Hairpins on the Linoleum

Hairpins on the Linoleum

Hairpins on the Linoleum 1920 1280 Emma Venables

Ida lies face down on the kitchen floor. She considers calling for help, flushes her mouth with saliva in preparation for the words she might call out, but help will not arrive for an hour or so yet, when the nurse – she isn’t really a nurse, but that’s what Ida calls her – puts her key in the lock, calls out: are you decent, Ida? The nurse always laughs when she asks this. After all, her job is to witness Ida in her various states of undress, to hold out garments and direct her limbs into them as needed. She tries to recall the nurse’s name, so it’s ready on the tip of her tongue, for when she hears the key in the lock, the creak of the door’s hinges, the shuffle of the doormat as it’s kicked into the middle of the hallway and pulled back to its rightful place. It might be Lilly or Maggie or Ivy or Dot; Ida has noticed that the old names, the wartime names, are making a comeback.

Ida performs a body scan of sorts. Toes. Ankles. Knees. Hips. Ribs. Neck. Elbows. Wrists. All able to flex with only the hint of a wince; the winces have been in attendance for a couple of decades now,ever since she clocked out of the factory on her sixty-fifth birthday. The carriage clock she received that day still ticks, mechanisms still moving without a hitch. She had dusted its brass casing before she came into the kitchen, before she ended up on the floor.

She braces her entire body, pushes her toes and palms against the ground, raises her knees ever so slightly, but her stamina poses no match for her body weight, light as she is. She squints, trying to recall how she ended up with her chin pressed against the linoleum. Linoleum long since worn by the feet of squabbling children, sobbing grandchildren, several dogs with claws that never seemed to dull. She has never liked the pattern on this linoleum; she must have once, before she got it home, but when it was laid out in her little kitchen, she lit a cigarette. No. Wrong choice. Can’t take it back now, queen, he had said. He, Albert, had been alive then. He had squeezed his chin with his right hand and shaken his head. You’ll get used to it or you’ll keep your eyes on the saucepans where they belong. He had laughed. She had whacked him with a tea towel; the sudden movement sent a sprinkling of ash onto the new flooring. If you get fag burns in it, I’m still not replacing it, Albert had said.

Ida rests her left ear against the floor, wishing she was as agile as she was back then. She had stormed out of the house, right to the end of the garden, right to the spot where the Anderson shelter must have been during the war. She stood facing the wall; staring at the bricks, uneven and chipped as they were, had always been her way of coping, of calming herself down. Sometimes, when motherhood got too much for her, she would hand over the crying infant to Albert and walk to the bottom of the garden, until her nose was pressed against the wall. She would stand there, fingers worrying at the uneven surface until guilt crept in and she would return to the house, gather the child in her arms and pace the length of the hallway. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down. Until the balls of her feet ached and the child had succumbed to slumber. She closes her eyes. She has not stood at the wall for some time now because creaky joints and uneven cobbles do not make nice, and an empty house does not leave her with anyone to walk away from. She barely looks out of the window these days but she knows the flowerbeds are full of brown mulch, the bushes in need of cutting back.

Ida moves her head so its weight now rests on her right ear. She must have bruised herself, somewhere above her right temple, as she feels the pain needling beneath her skin. She raises her hand, lifts her head ever so slightly, despite the reluctance of her joints and runs a finger across the area. No blood. Why should there be? She does not recall hitting anything on the way down – no open cupboard doors or handles or corners. If she had not fallen then perhaps she might have hit her head when straightening herself up as she remembers bending down to look at something. Yes, she might have hit her head when straightening up and so might have ended up on the floor either way. If she were not so frustrated, she might smile at the inevitabilities that come with lapsed concentration in old age. She certainly would have smiled had she found her own mother in such a situation, but the May Blitz made it so her mother’s face never lined, her back never humped.It was the air raid warden who found her mother, face-up, in the rubble of their terraced house in Old Swan. Ida had been dancing in the Grafton; she had the night off from the factory. A chunk of the roof had blown off the dancehall, but the band kept on playing and everyone danced as if the sirens did not matter. Ida had been dancing with an American serviceman that night and she only remembers his name – Clive – because he was there when she found out about her mother’s death. He put his hand on her back, apologised as he had to get back to the base, and started to walk away, but after a few steps he turned around, asked her for her mother’s name. Mary, she said. I’ll be sure to write her name on a bomb, he said, and I’ll be sure to drop that bomb right in the heart of Berlin.

