Portraits from a town

Some people would draw it but I choose words for my pictures. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food  before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town. What were the people like? who lived there?

Sameness came late in life. It didn’t have enough time to bed in. She always felt on the outer, even now. She still knew single women who owned bright scarves and loose fitting summer dresses. They danced on beaches in the moonlight in holiday brochures. In reality they drank cocktails and read racy novels by pools in places that were out of season, holidaying in weather that was slightly overcast.

She had learned to cry silently, just let the tears fall out of her eyes with no sound. She could do it anywhere. There was not the time or space to cry in front of anyone. She realised now that all women learned this skill somewhere. It was only men for whom tears were a show and tell session.

She supposed the house was nicely decorated. She did not know. It was the same with how she looked. She wasn’t indifferent just unsure. Maybe mirrors lied? She could never see her own image without seeing herself. She wanted to know what she looked like without knowing who she was, that way she could judge her looks objectively. How else could she know, how did anyone know? She didn’t know if other people had that problem and there was no one to ask.

The house was meant to be like her clothes, an extension of herself.  The walls were, grey, blue. Magnolia. Colours she never wore. She found it hard to see herself reflected back in décor. The whole idea seemed as elusive as the image in the mirror. It was a skill you could not learn. The house was a house. Nothing more. The car was the same. Things she knew she should be grateful for even though the weight of them on her shoulders…it was best not to think about it.

Then there was him. She did love him but she wasn’t sure he noticed. She couldn’t help thinking that if he had to choose between her and the sofa that the sofa might win. Or the telly. And almost certainly she was second to his phone. She had learned to cook, convinced herself to enjoy it. Convinced herself there was purpose in this life of looking after others. Contrary to her politics, to what she had spent her life saying, she had ‘settled down’. The emphasis she had realised too late was on the ‘down’.  

Trying to tell herself there was meaning in ironing someone’s shirts. It was bullshit. There was no meaning. The shirts were just ironed. They would need ironing next week. Wasn’t she lucky, she had a roof over her head? But when she added it up, the roof,  in exchange for the ironing? It had looked like a good deal on paper but was not so good in real life.

She knew she was meant to be happy and by comparison maybe she was. It was like the mirror, she didn’t really know. Certainly, there was no time to sit by a pool in overcast weather and read a book. Shouldn’t she be grateful for that? Except somewhere she wondered if women with bright scarves were actually dancing on beaches. 

She loved her children. They were both special and ordinary. There was no great tragedy to interrupt her days. No cataclysmic existential mountain she had to climb except everyday mundane existence. The ignomy of housework, the tedium of tidying up, the emotional hefting of small children, then big children. There was no war to suffer through, no hurdle that a tradesperson couldn’t overcome.

She loved her burgundy jacket with the same passion which she had once marched against-she couldn’t remember what she had marched against. Maybe she hated the jacket. Emotions were hard to separate when your time was spent moving the emotions between family members. His needs, childrens needs, someone else’s needs. Her thoughts and feelings only existed in the gaps. There were hardly any gaps. She went from yoga to pilates, to yoga again, sipping stupid ineffective diet tea along the way. She wore last seasons lip colour and this seasons nails.

She had friends but no one to talk to. She drank coffee in a place with an Italian name because otherwise it wasn’t real coffee, except that real coffee was grown in a different hemisphere. None of it made any sense. She tried hard, so hard, just to belong.

But hidden in the box in the back of the wardrobe, a place no one ever looked. In a box with a lock and key, hidden from the whole world, inside that box, written on a piece of paper-the name of a beach and bright, sparkly, brilliantly coloured –scarves.

Portraits from a town

Some people would draw it but I choose words for my pictures. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town.

She looks at the girl across the street. The loose fitting uniform, the smug jacket, walking beside the older woman, probably her mother. Her own uniform is tight. Curves. She likes it that way, in any event there is no money. She watches them from her spot on the wall. They don’t notice her.

The girl is talking to the woman. The woman is leaning into listen, brow furrowed as if she is thinking about what is being said. She wonders what that feels like. She wonders what the woman is thinking, what the girl is thinking? Probably they are both bored.

Her world is mostly shouting. She has not had a conversation like that with anyone recently. She is always talking loudly, too loudly. Everybody says that. She does that because she hopes they hear. But it seems no matter how loud she speaks no one hears. That girl, the one over the road is not speaking very loudly at all and still her voice is being heard. Perhaps if she looked like that?

