I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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More and more wounded or abandoned creatures were showing up on the streets. It was becoming difficult to manage all the ones I’d taken in. Every time she visited, my granddaughter, Sarah, would complain about the incessant chirping and squawking in my sanctuary; she would point out that if I weren’t deaf, I would have been driven to distraction long ago — which was possibly true, but what did it prove?
Worse were the times she threatened to call the council, but I was certain — or, at least, fairly sure — that she wouldn’t actually go through with it.
In the meantime I needed more newspaper for the hutches. I never read the papers, not anymore, but there was no denying their use for soaking up the urine of small mammals. I had one I’d found in the neighbor’s recycling, but it wasn’t enough to line a hutch by itself.
My thoughts were interrupted by a flash of light at the front door. It was coming from the letter box, which was opening and closing. I walked down the hallway and saw Sarah’s mouth through the brass slot. I knelt down so I could see what she was saying: I am an excellent lip-reader, and most people are surprised by how well I can speak.
“Grandma, open the door.”
“I’m a little busy. Perhaps—”
“Grandma, open the door and let me in.”
Pulling open the door, I was met by my descendant, scowling through her thick makeup.
<<Nice to see you>> I signed. <<Surprise lovely>>
“You don’t even lock the door, do you?” she chastised, shaking out her daisy-print umbrella. I couldn’t help but notice the folder tucked under her arm.
<<You tea want?>>
Sarah said yes, and I filled a pan with water and placed it atop the kerosene stove. The mice watched from the corner. Never one to wait on ceremony, Sarah thrust the folder into my hands. Clearly she wanted me to open it, but I needed to tend the boil. In truth I was taking longer than was strictly necessary. It wouldn’t hurt her to wait.
There was always something with her, some new scheme she’d prepared for days on end. Last time it had been an attempt to convince me of the benefits of personal alarms for the elderly: I would wear a necklace with a big red button that I could push if someone broke into my home or I slipped in the shower.
I finally opened the folder, pulling out a pristine array of leaflets and brochures. The first depicted a disturbingly happy woman cradling a phone while smiling at a uniformed security guard. Never before had I seen anyone so pleased to be the victim of some sort of emergency.
“What nonsense,” I said, leafing through the carefully prepared assortment of security services and alarm systems.
Sarah placed a hand on my arm to get my attention. “This is serious. My friend Becca was mugged the other day. Mugged. And the police didn’t even show up. They say what with the trouble down south—”
I held up my hand, cutting her short.
“Sweetie,” I said, “this wouldn’t protect me from a burglar. And you might have noticed that I’ve lived my entire life without a ‘priority security system.’ Who would want to break into this place? What would they take? The animals? Or perhaps there are hundreds of young thugs just waiting to burst in and ravage a pensioner.”
This last comment caused Sarah to cringe. Well, I’m not going to stop talking about sex just because people like to pretend everyone past menopause is asexual.
“Brian and I have one, and it’s very good. Besides, you need some sort of protection. I know you think you can take care of yourself, but it’s not like when you were younger. Things have changed.”
“Sarah,” I replied while carefully pouring the tea, “when you’ve lived as long as I have, you come to realize that things are always changing.” I handed her a cup. It was ridiculous, this insistence that I fear the world outside my own front door.
<<Please consider>> she implored.
<<Fine>> I gestured, bringing two fingers to my face. <<I will try>>
“I love you, Grandma.”
“Sentimental.” I placed my own cup on the table before adding <<I love you too>>
She left before she’d even finished her tea. Sarah never stayed long, preferring to check up on me with brief visitations: a parole officer for the elderly.
Anyway, it was time to clean the hutches. The woman on the brochure stared up at me with unreasonable delight as I covered her face and her emergency necklace with sawdust.
Fancy thinking I couldn’t take care of myself when I cared for so many creatures. My life was a series of errands — constant excursions in search of food, bedding, medicines, toys — and neither distance nor weather ever kept me from these daily pilgrimages.
Now, as I made my way through the city to get cat food, the rain soaked me from ankle to scalp. I saw students stumbling along the slippery road with boxes in their hands. I remember thinking how strange it was, all those students going home so early.
Hard as it may be to believe, that had been me, once upon a time. Well, almost. I’d never been to university myself — at least, not officially — but nobody checked attendance in those cavernous lecture halls, and no one ever noticed me slipping in to lip-read lectures on one subject or another. If I could have focused my interests, I might have made the ideal scholar, but sadly my devotion to learning came in random, fleeting bursts as I hopped from class to class.
