By L.T.W. Lucas

Chapter 17

On the return journey, I mainly slept. When I was awake, staring out of the window, I felt just hollow and incredibly melancholy. Apart from a crushing feeling of guilt at not staying just one more night with Jess and Shannon (they had so obviously wanted me to), I wasn't sure that telling Angie who her father was would actually help her in any way.
Different people sat in the seat beside me on and off, but fortunately, none of them attempted any conversation, I wasn't in the mood for talk.
Although the sun was shining and the countryside looked so lush and alive, I found myself missing the companionably miserable sky of the day before.
There was no one at the station to meet me. I hadn't rung Ruth to let her know when I was heading back, even though she had made me promise I would.
Walking up through town, dragging my case behind me, my mind shuffled through various ways of how to tell Angie all about Shannon, Jess, and what I now knew for sure about who her dad was.
When I walked inside, Angie was sitting on the sofa, coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, watching the news.
She looked up, surprised, startled.
You weren't gone long, how was your stay with your friend, what's-their-name?”
I need a drink, then I'll tell you.”
That doesn't sound very promising.”
My head was throbbing again, part hangover, part anxiety.
Can we sit at the table, Angie?”
Well, I know what that means, you need to talk.”
So I told her about my trip to London, my stay with Shannon, and that Aaron was her dad.
Angie was just as shocked as I had imagined she would be, not only because of who her father was, but the fact that I had been to London and back on my own.
Aaron! You've been to London and back! Christ, uncle bloody Aaron!”
No, my uncle, your dad!”
How the hell did you find your way across London?”
I wouldn't have if it hadn't been for Jess.”
Who's Jess?”
Shannon's partner, the woman she lives with.”
Jess pointed out that at least we still have the same aunt.”
I was hoping that repeating her comment might lighten the mood as it had when I was at Shannon's, It didn't.
Bloody hell, how weird is all this!”
So, at least you know who your dad is or was, and you did know each other.”
What a selfish piece of... What a fucking awful way to behave, to just be happy to go along with the whole mad charade, let his brother bring me up while he played fun easygoing uncle, and no one ever thought to tell me. Even after they were both dead, Shannon never told me”
Well, no, I guess she thought you were going through enough, so was Shannon, I doubt if it seemed important at that time.”
I suppose so, still.”
I'm not trying to be funny here Angie, but you know, you've only recently told me about my mum. Anyway, are you at least glad you know who he is?”
I guess so, I needed to know, but how I feel about it, I'm not really sure. I'm not sure if I care, or what difference it makes.”
So now we both knew everything and, for me, it felt like a good place to start all over again, but Angie didn't feel the same, it was as if her entire past life had crumbled away to nothing.
In the weeks following, Angie kept pulling out the case of photographs and studying them with a manic intensity.
What are you looking for?” I asked.
I don't know.”
Then she showed me one of Ryan, her, and Aaron, at the kitchen table playing Monopoly.
Angie is looking at Aaron, laughing, Aaron, as in most of the photos, is smiling broadly at the camera, Ryan is looking over at Angie, but it's hard to read his face, what he might be thinking. He wasn't smiling or laughing.”
We weren't that close, dad and I, I mean your dad and I. Now I know why, he always seemed to be holding something back.”
You've not said that before Angie.”
Well, I've never thought that much about it before.”
Are you sure you're not just looking back and reading the past differently now you know Aaron was your dad. Ryan wasn't like Aaron, you and Shannon said he was a quieter, shyer, person. Maybe any sense of distance you felt had nothing to do with anything, it's just the way he was.
Well, we'll never know now will we, what the hell any of it was all about, who felt what about who and why. Nothing was what it seemed and you're right, I did the same to you, I should have told you the truth. Everyone should have told the truth a long time ago.”
Ruth still visited every week.
I was fine, but she could see that Angie had sunk into a deep dark depression.
We both tried to persuade her to go and speak to the doctor, or have the doctor visit.
It was a waste of time. You could never get Angie to do anything she didn't want to do.
She was losing weight, which should have been a good thing, but it wasn't, Angie didn't look healthier, she looked grey and pasty.
