Rachel put the letter back in its envelope for the hundredth time. It was crumpled from over-reading. It had arrived a week ago, out of the blue. After years of sparsely worded postcards it had broken into her listlessness like an all-bells and whistles TGV. She pushed her chair back and moved to the glass doors. It was a stormy, grey day. The wind was crying, moaning through the gaps at the window’s edges. She sucked her cheeks in and made a face at the taste of stale coffee. She’d had three espressos already today and it wasn’t even lunch-time. Anything to get moving these days. She stared at the sky – she hadn’t seen any planes today – they’d most likely been grounded because of the gales. Just like her.
She was having a tip-top grand old time, sitting on the high stool playing shop with the contents of the store cupboard. “Would you like one or two tins of peaches, madam?” “I’m sorry sir, we’re all out of eggs today.” “That will be twenty-six pence thank-you” Because there was no cash register, she made the beep beep and ching noises herself. Quietly though.
Geraldine tooted her horn and stayed in the car, the engine still running.
“You’d better hurry up love. You know she’ll drive off without you if you make her wait.”
Christine hurried past her mum, buttoning up her cardigan and shaking back her still wet hair,
“You sure you don’t want to come too?”
Patricia shook her head,
“Things never end well for me in that place. I’m happy staying here. Say hello to your sister, if she lets you get a word in.”
Christine kissed her on the cheek, took a deep breath and left. Patricia turned her rollator and peered out the window. Was it sunny enough to sit out? She grabbed a blanket and opened the patio doors, humming all the while.
Christine slid in beside her sister who kept looking straight ahead,
“Did you sleep in?”
That didn’t merit an answer.
“How are the wedding plans going this week?”
“You would think that having a small ceremony would be easy to organise but there’s still booking the venue, invitations, licenses, rings, outfits. And cake. Of course I’m doing it all.”
“Does James not want to help?”
“No no. I told him to leave it to me.”
Christine started twisting her eternity ring,
“Would you like me to?”
“I’m fine. Really.”
Christine didn’t address the elephant in the room. As the only sister, surely…
“Mum not want to come? Now you have her walking with that thing, it would be easier as well.”
Christine ignored the tone and looked out the window. The sun was brighter now. Tea on their little patio would be preferable to this frosty car.
They arrived and Geraldine tried three different parking spaces before she stopped and got out. Christine was glad she had ditched all her heels and lived in sneakers now as they walked from the far end into the shop.
Geraldine knew exactly where she wanted to go. Christine followed, wrinkling her nose at the heavy floral scents rising from open jars of pot pourri. She hadn’t been inside here for years, but she still remembered the smells. Geraldine had stopped in front of a counter and had already briskly rung the bell for attention. Twice. She sighed,
“Where are they?”
She started to march away, heels clicking the tiles, sensible skirt swishing, head going to and fro, looking for a member of staff. Christine leant against the counter and waited. After a moment a flustered young woman with a badge on her navy blouse saying, ‘My name is Julie, happy to help’ on it arrived. Christine stepped back and frowned, why did she feel she knew this girl?
“I’m sorry, I was busy with another customer. How can I help you?”
“You’re fine. It’s actually my sister who called you and dear knows where she’s busied herself off to! An older version of bridezilla. Oh, here she comes now with…”
Time froze, then rushed back to memories that had been revisited countless times.
When they said his first name at the same time after that they knew;
They had both seen him and each other before.
Geraldine had clearly not recognised the homeless person she had tried to avoid as the sharply dressed man walking beside her today. Christine felt the heat rising up her face as she sensed him getting closer.
“You see? Always best to go straight to the top.”
Geraldine looked around the little group, oblivious to Julie’s pale face, Christine’s red one and Tony’s open mouth. Then she jerked her head back towards Julie,
“Do I know you? Wait! Let me think…”
She stared at her again and started clicking her fingers in the air. Julie squirmed.
“I’ve got it! You were the girl staring at the toys last year.”
She blundered on,
“You must be glad of the staff discount now!”
Now it was Julie’s turn to blush.
Geraldine had already moved on,
“I’m here to ask about your wedding cakes. Yes, that’s right, I am going to be married!”
She tittered. Christine contemplated turning on her heel and running out the door. Tony was still looking at her. When Geraldine spoke again, he pulled his attention away and forced a professional smile,
“Yes. We do order in cakes here. It’s quite a new service. You should take a look at the brochure and see which one you’d like.” He passed the magazine over and Geraldine started looking through it.
Tony’s eyes went back to Christine. He whispered,
“It’s been a while.”
He gave a shaky sigh,
Christine nodded dumbly. She met his eyes, looked beyond the smart suit and found the man who had seen her trouble and done his best to help.
“Christine! What about this one covered in fresh flowers?”
Tony remembered all those times when he had searched for flowers to give to Christine. He wondered if she had ever realised.
He cleared his throat,
“An excellent choice. If you’re happy, I can put the order down for you today.”
Geraldine was looking strangely at him and shaking her head,
“There’s something eery about this shop today. I feel like I have seen people before when I’m sure I don’t know them.”
She shrugged and laughed a little,
“Anyways! Christine, what do you think?”
