‘Smile, love, it might never ’appen!’ a jolly botherer in hi-vis calls from somewhere under the spiky umbrella of the tree.
There aren’t the usual hordes of people about. London is in the sleepy grip of a post-festive no-man’s- land – that dreary period between Christmas and New Year when you’ve done the paper hats and the enforced jollity and you’re yet to do the party poppers and the reluctant midnight kissing of swaying, drunken strangers. (I’m so glad those days are over, there were far too many of them. Thanks, Christian.) Commuters are straggling home after heart-not-in-it days at the office. Sales shoppers bag listless bargains in half-empty shops. London’s soundtrack, a week ago loud and raucous – ram-packed with Slade and Wizzard and Shakin’ Stevens on a loop – is muted, waiting for the feverish New Year’s Eve pitch of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’, where nobody knows the words beyond the first verse and chorus so they just repeat that over and over until their party hats fall off, and they step on someone else’s toe, and the chain of arms break with a laugh and a stagger, and a husband snarls and says ‘You’re drunk ’ although the reason you are drunk is him.
I flash a bright smile to the dimming sky, long after I’ve passed my heckler, as a silly act of freedom and rebellion. No one need demand a certain look, a smile, or a line on cue any more. If I look dreary and bored to the man on the street, then that’s OK; I like my face’s new capacity for lack of expression.
The soft drizzle frizzes up my already electric hair as it spirals from under my beret, my once natural blonde curls now from a bottle but doing a passable impression of their former selves. I don’t think I’ll ever succumb to grey, not appearance-wise, anyway; in most other aspects of my life it’s the only shade that surrounds me.
I walk, the comfortingly unexcitable weather perfectly matching my perma-grey, comfortingly unexcitable mood. It’s certainly not the kind of weather to offer an emotion-saturated, high-colour background for miracles to occur. For the giant surprise of a man you once loved until you ached to come back into your life.
I look round. It’s Becky, and I am no longer unruffled. I immediately reel under the dual stab of emotion I experience, now, when I see my old friend. Deep unassailable fondness and crushing guilt. The feeling that I want to say ‘sorry’, but I don’t know how. Becky and I met at university, thirty years ago, and she is standing further up the path and wielding a bulging M&S carrier bag. She’s always in that place, perusing Meal Deals and single men; it’s where I finally bumped into her after years of not being allowed to see her.
I walk, the comfortingly unexcitable weather perfectly matching my perma-grey, comfortingly unexcitable mood.
‘Hi,’ I say, as she trots up to me, the plastic handle of the bag twisted round her gloved fingers. My voice sounds hesitant, but it does around her, these days.
‘You OK? I’m on my way to St Katherine’s,’ she puffs. ‘Dominic’s in there with a broken leg.’
‘Oh no! Is he? I didn’t know!’ Well, why would I, when I spend much of my life avoiding my friends? ‘How did he do that?’
‘Fell off a lighting rig or something. You know what he’s like! I’m sure he’d love to see you. It’s been ages. Do you want to come and visit him with me?’
She is smiling but her eyes are slightly narrowed, as though she is expecting me to say no. I look back at her, already ashamed. My voice is even more hesitant. ‘I don’t know. I’ve been to work. I’m just on my way home.’ St Katherine’s hospital is only about fifteen minutes’ walk from here and it’s true, I haven’t seen Dominic, our old friend from university, for ages: I turn down a lot of invitations.
‘You’ve finished early.’
‘The office closed.’ I shrug. ‘Nothing much was going on.’ It was true; we’d pretty much all been kicked out, though I wouldn’t have minded staying.
‘Come on!’ Becky shoves an optimistic arm through mine, the wet slipperiness of her navy raincoat colliding with the damp woolly check of mine. ‘We’ll only go for an hour. You’ll be home by half five. Come with me!’
‘OK,’ I mutter. I like the familiar feeling of her arm through mine, but I really don’t want to go to the hospital. I have a date with a Sky-Plussed Coronation Street, a Netflix movie and the remains of a heavenly Christmas tin of shortbread my son Julian bought me. I do like Dominic, though. He’s been cheering up life since the late eighties. I really like Becky, too, of course – I just don’t deserve her any more.
