The Next Door Neighbours

They are very odd. We never see them, even when all the lights in their house are on. Their car sits outside all the time, on weekdays and weekends, but they don’t appear to be in.

We often speculated about them, when we first moved in.

‘I think they are Polish,’ my husband said, as we heaved boxes upstairs.

‘Why do you think that?’

He shrugged, ‘everybody is Polish on this street.’

I thought that was a generalisation, and thought about going over there with some fruit tarts to be neighbourly. The oven refused to work, however, setting off a fuse every time I turned it on. So I gave up on that idea for the time being, making a mental note to do so when the oven was sorted out.

Three nights after we moved in we heard them arguing at 1am. So we crept to our windows and peered out. A tall shadow stood by the door of their sedan, while the woman inside, illuminated vaguely by the light in her car, spoke passionately, her hands moving up and down and sideways in emphasis. The shadow stooped and a hand reached into the car, but she slapped it away.

We crept back to our bed, and lay awake for another hour as the muffled arguing outside continued.

Three weeks after we moved in, a few minutes after my husband left for work, I was standing at the sink washing the breakfast dishes when I saw them. Or, rather, I saw him. He was systematically wiping condensation off his car from all sides with an ice scraper, stepping sideways each time he was done with the window. He was glancing around him in an inconspicuous manner, dark eyes darting from side to side. The way he did it was so interesting that I had to stop, turn off the tap, and watch. His hair was greying on the edges and thinning at the temples, a little messy.

Then he glanced straight into my window, through my blinds, and made eye contact with me. I was so startled I dropped the knife I was holding and it clattered loudly on the floor. My kitchen window was open so there was no doubt he heard that.

When he got into his car he turned on his windscreen wipers and his wife came out with a mug in one hand and a messenger bag dangling off the other shoulder. She had a secret smile on her face as she handed the mug to her husband(?) and got into the car. Her hair was thick and brown with grey flicks at the front. Her face was slim and olive coloured, her nose slightly pinched and her chin small and pointy.

The car reversed slowly and I fancied they were both staring at me as the car turned, and drove off.

I went upstairs to change and get ready for work, and when I pulled the bedroom curtains open, their car was there again.

Nobody was inside it, and nobody was around on the drive.

I thought that mighty curious indeed. I am having second thoughts about going over there when the oven is fixed. I don’t know what I might find.

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Sisters

Everybody says your sister is supposed to be your best friend. I think that is a load of tosh.

I love my sister. Of course. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her. I just want the best for her and I want her to do well and be successful.

But we don’t get along very well, my sister and I.

I know she looks up to me. I am not being arrogant here. What I say to her really matters, she listens to my advice and tries to follow it. I see her following in my footsteps and she would never admit it in a million years but I know it.

She turns to me when she needs help, and nowadays, what with being married and living far away and having a tonne of new responsibilities and a job, I cannot always be there for her, I know she feels the bite of that.

Being a sister is being in a complicated relationship. Many sisters have it easy, they get along and find it so easy to express emotions to each other. My sister and I don’t. We never tell each other we love each other. But we show it in the way we begrudgingly make each other a cup of tea. Or in the way my sister tidies up the room we used to share when she knows I am coming home. Or in the way I will give her my jacket even though we quarrel abominably about giving each other our clothes.

My sister and I tell each other we hate each other. But I don’t hate her. She annoys me greatly and I know I annoy her like hell too but we don’t hate each other.

I might give my sister a cup of tea and she will smile at me and say, ‘I hate you.’

As children we got along relatively well. We played lots of imaginary games together and devoured the same books. I wouldn’t say we were inspired by the same people. In our early teens we had similar tastes in dress and music, but hers took a darker turn. We are similar, but also very very different. How can that be possible? I don’t know. People say we look nothing like each other. Together we can be quite

My sister is struggling in the early throes of adulthood. She can’t relinquish the child within her and she wears adulthood like an uncomfortable gown that her mother forced her to wear. She is unconfident and hesitant, but oh so desperate to be where she thinks she ought to be.

Her aspirations are low, much like mine were at that age. Her associates are weaklings whose words are louder than their actions, and she projects their opinions disguised as her own. And it breaks my heart when she does that because she thinks she is so right and everybody else is so wrong and she is just mindlessly crashing through life and one day, like me, she will wake up with so many regrets.

