The Spring came and went. She barely noticed. She had closed the curtains on her life, unable to bear the brightness of the sun and the mockery of the flowers. Inside her carefully curated and spotless home she was safe. It was her world, made to reflect and reassure. She had left John’s things in place not because they were a reminder of him, but because they were a part of her. Her memories were laid out in what she saw around her, no longer as a celebration but as an acknowledgement that things had not always been like this. A comfort. A frail connection to a self who she was struggling to find again. Something to cling to.
Her family, and those few friends who hadn’t faded into the distance leaving only their photographs, had learned that contact should be from a distance and it must be carefully negotiated. After a while it had become easy for them to accept this and forget to wonder why. Too much thought might lead to embarrassment. They had tried, made the effort, put themselves out and their concern had withered when they saw that nothing changed. It was easier to think that she was OK. Fine was what she said and fine was what they were eager to accept. They had other things to think about. It was her choice.
She was sitting watching Homes Under the Hammer (Series 19: Episode 13) waiting for her on-line shop to be delivered, when the doorbell rang. It had taken a while to persuade the delivery man that he should leave the bags outside the front door and drive off straight away. She listened sharply- yes it was him. There was no second ring. She froze the television into an image of two bright, empty smiles and walked slowly to the door, making sure that he had gone before she brought it in.
But there was no shopping and no delivery man when she opened the door. In front of her, smiling, were two immaculately dressed young men with smart haircuts, name badges and shiny shoes. Why did everybody else smile so much? They couldn’t possibly mean it.
“Good morning. It says in the bible that the meek shall inherit the Earth. Do you have any thoughts about that?”
She had a feeling that there should have been a long involved conversation before they had earned the right to ask her that. Not that she wanted a long involved conversation, of course. They were looking at her as though her answer really mattered to them.
She did have plenty of thoughts about the meek, being one of them, but she wasn’t about to start unloading them onto two strangers, especially when she hadn’t spoken to anyone at all for almost four days. Generally the meek seemed to a have a rubbish time, as far as she could see, being outmanoeuvred by a lot of smiling people. If the Earth was their inheritance then what they were doing letting other people trample all over it she had no idea. She stood, frozen to the spot in an agony of politeness, hoping that the nice young men would just go away. Unfortunately they took this as a sign of interest and held out a leaflet.
“May we give you one of our leaflets?”
She accepted it, it seemed rude not to. They were pleased. There were more smiling people on the cover and more unanswerable questions.
They beamed at her encouragingly. It dawned on her that they were hoping to be asked in. Her mind raced away into a welter of horrible possibilities that ended with a news report about a silent compound with dead bodies strewn across dusty concrete. She lost her nerve and shut the door quickly before they could say anything else. The leaflet shook in her hand. The young men had forced her into being rude and that was unsettling. She was never rude.
She put the leaflet straight in the bin along with the day’s post- a supermarket leaflet shouting excitedly about cardboard boxes filled with cheap cans of lager, a deadly looking kebab grinning out from the menu from the local takeaway, and an envelope from some charity or other bulging with the bribe of a free pen. She didn’t bother to take the pens out anymore. They only worked for about a week, they were too thin to hold comfortably and using them made her feel guilty when she didn’t send any money. She couldn’t remember the last time a real letter had arrived in the post telling her something that she wanted to know.
The leaflet might be in the bin but what the young men had told her was still firmly inside her head. The meek shall inherit the Earth. That was not how it worked- it really wasn’t. The more she thought about it the angrier she got. The meek were ignored. Passed over and made use of. Look at all those people who had filled the church at John’s funeral. They had been quite happy to let him run around after them wearing himself out. An afternoon in church had been a small price to pay. Of course they were sorry he had gone- but it hadn’t helped him get the support that he needed in time. She went back into the front room and swore at the frozen, smiling faces on the television before banishing them into the darkness. Those two weren’t meek. Never had been.
The phone rang. She stared at it as it switched over to the answer machine. The vacant, automated woman who told people that she wasn’t in (even when she was) went through her carefully rehearsed spiel and after the click there was a voice. A real voice.
“Mother? Are you there? Will you pick up the phone please?”
