Aileen Fuller, knocking on and weightier with it, has to walk side to side to get forwards. Was a time when time had her back. Should’ve seen her go. Now time’s one side of her and that thing nobody knows is at the other; neither seems happy to have her, no takes from time nor death. Might just be the knees got her rocking like this, could be hip department, feet. What she’s terrified of is folding afore she gets to Jubilee Hall bench, her fall short being the talk of the village. Here, get the bloody flags out, she’s reached the road; looking both ways, best she can with the bad neck on her. Nothing coming, ventures out from the kerb. ‘Budge up,’ she’s calling to those two gawping at her. Surprised to hear herself. That’s never her? That thin voice is never her?
‘Dishing the orders out already, Tom,’ George says, for her ears.
‘She’s not over the flaming road yet, George.’
‘Someone’s got to check you pair,’ she says, drawing the backchat from the bottom of her belly, thinks of lost bench pals, realises now she could’ve tracked the waning of half a dozen by the flag of the voice. Lovely, look, Denny the joiner with his laddie aside him has stopped the van to let her have a go at the road in peace.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee making space on the bench. It can sit three if nobody puts their dog on it like George used to until he had to be told. Still, dog or no dog, plenty of standing went on. Not today though, there’s only Tommy and George there. Patch is underneath it in the huff. That’s better, made it. Mac off. Behind parked up.
Tommy twists his cap to stop the sun blinding his day. He’s a teenager, putting himself into the hospital diving off the buckle bridge.
‘You had someone looking over you that day, Tommy.’
‘Aye, could’ve been a lot worse.’
Aileen Fuller can’t see the bridge from here but of course she can. Her feet have been walking the skewed thing her whole life, running and skipping when her feet were so light she hardly knew she had them on the end of her legs, back when she was flavour of the month with time. ‘Who the hell would jump off that thing?’ she says.
‘Didn’t jump, I dived,’ Tommy says. ‘Graceful as a sea tern.’
‘Bloody star turn, more like,’ George says. ‘Yond water’s not deep enough for a good plodge.’
‘You’ve got no room to talk, son, at least I didn’t steal away with me father’s egg van and go full tilt into the bend with it.’
‘Me auld man was still going on about that on his deathbed, you know, Tommy.’
‘No bloody wonder. The bend’s taken a canny few but it must’ve had one close look at you and thought world can keep that mazer.’
Aileen’s picturing the bend on Vagary Lane, that dry stone wall winding along one side, the tree behind it leaning over to mother the tiny things that live in the crannies between the stones. She can see a write-off and red splashes on the green of the moss. It’s been a good while since she took the bend. Grew up being told how to take it. You ride the edge then go for the line, keeping your clutch covered. Thinks if the DVLA was going to send her anything for her seventieth it could’ve been a nice card with a star on it, but what did she get as a thank you for fifty years of driving with not so much as three points on her licence, an order to renew it. Licence expired before she did.
Ford Fiesta’s tucked into the hedge by the side of her house, rust bucket it’ll be soon. Too much of a struggle to get in it now anyway; it’ll pain her more to let it go, wants to keep looking at it for a bit longer, used to love driving. Shouldn’t have favourites but she’s got one: that red Austin Metro she had in the eighties, will never forget the feel of herself in it, driving over the moors road to see Laura, back whenever.
Jubilee Hall bench, where the old men try to forget they’re old. Aileen Fuller’s no fella but she doesn’t mind them. If it was a different sort of gab and fuss she was after she’d be inside the Jubilee Hall with wives and daughters, making pom-poms or whatever it was they did in there. She’ll take the fellas any day. This lot don’t care to know if she’s ever missed not having a man; they’re that bloody old they’ve forgotten John Thomas’s do more than siphon pittle.
