Forget Her Name – Jane Holland

Through the glass, everything is white, white, white. The winding road into the village resort, the Swiss chalets in the distance, the ski slopes, the high Alps beyond, all of them laced with thick, deep, white snow like a Christmas postcard. Leaning both hands against the chill window frame, I press the tip of my nose to the glass. My breath mists up the glass in a wobbly circle round my face. The fog it makes on the window is stronger each time I exhale, the only warm thing in the room; then fainter as I breathe in. It’s hard to make anything out through that fog. I don’t really need to see outside though, since it’s all the same lumpy, formless white. Even the sky is too pale to be grey. It feels as though every drop of colour has been sucked out of the world, and this is what’s left over. Total white. Pure as a pill. Daddy comes back at last, snow still clinging to his boots and coat. He stamps his feet, looking at me. ‘Cat,’ he says heavily. I run towards him for a hug, and we hold each other.

He feels cold, too. Like a snowman. I ask in a small voice, ‘Where’s Rachel?’ When he doesn’t answer, I peer up at him, trying to read his face. Daddy is pale, like the snow-laden sky. Even his lips are pale. He brushes my blonde fringe out of my eyes, gazing down at me. He hates the way it flops over my face, but I like the way I can look out at the world through it. Look out and know they can’t see in. ‘I thought your mother already spoke to you. I thought she told you—’ ‘I didn’t believe her.

’ I raise my voice, trying to make him understand. ‘Mum tells lies. She’s always telling lies.’ ‘Sweetheart, don’t say that. You know it’s not true.’ I’m shaken by his calm acceptance of what is happening. He shouldn’t be here in this horrid little room, talking to me. He should be out there, doing something to help my sister. She’s the one who needs him today. Not me.

‘Where’s Rachel? Tell me.’ ‘I want you to listen very carefully, okay? No, you need to stop shouting and listen.’ His hands drop to my shoulders, and he squeezes lightly as though to emphasise his words. ‘I know this is hard. The hardest thing you’ve ever faced. But what your mother told you is true.’ ‘No, no . ’ ‘Rachel is dead and we’re never going to see her again. Never, ever again.’ He pauses, searching my face.

‘Do you understand me, Catherine?’ I feel numb. Like I’m out there in the cold with Rachel. Like nothing will ever be the same again. ‘Yes, Daddy.’ ‘What did I just say? Repeat it back to me.’ ‘Rachel is . ’ ‘Say it.’ ‘Rachel is dead.’ I hear my voice wobble on those momentous words, and his face blurs through my tears. I sniff loudly and look away.

I hate crying. It makes me feel like a kid again. A little kid after a nightmare, helpless and frightened in the dark, even though I’m twelve now. Practically a grown-up, Mum always says. His hoarse voice nags at me. ‘And?’ He’s crying too, I realise. I push my own unhappiness away and focus on his. It’s hard, but I can just about manage it without collapsing. My sister is dead. I struggle to understand what I’m feeling, but my thoughts slip out of reach even as I try to grasp them, bobbing away on a tide of grief, refusing to be pinned down.

All I feel right now is this appalling numbness, and beneath it, a wicked, secret, niggling sense of relief. ‘Rachel is dead,’ I whisper, ‘and she’s never coming back.’ Chapter One The woman cradling the baby starts crying again just as Sharon dumps a brown-paper parcel on my workstation. ‘For you,’ she says shortly, ignoring my startled glance, then turns to the crying woman, who is gazing in despair at the shelves of tins and packets she’s not allowed to have. ‘As my colleague told you, we need a letter of referral before we can release any food,’ she tells the woman. ‘I’m sorry, love. Those are the rules at the Tollgate Trust and we have to abide by them. Perhaps if you speak to someone at the benefits office? They have a fast-response scheme if it’s an emergency. I can give you an information leaflet from the council if that’s any help.’ The woman has a telltale split lip, and a fading bruise on her cheek.

Teary-eyed, she glances at me as though hopeful that I’ll intervene. I look down at the paperwork on my desk instead, fiddling with my pen. I used to smile in a sympathetic manner when people came in without referral letters. But as Sharon explained to me, that often makes the situation worse. ‘A smile can be taken the wrong way,’ Sharon told me after a few uncomfortable incidents in my first week. ‘They’re already upset, yeah? So if you say no, but with a big smile, it looks like you’re taking the piss.’ Most of the people who come in here are lovely people, really lovely. But a few of them are definitely on the edge. One man with mental health issues threatened to punch me in the face. Another spat at me, and the police had to be called.

