Slow Learner by Steven Burford of Malvern Link
The Sky Polisher by Katy Wimhurst of Rowledge
Home Turf by Joy Clews of Snitterby
My Friend Rowan by Oonagh McBride of Glasgow
Redhead Reunion by Dianne Bown-Wilson of Exeter
The Black Keys by Mary Fox of Epsom
Breadcrumbs by Wendy Markel of Earls Barton
Forgiven by Ramona Scarborough of Elk Grove, USA
Slow Learner by Steven Burford of Malvern Link
The Sky Polisher by Katy Wimhurst of Rowledge
Your Tiny Hand by Anne Ridley of Newcastle–upon-Tyne
A Woman Laughing by Richard Johnson of Woking
Home Turf by Joy Clews of Snitterby
Stranger by Andrew Ball of King George, USA
My Friend Rowan by Oonagh McBride of Glasgow
Redhead Reunion by Dianne Bown-Wilson of Exeter
The Black Keys by Mary Fox of Epsom
“Mr. Simms? It is you, isn’t it? Hello sir.”
“Er, hi.” Terry Simms shook the hand held out to him but didn’t get up from his desk. This afterschool visitor to his classroom looked too young to be a parent, and definitely too scruffy to be an inspector or someone important.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
Terry groaned inwardly, understanding now what he was dealing with. Why did ex-students on nostalgia trips always choose the worst times to revisit their old schools? “I thought I recognised the face,” he lied. “You’ll have to forgive me though. I’ve got a terrible head for names.”
“No worries! Years ago now. Time flies. That's a cliché that, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but -.”
“You always said we’d forget everything five minutes after we left school, but I remembered that, about clichés.”
Terry forced a smile. “Well, that’s grand, but you really will have to forgive me, Mr…?” The deliberate formality of ‘Mr’ hung heavy but unanswered in the air.
The young man laughed. “Yeah, you always got our names wrong, back in the day. Course, we made it trickier for you, giving you wrong ones, answering for mates when you called the register, that kind of thing.” He held up his hands. “Nothing personal. We did it to all the new teachers.”
New. Terry had been at Monastery Grove for twelve years, so this man had to be….
“Remember Geoff Young?”
“You’re Geoff?” The name stirred memories, but somehow still didn't seem right.
“Spencer Matthews? Neil Hyatt? Paul Harding?”
Terry snapped his fingers. “5E!”
In spite of himself, Terry half-smiled. The very first Year Eleven class he’d taught. The kids from hell he'd thought he'd never forget. “There was Jonathan wasn’t there? And Darren, and….”
“Of course.” Terry tried but couldn’t summon up the face of the younger Darren. “Are you still in touch with the others?”
Taking this for the invitation it wasn’t, Darren sat down at the desk in front of Terry’s. “Spencer joined the navy. Neil works down the Box with his Dad. Paul buggered off to London. And Geoff Young,” he shrugged, “went down for ten years last month.”
Terry gave a rueful laugh. “A wide variety of life experiences. Thanks for bringing me up to date.” He reached out his hand again. “Well, it’s been good to see you, but I’m afraid now-.”
“I’ve brought you something.” Darren pulled a thin, dog-eared book out of his pocket and thrust it at Terry.
Not sure how he was supposed to react, Terry took the book. “Blott and Bitepenn! Where on Earth did you dig this up?”
Darren grinned. “I kind of took it with me when I left.”
Flicking through the pages, Terry shook his head. “This was ancient when I started. We haven’t used it for years.” He pushed the book back. “Please, keep it. For old times’ sake.”
“I’ve done one or two of the tests,” Darren said, pulling a couple of sheets of A4 out of another pocket and rubbing them smooth on Terry's desk. “Is this one right?”
Automatically, Terry looked to where Darren was pointing. “Yes, that’s right, but...”
“And this one?”
“Nearly, but look, ‘Blott and Bitepenn’ is a book for Year Sevens.”
“You used it with us in Year Eleven.”
“I don’t think….”
