I'll Be Dropping By: A Short Story
The fat white peaches had been boiled, skinned, and simmered in butter and brown sugar before being added to the parfait. Pearl planned to serve it cold with crème fraîche. She’d thought about baking the bread but couldn’t be sure she would get it perfect. Pearl’s bread was a lot like Pearl herself; too hard on the outside. Too much work to hack into.
And so Pearl was the first one at the bakers for the perfect loaf. The sun had not fully risen from her blanket of clouds but the air was already thick with the promise of heat. Pearl pushed open the small green door. A tinkling bell, the smell of yeast and coffee grounds. Something flavoured with cinnamon. The stone floor was uneven in places. The glass counter hummed along to a bubble-gum pop song playing on the radio.
Pearl pointed to a large brown loaf in the window. Rounded on top like a baby’s belly. ‘That one please, second on the left,’ she said loudly. The bread made a pleasingly hollow sound on the counter. ‘Someone special coming for lunch?’ the baker asked. Her apron was streaked with handprints. Her hair was escaping its bun and her forehead shone with sweat, like the icing glaze on the Danish pastries. Should Pearl buy those and discard the peach parfait? All that work though. Still, the Danishes were more, modern. More, convenient. ‘Is that all?’
The previous baker wore a stiff white hat and huge clogs that wheezed flour when she walked. She only sold bread and plain scones and her face was always powder-dry. No radio. No glass counter. No coffee. Pearl hadn’t thought of her in years. When did she leave? And had the sign above the shop changed? It could have been last week or ten years ago, and neither made a difference. Time, Pearl thought. Everything and nothing all at once.
Pearl didn’t answer the new baker. She patted her hair instead, short and silver. A proper style at her age, but she still felt naked with her neck exposed. Her long, thick braid had fallen away in a single loud snip. Her head felt too light without its plaited anchor. The hairdresser had asked if Pearl wanted to keep it, her hair. The plain band was still at the end. ‘What for?’ Pearl had asked, cross and overwhelmed and momentarily so utterly full of regret that she felt like striking the women behind her. Like knocking the scissors from her hand and smashing all the mirrors that showed Pearl’s horrible shorn little head. You’ve made me look like a child, she wanted to say, ‘you’ve taken too much of me away.’
Now, Pearl adjusted her chiffon scarf, itchy in the heat. Her hands, as she took the loaf wrapped neatly in brown paper, were wrinkled. Skin bunched around Pearl’s knuckles like sagging stockings. ‘Lovely flowers’ the baker said, smiling. Pearl didn’t know she was going to buy the hydrangeas until suddenly she was paying for them. Silly things really. More like children’s tissue paper attempts at blooms than the real thing. And yet, they looked so hopeful sitting in the tin bucket. So cheerful among the olive-green pears and the pitted avocados. The cheap carnations with their predictable, neat petals. It was not so much the flowers that Pearl wanted to own, to display, so much as what they represented.
‘For you, or someone else?’
Pearl didn’t like the new baker. All shiny and chatty. All dirty apron and tendrils of hair glued to her forehead. Oblivious to propriety. Pearl’s shopping, Pearl’s weakness, was none of her business. She preferred the old baker, who didn’t care and rounded up the price and said ‘I’ve what’s here and no more’ when people asked for a seeded cob or a baguette. Who closed at lunchtime and didn’t reduce the stale stock. You know where you stood with her. Pearl ignored the question. Placed coins on the counter. Let the bell to say goodbye for her.
She took the bus home. A necessity since there was still much to do and the heat was thickening like custard skin. The bus was full of noise. Conversations, like balls of yarn all twisted up together and draped over the seats. Pearl couldn’t pick out a single strand. Only words and exclamations. She found a seat at the front, next to a tartan shopping trolley and a scruffy Jack Russell who barked when the bell rang then fell back to sleep. The bread was warm on her lap. Pearl was horrified to find herself patting it, smoothing her hand over its rounded curve. She was coming undone, like a frayed shoelace. Pearl tapped the low heels of her navy brogues on the tacky bus floor to gather herself back together. She thought of marching bands in strict formation. Counted out the seconds until they reached her street. The flowers were wilting in her hands.
