October 22nd – Dundee
It is three years since William died.
“Time to move on,” said my good friend Sandra, and booked a fancy hotel for the weekend. “You’re still youngish,” she said. “You still have most of your figure. You never know who you might meet this weekend.”
She made me wear leather look leggings. She dragged me on to the dance floor and, against my better judgment, got me dancing. She forced me to accept a series of gin and tonics from a young lad in an Abercrombie top. “Have a bit of sense,” said I, under my breath, but Sandra just smiled and winked viciously.
Later, on the way back up to our room, the lift stopped suddenly. I went over on my black stiletto boots and it was an older man in a dinner suit who saved me from falling.
“Are you alright, my dear?” he asked, his arms still full of me. “Can I buy you a drink for the shock?”
He was not wearing a wedding band and I knew Sandra was quietly noting this and the expensive shine on his shoes. So I said, “thanks so much, but I’m absolutely wiped out,” quickly and climbed out of his arms because this man was too old and the other man had been too young and I was not yet sure where I fit without William, who’d been just right.
October 23rd – Dundonald Asda
There is an elderly lady in front of me in the line for the self scanner check out at Asda. She is buying dog food and cornflakes and strawberry iced doughnuts in a cellophane box. She takes her sweet time turning each item round and round in search of a barcode and smiles after every individual blip. Zlink. Zlink. Zlink goes the check out machine. There is something in the was she swipes and reaches for the next item which makes me wonder is she actually wants any of this stuff, or if she’s here in Asda on a quiet Sunday afternoon for the sheer joy of making the machine sing.
She reaches foe a plastic bag of peppers: red, orange and racing green, all the colours of the traffic light spectrum. There is no barcode for peppers. When she keys in three yellow peppers I want to say, “stop right there! Red peppers are different from yellow peppers. They’re more expensive.” But I don’t. It’s not theft when you don’t know that you’re stealing. It’s not wrong at all.
October 24th – No Alibis Books
Tonight my grandson is staying over. He is sleeping in the spare room next to the hotpress. I have shifted the cat from her usual spot to make room for him in the bed.
“Granny, can the cat sleep with me tonight?” he asks and I say, “no,” and, “no,” and eventually, when his big sad eyes begin to melt me down, “yes, ok, but only for a while, just ‘til you drop off.”
My grandson demands a bedtime story. He has brought a selection from home: something with robots in it, and The Gruffalo, (which I recognise from his backpack), and The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
“I read this one to your daddy when he was a wee boy,” I say and, unable to reconcile the idea of his fully grown father with that of a small child, he looks at me like I am gone in the head.
“You did not, Granny,” says he and I don’t argue with him.
Instead I slide under the duvet next to him, half my backside hanging over the mattress edge, and I turn the pages slowly, allowing him to read along from memory. The smell of him is so familiar, the press of his warm, little body tucked under my armpit, a kind of felt memory, and I wonder where all those years have gone to and why I am not even the smallest bit sad, just grateful for another outing with that old tiger and his insatiable appetite.
October 25th – The Mac
The retired ladies’ book club meets once monthly in the conference room of the Linenhall Library. Weather and mini-break dependent, there are between eight and twelve ladies in the group. They begin at ten with tea and fancy biscuits. Responsibility for provision of biscuits rotates round all twelve registered members though Marbeth is exempt on account of her diabetes. It is widely understood, but never explicitly stated, that biscuits should be purchased from Marks and Spencer’s, or at very least, the Finest, section of Tesco’s. Lidl biscuits are not tolerated at the retired ladies’ book club.
Meetings start at ten and end promptly at twelve when the room is required by the retired men’s historical society. Passing in the corridor the two groups do their best to avoid each other and rarely make eye contact, though some of the retired book ladies are, in fact, married to the retired, historical men. In 2005 a well-meaning young librarian made a misguided attempt to unite the groups for a one off historical fiction conference. Quickly seeing the error of her ways, the well-meaning librarian now focuses her attention on books and stays well clear of people. The retired ladies’ book club fully understand her position. They too enjoy books more than people and sometimes secretly wonder what the Hell they are doing in a book group listening to the bookish opinions of other retired ladies.
October 26th – The Buffs Club
Todd and Joe McEvoy
Every Tuesday and Friday I play bingo in the community centre at the end of the street. I have my own bingo pen and a lucky badge which I wear pinned to the lapel of my cardigan every time I play. The badge says “Seventy Years Young!!” in gold, glittery letters. It is as big as the mouth of a tea cup. I am not seventy years young any more. I am almost eighty but I have been wearing my lucky badge every time I play bingo because the first night I wore it –two weeks after my seventieth birthday- I won fifty pounds. For real. And Maureen said, “that there badge is a lucky charm,” and Margaret said, “don’t you be playing bingo again without it,” and I haven’t. I have not won fifty pound, for real, since. But, every third week or so I’ll pretend to have a line and, when the man comes over to our table and sees my two fat ladies and keys to the door aren’t exactly where they should be, I’ll look up and him with big dottery eyes and maybe drop my pen and he won’t have the heart to keep the tenner from me. “Dear love her,” he’ll mutter as he walks away and I’ll be ten pounds the richer for it.
