A short story by Jacquelyn Shreeves-Lee, first published in MIR11.
Olivia’s first memory is of making mud pies in the back garden. The slimy worms squirming in the earth make her toes wriggle as she bores her T-bar shoes deep into the black, curdled soil.
Olivia is seven years old and her friend David a year older.
“Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross . . . rings on her fingers, bells on her toes . . . music wherever she goes,” Olivia sings. “I’m the best singer in the whole wide world,” she says.
“No, you’re not.”
Frowning with concentration, Olivia watches her small, clever hands gather the earth and pat it down firmly into the bucket. Tipping the soil out, she folds it into a newspaper.
“Half a crown,” Olivia says to David. “That’s half a crown, please sir.”
Olivia receives a pretend coin in exchange for a bundle of newspaper and mud.
There’s a rabbit hutch along from the kitchen door, near the corner where the brick wall bends. Uncle Tommy creeps outside with a few carrots clutched in one hand. Olivia looks at the man who has one ordinary leg and one extraordinary short leg weighed down by a heavy black boot.
“It’s to keep him steady,” her mother has explained, but Olivia doesn’t get this thing about being weighed down and keeping steady. The boot reminds her of reins and being held back.
Uncle Tommy opens the rabbit hutch and forces a big hand inside, full of carrot and frilly green bits. The rabbit scurries towards the carrots and Olivia hears the insistent sound of biting and grinding. Uncle Tommy turns. He winks at Olivia and opens the fly to his trousers. The worm he holds is long and fat and pink.
Quickly Olivia looks away. She doesn’t want to play any more. With his back to the kitchen door, David sings about London burning and when the children glance over at the rabbit hutch, Uncle Tommy has disappeared inside the house.
Dinner is fish, chips and sweet garden peas. It’s Friday, fish day. Flo Shulver doesn’t cook on Fridays, it’s an evening off and down the Chippy. Olivia asks for the tomato ketchup and when she isn’t looking, David steals a chip from the dark puddle of Sarson’s vinegar on her plate. He always does.
Aunty Flo and Uncle Tommy are neighbours who take care of Olivia while her mother’s at work. She works at Gestetner’s, the local glue factory. It’s a big red building near Tottenham Hale, Olivia remembers that, and knows the narrow kitchen cupboard where her mother hides the little glass bottles of adhesive that she brings home. They have enough glue to mend anything that breaks; teacups, doll’s house furniture, vases, ornaments and her father’s reading glasses. Her father needs his glasses to do the Pools, read the newspaper and the many letters that fall through the slot in the front door.
Uncle Tommy gobbles down his food and Aunty Flo murmurs, “Manners, Tom,” but he continues eating like he’s not seen food in a long while and eventually Olivia stops eating her supper altogether. She drops her spoon and doesn’t want to bend down under the dinner table to pick it up, not wanting to look across in the dark and see the strange worm thing.
“Pick up your spoon, love,” says Aunty Flo. “You’ll need it for your pudding.”
It’s Jam Roly-Poly. Olivia likes the jam circles that go round and round and round. With sharp green eyes, Uncle Tommy watches her, one hand shovelling his chips, the other beneath the table.
Scratching at her elbow, Olivia looks across at David, willing him to read something in her face.
“It’s all right, Ollie. I’ll get it,” and, sighing, David reaches down and brings the silver spoon up from the dark.
“Wash it off, David, there’s a love,” Aunty Flo says. With the help of her little finger, she picks at her long, narrow teeth. “That’s the only problem with fish. The bloomin’ bones.” Olivia’s dad says that Aunty Flo looks like a horse. Olivia likes horses.
David returns with the wet spoon and Olivia eats her portion of Jam Roly-Poly.
“You know what’ll happen if you eat too much Jam Roly-Poly, don’t you, Ollie?” Uncle Tommy asks, craning his head forward. “You’ll turn into a Roly-Poly yourself! Ha!” and he laughs out loud, his mouth breaking open like a bread bin, showing a clatter of yellow and gold teeth.
Aunty Flo digs him in the side. “Give over, you silly bugger. Don’t be telling the child that, she’ll go off her food.” Turning to Olivia, Aunty Flo says, “You eat up, Ollie. You need all that food inside you if you’re going to be a big, strong girl.”
