September again. Expectation in the air, warm days and cool dusky evenings. Seeing people again who have been out of your life for weeks, as if you were going back to school after the summer holidays. The first choir session of the new term.
Viv is among the first to arrive at the hall, short of breath from hurrying and loud of voice from excitement.
‘Hello Richard,’ she says boldly. ‘Did you have a good summer?’ He does not reply, but she never expected him to. He is hovering near the door, avoiding eye contact and trying to find something to do with his hands. Other men have aged more gracefully than this one. Thin hair and a drinker’s complexion. Unshaven – maybe going for a beard?
The small hall is beginning to fill up. The chairs are set out, two rows in a three-quarter-circle, but today people are still on their feet, talking in small groups, telling their news. Husbands and wives are standing together, describing to another couple a daughter’s wedding, or a new grandchild. Pamela is telling Sandra how she and her sister missed their Eurostar connection; behind her Viv can hear someone explaining that they didn’t manage to get away because of the death of his father.
‘What about you?’ says Sandra, turning away from Pamela. ‘Did you go away?’
‘Only to see my brother,’ says Viv. ‘And my mother – she lives with him. But it’s nice, you know, to have a change of scene. They live in Barnstaple, beast of a journey from here, but it were lovely – lots of cream teas, wine in the garden. You know.’
‘My son brought his family to stay for a week,’ says Sandra. ‘Lovely to see them of course, but the food they get through! You forget, don’t you, how much boys eat. And exhausting – I thought I would sleep for a week after they’d gone.’
The evening is rapidly cooling. Many of those now arriving are equipped with cardigans and jackets, but Viv has been too optimistic and her plump upper arms are exposed and goose-pimply.
‘You’ll be sorry,’ says Pamela. ‘You’ll be cold.’
‘Me?’ says Viv. ‘Never cold. You must have thin blood, you.’ Pamela always makes her think of a small cross animal, gnawing at its cage. Viv likes to poke a stick through the bars to aggravate her.
Almost everybody seems to be here, there must be nearly forty people in the hall. Richard is still by the door as the last few people come in, chatting pleasantly, refreshed by their many and various summer breaks, suntanned and well fed and ready to get back to business.
‘He likes to keep us waiting,’ says Pamela. ‘It adds to his feeling of power.’
‘He’s just giving us time to chat,’ says Sandra. ‘How’s your toothache, by the way? Last time I saw you –’
‘What do you think we’ll be doing then?’ says Viv.
‘I’d like a nice musical,’ says Pamela. ‘I said that to him before we broke up for the summer. I said there’s only so much Everly Brothers I can stand. Don’t you think?’
‘I don’t care,’ says Viv. ‘I’ll sing anything, anything’ll do me.’
A stranger appears at the door next to Richard, a newcomer, with straggling white hair and a body that could have been constructed from wire coat hangers. He and Richard look at each other and laugh, loudly and a little incredulously it seems, and make a move towards a hug, which turns into a mutual shoulder touch. The whole hall looks on.
‘Great to see you,’ says Richard to him. ‘Come and find a seat. What do we call you by the way? These days.’ Which seems an odd thing to say to someone you’ve just almost hugged, however briefly.
‘Bill,’ he says. His eyes are dark and his expression impassive as he looks round at the group as if assessing them for some task.
‘Let’s start,’ says Richard, ‘just to warm up, with “Wake up Little Susie”.’ He is a different person, thinks Viv, as soon as he is in charge of them, and doing his job.
Beside Viv, Pamela groans audibly.
‘Just to get us going,’ says Richard. ‘Then I’ll tell you what I have in mind.’
The man beside him is looking at the floor and when he raises his head again Viv is sure that the smirk lingering on his face is an indicator of some advance knowledge.


Viv sits with Joan outside the coffee shop in the Botanical Gardens. The light is golden and the trees still fully green.
Joan has a fruit tea, not much stronger than plain hot water, and Viv has her usual croissant, and hot chocolate topped with cream. There have been times Joan has tutted, and Viv has said that she is half Spanish and a quarter French and that surely entitles her to a continental breakfast once a week, and Joan has said that she is certain Viv has already had her breakfast and Viv would say that she had but it were only Special K which surely doesn’t count as food.
But on this day, Joan does not so much as glance at the amount of butter being spread.
‘I love September,’ says Viv.
Joan only says, ‘Mm’ and looks into the distance. Viv, people find, seems to love a lot of things.
There’s a silence – not an uncomfortable one – and then Joan says that her daughter Rachel has moved house, she might go and help her do some decorating before the weather gets cold, she doesn’t fancy going to Scotland in the winter, it is so wet there on the west side.
‘What’s her new address?’ says Viv.
‘I haven’t got it on me,’ says Joan. ‘I’ll email it to you.’
Viv dabs her finger on the croissant crumbs on her plate and licks them off. She sips her chocolate. Joan has already finished her tea.
‘Throat made of asbestos,’ says Viv between sips. She has said it on a number of previous occasions, and Joan takes no notice.
‘What’s up?’ says Viv. ‘You don’t seem very with it today.’
‘What? Oh. Nothing.’
‘How about a day out?’ says Viv. ‘We could go to Chatsworth. I haven’t been in your new car yet.’
‘Well, as I said, I might be going away. I’ll let you know.’
They sit in silence. Joan scratches the end of her nose; Viv rummages in her bag. At last, ‘I think I’ll get my hair cut,’ says Joan.