Still, that was how I became familiar with the campus. I came to know all its lecture halls and the various smells of its academic departments. My studies continued for years and years, and though they were wide-ranging, my real interest was in political action.
People seem to forget that the old may once have stood on picket lines, thrown eggs at windows, shouted at police officers. To them we have always just penned letters to politicians or moaned in post-office queues. If only they had seen me hurl paint at a car, they might view me differently. Very few old people are harmless. Very few people are harmless.
So many actions were planned on that campus, gestating in common rooms and dormitories. Some of my happiest times were spent locked arm in arm with my compatriots — and not just arms: politics can be a powerful aphrodisiac!
Even having a daughter didn’t stop me. She was an accident, but a happy one. Sling-bound, she joined me as I waved placards and marched until my feet were sore. Sure, sometimes people would give me a finger-wagging for bringing her along, but I always told them that children had to be part of the revolution, or it wouldn’t be a revolution at all.
As soon as my daughter could say no, she refused to come to those protests. She wanted dresses and makeup. It was my fault, of course. Who else had taught her to rebel? I’d wanted her to be my sister-in-arms, but she was my daughter, and even when she became a stay-at-home wife, I loved her all the same.
Everything changed with the car accident.
When the police came to my door, I thought they were there to arrest me. It wasn’t until I saw their down-turned faces, their obvious concern, that I realized something was wrong. Very wrong.
They asked if they could come in, and I said no, afraid of what they would say. So they stood there on my doorstep and told me my daughter was dead.
A country road. An oncoming truck. Old tires and black ice. That one instant took both her and her husband. A terrible tragedy.
The officers removed their hats — as if seeing their bared heads would make it easier for me. It wasn’t until they’d left, until I’d made a cup of tea and sat down, that it really struck me: She was dead. My beautiful, irritating, difficult daughter; the one I’d raised all by myself. I wailed and sobbed, spilling tears into my tea. Suddenly it all seemed so silly, those demonstrations and protests, fighting problems so far away you couldn’t even see them.
I would have fallen apart, but then who would have raised my six-year-old grandchild? Who would have cradled Sarah as she cried, her heart trying to grapple with adult pain? Death is a part of life, I told her, but it hurts. It hurts so much.
That was the death, too, of my visits to the university, to linking arms and minds and thighs. The world spun on without my watching. I was tired. A mother once again, and this time a grand one. It was then I brought home that first animal: a seagull with a broken wing. Sarah declared it diseased and refused to go near it. She took after her mother.
For the briefest moment, as I walked to get cat food, the sun peeked out through the gray tangle of clouds, causing the damp pavement to shimmer. At first I didn’t even notice the car pulling up alongside me.
Curses. She’d found me again.
Sarah rolled down the car window, beckoning me to get in so she could bring me to her house.
There was only one animal I didn’t like, and his name was Butterscotch. Yes, Butterscotch was friendly, but, for a start, Butterscotch was called Butterscotch. Not the dog’s fault, of course. I had always assumed the decision had been made by Sarah’s husband, Brian.
No, the problem with Butterscotch was his blandness. Butterscotch was perhaps the blandest dog I had ever met. He followed orders. He looked regal when sitting, healthy when running. He never barked unduly. As I watched him, seated next to my granddaughter, as neat as a figurine, not begging for table scraps, I suspected that Butterscotch had not, in fact, been born, but had rather materialized from the television set during a pet-food advertisement.
Then there was the fact that Butterscotch reminded me of Brian. One was a dog and the other a local government councillor, but both dog and owner had the same sandy-blond hair, the same guarded manner.
I was sitting at their kitchen table, staring out the window at the cheap, mock-Victorian houses across the street, when I noticed Brian was addressing me.
“Stella, I said, Would you like some more tea?” Brian asked, pot in hand, his face full of frustration.
I glanced at Sarah. “Brian,” she warned from across the table.
<<I not hear>> I signed. <<Deaf>>
“What did she say?” he asked his wife.
“She says she needs to look at you to understand you,” Sarah responded, doing her best to hide her desperation.
“I know that,” Brian responded. “But perhaps if she were paying attention while I was talking . . .” The last portion of his sentence dangled as his face grew angrier.
<<I appreciate beautiful dog>> I countered.
“She said she was admiring Butterscotch.”
I made sure to watch his response.
“She hates that bloody dog,” he said.
<<Animals I hate never>> I protested. <<Only tedious humans>>
“Gran!” Sarah said.
Oh, now, I wasn’t being judgmental toward the man. Or, rather, I was being judgmental, but not unnecessarily so. Brian was a relic, like most of the men I’d known when I was Sarah’s age. In the 1960s it was funny how men spoke of equality, but they spoke over us as they did so; how they agreed we had every right to get a job like they did, but they didn’t learn to cook and clean for themselves. I envy young women nowadays. No, they still aren’t equal, but their male friends and boyfriends and even husbands make men my age look like dinosaurs.
