I had a bash at the, Richard and Judy find a best seller competition, at the beginning of this year.
I wasn’t lucky enough to make the shortlist, congratulations to all those that did! But it was a great exercise in starting a novel and writing 10,000 words in six weeks! So figured I’d share my entry here.
Ladies and gentleman… Middle England:
I died on a Thursday evening, just past a rest stop on the M4.
Michael had asked me if I wanted to stop for a coffee. I had said no. It never occurred to me to ask him if he needed a break. It was a pleasant evening weather wise, I remember that. He was wearing a jumper from Marks and Spencer, which I hated, because it made him look like a fisherman. Which was the very reason he wore it.
He liked the sea. He didn’t love it, because he hated the unpredictability of it. Odd, then, that he’d pretend to be like a fisherman. I think it made him feel like a man from days gone by, tugging on ropes and washing with hard soap. Michael was more comfortable washing with my Dove moisturising cream and dressing in a finely made suit, his socks always matching his tie.
When people asked me about Michael, that’s what I told them: that he hated unpredictability. Never describing his hair or eyes. That he smiled constantly. That he brought me flowers once a month. No, I told them he hated unpredictability. God, I was a bitch. Not regarding all matters, just when it came to Michael.
He was pulling across into the fast lane. We had a Land Rover and, yes, we were those people – the type that lived in London and had a Land Rover and other people hated us for it. We didn’t even have children as an excuse, or a dog. We just liked it. So, Michael was pulling across into the fast lane, when on the radio began the ‘Queen of the Night aria’ from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and my heart just stopped (not literally. Not yet).
I felt every note, every beat of the music; it rushed to my blood and pounded on my skin. It pushed me.
I didn’t know at the time that an evening show of the Magic Flute was being performed that very moment at the London Coliseum, and that same music, that same emotion was traveling over seats and heads, bags and coats. Climbing the walls and reaching through the dark to a young woman stood quietly at the back of the balcony, her eyes fixed on the singer and her heart – like mine – was being pushed.
I didn’t know about the mother who, at that moment, was trying to read to her child a Christmas story in a hospital waiting room. It was the middle of September, and I didn’t know the reason why she struggled with the simple words. I had no idea about the man walking out of prison with forty six pounds in his pocket, and that the man behind us driving a lorry full of other people’s online shopping was his son, and that I was about to ruin his day.
I knew nothing of these people, and why should I? A bunch of strangers. But that piece of music, that song, was about to link us in ways none of us could have ever imagined, and in one or two ways, ever have wished for.
Michael was talking about wine. A red he had tried with Markus at a work function. I didn’t like Markus because he was an outrageous flirt, everyone knew it, but he had never bothered with me. Also something everyone knew. No idea why… it’s not like I was the boss’s wife or even that old, I was late thirties for Christ’s sake, and Markus isn’t even that attractive – he looks like an owl. But still, it bothered me, so I used to pretend that he smelt funny to avoid him.
So, Michael was banging on about this wine, and how the cherries, mixed with gentle spices, had caused an explosion on his palate, and how we should order some in for his brother’s birthday, when everything around me went quiet. Still. Michael was jabbering away, his little mouth going nineteen to the dozen, the words forming on his lips but making no sound. Mozart’s music reaching out like hands, touching my face, turning my head towards the sky… and that’s when I saw the lorry coming up beside us in the wing mirror, and suddenly I was reaching for my seat belt.
It wasn’t as if I was terribly unhappy, that I’d been hurt in any way, or was even facing dark days ahead… I just felt tired. I’d had enough. I looked at Michael and all I felt, was the urge to leap. All I could hear was the music, feel it pounding in my chest, and I wanted out. I wanted off the ride. So, I just sort of tumbled from the car. One minute I was looking at Michael, and the next, I had reached for the door handle and rolled myself out onto the road. I didn’t even close my eyes.
Michael didn’t react well. He veered off into the central reservation. I didn’t think my leap would hurt him. Couldn’t have imagined the real look of shock on his face, or the pain he would endure later on in his life from arthritis caused by the broken bones.
You must be thinking me extremely selfish.
True, I never paused to consider the lorry driver. That he would try and swerve to avoid me, and yet, the wheels still rolled over my chest, or consider that behind us was a family, their little boy seeing it all. I didn’t think, but it wasn’t through selfishness. I just wanted it over. For the first time in a long time I had felt the urge to do something, felt it so strongly and had acted upon it. I was free. There was silence in my mind, a kind of silence I had never experienced before, and had longed for my entire being. And the last thing I heard, the last sound of my life, was the music playing me out. The violins building, her voice piercing my heart, the final note sending me on my way. And as the applause from the studio audience filled the silence at the end of the piece… I was gone.
‘You’re shiting me?’
Their voices grated on my ear. That’s what I remember most from that first encounter.
‘I hate the bitch.’
Ian, the gentleman that had spoken first, had several teeth missing, which meant his tongue poked through the gaps when he talked, and he was very displeased by this ‘so called’ marriage. And so he should have been.
‘Why’d he do it?’
‘Then he’s fucked.’
They paused for a second to drink from their pints. Ian, the man with missing teeth, was older, although I had the sense he was younger than he looked. Turned out I was right. He had tattoos on his hands and was almost bald. The other chap, Antony, was late twenties and he looked like his father. He also looked nervous, uncomfortable, and he was wearing clothes far too big for his slender frame and a hat that cast a shadow over his eyes.
He’s actually very attractive. It’s just hidden by his sense of fashion.