She’d been ready for love. Not to do Laura down, but she thinks now she’d been ready to see it coming, had dared to peel back whatever it had been across her eyes, some sort of extra film, skin, like that stuff on her new glasses; she’d not known it was there, thought there was something up, nothing as clear as it should’ve been, silly bugger. Those weeks leading up to Laura had felt lighter somehow, freed up, like a dog she once saw tied up outside the store when it’d given a little tug that’d worked. What the hell? This pleasant startle. Daring to visit her mother with a smile on her face and keeping it there, no matter what look was given to her she’d refuse to impersonate it, none of her mother’s undertones got as high as her heart, she could let them ripple through her calves like matterless shallows. Boiling the potatoes, turnip, carrots, she’d stare besotted at her waiting colander and its every hole, would be loving herself in mirrors round and square, blowing kisses at the bloody empties standing on the doorstep for the milkman, everything, everything had been better. Once the skin’s off, it’s off.
Thirty-nine years of time she’d been given, had taken, to get to that one day. Many carnivals before her time and many since, in her time, and soon enough, carnivals there to see she won’t see, year upon year. Is she bothered? A bit, aye, maybe, oh, she doesn’t know: bonny flags flapping, ferrets running through tubes, all that bizarre coming together? Could be it was glorious and her thinking it nothing is her way of protecting herself with fibs about how much life’s really worth.
It was a hooligan of a wind for July’s end. Dickie Dodds on the Council had collared her into waving vehicles onto the field. Man and woman in a mud-spattered hatchback, looking for a spot. Her own face at the car window instructing the man to help himself to top left corner, plenty of space. Poorer turn out due to change in weather. Woman, smiling at her from the passenger seat, saying thank you, that she hoped the rain was going to hold off.
It’d been the eyes, more amber than brown, black-lined, and then her own eyes watching the woman exit the car and walk towards the buckle bridge with the man sure to be her husband. Those eyes, then the shape of her in the near distance. It was as if the woman had always been somewhere inside of her and now she’d come out in this seen form and for her—Aileen—to not see, well, she couldn’t.
Inside a cubicle in the Ladies’, with no need to go, she pressed her forehead to one of the partition walls, feeling more discovered than the communal towel she could hear being yanked on its dowel.
She timed it well, the getting to the sink, got another smile as reward, another Laura smile, this time through a mirror, this time the mouth wasn’t hidden by a man’s arm.
‘It was you, before, wasn’t it? You helped us get parked?’
‘Yes, that was me.’ Aileen went to pat the badge Dickie Dodds had given her but it must’ve fallen off. She dropped her hand, didn’t want Laura to think it was something she did, that gesture, the hand to the heart movement.
They held each other’s gaze, or the mirror did. Then they remembered where they were, both going for the soap at the same time. ‘After you,’ Laura said.
‘No, no, you, go on.’
‘Thanks. We always meant to get to the carnival when the kids were younger but never did.’ She pushed a shoulder back so Aileen could get to the soap. ‘Just him and me now they’re all off doing their own thing and here we are making it at last, older but less harassed.’
Winding, winding, their own wetted hands.
Seeing each other, opposite ends of the ravaged towel hanging on the wall. She guessed Laura to be a good ten years older than herself though most people would probably put them at the same age. A glance down; even if she dared to bare her legs in flannel shorts like that she’d not look as good. How to spill a soul with a smile, tell through your eyes.
‘Well,’ Laura said.
‘Well,’ she said. Women and little girls were bumps and splashes around them. ‘Aileen, nice to meet you.’
‘Laura, same,’ and she ushered Aileen without touching her, ‘we should move, we’re causing havoc here.’
Outside, a gust of wind blew the bottom of Laura’s tee shirt up to flash a flat belly of silvery bands. She went up on her toes, stretched her neck, tried to see her husband through the crowd, found him and waved though he wasn’t looking. ‘Listen, if you ever want to have nobody to trip over you’re more than welcome to visit us up in the hills. I work from home most of the time, well, in the old lambing shed out back, so,’ she smiled, ‘any time.’
‘Definitely. I warn you though, Alistair’ll be whipping out his record collection for you to admire. Starved of company he is. Poor lonely shepherd! Listen, I could give you my telephone number?’
She’d taken it. No pen between them but Laura found a kohl pencil in her bag.
Aileen had worn makeup back then, had wanted to, enjoyed wearing clothes, why not, she’d been slim, decent looking, and the perm comb, the full make-up bag all powdery with its bonny spills, they hadn’t been any sort of pretending.
