorry, I was thirsty.” She leaned back in the seat with her hood up.
“Can I borrow your phone?”
“No. I’ve turned it off. Don’t want them both running out of battery now do we?”
She closed her eyes.
A while later Marcus saw a guard unlocking the toilets. It would be good to wash his face, he felt so grubby. He pulled on the rucksack to take it with him, and felt something sharp dig into his back. He’d almost forgotten the box with his Grandma’s ring in it. He glanced back at the pouting girl asleep on the bench, and thought maybe everything really does happen for a reason.
I wake as the rising sun peeks through the window of our small house.
I nudge Suria, careful not to make too much noise and wake Mother, as she needs her rest. The years of work have taken their toll on her, and now it is up to Suria and me to provide for her, as she did for us.
We have only a few minutes to dress and have a little rice to eat before we must leave. The Wu household is an hour’s walk away and we must be there in time to light the fires and help Cook prepare breakfast before the family rise.
After our tiring walk we hope for a drink of water but there is no time to sneak into the kitchen as old Mrs Wu is standing on the verandah, awaiting our arrival.
She nods to us and walks slowly into the house, leaning heavily on her stick. I notice Luncai in the yard, chopping firewood. I have no time to speak to him now. His sister Masayu is inside the parlour as we enter with arms full of logs. She opens her mouth as if to greet us but is silenced by the roar of baby Chen from upstairs. She scuttles out to see to him. There are not many things that I am thankful for in my life, but I praise Allah each day that I am a household servant, not a nanny. Baby Chen is a most demanding child.
The younger Wu children, Jun, Ye and Yi Min will be downstairs soon expecting breakfast, and their school clothes laid out by the fire. Cook slips Suria and me some roti jala before they appear, and we help her serve hot nasi lemak into bowls for them.
When the little Wus are dressed and fed, it is my job to walk them to school. Suria will stay behind to clean in the kitchen and help with washing clothes.
I do not like the small Wus – they push and pull and tease and fight. I ignore their squabbling and think about this evening – Luncai will take me to the cinema house to see a film. I am very excited.
We are about halfway down the lorong when the eldest Wu sibling, Li Ming, catches up with us. She is a year older than me and very beautiful, but with an unkind face. Sometimes she is cruel to me. She says she wishes to walk with us today. I can do nothing but agree; she is my mistress and I must obey.
“Have you brushed your hair this morning, Ayu?” she scolds me. “I did not have time,” I blush. I really do not like her; I wish she would not speak to me so.
When we have left the children at the schoolhouse, she starts to ask me about Luncai. My face feels as red as the dust clouds that rise from the sand as we walk. “Do you like him? Do you want to marry him?” she teases. There are tears in my eyes. I lie and tell her it is because of the dust.
Upon our return, Gombak is waiting outside with the rickshaw. We are to go to market on Tanglin Road and buy fish for supper. Before I can climb into the cart, Li Ming pulls me back by the arm and bids me to clean her room. She says it is in a disgusting state and she doesn’t know what her father pays me for. It is not my job to clean her room today but I cannot argue. I go and clean it as best I can, though it didn’t seem dirty to me.
The younger Mrs Wu is waiting by the door as I come downstairs. She is wearing a stunning emerald green cheongsam which cost more than I earn here in two years. She gives me 35 dollars and a list of items, then I hop into the rickshaw and we head for market.
roti jala – type of lacy pastry, like a French crepe
nasi lemak – rice steamed with coconut milk
lorong – small street or lane
cheongsam – a one-piece dress with a high neck
The summer sun was out, a rare sight in North Wales. As it bounced off the brightly-coloured bricks that made up the deserted toy town, Christine scowled. The fifteen-year-old would rather be anywhere than here.
A free holiday, her sister Sarah had said. This was all well and good until you considered that it was in Rhyl. In a cramped six-berth caravan to be precise, with Sarah, her husband John, their hyperactive twin daughters Poppy and Lucy, and baby Jack, who’d cried half the night and kept her awake.
She kicked at a pebble dejectedly and turned up the volume on her CD walkman. She had a crick in her neck from sleeping on the tiny fold-out bed.
“Auntie Christine!” piped up a little voice.
“Mmm?” Christine silenced Westlife reluctantly.
“Will you come and play in the castle with us?” asked Poppy excitedly.
