by Julie Oldham
Six thirty (Friday evening in Waitrose) and she’s waiting, beside the ready meals, in her new, positive thinking boots – to meet a man. A colleague (who teaches geography and has three children and a people carrier) has advised her to do this after reading an article in The Sunday Times about single thirty somethings with weekend workloads and no time to cook or find a partner. Apparently, this is where the educated isolated are to be found: in the finest ready meals, lonely hearts aisle. Oh, of course it’s ridiculous, but the surrealism’s to die for.
Six fifty and still waiting – with her empty basket – envying the trolley pushers.
Outside it’s November; in here, always the end of summer: harvest, abundance, fertility – for those who have reward cards. But she’s not here to ponder inequalities (unless he wants to). She’s here to meet a single, professional male who isn’t Henry; a man who doesn’t just scratch an itch and is pre-washed, low in cholesterol and convenient. And she smiles, fingering the spaghetti carbonara, thinking a resealable top would be nice, then she could keep him fresh if he were too much for her all in one go.
She’s not worried about listeria; she takes precautions.
Eight o’clock and home now, pouring a glass of cranberry juice, because it hurt the last time she had sex. (If sex can be used to describe the ritual fumble with Henry each week.)
Henry: Head of Pastoral Care. As careful and considerate in love as in life. In bed on Wednesdays (always Wednesdays, always bed.) So in bed, every bloody Wednesday, after the cinema and their meal in Tonino’s, he’s meticulously attentive; in the bistro, he never allows pasta sauce to stain his lips. Wipe. Dab. Wipe.
So…Tuesday. Two o’clock; where’s the week going? Standing by the window in her office – a pile of marking on the desk beside her. In the quad below, Year Ten posturing, flapping pheromones. One, two, three stiff little wasps are lying legs up on the window ledge. Desiccated. So warm outside for the time of year.
First day at School
She wears a steel grin
stiff as her pleated new school skirt (Punct?)
Like a horseless headman (?)
Who gallops down a lane where fungi bloom
Like tiny polished stones
A fly in a jar inside her. Like yesterday, the day before. She picks up her pen.
This is only worth a D. I’m concerned about artistic independence and that you are trying too much, too soon – are reliant on experiment rather than content, all that sort of crap. And please remember, Reece, this term we’re focusing on knowledge of rhyming structures and not just being a bloody smart arse – oh yes, and implementing the OFSTED recommendations (which have necessitated my ‘rationalized cut back’ at Christmas). That’s our priority dontcher know?
She writes Fuck at the bottom of the poem. That’s better – a rhyme. A*
No – she can’t. She stands up, lifts her coffee, and pours it across the student’s page. Deliciously. Now is the writer of our discontent made glorious summer. The pool of coffee slides in slow motion. The words on the page begin to slip. She sits down as the room blurs and grips the edge of her desk.
The room continues to spin and she’s dancing now, with Oliver – in the jazz club they went to in Amsterdam…
…Music swimming across the dance floor. Billie Holiday playing: How Deep Is The Ocean? Everywhere blue: the nightclub full of quivering bodies; the Clearblue line behind the bathroom door. Oliver is pressed against her, holding his drink in the air. She can’t hear what he’s saying.
The candelabra spinning. Everything swimming: the jazz player with the saxophone; the singer with the pearls. Later, standing outside the club, a handkerchief against her mouth, Oliver’s eyes are so worried.
‘But you haven’t been drinking, Grace. Are you feeling better now?’
The air around her thick with the sound of partying.
‘Oliver, I’m pregnant but it needn’t affect you.’
So young – her head bursting with words. Words she can contain if...if she listens and takes their advice. So unexpectedly, ridiculously pregnant – although nothing to show for it yet. But it’s there – she can hear it singing inside her: the just a blob of cells; the nothing really yet. Still singing as she waits in the sterile reception area with her bag – before her body is thrown to the lions – having to do this because she has such fine potential, such a crime to waste it all, and we are both so proud, your father especially.
Such anger in Oliver’s eyes. Such anger in his, ‘It wasn’t your parents’ concern, Grace. You should have talked to me. It was mine too.’
So…Tuesday…Wednesday? Seven o’clock already. Outside it’s snowing, but in here central heating makes the day sticky as marmalade. She cracks the shell of her breakfast egg and drinks her second coffee.
Write until nine. Swim. Admin. Work on the freelance editing materials. So good to have this opportunity to do what she wants for a few days until she feels better; without schedules, or students. To write.
Tap. Tap. Tap. The egg is a duck egg. Its membrane blue shell a little low heaven. Such a wonderful phrase. She’d collected eggs on her parents’ farm the week she spent with them after the clinic. She hadn’t needed to worry because they supported her decision. And, really, she’d worked so hard and had such fine potential. What a wonderful phrase. How deep is the ocean?
