Things to Make and Mend
Pastrami on Rye
Lucy liked to vary the places she wrote in. She didn’t just sit in the ubiquitous wine bar, beneath red, bordello-like lampshades. Or in cafes in the middle of the afternoon, drinking copious cups of Earl Grey. She took her work everywhere she went:to the beach, to the supermarket, to the swimming-pool. Her writing was like a kind of dog which could not easily be left at home.
Even when she went to work, her writing would go too, stowed away in her old canvas bag.
‘What have you got in here – a brick?’ observed her boss Deirdre one morning, as she hung up Lucy’s bag, which had been carelessly left on the floor.
‘Just my poems,’ Lucy replied, thinking how unlike a brick a poem was. Or perhaps not. Maybe her poems should be like bricks; lasting, tough, a definite shape.
She worked with Deirdre in a small delicatessen named The Roll Call. Every day she cut rolls in half and spread butter on them. She would put the fillings in and wrap the rolls up in cling-film. Then she would pile them all onto the shop’s sloping shelves, with their contents displayed. Turkey, Basil and Redcurrant. Avocado, Capers and Jarlsberg. Guacamole and Nutburger. People occasionally wandered into the shop seeking a simple, cheese roll, and would wander out again, a little baffled.
Lucy had been known to write about the rolls in the shop. There was one poem in her collection entitled ‘Pastrami on Rye’. She thought it had a certain ring to it. It had a voice.
Deirdre had a profound dislike of poetry, having been made to recite ‘If’ at school at the age of ten. ‘Couldn’t be doing with it then,’ she said, ‘can’t be doing with it now.’ She thought Lucy was slightly odd, writing poetry. She would find her writing, hunched over the catering-size packs of butter during her lunch-breaks, and frown slightly. Then she would stomp about in her noisy Scholl sandals, shifting the polystyrene beakers about for no discernible reason.
Deirdre herself was an avid reader of romantic fiction. At the moment she was reading something called The Hands of Time, which she described in great detail, hovering heavily in the tiny cupboard known as the staffroom, as Lucy struggled to think of a metaphor for the moon.
‘… and there’s this guy in it called Simon who’s in love with Eleanor, but he’s in a wheelchair,’ Deirdre said, ‘and the doctors aren’t sure if he’ll ever walk again…’
‘Mm-hmm,’ said Lucy, chewing her biro lid. Milk bottle top? she wondered. Dustbin lid?
At home, she was busy typing her poems out; transferring them to copy paper. The next stage was to contact publishers.
She always opened up the shop in the morning. She unlocked the door, pressed the code number to prevent the burglar alarm from going off, went into the kitchen and hung up her coat. Then she would return to the front door, unhook from the door handle the bag of bread rolls that had been left there, take them to the counter and begin to cut them in two.
Deirdre usually arrived half an hour or so later. She was a late riser. There was something slightly louche and cat-like about Deirdre, which went with her inability to drag herself out of bed in the mornings, her pink fingernails and her slight aroma of cigarettes. But, also like a cat, she was meticulous. She would not tolerate mess – no bags of poetry left lying about the shop, no bowls of cottage cheese discarded on the preparation counter.
‘Here it is again,’ she snapped, stubbing her toe on Lucy’s bag as she walked behind the counter. ‘Can I just put this out of the way somewhere?’
‘OK’, Lucy said, and she watched as Deirdre picked up her bag of poems and hung it on a peg in the no-man’s land between the WC and the staffroom.
It was a busy day. Fridays often were; it seemed that by the end of the working week, people gave up on the effort of making their own sandwiches and ended up at The Roll Call, spiralling around the shop in what Deirdre called ‘an orderly queue’.
Lucy’s new boyfriend often turned up on a Friday too. He would drop in and order a cappuccino and a beef and horseradish roll ‘to go’, causing her to feel flustered.
‘Would you like pepper?’ she asked him, feeling that this was a slightly strange question to ask someone she had only recently become romantically involved with.
‘I’ll have the works,’ he replied, grinning at her.
‘Right,’ she said, wiping her hands on her pinny and flopping coleslaw out of its tupperware box.
‘Busy?’ he asked, watching her cramming beef slices somewhat ineptly into a half-baguette.
‘As you see,’ she replied. Love and shyness often caused her to speak rather abruptly to him. Her speaking voice – quiet and unelaborate – was nothing like her writing voice.
‘Having fun, buttering?’
‘I sure am.’
‘Thanks,’ he said, as she handed over his roll in a little cellophane bag with accompanying napkin.
‘A pleasure,’ she replied, finally managing a flirtacious tone just as he was walking out of the shop.
After the lunch-time rush was over, Deirdre sidled up to her in the kitchen as she was washing up some industrial-sized plastic mixing bowls. Maybe that would be a good metaphor for the moon, Lucy was thinking. A slightly battered, industrial-sized mixing bowl.
‘So,’ Deirdre said, ‘Simon does walk in the end.’
‘You know, in The Hands of Time. I’ve just finished it. Simon proves all the doctors wrong. He gets up out of his wheelchair and walks. And they go off on honeymoon to the Isle of Skye.’
She put her hand up to one of her big curls of hair and patted it for a second.
‘It was dead touching,’ she said.
‘Was it?’ Lucy asked absently.
‘I thought so,’ Deirdre said, leaning against the sink and staring down at the washing-up bubbles.
Lucy spent the afternoon cutting up cheese and opening tins of tunafish, while Deirdre sang along to the radio.
‘All you need is love,’ she warbled, ‘all you need is love, love…’
Wheel-hub?, Lucy pondered, still thinking about the moon, Bap? Saucer of milk?
