‘Mind if I join you, Leslie?’
Yes, he thought. Yes, I mind, yes, yes, yes, and yes, stop whistling under your breath, yes, yes.
Meaning, of course I mind, but that was not how she chose to take it.
She settled down at the bench, exuding her lunch vapours of Bovril and cheese.
‘I don’t care for fish.’
How often had she said it? How often had he promised himself that if she said it again he would kill her?
He smiled slightly and turned the page of his newspaper. But she had ruined that too.
She opened a packet of crisps and now the smell of chemical onion puffed out.
‘I wanted to catch you because we had a committee meeting last night to vote on the final choice.’
He turned his head away from the onion smell.
‘It’s The Mikado! I can’t tell you how pleased I am. There was a strong movement for Ruddigore on the grounds that it wasn’t often done, but there is a very good reason why. It isn’t often done because it isn’t really very good.’
‘Not one of the best by a long chalk.’
Where did that come from? He stopped reading about the plans to convert the Old Gaol into workshops to go over it in his mind. Not by a long chalk. Sport, it must come from sport, surely.
‘Anyway, it isn’t Ruddigore, it’s The Mikado.’
Or some old taproom term? Chalk marks on beer barrels? Why did he think it might be that?
He took the second half of his tuna sandwich out of the polythene bag and bit neatly into it.
‘You know, you really should join us, Leslie. I’ve been saying it for ages I know, but with The Mikado coming up I don’t see how you can bear to refuse.’
‘I did see it once,’ he said. ‘Some years ago now.’
‘I’m afraid I remember very little about it, June.’
‘But you enjoyed it?’
‘I don’t remember that either.’
‘Of course you did. How could anybody not enjoy The Mikado? Once you heard the tunes again it would all come back to you. Do think about it, Leslie.’
‘I can’t sing. I’ve said so before. I can’t sing. Or play any instrument. What use would I be?’
‘There are plenty of jobs backstage. We always need extra hands.’
Why did she do this to him? Twice a year, it seemed, she sought him out in these book stacks, barging in on his lunch hour, to try and persuade him to join the Lafferton Savoyards, choosing to forget that he told her each time that he could not sing or play an instrument and did not wish to lug scenery.
‘You do need to get out, have a life, you know.’
She had a small, pale mole on the side of her nose. He would have liked to take a razor blade to it, slice it off, watch the blood flow.
He turned the page of his newspaper but he had come to Classifieds and Property.
‘I have a perfectly happy life, thank you.’
‘Meet new people.’
She didn’t listen. She never listened. He could have used a chain of obscenities, shouted them into her face one after the other, and she would wait until he had paused and then continue, telling him that his mother would be glad if he joined something, she could surely not expect him to give up a social life for her. June Petrie had made it her business to find out as much as she could about him and about his mother, dripping small questions like drops onto a stone over the months and years, wearing him down.
Well, she had found out little enough.
‘You might have a voice, anyway. You don’t know till you try. You might surprise yourself.’
He folded the empty sandwich bag and took out a small bunch of seedless grapes. June Petrie ate the last of her onion crisps, making a loud rasping sound.
Today, tomorrow, or the next day, he would kill her.
‘You know where we are, the Baptist Hall. You know where that is.’ It was not a question. ‘Thursdays at seven, until it gets nearer the production, then it’s Thursdays and Fridays.’
Leslie stood up. He folded his paper. He crunched down viciously on the last grape.
‘Then I’m afraid that’s that, June,’ he said. ‘I’m busy every Thursday and Friday evening. What a pity.’
She came fast behind him, down the stacks, through the swing doors, up the concrete staircase. She would not do so yet, but before long Leslie Blade knew that she would ask him, in some roundabout way, what exactly it was that he did, where he went, every Thursday and Friday evening. He smelled the onion crisps as she panted up the stairs. He could make one slight move, turn sharply and push. He pictured it, her soft marshmallow body tumbling backwards down the flight of concrete to the bottom.
She had started to whistle ‘A Wandering Minstrel’ softly, under her breath.
