In this extract from ELIZABETH IS MISSING an absent-minded Maud is struggling to remember something important about her friend Elizabeth.
‘You know there was an old woman mugged around here?’ Carla says, letting her long black ponytail snake over one shoulder. ‘Well, actually, it was Weymouth, but it could have been here. So you see, you can’t be too careful. They found her with half her face smashed in.’
This last bit is said in a hushed voice, but hearing isn’t one of my problems. I wish Carla wouldn’t tell me these things; they leave me with an uneasy feeling long after I’ve forgotten the stories themselves. I shudder and look out of the window. I can’t think which direction Weymouth is in. A bird flies by.
‘Have I got enough eggs?’
‘Plenty, so you don’t have to go out today.’
She picks up the carers’ folder, nodding at me, keeping eye contact until I nod back. I feel like I’m at school. There was something in my head a moment ago, a story, but I’ve lost the thread of it now. Once upon a time, is that how it started? Once upon a time in a deep, dark forest, there lived an old, old woman named Maud. I can’t think what the next bit should be. Something about waiting for her daughter to come and visit, perhaps. It’s a shame I don’t live in a nice little cottage in a dark forest, I could just fancy that. And my granddaughter might bring me food in a basket.
A bang, somewhere in the house, makes my eyes skitter across the sitting room, there’s an animal, an animal for wearing outside, lying over the arm of the settee. It’s Carla’s. She never hangs it up, worried she’ll forget it, I expect. I can’t help staring at it, sure it will move, scurry away to a corner, or eat me up and take my place. And Katy will have to remark on its big eyes, its big teeth.
‘All these tins of peaches!’ Carla shouts from the kitchen. Carla the carer. ‘Carers’ is what they call them. ‘You must stop buying food,’ she calls again. I can hear the scrape of tins against my Formica worktop. ‘You have enough for an army.’
Enough food. You can never have enough. Most of it seems to go missing anyway, and can’t be found even after I’ve bought it. I don’t know who’s eating it all. My daughter’s the same. ‘No more cans, Mum,’ she says, going through my cupboards at every opportunity. I think she must be feeding someone. Half the stuff disappears home with her, and then she wonders why I need to go shopping again. Anyway, it’s not like I have many treats left in life.
‘It’s not like I have many treats left,’ I say, pushing myself higher in my seat to make my voice carry to the kitchen. Twists of shiny chocolate wrappers are wedged down the sides of the chair; they squirm against the cushions and I flick them away. My husband, Patrick, used to tell me off for eating sweets. I ate them a lot at home. It was nice to be able to have a sherbet lemon or a caramel cup when I wanted, as we weren’t allowed them at the exchange – no one wants to speak to a telephonist who’s got her mouth full. But he said they’d ruin my teeth. I always suspected he was more worried about my figure. Polo mints were our compromise, and I still like them, but now there’s no one to stop me eating a whole box of toffees if I want them. I can even start first thing in the morning. It’s morning now. I know because the sun is on the bird table. It shines on the bird table in the morning and the pine tree in the evening. I have a whole day to get through before the light hits that tree.
Carla comes, half crouching, into the sitting room, picking up wrappers from around my feet. ‘I didn’t know you were here, dear,’ I say.
‘I’ve done your lunch.’ She snaps off plastic gloves. ‘It’s in the fridge, and I’ve put a note on it. It’s nine forty now, try not to eat it till twelve, right?’
She talks as if I always gobble everything up as soon as she leaves. ‘Have I got enough eggs?’ I ask, feeling suddenly hungry.
‘Plenty,’ Carla says, dropping the carers’ folder on to the table. ‘I’m going now. Helen’ll be here later, all right? Bye.’
The front door clicks shut and I hear Carla locking it after her. Locking me in. I watch her through the window as she crunches across my path. She wears a coat with a fur-edged hood over her uniform. A carer in wolf’s clothing.
When I was a girl I’d have been glad to have the house to myself, to eat things out of the larder and wear my best clothes, to play the gramophone and lie on the floor. Now I’d rather have the company. The light’s been left on and the kitchen seems like an empty stage set when I go in to rearrange my cupboards and check what Carla has left me for lunch. I half expect someone to come in, my mother with her shopping or Dad with arms full of fish and chips, and say something dramatic, like in one of those plays at the Pier Theatre. Dad would say: ‘Your sister is gone,’ and there’d be a drum or a trumpet or something, and Ma would say: ‘Never to return,’ and we’d all stare at each other for the benefit of the audience. I pull a plate from the fridge, wondering what my line would be. The plate has a note attached: Lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m. I take the cling film off. It’s a cheese and tomato sandwich.
When I’ve finished eating I wander back to the sitting room. It’s so quiet in here; even my clock doesn’t tick out loud. It shows the time, though, and I watch the hands slowly moving round on top of the gas fire. I have hours of the day to fill and at some point I have to switch on the TV. There’s one of those sofa programmes on. Two people on one sofa lean towards another person on the opposite sofa. They smile and shake their heads and, eventually, the one on her own starts to cry. I can’t work out what it’s all about. Afterwards there’s a programme where people run through various houses looking for things to sell. The sort of ugly things that are surprisingly valuable.
A few years ago I would have been appalled at myself – watching TV in the day! But what else is there to do? I occasionally read, but the plots of novels don’t make sense any more and I can never remember where I’ve left off. So I can boil an egg. I can eat an egg. And I can watch TV. After that, I’m just waiting: for Carla, for Helen, for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is the only friend I have left; the others are in homes or graves. She’s a fan of these running-about-selling-things programmes, and has a hope of one day finding a disregarded treasure. She buys all sorts of hideous plates and vases from charity shops, her fingers crossed for a fortune. Sometimes I buy her things too, bits of garish china mostly, it’s a sort of game – who can find the ugliest piece of pottery at Oxfam. Rather childish, but I’ve begun to find that being with Elizabeth, laughing with her, is the only time I feel like myself.
