“Many thanks for the wonderful Flowers you gave me. As they open they are fantastic I have never seen anything like them before. They really brighten my room. Excuse my writing as my left hand is useless. Again many thanks and Love from Mrs Bet Brown.
PS: do you want to come round at teatime to watch the video recording Ernest made of the Pakistani youths kicking in your car window?”
Borrowing butter from your neighbors around Stanley Common can lead to just about anything. Once in December, Susan ran out of the stuff while making crust for a pie. She knocked at the front door of number 40 and was greeted by Ernest Brown, 74, holding an air rifle. (For sport and service to the country, Ernest liked to shoot the pigeons that fed under the holly tree in the backyard. He spared the sparrows, robins and magpies). Ernest’s big grey face always bore an expression of wretched hilarity; he would complain about his mother, or the recent behavior of the neighborhood children through a grin of implausible proportions, while his brown eyes darted about his face. When he laughed it lasted a long time, but sounded like a huff. Ernest illustrated better than anyone else in Maris Hill the shortcomings of the human face.
Months after the rifle incident, at the end of a chain of gifts that included a slice of the pie, a length of drainpipe, two tins of tuna and the loan of some tools, Susan made the latest offering of a bunch of daffodils, picked from the side of the road. Bet, Ernest’s 99 year-old mother, replied with a card, perhaps to seal the end of the chain and take it back to a natter over tea. This latest message dropped through the letterbox the morning after her first two asides with the cosmic substance. First, there had been the protest note:
“We, the undersigned Residents of R** Close, request that the entrance from the railway footpath into R** Close be closed.”
The note, typewritten on lilac blotting paper, was caught in the grate under the doorstep of number 38. The wind made it rattle like a bicycle with a playing card pegged inside its wheel. Thinking someone was at the door, Susan ran dowstairs, rehearsing in her head the words she reserved for peripatetic evangelizers. She opened the door and came foot to nose with the protester. It railed on:
“The reason for this request being Cyclist racing round foot paths, Motorcyclist tekking Short cuts, plus Vandals and Drunks.”
In reflex action, Susan stepped out into the street. Nothing. Walking down to the mouth of R** Close, she looked around for maimed garbage bags. There were none. She speculated with pleasure. Could the stirrer be Number 6, with the magazine-perfect Alpine window boxes in the summer? Or was it 11, whose cat was lost and found twice in the last year? Was this a lone grievance, or the work of a R** Close committee? What was certain was that the paper had landed on her doorstep by accident, probably the mischief of a fox and the wind. She walked back to the front door and picked the note up. Avoiding drippings from the roof, she took the hue and cry into the house.
“Every week something is brokken or destroyed. This opening is of no advantage to anyone what’s o’ever, just causing a Public nuisance.” (In all fairness, it seemed to be of some advantage to the Cyclist, the Motorcyclist and the multiple Vandals and Drunks, thought Susan).
After that came the declaration in the mirror.
Susan moved into number 38, Cardigan Street, five years ago. The house beckoned, like a tired old cat that will meet you half-way to the feed. It needed an airing and someone who would be gentle with its bones. She rolled up her sleeves and shovelled out the coal pile, leaving a big black stain on the cellar floor. The house had five windows, three of which overlooked Stanley Common. An effect of there being no window in the bathroom was that running a bath caused an almighty peasouper every time. A week ago, the steam brought out a lost world of soapy fingerprints on the tiles and on the mirror. Susan picked up the flannel and started rubbing at the grimy landscape. Too preoccupied with the task at hand, she failed to notice what else was coming through on the glass.
“Susan. It is…”
Three weeks ago, a man had come to visit her in number 38. He stayed four days, crossed Stanley Common on his way back to the train station, and was gone. Being a walkway between the homes of Maris Hill and the rest of the world, it was not uncommon for Stanley to be crossed. But somehow, that particular journey had irritated the hell out of the lawns and lanes, and for a week after the stranger had left, the Common sulked. Frost stuck to the grass until noon. Pathways wouldn’t thaw in time for the morning commute and there was an inexplicable puddle at the bus stop every day. It was reported that during this black week, one pensioner broke his toe and at least two other people had minor accidents. Susan thought at first that Stanley Common only liked those strangers who ended up staying. She soon realized it was jealousy. For her part, she developed after the visitor departed a new bashfulness when she was in the presence of Stanley and, like a child who will no longer get undressed in front of an audience, found refuge in the transient spaces of number 38.
