All long train journeys alone are mournful but some are more so than others. As the train rattled its way along the colourless backbone of England, Mary thought of her mother. She thought of the description the assistant at the care home had given of how she was at the end. As her mind and self finally unravelled, she would approach the communal television when the opening credits of ‘Eastenders’ came on. She’d pat at the screen like a kitten and softly hum the chorus of 'My Girl'.
The funeral had been heartbreaking in its conveyor-belt anonymity. The cleric used her mother's name twice at the start of the allotted half-hour but from then on, he could have been talking about anybody. It seemed that in a place like Llandudno, with its ageing population, death hardly counted as a special occasion.
Mary held herself and her thoughts together, and with the homing instinct of a drunk, made it to her flat in Deptford just as night was falling. She sat on the rug in the middle of the living room and stared into space. Motionless, she noted the passing of the evening by the smells and sounds drifting through the fireplace from the flat below; garlic, the sound of television, the smell of joints being smoked as bedtime approached.
For the next fortnight, she rarely left the flat. She spent her days dealing with the bureaucracy of death, something that made her tearful and bored by turns. She left the answering machine on and wouldn’t pick up for anyone. But it was only delaying the inevitable.
Early on a Wednesday evening the door bell rang. She knew it'd be Nicole, the person who'd known her longer than anybody. Anybody living, at least. Picking up the remote she muted the television and went to the door.
Nicole stepped into the flat with a bottle of wine and hugged Mary. 'I was trying to give you a bit of space but I couldn't stay away.' She looked into Mary's face. 'Has she gone?'
Mary nodded. She made it to the sofa before it all started spilling from her, every feeling and thought she'd had for the last two weeks. After a while, Nicole stepped out onto the balcony to have a cigarette, saying, 'Keep going. I'm still listening.'
When she returned, Mary was finished. Nicole sat opposite her and said, 'Does the house go to you?'
'Yeah. There's nobody else.'
Nicole patted her knee. 'Bit of spare cash sloshing about, you could afford to get back into your printmaking. She'd have liked that.'
It was true. After the redundancy, she'd planned to sell her own prints on the stall she'd taken in Greenwich market. But they'd never sold so she switched to stocking luxury soaps.
Mary tilted her head. 'That's one option, I suppose. Selling it.'
A double line formed between Nicole's eyebrows. 'I suppose you could rent it out for holiday lets. Never really had you down as a landlord.'
'Not sure what I'm doing yet.'
Nicole poured the last of the wine. 'We'll see. You're not in any state to make decisions just now.'
After Nicole left, Mary couldn't sleep, kept awake by a sense of irritation at something in Nicole's manner. She felt she'd been dealt with like one of Nicole's clients at the women's refuge, as if she needed her life organised for her.
She started to answer the phone again. Dave was first to call, inviting her to the pub. It surprised her. The relationship was over, and even when it was still limping along he rarely phoned. It felt like an exaggeration to even call it a relationship. She always thought of the affair as like an outfit that was okay for slobbing around the flat, but not for being seen out in. They'd drop around to spend the night together, like neighbours calling round to borrow a cup of sugar. He reminded her of drinking in a decent pub on a winter afternoon; good-natured, warm in an out-of-focus sort of way, but ultimately a bit of a waste of time.
He insisted on dragging her to the Bird's Nest. It had been her local, but in the months before her mother's death she'd been away most weekends. And once the rhythm of her attendance was broken, she never felt quite as at home there again. Whenever she went there, she felt like someone arriving sober and late at a party where everybody else had long since drunk themselves boring.
Dave greeted her with a limp, sexless hug and said, 'I hope you're alright, mate.'
Mary nodded. For most of the evening she wanted to speak of her mother, but stopped herself, knowing how useless his response would be. By her third pint, she settled into the fluff-muffled groove of her and Dave's usual conversation. They spoke of mutual friends, recent episodes of the Simpsons, Radio 4 as ever.
