Felicity's 21st birthday
'Tom, Tom, Tommy-Tom-Tom, hurry up!' Fliss was holding his hand and pulling him along on his skateboard. The physical contact was sending shockwaves through his body.
'There's loads of time.' He wanted her to slow down; the airport concourse was smooth stone and his skateboard was flying - he was flying - but people were starting to send them little dagger-glares. They were making one hell of a racket. Fliss's long fair hair shimmered as she ran. He remembered the sun glowing through it, the day she moved in next door. She had run into the garden in her white cotton nightdress and started bouncing on the trampoline. Tom had seen her in the air, hands above her head, flying, he thought. Tom was only six and he'd run to tell Leo there was an angel at the bottom of the garden. After that, Leo always referred to Fliss as 'Tom's angel' whenever he thought he could embarrass him with it.
'He's due in at 12.20!' She started jumping up and down, all that girl stuff jingling in her enormous handbag, but had to stop so she could study the arrivals screen. Tom flipped his skateboard up and caught it in one movement. He hoped she was impressed.
'Roll up a reefer, Flissy-baby, relax!'
'No, I don't want to smoke, I'm excited and I want to be excited. This is the mostest brilliantest day of my life, ever.'
'God, Fliss, it's only Leo.' He was dreading the party. Fliss, twenty-one, surrounded by a thousand admirers; The Golden Couple. All the girls ooing and aahing over the bloody ring. Revolting. 'Why does it have to be a stupid engagement party, as well as your birthday? What's the point of getting married anyway?' His angel glared at him. 'Tom, darling, you know that Leo is The One. We've always promised we'd get engaged on my twenty-first birthday.'
Fliss started jigging again. Tom felt nauseous. Leo had been away for six weeks and her life had stopped, while his had started. It was natural that he should look after his brother's girlfriend while Leo was away. They'd done the cinema twice; been for three picnics (very, very stoned at the last one); stayed up all night chatting and smoking and even done some revising together. The house was the usual glorious chaos of coffee mugs and books and half-written essays and ashtrays that no one ever emptied. Fliss's paintings, mainly oils of swimming pools in deep blues and turquoises, were stacked in her room and on the living room mantelpiece. Every morning Fliss would drag some crumpled rag from the bottom of her wardrobe and somehow she'd always look as if she'd just come from the catwalk. They hadn't bothered to tidy up for the party, just blown up six packets of balloons and tied them to anything they could find, including the washing up and the toilet.
An airport announcement was burbling.
'Why do they bother?' Fliss asked, 'You can never hear a word.'
'It'll be delays due to weather, or the wrong kind of plane, or the wrong kind of air...'
'Shut up, Tom, it might be Leo's.' The announcement came again, "Flight 2301 - burble - burble - make their way to a member of staff." Fliss stopped bouncing. A shadow of a frown crept across her face, '2301? That's Leo's flight! Oh Tom, listen!' So they listened.
"There has been an incident on the 2301 arrival from India. Would people expecting to meet passengers from this service please make their way to a member of Gatwick Airport staff."
'Stupid bloody thing's unsurprisingly late, then, Flissy-babe,' Tom muttered lamely.
'Tom, it's more than that, I'm scared.' The announcement came again. 'What does it mean; "incident"? Tom, I don't like it.'
They walked, lead-legged, to the office. The people in the queue stared at them as they were ushered around the back of the counter. They were joined by an elderly couple and some foreign students and they all suddenly had something in common as they were asked to sit down.
When they told them, Tom couldn't believe he found himself, just for a second, feeling glad that he'd have Fliss to himself now, forever, but that thought was shoved away by a big block of icy numbness. The clock ticked loudly and Tom couldn't understand why it hadn't stopped. Fliss seemed to crumple. She flopped forwards from her chair onto her knees on the floor; head hanging down. No one moved, so she just stayed there, her hair hanging over her face like a veil.
Felicity's 50th birthday
Performing the Sunday evening ironing ritual, Felicity listened to the rhythmic swishing of the tide. Her blouses fell into submission. She wondered what it would be like to iron a man's shirts, realizing she didn't know whether partners still did that these days. Outside the window, a seagull tooted half-heartedly. Today had been a very ordinary Sunday. She had toyed with the idea of doing something special, but it seemed silly at her age. Besides, routine is good. Yesterday a card arrived from Great Aunt Gladys. Gladys had been old when Felicity was a child. Dear old Tom had sent her a card. He remembered every year, but then, of course, he would remember. It was odd that he was still single. She put her two cards in the recycling bin.
