click for homepage

The Barcelona Review

Author Bio


When You Leave Walk Out Backwards

I was past forty when I fell in love for the first time.  I’d advertised in the personals—this was before online dating, before swishing through the headshots of strangers had become a social activity—but I wasn’t actually expecting love. What I was hoping for was less the arrival of love, more the end of misery.  I wasn’t bored or looking for a fling, I was dead to the bone lonely. And then, loping along in his wheat-coloured cords, came Henry.
            Henry made me new and exciting, and isn’t that why people want to fall in love, so they can look at their dull old reflections and imagine they’ve just stepped onto the planet fresh, risen like the lady from the lake?  Hi, my name is Wendy, I’m very pleased to meet you.  No, let me put that another way, I’m very pleased to be met.  Take me in.  Watch me open like a gardenia.
            He always said he fell in love with my voice; he liked the way my accent had softened from years of living on this island as if the sea were working up against its edges.  Sometimes, when his funny English manners frustrated me, I’d play up my native voice.  I had one particular little phrase for him, knowing it would make him smile: ‘You’re a piece of work,’ I’d tell him.  Henry Fairweather, you’re a pieceawork!
            And now?  He’s dead.  Heartattack.  Whadayaknow.  One Sunday night when we’d finished our risotto, a meal that requires the kind of stirring you never do for one, and I was in the kitchen rinsing plates.  From the other room a groan and a bang as his forehead struck the table.  My hands still wet from the sink, grasping at his shoulders to heave him up like a great fish, shouting in the struggle.  But he slid back down into the murk and was gone.

Grief is constant fear, it’s walking around all day with a lump in your throat as if you’re about to address five thousand people.  It’s feeling afraid even when you’re safe in your house with the central heating on.  Grief is insomnia.  Grief is panic you can’t put a lid on.  After the funeral I began to find those Grief is…moments everywhere, tucked away like soured love notes.  Grief is…Never having to say you’re sorry (no one to apologise to). Grief is…Never needing to shave your armpits (who’s going to look?). Grief is…eating alone…finding his sock behind the radiator…forgetting his laugh.
            Henry died and where did that leave me?  It left me living my cartoon life of grief.  It left me here boxing cakes full-time in this crappy little place that some of the more well-to-do residents insist on calling a village.  The church has been vandalised.  Young men gather outside the pub and talk aggressively into mobile phones, their white sneakers shining like hooves, faces hard under their baseball caps.  I walk quickly when I pass, away from the bakery, the off-licence, the hairdresser with its sepia posters, down under the railway bridge, beyond the scrub of grass (‘the green’) towards home.  The same walk again next morning to step into another day of floury drudgery.  A widow with a lot of bad debt and her love swirled away.
Debt.  Yes, the debt.  Henry had been given a mug on his sixtieth birthday: ‘Gamblers never retire, they just get spent’ (ha ha ha).  Everyone knew he liked a punt, a flutter.  But only I knew the truth, or thought I did.  The real truth, the actual truth, was that Henry had been quietly putting everything he owned—and didn’t own—onto horses, dogs, wheels, cards; on anything that ran or span or flashed, in a bid to make a great loss smaller.  But the cavity only deepened, as cavities will.

Something else happened after Henry died—I began to see old women everywhere.  One afternoon in the supermarket queue I stood before a bent old woman, her hunch so soft under her coat you might have squeezed and expected sponge.  She had a newspaper and a little batch of pink and yellow cakes with white frosting, and that was all.  I had a basket of shopping. 
            ‘Go ahead,’ I said, offering up my place.
            But she stood locked to her spot as if she didn’t hear.  Then I realised—she liked standing in the queue beside people, looking at their groceries, little pieces of their lives she could nibble on.  Once I’d paid for my stuff it would leave her alone with the checkout girl and she’d have longer to make conversation without the weight of someone else’s precious time pressing up against her poor bent back.  She scared me, she scared me and she helped me decide.  After I’d packed and paid, I loitered near the cigarette counter and watched.  Yes, my darling, you would have put money on it; she was seated now, reading the newspaper, holding in her cabbage-leaf hands one of the pink and yellow cakes, safe for a while among the warm-blooded strangers.
            When I woke next morning I could still see her.  I knew what to do.

