I am a practising criminal barrister who writes. I have had one short story published in the Bristol Anthology and I continue to write short stories along side working very slowly on my first novel.
Elsie Kelly opened her front door at seven thirty as she had every morning for the last forty-five years. In the early Victorian Square it had once been the custom that all front doors were opened upon rising. Back then, just as the cycle of time itself, the brightly coloured doors, each painted a subtly different colour like spokes on a colour wheel each evening, gave way in the mornings, to innocuous glass inner doors. That lesson, one of many, as she had called them at the time, had been imparted to them by their neighbours on the day that she and Seymour moved in. An April day amidst the boxes, bags and general clutter that accompanies a house move, Esther had introduced herself across the heavy black metal railings. She hoped that they would enjoy living in the Square, telling Elsie that there was lots to do to keep her occupied and out of trouble, before imploring her to keep her door open.
“Everyone does it. Part of the tradition of the Square which I do hope you will maintain.”
In recent times it was a tradition that had lapsed to the extent that only Elsie and the elderly couple at number two bothered with it at all. But following a stroke suffered by one, Elsie hadn’t learned which one, the couple had been forced to move to more convenient housing and so it fell to Elsie alone to maintain tradition.
In those early years she had been so keen to fit in. Buying the house had stretched them more than either she or Seymour had been willing to admit. They had used the money left to them by her parents and Seymour had a good job at the accountancy firm in London but that didn’t mean that things were easy even if the Square wasn’t then the desirable location she was told it had become today. CND and 2CV that was how Esther had described their side of the Square back then. And despite having a small child, Elsie had signed up to every committee and club going as a means of demonstrating their bona fides. Opening the front door before getting Annabelle up and ready for school was just one small part of that.
Of course today everyone was so security conscious and untrusting. Only last week a policeman as part of a neighbourhood watch walkabout, had chastised her for keeping her door open. She told him that it wasn’t as if he could just walk in and that if the outer door was open the inner door was always locked, something she had done for forty-five years without incident. That latter part wasn’t entirely truthful but he didn’t need to know that once, returning home late from a party, she and Seymour found that they had left the front door open. They of course had keys to the front door but as they knew it would be, when they tried it, the inner door was locked. They couldn’t ring the bell for fear of waking Annabelle and the sitter who was staying the night, so for what had seemed like hours in their tired drunken state, Seymour attempted unsuccessfully to prize the key free from the lock. Then, in desperation he had picked up a loose edging stone and used it to gently tap one corner of the smallest pane of glass. Almost silently, the entire pane smashed and fell inwards onto the hallway floor, allowing him to reach inside and turn the key in the lock. After that they had always double-checked that the outer door was locked, sometimes even retracing their steps just to make sure.
But no one seemed to trust anyone these days. It wasn’t only burglars but paedophiles who were hiding behind every bush if what she read in the paper was to be believed. But as with everything, that too was nothing new. On one of her first days at work in the employment exchange, Elsie walked into the tearoom to eat her lunch. The room reflected the make-up of the office, which but for their superior officer, consisted entirely of women. Elsie was the youngest by many years and she felt uncomfortable eating her sandwiches in front of the other women. In fact on the only other occasion she had been into the room, she had left without saying one word to anyone else and with her sandwiches still in her lunchbox.
On this day though, hunger had got the better of her and she chose a chair in the corner away from the others so that she could eat without being observed. Rose a brash, blonde woman was the loudest of the group and Elsie heard her challenging the other women. “It isn’t as if it is something new. All of us have been touched haven’t we?” Not having been privy to the start of the conversation Elsie had no idea what had caused Rose to mount the challenge that she had. But she listened intently as each woman, as if in some form of rehabilitative session, took it in turns to tell the story of what had happened to them. Uncles, titular or real, grandfathers, family friends, each woman knew personally of what men could do to girls too young and too frightened to stop them. Not one appeared embarrassed or ashamed of the story that they told but spoke in a matter of fact way, as if they were describing how they had paid the milkman that morning. And listening to each , Elsie realised with rising panic that she would be unable to escape when it was her turn. That she too would be expected to give up her secret and she felt her cheeks burning. But as the last woman began her story Elsie looked up and caught Rose’s eyes. Rather than the taunt that she had expected, Elsie saw a look of sympathy and knowing reflected back towards her. In a moment it had gone but not before the older woman quipped “That’s more than enough of men, we know they ruin our lives but lets not let them ruin our lunch as well.” But that overheard conversation and the look from Rose had changed something in Elsie. She no longer felt afraid of the other women. Nor was she so afraid of herself or of the secret that she had not been required to tell.
