Friday, 13 September 2013
I was born here, you know, between this river and them train tracks. See? The jagged metal posts they put there to stop people jumping in front of the trains or playing chicken on the line. All new. They weren’t there then. You could say British Rail learnt the hard way. Not that it’s British Rail any more. Not since Thatcher sold it off, along with everything else she didn’t own. ‘It could have been any one of us.’ I’ve heard it so many times. From friends, from half-cut wankers who drink here, waste their lives on this two-sided picnic bench on the side of the cut where it joins the brown flow of natural water near the top lock. And Janey smiles that slanted eyebrow sympathy, thinking thank fuck it wasn’t me. And she’s right. She’s right, hugging me like I’m on my way into court and the sentence is terminal. It could have been any one of us. We’re all capable. And I could have been. But prison’s not for me. Better to end it with a rope around my neck up on that tree out there, than do time. I don’t remember. I keep saying that and seeing the doubt in their eyes. For all my fifty-two years, I don’t remember anything but that last pint of Stella, watching the swans on the river. I love the river. Some folk complain about the mosquitoes, the smell of sewage in the summer. But for me, the curls and bubbles of that brown, soupy flow is like a warm cardigan that wraps around old bones: comforting and home. I was born here, three houses to the left, without a midwife, my father clutching me, still corded, as my mother crawled on all fours screaming for the afterbirth to come. And no doubt I’ll die here too. Too late in life for new starts, new places, new friends. Do you think I don’t notice the fear in their eyes when I walk into the pub? After what they’ve heard, I don’t blame them. They smile, they run off their hiya how are you huns with a different air. Or is that my imagination? I can’t call it a guilty conscience, because I really don’t remember: not a thing. Lydia came to see me last Wednesday. She was wearing the scarf I got her in the charity shop, the one with chenille roses woven over plain thread. Some of them were threadbare, but she loved it anyway, how the dark red of the roses contrasted with the nearly black. I remember joking with her how she looked like a Gypsy girl. We’ve got that Gypsy look in our family, the dark hair and light eyes, and it suited her. ‘I don’t believe you did it, Mum.’ That was the only thing she said on the matter. That was that. She made conversation about her work, about Darren’s new hi-fi system and how he’d hung speakers in the bathroom just for her to listen to her music in the bath. ‘They think it’s a girl’, she said, generations of broken promises in her tone, and put my hand on her belly, but the baby must have been asleep. We watched a film but I couldn’t keep up with the storyline. All I remember is a baby being hurled out of a window and the crowd cheering after a gaping, shocked pause. And as I went to pull out the sofabed for her, she stopped me, grabbing the black, tubular metal of its frame, and I felt so old. I’m chewing through my prescription at six days’ worth at a time; nearly a weeks’ worth today. DHC. Sounds like an eighties rap band and it’s a shame I can’t inject it. Too old for that now; too old for the vein hunting fuckery of it all. I’ll save that for the family history files. Last time I told the doctor I’d lost my pills on the way to Brighton on the train to visit Lydia, but I’m running out again and I don’t know what I’ll tell him this time. I suppose I should take one a day or even half, try to make them last. Or maybe I’ll take the lot next time I pick them up and hope I don’t wake up. Swallow whole with water. Do not chew. The bitter, waxy fillers stick to my teeth and I pick it out with my thumbnail, scraping it from underneath with my front teeth. I can’t sleep. Not even these tablets make me sleep any more. Not even with the sleepers on top. The night is a long, too-quiet space where each creak from the heating and warped wood makes me jump. I hear Lydia’s sleep-breathing as I descend the stairs. In the kitchen I pull the blind shut and leave the light off. Squatting against the units I roll a cigarette. The recurring nightmares have started again. I’m holding his hand through the window of a train as it leaves Marylebone and I can’t let go. As I run out of fast enough steps, the guard is blowing and blowing his whistle and shouting but his hand is locked tight and I’m dragged off the slope at the end of the platform and he’s laughing as I fall into my bed and jump awake. It’s sixteen years since Lydia saw him last. ‘It’s just a dream, Mum, you need your sleep. Please try and sleep; you look so tired’ But I’m afraid the wheels will catch me. I’m afraid of the sound of crunching bone under iron. It’s so real. His laugh, his face. The same laugh as he had that afternoon he rolled into the beer garden as if the years hadn’t passed at all. ‘Nora. I thought I’d find you here.’ And I flinched. Years of memories marked in his greyed stubble. How do I know if I did it when I don’t remember? He came up to me as if in a dream. Straight to my table as though he’d only popped into the pub for a piss and come right back to finish his crisps twenty years later. I’ve been smoking with Terry next door; smoking all day as if the bitter dog-on-heat piss taste will wash away my conscience of what is being said. Do they think I’m guilty? “Come on, Nora: I mean, I know I’m supposed to be his mate and that, but the way he treated me that day, accusing me of shagging you in his face. I thought he was gonna total me. There is no fuckin way you would do something like that. God’s honour, I’ve lived next door to you since we was kids and if there’s one thing I know about you is that you’re not fuckin capable. I mean, you might be capable of many things, eh, but not that. Not that.” Terry’s eyes light up red around their sea green irises and I can smell the saveloy he just shared with me mixing with the Stella on his breath. Tonight; tonight I will say my goodbyes. I will take the last train from the bridge they built too high to climb. The river gurgles its polluted grumbles as a rusty barge approaches the lock which merges the manmade with the endless flow to the sea. Jake raises his can of special brew to us all, his crumpled cigarette-end vaguely reddening his features as he gently moves the rudder. Can I leave this place? I would die in prison. There’s a gap in the galvanised fence where the kids get in. But I only need a ladder. And as the rush of wind from the train hits me full in the face, I’m standing in the kitchen doorway and Lydia’s eyes are boring into mine as she nods, the knife’s blade glinting in the only light from the gas cooker. As fat from the sausages I’d started cooking flare up in yellow flame, Jimmy’s silhouette crumples and doubles over. And I can smell the metallic sting of butcher’s shop dustbins as sticky, dark warmth rubs between my fingers and Jimmy takes his last, wheezing, gurgling, stunned breath.