© Carly Tinkler
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By rights, we should have been consulted about it. Joan said that and I agreed. It’s a public open space after all. But no. One day a lorry turned up on the playing field and men started digging holes. They made a heck of a racket too, I can tell you, clattering, banging and swearing, pop music blaring out of the radio. And when they’d gone, there it was.
In fact you can’t see it from my house as a result of the damson trees at the bottom of the garden. They’re actually on the Council’s side; they never cut them back. The roots go right under my flower beds and shoot up all over the place, nasty little stems hard as wire which I can’t get to on account of my arthritis; it’s not just my hips, it’s my fingers, so I can’t work the secateurs. I don’t mind the damsons though. They give me some privacy. But next door doesn’t have damsons: Joan paid the Cooper’s son – Harvey? Harry? – to dig them up. He still does my lawn. She said she liked the view of the playing field but really, she liked to hang over the fence and natter to people out walking their dogs. Joan could tell you everything that was going on and she’d come round to mine for a chinwag and a cuppa. We’d sit outside if it was nice. My George loved his garden. After he retired he spent all his time out here, or pottering around in the shed. He grew lovely carrots, beans, peas – we had fresh vegetables all year round, and so much fruit! Strawberries, raspberries, the damsons of course. I’ve still got jars full of pickle and jam in the pantry, Lord knows if they’re edible. I’ll be all right for a while if the world ends like they say it will. Mind you, I can’t take them with me where I’m going. I doubt the children will want them either, but it seems such a shame to throw them away. He kept Joan’s garden looking nice too, George did, after Arthur passed away. Mine’s a bit of a mess these days – I let everything self-seed, it’s much easier to let things go where they want. Though I say it myself, in June it’s quite a picture – foxgloves, lupins, lady’s mantle and those little pale blue ones – what are they called? It’s a woman’s name who’s a chef on the telly. Begins with an N. They spread everywhere. “A weed is just a plant in the wrong place,” George used to say, and as far as I’m concerned, everything in my garden is in its right place, though he’s probably turning in his grave. “Pull those blooming nasturtiums up Peggy” he’ll be saying. “They get infested with caterpillars which eat my brassicas.” They do, it’s true. In July there are swarms of white butterflies everywhere. They’re beautiful.
I’ve nearly finished sorting out what clothes I’m taking with me – the rest can go to Oxfam although I can’t imagine anyone in my old things. I was up at six and I could murder a cup of tea. “Would you like a cuppa?” I say to myself sometimes – out loud, I mean. In a different voice I say, “Ooh, yes please.” “I’ll put the kettle on, then,” says the first one. “A chocolate digestive to go with it?” Mad old fool. I do miss Joan. I won’t
say that George and Arthur got on that well, because they didn’t, so it was a bit awkward for me and Joan at times. You know what men are like: very territorial, in my opinion. Arthur planted leylandii on his side of the fence and George was furious. They grew like the clappers and before we knew it they were six feet high and casting a shadow over the broad beans. Then they all went brown, which Arthur said was due to poisoning, and they didn’t speak much after that. I wonder if they’re all together up there, George, Arthur and Joan, looking down at me and laughing. Sometimes I think I’m being watched.
Where was I? Oh yes. Well, Joan knocked on my door after tea the day the workmen had been and said to come over and see what they’d done. Of course George and Arthur had both passed on by then, so Joan and me spent a lot of time together which was nice for both of us. Most of the people our age on the street were long dead and buried or had moved away and the youngsters are nice but you don’t like to make a nuisance of yourself, do you, when they’re so busy, out working all day and meals to cook and the children to look after when they come home. We didn’t see our families much either, you know how it is these days and both of ours moved away a long time ago, couldn’t wait to get out in fact – you can’t blame them, there’s not much to do round here and they had to go where the jobs were. Joan’s got three in Australia and one in Canada, or is it Switzerland? – somewhere with mountains and lakes. My two are in London – though it might as well be darkest Peru for all I see of them.
It was Henry – Harvey? – who said it was a zipwire. We stood in Joan’s back bedroom which had a view of the playing field and looked down on it in all its glory. Great big crossed wooden poles on a mound at one end and more poles at the other, lower down, with a metal wire – a cable I suppose you’d call it, hanging in between. They couldn’t use it yet because it hadn’t been passed by Health and Safety, Harvey said, but there was to be an official opening by the Mayor on Saturday. He was all excited, couldn’t wait to have a go. Only the older children could use it, he said, it wasn’t suitable for the little ones. The idea was that you sat on a seat at the high end and jumped off a platform. The seat is attached to the cable and it slides all the way down to the other end, quite fast. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for children getting plenty of exercise and fresh air. Last time the great-grandchildren came they brought computers and spent all day indoors in silence – I can’t see the point of it myself. Why can’t they amuse themselves with simpler things like we used to do? We’d be off building dams in the stream, making dens in the woods, hanging a tyre on a branch with twine, or playing hide and seek when we couldn’t go outside. Why do they have to have everything provided for them instead of using their imagination? I suppose we’ve all had the fear of God put into us with stories of child molesters and perverts and kidnappers and the suchlike lurking behind trees. There must have been people like that around when I was a girl, but you never heard about them so you never thought about it. It was all a lot more innocent then, somehow. I don’t know, I can’t explain.
