Login   Sign Up 


Unfocused Grief

by Tess 

Posted: 11 November 2003
Word Count: 3721

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced


Heal’s window has more of the same I notice. Minimal they call it. Though not in price I see. It’s not for me; too cold and clinical. Look at that old bat looking at it. She must be at least, oh I don’t know, seventy? It certainly won’t be her style.
I start to walk away. The old woman does too. I stop suddenly at the shop’s entrance. I put my hand to my throat and gasp. It’s my reflection. It’s me! I’m the old boot who wouldn’t furnish her home in chrome and blonde wood. I’ve become an old woman overnight. It’s a hell of a shock. Clearly, Maria (the new girl at the salon) was wrong. Her advice to stop dyeing my hair and ‘let the silver shine through’ was obviously a horrible mistake.
I turn from the window quickly, and as I do so, find myself barged into by a good-looking young blonde boy with blue eyes and an easy grin. He has a skateboard tucked under his arm, as do two of the friends he is with.
‘Whoa Grandma. Take it easy yeah,’ he says in that pseudo black American drawl they all seem to use these days. This is Guildford High Street not the Bronx. I say nothing; simply nod and smile at the ‘wannabe gangsta rappa’, like the little old lady he obviously thinks I am. It was my fault after all; I wasn’t looking where I was going. Just the sort of doddery behaviour one would expect from an OAP. My self-image has taken a serious dent this morning. I can hardly take it in. The dawn of old age.
I shouldn’t be surprised to be taken for a Grandmother. More and more of my contemporaries have already reached that status. In fact I’m on my way now to get a gift for Edna (what an impossible name for a baby girl). Edna is the new granddaughter of my best friend Louisa. ‘She’ll be called Ed,’ Louisa had said, as if that were any better. The child will be a tomboy, for sure.
Louisa is struggling with the whole idea of becoming a grandmother. Not as you might think, because it was clear proof that old age was now upon her (she wants to try mistaking her own reflection for someone much older than herself for that). No, it’s almost as if she’s jealous. If anyone had good reason to feel that way it would be me surely? Whilst it seems the skateboarding fraternity have determined me a grandmother, a Grandma is something I will never be. A status I simply cannot aspire to. No child will ever call me Granny, Nanny, Grandma; any of these names.
I wonder if I ever looked like a mother?

I haven’t visited the children’s department of Marks and Spencers for - ooh it seems like a hundred years. I often frequent their marvellous food hall though and much of my wardrobe carries the St Michael label. In fact my underwear drawer is almost exclusively ‘M’ and ‘S’. I must admit I go for comfort these days. Large pants with wide sides. ‘Full briefs’ they call them, which I imagine, becomes even more appropriate as incontinence looms. I don’t require the control panel range yet, I‘m pleased to say. Unlike my husband Dan, who really could do with some management of the tummy department. I’ve never looked but I doubt they have such garments in menswear. But then I would have refuted the existence of men’s beauty products, until I read an article on same, in a recent edition of the Telegraph Magazine. Dan wouldn’t wear them anyway. He’s more than content with his body shape. As he says, ‘Who wants a six-pack when you can have a firkin instead?’

