'I belong on a train,' said Megs. Dreaming of movement, she shut her eyes, sank deep into her bath. It was the best bit of her day. Her life had become so routine that week to week, day to day - minute to minute almost - she knew what she'd be doing. There was, these days, a strict timetable to her existence: get up, get children up, feed children, feed dog, clatter, bang, wipe, sigh, go to work, come home from work, feed children, feed dog, clatter, bang, wipe, sigh, slump, go back to bed. Sleep. If you can.
It was a fight against grubbiness and clutter. She hated it. Still, at least she knew when the good bits in her day were coming round. She savoured and looked forward to them. Leaning back in the bath was one. After this, there was that moment when she spread herself, unfolded herself into bed, alone in the soothing dark, waiting for sleep. That was the best bit. She was the sort of person who saved the best till last It was a lifetime's habit.
Sleep to her was a perfect thing. But then, she wasn't very good at it. She cherished that moment of waking, realising she'd been dead to the world, tranquillised by tiredness, for a few hours. The only thing she regretted about sleeping was that she was not awake to enjoy it. She longed to relish it, like she relished anything she did not get enough of. She got through night after night in a series of two- or three-hour bouts. This made her regard with envy and wonder those people who managed a sweet eight to ten hours every time they hit the sack. Her children, for example, especially little Lizzy, who was four. Nights, Megs would stand looking at her daughter - head on pillow, eyes shut, lips pursed - breathing sweetly. Megs loved to watch her lying there, making sleep seem simple.
'Definitely a train. I do not belong in this dusty box I live in, surrounded by bits of paper - bills, half-read newspapers, wrappings, supermarket receipts - paraphernalia of a life I did not plan. Oh, bugger ...' Cursing, she stiffly heaved on to one buttock and removed from underneath her bruised, raised cheek the cruelly sharp little white Corvette she'd just sat on. 'Bloody kids.' She idly sent it wheeling away from her, heading for the taps.
Lorraine, on the floor across from her, chin on knees, back against the wall, said nothing. She was used to her friend's flyaway declarations. Megs had always been this way. Megs's mother, Vivienne, worried about her. But her Aunty Betty said, 'Let her be. A bit of dreaming never did nobody no harm.' 'A bit, maybe.' Vivienne shook her head. 'But she goes too far. Everything she does, she goes too far.'
The room was thickly steamed, damp towels hung limp from the rail. There was a pile of magazines by the lavatory, an awesome row of fruit and herb shampoos; moisturisers and deodorants - avocado and glycerine, coconut and jojoba, papaya conditioner, camomile and marigold hair strengthener - on the shelf by the mirror. At the end of the bath was a multicoloured heap of sodden toys - a dumper truck, a beloved, balding one-eyed doll, a pull-along sheep. Shameless, the dog, was lying on the floor, head between his paws. He gave a single indolent flap of his tail whenever Megs spoke. She was his love.
Down the hall in the living room Megs's son, Jack, was sitting, legs draped over the arm of the chair, watching Ren and Stimpy. He drank Nescafé from a chipped A-Team mug that had been his and his alone since he was four, and that had survived Megs's umpteen attempts to see it off. It bounced on the kitchen floor whenever she accidentally dropped it Till at last she gave up accidentally dropping it. 'This damn thing will survive the holocaust. I'll emerge after the blast toothless, balding and in rags, and what'll I see? This hideous thing spotless and untouched on top of a pile of rubble.'
Every time a shriek of laughter howled out of the bathroom Jack raised his eyes in horror. He was seventeen. Parents were embarrassing.
Megs and Lorraine were drinking white wine from a box. They were discussing their day and complaining about life. Recently itseemed whenever they got together - and they got together most days - the conversation, when it wasn't about men, children or sandwich fillings, turned to, wait a minute, how did this happen? And, how did I get here? And, this wasn't what I planned.
'Oh yes.' Megs warmed to her theme. 'I belong on a train rushing across distant continents.' Rushing, she said. Rushing. She liked that. She lifted her arms, dripping camomile-and-lavender-foamed water, and made a train-like movement. 'Rushing,' she said again.
Lorraine tutted. 'You do not have one iota of sense in you.'