Ida sighs, she wonders what happened to Clive. Perhaps he made it back home, married, sits in an armchair now, wizened, with grandchildren at his feet. Perhaps he plummeted into the heart of Berlin with the bomb, shattering into pieces alongside her mother’s name. She would bet the five-pound note in her purse on the fact that, unlike her, Clive will not be found lying on a kitchen floor in a terraced house in Liverpool. She sighs at the thought.

Her ribs ache and she rocks gently from side to side in an attempt to ease them; it’s a sensation she has not felt in quite some time. Albert used to hug her so tightly that she would wriggle, call him a bone-crusher. Once free of his grip she would stretch, chest pushed forward as if trying to crack all of her ribs to give her lungs room to expand again. She tries to recall the last hug she received. Christmas was six months ago and that was the last time she saw her sons and grandchildren; they all seem to have discovered a life beyond Liverpool. One of her granddaughters had asked about the war over a mince pie. She began to tell the story of the time she got knocked over by a bomb blast. We don’t need to hear any of that old stuff, mum, her eldest son, James, said, we get enough of it on the news: unexploded bombs here, medals being given out there.All my hairpins came out, she said. Mum, stop, James said. She shrugged. Another time, perhaps, she said as she crumbled the pastry on her plate.Her granddaughter had hugged her more tightly than usual at the front gate; Ida wished she had the energy to argue with her son, to tell her stories before her mind went. She had tried to tell Lilly or Maggie or Ivy or Dot about the war the following day, but, with it being Christmas, they were rushing around with tinsel dangling from their ears. In the New Year, they promised. Or you could go into a home, Ida? Lots of people to talk about the war with there. Ida waved them away, realised where her son got his stubbornness from.

A home. Ida shakes her head. She has a home in this house where she has lived for sixty years. But if Lilly or Maggie or Ivy or Dot find her like this then perhaps they will pull strings, get her put into one of those new-fangled places with the buttons she can press for help, where they shuttle elderly ladies like her in in wheelchairs and out in coffins. A door slams somewhere in the terrace.The tap begins to drip. Ida listens to these sounds and wonders whether they occur at this exact time every day.Usually, she thinks, she has the wireless – she still calls it that – on now.Perhaps the absence of the music through the walls will alert one of her neighbours. Probably not. She wants to hear the clatter of saucepans coming from next door, but she knows for definite that her neighbours on that side do not arrive home until after five pm. The sounds of a meal in progress would mean she could shout for help. Barbara, her neighbour, has excellent hearing. She heard Ida scream when Albert fell the first time and the second, and she banged on the door, mobile phone in hand, when she heard the smashing of the pint glass that accompanied his final heart attack. Barbara would not tell a soul about finding Ida lying face down on the kitchen floor, but she would probably pop round every evening for a few weeks to monitor the situation; Ida would like the company.

Ida closes her eyes. Maybe she can sleep here, she’s slept in more uncomfortable places – she spent most nights of the May Blitz with her sisters’ elbow dug into her sides, their heads on her lap, against her shoulders, and then when the boys were newborns she slumbered sitting up against walls, wardrobes, the kitchen cupboards. She could while away the hours until help arrives in the form of Lilly or Maggie or Ivy or Dot with a warm plate of something. They will, of course, mention moving to a home once they have propped her at the table and checked her limbs for bruises, her head for lumps. They will call James and he will make the thirty-minute journey for the first time since Christmas to have ‘the talk’ with her. He will claim he has her best interests at heart and claim he would visit her more, weekly, even. He will also claim that Albert would have agreed; she knows he wouldn’t.

Perhaps she should sleep here and admit defeat when the inevitable discovery and phone calls and visits happen, but the tiredness has passed.She taps her fingers on the linoleum, feels the slight rise that comes with age and lack of adhesive.She had given the flooring five years and then asked Albert to replace it. No chance, queen, there’s nothing wrong with it, he had said. She lit a cigarette and stormed into the back garden, to the wall. The boys had followed her and she had offered them a packet of Spangles each in exchange for scuffs on the kitchen floor; the marks came off with the mop before the Spangles had been eaten. Nice try, Albert said.Albert would not have not changed the flooring had he made it to ninety-four, so he would not allow himself to be cajoled by his offspring into going into a home.

