Can You Imagine

A lonely elderly lady makes a new friend but all is not as it seems.

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Public Domain

He said it was easier, having her in Canterbury. That he could see her more and that she’d be more ‘looked after.’ And it was true she saw Brian on a Tuesday and Friday evening for an hour or so after he finished work and before he headed home, and sometimes Charlotte would pop in for a cup of tea and a biscuit after school. But for the rest of the time, here she was.

The building was new; freshly painted, double glazed. Her studio flat within it was large, with room for a double bed. The communal lounge contained squashy armchairs mixed in with the more supportive types and the system the warden called them on every morning was computerised, all buttons and lights.

And then this Canterbury. It was quiet. (‘It’s safe though, Mother. It’s not Harringay, you know.’) No, it was definitely not Harringay. Harringay: where the shops lit up the main road like a Christmas tree. Tables outside each one, displaying fruit or buckets or meat in inviting pyramids. Shops where they knew her name (‘Good morning, Mrs Green! How are you?’). Shops that glowed from 5 o’clock, neon signs in the dark lighting her way to the bus stop. And the buses! Red, as they should be. (They were white in Canterbury, with indeterminate stripes.) Every five minutes one would arrive, the promise of home or central London writ large.

But it was unsafe, she knew that. The Porebskis next door had been broken into twice in a month, and her friend Sally’s grandson had been mugged at knifepoint in Wood Green on a Saturday afternoon. She knew she was an easy target: slow moving, alone. She didn’t want to believe Brian when he said these things, to believe her city, the city she was born in, could offer her harm, but she knew there was truth in it. And so she had agreed to the move but oh! she hadn’t imagined this.

In spite of herself she carved out a routine: food shopping at the large supermarket ten minutes away every Monday and Thursday (no more bowls of fruit piled high for a pound) and a trip into Canterbury for coffee and cake on Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday was washing day and at the weekends she was either taken (infrequently) to Brian and Jackie’s or she gritted her teeth and went to the coffee morning or fish and chip lunch that was often on in the lounge. Important to be sociable, she thought. It might ease if she could just make friends.

Perhaps it was this impulse that led her to befriend Tom in the café. She noticed him on her third or fourth trip. Like her, he seemed to make his coffee and cake last a couple of hours at least, and like her he seemed to like sitting by the window, staring out at all the busy people.

Unlike her, he was young: was he even twenty? He looked older than Charlotte certainly, but there was still something teenaged about his face, his soft chin. Truthfully, he reminded her of Jasper. Jasper when they first met, at the dance hall in Manor House. She castigated herself for turning into a silly old woman but still she watched him. He was usually in situ when she arrived until, one Tuesday, he wasn’t. She had glanced at the window seat as she came in (habit now), looked away quickly, then looked back in surprise. The seat was empty. She bit back tears that rose without warning and laughed inwardly. Crying over a young boy she’d never even met. For God’s sake, Moira, get a grip. She paid for her coffee and cake and headed for the window seat, as if to punish herself. Only then, ‘Can I join you?’ The boy had arrived. ‘I’m sorry, I know it’s strange when there’s tables free, but I do like to look out of the window. I like to imagine what everyone out there is doing, where they’re going.’

Up close he looked older. And, she realised, even more like Jasper: the same green eyes and curly black hair, although Jasper would never have worn his so long.

‘Anyway, I promise I won’t disturb you anymore. I’ll be as quiet as a mouse – if it’s OK to just-‘ he nodded his head at the chair opposite hers, his hands full with his tray.

‘Oh, of course – I mean yes, please do,’ she said, unaccountably flustered. They settled into silence for a moment and then the boy began talking again, his promise to be mouse-like forgotten.

‘I’m Tom,’ he offered her his hand to shake. She shook it without thinking. It was warm, soft. Strong. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d touched a human being like that.

‘I’m Moira. You come here quite a lot then?’

‘Every Tuesday,’ he said, ‘I prefer Tuesdays, they’re so ordinary, you know?’ She stared blankly at him and he laughed.

‘If you watch people on a Saturday, there’s just too many. Day trippers, students, families. They’ve all come in specially, you know? There’s no pattern. They go shopping and then to the cathedral, meet others for lunch or even a drink that turns into lunch. You can’t imagine.’