We’re on the edge of Chalk Farm here, which is North London. Not a bad area, but there are pockets of trouble. I came here initially to help out in a practical way. The constant sight of people sleeping rough on the streets of London finally got to me, and I wanted to be useful. But Sharon’s training sessions were an eye-opener. ‘Always be polite and friendly,’ she told me and the other new volunteers. ‘But if you can’t help them because they don’t have an official referral, don’t give them any reason to get nasty with you. And that includes smiling too much. Got it?’ I got it. The woman looks away, and I smile at the baby in the pink romper suit instead.

She stares back at me with large, solemn blue eyes. Sharon starts rummaging for an information leaflet for the woman. I put down my pen and examine the parcel, unsure what to make of it. At first glance I assumed it was another donation to the food bank. They come in quite frequently from anonymous donors. It’s not particularly heavy though. And it’s addressed to me personally, not the food bank, which is unusual in itself. An early wedding present, perhaps? I tear off the brown-paper wrapping. It’s a plain cardboard box and inside is a snow globe. I freeze, staring down at it.

I see the face of a familiar, smooth glass sphere, glittering water inside, half buried in a heap of protective white polystyrene chips. It’s Rachel’s snow globe. My fingertips touch the glass, hesitant. I could be mistaken. Must be mistaken, in fact. It can’t be her snow globe. How could it be? But when I brush away a few polystyrene chips, there on the black plastic plinth below the glass is my sister’s name. Printed long ago in block capitals onto a stick-on label that’s now smudged and peeling slightly at one corner. RACHEL. My hand starts to tremble.

‘What on earth’s that?’ Sharon asks, peering over my shoulder. The woman with the baby has gone, I realise. Hurriedly, I cover the snow globe again and close up the cardboard box. ‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘I mean, it’s personal. Not for the food bank.’ ‘Okay, well, when you’re ready . I’ve got a Mrs Fletcher here with a referral note from social services.’ Sharon sounds impatient, as though I’ve been caught slacking. An East End accent that thickens when she’s annoyed.

Salt of the earth, as my father might say. Not that Dad is ever likely to come into the food bank and meet my boss. Thankfully. ‘Could you possibly see to her if you’ve got a moment? Family of two adults, three teenagers, wheat allergy.’ ‘Of course, sorry.’ I shove the parcel out of sight under the desk, and turn to Mrs Fletcher with a broad smile. Smiles are allowed for people with the proper documentation. ‘Hi, I’m Catherine,’ I tell her cheerily. ‘Have you brought a list of what you can’t eat?’ Mrs Fletcher, a harassed-looking woman in her early forties, gives me a wary smile in return. ‘Here.

’ She shoves a scrap of paper into my hand. Her hands are red and swollen, with a gold ring on nearly every finger, almost hidden by flesh. ‘We’ve only the one kid with an allergy though. The rest of us need bread and pasta.’ ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you sorted out.’ I glance over the handwritten list, and then lead the way across to the food storage area. ‘If you could just follow me, Mrs Fletcher?’ My heart is thumping and I feel a little light-headed. Who on earth would send me Rachel’s old snow globe? And why? ‘This is the first time I’ve ever used a food bank,’ Mrs Fletcher is telling me. ‘I’m not out of work.’ ‘There’s no need to explain, Mrs Fletcher.

’ ‘We’re not poor. Not homeless or anything. Been in the same flat three years now, never caused nobody any trouble. It’s only because I’m on one of those zero-hour contracts. Only they’ve not called me in for two weeks, have they?’ she adds bitterly. ‘Like they think we can survive on thin bloody air.’ ‘Well, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s cover the basics first.’ I take a plastic bag and shake it out, then start filling it with standard items from the list on the wall above me. ‘Sugar? Tea? Coffee?’ ‘Thanks,’ she says to all of them, nodding.

Some of those who come here look embarrassed or start to excuse themselves, as if they’ve done something wrong by not being able to afford basic food for their families. They haven’t, of course. Far from it. But a few still feel the need to explain. I’ve noticed most are less defensive with Sharon and Petra though. My accent, probably. I don’t sound like I fit in, my voice too cultured, even though I try to disguise it. ‘Too posh’, as Sharon often says. They instinctively see me as an enemy. Even aggressive.

Someone who’s had it easier than them. Someone who hasn’t had to struggle for everyday needs. All true, of course. I can’t deny my posh accent or my privileged background. But there are things they don’t know about me, too. Things long-buried and forgotten about. I say nothing though. What would be the point? ‘Thanks, love,’ Mrs Fletcher repeats, watching me select a family-sized packet of dried pasta. ‘And some rice, maybe? That goes a long way, doesn’t it?’ When the shopping part of the process is finished, I find a cup of tea for Mrs Fletcher so she can wait to speak to someone about additional help. Then I pop my head round the office door to ask Sharon if I can go for my lunch early.

