Strictly, The Last Supper
Rain. Vertical and horizontal, dimples the river and patters against Tilly’s dirty windows. She watches it glaze panes and trickle into smudges as she pours a large brandy; adds a drop of water from a pitcher and takes half-a-dozen Paracetamol.
Toothless, she mouths a slice of buttered toast; puts it back on the plate and lights a cigarette. Tilly has forty left. That will do. It is 11am on March 20th; her birthday ninety years ago. Nobody passes.
Tilly starts to tick what she plans to watch on TV; programmes which seamlessly take her from morning to bed; in the same comfortable way her navy track-suit does. It would be ‘Jeremy Kyle’, ‘Flog-It’, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, ‘Snog, Marry and Avoid’ and ‘Take me Out.’
‘If only someone bloody would,’ she says. Tilly rings her usual choices in red pen and brushes ash off the paper. Then she runs a line through the page. It won’t matter. It’s the dance programme she loves.
Swirling through the room is Tilly’s nicotine weather system. It is a near-solid, pale-blue and grey cloud which shifts and floats around amber-coloured walls. The once-clear, pear-drop, glass chandelier is a dirty stalactite. Every brick, lamp, stained-satin-blue curtain, navy carpet and worn, red-velvet sofa is tacky with tar.
She prides herself on never being ill; hardly turns the heating on and likes the sight of her own breath in icy air. Between cigarettes and brandy she reckons no bacteria or virus survives. Her daughter said: ‘Mum, if a bomb dropped; when the smoke cleared, you’d be in the dark, puffing away and picking grit out of your brandy.’ So Tilly had to take things in her own hands before the decision was removed.
In the 19th Century, wrought-iron eaves, outside the revamped, converted warehouse apartment, flocks of pigeons shelter. They preen, coo, eat and procreate from dawn to dusk. Tilly picks up the water-gun by her side, opens the window, and shoots. Her practised aim is good and they scatter.
‘If I can’t have sex; you can’t, so fuck off,’ Tilly shouts, as they circle and stream over the river, a grey squiggle in pewter-coloured sky. Nobody passes.
‘It’s like being bloody marooned,’ Tilly said, propping the water-gun up. Last week four workmen painted iron railings and sang loudly to Radio One.
‘They spent more time on breaks’, Tilly told the police later. For them disrupting Tilly’s TV she’d played an Irish CD at full-volume and when they turned up their music in retaliation, Tilly used her husband’s old air rifle and shot above their heads. They ran. The police took her gun away and there was a stern letter from the Residents’ Association threatening eviction. So she got the water gun.
Tilly sips, smokes and takes another Paracetamol. Her dead father appears, looking, not surprisingly, pale and tired. He is playing ‘Oh Danny Boy’ on bagpipes and leans nonchalantly against a pillar, wearing his full Colour-Sergeant army uniform. A half-smoked cigarette is tucked behind his left ear and his hair has a grey, seam-like parting.
‘You don’t play bagpipes. You never played an instrument in your bloody life.’ Tilly says. He carries on. She taps her talon-like, glittery-green nails to the music but is momentarily diverted because Jeremy Kyle, bug-eyed and righteous, tackles an unfaithful, tattooed, dead-beat-dad with eight children.
‘Do you remember,’ Tilly looked at her father, ‘when you slept with mum’s cousin? We got back from church early. You and Aunty Patience in the marital bed? The springs bounced over the kitchen and mum took the frying pan to both of you? Patience was not a virtue.’ Tilly laughed; her dad faded, and with him the rain.
Light reflects off the fast-flowing river and pools into moving shadows across Tilly’s unlit room. The choppy currents take gulls and swans from one side of the dock-to-the-other where a replica tall ship, slips back and forth; its rigging sparse as winter branches. Nobody passes. It is just her and the dark-twisting water, noisy pigeons and dove-grey sky. Ciggie, brandy, another few tablets.
They’d be here later; sons, daughter and doctor with their 'going forward' plans. But they'd be too late with their greasy, fake smiles and loud conversations; like she was thick and deaf. They'd put the apartment on the market and Tilly, unable to shape-up, was being shipped out.
Above light, quick, footsteps crossed the floor. A door opened and closed, toilet flushed, water coursing through pipes twined into red-brick walls and arched ceilings. Upstairs, Fiona would be waiting for the Marie Curie nurse. Fiona was the book club organiser but she won’t make the next one. Every month for the last year, six women, all over seventy, share a light-hearted library book, of Fiona’s choice, and talk about it with wine and crisps.
