A Meal in Crete

   I don’t remember what I had that evening. I do remember where it was, though – a taverna halfway down Taverna  Street in Aghia Galini. This was way back in 1982.

    I was sitting alone at a table just outside the taverna. It was still early in the evening and people were milling about on la volta. Loud groups and silent couples were negotiating the narrow gaps between the already crowded tables spilling out across the street, as they looked for somewhere to eat later, stopping to read the menus, whilst the waiters darted back and forth like flies and the fly zappers got on with their job of zapping flies. Truth be told, one taverna was pretty much like another and there was nothing to choose between them in either the food or the prices. Nevertheless, the tourists liked this leisurely choosing of what to eat and where. It was part of the evening’s entertainment.

      I hadn’t seen him arrive: I suppose I only noticed him when I looked up from the book I was reading. He was hovering indecisively by the menu board a few feet from my table – a tall young man with an innocent, bemused expression. When he saw me looking at him he smiled in a good-humoured, lost sort of way. The waiters must have seen him too because one was upon him almost immediately.

      “Chip prices. Verr good. You have seat here.”

      The waiter indicated a table near mine and the young man sat down obediently.

        When my meal arrived I became aware of the young man’s interest in the plate set before me.

        “That looks guid,” he said.

         “We’ll see,” I said.

          He looked puzzled at this and returned earnestly to the menu.

          “Why don’t you ask the waiter to recommend something?” I suggested.

          His face brightened. “Oh aye, I think I will. That is a guid idea.”

          His soft unhurried highland intonation was pleasing to the ear: it gave the impression of a man who trusted in the automatic goodwill of others. I don’t know why but I started feeling a little protective towards him.

         When the waiter reappeared the young Scot asked him what he recommended.

         “What we have? Is all good. No problem. You like shripp?”

          “Shripp?”

          “Shripps.”

           “Yes, I think so.”

           “And?”

           “Sorry?”

            “What you have with shripp?”

            “Potatoes – chips.”

           The waiter wrote a rapid hieroglyph on his pad. “You have salad?” he added.

           “Er, yes,” agreedthe young man.

            A quick scribble.

            “Grik saladz. What you drink?”

            “Ah. Oh yes. A beer, I think.”

            The waiter wrote it down. “Is all?”

            The young man looked unsure of what he was being asked. “I think so,” he said. The waiter disappeared.      

           The beer, the bread and the salad arrived some ten minutes later and the young man set to enthusiastically. He seemed surprised by the white cubes in the salad, staring at them for a while , then smelling one before popping it speculatively in his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. It was obvious that this was the first time he’d been in Crete or come across Greek food.

         Then the main dish arrived, along with a bowl of chips. The shrimps sat on a mound of rice garnished with what looked like seaweed and tomato and cucumber. The seaweed, I later found out, was Greek spinach which does indeed taste more of seaweed than spinach. The aroma wafted pleasantly my way. The dish, I have to admit, looked good enough for an artist to paint.

         It was then that I realised that the shrimps were probably what we call prawns. I had been introduced to this exotic delicacy by Berni Inns who served them in wine glasses with lettuce and a thick saladcreamy sort of sauce fancifully named ‘Thousand Island Dressing’ as part of their fine dining experience. So this is what they looked like, I thought, though the beady little eyes were a little offputting. The real thing. Seeing them sitting there in all their armorial glory made me think that Berni Inns were shortchanging their customers.

      The young Scot picked one up and without further ado popped it into his mouth. I can still hear the crunching noise the shrimp made. Being well brought up, the young man chomped and chewed with his mouth securely closed. This went on for some time before his tongue appeared and his hand went to his tongue to remove something. In went a second. This time the chomping and crunching was louder, more determined.

      Sitting at the table in front of me was a noisy group of young Germans who obviously knew each other well. They had become suddenly very quiet and a couple of them had craned their heads round in the direction of the young Scot. One of them spoke in a low, earnest voice and then the group exploded into subdued guffaws and snortings. Something had amused them.

    They kept sneaking looks at the young Scot.

     Meanwhile he was still picking out bits of shell from his mouth. Aware that people were now looking in his direction, he smiled bashfully whenever he caught someone’s eye but you could see he did so with growing discomfort at the attention. The German group were now helpless with laughter, taking no trouble to conceal their mirth but having the good grace, at least, to avoid looking at the young man.