Silly little girl.

But I know my sister. She can be feisty and fiery. She can be confident. She just doesn’t know how. And she is spaced out and needs a lot of prompting. She will come to me to prod her every step of the way in everything that she does. She needs to be handheld and it is frustrating, given that she is nineteen years old.

But I love her.

A secret part of me might be jealous of her. I don’t know why. I certainly wouldn’t want to be her, but I might be a little jealous of what she could become. Maybe? I don’t know.

I am an insecure person. I push myself and push myself to my furthest limits because I don’t want anybody to surpass me. I am in competition with everybody, even my husband. Some would say it is unhealthy. Who knows.

Do you have a sister? What is your relationship with her like?

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Love Letters #28

Did you know, you can remember things you have never experienced?

Or that sometimes, you can have a ‘false memory’, where your brain mistakes things you have imagined for things you have actually experienced? It’s amazing, some scientists did an experiment about it a while back and they managed to convince a group of people that they had a similar traumatic childhood experience when in actual fact they did not.

Sometimes, I think that our story was a false memory. Something that never really happened. It wasn’t so long ago that we were walking down the cold autumn streets, your fingers warm inside your red leather gloves. You convinced me so artfully that spending £100 on them was a great investment.

The minute we left the shop, with the gloves wrapped delicately in expensive tissue paper that you would only throw away, you turned to me with a smile and said, ‘Ooops.’

I remember everything in such vivid detail. The way your eyes looked when you were cross, and your mouth would set in one corner only. The way you would shove spoonfuls of cream into your mouth when you were mad, or sad. Pour it into a big mug and squeeze chocolate syrup on top. That was disgusting. I remember it fondly. I remember when you used to sleep sometimes, you would curl your fingers like a child. It was so odd. Maybe you felt safe?

I remember when you used to write, you would press the pen down so hard your fingernails turned white with the pressure, and your face would go right down so your nose was touching the paper. Sometimes you would come down and there would be ink spatters dotting your face like literary freckles.

When autumn came you blossomed. Cheeks red, hair alight from the summer sun, you would stay out for hours collecting leaves, and be so disappointed when I didn’t want to come with you. I wish I came with you, and collected leaves with you until my fingers were raw with cold.

I can’t see the dying trees outside now without curling into myself. I can’t look at all the leaves you collected and framed and piled around the house without my heart breaking into a hundred dead pieces. Over and over again.

You were so warm and full of life. I don’t know how somebody so alight with fire and passion could be so cold and still. It makes no sense to me. As all these thoughts rush through my mind, I begin to think we never happened. I just dreamed you up.

But the red gloves dangling over the edge of the dressing table, where you left them by mistake before we left home that fateful day, are a stark and painful reminder of what I have lost.

Physical Relief

Had a terribly busy week. I was travelling since Saturday, when I drove two hours to go to a party, where I burned 600 calories dancing, according to my fitness tracker. I then drove to the in-laws’, where I stayed for the next three days to get to work. I walked to work daily and it took a good forty minutes, and helped my mother move house, worked till 2am  preparing lesson plans and studying for my first assignment.

On Thursday I went to work as usual, carrying a pile of heavy books.

‘Want to add more to that pile, Mrs Sparrow?’ one of the teachers muttered as he walked past, then offered to help but I declined. After work I went to my mum’s and slipped on my stilettos, then my brother dropped me off to the train station and we had a massive argument because he can be an arrogant overly sensitive jerk sometimes, and he refuses to listen to me and he kept speeding on second because I told him to put the car in third gear, even though it was a HIRED car, and he has never had practise driving while I have had a good year and a half on my belt. He is so stubborn it is maddening.

I got out of the car in tears, and caught the train to Birmingham where I went to the loos to slap makeup on my face for another party, this time more sophisticated and in a restaurant.

Then I caught another train all the way back home to my husband.

I hadn’t seen him for a good three days while I was at work. The minute I set eyes on him, waiting by the exit doors with hands in his pockets, my heels aching from my stilettos, and my shoulders heavy with bags, a wave of fatigue washed over me and I sank into his fresh perfume scent and the cold of his heavy leather jacket.

I don’t understand this phenomenon.

It was as though the mere sight of him took my stress away and my body began to really feel the duress I put it under. As though my brain subconsciously knew it didn’t have to hold on anymore because he was there and he could take care of me.

