Sometimes I look again at older work and think ‘I wouldn’t write it that way now’. I suppose that must be a good thing, as it demonstrates that one has learned a thing or two in the interim. Here’s hoping I have a positive experience with an earlier novel, Noah’s Arc, which has been languishing in the treacherous backwaters of my laptop for many months, waiting to receive its final polish.
The story below, Watching the Fireworks, was one of the earliest stories I wrote and submitted to my critique group. I’ve rewritten parts of it here and there, but the text reproduced is more or less as I found it. A downloadable version of the story is also available on my website here.
WATCHING THE FIREWORKS
Mrs Quigley sat in her favourite armchair in the corner of the new conservatory. She liked to look out over the garden and glimpse the traffic on the main road beyond the back fence. The sun was already high. She watched it dapple the grass with fluttering shadows cast by the ancient oak that grew next door.
Her knitting lay in her lap beneath her hands. She would not turn to it just yet, perhaps not until her morning cup of tea. She wondered who would bring it to them today. She hoped it wouldn’t be Paris, who invariably spilled the tea into the saucer, then blamed her afterwards for getting her dress in a state.
Across the room sat Mrs Marsh, the poor dear. She sat with her head bent forward and twisted, her arthritic hands permanently clenched and knotted. Mrs Quigley had never heard her complain. Indeed, now she came to think of it, she had never heard her say anything very much, although she still seemed to be in her right mind.
It was nice and cool in the conservatory with the windows open, but soon it would become too hot and they would have to close the ceiling blinds – if they remembered. Mrs Quigley shuddered. Some while ago – she couldn’t recall the day – the blinds had been left open and most of the windows had remained closed. It had become unbearably hot and poor Mrs Marsh had started whimpering. Mrs Quigley had rung the bell, and then rung again when no one had come. Eventually, after what seemed hours, Paris turned up. She looked annoyed and asked who had rung the bell. Mrs Quigley pretended to be asleep. Paris looked round at them suspiciously. Mr Danruther really was asleep, snoring loudly, and Mrs Corbett and Miss Arbuthnot were simply incapable of ringing the bell, so that left Mrs Marsh and Mrs Quigley. Naturally, Paris had picked on Mrs Quigley and given her a good telling off, as she put it, before thumping the cushion behind Mrs Marsh and closing the blinds with a great to-do.
Mrs Quigley shivered. She did not like Paris and was, truth to tell, somewhat afraid of her. As soon as she heard her name she had felt put out. What kind of name was that to give to someone? Then when she actually saw Paris – her sharp, emaciated face, her hair dyed blonde and scraped viciously into a bun, revealing bat-like ears – she felt more than confirmed in her initial impression. There was a thin line between cruelty and inconsiderateness, thought Mrs Quigley, and Paris gave indication that she was not sure of the difference. Mrs Quigley was used to staff being inconsiderate, but she had, thank God, yet to see cruelty. Even Eileen – now there was a proper name – even Eileen, the best of the lot, could be short and bad tempered at times, when she was on her own and not much help around, especially on Sundays. Otherwise, Eileen was nice. At least, she could smile sometimes and remember your name. She didn’t call you Mrs Finchley or Mrs Bagley as Paris often did. Mrs Quigley thought Paris did that on purpose.
A siren began to wail from far off. Mrs Quigley leant forward eagerly to watch the vehicle as it dashed by. She could usually tell which sounds belonged to which vehicle, though sometimes she would still be taken by surprise. Yesterday – or last week was it? – she had been sure it was an ambulance, perhaps because the hospital was only up the road and it usually was an ambulance, but this time it had been a fire engine. The red tender had streaked by the end of the garden and she had glimpsed over the high wooden fence the crew struggling with coats and helmets. Usually, though, it was ambulances. Mrs Quigley frowned. They had a kind of ululating cry that sounded like a soul in torment. Fire engines were more business-like, with a no-nonsense get-out-the-way insistence that brooked no delay. Police cars were more difficult. They had lots of sounds and could sometimes fool you they were ambulances.