She whispers things to herself in the night. But only silly things, like, you are really pretty. But then sometimes other things, like, you aren’t worth anything. Silent tears because she is never alone, there is never space in the house to be alone. No one notices. She is better off out here in the world. There are boys, boys out here. They are not the kind on the telly.

One of them grabbed her once, well actually it was two of them, but the details aren’t important she tells herself. At least it was a human touch. They just felt. They didn’t do anything. She had kicked one of them. She knew she had kicked hard. She hoped it hurt but worried that it hurt too much. She wanted to be a good girl, but a good girl for who.

For the boys? ‘Let me touch, but don’t tell’. For the teachers? ‘Study hard and if not be quiet so others can’. For her Mum? ‘Be invisible, you were a mistake, if you can’t be invisible be quiet.’ They all had a definition of a ‘good girl’ and she fitted none of them. She was loud but still no one heard. Soon she suspected she would have to choose what kind of ‘good girl’? There would be no time. It would be random, chance. There was no one to tell her. No one to listen to the questions she had.

Somehow she knew she would choose the boys. Everybody did, didn’t they? Maybe not the girl over the road. She wasn’t over the road, she was here on the wall. Soon she would be drinking, maybe try their drugs. She didn’t know. She was gravitating towards the people who could give her something, anything. She would be popular. She would belong. She would be their kind of ‘good girl’. She didn’t want that, but at least they heard her. Sometimes at least. It was touch, human touch.

Still she looked at the girl across the street, walking and talking with the woman who was probably her mother. How did that kind of belonging feel? She wondered. Someone to listen. Someone who thought you might have something to say. She could imagine the measured tone, the careful answers. No shouting. Sometimes her mother looked right through her, at one of the others, at something they had done.

Inside her head she knew stuff, knew she could know stuff. She was clever, it was such a long time since anyone had told her she was clever. She was the only person who knew she was clever. She kept it hidden. There simply wasn’t the space for it. If she just hadn’t had to scream so loudly for someone to notice, to please notice. What was it like to have someone who noticed?

The getting home time was getting later and no one noticed. The clothes were getting tighter, not just because that was what she wanted but because that was all there was. No one noticed.

She knew chances and time were running out. She had the urge to run across the street and grab the woman by the arm and scream, me, me, me, listen to me, I am worth it. She looked at her shoes. She knew she wasn’t. Wasn’t worth the teachers time, her mothers time, her father-no idea. No ones time. No one had time to listen. The voice had gotten louder, the actions more outrageous. She was a lost cause. No going back, just going on further and further down the hill. Like a car crashing over the barrier and down the bank.

They could put on the brakes, any of them could reach out and put on the brakes. But her car kept careening down the hill. The louder she was, the less she was heard. No one heard her scream as the car slid into the bottomless lake at the foot of the hill. She sank quietly into the mire. Seen without being seen. Loud yet voiceless. Even as she struggled through the water, she imagined a hand reaching down. What had happened to that girl across the street, in the nice uniform, where was her hand.

There were simply no hands. She struggled for every breath. Still she drowned in the weightless expectation of a failure that wasn’t hers. Screaming as loudly as she could. She drowned. No one noticed.

Portraits from a town 2

I have chosen words for my picture. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food  before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town. Who lives somewhere like that.

In the darkness she touches herself. There was boy once, when she was young. They fumbled behind the shed, each eager to make a new experience. She adored him. And then he met the other. Her, perfect skin, long hair and that was that. She had stoically remained friends but he never answered her hello’s again. It was like she had ceased to exist. Her feelings she discovered had been hers and hers alone. She buried that humiliation and never let it near the surface. Perhaps the other girl was dead by now. Died young or something.

There had been another boy after that but then perfect skin, perfect teeth, long hair had intervened again. She had at least the thought of that one never having seen her near naked. No one had ever seen her fully naked. She wondered if she had ever been beautiful. In any event it was too late for that now.

She often walked past the same younger woman in the street. She always said hello. She wondered if she should have gone in that direction, but then that direction had never been allowed when she was young.

There were two brothers and a gaggle of nieces and nephews. She tried to help, to be part of their lives.  One was married to a perfect skinned, chiselled cheekboned woman who never wanted the help. The other brother, the one she almost never saw, she thought he harboured a dark secret. He didn’t want anyone to know. She suspected but stayed away. The door would always be open to his daughter, no matter what. Families were difficult.

She was the second daughter, the one born to look after parents in their old age. Parents who had in the end, died regrettably young. The other daughter, the sister so close when they were young, is gone, somewhere far away. Married. Happy. She doesn’t hear. There is family in the old country. She has meaning there and yet the walls are filled with smiling faces who have never visited.