The children’s department is on the first floor. I get to the top of the escalator and am immediately struck by the difference from my day. The huge range of simply beautiful little clothes they have now; it’s astonishing. It’s like an Aladdin’s cave. They even have fancy dress outfits. It’s too old for Edna but I’m tempted by the fairy costume. Come to think of it Edna or ‘Ed’ would probably prefer the Spiderman suit, though on closer inspection I discover they are actually pyjamas. I hardly know where to begin. I wander up and down the aisles moving from section to section, testing the fabrics for softness as I go. I get to footwear. The range for boys is a tad basic but for girls! How I would have coveted a pair of pink ‘Tinkerbell’ sandals when I was a little girl. How I would have loved to buy a pair for Lily. I smile to myself. I would have deemed them too impractical then.
I reach the baby section and am taken aback by how affected I am. After all these years I can still feel it. I find it difficult to describe. What is it? Loss? I suppose so. It’s so familiar it’s almost a comfort. Wrapping around my shoulders like those scratchy old ex-army blankets my mother used to produce when we were children. Warm, but at a price. Comfort from the warmth devalued by the itch. It’s not a welcome feeling. It’s just a worn out sense of longing.
I pick up a lemon all-in-one suit and deliberately resist the urge to put it to my nose in search of that heavenly clean-baby smell. I put it back in preference for some little pink dungarees with a teddy bear motif on the chest pocket. There’s a T-shirt with matching trim on the rack beneath which I also put over my arm. I wouldn’t have had this choice for Lily and Michael. Wouldn’t have been able to afford it either probably. We used to sew or knit almost everything ourselves then. All the bitter exchanges I’ve heard, about the rejection of hand-knitted garments laboured over by my grandparent friends. I don’t blame them; the kids that is. Who the hell wants a matinée jacket that needs a delicate hand-wash when all of these beautiful little things can be bunged in the automatic? And soft! It’s as if they are made from velvet or silk, not washable polyester. They are heaven to touch. Has everyone else forgotten how itchy wool can be? How easy it is to shrink or make baggy? Why stubbornly knit one pearl one, when you could spend a couple of hours in a place like this?
Louisa doesn’t knit and therefore isn’t guilty of foisting unwanted garments onto her family. Louisa is content to moan about her daughter-in-law’s obsessive bottle sterilisation routine. I’m of the ‘a bit of dirt did no-one any harm’ camp too, but I think she should let the girl do her own thing. All new mothers are anxious to get it right. Edna will soon build up the immune system Louisa is so worried about, when the child starts crawling.
Louisa’s problem is she’s too critical. She’s spoiling the whole experience for herself. If she could just relax she might actually enjoy being a grandmother. She wants to be more grateful. She also needs to ‘get a life’ as they say these days. She mocks my patchwork club. Can’t understand why I’d want to study for a Spanish GCSE at my age and doesn’t understand the need for my gardening society membership when (in her opinion) I know more about gardening than the sex god himself, Alan Titchmarsh. I admit the Stained Glass evening class was a mistake (too many Band-Aids), and WI can end up feeling like an obligation, but it keeps me busy, gives me something to talk about. It also gives Dan and I a little separate time, which I think is important in a marriage.
Louisa hasn’t got one; a marriage. Not any more. Dan and I married three weeks after Louisa and Geoff. Both with plans for a family. Geoff buggered off shortly after their plans were complete. Louisa’s had other dalliances in the years since then, but nothing has come to anything. I think she’s lonely. She probably needs a patchwork club membership more than most. She doesn’t do anything, which is probably why she’s living her life through her children. It’s not healthy. I watch and listen as she follows the minutiae of their lives and analyses their every step. She must be suffocating them, poor things. I don’t say anything to her though; she’s to be pitied not blamed.

I’ve been in the department for ages and one or two of the assistants have started giving me strange looks. They probably think I’ve escaped from an old people’s home, or that I’m about to pinch something. I reassure them by seeking some advice on size.
‘Ninety centimetres means nothing to me,’ I say smiling. The tall skinny blonde one gives me a patronising smile and leads me to a colourful height chart beneath a display board, which suggests sizes appropriate for various age groups. The teddy dungarees aren’t available in Edna’s size but the blonde sorts me out with a much prettier pair in lilac, with a little embroidered hippo at the bottom of one of the legs. Realising I’m a bit of a novice at this (perhaps I don’t look like a grandmother under these hot fluorescent lights), she goes on to ‘accessorise’ the outfit. What can she mean? Handbags and matching shoes? Or earrings perhaps?
I’m entranced by the goodies available and agree to them all. A lilac and white gingham sun-hat, a pair of white booties with lilac ribbon and finally a little fleece jacket in purple. The jacket costs more than I intended to spend in total but what the hell. I’m like someone who’s just fallen off the wagon. An addict re-introduced to the wonders of what they’d been forced to give up. I’m packing in as much enjoyment as I can, while I’ve still got the chance.

