A Nod to Alan Bennett

Heavily inspired by that great series of works collectively known as Talking Heads which were first shown on the BBC some years back, I began writing my own monologues, the characters in which are probably as non-empathetic as they come, but then I've never been one to bow down to the notion of writers having to portray 'sympathetic characters' which the reader can relate to. After all, the darker side of human nature exists so why pretend it doesn't? But as I could never hope to achieve the standard of writing Bennett displayed when compiling Talking Heads, and have merely written these for fun, I have decided rather than tucking my little plays away in some forgotten corner of my hard drive, I would post them here. Well, why not? What's another blog between friends - even if those friends will sometimes feature, albeit in a rather warped, distorted sense.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

1. A Work In Progress

Scene 1

The Garden


Mid summer. Jane, a trim, presentable woman in her forties, tidily dressed, is leaning against a garden wall, contemplating the view.

The grass looks almost silver in the wind. Blown flat against the ground, it shimmers like a far away ocean, its gentle waves catching the morning light.

Seeing it this way, I can almost forget its imperfections; those dreadful weeds I can never seem to shift, those ghastly bare patches... one can hardly call it a lawn. And as for those so-called miracle garden cures, I sometimes think they do more harm than good. A lush, green manicured lawn? The envy of your neighbours? Well, Jane, I often tell myself, I guess you should be thankful. The ones on the other side of the fence wouldn't know their dandelions from their dahlias and the others - wasters by all accounts, professional scroungers - they've only gone and bought that artificial turf. And when I say bought, I really mean acquired. Still, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't mind had it been laid by someone who knew what was what and took the time to do a decent job, but not only can you still see the creases from where it was folded - most likely stored for months in the back of some filthy van - you can see right under them too! Well all I can say is I'm glad I planted those perennials, they help distract the eye.

Strange that the young never notice these things. To all intents and purposes, grass to them is simply grass, and depending on its length, something to play on - or in. Take my daughters, for instance; Mercedes, she's the eldest, and Phoenix, 10 months younger, so near enough her twin, when they were small they seemed to take great delight in destroying what lawn I had, digging in their heels playing chase, trampling my flower beds, no thought for the plants, and then when Starla came along, she was just the same - made infinitely worse by her sisters who, considering the four year gap, would surely have long outgrown such behaviour had her infantile presence not catapulted them back to that dreadful childish stage.

Of course, now that they're in their teens they're forever dragging out blankets, wrecking the grass even more as they laze around with their friends, snacking and drinking and wrestling like untamed cubs. I'm fairly certain that laurel's seen quite a bit of action too, considering the state it was in following the night of Mercedes' s 19th. Not that I like to think about that, especially when it comes to my girls, but there's a world of difference between a flower bed and one designed for human exchange, however casual and impulsive it might happen to be.

Of course, I daren't complain. I've tried it before and they simply laugh - "Oh Mum, you're so old. You're turning into Granny"- Well, there's no denying my age, although to be fair, 49 is a far cry from 88 and when it comes to maintaining a sense of decency, not to mention all things green, my mother's far more obsessed than me.

No, for me, the garden's just a work in progress, much the same as the house. When inside I'm always looking ahead, thinking what I can do to improve it, be it a shelf here and there, a fresh coat of paint in the bedroom, a carpet for the lounge. My husband, Frank, on the other hand, never sees the need. "The kitchen's fine as it is. Why do we need new flooring?" But then, he'd much rather spend his days off watching the football or browsing the net for hours on end than do anything remotely constructive. He's taken to sleeping a great deal too. Oh, don't get me wrong, he'll lend a hand when pressed, but by the time he gets round to one job, I've already another dozen lined up, so nothing's ever really complete if you see what I mean. But then, I suppose nothing in life ever is.

It's funny when I think about change. Essentially, I don't like it at all, but then when it's gradual and slow, a natural progression, I rarely, if ever, look back. Pauline, a friend, or rather an acquaintance, who's a similar age to myself asked me not so long ago if I didn't miss the kids being babies. After all, she said, they'd grown up so fast I was bound to find myself wishing for those times they were still in their prams or cutely toddling around, getting up to all sorts of innocent mischief. Her sons were all grown, she explained, and despite being a granny, as much as she loved her new role, it somehow just wasn't the same. Of course, I smiled and nodded in agreement as one tends to do with someone they barely know, but truth was, I didn't miss it one bit. I was glad the children were older. The girls were at the stage they were meant to be at. Why on earth would I want to go back and effectively undo the past? Surely this made as little sense as removing all my decorative stone from the front of the house and replanting the weeds? Still, from what I recall, pulling those weeds was pretty therapeutic and though I say it myself, I did do a wonderful job.