'Sense,' Megs scoffed. Throughout her growing years sense had been held up as a desirable goal. A virtue to be worked for and treasured. But now she was having doubts about it. 'Comes a time in your life when you have to abandon sense.' She turned on her side, causing a small, scented wave to sweep over the edge of the bath, soaking the floor, and indicated the room and the flat beyond with a dismissive flap of her hand. 'This is what sense gets you. A box that costs a fortune. A small cluster of undistinguished rooms that you fill with your consumer goods and your arguments. Sense got me an ex-husband and a small brood of children whose only accomplishments as far as I can see are growing and eating. Sense! Fuck sense.' With a deep, throaty sigh she leaned back in the water. 'I love baths. You can do some serious thinking in a bath.'
She had spent the afternoon washing Mrs Terribly-Clean Pearson's kitchen floor, waxing her coffee table and matching pine bedside cabinets, wiping down her stair banisters, hoovering, cleaning her bath, squishing blue stuff down her loo, polishing the windows, changing the beds and ironing half a dozen identical white shirts for Mr Terribly-Clean Pearson to wear to work. After all that effort the place looked exactly as it had when she arrived three hours before.
'I really deserve this. A glass of something alcoholic and a hot tub.'
'Maybe you just belong in a bath,' Lorraine offered. She drank her wine. 'God, this is vile.'
'Well, go buy a bottle of something better, then.'
'I can't. I'm in the bath.'
'Well, I can't be bothered. I'll just have to put up with this. AnywayI don't feel so guilty about drinking this early in the day if I'm drinking something I don't really like.'
'Well, you've got to feel guilty about something. You're a woman, it's your job.'
Megs knew about guilt. She was good at it. Every night in bed she'd do a rerun of her day - what she'd eaten, things she'd said, what she'd done, what she'd not done. Tomorrow she'd make up for her failings. Tomorrow, always tomorrow, she'd exercise, first thing - fifty squats and a hundred sit-ups every morning as advised in the 'Gorgeous Thighs in a Fortnight' article she'd read in one of Just-Keep-It-Above-the-Dysentery-Line McGhee's magazines. Tomorrow she'd allow herself absolutely no chocolate or biscuits or anything in any way likely to do unkind things to her hips. Tomorrow she'd clean the kitchen floor and remove the decaying thing, whatever it was, that was lurking damply at the bottom of the fridge. Tomorrow she'd keep her cool and she would not bawl at her kids. She wouldn't stay up late, sitting bleary-eyed on the sofa, drinking too much coffee, watching dreadful old films on television, keeping her feet warm the while by shoving them under the dog. Oh yes, tomorrow she'd get her life in order. 'Sod guilt,' she said before slipping down under the water. She rose, soaked and gasping. 'I'm back on my train.'
'Rushing?' Lorraine asked, reaching for the box.
'Rushing.' Megs smiled. 'Over strange terrains, watching new colours, listening to wonderful languages that I shall never learn, and feeling always, always slightly afraid.'
Lorraine leaned through the steam to refill her glass. She was taller than Megs, thin-faced, dark-haired. 'Fear?' she said. 'You? You don't know the meaning ...'
'Being slightly afraid isn't fear. It's wonderful. A certain uncontrollable trembling in the tummy. It's dealing with mystery, strange destinations, the unknown. Fear isn't like that. It's a sweat that reaches into your palms. It's knowing your knees aren't going to hold. It's a vile curdling in your stomach and it's humiliating.' Megs looked at her, dark eyes, mascara oozing in the heat and damp. She smiled, a perfect row of gleaming ceramic caps. A present from Megs to Megs on her thirty-sixth birthday. Time, an absurd diet that she inflicted on herself while insisting her children eat healthy vegand pasta, and a bitter, tear-sodden fracas with her ex-husband had ruined her natural set.
Lorraine and Megs had met thirty-four years ago on their first day at school. They'd been best friends by lunch time, sharing a desk and, at break time, a KitKat and a bag of roast chicken crisps. In those days that was all it took. Bonding only needed a shared smallness in a vast and scary world and a mutual passion for American cream soda and raspberry ripple ice cream.
'Do you like American cream soda?' Megs asked.
Lorraine nodded enthusiastically. 'Yes, it's my favourite.' This was serious.
'Mine too,' Megs agreed. 'You can be my best friend.' She added, 'For ever and ever.' It seemed like a fine idea to Lorraine, who was looking for someone to be her partner in the line out to the playground. Years passed and shared experiences on the way to being grown-up - first boyfriends, first bras, first cigarettes, first sex, first love - deepened the relationship. Now, here they were, facing forty, still best mates, and not a drop of American cream soda had passed the lips of either for years and years and years.