“You did.” Darren was still smiling but he was insistent. His voice took on the sing-song tone of recollection. “You said we were, ‘Acting like kids from a junior school,’ so you’d, ‘Give us the work to match.’”
Terry shifted uncomfortably at this revival of long-buried memories. 5F and the bitter, exhausting struggle between one wet-behind-the-ears teacher and the most evil bunch of little shits God had ever put upon the planet. Or so it had seemed at the time. It had been years since he'd recalled their shockingly poor behaviour. Or his own. “I … don’t do that kind of thing anymore.”
“Kids these days not as bad, eh?”
“They’re pretty much the same, actually. No, it’s my classroom management: it’s a lot better now. I was in my first year of teaching when I had you, you know? Twenty three and straight out of college.”
“Christ! You didn’t look that young.”
“But, I don’t care.” Darren slid back the papers Terry had tried to return. “I couldn’t do these exercises then. I’ve done them now, and I’d like you to have a look at them.”
“Darren,” Terry said, struggling to remain polite. “I’m sorry, but it’s getting late and I’m….”
“You used to say that a lot. I’m giving up.”
“I-. That was years ago. Things are different now. I’m different now.”
“But you’re still giving up.”
“Maybe because you’re still acting like a bloody difficult kid.” Terry stopped, took a deep breath, and forced an unconvincing laugh. He’d been perilously close to losing his temper. It had been a long day. He was tired. And the reminder of his early failings as a teacher had stung. “Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have -.”
“You couldn’t control us, could you?” Darren grinned again, but the humour of it was gone.
“What? It’s not about control.”
“All right, you couldn’t manage us.”
“You were sixteen for God’s sake, about to leave school.” Even as he snapped at the young man, Terry knew he shouldn’t, knew he should stop. But he couldn't. Who did this Darren think he was? “Most of you couldn’t even fill in a paperboy’s application form properly, but did you want to sit down and actually learn something that would help you when you went out into the ‘real world’? Oh no. You were far happier making life a misery for whatever poor sod was trying to teach you!” He stopped, glaring at the other man.
Disconcertingly, Darren was glaring back. “Thick.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“As good as!” And now, with an explosion of rage, Darren surged to his feet and flung “Blott and Bitepenn” across the classroom. “I’m nearly thirty and I still can’t get all the answers in a book that's too dumb for little kids!”
Appalled, Terry shoved his chair backwards, ready to run for it if this man went for him.
“Those forms. Paperboy’s job? Brickies’ job? Signing on? Letters to school? I still can’t fill ‘em in. Not properly. Not without showing everyone what a thick bastard I am.”
Terry forced himself to sound calm, soothing. “I said, you’re not….”
“Slow then. Remedial. Or special. With needs. Whatever they called it then, that was what this school decided I was, and that was why it put me in classes with thugs like Geoff Young. And teachers like you.”
“They were your mates.”
Darren’s fist smashed into the desk. “They weren’t my ‘mates’. I hated them. And they hated me.”
“But, you said-.” Terry frowned in confusion, looking round the classroom, the same room he’s begun his teaching career in. They’d sat at the back, hadn’t they, Geoff and the others? And Darren…. He looked down at the desk right in front of his own, the desk Darren was standing behind now. “You sat there.”
“And you couldn’t see me.”
“Of course I saw you.”
“Yeah? You never spoke to me, not after you’d called the register. But you’d talk to them wouldn’t you, to the ‘difficult’ ones?”
“I -.You don’t understand. You have to -.”
“You know they used to laugh at you, Geoff and the others? Because you were so easy to wind up. And whenever you lost it, they knew you’d give us one of those ‘unsuitable books’, and tell us to shut up and get on with it. Geoff and his mates pissed themselves laughing ‘cause they could do that stuff with their eyes closed. But I couldn’t. And you never helped. Sit down! Shut up! Get on with it! That’s what you said.” Darren looked down at his hand, still bunched into a fist. “I hated you then.”
Terry flushed. “I-.”
