- Published: 15 June 2022
- ISBN: 9780241542415
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
The most uplifting and beautifully written debut of the summer
I’ve got six minutes to walk to the train station, plenty of time if I wear my flat boots. My trench coat is hanging on the hook by the front door, my red hat stuffed in its pocket. My bag on the kitchen table contains everything I need for a day at the office. My hair is freshly washed and straightened; my lips are glossed. They match my hat – by chance, but I like it.
Somewhere between the kitchen and the front door I become aware of a seed of doubt in my throat. I can’t swallow it down or cough it up. My chest is tight, my palms hot. Tingles race up my arms, like tiny electric shocks. I keep my eyes on the floor, watching my feet slide across the wooden boards I’d sanded, so painstakingly, only a month earlier. It’s as if they belong to someone else.
I slump on to the stairs, sit on the third step from the bottom and try to swallow. I’m still staring at my feet, encased in the thick socks I always wear with my flat boots because I tend to be between sizes and I’d opted to go up a half in them. The boots stand tall and proud beneath my coat at the end of the hall. I know they’re there, but I can’t reach them.
All I have to do is walk to the door. Slide my feet into my boots and pull the zippers. Put on my coat and my red hat. Hook my bag over my shoulder and lock the door behind me. A simple sequence that takes less than a minute of my day. If I leave now, I can still make my train.I can still get to work on time.
But the seed in my throat is swelling. I gulp for air. There’s nobody here to help me and I can’t help myself because my arms and legs are on fire.
When I can finally take my phone out of my bag, three hours have passed, I’ve missed twelve calls, and I’m still sitting on the third step from the bottom.
Wednesday, 14 November 2018
My name is Meredith Maggs and I haven’t left my home for 1,214 days.
Thursday, 15 November 2018
I’m tidying the living room when he arrives. First, he pulls up outside my house in a grey car. Next, he walks up my path. He has a slim folder tucked under one arm and long legs. It only takes him three strides to reach the door.
At 10.57a.m. the tall man rings my doorbell.
I like it when people are punctual. I don’t get many visitors – my best friend Sadie and her kids James and Matilda, and the Tesco delivery man, are my only regulars. Sadie is often late and frazzled, but I let her off because she’s a single mum with a busy job – a cardiac nurse at the biggest hospital in Glasgow. The Tesco delivery man is always right on time.
I take deep breaths, watch my feet walk to the door in their blue Converse. Look at my right hand as it reaches for the handle, grips, pushes, pulls. I draw the door towards me, slowly, and do a quick scan. Checked shirt, buttoned right up to the neck, under a navy duffel coat. A few years younger than me, I think. Or maybe just someone who benefits from fresh air and sunshine. He has dark hair, short at the sides and longer on top. A friendly face – open eyes and an easy smile, not forced.
I don’t get a lot of visitors. But this one seems OK, on first impression.
He offers a hand. ‘Meredith? I’m Tom McDermott from Holding Hands, the befriending charity. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’
I wish I could say the same, but of all the things I have to look forward to – and it’s a short list admittedly – this isn’t one of them. Meeting new people has never been a joy. Especially people who visit solely to make sure I’m not neglecting my personal care, or wasting away, or drinking vodka for breakfast. When the boxes have been ticked and the forms have been filled out, I’m really rather boring.
I shake Tom McDermott’s hand, because it’s the polite thing to do. He’s the first man to come to my house since Gavin – lovely, sweet Gavin, who was no match for my nightmares – but I don’t feel threatened. I don’t find Tom McDermott intimidating, in his checked shirt and duffel coat, standing on my doorstep.
Still, I don’t let him in. Not yet. Even though I invited him here, grudgingly, after Sadie left the leaflet on my kitchen table under a box of Tunnock’s Teacakes and I went through the motions. The same leaflet that Tom McDermott has just fished out of his folder and is holding up in front of me. I interlink my fingers behind my back in response to the large black capital letters: ‘WE’RE HERE TO HOLD YOUR HAND’. An act of defiance that only I’m aware of.
I look at the two people on the front of the leaflet. I know their faces well – I’ve seen them several times a day because they’re attached to the front of my fridge with a magnet in the shape of a heart. One is a middle-aged woman, the other a man who looks old enough to be her grandfather. He has cloudy eyes and a tuft of white hair on either side of his head, and looks tiny in his armchair, shoulders hunched up around his ears. They’re smiling at each other and – right on brand – holding hands.
‘I always thought befriending was for old people,’ I tell Tom McDermott, ready to label the leaflet as Exhibit A.
‘Actually, we try to reach out to anyone who might need a friend. Elderly people, teenagers, anyone in between.’
‘I have friends,’ I tell him, stretching the truth.
‘Maybe you have room for another one?’
