The first months of my bereavement were a living nightmare. The world was in monochrome, muffled, fogged. Outside, everything continued as normal but inside my house, inside my head, time stopped in the early hours of that Saturday morning. So much needed to be done but so little mattered. Gradually the fog and numbness cleared, leaving an icy-cold, clear blue spike of pain, and tiredness so profound my bones ached. The intense overwhelmingness of the grief started to pull back, but could crash in like the waves at the beach that take your legs out from under you. Milestone dates passed, the run up to them bitter and hard but the days themselves often a sad and quiet relief. Three years ago; seems like yesterday and a decade. I have not moved on but I have moved forward. New studies, new partner, potentially a new career. Not a life I chose or planned but a life I'm moving towards living to the full.
Friday 23 February was a good night. A night when Tim and I went to the Star to meet an amazing bunch of friends. We laughed and drank and talked and argued. As we always did. Tim at the corner of the table with a packet of pork scratchings, a pint, and a Jameson's for sipping, people-watching. He dropped in little dry comments. Dredged up facts and film names from his phenomenal memory. Acted like the perfect gentle man and gentleman he was. And then leant back in his seat and stretched his fingers out, ready to sum up our meandering discussions, drop in a salient fact, or say something so acid it made Kenneth Williams look benign. And then the next morning his gentle mind and my wonderful life was ripped apart. A sound. A breath. And then silence. And the world continued. Radio 4 played. The Co-Op lorry delivered. The Parkrunners left without me. But we stopped still.
I always loved the lighthouse on the hill. When I was tiny, mum and I would stand at the bottom of the garden and wave at the lighthouse keepers in the lantern at the top. The flashes were how I learned to count. As teenager, I'd sit and watch the strobing light, dreaming of life off the island instead of studying. I almost forgot about the lighthouse when I went to the mainland for university and then work, but fell in love again on my rare visits home. After my parents died and life in the city palled, I put my London flat on the market and came back to decide what to do next. The lighthouse had fallen into darkness. I walked up to the headland and found the gate locked and an estate agent's sign drooping from the window. Four years and countless hours of work later, the lantern room is my office and I can see my childhood home down in the valley. I wave at the child in the garden, and she waves back.
Image: Old Point Loma Light Station, San Diego; Creator: Frank Schulenburg; Copyright: CC BY-SA 4.0
She carried in joy as soon as she opened the door. Her lips were the colour of springtime and her hair smelled of the sun. Her hand as it brushed across my scalp left a trail of sparkles and stars, and her kiss was fire and lightning. She brought me wine and chocolate, wrapped in bright, crackling paper and silken ribbons. Shiraz, loaded with blueberries and blackcurrants and soft, sweet black cherries, redolent with black pepper, vanilla, spices and oak. It left crimson trails down the glasses as we tipped them to drink. Glossy dark chocolate, gleaming, sweet, and bitter, snapped sharply between my fingers, and melted on my tongue. When she left, the light left with her and darkness settled quiet and still into the corners of the room, deep as cat's fur and velvet, shifting only slightly in the flickering of the fire and the candles.
She said she would call back tomorrow. I wasn't convinced. It was my 15th Zoom job interview in two months. Every interviewer said the same, and each time, I would get a polite email or text saying no, or just silence. By this one I'd stopped caring. I wore my favourite jumper. My cat knocked my coffee over. The sheet covering the bookshelves fell off, showing my Stephen King and Terry Pratchett books with a huge Lego model of my dog. I talked with blistering honesty, including why I'd left a good job in the middle of a global pandemic. By the end I figured I'd have been better staying in bed. And then the email came through. I opened it, expecting just thanks but no thanks, and quicker than usual because of the chaos. And instead – she was relieved not to meet another Zoom interview expert. She loved my cat. And she had a full set of signed Discworld first editions. I start on Monday.
Stepping into my childhood bedroom is a step back into the past. It's all there, just as I left it, but blurred with dust. Duran Duran poster. Hair mousse, blue mascara and eyeliner. Body Shop White Musk – I pick up the bottle and there's still a trace of the scent. Tape player and a stack of cassettes – Adam and the Ants, Howard Young, Nik Kershaw. School textbooks and ring binders full of notes. I left here in 1986. Went off to university with a rucksack and a notebook and never came back – I couldn't afford to leave before then, and I had no one I could turn to, nowhere else I could go. I look in the mirror and see my father, standing behind me, waiting for me. When he smiles, my blood runs cold. I turn, and all I see is the wardrobe, full of batwing jumpers, legwarmers and pixie boots. I suppose I should be wearing black today. But instead I grab my old favourite cerise shirt and go.
I met him at a planetary science conference, where I was presenting a poster on PhD research work. He read it through with a sneer on his face, searching for flaws. He told me that the work presented was on an uninteresting region of a small, insignificant planet, and that that it had all been done before. He finished by telling me, Ms whoever I was, that I should read the seminal paper by Tellus et al, and that my PhD supervisor should be ashamed for letting me even begin my research on this topic, as Tellus had covered it all already. In fact, Tellus, who he knew personally, was presenting at this very conference, and would be mortified to see this poster. I said that I was heading over to Tellus' lecture, and assumed I would see him there. As I stepped up to the podium, I saw him in the front row. I smiled and said 'Good morning. My name is Professor Angela Tellus, and I am delighted to see you all here today.'
23 Millbrook Lane was an unassuming little house. A two-bedroomed terrace in a row of identical two-bedroomed terraces. Nothing on the outside suggested the horror that was going on inside. The curtains were pulled, and only a single, bare bulb shone in the hallway. There was a shred of fabric caught on the hedge, and a trickle of red ran across the step. There were screams from inside, and the police officer knocked hard, urgently. A haggard-faced woman opened the door, desperation in her eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, and then froze as footsteps came up behind her, from the shadowy hall. A blonde four-year-old grabbed the uniformed leg, sobbing. The police officer smiled sympathetically, as she scooped up her daughter, and picked up the wet crepe paper that had stained the step. There comes a point in every child's party when it's time to go home, however sad the guests are to leave.
It should have been a perfect night out. I'd picked the right restaurant, booked the right table. Worn the right shirt (and my lucky pants). Managed to get there on time, or actually a few minutes early, and on the right night too. And I waited. I didn't worry when you were a few minutes late. You were probably sending a last email before you ran out of the door. When you were 15 minutes late, I assumed that you had taken the wrong turn and couldn't find the restaurant. When it ticked round to 30 minutes late, I guessed that you'd missed a tube, and the Central Line was running slow again. At 45 minutes, the staff were starting to look sympathetic, and at an hour I think they were taking bets on whether I'd been stood up. The maître d' came to the table, looked hard at me, leaned in, licked my nose and purred. I sat up in shock, looking right into my startled cat's eyes. A nightmare. And I need to go, or I will be late…
I never thought I would see damage like this. The paintings were shredded, canvas hanging limply from the frames like heart-rending bunting. Ceramics were thrown on the floor, shards ground deep into the carpet. Framed prints with the glass broken and the images torn up. My gallery was insured, so there would be no financial loss, but months and years of work was gone in one night. I knew I had hurt him, but I thought everything was amicable. It seems not. How did I know it was him? And how do I know it was about her? No forced entry. Only her work was broken; none of the other work was touched. What should I do? Claiming on the insurance needed the police, and calling the police would inevitably lead to him. So I broke the glass in the back door, and trashed the rest of the artwork, sobbing all the time. I might love her, but I could never hate him that much.
Writing short fiction, monologues and plays