Sunday, August 15, 2010
I Don't do Weddings
[Short story inspired by a homeless lady I used to meet regularly on the streets of London. Behind every homeless person is a story... ]
A smile is the most potent form of non-verbal communication. Did you know that? Well it is. I got that off the Oprah Winfrey Show. I get a lot of things off Oprah. They were discussing kids who don't fit in. Who don't learn to read body language and so they come out with inappropriate responses. Other kids just think they're weird. One of the things they don't do is smile. Or else they smile at the wrong time. I think I do that sometimes. You have to time a smile just right or else its meaning changes. Dixon's Electrical have moved now, on The Strand. They've turned it into a leather-goods shop. I miss Oprah.
This floor's nice. I've always liked black and white tiles. Marble. Very intricate pattern but cold on your feet. Look how it's worn. Years and years of processions of cold feet traipsing up and down. I'm glad I washed mine. They feel better for it. Nice altar. Not too fussy.
That man this morning had a nice smile. The commissionaire on the door at New Zealand House. I think he's Maori. Dark skinned anyway. He's got used to me now. His smile says 'Gidday! (he'll be a New Zealander) How's it going? Haven't seen you in a while.' And my smile says 'Good morning. I'm just popping in. Just going about my New Zealand business. Just catching up on news and things.' And then I walk past him down the steps to the Ladies.
You have to be confident. Let them think you know where you're going. But look casual. The rucksack helps. After all, this place is for ex-pats and people on holiday. You mustn't come too often. Just now and then. Or two days in a row and then a gap. The toilets are fabulous. Big mirrors, warm. There's never anyone there. I can have a strip down wash if I'm quick. Then I go to the reading room to read the papers. They're all New Zealand papers but it doesn't matter. Quite interesting really to see how other people live. You can tell from the adverts. The news items are amusing but there's a lot of racial tension too. Well, there is everywhere isn't there. Funny though, I never thought of New Zealand as having racial problems. To tell the truth I never thought of it much at all. It's so far away isn't it. But nice toilets.
God, what a draught! Ah, he's coming to tune up his organ. I hope they have some nice hymns. I like a good sing. My voice is not bad actually. Mrs...what was her name? That music teacher. Mrs Brocket... Pratchet... Pritchard! She used to say I could have gone in for musicals. Or opera with training. Of course I never did. I went to the GPO as a telephonist. A musical voice helps over the telephone though. It's the intonation.
They've not put out many prayer books. Three or four rows, that's all. I helped myself as I came in. I don't think they've noticed me yet. I like to stay at the back.
That's a beautiful window. Reminds me of the window in St Stephen's back home. Christ on the Road to Calvary. I remember fixing my eye on the third guard on the left, the one with the scroll, as I walked down the aisle with my father. Trevor turning to look at me, smiling. What did his smile say? Well obviously it was a lie wasn't it.
Oh, here we go. First arrivals, navy, no hat. You don't see many hats these days. And not many bother with black. These will be the office colleagues. Only one woman. Smart, discreet. Well paid job I'll bet. Behind them, what do you think? Family group I'd say. Not close though, or else they'd be at the front. She's been crying. He's not bothered. Kids first time. More family. Grandparents maybe? Yes, tearful. Hard when the young go before you. Oh, they're piling in now. That's a Jaeger coat. Saw it in the window last week on Regent Street. Now what do you reckon... is this crowd Abide with Me or Nimrod?
I don't do weddings. People want to talk at weddings. At a funeral nobody speaks to you. Nobody asks who you are or what your connection was with the deceased. They're frightened to upset you, see. They just smile. And their smile says 'Shame isn't it. Sad. Did you know him well? I'll not intrude on your grief; don't please, intrude on mine. We're just here... for him. For her. For the family.'
One time I got taken back to the house for drinks and a bite to eat. Very nice it was. Quite a jolly crowd. Bearded types. Just bundled me into a car and stuffed my rucksack in beside me, no questions asked. A lot of young people. Turned out the deceased had been killed in a climbing accident in Wales. They took the view that he'd died doing what he enjoyed most and they drank a lot of beer to convince themselves of the fact. I got a lift back to the station with the grandparents. They thought I was a student from his university in Bangor.
"Mature," I pointed out.
"Marvellous," they said.
