One of my telephone befriending clients has died. I sensed something had happened but wasn’t sure of the protocol. After three weeks of getting no reply I called his daughter. Daddy died, she said, after a fall. It wasn’t the drink. No, he wasn’t a well man. Nevertheless, he’d taken himself to Dublin, alone, but for his dog. She was getting married. He was to give her away, wearing a new set of dentures and good suit. I won’t have you giving me away in your tracksuit bottoms, he’d told me she’d said. She doesn’t mince her words, my daughter, he said. He looked so handsome, she said.
I liked him. He’d been given an ASBO, his daughter told me. They all had. They’re just old people, she said, and ill. He just spoke his mind, that’s all, she said, it’s the Irish way. Yes. I liked him. His language was colourful, certainly, but his heart was big. He loved his music, his computer and his black Labrador. He called me ‘love’. I liked that. Once when I called he was sad, but mostly he took life on, raging. I liked him. Rest in peace. Rest in peace.
When we got back into the car I could smell bleach. They’d just finished mopping the floor in Morrisons. The smell jettisoned me back to childhood. Bleach was used on everything. An odour associated with cleanliness. A friend told me that as part of her OCD she used to wash her hands with it. I can’t bear the smell. I can’t explain why.
I think about cleaners, cleaning ladies, chars. Mum used to have them, though she never worked. I can’t do it all myself, she’d say, the house is too big and I’ve got you lot to look after. I remember Mrs Carter the most fondly. She was Scottish, from Glasgow. I loved the warmth of her gentle brogue. The chrome of the bathroom taps always shone when she’d been. I wanted to miss school and be around when she was there. Friday, always a Friday. In the holidays I could be. Do you miss Glasgow? I’d ask. Oh, yes, she’d say, it’s ma home. Now get one wi’ you, I’ve work to do else yer Mother will have my guts for garters. They were never good enough for Mum. Her standards were high and exacting and I just don’t think she’d learnt to see the best in people. I knew it would come soon enough, the finding fault. I believe Mrs Carter survived the judgement and stayed until we moved. She loved her ‘girls’ in Spain, though. Two sisters. Neither could speak any English so Mum communicated with them by a series of big expansive gestures, generally pointing at things that needed special attention. Geoffrey just shouted English words at them. They grinned and giggled throughout it all. Coming to her funeral, they sat at the back and were the only ones of her acquaintance that wept.
I had two bookings for the World Service News Hour. Both about Bangkok. This is important stuff, he said as he drove me to the studio. Yes, I said. I remember. I remember listening to the World Service in Amsterdam on the canal boat. My only connection, at times, with all that I had left behind. It was a comfort. Yes? the girl snaps at the end of the phone. Can I speak to James, I have the contributor in the studio? I ask. James! I hear her call out, phone! Yes. They are important, an importance that communicates itself through an urgency, a sharpness that is rarely found here. So be it. What do I know? Yesterday, a man came to the studio to give a live piece about Welsh chapels. A gentle man with trousers that were hitched up a little too high. Coming into town is too much for me these days, my other befriending client says, everyone is racing about. Town is Camarthen. Marks was packed, she said, and it was so wet.
She is my only one now. I love her voice. Lyrical yet tender. She is shy and reticent but has warmed to me. Asking questions. Being polite. Brought up proper. After the call I notice I have perspired under my arms. Just like when I teach. An involuntary reaction. What is it? Phones, I suppose. I’ve never liked them. I cannot see peoples’ faces. I worry about whether my call is welcome, whether I am doing it right. The guidelines are vague. Be kind, I tell myself, give yourself over to the listening. Stay still. Listen. I project myself into their lives, feeling what they feel. I’ve always done it. It’s an uncomfortable way of being at times, too much, too physical, too emotional. I lose myself, my core and become as one with them. Does it make a difference? Calling my aunt, my family, does it make a difference? Is it enough just to connect? See, I think of you. You are with me now. I am with you. Standing beside you. She coughs down the phone. She isn’t well. Mustn’t complain, she says, there are many worse off. Yes, but what of you? This is about you. Talk to me. Share it with me. Let me carry it awhile. And then I grow tired and need to withdraw. I’ll speak to you next week, I say. I look forward to it, she says. Take good care, I say. Bye, sweetheart. Bye.
These warm muggy early mornings bring out lovers. I see them huddled on promenade benches. Mostly sitting in silence, they stare at the sea, beyond sleep and aimless. Time is stretched, the night extended. This morning there was a couple under an umbrella by Alexandra Hall. A black form, temporarily motionless. They finished their embrace and moved as one towards Constitution Hill. The rain misted down.
On the radio a woman is talking about having ECT treatment. Afterwards, she says, I couldn’t find my sewing things. It’s all there. A whole life in one sentence. Do women still have sewing things? My mother had a sewing basket just for mending. She kept her needlepoint and embroidery in a drawer in the lounge. Nor could I remember the names of plants in my garden, the woman is saying. I said I didn’t want it anymore, and I had three weeks with nothing. I began to cry again, to feel things, to be normal again. See, the specialist said, you need it. And I let him persuade me, she said.
Earlier, I am caught by a programme on launderettes. Yes, I remember those too. Not wistfully. They were a necessity. They were always cold, drab places, windows running with condensation. The presenter visits one in London where they have a internet café. We want people to talk, have a good time, says the owner, not just wash their smalls. On Sundays mornings in the Heaton Moor one I used to read his green book. This was before we properly got together. I read them all. They were his words. I lapped them up. It was a comfort.
Turning off the roundabout I see a small sign attached to a chicken-wired fence. Wasps’ Nests Taken, call this number.