Emilia prided herself on her positive attitude. She did not actually go as far as intoning those I am fifty tomorrow, thought Emilia Snodgrass, as she snuggled down on her comfortable memory foam mattress and pulled her duvet around her. It was a strange thought. Still, what of it? After all, fifty was the new forty, or whatever the current version of it was. It was all only a number, and life was good to her. She had a job she loved in a bookshop, good friends, her health, and was comfortably off enough to be able to enjoy a couple of holidays a year. She had a house that, if not quite the house of her dreams (but woodland retreats and city penthouses probably both had their disadvantages) suited her very nicely, and though she did think it would be nice to meet a new man in her life, there was plenty to be said for the freedom of the single life, too.

“affirmations” or having them on posters around the house, but would not have disagreed with them.

     She fell into the restful sleep of those blessed with a positive attitude and looking forward to the next day. Emilia would not have said she was never troubled with insomnia, but on the rare occasions she was, a few chapters of a good book and a milky drink or a simple household task would usually banish it.

     Morning already, she thought, as she made her way down to her kitchen that managed to achieve the happy medium of being cosy without being messy, though like a great many people, she had a collection of cookery books she hardly ever used. Emilia did not quite see the kitchen as the heart of the house – that would be her lounge – but she liked her kitchen, and the first mug of coffee of the day, with the familiar sounds of Radio 4, was one of her favourite parts of the day. She was happy either in other people’s company or her own.

     Sometimes something can be so wholly unexpected that we accept it, in that contradictory way, as nothing to get excited about, and are merely curious. That was how Emilia thought when she saw a little girl sitting at her pine table. There was nothing unusual about her, but there was something a bit odd. She had dark hair in long plaits and was still in her dressing gown – a rather old-fashioned looking red one, with a cord belt. She was sipping a glass of milk. I know that child, thought Emilia. Of course she knew that child!

     She had liked to sneak down to the kitchen before the rest of the house was awake, though she couldn’t guarantee she’d be successful. “I had a brilliant childhood,” Emilia told people, “It set me up for life!”

     Well, when she wasn’t being told to get her nose out of a book. When her elder sisters weren’t calling her “Goofy” because of her sticky-out teeth before they started calling her “metal mouth” when she got her braces. When her little brother wasn’t putting insects in her food and nettles in her bed, and her parents defended him saying, “Oh come on, Emily,” (that was her original name and they let her know they wouldn’t have any of this “Emilia” nonsense) “He’s not much more than a baby and it’s not like it’s done you any real harm, is it?”

     To this day Emilia couldn’t quite face soups or stews into which things could be dropped or smuggled, and found herself surreptitiously checking her bed. In later life she had become fairly good friends with Amy, the sister nearest to her in age, but even Amy hadn’t been much support when they were children. It was, after all, Amy who had told their Mum and Dad about an ill-advised confidence her younger sister had entrusted to her about her wish to go to stage school. They referred to that as stuff and nonsense and told her to get her head out of the clouds. With hindsight she had to admit that she was no child star. She had a pleasant singing voice but little else. But there were ways of doing it.

     “Mum and Dad backed me up and were always there for me,” she told people. The little girl at the table didn’t need to say a thing to remind her it was otherwise. She supposed they weren’t bad parents. She was never ill-treated or neglected. But now, and she didn’t want to, especially on the morning of her birthday, she saw things with the clear and honest eyes of the solemn little girl at the table, not through the soft filter of the decades in between. “Look, I’d make it better for you if I could!” she said, almost defiantly, then thought. No. I can’t. I can’t make it better for me. It was strange how things could become clearer and darker at the same time. Okay, so I didn’t have the perfect childhood, she thought, but I got through it, didn’t I? I was very happy at university!

     Well, she might have been if she had ever fitted in. She wasn’t a rebel and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t get interested in student politics. It seemed to be too late for all the things that really mattered. She rejoiced to see Nelson Mandela released from prison, and the Berlin Wall come down of course, but was sorry that she couldn’t go on a protest march against Apartheid, and get agitated about political prisoners in Eastern Europe. But would she have done, anyway? She was quite clever, and didn’t find the work especially hard, most of the time, but she was never going to be one of those students who cruised their way to a first. She never made any especially close friends at university, but was scared of leaving – yet couldn’t get excited about any notion of staying on and doing postgraduate work, which she probably would have been accepted for with her 2.1. She trained as a teacher, but never really enjoyed it, and became reasonably competent with IT, but couldn’t get excited about it.

     Still, things had worked out alright in the end, hadn’t they? For nearly a decade now she’d had her dream job in the bookshop. Didn’t every avid reader dream about working in a bookshop? True, it would have been better if she could have stuck to her original plan of buying it after Mr Prendergast passed away, but that just didn’t work out and Ms Howell at the bank had probably been quite right to refuse her the loan. She was better off without the responsibility.

     A part of her was sorry that the little girl wasn’t seated at the kitchen table any more, but for the most part she was relieved. Or she was, for at least two seconds, until she saw that Vincent and Gaby from the bookshop were sitting there now, with mugs of coffee and digestive biscuits, and they hadn’t bothered with coasters or plates, the way she always asked them to at the bookshop. We’re like one big happy family, she often told people. Not that her experience of families, especially big ones, had been an unalloyed joy. But it was just a saying. Wasn’t it?

