133. What We Leave Behind

This short story was inspired by a writing prompt in a recent ‘Writing on the Wall’ Zoom class.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

“Alright Linda, girl, I nearly missed you.”

“Hiya Mel,” said Linda. Then she burst into tears.

“Ay c’mere girl. It’s alright.” He put his arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

She let out a heavy sigh and said “I just need to um… just pop to the ladies.”

Linda had lost count of how many times she’d practised the expression she would have on her face and the things she would say if she ever saw her ex-husband again. But it was too late for all that now.

A couple of minutes later, she emerged from the ladies room, with tissue in hand and freshly applied lipstick.

“Now or never,” she said and looked at Mel, but her smile didn’t reach the corners of her glistening eyes.

“We’d best get a move on, I’ve only got another 8 minutes on the car,” said Mel.

She took off her coat and gently threw it on the back seat. There was a small, slightly deflated football and an action figure toy in the seatwell.

“You got kids then?” asked Linda.

“Yeah, two grown up and three grandchildren. All boys. Me missus, Claire said she would have loved to have had a girl. You?”

There was a beat of silence and then he said, “Sorry, Lin girl, I didn’t think.”

“No it’s alright, it was a long time ago now. We were only kids ourselves then. Me and Ronnie have got just the one, Simone. She’s training to be a dental hygienist. Says she’s not having any children” said Linda.

“Can’t fault her. It’s expensive these days. Me missus Claire, says you’re married to a schoolteacher?”

“Yeah, Ronnie. He’s a Special Needs teacher. He would have come with me today but teachers can’t get time off, and he’s got Scouts tonight and I said I didn’t know what time I’d be back.”

“It’s good of you to come you know. I know you didn’t have to, but Stewart kept asking for you and then one of me lads found you on Facebook and I couldn’t just leave it like that without knowing.”

“How is he?” said Linda.

“He’s only got days left now but he’s not in any pain. One of us is up there almost all the time. They’re really good with visiting hours up there.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

They drove the few miles through a city she’d once loved, past the old football stadium, the hospital and the park. A big Tesco now stood on the ground where her old school used to be. That dodgy council estate where she grew up in was now considered desirable real estate, with its larger than average houses and big gardens that were not found in modern builds.

There was a car already outside the house so Mel parked behind it.

She remained sitting in the car for a moment or two, breathing deeply to compose herself. She looked into the garden and watched a man she used to know, slowly move a long-handled tool up and down at the edge of the lawn. There was a small boy chasing and grabbing at bubbles as they floated away. The boy saw her, ran to the gate and peered over the top of it. She smiled at him and Mel unlatched the gate.

Photo by Ben Griffiths on Unsplash

“Hi Dad. Hello Trouble,” said Mel, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You remember Linda, don’t you Dad?”

“Hello, Derek,” said Linda. “Still keeping a lovely garden I see. I’m sorry about your Stewart.”

“Thanks love. You look well. Janey’s inside. She’s been looking forward to seeing you,” said the man.

Mel fumbled in his pocket for his phone.

“Are you that lady who used to be married to me Grandad Stewart?” asked the boy.

“Yes, love. I am,” she said and stroked the boy’s upturned face.

The boy slipped his hand inside hers and they began to walk towards the house. Behind her, she heard the gate close. Then Mel said, “Dad, that was the hospice. He’s gone.”

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Museum of Ordinary People

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but I’ve started deleting – without reading – the endless stream of emails about you-know-what. Unpresidented times indeed (not a typo). New York. My most frequent holiday destination. I will miss you.

My nephew simply posted the following word to his instagram.

INTERMISSION

Kids who thought the next six months were full of revising, exams, prom, the obligatory Leavers hoodie then travelling, and possibly University, are suddenly homeschooling themselves. Boomers, Gen X, Millennials; stand aside and make room for the Quarenteens, folks. And don’t even get me started on how long it took to convince the oldies in my life that they had to stay in, and they could not just “pop out” for a haircut or a newspaper for the next three months!

We’re all pretending we knew what furlough meant before a fortnight ago. We’ve stopped ironing our clothes. We eat more biscuits and some have taken up jogging. The local police use drones to monitor dog walkers who are driving to the countryside where they shouldn’t be. Our beloved pharmacy and toiletries store, Boots, had a virtual queue of 200,000 people last Sunday just waiting to be allowed onto the website. The postie now knocks on my door and leaves the parcel on the ground. I have The Guardian Live update on constant refresh and BBC1 at 5pm has become the place to be for the latest news from 10 Downing Street. I can see a school playing field from my house. The children may be gone, but a family of foxes and an eagle have taken up residence, along with a tiding of magpies, who enjoy jumping and hopping around chasing each other. I hope that grey squirrel made it.

I’m lucky. I was already working from home so have continued to do so in my slowed-down bubble of first world problems.  My worries and anxieties are trivial compared to most.

I’ve been keeping a daily journal for the Museum of Ordinary People (MOOP) of my thoughts, feelings, opinions, experiences and observations during the virus. Along with the other participants, these diaries may provide an insight into the personal, social and cultural impact of the Covid-19 outbreak. Who knows what will happen in the future? Life is very different now to what it was a month ago and will never be the same again.

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Keep safe, and stay at home.

Nicola x

July 2020 UPDATE.

Three months from a shiny new Leuchtturm 1917 notebook to a plague journal.