Driving home I glance at the package on the passenger seat beside me. Quite suddenly my eyes blur with tears. I blink several times forcing them back so I can see to drive. I also give my head a quick shake but still feel unable to quell the rush. I’m blubbing now, and changing gear and steering and negotiating traffic, all at the same time. My body is in two separate worlds doing two different things, quite independently, neither affecting the other. I can’t help thinking it’s dangerous. I should pull over, but I’m on a dual carriageway and there are no more turnings for at least five miles. I take it this is yet another sign of old age. Getting all emotional for no good reason.

I’ve gathered myself by the time I get home. I feel calm and peaceful. A sense of release. I needed that somehow. It’s funny how these times are proving to be something of a double whammy for me. How long is it? It must be thirty odd years. Who would have thought watching my friends cuddling babies again would be as hard as it was the first time. I thought I’d be over it by now.
I make myself a cup of tea and settle down in my favourite wing-backed armchair, with Radio Four and two chocolate digestives.
Of course it hasn’t been all bad. There’s been some respite. Watching other people’s children scowling and spitting at their parents during the dark years of teenagerdom gave me some considerable relief. Followed (incredibly quickly it seemed) by ‘the letting go’ phase. As they left for university or work or marriage, tick whichever is applicable. Then of course the challenge to approve or reject their children’s choice of partner. With Jamie (Louisa’s son and Edna’s dad), it was a definite case of partner disapproval. Louisa seems to be suffering like a rejected lover. Jamie is her favourite child and he’s ‘left’ her for another, just like his father before him. Louisa tries not to show her preference for Jamie but at times it’s transparent. It’s not helped by the fact that Catherine, Louisa’s daughter, is such hard work. She’s an up-tight little thing, who treats her mother like an irritating subordinate. She has a job instead of a husband. She’s a corporate lawyer, soon to be made a partner in a big city firm. Business partners aplenty it would seem, but (like her mother) no one to wake up next to.
Dan and I are Jamie’s godparents. I’m godmother to eleven children in total. I’m like the old woman that lived in the shoe. I suppose I should be flattered, honoured even, but accepting the role has always felt like winning a low-tier raffle prize. The dinner for two instead of the car. I’ve lost touch with a lot of them now, but Jamie is a regular visitor. Soon no doubt, he’ll be bringing Edna over (still can’t get used to that name). George, his wife is called. Perhaps that’s why Edna will be an ‘Ed’. I like George, she’s far too thin and she wears those tiny T-shirts that show off the midriff (even when heavily pregnant) but she does knows how difficult it is to get astilbes to thrive in this dry soil, so she can’t be all bad. She once asked me what to do about the outbreak of Japanese knotweed at the edge of their lawn. I said, ‘Use a mower on it until you can find a buyer for the house’. She thought I was joking.
What would I have been like, I wonder? Would I have been clucking away, oblivious that I was turning them away from me? Would Lily and Michael have pulled away like Louisa’s children are trying so hard to do?
I’ve never imagined Lily and Michael as adults, as fully-grown human beings. How would they have turned out I wonder? What sort of woman would Lily have become? Would Michael have rejected my affections for a love of his own or would he have wrapped himself up in my apron strings? He might have turned out gay. What on earth would Dan have made of that?
They would have been perfect of course. Lily and Michael would always have been perfect children. Imagined lives always are.