‘So,’ Deirdre said, finally switching off the radio and emerging from the kitchen with two orange-hued teas in polystyrene cups, ‘who were those girls?’
‘What girls?’ Lucy replied, her knife poised.
‘Those two teenage girls. You know, those ones that were in at lunchtime. They bought the flapjacks and the Coke.’
‘I don’t know. Just girls.’
‘Oh,’ said Deirdre, with a tiny edge in her voice that made Lucy tense suddenly.
‘I assumed you knew them,’ Deirdre said, not looking at her.
‘Why? Why would you assume that?’
‘Just because you were chatting to them for quite a while. You seemed to be having a laugh.’
Deirdre smiled nervously and took a swig of tea.
‘We were talking about capers. They asked me what capers were, and I said I wasn’t quite sure if they were a vegetable or a sort of berry…’
‘Oh’, Deirdre said, her cheeks turning a subtle shade of pink.
‘Why?’ Lucy asked, panic beginning to seize her. ‘Why?’
‘Oh dear,’ Deirdre said. ‘It’s just, when you were talking to your boyfriend I saw one of them going into the loos and…’
‘Yes?’ demanded Lucy.
‘And then I had to serve someone, and… and when I looked up again, the girl had gone.’ She licked her bottom lip. ‘And so had your bag.’
‘What?’ said Lucy.
‘I thought you must know them. I thought you were friends. Because she was smiling at me. I thought you…’
Lucy was already out of the kitchen, standing by the coat hook where Deirdre had slung her bag that morning. But the hook was empty. Her bag was no longer on it, containing her poems. Her beautiful, irreplaceable poems.
‘Oh dear,’ Deirdre said, from the safety of the kitchen.
Lucy glared at her. She did not know if she would ever look at a woman wearing Scholl sandals in quite the same way again. Or romantic fiction. Or roast beef rolls to go.
‘Why on earth didn’t you say something?’ she trumpeted across the shop, finding that, when the time came, she did actually have a strong voice. A voice as strong and definite as a brick.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Deirdre said, stepping back slightly.
‘My life’s work was in that bag,’ Lucy proclaimed. ‘You have let someone steal my life’s work.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ Deirdre said again, but still puzzled, Lucy could tell, about the worth of poetry.
Lucy strode home immediately, at four in the afternoon, past people leading happy lives; lives uncorrupted by theft. My poems, my poems. She’d her housekeys in her pocket, and the loss of £5 and a single credit card, while annoying, was not a disaster. But her poems! She had only copied about half of them out. The rest were lost for ever; in the clutches of some deranged, amoral teenage girls. What would they do with them? Would they end up in a dustbin or flung off the top of a bus? She thought about the rather charming conversation they’d had about capers, and felt, for the first time in her life, like a real victim.
Stupid Deirdre. Stupid, stupid Deirdre.
And her boyfriend had got in the way too. If he hadn’t come into the shop at that precise moment, she would have spotted the girl going up to her bag and done something about it. It was his fault as well. She found it hard to breathe normally. Tears began to blur her eyes. She thought that perhaps the only way to be truly happy, if you were a poet, was not to have boyfriends at all. Or work colleagues. She looked up and saw that the moon was already visible in the sky, a pale, pale moon. She struggled to think of a metaphor for it. But it was not a pendant or a piece of honesty or cupcake-case. It was just the moon.
She turned up late for work the next morning. She thought Deirdre at least deserved that punishment. But Deirdre was not a picture of guilt in a pinny, as she had imagined. She was standing there, calmly cutting rolls behind the counter. Insouciant as a sheep. She looked up and said, ‘You’re nearly an hour late. What happened?’
‘I overslept,’ Lucy said, shortly, exploiting her new state of injured party. It was quite a useful state to be in. And she had actually copied out a lot more of her poems than she’d realised. She’d discovered when she got home that there were only in fact three missing from her collection, as far as she could work out. Although one of them, sadly, was ‘Pastrami on Rye’.
Deirdre reached forward and picked up a big bowl of sliced onions from behind the glass counter.
‘So,’ she said, ‘I’ve got some news for you.’
‘What?’ Lucy barked rather rudely. She was amazed how quickly she was becoming used to her new, strident voice. But her heart still shrivelled a little. What bad thing could Deirdre possibly hit her with now?
‘I found your poems. And your purse.’
‘Yes. In your bag. It was underneath a pile of aprons.’
‘Yes. I think the strap must have broken. Look,’ she said, holding Lucy’s bag up by a frayed length of canvas. Her bag, containing her poems – like a vision, in yellow hessian. Deirdre handed it to Lucy.
‘The strap must have broken,’ she said again, ‘and brought all the aprons down with it. I found it a couple of minutes after you…’ she paused, as if searching for the right word, ‘went off.’
‘Thanks,’ Lucy said, stunned. She took the bag and looked down at the sheaf of paper sitting solidly inside it. She had slammed out of the shop, she realised now, without actually bothering to look for it. Assuming the worst.
‘Hello poems,’ she said.
Except now the poems suddenly didn’t seem quite so crucial. Now she had them back they seemed simply to be pieces of paper with writing on them.
‘So they weren’t thieves then, those girls,’ she said, shocked by the anger she had shown the day before. Such rage, about a small thing that had gone wrong in her life. Really quite a small thing. She wondered what might have been in her bag, that someone could have stolen. Maybe something far more valuable:a photo or a love letter.
‘Well…’ she started, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
‘Something like that happens in The Hands of Time,’ said Deirdre, standing there, in front of Lucy, her face pale and weirdly beautiful suddenly, like the moon.
Copyright Ruth Thomas 2005.