Indeed, all things considered, my life's been quite a success. The girls, for all their faults, are at least on track, working hard at college and school. They've all got direction - which is more than can be said for some - and all they've got relatively decent friends, most of whom give myself and my home the respect it deserves - the desecration of the laurel being one of those unfortunate rare incidents I'm still trying hard to ignore. There's only one thing that bothers me on occasion, but mostly when I hear other mums, and that's the fact that I never seemed to play with the girls much when they were little. I somehow never knew how. Still, Frank made up for it there, him providing the laughs whilst I concentrated on the practicalities, so I guess things worked out fairly well.

Anyway, time to get on. There's only so long one can sit outside watching the grass.



Scene 2

The Home Office


Jane is sitting at a desktop computer, contemplating some text on the screen.

I'll never understand these so-called writers. I mean, look at this. Who on earth would submit an article for publication and not even think to put a capital letter at the start? And what's this supposed to be? "The reason for the derailment (spelled without an i) was obvious. The driver acted legally." (one l) Well, that's an automatic rejection for sure.

Mind you I have seen worse. Take that piece I came across a couple of months back. I was 500 words in before I realised that the inclusion of the phrase 'bum treats in parliament' did not suggest an article about gay goings on in the shadow cabinet as I'd first thought, but rather the ever present possibility of terrorist attacks i.e. bomb threats.

(pauses to click the screen.)

I must say, though, I do love my work, and better still, I can do it at my leisure, fitting it in around all the domestic chores. Of course, working from home never pays quite as well as other jobs might, but when the work's available it can provide a relatively decent income. I'm also extremely fortunate to have found this. To think I'd spent years struggling to have articles of my own accepted, then suddenly, just as Starla entered high school, I came across this online publication whose editor liked my work so much that within six weeks he was offering me me a junior editorial position - proof reading mainly - but I can use my discretion to improve and enhance as and when I see fit. Not bad for someone without the necessary qualifications. Still, judging by some of these works, I can only assume that the boss was only too glad to offload the bulk of the drivel or risk going prematurely bald!

Last Christmas, as a token of his appreciation, he sent me this gorgeous box of chocolates - must have cost him a bomb. All beautifully wrapped and continental - and the taste! Talk about divine! Of course, they completely wrecked my diet - and as for Starla's fit of envy, well that was a sight to behold. I did try to tell her that yes it was fair I kept them to myself. After all, it was my gift which I had earned and the reason she wasn't allowed them was plain. She had a ballet show coming up, not to mention the chance of a scholarship, and how would she look in a leotard if she gained any extra weight? She stomped off in the huff as teenagers do and continued to sulk right throughout Christmas, even refusing her dinner as a result. This, of course, made for a dreadful atmosphere at Mother's table. Didn't I know she had grown that asparagus especially? And what was all this about Starla needing to lose weight? She looked fine as she was - like a nice juicy apple... Still, it was a thoughtful gift, and there was no way anyone could have known the trouble it would cause.

You know, I think I deserve a drink. (stands to open a wall mounted cabinet and pours a glass of brandy from a decanter) That's the beauty of this office, it gives me a little place of my own where I can work and think and where everything I need is at hand. Nobody disturbs me either, not anymore, not since I finally persuaded Frank to put a lock on the door. Of course, it's not perfect. I could do with a more comfortable chair, perhaps a little sofa bed too, though I doubt that would ever fit in. Still, if I rearranged the desk... I wonder... (ponders for a moment then moves towards the door, which she unlocks and opens before calling out.)

Frank! Frank!

Why's he never around when I need him these days?


Scene 3

The Home Gym


Jane is on an exercise bike, cycling as she speaks.

I never used to be into fitness, never saw the need. After all, when the girls were young, I was constantly on my feet, walking them back and forth to playgroup, then nursery, then school, not to mention all those extra curricular activities; ballet on a Saturday, drama on a Sunday, swimming on various days of the week, and several clubs and sports in between. They never went anywhere by car, except on the odd occasion when Frank was around.

