It was autumn. Although still afternoon the journey had been spent peering at slowly moving red lights through clouds of condensing exhaust and the intermittent slip-slip of wipers. Now as she turned off the ignition darkness gathered silently around her. She walked head down, hood up, feeling plastic handles moulding themselves around her fingers, the carrier bag spinning one way then the next as it clipped against her leg. The pavement was thick with the slippery brown mulch of fallen leaves and the smell of bonfires wafted across the common. A thin mist clung around the streetlights producing a shifting yellow gas. Sounds were muffled and movements lethargic. Cars slipped slowly by on a film of dirty water. At her gate she delayed, unwilling to break the stillness with squeaking hinges; not yet teatime and the city was being put to sleep.
The terrace before her hugged the curve of the road tumbling erratically down the hill and into the gloom. Bending around the edges of her vision she was conscious of curtains being swished closed, stone faces bathed by the grey light of televisions, broken roof tiles, satellite dishes, bay windows, the whole higgledy-piggledy collection of guttering and skylights. For a moment her home was a stranger, a simple compartment in this huge connected structure.
She rattled the key into the lock, tilting it to the particular angle that would allow it to catch. She stepped inside, her hand brushing the light switch as she closed the door behind her. The softly lit warmth of the interior walls were a welcome contrast to the dark slimy surfaces of the outside. Two elderly neighbours warmed the house from the sides and soon she would hear the comforting noises of the boiler rousing itself into life.
She kept her mind occupied by these happy details of returning home as she walked along the hall and into the kitchen. She lifted the carrier bag onto the worktop and reached for the kettle. Standing in the centre of the room, still in her anorak, she listened to the sound of the water boil and felt the house adjust itself to her presence. Now she returned at all times of the day she sometimes sensed she had caught it unawares. What ghosts that had been running through rooms were now slipping reluctantly back into walls? While its inhabitants had moved the house stayed still, preserving pockets of time in dusty corners. The blue-tak tears on bedroom walls, a water-colour sun and stick man hiding behind a fitted wardrobe, a dent in a table, a crack in a mirror, were all passing moments etched into the physical world, like voices pressed into vinyl.
Steam began to rise vertically to the ceiling where it changed direction aware of the presence of some subtle draft (or draft of some subtle presence). Through the window she could see the outline of the narrow garden, the fuzzy grey shapes of a rusting climbing frame and overflowing compost heap. Along one side a scruffy fence lent drunkenly one way then the other, while a brutally straight line of six-foot high boards marked the other side of the territory. What further anti-cat measures (minefields, tripwires perhaps) lay waiting beyond? As if summoned by her thoughts Rahel, green eyes and a flicking tail, appeared on the window ledge, her silent meows making small circles of condensation. Smiling, she unlocked the door. The cat padded in, figures of eight around her feet represented by muddy paw prints on the kitchen floor. The kettle worked itself towards a crescendo, beads of perspiration appeared on its sides and it shook violently unable to contain the bubbling pressure inside. Abruptly it finished, sat back on the filament and turned itself off.
She reached up to the top cupboards for the coffee jar and bent down for those that contained the mugs. Here she paused, confused by the vast number of assorted cup, mugs and beakers that stared blankly back at her. Why did she have so many? Where had they come from? She sighed as she straightened pulling out a standard shaped mug with handle; colour - light blue; design - three letters emblazoned in gold, S U E.
She took off her coat and laid it over the back of the oak kitchen chair and sat down. She let her feet slip out of her shoes and raised them onto the fitted bench across the other side of the table. Above the bench were shelves supporting decorative plates in wire stands, a Charles and Diana mug (more mugs!), and a collection of photographs showing either madly grinning or defiantly sulky children (both on the verge of crying). As she looked the image of a growing family seemed to slowly recede to reveal the image of a shrinking woman.
There was the sudden sound of water flooding into a drain as somewhere nearby a plug was pulled from a sink, a toilet was flushed or maybe a washing machine emptied itself and she realised that her coffee had gone cold. She moved to the sink and ran the hot water. Staring out into darkness she listened to the succession of far-off bangs and shudders from the network of pipes. Bathed in yellow light hovering over the gloom of the garden she looked in at a woman repeatedly working a tea towel around the inside of a mug. Who was she? Why was she so miserable?
She shook herself and took out the plug. Slipped away again into nothing time (that time that flowed into the gaps between the things you did). Wouldn't a wasted minute become a wasted hour, wasted hours become wasted days? Where could she be now if she hadn't been doing, what? - making tea, sitting in traffic jams, reading the local paper, standing in a supermarket queue. Best avoided, the thought of her life draining into these moments.
She unpacked the carrier bag. She put away the milk, the orange, the biscuits and the cat food, then struggled to slide the two pizza's into an already crowded freezer spraying tiny shards of ice across the floor. An overflowing collection of polythene bags scrunched inside other polythene bags in the bottom of a cupboard was her commitment to recycling. When it was opened a white plastic avalanche slid towards her. She threw in the latest addition and slammed the door. A lone bag made a break for freedom and buoyed by the swish of air it lifted across the room like a jellyfish. Two pairs of eyes followed its progress over the spice rack and breadboard until it was caught on a bottle of olive oil.
The oak bench was not just a foot rest. She had made this discovery during a rigorous cleaning session one New Year. Under the lip of the removable cushioned seat she had found a small catch, rusty enough to break two nails. Eventually it yielded and raised to reveal a dark, hollow chest. Despite a few moments when her heartbeat seemed to fill the house, it proved to contain nothing more exciting than a pile of old newspapers - more dirtiness to clean. It was, she decided, an ideal place to store tablecloths and tea towels, but steadily it began to swallow bedding, pillowcases and blankets of various sorts. Really, it was ridiculous to think that no one else was aware of its existence (was she the only one ever to change a bed, lay a table?) Still, she always thought of it as hers, and, when alone in the house, she opened it, she experienced a flush of childish excitement. She felt it rise now as her fingers fumbled beneath soft layers of folded cotton searching for the sharp cold of a shiny metal toffee tin.