Friendship was so simple then. The older Megs got the harder she found it to make new friends. If only she could ask some stranger she thought had pal potential what was her favourite drink - vodka and Coke? gin and tonic? wine? What was her favourite ice cream - pralines and cream or Belgian chocolate? Favourite sandwich filling? Favourite television programme? Favourite sexual position? If you could ask someone you fancied for a chum these things and found some common ground then maybe you could make new friends easily As it was, though, meeting new people always involved small sorties into emotionally safe conversational ground: the weather, holidays, the infrequency of buses. No wonder folk were lonely.
Lorraine thought Megs the bravest person she knew. All those years ago, first day in class, their teacher had said, 'Hello, boys and girls. I've still got to learn all your names. But I'm Miss Watson and when you talk to me, you put your hand in the air. You only speak when I tell you to. And you call me Miss.' She leaned back brightly folding her hands on her desk. That was clear and simple, was it not?
Megs stuck her hand in the air. 'Why?' she said, eager to be told,little voice, shiny eyes. This was puzzling, putting your hand up, calling someone who plainly had a proper name Miss.
Miss was stumped. 'Because you do,' she said. 'It's the rule.'
Megs's hand shot up again. 'Why?' she asked.
'Because it is. We need rules, you know.'
Up went the hand again. 'Why?' Again.
'Because we do. Without them there would be anarchy. Absolute anarchy.' She shook her head at the thought of it.
'Miss.' Megs raised her hand. 'What's an ... an ... that thing you said?'
'I'll tell you later, when you're old enough to understand.'
'I'm old enough now. I'm big. I'm at school.'
'You are disrupting class.'
'No I'm not.'
'You are. And do you know what happens to people who disrupt class? They get put in the corner.' So, within an hour of starting her education, Megs, the budding anarchist, was put in the corner.
'There is always one,' said Miss.
Megs was the one. She was the one then. She was still the one. Her bravery went on and on, Lorraine thought. Christ, she hadn't the nerve to do half the things Megs did. The only braveish thing she'd ever done was to run away from her husband, Harry, with a poet she convinced herself was her one true love. The heated romance hadn't survived the poet's arrogant disregard for regular meals or the chill of his unheated squat. She took Megs's glass. 'Ready for a refill?'
'When am I not?' Megs said.
Megs drank too much. She knew it, worried about it and warned herself regularly that she ought to stop. But she never did. She tempered it, controlled it, recognised that moment when she should place one firm hand over the top of her glass and with the other wave away refills. But she still could not deny that longing, when faced with a glass of something alcoholic, to drown herself in it. She was in constant pursuit of that moment when the spirit took hold and her feelings lifted. A sip and she felt better. Another, even better. Then she would feel it - for it was a real thing to her - that moment when she didn't care. When she smiled and laughed and thoughtperhaps she wasn't such a failure after all. That wonderful, alcohol-induced twinkling when she actually liked herself.
'You drink too much,' Vivienne, her mother, worried.
'Rubbish,' Megs countered.
'You should be ashamed of yourself. You sleep around and you drink all the time.'
'What a slut you must think I am. And you brought me up, too. Nothing out of ten there.'
'How dare you speak to me like that? I'm your mother.'
'I know, Mother,' Megs said. 'You certainly don't seem to think very much of me, do you? So who's failed - you or me?' Then before Vivienne could answer, Megs corrected her. 'Actually, you've got it wrong. I don't sleep around. Haven't ever, as a matter of fact. No, I drink around and sleep alone. It's the healthy option, don't you think?'
'No, I don't. I'm not so stupid as you think. I've seen a thing or two in my time. I'm sixty-three, you know.'
Hardly a day passed when Vivienne did not, in a fiercely indignant tone, tell somebody her age. Sixty-three, how dare that happen to her? Sixty-three years, and she'd spent the last thirty-nine of them watching her daughter careen through a life that was not a planned, step-by-step journey to some sort of sane, safe destiny but was instead a set of furious impulses.
Megs had left school at seventeen and turned down a good university place to sing with a rock'n'roll band. When that had fallen through, when the dreams of stardom and riches did not materialise, Megs married and started a family When the family needed money, Megs started work at a mail-order market garden. A job she loved and was good at. Then she'd succumbed to one of her outbursts. She'd been swept along by the undertow of rage that bubbled constantly just beneath the cheery façade she showed the world. The fury and frustration she felt at living a life she considered a failure came hollering out. Megs had lost that job, and now she cleaned.
