You’re back, standing at the door waiting for the crowd to file through the aisles. Slender, grey haired, insubstantial, wearing the same lemon polyester jumper, the elastic waist M&S pants you wore that day in the nursing home. I rotate the button on the cuff of my sleeve, watching you weave through students and tourists to where I am seated at the top of the hall.
‘Morning, Alice,’I say, pulling myself up from my chair, retrieving my walking cane, slow testing my weight first on one foot then the other.
‘Fancy a look about?’
You smile, take my arm and together we step into the throng of Saturday shoppers, proceeding past stamps and coins, platters and tureens, antique maps and costume jewellery. Around us people crisscross the aisles shouting greetings to each other. I deep breathe the wet dog smell of overcoats and roasted coffee. As ever, the sheer headiness of it all sets my heart aflutter.
As we round the top corner I see Lil, unmistakeable in her tulle skirt and crew cut. She sees me and waves, ‘Cast your eye on this Di,’ she says, pulling a fur from an overhead hanger, throwing it over her shoulders, striking an exaggerated pose.
‘I knew you’d know.’
Running my fingers along it, I shudder with pleasure at the exquisite depth of the pile, the feather light quality on my swollen knuckles.
‘Did you ever wear sable?’ I whisper in your ear.
Your eyes gaze off into the distance, profoundly disinterested.
Lil is watching me, eyebrows furrowed.
‘How much?’ I say, turning my back on the maddening inscrutability of your pale face.
‘Dunno. Think I’d get ninety?’
My mouth compresses in a straight line.
‘You wanna double that, love,’ I say, ‘That’s top notch.’
It will, no doubt, be snapped up before the morning’s out by someone oblivious to the work she does, sifting through rags and tatters, pulling out cast offs and fixing them up good as new.
Ahead of us, a woman carries a small dog. It raises it’s head, looks back at you and bares it’s teeth. Unperturbed, you stoop to examine a glass dome filled with dead butterflies. I shuffle from foot to foot then I see something.
‘What have we got here?’ I say, hovering my hand like a bird of prey then letting it drop onto a small leather tankard.
A heavy set woman, new to the market, gives me the once over.
‘Oh, I don’t know dear, I got it at a car boot. Fifteen quid and it’s yours.’
Discarding the tankard I pick up a blue and white jug, examine a crack near the handle then put it down.
‘OK. Ten and you’re getting a bargain.’
I fumble for my hanky, slow count to ten then reach for it. Thick black leather, rigid with a silver rim. Its diminutive size, the imprint of milk teeth on the hardened skin reveals that this once belonged to a child. The embossed rose, obscured with age, intimates that it’s Elizabethan.
The electricity running from the neural highways of my brain through to my fingers tells me everything else. Wordlessly, I pull out a note, pocket the tankard and shuffle on.
‘Don’t look at me like that,’ I snap, catching a flicker of disapproval in your eye, ‘ I paid what she asked. She’s happy. I’m happy.’
We walk stiff parallel lines, careful not to let our shoulders brush, our hands touch. More words spring to my lips; bitter words I struggle to bite back. Where were you when I needed your help, your advice? When your opinion would have mattered?
My stomach churns sour bile. I know exactly where you were.
Woman alone, memory diminishing. Another routine house clearance or so it had seemed when I walked through the fan lit front door of your home, insulated behind privet hedges, filled with the calibre of stuff that cushions a person. Stuff I packed away when they moved you to the nursing home.
The tankard in the pocket of my overalls hits against my thigh as I walk, bulging like a grotesque tumour. I wish I left it behind.
‘Diana, darling!’ Reg hails me from across the aisle. Receding hair, scarecrow thin, glasses slipping on his nose as he primps an arrangement of hardback books. ‘Time for a brew?’
‘Not today, love,’ I say, unwilling to stop in case you drift off. An empty trolley blocks the path and I push it away. ‘Don’t leave.’ I think it rather than say it, sorry for my temper, my mean, barbed wire thoughts. Our Lord, resplendent in a three dimensional crown of thorns beams forbearance from where he is hanging on the partition wall. I stoop to adjust the compression bandage on my ankle and feel the weight of your hand on my shoulder, radiating warmth through my bones like winter sunshine.
Out of kilter with the throb and pulse of Tango streaming through the speakers, we make our way along the outer aisle. Then, as we approach the far end of the hall a stab of pain catches my hip. I grasp a cast iron pillar, working my lips, biting the inside of my cheek, reach blindly for the your arm but you’re not there.