“And you know what made it even worse? I knew that you liked them more than me. Because they were ‘lads’ weren’t they? If Geoff answered a question it’d be, ‘Yes Geoff. That's right Geoff. You really are quite bright, aren’t you Geoff? If only you’d try a little harder.’ You even put that in his report, didn't you? You knew he tore that up and threw it away on the way home?”
Terry shook his head. “Kids like that respond to the positive. You have to-.”
“You were grateful!”
Instinctively, Terry went to deny the accusation. Then found that he couldn’t. “Why did you come back today, Darren?”
“Had to, didn’t I? Wanted to see if you’d changed. If you were any better.”
Terry swallowed. “I am. Like I said, that was a long time ago.”
“And I’ve got a kid now. A boy.”
“Ah. Right.” Finally, Terry thought he understood. You could hide illiteracy for years from practically everyone, but not your own kids. “Will you be sending him here?”
“Already do. He started last month. Not having too good a time of it, though. Being bullied. Like I was. I’ve just been in to see the Head of Year about it before I came to see you.”
Terry’s eyes narrowed. An uneasy suspicion stirred. “Who does he have for English?”
In his head, Terry ran through his Year Seven class. “I don’t teach a Taylor.”
“He uses his mum’s name. We’re not married. He’s a quiet lad, like me when I was here. Not too good at the old reading and writing either, though he’s a lot keener than I was. I told him to ask for help but the thing is, he doesn’t think the teachers like him. ‘They never talks to me dad,’ he says. ‘I don’t think they even know I’m there.’”
He was a better teacher now. He was. But, Terry had to ask. “What’s your son’s name?”
“He sits here. Right where I am now.” Darren looked straight into the eyes of the teacher in front of him. “So. You tell me.”
There is a saying in Azerbaijan: You see the road as you go. I wonder if she had been able to see what lay before her whether she would have chosen a different path? It is hard to say, and I guess I will never know now. I don’t like her much and yet there is something about her. Possibly her head is so high in the clouds she does not fear.
This cell smells of shit and damp straw and something metallic. There is a little window set high up in the wall with the bars on the inside. On the floor lies a straw-filled mattress and next to this a plain wooden pail which serves as her nuisance bucket.
‘You remember our bargain?’ I ask.
‘Yes. I remember.’
‘I will tell you about my trips to Baku.’
‘And I will play the piano for you.’
‘I went down to the banks of the Caspian last night.’
‘Oh near. By the Maiden Tower.
‘And what was the water like?’
‘Rough. Oily. Black as tar.’
‘Did you sit?'
‘Yes, By the Shirvanshah Palace…. I drank two armudus of tea’
‘Ooh’ she sighs as if I have presented her with a diamond choker.
She closes her eyes then and I know what she is thinking. She is imagining the ripe quinces hanging in her orchard back in Gabala.
I spit a flake of tobacco out onto the dirt floor and take two puffs of the pipe.
Through the window comes the droning sound of the muezzin calling the Islamists to prayer. The fools.
‘I must pray first.’ She says.
And she unrolls her mat. A tiny thing which she must have brought with her. Along with the dress and the boots and the white stockings like some mountain maid on her way to the milking barn. I suck the tobacco through my teeth. Not much use for dresses and stockings where you’re going, madam.
So, she kneels hands above her head and kisses the mat and then stands up, prays some more and kneels again rubbing her face all the while.
‘Enough’, I cry, and she is silent then. For she knows what that means. She stands and rolls up the mat and places it under the desk.
‘You are so talented Gayibova. It’s such a shame.’
I quickly regret this last sentence as her fists smash down upon the desk. At the noise, someone cries out from another cell
‘My name is Khadija. Can you say that you stupid woman? Khadija.’
‘I know. Like the Prophet’s wife. I know…. Khadija.’ I so want to hear her play that for this night only I am prepared to humour her. ‘Shall we go?’
She continues to sit there, bolt upright, with her fists clenched tight, still resting on the desk lid for a long time, a few minutes perhaps. And then she pulls herself up to her full six feet in height, even taller in the stupid block heels, strides to the door and stands there in silence waiting for me to unlock it.
