Shelley Hastings is a writer and theatre producer and lives in south London. She has Bristol bones.
Her writing about performance has been published by Unbound and This Is Tomorrow.
I woke up very early on my birthday. It was still dark outside. I went downstairs and stood in the kitchen and made some porridge. I didn’t turn the radio on. Whilst I ate, the sun came up and light started to stream in through the window. I washed up my bowl and left the pan to soak and then unlocked the bolts on the back door and stood outside in my dressing gown. The concrete was wet under my toes. It was a grey October day. I looked at the fallen mush of leaves and I thought about other birthdays. I thought about poached eggs in bed and the small homemade cards I had kept that Anna had made me when she was small. A sparrow flew over the back fence and sat looking at me. I am doing alright I thought, it is not all bad. I had an arrangement that evening to visit an old friend, Louise. She lived on the outskirts of Bath and was making me dinner.
I showered and laid out some smart clothes, clothes I saved to wear on special days like this. As I ironed them I could hear my neighbours arguing through the wall. There seemed to be a lot of them. They had parked a battered green campervan on the street outside that blocked out the light from my living room window. I think some of them slept in it at night. It didn’t move. One of the wheels was flat. I thought about complaining to the council, but I didn’t want to fall out with them. I hoped it would settle down. They had to live somewhere, I thought.
I got ready and went out for a walk through the park to get the Saturday papers and have a look in the charity shops. I decided to treat myself and bought a soft green scarf. ‘That colour suits you, dear,’ said the old woman in the shop. When I got outside I pulled it out and put it on straight away; It still smelt of the perfume of the previous owner. At home, I posed in the mirror, trying it draped right down or knotted like a tie. I hoovered downstairs then made myself a coffee and a sandwich and opened the post. Junk mail from Boots and a water bill. Then a card from Anna – bluebells in the snow.
Have FUN MUM!!! Treat yourself!!! All full on here. Axx
She had moved to Cardiff a couple of years ago with her boyfriend and was training to be a paediatric nurse at St David’s Hospital. I read the paper and had a doze and was woken up by the phone ringing. It was Louise.
‘Nicola! Are you still up to coming, darling? It’s a bit of a miserable day…’
‘Yes, oh yes of course! I booked a train. I get in just after 6.’
‘Righto… I will pick you up then. I will wait in the station car park out the front.’
‘Thanks. Looking forward to catching up.’
‘I thought we would just have a small drink and bite to eat. Not a late one. I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment.’
‘Of course. See you soon.’
I put the phone down quickly before she could change her mind. I hoped she hadn’t forgotten what day it was.
I first met Louise when I was in my late twenties. Our kids were in the same class in infants and I would sometimes pick up her little boy Charlie and drop him home. My relationship was over and I was raising Anna on my own with the occasional weekend off when she would go to her dad’s. Louise was eccentric and a bit posh. She wore well-cut clothes and lots of silver jewellery. She was married to an actor who was touring all the time. So, partly because we were both on our own, we ended up spending quite a bit of time together. She had much more money than me, a big house and lovely garden and the kids would go off and play and we would talk or just sit and read the paper. Sometimes when she was away on holiday she let me house sit. I loved her house, it was full of interesting stuff, books and plants everywhere. She was well travelled, an artist, she painted large abstract pictures and made objects. When the kids were older she moved out of Bristol to a bigger place outside Bath with a studio and we stopped seeing each other so much. Occasionally I would visit her. She never visited me.
Several years after they moved, the actor left her for someone he had met on set, a much younger woman, and moved to America. She got back in touch to tell me and we struck up the friendship again. I would go to hers for dinner occasionally and she would tell me about the lastest saga with her divorce. I think she saw herself as a bit above me. I was someone who could make her feel better about herself. I didn’t really let it bother me. I liked the gossip and the expensive wine and I knew I was a good listener.
The actor became quite famous after he left her. I think she found that hard. I would sometimes see his face on television or in magazines. I would tell people in the hairdressers I was friends with his ex-wife. She had kept his name and I assume was given some sort of maintenance. Her son Charlie moved out but she still seemed to have quite a bit of money. I don’t know if the actor supported her, but I didn’t think the art was selling well enough to pay for her lifestyle. She would go off travelling for months at a time on artist retreats to places like Nepal and India and send me postcards. I kept them all in the little drawer in my kitchen table with the rest of my letters and they would fall out sometimes when I was eating my dinner; pictures of wide sandy beaches with green seas or temples with huge golden buddhas.
Louise was in the car park when I came out the station. She had a white softtop, a sports car. She had bought it after the actor left as a present to herself. She beeped, and I ran across the cobbles. I leant in through the open window.
‘Hello. I completely forgot about this car. Very nice. Couldn’t miss you in this! Thanks for picking me up.’
She gave me a peck on my cheek and reached across to open the passenger door.