She’s surprised by the request. Turning from the filing cabinet, Sharon glances up at the clock on the wall. Her face registers slight irritation, but only the sort that comes with tiredness. ‘You not feeling well?’ ‘I’m fine. I just have a few errands to run.’ I manage a wry smile. ‘It’s been a bit manic recently, what with the wedding coming up.’ Sharon looks back at me indulgently. ‘Of course. Three weeks on Saturday, isn’t it?’ I nod.

‘You must be so excited. Have you got the dress yet?’ ‘Yes.’ I smile then, despite myself. ‘I picked it up last week. It’s so beautiful. I only hope I can do it justice.’ I’d gone for the ‘mermaid’ shape in the end, fitted closely from the sweetheart neckline down to the knee, then flaring out in a lavish display to the hem. Beautiful appliqué flowers cling to one side of the ivory satin bodice; the other side dazzles with tiny sequins. By not booking an expensive reception after the church, but inviting everyone to join us at a nearby pub afterwards for drinks and a finger buffet, we’re saving a fortune. So I spent up on the wedding dress instead, maxing out my credit card on the beautiful outfit, which includes matching underwear and ivory satin pumps.

‘Of course you’ll be gorgeous, silly girl. All the men will be falling over each other to have a look at you.’ Sharon winks at me, thick black mascara clumped at the ends of her eyelashes. ‘And how’s Dominic coping?’ ‘Not too bad. In fact, he texted me earlier to confirm all the tux rental details. My dad’s the only one who’s making a fuss.’ I make a face. ‘Sometimes I wonder if he actually wants me to get married.’ ‘Oh, it’s just their way. Dads always hate losing their little girls.

’ Sharon returns to filing the paperwork she’s been working through, happy with all this talk of dresses and weddings. ‘Go on, you run along. Get your errands done. Me and Petra can cope.’ On my way out, I grab my jacket from my chair, and then tuck the parcel carefully under my arm with the woollen garment folded over the top. I struggle outside into the grey, windy, North London street. It’s too cold to walk far without a coat though. I stop a few doors down, put the parcel on the pavement as gingerly as if it contains a bomb, and shrug into my jacket. Then I tuck the box under my arm again, and hurry on to La Giravolta, the family-run Italian bistro on the corner where I usually eat a quick tuna sandwich or quiche for lunch. As I hesitate in the doorway, peering inside, an acquaintance waves at me from across the room.

Georgia from the book club. She’s dining alone, the seat opposite conspicuously empty. I wave back, then abruptly change my mind about going inside. The last thing I need is to get sucked into yet another conversation about Dominic and the wedding. Not today. Head down, as though I’ve just remembered some urgent mission, I turn back into the wind. It tears at my unbuttoned jacket and I shiver, dragging the two sides together with one hand. Bloody hell. I’ve left my scarf and gloves behind in my hurry to get out. It’s been a bitter start to November.

My feet ache from standing since early this morning, and my hands are numb from the chilly, warehouselike Tollgate Trust food bank, with its constantly open doors. It’s important work. Not paid, except for Sharon, who’s employed full-time by the charity to run the place. Important and worthwhile nonetheless. I chose the position deliberately, aware that I was born with every advantage in life, while others just as deserving are less fortunate. And since my parents were happy to cover my rent while I found my feet in the world of work, that made a volunteering position possible. I have no real reason to feel guilty, of course. But it was time to give something back. Good intentions aside, my feet still hurt. I thread past two black-hijabbed women with buggies, then dart across the busy road in front of a lumbering double-decker bus, earning myself a glare from the woman driver.

On the other side, I continue another few blocks until I reach the Costa coffee shop. It’s blissfully warm inside, and nobody looks round when I enter. I check all the tables for anyone I know. They are all strangers. I get in the queue, the box still awkward under my arm. The man behind me glances at it curiously, but looks away when he encounters my gaze. Finding a quiet seat at the back, I eat half my panini, sip on my latte, then push both aside and place the parcel squarely on the table in front of me. The address label has been printed. It looks neat and professional. I check the underside but there’s no return address, and no note inside to indicate a point of origin.

The brown-paper wrapping is plain; the white polystyrene chips are generic. I can’t imagine who could have sent it to me. And to the food bank, not my home. I reach inside and pull the snow globe free of its rustling nest. My breath catches in my throat. It wasn’t a mistake. Or not on my part, anyway. Even without my sister’s name on the plinth, I would have known whose globe it was. I recognise the village scene inside, the miniature Swiss chalets, the white-capped mountain with its obligatory tiny goat. Rachel loved to shake and shake the globe, only laughing when our mother pleaded with her to be careful.

‘Rachel, please don’t,’ Mum would say. ‘You’ll break it if you drop it.’ But of course she never dropped it. The snow globe feels smooth and heavy in my hands, snug on its black plastic plinth. There’s a thin crack across the plinth; I can see where it was mended. My father did that with superglue, then it had to be left to set for half a day. I glance about the busy café, but nobody’s looking my way. Nobody cares about this strange, unsettling reminder of my sister. Only me. It’s like looking into the past.

Like my childhood still exists inside a locked room in one of those snow-covered Swiss chalets, almost within reach, if only I could see through the white-out of the storm . Then something else bobs round with the fake snow, bumping against the glass. I cry out, almost dropping the globe. An eyeball? Not a joke-shop eyeball. A real, honest-to-goodness eyeball, white and fatty, with ragged bits of pinkish tissue still hanging off where it was cut out. There’s an eyeball in the whirling snow, staring back at me. Chapter Two Our flat is five minutes’ walk from the Hanwell Cemetery end of Ealing Broadway, a large old Victorian house divided into one- and two-bedroom flats. We’re on the top floor. ‘Hello?’ I ask warily, unlocking the front door. There’s no answer.

I kick the door shut and hurry straight into the bedroom of our one-bedroom flat, not pausing to strip off my thick scarf and gloves. The curtains are still drawn. The windows are narrow and the ceilings slope on the top floor, so the room constantly feels small and gloomy. I flick on the light, breathing quickly after my fast walk from the bus stop, and look about the place. Books and open magazines lie everywhere, cups balance on book stacks, dirty plates gather dust on the floor, the wastepaper bin overflows silently in a forgotten corner. The double bed is still messy from this morning’s scramble to get up in good time, the duvet thrown back in a tangled rush, one of Dominic’s dark hairs on the pillow. A crumpled sock dangles over the lampshade. It looks like the flat has been burgled. Nothing unusual, then. I bend and shove the anonymous parcel, still partially wrapped, under the bed.

It slides into the narrow space with barely an inch to spare. Easy to remove though, and hidden from view when I step back to check. ‘There.’ I’ll deal with it later, I tell myself, and try to ignore the guilty thump of my heart. Dominic will be home any minute, and Rachel’s snow globe isn’t a conversation I want to have with my fiancé. Not today, anyway. Dominic sheds like a bloody cat, I think, glaring down at the long strand of hair coiled on his white pillow. I strip off my gloves and shove them into my coat pocket. With a grimace, I tweak the long hair off the pillow and drop it into the wastepaper bin, then plump up both head-dented pillows. Shaking out the duvet, I arrange it neatly across the bed.

Straightening up, I eye the dirty sock on the lampshade, then decide to leave it there. I don’t want him to suspect anything is wrong. ‘There,’ I say again. Before leaving the room, I pause in the doorway and glance dubiously back at the parcel’s hiding place. Will I even be able to sleep with that thing under the bed all night? The front door bangs. Closing the bedroom door, I turn with a quick smile. ‘Dominic.’ ‘Hey, baby.’ Dominic looks exhausted, still in his blue hospital scrubs, his nurse’s identity badge twisted up in a loop on its lanyard and stuffed into his top pocket. There’s a dark shadow on his chin where he needs to shave.

Twelve-hour shifts as a nurse practitioner in Accident and Emergency. Not easy to cope with. He smiles wearily and kisses me on the lips. We nuzzle together for a moment in silence, his head on my shoulder. I should tell him about the snow globe. Only I can’t. ‘You’re early,’ I say instead. ‘And I’m late.’ ‘Busy day?’ ‘Busy day,’ I agree without elaborating. ‘And the bus took forever to arrive.

I was just going to make a pot of tea. Want some?’ ‘Gin would be more appropriate,’ he says, ‘and hold the tonic.’ ‘I expect that can be arranged,’ I tell him lightly, but raise my head to study his face. I know that tone. ‘What’s happened?’ ‘Oh, you know . same old shit in A & E.’ ‘Dom, come on.’ ‘It’s nothing. I’m knackered, that’s all.’ I raise my eyebrows, still waiting, and he adds reluctantly, ‘An old lady died.