As well as playing her identification game, Mrs Quigley kept a daily tally of the sirens. Her record, which stretched back months – last September, or possibly the September before that – was no less than fifteen ambulances and six police cars. There could have been more, of course, but Mrs Quigley’s bedroom was on the other side of the dining room and she couldn’t hear from there because of the noise from the ventilation.
There was a time when she said a silent prayer whenever she heard an ambulance, but she had fallen out of the habit. There were so many of them now, it was impossible to care, really care, as she used to do when she was at home. At home she hardly ever heard a siren, so when she did it was really something, and she could wonder where it was going and what was wrong. Then she could pray in all sincerity that everyone would be all right, please God, but that was in the country and this was the city, where sirens were just one noise among many and prayer got lost on its way up to heaven, if there was one.
The siren grew louder. Mrs Quigley could tell it would pass the end of the garden before too long. And there it was! An ambulance, with lights flashing and the wail flattening out in that peculiar way after it passed. It was the first ambulance of the day and it was only – what time was it? Mrs Quigley tut-tutted. She couldn’t see the clock from where she sat and she had forgotten her own watch on the dresser in her bedroom, which was a bad idea, as things could get lost when you weren’t there to look after them. This was already her third watch and if this one left then she really couldn’t be bothered to get another. It must be around half past nine, she calculated, as they’d already had their breakfast, and she could still hear them clearing away in the dining room. Only forty-five minutes before their cup of tea, if they were on time today. If it was Paris it could be ten or fifteen minutes late, or even ten minutes early if she was determined to be off somewhere else. If it was Eileen then she would probably be on time and Mrs Marsh and the others would not start to fidget and look anxiously at the double glass doors for the approaching tea trolley.
Mrs Quigley sighed contentedly and watched the tops of cars and the sides of lorries as they drove by. Lots of traffic today, she thought. Sunlight glared at her occasionally when it caught wing mirrors and chrome, so that she had to squint her eyes every now and then. She didn’t mind that. She liked the sun, as long as it didn’t get too hot in the conservatory and they remembered to close the blinds in good time. The thought that they wouldn’t remember and that someone would have to ring the bell – that she would have to ring the bell – worried at her until she took herself in hand and turned her mind to something else.
Luckily, just when she was thinking she couldn’t think of something else, Eileen came in. The double doors thumped behind her, startling Mrs Marsh as they always did, although you’d think she’d be used to it by now, after all these years. Mrs Quigley smiled at Eileen, but Eileen couldn’t have noticed because she walked to the other corner of the room and did something with the dial on the wall by the radiator, tidied the magazines on the bookcase, punched Mrs Marsh’s cushion and walked out. Again the doors thumped closed and again Mrs Marsh gave a start. She looked as best she could at Mrs Quigley and appeared even to raise an eyebrow, but Mrs Quigley could never tell what Mrs Marsh intended because her peculiar posture meant she was given to all sorts of facial expressions and odd twitches that made Paris snigger and even Eileen smirk. Mrs Quigley smiled and nodded to make it look like she understood that Mrs Marsh had shared some significant thought with her, and – who knows? – perhaps she had. Mrs Quigley had a liking for Mrs Marsh. She hoped the feeling was reciprocated. So few things were reciprocated these days. Kindliness and good intentions had been squeezed out of people’s lives, thought Mrs Quigley. Especially here.
Kindliness and good intentions had been squeezed out of people’s lives,
thought Mrs Quigley. Especially here.
Of course, she still called it the new conservatory, but really it was looking a bit worn after however many years it had been. She could remember everyone’s excitement when it was finished and they were all allowed in for the first time. Mrs Quigley had quickly found her favourite spot in the corner and everyone else agreed it was a lovely room, as long as the blinds were closed on hot summer days. There had been more people then. There was that Jamaican lady, Mrs Rose, whose sons visited her regular as clockwork before she died. Miss Lacey and Miss Millicent were there too. Known each other all their lives, they had, Mrs Ransome had told her with a significant look. Mrs Quigley knew what she meant but had always believed in live and let live and anyway Miss Lacey and Miss Millicent were very nice and friendly, always enquiring after her health with a warm smile and a wave when they left the room. One day, they had waved to her as usual and she had never seen them again.
