Colette Paul


My next door neighbour is a Jehovah Witness, and sometimes she puts their leaflets through my door. I like the pictures on the front, crudely-drawn waterfalls and rainbows, the human figures all decked out in national costumes. Inside it’s stuff about Jesus coming any day to smite us, with comments in the margins by Shelia: Too true! she’ll write, and, on a section on other religions, How mistaken they are! It’s Shelia’s bugbear that the Catholics lied to her for thirty odd years before she discovered the truth. She used to go to chapel everyday and recite Latin she didn’t understand, and no one ever offered her a lift home if it was raining. ‘The Catholics really led me up the garden path,’ she says darkly. She doesn’t have much time for Muslims or Jews or atheists either. Like many religious people she’s not at peace with her compatriots. You know she’d be jubilant at seeing most of us go to hell in a handcart.
              Our other neighbour, Irene, lives upstairs, with her husband. He’s bed-bound after two strokes although Irene says it doesn’t really bother him, he was never a sociable man. He’s happy as long as he has his crisps and his beer, she says. Every so often they have arguments that last all night, although I can never make out what they’re saying. I think they both like a drink. A few weeks ago I was coming out the Toryglen Asda when I noticed her weaving in front of me down the road. She stumbled and a bottle of vodka rolled out her bag. I ran after it, and handed it back. ‘That was close!’ I said.
              ‘It’s for my friend,’ she said, shoving it into her handbag, embarrassed. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, Why, is she an alcoholic too? just to lighten the mood, but of course I didn’t.
              Irene works in the laundrette round the corner, and she gives me a discount when I go in to do my washing on Sunday night. Sometimes we sit and have a cup of tea together. She has twin boys about my age, and she tells me about their jobs and their girlfriends, the high jinks they get up to. ‘Oh, they’re a pair of characters, so they are,’ she says, shaking her head. It’s the only time she laughs, and it changes her big, plain, harried face. She tells me about her fight with the council to get re-housed in a ground floor flat, and about her sister who lives in Spain, her plans to take a holiday there someday. She says I’m the only person who listens to her problems.
              Since mum died, I’ve hated Sundays, and I look forward to going to the laundrette because it means that the day is nearly over. There’s a few of us regulars now: a scooped-out old man who sits in his vest; a refugee family whose three little children run around wild; and a young Asian guy with very bad acne. Last month he brought in an old portable telly for the refugee family, and the next week they brought in some biscuits to thank him. He passed them around. That got the ball rolling, and I brought in some chocolates the week after. It’s our kind of routine now, although none of us speak the same language. We have our own code of smiles and rolling eyes at the weather, and putting our thumbs up to say we’re fine, or thanks, or we’re finished with the tumble drier now.
              Everyone starts to leave about eight, and I usually wait on to talk to Irene. Sometimes she’s not in a chatty mood. She’ll get out one of her Mills and Boon’s and hardly say a word.
              ‘Is that a good one?’ I’ll say, and she’ll say, ‘Och, they’re just pure rubbish,’ turning the page with a secretive, hoarding look.
              I like the no-beating-about-the-bush literalness of the titles: The Desert Prince’s Proposal, Virgin Midwife, Playboy Doctor, Saying Yes to the Millionaire! All the men on the front covers have long hair, I’ve noticed, which is odd because it’s quite unfashionable now for men to have long hair. They’re always in a cinch with the heroine, who has a modest section of cleavage or leg exposed, and the background features extreme weather and something a bit exotic like a palm tree. It seems sad that our most private dreams and desires are just the same as everyone else’s, that they can be packaged up and articulated so comprehensively.
              My dreams are often about mum. In my dreams she is doing something quite ordinary—washing dishes, sitting at the old kitchen table—and I’m not surprised to see her. Sometimes, since I’ve found out that I’m pregnant, babies are muddled in, and even my baby’s father. Once I dreamt that we—all three of us—bumped into her in an American supermarket, a huge neon-lit supermarket. She is wandering the isles, looking fretful. She says, ‘Thank Goodness you’ve arrived, no one here speaks my language.’ We go into a cafe and she eats cream cake after cream cake, dabbing her mouth delicately after each bite. She used to do this in real life, a gesture so strangely innocent and hopeless that I’d have to turn away. In the dream I say, ‘Don’t be ashamed.’ The baby is crying and when I press him against my chest he stains my shirt with blood.
              ‘I’m not ashamed,’ she says. ‘Whatever gave you that idea?’ and she gives me a smile of such recognition that I wake up, bereft.