The replies I got to my advert: two letters and a postcard.  I dropped the postcard in the bin because it announced clear and present danger.  One of the letters was obscene, but the other, written on cream paper in steady handwriting, seemed like a possibility.  It has been sent by a man called Aaron who lived in Stevenage.  Amazing, you place an advert in a national publication and find a kindred spirit just a few miles away.
            For three days I composed a reply in my head, a project that got me through slicing split tins. We exchanged another letter then arranged to meet.  What’s the worst that could happen, I thought.

Aaron couldn’t drive so he’d chosen a pub on a bus route, the sort of place with a triangular menu on every table.  I arrived early and sat in a corner near a flashing but silent fruit machine and watched it work itself into a frenzy of pears and lemons like a distant crisis.  There were a few regulars at the bar, and a couple sitting opposite one another, staring with what looked like boredom but might have been contentment. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.
            I knew it was him by his expression—anxious.  He was slight, wearing faded blue jeans and a plaid shirt tucked in.  He stood two of three inches shorter than me and although I guessed he was some years younger, his face had a worn out look like a paper bag you might be ready to throw away.  His dishwater blond curls were receding at the front.  When he reached out his hand to shake mine, it was white and soft to the touch like a woman’s.
            After we’d settled with our drinks he said, ‘Where is it you’re from? Originally?’
            I told him, waited for the pause and then the customary and slightly embarrassed, ‘Where exactly…?’ But Aaron with two a’s said, ‘Oh Missouri. Like Porter Wagoner?’ He caught my surprise and added, ‘Porter Wagoner gave Dolly Parton her first break.’
            ‘Sure, I know who Porter Wagoner is. He used to have his own show.  You’re into country?’
            He nodded.
            I myself have little idea about country music, preferring choral, a habit I picked up from Henry, but this seemed as good an ice-breaker as any so I let him talk.  There was a list of bad country titles Henry read out to me once, stuff that had us weeping:  ‘You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly’, and ‘When You Leave Walk Out Backwards, So I’ll Think You’re Walking In’.
            When I asked Aaron if he’d ever been to the States, he said he and his ex-wife Shirley had taken the kids to Florida once, but it had all gone wrong.  He didn’t say how. He must have been watching my face because he said, ‘Don’t worry, the kids live in Perthshire with their mother and her new husband.  He’s called Terry.  He has big legs and drives a lorry.  They hardly know I’m alive.’
            He asked if I had children.  It was too late by the time I met Henry but I’d wanted them once.  Since I hadn’t any kids to talk about, Aaron asked me some more questions about Missouri. 
            Missouri is a patchwork in my memory; some pieces are vivid and others are faded or frayed or lost completely. I remember our house, a stack of flaking wood at the end of a low hill, and Merv sitting out on the back porch late on a summer night, my mother inside watching television or simply thinking her way back to England.  Merv, I never called him Dad.  It was always Momnmerv like they were one person, although they weren’t of course.  She was a G.I. bride who wanted Washington or New York City or California; what she ended up with was a wash of fields swaying emptily year in year out, and Merv with his good broad forehead, and me the kid who hardly ever spoke.
            I gave Aaron the edited highlights of my life while he fiddled with a matchstick.
            ‘Go for a smoke if you like.’
            He shrugged, ‘It’s a habit. I gave up ages ago.’
I wondered how many boxes he got through in a week.  If he reached for them in the dark after a bad dream about the new man screwing Shirley.
            ‘Do you miss your kids?’
            ‘Yes, but they’re not mine anymore.  She’s not my wife. I’ve been erased.’ He stopped playing with the match then and lowered his voice so I had to lean in over the table.
            ‘Are you serious about this, I mean, what you said in your letter? Because…’ and he frowned, ‘…you don’t seem the type.’
            I said, ‘Is there a type?’