I took that moment of silence as an opportunity to take in my surroundings. They were sat in an old pub. Not the cute kind you find in Cornwall, or in the Lake District, but the working kind you find on television and in books. The kind I no longer thought existed, or had been taken over by a fancy pub chain and been shaped and molded into something that looked old and ‘retro’ for younger, trendier people to enjoy, it made them feel cool. It made me feel old.
I remember feeling hugely disappointed. This couldn’t possibly be heaven.
‘Did you go to the wedding?’ Ian looked a little wild.
Antony shook his head.
Antony’s eyes always linger slightly downwards. I learnt later on that he was hugely intelligent. Not in the conventional way. Not in the way we are taught about intelligence. He didn’t have the best grades coming out of school. He didn’t have a high-flying demanding job. He didn’t want one. And he didn’t spout other people’s opinions. What he did do was listen. He learnt. And he judged for himself. He asked questions when he needed to and he paid attention to the world around him. He changed his mind frequently about everything. I would come to like him immensely.
‘They think they’re better than us, or she does anyways. She thinks she’s saved him.’ Ian spat slightly when he talked. ‘ She ain’t got a fucking clue about him, bet she’s just doing it to piss off some high and mighty parents she got stashed somewhere.’
‘She’s from round here.’
‘That don’t mean nothin’ no more.’
A heavy pause filled the space between them. There was a lot to be said, so naturally, no one spoke.
I should probably take this opportunity to explain at this point in the story exactly what I looked like, or to put it better, what I didn’t look like. I wasn’t a ghost, hovering beside them all white and see through. I wasn’t embodying Dickens’ ghosts of past, present or future. I had no body. I was simply there. I could hear them, see them, but essentially… I was nothing. Just a feeling to the living…
You know the one.
It makes you look behind you as you walk, because you think someone is there, or makes you stop and listen, sometimes leaves you nervous. It’s that smell reminding you of a childhood memory. Yes, at this point I am a smell. That was I. And I smelt like brown toast.
My brown toast soul was hovering over the living. Watching. Learning.
‘You got somewhere to stay?’
‘Yeah.’ Antony’s voice was gentle and slow, but when he talked, people listened.
Ian wasn’t looking at him.
‘You can crash at mine?’
‘I said. I got somewhere to stay.’ The tone of Ian’s voice made Antony’s hands sweat. ‘You see your mother?’
‘How she doin’?’
It was like watching paint dry.
‘You got yourself a bird yet?’ Antony shook his head. Poor lad. ‘Your dick funny looking?’
‘Then get yourself a fucking bird!’
Antony drained his pint.
‘We having another?’ Ian was already up, heading to the bar. It was clear his son didn’t have a choice in the matter.
They sat together like that for a couple of hours. Back handed compliments flowed easily from Ian, and his son took them in good humor. There was love, and a lot of lost time between them.
As the night progressed and they relaxed a little into the old routine that was their relationship, I learnt there were just the two boys and a wife, long divorced because of Ian’s time in prison. He was newly released. At this point I’d yet to discover his crime, but I felt he had no shame in him. No regrets.
There was a dog. A mongrel called Duke, and from the way in which they talked, Duke was a major part of the family. The wife had him and hadn’t yet permitted Ian to visit. All he wanted was to take him for a walk on the beach.
It hurt to hear him sound so fragile. I’d never felt that way for an animal.
As the landlord rang the bell for last orders, Ian was making his unsteady way ‘to the bog for a piss’ (his words, not mine) and left Antony with strict instructions to, ‘get one more in for the road’. He, however, waited for his father to disappear, before empting the remaining contents of his beer into a half-pint glass and then sliding it across the table. Then he took a twenty-pound note from his wallet and placed it in Ian’s coat. The son had become the father.
Later, they stood outside, the warm nights of summer still hanging around, and I waited as they awkwardly said their goodbyes. Antony wanted to go in for a hug, Ian a handshake. They settled on slapping each other on the arm and back.
Now, I have a small confession to make: At this point… I had no idea what was happening to me, or the slightest clue as to why I was there. No one had met me to explain my situation. But I figured I was there for a reason and I was hoping that reason was Antony. That my time was going to be spent following him around, perhaps sending out some cosmic vibe that would help change his life. It was ignorant of me to think he needed his life changing. But as he walked away towards the bus stop, it was clear I was staying with Ian.
I just didn’t move.
The older man watched his son intently, only moving off once Antony was safely aboard the 455, the night bus heading towards the train station and the large council estate south of its tracks.
I waited as the bus’s lights naturally faded away, before following Ian on a slow walk through the town he called home. He took himself down the high street, pausing every now and then to look in the shop windows. He liked clothes. Any display with men’s shoes, coats, jumpers, hats, he would stop and take in every colour, every fabric, and every tailored line. He was picturing himself in each item, and then placing himself in different scenarios, the clothes leading the fantasy.
From the few hours we’d spent together, I’d come to understand just what a proud man Ian was. His pride was his banner. His flag. He walked gently on, though still a little tidily; he made no sound, disturb nothing. I started to notice that one or two of the shops had closing down signs in their windows, and a few already had the boards of closer over the doors. Money was drying up. His town was starting to suffer. I saw it all through Ian’s eyes, and there were no new images for the gallery.
He took a turn down a quiet road, walking past sleeping houses, and ending up at a church. He gravitated towards it like the ocean moves to the moon. He didn’t stop to look at headstones, or see if the door was open, he just made his way to a bench in a far corner, over looking a park. He sat down and starred up at the sky.
I knew then we’d be there all night.
He didn’t sleep. He didn’t eat. He didn’t drink. He just sat there, alone… looking at the big sky, waiting for the quiet. He was willing for the stillness of his heart, for the courage to leap. He was so tired; he wanted off the ride.
