The Weekend Read
The Important Places
By Clare Fisher
8th Jun 2018
She didn’t do it straight away; she sat awhile at the kitchen table, waiting for her phone, which was actually Jamie’s old phone, to load Google Maps. The evening sun reflected off the pasta pan, daring her to wash it up. But she would not wash it up. She would not be doing any washing up tonight.
In the six weeks since she’d dropped Jamie and top layer of detritus from his room at a prison-like accommodation block all the way down in Bristol — why did he have to go all the way down to Bristol? Did they not have Economics degrees nearer to home? — she’d spent a good proportion of her days finding out the exact distance from this house to all the important places.
‘Did you know,’ she told Jamie, the second time she called to see how he was, ‘That it’s 3.3 miles to your school but only 0.7 to your Primary School? It never seemed like such a difference. Maybe it was just that your legs grew.’ At this Jamie groaned and mumbled something about the laundry (though when she’d been to visit he didn’t even know where the laundry room was). When he hung up, she’d no clearer an idea of his life down there than before she’d rung.
She began to type in the cinema; then she remembered it had turned into a shop selling discount sportswear which gifted you with a rash then fell apart. The shop had closed down and was now empty. There was a multiplex on the other side of town, but the one time they’d tried to go, last year, the three of them, they’d sat in traffic for almost an hour only to arrive once the film had sold out. She’d suggested it a few times since then, but Brian just did his classic ‘mmmm’, gulping and swallowing as if he were rolling her words around in his mouth and they did not taste good, they were bland or overcooked or over-salted, and said, why didn’t they watch one of their DVDs, which they’d seen before and so were guaranteed to like? ‘I will not pay £10 plus god knows how much for parking to see a film I can’t even be sure I’ll like.’
Which meant that the only place, not including the supermarket — the supermarket wasn’t really a place — that was important to her, not when she was the Mum of twins and then the twins and Jamie and then, once they began to insist on separate names, Jacinta and Jenny and Jamie, then, for the last few years, just Jamie, but now, now that she was Mum of three grown up people who strode out in the world as if they’d never had a Mum, as if they’d sprung into adult life fully-formed, was the station. At the station, there were boards and timetables and even an information desk (mostly empty, but a nice thought). There were loud-speakers that spoke over one another, so that it wasn’t clear who was going where, or when. There was an Upper Crust and a Starbucks. There were trains to the places her children lived. There were even trains to other places; places where all the children belonged to other people.
She typed it in: 2.7 miles. Google said it would take 42 minutes to walk. Which meant it would probably take her around 49. She never seemed to get herself from one place to another as quickly as Google predicted, but she supposed that didn’t matter; there was no rush.
Except there was a bit. And Google’s route was via the ring road and walking by the ring road made her want to die or wonder whether she’d already done it without noticing and would stay trapped forever in this not-quite-a-place where things were too grey and too loud and too fast. Not being a driver —after failing the test four times, she refused to take it again— she’d spent more time than she’d have liked walking next to or over or under the ringroad.
Google opted for the underpass, which was the worst; it didn’t zip from one side of the road to the other — did Google know how far that was? Probably not — but zigzagged right up towards the hospital, popping you out by a giant recycling bin, which was meant only for paper, but was always bursting with cans, bottles, plastic bags, shoes and other silly things that people could not possibly bear to have in their lives a moment longer — not even as long as it took them to reach a normal bin.
Once, in the very middle of the underpass, the place where, if you stopped, you couldn’t see where you went in or where you’d come out, she’d seen a dead dog’s head. Some sick soul had lopped it clean off; it’s eyes were open and its tongue lolling out, as if it had been expecting someone to throw it a stick or pat it’s back, not this. She’d actually forgotten about the dog in the few years since she’d seen it. Yet as she sat at the table, the evening sun shifting so that it no longer caught the pasta pot, but poked at her eyes, the memory felt so much more real than all of the things, big and small, that had happened since. She closed her eyes. The dog’s face grew clearer; she could see its tongue, how pink it was; how like life. If she left now, she’d approach the underpass just as the sun set, an hour which was universally acknowledged to be dangerous, especially for a lone woman, especially on the canal. There was no question she’d end up seeing another dead dog. Or worse.
