I’m walking back from the job centre, having a good sniff at the air, looking at the trees to see how many I can name, and I’m just trying to decide if this particular one is an elm, when I stop: someone’s left a chest on the side of the road. I circle it, admiring the grapes carved in curlicues around the sides. It looks like mahogany. There are a few scratches on the top and the varnish along the bottom is scuffed, but it wouldn’t take long to fix it up. I lift the lid to assess the inside. Solid. It’s amazing what people will throw out.
The houses on Kingdom Road aren’t small – you’ve got to walk a good twenty paces up the drive before you get near the doorbell – so if there’s any chucking out going on, they’ve got the stuff to chuck. In the past I’ve had a couple of paperbacks that were balanced on a wheelie bin, and there was a Hoover that didn’t suck very well, but I’ve never seen anything like this. The only problem is there’s no way I’m going to get the chest home by myself, and if I leave it here someone else is bound to have it. There’s only one bar of energy left on my mobile and a few pence credit so, talking very quickly, I get the number of a taxi firm and ask them to send me their roomiest car.
Five minutes go by and I’m still congratulating myself on my luck, debating whether I should put the chest on eBay or make space for it in the living room. There’s a clump of white campion growing near the roadside, so I stoop down to examine it and a few more minutes pass. The sun’s out and the sky is a lovely patchy blue.
I’m just thinking where I might get hold of some varnish when an old-fashioned station wagon pulls up and the woman driving it turns off the engine and gives me a look like daggers. I wonder if she owns the house and isn’t throwing out the chest at all but moving it inside, so I give her an innocent smile and step away slightly. Her curly hair is tied up in a scarf and when she gets out I can see the rest of her outfit: pantaloon trousers and some sort of Indian smock thing. She isn’t from India, though, she’s about forty-five, middle-class hippy type, the sort you see going in the health food shop.
‘Excuse me,’ she calls, walking towards me. Any pretensions about love and happiness and sharing the hippy vibe are right out the window because there’s an edge to her voice like she’s caught me doing something illegal. ‘Excuse me, but I’ve come to collect this.’
Now, in my experience, what most English people suffer from is embarrassment, a big dose all round, but by the sounds of it this woman has missed out on her helping and had doubles of superiority instead. I take up my previous position, leaning on the chest, dead silent, giving her the look she’s giving me. You can see her working out how to play it. She takes a few steps nearer and puts her wrist to her forehead as if the sun’s in her eyes, which it isn’t because it’s only March and even though it’s sunny we’re not getting the glare where we’re standing because of all the trees.
‘This. I saw it earlier and I’ve come to pick it up.’ She motions to her car.
In the meantime I’ve had a moment to think about how to play it too and have decided on ‘council house and violent’, which is probably what she expects anyway.
I give a sigh, like I can hardly be bothered to reply. ‘Well, unlucky for you, innit?’ Innit is not one of my words.
She steps right up to the chest. ‘Look,’ she says, going into social worker mode, because I might be carrying a knife for all she knows, ‘I was walking past and then I went to get my car. I’ve only been gone for a couple of minutes.’
‘I’ve been here ten and I ain’t seen no sign of you.’
She looks at her watch like it’s playing tricks on her. ‘It was a matter of minutes,’ she says. ‘I only live a few streets away.’
‘Losers weepers,’ I say and glance over my shoulder because I’m hoping the taxi is going to scoot round the corner, but of course there’s no sign because when do taxis ever come early? Only when you’re still rushing to do your hair and get your lipstick on.
When I turn back it’s clear from her face that my last remark has got her going. There’s a vein throbbing in her neck.
‘This is ridiculous,’ she says. Then, trying to pretend I’m not there, she puts her hands around the corners of the chest that I’m not leaning on. But I clasp my arms around it like it’s my only child and social services have come to take it away. She says ‘ridiculous’ again, and tries to drag her end of the chest towards her car, but my weight keeps it from moving very far. She stops. Her face is blotchy pink and the scarf has gone skew-whiff. Up close, I can see that she must have her hair done at a salon because the colour looks expensive, not like the cheap stuff my mum uses, where the shade never matches the one on the box.
‘Can’t you accept that I saw this first without making a spectacle? There’s my car!’
We’re fairly evenly matched, about the same size I reckon. ‘I’m not making a spectacle. I’m minding my own business waiting for my taxi. You’re the one who’s got her knickers in a twist.’
That really winds her up. ‘People like you,’ she says.
‘People like me what?’
