Henry Tydeman

An Unravelling

An Unravelling


Julie turned the corner into her street with a touch of grumpiness about her. It was raining steadily, though it hadn’t been when she left her house half an hour before, which was why she had decided against a coat. Now she was wet, the rain having made short shrift of her thin summer cardigan. Her thick, grey hair had borne the brunt of it and looked greasy and forlorn, plastered to her forehead in clumps. It was July, but by now she was chilly. The whiteness of the sky brought things sharply into focus as she passed them, the terraced houses of the street, each with its own low wall and a small area at the front before the door. Some of her neighbours had left plastic chairs outside, where they liked to sit on sunny days. Julie heard the steady beating of the rain on them and tutted. How careless, she thought, to leave things out to the elements on a day like this. It wasn’t at all responsible.

She reached her house and glanced across the street to where Carol had lived for the past two years. On top of her front wall Julie noticed different colours, standing out above the brown clay, in a neat row. She crossed the narrow street and saw that they were books, ten of them perhaps, clearly dampened by the rain. A piece of cardboard was there too, with the words, ‘PLEASE TAKE!’ written on it in felt tip, the letters stained but still clear.

Julie felt a twinge of something like schadenfreude at the sight of this small collection. It had only rained for the past quarter of an hour, but there was something forlorn about Carol’s offering, especially when one considered that the rain would destroy them if it went on for much longer, starting with the paperbacks. But Julie wasn’t an unpleasant, cruel woman, and by the time she was back in her own front room she was feeling sorry for her neighbour. After all, Julie knew that Carol’s situation was similar to her own: they were both in their late sixties and living alone. They weren’t friends, and they hadn’t ever spoken for longer than five minutes, but there was something of a mutual sympathy between them, Julie had always sensed it. Never spoken, but hinted at in turns of phrase and sad smiles: I, too, am sometimes lonely.

Julie had grown-up children and an ex-husband who lived in the country. She missed them all, and thought often of her younger life. She could not help but be reminded of it each day by things in the house that came from those times and were now relics, things on shelves, things hung on walls, things in drawers. She had heard of elderly people who came to be at peace with themselves, the slow beckoning of the grave acting as a relaxant, bringing them deeper into the present as the lasting effects of painful memories and nostalgia faded. Julie wasn’t convinced at all. It was too perfect, a fairy tale for the old. Her life was very real, and she remembered all too clearly those days that would never be bettered, three young boys, a loving partner. Even the difficulties had been wonderful, or at least that’s how it seemed looking back.

Rose-tinted spectacles, Julie thought. I’m wallowing again, it does me no good. She was up in her bedroom and had just finished changing out of her wet clothes when she noticed the small bookshelf tucked away in the corner. An idea began to form. After all, here were some of those things from the past, books that Paul had read, crammed in defiantly, a monument. There’s no good reason for those to be there anymore, Julie said, almost out loud. Why haven’t I got rid of them? Carol had the right idea. ‘PLEASE TAKE!’ Perhaps they’d bring a little joy to somebody else. That was reason enough to do it.

Suddenly, surprising herself, she moved with purpose across the room towards the shelf, and began to pile them up. There was a thick layer of dust, furry, like mould. She didn’t stop to look at the titles, but she knew the type: crime thrillers mainly and autobiographies of golfers and other sportsmen that he liked. Why hadn’t he taken them when he’d left? Julie felt a quickening of the pulse, a kind of fresh excitement. She was determined now to see this through.

Caught up in a thrill, Julie had forgotten about the rain. When she opened her front door five minutes later she remembered why she’d been upstairs in the first place, the wet clothes, the dreary summer shower. It hadn’t stopped, though it was abating. Julie stood in the doorway, a tall pile of books in her arms. She’d come so far. Paper didn’t fare well in the rain. But it was hardly raining. If I don’t do this now, she thought, I won’t ever do it, and the next thing she knew she was lining up the books on her front wall, exactly as Carol had done. A couple of trips back inside and the entire contents of the bookshelf had been expelled. Julie had made sure the row was neat, and, standing back to look she noticed that the rain had stopped. There was even the sun, pushing valiantly through the clouds. If she’d been that way inclined, it would have seemed to her like a symbol. But she wasn’t one for symbols, though she was pleased, hands on hips, surveying her handiwork. She had rid herself of things from another time and she felt refreshed, clean. It didn’t even matter whether people took them or not; that wasn’t the point. It had been a personal act, cathartic, which happened to involve an element of charity. Back in her front room Julie looked out through the window at the brightly coloured blocks, some of the front covers bobbing a little in the peaceful breeze. Beyond them, across the street, Carol’s effort remained. She had more hardbacks, Julie had noticed. Stronger in the wind, like bricks. But she didn’t mind. It wasn’t a competition.