That was a long time ago and now there were fewer people around, although Eileen said there would be more of them soon. Mrs Quigley wondered how she knew, but didn’t like to ask. She hoped they would be nice and that they wouldn’t shout and dribble like that poor Mr Heathcote who’d stayed with them a short while and then had to leave. When was that? Eileen was here then, but Paris hadn’t started, which was just as well, as who knows what would have happened if she’d crossed swords with Mr Heathcote.
Mrs Quigley heard another approaching siren as she was admiring the clematis that spilled over the fence from next door’s garden. It was covered with buds and she could tell they would open soon, as little streaks of yellow could be glimpsed here and there among the foliage. Mrs Quigley loved a good clematis, though you had to be careful with the sun. Wisteria, too, but then you had to make sure it was sheltered and protected from wind and frost. There used to be a wisteria at home, she remembered, by the potting shed where Frank used to spend hours with his woodwork. It grew right over the roof of the shed and then into the apple tree, so that when it blossomed everything looked like a giant vine of mauve-coloured grapes. The garden here wouldn’t support a wisteria, Mrs Mason had told her when she asked about it, but Mrs Quigley was convinced she was wrong and perhaps just couldn’t be bothered. A wisteria in her favourite corner would do well, as it got the sun early and there was no wind to blast it, unlike down by the back fence where the traffic sent smelly currents of freezing air through the wooden slats that made you shiver.
Mrs Quigley frowned. She couldn’t recall precisely when, but she had a vague remembrance of standing there by the fence a long time ago. She’d worn her old overcoat with the fur collar that Frank had bought her one Christmas and she must have been mobile then as she always wore it with those good walking shoes she’d found at Brighton that lasted for donkey’s years. Now what had she been doing by the fence? Mrs Quigley thought and thought, but the occasion escaped her, as most occasions did these days, although they would come unbidden with crystal clarity when she was half-awake on a sleepy afternoon or else stuck unwillingly in front of the telly and they wouldn’t let her out.
Another ambulance. She had thought as much! That made seven. Or was she thinking of the ones she heard yesterday? No, definitely seven, and she wasn’t even halfway through the morning. Perhaps she could go for the record!
Mrs Quigley smiled. She liked to think it was up to her whether or not to go for the record, although of course she knew that everything depended on circumstance. She could hardly hope there’d be lots of fires, crimes and accidents that day, so she thought solely in terms of sirens and whether she stood any chance of breaking the record. Once, she had got near the record and only lacked one or two sirens before she had grown too tired to sit up and had to go to bed. It had all been terribly vexing, particularly as it was that very same day that she lost her watch. That would have been – let me see – her second watch, the one with the brown leather strap, which was the one she had before this one, which was black. She felt automatically at her wrist, then glanced anxiously in the direction of her bedroom. They would be doing the bedrooms soon. She hoped she’d had the sense to leave the watch under one of her embroidered handkerchiefs in the top drawer where she could get at it easily. If she’d taken out the watch and left it on the dresser and then forgotten it she might find it gone, like the times before. And she wouldn’t bother to get another one.
Mrs Quigley shook her head. The trouble was she became distracted by the photographs. She’d be dressing, sitting on the side of the bed, then she’d get up to open the top drawer and she’d see the photographs in their shiny metal frames. Then it was she would do things without realizing, like leaving her watch after she had wound it, or else putting it on absentmindedly while she looked at her wedding portrait, or the snapshot on Brighton beach, or the children’s graduation pictures. She’d stop and stare and sometimes someone would call out at her from the doorway that breakfast was on the go and she’d better hurry if she wanted any as they couldn’t wait.
