Seven Ages of Lone by Hannah Retallick
I am 80. Doctor is talking to me as if I am a child, leaning forward in his black swivel chair, the tips of his fingers joined. I rub my arthritic knees, the corduroy tingling my palms. The end must be near now.
Do you have any family, Mr Rogers? he says. You must speak to a specialist about your memory, and you need someone to go with you.
I do not answer. I do not have any problems with memory, or any family – both flow in and out of my mind, all day, every day, without fail, without compassion, without…
I don’t want to discuss this, I say. I simply need something for the pain.
He thinks I must speak to a specialist about my memory problems. I do not have any memory problems. I remember clear as anything, not that it was completely clear that day; it was like a child’s painting – a sky with lonely blotches of white. Mother working on a stew, oblivious, onion seeping out of the house. Little girl moulding mud. Flashes of red poppies on the field.
Mr Rogers, this is your third appointment this week…
His face is a stormy Rembrandt, as if I am doing something wrong, tired lines creasing and un-creasing as he jabbers on. It is nice to sit here though, seeing the doctor tapping at his computer, with his flow of customers, all day, every day – customers who do not have to pay. He says I must speak to a specialist about my memory problems. I do not have any memory problems. I wish I did.
I am 69. Safe from the rising wind, I sit in front of the electric fire and television. Neither is switched on. Silence is a loyal companion.
This room will eat me in the end. Every surface is covered with books and newspapers and paintings, all piled up, waiting to fall. The unfinished canvases are my only regret. They rest against the saggy burnt-orange sofa – no, not saggy, why should I lie? The sofa is perky, unused. It merely supports my artistic failures. I could never get her face right, the dimples, the angelic twinkle, the thrown-back head. That day unravelled us all.
Someone tickles the front door. A couple of flicks of the letterbox, tap tap. It cannot be the postman, as he came and went this morning, letters piled up on the mat – bills and impersonal flyers – and he is one to wake the dead anyway. No, it is someone else. A visitor. My heart flutters, persuading my knees to uncurl, and I creak to the door.
No one. It must have been the wind.
I stand there a while, safe from the unfinished canvases, legs trembling in the October cold. I look out into darkness.
I am 52. Is this the answer to my prayers?
Good morning, welcome, says the fuzzy-faced man.
His grip is limper than the month-old cabbage in my refrigerator, but it is a friendly hand and the first I have shaken in a while. I pass the fiery flowers and read the news sheet: All are welcome to His table.
The morning sun shines through the stained-glass windows into a room full of heavy-coated people; a modern church built in an old style. It cannot decide what it wants to be – pews and play areas.
I sit at the back, sketching flowers on my sheet, hopeful daffodils waiting for their colour. We rise and fall between hymns – I feel a sense of belonging for the first time in years. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
The gowned man looks like Professor Tolkien. Up they go and kneel before him and Him. They trickle back to their pews afterwards, silent and revived. My stomach groans, crying out, yearning. I want to tear the bread and wine from his hands, toss one to the birds and drown myself in the other. And yet I cannot move.
I lower my head and flick through the bible. When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers. Lord, let justice spare me.
For a moment, numbness spreads, taking away that day. But taking away that day, it takes away her. The pain seeps through me again.
The whole congregation has returned, none meeting my eye. They rise to sing their final hymn. I leave before the end and return to the fresh air, fleeing from terror and the fiery flowers. I search for daffodils.
I am 30. The green acrylic trickles down my brush. The trees are done; the church’s green door remains. People pass on their way to work. An old homeless man leans against the building, dressed in shabby grey, sitting on old newspapers. He has a bundle wrapped in a dirty sheet.
My housemates were involved in a sit-in at Hornsey last night.
Come with us, William, they said.
They had barely spoken to me previously. Would I have found acceptance if I had said yes? I admire their activism and drive to help humanity, but I am better off in a park, away from judgment – contemplating and capturing.
The homeless man rises and disappears for a moment. A lonely man. I lean down and swill my paintbrush in the jar of water, squinting as I come back up, the sun rising from behind the church.
A navy suit bends down to pick up the bundle. Something boils in my stomach. Is this how they feel when they protest in our art college?
Excuse me! What are you doing with that?
Clearing the area, he says.
I throw my palette down on the grass and run towards him, heart throbbing. Those are my things! I say.
