I saw this in the window of a great little osteria in Rome last week. “Scrivi il racconto della tua vita.”
Winner of the ‘Dragon’s Pen’ award from The Glasgow Women’s Library.
She made up her mind to move whilst she was washing her hands in the ‘rest room’ of the crematorium. It was the dusty plastic gardenia arranged in a yellowing glass vase on the windowsill that hardened her heart. She looked at herself in the mirror. The face that looked back at her was oddly composed, as if she had arranged her features that morning whilst putting on her lipstick. Well, better keep it that way. No point in succumbing to emotion now.
A woman in a black coat, black gloves and a high black hat welcomed them into the chapel. She was very short and stood on her toes to speak. Sophie pictured Steve’s spirit hovering somewhere near the ceiling. She imagined how the colour would drain from his pale face when he saw that his wife had chosen a firm of funeral directors run by women. But then, since her son had been born he had always looked cross.
‘For my own peace of mind,’ the woman was saying, ‘For my own peace of mind, I have to ask you to make sure that your mobile phones are switched off for the duration.’
For her peace of mind, Sophie thought, why did she need peace of mind? It wasn’t as if it was the body of her husband they were sending into the furnace. What if she, the widow, now that she was ontologically changed, decided to take a phone call just as the curtains were closing?
Surely, if she wanted to, on this day of all days, she could do anything she liked. She could pull down the arrangements of pallid silk lilies that hung in bleached wicker baskets on either side of the aisle. She could run outside, where the trees were drunk with colour as if they had sucked up barrels of burgundy and vats of yellow sherry, and gather up armfuls of amber oak and copper beech and bronzed ash. She could cover the floor with branches and throw handfuls of rusty red leaves on the coffin. She could take off all her black clothes and tie her teal coloured bra and panties to the handles. She could remind his friends that she had once been strawberry blonde. Her pubic hair was still as ginger as the day they had married.
When it was all over, and his friends had eaten sandwiches and sipped champagne in the front room, she and Freddy stood and watched the last car back out of the paved area in front of the house. Twenty years ago, Steve had insisted that they cover the whole garden with concrete, ‘so we won’t have the effort of a lawn.’ Only Steve’s Honda had used the space, until eventually they had put up a basketball net above the garage door. At least that had meant that Freddy’s school friends had come to play with him. She had wanted more children, but Steve had put his foot down after Freddy was born. So she had moved out of their bedroom and into the guest room.
She turned and looked up at her son. ‘I’m moving out. You can have this house if you want it … or sell …. I’m going as soon as I can.’
His dark eyes smiled back at her and she touched his cheek. His silky skin as nut brown as the conkers he had hoarded as a child.
She didn’t wait for a reply, but went inside and climbed the stairs, noticing that the beige carpet was worn on every alternate tread, as if the occupants of the house had been at pains to keep their imprint to a minimum. She crossed the landing towards the room she had slept in, and then on an impulse, opened the door to the master bedroom.
She pulled back the curtains. The day before she had taken out all Steve’s suits and laid them on the candlewick bedspread. Methodically, she began to search the pockets. She looked through the chest of drawers, and then under the bed and then finally stood on a chair to look on top of the wardrobe. She lifted down a box. The disturbed dust danced in a shaft of autumn sunshine.
As she lifted off the lid, she guessed what she would find inside. For twenty-five years she had refused to think about that time and that place, certain that if she locked away the memory and refused to go near it, she could keep it safe and unsullied, a golden memory to be treasured in a life of drab grey.
She pulls out some documents, and a photograph of her and Steve standing outside a painted house by the sea. It must have been taken soon after they were married, because in the picture she is holding Steve’s hand. She rummages through the papers. So he never sold the yellow house, she thinks. After they moved away, she never asked. She had known that to talk about it, to talk about anything, was too dangerous.
She bundles up the papers and puts them back in the box. She can still remember the telephone number. She picks up the phone on the bedside table and dials. A woman’s voice says hello.
‘Hi, my name is Sophie Drake,’ says Sophie. ‘My husband was Steve Drake. He has died and so I now own the house you are renting. Can you tell me how long you still have to go on your contract?’
‘We will be moving out in a month,’ says the woman. ‘My husband has a job down south. Didn’t meet your husband. We’ve only dealt with the agents.’
Sophie puts down the phone and crosses to the window, pushing it open. The sun is setting and the buildings behind the house are silhouetted against a salmon pink sky. She breathes deeply. The air smells of wood-smoke from a neighbour’s bonfire. A month is just long enough to pack.