Tonight, the streetlights outside the laundrette aren’t working so it is completely dark outside. I walk home with my washing in one hand and my keys in the other. Irene’s advised me to keep them at the ready to jab any potential attackers in the eye. My footsteps sound loud and lonely, and I’m glad when I get inside. I put on the gas fire and make a cup of tea. The man in the flat across the road still has his curtains open. He has some sort of easel on his desk, and he sits there every night. I can see the top of his head, and the calm arc of his arm as he moves his pencil across the paper. I always feel reassured when he’s there. I didn’t have any curtains for a few months after I moved in, and now that I do, I can’t draw them in case he takes it as a slight. I put away my laundry, and wash the dishes. When I come back, the easel man is gone and his light’s off. There’s a white moon above the rooftops, and the stars have come out, trailing silver streams.
              I have a shower then sit down to read the pamphlets the doctor gave me. I’ve got my first scan tomorrow, and want to be prepared. After a while the words begin to blur, and I find myself looking at the pictures. One shows a tiny foetus, uncurling in numbered stages like Darwin’s man; another of a smiling blond couple. The woman holds her hands tenderly underneath her stomach, as if cradling a gigantic egg. I try to imagine myself like this. It’s amazing how many pregnant women I’ve noticed since I found out about my own condition. They’re everywhere, and not a healthy glow or Madonna-ish peacefulness between them. They look uniformly worn out, even the married ones. I lie back on the couch and press along my stomach. I can’t feel a thing.
              We only slept together once, Tom and I. It was the night of his leaving party at the library. He worked on the third floor, in the archives, so I didn’t see him very often. I used to try to arrange my break to coincide with his, or make up excuses to go upstairs with a request. I knew—everyone in work knew—that his girlfriend had left him for his brother. They’d been saving up to go travelling, and now Tom was going alone.
              Although I spent a lot of time thinking about him, we’d barely spoken until he sat beside me at the party, near the end of the night. ‘Do you like this song?’ he said. It was The Cure’s ‘Pictures of You’, and when I said yes, he said he knew I’d like it, that he liked it too. Then he said, ‘Sorry, I’m drunk. Ignore me,’ and I said it was okay, I was drunk too. We talked about music for a while, and then books we liked. He told me the different places he was planning to travel to. He hadn’t planned a strict route for himself. He wanted to be free and easy, change course whenever he fancied. ‘Won’t you be lonely, though,’ I said, ‘travelling around yourself?’ and he said he didn’t mind his own company. ‘I suppose I’m a bit of a lone wolf,’ he said.
              We walked back to his flat through echoing, empty streets. He was going on Sunday, had already gotten rid of most of his things. He said it was liberating to be free of material possessions. We sat against the wall in his bedroom and he told me about his ex-girlfriend, how he still loved her, how he couldn’t get over what had happened. It was like a nightmare he couldn’t wake up from. And I told him about my mum—it was the first time I’d really talked about her since she died. I said it felt like there was wall between me and other people now, and he said he could understand that feeling, that he had felt something like that too. We finished our cups of coffee, listening to the Johnny Cash CD he’d put on. A bus passed outside, its headlights sweeping over the floor. He yawned, and said it was getting late.
              ‘Should I go home?’ I said. ‘Are you tired?’
              And he said he was tired but he’d like me to stay, if I wanted to stay.
              I read the pamphlets again, properly, trying to absorb all their information. But my mind wanders and I start thinking about prams and money and work, and I feel suddenly light-headed. I brush my teeth and put on my pyjamas. Just before I get into bed there’s a ruckus outside my window. I turn off the light and peek out the curtains. At first it looks like two men wrestling each other, then I see that one of them is trying to hug the other one. But I love you John Paul, he keeps saying, while John Paul shouts to leave him alone, and finally strides away. His boyfriend stands in the middle of the road and screams, John-Paul, John-Paul, don’t do this to me please John-Paul. John-Paul. He sits on the pavement, covering his face with his hands. But after a while he gets up and walks in the opposite direction and then it’s quiet again.