Her thoughts clanged around her head. She had not heard her voice since yesterday morning when she had told the butcher how much beef to carve. The blouses were all folded into cellophane bags in the wardrobe and the ironing board was put away. Would it be any better with a partner, though? By now they'd be over-familiar, bored or irritated by each other. Everyone at work complained constantly about their partners. That woman in the design office; what was her name? Ann. Ann said her husband had wallpapered the bedroom in Eternal Beau design for her, upside-down with all the ribbons defying gravity. Come to think of it, though, she wasn't exactly annoyed - the incident seemed to have endeared her to him. Aunt Gladys had bought her slippers; unsexy ones in pink sheepskin. Would you wear these if you had a partner? They were comfy anyway, as she padded up the central staircase to the galleried landing that led past the guest rooms to her own.
She made ready for bed, brushing her long, grey hair. Her hairdresser said executive lifestyles caused premature greying, but Felicity knew the girl just wanted to keep her custom. She carefully hung up her Sunday trouser suit and put on her nightdress. Reaching for the duvet, she hesitated then turned on her heels and almost skipped back along the landing and downstairs to the study. Her heart started to beat like a child banging a toy drum. She sat at her roll-top desk and turned the brass key, so that the top swooped down obediently. Then she reached to the little compartment marked 'C' and pulled out a piece of card. She folded it in two and reached for a thick red marker pen. On the front she drew '50' with the '0' in the shape of a heart. She practised a man's handwriting for a while, trying to remember the contours of the MD's, then inside, wrote, To my darling Fliss, have a wonderful birthday, because I love you. In the little envelope drawer she found one that would fit. She wrote Fliss on the front, then gleefully cuddled the card to her heart as she made her way back up to the bedroom, stopping at the airing cupboard to fetch another pillow. She moved her pillow from the middle of the bed and tenderly lay the two pillows side by side, the envelope on top of hers, as he would have left it for her to find. Then she reached out for the card and excitedly tore open the envelope. For a moment she felt warm, golden; something swooped upwards inside her stomach.
Then she caught sight of movement on her dressing table mirror and the swooping thudded to a halt as she turned and saw her reflection, with a pale, craggy make-up cleaned face and grey hair shroud-like around it. She snatched the second pillow and marched it back to the airing cupboard. She tore the card and envelope into tiny pieces, then dropped them into the wastepaper basket, where they fell like confetti. Felicity got into bed, reached out and turned out the light.
It was 3 am. Felicity was still wide awake. Her pillows felt like rocks. She pulled one out from under her head and threw it on the floor. She thought of her life. "I am successful. I have a brilliant career in marketing. I am an expert in my field. I don't have children because I didn't want to. I have organised myself well. My life has been good." She thought of Leo. She thought of her university days and how she used to be. She thought of yesterday's solitary birthday. Then she tried to think of nothing. She lay flat on her back and tried to count her breaths in and out. "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing..." Realising it was no use, she got up again and went to the kitchen to make a hot drink. "I'm an old, old woman, alone with my cocoa," she thought. She went to the living room and traced her finger along the bottom shelf of the bookcase until she found an old photo album. She hadn't opened it for years. She hadn't wanted to. Inside was a different person. A girl. A girl with long, blonde hair, laughing. With a paintbrush. In paint-spattered dungarees. Next to a giant turquoise oil painting of a swimming pool. And kissing. Kissing Leo. Leo. Hugging Leo. Walking down the street arm in arm with Leo and Tom, doing the Monkees walk. Wearing a crumpled t-shirt. Having a food fight with Leo and Tom. Pictures of who she used to be.
She sat up, looking at the pictures for a whole hour before her eyes began to ache and she decided she must have another go at sleeping. Back in bed, she chose something nice to think of. A nightingale. She thought of a nightingale. The sweetest song, the most incredible range of lilting, chirruping notes, all from a plain little brown bird. At last she felt sleep approaching.
Felicity dreamed of her nightingale. At first it was in a tree singing beautifully, but then it was in a kind of concrete cage. Then she was in the cage with it and then the nightingale was gone and it was just her. She pushed and heaved at the bars. She couldn't find a handle, or even a door. She started breathing heavily, her heart pounding. She woke up in a cold sweat, shivering.
The day after
Tom was sitting in his best listening stance, with his chair placed at ninety degrees to the patient's. His hair, curly and still mainly brown, but thinning and cropped short, crowned a face wearing an open, interested expression, a bit like a spaniel, but not quite as smiley. 'What don't you know?' he continued.
