Just never mind how things get bad. They just do. To everyone, despite whatever you do to stop it. It happens. Whatever efforts are made, pacts agreed, odds worked out. It will all end badly. For everybody. Wishing she had a separate life was her beginning, as well as her end. The end was right there at the beginning. Perhaps she knew it, but the odds were that she didn’t. It simply began as a wish to God that things would get better. Everything that could, as they say, go wrong, had.
First there was marriage, a child, and then there was something else. And, thank God, there was a job. But then again, there was that something else. Even friends drifted. Curious at first, like standing in a crowd of people surrounding an accident. A trace of something not expected to be on view. Something about “..there but for the grace of…” and all that. Then they became concerned and then some of them genuinely helpful. Useful in fact. But people need something back. Nothing is quite the one-way street we imagine. Some effort is demanded even of the weak. Even goodness has its limits. And she was too irregular with her thanks; her gratitude for their philanthropy, thoughtfulness and concern. They became at first distant and pretty soon, disappeared from sight.
One Saturday morning she awoke from a foggy night of half remembered dreams. There was a creature, a reptile, and a woman with a foreign, east-European accent she followed about but couldn’t understand. There was also a vision, in the back of her mind, of entering a bathroom filled with white bloody towels and masses of toilet tissue, unravelled and flecked with drops of blood. Stains of red carelessly scattered and speckled across walls and ceiling.
Standing naked drinking her first cup of tea of the day she was surprised, genuinely, at the lack of traffic on the road outside, or indeed, in the car park directly below her window. She stood and watched and waited, as her tea gradually cooled in the cup she held at arms length. Squinting over the rim waiting for a passing vehicle to disturb the rising heat haze, that gradually diminished as she watched.
A flash of passing yellow. Her attention was on nothing, and suddenly on the absence of a car just gone by. Just as she was getting used to the silence in her mind, she was aware of some kind of activity brought on by the car. What was it about the colour yellow? Her mind went back to the bathroom scene. The huge masses of towels and tissue, and something moving within the mass of white and red. Something else flashed by. Was it real or imaginary? She was back at the window, although she felt a bit of herself was back in the bathroom. Standing here and standing there. Keeping an eye on things. The road was quiet again. The clock beside her bed had told her it was 8.45 am. Meaning really, that it was 8.30 am. She always set her alarm clock 15 minutes ahead of time in order to fool her befuddled sleepy head that she had to jump up because she was late for work. Befuddlement aside, it was a cheap trick she had used for decades of waking up, and it never worked. She just lay awake for the extra 15 minutes.
Then she didn’t remember walking from the living room window, where she had been on traffic watching and tea consumption duties, to check the clock in the bedroom, passing the now empty bathroom on the way. She was also dressed which was surprising.
Later, this time seated bedside the window, she became vaguely alarmed by absences. Notably of cars and of people. Of anything. Of him? There were no cars and there were no people. Although she wasn’t sure, because, every time she looked away from the window, she caught a flash of something. Traffic, or people? A splash of yellow, or a dash of red, from the corner of her good eye. When she looked back, it was as though her peripheral vision was having an in-joke with itself. There was an outside edge to her that was messing about with her head. She made more and more tea, and wandered the rooms wondering where the time was going, but glad at least it was going somewhere. Where, she wasn’t bothered, so long as it went.
She gave the outside world a miss for a while and centred her attention on the ceiling. Small irregular shadows from the trees across the way that surrounded the car park, shifted and swayed, all small and shadow-like across the patch of ceiling she was currently gazing at. Her arms propped her head up as the inevitable sleep overcame her like a tide. A tidal wave of sheer fatigue. Weariness fitted into her like she did into her baggy shirts and pants, with plenty of room to manoeuvre.
This fatigue took up residence first in her arms as they struggled to keep her head upright. Followed by her legs which gave up any pretence of going anywhere the instant she lay down. Exhaustion rolled through her like a dry wind blowing tumbleweed across a deserted western town. She recalled holding a little boys hand as they sat and watched western films on a little black and white telly in the corner of the room. Now when was that?
Tumbleweed meant loneliness and isolation. A town gone west.
Loneliness and isolation.
Waking up to dead arms is a chore. First you wake up in an awkward position. That is number one. The awful sour taste in the mouth; a reminder of whatever had passed the lips earlier. Jaded palette. Thick tasting. Breath you could chew. A slow realisation, as you surface that you have lost the use of your limbs. They are dead. Entwined beneath your head they seem not to exist at all. Knowing you have limbs at some proximity to your actual body but being unable to feel them, move them or use them is quite an awful experience, she thought.
