They are just telling us the weather news (sunny but cold) when I switch off the radio. Just gone 9:00. It’s my time of day. I grab my little brown dog, Scooter, who is already waiting in the hall staring doggedly up at his lead that’s resting on top of the papers, willing me to pick it up and hook it onto his collar.
Routine you see. Dogs like routine. Like to know what’s expected of them. So he sits quietly while I put on my coat and gloves, fumble with my keys till the door swings open with a rush of cold air.
‘Come!’ I don’t even have to look down,I can feel that he’s there obediently by my side. He doesn’t pull these days. Used to. Like a savage. We’d picked him up, me and Tom, from the local rehoming centre. They said he was untrainable. But we trained him. I can still here Tommy’s voice
‘Need to be firm with this little bugger’ he’d said, barking instructions ‘Come ‘ere yer bugger’
And scooter would yelp and run off before Tom could get him by the scruff again.
Anyway, Tommy’s been gone for three years now, and me and Scoot get on just fine.
It’s not long before Scoot stops for a poop. I’ve got the bags in my pocket to pick it up if necessary, but checking round I can see there’s no-one looking, so I leave the steaming pile on the grass verge. It’ll go. Given time, crap disappears. Given time.
I turn into Ash Grove. This fancy little street is just off the main road through the village. You don’t see anyone about at this time of day down here it’s quiet as a ghost village. Mums and dads all at work, brats at boarding school, or nursery. Tommy and me, we never had kids, didn’t see the point. We wanted to work. Workers that’s what we were. Earning our crust not adding to the over population of the planet. These people that live down here, they breed then go off and leave the kids with other people, what’s that about?
There’s a path into the woods off of the grove, and reaching it, I let Scoot off the lead for his run. Loves to run does that dog. Hence the name, he wasn’t called that when we got him, he was ‘Charlie’, it didn’t take him long to learn his new name though, not with Tommy’s training regime.
Anyhow, it’s clouded over and I can feel spits and spots of rain (those weather people never get it right do they?) so I call Scoot back and we turn for home.
‘Mrs Fletcher! Mrs Fletcher! Meg..!’ Much as I try to, I can’t ignore Sue Reagan’s call. I brace myself
‘Ah, hello Mrs Reagan.’ She married an American and rumours abound that he’s related to the ex-president, but neither he nor Sue has ever done anything to either confirm or deny it. She loves it, I think. It allows her to look down on lesser mortals like me.
She’s approaching me at a trot, not quite running, but enough to make her look hurried and urgent.
‘So glad I caught you dear’
Dear. I’ve only ever used that word sarcastically, more often than not to inefficient shop assistants.
‘Been meaning to have a chat’
Oh god, what now.
‘As you know..’
‘we’ve decided to enter the ‘best kept village’ competition again this year’
Who decided? I didn’t. I smile, tightlipped, and nod.
‘but you see’
She’s looking past me, looking down at her hands, looking anywhere but at me.
‘Well dear, you see..’
‘Oh, get on with it, you’re going to mention my garden again aren’t you?’
Hooray! She blushes! I have actually managed to embarrass this pushy old tart. She’s on all the committees: WI, Village Hall, and I think she’s even secretary for the bowls club.
‘Well, yes, I think you’d agree, it really could do with a trim and tidy, and the other gardens are so..erm.. different.’
‘Mine’s a wild garden, with wildlife. I like it.’
End of. Now go away.
‘Lovely.’ She pauses, whilst looking at me pleadingly to give her some leeway. I don’t.
‘It’s just the front. The bit that you see from the pavement. Just a tidy. We’ve got volunteers that could do the work for you.’
She’s looking at me with lost kitten eyes. Eyes rimmed with spidery blackened lashes. Her coral coloured lips are pursed making them look like they’ve been pulled tight by an invisible string keeping them firmly closed so that no offence slips out.
‘Just the front’
‘oh yes, just a trim and tidy of those old bushes. That Choysia would be lovely with a bit of a prune you know.’
I really don’t want my garden to look like those council park lookalikies along our road. Those with the orderly rows of pinks and pansies, roses that are not allowed to ramble, and clipped hedges. I like the wildness of mine, but to be honest, it is a little out of control.
‘Ok. Just the front. When?’
I see her hefty bosom rise with relief.
‘I’ll have to let you know dear, when the volunteers are free, most likely at the weekend, if that’s alright with you.’
I just raise an eyebrow and tilt my head in response and push past her spongey pink-wrapped body which is spanning the whole pavement.