I tried to get her to open up about how she was feeling. Now it was me getting on her nerves, constantly asking, 'how do you feel Angie', and I finally understood why people kept asking someone that question, wanting to know what was going on, how they could help. I also knew, from my own experience, that sometimes there just aren't the words, it's not so easy, you are in some dark and confusing place,
It was so frustrating. We were living in the same house, but were further apart than we had ever been in our lives. There were no more jokes or laughter. I think Angie would have actually preferred it if I'd move out, and although I would happily have done so, I knew she needed me too much.
One day I just lost it with her, got angry.
For fuck's sake, look at you, Angie! You just sit there day in and day out, never living, never doing anything, just letting your whole life pass you by, do something Angie, bloody do something, get out of that chair, turn the sodding computer off for five minutes! You're doing my head in Angie!”
Oh fuck off Zeta!”
Angie had never said that to me before.
Then she got up to walk away, to go to her bedroom, and collapsed.
I called the ambulance and they let me sit in the front seat next to the driver as it sped towards the hospital. The siren brought the day of my mother's death sharply back into focus. I felt the fear, please don't let Angie die.
She didn't, not that day. Angie made it to the hospital and they gave her loads of blood tests and scans.
I couldn't gauge Angie's reaction to the news, because there wasn't one. The doctor might as well have been telling her she had an ingrown toenail, whereas I just froze. Had I heard right, was this really happening, after everything else we had gone through, now this.
Me, the doctor, the nurse, we all waited for her to say something, but she didn't.
She knew what I was asking her, had she known.”
I guess it's not surprising really.” Was all she said.
Bloody hell Angie!”
I know, sorry Zeta.”
Then the doctor rattled on about treatment and I'm sure neither of us heard a word he said.
We were left alone for a while.
There was nothing worth saying so we just held hands for a very long time.
Angie wasn't going to be leaving the hospital that day or the next, more tests and scans were needed.
I hadn't brought anything with me, any money to get home and Angie needed clothes, slippers, a nightdress. I had no idea what to do and then I thought of Ruth. They let me use the hospital phone.
Ruth drove up and was at the hospital within the hour.
On the journey back we hardly spoke. I just looked out of the window and I can't even remember what I was thinking, or what I felt.
First thing in the morning I caught a bus to the hospital carrying a bag full of all the things I thought Angie might need.
When I found the ward she was in, the nurses said that she had just gone down for further tests.
So I waited on her bed. The ward was busy, the air was thick, stagnant, the smell clinical. A crazy old lady opposite kept yelling out, making arbitrary random comments that made no sense. Then she started pointing over at me.
You did it, she said, you did it, you're wicked, a wicked girl. You stole it from me!”
I pulled the curtain around, a nurse looked in at one point and I explained that I was waiting for Angie.
She could be a while, it's not visiting time.”
I know, but she'll want to see me and I've brought her things.”
The nurse smiled.
That's OK, you can wait.”
Eventually, Angie appeared. I could tell she was glad that I was there, she looked relieved
Honestly Zeta, I could throttle that old lady, I haven't slept at all.”
Yeah, I can imagine.”
I can't stay here Zeta, I need to go home, there's no point. I've got a bed at home, they've done enough tests.”
When the nurse came around to take her blood pressure Angie did her best to plead her case, insist that she would be better off just going home.
The nurses and doctors were having none of it.
One night, Angie tried to do a runner. She pretended she was getting up to go to the toilet and then made for the exit. What she thought she was going to do once she was outside the hospital I don't know. She was in her nightdress and slippers.
Can't run like I used to.” She said to me the next day.
Angie was joking, laughing about how ludicrous she must have looked as two nurses caught up with her.
How did you think you were going to get back home, it's ten miles away?”
I had no idea, but I had the twenty pounds you had brought up for me to spend tucked away in my wash bag. Catch a bus I guess. I don't think twenty is enough for a taxi, still, it was pretty funny.”
How strange, Angie was laughing for the first time in weeks.
They keep an eye on me now. I blew my one chance of escape.”

Chapter 18

After a week, and with a huge bag of medication. Angie came home.
The cancer was advanced, it had started in the lungs and spread rapidly, but Angie wasn't going to have any treatment, any chemotherapy, she was adamant about that.