Ida opens her eyes. She can see under the cupboards; the kickboards on this side are long gone – possibly chewed by a puppy, possibly splintered by a drunk husband, possibly scuffed by a child or grandchild. She wrinkles her nose at the dust bunnies, the blackened crisps of food, the stray hairpin.The hairpin, that is what brought her here, to this spot, to this strange intimacy with the linoleum she has never loved. She remembers now, putting the duster down, turning to wash her hands, the sunlight through the window and how it caught something on the floor. She bent to investigate and fell. Hairpins. Well, a hairpin. As she inched closer, knees protesting at the angle, she tripped over the bump in the linoleum and landed where she is now.

She inches herself across the floor, moving one knee at a time, then hips, then shoulders. Her muscles and bones protest; she rests her forehead against the floor, allowing its coolness to soothe and distract her from the pain.  She retrieves the hairpin, brings it close to her face, and wonders how such an object came to be in her kitchen – she hasn’t used hairpins for years. Perhaps it belongs to Lilly or Maggie or Ivy or Dot; she has long hair, often knotted on the top of her head in a style at odds with the wartime name. A strand of light brown hair clings onto the hairpin and Ida closes one eye and then the other trying to get a better view. The hair could have belonged to her. Did she pull the hairpin out on her wedding day and throw it onto the side, failing to notice she had missed because she was too excited about her new home, her new life? Ridiculous. New cupboards. New floors. New hoovers and mops. Lots of newness since her wedding day. She laughs at her own stupidity. Obviously, it belongs to the nurse or to her granddaughter – a leftover from the Christmas visit when the teenager had made everyone cups of tea. Was tea rationed in the war? She had asked. Ida had smiled at the question, but by the time she had recalled exact grams and the grocer’s face, her son had changed the subject to summer holidays and Instagram photographs.

Ida curls her fingers around the hairpin. After the war, and when such items became readily available again, she had always ensured she had packets of the things stashed away, sometimes she would pick errant ones from the pavement and shake her head at whoever had failed to notice their loss. Albert would shake his head, sometimes he would take them off her and slide them into his pocket as if he too were hoarding discarded hairpins. She did this until she had her hair cut but she kept her hairpin stashes where they were; she thinks she still has one – a tobacco tin crammed with the things – under the blouses in her chest of drawers.

Ida feels the hairpin dig into her palm; she opens her hand and observes the zig-zag groove in her skin. She realises now that she hid them away to regain something of what she lost during the war. Friends. Colleagues. The girl whose dresses she used to admire at the Grafton – there one day and gone the next. Her mother. After the ARP pulled her mother’s corpse from the rubble, Ida had sat in the ruins of the street, stroking her mother’s face, tucking her hair behind her ears. Her mother’s hair was loose – a rare sight – and Ida assumed she must have been unpinning it, getting ready for bed when the bomb hit. Ida continued twirling her mother’s hair about her fingertips until she felt something firm, gently she retrieved the final hairpin. Seconds. Her mother would have gone to the shelter seconds later had she had the chance – last hairpin, three quick brushstrokes and down the stairs, that was her routine.

Ida inhales sharply She will not be found on her kitchen floor with a hairpin in her palm. She will not be sent to a home. Her mother would not have allowed Ida to send her away. No. No. No. Ida puts the hairpin between her teeth, pushes her toes against the linoleum, bends her knees despite their resounding reluctance, and presses her palms flat to the ground. Her bones creak, but she makes her way to a kneeling position. She reaches for the countertop with her right hand and manages to pull herself up.

Once upright, she places a hand to her chest, as if her racing heart is an infant in need of reassurance. She inhales slowly – one, two, three – and exhales. She closes her eyes, focuses on the familiar dull ache that courses its way through her body. No major harm done, it seems. A few new bruises which she will be able to explain away with the wave of a hand: don’t we all misjudge a gap on occasion?

Opening her eyes, she notices the notepad and biro on the kitchen table – the forgotten remnants of a shopping list scrawled on the open page. She walks over, rips the page off, scrunches it up and shoves it into the bin. She lowers herself down into a chair and picks up the pen. She will write to her granddaughter, she will write about the war. She will enclose her mother’s last hairpin – she’s kept that one safe in her purse all these years.

A key turns in the lock. The front door’s hinges creak.

‘Hello Ida, are you decent?’ Lilly or Maggie or Ivy or Dot says, walking into the hall.

The doormat skids across the floor.

‘I’ve just sat down to write a letter to my granddaughter,’ Ida says.

Header photograph © Kaila Skeet-Browning.

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