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3:AM in Lockdown 70: Heidi James

Even Nature is Corrupt
By Heidi James.


There is no future. Only time’s sinuous doubling between past and present. Under her fingertips the hard chairback, the tabletop, underfoot the chilly linoleum. This place. Now. She stands there, her two feet pressed into the floor, her lips open over her teeth, sucking her breath in and pushing it out, the light on her face filtered through the net curtain.

The flat is untidy. Sunday untidy, with newspapers scattered about the sofa, cups with slops of tea, and plates still crumbed with bacon sandwiches. Once lazy Sundays were a novelty, the idea of lying on the sofa, reading and dozing, talking and laughing together seemed pure and precious. Now, there is only boredom. The long sigh she can’t release, holds in, like a submerged whale, holding an eternity of stale air in her guts. There was a time when discussing the news with Philip was a pleasure, not strident, not argued. Pyjama days, when they would make love before getting up, and he would thump down the stairs to the front door and gather the papers, and she would put bacon in the pan. He poached eggs in that funny way of his, of boiling water in a frying pan and bending low over the rolling boil to gently ease the egg into its soak. There was dancing in the kitchen, barefoot, badly, laughter.

Regardless, it’s impossible to stay at home. She finds herself at her mother’s flat. Standing in the shadowed and cool hallway. There are no windows, and the doors that lead to the bedrooms and living room are closed. A soft mass of coats hang on a rail to the right, including her mother’s raincoat, street smudged and with a small tear at the shoulder. Underneath there’s a rack for shoes. Her mother’s sandals and slippers neatly side by side. Had she been taken out of there with bare feet? She pictures her mother lying in the hospital bed and the objects in the carrier bag handed to the ward Sister. There were no shoes in that bag. Just her clothes — a skirt and blouse, her bra and pants, and her wristwatch — a Christmas present.

She had been barefoot.

The smell, a particular blend of furniture polish, bleach, cigarette smoke, her perfume and something else, something vague and placid, a scent that wasn’t quite anything and yet was somehow the smell of her mother and home. The smell hooking a trail of memories that snap and tongue at the air like bunting. Eight steps past the door to the bathroom to the end of the hall, at which point turn left into the living room or right towards the bedrooms. The hall a secondary space, an intersection. The place between home and elsewhere.

Philip brings her back insisting she take a walk with him. He holds her hand, solidly, as if he’s a parent not husband. He tells her to read, to work, to be productive but she can’t do that, she is following the string through the labyrinth of the past and that takes time. He tells her to stop wallowing, to buck up. They walk through the park, circling the lake and she can’t remember the names of the trees. The bark, the shape of the leaves, the developing seed pods should all point to a name, but she has no idea. She is divided from the world surrounding her, like an amnesiac with only the distant past to recall.

She can’t sleep at night, but she’s not alone in this blank wakefulness. Elsewhere, other wide eyes gawp at the dazzling fizz of the stars. Not sleeping isn’t so bad. Inhabiting another part of the day to everyone else, like being in another room, hearing them murmur and move about, but they aren’t really there. Like the jellyfish that rise to the surface of the sea at night, she is unthinking. Philip lays splayed out under a dream his thick limbs pressed into the bed. She gets up at the invitation of the window, to look out, divided from everything. Passive hands pressed against the glass. Passive nose nuzzling against the night. Trees filter the wind as it pushes towards the house. She always wanted to be free of her family. To be able to totally reinvent herself. Now she is.

The chair is still her mother’s chair, even if unused, without purpose; just an object. Empty, a truth standing silent in the corner. It sags under an absent weight, still faithful to her body, her breath, her old habits. A coffee stain remarks on her nan’s clumsiness; her mother never managed to remove it despite using every miracle product on the market. Standing there, the curtains open it seems that light was avoiding the room, as if in sympathy, not wanting to draw attention to the loss. The chair, captive in a span unhurried by human measure, remains.

Her mother’s cigarettes and lighter on the coffee table, next to the ashtray she made for her in senior school art class. Still decorated in seventies brown swirls on both the wallpaper and the carpet with a brown and orange velveteen three piece suite. Just dimmed by years of cigarette smoke and the bleach of sunlight. Above the TV, the sea — a weft of green and blue wools woven into waves in a cheap frame, a figure stitched in black looked out from the beach.

Everywhere the scuffs and stains of living; the ring of a hot cup branded into the coffee table, a crayon drawing on the wallpaper behind the armchair, a fag burn in the carpet half hidden by the TV cabinet, the white wall revealed beneath the dark paper by grubby little fingers. Afternoons that spread like oil. Family photos on the mantelpiece above the gas fire. Replaced exactly after dusting, her nan and granddad on their wedding day; her mum on holiday in Spain, her legs browning in the sun, smiling at the lens. A school photo, the two kids in matching green V-neck sweaters, big toothed and freckled, her hair in bunches, his too short. Her graduation posed in cap and gown, the prop scroll clutched against her chest; looking strained and uncomfortable, her face oily, not wearing enough make-up. Her mother had sent her to freshen up in the ladies with her make-up bag; but none of her colours worked so she just looked wrong.

Philip says she must exorcise the past, with its daily intrusions into the present. So intrusive she sometimes forgets where she is, who she is, which self. What an odd route to take through life, forwards, back, never entirely just still, in the present. She must work through the past in order to move forwards. Yes, she thinks, I must sift through the past.



The kitchen’s so clean you could eat your dinner off the floor, always a Jay cloth and bleach in her mother’s hand, rubber gloves protecting her hairdresser’s eczema. The blue check tablecloth pulled taut, like a sail snapped tight in the wind. The condiment set exactly in the middle as if it were the perspective vanishing point in the table’s composition. No dust on the clock, no dust on the rack of herbs she rarely used. Her Cliff Richard calendar turned to the correct page. The cleaning fluids, the bleaches, the powders, the gels to polish, reduce, upbraid, under the sink along with medicines — painkillers, a box of plasters, Grandad’s anti-coagulants, out of date antibiotics and Nan’s crumbling heart pills, as if they all belonged together.

This is the first rain in weeks. Puddles deepen in the clefts between uneven paving stones and discarded crisp and cigarette packets float in them like garish pondweed. Thin rivulets of rainwater running into the drains like sweat. The uneasy skyline presses its domes and columns into the thickening piles of clouds that barricade against the sun. A cool compress, the rain easing the rising heat in the city cooling people in the subdued shelter of their homes.

She walks through the streets of the estate, the roads opening up, widening. Philip is working from home, having a Zoom meeting. She is secure in the cool isolation of the rain. A lone camera man takes footage of the abandoned swings in the fenced-off square of cracked tarmac that operates as a park. There’s no grass, or any other play equipment; just the swings and a bench. The estate flattens itself against the earth, as though trying to be inconspicuous.

At the threshold of her mother’s bedroom, a hand resting on the Perspex door handle, cut to resemble a monstrous gem. A luxury in that flat, in which all the other doors and windows had standard issue council knobs and buttons, levers and switches. The rest of her room has the same embellishment. As children they had helped stick leading to the windows in a haphazard crisscross, unrolling the soft metal and pulling off the paper backing before smoothing it down with their fingers. When finished they laid on her flowery counterpane and pretended they were lying in a cottage in the woods. Her mother hadn’t removed it, despite complaining that it was a bugger to clean. She imagines her mother lying in bed watching the disguised London sky, daydreaming she had woken in a different place.

Philp insists that fresh air and good food will help. Will fix her to the here and now. He reminds her how many people are dead, dying alone, he praises strangers for their stoicism and bravery, which she understands to be a pointed criticism. Over dinner he reminds her she didn’t even like her mother, that they haven’t spoken in years, that all this emotion is misplaced. She doesn’t finish the chicken he has roasted, the white knots in the fibrous flesh suddenly grotesque. He sighs as she closes the knife and fork on her plate. ‘What a waste,’ he says, rubbing his bare chin before clearing the table and emptying the uneaten food into the bin. ‘I hate to see good food wasted.’ She recognised a tree on their walk, an Alder, its shiny round leaves reflecting the light. The world had let her in, sent a message, even if tiny. She said, smiling, ‘Look there’s an Alder, I’ve remembered its name’. Philip replied, ‘Ah yes, an Alder, you know it makes top grade charcoal, they used to use it to make gunpowder, amazing stuff’.

Even nature is corrupt, colluding in the killing.

Her mother’s silver backed hairbrush and matching hand mirror always sit neat on top of the drawers, a few strands of her hair snagged in the bristles. She wonders how long it takes for a person to be totally eradicated, for the fragments containing their DNA to disintegrate, for their presence to fade and no longer loiter in the corners of rooms, the soap dish in a bathroom, a hairbrush. In the top drawer her underwear carefully folded and laid out by colour, white knickers next to white bras followed by just a couple of black pairs and a lone pale blue silk camisole. A small muslin sachet containing dried lavender tucked in amongst the fabrics, its scent long gone, a birthday gift from her children.

In the bottom drawer photo albums, birthday cards, crayon pictures drawn for her, all carefully folded and placed. There’s no surprise at her private sentimentality. Feelings were always best expressed in objects. In a silver case there’s two locks of baby hair, a brown curl tied with a pink ribbon, and the boy’s blonde shaft, a straight little pluck of fine hairs, no kinks or curls, tied with a blue one. Small bundles of blue envelopes tied with cast-off Christmas ribbon are tucked in the corner. On top of each pile a note indicating which tour of duty the letters are from. Germany, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Iraq; she wants to unpick the knot, to read her brother’s letters to her mother. She wants to read what they said to each other, to know the secrets they will always keep.

They work in their tiny garden. Pulling brambles laid like tripwires under the grass. She complains about the thorns ripping her skin. ‘Everything demands its price,’ Philip says, ‘they have to protect the berries or there’d be none left. Simple economics.’ The leaves on the trees are still, reflecting the light like metal shapes. She has turned to stone, a point she could never have reached by herself.

Heidi James is a writer and academic. Her new novel, The Sound Mirror, will be published in August.

First posted: Wednesday, June 10th, 2020.

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