They sit around the table, ten women, their years stretched between fifty-five and eighty-three. They take a mug of tea and a shortbread biscuit between their stiff fingers and they wait a while.
On a small patch of green beside the library in this close community on the hill, once a year we tell stories in a marquee while the sun blazes, the rain beats and the wind howls.
The people down there are walking on the concrete pavement, sitting on wooden benches, driving in their metal cars. The city is a constant loop of vehicles, smoke and smog, and noise. It goes around and around and I can see its shunted and criss-cross movement like the leaves on the tress see the ants below.
She’d sat in the pub with them. Her son, now sixty, and his wife and two daughters. They’d insisted on bringing their golden retriever dog with them, even though Janice had made it plain by the face she pulled that she didn’t like the idea. And she’d been right. The dog had sat by the table all the way through their meal, his big puddle eyes staring and flicking from the food to the people, and back again. It made her uncomfortable, she didn’t like it, and she knew her son, and his wife especially, were tired of that, but still she didn’t like it.
At the time they lived here, the average age of death for women was around 25, can you imagine that? 25! She could see that was true. She only had to walk along the first row of graves, Sycamore seeds helicoptering to the…
We’d done the shops, the vast light spacious shiny shops, we’d sat last night and drank halves of amber beer in a bar with high stools and reclaimed tables. We’d walked the long straight roads and felt the endless rain beat our umbrellas and splash our shoes. Sandstone buildings rose around us up into the grey sky and the pavements went on and on until they met the tangle of the motorway.
My city is one of the greenest in the country, known as ‘the outdoor city’ its pockets of green spaces and its close proximity to open countryside give it its semi rural feel. Sheffield straddles post industrialism with nature easily, perhaps because it has always mixed the two. Factories back onto the river. Parks and gardens over-look the busy town centre. And suburban streets are lined with trees, providing the name ‘the leafy suburbs’. But these streets have had a fight on their hands lately. One which they seem to be losing.
“Because I just can’t take anymore.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
“I’m not being dramatic, we’ve walked round this shopping mall ten times, we’ve been in every shoe shop there is.”
The tree had been caged in mesh at the garden centre, a small woman with a bright smile telling Louise she must water it and keep it away from radiators. Louise had looked at the way the tree, its branches free only seconds before, was constricted and held, and she felt a wave of guilt rush through her body. She could water it, of course, but keep it away from a radiator? Impossible in her flat.
The rehearsal was her favourite bit. Sure, it was something special to be at the performance and see the polished final piece, but at the rehearsal she could experience the birth of it, see it take shape and grow into what it would become. Her words. The very words she’d laboured over and written down carefully, re-written a dozen times, being spoken, being performed, by an actual actor. It never lost its shine. It never got old.
He sat behind the table on a Thursday afternoon, the door opening and closing every two minutes as shoppers came and went, came and went. He’d done this a hundred times now, or at least it felt like it and he knew the drill exactly. Most of the people who came in were heading straight for that pile of paperbacks stacked on the table near the desk. The new bestseller by E. Tanner. He’d get a few to his small table of neatly piled hardbacks, his latest offering of seasonal gardening, but the majority were led by their noses and would take whatever they were fed. Was he cynical? Oh god, he was cynical!
This summer I did the spa towns. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. Bath, being somewhere Jane Austen is famous for living for a while, held a celebration of 200 years since the writer’s death, and I’ve never been before.