On the second Monday of March Sara called. She was in a discernibly flustered state. The hospital had been making noises about over-exertion. Nothing too worrying, just a general observation that women in their mid-thirties who were now around twenty four weeks into the maternity game ought to be slowing down somewhat. She looked fighting fit, and then Alison checked herself at the thought. Miscarriages didn’t just come to the pale and sick. Sometimes the cells rebelled inside the healthiest of women, at the most unexpected of moments. If the doctors were concerned, the only thing to do was nod your head, sit down with a weak cup of tea and watch the world go by.
“I’d go if I could,” Sara said miserably. “I need to get out of this place some time.” There was an important meeting with the owner of an outlet at Camden Lock. Alison’s experience with buyers had largely revolved around negotiating prices and chasing unpaid bills. Perhaps it was time she entered the meet and greet business too. “Maybe you could get together with Miles too,” Sara suggested. “Stay there for the evening. Have a meal. You don’t need to give up on London, you know?”
Alison smiled wanly. “Miles is still fighting a losing rear-guard action to keep his job. Eighteen hours most days. The last thing he wants is me pleading to be led to the trough when he comes back from the battlefront.”
Sara looked cross again. “I still think you should go up there and take a pair of scissors to that bastard’s bollocks. What’s he called again?”
“Ugh! You can tell he’s a little shit just by the name. How can the Germans think someone like that’s worth running a fine old thing like Mersons? My old Dad had an account with them for a while. Didn’t do anything spectacular but at least you never had to worry the money would wind up in the Cayman Islands, buying sleazy cocktails for some fugitive lounge lizard from Billericay.”
“Sara. As I said. It is a losing rear-guard action.”
“All the same. Whoever turns that lot round is in for a knighthood at the very least. Maybe even a peerage. Could you imagine it? Sir Ron Atkins? Lord Atkins of Clacton?”
She seemed to be getting bigger by the day now. The hormones were really racing at times too. “We have a thing about Essex, don’t we?”
“A thing?” Sara repeated indignantly. Thomas, on cue, wound himself round Sara’s legs and started to emit a soft, soothing purr. Sometimes Alison could swear the cat was psychic. “Essex is… unspeakable. Shell suits and cheap cocaine. And they’re running half of bloody England.”
“You don’t think that might be a somewhat stereotypical exaggeration?”
“No, actually. I don’t. I had a boyfriend from Essex once. They could make a film out of it. Nightmare on Dagenham Street. And here I am, running up to middle age as an impending unmarried mum flogging cheap, third world wickerwork for a living.”
“Essex clearly has a lot to answer for. You’ve convinced me. I’ll go to London. I’ll be back before Miles is anyway.”
“Oh, you are a sweet.” Sara looked uncharacteristically miserable. She stuffed another biscuit in her mouth and moaned through the crumbs, “Sorry about this. It happens once in a while.”
“And then goes away. Don’t worry. It happens to us all.”
“No it doesn’t.” Sara was back to being awkward again. “You really don’t want anything else, do you? Just a nice house, a nice family…” She looked around the kitchen. “All this.”
“It’s good enough for me,” Alison nodded, and was glad Sara’s normal state of prescience seemed to be on hold at this stage of the pregnancy. The encounter with Justin continued to disturb her, more than anything because she realised, soon afterwards, how much she regretted not taking it further. “God knows, it’s hard enough trying to keep just that all together.”
“Point taken. Oh… nearly forgot.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a fat brown envelope. “When you meet Simon at the stall, don’t forget to give him his present. He won’t really want to talk product much.”
Alison took the envelope and peered inside. It was stuffed with twenty pound notes, lots and lots of them. “Er, what’s this?”
Sara waved her hands in the air. “A bung, darling. A bribe. Sweetener. Graft. Payola. But bung will do just fine.”
Alison stared at the money. There must have been at least a thousand pounds. “Do we have to do this? How does it go through the books?”
Sara looked at her, pityingly. “Oh poor, sweet Alison. You’re so naïve sometimes. This is the way of the world. I’ll introduce you to it if it’s the last thing I do. But not now. You’ve got a train to catch.”
An hour later, the envelope making a guilty lump in her handbag, she was on the train to London, realising, with a sudden shock, that this was the first time she had entered a city since she left hospital. Even such a short absence had an effect on her. Alison watched the pleasant green landscape of rural Kent float past. Grand oast houses converted into palatial homes, sweeping fields of sheep, the vast deer farm near Maidstone, the lazy Medway, with its tangled collection of houseboats and weekend gin palaces. Then the high cliff face near Brand’s Hatch beckoned, the train entered a tunnel, there was a brief glimpse of truly moneyed suburbia posing in artificial, rural surroundings, and the city was upon her. Grubby, overcrowded streets stretched in every direction, nameless, impossible for her to place beyond the hidden, hazy geography in her head that said, in a sniffy tone, “south London”.
In the distance, glinting against the leaden sky, the tower of Canary Wharf rose to break the monotony. Tower Bridge flashed by and the Thames stole into view, dirty and lethargic. The train disgorged its contents into the empty nothingness of Charing Cross only fifteen minutes late. Alison walked outside and looked at the city. Already it was different to the London that still lived in her memory from earlier visits as a worldly tourist. Some distance had grown between its harsh, over-eager physicality and the quieter, subtler self she had, thanks to Beulah, started to develop. She could watch the locals, obsessed with being first to the front of the taxi queue, bustling through the gates of the Underground, and find some amusement in their anxiety. Before, she would have been alongside them, fighting, fighting, all the time. Now, she took her time, walked to the back of the taxi line wearing a wry smile, thinking, content. It was a pleasant discovery. Perhaps, in time, she could learn to love the city again.
The cab was a luxury; £18 for a journey that was just as easily made on the Tube. But she wanted to see these half-familiar streets in this new, curious light she’d found. And so, at a snail’s pace in the choking traffic, the black cab worked its way out through the West End, north to Camden and deposited her in the little corner of tourist tat that was the Lock.
She listened to Simon sweet talking an American into buying some Nepalese raffia work and realised he was not at all what she had imagined. Around thirty, clean shaven, with receding fair hair and a green Burberry wax jacket, he seemed to come from the public school end of the market trade, speaking quietly with a polite, upper class accent. Little of this supposed background showed in the premises. The outlet, over-optimistically named Coconut Key, was housed inside a wooden shack designed to resemble a Caribbean village store. Trinkets and odd furnishings were everywhere, dangling from the low ceiling, scattered on old barrels and ancient, battered trellis tables. Alison realised with a shock that she was quite unable to recognise which, if any, of the items on sale were theirs. The goods of the trade never appeared in Beulah. They lived inside Sara’s head, and found their way around the world thanks to Alison’s diligent chasing of consignment numbers and tardy cheques.
She stood by the till. He eyed his visitor warily. “What happened to Sara?”
“Felt sick. You know what ladies are like when they’re expecting.”
“No I don’t, thank God. Enough to worry about without that.”
Alison smiled. “How touching.”
“So you’re the famous American, eh? What a game this is.”
He licked his lips and looked at her expectantly. Alison was determined to make this run as long as possible. A thousand pounds was a lot of money. Finally, after a decent wait, she pulled out the envelope and said, “Oh yes. Sara said to give you your — what was it now? — bung?”
“For Christ’s sake,” Simon hissed between clenched teeth. “Why don’t you just put an advert in the Standard?” He grabbed the envelope, quickly peered inside, then stuffed it into one of the jacket pockets. Now she looked closely, it was a fake in any case. Much like Simon, she suspected.
“Sorry. I thought you were the boss.”
“I am,” he said sourly. “All the same.”
“Right.” Simon could be quite a handful if he felt like it, she guessed. “Sorry. Do you want to talk about future orders.”
“Not really. You can tell her the lampshades made out of coconut shells are a heap of shite. Can’t even shift ’em at what I paid.”
She stonewalled the obvious invitation to take the goods back. “Will do.”
“And keep the Afghan gear coming. If it wasn’t for that I’d be out of business. It’s one permanent recession around here.”
“Ah, the joys of retailing.” Shopkeepers were, she had regrettably come to believe, even finer moaners than the average farmer. “We’ve got a new catalogue coming soon. I’ll let you have one.”
“Yeah.” A gaggle of Japanese tourists had wandered through the door and were examining the pile of discounted coconut lampshades with obvious admiration. “Are we done now?”
“I believe so.”
She stopped by the Tokyo party on her way out and told them, in the finest Home Counties accent she could muster, that Harrods was selling the self-same coconut lamp for almost £100. At least six of the hideous objects were then carried quickly to the till. Simon gave her a sickly grin and she was out of the door, out into the grimy London air, with its stink of cars and faint, oily soot.
She looked at the grubby tangle of buildings and waterway that was Camden Lock and said, “Once a year. And no more.” A piece of her past, the marked, flawed past that followed her around for ages, would remain in the city, detached and distant the moment she boarded the homeward train at Charing Cross.
(c) David Hewson 2012