Guest Submission: The Things We Learn When We’re Dead

The things we learn COVER FINAL

 

Single is the race, single

Of men and gods;

From a single mother we both draw breath.

But a difference of power in everything

Keeps us apart;

For one is as nothing, but the brazen sky

Stays a fixed habituation for ever.

Yet we can in greatness of mind

Or of body be like the Immortals

 

On the Olympics: Pindar of Thebes, ancient Greek lyric poet

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.

Meditations: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

121AD – 180AD

On the Olympics: Pindar of Thebes, ancient Greek lyric poet

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.

Meditations: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

121AD – 180AD

On the Olympics: Pindar of Thebes, ancient Greek lyric poet

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.

Meditations: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

121AD – 180AD

 

End

 

At the end of her Edinburgh street, where it joined a busier road, was a security camera perched high on a metal pole.  If anyone had been watching they would have seen a slim young woman in a red dress illuminated under a streetlight.  They would have seen that she seemed agitated, her feet fluttering on the pavement’s edge, her hands raised to her face, turning this way and that, and then stepping into the road.  She seemed to be crying, unsure what she was doing.  They would have seen the approaching car and that the young woman was looking in the wrong direction.  When she did hear it, turning in mesmerised surprise, it was too late.  But perhaps nobody had been watching the CCTV screen because it was the driver of the car who called for the ambulance, a small crowd gathering, and who then tried to make the young woman comfortable – talking to her, even pushing his jacket under her head – and waited beside her until the ambulance arrived and the paramedic said that he couldn’t detect a pulse.

***

On the morning of her death, suicide bombers blew themselves up on London’s transport network.  Three on the Tube and one on a bus.  Dozens were dead, many more maimed.  She watched, appalled, as the news unfolded, curled on the sofa, making cups of coffee that she didn’t drink, while the sun traversed the rooftops and patterned her in shadows.  It seemed a rerun of 9/11 or Bali or Madrid; random and senseless.  That’s what angered her the most: it was carnage without fathomable purpose.  She was alone in her flat; she’d had an argument with her flatmate who had flounced off, muttering darkly and swearing loudly.  But she was used to being alone, to the silence; she welcomed that kind of solitude because it didn’t allow for distraction: it gave her the space to frown over her law books, sucking on a pencil or tapping on her keyboard.  But not today; today she wanted company: someone to share her outrage with, but she didn’t know who to phone.  Instead, she’d make another cup of coffee, set it on the table beside the sofa, and then throw it away when it was stone cold.  

In the evening, she’d been invited to a dinner party but didn’t want to go.  However, invitations to a Redmarsh soiree did not arrive lightly and, as Toby Redmarsh was senior partner at the rarefied law firm for which Lorna would soon be working, it wasn’t an invitation that could easily be postponed, let alone refused.

That didn’t, however, mean that she was looking forward to it.  Born and bred in modest circumstances, she still felt socially uncertain in the company of the more gilded.  It was stupid of her, and she knew it; she had overcome disadvantages of class and schooling to arrive at the hallowed portals of Wilson, MacGraw & Hamilton.  It had been always been her ambition to be a lawyer but now, on the verge of attainment, she had become increasingly uncomfortable.  She would be the office’s sacrificial  socialist – she knew that as well – the example held up as living proof that talent alone could reap its own reward in the heady niche of corporate and commercial law.

    “Casual, of course,” Tessa had commanded, wife to Toby, who lived with her husband in Edinburgh’s New Town and had a bohemian tradition to live up to.  “We’ll see you at eight,” said Tessa.  “You know our address, don’t you?”  It was said contralto, and not really meant as a question: everyone should know where Tessa and Toby Redmarsh lived or, if not, they had no business being invited to their home.

In the morning, after the bombs had gone off, she phoned Toby, who spoke to his wife, who told him that the dinner was still on.  We can’t give into them, he then told Lorna, having been given the party line.  We have to keep going as normal.  Tessa thinks that we’re doing the right thing, he said, not sounding convinced.

She dressed, watching the evening news, marvelling at the simplicity of mass murder.  It made no sense to her; she’d never wanted to hurt anybody in her life, then cried and had to put her makeup on again.

