How to get a life

New YorkNew York

 

 

 

Annabel had gone to the States and come back with this book called “Get out there and get yourself a life.” She had insisted she read it.  Despite her hatred of self-help books and their self righteous advice that only seemed to work for the writers she had gone through it and decided it needed another title- “Get out there and get yourself a man.”

 

The writer Kim Bradley thingy … something double barrelled who had been a high flyer in the stock exchange had met Mr Right – a brilliant neurosurgeon; decided that the cut throat world of the New York Stock Exchange had lost its attraction,  got married and lived in some gigantic house somewhere in Boston. Sounded like one of those irritating afternoon TV films made in the eighties.

 

Anyway when Kim had turned 36 her mother had been diagnosed with something serious and had said don’t let me die without seeing you happily married.  This had been enough to stop Kim from sitting down and waiting for Mr Right to come to her. She decided to get off her derriere and go track him down.

 

She had accomplished this by drawing a list of all the places where men liked to hang out or where they just could be found. She would list the American example and had helpfully included the English equivalent just to increase the transatlantic appeal of the book to other singletons across the pond. –

 

  1. Train stations/Greyhound buses/ Public Transport/London Underground
  2. Churches
  3. Supermarkets/Retail outlets/The Mall
  4. Hospitals
  5. The Jailhouse/The Police Station/Fire Station/Army Barracks
  6. Sports events i.e.- Softball/ Basketball/Football stadium
  7. Sorority Events/ Alumni Events for Universities i.e. – Association of Lawyers/Doctors/Engineer yearly balls
  8. The School/Cookie mornings/PTA Events
  9. The Library/Internet Café
  10. Bars/The Pub/Discos/Raves/Restaurants
  11. Theatres/Cinema Houses
  12. Self –help seminars/ Business world/Seminars/
  13. Banks
  14. Car Shows

 

By the time she got to 14 I was in tears. Of laughter.

 

“Ooh…number 5 looks promising.  All we need to do is to hang outside the police station down the road and look for any of the old Bill to emerge and go up and say to any fit officer….Excuse me…but I’m really lost and I need you to show me the way…

 

Annabel looked hurt.|” I should have known you will turn the whole thing into a joke….look do you like spending every Friday night at home watching Friends?

 

I thought long and hard. “Its better than hanging outside ….|”I snatched the book and read the list again in a mock American accent…”Train stations, churches, the Mall, hospitals, the jailhouse….Wow…my mum will like that …looking for men in the jailhouse…I can see shades of Jailhouse rock in there girl…..

 

Annabel’s lips were a thin red line.

 

Or whatever.  According to her mother she was too choosy or not doing enough to make herself look presentable.  Short of asking the next eligible male she saw on the street to marry her she didn’t know what else she was supposed to do.

 

She was 39 and she should be anxious about her ever advancing biological clock, the fact that she had been single for the past 15 months and that in the past few years she had only had one date which had ended in disaster – he had forgotten his wallet at home (or so he claimed) and his phone kept ringing during the date.

 

Not good.

 

“I’m out of here.”

 

“Enjoy the party.”

 

“I did invite you but you have to be such a party pooper!”

 

“It’s Friday. I want to sit down with my hair tied up in a scarf, in my old baggy dressing gown and eat lots of ice –cream while I watch footie.”

 

“You are such a stereotype.” Annabel walked off. “Except for the football.”

 

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Susannahs Box 2

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I notice that there is a spiders web forming around the door when I open the gate.  The garden is full of weeds and the neighbours flytipping- rusty stinking cans of beans, a couple of boxes from the fast food place down the road and a cat jumping out of what used to be our dust bin.

 

It is good thing Susanna wasn’t here to see this. She used to be so proud of this garden. I can remember how she used to shout at us when we used to walk on the grass instead of the pavement.

 

I don’t know why she bothered. It was only a bit of grass, I informed her once and I got a clip around the ear.

 

It may be a bit of grass to you, but it’s the only garden we have got.

 

I let myself into the house and try hard not to sneeze at the damp and musty smell that hangs in the air.

 

I stare at the Susanna’s chair.  Almost expecting her at any time to ask me to change the channel. I brought her a remote control device and she refused to use it even when the Macmillan nurse kidded her about it.

 

I draw the curtains and open the windows, making my way past boxes and black bin-liners.  I see old Mrs Semple making her way down the road and close the windows again.

 

I make my way upstairs and head for her bedroom.

 

 

There are boxes and trunks in this room.  There is a little box where our reports and school stuff were kept and a bigger trunk full of Susanna’s best clothes. I think she also kept her passport and marriage certificate in there as well. I had promised my daughter Anna I that I would show her some of my stuff; she needed it for a project they were working on in school; Education through the Ages.  Then I spot a box helpfully labelled ‘School stuff’ and rummage thorough papers yellowed with age, photographs and notebooks from a lifetime ago.