October 27th – The Spectrum Centre
Tonight you’re serving beef. Nothing fancy: just a wee bit of stewing steak done with carrots and onions in the slow cooker. On the side you serve potatoes boiled in their skins, peel curling away from each spud like the brown of a dry onion.
“There’s wine,” you say, “help yourself,” and nod your head towards a bottle of red, sitting in the middle of the table, brown sauce and ketchup propping it up on either side.
You’ve not got proper wine glasses so we’re using the same tumblers we take our breakfast juice in. The wine is a particularly potent breed.
“What sort of wine is this?” asks Dad.
You look at him, all down your nose and sniffy, like you are that woman with the tight hair on the television wine programme.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” you say and Dad, being more of a pint and chaser kind of man, doesn’t not know what to say. “It’s the same wine they give out in church,” you say, “for communion. I thought it’d go nice with the Sunday roast. The vicar told me where to buy it. It’s not the sort of wine you can just pick up in Tesco. It’s not for every day.”
October 28th – The Ormeau Road
Our mother was a great one for the photographs.
Every birthday, every Christmas, every weekend run to the seaside, out would come the camera. Snap. Snap. Snap and we’d be caught in paper crowns and Sunday frocks, ice cream cones dripping, tipping our wine glasses to the camera, squinting –always squinting- in anticipation of the bold flash.
Our mother printed all her photos out and kept them in huge leather bound albums. 1979. 1980. 1981. The sepia beginning to seep out at the corners so we were all a little jaundiced about the face. Weddings. Christenings. Outings to the shopping centre Santa Claus. She liked to file her photos in chronological order. Turning the pages of her albums she’d age each of us from belly bump to birth, then big school and babies of our own.
When our mother died we went through her albums for the memories. We were hankering after the kind of sadness which is warm and well-intentioned. Every sixth or seventh photo was missing. Pure white rectangles marked the places where our earliest faces had once been.
Later, we’d find ourselves pinned to the inside of wardrobe doors, in drawers and biscuit tins, and tucked inside the pockets of her mohair cardigan. Waiting, just waiting, to remind our mother of all her forgotten blessings.
October 29th – The MAC
The dress looked fine in the changing room.
She let the mirror talk her into it, and the shop assistant who said, “nonsense, there’s no such thing as too young anymore. If you’ve got the figure you should flaunt it,” and other, well-worn platitudes.
Back home the dress seemed too short when she stood up and, when she sat down, clung to the extra fold of belly which had lately rolled its way into the space between her actual belly and her breasts. She thought maybe she could get away with the dress over leggings and then wondered about wearing it with a sloppy cardigan. But it wasn’t the sort of dress you could diminish. It required wearing with your head held high and your heels higher and perfect, strutting posture.
She’d seen ladies, older than herself in dresses much shorter and lower and more inclined to skim the hips neatly and this was the excuse she held against herself as she slipped the dress off its hanger and over her shoulders and down to dinner with the neighbours and her husband who, when he first saw her coming down the stairs, smiled like a trained monkey- all teeth and tightness about the face- and later whispered in her ear, it’s a bit young for you, is it not, Pet?”
October 30th – Belmont Road
The girl standing next to me at the bar reminds me of a lady I once worked with. We were both in marketing. The year was 1978. Therefore the girl standing next to me at the bar, nursing a long gin and tonic, cannot possibly be the lady I once worked with, in marketing, back in 1978. She is simply too young. I smile at the girl. She smiles back. I am too old to be perceived as any kind of thread.
“Hi,” I say and she, “hi’s” me right back and the similarity is uncanny. It’s round her eyes and in the way she inclines her head slightly when I smile.
“Listen,” I say, “I know it’s odd. But is your mum Sandra. Did she ever work in marketing?”
“No,” says the girl, “my mum’s Louise,” and all of a sudden the bar is too small for us both to be standing there, leaning into our drinks. Blushing. We turn away from each other. Back to back now, I hold the coldness of my pint glass in both hands like it is a kind of crutch. I listen to the sound of her laughing me softly into her boyfriend’s ear. This is the exact moment when I become old.
October 31st – Belmont Road
We do not celebrate Halloween in the nursing home.
Mrs. Matthews in the room opposite mine was once married to a Free Presbyterian minister. Though her husband is now dead she will not allow the Devil so much as a pumpkin-sized foothold in the building. This, I point out to the care workers, is not fair.
“It’s not a democracy,” I say, “if one holy Joe says no and all the ordinary folks say yes, and the minority still holds sway.”
“Welcome to Belfast,” say the care workers. None of them are from here originally and I am amazed that they have picked up the local humour so quickly.
“Stuff Mrs. Matthew,” I say, “I’m celebrating Halloween anyway.”
I dress myself up as a ghost in faded nightgown and white cloud hair, and I pale my cheeks and sit in the corner of the day room all afternoon, going “woooo, woooo,” at the visitors with my hands waving about a little. No one says anything. No one seems to realise I am celebrating Halloween. Yet they keep their distance and I tell myself they are scared.