     But why? I wondered, noticing that they were not alone: others had stopped eating and were staring in his direction with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. Then one of the girls at the German table got up and went quietly over to the young Scot. By now most of the first shrimp was sitting in a neat heap on the side of his plate, but he was still picking bits out of his mouth. She leant over him and smiled. Who knows what confusion of feelings were now raging in him, because the girl was certainly attractive.

     “I may?” she asked.

      He nodded. He might have been agreeing to anything. She slowly picked up one of the shrimps and demonstrated how to pull it apart. When she had finished she dangled it near his mouth which he gratefully opened. He chewed carefully at first and then with obvious enjoyment. The girl leant forward quickly and kissed him on the forehead. When she stood up there was a spontaneous round of clapping from all the tables. She bowed nicely. Then the young Scot, taking his cue from his pretty rescuer, bowed to all and sundry too. More applause. The girl returned to her seat but I noticed she kept looking in his direction in a fond sort of way.

    I still don’t remember what I had that evening.

    Incidentally, I often came across the two of them together, the young Scot and his lovely German girl, during that last week of my stay

He Was Older Than She Thought

            The queue went back to the two armchairs by the Travel Section, halfway along the room.

           The manager of the book shop, who had not left his guest’s shoulder the entire morning, was beside himself with fussiness. He was delighted at the turnout he kept saying: it was better that he could have expected for a Thursday morning. And, he noticed, each waiting member of the public, about twenty or so, was clutching a hefty hardback copy of Williamson’s recently published autobiography, ready for signing. Despite this he was secretly a little disappointed at the number who had bought the book. He always was. So many would come to a reading and then drift off afterwards. Any reading. Still, it was better than he had expected and at least it wasn’t an embarrassment.

           The actor had had his heyday some thirty years ago – before his time. A couple of films were mentioned in the blurb, The Broken Sword and Last Man in Munich, followed by a list of plays, most of which he hadn’t heard of, then a handful of minor roles in television plays and of course appearances in things like Casualty, Frost and Minder.

           The man himself was charming and urbane. Now in his mid-sixties, a little chubby but with surprisingly abundant hair, he was still handsome, but self-deprecating in an easy self-promotional way. Obviously used to being the centre of attraction, he had soon had them running round after him without being in the least demanding. And judging by the photos, he had been striking in his prime. He had played Guildford, he had told the manager, in the eighties. Then the actor had nodded with a smile. It could have meant anything.

            “Whom shall I sign it to?” he asked.

           “Jennifer.”

           “Jennifer.”

           Jennifer felt a flush of sudden confusion. Those famous blue-green eyes were troubling. They still had their clear, direct qualities. They were the eyes of a much younger man, restless and appraising. To Jennifer, he wrote, signing Josh Williamson with a practised flourish and handing the book back to her, open.

           “I saw you in Fatal Lady,” she managed. “You were very good.”

           “Thank you,” he said with the same non-committal smile. Fatal Lady? When was that? His eyes wandered beyond the woman. Another middle-aged woman lay in wait. Jennifer thanked him and left.

           “Whom shall I sign it to?” he asked.

           “Pat.”

           As he signed her book, Pat began to ask him about one of his contemporaries whom he had known briefly and had not liked. Pat was a confident woman and rattled on as if to an old acquaintance. Everything about her was neat and clipped. She had the figure of a much younger woman, he noticed , but other than that she was uninteresting. Too middle-class, too respectable. It did not seem to occur to Pat that she was anything but interesting.

           The reading had gone well and, enjoying himself, he had been in expansive mood. “People will forgive you anything if you’re amusing,” he had told them in an unrehearsed aside and there had been a gratifying ripple of polite laughter from his audience. “For God’s sake, steer clear of the subject of your dalliances,” his agent had warned him, adding, “It is Guildford.” “What dalliances?” the actor had asked with every appearance of innocence. “Just don’t bloody go there,” was all Mark had said.

           “Whom shall I sign it to?” he asked the next lady in line.

           “Monica, please.”

           Monica had a pleasant, sympathetic countenance with indistinct features and had, by the look of her, given up on sex some time ago. She could have been a farmer’s wife. “Let me guess – a nurse?” he suggested. She looked puzzled. “No. I’m an accountant, actually.” She sounded apologetic. He nodded reassuringly. At least he hadn’t come out with the farmer’s wife bit.