“It is inscribed…”
He appeared to have left a message on the mirror. A statement of fact. It must be him, because no one else had visited since.
The letters were struggling to come out now that the fog had dissipated. The air vent sniggered as it tried to snuff out her chances. Susan turned the hot water tap as far as it would go and left her hand to droop in the scalding flow. She wanted to lose some comfort with the revelation. She wanted to give something back but wasn’t sure what.
“on my conditio…”
She turned the tap in the other direction to stop the steam and eek out the suspense.
The man and Susan met in a queue at a pancake stall on the Sunday market. He was in town for business, he said. (She hadn’t asked).
“What business?” she asked.
“I deliver things to people,” he answered, in an American accent, “what about you?”
She told him she made it her business to be there when something interesting happened. Behind them, an old dear eavesdropped. She had cousins in the USA. “In Florida.” She had never visited them but soon she would. “You have chosen well,” she told Susan. Susan wasn’t sure whether she meant the pancake in her hand, or the man.
“on my condition to love you”.
Next door the gate slammed shut. The bathroom mirror at number 38 was now full of letters that were six weeks old. So many O’s, and I’s, more O’s, more I’s and a good deal of N’s. Susan wondered if three week old letters were still any good or if they were just the bones without the meat. She pulled the plug and watched the water leave number 38 for good. The air was not so thick now and the message fainted in the cold. Then it was gone altogether.
Susan received precious few letters from anyone these last five years, although she considered writing some in the past few weeks. She was surprised to note that these two deliveries found her receptive; a state perhaps not solely of her own making. This at once scared and reassured her: no doubt whatever sign came next, good or bad, she would at least find her way to it or it would find her. In any case, she had certainly never been inside number 40, but what she glimpsed of it through the half open front and back doors, in the moments of their exchanges, made her curious. However, she was not taken with the idea of watching Ernest’s recording of the incident involving her car.
Ernest kept watch for all the neighbors on the row. In the front bay window, he placed a security camera, hidden inside a cylinder, covered with a glossy magazine cutout of Schloss Hohenzollern, with a carved out penny-sized hole in the top of one of the turrets for the lens. There was no live streaming at number 40, only ninety minute tapes that needed to be changed, so that Ernest always witnessed the 9:47am act of vandalism at 11:17am. Ernest’s watchful guard came with the bewildering caveat that it was always too late to take action.
Susan wondered if Ernest knew about the invitation from his mother. He hadn’t mentioned anything about it last night, when, after closing time at the pub, he caught her on the way to the front door. He was polishing the bay window with spit and an old rag, with an urgent bone to pick.
“Susan! The rain’s gone right through the yard wall. It’s trickling through the bricks, you see. There was already a crack but it’s definitely bigger now.”
She was woozy, “Well,” while the space between her bare arm and leather jacket felt like solid ice, “if there was already a crack…”.
“What it needs is a gulley.” He scraped grit off the windowsill with a black nail. “You could get that chap to do it.” (That chap, thought Susan. Talk of killing two birds with one stone. He is a nosey fucker, that one). “Is he still here, then, your friend? American, then, is he? That’s what mother reckons. Said it reminds her of when the Yanks camped out on the common.”
“I will make a gulley, Ernest, at the weekend. I’m sorry about your wall. I can point it.”
“Oh there’s no point in that,” said Ernest.
Susan could not understand how it was that, minutes later, they conspired to kidnap a cat – a beautiful, soft, black she-cat. Maybe it was her guilt over the wall. She caught the cat and handed it over to Ernest. The cat looked at her with resentment. “Show her to your mother.” Susan volunteered the poor animal. “That’ll cheer her up.” Ernest took the cat and cradled her.
“I’ll let her out the back door,” he said, as though the cat had found herself trapped inside number 40 and not been stolen from the street.
“Yes, show her to your mother, Ernest,” (why can I not stop saying the word mother?), “it’ll make your mother happy.”
Ernest looked straight at her. “What it needs is a gulley.”
“I will make a gulley. I’m sorry about your wall.”
“When I was in Bristol, in the fire department, there was a man who gassed himself inside his motor.”
“But his widow, see, she knew we had dynamite at the depot. Asked us to blow the car up, she did. What with the smell and that.”
“The smell of gas?”
“No. Well… he’d been sick from the fumes, you see. Threw up, like.”
The cat was trying to wiggle out of his arms, so Ernest kept it still with a hand around the neck.
“Ernest, hang on a minute, I’ve got some daffodils inside I want to give to your mother.”
