“He’s outside now. I can see him through the window,” Florence tells the policewoman on the other end of the line.
“Okay. Is this the same man as last time, Florence?” the policewoman asks.
“Call me Flo dear, everybody calls me Flo.”
“The man outside Flo, is he the same person you reported last Monday?”
“It’s hard to say,” Florence thinks for a moment, trying hard to compare the two men. The truth of the matter is that she can’t remember what the other man looks like any more. “It could be,” she chances, not wanting to disappoint the policewoman.
“Can you describe him for me?”
“Well he’s young, foreign looking. You’re not allowed to say that any more are you? He’s wearing one of those hats they all wear.”
“What ethnicity would you say he is?”
The policewoman lowers her voice, “What colour is he?”
“Oh he’s a darkie.”
“Black, you mean.”
“As the ace of spades.”
“Can you describe his hat for me?”
“Okay, that’s good. What kind of hat is it?”
“Oh I wouldn’t know?”
“Is it a cap for instance, a wooly hat…”
“It could be a wool one. It’s hard to see from here.”
“Okay that’s alright, is he tall, short, fat, thin?”
“I can’t tell dear, he’s in his car.”
“Can you give me a description of the car?”
“Would you say it was more green or more blue?”
“Looking at it now it’s more bluey-grey than greeny-blue.”
“Okay let’s leave the car’s colour for now. Can you see what make the car is?”
“I’m not very good with all that, my Norman always takes care of that side of things.”
“How about the registration number? Can you see that?”
“I can’t dear, there’s a little wall around the car park. He’s parked right up close to it. He’s done that on purpose. Stop me getting a good look. Hold on a tick,” Florence gently places the receiver down on the phone table and attempts to gain some height by pushing down on the window sill with both hands. With a lot of effort she manages to get herself up onto tip-toes, but it’s no good, the wall still obscures her view. Resigned she lowers herself back down and picks up the receiver again, “No, that didn’t do it. I can’t make it out from here,” she says out of puff.
“Okay, not to worry. Can you see a badge on the radiator?”
“On the radiator?”
“At the front.”
“In the garden you mean?”
“On the front of the car.”
“Oh I see, I thought you meant the front of my house. I was going to say, we haven’t got any radiators on the front. I mean that’d be silly, wouldn’t it?”
“Can you see a badge though?”
“On the front of the car.”
“No I’m sorry dear, my eyes aren’t what they used to be.”
“Okay, well don’t worry, sit tight and I’ll get a policeman out to you as soon as possible.”
“Will he be one of those plain-clothes ones?”
“No, I think it’ll be a uniformed officer.”
“But won’t they know that we’re onto them if you do that?”
“I’m sure it’ll be alright.”
“Well you know best. Thank you dear, you’ve been ever so sweet. Are you courting?”
“Ah that’s nice, they say people aren’t getting married any more. They did a thing on it on Pebble Mill, you know on the telly. It’s a shame isn’t it?”
“It is yes. If that’s all Florence, I’m going to have to take another call.”
“Okay dear, thank you for your help. Bye-bye,” Florence places the receiver back in it’s cradle with a sigh before turning to see if the man spying on her is still in his car. He is. These nets have seen better days, she thinks to herself as she fondles the bottom corner of the nicotine stained net curtain. “Needs a good boil wash,” she says under her breath.
“They’re going to send a nice policeman round to sort out the nasty man,” she says to Woggle, who is weaving his way around her feet in an effort to get Florence to feed him. She bends down and runs her hand along his back and up his tail. He looks back at her squinting his eyes, which she knows means that he likes what she’s doing. When she goes to repeat the action for a second time he moves away from her and waits by the door. “Does my little Woggle want some food? Does he? Yes he does, doesn’t he? Yes he does,” she coos as she slowly follows the cat out of the lounge down the small hallway and into the kitchen, all thoughts of dirty net curtains forgotten.
With Woggle fed, Florence’s thoughts turn to her own lunch. Finish off them pilchards with a nice cup of tea, she thinks to herself. She puts the kettle on then washes out the remnants of that morning’s tea from the teapot. “Can’t abide dirt,” she says without thinking, “there’s no need for it.” Glancing up at the kitchen clock she feels a small pang of excitement when she realises that it’s almost time for Home and Away. Poor Meg, she’s very poorly, can’t have long left now. Still she’s got that nice Blake to look after her.
