she runs down the stairs, the worn wood of the steps shining in the sunlight coming in through the hallway windows. downstairs, she barely manages to push open the heavy gate that separates the cool darkness of the alley from the heat outside. the smell of dust and cement and hot stone hits her. it’s early morning and the streets are quiet. every so often, the tram screeches as it struggles along its rails cutting through the neighbourhood in an enormous s-shape. the church bells will call for mass soon, even though she has never seen anyone go there or knows what the inside of a church looks like or what it’s good for.
she skips along the street, past the little shop that never sells anything except for bread and apples and onions and beer. it’s so hot, it feels like she is swimming through air, and stepping from shade into sun into shade into sun like crossing countries and like you are a different person depending on which side you’re on. she visits all her favourite places. the salon where her mother gets her hair done, now closed and deserted. the big metal garbage bins lined up in a way so that she can walk behind them and secretly overtake old people that never look at anything but their feet or to see if you are dressed properly anyway. the bakery where she sometimes buys a whole loaf of bread all for herself. the other bakery that sometimes sells cake.
she stops at the main road that separates her neighbourhood from the one where her grandmother lives. she could walk along the railway tracks or zigzag through the apartment blocks past where her school teacher with the parakeet lives. or she could go to the factory where her mother works, the road leading up to it paved in cobble stones so big and uneven that crossing it always feels like wading through a mountain river and that the trucks delivering fabrics and sewing cotton bop around like apples in a bowl.
from the factory, she takes her secret trail through the wood back to the right side of the train tracks. the wood is only three or four rows of trees deep, but if you know how you can walk the length of four or five blocks in it without anyone noticing you. there are empty beer bottles and cigarette butts and a broken chair and her mother says that the people who put them there are bad, but she has never seen anyone who looks bad and she is quicker than them anyways. she passes another church, its doors locked and the windows barred. but the clock at the top of the tower is working and her mother has taught her to see there what time it is so that she doesn’t have to ask anyone and if she does it can only be women.
back home, she pushes the heavy gate open again. it’s too early for lunch. coming from the bright sunlight into the dimness of the hall, everything is suddenly covered in a glossy black and the walls around her seem to move. it smells like coal and wet earth and mouldy stones and she twirls around, letting herself fall from wall to wall until her eyes have adjusted to the darkness and the ground is standing still again. it feels like what being in a spaceship must be like so she runs out again, blinks into the sun for a few seconds and comes back to feel the waves of the glossy blackness another time. the coldness of the alley smells different than the coldness of the cellar and different from the heat of the street, and she wonders what the heat up in the attic will smell like. she is not allowed to go there. the roof beams are rotten and her mother tells her that she will fall through the ceiling if she does, but if you know how you can do it and everything will be fine. there are abandoned storage rooms plastered in old newspapers that you can peel off in long strips, and sometimes she manages to get a whole page off without tearing it to pieces. they are as old as the building and therefore almost as important as things in museums and her grandmother has taught her to read the old font and she sometimes pictures herself reading these newspapers on the tram or at the doctor’s office impressing everyone.
above the storage rooms is the real attic with loose wooden boards that bounce when you step on them. it smells like wood chips and furniture polish and bakelite and walking around there you have to be quiet. she knows that if the old caretaker catches her up here, he’s going to tell her mother. and even though her mother doesn’t like him and says that one shouldn’t feed beer and chocolate to one’s dog, she would still listen to him and agree with him on everything else. and thinking about trouble and because she can’t see the church tower’s clock from the attic and doesn’t want to be late for Sunday lunch, she decides to go home, down the stairs, the worn wood of the steps shining in the sunlight coming in through the hallway windows.
Miss Rickmansworth’s Sunday
A homage to Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill
Miss Rickmansworth reaches for her lipstick and draws on her mouth. The average woman, she read the other day, will eat the equivalent of 29 tubes of lipstick in her lifetime. Inadvertent consumption that is, when licking the lips, or morsels of food being coated in it like some kind of sauce. Miss Rickmansworth smiles with satisfaction in the knowledge that her lipstick diet would be solely Lancôme. Replacing the cap on the lipstick, she leaves the mirror and puts on her favourite coat. It matches the tortoiseshell rims of her glasses, a rich blend of cocoa and amber. Like a velvet skin, it cloaks her body in warmth and softness, familiar like an old lover.
Ready and preened for her usual Sunday outing, she leaves the house, quietly shutting the door to her building. It is a crisp, early spring day, the kind where the clouds are spilling over the cornflower sky like puddles of milk, the air is fresh and icy with the memory of winter, trees are budding and there are flowers for sale on every street corner. The fruit stall by the station might even have strawberries, thinks Miss Rickmansworth. She has eaten many a dusty, overripe pear that winter.
