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Short Story

Behind The Barricades

            Weren't no reason to stop talking to me. Lying there sulking. Don't have to get up today either, you know, not now, never. One day just like another. Wandering round the kitchen with a saucepan looking for something to eat. Don't want to cook anything. Not for one. Not for you. I put the saucepan back. You get your own, don't wait for me. You only eat jam sandwiches anyway. Most of the time you can't stop eating. I thought you'd burst. But you stopped.

Cockroaches in all flats. Just part of city life. Run away as soon as they see you. They only come out to look, that's all. They're just frightened. I had the place looking so nice - once. Pictures on the walls. Still there I think, only it's a bit dim to see. Maybe they've gone away.

            I didn't start it, not this time. All I said was you were getting dirty. You ought to do something about yourself. Didn't have a bath last week. Week before mor'n'likely. You go into the bathroom all right. Splash around. 'Spect you turn on the taps just to fool me. Well, you don't. And that old vase you carry in each morning. Why don't you buy yourself a decent potty? 'Cept you won't go out no more. Probably expect me to buy you one. But I won't. You haven't touched the tea I made you. Well, you can make the next one.

            A nice vase that. It was a wedding present. Can't remember who from. I was good at fixing flowers. You used to say I had a real flair. When I was sick that time, you stuck flowers in that vase and brought them in to me. You read to me. Poetry I think. You sat on the edge of the bed and I wished you would stop 'cos I couldn't understand what you were saying. But your voice was soft. Soothing. I suppose it didn't matter that I couldn't understand. I lost the baby but. Should have been other children, but there weren't. Not after that. In the kindergartens children play and sing. . . play and sing,  finger rhymes with their hands and sometimes paint in smocks. I was good with my hands. Would have been good with children too.

            You're lying there blaming me. Don't even roll over to talk to me at night. You used to once. Before we slept. Just staring at your teeth in the glass and them grinning back. Some joke between you, eh?

            What have I got to do today? Should have made a list. Wash me hair maybe? Maybe not if it's cold out. Might go shopping later. A little bit of something nice for lunch. Even if most things taste the same nowadays. You want something? Huh, no answer. Talking to a brick wall, you. Fish cold, always were. Up and down all night I was. You wouldn't care. Not once you asked me "you all right?" Washed out this morning. Never known anyone to sulk like you. Maybe I won't go out after all. Might meet one of the neighbours.

            We've got to stick together, now. They're not going to put me in one of them old homes. You neither, if you've got any sense. Stick together, that's what I say. Can't take us both. We stay, see? Think you know all the answers. Always right, everyone else wrong. Why'd I do this? That? Said I couldn't manage and the flat was a mess. I tell you I'm not going. Your feet are freezing anyway. You ought to put on some socks.

            I look out the window when I go to the bathroom at night. All them flats against the sky. Lights on in some, no matter what time you get up. People, sleeping and living in them windows. Kids too. Faces staring at me from the trees when the street lights come through. Always somebody watching. You don't see, to notice people. Keep to yourself. Them loud records from next door. Violin squawking somewhere. You never notice.

            I don't suppose I'd have been better off with someone else. All men are selfish. Creature comforts got to be just right. That's what we're here for. But we had good times too. Can't remember any, but there must have been. You wouldn't be too bad if you only talked occasionally. Nothing in common, see. No kids, nothing. Must have been something at the beginning, but what?

            Flowers in the window box need watering. The doctor said to me once, "What do you eat?" and I said, "Oh a meat pie sometimes, maybe a bit of lettuce." He said, "That's not good enough, you won't be with us next year at this rate." That was years ago. Didn't tell him you ate jam sandwiches and cake all day long. When it's there.

            Could have grown lettuces maybe or potatoes in the window box. Would have liked an apple tree but it wouldn't fit. Couldn't prune it either. That's what I could do with, a pruning. Feeling like an overgrown dog lately, my perm's growing out. You need more than a pruning, a good clean scrubbing is what you need. They say fish and guests smell at three days.

            I remember you going off to work in nice trousers and a tie. Looked different then. Handsome. I didn't mind ironing your shirts. Don't iron now. Everything just dries, things hang up on the bathroom line. Over the bath. I enjoy me bath. When the water creeps up the sides and laps against me like silk. I keep meself proper. Now I've got you to look after as well. Sick on me. Won't get up like you used to and I'm left to cope. But I'm your wife. I've got to. I talk to people. In shops. In the street. Little kids especially. Not shut off from everyone, like you. You remember that house when I was a child? Windows shut and barred with planks of wood. People in it had gone but the barricades around it came out across the pavement and onto the roadway and the horses stared with their whitened eyes as if they were walking on the graves of dead horses and stepped aside. We walked on the road with the horses and my mother, said, "There's been plague in there. An old man dead with it and they've boarded it up so children can't get in."

            "Didn't he have a wife?"

"She's gone to the hospital. They have to keep her there in case she has it too."

            So I picked some flowers and threw them into the garden. They fell on the pathway and lay there in the sun dying and I watched them every day, shrivel slowly.

            That's what we're doing, shrivelling slowly. We might just as well have barricades around us. No one comes. Being married's behind barricades. Most don't come out, 'cept my mother did. When she couldn't take my old man no longer and she walked across the railway line. Coroner said they didn't expect the goods train through. But she knew it was coming. She just had to get away from him any way she could.

            Only 58. I'm more than 90. Even my father was only 85 when he went. Hit the bottle a bit at the end. My brother had to keep it from him. 58 and 85,  strange isn't it? I'll bet he did it deliberately. Not fair that he lasted longer than she did. Nobody like him. Not fair that I'm still here either.

            Seems we've both lived too long. Just look at you - you don't listen to the radio even, never look at a newspaper. You've got no idea what's going on in the world today. Floods in China, bus strikes, what would you care?

            Maybe I'll see her again when I go. I loved my mother. She took us to see my sister when she got married and my father had told us never to see her again. He didn't like the chap, see? Oh, he was a hard man.

            I try to look after you. I do my best. We've only got each other. Barley water and tea. Tin of soup. We can't just shrivel like flowers not watered. Feel like leaving when you sulk. Today even, I made up my mind. But now you're sick.

            Wonder what it will be like, going. Don't remember being born. Remember a long way back. Little things, scenes, my mother, feelings. That time my older sister lost the billycan in the creek, swollen over. The banks were slippery and she was afraid of falling in. So when she came home my father took to her for losing the billy. Said never do it again and next time when she took down a billy, she dropped it and went in after it. Drowned of course. Couldn't let it slip away from her. I've always been scared of drowning. Can't swim, never could. Maybe it's just a slipping away, like drowning. 'Spose it won't hurt. What we'll do from each other when the time comes.

            If I keep myself clean, I've got a new nightie in the drawer, keeping it specially. You ought to keep some pyjamas, Joe. You never know who'll be fixing you up. I might not be around, see. Total stranger maybe. I've got my pride you know.

            I'd pick some flowers for you, I would. I've never really wanted to get away. Said I did, once or twice, but never have. Just wish you'd talk to me sometimes. It's the sulking I can't take.


The ambulance man was quite ill afterwards. He had a struggle to get her out of the flat after a neighbour raised the alarm. She didn't want to leave her husband, poor old thing. She'd been nursing him. He must have gone in his sleep and he'd been dead for six weeks. You should have seen her, skin stretched on bones, filthy, just a cotton dress, nothing else. In this weather!

No psychiatric record. Neighbours said they were a bright old pair until recently and then they didn't see much of them. Obviously she kept to the flat once he'd gone. She must have been starving. They brought her into psych. geriatric and I had to take her down to admissions. Matron was furious because I took her barefoot. But hell, her toenails were three inches long and I couldn't get her shoes on her. She's sitting up in bed now with a cotton cap over her hair to cover the Lorexan. Poor old stick doesn't seem to have any family.


You should have told me what to do, Joe. But you wouldn't talk. Not even when they came into the flat, you kept quiet. Still sulking I 'spose. But I don't know what it is I've done.


© Vashti Farrer

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