My throat felt scratchy and as he took my bags from me, lifting them as though they weighed nothing, my head started to pound, and tears prickled the back of my eyes. I hugged him for ages before I got in the car, just letting the feeling of home wash over me.

I had never experienced anything like this. A second ago on the train I had been perfectly fine!

All day today I have been in bed feeling ridiculously lousy.

 

 

Alone but not Lonely

It is good to be alone sometimes.

My family went away for a week’s holiday someplace sunny, and my mum’s house is gloriously empty. Silent.

The silence is so loud when all the windows are shut. I sat down for a moment on the bed, and let the static sound of nothing engulf me.

It swept through my ears and pounded on my brain and allowed my thoughts to peep gently out then trip gaily down the lanes of my memory. Nothing to hinder them. Nobody calling to me, nobody asking me anything, nobody talking – anywhere.

It was glorious. I was gloriously alone, and not a whit lonely.

Socially Awkward

I called my husband’s phone at work and his work colleague picked up.

I didn’t realise it wasn’t him at first so I said his name, tentatively, because the person answering obviously answered it differently to how my husband would, except he wasn’t speaking clearly, so I thought it was still my husband.

So he repeated, ‘D’s phone, how can I help?’

So I said, ‘D?’

I don’t know why I did, okay? I just did. So cringe, I know.

‘Um, D is not at his desk at the moment, can I take a message?’

Oh my god. How embarrassing.

So of course  now I was thrown off track because of my awkwardness, so I quickly said, ‘Oh no no no no. It’s fine. I will call back later. Bye.’

It was absolutely not fine. It was an emergency. I had broken the night latch on my door and was locked indoors and had to be somewhere asap. I jumped over the fence and tried to unlock it from outside but to no avail. So I went about my business and then when my husband returned home I pried the lock open from inside with a knife, and he unbolted it from the door to tinker with it.

Still in his work clothes, still with his jacket on.

‘My friend told me you called.’

‘Oh, yeah.’

‘He said it was so awkward. You were so awkward.’

‘Okay.’

But he said it so accusingly that against my better judgement I just stared at him furiously while unwanted tears swelled in my eyes. He didn’t notice.

‘Oh, right, so everybody thinks D’s wife is weird and awkward, is that it?’ I lashed out.

‘What?’ he was surprised, ‘No!’

He hugged me, and got lock grease all over my nice clothes, which was fine, but he was lying. Of course. Because I was upset. I can always tell. When he isn’t telling the truth, his mouth sets in a straight line. And he doesn’t make eye contact with me.

But they probably all do think that.

I am not weird and awkward. I was just muddled! It can happen to anybody, right? My mind was also far away so I didn’t react well to realising I was speaking to somebody else in the tone I used specially for my husband, so naturally I would be awkward.

Also, D’s friend MUMBLES. I just thought it was D using a different phrase to answer his, hello, work phone.

Ugh. Am I overanalysing this. I don’t want people at his new workplace thinking his wife is some loser who can’t talk on the phone. They probably don’t care anyway but I am pretty sure D does, his friend and him go back a long way. I don’t want my husband to think he can’t rely on me to not be awkward in social situations.

Eh.

 

 

Jasmine

I knew a girl once, at primary school, who told me one afternoon while we were having lunch that if I visited her one day, we could go to Japan for a day and visit her father.

She was insistent that you could do that, so easily.

‘Easy,’ she said. She was half Japanese, and her name was Jasmine.

‘I don’t think you can do that,’ I said, cautiously. ‘Don’t you think you would have to fly there on a plane? And it’s terribly far away.’

At that time, at the age of nine, Japan was far off and oriental to me. A land of mystery and romance. It was not mentioned in any of the books I devoured, which, at the time, were all 1940s-50s classics about Western children who dressed well and had adventures, and a charming Canadian girl with Titian red hair. Japan, to me, was unknown, therefore un-interesting.

‘Oh, but you can!’ she was nodding wildly, her mane of thick black glossy hair falling over her smooth caramel skin.

‘My father is from there. He always says I should go and see him for a day, and we can have so many adventures. And they put up red dragon flags everywhere and we can eat dumplings. And I can give you a red silk gown so you won’t feel out of place. Tell your mom, she will drop you off at my place and we will be back in no time.’

