By Shauna Mackay
So, as I understand it, none of your children have died?
They die all the time, she says. Over and over.
The doctor, young as ever-dying sons, suggests a short course of medication and refers her to someone who might help her to change her thoughts.
On the way home her walk’s different: rocking, dodgy. This is how the embarrassed go. Shanks’s pony won’t trot nice: one two, onetwo, no, one, two, for God’s sake. She keeps a Bonaparte hand to pat the phone in the pocket of her shirt, there, there; can’t let it lie at the bottom of her bag, roofed over by crap and the birthday card for Lance. Her middle lad hasn’t answered the text she sent from the doctor’s reception area: he’s got an away game today, rugby, that bloody rugby; he must be injured, quadriplegic, on a ventilator, brain dead. How can she go on? She smoothes out the prescription in her hand, crosses the road to the chemist.
A text comes as she waits for the tablets to be dispensed. Her son is fine, all good, they won. She pictures him downing celebration pints, shots, being a daft sod, succumbing to fatal blood alcohol levels. She makes the pharmacist bide there for payment, stood like a plum, while she texts back. Well done son but mind you go canny x. As soon as the first text has gone she sends another to say on the coach journey home he should sit in a middle aisle seat opposite the driver’s side for she’s heard it’s the safest place in the event of a crash.
She’s been meaning to stick a stamp on Lance’s birthday card but thinks now she’ll take it to him in person, give him a laugh. Not that she’s going to let on how she’s just got done begging for help, is to receive therapy: he’d wet himself, tell her no bugger had a chance in hell of coming between her and her thoughts. He would know this is a day of defeat, an end more than any sort of propped-up new start and though she knows what Lance would know she still wants to head toward him covered in her silent worst and the smell of the fried onions from his burger van the warm wind has brought as far as the top road.
She walks down to the harbour past the Custom House recently turned into some sort of arts centre place, past buildings once something other and now something else. Still good enough with an old front, behind which new spaces to fill a hole, get off a face, sweat for fun, paint, dance, play the God knows what for fun; coping like bairns do with a bit of daft play. She couldn’t go backwards like that; be a bairn again. She might get stuck there. That poster for Dancing with Joy classes? Could a lollop about do wonders for her? Could a good lollop help her lose herself or find herself? She’s not even sure what would be best. All ages welcome, they reckoned. She wouldn’t dare. Joy—who’s she when she’s at home?—wouldn’t be any better for seeing her scraggy unit giving it full throttle, not even if it was well-covered in trackie bottoms and a double layer of tops. She’s seen the gorgeous going in and out. Best leave the fresh ones to the fresh insides. Let them enjoy these buildings that seem able to tell a story safe enough for everyone to hear: nanas and grandads never die, these face bricks are holding their breath.
Lance’s best customer is at the hatch; his mate Billy, doing a side lean into the counter to talk to a Lance she can’t yet see. She walks toward the van, herself unseen. She feels like she doesn’t live in this town any more, only haunts it. Anxiety has stolen her meat, she is a ghost everywhere but her head which is so heavy with dread she can’t believe she isn’t bowed like a fairytale hag, her nose almost touching the floor. Hag head, billowing white behind. A strange creature who shouldn’t really be out.
“Oi, oi,” Billy says. “Here comes happy.”
Lance stretches over the counter to get a look at her. “Alright, Lena?” “Aye.” She takes her bag off her shoulder, places it between her feet: “you two alright?”
“Aw, you know, canny for a laddie,” Billy says.
She looks up at Lance, pushes out a breath to collect herself. “Happy birth- day for tomorrow,” she says.
“Is it your birthday the morrer, Lance?” Billy says. “I’ll get you a pint if you’re out.”
“You after anything to eat, love?” Lance asks her. “No, but I’m choking for a cup of tea.”
“Woman against tree,” Billy says. She’s looking at him, lost. “What?”
“Keep your fantasies to yourself, mate,” Lance says. “No, the lumberjack shirt,” Billy says.
“This?” She pulls at herself. “It’s one of our Rob’s. Does it look stupid?”
“Your birthday boy here,” Billy says, a thumb toward Lance, “reckons he’s throwing in the tea towel.”
“What?” She’s looking for Lance’s face but he’s got his back to her, making the tea. “Lance? What’s this?”
