The telephone at her desk started to ring,
shrilly clamouring for attention but Ellen ignored it, she was writing herself
a short list of things she needed to buy for dinner tonight; cheese, pasta,
mixed herbs and an aubergine, she jotted the items down into her bright yellow
notebook, with all the other useful things that she thought important;
quotations she had come across, ideas for work, telephone numbers and
forthcoming concerts, each in their own separate section, alphabetically
arranged. The notebook as organised as her life.
All around her the office proceeded smoothly;
she had a quick look at the files on the shelves behind her, but all were in
their place; the numbers satisfyingly sequential. She sipped at her coffee (one
and a half teaspoons of Kenco, no milk or sugar), in the background there was
some pop music coming from the radio; Ellen suspected that having pop music on
during the day made her colleagues anxious and frenetic; the irregular beats
and untrained voices, but everyone else in the office seemed to like it, and as
the administrator it wasnt her place to say anything.
She sat for a moment, finishing off her coffee
and thought about her sister Anna, lying just a few streets away, in the large
white hospital, nobody knowing what was wrong with her, just that she was
slowly and quietly dying; her organs packing in, one at a time. In her mind she
travelled the distance between them, and into her sisters ward and
hovered over her bed, watching, and hoping that there would be a miracle and
that she would start to get better.
Ellen, now that she had sorted out the real
files, had now set to organising the virtual files saved on the computer
system; deleting those that were obsolete and giving proper titles to those
that were left, and putting them into a logical order; a most satisfying
That bloody woman, she had heard
Nathan, head of the firm shout, early on when he could not find something, but
patiently and kindly she had sat down with him and shown him where everything
went and why. Now he trusted her completely, had seen how efficient she
was making his firm, and often left her expensive chocolate on her desk as a
sign of appreciation, and perhaps of love.
Soon she would not be needed anymore; her
systems complete so that her colleagues could find everything they needed
without asking her, but she would get an excellent reference from Nathan and a
decent administrator could always get another job. She had got her present
position because Avril, manager of her last place of work Nottingham
Electronics International (N.E.I.) - knew Nathan and, once she realised that
she could not persuade Ellen to stay, had passed her on, and perhaps Nathan
would do the same in turn. A pleasing pattern, and maybe once she had gone
through all the businesses in the city, she would return to where she had
started; as a teenager in the local corner shop, turning the chaos of Mr
Guptas accounts into a system of beauty and efficiency.
Or perhaps it was time to retire; to leave all
this behind; to sit with her sister and talk of the past? But when she thought
of retirement, she saw a blankness; an empty space closing in on her, chaos,
with only music and friends, a pathetic attempt to fill it. But that too was
part of the shape of life, and she would have to allow herself to face it
sooner or later, but hopefully not yet.
How is your sister? it was Rose,
young and new to the office.
Thank you for asking Rose. I will visit
her later. She is not in pain, she is just wasting away, but they cant
find the cause.
Rose patted her shoulder awkwardly.
I am sorry.
I dont understand it; she is just
getting worse and lies there getting thinner and more and more frail, as if she
is becoming a child again.
All around her colleagues carried on with
their work, oblivious and uncaring, the office smelling of air freshener and
She felt the tears start to come into her eyes
but managed to halt them and change the subject.
How are you Rose? Are you settling
Rose sat down next to her and whispered,
I find Nathan difficult, twice he has called me into his office for
a little chat. Perhaps I might have to leave.
Oh you are new, Ellen attempted to
reassure her, he does that with everyone. You are doing okay; you will
fit in and become part of the team.
But he is so fierce, and so much of the
time I have no idea what I am doing.
Dont worry, we all feel like that
at first, said Ellen not entirely truthfully.
Did you? O that makes me feel better; I
feel so useless at times, as if I dont belong.
Dont worry about Nathan, his bark
is worse than his bite, she handed Rose some chocolate that was on her
desk. Another member of staff, Pete came over and Rose smiled and walked away,
appearing to be a little happier, nervously munching on the chocolate.
But was Rose doing okay? Ellen did not know.
Perhaps she did not fit in and would be sent on her way. Ellen believed that
everybody had somewhere they belonged and where they would add, incrementally,
to the whole, but unfortunately, unlike Ellen, many did not find their place
and spent their whole life looking in vain, and it might be that Rose was one
Ellen switched off her computer and grabbed
her possessions before getting up to go.
Have a good evening shouted Rose,
who was sitting quietly, typing something into her computer. Ellen visited the
toilet and cloakroom, before making her way towards the lift and out into the
busy city below.