Old ladies do that, don’t they?’ He drags the identity badge up over his head and tosses it onto the hall table, then staggers past me into the tiny living room. I follow in silence, wishing there was something I could do to help. But he hates me fussing. Making an irritable noise under his breath, he reaches up and pulls off the hairband that holds his ponytail strictly in place during the working day. ‘Except they’re supposed to die at home, or on the ward,’ he mutters, and throws himself onto the sofa, taking up all the space. ‘Not in a bloody uncomfortable chair in a crowded corridor, after waiting nine hours to be seen by a doctor.’ I don’t ask for details. He’ll tell me more if he wants to. When he’s had a crappy day like this, Dominic rarely wants a two-way discussion. He just wants to get the acid out of his system for a few minutes, which usually means bitching about Sally Weston, his manager in A & E, or the increasingly visible cracks in the NHS.

Then he’ll sink down in front of the television with a beer for a few hours and not mention it again. I kneel on the rug beside him. ‘Fuck.’ ‘Nobody even noticed.’ He throws an arm across his eyes. ‘She’d been dead maybe twenty minutes, half an hour, before anyone even thought to check she was still breathing.’ I lean my forehead on his shoulder. My heart aches for him. And for the old lady. ‘This fucking government .

’ He kicks the far end of the sofa, and there’s a distinct crack. ‘Shit, sorry.’ ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I stroke his hair, trying to communicate how sorry I am without being mawkish. Dominic distrusts sentimentality; he says it clouds the important issues, that love is better without pity in the mix. ‘What was her name?’ ‘Ida,’ he tells me after a long pause. ‘Her name was Mrs Ida Matthews, a widow. And she had a son, and three grandchildren.’ ‘Weren’t they with her at the hospital?’ ‘On a winter holiday, she said. Two weeks’ bloody skiing in the Alps.

’ I tense, pushing away a sudden vision of Swiss chalets against a backdrop of snowy mountains . ‘That’s awful.’ ‘I left Sally trying to find a number for their hotel.’ He gives a croak of humourless laughter. ‘If I hadn’t spent so long talking to her, we wouldn’t even have known about them. She could have been lying unclaimed in the morgue for days.’ ‘You did your best.’ ‘Oh yes, I did my bloody best. No one can blame me. Or the doctor.

Or the system. We were all doing our best under difficult circumstances, that’s what the report will say.’ Dominic sits up suddenly, knocking me away. His eyes are damp and bloodshot. He stares at nothing, his face grim, then turns his head towards me and says, ‘Sorry,’ without actually meeting my gaze. ‘You’re only trying to help, and I’m being shitty. Come on.’ Standing, he holds out a hand to me. ‘Let’s make supper together. I’ll do us chicken pasta.

You can tell me about your day.’ I think about my day, and my smile falters. ‘You’re too tired.’ ‘I insist.’ He pulls me up effortlessly, six foot of pure brawn, and kisses me again, this time a lingering kiss that leaves me warm and aching. ‘Mmm, you’re so good to come home to. I love this.’ His fingers play with my short, ash-blonde hair. ‘Soft hair, soft skin . ’ His hand slips down to my behind.

‘Soft bumps.’ ‘I beg your pardon?’ To his credit, Dominic gives an embarrassed laugh. ‘Curves, then. Though I like to think of them as bumps.’ ‘You mean like speed bumps?’ ‘Quite the opposite effect. Your bumps make me go faster, not slower.’ I grin at that, and kiss him back. My lips part and his tongue slips between them, probing delicately. I know what he’s asking and don’t pull away, slipping a hand down between our bodies. I take my time, my eyes shut tight, concentrating on him.

It’s the perfect distraction. He starts to harden against my fingers, and his breathing quickens. ‘Yes,’ he mutters. We don’t make it to the bedroom. He makes love to me right there on the sofa, from behind, while I’m bent over, gasping. I don’t know where he finds the energy, after his long shift at work. I close my eyes and try to close off from that other world. The one with eyeballs, and parcels from anonymous ill-wishers. Despite his fatigue, he makes love to me with a familiar, almost violent urgency that often accompanies days when he’s witnessed a death at the hospital. Afterwards, Dominic lies panting beside me.

‘You didn’t come,’ he says. It’s not a question. All the same, I consider lying. Avoiding all the fuss by pretending he missed it in the rush of his own orgasm. But a greedy little voice in my head won’t let me. Instead, I whisper, ‘It doesn’t matter’, and wait. ‘Of course it matters.’ His hand pushes between my legs, bold and insistent, as I secretly hoped it would. ‘What about the pasta?’ ‘Fuck the pasta.’ I stifle my cries against the cushions, my face hot and flushed, my legs shaking as though after some traumatic incident. Dominic always seems to know what I need, physically. It’s his gift, I tell him in a hoarse voice, but he’s already moving away and doesn’t hear me. I consider showing him the snow globe. But then I decide against it. He knows I had a sister who died young. But none of the details. And that’s how I prefer it. I don’t want him to know about my past. About Rachel.

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