She’d not just witness the evidence of human cruelty; she’d be the evidence, i.e. the dead dog. She wasn’t exactly happy with her life as it was but she didn’t want to be dead. Especially not a dead dog. Not that. No.
The Archers theme tune interrupted her thoughts. It came from the direction of the papers, which was strange, because the radio wasn’t in the direction of the papers, it wasn’t even switched on, and the sound quality was muffled, as if the Archers’ themselves had suddenly grown worried that people wouldn’t like their theme tune and had decided to sing it in the kind of mousy voice she spoke it when she was worried people wouldn’t like what she was about to say, which was often. Disappointedly, it was Brian’s phone. Jamie was calling. Jamie was calling Brian even though he never called her even though she called him most days and she was almost certain that Brian didn’t. She was about to press the green telephone symbol when it disappeared, almost as if Jamie had seen her coming.
Jamie Mob: bet you’ve bloody gone out without your phone, haven’t you? Or turned it off. You’re worse than Mum. LOL. X
Brian was at his Committee meeting. He’d leant in to kiss her as he was about to leave but a coughing fit had come over her and she had to cough and cough and cough into her lap. He didn’t pat her back. He didn’t lift her hair out of her face. He just asked her what the matter was and when she didn’t reply — her lungs were all cough — he tutted and said, in the same loud voice he used to speak to his Mum, who was in the later stages of dementia, ‘YOU DIDN’T COOK WITH PEANUTS AGAIN, DID YOU? YOU HAVEN’T BLOODY GONE AND POISONED YOURSELF?’
She sat up. He was standing at his end of the table, the end where the papers were; this was nowhere near far enough to put into Google, and yet it was, she saw then, with her new, cough-cleaned eyes, too far. It was simply too far.
Yes, I’m fine! These were the words he was waiting for. Her lungs were emptied of cough but in their place was something else, and whatever it was, it forbade her to say them.
But he nodded and said, ‘Right!’ as if she had. ‘Have a water. I’ll be back around 9.’
It was now 8.25. If she set off for the station now, if she walked fast and didn’t get lost — she was always getting lost; the streets seemed to change shape every time she left the house — she’d be approaching the underpass around the time he was back and noticed she was missing but that his phone was not. He’d call her; she’d be scared; or she’d be being attacked by whatever had deaded that dog; she’d wimper and say how silly she was, she just popped out for a walk and she ended up going a bit further than intended… He couldn’t possibly pick her up?
Although how could he pick her up, how could he ever really truly pick her up when they couldn’t even reach one another from one side of the kitchen table to the other? No.
A round white ball on his phone screen caught her attention: in the middle of it was a black dot. It looked a bit like an eye. Like an eye that saw the things no one else wanted to see. She pressed it; it revealed itself to be Uber. Uber! Of course. Jamie had promised to reinstall it on her phone before he went; he never did. He’d said she wouldn’t get how to use it anyway.
Well she did. She did use it. She successfully ordered a cab. She grabbed her handbag, which was famously huge and heavy with all manner of things which did not, now, all these years and packs of tissues and umbrellas and paperbacks and bottles of water and packets of nuts and loose coins later, in light of what she was about to do, look unnecessary. She double-locked the front and back doors and she stood outside the house and she waited. Brian’s phone told her the driver was here but she could not see the driver; all she saw were bins, brown and green ones, and next door’s overfed tabby. But she did not panic. She walked, calmly, to the end of the cul de sac. And there he was. The driver.
‘Thought I was gonna lose you there!’ he said, as she climbed in.
‘Yes, well. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. We do live in a cul de sac after all. Makes it difficult, getting in and out.’
‘And you’re going to the station?’
‘To the station.’
It was only as the taxi whizzed along the ring road, so fast that she missed the underpass entirely, that she realised she wasn’t worried about the dog anymore. She wasn’t worried about its tongue, whether it knew what was about to happen to it, or why its head was so far from its body; she wasn’t worried at all.