Babs lived in a now dilapidated, bought council house on the outskirts of a war-torn, forgotten sink estate known locally as ‘Dicky-Bird’. Her residential palace had little room for manoeuvre. Hills of yellowing newspapers passionately embraced festering cardboard boxes. The boxes nestled cosily within a sea of plastic bags, brimming with God knows what, which in turn, fondled bottles of malignant looking liquid. Nothing was ever thrown out; everything had a use. Things had somehow found a way into the house so they must have been there for some reason. The floor was an adhesive tide of dog mess and insects which left one somewhat restricted. It was a rat’s paradise hence she was known locally as ‘Rat Woman’.
Jumbo, her Yorkshire terrier, had been unusually quiet for a few hours now, not a peep. Come to think of it, he had not shifted from his flea infested pit of a bed for some time. He looked a bit peaky; maybe, he was just shattered after the last few days? This would not do, not do at all. She had made up her mind, they both needed sprucing up. They were going out!
She and Jumbo shared a fungal covered bath in scum topped water. She held him against her bosom gently caressing his head, whispering encouraging words. Finally, she attempted to dry them both with a vegetated towel that had not seen a cleaning product for years. After their part-drying, she went through to her bedroom. She gingerly laid Jumbo on the one available space on her bed and made a determined push for the battered wardrobe. It had once been a sought after piece handed down by her Mother and Father. Now, though, it appeared jaded into submission by woodworm and seemed intent on giving the wall a nasty shove. After a struggle reaching it, she managed to open the barely hanging door and there it was in all its glory – the final ever gift off her Husband. On the only remaining hanger, wrapped in cobwebbed, loose fitting cling film was her outfit. She recalled a vague, colourless memory of an attempt to keep it clean. He had bought it for some ‘do’ they were supposed to have attended. It was an ensemble purchased to tell her that she was his ‘Lady in Red’ as they were both huge Chris de Burgh fans. The blouse, skirt and bow were a matching set, yet sadly the skirt appeared to have made a run for it. Never mind, she would have to make do with what she had. Both items were remarkably still in good condition. When the getup was first bought some ten years prior, she thought they were a Hollywood red, like something out of the movies.
Jumbo wouldn’t mind being dressed with a bow; he was a dog for God’s sake, not a fashion model. Anyway, all Yorkshire Terriers wore bows, irrespective of what gender they were. He would look lovely. With outright devotion, she endearingly placed him in her handbag. He would like that as well, all nice and snug. Eventually, she stepped out of her front door for the first time since she could remember and shuffled to the bus stop. It duly arrived and she boarded, politely enquiring the price to town because she needed to get to the vets; her dog was not very well you see.
She sat down, oblivious to the distressed silence and aghast faces of her fellow passengers as they gaped at her open handbag. Her thoughts immediately drifted to Malcolm. They had been married for forty-two years before his departure. Ten years he had been gone, ten bloody years! Now she was seventy-five! Oh, how she missed him! Life had been so different when he was here. He had worked as a caretaker at the local, Catholic Primary School, just a short walk away, for the last twenty plus years. Retirement was just round the corner. Back then, she had been a house-proud wife making sure his lunch and tea were ready for him. At the evenings and weekends, they had spent the majority of their free time on their garden as he had been in ferocious competition with the neighbours. She had told him that it deserved awards to which he had often simply nodded in agreement. Their house had comfortably been the prettiest dwelling on the estate, but that was long ago – just memories to float freely away. The once stunning house had disintegrated, little by little into disrepair; the garden now a maze of adventuring slug trails, gossiping weeds and crooning insects, all safe, in the knowledge that they ruled this haven. The estate was now swamped with unemployed slobs, inane drug addicts and aggressive, tameless kids hanging by every street corner – all in battle for the prestigious, ‘Biggest Waster’ of the year award. You couldn’t even go to the corner shop without one of those little sods trying something or saying something crude. She had been torn for a long time between going out and staying in; this was the final push she needed to sway her decision.