It's too late Zeta. Let's just spend the time we have together, not going in and out of hospital with me feeling even sicker. There's no point.”
It was difficult to accept. I tried arguing with her, but I knew she was right.
This was our time together, like it had been all those years ago after mum had died.
Once again, we were muddling through each day in a strange dreamlike state, shocked by the enormity of what we were having to deal with.
Angie didn't want to talk about the cancer. Whenever I tried to speak to her about it, she just changed the subject.
Did you guess Angie, did you know?”
She would pretend not to hear me.
Hey, let's watch that film you recorded.”
If you had only seen a doctor so much earlier!”
Well, I didn't, what are we having for dinner?”
Ruth visited a couple of times a week and a nurse called in daily.
Angie sat around smoking and watching television.
I didn't want to go out for more than a few minutes, and then it would only be to get bits and pieces from the corner shop. I just wanted to be with Angie.
We did the crosswords together, or Angie got absorbed in her gambling sites while I fussed around the house half-heartedly cleaning or attempting to cook, although my heart wasn't really in it and the food was barely edible, most of it ended up in the bin.
Angie ordered her favourite cakes and desserts in our weekly online shop.
I put on weight, I got plump for the first time in my life. Sometimes we would sit with our coffee and just lay waste to a whole packet of chocolate biscuits, and I slept a lot, despite all the sugar I felt tired all the time.
Months passed in this otherworldly state and Angie didn't seem to be getting any worse.
Shannon rang a couple of times a week and we both spoke to her. She was going to come and visit at one point and then she was too ill to make the trip.
Angie seemed relieved. There would be so much to talk about, all that past to discuss, and Angie wasn't up to it. Neither of us really felt like seeing anyone. Ruth was different though, we both needed her visits.
Then Angie deteriorated and it was impossible for me to take care of her alone. The nurse increased her visits, but in the end, there really was no choice, Angie had to go to the hospice.
The hospice was a horrible place, she shouldn't have been there, not Angie, it wasn't right.
The only consolation was that she was now so heavily medicated I don't think she had any idea where she was most of the time.
I visited every day, it was a short bus ride away. Sometimes she was more lucid than others.
A few days before she died, Angie finally talked about death.
We both know what's coming Zeta love, and I worry about leaving you behind.”
Oh God Angie.”
Angie put her head in her hands, then looked up.
Look Zeta, I know this is hard for you, and it's hard for me, but please, promise me one thing.”
Start living Zeta, live on for both our sakes, otherwise my life hasn't been worth anything, all we've been through together will be wasted, just wasted time.”
Oh, fucking hell Angie!”
Please Zeta, I need to know, before I die, that you will do this for me, that you won't fall apart, I can't bear the thought of it, with me not there to catch you, please.”
Then I broke down, for what must have been over half an hour I just sobbed.
Stop it now Zeta, stop it. Cry as much and as often as you need to, and then move on.”
So I looked right into her eyes, then I grabbed her stupid great head, buried my face in her hair and whispered in her ear.
I promise Angie, I won't let you down, I love you.”
Good girl.”
Are you frightened Angie?”
No love, I'm tired, worn out and tired.”
The night she died, I was sitting by her bed, her hand in mine, my head resting on her blanket, half asleep.
I felt her go, I felt her walk away, leaving her rotten, ugly, traitor of a body behind. Angie brushed passed me and left the room.
You bloody fucking selfish bitch! You've fucking left me!” I yelled, and at that moment felt nothing but utter loneliness and despair.
A nurse came in and put her arm around me.
How we ever survive the death of someone we so deeply love I just don't know.
The months after Angie died, I felt as if I was living in a different world to everyone else, a world which contained only me and a gaping great hole that only Angie would ever be able to fill.
If I could avoid going out, I did.
Instead, I wandered aimlessly around the house, going through her things, or sitting on the stairs just staring at nothing. I'd lay on her bed, the smell of her was still there. How could she be gone?
The last crossword we had been doing together was sitting on the kitchen table, half finished. I would never be able to finish it on my own, I was rubbish at crosswords, Angie always got the answers.