Of course, later on, they simply walked themselves, which was great. Far be it from me to stifle their independence like those over-protective, clingy mums you see on a daily basis driving their 10 year olds, not merely to school, but right into the playground too, in spite of the fact they've got legs and often a great deal more sense than their parents themselves.

Unfortunately, the downside of this did eventually became apparent. Because I was no longer running around, and considering the sedentary nature of my job, I did gain weight. In fact, I put on quite a few pounds. So action - as they say - was required.

The diet came first, then this. Not that I asked Frank to build me a gym. Indeed, the thought never crossed my mind. It was actually the girls' idea, Phoenix in particular. Always the sporty type - and I can put that down to all those extra curricular activities – she was constantly harping on about the price they charged in town for an hour's workout and wouldn't it be good if we could have some equipment at home and somewhere to store it? Maybe Dad could section off part of her bedroom?

Well, to my utter amazement, Frank was right on task and the room was complete in no time - and I must say it's been well used these past couple of years. Phoenix naturally takes the lead where the equipment's concerned, treadmill, weights, you name it, but then she is aiming for a career in fitness, so it's only right she knows all the tricks. Mercedes also comes in on occasion, less so recently I've noticed, but I guess she's been busy learning lines or whatever else drama students do with their time. As for me, well I'm in here every day like clockwork. 10 minutes on the treadmill, 15 on the bike. I prefer it when no one's around. Self conscious? Well, maybe just a little... still. (exhausted gasp, stops cycling)

Right, that's me. Shower, change and back to the edits, though I might just hop on the scales just to see. I know it's not the right day, but I did have that drink last night - and a couple of savoury biscuits - so no harm in facing my demons. That way I keep on track.

(Jane slides off the bike and walks towards the window, leaning against the sill.)

"You worry too much, Jane," Frank always says. "You're fine as you are." But then I catch him looking, weighing me up so to speak, and knowing I've still got lumps and bumps which will never shift, I can tell he's lying - at least in part.

We don't have sex anymore either. Not that I mind about that. I mean, we're hardly in the first flush of youth and the thought of having our daughters hear us through the wall rather puts me off. Besides, it all seems rather silly now, like those party games I've always despised, grown men and women standing in line passing fruit to one another between their knees. I dare say if they saw themselves, they'd never do it again. Not that I've ever watched myself having sex. Even in the early days I was never quite that experimental.

Mind you, Frank did make a comment the other day which could have been construed as somewhat suggestive. I was wearing a dress I'd recently bought from the supermarket; red, neatly shaped, with short sleeves and shoulder pads. Shoulder pads, would you believe! Just the sort of thing I would have worn in the 80's, so at the risk of appearing like a dubious ad for a popular brand of cereal, I couldn't resist.

"It's nice to see you in red again," he said. "But get any thinner and you'll have no boobs left... Not that I see them anymore." Then he winked.

OK, so he was obviously being flirtatious, but considering how much weight Frank had lost over the past few months, and without any trying, I couldn't help but think such a comment was rich coming from him. I told him as much too. Think of it this way, I said, Pauline's husband takes your size in clothes, so how come he's three stone heavier?

Frank merely shrugged, then skulked away back to his computer, completely ignoring the fact that the skirting in the hallway needed varnished, a job I'd been asking him to do for several weeks.

I did it myself in the end. After all, it's like Frank says - he's done enough DIY to last him a lifetime - and I'm not exactly unable now, am I?

(Jane pauses, turning further towards the window, looking out.)

You get a good view of the garden from up here. The roses are looking particularly nice and even those patches in the lawn seem a little less bare at a distance.

The girls were out there yesterday, on their blankets as usual, topping up their tans. I watched them for a while after being on the bike. I mean, given the heat was so exhausting, I couldn't really do much else but open up the window and try and catch the breeze. I could hear them talk. Silly chatter mainly, some inane discussion about babies names, but it put me in mind of the last time I took Starla shopping. Oh, it must have been three or four years ago now, before the days of their monthly allowance, which I know now is a far more sensible and convenient way of controlling their expenses - saves them asking for this and that, with me having to constantly juggle the budget or accompany them to the shops in order that they don't overspend.

