We’ll Always Have Paris – Extract
All he wants is pineapple yoghurt. It might be his dying wish and I can’t find a pot anywhere. It’s the least I can do for my husband, now lying in bed at home with nothing left of his life, just a tube in his arm and a vague desire for pineapple in fermented milk.
I’ve trawled all local supermarkets and convenience stores and am now screeching into a parking space at a Tesco too far away. I stop for three seconds, calm myself and check my watch. I’ve been gone fifty-three minutes. I miss him already.
Almost falling out of the car I run through the car park, winding round shopping trolleys and kids and harassed parents, my hair unbrushed, my face without make-up, but it doesn’t matter. In the great scheme of things lipstick is nothing. Once through the doors, I land somewhere near the chilled cabinets. It’s strange being here on a Friday night when everyone is buying burgers and beer for weekend barbecues and family get-togethers.
I haven’t been anywhere or done anything for weeks, just moved between the window and the bed in the sitting room around which my life has revolved, watching and waiting, torn between needing to leave and needing to stay. For two days now Mike’s lain still, emerging only now and then from a deep drug-induced sleep to have a water-soaked sponge pressed against his lips, his forehead. I stopped the visitors a week ago, trooping to his bed in a convoy of sympathy, long faces filled with posed pity. ‘It’s like having an audience with the queen,’ I said to him when the last of the gawkers had gone. I was trying to make him laugh, my default position in times of upset, but he’d gazed ahead, beyond laughter, beyond me – his shiny scalp ravaged by chemo, charcoal grey etched under faded eyes.
Earlier today, when his eyelids flickered open for the first time in two days, I had leapt at the chance to make him happy, to make him smile one more time and asked if there was anything he wanted. When he whispered, ‘Pineapple yoghurt,’ I dropped everything. Anna took my place by the bed and I ran as fast as I could, away from the dreadfulness, knowing as soon as I shut the front door I would feel the need to go back.
It had all happened so quickly after the diagnosis. ‘I think we’re looking at weeks rather than months,’ the doctor had said.
I’d stared at his glasses sitting on the bridge of his nose, unable to turn and look at Mike; I didn’t want to see his reaction, that would make it too real. ‘But what about treatment?’ I said. ‘You can’t just say that . . . surely there’s something we can . . . ’
The doctor shifted uneasily in his seat and Mike’s hand covered mine.
‘It’s too far gone,’ he said gently. ‘You heard what the doctor said.’
On the way home we talked and by the time we pulled up outside we’d convinced each other things weren’t as bad as we’d thought.
‘We’ll sell the business, remortgage the house and get you treatment in America,’ I was still saying stupidly, refusing to accept what was happening.
‘No. Let’s spend that money on us, take some time off, or pass the business down to the girls and travel. It’s not like we haven’t thought about it . . . we’ll just do it sooner,’ he’d said. I’d been swept along by Mike’s enthusiasm, his desperate need to live – okay, so the doctor had given him only six weeks, but what did he know?
The following day I discovered Mike in the bathroom coughing up blood and I knew it was too late.
The girls sobbed as we told them the news, the tableau of him sitting on the sofa, his arms round both of them, reassuring, comforting, will stay with me for ever.
Six weeks later he’s still here and I’ve tried to make every moment special. Even now, with this pot of bloody yoghurt, I’m trying to show him how much I love him. Stupid really, but I want him to take my love with him wherever he’s going, like a packed lunch of all his favourite things. I want to send him off feeling loved. That’s all any of us want in the end, isn’t it? I try and keep up a brave front for him and the girls, but I can barely comprehend what’s happening. After forty-six years, Mike, the man who held me in the night, built garden walls, put the bins out and slayed life’s dragons, is now frail and scared. Now he wants me to hold his hand and tell him it’s all going to be okay. Each day I tell him I love him, and I do – but it makes me incredibly sad, because we both know my husband hasn’t been the love of my life.
It occurs to me while running blindly round this alien Tesco, looking through the chilled cabinets, that it may be a ruse. Perhaps Mike knows his time is imminent and he can’t bear to watch my pain so he’s sent me on an impossible quest? Perhaps he knows how futile the pursuit of pineapple yoghurt will be and in a final and typical act of selflessness he’s planned it all so he can slip off his mortal coil without me being there?
This puts me in a further state of panic and seeing a young shelf stacker I demand to know the fate of the yoghurts. ‘Do they even make pineapple ones any more?’ I ask the bemused young man. He shrugs. He doesn’t care because pineapple yoghurt isn’t something one gives any consideration to until it becomes perhaps the last wish of a dying man. So I continue on alone, rifling frantically through the strange-sounding names – Nestlé, Yoplait and Müller Light – hoping that one, just one, might contain the Holy Grail.
