Fragments Sarah-Jane Page
These scrapbooks map out her life - every contour of it. There are boxes and boxes of them, ranked and rowed like armies in the spare room, each one a veteran of her past defeats. She’d stopped filling them as soon as they’d got married. Her need to glue down ragged-edged hopes had gone.
‘Linda, you’ve been up there ages. You need a hand?’ ‘No, I’m fine.’ ‘We won’t have room for all those boxes in the new house, honey. Try and cut them down by half, will you?’
She knows he doesn’t get it. He’s never kept anything from his past. Not a dried flower or a crumpled theatre ticket. Not even a journal or a photo album. No room for the sentimental. Just get rid of it and move on.
She hears the doorbell. It’s faint, smothered beneath the cardboard, bubble-wrap and sound of the rain. The hum of voices. Heels across slate. She can tell by the rhythm of the walk that it’s her neighbour.
‘Darling, Jennifer’s here.’ ‘I’ll be down in a minute.’ As they move below her, Linda can trace their voices, thick and heavy like she’s listening to them from under water. They walk through the dining room and into the kitchen. Then the sound floats up through the gap in the floorboards, up through the hole that Ewan said they could ignore because they were going to put the cot over it. She shuffles along and positions herself just overhead. She hears a gush of water; Ewan must be filling the kettle. Unsure of whether she wants to hear them, she listens, pulling their voices towards her.
‘Tea, thanks. So, how’s things, Ewan?’ ‘Not good, really.’ A chair is scraped across the tiles. Linda can picture Jennifer sitting with her legs crossed, fiddling with her wedding ring, her brow bent with concern.
‘Things not going to plan with the move?’ she says. He groans like he’s had enough of the subject. Linda shifts her weight until she’s lying down on her side with one ear pressed to the floor.
‘Linda’s finding it tough.’ ‘Understandable.’ ‘I thought it might be good. A fresh start, you know?’ ‘Some women can’t let go.’ ‘You’re telling me. I’m amazed the loft’s never caved in under the weight of her past.’
They laugh. Then Linda can’t hear anything except her own heartbeats and the stir of the plastic bubbles around her, like they’re alive and gasping with her.
‘I hope she settles down once we’ve moved.’ ‘She’ll get there. Just give her time.’ Linda knows what he’s worried about - the questions that lie dumb at the back of their throats, the dreams that tug them from sleep. But he refuses to see where it all spills, leaving a trail that swirls like oil on the surface, polluting every moment. How she spends each day searching for a piece of what she’s never had; how she rips and sticks, conjuring every flat figment until it feels real; how she watches and worships until all of her aches.
She was eight when she’d started them. Her first scrapbook was a Christmas present. Thick pages of purple paper dotted with splinters of wood that bumped beneath her fingertips.
‘Linda, you coming down? I’ve made you a camomile.’ It had all started with animals – the pets her parents had never let her own. Twice a week she’d visit the pet shop, take photos on her dad’s camera and carry home the smell of bones and sawdust in her hair. The shopkeeper had even let her pet the puppies. Once, she’d found a budgie’s feather on the floor of the shop: it was shaded with the palest blue and yellow, like the evening sky in summer, but it had smelt of caged air. She’d liked stroking it against her cheek, over and over. She’d stuck it next to the photo of the rabbit she’d wanted.
Then there were her teenage years and the books she’d filled with fashion and styles that her father had feared. Then, for years, it was men - tall and fair. Then weddings. Always coveting.
‘Shall I bring it up?’ She stares at the opened book beside her, the one she’d started as soon as she’d known she was pregnant. It’s half empty too. She’s got a new picture to stick in it now, one she tore from a magazine in the doctor’s surgery the day they told her she was depressed.
She likes this moment – the wait, the perching on the edge of desire, anticipating the satisfaction. Pulling the piece of paper from her back pocket she holds onto the tattered edges and examines it. It’s of another baby, plump and smooth, with skin the colour of cream. She wants to stick it below the photo of the scan. Not that an untrained eye could tell that’s a baby – it’s just shadows, and clouds of potential.
Ewan’s footsteps on the stairs. She snaps the book shut and shoves it in the nearest box. ‘Linda, come on. Jennifer’s waiting.’
‘Babysitting?’ Ewan spits out the word as if it would poison his tongue to let it linger there. ‘I wouldn’t ask if we didn’t really need the favour. He’ll be no trouble.’ Jennifer smiles at Linda, then at Ewan. ‘I thought it might be nice for you to spend the evening in a house with no boxes. I’ll even leave a lasagne cooking.’
‘Oh, Jennifer, we’d love to help out but we can’t tonight. I’ve got my last governors’ meeting.’
Linda hates the way he does that, talks for them both. He never used to. Not until she had a label that required repeat prescriptions. ‘Ewan may be busy, but I’m not doing anything tonight.’
Both of them stop and stare at her, like she’s just confessed to a crime. Ewan darts a look at Jennifer who raises her eyebrows to him, then he touches his wife’s arm.
‘Darling, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘By yourself? I’m not sure you’re….’ He pauses. ‘Just say it, Ewan. You don’t think I’m up to looking after a baby?’
‘It’s too soon.’ ‘But I would have been up to it?’ ‘Of course, if….’ ‘If what? If I hadn’t gone and lost it?’