I’m sorry it’s been so long and I feel bad about that, and about simply disappearing and not telling anyone what I was doing and why. But the truth is, I didn’t know myself. I was confused and uncertain and I couldn’t talk about it. In the end, I decided I needed to get right away so I came here – a remote and very strange and beautiful part of Nepal and an orphanage in the foothills of the mountain range. (See enclosed photo.) I am helping generally, teaching a little, spending much time in thought and self-assessment and prayer, and also exploring as much as I can – places, people, culture, life – it is all so totally unlike anything I have ever experienced.
I felt very constrained in Cambridge, and didn’t quite know which way to turn. I was enjoying my own work but found college life claustrophobic. And where else could I have gone? Not back to London, and the convent wasn’t right – it for me or me for it. And I knew really that this sort of personal chaos – emotional and career was a hopeless place from which to launch into a relationship. Simon’s life and mine were never going to be anything but parallel, there seemed no real meeting points. I don’t think I was ever what he wanted and, I am sure, not what he needed.
I wish it had been different. I do miss England and I so miss my friends. My address is below. I can’t email as there is no connection but letters do arrive, if a little unpredictably, so I would love news of you and the children. I hope you are finding things easier, and I hope you are all right, though of course you cannot be. I think of you and you are in my prayers, and I send love.
Cat turned the photograph to the light. Snow-capped mountains. Mist. A few bent trees lower down the slopes. A pinkish light. Beautiful. Jane Fitzroy had simply evaporated from their lives for half a year – Cambridge said they had no forwarding details – and now she had reappeared here, in this remote, exotic and rather random place.
Cat shook her head. Jane was right, she and Simon would never have worked, if she was as unsettled and undecided as this – one minute a chaplain, then living among nuns, then doing medieval theology in a Cambridge college, but always unsure if this was ‘it’, the thing she most desired, the round hole into which she might fit, or if she was destined to be a square peg yet again. Whether she had loved Si or he her, Cat had no idea. They had seemed in some vague sense to be right together but Jane had too much baggage, life baggage, faith baggage and emotional baggage. Simon had the last. He did not need someone as complicated and unpredictable as Jane.
Cat set down the photograph. She would send a postcard – Lafferton Cathedral, a reminder, a bit of the past – but she did not feel able to write anything too personal or too revealing. Besides, she did not think that was what Jane wanted. Perhaps Jane would find herself in Nepal – how many had tried? But probably not, Cat thought. She was the kind of person who might walk into the farmhouse next week asking how one became a doctor.
She put the card into a pigeonhole in her desk, wondering if Simon knew about Nepal, guessing not, unsure if he would even be interested. Jane Fitzroy was not a subject she had been able to broach with him.
The farmhouse was quiet, the older two children at school, Felix upstairs having his nap. Cat had cut down her GP work to three days, extended her hospice hours and hoped to do more, but before she did so she needed to do a further specialist course in palliative medicine. She should find out more about what that would entail, when, where, how – and could not summon up the energy to do so. Bereavement, she had discovered, was about many things, but one of those, and the one which few people seemed to know or warn about, was a long-lasting, overwhelming physical and mental tiredness. Even now, a year after Chris’s death, she felt exhausted for much of the time, with an exhaustion that seemed to be bone-deep and to bear no relation to whatever else she might have been doing or even to how much sleep she got. To start researching courses in palliative care, filling in application forms, reorganising her life around it, she needed an alertness and an energy she never seemed able to summon.
Now though, she said, now, today. She switched on her computer. Outside, the autumn sun was bright, the sky brittle blue, the branches of the oak tree tinged with yellow.
Today. She would start to look. Focus. Concentrate. After she had checked her emails she would make a start.
From [email protected] /* */ .
Canon Hurley asks if you could possibly make 4pm on the 3rd, for the first meeting of the Magdalene Group? If so, please note that the meeting will now be in the Precentor’s House. Would you kindly let me know if this date / time are convenient for you?
There were a couple of other work-related messages to which she replied. Emptied the washing machine and put in another load. Made fresh tea. ‘Displacement activity,’ she said aloud. But why? She had got as far as this – why was she avoiding the next step? Because it was just that, a step, a step forwards, a step into the future, a step in the dark, a step into the unknown. All of those. A step further away from the way life had been. From Chris. She did not want to take that step.