She drank a tall glass of water by the sink, still in her shoes and her light coat and the itchy chiffon scarf. Gulped it down noisily then wiped her old hand across her mouth, panted briefly like the dog had on the bus. There was no one there to see her. To notice the way that her back curved too far forward when she didn’t make a conscious effort to keep it straight.
Back in her housecoat and her indoor shoes, Pearl felt somewhat fortified. The hydrangeas were picking up again now she’d put them in water, petals so blue they were almost purple. She stopped to admire them on her way to the pantry. It had been a long time since she’d used the best dining set with its delicate pattern of buttercups. Pearl carried them over to the sink carefully. Filled the washing up bowl with hot soapy water and dipped each plate in then pulled it back out. Iridescent bubbles popped across the surface. Her fingers turned red. Angry lobster claws clutching at the porcelain. They didn’t look like Pearl’s hands. She wouldn’t recognise them in a line-up. She wonders if they would come as a shock to anyone else.
By nine-thirty the sun was blazing through the kitchen window. It fell across the small table that Pearl ate all her meals at, ignoring the cold, formal dining room with its walnut drop-leaf table and hardback chairs for the warmth of the small, chipped Formica tabletop. Not appropriate for today of course. Even though once it was where they always ate. Pearl had made cushions to cover the rickety stools out of an old pair of curtains. Big yellow and brown sunflowers.
‘I’ll be dropping by…’
Pearl has read the sentence over and over. Dug into her pocket midway through dusting the lampshades or wiping down the skirting board just in case she got it wrong. In case the words had changed or dissolved. In case she imagined it. Manifested it from nothing but scraps of dreams and old photos. The house glistens. Pearl scrubbed until she could see her face in every surface, then sprayed it away again. She didn’t want to examine that thin, sharp version of herself. Full of vim and pips. She opened the window to dilute the sterile scent of her effort, her own dumb eagerness.
‘…dropping by sometime in the afternoon’
No reason to get up at five am, and yet Pearl’s eyes had popped open like they were on a timer. She’d forced down a shredded wheat with long life milk, tasteless and tepid. Popped her little packet of pills, swallowed them with the last sip of tea. Those horrible fingers curled round the handle of the cup. Claw-like. Nails the yellow of teeth.
‘Are you hungry? Pearl asked the plate she was drying. ‘I have some fresh bread in. I could perhaps make you a sandwich?’ The plate looked at her blankly. ‘Egg and cress,’ Pearl suggested, ‘or do you still like ham off the bone?’ ‘Mrs Travis. Long time, no see,’ the butcher had said when Pearl had walked through the metal curtain into the dark shop. The cold tang of dead flesh. The rib of beef, scarlet and glistening.
‘Ham is it, off the bone?’
Pearl had been startled at that. Felt for the weight of her long braid, but there was only that insubstantial scarf. Only her exposed, bony neck amongst the hanging pig heads and the rows of steaks. ‘I never forget a customer,’ the butcher said. His teeth were white and neat. His apron was spotless, and his fingernails were clean as he plucked the pink ham from its nest of fake parsley and carried it over to the slicing machine. He didn’t ask Pearl how many slices she wanted, just carved four perfect circles, and laid them in brown waxed paper.
‘How much?’ Pearl had asked, fumbling in her purse for a fistful of coins. He plucked the small change from her palm, handed over a heavy bag. ‘I popped some sausages in there too, plain pork, like you always used to get.’ He gave Pearl a wink, and his fingers were soft when they brushed hers. ‘It’s good to see you, Pearl.’ Her eyes filled with tears. The chainmail curtain blurred before her as she crossed back into the street. Pearl hurried for the bench by the lamppost, her knees feeling like two undone buckles.
‘Ham off the bone?’ As if it had been only last week when Pearl last visited. She thinks of the pink chipolatas in the bag by her feet. How she used to fry them in the heavy-bottomed pan, serve them in white rolls with red sauce. With mash and peas. Dipped in egg. Inside a Yorkshire pudding. The smell of them, seeping through the bungalow.