I think about this, about the way my tiny circle might not pass for a circle at all – unless cats count – and I’m not really concentrating on what he’s saying about training and risk assessments and codes of conduct. But I decide I’m curious enough to let him into my house.
I couldn’t move my almost- completed jigsaw of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss from the coffee table in the living room, so I’d carefully pushed it against the wall. If Tom McDermott needs a table, we can move through to the kitchen.
I leave him there and go to make us tea. (‘No sugar – I’m sweet enough,’ he tells me with a wink, and somehow it comes across as quite endearing, not sleazy.) When I return, he’s kneeling down, looking at The Kiss.
‘How long did this take you?’ he asks.
‘A few days, just doing the odd half-hour here and there,’ I say, setting the tea tray on the floor. I’ve added a plate of chocolate biscuits, despite Tom McDermott claiming he’s sweet enough.
‘Amazing,’ he says, and I think he’s talking about the jigsaw, not the biscuits, but he reaches for a bourbon and takes a bite. He stays on the floor, his long legs crossed, and washes his biscuit down with a gulp of tea. For a total stranger, he’s making himself very comfortable in my living room. I perch on the end of the couch, my mug sending heat into my palms.
‘Meredith, it’s really good to meet you. Before we start chatting, let me give you some information about the charity. It was set up in 1988, right here in Glasgow, by a woman called Ada Swinney, whose mother was housebound due to dementia. Our mission today is exactly the same as Ada’s was back then – to offer company, friendship and support to anyone who needs it.’
I don’t know what to say, so I sip my tea.
‘The most important thing, at all times, is that you feel comfortable and safe. At any time, if you don’t, you can tell me to leave and I will – no questions asked!’ He takes some forms out of his folder. ‘Shall we get the boring stuff out of the way first?’
I answer all his questions and nod in all the right places until the forms are back where they belong.
‘You’re clearly a bit of a star at jigsaw puzzles,’ he says. ‘What else do you like to do with your time?’
After a few long seconds of Tom McDermott smiling – he has, I concede, kind eyes – and me looking blankly back at him, I say, ‘I read a lot.’
‘Well, I can see that!’ He gestures at the books lining an entire wall of the room, then jumps to his feet in one surprisingly smooth motion for someone with those legs. ‘Quite a variety you have here, Meredith. Plenty of classics . . . history . . . art . . . do you have an all- time favourite?’
‘It’s actually a poetry collection. Emily Dickinson.’ I join him at the shelves and reach for a slim orange book, its spine soft and creased from decades of use, from the touch of fingers much older than mine. I bought it in my favourite second-hand bookshop; it has ‘For Violet, ever yours’ handwritten on the inside cover. I’ve often wondered who Violet was, and why a book given to her with so much commitment ended up being available to me for two pounds. Whatever its story, I feel safe with it in my hand.
‘Dickinson. She felt a funeral in her brain, didn’t she? Genius.’
‘You can borrow it, if you like.’ I surprise myself by offering him the book.
‘I would love to. Thank you, Meredith. I’ll take very good care of it, and give it back to you the next time I see you.’
I’m a little taken aback. I expected him to say – politely, kindly – that he couldn’t possibly take my favourite book. But by the time I’ve taken my seat back on the couch, he’s tucked it into his folder and has helped himself to another chocolate biscuit.
‘Meredith, I know you haven’t left your house for a very long time,’ he says.
‘One thousand two hundred and fifteen days,’ I tell him.
‘A very long time,’ he says again.
‘Well, it’s flown by.’
‘You count the days?’
I shrug, feeling stupid. ‘I guess I have nothing to count down to, so I count up.’
I fold my arms across my body, well aware of the message that sends.
‘We don’t have to talk about that, if you don’t want to.’ He keeps his voice soft, a contrast to my sharpness. ‘I’m here to get to know you. I’m interested to learn about your life, what you like and don’t like, how you pass your time. And . . . well, maybe we can figure out a way to help you get back into the world?’
‘I am in the world,’ I say defiantly.
‘Yes, of course you are. But –’
‘And I have a cat. Fred.’
‘Fred? Astaire, Savage?’ He grins.
I don’t. ‘Just Fred.’
‘I love cats,’ he says. I’m beginning to think that Tom McDermott will agree with me no matter what I say. He thinks my jigsaw is amazing. He loves Emily Dickinson and cats. I’m also beginning to regret giving him my most treasured poetry collection. I might never see him – or that beloved, faded orange cover – again. I wonder if I could ask for it back. Maybe he’ll go to the bathroom and I could slip it out of his folder and put it back on the second shelf from the top, where it belongs.
But he shows no sign of going to the bathroom and wants to keep talking about cats.
‘What happens if Fred gets sick?’ he asks.
Tom McDermott has underestimated me. I’ve been asked all these questions before.
‘Fred has never been sick,’ I say proudly. ‘But I have a very good friend, Sadie. Sadie would take Fred to the vet.’
