By: Franca Duym
‘Please seek assistance.’ She didn’t need any bloody assistance, what she needed was a bank account with more than seven pounds forty to its name. No chance of topping up then.
‘Excuse me.’ If there’s one thing she’d become exemplary in, it was saying sorry. It was as if he’d rubbed his Canadian off on her. She almost couldn’t bare it. Thankfully she never really got the fuss about maple syrup, and she rarely meant it when she apologized. She merely used it as an excuse to elbow people out of the way.
As if today wasn’t bad enough already, she was forced to take one of those bikes. It was too late to walk now. She checked her bank account and reassured herself: she wouldn’t risk getting a fine as long as she didn’t get under a fiver. The half-arsed way London’s government had gone about making cycle paths didn’t make the experience any better. They all ended in the middle of roads without a warning. Sharing a road with buses, taxis and cars meant that saying some hail-Mary’s before you chanced your way on a bike was time well spent. Thankfully she knew her way around and could avoid most of the traffic. The rush she felt when going downhill, wind in her hair, zigzagging her way through, made up for part of the danger.
‘Don’t worry babe, I’ll make sure you get your fairytale.’ Her ex-fiancée’s words resonated in her head as she pushed down upon the peddles. The ridiculously poofy white dress still took up closet space it didn’t deserve. Stupid. She used to be so cautious with money. Of course nothing could be cancelled, and it’d been too late for a refund. And now she was stuck working a mind-numbing job trying to pay off her debts. She’d never told anyone about the money, but he had known something was wrong. He always knew. He kept calling, so she’d finally given in and made her way to Ontario Street. After all, it hadn’t been his fault. He couldn’t move somewhere else just because she was grieving.
Riding from Lambeth to Elephant and Castle she saw that the years of construction work had actually paid off. A tangible, well-built cycling route led her to her destination. It was filled with other cyclists, dog walkers, and the absence of imminent death. The path separated the normal road and the pavement, there were informative signs all around and it was decorated with young trees and recent architecture. And best of all: no drilling. The only sounds came from a few cars swishing by, barking dogs, and whistling birds. It was almost like she wasn’t in the city anymore – until she had to cross the road.
Her city was darker than his; filled with students and single-parent families, the houses closer together. The buildings at her side of the city had a grandeur that only came with having survived centuries of architectural ideas. Being south of the river calmed her down, oddly enough. She’d expected to be more nervous.
She manoeuvred through traffic, docked her bike and released her bag from the rack. Then she took in the trees, the grass, the light that reflected on the finally-painted walls. Walking over to his door, she registered how much calmer it was now compared to quite some time ago. She greeted him with a slightly-delayed pat on the back; not quite a hug but almost there. He looked half-surprised, crinkling his forehead.
‘Saw one of them street-art pieces on the way over,’ she said lightly.
‘Yeah? Bloody kids.’
‘Quite nice actually. It was Pacman.’
‘Hmm. Used to like Pacman.’ He walked inside without inviting her in, so she followed him into the kitchen. He moved slower than she was used to.
A strange feeling of recognition washed over her as they walked into his flat. Strange, because nearly everything had changed. The walls had a fresh coat of white paint, all the furniture had been replaced with chairs and tables actually from this century, and it was surprisingly neat. It also smelled faintly of lavender and something she could only define as ‘clean’. She had grown up playing hide and seek behind the heavy mustard curtains and the flower-speckled couch, marvelling at the wall-covering bookcases with their distinctive scent. She wondered if he’d become this new figure who never read, or if the bookcases had just been moved to another place. Her old bedroom, perhaps.
She felt more at home in the kitchen, as long as she ignored the new kitchen top. Their stove was still there, so were their cupboards. She’d loved those for as long as she could recall; the beautiful oak wood with glass-windows so she could spot the food and the crockery. She always knew when mum had gotten snacks, because that meant she’d shuffled the contents of the cupboards around so that the cornflakes blocked most of the view. Mum never found out she knew, but he had known. It was their little secret, and he would always take the blame if she’d sneaked out a muffin or a cookie or two.
He took two mugs from the cabinet, and she was surprised to find them of the same size and colour. She should’ve expected it, with the new interior, but new mugs? What was the point? He dunked a teabag in each and looked into her eyes expectantly.