There was Angie's computer. I fired it up. She was still getting emails, spam mainly. There was an invoice from eBay, she had bought a scarf and owed the seller eight pounds. I went into her account and sent a message, she's dead so fuck off!. Why would she even want a bloody scarf, she was dying and never left the damn house.
There was a record, the saved history of the sites she visited.
Ha! She liked to read her horoscope, I had never known that. Angie would have thought it a silly habit, not something she would want to own up to.
So, let's see, what's Angie's horoscope for today. It seems that this week there is going to be a clash between Jupiter and Pluto, which will complicate matters for her. It looks like she might have overspent financially and over-stretched herself emotionally. She needs to let others sort their own problems out. However, light relief could come in the form of a budding romance.
Brilliant, there you go Angie, there's romance on the way, that's good, isn't it?
Here's something interesting, her father's name, she had been reading up about him. Looking up newspaper reports from the time Ryan died and Aaron went to prison. Had she been trying to track him down, find out if he was still alive?
So, it did matter to you after all Angie, doesn't bloody matter now though does it?
Her bedroom was a tip and I told her off about it.
What am I supposed to do with all this crap, I asked her, even the charity shops aren't going to want any of these old rags.
I spoke to the spirit of Angie a lot at first. It kind of helped, gave her a frail kind of presence. She might have been able to hear me, who knows, who knows what happens when we die, where we go.
All the cakes and biscuits left in the cupboard were thrown in the bin, I couldn't eat them without Angie. I couldn't eat much at all, and I shrank back to my old skinny miserable self.
Ruth was wonderful, she kept me going. Most days she called around, always bringing something she had cooked with her, a shepherds pie or a huge lasagne that would last days. I did my best to eat what I could, it seemed disrespectful not to bother after all the effort she had made. I couldn't throw Ruth's food in the bin.
Ruth didn't want me to stay in the house all on my own, she tried to persuade me to spend some time with her and Harry, I could have her daughter's old room she said, just for a few weeks.
But I wasn't ready to leave Angie, not yet, not while so much of her was still here.
Jess had been down for the funeral and Ruth and I were the only other people there. Aunt Shannon had been too ill to travel, although she had insisted on paying for it, the cremation.
Is she very ill?” I asked Jess.
I'm afraid so Zeta, her MS is progressive, her symptoms have worsened.”
Christ, so much bloody misery to deal with.
Jess asked me to call her whenever I needed any help or advice and told me not to lose contact with her and Shannon, they were there for me.
Although, of course, they weren't, they were in London and they could never be there for me like Angie was.
If I did have to go into town to buy something, when I walked back in through the front door I half expected to see Angie sitting there smoking, but there was just her inescapable absence, and a new wave of grief would hit me every time.
Once, just after the funeral, I was standing in the queue at the corner shop. I looked behind me and there was Tammy, trapped, unable to escape. She couldn't have looked more awkward.
Oh Zeta, um, sorry to hear about Angie and everything.”
What a stupid thing to say,” I said,”you and your mother couldn't stand her, so you're not sorry at all, you're probably quite pleased, and Angie couldn't stand you, she was a better judge of character than me.”
Then I just put my basket of shopping down right where I was standing and walked away.
My legs felt shaky, I could hardly get myself home quick enough.
Part of me was glad that I had said what I had, and half of me was ashamed. I wondered what Angie would have said about it.
What Angie would have thought about pretty much anything began to rule my days.
At least I hadn't sworn at Tammy, Angie wouldn't have liked that.
How many weeks passed before I finally started to sort through and throw away Angie's things I can't remember, but it felt like a betrayal.
The first thing I managed to bag up were her clothes. They were the easiest to throw away, they weren't her, those oversized leggings and shirts. The small wooden chest full of mementos was the hardest. It contained funny little bits and pieces that must have meant something to her, a ticket to the cinema, a champagne cork, a beautiful little beaded evening bag. There were some cards and letters tied together with ribbon. They were all from Charlie, the man I had lied to her about all those years ago, the man I told her I had seen with another woman.
The shame, the self-loathing, what sort of a person was I? I had deliberately ruined her chance of any happiness and never even confessed. She could have been alive today, everything would have been different.