Joan wanted to go to the grand opening and I didn’t have much choice but to go with her. Arthur was employed by the Town Council for years and Joan knew the Mayor’s mother from school. We put on our coats, walked up the street and took the shortcut down the alley to the playing field. It must have been just before Easter, and it was a lovely day. The trees were full of pink blossom and even the dandelions looked nice and bright in the long grass. There was quite a crowd, some people I recognised from the local newspaper, politicians and bigwigs whose names I should know – George was good at names, I’m better at faces myself. They were all dressed up to the nines and the Mayor (his name escapes me) had his chains on. There was a town crier too, and a group of Morris men blacking up each others’ faces. And an ice cream van.
“I’ll treat you to a cornet afterwards,” I said to Joan.
We couldn’t even see the zipwire what with the amount of kids standing round it, in fact there was quite a crowd; it looked like the whole neighbourhood had turned out, dogs and all.
The Town Crier declared the zipwire officially open and everyone cheered. Then the kids were made to stand in a line to wait their turn. The little girl from three doors down was first. Lorna. She was wearing a lemon yellow dress, I can remember as clearly as if it was yesterday. Beautiful long blonde hair she had then - it’s short now, bright red and spiky. I can’t think why her mother lets her out looking like that – skirts up to her knickers and such low tops. How old is she now – twelve? Thirteen? But on that day, she was nine at the most. We couldn’t see what was going on but everyone was quiet apart from a Council official telling her how to sit and where to hold on. Suddenly there was an almighty buzzing noise and a high-pitched scream. I grabbed Joan’s arm and saw Laura flying past, hair streaming, mouth open, clutching the metal rope attached to the seat. There was a great clank when she reached the other end where the cable stopped. I thought she was crying at first when the chap at the other end got her off, but she was squealing with laughter and people clapped. We could see how it worked now – there was a metal wheel at the top which ran along the wire, and that’s what was making this terrible screeching sound. When you finished you had to pull the seat back to the starting position and then the screech was even worse, made you shudder it did, like nails down a blackboard. The next child jumped on the seat and the whole thing started up again – screeching, buzzing, clanking, juddering and all that laughing, squealing and clapping. You couldn’t hear yourself think.
Joan said, “I’ll have that cornet now if you don’t mind.”
I said “Let’s push the boat out and have ninety nines.”
I wouldn’t have minded stopping to watch the Morris dancing but Joan said the noise set her teeth on edge and she needed a cup of tea to wash the ice cream down. As we walked down the street the sounds weren’t so loud as the houses were in the way. When we got home I made a brew and we went to sit in the lounge. I’d left the windows open to let some fresh air in, and as soon as we sat down we heard the zipping, clanking and shouting as clearly as if we’d still been standing right next to it. I remember the look on Joan’s face, and my nice Worcester china cup rattling in its saucer as she held it on her knee.
“Blooming ‘eck, Peggy,” she said. “What a racket! How are we supposed to live with this going on?”
She must have been eighty five then – the same age as I am now. Her face was lined and thin. She’d let her hair go completely white and her skin was so pale there was no colour left apart from her eyes. Bright blue eyes, Joan had. They used to sparkle but today they looked all cloudy. She never really got over losing Arthur, you know, he was her world. They did everything together, even held hands when they walked to the post office. You can imagine what George thought about that! Not exactly the big romantic, my George. Still, we muddled along well enough, honoured our wedding vows, more or less, got on all right most of the time. But I don’t miss him as much as Joan misses Arthur, I can tell you that. There was something else, though. Something I couldn’t put my finger on.
“Are you all right, Joan?” I asked.
“Just a bit of indigestion, that’s all,” she said. But I had a funny feeling it was more than that.
“Fancy using taxpayers’ money to put that monstrosity up,” I said. “I can’t see what all the fuss is about. Tie a rope to a tree, swing over the stream and jump in. That’s what we did at Lauren’s age, we used to walk all the way to Poolbrook, do you remember? You had that dog, what’s his name? The black one you got from the farm.”
“That was Molly,” she said. “She ran off and we thought we’d lost her, then Arthur brought her back to us. Carrying her in his arms, he was. I knew I’d marry him the moment I set eyes on him.”