She walks ahead of me down the corridor back as straight as an iron girder. I follow on, dragging my bad leg behind me. She occasionally looks to the right and gives a half-hearted wave. She knows some of the women in the other cells. The familiar thump scrape of my boots and cane on the concrete alert the women to my presence and they scurry back from the bars into the shadows; like cockroaches doused in oil. A spineless coven. Their finery now in ruins: skirts crusted with shit and mud from the floor, hair straggled and left to silver. Faces spectre-white from lack of sunshine. Sometimes, to upset them, I bang the knob of my cane on the bars.
I can tell they do not like her though. The women. A couple of them wave but most do not look up. I think they believe her too haughty, too above her station. With the stupid dress and the boots and the white stockings. Who does she think she is any way? They never express it to me, but I can tell. Oh, they hate me, but I think they dislike her almost as much. Perhaps they do not want to be tainted by her treachery. Most of them will be let out in a few months, once their husbands have been executed. Or perhaps they feel there is no point in greeting a condemned woman. It is hard to tell. The corridor is almost thirty metres in length. Apart from the occasional clamour of buckets against bars and the soft crying and keening of a few of the older women, the cells are mostly quiet. Gilded in the sunset, her fair plait shines like a crown.
I keep the piano in my office at the end of the corridor. It was my father’s and was handed down from his father before him. Rumour has it that it was removed from a bar during the Crimean war and carried to our family home in St Petersburg by four deserting soldiers. I had eight men transport it from St. Petersburg to here. My father played it from childhood. At the thought of him my hand flutters over the locket wherein lies his picture. It is a grainy photo of the back of his head. He wears the cap of the soviet army, and he is playing Kalinka. Many think it strange that I should only have a photo of the back of my father’s head, and stranger still that I have a picture of St Piotr in the other half. But old habits are hard to break.
The door falls open with a satisfying click. She rushes to the stool and begins playing something I have not heard before. Unmistakably a Turkic tune. Swaying and lilting to it whilst her thick fair plait, reaching almost to her waist, slides around her back like a coil of oiled rope.
‘Not that.’ I cry out.
She probably does not hear me for she carries on regardless. So engrossed is she in the melody.
‘You know the man of steel was kept here?’ I know that will grab her attention.
‘What. Stalin. Here?’ The blue eyes widen.
‘Yes, in block 12. Cell 3’
‘When?’ She shrinks back as though the keys have burned her fingertips.’
‘Oh, way before your time.’
‘He was protecting miners’ rights.’
‘Hah,’ she snorted, ‘that evil Georgian dwarf couldn’t protect his own mother’s goat.’
‘Well, you may be twice his height but you’re the one locked up now. Just remember that.’
‘What shall I play?’ she asks wearily as though resigned to the fact that she must keep her side of the bargain.
‘Kalinka’. I reply. I am not totally sure, but I think I detect the hint of a smirk playing on her lips.
‘You want a Russian folk tune?’ she asks.
I say nothing to this and simply watch her stretch her fingers over the octaves just like Papa used to.
‘There are two keys missing’ she says.
‘Two white keys. Look. Here and here.’
‘Oh yes.’ I do not mention the reason for their absence. Do not mention that the keys were broken when I pulled down the lid on the hands of the last person to play in this room. The two white keys were crushed along with the two white fingers.
‘Play the black keys only then.’ I pull on the stem on my pipe. She appears to ignore me and starts to play in the key of D minor. There seems to be a slight tremble around her mouth as I bring down the brass end of my cane onto one end of the keyboard.
‘Remember why you are in here.’
‘I do not know why.’
‘You are a traitor and a spy.’
'No. My only crime is to compose Mughrab.’
‘What those shit Azeri folk songs?’ She says nothing. ‘You only play Russian songs now. Anything else is anti-Soviet.’
‘They are backward. Full of superstitious nonsense.’
‘No!’, she wails, ‘No. No. No. You are wrong.’
