His car had that smell. Old tobacco, men, dogs, vinyl, spilt food. Dina depressed the button to open her window a little, and he immediately pressed the master button to wind it back up.
“My car, my rules,” he said.
“I get a bit car sick when the heating’s on,” Dina said.
He wound down her window just a crack, and turned the heating knob from 24 to 21. “Take off your jacket and your shoes and socks if you feel hot. You’ll get used to it. I like it warm,” he said.
There wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t regret marrying him. She imagined how her life would be if she’d kept her shoes on, got out of the car at the traffic lights and just ran. No matter how much she repented, it never got any easier. She convinced herself he was the lesser of two evils. He had wooed her with the promise of a life as his wife, which was supposed to save her from the boredom of looking after her parents. They told him she was a wild cat that needed routine and discipline to tame her. She realised she had made a mistake just a few days into the honeymoon.
He put an app on her phone so he knew where she was every moment of the day, and wrote a shopping list of places to go to and in which order. Drive the car to town. Doctor. Pharmacy. Library. Back to the pharmacy to collect her prescription. £10 to treat herself in the charity shop, but only if he thought she deserved it. Supermarket. Home. At first, he would ring her every 20 minutes, but then, over time, the frequency of calls dropped, until he trusted her enough to do this monthly visit on her own.
The bruises were in places that didn’t show, and he was careful that she was always clean for the Doctor. Not that she was allowed to wear clothes that showed off her shape in any event. He knew what was best. She’d made a vow that her body was his so other men weren’t even allowed to look. He slashed a dentist’s tyres because he put his fingers inside her mouth, so she never went again. Those three hours of freedom every month were the best and worst, but woe betide if the supermarket didn’t have the food he wanted, or she bought something he considered to be slutty from the thrift store.
An unsuitable book fell of the shelf and as she put it back, she noticed the ‘#Ask for Angela’ poster on the library wall. The next thing Dina remembered was that she was sitting on a wooden chair, with the feeling of someone stroking her hair, even though there was no-one else there. She looked at her watch. 11.11am. She still had time. A hushed conversation with the librarian who then rang her friend in the charity shop. Within ten minutes, Dina had a free bag of clothes as a running away kit, and a lift to the train station. On the way there, she threw her phone out of the car window.
In road rage vs truck, the car always loses. Dina read about it in the paper, but she didn’t dare believe it until the police came knocking. She thought they were there to arrest her. Even though she was twenty miles away on a train when he died, Dina knew this was her fault because he’d gone out looking for her.
It took over a year before she was able to sleep again. They say that if you live long enough, you see the same eyes in different people over and over again, but she can’t take that chance. Her only ambition left in this world is to be defiant enough to hold someone’s gaze. Like she used to do.
“Mummy’s going to pick you up from nursery today,” said Violet, as she smoothed down her niece’s hair. Gently cupping the child’s face, she turned it upwards towards her own, and smiled. “Ooh. how I want to eat these little cheeks!” she said. The girl squealed with delight, as her face was showered with “mwah, mwah, mwahs and nom, nom, noms”.
The moment the front door closed, Rosemary burst into tears. Her sister, Violet was leaving today, so she couldn’t put it off any longer. She clapped her hands together, then raised her clasped hands to her mouth, pausing as if in contemplation or prayer. Breathing in deeply, she sighed then walked over to look out of the window. She could see her daughter skipping down the street hand-in-hand with her Aunt. They stopped as the girl pointed to a rainbow in the sky. It’s true what people said. Children were so resilient and a great comfort at times like these. Rosemary pressed play for the company of the radio, then began to busy herself.
It took over four hours to shower, dress, change the master bed, and put on two loads of washing.
Picking out the remaining flowers from several wilting bunches, she created smaller posies that fitted perfectly into two children’s drinking glasses. One for each bedside. She took a picture of one of these floral arrangements, with a slightly blurred family photograph deliberately in view behind. Then she posted it to all of her social media accounts and added the caption “Taking it one day at a time.” There was no way she could reply to all of the well-wishers and notifications right now, but if people saw this picture, at least they’d know she was doing ok.
Rosemary poured the cloudy water from the vases down the kitchen sink, picked out the slimy leaf debris from the plughole and looked at the grubby kitchen sponge. It needed to be thrown away but it was something he’d touched. Was it too soon to get rid of his toothbrush? Then she remembered she’d just washed some of his clothes. She went back into the bathroom and picked up his deodorant, shaving cream, razor, moisturiser and toothbrush and put them in his underwear drawer. There was still so much to do.
At around two o’clock, Rosemary decided to go to the Convenience Store down the road to get something easy and nice for tea. Pizza and ice-cream. Her sister had been so good to stay with them, but she had to go to work tomorrow and life had to get back into some sort of routine. The thought of speaking to her own colleagues made her clutch her stomach. ‘Not fit for work’ was written in spidery Dr handwriting on the sick note, so why did her boss keep ringing her on the pretence of checking whether she was ok, as a cover to ask her work questions? She’d had enough of people saying “how are you coping” and the endless platitudes of “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” without anyone actually offering something tangible that might make her life easier. Like the ironing or cooking a meal. This tired and angry person she was right now would be unprofessional at work, but it was too soon to fake it until she made it. No, a few more weeks away from people was what she needed. She had to face the parents and staff at nursery today. That was enough for now.
