Finally Grace found herself in Lichfield. She sat in the window of the café awaiting her hot beverage. There were fourteen types of coffee on the menu and she worried that she had let herself down by opting for tea but she tried not to dwell on it. It was difficult to recover from a sense of defeat so early in the day.
She’d been avoiding Lichfield for some time. It had been one of her parents’ regular choices for a Sunday drive – purgatorial afternoons of unguessable recrimination spent visiting sodden woods, blighted market towns and sullen, whispering cathedral cities. Still, she had looked forward to them.
But Lichfield had inexorably nudged towards her, Thursday after Thursday as she worked her way through every other conceivable daytrip within a 30 mile radius. She had spurned it for the manifestly inferior charms of places like Tamworth and Dudley, but Lichfield had bided its time.
Matthew had helped her draw up the weekly schedule. There were various other Word docs intended to help her, among them many lists. He had also started ringing her each day from work to remind her that she was loved, she was needed, she was not adrift. (This last fact also printed out on a piece of paper in another pocket).
And Lichfield was delightful! Pretty pedestrianised streets; insultingly overpriced antique shops; a market selling the kinds of polyester clothes advertised in You magazine – all exactly as it should be. In the charming park she’d come across actual Morris Men but had managed to get out before they started with the nonsense.
Here she sat in an independent café-bar, fashionably decorated with mid-century modern accents. She was a day tripper. She was enjoying her leisure time. She was drinking loose leaf tea and watching the world go by like someone in an advert for financial services.
A few minutes in and she began to notice that everyone who passed by the window was white, which together with the red, white and blue bunting hanging in the street threatened to open up complex feelings of unease, guilt, and suspicion. But she forced her attention elsewhere – the teak sideboard, the arresting wallpaper, the brunch menu. She would not judge herself or others. She would sit back, observe, absorb, relax.
It was in this spirit that she first saw the man. Her old judging self might have described him as chubby, in a suit she would probably have deemed too tight, struggling along the street with a rug thrown over his shoulder. It was an incongruous sight, something to mention over dinner that night: the overdressed man carrying the incredibly heavy rug. He was probably taking it to one of the antique shops to be valued. Maybe the heavier they were the more valuable they were. Yes, she could imagine a rug specialist in one of the little shops poring over the fibres with a heavy handled magnifying glass. That’s exactly what happened in charming towns like this. Cities. It was a city. She shouldn’t patronise it. People took valuable things to be valued. And people drank many different types of coffee. People bought spare parts for their vacuum cleaners in the street market. And some people morris danced.
Admittedly he didn’t look like someone on his way to an antique shop. He looked grimfaced and sweat-soaked and as he passed directly in front of her a black patent leather high-heeled shoe fell from the rolled up rug onto the semi-pedestrianised street.
She looked at the shoe for some time. She looked then at the others in the café. They gazed at phones or menus or the wallpaper.
Number four on her list ‘Barriers to contentment’ was ‘Reading too much into things.’
She considered calling Matthew, then she imagined the words she would say, she imagined the way he would hear them. She looked again at the shoe, its surface reflected the sky.
Her father worked for many years in an office on Bennetts Hill in Birmingham.
Grace’s mother would sometimes point out the building when she and Grace were shopping in town, though she was never able to shed any light on what her husband actually did there. As a child, whenever Grace thought of her father working she imagined him up a ladder against a great wall of boxes, opening and closing them, looking for some elusive document. She learned years later that he was responsible for the purchase ledger, but this was not sufficiently poweful information to dismiss the image of the small man on the big ladder.
Every evening he left the office at 5pm and stepped out into the stream of workers moving from desk to bus or bar. Nobody dawdled, the prevailing mindset was purposeful, everyone driven by the same desire to be somewhere else. One evening her father emerged onto the street and saw ahead of him some kind of altercation. A man and a woman shouting. He steered himself to the side of them. As he drew closer he saw that it was a violent struggle. The man was trying to drag the woman somewhere and she was resisting. Her father successfully skirted the couple and started down the hill. It was only then that he noticed that something wasn’t quite right, the street was unusually empty and the quality of light strange. He looked up once more and saw that the people who would usually be crowding the pavement were all stood in a line at the end of the road, looking back at him. It took his brain a few moments to process the dreamlike tangle of faces and wires and lights before he realised that he had stepped onto a film set. As a young man with headphones guided him under the cordon, he felt a tingling in his scalp. It wasn’t simply the straightforward embarassment of disrupting filming (not that he had been given any warning), or of having so many eyes focussed upon him. He viewed his recent actions as if he too had watched from behind the line. He had seen the violence of the man, heard the appeals of the woman and he had walked on by because he had assumed that’s what everyone else had been doing. But instead everyone else had been watching him.
Grace’s mother told her all this during one of the interminable evenings on ward six, speaking quietly as if anything might wake him.
‘He thought it was a funny story.’ She said as she replaced the water in the vase of carnations. ‘He never understood a single thing his whole life.’
Grace visited the cathedral, staring intently at various bits of stone and wall. For lunch she had a disappointing chicken salad and knew then the day had curdled and nothing could save it. She went through the motions of Samuel Johnson’s birthplace and Erasmus Darwin’s garden. The unpleasant floating sensation had returned. She read all of the information cards, the visitor sheets and various menus but the words slipped around her. No one caught her eye and she doubted, as she often did, her own visibility. As she moved from one tourist spot to another she began to shed the notes and lists secreted in her pockets and handbag, placing them carefully in bins around the town centre like a platitudinous terrorist. They weren’t working, and it seemed silly to carry on pretending that they ever could. The note reading ‘You are not adrift’ she ripped into small pieces and scattered for the disappointed ducks on Minster Pool.
At three o’clock she allowed herself to leave. As she walked through the bus station she saw the man again. He was standing next to a coach with the words ‘Memory Lane Holidays’ printed along one side. He had changed his clothes and was no longer carrying the rug but she was sure it was him. She stopped walking and stared. Some time passed before he noticed her.
‘Alright love? Can I help you?’
Could he? Could anyone? It seemed unlikely. It wasn’t easy, she wanted to go back and tell her mother, not so easy at all to understand a single thing your whole life. She considered reassuring the man: ‘Sorry, I’m having a bit of a moment. A bit of a year in fact. Now I’m talking to strangers. Involving you in my little crisis.’ But the words wouldn’t come. She had the distinct sensation of a swooping descent, a return to earth, a solid landing. Her ears popped and the words came out:
‘I know what you did.’
He looked at her.
‘What I did? When? Sorry, I’m not with you.’
He was uncomfortable, embarrassed. She nodded slowly. ‘I know.’
He looked at her with concern. ‘Are you with anyone? Is there someone taking care of you?’
Another man emerged from the coach.
‘Come on Pat. Let’s crack on.’
‘Coming.’ He looked at her again. ‘Take care love.’
As he got on the coach she heard the other man ask who she was but not his answer.
She was shaking on the train home. She phoned Mathew to steady herself. She told him about the cathedral, the disappointing chicken salad, the fashionable coffee shop. She tried to phone Sarah, but went straight to voice mail.
‘It’s only mom. Just wanting to catch up. Hope you’re not studying too hard. Speak some time. Love you.’
She opened her bag and took out the shoe. She slipped her hand inside it and spread her fingers. She felt contained and calm. She never went to Lichfield again.
Catherine O’Flynn 2014