But courting Jerry Heron for years. Sham Jerry, who worked on the oil rigs, Jerry who on his month off hit the drink so hard he never used to notice if they never much touched. Chances are, Jerry had been using her as much as she’d been using him. Even on sober rainy days, he’d rather touch the window and look through her than the other way round. Keeping his mam and dad happy, something like that. Long dead now, Jerry, such an awful shame. Went in his forties. Couldn’t stop.
Those kohl-black numbers sinking into her hand, she hurried back to the field.
Smiling at everyone, what a beautiful shade of herself she’d felt then. Bloody Rembrandt, Picasso, the whole lot of them could’ve painted something good with her.
From the well of her throat she let out a deep and gentle sound, a living animal in tune with itself. This, she thought, this. It was enough, what had happened, meeting Laura, enough. This feeling, enough. At that moment, she’d known it was simple, there was nothing much to heaven.
Nothing on the news. There’s a woman talking about her debt, how she hid it from her family. Was there a person in the world with nothing to hide? Was there an animal? Cat was always on the stash. And children, even the smallest ones; things that have caught their eye, lifted sweeties. They were the worst ones for it, the innocent.
This woman on the news thinks she’s got it all worked out though and now she wants to share it with everybody, muckle big microphone in her face. Give it a rest, woman. It might encourage others, she’s saying. Aye, to keep it in. Woman’s incontinent mouth might’ve pulled the rug out from under gossips and let other same-boated sods feel less alone but she’s still in debt; some gift from God in the advice centre’s helped her make a plan, bless them, so she thinks it’s been worth it. Think again, woman, think again.
She presses the lump in her belly, used to take her fingers a while to find it, not any more.
Hernia, likely. Ah, what the hell. She’s not going to the doctor’s. Get her sweaty folds out for feeling? No thanking you. What a world it would be if nothing was hidden. Bland, that would soon turn. Everything out there on full view? Everyone would likely be loved more but what would they all do with themselves? Boring as a window onto a cloudless sky it would be. They’d all be praying for a shitting bird to do a flyby and a man on a glider to steal both it and its shit.
She has no intention of revealing to anyone the things that have her as she is, the hurts and the loves. She might as well take her butter knife and scrape the gunk out from the wrinkles in her heart, put it on a saucer, say there. Cat would turn her nose up at such stuff. Half the village would be into it though, oh aye, using her hurts and loves as compost to grow their own twisted fairytales out of it. It’s their own lack has them do it, their fear, their boredom. Well, she’s not being some bugger’s thumb twiddle, no bloody way.
She goes at the sandwich, will fettle those crusts even if she has to lose a tooth to do it. Lick the plate clean, this beautiful plate, her plate.
Laura, at her wheel. ‘The things we’ve made together,’ she said.
Aileen looked around at all the things Laura and her wheel had made, cups, bowls, jugs, vases. ‘They’re lovely,’ she said, taking in oranges, browns with a clot of red, paint drips that crept over rims like melted fingers.
Laura smiled, that smile, and Aileen pressed her feet into the ground to keep them from going where they wanted to go. ‘I’ve no regrets, well, some,’ Laura laughed, ‘what am I saying, loads of regrets. The cottage comes with Alistair’s job but there’s not much money and one of the kids was still dependent on us when I started doing this.’
‘How many have—’
‘Four. I know. I feel so guilty sometimes. We’ve a grandchild on the way now, and here I am still getting lost at the wheel. I’ll tell you what, I’ll make you something special.’ Laura threw a hand up. ‘I don’t mean it would be anything special, I mean I’ll make it specially for you, or especially, specifically, oh god, whatever the blinking word is.’
‘What would you like? A vase?’
‘A plate. I’d like a plate, please, a plate I can touch, not touch, well, you know what I mean, use, something I can put to good use three times a day.’
‘Don’t you have cereal for breakfast?’
They turned, heard Alistair at the door, barking dogs.
Laura’s I’ll not be long covered her back as she went towards Alistair. He was asking her if she liked John Martyn.
‘He’s never done anything to me,’ she said, and he laughed. She hunkered down to pet the Jack Russell by his feet.