            After a few more signings he became aware of a young woman three or four back in the queue. An attractive young woman, at that. She was in her thirties, with dark lustrous shoulder length hair and a rather intent expression. She stood out in the general blur of matronly dowdiness of the room. She was wearing a simple, pale blue summer dress which emphasised her full, well defined breasts.Such a beautiful girl, at once ripe and slender – the sort of girl who should be an artist’s model or an actor’s mistress. And that intent look. As always the sight of a truly beautiful girl caused hope to rise in him, a not unpleasant sensation. And perversely, because he was impatient to meet her, he took his time over the next signings and turned on the charm. He wanted her to se him in a favourable light.

           When she got to the table, with something of an effort of will he looked her directly in the eyes. The gaze that met his was equally frank and in some way exciting.

           “Whom shall I sign it to?” he asked.

           She leant forward to place the book before him. His attention disappeared down her cleavage.

           “Kate,” she said.

           To Kate, he wrote, with best wishes from Josh Williamson. And then he dated the inscription. How he would have liked to have been able to add: With thanks for everything. He held onto the book, as if drying it.

           “So, tell me,” he said. “Are you an actress?”

           “No, I’m a solicitor,” she informed him.

           “Oh you solicit,” he said. It was out before he had thought what he was saying. Such a tired old joke. Such a clumsy gambit.

           She hadn’t laughed. But, more to the point, she hadn’t seemed to take offence and continued, rather seriously, to scrutinise him with those dark eyes of hers. He didn’t altogether know what to make of her.

           “My mother was a great fan of yours,” she informed him.

           His heart sank. Her mother!

           “Did I know her?”

           “Her name was Lucy.”

           Lucy? There had been quite a few Lucys. It was a popular name in the theatre. “Was she an actress?”

           “No. But she worked in the theatre, here in Guildford. She designed the sets.”

           Lucy? Set designer?

           “Lucy Macleod,” the girl prompted.

           “Oh yes, I remember,” he lied. “A very pretty young woman. You have inherited her looks.”

           “You remember her?”

           “Well,” he said evasively, shrugging slightly,”It was a long time ago.” Damn, he thought, I’m reminding her how old I am. “I think I remember seeing her at the theatre,” he added, “but as I remember, the rehearsals were pretty frantic.”

           It was difficult to see whether the girl was pleased or not, but she seemed to be taking it all in. And she hadn’t moved from where she was standing. No ring on her wedding finger, but nowadays that didn’t mean much. And he became aware of the beautiful seductive scent of citrus – orange was it – fresh and young. Was she wearing it for his benefit?

           “Would you care to have lunch with me, Kate? I’d like to hear more about your mother.”

           “She’s dead,” the girl announced simply.

           “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.

           Behind the young woman someone coughed obviously.

           “Thankyou,” she said. She picked up her book and left.

           He watched her make her way to the stairs with something like regret. He was losing his touch. And he felt, vaguely, that he had made her uncomfortable. In his experience, women usually liked the attention. Even the intention.

      

            She checked her watch just outside the book shop. She had an hour before she was due back at the office. She’d have a light lunch – perhaps just a coffee. She didn’t want to admit it to herself, but meeting the old actor had been more unsettling that she had imagined and quite inconclusive.

  He was older than she had thought; older than the photo on the dust jacket which must have been taken a good ten years before. As to the man himself, perhaps she had been expecting more – a clue or something – an unwitting confirmation of what she suspected. In fact she had learned very little. Should she have taken him up on his offer of lunch? She shook her head at the thought. She hadn’t really wanted to when it came to it. She had the impression that he would have been quite happy to talk about himself, egotist that he was, at length, such was his need to impress. Even so, she would have learned nothing more about him. His seemed a very public persona. He was, after all, an actor.

  So was he her father?

  Her mother had always refused to say who her father was and had left a blank on the birth certificate. No-one in the family seemed to know and discussion of the matter had always been discouraged somehow. The dates would fit, but that was about all the evidence there was. It had been a mystery all her life. When her mother was dying it had not seemed right to bring up what may have been a difficult or painful subject and it had not seemed that important at the time. But then, after her mother’s death, Kate had discovered a whole stack of press cuttings about Josh Williamson and had wondered why her mother had assembled such a careful file over such a long period of time when to her certain recollection her mother had never once mentioned Josh Williamson. And that had been the start of it.

