There was a tower of scaffolding outside the shop – grey metal poles fixed with ugly, cumbersome clips. Maintenance, I supposed, or painting, and they obscured the light as I held up the scarf I might or might not buy. Was it more blue than green I wondered and then a man fell past the window and it no longer mattered.
‘Shane!’ a voice screamed from outside and above. And then, ‘Sha-a-a-ne‘- a hollow, echoing howl that ended in a sob but the falling man made no sound as he hurtled downwards, a horizontal figure in white overalls, one hand outstretched as if he might be attempting to fly. There was a clang as he must have hit the lower scaffolding, followed by a metallic thud and the smash of glass as if two vehicles had collided.
And then, just for a moment, silence.
The man who normally sold curtains in the soft furnishings department next door rushed across to the window, as if this was something only a man could do, and looked out. For a moment his dark suit silhouetted against the light and then he turned back, holding up both hands as if someone had turned a gun on him.
And now there was a great deal of noise in the street below. People shouting. Car doors banging. A horn sounding several times and then stopping, quite suddenly, as if in embarrassment.
Sirens wailed in the distance, coming nearer…
People are staring.
I cried out – I must have – as the man fell and now my hands are pressed against my mouth to stop more sound escaping and I can feel my heart beating much, much too fast. As I lower my hands, I am opening and closing the fingers, testing, as it were, to see if they still work.
‘Are you all right? Is there anything…’ A young woman. Pleasant face, short brown hair, dark, worried eyes. ‘Only you called out…’
A little girl beside her, with the same, dark eyes. Looking up at me. Her white ankle socks have little frills around the tops. How does the mind notice such details at such a time?
‘I’m… fine. It’s all right. Thank you.’
People are losing interest. Returning to their own concerns although two older women stare across at me – nervously, as though they may be expected to take action. Then one whispers something and the other nods as they turn back to the handbags.
‘Are you sure?’ The young woman looks uncertain. ’You’ve dropped…’ She gathers up my carrier bags. ‘I think something may have broken.’
‘It’s all right. It doesn’t matter. Really.’
There is no dark-suited man beside the window. No scaffolding tower outside. Sunlight pours in unrestricted, glinting off the mirror where a woman holds a scarlet silk flower to her hair.
Out in the street pedestrians and traffic move normally and there is just one police car, parked behind a large truck with the name of a Dutch company on the side, making a delivery to the flower shop.
Everything is as it should be, Nothing is wrong.
I said nothing to Lawrence about the falling man – he gets annoyed about what he calls my ‘states’. I make too much of things, he says. Exaggerate my own importance.
That child by the pool in Spain, for instance. Anyone could have seen that coming. The teenage child-minder flirting with the lifeguard. The toddler left wandering, unsteadily, on its own. People would have noticed… There was no need for me to make an exhibition of myself – and ruin a perfectly good outfit! Someone would have spotted it long before it drowned.
Those other people hadn’t had the warning, I told him. They didn’t have the headache. They hadn’t seen the child – that child, fair-haired, with the blue and white striped top – pulled out of the water. Dead.
How could I just walk away and let it happen?
It was the same with that old man, he went on. Ignoring me. Senile old dodderer, wandering out without waiting for the green signal, but the car would have stopped. Or the old fool would have noticed. There was no reason for me to trail after him, waiting to grab him like an over-anxious nanny.
But the car wouldn’t have stopped. The thudding against my forehead told me that – and the purple and white, pre-migraine flashes that faded to nothing as I put my hand on the man’s arm, holding him back as the boy-racer sped round the corner, the thud of his stereo carrying my headache with it down the road.
Pure hysteria, Lawrence said, and I should see someone about it but
I didn’t because there was no point. Not after talking to Great Aunt Susannah.
I only met her once, not long before she died. She was ‘a bit strange‘, my mother used to say in the tone of voice she reserved for lesbians or morris dancers. Best not to get involved.
But she appeared normal enough when I visited her in the nursing home. A tiny, white-haired woman whose clothes seemed to have been bought for a much larger person, she talked about her parents, her schooldays, her husband… Then she told me about her honeymoon, on the Isle of Wight.
It was in the spring of 1912 and she and her new husband were on the cliffs watching this beautiful ship, the pride of the White Star Line, sail past on her maiden voyage.
‘Perhaps one day I’ll be able to take you on her,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t that be something?’
But Susannah was too busy throwing up in the bushes to reply.
‘I thought it must be morning sickness,’ she said, ‘but it wasn’t.’
‘I get headaches,’ I told her and she nodded. Understanding perfectly.
It was a warm autumn afternoon and we were sitting in a conservatory. Light filtered through vine leaves to lie in golden patterns across the floor and scarlet-headed dahlias blazed like fires outside the windows. A bumble bee thudded against the glass, trying, for some reason, to get inside.
