Viccy was the seventh reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

Her appearance was on Fri 19th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent.

Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
 

 

Viccy Adams is a former Leverhulme Trust writer-in-residence at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics.

Her creative non-fiction collection There & Now: a writer’s perspective on everyday life in South West China was published by Cargo in 2015. Find out more on her website or follow her on Twitter @ViccyIsWriting.

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

Default Settings
a short story by Viccy Adams

The CD player is full of what appear to be crumbs. ‘What happened here,’ I ask but she doesn’t reply so I look up at the ceiling for a moment to gather myself, then switch through the settings to the radio.

‘Oh no,’ says Sue. ‘I don’t like that one.’ She drifts over to the window and tries to kick her shoes off.

The girl last week explained to me what they do with the laces: a sort of metal loop that grips the knot and the bow. ‘We’d spend all day retying their shoes otherwise,’ she said, shrugging one shoulder up to her ear like she was balancing a phone there.

‘What’s wrong with slip-ons,’ I asked. ‘Or Velcro?’

‘They’re just not the same. Don’t you think the laces look smarter? Besides, it helps minimise the items of clothing lost out in the gardens.’

She’s right about them looking smarter. Grown-up. I’d never be so patronising to use the word dignified, but still. Put-together is the phrase, perhaps. Today Sue is in a yellow button-down blouse I don’t recognise and her maroon skirt she likes to wear around Christmas usually. The black lace-ups do what they can but none of it hides the fact that her posture has become institutionalised.

I blame the chairs.

There’s a lovely bougainvillea right outside the window here that makes me think of the layers of skirts those flamenco dancers wear. Bare knees in a froth of petticoats. We never made it to Spain; that was the one I wanted to save up for my sixtieth.

We’ll take her out for the afternoon soon. Mark has said he’ll come down with the car. He’s very good like that.

The noose has held; Sue’s shoes are still locked in place, the bow pristine. She’s moving now, humming to herself. She couldn’t carry a tune if you gave her a bucket – my wife was the one with the voice.

 

There are default settings in our bodies, places we return to through an innate sense, through muscle memory. Lived experience.

Like salsa. One-two-three, one-two-three. What did the teacher on the ship call it? A basic. The basic step. The way you move between all the other steps, the one you return to over and again until it stops being a step and simply becomes the way your body responds to a certain type of music.

I think it helps if you danced as a child. I’ve looked on the internet and there doesn’t seem to be anything that contradicts my theories. But what does the medical world really know about dancing?

They met when they were eight, Molly and Sue. There’s a photo of them still up on the noticeboard at home. Hair scraped back painfully from their little, pointed faces. Arms holding out imaginary skirts, each one with a leg bent behind into a curtsey. I’d call it that and my wife would say a reverence and Sue would burst into laughter too but the pair of them could never explain it to me and Norman.

 

People were funny about us going on the cruise so soon after the funeral. Norman’s daughter – from his first marriage – wouldn’t let go of the wrong end of the stick.

‘It’s not disrespectful,’ I told her. ‘It’s not what you think.’

‘What is it then?’ she asked, and I was honest. I told her it was a last chance to make some new memories and didn’t she want her stepmother to be happy. Cared for. I offered to show her the booking on the computer – separate cabins, not even side by side. But she wouldn’t listen.

Mark got it. He’s a good lad. Takes after his mother. It helped that he’d spotted it in Sue for himself. Said his girlfriend’s aunt had been the same way. Told me if we waited until everyone else came round to the idea then it would probably be too late already.

 

I’ve thought about hiring someone. A blonde. They’d just need to be about the right height. I walk down the high street sometimes and look into the women’s faces and I find segments of them that fit. An eyebrow raised by a woman with a pug waiting outside Marks and Spencers. The way the girl at the Post Office Counter flicks back her hair and leaves her hand up for a moment to stretch her neck.