There was a long pause, and then a sigh.
“I know you’re there. Will you pick up the phone? Please?”
Her hand moved slowly towards the phone but her feet stayed where they were. The voice was irritated now.
“Right. Never mind. I’m at work. I just wanted to see how you were. Speak at the weekend.”
She watched the blinking red light of the machine for a while then pressed the button.
“You have one new message.”
Her finger stabbed at the button anxiously, silencing her daughter before she could complain again.
She needed to get out and for the first time in weeks she allowed that need to override her fear.
Outside, on the street the air was mobile and sharp, quite unlike the still, soft air inside the house. The freshness of it was disconcerting. There were too many possibilities, things that might happen which she would not be able to control. Everything was moving, cars, leaves, clouds, people. The first of the summer visitors had arrived, taking over the street and walking where they liked as though they were locals- which they thought they were. So many people. They were everywhere, people of all kinds. So many of them. Each one completely different, living through their own concerns, busy and preoccupied. The only thing that they had in common was that none of them had the faintest idea who she was. She was alone. They would not speak to her. She knew that, of course she did, but they could. They might.
The street had opened out into early summer since she last walked down it. The horse chestnut trees now had pure white candles decorating their branches, glowing in the sun, and the daffodils- there must have been daffodils, surely- had gone. The world had moved on without her. She walked on after glancing back at the house which was now almost out of sight, clinging tightly to the bunch of keys in her pocket.
“Cheer up. It might never happen.”
The elderly man was resting at the side of the footpath, leaning on his walker. He was smiling. She must have been displaying what her daughter called her “resting bitch face”. She smiled back, although she wasn’t sure whether it showed, and walked on quickly before he could say something else. It had taken her daughter a long time to reassure her that “resting bitch face” wasn’t an insult. She still didn’t really know what it actually was. You didn’t see one on television anyway. All those faces worked so hard for every second of their screen time, desperate to prevent you being bored, anxious to befriend you and horrified at the prospect of being switched off. Sad really. They should get out more. The old man watched her walk away.
She kept her head down when she reached the main street and the shops, listening to the snatches of conversation that floated towards her from the visitors and the few locals who were lost among them.
“I’ve got two good hours in me on a morning.”
“Are we all right for chips?”
“I live right next to the dump, me. I love it.”
“Get here! Now!”
“Hello stranger. How are you?”
She looked up, startled at the sound of her own name, to find herself caught in the full beam of someone’s attention. Someone that she knew well. She had to say something. She was going to lie.
“Helen! I’m fine. How are you?”
At least it was long enough ago for Helen not to feel that she had to mention John. All that had been said. She wanted to talk about herself, as most people do. It wasn’t their fault. There are very few good listeners on the world and most people spend their lives searching for them. Jane nodded and waited. Finally the stream of words slowed down and it was her cue to say something. A cue which she didn’t take. Helen had to prompt.
“So- what have you been up to?”
Helen was not going to want to hear the right answer to that question. So she didn’t say it.
“Oh busy, busy……….. you know.”
This was accepted as a challenge, as the word busy often is, and the retaliatory flow of words began. Busy proclaims self worth, achievement, popularity- particularly when you claim not to be happy about it. It was as if she had flicked a switch to start one of those automata figures going. Steadily Helen performed her set moves and returned to her starting point with a satisfied smile. Yes, another of those smiles.
The smile widened.
“We must catch up soon.”
“Yes. We must.”
They moved quickly away from each other. It wouldn’t happen. People who really want to meet up don’t talk about it, they make plans, but that was fine. She preferred the people on her television screen. They came and went when she allowed them to and their movements and conversations were under her control. They expected no response. When she complained at them they couldn’t hear it. They didn’t care. She needed to get back to them.
For the rest of her walk she remained invisible. Slowly as she came closer and closer to her house she felt herself becoming calmer, responding to the irresistible pull of her own front door. She had done it. She had been out and come home. Nothing bad had happened. Nothing had changed. She was fine. She turned into her driveway to see a pile of matching orange carrier bags piled up in the porch. It occurred to her that for once she was on the right side of a whole lot of baggage.