Amanda's last Summer Read for This Morning is about a woman of a certain age lamenting that life has passed her by... or has it? It's heartwarming, uplifting and underlines the fact that you never know what's around the corner.
I love this little car, it fits me like a second skin; I can’t imagine driving home in anything sportier or comfier. I don’t see the dents or little rust spots, I think of it as an extension of my home because if I’m not in that I’m in this. My car is called Gordon the Golf and I thank him for getting me home safely or for taking me to nice places. If a flash car pulls up along side, I pat him and whisper that he is perfect. The familiarity of the interior comforts me, the fruity scented air fresheners that hang from the back of my mirror and my broken necklace in the cup-holder whose bright purple and green beads add a splash of colour. I like sitting in it at the end of my working day or when I’ve finished in the supermarket. It’s my own, private little space. I’ve done this journey so many times I think I could sit in the passenger seat, pat the dash and off it would toddle, like a well trained dog, all the way home.
I’m stuck at another red light. I think I’ve caught them all, not to worry; I’m in no particular hurry. I use moments like this to talk to myself, but also to do something useful. I take a paper napkin that’s been stuffed into the side pocket of my door and spit on it before rubbing it over the digital display and gear stick, cleaning off the grime and sooty dust that’s gathered. I do this in the bathroom too. While I’m on the loo, I take a square of tissue; spit on that and then clean the little ridge where the tiles meet the wall.
There’s a smear of something on my skirt, I scrape at it with my thumb nail. Navy is not a good colour; it shows up everything doesn’t it? This could be old mayonnaise or hand cream, hard to tell. I had a nice lunch today, a treat, one of those posh prawn sandwiches from Marks’s. Usually I take in my own, but this morning seemed to pass quicker than usual and I ran out of time, which happens doesn’t it? A fraction too long staring at my fifty-four year old face in the mirror or a quick nip outside to water the tubs and a whole hour can be snatched.
I sometimes wonder what the point of my job is. I take the wages, but with no real clue of how I fit in the scheme of things. I’ve been with the firm for a while. I am rather quiet, compared to others. I think that’s how I get away with it, I don’t shout or moan or gossip or enthuse. I just do what I have been told, quietly and neatly, each and every day. My job consists of shuffling paper from one pile to another, date stamping filled out sheets which at first glance look okay, only to be ‘properly checked’ by someone far better qualified than me. I imagine that someone to be a younger woman, without cellulite and a degree in ceramics, who’s been to India and had sex with more people than I have, four, a measly four. She probably has a very private tattoo that all her sexual partners titter over in the wee small hours as the effects of their mind altering drugs wear off. Not that I am jealous or judging, far from it, just curious really about how being born a mere thirty years apart can have the most staggering effect on your experiences. We didn’t have festivals, gap years, social media or Primark but we managed. Things were a little bit more predictable, and in truth it suited me.
I can’t keep up with the pace sometimes, even with small things. The speed and choice when ordering a coffee makes me feel anxious and old. I stutter over the variety of what’s on offer, the bewildering array of choice in front of me, Americano, Latte, Cappuccino, Dolce Latte, Macchiato, Espresso, Espresso Con Panna, Espresso Macchiato, Mochaccino, Flat white, Iced blends, Mocha Frappuccino... what on earth? I just want a normal coffee with a dash of milk, but I don’t know how to ask for it, how has that happened? I often look around the coffee shop and it’s like I have awoken in the middle of a world that is totally unrecognisable from the one that I think I live in. I feel like everyone else understands the complicated rules and I haven’t been given a manual.
I’m strumming my fingers on the wheel and bobbing my head, so the man in the flash car next to me thinks I am singing rather than talking to myself. Things like that matter to me. They didn’t used to, but I’ve learnt that what people consider quirky in your childhood and delightfully eccentric in your youth, can be interpreted as sectionable in later life. And this is truly one of my greatest fears. I can’t even bear to think about losing my marbles. I play Sudoku, attempt the crossword and do word searches to try and keep my brain ticking. That’s a good phrase, because I can picture the inside of my head like the workings of a clock. I figure that it needs fish oil to keep it all running smoothly and mental exercise to keep all the springs and cogs tight. I used to ask my ex-husband if he ever pictured his brain in this way. He didn’t respond, but shook the newspaper he always held in front of his face; this was code for don’t be so bloody stupid. The thing is I would rather die than become one of those old ladies that shuffles around in slippers and calls out for their mother, trying to open locked doors and obsessed with meal times and bowel activity. Anything but that.
Now that I am in my mid-fifties, I favour linen shirts, scented candles and vintage, floral cushions on pale sofas. I crave cold white wine and cheese on some days and chocolate, French bread and coca cola on others. I have a nice enough house, three nice enough kids and a nice enough job and yet the sum of all these parts is not, as you might expect, a life that is nice enough. The sum of these parts is in fact a life that is nothing short of disappointing. I am unhappy because I am invisible and I am lonely. People ask for my name twice, ‘Mrs what, sorry?’ not because the two syllables that make up my name are difficult, but because I am so ordinary I do not merit being remembered. If you asked the young man behind the till who sold me my sandwich this lunch time, he would not be able to recall me even if he tried. He’d remember the young blonde thing with the endless legs, and the cool, long-haired chap with the tanned arms and slim bracelets that jangled when he paid, even the smiley mum who plonked her dummy-stoppered baby in the space meant for baskets, but he wouldn’t remember me. Perhaps he would if I was younger, prettier and cleverer.
Once, in my early twenties, I was all of those things. And yet, back then, I wished for life to fly faster, faster. Impatiently running, planning and jumping ahead, unaware that I was hurtling towards this age, towards the moment where I’m now forced to toil on the treadmill of my own creation, condemned to dip in the pool of mediocrity that is my existence, with only a thin veneer of fond memories to warm my damp skin and soothe my aching bones. My only refuge is to hide my head under a blanket of regret and wonder what my life would be like if I had said ‘yes’ to Gavin Newton and gone island-hopping in Greece, instead of going to work in the office where I met my husband, who then buggered off with a younger, vegetarian version of me. Not that I was fussed, not really, we were over years before he found the courage. I think about that possible other life most days, although I’m not under any illusion. I doubt Gavin Newton would even remember me.
I suddenly realise that I don’t want to be just two miles from home. I don’t want to park in the usual spot, fumble around in my bag for keys, reach into the fridge for potatoes, cold broccoli and chicken that my boys won’t even want to eat, especially not while they’re glued to the games thingy. No. I want to do something for me – go somewhere I want to go. I want to keep driving until I reach the sea. I want to eat fish and chips with my fingers, book into a boutique hotel under an assumed name, and slip between crisp, white cotton sheets. The job of laundering these sheets would belong to someone else. I’d sleep star-shaped across the mattress, flinging the duvet on and off whenever I like.
I’d spend a day or two alone wandering a pebbly beach and dipping my toes where the froth meets the shore. Then I’d lie on a chintzy sofa, my head on one low arm and my feet, clad in soft, new socks on the other. This sofa would be in front of a real fire, where I’ll fall into the pages of a book without my name being on speed dial on everyone’s lips, Mum...? Mum...! Linda…? Mum...!! In the evening I would slip unnoticed into a cinema and shovel ice cream into my mouth. I wouldn’t even care about the calories, I’d just relax and watch hard-bodied men and silky women kiss in opulent surroundings, hoping for a happy ending, a death bed reprieve, a cure, a miracle.
Is it so much to ask? It’s not as if I hanker for the five star Caribbean luxury, although that’d be nice too. I’d just like a couple of days to myself in a comfortable room where I could audit my thoughts and sleep without setting an alarm clock. I suppose that is my definition of luxury these days: to be able to wake naturally without that bloody beep that makes my jaw tighten.
My ex came by the other day to pick up the boys and he stayed for breakfast. I watched him, spooning Weetabix into his mouth, and found it almost impossible to remember how much I used to fancy him. This sounds terrible, but although we get on fine, I find him quite repulsive. I used to be mad for him, literally, I could not keep my hands off him, it was wonderful. Now, his breath smells of roast chicken, and I don’t envy his younger, vegetarian wife having to sit with his cheesy feet on the sofa or lie in bed listening to his beery burps and curried farts. I suppose it was different when we were younger. The husband of my youth smelt of soap, minty toothpaste and on occasion, Blue Stratos. Back then, when he smelled great and I loved him, even our poverty felt like a bohemian adventure. We once laughed our way through pasta and ketchup every night for a month, can you imagine that now?
Once, after we’d be married a few years and the kids were small, I asked him if he was happy. He considered the question and then said ‘don’t be daft!’ I still think about that answer. The phrase seemed incomplete, and what I can’t work out is if it should have ended with, ‘...of course I am!’ or ‘...how could I be?’ I guess I will never know. We were never that open or that honest. We used to say we could talk about everything and anything, but that somehow excluded anything we are really thinking, the important stuff.
I want so desperately to shake off the belt of routine that is cinched so tightly around my waist that I sometimes find it hard to take a full breath. Mine is a small life bound and shaped by a small word with a big meaning. A word that binds me tighter than any steel. It’s a four letter word whose very utterance causes my shoulders to stiffen, my spine to straighten and my chin to point in the direction that I must head. That word is duty. Duty. It is most officious; almost like I signed up for this. But I most definitely did not. How did I end up being so busy and yet so bored?
I wonder how my boys would describe me, certainly very differently from how they would have described me only few years ago. My fat, laughing toddlers adored me. I was the centre of their universe and I loved it, they wanted to marry me! All too quickly they turned to slimmer, sarcastic teenagers who required the domestic services that I provided, but little else. Now, they are three young men that live alternately between my home, college rooms, the truckle beds of mate’s houses and the sweet scented bedrooms of their lovers. The boys and their beaus largely ignore me. I’ve considered why this might be and have surmised that they don’t like to be reminded of either the fat dependent toddlers that they once were or the fact that the lithe, taut beautiful young things with whom they lay, will one day become someone like me. It is too horrible for them to consider and I agree. It is. Any of my friends or colleagues with whom I share this state of domestic affairs, assure me that this is a temporary state and that they will ‘come back to you, boys do...’ this makes me smile, but still fails to answer the questions that perplex me the most, where is it that they have gone and can I go too?
I thought that as my kids gained greater independence, my load would get lighter. Not that I wanted to hasten their leaving, never. But there was a small part of me that imagined having the time to flick through a magazine in the garden or getting my nails done at one of the posh hairdressers on the High Street or even buying and preparing an elaborate recipe, like I used to years ago, which I would eat with a bottle of wine on the sofa. Like most things, this is not how it has turned out.
Oh God, here I go again, crying for absolutely no reason. I rub my hand over my face; my tears remove the last of the days make up. My nose is running and I can’t find a tissue. There’s the grubby paper napkin that I have used to clean the dash, I don’t want to transfer the black smudges and grime to my face and what’s this? A wet wipe that is no longer wet, but is instead stiff, its sickly lemony scent replaced by the whiff of fried chicken, the remnants of which it has removed from son number two’s mouth. It has a tiny node of hard chewing gum folded into a corner. Yuk. It will have to do. It will be okay, come on, it will be okay... I do this sometimes; speak to myself in a soothing, yet firm mummy voice and it does help, mad as it sounds. Oh and now beeping! What’s going on? Oh shoot they are beeping at me! Green light and I didn’t see it. I wasn’t concentrating. Sorry, sorry! I raise my hand in the mirror, trying to placate the couple in the car behind. This makes me smile slightly, how can it make you that angry, how can it matter that much? A few minutes late, that’s all, it’s really not the end of the world.
I indicate left and turn, two miles from home. I punch the radio into life and listen to the dulcet tones of the presenter, I like his company. I start to plan the evening meal, although it is of course entirely dependent on what I might find lurking in the fridge and who’s eating. It’s Friday night, so the boys will be going out, and it’s a gamble as to whether they will eat before they go. More often than not, I prepare food for them and leave it covered on the side, before throwing it away a couple of days later. I remember when Friday night was an event: new outfits, endless arrangements, laughter... when did that stop? When did it become about supper and laundry and maybe a trip to the supermarket? I don’t know when that happened, I can’t remember.
These are the things that surprise and sadden me most about the little life that I lead. How did it happen this fast? When, exactly, did I become this nothing? It was a mere blink ago that I once swam naked, drank gin straight from the bottle and danced in car parks jut because I felt like it! How did this happen to me. When did it happen to me?
Oh god another red light, it’s a conspiracy! I jump at the tap on my window. I turn my head and there is a man stood by my car. I whir the window down and stare at his chino’s and linen shirt, his tanned face, grey hair, good teeth,
‘Yes?’ I squint.
‘Hi. This is most out of character for me, my name’s Rob.’ He places his hand through the window, and I reach out and shake it, stunned. ‘I was parked next to you back there,’ I glance at the flash car and gulp, ‘and I was wondering, if you might like to go for a drink?’
‘What?’ I’m shocked.
‘A drink, with me?’
‘When?’ I am out of practice.
‘Now!’ He points at the pub just along the lane, with its hanging baskets and thatched roof.
I think about the boys who will be rummaging for food, the laundry that needs popping on and the supermarket full of all the things I need to gather in preparation for another week exactly like this one. I open my mouth to say no… and then a strange thing happens. I think, instead, about the girl I once was. What would she have done?
I grin and nod and before I can think of reason not to, I’m indicating left and abandoning Gordon the Golf in a parking space, and I’m standing, looking at Rob as he climbs from his flash convertible, and I feel a bubble of excitement as I flick my hair and suck in my tummy. We walk towards the pub and we are laughing. I glance around me and see the wide gravel space in the car park. Perfect for bit of dancing later, if I feel like it.