I know what day it is. I know it is today. I know it is today because the sun has risen, and I know it must be summer, because the sun has risen early. At least I think it has risen early. I don’t have a clock, as well as not having a calendar. I seem to remember that I tried to resurrect half forgotten skills that I had let fade into barely cogent memories and improvise some means of telling the time and the date with items that cast shadows and marks on a sheet of paper. I wish I had kept it up, but there seemed to be no point to it, and I don’t think it was ever especially efficient or accurate. So all I know is that it is today, and that full-throated birds are singing, and the sun has already risen, though it is cool and a hazy mist hangs around the atmosphere, on the trees and on the ground and in the very air. I vaguely seem to remember the phrase hazing for heat and both want to remember and fear remembering who said it to me, because I think it was someone dear to me whom I will never see again.
I know that it will be a pleasant day, the kind of day that I always longed for. Well, always maybe isn’t the right word, but the kind of composite of different days in a mosaic of wish-fulfilment. If I concentrate, and I don’t always want to, then I can still separate the elements of it, even though they are furred and blurred and the only clarity is today.
This is a cabin in the woods, like the one I stayed in on – oh, the phrase is reluctant to come, to break through – the perfect holiday. It is a cabin from a child’s fairytale, but without the menace, without the wicked witch or the taunting troll, and in a practical sense, it is without any hint of woodworm or dry rot in its perfect pine planks. It is surrounded by living trees, tall and fragrant, but with the sun filtering through them and dappling the forest floor. In the distance I can hear what I think is the roar of the sea, and I have never been told, for there seems to be nobody to tell me, that I cannot go there, and yet somehow I know I will not. It will remain a noise beyond the trees, a tang of salt in the air.
I have all my favourite books, and my favourite music, and I have a computer and a television, and can look at all my favourite websites and watch all my favourite programmes, and hear all my favourite music – hear the soaring plangent chords of opera and the evocative elemental melodies of folk music, all in the most perfect performances. But there are things I cannot watch or hear, and I tell myself I have no wish to. Why would or should I want to hear news from a world where it is not perfect? Surely that can’t be right! Surely that would be absurd!
I will not be obliged to do anything today, as I am not obliged to do something any today. The cabin will be clean, and delicious food and refreshing drink will appear, and I will not need to prepare it and I will not need to wash any dishes.
At eleven o’clock the post will arrive, but I will not see a postman. I will only hear something plop through the door of the cabin, and I will open the letter, and I will discover that I have won first prize in the writing competition. This is what happened on a today long ago now, though I don’t know how long ago, and I was happy and proud and savoured the moment, and wanted it to last forever.
It is better not to remember. I can go through a succession of todays without remembering, but maybe they didn’t do the job properly or maybe this is part of how it is supposed to be. But today, maybe it is because it is cool, and maybe because I am looking through mist, those shards of fragmented memory, vivid and vague at the same time, will not leave me in peace.
I want to be left in peace. That is what I said. I wanted people to stop thinking they knew better and thinking they had the right to tell me how to act and how to think – anything from snidely tactful remarks about how some carpets seemed to need vacuuming every day and what a nuisance it was, to that hairstyle would suit you so much better to had I thought of going on that course at the Adult Institute. I wanted to be left in peace from utility bills and staff assessments. I’d had enough.
But the staff assessment was when I met Mrs Daley. I had been expecting the usual long-suffering lecture about “clean and clear” desks and “working wardrobes”. I didn’t recognise Mrs Daley. “I have come from – another branch, Ellen, my dear,” she said, “I may call you Ellen?”
“Of course,” I nodded. I am trying to bring Mrs Daley into focus now. Something in my mind makes me think she ought to have been distinctive looking, had piercing eyes, or a hypnotic voice, or some kind of aura around her, but I can only bring to mind a motherly looking woman of average height and weight, softly spoken, her hair just starting to grey a little.
“Don’t look so worried,” she said, making her hands into a steeple on the desk. If I remember they were quite nice hands, the fingers a little plump, but with well-tended fingernails, just a touch of light coral nail polish on them. “You don’t like staff assessments, do you, Ellen?”
That flummoxed me. I think I muttered something about knowing that they were necessary and that they were meant to help us.
“My dear, my dear,” she interrupted, un-steepling her hands and taking mine in them. “You don’t have to tell me what you think I want to hear. In fact, you’re not happy here altogether, are you?”
Well, what was I supposed to say? It was an insurance brokers. It was work. It paid, though not very well. Almost before I’d realised it I blurted out, “Well, Mrs Daley, no disrespect, but it’s hardly a dream come true, is it?”
I waited for the figurative sky to fall in. If she hadn’t kept to the script, I had positively left the theatre (and no doubt would soon be asked to!). “What would be your dream come true, Ellen?” she asked, as if it were both the most natural and almost trivial question and the thing that mattered most in the whole world.