“I was just telling him I’m thinking about giving this up.” “Eh? But what would you do?”
“Sit on his backside,” Billy says. “How long is it you’ve been here now, Lance? Must be twenty years. Fantastic little spot. I bet you’re the secret mil- lionaire now I come to think about it.”
“Oh aye, twice over,” Lance says, turning with the tea.
“There’d be nowt else going,” Billy says. “Not for a big auld knacker like yourself.”
“I saw you dancing on Facebook, Billy,” she says.
“Couldn’t have been me, Lena, I can hardly walk.” He slaps the counter, dusts spilt sugar into a line; presses on a nostril, puts his nose down, sniffs hard. “That’s better,” he says.
“There’s no hope for you,” she says, and he looks pleased, like her words are a result.
“Well, anyway, now I’ve grassed you up, Lance, I best be back to the graft.
How are the lads, Lena?” “Fine.”
“They’ll be off your hands now?” “Rob’s still at home.”
“He’ll be away soon enough. Must get gone meself.” He lifts an arm. “I’ll be seeing you Lance, Lena.”
“Take care,” she says. She watches him go toward the river where his van’s parked up with a roll of carpet poking out its back end.
“Is that safe?” she says, but Lance doesn’t answer.
Billy reverses the van out on a swerve, far too fast for Lena’s liking. He winds the window down. “Hoy, you two, I hope you aren’t having an affair or any- thing, mind you, because I’ll be telling Marie.”
“You can tell her what you like,” Lance shouts.
“Marie knows I’m not that fond of a treat,” Lena says, and Billy laughs, drives off.
“I’ve a card for you in me bag,” she says. “Get it out,” he says. “Is there money in it?”
“You’ll be lucky,” she says. “What’s all this business about you chucking this in?”
“I’ve had enough, stuck here, day in, day out, humped over this counter. The bells . . . the bells!”
She tries to drink her tea. “You’re joking me, I’d need asbestos lips.” “Blow on it.”
“Is everything alright with you and Marie?” “Aye, sound.”
“Come on, Lance, I’ve known you since you were seventeen.” “You married me when I was seventeen.”
“God, how daft were we?” “We had good times.” “Aye,” she says, “kids do.”
“And we got the lads out of it.”
“We did,” she says, “right, come on, what’s all this?”
“Marie wants us to move away. Spain, open a little café or something.” “That’s not you, Lance, you’re no good in the heat.”
“That’s what I said to her, but she needs to get away.” “Her son? What now?”
“How long have you got? You know the shit that goes on.” “I’m so sorry.”
“We’re round the twist.”
“What more can you do? If he won’t pay any heed?” “It’s hard, I mean . . . I care.”
“I don’t know how Marie copes.”
“She doesn’t,” he says. He’s looking at her and she can see him deciding how much of his new wife he should give away to his old wife and that it’s been too much already. It was fair enough; she is a very old wife, divorced over twenty years ago, Michael, Alan, and Rob all still under five at the time.
“You’re not the only one up against it, Lena.”
“I don’t think I’m up against it.”
“You can’t deny you’re a worrier. You worry about things that haven’t hap- pened.”
“That’s why they don’t happen.” “Worry has no power,” he says. “It’s got power over me.” “That’s stupid thinking.”
“I never said it wasn’t. Alan’s team won. Did I say?” “Did they? Good one.”
“He’ll be going crackers on the drink.” “Ring him. Tell him to sip on a Britvic.”
“I know, I know. I’m sick of the sound of meself.”
“They’re all big lads now, and they’ve sensible head pieces on them. They know how to stay alive.”
“I hope so, I really hope so,” she says, feeding herself on her own whines. Two men from a docked ship come up to ask for coffee with points and nods.
She gives them a smile, wishes she could give more, her whole head; one of them could stick it under his arm, take it away for good when the ship sails. Didn’t they call the toilet on a ship the head? He could chuck her head in the head. She looks at the still ship, wonders about its insides. There’d be a jar of coffee in it. Had they felt like a coffee out, a smile, a point, an uncomplicated connection? Not many of those around. The world should work its way back to the grunt; stand down its silver tongue; all those golden words, clever bugger world, no happier. Best just to point and wave and smile and grunt; go about the place like a whizzed bairn in a pushchair. She decides to be busier, might even offer to put some hours in here for Lance; let him have a bit of a breather at home with Marie, stop them having half-arsed plans. She waits until the men have wandered off with their coffee before she points at the ship’s flag.