Someone rushes to my side, scattering a pile of National Geographic in their haste. As the spasm passes, I see its Magda.
‘You been out partying again, Di? I hear the concern in her husky smokers voice, and force a laugh.
‘You know me too well, sweetheart,’ I say as she ushers me, limply, to a chair beside her pitch. I reach for my pill box, uncomfortable under the scrutiny of her kohl rimmed eyes.
‘I don’t know Di,’ she says, rubbing her nose, ‘You been to a doctor?’
‘What’s the point? ’ I say, knowing she will see through any of the lies I might trot out. ‘Ain’t none of us going to live forever.’
‘There’s stuff you can do, though,’ she says, squeezing my hand, ‘stuff that’ll help.’
She’s about to sugar talk me into taking vitamins when someone taps her shoulder. Long hair, pierced eyebrows, charged with an excess of energy that makes it impossible for him to stand still. She picks up a deck of tarot cards and directs him behind a curtained booth.
‘Stay right there, Di,’ she says. ‘I gotta check something for Rhys.’
Typical Magda; minding all the waifs and strays. A couple of years back, one of the bible boys on the committee tried to get her evicted. The rest of us kicked up such a stink he had to back off. The memory of our victory makes me laugh. You emerge from behind a gaggle of American coach tourists and laugh too.
A teenage boy struts by, peacock proud, arm around his girlfriend. She spots me, whispers something in his ear and they look back. I make a school yard face at them.
See me? I am a crystal chandelier with pink fringed lady shades; a tarnished silver candelabra. I laugh louder, throwing my head back, slapping my knees, relishing the startled look on their young faces.
A clock from somewhere up the room strikes noon and the laughter inside me subsides. From here I can see my chair, late Victorian-ladder back, sandwiched between vinyl and haberdashery at the top of the room. I find I am reluctant to haul myself up, complete our slow circuit and let you go.
Oblivious to the voices and the clamour, you look up at the vaulted ceilings. A delicate whiff of your perfume floats in the air. Ashes of Violets. Your perfume transports me back to that day in your bedroom. I picture the cologne bottle on the walnut veneer of your dressing table. Frosted glass with a brown Bakelite stopper. The side drawer crammed with letters and cards.
Stuff I’d usually bag up with barely a glace but something about the handwriting on a brown envelope looks familiar. I open it. Miss Gilmore, writing on behalf of trustees, extends apologies that she is not in a position to furnish you with information. Legal papers from the dates you mention have been rendered illegible due to water damage. No records remain of the adoptive parents or the possible whereabouts of the child in question.
Gilmore. A tall woman, black hair scraped off her face into a bun. Behind her back, we called her Spider. My breath is ragged as I pull out a linen covered photo album, gazing at sepia tinted pictures of you on your wedding day; you, with a friend on a river boat; you, squinting into the sun on the patio outside. You, slender, insubstantial, in a lemon shift dress. The undeniable evidence of your face gazing at me from the pages of an album; a face as familiar to me as my own.
Another clock chimes, delightfully out of synch with the first. Time stretches and compresses. What little time we’ve had. That brief visit to the nursing home after I managed to track you down. You, silent and confused, plucking threads from the weft of your bed spread. Did you know I was your daughter? I like to think you did.
My chair; a solid anchor in a choppy sea. I reach for it with trembling hands. You watch, as I lower myself onto the torn tapestry seat pad. Beyond the lines on your face, I glimpse the girl you once were. You at sixteen, standing in a cold front room, scuffing the rug with the toe of your shoe, mouse brown hair tumbling over your face. Meek and withdrawn, being packed up and sent to a place where the shame of your blossoming body could be contained. Returning months later, dull eyed and empty. Married, in due course, to someone your parents approved of. Year after year, hoping for children that never arrived, pining for the child you couldn’t keep.
You faded fast, they said when I went to the nursing home that second time. It had been peaceful, just the way any of us would want. The Chaplin sat and held your hand and you’d confused her for me, called her Diana. She’d made a note in the book to tell me that when I came in to retrieve the tartan holdall with your wash bag and nighties.
Outside a kango hammer rips into concrete, splutters, then grinds to a halt. Why so sad? There’s nothing else we could have done.
I saw the letter. You longed for me as I have always longed for you. Against all the odds we got to loop the hall just like I promised that day I sat by your bed, talking as you unravelled your blanket about the woman I’d become. Tired now, my eyelids droop, the market exhales a dusty sigh and you are gone.