This Story Could End in Tooting Bec
She agrees with her GP. She can start long books. She didn’t get this far without knowing something and she knows she is good for thirteen more Christmases, or so. No sign of cancer of the anywhere nor bones that might snap at any time like a dry biscuit. She wants to last, last, last, face to light, thoughts better. To be in her eighties and to feel so right, so bloody well good and right at last. It has been a long time in coming, this blooming of hers, if that was the right word for it, there had to be a better one. O, little flower she.
This story could end in Tooting Bec, close to the newspaper seller there who has a stand in front of the tube station and this stand is currently resembling a nativity stable which is fine by him because it’s nearly Christmas and that’s the effect he’s going for. His wife has given him an oil-soiled wooden planter from the back of the garage along with the granddaughter’s bong-eyed doll that she won’t play with anymore because it’s not pretty. The wife chucked the donkey at him too, Don the donkey, who they’d brought back from Spain in those brilliant days when she was up for it. Back in those days when she could fit in a plane seat without larding her hips. The newspaper seller likes to get with the spirit of the season, though for all the other years he’s been shifting papers in this spot he only tacked a couple of bits of tinsel to the edge of his little pointed roof. Mad Glo, who runs the fruit stall over the other side of the road, she does nothing Christmassy. Doesn’t have to. People want apples. They’re not buying papers any more. No need. All this iPad electronic swipe, swipe bollocks. He’s doing what he can to attract business. He’s got a Spanish Donkey in bloody Bethlehem.
He’s had to diversify in the old stock department. He’s like a one man Chinese bazaar these days. There’s not much Costco’s got that he hasn’t. And he’s got a few things more though he’s not proud. The wife took some feeding. Goes crazy at Christmas, eating, buying, eating, more eating. There was no money tree in the back garden. It was up to him to find a way around all the swipe, swipe. Their grocery bill was no laughing matter. He’s got the stuff you can’t get at Costco under the bong-eyed doll but little tots keep slipping their mum or dad’s grip to try to nurse the Baby Jesus with love. Bothered he is and he doesn’t like being this way. The little Lord’s lying in a manger of drugs as well as some of the straw that the wife keeps incase the hamster ever comes back. She swears it’s under the floorboards. He swears she’s eaten it. He’s not a bad man, he’s just up against it with the wife the way she is.
The story begins, and this is a definite thing, in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, inside Milton’s cottage, which can be visited by anyone with the inclination to do so and the six pounds admission fee. The two people inside the cottage are looking at each other for the first time. They have a brief history of being online Scrabble opponents. She is known to him as Lexi87 and he to her as BlankTile. She has been funny and just the right side of flirty in the few emails they’ve exchanged in the organisation of this meeting and he has assumed Lexi’s 87 referred to her year of birth and not, as he can now see, her age. Though it is not allowed, he has to steady himself by touching John Milton’s writing desk.
“Am I not as imagined?” she says.
He needs to sit in John’s chair. He needs to write an epic poem on the theme of the fall of man. He is crushed. He’d had a feeling this woman was going to turn out to be perfect. Beautiful and twenty-seven.
“No words?” she asks, and she smiles smiles at him. “Am I supposed to apologise at this point?”
“For being old.”
He’s thinking, I can’t be an arsehole. I’m angry, I’ve driven up from London for this. But I can ’t be an arsehole.
So they talk.
They walk around the cottage garden with their breath visible in the winter air, watched by a robin or, perhaps, it is the robin who is watched by them? It could have been perfect. He smokes and she doesn’t mind. They talk about Milton, his wives, his blindness, his having come here to get away from the Plague. She knows lines from Paradise Lost. They both like being inside dead writers’ houses. They’ve both been inside the same dead writers’ houses but, until now, always at different times, in different years. He feels sick and sad not because she’s not twenty-seven but because she’s not twenty-seven and she is the best person he’s ever talked with.
They go back inside and sit together on a deep windowsill. The sky behind them is pale and tinged with a kind pink.
“Well, Lexi87,” he says, and he can’t stop a laugh from escaping. She laughs with him. “I’ve enjoyed this,” he says.
“It’s been lovely,” she says. “I wouldn’t have dared do this when I was 86. It’s taken a long time for me to get here.”
They hold each other’s gaze, blue on blue.
“I’m not expecting sex,” she says. “You can relax young man.”
“I wasn’t thinking that,” he says.
“Time is a joker,” she says. “Don’t you think so?”
“I’m not sure,” he says. “Maybe it was meant to be like this?” and he realises he wants this woman, this very old woman, in his life. “I could be your friend?”
“Of course you could,” she says. “You could be my anything, Blank Tile. Most young men would gladly help me across the road or reach a tin off a high shelf for me in the supermarket but would they have me as a friend or would I, in fact, really be their gewgaw? An old but fun thing? Fun because I don’t, currently, wet myself or talk ga-ga?”
“Don’t say that.”
“You mean you wouldn’t snap me for your blog or whatever it is you’re bound to have?”
“Catch a pic with the cool old bird, skeletal in fuchsia lambswool, life-enhancing colours in swirly patterns on silk around my throat. An ancient novelty. Now there’s an oxymoron for you.”
“No denying you’re a cool old bird,” he says. “And you have a cool old eye.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Honestly?” he says. “HappySad.”
She nods, satisfied it’s an honest answer. “I want to be me, a valid person, because that’s what I am. Now let me introduce myself.”
And she does, and her real name’s nothing like Lexi. It’s a classic, fine three-syllabled name that he likes saying and say it he does for many years to come. And she says for many years to come, because she can’t quite believe it herself. “I used to not be me.”
This story does, in fact, end in Tooting Bec, but not for several years yet, and it’ll be a good quick ending when it comes. A Christmas Eve and our couple has got off the Northern Line having been to see a great play, which hasn’t yet been written, and they are now heading home. He pushes the wheelchair she sits in. She looks beautiful in a heavy red winter coat and a knee blanket that’s ablaze. They’ve emerged from the underground onto the street and she will say, “Look Blank Tile, we’ve got ourselves a white Christmas,” and here the story comes to its last breath, though of course other stories have been conceived by this one. No last breath. Not really. On average, the water we drink has passed through seven other bodies before it gets to pass through ours. Water is never new or gone and humans, heaven help us, are nothing if not watery.
This lady’s story concludes with a death. It’s a word we use. She has a happy death, a scenic death, poetic almost, With Mad Glo the fruit seller, across the road, talking to herself behind her stall all pretty with stacked fruit, satsumas, cranberries, dates, chestnuts and the soft snowflakes coming down from the sky, again.
And the newspaper seller, whose wife is off her legs now due to severe diabetic ulcerations of her calves and a few amputated toes, he sees the lady’s body falling forwards into the snow and the man beside it looking up for help, so the newspaper seller calls out and so does Mad Glo from the other side and a crate full of oranges from up high drop on Glo’s head and roll and clonk down her back, and she has an awareness that living for her is very much like having a crate of oranges tipped over her head every day when every day she is only trying to lift her face to the sun and begin again with the very best of intent. She will not bow down, beaten by oranges. Bring on the oranges. Bring on the oranges. Bring on the oranges, Glo sings out, bravely.
Shauna Mackay has stories published at Animalliterarymagazine.com and Tallow Eider Quarterly. She received her MA in creative writing from University of Northumbria. She lives in north-east England.