Frank and she had looked their best in their wedding photo, although she had been angry at the time because Frank never smiled when he had his photograph taken, not even the day of their wedding. Looking at him now, though, she could see she had been wrong to scold him, for he looked terribly handsome in his blue serge suit and his hair swept back like they wore it in those days. Her younger self gazed at her with incomprehension, or was it she who looked at her younger self with something like amazement? She could never tell. Wedding dresses were fussy in those days, and she regretted now the limp veil with the flowers woven in the border, but she still felt affection for the frills and flounces in the bodice, her long thin eyebrows and her fashionable pallor. She sat in the elaborate armchair, the train of her dress fanned out before her, her bridal bouquet spread on her lap. Frank stood behind and a little to one side, his left hand on the back of her chair, his right hand at his side, holding those silly gloves.
Her eyes would invariably travel to her reflection in the mirror, where she could still see the young woman of twenty-one in the old lady she had now become, just as she had always seen the young man behind Frank’s wrinkled skin and grey hair. It had, all in all, been a good marriage and she could think of him calmly now, even when they had that trouble with the woman down the road and he’d come back after a few days and buried his tearful face in her arms and told her how sorry he was. He felt so bad she had to forgive him and she had never regretted it, for if we can’t forgive one another then what can we do? Anyway, it was such a long time ago and time healeth all things.
He felt so bad she had to forgive him and she had never regretted it,
for if we can’t forgive one another then what can we do?
Anyway, it was such a long time ago and time healeth all things.
The other pictures were of Frank junior and Clive, named after his grandfather. Frank junior had gone to Australia and done very well for himself. He’d wanted her to come to Australia too, for it was always warm there and she could have everything she wanted, but she had said no, it was no place for her. This was her country and she was old enough to remember the war, after all, and couldn’t leave now.
Clive … she didn’t like to think about Clive and it was just as she was remembering that she didn’t like to think about him that someone would call her in to breakfast and she would forget her watch and then perhaps never see it again because something always happened to it in her absence. They’d put it back in the drawer or under her pillow; once she had found it on the floor (her first watch, and fortunately it was still working, so she couldn’t be angry) and sometimes it wasn’t there at all – twice, in fact, so if it happened again she wouldn’t get another.
Mrs Quigley must have dozed, for a few of the others were now sitting in their customary places, waiting for their tea, and she could not recall when they had appeared. She heard the trolley approaching, its wheels squeaking and the crockery rattling, and hoped to goodness it wouldn’t be Paris, but Eileen, or Vince, or anyone but her. The trolley banged its way through the doors, Mrs Marsh gave a stifled cry of surprise, and somehow Mrs Quigley knew it was Eileen before she saw her with her own eyes. Thank goodness!
Eileen was not best pleased about something or other that someone else had done somewhere else and which meant that she, Eileen, would have to clear it all up herself. Mrs Quigley couldn’t follow it all, but she was sorry for Eileen and thought she said so, but Eileen couldn’t have heard because she didn’t smile and served the tea in a slapdash way reminiscent of Paris. Mrs Quigley’s cup was only two-thirds full and the tea was no more than luke warm, far too milky for her liking, but she didn’t complain, so pleased was she that they had been spared Paris.
Mrs Quigley liked to think that Eileen knew how they all felt about Paris and kept her from them as much as she could. After all, she was senior to Paris, or so Mrs Quigley believed. Eileen had been here years, whereas Paris was new and not in the conservatory sense of new either. Why, Paris must only have been here a few months, or at most a few years – it was always so difficult to tell the time, and … let’s hope the watch is well hidden, thought Mrs Quigley as she finished her tea. The others had Nice biscuits, but Mrs Quigley had never cared for them and they seldom did any other kind here. She and Frank used to keep their favourite biscuits in an old Quality Street tin. He liked his chocolate digestives and those bourbons she couldn’t stand. She preferred a plain tea biscuit as it suited tea so well and they seldom drank coffee as it upset Frank and she didn’t much care for it so it didn’t matter.
Then it was that Mrs Quigley heard a wonderful thing. There were to be fireworks that very evening! And not just any fireworks, not the ones they’d done here in the garden one year and then never bothered with again, but a proper firework display, the one they did every year down by the river. They couldn’t see the river from the conservatory, but it was only a couple of minutes’ walk away, so she was told, and they’d have a fine view of the high-flying rockets even if they couldn’t see absolutely everything.
