Strawberries

For Wednesday Write-in #79

She had been a sitting at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the frosted glass doors of the apartment block when he arrived home late last night, tipsy but only slightly so – in full control as usual. He had skirted around her ignoring her half-hearted pleas for help, brushing her off as she reached out to touch the hem of his trousers.

He had slept well. No need not to. By the time the doors had closed behind him, he had forgotten what she looked like, forgotten the few words she had spoken, forgotten her very existence. He could do that.

And now on his way out, early, seven thirty, before the rush hour had started, while the frost still sat heavily on the grass in the park opposite, he sees her again. Not in the same place, but higher up the stairs, closer to the building itself as though to take warmth from the glass and concrete. Wrapped in a bin-liner, she doesn’t move as he passed her, doesn’t blink, doesn’t show any sign of life.

He hit the pavement at speed. Things to do, no time to do it; money to make, not enough time to make it. The traffic was starting to flow, the first buses picking up the early workers, the janitors, the doormen and the lift operators. Swarms of black taxis collecting the suits to get them to the boardrooms on time. Night-time lights switching off, daytime lights switching on. Urban rebirth. Hot blood flowing through the city’s veins. He stood watching for a break in the traffic, for the moment when the river would part and he could cross safely. “Stuff it,” he thought, and turned round and went back to help her.

She didn’t respond to his voice. He touched her, tentatively. Shook her. Felt her pulse. Something. Something faint. Put his hand on her face, her blue face. Covered her with his coat. Dialled the number. Listened to the operator say it would be at least an hour, “Major incident on the south side; all resources diverted; sorry darling.”

He picked her up, feather-light, carried her up the stairs, through the door, into the elevator, into the warm apartment, positioned her on the couch. Turned up the heating. Ripped the blankets off the bed, filled the hot water bottle. Rubbed her hands, her feet. Kept up a patter of encouraging words, words stolen from television and movies, “My name is Jack, speak to me, stay with me, it’ll be all right, what’s your name, speak to me, stay with me, it’ll be alright, my name is Jack.”

She drank some warm water, ate some fruit. She told him her name was Melody, but little else. She watched him as he busied himself in the kitchen, as he sat on the chair phoning, cancelling, rescheduling. Watched him without trust.

He watched her watching him. He saw there was no trust. He saw in her old-young face her history of deprivation, of abuse, of betrayal. He knew there was no trust.

He rummaged through the near empty shelves of his bachelor-life kitchen, made food-related phone calls. Expressed urgency. He buzzed in the deliverymen, received the warm trays and boxes of fruit at the apartment door, parted with money. Laid out a place at the table. Wrapped his dressing gown around her shoulders. Sat her down. And she ate. And as she ate she watched him warily, without trust.

He pushed the bowl of fruit at her. Her old-young hands reached out, selected a strawberry, bit into  it, closed her eyes, savoured it. She sighed.

“Do you like strawberries, then?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Strawberries.”

He gave her warm milk. She drank it.

She stood up, uncertain what to do, what was expected from her. She looked at him without trust. He looked at her torn jacket, her torn shoes, the bruise on her cheek she couldn’t hide.

He said, “I’ve run a warm bath for you. The door has a lock on it. You’ll be safe. And I’ll send for more strawberries.”

She nodded, warily.

He looked at her, measuring her for fresh clothing; he could do that; he could tell a woman’s size.

She bathed. “Plenty of hot water,” he said through the door. “Top up as you need.”

Parcels came to the door. Underwear, tops, trousers, socks, good boots. He had specified colours and fabrics.

By the time she came out of the bath the hairdresser had arrived with all that was needed plus a full range of quality beauty-care requirements.

Was she happy when she died later that day? Jack couldn’t be sure. Had he done enough to make her last hours bearable? Jack couldn’t be sure. Was there any trust before she died? Jack was sure there wasn’t.

The next morning, early, seven thirty, before the rush hour had started, while the frost still sat heavily on the grass in the park opposite, standing on the pavement waiting for a break in the traffic, he thought to himself, “God, it’s a shitty world.”

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9 Responses to Strawberries

  1. Emmaleene says:

    At first I wondered about his motivations and if he did kill her but the last line told me that she died any way and he genuinely was trying to bring happiness to her life. I really loved your description of the city coming to life- urban rebirth, great descriptions. A lovely story of a small act of kindness on a cruel cruel world.

  2. Elaine McKay says:

    When I first read it, I thought he had dressed her up etc. to kill her. But ‘it’s a shitty world’ is actually a great line at the end , and I see from that that he actually was just a good man. Like SJ, this story has been going round in my head too. Very well done.

  3. Elaine Peters says:

    Too little too late. Jack should have helped her when he saw her last night, but at least he has a conscience. But I’m not sure why she died if she was strong enough to eat and have a bath and cope with all the material gifts he was showering on her. I like the way your descriptions of the early mornings echo. I wouldn’t have said it was particularly positive or optimistic, sad really, but well written as always!

  4. SJ O'Hart says:

    I don’t know what to make of this one. It’s certainly thought-provoking; it’s been going around in my head since I read it, and I’m trying to decide whether Jack is good or bad, whether he did the right thing, what his motivations were, whether I even like him.

    So, that means it was a great story. Nice work. 🙂

    • Hi SJ, As the omnipotent voice, I can tell you that Jack is a good man in a very bad world. (The idea came from seeing a young woman on her way down in the world in Brick Lane in London yesterday. She was totally out of it at eleven in the morning – drugs probably – and all the related stuff as a vulnerable lone woman in that city; and she has got a way to go before she hits bottom.) The location could be any twenty first century city.
      I wanted to write something positive, optimistic. Too often we write about unredeemable the dark side – I sometimes feel that’s too easy, so this week I went in the opposite direction. Maybe it’s what I would like to be able to do/have the courage to do for the vulnerable.

      • SJ O'Hart says:

        Thanks a lot for that detailed explanation. I wondered why he passed her by, unseeing, the first time, though, and what his motivation was when he decided to help her. Clearly, I’m too used to looking for disturbing subplots in texts!

        What a shame about that young woman you saw. I am familiar with similar sights here. It’s dreadful, but it was ever thus; perhaps all we can do is hope for more people like Jack.

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