Mike and I will laugh about this one day, I think, instantly realising that we won’t.
I move on, restraining myself from pushing other shoppers out of the way and emptying the shelves with one sweeping arm movement. It’s now eleven minutes past seven on a Friday evening, but I don’t care – time and place have lost all meaning. We are existing in a state of limbo – waiting for the end, the agony of loss, tinged with the guilt of relief when it’s finally over – he is finally over.
‘I couldn’t get the pineapple, they had mandarin . . . with chocolate chips . . . can you believe?’ I start, as I open the front door and run into the living room holding my breath that he’s still here.
‘Ssshh, Dad’s asleep,’ Anna hisses, whipping her head round accusingly. I feel stupid and selfish and thoughtless – like my announcement about mandarin yoghurt might just be the final blow that convinces him to let go.
I immediately shed the panic and Friday night bustle and sink into the churchlike atmosphere, silently pulling up a chair to Mike’s bed. I’m now sitting next to Isobel, my younger daughter, who looks at me through red-rimmed eyes; the crease in her smile causes tears to run down her cheeks and I gently stroke her arm. Isobel is like me – during difficult times she reaches for others to lean on, and Mike has always been that person for me. Anna, my eldest, is just like him, and in the bleakest of times she finds comfort in ‘managing’ situations and people, channelling her distress into tidying up and organising, for which I have always been deeply grateful. We all need an Anna and a Mike in our lives.
I reach out and touch Mike’s hand, continuing to stroke Isobel’s arm with my other, and looking at Anna for signs of stress, stretching myself and my love as far and wide as I can.
‘You okay, Mum?’ Isobel mumbles.
I nod, trying to hide the catch in my breath, and she looks at me questioningly, like I have all the answers. I’m reminded of a rainy day, the squeal of tyres and our dog Willow dying by the side of the road, the rain beating down as I cradle her and a sobbing, five-year-old Isobel. I am rocking them both, my hair plastered to my face, the tears and the rain washing together, I’m trying to hide my despair: ‘It’s okay, Willow’s in heaven now, she’s playing ball.’
‘But she doesn’t want to stay . . . she’s scared without me, she wants to come home. Bring her back, Mummy.’ The lisping baby voice, the trembling chin.
‘I’m sorry, darling, I can’t do that,’ I say through my tears, the blood now mixing with rainwater and running away together along the gutter.
Now, as her father’s life ebbs away, Isobel is looking at me in the same way – but I still can’t take her pain away.
We continue to sit in silence round the bed while Mike sleeps; he stirs occasionally and groans when the pain pushes on through the morphine. The cancer came quickly, a small lump in February, a routine visit to the doctor, followed by an inconvenient trip to the hospital, then tests. Each appointment more serious, more scary, until results day. Hard to imagine now, but I recall feeling slightly disgruntled that the hospital appointment for Mike’s test results was on a Friday, the day before a big wedding, and a busy time for our small florists.
‘Can you change the appointment?’ I’d sighed, stressed with the workload before us.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I could do with you there, Rosie.’ I looked up from the carnation buttonholes and saw his face and in that instant everything changed for me. If Mike was worried, I was worried.
I couldn’t let the girls see my fear and kept telling myself and everyone else that it was ‘probably nothing’. Yet somehow I knew.
When it finally happened and his life ended, I felt like mine had too.
A year after Mike’s death
Since losing Mike, life’s been strange for me. He’d been so unreachable in those last few weeks I’d almost wanted him to go. I longed for his release from the pain and the limbo he and the rest of the family existed in. At sixty-four, Mike was a year older than me, and though neither of us were spring chickens, we had our plans. Before the diagnosis I’d finally convinced Mike to retire and together we were going to tick a few things off our to-do list. This wasn’t an easy ask for my practical, dependable hubby, but when I thought we still had a life ahead of us I had researched the possibility of a holiday in New Zealand. My idea was to visit the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, because there was nothing he loved more than stargazing. It was ironic that Mike, a factory worker who’d never left his hometown, enjoyed gazing at the stars millions of miles away. But even when looking up into that vast velvet night, his feet stayed firmly on the ground. As I marvelled at the ‘diamonds in the sky’, he’d say, ‘Rosie, that’s not diamonds, love, it’s distant nuclear fusion.’
Neither of us were religious. I’d had it thrust down my throat from an early age and my atheism was rebellion against everything my mother had held dear, Mike had lost his father in a road accident when he was just nine and found it hard to believe in God, but he seemed to find solace in the stars – he said they gave meaning to his life. The ability to see something that existed millions of years ago provided a surreal concept of time and the past, and put life into perspective for him. He said he found it comforting to think life goes on, that we are all just part of the cycle, and it helped him come some way to dealing with the loss of his father.