We walk, Becky’s arm still through mine as she leans into me and enthusiastically confides all her latest news, mostly dating disasters. By day she’s Front of House Administration at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden; by night, she dates – trying to find Mr Right before her ‘face slides into a middle-aged puddle at her feet’, as she puts it. She has a whole string of catastrophic dates she loops around herself as funny anecdotes, until she is a ball of them.
‘So, last night, this guy turned up wearing a green jumper with suede patches on the elbows like he was a seventies geography teacher and on the bottom half he was wearing pleather trousers and combat boots like something out of the bloody Matrix !’
‘Oh God!’ I can’t help but laugh. Becky is still very funny.
‘Then he had the cheek to say I looked nothing like my photo! OK, I’ve had a haircut since I posted it’ – she pats her spiky pink pixie cut – ‘but he had completely defiled the Trade Descriptions Act!’
I laugh again.
‘And then during dessert – God knows why I was still there; well, actually, the food was really nice – he asked me if I wanted a foot massage. At the bloody table! Reader, I married him.’
I laugh really loudly this time. It reverberates into the colourless air. It’s not a sound I hear very often, my laugh, but I appreciate the lightness of it.
‘Actually, I went to the loo and didn’t come back. You know what else he did? Kept saying “lol” and referring to me as “m’dear”. Big mistake,’ she adds.
‘Colossal,’ I agree.
Becky grins at me and I grin back, but then I look away, guilty. It doesn’t feel right to be lapsing into our old banter. I don’t have the right to enjoy what once came so easily to us.
We are vaped as we walk up the final road to the hospital in the wake of a tracksuited man dawdling in front of us; he emits a dramatic cloud of steam from his e-cigarette pan-pipe like something from the boiler room of the Titanic. In the past I might have worried about signalling my offence by crossing the road. Now, I just cross.
Small talk deserts me unless there’s a third or more party to spur it on.
Becky, linked to me in our arm chain, crosses too, then resumes her bubbly chatter. I used to be bubbly; it’s a quality I really admire. I don’t think I’ll be bubbly again, or have an outside chance of feeling that way again, since bubble after bubble was burst by the man who swore he loved me but reduced me a little more each day. It’s OK. Becky can be bubbly enough for the both of us.
‘Ah, It’s a Wonderful Life!’ she says. We are walking past The Parade and James Stewart is dashing through the snow on one of the tellies in the hi-fi shop. They’re showing it about a week too late; no one is in the mood any more. I’d be home by now, I think, in my house. With it blissfully quiet, as always, the soft whirring of the fridge the only sound. Peace and quiet, but mainly peace. The warring part of my life is over. I am now beholden to no one, accountable to no one. Except my fantastic nineteen-year-old son, of course – but he is on the other side of London now in new and blissful co-habitation with his girlfriend, Sam, so happy he’s even helping load the dishwasher. I tried to bring Julian up so he wouldn’t be domestically useless. I didn’t want to inflict him on some future partner – a man-child who doesn’t know where the washing machine lives. He’s done really well so far, considering all he’s been through – my son already has a job in the City with great prospects, a relationship that seems happy and equal and the ability to wash his own pants.
‘Come on, we need to get a Scooby on, Ardie!’
I’m not worthy of Becky’s familiarity; the awkwardness I feel around my friends is like a disease. I was forced to gradually distance myself from them while married to Christian, to eventually shut them out of my life. I became an expert at evasion, ignoring, hiding. Christian doesn’t like confident, bubbly women (he certainly muffled all that nonsense out of me ). He doesn’t like cheery, tactile men. He doesn’t really like anyone, actually. He once accused the postman of flirting with me, when the poor bugger was passing the time of day with me, one Saturday morning, asking how I kept my grass verges so straight (answer: Christian standing over me and directing how I used the nail scissors). The postman was frightened, after that. He never knocked again; just signed for any parcels himself and left them on the doorstep.
I still don’t know why they’ve taken me back – Becky, my former best friend, and Dominic, our old friend from university. If I hadn’t bumped into Becky in Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street, in the summer of last year, I don’t think it would have happened: after I left Christian I was too ashamed to go crawling back to them.
