White Velvet

by Gill Blow

The lady in the poster looks out from the shop window; she faces the five black umbrellas on the pavement outside which shelter balls of knitting wool in plastic cages, an audience of squat faceless figures in the pelting rain. A bald man in a grey suit holds a newspaper over his head and dashes into the shop doorway, a young woman follows, he squashes up against the door to make room for her and her pushchair. She tilts and drags the buggy until it’s safely undercover. She laughs at the man and flicks back lengths of sodden hair. They peek out from their temporary den and look up at the skies, they speak into their mobiles.

 Inside the shop, Kelly and Marjory stand with their arms folded and observe the encounter.

Kelly nods in their direction.

I suppose we could tell them to come in.

Marjory shakes her head.

No. We’ll have to mop the floor after.

They turn their attention to the rain.

Kelly clicks her tongue.

Just look at it!  It’d better stop, I’m meeting Keith later.

Marjory sighs.

I should pop in and make sure dad hasn’t done anything daft in this lot.

Mmmm.

Extreme weather, that’s what does it, something in his brain goes a bit berserk.

Mmmm.

We ought to bring the wool cages in.

Yeh.

Marjory  imagines her dad taking it into his head to wander outside without his coat and getting soaked to the skin and dying of pneumonia.  Kelly imagines that Keith will turn up on his bike encased in his crackly yellow waterproof, his nose will be dripping. She expects it will be Welsh rarebit at the cafe again. Marjory and Kelly stare out of the window. They watch the rain hit the ground hard and burst into hundreds of tiny fountains; it streams into the gutter and makes waterways for crisp packets and burger trays to sail on. A Coke bottle, half-full, swirls around the whirlpool at the drain.  The laminated poster has taken on a familiarity that makes it invisible, so they don’t see the lady any more. A sudden gust shudders the window and a corner of the poster comes loose and pulls away.  Rain rattles against the glass, a woodpecker’s rat-a-tat on a tree in a garden, perhaps the poster lady’s garden. It hums and drums on roofs, a cosy remembered sound from the warmth of her bed, like the night sounds she used to hear of steam trains shuffling over the railway bridge. Hailstones hurl in a sudden startle at the window, a clatter of dried peas she’d shake into a pan, they scurry around the pavement and bounce off car bonnets.

An old man in a long beige mac stops outside.  He’s wheezing and he tries to catch his breath.  His fingers are numb, he swops his carrier bag to his other hand, and leans against the window blotting the lady from view. The hail stings his face and creeps freezing down the back of his neck. Snowflakes crept gently down the poster lady’s neck that night; they settled like butterflies on her face and her arms before they melted. She walked barefoot on white velvet in a world of cotton wool. The old man pushes himself off the window and reads, ‘Went missing on the night of January 5th 2012’. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand, and looks at her photo. Her head is held slightly to one side as if she’s listening. A shiver shakes him, he feels cold to the bone and moves on.

 

They’re  as big as marbles!

Look at that poor old man.

Talk about April showers.

Look Kelly, I’m just off to see if my dad’s okay.

Keith will be soaked at this rate.

It was the heatwave that did it the last time. Two lads fishing spotted him.

Hmmm.

He was in up to his chin.

 

The roof guttering  overflows and spills down the window, creating higgledy piggledy streams which get diverted this way and that on their downward journey.  The hail stops suddenly.  In the quiet of the dripping aftermath, the woman adjusts the hood on the pushchair and bends down to speak to the child inside, she nods at the man and steps out. She hesitates, as the face on the poster seems to shift, a small movement around the lady’s mouth and eyes, a blurry smile. Hardly pausing, the woman reads  ‘in her nightdress ’ before she hurries on. She thinks of her gran, shrunk and silent in the semi circle around the deafening plasma TV. She pushes her buggy through the automatic doors of Marks and Spencers.

In the shop doorway the man notices black newsprint stencilled on his palm, he can even make out the letters ‘w’ and ‘c’ from a headline.  He looks up and down the street for somewhere to get rid of his wet newspaper, he can’t see a bin, so he places the paper neatly on the tiled floor behind him. He rubs his palms together, spits on them discreetly, rubs them again.

 

Did you see that?

I think it’s about stopped.

I hope he doesn’t think he’s going to leave it there.

What?

His paper – in our doorway.

Look Kelly, I think I might go.

Right.

I won’t be long.

Right.

I get so worried since the last time.

S’okay.

You see even if I phone he won’t answer it, he never does.

Tell him to pick his paper up on your way out.

What?

 

Kelly watches Marjory open the door, the man turns round and says something. He picks up his paper, Kelly gives a satisfied nod. Marjory bangs the door shut, another laminated corner loses its grip. Marjory rushes away, the man watches her red umbrella dodge round the cages of wool. There’s five umbrellas there, surely they won’t miss one, and he steps out of the doorway. He glances at the shop window, ‘Have you seen this woman?’  She gazes out from under the headline, her eyes steady. He looks away, he’s getting wet. His mother’s eyes were hard, a barrier. She used to blink slowly at long intervals. He saw her eyes closed only when she was lying in her coffin, she looked like another person.  He decides to make a run for it.  Kelly watches him splash through puddles in his smart suit. The wet street is abandoned, they won’t get anybody coming to the shop now, and closing time is two hours away. She spreads her left hand and wriggles her fourth finger, the tiny diamond winks obligingly, it fills Kelly with a deep depression borne from a long engagement with faint hopes of a marriage which she’s not sure she wants anymore. She’s sick of the hopeless burden of saving to buy a place of their own. And then there’s his mother, guarding Keith with her life, keeping him to herself.  She wishes he had a car, she wishes she did. If she had a car she’d leave home, find a job and a flat in Leeds, go clubbing, meet someone with a BMW and white teeth. She allows the luxury of this daydream to expand into eroticism and jumps as she realises that a woman in a headscarf is knocking on the window; she’s knocking on the window and pointing, jabbing her finger. Kelly turns and looks behind her, the racks of spring clothes sit mute. The woman knocks louder. Kelly looks back at her and shrugs. The woman charges into the shop.

It’s hanging off!

What?

The poster in the window, it’s lopsided.

What?

The poster! You should straighten it up. You shouldn’t leave it dangling like that.

Oh, sorry. It must be the condensation.

She’s somebody’s mother. Somebody’s wife.

It makes the window wet.

People don’t think about that.

The woman’s headscarf slips over one eye and she pushes it back over her forehead. Kelly watches water dripping on the floor from the woman’s green anorak.

Well aren’t you going to straighten it then?

The eyes of the woman bulge with challenge.  Kelly’s not going to argue with her. She climbs into the window space and inches on her hands and knees between the terracotta vase holding branches of fake cherry blossom, from which hang red peep-toe shoes, and the patchwork quilt made by the W.I to raffle off for Oxfam, draped over a chair. Kelly reaches up and presses the blue tacked corners down hard in turn. The woman gives a nod of approval.

That’s better.

Kelly crawls back carefully and stands up, brushes dust from her jeans. The woman places her handbag on the floor and takes off her headscarf, her grey hair is as flat as a bathing cap. She flaps the headscarf and folds it into a triangle. It’s red and blue check with gold spots and reminds Kelly of noughts and crosses. The woman rakes through her hair with her fingers, places the headscarf over her head and re-ties it under her chin. She puts the handle of her bag on her arm and faces up to Kelly as if she means business.

The Post Office has taken her down.

Oh.

And the one in Jackson’s.

Jackson’s?

The butchers in Silver Street. I asked him where it was, he said it was unhygienic.

Oh.

It’s disgusting. I told him to put it back up.

The woman lifts her arm, hitches her bag down to her elbow and gives the shop a once-over. She makes do with charity shops, hasn’t bought anything from a proper dress shop for years.   She fingers a navy suit with a white trim on the rack; the hangers squeak on the rail as she peruses a grey jersey dress with cap sleeves, and a green ensemble comprising dress and jacket with odd buttons.  She peers at the price and pushes it back.  Kelly starts her patter.

Very smart that outfit.

You’d think they’d match the buttons.

That’s considered to be the latest thing.

Is it?

We have some bargains on the Sale rack.

I told them at the Post Office as well.

Sorry?

About the poster.

Oh.

People soon forget.

Yes.

You feel sorry for the relatives. The husband.

Did you, er…do you know her?

Slightly.

The woman pats the handle of her bag and looks out past the poster through the window.

It’s still raining.

She turns to the Sale rack and begins to riffle through.

I lived opposite her for years. We never spoke. We smiled and nodded sometimes as we passed in the street. She was always smart, suits and pearls. Nice husband, nice son.

The woman holds up a pink jumper with short sleeves, then puts it back on the rail. Kelly knows she won’t buy anything.

Over the years, the woman in the headscarf has built up a picture of the lady in the poster’s life, from her habit watching and noting what went on across the road. When she got ready for bed at night, she’d look across to see if their bedroom was dark, or if there was a light on downstairs. She’d know when they were away because they always left the curtains half closed. She’d see the husband busy in the garden, the woman bringing him a cup of tea. She’d see them dressed up and going out together in the car, coming back again. She knows that the life they had was different from hers. It was ordered, predictable, nice. She could tell the missing woman’s husband idolised her just by the way he looked at her. Nobody had ever looked at her like that. She pulls out a pair of black trousers from the rail and holds them against herself, peers at the label.

They’re a bargain, very classy.

Hmm.

You can try them on if you like.

The headscarf woman hesitates, holds them up, shakes her head and puts them back on the rail. Kelly sighs.

The son went to university, the woman had seen him come home from time to time, he was tall, athletic. He kissed his mother when she came out to greet him and held her in his arms, shook his father’s hand. She saw them on the day of his wedding. Morning suits and top hats, his mother wore a dusky pink outfit and a hat with a feather. The husband opened the gate at the bottom of the garden, click it went, he bowed them out and closed it, click. She watched them drive off in a car decorated with white ribbons. That was nearly ten years ago, before the lady in the poster started her behaviour. Before the husband started to do the shopping on his own, and the son and his wife came to visit every week. Before the carers began their daily visits.

It’s those they leave behind that I feel sorry for.

She’d caught a glimpse of the husband last week in a white vest in the bedroom, he forgets to close the curtains these days. Kelly wishes she’d go so she can have her tea-break. The headscarf woman carries on.

It was snowing, the night she disappeared.

Oh.

The woman in the headscarf can see that she’s outstayed her welcome. She can always tell. Their eyes dart about, they look past you as if you’re not there.

Yes, well, I must be off.

But, instead of leaving, she turns back to the sales rail and deliberately swishes the hangers. Let her wait, she thinks, I’ll go when I’m ready.  Kelly folds her arms and looks out of the window. She hates this job. She hates this town. She’s going to call it off with Keith. She doesn’t know that the woman in the headscarf who is pretending to admire a fairisle jumper, is thinking again of that cold night in January when she lay wide awake in her bed. There was no sound from outside, it was very still, a silent stillness that meant it was snowing. She lay there waiting for sleep and heard the muffled sound of tyres go past. In the silence afterwards she heard the clicks, two of them, click, click. She pushed back the duvet and peeped out the window. The lady was in her nightie halfway up the street, she turned the corner and was gone, leaving behind her footprints. The woman had watched until the footprints had disappeared under the snow, then she went back to bed.

 

She puts the jumper back on the rail and makes for the door.

Keep your eye on that poster.

Kelly doesn’t say anything, she watches her leave then turns and goes in the back to make a cup of tea. Outside, the woman in the headscarf stands in front of the lady in the poster. The sun scuds out and the poster lady’s face is briefly spotlighted, then the sky darkens, thunder grumbles in the distance.  A large droplet of water gathers and falls from the roof onto the woman’s headscarf, it dribbles down her forehead and she wipes her face and moves on.  She passes Marjory who is weaving her way around the cages of wool under the wet umbrellas.

Marjory opens the shop door.

It’s me.

She shakes her brolly and bangs the door shut.

Have you got the kettle on Kelly?

Yep.

Dad’s fine, watching the horse-racing.

Marjory goes behind the counter into the back room where the kettle is almost boiling. She hangs her coat up. Kelly leans against the sink with her arms folded.

We’ve run out of biscuits.

We’ll have a cuppa then we’ll get that wool in.

Yeh.

Outside, the squat faceless figures watch in the rain as the lady in the poster slithers slowly down the window and lands gently in the folds of the patchwork quilt.

 

Copyright (c) Gill Blow 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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