I don’t know why I’m doing this really. Revisiting the past in the spare bedroom. It’s the twin-bedded room where the sun streams in first thing in the morning. The room where other people’s children sleep when they come to visit. Dan will be home from the golf club soon; he won’t want to see me upset. It might upset him. Bringing it all back again. Somehow I don’t think so. He’s always been much more philosophical about it than me. ‘What will be will be,’ and all that. He cast himself as every child’s favourite uncle. Without any bitterness or sense of loss. He embraced the role. Still does. A magnet for children everywhere my Dan and I love him for it.
I find the letter easily. It’s in an old hatbox that belonged to my maternal grandmother. I keep it on top of the wardrobe. It’s where I keep all my precious keepsakes. I’m not a hoarder, don’t like to clutter myself up with things I no longer have a use for. That’s why the contents of this box are all the more special. There’s a copy of our wedding invitation and some of the cards Dan has sent to me over the years, sentimental old sod. A cake decoration from our silver wedding celebrations is nestled amongst some letters. I dig it out. It looks a bit cheap, a silver heart with the number twenty-five superimposed on it. Most of the silver has worn away and the tip of the arrow through the heart has broken off. It must have meant something at the time so I put it back. I’ve kept a collection of children’s paintings and drawings. The ones that mean the most. No point in keeping them all. A Mother’s Day card from my eldest niece. A little message from her inside. ‘I know you’re not my Mummy, but I still love you.’ Sweet child. I put them to one side. It’s the letter I want to read. It’s rolled up and tied around with a delicate gold-edged white ribbon.
As though unwrapping a precious treasure, I untie it and smooth out the paper. The ribbon looks a bit tired now, it’s been undone so many times. I pull it through my fingers as I read.
To my dear Lily and Michael,
How would it have been my little ones, if we were to have had some time together? . . . ’ I talk of the fun we would have had and all the love I would have shown them, the things I would have taught them. I bite my lip and swallow hard. I read on about how I would have helped them cope with teenage acne, greasy hair and smelly armpits. Why those things in particular I don’t know, I suppose they were areas I’d had direct experience of. I probably should have added ‘tips on how to disguise a large bottom’, but of course I don’t know if Lily would have inherited my pear-shaped figure. ‘My angels,’ I’ve put. ‘I would have helped you to discover who you wanted to be, helped you to unravel your passions and to blossom. You would have learned from me that nothing; no experience, is ever a waste . . .', I still think that, ‘. . . and you would never have felt that you had failed. I would have gently nurtured your ambitions, welcomed your ideas and helped make all your dreams come true.’ (I’ve underlined ‘all’).
The sweet taste of schmaltz in my mouth I start to cry as I read on. ‘My dear Lily Elizabeth and my dear Michael Paul, my love for you both is still with me and though I have not been able to give it to you in person – I give it to you now, in this letter.’ I’ve signed it. ‘All my love my angels, Mummy.’ I’ve put two kisses. One each. It’s the only time I’ve ever signed anything ‘Mummy.’ So sad it’s on a letter that was never sent.
It strikes me, what a perfect mother I sound like and in a funny way I guess I have been. I’ve never been impatient with them, cross or bad tempered. I’ve never had to say ‘No’ or ‘Not today’ to them. I’ve never told them to be quiet because ‘Mummy’s talking’ or sent them to bed when they wanted to stay up. I’ve never refused them fizzy drinks, crisps or sweets or denied them a brand new bike because we couldn’t afford it. I’ve never made them eat sprouts or smoked haddock.
I remove a tissue from my sleeve and blow my nose. I carefully re-roll the letter, re-tie the ribbon and place it carefully back in the hatbox. I step up onto the bedroom chair and place the hatbox back on top of the wardrobe. A quick glance at my reflection in the mirrored door tells me that my face will need some repair work before Dan comes home, so smoothing down my blouse and skirt I retreat to our bedroom.

I sit at my keyhole dressing table with its triple aspect mirror and dab at my eyes. They’re a little puffy but nothing a touch of foundation and a lick of mascara won’t cure. That done, I apply a slick of ‘Gay Geranium’ pink lipstick for good measure. I sit back and look at my reflected profile in one of the side sections of the mirror. I like to do this from time to time; it gives me the impression of how others might see me. On the whole I think I look pretty good for my age. Not too jowly yet, nor too heavily wrinkled. And my silver-grey hair suits my complexion. This happy feeling is shattered as soon as I smile at my reflection. I’m alarmed to report that I’ve got lipstick on my teeth! If ever there was a sign of old age this must surely be it. I rub it off quickly. I’ll be writing ‘Disgusted of Guildford’ letters to the BBC next. I chuckle to myself; Dan already does.