Becoming a dad was also a revelation for him, discovering the joy of children and family life. When the children were tiny some of our happiest times were when we’d all head off in the car to nearby fields on summer nights and spot constellations, meteor showers or misty clusters of ‘exciting’ young stars. ‘They’re hundreds of light years away,’ he’d say, adding that they were young at ‘only’ a hundred million years or so, which always made the girls giggle.
The stars retained their significance in our family and when Mike had known his time was short he said, ‘I’m not leaving. Look up into the sky and I’ll be there, swinging through the Plough.’
The girls were comforted by this, a perfectly rational concept for two women who had both been able to say aurora borealis by the time they were three years old.
In the few months after he died, living in my starless universe without him, I felt lost, like my future had been taken away. I lived in the past, wandering around directionless, waiting for him to come home. I would listen for the key in the door, his voice in the hall, the sound of the kettle going on, then I’d remember that it was just me and thick, thick silence.
Recently, the old me has reappeared, a forgotten figure waving from a distant shore, a shimmering sea between us. She’s been gone a while, but yesterday I breathed her scent on a bunch of freesias, sweet with spring promise. I feel a frisson of hope glimpsing sunshine in muddy puddles, stars glowing in a black sky, her voice a rustle of leaves whispering to me like a ghost. Life is slowly thawing, and I’m reassured by the way my heart lifts again at a faint glimmering on the horizon . . . I don’t know what it is, but I’m finally feeling warm again.
‘Mum, you’ve put make-up on,’ says Anna with a smile when we meet for coffee. I’m sitting in her sunny kitchen, it’s Saturday morning and the house is filled with the noise of arguments and hairdryers upstairs. Anna has two girls and I’m constantly surprised that despite laptops and iPhones the arguments about lipstick and boys still dominate, as they did when my girls were young. We all think we’re the start of something new and that our generation has all the answers, but we’re just a mash-up of every other generation. Even my sixties’ youth of miniskirts and free love wasn’t as liberated as we’re now led to believe; we were still conflicted and shaped by the morals and values of our parents. We were a reaction to their repression, I think, as Anna pours boiling water into a cafetière of ground coffee.
‘If you put boiling water in, it kills the taste,’ I say absently, now immersed in the sixties and that wonderful summer.
‘So would you like to come over later? James is cooking,’ Anna asks, dragging me back into the twenty-first century.
‘Will the girls be here?’ I take a proffered cup.
‘No, they’re with their dad tonight.’
‘In that case I won’t. Thank you, darling, but I doubt James would appreciate three at the table.’ I smile.
‘Oh, he’d be happy to have you around, you make him laugh.’
‘Mmm, well I doubt it’s laughter he’s planning on tonight, my love. No, I’m going to phone Corrine – I haven’t seen or spoken to her for weeks.’
‘You two were so close once, you need to go out with her again, it will be good for you . . . Mind you, she’s a bit wild. Didn’t you say she ended up in bed with someone within ten minutes of meeting him?’
I laugh. ‘Corrine certainly gives a new meaning to the art of “speed dating”.’ I love my friend, but she can sometimes be a bit full on. I’m not sure I’ll get to speak to her on the phone tonight as she’s got a new man. Everyone’s busy with something or someone.
‘Well, we don’t want you “doing a Corrine”.’
‘That’s never going to happen, love, I’m not the type. I’m not interested in meeting new men, not at my time in life. Besides, I’d never meet another one like your dad.’
Anna smiles wistfully. ‘I miss him so much, Mum.’
‘I know, love.’
‘He was just always there, wasn’t he? Last night a fuse went in one of the plugs as I turned a lamp off and my first thought was, “I must get Dad to look at that.”’
‘Yes, I’m the same. I changed a tyre on the car the other day. I wouldn’t ever have considered doing that when Dad was here.’
‘Wow, I wouldn’t know where to start, well done!’
‘Ah yes, but who knows, it could fall off at any time,’ I laugh.
‘Mum, you shouldn’t be struggling with tyres at your age. James would have done that for you.’
‘I’m perfectly capable. And it’s actually quite nice to look at the tyre on the car and think, “I did that.” It’s time I became more independent— And what do you mean “at your age”?’ I said, just realising the implication of what she’d said. ‘If Mick Jagger’s still tearing up stadiums at seventy-two I can change a tyre at sixty-four.’
She laughs. ‘And pout?’
‘Yes I can pout,’ I say, pursing my lips.
