Fiction Month 2015. Unmanned on a Wednesday. Part 2

Strangers Muriel and Niamh are bonding in the launderette-and Muriel finds they have more in common than an article of clothing…

[Part 1 of this story can be found in the previous post]

She gazed into the gyrating turmoil of clothes. “It’s complicated.”

“You mean he’s married.”

Muriel stared at the circulating washing. She realised now what the familiar item was. She was sure it was a shirt; one that her husband used to wear, but hadn’t for some time. She could remember where he’d bought it, when they’d been on holiday in Italy. It was an expensive, designer shirt; flamboyant, the colours an unusual mix of purple, red and cream, the design vivid and abstract like a Picasso painting.

A machine to the right of them jolted into an angry whirl as it prepared for its rinse cycle. Muriel continued to gaze into the enigmatic circle where the mingling colours jostled for prominence.

“I’m not shocked,” she said, once the raging machine had settled for a quiet, resentful simmer, “but it makes me sad. I’m guessing he’s an older man? I’d say you were too good for him, too young and lovely to waste your life on him.” She hauled her eyes away from the washer, from which a trickling sound issued.

Niamh drew out a tissue from her sleeve and blew her nose. “I don’t know why I’m opening up to you like this. I’ve not told anyone else. You must be easier to talk to than most people. I would never be able to confide in my mother like I’m confessing to you. Can we chat again next time you come? We could go for a coffee or something.”

Muriel was silent, contemplating the revolving drum. It turned this way and that as if undecided. The younger woman stood abruptly and began pulling articles from the dryer, which had churned to a grumbling halt. The Italian shirt tumbled out into a pale blue, plastic basket, pock marked with cigarette burns. She had her back to Muriel, speaking harshly into the cavernous cylinder.

“I’ve been too personal, haven’t I? I’m always like this with people; not reserved enough, nattering like we’ve known each other for years. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry. Say something. Please.”

She turned around. She had the shirt in her hand. Muriel nodded at it. “I see you don’t send his washing home for his wife to do.”

Niamh held the hot garment against her cheek as if the spirit of her lover was bound within its vibrant folds. “I love to do things for him,” she said. “I pretend I’m married to him. I spend hours finding new recipes to cook for him. I like to open the wardrobe and see some of his clothes hanging next to mine. That way I’ve got some small part of him when he’s not with me.” Facing the dryer as she closed the door, she missed the fleeting look of weary scorn that passed over Muriel’s face. A stab of cruelty thrust out, threatening to pierce the friendly bubble of shared confidences.

“He won’t leave his wife, you know. They never do.”

“He is going to leave. He’s waiting for the right time to tell her. He’s sensitive to her needs. I love that about him.”

She was folding garments now and placing them into a rectangular laundry bag. There was a brisk manner to the way she was pushing the clothes into the bag, as if she could press her conviction into the still warm fabrics.

“I wonder if he knows what her needs are.”

“She’s been occupied looking after the children all these years and now they’re growing up and leaving-like yours are. He has to wait for her to find a new direction in her life; something to fill the void her children have left. You must know how that feels. How have you coped with the extra time on your hands?”

Muriel smiled an enigmatic, knowing smirk. “Oh I like to travel. I’m always planning the next holiday and preparing for it. I like comfortable hotels in beautiful locations with wonderful, scenic views. I enjoy eating in expensive restaurants, shopping in exclusive stores and finding exquisite, original art works.”

She paused to observe the effect her words were having.

Niamh stared, transfixed as she listened then nodded, grinning, her creamy skin pink with enthusiasm. “My man is well travelled. He’s going to take me on exotic trips once he’s free.”

She lifted the strap of her leather satchel over her head and gripped the handle of the chequered bag. She looked at Muriel.

“Shall I see you at the same time next week?”

“It’s possible.”

“Go on, you know you want to! I can give you an update on progress. I’m seeing him tomorrow night. He might have told her by then! Bye for now!”

She pulled open the door and stepped out, leaving the bell jangling. Muriel watched as she crossed the road, negotiating the passing traffic, tossing her head to rid the glossy, dark fringe from her eyes. Then she disappeared round a corner. Although the two machines had stopped, Muriel continued to sit in the silent laundrette. Outside the light was beginning to fade and glare from the headlights of passing vehicles cast intermittent flashes into the scruffy room.

It would soon be time to start packing, she thought, wondering what she would need this time.

She was jerked from her thoughts by the strident ring of her phone.

“Ah, I’ve got you. Where are you, Mu? I got home hours ago!”

“I had to come to one of those laundry places. The new washer won’t be delivered until next week.”

“Good God, Mu! Don’t these places collect and deliver or something?”

His voice crackled. “Anyway, never mind that now. I’ve found us some flights to Geneva. Thought we’d do the Swiss lakes. Fancy it? The flights are on Friday morning. I’ve just got a meeting tomorrow night to tie up some loose ends then I’ll be free.”

