John Laine heard the old woman who lived next door before he saw her. She was wheezing like a miner full of coal dust and he could see her in his mind, bent double over her shopping and struggling with the heavy entrance door to the flats. She's not my responsibility, he thought, if she can manage her shopping, she can manage that door. His head swelled with self-contempt as he heard the big door swing shut in the hall and when the knock came, he froze in the kitchen like a small animal in a searchlight. Maybe if he was perfectly still, she would go away. His head ached. She had smiled at him that morning as they put the rubbish out. She'd asked, "Got a cold, love?" He didn't know what had annoyed him more, her interest or her cheerfulness.
Why am I always so angry? It was not the first time he had asked himself that question and he supposed it would not be the last. He only left the house now for his food and cigarettes. Journey's out were too hazardous. He raged at the children on the bus, seethed at mothers on the pavement with pushchairs and resented the old people who claimed their age as victory and entitlement. Every time he went out, he came home indignant. He hated fat people, slow people, wealthy people, council house trash, beggars, drivers and shop assistants.
He peeked through the narrowest crack in the door he could manage. She was standing on his doormat, wiping her feet as if she had every intention of coming in. She was immaculately dressed as always, her hair an odd shade of lavender that sat badly with her deep, olive skin. It was difficult to age her, she could be anywhere between sixty and eighty, although a good look at her twig-like hands with their purple nodes might have suggested otherwise. Even from this distance, he was struck by her eyes which were so pale that they looked almost grey and metallic, like chrome. What does she want? he asked himself irritably, then lied through his teeth, "I don't want to give you my cold," he said, adding a note of resigned sincerity that he thought went down rather well.
"That's alright, duck," she rooted around in her shopping bag, brought out a ginger rhizome in her birdlike grip and held it out to him, "for your cold."
It was only after she'd gone, with the door safely shut between them, he realised that in the seven years he'd lived there, he had never asked her name. He knew that she worked in the charity shop on the high street, knew that she had three children, knew that she hated olives but her friend loved them so she always had a jar in the house. He had picked up much in passing, giving absolutely nothing of himself away, but he did not know her name.
Viv Smith put away her shopping and looked at the clock. She had found three pounds and fifty-two pence that morning. That was the best thing about being bent double: the finding of money. She laughed at her own good fortune. That's almost a bingo stake, she decided and laughed again, but there was no time for dilly-dallying, she was due at the goodwill shop in half an hour and the buses were unreliable. Still, she always got talking to someone. She thought of the little boy (a tall, wiry, bespectacled man in his thirties) she'd got talking to yesterday. He was getting married on Saturday. She'd have to put him in her thoughts. Still, judging by the careful way he had helped her off the bus, he wouldn't need it. He was a good boy with a good nature and nature would respond in kind. That was the way of the world.
A memory came then. At first she struggled to place it in time. Events from way back often seemed to have happened yesterday and what happened yesterday sometimes seemed like ancient history. She locked the front door, heaved the main door to the building open with a grunt and made her way across the road to the bus stop.
It was during the war. She remembered now, because she had made the boys identical suits out of a pair of old curtains and they were a work of art.
It was ironic, really, to have them look so much the same: they couldn't have been more different. Peter, the eldest, shy, quiet and short-sighted (because he spent most of his time with his head in a book) and Anthony (he would be her middle child, but just then he was still the youngest), as robust, proud and bad-tempered as his brother was placid.
She was standing at the kitchen window, washing dishes and wondering where they were and what they were up to when she saw Anthony marching up the garden path, his new suit covered in muck. Except, it wasn't muck, it was sewerage. He stomped in through the front door and handed her a bag of tomatoes. They'd been down the sewerage farm, collecting the tomatoes that grew there, some of them the size of oranges.
"I've done wrong and I'll take my punishment," he said, brazen as you like.
And oh, how the rage had filled her head. It was like that then, she would feel like an unexploded bomb sometimes. She thought of the hours spent pushing that needle about, closing the seams, each stitch as perfect as the last, making her fingers and eyes ache. Her boys had seemed like a reflection of her then and her natural pride as a mother wanted to dress them up like little princes so that all the world could say Viv Smith was a good mother and a capable wife. She didn't feel like much of a wife while Alfred was away and the discipline had always been up to her anyway. Alf was soft. People walked all over you if you were soft. That's what she believed back then, before life had changed her mind.
All of that sounds very reasonable, she thought now (there was nobody at the bus stop), but it's not the truth and you know it. He reminded you of your own self and you didn't like what you saw.