Back home I put the kettle on and gaze out through the grimy back window as I wait for it to boil.
There used to be a garden out there when we first moved. We had plans me and Tommy, it was going to be our little haven with a swing seat and a pond, and a shady spot to sit in with a glass of wine and a good book. Of course, we never did anything to it at all, and pretty soon it was all overgrown and full of Scoots poop. Scoot used to like running about out there then. He can’t now really, but he does go and curl up on the old sofa out there from time to time. Think that’s where he picked up the fleas.
The sofa was one of the first things to go out there. The neighbours didn’t understand, but I didn’t need it indoors, it’s not like I get visitors or anything, and it was taking up so much room in here. Now the garden is just like a room, albeit a wet one. I do tend to put things outside. It’s so difficult to get rid of anything. I don’t drive, so can’t shove things in the boot like Mr Willis does, and the council charges a fortune to take things. So they just go outside. The TV that I never watched; the old table that used to belong to Tommy’s mum; the hoover that went kaput when I tried using it in the kitchen once; not to mention the bags of Tommy’s clothes. What do you do with clothes when someone dies like that? Of course, there’s other stuff too, enough so you can’t really see the weeds anymore. The busy bodies can think what they like, but they’re not going out there to ‘trim and tidy’. They’re not coming through the house.
The kettle whistles and I search out a not too grubby mug. I don’t have any unused teabags, so squeeze out the one I used this morning, and reuse. It’s all the business now, this recycling you know
My old chair has seen better days, so I recently had the brainwave of putting some of the newspapers under the seat to pad it out a bit. It really works, and I sit down, like a queen on her throne. Scoot appears from out of one of his ‘tunnels’ and jumps on my lap for a cuddle. He’s made the tunnels himself, burrowing his way through books and papers. He is a very intelligent dog.
I know it’s a mess in here. I do. I even know it’s not quite, what others might call ‘normal’ to live like this. But here I am, surrounded by words, history. Printed matter is history in the making you know. That’s what I told Tommy the first time he tackled me about keeping all my books and papers. They were only in the front room then too. Just a couple of piles of neatly bound newspapers, and two or three bookshelves.
‘Printed matter is history in the making Tommy. These could be worth a fortune in a few years.’
His response was typically eloquent.
‘No Tommy, you shouldn’t smoke in here, not with the papers, why don’t you go in the garden. Get some air’
His response was the same as it had always been when he’d used up his usual vocabulary. He spat at me. Disgusting. Right in my face. Every time. I don’t know where all that spittle came from. Mind you, it was better than his fist.
We hadn’t been married all that long before it started. He’d had a row with someone (I never did find out who), came barging indoors, all red he was. Even his neck was red, and taut, the veins sticking out like tangled strings.
‘Tea’ll be about 10 minutes’ I’d said. That was all
‘Tea’ll be about 10 minutes’ I remember it perfectly, like a snap-shot, a bit of video. He didn’t respond apart from the punch. A punch full on the jaw. I keeled over, wooden spoon still in my hand from stirring the stew. ‘Course, that went all over the place too, so he didn’t get his tea in ten minutes did he? Fool.
I knew he was one for fighting. I’d met him in a bar. He had long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, and was wearing a blue vest and jeans. I was on my own and so was he, and we just started chatting, as you do, and before we knew it, he was warming me up with his big tough body. We’d meet up in bars, and so often he’d end up in a fight. He’d always win too. It was exciting. Not when I was bailing him out the next day especially, but exciting to be his girlfriend. To hear that intake of breath as we walked in. Yes, that was exciting.
Thinking of it is making me thirsty. The tea is not enough, and it’s gone eleven, so time to visit the local inn.
Steph is behind the bar today. She’s wearing a frumpy lavender roll necked sweater, and her hair, neat as ever, in a red-brown bob. Not barmaid material at all.
I swear she averts her eyes when I come in even though I come here every day. All that business she gets out of me, you’d think she’d be a little more polite. Eventually though, she turns
‘Hello Mrs Fletcher. Usual?’ She could at least try and smile. I nod and she brings me a gin. I can’t afford doubles these days.
She doesn’t stop and talk, just turns back and tries to look busy polishing already clean glasses. There are only two other people in the dark little bar. Both old men with pints, I see them here often but haven’t been introduced. They are playing dominos and don’t look up.
‘Hello there Meg!’ Steph’s husband, Mark booms at me with his big barkeep voice ‘can I get yer another? On the house?’
‘That would be lovely, thanks’ What does he want, I wonder? He fills up my glass with more gin than tonic.
