Monthly Archives: March 2014

Girls’ Talk

‘He keeps me on a tight leash,’ Aimee said. We were having dinner in a restaurant made mostly of glass.

Floor to ceiling windows looked out onto the street, giving the impression the rain was on the inside. Ice clinked in tumblers above the narrow frosted tables and razor sharp knees clunked beneath. Everything and everyone in the place was thin and straight. All around were swinging sheets of blonde hair and spiky eyelashes. It was Aimee’s choice, and she looked good there.

‘He’d have to,’ said Becky, who had been Aimee’s ‘partner in crime’ during the two years in our twenties when they were simultaneously single, ‘It’s about time you found someone who can control you!’

‘No, I mean really. He keeps me on a lead.’ Again we all laughed, but Aimee didn’t.

She had been seeing John for about six months and it was about that long since the four of us had got together properly. We wanted to reinstate our old tradition of meeting for dinner, wine and G&Ts on a Friday. These days somehow we were less busy and had less time for each other.

As Aimee had organised the night out, it might have been polite to start with enquiries into her relatively new relationship. However, we first managed to cover: Becky’s wedding plans (specifically, bridesmaid colours – was bronze appropriate for a Spring wedding or would people think it too autumnal – worse still, would the bridesmaids themselves not see that it was bronze but suspect it to be spiteful brown?); Helen’s Baby Joe update (ready for weaning already, clearly more developed than other children his age, sitting up on his own, has his father’s short legs, his mother’s long nose and his grandmother’s left cheekbone); and the general inconvenience of having to work these days, when there is so much else to do (‘I mean, there’s nothing wrong with staying at home, is there, in fact I can probably contribute more to the economy by my spending in Habitat than sitting at a desk all day!’ ‘Oh I agree, and Jason earns enough for both of us anyway, so once we’re married…’)

So it was dessert before we got to Aimee.

Helen hadn’t been able to remember his name.

‘So, Aim, how’s it going with – um – err – sorry, babe, wossisname?’

‘John,’ I said, with a half raised eyebrow at Aimee.

‘It’s going really well. He’s great,’ she smiled, ‘he keeps me on a tight leash.’

‘He’d have to. It’s about time you found someone who can control you!’

‘No, I mean really. He keeps me on a lead.’

After the burst of laughter, there was quite a long pause.

‘Like a dog lead?’

‘A dog lead, yes,’ she seemed to think about it for a minute, ‘and a collar, obviously.’

Aimee was the cleverest and most ambitious of all of us. At least, this is what we would have concluded had we been brave enough to ‘rank’ ourselves in this way. She started out after university as a research assistant for a TV company, working on a soap opera. At twenty-two we had all enjoyed her brief brushes with minor celebrities, lapping up whatever vicarious thrills were to be had whilst acknowledging and admiring the fact that in reality the majority of her job was far from glamorous. She spent most of her time either ‘on location’ (meaning out in the cold, by some canal or other) or in the office swamped in paper and making coffee for more senior colleagues. And in those days, she earned very little. But she worked hard and got promoted into jobs we increasingly didn’t ask about or understand.

We knew she still ‘worked in TV’, though. It was a useful line to trot out at mother and baby groups, according to Helen, as in: ‘I have a friend who works in TV. I know! Something to do with soap operas. Mind you, her life is a bit of a soap opera. Ha ha ha.’

Becky held up a manicured hand.

‘Woah. Is this some kind of kinky bedroom thing, then? Cos I thought we didn’t talk about that stuff any more.’ She and Jason had had some personal problems a few years ago and the girls’ advice (along the lines that perhaps they should try a few more ‘kinky bedroom things’) had not been gratefully received by Becky’s fiance. Since then we had a tacit understanding to remain tight-lipped on sexual subjects.

‘No!’ Aimee leaned forward, ‘Far from it. In fact, we haven’t…we don’t…’ she might have seen the disbelief on three faces because she shrugged, ‘we’re more like best friends than anything else actually.’

I played with the stem of my wine glass, rolling it between finger and thumb, my other hand scrunching and smoothing the napkin on my lap. I didn’t look at the others. Our silence encouraged her to go on.

‘I never have to cook. He feeds me twice a day – and I never wash up! Mostly we snuggle up on the sofa,’ her voice became dreamy, ‘and he sort of – strokes my hair.’ She blushed like a teenager and ran her hand over the back of her own neck and across her shoulder. She giggled, ‘we do go out, as well. We go for lots of long walks.’

‘Well. That sounds nice,’ I said. The others looked at me incredulously.

‘Wait a minute,’ Helen said, ‘go back to the lead thing. You seriously wear a lead?’

‘Well, mainly the collar. And not so much in public, these days,’ she smiled, ‘even when we’re on a long walk. I guess he knows I’ll come back to him!

