The sun is setting as Penny swings into Wave Crest, the sky lit up like one of Sander’s colour charts. She has rarely, if ever, seen such a spectacular eruption of colour and once she has parked and turned the engine off she sits and stares and allows herself a couple of minutes, a brief, magical pause in what so far has been a horrendous day.
When the rapidly falling temperature within the car makes her shiver, she reaches for her bag from the passenger seat and climbs out.
Indoors, the house is dark and unusually silent. Even the cat, who generally keeps watch, ever hopeful for extra food, is absent.
“Hello?” she calls out, wondering if a lack of reply would make her feel concern or joy. Her life these days provides so few opportunities (with the exception of driving) for actually being alone. So these moments are rare enough to be treasured yet unusual enough to be unsettling too.
As she hangs her coat in the hallway, a door upstairs opens. “Hello?” Sander calls. “Up here.”
Penny climbs the stairs and enters his studio. She finds him sitting facing the window. The room smells sweet with marijuana. “What are you doing in the dark?” she asks, thinking like I don’t know.
“Looking at that,” Sander replies. “Have you seen the state of the sky out there?”
“Hard to miss it,” Penny replies, crossing to the window. “It’s beautiful.”
“So how was your day?” Sander asks, reaching for an unfinished joint in the ashtray and then crossing to stand at Penny’s side.
“D’you want to talk about it, or do you just want a puff of this to help you forget?” Sander asks, proffering the joint.
Penny shrugs. She rarely smokes these days, but tonight she feels she needs something to help her through, otherwise she might just cry. “Go on, then,” she says, taking the joint from Sander’s fingers and then leaning in towards the flame of his lighter.
She inhales, coughs, then takes another drag before saying, through smoke, “The rules are so stupid, that’s the thing. It’s like they’ve been designed to make the whole process fail.”
“Asylum rules?” Sander asks. He’s heard this rant before.
“Right. So, I’m supposed to be counselling this woman for trauma, OK?”
Sander almost imperceptibly nods.
“They’re Syrians. Two daughters plus the parents. Dad got tortured by Assad. He’s missing three fingers if that gives you some idea. And all three women got raped, the mother in Syria, and the daughters during the trip to Greece.”
“God, how old are they?”
“Twelve and fourteen.”
“The son’s missing, presumed dead, but possibly just rotting in a jail somewhere.” Penny clears her throat before continuing. “So that’s what I’m supposed to be helping her with, right? All of that. But we couldn’t even get near the subject because what they need is someone to help them now. They’re living in a single room, a horrible bedsit. Unhygienic doesn’t even begin to cover it, believe me. Four people in two beds in a single room with one of those 1920 Belling cookers in the corner. They’re officially not allowed to work, which is absurd, but they have to because no one can possibly live on five pounds a day seeker’s allowance. And if the father gets caught – so this is an ex college professor painting people’s bloody ceilings for three pounds an hour, yeah? – and if he gets caught, they get thrown out.”
“I mean… Ugh…” Penny shakes her head. “How can I possibly be expected to help her with her trauma when it’s ongoing? When we – the social services, the government, the system – are still causing it? And then on the way home, this ugly bloody skinhead – who I’m betting never worked a day in his life – gave me this.” Penny pulls an English Defence League leaflet from her pocket, unfolds it and hands it to Sander.
Sander scans the bright red headlines of the various sections of text. “English Benefits for English people.” “Time the Muslins went back home.” “English pensioners MUST come first.”
“Muslins,” Sander says. “Are they people who wear muslin?”
“I know. It’s full of spelling mistakes. And it’s horrible. And there are way more of these hateful skinhead types scrounging benefits than there are immigrants, I’m telling you. I mean, if you met these Syrians – who just happen to be Christian, by the way – you’d swap them for baldy skinhead man in an instant. And all they really want to do, unlike Mister EDL, is get a bloody job.”
“Sure,” Sander says.
“And they’re banging on about wanting to quit the EU, but they wouldn’t have the foggiest what to do if we did leave.”
“Right. It’s stupid.”
