by Northern Life


As you walk home from York Minster, the rain falls flat against the cobblestones and sounds like ice cubes plunking into a tumbler full of whisky. The air smells like burning sugar beets as the Yorkshire chocolate factories ramp up production for the coming Christmas season. You walk carefully, you can’t afford a fall, and are relieved to get your key in the back door and into your little kitchen. You turn on the light, shake the rain off your mac and hang it on its post. The little paper poppy on the collar is soaked through and you hope it will not bleed onto the coat’s grey lapel. You need a drink. You pull out a step-stool to reach up to a top shelf. Sarah would scold you – she has given up on saying anything about liquor but would admonish you for climbing against the cupboards: “Why not put the whisky on the counter where you can reach it Mum?” she would say. There is simply no need for fretting. Even though you are eighty-three, you manage quite well. If you need anything, you ring your son Paul who lives just down the road and, if he is away, you call on the nice young couple Darla and Alistair who live next door. You have always kept the whisky in the top cupboard and you are not about to change now.

You stand at your kitchen counter and unscrew the lid on the bottle. You pour. The smell of peat and bite makes you calm. You reach into the freezer to get two ice cubes and drop them into a tumbler waiting in the dish rack. You take a gulp. The choirmaster at the cathedral did a fine job today eliciting heavenly sounds from everyday children. Some of the choir members looked very young, five or six. They teased and tugged at one another after they left the cloister and round the corner to their dressing room. You miss being a mother to a little boy; when Paul was that age, you were all still in British India and war had yet to break out. Murree was a lovely hilltop town whose crosswinds provided relief from the heat and was full of local help to take care of the day-to-day. Murree ended up in Pakistan after Partition. That was several lifetimes ago. You let more amber heat coat your throat and you sigh.

As you stand at the kitchen sink and down that first stiff drink, you catch a distorted reflection in the dark rain splattered window. Throughout your life, many men have told you of your beauty: you kept your blonde hair in soft waves, had a pleasing hourglass figure (but always watched your weight), and had a soft round face with full lips. You still pride yourself on having a shape but now your hair is white instead of blonde and your face is lined. Being old is a relief in some ways as you learned early on that beauty
comes with a cost. With expectation. And you never could quite live up to that. The few times you tried to, it was disappointing. Or heartbreaking. You are glad not to have to deal with that anymore.

You refill your tumbler and decide to make something to eat later – maybe a bit of toast with smoked salmon and scrambled egg. Out the kitchen window you can see Darla’s washing on the line. Darla and Alistair are not married but are a nice couple nonetheless. Darla’s lingerie is getting soaked in the rain: a lacy purple bra, a pair of bright pink knickers, a lacy garter with some black stockings. Darla’s a bit plump for all that, but it’s been a lifetime since you have worn nice underthings for anyone, as you have been a widow for nearly two decades. It is still a surprise how longing in the bowl of your hips can be triggered by something as simple as another woman’s lacy knickers on the line in the rain.

You make your way to the sitting room with your whisky and turn on the telly. You settle into the velour mustard armchair that was your husband’s favorite. “How nice to see the newscasters wearing poppies,” you say out loud to the empty room. Of course, they are talking about the events of September 11th again. Terrible that all those people were killed just going to work; awful to think that some had to jump from their office windows just to have an easier death; horrible to see the steel skeletons of those
towers collapse into rubble. You made the mistake of watching the news that Tuesday evening, when the world was in such shock that they were not thinking about the images they broadcast across the globe. You have since dreamt of burned-black bodies and hair matted red with blood and dust. In your sleep, people cry, priests chant last rites, sirens screams. You haven’t dreamt these types of dreams for years and thought you never would again. But they have reappeared in recent weeks and even the whisky
doesn’t always drown them.

Paul hadn’t minded the drills at first. Your little son once said that the noise and all the people gathered in the Shepherd’s Bush Underground Station during the raids was ‘rather like Guy Fawkes’ Day.’” Scents of after-shave trying-to-mask sweat, black market lavender soap, and mothballs from suitcases full of things stored in a cupboard permeated the close, stuffy air. The arches of the tunnel almost made it feel like people had gathered, with their tins of baked beans and Bovril, for a service. Unlike at most churches, however, the tins of chocolate digestive biscuits also attracted rats that scurried between trains.

Paul would play, as long as he was within your sight, with some of the other children whose families had gathered. Sarah had just learned to walk and wanted to do so but, of course, you had to hold onto her, or at the very least, plop her atop a cot to protect her from falling into the tunnel. You could hear the V1’s through the concrete and dirt.

