Posted on: 28 October 2021
Her feet got tangled up in themselves and her knees buckled unevenly. She knew with a dull inevitability that she was going to fall. Her reflexes were slow, her hands hardly broke the fall, her face took the brunt. As she lay there, she thanked her father for the large nose, that had protected her teeth from damage.
She lay prone, winded, embarrassed but strangely calm. The pavement felt soft, impregnated by the oddly reassuring smell of dog urine. She was helped to her feet. Her friend’s face told her that she looked a mess. There was talk of hospitals, ambulances, getting home to apply cold compresses. They helped each other home.
She let herself in, her little dog didn’t seem too alarmed but she could feel blood running down onto her swollen lip. She inspected the damage and phoned the only person she could at that time of night. He was sympathetically amused and metaphorically tucked her into bed. She realised as she put her glass of water onto the bedside table that she had broken her thumbnail. Was it possible for things to get any worse?
The next day she found that the answer to that question was a resounding, Yes! She was woken by the clatter of the letterbox and the thud of letters falling onto the mat. Miraculously, she felt almost normal. She tentatively felt the grazes around her eye. She avoided the mirror and went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. On the doormat not all the envelopes were brown. She picked them up and took them into the kitchen. As the kettle boiled, she tidied away her shoes and handbag. She shooed the dog off her coat that had somehow ended up on the floor. She realised that she couldn’t face coffee so she settled for boiling water with a dash of cold, a drink that she had enjoyed while travelling in India.
Ignoring the disgruntled look that the dog gave her, she picked up her mug and the post and went back upstairs. Her eye felt sticky so she detoured into the bathroom. The water ran pink as she rinsed the flannel that she had used the night before. She ineffectually dabbed her face and decided to leave it alone. Her knees and her neck were telling her that everything wasn’t right, but she sent a few breaths into the painful areas as her meditation instructor had taught her and then ignored the pain.
Once settled against her pillows, she looked through the post. She wondered how on earth she had used so much electricity and how her phone bill had so many out of contract items. She resolved to change providers, as she did every time she received a bill. She opened the square white envelope with a foreign looking stamp. It was from Jeremy, her landlord. He worked for the diplomatic service and from the address at the top right-hand corner was currently in a city with more consonants that it was possible to pronounce. In the years that she had been living in his flat just off the Kings Road, she had never tried to keep track of where in the world he was. She didn’t need to know, they always communicated by email.
“Why is he writing me a letter, with all the uncertainty of it arriving at all?” she wondered.
She read the handwritten pages. He had neat but slightly cramped writing, the letters narrow as if paper were still rationed. He had used her shortened christian name, Bella. He never had before, seeming to prefer Mrs Cotton even when he prefixed it by ‘Hi’ on his emails about boiler services, plumbers’ visits and other necessary evils. The letter started with a chatty few paragraphs about the weather the terrain, the people. His writing captured her attention, making her want to know what he was going to say next. When she did find out what he wanted to say, she wished that she hadn’t.
“I will be coming back in two months’ time,” he wrote. You will be required to vacate the property by the 27th June. Please ensure that…”
She didn’t read any further. The 27th of June was only a month away. Four weeks for her to move out and find somewhere else to live. Her mind was in a whirl.
She phoned her daughter, Dawn. She felt nervous and could almost feel her daughter’s irritation even before she answered. That raising her eyes as she saw “Mum” on the screen. She had felt that Dawn had looked down on her even when she was a little girl. Bella envied women who had close relationships with their daughters. She felt envious, even if they were arguing, because at least that showed some passion and feeling.
“Hello Mum,” Dawn’s strident voice cut into her thoughts.
“Er…Hello. How are you?”
“Up to my eyes in it. I have to watch everyone like a hawk, to keep the company ticking over. Nigel is hopeless — he’d let them get away with murder.”
Bella didn’t defend Nigel as she usually did. She launched straight into her problems, she told Dawn about the letter. She had to interrupt Dawn’s torrent about tenancy agreements, deposits, legal rights. She had none of those things.
With a sigh, Dawn said, “I’m really busy but I could come next Tuesday and if I get a minute I’ll have a look online but you could do it. I bought you that iPad.”
Bella crumbled, thanking Dawn profusely and saying how much she would look forward to seeing her Tuesday. She put the phone down not wanting to take any more of Dawn’s valuable time. She’d wanted to tell her the other news, the reason why she had gathered her good friends around and gone out the night before, why her face looked as though she had gone three rounds with Mike Tyson, why the thought of moving was so disastrous. “I’ll tell her on Tuesday,” she thought, trying to convince herself that Dawn wouldn’t be cross with her for not informing her only daughter sooner, that she was booked to go into hospital for a mastectomy next Wednesday.
She hadn’t told any of her friends until a couple of days ago. She had always been a private person. She liked to deal with things herself before sharing with the world. She supposed that’s why her husband had gone off with Gloria, who’d poured her guts out to all and sundry. Her friends had come up trumps, plying her with Prosecco and silly cocktails, making her laugh and letting her cry. Their WhatsApp group was already buzzing that morning. They had arranged transport, a rota of care for when she came home. She felt looked after, and not one of them had suggested that it ought to be her daughter doing it, they all knew how busy Dawn was. She dialled the number that she had called, in her distress, the night before. He answered before the second ring, his soft voice calming her. He listened as she told him about the letter and immediately said that he would come round and call in at the estate agents on the way. He had been one of the first people to know about the operation.
Malcolm had come into her life just two years before. He sought her out when his much loved, adoptive parents had died. He hadn’t wanted to know anyone else in the family, he told her he had a family, he didn’t want to confuse things. She had wanted to tell her oldest friend about him. A friend she had known since school, who had been there when Bella had been Arabella and she had been sent away for six months and come back much slimmer. But her friend had died before she had the chance.
Bella and Malcom revelled in the intimate secrecy. They were very similar, private people. If any of the neighbours were to ask about him, she planned to say that he was from social services but no one had.
He cared for her and he cared about her. He would be there for her, just as a first born should.