Cost Of Living
Margaret pulled back the jumble of dried branches, lifted the old door out of the way, slid it away from the hole she had dug, and opened the top of the chest freezer she had buried in the ground. There was little to see: her secret stash of emergency food had dwindled to a few potatoes and apples she had carefully stored, along with a few things she had been able to barter with the last of her firewood from the fruit trees she had cut down for fuel to keep her warm in the harsh winter. It seemed pointless keeping them to grow the fruit when the apples were taken before they had even matured. Keeping her small hoard in the freezer kept the contents cold, although she felt she could equally have just kept them in the house for all the difference it made. But here they might be safe from scroungers who came begging.
With a small bowlful of oats she closed the lid, replaced the door and pushed back the pile of branches. The house was cold and dark and she shivered as she entered. It seemed even colder inside than it was outside. She lit a rush-wicked tallow candle which she had made herself one Sunday when she had allowed herself a proper fire to warm herself up. The fat had come from the last pig she slaughtered, to barter for food and money to pay the inevitable bills. Even though she now had no electricity and no water, the rates still had to be paid as well as other essentials to keep herself in her house. She tried not to remember the wonderful times she and the family had enjoyed there, the family home. It was a large place, more expensive than they had cared to budget for, but it was in the place they really had yearned to live so they felt the extra outlay was worthwhile. But now she was alone in the big house, all of the rooms dark and cold, some with broken windows with the cold wind whistling through.
She ate the oats raw, softened in cold water which she had brought earlier from the stream at the end of the garden. When they had moved in, they thought it was so romantic and the children had splashed and played in it when they were young, occasionally swimming when it was deep enough to make a pool. But then they thought of the cows wading in it, drinking it with their sticky mouths, then not bothering to get out before they dropped their smelly pats in the water. One day they had found a dead sheep caught up in a bush when the stream had flooded. Then they thought of the noxious chemicals the local farmers sprayed on the land which flushed into the stream. Margaret tried to not think about these as she supped her softened oats.
The studio at the end of the garden had been turned into a latrine, with an earth toilet. Margaret had remembered her Grandmother describing how they worked and had used them at the cabins they had visited while holidaying in wild places. It was strange how folks longed for the “good old days” but these had returned with a vengeance. Margaret hoped desperately that she would not fall ill, as nowadays one could not simply walk into the local doctor’s and expect to be treated for free. The doctor was as poor as everyone else so hoped for some sort of reimbursement. He, however, was one of the few people in the village who was able to enjoy the wonders of an electricity supply, although that was now rather unreliable due to the supply equipment going walkabouts when someone needed to trade scrap metal for something they felt they needed. The doctor was the only person in the village who ran an electric car, though that could not cover a wide range now as the batteries were all but dead. If only engines had been developed to run on a wide variety of fuels, instead of only on the monopolised petrol. She had heard of drivers running their car on used chip fat oil many years ago, but instead of being praised for their initiative and innovation they had instead been fined for evading tax.
Margaret lit another tallow candle from the flame of the old one which was now beginning to gutter. She allowed herself only two per night, and each of those did not last very long. Very shortly she would return to her bed, the only place that was slightly warmer, though it was now getting rather unpleasant because she had not washed it for several weeks as she knew it would never dry in this cold weather.
She wiped the bowl clean with her finger – no water to wash up with. Then paused, as she heard a soft tread outside the back door. Silently she moved across to check that she had shot all the bolts closed, even though she knew she had. When once you could live with the door open and enjoy the pleasant warm fresh air of the summer, now you kept it tight shut not only to keep out the cold but to keep out unwelcome visitors. And now, they were visiting. The door rattled as it was tried. Then a firmer rattle. Then a loud knock on the door. A pause. Then a thud of a shoulder against the door which moved but did not yield. Then a firmer lunge made it rattle. A couple more thuds, flesh against wood. Then a pause, a muttered exchange between two low voices. Then a splintering of wood as an axe broke through, retreated, chopped in again, smashing smashing the solid wood of the door and finally breaking its way through.
Margaret thought of how her country had divorced itself from its neighbour. How her neighbours had hoped this would stop the constant influx of foreigners and refugees. The foreigners had left, but nobody wanted the jobs they were prepared to do. The refugees had come across in their boats unhindered because what interest would France have in helping to prevent them? Trade had become difficult, markets had dwindled, inflation had raged and instead of riding the tide everyone had demanded wage rises to make things even worse. Except for those that looked after the ill and frail, those who had tried to keep everyone alive despite the danger to themselves: they had carried on despite being ignored by the very people they had saved.
