Tread Softly in the Ladies
A short story for Barbara Pym fans by Tanya van Hasselt
There is perhaps no suitable setting for learning that your husband is having an affair, but a lavatory cubicle – even in an exclusive London department store – must be one of the most undignified.
‘What did she expect when he’s more than five years younger than her and still as beautiful as a Greek statue?’
‘Penny! Women should stand up for each other, whatever we feel about their choices. What hope is there for marriage otherwise?’
‘I suppose you’re going to say I ought to be more grateful to have ended up with one of those dull-looking men buried in their work. Young girls never bother tempting them away from their wives.’
‘And Mark is too good – his mind is always on higher things.’
‘You mean he doesn’t notice, there’s nothing especially virtuous in that.’
The scorn in the last remark drifted away with the sound of departing footsteps. Ianthe Challow sat frozen in her cubicle, knickers round her ankles, heart thumping. She knew those voices; they were talking about her.
It was true then, what she’d been trying to ignore since getting home from hospital. It was why the St Basil’s congregation was giving her these speculative, pitying looks; they were wondering if she knew that the girl with hair like the heroine in Love Story and sly, come-hither eyes who’d come to church last Sunday, and stared incredulously at her during the sermon, was having an affair with John.
But she shouldn’t be surprised. Hadn’t Sophia Ainger told her that she saw her as destined not to marry but to become one of those splendid spinsters who are pillars of the church? It was something to have escaped this dispiriting fate even if only for a time. Her ten years of happiness with John could be seen as a stay of execution.
Mechanically she washed and dried her hands, pulling the linen roller towel down so it was clean for the next person. In the mirror her face looked drained of colour; its stunned, defeated expression befitting a betrayed wife. Would John have remained faithful to her if she’d used rouge on her cheeks, stuck on false eye lashes like Penelope Grandison in her husband-hunting days, or dyed her hair, now almost entirely grey?
She must not cry – or be late for her aunt Bertha who was treating her to lunch in the restaurant. Please, please God, don’t let Sophia and Penelope be going there too.
‘I insisted on a corner table,’ her aunt greeted her as Ianthe bent to kiss a powdered cheek. ‘It is essential I avoid the slightest draught.’
‘You must take extra care of yourself in winter,’ said Ianthe dutifully, thinking Bertha didn’t need to be reminded.
‘My dear, I am not sure that particular shade of fawn is quite your colour. Doing everything possible to avoid looking dreary really is essential after having a Woman’s Operation – a pity you cannot spend a month by Lake Como where Randolph took me after I had mine. I think we will both have a glass of sherry and choose a restorative meal before you tell me anything. Travelling first class on trains is not what it used to be and then I had to queue for a taxi at Charing Cross. At seventy one does feel these things.’
Bertha beckoned plaintively to a hovering waiter. The necessity of having to listen to someone else’s health troubles before she could return to talking about her own was one of the more disagreeable facts of life.
Ianthe bent her head over the menu, the confusing memories of those days in hospital overlaid by stomach-churning images of what John might have been getting up to in her absence. The surgeon’s detached kindness; the comforting arrival of the tea trolley; the snoring of the other women on the ward; the anaesthetist murmuring ‘just a small pinprick Mrs Challow and you’ll drift off to sleep’; the terror and shame she would come out with that word from Philip Larkin’s poem when she woke up. None of this could be shared with an aunt hesitating between the Sole Véronique and the Lobster Mayonnaise.
Ianthe shot a desperate glance at the surrounding tables, crowded with expensively-dressed women, some with solid husbands in attendance and cheque books ready. Surely this was an unsuitably extravagant place for a vicar’s wife and her sister … but at the far end of the room there were Sophia and Penelope sitting with two women whom Ianthe recognised as Mrs Grandison and Lady Selvedge. Perhaps it was asking too much of God to have arranged things otherwise. There had always been something immovable about Lady Selvedge.
John would have bought me a more exciting gin and orange, thought Ianthe, sipping her sherry. A picture of him in his too-pointed shoes handing round delicately fluted glasses on the day of the St Basil’s bazaar crept across her mind, a confusion of pain and sweetness.
‘I understand John has taken to working in films, which is not what one hoped for you. Though it might have been worse,’ said Bertha in a voice suggesting this was scarcely possible.
You would think so, Ianthe wanted to snap. It was too humiliating to explain that John had got fed up with clerical jobs or that money in his hands had a mysterious habit of disappearing. Working as an extra could mean getting noticed. Ianthe had no difficulty casting him as the dark and handsome hero in an adaptation of a novel by Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. He was like a little boy, always believing in luck; it was how he’d gambled away their savings. But she couldn’t tell her aunt any of this, or about the girl of the film star seductiveness who John must be sleeping with.
‘Your uncle and I could never understand why you had to rebel against everything you were brought up to believe. No doubt you spend your evenings in front of the television watching those dreadful kitchen sink dramas. I trust John does not have low tastes in other directions,’ Bertha sounded a warning note. ‘Men are like large children. They need to be continually monitored, as they are so easily led astray by Another Interest.’
Ianthe stared at her aunt. She couldn’t imagine her uncle Randolph pursuing any of the titled ladies in his congregation while serving as an Anglican priest in Mayfair. His pleasures of the flesh had appeared to be limited to good food and fine wine, coming to an appropriate end when he’d dropped dead with meat in his mouth after too indulgent a dinner, like Dr Grant of Mansfield Park. That clergymen were no better than other men was not something she could bear to contemplate.