Yes, this is paraplegia. This is what it’s like to be crippled. She lay and in a slight panic addressed future disability with two useless arms. She tried to raise awareness of this new state of affairs with herself, but her mind didn’t seem to want to know. So she simply lay there, immobile waiting for some sensation to return to the stricken limbs. In time she drifted once more into sleep, or whatever it was that she drifted into.
He wondered when he was going to go into the house. The roads were quiet these days, and he was unlikely to see any form of transport pass by, especially these days. Despite the new way that everybody now felt about things, he still felt conspicuous. He knew that in reality he had all the time in this world at his disposal. All the time in this world, and nothing else on his agenda right now apart from getting into that building. So he lit another cigarette and just stood there watching. Nothing much happened for quite a while. Apart from the yellow car that circled and circled, the flashing lights and the swaying, rustling trees. It was as if somebody had really gone to work on the diagetic sound. A little too much he felt. Flies don’t make that much sound do they?
Blood flow increased as she slept, dreaming something vivid she would forget as soon as she awoke. For an instant it would be the most vivid aural and visual incident she had experienced for some considerable time, yet within seconds of waking up, it would disappear quite definitely and utterly, leaving only tantalising fragments behind. As always. Pins and needles aside, she managed this time to raise herself upright, with only the slightest difficulty, although one arm was less mobile than the other. In the bathroom, she single-handedly unzipped her pants which fell past her knees to the floor with a thump; something heavy in the pocket. She sat and peed. A thin yellowish drizzle into the cold porcelain toilet bowl. After a time, she hoisted her pants back up from the floor, stray drops of urine dribbling down between her thighs leaving wet patches on her knickers.
The corridors of the house had that 3 am air about them, the point at which you got up and bumped around in the dark wanting a glass of iced water to compensate for the dehydration. Even though it was now 10 am, It took a short time only, for her to register that it had only been roughly 45 minutes since she had last glanced at the bedside alarm clock, and she had had numerous cups of tea since then, as well as a doze on the sofa, two none-functioning arms to contend with, as well as various false starts on spotting signs of life outside. If she had been visible, every move she made in front of the window would have been observed from across the road by somebody she once knew.
She stumbled along the corridor and down the three steps that took her into the back sitting room. Ideal for sitting in with an old gas fire on full blast, drying up the atmosphere, as well as her sinuses. She had sat there remembering things worth remembering for donkey’s years. Eating little sandwiches of white bread, thinly spread margarine and tinned salmon. The crusts were cut off, and sliced into triangles, arranged neatly on a plate. The tray set before her, with a steaming pot of tea, and a side plate, of three plain biscuits. She had graduated to a colour television set in later years, with a remote control that had huge knobs and writing on it, especially for those that were in need; the infirm or the feeble minded. It was almost as big as the television. “Like a bloody house brick”, her cousin Dulcie used to say. She’d had many a nice day sitting in the sitting room. Tea, and biscuits, and little sandwiches.
She pulled the door closed as she left. Another thing Dulcie said if you left the door open; “Bloody well shut the door. Were you born in a field?”
Everything gathered, stuffed together under a blanket of dust, dampness and gloom the further she moved towards the upper floors. The smaller kitchen and sitting room were somewhat colder, but cosier, the only window a built in skylight above a small dining table in the corner of the kitchen by the sink. The only way to heat water was in a small plastic see-through boiler hanging precariously from the wall by a couple of threadbare screws. She filled a cup with water from the tap, lifted the boiler lid and tipped it in, flicking the wall switch as she did; a fluid move only now made possible by regaining the use of both hands and arms. She looked about her.
Merely a box room really, but fully functional as a bed-sitting room, or ‘Granny Flat’ as they used to call them. She had lived up here for a while when she had moved back into the house nearly 40 years ago, so she felt quite at home. When her father and mother had passed away, she had remained, moved downstairs and rented the room out for a while. But she had disliked sharing the house with anybody else, despite the pleasant company the woman lodger had seemed to be on occasion. Besides she knew that her lodger disliked her muttering and occasionally whispering to the shadows that set during the evenings across the heavy curtains in the front room.
She opened the tiny kitchenette cupboard and took out the tea caddy. Rinsing out the only cup on the draining board, she made her customary cup of tea. No milk, no sugar. Thank you. She sat on the tiny chair under the skylight window and thought about one or two things. Things that were drifting about in her mind since yesterday.
A final cigarette surely before he made his move. He inhaled deeply, the sickly nicotine smoke filling his lungs like a rich dark fog. Almost like something you could spread on your toast. The pile of filter tips surrounding the spot where he had been standing an indication of time spent. He brushed them into various piles with the toe of his boot. Dividing them into groups. Lined up like crumpled soldiers on parade, into twos, then threes. Then into a crooked circle. Gazing off somewhere else in his mind as he did all this, coughing spluttering and exhaling. Clouding the issue. Masking the scene before him in a haze of icy, smoky breath.