I know how the sentence ends. I know she wants to say ‘are just plain thick’ or ‘are what’s dragging this country down’ or some of that other shit. But she doesn’t because she doesn’t want to hear herself saying it out loud, even if it’s what she’s thinking. Bet she doesn’t know an elm from an ash.
‘Finders keepers,’ I say.
‘Oh, for God’s sake, this is mine.’ She makes another assault on the chest. Because I’m not expecting it, I stagger sideways and lose my hold. She’s dragged the chest a couple of feet before I can get back to it. A man from the house across the road is pretending to put his rubbish out but actually he’s having a good stare, and I don’t blame him. I would too.
‘Will you, for God’s sake, let go?’ she says. God again.
‘You don’t own this, love.’
The word ‘love’ is worse than if I’d sworn. Her eyes go small with fury. She reaches into the pocket of her pantaloons and takes out her phone and, with one arm holding the chest, uses her free hand to dial. She talks quietly, but I can hear.
‘Daniel. Daniel, it’s me. Listen, I need your help. No, now. No, no, nothing like that. Listen, it’s urgent, could you drive to Kingdom Road? Can’t you cancel the meeting? It’s important. It’s –’ At this point she’s conscious of my face too close to hers for comfort. ‘I can’t explain now. Please, Dan. Well, tell them to get someone else to go. Oh, for fuck’s sake, Daniel, one little thing. No no, don’t worry. Oh never mind. Yes, I know you have to work for a living.’ The phone goes back in her pocket.
‘Oh dear,’ I say, which fires her up, making her give an almighty tug. She’s trying to drag it, and all that anger is making her pretty strong, but with my weight on it, the chest isn’t moving properly. We’re head to head, both of us leaning over; my arms gripped around one side and hers around the other. That’s the moment when she lunges forward and bites my fingers.
‘Aaagh!’ It’s the shock more than the pain that makes me cry out and I jump away from the chest as if it’s red hot. She takes her chance and starts shuffling madly, but in the same moment a car swings up beside us and the driver gets out like he’s one of the Sweeney. About time. I’m standing there shaking my hand and I can see this woman’s teeth marks on it, tiny purple crescents in my skin.
‘Pick up for Leanne?’ says the driver.
‘That’s me,’ I tell him, still waving my hand around.
‘You all right?’ he asks.
‘She bit me.’
Scarf Head is huffing and puffing and by now the blotches on her cheeks have turned red.
‘You bit her?’
‘Oh piss off, will you? This has nothing to do with you.’
This is obviously the wrong thing to say. I shake my hand for effect.
‘I think there’s blood.’ There isn’t any blood. ‘She could have rabies.’
‘You’re the one who’s mad,’ she screeches.
‘She’s taking my chest,’ I tell the taxi driver, helpless.
‘Right,’ he says and goes to open the boot. The car is pretty clapped out, but it’s big: a hatchback with plenty of room inside.
‘Come on,’ he says to me, striding over to Scarf Head who has dragged the chest nearer the boot of her station wagon. He’s a hefty bloke and, without looking at her, he takes one side of the chest and I take the other, though I’m not really feeling any of the weight because he’s got it all, and together we carry it to the taxi.
She knows the game’s up, and even though she’s livid she can’t do anything to stop us. She tells me I’m a thief and I should be ashamed, which is quite funny, because I’ve never tried to take a chunk out of anyone in my life. There was a girl at school, I had a hank out of her hair with kitchen scissors when we were in home economics one time, but that’s because she said something about my mum. But I wouldn’t do that now. Not at the age of twenty-seven, never mind forty whatever she is.
The taxi driver has a friendly face. There’s a swirl of hair on the front of his head from his male pattern baldness.
‘You don’t see something like that every day,’ he says as we pull off. ‘Thought it must have treasure in it the way you two were carrying on.’
‘No, there’s nothing in it.’
We have a chat about this and that. I like to take advantage of talking to people, because when you’re unemployed you can get out of practice. Now and again I’ve started conversations with myself – ‘What are you having for tea, Leanne?’ – but you’ve got to nip that in the bud because it’s a one-way ticket to ding-dong land and before you know it you’ll be wearing men’s shoes and poking around in bins.
When we get to my flat we park up close to the steps and the driver helps me carry the chest through the main double doors. Fortunately, I live on the first floor. It’s quite awkward manoeuvring the chest around the corners, but he’s good-humoured about it. I unlock the door and we get it inside.
‘Thanks for that.’
‘Phew,’ he goes, pretending to wipe the sweat off his brow.
‘How much do I owe you?’
‘Call it two fifty.’
There’s no way it’s only two fifty. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah, you’ve given me a laugh – the sight of you two in the middle of the street like that.’ He smiles. ‘How’s the hand?’