‘I am at a loss to understand why you are returning to work so soon,’ continued Bertha. ‘Fifty is a precarious age for a woman. You should stay at home to guard your health as well as your looks. Though the part of North London where you live is not exactly …’ Bertha wiped a drip of sauce from her lips, thinking complacently of her private means. She’d never liked that unpleasant story of the rich man and the kingdom of heaven, but fortunately all things were possible to God. The residence where she would be joining Randolph in heaven would be no less comfortable than the Mayfair Rectory and her retirement home in Tunbridge Wells.
‘I enjoy my job at the library,’ Ianthe protested. ‘And as – ’ she broke off abruptly, close to despair. Two men walking past their table had stopped on seeing her. Was everyone she knew going to materialise today, like in some ludicrous West End farce?
‘Ooh, it’s all friends together here, isn’t it?’ Eric uttered a crow of delight. ‘We’re having a naughty treat to celebrate moving into a lovely home of our own now that Merv’s mum has passed over to the other side as you might say. A flat near Victoria, ever so cosy.’
‘Christmas will certainly be a more jolly affair without Mother’s spiritualist friends casting a gloom,’ said Mervyn rather stiffly. Will you furnish it with the ‘nice things’ you always coveted, Ianthe stopped herself asking. Somehow she couldn’t see Eric sitting at a Pembroke table.
‘You and John must come round on Boxing Day when Eric is cooking one of his specials,’ Mervyn went on. ‘You’re looking a bit peaky my dear, if you don’t mind my saying so.’
‘That would be very nice,’ Ianthe said lamely, wishing she could come up with another adjective.
‘Don’t you listen to what Merv says, Ianthe. He will have his little joke. Well, ta –ta for now!’
‘This is what comes of marrying beneath you,’ said Bertha in a satisfied tone, as Mervyn hurried Eric away. She prodded a grape with her fork to check that no seeds had been left by a careless underling in the kitchen. ‘It is always a mistake to cross the class barriers. I would not have moved into the St Cecilia Retirement Home had it not been recommended to me by Lady Beddoes. She warned me about a neighbouring establishment where the proprietor was caught by a designing widow known as Allegra Apricot.’ Bertha leant across the table and spoke in an ominous whisper: ‘They are expected to eat tinned salmon and the beds have nylon sheets.’
She wanted me to remain the anachronism she is herself, thought Ianthe with a sudden flash of resentment, ‘preserved’ in my mother’s flat near Westminster Cathedral and never to have bought my own house or known what it is to fall in love.
‘I shall have the Charlotte Russe,’ Bertha announced. ‘I can risk a small indulgence, as Mr Bason, a former chef and now resident at St Cecilia’s, has promised me a Maschler pudding tonight. I believe it is a kind of milk jelly, and will be soothing for a fragile digestion like mine.’
And if I once start looking behind me, and I start retracing my steps trilled the restaurant’s background music. Ianthe struggled to eat and pretended to listen to her aunt. Salad Days – the musical she and John had gone to see at a Leicester Square theatre when they were engaged. I’ll remind you to remind me we said we’d never look back.
All at once the memory of the clean fresh smell and passionate purple of the violets that John always bought for her just before Christmas swept across her like an awakening and forgiving breath. What was she doing trapped in this stifling atmosphere surrounded by rich women with their fur coats left safely in the cloakroom? She remembered the joy she’d taken in buying John a warm coat to replace the one of thin cheap material he wore, realising it was all someone brought up in a children’s home could afford. Men needed to be looked after and feel safe in someone’s love. All Passion Spent – but it wasn’t, not for her and John, nor had love grown cold by many deeds of shame. After all, Another Interest, like a child’s toy, might be a fleeting thing. As her aunt would say – if she stayed to hear her – a lady knows when to look the other way.
‘Isn’t that Ianthe rushing out of the door?’ said Penelope Stonebird, as she and her sister lingered over coffee after Lady Selvedge had marched Mrs Grandison back to Knightsbridge underground station. ‘If we’d seen her before, we could have passed on the news that Neville Forbes isn’t going over to Rome like he hinted – not a very original excuse for escaping the clutches of Prudence Bates. It’s ridiculous the way she goes on having these doomed love affairs at her age,’ Penelope added, failing to hide a feeling of envy.
‘As a Canon’s daughter, Ianthe will be glad that a clergyman isn’t deserting the Church of England,’ said Sophia, her face serious. ‘But we could hardly talk about Neville without telling her who he’s got himself entangled with now. In a sense, a young girl is a more unsuitable attachment.’
‘A priest has no business to be so beautiful – it causes nothing but trouble to women of all ages,’ said Penelope crossly. ‘She’ll give up eventually if she has any sense. Why hasn’t John told Ianthe she’s his daughter? Only someone as unworldly as Ianthe could fail to suspect. Half the congregation on Sunday spotted the likeness between them, but not even Sister Dew dared say anything.’
‘I expect she’s the result of what we might call a youthful indiscretion, and she wanted to make contact with her real father, in the way people do nowadays. It’s rather sad really, seeing that in his way he’s a devoted husband,’ said Sophia, sounding almost surprised. ‘It can’t be easy, so soon after Ianthe’s hysterectomy and no children of her own. He may be afraid she won’t forgive him for keeping it from her all these years.’
‘He ought to know by now he never has to worry about that,’ said Penelope in disgust. ‘I bet he’ll confess everything later today. I spotted him buying a whole basket of violets this morning.’
Below is Maggie’s story Twenty-Six Little Bones, which was shortlisted in the 2017 Hysteria Writing Competition and included in their anthology of the top ten winning stories: Hysteria 6.