'I don't know anything, anything at all.' Tom's patient, Bill, had tufty brown hair and was unshaven. He wore a turquoise charity shop dress over a bright pink city shirt, above a pair of grey suit trousers. He had orange flip-flops on his feet. He sucked his yellowed teeth and slumped down deeper into the pink vinyl hospital arm chair, pulling his knees up under his chin and hitching his heels on the edge of the seat. His toe nails needed clipping.
Foetal, thought Tom. He asked, 'Did you know things when you were a child?'
'No. I didn't know the secret then and I'm waiting for you to tell me now.'
'What secret is this, Bill?'
'You know - the message.'
'What is the message?' Tom tried to sound as if he was behind the Post Office counter, as opposed to working for the Gestapo, but Bill went red in the face and shouted, 'YOU KNOW THE MESSAGE! YOU KNOW THE MESSAGE!' And he began to rock forwards and backwards, as much as you can when you have your feet up on a hospital chair.
'Okay Bill, okay, don't worry. Would you like to tell me about the message?' Bill was silent. 'What is the message about?'
'Who has the message?'
'How do you know I have the message?
'Because of your wings, of course!'
'Wings? Like a bird?'
'Like an angel! I can see them on your back.' Bill laughed a loud, protracted laugh, a bit like a machine gun.' Tom resisted the urge to put his arm up over his shoulder and feel for his wings. 'Do I have anything else?'
'What d'you mean?'
'Like a halo, maybe, or horns?'
'Don't be stupid! You are an angel. You have been sent by God to help me.' Then he whispered, 'You have the message!'
'I wish, Bill, that I did have the message, but I don't think I do. What sort of message would it be?'
'FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!' Bill's face went purple. Tom winced and wished the walls were not quite so thin. 'It's ok, Bill. You tell me what you want to tell me.'
'Haven't you been listening to a word I've been saying?'
'I have, Bill, I have been listening, but I really don't have your message. What I think you should do is think about what you would do if you never receive your message'.
'If you were no longer waiting for the message, what would you be doing?' Bill looked as if Tom had just given him a winning lottery ticket. 'I'd be a gardener, of course!'
'Right, then. Would you like me to refer you to Mr Gates's Gardening Club?'
'Yes, I would like that.'
'Good - good!' A result. He would be the first psychologist to have actually got Bill to do something productive after being in the psychiatric rehab unit for a whole year. 'That's great, Bill. It will take your mind off things. I'll fill in a form and you can start tomorrow.'
'Ok doctor, ok doctor,'
'I'm not a doctor, Bill. No, actually never mind. Yes, you can start at Gardening Club tomorrow.'
'Yes, doctor. I will start Gardening Club tomorrow. Then you can tell me the message.'
Felicity always drove the same route to work each morning, but this morning she had promised herself she would do something different. Instead of passing that bonkers-looking place on the first roundabout, she turned off and drove up to it. It was called "The Magic Camper Van Man". The forecourt was crammed with campers of all sizes from dainty to vulgar and, behind them, an office that was constructed to look like a mud hut with a grass roof. She parked next to a Winnebago. She looked through the enormous windscreen. It had two bulging velour armchairs that doubled as driver and passenger seats, but swivelled round so you could face whoever was sitting on the sofas behind. It looked crazy and wonderful and somehow upholstered so that going on a great new adventure would be comfortable, rather than scary. She walked around the side. She looked through more windows and found herself grinning as she saw a cooker, a fridge, a sink, a loo and what she took to be a shower room. It was totally impressive, fun, tempting. It was like a dolls' house for an adult. She realised her face muscles were aching and that she probably wasn't used to smiling that much.
'Shall I get you the key?' She turned to see the - presumably magic - camper van man behind her. He had a sort of Sussex cockney accent, blond dreadlocks, a purple sweatshirt, faded green combat trousers and red clogs on his feet. He smiled, expectantly.
'Yes,' she heard herself say, 'that would be nice,' But she thought, Christ, what on earth am I doing? He clopped off and came back with a key on a yellow fob and she followed him up the little metal steps and into the camper van gorgeousness. 'Oh, god, it's beautiful!' She couldn't help saying it. The enthusiasm felt strange and new. 'Isn't it scary to drive, though?'
'You get used to it quicker than you'd think. It has power steering and all you have to do is stop and wait for other traffic a bit more than you usually would and take the corners a bit wider. Come and sit in the driver's seat.' He adjusted the seat forward and she found she could reach the pedals and the gear stick easily. 'Look at the size of that windscreen!' She exclaimed. 'You can see so much more than from my car.'
'You could see the world!' He laughed. 'What is it? Holidays? Early retirement?' She gasped slightly. 'Sorry,' he added, 'of course you're a bit young, even for early retirement.'
