Beshley and Simone - Part One (Of Two)
By Jane Hyphen
That was the thing about Reading; it was just never quite, and neither could it be, a pleasant place to live. Situated too far away to be considered a moon of London like Ealing or Guildford but still too close and simply too damn ugly to be viewed as some satellite retreat like Oxford or Lewes. Reading was more of a black hole. Those sucked in by promises of stable employment, great transport links and good schools quickly found themselves inside a whirling vortex of dark matter and it was very hard to leave.
Certain statistics have been gathered, by whom we don't know, they were printed in several newspapers and they made Reading look appealing; for example, high property prices, a super-fast rail link to London, above average salaries and expanding employment opportunities, particularly within the IT sector. But if Reading were a swelling fruit then it was quietly infested, somewhere in the middle, with a crawling, destructive force which no amounts of soapy water or derris dust could stifle.
In order to evaluate quality of life, real quality of life, in any town or city, hidden criteria must be investigated, the things which form the current or life, the current which dances unseen, under the beat. In the case of Reading the eager statisticians had failed to mentions the higher than average coverage of dog shit and broken glass per square meter in the public parks, the number of people who fail to wash their hands (with soap) in the public toilets of BHS cafe, the number of aggressive dogs and drivers that bite and the percentage of shop assistants who fail to smile or say thank you.
It is not unknown for a Reading traffic warden to risk the loss of a leg by chasing moving cars along the street in order to apply a fixed penalty notice. The Community Support Officers (of which there are many) wear special glasses which enable them to see through people's clothes - okay that might be an urban myth but it is a fact that the road signs in Reading are designed to confuse any poor, unsuspecting visitor about, A) Where they are, B) Where they are going, and C) Whether or not they are in a bus lane (this incurs a sixty pound fine). There is a higher than average number of personalised number plates on vehicles which reside in Reading; Citreons, Vauxhalls and the like, labelled incongruously with initials and attention seeking tags, signifying an epidemic of identity crises among its residents.
Yes there are a few treasure in Reading, for example the river, the Thames, present and forgiving in the town like a great, green liver, but concealed, deliberately by the council by ugly factories and insurance buildings. Rather like a self-harming cult, the staff at the council do their very best to hide the few positive things and do everything within their power to make Reading unpleasant for its people. It is said that they installed metal grates into the town's pavements which suck the joy out of passers by, then they bottle it and sell it on for profit, to places which ARE pleasant to live in like Henley and Winchester, where it is blown out onto the streets for residents to enjoy. If you don't believe me go to those towns and see the smiles, hear the laughter and compare to the faces of the people in Reading. What do the council do with the profit? Invest it in more pain-inducing policies.
'Reading you say?'
'Yes,' said Simone, 'she's picking me up from Reading station at three.'
'Oh. Is that where she lives then, your sister?'
'No, she lives four or five miles outside, in her idyllic,' Simone lifted her fingers to make the sign of inverted commas and pulled a face of utter disdain, 'Yummy mummy world of cupcakes and baby yoga.'
'Don't go then! We could really do with your voice in the meeting this afternoon.'
Simone sighed, put on her trench coat and cinched the belt in around her tiny, waspish waist. 'I know, but I can't get out of this. Our uncle's had a stroke, he's just out of hospital. Anyway I haven't seen her kids since Christmas and she gets all uptight about that sort of thing, can't understand why I'm not simply gagging to see her perfect little boys.' Simone rolled her eyes and began to stride out of the office. 'Text me, tell me how the meeting went, yeah? Remember what we discussed and if they don't take the bait then I'm happy to fly out there next week for a face to face.'
Simone boarded the tube train to Paddington station with a sense of impending doom. Her sister too was not in the best of spirits. Beshley hated driving into Reading. She sent her sister a brief text, "I'll see you at three at Reading Station x". But she didn't feel that kiss passing down from her heart to her lips to the end of her thumb, it was simply a letter, a quick ending to the message. Her two little sons, Joshua and James were fractious, they always were on a Thursday and she'd never been able to work out why but Thursdays were unusually hard. Joshua had finished nursery at midday and refused to eat lunch. He was sobbing now because he was hungry, too hungry to know how he felt and too hungry to sleep.
'Come on boys be gentle on your mommy. I don't really want to see Uncle Bob either but your nanna would've wanted it wouldn't she? Can you do your straps yourself Joshy?'
'Yes. Can we have the telly on?'
'Yes Josh, but we'll have to turn it off when Aunty Simone gets in.'
'Coz she won't approve - she won't like it.'
'But it's our car Mommy, not Aunty Smone's'
'I know. Well, we'll see. Don't cry now, wipe your nose, here's a tissue.'