  He had certainly not reacted when she mentioned her mother’s name. That seemed genuine enough. She didn’t think it was an act – he wasn’t that bright. Indeed, it had been rather awkward when he was suavely trying to reassure her otherwise. No, he really hadn’t a clue who Lucy Macleod was. She was someone he’d long forgotten, no matter what had, or hadn’t, happened in the past. That much was clear.

  Had she, then, felt any kind of affinity with him?

  My god, the old goat had been trying to come on to her. Under the circumstances it was … what was it exactly? ….. distressing ? ……. distasteful? It was horrible. It was too clear an insight into what the man was like.

  So,what was the verdict?

   There was no evidence, when it came to it, that he was her father. None at all. Meeting him had cleared nothing up. There had been no spark of recognition, no uncomfortable sense of similarity. None at all. What had she been expecting? Anyway she was none the wiser. Not proven as they had it in Scotland. Short of a DNA test . . .My God, she thought. A DNA test. Get a grip! Did it matter, after all? For years she’d lived without a father.

  One day he would die, and she would not be there, in the same way he had not been there when she was born and throughout her life.                                                                                 

                                                                                                                   

                                                                June 2013

  

The Reading Group

Eileen’s house was, from the road, immaculate, apart from the untidy huddle of cars on the gravel drive. Anne had thought she was early, but others had obviously already arrived, and she wondered, momentarily, if she were late.
“Ah! You must be our new member. Anne, isn’t it?”
“Eileen?” asked Anne. The woman looked surprised. “Beverley,” she informed her. A bit austere, thought Anne. A smile wouldn’t go amiss. “This way,” said Beverley.
“Thank you,” said Anne to the retreating figure, dutifully wiping her feet and wondering where to put her coat. She followed the woman into an old-fashioned, somewhat fussy room.
“You must be Anne,” a voice greeted her. “We were just about to start.” The speaker was sitting in the curve of the bay window. Eileen presumably. She looked proprietorial. Anne became aware of her fumbling disruption as she tried to settle in the one remaining place – a gold upholstered armchair with plush, unyielding cushion.
“I think we can begin,” said Eileen. “Valerie, would you mind closing the door – there’s a draught.” Oh God, thought Anne, as entrances go, that wasn’t one of my better ones.
Anne had seen the notice for the Reading Group in a parish magazine whilst visiting a friend in the area. She’s had to miss the first meeting in September but, as each month a new book was discussed, she had not felt that that would matter too much. There was, apparently, no theme to the meetings. Each month one or other of the group chose a book and introduced it.
“Unfortunately Monica is unable to be with us this afternoon. Derek is rather poorly.”
A sympathetic murmur went round the room.
”So, she has asked me to take the lead. Daughter of Mine. “ She waved a thick tome at them. “I must say I must congratulate Monica, in absentia, for her choice.” And I’d like to throttle her, thought Anne.
“The, er, main character is Siobhan, I suppose, although Frances is also, you might say, a main character.” Not a good start.
“Siobhan had a child before she married, Sophie, who was kidnapped, er … “
Yes, kidnapped, thought Anne. It was even more unbelievable, hearing it from Eileen, than when she had read it. Kidnapped. As if. And why was Eileen telling them the plot? – they were all supposed to have read the book. She looked around her at the ladies of the Reading Group. They were all listening attentively, one was even writing in a floral notebook. Her shopping list, probably, thought Anne. Perhaps Eileen was telling them the plot because she assumed that not everyone would have understood what they were reading. Eileen’s voice was unhurried and monotonous. She had the air of a knowledgeable matron, reassuring nervous patients.