Twenty-Six Little Bones
There are three girls down in the street, illuminated by the fake Victorian gas lamps. Arms entwined, they weave their way towards another nightclub and more mojitos. The blonde, in five-inch heels and a flame-coloured dress, the hem flirting around slender calves, could have been my double. Once upon a time.
‘What were you looking at?’ says Sara, as I snap down the blind. My sister is checking what I’m up to, on her way home from A&E. She’s doing twelve-hour shifts, back-to-back, this week. No wonder the grey eyes that examine me look weary.
‘You’d say, if you need help? Wouldn’t you?’ She measures out words like tramadol capsules.
I restrain a glare. Help. The forbidden word. There are plenty of things I need. Things I can’t have any more. I shrug in the direction of the black plastic bin liners in the corner.
‘You could take them to a charity shop.’
Sara gathers up the nearest sack, its neck a giant pursed and disapproving mouth. She hefts its weight in one hand while the other reads the shape of its contents. Then struggles to compose her face.
‘Oh, Katie,’ she says.
‘Just get rid of the fucking things!’
It’s the pity I can’t bear.
‘How many bones? In the human skeleton?’
I’m home for the weekend and we’re cross-legged on Sara’s bed. A skull on her bedside table appears to regard the revision exercise with a dismissive smirk. Not a real skull, of course. A plastic one, for medical students.
‘Two-hundred-and-seventy at birth,’ she says, reaching slender arms towards the ceiling in a yoga upper body stretch. My baby sister is naturally beautiful. Not simply attractive, as I am when tarted-up. She’s stunning. If she made an effort, men would drool at the sight of her, like Labradors at an open fridge door. When she’s finally qualified, a real, live doctor of medicine, I worry about them letting her loose on vulnerable male patients. Anyone sporting a pulse will have a cardiac arrest.
‘But only two-hundred-and-six in the adult.’ She bends from the waist, in a pose that will have an absurd name. Yoga isn’t my scene. I gave up after the Downward Dog. ‘Because by then some have fused together.’
‘Okay, smart-arse. How many just in the foot?’
‘Twenty-six.’ She settles into a lotus position and dispenses a smug look. Maybe I’ll bribe her to be my secret weapon at a pub quiz night. ‘A pair represent a quarter of the bones in your body.’
‘Feet are workhorses. They take decades of hard labour.’ She glances at the strappy sandals that I kicked off earlier, discarded on her bedroom carpet. ‘Always assuming people wear vaguely practical shoes.’
‘You sound more like Mum every day.’
Shoes take me up where I belong. Doesn’t every woman crave gorgeous footwear? The higher, the more uncomfortable, the better? I reckon Cinderella swooned over that glass slipper, though it must have been torture to wear. Not my swot of a sister, of course. But for every red-blooded female they’re essential. The snazziest killer heels make me feel hotter, my legs longer. Make me stand taller. Help me spot someone worth hitting on at a party. The trick is to find a pair you can dance in all night long, without being crippled the next day.
And I have scores, all in their original boxes with a photo taped on the end for quick reference. A fortune’s worth of foot candy. Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. Exquisite sandals and architectural platforms. Even a few designer ballet flats, which ought to please Sara, but apparently don’t support my instep properly.
Alastair adored my feet. He loved to caress them bare, pale against his purple silk sheets. He admired their elegant arches in skyscraper heels. But it was the thigh-high biker boots I’d bought that really turned him on.
Dark-eyed, dark-haired Alastair was a miscalculation from the start. An ex-public schoolboy with a bogus estuary accent and a weird job in IT that I never fully understood. I hooked up with him in the lift of the building where my marketing company is based. He had a mild coke habit, but didn’t press me to join him. And he was fit. My friends were gratifyingly jealous and the sex was awesome, though I knew from the beginning I wasn’t the love of his life. That was his motorbike. A horrendously expensive Ducati Streetfighter. Black and silver, with touches of blood-red paintwork. Riding pillion behind him, pressed against the rigid leather of his jacket, I could feel its power over him. The thrill of speed, of risk.
‘When I picture you on the back of that thing, I shudder,’ said Mum, tugging at the umbilical cord despite me being twenty-nine years old.
‘Your mother’s right, darling.’ said Dad, always handy with a scary statistic. ‘You’re thirty times more likely to be killed in a motorbike accident than in a car.’
The truck was only marginally over the glinting cats’ eyes marking the centre of the road, and Alastair hadn’t even done a line of coke that night. But it was a juggernaut, driven on a surface slick with rain. Alastair limped away with cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder. A miracle, the doctors said. Born to be hanged, he muttered later, unable to meet my eye. Anyway, after a few visits to my bedside in intensive care, he melted away, like the hand-made chocolates he’d brought that ended up with the nurses.
‘Bastard,’ Sara said. But I could see it. See what looking at me did to him. The guilt. Because there wasn’t enough love. Never had been, really.
He’s an attractive man, my surgeon. Which makes it somehow hugely worse. That, and the look in his eyes. He should learn how to hide caring about what he’s had to do to me.
‘When can I go home?’ I demand.
‘Maybe in two weeks.’ He looks at his clipboard. ‘You’ve done incredibly well.’
‘And walk again? With a … foot?’
I refuse to leave this place in a wheelchair. I want at least to look normal.
He pauses, takes an almost imperceptible breath. He will have done this scores of times. ‘You have to be realistic, Kate. After losing a foot, post-operative recovery can take as much as a year. You must give it time.’
I stare out of the hospital window. There’s a mass of scaffolding outside. A builder’s skip. It looks like they’re trying to shore up the external wall. A hard-hatted guy is strutting his stuff by shinning up a ladder like a spider monkey.
‘I’m so sorry,’ the surgeon says. ‘Things like this can’t be rushed.’
