Doorstep

I noticed the figure out of the corner of my eye as I went to the bathroom.  I’m not at my best first thing in the morning and my eyesight hasn’t been great for some years now.  But, as I glanced down the stairs at the front door, there was clearly someone there: outside.  “Milkman?” I wondered.  Ten seconds, twenty seconds … no movement.  “Not the milkman, then.”  Although not usually a timid person, I felt a bit uneasy.   Why would anybody be standing on my step at six in the morning?  There’d been no knock and I hadn’t heard a car pull up or any footsteps on the gravel as I’d lain awake for the previous half hour.  I’d been feeling a bit under the weather and had hardly slept a wink, but a full bladder had woken me from a brief sleep and I’d just had to get up.

And now I couldn’t hang on any longer, though, so I slid into the bathroom as quietly as I could and shut the door, controlling the handle to keep the noise as low as possible.  “Stupid!” I told myself.  “The front door has a heavy bolt, there’s no need to worry.”  But my skin was clammy and tingling at the knowledge that somebody was on the step.

Living alone can be difficult at times, especially when you get to my age.  My children have moved far away and my husband died nearly 25 years ago, when he was 53, from a massive heart attack.  The internet is my main connection to the world, although I’m not housebound or anything; I just keep myself to myself, like I always did, so I don’t really talk to the neighbours.  My arthritis has been getting worse and when I go to the shops, I’m becoming painfully aware that it’s taking me longer and longer.  But I don’t usually scare easily.  At least … I didn’t.

As I opened the bathroom door again, I realised that I was holding my breath and I let it escape through pinpoint lips, with almost a whistle.

“Still there!!”

The words in my head were the loudest sound in the house.  As I stepped back onto the landing, it occurred to me that the person might be able to see me, too, and I froze, staring at the still, dark figure.  The blue, frosted glass of the door didn’t give a clear view – just an impression.  It was no good – there was no way I could tell which way they were looking.  When I moved again, it was toward the wall, hugging it in an attempt to blend with the shadow and I tried to picture the view through my front door from the outside.

Having stood on that step thousands of times, you’d think I’d have a perfect mental image of what could and couldn’t be seen by somebody looking in, yet I couldn’t work out whether the top of the stairs would be visible from the step.  Glancing behind me, I considered the bathroom window.  It’s quite high up … small and covered by a dark roller blind!  They wouldn’t be able to see me because the background would be too dark to make me stand out!!  Thank God.  But what should I do?  I couldn’t stay there, watching.  I would have to go and dress.

Cursing my own procrastination, I opened the wardrobe door a fraction; knowing that it would send out a raucous screech if I opened it any further.  For at least three months, I had been intending to oil it.  But at least I could reach some clothes, which I put on as quickly as I could whilst keeping up the silence.  All the time, listening for anything that might suggest that the person on the step was moving, trying the door, leaving me alone, going around the back.  Going around the back!!  The doors and windows were all locked – a habit I’d developed after a burglary many years before – but they would have a clear view into the house from the back.  I’d come up to bed while it was still light; spent a couple of hours reading in bed.  So, even though my bedroom curtains were closed, the ones downstairs would all be open.

Of course, I couldn’t even get downstairs without having to walk really close to the front door and there were at least two stairs that would draw attention to my presence.  I was trapped.  Slowly, I twitched aside the corner of my curtain and strained to see the area in front of the step, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the person properly, but perhaps I could catch a glimpse.  No.  Nothing.  Not even a hint of a shoulder.

Creeping to the top of the stairs, I peered around the banister and instantly saw that the figure was still there – dark, large, menacing.  “Why?” I wondered.  “What does he want?”  This last thought fell like a thud.  “He?  Why did I think that?”  There was nothing to indicate that this was a man … it was certainly somebody tall, but so am I, and the clothes were too blurred to be distinguishable.  All I could tell was that the person on my step was tall, very good at standing still, and wearing something dark.  It seemed that the whole figure was of one colour, so could this mean that they had their back to me?  That they were wearing a hood?

I ventured onto the top step and, holding the handrail tightly, I eased myself into a seated position close against the wall.  The very creaky stairs were three steps down and then seven steps down but there was another temperamental one four down.  I didn’t believe I would be able to step over the worst one, without setting off the other one.  I definitely couldn’t step over two; my hips wouldn’t let me.  If I hugged the wall and only stood at the very edge of each step, I might make it down, but I was pretty certain that once I got halfway, if this person turned around then I would be totally visible.  My nerves were strained beyond anything I had felt for years and I wanted to cry.  If I cried now, I might not be able to stop my sobs from becoming louder and I was just too terrified to take a chance on drawing attention to myself.

If I made it to the living room, I would be able to take the phone into the kitchen, out of earshot, and call the police.  I would close the curtains, too, if I made it that far.  In all this time, I hadn’t seen the figure move a muscle.  The light was brighter now and I was sure they were turned away, standing like a guard on my step.  Not looking inwards, but out at the world.  “Why?”  Again the question reared its head.  But I didn’t want to think about that too deeply.  I just wanted to get help.