It was still light as she walked towards the
hospital, but there was a cold wind which made her hurry. A part of her
resented paying for car parking, she realised that hospitals needed money, but
it was expensive, and she must have paid a small fortune over the last few
weeks. As she left her car, she was overawed by how large the Queens
Medical Centre was, if a hospital that size could not cure her sister what
could? She imagined various men and women in white doing experiments, examining
x-rays and talking earnestly amongst themselves as they tried to discover what
was killing Anna.
There was the usual hospital smell;
disinfectant, institutionalised food and every so often there was a whiff of
faeces or urine which made her heave. As she entered the ward she saw the
nurses in dark blue, hurrying hither and thither; she was beginning to
recognise faces; and one young woman with curly red-hair gave her a smile, but
nobody stopped to speak to her, which must mean that Anna was not getting any
There was nobody by her sisters bed;
Anna had two children who were both living in London and when she first became
ill, they had stayed with their father, Annas ex-husband Steve, visiting
every day, but as her illness lingered with no dramatic denouement, they had
returned to their busy lives, just coming up occasionally. Ellen was a little
relieved that Steve was not there; after the marriage break-up what had been a
comfortable friendship had ended with bitter words and anger, particularly from
Ellen, who had been angrier than her sister at his affair. Since Annas
illness things were easier, and there was a truce between them, but still she
felt embarrassed when spending time with him.
She sat down quietly so as not to disturb her
sister who was lying there with her eyes closed; various tubes and wires stuck
into her body.
How was work? a quiet voice asked
Oh you are awake.
Yes, her sister murmured, it
will be dinner soon, and I always wake up for then.
Work was as usual. Some of them were
asking after you.
Her sister said nothing.
I am going to a concert later. At the
Royal Concert Hall.
Anna sighed gently, are you going on
No with Robert, you have met
What about Brian?
There is no Brian.
Anna said nothing; seeming to be concentrating
her energy on staying awake or alive, and they sat in silence together, the
only sound the whirr of the various machines, that were keeping Annas
body functioning, and the distant murmur of nurses. When Ellen was away from
her sister, she had every confidence that the staff could find a cure and that
soon she would be home, but sitting with her, watching the pale features and
scrawny body engulfed by the night dress that a couple of months ago would have
been far too small for her, she had no such hope.
An orderly came with a bowl of fish pie.
Do you want to feed her? she
asked, and Ellen took the bowl and spoon and gently started to push the food
into her sisters dry mouth. And she remembered when Anna was only small,
sitting with her on her knee, the television, on in the background, and whilst
her mother watched, she fed her baby sister, and her mother gave her a happy
smile of encouragement. Now her mother was dead and her sister dying and all
she could do was to give her sustenance in the hope that this would make her
And then they talked peaceably until Ellen
looked at her watch, and realised it was time to go; she hurried away to find
her car, not forgetting to pay the machine for her use of the car park.
Robert kissed her on the cheek as they met
outside the Royal Concert Hall, he was looking smart and smelt of something
expensive, disengaging themselves they walked in out of the cold and dark, and
headed towards the small café to grab a coffee before the start of the
concert. They had met on a dating website and although their relationship had
not proven to be romantic, or not so far, they had discovered a mutual love of
music and had started going to concerts to together; in the six months they had
known each other they had attended a dozen or so performances in and around
Nottingham and had even gone afar as Leicester and Sheffield, Robert driving
them in his Mini.
Tonights performance was two pieces by
Bach, his double violin concerto and his Musical Offering and between those a
piece she did not know, Haydns forty-seventh symphony.
It has two palindromes in the third
movement; the minuet and the trio. Robert told her.
Interesting. I always get his symphonies
He did write a lot laughed Robert,
this one should be fun.
They talked of what had happened to them
during the day; Robert was a lecturer in German at the University, and he
described the department politics and about a trip to Cologne that he was
organising for the first-year undergraduates.
