Still Together

20 June 2002

by oosh

They would have been in their late sixties, the “old girls” – that's what my father used to call them.

I could see that my mother disapproved. She'd scowl and say, “Well I think they're odd.” My father would laugh at that, and sometimes ask her to explain. To him, she'd just repeat “they're odd.” He would laugh again, then, and change the subject.

But chatting to her friend Jean next door but one, she'd be a bit more specific. When they went out together, the old girls always took a black taxi. A taxi! — In our street, if you ever saw a taxi you'd know it was for them. In those days, when the street traders – milkman, baker, greengrocer – still came round with horse and cart, or a specially adapted bicycle hung with huge wicker panniers, even motor cars were still a bit exotic. And when my mother spoke of the old girls and their taxi, her voice would go quiet and low, as if using a taxi was somehow not just odd, but positively dangerous. I was only about seven or eight, and still didn't really understand: but my mother had grown up in wartime austerity, and could never really reconcile herself to a way of life that involved spending an unnecessary farthing. Taxis were for millionaires as far as she was concerned.

As for the old girls, I can remember them now only vaguely. Households like theirs were common enough then. I suppose there was a whole generation of them: women who had lost husbands or boyfriends in the First World War, and who found themselves thrown upon one another for mutual support and companionship.

I do remember the quiet one as being slightly frail. I thought of her as the quiet one because her only response to a polite “good morning” would be a whimper and a rather guilty little smile. I remember her stick with greater clarity. It was a stocky cane of varnished, knotty wood with a rounded handle and a fat black rubber tip. Probably today they'd have given her a zimmer frame. I would often see her making her sluggish way down to the local shop – only five minutes away if you were fit, but for her I'm sure it would have been more like fifteen – with her old wicker basket on her arm.

On occasion, if the weather was fine, I'd see them out together for a Sunday stroll. They'd be dressed rather more smartly, in long blue coats, and although they never linked arms, they would walk so close together – almost pressed together – that they seemed to me to be like one vast animal. I say “vast” — but when I was little, even one adult seemed pretty vast to me. I'm sure they would have seemed far less intimidating to a grown-up. But at that age, I was always somewhat in awe at the relaxed way my father would talk to the taller one, the stern one. We children were terrified of her.

I had the impression that you had to be Quite Someone to engage her in conversation. It was like being able to look directly at the sun. I suppose what gave my father his entrée was his love of gardening. She was very stiff and upright, and always kept a good distance away from him while they conversed. She was like a particularly terrifying schoolmistress. My father would pacify her by complimenting her on her garden, and she would reply by making disapproving remarks about ours. My father always seemed very grateful for her advice, however. He would sometimes tell me how wonderful their garden was; occasionally we'd walk up to their house and he'd point out this and that in tones of enthusiastic, almost reverent admiration. I can still remember their lawn. It was nothing like an ordinary lawn at all. It was greener and more level, and the edges were cut precisely vertical. It was preternatural. No wonder she so disapproved of our garden: in hers, nothing ever grew by chance. Everything was laid out with a tape measure.

One day, there were rather more taxis than usual. Clearly something was going on. Later, we heard that the quiet one had been run over by a car while making her way down to the shop. She'd just wandered out into the road and been hit. I think that was the first time I'd ever heard of someone actually dying as a result of a car accident, and it was drummed into us as a dire reminder to look right, look left, look right again.

When you're a child, even an hour can seem like an eternity. But I think it stuck in my mind because of what the grown-ups were saying – “so soon after,” “how sudden,” “one after the other, just like that!” Indirectly, we were among the first to know, because we were one of the few nearby with a telephone. The milkman could tell, because of the overhead wires. When it got to three uncollected bottles on their doorstep, he became suspicious. He used our telephone to call the police. They had to break in. They found her tucked up on the sofa, with the pillow and blankets from their bed. It seems she hadn't wanted to sleep in that bed alone. She'd been dead almost a week when they found her.

In the many years since, I've often heard tell of couples where the apparently healthy one dies just a few days after the other. Geriatricians come across it all the time. Everyone knows why it happens, but nobody seems to have a name for it. I think they put “natural causes” on the death certificate.

After the second death, they searched for months and months for relatives, but it seems they couldn't find any. My father told me this was most unusual, and that the house would belong directly to the queen. I wondered if her majesty would come and live in our road sometimes. Would she perhaps come to tea? Would she keep the garden as trim as those two old girls?

Unfortunately, the queen was too busy. She sold the house, and the new owners let that lovely garden grow as wild and chaotic as everyone else's.

Ever since, I've imagined heaven as being like a great big garden, where maybe one day I'll see them again, pottering among the flowers.

Golden Clitorides Awards 2002: Best Seasonal Story
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