I do not correct her. For I know there will be no more Azeri folk songs. Not tomorrow nor any other day. Tomorrow the keys will be silenced.
‘So, play Kalinka now. With the black keys only. Please.’ She looks me full in the face then. The eyes flash blue like the tiny flames at the base of Fire Mountain and the corners of her mouth have turned up again, in that smirk I have come to know so well. But, nevertheless, she plays the tune with the fluency and passion that she accords all her performances and when it is over, I nod to her to indicate my satisfaction.
There is a light rap on the door. Khadija Gayibova stiffens.
‘I have a surprise for you.’ I open the door and in runs the daughter. They are bound together by the door with love and smothering kisses, and I remove myself as I feel a lurch in my stomach of disgust and not a little envy at the same time. How pathetic it is to be so jealous of a condemned woman I think to myself as I hobble to the sofa in the alcove at the far end of the room. From here I can just about catch what they are saying:
‘Oh mama. You look well. It is so good to see you.’
‘Oh, my sweet. Your cheeks are red. Have you been running?’
‘Yes. I ran all the way from school. Miss Aleyev let me out early.’
‘That was kind of her.’
‘Well, yes. But she gave me the ruler this morning. Look here at my hands.’
‘Oh no. Why?’
‘I kicked Nazir Malikev in the private parts.’
‘What on earth for?’
‘He said some terrible things.’
‘What things my Balim?’
‘About you. That you are a traitor….’
And then Gayibova moves round to comfort the girl and she wraps her arms round her and kisses her head.’
‘Two minutes.’ I call out to the far side of the room and they both look over at me as if they have seen me for the first time. And again, I feel how shameful it is to envy a condemned woman.
Once the daughter has departed, we walk back to the cell: her, three strides ahead, me behind dragging the useless foot along with the familiar thump swish rhythm on the dusty floor. All the cells are quiet. Just the occasional rustle and shady movement in the black corners where the rats scuttle.
I unlock the door to the cell and light the flame in the paraffin lamp on the shelf.
‘You didn’t tell her?’
‘No.’ she sighs.
‘She will find out soon enough. And maybe…’
‘No. No maybe.’ I press some fresh tobacco into the pipe bowl and light it from the lamp with a taper.
‘So, what do you want? For your last meal?’ I ask her but she stares for a long while through the window and I think she is not going to answer.
‘Plov’ she says after some moments.
‘Fine. That’s easy. Rice and meat.’ In the lamp glow her eyes glint like a blade betrayed behind a robber’s back.
‘With apricots and roast chestnuts from Taza Bazaar. Oh, and halva for dessert. And some Azeri wine.’
So still the old spark then. I have tried my best to choke it but, like the tiny blaze on Fire Mountain, it seems unquenchable and perpetual.
She seats herself at the desk, staring out into nothing. Her back as straight as a flagpole, her torso sways to a silent rhythm dipping and straightening as though possessed by something supernatural and her fingers dance like dervishes upon the battered wooden desk. She is composing a new tune: a brand-new tune to sing at dawn.
‘Hey, it is you, isn’t it?’
Carole’s daydreaming in the queue at the Tesco Express next to the station when she feels a light touch on her shoulder. She spins around, and her eyes connect with a tall, grey-haired man about her own age, grinning like he’s won the lottery.
She raises an eyebrow, unsure of how to respond.
‘It’s Gareth, from Uni. 1989’s greatest dancer! Remember?’
She smiles uncertainly, but he seems unfazed by her lack of recognition.
‘Well, okay, I guess I have changed a bit,’ he laughs. ‘Gained a few pounds and lost a few hairs. But you - the moment I glanced across, I just knew it had to be.’
‘Truth told, I don’t know that I would have recognised your face after all this time, despite your lovely blue eyes and freckles. But those amazing auburn curls…’ He shakes his head, and she raises her hand and touches her hair lightly as if wary of its power.
‘Do you remember how I used to tell you you’d never get away with committing a crime with hair as memorable as that? And here’s the proof, I spotted you immediately.’ He laughs again.