The purple crescents have dissolved into faint pink marks. ‘I’ll be all right.’
He pockets the money and is about to go, when he glances out of the front window.
‘Hang on, there’s your friend,’ he says.
Sure enough, when I look round she’s standing on the verge at the front of the flats, glaring. I follow him outside.
She doesn’t move when she sees us.
‘You come for another bite?’ I shout over. No response, just the evil eyes. I put my index finger to the side of my head and make the international sign for ‘nutter’.
‘Want me to have a word with her?’ the driver says. But he doesn’t get the chance because all at once she’s striding over.
‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ she tells me in a trembly voice. ‘You shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t yours to take.’
‘Well, it wasn’t yours, was it?’
‘Yes it was. It was mine and you took it.’
I don’t think I’ve seen anyone look so angry, except maybe the time I borrowed my sister’s best pair of jeans without asking and broke the zip.
‘What’s your game?’ says the driver.
She looks at him in confusion, like this is the first time she’s ever seen him, then looks back at me the same way.
‘Bloody hell,’ I say to myself.
Her voice is quieter when she speaks again. ‘You took it from me,’ she says. Then her bottom lip gives way and she does something with her eyes so that her eyebrows go up like a dog’s when it’s begging. She makes this half-whimper sound and then she’s crying, right there in front of us, standing on the scrubby patch of grass beside the car park. Proper tears. Her shoulders are shaking, and the tears are coming down her face one after the other, and she’s letting them come, not even trying to stop herself. A strand of snot is dripping from her nose. The sound she’s making is awful, goes right through me. I can’t stand it when people cry.
‘Come on, it’s all right,’ I tell her. But it isn’t all right; she’s completely lost it. ‘Don’t cry.’ But she keeps crying. The taxi driver shakes his head.
‘Come and have a cup of tea,’ I say.
‘D’you think that’s wise?’ asks the driver.
‘Yeah, she’s all right.’
I feel bad for making the nutter sign at her. A tiny little bit of me even feels guilty for having the chest off her, but what else was I going to do?
‘She’ll try and take that chest again.’
I look at her. ‘No she won’t.’ She’s trying to stop herself now; she makes two big shuddering sighs. Her face has softened. Her shoulders have drooped and she looks saggy, like a balloon with the air gone out.
‘I’m taking your number plate,’ the taxi driver tells her. ‘So you better not try anything.’ She nods, but it’s obvious she’s lost her fight.
‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Come inside for a minute.’
I lead her into my flat and guide her to the settee. She perches on the edge of it, fiddling with a tassel on her Indian smock, her eyes pink-rimmed and starey. It’s quiet just the two of us, so I flick the radio on and a blast of ‘Having a Good Time’ by Queen comes out, Freddie Mercury hollering about Mr Fahrenheit. I turn it off again, but the music has woken her out of her daze and she looks around as if she’s just realized where she is.
‘I don’t know what got into me,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry.’
I’m not sure if she’s sorry about the biting or the crying or both.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I say and duck into the kitchen to fill the kettle, give her a couple of minutes to straighten herself out, put a few biscuits on a plate like I’m somebody’s mum with a visitor. I can hear her in the other room blowing her nose, but I stick where I am, concentrating on pouring tea, wondering what I’m supposed to say to her.
‘There you go.’ I set my best mugs down and take the armchair.
‘Is your hand all right?’ she asks.
‘Yeah, it’s all right.’
She takes a sip of tea. ‘It’s a nice flat.’
Probably not what she expected; no nylon carpets and overspilling ashtrays. The walls are painted white – the landlord paid for the emulsion because it saved him a job – which has the effect of making the place look fresh and bigger than it actually is, which isn’t very big; a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom without a bath. There’s not much on the walls: a Chagall print, two sepia posters of Paris from the twenties, and three postcards of amaryllis flowers I framed myself. I don’t like clutter, it gets on my nerves. I like things to be clean and organized.
The chest is still where the driver left it, at an angle beside the telly. We’re both pretending we can’t see it.
‘Feeling better?’ I ask her.
‘Yes. Thank you.’
I’m stumped then, beginning to think this tea-drinking was a mistake, and there’s no music fuzzing up the silence between her and me, so the atmosphere is a bit on the awkward side. Just as I’m wondering what to say next she says, ‘I’ve been under quite a lot of strain recently.’ Right. I’m thinking, haven’t we all, but she’s not finished yet, she wants to try and set things straight. ‘I lost my job and things have been rather difficult.’
‘Sorry to hear that,’ I tell her, which is what you say.
