Almost nothing in the left hand column. All the right hand column busy with her scrawl.
The woman had not been rude. But nor had she been kind, nor friendly, nor understanding, nor.
Two things. Two headings. Why bother with that?
There was nothing practical about it. Nothing in the sense of practicality.
Just a little in and just a little out. If she ate less.
Her stoop made a mess of the street. It was all sick down there, look at it, some disgusting things, a sweat of them. Excretions. A hundred thousand million years, of spitting and spills. She didn’t believe those things, those circles, were chewing gum, look at them. Too many. Far too many for chewing gum. Who chewed chewing gum? She did not believe it.
The sun was cold. Two columns.
What did they mean when they said something went down the wrong way? What did they mean by that? Are there two ways in? Two ways out? Was there food in her lungs? Probably. At this stage. It would go away presumably, rot, do her no harm.
Two columns. Left and right.
Nothing but the inward and outward—as in breaths. As in breathing out and breathing in.
As in. As out. As this. As that. As yes. As no. Two columns.
The woman had said no. With a smile that was not a smile at all, it was some sort of thing you do for yourself. For herself. She smiled to make herself feel better. As if it was a common occurrence, and not very important, and both of these things were probably true. It was neither uncommon nor important. Nor kind, nor friendly, nor understanding.
The street was full of people and the sun was cold. No.
She had known a man in Ireland once who drank himself to death over a summer. Handsome man. Boy really, that long ago. His straight back, his shoulders. Him swimming in the sea at Courtown. He had started sober on a Tuesday in late May and was dead by the end of August, his eyes two little saucers of milk, bloody for the kitty. She had not loved him but he was dear to her as a brother is, or a friend. A dear friend. Is that not love? Stinking dead after a few rotten months. A hatred of himself. A hatred of what he was. An honest simple hatred—it was good humoured even, in company. He died on the street in Cork. A kick or two maybe. A little bit of murder, much welcomed. And now they have the internet on the phone and you can call up people to bring you food and drink and whatever you can think of. She heard that her nephew…no, her grandson…her grandson had been lost in his phone, had disappeared in there, had gone forever, swimming in the beeps and the blips and the tiny little points and pointless things. Gone. They had tried to pry him out of it, but he was lost. Gone.
She added up the column on the left and it came to nothing. And on the right and it was full as a fat man, full as a bowl of blood, full as disaster.
Bowl of blood? What was that? No.
She sometimes simply thought of things that were strange, ugly, violent. And they seemed not at first to be hers. As if they had been slipped into her thinking by someone else. But then she saw them there and they seemed at home, they seemed to make sense. To belong to her.
A bowl of blood.
She stopped and stood still for a moment while her bowels turned over in the bed of her hips.
The street brushed past her. Black shoes and brown shoes, white shoes and blue shoes, yellow and red. Worn heels and sharp heels. Trainers and boots. Small feet and big feet. Lots of bare ankle. Sandals and flip flops, even a girl’s feet with nothing but a bracelet or two, and a careful tread and, with every stride, a sliver of her black sole.
She turned her head to see the sky and people’s faces. All blue.
She hadn’t been straight in years. She was turned over on herself like the letter r. The little letter r. The big letter R would be lovely. But no. Her face looked only at the ground and she could not lift it, and all of her tipped forward like a snapped branch, and if she stood still too long she lost her balance. It was a way to be. It had come on slowly. Boiled frog.
She set off again.
She remembered striding. She remembered running. Peculiar how memories should, you’d think, be in the left column, but in fact, if you think about it, they’re in the right column, firmly in the right column, weighty at least as current circumstances, which are themselves a weight she cannot carry.
A weight she cannot carry. All the light in the sky.
Where does she put that? In which column does the light go? A bowl of blood. It was just the b sound. That was all. She had said inside her self the word bowl, and her mind had reached for blood because of those b sounds. That was all.
But that did not explain the morning, when she had lain awake beneath a pile of dead bodies. A pile of corpses. Had lain there with the taste in her mouth of other people’s dying. An awful dream, of course, no more than that. Just the latest in a long line, that’s all, because of worry, she was worried, she was worried about money and about food and about her body. That was what it was. Only that. But still. Dead children, ripping snarling things, blood that flashed in the dark, plates of flesh, severed heads, the smell of a body split on the ground, the spit and whizz of bullets, and also – dead children. Worry. Pain and worry and the boiling water. She was dying.
She had pushed off her two duvets and crawled upright in the dark and had decided to go to the bank. The money bank. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?
The dark comes up out of the ground. It grows up out of the city and swallows the world and she cannot reconcile it to herself. To her own self. Which is what exactly? At this stage? Again that blank and empty column. There are only debts and debits and the growing darkness and it is not her, it is not her in either her essentials or her little bits of hope, which she does not have but which she remembers, and which are therefore on the debit side.
Everything, she stopped in her tracks and a child bumped into her, is on the debit side.
In the tight space of her head, she did her sums again. First the money. There was none. And they would give her none. The columns that they looked at, the figures and the screens. All that information that they had. And they couldn’t give her anything because on the one hand they had all her information and on the other hand they had none of her money. Is this a bank? Yes. Well I would like a loan. We can’t just give you a loan. If they had less of her information and more of her money she would fare better maybe. I am a customer here. Yes, I know. She had no money in the bank is what it amounted to, and they would extend her no line of credit. For all of my life. The woman had been dim about it, as if they both were stupid, and they were not.