It had crept up on him. Each step was heavier than the one before. A few hours ago he had known his place in the world, because someone had given it to him. Now, he was homeless. Poor. And the town he had loved, had missed, was suffering. In eight years, things had gotten worse, not better. It broke him. He just wanted everything to stop.
He wanted a way out.
I heard his pain and I understood it. So, I placed myself over his hands, bringing the chill of the dead to his living bones. His beating blood warmed my soul, and my newly cold being burnt the flesh on his fingers. He had no choice but to place them inside his coat pocket. He needed to see.
When he first brushed the twenty-pound note, his stomach flipped. Not because he was nervous or excited, but because he was embarrassed, his flag had been damaged. And then, because he was grateful… It meant someone still cared. It meant forgiveness. It meant… hope. That one small gesture from his son saved his life. That is where Ian’s story began: a September night, on a bench, in a park, with a twenty-pound note.
And in a way… it’s the place where my life would begin again.
The tears fell first, and then the man wept. Bursts of primal cries fell from him, and he allowed each one to fall. There was no one around to hear or see. The man was done, but the quiet never came, and I stayed with him in till the sun rose, drying his eyes and warming his cheeks. He survived the night.
Michael didn’t attend my funeral. We talked about it later on in his life, but that’s a whole other matter.
I thought it was because he didn’t want to say goodbye, or because it was just too painful. Turns out he was punishing me. I don’t blame him. There were some nice posts on Facebook and Twitter from my friends and family – yes it’s that universal. In particular, one lovely post from Markus. Too little, too late, but it was nice of him to say.
A few people attended the service, but because Michael didn’t spend a lot of money on it, people felt awkward about going. There were no flowers, no candles. No buffet or drinks. What Michael really wanted was to see me wrapped in some cloth and dumped in an unmarked grave. People had to respect that, given the circumstances. So, it was a simple affair. I would have liked a little more for the day, but it wasn’t something we’d talked about, and I was in no position to argue.
I’ve never had to worry about money. I know how lucky I am to say that. I didn’t come from rich stock, more… the comfortable kind. The ones that dream of being upper class and spend the money to trick themselves and others into believing that they are. They buy the expensive theatre tickets and holiday in the right places. They shop in supermarkets that never have any deals on. They aspire for more and fear having less. There’s a greater friendship and understanding between the working class and upper class than anyone in between. We’re the middle child of the family.
It’s surprising that the class system still prevails, but as long as there’s money, we’ll be divided by how much we have and what it can buy us.
When I first met Lizzie – Elizabeth – she was thinking about money. She was willing her body to wait a week before having its period, so she didn’t have to worry about buying tampons. Things were that bad. She was coming out of a stage door, a sign that lights up dark side streets all over the world, the Mecca for dreamers. She was working front of house at the London Coliseum, and as the singers and dancers, the musicians and crew poured out onto the street around her, their cigarettes highlighting their features, she slipped silently through them. Heading home.
I followed her that night. I had no choice. My soul was tied to her heart. She merely dragged me along for the ride.
Her body slumped slightly to the left, and she rubbed her shoulders, working out the knots. She was tired. You could see it on her skin, but her mind… her mind was active, and very much awake.
She could have caught the tube from Charing Cross, but she walked across to Waterloo. She liked the views. A hopeless romantic was Lizzie.
She was half way across the bridge that joins Charing Cross’s bottom and the South Bank’s middle, a Golden Jubilee bridge I believe, when she stopped, to take it all in: Saint Paul’s cathedral to the left, lighting up a modern city with its face of history and elegance. The Royal Festival Hall and National Theatre ahead, the blue fairy lights in the trees that line the river. And for once in London, you could see the moon, and a few surrounding stars.
She breathed it in. She was in love with it all.
People hurried past her, it was late and a school night. One or two boats passed under the bridge, and the trains rattled by. If she looked properly, she would have seen the faces of tired Londoners peering out of the carriage windows, but as far as Lizzie was concerned, there was no one else in the world. This is why I’m here, were the words she said over and over again. Not out loud, that would be strange. But to herself, reminding herself of the reasons for so many sacrifices.
She had to budget for food that week to, because the rent was due. That’s okay; you can live on a fiver a day if need be, but don’t forget your travel costs. In her head, she clearly saw the contents of her bank account and was proportioning it out one bill at a time. If she were lucky, she wouldn’t go over her overdraft this week.
Now, I worked in my lifetime. I was in advertising for a few years and even turned my hand to recruitment, head hunting to be precise, before taking sometime off to try for a baby.
That sounds ridiculous.
Who takes time off to try for a baby? It’s not like we were having sex all day every day, on some crazed mission, but Michael thought not having any stress in my life would help us conceive. I never told him want I truly wanted to do with my life…
Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted children, but as to what I did with my life, what I would wake up in the mornings for, to generate some self worth… A shop. I’d have sold books or cakes, artwork or wines… maybe all of it. But it would have been a place that people came specifically to speak to me, to gain from my advice and guidance.
That was my dream, so I understood why Lizzie was fighting for hers. Not everyone does, but then everyone’s dreams are different, and some are just simply harder to achieve.
Lizzie was just like Ian (they knew each other, which also had some influence): their towns gave them inspiration. For Ian, home was the fight, the bricks and mortar. And it needed protecting. It was also his hope. He believed it would rise from the ashes, dust the dirt from its shoulders, and stand face to face with the men and women in blue and red, the hands that lit the flames.
For Lizzie, London was the setting to her fairy tale. Like all artists, she believed it was paved in gold. Not literally, she wasn’t that naïve. But she did believe in the golden roads that led to agents and auditions. London would be the place where her journey to stardom, not only began, but also ended. She would die on stage. She couldn’t lie to herself – she wanted the glamour and money of course, but more than anything, at this stage… she just wanted to work.