She is not unhappy but happiness has eluded her too. A sheltered life, she wished she’d been braver. What if she’d taken off her knickers behind the shed. She thinks that now, but then it was a sin.

There never seemed to be a time when the opportunity was there and the morals noose she had been brought up with had loosened to allow it all to happen. She had been ready to fall in love when she was young, but could not bring herself to ‘give in’ too early in the game. Now she was ready for the physicality of it but the opportunity never presented itself. The moral noose had loosened, long after the body had its day.  She looked at the men on the train in the morning. At hands with wedding bands and hands without and tried to make sense of why some had found love and some had not. She remained perplexed.

The house was hers. She owned it and she was proud of that. Her own space. No one, not even the government could take that from her. It was small but with only her it always felt bigger than she needed. The immaculate dining room that was never used, she ate in front of the telly, dinner on her lap.

The kitchen where she cooked more food than she could usually eat. Her clothes always washed and ironed, what else was there to do. The abandoned exercise bike in the room upstairs with the empty bed for the people who never came to stay. She enjoyed her job, thank goodness she enjoyed her job. The grass was done, the garden done, she paid someone, couldn’t be bothered to do it herself.

In the mornings she washed herself deliriously in the shower in the morning, full of life and vigour –maybe once but not anymore. The bones creaked more often now and the hair had more signs of grey. The home done colour would not last for much longer. She struggled into panty hose a size too small and told herself no one noticed the lines cutting into her midriff. No one did, it was expected of a woman of her age. Her hips were built for mythical children that belonged to a mythical man. All she could tell you about him was that he had a moustache. She liked the idea that it would tickle. There was nothing else about him she could really envision anymore. The perfect sculpted boy of her youth had eluded her. The gentle aging with children at her feet had passed her somewhere in the night.

She was not happy. She was not unhappy. There were friends and holidays and her job. There were box sets and movies. It was simply not how she expected it to be, there was no narrative that had prepared her for this life. The spinster aunts she had known had all found a way of parenting another’s children. She had not. She touched herself in the darkness, it made her happy.

The Essex Zombie Code-Part 1

Rule Number 1: We talk about the Zombie Code. All the time.

Why? How else would anybody else know how to avoid the Zombies. It’s logic.

We are not a secret club of overhyped, underdone men in shirts. When we take our clothes off, we are a shade of orange fake tan that is peculiar to Essex. And we do bling. Proper bling. Our teeth are regular and bright, very bright but not our own. Our nails sparkle, our eye lashes are measured in inches and our hair extensions are the tresses of legend. This is Essex.

And we talk about the Zombie Code. Relentlessly.

How did it start?

Well!

It started on a very ordinary spring day according to social media, although that could have been filters. If you had been in London and looked towards Essex you would have seen a faint orange glow in the sky. Normal! The good people of Essex were preparing for their holidays, covering their winter skins with an extra layer so they were beach ready for Spain, France, Portugal, or Clacton.

If you turned and looked the other way, there was a sort of blackness, a kind of grey dust that was billowing up and being blown away from you. Pretty normal for London, only this cloud was thicker than most and had random hues to it, some beige, some grey, some more black.

You might have caught the smell of fake tan from the Essex direction, born in on the gentle spring breeze. From the other direction the foul stench of something else was being blown around. You couldn’t smell it yet though, the wind was going west.

Nonetheless there was an air of apprehension that even the promise of summer sunshine on a mispronounced island somewhere in the Med. couldn’t obliterate. About mid afternoon the wind changed direction and the orange cloud blew itself back to Essex. If you had been sat drinking coffee outside in London you would have realised:

a) that London wasn’t built for outside dining and

b) the wind was now blowing in pieces of rotting human flesh.

The odd coloured flakes on top of your coffee were not extra chocolate sprinkles on your cappuccino, they were fleshy particles from someones arm.

The stench would have overwhelmed you as you hurried into Liverpool St station and like me, perhaps you took the last train out of London towards Chelmsford. You didn’t know then that it was the last train. It wasn’t anymore crowded than usual, meaning there were no seats available. The signalling stopped working halfway. Normal!

You would have arrived home at the usual time, 28 minutes overdue, two minutes short of when you are owed compensation by the train company. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary on that journey.

Because what you and I didn’t know was that as we sped (ok this bit isn’t true-there were of course speed restrictions because it was hotter than 19 degrees) out of London, the zombie hordes had hit the outskirts and were making their way through London, feasting on the flesh of  Londoners on the way.