Christine groaned. She’d been cajoled into taking the twins to see the deserted toy town so Sarah and John could have a bit of peace. Actually, she’d been secretly excited about seeing it again, but now she was here it depressed her more than the prospect of another night listening to John snore through the paper-thin wall.
Five years ago, on their last proper family holiday, she’d spent hours in toy town’s rainbow castle. She’d pretended to be Rapunzel waiting to be rescued, and played princesses with Sarah, who’d been 16 and moody but had got wrapped up in Christine’s enthusiasm and joined in. Why couldn’t she do that now?
Lucy bounced up and down.
“Can I be Sleeping Beauty, Auntie Christine?”
“No, I’m Sleeping Beauty!” shouted Poppy defiantly.
“No, I am!”
And so it went on.
She turned up her music, feeling guilty but justified as she listened to “Flying Without Wings” for the sixth time today.
She’d skipped happily with the burbling twins down Frith beach, which was wet and claggy as ever, but felt her excitement ebb away with the tide as they approached the wall that concealed toy town’s entrance.
What had happened to the place? Her secret once-a-year fantasy world was now a dilapidated old tourist attraction; rough around the edges, covered with cobwebs, its colour and sparkle worn away by the wet Welsh weather. Christine sighed. The sky above her was an ominous grey. The cold, salty sea air was making her feel sick.
Suddenly Poppy pulled Christine’s headphones off, and Christine noticed both the girls were sobbing fervently.
“Don’t you like us any more, Auntie Christine?” sniffed Lucy.
As Christine looked up to answer, she noticed the old Punch and Judy booth at the far end of the courtyard and was transported back to 1995. She and Sarah had got into a huge fight in the caravan; Sarah had called her a silly baby who wanted to play kids’ games all the time. She’d run all the way here in childish fury, and hidden herself in the dusty red and yellow striped booth, crying inconsolably until her mum came to find her.
“Of course I like you!” cried Christine, coming out of her gloomy reverie. “Well, how could I not like Poppy and Lucy Morgan, the beautiful twin princesses of all of Denbighshire?”
The twins giggled.
“Last one to the top of the rainbow castle has to kiss a frog!” shouted Christine, and the girls ran away squealing, their pink sundresses flapping in the breeze.
Christine smiled at them. She hoped when they were miserable teenagers, they’d look back on this place with as much fondness as she did.
“Good old rainbow castle!” she grinned, and raced after her nieces like she was ten years old again.
Malcolm was rooting in his shed for a spade. “I know it’s in here… bloody interfering woman, she’s been in here again, ‘cleaning’!” he muttered to himself, casting a scornful glance at the interfering woman in question, his wife Agnes. Ag the Nag, as the lads down the Legion called her.
He grabbed a torch from a hook on the back of the door; the moon was out but floodlights would have a hard job getting through the grime on the shed windows. “Didn’t clean them did you?” he sneered at Agnes. She never cleaned anything in here, she just used it as an excuse to nose through his stuff. Not that there was much to see - a pile of rusty old tools, a rickety chair that had seen better days and enough back issues of the Racing Post to build a bonfire.
The spade was at the very bottom of the pile. Malcolm extricated it from a romantic embrace with the rake and gave a yell of triumph, before remembering what time it was. “Shhh!” he admonished himself, almost tripping over Agnes in his haste to get outside.
Malcolm and Agnes had been married for longer than he cared to remember. They’d had kids young, and now they’d all grown up and scarpered to the ends of the earth - Sarah had gone to University in Scotland and stayed there, Philip lived down in London, and Jane had emigrated to Australia. They hadn’t heard from them in months, were lucky even to get a Christmas card.
Left alone with Ag the Nag, Malcolm felt he was on the slippery slope to going doo-lally. “Have you mowed the lawn yet Malcolm? You’re not going out again are you Malcolm? You drink too much Malcolm. Stop smoking Malcolm.”
It had reached a peak tonight when he came back early from the Legion, at her request (“Got to get back to Her Highness now hasn’t he?” Sid had smirked to Stan as he left) and as soon as he set foot through the door, she was off.
"What time do you call this?" she thundered, and before he could begin to argue, the floodgates opened.