The navy suit freezes mid-bend. The homeless man hobbles back, and we stand there in a triangle of tension.
One walks off eventually, muttering, defeated. The other thanks me, takes my hand and holds it for a moment. ‘You’re a saint’.
Kind eyes in a worn-out face. I nearly ask his name, but the words catch in my throat, and before I know it, he’s gone too, shuffling away with his precious bundle and the faint smell of urine. I will never see him again. So much for activism. So much for saintliness. Some things can never change.
I return to my canvas, remove a fly and a blade of grass from the palette, and finish the green door.
I am 17. She is beautiful. I have watched her every morning since she moved in. I make a gap between my beige bedroom curtains. She lives next door and works in the village shop, but I never talk to her. What would I say? Hello, Miss Rosalie; I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are, with your bright blue eyes and Marilyn hair, and how much I love you.
Today, she is wearing a beige roll-neck pullover, tucked into a tight tweed skirt, which makes it difficult for her to get on her bicycle. This is the part I cannot watch without remembering that day. August 21st 1942. We raced, oblivious… My hand trembles and I allow the curtains to close, just as Mother enters.
Pull yourself together, William.
I’m trying, I say.
Yes, you are.
The lines in her forehead never leave. I did that to her; have done that to her again and again. She is further from me with every day that passes.
Will you tidy your bedsheets, at least, she says, or have some fresh air?
Or a job. That’s what I hear. The best treatment for melancholia, my doctor said – leave the house, gain employment, and everything will improve. Mother did not tell him. Why would she?
That evening, I watch Rosalie return, her back curved with tiredness as she dismounts and takes her bicycle around the side of her house. Dishevelled, artificial hair. Her eyes are not bright blue – they are dull blue, like sky and cloud mixed together. Lifeless. Oblivious.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed her at all if it wasn’t for her light hair and the similarities of their names. The R, the three syllables.
I am 10. Miss Iris spoke with Mother and Father yesterday. Father will not listen to me now.
Go, he says. Look both ways before crossing.
Father hates me. He hates that I fear school, fear the lane, fear everything. He hates me for what I did. He will always be at war.
Mother is watching from the window. I used to run the other way sometimes – not now Miss Iris has spoken with Mother and Father. I pause at the gate. Look right, look left, look right again, up the dirty hill lane. The field in front is not happy today. I shiver.
I’ll go, you said, flicking your blonde hair over your shoulder. I almost see you for a moment and then you disappear. The lane is empty.
Nobody talks to me at school. Mother says I should smile more. Father says it doesn’t matter; I am there to work. I sit far from everyone in breaks, behind a tree trunk. If I talk, something might happen to them too.
You are the only one who understands. I think about you all the time, all the time. Have you forgiven me? You are my favourite. I love you.
I jump up, twig snapping as my foot slams the ground. Miss Iris is all folded arms and black hair.
Who are you talking to, William?
I cannot think of a reply. Eventually, she shakes her head and walks back to the school, tottering on stubby black heels.
I do not tell Mother and Father. Miss Iris will speak with them again soon enough. I go to my bedroom as soon as it is seven o’clock and climb under the sheets. I let the tears fall. Now, only now, I dare to name you. I whisper you into my pillow.
We are both 4. There are white blotches in the blue sky, making the light run around us in funny ways. We are in the garden, making pies, looking up when a lorry drives past or cyclists swoop down the hill. My twin is crouched over the wet mud and keeps wiping her hands on her purple dress. Mother will be cross.
Roberta! I say.
I poke my little fingers into the holes of her cheeks that get bigger when she smiles. She has mud on her face too now. She laughs, falls back with a bump on her bottom, and laughs more. I laugh too.
Mother is cooking in the kitchen. It smells tasty. I look towards the window to make sure she is not watching us. There are poppies on the field across the lane. I wish I could get some for Mother – then she won’t be so cross about the muddy dress.
Pick them, says Roberta.
Mother told us not to go out there, I say. She’ll know.
You’re scared, she says, flicking her hair. Scared.
You go then, I say. I dare you.
Roberta stands, throws back her head and tries to wipe off the brown sludge before running towards the lane. I pass my little mud cake from hand to hand. She opens the gate and looks back with her angelic twinkling eyes.
I see the bicycles. I see her freeze. I hear the screech of the brakes.
Purple is flung to the ground.
My scream is silent; it will never stop.
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