That day in summer
The operatic chickens were scuffing in the dust
Clucking their heads off
Oh such certain birds
Such fine potential
Now barbed, basted foul
She scribbles it through. She writes, she writes. The room ticks.
She scores the page. Tears it. Rips. Paper snow now falling.
The exhausted letters, on the desk beside her, scratch her eyes. She Googles a thesaurus, then goes to the shelf, picks up the book. She prefers the weight in her hand.
She opens the book: flicks, thumbs, flicks.
Adj. rejected: Ineligible. Unchosen. Tried and found wanting. Declined with thanks – despite a strong interview performance. They are sure she will soon find a suitable post.
She picks up the second letter.
No. They’re wrong. It shouldn’t matter about irregularities of meter, or failed assonance, or banal anaphora. Bloody cheek. What do they know? The point is…the point is…she knows the sound is everything. If it sings. If it sings. If it sings.
Singing inside her.
Snow on snow.
A bleak mid-winter.
A fucking bleak mid-winter
She scores and shreds and cuts…and crumples the third letter (the one from Oliver) into a snowball. And puts on her new boots, and goes outside – and blinks at the dark. She hadn’t realized it was so late. Where’s the day gone? Snow now falling around her in heavy flakes. She brushes them off her lips. Her scarf, her mittens, crack with ice as she walks along the parkway – into the shopping precinct.
‘So, what exactly do you think you’re doing?’
A mother, towing a toddler, appears from behind the rails of children’s snow suits.
She takes her hand away from the baby’s face – its perfect skin; its milk breath. The mother leans around the buggy, and touches the baby’s cheek. Checking. Checking.
‘It’s a lovely baby.’
‘Yes. Come on, Sarah. We need to meet Grandma.’
The toddler’s lips are stained red. It puts its lolly back in its mouth.
‘They’re a handful I should think.’
‘Come on, Sarah.’ The mother’s eyes evaluate. Suspect. Denunciate.
Back into the rails of garments. Salvation Army euphoniums playing above the shop’s piped, ‘I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus.’ The surrealism’s to die for.
‘Would you like it gift wrapped?’
The young assistant’s hair is purple black. Like berries. She and Oliver collected blackberries each autumn beside the river bank. Before the Devil got them he’d say. He was full of sayings like that.
October magic. She can still taste it; can still see Oliver’s stained tongue. The dew had turned the spider webs into suspension bridges of light between the brambles. It’s good of Oliver to keep in touch and that his wife’s pregnant again.
‘I asked if you would like it gift wrapped, Madam?’
‘Yes. I see, gift wrapped. No thank you, it’s for my daughter you see.’
The shop assistant’s eyes evaluate. Suspect. Denunciate.
Out of the shop – past the carolers. Back into the deep mid-winter. Terrified. Terrifying. A headless horseman. Through the walkway to the carpark at the back of the precinct. The carrier bag left by the bin.
Six thirty, Wednesday evening in Waitrose, and she’s unloading: lasagna, spinach, tampons and tights – watching the wilting nurse on the split shift, with the school uniformed children, chocolate fingers and multi buys.
Nearly Christmas. She’s booked a week at the coast. She’ll drink beer and talk to locals, and not have to endure her sister’s puking children and her family’s ‘It’s still not too late you knows.’
Wednesday. Yes, Wednesday. But she’s cancelled Henry. No more bloody fumbling. Maybe she’ll try a Gordon Ramsey recipe, then phone her sister.
The car park’s empty; the trolleys chained. It’s snowing again. The snow tastes like it did that time with Oliver in the country park. Eight o’clock. She must get home because there’s editing to finish, and the post at The Grasmere Academy to apply for. Maybe. Maybe there’s no need to panic. There’s still time. And Henry. No, not Henry. So bloody kind. And anyway, statistically, IVF is a viable option and, more importantly, over population is threatening the planet. Someone must make a stand. No – now she’s free. She’s fine. Fine. And despite what they said, the sound is everything.
So…nine o’clock. Listening to the snow outside and to the ocean singing.
You should have heard. Listened. Listened to me: your Rejected, unchosen. Tried and found wanting. Declined with thanks.
Such potential wasted. A crime.
Ripping pages. Watching snow fall. Scoring…and shredding…cutting…the room swimming. Swimming in blue. And the hands of the kitchen clock sticking…at each minute. Eleven thirty-seven…eight…nine.
So warm now wrapped in this blanket. So warm, so warm. So many voices. So helpful of Henry to be tidying up. So kind of him. So bloody kind. Such a quiet voice.
‘She didn’t answer, so I used my spare key.’
Grab the words floating on the scraps of paper. Falling like snow. How deep it is.
Julie Oldham lives in West Yorkshire. She writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Her stories have appeared in a number of publications including Bare Fiction Magazine and Artificium Journal. Her work can be read online in Open Pen Magazine, The Nottingham Review, Unbroken Journal and Spelk Fiction.