‘I feel so…playful when I’m with him. I work so hard all day, and when I come home, just running around the garden, messing around with a ball, or lying at his feet, feels really good.’

‘YOU LIE AT HIS FEET?’ This was Becky.

The waiter hovered with the white coated, wet wine bottle. I nodded vigorously and kept nodding until my glass was so full that I had to lean forward and slurp from the rim. Helen, who had been drinking water all night (‘have to think of the dream feed’), and had insisted on having an organic lemon slice in it, grabbed the waiter’s hand and directed it back to the table.

‘Just leave the bottle,’ she instructed. She leaned across the table and took Aimee’s hand.

‘Sweetie,’ (what was this? I had never heard her call anyone ‘sweetie’ before), ‘does he – you know – ?’

She looked around but none of us knew.

‘You know – does he hit you?” Becky and I lurched back as if we had been hit. Aimee, unfazed, said brightly,

‘Oh yes, but only if I’ve been bad,’ she laughed, ‘and it’s only a tap on the nose.’

Helen, having opened this particular line of enquiry, didn’t know where to take it. Becky took over.

‘Aimee, this just…it just isn’t you. Lying at his feet? Wearing a collar?’

‘It’s not like you think,’ Aimee said quietly, ‘I don’t bark or anything.’

‘Course not. Silly me.’

‘Can’t you give me credit for this? It’s probably the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in.’

‘Maybe, but that’s not saying much, is it?’ Becky’s metallic laugh bounced round the restaurant but didn’t return.

Aimee had in many ways been ahead of us all, relationship-wise. She was engaged at twenty-one, when we all thought her and her well-heeled thirty year old fiance impossibly sophisticated. And again at twenty-four (to someone else). Then followed a couple of years of being single, focusing on the career and enjoying ‘dating’, for a change. That proved to bore her as well. Another engagement, another break-up, and although none of us would have said so, it seemed we had all caught her up. Then we overtook her, in turn jogging past the engagement, marriage, children milestones. At times we got sweaty or out of breath, but the three of us were getting there, and more or less at the same time. Aimee, meanwhile, had surprised us by seeming quite happy to jog on the spot, her trainers pristine, waving us on. We’d been amazed when she rented out her hi-spec city centre apartment, valet parking, designer bathroom and all, to move in with John, ‘because he has a garden’. Sort of made sense, now.

‘If I’m happy, what’s the problem?’ No-one said anything. ‘I’ve had failure after failure. No, don’t interrupt me – oh, don’t see it as failure, you’ve all said. It’s not like that, it’s not your fault things have gone wrong, it takes two, blah blah blah. Don’t worry, you’ve always said. But that’s easy to say when it’s not you. And you know what else? You’re liars, because you don’t really think any of those things you say. You think I’m a nightmare. My love life’s a disaster. I’m a laugh a minute though, I’m entertaining. Aren’t I? Top entertainment. Life and soul.

‘If any of you had bothered to ask, you’d know how John and I met.’ We all looked at our drinks. She went on,

‘About six months ago, I had a car accident. On the ring road, on the way home from work. It was dark, it was wet, I skidded – hit the central reservation – totally trashed the front of my car.’ I looked up at this point, straight into her unblinking eyes, ‘I called every one of you, shivering at the side of the road, while I waited for the recovery vehicle.’

Shit. I remembered that phone call. I’d let it ring out and then listened to the voicemail, but all I could hear was rain. I didn’t call her back. Apparently none of us did.

‘Oh, don’t tell me,’ said Becky, ‘John was the rescue man.’

‘No.’

‘The policeman?’ There was something cruel in Helen’s voice.

‘No. He was just a stranger. Someone kind who couldn’t go by.’

The waiter brought coffees I didn’t remember ordering but I downed mine anyway. The restaurant was emptying and I noticed the music had been turned right down.

‘He saw the car first,’ Aimee was saying quietly, ‘still in the outside lane, crushed. He thought whoever was in that car must have died. Then he saw me, on my own, soaking wet.’

‘His very own stray,’ Helen muttered.

‘He ran up the hard shoulder towards me. He took care of me. He brought me back to life – that’s what it felt like – back to my life. So now he can do what he wants with it.’

It was an awkward way to part, practically shoved out of the restaurant, hovering in the doorway making no moves towards our usual hugs and hollow promises of next dates. The only one of us who seemed cheerful was Aimee; she skipped into the street.

Helen and Becky lived near each other and, with a perfunctory goodbye to me, they ambled down the pavement, arms linked, whispering. I just stood, letting cabs go by me, looking out into the night. I felt as though the three of us had just sat an exam, and failed, but the only one who was troubled by it was me.