Looking out across the Square, Elsie noted with annoyance that the family at number eight had put their rubbish out again. Not just the copious boxes of assorted clutter, but also the wheelie bin. A collection wasn’t due for another three days and then it was just the boxes not the bin. When the council had brought in the new system for the collection of household rubbish Elsie had complained along with everyone else. But as always, she had feared getting it wrong and so had religiously learned what was expected to go where and when the different collections were to be made. And having initially been overrun by the items she was no longer permitted to put into the bin, she turned a corner of her kitchen into a recycling area. Bins for cardboard, paper, plastics and bottles and a caddy for food. And each fortnight she continued to be amazed at how little the wheelie bin now contained.
Her daughter had expressed surprise at how quickly Elsie had embraced the idea but as Elsie told her recycling wasn’t a new idea. In the early days in the Square, with Seymour in London during the week and Annabelle in bed early in the evenings, Elsie often had only herself for company. Partly as a means of demonstrating a thrifty streak to Seymour and partly to be able to finish her home as she wished, Elsie had turned old baby blankets into cushions, made throws from bits of old clothing and generally reused anything that she could. Only now she wondered whether that was really recycling or simply an inability to throw anything away; a means of clinging onto the past and a refusal to let her memories settle.
Turning back into the hallway, she locked the inner door but something unbidden niggled away at her. She walked across the hallway into the kitchen, opened the freezer and took out the bread. For a time after Seymour died, Elsie had stopped buying bread because she found it impossible to reach the end of a loaf before it started to grow mould. Then Annabelle had told her that she could freeze the bread, taking out each day just as many slices as she needed. That had been a revelation, though she had chided herself for not thinking of it herself but rather having had to rely upon Annabelle. She didn’t want Annabelle to think that she couldn’t cope. It wasn’t as if Annabelle had ever said as much but it felt to Elsie as if everything that she did nowadays was scrutinized. Their telephone conversations used to be about what Annabelle had done, where she had been, what she was feeling. It wasn’t as if that was a one-way conversation. It had always been a two-way and in fact when Seymour was alive, a three-way thing. They had loved living vicariously through their daughter. But recently Elsie noticed that whenever she asked Annabelle what she had been up to Annabelle just replied oh nothing much. Of course she was busy at work and had Ella to look after but it was almost as if she no longer wanted to tell Elsie what she was doing. As if Annabelle felt guilty for living her life. But Elsie didn’t resent her daughter her life. She had lived and still did live her own. But it was so difficult being old these days. When she was young the old were a clearly defined group. Her great grandmother had been the oldest person that she knew. Every Sunday, whenever she and her two brothers stayed with their grandparents, they were taken to visit her after church. She still lived alone in the home that she had been born in. She didn’t have what would be called a carer today but cooked her own meals at the aging Rayburn. Every Sunday when they visited, she would have a batch of fruit buns ready to come out of the oven at just the moment they arrived. The two boys raced ahead of Elsie and her grandparents straight into the kitchen to be given a bun. Elsie though didn’t ever have a bun and not only because she didn’t like fruitcake. Flinching as she was hugged, Elsie always noticed the warm, spicy, slightly musty smell that hung about her great grandmother’s clothes, a smell that Elsie always associated with being old. It was a little like the clove sweets that she was allowed to take from the jar before running out into the garden. She hadn’t liked the sweets either but even then, Elsie had been conscious of hurting anyone’s feelings and so took two, putting them into her pocket to give to her brothers later on. Sometimes she put one into her mouth, trying to force herself to like the bitter taste but she could never get over the initial taste of mustiness. The sweets, like her great grandmother belonging to an already lost age.
