A New Construction
by Sally Allpress
It’s September. The end of summer, but not yet autumn. There is quiet in the city parks and streets. It’s not raining, not windy or grey. Golden light softens the hard streets with hazy sunshine. Even the faint breeze is gently warm. Not a day to be inside.
I haven’t really been out of the flat since Adam left me. My summer has been passed in the cool shade of my living room, gazing at four walls in the company of daytime television. The shop on the corner is as far as I have been lately.
Desertion. That’s what my mother would call it - if she knew.
Desertion. It sounds so much more dramatic than “we’ve split up” or “we’ve separated” - those hackneyed, neutral phrases that carefully evade the concept of fault.
It has occurred to me that no one uses the term “desertion” much any more. It somehow smacks of dereliction of duty on the part of the deserter and powerlessness on the part of the deserted. Pathetic.
Work called several times and I fobbed them off with weak excuses; Adam had ‘flu, I looked after him and now I have it – you know the kind of thing. I’d said I‘d get a sick note from the doctor. I didn’t go. They’ll lose patience soon and I might lose my job. More failure.
But that’s all weeks ago. Adam must have told people, friends – but it’s beginning to be obvious to me that “our” friends are – were, actually “his” friends. Although I haven’t been answering the ‘phone, only my mother and a work colleague have tried to call. The girl from work actually came round to check if I was okay – that was an unexpected kindness - but I haven’t been answering the door and the answer machine is permanently on.
I did ‘phone my mother back and pleaded illness and then overtime at work. I didn’t mention that Adam had left. She lives so far away that she isn’t likely to find out from anyone else. Adam certainly isn’t going to tell her. They don’t get on. He never wanted to bother with family much – always something more interesting to do.
I haven’t been facing up to the future, or dealing with the past. But today, the sun and the peaceful streets have tempted me out, on past the shop. I need to be outside - at least for a while. Living in a flat with no balcony, you are either inside or you are outside, somewhere else. Today, finally, I want to be somewhere else. I need air. I have been breath holding for too long now. I haven’t told anyone yet. Denial? Not any more. I need that next breath. Need to force it in, down past the lump in my throat and through the constriction in my chest. Air - at last.
I cross the empty street between the parked cars and walk through the wrought iron gates of the tree-lined square of grass that is our local park. I don’t hurry. The dewy grass soaks my shoes and, as there is nowhere to sit, I amble slowly on and out the other end, through the far gate.
Just outside the park, I follow a broken tarmac path, softly bulging with weeds. I don’t really care where it leads. I just don’t want to go back yet. The path winds round behind some tumbledown sheds and I find myself in the garden of a derelict house.
The house is vast and had been, is, beautiful, even in its abandonment. Its dereliction is safely fenced off from inquisitive invaders, but the remains of its neglected garden are open to all. The paths are overgrown with dry, yellowing grass, matted in tufts between lichen-spotted paving slabs, but I can see the shape of what had once been a well-tended garden.
Against the remains of a redbrick wall there is an apple tree, heavy with unwanted fruit. The ground beneath its branches is covered in a cloth of worm-eaten windfalls and, further on, several golden roses climb along the crumbling wall, still struggling to gild the poverty of their surroundings.
I sit down on a stone bench in a sheltered corner of what must have been an herb garden, its woody lavender bushes are bent over in submission to the rampant lemon balm and meandering mint. The seat is warm and leaning back, eyes closed, I take in several deep, deliciously scented breaths. The sun is hot on my face and I am almost starting to doze off - probably the result of all that stomach-lurching, early morning waking I have been experiencing.
Easy, relaxing breaths flow through me. I’m beginning to let go of the tension I have desperately held on to for weeks.
Suddenly someone sits down, making the bench rock slightly. Startled, I open my eyes to see an elderly, elegantly dressed woman sitting beside me. She is patting the back of her grey hair, arranged in a neat French pleat, whilst her other hand rests on a large leather handbag, placed carefully between us. She is pursing her lipstick red lips as she stares down at the dust over the toes of her patent leather shoes. I almost expect her to bend down and polish it all off. The smell of Tweed drifts towards me.
“I do hope I’m not disturbing you,” she says as she leans back.
“No.” I can’t think of a single thing to say. Small talk, any talk – I’m out of practice.
There is a moment’s silence while I struggle to think of some comment to make about the day, the weather, something.
She fills the silence, nodding towards the house,
“It’s beautiful still, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes it is. We - I - live just two streets away, but I haven’t been here before.”