‘All very bloody civilized,’ Tilly muttered. Fiona used to visit Tilly once-a-week. Her bulbous nose wrinkled at cigarette smoke and waived it away. Rail-thin, neat and prim; the former primary teacher talked about how she couldn’t eat. Said each mouthful made her gag like some teenage anorexic. It started after she killed her neighbour, Celia.
Celia lived with her depressed and disabled mother, next to Fiona. Last November 5th, after two years of day-and-night shouting and swearing, Fiona knocked on their door. She asked them to stop. Celia told her to ‘fuck off’ and how would she like her ‘shite life’. Fiona’s incandescent anger exploded; for all her interrupted TV, dinners and sleeps. Celia walked to the window, opened it and said quietly: ‘I feel like jumping’.
‘Well bloody do it’, Fiona snapped. Celia leapt into the freezing river lit up by fireworks. Fiona stopped eating and started the book club. No novels about family tragedies; so the choice was limited. She blamed Celia's death for not eating but now she knows it’s cancer.
Tilly’s mother, Dorothea, appears by the TV, as always, rubbing moisturiser into her hands and nails then pulling on a pair of white gloves.
‘Matilda’, Dorothea calls her. ‘You were always difficult. Now look at you. Friendless. Your children never visit. If you’d kept with the Church you would get help.’
‘I don’t want help,’ Tilly pours more brandy, takes another painkiller. The room begins to swim; the carpet rumples like the river and grey clouds blur. Jeremy Kyle has doubled so Tilly presses a finger to one eye and he’s single again.
At least’, said Tilly, ‘Dad didn’t go on and on. You do. It’s all you ever did.’ Implacable, Christian, Dorothea, stands like a sombre book-end, in her black, ankle-length dress with freckled arms firmly, solidly, folded. No make-up, hair pinned back and those starched gloves. Even in bed at night, Dorothea wore them to keep hands soft and smooth; along with a flannelette nightdress and pink curlers.
‘Always restless,’ Dorothea carried on, ‘Nothing ever good enough. I told you to marry Doug. He had a good career and a pension but you couldn’t keep him. Now look.’
‘A pension was the only thing Doug had of value,’ said Tilly. ‘He was crap in and out of bed. In the dark he looked like a bear on top of me: all teeth with his lips pulled back. No wonder I was unfaithful.’
Tilly smiled thinly at her mother, as Jeremy Kyle asked a woman why she was sleeping around. Her mother sighed and vanished.
'Always right and always bloody miserable’, thought Tilly, putting up two fingers. Tilly poured another brandy and shakily, switched channels to ‘Snog, Marry and Avoid’.
‘Should never have done the second’, Tilly said. ‘My marriage’, thought Tilly, ‘could be summed up by ‘Mince Years’; endless Shepherd’s Pies and casseroles with Doug’s grunting noises when he ate, dirty socks in buckets, smells in the bathroom, penny-pinching and no romance.
Lovers, mused Tilly, were an oasis; ones who pleased her in bed, who laughed and drank. She never felt an iota of guilt. They were waterholes in the dead, deserted heart of until-death do-us-part, until Doug departed for a dishwater blonde. Husband, sons and daughter; gone like frost in May. Nobody passes.
Tonight’s paper is posted through the door. It's from Suzie, her neighbour, who leaves tomorrow, driving to Spain with her just-about hanging-on husband. There’ll be no-one to drop in news, milk, brandy or ciggies.
Suzie is obese. Her ankles have rolls of fat that spill over her flat, black, shoes. She doesn’t fly because she knows she’d never get in one seat. Three years ago she was pleasantly-ample. Her husband worked abroad when Suzie told Tilly she had a lover; the first in thirty years of marriage.
‘Monday Man’ Suzie nicknamed the salesman. She said he was divorced and lived in Edinburgh but came to Manchester for work every week. Suzie lost weight; bought new underwear and every Monday spent the day in bed, with a Marks & Sparks lunch and bottle of Prosecco for her and brown ale for him. Tilly was the only one Suzie told.
‘I feel alive,’ Suzie said. It carried on for two years, every week, barring when Suzie’s husband was home on leave. On Valentine’s Day Suzie sent a bouquet. Turns out Monday Man wasn’t divorced. He rang Suzie to say his wife had received the flowers and message. Suzie filled herself with food. Not like Fiona.
Tilly settles in the leather wing-back chair. Nobody passes. Her eyes close and sounds fade; She feels heavy, warm and slow. She needs a pee, so does one where she sits. She’s ready for one last, very large brandy, cigarette and the final exit with ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.