I slouch in the chair in my bedroom and make myself look. I’m screwed, aren’t I? Ugly. Gross. What man will ever look at me again with desire? My stump itches. The prosthetic foot is like something from those old Monty Python programmes Dad loved to watch.
Well, I refuse to go back to Norfolk, to sleep in the single bed of my childhood. To be fussed over. I’ll stay in London. It’s easy to be anonymous here. I won’t return to my old job, either, though they’re offering promotion and an increased salary to tempt me back. I’ll work from home. Sort out some kind of consultancy deal. Financially I can manage. The insurance will help. I’ll be like one of those hermit crabs: safely tucked into my shell, with my putty-coloured, carbon fibre foot for company.
Sara drops her backpack on the carpet, drapes her jacket over the spare chair and starts dragging squealing hangers along the rail in my wardrobe. She throws skirts and dresses onto the bed in a whirl of textures and colour.
‘We’re going clubbing,’ she says.
‘I’m not taking no for an answer, Kate. I want my sister back.’ She picks over the clothes with slender fingers, her nails unvarnished and clinically short. ‘Anyway, I need a break from having sixty patients in need of care in A&E. With a dozen more stashed in waiting ambulances outside.’
She holds up a skinny dress in silver grey crepe. It’s a Victoria Beckham. Expensive. ‘I’ll borrow this. I’ve always envied your clothes. Lucky we’re the same size.’
She pushes and pulls me into silk stockings, a tight black sequin skirt and a skimpy top, her expression reminiscent of when she was little, dressing her dolls. Always looking to me for approval. Then she digs around in the top drawer of the dressing table and thrusts my make-up bag into my hands. She’s the big sister now.
When I finally link arms with her in front of the mirror, face on and outfit smoothed down, I have to admit you wouldn’t know I was a cripple.
I may have only one foot, but I’ve got a pair of shapely legs and a good body. My balance is sort-of okay if there’s something handy to grab hold of. I refuse to have a stick and the crutches are shoved under the bed. In the flat I simply lurch from one piece of furniture to another. But in a club, a sister’s arm might be just the thing to get me to a bar stool.
I’ll humour her. I wouldn’t mind a well-made vodka Martini. I imagine the tinkle of crushed ice falling into a tumbler. The sshush of Vermouth being poured over. The rattle of a silver spoon, stirring. The transfer to the chilled, long-stemmed glass. The tang of zest in my nostrils from that twist of lemon. Theatre for a party girl.
Sara rarely gets a proper evening out and in that dress she’s like something from a fashion shoot. She naturally gets invitations from the guys at her hospital, but there’s someone she’s been seeing – an overworked and bespectacled GP from Deptford – and they don’t get a look-in. Saturday night for Sara and Dr Dedication is an impenetrable foreign film.
She’s brought a pair of sensible courts in her backpack, the kind Mum swears by, but she’ll get away with them. Everyone will be looking at her face.
‘A sequinned skirt with scuffed trainers?’ I say, looking down at myself. ‘Really cool.’ Then I laugh. I actually laugh. This is so crazy.
‘Sit down and stick your feet out,’ she orders, reaching again into the backpack.
I freeze as she pulls out my almost-forgotten patent kitten heels, the ones encrusted with fake diamonds. Last seen at the bottom of a bin bag. Then I take a deep breath, ease myself down into the chair, and submit.
‘I kept them for you,’ she says, grasping my carbon fibre toes in gently determined hands and guiding them into a shoe. ‘They’re safe in their boxes. I knew you’d wear at least some of them again.’
I breathe in the scent of my sister: clean hair, traces of the Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue I gave her for Christmas; all that unconditional love. She’s right. Having an artificial foot isn’t such a big deal these days. I can still wear fancy shoes. Enjoy fashionable clothes. There’s more to me than missing twenty-six little bones.
This was Tanya’s 2016 prize-winning story in Writers’ Forum Magazine, reproduced with thanks http://www.writers-forum.com
Across the River by Tanya van Hasselt
‘Why does Ivan never speak?’
Last night, standing outside his parents’ bedroom, his father newly arrived from London smelling of sweat and something else, his mother’s voice shaking then disappearing.
‘Because he’s twelve, because he’s not good at the things you want him to be good at, because – ’
‘A long hot week in London, a cattle-truck of a train and a child who won’t smile when I get here. It’s not much to ask.’
‘ – and because he’s like you, that’s why. Like father, like son, remember? You don’t smile at me, he doesn’t smile at you – ’
‘Why do you always join with the children against me? Turning me into an outsider. Treating me like a machine that pays the bills and doesn’t need any attention paid – ’
‘You get all the attention you can appreciate. Today and tomorrow I’ve no doubt. It’s all about you – I just want someone to put their arm round me every now and then. Not quite your line.’
‘Difficult to get near you except in bed, for the last goodness knows how many years you’ve been inseparable from Ellie.’
‘And you can’t understand that mothers like to be with their daughters. Or even imagine for an instant how I feel with her being away. You know nothing of what goes on in my head.’
‘Do you want me to ask, is that your complaint? Have you ever thought what it’s like for me – that what I feel might matter? That I don’t go through a day without thinking of it?’
‘Twenty-three,’ she said abruptly. ‘Tomorrow’s his birthday.’
Ivan crept away. He’d listened to it all too many times.
But now the early morning was bringing the promise of the shimmering heat to come. In the kitchen the old flatcoat retriever lay flopped on the quarry tiles, greeting Ivan with no more than a slow lifting of his feathered tail. If only Swift could come – but it wouldn’t be fair. Dogs and dinghies didn’t fit, and Swift had grown stiff and timid,. Not like Leo. Leo never got any older.
