Nell nuzzled her head against me. I rubbed her nose. Her eyes fixed on me and I swear she knew.
It was barely dawn. Everyone but Jim was asleep. He insisted the night watch suited him but I think he likes to watch out for us. He says us young ones are the hope for the future but I don’t know. We’ve lost too many.
He came to meet me at the gates. ‘You taking her out?’ He nodded his approval and patted her neck. He turned the winch and the metal barricades opened. Nell stamped her feet, anxious to get going. It hadn’t affected the horses or the dogs. For some reason our natural companions had been spared, and we were grateful for this small mercy.
I rode without a mask. I breathed in a sharp lungful of sweet air, aware of the risk as I did so. In the freedom of the morning with a horse beneath me and an open field ahead of me, it was one I was content to take.
Jim nodded at me to go on. I felt fear run through me. No-one ventured out unless they had to. Not after Simon had returned, barely alive. It had taken a month for him to die.
I kicked at Nell’s flank and felt the sudden jerk of movement. We were away, kicking up clumps of damp earth, a faint mist cooling my face as she galloped on. I saw a pack of dogs in the distance. They looked well nourished. There were clearly pickings to be had. Pickings I didn’t want to dwell on. One of them approached me, its tail up, expectant. We needed dogs, good ones. He trotted along beside me, looking up at me every now again, panting a smile. Today was not the day though. When I paid him no attention, he gave up on me and ran back into the wastes.
I pulled on the reins, turning Nell onto the road south. It was the road Eve and I had ridden in on all those months ago. When we’d found the settlement, they’d welcomed us. We both knew it was because of Nell. What use was there for a half-ruined man and his pregnant wife? But one horse had carried the vote for both of us.
The metal groaned as Jim opened the gates. ‘It’s alright lad, I’ll take her now.’ I dismounted. I didn’t look at Nell again.
Eve was in the communal room, nursing our son. He pulled at her nipple, his fist slapping at her breast in frustration. I sat down next to her, putting my arm around her fragile shoulders.
‘Is it done?’ she asked. I nodded. We would eat well tonight. Her eyes filled with tears. Then she looked down at our son. ‘Good,’ she said.
I’m not lover of art. I don’t know how to react to a splurge of colours on canvas. Or appreciate fine brush strokes on paper. And yet, this evening, I chance upon your painting. It has started to rain, and I don’t have an umbrella. So I step inside the nearest door. As I brush off the raindrops from my coat, I look around. I’ve walked into an art gallery, and you are there, beaming at me. Urging me to come and look at your art. I hesitate. I don’t want to move around and make appropriate noises. Nor make eye contact with you. I have things to do. But you seem so alone in this space. So needy of appreciation that I walk around the room. You paint local scenes. The farmers’ market. The Dover crossing. The white cliffs seem to be your favourite subject. I cannot believe what I see. This painting: The study of a boy with an aeroplane. I look closer and my breath stops. I turn to look at you. Are you some kind of sorcerer who has drawn me in here? Where did you do this painting? I ask. By the…
Salome is looking shabby. Time to give her a bit of a hand-wash. I don’t know why I called her Salome. It suited her, I suppose. My Arthur thought I was mad naming a knitted toilet roll cover, but I have names for all my bits-and-bobs.
Last Wednesday in the month today and so ‘cleaning out the china cabinet day’. As I swirl the Fairy Liquid in warm water, I think how Mother told me to always keep to my list of chores, no matter what.
Arthur died on the third Thursday in February. It was ‘clean the horse-brasses’ day. Once the Powers That Be had dealt with him, I set to. Now, whenever I do the brasses, I think of Arthur, his chin on his chest and his arms folded neatly. The nurses thought I was bonkers when I told them what I was rushing home for. There was no point hanging around, though, was there?
I’m just drying off The Royal Albert when I hear the back gate click. Bloody Susan again. Wonder what she wants to borrow this time?
“Lena? Just coming to see you’re al…