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Lifelines

Wednesday, 1st February 2012

Categories: Moving Stories

Author: Peter Barry

This is one of the 2 runner ups in the Peter Barry Short Story Competition

Written by Jackie Taylor

Chloe: Wednesday morning, Rose Cottage

Three items: not much of a list, as lists go.

  1. Unpack bar √
  2. Jenny → spare key √
  3. Phone Helen √

Three items, all ticked off. My bag’s packed and I took the spare keys up the lane to Jenny’s this morning. It’s a proper spring morning and everything’s looking brand new and shiny. Except me. I look particularly grey, but Jenny, bless her, said she thought I was looking a bit better. She wished me luck, like I was going into an exam or something.

How many times have I stood outside the main hall at exam time and said to the kids in the queue – I’m not going to wish you luck because none of you need it. You’ll all be fine. They never believed me, but it was a ritual and it made them laugh. Not proper laughing though. Nervous laughing.

Mark used to laugh when I wrote down things on my ‘to do’ list that I’d already done, just for the satisfaction of crossing them out again. But that’s exactly what I did with the third item on the list:  Phone Helen. I did that last night. I found her phone number on last year’s Christmas card (I always keep her Christmas cards).  I misdialled the first time – nerves – and then got her voicemail, and I’m not sure what I said, or whether it made any sense, but it’s done, that’s the main thing.

 

Helen: Thursday morning Paddington – Plymouth Express

15 minutes to spare - perfect. Window seat, facing forward, bag on rack but still in sight. Daily Mail, wine gums, flask. Good.

I can’t have been on this line since I last went down to Cornwall. The last time I saw Chloe. It must be…. 20 years? Surely not.

Why did she leave that message on my voicemail? A typical Chloe message - that she’s in Derriford Hospital, but ‘don’t worry’.  Nothing useful like for how long, or what’s wrong, or how serious it is. But she must want me to come, otherwise why call after all these years?

Dismal back gardens. Concrete and buddleias. Greenhouses without glass. Children’s toys, discarded. I can’t believe the mess some people live in.

I still don’t know what her message meant. Will she think I’m interfering again? I only want to help. I only ever wanted to do my best for her.

 

Chloe: Wednesday morning, Rose Cottage

It’s just like any other day. The tide’s out and the morning light on the mudflats looks like the bloom on ripe grapes. The jetty on the far shore is still broken. It looks just like any other day, except it’s not.

Helen never saw the beauty here. For some reason, she was with us the day Mark and I first visited Rose Cottage with the estate agent from town. Up until then, it had just been a dream – Mark and I didn’t seriously think we could afford to give up our jobs and move to Cornwall, but we found Rose Cottage; damp, dilapidated and cheap. Perfect. We were so excited. I wrote lists and lists and lists, committing all our plans to lined paper.

And then the accident, three weeks after we moved in.

When things were really bad, not immediately after Mark died but in the months after, I still wrote lists. Except I lost all my ‘doing’ words, and made lists of nouns. Concrete, solid things.  Boiler. Gas. Money. Things like that. Except nothing ever really got done, nothing got crossed off. They were more like clues to what real life should be. Lifelines. I think I wrote them up on the kitchen walls. I can’t really remember, but it seems like something I might have done back then.

After Mark died, Helen wanted me to go back to London with her. I couldn’t do that – it would have felt like treachery. She nagged me to go into teaching as I’d planned, and she was right about that.  Not that Helen ever understood about physics. She thought it was about rules and answers. But it’s not. It’s about what happens at the edges, where the rules break down. Routine, timetables, commitments – they probably saved me.

I think Helen just got into the habit of telling us what to do after Mum died. It was the same after Mark. The worst thing is that I don’t remember exactly what happened between us. It was during the time that I was writing lists on the walls.

Helen: Thursday morning Paddington – Plymouth Express

Chloe started sending Christmas cards again after she started her teacher training. I’m sure the routine of work saved her; goodness knows, she needed a bit of order in her life before Mark died, let alone afterwards.

I could have made more effort to stay in touch. But I always seemed to be so busy. And when all’s said and done, she was the one who said she didn’t want to see me again. I think so anyway. It was so long ago.

It’s funny that I was with Mark and Chloe the day they first visited Rose Cottage, along with the estate agent who was delighted to get a sniff of interest in the wreck that had been on his books for too long. I’ve got a photo somewhere, taken outside the cottage that day, with Mark whirling Chloe round and round. I tried to make them see sense - how were they going to manage? But they were young and in love.

And then the accident, and Mark was gone, so soon after they’d moved in. Chloe seemed fine at first – or as fine as you can be in that situation. It was later that she fell apart. I tried to get her to come back to London. I tried to help her with the practical things - that’s what I’m good at. Looking back, I suppose I could have given her more space but I didn’t know what to do. There weren’t any rules. I just did the best I could with what I knew at the time.