Leo could row better than Ivan. He’d been taught by Dad, who’d been boat-mad all his life which was why Mum and Dad rented the same riverside cottage every year. Dad had taught Ivan, until he’d got too busy – Ivan wasn’t sure what with. Last summer he’d said that Ivan rowed as well as any of the other children and teenagers cluttering up the river in August. But Ivan knew that Dad had really been thinking of Leo.
‘You must be such a comfort to your mother,’ smiled the woman in the village shop when they’d come down at the beginning of the holidays. She said the same thing every year. Ivan avoided looking at her, scuffing at the floor with his foot, hunching one shoulder.
The dinghy belonging to their holiday cottage lay tied by its painter to a rusting ring fixed to the jetty. Ivan began to row in time with Leo, the oars slicing like knives into warm butter, sweat trickling from the soft creases behind his knees.
The woman in the yellow shorts was there again in the garden of one of the other holiday cottages leading off the riverside path. This time she was wearing a top that tied above her tummy button. Ivan thought her body looked as if it had been dipped in butterscotch. His mother’s was patchy, some bits sunburnt and freckly and others bumpy and pinky-grey. He watched the woman go into the cottage, and reappear with a plastic basket full of washing, which she began to peg out on a clothes line strung between two trees. Ivan screwed up his eyes, straining at every detail, just as he’d done when he’d caught sight of her yesterday. Was it the same woman from that horrible day last term? He was almost sure, and yet –
On his class trip to the National Gallery. Standing by the steps, waiting to be counted. Then there he was, his dad, with a woman, walking very close to each other, crossing Trafalgar Square. Ivan watched her glancing up into his face as they reached the traffic lights. Then they disappeared towards the archway of the Mall, intent, absorbed. Something (was it the way Dad was looking at her?) made his insides shift about, like wanting to be sick but not being able to.
‘Of course she’s his bit on the side,’ said his friend Rory, to whom he’d been stupid enough to have told all this. ‘All mums and dads are after sex all the time, they’ve got it on the brain. You can’t trust them. I bet your parents are the same. They’re old too, that makes it dead certain. They’ve got bored, everyone does. I mean, do your mum and dad still, you know?’
Ivan turned away. Rory knew about these things. He’d even done It. Or so he said. Lots of times. Last year, his dad had left home to live with a designer called Sally. Now his mum was seeing someone else who had three teenagers of his own over in Woolwich. Soon Rory would be living with them. New home, new school, new family – the lot.
‘I made that up about my dad,’ Ivan flung back at him. He wanted to smash Rory’s face in. If only he hadn’t told him. Then he could have pushed the memory higgledy-piggledy into the dark cupboard at the back of his mind. But Rory’s knowing smirk seeped across it like a poisonous stain.
Ivan stared at the woman as she swung the basket onto her hip. Of course it was the same woman. She must have rented the cottage this summer to be with his dad when he came down each weekend. She and Dad must be – and that meant – he pressed the off button. After all, he might be wrong – wasn’t he wrong about almost everything? People could look alike. Hadn’t Rory told him over and over that he was pants at noticing stuff?
If Ellie was here he could have asked her about Mum and Dad arguing. But she was travelling around Thailand, though she hadn’t known where it was on the globe when he’d asked her to show him. Having an amazing time, said her emails and postcards. Ellie always had an amazing time, she was like those brilliant coloured butterflies darting between flowers.
A dark-haired boy he’d never seen before wandered out of an open door at the back of the cottage, and said something to the woman that made her laugh. Her son. The same caramel skin. Good at being funny. The sort of boy parents were proud of. Like Leo.
His mother was washing lettuce in the kitchen when he got back.
‘He’s taken Swift to buy the paper – he’d have liked you to have gone with him, if you’d been here.’
Ivan knew this wasn’t true. Why would it be?
‘I thought we’d have lunch in the garden – can I leave it to you darling to choose a spot and lay out the chairs?’
Ivan dragged himself upstairs. Mum always called him darling when she wanted him to go away. He stole into his parents’ bedroom to look at the photograph, where it stood, as it always did, both here and in their London home, on a chest of drawers opposite the bed. The wind ruffling his hair; Swift as a puppy scrambling over his grass-stained ten-year-old’s knees. The last photograph before Leo was hit on the head by a cricket ball at his school. The last picture of the son his parents loved and whom they’d tried to replace.
It was his fault, it must be. If only he could be different, less of a failure at everything, then his parents would be happy together. Last term he’d gone unexpectedly into his father’s study and found him crying. He’d crept away unseen. Did his mother also have to cry in secret?
Lunch drained by. Ivan called Swift, but the old dog was reluctant to get to his legs. He lay dazed and panting under the cherry tree.
‘It’s too hot for him,’ said his mother. ‘For me as well. You two have a walk without us. You’d like to go along the river, wouldn’t you Ivan darling?’
So he had to go.
‘There’s a new one, just come in,’ said his father, pointing to a sleek cream yacht, elegant and exotic as a tropical bird.
Ivan wasn’t looking at the moored yachts. His eyes were fixed on three people in an inflatable rubber dinghy. A man rowing, a woman in yellow shorts, and a boy sitting in the bow, trailing his hand in the glassy water. They came alongside the cream yacht, and the woman climbed on to the deck. The man gave the oars to the boy, and followed the woman, caressing her round the waist like Dad used to do with Mum. The boy began to row back towards Ivan and the riverbank, shouting something to his parents and raising one oar in salute.
‘French – you see the flag?’