So far, a few adverts and fringe productions filled her CV, but she was still holding on to the hope, that just around the corner, was the audition for the part that would lead to a regular in a new series, or, a new play that would bring awards and acknowledgement. A character filled with rage, where she’d have to cry on stage, audiences everywhere coming to see her portrayal of despair and courage. Standing ovations. When she closed her eyes she could see it all so clearly. She’d marry another actor, and together they’d start a new acting dynasty.
She smiled to herself. Even for her, that fantasy was far-fetched.
But when she got going, it was hard to stop. And there, on the bridge that over looked a sleeping city, she allowed herself to smile, and her imagination to run wild. She just had to keep going, keep on believing, and keep working. It would happen. These hard times would be the moments she’d write about in her autobiography, nothing more.
Lizzie stood there for sometime, breathing in the night air, revitalising her mind. She could still hear the Queen of the Night aria from that night’s performance; her favourite moment in the show. It rang through her blood. Pushing her. Her ambition and determination impressed me, but it wasn’t the reason I was with her, nor was it the opera we shared in our hearts, it was the letter, sitting at the bottom of her bag.
It was from Antony.
Lizzie was thirteen years old, when she first forced Antony to write to her. It didn’t matter that they were in the same year at school, or that he lived in the same block of flats. What mattered was that he improved in English, so he could get out of going to those support classes – the source of his torment.
Antony was dyslexic. His main trouble was in math and English. Lizzie couldn’t help him with math, she struggled herself, but in English, she excelled.
The bullies had turned from saying hurtful words, to causing him genuine, physical pain. Lizzie had found him with a bloody nose and a ripped shirt, outside the science department one Friday afternoon. He was sat on the floor. Bleeding. They starred at one another for a while, before Lizzie took the leap and sat down beside him.
For an hour, neither one of them spoke. They just sat, side by side. Lizzie even ate her lunch. Antony wasn’t hungry. She offered her crisps, but his eyes were cast downward, he didn’t even notice the gesture. But she was pretty sure it was because he had other things on his mind.
When the bell rang, calling them in for lessons, they stood, and Lizzie helped him tidy up a bit.
‘You’re not stupid.’ She was direct, but kind. ‘You just need to work at it.’ She fixed his tie. ‘I can help. If you’d like me to?’ She was holding out his bag. He took it slowly, weighing her up. Could she be trusted?
‘Me dad can’t know.’
‘And I don’t like being told what to do.’ Lizzie caught his glance towards her, she held his gaze. She became one of the few people he’d ever look directly in the eye.
‘We’ll do whatever works best for you. OK?’ She held out her hand.
Who, ‘seals a deal’ these days with a handshake?
But on that particular day, Antony shook on a promise he thought would never materialize. He was wrong of course, and from that one small meeting of strangers grew a friendship that would last a lifetime.
The first letter was sent the following week. She left it with their neighbour, a Mrs. Davidson, ground floor, flat 3. Mrs. Davidson liked to sit outside her front door, all year round. She was the perfect postman.
Antony was walking home, when she first collared him. She shouted at him, until he finally ventured across the estate. His intention was to tell her to shut up, but as he reached her, he noticed she was holding out an envelop with his name on it.
She simply smiled at him and said, ‘the lady demands a replay.’
That first letter was the instructions, how the lessons would begin, and the rules of the class. He could write to Lizzie about anything: school, home, what he was having difficulties with… and she’d respond with any corrections regarding spelling and grammar. Then, he needed to respond with a letter, and it had to contain one of the elements he had learnt and remembered, be it a word, or the use of commas, and so forth. He could write as often as he liked.
It took him two weeks to respond.
Everyday he’d sit and try to write, and everyday he felt like a dick. It was the whole pen, paper thing… Lizzie had left strict instructions that they had to be hand-written. It was the act of writing that would help him to learn.
Antony’s first thoughts of Lizzie were not always pleasant ones.
But then, one day, after a particular beating from the bullies, Antony found himself in the boy’s toilet, of all places, scribbling away. He needed to vent, and even though it wasn’t the most elegant of letters (he wrote down every feeling, and was foul mouthed about every lad. He unleashed his quiet tongue), Lizzie responded as promised, and even joined in with the verbal bashing of the ‘pricks from Year Eight’.
They started of with a letter a week, but eventually it became part of their daily routine, as did Mrs. Davidson. Lizzie would leave her letter, and chat a bit, but then she’d make her excuses. She liked the old lady, but she didn’t want to be friends. She didn’t want their chats to become a habit she couldn’t shake.
Antony, on the other hand, well… he loved the crazy old bat. It got to the point where he’d not only collect or deliver his letter, but then stay to do his homework. She’d cook him some tea, and on Wednesdays they’d watch Corrie together. He had to fabricate some excellent lies to his parents: football practice, detention. That he’d started seeing some girl…
His dad was delighted by the later excuse. And… in some ways it was true.
The only time they didn’t see Mrs. Davidson was on Sundays. Sundays was God’s day, and the Corrie omnibus (even though she’d watched all the episodes during the week, she’d re-watch them, in case she’d missed anything important). But the main reason Antony liked spending time with Mrs. Davidson, was for the stories. She loved to talk about her husband, Peter.