‘Imagine?’ she echoed weakly. Her head was beginning to spin with the unaccustomed chatter, never mind the confusing content.

‘Well. Say for example that man there.’ He pointed across the street to a man in a shirt and tie smoking in a doorway.

‘That door leads to offices – I know, I’ve checked. And he comes down every Tuesday morning at this time – probably every morning, I guess – to smoke a cigarette. But then, watch what he does.’ The both gazed across the street. The man turned and opened the door behind him, stepped in and then emerged from the darkness carrying a white package. Moira realised she was holding her breath. She breathed out slowly as the man opened up his package, pulled out a slice of cake, and ate it.

‘You see? Every Tuesday. A cigarette and a slice of cake. Sometimes the cake is chocolate, even. So I can imagine him easily.’ He looked at her expectantly.

‘You can imagine him?’

‘Well, yes. I imagine he likes to bake. Every week he brings a cake in to the office and every day he cuts a slice, wraps it, brings it downstairs. You know?’

She did know, now.

‘You’re a bit like Sherlock Holmes, aren’t you?’

Tom beamed at her suggestion like a small boy.

‘I don’t know about that. I just enjoy working people out, learning about them. What they like, what they do, you know? Like her now.’

Exhilarated, Moira turned again to the window.

‘The woman in the red. She always goes up to the door of that greengrocers, but sometimes she goes in, sometimes she doesn’t.’

Sure enough, Moira watched in amazement as the woman made a pantomime of feeling the peaches in order to manoeuvre herself near to the door. She peered in, made as if to go in but then turned and quickly walked away.

‘And you imagine?’

‘She fancies someone who works there. If he’s behind the counter she goes in – if not, she doesn’t bother.’

‘Unless she has a phobia about certain fruit? Won’t go in if she sees, say, strawberries on the counter?’

‘Oh,’ he stopped, coffee cup in mid-air, ‘I like that. Deadly terrified of satsumas or something?’

They giggled together and began to imagine feverishly, picking people as they passed and picturing their jobs, their lives, their secrets. Moira hadn’t had so much fun in a long time.

She found herself trying to explain it to Brian, who had popped in that evening. (‘Just a quick call, Mother.’) but had confused him by calling Tom a boy – he was, to her – and then, fatally, trying to explain the imagining game. Brian smiled politely, ‘How kind of you to play with the little boy. Was his mother there too?’

‘His mother?’

‘The boy’s. The boy’s mother. The boy who you were playing the game with.’ He enunciated every word as if she was deaf, or stupid. ‘Did you see his mother?’

‘He didn’t have a mother, Brian.’ She snapped, and felt herself bristle. ‘He was twenty, at least. Hadn’t you better be getting back to Jackie?’ She got up, began picking up their mugs.

‘Not got a mother? Twenty? Really? I thought he was a child. With the game, and everything. Sorry, Mother, but it does all sound a bit odd!’

Moira remained standing. She suddenly felt tired. She wanted Brian to go, she wanted to crawl into her bed and fall into a dark, dreamless sleep.

Every other time, she thought. Every other time you visit me you’re in and out like a shot, but of course today you want to linger, to stay. For Brian was showing no signs of moving in spite of her standing presence. In fact, he seemed to be looking at her more closely than ever. He cleared his throat. ‘I know it’s been tough for you, Moth – Mum. A lot of change. Would you – I mean, if you like – you could come and stay with us for the weekend?’

One’s own child, Moira reflected, retained the capacity to infuriate and yet simultaneously fill one with love throughout their life. She knew how much that offer would cost Brian, should she accept it – smoothing it over with Jackie, telling Charlotte no screens for the weekend, that she had to entertain her grandmother – and yet he made it. And yet then again he made it because he thought she was going mad, making friends with inappropriate young men, wittering on about games. She sat down heavily, reached over and touched Brian’s hand. (The only touch allowed to the mother of a middle-aged man. The kisses and cuddles, the tickles they used to share when he was a boy seemed so far away it was as if they’d happened to other people.)

‘That’s kind of you, Brian. Maybe I could come for the day, in a few weeks or something?’