‘Crawling’ was Christian’s word. He said it while I packed my final bag – zipped up my make-up, my hair mousse, my fears. He said if I went crawling back to them they wouldn’t want me and at that point I was prone to believing every word he said. Part of me still is. I’m aware I’m quite unlikeable. There’s not much left of me to like. I’m really not sure why Becky perseveres with this odd reincarnation of our friendship and wonder if she is weary of trying. Perhaps she hopes the old me – the fun one – will come back. Perhaps she’s just a far better person than me.
We arrive at the hospital, a five-storey modern block with every window lit. After we walk down what seems like an endless series of over-heated yellow corridors, some trailed with overhead silver garlands that resemble stretched-out Slinky toys, some with walls zig-zagged with flagging green tinsel to look like the lines of a heart monitor, Becky stops outside Ward 10, announces herself as a friend of Dominic Klein at the intercom and we are buzzed straight in.
‘Becky! Ardie!’ shouts Dominic, way too loudly, from a bed halfway down the ward, and there are several frowns and a few disapproving coughs. Ward 10 is packed, crammed with patients and visitors and gaudy post-Christmas decorations. The nurses’ station is a fuzzy tinselled sleigh of gold and red; there’s a plastic tree in the corner struggling under dragging baubles; more tired silver Slinkies ribbon over the beds. Most of the men here are under their covers – those crisps white sheets and pale blue blankets. Some have their hands silently held by their visitors; some are talking softly, giving those who’ve come to see them small smiles and hopeful laughs. A couple of more hearty-looking men, in jaunty striped pyjamas, perch sideways on their beds, sharing a joke with wives and children and grandchildren. With friends. My eyes fill with tears, inexplicably, as we walk through the ward, and I blink them away.
It’s bright, busy and hot, the sort of warmth that will have visitors nodding off in ten minutes, but Becky has brought M&S prosecco to keep us awake. As we slide on to plastic chairs at the side of Dominic’s bed, she pulls a mini bottle and a small stack of disposable cups from her carrier bag and pours the contents of the bottle into two of them, her back turned to a passing nurse.
‘None for you, Dominic,’ she says, mock sternly.
‘Spoilsport,’ he replies. Dominic is ebullient and has a cheeky look on his face, in spite of the fact that his left leg is encased in thick plaster from the thigh down. I knew he would be cheery. He’s always the same.
He turns towards me and flashes me a kind smile. ‘OK, Ardie?’ he asks. I nod and return his smile, feeling guilty again. ‘This is a nice surprise! Did Becky have to drag you?’
‘Of course not,’ I say. I glance at Becky and she’s giving me a look that says, Yes, I did. ‘I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see you bound and captive.’
‘Ha. Quite right. It’s a rare state for me, that’s for sure.’
His face is all rosy and his brown hair, grey at the temples, is curly. He looks like a grown-up, middle-aged cherub. Despite being a bit of a Casanova, Dominic is living proof that not all men are abusive bastards. He became a fun and brilliant friend to us at university, when he wasn’t busy in the students’ union, roadie-ing for visiting bands; he’s a real roadie now, touring with rock stars like Bruce Springsteen.
‘How long will you be in here for?’ I ask.
‘They’re letting me out tomorrow. For good behaviour. Then I have to sit at home on my arse for six weeks. Will you two come and visit? There’s someone suspiciously like Nurse Ratchet here – it’s the white rubber shoes – and I’m a bit scared.’
‘It’s Nurse Ratched,’ I say quickly. ‘Not Ratchet.’ Then I immediately regret it; I can’t afford to go around correcting old friends. I am an idiot.
‘Pardon me, movie buff.’ Dominic grins and I smile back at him, relieved he’s not cross. ‘It does feel a bit Cuckoo’s Nest in here, though,’ he says, looking around. ‘I can’t wait to get out.’
I look around with him, and see several beds have switched-on television sets suspended above them, with visitors gawping up at game shows and property programmes. Others are blank screens, patients stowed underneath. Two men on the ward do not have visitors, I notice: an old boy, two beds away, who stirs in his sleep, muttering something, and a man opposite us who lies as still as an Egyptian mummy.
I know Becky will visit Dominic at home with his broken leg, but I’m not sure about me. Small talk deserts me unless there’s a third or more party to spur it on. I furtively look at my watch, not wanting to appear rude. It’s five past five; I would really like to be at home. Coronation Street followed by The Shawshank Redemption is waiting and, more importantly, nobody that stamps on my soul. My quiet house – quieter still without Julian – is a home to me again.