I half believed her, because she was so earnest. After all, why shouldn’t it be true? There was nothing to suggest its implausibility. And Jasmine was so adamant that she had done this several times. The idea appealed to me; I stared up at the copy of leaves above the school playground and dreamed I could go with her. How exciting. And her father sounded so child friendly and accommodating.

When I told my mother about it later, I heard my voice sound just as adamant as Jasmine’s; it was my dream just as much as hers now, and I would not let my mother dampen it for me by telling me it wasn’t real.

‘But you can go and visit her, of course. I shall certainly want to see her mother again.’

We never did go. I don’t know why. I heard on the grapevine, and by grapevine I mean the chatter of adults unaware of childish ears eavesdropping, that her parents were divorced and her father had deserted his children.

As an adult, that explained Jasmine’s sad eagerness to visit him in Japan for an afternoon.

But you know, I will never forget that magic in her black eyes, dancing and alive, truly believing in what she was saying. So strong I believed it too, and hoped so hard for her. We all need coping mechanisms.

 

Do You Want to Change the World?

I don’t think one person, or even a group of well intentioned people, have the capacity to change the whole world. It is a combination of several factors, really. The first, namely, is that if one person or a group of people succeed in changing one part of the world, there are still the other vast parts to consider.

Secondly, the world is comprised of a thousand different mindsets. Is it even morally sound to attempt to change mindsets to the one that suits you best, however well-intentioned you may be?

For example, if you set out to change the way women live in Mauritania out of righteous indignation for their rights, you may be causing more harm than good. They might happen to enjoy that way of living and deem it perfectly normal in their eyes. Of course, they might not also, but the point to be highlighted here is that ideals are vastly different across borders and cultures, and something you might see as an atrocity might be completely healthy for somebody else.

So, changing the world is then a much more impossible task. How do you conform everybody to one single ideology? Would that not be a dictatorship? Wouldn’t you have to be a person in power to make any difference whatsoever? And what about those people who would stand in your way? Greedy politicians and money guzzling businessmen and contractors wanted to build massive pipelines and destroy the natures and homes and habitats.

And what about what you would change? There is so much wrong with the world that one would not know where to start, and how to start, and how to go about fixing what was wrong in the first place!

You might be thinking that all this sounds tremendously negative. Why would anybody even bother to try anyway?

Young people think they are invincible. Free. Setting out to not turn out like their parents and achieve better and higher and much more. And to an extent that is true. They are just starting out and they have years ahead of them and very few responsibilities.

What do you think? Do you want to change the world? And how would you go about doing it?

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Love Letters #27

 

A note slipped out of Emilia’s book while she was tidying out her dorm room.

My dear, 

Nothing is sweeter than your bright smile those cold mornings when I miss your arms around me. I can’t wait to see you again tonight.

M.L

Emilia’s fingers ran along the words. A romantic affair. She remembered it as though it were yesterday. Why is love so much more sweet when it is forbidden? Sweet. Painful.

Kisses under the underground arches when the rest of the students had moved on ahead. His hand on her knee under the table, while he played merry to the adults.

Sweet little notes slipped between the pages of borrowed books.

Glances above the heads of the laughing crowds, knowing smiles when introduced to each other by mutual friends. Her heart would surge with joy and excitement and a giddy pleasure. At the back of her mind she knew it was wrong, oh, so wrong.

But love was good, was it not? Love was sound. Love was beautiful. How could something so beautiful be wrong, then?

Her mind had been racing much too fast to focus on any words. Her legs were crossed at the ankles, where they rested on the other side of the wide window ledge she reclined on. Her eyes wandered the green outside the college windows. She couldn’t eat those days, she couldn’t sleep. That was, she told herself countless times, what it was like to be in love.

She saw him walking across the courtyard and her heart quickened. She felt her pulse pounding through her veins as she watched him stop and speak to some students. They laughed, and she smiled. Ever the charmer. Then he glanced up at the windows, and, not seeing her, hurried indoors.

She hadn’t stopped to think about why she was so special, when there were countless other young girls in her classes, some prettier than herself, smarter, funnier. She knew they were all after him, and it gave her a sense of huge satisfaction to know she had been singled out from amongst the masses. She was above them all, even though she couldn’t say anything about it.

