We all procrastinate. Website, magazine, knitting project, TV show, something else — what’s your favorite procrastination destination?
Procrastination and I are conjoined twins. If I stop to think about this post, I’ll stop for coffee instead. So here’s a bit of fiction, vaguely on topic.
So what would you have done?
I’m not proud of it, but at first all I can think is this: she’s rich and I’m not.
She gets anything she wants, and I can’t always get what I need.
That’s what it comes down to.
She lives alone with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, plush carpet and more food in the fridge than she can eat in a month. I live in a council flat with neighbours so close we could spit through each other’s windows. I know far more about Next Door’s domestics than I ever wanted to know, and our bathroom’s got a damp patch on the ceiling like the map of Africa. Sometimes it drips when you’re sitting, but it’s best not to think about that. It doesn’t matter much that my fridge doesn’t work because fresh food gets eaten the minute it comes in the door – but I’d like the choice.
Her place is all heated and cooled. There’s a back garden as well, and a gardener to keep it tidy so she can sit out when the weather’s nice. We could sit out near the bins, I suppose, but there’s no nice weather at my place anyway, only boiling or freezing. Jamie’s already wheezing again now it’s winter, and Tess’s coat’s so small there’s a gap of blue skin between her sleeves and her gloves.
And then there’s me. I come in five days a week to clean. She straightens the bed occasionally, but you can’t do much with nails like that. I wonder what it feels like to have pretty nails. I’ve never had mine done in my life.
It’s not that I don’t like her, don’t get me wrong. She’s not toffee nosed or anything, and she’s up for a chat. But Blind Freddy could see the difference between us, though we’re much of an age believe it or not. She’s twenty or so and I’m not thirty yet, I just started early. My Tess will be twelve this spring. But young madam’s not got the worries I have, and worry ages you, no doubt about that. And it ages you twice as quick if it’s someone else you’re worrying about.
She doesn’t have a worry in the world, as far as I can tell. Maybe she was born rich, Daddy buying the house and giving her a healthy allowance so she can enjoy herself until Mr Right comes along. Mummy probably gave her the goods on catching a rich one and hanging on, and it doesn’t do to hurry these things, does it. She goes out a lot, but it’s not for work. She tells me sometimes about lunches and shopping trips and holidays in Paris, and you don’t get paid for those.
I’ve worked for everything I’ve got, and it’s not much. Poor but honest, my mum always said, and in case we forgot, there was one of those big cross stitch things above the kitchen table to remind us every time we sat down to eat. Thou Lord seest me, it said. My brother Joel always sat with his back to it, so maybe that’s why he did time before he was twenty. Me – I saw it at least twice a day every day, and I never forget it however hard I try.
So all this goes through my head, slowly at first while I stand there and stare, then galloping faster and faster while I take it all in. I’m standing stock still in her pantry, and it’s bigger than my bedroom since I gave Tess and Jamie the main one. There’s shelves stacked with food all round me, and then there’s the fridge that works and the garden with flowers, and two baths with no rust in either one. There’s central heating and coats in the cupboard for every season… And a fat roll of banknotes stuffed in a vase behind packets of pasta. What’s fair about that? I wipe the sweat off my hands and I’m thinking ‘If you can see me, Lord, you can see Jamie’s bronchitis, too.’ And I take a deep breath and start thinking some more.
I don’t sleep too well that night. ‘Poor but honest’s a fine thing,’ I can hear myself telling my mum, ‘but it won’t buy Tess’s new coat.’ But she just stares back at me – or her ghost does – with lips pursed that way she had, and eyes so fierce you’d swear they could burn a hole in your soul. And I start thinking about Joel and him sitting with his back to the cross stitch, and how he was never the same after he did his stretch, and who’d mind Tess and Jamie if I ended up inside… And I have to get up and make a cup of tea to stop myself shaking.
When I come in next morning, I’m trying hard to pretend that nothing’s changed, but I can see straight away that it has. She’s sitting at the kitchen table, for a start, and she never does that, at least while I’m here. She’ll sit on the bed I’ve just made, or lean against the wall while I do the dusting or the dishes, but it’s not like we sit down for a cosy gossip.