We sit for a while. Talk and joke. I try to contribute. I know I am a survivor, that I have survived so much, but I don’t know how to move on from it. How to get the old me back. I want to be funny and optimistic. I want to be someone people are happy to spend time with. It seems I have forgotten how to be that person.
‘What time are they feeding you, Dom?’ asks Becky, draining the last of her prosecco. I have been sipping at mine steadily and it has gone, too.
‘Oh, I’ve had it. Mush and chips. Actually, it was OK. Not bad for institutional slop.’ Dominic does a giant yawn, loud and characteristically over the top.
‘Are we keeping you up?’ laughs Becky.
‘Yeah,’ says Dominic. ‘It’s pretty tiring, this broken bones business.’
‘We’ll go,’ says Becky, standing up. Her chair makes a hideous scrape and a nurse – petite, short dark hair with blonde at the tips – looks round and gives a conciliatory smile. ‘I’ll call you, Dominic.’
‘OK. Thanks for coming.’
We both kiss him on the cheek and start to head out, Becky stuffing the empty prosecco bottle back in her bag and zipping it up.
‘Oh, look at that poor bugger!’ she exclaims.
She tilts her head over to the other side of the ward, about halfway along. I follow her head. It’s the man lying prone like an Egyptian mummy. There’s a sheet up to his chin and his eyes are closed. His hair looks like it’s been freshly combed off his face and his cheeks are pink and a little raw, as though one of the nurses has recently given him a wet shave. He looks comatose: his body so straight, his arms so rigid and flat at his sides.
‘Do you think he’s all right?’ Becky asks in a stage whisper.
‘I suppose so,’ I say, thinking if he wasn’t surely someone would have noticed.
Becky looks again. ‘Bloody hell, Arden,’ she says, narrowing her eyes, ‘you know, in a certain light that could be Mac Bartley-Thomas!’
‘What?’ I glance at the man’s face again and my insides lurch and then petrify. ‘Of course it isn’t!’ My voice doesn’t sound real; it sounds like it’s coming out of one of those suspended televisions; a sort of fizzing is going through me like I’m a cathode. ‘No way is that Mac Bartley-
Thomas!’ Saying that name out loud sounds even odder, when it’s a name that’s been locked in a back chamber of my brain for so many years.
Becky and I have both come to a stop. I stare at the man with the sheet up to his chin. ‘No, it’s not him,’ I conclude, attempting to sound breezy. ‘I don’t think he’d be in London. And that man’s way too old.’
‘Not really,’ says Becky, as we set ourselves into motion again and bustle out of the door – Becky with certainty, me with reluctance. It clanks softly shut behind us. ‘He was – what? – early thirties then, so early sixties now?’
‘Yes, you’re right,’ I say. ‘It’s definitely not him, though. Oh God, hold on a minute, I’ve forgotten my phone!’ I’d taken it out to check the weather for tomorrow, at a point when my conversation was at the height of lacklustre. I’d put it near the foot of Dominic’s bed. It had half gone under a corner of the cellular blanket when he’d shifted his good leg and I’d thought to myself, Don’t forget that – and I hadn’t, as it’s in my bag.
My heart thumping, I quickly buzz again, say Dominic’s name and dash back into the ward, making sure Becky is not in my tailwind.
‘Sorry, Dom. I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on,’ I say, in lame idiom mode, as I pretend to retrieve my phone and slip absolutely nothing into my coat pocket. ‘See you.’
‘Don’t be a stranger,’ Dominic says, reaching for a magazine, but I’m ashamed to know I absolutely might be.
Despite my sins, some kind of god is smiling at me as a nurse approaches to pull a curtain round Dominic’s bed and I cross the ward hurriedly, to stand at the end of the bed of the man who’s lying there like a mummy. The lights are dimmed over his head. I look at his face and feverishly consult my memory. Is it him? Is it Mac? Of course I’d seen him many times without his glasses, but without them now he looks like a scrubbed pickle. His hair is silver, but there are still traces of the dirty blond; his eyes are closed so I can’t see if they are watery, iridescent blue, with flashes of pistachio; his lips – once so soft and giving – now look set and half vanished. I think it’s him, though. I think it’s Mac.
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