"I’m fed up with you Malcolm, swanning in drunk at all hours, expecting me to pick up after you, spending half your life in that bloody shed! Well, you can go and sleep in it for all I care, because I am sick to the back teeth of you! And if you think you’re having the racing on all day tomorrow and making me miss the Eastenders omnibus then you’ve got another think coming!” she shouted as she turned to close the curtains; Mary Ladderbanks from next door was watching through her kitchen window.
Malcolm picked up the heavy brass kettle from the fireplace.
Agnes squinted through the gap in the curtains.
"Look at that Mary having a gawp, you’d think she’d never seen a row before!" she clucked. "Oh and another thing Malcolm, next time you come in and track mud all through my front room with your dirty great boots, I’ll…"
There was an almighty thud as Malcolm brought the kettle down on Agnes’s tidy blue rinse.
By now, Malcolm had dug a nice big hole in the garden for Agnes and was covering her up neatly. She’d would’ve liked to see it looking so tidy; she’d been on at him for years to “sort that bloody garden out!”
He surveyed the scene smugly, satisfied with his handiwork. And that was when he saw her. Mary Ladderbanks, peering at him out of her bedroom window.
She must’ve seen everything, he panicked. She would’ve phoned the police, they were probably on their way and he was stood here dawdling! He dropped the spade and ran to the car, pulling his mobile from his pocket as he jumped in.
"I need a ticket on the next flight to Australia please, it’s an emergency," he gabbled into the handset as he sped out of the cul-de-sac.
That’s strange, thought Mary as she climbed into bed. Where could Malcolm be going at this time of night? It’s a good job she hadn’t phoned to warn him about the stranger in his garden, she would’ve looked very silly. After all, she couldn’t see a thing without her glasses.
I’ve been agonizing over it for weeks, how I’ll tell him. Each night, when everyone else has long since fallen asleep, I’ve lain awake turning it over in my mind. My hands, fighting each other in the dark like the voices in my head, fingers interlacing briefly as if in prayer, then splaying apart again.
Now I’m here, on the train. In 45 minutes I’ll be with him, barring any cock-ups by Network Rail. After all that fruitless tossing and turning in sheets sticky with sweat, I still have no idea what I’m going to say.
James and I met when I was in my last year at school. I first saw him at a party; he was eighteen, which seemed so old to me at the time. He was in a different league to the spotty oiks in my year who drew penises in their exercise books and commented on the size of the teacher’s tits.
I thought it was going to be like in the films, when I met “the one” - you know, all that soppy music and rainbows and “cool” one-liners from the floppy-haired leading man. But in reality, that evening when I met James wasn’t particularly romantic or sexy.
It was my best friend Nicole’s party, and James was a friend of her brother, Calvin. We were two of the nicer young people who stayed to clean up the mountains of beer cans, attempt to get red wine out of their mum’s cream carpet, you know the drill. We were assigned to check upstairs, and after removing a booze-soaked heap of abandoned jackets and cardies from the spare room, I wandered into the empty nursery. He followed me in, saying “As if anyone will have come into the baby’s room, Rose.”
"Yeah. Just thought I’d have a look," I said, all cool and offhand like I came to parties every night of the week. "Wait a minute, what’s that glowing under the cot?"
"Probably one of her toys?" he guessed, but he bent down to look all the same.
"Urrrgh!" he grimaced.
"What?" I said, as he extracted the unidentified object, which revealed itself to be a glow-in-the-dark condom. Used.
“Oh niiiice,” I groaned.
He laughed. “In the baby’s room, Christ. Some people have no decency.”
We made a little pact not to tell Nicole and Calvin.
"A little secret we’ll keep to ourselves I think," he grinned, and I nodded.
I hadn’t kept anything from him since. Until now.
He asked me to marry him three weeks after we met. We were staying over at a friends’ house. Supposedly we were going to sleep outside but the rain put paid to that and everyone ran inside except us. We squeezed into the ramshackle shed with our sleeping bags and stayed awake most of the night talking. “I love you, Rose,” he said, and I was so surprised I nearly fell backwards through the rickety old door. “I love you, too,” I whispered, and I meant it.
"Will you marry me?" he asked, suddenly.
"What, really?" I said, bemused.
"Not right now," he smiled, "but in the future. Just promise me you will, one day."
"Ok," I smiled back, as the wind whistled through the cracks in the walls, "I promise."