The harsh trilling of the telephone jolts Florence from her sleep. She was dreaming of picking strawberries, eating one for every two she picked. Disorientated she looks around, the warm Kentish field is gone, replaced by her chilly front room. It takes her a moment or two to get her bearings. Her eyes naturally gravitate towards the television which is still on. She stares blankly at the screen, detachedly watching Lionel Blair mime something to his bemused team mates. Florence tries to work out what he’s trying to convey to them; it’s a film, three words…
The sound of the still ringing telephone breaks the spell. Without thinking she starts to call out for her husband to answer it, before remembering that Norman isn’t in the kitchen making a fresh pot of tea, nor is he pottering about in his shed at the end of the garden. We had fifty good years together before his passing, she thinks, that’s more than most get. The telephone, immune to the wave of sadness washing over Florence, carries on ringing.
“Hold on, hold on, give me a second,” she mutters as she leans forwards and begins the process of rocking herself out of her favourite armchair. It takes a few attempts for her to get up and onto her feet but once upright she slowly, but with great purpose, starts to cross the room. After her first couple of steps the telephone falls silent.
Stood in the middle of her small front room Florence is unsure what to do next. She makes her way over to the television and with great effort pushes the off button, relishing the sound it makes as it dies. The sound of life winding down to nothing.
The telephone starts to ring again, with as much haste as she can muster she crosses to the other side of the room, determined to answer it.
“Hello,” Florence says with the uncertain tone of someone who’s heard a strange voice in the dark.
“Oh Robert, hello dear.” The happiness in her voice makes him feel awful. He wishes that he thought of her more often.
“How’s things mum? Everything alright?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine dear. How are you? You keeping well?”
“Have you had your tea?”
“Not yet, no. I’m still at work.”
“At this hour?”
“Mum, it’s only three, we don’t knock off until six.”
“Oh, I thought it was later. The night’s are really drawing in.”
“How’s things? Anything happening down there?”
“Was it you that telephoned earlier?”
“Yeah, that was me.”
“You didn’t give me time to get to the telephone,” she laughs, “I was watching Lionel Blair on the television, he had on ever such a lovely jumper.”
“I thought perhaps you were in the garden and didn’t hear it.”
“In the garden?”
Robert, realising that the conversation is already in danger of drifting too far off course, tries to get it back on track, “How is everything mum, anything happening down there I should know about?”
Florence thinks for a moment, trying to recall something she can tell her only child. She knows there are things, she can feel them behind her eyes, but no matter how hard she tries they remain just out of reach. Finally more out of desperation than anything else she plumps for, “Your aunty Vi’s met someone.”
“He’s half her age too.”
“You don’t mean Donald?”
“Yes that’s him, how do you know?”
“Mum,” Robert says with a resigned sigh, “we went to their wedding.” Florence is silent, desperately trying to remember her sister’s wedding. “Last June,” Robert prompts, “it was down Lyme Regis way. We stayed in that funny B&B, with all the notices everywhere. You remember, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’.”
“Oh yes,” Florence chuckles, “I remember now,” she lies.
“Look mum,” Robert says shifting his tone, “oh god, I don’t know how to put this. The thing is before I phoned you, I had a call from an old school friend…”
“Oh that’s nice.”
“Well yes and no. He’s a policeman…”
“Oo, what have you been up to?”
“I haven’t been up to anything. He called me about you. Says you’ve been phoning the station, making allegations.”
“They’re sending someone round.”
“But mum,” Robert sighs before taking a breath and composing himself, “no one is watching you.”
“I know you think I’m being silly…”
“No, no I don’t, I really don’t. But all this has to stop.”
“They’ve moved in next door. Since Betty’s passing. They’ve put things in the walls, to listen. I’m onto them though. I don’t use the rooms on that side of the house any more.”
“Mum,” Robert takes a deep breath, fighting back his tears, choosing his next words carefully, “mum, these men, they’re not following you. There’s no one listening. It’s all in your head.”