Settling down with another restorative cup of tea, I pick up my patchwork. I’m making a cot blanket for baby Edna. It’s what I make for all the grandchildren in my life, my equivalent of the dreaded matinée jacket, no doubt. Can’t think what made me go to Marks and Spencers today.

‘Unfocused grief’ they call it nowadays. Focused or not it’s still grief. I realise that more than ever, as it revisits me in old age. There are all sorts of things they can do now. Not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. All those drugs and hormones floating about. Different treatment options at every turn. It must be hard to know when to give up. When to admit defeat. And the cost! Most people have to have private treatment. Fancy re-mortgaging the house to have a family. A default on the repayments and you could end up with a family but no home to rear them in. They have counselling now too, for couples like Dan and I. It was taboo to talk about it in our time. Folk would whisper that we were ‘trying for a family’, until it was clear all the ‘trying’ hadn’t paid off. We’d enjoyed it though. Still do. I bet Mr Skateboard and his friends think I gave up that malarkey ages ago.

I reckon those counsellors would think that letter of mine was a good idea. Good therapy. I called it ‘A Letter to my Unborn Children’. I wrote the words at the top of the letter and underlined it. I won’t be writing to my unborn grandchildren. I’d rather imagine Lily and Michael with children of their own. I’ll concentrate on the living grandchildren in my life and I’ll make each and every one of them a patchwork quilt. Whether their parents like it or not.


Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

roovacrag at 17:39 on 11 November 2003  Report this post
I enjoyed reading this. xx Al

Tess at 09:10 on 12 November 2003  Report this post
Al - Thanks for that. You're the first person who doesn't know me to have read it. Will take a look at some of your stuff.

Anna Reynolds at 12:53 on 12 November 2003  Report this post
Tess, this is a moving piece of writing with a really nice swing upwards towards the end. There's great poignancy in her visiting the children's department and seeing things that hurt her everywhere she turns. And I think you've really brought out the sense of other people being lucky but complaining about it, oblivious to the pain it might cause her. I wondered about Dan, and his feelings about their shared disappointments, shared past, and if there might be a little more to say about that- particularly as she makes an effort to conceal her tears before he sees her. It's nice that you allude to them still having a rich life together. A really warm, wistful piece of writing.

Becca at 20:21 on 12 November 2003  Report this post
Hi Tess, commenting as I'm reading,.. an easy style I'm finding here, and confident.
When I got to the second mention of Louisa, I confess to having to go back to remind myself who she was.
It's a long piece, and the places where the story pins together are quite far apart from each other. I think you could sell this, but I'd go for some editing. At the moment it feels in some parts, dare I say it, indulgent. This is only looking at it from a short story point of view. It is wistful and has an elegance, and relates so perfectly to a lot of women's experiences. I think the intensity of it is diminished by the flow of consciousness in it, although it flows beautifully.
Your main character is interesting because on the one hand she concedes to everything people say about the elderly, I take her to be maybe in her mid fifties, and on the other hand, she's cool, so for me the two different sides of her jar a bit. As Anna said, the business with why a woman of substance needs to present a face to her man is puzzling.
If you were to edit any of it I'd go for the section that starts 'Of course it hasn't been all bad.' I got a bit lost there, and the part where she was crying in the car and getting home OK just before it, seemed a natural point to harden things up a bit and give the reader a few more clues, kind of land the story more if you see what I mean. It's good. One typo? '.. by my grandparent(s?)friends.'

old friend at 10:18 on 13 November 2003  Report this post
Hi Tess,
I like what you write and I love the beginning. I did 'follow through' but found that I had to read some sentences a couple of times to remind myself who was who, so to speak.
I felt that it was a little too long and perhaps editing out would improve. You have some lovely phrasing and I am sure that this will appeal very strongly to the women's market.

I enjoyed this. Thanks.