Your pension? What about your pension?
Her pension paid the rent. The man came for it, hateful and regular. She wasn’t going to tell her that.
Have you asked the council? They have emergency funds.
There was a hateful shame in everything. She was so old.
She maneuvered her way past the pub at the corner and wondered what would happen if she sat at a table and stayed there. Maybe someone would buy her a drink and maybe that would do it. It was August after all. And her body was full of rot already. Full of holes and tangles like a dead hedge. A little hedge on a little patch of mud between paths.
He had had such a sweet and haunted face. She could not remember his name.
Anyway. Her sums.
She stopped again to let her insides catch up with her. Maybe she should sit down. The pains in her knees and shoulders reached out towards each other. Maybe she should sit. It would be a chore. Sitting in the bank had been a chore. Getting up had been a chore. She was afraid that when she moved she sent out a plume of scent. Scent. Smell was what it was. She smelled. But she could not manage much of a wash. Her arms didn’t want to get involved. The water was cold. The towels were not clean. The woman from upstairs, the woman from Rwanda. What was her name?
The laundry was hard on her own. Bending over. Her back didn’t want to get involved.
She was annoyed. Forgetting names because they were different. Stupid thing to do.
She was gone now anyway. The woman. She had been kind, friendly, understanding. But her name was gone too.
Maybe she would visit. Maybe she would. Had she said? Maybe she had. Probably she had. But people forget. It’s all right. Forgetting is all right. Forgetting would be good. It would clear a lot of that right column.
She set off again. God her knees.
God her shoulders.
Her feet when they got going were a blur, like Charlie with a deck of cards.
She began to cry.
If she ate less maybe.
If she put it like that, she thought. If she put it like that, to herself, then where would she put herself? In which column was she herself? Pro column. Con column. Can you put the person whose columns they are into the columns themselves? You had to. Could you put a ledger into a ledger? Well, yes. You idiot. Could a measuring tape measure its own length? Yes. Yes. Yes. That was the definition of a measuring tape. You idiot. A human being is the worth of a human being, that’s what it is, that’s what it was. She had all the information after all. All of it.
She would not be able for the rent again. She could not eat less.
But she could eat nothing.
Quite slow that, probably.
She stopped again and put her hand out thinking that she could lean on the wall for a moment but she was too far from it. She stayed where she was, let her arm fall. The sun was cold. She had no heat in her. She turned her head to see people above the knee. Summer dresses. Shorts and t-shirts. Skimpy little things. Boys with bare chests. It was summer at least. Put that in the left column. It is summer. Summer already.
—Are you all right?
—You sure? Can I help you?
—I’m all right.
Some sort of girl.
She wiped her face. The girl stayed there. Shorts to the knee. Socks and trainers. Wheeling a bike.
—I’m all right.
—OK. Take care.
People are kind but they can’t do a thing. They’re only people. What would she do? What would she do? What would she do? What?
She set off again. Idiot. Blubbering idiot.
She had never been shy, nor cowardly. She had told people what she thought of them. She had said so when she was put out or mistreated. Tough as nails. She had called a man a pig to his face. And she had gone on strike three times. Three times. And they had won twice. And she had never put up with
She sobbed and stopped.
with Charlie, was what it was. She had never put up with his nonsense. All of his nonsense. Soft git. She would put up with it now though. She would put up with a world of his nonsense, oh ridiculous, just making yourself blubber, to have him back. Look at her, ridiculous old woman in the street sobbing, blubbering like an idiot.
She set off again.
Sobbing and shuffling like an idiot. Her feet a blur. Her steps were maybe three inches long. Her stride. What was it, that? Were her knees doing that? Her knees were working and her hips weren’t? Nothing was working, not as it should be. She was not that old. She smiled.
She was that old.
Her voice when she whispered was in her head, and she told herself some things, and lifted her head to the left a little to see the cars and the buses and the trucks flying by. Great big trucks. They never stopped now. As the day went on they got slower, but they were fast now. Her right ear was gone completely. In her shoulders which she could not lift there was an internal itch that seemed linked to her ear. Her right ear. Which could hear nothing but could still hurt. Or itch. Deep inside itself like a clump of sparks. A handful.
Charlie. He had loved her and that was that. He had made her tea and fed her.
He had laughed all the time. All his nonsense. He had died, soft git.
She had nothing now. That was that. Nothing.
She turned her head to the left and watched the traffic.
The cars and the buses and the great big trucks. Those great big trucks could turn her to a light mist, a little rain in the sun.
It would be a terrible thing to do to a driver. She stopped.
No. Long hours on the road from Frankfurt or Milan or Rotterdam and a stooped old woman ruins your life.
She set off again, her feet a blur. She would go home and use the things beneath the sink. The bleach and such.
What was his name? The drinker boy who died in the street, his pale hands broken, his face cold, as soft as snow?
Maybe she would not do it if she could not recall his name. Perhaps there was something she had forgotten, and she could cling to that.
She would put it off until she could remem
His name was Lawrence.
© Keith Ridgway