‘They called it rightsizing the business.’
‘My sister works in HR. They’ve had to lay people off by the dozen.’ Angela’s the high-flyer in our family; she works for a big hotel chain.
‘I was there nearly fourteen years,’ says Scarf Head, taking another sip of tea. ‘They carved up my job between two of my colleagues. One of them was about your age, I helped train her when she arrived.’
I give her a nod, let her know I’m listening.
‘She was fresh out of university, didn’t have a clue.’ She fixes her eyes on the carpet. ‘And they got me to knock her into shape.’
‘I’m not working at the moment either.’
‘Waiting for something to come up.’
‘Anything in particular?’
‘I don’t know exactly, I’ve done all sorts.’ I leave it at that.
‘It’s good to be adaptable. That’s part of my problem, I think. I was in a niche profession.’
Adaptable, that’s one way of putting it. I’ve adapted to the pub, the biscuit factory, the chemist’s, the fish market, the department store and the doctor’s surgery. Finally thought I’d got somewhere with the last one: posh Simon and his one-man-band PR firm. Until it went bust. He blamed it on the recession, but the truth is he didn’t have a clue – floppy hair and stripy suits and no idea how to write a press release.
‘I hope you find something,’ she says.
‘It’s difficult out there, isn’t it?’
She makes ‘out there’ sound like outer space. But I can’t see why she’s worrying so much. I’ve had a glance at the rings on her wedding finger, a thick gold band and an engagement ring with a fat white diamond in it. I doubt she’s ever seen the inside of a job centre. Not like the women her age I’ve seen signing on, not as if she’s going to be in there asking for a crisis loan.
‘I keep applying,’ she says, ‘but nobody wants to see me for an interview. I’ve thought about removing my date of birth from my CV.’
‘Something’s bound to come up,’ I tell her, ‘and you’ve got your husband to . . .’ I was going to say ‘take care of the bills’, but it doesn’t seem right to allude to the scene earlier, not now we’re sipping tea together. ‘I mean . . .’
‘Oh yes, my husband,’ she says, and that angry note is back in her voice. ‘At last he can have me at home all day making jam while he goes out slaying dragons. I have to ask him every time I want a new pair of shoes.’
I drink some more tea because I don’t know what to say to that one.
‘What do people do all day if they don’t go to work?’ she asks. She looks at me intently, like I might have the answer she needs.
‘I don’t know, whatever they like I suppose.’
‘What do you do?’
‘Go for walks. Read. I’ve applied for a beginners’ class in botany at the adult education college. You get a concession if you’re unemployed.’
They have loads of courses at the college; she could do one in Indian head massage, or yoga, or stress management. She nods, but she doesn’t seem like she’s interested. I can tell her mind is still fixed on the graduate who’s got her job.
‘What do you like doing?’ I ask her.
‘Working,’ she says. ‘All I need is to get back to work and I’ll start feeling like myself again.’
‘Just got to wait for the right thing to turn up,’ I tell her.
She nods, but she’s not really hearing me. I know how it is, there are those mornings you’d like to put on your work clothes and get out of the flat, even if it’s to a job you can’t stand, because it gives you the day off from worrying about your life. But you’ve got to keep your balance or you’ll end up in a mess, and then what? Before you know it you’re in the street taking bites out of strangers over a piece of furniture you don’t even need, just so you can feel like you’ve won something for a change.
I ask her if she fancies another cup of tea, hoping she doesn’t, and she says she ought to be going.
‘Thanks,’ she says at the door. ‘You’ve been very kind.’
I wish her good luck with her job hunting. When she’s gone I put the stereo back on and experiment with different locations for my new chest.
It’s a couple of weeks later when I see her near the post office, walking a dog, a great big red setter flopping along the pavement. She’s on her mobile phone, looking very intense.
There’s a moment when I’m sure she notices me, but in that fraction of a second we both look the other way, her picking up her pace to get round the corner, me taking a renewed interest in the trees. She’s jabbering away, probably trying to fix herself up with another job doing whatever it was she did in her niche profession. We keep on walking like we haven’t seen each other, like we’re complete strangers, like we’ve never even met.
© Kathryn Simmonds 2009
This electronic version of "The Chest" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher. It appears in the anthology Roads Ahead, edited by Catherine O’Flynn, Tindal Street Press Ltd, 2009. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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Kathryn Simmonds is a fan of Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor. A few of her stories have previously appeared in magazine and anthologies, including The Barcelona Review. She also writes poetry, and her collection, Sunday at the Skin Launderette, won the Forward Prize for best collection in 2008