Such was the strength of Simone's bond with her career that she felt every minute she spent away from work was somehow meaningless and wasted. She huffed and puffed as she boarded the train to Reading. The journey was timetabled to take twenty three minutes, there was little point in getting out her laptop but as surrounding passengers reached down into their bags and logged onto screens she felt inadequate and overwhelmed by a need to feel worthy so she unpacked hers and switched it on. Her yellow-brown eyes penetrated deep, deeper than the words and images on the screen, they went through the screen and into the inner-chambers of her head. Children, I'm going to see children, hear their voices, she thought and she imagined a child next to her on the seat, just the same age as Joshua, she felt its presence like a little annex of herself.
The woman in the seat opposite took a phone call and began to speak in a rage-inducing pitch of such and such a project, budgets, deadlines and other corporate schpeel. Simone's face hardened, she sucked in her cheek bones and began to spin the identity badge which hung from her neck around and around. She willed her mobile to ring so that she could out-jargon her fellow passenger but it didn't so she narrowed her eyes, burning imaginary holes in the screen of her laptop. The train stopped at Slough and some flaky, sickly souls boarded the carriage, filling it with new smells and generally lowering the air quality.
Simone longer to be back at her desk, to be part of the scheduled teleconference. She would be safe there, safe from herself, it was a world within safe but seemingly sophisticated parameters. She imagined what she would say and how some of colleagues would respond. It all came so easily to her, talking the talk, that was her world and she owned it. Perhaps I can dial in? Bypass Reading station altogether and just stay on the train and be part of the meeting. Where's this train going? Swansea. She sighed, no, not Wales, Wales is a different country. I'll have to get off at Reading, see the children, I'm going to see the children. It seemed so audacious of Beshley to bare children. Something she would never, ever get used to.
The train rattled to a halt just outside Reading station and stayed there. Simone felt breathless suddenly, as if the passengers from Slough had poisoned the air in the carriage, or perhaps there was an oxygen shortage in Reading, this seemed oddly possible. Her phoned beeped with a text from Beshley; "I'm waiting in the station car park x". Oh God, there's no going back now, Simone thought, I'm here, I'm in fucking Reading. The thought of Beshley waiting there with the boys in her car was stifling. It occurred to her that perhaps she should have made her own way from the station, but the taxi drivers were expensive and hostile in Reading and the bus drivers tried to murder their passengers with wild, erratic driving before they were even in their seats. The train limped into the station. She took a deep breath, tried to smooth away the frown from her forehead and headed towards the lift which would take her down to the car park. It smelt of urine, male urine, perhaps it doubled up as the staff toilet; combine the town of Reading with rail workers, this IS possible.
The silver four by four was waiting, Beshley had big hair, big blond, cloudy hair, pulled back around her forehead by sunglasses. It was the polar opposite of Simone's sharp bob which occupied no extra volume around her neat little head.
'God it stinks in here Besh!'
'Does it? It's probably the dog, he's always in the river these days, comes out stinking. How was your journey?'
'Oh usual. Horrid little interval at Slough prepared me for my arrival here, to this dead and alive hole, well almost.'
'Hello Aunty Smone!'
Simone turned around and stared at the two little boys, one then the other. 'Hello boys,' she said stiffly. She felt no love, just a sort of faint irritation, not with them but somehow with their presence and how it affected her.
'You ready for this Simone? Coz I'm not.'
'Aunty Joan and Uncle Bob?'
'No, course I'm not ready! I hate seeing them, I should be at an important - a vital - meeting now. At least the stroke should take the pressure off, you know - the other thing.'
Beshley let out a hugh sigh and said, 'Yeah, I just hope the presence of my boys doesn't upset them.'
'Yeah, why do you bring them Besh?'
'What else am I supposed to do with them, can't leave them home alone can I!' Beshley removed an A to Z map from the sleeve in her car door and put it in Simone's lap. 'Can you guide me, I always get lost in this part of town. Christ the traffic's bad, I told then quarter past three!'
'Bump matter, bump matter, bump matter!' Joshua began to shout from the back.
'What is it Joshy? Oh has James dropped his bottle, is he asleep?. Simone, would you mind just reaching back behind my seat and picking up the milk bottle, it'll all spill on the carpet otherwise.'
Simone reached her arm behind her sister's seat and began to search with a blind hand for the bottle. 'I can't feel it,' she said after a few seconds.
'Can you try again. The milk goes off see and it smells.'
Simone shrugged. 'Can't see it,' she said glancing across at her sister, then she widened her eyes and said, 'Your kids Besh!'