Anyway, it was on this particular occasion Starla started rambling on about how she wished she had a baby brother. Of course, I told her in no uncertain terms, this was not going to happen. I was far too old to be having more babies. Besides, I never wanted a boy. Three girls were quite enough. "But Bobbie's mum's just had one. She's about your age - and there's eight of them." But Bobbie's mum's an irresponsible slut, I almost replied. Of course, I stopped myself in time, explaining instead that Bobbie's family was 'different' to ours and that Starla should be grateful. After all, Bobbie's mother couldn't afford to send her daughters to ballet or even the corner shop, when it came to that.

"Mum," Starla said, suddenly changing tack. "Whose your favourite celebrity?" Simon Cowell, I told her - and 'yes I'd have his baby, just think of the maintenance'.

It was then I realised my days of animal passion were behind me. I mean, when water features on the lawn and gold taps in the bathroom start taking precedence in such fantasies - what other explanation could there be?

Baby names... ( rolls eyes) I mean, really!. And there was me thinking they were nearly grown up.



Scene 4

The Bedroom


Jane is dressed in a household apron, hair tied back, wearing minimal make-up and looking drawn. She is polishing surfaces a little too keenly and is surrounded a number of cardboard boxes and bin bags. She suddenly stops cleaning, though the polish and cloth remain in her hands, the expression on her face distant and blank.

*Mercedes is pregnant." I was in the garden at the time pulling weeds. "Did you hear what I said, Mum? Mercedes is pregnant."

I felt quite dizzy when I stood up, but I don't suppose Phoenix noticed, and I remember thinking I must get my blood pressure checked - either that or buy one of those monitors from the chemists. Apparently they don't cost much and they do save all the hassle of booking an appointment to be seen two weeks later by which time, of course, everything's back to normal and you needn't have bothered at all.

"What do you mean - pregnant? How?"

Phoenix just looked.

"It wasn't that boy who broke my laurel, was it? Because if it was I'll..."

I stopped then, thinking to myself, I'll what? Go round and give him a peace of my mind? Demand that he pay for the damage? Oh, and by the way you've got a baby on the way, another dirty rascal with hooligan genes. Well, goodness knows he must have been lacking in class to even think that what he did was remotely OK. The fact that alcohol was involved bore no excuse, although it did help explain my daughter's unfortunate actions, for surely she would never have been so incredibly careless had she not so plainly over indulged.

"No, Mum, it wasn't him. And quite honestly, who it was doesn't matter. She doesn't care about him. It's the baby Mercedes wants."

What she wants! Well, if I hadn't heard a more ridiculous statement in my life. How could this possibly be what she wanted? She was 19, for goodness sake, at drama school studying to be an actress! What was this, some hair-brained way of getting into character? Not that I knew of any credible works which required an expectant female lead, not unless she was planning to audition for a part in the annual nativity.

"Speak to her, Mum. It's fine, really. You'll see."

So in I went, leaving the weeds as they were, in an sightly heap on the lawn, and ventured upstairs into this room which has been hers for, oh I don't know how many years, and until today hadn't seen sight nor sign of a duster in weeks. She lay there, quite the thing as if nothing had changed, earphones in, tapping away on her mobile and singing along to something stupid as usual... a song by some new fangled girl group that's always on the radio these days. And I tried to talk to her, I did, but she wasn't very forthcoming and all I could think was how could she even consider bringing a baby into this house when she couldn't be bothered to hang up her clothes and when her room was in such a tip.

So that's what I'm doing now - cleaning up the mess and sorting things out.

Of course, it was left to me to tell Frank - which I did. I mean, what was the point in keeping it a secret? What was done was done and he'd find out soon enough, though part of me was still hoping he'd know what to do, especially when it came to making our daughter see sense with regards to naming the father and making some sort of plan in accordance with his means. After all, the last thing I wanted was to have Mercedes become just another single, teenage mum with no prospects.

I found him glued to the computer as usual, engrossed in a medical website, a fact I found quite ironic at the time. Mercedes is pregnant, I said. "Well, I can't say I'm surprised” he replied, never once taking his eyes from the screen. "Still, she's not a child. I'm sure she'll cope."

It was hardly the reaction I expected. Cope! I didn't want her to cope. I wanted our daughter to continue on her chosen path, to get her grades, to have a career, and only then to get married and have children - not before!

In any case, I remember saying something to that effect and that's when Frank started crying. I was about to say, OK, I know it's bad but it's not that bad and how could he possibly be so weak? Besides I never could bear to see a man acting in such an undignified manner.

