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Sheila is getting ready for choir. Her lift is due any minute. She is upstairs in the bedroom, ironing her dress. The iron is too hot and she turns the dial. The twisting of her fingers makes her skin prickle. She is beginning to regret the cup of tea she had from the pot she made him about half an hour ago. She’d made him the tea after dinner as usual, even if Wednesday night is choir night, the one night of the week that is hers, or should be. [private]Tonight in particular should be special. She will be starting her first new piece with the choir. This doesn’t matter to Phil. Doesn’t seem to register with him. He is sitting downstairs in his chair as he does every night. In a minute he’ll probably call up to ask her how to work the video. She doesn’t blame him. She doesn’t blame anyone except perhaps herself for not being able to blame him.
Tea gives Sheila palpitations. If she has a cup after four in the afternoon, she can’t sleep at night. It is one of the effects of her condition. Another is anxiety. Sheila is on edge most of the time. She feels as though she has no room in her life, there is nowhere for her to go where she can be herself. Every time Phil calls up to her from downstairs she’s reminded of this. He’s a big man in a small house. All he does is sit in his chair and watch television, drink Famous Grouse and Yorkshire Tea, yet he is everywhere in the house. In the living room she breathes his smears of horsehair brush and shaving soap on skin; through the thick citrus of the bathroom she smells his sweet and sour whisky smell. He’s not a bad man. He has never mistreated her, not in that way. But Sheila is smothered. His life is her life is his life. It’s worse now that he has retired. Now he’s retired there is more of him. And less too. It’s as though he has given up, passed sixty-five before he has reached sixty. Sheila loves Phil dearly of course, but she loves him resentfully too. She has to love someone and dearly comes easily to her, but the resentment has also been there a long time, even if she has only just begun to realise it. On a Wednesday, when just for once he could make his own tea, it’s the resentment that is strongest. Because Sheila hasn’t given up.
She has been singing in the choir for about four months now. She saw the advertisement in the local paper. She was looking for something to do after Phil took early retirement. Something to get her out of the house. The advertisement for the choir was the first thing that caught her eye. She has always sung. To herself, when she’s doing the hoovering, hanging out the washing. She’s not very good. She’s not daft enough to think she is. But singing makes her feel part of something. Connects her to the world.
He calls up to her again. Something about a police show. If he doesn’t want a cup of tea it’s something about taping a police show. Or a sports match. Sheila puts the iron on the ironing board. Feels guilty for taking up space in the bedroom. It is not their bedroom but his. He’s there even when he’s not in the room. She can see him now, lying on the bed, snoring. His head against the grease spot on the wall. Getting a bit of peace and quiet, he callsit. Not that Sheila can see his point.
She calls down ‘I can’t hear you. I’m getting ready for choir. I’m late.’ She sweats. She feels her pulse. It’s jittery. She has a feeling of déjà vu. There is foreboding. Her head isn’t right. She has to find a way to feel better.
The doorbell goes. The sound lurches into the bedroom, turns Sheila inside out. It must be Peter with her lift. She wonders if it would help if she explained to him how she was feeling. About the lack of room in her life. About her wakeful nights. About the resentment. Peter is a sensitive man after all. ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’ he asked her last week, the first time he offered her a lift. She had been unsure until then. But she knows it’s unlikely. She can’t imagine talking to him about any of this. She can’t imagine talking to anyone about it. What would be the point? No-one would listen. And if they did no-one would understand. She’s no good with words. Never has been. No, she’s trapped and will stay that way. Trapped and alone. Just thinking about it she feels sick. Her body goes through the soles of her feet to the floor. Her vision blurs. The walls of the room close in. Phil is in the walls. His essence, his smells. His voice. She goes down the narrow stairs to the front door, in a rush.
Sheila is being driven home after choir. It’s the longest night of the year and the light is high. Peter is talking about the piece that the choir is singing. It’s called The Dream of Gerontius. When they started singing the piece, they were told it was about the journey of a man’s soul after death. Now Peter is explaining it in more depth.
‘There are many different interpretations of the work,’ says Peter. ‘People seem to take from it what they want. But there’s a thread that runs through all of them. What Gerontius found is that in death – as in life – we can be free.’ As Sheila listens, she pushes back into her seat and closes her eyes. Relaxes the muscles in her shoulders. The headrest gives a little with the weight of her head. She can smell familiar smells. Car mints, old leather. Peter’s musk. She hears familiar sounds. Peter’s voice envelops her. She is comfortable in its embrace. It makes her feel a part of something.