Every time a shell exploded, you wondered where your husband was – Singapore? Japan? – and hoped he was safe.

You watch the television cut to footage of men in turbans holding automatic weapons standing in a poppy field. Now it shows Tony Blair speaking of war and solidarity with America. Blair is charming, but charm is not enough, and even if conflict is inevitable, if Blair or anyone else had bothered to ask anyone of your generation, anyone who had been in those countries, you would tell him: “Afghanistan is a lost cause, always was and will be.” Right and wrong have little to do with these decisions, these initiations. Now the commentators are arguing over Britain’s possible support for America going to war in the Middle East. Not one of them looks old enough to have been alive, even as a child, the last time Britain went to war. No one alive in America had to ration cubes of rancid butter or hide underground or hear stories of neighbours disappearing in the night. Of course, there were the people who somehow managed to survive those horrific camps and move to New York and such but that was another issue altogether. You realized long ago that men who decide to wage war find it far easier to orchestrate it all in a foreign place: whether it be beaches of Northern France or an opium field in the Middle East.

Your glass is empty.

It was during one of those long-ago nights in the tube station that you started drinking whisky. You had just gotten Paul settled on a cot and were holding a sleeping Sarah in your arms. You noticed a man hanging up his tweed jacket on a hook against the wall. The action was so commonplace, so normal, that you had to remind yourself you were in the curved bowl of the underground tunnel. The man was younger than you are now, but seemed so old at the time: he was too old to go to war and so was relegated to spending his nights with the women and children in the makeshift shelter. He noticed you watching him and gave you a nod. You smiled. He reached for silver flask in the hanging jacket’s inside pocket, pushed back the small button lid, and handed it to you. You took a small sip without disturbing the baby. You expected gin but instead of juniper, your mouth filled with dirt and heat and a memory of sticky toffee pudding. The whiskey coated your throat. The man smiled and asked in a thick brogue, “Ya like a wee dram then do ya?” and you replied, “I do tonight.” You handed him back his flask. He wiped off your lipstick with his handkerchief, reached up and towards you, and said, “Slainte – Here’s to surviving til dawn!” and took a big swig. For the next few nights of activity, this little drink became your ritual. The man’s name was Harry Davidson. You shared stories about your lives, about things that interested you such as art and music, and he taught Paul to make all sorts of knots – on account of serving in the Navy in the first war. You struck up a sort of friendship.

Truth be told, you were attracted to Harry. Perhaps it was because of – and not in spite of – his age. He was old enough to be your father. But he, and his whisky, made you feel safe and warm. His company gave you a temporary reprieve from the dark loneliness and constant anxiety that were your main companions. With Harry, you felt outside yourself – outside the realities of being a young
woman with two small children and a husband away at war and a world on fire and in ashes – and yet you also felt more yourself than you had in many years. Nothing physical happened. Not really – the brush of his hand against your thigh, a kiss on the cheek too close to your lips, a sweep of hair away from the back of your neck as he wiped away imagined soot. You were a married woman and he was a gentleman and you were in a tube station.

But you imagined many times in the years since that it did.

You carried on having a wee dram each evening after supper. Even sixty years later. And like any ritual, it is steeped in a private nostalgia and stubborn habit. You still think of Harry with kindness.

Now on the television they are talking about the economy. You stand up and turn it off: that is enough of all that. You go back to the kitchen, pour more drink, and put on a CD of the York Minster Boys’ Choir before settling back into the chair. You do love going to Evensong and hearing those beautiful young voices soaring into the arches. You used to sing and play piano but you gave your piano to Sarah so the children could take lessons and properly practice. You don’t know if anyone at Sarah’s house even plays it now. You have spent so many Sundays playing piano or organ in some church or another. You have played the same hymns while sweat dripped along your spine and you had to take your hands off the keys to swat mosquitos away in British India, in the makeshift chapel on the military compound near East Berlin, and shivering in the damp winter cold of a Yorkshire church. You feel a bit tipsy in your empty house. You turn off the music. Maybe the warm glow, the devil-may-care feeling you know so well, is what makes you decide to ring Paul and ask him to have dinner with you tomorrow. You fumble around the mobile that Sarah got you “for emergencies” and dial your son’s number. No answer. You refuse to leave voice messages. Never mind. You put the phone on a shelf. You sit back in your chair. Your heartbeat matches the cadence of the rain against the roof. You hum to yourself as you finish your whisky, close your eyes and feel the warmth, waiting for the rain to ease.