‘It’s a terrible responsibility,’ Great Aunt Susannah said, ‘and sometimes there’s nothing you can do.’
‘Like the Titanic?’
She nodded again.
‘There’s another world, I’ve decided.’ She watched the bee blunder against the glass. ‘Very close to the one we normally see. As if it’s just behind a curtain and sometimes – or for some people – the curtain gets lifted, just a little.’
She massaged one hand against another. The pale, almost translucent skin stood up in ridges and the brown liver spots and the knotted veins betrayed her age but the eyes that gazed clear-sightedly from an almost unlined face were deep blue and very bright.
‘I can’t believe anything in life is pre-determined,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘There‘s always more than one possibility. After all, every day we make choices, usually quite unconsciously, which lead to one outcome or another.
Something catches your eye in a shop window; you go in and miss bumping into the man you might have married and been happy – or miserable – with.
You pick up a discarded newspaper on a bus and see an advertisement for the job you do for the rest of your life.
You pause for a moment to speak to a friend; a motorbike skids…’
She stopped, shuddering in spite of the sunlight and drowsy warmth.
‘It’s all balanced on a knife-edge,’ she said quietly, staring at the shifting pattern of light on the floor, ‘but sometimes some of us have the chance to tilt fate, just a little.’
The bee gave up and flew away through air heavy with tiny insects. Behind us care assistants in blue overalls prepared the residents for their evening meal.
‘Cheese sandwiches or tuna,’ said one in cheery, clearly articulated tones. ‘With yoghurt or a banana?’
Great Aunt Susannah smiled, rather sadly, moving a book to accommodate her supper.
Her days of tilting fate were almost certainly over.
I worried, that evening, about the falling man. Who was out there somewhere, doing whatever he did in the evenings.
I’d noticed a flash of scarlet at the neck of his overalls. A football shirt, I imagined, and wondered if he were an Arsenal supporter. They were playing tonight – Lawrence had the sports channel on – and perhaps Shane was in some pub, watching on one of those vast screens.
Or perhaps he was at home with his wife and children.
If he had a wife and children.
Perhaps he was too young. Impossible to tell someone’s age when all you see of them is their overalled body hurtling downwards.
I wondered if he had plans for the weekend. Except that apparently he wasn’t going to live that long…
It is, as Great Aunt Susannah said, a terrible responsibility, tilting fate, and I lay in bed fretting next to Lawrence. Even in sleep he remained in control, breathing smoothly with no snores, grunts or wheezes and he would wake next morning in the same position as he started, whilst I turned and twisted, too hot, too cold or too itchy, tangling myself in bedclothes, losing control of pillows, knotting my nightdress around my knees…
He would stare in irritation at my crumpled bedding whilst the sheet and duvet on his side looked worthy of a five star hotel and I would feel my inadequacy. But I was used to that. I’d been a wife and mother for twenty five years. I’d had plenty of practise.
Lawrence was a Senior Partner and was always right. I was used to that too and I went on worrying about Shane. It was unusual to get such an advance warning – and I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I should do.
I’d often wondered. Suppose I saw a group of children clambering aboard a bus I’d seen smashed into a motorway bridge? Or lines of clubbers queuing to get into the building I’d witnessed exploding in flames?
Would I ‘make an exhibition of myself’, as Lawrence put it? Charge up to a crowd of total strangers and tell them to run for their lives?
I doubted I’d have the confidence. My last boss was a bully, which was why I had my breakdown, and Lawrence always says I’m useless with people…
A scaffolding firm were erecting their poles along the front of the department store next morning. I waited and watched but the men were all wearing jeans and yellow shirts printed with the name of the scaffolding company and in any case, I hadn’t a vestige of a headache.
I went across to the flower shop and chose some carnations.
‘Do you get deliveries direct from Holland?’ I asked the girl who was making a mess of wrapping them in blue tissue paper and she said yes, they did.
‘Hyacinths in bowls.’ She ruined another bit of paper. ‘And tulips.’
‘That’s nice. When do you expect your next delivery? What time of day does the truck usually come?’
‘Dunno.’ She tried to tear Sellotape with her teeth. ‘Wednesday. Thursday…’ I could see I was beginning to irritate her.
‘Tuesday morning. Ten…ten thirty,’ said a disembodied voice from the back of the shop and a fat man with a pink face and fluffy fair hair like a baby’s peered through the hanging beads that filled the doorway. ‘But we’ve plenty in stock.’
Which was when I noticed two entire shelves set out with blue and white bowls filled with deep red tulips and pink and purple hyacinths. Some had little china windmills among the flowers.
I heard the girl giggling as I hurried out, clutching my carnations.
I did my hospital library round that afternoon. When I first started I’d just visited the ordinary, adult wards but then I’d been asked if I’d extend my round to the psychiatric unit.