Living inside her own head, Rosemary had forgotten just how loud and busy this street was. Double glazing really does dampen down the noise. Hopefully, she wouldn’t see anyone she knew at this time of day. She approached the Convenience Store at the same time as a woman wearing a yellow jacket, who seemed to be in a hurry. “After you,” Rosemary said, then stepped back. The other woman nodded a thanks and walked through the sliding doors. Just then, Rosemary noticed a tiny white feather floating from the sky, right in front of her face.
A few minutes earlier, Patricia (the woman in the yellow coat) was leaving an almost-identical block of flats on the other side of the same street. She too was preoccupied with troubles of her own. Her phone buzzed and there was a brief flicker of hope that this call was from her boyfriend – her ex-boyfriend – but it was her mother. She double-pressed the button at the side of her phone and lowered her arm. Stepping down onto the pavement, a man on a bicycle whizzed past, missing her by millimetres. She shouted “Oy you! Watch where you’re going!” Further along the pavement, the same cyclist grabbed a phone from a woman’s hand then rode away. Patricia stared as the woman tried to run after him, then she faltered when she realised it was futile.
Patricia turned to hear a woman swearing at a man who was trying to stifle a laugh. Apparently a bird had pooped down the back of the collar of the woman’s blouse, between the fabric and her skin. “I can feel it sliding down my back!” That poor woman was stood in the exact spot where Patricia would have been if she’d not spent the last ten seconds watching a brazen daylight robbery. Reaching into her pocket she felt for a couple of coffee shop napkins and handed them to the couple, saying “there you go. Sorry. It’s not much.”
She briefly considered joining the group of people who were hurriedly crossing the road but thought better of it as the green man was flashing. What did her dad used to say? “First in this queue instead of last in that.” She pressed the button and waited for the cars to pass and the green man to appear again. Just as she put a foot forward into the road, a man grabbed her and pulled her backwards away from the kerb, out of the path of a speeding van that had jumped the lights.
A homeless man sat on the ground a few meters away from the shop doorway. “Spare any change please, Miss?” he asked hopefully. “Sorry, mate, no,” she said, then changed her mind and fumbled around in her bag. She brought out half a packet of cigarettes and offered them to him. “You can have these. I’ve given up.”
“Thank you Miss. Good luck to you, Miss,” he replied. Here was a man with nothing, who was kinder to her than her own boyfriend – her ex-boyfriend. Strangers cared more about her than her ex boyfriend did. Her arm suddenly prickled with goosebumps as if someone had lightly stroked it, but there was no-one there. It was exactly like the secret pang of joy when you think of a new lover. Her eye caught sight of a white feather slowly zig-zagging down, then it gently settled on her right shoulder.
Hurrying into the Convenience Store, Patricia asked for a lottery ticket but changed her mind at the last moment and spent the money on a scratchcard. In a nearby coffee shop toilet, she rubbed off the silver coating on the instant win ticket with a 2p coin. One four-leaf clover emerged. Two. Three. Four.
No way! She’d only won ten thousand pounds!
She put her hand out onto the wall to steady herself as she felt her knees buckle. Brushing the bits of silver, then blowing them away, she checked the card again. She tried to read the back of the card for details of how to claim, but it was difficult because of the low-level lighting in there, designed to discourage drug-taking.
The woman in the post office seemed genuinely pleased for her and wished her well. Patricia noticed that the woman’s hand was shaking as she slid the cheque through the little window slot. In the bank, she was taken into a side room, which made Patricia feel special, until she realised it was a sales talk about investments and upgrading her account. She made her excuses and left. Next was coffee – although what she really wanted was a proper drink to steady her nerves. Caffeine wasn’t going to help her racing heart. Her apologies for using the loo without buying anything weren’t necessary, as the barista claimed not have noticed her earlier. While she sipped her perfect coffee, Patricia made an appointment to view a flat the next morning, and booked a hotel room for two nights. She needed time to think. This was a second chance so she literally couldn’t blow it.
A few days later, the local paper ran a story about a young widow who’d scooped the double rollover lottery jackpot. “I’ve always felt that I had a guardian angel watching over me. My husband said he’d always look after us. When I saw that white feather, I knew it was a sign from him. We might have lost him but he’s still with us in spirit and in our hearts. I feel so blessed.”
Meanwhile, the occupants of one of the flats above the branch of Tesco that sold the winning tickets, were still finding tiny feathers from a split pillow. Duck down was so light and impossible to catch, clogging up the vacuum cleaner. Even opening a door in the flat was enough to puff up the delicate feathers into the air where they would drift out of the window into the street below.
“History, as they say, will always be written by the victors.”
