Her skirt was lifted up and over her knees, revealing a pair of worn pink slippers and tights three shades too orange against her pale legs. An unlit cigarette hung from the corner of her thin lips. Her children fretted, telling her to quit, listing the diseases that may kill her – Didn’t she know that cousin Danny had died of lung cancer? – she knew. But what did it matter now? I’m practically dead already, what’s the use in me reaching 100? She would ask. They would call her morbid and frown with disapproving eyes. She lit the cigarette.
On the floor between her slippered feet was a saucepan filled to the brim with water. She took a potato in her right hand, a knife in her left, and peeled methodically. Thin ribbons of skin fell to the floor and she told herself she would sweep them up later. The cigarette was rapidly gaining a fragile length of ash – almost an inch now – and was balanced precariously above the pot. The ash quivered as she moved, like an uncertain tightrope walker. She dropped the first potato into the pot and water spilt over onto the floor, soaking her pink slippers.
She had peeled too many potatoes again. It didn’t do to be wasteful, so she decided she would take them to the woman across the hall when they were cooked. The embers of her cigarette had begun to burn the filter and the smell of burning plastic made her eyes water. Leaning across the table, she dropped the ash and filter into the ashtray. She stood, exhaling with the effort, and hauled the pot to the hob. Water sloshed over the sides and soaked her pink slippers. She swept up the peel and dried the puddles on the floor. Since she had a while to wait for the potatoes to boil, she decided to change the bed sheets.
The duvet won the struggle. She sat on the edge of the bed to catch her breath. Cold, grey light forced its way through the crack between her thin curtains. She looked around her. The room was small. Come to think of it, the entire flat was small. Her life had been reduced to three rooms – the bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen. That was it.
The bed, on the other hand, was far too big. She could stretch her arms across and still not touch the edge. Joe had been a big man. He had always complained of how his feet dangled over the end. She swung her legs up onto the bed, lay down, and lifted her head to look at her feet. Her feet were no where near the end. She struggled to imagine how anyone could be big enough to not fit this bed.
Perhaps I’ve shrunk?
She closed her eyes and imagined being huge – a giant. How she would burst from her clothing, through bricks, through slate, into the sky. Up and up until the streets below were unrecognisable. She imagined the weight of her limbs, how it would feel to be imposing, to be heavy. She imagined how it would feel to be Joe.
On the nightstand was a lamp, an ashtray, and a framed photo of her and Joe, cheek to cheek. Sat in the wooden chair besides the nightstand was a large stuffed tiger. Joe had given it to her the year they met. It was a silly thing and so big, but she was fond of its button eyes and sewn smile.
Joe was tall with a round stomach that pressed against her own when they hugged. He had big hands with thick fingers that would envelope hers. On the sides of his head he had fine, downy hair (the top was bald and shiny, and she delighted in calling him a monk and watching him pout), and the whiskers on his cheeks would tickle hers when they danced. There were whiskers in his nose and ears, too. His glasses were round and thick, like the bottom of a milk bottle. Occasionally she would take them from the nightstand drawer and put them on, trying to see the world the way he did. She put them on now.
Joe was her second husband. They had started their relationship after the death of her first husband. She had never loved her first husband – she wasn’t afraid to admit that, and she was sure he felt the same. They had married young and had children, it seemed appropriate to stay married. But she and Joe loved one another in a way she hadn’t realised was possible. How beautiful it was, to wake up and love him all over again, every day.
Then, without warning, he died.
It was sudden. In June. People don’t die in June, she had thought. October, November, those were months to die. But June?
Still wearing his glasses she sat up. She lifted the tiger from the chair and to her face, pulling it closer until she focused in on its black button eyes through the fog. Years ago, if you had pressed the tigers stomach it would roar. The voice box was old now though and didn’t work. A thin layer of dust coated its fur. The stitching on one of the paws was coming loose, and its plastic whiskers were bent. She sighed and dropped the toy back onto its chair. A low crackle, almost a growl, rumbled in the tigers stomach. She slipped off the glasses and picked up the tiger again, pressing its stuffed body firmly. The crackling repeated. It was weak but it was there. She smiled gently and placed the toy on the bed, between the pillows. The potatoes began to boil over in the kitchen.
That evening after dinner, she aimlessly guessed at the words in the newspapers crossword puzzle. A few years back she had heard that puzzles stopped you going crazy in your old age, and since then she had religiously done the crossword everyday. Five years and she hadn’t improved, had never even finished one; perhaps I’m already crazy? Her eyes began to ache.