     “We mustn’t forget Old Emmy’s birthday, must we?” Gaby asked, rhetorically.

     “Bit of a cheek with the “old”! There’s not much between you!”

     “Well, you know what I mean!” The trouble was, he obviously did. 

     “I hope she’s not expecting some kind of surprise party or a big bunch of flowers.”

     “I suppose we ought to at least make the effort with a card, though. She’d probably like something with a cat on it.” As a matter of fact, though she didn’t have one at the moment, Emilia was very fond of cats. But she was none too sure she liked the rather sarcastic assumption that she was the kind of middle aged lady who would be pathetically grateful just for a birthday card with a cat on it. 

     “I don’t know why,” Gaby mused, “I mean, she doesn’t have any personal hygiene issues or anything like that, but somehow I always have this vague sense of smelling mothballs when she’s around.”

     “I like her!” Vincent objected.

     “Oh, so do I, I suppose. But God, she gets on my nerves at times. I wonder if we ought to start a kind of “cliché bingo” with her. And why on earth did she put that ghastly colorant on her hair? I mean, okay, her natural colour isn’t much to write home about, but at least it’s good honest mouse, not like the love child of an aubergine and a tomato!”

     “I have to admit it’s embarrassing the way she plays hard to get with Old Trevor Johnson. It’s plain he fancies her, though God knows why, and a retired headmaster is just her type!”

     I paid a lot for that, thought Emilia, it wasn’t cheap and nasty. And they told me it looked lovely. She felt tears pricking her eyes, but she knew it wasn’t just about the hair colour. She hadn’t been that sure about it herself. 

     We’re not like a big happy family at all, she thought. They despise me. And not just because I’m having a bad hair week. 

     Desperately in need of fresh air she walked out to her neat little garden almost without realising it. The daffodils were already past their best, but a woman was sitting among them, under the sycamore tree, on a tired looking blue and white deckchair. An elderly woman. A younger woman was standing there, and instinct told Emilia that she was not a friend, but someone who was paid to be there, and paid to be reasonable. “You have to see the sense of what we’re saying, Emily. You’ve not been doing so well lately, and this house is too much for you. You’ll be much better off and feel happier and safer in Melrose House.”

     “But I only moved here a year ago!” Emily had a look on her face that was, at the same time, one of desperate concentration and frightened blankness.

     That’s not true, thought Emilia. What is she – I – saying? Why is she saying it?

     But she knew why. She had seen it happen to her grandmother.

     “Why are you here? Who are you?”

     “Now I just told you I was Justine Fairchild from the local services for Older Adults. You do know we want to help you, Emily.”

     “My name isn’t Emily …..” Emilia felt a glimmer of hope at this apparent flicker of a flame of defiance. It guttered before it fully flared. “My name is …. My name is – I’m not sure ….”!

     “You have no need to worry about things like that.”

     “Where’s Auntie Pat? Auntie Pat will look after me.”

     She had all but forgotten Auntie Pat, who had always been kind to her when she was a child, and yes, sometimes she had privately hoped she was her mother. But they got out of touch apart from birthday and Christmas cards as she grew up. She did know, though, that Auntie Pat had died of cancer five years ago.

     A man, evidently a colleague of Justine Fairchild’s, came in from the house, shaking his head, and speaking in a stage whisper that for some reason he thought she would not hear, said, “It’s a bit of a state in there. I’ve seen worse, but – well – bodily functions, you know ….”

     “And she’s all alone in the world?”

     “Well, there are nieces and nephews, but most of them don’t even live round here and – you can’t expect them to, can you? I suppose we’ll have to contact them about the official stuff, next of kin, and all that.”

     Like a ghost in her own ghost story, Emilia slipped back into the house. The house was empty, and when she looked through the kitchen window, the garden was empty. But the most gaping emptiness was in herself.

     It was the morning of her fiftieth birthday, and she sat down at the kitchen table and wept, wept great howling sobs that sounded more animal than human.

     In the end, she had wept herself out, and felt that mangled, tattered calm that comes after such sobbing. I will splash my face with water, and I will put some smart clothes on, and I will go to work, she said. And I will try not to think about the fact that my childhood was miserable, and that the people I work with see me as a figure of fun or a crashing bore, depending on my mood, and that in the future – but she could not bear to think of that, and so she convinced herself, at least on some surface carapace, that she was not doing.

     Vincent and Gaby did give her a card with a cat on it, just the one between them. She had to admit it was a very nice cat. They had picked up a bottle of wine from the supermarket, too. It was white and she preferred red, but she thanked them politely. 

     Trevor Johnson came into the shop that morning, and he noticed the card and the wine, and gently reproached her for not telling him it was her birthday. She swore she could read Gaby’s mind and that she was thinking, “She’s told pretty much everyone else.”

     “This time, you MUST let me take you out for a drink this evening,” he said – and she did not refuse. He was such a kind man, and a clever one, too, and though she hadn’t liked her tone of voice, Gaby had been right, she had been indulging in some rather childish playing hard to get.

     She didn’t know what might happen. Or perhaps she did. And the thought made her shiver and panic. But then she drew a deep breath. Medical advances were being made all the time. And even if that ordeal did lie ahead, then she could, at least, take the chance of some happiness before it came to her. 

     Some real happiness, not the feigned and forced and false kind.

December 19, 2019 08:21

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