Furnishing the Hard CellA Story by Raef C. Boylan
“Hey, old woman! Shouldn’t you be gardening or something?”
The café was half-full and several people shifted in their hard plastic chairs, anticipating a scene. The unprovoked roar had come from the head of the queue; a tall girl in her late teens wearing baggy jeans and a mocking grin. Everyone else in the line, shuffling steadily closer to the tills, carried their items on a red tray while they waited for the waitress to finish pouring bags of change into the till drawer, whereas the girl idly tossed a banana milkshake from hand to hand.
Every grey-haired female in the café hoped that the aggressive question wasn’t aimed at her.
Except one. Isabel wanted to jump out of her seat but, like every seat in this particular café, it was awkwardly fixed to the table by a metal bar. She had to settle for the less dignified option: scrambling out of it, one leg at a time; pivoting in order to face the girl and retort,
“Shouldn’t you be doing heroin in a bus stop?”
The girl laughed delightedly. “How goes the jigsaw puzzles?”
“How’s the mugging business?”
The waitress hurriedly slammed the till drawer shut.
“All done,” she announced. “That’s £1.08 please.”
As soon as she’d paid, the girl squeezed and bounded her way through the tables over to where Isabel stood. “Hey there. Confused your microwave for the TV lately?”
Isabel aimed a fake slap at the girl’s head. “All right you, pack it in.”
“Aww, come on…I’ve thought of loads. How are all your cats?”
“How are all your illegitimate babies?”
“Wouldn’t know, I sold them on eBay. That’s how we roll now...”
“Well that’s all your benefit schemes down the drain…”
“Yeah,” the girl sighed. “I might have to snatch your handbag before I go.”
“It’s a tough world,” agreed Isabel.
They fell into a moment’s comfortable silence.
“Will you take a seat?” said Isabel, bobbing a mock curtsey.
“Hmm, I dunno…when did they last change your incontinence pad?”
“Alright, smart-arse, sit down, we’re scaring people.”
They each climbed into a chair.
“It’s alright,” the girl assured everyone at the nearby tables, “I’m her carer. If she kicks off, got the tranquilliser gun right here in my pocket.”
“Lambrini…Mars Bar…whatever they called you, behave yourself.”
“Mars Bar?” The girl cracked up. “Man, I should have saved that for one of my eBay spawn!”
They sat and looked at one another; the woman sipping lukewarm tea from a Styrofoam cup, the girl picking flecks of protective foil from the rim of her milkshake bottle. Around them, the café settled back into its murmuring lull. There was no danger, no story here.
The girl’s name was Natalie. Whenever she met someone new, she gave them a choice of calling her Nat or Lee and always hoped they’d choose Lee. At the age of eight a trivial revelation had convinced her that this would be a way to test the world, that she would be wary of anyone who took the Nat option. But it turned out that nearly everyone preferred Nat as the more obvious abbreviation. Her best friend Jo called her Natz - which made Lee think of gnats. In other words, irritating pests.
Lee was currently not speaking to Jo; not that Jo seemed to have noticed. Sitting right opposite Isabel, Lee felt angry all over again. Jo didn’t understand anything.
Jo had been hanging her head out of her bedroom window, having a f*g, when Lee told her that she couldn’t make the night out because Isabel had asked her to come round [to play chess, but Lee wasn’t mentioning that part]. Jo was so annoyed that she crushed her cigarette out on the window sill before it was even half-smoked.
“So…what, ain’t she got no, like, grandkids to help her?”
“Nah. Told you before, thicko, she’s alone in the world. No husband, no kids…so, no grandkids. It’s just her, completely independent and all that.”
As Isabel had once observed, Lee’s vocabulary took a nosedive when she was with her friends. Lee had shrugged it off as a temporary necessity.
“I don’t get it, Natz. You keep cancelling on me for some old bint. What, she put you in her Will or somefink? That why you hang out with her so much?”
“No, it’s not about that. And she’s not an old bint. Look, shut up about it alright?”
“Ahhh, see I get it now!” Jo dropped onto the bed beside Lee and bounced around excitedly, nudging Lee with her elbow. “She a rich b***h or somefink, innit?”
Lee left quickly. Jo wasn’t worth the prison stretch for provoked strangling.
Thanks to Jo, Lee was now worried that maybe Isabel thought the same thing: that Lee was acting nice in order to inherit her money. Also thanks to Jo, Lee was becoming obsessed with death again. She didn’t want Isabel, or anyone she cared about, to die. But they would anyway.
