Coming Home Again
In the hallway was Marie, with two very large holdalls. Gill raised her eyebrows and Marie waved the unspoken question away.
'Later. Some gifts. How are you?' Marie went to embrace her and Gill stiffened, before remembering that it was okay, that she'd asked Marie to do this, to practise being normal again. Being open again. Being the self she knew was still in there somewhere.
Gill opened herself to a brief hug and found her smile. 'I'm okay,' she said, 'It was a shock, obviously, but I'm all right. I'm fine. I'm safe, right? And he's...' She couldn't say "going to die" in case she somehow got the blame for killing him. She didn't tell Marie about the sleepless nights, the fears, the regression to the person she'd been a year ago.
'I'm so sorry... it must have brought up... all kinds of things.'
Gill nodded, but stopped herself from speaking. Marie was now a friend as well as her social worker, although Gill didn't know if she could trust her with everything. Once a social, always a social, her mother used to say.
Gill put the kettle on whilst Marie walked through to the lounge. Gill braced herself, and didn't have to wait long.
'Oh my god, Gill!' Marie's voice was too loud. Gill flinched.
'This is incredible! This place really feels like yours, now. Your home. How did you do so much?'
Gill, hiding in the steam of the kettle, imagined it though Marie's eyes. Every wall was a different colour now - several shades of a different colour - and the patterns were even more intricate than before. They crept around the windows, up and down the door frames, in depths and shapes which pulled the viewer in. Gill smiled, as she made the tea.
Carrying it through to the living room she felt again the shiver of excitement that walking around her flat gave her.
'You like it?' she smiled at Marie, an open, smile which shaped her face into a heart.
'I love it,' the social worker replied. 'It's amazing... it's...' and she brushed a tear from her eye. 'I'm so happy for you,' she said.
Gill didn't trust herself to speak - again, the trust issue. If she told nobody, she'd be safe.
'Can I see what's in the bags now?' she asked, thinking how like a child she sounded.
'Not yet. After I've gone, is probably best,' said Marie, not meeting Gill's eyes.
ONE YEAR EARLIER
Marie entered the flat first. Gill was stooped, head low, breathing harsh and Marie wanted to go in and turn on the lights so her new charge wouldn't trip and fall the very first time she walked into the flat.
The lights were too bright and Marie cursed herself for not checking it out first. The hospital was bright; she'd wanted Gill's first entry into her new home to be as far removed from hospital triggers as possible.
Gill followed her in and leaned against the hallway wall.
'That's the lounge, ahead; the kitchen is to the left here and there are two bedrooms off to the right. The bathroom's next to the kitchen,' Marie said.
Gill nodded but didn't move.
'Come on through. Let me show you the kitchen -- I put some food in for you.'
Gill followed her through to the small clean room. Marie had put flowers in a vase but all Gill could see was white and an off white/magnolia colour. She shuddered.
'Do you want me to stay a bit?' The social worker asked.
Gill shook her head. 'Thank you,' she muttered.
'I'll be by in the morning. Go and explore. This is yours, now, Gill. Nobody else is here. I know this is what you want but if you find it overwhelming in any way, call me, okay?'
Gill nodded again.
After Marie had gone Gill walked from room to room, running her fingers along the back of the sofa, turning on the tap in the bathroom, on and off, on and off, just to see the water run. She nodded at herself in the mirror, and then switched off the lights.
The next time Marie came she brought painting supplies. Gill glanced at them and didn't touch them for over a week, thinking, how dare she? But they called to her, those colours, and demanded that she open them and let them live. The first time she sat down she painted until all the paper was used up. That night she dreamt about her ex-husband, and the way he used to jeer at her paintings and how he - drunk - burned them all one night, because she burned his dinner. In the dream he was fiercer, darker than in real life. In the morning she hid the paintings and it was weeks before she let Marie see them.
The next time Marie came, she brought three times as much paper.
The weeks went by and Gill felt life returning. Life in the hospital had been empty but safe. Life in her new flat was every day a challenge - far form safe but interesting, an adventure, days full of firsts and one day she caught herself passing in a mirror and saw that she was smiling.
She'd painted over fifty pictures, over fifty unique, slightly surreal, colour-filled dream scenes of fabulous creatures and things she was at night and people she'd seen at the hospital and Marie's eyes, eyes that she was beginning to trust, before she first signed her name. It was tiny, printed in the bottom right hand corner of the paper, By Gill, so tiny it was hardly there.
'But it is there,' said Marie, squeezing her shoulder. 'You didn't let him beat you. You still exist. He, on the other hand, is locked up, stripped of his name. You have your life back.'
Gill shivered and Marie, realising she'd broached it all too early, was angry with herself all the way home. She'd wanted to be Gill's social worker since she first heard the story, so similar to her own. The next time she went, however, Gill showed her a painting of a grey cell, surrounded by the outside world like a flowergardenjungle, all around the outside. Inside was a very small man.
Gill's name at the bottom of her paintings grew larger and her paintings grew bolder, filled with new colours, shades she imagined she'd invented herself. One day she woke up and realised the flat was far, far too plain.
Marie laughed when she walked in. 'Oh,' she said, 'this is YOU. Now I can see you.' And Gill laughed back, her face feeling doughy and all out of practice at laughter.
Colours and patterns grew in layer after layer, getting ever more intricate. Gill began to love the flat; it was no longer a way station on her way back to normal life - now it was her home. Colour was her home. She existed in shades of green, yellow, red, blue. She found herself in deep purples and rose pinks. She saw her moods in the blues of the sky and the craziness of a rainbow. She found herself in the swirling patterns that covered her kitchen cupboards.
And then one day, eleven months after she'd moved in, she'd noticed, as if for the first time, how grey the village was. Her flat was an oasis of colour amidst a desert of grey. One morning, she knew exactly what to do about it.
It was Marie who brought the first newspaper cutting round.
'Mystery Painter Baffles Villagers' one head line read. In another a plea - 'Police Want to Talk to Mystery Artist' and in the last one Marie gave her was something that made Gill shiver deliciously inside. 'The Colours Make Us Happy, say Residents'.
'Don't suppose you know anything about this?' Marie said, eyebrows raised. Gill looked at the cuttings again, glad of the red in the cupboards which might hide her blush in their glow.
'No,' she said, shaking her head. 'Not at all. Nothing.'
'Because,' Marie continued, 'I'd hate whoever is doing this to get into trouble.'
'Hmm,' said Gill.
'If somebody found out who it was and that person had a bit of a background that people might misunderstand - well, it might not go too well.'
'Hmm-mmm,' said Gill.
'However, people do seem to be enjoying it. And you, Gill Anderson, look positively radiant.'
Gill tried to stop. But the greyness was everywhere she looked. She forced herself to travel farther afield to get art supplies in case anyone put two and two together and came up with eight.
One day, a year after she moved in, saw a headline herself:
'Monster Husband to be Released on Compassionate Grounds'. Before the shaking took her over completely she scanned the story.
...Paul Anderson - terminal cancer - early release - wife so traumatised after years of abuse that she was hospitalised for five months - will be guarded at private hospital...
That night she painted nightmares all night, thinking that if she let them out, they wouldn't get to her first. All the next day her pictures were dark. But the day after that, she went out and did some decorating. The old phone box now had a facelift.
Her overriding concern, to her surprise, was her lack of art supplies. She'd run out of DIY shops where she'd not be recognised and she still wasn't able to travel too far. The paint she had left was dwindling.
'Can I see what's in the bags now?' Gill asked, thinking how like a child she sounded.
'Not yet. After I've gone, is probably best,' said Marie, not meeting Gill's eyes.
Gill waited until Marie's car was off away down the road before she unzipped one of the bags.
Inside she saw trust and true friendship, spelled out in tin after tin of outdoor paint; brushes in all shapes and sizes; thinner; brush cleaner; and yet more paint.
Tears fell onto the colour charts as she opened the second bag and saw more and more tins; every shade glowing at her, the promise of healing in every shade.
She looked outside at the fading light and the grey lampposts, and wondered how she'd get to the top, as she decorated them, every single one, so they could stand there as individuals, instead of uniform posts, as they sent light out to the world.
how it was for a while,
been gentler with myself - not pushed
to have some control - tightly clasp
these writhing pink worm days.
Not thrown away your odd blue sock
that haunted the clothes dryer for years.
It made you laugh,
I wish I had it still.
Emptied shelves reproach me too.
Great books you pored over thrown out
into a world that prefers Google.
Does sorry count if no one hears?
I feel like a contestant being shouted at
on one of those game shows
where you snatch as much as you can
of what’s thrown from the air.
Yet I’ve clutched so little of you.
I gave away your favourite clothes
not thinking they’d lost you too,
might never be worn again,
might never be touched.
Your glasses left on a window sill
in your study, looking at me still,
but this isn’t our home anymore,
their smeared lenses show
I’m no longer seen.
It is 6:20 in the morning and I have not slept in two days. I am neither away nor home; just somewhere in between, waiting for the coach back home. I used to like the sensation of not being anywhere when waiting for a train or bus connection. So little matters when one exists in a state where one is neither somewhere nor anywhere; one is just here. Sometimes I think it is the best part of any journey. One's obligations are somewhere completely different; the only tasks to be performed here are merely to sit and wait, and trying not to fall asleep before the coach arrives. Oh, and wondering if, after 12 hours on a moving hunk of metal, wearing the same clothes two days in a row, without so much as some toothpaste, if I look as bad as I feel.
I forgot to mention; there is another task one can perform while waiting here: thinking! There's plenty of time for that. Never mind if my thoughts run in to one another or if, every time I try to catch one, it quickly disappears in to the ether. Being holed up in a place like this is the perfect opportunity to think without necessarily being distracted. What else is there to do? Reading is impossible because my mind is too fuzzy; texting or messaging anyone is futile as most of them are probably still asleep or on their way to work; and what would I say to them anyway? I am sitting in a grubby, rundown bus station, somewhere north of the Old Smoke, scrutinising the departure times on the LCD screen to the point where my eyes are starting to water? I guess it's slightly more interesting than posting the items I had for breakfast on Facebook (a cup of coffee and two cigarettes in case you were wondering).
Yet, for all those thoughts rushing in and out of my head, there is one which continues to linger with overwhelming clarity: I do not want to get on that coach. Not because I have spent the best part of a day on one already, although that does have some bearing on my new found hatred of large, wheeled conveyances. Only that where I must go and to what it is I am returning will be the ruin of me. Ardent though I am to be back in my own bed and fast asleep, I know I do not want to go back. I never wanted to be there in the first place. I just arrived one day and ended up staying for 13 years.
No, that isn't quite it. The actual place, with its odd mixture of architectural styles and a harbour once famous (infamous) for its almost infinite capacity to export human cargo to distant lands are not the problem. It is a city, more or less like any other, apart from its historical contradictions. It is my life within it which bothers me. For, every time I go away to visit friends and family, I find myself quickly acclimatising myself to being in the company of others again; to know that, if I go for a walk or take a trip somewhere, upon my return there will always be someone there with whom I can share my adventures.
Alas, no such luck where I'm going. Every wall, of every street, of every thoroughfare exudes memories of a past life I have never quite been able to shake. Too many ghosts and I am so incredibly tired of being haunted. I long for some kind of succour - more than the stories I tell myself each night so that I might yet be able to fall asleep before 3am - the like of which I seem completely and utterly unable to find in what was meant to be - and has become - my home, if only by default. My ship sailed while my back was turned a long time ago; only recently did I finally look behind me and realise it has gone.
By default? Well, yes, very much so. Such friends as I might have once had have now moved on or moved away, and there really is nowhere else for me to go. I know its streets and alleys like the back of my hand; the names of the best pubs; the best places to get cheap, tasty meals; the cinemas and theatres; everything but that which is the most important thing of all to know: its people. Thirteen turbulent years in that place and I still know nothing of its people. I can tell you the number and route of every bus in the city (purely by accident, I can assure you); I can name every street, square and alley within a three mile radius; I know all the landmarks; and I could tell you myriad mischievous tails from the pubs I once frequented, of which there were many. And yet, I cannot tell you the name of a single person I know well enough to call a friend.
So perhaps not a home after all; I wonder if I can still remember what that word actually means anymore. I suppose, in much the same way as pondering the meaning of life, its definition is fluid, in the sense that, like any word or object, it has no meaning until we bestow one upon it. There! I have, it seems, answered at least one of the most important philosophical questions in the history of the human race: what is the meaning of life? Why, the meaning of life is the one we each give it! Not bad for someone suffering from the rigours of extreme tiredness and still reeling from what has to be a close contender for one of the worst journeys I've ever undertaken.
You see? Heathrow Bus Station really is the most depressing place on Earth. From its utilitarian architecture, the like of which might once have been fashionable in the 1960s and 70s - now little more than a massive collection of drab, dirty car parks and waiting areas - to the marauding mass of cleaners, bus drivers, cashiers and whoever else found themselves lost in this concrete jungle, it retains a somewhat bleak and forlorn atmosphere. The only comfort to be drawn from being here is that my waiting time is finite; not so for the poor souls who arrive every day to do the jobs "good" English folk now consider beneath them. Not that it has ever stopped such "good" folk from complaining about how those jobs rightfully belong to the English and have been stolen right from under their noses; something which has always puzzled me because, if there were jobs to be taken by immigrants when they arrived, why did our indigenous population never take them before those immigrants arrived? Their respective races and religions may well be different now, but they still make convenient scapegoats for this country's woes.
So I guess I should be grateful. Regardless of where I go at least I can go. All I have to do during this short interlude, besides thinking and staring at the LCD screen, is look on while these people, old before their time and not a single smile between them, work themselves in to an early grave so that they might eek out a living. I will get on another coach and, sooner or later, forget I ever saw those workers, so often taken for granted and, in the eyes of many a traveller passing through, completely invisible. These workers, who are the lifeblood of this God forsaken place and, in all probability, the city itself are, in the eyes of the majority, persona non grata. Or so it seems to me. But maybe I am wrong; after all, I have not slept for two days and my head is starting to feel funny...
At last, after my long and careful scrutiny of the 'Departures' board, my coach finally arrives.
For the first time in two days I am glad to be going back home.