A short story. 70 years ago tomorrow…
She stood on the platform at Haymarket and waited. Someone will come and help, she thought. The afternoon was cool, but the train brought with it a blast of warm air heavily laden with dust and the acrid smell of burning coke. Her heart sank as each coach passed by, finally coming to a stop too far away for her to clamber aboard with her bags. Then a young lad came up.
‘Can I help with those?’ He pointed to the bags.
She nodded and he dragged them along the ground to catch up with the train. He reached the last carriage and hauled one bag and then the other up and onto the high step. The guard was blowing his whistle when the boy grabbed her hand and pulled her on board.
She gasped for breath, and her head spun so she sat down where she was on the hard floor.
‘Are you all right? Are you …?’ He couldn’t finish the question. ‘I could get help?’
She smiled and shook her head.
‘I’m here, that’s all that matters. You are very kind. My bags are heavy.’
‘Can I help you to a seat?
He didn’t look any older than sixteen and had a thin face with extraordinarily blue eyes and hair like stubbly stalks of hay. He helped her stand as the train began to pick up speed and he pulled back the door of an empty compartment and helped her inside.
‘I’ll lift your bags onto the luggage rack.’
She managed to steady herself and sit down. The boy sat opposite.
They both stared out of the window. At first they saw rows of blackened tenements and dismal backyards strangled with washing lines. An old mangle and a rusty bike had been abandoned on an embankment. But soon there were flat fields of ploughed earth and the horizon opened up under an immense sky of steel grey. A flock of starlings furled and unfurled, disappearing into a copse of yellowing oak trees. Lilly settled back into her seat and allowed herself a long-drawn-out sigh. For the boy it was too much.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?
‘Don’t worry, not due for a month. Where are you heading?’
‘Dundee. Dad’s got a job there. Commercial traveller, sells soap.’
‘I’m going to Leuchars. If you’ll give me hand with my bags when I get off I’ll give you sixpence.’
The boy suddenly stood up and pointed to the sky. An aeroplane came into view. It flew alongside the train and then looped off towards the north. It was dark green with a yellow circle painted on the body.
‘Spitfire,’ he said. That’s what I’m going to do. Be a pilot.’ He kept watching the plane until it disappeared.
‘Have you ever been up in an aeroplane?’ asked Lilly.
‘Nope. But I’ll get a chance one day.’
‘That’s what my husband does. Fly spitfires I mean. He’s based at Turnhouse. The 603. Perhaps one day he could let you see inside one.’
The lad’s cheeks turned pink and the blue of his eyes intensified.
‘Do you think he would?’
The train curved northwards, and the afternoon sun broke through the clouds. They approached the bridge and leaning her head against the window, Lilly could see ahead of them the rust red arches. She closed her eyes and felt the familiar fluttering inside her belly.
She opened them with a start when the train screeched to a stop and the boy was thrown across the compartment onto her lap. The weight of his body against her chest left her gasping for breath. As she pushed back he stumbled and fell on the floor, banging his face on the wooden edge of the seat. Blood began to pour from his nose. Her heart beat wildly, as if desperate not to deprive her baby of oxygen.
They were under the first arch, and outside she saw men half climbing, half jumping from scaffolding. Even from that distance she could see fear in their eyes.
The boy struggled to his feet, rubbing his face with a handkerchief. As the train finally shuddered to a halt, he pulled back the compartment door and went out into the corridor and looked downstream.
Lilly was still shaking. And then she felt a tightening across her stomach. It was painful, and the shock made her cry out.
The boy ran back inside. ‘You’re hurt. I’ll find someone.’ His nose had begun to bleed again and he wiped it with his sleeve.
They heard the drone of an engine coming nearer and nearer, until it seemed as if their eardrums would burst. Both of them instinctively slid between the
seats to the floor. Lilly found herself holding his hands. When the next contraction came she squeezed hard.
A long thin aeroplane with a triangular fin came into view. It was flying parallel with the bridge and they could see the gunner in his cockpit at the back.
‘Ouch,’ he said, pulling his hands away, and then with another look out at the sky, ‘Germans.’
At the same time, an explosion and a huge plume of water rose into the air and then seconds later, the grinding of train wheels as the train jerked and began to roll forward. Someone must have decided it was safer to be off the bridge.
‘We’re moving again,’ Lilly whispered to herself. She began to cry and wrapped her arms around her baby. Again, a plane passed them, this time so close they could see the pilot in his cockpit. They saw the single engine of a spitfire.
‘The 603,’ shouted the boy. ‘Up and at ‘em.’
A minute later the train was over the bridge on its way to Dundee.
‘So it’s begun,’ sighed Lilly.
She felt another contraction, but this time not so strong.
‘What’s your name?
‘Sandy,’ he said. He was pacing the carriage up and down.
‘Same as my husband,’ she said, cradling her bump.