Things were not so free back then, but I was. Still a girl, living in my body. We’d been at the pictures, her dad and me, slurping pop, finding each other’s hands in the space for drinks. He waited until we got to the station to kiss me, which seemed so out of character. I’d seen no proof of happiness in marriage and dishwashers, so when he asked me back to his flat, I didn’t mind. It wasn’t ‘beyond’ I was after.
A Thursday night in Angel. I remember that it was raining.
You say you’re cooking up a feast, big enough that it can be tupperwared and see us through the week. We don’t know when we’ll be able to shop again, you say, and ask for the spatula like you’re asking for a scalpel. You are a surgeon, caught in the concentration of your practice. I ask if the egg-lifter, scales, wooden spoon, sieve and blender are necessary and you shush me. You are the noisiest chef I know.
Dark-haired and dry, that was her way. I’d be the one jumping on the sofa and she’d stand, hands on hips and ask if I, her mum, was a kangaroo. We spent all our hours together. Funny how things roll around.
My work is such that I can stay at home, so I am one of the lucky ones. That’s not to say business is booming; my summer commissions have mostly fallen through. But I squirrelled away a little over winter, and I try to think of those who didn’t, or couldn’t, and I try to think of those who risk their health for mine, and I try to think of those who have mouths that need feeding, and I try to be thankful that those little mouths do not belong to me.
I used to take her to see the ducks. It was one of my favourite sounds, the squeaks she came out with when one got a crust. When I tell her this now, she says you’re not meant to give ducks bread; it makes them depressed. I say, would a bit of jam help?
You have adapted well to lockdown, far better than me, and are learning to belly-dance on YouTube. I should not be surprised. When I was a kid, we did all sorts – not just the usual dried pasta collage, but whole landmarks made of uncooked spaghetti. Big Ben, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and our own block of flats were among our proudest architectural achievements. We did mother-and-daughter flamenco in the living-room. Our dressing-up box overflowed.
I know it sounds refreshing, I know how it sounds. But there were darker moods. You couldn’t hold on to a job. We only need us, you’d say, if I asked what we were going to do. Then there were the bizarre business ideas, which I realise now weren’t just down to your surplus of energy.
You are determined to get a shimmy out of me. I try to look abashed and give up. I laugh instead. Wiggle my hips arrhythmically.
I never knew him well, but what I did know, I liked. He was a sign painter. Actually, he was a little like his signs – quiet colours, clear message. He said he didn’t see himself as a father, but was always good with the money side of things. I met him through a friend. When she called to tell me about the accident, I felt sad in the way you do when you hear an old acquaintance has died. I hoped that it wouldn’t affect Annie too deeply. They’d only met twice.
Annie says she doesn’t want kids. I don’t want to pressurise or patronise – she’s always known her own mind, that one. Can’t say she takes after me.
I am leaning far too often into the horror of the news. I know I should limit how many times a day I check the statistics; I should calm my heart before it leaps into my mouth lest the website be inaccurate. I know though, if that is the case, the true figures will be higher.
You carry on in your world of hobbies – you are making things grow, which is good, though you have exchanged belly-dancing for Bollywood. I have always admired your creativity; where I offer beans on toast, you whip up a nameless creation that is both tasty and peculiar, with the contents of the cupboard. The crafting, it’s true, may have got slightly out of hand. Take last night for instance, when I caught you trying to crochet the kettle.
Oh, it’s lovely having her back in the flat, yes, even if she is getting under my feet. I can see how worried she is about me getting ill, but the trouble with Annie, you see, is that she’s always worrying about something. It’s not her fault. She can’t shake off her responsibilities any more than I can shake off my ideas. I am listening. Wiping down post, washing my hands, not going out. I am missing my green spaces though, which I can see from our little window. I’ve painted an NHS rainbow, like the kids downstairs.
I spend the morning making coffee – gallons of the stuff, more than I should be allowed – and searching online for local deliveries. I find a small business that’s offering boxes of fruit and veg for £30, delivered to your door, and I start choosing items. I call your name and ask what you want, and you come to me earthy-palmed. Don’t need shooting beetroot, you say, we’ve got that. Don’t need tomatoes, don’t need potatoes, you can grow them from the old ones. I ask where we’re going to plant potatoes. You narrow your eyes and change the subject.
Yes, I suppose I’ve got form when it comes to social distancing. When Annie went to university, I hid the twist of loss as best I could – it’s right for fledglings to fly, isn’t it? Only natural. And she was someone with places to go, my clever, thoughtful child. She came home at least once a month anyway, let me brush her hair and feed her up. She’d got so thin! I grabbed the meat of my own belly and told her to aspire. But she found her way and I eventually found mine. We started to meet for tea in department stores like a pair of adult women.
She doesn’t think I hear her crying – but this is a small flat, even if it’s felt big at times. She tells me she doesn’t know how much longer all this will continue.
I’d like to comfort her, as I once did. I’d like to brush her hair.
I’m loathe to get you another glass of wine. I know how you get. Just a snifter, you say – bit more than that! We sit on your tiny balcony under the same blanket. We have been told the supermoon is coming. I’m not sure how super we’re talking, though they do say that the drop in pollution is making the night sky appear brighter than normal.
While we wait, we talk about people we know, some of whom we love. Soon, your eyes close and you start to snore. I cover you with my portion of blanket. Up in the sky is Orion’s Belt, the only constellation we could ever name. I can see Venus, brilliant against the black. The moon’s not pink, but it’s huge.
I like how still you are as a sleeper. Your snoring’s a gentle putter, the rise and fall of which soothes me so that I don’t notice when it stops. Your eyes are still closed when you thank me. I start a little, finish the wine – I always could outdrink you – and ask, what for?
You don’t answer. But you do start snoring again.
Charlotte Newman is a freelance writer based in London. Her work has appeared in The London Magazine, Reflex Fiction, Litro and Popshot.
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