Ten years since she passed away and I still see her everywhere. Still see her at all stages of her life, good and bad. That’s the thing about cancer, if you know enough people there’s always someone or their wife or their secretary or their cousin has just had the first diagnosis. Is back on chemo. Off for a check-up. Waiting for results. You can’t get away from it in everyday conversation. You overhear things on the bus. And I find things about Molly there that I’d rather forget. Even if they were my last memories of her, I’d still rather let them dissipate. It’s a heresy, of sorts, to admit that to other people. That there were things you’d like to let go of. That not every memory is sacred. When you pass a certain age, people start to assume you just want to sit and remember things. That to forget is a pity. Not if you’re choosing, I tell them. It’s when the choice is taken away from you, that’s what’s cruel.

 

Sue’s off now, swaying into the music and moving round the room without bumping into anything. It helps me to see her like this, with her back straight again. If I did hire someone, a blonde with an air of Molly about her, I wonder if it could unlock something more that’s buried in her still. Sue used to tell me stories, after Molly first passed, about the two of them as teenagers. New stories every time. Trivial things like the colour of the hairclips they’d wear to school, taking it in turns to wear the pink ones or the white ones until break.

Norman knew what she’d need before the rest of us, of course. You’ll take care of her, he told me. Didn’t have to ask, just said out loud what we both knew already. If it had been the other way round, I think I would have found it a relief to know my Molly would still have a friend.

I thought a cruise was the safest option. A restricted space so if she did wander off then she couldn’t get too far. Someone in her cabin at night to lock the door and help her with buttons and washing and things, if she needed it. We were going to take a niece but Norman’s daughter put her off so in the end it was someone through an agency.

Sue sobbed when I told her we were going. It’s hard to remember she knew Norman was dead. That she was still so present. It’s so easy to put her as she is now into those memories.

I told her I’d promised Norman I’d see she got a holiday after the funeral and everything was over. And I needed a holiday too, from the loneliness that never goes away. That terrible, unsuitable hunger.

Afterwards, I had all the photos put together and printed through one of those internet companies. I thought Sue might like to look at it, that it might fix things into her mind better. But they’re all gone, none of those new memories stuck. Norman went, about a month ago. His name, their marriage. She’s polite to me, at best.

Molly is still in there. Sue has moments when she remembers that they danced. Says her name, sometimes. So perhaps if I found a blonde woman with the right way about her and brought her here then there might be something else that Sue could remember for me, about my wife.

 

The music on the radio must have switched to something she doesn’t like because Sue has slumped again, stopped moving. It’s hard not to be angry with her for just standing like that. Some days I come in and I want to shout at her to make an effort. But I don’t. It’s easier when I can control the music though.

As I’m heading over to take another look at the crumb-filled CD player, Sue makes one of her sudden movements, a sharp smell fills the air and I know it’s time to call a nurse. The girl takes a few minutes to steer Sue into the en-suite and while I’m trying not to look at either of them directly I spot the photobook from the cruise over in the corner. I go to take a look and that’s when I find two pieces of toast – mercifully unbuttered – wedged into it.

It’s hard to tell, with toast, how long it’s been there. It’s a week since I last used the CD player. Is this some kind of sign, I wonder; is Sue trying to tell me something? The toast is bookmarking a page of ocean views, silhouettes of Sue in a long dress at sunset with a virgin pina colada in one hand and my beer on the table next to where she’s standing. The condensation on the side of the glasses is frozen in time and I’m brought back to how hot that day had been on shore in Croatia and how good it had felt when the ship pulled out and made a breeze and how Sue and I had talked about the way the staff served you drinks in chilled glasses and how I thought it made them taste better. And Sue asking the waiter if they served drinks on the Arctic cruises in insulated mugs.

 

There’s a crash from the en suite but the girl is still chatting away to Sue in her bright voice so I don’t call through to check. You learn quickly that it’s a different kind of normal here. New default settings.

In partner dancing, there are always leaders and followers. It’s the leader who has to push at things, create an atmosphere where the follower can respond. Fitting the moves to the music, to the moment. Working with what you’ve got, not what you wish you had.

I shake the toast out into the bin and it cleans the air, makes it smell – for a moment – like a home that someone lives in. The sort of place that has furniture that can’t be wiped clean.
 

(c) Viccy Adams, 2016