 

 Memories of St Agatha’s Primary dance in and out of my head in little disjointed patterns.  Little women in long black robes and white rims telling you what to do, detention in cold draughty rooms, being forced to drink every drop of the compulsory bottle of warm milk long before Thatcher prohibited it.  Then there was the food…we had to get school vouchers for the smudgy green peas,  steak and kidney pie, bread pudding  and fish and chips served in the canteen.  Good stodgy food – no healthy options like salad or pasta in those days.

 

I see some of our colourful artwork and  select one- a confused painting that I had done of myself, the twins and Susanna. Everybody was wearing black and Dad and Aunty Betty were standing far away from the rest of us.  There were big tears streaming from our faces, tapering away into a blue sea that threatened to drown us.

 

I never knew why Susanna kept this picture.

 

I pick up my report card:

 

“Sandra needs to listen more in class.  She is gifted and is good in most subjects apart from Maths.  Although slightly distracted this term Might be good for the caring professions in the future” wrote Miss Y Thornton now dearly departed.

 

At five I was old enough to be  ‘Distracted’  the term Dad left.  The twins were too young to notice then.  Susanna said he had woken up one day and told her that he did not love her any more.  She said she hadn’t asked him any questions because she had felt the same way for a long time.  I think Susanna was secretly relieved that he had gone. She said he changed the minute he got off the boat at Portsmouth.

 

Miss Thornton had been really kind and understanding.  Divorce wasn’t as common back then as it is now.  Despite her predictions I had done quite well in school and gone to college to study accountancy and qualified with my ACCA.  Having grown up worrying about money I had vowed never that my child would not have the same problem.

 

Susanna kept everything. There was a picture of 4A’s trip to Brighton , birthday parties, trips to the zoo as a family.I look at the photograph of myself, my sisters and my parents grinning foolishly at the Camera.

 

I take the folder and the books and put them on the broken dresser that Dad had ruined during one of his DIY enthused moments. That’s when I spot the trunk that Susanna had told me about in the letter she had left for me after her death.

 

“There is a big brown envelope there with some letters for you. Make sure you live a good life.”

 

Susanna had been really ill for a long time and when she went to the hospice she was usually sedated.  If not she became fretful, asking for God to forgive her sins.

 

She maintained that she was an awful wicked woman who didn’t deserve to go to heaven…

 

 It didn’t make sense but the Macmillan nurse told us patients were often like this; towards the end.  Susanna wanted to see a priest to confess all and we made sure Father Patrick from her diocese came to visit her.  She seemed a bit better after that but her condition worsened that weekend and she died soon after.

 

The trunk was my father’s wedding present.  Every time Susanna had a bit of money she would put something in the box.  It was her way of rewarding herself for the effort expended in looking after her family.

 

It took all her strength – and I think the fear of losing the house kept her on the treadmill.

There was also the fear of someone from the social coming to take us away if she couldn’t take care of us properly.

Samantha worked 2 proper jobs- cleaning hospitals in the morning, working in a clothes factory in the afternoon and taking in clothes in to sew to bump up the family income. She had a gift when it came to sewing and I remember how it fascinated me as she would turn the most ordinary piece of material into something beautiful with a few stitches, embroidery and a lot of care.  I take the key she left me and turn it in the lock and open the trunk to reveal neatly packed piles of shirts, trousers, suits, kente clothes, and expensive yards of fabrics.  I pull out a little pink dress and swallow hard.

 

When I was around 8, I got invited to Jenny Pollards birthday and didn’t have a proper frock.  We called dresses frocks in those days. Susanna knew how much I wanted to go and got some pink silk from Brick Lane.  She embroidered the hem, neckline and sleeves with pretty white flowers and even came up with some shiny white pumps.  My sisters were jealous because of this outfit.

 

We don’t have any money….so how come she gets a new frock and shoes!  It’s not fair!

 

  I don’t know why I had to go spoil everything by eating so much that I was sick over everything.  Must have been the sight of that table groaning with all the food we seldom got to eat anymore; cakes, jellies, sausages on sticks, ham sandwiches, and jammy donuts. Mrs Pollard was nice about it though and gave me one of Jenny’s dresses to wear for the rest of the party.  Everyone stared at me after that and when it was time for me to go home Susanna’s face was all squeezed up as if she was in pain.  She thanked Mrs Pollard and yanked me out of the house and when we got outside she looked at me for a long time and made a hissing noise with her tongue. “Why are you disgracing me like this eh? Do we not have any food in our house?”

 

I was about to say that we didn’t- well not really nice food any way but the look on her face stopped me. We went home without a word. 

 

I never did get invited to any more of Jenny’s parties.

 

Sometimes on Saturdays when Susanna had the morning off we would climb on the bed and watch as she opened the trunk and showed us her treasures.  There were laces, gauzes, delicately embroidered laces with hand stitched jewels and pretend diamante, rich velvets and chiffons.  Her wedding gown; all cream and embroidered sliver – neatly packed with mothballs and wrapped in cellophane waiting for the first of her daughters to get married.