Why did I say that? “We”. There isn’t any “we” any more. Anyway, it’s not the kind of place Adam would ever have come to. Quiet contemplation is not his style. The woman doesn’t turn to look at me, but keeps gazing through the steel mesh fencing at the house, her eyes taking in the peeling blue paintwork of the grand front door, the boarded, blind windows and the crumbling, stone-pillared porch.
“I have. I once lived here.”
I turn to look at her, “Did you? Then you must be very sad to see it like this.”
She smiles, “No - no not really. Not now anyway. Perhaps at first…” Her voice trails off and leaves me imagining the old house alive with people; garden parties, the flower beds neat and colourful with summer blooms, children laughing… She interrupts my reverie:
“It became a burden in the end, you know. Wet rot, dry rot, leaking roof. I just couldn’t afford to maintain it. And the garden, well it broke my heart to see it, but I couldn’t keep up with the weeds, the digging, the mowing. Not on my own, not after my husband died.”
A burden. I know the feeling.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Couldn’t you have got some help?”
“Well, we were never blessed with children and, in the end, I could no longer afford the gardener, not as the house needed so much repair work. The council bought some of my land for the park, you know. That helped for a while."
There is a thoughtful silence between us. I wonder why she has come back.
“I expect you’re wondering why I come back.”
“Well…” I don’t really want to pry too deeply. I’m not ready for anyone else’s emotional outpourings just yet.
“This will, I think, be my last visit here. I’ve sold the house and land to a property developer. They’ll build one of those tasteless cul-de-sacs full of executive homes, I expect. I’d rather not see that. I’d like to remember it as it was. To see this slow deterioration saddened me for quite a while. I began to feel that I was deteriorating, slowly crumbling along with the house - but not now. Now I’ve made the decision to forge a fresh start, I feel refreshed – alive. You have to let go in the end.”
She certainly doesn’t look sad.
Her words echo in my mind. Letting go – with each new breath. I think I’m already doing it.
I break the silence,
“Do you still live near here?”
“Not any more. I’m renting a very small flat much further out of town. A necessary economy, I’m afraid.” She laughs, a deep, assured laugh. “But I’m staying here with a friend at the moment. Just while I tie up all the legal loose ends. When the money comes through, I’m moving to Spain. Several of my friends have already settled there - one of them even runs a bar and – goodness, can you imagine? I’ve even begun learning Spanish. It will be a new life for me, an adventure.”
I want some of that optimism – want to know how she manages it – she seems so positive. How am I going to manage a new life without Adam? Although night waking still surprises me with the stark realisation that he really has gone, I don’t seem to mind so much now. It’s not so much his leaving, but more the loss of any direction for the rest of my life that troubles me.
I realise now that my life was pretty lacking in direction even before he left – I was a follower really; just one of Adam’s followers. I had followed him from my family home to this unfriendly city, followed him to the squash courts, frozen my feet on the sidelines of rugby or football pitches and trekked around interminable golf courses on precious Sundays that I could have been doing something that I liked – something for me.
I glance sideways at my companion’s serene _expression. I would like to ask her advice, but it doesn’t seem to be the right moment. How could I casually drop it into the conversation? What can I say? My husband’s left me – any ideas on how to cope? I can’t say it - not to a complete stranger. Not to someone whose loss seems to be so much greater than mine. Not to someone so happily on the brink of a new life.
The woman glances at her watch and stands up, smoothing down her skirt and slipping the large handbag over her arm,
“Well, up and at ‘em. I must get on. An appointment at the solicitor’s awaits. It’s been nice talking to you. Enjoy the sunshine - and the peace. It won’t last long, I’m afraid. I believe the demolition company moves in soon.”
And she is gone, striding briskly back towards the park.
I sit for, well, I don’t know how long, just thinking about her, until I realise that my stomach is rumbling. That woman has made me think. She must be at least seventy and she’s starting over in a new country, with new challenges. I must do something to break out of this state of inertia. If she can do it, I must be able to – I had forgotten – I’m still young. My life is not in ruins; a part of it has been destroyed, that’s all. It just needs rebuilding.
I stand up.
This is it then, up and at ‘em. Back through the park to the flat, via the shop. I’m starving. Lunch and then the ‘phone calls; family, work and, perhaps, even the estate agent.
I pause at the park gate and look back over my shoulder – have I left something behind on the bench?
No – there’s nothing there.
The author is a teacher of English and computing living in East Sussex, England. She has written short stories for several years, has a novel on the "back boiler" and is now just beginning to send out pieces. Contact Sally.