She put the tin on the table. Inside lay a medal from the Polish Airforce; a commemorative coin; a pebble taken from Ilfracomb beach in 1978 (could she really remember the heavy heat of that day or did she need the proof of the pebble to tell her she had been there); a present bought but never given; and inside a neatly folded bag, three envelopes. She glanced around the room, from somewhere inside a wall a pipe clanked - the house clearing its throat - and took out the top envelope.
An antelope leapt across a colourful stamp. It looked startled as antelopes often do caught in the sights of the black postmark. The paper inside was thick and cream-coloured, it had a blue letterhead and the date in the top right hand corner was July 2000. As she let her eyes wander over the page she noticed it was just a little crumpled, stiff in places, as if it had been wetted then dried.
This must be something of a surprise. If, that is, this letter gets to you. I remembered your address, of course, but then it suddenly struck me that maybe you had moved and I didn't know and anyway the post round here isn't exactly reliable. So perhaps I am only writing a letter to myself.
Really now that I've started I can't think what it was I wanted to say. I think it was just the act of writing that was important, just to feel as if I was still in contact with things, although I guess a blank piece of paper in an envelope would have seemed a little strange.
I've really no need to ask how things are with you. It all seems to have worked out pretty much as you planned. But still I hope you are both healthy and happy.
I am afraid I've done nothing very exciting to tell you about. Here is just an endless succession of long boring tasks, and then there's the heat and the clouds of flies that rise from the river and make everything twice as hard. But this evening as I washed and dried my clothes suddenly there was this feeling of satisfaction. Strange, five months of toil and worry then calm descends as welcome and unexpected as an ice-cream van clattering through the bush.
Maybe that's why I am writing this letter. Perhaps it's thinking about England in the summer, perhaps it's the sounds of the river at night but my mind wandered back to the place of long afternoons, listening to Pink Moon and Lay Lady Lay. Can you still find a way back to the taste of cheap wine, the feel of grass between your fingers and a world that was all shimmering reflections?
All those people disappeared into the world. How would they be recognised now - perhaps only by the sound of their laughter?
I'm afraid I once damaged the environment in your name and took a penknife to the willow we used to sit by. I can remember wondering if the bark would ever grow back. If you ever find yourself driving past one weekend . . . Well perhaps not, it's probably so sadly different. But I know your name will still be there, carved in the memory of a tree.
She re-folded the letter and tapped it several times against her top lip. From the hall the clock calling out the quarter hour, then a moment of stillness - time stalling - before, faintly, the clock in her study responded.
She took out the next envelope. While her fingers searched for the flap she looked at the Queen's silver silhouette. The letter was written on paper so white and thin that as her gaze fell across it she saw it as a shade of blue. The date was April 1976.
Do I remember that September afternoon when I first met you? Is it possible to remember the slide into sleep or the hypnotist's fingers on your eyelids? I only know that it happened because at some stage I awoke.
Some things are clear, the lucid fragments of a dream, a conversation over the phone one Easter. We both felt down because I was working in a stuffy shop and you in a sorting office. I hated it and asked you how it was that time moved so slowly. It's okay, you said, it doesn't matter, because it will end and time passed is all the same, and anyway, in the end it's not time that you're left with.
You told me to go look for happiness and bring some back when I found it. But you can't bank happiness. You can't keep it for when you need it and you cannot give to someone else simply by having it yourself.
I thought I would be content to watch the river flow past and drift away on the scent of water lilies. I watched days become nights and nights gently give way to days, believing I was shedding my cares when really I was storing regrets. Now I know that reading is dreaming, that dreaming is sleeping and thought inaction. When I wake I find that all I have left is thoughts of you.
The noise of the cat jumping clumsily onto her lap, the feeling of her pressing up and down with alternate paws, claws snagging loops of cotton.
This time the silhouette is not the Queen's but that of Nehru, a white head against an orange background. The stamp is stuck on at an odd angle (but still stuck after all this time!) and he stares down at the scraggly lines of a familiar address. The letter itself is written on a school child's lined paper, as her eyes run down the page they linger on the date, Nov. 1968 and the dappling of yellow blotches. What were they? Had they always been there?
I still can't believe you decided to go. Why go back to the grey, the dirt, the noise, the rush? There is a lifetime to do those things. I know you chase that dream of yours, but the dream is so sweetly deferred here. Here I feel as if I am absorbing the sunshine and serenity.
Since you left we moved further east where the earth here has a reddish tinge and so does the food. Today we met a group of Americans. We got a ride on the roof of their van and helped them collect firewood. They say there is an old man who sells the beads you wanted from the front of his hut, and eight miles of white sand.
I am writing this in a flickering of orange and blackness. This is the best time, talking and reading, the world melting away into words, although sometimes a phrase is so beautiful I have to walk around a little just to let them settle in. One of these made me think of you. 'Do that which makes you happy to do, and you will do right.'
The freezer's cooling mechanism rattled, then fell silent, and she realised that she hadn't been aware of the noise it was making. In its absence the air in the house seemed to hang with that same question; how would her life have been if she had managed to send just one of them? But the air received no answers and went back to its lazy circulation.
In time she would fold the letter away and place it back in the envelope, place the envelopes back into the bag, the bag back into the tin and the tin into the trunk. She would cover it with layers of cloth and place down the seat and lock the catch. But now she just sat for a moment, the noise of the cat's contented breathing filling the house.