‘You get on so well with people,’ the volunteer organiser told me.
‘Well she would say that,’ Lawrence commented when I told him that evening. ‘They’re probably desperate.’
His words hurt but he was probably right. They were very short of helpers.
But I liked visiting the unit where some of the long-term patients were keen readers and we often had quite interesting discussions.
‘You’re doing an excellent job,’ Dr Carson told me the following week.
‘Patients often say how much they enjoy your visits.’
He was a gentle man, with a friendly, bony face, who always seemed to have time to talk – even to me.
‘I was thinking…’ He handed me a white plastic cup of tea in a brown plastic holder. ‘The Hospital Friends have been left a legacy and we’re considering setting up a library area here in the unit – and perhaps a book group. It could really help some peoples‘ recovery.’
I said it sounded a lovely idea and drank my tea, which was too strong and made with UHT milk.
‘Would you do it?’ he asked. ‘I can’t think of anyone more suitable. We’d pay you, naturally.’
‘Why you?’ Lawrence wanted to know. ‘You’re not trained for that sort of thing. Anyway…’ He looked round for the remote control. ‘What’s the health service doing, wasting money like that? They keep saying they’re strapped for cash.’
I explained about the legacy but I could see he wasn’t listening – and he’d never liked me going to the unit in any case. I suppose he imagined it to be like Bedlam.
‘You stick to your little voluntary job.’ He started to press buttons on the remote. ‘It’s not as if you’re a professional. You don’t know what damage you might do.’
That hurt, actually.
I’d been offered the job, after all.
‘So, what do you think about me taking the job?’ I asked next morning.
Admittedly it wasn’t a good time. He was checking emails before he left for work.
‘What job?’ he asked without looking up. He said the word ‘job’ as if it had inverted commas around it.
‘The hospital library job.’
‘I thought we’d agreed it wasn’t suitable,’ he said and pressed Delete.
I drive into town feeling dreadful. My head could be clenched between iron claws and I have that familiar sense of dread – shreddings of dark clouds tearing across a sunlit sky and a feeling in my stomach as if I‘ve swallowed a stone – but I‘m outside the store by nine thirty – the Dutch truck might, after all, be early – and stand where I can see men working on the scaffolding.
There are six of them, all wearing white overalls and yellow hard hats; three cleaning the paintwork with cloths and wire brushes and three already painting window frames. No-one seems to be wearing a red top, although it’s hard enough to stand upright, let along peer at men on scaffolding as yellow sparks jab the inside of my eyelids and those claws clutch so tightly at my skull that it could be about to shatter.
And then, at around twenty past ten, a huge truck with pictures of flowers and the words Van der Meeren, Delft, painted on the side comes slowly round the corner and pauses at the roundabout. At the same moment a van swerves carelessly into the lay-by below the scaffolding and a young man leaps out.
His overalls are half buttoned, as if he’s pulled them on in a hurry, so that his red shirt is clearly visible and, as he reaches the foot of the ladder, I notice something else. He isn’t wearing a hard hat.
Somehow I get myself across the road.
‘Excuse me!’ Knives jab my head from the vibrations of my voice. ‘Are you Shane?’
Behind me the flower truck wheezes as the driver releases the brakes. The young man pauses, one hand on the ladder at the bottom of the scaffolding. He stares belligerently.
‘What of it?’
I have no idea.
‘I know…’ Desperation unlocks my brain. ‘I know your mother!’
The truck pulls up outside the flower shop; the driver jumps down, slamming the cab door. The fat flower shop owner appears, smiling pinkly. A police car draws in against the curb…
‘So what?’ the young man demands.
‘You’re not wearing your hard hat.’
But he lets go of the ladder, lopes back to his van and reaches inside. The truck driver rolls up the metal tail-gate with a shattering crash and the throbbing inside my head relaxes as though someone has thrown a switch.
Shane was only about ten rungs up the ladder when his foot slipped.
It was another of Lawrence’s accidents waiting to happen, I thought. Late for work. Bad-tempered. Ignoring health and safety instructions. Possibly hung over..
He was lucky, according to the police officer who came across from checking on the truck, not to break more than his arm.
I said nothing to Lawrence, who wouldn’t have been interested and, if I’d mentioned my part, would have been downright angry.
Nor, the following week, did I tell him about the crash, even though he actually noticed I was looking pale as he left for work.
‘You’re wearing yourself out with that potty library round,’ he said. ‘I can’t think how you imagined you’d cope with a real job.’
He was late leaving that morning, angry – the plumber hadn’t turned up to install the new shower unit – and preoccupied – the auditors were due and the accountant was in Dubai.
It was raining for the first time in weeks and the turning onto the main road was running with water and thick with sodden leaves.
Anyone could have seen it coming.