They both knew she’d given him an escape route. All the same he took it, gladly.

‘Definitely, Mum. That would be really lovely.’

Finally he rose, although she didn’t feel she had the energy to do so again.

‘No, don’t get up. You look tired, Mum. I’ll let myself out.’ He bent and kissed the top of her head, squeezed her shoulder. She heard the door click shut as he pulled it firmly behind him.

The following Tuesday Moira briefly contemplated walking past the café, choosing a new one to sit in silently. But then she neared the window and there was Tom, waving at her frantically and smiling. He had already bought them both coffee and cake.

‘How are you? What have you been up to? Lots of adventures, I should think?’ His chatter began again as she sat down but this time she sank into it easily, like a warm bath.

‘Me? Ha! No, no, my days of adventures are long gone.’

‘Oh, come on. I can’t see you not organising something. Being in charge of a band of women and plotting excitement.’ His tone was gentle, earnest. He wasn’t teasing. Suddenly she remembered Sally, visiting her for the last time before Moira moved to Canterbury. ‘What are we going to do without you, Moira? The leader of our gang?’

It was true she had always seemed to have ideas: art galleries, the cinema, a walk by the river. Even on a grey, rainy day she’d plot a bus trip to a new café or afternoon tea at a nearby hotel. She’d stand in her dressing gown and ring the girls: Pauline, Ann, Sally. ‘Are you free?’ she’d ask, even before saying hello. ‘Do you fancy….’

‘I suppose I used to be like that,’ she admitted, cutting into her cake with the side of her fork.

‘But not anymore?’

‘No, not anymore.’

‘Why not?’

The lemon cake was sweet and sharp in her mouth. How to answer? She decided to stick to facts.

‘I’ve not lived here long. I moved from London about six months ago.’

‘And what made you choose Canterbury?’

‘My son, really. He and his family live in Petham. It was his idea altogether. I mean, he’s right – London is unsafe once you’re older, and it is nicer to be closer to him.’ These aren’t facts, she reflected drily.

‘Why are you not in Petham, then?’

Moira felt like she was being interviewed. But in a nice way; like she was talking to Michael Parkinson or Terry Wogan. Like she was famous, important.

‘That was me. I’ve lived in London all my life, I couldn’t face living in a village. I needed a bit of city still.’

‘And how do you like Canterbury?’

‘I like it enough. I suppose I don’t know it properly yet. Have you lived here long?’

There was a pause as Tom took up his cup, drank his coffee. ‘Me? No, not long – I moved here for university in October.’

‘Are you a first year then?’

‘Yes. I took a few years off first though – gap years, I guess? I travelled a bit and worked to save money for uni.’

‘And what are you studying?’ Her turn to interview.

‘Maths,’ he shrugged and grimaced, ‘I know everyone finds that boring, but I love it. Numbers do what they say, you know? They’re always the same. Speaking of which…’ He winked at Moira and gestured with his thumb. The smoking man was in place, dead on time. Moira and Tom watched in silence as he smoked his cigarette and then brought out his white package, unwrapped it.

‘Chocolate,’ they said in unison. ‘I told you,’ said Tom, laughing.

When Brian came to pick Moira up a few weeks later for their compromise Saturday at his house she found she wasn’t dreading it. Perhaps because she had told Tom all about it and he had listened so intently, murmuring all the right things at the right time that she felt her worries around it disappear. It had reminded her of talking to one of the girls, but even better: he was politer than the girls and less enmeshed in Moira’s history. He would never call Brian selfish or uncaring as Pauline and Sally had both done on separate occasions. They had been right at the time, of course, but hearing them say it had made Moira feel protective of Brian, made her retreat a bit with her confidences. Whereas Tom’s easy questions made her open up, talk truthfully.

Even Jackie’s customary two-air-kiss greeting didn’t needle her; instead she leant into it and embraced her. ‘Hello, Jackie. How are you?’ And she found she was almost interested in Jackie’s tales of bathroom renovations and newly designed bedrooms. Almost. Well, it didn’t annoy her anyway, and that was a start.