‘Ah. That’s good. What else does Sadie do for you?’
‘She picks up my prescription once a month. That’s it. She’s my friend, not my carer.’ My shoulders feel tense. They’ve been frozen in place – somewhere near my ears – since I gave him my book. ‘I don’t need anything else.’
‘And you work . . . full- time?’
‘I’m a freelance writer, so it varies. But I’m kept busy.’
‘A writer? That sounds exciting.’
‘It’s not really. I don’t have bylines in the New York Times or anything. It’s just web content for businesses.’
‘Believe me, it’s exciting compared to what I used to do.’ He pulls a face. ‘I got made redundant from my job in finance last year. So I’m taking a bit of time out, trying to figure out what to do next.’
I nod. I’ve never been good at small talk.
‘What about your family, Meredith? Do they visit often?’
My stomach clenches. I take a gulp of my tea.
‘It’s complicated,’ I tell him.
‘I’m pretty good with complicated,’ he says, and his voice is gentle. ‘But we don’t have to go there, Meredith.’
‘I have a mother. And a sister. Fiona. Fee. She’s eighteen months older than me.’ I rush the words out of my mouth.
‘What’s your sister like?’ It’s a natural question, out of his. ‘Different from me. But I don’t know anything about her any more. We haven’t spoken for a long time. I don’t see her or my mother at all, actually.’
‘It is complicated,’ Tom says softly. Then he waits, and the fact that he’s giving me space makes me wonder if I can say more. But I can’t find the right words, so I go back into the kitchen for more biscuits.
Half an hour later, I stand at my front door and wait patiently for Tom McDermott to leave, to take three strides down my garden path and get into his grey car and drive away. I’m exhausted from all the talking, all the questions, all the worrying about my book, all the pretending my life is a ten when the truth is that most days barely scratch the underside of a six.
He’s taking his time to go. He’s already thanked me profusely for my hospitality, looking straight into my eyes and telling me he’ll be back to see me next week, if that’s OK with me. Fred watches us from his favourite place, the comfy chair on the upstairs landing. It’s the first man in the house for him too; I wonder if cats pick up on things like that. Part of me is pleased that he didn’t come down to welcome Tom.
‘Remember, there’s no obligation on your part,’ Tom says. ‘If you hate my jokes, or can’t afford all the biscuits I eat, you can tell me to sling my hook at any time. No hard feelings, I promise.’
‘You’ve got my favourite book, so I suppose I’ll need to see you again.’
‘Very true.’ He smiles. ‘And I’m looking forward to seeing what jigsaw you’re working on next.’
‘A mosaic tile design,’ I tell him. ‘It’s intricate.’
‘Well, I can’t wait to see it. Until then, Meredith.’
I raise my hand to bid him farewell, but he pauses on the doorstep.
‘One more thing, Meredith . . . if you don’t mind? I’m curious – there must be something you used to do that you miss? One thing you can’t do at home?’
It’s started to rain heavily. Tom McDermott buttons up his duffel coat. Behind his head, the dense, grey clouds of the late-afternoon sky move towards me. I’m aware of them, without looking directly at them. I inch backwards, away from the open.
‘Swimming. I love swimming,’ I say softly.
‘I’m a terrible swimmer,’ he says. ‘I can do doggy- paddle, and that’s about it. Anyway . . .’ He pulls the collar of his coat tighter round his neck and shakes a raindrop off the tip of his nose. ‘I’ll be swimming home at this rate. Goodbye, Meredith. You take care.’
‘You too, Tom McDermott,’ I whisper as I close the front door.
That night, I dream I’m doing doggy-paddle in a huge lake with Emily Dickinson. Tom McDermott and the old man from the leaflet are sitting on the side, watching and waving and eating chocolate biscuits.
Last week’s performance by the West Moonah Women’s Choir at the Festival of Voices offered up generous serves of the ‘singalong, sway and smile’ repertoire the choir’s audiences have come to rely on.
Yia-Yia knew many stories of gods and heroes, giants and nymphs, and the Three Fates who spun and measured and cut the thread of life.
I stare down at the young man who stands below me ankle-deep in the mud of the banks of the Thames.
My fifteenth birthday is stinging with a blistering heatwave. Balloons and streamers are dangling off the clothesline, motionless.
Charlie’s ugly Crocs stuck to the mats on the floor behind the bar, making a sticky, squelching sound.
Lisa arrived in Southbend in mid-November on a day of gathering storms, when the air dripped with humidity and the huge grey-white cumulus clouds were piled like soapsuds above the line of timber fronting the banks of the Rainsford River.
To avoid being seen by their teachers or anyone in the frum community who might dob Yonatan in, they ignored the tram stop outside the 7-Eleven on the corner of Hotham and Balaclava and opted for one further down the road.
She stood before us, without notes, books or nerves. The lectern was occupied by her handbag.