French. Blue, then white, then red. And the woman in her yellow shorts? Doubt bubbled to the surface and spread. No, it wasn’t the same woman he’d seen in London, he was almost certain of that now, even at this distance across the water.
The figures became a blur. The brilliant reflections were making his eyes sting. Had he got other things wrong too? He shot a sideways glance at his father’s face. It looked relaxed and happy as he sized up the gleaming yachts lying like graceful swans among the fat vulgar motorboats. Gin palaces, Dad called them.
For a fleeting moment the memory of that day at the National Gallery hovered, but he discovered the picture in his brain had become confused and foggy, muddled up with Rory’s voice. What was it he’d really seen?
Apart from anything else – though was anything ever apart from anything else? – his father was with him now, standing beside him under a sky so blue that it hurt. That was something; in a funny way it could even be everything.
He thought of his mother lying in the sun-dappled garden, and wished she’d come with them. Then he remembered Swift whimpering in the heat. She hadn’t wanted to leave him. His life was nearly over. He was fourteen years old, that was nearly a hundred in dog years. Had Mum been afraid that he would stop breathing and die today, as he lay prone under the drooping cherry tree? But Swift’s death wouldn’t be a freak accident. Not like Leo.
The French boy bumped the dinghy against the pontoon and looped the painter around a bollard. Dad would dismiss that as slovenly seamanship. An ordinary kind of boy, who couldn’t be bothered to tie a proper knot – but who grinned at Ivan before turning off along the path back to the cottage.
‘I wish I knew about knots,’ he ventured. ‘It’s hard to learn from diagrams.’
‘A round turn and two half hitches, that’s what you need,’ said his father almost absently, but Ivan heard – or thought he heard – something in his voice that meant he was pleased.
He looked up again at the cream yacht, and slid his hand into his father’s. The water in the river swayed cool and green; the reflections danced.
Tomorrow he might see that boy again. Ivan’s French was rubbish. Maybe the boy’s English wasn’t too hot either. But did that matter? No, not for the important things, the real things, the things they would do together. The rest of the summer was waiting for all three of them.
Tanya van Hasselt won a 2016 Writing Magazine competition with this short story www.writers-online.co.uk
If your parents are rubbish enough to give you a crap name like Deirdre you can be sure as hell there’s no hope for you and not much for them either but it’s never been the least use telling them that since Mum only listens to what dead poets tell her and Dad only listens to what Mum tells him and so you’re stuck with it because Mum used to have a thing about this Irish poet called W. B. Yeats who wrote about someone called Deirdre which only goes to show what a twat he must have been.
Mum’s moved on since then and now she wishes you were Beatrice as she’s got like some random crush on Dante since Dad took her on a coach trip to Italy even though she’s always tutt-tutting about that old lecher Silvio Bareyourboobs (whatever) who most likely can’t get it up anyway so what’s all the fuss about a pathetic geezer pretending he still can and now she’s always going off to her class at the adult education centre to learn the Italian for The Divine Comedy which isn’t like funny at all, but about hell so much the same as life in our house I’d say shit it turned out that Dante wrote in some weird medieval version which is enough to do her head in good and proper mind you Mum never lets it go it’s like there’s a never-ending supply of poets writing about their numpty mistresses so it’s a dead cert you’ll get called a whole pisspot of names in her head before you can get away from home for good and that’s got to be soon please God.
Because you’ve landed the kind of parents who can’t clock you need to find things out for yourself rather than have them shoved at you time and time again by first Mum and then Dad and that you want to try being a different person for a change and having a tongue stud and tattoos doesn’t mean you’re going off the planet you play about in your head calling yourself Dee and wearing the kind of up for it clothes that anyone called Dee would wear like her second skin but instead of hot Dee who has all the cool boys and the uncool ones as well only they don’t count in the school hanging out for her and who gets away with blue murder though you are not sure what blue murder is you are doomed to being Diddy and looking like a terrapin seeing as you haven’t the sort of chin that sticks out properly from your neck but just goes straight up from it, sounds gross and it bloody well is as your grandmother keeps saying you take after her it’s like there isn’t much hope for you in life because just look where her jawline got her all Gran ever had was Mum after Gramps buggered off to get himself a new life and most likely a new woman in Wolverhampton and now she’s got Alzheimer’s so Mum has to even wipe her bum for her when she isn’t doing stuff for all these other people who can’t get their act together and just sit around on their arse all day thinking they can get a free ride, so what with that and wading through crap poetry which nobody in their senses would read nowadays you know quite well your mum hasn’t got a life.
They did an experiment Mum says with this group of kids who were told they could either have a marshmallow now or wait a bit and get two and all the kids who ate their marshmallows straight off ended up losers while the ones who hung on ended up what they call high achievers silly question right you know quite well you’re one of the instant marshmallow eaters the same as anyone with half a brain knows you can’t trust anything coming from anyone on high it’s obvious they don’t know what truth is and lie all the time maybe they have to and you’re obviously pre-programmed to achieve absolute zilch that is if you’ve got only half a brain and believe in these stupid experiments which are sure as hell American because they’re obsessive about shrinks so it’s like you can’t get your head around why your mum keeps repeating it seeing as she says that America is to blame for everything that’s wrong in this country and now they’ve messed up the Middle East good and proper no great surprise there replies Dad sucking his Trebor mint.
There’s Caro and Minna in your class who’ve started up a Who Can Eat Least Competition and so five girls in the year are now anorexic and spend all their time swapping weight loss tips on websites when they’re not puking down toilets that is but you know however little you eat you won’t become cool and clever enough you’re just a marshmallow gorger so it’s like you’re falling off the roof and winning the lottery when Brad asks you out because Caro and Minna say he’s a legend ten out of ten and over from America for a year staying with cousins though you don’t know why or care hey anyway just the look and the way he speaks makes you feel like flying and there’s nothing you can’t change about your marshmallow eating life.