The loudspeaker interrupted to tell them they
needed to take their seats and so they walked into the concert hall, her hand
resting gently on his elbow, and she wished that he was taking her home
afterwards, to chat and drink wine, and then go to bed and make love. But she
knew that after the concert he would disappear back to Sherwood, to a house she
had never visited, and probably never would, with his music and his respectable
friends, whilst she would drive back alone to an empty house and an empty
She enjoyed the Bach; the regularity of it, as
if it all had a purpose, and the composer was in complete control of all that
he had written, following a pre-ordained pattern, whilst next to her Robert
seemed to be following the music intently and with enjoyment. And then there
was the applause and a re-arrangement of the orchestra, with a few more members
coming on stage, and after a few moments of tuning up, they set about the
As the symphony reached the third movement,
Robert squeezed her knee gently and for a moment she felt herself at peace; it
was as if God herself had paused for the briefest of heart beats. and for just
for that breath of time the world had stopped; the wind outside silent and
still, the earth no longer revolving and even the angels unmoving as they
floated above in the heavens. And then Robert squeezed her knee again and life
After the interval there was more Bach, which
she enjoyed, the regularity of it, the patterns which subtly changed
themselves; a mix of repetition and change. The concert finished and
there was loud applause and then as they left the auditorium, Ellens hand
upon Roberts arm, the loudspeaker wished them all a pleasant evening and
a safe journey home. They had another coffee and talked about the concert,
which both of them had enjoyed, although Ellen could not quite put into words
how she had felt during the Haydn Symphony and perhaps it was best that she
keep it to herself. Robert told of her about what he would be doing tomorrow;
organising the trip to Cologne and more departmental meetings.
Outside the Royal Concert Hall Robert,
smelling of something expensive, kissed her on the cheek and then, after
disengaging themselves, they went their separate ways, back into the suburbs of
Ellen hurried away from her car towards the
hospital, remembering to take a ticket from the machine in the foyer. She could
smell coffee from the café but looking at her watch she decided she did
not have time, and she doubted her sister would want one.
She sat down next to Anna who seemed
How was the concert?
Very good. And for a few moments
she talked about the music she had heard, especially about the Haydn.
Did Brian not invite you back?
Anna asked with an attempt at a knowing smile.
No he didnt, whoever Brian is, nor
Robert either, the man I went with. It would have been fun she mused,
he is a lovely man, but we are just friends.
Perhaps you need to make a move on
him her sister suggested, he is probably as shy as you
Ellen imagined for a moment, grabbing hold of
Robert; kissing him, forcing her body against his, but the only way she could
see the scene ending was him pushing her off; his face full of shock and
repulsion, and they would never see each other again.
Anna was quiet for a moment, appearing to be
concentrating on staying awake or alive, and the two sisters sat in silence
together, the only sound the whirr of the various machines, that were keeping
Annas body functioning, and the distant murmur of cleaning staff. When
Ellen was away from her sister, she had every confidence that the staff could
find a cure and that soon she would be home, but sitting with her, watching the
pale features and scrawny body engulfed by the night dress that a couple of
months ago would have been far too small for her, she had no such hope.
The nurse came with a bowl of Weetabix, with
plenty of milk and sugar.
Do you want to feed her? she
asked, and Ellen took the bowl and spoon and started to push the food into the
dry mouth, and Anna gulped it down, but after a couple of mouthfuls she tried
to push it away, but Ellen persisted.
You need to eat to get well, and
then she remembered forcing Anna to eat when she was only small, her mother was
busy and had left Ellen to feed her sister, but she had refused to take it, and
Ellen tried to push it down past her resisting lips, choking Anna. Fortunately
her father came in, saw what was happening and wrenched the spoon out of her
hand, and she was never allowed to feed her sister again.
I am sorry she said, almost in
tears, perhaps I had better go.
It is okay, I wish I could eat too. Let
us just talk, I have got another x-ray in a minute.
And for the next hour they talked of the past,
of their parents and their childhood, until Ellen looked at her watch and
realised it was time to leave. She kissed her sister as she left; her
skin felt dry and cold and she shivered slightly at her touch, and she hoped
that Anna had not noticed.
Despite the earliness of the hour there was a
hum of hard work as she left her sisters ward; the nurses in dark blue,
hurrying hither and thither; she was beginning to recognise faces; and one
young man with very short hair gave her a smile, but nobody stopped to speak to
her, which must mean that Anna was not getting worse at any rate.
The sky was beginning to become light as she
left the hospital and walked towards the car; but there was a cold wind which
made her hurry. A part of her resented paying for car parking, but hospitals
needed the money, and visitors were fair game apparently, however often they
visited. Looking at the building behind her she was overawed by how large the
Queens Medical Centre was, if a hospital that size could not cure her
sister what could? She thought of the various men and women in white examining
x-rays, doing experiments, and talking earnestly amongst themselves as they
tried to discover what was killing Anna, surely it was only a matter of
Ellen got into the lift
which took her upwards, escaping the busy city below. She stepped out and
noticed that there were hardly any lights on, but then it was still early. She
visited the toilet and the cloakroom before making her way towards her desk,
she saw Rose sitting quietly, typing something into her computer.