Who was at the door? It did not need to be a foreigner or a refugee, it was more likely a neighbour from the other end of the village, looking for a source of firewood for their fire. They would come in, ransack the place looking for food and fuel. Margaret was uncertain what her fate might be but now she stood braced with her large carving knife in hand. She would never have thought that the wedding present of the kitchen set she and her husband had been given all those years ago and which had carved so many family meals, before they had each in turn become vegetarians so that better use of the farmland could be made: she would never have thought she might need to use it like this.
The remains of the back door swung drunkenly open, parts of it dropping on the floor as a booted foot appeared, framed with its owner in the doorway, another dark figure behind. In the closeness of the small kitchen, Margaret could smell the earthy odour of the unwashed figure standing there, large, filling the smashed doorway. Unseen eyes peered at this frail woman with upstretched arm wielding a large knife, its blade longer than her forearm.
Margaret was overcome with a desperate feeling of not caring any more. She had had enough. She could take no more.
The blade fell.
She moped his brow – was that even a thing? She felt like a latter day Florence. This had been going on for weeks. She stretched, the pain in her hunched shoulders seemed to be permanent.
At the beginning she had prayed for his recovery. The police had said that he had ‘life changing’ injuries. Well, she thought that is what they had said. It had partially filtered through her shock and the crackle of their radios.
The doctors had been less dramatic and had talked of intensive care and his age. She thought that they had said that the two were incompatible.
There was talk of organ donation (too old) but then of living wills and ‘his wishes’. She didn’t know – they hadn’t discussed that. They would have to ask his elusive children.
They had ‘found love in later life’ (the correct definition if you read the glossies) and neither were sure of their place. His place in her bed was established, at her meal table and in her savings. But not in her life. She wasn’t his next of kin but that got forgotten; the idea of two old people ‘in a relationship’ was so alien that marriage was always the working assumption.
She didn’t know if he would prefer to linger in vague hope or go swiftly with dignity.
It has begun innocently enough (didn’t it always?) The Writers’ Discussion group. She was attracted to him when he used an apostrophe correctly. His ability to do The Guardian quick crossword efficiently was appealing at first but wore thin when he did all the across clues and left her the down ones.
Sex came later. His expectations didn’t live up to his achievements but he did his best, bless him. She was grateful for the nights apart – it gave her a chance to catch up with where he had left off.
The evenings out were great – her purse made many appearances, his wallet not so often. They didn’t discuss money. They used her car, it was easier to get in and out of.
He didn’t forget many things – she made sure of that. Little reminders, little nudges. The odd elusive word supplied when necessary. She ignored the never finished book and the TV plots which he claimed to be ‘very obscure’. She was glad of his company and he was good with his hands. Provided it needed a drill and some screws and not too much accuracy. Shelves were his thing but door handles and picture hanging were in his repertoire. And the grass – he mowed the grass when she reminded him that it was ‘mowing Monday’. ‘Online’ anything was an anathema but he was a dab hand at reading tedious letters from utilities companies and declaring them to all be ‘scandalous’.
She had thought of marriage but couldn’t decide on the colour of her dress so abandoned the idea along with the bouquet of roses and the three tiered cake. She was glad now – she didn’t want to be a widower. But she didn’t want this living death either.
How much longer should she wait? She could see there was no hope. Should she raise the topic – what was it called? Turning off life support? No, he wasn’t on any ‘support’. He just lay there, the stroke coming so soon after the accident meant that he needed feeding through a tube and all the outgoings through other tubes. She didn’t know what he wanted but she sure as hell knew she didn’t want it. She liked him – but not this version. The cost of living was too great.
She put down the cloth, kissed his forehead and walked away. The crossword, all to herself, was waiting.
Silk lined predictions
In a cream, white lace
A veil you spun
Like a spider
With just as many eyes.
Wrapped around and around
Tiny soft hands
Half hers, half his
Whoever he is
But not half mine
Green blooms on your kitchen table
The light dapples, you think it
But you will not
or can not,
Perhaps the cost is too dear
To tell her they are for her.
Is it something old and blue?
Or two empty bottles,
red teeth and red lips
spit obituary, toast it
close the lid
the mahogany traps my fingers
Your altar and mine
are the same
We both pray to her, hands clasped
I won’t mourn
Could there be an organ song
To this chasm left where you dropped her
This web is thicker than water
Your grief and hers entwined