And off we went, back into the past, reminiscing about the old days since there was nothing much to look forward to. Joan had her tea at mine in the end – probably beans on toast or something like that – and by the time she left it was almost dark and thank Heavens the noise from the zipwire had stopped.
It wasn’t too bad in the spring. April and May were cold and wet so none of the kids went out to play. On the odd fine morning you’d hear a buzz and a clank and a squeal as they jumped on the zipwire on their way to school. The same thing would happen in the afternoon around quarter to four on the way back but it would last until tea time; and of course at the weekends if it was nice they’d be out for most of the day. Joan kept saying she wasn’t looking forward to the summer holidays – it would still be light at ten so the chances were they’d come out again later on and play until it got dark. You had to admire the person who designed the thing – they must have known exactly what the kids wanted, it was that popular. I didn’t say so to Joan since even talking about the zipwire made her jittery; I bought her some chocolates which cheered her up but each time I saw her a little bit more had faded away. I’d have her over to tea two or three times a week to make sure she was eating properly, and she always ate most of it, but she said her stomach never felt quite right and she got through packets of indigestion tablets and gallons of peppermint tea. That’s another thing George would have told me to get to grips with; the mint’s running right through the garden now but it does make a lovely brew. I must remember to cut some to take with me.
Joan and I slept ten feet apart. Our beds were only separated by a wall. You can’t hear much from next door, I’m glad to say. These council houses are well-built – post-war, nineteen-forty-eight. We were one of the first to move in. George always said that the people who designed and built them took pride in what they did. Craftsmanship was valued in those days, they didn’t cut corners like they do now. Even so, you can sometimes hear next door’s telly – the new people watch a lot of football. You can hear when one of the children is crying or if there’s a row going on. I swore to Joan we never heard her and Arthur doing you know what, but we often did. They were at it all the time, right up to when Arthur died, although it wasn’t that what killed him I hasten to add. In fact he went into hospital to have his knee done and came out with an infection which took six months to finish him off. Shocking it is, that the place where you’re meant to get better makes you worse. Doctor T says I’ve got to have my hip done but I’d rather not risk it. The thing was, about Joan and Arthur, when they were at it, they always sounded like they were enjoying themselves. If George wanted a bit of the other we’d have to do it quietly and to be honest, well… lie back and think of England is all I have to say about that. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Oh yes, I was remembering that summer when the Council put up the zipwire, lying in bed and thinking of Joan.
She was right. As soon as the summer holidays started, the sun came out and the zipwire was in use from dawn till dusk. After a week she looked so tired I bought her some earplugs; she said they helped but were uncomfortable. Also, because she was keeping the windows shut, it was too warm to sleep. To be honest, I didn’t mind the noise. After a while I found that if I lay on my back with the curtains closed and the windows open and listened to all the different sounds going on outside, not just the buzzing of the zipwire, I felt quite calm. By the time I was ready to drift off everyone would have gone home and the birds would quieten down one by one, the blackbird always last. Fewer cars drove down the street and eventually all you could hear was faraway noises like traffic on the main road or a train. The sound I love to fall asleep to is rain. I wonder what it will be like to sleep somewhere else with lots of different noises; I’ve lived here for nearly sixty five years and you do get used to things. I’ve packed earplugs, just in case.
I was saying about that summer. One Saturday night at the beginning of July, I was woken up by the sound of people laughing and the zipwire screeching and clanking away. It was pitch black. When I looked at the clock it was half past midnight. The voices were not children’s. At first it sounded as if there were two girls, teenagers most like. Then, from the other side of the playing field I heard three or four boys shouting. I say boys – fifteen or sixteen, probably, at the age when they’re full of that tosterone and starting to get into trouble. I lay very still and hoped something nasty wasn’t about to happen. There were more shouts then the girls answered, something like, “Darren! We’re over here. Hurry up.” You could hear every word, clear as day. The chink of glass, everyone talking at once, laughing, swearing. They must have been drinking out of bottles, beer or cider or something like that. After five minutes or so the zipwire started up again. I watched the clock ticking round until they left which was well after two.
The next morning I went over to see Joan and she was lying on the sofa.
“Did you hear it?” she asked. “All night it went on. I didn’t get a wink of sleep.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “You stay there, I’ll put the kettle on.”
“What can we do?” she asked. “Shall we write and complain? No one ever asked us what we thought but we’ve got rights, Peggy. Surely we’re entitled to have a say in what goes on in our own back yards especially when it’s ruining our lives. I’ll bet the people who put it there don’t have to put up with things like that outside their houses night and day. They should give us soundproofing at the very least. I know Arthur would never have stood for it. Mind you, in Arthur’s day this would never have been allowed to happen. Never.”
“And a fan.”
“They should give you a fan to keep you cool at night, seeing as you’ve got to keep your windows shut. On account of the noise.”
She nodded. Then she said, “Peggy, will you have a look at this?”
“What?” I asked.
She stood up slowly, lifted her blouse, undid her bra and held her breast towards me. “It doesn’t look right to me. What do you think?”
It didn’t look right to me either. I had a funny feeling about it. The nipple was weeping and crusty. “No good asking me,” I said. “I’m no expert. Have you been to see the doctor about it?”
She fastened herself up. “No. I don’t like to bother them. I don’t really want to either, not after what happened to Arthur.”
“No harm in getting it checked out though,” I said. “It might just need some antibiotics or cream or something. I’ll come with you if you like.”
“We’ll see,” she said. “Now get that kettle on. I’m parched.”
Joan didn’t have any siblings, her children lived abroad as I said, and Arthur’s family didn’t keep in touch so she hardly ever went away. I on the other hand had a brother who lived in Reigate and every year at the beginning of August I’d take the train and go and stay with him for a week. After that I’d go to London and spend a few days being ferried between my children’s and grandchildren’s houses, eating far too much rich food and babysitting while they went to the theatre. I always looked forward to it but for once, seeing Joan’s breast like that and knowing how badly that infernal zipwire was affecting her, I didn’t want to go. Every night now they were coming out at half eleven, twelve o’clock, laughing, singing, buzzing and scraping away until two, sometimes three and no doubt getting drunk as lords on cheap booze. They brought radios sometimes too, playing awful music if that’s what you call it. But as the nights wore on, I found it easier to sleep and I thought perhaps Joan would get used to it as well. Also, my brother was ninety and not in good health and it might have been my last chance to see him. And if I didn’t see the family then, I’d have to wait until Christmas. I’d even started wondering if I would last that long myself. So on the first of August I packed my bags and booked a taxi to take me to the station.
“We’ll write a letter to the Council when I get back,” I said to Joan before I left. “I’ll ask Robert’s advice, he’s a solicitor. And don’t forget to phone the surgery. I’ve brought you some more earplugs. And a bottle of sherry and some herbal sleeping tablets. At night you have to have hot milk and a lettuce sandwich as well. It said on the radio, about lettuce. It’s got natural drugs in it that help you sleep.”
That made her laugh. “Bring me back a stick of rock,” she said.
I said, “I’m going to Reigate, not Brighton.”
“Well have a lovely time wherever you’re going,” she said, and that was the last thing she ever said to me.
Last night I woke up at one. It’s late September now but warm, so the teenagers still come to the zipwire after dark. You hear the voices in the distance at first, from the far side of the playing field. There’s something – I know there’s a word for it – sort of ancient and animal – about the sounds they make. I call them mating calls. It’s a part of growing up, isn’t it, all those hormones racing around your body and suddenly taking an interest in the opposite sex. I know people say they start young these days but Joan was eleven when she met Arthur and though they didn’t go all the way until they were married I know they did just about everything but. I was kissing boys at school when I was fourteen. Behind the bike sheds. Everyone did it.
The thing is, what I’ve realised now, is that there are never any arguments or trouble at the zipwire. All it seems to make people do is laugh. I lie here at night and smile to myself when I hear how happy they are, how carefree. They’re not bad kids. I’m sure they dream of getting out like mine did, and I hope they succeed. Or if they don’t, that they at least find happiness here, see the good that’s round about. The girl next door’s popped in a couple of times to see if I’m all right and the children are well-behaved. The husband’s a layabout but don’t worry I haven’t told her that. I’m sure she knows but she’s doing her best under the circumstances.
Last night they were playing on the zipwire for an hour. Then I heard the clinking of bottles and one boy said, “Don’t leave the fucking bottles, man – they might break and some kid’ll hurt himself on them. Pick ‘em up and take ‘em home.” Those were his exact words, more or less. I know we’re supposed to have moved on but hearing the F word still makes me feel nauseous. Even so, it just shows they’re not yobbos, which is what a lot of people round here say they are.
Today my daughter and daughter-in-law are driving down from London to help me pack. I’ve already disposed of things I’d rather they didn’t see. One of Joan’s sons came back to sort out her affairs after she died but I did go in before he got there and tidied up a little bit. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but what does it matter now? I had a spare key. I only moved the personal stuff – incontinence pads, bandages, pills, things like that. I wouldn’t want my children to see those things. So I suppose I’m lucky, now they won’t have to.
The care home is very nice. It’s in the town centre so there isn’t much garden but I can’t walk far now so I’ll watch the cars going by instead. The staff take you out in a wheelchair if you want to go to the shops and there are concerts and exercise classes and bingo. The mobile library comes once a week so I’ll get some new glasses and catch up on my reading. I used to read before I went to sleep but funnily enough, after the zipwire came I looked forward to getting into bed, turning out the light and just listening. Call me daft if you like, but I think I’m going to miss it.