As I shifted my weight to pull myself up using the handrail, I felt a pain in my neck and into my jaw.  My vision swam and I felt the sweat pouring from my forehead and the palms of my hands.  I sank back against the wall and screwed my eyes tightly shut.  My heart felt as though it had swelled to fill my chest and the worst nausea I had ever imagined gripped me and held me pinned.  I was so frightened.  So frightened that I shuffled onto the next step on my bottom, and then the next.  The stair made its customary blackboard screech and I looked at the door, afraid of what I would see.  The figure didn’t move and I shuffled again, wanting only to get to the phone.  More in need of an ambulance than the police.

I don’t even know how I got to the living room, but that’s where I first opened my eyes.  I could feel my head being lifted and felt the hands on my shoulders and my neck.  Something was on my face, but nothing made sense and then I was just floating and jolting.  Noises … talking … I couldn’t move.  My arms were trapped … and then there was nothing.

Waking in the hospital, I felt the cold smoothness of the sheet and smelt the clinical smell so particular to such places.  My tongue was like an emery board and I looked around for a drink.  In the next bed, a woman in her forties or fifties was watching me.

“So, you’re awake at last!”  She seemed surprised.  “You’ve been talking in your sleep, you know.”

I cleared my throat.  “Is there anything to drink?”

She got out of bed and shuffled over in sponge slippers.  She poured me a glass of water from a large jug and watched as I struggled onto my elbows and then to an upright position.  The water tasted horrible, like an old metal spoon, but I needed it too much to care.

“Who’s Bob?” she asked.

I nearly choked on the mouthful of water I’d just taken.

“Bob’s my husband.  Why?  Did I talk about him in my sleep?”

“A little bit” she replied, “but I was wondering because I heard the nurses talking.  They said that if he hadn’t been there, you would have died.  He called the ambulance.  Weird that he didn’t wait around once they came.  They said he just stood on the step until the paramedics went in and was gone when they came out.  They said he went so quickly, it was like he’d vanished.”

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Birthday madness and the aisle of many cheeses

I had to go to the supermarket – the kids had gone and eaten the food again – and I decided to get some cheese to go with our spaghetti dinner.  When you want a particular cheese, you really notice how many there are on offer, ranging from the absolutely inedible ‘plastic’ cheeses specifically designed to adorn burgers to rustically packaged Camembert that shows up with almost clockwork regularity on Come Dine With Me, accompanied by crusty bread they have bunged in the oven and pretended to bake.  There were about 20 different types of Cheddar alone and I found it mildly intimidating, to be honest.  And then there was the Quark.  Before today, I thought that was just something I’d heard Brian Cox wittering about – the trendy physicist, rather than the versatile actor – or even an avaricious character from Star Trek.  But now I know that it’s also pretend cheese.

There’s a back story to this cheese hunt.  Recently, our household has been experiencing ‘birthday fortnight’; it’s like Wimbledon fortnight, in as much as it happens every summer, is ridiculously expensive and invariably ends in sweaty exhaustion.  Sadly, there are no generous sponsors, no trophies and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe, but on the plus side, I don’t have to entertain any members of the royal family or maintain a pristine lawn and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe.

It isn’t really a fortnight, to be honest – it’s very nearly three weeks – but the structure is this: my birthday happens first and is ‘celebrated’ in an understated way with shop-bought cake and the possibility of takeaway food so I don’t have to cook.  When I don’t cook, that’s a treat for everyone.  Ten days later, it’s my daughter’s birthday and this is taken seriously.

There are birthday traditions in this house:

  • I make a cake, based on something they like at the moment and the design is a surprise, which involves me making the cake two days before the birthday so I can decorate it the following day.  This also means that once the decorating starts, the birthday child has to be kept out of the kitchen, which is an extra gift to them because it absolves them of tea-making duties.
  • I make a card, based on something they like at the moment and featuring the birthday person somehow in the design.  The acquisition of photo-editing software made this much easier than when I used to do it using scissors and paint.  This also remains a secret from the birthday person, so they aren’t allowed within sight of my laptop screen.
  • I make a poster, featuring them doing something odd-looking and with a ‘humorous’ caption.  This goes on the living-room wall for them to see when they get up in the morning.
  • I draw and write on a couple of balloons and hang them near the bed of the person in question once they’ve gone to sleep.

They seem to like these traditions.  The youngest, who has just turned 13, certainly does, although the others may be humouring me on the last one.

So, as I said, it goes: my birthday, ten days later – elder daughter’s birthday.  Three days after that is my father-in-law’s birthday, for which I don’t have to do anything except buy the present and the card, then wrap the present and tell my husband what we bought, so he won’t look surprised when it’s unwrapped.  Since it’s almost always some DVDs, he’s unlikely to look surprised, but better safe than sorry.  Four days after that, so one week after my elder daughter’s birthday, it’s my elder son’s birthday AND my younger daughter’s birthday.  They are not twins.  There is, in fact, 11 years between them and they were both born on a Monday.  I’m considering hiring them out as proof that astrology is nonsense, since they’re very different people apart from the dry sarcasm that my children all, inexplicably, share.