That image of her great grandmother was what Elsie had always thought of when she thought of old people. But then that changed. Her own mother had lived until she was ninety-one and again, did so independently right up until the end. She had been of the age when women looked after themselves, always wearing makeup, even in the house with her lipstick and nail varnish in matching hues. Women of that generation had never worn a pair of jeans and few rarely wore trousers at all. Her mother had worked, an employee of the local council in the housing department but only when Elsie and her two brothers were in senior school. And work in those days wasn’t all consuming in the way it was today.
But with her mother gone, Elsie knew that she now bore the mantle of old age. That as an only child, Annabelle felt responsible for her in a way that Elsie hadn’t for her own mother, even after the death of her two brothers. But she didn’t feel old, at least not in the way that her great grandmother or her grandparents had seemed old. Of course it was harder to do some things now than it used to be but that was the same for everyone she knew. Everything was lived at such a fast pace these days. She had read only the other day about a slow food market that had started in town. Apparently it was named to differentiate it from the fast food revolution and to embrace slow cooking. Reading about it however, it seemed to Elsie that rather than slow cooking it was simply cooking. Proper food cooked properly; another recycled idea.
Nor was it that she was tired exactly. Having had Annabelle so late meant that she had spent most of her forties in a state of utter exhaustion. How other mothers around her had coped with two or even more children was always a mystery to her. For Elsie it had simply been enough to get through the day without mishap or at least too great a mishap.
Perhaps that was where she and Seymour had gone wrong. They each loved Annabelle more than they had ever imagined was possible but they could never have been described as relaxed parents. And now it was Annabelle’s turn to fret over her. They hadn’t yet had the conversation about moving to somewhere more suitable or as the couple at number two had called, it somewhere more convenient. But as Elsie had remarked at the time, convenient for whom? This was her home and had been for forty-five years. It had been Annabelle’s home and Elsie hoped, would be her home again some day. She hadn’t spent all of those years learning to fit in only to have to do it all over again somewhere else. At the time of her life when she should have been able to do exactly what she wanted, when she wanted, released from the shackles of being a wife and a mother, it seemed that in fact the opposite was true; as if each day she was becoming increasingly restricted.
It wasn’t only that she was unable to drive anymore. In the first few months that had felt like a great loss and she had mourned its’ passing as much as she had any death. But gradually she embraced the limitation it placed upon her. Rather than having to navigate the supermarket, something for the last few years she had begun to secretly fear, she walked into the village each day to buy only what she needed. To get to her art class or to go anywhere further afield, she used either the bus or the train, avoiding the crowds at peak times and celebrating the pass that provided her with free travel.
Though restricting her in the literal sense it wasn’t the loss of her licence that caused her to feel so aggrieved. It was the continual questioning and knowing looks whenever she began to complain about anything, the unwarranted and unwanted sympathy. Suddenly everyone appeared to know what she was feeling and what was best for her even if she didn’t feel it herself. The only other time in her life when she had been made to feel quite so helpless was during her pregnancy. Just as now, complete strangers would volunteer information about what she should or should not be doing and how she should be feeling. And now, just as then, she felt utterly incapable of expressing how she truly felt. When she was pregnant she had felt absolutely nothing. No bond with the life growing inside of her. No excitement at the prospect of what lay ahead. In fact she gave no real thought to what did lie ahead. All she had felt was a detachment from her own body and from the thing being sustained by that same body. Yet the moment her daughter was born all of that had changed and she felt an overwhelming love, all the more raw and real for being utterly unexpected. Perhaps that was why she had been an anxious mother. She would look at other mothers who, though not as free as they would become in her lifetime, still exuded a sense of calm that elided with the times but eluded her.
And it was that same sense of detachment that she now felt about what others referred to as “at her time of life”. Four words that had the power to make anything bracketed between them sound demeaning. “You don’t want to be worrying about that at your time of life.” “At your time of life that’s not something you should be thinking of.” But having done it once before, why couldn’t she just give herself and her body up to fate and hope that it rewarded her in the same way it had done when she gave birth to Annabelle?