“Let me read you this passage.” As if anyone was going to say, no, for God’s sake don’t. Eileen looked about her imperiously, then began to read. As she had omitted to tell them the page number, books remained closed on laps. Somewhere near the back, Anne observed. The bit I skimmed.
Siobhan had been hovering in the garden since Sophie had left. She was like a cat on a hot tin roof. What was Frances going to say? She imagined the worst. Would she persuade Sophie to go back to Bolton with her? Would she take her away again? Would she tell Sophie how drunk Siobhan had been on the boat and how she’d neglected her? Oh God, she felt sick at the thought. She didn’t want Sophie to think badly of her. She’d only just got her back.
She’d never felt inclined to write, herself, thought Anne, but if she did she would hope to avoid writing such tosh. All of the characters seemed to be speaking other people’s lines. Or rather, what they said was always, conveniently, in line with the plot. You could see what the author meant you to think about them, but somehow they were flat and lifeless. None of them did very much apart from go shopping: ah, those tedious shopping lists and the author’s apparent obsession with designer labels. If there was a point to that, it was a point made time and time again.
“ …… skilfully the author describes Siobhan’s state of mind. “ Eileen stopped. She had noticed Anne was only half-listening. “Would you like to add something, dear?”
But before Anne could answer, June said, “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“That noise.”
Everyone stopped to listen. “What noise?” asked Eileen.
“I thought I heard something.”
“Where was it coming from?”
“The kitchen.”
“It was probably the dishwasher,” said Eileen, “coming to the end of its cycle.”
Anne was grateful for the interruption, but Eileen was not to be deterred. She nodded benignly towards Anne to indicate that she should speak.
“Well, if I’m to be honest,“ said Anne, “I don’t think the author is telling us anything we don’t already know.”
“In what way?”
“Well, here we are, practically at the end of the book and yet this character, Siobhan, had the same feelings about Sophie right at the beginning.”
Eileen looked puzzled. “I don’t follow.”
Anne wished she’d kept quiet. “You would have thought her feelings would have developed.”
“Would you?”
“I would.”
“I don’t think her feelings would change,” said Valerie. “It is her daughter after all.”
There was an indistinct murmur of approval at this. Her daughter. That was the important thing.
Anne felt foolish and said nothing further. Truth to say, the book had irritated her: it was not a book she would have chosen, left to herself, or finished. She tended to read quickly, but even so, she resented wasting her time on it.
“I think the point is that Siobhan’s feelings do undergo a subtle change,” concluded Eileen. Anne remained silent. “The author traces this by focussing on the precise details of her life … “ She smiled in Anne’s direction. “Don’t you agree?”
“Well,” said Anne slowly, “I thought they were just there for the sake of it. They didn’t tell you anything about what she was thinking or feeling.”
“But isn’t that rather the point?” said Valerie.
“The point?” Anne asked.
“I wonder what you would have said to Charles Dickens,” Eileen remarked archly.
“Oh, I would have said, ‘Mr Dickens, your use of detail is exemplary and always reflects the development of events. ‘ I would have added, ‘ I very much admire your understanding of deprivation and wealth and the energy of your writing.” She stopped. She had said more than she had intended.
“Well,” said Eileen,”I’m sure he would have appreciated your approval.”
“Oh,” said Anne airily, “I don’t think I would be telling him anything he didn’t already know.”
“Well, I find Dickens heavy-going,” said Beverley.
“Quite, but I think we’re getting rather off the point,” said Eileen.
Anne understood that this was her fault, but was nevertheless unrepentant. She had the distinct impression that she had come across as somewhat superior, but certainly hadn’t intended to do so. Weren’t they meant to be discussing the book? Did that mean they all had to like it and think it was good? Daughter of Mine, despite being a best-seller, was pretty awful. Nor had she meant to disrupt proceedings. Fortunately, as far as they were concerned, Eileen had been able to deal with her.