Decorating the walls in silver foil had been her way of hiding walls that had seen better years. Masking the patchy floral wallpaper pasted onto countless layers of equally morbid designs. How you could make a wall covering of roses and assorted summer flowers look so dismal and depressing, was an art form in itself, she thought. Dampness around the cornices and skirting boards, wood rot, grease and slime were all masked equally well by strips of silver cooking foil, nailed, stapled and glued, where possible, to the desperate surfaces below, hiding the hideousness of aged walls from sight. Creating a seemingly pristine effect where the past was buried by the bright and shining motif of a vibrant future. Although she knew that, for all its shimmer, its sheen and its reflective sparkle, what really lay beneath.
Strip it all away right down to the naked walls and you would see and smell the rotten carcass of the room underneath it all. Like everything, the outward appearance would do to divert her from really dwelling upon what lay beneath anything and everything she gazed upon, possessed, wanted, borrowed, saved for, stole, coveted, received or gave to others. Everything had a surface quality not matched by its inner substance. Nothing could be. No thing inside could ever reflect the hopes and dreams, wishes and desires she place on the outward appearance of things. That she knew very well. Like the room she sat in, which simply reflected herself sitting there alone, the whisps of steam floating from her teacup as she considered her distorted reflection. She closed her eyes. Once more sleep overcame her. Even if she had been awake, she would not have heard the footsteps in the hall four floors beneath her, nor the creaking of the stairs.
He finally picked up some heavy ornamental object and put it in his pocket. Mooching about quiet rooms in other peoples houses was not his speciality. Although nobody cared anymore about what people did, who they did it to or why they did it. So here he was at the bottom of her stairs, at last. After all this time. Having a wander and having a look for something to recognise. Something he thought he would never forget, and something he always tried hard to remember.
The sound and images of things passed him by. A distant radio set broadcast something unintelligible through walls, some time or distance away that entered and filled in certain parts of his peripheral thoughts, although they failed to have anything whatsoever to do with his present state of mind. He wished he could hear what it was that he was missing. They were simply muffled, random signals from time gone by.
The place was as empty as he knew it would be. He had started at the bottom and worked his way, quietly, into the upper rooms, where he spent some time testing out the beds. A history of back problems had meant that soft mattresses were out of the question. He had found a good stiff one on the second floor back bedroom. What looked as if it used to be the guest room. There were no signs of any person having used the room in some time. No signs of occupation whatsoever like most of the house. He sat at the long wooden table in the kitchen and ate cold baked beans from the tin with a spoon. Later, after finding and changing into some warmer winter clothing, found in one of the wardrobes, he made himself at home by making a fire in the tiny Victorian fireplace, the centrepiece of the sitting room in which he sat, now watching the sharply defined shadows and shapes dancing about the darkened walls and ceiling. A memory was awaked somewhere of something obviously forgotten. A small wish faded into the gloom of his mind as he gave up connecting himself with anything but the present. What was the use?
How grey can grey be? She realised, not quite with a start, but with a little recognition of the fact, that all of her memories seemed to be suffused with grey. Rather like a blurry flashback in a film like ‘Waterloo Bridge’, where the forgotten heroine attempts to throw herself from the bridge into the River Thames when her lover is killed in action during World War Two. The long shots were always crystal clear, but the close ups all foggy and indistinct. As though the closer we get, the less clear things become in our perception of them. It was all about light, the thing that illuminates yet also creates false illusions. The lights were out in her attic as she drifted in and out of a dream. She shivered, feeling the coldness of age, and the encompassing weight of time itself; its heaviness pressing deeper and deeper within her.
A stillness she remembered well, descended upon her, as his footsteps eventually arrived beside the door. He stepped inside, and she felt a rustling of dry leaves against the rough stone, and a deep soughing in the breadth of trees overhanging her place of rest. Pulling away the overgrown weeds, he lifted the brass urn that contained the dried and withered stems, and emptied the fetid water gathered in the bottom, rinsing it out with the bottled water he had brought from the car. He replaced the urn, now cleansed and bright with the irises she had loved so much in life.
‘She’s lying in there with them both’, he thought; shivering at the thought of her more recent, warmer ashes, combined and mixing with the cold grey putrefaction of his grandparents remains, embracing her everlastingly, ceaselessly and without end. Whatever dark corner of her eternal imagination she could conjure, it would always contain them, slithering darkly on the very edge of her sight. For always. Never letting her go. Despite the sigh, and the shiver she somehow felt, at the nearness of his touch, she was bound to them forever.