She followed them to the cottage, had a secret chortle to herself at the little dog, how it strutted past the cage of barking collies.
A bit later, they were in the sitting room, all of them, coal fire going, toast and music. ‘He’s great, isn’t he, John Martyn?’ Alistair put a finger up to catch some music on the tip of it.
‘Know him well, do you?’
Alistair found that funny. ‘I’ve seen him live three times.’
Now it was her turn to laugh, properly laughing. ‘I went to school with his brother. The brother’s the same.’ She shook her head. ‘Not exactly sparky, that family.’
‘No, Aileen,’ Laura was laughing now as well, ‘this is John Martyn, the music.’
‘Aw, never.’ She slapped her own head. ‘I thought you meant the John Martin I know. The one with red hair who does the window cleaning.’
‘What sort of stuff are you into, then, Aileen?’ Alistair said.
‘Nothing in particular.’
‘There must be some singer? A band?’
‘Not really, we keep the radio on at work, it’s all Top of the Pops stuff, on low.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m on the counter in the butcher’s, and I often do shifts in the golf club restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights, they play instrumental stuff.’
‘You’re putting some hours in,’ Laura said.
‘I need the money for the rent, and the car’s due an MOT. If my mother and me could live together we’d both be better off.’
‘Hard to live with?’
‘She doesn’t like me.’
‘She says that?’
‘I wish she would. No, she says I don’t like her.’
‘Is that true?’
‘Well, if it is, I’d give anything for it not to be.’
‘Alistair’s got a hell of a mam too. Never off the phone, wants to know the exact shade of his every shit.’
‘That’s not a hell of a mam, that’s a mam,’ Aileen said. ‘Oh, I don’t know, I should be the last person to spout off.’ She and her mother couldn’t come to one agreed truth between them but, even so, she’d be willing to take half the blame for the problem, not that she’d ever been able to figure out exactly what the problem was.
She’s watching the cat eat. ‘That didn’t touch the sides, Karen Dalton,’ she says. She’s had other female house cats but hasn’t called any of them Karen Dalton, hasn’t felt like she could, not until she took on this one last year. They’d called her Mindy at the shelter. That went the journey straight off. Bloody Mindy? Karen Dalton it is. Saying the name doesn’t hurt any more in fact, after not being able to barely think it for thirty years, she’s enjoying saying it. The cat licks away the scent of heart.
She goes along to Debbie’s in her slippers. Spitty rain but it’s only four houses down. The ground’s slippy, so she has to go canny.
‘I’ve not come in the middle of your tea, have I, Debbie?’
The little grandson in her arms has a finger of toast in his hand, dried snot across half his face. For a second, she can see Debbie doesn’t know why she’s there, witnesses the dawning. ‘Oh god, the ladders.’ Debbie turns her head towards the sitting room. ‘Aileen’s ladders, Bobby.’
‘Tell him to keep the ladders.’
‘No, he’s bringing them back.’ She’s twisting her neck again. ‘Isn’t that right? Aileen’s ladders, you’re done with them?’
‘Now look here, listen, the pair of you, I insist. They’re of no use to me. Are you hearing this, Bobby? You keep those ladders, mind, or I’ll get vexed.’
Debbie’s waggling the bairn’s spare hand to coax a hello out of him, instead it’s made him press his face into his shoulder. ‘He’s going through a shy phase, Aileen.’
‘Well, let him.’
Debbie’s watching her go back up the row. Aileen doesn’t like being watched like this. Someone’s thickened this rain with butter.
Champion, she’s reached her front door. She’d been surprised when her mother left her this place. The good deed had raised no feelings of grief in her, and the sadness, well that had always been there, that wasn’t new. Whatever is there after the sale of it will get divvied up between Laura and Alistair’s four. She never got to meet any of them but she saw the photographs, heard their names. This place quartered won’t be much, but it’ll be something, might help ease a worry or two. Laura and Alistair are both dead now, Laura not cold yet, according to the free paper. Decent enough innings they both got for heavy smokers.
They were only in her life for a few months but it wasn’t a few months in how it feels.