“No Robert, I’ve seen them. Outside,” Florence explains, checking to see if the man from earlier is still there. He’s not. “In cars,” she adds.
“But mum, you live opposite a car park. That sort of thing’s bound to happen.”
“You’d see if you were here. They’re watching, writing things down, bold as brass. They’re always writing things down.”
“No one’s writing anything about you mum, I promise. You worry me.”
“I don’t mean to.”
“Why didn’t you call me first?”
“I didn’t want to bother you, I know how busy you are.”
“Mum. You can always call me. You’ve got my number up here.”
“It’s on the fridge,” Florence confirms, picturing the handwritten number that sits under a photograph taken the previous summer of her and Robert on the beach at Chalkwell.
“You worry me,” Robert repeats.
“I don’t mean to.”
“I know you don’t. I know… Perhaps I can get away, come down this weekend?”
“Oh, would you? It’d be great to see you, dear.”
“I think I can switch a few things around. Make some time.”
“I’ll make toad-in-the-hole.”
“That’d be nice.”
“With spotted dick for afters.”
“You could bring your girlfriend, I’d love to meet her,” Florence chances. Robert’s heart sinks. Coming out to his parents was, without a doubt, the single most awkward moment of his life. Looking out of his office window at the rainswept industrial estate beyond, his mother’s casual remark brings that particular memory closer to the surface than he’d like.
He’d already moved up to Leeds by then and was determined that on his next visit home he’d out himself to his parents. Which as he soon discovered was easier said than done. That weekend at his parent’s was an agonising series of missed opportunities. In the end he left it so late that Sunday dinner was his final chance to utter the two tiny words that had been wedged under his tongue all weekend.
After father has said grace, he decided. One mumbled “amen” later Robert felt it still wasn’t quite the right moment. Once he’s carved the chicken, he thought, I’ll do it then. When that came and went without any proclamation either Robert updated his plan, when one of them uses the salt cellar, then after that, when someone takes extra potatoes. On and on it went, revision after revision for the duration of the meal.
In the end he blurted it out when his mother returned from the kitchen with an enormous trifle. He waited for her to put it on the table before clearing his throat and forcing out the words “I’m gay,” after which he let out a huge sigh, “there I’ve said it now, I’m gay”. Both fixed him with expressions of confusion, as if he’d told them using sign language. He thought perhaps they hadn’t heard him, perhaps he’d mouthed the words but they hadn’t left his lips. “Mum, dad, I’m gay,” he repeated feeling light-headed. His mother came over and put her arms around him, while his father did what he always did in times of upheaval and silently removed himself to the shed at the end of the garden.
“Your dad’ll come round,” his mother promised on the train platform. But he never did, and now with his father gone and his mother teetering on the edge of lucidity, Robert dreaded the inevitable point when she would ask something along the lines of “when are you going to give me some grandchildren I can spoil?”
The first few times that happened he gently reminded her why he was unlikely to be getting anyone pregnant in the near future. Eventually though he changed tack and just played along with what she said, more to escape the boredom of having the same conversation over and over again than anything else.
“I haven’t got a girlfriend at the moment, mum.”
“Course you do. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes. Bring her with you. We can go for a walk along the seawall. Show her the sights.”
Robert let’s this sink in for a second, trying to think just what ‘sights’ Canvey Island has to offer. The caravan park, the arcades or the key-cutting kiosk perhaps? We’ll never be able to cram it all into two days, he thinks, before chiding himself for being so mean. “If I was seeing someone I’d bring them down, you know that, mum.”
“I look forward to meeting her.”
“Okay, alright look, I’ve got to dash now. Let’s have no more talk of men following you around okay.”
“You’ll let me know when your train gets in?”
“I’ll give you a call tomorrow. No more bothering the police, yeah.”
“Love you mum.”
“Love you too Robert.”
He hangs up the phone and Florence is alone again. He’s a good boy, she thinks, we did well with him. Sneaking a quick peek out of the window she is pleased to see that the car park is almost empty. I’ll need to get the second best china out of the sideboard, she thinks, give it the once over. Have to go to the shops too, he’ll be wanting daddies sauce, and some of that bread with the bits in that he likes, what’s its name?
