My sister phoned one morning. I was watching the pictures on the television when I felt the vibrations on my coffee cup. I looked at Sally’s name flash on and off the screen like a late-night chemist sign. Tired and mesmerised, I answered.
“WELL Maggie, how are you feeling today?
“Good, good. This fear thing you were telling me about last night, well I mentioned it to Jonathan and he told me it’s called ostiumtractophobia, so you don’t need to worry. It’s a real phobia and it’s actually documented and everything.100% treatable”
“Honestly. You don’t need to feel silly or anything. It’s a real phobia and…”
“Sally! What in the world are you on about? What phobia?”
“Ostiumtractophobia, you know, your little fear of …door handles.”
“Eh – I’ll… OK, Bye.” I hung up the phone in complete confusion as to why Sally thought my door handles had osteoporosis.
I sat down and cried again. Goodness, I make it sound as if I had allotted time in my busy day to take care of that pressing matter, don’t I? The truth is I was crying before I sat down, before I woke up this morning, before, well, anything else in the last three weeks.
I lit a cigarette and true to form, my sobbing ceased. It’s quite difficult to do both at the same time. It’s actually brilliant for stopping the tears.
My husband died three weeks ago. Cancer. I haven’t left my house since the funeral. Three weeks tomorrow, and if it wasn’t for Famous Grouse, Marlboro’s and Tesco’s delivery service, I’d never be able to cope.
As I inhaled the last morsel of smoke from the cigarette, and burned my two clutching fingers on the butt, it dawned on me, that Sally is a bloody idiot.
She called over one night to give me another bullshit book on bereavement. In Loving Memory I think it was called, I don’t know because it is safely in the bin. She asked me how I was coping. Ordinarily I would have fobbed her off, but she caught me on my fourth or fifth whiskey. So, I was feeling… chatty.
“I just want to stay here in the house, Sal, I think I’m just gonna stay here for another little while”
“It’s nice here, Everything reminds me of Pat. That’s the way I want it for a little longer.”
“Are you afraidto leave or something, Maggie?” Her face was furrowed and full of concern.
“Yeah… Cause, you know what Sally?” My brain waded the whiskey searching for the words. “Cause, the minute I open that front door..” pause for emphasis. “The MINUTE I open it up, and walk through and pull the thing, the, the handle behind me, is the MINUTE life goes on. No more Pat. That’s it. I’m a wi-widow then.” I deserved another glass because that was fucking profound.
“I see. So, you’re afraid to close the door with the handle. Right. I think I understand that Maggie. You’ve had a very hard time, especially with no children to grieve with. It’s normal to develop odd behaviour” Sally must have seen my eyes narrow as she reached to pour herself a second drink. She quickly returned the bottle.
“Oxymotion? No, oxymoron. That’s what that was! Well done Sal! Anyway, no, we didn’t want any children. No shame in that. Some do, some don’t. No babies for me and Pat. S’OK. Don’t cry…”
That’s about as much as I can remember of our conversation. Nothing that would have turned heads at Plato’s Symposium, but I was trying to explain how I felt. So, I would imagine my sister is going to have a conference call with my two brothers explaining that I am a grieving, drunken germaphobe who probably cooks children.
Sally told me many times that I would get back to normal but, the truth is, for me there is no going back to normal. Normal was my home with my husband. We were happy, and what’s more, we actually knew we were happy. Naturally, we bickered together, but we never had blazing rows like they do in the soaps. We used to laugh a lot, probably more than most married couples after fifteen years I bet! That was true right up until the end.
Just days before Pat died, I brought him some supper up to the bedroom. He was very weak and I was making desperate attempts for him to eat. Boiled eggs, he had always loved them and I was silently praying he wouldn’t refuse. Imagine my relief when his tired, sunken eyes actually lit up at the sight of the tray. I relaxed a little and headed for the bed. One second later, I was on my back, the tray was still in my hands and the eggs had flown across the room into the half-open sock drawer.
In my excitement at feeding my poor sick husband, I tripped on the telephone cord beside the bed. Bewildered, I poked my head up and looked at Pat. His head was in his hands and he was trembling with laughter. He looked like his old self for a split second and I almost forgot reality. It was a beautiful moment.
Pat slipped into unconsciousness soon after that day and kind of, uneventfully left me. It was quiet, gentle; much like the man himself.