Nobody knew, but they didn’t have to. Her confidence grew daily. And nightly. She would tiptoe back to her dorm room, wrapping herself tightly in her night gown. Slip under her covers and lie there looking at the ceiling, smiling to herself. She would be exhausted the next day, and when he handed her her assignments in class he would murmer,

‘Late night, Miss Clarkson?’

She would cast her eyes down and hide her smile, but joy would surge within her. And under her papers a small yellow note in his thick, straight handwriting.

Later that day she was going to Lord Warrington’s ball. Her whole family had been invited, it was to be a grand affair. She had prepared her red evening dress weeks earlier. Diane had gone with her and they had chosen matching shoes as well.

‘You will look positively ravishing, darling. Pity Tommy Sand couldn’t take you.’

‘Oh,’ Emilia said airily, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter. I am perfectly fine going with Mother and Father.’

Diane had glanced away, eyebrows raised. She couldn’t for the life of her imagine how anybody could go alone, or with their parents. The humiliation!

Out on the dance floor, Emilia was never short of partners. She spotted him across the room, speaking to a woman with thick black hair. Surprised, she started forward. Nobody from college was here. They could talk, maybe even dance!

She excused herself from her dance partner to squeeze past people to get to him, in her hurry slipping a little on the dance floor. His back was to her when she reached out and touched his shoulder with her gloved hand. He turned around, and she smiled wide, about to say how good it was to see him and how they could be free, here, and would he like to dance?

Before a single word fell from her lips she saw his eyes widen, and dart sideways. She wanted to laugh out loud. He had nothing to be afraid of now! Oh, she was so excited!

‘Ah, Miss Clarkson.’ he said, before she could say a word, and smiled politely at her.

‘Martin! I..’, she began breathlessly.

‘Meet Laura,’ he interrupted firmly, as the lady next to him looked questioningly at her,

‘Uh, yes, hello, I’m Emilia,’ Emilia said, bewildered, holding her hand out. Laura took it warmly, smiling wide.

‘Emilia, pleased to meet you.’

She was beautiful.

‘This is my wife. Laura, Miss Clarkson is a student of mine. I was not aware your family knew Lord Warrington.’

His voice faded into the background, as her stomach fell to her feet. She murmured something faintly before staggering away, aware Laura was staring her her with a frown.

‘Is she alright?’ she heard her ask him. Him. 

‘I’m sure she is. Come dance, darling.’

She staggered outside to the wide balcony where she fell painfully onto the banister overlooking the dark orchard down below. She was heaving, and her ears were ringing. And it hurt. Oh it hurt like a hundred knives slicing through her body. She was numb, and the tears refused to seep from her eyelids.

She would have to pull herself together, of course. She would have to get up and stand tall and smile and dance and charm people, then go home with her parents and make merry.

She would have to get on.

Emilia looked at the note again, and crumpled it in her fist, throwing it into the fireplace.

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Longing

What is so divine about them? She didn’t know how to pinpoint it exactly.

Oh it was everything. Everything!

The effortless way their hair cascaded down past their shoulders. Their skin so soft and smooth and blemish free. The way their eyes were so clear and their eyelashes so full.

The way their bodies carried their garments. So elegant. Slender. Graceful.

No effort in the pristine way they put one booted foot before another.

Their smiles lit up their whole faces.

Their fingers, so ladylike in the way they curled around a gleaming glass or held a pendant up to their throats. Stockings. Gloves. Scarves wafting sweet scents on the night breeze. Red lips, glittering earrings swinging gently from their ears, tear drops of gold.

She caught glimpses of their fabulous lives before the curtains were drawn in the twilight, as the street lamps were lit one by one. She saw flashes of their finery beneath cloaks as they were helped aboard coaches. She was amongst their feet, crawling in the squelchy mud and manure of the streets.

She knew all too well how she blended in with the dark grey cobbles and the brown mud. Her apron was always soaked and dirty and her hair, like spun gold when she managed to wash it, was always a dusty hue that faded into the perpetual cloud that hung over the city.

Oh, how she longed to be like them. To be courted and smiled at. To have all eyes on her as she stepped onto a gleaming marble floor in the prettiest shoes imaginable. To have her small, rough, brown paws covered in a sleek satin glove. To carry a frilly white parasol, and have some dashing gentleman’s arm to lean on.

How she longed.

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