That was the romance, I suppose. He was a man of few words in that regard, but when he said something I knew he meant it. He bought me a cheap, little token ring from Argos, and I wore it on my engagement finger and lied about how much it cost. It was my most treasured possession.
"Did you get that out of a cracker?" crowed the girls at school, but I’d just ignore them. They were still little girls. I was a woman.
The train is bustling along, moving from stop to stop as quick as you like. For the first time in British transport history I’m hoping for a signal failure. We’ve just passed the Arsenal stadium; thank God it’s not the weekend or a load of marauding Gooners would’ve been crowding up the train, chanting their horrible football songs and swearing in front of kids. I can’t abide that on a usual day, wouldn’t have been able to stand it now. I need time to think. Can’t they slow this thing down?
It feels like a weekend though, because it was always the weekend when I’d go to see James. Years passed like that; school turned into sixth form, the hours and the skirts got shorter but still, the weekend was James time. We didn’t do much really; we couldn’t afford it. We’d go to the cinema sometimes, but mostly we just stayed in and watched telly, like an old married couple. As comfortable as an old pair of slippers. I didn’t get bored, why would I? I’d never known anything different. I was naive, in many ways. I’d never had a boyfriend before.
We were planning on moving in together. His mum found the estate agents’ pamphlets in his room with my handwriting all over them and blew a gasket. She’d never liked me.
"You’re far too young to get this serious!" she’d shouted at us both. He said nothing.
"You stupid girl," she hissed at me, "you don’t know anything about the real world!"
She pointed at my ring, my little silver-plate-and-paste pride and joy. She turned her nose up at it with scorn. “Do you think that means anything?” she laughed. Still he said nothing. I ran upstairs to his room and cried and cried into a pillow until exhaustion forced me to sleep.
"We are now arriving at: Potters Bar" announces the train voice-over in clipped tones. Whenever it stops here I think of the crash, but I never think of the people on the train who died; they knew it was coming. They felt the train lurching about and knew they were doomed, even if only for a split second. I always think of the old lady, Agnes, who got crushed by falling masonry as she was out walking. Her last thoughts weren’t of her loved ones as the train swerved out of control, they were of what to have for tea, or whether Emmerdale was on that night. She didn’t even get the half-second to ponder her own mortality.
The next station call is my stop.
So we didn’t move in together. He was 20 with a part-time job in a pub. I was 18 with four decent A-levels and ambitions of going to University to become an English teacher. On the advice of pretty much everyone I knew, I finished with him and cut off all contact. In fairness, he couldn’t have been that bothered. After a few half-arsed texts and calls which I didn’t answer, he gave up on me.
He must have been surprised by my message on Facebook asking if he wanted to meet up. After all, it’s been nearly five years since the day I walked out of his mum’s house and left him crying pathetically onto the front room carpet. He agreed to come though; is he just curious as to what I want? What I look like now? I wonder if he’s with someone. I should’ve checked, I didn’t even think to look.
Bing-bong. We’re here, I’ve finally got to face him after all this time. What if he doesn’t turn up? What if he takes one look at me and runs in the opposite direction?
"Mummy, is this our stop?"
"Yes darling, we’re here. We’re going to meet your daddy."
Serena jiggled about in anticipation, kicking the back of her mother’s seat with her blue moon boots.
“Are we there yet Mummy?” she sang.
“No, not yet. Stop moving around so much Serena, you’ll get all hot and bothered,” said Emily, who had wrapped her little daughter up warmly against the December chill in her boots, silver Eskimo coat with its furry hood, a woolly hat with earflaps, and mittens.
Emily was distracted. She was very protective of Serena, and this was the first time she’d been allowed over to a friend’s house for tea, all by herself.
“Daisy is my bestest friend Mummy,” burbled Serena excitedly, “She’s got a Peppa Pig car! Can I have a Peppa Pig car for Christmas? Can I Mummy, please?”
“Mmm, we’ll see,” replied Emily, concentrating on the road. They were almost at Daisy’s house in Glendale Close.
Waiting within the imposing iron gates of The Hawthorns was Daisy, jumping up and down and waving at them. Emily parked the car, and they followed Daisy up the drive. Her mother, Claudia, waited on the steps. She looked older than Emily thought she’d be; late forties at least.
“Serena,” Claudia beamed, “Daisy never stops talking about you. And you must be Serena’s mummy.”