Muriel stood, pocketing the phone, savouring the anticipation. Last time they’d stayed at the Grand Hotel Kempinski on the lake. Their room had overlooked the Jet d’eau fountain. She would have to contact an ironing service in the morning, one that could do a rush job. She could spend tomorrow evening researching excursions and places to eat.

She crammed her laundry items into the holdall in an unceremonious bunch, stuffing recalcitrant clothes down into the corners, heedless of the creases that would form as they dried. When the zip gaped in an obstinate refusal to close over the bulging, newly laundered items she capitulated and grasped the handles, leaving it open in her haste to be away. She pulled the door, hearing its accompanying clank for the last time as she tugged the bag through to the outside. Trudging past the window she glanced back in at the stark, Spartan room, the plastic chairs and the worn lino and exhaled a profound, heartfelt sigh of relief.

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T-shirts. Casual or Culture?

If you were looking for a barometer of trends in politics, culture, fashion or social status you could do worse than study T-shirts.

Few garments have stood the test of time better. You might say jeans have lasted as long, but apart from altering in shape [from straight to flared and back, for instance], getting a few strategic rips and patches or sequins they don’t vary much.

The previous generation to my own [ie pre-babyboomers] were not T-shirt wearers. My father got up and put on a proper, ironed shirt-collar and all-and unless he was going outside to dig the garden he would add a tie, considering that he was not suitably attired without one. He continued to adhere to this dress code until poor health condemned him to pyjamas.

The T-shirt, according to Wikipedia originated in the 19th century from undergarments worn by factory workers then became a staple for US military personnel before becoming glamorous in its plain, white form pasted on to the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the 1950s. Who could not fail to admire the rippling white fabric stretched across young Brando’s chest as he reared over Blanche Dubois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’?

These days T-shirts fall into various categories, sometimes getting adopted as high fashion on a designer’s whim, proclaiming which side of the stadium a fan shows allegiance to, which rock band is beloved by the wearer and which festival tour they’ve attended, being used as a vehicle for showing off a ponsy holiday destination-as in a map of The Galapagos-, or to inform company that the wearer is up for it [eg inscribed with ‘Angel’ or ‘Hot’]. This last is as alluring as driving around with a personalised number-plate such as the ‘I5EXY’ I spotted once and it is tempting to add ‘not’ to it somehow.

There are also the ones that climb on to a droll slogan or idea and overstay so long as to become wearisome, such as ‘Keep Calm and …..’ or pictures depicting the ‘evolution’ of pursuits like cycling.

The best T-shirts are ones that are laugh-out-loud funny, although they only have this capability for the first sighting, like hearing a joke. Husband, whilst holidaying in Tenerife once was much taken by one that read on the front ‘The Older I Get’ and on the back ‘The Better I Was’. A recent favourite of mine was worn by a male passenger climbing on to the bus to Bridgetown, Barbados and read: ‘Six Pack-Coming Soon’.

My own T-shirt wearing is limited to plain colours except that I am guilty of wearing a New Zealand [black with a white tree-fern leaf of course] only when temperatures plummet at night and something extra is needed under the duvet [no-I am not a nightwear fan either!]

Fiction Month -Week 3

Here is Part 3, and the conclusion of ‘The Woman from the Baker’s’. Parts 1 & 2 can be found in the previous two posts.
———————–

“I’ll do your supper, Dad, before I go and I’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need to hand. You can always phone me if there’s an emergency. I won’t be late back so I’ll be here for bedtime as usual.”
He turned away, seeming to sag and shrivel in the chair like a cushion with the stuffing pulled out.
“I’ll be going to bed now, Margaret, if you please.” That was all he said, but whilst I couldn’t escape the feeling of portent his silence carried I was filled with a bullish determination, so that I muttered ‘I AM going out’ repeatedly while I got his Horlicks and made his hot water bottle.