Later on that evening at the London-Essex border, the wave of zombies, the notorious eaters of life- stopped. They simply stopped. It was as if the good people of Essex had built a wall. Without having to shut down the government to do it.

In the first few days refugees from other places who’d somehow survived poured in. They were mostly smartly dressed Londoners who had somehow escaped the zombie’s clutches. Slipping over the metaphorical wall they rode their electric bicycles into Essex. They demanded wi-fi access and avocado toast and places in the best schools and the best tables at restaurants. They were appalled by the velvet tracksuits, leather skirts, heels and diamantes that seemed to infest Essex. They stumbled along in their designer flip flops, loose fitting but well cut trousers, clutching their yoga mats and gawping at the locals.

In a case of 21st century paranoia at its worst, we funnelled these refugees over the Thames and into Kent with a promise of better retail outlets and proper coffee. Then we used their yoga mats and their supplies of avocados to plug the Dartford Tunnel. Their electric bikes were strung out along the beaches like barbed wire to prevent any of them returning.  It was the mood of the times and not a proud moment in the history of Essex.  When we look back now as the sole county that survived, we misjudged, maybe not on the avocado toast, but certainly the rest of it.

I was doing A-level design at the time hoping to get into gel-nail science at university. My friend and I would trek to the border each day just to try and get a selfie with the really gross flesh eating zombies. Not easy. We didn’t know what was holding the hordes back. No one did. We just knew we seemed immune. When approached they fell back en masse  as if we had a disease. The stench was overwhelming. We did occasionally get close. The trick was to get the selfie without getting too much rotting flesh on your clothes. I can’t remember which one of us suggested trying to figure out why we seemed repellent to the zombie hordes.

It didn’t take is long. We bared our teeth, no reaction. We flashed our gel nails, batted inch long eyelashes at them. Nothing. What drove them back we discovered was a flash of our fake tanned arms or a leg perhaps.

And then when we were sure, when we were absolutely sure, we started the Code. We posted it on-line for the world to see, well what’s left of the world, which thankfully includes the internet. It turns out zombies don’t like the smell or taste of a fake tan. They want real untouched human flesh. Who knew? And now, now we only have one problem in Essex- the fake tan-it won’t last forever.

Next week:

Rule Number 2 We use fake tan sparingly-ish and we don’t negotiate with zombies, Ever-ish. (it’s a code not a law).

There’s a man asleep in my coffee-part 5

A happy ending…at last.

 

Love-who gets is. Sometimes you find it in the oddest places. A coffee cup. A café. A theft. A law suit-well several law suits.

The dairy queen on my dresser, well, she just said the obvious. ‘Dairy don’t mix’ in some odd dialect. He wasn’t coming back. He never came back. Let me dispel your romantic notions here and now. Never hook up with a bloke who sleeps in coffee. He will break your heart and ruin your diet forever. Not to mention you becoming the one everybody stares at when you order a double soy latte-ccino-mochagato skinny, no sugar- please.  

He moved on. Just like that. Out my door. No warning. Just milk stains on my carpet and chocolate sprinkles for air freshener.

He met a girl –apparently. One of his own ‘kind’- in a latte in Shoreditch.

I needed to put my life back together. I went from café to café. I ordered coffee that I couldn’t bring myself to drink, even when I could remember what was ethical.

Then finally I ended up back there, where it all started, at that café. Even though someone else was running it now. I endured months and months of loneliness. I lived at the café. Literally. I put up a small tent under the table. The waitress convinced the new owners it was ok. They all thought I would get through it-eventually. My parents paid some nominal rent. The waitress was kind and sweet.

I lived on cookies from glass jars on the counter. My parents put all my stuff into storage. I washed myself in the café sink. I knew it couldn’t go on but how to stop it?  

I became something of a fixture. People wanted selfies with me. No one quite got it. They didn’t believe he existed, had ever existed.  Then a few people got it. They formed a self help group-for them not for me.

I slept curled up in a ball because there was no room under a table to stretch out. I worked on my lap top in my tent.

And then one day ‘he’ walked in. Just like that-‘he’ walked in.

No not him, the other one, the former owner. ‘He’ was ecstatic. ‘He’ had finally tracked me down and I would be brought to justice. He stood outside my tent door. I could almost feel the sense of victory emanating from his shins in through my tent flaps. I could see the shadow of his legs when the sun came through the window- at that angle, at that time, on that day. Justice and vengeance wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was-nice legs. He must have lost some weight.  

It was fate. After half an hour of just staring at his legs in shadow, I emerged from the tent. I only received visitors on the floor. So he sat down. I motioned the waitress to bring my usual order.

We sat crossed legged on the floor while café life went on around us. I can’t even tell you how it happened. He looked at me. I looked at him. For the first time since it all happened, our eyes met. I remembered those eyes from before. His look of terror as I had stolen his cup. My look of horror as he had sought to wake my love from his sleep.

He handed me court documents. That was to be expected. I rolled my eyes. He had slimmed down, cleaned himself up. He was even dressed better. I, on the other hand, hadn’t washed that week, had lost my hairbrush and was waiting for my mother to bring me more toothpaste. They say love is blind.

We just sat there staring at each other across court documents. Thousands of pounds in law suits. The silence only broken when my actual body odour caused him to take out a handkerchief and cover his mouth. He had loud pockets, full of change that jangled as he struggled to get the handkerchief out. Still our eyes stayed locked.

I could see the chocolate sprinkles on the handkerchief. I raised my eyebrows and he spoke, ‘I like the smell.’ And that was it, at that moment. I think I knew without really knowing. I smiled. He smiled.

I took out the last £10 I had and paid him for the cup. He nodded. We weren’t in love, at least not yet. But we both knew there was a possibility. A chance.

He came back every day after that. We sat and talked about the law suits, about how we would pay them. He agreed that arm was definitely a strain and not a break and the coffee can’t have been that hot. He deliberately had the machine set at a lower temperature to save money. It would have been lucky to be lukewarm but he didn’t feel he could say that in court. In the end he did anyway.

I showed him the photo of the man asleep in the cup and he-he believed me.

And slowly, so slowly we fell in love. I washed more often. Combed my hair on Tuesdays as well as Thursdays. Arranged for my toothpaste to be delivered and in a giant step forward I moved the tent to a corner of the cafe so it wasn’t in everyones way. The waitress watched on, intrigued, startled. All those apps and this, a moment like this had never happened before. Long, slow burn, effort made, effort rewarded, love.

Eventually he and I bought a house in the country, near some sheep. I put up a huge tent in the backyard and we got married. We use the facilities in the house. There was no puffy white dress. We went for a cowboy theme crossed with hipster café culture that you won’t find on the internet-well you probably will because what is a hipster if not a cowboy who can’t find a horse and uses his phone like a gun.

We lived sometimes happily and sometimes sadly ever after. I never saw anybody asleep in a coffee cup ever again. Being honest I went back to cappuccinos and I never looked that hard. Perhaps I have eaten his children inadvertently doused in sprinkles of chocolate. I like to think that perhaps dairy has moved on. I started to consider the inherent rudeness of sleeping in a beverage paid for by someone else. I got angry, then sad and then acceptance that you can drink coffee even though you know there is a risk involved. That love turns up in the weirdest of places and that love-love outruns us all.

There’s a man asleep in my coffee-part 4

And then one morning I woke up. And he? He was gone…read more

And then one morning I woke up. And he? He was gone. An empty coffee cup next to my bed, the milk cold and lifeless. He had slipped out in the night.

Just when I thought we had connected. We’d discussed our plans, set a timeframe, made a spreadsheet. I’d even changed my status to vegan on social media.

I sat on the sofa hugging a cushion hoping I was wrong, but I could see the trail of milk across the carpet and down the hall.

He had snuck under the door and gone! Just gone!

He can’t have gone far. I mean he was only an inch high so speed was not an issue. Nonetheless I failed to find him. I spent the morning going from coffee shop to coffee shop, ordering cappuccinos and leaving before I drank them. I still do that a lot. It’s been a struggle.

There was and has been no trace of him except the milky sludge trail on the carpet which I had to clean before the landlord inspected. There wasn’t even a note. Nothing. Just gone!

My parents tried to console me. That didn’t last, They are now serving beef at dinner parties as if the whole thing never happened. My mother was back on butter within a fortnight. Gone are the soy lattes, replaced with full cream mochaccinos, mocking me as if my pain meant nothing.

I spend lonely nights sitting on the sofa with the TV on. I don’t watch it. I spend my time scouring the internet for some kind of clue, for someone else who has had this experience.

I have found nothing. It seems there is no place on the internet for dairy based humans. My friends are worried. I am not. I am determined. They keep trying

I don’t want flesh and bone, I want dairy. I am sticking with dairy, there’s not even a question about that on Tinder btw.

The cup is still by my bed. I left it as it was until the stench of milk gone off was more than I could bear. I cleaned it and put it back. It is still there, along with a container of chocolate sprinkles. It’s as if he never left.

I say hello to the cup when I get home from work. I say goodnight and good morning to it.

