The Living

Anjali Joseph

The Living

To my parents

The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead.

Bhagavad Gita, 2.11, translated by Swami Sivananda

I. Shoes

1. A long way from the morning

This morning I couldn’t open my eyes. It was light, mind you. Sunrise is that early now. But I wasn’t waking up. The alarm went at a quarter to six so I could have tea, roll a fag, look at the sky, put on the radio quiet, take a shower. I left cereal on the table for Jason, and some fruit. It’d be there when I got home. Getting back at five … It’s hard to imagine, like a place at the end of a walk, across fields, a river, a bridge, a forest, hills, and a motorway. It’s a long way from the morning till the end of the day, a long long stretch.

Late. I flew down Plumstead Road, and up the inside way. My hair was wet, I was breathing too fast. By the time I came up the hill, the cathedral spire behind me, turned in at the factory shop and hurried through the gate it was a minute off seven thirty.

The morning had got brighter, real daylight. I came through the first door, and the second, up the little slope, through the double doors, hurried to my table, put away my bag and sat looking calm, trying not to breathe hard as the first bell went. From the corner of my eye I saw Jane’s head move. She was stood talking to John near the heel attacher but her hair swung as she turned towards me. I put my head down and started checking the first box of Audrey, a vintage sling-back with a bow on the vamp. I got out my black wax stick and fixed a scuff on the toe. The roughing machine was on now and that first smell of leather was in the air, sweaty and sweet and sharp from the spray the men use in the lasting machines. The windows at the closing end were bright but high up and far away. The lights were on, they’re always on, and it was warm, like it always is, from the machines, and there was the sound of the machines, the humming. I carried on checking the shoes, making sure they paired, and writing down how many times I’d done it and I heard the radio and other people’s voices and felt everyone around me at their machines or their station and Jane moving about to check on things and that busyness there always is as the shoes move around all of us a busyness where each one is doing the same thing over and over but fast enjoying being able to do it smoothly but thinking too or in another place and it was like I’d always been there, never left, never gone home or done anything else, and that’s how it always is.

2. Like heavy water

Mum, Jason was saying. I pulled myself out of a dream. I was on the sofa. What time is it? I said. It was eight thirty. The telly was on.

I’ve turned into one of those people who fall asleep on the sofa, I said. At thirty-five. All I wanted to do was go back into the dream, one of those tired ones where you’re always on the move looking for something just around the next corner.

I was saying, Gran phoned today, Jason said.

Oh God, I said. I rubbed my face. When?

Before you got home.

Of course she did. No flies on her.

Mum, he said. Don’t start. He was frowning.

I’m not starting, I said. Definitely not. I chewed on my bottom lip. What did she say? I asked.

She wants me to go round and see them. She said Granddad’s not been well.

What did she say it is? I asked. Jason’s face was in between, talking to me, but vulnerable too. She knows how to make him feel guilty.

He leaned against the doorway, dug a hand in his pocket. She said he’s short of breath, he said, gets tired all the time. He watched, waiting to see if I was going to be unreasonable. I felt the nap of the sofa under my hand, fucked old velvet, and thought of the dream again, inescapable, like heavy water.

Okay, right, I said. How much was she making up, I wondered. I started looking around for my tobacco. Did she say he’d seen the doctor? I asked.

She said he says he’s fine, but she’s worried. They’re getting older, he said.

Yeah, I said. I sometimes regret letting those people near him. Especially her. The way she behaved when I was pregnant. I licked the gum strip and stared at the end of my cigarette.

Here. Jason lit it for me. Mum, he said. Don’t get into all that again, all that stuff from the past. His eyes held mine, blue and steady.

Okay, I said. I smoked, and felt depressed.

He straightened up. Anyway, he said, I told you. He squeezed my shoulder and went out.

You did, I said. I got up. Better do the washing-up, I said to no one. I did it carelessly and felt like the clattering dishes were harassing me. Afterwards I wiped up and cleaned the counters. I made my sandwiches. I had a shower and went to bed, but knew I wouldn’t fall asleep for a while. My neck ached, and my shoulders. And I knew it’d be there, waiting to swallow me up: the humming of the machines, the smell of the aerosol, the leather dust, the lights, the heat. I wouldn’t think about it when I’d got going and all day I’d be on the shop floor but something would be leaving me and at the end of the day I wouldn’t even remember what it was.

3. Nothing’s new

I thought I’d forgotten the phone call but it came back. I thought about it on the way to work, then decided I wouldn’t think about it any more. Mum in her flowered apron in the kitchen making tea, her eyebrows raised, saying something, complaining. No one ever does things right. I’ll have to tell him, she says. Why do you have to? Dad says.

I don’t even know what they look like now. I’ve seen them since I left, now and again. They used to come and take Jason out for the afternoon. Before Christmas they’d come round with his present, and something for me. A scarf, a bath set. The presents made me angry. Everything about them makes me angry. Dad because he doesn’t say anything, he just lets her go on. And her because …

I got to work on time and smiled at Tom. He’s one of my favourite people. He’s in his late sixties, over retirement age, but he keeps coming in. He likes it. He says he doesn’t want to stay home, find ways to fill the time. He told me about his wife’s grandparents once. They used to be the loveliest couple, but when he retired things changed. They started bickering. You’d look at them and think, That’s not you. And about the retired men where he lives. He doesn’t live this way, he’s the other side of town. There’s a man who goes out for his paper the same time every day, he says. An Indian gentleman, Mr Singh. You could set your watch by him. Every day he goes for a walk, but so slowly, because he’s got nothing to hurry for. I’d hate to be like that.

All right, lass? Tom said. You look better today. He smiled.

I grinned at him. Better than what?

He looked down. All the while, his hand was working, pulling tight a last with the pincers. You were a bit at sixes and sevens, like, yesterday, he said.

And today? I said. Fives and tens?

He smiled, and hammered down the last with the end of the pincers. I like the way he still looks like a boy, small, his head neat.

I worked without thinking till it was near first break. There’s a watchfulness about us all, like animals that measure time. When it gets near break we stop chatting or passing the time and finish as fast as we can. Then when the bell goes it’s silent. People walking across the floor to the coffee machine, or a few of the men — John, Tom, Derek — sitting down near it. I took my coffee to sit with Helen in the closing section. I like the older ladies. Jane was talking to Cathy near her machine. Cathy had the paper open. Karen was doing her puzzle, head down. You could hear the silence and people’s heads humming. I had my book but I didn’t read. I stared at the same part of the same page and thought about the spring when I’d moved into Nan’s house, and all the things my mother said before I left. Don’t think about it, Nan said. She’s always been like that. My mother’s face, her mouth drawn tight then opening to spit out something poisonous. Don’t think about it, I thought. I thought about it furiously.

When the first bell went I shook myself and went to the loo. Someone had used the cubicle before me. I sat breathing in her smell. I thought, nothing’s new. I washed my hands, didn’t look in the mirror, and reached my station before the second bell went. The morning just passed.

4. A person who could be looked at

Jason’s football practice today. I found myself slowing down on the way home. I went into the Three Bells. I sat in the garden with my shandy, thinking, there’s nothing to do, nothing to do. It was bright, white clouds moving fast across the sky. It wasn’t really warm, but it felt good to sit with my face in the sun. I drank slowly, and thought about smoking. A wasp buzzed around my glass. On another table there was a man with a lanky dog, maybe a lurcher. The man was drinking a pint and talking on the phone. The dog lay at his feet. Every now and then it got up and he would tear off a bit from a slim packet, probably a Peperami, and feed it.

After a while a couple came in. They sat down but got up again and went inside. Then a man on his own. I caught him loo ...

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