“Emily Marchmont,” she introduced herself, as the girls ran inside, squealing and giggling.
“Pleased to meet you,” Claudia smiled, shaking her hand. “Claudia Daykin. Will you be collecting Serena later, or will it be Mr Marchmont?”
Emily blushed. “Erm… it will be me. I’m a single mum.” She looked down at her shoes.
“Oh,” simpered Mrs Daykin, in a way that Emily found faintly patronising. “I see. We’ll see you at 6 o’clock then, Ms Marchmont.”
Emily slunk back down the expansive drive. She sat for a while in the car, staring up at the big house, before driving off.
Inside, Claudia found the girls in Daisy’s playroom.
“Goodness Serena, you must be hot in all those clothes. Let’s go down to the cloakroom shall we?”
She removed the hat, coat and boots from the flustered little girl. Underneath the soft grey mittens, she discovered white cotton gloves.
“Eczema,” explained Serena matter-of-factly, “Can’t take them off. I scratch.”
Later, when the girls had finished their pizza and chips (a rare treat, as Mrs Daykin didn’t believe in junk food on a regular basis), they wrapped up warm again and went into the garden to play in the Wendy house.
Mrs Daykin watched from the kitchen window. She hadn’t expected a girl from an exclusive school like St.Augustine’s to come from a single-parent family. It was strange that Serena hadn’t even taken off her eczema gloves to eat the pizza. Mrs Daykin had suggested maybe she should, to avoid getting tomato sauce on them, but Serena shook her head defiantly and said “Can’t.” Perhaps the girl’s mother was a bit of a hypochondriac. She looked the sort.
Soon the girls came in from the cold, teeth chattering.
“Can we have hot chocolate, please Mummy?” asked Daisy.
“Of course sweetheart,” Claudia replied, “Let’s just go into the sitting room and warm you up, you’re frozen!”
She got them out of their damp boots and led them into the sitting room. As she bent over to light the fire, she noticed Serena behind her, looking into the open grate in puzzlement.
“Why is it like that?” she asked. She seemed bewildered. Surely the girl has seen a fireplace before, thought Mrs Daykin.
“Like what, dear?”
“Ours doesn’t look like that, in my house,” she said, “It has bricks in it.”
“Well,” said Mrs Daykin, “Sometimes when people don’t use their fire anymore, because they have central heating, they brick it up to stop a draft getting in from the chimney.”
Claudia couldn’t tell if Serena had understood this explanation, but she seemed to accept it and wandered over to the settee. Claudia lit the fire, and went into the kitchen to prepare the hot chocolate.
She was warming a pan of milk on the stove when she heard Daisy cry out.
“Mummy! Mummy come quick!”
She hurried into the sitting room, where Daisy pointed to Serena. She was cowering in the furthest corner of the room, eyes fixed ahead, whimpering under her breath. Claudia crouched over her, concerned.
“What is it, dear? Have you hurt yourself?”
“Fire,” Serena whispered. “Fire. The bad man.”
“What bad man, sweetheart? There’s no one here, I promise,” said Mrs Daykin, alarmed by the transfixed expression on the girl’s face as she stared into the flames.
“The bad man!” she repeated, louder this time. “I don’t like fire, I don’t like it I don’t like it!” she almost screamed. She shrank back against the wall, rubbing her hands together furiously.
“Are they itching Serena? Do you have any cream for them?” asked Claudia, wishing fervently she hadn’t been so absent-minded as to not ask the girl’s mother for a phone number.
Serena seemed to ignore her completely, her fingers tearing at each other frantically.
“Stop that! You’ll hurt yourself!” Claudia cried, grabbing at her frenzied hands to try and make her stop.
“No Daddy, no!” shouted Serena, slapping Claudia hard on the cheek. Daisy ran in with a bucketful of water and doused the flames. At this, Serena relaxed; the episode over as quickly as it had begun. She lay on the settee and closed her eyes, without a word.
Claudia ushered Daisy from the room and covered the dozing girl with a blanket. When she had fallen into a deep sleep she cautiously peeled back a white cotton glove. What she saw beneath it caused her to gasp in shock – this wasn’t like any eczema she’d ever seen.
Misshapen little fingers, stumps of nail, blotchy, puckered skin… these were the lasting scars of third-degree burns.