This was news indeed and everyone became excited, even Mrs Marsh. Mrs Quigley had never lost her simple joy in the innocent pleasure of fireworks done well, really well, as they were meant to be. Perhaps, she thought, there is some truth in the view that really old people are like children, although today’s children were not as they were when she was a girl. She always associated fireworks with the end of the war, and dancing and singing, and people being so happy that everything was over, and new times ahead, better than the old. It was only later that one learned there were neither new times nor old times, just today, a few memories and a fog ahead.
It was only later that one learned there were neither new times nor old times,
just today, a few memories and a fog ahead.
In that disconcerting way that always took her unawares, Mrs Quigley suddenly saw herself standing at the end of the garden by the fence, her overcoat with the fur collar open at the front, her shoes sinking in the wet grass. Why – of course! – that was the day of the funeral – Frank’s funeral – and she had walked alone to the end of the garden to be quiet and by herself, for there was less traffic in those days before they widened the road. Mrs Quigley could almost feel the wind again as it struck at her through the fence and buffeted her when a high-sided lorry thundered past. She could not recall what she was thinking and possibly she hadn’t been thinking of anything in particular, for grief numbs one in its kindly embrace and only afterwards flings you away, helpless and alone. Anyway, she had felt someone approach and had turned to see a young woman standing at a respectful distance. What lovely red hair she had! Her smile was so radiant that Mrs Quigley at first thought it to be entirely inappropriate, if not downright insulting, but then she realized it meant something else. That something else was difficult to fathom, then as now, but Mrs Quigley could remember how comforting that smile became, how compassionate, yet how full of innocent mischief. She could not describe it to herself any other way.
Other people had joined them and Mrs Quigley had lost sight of the young woman with the red hair. She ceased to wonder who she was and had then forgotten her completely, until this very day. And now she had recalled her again and the more she thought of her the more she remembered. How strange! Mrs Quigley was not given to reminiscing. She comforted herself that she never regretted anything that had happened and did not wish anything to have been different to what it was, even the painful things or the errors in life that everyone makes. We are who we are, she believed, like it or not.
Mrs Quigley was a light eater. As soon as lunch was over she returned to the conservatory, for a few extra minutes gained could make all the difference in her quest for the record. It also meant she didn’t have to watch some of the messier eaters. She always tried to be fair and to make allowances, but sometimes she could almost sympathize with the complaining staff when she saw some of the things they had to cope with. Thank goodness she was not as bad as that Mrs Eaton! Her own hands were a little shaky, but she could still grip a knife and fork and she had never spilt her glass of water.
Thinking of messy eaters reminded her of the day Frank had one too many and thrown his dinner to the kitchen floor, frightening the boys until they cried. A lovely leg of lamb it was – she could see it now and gone to waste, although she did salvage some of it and served it again without telling. You couldn’t afford to throw anything away in those days. Frank certainly had a temper on him, but he’d mellowed with the years, otherwise she didn’t know what she would have done. Then there was that trouble with the woman down the road, God forgive her, and later Clive, but she couldn’t think about him now without getting upset.
At least she had found her watch, the one with the black leather strap, which she wore now safely on her wrist. She clutched it protectively with her right hand. It was under the handkerchiefs all right, ticking away as if nothing were the matter. She’d felt such relief she’d absentmindedly sat on the edge of the bed rather than in the armchair and been told off. They didn’t like you to sit on the beds once they’d been made just in case visitors saw and thought the beds hadn’t been done. Not that Mrs Quigley could recall any visitors in the bedrooms.
By the end of the afternoon Mrs Quigley had counted eight ambulances and two police cars, so she was in with a chance. Much would depend on her ability to remain awake in the early part of the evening, before the fireworks. She felt alert but knew she couldn’t rely on her own impressions about such things. Often, these days, she would fall asleep before she knew it, waking up with no idea of the time or even the day. The weeks wore away whether or not she paid attention. Never before had life slipped behind her so quickly, yet each waking hour could last forever, especially when Paris was on the prowl.
