Waiting for the Thief
What is that feeling? It’s an ache of course, she knows that, it’s just that it’s hard to pinpoint, hard to name. It’s not hunger, not loneliness, not dread or thirst, it’s more like the fear of them, or a memory of them perhaps. The memory of a feeling has a feeling of its own and though she doesn’t realise it, that’s what this is, the feeling of a memory of a feeling, too diluted now to identify. Something that fell into the great well of her being many years ago, the first drop of blood into the pure, clear water of her childhood, polluting the whole reservoir for ever.
When the active hands of her attention are full, she doesn’t feel the ache anymore, so she keeps them busy. Clothes that her grown up daughter would have thrown away are mended with love and skill and returned good as new, shopping is done for elderly neighbours on the estate, friends with woes are listened to with patience on the phone and lottery tickets are bought on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The television prevents silence filling up the flat and shows her far flung places that she would like to see in person one day. Regularly she cleans away the mold in the bathroom with the techniques of a different age, vinegar, toothpaste and bicarbonate of soda, but no matter what she does, somehow it always finds a way of coming back. That ache though, It’s almost a physical thing, sometimes she could swear it’s a sensation of the body. Where is it? In the chest? Maybe somewhere in the back of the head. The problem is, it seems to move around as if trying to evade detection. Sometimes it creeps around to her temples, spreads its fingers over her forehead and squeezes down. That’s when she knows she must retreat to bed, to rest and hide away till she’s ready to start again.
That’s where she is now. That’s why she lies there, eyes open, watching the clouds passing over her bedroom ceiling, and wondering about it all.
It’s a spring day out in the common world, but in the empire of her mind it can be anytime she likes, anywhere she likes, not that like even really comes into it. Her mind flies to its own design, and sometimes she feels like a passenger in her own head. As she sinks down into the place where memories and dreams are two adjoining rooms, she lets her mind lead where it will. She shivers in a cold London winter of her childhood, back in the days before central heating made layers and heavy clothes unnecessary indoors. She remembers their old front room, small and spare. The coal in the scuttle, her fathers pipe, that faint damp smell you sometimes still get in secondhand bookshops and best of all, the perfume her Mother wore, still lingering near the cushions that she’d laid her head upon while she was ill, a tiny cloud surrounding each one, flowers and sunshine, safety and love. The present is forgotten for now and she’s right there, the details really coming back to her. She steps out, into the street and that old fashioned cold hits her, they never were dressed warmly enough for it, and look, yes, of course, there’s barely a car in sight. It’s late in the day and those gloomy old gas lights are just being lit. The sounds and sights, it all comes back. As she looks down, she remembers a view of her tiny feet and those funny black shoes with the buckles she couldn’t do up on her own but it’s an almost unconscious detail and before she can really notice it she’s shocked in to movement by the sound of other children shouting names at her little brother. She remembers running towards them, turning the corner and there’s Charlie, looking so ashamed, tears streaking his skinny face, eyes cast down. A little boy without a mum is easy prey. This is no movie, there are no witty words that make his tormentors feel small or regretful. Just will, just anger, just a shove in the gang-leader’s chest and the information passed on, ‘That’s my brother.’ The bully thinks for a second, finds his nerve again and starts to weave another insult. Another shove in his chest shuts him up and she leads her beloved sibling away by the hand, strokes his hair and holds him tight and tells him not to worry. Soon they are playing a game of something or other and his worries are forgotten, or at least laid aside. Charlie hated that smoggy, London cold, hated it. To this day he has the habit of turning the heating up too high, all to prove that he never need be cold again. Do those early cuts ever really heal? Or is that scar tissue what adults are made from after all? She remembers Charlie running off upstairs that long ago day, and that once he was gone, as his footfalls left her ears, she felt it then. The ache. Even way back then. Was that the first time? How long has this instrument been playing inside her?
She shifts her position on the bed, trying to get comfortable. Maybe she should close the windows it’s a blustery day out there. Outside, the tops of the trees sway back and forth as if they are under water. She pulls that big ole duvet up and over herself and its weight is a comfort, seems to hold her ever so gently. Through the open window and even through the heavy duvet she can still hear the voices of the children from the estate playing outside, getting carried up and along and away by that spring wind. An improvised choir of little voices, shouting and laughing and screaming and talking. Little voices that will be different ever so soon, every month a little bigger and a little bigger, till they will quite suddenly be big, grown up voices, only then they won’t be playing anymore, won't be in that improvised choir anymore either. We all must go solo at some point, though we dream of the duet. She wonders how far that breeze will carry the choir song. Will it all drift out into space? It occurs to her that there could be echoes of every moment we ever lived radiating out into the universe at the speed of sound.
The duvet works. She warms up, and soon her mind flies off again, and now she’s in Italy. The Neapolitan heat being kept at bay by the wooden shutters, all of them closed, shards of sunlight still breaking in though, through little spaces between the slats, slender invaders of the gloom. It’s the early afternoon. All quiet, all through the house, even the children are asleep. The only sounds are from the distant traffic, and the bassy buzz buzz buzz of a giant, solitary bluebottle, ponderously surveying the room like a tiny, passenger laden blimp. The buzz gets quieter and then louder as the bluebottle express explores. Near then far, near then far. Giulia, her daughter is snoozing in her arms. A lick of dark hair, lays across her perfectly freckled forehead. God, she was such a beautiful child. There’s family all around. It’s hot, it’s Italy, England and the cold and the troubles of childhood are far behind. Surely now, she should be quiet all the way through. Surely peace now. But no, there it is, there’s the ache again. Did it follow her here or did she bring it with her? She knows the answer.
Giulia’s sleeping face wears a troubled look, the beginnings of a dozen expressions dance into each other till finally a small frown emerges from the flux and settles in. She realized then that her poor little girl had it too. And no wonder, already so much to be sad about. A life without loss and tragedy would be a great thing, she thought it then and she thinks it now. It would be wonderful, but of course it isn’t possible, it has to come eventually. Into each life some rain must fall. Alright. But why so much? Why so early? She wishes that she and Giulia could both have just had more time before the monsoon came. Both too young when they lost a parent, just too young. What good lessons can be drawn from that, especially at that age? What silver lining can be found in that? And what happens to a child's mind that must work that awful truth in to it's emerging view of the world? Is that where the ache comes from then? The knowing that death - that most vicious thief can come and snatch everything from you at any time. Is it the remembering of the shock of that loss? Or is the ache the waiting feeling? Waiting for the thief to come and take it all away.
She thinks of the bible, and of Eve and her apple, and wonders if it might be better not to know some things after all.
She was determined to save her daughter from it. She vowed to herself to be so entertaining that the knowing would be forgotten forever. She’d take her daughter to parties and tell her jokes and show her shows and they’d play games and they’d zigzag back and forth across the globe, dodging the rain, evading the ache. But in actual fact, wherever they went and whatever they did, it was always there with them.
That was all long, long ago now of course, so far back that she’d almost forgotten about that day. As she lies here, in London, reliving lying there, in that village in Italy, she unexpectedly falls asleep. The ache, and everything else is plunged in to that cool, cleansing, black pool of unconsciousness.
When her eyes open again, the light has changed. A foggy, confused waking. She can’t quite work out which way the bed is pointing. For some reason her mental picture of her room has reverted to an old version from back when the bed was opposite the window. From when they had that tiny old black and white television, back when she used to share that bed with some who she doesn’t speak to anymore. How strange, to get stuck in a blurry old memory like that. Her mind’s lens comes unhurriedly back in to focus. She blinks in the ruddy, early evening light and bit by bit it all makes sense again. The whole business can't have taken any longer than a minute and even though she knows it’s the kind of thing you only forget by the end of the day, it still feels significant. The light in her room is beautiful right now. Outside the window, the gusts have died down, but she can still hear the rapidly fading sounds of childhoods, floating up through the dusty, city air.
She’s forgotten about the ache for now, she’s hungry. The body demands its fuel. She deliberates over whether to get dressed again or to just sling on a robe. All these little decisions, and they are tiny, and she knows it, but they all seem important somehow. The right thing for the right moment. It seems important. It does. She gets dressed. Those white trousers, that turquoise top, a bit of colour. You have to fight it don’t you? You can’t just stay in bed all day.
Looking pretty and bright, she trots downstairs and makes a quick chicken salad. It’s light and good for her and a bit boring. Why is it that almost everything that’s good for you is a bit boring?
Now she must shop, not just for herself of course, but also for any people she knows who needs something and also, always for Giulia, she might find something that her daughter doesn’t realise she needs. This is not recreation. This is primal. This is foraging. When she’s in that supermarket, looking for a bargain, finding the best for the least, for those she loves. She could be any mother from any species from any point in time. There is great satisfaction and peace in those moments.
So now she’s on her way. Jacket shoes, keys, purse… Go.
These streets are full of memories. She’s spent most of her life in the area. Seen it change and grow like a person. Seen it lose its way at times and almost find it again. It is strange now though, in some ways it’s nicer than ever, yet it’s so much more plastic than it ever was before. It all feels arranged somehow, like a toy town or a show apartment, not lived in, not quite real. These are her streets as much as anyone’s. The same ones she walked as a teenager, when she was all on her own and fighting to survive, and she knows them inside out, but somehow, she always knew they didn’t belong to her. Maybe it’s just a product of being a person who never had much money growing up in an affluent area, but she always had a nagging sense that she was just a guest and was always half expecting the invitation to be rescinded. Sorry, not welcome any more, please leave. Ah, there’s that ache again.
She’s in Tesco now, that supermarket which was Safeway's back when there was that panicked bomb scare 35 years ago. She notices a sweet family, mother, father, young son and daughter. They’re from somewhere else, maybe Denmark or somewhere like that. The children are happy and full of beans, the parents, still in love with each other and untouched by worry. She gets the sense that they’re making dinner for friends. What will they cook? She faintly overhears them talk in a language she can’t understand while she searches for the best deals on that special shelf where the supermarket places the special offers. Later, as she makes her way to the checkout, she passes them again. There they are, picking up packets of salmon which have the word “finest”, printed suavely on the silver packaging. This family don’t need to pause to compare prices. They don’t even need to count how many packets they’re buying, they just chuck a load in the trolley. After all, they have nothing to worry about. How perfect, she thinks. Nothing to worry about... How perfect. The children noisily chase each other around and even when they vanish from sight, neither parents nor kids become concerned or anxious. Why should they? What could possibly happen to them there? Still, just in case, she keeps an eye on them herself as she joins the queue for the checkout. The little boy plays at being a grown up and tells his unrepentant sister off for moving some tins around, and as she watches them, a little smile comes to her face. Seeing kids play always makes her happy. Giulia’s childhood seemed to go by far too fast and she often wishes they could just do it all over again. She doesn’t envy the family their perfect lives or of them being at the early part of their journey, she just enjoys the subtle, quiet overlapping of their worlds. Something, the parent’s instruments aren’t even sensitive enough to detect. She’s always been the kind of person who notices these things and takes pleasure in them. Sometimes she feels as though it’s a curse, to be so observant, like she’s doomed to notice all these insignificant tiny details that other people miss.
Each item gets scanned and packed and soon the journey home can begin. As is so often the case she got more than she intended, and the shopping is heavy, so she decides to get the bus home. A short journey, two stops and she’ll be dropped at the end of her road. She waits on the edge of the curb, keeps checking for her bus in the distance. The road is dazzlingly drenched in end of the day, light. The sun is heavy, red and fat and too bright to look at and about to fall off the horizon. It looks like its sprawled across it, trying to hang on. The ache is there, to keep her company but that’s okay. What later? Watch some tv? Maybe read a little. Talk to friends on the phone. One of her oldest friends, Chrissie, lives in Australia now and it’s her birthday, What’s that time difference though? She can’t quite remember and silently regrets that her memory isn't as good as it used to be, something she’s been doing since she was in her twenties. And then something catches her eye and a jolt goes through her as if she’s suddenly falling. To her own surprise she finds that her body is in motion. Her shopping bags are let go of, but she doesn’t see them hit the floor and spill their contents. Because of the adrenaline, she doesn’t actually even hear the boy’s mother calling his name too late and screaming at him to stop, but she does see the cab going too fast and a small body running past her and wildly out into the road. The drivers expression is one of panic and fear, his whole body flinches as he hits the brakes. She does notice that it’s the boy from the supermarket and she does notice that he is unaware of his danger. In full flight, head turned back. No sense of worry or of what’s about to happen or anything. She leaps after him, reaches out and catches him by the back of his shirt in a remarkable reflex. But by the time she’s turned him round and has sent him roughly back towards the pavement, she’s in the way of the oncoming cab herself. It seems as if there’s no way to escape what’s about to happen, it comes towards her and there’s no time at all and yet she experiences it almost like a series still frames. It’s so strange, all those years gone by so fast and then these two seconds taking so long. The massive car presses forward as if to swallow her whole.
But it is not to have her, because her body still does it’s thing so well in these moments and as the cab veers one way, she has the presence of mind to go the other and suddenly, for just a second, she is young again. With millimeters to spare, she dodges out the way like a Minoan girl in her late teens evading a charging bull.
There is gratitude from the family of course. Relief from the driver. They all seem a little rattled by how close a call it was. But for herself, actually, she isn’t shaken at all, she just feels incredibly alive and thrilled to be helpful. Thrilled to have beaten the thief this time, to have done something that matters. The journey home goes by so quickly. She doesn’t notice the smile that keeps appearing on her face and she doesn’t take the bus, not after all that, in fact the walk seems far too soon to be over. She notices every budding leaf on every tree she passes. The breeze on her skin, beautiful. The changing light as the sky becomes a dark, electric blue overhead, lovely. Everything is just as it should be, no ache for now, nor no memory of it. Soon she’s on the phone to her friend in Australia who loves her so much that she doesn’t mind being woken up at five thirty in the morning. They talk of what happened that day and of all sorts of things and she falls asleep herself later that night at peace with the world.
Only a short walk away if she’d known where they were, lives the family whose wholeness she so recently preserved. The dinner was fine and in fact they did have a few friends over. The children have been asleep for some time now, and the mother and father prepare themselves for bed. They are quieter than usual, a new and unfamiliar atmosphere has crept over them. Images of their son rushing out into the road, into the path of an oncoming car flash repeatedly across both of their minds, though neither mentions it. The husband brushes his teeth while the wife lies back in bed. Laying down is a relief, it feels as if she’s been on her feet for ever and she has a feeling in her chest that she doesn’t quite recognise. Or is it in her head?
Tomorrow, it will be quieter and too small to notice, but it will not go away, it will never go away, for she has seen the thief now. Seen it up close. One day it will come back and take something from her. She feels this. She doesn’t think it consciously, but some hidden part of her is busy reasoning out the inevitability of it. As she lies there her conscious thoughts turn to that woman, who despite being a stranger and old enough to be her mum had jumped out in traffic earlier to save her child’s life. She wishes she could hug that woman now. She’d been too embarrassed to at the time even though that had been her impulse, and now she really wishes that she had. Did she thank her enough? If only she could have thought of something better to say, something that could have really communicated how grateful she is. English isn’t her native tongue though she knows it’s hard to say profound things in any language. She wonders about the woman, wonders about her story and what had led her to be at that bus stop at that moment, ready to act, attentive and willing to do what she did. She thinks about it and tries to shake off this uncomfortable and hard to describe feeling that is settling in her.
She doesn’t know that her boy’s life today was saved by it though, by that hard to describe feeling which echoes through the other woman almost all the time, which wears her out with the constant vigilance it forces on her and the dreadful sense that anything could be destroyed or stolen away at any moment.
For the woman had known the thief of old and spent her life watching out for it’s return, like a shepherd watching always for the wolf.