The supermarket aisles were teeming. The businesswomen’s stilettos tapping out their staccato in the organic food and fruit sections. The school children collecting change and lint from cotton shorts, surveying the shelves for an affordable sugar hit. The junkies by the juices, assessing the security landscape. It was a Friday afternoon, when we wheeled out the discounted items trolley. One lurking pensioner caught my attention. She was mouthing the words to “Sweat” by Inner Circle playing over the speakers, fondling courgettes and tapping out a rhythm on her white blouse. Ignorant of the dark sexual innuendo of the lyrics, like I had been when I first heard the song in my early teens.
“Excuse me, dear –“ The decaying lady and her over-sized trolley stared up at me.
“Yes, there. How can I help?”
“Can you point me to the Milo?”
“It’s a bit difficult to find”, I started futiley, navigating the aisles with a crooked finger, “but I’d be happy to show you. Here, I’ll grab this.” I moved for her trolley. It contained only three items, one I identified as panty liners for the incontinent.
“Dear, where do I know you from?”
“I am not sure you do. Know me, I mean.” We were in front of the Milo now.
“No, no. I feel I do. Do you attend church?” Here we go. It started with an innocuous ‘dear’, it’ll end with us getting matching tattoos of Jesus’ face.
“No, I don’t, I’m sorry. Not that I have anything against those that do. I grew up with religion, I suppose, I just don’t see, you know, how it’s relative to me now.”
“Not to worry. You seem like a boy who knows where he is going.”
I wasn’t. I was working in a supermarket, having relinquished a six-figure salary as a copywriter to stack shelves, as a promise of sorts. So I could finally write that novel. The one with the beautiful title. The self-indulgent, depressing tale of a 29-year-old early success, who lost the girl of his dreams to…
“Wait a moment – “
“From the church. I recall seeing your face at our church. You were at that young lady’s funeral not six months ago. At St Bede’s. You were… I’m sorry. I’m terribly sorry. That must have been…”
“Very unfortunate thing to have happen. At such a young age, too.” She held onto the such, as if it were her misery. “Genevieve was her name, was it not?”
“It was. I’m actually going to a wedding at St Bede’s tomorrow. Her father is re-marrying. It has been a hard six months for him, too. As you can imagine.”
People have wonderful imaginations.
“I won’t be attending that particular service but I look after the Father in the small terrace next door. If you have a moment you could come after mass? We can have tea.”
“You know, well, I have…” I began considering the reality of tomorrow’s events, “Actually, I’d like that. Thank you. What was your name, sorry?”
“Like my late grandmother. Funny. Mine is Jeremy. Nice to meet you, Jane.”
“And you, Jeremy. Thank you for showing me to the Milo. I hope to see you tomorrow. It is the terrace next door, shouldn’t be too hard to find, it’s the only one. Come any time after the service, just knock at the front door.”
The next day there was nothing in my head, save a rounded, aquarium-like silence. Wind beaten petals from a nearby florist jumped from the pavement, crashing into my face. I fell into consciousness at the church’s entrance, pulled tight my tie and took position on her father’s side. He saw me from a distance, flashing a smile. The type of smile that said you’re not the only one who misses her. Halfway through the service I cried, imagining myself as her only true living embodiment. I imagined her eyes would have been clear, but unfocused as usual. Genevieve had forever looked like she was underwater.
Before the Pontiac pulled away I offered my congratulations. The mixed pain and happiness in her father’s face shot me back into the aquarium-silence. We held each other and didn’t let go for what seemed an inappropriate amount of time.
I watched the Pontiac leave on its journey, withdrew a cigarette and the letter from the inside of my borrowed suit jacket, and stole a position on the bluestone perimeter. I read until the fear of blotting the ink became too real and returned the unremarkable, folded paper to the safety of my pocket.
It took several knocks for Jane to come to the door.
“I heard it was an amazing ceremony. How are you, Jeremy? Do come in. I am boiling some water. I was hoping you’d come. Do come in. Sorry about the mess. Go on in - straight down the hallway.”
I entered without an opportunity to return the greeting, and searched for the alleged mess. Half way down the ordered corridor I spun, narrowly avoiding collision with the frail woman.
“Thanks for having me. I am not exactly sure what I am doing here, to be honest. But thank you for having me.”
“It’s no problem, dear. Just keep straight down the corridor, the sitting room is to the left. Sit anywhere, I’ll be with you in a moment.”
I took a seat in a large burgundy armchair and felt curiously uneasy, like the first time I’d seen a psychiatrist.
“Do you take sugar, dear?” Jane shouted from across the corridor. “For your tea.”
“Yes, please – one – thank you.”
“Yes, please. Thank you.”