"I'm dying, Jane," he told me. "Seems I've only got six months to live."

(Long pause as Jane stares blankly into the distance, after which, polish and cloth still in hand she resumes scrubbing wildly at the surface without really looking.)

I don't know why I bought this polish. It really has a ghastly smell. It remind me of...

(slows down, then stops and bites her lip) ...hospitals...


Scene 5

The Kitchen


Winter. Jane enters the kitchen wearing a wool coat, gloves and hat which she then removes. She hangs the coat on a chair and sits down. Placing the hat and gloves to one side, she fiddles with these absentmindedly throughout the scene. The surfaces are cluttered and there are dirty dishes in the sink.

I got a call from the school this morning. Starla, they informed me, had collapsed. Could I come in and fetch her?

“Well, how bad is she?” I asked. “Should you not call an ambulance?”

“Oh, no, she's fine now. She came round quite quickly and is resting up in the medical room.”

“But you still want me to come and get her?”

“Yes, if you wouldn't mind.”

Well, suffice to say, I did mind. Not only is Starla's school a good fifteen miles away, I also had no means of transport. Frank's not exactly in any fit state to drive and Phoenix was at college. Not that she can legally drive yet in any case, but she is taking lessons. Her way of helping out, she said, should an emergency arise. Well, fat lot of use that is when they won't let her sit her test.

I tried to explain, but the woman on the other end of the phone, the secretary I imagine, was having none of it.

“You do know my husband's terminally ill,” I said. “And someone has to be here to tend to his needs?”

Alright, so it wasn't exactly true. When he isn't sleeping, Frank still spends most of time at the computer and manages quite well pottering around. Of course, he does have the odd little accident, which is only to be expected I'm told. Still, I've invested in some rubber sheeting and a chair cover which helps – and I did manage to persuade the nice young man who delivered my bed-settee to move my desk round a bit so it does fit quite well into my office. I mean, what with Frank's moaning and groaning, not to mention all the rest, I could hardly go on sleeping in our bed with him now, could I?

“Yes, we do understand,” the woman continued. “But all the more reason for you to come in. You see, there are a few issues Starla's head of year would like to discuss which may relate to your husband's condition.”

Now, what this had to do with Starla fainting, I simply couldn't fathom, still, as she wasn't taking no for answer I said I'd do my best, even though the next bus wasn't for an hour and it would be near enough lunchtime before I'd actually manage to get to the school.

So, I finished off what I was doing – well those articles wouldn't edit themselves - tidied myself up and called a taxi – expensive perhaps, but rather that than have to suffer that god awful journey on public transport, with all the old dears with their free concessions stopping at every midden and discussing everything from bunions to bingo, with World War 2 woes in between.

Unfortunately, what I didn't bargain on was the driver knowing Frank.

“So you're Frank's missus! How is he these days? Still working himself into an early grave, I bet.” And he laughed.

“Actually,” I told him, “He's given up work due to the fact he's got cancer.” And no, I explained, it wasn't curable.

Of course, the driver spent the remainder of the journey saying how sorry he was, like as not wishing he'd taken an early lunch. Still, at least he saw fit to knock a decent amount off the fare.

When I got to the school, Starla was no longer in the medical room. Apparently she'd insisted on joining her friends for lunch, then gone back to class. I was just thinking what a hideous waste of time that was, and was about to head back outside when her head of year, Mr Fowler, came running up behind me in the corridor insisting we had 'a word'.

“Is everything alright at home?” he asked and then apologised for his lack of tact because obviously he knew everything wasn't and that was a thoughtless thing to say. “What I mean is,” he continued.”How's Starla coping? Do you find her withdrawn? Is she able to talk about her feelings regarding her father's condition?”

I felt like asking what business was it of his? His job was surely to see Starla passed her exams, not to pry into matters that didn't concern him, but I didn't. I merely said, “Well naturally Starla's upset, what girl wouldn't be under the circumstances?”

“It's just that, now how do I put this,” he proceeded to loosen his tie and I could see he was nervous. “A few of Starla's teachers – as well as some of her friends - are rather worried as to the reason why she might have fainted. Don't get me wrong, it's not uncommon for girls her age to collapse due to all the hormonal changes, however, it has been suggested that she might not be eating as well as she should – and I was wondering – do you have any similar concerns yourself?”