When Julie awoke the next morning she briefly wondered why there was a sort of nervous excitement within her. She didn’t think she had planned to meet anyone on that day, her children, an old friend, and besides, the feeling was different, more unfamiliar. She was reminded of leaving home for the first time in her teens. That sort of feeling. Then she remembered the books. What fun that had been! She sat at the kitchen table, drinking tea, confident. If there had been someone else there she would have told them how it had done her ‘the world of good’. That’s exactly the phrase she would have used. It worked perfectly.

Across the table from her was a chair, one of a pair, wooden with a padded leather seat, cracks showing in its chequered pattern, blue and white. These had always been the kitchen chairs, as far back as Julie could remember, and she’d never liked them. The design was too childlike, too obvious, and it had always made her think of sailing boats and sailors.

She rose, picked up the chair she had been sitting on, and calmly but quickly moved out of the kitchen and down the hall. Outside she found a space for it, just on the pavement in front of the little wall. All the books were still there, but today was warm, hot even, more appropriate for the time of year. She brought out the other and lined it up alongside. She felt as she had done the day before, more of the unwanted things from her life cast out. Of course, she would need to replace them, but that wouldn’t be difficult. There was a furniture shop nearby. She went back inside, more than pleased, and leant on the side in the kitchen to finish her tea. The room was different, the space more empty, and the emptiness was what Julie liked best. It was no longer a kitchen that belonged to an earlier time, that sat awkwardly in the present without its former inhabitants. Now it was Julie’s space, no one else’s, a blank sheet of paper. A real fresh start. Things were looking up.

All morning she spent in this mood, optimistic, glowing, thinking forward into the future in a manner that constantly surprised and delighted her. She had broken with her past in a way that she’d not thought possible. Books and chairs, it seemed so ridiculous that their removal had had such an impact, and Julie kept chuckling when she thought of it. More than once she looked out of the window to see the things where she had put them, and after lunch she noticed a gap in the line, a missing tooth. One of the books had been taken. This pleased her even more. The wheels really were in motion, there was no turning back.

In the afternoon she decided that she would walk into town and choose a pair of new chairs for the kitchen. A style she liked, something with subtlety. She was considering the type that she wanted as she closed the front door, her old chairs still there, huddled together, uglier than ever in the daylight. As Julie turned to head up the street towards the town, she glanced over at Carol’s house. She stopped, confused, and then crossed the street to get a better look. On the pavement was a modest, wooden kitchen table, and next to it was a stack of chairs, four of them. On the table there was a pile of utensils – a baking dish, a colander, frying pans – and cutlery, what looked like a full set of it, pushed together into an untidy mound. The ‘PLEASE TAKE!’ sign had been moved onto the table. The books remained on the wall just behind.

It was a ridiculous display, Julie thought, and she was cross. Why couldn’t people stick to their own ideas? The exhilaration she had experienced, the sense that this was her own way of truly moving on to a different part of her life, that all seemed so quaint and naive now that someone else was doing exactly the same thing. Copying her. How very childish! It’s outrageous, Julie told herself, and for a second or two she was set on ringing Carol’s doorbell and having it out with her right there and then. She decided against it. She’d never been one for confrontation. She looked up at Carol’s house and all the windows stared back at her, wide eyes, unblinking, feigning ignorance. Perhaps an argument is what she wants, thought Julie, a loud and bitter quarrel over the dos and don’ts of pavement charity. I won’t give her the satisfaction. Julie turned and retreated to her own house, brooding. She had forgotten all about the furniture shop.

In the afternoons Julie would usually sleep for an hour or so, but today there was no question of it. She lay on her bed, but her mind wouldn’t rest, irritation crackling like a broken radio. She felt in some sense that she had been cheated by Carol, or burgled, that what she had done was cruel and intentionally antagonistic. She’s teasing me, Julie thought, she doesn’t know a thing about me or how it felt to throw out all that old stuff, and yet in doing it herself she means to goad, to poke fun. And if that’s a bit of a stretch, and she doesn’t mean to offend… well, then it’s even worse. The sheer ignorance of it, the complete absence of any tact on her part. She clearly hasn’t stopped for a moment to consider the consequences of her actions. She should know better, at her age!