There it was, again: the word mother. Susan walked into the house and picked the flowers out of the vase. Outside, Ernest was still holding the black cat in his arms.
“It’s not like Tiger to be out all night. Well, you’re here now, that’s what matters, isn’t it, Tiger?”
“Ernest, that’s not Tiger, that’s… never mind. You just tell your mo… you tell Bet I’ll be seeing her.”
Once again she opened the front door with a kick as was necessary when it was damp out. The heating had been on all evening and the house smelled like a stale crumpet. Without turning on the lights she walked to the window, bumping into just about everything in the room. Stanley Common was empty and floodlit. The wooded part of the common, however, was like a black hole sinking between the grassy strip and the rooftops. She stared at the Common and he stared back. I am sorry about the wall. I am sorry for being such a lousy neighbor. I am sorry for being so bad at saying goodbye, come back, don’t go, we have some way to go, my buddy, come right in, stay a while, give me this, and that… She repeated the words on the mirror under her breath: Susan. It is inscribed on my condition to love you.
Somebody with a sense of occasion let a firework off in a corner of the park and with that the night came to an end.
And then the latest note from Bet sealed the deal. Susan would go to tea with the Browns. But first, she had to buy a cake. The last remaining bakery in Maris Hill was called Hope Bakery. It was a five minute walk from the Eastern edge of Stanley Common, on Mabel Avenue. It stood in the centre of the last row of shops in the neighborhood. On the left was the storefront of a repair shop. Susan had come to him once with a broken toaster and left with a fully working toaster for the cost of two new toasters. To the right was a pork butcher’s. Like the rest of the businesses on the block, The Pork Shop had run into hard times and now, the loss of a red neon K and P spoke to the whole street.
Hope Bakery was opened thirty years ago by a man called Terry, the day after his first courtship turned sour. (There was in fact a long-standing tradition of romantic tragedy and entrepreneurship in this neck of the woods). He worked alone, day and night for several years, multiplying loaves at dusk and folding dough into danish apricot pinwheels at dawn. Later, his new love and wife joined ship and learned how to squeeze out the icing trim on French fancies and frost the violets on christening cakes. For a while it worked out just fine. Someone to help him who would not drag him away from his shop. She was a mild woman with no calling of her own and she liked cakes. They even produced a daughter, Jenny. When Jenny came along, the baker’s wife asked to move out of their flat above the bakery and into a better neighbourhood. She said the flour got right up her nose and that all the racket from the machines couldn’t be good for the baby’s sleep. Things went downhill from there and in time the baker grew tired of this woman whose heart was not into baking. True, she had always kept the shop well stocked and he couldn’t find fault with her icing, except that it was maybe a little lackluster… But unlike the baker, she would never feel the fever of a calling and there comes a time when a man needs to share his fever.
Susan knew all this because she and Terry started a conversation one night in the Pilgrim. For the first two pints they merely shared a bench. After the third pint, he revealed to her the optimum number of lemons in the drizzle of a deep tin cake. After four, it was the secret of layer cakes and which was the best knife for coating with butter icing. Past the five pint mark, he told her all about the first time he played Scrabble and how the game spelled out some home truths for him. Sponge. Jilt. Jammy. He had been playing the game for almost as long as he had been baking, and while the bakery churned out the same rehearsed bakewell tart week after week for thirty years, in Scrabble, Terry had gone from “jammy” to “querimony” and lost much of his innocence in the process. Before they parted, Terry bemoaned losing his celebration cake clientele to the big supermarkets and their themed superhero vicky sponges that only cost a fiver. “How can I compete with that?” he asked wisely, not expecting an answer.
Susan decided Mrs. Brown’s invitation was celebration enough and placed a phone order with Terry for a victoria sponge filled with custard cream and adorned with marzipan roses –a speciality at Hope Bakery. The cake would be ready by three.
At four o’clock, she knocked on the door of number 40 with a white cardboard box tied with green ribbon. It took Bet seven minutes to get out of bed and seventy-three hesitant steps to arrive at the door. As she manipulated the lock, Susan heard her neighbor’s body creak. It could have been the floorboards but for her weight, which was too slight even to budge a new bar of soap. With the lock undone, Susan was able to turn the handle and let herself in. The door opened and out shot the black cat.
“I don’t know why Ernest brought that damn cat in,” said Bet. “He must be losing it. It’s not Tiger. Tiger was run over in the autumn.”
The ribbon ends on the cake box fluttered in the wind.