I went over to the cooker and lit a cigarette.
There were some scissors hanging on a hook. I put my cigarette down, walked into the bathroom and began to hack.
Great lumps of red hair fell all around me and when all that was left of it was within an inch of my scalp, I stopped.
How strange I looked, mad I guess, mad, and awful. I looked just awful.
An hour later there was a knock on the door, it would have been Ruth, I couldn't open it, she would see what I had done. Before I could hide, her face was at the window. She was mouthing the words, let me in, so I had no choice, there was no way of ignoring her.
Oh Zeta love, your beautiful red hair, oh Zeta.”
Then Ruth actually cried, it was the second time I had ever seen her cry. The first was at Angie's funeral.
It's just hair Ruth, it will grow again, I felt like a change.”
You need a change Zeta, you need to come away even if it's just for a few days, come and stay with me and Harry.”
So I did.

Chapter 19

Ruth's house was not what I had expected, it was modern, an ugly looking place covered in grey stone chippings, and all the other houses around it were just the same, like an estate, but it was called a close.
The inside was immaculate, it was the tidiest, cleanest, house I'd ever been in and I didn't like it, I had imagined that she would live in something more homely.
Then I met Harry.
He was sitting in an armchair reading the newspapers.
When he heard us come in he looked up.
Hello love,” he said to Ruth, then he focused his gaze on me, or rather, my hair.
He just kept staring at it.
Is that back in again,” he said, “Punk, “it never was a good look, not flattering at all.”
Harry, although he must have been nearly seventy, had thick grey hair. I guess he was a good-looking man for his age. I don't know why, but again, I was surprised, he was not what I had imagined Ruth's husband would look like. I'd envisaged a big jolly man.
Ruth told him off for being rude and introduced me.
Oh right.” Harry said raising his eyebrows,”Well, I've got my work cut out there.”
What was that supposed to mean, I thought.
I followed Ruth into the kitchen.
Tea, coffee, juice?”
Coffee would be great.”
Then I met Ben. a tall man, about my age, I guessed. He was handsome, there were no two ways about it. He had an interesting face, dark, clever eyes, and the confidence of a man that knows it. Hair as thick as his father's, but black, and the half-suppressed smile of someone who had seen something funny but trying not to laugh.
I'm off out mum, I don't know if I'll be back for dinner, when is it?”
About half six.”
What are we having?”
I thought I'd do a roast beef.”
OK, I guess I'll be back then.”
This is Zeta, she's going to be staying in your sister's old room for a week or so.”
Well, I don't know about that,” I interrupted, “I mean, I'm not sure how long I will stay exactly.”
This is my son Ben. He's just back for the weekend.”
Wow, has someone been in a fight with a hedge trimmer,” he said, looking at my hair, grinning.
Oh Ben, don't be so rude! Just like your father.”
Yeah, something like that,” I said, smiling back at him.
Let's face it, someone had to state the obvious, and having a joke made about my hair was better than seeing Ruth burst into tears.
I'm going to get Harry on it this afternoon,” said Ruth.
I had no idea what she meant by that, but I soon found out. I took my bag up to Jinny's room and by the time I wandered back into the kitchen, Harry was standing at the table riffling through a collection of scissors in a case full of hair products.
You sit there Zeta,” said Ruth,“ pointing to the chair at the head of the table, “and Harry will see what he can do.”
Sorry, what's going on?”
Harry is going to fix your hair.”
Is he good at that sort of thing then?”
Didn't I ever tell you, Harry's a hairdresser, well, he's retired now, but he's ever so good, you wait and see.”
So, without a mirror in front of me, I just sat there and left Harry to see what he could do.
I couldn't wait to run upstairs and look in the bathroom mirror.
Wow! It looked amazing, it was really cool, a sharp, clever cut, really professional, I loved it. I'd always thought of my long hair as my best feature, my only good feature, now I had this, a whole new look. Twiggy, I thought, like that picture of Twiggy in the sixties.
Well?” Said Harry, as I bounced back downstairs.
It's great!”
Oh, Zeta, I never knew you had such beautiful big green eyes,” said Ruth, “I could never really see your face properly, hidden behind all that hair, it was very pretty, but this just suits you so much.”