“Republic of Panama,” Lance says.
She shakes her head, hardly the wiser. “I’ll miss you,” she says, “if you go.” “I bet you will.” He’s looking down, giving the counter a good clean, but she can see he’s glad she said it.
She needs to keep half an eye on the time. She’s got work later. Today she’ll go to work with nothing on her eyes. One of the porters is after her and she’s been putting the full face on; reading tips on how to fill out sparse brows, cover shadows, glow. Kidding herself she might go there. Cloud bloody cuckoo land. Not that she hasn’t had one or two dalliances over the years but they’d come to nothing. The lads were always her priority and to let herself be romanced, enjoy the ride, there’d have had to have been a different feeling on her part, a more carefree one, and she wasn’t able to do that; scared to use the back of her mind, scared to ever put her sons there. And now it seems she’s a girl who is old enough to stop her periods. How did that happen? Didn’t she have this same confused face on her at ten? Where’s the change? She’s never old? Surely, she’s never old? Not old-old? No. She might not be bleeding every month but she’s still bleeding every now and then, still seeing the unexpected show. Today though, whatever sort of old she is, she is going to work with a bare face. Today, her face will tell that porter everything he needs to know. No game on. It’s not what she wants. She’s not old-old but she’s too old to lie to herself for little kicks. No more little inner kicks. Never again.
“Well, I’ll have to love you and leave you,” she says. “I’ll be late for work.”
“Oh, I keep forgetting you’ve got two jobs.” “Two?”
“Aye, hospital cleaner as well as fully qualified worrier. How many years at college did you have to do for that?”
“You’re a scream, you are.”
“You know, Lena, you should be happy the lads are living full lives.” “I am.”
“Well, stop hanging onto worry like a bairn does a balloon. Let go. The lads won’t drop.”
“I can’t tell you what it’s like, though, late at night and one of them’s not answered a text, I feel engulfed, real grief.”
“How can it be real grief?”
“I don’t know Lance, but that’s what it feels like.” “I got you a present,” he says.
“Aye, it’s better to give than to receive.” “What is it?”
“Ah, well . . .”
“Come on, what is it?”
He reaches under the counter. “Here you go.” “A tea towel?” she says. “Thanks very much.” “It’s not been used.”
“Aw, I’m spoilt.” She unfolds the stiff cotton. “It’ll not match me kitchen.” “Look at it.”
“Aye, I can see that.”
“She’s a poet from the olden days,” he says. “Look, see the poem?” “I haven’t got time for this carry on.”
“Go on, recite it.”
“Like shite I will,” she says, but she reads it in her head.
In this short Life that only lasts an hour How
much – how little – is within our power
~ Emily Dickinson
“A lass was going round flogging them, for charity, like. The arts centre, I think she said. I thought you might find it a comfort.”
“Where’s the comfort in that, Lance? The news we’re all going to be dead soon?” She starts to laugh, and so does he. And then she’s doubled over, the tea towel pressed into the bend of her. “Don’t,” she says. “Don’t.”
“I’m not doing nowt,” he says.
He has always been someone she can laugh with. Even on their worst days when the kids were babies and they had nothing but three babies which was everything and they should’ve stayed together for the everything they were so lucky to have but they hadn’t, couldn’t; somehow though, they’d always been able to have a laugh. She starts to walk away from him, leaving him there, all creased up.
“Are you going to give me that birthday card or what, then?” he shouts. “Oh, the card,” she says, turning back to the van, to this older man, another woman’s man, wrapped around the boy husband who was hers. She thinks of the tablets with their fucking offer hidden in the deep stale of her bag and she wants to ask him to come home to bed with her so they can hold each other with desire for nothing more than a good stretch out and to keep their living powerlessness pressed together between them until they can bear it but she has already made a big enough show of herself for one day so she goes back to him holding up a face deformed with laughter, a mouth twisted into something that can’t move without pain. She gives him the card. “It’s a daft one, mind,” she manages to say.
Shauna Mackay’s work has won the Sean O’Faolin Prize and been published in Southword, The Cossack Review, and Breakwater Review.