She nods in acknowledgement, smiling vaguely – as you do when you’ve just been yanked out of your reverie and are struggling to reconnect with reality. It’s something she frequently experiences these days. To be expected, she’s been told.
‘Look, I can see you’re lost for words right now, and you’re just about to go through the checkout. So why don’t I wait for you outside, and we’ll chat then?’ He gestures towards the door. ‘I’m desperate to hear all your news.’
‘Oh, okay,’ she says slowly, back-footed and not knowing how to refuse. ‘I’ll see you there.’
A few minutes later, she exits the store and sees him at once despite wondering if she’d recognise him in the busy street. A canvas satchel hangs from his shoulder, but his hands are empty, while she now carries two bulging carrier bags full of provisions for the weekend. ‘All done?’ he asks.
‘Sure,’ she says. ‘But don’t you have any shopping?’
‘No. I only popped in to get a sandwich to take on the train home; you can never be sure if they’ll have anything.’
‘Home? Where’s that?’
‘Same as ever, Newcastle. But it looks like you stayed on here after Uni. Is it a good place to live?
She nods slowly. ‘The city’s changed a lot recently, but it’s still a really vibrant place.’
‘Sure is. Not that I’m here often—’ His words are drowned out by the roar of a passing motorbike. As she turns her head away, she’s jostled by a group of passers-by and recoils from the contact.
‘Not the best place to talk,’ she says, fighting back rising panic. This is the first time in weeks she’s been out by herself; all of a sudden, it’s a bit overwhelming.
‘No,’ he frowns.‘Look, I realise you’re probably terribly busy, but do you have time for a quick coffee? I feel it has to be fate coming across you after all these years, and I’d love to hear how your life’s turned out.’
‘Please, I know I don’t deserve it after how things ended, but it really would mean a lot to me.’ Now anxiety clouds his green eyes as though the demons of his past have risen to confront him. He glances around and nods in the direction of a cafe. ‘That place over there looks okay.’
She takes a deep breath. Should she? Why not? Before she came out, she told herself she had to be bold, and really, what could go wrong?
He moves a couple of paces toward the café. ‘Anyway, my train leaves in forty minutes, so you don’t have to worry you’ll be stuck with me.’ His pleading gives him a look of vulnerability, which momentarily tugs at her heart.
‘Sure, let’s go,’ she says.
Service is frustratingly slow inside the coffee shop, but at least it’s warm, and they can speak without shouting. He’s volunteered to buy the coffees, so she sits at a table, observing him in the queue at the counter. He’s lean and tanned, still in good shape for his years. He would have been a heartbreaker when he was young.
When he finally joins her, he wastes no time on niceties. ‘There’s so much I want to ask you. But first, I want to say how deeply sorry I am for what I did. I was an unbelievable bastard.’
He looks into her eyes as if expecting her to say more, but she sits impassively, hands folded in her lap, waiting for him to continue.
‘To say it was the ignorance and stupidity of youth isn’t entirely true. I was a self-centred little shit who was incapable of caring about anyone but myself. To be honest, looking back, I don’t know what you saw in me.’
He searches her face, eyes beseeching her for a reaction.
She remains aloof.
‘When you told me you were pregnant, I felt I’d been handed a death sentence. All I could think of was to run. Did you know I went abroad?’
She shakes her head slowly.
‘My parents thought it was the right thing to do, which I can see now says a lot about them. They gave me some money and arranged for me to disappear when what they should have done was make me face up to my actions.’ He shook his head. ‘Great parenting, eh? Anyway, no one except them knew where I was, which is why you were never able to track me down. I assume you tried because although nothing was said at the time, my mother admitted before she passed away that they’d received some letters from you and destroyed them rather than passing them on.’
‘I see.’ Carole nods gravely as if this news confirms her suspicions. The scenario’s straight out of a Victorian melodrama, even though it was only a few decades ago.
‘I only came back from Australia recently when she died. I didn’t have to, but something beckoned, some feeling that I needed to start putting matters right.’