She pictured Carol’s table and on it the cutlery, silver and worn, thrown together. Perhaps the set had been a wedding present (Julie knew that she’d once been married). Her thoughts softened a little. Perhaps Carol wasn’t just getting rid of old junk, but, like Julie, had found it to be a purgative act, the bringing down of a curtain on an act that had run for too long, stultifying, sad. Perhaps she too had felt that surge, that novel vigour. And if it’s so, thought Julie, I shouldn’t think badly of her. On the contrary, I should speak to her, we should share our stories. She felt sorry for Carol, as she’d felt sorry for herself. And besides, what did it matter if she had seen Julie’s chairs and taken some inspiration? After all – and Julie had conveniently forgotten this up until this point – it was Carol who’d put her books out in the first place. I’m just as much a copycat as she is, Julie told herself, and she felt some warmth in this realisation.

The window of her bedroom, which looked out onto the street, was open. Often when Julie was lying on her bed she caught bursts of conversation, and the odd car too, though today had so far been quiet. There had been no sounds to distract her from thinking, and so she’d been able to do a fair bit of it, her perceptions of Carol evolving, and her own emotional response, her own mood, changing in response, a thawing. It shook her then, such that she gasped and sat up like a frightened cat, when she heard the thud from outside, followed by a repeating clunk, like slow gunfire. Some big object, it was clear. Then a woman’s voice, angry:

‘You idiot! How did you let that happen?’

A man responded, lacking in confidence, unsettled:

‘It was too heavy for us! I said that it would be. I’m sorry, I tried to hold it.’

‘See if it’s broken, please, look and see, now.’

A pause. When the speaking resumed it wasn’t so loud, the voices a little calmer, and so Julie couldn’t make out how the conversation was proceeding, though she had known straight away that the woman was Carol. A door slammed, the voices stopped, and she heard the creaking sound of the object being moved, scraping against stone or brick. Julie hurried downstairs. She stood in her front doorway, peering across the street towards where two young men were positioning a wardrobe with difficulty besides the table and stacked chairs, up against Carol’s front wall. Julie approached them and asked rather sharply,

‘What are you doing? What’s all this noise?’

They turned to look at her, both with nervous eyes and short fair hair. Julie did not recognise them. One of them gestured towards the house and answered in a well-meaning tone,

‘We were just helping the lady who lives here, she wanted help moving this, but we dropped it down the steps here.’

Julie looked at the wardrobe which was not particularly large. Her mind was changing again, the sympathy she had felt for Carol evaporating in the heat. She’d gone too far now, taken liberties.

‘Do you know her? Why were you helping?’ She fired the questions at him, her frustration showing and she did not think to speak calmly in order to hide it. He paused, surprised.

‘No, I don’t know her. We don’t live here, we were just walking by. She called at us from her house, asked me if we could help her with something.’

Julie pushed further.

‘And why is she throwing out the wardrobe? Or any of this stuff? Is she moving?’

‘I don’t know. All she said was that she’s giving it all away. Look, there’s a sign.’ He pointed at it, but Julie didn’t look. She knew what it said. She was reacting, thinking, and then smiling at the men for the first time. Kindly, she asked,

‘And what are your names?’

‘John. And this is Alex.’ He had not detected anything self-serving in her change of tone. He was too sincere for that, and Julie could tell. The other man, Alex, hadn’t said a word, and reminded Julie of a cornered rabbit, cowering, helpless.

‘Well, John and Alex, I was wondering, since you’re here now, if you could give me a hand too. It shouldn’t take a minute.’

Forty-five minutes later it was done. The men, who’d been too polite to refuse the second lady, scampered away up the street for fear of encountering yet another resident in need of assistance. Julie stood in the road and looked at the space in front of her house. Alongside the kitchen chairs was the sofa from the front room. Next to that was her bed. She was inspired once again. Why had she ever thought that the books alone would do? This was more like it. A thorough clear out. Carol had meant to outdo her, but she wouldn’t have expected this. Her collection – the kitchen table, the wardrobe – looked thin, brittle now in comparison. Julie’s effort was more hearty, stronger, the bed still with its mattress and duvet, the sofa with a braided pattern. Of course, these new additions took up the entire pavement, but if anything this pleased Julie more. It was a statement, to the world, to Carol, to herself. She wasn’t frightened of anything, not the swirling memories of her young life – the husband, the children, all gone now – and certainly not of Carol, who had tried to challenge and provoke her. This is my response, thought Julie. Beat that. The bed, the sofa, the chairs, they meant nothing at all to her, it was so clear now in the outside light. Slabs, chunks of nothing, like grey space. Why had she persisted with them for so long? She loved standing there in the street in that moment, the fresh air filling up her lungs and soothing her aching bones. A door opened behind her.