“That milkshake too strong for you, Lee?”
Isabel smiled gently. “Looks like you’re trying to dilute it with your eyes.”
Lee hadn’t even realised that she’d welled up; she quickly wiped her face. “Guess I should stick to whisky before twelve, yeah?”
“Whisky! My, haven’t we risen in the world - what’s wrong with paint thinner?”
It was time to get serious. It always was, eventually.
“Are you still scared of getting old, Lee?”
“I know what I’m meant to say -”
“There’s no ‘meant to’ about it!” interrupted Isabel. “Say whatever’s true.”
“OK then, I want to say no, because I’ve met you and you’re old but you’re still cool and you know how to enjoy life and all of that…but yeah, I’m still scared. What if I can’t be like you?”
“You don’t have to be like me.”
“You’re the only cool old person I know.”
“Enough of the lazy youth talk, what do you mean by ‘cool’?”
“Well, you still act young. You ride a bike and you like arcade games and you read cool – I mean, interesting – books and we like some of the same music and…stuff like that.” Lee shrugged.
“You know that I don’t drink any ‘eternal youth’ potions, don’t you?”
“Well then, there’s no secret to it. I’ve told you before: age is all in the mind, a matter of perception. If you know what you enjoy doing at twenty, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy doing it at sixty or seventy – or even eighty and ninety.”
“But what if my mind goes funny, like I end up senile or something?”
“Well…” Isabel sighed. “There are no guarantees about these things. And that’s why it’s all the more important to find out what you enjoy now, and keep on enjoying it until you can’t.”
“That’s a really depressing answer. Basically, old age is scary. End of.”
“It’s only the anticipation that’s scary; the unknown is always scary. I’m seventy-four and I’m not scared of being seventy-four…but sometimes I worry about being eighty-four.”
“You’ll be fine, just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Isabel tilted her head. “That’s a little hypocritical, isn’t it? ‘But what if my mind goes funny, like I end up senile or something?’ No guarantees, remember. My mother had terrible arthritis; I could develop it, end up not being able to hold an arcade gun, pick up a chess piece…turn the page of a book, even. I could turn into one of those complainers you hear down at the Post Office.”
“You just did,” Lee said with a grin.
“Ah, shutuppa yaface. What you lack is a positive philosophy.”
“About life. Or death. It’s the same thing, just looked at differently.”
“Oh yeah, this sounds REALLY positive. Life equals dying.” Lee rolled her eyes.
“Lee, listen.” Isabel laid her hand on the girl’s and for a split second Lee recoiled within herself, at the sight of the loose, papery skin and wrinkled fingers in so close contrast to her own – as if Isabel were about to suck the youth out of her via touch. “Like it or not, you are going to die one day. Everybody does. You need to accept that in order to appreciate life, so that you get the most out of it that you can.”
“I know, I know. I get that. It’s easy to say but not easy to do. Take a look around – nobody lives like they really believe they’re going to die one day!” Lee gestured around the café, and at the street beyond its glass panes.
“A lot of people don’t,” Isabel conceded. “But are they happy?”
Lee was extremely frustrated. All the advice and instruction Isabel had given her in the past had been simple enough to follow. Study up on this. Form an opinion about that. Not always easy or pleasant - struggling through the entire text of Crime and Punishment, for example, had felt like penance - but solid and achievable. Whereas this one, although overwhelmingly important, didn’t have enough traction; it kept slipping away…and always would.
Taking a deep breath, she attempted to express how impossible it seemed. “Once you accept death, it’s like…it could happen any time. Tomorrow, I could get hit by a bus. And people say s**t like ‘live every day like it’s your last’. But if today was my last day of being alive, I’d spend all my money on like a massive party or something, and go round telling the people I love how much I care about them. I can’t do that every day. I’d be skint, and everyone I love would be freaked out by me. If people really believed it, they’d quit their jobs – because who the f**k wants to spend their last day alive doing pointless work? But people don’t all quit their jobs, because they need money to live and…arrgh, it’s so s****y but that’s how we get sucked into the grind, you know? You have to forget about dying because otherwise it all seems too crazy and like, I dunno, the economy would collapse and stuff.”
Lee dropped her head into her hands and looked up between her splayed fingers at Isabel, who’d refrained from interrupting her rant.
“So, you can’t embrace mortality because…the economy would collapse?”
“No, that’s only if everybody did. I can’t embrace mortality because I’m human and I’d go crazy. It’s too much like being on Death Row, waiting around for your life to end.”