I never expected to be a widow. I always figured I would go first. Pat didn’t smoke and drank very little whereas I smoked all my life and enjoyed good “sociable” nights out; the kind that induced harrowing existential crises. Although, I rarely drank at home. Now, I never leave the house so I have had to make some adjustments to that rule.
As I sat staring at the news again the other night, I once again attempted to torture my sadness by suffocation or drowning, and I toyed with the idea that Pat could see me. I don’t really believe in that sort of thing. However, I always thought that Alan Rickman made a good case in Truly, Madly, Deeply.
My intoxicated musings were brought to a sudden, terrifying halt by the sound of my front door slamming shut… Pat??
I was suddenly very sober again. Sweat ran down my face and stung my collarbone. I padded my way unsteadily off the armchair and reached for the door handle. The door flung violently in towards me, knocking me against the radiator.
“Maggie! Sorry, are you Okay? I just wanted to leave you another book love!”
“Fuck sake Sally, why the hell didn’t you tell me you were coming over. You scared the hell out of me!”
I snatched the book out of her freezing cold hands. A weighty paperback entitled Fighting Through Phobia. I flung it back at her.
“I’m not a fucking phobic Sally. I’m just missing my husband for Christ sake! Stop throwing pop psychology at me and just leave alone.” I stormed into the kitchen and fished in the bin for the first book. It seemed I filed it under black pudding that I didn’t remember eating. I scraped the breakfast remains off its slippery cover and handed it to her.
“Please take this one back too. I really don’t want either of them or any others unless they’re called How to Travel Back in Time to When You’re Husband Was Alive! You have one of those for me?”
She stood there stunned for a moment. “No Maggie,”
“No. I didn’t think you would. Goodbye.”
She left and I drank. I have never felt close to Sally. She is eighteen months older than me and I suppose she has always been good to me in her own way, but if we weren’t sisters, there is no way we would be friends. She is a pretty woman. Blonde hair and blue eyes, tall, slim and confident. It’s just a shame she is completely lacking a sense of humour or, sense of anything for that matter! She calls to see her grieving little sister most days of the week and hasn’t ever commented on the fact that she’s offered whiskey at five thirty instead of tea or coffee. But she does call, and although I have just thrown her out because she made me think my husband was visiting from beyond the grave, I knew she would phone the next dat. And she is the only one who will. I went to bed drunk again.
I woke up today to the phone ringing by the bed so naturally, I ignored it. If it was Sally, I wasn’t alert enough yet to admit that I was a bitch. I needed coffee beforehand. Eventually the phone stopped and I sloppily headed for the kitchen.
I happened upon my mobile phone on the counter. No text messages. No hassle. I poured the steaming water into the No.1 Wife mug Pat got me when I bought him Six Nations rugby tickets to Murrayfield in Edinburgh. It was for our tenth anniversary. The faded cartoon on the mug didn’t do anything to hide its age. Just like the wrinkles around my eyes and the streaks of grey spreading through my formerly dark brown hair.
Pat loved my hair. He said it was the first thing that he noticed about me. That is not really as poetic as it sounds because we met in a hair salon. He was delivering hair products. That was his job at the time. It was 1988 and I was in the salon having my hair ridiculously puffed up for my cousin’s wedding. He clambered in carrying a bulky stash of shampoos and so he didn’t see my handbag in his path. I was under the dryer when I felt his body slump onto my lap. My eyes sprung open in shock. He was absolutely mortified. The salon was full of women whose chattering all stopped to get a good gawk at this awkward, young man. His cheeks looked as if they had been scalded by piping hot tomatoes when he raised his head. I felt so bad for him that I ducked my head out from under the heat and chased him out to his van to apologise. When his cheeks cooled somewhat, I noticed he was quite handsome. My favourite Pat memory…
“No need to apologise. I should have been watching where I was walking.” He smiled meekly through the open driver’s seat window “Although -” He leaned in a tiny bit closer. “Between you and me, I hate having to walk into crowded women’s salons. It’s a bit intimidating for men. That was probably the longest I have ever spent in one!”
“Well, you were very professional, at least until you tripped and fell onto an unsuspecting woman’s lap!” I remember I winked at him.
