Between the Lines. A Short story by Linda Leatherbarrow

Between the Lines

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While enjoying an unaccustomed and leisurely breakfast in bed, Rose was struck by a new thought. She laid down her toast, flicked away a crumb, and gazed gloomily at her surroundings: whatnots, little gilt console tables and hand-me-down tapestry chairs, and that was only the bedroom. What had once seemed so comfortable, offering continuity and a well-polished notion of permanence, was now nothing more than a baleful echo.

There was no getting away from it, her flat was just like the Museum. The Westgate Museum, that is, where until yesterday she had worked.

She began to off-load her furniture on to family and friends.

‘Are you sure, are you really sure? How will you cope without . . . and so soon after your . . . ?’

‘Not at all,’ Rose replied, jumping swiftly in. ‘Perfect timing.’

She didn’t want to hear them say it – retirement; such a horrible word suggesting slippers. She didn’t let on that retirement was really a euphemism for redundancy, one suggested by the Museum, not by her, but twenty-three years of beehive thimbles and decorated spindle whorls was more than enough for anybody. And besides, she drew the line at slippers.

‘Are you moving?’ asked her landlord, emerging from his ground-floor flat.

‘Just having a clear-out, Mr Aldridge. That’s all,’ she said as she helped a man-with-a-van shift a heavy Victorian wardrobe through the communal hall.

Mr Aldridge raised one bristly, silver eyebrow, but Rose took no notice. She was much too busy scooping up fallen coathangers and hurling them into the van. Vases, ornaments, pictures, curtains, cushions – everything was given away to anyone who would take it. If she put something outside by the front gate (a broken umbrella-stand, for instance) then, in moments – pouf – it was gone. Nothing could have been more liberating.

Soon she had whittled her possessions down to clothes she actually wore, plus a few kitchen and bathroom necessities. And her books? Wondering if she should carry on whittling, she ran a finger along their spines: battered old Penguins, shiny new hardbacks; all of them repositories of secret explorations and discoveries; all of them granting safe conduct through past and future, seen and unseen. From Little Red Riding Hood to Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (a book she had almost not read because of its off-putting title but currently her favourite), it was books, more than anything else, that decided not just how she spoke and thought, but who she was. No – discarding books was unthinkable. Whittling should cease.

So it was that, wrapped in her purple wool coat, she lay on a just-delivered divan drinking mug after mug of Lapsang Souchong, telling herself that this was great. These empty peagreen walls were great, this uncluttered beige carpet, this newly spacious loft-apartment (for loft read attic), this uncurtained view over Tooting Common. For three days, she did nothing but listen to the wind in the chimney and observe wild-horse clouds zipping past the palest daytime moon. She didn’t even read. So many words, thousands of words already consumed every day. And in fifty-six years of reading?

From downstairs came a distant rattle at the front door, a thud that spelled post.

Rose found Mr Aldridge had beaten her to it; there he was, bending over the doormat in the hall. He straightened up and she noticed his eyes – puffy and red-rimmed.

‘Onions,’ he said, sniffing and dabbing at his face with the tip of his silk cravat. ‘They always get me going,’ though there was no smell of onion in the house and he was hardly dressed for cooking. In his sharp black suit with buttoned-up waistcoat and Liberty cravat, he looked as if he was just about to pop out to an exclusive club for dinner. Except for his feet, encased in tartan Doc Marten boots. Her own sported gold lamé ballet pumps.

‘Only a freebie,’ he said. ‘Any use?’

Rose found freebies particularly reassuring, filled as they were with advertisements for canine gyms and stories of marauding teenagers doing despicable deeds in municipal flower-beds. It was one thing to be confused by life at the beginning but quite another to be still confused later on. Back upstairs, she plunged straight in: News, Entertainment, Lifestyle, heartbreaking animal stories, all very enjoyable, but then came the small ads. She wasn’t going to look at those, just as she wasn’t going to check out the local second-hand shops or antique dealers. She had her redundancy money (surprisingly generous) and in due course she would go shopping, but everything she bought from now on was going to be up-to-the-minute, brand-new.

Even if the item in the far left column was leaping out at her, she wouldn’t look. Even if it was shrieking at her like a child in dressing-up clothes on a wet afternoon.

Assorted wooden letters and printer’s ornaments. £50.

Extract from The Christmas Fox III: Between the Lines © Linda Leatherbarrow 2010

About the contributor

Many years ago, at art school, Linda Leatherbarrow’s fellow students were producing larger and larger paintings, exuberant and expressionist, while her own kept stubbornly shrinking. Words began to creep in underneath or round the edges of little prints – lino cuts, woodcuts – single words and then whole sentences until, thankfully, they took over altogether. Between the Lines is her longest short story.

Her short stories have been widely published in anthologies, magazines (literary and commercial) and in her collection Essential Kit. They have also been broadcast on the radio. In 2009 she won the Guardian Hay-on-Wye Short Story Prize. She has also won a Bridport Prize, an Asham Award and an Arts Council Award, and is three times winner of the London Short Story Competition.

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