My vicar says it’s wrong for me to despair. He says there are children all skinny with fat stomachs in Africa, and half nude, dirty children in Romania, so a woman like me shouldn’t despair. The word is off limits, out of bounds, tucked behind barbed wire fences and ramshackle orphanages, and not made for a woman like me to touch. He’s got a lovely house, our vicar. All wooden beams on the outside, an Aga on the inside, and no kids with hoods up and dogs with names like Beast milling on the outskirts. No graffiti on his garage, random words touretted in spray paint, no silver lines burrowed deep into the side of his car by passing keys. He means well, I know he does, but the WI knitted clothes for the naked children, and that Mr Geldof sang for the starving ones, and there’s me, stuck here, and half the time the world spins on without even realising I’m onboard.
And the other half?
That’s sometimes worse.
Maudlin. That’s what this is. That’s all it is, apparently. Tomorrow will be, could be, better. It’s just a puddle you have to walk through, to get to the other side. Emotional damp socks, squelching shoes, trousers soaking up filthy water like kitchen towel.
Maudlin - sogginess of the soul.
I’ve made a cup of tea, and it’s on the side, cooling, spoon jutting out at a jaunty angle, but the milk has gone sour, and those kids are outside, on the corner, so the milk will have to wait. I’ll pop the cup in the microwave later, if need be. Heat it back up, and it’ll be fine. Should probably do a supermarket run, but I’ll leave that till next week. Till after the pension goes in, and before it flies back out again.
Coupons. This is what I have been reduced to. One of those women that trawls the local rags, searching desperately for that ten pence off her next purchase of butter, 25% off when you buy ASDA’s own rice. A purse thick with the Kentish Gazette. You want to know what’s strange though? Once I start, I find it hard to stop. There’s something so satisfying about the sound of metal surging through mottled ink, and after I’ve retrieved the bargains from their cut-along-the-line homes, I end up simply snipping out things I like - grainy images of cats that need adopting, people whose smile makes me smile back. I tend to keep them for a few days, promising to make a scrap book, a collage of happy things salvaged from the gloom of the news, before each time gently re-homing them in the recycling bin. Today is no different. Newspaper sprawling before me, redacted by rusty scissors, gaping windows in the text revealing the tea mug stained table beneath. Fragments of stories circling the holes, tragedies ending abruptly, leaving the potential for a happy ending to crawl into the space left behind.
Much better that way.
They’re still there. Still outside. I might just drink my tea black. It’s better for you anyway, black tea.
My vicar says I shouldn’t despair. He says God has a plan for everyone. That makes me laugh. I have this vision of a naked man, hunched wings, stooped over a typewriter labelled “Cathy Jones (Wife of Dave)”. The way I imagine it, he’s all furrowed brow and temple rubbing, next to a heavenly bin of heavenly screwed up paper, and he’s suffering from a biblical attack of writer’s block. All yesteryears pages, stacked up next to him, and now he’s run out of steam. It must be quite a big pile now, towering, precarious, vulnerable to sudden drafts and heavy footsteps. Would be nice if you could order a copy. Go back, and re-read the beginning. Do you think He’d mind if you tippexed out the mistakes? I might just accidentally misplace the chapter where I got old. Let it slip down the back of the settee, and feign innocence. Throw youthful hands in the air, free of kidney spots, fingers no longer strangled by rings that have grown too tight, and act completely oblivious.
Nothing to do with me.
My Mum took to old age like a duck to water. She seemed to revel in people helping her across the road, and driving at twenty miles per hour, and gossiping about how awful prices are these days while queuing at the post office. Days scrawled from the calendar, spent feeding pigeons, scouring the Radio Times. Knitting needles and games of Bridge. Didn’t even try to dye away the grey.
I wish I knew how she did it.
Do you know what despair is? Despair is a brown settee that you thought looked nice in the eighties, and now it’s... what? What do they even call this? The Tweens? It's pretty stupid name for an era. No gravitas. Anyway, it’s now, and you realise it didn’t look good then, this settee, and it certainly doesn’t today, all threadbare and dated and held together with stains. And you have photos of you sat on it, all young, and trim, and pretty, and smiling, and now you sink into it far too deeply, and you sigh when you sit down, and you sigh when you get up. Then you look at your bank balance, and realise that you’ll probably die in that settee. Surrounded by a pile of ironing, half done, the cold dregs of a cup of tea, and the whittled out corpse of this week’s local news. That’s despair. This settee is destined to outlive me.
They’re up to something outside. I try my best to ignore it these days. I used to be like a meerkat, twitching at the curtains, alarmed at every noise, but the thing is whatever they’re going to do, they’ll do it whether you watch them or not. Makes no odds. If they see you watching though…
I’ll just drink it black. Decision made.
Do you know what I would do, if I could get my hands on a copy of my life story? I’d write in a new bathroom. Scrawl it in the margins. I don’t care how it happens, deus ex machina, fairy godmother, winning a competition I don’t remember entering, just as long as it appears. When we got our bathroom fitted, way back when, I thought it looked lovely. All new, and shiny, and smelling of… well, plastic, but new plastic. It’s the colour of old men that smoke too much. I noticed that when visiting the hospital ward one day, when Dave was in there. Long time ago now.
