Heartburn

One of the advantages (or drawbacks) of living in London is that you rarely get to know or even meet your neighbours. Whether people crave anonymity or not, that’s what they generally get. Even if you do get to know someone, and like them, chances are they or you will be gone in two months and you’ll never see them again. In many ways it’s easier not to start.

That’s how I was until I moved into a flat in Kentish Town about a year ago. By an extraordinary co-incidence, the person living opposite me on the first floor was the mother of my friend Paul. I ended up seeing more of her than he did, as he moved up to Newcastle soon afterwards.

Her name was Mary and she was about 80 and pretty spry. She would go out to bridge clubs and coffee mornings and generally seemed to lead an active life. The one thing she had trouble with was shopping. There were no supermarkets nearby and she didn’t have a car so, two or three times a week she would come back with as much as she could manage to carry. I did have a car but lived a fairly erratic existence and so wasn’t much use. To be honest, I was wary of getting too involved, of putting myself in the position where I was her lifeline. Having just ended a long-term relationship I didn’t feel like taking on fresh responsibilities. Mainly, I was reactive. There might be a tentative knock on the door: next time I was out, Mary would ask, could I be so kind as to pick up some chilli flakes, or a box of Earl Grey, or half a dozen eggs? These rarely seemed like urgent commissions so I didn’t always do them straight away and sometimes forgot altogether.

I never asked myself whether these requests were strictly necessary and that if what she really wanted was the human contact. She told me once that she’d grown up in a village in Suffolk where people were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. This sounded awful to me. I could never bring myself to ask if she wished that to be the case here. It was certainly not something I could provide. I was out most of the time, anyway. I did what I could and little more.

One day she had a fall – nothing serious she said, but it made the shopping difficult. She made no specific request of me. I was turning over in my mind what to do about this and was about to call Paul when I heard someone coming up the stairs, quite slowly, and knock at her door.

“Oh, Jim, thank you,” I heard her say. I couldn’t hear what Jim said in return. “Come in, come in.” The door closed. About ten minutes later I heard him leave.

A few days later, I saw Mary in the hallway. Jim, she told me – though I hadn’t asked – was a friend from the bridge club who lived about a mile away and had a car, so he now did her shopping. Whether she told me this to explain the nature of their relationship, to absolve me from responsibility or merely to pass the time I wasn’t sure. I told her that was great and happened to mention that I was going away the following Tuesday for a couple of weeks.

The next day, I met Jim as I was leaving the building and he was about to ring Mary’s bell. He was about 70 and looked both prosperous and anxious, two things I vaguely imagined were rarely found together. I didn’t then know what precise form his anxiety took.

“Hi,” I said. “You must be Jim.”

He put the bags down and looked at me. For a second a fearful expression crossed his face so that I almost turned to see if there was a sinister figure silhouetted in the frosted glass door behind me.

“I’m Mike,” I went on. “Mary’s neighbour. We haven’t met.”

At that, his expression cleared. “Ah, hello,” he said. “Yes, she mentioned you. The helpful young gentleman across the corridor.” I smiled. I doubted if any of the descriptions, apart from the geographical one, were accurate but let it pass.

“We know each other from the bridge club,” he went on, as keen as she had been to ensure that their relationship was precisely understood. “Do you play?”

“No. I tried once but couldn’t get the hang of the bidding. It seems you have to say the opposite of what you mean. It’s all in code.”

He gave a slow smile and made an odd movement with his thin hands, as if kneading bread. “It is in code,” he conceded, “but one you can learn. Come and try one of these days. We have people of all ages –beginners welcome.”

“Perhaps,” I said, moving down the steps towards the pavement. “I can always ask Mary. I think I’ll stick to poker, though.” As I said it, I realised that this was perhaps the worst game I could have mentioned. His reaction surprised me.

“Marvellous,” he said. “Different, of course, very different. But thrilling. You know what they say – bet as if you had ‘em and never draw on an inside straight.” He beamed at me. “The thing about both poker and bridge is that you need to understand people.”

“And have a good memory,” I added.

There was a pause; a beat; a quaver of silence. “Indeed,” he said. I raised my hand in farewell and went on my way, slightly uneasy.

The following week, the day before I was planning to go to Singapore, I made a curry and had quite a bit left over: the habit of cooking only for one was taking time to adjust to. I remembered Mary had revealed a taste for spicy food. I put it in a dish and knocked on the door.

“Oh, hello Mike,” she said. “I thought you might be Jim.”