‘Pleasure. You will need to put your things on your lap I’m afraid.’ Her makeup was a bit smudged. I wondered if she had been drinking.
‘So good to see you.’
She was wearing an expensive looking pashmina and lots of bangles.
‘Yes and you, darling, it’s been too long!’ She smiled. ‘How are you? Lovely scarf. New?’
‘Sort of.’ I touched my neck.
The car had white leather seats and was tiny inside and very close to the ground. I felt ridiculous, and she was an erratic driver. Speeding along the small country lanes I felt nervous we might hit something. She turned down the gravel drive to her cottage and the security lights came on. She had trained fruit trees to climb up around her windows and had wisteria growing around the front door. As we walked towards the house she gestured at the boxes of apples by the gate.
‘You must take some when you leave, darling. I don’t know what to do with them all.’
I left my bag in the hallway and followed her into her kitchen. She had the fire going and a huge bowl of overripe fruit on the farmhouse table. I moved her old grey cat and sat down in the rocking chair that had a view out the french doors to her garden and the fields beyond that. I had considered moving near here once, but I could never have afforded anything like this. She was surrounded by beautiful things from her travels; wooden statues, stone vases, expensive looking throws, her large paintings framed on the walls.
‘It’s looking good in here. Have you changed it around?’
‘I don’t think so. That blue sofa is new and Charlie repainted that wall for me in the summer.’
The room was painted dark red with exposed brick on one side. It felt monied and rustic, but smelt of cats.
‘Birthday drink?’ She held up a bottle.
I smiled. ‘Yes, please. White wine would be lovely.’
She poured us both a large glass. ‘Are you hungry yet?’
‘Not yet. Maybe something small…’
She opened one of the cupboards and pulled out crisps and poured them into a bowl. Then she laid out water biscuits, cheese, olives and various dips. She smiled, dipped a crisp, then licked her fingers.
‘There you go.’
‘Ooh. Thank you. This looks great.’ I sat down at the kitchen table and started to make up a plate.
‘I’ve made us a chorizo and white bean stew for supper. It’s just something simple. I hope that’s okay? You haven’t turned veggie, have you?’
‘Nope! Sounds delicious.’
She flopped down on the sofa with her feet tucked up under her and held up her glass. ‘Cheers.’
‘Cheers.’ We both took a large swig and I laughed. ‘I needed this.’
‘Happy Birthday! I’m sorry I didn’t get you a card…’
‘Oh don’t be silly. Thanks for having me for dinner. It’s been a while…’
She waved her hand dismissively. ‘Pleasure. So what’s new? How’s Anna?’
‘Well…’ I sighed. ‘Things are not bad. Anna is fine, she is working too hard but happy in Cardiff.’ I sipped my wine. ‘I’ve got some new neighbours…’ She was picking at a mark on her trousers and I wasn’t sure if she was listening. ‘I always think you need to be careful with neighbours, you don’t want to fall out with them…’
‘Yes, very true. I do appreciate the space I have here.’ She took another gulp of wine and rubbed her eyes. I ate the crackers on my plate and pressed the crumbs into my fingers.
‘Did you make this?’ I held up a jar of chutney with some string around the top.
‘I did indeed.’
‘You are so good. It looks delicious.’ I piled a large spoonful on a cracker and took a bite and nodded at her appreciatively. ‘I completely forgot how quiet it is here’
‘Yes! I love it… and I have plenty of friends nearby. It’s less than fifteen minutes into Bath.’ She yawned then and got up and topped up her glass and started to put together a salad.
‘So how about you? You said you had a lot on?’ I said.
‘Has something happened with your ex?’
‘No. Nothing to do with him.’ She was slicing tomatoes.
‘Have you met someone?’
‘God no!’ She laughed and her bangles slid down her wrists. ‘I wish…!’
I smiled. ‘Just work stress then?’
‘No. I have to be honest with you, Nicola. I actually called you this afternoon to cancel.’ She swigged from her glass. ‘But then I thought it would be good to talk to someone about it. Someone who is a bit distant from it…and of course I didn’t want to let you down on your birthday…’ She smiled at me sympathetically.
‘Oh right.’ I felt my chest tighten.
She came and sat next to me at the table and reached across and topped up my glass. Her thick grey hair was pulled up in a messy bun and she shook it out then, re-did it, then stretched her arms out across the table. I waited but she didn’t speak.
‘So what’s happened?’ I said. I thought it had to be her health. I knew she had had gall stones removed in the past. She kept them in a metal pot. She had shown me. A collection of tiny waxy pebbles.
She shook her head again and covered her face with her hands and let out this loud guttural noise before pulling a hanky from her pocket and blowing her nose loudly. I wasn’t sure how she wanted me to react. She wasn’t crying. I wondered if she was in pain. I reached over and put my hand over hers, feeling the metal of her rings on my palm. She did look very pale. Much older than when I had last seen her.