‘Again? You had it done not a fortnight since. It looks fine anyway.’
‘I suppose.’
‘You’re only seeing Rachel.’
‘Mm,’ says Joan. ‘Rachel won’t notice my hair.’
‘Oh! I knew I had something to tell you. Listen. Our next concert. You’ll never guess what it’s going to be.’
‘No I won’t,’ says Joan.
‘Go on, have a guess.’
Joan appears to make an effort. ‘Last time you did songs from – was it My Fair Lady?’
‘That were ages ago.’
‘And then?’
‘Then we did Liverpool Sound. And then early sixties stuff, countryish. You remember?’
‘If you say so. So this time –?
‘You’ll never guess. I’ll tell you.’ Pause for effect. ‘Hair.’
Joan does not speak. When Viv phoned her friend Maggie to tell her this, there were jokes about being grey, or bald, which in all honesty most of the choir are, but Joan sits for a few minutes in silence while Viv waits, and then she says, wistfully maybe, ‘I went to see that when it first came out. In London. 1969 it would be.’
‘You should join the choir,’ says Viv. ‘It would be lovely for you.’
Joan shakes her head impatiently and does not answer.
‘There were a bit of consternation,’ says Viv. ‘When he told us I mean. There were people saying some of the songs were too rude, and Pamela says they are all about taking drugs, but he says we don’t have to do all of them, and it will make a change, he says. Anyway, it’s Richard’s choir and we have to let him think he’s in charge. Bring it on, I say, the ruder the better.’ Viv cackles quietly.
‘I don’t remember that much about it really,’ says Joan, and opens her bag for her purse to pay her share of the bill.
‘And a new man has joined,’ says Viv as they walk past the hothouses. ‘Always good, to get extra men. Quite fit. Can’t remember his name. You really should join the choir. You’d know people. And Fairlie’s in it of course. You always got on well with him.’ She looks sideways at Joan, as if hoping for a response, or a clue.
‘No,’ says Joan. ‘I don’t like singing.’
Viv opens her mouth, then shuts it again. Then opens it again. ‘Your hair doesn’t need cutting. You only just had it done.’
‘I’m wondering about a fringe,’ says Joan.
Viv looks at her. Joan’s hair is, as always, a smooth auburn sweep on either side of her face. ‘You haven’t had a fringe in years. Not since those feather cuts went out of fashion. About 1976?’
‘You remember the strangest things,’ says Joan, and almost smiles.
‘Well,’ says Viv, ‘If I don’t see you before, same time next week?’
‘I’ll let you know,’ says Joan. ‘As I said, I might go and stay with Rachel for a few days.’

Viv watches Joan’s back diminishing in the direction of the park, towards her flat. Her new flat that Viv has been in precisely once in three months. And that time had been uninvited. She had to ring the buzzer at the downstairs door, and wait for ages until Joan answered, and the invitation to go any further was what Viv would call grudging. But then, thinks Viv, turning uphill towards her own home, how many times has she visited me? Hardly any, even though I invite her all the time. I’m always saying, Come round, just drop in, no need to phone, just come. She’s just a very private person. The older she gets the more and more private.
At Broomhill, Viv catches a 52 bus to save her legs, her mind still on Joan. It is difficult, she decides, to believe that the Joan she knows now is the same person as the Joan she met at the age of twenty. That is, Joan was just twenty; Viv was almost nineteen. That Joan, that clever, casual, shining, fascinating person, seems to have very little to do with the Joan of now, however well dressed. Joan, cool and confident at her father’s wedding to Viv’s mother; Viv, short and plump, her eye-liner too harsh, her skirt too short, her laugh too loud.
Viv gets off the bus, takes a quick look in the nearest charity shop in case they have any good handbags, buys a couple of tomatoes and a bunch of grapes in the greengrocer’s, and goes home.
My little house, she always thinks as she catches her first sight of it. My garden, she says to herself as she emerges from the jennel between her house and the one next door and sees her patch of flowers, her espaliered apple tree, her bird feeder and her wind chimes, her pots of herbs and her own back door.
She likes a terraced house; she has lived in one all her life and likes the feeling that her house is being held up on either side, both in a bricks and mortar sense, and in an intangible, almost spiritual sense. On one side of her are three young male students. She can hear them calling to each other through the house, and smell their cooking through their open back door – open because they often seem to need to let out the smoke caused by their cooking.
The house the other side stood empty for a year, ever since Marjorie first went into hospital after a fall, and Viv was always conscious of the lack of an occupant. Even when Marjorie died it stood empty waiting for the family to organise themselves; at last it was cleared and put on the market, after a cursory – if Viv was any judge – amount of refurbishment. Then two weeks ago a couple moved in, a couple of about the same age as Viv, a tired looking man and a plain but energetic-looking woman. So far they have made no contact. The man seems to go to work, though not every day; the woman – Viv has heard the noises – has been making herself busy painting and renovating. There have been boxes and bags of rubbish – bits of carpet, sacks of stripped-off wallpaper – in the back garden. Tradesmen have appeared from time to time – a plasterer, a man with a floor sander, two lads carrying a new cooker; they all came down the jennel and across Viv’s garden to the back door of her new neighbours, the way people have to do in these old terraced streets.
Viv likes the look of these new neighbours, though it is unusual for people their age to be buying such a small house. Downsizing, she conjectures. But she will do no more at the moment than nod and smile in a friendly way – plenty of time to become proper neighbours, or even friends. You can never have too many of either, is Viv’s opinion.
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