“But that was my point before,” said Isabel. “You can’t just wait around for it. You have to fill your life up with things that make it worthwhile, you have to compensate yourself. Suffering is the price we pay for humanity. To be conscious is to suffer but if we weren’t conscious then what would be the point?”
“We’d be hairless monkeys, running around having a good time. What’s the point of lions or fish or birds or…you know.”
“And my other point?”
“Prisoners on Death Row have access to books and porn…some of them even get qualifications. What it seems like you’re saying is we’re all stuck in a cell and we should fill it with stuff to try and distract ourselves from knowing we’re stuck in a cell. What’s the point?”
“If you can’t get out of the cell, what’s the point in depriving yourself?”
For the second time since their conversation began, Lee’s eyes shone with heavy tears. Isabel rebuked herself silently and again touched Lee’s hand.
“I don’t want to be stuck in the cell,” Lee mumbled, her expression pleading.
“It’s only a metaphorical cell, petal. And we’re all free to visit each other’s cells – I’m in yours right now. You’re not in solitary confinement.” She squeezed two of Lee’s fingers.
Lee squeezed back gratefully. “This really sucks,” she said, wiping her eyes.
“This sucks,” said Lee.
The elderly woman she’d approached glanced at her. “I’m going to pretend I don’t know what that means,” she said wryly, “in the hope that you refine your vocabulary.”
They were stood in the middle of the path, only a few feet from the bus stop. Lee had taken a few respectful stops back after the woman threatened her with the bag of onions, but she didn’t feel that she could just turn on her heels and leave. The burst carrier bag had been joined by a second due to the woman’s aggressive transference of groceries; apples had scattered themselves across the street and a jar of mustard had smashed.
“I was merely stating my declaration with regards to how unfair your reaction to my offers of assistance struck me,” Lee said pompously.
The woman threw back her head and laughed, taking Lee by surprise. “Well forgive me, young delinquent! I intended no offence.”
“I prefer to think of myself as an ambassador of youth,” Lee replied, and bowed. “At your service. And how was I not to take offence from you saying you’d bash my drug-addled brains in with your onion collection?”
The woman laughed again, clearly amused by this portrait of herself. Lee took it as permission to kneel down and scoop some wayward apples into the plastic bag she’d offered a few minutes previously. She also picked up a pack of bacon, some dented tins and a carton of cranberry juice.
“So tell me, why do you have several spare carrier bags?”
“For when my dog does his business in public.”
“Ah, ambassador of youth indeed. Shouldn’t you be off doing heroin in a bus stop?”
It was Lee’s turn to laugh. “Gotta love the stereotypes…shouldn’t you be gardening?”
Restored to faith in humanity, the old woman stuck out her hand. “Isabel, suspicious hag.”
“Natalie, reformed yob.”
Grinning, they shook hands.
“…in the same way that all good stories must come to an end,” Isabel was saying.
“Yeah? If your life was a book, what would the synopsis be?”
“Oh, I don’t know…Isabel, a maverick astronaut, has two hours to save the world -” Catching sight of Lee’s confused face, she explained, “Well, I have to make it exciting or nobody would buy it!”
Lee laughed. “You’re mental.”
“Well, you’re only about three chapters so far - what would you know?”
“Can I go back and edit?” Lee asked wistfully.
“No, sorry. You’ll have to blow their minds with chapters four and five or you’ll lose them.”
“I thought I was supposed to be living to please myself? F**k the audience.”
“Ah, it’s one of those hedonistic modern novels is it?”
“More like a rambling monologue; no plot, no sense, no interesting characters…”
“Hey! Am I not included, then?”
“Oh yeah, sorry. I forgot. They’ll love you.”
“All that witty dialogue…”
“Yeah, they love a bit of that. Think I’ll make it mostly just dialogue.”
“Some existential despair, they love that too.”
“And a bit of swearing.”
“The critics won’t be keen.”
“F**k those egotistical c***s! Taa daa, you see?”
“What will you call it?” asked Isabel.
“Dunno. Probably try to come up with some kind of word pun that references the story.”
They were making an effort to keep it blithe.
“Can’t help wondering how these stories will end,” said Lee.
© 2009 Raef C. Boylan
Shelved in 1 LibraryAdded on October 12, 2009
Last Updated on October 12, 2009
Raef C. Boylan
Coventry, UK, United Kingdom
AboutHey there. C. BOYLAN Where Nothing is Sacred: Volume One www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/where-nothing-is-sacred-volume-i/1637740 I can also be fo.. more..