The sound of her neighbour slamming his front door shut flushes all thoughts of Robert’s visit from her mind. Pushing the yellowing net curtain to one side she watches the man she suspects is a Soviet spy as he walks along his garden path. To the untrained eye he looks and acts like an ordinary person, that’s how they fool everyone, she thinks, it’s their special training. As he walks past he sees her standing at her lounge window and gives a friendly wave, nodding and smiling at some undisclosed joke. Florence wants to wave back, keep up the pretence, but instead finds herself slowly edging away from the window. It’s not right, she thinks, I know his game. Her eyes follow him up the road until he is out of sight.
The street lights flicker to life and she watches as they catch all the way along Futherwick Road. It’s not safe here, she thinks as she pulls the heavy curtains shut. “When did Robert say he was coming down?” she asks herself, trying her hardest to think back through the conversation they just had. Should have written it down, you’re always forgetting things, should have written it down, she thinks. This weekend? Not tomorrow, definitely not tomorrow. What day is it today? Monday, Tuesday? The bin men were here… oh when was that now? They come on… Thursday’s isn’t it? You know what, it might have been tomorrow thinking about it now, he did say something about that. I’ll need to get to the shops before he comes, buy some of that special bread he likes.
The chiming of the carriage clock informs Florence that in half an hour Neighbours will begin. Despite her lack of appetite she knows it’s time for dinner. Finish off them pilchards with a couple of slices of toast, she decides as she switches on the television set.
Picking up her lunch tray she makes her way down the hall towards the kitchen, pausing for a moment by her bedroom. Woggle rushes past without her noticing, turns and watches her from beside his empty food bowl. Her bedroom door is locked and has been for the past three months, ever since she woke up to find that the room had been rearranged while she slept. Since then she has slept in Robert’s old room on the other side of the house.
Listening at the door she hears nothing. She gives the draught excluder a gentle nudge with her foot, checking it’s still in place before continuing on to the kitchen. After feeding Woggle she notices that the pilchards she planned to eat are gone from the fridge. Confused at first, it doesn’t take long for Florence to work out what has happened. That’s why he was laughing, she realises. Nervously she checks the back door and is surprised to find it locked. It’s their special training, they can get in and out without anyone knowing.
Perhaps Robert will let me stay for a couple of weeks, just until Christmas. I could cook him dinner, Betty can look after Woggle. We can watch The Bill, I’ll wear my green coat, I won’t be any trouble, I’ll do the shopping, I know what he likes, make Christmas dinner, chicken, not turkey, I’ll need to get my suitcase down from the loft, we can watch Minder.
Florence takes down a can of soup from the cupboard, checking the label to see what flavour it is. Wedging it into the wall-mounted opener she begins the laborious process of opening it. At first she thinks the shooting pain in her left arm is due to her holding the can too tightly, so instinctively she loosens her grip a little. It’s only with the second jolt of pain that she realises what is happening. The soup slips form her hand as she takes two steps backwards, reaching out to steady herself on the wall behind her as she does so. The soup can hits the counter-top then falls onto its side, an arc of red spilling out across the worn formica. The wall isn’t where it should be.
Another shooting pain, this time in her legs. It takes a few moments for Florence to realise that she has fallen and is now on her back. The pain in her arm is so intense that her jaws are seared together. She tries to call for help but the words won’t come. Her eyes fill with tears. I don’t want to die, she thinks.
Trying to get back up on her feet brings only more torment. She moves her head to see if she can see anything that might help her. There is nothing though. Another lightning streak of agony rips through her. Florence’s right hand is gripping her left shoulder, the pain is immense, thousands of volts of agony running through her body, she gasps and screws her eyes up tight, forcing her tears out and down the creases of her face. The telephone is too far away to reach. She lays on the cold kitchen floor and watches the soup run down between the cooker and the cupboard next to it.
Another spasm, then another, she takes a deep breath, fighting to get air into her lungs. Finally she gives in to the truth that she is going to die all alone on her kitchen floor. Poor Robert, how will he cope without his mum? Poor Robert. I don’t want him to see me like this. She thinks of her Norman, all decked out in his demob suit, asking her if she wanted to dance and then walking her home. The swishing sound of her dress as they walked. She wishes she believed in God, that this wasn’t the end.