She took her key and waited outside the factory gates, standing still and small, feeling every inch the little girl she’d once been, running down this street with danny and Nicola to see her father. Out of school, away from Mrs. Randall, down Bent Lane, along Stoke Street… The factory had been big, exciting, then, an unreal place of noise, thrills, smells, even a dash of glamour. Now it seemed twice the size in its sorrow, and the longer she stood, the bigger it grew. Not far away, on the corner if Drum Lane, stood some teenagers, busy scuffing their trainers and unintentionally intimidating her, scowling in disinterest, sparking fags they were too young to smoke. She looked back at the building in front of her, shoes playing coy games with the kerb. It was what, fifteen, twenty years since she’d stepped through these gates. She was ten. More than twenty years. Dad still smiled, and the noise wasn’t half as loud as the chain she now slipped from around the black iron gates.
Esther was out, and Nicola found herself alone, leaning on the sea-wall a mile or so south of Magpie Cottage. She stared at the surf, wondering what exactly had happened to the people they used to be. The thoughts troubled her, memories circling, bringing shrill shrieks on the wind with the seagull’s cries. Martin would have told her, again, that there were no ‘sea-gulls’, but Martin was a cock. She watched one wave. Esther had lost her lithe, carefree nature, the girl who’d fairy flit through a life of dreams wasn’t there, and it wasn’t just the loss of her dad. She seemed so leaden footed, each day a chore. When did we forget to play she wondered. Harsh squawks pierced her and she felt maudlin ooze seeping through her, determining to stop it in its tracks, she turned from the pale sea and climbed the steep hill steps, making her way to the priory ruins.
The ancient ruins hadn’t changed at all, still ruined, whatever her father had claimed long ago about it being a priory, not ruins. That argument had run for years, and knowing him, still would if they chanced to talk about it. She lay back on the grass of the nave, stared at the flitting clouds wisping their way in and out of her vision, playing hide and seek between the window’s broken stone. Last time she’d been here, she’d lain in this spot looking at the stars with Danny and Esther the night before she moved away. When she was here last they’d always be friends, always write, phone. Nothing would change and she’d be back every holiday.
Yesterday’s storm left an unseasonal chill on the wind, and the breeze woiuldn’t leave her be. Her back was damp. Lying still, the silence seeped into her clothes and closed eyes. A tousled fair haired boy came swerving round the corner, an immense grin atop filthy knees. A thoroughly unexpected tear caught his words, and he was gone, sliding out of sight amongst the ruins.
Last time she’d been here, she was still at primary school; then it had been bustling with the smoke of brown suits and seriousness. Now the sheen of clerical bustle was gone, replaced with the dust of waiting, an endless withheld heartbeat of anticipation gripped the room’s dusty stasis, awaiting the exhalation of something. For twenty years her dad had come here every day, unlocked the brown side door, climbed the gloomy twin flights of stairs and sat in his office. Alone.
Only her father’s office was unlocked, all the others opening off the passageway were firmly closed against her tentative handle rattling. It made it worse. She’d almost been expecting that when she actually got there, Margaret would still be there at the top of the stairs, as she always was as a child, with a packet of exciting boiled sweets in her bottom drawer.
Pulling the blind up, she sat at her father’s desk, opened the heavy ledger marked ‘ORDERS’ placed neatly against the left corner of the inlaid leather and flicked through the pages. Each one was ruled meticulously, front to back. Not one line betraying an error with the rule. She read some of the names: 1980 – Albiston & Sons. Sansom, Smith and Daughter. Ferris and Co.. 1982 – McNab and Dibley, Cotton’s Garden Centre, JHT, Mrs. Sinfield… pages of names and figures in black ink. Each year covering six or seven pages until then, in 1983, it shrinks, until the last entry in March 1984. 12 March 1984, Albiston & Sons, 6 dining chairs (finished). In red against the order, the word CANCELLED growled from the right margin. After that, each page is just as neatly ruled. 1985 – No Further Orders. 1990 – No Further Orders. 2004 – No Further Orders. The same ruled capital statement completing every year to her father’s death.