I know what will happen soon today. I will go into the kitchen, which will be bright and shining clean, and my breakfast will be ready. The breakfast I always asked for in hotels ( I know what hotels are, of course, but can’t bring it into focus much sharper than that right now), and yet somehow they never quite got right, and the one I don’t think I could ever be bothered to make for myself before today. There will be real coffee, aromatic and in a pretty little pot, exactly the kind of coffee I like – not strong coffee, but regular coffee made strong. There is a difference. There will be a couple of slices of wholemeal toast, toasted to perfection, and there will be a golden-yolked egg, with the yolk hard and not runny, just the way I like it. There will be a glass of apple juice, because I prefer it to orange juice.
Mrs Daley was a good listener, or perhaps more to the point, she turned me into a good talker, occasionally nodding. When I had finished she said, “My dear, that was most interesting, and I so understand how you feel. I thought I would find you here. Have a think about this.” She handed me a little card, just a regular business card in shape, and yet it seemed to have a rainbow sheen and a glowing warmth I couldn’t explain, and proclaimed Daley Blessings along with an email address and a telephone number.
I am trying to muster my memories of that today, which I do know was not like this today. I think I thought that Mrs Daley was a bit of an eccentric, but harmless, probably run some sort of self-help business where her name came in handy,and plainly there had been some kind of mix up, and that at least I had got off very lightly, if strangely, in the matter of the assessment. I think that I reached the place where I lived, and there were bills stuck through the door, and some even had that weasel phrase Your Attention is Required on the envelope.
I made myself a cup of instant coffee and some instant noodles and reflected that I ought to do something about the sink as the water wasn’t going down the way it should, decided to watch a bit of TV but couldn’t find anything to attract my interest, and I’m not proud of it, but I switched over to an anodyne repeat when the news came on and it was all negative and nasty – no particular great disasters of anything, but I just didn’t want to hear it.
I am pretty sure it was the next today when I called that number, still, I think, with some misgivings, and thinking that if it involved any over-charging for some essential oils and affirmations that I might be stupid with money, but I wasn’t THAT stupid. I was assured that it was absolutely free, that I must not even think of money.
“But you must be sure, Ellen,” said Mrs Daley, and though it was not a video call, I could see her steepled hands and her innocuous eyes.
“I am,” I assured her. After all, what was there not to like? Not that I really believed a word of it. At least I’m pretty sure I didn’t.
I am not entirely left to my own devices here. In an hour or so one of my friends will come round – Imogen, probably. Isn’t it always Imogen? And a fresh pot of coffee will be there for me, and lemon and ginger tea for her, because that is what she prefers, though a crisp, cold bottle of white wine will be there too. We will sit and drink our coffee and our tea and our wine, and have interesting conversations. Not the kind of conversation that involves people saying what I don’t want to hear, or what bores me, or what oppresses me. And I won’t need to try to steer it round to that kind of conversation. Imogen always wants to talk about books, and music, and shares my love of clever plays on words, and the like. I said Imogen probably, but actually it is always Imogen, isn’t it? And that’s fine. Imogen is safe. Imogen is reliable. I won’t squirm in mental discomfort or impatience, and I won’t need to stifle a yawn. It will all be fine.
It is always fine here. Not the weather, not always, I don’t think, though today it will be. But has there ever been a today when the heat was too humid and stifling or the cold was gnawing, or the wind rattled the windows? Not in this cabin. Not here. Not today.
I will pass the time until Imogen comes doing crosswords online and listening to music. I have this sense of having reclaimed music. Of it being liberated from bittersweet memories and feelings of longing and guilt. It is just beautiful noise, soothing or stirring, or the two in conjunction. My crossword is tricky enough to hold my attention, not tricky enough to make me feel frustrated. After she has gone I may work on my latest short story, encouraged and heartened by the writing success I found out about today.
I had not expected to hear anything except the music until Imogen rang the door bell. But I can hear something, and it is not the wind, because even if it did rattle the windows, there is not a breath of wind. Voices, and not the voices of a TV or radio programme. I know that voice – Mrs Daley! But it is both her voice and not her voice today. It is not that gentle, well-modulated voice. “How could you be so foolish? How could you forget?”
“And who are you to talk? We are both speaking too loudly! She may hear us …..”
“Not yet. I think we may get away with it. She is still living her perfect today.”
That is all I have heard and I will forget all about it. It was my imagination. Imogen will be here soon.
But Mrs Daley was wrong. It is as if all that I was so desperate to escape is crashing down around me, is seeping into my veins and my mind, is making me pace around and stifle screams. All the trivial things like bills and blocked sinks, and assessments, and all the big things like guilt about the past and fear about the future, and I want them to go away, I WANT THEM TO GO AWAY, to not let them into my perfect holiday and my perfect conversation, and my perfect today after today after today and I am so afraid …….
And now I am afraid because they are going away and because I know there will only ever be this, and there will never be a blip again, and there will be today after today, perfect and pre-ordained and I cannot and I dare not process that thought and I want to escape while I still have time, while I still have this chance.
The doorbell has rung. Imogen is here. It is today.