‘What are you doing, Julie?’

Julie looked at Carol, whose beige clothes made her think of old, faded wallpaper. Her face was mean and tight, heavily lined.

‘I’m just throwing some things out, that’s all,’ Julie said loudly, ‘Just like you!’ She was smiling hard, she couldn’t help herself, she was enjoying the competition and she wanted Carol to know it.

‘It’s so, well, liberating! I’m having so much fun with it all. Aren’t you?’

Carol’s head twitched like a wary sparrow. After a moment she snapped back,

‘Yes, yes of course. It’s great fun, I find.’

Then there was silence between the two of them, stood upon the battlefield, the furniture like battalions, poised, disciplined. There was nothing else to be said. They could never be friends now, not after this. They were truly in conflict, and as Julie stood in the street, defiant, she felt that she’d broken through, like soldiers who find themselves beyond fear in the midst of the fight. There was no going back. Then Carol was gone, the door slammed shut. The noise rang out like a medieval war horn.

That night Julie tried to sleep on the carpet in her front room under some sheets. She didn’t mind the hard floor, there was too much going on in her head for her to notice it. Occasionally she would drift off, but not for long. The prickling excitement would not abate. Her exchange with Carol, thoughts of what the new day would bring, a sense that some sort of endgame was approaching. There was fear too, Julie knew it, flickering away amongst the rest, though she couldn’t tell what it was that frightened her. When she rose early in the morning this mingling of everything remained, chemical reactions in her mind that she had no control over. She looked through the window and laughed at what she saw. Carol had added to her outside collection overnight. Now, beside the wardrobe, was a second stack of chairs, a small bedside table with drawers, and a television, big screen staring back at Julie. The power cable lay on the pavement and hung down into the gutter. It did not look like an old model. Julie knew what to do.

Before breakfast she had, with difficulty, countered with her two armchairs (there was nowhere for these to go but in the road itself). By lunchtime she saw that Carol had moved her own bed outside – how she had managed this on her own wasn’t clear – its single frame and thin mattress. In the afternoon Julie found space by the armchairs for a number of small cupboards. She didn’t bother to empty them of their contents, more books, old magazines, framed photographs of her as a girl. People could take those too, if they liked.

In the afternoon it was the turn of all the household appliances: bowls and plates from the kitchen, oven dishes, kettles and hoovers. Julie made sure to line hers up as neatly as possible, in front of everything else, the first line of defence. Carol’s display was more untidy, and she had piled a mishmash of things up on her bed (Julie noticed a wicker basket and a toaster). Julie was enjoying herself, the thrill of the contest, though even as she was heaving another box of her children’s toys down from the attic she could also feel something else, a strange sort of stretching of her soul, a buckling. She thought of nothing but the different things she could add to the ranks, and in the afternoon she laid out all her clothes in the street. When a car tried to pass by Julie faced it down and shouted repeatedly at the driver, jabbing her finger. The road was closed. He hurriedly reversed and drove away. She had never spoken to a stranger like that before.

By the evening her house was empty. She walked through the rooms and saw all the new spaces that had been filled for so long, but the freshness, the rejuvenation she had felt at the start, that had dwindled. A lot had happened since the books. She was tired, the zeal of the day having faded, but above all else she was sad. She couldn’t say why.

She looked through the window at the two armies of household things, spilling over the pavements on both sides and stretching towards each other in the street, like a modern art piece. ‘Life’s Contents.’ There was wind now, the sun having slipped away, and so the displays moved a little, clothes mostly, cardigans and skirts in both camps flapping. It was ridiculous, utterly stupid, the whole thing, Julie knew it, but that meant little to her. She was stubborn, Carol was stubborn, and this was where it had led them. Julie regretted nothing.

And then she noticed that Carol was out there too, perched on the side of her bed, a coat wrapped around her, looking straight-ahead, hands in her lap. Resolved. Julie hadn’t seen her at first, the figure had blended in with everything else, but once she saw Carol she felt a creeping sorrow. It was a farce, absolutely, but here was a tragedy too. ‘An Unravelling.’ Perhaps that worked better as a title.

Julie turned out all the lights in her house and let herself out. She decided on a small, wooden chair near the front. She sat down on it, mere feet away from the other woman who looked at her briefly. There was nothing to be said. Julie reached over to the top of one of the small cupboards, where she’d earlier left a sign that she’d made. A direction, an invitation. She positioned it on her lap so that the message was as clear as possible to anyone that came by. ‘PLEASE TAKE!’ The wind blew harder in the street. It was going to be a cold night.


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