My wardrobe, floordrobe, was supposed to be a curated collection of neutral basics plus a smattering of thrifty vintage pieces mixed with designer splurges. There was that pair of leather strappy sandals bought in Greece that I could never wear for more than half an hour before they rubbed my feet raw to ribbons. After every hangover, I vowed to give up my late nights. I was going to reinvent myself and spend my Sundays outdoors, just as soon as I’d broken in the hiking boots that pinched so much that I lost all feeling in my toes. I knew they were supposed to be tight but once they’d moulded to my feet, they would be the most comfortable footwear in the world. I thought I looked the business in those silver leather brogues until I saw three other women wearing the same shoes at the same event as me. Embarrassing wasn’t the word.
I know now to never buy this year’s colour in a leather handbag. It’s a waste of money because it only lasts one season and I’d have to keep it for 12-15 years before I could use it again. Chain store coats are also a mistake unless I wanted to look like everyone else.
Marie said to put all of my clothes onto the bed so I knew what I’d got. Passers-by could see right into this basement flat, but I didn’t care. They also didn’t seem bothered because it was still raining, so they were hurrying by, just wanting to get where they were going.
I was down to my bra and knickers, trying on everything I owned, chucking my clothes into piles – keep, bin, donate, sell – whilst dancing around to an 80s pop mix. Between songs I could hear a burglar alarm wailing like an old-fashioned air raid signal so I just cranked up the music a bit louder to drown it out. Then someone startled me by banging on my window and shouting “get out!”. I quickly put on a pair of comfy cord jeans and an old baggy t shirt and ran to the front door to yell right back at them. Before I could open it, I heard water trickling down the steps and saw it creeping under the door towards me. For a moment, I stood there, watching my slippers get soaked.
“This is the police helicopter. The river has breached its bank. You are in imminent danger. Please evacuate your property immediately and make your way to higher ground.”
In less than thirty seconds, I was out of there. I grabbed my phone, purse, glasses, a pair of trainers, socks, knickers, a jumper, that book I was reading and (weirdly) a pillow. I put on the first coat I saw hanging up and snatched another. Then, swinging a black bin bag containing all my worldly goods, I pelted up the street, splashing through the ankle high water in my sodden slippers, as if I had seen the last bus coming.
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.