'No, actually, I don't think I am. I don't think I am at all.'
'Right, great. D'you want to come and look at finance, or insurance? All that stuff? Come and have a coffee.' She couldn't think why not. The shack was like a garden shed inside. It smelled of cannabis, which made her giggle; she hadn't smelled that for years. She suddenly felt ridiculous in her grey suit, with her black court shoes and matching designer handbag. She used to have clogs, she remembered. She was sure she was wearing some in one of those photos. He had a big old pine desk and a small stove in the corner, which he lit and then added some scoops of coffee to an espresso machine, adding a beautiful aroma to the musty cannabis smell. 'I can put your details on my database and then it's all ready for the insurance and the other documents.' She was surprised at his efficiency.
'Yes. Why not? It's Felicity Collins, F-e-l... yes that's it. 4 Nightingale Close...'
'Oh, just over the roundabout?'
'Yes, you know it?'
'I campaigned against it. As is often the case, they built an "executive home development" and named it after the thing they destroyed in order to build it.'
'Yes, it used to be a little copse where nightingales bred. Then the bulldozers moved in and the birds moved out.' Felicity remembered the concrete cage.
'So do people do that, then? Sell up and head off to the wild blue yonder in a Winnebago?'
'Oh god, yeah! My main customers are people who've had enough of the rat race.'
'Where do they go?'
'Where do you want to go?'
'Oh, don't start with that counselling blarney, I shared a student house with counselling psychology students.'
He threw back his head and laughed, 'I was an existential psychotherapist! But I gave it up because - in the end - it was meaningless.' He continued to laugh until tears were starting to appear in his eyes. He shook his head and composed himself. 'Sorry, sorry, it's my favourite joke. You are clearly astute. So, anyway, yes, where do you want to go?'
Felicity was wondering why this man laughed so much. He reminded her of a Buddhist monk she'd met once. 'To find myself? Go on an adventure? God, that's such a cliché. Two clichés. Where have you been?'
'Everywhere. Everywhere you can go and back again.'
'I came back. I came back home,' he laughed.
'Does everyone come home, then? What's the point of going if you just come home again?'
'You have to go away to find out where home is. You don't have to. Some people. I had to.'
'So this is home? A roundabout in Sussex?'
'Yes, he beamed, this is home. I have to have the Downs and the sea. I've walked in the sun, under clear sky, on beaches in Australia that stretch for miles and I've swum in the clear turquoise sea in Greece, with velvet green mountains beyond, but it's just not home. I have to have rock pools and pebbles and...'
'Grey skies? Rain?'
'Yes! Sitting in a café by the grey sea, mug of tea, rain lashing at the window.' Felicity smiled again. She was breathing more slowly, somehow.
'Look, I've got to go. Let me think about it, the Winnebago.'
'People who think about it too much never do it,' he frowned. A retired couple in his and hers beige anoraks came into the office-shack. She was happy for the interruption. 'I really will think about it. Properly. Thank you.'
Felicity was late for work. She was amazed at herself for not caring. She didn't care any more about being a successful executive, living in an 'executive home' that was made of a concrete cage for nightingales. She sat at her polished mahogany desk. She needed wisdom. Who could she ask? Who was really successful? She thought of Ann, in accounts, who loved her husband. She picked up the phone and dialled four digits, 'Is Ann there? Can you ask her to come to Miss Collins' office?'
A few minutes later there was a quiet tap at her door.
'Come in. Sit down. Don't worry. I just want your advice.'
'My advice?' Ann, with her grey hair in a bun on top of her head and pink rosy cheeks, looked like a friendly grandma from a children's picture book.
'Yes, your advice. Ann, what is your definition of home?'
'My definition of home?'
'Yes, Ann, what is your definition of 'home'?' Ann looked up as if the answer was on the ceiling. Eventually she said, 'I s'pose it's where you come from, Miss Collins.'
'It's where you come from?'
'I s'pose so. Why are you asking me, is it a psychology experiment? Some kind of test?'
'No, Ann, I am asking you because I know you are happily married.'
'I, um, I don't see the connection.'
'Ann, just tell me your definition of home, before we all retire, will you?'
Ann laughed and her shoulders relaxed. 'Ok. Home is where you feel at home. Where you are accepted. Where people want you around. That is what home is.'
Felicity felt her eyes well up with tears, 'Oh, Ann...!'
'What? Have I said the wrong thing?'
'No, you've said the right thing. I'm sure you have. Because now I'm going to cry.'
'Oh goodness, why?'
'Because there's no one who wants me!'
'Oh Miss Collins - of course there is! Everyone has their angel.'