Vivienne shook her head when she thought about it. Her son, who'd worked so hard at school, had gone to university, then, as soon as he graduated, or so it seemed, had gone to live in Australia. He'd married and now had two golden-haired, bronzed childrenwhom she hadn't met and who called her their Scottish Granny Megson. Her beautiful daughter, who had bounced so gleefully in her morning cot, whose first tooth was wrapped in tissue in a tiny, dark-blue padded box in her dresser drawer, who'd fallen from a swing and broken her arm, who had worn a frilly pink frock covered with pale blue daisies to her first school party, who had won the local church talent contest singing 'People', 'Peepole, peepole who need peepole', when she was seven, who had brought home hand-made cards covered with hearts and stars every Mother's Day, who had handed over glowing school reports that said, 'Megs has a natural musical ability' and 'Megs's use of language is both imaginative and creative' - that daughter went into other people's houses and cleaned them. It broke Vivienne's heart. She grieved for her daughter's dreams and she grieved for her own.
Vivienne could never fully understand her daughter's lifestyle. It was the lack of a man that puzzled her. In my day, she'd think, for she knew better than to say this out loud, a man was what you wanted. You got married and that was that. But Megs got married and that plainly wasn't that. She got divorced. 'Men,' she'd say. Huffing the word out as part of a sigh. 'Men.' There was no derision in her tone. It wasn't men she didn't trust. It was the embroiled tangle of emotions that came with sharing her life with one that brought out the worst in her. She came from the Groucho Marx school of relationships. She didn't want to have a relationship with the sort of person who would have a relationship with her. 'Men,' she rasped, mostly to herself, 'you win some, you lose some, and some just stay to tea.'
Vivienne hated to imagine her life without a man in it. A man made her feel safe. She had to admit that her man, Walter, had banished himself to the garden shed when he couldn't cope with the depression she'd suffered after her hysterectomy, and had - it seemed to Vivienne, anyway - spent a deal of his life in there ever since. She wished Megs and Walter would become close. They couldn't make up their differences. There were no differences to make up. It was their isolation from each other they had to resolve. Walter hadn't bothered much with his daughter when she was small, preferring instead to dote on his son. Vivienne had taken charge of Megs's upbringing.
Before retiring, Walter had worked shifts on the railway, soVivienne hadn't seen much of him. But still, he was there most evenings, in the armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace from her armchair. He'd read the paper and smoke. Then, about nine o'clock, there would come from behind the paper a deep breathing, then a deeper breathing, then a snore. Round about eleven they'd have a cup of Ovaltine, then bed. Walter would never admit that he'd been sleeping.
'Thinking,' he'd protest night after night. 'Having a bit of a think.'
But his evening sleeps were an important part of his day. If for some reason he was denied his two or three hours slumped in his chair, he'd be grumpy all the next day.
Sometimes, when she was cleaning the living room, Vivienne would stare at the two chairs on either side of the fireplace. One day one of them would be empty. Either she or Walter would sit alone in the evenings. In the depth of the night she would reach out for Walter and put her hand on his chest, checking that it was still rising and falling softly with sleep. Checking he was still alive.
She was older than him, two years. He was seventy. She had been declaring she was sixty-three for almost a decade now and, funnily, nobody seemed to notice. If you say something firmly enough, she discovered, people will believe it. Perhaps if Megs dreamed with a little more conviction, she'd believe herself and make something happen.
Megs never abandoned her dreams. She added to them, elaborated them. Her enthusiasm seemed boundless. Only occasionally did she suffer uncontrollable bouts of reality. A running rush of truth. The grim reality of the life she led, the job she had would arrive in her head and refuse to go away. 'This is me,' she would say. 'Thundering towards forty, three living children, one not living any more, a cluttered, noisy flat with a view of the cluttered, noisy flat across the road, a mucky job that does nothing for my nails, a cantankerous car that does not love me, a cantankerous mother who does and wants too much of me, and ... Oh God.'
It was all too much. If she got a gushing bout of truth when she was at home she'd pour herself a glass of cheap plonk and wish it away If it hit her when she was at work then she'd shout out, 'Oh God, no.' Or, 'Sod all that.' It was whilst suffering one of these truthbouts that she lost her job at the market garden on the outskirts of town. But that was a bout that could be forgiven.