Food was brought to her by health workers, but, of course you had to pay for the privilege – boiled animal, a pale spud, a single carrot losing at hide and seek beneath nine peas and some flavoured water – gravy, to give it some moisture. Mmmm, tasty. Jumbo got his fair share of this excuse for nourishment. The health workers inevitably reported her to the local authorities and some nice chap would come round and ask her if she would like to move to somewhere oh, much nicer, cleaner, where help would be just round the corner. No, thank you. This was her and Malcolm’s home. It was paid off and she was not going to be shoved out of it! She didn’t want any pills from the doctor; she had no interest in becoming reliant on drugs. She didn’t want to talk to someone about her issues; this was not her, she was brought up to be quiet, strong, never show weakness and keep things to herself. Not to broadcast it to the entire universe.
In the immediate aftermath of Malcolm’s death, she had sought some comfort in going to church and having serious one to ones with God. The local priest, Father Simon, would often come round to the house, to check on one of his flock; listen to her prattling on and then vainly attempt to give pious advice whilst having a brew and her best biscuits. He was pleasant and very nicely spoken, but she questioned whether he really knew what she was going through. Had he ever been married? Had he ever been in love? Well, she supposed he was married and in love with God, in a way, but that wasn’t the same. The priest had never been in a relationship like hers, no one had ever been in a relationship like hers! They had known each other inside out, they could read each other’s thoughts; they were kindred. They had been childhood sweethearts; it had been written in the stars that they would be together. Father Simon could not possibly understand or relate to her loss. They had been married for longer that he’d been a priest for Christ’s sake! What did he know of that! Nothing! God was a liar; not to be trusted. What kind of a God would take her Malcolm away from her? What sort of a God would allow all this hurt? A sick and twisted God, that’s who, a God, whose church was built on a rickety foundation of lies and deceit, not love and faith.
Sadly, they had never had kids; they were just one of those unfortunate couples that never had them. They had tried, but God had decreed that they would be the unlucky ones. As they grew older, they accepted this naturally religious fate and continued with their lives, just as the Lord intended. Instead, they got dogs, always dogs. She could not elicit how many they had had over the years, but they doted on them all. A month after the last one died, Malcolm said he would be a tad late back from work that day – the pre-named Jumbo arrived on the scene. He was not their usual kind of dog. They ordinarily went for whatever free mongrel they could get their hands on, never a pedigree! Malcolm had said he had got him dirt cheap and had snapped the seller’s hand off. It had taken her aback as she preferred bigger dogs, but eventually he affectionately wriggled his way into her heart.
Malcolm would not have wanted her to wallow away in self-pity. He would have wanted her to make something of herself; go out into her brave, new world, make friends, discover hidden talents and live a life with some meaning. She tried, she really tried. She kept herself busy so she wouldn’t think about him and her circumstances. She joined the WI, went to the library to get books on how to cope, went to classes on how to work a computer, went into town shopping, took Jumbo out for walks and helped out at the church. She involved herself with anything and everything. If anyone was in a spot of bother they always rang her or asked her for help. She became staggeringly accommodating to all and sundry. Some cheeky so and so actually had the gall to suggest that she should go to one of those date nights! She was still young, she might meet some nice, polite chap, you never know. What the hell did they think she was? That was not becoming of the sort of person she was. She was still married and would always remain married to her one and only partner! No one would ever come between them! She would remain loyal till the day she died! All these things she tried were all ruthless; they were all done on her own, without him. Her pain had become compartmentalised, tucked discretely away in a safe corner of her mind; not for public viewing. When she was alone of an evening it was allowed out to breathe, then it would envelop her within its black aura.
