This piece was written in response to Philip Larkin’s poem, Afternoons.
Iris stands apart, the smile playing on her lips temporarily eclipsed, as her mouth pinches a cigarette.
“How are you bearing up, Iris?”
Violet has detached herself from the group.
“Not so bad, thank you. Jim’s working lates, so I’ve got my hands full.”
“The shame of it. A man should be with his wife in the evenings.”
“There was a time he’d take me dancing, but that all changed when Billy came along. I used to sing in the clubs, you know, back in London. That’s where we courted.”
And her laughter sings the song of the lark.
“A night out would do you good. Why don’t you bring Jim down The Woodman on Sunday? There’s a few of us play bridge there after tea.”
“But what’ll I do with this one?” asks Iris. “Our folks are all in Islington.”
She grinds her cigarette butt under a patent leather shoe as sycamore seeds whirlybird into the sandpit.
“Billy!” she calls. “You’ll have to excuse me, but it’s almost time for the Flowerpot Men. It’s his favourite, and we’re having sausages for tea.”
Violet shakes her head. A balding man with spectacles, watching nearby, smiles sympathetically.
Evening falls, and the curtains are drawn at 13 Peartree Lane. Iris is at her needlework and the front-room clock keeps time. “Thank Heaven for little boys” reads the cushion-cover cross-stitch. On the right, an embroidered Billy in an Arsenal top, one hand on his Radio Flyer wagon; there on the shelf are sewn his yellow Matchbox digger and beloved skull and crossbones pirate hat. It’s to be a surprise for his fifth birthday on September 26th.
A key turns and the door coughs up Jim. He hangs his coat, then stops, looking in at Iris from the hallway.
“Come in, you’ll catch your death,” she says, not looking up from her work. “I’ve almost finished, come and see.”
“Very nice, love.” He stands behind her. “You’ve caught his expression perfectly.”
“Do you think so? I hope he’ll like it when it’s finished.”
“Have you eaten?”
“We both had something earlier. I’ll put some sausages on for you in a minute.”
“Iris, love, this can’t go on” he says quietly, now in front of her.
Iris gets up, embroidery still in hand.
“You’re right, Jim. I’m sorry. I’ll do your dinner right away.”
“To hell with dinner. This. It’s time you faced facts.”
Lying near the television, the album, lettered “Our Wedding”. Underneath, the Welwyn Hatfield Times. Jim’s face is hard but his eyes are soft, as he holds up the front page.
“Car Accident Kills Tragic Billy, 4”.
“Now, would you listen to that,” laughs Iris, dropping the embroidery. “You’ve woken him.”
And off she goes to fuss over Billy in bed, who doesn’t mind, for it’s three months since Billy was dead. Jim walks out without his coat, to drink away the feeling that something is pushing them to the side of their own lives.