Jubbly at 10:32 on 13 November 2003  Report this post
Tess, I agree this is a lovely peice of writing. I feel it is a little long as some things are slightly repetitive therefore they lose their intensity. I was also confused as to her age, is she 70 or a prematurely grey 40 something? I don't suppose it really matters, it just had me wondering. It's a very moving piece, particularly the letter to her unborn children. When reading I was eager to know whether they'd died prematurely or in fact as is the case, simply never were. With some editing it would make a very saleable and contempory story.

Richardwest at 10:05 on 14 November 2003  Report this post
Hi Tess. This is wonderful stuff. For myself, I enjoyed the slow remorseless build from the prosaic to the painful, and relished the tremendous reversal of mood in the pay-off. I'm in awe of the sheer scale of what has been attempted, and achieved, here: there is not just one life in this story, but many. Including two that never actually existed.
The broad brush and the fine detail are stunning: all the dimensions of the character's world are fully realised, her past and its alternative, her present and its reality, her future and its uncertainty. Above all though, what shines through here is the quality of control: the author's refusal to plunge into sentimentality, the character's refusal to be corroded by self-pity.
Criticisms? None of any substance, nor could there ever be. Maybe a little editing would lend even greater focus. And perhaps during revision you might slip into a copy reader's persona and watch out for any text that may grate through inadvertent repetition of the same or similar word (My self-image has taken a serious dent this morning. I can hardly take it in. The dawn of old age. I shouldn’t be surprised to be taken for a Grandmother.) Stylistically, I always have problems with words in single quotes: I don't know what it is about them, but somehow I have this mental picture of the character, or even the author, holding up his/her hands and waving them at me to signify, er, something. If it's not the spoken word then I can well live without quotation marks (and speaking of marks, M&S surely doesn't need the rabbit droppings around it -- what d'you think?).
But that's all I can find to pick at. And I feel a mite presumptuous in doing even that. By any yardstick,Unfocused Grief is one hell of an achievement, a story that in less skilled hands may all too easily have plunged into misery or even bathos, but which here goes sure-footedly in quite the opposite direction, so that what emerges is not a requiem for lost hope, lost love, but a celebration of life and living itself.
Astonishing. Can't wait for the next piece. Congratulations!

Tess at 11:24 on 14 November 2003  Report this post
A huge thankyou to everyone who has commented on my first piece of work uploaded. I've been thrilled & overwhelmed by the positive & helpful comments made. I've taken many of the remarks on board - eg. the length of the piece. I wrote it to enter a competition which had a max of 5,000 words - think a sub-conscious part of me tried to hit that target rather than just making it the length it needed to be. Also the suggestion that she wouldn't have covered her distress from Dan was right - I admit to being seduced by a line I wanted to get in about lipstick on teeth - a lesson there! I've wasted no time in joining rather than wait for my trial month to end & look forward to commenting on others work & up-loading some more of mine, plus a e-write of Unfocused Grief. Once again thanks to you all - especially Richard - made me feel fantastic!

Jo in france at 16:47 on 20 November 2003  Report this post
Well done. Brilliant stuff.Jo!

Sue H at 17:12 on 05 December 2003  Report this post
This is lovely - I cried! To find out at the end that her children never existed it really touching. The fact that she has done so much to make them real - name them, write to them, imagine how they would have turned out and talks about unborn grandchildren. A beautiful story.

Tess at 18:03 on 05 December 2003  Report this post
Thankyou Sue, comments like yours make me glow! A lovely finish to the week.

susieangela at 23:05 on 07 November 2007  Report this post
Hi - Just caught this late at night on the Random Read. I really liked it. Not much to say that hasn't been said already, except I loved the opening para - her mistaking herself for an old lady -and there were many very funny bits, (like Dan's waistline) which for me pointed up the sad parts really well. I think the only thing I might suggest would be a little more dialogue to break up the monologue - though it's very good as it stands - but I'd quite like to hear Dan's and Louisa's voices as well.

To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .