I huddle closer to the side of the house, smoking a cigarette, trying to avoid the fat drips of water falling from the moss-clogged gutters above me.
At the end of the garden, my garden, a large black poplar leans forward in the rain, cripple limbs reaching out to put most of the garden in shade. Not that it mattered. I hadn’t seen the sun for days and days and days.
I take another lungful of smoke and watch the leathery leaves drift free of the tree, flapping, water-logged, to lay limply on the lawn. By the end of September the tree will be bare and my lawn will be smothered in a thick layer of yellow and brown that will need raking and burning, raking and burning, a constant cremation of the dead year.
Over the fence I can see The Shrew’s underwear on her washing line.
Grey bras. Grey knickers. Frayed elastic. Tattered lace.
I can’t help but imagine her wearing them.
Sagging gusset, cups half-filled with puckered flesh, protruding hairs, blue veins…
“They’ll kill you, they will.”
My heart stutters.
I drop my cigarette in a puddle.
I say, “F…fucking Hell!”
It is The Shrew. She has been watching me watch her washing. She looks smug and knowing, as if she can read my thoughts, as though those thoughts had been somehow… pleasureable.
I feel a strange mix of guilt and anger.
I say, “What will kill me? People scaring the shit out of me?”
“No,” she says. “Them. Ciggies. Coffing nails, me nan called ‘em. You may as well be setting fire to y’money.”
I say, “Did she now. Quite the wise woman, your nan.”
I take another cigarette from the packet and light it, avoiding the stare of The Shrew.
We are both silent for a few seconds as we watch her rain sodden undergarments sag lower on the washing line.
Then she says, “Stress. That’s why people smoke. That’s why people drink. Stress.”
I agree. “Your not wrong, I suppose. Stressful times. Everyone’s stressed out.”
She snorts defiantly. “I’m not! Stress don’t get me.”
I look at her, all superior in her threadbare dressing gown and thinning, spider silk hair. I notice she has fingernails bitten to the quick. She she’s me see them and hides her hands beneath her drooping breast. I feel a quick flush of victory that doesn’t last.
“no, stress don’t affect me,” she continues. “You got to have something, see, not drink or ciggies. You got to have something else, something other than work. That’s the secret.”
That smug look again. She has an infinitely slappable face. It’s not in my nature to reach across a fence and slap a person – man or woman – right across their chops, but I am bloody tempted.
I blow out a stream of smoke that is quickly smothered by the drizzle.
“Go on then,” I say. “What have you got that keeps the stress at bay?”
“Horses,” she says. “My lovely horses.”
I forgot that she keeps horses. Two of them. One for her, one for her daughter. Up at five, down the stables, shoveling shit for an hour. Great stress relief.
She only rides her horses on the roads, which I find weird. There’s miles of bridle paths round these parts but she keeps to the roads. I wondered why for years, and then it occurred to me.
People can’t see you on bridle paths, but they can on roads.
She likes being seen on her horse. She thinks it makes her ‘somebody’.
This is a town notorious for it’s tupenny millionaires, folk who think they’re superior because they drive a car they can’t afford on the Never Never, or have a big detached that is bleeding them white each month, or have a fucking hot tub in their back garden so the neighbours can hear them drinking cheap fizz of an evening in the pissing down rain.
Or spending half the monthly income on stabling fees for pair of clapped out nags, just so you can pretend you’re part of the country set.
She says, “Yes, my lovely horses. Lovely big things.”
I say, “Have they?”
She says, “What?”
I say, “You said ‘lovely big things’. Have they got lovely big things then, these horses?”
She goes quiet for a minute. I finish my cigarette. A faint breeze blows a few more leaves off the tree, stirs her sodden knickers on the line.
She says, “Gentle giants, horses. They could trample you as soon as look at you, if they wanted. They don’t though. Gentle creatures. If people were more like horses there wouldn’t be no wars, you know.”
I think of her husband. Big teeth, daft brown eyes, wouldn’t say boo to a goose.
Definitely a bit horsey.
I wonder if that was why she married him.
I suddenly imagine her riding him around the front room in her grey underwear.
“Stress’ll kill you as quick as those ciggies though, y’know,” she continues. “No point just cutting out booze and fags without having something to take it’s place. You’ll have a stroke if you do that.”
I say, “A stroke of what?”
She says, “What?”
“You were saying, if you give up fags and booze you end up stroking something.”
She blinks her mean, watery eyes. Her mouth puckers. “I said, ‘a stroke’. You know, drooling, slurring your words, pissing your pants.”
I say, “To be fair, booze often does that to me anyway.”
I say, “So what about your husband then? If he hasn’t got fags or booze, what’s he got to keep him stress free?”
She barks a humourless laugh. “He’s got me!”
I look at her. I estimate that her husband will be in the grave before he sees fifty.
I also reckon The Shrew will easily see one hundred. She’s that type. Those who age early stay that way for decades. She feeds off the defeat of others, that means there’s an endless supply of sustenance for her.
We’re all defeated, in the end.
The Shrew looks out over her patchy lawn, dotted with small dark islands of dog shit. She tip toes to the washing line and starts to gather the drenched, greying underwear.
She says, “There was this lad, Ronnie, used to work with me at ASDA bakery. He were always stressed. We’d start at four with loaves, then breadcakes, then onto the buns and stuff. It were hard work, don’t get me wrong, but he were stressed all the time. He let it get to him.”
She unpegs the clothes without hurrying. Her thin hair plasters to her scalp in the drizzle. The shoulders of her dressing gown darken where the rain falls. She doesn’t seem to notice.
“He were always angry, were Ronnie. Moody. So I says to him one time, I says, ‘You need something else in your life, Ronnie. You only got loaves and breadcakes and buns. You need to get a hobby. An interest.’ ‘Like what?’ he says. ‘I dunno,’ I says, ‘that’s for you to work out, Ronnie.’
She drops a peg. It lands on an old dog turd. She picks it up and puts it in her pocket.
“Anyway, Ronnie come into work a few week back and he were happy as Larry. Life and soul, he was. Joking, messing about, but working hard too. It were a cracking day’s work. Him being happy made everyone happy, y’know? An’ I says to myself, ‘there’s a bloke who’s found an interest.’ His stress were all gone, see? He were like a new man.”
The line is now empty. Her arm is laden with heavy, rain-soaked bras and knickers. Her dressing gown sleeve drips, drips, drips.
I say, “He got a hobby then. Good for him. So he’s stress free now, knocking out loaves without a care in the world.”
She says, “I didn’t say that.”
I look at her. Rain runs down her heavily lined face, drips off her chin. Her jaw is clenched.
I say, “What, then?”
She wipes her face with one hand and says, “An hour before the shift was over the coppers turn up. They ask for him. The manager points him out an’ he goes with them, calm as you like. We find out later that he’s picked up some bloke in a gay bar the night before, taken him down by the canal, beaten him to death and chucked him in the water.”
I stare at her for a minute.
I light another cigarette. I say, “That true?”
I say, “Fucking Hell. So the moral of the story is, kill someone else before stress kills you?”
She steps closer to the fence. “What I’m saying is, you got to have something, don’t you? I got my horses. Some people got train sets. Ronnie… well… maybe he should have tried jigsaws or something first, but in the end he was stress free, wasn’t he? It’s not stress that’ll killing him.”
I said, “No, some lag with shiv will do that for him.”
The Shrew shrugs. “Maybe, but there’s nowt he can do about that, is there?”
She goes indoors.
I smoke my cigarette and watch the rain falling on the grass and on the leaves.
I think about what The Shrew said to Ronnie, that if she hadn’t opened her horrible mouth then some lad would still be alive.
Then something else dawns on me.
What happened to all that bread Ronnie made that day?
We sometimes get bread from ASDA.
I feel a bit sick.
I flick my tab end into The Shrew’s garden and I go inside.
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