‘No, I mean like Mick Jagger,’ she laughs.
I pout even more now and she reaches out across the table, touches my arm. ‘You are funny. It’s good to see you smiling again.’
‘I think you’ll find that was more of a trout pout than a smile.’
We laugh, then I say, ‘Yes, after my tyre success I’m feeling rather confident – I don’t need a man to do stuff. I was thinking, I might decorate . . . some wallpaper and a fresh lick of paint, you know?’
She nods. ‘Okay, but don’t take on too much, it looks fine.’
‘I just fancy making it a bit more modern, more me.’
Decorating is something Mike always did and though the house is looking a bit shabby, I put off doing any decorating after he died. I know it’s silly, but I didn’t want to paint him out of our lives, cover the past up with new wallpaper, but as I gazed at the stars through the back bedroom window last night I realised I must. I need to respect the past, but embrace the future. ‘Yes, I’m feeling very positive, I’m going to do a spring clean,’ I say. Then I take a breath. ‘I thought I might sort through the wardrobe and give some of your dad’s clothes to charity. Some of his shirts are still in good nick. I’m sure he’d like to know they were being worn again, what do you think?’
Anna is silent as she pours herself a strong, dark coffee and holds the steaming mug with both hands in a comforting gesture. ‘I suppose so,’ she says eventually. ‘I mean, we can’t hang onto his stuff for ever.’ She says this doubtfully, taking a cautious sip.
I nod and take a drink. Neither of us want to say any more, but both of us know it’s another closed chapter in our story. It’s about more than suits and shirts and ties, it’s a step further down the line, away from Mike, and it won’t be easy letting go of the past. The feel of his shirts, the memories in each tie, the weddings, the parties, the funerals when he wore his best suit . . . Our lives are stitched into the fabric, holding everything together. But I must be strong and try to move forward if I want to make the best of what’s left for me.
Grief isn’t a linear journey, it’s not a wound that heals, feeling better each day until one day you wake up and it’s gone away; the process is jagged and unpredictable, two steps forward, three back.
Just thinking of his suits waiting in the wardrobe takes me back to his grey wedding suit from Moss Bros. Our wedding day, his happiness, my relief and my mother’s anger. As if things weren’t difficult enough given the circumstances, she’d come shuffling over in her new shoes to inform me that, ‘Mike’s mother is wearing the same bloody hat as me!’
I don’t know what she expected me to do: run into the registry office and wrestle it from the poor woman’s head?
‘The cheek of it,’ she’d spat. That was my mother, she ruled the bloody world. Dad just winked at me, took my arm and we slowly walked in. I thanked my lucky stars for sweet escape as I was delivered to Mike, waiting calmly for me with a big smile.
I think about the look in his eyes during the ceremony and later the gentle way he held me. I felt like a precious jewel; someone finally loved me enough to treasure me. Mike was a thoughtful, reliable, loving husband and he was always there for me, which is why it’s such a shock he isn’t any more. Thinking about our wedding and all the hopes and dreams we had, I wonder now if I could have loved him more.
Some days I still wake up and feel the loss as I did the day he died, like a huge weight on my chest, pinning me down. But those days are ebbing now, a new tide is slowly coming in and now most days I wake, see the sun and think, Okay, I can do this. I can take on the world . . . or more realistically clean the windows or return one of Corrine’s many phone calls – things I did before without even thinking.
Tonight Anna has called round after work with yet another toy for Lily, my lovely new dog.
‘Katie saw this in the supermarket and said to bring it for her,’ she says, handing me a pink ball.
I thank her and give it to Lily who grabs it gratefully and stows it away under her floral bed.
Anna has also brought with her a takeaway and a bottle of wine and we call Isobel to see if she wants to join us. She says she can’t as she’s helping Richard with some DIY project. His latest obsession is their loft conversion, but you’d think it was a penthouse apartment with all the fuss he’s making.
I tell Isobel we’ll miss her but to have a lovely evening in the roof. She giggles and we say goodnight.
‘Richard needs someone to hold his ladder,’ I tell Anna as I put down the phone. I’m trying to sound impartial, Richard is lovely but he can be such a bore when it comes to DIY.
‘Oh, not that sodding loft conversion? I’d pull the bloody ladder from under him,’ Anna laughs.
‘Well, they’ve been married ten years and she’s been through all his DIY “projects” . . . give her time.’ I wink. ‘The joy of holding a man’s ladder can only last so long.’
‘Well, I’m never going to hold another man’s ladder again. Apart from James, they’re all pigs,’ she announces, sounding like my mother while lining up foil cartons on the kitchen worktops and uncorking the bottle of chilled white.