Peter has been giving Sheila a lift to and from choir for four weeks now. She thinks back to the first time. She didn’t speak to him about her situation – she’d been right, she couldn’t – but there was something about the way he made her feel that made her think it would be all right anyway, that she would be OK. And after he’d dropped her off, he stayed with her, for a week. Every time she was spoken to by Phil, every meal she cooked, every cup of tea she made, Peter was there. A presence.
‘‘’I went to sleep and now I am refreshed,’’ says Peter. ‘That’s the soul of Gerontius, after his death. It’s a release for him, you see. He’s been freed from his earthly cares. There’s something there that appeals to us all, I think. And that’s what’s great about the piece. It still has the power to move.’
‘Yes,’ Sheila says ‘yes it does,’ and it’s true. Although she is relaxed, at this very moment she is also stirred. There is anticipation. Expectation even. Whether it’s because of Peter or the words of Gerontius or both, Sheila doesn’t yet know. But something is coming, something good. She can feel it. The roads through the streets are up and down and her stomach lurches. The sensation is not unpleasant. And now a momentum is building. More words come back to her: ‘… a strange refreshment, I feel in me an inexpressive lightness. And a sense of freedom as I were at length myself and never had been before,’ – and as they do Sheila feels light-headed. She is warm but she begins to shiver. Her breaths get shorter and then Gerontius’s sense of freedom comes to her and with it a sense of purpose, triumphant and shining, and the car is filled with light and in the light there is a feeling, a great surge of happiness that overwhelms her, a rush of joy that fills her heart until it’s ready to burst and then washes out from inside her and over her in a wave of joyous pulsating relief. Sheila is carried away, helpless. She doesn’t want the feeling to stop. She closes her eyes again and then opens them and finds herself gripping the metal underneath the seat with both hands and she hears her name – Sheila? Sheila? – and it’s Peter calling her and he is saying ‘are you OK?’ and then it’s over, the feeling passes, Sheila is trembling but it’s over, it is over …
Peter stops the car. They are parked now, in a small gravelled car park, overlooking parkland. Sheila sits and looks across the grass. In the distance there is a row of tall thin trees, waving in the breeze. She runs her fingertips over the smooth plastic of the electric window control, presses it, sucks in cool air. There is a perfume on the air, subtle and enticing. She’s thinking about what’s just happened. She’s trying to be calm but she’s still excited. Sitting here, in Peter’s car, it has all become clear. God has come to her. He is with her and she’s no longer alone. He has shown her what she must do, what will make everything better. He has spelled it out for her through the story of Gerontius. It is in the words, it’s all in the words, the truth of it is as clear as the light in the sky. She’s always thought that to end a life – any life – is wrong. But this is different, she can see that now. This life is no life. And in cutting it short, a soul will be released.
‘’How still it is,’’ she whispers, as Gerontius did, ‘’I hear no more the busy beat of time, no, nor my fluttering breath, nor struggling pulse.’’ She thinks of Phil. She must pick her moment. It’s only fair. Itwill come as a terrible shock to him, a nasty surprise. How will he cope without her? He’ll be lost. Maybe even unable to function. At the same time this isn’t about Phil. It’s about her. Her fluttering breath, her struggling pulse. Her freedom. And she will be free.
‘Are you OK?’ says Peter again. Sheila doesn’t reply. As Peter drives her home, she sings: ‘‘The sound is like the rushing of the wind, the summer wind among the lofty pines.’’
Later that night, Sheila did God’s bidding. She killed Phil as he was sitting in his chair downstairs, snoring drunk. She smothered him with a pillow that smelled of old hair. Afterwards she walked to the park. She sat on a bench by the road and it began to drizzle. The trees across the grasswere blurred. She heard the words of Gerontius again and gave thanks for them. She turned her face up to the rain. The drops glistened out of the streetlight and shone in a fine mist and Sheila was there in the raindrops and the mist and the dark forms of the trees, Sheila was there with God and alive in His words and she was alive in the late dusk light itself.[/private]
Charlie Hill left school at sixteen to work in the fish market. He has since sold stories to Ambit and Stand magazines. His first novel, The Space Between Things, was recently described by the Observer as "rich in wry social commentary… funny and linguistically dexterous… an inventive work that shows much promise."