And here’s today’s short story, one which was first published in ‘Everyday Fiction’. It’s based on a real person, and although elements of the story are invented but the descriptions are, I assure you, not at all exaggerated…
It’s Not Up to You
Once I’d sussed what was really going on, it was too late to do anything about it – but even so, I still don’t see what I could have done differently. When you’ve just got engaged to the greatest man on the planet and he wants to introduce you to his best friend, you can’t just say no thanks and walk away – even if all your hackles do rise up when she comes in the room.
Though now I think about it, the first time we met wasn’t in a room; it was at the playground. In the summer she practically seemed to live at the park, she and her child: a three-year-old who still sucked his thumb. He seemed glued to her side, but eventually he ran off to play, and while Jude talked to Leon he spent the time flinging himself off the top of slides or else hurtling towards us at speed before veering off at the last moment and charging into the distance. Sometimes he would vanish altogether, whereupon she would sit calling his name in a plaintive monotone until someone else got up to look for him.
The three of us sat on the grass, even though there were benches free; and while she talked I mentally sized her up. I supposed she was fat – though much of it must have been all the layers of clothes she was inexplicably wearing, on this hot day – and her hair was dark, lanky and unkempt. Her face was long and flat like a steam-iron, her features were sunk in it like vents and her expression was inscrutable. But none of these were reasons to dislike her, so I smoothed my wrinkled thoughts and smiled and smiled; trying hard not to be a villain.
The park was one thing: her house was quite another. Leon had warned me to expect chaos, but when I set eyes on it I felt I hadn’t quite known till then, what chaos was. The front garden was planted with several bin-bags that sprouted from an expired sofa, and Leon had to lean across this disgusting pile to tap on the window, whereupon the boy came and let us in. The front door opened directly into the living-room where every surface – floor, chairs, tables, radiators and what might have been a sofa – was strewn with papers and books; mugs ringed by memories of tea; plates thick with congealed curry; empty crisp-packets, old sweet-wrappers – and, draped haphazardly over everything else, an assortment of damp laundry. On the floor sat Jude, picking items from a basket and looking for places to drape them. Mastering the urge to turn and flee, I found a patch of carpet and squatted gingerly down. She made no effort to welcome us, but chatted to Leon as though their conversation of the other day had never been interrupted: then after a while she seemed to get tired of doing the laundry and to cast around for something else to do. Eventually she got heavily to her feet and moved towards the kitchen, scattering damp socks in her wake. We heard her filling the kettle. She came in and sat down again, and shortly afterwards I heard the kettle switch itself off. Several slow minutes passed; and meanwhile she had found another occupation: carefully picking up bits of paper from the floor and placing them onto a piece of card. I guess you could call it tidying, though it might have been art.
Eventually I couldn’t stand it any longer: ‘I think the kettle’s boiled,’ I said.
‘Oh, yes,’ she said vaguely, and she stood up, catching the card by one corner and spilling the bits of paper like confetti back onto the carpet. Leon went to help but I stayed put, having no desire to see her kitchen, and several minutes later they were back with three mugs of grey liquid in which were revolving some small flakes of milk. By now I was mad to get out of there: I wanted to leap through the window, vault over the bin-bags; run up the road and never come back.
But that would be rude. So I smiled, said nothing and pretended to sip my tea.
The tea seemed to represent the outer limits of Jude’s hospitality; she sat back down on the floor and carried on talking to Leon. Their conversation drifted like smoke and went nowhere: she seemed to have forgotten both the card and the laundry. I watched the child as he played, weaving a truck in and out of the debris and apparently quite unfazed by the chaos; then after a while, getting bored with that game, he came over and tugged at his mother’s sleeve. She carried on talking and so, without any warning, he launched himself head-first across her lap: she held her cup aside but still most of her tea spilt in a grey-and-white streak over the rubbish, the plates, the laundry and what remained of the carpet. Completely unfazed, she put the cup down, pulled up several layers of clothing and allowed the three-year-old boy to suckle at a large, pendulous, bra-less breast.
I’ve seen it all now, I thought.
Time was passing and I felt we were taking root. I got to my feet: ‘Leon,’ I said, ‘it’s time we were going.’
Immediately, Leon stood up. In astonishment, she stared at me – then at him, and slowly her face took on a clear meaning: I swear I could read the words ‘apron-strings’ written in those buried features. Apron-strings! I thought scornfully, You wouldn’t know apron-strings if they strangled you. And we let ourselves out into the freedom of the street.
After that I took care to see as little of her as possible, but unfortunately she had our phone number, and her whining voice always seemed to come on the line whenever I most needed Leon. I began to form a theory.
‘Do you think Jude was ever – you know – interested in you?’ I asked one day when Our Wedding loomed like an ocean liner approaching a dock.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe.’ He stuck an arm around me: ‘do you still want her to come to the wedding?’
‘You’ve already invited her,’ I pointed out.
‘Mm,’ he agreed. ‘I suppose we can’t un-invite her.’
‘Or she’ll be like the wicked fairy?’
He laughed. ‘Perhaps! Though you’re not exactly Snow-White.’
I gave him a look.
The Day came. I wore a blue silk dress and Jude slunk in at the back and behaved perfectly – that is to say, she spoke barely a word to anyone and left early, saying the child was tired. I thanked her outwardly for coming, but not half as much as I thanked her inwardly for leaving. And our day remained perfect.
After that we didn’t see her for ages: she took the child down to her parents’ house in Sussex and looked set to stay there the whole summer.
‘You know,’ I said to Leon one day, ‘Jude’s the very essence of inertia. She hardly ever moves, but once you get her somewhere she’ll stay forever.’
He laughed. Perhaps Jude would stay down in Sussex for good: there was a sweet thought.
It didn’t take long for us to conceive a child of our own, and in early spring Ivy came to us; a wild, Bacchanalian child with a mass of dark curls. Jude sent a piece of ribbon which was too short to be useful, and a card she had made herself: I had to admit the card at least was pretty. But we didn’t invite her to the christening.
By the time Harry was born two years later, I had forgotten Jude existed. Then one day a tattered blue envelope arrived in the post. It was addressed to Leon, and I thought nothing of it; just left it on the table, but as the day progressed it seemed to cast a pall over the room. When Leon came home he looked at the writing and exclaimed.
‘What?’ I said, cutting pizza into fingers while Harry squawked in his high chair.
‘Jude,’ he said.
He read the letter all through dinner. It looked long and rambling and seemed to be written on the back of old phone bills, mostly red ones. Finally he put them down.
‘She’s coming back,’ he said.
‘Dammit!’ I cried; there was no point in pretending. The wicked fairy was coming back: dammit, dammit, dammit!
‘Where’s she going to live?’ I asked.
‘She wants me to find somewhere.’
I looked at him in dawning horror: ‘she can’t stay here!’ I said. The last word came out in a wail.
She really couldn’t. There wasn’t room, we decided firmly, though we both knew that a tidy and thoughtful mother-and-child would have been welcome for as long as they needed. But not Her. The horror of it woke me up sweating in the night; the thought of her washing on the stairs, her rubbish on the floor, her curdled milk in the fridge. As to looking for a place to live, leafing through the paper might be all she would ever do. We’d end up camping out in the park, Leon and me and the children. I mean it.
So in the end he told her we couldn’t help; whereupon she contacted the council, declared herself homeless and was housed within a fortnight. Bloody hell, I thought: the flat they’d given her wasn’t even that bad. It wasn’t near us, thankfully, but once she’d moved in it was impossible to avoid at least one visit; equally impossible to cut that visit short. She would make the tea when she made it, and there would never be a good moment to leave. You would always have to be rude.
Rude to Jude, I thought. The rhyme of it kept me going.
Once we’d visited it was only a matter of slow time before she and the child came to us – but this, when it came to it, I forestalled. We were off to the park, I said. Why not come along? – just as though this were the thing I wanted most in all the world. On the grass the child ran around with Ivy: I watched them while Leon and Jude talked. Then it was time to bring the morning to a close: ‘I have to get lunch and go to work,’ I explained. I might as well have said I had to pack a spacecraft and fly to Mars – she looked utterly blank. Impatient to leave, I strapped Harry into the buggy and walked on ahead while she, Leon, Ivy and the child followed, at a numbingly slow pace. I was in an agony about how to prevent her coming in, but in the end Leon came home alone.
‘Ivy’s gone to their house to play,’ he said.
Better, I thought. But I was wrong.
That evening I got a call at work. Ivy was in hospital with suspected food poisoning.
Cold hands clutched at my heart, swiftly followed by boiling fury: Jude! It had to be Jude. I imagined her kitchen: the bins overflowing, the sink smeared with grease, every surface covered with filthy pots – perhaps immunity to all that was why she’d kept on breast-feeding the child way past the appropriate age. Why had Leon let Ivy go there? The thought of my child lying poisoned in hospital nearly drove me frantic. I had no credit on my mobile; there was nothing for it but to speed through the streets on a fervent prayer and up the fervency when it came to finding a parking-space.
I tumbled onto the ward to find everything calm. Ivy had vomited once and then been sedated while they pumped her stomach: she now looked as peaceful as though she had just fallen asleep. I sat beside her and held her hand for a few minutes. Then I turned to Leon, my face a mask of fury.
‘I want that woman out of our lives,’ I said between clenched teeth, ‘for good.’
He reached across, gripped my hand tightly and said nothing.
Jude had the good sense to stay away. At first I was relieved, then afterwards I was outraged: ‘she hasn’t even called!’ I said.
‘She can’t help it,’ said Leon. ‘She’s always been like that.’
‘She can help it!’ I almost shouted. Then a thought stole into my head: it’s because we didn’t invite her to the christening.
During the next few days Ivy’s condition was stable, but still she didn’t wake up. Every so often a doctor would come along and tell us she was fine, there was no reason to worry; she would wake up when she was ready. So we did what they said: we talked to her, we sang her favourite songs, we read her best-loved stories and brought Harry in to give her soft, wet kisses. We sat by her bed, holding a hand each, for hours together, but Ivy’s eyelids didn’t so much as flicker. Still there was no word from Jude, and as day merged into day I had never felt like murdering anyone so much. Then finally, after nearly a week, there was progress: Ivy’s eyelids began to flutter and her hands to move, just like they did when she was dreaming – and ten days after the accident (so we called it) we were allowed to take her home.
First on the doorstep was Jude. ‘Thank goodness!’ she said as I opened the door, ‘I was so worried.’
I looked full into that long, flat-iron face, those curtains of greasy hair; those impenetrable sunken eyes. I spoke very clearly: ‘Get this,’ I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re mad or sane. You have poisoned my child and I never want to see you again. Leon never wants to see you again. Don’t call, don’t phone, don’t talk to us. Not ever.’
She recoiled as if I’d punched her, but I just shut the door in her face. I turned the key, then as I walked away I heard the letter-box flap open, and her whining voice insinuate itself into our hallway.
‘It’s not up to you!’ she said.