Suddenly I noticed Aimee was standing across the street. A Range Rover pulled up to the kerb, slowing carefully so as not to splash her. She clambered in and in the glow of the car’s interior light, I saw John for the first time. He was dark haired, clean shaven; handsome, by most people’s standards. He looks normal, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking.

Next Aimee was in his arms, mouthing something into his ear, and he was glancing back towards the restaurant, shaking his head and laughing. Then they were kissing – really kissing, passionately, there in the front of the car, even while its door was still ajar and a little rain was spraying in onto the seats. I remembered what she’d said to us, we’re more like best friends than anything else. I wondered how much of what she’d said had been true, and realised I’d probably never know for sure.

The door closed, the light went out, and as the car pulled away I suddenly knew I wouldn’t see Aimee again. But I also knew in that moment that she was happy, and I thought, good. Good for you. I pulled up my collar and walked home, smiling, in the rain.

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Yellow Roses

The gravel crunches under the wheels as I swing into the drive, take the familiar sweeping bend to the car park. 

The building has a grand facade (‘only the best,’ our mother had said as she signed him in), but the inside is shabby, I’ve always thought. Faded wallpaper that peeled at the corners. Dust on the lamps.

I’m relieved to find that my father isn’t in the day room. I pass by its half-open door, through which babbling and muttering drift into the hall. The aftermath of breakfast reaches my nostrils, the unmistakeable smell of cold fat and fried mushrooms. They must figure, what’s the point of worrying about clogging up their arteries, now?

‘A little of what you fancy…’ the cheery nurse (who also serves as waitress) often says with a wink, but she never finishes her sentence.

I sign in at the desk, as per the rules, but today my moniker is an indeterminate scrawl that could belong to either of my two sisters as well as to me. The staff barely nod as I climb the stairs to Father’s bedroom, carrying flowers, as I often do. Yellow roses, his favourite.

 

 

He was jolly, my Dad, through the years of our childhood. Whisky drinkers often are. Red-faced and big-bellied, he made everyone laugh. He was a councillor, a mason, he threw extravagant parties and ran charity events for local causes. Everyone knew him and he ran an ‘open house policy’, with the result that our home was always busy and always noisy. We often came home from school to find a neighbour at the kitchen table and Dad making them coffee or, more often, pouring them a ‘proper’ drink. 

My two sisters, my brother and I were all born within a period of five years. ‘I was a baby-making machine for a while,’ our mother would laugh. We loved hearing her stories of her ‘own little creche’, of the times when we were all tiny. She told them so vividly we felt as though we could really remember those times. She was careful to give each of us at least one individual characteristic, so we would know we hadn’t just melded into an amorphous baby shape in her memory. I have no idea whether these recollections are true.

Jane came first, and was reportedly an angel baby. She never cried, she measured up in every way she was supposed to and often hit her developmental milestones ahead of time. ‘If I’d had any of the rest of you first, I might not have had any more,’ Mum used to joke, ‘Jane was a little treasure.’ 

Next was Tom, the first and as it would turn out only boy, which must have been a great disappointment to Dad especially as he was sickly and underweight (Dad valued physical prowess above other qualities) and would never be interested in sport. He took a great liking to books, though, and Mum would often recount how he was the first of any of us to write his name, and used to read bedtime stories to the rest of us by the time he was six.

I was next, unremarkable apart from my apparently nascent insistence on doing everything for myself. I would go to nursery with shoes on the wrong feet, hair pulled awkwardly into uneven bunches, but if anyone tried to help, to improve on my efforts, I would scream.

Beth was blonde haired and sparkly eyed, playful and carefree seemingly from birth, and still is. Beth was the chatterbox, I guess she had to be to get a word in edgeways. She was telling us all off, Mum and Dad included, from her highchair.

 

 

 

I rap softly on the door and push it open. My father’s room reminds me of my own from college, years ago. A single bed, a desk, an armchair. A little sink and vanity unit. A bedside table piled high with sudoku books. He is astonishingly fast at solving sudoku, as though the engine in one part of his brain now angles and grinds at double speed even as the remainder shudders to an unfuelled halt and, piece by piece, falls motionless.

My father sits in his chair, shrivelled and yellowing, like a leaf turned in on itself.

‘Hello,’ I say with a half-wave. 

He looks up and as usual I wait in vain for the flicker of recognition in his eyes, and as usual am met with blankness. There must be a fraction of his old affability left, though, because he replies politely, as he always does,

‘Well, hello.’

I follow the usual rituals: check the wastepaper bin, open and close the drawers of the desk, then kneel and run my hands under the mattress. I’m looking for the miniatures Beth sometimes sneaks in for him, even though she knows he’s not supposed to be drinking. I guess she thinks the damage is already done. I don’t know why I’m bothering, today of all days, but it’s a habit, like everything else. 

‘How have you been?’ I ask. He looks at me as though he doesn’t really know.