            So I told him about Henry, about the debt, the fact that soon, when the sale of the house went through to pay his creditors there’d be nothing left.  I told him about my job at the bakery and tried to explain about the old women.  I didn’t mention the constant lump in my throat, there was no way I could explain what Henry had left me to, how absurd and frightening each day had become.  Aaron filled in the gaps about his ex-wife, his problems with alcohol, loneliness—words we didn’t really want to hear ourselves say.  I’d placed the advert because all I’d wanted to do was talk it through with someone who felt the same way; I mean if you want someone to help you get through life, why not have someone to help you get through death?
            Quitting is very un-American of course, but really who’s going to care? Merv will have Lorna to sooth him through any upset, to stroke his forehead with her cerise nails and say, ‘She’s like her mamma sweetheart, nothing you could have done.’ The girls at work will find someone else to spin the bread in its polythene bag and seal it double-quick.  They timed me once.  Two loaves off the shelf, sliced and bagged in under a minute.  There’s something to put on the headstone when I’m dead.  When Wendy’s brown bread.
            Aaron fixed me with his pale eyes.
            ‘Have you been thinking about this for long?’  The question stumped me.  I suppose I have been thinking about it indirectly for most of my life.  I told him my mother drowned herself when I was thirteen.  I could see the information working on him, the way that it does.
            She waded into the Mississippi, a G.I. bride travelling four and a half thousand miles when she could have done the very same thing in the Stour and been fished out by someone who spoke with her accent.
            In the months after it happened, we walked around like two sleepwalkers, me and Merv, eating and sleeping but not wanting to look at each other too closely in case we saw her looking back.  Then one evening Merv drove home with Lorna in the passenger seat and she made us our meal that night and every night after.  Mom would have hated the way she fussed around our kitchen, tutting under her breath at our dated cabinets, the grease stains on the tiles.  She would have hated Lorna with her strappy heels and fat romances. Or perhaps she wouldn’t.  Perhaps she’s just acting that out in my imagination.
            Aaron was having a little think, forming a question.
            ‘Do you think there might be some, I don’t know, genetic link?’
            ‘No, it’s a choice that’s all.  Like choosing to buy green shoes. I’m not the only person to have chosen green shoes, nor is she.’
            ‘Green shoes,’ he repeated.
            We sat with my dead mother between us.  Aaron said he didn’t believe in anything after death and I said I didn’t either.  He wanted to tell me how when he was small his mother talked about angels, and then he went off on a tangent and I could see he was thinking about being Aaron the child, his mom perched on the bed beside him describing Saint Michael.   
            I’ve never given much thought to angels.  Mom never mentioned them that I remember.  Actually I have to think hard to remember what it was we talked about but I know we did talk, especially on Saturday mornings when we baked bread together.  Whatever else, even if she couldn’t manage getting dressed or loading the washing machine, she always managed to bake her Saturday loaf. 
            Aaron was still chewing on religion.
            ‘I wish I’d been born a Catholic,’ he said.  ‘You know, someone who has something to hang on to.  Or a Jew.  I wouldn’t mind being Jewish.’
 All I wanted was to sleep more deeply, more absently than any sleep I’d ever had, I wanted to be more out of it than I’d ever been, beyond ten pints of Guinness, beyond a dozen Valium, right down there in the sediment.  I didn’t want angels flashing their wings.  I didn’t want saving.
            Eventually his God talk came to an end and he looked at me straight.
            ‘Are you scared?’  
            ‘No,’ I said, ‘but I’m worried about getting it wrong.  I’m worried about being rushed somewhere, made to come back with shocks and paddles.’
 He took another sip from his orange juice, ‘How were you thinking of…’
            ‘Pills.  Pills and booze.’
            ‘Right,’ he said. ‘But there’s the vomit factor.’
He blinked his faint lashes, ‘I thought I’d go for carbon monoxide.’   
            ‘Is that best?’
            ‘Like falling asleep.  No mess.’
            ‘You don’t have a car,’ I reminded him.
            ‘I know,’ he said, finally snapping the matchstick. ‘But you do.’