At closing time, he walked her home along the back of the estate. He began talking about the night they first got together having met in the pub. They'd walked this same route, then diverted to look at the Creek, kissing there for the first time. She gave him a look to remind him it was over but he continued. As she half-listened to him she read for the umpteenth time the graffiti on the walls of Creekside; let sleeping bags lie, see red sea green, sic transit gloria gaynor. Then, further along, more daubed puns and wisecracks; ars longa vita bravis, ars longa ryvita, lds, Elliott Gould is a jerk, all in the same yellow gloss. When the daubings first appeared, speculation was rife in the pub as to who was responsible. The question was never answered. She liked that then, as she still did now. The graffiti reminded her of when the streets seemed littered with small mysteries. It was like the legend of some unauthorised local map, each slogan marking a refusal to behave.
Home again, alone, she made instant coffee and sloshed whiskey into it, hoping to knock herself out enough to sleep. Standing in the kitchen she looked again at the graffiti across the road and started weeping unexpectedly. Things had changed around her. More recent graffiti had come, unreadable in aerosol. Now it seemed there was no time for brushstrokes, content or communication. People were too busy to do anything but register their presence. Sometimes she'd see murals she'd once worked on scarred with sprayed scrawl, and her heart would sink.
Within days, the phone rang again with another offer of a drink. It was Jason, who ran a stall alongside hers, selling old postcards of South London. He was the one who’d given her the idea to take her stall after the arts co-op folded.
In the New Cross Inn, she joked that she'd never had so many invitations in one week.
He nodded. 'Well. That's what friends do. It's a hard time for you.' He paused and sipped his pint. 'Think Nicole's a bit worried about you.'
Jason sputtered slightly. He could talk with fluent passion to people he didn't know, and about people in far-flung times and places, but in the clinches, his nerve deserted him. Frustrated, he blurted, 'You've got connections here. You've got history.'
Mary looked at him. 'Have you got the hump with me?'
He shook his head like a teenager. 'I'd just miss you if you weren't around.'
Mary shrugged. 'I've hardly even got as far as thinking things out.'
Jason seemed keen to change the subject. He looked out of the window and nodded towards Clifton Rise. 'Remember that march against the NF? We all got separated.'
Mary remembered. It was probably one of the first times she met him, no more than a friend of a friend of Nicole's at the time. She remembered the crush of bodies on the slope at the flash-point of the march, the fear, the adrenaline that seemed to take days to leave her body. She held onto the hood of Nicole's parka and pleaded, 'Don't go forward anymore. I don't want to lose you.'
Mary made the right noises as Jason got drunker and ranted about some second-hand injustice. She realised with a slight sense of guilt how little time she'd ever spent with him alone rather than in a group. Walking home, her thoughts turned to Llandudno. The place had always been tainted for her by the misery of family, her sense of being an unwelcome distraction from her mother’s relentless inner wittering. Not that it wasn't a dump of course, with its frail and windswept elderly population, its social sediment of bored teenagers and chain-smokers in wheelchairs. But these weren't the things that first drove her away. What pushed her was the feeling of being too known, so known that she could never become properly herself there.
When Max called a few days later, she became sure something was being orchestrated between her friends. They arranged to meet at the Crystal Palace Tavern on Tanners Hill, but arrived to find it closed and boarded up.
Max shoved his trilby to the back of his head. 'Shit! When did that happen?'
They went instead to the Royal Standard. Mary was the only woman in there. Max updated her with his news. He’d just finished teaching a residential watercolour course in the Lake District.
He shook his head. 'Christ it was depressing. Simpering middlebrow old farts having a pseudo-bohemian week away. How did I come to this?'
Mary said, 'Doesn't sound that bad. At least you're still making work.'
He looked back at her. 'You could too. Especially now, if there's some wedge coming your way from your mum.'
'I don't know if I could still do it. I feel stale. Stale here anyway.' She wanted to change the subject. 'Anyway, how's Akiko?'
Max shrugged. 'I'll be glad when she's finished her Master's. I keep thinking I'm going to lose her to one of the mullet-heads at Goldsmiths'. '
'What makes you think that?'
'Don't know. Whenever we're out together I just feel like some seedy has-been.' He looked at Mary completely deadpan and said, 'I'm a figurative artist in a conceptual art world.'
Well before last orders, Mary feigned a headache to end the night. Out in the moonlight Max insisted on dragging her to see the mural on Albyn Road they'd once both worked on. On the end-of-terrace house, there was the river and the mermaid and the ship, faded and dated-looking now but still there, part of the area, part of the fabric.