There was a skittish, party atmosphere in the shop next morning as the girls teased me about the evening to come, a flippant suggestion from Pam as to whether ‘Hot Rod’ might like to join us and a cross-examination from Vi over the intended outfit. The pleasure I normally derived from these exchanges, however was tempered by nagging anxiety, as my morning ministrations had been met by stony, grim faced silence from my father, prompting me to whisper ‘I’m STILL going out’ as I left the house.
Later, dashing homewards it was difficult to say whether my feverish nerves were due to the impending, unaccustomed jaunt or uneasiness about my father. Letting myself in I sensed a barely perceptible alteration in the atmosphere as if the air held an electrical charge, even though the television was burbling away as usual and Dad ensconced in front of it. I got no response to my ‘alright, Dad?’ or when I brought him the tray bearing his supper, upon which I’d lavished great care and attention.
“Right Dad, I’m going up to get ready now”, I said, but might as well have told it the TV screen. I went up and began attempting to squeeze myself into a black skirt I’d last worn about eighteen months ago and which had seemed a good idea for the quiz outing until I tried the recalcitrant zip. Gearing up for one last tug I was holding my breath and wrenching in my girth when I caught the sound of a thud from below. I let go of the zip and nipped out to the landing, skirt sagging round my hips. Beneath me at the foot of the stairs lay my father, prone, limbs flopping like a rag doll’s. I ran down. My heart beat with a strident pounding that throbbed in my chest and ears. Leaning down I noticed a liquid red line emerge from under his head and flow along following the join in the laminate floor. I straightened, stepped over him and into the kitchen. On the table the ‘Hercules Tours’ brochure remained, impassive, bearing a picture of the Taj under a blood red sky. I grabbed the phone and the kitchen towel, sat down on the hall floor. I lifted his head gently onto the towel, then my lap, observing the pale, waxy pallor of his skin, the shallow rasp of his breathing. I punched 999 into the phone, gave all the details.
“It’s alright Dad. There’s help coming” I said, as I smoothed the wisp of baby soft hair from his face. His eyelids, papery and almost translucent, trembled and his thin lips jerked to produce a word.
“Margaret?”
“Yes Dad. I’m here. You’re safe. Stay still now, till the ambulance comes.”
His voice quavered as a glint of wetness materialised in the corner of his eye.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Margaret.”
There was a distant sound of a siren now, as the ambulance approached. I looked away from him.
“I know Dad, I know.”

Fiction Month -Week 2

Part 1 of this story can be found in last week’s post.

The Woman from the Baker’s [part 2]
“What did he want then, Frank?’”
“Oh, he was just asking what you might like for your birthday”. Taking a moment to absorb this he shook his head.
“Frank knows what I like. Dunno why he’d need to be asking you!” I shrugged my shoulders.
“Shall I put one of your Dad’s Army’s on? You like those.’”He grunted in the affirmative and was soon engrossed in his favourite DVD, part of a box set Frank had bought him for Christmas.
Settling down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and the latest ‘Hercules Tours’ brochure I ran my fingers over the glossy cover where a photo of the Taj Mahal at sunset called to me like a siren to a sailor.

At work next morning we were sorting out the delivery, stacking the shelves, lining up the pasties under the counter when the door opened and Hot Rod walked in. That isn’t his real name, not the ‘hot’ part anyway; just what Pam and Vi call him. He’s working on the shop conversion next door. Vi nudged me, an ostentatious wink distorting her round, pink face.
“Customer, Margaret!”
I put Rod’s custard Danish into a bag and gave him his change, waiting for him to leave before turning to look at the girls, who were leaning against the loaf slicer, undiscarded tears of laughter welling up and about to flood the shop.
“Tell you what”, declared Pam, “If I was single there’d be no stopping me. You could do a lot worse Margaret, couldn’t she Vi?”
Vi nodded, adding an ambiguous “Or even if she wasn’t single”. Vi never made a secret of her unhappy marriage to Den, whose unsavoury exploits she’d frequently described.
“Have you thought any more about the quiz night on Friday, Margaret, up at the snooker club? We could do with you on our team, with you knowing so much about countries, capitals and all that. Do you good to get out, too. Your dad can cope for a couple of hours, can’t he? My Kevin will come and pick you up. “
These two women have invited me out more times than I’ve made ham sandwiches and I’d always declined, citing my father as a reason, but for once I felt a bubble of rebellion growing inside and heard myself say, “Alright. Why not” to the flabbergasted looks of my friends.
At home I scrutinised the contents of my narrow wardrobe, hoping to discover some forgotten item that might be suitable for an evening out, but the occupants of the hangers retained a resolute familiarity in their service as work clothes. I could not recall the last time I’d been to a social gathering, still less the outfit I’d have worn. Perhaps I should buy something new, although I was forced to acknowledge that dressing for Friday’s outing was the least of my problems.
I waited until Thursday evening to broach the subject. I made sure I was home before six, made his favourite liver and bacon for supper, agreed that Frank had done very well for himself and was the best son anyone could have. Once this eulogy had subsided I took a breath.
“I’m going out tomorrow night, Dad. Pam from work’s invited me to a quiz. She and her partner are picking me up at seven.”
Although I’d taken pains not to blurt it out in a rush, my announcement rang with triumphant accomplishment as if I’d entered into high society, like Eliza Doolittle going to the races. I felt myself redden as he turned to look at me, something he rarely does, a small, perplexed frown knotting his brow.
“Pam from work?”
Keeping my resolve, I maintained the cheerful smile I didn’t feel, nevertheless I began to bluster in an attempt to mitigate the awful consequences my absence would bring about.