‘What’s wrong?’ I blurt out, but I’m thinking ‘I know what’s wrong. She knows I’ve found it and I’m done for, now. She’ll never trust me again.’ And then she turns and looks at me, and I can see it’s nothing to do with me at all.
Her face is a mess, and she hasn’t tried to hide the bruises with fancy makeup. Her ribs hurt, too, you can tell by the way she moves. She’s made herself coffee in the old mug I brought in for myself so I wouldn’t be risking her good ones, but her lips are so swollen she can’t drink properly. It’s dribbled down her chin and all down the front of an old flannelette nightie. I’ve never seen it before, for all I do her washing, and it makes her look tiny and not much older than Tess. And then there’s the look in her eyes. I’ve seen that look before, and it makes me drop my old canvas bag and make her a cup of tea with lots of sugar. I spoon it into her one sip at a time, just blathering on about nothing until it’s finished.
And then the tears start, and she says ‘He was in such a good mood when he came in. He’d won this big contract…’ And everything falls into place while she sobs her heart out and I stroke her back and murmur meaningless words that are supposed to be comforting, but there’s no comfort worth tuppence at times like this. How I could have been so dumb? Blinded by envy, probably, but not anymore. I’ll take Next Door and a rusty bath anytime over her life at the moment. Then she wipes her face on her sleeve just like I yell at Tess for doing, and she leans on the table and stares at her hands while she tells me the rest.
‘He’d brought champagne,’ she says, ‘and a big bunch of flowers and this new silk negligee thing, all frills and lace…’ She shudders, and I find myself thinking ‘poor cow’and I’m sort of surprised by the thought, but mostly not. Aside from anything else, frills and lace in this weather would do nothing for me, air conditioning or not ‘And while I’m upstairs putting it on,’ she goes on, ‘he decides to get a vase for the flowers.’ She stops again, and tears overflow and drip down on the table in front of her. ‘Why would he do that?’ she says. ‘He never does things like that.’ And then she’s crying like she’s never going to stop, but she doesn’t need to fill in the rest because I know. If I’d taken that money, I’d be on the way to a flat where the damp doesn’t rise and she wouldn’t be sitting here now. Are you happy, Lord?
‘There was three thousand pounds in that vase,’ she says when she’s calmed down, like she knows I know what she’s talking about which is fair enough, but only by a day. ‘It was my insurance for when he got sick of me. Who’s he to judge how I got it? He made me what I am!’
Well I wasn’t too sure about that, but I didn’t say. We all have choices. We all make our beds and then we have to lie in them, and mine’s none too comfy at that. I chose Greg over A levels. Still, he was good to me while it lasted. Not his fault the scaffolding fell, and I might even get compo when I’m old and grey. But I bite my tongue for a while, and then I say ‘What now? Will your mum take you in or what?’
She looks at me like I’m mad.
‘God no,’ she says, and then she laughs and I’m shocked at how bitter she sounds. ‘My mum and God are like this…’ She holds up her crossed fingers. ‘…and God wouldn’t have me back, even if mum would. And besides…’ The laugh’s gone as quick as it came, and she’s looking down a tunnel so dark I don’t want to know what’s there, but she tells me anyway. ‘I’m not going near my dad again, no matter what.’
So now I know whether I want to or not, and I suppose I do, in a way. It makes it easier to help her out of that flannel nightie and patch up her face with all the tricks we learn early where I come from. I can’t do much about her ribs, but she won’t see a doctor and they’ll heal anyway, sooner or later. He’s given her one last chance, she says, and I think of her place compared to mine and I don’t have it in me to blame her for taking what she can get.
It doesn’t make sense though, does it? You can do the right thing all your life or you can give in to every temptation that crosses your path, and either way you win some and you lose some and it’s all a matter of luck. And if the Lord does see it all, He doesn’t do much about it, does He?