It was after Thomas died. Six years old, he suffered for his wild imagination and impulsiveness. He had not waited at the school gate for her to come and collect him and had set off for home alone. Swinging his purple and black canvas school bag and mumbling to himself, he walked to the crossroads. Without properly checking the traffic, he stepped from the pavement. He had not made it to the other side.
For months after the funeral Megs sat all day at home on the sofa, staring. She wasn't even aware of the silence that filled her life. Neither Lorraine nor Vivienne could get through to her. They felt they stood on the edge of her life, watching her from across the room, whispering concern. 'Has she eaten?' 'Did the doctor give her something to make her sleep?' 'Has she taken it?' After the initial flood of sympathy cards, friends stopped calling. The doorbell stopped ringing. The phone was lifeless. On the rare occasions she did go out, people crossed the road when they saw her coming. They did not know what to say to her. Her tragedy was beyond their conversational range.
The pain, it seemed, was always there. First thing in the morning it was there. Sometimes when she woke and grief was rumbling through her, as it had been all night, even when she slept, she'd think: Why do I feel like this? Then she'd remember and start sobbing and rolling her head back and forth on the pillow. 'Oh no. No. No. No.' For months and months the only relief she got was that small moment between waking and asking herself what it was that made her feel so bad.
She couldn't accept the child was dead. Couldn't say the word. She'd look at the clock. 'Ten past three,' she'd say. 'Time to go fetch Thomas.' Or she'd serve up four plates at supper time instead of just three. Hannah and Jack, her other children, would stare at the plates and say nothing. But neither would they eat.
The pain was physical. It made her stoop. At last she went to the doctor.
'I think there's something wrong with my heart,' she told him. 'I think I'm going to die.'
He listened to the pain, and touched her chest. Long fingers, cool hands.
'You're not going to die,' he said. 'I know you want to but you're not. I'm sorry, but you're not.'
For a moment she looked mildly surprised at him. 'Is that where my heart is?'
'I always thought it was lower down.'
He smiled. 'No, your heart is there and it's fine. It's doing well.'
'But it hurts. It really, really hurts.' She thought she was going to cope with this conversation, but lost control of her voice. It slipped off the rails into grief. Her throat blocked and she cried.
'You thought a broken heart was a metaphor, didn't you? It isn't. Sometimes people suffer real pain as if the heart was ruptured.' He looked at her. A healthy heart he knew would chunter on. Stomachs were different. Stomachs actually went pale with loss, bled with anger. 'Are you eating?' he asked.
'I should. Somehow I've forgotten how. Lost the knack of it.'
He gave her something to help her sleep. She refused antidepressants and returned to her sofa.
Vivienne phoned Aunty Betty. 'She just sits. It's not right. She's got other children. I can't fetch and carry any more like I used to. I'm sixty-three, you know.' She and Lorraine had been taking care of Hannah and Jack between them. They worked out a routine. Lorraine dropped them off at school in the morning on her way to work. Vivienne brought them home. Lorraine shopped, Vivienne cooked.
'Leave her be,' Aunty Betty said. 'She'll come to herself.'
But in the end Vivienne did not leave Megs be. 'Snap out of this,' she said stiffly. 'You have other children. Remember them? They really need you. All you do is sit about all day in that old dressing gown. Moth-eaten thing.' She tugged at the sleeve of Megs's pink towelling robe.
'You may not have noticed, Mother,' Megs sighed. 'But the style police don't come round this neighbourhood.'
'I hate you in it. And you have the baby to think of.'
Megs stared at her. It was the first time either of them hadmentioned her pregnancy, though it was daily becoming more and more obvious. The baby was as yet a bulge. But it was a bulge that caused small signs of disapproval - stiffening of the shoulders, tightening of the lips - in everyone who observed it.
Vivienne did not ask who the baby's father was, and neither did Lorraine. They both knew. It was Mike, her ex. There was something about the shifty way he and Megs eyed each other whenever he came round to collect Hannah and Jack on Saturdays. He would cast a slow, shameful eye across her stomach, and she would sigh, that small, resigned sigh of hers. Fine mess you got me into now, sort of thing, Vivienne thought, watching her.
Four days after the funeral Mike had come to the flat. He wanted some pictures of Thomas. He wanted something that had been Thomas's - a toy, a drawing from school - something to treasure. And he wanted someone to talk to.
Denise, his new wife, tried to share his sorrow but she could not reach him. He was in a turmoil of bewilderment, rage and sorrow that was beyond anything she had experienced. She could not plumb the depths of his wretchedness. When she saw him go to Megs, she felt glad, guiltily glad. She could watch a soap or laugh at a sitcom without suffering any self-recrimination. After he left she settled down to indulge herself with a video, a gin and tonic and a few hours free of torment.
Mike and Megs sat side by side on the sofa, looking through a photograph album. He chose as a token of remembrance of a lost love a picture of Thomas, three years old, wearing his navy cord dungarees tucked into his shiny red wellies, and his little duffel coat, offering a lump of bread to some belligerent ducks in the park.
'That's Thomas. Nothing put him up nor down,' he said, putting the photo on the table beside one of Thomas's drawings from school, an illustrated list of his favourite things, a crayoned, childish scrawl. 'My favourite things are - Shameless, toffee pudding, purpl things, football, trees, my frend Brian and cartoons.' He'd drawn Shameless looking large and shapeless beside a tree - thin brown trunk and rounded fuzz of green leaves atop.
Megs held the slightly tattered bit of paper. 'We should have looked after this. It's precious. You never know. Never know.'
Mike put his arms round her. Held her, put his lips against the top of her head. They rocked together, a slow, woeful movement. Hannah and Jack were with Vivienne. She brushed his neck with her lips. There was solace in the way he gently stroked her back.
The sex they had started as a comfort. The nearest thing either of them had got to sucking their thumbs in years. They were two despairing souls momentarily losing their sorrow in each other. There was a moment when they each lost control, started to shake and cry out. Not an ecstatic howl, just an anguished shriek from within. When they were done, they were weeping. It was quickly over. Afterwards they sat like guilty teenagers, adjusting unbuttoned shirts, crumpled skirts and tousled hair.
'Oh God,' said Megs. 'What a thing to do.'
Mike said, 'Sorry.' Then he asked if she had anything to drink in the house and went to fetch some whisky and two glasses.
'I sometimes think that was the only thing we ever did well together,' Megs said.
Mike did not answer. He finished his drink, gathered his photo and drawing and left, saying sorry again. 'And sorry about the tooth. Sorry.'
On the day Thomas died Mike had come round deranged with grief. When he discovered that Megs had been late picking Thomas up from school he'd swung at her. And missed. Megs stepped back, lost her footing and hit her mouth on the sink on the way to the floor.
'Oh God,' Mike cried when he saw the blood streaming down her chin. 'Oh God, I didn't mean it.'
'It's all right,' Megs said. She felt she deserved a smack in the mouth. But the pain her collision with the sink brought did nothing to relieve the guilt she felt.
He apologised for swinging at her, and for the sex they had. Looking back, she thought that all he did during their marriage was alternate between acting aloof and apologising. She never could figure it out.
They were too guilty, too shamed to discuss their moment of tormented love, even when the evidence of it became obvious. Even when Denise called Megs a disgusting, thoughtless slut for becoming pregnant so soon after her son's death, Mike said nothing.
At last, at Vivienne's insistence, Megs took off her pink towelling robe, the moth-eaten thing, and returned to work. She only lasted a day.
She'd been asked to pot on some geraniums. When she got to the greenhouse the air was heady with their tart green smell. There were more small plastic tubs of tender, tiny geraniums than she'd ever seen in her life. If she put her eyes level with the table top they stretched to the horizon.
'Can't I have some help here?' she asked Mr Hammond, her boss.
He shook his head. 'No, we're short-staffed. I need Jean in the office. Lorna has deliveries, and Cara's on the winter-flowering pansies.'
Megs sighed and started work. She gently removed the seedlings from their tiny pots and put them into larger plastic pots where they would settle and grow into saleable, robust geraniums. She held the frail tendril roots, dipped them in lukewarm water, then trailed them a second in sand. That slight weight made them sink straight, undamaged, into the hole she'd made for them. 'There you go,' she whispered to them, from a place so deep in her, her lips moved but no sound came out.
At four o'clock she once again put her eyes level with the table top and decided that the acres of geraniums still stretched to the horizon. She'd made no progress at all. 'I'm no further forward with this,' she wailed.
'Oh,' said Mr Hammond casually. 'I put another couple of hundred pots down when you were at lunch.' He jingled his car keys as he spoke. Megs looked at him mournfully. Soon he'd be driving home in his BMW. She'd take the bus, almost an hour's journey back to her flat in Stockbridge, because her cantankerous car had decided to take the day off and refused to start. The bus driver would stare rudely at her nails as he took her fare. She could never get them properly clean till she got home to her own sink and her own nail brush. Her cantankerous mother would be in the flat when she got back and would be walking round and round the kitchen table telling the children to eat their supper. 'When I was your age we didn't have lovely things like frozen hamburgers, you know,' she'd be nagging. The house would smell of overheated insides of grill pan and thetelevision would be roaring. If nobody had remembered to take the dog out, there would be a huge damp patch by the front door. And she'd be potting on geraniums for the rest of her life. She could pot on a geranium in the dark. She could do it whilst sleeping.
Her arrival back at work after almost five months' absence caused a ripple of gossip and surprise. She found it hard to live with the silence when she arrived in a room and the whisperings when she left. There was a look, she'd seen it first in the hospital where they'd taken Thomas. A slow movement of the eyes away from her eyes. It said, that look, that death has touched you and you must keep away. As if tragedy was infectious. It was, also, plain that nobody approved of her condition.
'I do not need this,' she muttered furiously to herself. 'I do not need this.'
Jack, her oldest, seemed recently to have absented himself from the world. He disappeared to school early, came home late and spent his time at home earphones on, lost in his own rhythmic space. Hannah, two years younger than Jack, had decided two weeks ago that she was a vegetarian and that the rest of the family were gross for eating meat. She wanted to eat on her own.
Now Megs's pregnancy was bulging, and she was dreading the time ahead when the baby came. She knew well the unavoidable, draining routine that came with babies. She hated herself for how she looked. She hated herself even more for not wanting the child she was expecting. All that, and Thomas would not be there. He would not come banging down the hall. He would not argue with the others about his television programme. Or rattle through the kitchen cupboards demanding food.
'I do not need all this,' Megs said. Louder now.
Mr Hammond, on his last key-jingling round, popped his head round the door.
'No,' howled Megs. 'No way. God, what a question.' Then she gave a full-throated protest. 'I can't stand this,' she yelled.
Her voice, always one of her best features, carried well. She was heard throughout the five greenhouses, across the gardens, in the salesroom and office, and down the phones. Several customers askedin alarm as they ordered their summer bedding plants - lobelia, dwarf marigolds, begonias - what was going on. Mr Hammond boomed that Megs may have gone through a hard time but she was here to work.
'Oh, bugger you,' Megs screamed. 'I hate this. It's too much to bear.'
'Well, if you want to work here, young woman, you'll just have to bear up like the rest of us.'
Megs always wondered how people got to be the way they were. How did this man turn into such an absurd bully in a suit? She would try to imagine people in authority as they might have been years and years ago in primary school. This patriarchal man had once been a spiky-haired, skinny-kneed boy who snivelled at the gate when his mummy let go of him. He had been a whisperer of tales to teacher and grubby rumours to his pals. Now here he was, a grandiose being in a suit who got irritated simply at her presence in the world, who could not even tolerate her relatively inconsequential refusal to do what he wished her to do. To pot on geraniums, smiling. And grieve politely.
'Oh, bugger you,' Megs spat.
'Just what are you going to do if you lose this job?' Mr Hammond wanted to know.
'I don't need you.' Megs was sure of this. She banged her chest defiantly with her fist. 'There are millions of things I can do,' she bawled. Remembering this moment would, for years and years afterwards, embarrass her. 'I can scrub floors,' she boasted.
'You said what?' Vivienne could not believe it when Megs told her. 'That was a good job you just threw away. And you in your condition.' She considered the absurdity of her daughter's outburst, and the state of her kitchen floor. 'You have never scrubbed a floor in your life.'
'I could learn. Don't tell me there's any great knack to scrubbing a floor. Any arse could do it.'
'In that case you qualify as a floor-scrubber.'
Next day, then, Megs put an ad in the local paper. 'Scrubber seeks floors. Will also wax, wipe, dust, launder, iron and polish. Well-greased elbow. Distance no object.'
A couple of months later she was waddling heavily through strange houses, watching new lifestyles. Cleaning suited her. Or at least the mindlessness of it, the repetitiveness of it suited her mood. She was in too much despair to want to do anything more taxing than wiping, dusting and ironing. She, who rarely lifted a finger in her own home, did not mind cleaning up after strangers. And her strangers did not mind her, her grief or her pregnancy.
