There was something Margot liked about September, or at least that she disliked less than she disliked the essence of other months.
Of course there were sometimes days that still sweltered, and days when the first frosts came, and storms raged, but it was generally a month that was mild enough and cool enough. The nights had started to draw in a little, and the dawn to come a little later, but it was still too soon to dwell on that. And there were no significant dates in September. Of course, not Christmas, and not Easter. And not Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, or even Remembrance Day or Halloween. There were no particularly meaningful dates in Margot’s own family, either. No family birthdays (or only one of a cousin she had never much liked anyway), and no anniversaries of when someone had died, or someone had betrayed her. Nothing much, not sad, not happy. She could trust September.
Not that anniversaries or occasions were necessary, and not that their absence was a guarantee. It wasn’t that simple. But September was still, if she’d had to state one, her favourite month, and if people wanted to jump to the conclusion that it was because of the gold and crimson that began to adorn the trees, then she didn’t generally correct them. In fact she didn’t correct them at all. There would have been no point to it.
She didn’t have to worry too much about what she wore in September. That mattered relatively little, but it was a kind of marginal advantage.
Every morning in September, Margot could wake up, and look at the calendar, or at her phone, and think this is not the anniversary of anything. It was not the anniversary of when either of her parents died. Not the anniversary of any day pacing up a home or hospital corridor with feelings in a maelstrom or of sitting by a bedside eaten up by guilt and regret. It was not the anniversary of the day she had met Martin, nor of their first date, nor of the day when the two of them agreed they would just be friends now, and of course neither of them thought they would be. There was not the sweetness that seemed to intermingle with other people’s sadness when they remembered sad things, and there never could be.
Oh, September wasn’t completely safe. There was no guarantee that she wouldn’t hear a song, or a phrase, or just see someone wearing a particular kind of coat, or ordering a particular meal in a café, that made things fully surface again. And thoughts did not always adhere to calendars.
She doubted that anyone had any idea of what she was thinking, and it suited her better that way. She had managed to obtain the convenient joint reputations of keeping herself to herself and always being ready for a chat. Even of being a good listener. In truth, that meant she had cultivated an ability to appear interested, and to pick up on key words and make sympathetic or approving noises at the appropriate times. But she was not, nor ever had been, the kind of person who found that other people’s troubles took her mind off her own, or other people’s joys eased her melancholy.
Like many children, then and now, she had been brought up on the rhyme about thirty days hath September. At times she wished a futile wish that it had 31. Margot despised the cult of mindfulness, but was not averse to convincing or half-convincing herself she could live very short-term.
She liked routine, and was quite satisfied about the fact that her work for the local tourist board was pretty routine. Of course, it wasn’t good form to mention it, but as any of her colleagues would have confirmed, the requests that their clients, and the towns’ visitors thought were quirky and new and they had never heard before, almost always were not. Not the rumours about the headless groom who haunted Gunnelby Hall, nor the hidden garden inside the grounds of the cathedral, nor the railway line that been built but never used, nor the room in the Carlton Hotel where it was said, Queen Victoria had had an assignation with the faithful John Brown, even though it was only built two years after her death and no owner of the hotel had ever made such claims, which was not to say they had always necessarily denied them. There were both daily and yearly routines. In the first week of September, they put up the posters about the Harvest Fair at the county showground. Margot had memories of harvest festivals at school, and of singing We Plough the Fields and Scatter and Come, Ye Faithful People, Come, and of her grandfather always donating an enormous marrow. She could never quite decide if she was proud of that or vaguely embarrassed. Actually, that was how she had thought about her grandfather (her maternal grandfather – her paternal one had died before she was born) in general. She could, she supposed, have started feeling guilty about that, but there was no call for forcing such matters when she had enough guilt that came of its own volition. She’d only been a child. Children are often thoughtless. When the Harvest Fair posters came down, the Halloween Haunted weekend ones, and a few for Bonfire Night and Remembrance Day would be put up.
She was familiar with the original French words of the song My Way, where the title was Comme d’habitude, just the usual way, and she much preferred them. She knew herself she was a contradiction, though it was not intentional. She liked routine, and yet she was anything but naturally tidy, though she had trained herself at work to keep it within the bounds of endearing rather than anything that drew adverse or so-called joking comments. Occasionally, someone would refer to her as a loner, but not in a nasty way, and she generally made sure that she proved a point by going for a drink at the pub or out for a coffee with someone the next day, to stop anyone feeling they ought to be concerned.