    The house in question, Lorna discovered, was on an imposing square close to the city’s West End; near enough to allow its residents to feel themselves in close proximity to real people, but far enough away to be insulated from them.  The Georgian house, on four floors, was lit from top to toe like a cruise liner.

    A Filipino maid dressed in black, down to her jet ear-rings, opened the door to Lorna and, without speaking, took her coat and ushered her to the drawing room.  Tessa was already holding out both hands as Lorna waded through thick carpet, and although they had never met, beckoning Lorna like an old friend.

    “My dear girl!  How nice to finally meet you!”

    Tessa allowed her cheek to be kissed; offering Lorna its flat surface like a penance, then took her arm and led her to the unlit fireplace, and the group of other guests around it.  On the walls hung large and impressive canvases, each lit from above by a downward-slanting brass lamp.  No art expert, even Lorna recognised the tortured faces of two Howsons and, in another, matchstick men streaming from a factory gate that just had to be a Lowry.  Lorna’s gaze encompassed the room with a mixture of awe and contempt, as Tessa took her arm and they negotiated a baby grand piano on which sat family photographs in silver frames and what might have been a small and abstract Paolozzi.  

    “This, everyone, is Lorna Love,” trilled Tessa, pushing her forwards to be devoured by several pairs of eyes.  “She’s also a lawyer, aren’t you?”  Her hands plucked and tugged Lorna to a gilt-ornate settee and prodded her down into one upholstered corner.  The unspeaking maid offered Lorna a flute of pink champagne on a silver tray.

“I’m not really a lawyer,” Lorna replied.

“But you will be.  Soon.  Toby says great things about you.”  Tessa beamed, displaying whiter-than-white teeth.  “Anyway, it’s great fun, don’t you agree?” she said, moving in beside her.  “Pink champagne, I mean.”  Her long fingers wrapped around the stem of her glass had blue fingernails, the same colour as her dress.  “But how remiss.  I haven’t done the honours, have I?  I don’t suppose you know hardly anybody here at all.”

    Tessa’s bracelet in the half-light was a golden rattle as she thrust her hand towards the nearest couple; a balding be-spectacled man in his late fifties, and a flaccid woman in a purple tracksuit and double string of pearls.

    “This is Geoffrey Crumb – or should I say Lord Geoffrey Crumb – and his Lady wife, Monica.”  Lorna solemnly shook their hands, recognising the bald and be-spectacled man as a High Court judge.

    “- and this is Marcia Apsley, whose husband Walter is such a darling man.”  Marcia, dye-blonde hair to her shoulders, and too old to be wearing the shortest of short black dresses, gave her a broad smile; Walter, in a sober blue suit, barely touched her fingers and looked away.  Tessa then indicated her husband with a sweeping motion of her hand, “and you know old Toby, don’t you.”  Toby Redmarsh, propped against the mantelpiece, raised his glass in welcome.

    “Right then,” said Tessa and tinkled a small silver bell.  “We can eat.”

    Lorna was placed between the severe tracksuit of Lady Crumb and, on her left, the tinsel of Marcia Apsley who, without ceremony, immediately poured herself a glass of white wine.  No girl-boy-girl seating arrangements at the Redmarsh table.  There was avocado to start with, virtually obligatory in the New Town, carefully scooped from its shell, mashed up with cream, herbs and chopped bacon, and served back hot in its skin.  “We got the recipe from a friend in Cape Town,” explained Tessa, although it was clear that the Filipino maid did all the cooking.  “Out there, of course, avocados are almost weeds.”

    “Makes you think,” said Marcia, poking at her avocado with a fork.  “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten weeds before.”

    Walter snatched a quick glance at his wife and guffawed to signal that Marcia, already pouring herself a second glass of wine, had made a joke.  

***

    In a lull in the conversation, as they were finishing the hot avocado, and as the Filipino maid began to clear plates, Marcia asked her if she really was a lawyer.  It was clear that, in Marcia’s circle of acquaintances, lawyers spoke the Queen’s English.

“I’m going to be working with Toby,” replied Lorna, making no effort to disguise her provincial accent, “although I still have exams to pass.”

“How exciting!” said Marcia.  “At least, I suppose, it must be somewhat exciting.  Being a lawyer, and all that.  Actually, that’s a strange word, if you think about it,” she added after a pause.  “Somewhat.”  She pronounced it sum-wot.  “Like a fruit.”

    “That’s kumquat,” said Toby.

    Marcia looked up from her plate, shrugged, then handed her plate to the Filipino who was circling the table replenishing empty glasses.  She held the bottle in a white napkin that obscured the label, and her face was pitted with the pockmarks of some childhood affliction.

    “She’s from Manila,” said Tessa when the door had closed and their empty dishes were rattling down the hallway.  “Nowadays we wouldn’t know what to do without her.”

    “I went there once.  In the Army,” said the High Court judge and tilted back his head.  “Extended leave.  Ate dog once.  Not very nice, but did have a bite to it.”  He paused to see if anyone thought this funny, which nobody did.  “Thought I should see a bit of the world.  Long time ago, of course.”

    “We call her Gertie,” said Tessa, ignoring him.  “Her real name is unpronounceable.”

    Let others invent a name for you, Lorna thought, and hide behind their generosity.  She shouldn’t have drunk the pink champagne or the wine with dinner.  The doctor had said that her medication was incompatible with alcohol.  Lorna felt light-headed, suddenly tearful, thinking about the bombings.

    London, of course, dominated the conversation, punctuated by the unpronounceable Filipino who circled their laden table, balancing salvers and empty plates in her sensible hands.  Lorna watched her studious anonymity, feeling hot, and then shivering; a pool of tears had gathered behind her eyes.  She dabbed at them with her serviette, or napkin, or whatever they were called in a house like this.

“It’s an obscenity,” Toby was saying, “but the real danger lies in getting our response wrong.  It’s a question of choice.  Either we continue to uphold the sanctity of human rights or we now make national security paramount.  The two are incompatible.  The government will bring in new terror laws, no doubt about it.”

The High Court judge agreed.  “It’s also a question of rights and responsibilities,” he said, enunciating clearly as if giving a judgement.  “Everyone has the right to disagree with what the government is doing.  In Iraq or about anything else.  That doesn’t give them the right to kill people.”

It was a blindingly obvious point but, being a High Court judge, nobody could disagree.

“Anyway,” said Tessa, keeping a close eye on the Filipino who was circulating once more with wine bottles and replenishing glasses. “I just think we should shoot them.”

    Toby cut a slice of gristle from his beef and slid it to the side of his plate where it bled like a sacrifice.  “All very well, of course, if you manage to shoot the right people.  We can only hope that the intelligence services know who the bad guys are.”  Toby’s confident tone suggested he had a rare faith in the intelligence community, nodding and smiling over his heaped plate.

    But Tessa felt that he had missed the point and waved her fork alarmingly at him.  “Meanwhile, don’t you see, more people get blown up.  Bugger their human rights!  What about our human rights?”  She made it seem like a personal affront and sawed at her meat with hunched shoulders.

    Marcia had been listening to this exchange like a tennis spectator, moving her head back and forth, a dimpled smile playing on her lips.  “Actually, Tessa’s quite right.  All you lawyers do is pontificate, which is worse than useless.  If suicide bombers want to take radical action against us, we should take radical action against them.  The more radical the better, if you ask me.”  She laughed across the table and tapped her empty wineglass in hospitable rebuke.

***

    After dinner they sat over coffee and mints in the drawing room, with the curtains open and garden lights on the lawn conjuring daylight from the darkness.  Lorna was standing with her back to the unlit fire, feeling light-headed: the doctor had been right; small white pills and wine was not a sensible combination.  She sat down heavily on the settee and put a hand to her forehead.

Toby sat beside her and put a fatherly hand on her knee.  “Are you okay?” he asked.  “I have to say that you don’t look terribly well.”

“Just tired,” said Lorna.

“You’ve been ill,” said Toby, “and coming here tonight wasn’t probably a good idea.  Do you want me to call you a cab?”