He said something about it being a good way to meet a pretty girl… I invited him to the reception of my cousin’s wedding and that was that. He made me laugh so much that first night. I was a smitten mess. Pat was all mine for the next twenty years altogther. He shared his life with me until it was over, and he had to leave me behind.
I lit my first cigarette of the day, or what I have come to call Brunch, and turned on the TV in the corner of the kitchen. I couldn’t handle anything too serious that day. I flicked through the channels, squinting my eyes. Painful needles of smoke loomed from the fag hanging gracelessly from my lips. I found an old episode of ER. It sufficed as distracting noise in the room until they said something about cancer. Off.
I looked round my filthy kitchen. I realised I might have to wash more than one item per day judging by the pile of greasy dishes on the sideboard. I filled the sink and cried as I worked. Some time later I realised the place was sparkling. I just kept cleaning and crying. I had tapped into the productive edge of my misery somehow.
It must have been about five o’clock when I was steering towards the whisky again. The sun was going tools down and calling it a day, and so was I.
Then Sally was at my back door. Fuck. I walked over briskly and opened the door as coldly as I could.
“We’re going out today” Her face was grim. She was sporting her No Nonsense tone of voice.
I wasn’t in the mood and I told her as much.
She glared at me. “Tough, I am taking you out to do some shopping. No books, no nothing except me and you and your shopping list.”
I hate being told what to do. Always have, even at school and although it sounds childish, it’s one of the reasons I started working for myself.
“Sally, I told you how I feel about leaving the house and I won’t leave until I am good and ready. And I’m not ready. So, you can go now.”
I realised this apology I owed her wasn’t going very well at all. She completely ignored my instructions. She passed me and headed into the kitchen. Evidently, the cleanliness pleased her. She took an exaggerated look around and I began to feel irritation at being silently graded.
“You’re ready. You’ve cleaned the kitchen!” She reminded me of a sickly sweet Disney Princess and it pissed me off.
“The kitchen was filthy, Sally”
“It’s been filthy for weeks. But you’ve actually cleaned it! That’s a great sign. It’s time to go outside now Maggie. I’ll be with you, come on…”
I was pouting just like a spoiled child. I had been feeling child-like since Pat died. I remember feeling the same fear when my mother forgot to pick me up from school one day. I was seven or eight and she was only something like a half hour late but I was alone and afraid.
“No. Go home Sally. I won’tgo out today. End of story.”
She sighed. “OK, I suppose I can’t force you.”
But she didn’t go. She headed straight for the drinks cabinet. She quickly scooped the two bottles of whiskey AND my cigarettes AND my only working lighter and raced for the door. The BITCH!
I watched stunned as my big sister threw my treasured necessities into her car, started it and drove off. I was left at the back door aghast in my dressing gown. Furious at her childishness.
I was beginning to panic after a few seconds. I grabbed my phone and dialled her mobile number.
“Hi there! This is Sally, Please leave a message…” Her chirpy recording sent me bounding over the edge.
“Get back here you cow! Why are you punishing me? It’s so easy for you with your husband and kids waiting at home. What about me? Who have I got? I have nobody. Please don’t do this!”
I sank onto my hands and knees right down to the dusty floor tiles. I wailed and ranted until my throat pulsated. My eyes were drowning in my own tears. I screeched in rage and frustration at Pat for leaving me all alone. I didn’t deserve any of this. I had nothing to do but curl up after a truly biblical scale tantrum.
I was surprised by the darkness in the kitchen when I opened my eyes. I took a moment to lick my wounds before getting up off the floor. When I checked my phone I saw a missed call from…her. I played the message…I felt worn out.
“Maggie, Listen. I want you to come to my house tonight, Okay?. I have your cigarettes, and we can have a few drinks together here. Just get dressed, get in your car and come here. We’ll have a nice long talk and I promise no books… Drive safe… love you. We all love you.”
I robotically got dressed, picked up my handbag, and eventually I even retrieved the car keys from under the sofa. It’s not usually where I keep them but they probably hid themselves under there for safely. Poor little keys…
I opened the front door slowly and looked out. The wind gently patted my face as I placed my right hand on the door handle. I hesitated for a moment and took a deep breath.
I pulled the door closed behind me and now I am sitting in my car outside Sally’s house. This is my first real day without you, Pat and I really fucking hate it; Tough.