I was only young too.

Chloe: Wednesday morning, Rose Cottage

The hospital has sent me lots of pieces of paper and a list of what to pack. I’m allowed to take my wedding ring, but no photos. I would have liked to have had a photo of Mark with me, the one outside the cottage the day we first saw it, where he’s spinning me round and round. Helen must have taken it.

 I suppose Mark and I have been lucky, really, in an odd way. We’ve always been at that newly-wed stage. I’ve always assumed we would have lasted the course, but who knows? And Mark’s been even luckier; he’s never seen himself grow old.

 Not that I’m particularly old. Not old enough for all this.

I would have liked to have had a photo of Mark with me. It upsets me that I can’t really remember the reality of him now.

Helen: Thursday morning Paddington – Plymouth Express

Normally, I’d like a nice chat to break up the journey, but I don’t really feel like it today. I’m getting a headache. Too much thinking. That’s Chloe’s department – she was always the brainy one. Physics, that was her thing, which used to make me laugh because she was the flakiest person in the world. Of course, she got the looks as well as the brains. I wonder if her hair is still that lovely golden blonde? She was such a pretty little girl. I bet she hasn’t gone horrible mousey-grey like me.

I rang the hospital before I got on the train. I was passed around from pillar to post, but eventually I found the right department. They said that Chloe had been in surgery that morning and that someone would talk to me when I got to the hospital.

Always the thought, niggling away: I could have done more to help her before. I won’t make the same mistake again.

Chloe: Wednesday morning, Rose Cottage

The taxi’s here. Jim’s driving.  Why couldn’t it be someone I don’t know?

 Keys.

Money.

Wedding ring.

My bag. Just a few things. Sorry, Jim, I can’t quite manage……would you mind?

No, nothing serious. No, I’m fine. Just a bit of a problem with headaches.

Not proper laughing, though. Nervous laughing.

I’ve left a list on the kitchen table for when it’s all over. Just in case I can’t remember.

  1. Unpack bag
  2. Jenny → spare keys
  3. Phone Helen again?

Clues. Lifelines.

I’ve left a list for myself on the kitchen table for when it’s all over. And Helen’s phone number, in case someone needs to call her. And a separate letter for Helen, just in case.

Helen: Thursday morning Paddington – Plymouth Express

Lots of people getting off at Exeter. There’s nothing stopping me doing the same. Chloe probably phoned me on a whim and I’ve taken emergency leave from work and dashed down to Cornwall like a mad woman.

Except. Except I didn’t get a good feeling from the woman at the hospital when I rang earlier. I always like to look on the bright side, but still. It unnerved me.

I don’t think Chloe and I ever had a big argument or anything. A couple of months after Mark’s accident, I was down at Rose Cottage for the weekend. Chloe had been looking through Mark’s things and she’d found a poster of Che Guevara of all things. I mean, Che was well past his sell-by date  even then. I got the bin bags so we could start throwing some stuff away.

Chloe said it was just like after Mum died. That I’d tidied Mum away, too. That she went to school one morning, and when she came back, the clothes, the jewellery, the photographs had all gone.

I would never have got rid of any photographs.

That day was the nearest we came to an argument. I’m sure I remember her saying she didn’t want to see me again. I didn’t stop going to Rose Cottage, but I went down less and less. She just didn’t want to be helped. And then later I was too busy, and time just went by, the way time does.

And I was really busy, it’s not just an excuse. Especially after Tim left, when I was on my own with the girls. I didn’t see that one coming. I thought we were fine; it never even entered my head that we wouldn’t last the course. I might have taken it better if I’d had some warning, but I just had to get on and make the best of it.

What would have happened if Mark had lived? Would he and Chloe still be together? I remember how happy they were the first time they saw Rose Cottage, despite the old Coke cans caught in the matted reeds by the broken jetty, and the smell of stagnant water. Ghastly.

I hope the hospital smells of antiseptic. I don’t trust hospitals that don’t smell clean.

Tidy up. Wine gums, flask, Daily Mail. Bus timetable for the hospital, or perhaps I’ll splash out on a taxi.  Bag down, just a few things packed, just in case.

What on earth am I going to say to her?

Chloe: Wednesday morning, Rose Cottage

I can’t get used to seeing the estate agent’s sign outside.

Thanks Jim. Yes, I’m up for sale. Or rather the cottage is.

No tears, not now.

You’re right, it’ll be a wrench. A terrible wrench. But you know how it is….and it needs so much work still….

I wonder whether Helen got my message? I know she’ll come, even after all this time. I pushed her away before, I won’t do it again. She’ll be my lifeline.

Right.

Let’s get on with it.

I’ve left a list on the kitchen table and everything will be fine.

Written by Jackie Taylor

This is one of the 2 runner ups in the Peter Barry Short Story Competition