Of course, I knew exactly what he was inferring. But just because my daughter had finally lost a few pounds and got down to a reasonable weight, that was hardly reason to suppose she was in any way anorexic. I mean, the very idea was ridiculous. Besides, if she chose not to eat that muck they served up at school, she could hardly be blamed. She was bound to notice the difference in quality between the food that I kept in my fridge and that which the education department liked to pass off as 'healthy options'. If you ask me, their changing the menus was far more to do with cutting costs than it ever was promoting their pupils' health.

“No,” I told Mr Fowler. “As far as I'm aware, Starla's eating habits are really quite normal, but to put your mind at rest, I will ensure she comes to school with a well-packed lunchbox from now on.”

I must say he looked a little shocked at my response and the conversation ended with him apologising yet again, saying he hadn't meant to offend me and he really only had Starla's best interests at heart.

Of course, all this has left me wondering should I have really said what I did. I mean, what do I put in her lunchbox? As is evident from the state of the kitchen, the girls are so used to making their own food, I no longer know. I suppose I'll ask the others to lend a hand there... and keep an eye on Starla just in case. It's high time they did these dishes as well. I could do it myself, but trying to keep anything tidy these days is virtually impossible.

I mean, look at all those boxes – bottles and tins of formula, a sterilising unit – all presents from Mercedes' friends for when the baby arrives - as if no one's willing to wait. Then there's Frank's medication. Well, when I say medication, it's more of a herbal remedy, plant extracts, anti-oxidants, that sort of thing. He got it on the internet – three months supply for near enough three month's wages. Still, he swears it makes him feel better. The placebo effect, if you ask me, but if he thinks it helps.

The girls call it his elixir of life. Apparently they used to play a computer game with animated characters who drank something like it to extend their life by three days at a time. Frank jokes that if that was the case he'd go on forever. I don't know how he can laugh. I mean, I can't imagine what it must be like, knowing that soon that'll be it, the end of... well everything. No - hard as I try - I can never imagine that.

(pause)

The nurse comes in every day now to give Frank an injection. She's been coming a while and is thinking of upping the dose. I try to keep out of the way, though. After all, there's only so much pseudo sympathy I can take. All that 'don't worry, I understand. It must be so hard.' What she really means is, 'I deal with people like you every day, and a lot of them like a shoulder to cry on, so here, help yourself, but only because it's my job'. Pound to a penny, she'll be clocking off at 5 and out on the razzle with her mates, smoking, drinking and calling her patients names behind their backs. Oh, yes, I know. I had a friend in the profession once.

Evelyn, she was called, and she worked on the children's ward when Mercedes and Phoenix were small. One of the toddlers from their playgroup contracted salmonella. Now, OK, so the parents weren't exactly middle class and hardly what you'd call tidy, and really I had nothing to do with them, but because I vaguely knew who they were, Evelyn would talk to me about the boy's condition and say what a disgrace it was that neither the mother nor father would stay with him overnight that when they did come in they were dressed so shabbily, she was embarrassed to think she was acquainted with them at all – and all the other nurses agreed. Did it matter that this couple had other children at home and both had to work? Apparently not.

The caring profession? Hmpph. If there's one thing I can't bear it's hypocrisy.

Take Frank's sister – religious nut, drives the community bus. Hadn't shown face for years, but on hearing her brother was ill, she turns up, tissue in one hand, prayer book in the other. 'll pray for you, Jane,' she tells me,.'Just as I'm praying for Frank. And, of course, if there's ever anything you need...'

'Well, actually,” I felt like saying, “You could offer to take Phoenix out for a few lessons, help speed up her test.” But then I thought, why bother, she'd probably tell only me that if the Lord saw fit and I prayed hard enough, he would take care of that.

Frank doesn't want a religious burial, but he hasn't told his family. I guess that'll be up to me. Same as I'll have to eventually break the news to Mother. As yet, she doesn't even know that Frank's ill. Given her age, I suppose I thought there was always the chance that she might just go before him – I really don't know why - she's as strong as an ox and if anyone's going to get a telegram from the Queen, it'll be her. Besides, it was awkward enough having to explain about Mercedes. An unmarried mother was one thing, but an unmarried mother who didn't know or care who the father of her child might be was quite something else.