I buy chocolate sprinkles and just open the tin, letting the sprinkles spread and waft in the air throughout the whole flat. No one visits so it doesn’t matter.

I have all the coffee ads downloaded on my phone. I am looking for clues. I have watched them all a 1000 times. Sometimes I think I see something but then it turns out to be nothing other than poor CGI.

I returned Tom Thumb to the library because that is a fairy tale and my life is not a fairy tale. It was well overdue. I had to ask my parents for the money to pay the fine.

I look at cottages on farms with cows all afternoon at work. I hope. Christmas is coming and I hope.

I thought that vegans might be on side but they hate me. People they say, no matter who they are, should not sleep in coffee made with diary. I tried to explain but they won’t listen.

I am alone. Even my parents have tried to convince me it wasn’t real and even if it was he isn’t coming back.

I have been back to that coffee shop. Its changed hands. I sit at the table where we first met. I am a regular. The same waitress is still there. We are friends now. She is the only person that believes me. Even though she didn’t see it, she has seen the pictures. And she believes me. Or at least she feels so sorry for me that she pretends. And isn’t that the basis for a lot of friendships?

And then –one evening. I could smell it as soon as I walked in the door. The subtle blend of frothy cappuccino milk and chocolate sprinkles. Fresh dairy. My heart skipped a beat. I literally ran towards my room and the cup.., and the cup… and there in front of me on top of the bedside table, there is. There he is. I am looking at him.

But it’s not him. It’s not him. It’s a her!

I sit on the bed. She looks me up and down. She is too small to look up and down so I just look.

She perches on the edge of the saucer. Then in a less squeaky voice than I imagined she said, ‘I thought you’d have a hat?’

That’s sass for you. Here she is in my house, perched on his saucer and she wants to talk clothes. These dairy types, they focus on the froth. I learned that the hard way

I reach for my cowboy hat that I had hidden under the bed since he left.

It cost me a packet and I had bought it ready for the farm. I had only worn it a few times. Mostly just to work. It never felt quite right in the office.

So we say there staring at each other, her in her hat and me in mine.

‘Where is he?’ I finally asked.

‘Oh honey,’ she said and I knew what was coming.

Nonetheless I went to the kitchen to get some honey anyway. Apparently it makes for smoother coffee than sugar when you sleep in cappuccinos-something about sugar in your shirt. I sat the jar of honey on the dresser next to her. I took off the lid. I could see her trying to inhale the fumes. I didn’t like her already. I waited for what was coming next.

What happened-find out next week-who is she? Does he come back. Read more next week.

It was her hands

It was her hands. The face was old, lined, wrinkled, the eyes squinting into ever increasing darkness. This was my community service. For vandalising my dentists car when she gave me teeth so white I needed sunglasses to look in the mirror-actually true-when I switched on the bathroom light, they shone so brightly I had to wear dark glasses. She refused compensation to me so I dented her car.

I now wear a mouth-guard wherever I go. And I have gotten used to sleeping with my mouth taped shut. And a breathing tube although there is still a faint fluorescent glow that lights up my nostrils in the night. Her car, on the other hand, one of those self repairing ones, just re-grew its bodywork and is all fine. Vehicles with an exterior made of reinforced bacteria that can reshape and reform itself-well you know how the commercial goes-accident free because one colony avoids another etc etc- and she had one of those vehicles that could phosphoresce. Which is nice in a car but not what I wanted with my teeth, hence the criminal damage.

I liked community service though, in an old peoples home. Old people who mostly have robots for company don’t relish the idea of having to have a conversation with a human anymore, bot conversation is so much easier. But ‘she’ seemed to like me from the moment I arrived. There was only one kind of odd thing. She wore gloves. All the time, and I mean -all the time.  Gloves to make coffee, gloves to eat food, gloves to play on the computer. Gloves as she went into the bathroom. She even read her paper magazines with gloves. Nobody else seemed to notice. Well nobody else much was human, except for the other residents who all had their own little foibles.  

I was in her room one day and noticed she seemed to have gloves for every occasion. More pairs of gloves than I have shoes, no really more pairs of gloves than I have shoes.(67 by the way-assuming we aren’t counting flip flops-82-if we are-give or take a pair I left on a virtual holiday-I know, how?)

I wanted to ask about the gloves but the conversation never went in that direction. Then it got to my last week and finally my last day. She smiled across at me. I knew she could see the faint glow from my teeth but I was not sure she could make out all my features. We were there in her room sitting across the table from each other. There was a ceramic vase with fake plastic flowers on a doily between us. She moved it to one side. And then she did  it. She slipped off one glove and then the other. And I saw her hands.