She washed her face, brushed her teeth (a miracle she had kept them this long!), and slipped into her night dress. The woman in the mirror was so frail. So old. She leant closer and traced the lines of her face with her finger tips.
Earlier she had forgotten to finish making the bed, and had to spend ten more minutes doing so. By the time she was done she was unbearably hot. She lifted the dress above her head and dropped it onto the carpet.
For as long as she could remember, she had shared a bed with someone.
As a child, she would crawl into her parents bed, seeking protection from the dark in her fathers arms. Her mother would toss and turn, eventually getting out of the crowded bed and sleeping in her daughters now vacant one.
As a teenager, with her parents marriage was on its last legs, her mother would come into her room at night and sleep beside her, curled tightly into her back on the single mattress.
At 19 she married her first husband. They slept side by side, back to back, until the day he died.
And then there was Joe.
That night she dreamt of Joe.
She was stirred from sleep by the Tiger’s muffled grumbling. She was in the centre of the mattress, her naked body curled around the Tiger like a cocoon and her back slick with sweat. The fur was coarse against her skin. Her stomach and hands were grimy with dust. Needs a cloth run over it, she thought.
She carried it to the kitchen and searched in the cupboard under the sink for a clean dish towel. The cloth made the dust collect into coils that matted the fur. She considered washing it with dish soap, but quickly decided against that – she had once caught her son washing his hair in the sink with dish soap and it was brittle for days. Instead she decided to use shampoo, bringing the tiger into the bathroom and sitting it in the sink. She carefully rinsed his back, fearful that the water may damage his voice box. She worked the shampoo into a lather, rinsed, and used a fresh hand towel to dry it gently. The previously dull grey and brown stripes were now vibrant orange and black. She took the nail scissors from the shelf and trimmed the loose thread from its paw.
She was restless. Unsure what to do with herself. She sat at the kitchen table and traced the pattern of the table cloth with her finger tips. The ash of her cigarette grew quickly. She stubbed the cigarette into her empty cup and lit another. Her teeth felt dry.
The music began again upstairs, thumping. Muffled voices floated above her head and doors slammed. The music stopped. Feet clattered down the wooden stairs and through the hall.
She listened a while longer, waiting for something more that didn’t come. She dropped her cigarette into the ash tray. The phone rang, shaking the stillness of the room.
It was Rosemary, her eldest. Work needed her in, she was ill, she had forgotten a prior engagement, she was exhausted – Rosemary used one of the excuses she kept on rotation. She’d come to expect it. It was fine, she understood. She changed into her smart suede shoes and picked a book from the shelf to read as she ate – she had grown used to the routine. The Tiger grumbled in its chair. They’ll think I’m a crazy old lady, she thought. She tucked the Tiger under her arm.
What does it matter? Why should I care?
She ate her dinner – battered cod and chips with mushy peas – opposite the Tiger and his mewls and crackles. The waitress smiled too brightly, eyes flicking from her to the Tiger and back again. She finished her meal slowly, savouring her book and listening to the cook and the waitress talk. She had a regular booth, second from the end, the one that was at such an angle that she could see through the serving hatch and into the kitchen.
Her watch read twenty past nine. She paid the bill and walked into the street. She decided to not take the bus that night, but instead enjoy the crisp night air. Now and again she would squeeze the Tiger under her arm and listen as the gravel in his voice broke the still air.
Rosemary called again the next afternoon and rearranged their dinner for the next week. There were no sudden late night meetings, she didn’t have to travel into the city, she didn’t have the flu and she wasn’t exhausted.
She combed her hair and sprayed her throat with perfume. Put on earrings and plucked a coarse black hair from her upper lip. She slipped her feet into her smart suede shoes and decided on a long lavender coat with wide lapels. The Tiger whined in the kitchen. He whined again. Raspy and wheezing. She tucked him under her arm, as she had done every time she left the house that week, and left for the diner.
Rosemary was sat in the booth at the end reading a newspaper and biting her right thumb. She sat down opposite her and discreetly set the Tiger down on the seat to her right. Rosemary didn’t look up.
“one second mum” she said, “I ordered you fish and chips with peas, like usual. Give me two seconds I just have to finish this”
She sat patiently, rubbing her thumb over the soft fur of his paw. Rosemary closed her paper, folded it in half and then half again, and slotted it into her handbag.
“why did you bring that?” Rosemary said.