Reaching to take the toast from the toaster, Elsie caught a glimpse of her hands. More than anything else it was that that jolted her from her belief that she was still young. That she was no longer that woman Seymour had chased after. Her face had remained thankfully almost free from wrinkles. Her memory if not infallible was better than most of her acquaintances. And though she was slower than she had once been, she could still move with relative ease. It was her hands that gave the game away, that and her inability to sleep. Sleep, she learned was the luxury of the young. When Annabelle was very young, no matter what time they had put her to bed she would always wake at the same time, just before six. One morning Elsie had snapped at her asking, senselessly why she always woke so early and Annabelle replied that she woke when she ran out of dreams. After that of course she went through the usual teenage years of rising ever later and later and now Elsie imagined she was woken early by her own children.
Perhaps Elsie had just run out of dreams. Perhaps there was an allotted quota of dreams and that over the years she had used hers up. Whatever the reason, in recent years she found that she could sleep for no longer than 6 hours. She refused though to do that thing that so many older people did of sleeping during the day or, at the other extreme, lying awake during the night only to fall asleep as day broke and staying in bed late into the morning.
Elsie didn’t quite know why she refused to take the opportunity to nap when she could but she knew that it had something to do with form. As with her desire to be seen to fit, she was conscious of doing anything that wasn’t quite right. Of course no one but she would know whether she had a nap in the afternoon or stayed in bed like the teenage Annabelle but then no one would know whether she put the ironing away as soon she had finished it, or washed the glasses and loaded the dishwasher rather than leaving them until later. Her grandmother, a strict Methodist, had once told Elsie never to put off anything until tomorrow that she could do today. It was those words that chided her whenever she toyed with the idea of leaving something until later. But she knew it wasn’t only that. It was the thought that at any moment a visitor could arrive and catch her out. It was almost as if she was a fraudster and that if she ever let the façade slip she would be found out.
And that ability to fit into one’s own skin, to feel comfortable and without fear, was something that Elsie had never been able to accomplish. It was as if there was always something, tugging at her shoulder reminding her that she didn’t quite belong. Looking around the kitchen she marvelled, as she did every day and had since the day she and Seymour moved in, at the space and light that flooded into the room. In fact that was a feature of the whole house. It was helped of course by the skylight that she had insisted that they had put in which sent light cascading four floors through the centre of the house. But it was also that she hadn’t cluttered her house with objects. Furniture was kept to a minimum, something people had always remarked upon in the days when she and Seymour entertained. She had never been one, as had so many of her contemporaries, for ornaments or knick-knacks, as they were so deridingly called. She had her beloved paintings, which adorned all of the walls, her books and the photographs of the three of them. But she believed that a house should be allowed to breathe, not be suffocated by its inhabitants but allowed to become part of them. Perhaps that was really why she couldn’t leave for anywhere more convenient. Perhaps, this house with its memories was as much a part of her as Seymour had once been and Annabelle still was. It was her home and perhaps she really did fit in after all.
She walked up a flight of stairs to the drawing room and looked out once more onto the Square. The communal garden, which formed the supposed divide between the CND and 2 CV brigade and the what - the Aston Martin and Telegraph brigade? The garden, like her, had lived through many changes. At times nurturing the babies as their exhausted mothers sat on table cloths and throws spread onto the grass, later inwardly wincing as the babies transformed into whirling dervishes racing up and down on the same, expertly tended grass, providing the backdrop for copious parties and events put on by the garden committee, the attendance rate at which ebbed and flowed with the times. And now, early in the morning, it too looked as if it was waking up, just as the rest of the Square. The birdsong had begun much earlier but the sun wouldn’t reach the garden until after noon. To catch it in the morning you needed to go to the back of the house, to sit in the small garden at the rear and be caught in its tender rays. Yet the garden still looked beautiful and as she looked beyond it Elsie saw the boy from number 15, the oldest boy, walk back into the Square to deliver the last of the newspapers from his round. Elsie herself had once had a paper round although it wasn’t so grand as to be called that then. The papers though large, were light and contained none of the paraphernalia that they did these days. When Annabelle had one of her own many years later, Elsie couldn’t believe the quantity and weight of the papers that she had been expected to deliver, insisting on accompanying her on weekends. And as she watched as her own paper was put through the door, she remembered what had irked her when she had opened up first thing that morning. The Square wasn’t a square at all but a G or a misshapen horseshoe. Misnamed but nonetheless proud and wonderful. Elsie smiled and turned from the window. Perhaps, sometimes all it takes is not to care and she walked back down the stairs to collect her paper.
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