The leather blotter was immaculate, the wood of desk and shelves polished, filing neat, labelled. Everything exactly as it had been last time she’d been here as a thrilled child. Except the people. No Margaret. No Mr. Croggis. No Norman puffing his count up the stairs to ruffle her hair in his brown coat. No clanking, sawing or shouting. Silence but for a football match in the street beneath the window.
The window on the middle of the three stories, one of the fifteen large sashed opening on the upper floors. Pigeon droppings scarring the ornate columns. MONAGHAN & SONS Ltd 1889 capitalised in the stone over the arch to the yard behind. The place had fascinated her as a child. Noise. Belts that whirred, wood, screeching, polish, crates and drawers of fascinating things.
She wandered. Slowly returning to her father’s office; through the silent polishing rooms and back upstairs to her perch in the armed, uncushioned, chair, to lean, immobile, on the dark desk. Why had he continued? Filled in the ledgers week on week with noughts. Paid the nominal utility bills from savings and proceeds of selling bits of land. Turned himself out meticulously for a quarter of a century everyday, regardless of weather, illness or declining health. Seven forty six he’d leave. Ten to six he’d return. The only break to that in her entire life the two days off when mother died. Why? Foolish hope that an order would flutter in and he could recall his staff? Refusal to accept he’d overseen the end of the family business? Optimism. Delusion. Guilt.
An hour passed. Another. She cried gently, unknowingly, each tear a fragment of her unknown parents’ lives, and each drip calmed her. Until she stood soothed by a rationalism her father would have appreciated and looked at the shelves again, but not finding the label she sought. Eventually she realised: not her eyesight, but her father’s sense of place and order. Next door. Mr. Franks’ office.
Almost, almost, she knocked on Mr. Franks’ door, but stopped herself in time with a smile that shone back from the brightly polished name plate. Mr. A. Franks. Accounts Manager. The room was like her father’s. Serious, with a smell of polish, paper and waistcoats. She went quietly, carefully. Mr. Franks was a scary, hawk eyed and fastidious man with a shiny head. Probably dead. But still, this was his office, and she went carefully. Just as she had as a seven year old, asked to get a piece of paper once, tiptoeing in, fearing the fear of trespass, like opening a parent’s wardrobe. She found what she was looking for, took it back to the other office next door, closing the door carefully behind her and re-locking it.
She opened the ledger and saw her father’s hand again, scribing quietly, carefully, glasses perched. Meticulous. Conscientious. Honest. Kept himself to himself – not in the way that would disturb dog walkers on a misty morning in some remote forest, but in a firmly unobtrusive way. She’d never managed so much as a hint of meticulous in her life and he’d dedicated an entire life to fastidiousness. She felt a sense of duty creep a strangling hand within her, accompanying a racing fear that she’d be unable to meet it even half way. Could you teach yourself to be dedicated and meticulous? Could she ever start to take on any of his characteristics? Could she become her father’s daughter? If she didn’t, she’d be letting him down, and all of this, his last quarter of a century, a third of his life, would have been wasted because she was a fly-by-night waste of space. Too much like Aunt Daisy. Something she’d heard more than once of course. Then again – she turned a page – hadn’t he wasted those years anyway? What was the point in any of it? He’d chosen to become a relic like the tools abandoned down stairs, and she couldn’t do that.
That meant, she thought, that actually, it was her who’d be responsible for the end of the business, not him. She looked up suddenly, there was a creak on the stairs.
She looked up, expectant and waiting, anticipating someone reaching the top of the stairs, knocking, pushing her father’s door open. In the interlude between creak, thought and breath, her excitement rose, unbidden, inexplicable and unexplained. She watched the door, a half turned page between stilled fingers. What did she expect? The knock didn’t come.
It was mid-morning by the time Charlie had finished the little jobs that kept him potteringly occupied each morning. Insignificant tasks that progressively filled more time than seemed possible, not that it mattered now of course, one of the pleasures of retirement he told Christopher when he visited. Christopher who would get up after ten and be impatiently ready and pacing, unbreakfasted, within a half hour of emerging.