‘So-so,’ he says finally. 

‘You look well.’ This isn’t true, of course. His cardigan hangs on the pointy bones where his strong shoulders and arms used to be. His features are different, fox-like, now they’re not couched in ruddy pockets of flesh. His eyes are watery and droop at the edges.  He needs a shave; Mum mustn’t have been for a few days.

Every now and then he smooths imaginary creases out of his trousers.

‘My divorce has come through, Dad,’ I say lightly as I arrange the roses in a jug on the windowsill. It’s my second divorce; the first one didn’t register with him either. He’s been like this for some years now, although he was still at home with Mum when my first marriage fell apart. I moved back in with them for a time but couldn’t get away quick enough, away from her stifling concern and his indifference.

‘I see,’ he says, although he doesn’t.

‘So I’m alone again, officially.’

 

 

 

We girls are regular visitors, at least once a week each. Mum is erratic: sometimes she comes every day, sometimes she leaves it a fortnight or more, when her ‘nerves are bad’. Tom can’t bear it, says the place makes him gloomy. 

‘And what on earth do you talk to him about?’ he often asks.

‘Oh, it’s easy,’ I laugh, ‘you can say the same thing over and over, it doesn’t matter.’

This is true, and in my loneliest times I’ve come here just to hear the sound of my own voice somewhere other than in an empty room. I suppose that’s why I bother to visit, in spite of everything. I can say anything to him, it barely registers. If I were to say something unpleasant, it might prompt a confused flutter of the eyelids, but within seconds the gormless grin would be back. I can’t affect him, now. I’ve left it too late.

 

 

 

‘If he’s going to be taken from us,’ Mother would sigh when it first became apparent he was ill, ‘I would rather it was like this.’

I couldn’t believe it. She would choose this for him, for his brain, his very personality, to just rot slowly away? I would rather cancer, heart failure, a car crash.

‘At least this way he’s not in pain,’ she stroked my hair as though I was still a little girl, ‘he’s happy, in his way. Ignorance is bliss.’

Yes, I thought, it is.

I wished he had cancer instead.

 

 

 

Dad used to love the garden; he always had dirt under his fingernails. On hazy afternoons, under the pagoda, my sisters would clamber into his lap for cuddles, letting him tickle them while they made feeble protests and laughed until they coughed; but not me. He would watch me over his glasses as he called them both ‘good girl’, but not me, never me. What he never said, but what I felt as a knot of iron in my chest, was that I wasn’t a good girl, and maybe this was why he only cuddled me at night.

 

 

 

‘Those flowers are pretty,’ he says.

‘Yes, they’re your favourite,’ I nod, ‘I’ve put a paracetemol in the water. It makes them last longer. Isn’t that funny?’

‘Mmm.’

 

 

 

The first time it happened, it was only the weight of him on the mattress, a hand resting on my back, a few indecipherable whispers. That was all. I asked him the next morning why he’d climbed into my bed. Mum was making scrambled eggs and I saw the wooden spoon pause for a second and then keep turning. He looked puzzled, the same vacant stare that would become his de facto expression years later, then released his booming laugh.

‘I don’t even remember,’ he chortled, stroking his chin with one hand and ruffling my hair with the other, ‘I must have been sleepwalking!’

I never asked again.

 

 

 

The sun is getting low and I know it’s nearly time to leave.

My fingertips brush the contents of my bag and I make a silent inventory for the twentieth time today. Wallet. Pills, various. Hairbrush. Compact. Small bottle with dropper. Passport: my photograph, someone else’s name.

 

 

 

I didn’t think any of the others knew. I didn’t understand how they could not know; I would wake up feeling that I had his smell on me, whisky and aftershave and sweat. I would take long baths while a procession of feet marched to and from the bathroom and hands of varying sizes rapped and hammered at the door.

It was years later that Jane, perfect daughter, perfect sister, turned to me in a smoky bar one night and asked, in the same tone she might ask me to pass her a menu,

‘Why you? Why not me?’

I blinked at her, turned away and never spoke to her again. 

 

 

 

‘I’m going to be going away, Dad,’ I tell him, ‘so I might not see you for a while.’ He is unmoved by this and says,

‘Well, that’s nice.’ I’m about to speak again when he perks up suddenly and adds, ‘Somewhere hot?’

I laugh.

‘Hotter than here.’ I reach into my bag, ‘Will you have a little drink with me?’

As I pull out the bottle, his eyes brighten. You haven’t forgotten everything, then, I think. They say you always remember your first love.

I take two tumblers from the little cupboard below his sink and turn away from him as I mix the drinks. He doesn’t see the dropper, or the way I swill his around the glass for a little longer than mine.

‘Down the hatch,’ I say, smiling, ‘Cheers.’

 

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