Peter – Pete – had run drugs in the sixties, and spent time in prison, funnily enough, for a crime he didn’t commit. When Mrs. Davidson told that story, she’d always cry with laughter, and sometimes,’ a little bit of wee would come out’, also. She spoke of friends and their love affairs. She talked of booze and cigarettes, the money, and the beatings. She spared him no details. She loved a drink, and had even dabbled in some robbery. As you do. ‘Never been caught, mind’, was her catch phrase, and was also the reason she sat outside, all year round. She was keeping an eye out for the coopers. If they came looking, she was ready, armed with a story.
They never came, but she was ready nonetheless.
When Mrs. Davidson died, (I must remember to look her up) Antony and Lizzie were the only two people at her funeral, her other friends long departed.
And she left them, each, two legacies.
For Antony, the first was her stories, which he used in English, and with Lizzie’s help, they got him out of the support classes and into set 3. When he received his GCSE, a grade C, he took the results to Mrs. Davidsons grave to show her. Even photocopied it for her.
And the second was a vocation. He would go on to work with the elderly, providing support and care, working in the local community center. He’d always have trouble with people his own age, they’d cause him a few scrapes along the way. But it didn’t matter, once he’d found his place in the world.
For Lizzie, the first was some money. They didn’t ask the solicitor where it had come from. They just took the envelope. But it was enough to pay for her first year at Drama School, so why argue?
And the second was their letters. Mrs. Davidson had assisted in their secret lessons, helped it to grow into a friendship, and she knew, secretly, how much they meant to Lizzie personally. And that eventually, they’d go their separate ways – Lizzie wanted out, she had dreams, and Antony would stay, because, there were things that needed fixing. So, she ensured there was always an address available, should she need to send him a letter. And they did, they always kept in touch.
And it was one of those letters, hand written by Antony, sitting at the bottom of her bag, that I needed her to open, to read, and to act upon.
I was never a big reader. I wasn’t really into films either. I often think that… if I had ever bothered to read a newspaper, I may have ended up a better person. I wasn’t awful. But I wasn’t great either.
I knew enough about society to avoid the Daily Mail and The Sun, but I ended up ignoring them all. Michael would chat on about current affairs, and I’d listen and nod along. That’s how I got away with not knowing certain things: I’d simply agree with him. It was a lovely arrangement, which worked well for the both of us. I didn’t avoid the world completely. I caught the news on the TV and the radio. But that’s just the stories and headlines they want you to hear.
Listen to me, spreading a little conspiracy.
What I meant to say… is that I never delved deeper. I never looked beyond the headlines. I saw the basics, and never considered the fact, that a lot of the time, these stories were being written, and told, by people not even remotely involved in the situation. It’s called reporting. I understand the concept. But sometimes, if not all the time, we need to hear it directly from the source. We need to hear its voice, if we’re ever going to understand it.
If you’re imaging me as a blonde bimbo type… then I’m sorry to say, you’re wrong.
I wasn’t at all like the other city wives. Probably one of the many reasons Marcus didn’t flirt with me. I was hard to read. I wasn’t a size ten or smaller. I didn’t really bother with my hair or clothes; nothing about me shone under fluorescent lights. I hated wearing heels, and was generally more comfortable in a pair of wellies and an old barber jacket. I’m not being bitter, just honest. My mother used to despair. My father rejoiced. I was more like the son he had wanted, and nothing like the daughter my mother had wished for. She once said to me, in all honesty, that I was a little bit of a disappointment. I tried, working in respectful jobs and getting married…
Now, when I think about it… Michael and I were not well matched at all. We were so different. I was a tomboy from the country. He was a prince from the city. And somehow, we ended up married to each other. I have no idea what it was about me that he found attractive.
I wonder if I tricked him?
I was always in my head. That’s why I think I was so bad with current affairs and general knowledge. Plus, I was a little spoilt. As an only child, a lot of things had to be about me. It was the only way (I was a walking contradiction). Or perhaps, if I’m honest… maybe I was a little unhappy. I think a part of me may have always been a bit sad. That can tire a person. Sadness.
If I’d have read a news paper, at least once in my life, or taken more of an interest in my surroundings, maybe even spoken to a stranger first, not waited for them to speak to me, I would have discovered many more stories, that would have changed the way I thought and felt about life.
A story like Ian’s.
From the moment Ian found that twenty pound note, sitting in his pocket, everything for him would change, and he’d set himself on a crusade that would alter the course of his life forever.
Ian’s church turned out to be derelict. I call it ‘Ian’s church’ (sounds like a dirty café) because that’s what it would become. At first, we’d be there… maybe… once or twice a week. Then we started hanging out there daily. It’s an odd thing, being dead and hanging out in a church.
Please don’t ask me about God. It’s not for me to say.
But that’s where we were, in a church. And, I’d never really ‘hung out’ with someone before, but that’s what we were doing. Even if I was the only person aware of the fact.
We’d start our days by wondering from his hostel, the hostel was next to a pub, the one where we’d first met, and we’d re-enact that same midnight walk, day after day. He wanted to get to know the town again; the people, the buildings, and the problems.
He’d pop his head through every shop doorway, and ask every person how their day was going. If there was any news, if there was anything they needed help with, to make things a bit better on that particular day. It could be personal or business-related. And to his surprise, and mine, people talked. It’s as if everyone in that town had been waiting a long time for someone to ask the simple question: ‘are you okay?’
There was June and Mick – they owned the bakery. Been there thirty years, but since the big ASDA opened, business had dropped yearly and they were struggling. So Ian started to buy a little cake from them, every Wednesday.
Then there was Kate – she sold the Big Issue outside the closed Woolworths. Ian had known her since she was a child. She was part of his history. He had no idea what had happened to her, after their last encounter. When they first saw each other again, I swear time stood still, just for a second (it’s not uncommon). During their catch up, she told him she was finding it harder and harder to get people to notice her, let alone stop and buy a Big Issue. People just didn’t carry cash on them anymore, and they felt bad about saying no, so they said nothing at all. She was worried she’d have to move somewhere else, but she was born and breed. She didn’t want to leave her home.