Suddenly she felt on show. It was all so ridiculous. She had brought a toy to dinner. I’ve brought a toy to dinner, she thought.
Her cheeks were hot and the smell of her perfume was suddenly overwhelming. She gripped his paw until her knuckles went white and pushed against her skin so hard she thought they might burst like bullets through tissue paper.
Then she tried to explain.
Rosemary seemed to grow more and more concerned. She was biting her thumb again. A cut at the base of her nail stung and throbbed.
“I suppose the voice box just wasn’t broken?” She said. Reasonable as ever. Reasonable Rosemary.
She was reluctant to agree. Her grip loosened slightly.
Rosemary had ordered her the wrong meal, the fish wasn’t battered and the peas weren’t mushy. She didn’t complain. The conversation became stilted, tense. They finished early, apparently there was an early morning meeting and she needed to get some sleep. They hugged and Rosemary promised she would drop by later that week.
She had hoped to walk home that night, but as rain began to mottle the pavement, she decided it was better to take the bus. The driver nodded to the Tiger tucked in the crook of her elbow and made a comment about paying an extra fare – she smiled and laughed politely, and then made her way down the bus. The gentleman sitting opposite her had blood on his hand. She rummaged through her bag for her handkerchief and handed it to him. He wrapped it around his palm and nodded, saying nothing.
The bus shuddered to a stop and she hastily gathered her things, bumbling to the doors. A puddle in the road soaked through her shoes and she swore under her breath. Her good shoes would be ruined. She started on her way home, the squelching of her feet making her walk faster.
She hadn’t taken an umbrella, her hair was plastered to her forehead and the tiger was beginning to feel damp to the touch. She opened her coat and covered him as best she could. A chill crept up her back.
As soon as she got through the door she tucked her shoes under the radiator, set the Tiger on top, and switched the kettle on. Voices and laughter echoed above her head. She envied him, the young man upstairs. She envied the colour his life seemed to have, how loud his life seemed to be. The kettle flicked off. She leant her face over the steam, beads of condensation gathering on her cheeks. She poured the boiling water into a cup with a teabag and a slice of lemon, and took it through to the living room.
Upstairs the music started again, soft piano. She could hear the young mans voice, followed by the voice of a young woman. She set her cup in its saucer and put it on the coffee table. She pointed and flexed her toes, repeating the action over and over. Rolled her ankles. As a younger woman she had fancied herself as something of a dancer. Her first husband hadn’t enjoyed dancing, complaining that she took the lead and then refusing to altogether. Joe had danced. He would step on her toes and lumber about, but he had danced. He would twirl her around and around and around, until her cheeks flushed and she could barely breath.
She continued to wiggle her toes. She lifted herself from the deep cushions of her armchair. She hugged her elbows and rocked from side to side. She lifted her arms above her head and spun slowly on her toes. Her shoulders ached but she continued. The Tiger gurgled in the kitchen. The carpet was soft beneath her bare feet. She carried the Tiger through to the living room and begun again.
They swayed slowly in circles, his body pulled tight to her chest. His weight in her arms. Warm from the radiator and smelling of rain and cigarettes. For a moment she could have sworn she felt the rise and fall of his chest. His whiskers tickled her cheeks.
The music stopped.
They stood in the centre of the room in their tight embrace for a few minutes, feeling one another breath.
She washed her face and brushed her teeth. In the bedroom she undressed and left her clothes in a puddle on the floor. The air was warm and heavy. She folded back the sheets and climbed into the bed. His head was on one pillow, hers on the other. They looked into each others eyes. She pushed his chest. And again. He didn’t mewl or crackle or gurgle or growl. She sat up, brought him to her lap and squeezed his chest tighter, until the hard plastic of his voice box bore into her thumbs. Its plastic button eyes stared at her, vacant. She shook him, pressed again. Her hands shook. Nothing. Not a thing.
Her eyes didn’t leave the Tiger’s. She flicked on the lamp and the room was bathed in a dim orange glow. She stood and picked up her clothes from the floor and draped them over the back of the chair, and then rummaged in her handbag for her cigarettes and lighter. The air had grown colder and so she pulled on her night dress before climbing between the sheets. The tiger was at the foot of the bed. She lit her cigarette and watched it for a while, waiting for it to say something. She couldn’t stand the thing. She grabbed it and set it down on the chair, its face turned away. For a while she sat on the edge of the bed and smoked her cigarette. Ash fell onto her chest.
That night she didn’t sleep.
She didn’t dream of Joe.