Joseph always used to do the shopping, when we were younger. ‘When we were younger''. Seems like I’m talking about a faraway country where I used to live, but I can’t remember how to get there anymore. I look down at my thighs sometimes after I wash, and I can’t believe they’re mine. Hardly ever look in the mirror anymore because the face looking back always takes me by surprise. The hoods around the eyes and the lips, thin now. Even when I put lipstick on it just seems to disappear into the folds. Can’t see the lipstick anyway behind these ruddy masks we have to wear now.
He used to do the shopping because that was just the way that it went. The unspoken rules that make up domestic life. I would cook on the weekdays, then him on the weekends. Towards the end though, we started having to get those meals on wheels things. Some of them were alright, the girl was nice who dropped them off but my goodness didn’t she used to talk, chattering on and on about the upped nutritional benefits this week. I quite admired her for that, in a way. Committed to the sell. The potato was unnaturally lump-less and the gravy had a tendency of being a bit too thick. We always made each other laugh. When he was reading the tv guide for the previous week and couldn’t understand why the programmes weren’t the schedule the magazine promised, and he realised, and he smacked one of his great big hands onto his forehead and shouted ‘Ethel I’m being thicker than last night’s gravy!’
We were always laughing, even right up towards the end when he fell a few times. Such a small period between each one though, there was no chance for any fear to set in that it would happen again. Marie forced us to have that alarm, Joseph hated it so much though, used to take it off when she was gone and we’d both stand on the patio and share a Marlboro.
She is very good, Marie. Always felt like she understood more about adulthood than either of her parents. I wish she wouldn’t worry so much but then, perhaps I’m forgetting what it’s like to be at that middle bit. In your 40s. And she’s got a charge on either side of her to take care of, with her elderly mother living on her own and a teenager. Matty’s a good boy though, a bit reckless sometimes. Strong headed like his mother and with that single-mindedness that you have when you’re very young. It either is or it isn’t, there’s no in-between. Everything matters so much, don’t it, when you’re young. He brings his new girlfriends around here sometimes. I think they’re a little taken aback that such a natural rebel prioritises making visits to his grandma. Poor girls. That irresistible mix of a man who goes against all the rules, but also cares. He does get through them, my grandson. A new girl every month it seems, I always do try and make an effort, asking them what their interests are and what they think they might like to do later in life. Is that their natural hair colour because it’s very beautiful, hoping that Matty is giving them the same interest; hoping that in spite of his attention span he is learning how to be a gentleman for the time that his and another’s paths cross.
Matty thinks this whole thing is a government scam. ‘None of it’s real grandma it’s all to do with taxes’ he said through the window, his current light-Ella I think her name was-standing back a little and passing him the items from my shopping. It’s too dangerous, apparently, for us to talk face to face. ‘Contamination is a constant risk’, says Marie.
‘Do you really think it is?’ I asked, taking the frozen berries in my open hands as they’re pushed through the casement. ‘Hang on I’ve just got to get these in the freezer’ I call back over my shoulder as I shuffle to the kitchen. The blueberries aren’t as cold as they should be and they feel soft in my hands.
I walk back into the lounge and stop for a minute and watch the couple through the window. Beautiful and youthful. She has long blond hair tied up at the back so it falls over one shoulder, a t-shirt cut at her waist so you can see the taught flesh of her abdomen. He crouches down next to her, sorting through the shopping with a baguette under his arm. His dark features in such contrast to her, and those long eyelashes that only survive on boys because the girls sacrifice their own to mascara.
I let them know I’m there again, talking as I walk around the corner as though I’ve just left the kitchen ‘so you think this is all a hoax then Matty? But why would the government want to do that?’
‘It’s the people right at the top grandma, they don’t care about anything else than power. And this whole pandemic thing, it’s all lies. Ella thinks so to don’t you babe?’ He says turning his attention to the girl who now, keen to show she agrees with Matty’s thinking, nods her head vehemently,
‘Yeah, Mrs Dillard, I totally agree. It’s all like, not true’.
I beam at her. ‘Oh well, that doesn’t sound very good then does it!’ I say as Matty pushes the baguette through the window, but the angle isn’t big enough to get it through unphased and the crust catches against the frame. Brown flakes fall onto the green carpet.
‘Did they not have a smaller one? I’m never going to get through all this on my own’.
‘Why not?’ He answered. ‘Give it to the birds then’ he said back, always so quick to answer, ‘I’m sorry grandma but I know you like a French stick and they only had the big ones left’.
He doesn’t understand that when you get older, you don’t have much of an appetite. But he’s right, I do like a French stick. Reminds me of when Joseph and I went to Marseille.
I talk to him, a lot, Joseph. I sit out on the patio that afternoon after the kids have gone and I’ve pushed a £20 note through the window to Matty. He says he doesn’t want it, doesn’t need it, and I say ‘Are you going to be rude enough to let your grandmother’s frail hand just hang here, let my money drop onto the peonies. Money’s no good for the flowers, all they need is sunshine! And don’t tell your mother’ And he smiles at me and squeezes my wrinkled hand and then kisses the back of it, says he’ll be back tomorrow.
