Welcome to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Mary Paulson-Ellis’ The Other Mrs Walker
Christmas in Edinburgh, 20IO
She died like this – with her shoes on and nylons wrink- ling at the knee. The glass she was holding fell to the ﬂoor, the last of its contents trickling out with the last of her breath. The liquid glinted in the moonlight, winking a last goodnight before seeping away too – down through the ﬁbres of the carpet, down through the rough and dusty ﬂoorboards, down to the ceiling of the ﬂat below. It evaporated as it went, leaving nothing but a stain. And that smell. Whisky. The water of life. But not for her. Not any more.
In a drawer she left a Brazil nut with the Ten Com- mandments etched in its shell. On a mantelpiece a ridge of dust where once a photograph had stood. In a wardrobe she left an emerald dress, sequins scattered along the hem. On a blue plate an orange, full of holes now like her bones and her brain.
Everything was faded. Tea towels in drawers. Nets at the windows. The newspaper wrapped around her middle underneath her clothes. In the bathroom ice grew on the wrong side of the glass. In the crockery cupboard none of the plates matched any of the bowls. Outside, the street was faded too and the faces of the passers-by all gone to ash in the unrelenting cold. Inside, her fridge contained a single tin of peas.
She died like this – with a name wedged under her ﬁngernails, scratching at her arms and her face, trying to
remember. With a drift of hair, red at the tips and white at the roots. With bombs going off like bells in her ear. And that call, Help me! as plaster showered her head, splinters of wood, of metal and of glass ﬂying through the silence as she called out again.
Catching the thought as it scuttled through her brain, This could be it. But it wasn’t. For this was it now. The glass slipping from her ﬁngers. The tiny amber trickle. The liquid seeping down through the carpet to the ceiling of the ﬂat below.
And somehow she’d always known that she would end like this. In a small square room, in a small square ﬂat. In a small square box, perhaps. Cardboard, with a sticker on the outside. And a name.
What was that name? Lost, along with everything else she’d ever owned.
She hoped then, as the liquid seeped away, that she had not cursed God too often. For somebody had to say it, didn’t they? Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Otherwise where would she be as they lowered her deep into the earth, or lit her up with those blue jets of gas? She knew she’d prefer it, that blaze of hot air. But still, as her breath trickled out, she did wonder if she might not deserve the
damp embrace of heavy Edinburgh clay.
EDINBURGH EVENING NEWS
2 January 2011
SECOND COLDEST WINTER ON RECORD Experts from the Met Ofﬁce today conﬁrmed that Edinburgh is in the grip of the second coldest winter on record. Roads throughout the city have been made treacherous by sheets of solid ice.
‘We urge householders to help by digging out the pave- ment in front of their homes,’ said a spokesperson for Edinburgh City Council. The council has been attacked for failing to keep the thoroughfares clear.
National charity, Age Scotland, asked city residents to look out for the most needy at this time. ‘Check on your elderly neighbours to make sure they are keeping warm.’
The cold weather is set to continue for at least the rest of the month.
Margaret Penny came home on the spin of a coin. Heads to the north, tails to somewhere else – over the hills and far away, perhaps. Or a place much further than that. Six twenty-ﬁve a.m. on the second day of the New Year, and she arrived back in the Athens of the North to grey skies, grey buildings, grey pavements all encased in ice. And the people too.
She woke as the engine of the overnight bus juddered to a halt, hair all this way and that, head sticky with lurid, panicked dreaming. She gathered up all she had left – a small holdall and a red, stolen coat – and stumbled from the warm conﬁnes of the bus as though from a womb. The exit steps were narrow. She stumbled as she went down, stepping as though into air, straight into a gutter full of slurry.
But cold and viscous. Ruining the only pair of shoes she had left.
It was a rebirth of sorts.
‘All right, hen!’ Margaret Penny’s companion of the night and of the dawn and of the early, early morning that had never seemed to end, tumbled down the steps behind her and cracked open yet another tin of Special.
‘Happy New Year!’ He had reached his promised land. Edinburgh (along with the rest of Scotland) had one more day to party before work, and life, resumed.
Spume sprayed towards Margaret in an arc, ﬂecks of foam spattering her stolen coat. The man cheered, swing- ing his can up in a salutation of sorts, a tangle of dark hair and sparkling lager droplets scattering hither and thither. Everything to celebrate. Nothing to regret. After thirty years, Margaret Penny was home.
Her mother, Barbara, lived in a modern block of mai- sonette ﬂats on the north side of the city. Seven or eight pounds in a taxi at that time of the morning. Double at that time of year. It was nothing compared to London prices, but half of all the money Margaret had left. Edin- burgh never had been afraid to charge more than one was expecting. She decided to walk.
The grey streets were deserted. Six forty-ﬁve a.m., and it was as though the whole of Edinburgh was sleeping or dead. Not a light in any of the tall windows. No one exer- cising their dog. Nothing but street lights surrounded by sodium halos in the murky morning air and plumes of steam rising from central-heating vents like ghosts.
Margaret slid and cursed her way down the hill from the bus station, gripping at whatever she could ﬁnd to aid her descent. Railings and trafﬁc-light poles, litter bins studded with the glacial remains of a million cigarettes smoked to the last. The ice here really was treacherous, thick and impacted, the air pinching at her lungs. She wished she’d stolen a pair of gloves to go with the coat, or a scarf at least; something to cover the bare extremities of her ﬂesh – hands and throat, ears and ﬁngers, frozen already like the very tips of the Alps. Margaret had forgotten how cold Scotland could be. And how godforsaken too.
Down at the bottom of the long hill at last, she stag-
gered into the residents’ parking bay at The Court, almost colliding with the back end of a large black car as it revved and skidded its way out. The car threw up a spray of grit and slush that spattered across the hem of Margaret’s coat too. ‘For God’s sake!’ she shouted, but the vehicle was already escaping, up and out onto the main road, disap- pearing in a cloud of toxic exhaust. Half an hour in Edinburgh and Margaret was already covered in dirt.
She climbed the concrete steps to Barbara’s front door like a foundling come home in the hope that her past was just a mistake. But when the door ﬁnally edged open in response to her third, insistent ring, Margaret realized that the new dawn she hoped for was unlikely to happen here. Her mother had got old. Much, much older than Margaret had imagined. With a face already marked by the pallor of a corpse.
‘What are you doing here?’ It wasn’t the usual mother–
‘I thought I’d help you bring in the New Year.’
‘It’s already happened.’
All spoken with the chain still on the door.
‘I brought rum.’ Margaret held up the quarter-bottle she had carried all the way from the south. A peace offering, perhaps, the promise of better things to come. Or, more likely, because Barbara had always taught her daughter that at moments like these it was best to Be Prepared.
The dark liquid glinted in the stair lighting. Through the narrow crack in the door Barbara’s pupils glinted too as she eyed the bottle, while Margaret eyed her mother in return. Old. Deﬁnitely old. And something else. But there wasn’t time for Margaret to be sure, for the door was
closing, then opening again. Without the chain this time.
Seven a.m., and crammed into Barbara’s miniature hallway, Margaret opened her assault. ‘That was a nice welcome for the season of good cheer.’ She couldn’t help herself. Attack, the best form of defence. Just like her mother, contrariness was buried in her bones.
‘I thought you were one of those do-gooders.’ Barbara was wearing a quilted dressing gown in a shade of some- thing that had once been pink.
‘A Jehovah’s Witness?’ Margaret had never known her mother to be religious. More interested in rum and biscuits than the chance to save her soul.
In her right hand Barbara gripped a grey NHS stick. ‘I already belong to them,’ she said.
This wasn’t the kind of homecoming Margaret had expected. A sudden conversion to God in all his many guises. ‘I thought you were Church of Scotland. That one round the corner.’
Barbara sniffed, a faint whistle rising from her chest.
‘And all the rest.’
‘Episcopal. Catholic. Evangelical. Friends,’ Barbara recited as though she was in church right there and then.
Barbara leaned into her stick, lungs wheezing. ‘Quaker, like in that ﬁlm with that Indiana man.’
‘I think that’s Amish.’
Only two minutes in the ﬂat and Margaret wasn’t per- forming well. Her neck felt sweaty. She hadn’t even taken off her coat. ‘So you’re a member of more than one congregation?’
‘All of them, more or less.’
‘But you don’t believe in God.’
‘How do you know.’
