Nina was sitting in the management meeting. The siren of a fire engine started up and as it accelerated past the building, it momentarily halted the insipidly antagonistic discussion of visitor statistics. She wrote, ‘And it’s breaking my heart ‘cos he’s not you,’ in the margin of her pad and then carefully blocked it out again lest her young assistant should see it. She tried to refocus her attention and stared hard at the new area manager who exuded discomfort.
The last manager had been very different. He had dark eyes and creamy skin, he wore clothes in colours that suited him and a single chunky earring. If team meetings with him were dull she would slowly mentally undress him. His firm buttocks were a feast. He had left, of course, as all the good ones did. Goodbye buttocks. She shifted on the second – hand office chair. As for his replacement with his hipster trousers and tank top, didn’t he know this was 1990?
At least she could look forward to seeing her old friend Leonard on Monday. Leonard was always there. He would always be there because he was hardly ever there. She saw him perhaps twice a year. Occasionally it was more than that, in many years, less.
She began to list things to do at the weekend, that would leave Monday clear. She sat imagining his smell and his smile. When she was with him he made her feel as if anything could be possible, for her, for him, only not yet. He loved life with the energy of two people.
After the meeting she went up to the library and began checking materials on the bookstand ready for the drop-In session. Leonard had visited the Centre once. He had parked his Mercedes in the street next to the ironmonger’s lorry loaded with Calor Gaz cannisters. Tall in his camel coat, he looked too large for the room. He had little to say about the resources. He said it reminded him of a teachers’ common room: shabby but relaxing. The teachers who used this library had staff rooms not common rooms, and the staffrooms she knew were mostly far from relaxing places.
‘Oh Leonard, you with your law firm and your sons at public schools. You may live in the same city, but you don’t see the same city at all,’ she said to the flip chart as she carried it across the floor and set it down in the corner by the window.
Standing on the tube platform on the way home from work, Nina watched the children of the two cities moving side by side. It was almost as if they lived in parallel universes, so invisible did they seem to be to each other. Fourteen- year- old public schoolboys carried new leather bags, wore white shirts and old – fashioned black shoes. Tall and glossy, some joshed each other, others raptly played on Game Boys. The boys from the Comp, mostly smaller and more vulnerable looking, blundered past her in huge half laced trainers and baggy tracksuit bottoms, swinging cheap and dirty sports bags or rucksacks. They pushed and shoved each other and the unpredictability of their movements made people stand back as they passed. Should Leonard’s son and her own coincide here, even if they noticed each other, they would discount each other as types you wouldn’t talk to.
The tube was packed. She squeezed herself into a seat next to a pair of legs, spread wide in black jeans, with an elbow on the arm rest. The knees moved up and down as the arm vibrated with a rhythmic chattering and buzzing from a Walkman. The upholstery pattern on the opposite seat, painstakingly patched, was the same as when she was sixteen years old, wearing a velour hat, balancing a lacrosse stick in her gloved hand.
She had first met Leonard at that time. Then they had both lived in the same city: a city of coffee bars and Saturday night parties in the houses of parents, away at their country cottages for the weekend. He had initiated their romance with a Valentine written on a scrap of lined paper, delivered by a friend.
‘Someone you probably don’t remember but who remembers you.’
This was after they had met at an inter-school debate: this house believes that God is dead. God was most certainly dead, so far as Nina was concerned, when she got to know Leonard.
She had lived for Saturdays when they would cross the city on the tube to be together. How she had savoured the shape of the week: the yearning, the wait, the crescendo of anticipation as Saturday drew close. Everything was tolerable, even the cold, wet lacrosse matches on cold, wet fields, because everything could be observed, distilled, transformed into anecdotes to share. ‘Be thou my vision oh Lord of my heart, nought be all else to me save that thou art,’ she sang in Assembly, her Prefect’s badge shining on her mohair sweater.
Many years later it was she who had renewed contact, after seeing his name on an office door plate, in the suburb where her mother lived. She sent him a card on his birthday:
‘Someone you probably don’t remember who remembers you.’
He phoned the next day and they met soon afterwards. Since then it had just continued. She would summon him up with a card or a phone call and off they’d go and lose themselves for a day. On the days when they met, he would talk to his secretary on the car phone, while she sat beside him, invisible, two inches away from his expensive woollen sleeve, breathing in the slight clean smell of designer after shave. He told her about his financial ventures, his business worries, the problems he had with his wife and the marvels of his lover. She told him something of why she had chosen to work with kids he would term dropouts, with truants, with so-called disruptive pupils. Surely Leonard could see the criminal justice system should make people better, not worse?
And so it was that once again she found that Leonard was always in her mind.
‘Thou my best thought by day or by night, Waking or sleeping thy presence my light.’
When she wrote in her journal it was to explain her life, her choices, her views to him. There was no end to what Nina told him about but didn’t send. Not only, how she watched the blackbirds steal the berries from the pyracantha bush in the early morning. But why it was absolutely necessary for teachers to go on strike; why she had supported the miners actively and opposed the war in the Falklands; why the SUS laws were an abomination, what had happened to Leroy, arrested on his way to Celia’s wedding. It had felt indecent to go on too much about Maggie Thatcher when on one memorable occasion he took her for a glamourous lunch at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. But nevertheless, presenting her views to him in unsent correspondence, somehow mattered. How could she bring alive for him, the world of corner shops, of Friday night pay packets and of none? The world of benefits and pubs, of loan sharks and predatory police. The world of dirt and squalor, of diversity and fun. The world of children like Kliantis and Ahmed, of Kwai Fung dancing on the pavement in the snow and Saedda making it at Anna Scher… all of whom lived on her street.
What a shock it had been to enter that unknown other city, the same but different city, in which she had lived since 1970. The world of the inner city, whisper it, had felt as alien as the town in Sudan where she had worked. She wished she could share her guilt that she had deprived her daughter of the educational advantages she herself had enjoyed. Not, of course, that she was short of friends to talk to: friends who made jokes about solicitors and hated people who owned Mercedes and sent their children to private schools.
Monday mornings were one of the worst danger zones in family life. Her husband always discovered he had no shirts ironed. At breakfast time, shirts would get hurled across the kitchen, sometimes falling into the cat’s dish, so that they needed washing again. She wondered whether Leonard, on the other side of the city was throwing his shirt across his kitchen. Probably his wife ironed his shirts, or paid someone to do the ironing.
Things were going nicely and the sun was shining. The phone rang. It was Leonard. A major professional problem had arisen. He wouldn’t be able to meet her. He was very sorry.
Nina switched on the radio. It was the morning service.
“Oh God our help in ages past; our hope for years to come.”
Oh shit, said Nina aloud. Is nothing sacred?
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