He’s better now. Well, I say better, and that’s probably not the right word. He’s not sickly anymore. Gave me a real fright, he did, when they had to take him into hospital. Poor bugger. Stuck in that ward, old gents crying behind thin curtains, food all grey like a miserable day, and you’re not even allowed flowers, not these days. Infection risk, apparently. He came home, in the end, but at the same time, he didn’t. Not all of him. Sleeps a lot, now. Sleeps most of the time. Think he just likes to break his day down into smaller chunks. Dilute his life with dreams.
Me? I study the ceiling. The two of us, lying like book ends in bed, while I watch car lights bounce through the gaps in the curtain.
Listen to occasional sirens trailing through the air, the edges blunted by glass between us, waiting, reaching, for sleep that never comes. Like trying to grasp handfuls of breeze.
Maybe it’s all the tea.
I confronted them once. Those kids. They were sat on my car, smoking, and I asked them to move on. I wasn’t rude, but I was firm. It’s my car, not a bench. Mine. They swore at me, called me all sorts, nose to nose, but they left.
That night my car windows were smashed. You live and learn. I’ve given up calling the police now. Given up repairing the car. I cried the first time, the second, maybe even the third. Not now. No tears left. Mentally dehydrated. I’ve had that side mirror smashed off so many times, I just leave it, hanging there like a broken limb. Dave threatened to keep watch one night, but I wouldn’t let him. You read in the paper, all the time, about what happens to people that do that. Not worth the risk.
Besides, he’d probably just fall asleep. Catch his death out there, hidden in a hedge.
Makes you sad though. Sat in a quiet home, flinching at each noise outside.
Not even sad. Broken. Like toys with no batteries. Dumped in a box.
You know those people that say they get a psychic feeling or whatever, and they pick up the phone just as its about to ring? I do that sometimes, well, I try, but I just get the dial tone. And I’m willing and willing for there to be something. Vicar holds no faith with this psychic malarkey, but it would be nice if it worked. Just once.
The kids do get in touch every now and then though. Breaks the monotony. Shatters it. But they’re not really kids anymore, no matter how much I spit on a tissue or make them scrambled eggs. They drink coffee. The eldest even smokes. I tell her she’ll end up the colour of the bathroom, but it doesn’t do much good. She just buys more chewing gum when she comes round. No, not much child left in them now. I’m proud, really proud, of the adults they’ve become, but… I miss grazed knees. I miss endless “Why’s?”. I miss handmade cards and treading play-doh into the carpet. It’s so quiet without them here. Makes the house feel hollow.
Empty nest syndrome, that’s what they call it.
Do birds get depressed? Have I ever seen a miserable looking magpie, a morose seagull, a down trodden sparrow? I suppose it’s hard to tell. What with the beaks.
I’m pretty sure they’ve just smashed something outside. I hope it’s nothing that belongs to me.
I hate my clock. It seems so slow, arthritic hands stirring through treacle, wearily inching through the day, counting down to night. Counting down to sleep. To waking. Rinse, and repeat.
The tea’s gone cold. Never mind. It wasn’t very nice anyway.
Ambition is a beautiful thing when you’re younger. Train driver, dancer, astronaut, princess. Now my ambitions are smaller, not mountains to climb but flecks of gravel in your shoe; a new settee, a husband who’s not sleeping, a bathroom that’s shiny and white, a splash of milk, and it’s still too much. Too big.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
7.16.10 @ 10:24a
Mrs David Jones needs to get a squirt gun, fill it with the sour milk, and then go baptize the chavs. Or acid.
This is nearly the prequel to that story you did about the sleeping cat that wasn't actually sleeping.
7.16.10 @ 2:11p
I vaguely remember that! It's just a character I have permanently lodged in my head - like a ghost of who I dread becoming, I guess. Write to purge!
7.16.10 @ 2:34p
Love, love, love this. Good on ya, dearie.
candy green gustavson
7.21.10 @ 10:15a
You raise the bar! XXOO
katherine (aka clevertitania)
7.21.10 @ 1:30p
It seems defeatist, but I actually find comfort in the following all-too-common phrase these days...
"Just because others have it worse than you doesn't mean you have it good. "
Maybe despair isn't good for you, but making yourself feel bad for feeling bad isn't just defeatist; it's stupid. Here's what your vicar, and all the cheery people of the world won't tell you; sometimes the crappy things in your life are beyond your control. And when they are, feeling bad about them is all you have.
7.21.10 @ 6:20p
Wow. Not in a surprised way, mind you. I've gone far beyond being surprised by your talent. More of a, "Wow. She did it again. How does she do that?" I'll probably never figure it out, but just in case...keep doing that.
7.22.10 @ 2:04a
This is a beautiful vignette. You know how I know it's beautiful? Because when I read this, I see, hear, and feel every detail in my head, even the things not specifically mentioned. I see the gray sky, the long anonymous rows of council housing, the surly foul-mouthed little street-tough wannabes loitering in the street, the smell of the newspapers - all of it.
I can't decide yet if this is motivation for me to finish something that's languishing unfinished in my portfolio, or if it's going to make me toss my hands up and say, "Why do I even bother?"