He’d taken a mug of tea first, strong and dark. Brewed in the pot that sat on the shelf over the stove: that had sat there since he and Annie first arranged things all those years ago. Christopher never put it back in the right place, something Charlie frequently felt was done deliberately. There was little need to change in Charlie’s opinion, what was the point when things made sense just as they were? Like the teapot. They bought him a new one a few years ago, one of those glass affairs with no need for a strainer. He’d never used it.
It was a weekday, so there was bacon and eggs to cook after the pigeons had been fed, another cup of tea and the washing up before he went out and watered the geraniums. Tweaking a dead head off here and there, brushing back the odd bit of disturbed soil now and again. His backyard was filled with pots and planters ablaze with a myriad different forms. They’d been Annie’s great passion, she’d tended them, won awards too, whilst he ambled about in the shed conversing quietly with the cooing pigeons. He’d built her a little lean to greenhouse, or a walk in glass shed at least, way back after Christopher was born, and when she went into St. Peters he’d promised to look after them.
Now, with the allotments gone, the geraniums received more attention than ever, dove-tailing nicely with his pigeons and being wonderfully unperturbed if he briefly neglected them if he was asked to repair some piece of furniture. He drained the last of the pot, enjoying the now industrial strength tea whilst glancing at the nonsense in the free paper, chose a jacket and stick and carefully closed the door behind him, noticing as he did the tired, chipped, paint at the door’s foot. On the list with the stair rods.
Left. Left today. Normally he’d take his stick for a gentle stroll out toward Abbotwood, pick up his paper at the bottom of the Hamlet, have a chat with old George and then back via a little detour along the promenade. Every day since he was fifteen he’d bought a paper, it had seemed very grown up back then, going to work, a paper beneath one arm. He wasn’t a broadsheet man, and had lost interest in the tabloids when they lost interest in him and his friends. The morning local still carried hints of what he’d once loved about morning papers. They’d been delivered of course, not now though, although he still had the milkman call, even if he did only come alternate days since he was ‘restructured’. It meant he got out every day, even if it was only to Mr. Wilkes’.
Left it was today, and he’d get his paper on the way back up the hill later on. Down to the corner, where Mrs. Jessop used to have the greengrocers – a tanning salon now – and along Regent Street where the terraces branched off one by one, a shop, or the relics of one, on each corner. He used to know just how long this journey took, not now though, partly of course he thought as he neared the allotment fence, that was age, he wasn’t as nimble as he’d been once, and popping to the shops was more trek than a foray.
Walking this way annoyed him now, since the gates to the allotments had been locked so that an estate of dolls houses could be crammed in over the sheds, the grassy pathways, the rows of potatoes, foundations slicing into carrot beds and raspberry canes being replaced with scaffolding poles. Friendships and passing acquaintances concreted in and tarmacked over. Half the site was sliced mud, interspersed with JCBs and towers of cheap bricks, whilst on the other the weeds had been afforded the freedom to roam and had taken full advantage. On the corner, not that far from Mr. Wilkes, the once meticulously kept plot of Tony Porter was consumed by knee high grass and thistles; beyond lay Elsie’s, where her prized raspberry canes straggled and argued with a thousand strangling vines and aggressive dandelions. His own patch he couldn’t make out, being towards the bottom of the site, where he’d had it since 1973. Probably beneath the foundations of some miserable leaking garage too small to fit a car in he thought. Or an excuse for a lawn that would soon enough be replaced by low maintenance shingle. It’d been Herbert Lewis on the patch next to him back then, a cantankerous old git, but one with an amazing well of advice, especially on leeks. If that is you took the time to show him the respect he felt his age should afford him. Long time since he’d gone of course, there’d been a fair few others since Herbert, most recently Jim and Alice. Lovely young couple, notwithstanding their weird plastic discs in their ears, like African tribesmen wore in his schoolbooks. They’d been nice too, and had been very vocal in trying to save the place. Didn’t do any good, never did. They consulted, they carried on. They always did, always would. He hoped as he headed toward Bent Hill neither of them would stop believing they could change things. Whatever Frank and Clare on the committee thought, people like Jim and Alice might mean there were some allotments left, even if they were adorned with windchimes and the weeding was done in a bikini. He smiled at the thought of Herbert pulling leeks in a bikini and steadied himself for the descent of Bent Hill.