Short story by Jim Taylor
Alice was outrageously chic for an intensive care patient – it was actually quite embarrassing. Catching her own reflection in the ward window one night, she was surprised to find herself wearing the most gaudy lipstick and dark eye shadow, or was that blood caked around the corners of her mouth and two black eyes? And the Greta Garbo turban; was it, in fact, a dressing? Either way she could see she was facing her predicament with indomitable class and her dear old Mama was in agreement: “Aye, you’re a fighter, darling,” she’d say, squeezing her wee girl’s hand. With a feeble thumbs up here and a wan grin there, Alice drew on the part of a doomed but selfless character she had once played in a Noel Coward piece, as she received her stream of visitors, not all of them real: doctors and nurses would come and assure her she was a model patient or a nasty piece of work, that she had hours to live or was well on the mend, about to be sent home, returned immediately to theatre, cut up for spare parts or sold into slavery. She did her best to be agreeable, even as they floated in mid-air and exited through walls, but she was particularly keen to show her mettle to the dashing foreign consultant, who, thanks to her mother, was known as Dr Sharif, or Omar, amongst the ladies sitting round Alice’s bed. She did notice they never suggested him as a possible husband, as they might normally have done, and wondered if this was a downgrading of her status from Miss Still A Good Catch of the Rural Institute to Most Glamorous Damaged Goods in the Neurology Unit.
Since discharge she’d built up her daily walks from ten yards (to the kitchen and back), to fifty (bottom of the garden), and a hundred (end of the street); and now, after four weeks, it was safe to resume sex, according to After Your Brain Surgery, the pamphlet they’d given her on the ward and which was already so well thumbed and annotated it was falling in bits. “That’ll be a great improvement then,” she quipped to her friends, “since I wasn’t getting any before.” Harty har har. But unintentional celibacy is only funny amongst frustrated but fit singletons – like the characters in Friends – not women of forty odd who haven’t had a sniff of a boyfriend in years and as far as anyone can tell have no remaining interest in the subject. Alice wasn’t a lesbian or anything, her mother would confide to her cronies after a dram, just set in her ways, too much her own woman or too ambitious, in danger of burning out - like when she got depressed that time, not quite feminine enough or sufficiently hell-bent on children, possibly even slightly special – ‘on the spectrum’ as people often said these days – which was evidently no barrier to success, as such, just to being normal and one of the gang. Now this completely unscheduled (she was not long after running a half-marathon) fight for life was like a final full stop on a chapter that had started to drag: when Omar Sharif tied off that aneurysm he had also sealed the lid on the tupperware box of Alice’s youth, a banquet to be tossed in the freezer and never re-heated.
“You’ll have to take it easy for a while,” her mother told her accusingly, though actually, as manager of Skye Home and Office, Alice’s biggest challenge had been staying ahead of the autumn rush on wall planners for the following year. It was fair to say she was a grafter, a stalwart, doing whatever it took to keep her diminishing band of regular customers onside. And outside opening hours she was non-stop in the community; although, as with the amateur dramatics, forever in a supporting role – treasurer of this and secretary of that. So not really what you would call a high flyer, but definitely a worthwhile person. If George Clooney was the most eligible bachelor in Hollywood, Alice was the most worthwhile wallflower in Portree: Alice MacLean, spinster of this parish, as they would once have said, but in Alice’s case without the excuse of a fiancé shot in the trenches, like Great Aunt Whatever-her-name-was. Had she tried hard enough to do something about it? Well, what was the advice to lonely hearts on every agony page but to join a club or a class, pursue your interests? Nowadays they also recommended internet dating, with caution, but in a place this size you already knew everybody’s story and possibly wished you didn’t, and anyone you’d never heard of was to be viewed with suspicion: incomers to a remote island – what were they fleeing, exactly? As far as arranging to meet random men in the pubs, you’d be as well writing your number up in the gents. But there had been one near thing, a Mr Right, or a Mr Not Far Off At Any Rate, someone she couldn’t quite forget and that her mother knew nothing of.
