It was that time in the afternoon, the lull in the day’s progress, the time between now and then, when people in offices everywhere, stare at their screens, seeing a blur of forgotten dreams. The clouds, in a slow-motion pageant, drifting large and majestic, like slumbering giants, take forever to pass beyond a window.
Edna swam out of one dream and into another. The dream of a country lane and Tom beside her. They strolled hand in hand into an impossible sunset.
A phone rang in an office anywhere. Papers rustled, someone hummed a forgotten tune and the spell was broken. The whole machinery of everyday life started up again. The daily grind shrugged its shoulders and carried on.
Edna was hurled on to the cruel rocks of consciousness and the late afternoon sun shone through a window and lit the blanket over her knees with an eerie iridescence. Edna could not think who she was or where she was. Like some refugee from an alien universe, old, alone and dying. Sitting, waiting to die in a sunlit lounge and her fidgeting hands went to the edge of the blanket and she straightened it out and smoothed it with gnarled fingers.
‘Come on love, nice cup of tea. Nice cup of tea, eh?’
The trolley rattled the china cups and Edna stumbled slowly into gear. Her fading eyes saw the man and she smelled the sweet stink of cigarette smoke on his breath. Her hand reached out and she took the trembling cup. She sipped at the sweet tea and her mind fumbled for meaning. What was wrong? Why hadn’t Tom been? Didn’t he sit in that very chair and stare at her with reproachful eyes? And then a slow dawning realisation, why, you silly old fool, Tom’s been dead these last twenty years. Tom, so tall, so strong; wasn’t he always there? A source of comfort and strength, his wry smile always tinged with sadness. I’ve outlived him, she thought with a toothless grin, I’ve outlived them all, me, the runt of the litter. Some victory.
First, as a sick child with an ache, propped up in bed, snug and warm, safe from the world outside their door and she turned the pages of the big book and read of thrilling adventures in the South Seas. And then running errands for her ma, just a pat of butter and don’t you
dawdle, and leaving school at fourteen and a life cleaning and doing for a hard woman, who left shillings on the mantelpiece to tempt her into sin when she did the drawing room.
Everyone said Tom was a good catch when she brought him home to tea on a Sunday and her ma and pa, looking dressed up and embarrassed, putting on airs and graces. And Tom, so proud in his Sunday best and his face still raw from his shave. Then marriage and children and sickness and fatigue and the years tumbling away like die spinning on a gaming table. Tom had been called away to do his duty and he came back but he was different and he laughed less.
The whooping cough and the grazed knees. Wash behind your ears and switch that light off, we’re not made o’ money. The children grew so quickly and became adults and then there was another round of little feet on the stairs and tears and cake. And the clock kept ticking and the years passed.
‘You see Mum, Jack has been offered this job there and we can’t turn it down and anyway Canada’s not that far nowadays and we’ll come and visit honest and you could come and see us and we’re just at the end of a phone’.
There had been letters with pictures of kids standing in snow. And then the visit home. Kids with strange accents and restless eyes, longing to be up and away and back to their new life. Then the letters got fewer and far between and spoke of things she didn’t understand and as she read them to Tom over tea, her tears would scald for her child who was now a woman and who was fading into memory like an old photo in the sunlight.
Tom died one Wednesday teatime. Early June it was, and his heart spluttered into silence. For a moment his eyes pleaded and then he slumped over the table, on a nice bit of fish she’d got in special. Everybody was wonderful, of course and Betty and her husband, what was his name, had done all the arranging and June had flown over for a month.
Life alone, without Tom was almost unbearable. The utter loneliness, twisting her insides, as she sat at her window, waiting for Tom. If only he would walk around that corner, with his evening newspaper under his arm, whistling, that’s it, that’s it, he was always whistling. If only. Sometimes she would jump from her chair, knitting discarded, at the sound of a footfall, insane hope gathering in her throat.
Betty was kind. The youngest, she came most days, bringing tins and arranging flowers in a vase, by the window and in her affectionate bustling way, began to arrange her life for her. She would find that she had forgotten to have a meal. How silly. Never mind, never needed much anyway. A cup of tea, now that always hit the spot, how kind and the visit to the seaside, the sea miles out, and the sun went behind a cloud and the hot sticky sand. What was his name, Betty’s husband opened the thermos and poured and poured and the hot tea scalded the cup, and she slowly started to panic, who are these people? Where am I?
They brought her round with love, sympathy and hot tea, pleading, remember. Please remember.
The doctor and Betty suddenly in her sitting room, where’d they come from then? And the washing up not done and my hair is such a mess. The doctor was black and the palms of his hands were pink. Then the tests and the faces talking to her. They sounded far away, like a radio playing in another room.