Jasper had always said she was too hard on Jackie. ‘No one will ever be good enough for your precious prince,’ he had jibed her. And she supposed it was true. Brian could be irritating and self-centred but he was also the boy who had made her a bookmark with I LOVE MUMMY wonkily cross stitched on it, the teenager who had secretly saved up to buy and replace her favourite vase after she had accidentally knocked it to the floor one afternoon.

She wasn’t stupid; she knew every mother thought their child unique, remarkable. And she knew, too, that actually he wasn’t even that. It was more that she had felt she had known him wholly and utterly: every facet, every part of him. And so it hadn’t been a reflection on Jackie to say she wasn’t good enough – more to say, who could be good enough for someone she felt she knew more intimately than herself?

But this Saturday, Moira found herself just watching the three of them, without judgement. And she saw amongst them the markings of love: the quick hugs and kisses, the asking of opinions. The family jokes about Brian’s poor music taste, Jackie’s slowness at getting ready, Charlotte’s messiness. It made her happy to see them together, to see Brian so loved, so cosseted.

She left after dinner and as she was standing at the door putting her coat on Charlotte gave her a hug. ‘Come again soon, Granny!’

‘Yes,’ said Jackie, standing behind her daughter, ‘Please do.’

‘I will,’ Moira said, and she meant it.

Tom mentioned the minibus for the first time the following Tuesday. He was in the café when Moira arrived, sitting at the table she now thought of as theirs. Her coffee and cake were waiting.

‘How was Brian’s?’ he asked as she sat down.

‘It was actually rather pleasant,’ she confided, ‘And I should thank you really – talking to you helped so much.’

He blushed a dark brick-red then, all over his face and neck, and looked out of the window in silence. She panicked: had she said the wrong thing? Of course, he probably just thought of these Tuesdays as nothing, just a chat with an old lady. She struggled to recover the situation.

‘And how are you? How is university? Your course?’ Small talk.

‘It’s OK,’ he still seemed uncharacteristically quiet, ‘Getting busy, you know?’ Her heart dipped. Was he going to say – ‘Actually, I’ve just got involved in a… a uni charity. We help poorer kids here in Canterbury, take them places for day trips.’ He smiled again but there was a hardness to it. His voice sounded oddly fierce. ‘We’re going to take them to the seaside once it gets warmer. It’s crazy – a lot of them haven’t even seen the sea.’

She remembered Brian as a boy, on their yearly trip to Bournemouth: running and splashing in the waves and laughing with the joy of it all. ‘I bet they’ll love it.’

‘Definitely. I drive the minibus, you know? Only trouble is it’s so old it’s falling apart. We’re starting to fundraise for a new one but it’s so expensive.’

‘Are they? I suppose I’ve never thought about minibuses.’

‘Well, a nice one – a decent one – cost about £20k. But we’ll get there! We’ve got lots of plans to fundraise,’ deadpan, ‘I might try a sponsored silence.’

‘I would absolutely sponsor you for that.’

Just then the greengrocer woman appeared and began her elaborate mock-casual wander into the shop. They watched as she peered in and then cheered as she walked in confidently. Tom raised his cup, ‘Here’s to love.’

By the time Moira got home from meeting Tom it was usually after lunch. Too full from the coffee and cake anyway, she would make herself a cup of tea and sit in her armchair, read a little, doze, think.

That Tuesday was no different. She settled into the armchair and entered a sort of half-awake daze almost immediately. She was full – happy – meeting Tom always made her happy – so like Jasper – so kind – Jasper had always been kind too – so gentle – he used to hold her hand in his – trace her palm with his thumb – my little firework, he called her – a firework – beautiful. Moira fell asleep and dreamt Jasper had bought her a minibus and was painting fireworks on the side. She woke with a start. The room was dark, her mouth felt dry. She would give Tom the money for the minibus. The £20,000. She’d made plenty of money selling the house in London, after all, and £20,000 was nothing, really, if it helped.

She arrived before Tom the next Tuesday, she was so excited and nervous. She felt the partially completed cheque in her handbag like a living thing, or something electric.

‘Tom!’ she began to talk to him before he even sat down. ‘I’ve decided. I’ll give you the money.’

He looked at her blankly and pointed at the drinks on the table, ‘But you bought the coffee today?’