Max looked up at the crack bisecting the mermaid's torso and muttered, 'Happy days.'
Mary was less certain. Back then, she'd woken one night to find a man had broken into her flat. They scared each other in the kitchen. He panicked and bolted but the experience shook her. For months afterwards she was on edge, and unaccountably ashamed.
She suspected she knew the intruder, but his hood was up so she didn't feel sure enough to pursue matters. He strongly resembled one of the guys who'd come along to the mural project. He stopped attending just after the break in. Among the other punters he was seen as trouble and in trouble. He lived on Milton Court, which around then had been dubbed Crack City by the New Statesman.
Mary and Max headed back towards Crossfields via Watson's Street. He slowed at the turning to Speedwell Street, where the squat once stood. Mary pulled at his sleeve, reluctant to stop. There was nothing to see here now. The flats were long since demolished. In their place stood a psychiatric out-patients' clinic.
At home Mary tried to sleep but was kept awake by the sense of having lost something. In the small hours she worked out that what she'd lost was the sense of having plenty of time left.
She didn't wait for Nicole to call again, but rang her instead. She let her choose the venue. In the Rosemary Branch, Nicole started with a low blow.
'Remember, the first time we went for a drink, we came here?'
Mary nodded. They'd met earlier the same day queuing to collect their grant cheques, and had fallen into conversation. Once beyond the standard questions about home-towns and ‘A’ level results Mary impressed Nicole by revealing she'd chosen Goldsmiths' because John Cale of the Velvet Underground had studied there. She'd even put that on her UCCA form.
Mary examined her hands. 'My mum's house. It's not big, but there's a conservatory.' She paused. 'Conservatory wouldn't make a bad workspace actually.' She sipped her pint and continued. 'I've decided to move there.'
'Don't know, really. I need to make something happen. I'm stuck.'
A sneer flitted across Nicole's face. 'You know what they say. When life fails, move to Wales.'
Mary straightened in her seat. 'I feel old, Nicole. And tired.'
'You sound like a cat crawling away to die on its own.'
Nicole said little for the rest of the night, but as they walked home she took Mary's hand and held it all the way. In the stairwell of the flats she said, 'I hope you know what you're doing.'
Mary smiled. 'Course I don't. Did I ever?'
She spent the following weeks disposing of unwanted furniture and packing her belongings. She got through her leaving party at the Bird's Nest without tears until, at closing time, somebody put 'Goodbye Girl' by Squeeze on the juke-box.
Back at the flat her home of all these years seemed strange, as if already it wasn't hers. She lay on the naked bed in a sleeping bag. From time to time she'd open her eyes and survey the unfamiliar landscape of her boxed belongings. A fear gripped her. She rolled onto her back and stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. She could still change her mind. It wasn't too late to make some excuse to herself and others.
She woke to the sound of the stocky Romanian van-driver ringing her door-bell. Between them, they loaded the van with everything that belonged to her. The driver was quick and practised. Mary felt clumsy beside him. Once they'd loaded, she gave him a fiver to buy himself breakfast. She watched his back as he walked towards the café. She locked the flat and placed her spare set of keys in an envelope with a note asking Nicole to give them to someone at the refuge who needed them. She walked up to the next floor and pushed the envelope through Nicole's letterbox.
Then she walked down to the Creek. She leaned on the railings and looked at the water. If she closed her eyes, she could conjure up again the feeling she'd had on first arriving in London. It was a kind of exhilaration. As if she'd found a window in a wall that she thought she knew. And that feeling had sustained her for years, through college, the time in the squat, the years of no money. But it had faded. She leaned further forward on the railings. As if she were talking to the water she said, 'I needed this to happen.'
She took her main set of keys and let them drop with a gentle plop into the Creek. Walking to the van, she paused by the graffiti. She reached inside the pocket of her jacket. There was a biro, half a packet of extra strong mints and her lipstick. She took out the lipstick, unwound it and on the smoothest bit of wall she could find wrote, 'I was here.'
She tossed the scarred lipstick stump to the ground and looked at her work. It wouldn't last. Soon the rain would come and wash it away. Soon the words would be gone and so would she.