‘Tell me. I’m a good listener.’
She looked at me with a sort of glum grin.‘Okay. I don’t want you to mention this to anyone though.’ She said. She looked very serious. Always a drama, I thought.
‘Of course,’ I said and reached over and put an olive in my mouth.
‘It’s Charlie,’ she leaned forward, ‘I got a call on Wednesday night from the police station.’
‘Oh?’ I stopped eating for a moment. She wasn’t ill, it was her son.
‘He’s in trouble. He has fallen out with his girlfriend, Jody. She has thrown him out. You know that girl he has been living with for the last couple of years…did you ever meet her?’
‘I doubt it,’ I said. I hadn’t seen Charlie since he was a teenager.
‘They met in a bar. She was working there, not whilst she was studying, that’s her job.’ She shook her head and sipped from her glass. ‘I told him straight away she wasn’t right.’
I nodded slowly and helped myself to a handful of crisps, dunking them in the dip and being careful not to drip anything on the table.
‘I just had a feeling about her. She seemed so miserable. Greasy long hair and very thin and mopey looking.’ She made a long face to demonstrate. ‘I’ve always been very supportive of everything he does, you know that. But I had a feeling about this girl…I think her dad was…well…you know…not a nice man. She’s had a tricky time of it anyway. I think she wanted Charlie to look after her. He always thinks he can save people. He has a big heart. He is like me in that way…’
I wondered if she was talking about me. I didn’t think I needed saving.
‘…and they argue. I mean really argue. He would come here sometimes to escape her. She would smash things up. A crazy love. Not a happy one. She winds him up, she knows exactly how to wind him up. She can be incredibly manipulative. In fact she has come between us in the past…and he won’t talk about it at all…’ She reached for the wine again and topped herself up. ‘He is a very private person. He seems tough but he can actually be very vulnerable.’
‘Well, aren’t we all,’ I said. I remembered when he was small he had these tight little curls and wide open face, like he was constantly surprised. He was a sweet boy, a bit cheeky and she went easy on him. He was a teenager when his dad had gone to America and I think she neglected him then, got lost in her own misery. He would smoke these big marijuana joints right in front of her. It shocked me but she would laugh, saying I was uptight, that she would rather it happened under her watch than anywhere else.
‘He’s taking anti-depressants. He is not well,’ she said.
‘Oh dear. I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said. I helped myself to some grapes.
‘It is actually very common in young men. Please for God’s sake don’t mention this to anyone.’ She seemed irritated with me eating so I stopped. ‘He’s not losing his mind as such — the doctor just prescribed him something because he hasn’t been sleeping. He gets anxious. He has put so much energy into this relationship.’
‘She sounds like hard work.’ I reached over to fill my glass but the bottle was empty.
‘Yes, exactly.’ She seemed satisfied with my response then and got up and pulled another bottle out the fridge, popped the cork and filled my glass.
‘So why are the police involved?’ I said.
She started to lay the table for dinner. She filled a jug with ice cubes and water and added chunks of lemon and then laid out cutlery and napkins and placed the salad in the middle of the table. She lit the hob and moved the stew onto it. I wondered if she had heard my question. She leant with her back to the counter and looked straight at me.
‘The police are involved because he reached the absolute end of his tether with her and he flipped. He flipped out. He lost control.’
‘Oh. What happened?’
‘Jody had thrown him out the week before. He went over there very simply to get some of his things and leave…but she wouldn’t let him take anything.’ She let out a loud sigh. ‘They started arguing in the kitchen. I don’t know exactly what she said that triggered it but at some point he grabbed a knife off the side or something and plunged it into the kitchen door. I mean not at her but right into the door so it was wedged in there, he couldn’t get it out. So of course she says he was going to kill her. Charlie! I mean, my God, please!’ She shook her head and then turned and opened a drawer and got out some salad servers before slamming it shut. Then she sat down opposite me.
‘The neighbours had already called the police because of all the shouting. So now. Now that’s it, isn’t it. That’s it.’ She banged the table with her spoon. ‘He’s in custody. He had a knife. It was a bloody kitchen knife — her knife! I mean he wasn’t carrying a knife. I’m not justifying what he did at all — he is such a stupid, stupid boy. What I mean is it was very much heat of the moment. He just wanted to collect his things. She is crazy. Incredible, really, the injustice of it…’
‘Wow. That is…’
‘I know. I know. He’s not himself..’ She covered her face with her hands and made the throaty noise again.
‘Oh dear. What a mess… What does his dad think?’ I said.
‘I haven’t told him yet. But you know what he is like. He will be more worried about how it might affect him, that the papers might pick it up or something.’
I nodded. She was probably right.
‘I’m the one dealing with the solicitors. What’s he going to do from America anyway?’