I have an idea there was something I had to remember about Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted me to get her something. A boiled egg, or some chocolate. That son of hers keeps her on starvation rations. He won’t even spend money on new razors for himself. Elizabeth says his skin is raw from shaving and she’s worried he’ll cut his own throat. Sometimes I wish he would. The miser. If I didn’t pop round with the odd extra, she’d waste away. I’ve got a note here telling me not to go out, but I don’t see why. It can’t hurt to nip down to the shop.
I write a list before I put on my coat, find my hat and keys, check I have the keys in the right pocket and then check again at the front door. There are white stains along the pavement where snails have been flattened in the night. This street always collects hundreds of casualties after a rainy evening. But what makes those marks, I wonder, what part of the snail makes the stain turn white like that?
‘Turn not pale, beloved snail,’ I say, bending over as far as I dare to get a better look. I can’t think where the phrase is from, but it’s possible it is about this very thing. I must try and remember to look it up when I get home.
The shop isn’t far, but I’m tired by the time I get there, and for some reason I keep taking the wrong turning, which means I’ve got to walk back around the block again. I feel like I did at the end of the war. I often got lost on my way into town, what with houses bombed to rubble, and sudden open spaces, and roads blocked by bricks and masonry and broken furniture.
It’s a small place, Carrow’s, crammed with things I don’t want. I wish they’d move the rows and rows of beer cans to make space for something useful. It’s always been here, though, ever since I was a child. They only changed the sign a few years ago. It’s got Coca-Cola written on it now and Carrow’s is squashed in underneath like an afterthought. I read it out to myself as I go in and then I read my shopping list aloud, standing by a shelf of boxes. Ricicles and Shreddies, whatever they are.
‘Eggs. Milk – question mark – Chocolate.’ I turn my bit of paper about to catch the light. There’s a cosy cardboardy smell in the shop and it’s like being in the larder at home. ‘Eggs, milk, chocolate. Eggs, milk, chocolate.’ I say the words, but I can’t quite think what the things look like. Could they be in any of the boxes in front of me? I carry on muttering the list under my breath as I shuffle about the shop, but the words begin to lose meaning and are like a chant. I’ve got ‘marrows’ written down here too, but I don’t think they sell them here.
‘Can I help, Mrs Horsham?’
Reg leans over the counter, and his grey cardigan bags out, sweeping across the penny sweets in their plastic tub and leaving bits of fluff on them. He watches me walk round. Nosy beggar. I don’t know what he’s guarding. So I walked out with something once. So what? It was only a bag of soft lettuce. Or was it a jar of raspberry jam? I forget. Anyway, he got it back, didn’t he? Helen took it back, and that was that. And it’s not as if he doesn’t make mistakes – I’ve often been short on change over the years. He’s been running this shop for decades, and it’s time he retired. But his mother didn’t give up working here till she was ninety, so he’ll probably hang on a bit longer. I was glad when the old woman finally gave up. She used to tease me whenever I came in because I’d asked her to receive a letter for me when I was a girl. I’d written to a murderer and I hadn’t wanted the reply to go to my house, and I’d used a film star’s name instead of my own. The reply never arrived, but Reg’s mother thought I’d been waiting for a love letter and used to laugh about it long after I was married.
What was it I came for? The loaded shelves frown down at me as I circle them, and the blue and white linoleum stares up, dirty and cracked. My basket is empty, but I think I’ve been here for a while; Reg is watching me. I reach for something: it’s heavier than I was expecting and my arm is pulled down suddenly with the weight. It’s a tin of peach slices. That’ll do. I put a few more tins in my basket, tucking its handles into the crook of my arm. The thin metal bars grind against my hip on the way to the counter.
‘Are you sure this is what you’re after?’ Reg asks. ‘Only you bought a lot of peach slices when you came in yesterday.’
I look down into the basket. Is that true? Did I really buy the same things yesterday? He coughs and I see a glint of amusement in his eyes.
‘Quite sure, thank you,’ I say, my voice firm. ‘If I want to buy peach slices, I can buy them.’
He raises his eyebrows and begins typing prices into his till. I keep my head high, watching the cans being put into the plastic carrying thing, for carrying, but my cheeks are hot. What was it I came for? I feel in my pocket and find a piece of blue paper with my writing on it: Eggs. Milk? Chocolate. I pick up a bar of Dairy Milk and slip it into the basket, so at least I will have something from the list. But I can’t put the peaches back now, Reg would laugh at me. I pay for my bag of cans and clank back down the road with them. It’s slow going, because the bag is heavy, and my shoulder and the back of my knee are hurting. I remember when the houses used to whiz by as I walked – nearly running – to and from home. Ma would ask me afterwards about what I’d seen, whether certain neighbours were out, what I thought about someone’s new garden wall. I’d never noticed; it had all gone past in a flash. Now I have plenty of time to look at everything and no one to tell what I’ve seen.
Sometimes, when I’m having a sort-through or a clear-out, I find photos from my youth, and it’s a shock to see everything in black and white. I think my granddaughter believes we were actually grey-skinned, with dull hair, always posing in a shadowed landscape. But I remember the town as being almost too bright to look at when I was a girl. I remember the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the pines cutting through it, the bright red of the local brick houses and the orange carpet of pine needles under our feet. Nowadays – though I’m sure the sky is still occasionally blue and most of the houses are still there, and the trees still drop their needles – nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph.
When I get home there’s an alarm clock ringing. I set it sometimes to remind myself of appointments. I drop my bag inside the front door and turn off the alarm. I can’t think what it’s for this time; I can’t see anything to tell me. Perhaps someone is coming.