Get yourself in the house, you’re like a fart in a trance, woman.
At the back end of autumn, Aileen drove to Laura and Alistair’s with Jerry Heron beside her. It was a Wednesday, half-day closing. Aileen had hurried from work at dinner-time for a bath, to get changed, extra care taken with her make-up. It was her birthday. She was all stirred up at the thought of seeing Laura. Her mother had asked her to call in to get her birthday card, then she’d had to sit and listen to an hour’s worth of woes and what with that and having to get Jerry out of the pub, day was nearly done.
‘Couldn’t you have laid off the afternoon session for once?’ she asked in the car.
‘I only had a couple. Thompsons were brawling again.’
She stared at the orange sun going low through the front windscreen.
‘I tell you what though, Johnny Thompson’s going to have a sore head the morrer, went down like a sack of shit.’
Aileen had caught his face at times, in the Swan, looking at Johnny Thompson. She knew that look from the inside. Bloody hell, Jerry, she’d thought, you’ve no chance there, don’t waste your time shouting it from the highest hills, even God’d tell you, not a chance in hell. Nobody liked the lasses more than Johnny Thompson.
Since the start of August, she’d been going over to Laura’s once or twice a week. It’d been the happiest time of her life; that warm welcome, not just warm, easy, that’s what it was, she loved the easiness of their home. Even the sky above it, the air around it, easy.
Had Alistair picked up on the attraction? The most real parts of life are the parts everybody pretends aren’t happening. She lifted a hand from the steering wheel to move it across her face, Laura’s face. This was her hand on Laura’s face, this was her face on Laura’s hand.
The three of them got on well. Alistair seemed to like her, find her interesting, even though she hadn’t one interesting thing to say. What were you like at school, Aileen? Shit. Many friends? No. Why? Peanut brittle. Eh? I was the twelve-year-old human equivalent of peanut brittle. How’d you mean? ‘Oh, Alistair, change the record,’ she’d say, and he would, often for real.
Aileen looked around. ‘Where’s Laura? I’ll go and give her a hand,’ she said, going towards the cottage, guessing Laura was in the kitchen.
‘No. She’s not here.’ Alistair shook his head. ‘The daughter-in-law, we thought she was in labour, but she’s not, well, she might be but it’s very early, nothing much happening yet so the hospital’s sent her home again. Laura will probably head back over here.’
Relief, relief, relief.
‘She wants to be at the birth, then?’
‘I don’t think so, just close, you know, in the waiting room or at their place so she’s handy if they need her. She’s excited, we both are. Anyway, happy birthday, you.’ He kissed her on the cheek. His breath rich of king-size cigarette.
Up to the bathroom, her heels not quite fitting onto the tiny stairs. Laura’s dressing gown over the radiator. She put her face into it. Hurry home. I need you, I do, I do.
She’d been looking forward to it so much. Four of them instead of three, a change. She didn’t know what she’d been hoping for. She went downstairs, started to drink. She’d put her hair up tonight, for Laura, to have it admired, maybe a wisp of it, touched, by Laura.
Jerry persuaded Alistair to take him out on the quad bikes. ‘Off you go,’ she said, ‘off you go, over the hills, check the sheep, don’t mind me, I’m happy here, having a lovely time.’ If she couldn’t have Laura she’d rather be alone, drinking, thinking, listening to Karen Dalton.
She and Laura had started calling each other that. She loved it and she doesn’t know how it came about. She was Laura’s favourite singer. Aileen had never heard of her, thought her voice strange at first, but Laura had turned out the big light, lit candles, turned the volume up and Alistair had rolled a joint, passed it around—something else that was a new experience for Aileen—and by the time they were halfway through side one on the LP, she loved Karen Dalton.
They’d never touched except for accidental brushes. Laura was married to Alistair, and they were both her friends. What was it? Her, here? What did she think it was? She needed to tell Jerry too. Not about how she felt for Laura, how she felt about him. She would tell him on the way back across, in the car, when she got her eye on the shape of that tree she liked, she would tell him then. I do not love you, Jerry. Whatever it is we both want, it’s not here in this car.
