We had walked down to see the frozen canal. It was the day after Bonfire Night and the sky was bright blue. Not a cloud about. Cold though. Coldest it had been all year. We sat on a bench and ate slices of Alison’s homemade lemon drizzle. Drank tea from a flask. There was a scattering of icing-sugar snow on the water’s frozen surface.
Under the metal bridge, near that place where the lads put a hole in the fence to crawl through for fishing, Alison saw it first. A spray-painted marriage proposal on the red metalwork: MARIA WILL YOU MARRY ME. It ran from one side of the bridge to the other. Either someone’s done that hanging upside down, I said, or they’ve stood on the roof of a barge to do it. She laughed and said, That’s an offer you can’t refuse. As we walked out the other side, I wondered whether she was remembering my proposal, all those years ago. It wasn’t half as romantic.
That’s when we saw them. A dozen pigeons frozen into the ice, head-first. Like a strange piece of modern art.
Less than a year later, and just a week before our silver wedding anniversary, Alison died.
Pat, Alison’s brother, came to stay for a couple of days to help organise the funeral. We don’t have a spare bedroom I said, fretting about his comfort on the settee, but he said I mustn’t worry. I should concentrate on keeping my chin up.
The service was well-attended, but my tie was bothering me. I’d put it on too tight.
Several people stood at the lectern and spoke about the ways Alison had contributed. She was known all over the estate for her community projects – planting up the school yard, re-painting shop fronts at the Parade, arranging the signage for ‘discovery trails’ around the streets. Pat finished with a rounding up of how beloved she was – I was grateful to him for that – and then we all went to the cemetery. The huge cemetery, with its large section for war graves, another for children – the only bit of green for miles around.
Alison and I used to walk through it often, weaving between the headstones.
After the burial, people crammed into our little house and ate the sandwiches they’d brought on foil trays earlier that morning. I tugged at my tie. People are kind. Alison always said so.
But Alison had gone.
In the days that followed, other things disappeared. The vase stood empty. The crossword puzzle, blank. The battered upright piano we’d rescued together from the Albion stood silent. I closed the mahogany lid on my way past.
For years we’d lived in that house together, making it our own. Alison wanted planters in the front yard, and I spent a good deal of time and muscle lugging unwanted sleepers around until she was happy with the layout. She grew pansies in them – purple and yellow – which really brightened the place up. Neighbours started to follow suit. They put out pots of geraniums, marigolds.
Inside, she insisted on new carpets. It was such a pleasure to rip up the old brown ones – they made a satisfying pop as they came away from the floorboards. I built a compost heap out back and covered it with a brown off-cut to keep the warmth and moisture in over winter. When spring arrived, I dug out spadefuls of rotted mulch and lumped it onto the planters. That year, the pansies came up huge and healthy.
They were a jazzy design, the carpets. Colourful, in-keeping with Alison’s taste: Regal Red Turkish Palace.
I knocked together a little shoe rack to position at the front door so we’d remember to go barefoot when inside. Made a row of coat hooks with matching wood. After we varnished the front door, the whole effect was quite impressive, and it was a treat to return home after a day tramping around the forecourt selling rusty old bangers. I exchanged my shoes for slippers, hung up my jacket, turned up the gas fire and poured us both a sherry to have before tea – we did it as a joke to begin with, because of how we were living in the lap of luxury, but soon enough, it was the highlight of the day. We kept it up and it became a tradition. Built a little cabinet for the sherry and glasses.
After Alison died, it all became quite meaningless. I found myself looking around thinking, would I own this or that if it weren’t for Alison? Summer bedding plants, brightly coloured interiors, evening rituals. They all meant something with Alison. With Alison, time moved forward. Flowers grew and died, crosswords were finished then thrown away, sherry glasses were used then returned to the cabinet. Without her, the house stood still, unchanging. And so, as often as not, I found myself outside, roaming in the dusk. Better that than go back to a house that’s frozen dead.
Other than the cemetery and the canal, there wasn’t really much green to speak of where we lived, hence Alison’s discovery trails. She tried to make life better for people, but it made her sad that there was nowhere for the kids to play, that the highlight of her ‘trail’ was a treasure hunt for street names and a counting game of lampposts. On my wanderings, I saw how concreted the area was.
They built our estate a mile away from the city centre, keeping us tucked out of the way. Our little houses were an afterthought, an add-on to an industrial and retail park. Park? Nothing green about where we lived. Somewhere you can park your car, that kind of park. Our estate was somewhere to house the workers in the supermarkets and warehouses.
My after-work roaming was limited to the trails to begin with, but as the days got lighter and longer, I went further, usually along the canal, searching for a bit of green. It became a habit to get right to the end, to the basin where the canal stopped and the river began. There was mooring there, and the smell of canal boat fires was like a thousand matches, all striking at once. But it would be late – bedtime – and I’d have to turn around and go back.
Then, one day, I didn’t go back. I’d gone beyond the canal basin and still hadn’t come across a green field. I had gone so far that I’d got to a village I’d never heard of. Must have been about ten o’clock because the sun was nearly set. I hadn’t made a decision about not returning home, but I think somewhere deep down, I just couldn’t face it.
The village was empty – I suppose everyone was in bed – so I weaved my way through the streets towards the church spire. When I got to the vicarage I knocked on the door. The vicar answered in his pyjamas. He was a young man who lived by himself. He gave me a cup of tea and a sandwich and told me he’d just moved there from the city. We chatted about country walking and birdlife and so on, and when he realised he couldn’t persuade me to stay, he disappeared upstairs for a moment and returned with a one-man tent. Not wanting to set up camp in his garden, I found a field on the outskirts of the village. Slept under the stars. There have been plenty of other vicars since who have given me a cup of tea and a bit of conversation before I go on my way again.
I wander through the countryside or hop on my bike, go thirty miles up the road, knock on the vicar’s door. I sleep in church porches, in farm out-buildings, under bridges. I think of that marriage proposal: MARIA WILL YOU MARRY ME. In the morning, I roll up my tent and set off through the woods and fields, or down country lanes. No tie for me anymore, no buttoned shirt. I think of Alison often.
This morning, I woke up to the first frost. Remembered the pigeons stuck head-first in the canal’s ice. We had stood there together, Alison and I, wondering what had happened. It had been Bonfire Night. The poor birds must have been stunned by fireworks. The canal had frozen over before they could come round.
Sometimes I wonder about the house. Pat has probably taken care of it. I hope he hasn’t kept it as it was, frozen in time, thinking I might return one day.
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