‘Some of them are okay.’ I breathe in the aromatic hit of chicken bhuna, the air spicy with curry and anticipation. I haven’t felt this for a long time and it feels good. While Anna enjoys huge forkfuls of curry and rice, I take small bites, savouring the tingly flavour and my daughter’s warming presence. ‘So how’s the lovely James?’ I say, trying to be interested without seeming to pry.
After fourteen years of marriage and two children Anna’s husband Paul walked out on her for someone much younger. It’s been a difficult time for her and the kids but after three years they are now settling into a different routine and she’s recently started seeing James, a local lad she met when he came to do some building work on our florist shop. They’ve been together now for about six months and I’m happy for her.
‘He’s good, thanks. I really like him, Mum. And it’s nice to have someone in my life again . . . someone just for me, you know?’
‘Yes, I do. I think when you’re married you take it for granted, but afterwards you miss the company of someone who knows you really well. The shared memories . . . ’
She nods. I was remembering how Mike and I . . . But this is about her relationship, not mine, so I move quickly on. ‘Emma and Katie will soon be living their own lives, and you mustn’t neglect yours. I’m glad you’ve found James, I like him, so easygoing. Why don’t you bring him and the girls over for Sunday lunch? I’d love to see him again . . . it’s about time I put my apron on.’
‘That would be lovely, we’ll come over next Sunday if you’re asking?’ she says, leaping in before I change my mind. I’ve been all over the place since Mike died. I know she and Isobel both want their old mum back and Sunday lunch is a good place to start.
I nod enthusiastically. I enjoy cooking but as soon as Mike lost his appetite so did I. ‘I’ll look forward to it.’ I smile, finishing the last of my curry and taking a sip of wine.
‘Anna, I’ve been thinking – that big wedding is only a few months away, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, Mrs Parker’s paying for all the flowers for her granddaughter Poppy’s wedding, no expense spared. It’s in Cheshire at this big hotel . . . ’
‘I remember you telling me. She came in when I was off work with Dad, didn’t she? Everything was a bit of a blur back then.’ I smile sadly.
I haven’t retained much from that time, I think my brain has anaesthetised itself. The only phrases I’ve held on to are those with numbers – ‘Grade four cancer,’ and ‘Six weeks at best.’
I look up and thankfully Anna hasn’t noticed me drift off, she’s still talking. ‘ . . . the bridesmaids are in blush pink, lots of roses and lilies. Hundreds of buttonholes and corsages . . . huge floral decorations and table arrangements for the reception.’ Her words stressing the enormity of this booking.
‘That’s a hell of a lot of work,’ is all I can say, ‘which is one of the reasons I’ve decided it’s time to come back to the shop.’
She puts down her glass. ‘Oh, Mum, really? That’s good news; no, that’s great news. But are you ready?’
I nod. ‘Yes I am.’
‘Mrs Jackson is lovely but she hasn’t a clue and I don’t have your patience with her. She cocked up a wedding and a funeral last week.’
‘Oh dear, did she? What happened?’
‘You don’t want to know – but suffice to say the funeral felt like a party and the wedding looked like a wake.’
I have to laugh. ‘Oh, she’s fine, she just needs to be managed,’ I say.
‘Yes, I would like to “manage” her out of the shop, but we’ve been so short-staffed. Isobel’s offered to muck in if her supply teaching’s still dried up, but she can only do buttonholes at best. If we’re going to do this we definitely need you back at work doing your magic on that bride’s bouquet.’
‘Well, count me in,’ I say. I’m flushed with wine, and smiling, but inside I suddenly feel quite petrified.
I’ve only just mastered a visit to the corner shop. Am I ready for a complete return to life – especially a big summer wedding and all the slogging and smiling that will entail?
‘I didn’t want to put you under any pressure so I never said, but I can’t tell you how relieved I am that you’re coming back. This wedding is a huge deal for Rosie’s; the profit from this alone will mean a great year for us. And you always say for one good wedding we can get at least three more bookings.’
‘Absolutely!’ I smile, pleased my daughter feels so passionate about our small business. I remember going home to Mike in floods of tears the day Mrs Cooper told me she was retiring and I’d have to find another job. He thought someone had upset me and was all ready to go out there and sort them out, but when I told him what had happened he said, ‘Okay, let’s think about this. You want to stay working there and Mrs Cooper wants to sell – so let’s kill one bird with two stones, and buy it.’ I’d laughed when he said that, we were only in our twenties, and people like us didn’t buy businesses. But Mike said he’d be by my side and though never ambitious for himself he believed in me and gently pushed us all to achieve our own small dreams. A flower shop for me, a marriage and babies for Anna – and for Isobel, a degree in French that almost defeated her. He was always there supporting us, urging us on in the wings.