For a Sunday, there are a lot of people about. Sundays weren’t always like this, she thinks. Every church was full and the streets were virtually deserted, save for a few neighbourhood children kicking a ball about, or a courting couple arm in arm. The air always smelled of a roasting joint. She still makes an effort to do a special meal on Sunday. She has it ready in the fridge to cook after her city walk – a dainty rack of lamb rubbed with a clove of garlic; peas, freshly shelled, and a few potatoes, waiting patiently in water.
The tube has a thousand eyes. Miss Rickmansworth steps delicately into the carriage and slides into a free standing space. She remembers the days when people used to stand up to give a lady a seat. She is pleased that perhaps she still looks young enough to be able to stand up between Kilburn and Green Park.
She disembarks and heads to the first stop on her usual Sunday jaunt. In the side alley a few streets down from the underground station there is a fruit and vegetable stall. The produce is glistening with fresh pulled earth, the carrot tops fluffy like green feathers, potatoes like shiny pebbles, tomatoes fat and bright as Christmas baubles. The stall is loaded with the bounty of early spring, leeks, cabbages and early tender lettuces sweet with the nourishment of rationed sunshine.
There are a few other people gathered around the stall. Miss Rickmansworth is in a sunny mood, for she loves her Sunday stroll and visit to the stall. She looks around and only sees happiness. Beaming toddlers in their parents’ arms, couples hand in hand, either flushed with the exuberance of young romance or those walking softly together in step with a profound intimacy that comes with years together. The world is full of love!, she thinks. The trees, the birds, the slowly budding jonquils, each sandstone building, each black taxi – all of these things suddenly look so beautiful. When the sun shines the whole world turns golden!
The stallholder turns his attention to Miss Rickmansworth. She motions to the portly unshaven man standing next to her, explaining that he was first. She doesn’t want to cut ahead. She isn’t in a hurry. She is pleased to offer another human being such courtesy.
But the man turns on her menacingly, his wrinkled face as sour as the pile of lemons in front of him.
“Are you ready?!” he shouts in a thick accent she cannot place.
Miss Rickmansworth is shocked by his manner and starts to stammer a response. He rolls his eyes, spittle forming on his lips.
“ARE YOU READY?” he shouts louder. People start staring. Miss Rickmansworth feels her cheeks burn. What has she done? The sun has stopped making everything sparkle. This man’s ugliness is all she can see. She is shocked to find a lone salty tear trickling down her face, bittering her lips and her L’Absolu- Rouge. She tries to talk.
“Well go on, stupid woman,” the man barks.
The stallholder turns to Miss Rickmansworth with sympathy in his eyes. She struggles to make sense of what has just happened. There is an overwhelming sadness. She holds in the tears she wants to cry, although her lip trembles with the effort. She asks in a voice so small, so far away she doesn’t recognise it as her own, for a box of strawberries. She knows that it is still too early for them to have the plump sweetness she so loves and they will not taste of anything. But it is too late. She has already asked for them and does not want any more attention. The box is put in a crinkly brown paper bag and handed gently to her. The stallholder’s hands feel like cold porcelain and his moist pale eyes meet hers with a kind smile. It doesn’t penetrate. She feels so heavy. Every tree, every bird, every black cab says – go. Leave. You are nothing.
She throws the box of strawberries into her basket and staggers away, back to the tube. A cab would be faster but the idea of having to talk makes her weary and upset. She wants to be somewhere she can be nameless. Faceless. Meaningless. The puddles do not reflect her as she walks. The sun has shifted to the other side of the road. She flees like a French aristocrat.
Her usual treat on a Sunday is a cake from the Patisserie Valerie on St James Street. Her parents always used to take her there when she was a small girl. Over half a century later she still takes the same careful and delightful consideration over her choice of treat – should she have the éclair, iced with a strip of sharp espresso and bulging with cream, the chocolate cake glistening with richness, or the almond croissant scattered with slightly scorched flakes….
She walks right past the cafe.
Strangers press up against her on the crowded Jubilee line train. A child grabs at her beautiful coat with fat drool-covered fingers. His mother doesn’t stop him. They get out at Finchley Road. There is sticky residue on the coat.
She takes it off and puts it in the wardrobe when she gets home. The click of the door shutting reverberates all around her, even in the crimson petals on the floral carpet. Even her home is scorning her. She notes the artificial peonies in her mother’s Wedgwood vase, the precise position of the lambswool slippers by the bed. She surveys it all, all these trinkets of her life, the perfect, the polished, the precisely placed, reflecting nothing. She is only the past, dressed in an old coat
The strawberries have bruised and softened in the basket. The special meal in the refrigerator is forgotten. Miss Rickmansworth sits as the quiet of the lost Sunday afternoon creeps in to her sitting room, cloaking the fruit bowl in the darkness, making the clock tick lonelier and louder and, with every finger of receding sunlight, her hands shake just a little.
Philippa Moore studied English at the University of Tasmania. She lives in the UK with her husband, Tom, where she runs both the award winning web site Skinny Latte Strikes Back and as many half marathons as her knees and sanity allow. She has written a novel and short story collection and, despite the name of her web site, she drinks more tea than coffee.