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Never Too Late by Susan Howe

© Susan Howe

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Never Too Late - *A SHORT STORY*

NB *asterisks denote thoughts in italics





“Anally retentive indeed!” She grabbed the wrong sort of clothes peg in her fury. “Who does he think he’s calling anally retentive?”

Dilly wasn’t exactly sure what it meant, but she knew it wasn’t a compliment. She jammed the peg down onto the shoulder of Ray’s vest as if she were plunging it into his flesh.

She replayed his voice in her head, picturing his sly sideways look and that nasty twitch of a smile. "I only did it to help."

***

It had been a difficult morning. She'd struggled off the bus with the week’s shopping straight into a cloudburst, paddling up the street and past the living room, where her husband sat glued to the box. Water dripped from the end of her nose as she banged on the front door with her elbow, then her foot, without success.

*You can hear me, I know you can. Go on then, ignore me, you big lump.*

Putting a bag down on the sodden step, she managed to lean on the handle and let herself in.

“Oh,” Ray said, without taking his eyes off the screen. “You’re back. Put the kettle on, will you?”

She swallowed the urge to scream. Over three decades she’d trained herself not to react, however badly provoked. While she would have liked nothing better than to take one item after another from the bulging carriers and throw them at his head, she knew it would end up her loss. Ray would sit there until she‘d finished, then look her up and down.

“You’ve got the nastiest temper I’ve ever come across,” he would say, a sneer distorting his still-handsome features.

Then he’d put on his jacket and go out, returning for lunch, which he expected at 1 o’clock sharp. Hungry, Ray was a man starved of reason. Dilly had discovered that very soon after their marriage.

She ferried her bags through to the kitchen, aware she was being followed. Ray appeared in the doorway, the hint of a smile playing round his mouth.

Watching him out of the corner of her eye, she filled the kettle and turned to the cupboard for cups.

“I emptied the dishwasher for you,” he said.

Dilly’s fingers tightened on the knob.

Opening the door, she stared at the mess of crockery on the perfectly-lined shelves, usually so neat with cups and mugs in matching rows; the same patterns and colours together, handles all facing the same way. She clenched her teeth and took two odd mugs from the front of the pile, but she could see by the glint in his eye he knew he’d scored a direct hit.

She made the coffee, strong as he liked it, and waited until she heard his chair creak in the living room. Then she tiptoed over to the cupboard, opened it as quietly as the ancient hinges would allow, and unloaded the hotchpotch of crockery onto the worktop with shaking hands.

“Ha!”

Ray reappeared so suddenly that she dropped her favourite cup, which exploded in a hundred shining slivers on the worn lino.

“I knew you’d take it all out and do it again. Anally retentive, that’s what you are.”

He stomped back to his chair, his mirthless laugh echoing down the hall. A bitter taste rose from her throat and she shut her eyes, forcing it back.

***

She took a deep breath and finished hanging out the washing. The April sun sparkled off the wet grass as she concentrated on her system. His clothes on one section of the triangular dryer, hers on another and household articles on the third; trousers or skirts on the inner lines, shirts and vests in the middle, pants, socks and other small items outside. She used three types of peg: a smooth rubber variety for delicate items, springy plastic ones for pants and socks, which were always hung in pairs, and old fashioned wooden dolly pegs for towels. Her colour code dictated that her own things were pegged in shades of blue and green; his in reds and oranges; household items, except towels, in pinks and purples.

“That peg basket’s got more compartments than the Orient Express.” Ray's jokes never failed to amuse him.

Her task completed, she stood back and admired her handiwork, spinning the dryer round to inspect each section. But what was this? Dolly pegs with a vest? That would never do!

She rummaged in the basket for a matching pair of red ones and rehung the offending article.

*That’s what happens when you lose your grip. Lucky I spotted it in time.*

She turned to go inside and caught a glimpse of her husband at the bedroom window. He was laughing at her, as usual.
But she was fine now. Back on track. Ready to make his lunch.

Although he’d never laid a hand on her, Ray’s scorn bit into her as much as any cuts or bruises. Unresolved issues swung over them like a razor edged pendulum. She watched him dig into his liver and onions and nausea washed over her as the pungent scent of offal wafted off his fork. She’d always hated liver. The ripe, sweaty smell of it lingered on Ray’s breath and, during the night, it rose off his skin as if in a deliberate attempt to upset her while he slept. He insisted on having it once a week even though he knew she would have to make herself an alternative.

“Toast,” he’d say with a disparaging glance at her plate. “No wonder you’re so weak.”

***

“I don’t know how you stand it,” said Jane, her friend and employer. “I would have left him years ago. It’s never too late to start again, you know. Look at me - divorced twice and still game!”

They sat behind the counter of the small haberdashery shop, counting buttons. Dilly paused mid-count and thought for a moment. Her expression softened.

“You know, it wasn’t so bad when Ray was working and Jasmine was still at home and Mum was alive and we had the garden...”

She drifted into the past, the sweet smell of lavender welcoming her back. Her mother hummed, “Lavenders blue, dilly, dilly...” as she swept her hand over the blooms, releasing their fragrance into the warm summer air. Ray was very likely away at another conference, representing his up-and-coming telecommunications company. Dilly and her mother worked the half acre plot together, side by side, chatting and giggling as they weeded.

Mum found Ray a constant source of amusement; the way he strutted and preened in front of the mirror, combing his thick, wavy hair this way and that before he went out; his extensive collection of shiny Italian shoes; even his strange appetite for liver.

Laughter made him bearable, almost benign, until he was made redundant. He told everyone, even Dilly, he’d taken early retirement.

*Does he think I’m stupid? Who ever heard of retirement at forty four?*

The size of his redundancy package suggested he’d been sacked, which Dilly guessed was for another sexual indiscretion. Without any consultation he put the house on the market and they downsized to a matchbox with a tiny square of lawn, just big enough for her washing line and half a dozen lavenders from her beloved garden.

Six months later her mother had a stroke and died, leaving Dilly to struggle on alone. Ray made a feeble attempt to get another position, “just to keep my brain in working order”, but gave up after a couple of rejections. He became unbearably demanding. She knew he was bored, his ego deflated, and tried to be sympathetic, but he brushed her efforts aside.

“Leave me alone, woman. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s you. Nothing to do all day but nag.”

She would begin to refute his allegations and then think better of it, channelling her frustration into reorganizing another cupboard or chest of drawers and muttering mild expletives under her breath.

***

She’d met Jane at a church bazaar in town. Jasmine was home on a rare, flying visit and, caught out by the rain, had pulled Dilly into the crowded hall. The only two seats left in the cafe area were at a table already occupied by a woman with wild grey hair and bright, ethnic clothing. They all got chatting over a cup of weak tea, breathing in the musty smell of old books and games. Jane said she was taking a break from her haberdashery shop across the road.

“I’m in a complete pickle,” she laughed. “I don’t know how I manage! You don’t know anyone with a tidy mind who needs a job, do you?”

There was barely a moment's pause. “Yes," Jasmine said. "Mum does."

Wide-eyed, Dilly shrank back in her chair as Jane leaned forward with an eager smile. “What a coincidence! Do you really?”

Putting her cup down, Jasmine turned towards Dilly and squeezed her hand. "Mum, it's a great idea. Just what you need."

Dilly opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

“She could start right away,” Jasmine said. She raised her eyebrows at her mother as if daring her to disagree.

Dilly knew it was pointless once Jasmine had made up her mind. She took a deep breath and nodded.

***

Jasmine talked about the new job all the way home on the bus. Dilly sat fiddling with the strap of her bag, wondering what on earth had possessed her to accept it.

"Whatever will your father say?" she said at last.

Jasmine winked. "Leave Dad to me," she said.

Although Ray made a perfunctory show of displeasure when they explained what had happened, Dilly could sense the relief behind the bluster. Money was tight, she knew that. His new habit of visiting the pub before lunch and after tea wasn’t helping either his temper or their finances, but he would accept no criticism.

“You’re jealous because I’ve got friends and you haven’t,” he would say, whenever she tried to reason with him.

It was impossible to argue because it was true.

The job was so perfect, Dilly often wondered if her mother could have engineered it from above. She served in the shop for three hours every afternoon, six days a week, which fitted into her routine with hardly any adjustment. Jane hadn’t exaggerated the extent of the pickle she was in and welcomed Dilly’s systems with relief. Every drawer and shelf was soon clearly marked, its contents arranged in size, make or colour as appropriate. The order book became a beacon of clarity and customers could actually see the stock for the first time. Sales increased markedly.

“You’re an angel,” Jane said. Dilly flushed with pleasure. “However did I manage without you?”

Their friendship blossomed. “Silly Dilly and Plain Jane,” Ray called them. Jane persuaded Dilly to go to evening classes with her on Ray’s darts night, first to learn French, then cake decoration. When that finished they tried painting, quickly discovering that sunflowers and sunsets were better left to the Masters.

Dilly often found herself telling Jane quite intimate details of her life, things she hadn’t even told her mother. She began to see both herself and her husband through new eyes. It saddened her that Ray’s ambitions had become so withered and, along with them, his character. For all his faults he had always been popular; an attractive man with plenty of charisma to spend when it mattered. People revolved around him, drawing light and life, greedy for their moment in the sun.

There had even been occasions when she’d been proud to stand beside him, hoping a bit of his lustre would rub off on her. But his radiance never brightened their home and now she saw herself as his pawn, being moved about at his will, and started to wonder if she was better than that.

“I don’t understand why you married him in the first place,” Jane said, when Dilly related their latest confrontation.

Dilly could have told her but she wasn’t quite ready yet.

***

She was seventeen. Her friend, Mary, had persuaded her to go to the Rugby Club Christmas dance and there she stood, at the edge of the dance floor, new shoes pinching, collar scratching, exuding embarrassment from every pore, hoping for nothing more than to blend in.

A group of lads leaned on the bar, eyeing up the talent. One of them stood out in the gloom. Tall, with a rugby player’s physique, he was good looking and well groomed, wearing a white shirt and black jeans with a casual arrogance that drew the eyes of every girl in the room. He leaned back, watching them through half closed eyes. His gaze fell on Dilly and she looked down.

Mary nudged her. “He’s coming over,” she said, arranging herself for an introduction.

“Dance?” he asked.

Mary moved forwards but it was Dilly’s hand he took. She allowed herself to be led onto the floor, blushing into the roots of her hair. He laughed, pushing her into the gyrating crowd where she hopped from one foot to the other, more or less in time to the music, praying it would soon be over. At the end of the record she murmured her thanks and turned away, but he took her hand and pulled her close for a slow one. Her heart came thudding back against the hardness of his chest, revealing her pitiful lack of experience. He barely let go of her for the rest of the evening and she caught envious glares from all sides.

“You want to watch Ray,” one of them said, as she waited in the queue for the Ladies. “He’s only after one thing.” There was no mistaking the cattiness in her tone.

“Thanks for the warning,” Dilly replied, fully expecting him to have moved on to some other grateful female by the time she emerged.

But he was waiting for her by the bar and stayed with her for the rest of the night, walking her home and kissing her softly by the gate. Her body melted. She was just a mouth, tingling with the excitement of her first kiss. She unlocked the door with a shaking hand, thankful for the darkness, her lips on fire.

Ray courted her with uncharacteristic restraint. Whenever she removed his trembling hands from her breasts, his ardour became more fervent, his attentions more finely tuned. After six months Dilly believed he had waited long enough. He was beginning to seem restless, his eyes wandering to girls with shorter skirts. She went and got the Pill and, when a suitable occasion arose, she allowed his hands to continue their exploration of her body. He was surprised at first, his fingers faltering as they crept up her skirt.

“Oh Dilly,” he sighed as he took her, none too gently, on the hearthrug.

It wasn’t as she’d imagined. She gasped as a scorching sensation ripped through her body. She tried to turn her head away from his cheese ‘n’ onion crisps breath as he pushed himself into her over and over again. Pain, like a blistering shoe, chafed her insides until she couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Please stop,” she whispered, a tear escaping her closed eyes. “Please stop.”

But he was finished anyway. He rolled off her and lit a cigarette.

“You okay?” He zipped himself up.

She turned onto her side and as she curled herself into a ball, she felt wetness seeping onto her thigh.

“Oh God,” he said. “You’ve got blood on the rug. Get a cloth and clean it up before Mum sees it.”

She pulled on her pants and went home, tears coursing down her cheeks.

She was right after all, that girl in the queue. Ray didn’t ring that night or ever again. Dilly didn’t really care. Her parents asked if anything had happened between them and she shrugged. To her relief, they didn’t press her.

Almost two months elapsed before she realised she was late. Another passed before she admitted to herself she was in trouble. Later she discovered she hadn't taken the Pill for long enough. Silly girl.

There was no-one she could talk to. No-one she could tell. She stayed in her room, only going downstairs for meals she couldn’t eat. Her stomach started to swell and she knew she couldn’t hide it for much longer. She saw her mum picking raspberries in the garden and went outside. Reading the misery in Dilly’s face, her mother held out her arms.

“I wondered when you were going to tell me,” she whispered into her daughter’s hair. “It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”

They clung together, rocking back and forth, until there were no tears left.

Her dad went to see Ray that evening. He maintained a grim silence about what passed between them, but within the month she was married. No-one asked her what she wanted and, as far as she knew, no-one asked Ray either. She left school and tried to make the best of it, for the baby. They moved into a two-roomed flat, all Ray could afford, and she tried to make it comfortable.

“I suppose you’re happy now you’ve got what you wanted,” he said, prowling the flat of an evening.

Throwing his pent up energies into his work, he climbed both the company ladder and a succession of pretty young employees. He didn't hide it well, but she didn’t mind too much. It was one less job for her.

They poured all their love into their beautiful daughter. Ray was a devoted father; nothing was too much trouble if it made Jasmine happy. For many years the bond that held them to their child reached beyond her, pulling the other parent closer. When Jasmine finally left home it snapped back, her parents sprang apart and loneliness crept in.

They had given Jasmine their dreams and were rewarded by her strong, independent spirit and a string of colourful postcards from around the globe. Taped neatly to the fridge door, they lent an exotic flavour to the otherwise drab little room. Dilly could stand by them and feel the salt on her skin, inhale the perfume of exotic plants.

She sighed. Freedom was what she had most wanted for Jasmine but oh, how she missed her. A few days together now and then simply wasn't enough. A tremor shook her slight frame.

Jane squeezed her hand and reached for her overstuffed handbag. She pulled out a crumpled leaflet.

“What shall we do next?” she said. “What about Modern Jive?”

Dilly frowned. “Don’t you think we’re a bit old?”

Jane wagged her finger. “You’re never too old to have fun.”

***

“Okay, let’s form a circle,” said a man with a shiny head, broad smile and the widest trousers Dilly had ever seen. “I’m James and this is Lizzie and we’re going to teach you how to jive.”

Dilly stood at the edge of a dance floor for the first time in thirty five years, wondering what on earth she was doing there. It was every bit as terrifying as the last time. She looked round the bright, modern village hall. There was quite a crowd and some people appeared to be singles, like themselves.

Ray had nearly wet himself when she told him where she was going and she’d almost backed out.

“Dancing Dilly and Jumping Jane,” he chuckled. “What a pair.”

She bridled. “It wouldn’t do you any harm to get off your backside once in a while.”

Startled by her courage, she backed away.

“I might look in later,” he said. “Just for a laugh.”

Her confidence immediately wavered at the prospect.

A burst of laughter brought her back to the present. James was speaking again.

“We’re here to have fun. You’ll all go wrong and it doesn’t matter - it’s only dancing. So, let’s get started. Take a partner of the opposite sex and introduce yourselves.”

Dilly bit her lip. For some reason she’d thought she and Jane would dance together. Of course, that was ridiculous. Silly Dilly. She caught Jane’s eye and an encouraging nod and turned to the man next to her. He was only a little taller than her with greying hair and anxious blue eyes. He smelt of soap and fresh air.

“I’m Andrew.” His eyes crinkled as he spoke. “And I‘m not sure what I’m doing here. My kids made me come.”

He patted his little paunch with a rueful smile.

“I’m Dilly. I came with my friend.”

“We’re going to teach you three moves tonight,” James said, “and this is what it should look like.”

He pressed a button on his remote control and Moondance filled the room. James took Lizzie by the hand and proceeded to whirl her around in an impossible labyrinth of steps.The group watched with dropped jaws.

*I’ll never be able to do that.* Dilly glanced towards the exit.

“I’ll never be able to do that,” said her partner, his brow puckering with anxiety.

James laughed at their stricken faces. “Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it looks. Guys, face your partner and take her right hand in your left.”

They walked it through together several times, then he flicked on the music and the fun began. They stumbled about, tying themselves in knots until James shouted, “Ladies rotate to the left!”

The room buzzed with laughter and conversation and, although she would rather have stayed with Andrew, Dilly moved round and greeted her next partner. By the end of the hour she had danced with every man in the room.

“Well,” said Jane, noting her friend’s pink cheeks and shining eyes, “Are you glad you came?”

Dilly nodded. It was more liberating than she could ever have imagined. When James led her through the moves, he kept her so finely balanced that she executed two perfect spins, turning on the ball of one foot and coming to rest directly facing him. Her body seemed feather light and free, yet under complete control.

“Nicely done,” he said, moving onto the next lady who puffed and sweated, straining the seams of her blouse in an alarming fashion.
Dilly blushed and stood a little taller.

Ray didn’t turn up as threatened and was later home from the pub than usual. She had a shower and went to bed, hugging her new experience to herself and practising the moves in her head. He eventually appeared, staggering, swearing and falling against the bed in an attempt to remove his socks. Finally he climbed in beside her, reeking of beer and some unknown perfume. Dilly lay there for a few minutes expecting the usual tight knot to gather in her chest, but nothing happened. When the mattress began to vibrate with his snores, she picked up her pillow and slipped into Jasmine's bed, glad she kept it aired in case her daughter turned up unexpectedly. Soon she fell into a deep, untroubled sleep.

The next morning, aching but refreshed, she hummed as she laid out the breakfast.

“It’s a marvellous night for a moondance,” she sang, not realising she knew the words. Ray appeared as the toast popped up.

“Be quiet woman,” he growled. “I’ve got a headache.”

Dilly gave him a long, clear look as she poured his tea.

“I’m not surprised. You must have had a proper skin-full, the way you were falling about.”

He sucked the tea with closed eyes.

“I’ve decided to sleep in the other room from now on,” she continued. “I can’t stand your snoring any longer.”

She slapped a couple of aspirin on the table and went upstairs to rearrange their bedrooms, resisting a strong desire to whistle.

Not even the slightest pang of regret stopped her from emptying her wardrobe and picking up her bottles and jars from the dressing table. Her spirits rose steadily as she packed the residue of Jasmine's old life into suitcases and pushed them under the bed, laying her own meagre collection of clothing into the fragrantly-lined drawers.

It’s like going on holiday, she thought. Only better.

***

Dilly carried on as normal. She cleaned the house, went to work, did the shopping and prepared meals but, in addition, she danced. She clung to the prospect of Thursdays, despite Ray’s odious lunch. The numbers attending the class fell away after the first month but, to her relief, Andrew was always there with his crinkly smile.

Every week, with each new step she mastered, Dilly’s confidence grew.

“You’re a natural,” said Lizzie, after she had taught a particularly complicated sequence. “You should come to the dance on Saturday.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

Her mother’s voice echoed down the years. “Dilly! There’s no such word as can’t.”

She wondered what Ray would say if she went. What could he say? Did she even care? A delightful shiver ran up the back of her neck.

Dilly couldn't wait for Jasmine's weekend call. She sat on the bed that still bore the hollow of Jasmine's sleeping body, into which she now snuggled every night, and dialled her mobile number. Her excitement fizzed down the line as she described every detail of her newly acquired skill and the friends would dance with on Saturday evening.

"You sound like a different person," Jasmine said, when Dilly finally stopped for breath.

***

The next day Dilly and Jane shopped for clothes that weren’t a bit sensible. They were light and sparkling with skirts that swirled about them as they turned. When she told Ray she was going to a dance, he grunted.

“What about my tea?”

“You’ll get your tea, don’t worry.” Dilly picked up the washing basket. “But I’ll be late home.”

She strode out into the yard, picturing the new clothes hanging upstairs with a nervous flutter. She imagined putting them on, applying a touch of make up, spraying herself with perfume, entering the crowded hall. Spotlights flickered across the floor and men were asking her to dance. She spun round and round, a beautiful butterfly, her body weightless, skirt flaring, sequins flashing, heart filled with joy. Everyone watched as she and Andrew came to a perfect finish, then they were on their feet, clapping and cheering, and she modestly stepped back.

Turning the washing line to inspect her work, she gasped at what she saw. Not only had she mixed her clothes with Ray’s, she had also forgotten to use the right type of peg. Some garments were even secured by two different colours!

She put out her hands to rectify her mistake, hesitated, then let them drop.

Did it really matter? The sky hadn’t fallen in after all. She let out a long breath as elation flowed through her, elevating her to a place she had never expected to visit.

She caught sight of her husband watching from the bedroom window, his expression confused. Dilly gave him a happy wave before bending over to smell the lavender. She inhaled the scent, luxuriating in the moment, then straightened and lifted her face to the sun.

“It’s here at last,” she whispered into the breeze. “It's my time.”

A bubble of laughter tickled her throat and broke free, ringing confident and clear across the gardens.

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