And neither did Ian.
There were the brothers that used to have the cleaning business. Ian remembered them from before his prison days. They got chatting in the pub one evening. Having a cleaner was a luxury, and it was the first thing people cut back on when they had to tighten the purse strings. They went under a couple of years ago, and haven’t been able to work since.
There was Denise – she worked in the big ASDA’s. She had three children; twin boys and a little girl. She lived on his old estate, and she knew his ex-wife. Denise’s partner had been abusive – ‘she’d gotten out with the kids’ – but she was struggling on her own and there was no help available, not unless she gave up her job. Which, to her, made no sense, and also her job gave her independence and confidence. But she felt guilty every day that she couldn’t give her children the opportunities they deserved, because she didn’t have the money. She wanted to get a better job, earn more money, but there were no vacancies in the area, and… what would she do? She’d love to retrain or study… but how could she?
Then there was Antony.
Everyone he spoke to not only knew his son, but they knew about the work he was doing. They talked to Ian about the center, explained how it was the last place standing that represented their community, (well, apart from the pub. Always said with a smile) and how it had received a one hundred per cent funding cut. Antony never once talked to his father about it.
It was the kind and respectful words from strangers and friends, about his son, that would be the reason why, in many years to come, Ian would be buried in his church with an old, crumpled, twenty-pound note in his pocket.
But I’m jumping ahead. Because, first, it would be a short conversation with Joel, the young lad sleeping rough near the bus station, that would set Ian’s wheels in motion.
Joel had joined the army at sixteen. He had seen some action in his seven years, and it had left him with several mental scars. When he left the military, his family couldn’t cope with his behavioral problems, and there were no other opportunities for him, so he ended up on the street. Ian related to him instantly. It sounded like he had left prison, not a profession.
‘You know what it is.’ Joel always talked quickly, from the fear that the other person might leave.
‘What is it?’ Ian was eating his cake.
‘It’s the government shutting the town down.’
‘Bollocks.’ A piece of cake fell through a gap in Ian’s mouth.
‘No listen, first you dry up any funding to the place, close the library, the community center, you take away meeting points. Then it’s the schools, surgeries and hospitals, you make people travel. If they can’t travel, they die. Already, through the closer of centers, job losses. People don’t have the money, smaller, local businesses suffer first; they have to close. More unemployment. You up peoples rent and charge them for rooms they need. People can’t afford it. They start to move out, end up on the street, children taken into care. Brainwashed. Then the bigger businesses what moved in close, the people have gone. But they don’t care, give a shit, they got more elsewhere. They were just a distraction in the first place. They got a deal on their taxes to do it. Then the government can bulldoze the lot down, sell the land or whatever the fuck it is they want with it. But the point is, we’re out and them’s in, and the clever part is, they make the rest of the country think that it’s all our fault. We did it to ourselves. So they won’t care. I’m tellin’ ya, it takes time, but its all a strategy.’
Not once did he pause to take a breath.
We both starred at him for a good ten minutes.
Later, as he walked through the quiet streets, Ian couldn’t shift Joel’s voice from his mind. Even I have to admit, his words had struck a cord. It all strangely made sense. We walked and thought for hours. Ian knew they were extreme ideas, but as he took in the bordered-up shops, and the closed library, he felt afraid. He’d seen it all before, as a young man. His home was under silent attack.
His feet led us back to his church. It had become a place of solitude and comfort (as I said, we hung out there). He sat on his bench and waited for the sun to rise.
He waited for the same revelation that had helped him before.
This time though, it would come directly from him, no help was needed. As the town’s early birds began to rise and sing, and the sleeping houses beyond the church’s gates started to stir, Ian was already in full swing.
He’d discovered a month or so before that the church had been abounded. The vicar had walked out. Apparently the poor chap had some sort of breakdown over his nonexistent congregation. Any actor will tell you, if there are more of you on the stage than in the audience, cancel the show. So he did.
He simply starred at the empty pews one Sunday morning, took a deep breath, walked into his office, returned with a bottle of red, and still dressed in his robes he headed down the isle and left via the front door. The church remained frozen in that day, a Miss Havisham in building form, a wedding veil of graffiti covering her eyes.
Ian was led on the floor in the room set aside for Sunday school. It was cosy. Plus, he found paper, pens and some stale crisps in there. He was mapping out the town. He drew the high street first – every shop, open, or closed, it was there. And in each square, he wrote the names of the owners, and the names of their employees. When he got to the old Woolworths, he drew Kate, standing outside its doors.
He coloured in any areas of green. Highlighted the closed library and the old secondary school. Both his boys had studied there. They closed it the year after Antony graduated. The council had wanted the kids to go to other local schools. Problem was, they weren’t that local, and the Catholic school charged the non-Catholic kids a bus fare. It caused some problems.
Ian wasn’t around to see Antony graduate from Year Eleven, he was serving his first year of a ten-year sentence – he’d do eight, but still, it was time.
Antony sent him his results though; B’s and C’s, and Ian would never feel prouder. His eldest son, Stuart, hadn’t finished school; he’d left with nothing. Ian was worried Antony would follow suit, but they were very different lads, and would grow up to be very different men.
For some reason Antony took to writing Ian letters while he was inside. It started with his exam results. It was baffling… Without fail, once a month he’d receive a long up date from his youngest son, how the family was doing, what was happening on the estate, any football news – he’s kept every letter. They’re in a plastic bag under his bed.