In the end I decided to tell her that Mercedes did have a young man with good prospects, which I rather hope explains the fact as to why he's never around, the phrase 'away on business' suddenly becoming all too commonplace in our conversations and one which, in spite of the circumstances, Mercedes and her sisters appear to consider something of an inside joke.

In fact, even Frank seems to find this funny. I often hear him and the girls chuckling away – almost like nothing was wrong. And it reminds me of when they were little, hearing them through the wall playing away while I worked, used to the fact – too used, some might say - that I'd never, ever join in.

(Pause)

Still, I guess someone has to keep a level head. I mean, just look at all this mess... (Jane throws down her gloves and gets up from her seat, flapping around.) What I wouldn't give to get rid of those boxes and jars for once and for all.


Scene 6

The Garden


Early spring. Jane, dressed smartly in black, is leaning against the garden wall.

I'm afraid the garden's gone all to seed. Even next door's dandelions are starting to look good in comparison. But then I suppose I've been busy these past few weeks; all those trips to the hospital back and forth - Frank got too poorly to stay at home in the end - then there were all those dealings with the undertakers and solicitors and finally, today, the funeral itself. Frank wasn't wrong when he said six months.

Of course, we did try; the prescription drugs, those silly alternative therapies, even the thought of seeing his first grandchild providing the will to live. Which just goes to prove what I've thought all along -.no matter how much you might want to believe it - there's no such thing as a miracle cure.

I really need to get to grips with this lawn. Mow down the grass, pull up the weeds and deal with the worst of the patches, but I don't like coming out for too long. I find the neighbours' sympathy hard to take.

The ones with the artificial grass came over before, him all covered in tattoos, her with a great unsightly piercing, which rather made me think there must be a Spanish bull out there somewhere missing its ring.

"Just wanted to say, we're really sorry for your loss," he said and it was on the tip of my tongue to reply 'oh, what loss is that, then? The masonry drill you so obviously stole from our garden before we put up the fence?' But of course I didn't. I just smiled and said thanks and then I heard him swear as he about turned too quickly, tripping over the edge of that ridiculous turf.

Of course, she started scuttling around, telling him off for being so disrespectful, plainly unaware that the language she used was no better, all the while kicking and slapping at the ground as though it were some loathsome green, shaggy dog.

The others haven't said much, but I still see the looks they give me. Even Pauline - always chatty before - now treats me more like a stranger, one who might take offence if she happened to say the wrong thing. But I think she's more put out by the fact that we kept the funeral private - just Frank's family – we decided to include a hymn or two in order to keep the peace - a couple of his closest friends, the girls and Mother, though really she'd have been better staying away.

(loudly) "When my time comes, get me something bio-degradable. Do you know how long it takes for a coffin like that to rot?" They were lowering Frank's body at the time.

Still, there was no denying Mother was upset. Before Frank got really bad, and naturally without her knowing about his condition, he decided to pay her an impromptu visit. He ended up doing several jobs, turning over her compost, hauling an extremely heavy recycling bin onto the road, climbing onto the roof to replace her wind damaged aerial. He came home, drained and exhausted, barely able to move, but he'd do it again tomorrow he said, if only he was able - though I think this had more to do with my mother's age than his actual desire to work.

I always wondered how Mother would feel when she realised, but oddly enough, she never mentioned it at all. Indeed, what she did mention, and what seemed to prick her conscience the most was the time before that, before anyone knew Frank was ill, when, due to her inability to work the DVD I'd bought her for her birthday, he'd driven across to offer his help, which on this occasion merely involved pressing a single key on the remote.

"Poor Frank. If only I'd I'd known."

Of course, all the pretence about Mercedes didn't help either.

(loudly) "So your young man's away on business? Hmph, you don't fool me, young miss. We had a word for girls like you in my day."

Well, Mother never was one to mince her words.

Talking of which, I must get back to my edits. Stan doesn't have a clue about the past few months and that's the way I want it to stay. See, that's the beauty of internet relationships, you can keep them as real as you wish - or not as the case may be - and I now understand why so many people choose to live out their lives online. Besides, I like to work, if only for my own peace of mind. The girls have got each other, after all. While I - well, I don't really have that, now do I?

(long pause)

I'd like to buy a fountain and put it right in the centre of the lawn, but there's no one here to build it... Perhaps I'll get some loungers, or a swing set for the little one instead.


The End