‘No, no. Not that. The minibus. For the children. I have money. I can give you £20,000.’

‘What?’

‘I can give you the money. To buy the minibus.’

‘No, no – no, Moira, that’s crazy.’ Tom looked upset. ‘You can’t give me that kind of money. That wasn’t why I mentioned it.’ He paused, seemed to stumble over his words.

‘I really – I don’t know why – I should never have-‘

He came to an abrupt halt and stared down at his hands. Moira leant over the table. ‘It’s alright, Tom. I know. I want you to have it. Here.’

She picked up her bag, found the cheque neatly folded in her purse. ‘I’ve mostly filled it out but I didn’t know who to make it out to?’

Tom was still looking at his hands. ‘They haven’t set up a bank account yet.’ His voice was expressionless. ‘Probably better if you make it out to me and I’ll transfer it. It’s Tom Morgan – Thomas Morgan.’

‘There. There you go, Tom. Please,’ She re-folded the cheque and pushed it across the table, ‘Please take it.’

He looked up then. ‘Thank you, Moira. Thank you. You don’t know what this means.’

‘I do.’ She smiled but she couldn’t shake a feeling of loss, as absolute and overwhelming as a wave.

‘Where do you live, Moira?’

‘Over in Wincheap, why?’

‘What’s the actual address? It’s just, I’m sure the group will want to write you a thank you letter, that’s all.’

‘Really? There’s no need for that, not at all. But if you think they will…’ She wrote it down on a napkin.

Wednesday was always washing day: she’d gather her paltry pile in a blue plastic laundry basket she’d brought with her from Harringay, put a washing capsule on top and head to the laundry room. Sometimes she left her washing going in the machine and went to the lounge for a cup of tea and a bit of chat with whoever was there. But today she stayed in the laundry room, watched her washing spin round. People had got funny about washing lately, dumping it out as soon as a machine finished so they could load their own – and anyway, she didn’t feel like talking.

The tiny red LED display on the machine read 12 MINUTES when Cherry, the warden, came bursting through the door. ‘Moira! There you are! Wendy said you might be. Thank goodness!’

‘What is it?’ Moira felt sick. ‘Is it Brian? Or Charlotte?’

‘No, dear,’ Cherry looked at Moira, ‘Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. No, no, it’s nothing like that. There’s a young man here for you – Tom?’

Moira felt sick again. Tom? Here?

‘All the ladies are desperate to know where you’ve been hiding him. He’s lovely. And a lovely car as well. How do you know him?’

‘He’s just a – a friend. We met in Canterbury.’ She couldn’t bring herself to say they met in a café only two months ago. It sounded absurd.

Cherry was shepherding her down the corridor as they talked and suddenly she saw him, standing by the lounge and surrounded by Wendy and half a dozen other ladies. So tall, so young. So incongruous. He turned and saw her.

‘Moira! There you are!’ Like Cherry but not.

She felt Wendy and the other women turn to look at her, their attention swivelling like spotlights.

‘Are you free? Would you like to come out with me for the day?’ He waved the car keys he held in his hand at her. She felt a fizz of excitement.

‘Definitely. I’ll just get my coat. But, wait – my washing is still going…’

A sound rather like a cluck escaped from Wendy. ‘Don’t you worry about that. I’ll sort it and hang it before that Doreen gets a chance to chuck it on the floor. Go and have fun with your young man.’ She gave Moira a nudge.

Your young man. Her words followed Moira down the corridor as she hurried for her coat.

Tom was subtly solicitous as they got into the car; helping her into her seat, handing her her seatbelt. The car itself was beautiful: spacious and shiny, smelling new.

‘Is the car yours?’ She stroked the seat leather idly.

‘This car? Yes, yes, it’s mine. I’ve had it for ages. I bought it before uni, with my savings.’ He turned the radio on and fiddled with the buttons to find a station he liked. ‘Anyway, I thought maybe for today we could go to London?’ His voice rose, a question.

It had been eight months since she had been in London; it felt like a lifetime.

‘London? That sounds wonderful.’

‘We could go for a wander and a bit of lunch? Visit somewhere you used to go?’