"Macabre," is how B.I. John put it. "Bloody macabre, that's what it is."
B.I. stands for Big Issue. That's what he does. Sells them outside Charing Cross station. Sometimes I cover for him while he goes for a pee. I can't explain to him how I first got into funerals. Something about the church and the atmosphere and the music. I do like the music. And nobody bothers you.
Another place I go to is the Crown Court, up in the public gallery. A lot of senior citizens go there. They take their sandwiches and a flask. And of course the National Gallery. You can spend hours in that place. I could take you directly to any painting you happen to name. Know it like the back of my hand. But funerals are different. I just happen upon funerals. It's never planned. Take this one... I don't usually find myself in Shepherd's Bush on a Thursday.
"Yea though I walk in death's dark vale, yet will I fear no ill.
Thy rod and staff they comfort me... "
Talk about a dark vale! It's certainly changed around here. I dozed off on the train and when I found myself in Shepherd's Bush I thought I'd pop up and have a look around, for old times sake. The theatre's still here but it's not BBC anymore. No screams of 'Crackerjack!' coming from inside. Somebody called Kathy Matea on the billboard. Country and Western singer.
I walked along the Uxbridge Road, what a mess, and turned down Melbourne Gardens to see if number sixtyfive was still there. It is. Still flats and bed-sits by the look of it. Amazing after all this time; what is it, thirty years? Very run down now. It never was a palace but old Mrs What's-her-name had some standards. And it was handy for Trevor's work and for the underground. Too bloody handy it turned out.
It felt strange standing in front of number sixtyfive. It's the first time I've been back. I could almost smell the kippers frying in Mr Turnbull's room. The staircase always reeked of it. I never understood how he was able to afford it. He didn't seem to have a job. I'd hold my breath from the first landing upwards. He was always frying. If it wasn't kippers it was black pudding.
And that woman in the next room to ours. Miss Jameson... Muriel Jameson. Always coming to borrow the hair-dryer. She lived in her rollers and dressing gown. She used to hover outside the toilet door on the landing, desperate to have a chat with anyone. She'd talk to you through the door so you didn't want to come out because you knew you'd never get away from her. But you couldn't stay in because of the lack of air and the light bulb was on a timer. The cistern rattled our wall when anyone went in during the night and pulled the chain. Fridays and Saturdays were the worst. We had to move the bed.
The bathroom was separate and you had to put a coin in the meter to get enough hot water for a bath. There was a geyser on the wall and I blew it up once, well blew it off the wall, by putting the match to the wrong place. Mr Turnbull broke the lock to get in. I'd just got a towel around me and he pressed me to his kippery chest. Miss Jameson made me a cup of tea and lent me her dressing gown. It must have been one of the few times she wore something else and I can't remember what it was. We were three years at number sixtyfive. I thought we were happy there.
"Goodness and mercy all my life, shall surely follow me,
and in God's house, for e-evermore, my dwelling place shall be."
My dwelling place. Where was my dwelling place after that? Not God's house that's for sure, despite the white gowns and smiling faces. Smiles that said 'It wasn't your fault dear.' Then they'd glance at each other knowingly. Sharing some unspoken doubt while they tightened my restraining straps. There was no angel at my table.
Uh-oh... what's happening? They're on the move. Oh, just the family filing past the coffin. They don't always do that. That was a nice speech the sister gave. She must have been very close to him. That'll be the wife in the Jaeger coat.
I always fancied a Jaeger camel-hair coat. Trevor said 'One day... ' and I believed him. He was very ambitious. When we moved into number sixtyfive he said it wouldn't be for long, he had plans. And he did. He wouldn't always be a GPO technician he said. He wanted a job with the BBC at the Television Centre and he used to hang around there a lot. Got people to take him up to the bar. He'd chat to anyone.
At the hospital they may have said it wasn't my fault, but what they really meant was that I didn't actually kill him. He didn't have a mark on him. I loved him. But he shouldn't have made me do it. That was wrong of him. So wrong.
The doctor said there was no reason for me not to have the baby. No reason to terminate. No reasonable excuse for what Trevor wanted me to do. But the doctor didn't understand and so Trevor got these pills from someone at the TV Centre. A trainee floor manager he said. I remember that.