Ten days later, we’re driving to Eastbourne because Aaron said he’d like to see the ocean one last time. 
            Aaron turned out to be a good passenger.  We talked for a while then drifted off to be with our own thoughts.  He’d brought a mixture of country music for the journey, mostly stuff I didn’t recognise, but I hummed along to ‘Islands in the Stream’ as the road signs appeared and receded.  It was an April afternoon of no particular character, the clocks had recently gone forwards and the roads weren’t busy.
            I’d spent the previous week cleaning the house and getting things in order.  I washed all the linen and folded it into neat piles, emptied my wardrobe, put my clothes in a bin-liner and dropped them at a charity shop out of town.  When I came back I decided to clear out everything I possibly could—I didn’t want any of it going to pay off the bank.  I washed all the curtains and scrubbed the skirting boards.  I moved the fridge to clean under it, gathering up a long-lost betting slip in the process, plunged the sinks, even cleaned the grouting with a toothbrush dipped in bleach.  By the time I was ready to leave for Eastbourne I’d already left my life far behind me. I sat on the edge of the bed like a woman ready to check out of an empty guest house.
             During the nights of my cleaning spree I’d been dreaming about Missouri.  Henry made a couple of brief appearances, but mostly I’d been dreaming about my mother.  Once I woke with a start and thought it was that afternoon again, the afternoon I came home from school and Merv told me they’d found her.  In the chapel of rest, once the water had been drained out of her lungs, she was completely empty.  She made me think of an unstoppered hot water bottle.
            In the dream I used to have over and over again after she died, I’d see her wearing her blue polka-dot dress, sitting on the couch and laughing outrageously at The Carol Burnett Show.  My mother loved Carol Burnett.  She was an English woman who wanted to be Carol Burnett.  No wonder she jumped into a river.
            The country music finishes and Aaron’s asleep, so at the next set of lights I flip the map and find out where we we’re heading.  When he doesn’t wake, I give him a little nudge.
We pass signs to the Puppet Museum and something called the Wish Tower.  I drive towards the sea front past a row of B&Bs with ‘Vacancy’ signs scrolled in electric pink.  The wind is fresh on the railed walkway and we stand looking at the sea, a strip of grey pleating and smoothing.  I bring out a little bottle of diazepam from my shoulder bag and offer one to Aaron. He accepts and asks where they came from.  I tell him the doctor prescribed them after Henry.  I soon gave them up, they made me foggy.  At least my own raw panic was real. 
Aaron asks if I’m hungry which suddenly is the funniest question in the world.
            ‘Yes, a bit. I don’t know. Does it matter?’
            ‘No,’ he agrees.  ‘Can I have another pill?’
            ‘Sure.  Knock yourself out.’
He gives me a quizzical look.
            ‘It’s an expression.’
I hand him the tablets and we walk back to the car.   