‘That would be great. Tom-‘ Moira paused. She wanted to say: why? why are you doing this? but she was afraid to hear the answer – and anyway, wasn’t this what she’d hoped for? – so instead she asked what Wendy had been saying to him and laughed at his reply.

In the end they went to a Middle Eastern restaurant near to the British Museum. She used to catch the number 29 to Gower St, spend the morning in the quietest galleries in the museum and then she would go around the corner to the restaurant, order mint tea with her humus and falafel.

Tom had found a car park nearby and had set off in the direction of the museum with no input from her. As they were seated at their table she asked, ‘Do you know London, then?’

‘A bit. I was born in Plymouth, spent most of my childhood in Coventry of all places, but then I did my GCSEs and A Levels in Watford. I used to get the tube in a lot, walk around.’

‘And you’ve let me go on as though I’m the only London expert between us?’

‘No, not at all – you are, honestly. You’re a born and bred Londoner – I only had four years, and trust me, Watford is hardly London.’

She smiled. ‘You moved around a lot then?’

‘Yes. Dad’s job. He was a salesman. Sold anything he could – or rather, tried to last as long as he could until the company found out that actually he couldn’t sell anything.’ Tom shrugged, helped himself to bread.

‘And your mother?’

‘She just tried her best to make the money last before it disappeared.’ He made a noise like a laugh but he wasn’t smiling. ‘Then Dad died. A massive heart attack. Stress, they said. Well, obviously it must’ve been stressful. Being so bad at his job the whole time. But I don’t get it: why didn’t he just stop? Do something else? Work in a supermarket, I don’t know. Anything. Instead he basically killed himself to prove what? How rubbish he was?’

‘I’m so sorry, Tom. That must’ve been very difficult.’ She didn’t know what else to say. ‘How old were you?’

‘When he died? Fourteen. That’s when we moved to Watford, to be near my nan so mum could work.’

Fourteen. A funny age. At fourteen, Brian had been desperate to be grown up one minute – wanting to stay up late, go out ’til all hours with his friends – and then desperate to be a little boy the next – sidling up and seizing her in awkward hugs, letting her comb his hair, run him a bath. She imagined Tom like that, and then suddenly having to cope with the death of his father.

‘I know I won’t be like him. I already know that.’ Tom’s jaw was set, his tone childishly certain. ‘I know I’m good at selling. You just have to get to know people, know what they want. Then they believe you and give you what you want. That’s all.’

The waiter arrived with their lunch then and talk slipped back to easier things: London, their fellow diners. They each had a small glass of wine and talked of travelling, summer holidays, Tom’s plans. It was four o’clock before either of them thought to look at the time.

‘Four o’clock!’

‘The car!’

They scrambled to get the bill – Tom paid, refusing to take any of her money – and to get to the car park before their ticket ran out. They drove down the Euston Road and Moira watched the lights beginning to glow in the dusk. She felt alive.

They were driving through the outskirts of Canterbury when Tom cleared his throat and turned down the radio.

‘Moira, I have to tell you something. When I talked about selling before – there’s a reason why I know I’m good at it. Its – it’s to do with the money.’

Moira reached quickly for the volume button herself, turned the radio back up. A man’s voice, singing, filled the car: ‘…tell everybody…’

‘Moira, please…’

‘Tom, I don’t need to hear it. Please don’t tell me.’

They had pulled into the car park of her building by then. Tom cut the engine and the music disappeared. She reached over and touched his hand, urgently. ‘Please, Tom.’

He stared out of the window for what felt like a long time. She kept her hand on his and stared at his profile. He was biting his lip – so like Jasper! Jasper had always done that when he was thinking, or worried.

‘I think I’ll go in now,’ she said finally, patting his hand as she moved hers away.

He turned to her. ‘I will never-‘

She touched his hair then, stroked it. It was as if her hands were thirsty for touch, storing it up like a cactus stores water.

‘I know.’

She got out of the car and stood in the doorway. She watched as he drove away, as the red and orange of the rear lights grew smaller and smaller and were finally swallowed by the black night.

Alice has been writing since she self-published her own newspaper aged 8 (two A4 pieces of paper covered in felt tip & stapled together).

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