105. A Road Not Taken

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Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

This was probably the twentieth taxi we’d been in on this trip, so we’d experienced a fairly mixed range of drivers, but this was by far the most enjoyable. It’s not often that the driver wants me to sit upfront, and I wouldn’t do it if I was on my own, but I guess it’s an easier audience. Saves my husband having to pretend to laugh at some potentially cheesy gags. He kept his Stetson on and drove quickly and smoothly. Automatic movements over and over down those same streets, leaning back in his seat, one arm straight, the other hand chucking printed laminated paper in my lap for me to read. His well-rehearsed speech about his comedy career, who he’d met and how surprised he was that we hadn’t seen him on TV. “Look at the pictures!”

When we got to the diner, which was one of the few places left in Vegas still with a parking lot in front of the building, he told me to wait while he got out and opened my door. Taking my hand, he swung me round and we danced for a few seconds. Then he kissed my hand and took a bow. I was giggling. My husband appeared bemused but never said anything. A few seconds later the driver was juggling. Actual juggling. This guy sure loves living his life. Joy comes easily to me, which, coupled with my baby-face, is often mistaken for sycophantic anxiety, but I’m no fool. He earned every penny of that tip.

When you’re spending over a hundred dollars on slot machines every day, and more than two hundred a day on food, a few twenty-dollar taxi rides won’t break the bank. it might sound extravagant, but doesn’t even touch what some people get through here in a week. People can spend their money on whatever they like. This took me a year to save up for, so I’m going to enjoy this week. A year of packed lunches and taking the last bus home to save the taxi fare. This week is not for skimping. We’re on holiday after all.

Even though the resort we want is less than half a mile away, we would still ask a doorman to hail us a cab. Who wants to spend an hour trying to cross the road, avoiding the attention-grabbing, persistent slap slap of the soft porn trading cards being handed out in the street? Sometimes they try to hand a card to him, when I’m right there. Holding out a prostitute’s card to my husband. In front of me. There’s no point saying anything. They’re just doing their job. The pavement is littered. The cards must work, or why would they keep doing it?

I saw a young woman walking quickly through the sauntering crowd. Long raincoat. Full make-up. Glitter and huge eyelashes. Hair tight in a headscarf. Possibly late for work. No time for any nonsense. Some young men, you know, those who sip all day from the big plastic, oddly shaped promotional glasses, wouldn’t let her pass. One said “How much do you charge?” to back slapping whoops from his friends. Quick as a flash, she replied, “Ask your mom. She’s my best customer,” then managed to hurry away whilst the youths laughed and high-fived their buddy’s backfired everyday sexism. If it’s funny, who cares which person is the butt of the joke?

Our first driver at the airport, told me that this was her last trip of the day. She chatted about her kids and how she had to go home and pick them up from daycare then study for her exams. That she’d never even stepped foot in most of these hotels, but one day she would take a vacation here. I’ve never hugged a taxi driver before or since.

Whenever they ask me what I do for a job, I find it’s easier to say I work in the DA’s office, but that’s just to get a conversation started. They usually like talking about themselves more. Like waitresses, this isn’t how they want to be remembered. It’s a side hustle, a way to make money. It fits in around their real lives.

The ex-marine with a red MAGA sticker on his dashboard, who wants to build the wall. The man who never showers. The one with the facial tic. Lots of students or men sending money back home. The woman with a faint London accent, who supported Chelsea, and talked only of “soccer” for the whole trip. The woman who told us that people still try to pay their fare in poker chips. She declines, saying her religion prevents her from gambling. Makes more sense that implying that those chips might be fake. The man who told us “you gotta take a tour” whenever you visit a new city. We still say that to each other.

The cabs here are way better than the yellow taxis in New York. Roomier, with a telly that shows adverts all day long. I think they all buy their air freshener from the same place. As if I’m going to know whether taking ‘Frank Sinatra’ is going to be quicker than Boulevard or we’re being taken for a long-haul ride. It’s a scam for a couple of bucks, not my soul. We certainly saw a different side of life just one street away from all the action. Those hot, tired, chefs and kitchen porters resting in the shade, with Gatorade and cigarettes. Admittedly I was a little scared when one driver took a service road as a shortcut. Then I saw a black limo, and realised that VIPs do these dimly lit side-roads all the time.

We’d never have gone to this diner if we hadn’t seen it in that film. Pink, neon, squishy purple booths, flamingo light shades, palm trees. Old school glamour. The familiar dimmed lighting of 24 hour restaurant/lounge bars. Giant cocktails to last all day, waitresses with 100 denier, flesh-coloured, shiny tights, pretty ankle socks and trainers. Sticky-out short french maid dress. Pencil poked into hair-sprayed rigid dos. I doubt they could be any quicker if they wore roller skates. Everyone had take-out boxes as the portion sizes were way off –  one plate could feed three. Out waitress was sweet as pie until someone didn’t tip enough, then I heard her say, “Was there something wrong with the food, honey?”, at which point my husband told me to stop being so nosy. When I looked again, the man was searching in his wallet for the right note to give her.

If this was my first day here, I would have left most of my three pancake stack , six rashers of streaky applewood bacon and three fried eggs. The jug of maple syrup was bigger than the bottle we had back home. As we’d been here for nearly a week stuffing our faces, I could manage most of this meal. The holes in my belt are an inch apart and the buckle was already straining at a new hole. There was plenty of time to sort all that out when we get home. We thought we’d walk everywhere to build up an appetite or burn off those calories. Then my husband got a blister. Plus, we are on holiday after all.

Time could very easily have no meaning here. I didn’t dare to try or I’d be worried about not knowing which day it was and missing my flight. Arriving mid afternoon when it’s already past my bedtime. I’m too cold and wired to eat. It’s not late enough yet to sleep. Strange how winning seventy dollars in the first hour made me believe that there might be a chance of leaving here with more money than I brought with me. I’d never even consider putting a tenner in a slot machine back home. Penny arcades all the way. But we are on holiday after all.