She was looking at her hands, turning her rings on her fingers.
‘A knife though, Louise, that is terrifying though, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘He wasn’t himself. He says he can’t remember doing it. Grabbing it. I mean it is awful I know, I know. But she is awful, unhinged, and a liar – he would never threaten her.’
I took a gulp of my wine and stared at the fruit flies hovering over the bananas. I felt worn out. This wasn’t the treat that I had hoped for. I could hear the stew bubbling on the hob behind her. Maybe Charlie had wanted to hurt her.
‘I didn’t tell you all this so you could just sit there in silence and judge me,’ she said.
I felt my cheeks getting hot.‘Oh no. I’m not… I wasn’t…I just don’t know what to say that’s all. You must still be in shock. I was just thinking, I mean, isn’t it possible she was frightened he might be about to hurt her, even if he absolutely wasn’t?’
She looked at me then, her chin wobbling and I reached across the table and touched her arm. ‘You should eat something, Louise, we have been drinking a lot…’
‘Oh, please don’t patronise me! I know what happened. I know my own son!’ She got up then and left the room.
‘Where are you going?’ I called after her.
‘The bloody toilet.’
I waited for her to come back and eventually got up and went to turn the hob off. She was drunk and in denial and didn’t want to hear it, I understood that. The love and the shame and the guilt of it all. I wondered what would happen to him. The cat jumped up on the counter and I let it eat some of the cheese from the side and lap at the water in the sink. I stroked its tail and it started to purr loudly. She was gone for a long time. Eventually I heard her on the stairs and she came back and stood in the doorway. She was wearing a black dressing gown and I could see she had been crying. I looked at the clock above her head. It was getting late. I was very hungry.
‘I’m sorry you are having such a difficult time with Charlie. We should eat this lovely food you’ve made. I will need to go soon,’ I said softly.
She blew her nose then and came over to the table and served the now jammy stew into our bowls. We ate in silence. Just the sound of metal spoons scraping the sides, the cat circling our legs under the table. Her face looked round and puffy, deep lines around her eyes and mouth. I helped her clear up, put another log on the fire and made myself some tea. She poured us both a whisky nightcap that I drank reluctantly and then she curled up on the sofa with the cat, stroking it with her eyes half closed. When my cab driver rang the doorbell I leaned over the sofa and gave her an awkward hug, my arms around her head.
‘Please don’t blame yourself…Let me know what happens,’ I said.
I looked back at the house as we turned out the drive and saw her there standing in the doorway, shoulders drooping, and I waved.
On the train home the carriage was empty. I stared at the dark fields rushing past the window. My hands folded over the bag of apples on my lap. The train slowed on the outskirts of the city and we passed back gardens and flats and houses with the lights on. I could see the shadows of people in their kitchens and living rooms going about their lives. I thought about Charlie and Jody and the police arriving and discovering a knife stuck in the door. It was like a horror movie. People could surprise you I thought. I thought about Anna working night shifts at the hospital in Cardiff. My mouth felt dry from all the wine.
When I got home it was nearly midnight and one of my new neighbours was sitting on her doorstep drinking from a can. There was music coming from inside the house. A party. I smiled at her and nodded.
‘Alright there mate?’ she said. She was slurring. Her hair was shaved very short.
‘Yes. Thanks.’ I rooted in the bottom of my bag for my keys.
‘Been anywhere nice?’ She said.
‘A friend’s. A birthday dinner.’
‘Lucky you. My bloke is being a right prick.’ She gestured behind her. She must have been no older than Anna.
‘Sorry to hear that,’ I said.
‘Getting some air. I don’t know what his problem is. I’m just trying to live my life you know…’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s all we can do.’ I smiled.
She looked directly at me then. I felt like she really looked at me, taking me in. Then she leaned forward and grabbed my arm to pull herself up and rested her forehead on my shoulder. I held her up as she was unsteady on her feet. Her breath smelt of cider.
‘Oh dear. Are you okay there?’ I said. ‘Shall I call someone?’
She shook her head slowly and then looked up at me and smiled. Her face was very close to mine, her teeth yellow in the streetlight. She had a dark bruise on the side of her neck. She moved closer and I had a sudden fear she was about to try and kiss me so pulled away. She stayed upright and seemed to focus on something in the distance. She was out of it.
‘Are you sure you are okay?’
‘I’m alright,’ she said. ‘I’m hanging in there.’
‘Okay, good. Well I better…’ I took out my keys and she turned and looked at me.
‘What’s your name, neighbour?’
‘It’s Nicola. You?
‘Julie.’ She nodded slowly then and spat on the pavement before sitting back down on her step.
‘I better be going…it’s very late for me.’ I wanted my bed.
She held up her can of cider like she was toasting me and I waved at her again.
‘You’re alright, Nicola,’ she said and smiled.
Then I let myself in and shut the door.