“Well that was brave of you …” said a woman who introduced herself as Rosemary as they stood outside on the drive.
“I’m afraid I was a bit rude.”
“Not a bit of it. You gave as good as you got. And, for the record, I agree with you about the book!”
Anne laughed. “Well, I was ruder than I had intended.”
“Eileen has that affect on some of us. I hope that hasn’t put you off. I could do with an ally.” It was an interesting choice of words. “Last year,” continued Rosemary, “I wanted to do Catcher in the Rye.
“And?”
“Unsuitable, my dear. Not a great book. Rather sordid. So it was Adrian Mole instead.”
“Not a great book.”
“And sordid. Quite. Well, don’t give up on us. But if you do, and decide to start another group, let me know. Here’s my phone number.” She handed Anne a slip of paper torn from a notebook. Anne waved and got into her car, placing the piece of paper in her purse. Food for thought.

The Summer Ghost

 

A child was staring down from the top window of the house opposite, a silent onlooker almost erased by the bright sunlight falling on the glass. A solemn onlooker at that. Wistful, as if lost in thought. The face was familiar but Marie could not think who it reminded her of. Nevertheless, she raised her hand slowly so the palm was showing and then closed her fingers. A gentle, friendly, complicit gesture.
The child continued to stare down from the window, remaining motionless and giving no indication she had seen it. Marie shuffled her feet on the gravel then looked away, without knowing why. When next she looked up, the child had gone. Well, she thought, perhaps the girl had felt suddenly awkward, being caught watching like that. She could remember many such innocently guilty moments from when she had been young, moments when life had frozen unexpectedly. She’d always put it down to a Catholic upbringing, that sudden guilt thing. She hoped she hadn’t alarmed the girl by waving.
The girl reminded her of herself when younger. She had, by all accounts, been rather a solemn child too, looking out at the world with a puzzled, steady gaze, trying to understand it all.
Michael emerged from the house and picked up the last remaining carton. “I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a cuppa,” he said.
“Me too,” she said. She locked up the car and followed him into the house.
They’d been busy since early that morning without stopping for more than a sandwich. Now that all the chests and boxes were in the house, it was a good time for a break before the unpacking and putting away could begin. It was going to be a long night.
“They’ve got a little girl over the road.”
“O.K”
“About ten, I would say.”
“Right.”
She could tell he wasn’t really paying much attention, but she persisted. “She disappeared when I waved to her.”
He laughed. “I expect you frightened her,” he said.
“Perhaps.”
“We’re probably something of an event,” he added. “You know what kids are – end of the summer holidays and you start getting a bit bored ……”
“Speak for yourself! I never got bored.”
“Didn’t you? I did. I thought all kids did. No?” He shrugged. “ I think I’ll get started on the bed when I’ve finished this.” His wife nodded. She began to think of the things she needed to do. She would start with the kitchen ….

Later, as she was undressing for bed, Michael asked, “The house over the road? The one with the white gables?”
“What? Oh the little girl. Yes.”
“Well, that’s odd. The couple who live there are quite old.”
“Oh?”
“Late fifties. Maybe older.”
“You’ve seen them?”
He nodded.
“Well, she’s probably their grandchild then,” said Marie. “When was this?”
“About sevenish. They returned when I was putting up the curtains.”
The child wouldn’t have been left alone in the house ‘til then, thought Marie. Surely? She shrugged. It had been a busy day.