I wondered how Jim could have got into the building without ringing the bell. Did he have a key? If so, why for the outer door and not for hers? Did she, perhaps, only trust him so far? Was any of this my business anyway?

“I thought you might like this,” I explained. “Vegetable curry. I cooked too…I thought you might like it. As I said, I’m going away tomorrow and…I’m afraid there isn’t any rice left, but…”

“Oh, you could freeze it,” she said.

The thought struck me that she didn’t actually want a vegetable curry. Or perhaps, in her world, offering food was a gesture made from older people to younger ones, and always by women. I suddenly felt foolish, and certainly un-London, by standing in this first-floor hallway having this conversation at all.

“I could,” I admitted, “but I thought…”

“Well, that’s very kind of you,” she said. “And, as it happens, I have some rice. Thank you. How long will you be away?”

“Hopefully no more than two weeks. But with these printers, anything is possible.”

We chatted for a bit longer. She made no move to invite me in, which I welcomed. We said goodbye.

And that, I thought, was that.

Later that evening I discovered there had been a mix-up with the reservation and my flight wasn’t until 24 hours later. I was packing the next day when I heard Jim come up the stairs. Mary opened the door. As usual, I could hear her words more clearly than his.

“Oh, damn,” he said, suddenly distinct, “I forgot the Rennies.”

There was an edge to his voice which displayed a real concern. My mind was elsewhere. As it happened, I’d recently been shopping had had bought some Rennies, which I hadn’t really wanted but needed to get the card payment up above the £5 minimum. They were still in my pocket. This seemed like an ideal solution. I opened the door and stepped into the hallway.

At that moment, two things happened. The first was that Mary’s door swung shut, though Jim’s shopping bag was still in the corridor. The second was that my mobile rang.

“Hi,”

“Mike, it’s Lucy.” Lucy lived opposite and we’d met in the pub up the road a couple of times. Was there anything between us? Might there be? I couldn’t say.

“Hi, Lucy.”

“Traffic wardens about.”

I should have mentioned that since moving here I’ve been embroiled in a battle with Camden Council, a notoriously process-driven organisation, about my parking permit. This had already resulted in four tickets which I was contesting. I had no wish to add a fifth to the list just before going away. Fortunately I had a friend near Heathrow where I left the car when I needed to travel.

“Thanks,” I said. “Look, I’m away for a few weeks. I owe you a drink for this. I’ll call you when I get back.”

“Sure. Go!”

As I put the phone in my pocket, my hand jostled against the Rennies. Without thinking, I dropped them into Jim’s shopping bag, nipped back into the flat to get the car keys and ran down the stairs.

I got the car out of the bay a few seconds before the warden latched onto me. The sequel involved, as it always did, driving around aimlessly for twenty minutes until I thought the coast was clear and then returning to find that my space had been taken and then driving round for another twenty minutes to find somewhere else to park. Not for the first time, I wished I didn’t have a car at all. It was really for my two young sons who lived with their mother in south-west London. The alternate weekends the three of us spent together might not have been much fun for them but were important for me. The thought of doing the fetch-and-drop by public transport – their mother didn’t drive – filled me with horror. So, thanks to Camden’s inability to recognise I existed, I was stuck with this stressful pantomime every time the wardens came calling.

All of these reflections drove the thought of the Rennies from my mind when I got back nearly an hour later. I finished packing and went to bed.

I was away for longer than I’d expected. As I’d feared, there were problems at the printers so I had to stay for an extra week. The only flight I could get back was via Paris so I decided to stop off and see some friends there for a few days. It was therefore nearly a month later before I returned to Kentish Town. For a while I sat slumped on the sofa, staring at the pile of letters in the hall, amongst which I recognised a final demand for the electricity bill and reflecting, not for the first time, that travel has the habit of creating more anxieties than it cures. I was just making a start on the post when there was a knock on the door.

It was Mary. “Hi,” I said. “Come in.”

She looked awful: frail, thin and upset. “I…er…” There was a pause. She seemed to have forgotten why she’d knocked on my door at all.

I ushered her in. “Would you like a cup of tea?” She looked at me blankly. “I was about to make one,” I added, untruthfully.

“Oh…yes. Thank you.” She allowed herself to be sat down and I fussed about with kettles and teapots.

“Thank you,” she said again as I poured the tea. There was a silence.

“I’m very glad to see you back,” she said with surprising warmth.

I didn’t know what to make of this. “Well,” I said carefully, “it’s good to be back.”

“Yes.” She looked at me wildly. I started to feel uneasy. Although my life was lived independently of hers, we were connected. Within limits. Did she feel that these connections were closer than I felt them to be? I’d done what I’d felt I should. Perhaps it would have been kinder and more honest for me to have done less. This was London, after all.

