18:13. Old guy rocks up.
He’s usually here before me. Wearing a flat-cap tonight. Hard to tell what colour. Not black or blue. You can make out those colours in the dark. Maybe an oak-leaf green or a charcoal grey. It hides his white hair well.
I clocked his old hands once, on the way home. They looked fragile. I had been drawn to his long fingernails, thick and yellow. He was no smoker. Maybe back in the day, yes, but now, no – queuing at the bus stop is the best place for a cigarette.
His nails were old and unkempt. You can deduce a lot from that. What wife would let a man leave the house with fingernails like that?
I turn up my music to drown out passing cars.
The pit of my stomach has not stopped since the call, except for that one moment when I made a sale. If I had one wish it would be to see all the people on the other end of the phone. He sounded charming, young, maybe even the same age as me; a nice boy. In one word: lovely.
But who am I to know? It’s almost a fantasy. The man who bought a £2-per-month courtesy car add-on could be all of those things, or none.
18:15. A bus approaches in the distance. Could this be a record? The bus, not just on time, but early? I squint to catch the number. Nope. The 75. Well, it was wishful thinking after all.
18:16. The mother arrives.
She’s two kids short. I look at her and wish for my future-self that that is never me.
Her youngest girl – they’re all girls, by the way, that’s weak sperm, just FYI – is asleep in her pram. I clock the sound of the pram wheels before anything else. And now a choice. Do I look up and send a smile to the stupid blonde, whose name I should know but didn’t quite catch the only time she said it or, do I keep my head down and allow her to bitch about the grumpy bus-stop-chick to all the women in her baby club?
I smile. Enough said.
The 75 roars past.
My phone beeps. I take it up. The feeling of dread escalates.
Just an e-mail. A petition against the abolition of free healthcare to be signed. Yes I believe in the greater good, but my God, when you’ve signed up to be one of the good and you get a dozen e-mails a week, I start to consider if it were better that I wasn’t one of those few.
Nevertheless, at least it isn’t a text from Harry. Explaining herself. I click on the link quickly and write my name. Not everyone can afford insurance.
18:21. Gay guy perches against the shelter.
Don’t get me wrong here. He’s (obviously) gay, and a guy. I don’t know his name. So, he’s gay guy. He’s here every evening and he always rests against the bus shelter. He’s young and, actually, quite hot, and he is always on the phone.
She’ll be in the kitchen when I get home with those blinding white lights, Harry. Cooking. I’m still not sure what to say. How the hell do I broach a subject like that? The last time we fought it ended in tears. That’s not just an idiom either.
18:24. The bus is late. It’s always late.
The odd couple are late too.
As I think that it is as if I have summoned them. The two of them arrive; he looks stressed. She; panicked and out of breath.
They both step forward at the same time. Car crash. It’s awkward as hell. I mean, I feel awkward and I’m just watching. They both catch each other’s eyes. Smile. And step back.
Finally the young man moves past her, then me, where he stops to my left. He digs in his bag and pulls out a book. It’s thick. Like a shit load of pages. Four times as many as one of my veterinary text books. I’m surprised he can manage to read it in the meagre light from the street lamp above.
He’s not unattractive either, a pretty face. I can see why she likes him. Just not my type. I wish the two of them would stop all that staring and actually have a conversation.
18:27. Finally. The flashing light in the distance is the 369.
There’s a shuffle. It’s funny, don’t you think? How everyone shuffles when the bus comes in sight? Happens every day, about the same time. The guy next to me closes his book. He looks over at the woman. Can’t keep his eyes off her.
The mother moves her buggy closer to the curb. The old guy gets out a purse.
When the doors spring open we queue.
Thirty-five minutes to home (approximately, the bus info tells me). Well out of town. Thirty-five minutes until I have to have the conversation.
I turn my headphones up louder. This is a good song.
The first 10 minutes of my journey pass in bright oranges and reds as the bus moves along the streets amongst the cars. After that, the world begins to darken.
The life of the city starts to fade, the streetlamps disappear into the distance and passing cars become fewer.
Harry calls it the countryside. But it’s not dark at night, like the countryside should be. It’s too close to the bright city for the sky to ever be black. Light pollution is worse when it’s cloudy, have you ever noticed?
The stop before mine. The young woman gets off. I watch the other half of the odd couple. He doesn’t peel his eyes away from her. Not for one moment. She feels the burning sensation on her back and turns to him. She smiles. He hides his contentment.