It took them the best part of the next two days before they felt they had settled in properly. It was only then that Marie could begin to take in her new surroundings.
“I really like this house,” she said as they were finishing for the day.
“Good,” said her husband. “Just as well. Remind me to say no the next time we think of moving.”
“Next time?” said Marie. “You do like it?”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I do. It’s got a good feel about it.
“Look,” she said, ”I know this sounds daft, but I’m going to say it. I think Chloe would have liked it here.”
The words hung in the air. She instantly regretted uttering them. Daft, she thought uncomfortably. Daft? My God. Stupid more like.
Michael had said nothing. He was looking ahead of him. She couldn’t read his expression but she knew he was thinking hard. She waited for him to say something, to give her a clue. It was not a subject they had ever been able to talk about. But she had found herself thinking of Chloe often in the last few days. It was as if in moving away from their old house, they were leaving Chloe behind. Not that that was possible. She could still see the child’s lifeless body, one leg sticking out at an improbable angle, there at the roadside, knowing at that moment that the child, her precious child, was dead. That would never leave her: the shock of seeing her dead had imprinted the scene on her mind forever. Like a camera shutter coming down.
“Well,” he said finally, “I imagine she would have made friends with the little girl across the road.” His tone was determinedly level, but she could see that his mouth had snapped shut once he had said it.
“Little girl? Oh yes. Her.” She tried to smile but it was a sad attempt and the smile died on her lips. “I’m sorry,” she said. She should never have brought the subject up.
“Don’t be,” he said, at length. Another pause. “Only natural, I suppose, moving away from the old house …” his voice trailed away. He was doing his best. Neither of them could find anything further to say.
She listened to him noisily cleaning his teeth in the bathroom. When he emerged, he said, “She’ll always be a part of our life. Wherever we are.” It was not an invitation to discuss it further.
It was a long time before she fell asleep. As she lay there, listening to her husband’s slow, rhythmic breathing, she kept turning over what she had said, wondering what had made her say it. It would have been better to have kept her thoughts to herself. She had accepted long ago that Chloe’s death had left a void that nothing could fill and had opened a gulf between them that they had been unable to breach, a solitary grieving for both of them, for he felt it too. So why had she said it? What had she been thinking? All she could do now was let it go. In time, unimportant, mundane urgencies would clamour to fill the void and life would go on …
Despite herself, Marie looked out for the little girl over the next few days. It was as if seeing her would exorcise the ghost, so to speak. An unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, but she knew what she meant. In the afternoon she would spend time in their bedroom at the front of the house, reading a book at the window, hoping to catch sight of the little girl, but the little girl seemed to have gone. Perhaps she had been staying with her grandparents for a couple of days before the new school year started. The couple opposite were obviously retired: their comings and goings throughout the day suggested as much. But there was no sign of the little girl. She must have gone.
The front hedge needed pruning. In the time the house had been empty it had become overgrown and straggly. She dragged the clippings bag onto the pavement and began work slowly.
It was a quiet street, apart from the occasional passing car. At some point a supermarket delivery van jammed to a sudden halt opposite. The driver was obviously in a hurry and on a tight schedule. Otherwise there was little traffic. It made a change from living right on top of a busy main road. That busy road.
“I’m so glad someone has moved into the Peters’,” came a voice.
Marie looked up to see a stocky woman in her sixties, smiling at her with alert eyes.
Marie returned the smile.
“Don’t let me interrupt you,” the woman continued. “You’ve made a good job of that,” she added, nodding towards the hedge.
“Thank you,” said Marie.
The woman nodded sympathetically “Evelyn,” she continued. “Evie. Number 89.”
“Oh,” said Marie, a little startled. “Marie. Yes I think I’ve seen you a couple of times. I’ve seen your granddaughter, I think.”
“Granddaughter? She lives in France.”
“Oh.” Marie was suddenly confused.
“In fact, we’re going out to see them in a couple of weeks. My son works there. He’s married to a French woman,” she explained.
“Oh, I see. How old is your granddaughter?”
“Nicole? Let me see. Fourteen now. Quite the young mademoiselle she is too. Une vraie Parisienne, comme sa mère.”
“Fourteen? thought Marie, noticing how easily Evie had slipped into French. The girl she’d seen had been much younger. Ten, if that. Or thought she’d seen. She decided not to mention waving to the girl in the window.
“Look, you want to get on,” said Evie. “Come round for a coffee when you’re settled in.”
Marie rolled her eyes. “Settled in!” she repeated.
“I know. It’s a business,” said the older woman. ”But you do have two weeks before the invitation elapses.”
Marie laughed. Evie had a mischievous sense of humour, she realised. “Thank you, I will.” She watched Evie cross the road to her house. It was the right house. Thank God Evie had not taken up her reference to seeing her granddaughter. She’d probably thought it had been a mistake, or that she, Marie, had seen a little girl from another house. She couldn’t possibly have explained it, Come to that, how could you explain it?
And then, suddenly, unbidden and with all the cold certainty of undeniable fact, she understood. Chloe. It must have been Chloe she’d seen. She would be ten if she’d lived. And for some unaccountable reason, she felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. So that was alright, then, she thought. All is well.
When Evie got home she paused before opening the door. So, it had happened again. Someone else had seen the little girl at the window.

more on the subject of kippers

It occurs to me that ‘kipper’ may not be a term known/used outside the uk. It’s a smoked herring. It’s fairly common in the northern parts of Europe – Scotland, Scandanavia though possibly not Germany – and is an alternative way of preserving an abundant foodstuff if you don’t want to pickle the things. My wife comes from Northumberland (the North East of England) where the local ‘delicacy’ is Craster Kippers. She describes them as ‘sweet’.
Kippers are often an alternative to the English breakfast: if you’re staying in a hotel and someone decides to have one for breakfast, you’ll certainly know all about it. Such people are, essentially, proclaiming where they come from, or American visitors with more curiosity than sense, discovering their roots. Personally, I would prefer bagpipes outisde the window at dawn. At least they wouldn’t be with you for the rest of the day.
Next.

what could be worse

than sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, reading Henry James and you’re only on page 3 … I’ll tell you, or rather, here is the latest gemerooney from my Oeuvre Ivre:

I had a kipper for my tea
It and I did not agree.
It made its point, repeatedly,
Repeating until half past three.
Until I ate it
I felt quite chipper.
Damn and blast
That bloody kipper.

it takes days for the smell to leave the kitchen. I don’t know why you’re laughing — I’m being serious.

So, you tell me – what could be worse?