47 Thistle Street
by Dawn Wingfield
Len is waiting, staring at mud walls as he sweats, the tot of rum hot in his stomach. The whistle hoots; a cheerful, sporty sound. It reminds him of coming first in the sack race years ago at school. Quickly, quickly, Len clambers over the top and is swallowed instantly by a sea of noise and dirt and pain. He stops thinking. He puts one boot in front of the other, conscious of the dull steady thuds of his heart.
When he falls there isn’t much pain; he’s more aware of the stinking cold ooze of mud on his face. Looking down he sees blood spreading, warm and wet all around him, and he sighs. This is it then, what he’s been dreading, expecting, almost hoping for. Len closes his eyes on it all. What a relief.
Sunshine falls through the kitchen window as Lily makes toast. Vi’s letter is leaning against the brown teapot, unopened, waiting patiently for her. Something is different, the air or the light; it feels to Lily as if something has shifted slightly in the atmosphere. She is uneasy, and tries to comfort herself by pouring a cup of tea, eating toast. The crumbs seem to scratch her throat as she swallows. Perhaps I’m coming down with something, she thinks.
Vi wants Lily to come and live with her in Eastbourne, is eager for them to open a boarding house, the kind of place that families arrive at in the summer with bright clothes and buckets and spending money. Lily skims her sister’s letter and phrases from it drift at her…bracing sea air…lovely opportunity for us, Lil…at least consider…placing
Later, perhaps tomorrow, Lily will reply using her own well-worn phrases – wait and see, when this war is over, have to think it over. She doesn’t care to be reminded constantly that she’s a widow with no children at home, no longer the busy wife of a prosperous greengrocer. Lily folds the letter and shoves it back in the envelope. This is her home. She knows every crack in the lino, every creak on the stairs. Harry may have moved out but Len will be back one day. He will.
The house seems to loom around her suddenly, as if it’s staring coldly. She rises quickly, the chair screeching against the floor, and rushes upstairs to the bathroom. She feels queer, all disoriented, and takes two of the brown oval pills Dr. Barlow prescribed. It’s your change of life, Mrs. Spicer, he said – you’re forty-seven years old, after all. Women often experience headaches, nerves and feelings of sadness at this time of life. It’s quite natural.
Lily stares at the black spotted mirror over the sink, thinking of all the other faces it’s reflected in its time; Ernie, shaving every morning, Harry and Len, brushing their teeth before bedtime night when they were boys, standing on little wooden stools so they could reach the sink. And herself, searching her skin for wrinkles and pores when she was thirty, forty, forty-five. Lily takes a deep breath, applies lipstick and some face powder and goes downstairs. Her brown wool coat, hat and basket wait on the coat stand in the dark green hallway Lily once thought so elegant. It seems only oppressive now and she closes the door of 47 Thistle Street and hurries away as if escaping a prison.
She wants to run up the street and imagines it for a moment, how that would feel, the wind grabbing at her hat, loosing her hair from its bun and whipping her face. She’d be out of breath, as exhilarated as a child, laughing her head off. If only memories could be outrun and time undone, she thinks, trotting briskly in the direction of the High Street. My boys would be babies again. I’d remove all the booby traps waiting for me; Ernie wouldn’t die, Harry would not be bitter and moody, and Len would still be here.
“Oops, didn’t mean to give you a start.” It’s Ethel from a few doors down.
“I was a million miles away, Ethel,” Lily laughs ruefully, then gives her basket a meaningful jiggle. “I’d better get on.”
Ethel has a tendency to chatter for hours if she catches you in the street. Len walked out with her daughter, Nancy a few years ago, but nothing came of it, for which Lily is quite grateful. Nancy is a bustling, bossy girl, and Len is sweet and dreamy – dopey, his Dad used to say. Len was her favourite, and Harry was Ern’s. There was just no helping it. Harry is like his Dad; big and capable, a bit blustering and pompous at times. Len is gentler and everything hurts him more. Lily instinctively understands everything about him. Even when he stopped holding her hand on the way to school, she knew he still wanted to. He just didn’t want to be called a mummy’s boy, a big fairy.
The High Street is dreary, trams and shops washed in half-hearted winter sunshine. Lily feels as if she’s observing herself from a distance as she buys potatoes, carrots, tea and lard, swapping a bit of cheerful banter here and there with the shopkeepers she’s known for years. She sees a middle-aged housewife, drably sensible as she goes about her daily routine. Poor thing, she thinks. It’s her nerves, her change – she’s feeling so odd today. Look how rounded and hunched her shoulders are becoming, how gray threads and lines run amok through her face and hair. She’s old and dried up, as brittle as an autumn leaf.
As Lily makes her way back up Thistle Street, children are playing on the other side of the road. There’s some complicated ritual going on; two girls soberly recite something, turn several times, then shriek and run, their hair and pinafores flying backwards like banners. Lily smiles, then slowly turns her head away, looking towards her own house. Ethel is standing by the gate, waiting, and then she’s joined by a bulky figure, Mrs. Corbett. They aren’t waiting to chat.
Lily hears each breath she takes pulled noisily into her lungs, then rasping from her nostrils. Her heartbeat and footsteps air doomed thuds on the pavement. Ethel and Mrs. Corbett wait, watching her, still and unsmiling. Lily knows the routine by heart, has participated in it herself at times when a telegram or letter has arrived at an empty house. There will be a silence, a cry, then a dreadful howling as a woman is helped into her home by neighbours. Cups of tea, hysteria, a call to Dr. Barlow.
Lily wants to turn and run but plods on grimly. Then stops.
Slowly, Ethel hands her the envelope.
“We should go inside,” Mrs. Corbett advises quietly, but Lily opens the letter there by the gate, ripping it open and exposing the words.
Potatoes and carrots tumble to the ground and roll merrily away as Lily tries to make a run for it. There is a brief moment she’d like to last forever, when the wind slaps her face and plucks at her hat, but Ethel is quick.
“Get her keys from the basket, Mrs. Corbett – hurry, for God’s sake.”
There’s a scuffle and a weird, high-pitched sound comes streaming from Lily’s mouth. Mars Corbett manages to get the door open, crying herself as she pushes Lily inside.
The two little girls across the street stop playing and stand watching in blank silence. Their mother hurries into the street and guides them inside, out of respect. She’d heard all the noise and looked out from the parlour window. It must be that Len Spicer, such a nice boy he was, what a shame. She closes the door behind her girls and the street is quiet.
Dawn Wingfield lives in Colorado with her husband and 4 children. Her short stories have been published online by Espresso Fiction and Mocha Memoirs. Contact Dawn.