Pearl could never go in the butchers again, or the bakers. They would be sure to ask, in their bright, easy voices, glossy like sunflower oil: ‘How did it go? Did they like the flowers, the ham?’
Pearl worried about napkins. A pre-laid table held so many implications. So much intent. What if they were not hungry at all and felt forced to eat? Pearl could not bear the thought of them choking down unwanted sandwiches. Oh god, the fridge was full of deserts and meats and homemade lemonade and Pearl was a fool.
The clock froze at eleven am. It would not move no matter how long Peal glared at it. She changed her clothes to pass the time. A plain beige blouse swapped out for an insipid blue one. But they were both too new, too ‘fresh from the catalogue’ sharp. Pearl needed something soft against her skin. There, at the back of the wardrobe was her faded paisley with the wide collar. Outdated yes, like the bread and the ham and the plates and Pearl herself.
She washed her face and patted it dry on a flannel. Not the good one of course. That one was folded into a neat square and placed in the china swan on the vanity. Pearl had laundered it the day before. Pressed her iron into the corners, hissing steam and the scent of lilies. Pearl used her brown flannel, her threadbare day-to-day flannel, to wipe the spots of water round the sink before they left a mark. She noticed her hands again, as she hung the flannel over the towel. So mottled, so worn. Pearl rifled through the medicine cabinet for the old pot of Atrixo hand cream with camomile. The smell sent her flying backwards. A tub once lived next to the kitchen sink, and beside her bed, and in her handbag. When did it run out and why did she stop replacing it? Too many years for Pearl to remember. She massages the cream in slowly, her hands remembering the action, like dance steps she thought she’d forgotten. Round and over the thumb, up the wrist and back down again. Pearl couldn’t stop repeating it. Reaching for another blob of cream and then another, sliding palm against palm, steepling her fingers together, that old rhyme in her head about the church and all the people.
The knock on the door comes too early. The clock is still stuck in the am. of the day. Pearl is midway through cleaning out the pantry. Housecoat back on over her blouse. A cobweb on her cheek. Hope had been abandoned. ‘Dropping by’ had begun to feel as improbable as the green and pink trifle bowl. What was Pearl keeping it for?
Pearl was cross and tired. Had been heaving out crates of jars that she used to fill with blackberry jam. Her writing was still on the labels. That faded, neat cursive. Those old dates. The stickers had yellowed like late autumn sunshine. Pearl could taste the tang of berries, feel the ghosts of thorns in the pads of her fingers.
There is no time to whip off her housecoat. To pat her hair. The brooch Pearl was contemplating is still upstairs in her bedroom. Her coral lipstick has not been applied. But to do these things might take too long. The front door feels so far away, and Pearl is frozen with indecision. Her feet in their ugly house shoes are shire horse hooves that will not move.
Another knock, this one a little louder. Pearl moves down the hall in a dream, passing the paintings of Victorian ladies and hay bales that she never really liked. Across the plastic mat that saves the coral seashell carpet from the stains of Mr Nobody.
‘I’m here. I’m coming!’ Pearl cries out. Her voice is an octave too high and her fingers, greasy from all the hand cream, fumble with the chain and the stiff lock and by the time she finally wrenches open the door, Pearl is too late. There is no one on the other side.
Pearl’s heart falls through her ribs like a pinball. Clatters down into her belly. Her spine arcs and her neck droops forward, like she has been stamped on. She dangles in the doorway a moment, an ossified skeleton, full of gaps. The fierce glare of the sun hurts her eyes. The sockets ache. Pearl makes herself give up. Retreat. Shut the door.
Pearl doesn’t bother with the chain. Doesn’t care about the pantry now. The ham can rot, the bread can moulder. Pearl turns for the stairs, hunched and cold despite the heat. She will go to bed in her dirty housecoat and her ugly house shoes, and no one will ever know or care.
A noise then, in the kitchen. Rubber soles on linoleum. The sound of a bag landing on the table. Pearl turns slowly, one hand clutching the scrubbed banister. ‘Is that the old trifle bowl mum? Ha! I’d forgotten all about that.’