19:02. The doors hiss closed. Nearly home.
The mother rings the bell. A red light flashes: Stopping.
Always the same. She’s got the buggy in front of the door before anyone else has a chance to get up from their seats. So we’ll all queue on the way out, leaving just gay guy behind.
And we do. Me, reading guy (who looks like a little lost puppy after his love has gone, God I wish he’d say something to her) and old guy. We stand and wait while she lifts down her buggy and finally gets off. Sometimes her eldest runs away wildly while she tries to get down. Then we’re all there longer.
19:07. I take out my house keys before perching in the porch. My stomach is jumping as I turn the key in the lock.
Her food always smells so good. It feels like maybe this is just garlic and onion being fried in a pan. So it could be anything. Harry makes a mean beef and mushroom pie.
‘Hi,’ I call into the house.
‘Hi,’ she echoes back.
I step into the kitchen. Much nicer in the summer when the sun shines through the windows on the far wall. Instead Harry masks the gloomy dark with the bright white ceiling lights.
I find her at the counter stirring dinner in a pot on the stove. God, it smells good.
‘So it’s back?’ I ask. ‘The Big C?’
‘Yep,’ she says, without turning to look at me. ‘And like I told you on the phone, I’m not having chemo again.’
I take a deep breath. Her words reverberate like they have been doing all day.
Bloody woman. I slam down my bag and slump into a chair.
Feels weird. Mum. Don’t really call her that anymore. When did that change?
‘You know why,’ she says, and I do. ‘18 months it took last time. 18 months – either in bed or with my head in the sink,’ she spoke, and stirred the pot. ‘Or worse. Spilling the contents of my guts out into a grey paper bowl. Just the smell of it made me want to throw up again.’
Don’t I know it? I was the one taking those cheap paper containers from her weak hands. Every time I threw the contents down a drain I wanted to empty my own stomach. After a while I stopped being sick but not once could I suppress the convulsions that made me gag.
‘There’s years left in you yet,’ I say. She stays silent. ‘Come on. You’re a fighter. Stronger than two of me.’
Now I’m begging. Selfish, hu?
‘You’re going to be fifty next year. We said we’d celebrate.’
‘Looks like I’m not going to make it,’ she says matter-of-fact.
My heart sinks. I’ve sent sixty-seven invitations. Booked the community hall up the road – for a modest fee – and made sure even aunty Lottie isn’t going to slip up and ruin the surprise.
Harry stirs whatever it is on the stove. Reducing. Fucking reducing. That, apparently, is the trick to a great dinner. Whatever it may be.
Then I get angry. I can feel it, simmering. I want to throw it back at her. All the work I’ve done. The sixty-seven invitations. With sixty-seven hand written addresses. And thirty replies so far.
I want to spit it at her – there are thirty people she is going to be letting down.
‘What about me, Harry?’
Finally, she turns to face me. Looking in her eyes is always the same – like looking in a mirror.
She’s been crying, agonising, I guess.
‘Been paying the life-insurance policy since the day your dad left. There were hard times when I thought about cancelling it. Hope I was a good enough parent to keep them from you. Could have done with the money some months. It isn’t cheap.’
She turns back to the stove and flicks on the kettle.
‘Almost cancelled it before I found out about, well, you-know-what, last time.’ She reaches out and touches one of the wooden cupboards. ‘But I got lucky. I suppose. Wouldn’t give me the time of day if I had to tick the ‘C’ box on another application form.’
I sigh. She carries on, ‘There will be enough for you to see off the mortgage on this place and after the funeral there’ll be some left over.’
I sit up. ‘This isn’t about money.’
She pauses, and then changes the subject. ‘Come and see if you think there’s too much liquid.’
She pours hot water into a pan. I stand and walk to the stove.
‘It’s your favourite.’
Inside a chilli-con-carne bubbles. She hasn’t added the beans yet. It is my favourite, with a lashing of white rice.
‘Bit longer,’ I say, and collapse back down.
‘I know you’re disappointed,’ she says, and pours rice freely into boiling water.
Disappointed. That’s an understatement. She speaks like I’ve asked for a dog for Christmas and she is gently letting me down.
‘I can’t put myself through that again.’
She looks over at me. I’m not sure what that look is and then I realise: it is pity.
‘It was agony,’ she says. ‘All of it. You want me to go into details about how painful the headaches were? How hard it is to live when you’re nauseous every waking moment?’