‘Dad would have done anything for you, wouldn’t he?’ Anna says, finishing her wine.
It was true, Mike wanted to give me everything and we had nothing. To buy the shop we took a huge risk, remortgaged the house, and a week later began the process of becoming shop owners. I enrolled in a floristry course at night school and after a great deal of hard work we eventually had a thriving business. I was going to keep the Cooper’s name, but Mike came up with the idea of Rosie’s Roses, and that was it.
‘Dad worked so hard on the shop,’ I said, remembering him toiling late into the night to redecorate and get everything ready. ‘It really was a labour of love for him,’ I said fondly. ‘He spent our holiday money painting the walls rose pink and paying to have the shop sign with my name on. I felt like a celebrity: “There you are, Rosie – up in lights,” he said, “where you belong.”’
‘Do you remember our late-night picnic?’ Anna was smiling at the memory.
‘Oh yes, gosh I’d almost forgotten about that. I felt so bad that your dad was there all on his own fitting shelves on a Friday night . . . and as you didn’t have school the next day we all went over to the shop to keep him company.’
‘We made sandwiches and I carried the flask of tea. Me and Isobel thought we’d died and gone to heaven.’ Anna’s eyes are shining at the memory. ‘I’ll never forget that night, putting the blanket down in the middle of the shop floor and us all sitting round eating KitKats. People were peering in on their way back from the pub, it must have been very late, but we thought we were very important picnicking in our new shop.’
‘I remember telling you not to mention it to Nan. I doubt Margaret would have approved of me taking you out for late-night picnics.’ I giggle at the thought of my strait-laced mother ever doing anything after nine p.m., let alone putting two little girls in pyjamas in the back of the car and taking them out into the night.
‘Are you sure you’ll be okay, Mum? The last time you set foot in that shop it was to do the flowers for his funeral.’
I sit back in the chair. ‘The funeral was only one day – and it isn’t going to overshadow the hundreds and thousands of days Dad was in there, drinking tea, chatting to the customers, alive, full of life and helping out. It’ll be good to get back there.’
‘Yeah.’ Her eyes fill with tears and my heart breaks. I wanted to make her feel better remembering her Dad, not upset her.
‘This sounds selfish, but when Dad died my first thought was “Who’s going to lift all the boxes for us when we have a delivery? Who’s going to drive us to the flower market when it’s icy in winter”? Do you remember he’d get up before his own work and insist on driving? He couldn’t bear to let us go out there on our own in the freezing cold.’
‘Yes, and I keep looking at those stars and I’m sure he’s telling me to stop being a lazy sod and get back to work,’ I laugh.
Anna discreetly wipes an eye. Neither of us want the other one to see we’re upset, always trying to protect each other from hurt.
‘I’m so grateful, love. I appreciate you’ve been grieving too and I know it’s not been easy. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve just been scared to go back into the world again alone – it sounds so stupid, doesn’t it?’ I am a terrible mother leaving her to do all that by herself.
‘No, I get it, and you mustn’t throw yourself at it like you always do. Why don’t you just focus on the Parker wedding? I can deal with the day-to-day stuff.’
‘Okay, it’s a deal. Let’s start by making some notes; I have to work out exactly what needs doing,’ I say, getting up from my seat at the kitchen table to delve in what we call ‘the messy cupboard’ for my work notepad. The drawers are still full of nondescript bits of wire and screws that Mike dumped in there, along with granddaughters’ flavoured lip balms and cola-scented erasers. I know my notepad is in here somewhere but as I haven’t used it for a while I have to go deep, and end up at the back of the cupboard, a place no one has ventured in for some time.
‘I wondered where this was,’ I say, pulling out an old shortbread tin decorated with Scottie dogs in bow ties.
‘Oh, the photograph tin. We got that out for Dad, do you remember he wanted to look at all the old photos?’ Anna’s smiling, taking it from me. I recall Mike sitting up in bed, a frail old man smiling at a picture of the kids on the beach at Blackpool with my mother. Mike had said something funny and when my mother was unable to get out of her deckchair for laughing he took her picture, which made her laugh more, capturing her for ever with his Kodak, legs splayed, her head back, in stitches. Margaret had always liked Mike – if it hadn’t been for her I probably wouldn’t have married him.
Before long we are knee-deep in faded photos and grainy memories.
‘Remember this?’ I hold up a picture of Isobel and Anna on holiday.
She takes it, smiling at her six-year-old self in Cornwall holding her bucket and spade in one hand and her two-year-old sister’s hand in the other.