It’s only 2pm. I pour myself a ginger wine and I end up giving all the baguette to the birds, talking to Joseph as I tear off chunks and throw it out onto the grass. ‘What would you make of all this then, my heart?’ I speak out. There’s no reply. I didn’t expect there to be but I know he can hear me. What would he think of all of this? This parade? The pandemic. And what does it really matter if it is all run by those on top anyway? The point is that it’s making life very difficult at the moment. I stare out at the lawn, watching the pigeons coo and cluster around the crumbs of bread now hidden in amongst the blades. After Joseph went, I had to start doing the shopping. Which was odd at first, as all new things are, but I started to quite like it. I liked the adventure of it. The shops only round the corner. I used to enjoy getting my coat on, maybe some lipstick, I liked the walk. Not so far that my old bones would start to ache, but just gave me some air. Some bits to see as well as it does get boring just staying inside all day. Looking at the same things. I’d noticed during the last lockdown that actually, our carpet isn’t just green but there’s a dark blue sewn into it, almost Persian like. It’s very pretty. But I’d never noticed it before because I’ve never spent so long looking at it.
It there was rubbish on the floor I’d pick it up, put it in the bin. Felt good to know that I was helping somehow. Making even a little bit of difference. I liked how familiar the walk was, when you get older you don’t like too much change. I hate to admit it, I really do. But actually, there is a reassuring element to knowing what’s coming next and seeing that sign appear as I rounded the corner always gave me a kind of warmth. Inside, I might get chatting to someone. Always choosing the person at the check out as opposed to those ruddy machines, it’s just nice to have a bit of engagement. A little bit of a natter even though you talk about nothing of any great importance. I mean, what kind of insight do you have to share when you’re paying for a round of goats’ cheese and some Jacobs crackers? But I can’t do that now, apparently. Too much of a risk. The virus is out there and my frail body wouldn’t be able to take the suffering if I did catch it.
‘I don’t care though!’ I surprise myself by saying it out loud. The pigeons don’t look up from their business. You know when you’ve just been thinking about something and then suddenly you emerge from this warren you’ve been running around and shock yourself by actually speaking? ‘I don’t care Joseph’ I say again, ‘I just want to go out!’ Not because I want to catch the virus, of course. There’s no death wish here, yet. No. I just want some life, and if it’s time for my life to end by virus than that’s what it’s time for, but at least let me have something to fill my days with. Some engagement and some adventure, even though by the time your 82 a sense of adventure really is satisfied by just walking to the shops and back.
We met on the street actually. Joseph and I. I was walking back from the train station, back to my mum and dad’s. Matty looks so much like my father sometimes, his jaw jutting out a bit when he’s angry about something or other. Anyway, we bumped into one another. Just like that. Sounds ludicrous don’t it. He was actually off to meet someone else, a noble little bunch of daisies in his hand. Our shoulders really knocked into one another, and my bag went flying. He apologised profusely, instantly down on his hands and knees and in the rush of it all he ended up passing me the flowers and then holding onto my bag. His body moving and not listening to the patterns that his mind was trying to get him to pay attention to.
I laughed, my hands moving up to my head to shift my skewed hat and then looked down at the daisies, ‘I don’t think they’re for me are they?’
He blushed. Looked like a little boy in that moment, not the strapping young man dressed in a charcoal suit. Hastily switched his hands around and didn’t know whether to apologise or not. ‘I, sorry, for knocking you and now’.
‘Oh it’s no bother’, I said, ‘hydrangeas are my favourite anyway, though I don’t believe they’re in season currently’. I smirked at him. He stared back at me, an odd look on his face.
Months later, a couple of days after we’d got engaged, he told me that in that moment he was deciding whether he should offer to walk me home and turn up later for his date. ‘You cheeky bugger!’ I said, swiping him over the head softly, ‘that poor girl! I’d hope that you’d show a bit more courtesy than that to a potential love interest!’
‘Hey, hey now, I went didn’t I!’ He said, moving past me to get the bottle of champagne from my parents and filling up my glass, ‘but what I was deciding at that moment was how I could possibly not lose you. Even though, I was the one who was going on a date and walking in the other direction’.
‘Well,' I said, holding up my glass in another toast, ‘I don’t think you’ll need to worry about that predicament again, I won’t be going anyway fast!’ And we clinked our glasses together.
Turns out though I was right, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. Once again, it was him walking away from me. And now I can’t even go bloody shopping! It all a bit tedious, being this age. People always trying to help you, make things easier for you, talking to you in that slow loud voice and leaning forward a little like they’re trying to make themselves more approachable.
I feel in the pockets of my dress and pull out a cigarette and light it. Once again the frail thin fingers that hold the tip take me by surprise. The phone starts ringing, that will be Marie checking on me, how I am, am I keeping myself busy. The love I have for my daughter, that a parent has for a child, is fierce. Like the power of the heat and the light that comes from the sun. I would die for her if it would keep her safe and happy, but I do wish she wouldn’t fret so much. I really do. There’s no need, everything just happens the way it’s going to happen anyway. Worrying and picking at the fabric of it all with the little tiny busy fingers of your mind won’t do anything. The picture will still look the same.
I tilt my head, I really should go indoors and pick it up, but I just don’t want to.
I want to go out, feel the sunshine. Go to the shops, and look around and see people that are younger than me and be happy for them and all they’ve got ahead of them. And then I think, bugger this. That’s what I’m going to do, a death indoors by tedium is a death none the less! So I stubbed out my cigarette, dropping the butt into the last cm of ginger wine, the liquid amber and coating the bottom of the glass. I call to my husband in the sky ‘I’m going out dearest if you want me to get the salted butter instead just send up a flair’, like he used to always call to me. The phone is still ringing and I pick it up and quickly say ‘Marie, I love you, I’m fine, I’ll call you later chicken’, and I put it down again quickly before she has a chance to ask anything else. My hand reaches for my lipstick. Not a bright red, but something softer, just to give some definition to this old face, and I leave my mask behind. Marie’s sewn me a load, but I don’t want to be walking around with fabric on my face. I want to smile at people, and if I get ill, I get ill. It’s all pretty simple really, this whole life thing. No need to make it more complicated then it needs to be.