You may have realised by now that the birthday traditions, as outlined above, become quite complicated when two of your offspring share a birthday, but are 11 years apart and don’t like the same things.  I start making their cards and posters early so that the two days I spend, entirely in the kitchen, making and decorating cakes are not fraught with the added stress of knowing I have those jobs hanging over me as well.

But that’s not all.  Two days after the double birthday is my father’s birthday.  This year, he turned 90, which is quite special, so I made him a cake and a card.  I didn’t sneak into his house and hang balloons by his bed, because I don’t think killing him with a heart attack is the ideal way to start his 90th birthday.

So … back to the cheese.  I decided to make a cheese board, which isn’t a group of people who sit around making decisions about cheese as you might suppose, but a small selection of cheeses, arranged on a board – or a fancy tray that came with a garden candle – and accompanied by some crackers.  Amongst these cheeses was a garlic roulade, which absolutely nobody wanted to eat, so I ended up sticking it in the pasta and it tasted quite nice.  So that’s why I ended up in the supermarket, looking for cheese for the pasta.  Which reminds me of the final birthday tradition – living on leftovers.

My name is Oonagh and I am …

I have a confession. For a while now, I’ve been working for an online company that supplies copywriting jobs. That’s not the confession; I have no need to be ashamed of this fact, having registered for tax and everything, although that’s more in hope than in expectation. I’m on target to have earned enough to pay for one school uniform by the end of the tax year – not necessarily THIS tax year, but certainly A tax year. I won’t name the company who provide me with these jobs, since I have no proof that they aren’t secretly MI5, testing my capacity to keep my mouth shut and form grammatically correct sentences, ready for the day they need somebody to infiltrate Rupert Murdoch’s empire. On second thoughts, the grammar thing wouldn’t be an issue, so that’s probably not the job they have in mind.

It’s not like a ‘PROPER JOB’. There is no guarantee of work, I’m definitely earning less than the minimum wage and I don’t see a friendly face for days on end. Actually, it’s quite like some ‘PROPER JOBS’ I’ve had in the past.

It works like this –

  • I log on to a website (MI5 – Shhh!)
  • I check my messages – invariably, there are none!
  • I open a separate browser and post a comment on Twitter
  • An hour later, I remember I was supposed to be working, but I’ve had three retweets and five favourites; it’s a personal best.
  • I look in the different categories – these change frequently but there are some regulars, e.g. animals, science, product descriptions – I look at them all. (Once, in ‘Science’ I found a job writing about the symbolism of Chinese food items. Richard Dawkins would have been livid!)
  • I try to find something I can write, either because I have some specialist knowledge (Pies, Columbo and the film career of Cary Grant) or because I can research it (Anything that is not pies, Columbo or the film career of Cary Grant)
  • I select a job and work on it
  • I submit the job and – BANG – three days later, they probably accept it, although I have had to rewrite things before now. For example, in an article in which I had specifically mentioned Goth fashions, they returned it to me because they wanted me to mention Goth fashions. On another occasion, I linked to the BBC and they asked me to link to a reputable website, ‘like Wikipedia’. The client is always right. The client is always right. The client is always right.

The pay varies from ‘terrible’ to ‘okay’, but I have a limited skill set. I’m not Liam Neeson, so my skill set won’t ever help me if members of my family are captured by sinister men, but if they want me to write them an advert for stolen arms or microfilms as some kind of ransom fee, I can do that. I do this work because I’m fairly good at it and it allows me to carry on with my real job as a taxi-driver to my children.

But this is the thing: I write fashion blogs. There! I’ve done it. I’ve confessed!

If you’re wondering why I feel the need to get this off my chest, you have obviously never met me or seen a full length photo of me, apart from the tiny one on my WordPress profile, in which you may not have realised I’m wearing a Nylon jacket, fleece tracksuit bottoms, battered boots and a liberal coating of mud. The idea of me writing a fashion blog, or even being allowed to discuss fashion in company, is frankly absurd! To illustrate the point, I’ll have to let you know that I am currently wearing a Betty Boop nightie, grey pyjama pants, a pink fluffy dressing gown and socks adorned with pictures of foxes.

However, my daytime clothes are picked using the same basic criteria as my night-time clothes. I want to be comfortable, warm/cool depending on the weather and I like my clothes to be reasonably priced.  I firmly believe in the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – so I get most of my clothes from charity shops. I’m not fashionable. I have never been fashionable. If I ever become fashionable, you can rest assured that it will have been by accident and won’t last more than a season, since fashions change a lot more quickly than my wardrobe. I still have clothes I wore when I was expecting my first son and he just turned 24.

In short, if my employers, clients or anybody who has read my fashion blogs saw me, it would be akin to discovering that Giles Coren sits at home eating Pot Noodle with a wooden fork from the chippy as he writes about the merits of the organic rack of lamb at the Hix Oyster and Chop House. They would have no confidence in my assurances of the likely prevalence of faux punk this winter or my conviction that oversized, colourful coats are going to be EVERYWHERE by the end of the year.

The sad thing is, if anybody saw me in my raggedy black cotton trousers, black, hopelessly stretched jumpers and endless parade of novelty socks, they might just think that you can’t believe what you read on the internet. And I wouldn’t want them to think that!