So it was something of a shock to the system (though not a traumatic one, or at least she must act as if it were not) when she was told that she was to represent that town’s tourist facilities (or visitor facilities as they were now supposed to call them, for some reason none of them had ever quite fathomed) at the weekend convention in the county town. She supposed it should not have been, as such things worked on the so-called Buggins’ Turn basis. One had to have a certain degree of seniority or experience, but it wasn’t really based on merit. Even if Margot had “done” overjoyed, she wouldn’t have been overjoyed. She’d only been to one convention in her life, didn’t have especially good memories (though not crushingly bad ones) of it, and what others had told her didn’t make her inclined to change that opinion. But she didn’t say that. She said it was an honour (that was the kind of thing you were supposed to say, even though everyone knew it wasn’t one, not really) and that she looked forward to it (which she didn’t, but supposed she could tolerate it). The hotel element she didn’t mind. And whilst others may have groused that the glory days when such things were held in one of the posh hotels in the cathedral close or at a country house that wasn’t nearly as old as it looked, Margot was quite relieved that belts had been pulled in and it was at a modern chain hotel just off the motorway.
Naturally it didn’t escape her notice that the long weekend would straggle over into October. And October was when the (relatively) safe times ended. There were anniversaries in October. True, not this early in the month, the first one was on the tenth, but there was still something symbolic about it.
There were no official events on the first evening of the convention, but of course people were expected to “mingle”. Margot toyed with the idea of pleading a migraine but finally decided that it would probably be preferable to endure an hour or so’s “mingling” than people’s concern, real or feigned, and anyway, though she wasn’t prone to migraines, it would certainly be par for the course if she went down with a real life splitting headache.
At first she told herself that she couldn’t possibly have seen Martin on the other side of the bar. But she knew it was. It wasn’t even so much his face, his features, as the fact that he apparently still had a taste for pale blue trousers and a dark blue pullover, his go-to version of smart casual, and he still drank whisky and orange juice, a combination that always made her feel vaguely unwell, though she was fine with each part separately. Oh God, that’s all I need, she thought. Was the smartly dressed woman whose roots needed re-doing, who was chatting to him his significant other? She didn’t rightly know if she hoped so or not. She wondered if it were too late to slip away with that assumed migraine. But his voice boomed across the room. When she thought of Martin as a boomer, it wasn’t because of his date of birth, though she supposed he might just about have qualified at the latter end of it, and probably worn it as a badge of honour. She hadn’t time to think about whether it was the nauseating mixed smells of whisky and orange juice and aftershave that smelt cheap but probably wasn’t, or stress, or the fact that she was ill after all that made her suddenly buckle, only vaguely aware of people saying the kind of things they were supposed to like, “Give her air” and “Don’t panic”. When she woke, or came to, she was lying on her bed in the reassuringly impersonal room, but Martin wasn’t there, nor was anyone she recognised as hotel staff, nor even a doctor. But she wasn’t by herself. Her mother and father were there, hovering over her bed. And with an absurd clarity of thought, if not of resolving that thought, she wasn’t sure whether hovering was just a turn of phrase or not.
“We’re going to look after you, Margot,” her mother said. “That’s why we’re here. Isn’t it, Greg?”
“Yes, though it’s not as if she ever looked after us. Not properly.”
“I know!” Margot screamed, or thought she screamed, but she heard nothing. She did not hear her own voice, only theirs.
In an office in the tourist office of a quiet market town, a trained first aider was desperately applying CPD to the woman lying on the floor. Only two minutes ago it had seemed like the kind of thing you would be joking about by that afternoon, someone fainting in either horror or delight at being told they were going to the convention, but all too soon it became clear that was most certainly not the case. They were all wishing they’d had better training for using the defibrillator, and that the ambulance would bloody hurry up. Yet in their hearts they knew that all their efforts, and even the more expert ones of the paramedics, would be futile, and Margot couldn’t hear their desperate and reassuring words, and never would.
And for Margot, it would always be September, and it would never be safe anymore.