“Well come in, love, or are you trying to kill me with this draft?”
As one more body entered the house, its weight in dust slipped out, scattering on the stone doorstep. Bet closed the door and noticed the box.
“Look at that!” she said, “you went all the way to Hope.”
Susan stepped inside the front room for the first time. Bet slept here, on a small iron cot between the window and the fireplace. A miniature Christmas tree stood out on the sideboard, whose doors were obstructed by a bullish display case of war medals.
“Let me turn on the tree lights since you’re here,” said Bet.
Newspapers covered every surface: floor, bed, desk. Bet caught Susan reading a twenty year old headline.
“You needn’t think I’m batty, dear. I put that paper down for the bloody cat. It was shitting everywhere and he certainly doesn’t clean up after it.” As she said this, she nodded towards the ceiling. Upstairs, Ernest burst out laughing, probably replaying the tape of the latest violation on one of their properties.
“It’s my birthday, you know. I’m one hundred today.”
The cake box felt heavy, delicious and appropriate in Susan’s hands.
“He didn’t remember but I remembered. You should never forget the day you were born.”
Susan nodded as she started pulling at the ribbons.
“Get it open, duck, then sit down and I’ll tell you all about the biggest mistake I ever made.”
Traditional cake and companionship inspired in Bet an ingenuity that caught Susan in its spell. All the while, Ernest continued to look like someone who has just understood the pointlessness of an old man’s struggle against time and finds the whole proposition side-splitting. Then he busied himself with licking custard cream off the small camping knife they used to carve up the sponge. Bet started telling a story, only Susan couldn’t tell if this was going to be the telling of her lifelong regret or a cavalier ice-breaker plucked from her childhood.
Every summer when she was a girl, Bet’s family spent a week on holiday in the seaside resort of Whitbourough. They would drive eastwards in a car borrowed from an uncle on the mother’s side. “I was a great seashell collector,” said Bet. Ernest nodded and added: “Just look under the rose bushes.” Number 40’s garden reminded Susan of a boozy trifle: historical, dignified and messy. Half of it had been claimed by an enormous holly tree, whose knotted branches served as a promontory to migrating birds. Ernest spent a good deal of his time clipping away at this beast, which had the adverse effect of thickening it. The rest of the garden played home to a higgledy piggledy collection of old rose bushes, which defied nature’s cycles somewhere along the curb of their longevity and now flowered whenever the hell they wanted. Bet’s shells lay at their roots.
The summer of her nineteenth birthday, Bet had met a boy on one of her beach prowls and they fell madly in love. This she gave no further explanation to but despite this, Susan caught herself understanding. Helping herself to another slice of sponge cake, she continued: “I knew there and then that he was the one and that there never would be any other. You can only ever have one one, you know. That is why they call it the one. ” This one had tied a bunch of daffodils every night to the plywood shutters of the brown beach chalet where they were staying. On the last morning, he added to his bouquet a written position of some boldness. Susan asked Bet what the note said. “In a jist: he had no choice in the matter. The matter of loving me,” replied Bet. Susan was startled to imagine that a man had once fallen so deeply in love with Bet that he had forsaken the very idea of choice. She pilloried her lack of imagination internally. It wasn’t hard to see that Bet had once been a great beauty. Only a beautiful girl could grow old as gracefully as Bet had. Her centenary could be read in the features that must once have been her best: jutting cheekbones, silver hair and bottomless blue eyes. “I was scared to start a life with this boy. Because starting something means ending something else. I chose to stick to my course. And that, dear, is the biggest mistake I ever made.” Ernest finished his cup of tea loudly. Susan looked over at him and saw a man caught between unconditional love and a lifetime’s regret. The tea party seemed to have come to a natural conclusion, so she left them to it.
That evening produced a spectacle that drove several of the neighbors out into the street. Susan looked at them with suspicion and a renewed interest. The folds of the neighborhood had suddenly become visible to her, and she sank into them like a knife into butter. She’d been warned. “I want to have a conversation with you,” the world seemed to say. And when the world reorganized the information, she reorganized her sources. It was a question of staring at the speck of dew on the nettle so hard that, in the end, you ignored the nettle.
An ominous grey smear had stuck to the rooftops of Maris Hill for most of the afternoon. In fact, the dome of space itself seemed to have expanded to make room for the grimness. At about half past six, a red opening the size of a pinhead had appeared in the sky. Within minutes the hole grew plump and red like a blood orange about to fall from a branch.