‘Don’t pretend to be empty when you’re full,’ Laura had said to her once. Flaming Bloody Nora Karen Dalton, she thought. How do you do that? Let all of the sadness inside you turn into a sound you can send?
The phone went and she hurried to answer.
‘Karen Dalton, that you?’
‘That me, aye, that you, Karen Dalton?’
‘That me. Guess what?’
‘She’s in established labour. I’m ringing from the hospital. Where’s Ali?’
‘He’s out in the hills, he’s rolling around in the hills with Jerry.’
‘How drunk are you, Karen Dalton? Oh god. I haven’t said happy birthday. Happy birthday. I’ve got you a present—Hello? Hello? You still there?’
Sick sitting heavy on the floor of her belly, happy to never come up, a horrible feeling. ‘You got me a present?’
‘It’s nothing much but you’ll like it.’
Movement, shadows, Alistair and Jerry were back. ‘Your grandchild’s on the way,’ she said, handing Alistair the phone, accidentally letting go before he got a proper grip.
Jerry putting an arm around her hanging head, his voice against her fallen hair sounding a funny kazoo tone, buzzy drunk lugs. ‘What’ve you been drinking, Aileen? Aye, well, it’s your birthday, why not?’
Then they were all on the floor, drinking, smoking, listening to music. Jerry was always happy when he was drinking, so happy he’d be sleeping like a baby before he’d gotten to the bottom of his can. She didn’t want to be there anymore. She wanted Laura. No, she didn’t, she wanted to be herself, with Laura. Watch the fire, think about Laura. Look at that beautiful fire, look at the blue bits, there’s more to that fire than they think.
Somebody was stroking her leg, hand on her skin. Was that Alistair’s hand? She’d worn a dress, tights, had wanted to look nice for Laura. Where were her tights? Alistair was stroking her leg. Jerry would see. Jerry wouldn’t care. She looked to see Jerry seeing but Jerry was seeing nothing. Jerry was off seeing what his dreams would bring him.
She was awake and she was feeling things, things Laura must’ve felt. This. The hand was going higher, a hand Laura knew and she was Laura feeling all the things that Laura felt.
Aileen cleans the toilet, half a bottle of bleach down it. In the kitchen, she washes her plate, puts it in the empty drainer. She squeezes bleach around the sides of the sink. Doesn’t want the place a tip, smelly, when whoever it might be comes in. ‘Come on, Karen Dalton,’ she says. She puts her in the carrier. Last time the cat was in this thing she was on her way to what should’ve been her forever home. Why is she thinking that, even putting two words together like that.
Forever home. That’s what Debbie had said to her when she’d moved into the row. This is mine and Bobby’s forever home. I don’t think so, lass, is what she’d thought. No forever homes in this life.
She and Jerry had left before sunrise. She hadn’t woken him up to finish with him. Waited until he was offshore, sent him a letter. He’d been expecting it, he told her, next time she saw him in the pub eighteen months later. She never did get her birthday present. Alistair must have said something because Laura never rang her again. Aileen never got to hear if it was a boy or a girl. She got more grandchildren. Seven, the death notice in the paper had said.
Putting Karen Dalton down by Debbie’s back door. Money too, a few hundred. Not enough to keep Karen Dalton in food for the rest of her natural. But they’ll care for Karen Dalton. She knows they will. It’s one of the few things she can say she knows.
Back home for a cup of tea now. Strange, how it’s the big moments of life that get to take up all the air, births, weddings, christenings, funerals but this, how it feels to drink your last ever cup of tea, the last of what must be, who knows, thousands, probably a million in her case, all those cups of tea, and this one, the last one.
When she’s finished, she takes the cup with her; seems daft but she doesn’t want to spoil that beautiful pattern of streaks the poured bleach has made in the sink.
It’s a hard shift and best part of another getting herself into the car but it starts. Good old Fiesta. All that neglect, but it starts for her. She’s driving again, not in a rusty Fiesta, a well-cared-for Austin Metro. She’s driving over the moors road to Laura, having the time of her life, but then the bend comes from out of nowhere and she needs to be with all the tiny things that live in the crannies between the stones.