One day Betty was reading her a letter from someone in Canada and then this strange room. Ah well, make do. Keep cheerful.
The seasons changed and the faces came and went and that lady in the front office, funny she looked just like. Who was it? Louise from Number twenty, that’s it. Who’d she think she was dressing up like that? No right, she had no right. She’s no better than she ought to be, that’s for sure. There I’ve said it.
And it was the lady from the office who told her, with another woman, beside her, wringing her hands. They told her about the crash. Who’s died? People keep on dying.
Who’s Betty? I don’t know no one called Betty. And then the other woman came, the stranger, the tall one, that’s it and oh the perfume, it was so strong. You don’t want to go wearing it like that, you’ll get a reputation, she told her and the tall woman cried and said, oh mum.
And the relentless seasons changed again, when would they stop and they seemed to go round like a merry go round and it was Christmas and she was looking up at an angel on the Christmas tree and the lights changed colour, that’s pretty, and they lit up her face and she felt warmed by it. And still she waited for Tom and she felt the hot urine run down her leg and the snow fell outside. And the whole room was white and then it was dark and who’s that in the corner? Come on show yourself.
‘Tom, that you? Only I can’t see without my glasses, where you been, my only love?’
The whirring of cogs and dials and it is Spring and she pushed the food around the plastic plate. She mixed it and she mashed it and grinned and then laughed. She savoured the laughter, it was all she had left. This was a forever stolen moment of joy and the dust motes danced in the air around her.
‘What’s ticklin’ you love? asked the woman with different faces and laughed with Edna, the laughter infectious. Edna winked at the shadow in the corner.
‘Finally figured it all out, have you darlin’?’ said the woman, smiling.
The shapeless bright dots on the screen held no meaning for her, nor did they hold her attention. She was now centred on her body and everything radiated from it. It was the centre of the universe. It was everything, the centre of everything.
Anguished eyes fixed her with unholy stares and then all turned back to the screen. A stranger wept in the corner.
In the bed Edna played like a child, throwing the covers off, joy in her eyes.
‘Come on Edna, be reasonable will you, please.’
The eyes of the woman with different faces looked away and back again and seemed so tired and then it was a different woman entirely and it was day again and then it was night and Edna was floating through motes in a sunbeam, warm and happy, twisting and turning over and over. Floating, floating forever and her thoughts tumbled with her and sometimes she was alone and now she was running down a corridor and laughing barefoot with her sister and the seasons were flipping and she was in the snow with her brother Ted. And where was Tom? I’ll give him what for, if he’s gone to the pub on the way home from work and then she was sitting on the carpet with mummy waiting for daddy, oh dearest pa, come home soon and oh look at that moon, rising over a tree. Look at his cheeky face. Where’s Tom, he should see this? He’d know what it was called, that thingy, oh god, god, what’s it called? And she was on a train on the way to the seaside and the steam came drifting by the window and she could smell the coal dust and the smoke and look at those yellow kites. Kites, that’s the word. They were streaming, trying to escape, flowing and twisting and turning in the sky and someone was telling her the time. What’s the time matter? I got all the time in the world. She was young and pushed her hair back from her face, long and flowing. Beautiful hair she had, everyone said so, didn’t they, it’s lovely and you must brush it one hundred times before sleep. I could never sleep come Christmas and would always tiptoe to the window to see Santa and Ellie would say, get back in here, I’m freezin’ and Santa won’t come, he won’t, not if he knows you’re awake.
She came awake in an instant. Darkness filled the room and filled her head. Oh Tom, where’ve you been so long?
She was just in time for her own death. You waited so long and then, knock me down with a feather, he turns up unexpectedly and you haven’t even put the kettle on.
The autonomic systems of her body slowly rolled down the shutters and shut up shop and she didn’t seem to need to breathe anymore. It was like being underwater and she was swimming above some endless ocean floor.
‘Where you got to, you bad girl? It’s goin’ dark and you were told to be back for tea.’
And then she was falling, oh falling through pine cones in a forest.
Powerful enzymes in her cooling body, began their slow and steady work of decomposition, exactly on cue from an invisible stage manager, stage left and the blood cooled and pooled. Gravity was pulling her and her juices and bones down towards the centre of the earth and the ticking of a clock on the mantle held no meaning anymore.
The work experience girl found her in the morning and her eyes were already shut because Edna was like that and didn’t want to cause any fuss. And she looked neat and tidy but was cold and stiff and dead.
She was, at last one with the bed, the home, the street and Tom and the town. And this whole earth and its dominion.
An evocative and beautifully written piece describing the unravelling of Edna, I was touched by its gentleness. Thank you Christopher.