Anthony Bordain, Medium Raw
I knew I’d have to introduce myself and talk at some point. I’d planned what I wanted to say, written it down, tried to practice it. I didn’t want to wing it. That wouldn’t be right. He’d been gone for longer now than the for the whole time I ever knew him. There were people in there who’d lost a lot more than I had.
“I wish I’d told him how I felt. I thought there’d be the perfect opportunity, that I’d find the right words, then we’d look right into each other, and we’d know. But we didn’t, and now it’s too late. I’ve been over it a thousand times and changed the outcome but it’s still there all the time. The first thing I think about when I wake up, the last thing at night. I’m so stuck and I don’t want to live in my head any more. I can’t change what happened no matter how much I want to. We all get the same amount of time as each other every day and I want to make it matter. I try, I really do make the effort to look people in the eye. I give them my full attention. I smile at strangers, I hold a gaze, I’m affectionate and I share the moment. And it’s really fucking hard to be brave like that. It’s scary to give yourself like that. And I’ve never cried more in my life these last few months – with people I don’t even know. I’ve shared really private stuff with people I’ve just met. Held hands and hugged people and I don’t even know them. Just look at me now. Look at the state I’m in. It’s worse now than at the time. I need help. I can’t go on like this. This isn’t living. But it’s too fucking hard to do it on my own. Um… God.. I’m sorry for swearing”
I’m way too hot, what’s left of my heart is screaming. I want to get up and run out but can’t. This is the safest place for me right now. I lean forward in my chair, elbows on my knees, hands covering my face and sob. There’s a beat of silence then the group leader says,
“Thank you for sharing.”
Someone is rubbing my back. My breathing slows. I look up, sniff loudly, wipe my nose on the back of my hand and take the crumpled tissue from up my sleeve. Snivelling, I take a huge breath, purse my lips and let it out with a long, quiet “whooooo” that sounds just like the wind on a blustery night. There is no dignity in this rawness. I turn to smile at the woman who was rubbing my back and she opens her arms to me as an invitation to hug.
After the group, us two go to the wholefood cafe near the park. As I sip my thick acai smoothie and pick at a malted flapjack, Angie tells me bits of her story. How her life is either ‘before’ or ‘after’ her husband and child died in a car accident. That people she knew for years now treat her differently, how they avoid or pity her, how being a widow defines her. Some would rather not talk to her because they feel uncomfortable, and can’t stop saying how sorry they are and that they think they can’t talk about what happened because it might upset her. Consequently, none of the good times are ever spoken about either. That her life was full of children and now there are none. So she wants to meet new people who understand, and will get to know her as she is now, not then.
There’s so much they don’t tell you about loss. That time is fluid. You waste hours thinking about just one moment. That you have to make a real effort every single day to eat proper food.
Angie tells me that she can’t yet look at old photographs or videos because those images might record over the memories she has inside her own head. Those pictures of them as a family with so much promise for their future life together, make her feel bitter and resentful with hindsight. Then she feels guilty. That she cannot ever imagine meeting anyone new, and doesn’t want to, but still wants to find a way to live now. She used to refer to it as ‘her afterlife’ but realised that was morbid, so now calls it ‘Version 2.’ She says she’s writing letters that will never be read, and feels sorry for people whose entire lives are captured on social media, being replayed over and over again. How she’s had to change her online presence because their ghosts live on inside the machine. They pop up from time to time to remind her of ‘on this day two years ago…’ or ‘it’s Sam’s birthday soon’, and how an algorithm will never replace human interaction.
I say that after the initial shock, I felt like I craved human contact. That I’d deliberately go out of my way to attach myself to people who needed rescuing. I wanted to help, to feel needed. I was so vulnerable that I think I numbed myself with compassion fatigue, which is how I ended up in the group. It’s too soon to know whether it’s helping me through, but I’m prepared to put in the work to try. I don’t want to become lonely, but I also don’t want people to feel obliged to be in my life out of duty, guilt or pity.
Incredibly, as we swap numbers, we both realise that we each have two phones for the same reason. Our old lives and our afterlives. I didn’t have to explain it. She’s the first person I’ve met who not only gets why I’m still paying every month for a piece of outdated tech that I can’t bear to lose, but she’s also doing it too.
When ‘Life on Mars’ comes on in the cafe, I sense a prickle and her mood changes. I say, “Too soon for Bowie?” She nods.
I say, “I’m the same with Anthony Bordain. Tony and me used to watch his programme together every week. I hate that I can’t even do something I used to love anymore. I even went to Cambodia and Vietnam after… y’know, because we’d always planned to go and Bordain made them sound so beautiful. If someone who travels the world for a living finds a place they could live in forever, then it must be good. I think going there helped. The people have nothing there and they’re so peaceful and contented. I dunno. Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just going round in circles.”
As we walk towards the park, we both stop at the same time to look in the window of the gift shop. There’s a display of bright plastic storage boxes that look like giant Lego pieces. “Sam would have loved those.” She says, and we link arms and stroll on.