He’s been torturing himself over this for a long time, Carole thinks. He needs to get it off his chest. But she says nothing.
‘You’ll possibly be pleased to know that following that auspicious start, I made a complete mess of my life. Three marriages, three divorces, two children who won’t speak to me, and a bankrupt business due to my mismanagement.’ He laughs bitterly. ‘God - divine justice, or what? Except that it wasn’t; it was me. It took me until I turned fifty to finally accept that everything that had happened wasn’t due to bad luck and fate, but my own incompetence and misplaced sense of importance.’ He sighs deeply, his eyes now fixed on the tabletop.
At last, she responds. ‘At least you’ve had that insight, regardless of how accurate it might be.’
‘Oh, it’s true, all right. And hopefully, back then, you came to the same conclusion about what I was like and didn’t blame yourself for me leaving you.’
She looks at him with a steady gaze. ‘What happened was a long time ago.’
They sit in silence for a moment, dwelling on all that’s hiding behind his words, until eventually, she continues. ‘If it helps, I believe that looking back on your life can be a good thing if it makes you resolve to do things differently and try to be a better person. Recently, I’ve been through the same process myself. What I concluded is that if you’ve still got some time left, you’ve still got the opportunity to do some good in the world, regardless of the past. And if you don’t seize that opportunity, forgive yourself, and move on, then life isn’t worth living. Perhaps, in the end, your mother decided to do some good by telling you about those letters?’
He nods, apparently deep in thought. ‘Possibly.’
Suddenly, he glances at his watch. ‘Oh my God, look at the time! I have to go, and I haven’t asked you anything about yourself. What happened after I abandoned you? Did you have the baby? ‘Are you married? Have you had a happy life?’ His questions gush forth as if from an unblocked drain.
She shakes her head. Where would she start? Marriage, miscarriages, alcohol abuse, affairs, divorce… So much to regret. ‘There’s no time for all that, I’m afraid.’
‘But I need to know I didn’t ruin your life. Please tell me I didn’t.’
She smiles. ‘You couldn’t. As I think you’ve realised, everyone’s life is their responsibility. How mine turned out is down to me.’
She holds up a hand. ‘You’ll miss your train.’
‘Can we stay in touch? Already I feel so much better for speaking to you, but I need some more answers.’
‘It wouldn’t be a good idea.’
‘Just give me your phone number so we can talk once more. Just once - then I promise I’ll leave you alone. Please, I beg you.’
‘Okay.’ She can’t risk him staying any longer, so when he hands her his phone, she punches in a number - two digits different from her own - and quickly hands it back.
‘Thank you; this means so much.’
She smiles woodenly. She feels she should respond more warmly and find some additional words of encouragement, but with mere seconds remaining, what good would it do?
Her last view of him is at the coffee shop door as he turns back to her and mouths ‘Goodbye’, raising a hand in farewell.
Later, back home at her flat, Carole collapses onto the sofa and kicks off her shoes. Her older sister, Rachel, her live-in companion since her diagnosis, appears in the doorway.
‘Hi, I thought I heard a taxi,’ she says. ‘Is everything okay?’
‘Yep, all good, though I have to say I’m exhausted now.’
‘So, how was it? Did you enjoy your outing?’
‘Sure. The city centre was a bit overwhelming after so long away but otherwise it was fine. I went in, negotiated the crowds, and emerged unscathed. I even did the shopping. So now I feel I can say with absolute conviction that I’ve joined the ranks of chemo survivors. Henceforth life will go on!’
Her sister laughs. ‘Good on you. It’s brave of you to get back on track; I’m proud of your determination.’
Carole shrugs. ‘It’s good—all good. But I think I’ll take it easy for the next few days.’ As she speaks, she reaches up and tugs at her hairline, peeling away the auburn wig. ‘I’m so glad to get this off, though. Itchy and hot just don’t describe it, although it’s still better than being bald.’
‘Yeah, but what a look you’ve chosen: carroty curls - Orphan Annie, eat your heart out!’