‘Been meaning to have a chat, Meg’ Didn’t the Reagan tart say that this morning?
‘Oh yes, what can I do for you Mark. Do we need to go somewhere private?’ I grin, and nod over to Steph in what I think is a conspiratorial way. Mark looks alarmed
‘No, no, just a chat’ and he tries to pass the moment off with a smile, but I know he was flustered. Perhaps he does hold a candle for me. It’s about time someone did, and frankly I wouldn’t say no. I’d be a bit less uptight than Steph that’s for sure.
‘You see, we were wondering..’
‘Steph and I, we were wondering..’
‘yes’ I’m interrupting him for mischief. I can feel discomfort oozing from him.
‘Well, I won’t beat around the bush’
‘We were wondering..’
‘you’re repeating yourself, I’ll be needing another drink before you’ve finished the sentence at this rate’
‘It’s about your, um hygiene Meg. We’re worried that you’re not looking after yourself properly.’ He tried. He tried really hard. He tried really hard to make it sound caring and kind, but I knew it was an accusation.
‘Why would you think that?’ his heavy framed glasses gave me a target to glue my stare at.
‘Well…well..’ and he leant in towards me ‘there’s a little bit of a whiff about you. Please, please don’t take offence Meg. We’re just worried about you. Your clothes’
I was wearing my old wax jacket, they always whiff they do, pick up animal smells somehow, and my dress. My one and only dress. It has a pretty pattern of pink and purple flowers scattered over its fitted top and full skirt. Tommy used to say I looked like Marilyn Monroe in this dress. Of course, I dare not wash it. It would definitely fall apart if I washed it. And, granted, it doesn’t really go with the wellies, but one has to be practical.
‘You see, we’ve had one or two complaints’ he continued ‘the other customers are a little, erm..bothered.’
‘what d’ya mean ‘bothered’?’ He’s lowering his eyes, but I’m not.
‘Meg, you need to clean yerself up. When did you last wash your hair?’
‘You shouldn’t wash your hair too often, you lose all the oils.’ I’d read that in one of my papers.
‘But Meg love, you do need to wash it sometimes. Perhaps give it a brush through too occasionally.’
‘Brush pulls it out.’ It had. In big clumps last time I tried. I used to have lovely hair. I dyed it blonde, nearly white, for years. It had a natural wave and I wore it just sweeping my shoulders, so that I could toss it, and flick it out of my eyes theatrically. It’s gone back to its natural mousey grey now, and it’s quite thin. Leaving it unbrushed seems to make it look thicker, unwashed gives it a greasy shine. Anyway, I can’t be bothered with a beauty regime these days. Can’t even get to the mirror to look in it if I wanted to. You see, its upstairs, in the bathroom. I don’t go up there these days. I prefer to use the old toilet in the lean-to just outside the back door. The smells dissipate quicker.
‘Listen Meg.’ I could tell Mark was going to get going on a lecture.
‘Gotta go. Thanks for the drink’ and I practically ran out, slamming the door behind me.
I get home around lunchtime and Scoot looks up at me expectantly. I don’t have much food in the house so we share a chunk of stale bread, picking the pieces of mould off as we go. I do still have some gin though, so fill the tea mug with it and take it back to the chair and relax.
Though I doze through the afternoon, I have a little niggle in my mind that’s gnawing away at my comfort. I’ve never really considered what other people think of me. Never really cared. Well, not for a long time. Tommy was the last person I cared about, and that didn’t really work out well in the end.
I’d got this very same dress on that afternoon. He’d come home full of drink and anger, grabbed me by the hair and marched me upstairs. I didn’t feel like it at all, but there was no telling him. He was pulling at me, at my clothes, and I was wriggling and protesting. His teeth had gone rotten over the years and that, combined with the alcohol made his breath vile. I really didn’t want to this time.
So I bit him. Hard. On his fat cheek.
Oh, I knew I’d get a slap, and sure enough he knocked me backwards with one swipe of his huge hand. Fortunately I landed right by a Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment is a weighty novel in more ways than one, and on this occasion, as I swung it with both hands, its heft knocked Tommy clean off his feet. He reeled backwards and landed plumb in the bath, bashing his head on the taps on the way. I wasn’t sorry.
I’ve not been upstairs since. Anyway, the stairway is blocked with newspapers and books. As far as I know he’s still in the bath where I left him. Certainly the stench that followed in the weeks after the incident has gone. I told you, crap disappears. Given time.
I decide I’ll wash tomorrow.