I’m so tired I almost don’t have the energy to navigate the twisting streets until we’re on higher ground with the sea rolling in the distance.  We agree on a spot and I park up near some trees where no one can see us.  It’s dark.  Aaron gets out of the car and unpacks his hosepipe, connects it and feeds it through the window.  I roll the window up while he jams a towel in the gap. He gets in beside me.
            The towel blocks the sound of waves.
            ‘Ready?’ I nod.  He leans over and kisses me on the mouth, not a sexual kiss, but because I’m the only one to say goodbye to.
            ‘Like falling asleep,’ he says as I switch off the overhead light and turn the ignition key, thinking of Henry, ready to fall with him into the sediment at last.
            When the chemical filth of the fumes stings my eyes, I close them.  My heart is struggling, but I know panic and after this I’ll never have to feel it again because the lump in my throat will finally dissolve.  I keep breathing, my left hand on Aaron’s right, counting in my head, letting the fumes trickle in and fill me up. Aaron has had three Valium by this point and his breathing changes. I have the sensation of being underwater.  Aaron is making a sound, something like shhhlly, like a man travelling in his sleep.  I let myself travel too and I’m being carried back to Missouri, through the pitch black wheat fields as if on a current, back to the flaking wooden house; I begin to swim through the interior, wheat growing through the windows, taking over Merv’s basement room where he watches sports, and I’m floating higher, up the stairs and into my old bedroom: there is the quilt with the crooked patchwork squares mom made in a fit of creativity, and there is my encyclopaedia with the maps of the world inside and my favourite page showing a photo of The Beatles playing The Cavern.  Shhlly, shhlly.
            Every room is filling with wheat, its pushing through the floorboards and wrapping its way around the banisters.  I slide down into the living room with its beamed ceiling.  There is the picture of mom’s parents, serious on their wedding day, and the chair where mom used to sit with her same piece of knitting, a sweater of some sorts which she’d unravel again and again.  Shhh shhh, says Aaron, as I float into the kitchen.  I sink to my knees, ready to lie down on the linoleum at last, but as I put my cheek to the floor a white outline emerges beside me.  I want to keep sinking, but the whiteness is becoming a form, and when I focus I can see bare feet, bare white toes. The wheat is beginning to sprout through the skirting board, but I’m transfixed by the sight of these calves and when I reach up I catch a polka-dot hem.  The wheat is growing fast now, it’s poking through the kitchen door, but I start to pull myself up, up to her knees, her thighs, trying to get to her face, to see her face, and I’m kicking and struggling though the wheat is coming in.  I’ve reached her waist, but she won’t bend to me, I’m climbing her and she’s enormous, but I want to see her face, so much, her eyes, her mouth.  I thrash, grabbing at the polka dots which spill from my hands until they’re gone, and I’m bashing at the car door, bashing in the dark, and she’s gone.  She’s gone. I shove the door open and cold air smacks me in the face.
            ‘Aaron!’ I shake him.
            He gives an animal noise and lashes out.  I take a lung full of clean air and shake him harder.  His arms are surprisingly strong.  I stumble around to his side and drag him out of the car while he shouts, choking and coughing, and I’m coughing too.  We’re on the grass together, we roll and tussle, he’s on top of me, astride and he’s furious, wild, I think he might kill me.  As he straddles me he leans aside, and vomits on the grass near my head so that some of my hair is sprayed and the stink of bile makes me retch and we’re both splashing our insides onto the grass, retching until no more will come. 
            I roll him to clear ground and lie down.  The sky is black.  There’s the sound of the sea, slow beneath us—rush and crash, rush and crash.  Another sound, his shoulders shaking.  I nudge up and face him, laying my arm across his chest. He lets it stay there. Shh, I say.  Shhhhh.  I move my hand up and down his chest, his bird bones beneath the fabric.
            ‘I’m sorry,’ I tell him.  I’m sorry, I say it to both of us, the sea, Henry.  His breath is sour.  The wind moves through his dishwater hair, lifts and settles it, lifts and settles it again.