'It's a thing my husband says to me. He says there's no one on this planet who would put up with him like I do, so I must be an angel. Everyone has an angel.'
'Because there's "no one on this planet", so I must be from Heaven, you see? Is it important?'
'Yes it is important. Because I used to be someone's angel once.'
'My fiancé's brother.'
Back at home, Felicity got the photo album out again. The pictures seemed more colourful, more defined than before. She looked at all the ones with Tom in them. In almost every picture, Tom was looking at her. How could she have never seen it before? She thought of Tom's curly brown hair, like a mop. His smiley eyes. How he used to help her with her art, encouraging, inspiring with weird little ideas. She could not think of one thing she didn't like about him. She remembered the birthday card and went to the laundry room where she kept the recycling ready to go out. She found his card. It was an aerial shot of a turquoise ocean with a tiny little red and yellow boat near the right-hand bottom corner. Inside he had put, "Be true to yourself and one day, sail over to see me." Why hadn't she read this properly before? She just thought it was Tom's whimsical nonsense and hadn't thought to analyse it. She had assumed he sent her cards because he felt sorry for her. What did he mean, "Be true to yourself?" He used to tell her she was a wonderful artist and she owed it to herself and to the world to keep painting. She thought for a moment, then grabbed her laptop and Googled "artist's materials, East Sussex". She grabbed her bag, went to run out of the door, but then stopped, headed upstairs to her bedroom, stood on one leg and flung the other in the air so that her high-heeled shoe flew off over her head, then did the same with the other. She ripped off her suit and flung that in the air, too. She ransacked her wardrobe and pulled all the blouses out of their cellophane bags. The bags weren't as satisfying to throw, so she only threw a couple of them and left the rest on the floor. She found a t-shirt and dragged it over her head, skating on the carpet of cellophane. Then she ran down to the laundry room, where she had a pair of jeans kept for decorating and put them on. She found her gardening clogs, shrugged, grinned and slipped her feet into them. Then she grabbed her bag again, ran out of the door and got into the car.
In the hospital staff room there was a mental health nursing student reading a book, sitting on the tatty blue sofa.
'Any coffee?' Tom asked. He thought how incredibly young she looked, with her cropped red hair and blue eyes and was suddenly aware of his shabby green cords and ancient grey sweater.
'Yeah, there's Fair Trade and unfair trade.'
Tom chuckled. 'What you reading?' The student waved the paperback in front of her earnest face, 'Love and Psychiatry.'
'Oh, wait 'til you're burnt out like me and then you won't be reading stuff like that any more', he laughed. The student scowled.
'Oh, sorry. No. No you must not become burnt out like me. Come on, what's it about?' Tom sat down next to her with his coffee. She blushed. 'No really, I mean it.' The student selected a page and took a deep breath,
'Loving a person is the only way to truly grasp their essence...'
'Oh god, I don't know if I want to grasp the essence of Bill. You know Bill? "Bill the Dress"?'
'Yes, I've done a case study on him. He thinks you're an angel. You're being cynical again.'
'I am. You win. Go on.'
'Well the point is, that by loving someone you allow that person to become aware of his or her potential and then to become able to be the best person he or she can be. Kinda thing. You see?'
'Yes. It's good. I'd forgotten this stuff.'
'Anyway, you are loving Bill. He's just told me he's going to start gardening group. He's really happy about it. He always wanted to be a gardener, but his Dad made him stick with maths and then go and do something that involved wearing a suit in The City.'
'Bloody hell, girl, you are good!'
'See? You're Bill's angel, just like he says.'
'I didn't know about his secret gardening ambition. You know more about him than I do!'
'I may do - in this case - but you're his angel, not me.'
'So,' Tom asked, his eyes widening, 'I don't suppose... I don't suppose you know why he wears that bloody dress?'
The student grinned, 'Yes... it's because he's mad.'
A secretary bellowed down the corridor outside the staff room, 'To-om! Pho-ne!' Tom got up and stuck his head out of the door, 'Who is it?'
'Someone called "Fish". '
'No, someone called "Fliss", sorry, "Fliss".'
'Fliss? It's Fliss?'
'You coming, then?'
'Yes, just a minute,'
'I hope that's a real minute and not a nurse's minute.'
Tom felt dizzy. He flumped back down on the sofa with the student. She raised her eyebrows, 'You alright?'
'She's my angel! I've been waiting for this day for thirty years!'
'I s'pose you'd better go and talk to her, then.'
'Yes.' Tom smiled. 'Yes, yes, god, yes!' He jumped up again and ran out of the door and down the corridor with such speed, that he thought - just for a moment - he really did have wings.