*Featured Artwork: “Rain” by Ann Marie Sekeres
I had to go out that lunchtime. Some DVDs were due back at Blockbuster, we were nearly out of milk and I needed to eat something, despite there being no food in the house. I didn’t want to leave home at all, but needs must when you are hungry and you’re trying to avoid late return fines.
It was a grey day, very dank. It never got fully light. It was the sort of day my mum would call and say that very thing. She would say “It’s not got light today.” Those calls had stopped now.
There had been family deaths and a redundancy. I had to sleep in the afternoons, exhausted by an over-full head and by insomnia. I would put a load of washing in the machine and get it out on the line to dry in an effort to just feel like I’d achieved something. Sometimes this was all I felt I could manage in a day.
Choosing a DVD to watch was a tangible, centering experience. It was so far removed from scrolling through recommendations to stream, the movies awkwardly chosen by a clumsy algorithm for my viewing pleasure. Blockbuster had people and movies in covers made out of warm plastic that I could pick up and look at and hold in my hands. Renting and returning became a small routine in an existence that had quickly been turned upside down. I felt myself at home there.
I ate in the cafe near to Blockbuster and looking up from the sudoku in the newspaper, I saw someone who I hadn’t seen since, when was it? 1998? I hadn’t even realized Eleanor was still in Sheffield.
We had both been on the women’s studies master’s degree course. For three years I juggled evening study with full-time office hours as a secretary, spending the days frowning at patient case-notes and the nights trying to write essays. Eleanor left early to pursue a PhD in French feminism, in actual French. She was a clever soul. She left for this higher purpose and I plodded on for the third year dissertation.
She was wise to leave. I spent year three going mad between work and research, between commuting to the hospital to earn a living, and a starkly different netherworld of writing up research. As I approached the special insanity that a deadline brings, whilst tearing at my hair and weeping over typos, my brother announced that our parents would be paying for him to do his master’s degree full-time. This would begin as soon as he graduated from his BA studies. The golden child in a golden cage.
There was Eleanor. She looked exactly the same, minus a nose ring. I thought back to when we went out to an Italian restaurant for a course meal. The waiter had taken a message for her, but had made the mistake of calling her “Elmer”. She was known affectionately as Elmer for the rest of the time studying. Today she was part of a couple with a bookish-looking young man, which seemed strange. I couldn’t see her independent, gently strident self ever linking arms, ever leaning on a boy, but there it was.
Should I have gone over and said hello? Part of me wondered if she would even recognise me. Part of me thought that the last time I saw her was a lifetime away, best left.
I went to Blockbuster to return my almost overdues and visited the shelves to see what straight to DVD chick-flick pap I could find. Something with weddings and unrequited love.
Milk checked off my list, I got back in my car, set off for home, and subconsciously pressed play on my iPod. I was taken back to the days of my master’s, back to From The Choir Girl Hotel and “King Solomon’s mines, exit 75, I’m still alive, I’m still alive”. Back to the days of trying to decipher the lyrics, decoding them to relate to my sorry experience and wondering what anything and everything meant. Back to the day.
I drove out to leave and saw Elmer and her beau crossing the entrance of the car park in front of me. I stopped, braking sharply. The bottle of milk fell over in the foot well.