A Day Out
(Short story, 2022)
It was going to be the best outing ever.
Milky sunlight fought its way through the dirty windows and threw spotted rays on the small coffee table. They looked like little bugs dancing on the surface.
She should really clean the glass panes, Morag thought. You couldn’t see at all what went on in the street. But there was not much to see anyway and, to tell the truth, she lacked the energy. She hadn’t bothered with cleaning in ages. Not that she didn’t have enough time on her hands, her not working at the factory these days. No one was working out of house presently. These were dire times, the disease spreading and all. Still, the hours flew by somehow without her really noticing. In the evenings, she wouldn’t have the faintest idea what she’d been up to all day. The grubby laundry piled up in the laundry basket, the greasy dishes gathered untreated in the sink and the sash windows were too dusty to see through. Not what her mother had taught her all those years ago. But Mother was not here anymore to see. After all, what was the point of cleaning and washing, she wondered tiredly. No one would notice anyway, even if she scrubbed her hands sore. She was alone, had no visitors, certainly not since people were confined to their homes for the sake of society. Good though that Mrs Noseyparker of next door’s couldn’t look down her bony nose on her, with that disguised expression of contempt, because she neglected her household duties. Mrs Noseyparker had to stay indoors, too, like the rest of the population, the impudent old hag. Sometimes, however, she thought she detected pity in her neighbour’s eyes. But that would be even worse. Contempt would be infinitely preferable to compassion, the latter probably just causing her to burst out into tears. She didn’t want pity and would not cry.
Maybe it was best to pretend she didn’t care what her neighbour thought of her.
With an effort, she forced her mind to the planned outing ahead. She would take the children on a nice long walk, maybe to the Valley, like they used to when their dad was still around. That had been fun, even with all the tourists streaming the countryside. They had climbed the boulders, enjoyed the beautiful birch forests and put their feet into the peaty burn, which was so ice-cold you couldn’t feel your toes afterwards. Jamie would enthusiastically leap from rock to rock. He was a good jumper.
“Mummy. Deenah has pinched my pencil.”
“I have not!”
“Yes, you have! Give it back!”
Howling. It didn’t bother her. Her son and daughter often quarreled and made it up again within minutes.
She should organise the details of the walk tomorrow. How about putting on the exquisite hiking boots that she had bought three years ago in town and had never yet got to use? She might pack sandwiches, herbal tea, and maybe some chocolate for a treat. Her children deserved treats. She could never spoil them too much.
Deenah would perhaps want to take her sketchbook with her and draw flowers by the burn. There were a great many pretty plants in the glen – bluebells, liverworts, birdsfoot trefoil, even a rare orchid or two. Deenah liked to draw flowers very much.
“Mummy, Jamie is so mean! He’s pulled my hair!”
“I am not crying!”
Deenah had always been a skilled artist, even as a small child. She put her pencil to paper, lining, colouring, sketching in her child’s hand. The drawing teacher at school had said many times that she should try to get her into art school once she’d finish her highers. Maybe into fine art as she was so bright and talented, as seemed obvious to him. Of course, he had said that before the college building fell victim to the fire. Afterwards, he was not so forthcoming with his advice. When he came round the last time, he stood by the kitchen sink, holding his briefcase like an armor against his chest, stammering with eyes full of tears. She had accepted his apologies with good grace and shaken his hand. One had to be strong and make the burden lighter for one’s neighbour.
“Leave me alone. Go and play with your dolls.”
“I don’t want to play with my dolls. What are you doing anyway? Let me see!”
“No, stop it!”
A break of silence. Then: “Mummy, can you help me with my maths?”
She smiled ruefully. It was Jamie’s and Deenah’s father who used to help with the homework when needed. After he was gone, she struggled. She had really made an effort. To no avail. She was helpless with figures.
Morag frowned suddenly. Maybe the children would not enjoy the walk as much as she thought they would. After all, walking was not very popular with young people once they got beyond a certain age. Maybe she should rather take them to the beach? The weather forecast promised a gloriously warm and sunny day tomorrow. They could go to Irvine beach maybe. Take mattresses and windshields with them. Have an ice cream and sit in the sunshine in the warm shelter of the rocks. A day’s rest on the golden stretch of sand would cheer everyone up. Jamie could ask his pals to come with them and have a good swim.
“Mummy, when is tea ready?”
“Mummy, can you help me with my maths now? Pleeeease!”
“I am hungry.”