She met Tony’s eyes again and smiled. They both remembered, even if her sister did not.
Geraldine clapped her hands,
“Good answer! Maybe you can be my maid of honour after all!”
Like no-one’s watching. Earlier today I was walking unsteadily and hoping stupidly that no-one was watching me. After that I sat down at the piano for the first time in a year and hoped that no-one was listening.
He sat at the back, feeling like this was worse than story time at school. At least there was a carpet and the teacher didn’t try to do different, terrible voices. At least you saw her face. This time the changing voice of many accents was hidden. It sounded like a man but how could you be certain if he or she was behind the striped curtain all the time? As it went on, the voices got higher and louder. Matthew looked at the heads in front of him. They were moving more and more now. Everyone was sick and tired.
There was one head he looked at most – two plaits with white and pink bobbles at each end. He wanted to touch them to see if they were the sweets they made him think of.
The shrieking and banging faded out and everyone turned to leave. Matthew was slower to get up. Maybe because he had changed his speed ages ago to match mum’s, or maybe he was still thinking about those bobbles. He walked backwards towards the door, searching. Then all of a sudden she was in front of him,
“I know you.”
He went red and opened and closed his mouth.
“I’m in the other class. I saw you hiding in the coats last week. Why were you doing that?”
Her eyes widened,
“Had you been stood out?!”
He found his voice but it squeaked like the puppeteer,
“Maybe. Who are you?”
She shrugged and tossed her plaits,
“Have you got squashies at the end of your hair?”
“Duh, no. They’re hard. Squeeze them,”
She lifted one ponytail up towards him. He squeezed and nodded, slightly disappointed.
“All the grown-ups are here now. We’d best go.”
When they followed all the shuffling children to the car park outside Matthew realised that Judy was still beside him. He leant against the wall, searching for his mum’s car. It should have been in the first space. She had a special badge for that. But she wasn’t there. As the cars and parents came and went with mini versions of themselves and the car park was empty again, Matthew looked at the Mary Janes beside his trainers,
“You haven’t been picked up either.”
“I’m walking home. I always do.”
“So why didn’t you leave then?”
“I was waiting for your mum with you.”
Matthew tried to keep the edges of his mouth down. No-one had ever stayed with him before. He stepped out and looked both ways,
“Well. Doesn’t look like she’s coming. She must have got the time mixed up.”
He turned his face away to press the tears back in and take a big breath. He was going to have to walk home. He’d never done that by himself before. Mum always drove him back.
It had started to rain. He looked down at the bag of pick n mix they’d all been given. The white paper was turning see through. He lifted it up,
“Let’s have one now.”
They popped one in their mouths and chewed. The sugary taste was helping everything.
“Did you like the Punch and Judy show? You must feel famous, hearing them use your name like that.”
Judy tilted her head,
“I would have liked it better if it had been called ‘Judy and Punch’. Why does the boy’s name always come first – ‘Adam and Eve’, ‘Charles and Diana’, ‘Mickey and Minnie ’…”
Matthew did not have an answer. He squared his shoulders,
“I’m going to walk home now.”
“Where do you live?”
Judy grabbed his hand and squealed,
“So do I!”
“The one near the newsagents. How about you?”
“The one near the swings.”
“Well let’s go then!”
One of the organisers opened and closed the heavy hall doors and didn’t see them.
Judy popped another squashie in her mouth and pulled at his hand,
“Coming? I love the swings!”
When they were half-way home Matthew spied mum’s car and her anxious face. She saw him and slowed beside them, winding her window down,
“Matt! I thought it was over at four. You walked all this way by yourself!”
I watched Bridge of Spies again a couple of weeks ago and something stuck with me. When the lawyer defending Rudolf Abel, an alleged KGB spy, asks him if he is worried, he replies, ‘will it help?’
Of all the things I’d like to change about myself, giving up worrying is definitely top of the list. Like you, I know worrying doesn’t change a thing. It just makes you stressed and unwell. As it says in the Bible, ‘which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?’
When I’m lying awake I tell myself all these things. It doesn’t stop me fretting though. I could blame it on motherhood or personality. Or, I could just give in and let it take over.
When my eleven year old told me I was always anxious and stressed I knew it was time to find ways to stop. I don’t want to bring her up in an atmosphere of panic and fear. I’m tired of using up energy to change nothing at all.
I remember reading a children’s book where a little girl wandered around hauling a huge, heavy bag. It was making her tired and unhappy. Eventually an old lady sits beside her and persuades her to open the bag and show her what’s in it. After the wee girl pulls all the items out and shows the lady each one, she looks at the bag and sees it is empty.
The old saying, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ has some truth in it. When I muster the courage to talk through my concerns I do feel a little better. When I pray, I’m trying to empty my bag and hand it over. Not being perfect, I usually take it all back a few times!
If we can’t stop ourselves worrying, maybe we could try sharing our troubles with someone else. Maybe we could remind ourselves that Someone is there, ready to carry them for us.
Being the frustrating person that I am, I think it’s unlikely I will learn to stop playing roundabouts with bad thoughts in my mind.
Ask me again when I’m the old lady. I hope then at least, I’ll have the sense to share someone else’s.