Beshley looked back at her sister's expression and experienced a shard of searing pain, a crush of sadness. Nobody helped her, ever. Their mother had passed away, just after Joshua was born, her mother-in-law was passive evil, her husband was mostly a nice man but he went away a lot with his job. The couple were wealthy but Beshley was repressed and perennially exhausted. She suppressed a deep well of depression because she had to, who would look after the boys if she turned into a rocking, ga-ga gazing wreck? One day the well was destined to over-flow, creating a thick, destructive slick all around her.
As they sat in the traffic Josh began to sing a little song he'd learnt at nursery. Something about dirty nappies in the washing machine, going round and round till their all clean. Simone felt angry. She checked the time, I should be there now, in that bloody meeting, she thought.
'That's a nice song Joshy! Did you learn that today?'
'No, I learnt it for ages, I did. You should know that Mommy, I learnt it - for ages.'
'Should I? Silly Mommy. We'll be there soon. Just to warn you Simone, James'll be in a foul mood when I wake him.'
'Just leave him in the car then can't you?'
'No - I can't just "leave him in the car". Just prepare yourself for screaming that's all, ten minutes of screaming, at least.'
'Have you made any plans for the weekend?'
'Nick and I are going to a hotel in the New Forest for one night just to unwind, we've both been flat out working. What about you?'
Beshley stayed quiet for a few seconds, then said, 'Nothing really. John's away - again. Golf tournament.'
'You've got the weekend to yourself then?'
She glanced across at Simone. 'Hardly!'
'Well you're at home! You can take it easy, put your feet up.'
'If you say so Simone.'
'Come on, it's not like you're working. How hard can it be?'
Beshley felt crushed and tearful suddenly. She considered driving like a suicidal maniac but the traffic was too thick, she'd have to swerve into the bus lane, there were cameras everywhere in Reading, she'd get a sixty pound fine in the post; John went mad over that sort of thing. 'It's hard - take it from me,' she said, almost in a wheeze.
Simone's lip curled at the corner and she shook her head slowly and stared out at the hideous row of barbers shops and kebab take-aways outside. Complex emotions surged through her sub-conscious; her mind was rather like a pot coming up to the boil, the lid rattling and lifting slightly as the liquid bubbled violently within. She looked back at little Joshua. Her own child would have been just a few months older now, and it would have been a girl, Simone sensed this very strongly, she KNEW it. But it hadn't been the right time; she'd just been promoted at work, she was at her ideal weight, eight stone and five pounds, she'd registered for the marathon, and besides, Nick didn't want children, well he didn't think he wanted them. It might have been deformed too, Simone had no evidence for this but it seemed to her very likely that the unborn child would have had something horribly wrong with it. The whole thing had just seemed impossible. It was Beshley who was the one destined to have perfect children, not her.
There was a part of her that so wanted to tell her sister, to say it in a brutal way, to use the word abortion in a full frontal assault, hissing out the consonants like a bitter snake pouring poison on Beshleys perfect world of earthly mumsiness. It had been so utterly selfish of Beshley to become pregnant at the very time of her own abortion and announce it to their terminally ill mother as if it were a gift from heaven. It may well have been a gift to their mother but to Simone it had felt like a powerful, perhaps even fatal blow to the head, from which she had never recovered.
It occurred to her, not for the first time, that she could lie and tell Beshley that she had suffered a miscarriage, that way she would get all the sympathy and support she so craved, they could hug and cry together, it would bring them closer and perhaps she could even love her nephews. But it would be a foul lie, a filthy lie, a lie on top of what she'd done was sure to leave a stain of the sort that could never wash off. These thoughts caused Simone to experience an odd but not unfamiliar sensation in her abdomen, it was like swelling air, bad air, filling her womb with a sort of painful hollowness; it made to want to hurt herself, as she had done several times before to relieve the pressure.
'Is it left here?'
Simone opened the map and began to flicker through the pages this way and that. 'I don't know where we are Besh, it's all changed. How many kebab shops does a town need for Christ's sake!'
'There's a post-it note, on the page.'
'Oh yeah, hang on a sec.'
'I'm going nowhere fast, traffic's hideous as usual.'
'It's left at the next one, then down that funny little road with all the ramps.'
They pulled up outside the red-brick terrace. A curtain moved in within, a brown striped curtain, one which had long languished in the bay window of Uncle Bob and Aunty Joan's.
'Unstrap yourself Josh. Simone, can you go round and open the door on Josh's side, grab his hand and lead him onto the pavement. I'll just wake up James.'
Simone helped the boy down. His hand was plump and sticky. He looked up at her with some suspicion, as if he didn't quite believe that they were related. James groaned and began to cry. Beshley shushed him and rocked him on her hip as she locked the car.
'Don't think of Julian,' Simone mouthed as her fingers pressed the doorbell.
'He's ALL I think of when I come here,' whispered Beshley.