Lorna nodded, wanting to cry.  

“She’s not well,” said Toby to nobody in particular, and helped her into the spacious hallway where he lowered Lorna into an upright chair.  A grandfather clock ticked in one corner, and a staircase, thickly carpeted in green, led to a shadowed landing.  The Filipino maid brought her a glass of water in a crystal glass.  Lorna smiled her gratitude.  The maid’s eyes were black and impenetrable.

The taxi arrived and Toby helped her inside.  Tessa fussed in the background, in a pool of light from the open doorway, her hands threaded together, smiling uncertainly.  She unfurled her hands to wave goodbye.

“Just pass those bloody exams!” shouted Toby as the taxi door closed.

With her life fast diminishing, Lorna sat in the back of the cab with her eyes closed, squeezing tears inside her eyelids.  Her veins were filled with a heady cocktail of regret.  She stepped from the kerb to cross the street to her flat.  But conflicting thoughts had pressed in and deafened her.  

For a few moments she didn’t know where she was, except that she was lying in the road.  She also knew she was wearing a red dress – she was lying on one side with her head tucked down and could see it – and with an effort of memory remembered that she’d bought it in an Oxfam shop, and been worried by a red stain down one side that could have been tomato ketchup or blood from a previous murdered owner.  She simply hadn’t heard the approaching car or the screech of brakes until it was too late, feeling the push of air as it advanced and its bright and predatory eyes.  

Then she was aware of a paramedic in a green uniform gently turning her onto her back and as she lay there, gazing at the stars, all she felt was great sadness and a void that might not now be filled.  Then, her eyesight fading, she heard a child crying, muffled sobs from nearby.  The child seemed to be crying into a pillow, the feathers pressed against its mouth and nose.  Lorna knew that the child didn’t want to be heard or wake anybody up.  It didn’t want to make a fuss and, more than anything, it didn’t want anybody to ask what was wrong.  The child’s sobs sounded familiar, but it still took Lorna some moments to realise that the child was her.  By then she was in darkness and becoming frightened.  A part of her understood that something bad had happened, but she couldn’t remember what.  The child’s sobs faded to silence.

 

***

CL bandw
Charlie Laidlaw

Author Bio:

Where are you from?

I was born and brought up in the west of Scotland, am a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.  I still have the scroll, but it’s in Latin, so it could say anything.

I then worked briefly as a street actor, baby photographer, puppeteer and restaurant dogsbody before becoming a journalist.  I started in Glasgow and ended up in London, covering news, features and politics.  

Surprisingly, I was approached by a government agency to work in intelligence, which just shows how shoddy government recruitment was back then.  However, it turned out to be very boring and I don’t like vodka martini.

Craving excitement and adventure, I ended up as a PR consultant, which is the fate of all journalists who haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize, and I’m still doing that.

I am married with two grown-up children and live in East Lothian.   And that’s about it.

What are some of your favourite works?

Too many to mention!  I grew up with Hemingway and Greene, and then moved onto Fay Weldon and John le Carre who is still, I believe, the absolute master of dialogue.  I suppose now I read mainly contemporary literary fiction…from a hugely eclectic mix of authors.  Like any avid reader, I love stumbling on an author I haven’t read before.  I still have that wonderful sense of discovery if I chance upon a book I love.

Favourite books would include anything by Joanne Harris, One Day by David Nicholls, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  But that’s to omit a huge number of other books that have either shaped my writing or, quite simply, been fantastic reads.

Why do you write?

Good question.  I suppose I knew from an early age that I was good at writing and not very good at everything else.  I wrote two “novels” before I was seventeen.  Although both were gibberish, they forced me to think about narrative and structure, plot and dialogue, and come up with characters who readers could empathise with.

While I’m not religious, I do have a semi-Presbyterian streak in me; that trait in my character that says that, whatever you’re good at, you should keep doing.  So, for me, it’s a strange compulsion: it’s not for money or seeing my book in bookshops: it’s about trying to find fulfillment around what is of importance to me.

Advertisements

One thought on “Guest Submission: The Things We Learn When We’re Dead

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s