Her children. She was so proud of them. Even if Mrs Noseyparker went on complaining that they had no manners, that they left rubbish in the doorway, that they cycled around on their rusty bikes and ruined the meticulously cut lawn of hers. She had even once hinted that Jamie stayed up too late at night, that he didn’t come home until the early hours and that he disturbed the whole neighbourhood with his clamour. After the fire, however, she had changed her tune. Had changed colours like a chameleon, starting to praise Deenah’s talent as an artist and her good looks and lovely nature. Extended small invitations and offers to help with the shopping and the household. Hypocrite. Morag wanted nothing to do with that insolent woman.
Hers were good children, they were. No bother at all. Did not all children quarrel now and then? Or were messy? Everyone knew that boys would be boys. And Deenah was quite a shy girl. She kept herself to herself. No one could accuse her of being too loud.
Morag blinked hard and looked at the windows again. Why did she hear children’s voices in her head? She must try to remember that they were almost grown-ups now. Jamie, her teenage son. No one could expect him to stay put at home. He had to go out, meet with his friends, enjoy life and have fun. Deenah preferred to stay at home, talking endlessly with her friends on the phone. They seemed to have a lot to talk about.
She had raised her children to be good members of the community. Responsible, considerate and optimistic human beings. She had not done so badly, she thought. Especially since she had been on her own, without a man to support them. And she had succeeded, had she not? They were a joy to her. Everyone said so. Come to think of it, Jamie had taken milk and bread to their left-hand neighbour several times. The one who could not do his own shopping, because he was so old and it was dangerous for old people to leave the house. The old man had said thank you very nicely and promised to give Jamie a fiver once the situation got better. Once the pandemic would be over and the Government would allow him to go to the bank again to get the money.
All those quarrels about late hours, about the time to be home, about clothes left in the bathroom and milk cans left open on the table. She would just forget those and concentrate hard on the good times. There had been many good times.
“You cannot force me to stay in.”
“You have not finished your work here. You remain inside and do it now.”
He had not been bad or defiant, just young, daring and unhappy.
“Stay at home, we are in a lockdown, for heaven’s sake.”
“I don’t care. Patrick is waiting for me.”
“Please, be sensible. Don’t go.”
“Get out of my way.”
The bang when the front door fell shut. Then the silence.
Was she responsible? Could she have tried any harder? Why hadn’t she been more resolute? More motherly, more alert? More of everything.
The outing. She would propose a trip to Edinburgh tomorrow instead of the drive to the beach. That might be a treat for the children that they both would enjoy. They could visit the castle or the modern art museum. Deenah would like that very much. She just loved art. Maybe they could do some shopping afterwards, in Princes Street. She had saved a little money. She would allow Jamie to have his new iPhone, the one he had wanted so much. And she would buy a new dress for Deenah, one with lots of colourful flowers on it.
Next door, Nelly Moore switched off the news and drew open the curtains. She looked into the empty street. The weather seemed promising. The very first day after the strict lockdown of the past weeks. She had just heard on the radio that the Government allowed two household bubbles to meet, as from today.
Her gaze went to the left. Should she knock on her neighbour’s door? Even though Morag MacLearie abused her the last time she dared to call? One surely would have to make allowances for the poor woman. First, the husband had walked out on her. A never-do-good who used to chase other women. Morag had battled on, left to herself. But after the awful business with the Art School fire in which the lassie had died, she had lost heart. Nelly had tried to help, had offered to do the shopping and the cleaning when Morag had to go out to work. She had expected that the son would be supportive of his mother, him being almost nineteen by the time. But alas, he had been so reckless. So careless. Had probably not come to terms with his own sorrow. That was hardly surprising given the fact that he had grown up fatherless. She assumed that it was just a question of Morag having been overstrained. She had completely lost control of the situation. Jamie had roamed around with his friends, even during lockdown. Then this awful day when he got struck by a hit-and-run in the middle of the street where he had no business at all. He should’ve stayed at home, like Nelly had warned Morag.
If her neighbours had only listened to her, at least this latest tragedy could’ve been avoided. Strange though that the police have never found the driver of the motorbike who had caused the lad’s death. No wonder had Morag literally gone out of her mind after that, flooded with grief. That family had really been ill doomed.
Where did that leave herself? She had done her best, hadn’t she? Done her duty by warning again and again. But the well-intentioned advice had fallen on deaf ears. Should she better leave the woman alone?
Nelly frowned, a small sigh escaped her lips.
Wasn’t it the noblest of Christian duties to support one’s neighbour in need? She would be generous and forget the unpleasantness of the last encounter. Tomorrow, she would call at Morag’s door and ask her out. She would insist. A short walk to the park around the corner, a friendly chat and a cup of tea would surely cheer her up no ends.
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