She’d met him in the conservation group, which planted grass on the dunes, built walkways, raised fences and fought the good fight against coastal erosion. It was healthy and included a sociable picnic with the two dozen volunteers, half mountain biking families and half nose-ringed protestery types. Jeff stood out because he wasn’t attached to a brood of kids or a social movement, but he did bring his dog with him – Trugan, a collie. He climbed pylons for the Hydro, the iron giants that traversed snowy extremes best reached by helicopter. Alice could see those icy uplands in Jeff’s eyes as he held her in his gaze like a broken cable about to be plugged back into the grid. Calm and capable at the wheel of the minibus, he was possibly a smidgen young, actually a year younger than herself, with no apparent baggage – almost too good to be true in that sense. Most attractive of all was his apparent lack of interest in himself; he wasn’t even on Facebook. Jeff gave Alice’s life story a respectful audience and was amused in a nice way about her overbearing mother. In an effortless lunch break, and then as they worked side by side, him taking a natural lead with the manhandling side of things, he made Alice feel understood and got her laughing in a way she hadn’t in she didn’t know how long. After Jeff had parked the van up that night, they sneaked off for an Indian together and finished the evening with a friendly hug and a chaste kiss, but it was no holds barred by the end of the second date. Hello dear hormones, hello Captain Self-esteem, hello feeling alive again dot com. During an intense few weeks of love-making interspersed with long walks in the company of Trugan, Alice’s tousled glow and slapdash humour caused confusion and pleasure amongst her assistants. She discovered Jeff had dark moods, but this made him all the more like Heathcliff, passionate and brooding as he tramped the moors. It was just as they settled into a more natural stride, with a few nights a week spent apart, that Jeff announced his redeployment to the other end of the Highlands. He’d still be able to visit at weekends; well, the odd weekend, certainly once the winter weather had abated. She hadn’t understood that he was such a movable feast, but then he hadn’t known that either; it was a sudden decision, apparently. After weeks and months without much contact, a letter came that he had met someone in Thurso. She told herself that if his love had been true a couple of hundred miles of black ice wouldn’t have been enough to deflect his attention elsewhere, but she wasn’t entirely convinced by her own argument. Our lives shaped themselves around careers too, didn’t they? Long distance love was the postponement of an unpleasant decision; Jeff and Alice had taken different paths and that was it. She wasted no time on regrets, not after the two months in her dressing gown, swallowing Seroxat and watching Murder She Wrote. Then it was back to business. The girls all said she was her old self, plus some – ‘Alice Max’ somebody called it – bargaining with suppliers, ticking off late delivery firms, being firm with difficult clients and taking a no-nonsense approach to the tea kitty.
A year of merciless efficiency later, including a couple of tough staffing decisionsafter the downturn, she fell clutching her head in the store room and it was off to Glasgow in the flying ambulance. Her speech returned quite quickly but she couldn’t remember who people were, even at very first her own mother. Oh, she knew the old dear was someone close – it was just one of those embarrassing situations when we desperately hope it’s not too obvious we can’t put a name to the face. Labelling objects was also a struggle; she’d mix up some of the letters or pick the wrong member of the correct category: a can became a cat and an apple a pear. What to do with the household gadgets the occupational therapist brought her was also a riddle at first: how to boil a kettle and use the microwave; but in this practical sense she was quick on the reuptake, if a tad clumsy, and in due course was allowed home with a carer visiting twice a day. She limped slowly but surely to an ever greater step count, shuffling to the post box and then the shop, though her first encounters were difficult because people couldn’t hide their shock, even though the serious damage was hidden under her woolly hat. Facially and in her movements she had aged twenty or thirty years overnight, but one doctor assured her she would gradually rejuvenate and that her physical and chronological ages should resynchronise somewhere in the middle – she might look right again by fifty, say, which was good to know. The hardier of the friends, be they joggers, dramatists or conservationists, would call round eager to make tea and slice the cakes they’d brought, but Alice insisted on being the proper host. As she clattered around her kitchen and the visitors sat on the edge of their seats, however, she saw that her pride was being indulged rather than admired. Instead of cheerleaders urging on a comeback, her guests were straining forward like nervous fielders as she fumbled with a tray full of hot mugs. Their frustration that she wouldn’t sit down and accept this shambling, lopsided and forgetful version of herself as the new reality gave Alice’s theatrical displays of steadfastness an increasingly desperate edge. Before one disastrous trip to the Spar she prepared a neat list, but, amongst the crowded aisles, the strip lights and canned music, found herself struggling to recall what some of her own beautifully written words actually meant, resulting in a mixture of wild guesses and near things: instead of oranges she selected a bunch of onions, picked up coffee beans rather than instant, bags for garden and not domestic waste, and a bottle of hair bleach in place of toilet cleaner. Her mother tutted as she unpacked the assortment: “Why can’t you leave these things for now? I can do it, or one of the carers.”
“I’m having a bad day, alright?” Alice wailed. Then, as her mum tried to soothe her like a tearful two-year-old, she cried, “For God’s sake leave me alone!”
“Fine,” her mother said putting on her coat, “you haven’t lost your stubborn streak, that’s for sure.” Going out the door she added, “You can wrap those onions round your neck and sing ‘I did it my way’ at the Caley karaoke night.” A minute later she came back in and apologised. “Alice, I didn’t mean that, I just wish…”
“It’s okay mum. Just go. I just need to rest.”
When she was alone Alice did something the old bat had often told her to do and which lately she had been especially keen to avoid, which was to sit down at the dressing table and take a long hard look at herself. From the eyebrows down the 39-year-old had been replaced by a woman in her late fifties, and one who had had quite a hard life: pale, with bags under her bloodshot eyes and a sore looking scratch at the side of her mouth where the air line had widened her smile. With her hat off it was more of a Bride of Frankenstein effect. Her hair, though patchily reclaiming its turf, was a long way from covering the heavy, question mark shaped scar extending from behind her left ear to high in the middle of her forehead. Around the edge of the mirror were pictures she had taken of various sunsets, seals and water birds and there was one still there of Jeff and Trugan. “It’s life, Jeff, but not as we know it,” she said, taking the photo with her to bed and holding it against her heart as she pulled the covers over her head.