It wasn’t a question and there was nothing Margaret could say in reply. Ten years, maybe more. Very few phone calls. Couldn’t remember the last time she had turned up for Christmas or New Year. After all, her mother was old now, well over seventy. Maybe she’d had a sudden con- version. A kind of Road to Damascus experience, like Margaret’s own Beginning of the End. It would be typical to have come home for her mid-life crisis, only to discover that her mother’s end-of-life crisis was well under way. Margaret clutched tighter at the neck of the quarter-bottle. Who Dares Wins. Or something like that. But, of course, her mother got in ﬁrst.
‘So, are you going to pour me a glass out of that bottle? Or do I have to do it myself like everything else around here?’
Margaret Penny hadn’t planned to come back to Edin- burgh any more than Edinburgh had been expecting her to return.
But . . .
Home is where the heart is.
Isn’t that what they say?
Especially a heart that has been beaten, pummelled and cut into tiny pieces before being left to fester on a life- support machine.
She’d abandoned the life she once had in London by tossing it into a skip sometime between Christmas and
New Year. All the things that were no use to her any more discarded over landﬁll – black suits and blouses with furls down the front, tights the colour of skin, garlic presses, smart dresses, folders in variegated shades. Also a juice machine she’d hankered after once but never even used.
It was around the same time that the life Margaret thought she was living also got rid of her. A job lost with- out so much as a by your leave. A bank account emptied like bathwater down a drain. No savings to fall back on. No real friends to fall back on either. Various debit, credit and other types of card that turned out to have no money (or loyalty) attached. Finally a visit from the bailiffs to announce that the ﬂat she had rented for all of these years had somehow been repossessed.
Thirty years in the great metropolis vanished like snow sliding from a hotplate. And all because of an encounter with an ashen-haired lady who laid out photographs on a small, stained table in Margaret’s local coffee shop. A man Margaret imagined was hers at the time. And next to him two silver-haired children in crumpled Technicolor. The life Margaret had always wanted.
Except . . .
It turned out to have belonged to someone else all along.
Her mother’s lucky coronation penny appeared just when Margaret needed it most. Nothing to celebrate, everything to regret, down on the cold kitchen tiles of a ﬂat that was no longer hers, toasting the end with a bottle of cheap wine gone sour. The penny rolled from between two kitchen units, a small missive from the past teetering into view. Margaret crawled after it. The tiles were hard
and unforgiving, left bruises on her knees. But Margaret didn’t care. Here was something unexpected, just when she had been anticipating the worst.
The penny was old-fashioned, smelling of metal and of earth, a dull glint of bronze in the low winter light. On one side Britannia wielded her trident. On the other a king who should never have been a king gazed out. Heads to the north, tails to the south. Or somewhere much further than that. Margaret spun the coin without considering what might come next. Disaster, or the broaching of a new reef. Let the king decide.
So he did.
She departed with nothing but a small blue holdall (four pairs knickers, spare bra, two pairs tights. Also a toothbrush and a bottle of tinted moisturizer down to the last few smears). She left behind a man with hair the colour of wet slate standing in the middle of a London living room, walls painted the colour of the sun. And stole a coat because . . . well . . . she turned out to be good at that. Also a photograph of two silver-haired children because one never did know when it might prove useful to have a family of one’s own.
There was a certain satisfaction to it, not owning any- thing and not being owned. But it didn’t leave Margaret many options. Just a ticket on the ﬁrst bus north and a ﬂat in a former Edinburgh council block – living room, kitchen, bedroom, box room full of junk and that tiny square of beige her mother called the hall. Home. It wasn’t where Margaret’s heart was. But at least it was somewhere to run. A quart of rum drunk to the last lick. Television turned up full. Chips eaten from the knee. It wasn’t the best New Year’s celebration Margaret Penny had ever had. But it certainly wasn’t the worst.
She and her mother covered all the normal topics in three minutes, give or take.
‘Some people have sons and daughters to help them clear their paths.’
‘You’ll have seen the stick.’ Friends.
‘All busy with their families at this time of year.’ Before getting to the matter in hand.
‘I was wondering if I could stay for a while.’ Margaret crumpled the last of her chip paper, vinegar and a slick of grease under her ﬁngernails reminding her of how short a distance she had travelled over the past thirty years.
‘So you’re here for a holiday then?’ Barbara dribbled the last of the rum onto her tongue.