Long elegant fingers, perfectly manicured, not a wrinkle on them, perfect flawless hands extending off gnarled, wrinkled wrists. Maybe the most expensive hands I have ever seen. Beautiful hands. Young hands. Human hands. Not her hands.

I didn’t know what to say. They must have cost a fortune.

‘They’re not mine’ she said.

Well I didn’t study rocket science but I knew that.

‘Who’s?’ I said, as that felt like the logical thing to ask. I wonder now if that wasn’t just a bit impolite.

‘My daughters,’ a pause, then awkwardly, oddly she went on, ‘she didn’t want them anymore and doesn’t want the hassle of coming to visit me, so she gave me her hands. She has mechanical ones and doesn’t want these ones. She was quite young when she had it done. Its sweet, she is with me always. I’m looking after them for her, until she comes back for them. She may want them again one day.’

I smiled.

As an aside I had decided that I didn’t want to exchange any body parts with my Mum. It remains contentious. She still wants my knees-that was a difficult conversation. She covets my knees but I still need my knees and I don’t like the look of the replacement ones. They’re so shiny, the last thing I need is shiny knees with my teeth. In the end my Mum got knees that have a small flip out screen on them so she can watch TV on the bus, they also have a torch function-useful for when she’s out jogging at night and you can use them as a phone on days where you’re feeling flexible. I never feel right calling my Mum’s knees though. I use the other number that’s connected directly to her ear-best not to ask what she’s done with her ears, brighter than my teeth. She’s her own personal club night when she’s out running..

‘I wonder’ she went on, ’would you do me a favour?’ I looked at the hands. Beautiful hands.

‘Of course.’

‘ Would you visit her, say hello, tell her I am ok?’

‘Your daughter?’

She nodded. It seemed a bit odd, I told her she should call or go herself. This place wasn’t prison but she insisted she wanted me to go and there was no reason not to. I watched her elegant hands scrawl writing, real writing-with a pen-across a piece of paper. It was mesmerising.

‘I’ll come back and let you know.’ I said.

‘No need’ she said and with that I felt as if we had said goodbye. I left. Those hands, those beautiful hands, that vision stayed with me for a few days.

A week later, I took out the slip of paper and took the bus to the nearest stop (yep there are still buses-for those of us who can’t afford bacteria based transport). I walked the rest of the way, rehearsing what I was going to say. Picturing the metallic hands at the end of human limbs and remembering how bright my teeth could be and that people had the right to make different choices-even my mother.

I turned onto the street, on one side a neat row of houses, on the other a metal fence surrounding a garden. This couldn’t be right. There was no number 53. I stopped and I asked someone and they told me the gate was further along and to go in. I did.

And there it was, plot number 53. Sometimes it goes wrong. Plot number 53, with a proper tombstone and everything. And the inscription, ‘Always and forever, Mummy holds your hands’.

My head was spinning, my teeth glowed, I spun on my heels and ran.

Light

 

So much has been written about miscarriage this week, this is how I felt…

 

I wonder if this is how it feels when you are awaiting your own execution. No panic. No fear. Just the knowledge that it will happen. Birth is about life, about immortality. There’s this great female mythology surrounding it. We can all hold hands and chant and it will be wonderful and warm. New life that has come into the world and we will all celebrate it.  

This is about death. What I am going to go through is about what is already dead, a life not started. I kind of knew the day we went for the scan. I heard the words ‘No heartbeat’ and I made a noise and I cried but I knew. I already knew.

 

It requires surgery to remove it. I did not know that. ‘It’. I call it, ‘It’, because it dulls the pain, but I gave ‘It’ a name. A name I will never speak. A silent name that rings out in my head with pain.

 

I didn’t want surgery. I just wanted to go home and have a natural miscarriage. You can opt to do this but how do you do this?

 

You wait. You just go home and wait. You know that it, the thing you are carrying around is dead inside you. It doesn’t need you, not your food and not your comfort. Sometime when you weren’t watching and you didn’t know, its tiny little heart just stopped. You didn’t feel it or sense it at the moment. It was only afterwards, long afterwards that you knew.

 

I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry a lot but there were no tears. I just had to wait for it to happen. It was just a fact. This baby was dead. It was going to come out of my body. I could not cry. In fact I hardly cried at all. I wanted to. I want to.

 

It took a lot of waiting for it to happen. I just kept on going. Washing. Cooking. Cleaning. The house was spotless. The meals magnificent. The pain hidden. Waiting.