Two minutes later the delicate figure set a tray down on the coffee table that doubled as a chessboard.
“Do you play chess, Jane?”
“No, not anymore. It belonged to my late husband, David. A great man. Very good at chess and the like.”
“Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Oh, please, dear, don’t be. Not at all. He hasn’t been with us for almost 15 years. David is with Him now, and that seems just fine. To me.”
“How did you start living here, Jane?”
“Well, after David’s passing, I was spending a lot of time in and around the Parish. I guess I was seeking guidance, from whom I don’t know. And as it happened I found a good friend in Father Geoff. When he realised I didn’t have much to support myself – David hadn’t been the wealthiest of men at the time of his passing – the Father took me in. As repayment, I look after him, so to speak. Do some cooking, a bit of washing, help out in the Church when it’s needed. On the day of that young lady’s service…”
“Genevieve – “
“Yes, Genevieve’s service, I was helping out with some bits and pieces. I remember your eulogy, actually. Stirring words. They had a great, lasting, impact. As you can imagine, there aren’t too many things I can recall so vividly after six months.”
“Why can’t I remember things? Old age, I suppose.”
“No – why did my words have ‘great impact’ on you?”
“I suppose I can’t put my finger on the exact words. More, I can remember the way you spoke. It was the most composed sadness I have ever witnessed. As if you’d made a promise to her to say everything clearly. Making sure it was heard. It is hard. Losing someone to suicide. Someone you loved more than anything.”
“You think it’s hard?”
“Yes, dear, I do think it is hard.”
Backing away from my tea, I stared plainly at this woman. There was something beneath the fragility and warmth that had dried up. Like a grape turned saltana.
“I have Gen’s letter here.”
“The one you read from in the eulogy?”
“That’s the one!” My tone pregnant with hollow enthusiasm.
“Will you read me some?”
“I suppose. It’s not, you know, much to…”
“If it’s all too much, needn’t worry.”
I shook my head.
“Look, Jeremey, I can’t wait until I see you again. Until I see your stupid eyes. And you say those ridiculous things that, if they came from anyone else, wouldn’t get more than an awkward smile from me. Like the time you talked about wanting to stack shelves in a supermarket just so we could spend time together during the day. So you could write a novel, and then we could move to Lake Como and you would write and I could draw. I can’t wait until I draw you again. I still draw you. I have a stack on my desk of sketches of you. I haven’t forgotten what you look like. You’ll forever be burnt into my memory. And it stings to recall you sometimes. But it’s a nice pain. A pain that reminds me I’ll soon be in your arms again. On your pillow. Smelling your morning breath.
Jeremy, it seems silly to say this via a letter, particularly after only being away for three weeks, with so long to go. But you know those times we’ve been on the phone and I’ve told you I wanted to say something, and just started crying? Well, I’ve wanted to say this for a long time. Even in the first few months of our being together. While we were talking ‘hypothetically’ about those future days overseas, you and your book, me and my drawing, the entire time I have wanted to say it. I love you, Jeremy. I love you so much. And I am starting to think that these plans aren’t just fantasies to fill in conversation. I honestly believe I want to move away with you. Forever maybe, and we’ll stay until we never leave, if that even makes sense. and isn’t too scary an idea.
Anyhow, for now, I love you, from all the way over here.
“She seemed so happy, from that letter?” It was the first time I heard Jane’s voice crack.
I looked up from my letter. She was crying now. And all I’d done was read a letter, from a girl she had never met. I’d read it without emotion. It wasn’t even an emotive letter, for outsiders to hear, anyhow. I put my arm around her. I let Jane cry into my shoulder. Her frail hand scratching at my stubble-face.
“She seemed so happy. You were making plans… She seemed so happy. How did she…”
“Disappeared from our apartment. I got a call six hours later. She had hung herself from a tree. It was a special tree in the Carlton Gardens. We’d first kissed there after a long night of drinking. She was hanging from the tree. Still. Just hanging and someone found her and she was dead and they couldn’t do anything and then I got a call from the police and they told me she was dead and I couldn’t do anything and, like, and I was…”
We were holding each other now. And I knew David had killed himself, too. I knew and I didn’t have to ask. Jane was crying like it was her loss. I could feel a heart gasp through her frail, flat chest against me. I kissed her hair and rubbed her back, knocking over a tea with my bent leg. And she didn’t move, except her chest that shuddered like a mower starting.
When we finally broke from our embrace I returned to my seat and searched for the letter. I found it on the ground in front me, limp, stained with tea. The ink had smudged, the paper was torn in places where I must have stood on it.
After long minutes trying to piece together letters, the only words I could make out clearly were “stay until we never leave”, and I guess that’s all I needed. The rest was burnt into my memory, like a picture I couldn’t throw away.