Penny can tell from his tone of voice that he has reached the limits of his capacity to listen to her. It’s tough living with a partner who complains almost every day about her job – Penny gets that. “Anyway,” she says. “Rant over.”
“You do a tough job, Pen,” Sander says, sliding one arm around her waist. “Some days it’s going to get to you.”
Downstairs, the landline rings and then a few seconds later the mobile handset perched on Sander’s easel starts to chirrup. “Don’t, babe,” Sander says, as Penny breaks free and picks it up. “It’ll only be your mother.”
Penny casts him a dirty look. “Yes,” she says. “And?” She clicks on the answer button and then raises it to her ear. “Hi Mum,” she says. “How are you?”
“D’you want tea?” Sander asks as he leaves the room.
Penny nods at him and says, “Uh-uh,” perhaps to him or perhaps to her mother, he’s not sure.
By the time Sander returns, the conversation is over and Penny is seated in his armchair watching as the last of the redness fades from the sky. “They all want to come down for the weekend,” she announces.
“I thought they were in Venice.”
Penny nods. “After Venice. Maybe the last week in October or perhaps for bonfire night? It’s a Saturday apparently.”
“Officially to plan Christmas,” Penny says. “But Mum reckons they just fancy a trip to the seaside. And a bonfire on the beach, no doubt.”
“It’s nice to feel useful,” Sander says sarcastically.
“I know. Do you think that’s true? I mean, I was happy at first – I haven’t seen Vicky for weeks – but when Mum said that… Well, I’m not so sure now.”
“Who knows. And Christmas. Is that gonna be here then?”
“Still to be decided. But I was thinking, we’ll need to sort the spare room out. All those boxes need to come back into our room, too. They’ve been there since the roof leak.”
“I’ll handle that during the week.”
“Right, well, in that case, I might try to get a lick of paint on that back bedroom. You know what Vicky’s like about stains and stuff.”
“You’re tired,” Sander says. “You don’t want to spend your weekend painting walls.”
“Do we have any white paint left?” Penny asks, ignoring the comment because if she engages that train of thought they will inevitably end up discussing why she has to paint the room, why Sander doesn’t do it. He doesn’t seem to paint anything else these days, after all.
“There’s some in the basement. If it hasn’t dried out. But I really don’t…”
“And we need to do something about the mould in the bathroom. Mum asked if we’d dealt with it and I said yes.”
Sander laughs. “You liar! So, you realise that preparing for the Christmas planning weekend is going to be exactly the same amount of work as preparing for Christmas itself, yeah?”
“She’s my sister,” Penny says. “I have to see my sister. Even if she does just want to visit the seaside. And even if she does require hospital cleanliness wherever she goes.”
“You get that no matter how much you do, it won’t be enough,” Sander says. “I mean, it’s fine. I’m totally happy for them to come. But as long as you’re ready for the fact that it won’t be enough.”
“She’s a maniac and I’m a slattern. She’ll just have to put up or shut up. Or go home.”
Penny laughs. Sander’s English is so perfect that most of the time she forgets it’s not his first language. But then he’ll say loose instead of lose, or slap an S on the end of pasta or accommodation to express the plural, and she’ll remember. “Slattern? It’s a dirty, untidy woman. It’s a pretty old-fashioned word.”
“OK,” Sander says. “Slattern, huh?”
“You could bother to contradict me. You could say, ‘Oh no, Penny, you’re not a slattern’.”
Sander smiles. “I’m assuming you know the word better than I do. And yourself,” he says. “Anyway, as far as Vicky is concerned, it sounds like you’re ready for an argument. And they haven’t even confirmed that they’re coming yet.”
“Only if she starts complaining.”
“Which, of course, she will.”
Penny wrinkles her nose and rolls her eyes. Her expression reminds Sander of their daughter Chloe who generally considers anything anyone over twenty says to be automatically idiotic. “Relax,” Penny says. “We won’t argue. I promise.”
Sander laughs again. “How come I know you so much better than you know yourself?” he asks. “You’re the shri… the psychologist. So, go on. Explain that to me.”
END OF SAMPLE #5
Let the Light Shine will be published on the 30th September
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