She had never been very good at remembering birthdays and could no longer recall her own age. She was very old, she knew, but when she looked in the mirror she still had the impression that everything – the aged skin, the thin grey hair, the dull eyes, the missing teeth – would all disappear with a decent wash and scrub, and there she would be as she once was. Not that she was attached to her youth and she would not wish it back again for all the world. She caught Mrs Marsh looking at her in that peculiar way of hers and smiled in understanding. Perhaps she should say something to her, but try as she might she could not think of anything. Perhaps she had said something to her. When had she, Mrs Quigley, last spoken? This morning, to Eileen? At lunch? Just now?
Communication these days was fraught with difficulty and one had to be careful. She had never been a close-mouthed woman and she had nothing to hide, but people could be so hurtful if they took things the wrong way. Perhaps that was why she couldn’t think of much to say, for fear of offending. Sometimes she’d think and think and try to say something, but her lips would not move and her voice sounded all wrong. She’d see the embarrassed faces and the sidelong glances and give up rather than make a scene. Smiling was best. She hoped she could still smile at least. A smile makes everything seem so much better …
Mrs Quigley awoke from a dream of happiness. She had counted oh! so many sirens and had shattered the record, simply shattered it. There had been many more fire engines than usual and she had worried that a great fire had broken out somewhere, but this sad thought was overshadowed by the new record. She could not quite remember the new score, but it was considerably higher than the previous record. It must have been something like sixteen ambulances and six police cars, plus five fire engines. Yes, that sounded about right and she should make a note of it, only it would have to be a mental note because by the time she found pen and paper in her bedroom she would have forgotten.
And there were the fireworks. What a wonderful end to the day! Eileen and Vince and Paris came in chatting among themselves and began to align the chairs so that they faced the big front windows. Her own chair was already facing the right direction and she could see the sky darkening beyond the illuminated streetlamps. She had missed lighting-up time and felt ashamed to have fallen asleep when she had intended to stay awake for the record. She glanced at her watch, her first watch with the gold bracelet, and saw that it was half-past nine. Gracious! It was getting late. She hoped she could stay awake for the spectacle. There was a funny sensation in her head like a distant throbbing which reminded her of the sirens at the end of the garden.
Then, muffled through the closed windows, they heard the whiz of rockets and a loud bang that made Mrs Marsh jump with fright. All at once a shower of sparkling rubies and emeralds was flooding the night sky, and then they were falling, endlessly falling, on their upturned faces. There were more explosions and the colours expanded into silvers and golds and a lovely cobalt blue. The colours crisscrossed one another in intricate patterns of heavenly beauty. Mrs Quigley’s eyes filled with tears. She gazed in wonder and gladness and heard the others exclaiming with delight. She looked around her and felt suddenly an overwhelming tenderness for everyone. Paris turned to her and they both smiled.
All at once Mrs Quigley thought of herself with a sudden clarity she had seldom known before. How silly she had been! She had not done very much with herself after all. What kind of a wife and mother she had made she no longer felt able to judge. She had drifted along without much thought, trying to do her best, ineffectually, uncomprehendingly. The point of it all was lost to her.
It was then that Mrs Quigley felt a burning sensation in her breast. She looked down and saw that she had spilled tea all over her bodice. The stain spread rapidly over her knees and soaked into her knitting. She noticed her feet in their pink slippers were shaking oddly. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, she found herself on the floor. She watched as her ball of wool rolled away and two rows of knitting unravelled.
Above her, the fireworks erupted in glorious blossoms of yellow and green. Mrs Quigley cried silent tears. To be vouchsafed this wonder! And now Paris and Eileen were leaning over her, saying things she couldn’t hear, and she was able to smile apologetically for the trouble she gave.
When Mrs Quigley felt a great pain deep inside, she turned her weary eyes to the double doors. She saw them open and – Yes! There she was! That lovely young woman with the red hair, arms outstretched and enrobed in radiance, had come to usher her away to her favourite spot in the corner of a splendid new conservatory.