So she had given him a hiding that left him stiff and awkward for three days and while she was doing it, she had a peculiar memory of being at school. She used to watch the naughty children come in late. The master used to line them up in the yard and cane them across the hand and she had wanted to be like them, to be one of them, so she had come in late one day and stood in the yard with the others, hand held out for a caning, but the master just said, 'You again? Get in,' and sent her inside. Viv smiled at the memory now, but it was a sad smile of remembrance for the perverse defiance that had characterised her life. She was wilful, and so was her second son and she beat him for it, beat him knowing that it was wrong because she was not beating him for the filth on his new suit or even his pride, but because he was what she had made him and she hated herself for it.
When she was finished and Anthony had skulked out of the kitchen, too proud to cry, she wondered about his brother. She looked out of the kitchen window, strangely depleted of anger and swollen with shame and saw him peering round the fence at the bottom of the garden looking terrified and guilty. She marched down the path and yanked him out of his hiding place.
"You again?" she said, "Get in."
In the end, the bus was so late that she decided to walk the three stops to the shop. It was only half a mile. Ten years ago (when she was eighty) she would have bounced all the way there, but the years were catching up with her, as irrevocable as the past they represented. Most days, her spine and hands ached, but it was bearable, even if it did make her sad to see her twisted, humped form in the mirror, her hands held close to her body, as if for shelter from their pain. She had always held a proud bearing, her back as straight as a steel rule until she was seventy, the same year Anthony had died. Yes, life had bent her, but she was not broken. The stiffness in her body belied a new inner flexibility. For every reaction, she thought, there is an equal and opposite reaction. She wondered about her youngest son, wondered if life had set a correction to the lessons she imparted when he was forming in her care, wondered and made a futile wish for his continued existence. He was forty-five when he died in a senseless bar fight that he started. She had lived almost twice that long and most of her lessons, the good one's that bring peace at least, had come in the last twenty years, too late to change the course of events.
"Hello, Janice," she called as she pushed the shop door open. The heat and the smell struck her immediately. The shop was like the inside of a greenhouse on a blazing June morning, the air heavy with the dense body and closet smell that comes with selling second hand clothing. The floor space was an obstacle course of trousers, jackets, skirts and tops and the walls overflowed with books and records, boots and shoes, coasters and incomplete dinner sets.
Janice looked up from the book she was reading at the counter. She was a tall, fleshy, moustached girl with dirty blonde hair and irregular, yellow teeth. Her unfortunate appearance had not dented her confidence however. Viv never knew whether to dislike or admire her, she was so full of herself.
"You're late," she complained.
I'm nearly ninety, Viv thought and bit her tongue. She had never expected sympathy for her advanced age and she wasn't going to try for it with this young girl.
"I'm here," she answered cheerfully and made her way through the racks into the back of the shop.
"There's a lady who works here," said John to the sales assistant. He thought she was rude, staring at him with that uppity expression. "She's got purple hair."
The assistant pursed her mouth. He felt a wave of anger. She looked, he thought, like a moustached pig.
"We don't have much time to talk while we're on duty, you know."
He gritted his teeth and grinned. The assistant looked momentarily derailed. "I only want to speak to her for a moment."
She opened her mouth and called, "Viv!" He got a blast of bad breath. He hated her. She looked as if she wanted hosing down with a bottle of drain cleaner.
The ginger had worked. He'd looked it up on the internet, boiled it in pieces for ten minutes then drank the resulting brew with two good spoons of honey. He really did feel much better. He also felt guilty. His first reaction to the ginger was to think old wives tale, interfering old biddy but while he was drinking it he had a moment when her concern touched him. After all, she was the only one of his neighbours who would speak to him. He'd upset almost everyone else. If he wasn't pulling them up about the way they put out the rubbish, he was complaining about the junk mail left in the stairwell and on one memorable occasion he'd phoned social services to tell them the children upstairs were being abused because they were overweight. If nothing else, the old woman was at least clean. She tied her bin bags carefully and collected her mail every day before the letterbox was overstuffed and spilling out onto the hall floor. He never smelled her cooking and she had never asked him for anything. Before he upset them, the other neighbours were always asking for money, or cigarettes, or on one memorable occasion, tin foil. No, she was a good neighbour, he decided, and he had treated her badly. He would go into the shop and thank her. It was the least he could do. Neighbours, after all, real neighbours, should stik together.