Mr Turnbull was frying kippers. Trevor had brought in a bottle of Schnapps a bloke had given him for a favour he'd done. I lit some joss sticks because of the kippers. A few rockets and bangers went off outside. It was the night before Bon Fire night and The Rolling Stones were belting out Hey, You, Get off My Cloud on the television when I started. The kipper smell was everywhere.
The doctor was suspicious. Miss Jameson called him because of the noise I was making. She could hear me through the wall she said, all night long. He said I had to rest up a bit afterwards and not to worry, there'd be more babies. But I knew there wouldn't be.
It was not long after I'd gone back to work that Trevor started seeing this girl from reception at the BBC. He said I was too bloody miserable, no fun anymore, didn't have his career at heart. I can see now what a spectacle we must have made as I dragged on his arm all the way to the tube station. His suitcase slowed him down and banged against his leg, and there was me dragging on the other arm and screaming at him not to go. He thought he'd got away from me when he bought a ticket and went through the barrier but I found him on the platform. It wasn't very busy. I must have looked pathetic pleading with him and clinging to his lapels. Then he pushed me away, hard like, and that was a shock. I started pummelling him with my fists and then I thumped him really hard on the chest and he stepped back... and that's when it happened. It wasn't a long drop and he missed the rails. But he hit his head on the corner of a concrete block, where the rail sits.
At the hospital they said I was still in shock from the baby and this on top just pushed me over the edge. The police were very kind actually. Of course there was an inquest but I was in hospital by then. I suppose going mad saved me from prison. It's a terrible thing guilt. And then, on top of it all, I had this aneurism. A bubble burst in my brain they said. Could happen to anyone. I had to learn to walk again. My social worker used to come and take me for outings but it was a long time before I could be persuaded to use the underground again. And I still feel bad holding babies.
Maria has a baby, down at the shelter, and sometimes she wants me to look after it. I do, but I feel strange. As if I've no right. She's nice, Maria. She's waiting for a flat. I told her she could have my room because I hardly ever use it but I think she was a bit worried about the others. Charles is okay but Monica and Carol are not very stable. That's why I prefer to be out. You should see the mess they get into with their medication. I've stopped taking mine. Stopped as soon as I got sent there. 'Sheltered accommodation' they call it. A 'halfway house'. Halfway to what? It's like telling someone they're half done... half baked. Only half there. I keep out of everyone's way. Keep my nose clean. I like to be left alone. And I'm always on the move. Always going somewhere.
I practically live on the underground now. I know so many places to get into free, to get out of the weather. You'd be amazed. And you learn things. All the time you're learning. There's such a lot to take in. You just have to keep moving. When I'm moving the tremors are less. People think it's drink but it's not. They stare. When I stutter they're convinced it's drink. So I don't bother trying. I just move on. Just keep moving. Till the fog in my mind clears a bit. Sometimes it's like pulling back a net curtain. Funny... I don't stutter when I sing.
"Abide with me, fast falls the eventide... "
I thought so. I can usually tell. It's always the young ones. It's the football you see.
"The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide."
None of the other hymns have the same effect. Look at them pull themselves upright and throw out their chests.
"When other helpers fail and comforts flee... "
Yes, that's when she'll feel it. When everyone's gone home. When it's time to get on with things. Get back to normal. But what was normal will never be normal again. Normal will be something different. With more quiet corners and empty spaces. And it's the quiet corners you have to watch. That's where they wait for you. And they nag away at you telling you things you don't want to hear. Making you doubt.
You come upon them in odd places, not just in bed at night. You can be in a department store, wandering around, lots of people about and suddenly you'll find you're on your own, backed up in a corner and all the busy sounds of life are shut out and you're left just listening to this voice and to your heart beat. Until you realize that's what it is and then it's okay again. The empty spaces you get used to. Eventually they get filled up.
Oh, they're starting to leave. Yes, see, they look at me but they just smile. I've shared a moment of grief with them and they're grateful. I'll just sit here for a bit and then I'll slip out.
"Come home, come ho-oo-me, ye who are weary come ho-oome.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling, oh sinner come home."
I might move in with Maria when she gets her flat. She's asked me to. I could help her with the baby, she said, then she could look for work. Oh, my bum's numb. I wonder if it's still raining outside? I don't think Oprah's done stuttering.
Copyrite: Christine Stanley
First published in Peninsular Magazine