‘We’re going for a ride’ says Brad and you know what that means because you’ve read stuff in the local freebie about joy riding on the Cranford development and Mum goes tut-tutting through the paper like she’s been mugged herself instead of living the life of Riley whoever he was in what poncey estate agents like to dress up as the sought after south end of the town yet in some weird way you want to say no you’re busy because you can’t help being posh from a snooty road and you feel kind of sorry for the people on Cranford having their lives made a misery with horns and shrieking brakes and probably getting their cats run over and they’re the sort of people who really love their cats but you know it’ll be all around the school by tomorrow that you’ve been dumped if you refuse and that would mean social suicide so of course you say ‘yeah that’d be cool’ and look casual and unconcerned but who’s conning who?
Your parents think you’re learning quotations from As You Like It with your friend Rosie all evening would you believe it and it’s kind of sad they’re really happy thinking you’re laying the foundations for a good and useful life no it isn’t it’s lucky not sad at all since it leaves you free to go on with your own life like your real life they know nothing about.
You’re in the car now and Brad’s arm is around you and you can smell the sour sweat from his armpit and neat alcohol on his breath there’s five of you in the car it’s some old Nissan the speedometer is flashing at you sixty then seventy miles an hour you’re screaming laughing madly happy unhappy how the hell do you know which?
If you had any guts you’d have got yourself out of this even faked you had your period or something for oh god what wouldn’t you give to be sitting on the sofa with Mum and Dad watching an ancient re-run Only Fools and Horses with Dad farting and snoring and saying ‘time for Bedfordshire’ when Mum goes and puts the dog out onto the mottled patch of emerald lawn at the front because then you wouldn’t be crammed into a nightmare which is scaring the shit out of you with black shapes rushing at you and lights blinding you flashing off puddles and vanishing like fireworks until roaring blackness swallows you up into nothingness.
‘Home James,’ says Dad at the end of every car journey. Only of course he’s not saying it now even though Mum’s beloved Dante says that what’s life is. Maybe it isn’t such a crap idea but describes things pretty well. She and Dad are sitting either side of the bed. They’re each holding one of your hands. You can tell Mum is crying. You’re used to this. She does it all the time, not just when she’s reading sad poetry. They talk to each other in low voices, saying things like, if only we’d known she was leading this secret life and where did we go wrong?
Mum’s been reading you poems. You’ve got quite hooked on them. She does Kubla Khan best, and you lie here thinking how shitty it is that Coleridge never got to finish it. Maybe it would be impossible to finish anyway because you’re often thought people are lousy at knowing when to give up, so it could be that endings are best snapped off without warning.
It comes to you that Dad’s like you in some ways and Mum in different ways. All right then, if they weren’t your parents you’d say they were on the way to being okay. You have plenty of time now to make connections in your head because there isn’t anything else to do being bandaged up and attached to all these wires and tubes and beeping machines, and having to hear all those voices arguing over whether to switch everything off.
You wonder why they keep going on about you never having learnt anything worthwhile and losing out on your future. Because it’s becoming dead obvious you’ve found out an amazing amount of things about what people are like underneath their covers, why they do things, and your head’s spinning with what feels like light at all these discoveries.
So despite that marshmallow reckoning which wrote you off as a loser, you could say you’ve proved what rubbish it was. Because really, when you come to think of it, and take my word for it, you’re having that good and useful life after all.
8th November 2015
This piece, by Maggie, won the Henshaw Press Short Story Competition in October 2015, and will be included in an anthology next year.
Till Death Us Do Part, by Maggie Davies
I put my arms around Neil and kissed the top of his head. His hair might be the colour of fresh snow but he was far from an old man. ‘We could die together,’ I said. ‘Fly to Switzerland. Make a holiday out of it. Then finish up at that special clinic they’ve got over there.’
‘Don’t be bloody ridiculous.’ He was cross. He’d always been short-tempered and the last few months had been a strain.
‘I’m serious, sweetheart.’ I moved to sit opposite him. ‘I couldn’t bear to go on without you.’
‘You’re insane, Beth. You’re still a young woman. In perfect health.’
‘You’re only sixty.’
‘I mean it, Neil.’ I put my hand over his. ‘If you kill yourself, I’ll throw myself under a train.’
‘Then I can’t do it, can I? I’ll have to turn into a vegetable and make both our lives a misery. Is that what you want, you silly woman?’
‘No,’ I said. That wasn’t what I wanted at all.
It started after Geoff’s wife died. Madeline had been failing for years and, living next door, we’d seen the hell they went through in her final months. Her deterioration had been particularly depressing for Neil, who’d been reading articles about dementia often being hereditary.
‘It’s like my Dad, all over again,’ he’d said, with a shudder. ‘If I ever get like that, I want you to finish me off. Take the carving knife to me. Promise?’
His father’s house smelled. The bathroom, in particular, stank. It took a while for Neil to find out why. The poor old chap knew where he was supposed to go to urinate. He’d just forgotten what to do when he got there and simply peed all over the carpet. It was humiliating for everybody. When he finally died it was a relief.
‘A meat cleaver might be more final,’ I’d said, trying to lighten his mood. ‘Though messier.’
It became a sick joke between us. Nothing serious. Then, over a few months, things changed dramatically. Neil had always mislaid keys and spectacles. I did myself, but he became incapable of finding anything. I put a china bowl on the kitchen dresser and suggested he use that as a collection point, but whenever he went there for something, it was empty.