These are the words that break me. I start to cry. I remember, maybe even better than her, all the days in hospital. The vomiting. The way her voluptuous body wasted away into the stick-figure standing before me and that etched look she got from time to time as she lay on bed after bed, in different wards and hospitals. That look of pain.
I was helpless to do anything but I still remember the night I knelt by my bed and offered up my own life to any God who could take that look away.
Now I’m asking her to go through all that again. So I cry.
She presses my face gently against her stomach.
‘I’m sorry, darling.’
She strokes my hair. I cry harder.
‘You used to have such lovely red hair when you were a child,’ she says. ‘Why do you put that horrible stuff in it and make it all black?’
20:01. Tears dry. Breathing back to normal.
The rice is lukewarm in the bowl. The chilli needed more reducing when the rice was done. Harry always thinks it needs more reducing.
We sit opposite each other at the table, with the bright white lights drowning out all the shadows in the room.
I watch her as she pushes food round her bowl. Then I push food round my bowl.
The two of us sit quietly. Well, in silence. No words had touched the walls of the house since I’d stopped crying.
She looks gaunt, mum. Thin and fragile. We catch each other’s eyes for a split second. And then both look away.
Just like the odd couple on the bus. Those two. God (if there is one)! They watch each other for the whole of that thirty-five minute bus ride, every day. He never says anything to her or visa-versa, yet the two of them stare. Like two people in love.
I judged them before, but now – me and Harry – we are the same.
‘I need you,’ I tell her softly. Blunt and honest.
Her response is quick. ‘No, you don’t.’
I stand; a mismatch of frustration and reoccurring anger. She doesn’t look up.
‘It’s only ever been the two of us. Dad, whoever the hell he was, wasn’t worth the ink on my birth certificate. Who am I going to go out to dinner with? Watch really good and really shit TV series with?’ I pause. ‘You’re everything to me.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ she says. ‘I just can’t.’
Then, it simply slips out. Quiet and callous. ‘Selfish bitch.’
Her stature changes with my words. Her shoulders tighten and her piercing eyes trace up, from the bottom hem of my black clothes to my eyes. In an instant she picks up her bowl of chilli-con-carne and thrusts it at me.
It flies close to my face before smashing against the far wall and spilling its contents across the floor.
Harry runs. The bathroom door slams shut.
20:37. No sound, nor movement, from the end of the corridor where Harry has shut herself up.
On my hands and knees I manage to lift dinner off the floor, bit by bit, without leaving much tomato-coloured sauce on the carpet.
Get the spray out from under the sink. Stinks like puke. That is a memory from the last time I used it. Hmm. That was a messy night.
21:08. I get slowly up from the comfort of the sofa and make my way down the bright hall. Press my head against the bathroom door. ‘Harry?’
‘Just leave me alone.’
I go back down the corridor and fall on the couch.
Two-hundred channels and nothing to watch. It’s all repeats of dated sit-coms or reality TV shows based in cities I’ve never been too. Didn’t settle on one channel for more than ten minutes.
21:42. Light up a blunt.
Harry doesn’t much like it when I smoke in the house, but I doubt she’ll come bursting out now to tell me off. I smile to myself as I start to relax. I’m not intentionally ‘smoking her out’ but that makes me giggle.
23:13. The joint has worn off.
My ears twitch with every little sound. I keep hoping to hear the lock on the bathroom door turn so we can have this out. Some kind of resolution. It is her, after all, who always says: never let the sun set on an argument.
I deserved the bowl. The last time we fought I slapped her and she cried. She didn’t speak to me for two days. It was about coffee. The fucking stupid things you fight about with the ones you love.
23:59. The lock on the bathroom door finally clicks. I hear her sprint across the hall to her bedroom and shut the door.
I sit up, compose myself, and walk the bright corridor once more, resting outside her bedroom. I knock.
She’s tucked up in bed. Better than hiding on the toilet seat, I guess. And I’m the one who is supposed to be the child in this relationship.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
I perch on the end of her bed.
‘Mum,’ I look at her. Her eyes, like mine, look back at me. ‘I’ve thought about it.’
She’s on edge, bracing herself. ‘If this is what you want, then it’s what we’ll do.’
Her lip begins to quiver and then she can’t hold it in anymore. I bounce off the end of the bed and cuddle her as our two sets of tears drop onto the bed sheets.
