Broadcast BBC Radio 4, “Morning Story” February, 1990. Repeat broadcast BBC Radio Scotland, “The Best of Scottish” August, 1990 . Published, “Under Cover”, An Anthology of Contemporary Scottish Writing, Mainstream Publishing, 1993
For her interview Elizabeth decided to buy herself a new pair of tights. She found a pair in Safeway’s for 55p, in the right colour. As she rummaged through the packets she made up her mind not to get 15 denier because they’d inevitably catch on her stripped pine chairs and then ladder. She realized that 20 denier was the right thickness.
She was pleased she had avoided the alcohol section, a cheap Riesling would have been fine even though it might have anti-freeze in it. Maybe that’s what she needed to thaw her out, but today she felt anything but frozen. In fact, she could feel herself sweating freely. Remembering her friend Jennifer’s advice to take deep breaths and be positive, she tried to think well of herself as she wheeled her trolley along the aisles. But it was easy for Jennifer with all that money. On £36. 70 a week, though, it’s hard always to be positive.
A tall emaciated woman of about 60 walked past her. The figure had the look of someone who was sick, someone even who might be dying, Elizabeth thought, with eyes that were dewy but with none of the clarity you find in the gaze of youth. Her look was more akin to resignation – a resignation to The Final Act with no hope of a deus ex machina flying down from the gods. Elizabeth yanked her trolley to the left to avoid collision with the woman.
When she reached the check-out, the assistant tried to charge her 90p for mushrooms that were only thirty. A moment of panic; to find that 60p wouldn’t be there at the end of the day, when she had successfully avoided drinking a half-pint in a bar, was too much for her, especially when she had eschewed a coffee at Tranent’s, and even stopped herself from indulging in buying a book. How she had wanted it! The biography of Gwen John. The woman who had effaced herself so much that she’d found salvation through her very self-neglect. In other words, thought Elizabeth, she had lost her life in order to save it.
Casting a last look at the alcohol section, she considered again the Riesling she’d seen for just under £2.00. She could have bought a bottle. She remembered the time not long ago when she’d buy one bottle almost every night from the Asian shop where the two brothers knew her as ‘the woman with the wine’. To think of it, she mused, to be not the woman with the lamp, but with the wine! She laughed at herself and was pleased she could do that still.
A part of her identified with these Asians because she shared with them that feeling of not totally belonging. Her father had come over here from Poland during the War. She knew well why they tried so hard to fit in.
Anyway, she wouldn’t think of the Asians – nor of the wine. Not at the moment anyhow, because it was the interview she was to consider. With the tights and her good cot and her shoes that were all right, she’d go up there to the top of the town quite confidently. Or would she? She wasn’t so sure. Two years out of work. Two years!
What had she done to be out of work for two years? Of course, she wouldn’t tell him the real reason. She couldn’t reveal why she’d hardly stepped out of her front door for six months of those two years, how she’d lived like hermit speaking to no one except perhaps to the woman in the greengrocer’s, the Asians and the Polish shoemaker off St. Denzil’s Street. Perhaps it was because her father was a Pole that she was drawn to the shoemaker. He was always friendly and would rail against those who lived off ‘the Social Security’. Elizabeth hadn’t the courage to admit that she was one of those people.
When she went to the Post Office every fortnight to cash her Giro-cheque, she couldn’t help feeling ashamed. On the one hand, she knew that her father – dead now for over two and a half years—wouldn’t have liked to see her living off the government. He’d never begged or borrowed money – not even from his family and times had been hard when he was young. ‘But not as hard as it was for those left behind,’ he would often say, and then launch into the tale of the brother who’d been in the Resistance and ended u in Dachau. Elizabeth didn’t want to think of the uncle in Dachau nor of her father who had died, not suddenly but in a hospice close to the sea on the outskirts of the city. She shuddered at the memory.
It was raining outside. A lorry hurtled by, sending up a spray of water that splashed her legs. If it continued to rain when she walked up the hill for her appointment, she would look a mess when she arrived. Umbrellas in this weather with a cruel, Forth wind provided little protection. Pausing at the traffic lights by the off-licence, she noticed the tall woman she’d seen in the supermarket, walking on the other side of the street, pushing a shopping-basket on wheels. Her step was light, though she had a trace of a limp. Even from a distance it was noticeable that she was suspended from this sphere, removed from it, by what seemed a terminal pain.
Elizabeth took a considerable length of time unwrapping the tights. ‘Some people wear gloves so they don’t ladder their stockings when they put them on,’ her mother once told her. Elizabeth would visit her occasionally, just enough to salve her conscience. She knew she should go more often, but if she did, she might undo the good of going at all by arguing with her mother. Pretending that she agreed with her was too much of a strain, so Elizabeth went little.
‘Lipstick?’ she asked herself Why not? A little blue on the lids? Her mother always put on too much make-up. Far too much, but then, her mother hadn’t come to terms with ageing. She was almost seventy and she still couldn’t let a grey hair stay on her head for more than a couple of days, and her little-girl voice that might have disarmed her father forty yersw ago, fooled no one today.
The door was large and imposing and she had arrived five minute too early. No time for a coffee opposite. She walked up the stairs carpeted in a hairy material and noticed the colourful posters on the walls. She asked to see the director, who she said was expecting her. A receptionist (ash-blonde and as slim as Elizabeth had always longed to be) told her to sit outside in the passageway and wait for him.
He arrived. ‘Would you come this way, please?’ he said.
She knew he was formal in a way that wasn’t natural. She knew he wasn’t her cup of tea. She knew she wanted to walk briskly out of his office down those hairy carpeted stairs back into the street. But she knew she wouldn’t. She watched the long, thin man peruse her form. How do you hide two years of life that were, in effect, spent in hiding? How do you assume that confident, inside manner when you know only too well that if you don’t get some kind of job soon, you’ll slip inexorably outside this world that they call the world of the living?
The man wasted no time in coming to the point. ‘I see,’ he mumbled in a manner that reminded her of a judge preparing to pronounce a sentence on the defendant (defendant she certainly felt, defending her very life but with little effect), ‘from your CV that you have a gap of ….let’s see,’ he squinted through his spectacles at the paper on his desk, ‘two years.’ He sat back and looked at her carefully. She knew she must explain why she had had two years out, and tried to fool him that she was relaxed by swinging her right leg over the knee of her left, leaning deliberately back in her chair. ‘I decided I wanted to take time out to ….’ She couldn’t finish her sentence. What could she say when the reason would condemn her completely? ‘I suppose you could call it a sabbatical,’ she said eventually.
The man looked at her skeptically. ‘Two years?’ he asked incredulously. By some form of miracle or flash of inspiration, she found herself making up a story about why she’d not worked for so long and said, ‘I thought I would try my hand at becoming a ….’ (she wasn’t sure why she hesitated yet again)’…. a painter.’ She murmured something about self-expression and wanting to ‘know herself’.
‘I never sold anything,’ she added for precaution, ‘but I got a few favourable comments on my ….water colours.’ She began to like her story and only wished that she remembered to say gouaches instead of watercolours, then realised she might have been sailing a little close to the wind when she had no idea what gouaches were.
‘Most irregular, I’d have thought. To give up the promising career tht you had,’ was the response.
He asked another question and then several more until she found herself feeling not unlike an onion being peeled right down to its core – that’s if onions had cores. He wanted to be sure she was reliable, he said, that’s why he was grilling her. After all, after two years of being out of the system she might not be able to teach. She had to convince him of her stamina, reliability and adequacy.
How could she show him she was now more adequate than she’d been before? Anyone who had been through what she’d been through and emerged intact had more than enough ability to do what this man required of her. Elizabeth began to wonder if she wanted to be part of his establishment anyway. The money would be pleasant, but money wasn’t the only thing she wanted and there was always £36.70 for her to subsist on each week, plus sunshine and walks in the Botanics. Never mind about buying books about Gwen John. She would be Gwen John. , she thought, with wild bravura, then quickly came back to earth, realising she had the talent neither for painting nor for poverty.
The man’s face was cold and disinterested. Elizabeth couldn’t be bothered to try and win him round – to seduce him with fluttering eyelids, hunched shoulder and coy smiles.
‘Well, Miss Tadeuska, thank you very much for coming in,’ he said briskly. ‘I have enjoyed talking with you. If we need any extra help this summer, we’ll let you know.’
She found herself standing outside the door on the hairy carpet. She walked quickly down the steps and didn’t care where she went so long as she could be in the street without being noticed. There was a comfort in being unknown.
She followed a party of Japanese sightseers all gazing up at the castle in a uniform expression. She carried on walking down to Tranent’s for a coffee; what the hell, she could afford it this once! Lounging in that cavernous room with the gentle background hiss of the coffee-machine intermingling with the douce whispers of women taking a break from their afternoon’s shopping, Elizabeth noticed that by listening in to their chatter, she could live vicariously for a while; this was compensation for her own lack of engagement with the world. Elizabeth wiped her mouth with a red paper serviette, stood up from the table and straightened her grey flannel skirt. As she climbed up the steps to the pavement, she was surprised to see again the woman she had almost bumped into earlier in the day in Safeway’s. She was looking in the window of the florist’s next to the coffee-house, where displayed in all their splendor was a bouquet of gardenias, with a dozen lilies and roses. She paused momentarily, gazing up at the window, then quickly moved on down the street towards the West End.
It must have been the effect of the interview that did it; the layers that had been exposed couldn’t immediately be restored to their original position. Elizabeth was impelled to walk up the steps and go into the shop to ask the assistant if she could buy the bouquet. What was more, she didn’t even ask the price, which turned out to be all of £18. 00, more than half her weekly allowance. Quickly paying for them, she ran out of the shop with the flowers and followed the woman, whose presence had dogged her all day.
Catching up with her, Elizabeth tapped her on the shoulder. The woman turned round and looked her straight in the eye. Noticing that her expression had the authority and lack of temerity only found in those resigned to their fate, Elizabeth was certain the woman was dying. She’d seen that look so clearly once before, back in the hospice two and a half years before, when her father lay there waiting for death. Elizabeth held out the bouquet to the woman, who scrutinized her closely. Without a word, she accepted the flowers, whispering her thanks afterwards. With a detached regality, she departed down the street.
As soon as she returned home, Elizabeth removed her tights, not with gloves as her mother had once advised, and soaked them in warm water in the wash-hand basin. After making herself a cup of coffee, she sat down in her armchair, and thought about her day. It had just been another day, nothing more and nothing less.