“How have things been?” I asked. There was a silence. “How’s Jim?” I asked, desperate to fill it. “He wanted me to learn bridge but…”

“Jim isn’t very well at all,” Mary said in a rush. I realised that her unease had been focussed on someone else, not herself.

“I’m sorry. What…?”

“He’s had a breakdown. A mental breakdown,” Mary explained. “And it’s all my fault.”

This opened up a new view of the situation. The only time when friends of mine had breakdowns was when they’d been ditched by someone. I looked at Mary: trim, agile but without doubt 80, or close to it. What emotional currents flowed at that age? I had no knowledge of such things. What was going on here? What could I do?

“I’m sorry to ask but I wonder if, when you next go to the shops, you could get me some tea? This is the first cup I’ve had for a week. Did you know the corner shop has closed?”

I went into the kitchen and, having taken out a couple of tea bags for tomorrow, came back with the box.

“Oh, thank you,” she said. Then she started to cry. This was a bit of a facer as well. Women of any age in tears always make my mind close down. They seem to be able to access gradations of misery that most men can’t get close to understanding. I just stood there, really. After a while she stopped and dabbed her eyes.

“I’m sorry…”

“Not at all…”

“Poor Jim,” she said at last. “He always prided himself on his memory, you see. ‘Keeping his faculties’, he called it. He had a scare a couple of years ago, a brain…you know. Tumour. Benign. But it made him realise. He used to be a lawyer, always having to remember things. Laws, court cases…secrets, perhaps. He had something to lose. Then there was the bridge. It was a kind of test for all of us. You have to remember for that. Well, we all do, don’t we? We are what we can remember. You’ll see that when…well…” She sniffed again and took a sip of tea. “And it all started with that silly business with the Rennies.”

At this point I started to pay serious attention. “The Rennies?”

“Yes – it was the day you left.”

She left another pause, as if to give me the chance to say that it was the day before I’d left and that I remembered the Rennies very well. I said nothing.

“As you know, he used to do my shopping for me. When I called him that morning I read out my list – I try to keep it as short as possible – and added some Rennies.” She gave a shy little laugh. “I think that curry you gave me…oh it was lovely, but perhaps a bit spicy…”

I felt a feeling not unlike heartburn gripping me. In fact, it was heartburn.

Mary took another mouthful of tea, put the cup down and continued.

“Something odd happened. He told me he’d forgotten them. Well, anyone can do that. They weren’t part of the normal stuff he got me. But in fact, he hadn’t. They were there in the bag.” She started weeping slightly again, then stopped. “Oh, I wish I hadn’t mentioned it to him.” She was now rocking back and forth slightly in her distress. It was like listening to an eye-witness report of my own car crash. “Well, I did,” she went on. “He was upset, more upset than I thought was reasonable. Then I realised.”

I closed my eyes.

“You see,” she said, in a suddenly calm and quiet voice, like a schoolmistress explaining a parable at Sunday school, “Anyone can forget to do something. But to do something and then forget it is very different.”

There was a long silence. I felt almost numb with shock. The moment when I could have said anything had passed. It had passed a month ago.

“So,” she continued, returning to her sorrowful tone, “it’s been downhill ever since. He hasn’t been to bridge. He hasn’t been answering his phone. I found out a few days ago that he’s in hospital. A mental collapse, they called it that in my day. The doctor – I spoke to the doctor – used another word, I can’t remember what. He asked if I was next of kin. That doesn’t sound good, does it? He told me not…not to be too hopeful. Apparently he isn’t making much sense, talking about these blasted Rennies all the time. He’s on pills, but – oh dear, aren’t we all? They never seem to do much good…”

Her words seemed to be coming from underwater. I turned away, the pain in my chest now dominating all else. I took some deep breaths and swung round to face her.

“I’m sorry…I’m really sorry about that,” I said. “Would you like me to do any shopping for you? I’m going to go to the supermarket in a bit anyway.” This was, I now saw, the expiation I deserved.

I sat down. “Well,” she said, “that would be very nice. Thank you. There are just a few things. Let me think…” she sat back in the chair.  There was a long pause. “Oh dear,” she said, “now what was it?” She looked across at me. I looked back.

“I’m so sorry,” I said again, very slowly, “about Jim.”

Something in my manner communicated itself to her and she became alert again. “Oh, Mike,” she said, for a moment resting her frail hand on mine. “Don’t be upset. After all, it’s not your fault.”

Brian Quinn

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