Nights were the worse. It was hard not to think of him at this point of the day. What else did she have to do? Watch shocking programmes that passed for the telly these days? TV had become a pollution of drivel; cookery programmes where people got marks out of ten, rotund ex-celebrities dancing as though they had just had a banana thrusted up their backside, or, eating bull’s balls to stay in some wretched jungle camp for an extra day. If you so wished, you could watch severely self-deluded, talentless people singing their poor hearts out to cutting, sarcastic judges who laughed in their faces. There was even a programme about people talking about programmes that they’d watched! TV had turned into ridiculing the weak and desperate and what was worse, everyone liked it! The world was celebrating wholesale mediocrity. If you won the Lottery you were an overnight star! Everyone seemed to think they were owed something. They all wanted a quick fix; luxury without any hard work. TV was almost as though you were back at school: marking each other’s work, taking the mickey and calling each other names. She preferred the radio anyway. She could read a book or have a bath or even, read a book in the bath. Oh goody, yes that’ll take up, oh, say thirty minutes, yay! Clean the house – again! It was already spotless. She tended to dread the prospect of going to the bedroom, their bedroom, not hers! She did not want to sleep in there by herself – it seemed unnatural after all this time. She didn’t like it. Something about the whole thing simply did not sit right with her. She did not want to get into ‘that’ bed on her own. It had become a cold place, certainly not a place of rest. It was a place of anxiety and sleeplessness. Most nights, she just nodded off in her armchair downstairs, not ideal, but at least she managed a few hours. Jumbo was always by her feet. Thank goodness for him, he was her only light in a darkening world.
Why had she been treated this way? She had tried to be a decent person: helping people as much as possible, giving to charity, going to church, baking buns and running a stall at the school fair etc. Doing all that shit, only to be shit on! How was that fair? Malcolm had left her before his time was due. She had never once envisaged life without him and now, here she was, devastatingly alone. She had never once contemplated life on her own. Now though, she had no bloody choice. He had been her very reason for living. She could either get on with it and make the best of it or give up. She gave up.
One day she decided that she could take no more. It was simply not worth it, she was sick to the back teeth of it all. The routine of normal life had become exhaustive drudgery. She had zero energy to cope with the straightforward, daily grind. She stopped going to everything and began cutting herself off from the outside world. She became more and more of a recluse, detaching herself from the everyday. She stopped going to church. She had lost her faith; Father Simon could go and take a running jump. The odd neighbour would pop round out of civil duty (Mrs. Williams, her next door neighbour was undeniably the worst; always sticking her oar in), to see how she was, whether she was poorly, needed some shopping or some other paltry excuse. She would tell them she was fine, just a bit tired, that was all. That was all tripe though. What she wanted to say to all of them, but particularly that awful Williams woman, was ‘Get the fuck out of my house you interfering do-gooding shits!’ but she never went quite that far. She had become rather prolific in effing and jeffing; the change in vocabulary, quite breathtaking. She found she savoured swearing in front of these people and watched their reactions with glee, as they recoiled upon hearing such filthy, gutter talk. The nosey parkers eventually got the message though and left her alone, when all they got back were cups of weak tea and non-committal conversation. That was all she wanted, to be left alone, with her dog and her bitterness.
She had stopped going to Malcolm’s grave to tend it for two years now, only the burrowing worms knew what it looked like. After that, everything had quickly gone to pot and she had gone deeper and deeper into herself, immersing herself in her own world. She lived in a near permanent dream-state with an odd day of lucidity here and there. She still spoke to him incessantly, as if he were standing and breathing alongside her. Then, two days ago as she was babbling, she eyed Jumbo looking at her. A revelation struck her, of course, it all fitted now! How could she have been so blind? That look, those eyes, so handsome and loyal – Malcolm had returned! The day he had died he must have taken over Jumbo’s body! It was so simple and obvious. She became deliriously happy for the first time in years. She saw the world in a whole new light. It had become a place of joy, warm, welcoming and peaceful. She felt in synch again. He would never have left her on her own; they were together in perpetual motion – soul mates.
Damian is divorced with three children and has lived in Whitby, North Yorkshire, England for the last ten years. He is currently employed as a Postman and writes mainly short stories in his spare time. He tweets here and his blog is here.