Except for Brian. My granddaughter grew up in a world I could only dream of, and yet who did she meet? Who did she let woo and pay for her, after we’d fought so hard to be taken seriously?
I saw Sarah give her husband a look, cueing him for something they’d rehearsed.
“How’re the pets?” he asked, as though the question were natural.
“They’re not pets,” I said. “I don’t own them.”
“I don’t know how you manage by yourself,” he continued. “Maybe it’s time to consider other options.”
“Well,” I said, “I manage.”
“There’s no shame in needing help. We all get old.”
“Are you calling me feeble? Because I’m in better shape than a lot of people, some of them much younger than me—”
“I give up,” Brian said to Sarah as he left the table. “The dog needs walking.”
Seeing his owner grasp his leash sent Butterscotch into paroxysms of elation. This was Brian’s usual routine when I irritated him: first he’d walk the dog for hours; then he’d spend the evening sipping resentful pints in the nearest pub. From my seat I could see the front door slam.
“What was that about?” I asked my granddaughter as she was driving me home. It was foggy, but I could see the cheap housing where there had been forest not twenty years before. “Tell me plainly, Sarah. I don’t know why you scheme so.”
We were brought to a halt, the road toward the city jammed with stalled vehicles. Some people stood outside their cars, jackets wet with drizzle as they stretched their legs or reprimanded their children.
“We’re worried about you in the city. Brian and I were talking, and we want you to come live with us.”
I watched two little girls play hopscotch in the center of the road, skipping across imaginary squares.
“Sarah, I can’t live with you. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”
She was not surprised, yet neither did she relent.
“Gran, pay attention. Things aren’t normal.”
“Nor should they ever be,” I replied. “Besides, I’ve enough food and fuel to see me through an apocalypse. Stop worrying about me.”
The line nudged on, a parade of red rear lights glimmering in the mist.
“You don’t understand.” Sarah rapped her fingers against the steering wheel. “You think that just because you’ve taken care of yourself so far, you can handle anything.”
There’s no arguing when you both agree: I certainly did believe that I could handle myself and would until the fateful day my mind or body finally gave out.
For now there was a cease-fire between us. The traffic moved slowly. Opening the glove compartment, Sarah retrieved a bag of boiled sweets, delicately selected one, and then carefully unfurled the wrapper. She offered me one, which I refused with a shake of my head.
“I think we should head back to my house,” she said. I had to focus to understand what she was saying because she was rolling the sweet around her mouth. She prepared to make a U-turn. “You can stay with us,” she insisted. “The spare bed’s already made. Otherwise we’ll be waiting here forever—”
“And what? I’ll just leave the animals to eat one another? Go home if you like. I’ll walk back.”
I got out of the car before she could argue, heading toward the city on foot.
It wasn’t just the animals. I was frightened of being forced from my home. My whole history was tattooed over those streets: avenues I’d marched down, parks I’d chased my toddler around, doorways where I’d huddled with lovers — those moments had etched themselves onto the skin of the city. I couldn’t just leave.
The line of cars was long, and by the time I reached the front, the cause of the commotion was clear: Barriers had been placed across the intersection, with green military vehicles alongside them. A small group of armed men were pulling open the doors of a white van, dragging its occupants to the ground. Feeling uneasy, I kept walking home.
It may be a hopelessly sentimental statement, but I belonged among fur and scales and feathers. Animals don’t care about our high-minded nonsense, and I loved them for it.
Once again it was time for the morning feedings: vegetable bits and grains for the mice and hamster; lettuce for the rabbits; grain for the chickens in the garden; pork, carrot, and collard greens for the miniature poodle, who had to be herded into the downstairs bathroom to eat without the cat noticing—
The cat food! I knew I’d forgotten something. I grabbed my purse and made my way to the shop, down streets that blazed with sunshine; streets that were empty of people. It was eerie. I fumbled in my pocket for my phone, bringing up Sarah’s number. We hadn’t spoken since I’d left her in the car.
Just my luck: no signal.
Well, if the world handed me strangeness, then I’d take whatever advantage I could, which meant walking right down the middle of a street usually clogged with traffic. There was luxury in the freedom to roam as I pleased. From the corner of my eye I saw one or two curtains twitch. A surprising number were drawn.
Maybe I should have expected that the corner shop would be closed, but I was baffled, and I continued my march toward the main street. I saw one person, and he scurried indoors before I had a chance to greet him.
Everything on the main street was closed. Most shops had the shutters down, though at the express supermarket they’d stuck partway, hanging in a drunken diagonal over the front entrance. I was about to go on toward the city center when I noticed that the window of the betting shop was shattered. The light of a security alarm blinked on and off. It must have been deafening.
I needed to talk to my granddaughter, but every time I checked my phone, there was still no signal. Nothing.
I don’t mind admitting I was frightened, standing there in the dead center of that lonely street. The cat would have to eat leftovers.
Being home felt only marginally better; even the animals seemed on edge. I locked the front door, and for the first time I regretted not having a television. I wondered if Sarah was safe. Was she hiding indoors like everyone else? My fretting propelled me about the house, doling out handfuls of sawdust and scooping up cat litter. I cleaned and stroked and brushed until there was nothing left to do.
I checked the phone: still no signal, but I could see the neighbor’s Internet connection. Holding my breath, I tried to connect. It worked.
Standing where the signal was strongest — in the hallway — I did what I’d avoided for so long: I checked the news, once again navigating the nonsense of the human world. I made my way through downed website after downed website. Of all the places I tried, only the BBC remained active, streaming updates on my tiny screen.
I read the subtitles. They were interviewing people on the street. Angry faces were raging about a conflict that had been caused by “them.” “Them” in London, “them” in Birmingham, “them” in Sheffield. I was confused, and it took me a while to realize the target of their anger: immigrants, minorities, foreigners.
I watched for hours. A placard was torn from a woman’s hands and stomped underfoot. The windows of political offices were shattered. The doors of a gay bar in Norfolk had been nailed shut. Looting and random attacks were occurring all around the country.
Still no phone signal. Alarming words crept across the screen: Vigilantes. Militia actions. Mosques were set aflame; bricks were hurled at refugees. The reporters kept using the words white working class.
I felt briefly hopeful when I saw footage of students linking arms and surrounding a synagogue, but then they were pelted with stones by skinheads. The army arrived with hoses and sprayed everyone indiscriminately, flinging people like rag dolls.
The following images may be distressing for some viewers.
I couldn’t recognize what the camera focused on next. There was a bright-blue sky, a street, and something else. My first instinct was that it was a statue of a man. But the man was made of flesh. His eyes were frozen in a vacant gaze. He was hanging from a lamppost, and he swayed with the breeze, his tattered shirt and trousers billowing. A sash with the words BRITAIN FIRST had been tied around him.
Oh, yes, I’ve seen corpses. Images on the news of dictators’ children; victims of natural disasters; drowned refugees drifting in the sea. My own daughter. But not this. Not hanging from a lamppost. Not on an ordinary street.
To think I’d prided myself on being internationally minded. A hand-holding citizen of the world, all peoples equal. But now I felt the truth: the hollow, grotesque, agonizing truth. I thought: Not here. Not in Britain. I, who’d once protested apartheid and war, was struck into silence by an image of something I’d seen happen many times to other people on other continents. Not here.
If I cried out, I couldn’t hear it.
My thoughts were interrupted by a sliver of light in the hallway. I saw Sarah’s lips through the letter-box opening. “Grandma.” I scrambled for the key and opened the door. She was holding Butterscotch. Her lip was quivering. I reached out, taking them both in my arms.
When we finally pulled apart, her cheeks were wet with tears. She spelled his name with shaking fingers.
Sarah had found Butterscotch wandering around a suburban intersection, his leash trailing between his legs. But we never did find Brian. Nor did we ever find out what had happened to him. Wrong place, wrong time. There is no phrase less helpful in grief.
They say love redeems our sick species, but the sad fact is, nothing redeems us. No amount of joy or pleasure could ever make up for the sheer cruelty of us.
There was little I could do, but I did what I could. I made Sarah food, and I held her. Sometimes she’d perk up, but she had changed. They say you get used to death when you’ve seen enough of it. It’s a foolish lie: You will never get used to it. You won’t. You’ll merely stop reacting.
<<Home you can’t go>>
The animals protected the house, their squealing and barking warding away danger: a horde of agitated beasts works better than any alarm system. We waited away the weeks. Sarah stayed with me, and I liked having her around. My menagerie didn’t seem to bother her as much anymore. She followed the news and kept me informed.
Finally, despite everything, the chaos calmed down. Shops opened, and cars clogged the streets. The ringleaders were rounded up and brought to justice. My menagerie grew smaller. Some things had changed, yes, but things are always changing. With or without us, the world keeps on moving. It shifts beneath our feet, and we don’t even notice.
Redfern Jon Barrett