Marie and Sheila lightly embrace, lips brushing dry cheeks. Like ash, thinks Marie.
Sheila holds up a bra in mauve gingham trimmed with tiny green bows, ‘What do you think?’
‘Pretty, very pretty.’
Once Sheila was pretty. Now her hair, unlike her waist, is thinning and her colour is high. She still dresses well though. Black suits her. Marie is aware of her old Parka, scuffed boots and imagines that Sheila’s penetrating look has somehow revealed her slack, faded underwear.
‘Decided to treat yourself?’
Sheila thrusts the bra back into a thicket of hangers, ‘Just browsing really. Don’t think I’ll bother. How about you? What are you after?’
Marie has no idea. She has not consciously made her way to Debenhams’ lingerie department. Or even Debenhams come to that. But the days are long and in department stores you don’t need to be focussed. You can drift. Yesterday she spent most of the afternoon in the Men’s department choosing outfits for him.
‘I asked what…?’
‘Oh yes, I’m just browsing too.’
Sheila presses her lips together tightly. A threadworm of lipstick has bled into the corner of her mouth.
‘I do need some pyjamas!’ In desperation Marie looks around but cannot see nightwear. Maybe it’s in a different section. She gets so cold at night. So very cold.
‘Marie,’ Sheila fiddles with her wedding ring, ‘I know this is a dreadful word but how are you…’ She inscribes imaginary quotation marks in the air, ‘…coping?’
Marie doesn’t really understand that word but she has a stock response, ‘It’s difficult but I take it one day at a time … work have been very good and told me to take as much leave as I want. You know, compassionate leave.’
‘Compassion!’ Sheila snorts, ‘You’re a fine one to talk about compassion!’ She turns away to feign interest in a rack of knickers, raking through the display and knocking a pair to the floor.
None of those would go near you, Marie thinks, and she surprises herself with this petty vindictiveness.
Sheila stoops to pick the knickers up and struggles to put them back in the right place. Her voice is muffled, ‘Twenty-six years we were married.’
‘I know.’ And I only had two, thinks Marie. A sliver from both our lives.
‘Anyway, the funeral was lovely. That’s probably not the right word but you know what I mean. It did Jonathan proud.’
‘Thank you.’ Marie knows that it wasn’t meant as a compliment and sees that Sheila is on the verge of reacting but instead she moves towards another display. Marie trails after her. She scrabbles after any mention of Jonny’s name like a starved animal in search of food. She has made unnecessary calls to the dentist, optician, golf club in order just to be able to say his name.
Sheila has a salmon pink camisole between her thumb and forefinger, rubbing the satin material gently. It slithers and shimmers, ‘Sophie read beautifully, didn’t she?’
Marie nods, ‘Beautifully.’
‘And the vicar’s address was spot-on. Especially considering the fact that I don’t suppose Jonathan had set foot in a church since our wedding.’ She let go of the camisole. ‘Are you alright, Marie? You look very pale.’
‘I might go and get a cup of tea. Would you like…’
‘Very kind but I’m in a bit of a rush,’ Sheila says, not moving.
Marie hoists her bag onto her shoulder, ‘Give Sophie my love and Ben of course. They’re very welcome to come over to the flat any time. I haven’t seen them since the funeral.’
‘I’ll certainly pass that on but you know how busy they both are. Naturally they were devastated by their father’s death but life has to go on, especially when you’re young.’ There’s only the slightest emphasis on the last word.
Marie’s head is light, it’s floating away and she’s interested to observe the person, apparently her, who suddenly points to a plastic dummy on a display stand at the end of the aisle. The bald dummy has truncated arms which stick out at sharp angles and a blank face which has been given an eye-patch. It is wearing a red and black basque, cinched in at the waist and trailing black suspenders like limpid exclamation marks, unapologetically sleazy, ‘How about that?’
Sheila cocks her head to one side, ‘Not my style, I’m afraid, though I understand that Jonathan had rather a penchant for the tarty look.’
‘I was his partner!’ Marie hadn’t intended her voice to be so loud. A middle aged woman and her daughter immersed in a close examination of Support Garments in the next aisle bob their heads up expectantly like ducks from under water. Deeply embarrassed Marie sinks to the floor. She sits there hugging her knees to her chest and studying Sheila’s black patent court shoes.
Sheila’s voice comes from on high, ‘I’m fully aware of that, Marie.’
‘So why do you have to keep making out that I was some kind of bit on the side!’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever suggested anything of the kind. Or at least I didn’t mean to…’ Sheila’s shoulders suddenly slump and she looks round as if she has got off a plane to find herself on the wrong continent, ‘To tell you the truth, Marie, I’m not sure what I’m doing at the moment.’
A ping and the tannoy crackles into life with an offer of Double Points on all beauty products. Marie scrambles to her feet and when Sheila remains staring into the distance Marie taps her lightly on the arm.
‘Sheila, do you reckon right now Jonny’s looking down on the two of us and having a laugh?’
It works. Sheila straightens her back and speaks briskly, ‘If that’s a serious question, no, because I don’t believe in an afterlife. He’s gone. The bastard. The fucking bastard.’
Marie smiles, ‘He certainly could be.’
‘But I loved him.’
‘I know. We both did. Do.’
‘All this lovely beautiful stuff…’ Sheila indicates the ocean of underwear, ‘and for most of the time it’s hidden. Unseen. Under the surface. It makes no sense.’
‘I’m going to get going.’
‘How about that cup of tea?’
For so long Sheila has been obsessively curious about this woman who stole her husband. When Jonny first left her she quizzed the children endlessly but they batted away her questions like tiresome flies and, aware that she ran the risk of losing them too, she forced herself to stop asking what Marie looked like, how she behaved, what food she liked, what music she listened to. Marie will never know how many times she, Sheila, followed her home from work and stood on the other side of the road to her block of flats waiting for the light to come on, seeing if she could make out anything before the curtains were closed. In her fantasies Jonathan realised what a huge mistake he’d made and she and Marie had a dramatic showdown. True, these imagined scenarios took place in appropriately spectacular settings – a windswept landscape, a cliff top at sunset or a deserted church – rather than an overheated department store but at least now she has the chance to satisfy her hunger to find out everything she can about Marie. To be able to work out why and how everything turned out as it did.
There is a pause.
‘Let’s make it another time,’ Marie says and they both instinctively know this will never happen. ‘Goodbye Sheila and all the very best.’
She turns and pushes through the white-tipped racks which ripple in her wake, leaving the older woman marooned.
by Sue Wilsea, from Raw Material (£9.99, £3.99 Kindle)
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