It used to make me smile, listening to Ian’s memories and thoughts, so much he didn’t know.
As he sat on the floor, filling in the gaps of his town, the many estates, pubs, hostel, the train station, his mind wondered constantly to his lost family. Stuart hadn’t been in touch for years. The last time Ian saw him was at the prison. He’d come in, all legs and arms, sat down, and given the speech he’d been preparing since his twenty-first birthday, two weeks previously. He had to say it clearly, precisely, no room for mistakes…
They wanted Ian out of their lives.
Stuart looked like his mother, Mags, but he had Ian’s temper and stubbornness. He could never forgive his father for ending up in prison, for deserting them. Ian would never tell him the full story of his arrest; the kindest thing he ever did was allow Stuart to think he was the bad guy, and to keep up the pretense.
Ian wasn’t devoid of blame, but like a coin, there’s always another side.
It was Stuart who presented Ian with the divorce papers. He’d never speak to Mags directly about it – he tried to call and write, but after a while he understood her silence and signed all the necessary papers. Apparently, it was what they all wanted.
He’d met Mags on a bus.
It was winter, late November, and he’d given up his seat for her, because the heater was under it, and she had damp feet from the rain. She was sixteen years old and the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. She had lovely long brown hair, which she’d keep long, all her life. Stuart had the same thickness and slight curl.
Ian proposed on Christmas Eve outside the chippie, a ruse to get her to say yes – be awful to turn someone down on Christmas Eve outside the chippie. But she’d of said yes, no matter the day. Her father was so relieved when they finally got engaged – they’d courted for a year – that he brought Mags a set of suitcases and Ian a box of cigars. She was the eldest of six and they really needed the space.
Mags wanted to be a nurse, a midwife ideally, but she never made it through the training. She fell pregnant with a baby girl, a little girl that would be born… but would never live.
After they lost Rosie, Mags set her heart on having a family, a strong, healthy family, which she’d see survive. So, with time, the boys came along and their marriage and lives trundled by. Summers in Cornwall and Scotland, big Christmases with both sides of the family, Mags loved Christmas and always made sure they celebrated in style, it didn’t matter if there was no money, there was always a tree up, a turkey on the table and a present for each child. It would all begin on the first of December and was resentfully taken down on the second of January. The year she brought him Duke was the best Christmas they’d spend together. They’d had a good marriage, by all accounts, there where highs and lows, but it had been very normal, very happy.
At those times, when Ian thought of his children, his family, I would get these strange images, pictures, flashing through my mind of what my children would have been like… if I’d have lived. It wasn’t a cruel or strange trick, but a beautiful daydream. Ian’s memories were helping me shape some of the gaps in my life; they were the foundations to my incomplete story.
I always saw a little girl, she’d come first, she’d be in my arms and even though I sensed I was frightened, I’d look down and see her beautiful big brown eyes and know that we were going to be alright. She’d grow up to be a firecracker, strong and a little wild. We’d fight, as mother and daughters do, but only because I was frightened of losing her, and she’d of loved me, for eventually… I’d have let her go. Allowing her the freedom to explore life, to make some mistakes, and to choose, by herself, when the time was right to come back home.
There was a little boy; Michael would have wanted a son. I think most men do. He would have been the baby of the family. We’d only have had the two; two would be enough for us. He’d have been a gentle thing, blonde hair and rosy cheeked, a little old man at the age of five. I saw him in glasses, little round ones and wearing bow ties with corduroy trousers. He reminded me of the little boy from Jerry Maguire, it was Michael’s favourite film. He had a big thing for Renee Zellweger. He owned both the Bridget Jones films, when people visited we had to pretend they were mine. I used to do things like that for Michael, because I couldn’t do the big things.
Michael was always happy in the pictures, and that was the thing; that look on his face and the child in his arms, that was the grief I bared in my soul. I couldn’t have his children, so he’d never ware that smile.
It made me cry.
I only knew I was crying, because Ian would shed a little tear for Rosie, for Stuart or for Mags. Once even for Duke. But never for Antony, he didn’t need to cry for him. Crying was a new thing for Ian and it always caught him off-guard. But then I was a new thing for Ian, and he’d caught me off-guard, but we’d feel it together, the pain and the loss, and through Ian’s body, we’d shed our grief. And in his tears, every now and then, I’d catch a glimpse of my old reflection; I could see myself in the water.
He drew in the train tracks, heading away from the town.
Our minds may have been wondering but he’d still managed to fill the floor with paper, his detailed plan spilling over the pages. And what was really impressive is along with the businesses, on each house and each flat, he made a note of the family name, and where he could remember, the first names of any person living there. He missed off nothing. Even the church was there. And in it’s square, he’d written the names, Rosie, Ian and Mags.
His daughter lay there, and he married his wife there. It really was his church.
And as that first day drew to a close, the shadows of the evening playing on the walls, I found myself stood beside Ian, upon a table, looking down at his handy work, him eating those stale crisps, and a plan forming and shaping steadily in his mind. He’d start in the center and work his way out, and his first point of contact would be with Joel and Kate – if the people couldn’t embrace them, he had no chance. He’d start with Joel, he felt there was a friendship forming between them, and he was probably the only person who wouldn’t instinctively laugh in his face.
‘That’s fucking mental’.
Ian was right, Joel didn’t laugh in his face, but Kate did.
‘Why?’ Joel had Ian’s back.
‘Have you heard him?’
‘Not only have I heard him, but I’ve seen his gaff. It’s like a fucking command center, a mission control. He could launch a rocket from it….’
‘Be fucking easier than what he’s got planned.’ Kate cut Joel off, mid-sentence. He didn’t like it at first, but it would become a regular occurrence, Kate had things to say and couldn’t always wait for other people to finish, but once he’d gotten used to her, and realised she was sticking around, Joel would come to trust her a great deal.