She woke in the middle of the night with the roof groaning and rain lashing the dormer, remembered hurricanes had been forecast and clicked the bedside lamp to discover a power cut – a busy night for Jeff and his pals, no doubt. She could see from the window that waves were crashing over the front and spraying the roofs of the town centre. There would be landslides, travel disruption and panic buying in the shops, but not so panicky that they’d be returning home with coal instead of bread or brillo pads when they’d wanted teabags. By daylight the storm had passed and, thinking of the conservation newsletter, Alice looked out her camera and car keys, though she hadn’t been cleared to drive yet. The world was forever applauding illegal skyrise climbers and reckless solo sailors because they were living life to the full. Well, try being a woman with half a brain and barely any sensation in your right leg in charge of a vehicle on the slippery road to Dunvegan. The most dangerous section was during a shower when she discovered her mind could no longer handle windscreen wipers – looking between and beyond them required an extra surge in mental power that left her a spent force by the time she pulled in above the beach. A Hydro van parked further on suggested a line had come down nearby. At the top of the wooden steps Alice could see that a great new channel had been scored into the previously smooth arc of beach, the curvaceous dunes had been bulldozed and what had been a beauty spot the day before was now a demolition site swathed in plastic rubbish. There were no remaining signs of the cosmetic shoring up that had after all been designed to slow the process of decline, not defend against a tsunami. When she was halfway down, the stairway started to sway violently and she realised the ground had been torn from beneath, leaving the structure suspended. As she held on to the side, a shout came from below:
“YOU’VE LET ME DOWN AGAIN!”
Peering between the slats she could see a couple. The woman had her back to the newly created sand cliff with her hands in front of her face. Having spotted Alice, their dog was looking for a way round and up through some brambles. Alice realised it was Trugan, who started to bark, but still the couple didn’t look up. Alice thought the steps were going to collapse and leave her standing on the squashed figures of Jeff and his Thurso girlfriend, if that’s who the woman was, though this was a long way from the north coast; maybe he had never truly left the island, or maybe he moved around and had a girl at every substation. Deciding even going back up was impossible, Alice crawled under the rail and pushed off into thorns above the cliff, entangling herself while Trugan jumped and snuffled at her.
“IT’S ALWAYS THE SAME!”
“Please, please stop.” The woman’s voice was much quieter.
With an almighty tug Alice freed herself and froze, feeling sure they must look up but they didn’t.
‘WHY DO YOU DO THIS TO ME?’
Alice clambered to the top and walked along the grass verge, took a wide angle shot and had her hand on the car door. A sharp exit would have been in order if the guy on the beach had been the Jeff she remembered, out for a romantic walk with his new squeeze, instead of this screaming madman with a crying girl at his mercy. Feeling duty bound to do something, Alice found her way down with no plan except possibly to appear before Jeff like a ghost and spook him into a state of calm. As she emerged at the far end of the beach, the couple noticed her and stepped apart, the woman walking to the water. Jeff looked fleetingly at Alice but, so changed and from a distance, she was no longer familiar to him. Maybe as a cover operation, or because improvisation was no longer a strong point, she found herself holding up her camera as if still intent on photographing the storm damage. She was particularly drawn to the hanging steps, but Jeff was leaning against the broken structure, his forehead resting on a raised arm in the classic pose of despair. Alice smiled politely at the girlfriend and was heading for the stunted remnants of the dunes when the woman stopped her. “Excuse me,” she was still sobbing. “I’m sorry to ask but you wouldn’t be going back into town…?”
“Yes, I’ve actually shot my bolt a bit – you might have to drive.”
The woman, a fair bit younger, helped Alice back up the steep path. “Keep going,” she said, when Alice tried to stop for a breather.
At the roadside Alice handed over the keys and looked back, realising that, though she might have changed out of all recognition, her car had not. “Do you think he’ll follow us?”
“No, don’t worry,“ said the woman, though she didn’t hang about and had put a few miles behind them before speaking again: “I hope you don’t mind me saying,” she said to Alice, “but you look as though you’ve been through a tough time.”
“Aye, a stroke.”
“What about you – will you be alright?”
“Yeah. Me and Jeff have been on and off for a while. He’s a bit paranoid, but I’ve had enough now, that’s it.”
“Where will you go?”
“Kyle, then Inverness.”
“Right, catch the crane…no, you know, choo choo…Brief Encounter!”
The woman half laughed. “Yeah, I don’t think I need one of those just now.” She glanced over at Alice who had let her head drop to the side. “You’ve knackered yourself coming out here.”
“Just a bit.”
“Well, thank God you did.”
Despite the lengths she had gone to take them, Alice decided not to submit her shots of the beach to the newsletter. Nice before and afters were the usual idea, not scenes of irreparable destruction.
A couple of days later Jeff called, asking to meet for a catch up. “A lot’s changed,” said Alice. “No hard feelings, but it’s time to move on.”
She went and found the picture of him and Trugan, but, before binning it, paused for one last look. Yes, one of those nice friendly woof woof things that you threw sticks for – that might be the ticket.
Jim Taylor is from Glasgow but lives in Shetland.