00:25. Silence. We sit.
Finally she takes my hand. ‘Thank you,’ she says. I smile kindly. Or weakly.
‘You get some rest,’ I tell her, as I stand. ‘You’re going to need it.’
When the door to her bedroom closes I almost buckle over. Haven’t had access to the pisser since dinner.
01:55. Have I made the right choice? That question is going round and round in my head. There are pro’s and con’s and this is no small decision. It’s life and death. Her life.
When I was younger, with long red hair, I knew if she were to die that my life would come to an end too. We’d been close to that reality once already. Closer than I’d wish for most people. This time that scenario would end differently. Hell, she could get hit by a bus tomorrow and I’d never have told her how I truly feel. It’s too easy to wrap it up in black clothes and mask those feelings with a bottle of hair dye.
07:33. Finish drying my hair.
07:34. Make a promise to myself: be sure nothing is left unsaid before the end. Make sure she knows I love her.
07:35. Apply my favourite eye shadow. It matches the black bags under my eyes.
07:39. Grab some muesli from the cupboard and coat it in milk. Same bowl as the chilli. The bus is due at 08:07. Bloody stupid time.
Harry comes into the kitchen. She looks terrible. ‘Are you okay?’ I ask instantly.
‘Didn’t sleep too good.’ She pauses. ‘Actually,’ she says, ‘I didn’t sleep at all. Can you come and sit down?’
I take a spoon. This might be another one of those pushing-the-food-round-the-bowl kind of moments.
We sit opposite each other. She takes my hand like she did last night.
‘You called me selfish.’
‘I’m sorry. It’s me who’s the selfish one.’
‘No darling, you were right. It is me.’
She takes a deep breath. ‘I’ve hardly slept,’ she says. ‘Been thinking about what this means for you, and what it means for me. Every which way is going to be hard but I so desperately want to see you graduate from veterinary college, if only to get you out of that bloody call centre.’
I can’t help but crack a smile. I’ve heard this lecture a thousand times but this time it’s not condescending.
‘I want to meet my grandchildren.’
‘One step at a time. I have to meet a man first.’
‘Well that may not happen until you’ve taken out a few of those piercings.’
She’s jovial, a new found excitement in her smile.
‘You’re going to do the chemo?’ I ask.
‘If you promise me you’ll finish college.’
We share a smile. I let out a sigh and with it a night of tension.
‘I’m sorry to have put you through that.’
‘It’s okay,’ I say, and I mean it.
08:00. I look at the clock. Business as usual.
‘I’ve got to go mum.’
I get up. She rises with me. I sling my bag over my shoulder. And then I pull her in tightly.
‘I love you.’
‘Love you too Harriet,’ she says.
08:04. I turn the corner to the bus stop. Old guy is here already. The bright sun shines through his white hair.
I pass him. The mother is standing to his left; she has all three girls with her. I smile. Then I hope she is as good a mother as my own.
Gay guy is resting against the pole we all consider to be the bus stop. There are no shelters out here.
08:07. No sign of the bus. Standard.
One half of the odd couple screams round the corner. Relief crosses his face as he clocks us all waiting. He approaches, stops, makes eyes at me. That’ll end when his wife gets on at the next stop.
08:09. The 369 appears on the horizon. The bus stop shuffles.
The mother manoeuvres her youngest to face the road. The middle girl is desperately clinging to her older sister’s hand and the frame of the pushchair.
08:11. The breaks hiss.
As the mother lifts the front wheels of the pushchair her eldest runs free. And boy can she run. Ironically she has the same name as me, and Harry, which can now be heard inside the corner shop across the road as it’s yelled down the pavement.
08:13. The mother is finally on-board allowing the rest of us to swipe our contactless passes.
No wonder the bus is always late.
I sit as it pulls away from the stop. The world goes by. I watch and smile, thankful.
The male half of the odd couple pulls a piece of paper from his pocket. I watch him as he stares at it. Then he gawks as his unrequited love gets on. She flashes her bus pass and with her eyes down, follows the path through parted seats. She catches his eye. And he hers. And then he indicates to her.
She smiles and sits down next to him.
He briefly catches my eye. Wonder what he’s thinking, perhaps; there’s Emo Girl. She doesn’t look so moody this morning.
Alex Grasham grew up in the English countryside before moving to London. He has always been fascinated by the wonders of storytelling. By day, he has a career working with other people’s scripts but by night, he writes his own stories.