She tried to light a cigarette but she’d caught the giggles and it was proving difficult.
‘You tryin’ a be like the three Musketeers or somethin’?’
‘There’s only Ian and me.’
‘Then he’s Robin Hood and you’s Little John. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, I’ll get ya’ some fucking tights.’
‘That means you gotta be our Maid Marion.’
That really made Kate laugh.
I think Joel was trying to flirt with her, now I look back on it.
‘Fuck me.’ She’d lit her cigarette.
‘Why you on the streets?’ Ian hadn’t spoken for a while and his question caught Kate by surprise. She held his gaze.
‘You know why.’ Her voice held up all her defenses.
‘Say it out loud. So you hears the reason why.’
I’ll never forget the silence that followed. In it was all the discomfort and vulnerability of someone who’d truly been let down. You could feel her on your skin, dead or alive.
She could have walked away. She could have laughed in his face. But she’d been thrown a challenge and she wasn’t one for backing down. I’ve never met a stronger woman.
‘Drugs.’ She took a pull on her cigarette.
‘Was the little stuff to start, bit of hash and then coke, but I discovered I had a taste for it. Went on to heroin… became an addict, it happens, just couldn’t stop. My first boyfriend was a dealer. Only proper boyfriend I’ve ever had. In that we had that title, boyfriend and girlfriend. I wanted to walk away, but had nowhere else to go. I’m not giving you fucking excuses, just the facts. I took it all, cos’ I wanted some escapism. I liked being out of control, meant I didn’t have to be in control. I used sex as a way of getting what I wanted… got in a few scary situations… ended up in prison for possession. Only a couple of months, not like you.’
They shared a look, Ian and Kate, a look that held a thousand meanings; it would stay with me for eternity.
‘What happened, when you was inside?” Joel was hooked.
‘I got fucked…’ Her eyes were on Ian. ‘See, you can still get drugs and sex in prison, it doesn’t just happen out here, where they think you got choices. I made some bad decisions, yes, but out of what was on the table for me; I took what suited me best. But in there, where there’s power and ego’s flyin’ around… shit the bed if they don’t understand nothin’. So I made the decision, never take help from the system – the system’s damaged goods, worse than us. I got myself clean and I walked out, never once asked for help, not that anyone offered. I wanted to do it on me own, owe nothing to no-one, never let anyone or anythin’ have any power over me again.’ There was a heavy pause, as she shuffled on her feet, side to side.
‘Shit. And I thought I’d had it bad.’ Joel gave a little laugh that allowed all of them to laugh, and for a lovely few moments they did. They laughed in the face of their struggles.
Kate was nodding and laughing, her cigarette almost finished, she’d hardly touched it.
‘Why’d you come back here?’ Ian held out a lighter, so she could try and smoke another.
‘Exactly.’ She got where he was going, he could tell by the suspicion in her eyes.
‘You trusted me once.’ She simply looked down, a recognition of their past. ‘Them bastards gonna take it all anyways, all that power and control you were banging on about, they still got it, but we can at least try…‘
There was nothing but silence.
‘Fuck it, if this pile of shit aint’ worth fighting for, what is?’ Ian spat slightly when he gave that line, they all noticed but no one had the heart, at that point, to make fun of it.
Kate was so uncertain. She’d found some peace for herself and now this old friend was asking her to rock the boat. He could of emotionally blackmailed her with their past, but, though he may not of looked it, in the classical sense, Ian was a gentleman.
I reached out to her, trying to hold her hand, as a friend would of done.
Kate gave Ian a smile.
‘All right, I’m in. But I think you’re a fucking loon.’
‘Yes!’ Joel’s arms went up into the air.
‘This aint a fucking Disney film.’ They came straight back down again. ‘What’s the plan captain?” She drew on her cigarette, speaking through the ex-hale.
‘The shops.’ Ian was already walking away towards the main high street, Joel following quickly behind – turning once – to see a reluctant Kate throwing away her cigarette, and heading silently after them.
I watched them for a moment, an unlikely band of brothers, and I felt an excitement, a little rush of positive adrenaline. It tickled through me. Even if they didn’t know it, I was a part of this, I was one of them, and in a small way, I was helping.
And as I went after them, I caught a glimpse of my hands, my old human hands, just out in front of me.
A piece of me was coming back together.
Lizzie was on the train home. Antony’s letter had left her curious and she figured the only thing to do… was to see him. I was pleased, it’s what they all needed. She didn’t have to, she could have helped him from London, but… it was lovely that he’d given her an excuse to visit.
I started to realise, when I suddenly found myself next to other people on this little adventure, that they were all linked to Ian somehow, but then I figured it was because Ian was linked to the town.
Did you ever see that program in the nineties, Quantum Leap? This scientist, called Sam, gets lost in time and gets to, ‘put right what once went wrong’. I wasn’t doing anything so glamorous – as I said, I was a smell, and I defiantly didn’t have a fun sidekick (Ian doesn’t count, he couldn’t see me). But that’s how I felt a little, appearing and disappearing without any control.
Someone, somewhere, was having a laugh.
I used to love traveling by train, definitely more than airplanes. There is something… old school about trains. Classic. They have style and history. I liked that.
Lizzie suited the train; it was the perfect accessory to her life.
The countryside flew past the window, beautiful greens and yellows merging together, fields of patchwork colours, and homes resting in hilltops, but she missed it all. Her head was leant gently against the window; her eyes open, but not seeing. She was nervous… It had been a while, since she was last at home.
Thank you for reading!