“Ollie doesn’t need to be big and strong. She’s made of sugar and spice and all things nice, aren’t you, Ollie?”
Olivia is suddenly full. Her stomach heaves as though she’s been eating gravel and she vomits down the front of her pink dress, onto the carpet beneath her chair.
“Now look what you’ve gone and done,” Aunty Flo scolds Uncle Tommy and rises from the table. “Not to worry, Ollie. Accidents happen. Come on, I’ll clean you up,” and Aunty Flo leads Olivia to the bathroom. Olivia’s hand grasps Aunty Flo’s large padded palm. Aunty Flo is a big woman and Olivia likes nothing better than sitting in the warm, safe valley that is Aunty Flo’s lap.
When they return, David has fallen asleep on the sofa. He purrs, his mouth open. Uncle Tommy is watching the television, guzzling crisps from a plastic bowl, and Olivia’s mother is waiting, her brown eyes heavy and flecked with tiredness.
“She been all right, Flo?”
“Good as gold.”
Olivia has a nightmare that night. She wets the bed and tells her mother about slimy worms. Missing school the following day, Olivia says that she’s scared of the rabbit in the garden and doesn’t want to return to the Shulvers’.
The Johnson family live at the corner of Harringay Road and Colina Mews, in a tall, terraced house. Mrs Johnson has strong, stout legs and rides a bike. Lynnie Johnson wears a neat bob and plays Hopscotch with Olivia at school playtimes. Lynnie can balance on one leg to a count of nine. At the end of each school day, Olivia goes home with Lynnie and Mrs Johnson until her mother collects her. In her mother’s pockets wait packets of gobstoppers, fruit pastilles and the odd bottle of glue.
Mrs Johnson does not allow playing in the back garden or on the stairs. With thin, tight lips she says that she’s the grown-up and she knows what’s what. Olivia is given the house rules and told that hands must be washed before dinner and Grace said. The rooms with their high ceilings are draughty and the permanently drawn curtains shut out any light. Olivia suspects that Mrs Johnson thinks wicked things might creep in from outside under cover of daylight. She mutters about the bad things that go on at the Salisbury pub, the importance of keeping a clean mind and minding your Ps and Qs. In a quieter voice, Mrs Johnson also warns about loose women. Unsure of what this means, Olivia imagines the loose bodies of these women coming undone, the buttons and zips of their clothes unfastening, their skin peeling back and flesh falling apart, leaving behind mysterious puddles of snow-white bones. Sometimes the Johnsons’ house feels like a church and Olivia finds herself talking in whispers. Her mother doesn’t seem to notice her new stooping.
Over a cup of tea Mrs Johnson explains to Olivia’s mother that Mr Johnson “works up north for long stretches”. Without asking, Mrs Johnson drops two sugar cubes into her mother’s cup. Her mother doesn’t take sugar because she’s on a diet but Olivia knows that her mother is too polite to say.
The door to the garden is kept locked and there are no rabbits here but Olivia misses Aunty Flo, her horse face and the warm, safe valley of her aproned lap.
Although Olivia’s not supposed to have favourites, Andrew Keating is her star pupil. Andrew writes poetry as though he’s playing a violin and twists at his already twisted school tie when he’s thinking. He’s short-tongued and doesn’t get on with his Rs, so he asks other children to read out his poems. Slapping on gold stars like postage stamps, Olivia rewards Andrew’s consistently excellent efforts.
“Never thought I’d bag me a teacher with a handful of ologies,” Brian says and throws a heavy arm about Olivia’s shoulders. She wishes he wouldn’t but she doesn’t say. Her shoulders grow round beneath his weight.
They have very little furniture; a bed, a fish tank, a bean bag, and for months they have neither a television nor an oven.
They eat raw food, which Brian insists is good for them. People tell them how exciting it is, this starting out, setting up home, but Olivia doesn’t feel anything is beginning. Rather, things continue much the same.
At Alexandra Palace, one Sunday, they fly a kite. It is a large, red kite, a Chinese dragon that skates across the blue, white sky. A September wind is blowing hard and Brian says that this fierce wind is both a good and a bad thing.
The kite gets caught in the branches of a tree.
“Bloody kite. I knew this would happen.”
Brian paces around the foot of the tree, kicking at the trunk and yanking at the string.
“Why does there need to be so many poxy trees anyway?”
“I like trees,” Olivia says and smiles up at the kite. The kite has the guts to do what she can’t.
“Stupid thing, stuff it,” Brian says and storms off.
The silent bus ride home is mainly uphill. Their small flat rests on a rise, overlooking a wide field of allotments.
After she’s finished marking the children’s homework, Olivia stacks the exercise books in a tidy pile near her brown briefcase by the front door. She hears the sound of running bathwater, which Brian turns a vivid blue when he adds a capful of Radox.
Brian is quiet after their return from Alexandra Palace, but pokes his head around the bathroom door to ask, “I didn’t want to say anything and I know you’ll tell me if there’s anything to tell. Only I saw the box and I just wondered if . . .”
Olivia observes Brian’s worn and weary appearance suddenly replaced by the shine and sparkle of new coinage. Over the months he writes lengthy lists, ticks numerous boxes and instructs her to do the same.
Olivia loses track of the hours and when the small, wet body falls between her thighs, she slumps back and knows why this and love are called labour. For a long time, Olivia stares at the father and child.
It’s a struggle between William or Dan or Jack. Brian suggests Thomas or Tom, but Olivia doesn’t like Thomas, Tom or Tommy.
“Does it make you think of a peeping Tom? Bit creepy?” he says, but Olivia doesn’t answer.
“I like Dan. It’s solid,” she says.
“Not too desperate, then?” He laughs.
Brian sterilises the bottles, changes Dan’s nappies, treats Dan’s cradle cap and tastes Olivia’s breast milk. Strolling with Dan in his buggy, Olivia notices that the kite is still there, watching her continue, much the same.
“An only child is a lonely child. They have issues,” Brian says. “Not pointing any fingers, Ollie, but it’s a known thing.”
Olivia can only make love with the lights off; she doesn’t like being looked at, or looking, and Dan remains an only child. Olivia has her GCE A-level students at the local comprehensive and she squeezes grades from them good enough to send them on to university. Renting an allotment, Brian grows marrows, tomatoes, radishes and strawberries. The strawberries taste like petrol but Olivia doesn’t tell him this, or that there is metal in the air, pollution from the cars.
Brian talks less. Olivia suspects that he thinks she’s withholding her eggs. From behind the net curtains she watches father and son plod along in slow rhythm to the allotment, heavy steps, heavy arms, continuing much the same.
The tears won’t come when they bury her mother. They’re dammed up inside her head somewhere. Although Olivia’s movements are deliberate and slow, she often does things twice over. Speaking in a dry, shrunken voice when she gives the eulogy, Olivia recalls memories she has long forgotten. Memories of their weekly visits to Lindy’s launderette and the regular hunter-gathering for shillings, her mother’s beehive boxed backwards by the wind, her wild-cat temper and hopeless, long-playing love for Olivia’s father.
On the day of the funeral it rains and the sky is dark, but it is the only kind of day on which her mother would have agreed to be buried.
Had it been a warm, sunny day her mother would have been there, sunning herself, kicking off her shoes, sod the grass stains, having a picnic.
Her mother had found fault with Olivia, said she was haunted.
“You think too much, Ollie. That book-reading’s doing you no good. It’s giving you ideas.”
Ideas were dangerous things, could make you take flight and forget yourself.
When she was thirty years old and shortly after Dan’s birth, Olivia visited her mother, told her about Uncle Tommy. Uncle Tommy who sits in her life’s pocket like keys tearing away at the lining.
“Well, you can hardly call that abuse, can you? I mean, he didn’t touch you or nothing.”
Her mother spoke without looking at her. When Uncle Tommy died, her mother wept and sent a wreath. Olivia didn’t attend the funeral; her limbs weren’t working that morning.
“You should have gone, Ollie. Your Aunty Flo thinks the world of you. You read too much into things, always did.”
At the funeral, there are faces Olivia doesn’t know or hasn’t seen for a long time. Strangers shake her hand, nod and offer soft, shuffling words.
A week later, Brian leaves, this time for good. He says that he has had enough of pretending and that Dan is a full-grown man, he’ll understand. Olivia is struck by the smallness of the suitcase he’s carrying and realises he has somewhere to go, someone who waits for him. Without looking back, Brian walks down the garden path. He leaves the family car and climbs into the waiting minicab.
On Monday, Olivia has the front-door locks changed. Removing the fridge magnets that Brian thought very funny, Olivia feels as though she’s thrown off an outgrown girdle.
After Olivia was born her mother invested in a Playtex Cross-Your-Heart bra and girdle and although the girdle crushed her ribs, her mother declared it a lifeline.
The tilted axis that Olivia imagines running through the length of her body can now be straightened. Possibilities flurry and a rush of gladness shifts her thinking. She cancels the subscription to sports television. Next to go is the mattress. Olivia finds herself humming. This is a new kind of breathing, a genuine starting out.
Olivia allows the staff to bathe her and brush her hair. They marvel at the surprising whiteness of her teeth and the quiet glory of the tight curls she’s warred with for much of her life. Among the staff there is Maggie, the Irish cook, and Babsy, the Jamaican staff leader, and a few women from Bulgaria who do the other shifts. Claremont’s is very clean; Olivia finds that most homes for the elderly smell of urine. Dan spends a lot of time searching for a home where his mother will be happy. And Olivia is happy. She makes two friends, Henryk and Gwendoline.
Olivia’s room is L-shaped, with bay windows that look onto the back garden. Dan pays extra for the view. Olivia has sight of a pear tree that each year is jewelled with pendulous fruit, and a dazzling azalea bush that shocks with gaudy pink blooms, but it is the regular bars of soap placed in her bathroom that delight her.
Like duck eggs of cool, marble beauty they sit neatly on the basin until water spoils their sculpture, purity and perfection.
The staff assume that Olivia dislikes washing, unaware of her love of form, but Henryk understands.
Henryk is Swiss and used to be a professional opera singer. He describes himself as an artist. Olivia notes the bright, lyrical bow ties but ignores his fraying shirt cuffs.
It tickles Olivia when Henryk throws back his head and yodels. He reminds her of Frank Ifield but Henryk hasn’t heard of Frank Ifield, nor has anyone else in the home, and Olivia feels very old and foolish for mentioning his name.
“It doesn’t matter whether anyone has or hasn’t heard of your Frank Ifield, Ollie. He’s known to you and that’s all that matters,” Henryk says. Henryk tidies up Olivia’s muddles. He could have added, “Well, that’s that, then,” and folded his arms or closed a drawer or turned a key or did whatever it was that smug people did when things were sorted and settled, but he doesn’t.
Gwendoline steals things from other people’s rooms, anything bright, and hides her growing, glittering loot under her bed. Thinking she is eight years old again, she spends many nights calling out for her mother. Sometimes, windows of coherence and clarity suddenly appear and Olivia discovers that Gwendoline was once a journalist, covering war zones. Everybody in the home used to be somebody else.
There are activities: Reminiscence Mondays, bingo on Tuesdays, yoga and stretching on Wednesdays, Cluedo, dominoes and Monopoly on Thursdays and singalongs on Fridays.
The staff find money from the Monopoly bank under Gwendoline’s bed, along with a garlic press and nail clippers.
Although the staff can’t be certain, it seems that newly arrived Dexter has swallowed a domino; the double six is missing and Dexter has a habit of eating small, inanimate objects. Olivia wins; it’s Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead piping. She shines brightly.
Dan visits with his wife, Femi, their infant twins and their eldest daughter, Grace. Olivia sees herself in the curious, moon-faced child. Grace asks her questions like, “Why do you live here? How old are you? Can you swim? Do your wrinkles hurt? What is the best day you’ve ever had?”
Olivia’s best days were those when, as a child, she played with her friend David in the back garden; her wedding day, when she danced until her feet were blistered; and her very best day was the day before yesterday, when Henryk held her and whispered that she was the love of his life.
It’s true what people say about life flashing past. Like confetti, memories pour down, sights, sounds, scents, tastes and touch, until Olivia finds herself somewhere near the beginning. Her last memory is of making mud pies, her T-bar shoes boring deep into the black, curdled soil. London’s burning, rings on her fingers, bells fastened to her toes. Am. Am. Am.