‘Come on,’ Chris said, ‘do it. I’m telling you.’
She took the tea back to her desk.
King’s College London
MSc, Diploma and Certificate in Palliative Care
Course booklet in PDF format
She clicked to start the download.
Frankie had gone from white, floppy and silent to roaring round the room like a tank. The medicine had worked. It was Mia who was quiet now, having been sick three times. Abi sat with her on her lap watching an old video of Bagpuss, which had been her own. There was a little pile of them on the window ledge, along with half a dozen books she’d loved, kept and taken with her from flat to flat. Mia was hot and sticky.
‘Frankie, quit pulling the curtain, you’ll have it down. Come and watch this and sit still, you’ll be sick again.’ But he wouldn’t. He was made of cast iron.
She could’ve done with those tea bags now. Lurky Les. He’d probably be round tonight as well with his sandwiches and cakes, trying to make conversation, asking them stuff. Hayley said he was weird, Marie said he was bonkers, some of the others laughed at him. Abi wasn’t sure. He gave her the creeps and she wondered what he got out of it, why he did it, if he was lonely or religious or what. The Reachout van people were religious but they didn’t push it at you. There were leaflets and posters in the van but nobody preached. Loony Les – they had plenty of names for him – was always alone. So why’d he come, bringing the sandwiches? Why buy her a box of tea bags?
Frankie was making a high noise, partly a whistle, partly a screech.
‘I said, pack that IN.’
He went on.
It was boys, everyone said that, you couldn’t do anything with them, they got out of control, they were like permanently revved-up engines, even at this age. When Frankie was born she’d been depressed for two days, wanting a girl if she’d wanted anything, wondering how she’d cope. Yet Frankie was the soft one too, the one who crept into her bed and put his arms round her neck, the one who always offered her half his sweets or his biscuit.
He’d roar round like this but then he’d crash. He was still pale. She knew the signs.
It didn’t matter because she wasn’t going out, even if Hayley turned up. She couldn’t forgive Hayley for getting stoned when she had all three kids, couldn’t stop imagining what might have happened. They had an agreement, it had been solid, and Abi had trusted her. Abi wouldn’t even have drunk a glass of beer when it was her turn and Hayley went out to work. She felt betrayed and let down, furious whenever she remembered. The trouble was, she couldn’t leave Frankie and Mia alone, and who else was there? It had been a good arrangement with Hayley, suited them both, meant they could both of them work enough and the kids were all safe. Now what?
The wind-up music was playing at the end of the video and Mia was slumped and heavy in sleep on her lap. Abi carried her to the bed and laid her carefully down as her mobile beeped.
CU soon. H xx.
As if nothing had bloody happened then.
She replied. Don’t bother.
But by the time she had washed out Mia’s sicky clothes and started to cook sausages and toast, Hayley was up the stairs and in the room, shoving a bunch of garage flowers at her and trying to give her a hug.
‘God in heaven, Abs, it won’t ever happen again, hope to die. It never will.’
Liam was already down on the mat with Frankie and two beaten-up metal cars, both of them making motor noises.
‘Shut up, you’ll wake Mia.’
‘I don’t know what I was thinking and I was out of order, but give us a break, Abs, nothing happened, did it? I was fine.’ Hayley took out the toast and started to scrape butter onto it.
‘Get your mitts off.’
‘Oh, come on, I’m starving, Liam’s starving, we’ve got nothing to eat, Abi.’
‘Don’t give me that. I know you, I know what you spent it on.’ She snatched the toast out of Hayley’s hand.
The room smelled of frying sausages and she went to open the window and put the shoe in to keep it propped up. Hayley stood miserably staring at the toaster.
They’d been here before enough times, Hayley without ten pence, Abi feeding her and Liam. But it had been the other way too, when Abi had been ill and couldn’t work for two weeks and Hayley had helped her out with money and taken the kids off her hands. That had been last winter, when Hayley had been clean for four months, even started saving a bit. They’d talked about getting a decent flat together, two bedrooms, a garden for the kids. They’d laughed.
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