On her birthday, Liz, as usual, got up first while they slept. She went to the office and shared cakes round. She waited all day for something. Nothing.
She got home early. The kids were late: hope flared. She made herself a cup of tea and picked up the post, one official-looking envelope. The front door banged and Amy stormed in, the door banged again and Jason called “what’s for tea?” Amy shrieked: “He humiliated me in front of EVERYONE. Tell him …”
A text from Stuart: “sorry, forgot.”
She left the kids fighting, wedged her bedroom door shut with the laundry basket and opened the letter. A solicitor wrote: “your aunt remembered you in her will with the message: “be frivolous.”
Great Aunt Nell: the free spirit who settled abroad to be whispered about at Christmas. Liz had only met her a couple of times. “Stay independent” she said to Lis the last time, “Don’t lose yourself looking after them.”
£60,000. DIY? university fees? But Aunt Nell had said: “be frivolous”.
Liz kicked the laundry basket aside, ignored Amy’s complaints and walked firmly out of house. She got in the car, drove two miles down the road till she found the “for sale” sign by the river, noted the estate agent and turned back to town. As usual no mobile signal anywhere. For once, a blessing.
By the time she got home, they were all contrite. A takeaway on order, a bottle of bubbly chilling.
“I saw the letter from the solicitor” said Stuart. Liz’s heart stopped. He continued: “How much did she leave?”
“Oh there’s £5000 left,” Liz answered, remembering the sum was not on the letter and that she’d put the cheque and other documents in her chaotic undies drawer. “I thought we’d get you, I mean, us that boat.”
“Shouldn’t you get something for yourself?” he rallied valiantly.
“Oh I’ll get myself a little something too.”
A little something. Ten feet from land and forty feet in diameter – a tiny island with fishing rights.
It was surprisingly easy. When things got too much, she’d pop out for a slightly longer than usual Saturday shop and paddle across in a ropy old canoe and just sit. Sometimes she’d leave work early, change into jeans and just sit, no-one making demands, until it really was time to be at home. She called it Nell’s Island. Interesting, independent Aunt Nell of the serial lovers and child free adventures. Liz built up a stash – a sleeping bag, roll mat, stove and kettle. She kept them under the million bags for life in the car and blamed the expenditure on things for the kids. She never stayed for more than half an hour in daylight. But it was good to feel lost for a while.
One Friday, the whole week had been stressful to the point that Liz thought her heart would explode and she could barely breathe and the house was a total mess and the fridge was empty. Liz was the last person home for the fifth time, yet walked it to “what’s for dinner?” “where’s my best top?” “have you signed that form?” and walked out again.
In her office shoes and smart suit, she drove to the island. Hauling her stash out of the boot, she stomped towards the padlocked canoe with mud sticking to her heels.
But there was someone already there, fiddling with the lock. It was a vagrant, thin. He looked up at Liz and paused. “This is yours isn’t it” he said “I watch you sometimes. Sorry.” It wasn’t clear if he was apologising for sitting in the canoe or for watching her.
“What are you doing?” Liz said, uncertain. The vagrant was dirty, camouflaged in the canoe. Nothing with him but a small bag.
“Borrowing the island to sleep” he answered. “Feels safer. I always lock the boat up after.”
“This isn’t the first time? People aren’t supposed to sleep on it.”
He shrugged. “You’ve never been here later than 5ish before. People aren’t supposed to sleep in doorways either.”
They looked at each other: the vagrant in the canoe; Liz in her incongruous clothes – the owner of a boat, a canoe, an island, a family and frustration.
“Fancy a drink?” said the vagrant, holding out a can.
“More of a white wine girl really” said Liz and wished she hadn’t, partly in case he had some.
“Why are you here?” asked the vagrant.
“Everyone wants something from me all the time and I never get time to myself.” How childish she sounded.
The vagrant stared for a while and took a swig from his can. “No-one wants anything from me. They just want me to eff off.”
“What’s your story?”
He shrugged. “What’s yours?”
Liz was silent. After a while she handed over the stash and said “This stuff – it’s a bit chilly tonight. Just leave the canoe secured.” She wasn’t sure that he needed the stove but there you go. She tried again: “I just feel a bit trapped, pointless, unimportant…”
Eyebrows raised, he looked her up and down and took another swig.
She felt exposed when she turned and walked muddily back to the car but when she sneaked a look backwards he was smoking a roll-up and paddling to the island. Liz went to Tesco then home, found Amy’s top, signed the form, handed a ready meal to Stuart and told them she was taking up a hobby and would take time out occasionally.
One day, when the summer came, she would tell them all. They would cycle to the island, spend the day fishing and barbecuing. Then they would cycle home. It really wasn’t far.
Right now, for a while, she would keep enjoying the occasional ten minutes of quiet raising a cup of tea to Aunt Nell and the absent vagrant.
And if the family couldn’t be bothered to ask and thought that going to Tesco was her hobby, more fool them.
Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission