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Authors: Gillian White

Chain Reaction

BOOK: Chain Reaction
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Chain Reaction
A Novel
Gillian White

For Benjamin Hamish Banforth, with love.

Contents

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

THIRTY-FIVE

THIRTY-SIX

THIRTY-SEVEN

THIRTY-EIGHT

THIRTY-NINE

FORTY

EPILOGUE

ONE
Flat 1, Albany Buildings, Swallowbridge, Devon

S
HE IS NOT TOO
weak to walk yet, by God. She’ll even run if she has to! She has always prided herself on her fibre, on her ability to pull through. Indeed, there were many times in Irene’s middle years when she was comforted by the simple wisdom of Faith Steadfast—the housewives’ answer to Rudyard Kipling.

If your heart is feeling weary, Tired of all that burdens you, Don’t give up and don’t stop smiling, Some inner strength will pull you through.

But hell’s bells, she’d never envisaged needing as much blooming inner strength as this.

As she hurries along, Irene Peacock’s sense of urgency grows because they are getting crosser and crosser. If they catch her this time they will kill her, she is sure. Either that or they’ll suck the juices of any strength she has left out of her for ever.

Getting her tights pulled up was a struggle. She left them on the floor in the end and it felt like leaving fetters behind.

Her fluffy grey hair hangs down to her shoulders, the tresses thin and tangled. Candy-floss hair. The vest they gave her keeps her warm, warm as breath on her chest it is. Gritting her teeth she presses on awkwardly up the hill—the one they used to run up as children on their way to school, skipping along in gingham dresses, calling to each other all of seventy years ago… and now those old sounds spin round in her head in a web of spindly voices.

‘House to let, apply within. If you go out,
Irene Mott
comes in!’

Hah, she was such a good skipper she’d stay in for ages. No matter how fast that rope spun round, they could not trip her up.

Memories as fragile as moths’ wings. Her ribbons used to match her dress, tied on hair that was held back in tight, tight plaits which hurt, with an awful parting down the centre wide as a railway track. Spam sandwiches, a handful of cob nuts and home-grown tomatoes in her packed-lunch tin—and ooh, the warm garden taste of it as if it was baked on hot stones. There was such a little crowd of them then, their names she can hardly remember although that doesn’t matter because most of them have passed over and their clothes sent off to Save The Children.

Inner strength? Dear Lord. She’d never expected to be left alone like this—ever. Especially when she was married and raising her child, and busy. She thought life would be a continual game of chain tick, everyone pulling hard on the hands of everyone else until the raucous chain collapsed with the force of itself.

Never mind losing the sense of touch, nobody
listens
to her any more; nobody’s got respect. She is terrified that her speech will go, like some of them with strokes. She will open her mouth one day and what comes out will be jagged and broken and then she won’t be able to shout.

Once they clip you down in those chairs you’re lucky if you can walk again.

And on top of this she is constipated, egg-bound, and that doesn’t help, being in pain most of the time, nor does the fact that she’s taken to sleeping so frequently, gently snoozing in a fireside chair. Do they put something in her Horlicks? It never used to be full of those grainy grey bits at the bottom, nor did she doze away the hours so that sleeping and waking became blurred. She’s not sure of anything much. She must be going barmy. Sometimes she can even feel William, so sure, keeping step beside her.

Some of them back there are lying in beds with the sides up, like kiddies’ cots with bits of themselves leaking out and farting. She avoids them all as much as she can, fearful of contamination. They’ll get her in one of those next if she doesn’t watch out—and once you get into that sort of state they touch your body so rudely.

She puts on a good face, tries to keep herself cheerful, remembers Faith Steadfast—her mother-in-law used to give her some of that author’s delicately illustrated books for Christmas—remembers some of the encouraging tunes they used to sing in the war. She’s clean, always has been. Cold, hard, starchy sheets with the laundry mark, a tattoo blue, looking like a blueberry stain in the corners. Narrow beds too high for comfort. They cut your toenails, they feed you meat and two veg, ice cream and eggs, eggs eggs. A vegetable form of existence. They sit round the Formica tables almost silently like uneasy children playing house, passing the plastic cruets. Bursts of clapping and laughter from the day-room television all night. Eyelids are no protection in there; they are transparent, the images seep through.

She groans when she thinks of all the years when she took so much for granted.

Her back hurts now but fear is the worst thing. She hurries on, a small, bent figure in a powder-blue coat, bedroom slippers, a knitted beret and a crochet bag pulling down one shoulder. Much too hot for the day, of course, but she couldn’t button her dress in all the excitement so she left it off and had to wear her coat to keep herself decent. Her walking stick has a hound’s head carved upon the handle. It used to be William’s—the handle has worn smooth from his hand. Last time they came for her in an ambulance. She had to travel back to Greylands with a red rug over her white-wafer legs as if she was an accident victim, wrapped-up human remains. The shame, oh the disgrace of it. ‘You are exhausting everyone’s patience, Irene,’ they said and you’d think she’d been caught by Interpol, not shopped by the manager of Boots. And their faces were crosser than ever but she felt no remorse. She promised never to do it again but her cheeks sagged with the weight of the lies. ‘What d’you want to go and do something like that for?’

Ladybird ladybird fly away home.
Do they really not understand?

She passes along the road unnoticed. She doesn’t count so they don’t count her.

When the day’s events seem dreary, When life seems pointless, full of woes, A friendly face, a kind ‘Good morning,’ Banish all these sorry lows.

Irene takes a deep breath and hobbles on; she’s nearly there now. She must get home again, she must, while she’s still got somewhere to call her own, an old wounded fox heading for its familiar lair. Before they diagnose dementia—and then what might they do? Attach an electronic device to her wrist so they know when she gets near the front door? Setting off alarm bells as if she’s a burglar breaking into a world she has no God-given right to inhabit. Are they afraid she will steal their air and scuttle off with a bag marked Swag? And Frankie has taken power of attorney, reckons her mother’s not ‘clear’ enough in her head to deal with her bank account any more. ‘We don’t want you to worry yourself over things like that at your age, Mum.’ Said with a kindness that glittered hard. Pound coins, not so nice as the gentler notes, they give her change like pocket money when the newsagent lady comes round. They hide her fags and in three months she hasn’t been able to save enough for a bottle of gin.

‘Now then, be sensible, dear.
Who will look after you at borne?’

They looked at her searchingly. ‘How will you cope with the shopping, cooking, cleaning, dressing and
personal hygiene,
Irene?’

‘What if you fell and broke your hip?’

‘I’ve got good neighbours,’ said Irene, ignoring the scolding fingers, ‘and then there’s my daughter, Frankie.’

The eyes that watched her narrowed. ‘It would be unfair to lay so much responsibility on their shoulders, surely? There is a limit as to what you can expect neighbours and family to do. And doesn’t your daughter work? She’s a teacher, isn’t she?’

‘Yes,’ said Irene with pride, to the woman with the martyred expression.

Selfish old woman, they said, their voices whispering in corners about private things like her waterworks and then they devised a test to trap her. Scrambled eggs and drinking chocolate made with milk at the same time. Well, who can cope with those impossible combinations? You’d have to be a chef at the bloody Savoy. To make them properly you need a decent whisk and hers was no good, it was rusty. When she failed they sighed and looked at her sadly as they considered their verdict. That was the first time she’d run away. In the end she sat there in stubborn silence and allowed them to carry her back, unable to resist the inevitable.

But not this time, oh no. Make no bones about that.

Any further would be beyond her. Every step is an effort now but Irene Peacock turns the last corner and there across the main road to the right, is her little one-bedroom flat in a yellow brick block of six, ground floor, with a small entrance garden where sometimes she manages to drag out a chair with a couple of cushions to sit on. She sees it with a kind of radiance, a glow behind a fog.

She rests on her hound’s head stick with relief. With a resigned sigh she sees that the little round flower beds need weeding. It’s up to the residents to do it, but nobody bothers. They are out at work all day, and people tend not to care about anything communally shared these days. Values have completely changed, although that nice Miss Benson on the first floor is helpful and kind. Irene Peacock takes a deep breath and inches herself and her bulky bag across the busy main road. They’ll probably accuse her of stealing because of the milk, the bread and the biscuits she took.

FOR SALE.

In the little communal hall there’s a smell of joss sticks and curry.

FOR SALE?

The sign cannot apply to hers, not to number one.

But someone has stuck the sign on her door so it almost obscures the thin letter box like a yashmak hides a smile.

She raises her stick and gives the offending poster a prod.

Is she getting worse? Is she imagining things?

Fishing for her handkerchief, Irene wipes her eyes and blows her nose. Then she turns round, a full circle, and back to face her door again.

A man in a red bobble hat passes by and pauses kindly. ‘All right, sweetheart?’

Irene nods so he goes away. She doesn’t want sympathy now, it saps energy, but she certainly is
not
all right—no, far from it. Her mouth falls open and she gapes, appalled, as the truth gradually dawns. She must look like a stranded codfish with her mouth drooped like this but she seems temporarily to have lost control. This is her flat,
there is no mistake.
Someone has done this behind her back. Someone is trying to sell her home and that someone has to be Frankie. But what about all her things? There’s an acid burst of outrage as her whole world topsy-turvies and twists around her. She is suddenly all the more alone in a roaring cavern of sound.

Inside at dear last (at least they haven’t yet changed the lock), with a cup of tea in her trembling hand, Irene Peacock burrows down into her flat, savouring its various textures and smells, the wireless, the armchair, the home-made rugs, everything. Some might call it shabby in here but she can’t get enough of it. Everything to be trusted and relied upon, some of these items have accompanied her through the whole of her life… the little dog ornament, for example, won at a fair, and the picture of the little blonde girl with the flowers. Her eyes linger lovingly on every detail and yet she had never wanted to come here, had never been keen to leave the bungalow, but as Frankie had said sensibly at the time, ‘Now Dad’s gone and you’ve no transport, you’ll be far better in town with all the services handy.’

BOOK: Chain Reaction
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