I arrive at the hospital early, and spend twenty minutes trying to find the outpatients entrance, then the antenatal clinic. I give the receptionist my name, and walk through to a tiny waiting room. It’s strange to suddenly come upon so many women in such varying states of pregnancy, like a production line halted in mid-flow. I take a seat next to a middle-aged woman with veins all over her cheeks, obviously an old hand at the whole business. Her bump seems to continue on from her chest with no interruption, giving her body a dense, authoritative look. In the corner, two children are throwing toys about while their mother says to stop it, this is their last warning, she’s warning them, she won’t tell them again, a litany that goes on and on until her name’s called. When she gets up I see she’s wearing her jeans unbuttoned, with just a scarf round her waist to hold them up. She looks utterly careworn, and walks with her head down. The middle-aged woman beside me, who’s been sighing in audible disapproval, says to the women next to her, ‘You wouldn’t catch mine getting away with that.’ As if to confirm there’s no flies on her either, the other woman says, ‘I only need to tell him once, and he knows he better quit.’ She bends down and ruffles her little boy’s hair, in apology. ‘He’s a good wee man though, aren’t you,’ she says. Her stomach is obscenely large, and her skinny legs dangle from under it like pieces of rope.
              For the next fifteen minutes I listen as they exchange horror stories about the appalling and inventive things that nature wrecks on pregnant women. Varicose veins, stretch marks, leakages, haemorrhoids. Unless you’re a celeb you can kiss your figure goodbye. Then there’s the NHS, whose doctors are a bit too knife happy for the middle-aged woman’s liking. They ripped her sister open like a fish, and she’s never been the same down there since. I’m gripped. Much to their surprise I even chip in with my own story about a woman I work with being sewed up with a surgical swab inside her.
              First the middle-aged woman is called, then the skinny one. Alone now, I feel dazzled by it all. It’s too much to take in. I take out my notebook and write, Buy Palmer’s Coco Butter, and underline it. Finally my name’s called, and I follow the midwife into a tiny room. I fill in my medical history, and she asks me how I’m feeling. I say fine, a bit sick in the morning sometimes. She writes down my blood pressure then says, ‘Now, this is the exciting part.’ She rubs the ultra sound wand over my stomach, telling me to watch the screen.
              ‘Now, here’s what we’re looking for,’ she says, pointing to a white-ish mass of shadow, curved like a broad bean. ‘That’s the heart,’ she says. ‘That’s his or her little legs. There’s the nose, the jaw, that’s its little arms. Do you see the arms moving?’ I shake my head. ‘There,’ she says, pointing. ‘Can you see it now? It’s a lively wee thing.’
              She asks me if I want any print outs—they’re two pound each—and I buy one, then change my mind and ask for two. ‘Better safe than sorry,’ she says. She hands me some paper towels, then draws the curtains. ‘Any questions?’ she says, and I say no, I don’t think so. She says to make another appointment for a twenty week scan, and hands me more leaflets to read at home. Then I’m outside again.
              It’s one of those bright, cold winter days, all the buildings and trees standing out in sharp relief against the sky. The landlord’s arranged for a plumber to come up at five to fix the bathroom tap, so I have five hours to fill. I decide to walk into town and get the bus back from George Square. I walk past empty streets with nothing on them but waste ground and lock-ups, then rows of scrappy shops with their owners staring out the windows. Buses begin to go by, and women carrying their messages home. And after a while I begin to feel, not happy exactly, but buoyed up by the whole solid, unnegotiable fact of the world, with the blue sky and pavements and traffic light signals that go on and off even when no one’s waiting. When I get to George’s Square I go in to a café and have a coffee and a bun, and listen to the radio playing quietly in the background. I take out the scan photos and look at them hard, trying to work out if I feel anything. It doesn’t seem real, and I wonder what other women feel in this situation. I walk through Argyle Street, over the bridge, and past the job centre, the air stinging my cheeks. It feels good, and I try to hold onto that. Just as I reach the top of my street, it begins to rain, and I go into Sommerfield to buy milk and biscuits to offer the plumber. The bathroom tap’s been dripping for months, and I’m always worried I’m going to flood the woman downstairs. I wake up at night, worrying.
              I’m just going out the exit when I see him. The easel man from across the road. We’re walking almost in tandem. He’s tall and thin and serious looking, like a missionary. A blueish vein runs down his temple. Even though it’s raining his eyes are fixed ahead. I’ve never seen anyone visit him, I’ve never even seen him go outside. Sometimes he gets up from his desk and stretches, looks around his room. He’s always alone. I decide to say something to him. I’ll regret it if I don’t. It’s on the tip of my tongue—Nice day for ducks, I’ll say—when the lights change. He’s already in front of me, crossing the road.

The woman next door has put another Jehovah Witness leaflet through my door. This one has people of different ages and nationalities on the front, grouped together on a tropical island, smiling. Inside I read that after Armageddon and the destruction of the wicked, my dead ones will live. They will rise up. Yes, those sleeping in death will be brought back to life!! I throw it in the bin then put away my shopping. I’ve an hour before the plumber arrives. I look through the fridge and notice I’ve got a bit of fish that Irene might be able to use. The sell-by date’s not till Wednesday. I put the scan photo in my pocket, then lock the door and walk upstairs. There’s no answer for a few minutes. She’ll be worried it’s a burglar or a rapist. I open the letterbox and shout, ‘It’s only me, Irene.’ After a few minutes the door half opens and she says, ‘Oh, hello.’
              I say I was wondering if she could use a bit of fish. Haddock. I say it’s going to go to waste.
              ‘Actually,’ she says, ‘I’ve already got my tea in for tonight.’
              ‘It’s not off till Wednesday,’ I say.
              ‘I’m not a big fish fan,’ she says.
              ‘Oh well, just thought I’d ask.’
              ‘Thanks anyway,’ she says.
              I keep standing there and she says, ‘Well, I’d better get back to his Highness.’
              ‘It’s just, you’ve got to be careful in my condition,’ I say.
              ‘Oh, right’ she says, vaguely. Maybe she’s drunk again.
              I walk down stairs, and put the fish back in the fridge. Outside, the rush hour traffic has started–.people hurrying along the pavement, the buses idling as they wait for passengers to get on and off. It’s still raining, but so finely it only shows as it falls pass the street lights. I think of Tom, of the morning I walked him to the bus station and he wrote my address down inside his copy of The White Goddess so he wouldn’t lose it. And maybe he will write one day, who knows; maybe he will. I think about what I’ll write back. Dear Lonewolf, I’ll write. And in the meantime, I put my forehead against the window, and watch the lights go on, one by one, in rooms across the street.

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