‘You get a cleaner?’ It would be the only logical explanation.
‘No.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘Jules said I should meditate. Can’t sit on the floor ‘cause of the darn back, so I clean.’
‘And that doesn’t hurt your back?’
Perhaps he’d broken the mugs. Or Jules had insisted upon replacing them. Either way, it wasn’t any of her business.
The kettle clicked, steam rising from its spout. He took it out of its holder and poured the water into their mugs with skilled precision like she was used to. He then got a jug of milk out of the refrigerator and placed it between them, along with two small silver spoons. She sat down on the brown stool, which creaked as her weight sagged the cushion. At least some things had remained the same.
‘I got some crumpets, you want one?’
‘As long as they don’t got any syrup on them.’
‘Still boycotting anything Canadian?’
‘I’m here, aren’t I?’
He stood up to toast the crumpets as she lifted the teabag out of her mug, and launched it into the bin. She poured a little bit of milk, very slowly, and watched it create little figurines, the deep brown dancing with the white, mingling their way into a creamy toffee colour. She almost called him to look at her figurines, but didn’t. He gave her crumpets with just butter, leaving out the syrup for himself, too. She smiled, grateful.
For a while, they sat together in silence, sipping their tea, nibbling on their crumpets. She indulged in them, it’d been ages since she last had crumpets and she’d forgotten how good they tasted. He’d given her the good ones as well. She felt eleven again, with the both of them sitting in their kitchen, drinking a hot cuppa and eating one or another delicious snack mum had brought home for special occasions. She half-expected mum to pop in and tell them off for eating the good crumpets that were supposed to only be for guests. Of course mum wasn’t here anymore. She hadn’t expected all these emotions after all those years, and masked her prickling eyes with the steam coming out of the mug.
After half the crumpet she studied his hands carefully. Veins had popped up that hadn’t been there before, and the skin had started to look more like dried-up sand paper. She wanted to look up and see if his face too showed what his hands betrayed, but that would be breaking the rules of their silent agreement. She had to give him some time to study her face first. She was sure that it gave away much more than his hands. By now it must show every worry, every sleepless night, and every loss. It probably told the stories of the times in which she hadn’t phoned him. It was the unfair thing about aging, turning men into George Clooneys and women into Shar-pei dogs.
‘It’s much better outside,’ she finally broke the silence.
‘Took ‘em long enough. It’s nice, though.’
‘I think so too. I’m glad.’
‘Yeah, me too love.’
Finally she studied his face. Much better than the hands. In fact, his eyes seemed even more alive, a twinkling in them she hadn’t seen in years. Age graced him. He’d had grey hair for ages, but now it was freshly washed and combed, and his skin seemed almost bronzed, as if he’d been on a holiday recently. She couldn’t imagine that he had. Perhaps he’d just been outside.
She wanted to tell him about her pain, her worries, so he could hold her and tell her everything would be okay. When she was young a hug from him could solve all her troubles. Instead she drank the last bit of tea, which had cooled off too much and left a strange taste behind. She tried to hold on to the feeling that she was safe here, that no one could harm her as long as he was here, but that wasn’t true. She wasn’t a child anymore. Adulthood came with the deafening responsibility of solving your own problems.
After a while she announced that she had to be off; work called. Perhaps she could push work about the cheque, or perhaps she just needed to be patient and wait another day or two. She had some toast in the freezer and some canned beans, she would manage for a bit.
‘You want any food?’ As if he could read her mind.
‘No, that’s alright.’
‘Please, you’d be doing me a favour. Jules is in an Italian phase and I’ve enough pasta carbonara to last me a fortnight.’
‘Well, wouldn’t want to waste a nice pasta.’
He got some Tupperware containers out of the freezer and put four of them in a plastic bag. She smiled at him, thankful, and then looked away.
‘You come visit again sometime?’
‘Yeah.’ She looked up at him. ‘Yeah, I will.’
‘Take care, love.’
‘See you around, dad.’
Franca Duym is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of Westminster. Born in the Netherlands, she loves discovering the city by cycling or walking, finding art in unexpected places and food in every way and form. She finds stories everywhere she goes and aims to share some as she moves along.