‘Dad taught you to swim on that holiday,’ I say, rummaging for the photo of Mike holding her up in the sea like a trophy, her arms waving around in triumph.
She gazes at the photo. ‘He was always there for me. I’ll never forget the night I found out about Paul and that woman. He’d stormed off and I called Dad in tears – within minutes he was at the door, bundling us all into the car and bringing us home here.’
‘Yes. You were so upset and trying to tell me what had happened and in the middle of all the madness the girls wanted Granddad to play Monopoly with them like he always did.’ I giggle.
‘He just got the box, set it all out and by two a.m. they were buying up Mayfair and Park Lane.’ Her eyes filled with tears again and my heart twisted.
‘The girls miss him so much. Their own dad’s such a waste of space I always thought Dad would be there for them . . . teach them to drive and tell them they’re beautiful when boys upset them, like he did with us. He always knew the right thing to say or do . . . ’
‘Yeah, a broken fence or a broken heart and he was straight to it – always fixing something,’ I say, using my napkin to discreetly wipe my eyes.
‘I wonder what he’d want for us all, Mum?’ She’s looking at me, waiting for the ‘right’ answer.
‘He’d want us all to be happy, but mostly he’d want me back there behind that counter making bloody bridesmaid’s posies,’ I laugh.
‘Yes he would, and you seem ready, better, brighter,’ she says. ‘A few weeks ago you wouldn’t have been able to look at these photos without collapsing in tears.’
‘I’m only just holding it together now,’ I say. ‘Now, where’s that wine?’ I grab the bottle, pour us both another and send up a little thank you to whoever is up there for sending me such wonderful daughters.
‘I can’t believe you were ever so young, or so trendy.’ Anna’s now rummaging around in the tin, producing random photos from down the years, and I tell myself I must make some albums, the photos are all mixed up.
She sighs, lifting up a photo of me taken at art college – I was seventeen and wearing a black polo neck and tight jeans.
‘Look at you, all Kate Moss with your long hair and skinny legs,’ she laughs.
‘I thought I was more Marianne Faithfull. Kate Moss hadn’t even been born then, that’s how old I am.’
‘I can’t imagine you being so young . . . you look just like Emma.’
‘I can’t believe I was that young either! And yes, I can see Emma – I never realised how pretty I was. I wish I had, I’d have made so much more of myself,’ I say, studying the serious girl with the straight blonde hair and the skinny legs. ‘I thought I was so cool, very existentialist in my black polo neck . . . I never really understood what “existential” meant, and I still don’t. I remember a boy I knew trying to explain it to me: “I exist therefore I am,” he said, and I just nodded. Between you and me I also wore polo necks so your nan wouldn’t see my “disgusting” love bites.’
‘Love bites! You were quite a goer then?’ Anna laughs and waves another photo at me. ‘Was this one your boyfriend before Dad? You’ve told me about him. He broke your heart, didn’t he? Did he give you the love bites?’
‘Yes,’ I laugh, ‘he was a dangerous boy.’ I gaze at his picture, thinking of his blue eyes, dark, wavy hair, and Salford carnival on a muggy day in August. It was 1968 . . . a year etched deep in my memory.
‘He was very good-looking.’ Anna nods, apparently impressed, admiring it as she puts the picture back in the tin.
As the photo mixes back in with all the other memories there, I glimpse the smile that once made my heart beat faster. I see those blue, blue eyes that twinkled and it feels like yesterday – I can also still feel the ocean of pain that came after. I want to tell Anna all about the boy, but she isn’t up for an evening of ‘all our yesterdays’, and she’s now closing the shortbread tin on my past. I take my cue, and keen to push it to the back of the cupboard and the back of my mind, I offer to put the kettle on.
‘Come on then,’ I say, closing the cupboard door on the past and brandishing the rediscovered notebook. ‘I’ll make the coffee and we’ll sit in the other room and talk about this wedding. Did you say the bridesmaids are wearing blush pink?’
After Anna leaves I go to bed and try to relax, but I feel like I’m caught between the past and the present, both pulling me in different directions, vying for my attention. Unable to sleep I go downstairs in the dark. It’s so quiet, except for Lily’s paws clicking behind me on the wooden floor. I’m still not used to being alone in the house in the middle of the night so I put all the lights on downstairs. ‘I know, Lily, I’m daft, aren’t I?’ I say, half-smiling at my own silliness. My head is filled with blush-pink gerberas and black and white memories and I soon find myself opening the cupboard, taking out the tin again and sitting at the kitchen table nursing a mug of hot tea.