Margaret couldn’t tell if her mother thought a holiday was a good idea or not. Decided to hedge her bets. ‘Yes. Sort of.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
A vacation. A visit. A three-day trip. Looking for love. Or (in the likely absence of that) money to aid a quick exit for when the time came. But Margaret couldn’t think which answer might be best, so she avoided one altogether.
‘It would just be for a week or two,’ she said. ‘Maybe a month.’
Barbara stared at the television screen with the intent gaze of a newborn, frills peeking out at throat and cuffs from beneath her all-consuming dressing gown. Margaret couldn’t tell if her mother was considering her request to become a house guest or pretending to ignore it. Or whether (perhaps more likely) she needed a hearing aid. It was like being interrogated, but without the other side saying a thing. But just when she was resigned to heading out once more into the freezing Edinburgh night, Barbara switched the television off with an abrupt ﬂick of her wrist and said, ‘You can take the box room.’
‘It’ll need clearing.’
It was amazing, really, when Margaret thought about it later, how easy it had been.
That night Margaret Penny lay on an inﬂatable lilo on her mother’s box-room ﬂoor, turning and turning in a failed attempt to get warm. The stolen coat, red as a massacre, covered her body. Outside the temperature was well below freezing. Inside, the box room was inhabited by a deep-seated chill. Whichever way she turned, one elbow, one ankle, one hand or hip bone was forever outside in the cold. Margaret was certain she could see her own breath hanging above her like some sort of miasmic shroud.
‘I don’t have visitors to stay often.’
That was how Barbara had put it as she handed over the only spare blanket she seemed to own. Small and square, with a satin trim around the edge, all gone to rot now, the blanket had been more suited to a baby than a grown woman already well established in the middle of her life. But Margaret took it all the same. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. Besides, her mother was like a book with no words. Impossible to read.
After Barbara went to bed, still grumbling about having her New Year plans disrupted, Margaret spent half an hour clearing a space on the box-room ﬂoor. Head against one wall, feet nearly touching the next, it was a sort of mini ground zero well suited to this stage of her life. It took her a while to resuscitate the lilo (the only mattress available, it seemed), giving the blue-and-yellow plastic the kiss of life while she practically expired. As she brushed her teeth in the freezing bathroom, peering through a gap in the window onto tarmac glimmering with frost, she wished someone would give her the kiss of life too. There were no windows in the box room. No emergency exits of any kind.
Her mother had been right. The room did need clear- ing. It was entirely ﬁlled with junk. A whole life laid out in front of Margaret, not on a small, stained coffee table this time, but piled up wall to wall. A heater with a broken dial that gave off a burning smell when Margaret tried to turn it on. A clothes horse stripped of all its plastic coat- ing. An iron with a frayed ﬂex. An ancient wardrobe full of ancient clothes. A small brown painting, dirty in more ways than one. And a grubby china cherub, chipped and fractured, one arm severed long before.
So here it lay. All the junk Margaret had spent thirty years trying to escape. Yet here she was again, too. Forty- seven, soon to be ﬁfty. No children she could point to as an achievement. No grandparents or siblings. Not even
any pets. And now she was back in Edinburgh. Land of grey buildings. Land of tall chimneys. Land of secrets that everyone knew but pretended they did not. It wasn’t what she’d planned, aged forty-seven, to be coming home empty-handed apart from a stolen coat and a bottle of rum. But then Margaret wasn’t really sure what she had planned exactly. When she tried to imagine, nothing came to mind.
Except . . .
In the clutter of the box room, deep in the dark of an Edinburgh night, Margaret Penny felt something trapped beneath her hip. Squashed. Misshapen. Rather like her. The last of her Christmas clementines, borrowed from a market stall in London as a ﬁnal reminder of the south.
Margaret shifted, grasping hold of the small fruit as it rolled free from the pocket of her coat. She raised it towards her mouth in the blackness. Somewhere out in the frozen wastelands of the city a drunk man was dancing, lager sparkling like a constellation in his hair. But here, in the cold and inky pitch of her mother’s box
room, Margaret Penny was tasting the sun.
• Mary Paulson-Ellis is an Edinburgh-based writer. Her first novel, The Other Mrs Walker, is published by Mantle, price £12.99