The rest of the afternoon I spent with Ruth in the kitchen, talking, and helping her chop vegetables. Every now and then I wandered out into the back garden to roll and smoke a cigarette.
You know Zeta, Jinny won't be back down to visit for another month or so, you're welcome to stay in her room for a couple of weeks.” Said Ruth, while we peeled the potatoes.
So I thanked her and said that maybe, just for a few days, it would be a good idea.
I had been sinking more and more into myself recently, getting lost again.
We had dinner in the dining room. Ruth sat at one end of the big dark wood table and Harry at the other, so there I was facing Ben, although I was trying not to look at him. I don't know why, I suppose I just felt awkward and slightly intimidated by his relaxed sense of self and belonging.
After stuffing a chunk of beef in his mouth, he waved his fork in my direction and said to his dad, big improvement, very good. Christ, you didn't get that other cut done at a hairdresser's did you?”
Let's change the subject,” said Ruth, noticing my embarrassment.
The dining room was a bit bleak, I've always liked to eat at the table in the kitchen.
You have such a tidy house,” I said to Ruth, making an effort at small talk.
Well, that's Harry, obsessive-compulsive I'd call it, and it's got worse since he retired.”
A salon has to be perfectly clean and ordered, that's all, it's just a habit, for which I have no intention of apologising. There's nothing wrong with a tidy house.”
Ruth asked Ben if he was going out with his friends.
Friday night mother, can't stay in on a Friday night.”
Then Ben asked me if I was heading into town for the evening.
Oh no, no plans.”
Well, that's not on, me and some friends are off to the pub. You're welcome to join us.”
It's OK, I'm fine.”
It's a Friday, you can't just sit here with this couple of old fossils watching television.”
Ruth laughed.
He's right Zeta, go on out, they're a good bunch, Ben's mates, you'll enjoy it.”
I couldn't remember the last time I had been to a pub and I wasn't sure I was up to it.
You've got plenty of time to wash and change,” added Ben.
Was that Ben's not so subtle way of telling me I needed a bath and some clean clothes.
I had another long skirt and T-shirt upstairs, but thinking about it, they probably needed a wash. I hadn't given much thought to what to wear each day since Angie died.
You haven't brought much with you, have you Zeta.” Said Ruth, trying to help.
Well look, you're a bit skinnier but I reckon Jinny's clothes would fit you. She's left loads behind in her room.”
Yes, you need to ditch this funereal look.”
Ben, for goodness sake!”
Oh, sorry, sorry, I forgot. Christ, I'm such an idiot.”
So he knew about Angie then, and I wondered how much Ruth had told him about me. Although I sensed that Ben didn't know much at all, and probably wouldn't have been that interested anyway.
There was an awkward silence. Perhaps I should go into town with Ben, so Ruth and Harry could have a quiet evening to themselves.
It won't harm just to look at what she's got up there, will it.” Said Ruth.
Jinny's wardrobe was full of dresses, all flouncy and flowery, not my sort of thing at all.
I don't think these will really suit me,” I said.
Well just try a few on, for fun, see what you look like in them.”
I'm not really a dress kind of person Ruth, sorry.”
Ruth pulled out the bottom drawer and rifled through it.
Look, here's some trousers.”
They reminded me of the ones Dee, the woman on the train, had worn. I pulled them on and stood back to look in the long mirror. They were kind of good, a little baggier than they were supposed to be maybe, but not bad. Low on the hip, straight cut. Then she handed me a silky cream coloured shirt.
Oh Zeta, you look great! Fantastic!”
I quite liked the new me. These clothes were alright, they weren't too girly or prissy like the dresses.
Go on love, go out, you might as well. I'll run you a bath. Wear those, they suit you.”
So I ended up wandering into town with Ben.
You're rather shy, aren't you?” He said as we neared his friend's house.
Sorry, yes, I guess so.”
Well, don't worry, relax. You'll like Rupert, he's a great guy, then we're meeting up with two more of my mates at 'The Seafarers.”
The idea of spending the evening with Ben, who I hardly new, and three total strangers, was pretty daunting. Part of me just wanted to run back to Angie's and lock the door.