How was your evening? she asked,
as Ellen passed by.
I went to a concert with a friend and I
saw my sister.
How is she?
I dont know. No better, no
I am sorry. It must be awful for
And Rose patted her shoulder, awkwardly.
Ellen shrugged, drawing in her tears, and sat
down next to her.
Hard at work I see.
Not really said Rose with a smile,
this is my resignation letter. I was talking with my boyfriend last
night, how miserable I am, and he said he feels the same; awful children at the
school where he teaches. So we are off to the East; Thailand, Hong Kong, Mayan
Oh my goodness. Murmured
I just feel my life is not my own, as if
I am being forced into a shape that I dont want. I want to take
What do you mean pattern?
Oh the repetition of everything; the
same things every day. I want to move forward not go in circles.
I think that might scare me. Ellen
replied after a moment or two, I need order to stem the chaos of my
Rose laughed uncertainly, and then printed off
her letter, put it in an envelope and Ellen watched her place it on
Nathans desk and then with a wave she was gone. But surely life was a
pattern and Ellen was not sure how anybody could escape that, however much they
wanted to; Rose and her boyfriend would enjoy their holiday, but they would
come back and Rose would find a job that suited her and her life would become
regulated whether she liked it or not.
Wheres Rose going? muttered
Pete, who was standing, waiting for her at her desk.
She is off to the East with her
They never last, now can you help me
Ellen worked out was a very simple problem,
but for the first time that day felt happy and needed. And then once she had
solved Petes difficulty she worked on the n drive, realising
that she had almost completed this task. Behind her she was pleased to see that
all the files were in order, satisfyingly sequential.
Very soon she would be not needed anymore; her
systems complete so that her colleagues could find everything they need without
asking her, but she would get an excellent reference from Nathan and a decent
administrator could always get another position. She remembered her first job,
when she was only fourteen; at first she was a newspaper delivery girl, up
early every morning on her bike, but then after returning one Saturday morning
from her rounds, Mr Gupta, in desperation, had asked her to look at his
I struggle with these, especially now my
son has buggered off to University.
She had smiled shyly and soon set to work; and
after a few moments of panic it began to become clear, and by the end of the
morning she had turned Mr Guptas chaotic accounts into a system of beauty
and efficiency; and after that, every Saturday morning until she had left
school, she would check the figures and receipts, whilst Mr Gupta watched her
baffled and grateful.
There was a telephone call; she was shaking
when she picked up the receiver, thinking it must be the hospital, but it was
Thank you for going to the concert last
night, she could hear piano music in the background, something by Rameau,
and she wondered if it was a recording or if he had someone round; someone
I enjoyed it she responded, as
they spoke she remembered his putting a hand on her knee. Why had he done that
There is a concert in Birmingham next
weekend; Haydns Creation. I wondered if you fancied
making a weekend of it; we could stay in a hotel; I can book
She was silent, all around her colleagues were
arriving for the day, oblivious and uncaring, the office smelling of
disinfectant and coffee. She listened to the piano music; too polished to
be a casual performance.
Thank you she said after a moment,
I would love to.
She felt an uprising of joy rise through her,
a joy that she wanted to share, but she had nobody, until she remembered the
telephone by her sisters bed, and she had the number somewhere. She tried
it but the phone just rang out and eventually she gave up. Oh well, she could
tell her all about it tonight.
The office was still quiet; just a few of her
colleagues creeping around as if sleep walking, and then someone turned the
radio on and there was the usual background of discordant rhythms and untrained
voices. Ellen got herself a coffee (one and a half teaspoons of Kenco, no milk
or sugar), and planned her day ahead.
She sat for a moment, finishing off her coffee
and thought about her sister, lying a few streets away, in the shiny white
hospital, nobody knowing what was wrong with her, just that she was slowly and
quietly dying; her organs packing in, one at a time. In her mind she travelled
the distance between them, and into her sisters ward and hovered over her
bed, watching, and hoping that there would be a miracle and that she would
start to get better.
She knew that she would go and see her later;
could almost see what her life would be like over the next few days, and yet
she did not mind the predictability of it. Although the weekend away with
Robert would be a bit frightening, she would cope and even if their friendship
became romantic, it would become part of the pattern of her life.
As she sat at her desk, she opened her bright
yellow notebook, where she made a note of important things she should not
forget, and started to write down a list of things she needed to buy on her way
home for dinner; passata, gnocchi, beetroot and an aubergine. The telephone at
her desk started to ring, shrilly clamouring for attention but Ellen ignored