‘I’m losing the plot, aren’t I?’ he grumbled one day, after finally locating his house keys in the drawer where we kept the electrical leads. ‘Why would I put them in there? My brain’s turning to Swiss cheese.’
‘All sixty-nine-year-olds mislay things.’ I gave him a hug. ‘Tomorrow we’ll buy you some vitamins. That might help.’
Several days later he accosted me in the greenhouse. He looked as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. ‘Why were my spectacles in the fridge?’
‘Whatever are you talking about?’
‘My bloody spectacles were in our refrigerator. On top of the Flora.’ He slapped the side of his head with his hand, as if to knock sense into it. ‘I’m going bloody barmy, aren’t I?’
‘Sweetheart, we all do crazy things. Remember when I started to reverse the car out of the garage? With the up-and-over door still closed?’
‘That’s true.’ He looked relieved, but not much.
However, days later, I glanced out of the kitchen window and said: ‘The bin, sweetheart. It’s Thursday. Didn’t you put it out?’
Neil glanced up from The Independent. ‘It’s okay, I did it when I got back from the newsagents. Before I raked up those dead leaves at the bottom of the garden.’
‘So where is it, then?’
He abandoned the paper and peered outside. ‘Damned if I know. I expect the bin men emptied it and stuck the thing next door by mistake.’
They hadn’t, of course. It was where it always was, behind the shed. Still full.
‘You meant to do it,’ I said when he eventually came back inside. ‘Sometimes I mean to clean the oven, but then conveniently forget. Probably because it’s a chore.’
Neil paced up and down, like an animal in a trap. ‘But it’s not just the bin, is it, Beth? I lost my electric razor yesterday, and my credit cards the day before. Then I left the bathroom tap running last night when I went to bed. I’ve no idea what I’m going to do next. It’s a nightmare.’
‘You’re preoccupied, that’s all. Though maybe you should see the doctor.’
‘I’m damned if I want to be asked if I know what day of the week it is.’
‘And what day is it?’
‘It’s Thursday. September the 25th.’
‘There you are, my love. You’re fine.’
The days dragged on until Geoff wandered in through the kitchen door one morning, as he often did, with some vegetables for us from his allotment.
‘I could do with my mower back, if that’s okay,’ he said to Neil.
‘You know, mechanical thingy that cuts grass and makes a godawful racket? That you borrowed from me at the weekend?’
Neil’s fists clenched at his sides. ‘I was planning to come over and borrow it. Tomorrow.’
‘But you’ve already got it, old man. That’s why I need it back.’ There was an awkward pause. ‘Okay,’ continued Geoff, looking embarrassed. ‘Tell you what, you hang on to it and let me have it back when it’s convenient.’
‘But I don’t have it,’ Neil protested, looking at me. ‘Do I?’
‘It’s in the garage,’ I said, avoiding his eye.
There was a silence, before Geoff slapped Neil on the shoulder in a not-very-convincing show of bonhomie. ‘Not to worry. I missed the dentist last week. He still charged me for the appointment, though. Grasping bastard.’
The incident hit Neil hard. ‘I told you I was getting like Dad,’ he said. ‘This proves it.’
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I kept silent. But I put my arms round his waist, buried my face in his scratchy sweater and gave him a big hug.
‘I’d rather be six foot under than lose my dignity,’ he murmured into my hair, sounding close to tears.
‘At least get a proper diagnosis,’ I urged. ‘What if you’re wrong?’
‘What’s the point of a diagnosis? There’s no cure, is there?’ He extracted himself from my grasp and looked me in the eye. ‘I’ve got to take matters into my own hands while I still can. I could deteriorate rapidly. That’s what scares me. Leaving it too late.’
‘Don’t leave me, Neil. Please!’
‘You’ll manage. People do. Look at old Geoff.’
‘I refuse to talk about it.’
‘But we must. Plans have to be made.’ He took my hand in his and kissed it. ‘I need you to understand,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t bear it if you didn’t.’
‘I understand perfectly,’ I said. ‘I just don’t agree.’
‘Of course you don’t. But you will support me?’
‘You mean, hand you a full bottle of pills?’
‘And get you in trouble with the law? No way. Assisted suicide’s a crime. It wouldn’t be right to involve you in anything like that. And the Swiss clinic business raises too many legal questions. But I’ve done some research on the internet. If I crash my car into that nice, solid brick wall by the railway bridge, my worries will be over before I know what’s happened. Especially if I neglect to wear my seat belt and put my foot down, on a wet night. That way, the life insurance people won’t ask awkward questions.’
‘Oh, sweetheart, you mustn’t worry about things like that. I’ve got my pension.’
‘Fat lot of good that will do you. Just think of all the money those insurance companies have had from us over the years. They owe us.’ He patted my arm. ‘You deserve some happiness after I’ve gone. I refuse to leave you hard up.’
‘Please, sweetheart,’ I begged. ‘Don’t do this. I’ll look after you, whatever happens. We promised, for better or worse.’
‘Not another word, Beth. My mind’s made up. We’ll go away somewhere for a second honeymoon. Then come back and I’ll do it.’
When the time finally came, Neil and I kissed goodbye at the door before he went out to the car. We were both crying. Then I watched him drive off at speed into the night. Losing him like this would be hard, but he was right: life would go on.
I went back inside and picked up the phone to call Geoff. It had taken us three careful months of planning to get to this.
‘Fingers crossed, we’ve finally done it, darling,’ I said, when he answered. ‘All we need do now is wait for the traffic police to come knocking on my door.’
Photograph of spectacles courtesy of Ard Hessellnk at Flickr.