 

I wanted privacy. I just wanted to do this privately. In the comfort of my bathroom. It was private. Just me and death and nothing else. There would be no great celebration of life. No celebration at all.

 

When it happened and it was there dead on my floor, I was so scared I could not even touch it. I was almost hysterical. My husband picked it up and put it down the toilet. Gone so fast. So many words. Down the toilet like a goldfish is all I can think of. I wished I had the courage to at least touch it but I didn’t. I should have touched it, loved it, buried it. Still there are no tears. Life goes on. I have to focus on the child I have not the other child I wanted.

 

In my head I am standing at the end of the path and screaming into the void. And I think  there is just darkness up ahead. In reality though up ahead someone is building a wall. The path is cut off from here and I have to turn and go the other way. The void is disappearing. The wall is getting higher and I have to turn. I turn my head and there are my husband and my daughter and they are walking and skipping in the light. I turn back to the void. I am screaming at the man building the wall. He builds on and  the wall is getting higher. I have to turn and follow the light. I am screaming at the wall. The wall just gets higher and now I  have to turn and follow them into the light. Still there are no tears and yet- still I have to turn. I am here. The void is gone. The wall is built. I must turn and go into the light. 

 

Writhing in the mud

Now I think of it, I know if you’d looked closely you would have seen they were slightly underslept. -that’s not a word-read more…

I can’t tell you the name of the town, but I can tell you it was October. A warm and mild October, the evenings were drawing in, there was a hint of chill in the late afternoon air. I was there on the quayside, looking into the mud at low tide, wondering what it was that drew people here at this time of the year. I wasn’t alone. There were others around me but I seemed to be the only one that saw it.

A great long eel like creature, writhing in the mud. It was mesmerising. I was rugged against the expected cold. I looked at those around me. It seemed to be revelling in the mud, enjoying it. No one else seemed to have spotted it.  It seemed to be there for my sake and mine alone.

I was staying in town, just the week. I hadn’t really noticed that there were a lot of women my age in town, all with sunglasses and caps, an oddity at that time of year. Now I think of it, I know if you’d looked closely you would have seen they were slightly underslept. Too tense, agitated, as if they had an appetite that was unsated. I thought nothing of it at the time.

I went back to my holiday cottage, puzzled by the fact that I was the only one who had seen the creature in the mud. I ate my dinner. Washed up. Went to bed. I don’t remember much beyond that. A strange buzzing in my head, a kind of dull excitement that made sleeping difficult. Dinner hadn’t quite filled me.

But in the darkness, I couldn’t tell you the time, late night, early morning, low tide, I found myself by the quayside. A strange sense of being too early, of the tide not being far enough gone. It didn’t matter. I took off my clothes and walked down the steps. I could hear the water softly lapping, but I wasn’t here for the water.

I laid down in the mud. Without even thinking about it.

I felt it all over me. It was both hot and cold as I sank further into it. I writhed about in it. My whole body thrilled to the sensation of it. It was slippery and wet and I felt delirious joy in its slimy moist stickiness. I rolled and wriggled and laughed out loud. I sighed and screamed and whored myself to it. Sated, eventually. I got up and went home.

I had the good sense to shower before going to bed. I slept, at first the sleep of angels and then the restless sleep of an appetite that could not be met in the daylight hours. I donned cap and glasses and stalked the town. Like everyone else.

The next night, I did the same again. I knelt at first and covered myself in the mud and then I lay down and writhed and screamed and hollered my enjoyment. And I was not alone. There were others, other women, doing the same as me. We did not touch each other. We did not speak to each other. Each of us existed and acted alone, screaming mud fuelled ecstasy into the darkness.

It ought to have woken half the town. But no one came to watch. I was only to stay a week, but I begged another week from the landlady. By day I wandered through the town, a ghost. By night, I rolled and played in its muddy foreshore, happier at that moment than I have ever been, either before or since.

By the third week and tired of the mud, the landlady, accustomed no doubt to such strange behaviour, took me to the woodshed. There was a bed, browned sheets and a heater. I stayed there. I did not eat. I could not sleep. I longed for the night time, for the mud, its warmth, its coolness, its slimy, sticky covering. Every night, the same compulsion drove me to the shore, to luxuriate in its murky wetness. Every morning, the hunger and longing came again.

And then one day, just like that-the wrong tide, a different moon, the spell broke. I slept and awoke, hungry, dirty-covered in mud. Horrified, I showered, ate, left.  Leaving the sunglasses and cap on the bed. I have never been back. I cannot explain it. I wait for the hunger to come again.