I look at the unopened tin. Is this my personal Pandora’s box? Dare I open it and release the butterflies from my past? Can I bear to see the vivid colours flooding back to life after all these years? Recalling splashes of love and pain like paint on canvas, I run my fingers along the embossed edges and wonder if I dare open it again. My impetuous side (the one that took me down slides with my grandchildren, raced them to the ice cream van and joined in all their party games) wants to lift the lid, but the seventeen-year-old scared Rosie wants to keep the tin firmly closed on the past.
Finally, by the second cup of tea, the ice-cream-van-racing granny has won and I open it – and even after all these years I’m afraid of what’s waiting for me. I pluck a few photos out from the middle: a sad bride, no white lace and promises, just a cream suit and blind hope; my mother’s tight lips and a finger buffet at the local working men’s club – not the stuff little girls’ dreams are made of. The groom was young and handsome though, and he was so in love – how I envied him, how I wished I could match his love. Back then it didn’t matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t feel it, and wished someone else was waiting for me on the registry office steps. I hate myself still for those feelings. Mike knew I didn’t love him, but he married me anyway and over the years our love grew, but it was a slow burn, nothing like the fireworks of passion I’d felt with Peter.
I find the postcard Peter sent me from Italy and my heart dips a little.
Having a great time, the pasta is amazing, the galleries are wonderful.
See you soon, all my love,
I smile to myself – how could he write about pasta when my heart was breaking? Reading his teenage words my eyes fill with tears and my mind screams ‘What if?’ After a while I pick up the old black and white photos of us at college – there are only a few, it wasn’t like the selfie age we’re living through today – and in those few snaps I’m transported back to my youth and a world filled with possibilities. And I return, as I have so many times, to the summer of 1968; students were rioting in Paris, the Vietnam War was raging and I, Rosie Draper, was in love for the very first time.
I remember it like it was yesterday, that crisp, September morning when I arrived for the first time at Salford College of Art. The sun was low in the sky as I walked briskly along the pavement, the air veiled with autumn mist and expectation. I was sixteen years old, so young, so vulnerable and so easily impressed entering the art room and seeing the riches before me. Easels everywhere, enough paintbrushes for everyone, soft B pencils and pots of paint in every colour from ochre to aquamarine. I was in heaven as I gazed around me – art all over the walls, stacks of thick white paper and . . . Oh God, a naked woman standing in the middle of the room.
I was alarmed – we didn’t do that sort of thing where I came from and I barely knew where to look. Averting my eyes from the nonchalant unclothed form in front of me, I realised this was our life model and not only would I have to look at her pert breasts, I was expected to study them in detail, along with the dark intimate shading of her upper thighs. I’d read about such things in my mother’s Reader’s Digest but didn’t think real people actually posed like this for a living. Everyone else seemed to be taking this in their stride, gliding to their seats chatting and laughing like there wasn’t a completely naked woman now lying across a chaise longue right in front of us.
Then, amid all this madness, I saw him.
Even now I remember him in Technicolor. He was sitting back in his seat, one foot up on the chair in front, surveying the rest of the room, like he owned the bloody world. It was clear from that first glance that here was someone who was sure of himself, of his place in the world, and this was heady stuff to a gauche, scared young girl taking her first steps. I was a working-class teenager, thrashing around, not knowing where I fitted in, desperate to make something of my talent but unable to visualise a future for myself in a middle-class world of art and easels. But here was someone who knew what he was doing, where he was going, and to me that was special, different. Everyone else was new and nervous but he had this laid-back air and a lazy, sexy smile that began in those blue eyes, slowly sending a spark to his lips, and lighting his face up. I remember watching his laughing eyes gaze idly around the room looking for mischief and excitement and I was immediately taken. I settled at my easel looking discreetly under my fringe at the gorgeous boy while averting my eyes from the bare woman Mum would no doubt consider ‘a hussy’. I could almost hear her voice: ‘It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah,’ she’d say. ‘Get your coat, you’re leaving.’
My mother had shaken her head in despair when I’d told her I was going to art college. ‘I don’t know why you don’t get a nice job as a shorthand typist – you’ve got your head in the clouds. An artist? It’s not for the likes of us.’
I was the first in my family to do something different, to want something more. My two brothers, both older than me, worked in jobs my mother and father approved of – David was a car mechanic and Mark had gone into what Dad laughingly referred to as ‘the family business’, at the local factory. But I was considered a rebel because typing or a job making tea at the local bus depot hadn’t appealed to me. No, sixteen-year-old Rosie had big dreams, she wasn’t going to end up in a little terraced house in Salford like the rest of them, she was going to see the world, paint the world and then go round all over again.