I hear the young man in the next flat open his door, so I linger behind mine to avoid the embarrassment of contact, as I wouldn’t know what to say.
I’m about to go out, but once, on my way in, I brought my better ear to within a foot of his door, to hear a female voice sing: ‘From up and down, and still somehow.’
Young people these days do listen to old music, as we would never have done, and the sound took me back to when my hair was long and blonde, and my skirt freezingly short. I found my key and pushed open the plain painted door, closed it securely behind me, and hummed the song under my breath.
I’m waiting now to make my daily journey. Out of my door, past a window with views of dark brick and drainpipes, and down four flights of stairs. Concrete steps descend beside wheelie bins to the pavement. Then along to the main road and the local supermarket, its fascia a streak of red plastic on the Victorian terrace. From the vegetable stalls outside I take a carrot, a courgette and three small potatoes, to go with the quiche from the chilled cabinet inside.
The checkout lady says: ‘Good morning, how are you?’ and I reply: ‘Very well, thank you.’ I wonder which country is reflected in her accent, but I don’t ask. Her face is friendly and her interest sincere, but I’m not foolish enough to imagine she’d seek me out if I failed to call.
Each Wednesday I walk beneath plane trees along the tarmac paths of the park. On dry days there will be dogs and pushchairs; on wet days I will be alone except for the yellow clad man with a broom and trolley. Occasionally people say ‘Good Afternoon,’ and it’s nice to hear a human voice, so I reply with the same words.
* * *
I close my eyes while waiting for the young man to finish going downstairs, and I picture your face, wondering where you are now. Do you remember listening to Dylan through the night, cross-legged on a threadbare rug? Or huddling over ketchup bottles in a Formica café, while I listened to you describe your hopes and dreams. I used to nestle quiet beneath your arm, knowing you’d defend me as we walked London’s streets. When a shuddering bus doused its lights and stranded us beside the road, you hailed a taxi you could ill afford, to take me safely home.
We smiled at the chalk board in our pub, where the wine was Cot de Ron, giggled when our tutor used every cliché you’d predicted, and cried laughing when I lent you a dried out pen to write your mother’s card.
You called me the silent lady of Ladbroke Grove, but my words flowed across a foolscap pad, and you read my essay on the Repeal of the Corn Laws and said: ‘Hey, you really express yourself well.’ I blushed but didn’t reply.
A narrow eyed gossip fired prying questions, disbelieving we were a couple. An annoying girl with purple gypsy skirt asked how I managed the perfect colour of my hair, and wouldn’t accept when you said: ‘She grew it.’ You turned them away gently, firmly, and I lived in the freedom of your control.
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Of course you wanted more. Those kisses on my cheek, the embraces that felt so good even as I tensed and shrank away, a step on the path to something deeper. How could you not hope for greater fulfilment? Though I didn’t say so, I understood.
Your hand explored and I panicked. Your soothing voice sought to reassure me, and I’d already learned to believe in your honesty. But I couldn’t do it. I wanted to give myself, for your sake, but I couldn’t, and you told me it was OK, pledged your loyalty no matter what, and promised your care and protection.
Do you remember a flat where a tall man in frayed denim ordered us to enjoy ourselves, and a curly redhead squealed and giggled, too eager to please? Everyone laughed when I screamed on my bad trip. None would believe a few puffs on a joint could fuel such horror, but a world mundane to others is hostile to me. Summer sunlight burns my skin, winter’s cold sweeps away resistance to germs, and a flippant word destroys my spirit.
You rescued me, an arm around my shoulder and your voice filling my thoughts as I floated along the pavement, flying away from nightmares. I hope you knew how grateful I was. I hope you sensed how much I cared. Though I couldn’t find the words to tell you.
On an evening when Hendrix wailed loud at a party, and the neighbours complained, and a bottle smashed and spilt its red across the pavement, I lost you to the annoying girl with the purple gypsy skirt. I returned home, alone and fearful in the shadows.
The problem was, of course, me. You could have done no more. I didn’t tell you that either. I lived some weeks in solitude in the midst of an indifferent crowd, grateful for your occasional friendly words, but knowing you had gone.
A gentle boy with a flop of light hair fought his fear of rejection and asked me out. He struggled over a dry pizza to draw me into conversation, and I offered smiles to soothe his discomfort. The gentle boy led me to a bed sitter in Shepherds Bush, and I followed.
When we are in the wrong, we must act. I knew I must learn, and adapt, and take part rather than stand aside. My only thought was of being prepared for you; to be able to give what you wished.
I pitied the gentle boy for the diffidence of his kiss, and his nervous question about whether I minded. He checked my consent as he undid the cheesecloth blouse, and promised he would stop if I said to. Then it began, and again I said yes, and recoiled in disgust from every sensation, but said to continue, knowing I had to go through with it. He could sense my pain, my terror, and it was no pleasure for him, but faced with an impossible decision he carried on to the bitterest of ends.
At our parting I told him not to worry, but could neither reduce his shock nor relieve his guilt, for he’d seen how much I hated the experience.
I saw him once by the library, carrying Kerouac’s ‘On the Road.’ He smiled his kindly smile, and asked me how I was, but I lied and let him go.
You never knew the gentle boy, and you never knew what I had done. You too were filled with guilt, and tried to console me for your transgression. We stood with raindrops on our cheeks, and the lorries sluicing by, and you repeated the word sorry, over and again, but in truth you’d done nothing wrong so couldn’t put it right. We tried to stay friends, but friends need words whereas lovers don’t, and I had few to offer.
No-one but me remembers the street near Paddington Station where the stucco peeled and the drains smelt. I recall the fear with which I banged the black door knocker, although the memory should have been eclipsed by the horror experienced within. You weren’t present, so there was no comfort and no rescue.
I counted green pound notes onto a dirty table, watching my great aunt’s legacy and my hoarded childhood birthday money and the value of my grey Post Office Savings book slip away. I never think of what came next, but remember steadying myself against a rusty car on flattened tyres, as I staggered home scarred and weeping, with an untellable secret and a criminal act hidden on my record.
* * *
My next door neighbour is very quiet, but I know there’s music in his life. We shall avoid each other carefully, but I’m glad he’s there. He’s alive, and I’m alive, up and down and still somehow.
He must be well clear by now, so I take my plastic bag down four flights of stairs, and along the main road to the local supermarket. From the vegetable stalls outside I take a carrot, a courgette and three small potatoes, to go with the quiche from the chilled cabinet inside.
The checkout lady says: ‘Good morning, how are you?’ and I reply: ‘Very well, thank you.’
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© Roger Woodward, 2020