The rain had fallen for days over London. Umbrellas were turned inside out by the furious wind, and windscreen wipers wiped frantically to keep the view clear. By the banks of the Thames, narrowly avoiding the splashes from the dark grey waves beating against the tidal walls, the Sunday walkers peruse book stalls under a bridge. These books aren’t wet, having already absorbed years of moisture from their previous homes, they are settled in the chill of a rainy day. Looking up, on the underside of the bridge are the marks of hundreds of years in breath and cigarette smoke. Men great and small have passed beneath its stone, immovable and sure.
Marge is looking at a copy of Keats’ complete works. The cover is rough, but the illustration on the front is beautiful to her. She will never get around to reading it, and she doesn’t care. She pays the gentleman his £2 and stuffs the book into her raincoat, on top of the receipt from the coffee she had drunk with her sister earlier that morning. Keats doesn’t sit well in her pocket, and the corner pokes out. Marge thanks the man and moves on, readying her still-intact umbrella.
Men and women walking in the opposite direction to her are collapsing in on themselves: their arms and shoulders hunched in, hands deep into pockets, heads deep into scarfs, couples straining arm in arm to get closer. Alone, walking with the wind, she has only to keep her umbrella steady. Her grip is firm, and her hand is starting to tire of compensating for the gusts from the Thames Estuary. Keats is getting wet.
Her sister was not herself this morning, she thinks. Marge noticed that she ordered a big coffee and didn’t drink it, and only wanted to keep the conversation afloat if it involved talking about Marge. It had been seven months since they had last spoken for any great length of time. She had missed Marge’s birthday drinks two months ago, but had send a card with a banal message inside. What little Marge knew of social media, she had seen no photos of her sister, no updates or interactions with their mutual friends. Marge now felt frustrated she hadn’t taken charge of the conversation. It would have been easy to raise a hand and change the tide, but she was swept up in her own stories.
Retired, these stories weren’t particularly thrilling, as she freely admitted. So-and-So’s dinner, his-or-her young lover, whatshisname’s dead dog. She couldn’t decide whether to be amused by what distracted her or depressed; their unimportance was staggering. And yet she and her sister usually laughed heartily at these stories, no matter how boring they were to those who overheard them. This morning, the laughs were one sided, forced upon her sister.
From that position Marge could see her sister’s scalp. Though younger than Marge, her hair had become wiry and grey quickly. Time was expedient with her. The thin and wiry strands looked painful, like they might snap like curly twigs at the slightest touch. When had she aged so much? she thought. These things happen so gradually, they can surprise you.
Marge paid for the coffees they had and hadn’t drunk at the counter, so that her sister couldn’t object. Though when it was clear what Marge had done her sister did not protest. She sat and stared feebly at the cold coffee before her. Marge saw her sister being inexorably drawn inwards. What mattered in that moment was pulling her back to the table, the coffees and the conversation. So she pointed out that she hopped the weather would clear before she had to walk home.
Marge was running late now, and decided to walk faster than she was comfortable with to make up the time. The passing strangers appeared to be deliberately obstructing her, frustrating her attempts to catch her train at Waterloo with John, her husband. He had run errands in town and had only taken the initiative because they hadn’t spent time together that week. It had been busy for many reasons: Marge’s shifts were very demanding this weekend, with two occasions where she stayed late and started early; her husband, with his regular hours, was left with most of the house hold duties and walking the dog.
As Marge reached Waterloo bridge and the National Theatre, the rain intensified and she heard a crack of thunder above her. She abandoned her umbrella in a bin, and continued on toward the station, trying to cover Keats with her forearm and holding her jacket closed with her other hand. She wondered how her sister was getting on wherever she might be now. Had she walked home in the opposite direction? Had she taken a cab as Marge suggested she should because she deserved a break?
John was waiting on the stairs leading into the station, under the cover of the arch above the door. He was trying to pick Marge out from the crowd of shiny wet rain coats that rushed into the station to escape the downpour. Finally he spotted Marge and resisted the urger to wave. She quickly climbed the steps and they entered the station together before she removed her raincoat and held it away from herself to shake off some of the water that was on it.
Marge’s sister had spent many days alone since her husband left. Little was said between them in the last weeks of their marriage, until one day she awoke alone. Now she became paranoid of her home, the sounds and shadows in it, and always listened for the doors, and the sound of his footsteps. She had no idea how long she should mourn his loss, because he was neither dead nor lost; he had left and she was lost. She would tell Marge when she herself knew what to make of it. Until then she had some thinking to do.
This story featured originally on A Thousand Words, a blog about the stories in photographs.