I’ve never liked the telephone. I prefer to see peoples’ faces, to read them, to watch them. She didn’t like them either. She’d never call us. We would have to call her. Those Sunday morning calls; stomach sinking waiting for her to shuffle her way to the phone. I’d listen intently an intonation in her voice. A clue, any clue as to her state of mind. At the end there was just the sound of her crying. No words. Just the weeping.
She is going too. She doesn’t cry but yesterday when I called she was still in bed. I’m so sleepy, she said. My eyes keep falling shut. She hadn’t even got out of bed for breakfast. Try, please try, I want to say. Try to be normal, don’t give in. Rage. Fight. It is too much. Let her be. Let it come if it must. She has had enough. Her voice has become small. I say I am coming soon. We will go to The Grand for lunch. That will be nice, she says. I’m tired now. We will talk another day. Yes. We will.
I have become a befriender. To befriend. I telephone strangers. I listen. One pours forth such a catalogue of woes, another is brave in the face of illness. Disjointed voices. I try to find a foothold. To be of use. Is it enough just to listen? Help me, she wrote. How can I? How can I?
Three days of long journeys to conduct interviews. To listen to stories. I am proposing the making of a film. The germs of an idea that begins to take hold, to take shape. Four women. Such brave, articulate women. I am humbled by their stories – somewhat akin to mine. I recognise the shame, the fear, the loss of self and the slow re-building of something like courage. Let it happen. Let it come about, somehow.
At home the wind rages. Rain pricking hard against my face. Walks of endurance. Cold and wet. My leg is injured. Referred pain from the sciatic nerve. I walk through it, feeling every step. An iron hand grips my buttock and groin. The discomfort makes me crabby. Let it be, let me walk a while in the shoes of others who are in constant pain. Just to know it. I take my speed, my strength, my strides for granted.
Yesterday, the wind was master. Dustbins lolled in the gutters. Seabirds congregated on the promenade, lifting as one like a sail as I approached. White air jetsam floating, held, caught in the wind like confetti. A slow marvel. I walked under them, momentarily crowned by the fluttering white. The sea baptised me with spray – lashing far along the prom. Just to the hut, no further. I’ve had enough. For today.
We began the film ‘Dark Matter’ last night. I didn’t know what to expect. Why had I chosen it? Not sure. Its story centres upon a group of Chinese students studying Astrophysics in the US. The main character is so captivating in his earnestness. He writes letters home – dear Babba, Mamma – enclosing food and dollar bills. They return the favour sending food parcels. He and his fellow students are always eating. Encouraged to mix they attend a church service stuffing their pockets with cakes and biscuits. Always hungry. Take some while you can. You never know. A Pause for Thought on Radio 2 given by a rabbi who runs a centre for concentration camp survivors. We never wear uniforms, or stripes or serve thin soup, she says, so as not to trigger memories. There is always food, she says, and we pretend not to notice when they fill their pockets with it. It is a habit, she says, born out of necessity.
Food. I dream of eating meat. I remember the taste of meat, distinctly, though I have not eaten it for over 25 years. Metal in your mouth. The smell of cooking mince oozes its way into our bathroom from the flat below. It makes me feel nauseous. Too sweet. They are Slovakian. A mother, a little girl and the nanny. The nanny is a delight. Probably about my age and well-rounded of hip. Her husband is back home. How she must miss him. Her face beams with joy at the prospect of going home. She is proud to be learning English. Each day another word to try out on us. Good mournink, she says, with her slow sticky voice. New car, she said a month ago, pointing at a white bubble car. New car very nice. Yesterday, I saw her clutching a parking ticket. The little girl was with her, hair in plaits under a bright pink bobble hat. Her English is perfect and the nanny waits patiently as she answers his questions. No, she says, no school today I am unwell and Mummy says I must stay at home until I am 100% well. The nanny nods at us and ushers her upstairs. Last week an empty fresh fish tray had been left outside their door. It reeked. I thought it was Copydex. On Sundays they fry onions. It makes us laugh. Heigh ho. Heigh ho.
I went for a breast screening. My first. A little portable van in a supermarket car park. No men allowed, the receptionist said, he can wait outside. Into the cubicle, take off your bra and put your top back on. Flowery curtains, a shiny chintz and a pile of Woman magazines. I sit next to a woman flicking through one, licking her fingers as she turns the pages. In out. Very quick. The machine is cold. A plastic foot comes down on one breast pressing, squeezing it hard against the radio-active plate. Relax, she says, twisting my body to face the other way. Down it comes again. I grit my teeth, hating the loss of control. Enough. Enough now.
Did I do the right thing in saying no? Follow your instincts. Listen. I did. I did. You won’t need to stress and strain, he’d said. Such a long time ago. Steven Speed. I was twenty-eight. He forgot to take the money, running after me. I like your trousers, he’d said. A soigne presence, she’d said. Back then. Back then. All I can do is my best. Try to be true, to be honest. It wasn’t for me. The money would’ve been nice but it wasn’t for me. So be it. So be it. Enough, now. Amen.