Six weeks after Lizzy was born, Megs went back to work. The baby went with her. She cleaned for Mrs Terribly-Clean Pearson Wednesday afternoons and Monday and Friday mornings; Mrs Emotionally-Deranged Davis Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons; Ms Just-Keep-It-Above-the-Dysentery-Line McGhee Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings; and after today Hundred-Miles-An-Hour Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons.
Megs moved her arms in the bath, making small ripples waft round her. 'I feel life returning,' she sighed. 'I'm beginning to think I may be human after all.' She soaped her arms and hummed a snatch of a song that had drifted into her head.
Lorraine drank and joined in. 'Brie and chopped apple,' she said, 'on a bed of shredded lettuce, with a light vinaigrette and a slice of crispy, maple-flavoured bacon.'
'That'd be nice.' Megs nodded dreamily. 'Chicken marinated in soy sauce and ginger, grilled and chopped, mixed with a lightly curried mayonnaise and bamboo shoots.'
'On a wheaten bun?' Lorraine was keen to get all details perfect.
'No, sesame. Sesame with chicken.' Megs thought. She returned to her tune. Then, 'We could call it the Dixie Queen.'
'I like that.' Lorraine nodded and hummed along. They were still dreaming of sandwiches. Their sandwich bar plans were endless. It made them happy.
Megs stopped humming, reached for a towel and heaved herself, dripping from the tub.
'Hey, guess who I'm cleaning for now.'
'Who?' said Lorraine.
'Really?' Lorraine was thrilled. 'Have you been to his house? What was it like?'
'Full of things,' Megs said. 'Walls covered with pictures. Books. Clutter. Staff your granny threw away. He's a messy bugger, though.'
'And have you been to his bathroom? Does he have a comb?'
'Lorraine, I just had a quick look round. We only spoke for about ten minutes.'
Everyone knew Hundred-Miles-An-Hour. He was famous about town, well, at least their bit of it. He cycled uphill to the university in the morning and downhill going home at night. Uphill in the morning the effort creased his face and shoved his hair towards the heavens. Downhill in the evening the force of the prevailing wind pushed his hair even more dramatically upwards. He never seemed to think to fix it. He had, then, a constant expression of surprise, hair swept back as if he were travelling at great speed. Hundred-Miles-An-Hour. Gilbert Christie he was, but people only called him that to his face.
'He's a bit professorish. Know what I mean? Distracted if you're being kind. Daft if you're not. He's not my type.' Then, changing the subject, for she did not enjoy talking about her work, 'Hey, Lorraine, pour us another before my mother comes home with Lizzy and Hannah.' She put on the towelling robe her mother hated so much, and considered without mercy her body. 'Christ. Look at me. All cellulite and flab. I'm drooping. Gravity is cruel.'
'Middle age,' said Lorraine. 'Soon you'll have to start walking around with your arms folded under your tits to keep them up. You'll be standing at the door gossiping with your tits propped on your forearms. And walking along the street the same way. And running for the bus.' She demonstrated. Folded her arms and ran up and down the room, though it took only four steps to get from one end to the other.
'That'll be me.' Megs folded her arms and went into the hall, where she would get a full six steps. Up and down she ran, and into the living room. 'Look at me.' She danced, arms folded, tits propped. 'It's the middle-aged woman's jig. Arms folded, tits ahoy, here we go.'
Jack sneered, aimed the remote at the screen, switched off the set and left the room. Lorraine joined in, sashaying up and down tobump folded arms, then back down the room again. Back up again and bump again. They giggled.
'The pair of you. What are you up to?' Vivienne said. They had been too busy dancing to notice her coming in.
'It's a jig,' said Megs. 'Arms folded, saving-tits-from.-gravity sort of thing.' She stopped dancing and panted.
'Will the pair of you ever grow up?' Vivienne looked at them witheringly. She stormed across the room, put on the television and showed Hannah and little Lizzy the sofa. 'Sit,' she ordered. Then, rounding on the two drunken dancers, 'And you,' pointing at Megs, 'shouldn't you be ready? Isn't it Glass Bucket night? I'm here to baby-sit. And your father will be along in a couple of hours.'
Megs always thought her father came to see his grandchildren, not her. He was especially fond of Lizzy. He'd call her name and hoist her into the air. 'Where's my little girl then?'
Vivienne heaved in her breath and disappeared into the kitchen. 'Wait till I tell Aunty Betty about this. I have never seen the like in my life. And I'm sixty-three, you know.'
Copyright © 1997 by Isla Dewar.