The car reeks, and anyway I don’t want to get back inside so we walk downhill.  Aaron isn’t talking.  We walk a long way in silence and stop into a chip shop. The man behind the counter asks Aaron if he’s OK.  Aaron nods, although he’s greeny-white and mud streaks his cheekbone.
            We go into the first pub we find, orangely lit and hysterical with life. I find the Ladies’ and wash my face, dry it with a rough handful of paper towels. When I return Aaron is standing dumb at the bar. I order us whiskey.  He handles the glass as if it’s a foreign object.  He has a blank look, like someone who’s been watching boring television shows for hours on end.
            ‘Aaron.’ I say his name twice until he looks up.  ‘I’m sorry.  I had to.  It wasn’t just us in the car—it was your kids, their kids.’
            He blinks. ‘You put the advert in.’
            We sit down and drink amid the blur and babble of other lives until a voice comes over the speaker and Aaron gives a groan.  He lifts a hand to his white face in despair, ‘A pub quiz.’
            But it’s not a quiz.  A woman steps onto a shallow stage, denim skirt stretched tight across her hips, microphone in hand. A roll of piano keys rises and breaks over our heads.  It’s karaoke. In a few seconds she wades confidently into the opening lines of the song, a karaoke standard, and as she does I begin to laugh.  I laugh at my life, my house with nothing in it, the fact I am laughing and not dead.  My eyes are wet.  My stomach hurts.
            The track plays on but the woman is no longer singing ‘I Will Survive’, she’s directing her attention at me instead.  And then she’s speaking into the mic.
            The crowd tilt towards me, passengers of a dark ocean liner moving as one with a change of current.  
            Her face shines. ‘What’s so funny?’
I wipe my eyes. ‘No. I’m sorry, I wasn’t laughing at…’
            ‘Yes you were. This what you come out for, is it? Laugh at other people?’
            ‘No, no.’
            My heart is beating hard and fast the way it did in the car with the hiss of the exhaust clouding up the windows, and suddenly it’s vital she knows I’m not laughing at her. My overwhelming feeling towards her is tenderness, the care she’s taken with her  pearlised eye-shadow, the great curve of her denim-clad hips.  She is so colossally alive.
            She steps down from the stage and now she’s beside me, and when she stares at me, into my face, I can see what I am to her.  It is suddenly important she knows I am not that person.
            There’s been a change at the front, someone else is singing.
Her eyes are hard and I mumble something.
‘What?’ she says and leans closer.
‘I said…I tried to kill myself earlier. It didn’t work out.’
            She frowns and says What are you on about, but not as if she actually wants details.
            Another woman arrives, spiky with Malibu and hairspray. She tells me I ought to watch myself. Swears a lot. ‘Think it’s easy up there do you?’
            ‘It’s all right, Dawn,’ says the singer, more confused than angry.
             But Dawn is involved.  She slaps down a karaoke menu, ‘Choose.’
            I glance at the laminated sheet.
            Aaron has cast his gaze along the bar, searching out an exit.
            ‘Or I’ll choose for you,’ Dawn says.  My mind starts spinning at what would happen, how she would make me sing ‘Uptown Girl’ or ‘Moon River’.  I’ve never done karaoke.
Aaron has a good voice, ‘You sang to Roy Orbison in the car,’ I remind him. ‘You can sing. Help me choose.’ He seems far away, as if he’s set himself out to sea.
            Twenty minutes later we’re standing beside each other on the shallow stage.  Aaron has had another double whisky. His forehead is level with my chin.  One thumb is looped in his belt buckle and I stop feeling afraid because now the words are colouring, turning from white to pink and he’s singing, although he knows the lyrics already. His eyes are closed. He is not in his body.
            And then it’s my turn, and the pub is a blacked out mass of heads. My voice is raw from the fumes but I keep on, more confident because I know the tune—‘Islands in the Stream’—even if I don’t know what will happen outside the song.  Aaron and I sing ah-ha to each other, not in harmony but loud and as if we mean it.  My accent is helping carry me though and I swish the microphone lead, the thin man beside me, his thumb tucked into his belt buckle, lips parted, about to take another breath so he can make it to the chorus.
            We finish the song.  One or two people clap. Aaron leaves soon afterwards, pushes the heavy swing doors in search of a bed.

It’s a quarter to midnight.  The woman and her friend left with two men, all of them happy-drunk, and I was glad I hadn’t spoiled their evening.  It was just another incident in the end.  Something else to drop into a conversation, That crazy bitch laughing in the crowd.  Life needs incidents.
            I was going to leave too, find myself a B&B, but I couldn’t make my body do what it needed to, I couldn’t think myself to the door and then outside. The bar staff were spraying down the tables around me when the landlady came over.  She asked if I was all right.  She told me they have rooms upstairs, comfortable, reasonably priced.  A good cooked breakfast in the morning if I wanted it.
            I thanked her, tried to imagine poached eggs, toast, rashers of bacon. A table, perhaps with one of those wipe-clean cloths and a paper napkin folded into a triangle. Outside the window, opaque light, another day. I told her I wasn’t sure I’d be wanting it. I told her I just didn’t know. ‘That’s all right,’ she said. ‘See how you feel in the morning.’  And she put her hand on my shoulder and there was the brief warmth of her blood, ‘See how you feel.’

© Kathryn Simmonds 2017

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization

Author Bio
Kathryn SimmondsKathryn Simmonds has published two poetry collections and a novel, all with Seren Books. Her writing has been widely anthologised, and broadcast on BBC radio.  She lives in Norwich with her husband and two young daughters.