by Caron McKinlay

Maude shuffled down the bus steps and into the snow. Fingers fumbled with the buttons of her old tweed coat. Everything was so difficult these days. Strands of grey hair were stuck slick to her face. With a sharp tut from the corner of her mouth, she brushed them away and bent down to pick up her carrier bags. There were a few bits and bobs for Christmas inside and she hoped they hadn’t been ruined by the icy sludge that squelched under her feet.

“Excuse me? Are you alright or do you need a hand? It’s absolutely freezing, eh?”

Maude smiled at the pretty brunette dressed in the Saturday night uniform of mini dress, thigh boots and black puffer jacket. About twenty years old, plastered with makeup and thick black eyebrows. Kind eyes, hidden in shadows. “Ach I’m okay love. It’s just age, you know, and this awful weather. Used to be a time I could run and up and down these roads with my shopping, but those days are long gone. I’m Maude, by the way.”

“I’m Sharon. Well, my mates call me Shazza. Have you got far to go? I’m waiting for my boyfriend to get off the next bus, but that’s not for another fifteen minutes. I could help carry your bags a wee bit to your house?”

Maude’s eyes crinkled in delight. “Oh, that would be great, love. My hands are aching carrying these. The plastic digs into your fingers and that hill seems to get steeper every day. I’m only at number Ninety-six, the house that stands by itself just after the bridge.”

As they walked, Maude spoke of her two grown daughters. “Laura’s a successful solicitor in an Edinburgh firm and Eliza’s a social worker in Bethnal Green. Both are busy with their new careers and fresher husbands.” She paused to catch her breath. “Neither has time for visiting, not even at Christmas, but I’m proud of them both.”

Sharon’s breathe etched the frosty air and she smiled wistfully. “It must be hard for you not to see them at this time of year.”

Maude’s eyes glistened. “It’s my husband I miss the most. We were married thirty-five years, always in each other’s pockets. We did everything together. He even went with me to Sunday-night bingo. He’s been dead two years now and oh, how I miss him.” She fumbled for a tissue in her pocket and dabbed her puffy eyes. “Ach! I’m a silly old fool, dear. I still leave his tartan slippers beside his favourite chair, and I’ve not washed his last whisky glass. It’s less lonely that way. He loved a wee whisky while he watched the horses on the telly. Those damn slippers though. I must trip over them twice a day. Then I scream, John, you’ve left your slippers lying about again! Of course, there’s no one to respond.” She glanced at Sharon. “Oh, I didn’t mean to upset you, dear.”

Sharon wiped the tears from her face with the plastic cuff of her jacket. “It’s just so lovely, Maude. Not everyone finds someone that loves them like that. Some men . . .”

Maud frowned at Sharon. “Some men give you black eyes, eh, love?”

Sharon lowered her face to the ground, avoiding Maud’s dark gaze.

“Love, there’s no need to hide yourself. I saw them earlier when you picked up my bags. The ones on your wrists look fresher.”

Sharon pulled the sleeves of her jacket down further. Was it the bite of the cold or the sensation of shame that was reddening the girl’s face? Maude looked closer. They passed under the old bridge in silence until Sharon finally spoke. “Robert doesn’t mean to hurt me. It’s my fault. Sometimes I make the wrong thing for dinner or say something stupid. I always screw up and he’s under so much pressure at work. His new boss is a bitch and nit-picks his work. I love him, Maude. I just need to listen more to his needs. It’s really great when he’s happy with me. Honest.”

Was this new boss a bitch or was it just something he’d told Sharon? She stopped at her garden gate. The roses were as overgrown as the weeds, and old crisp packets decorated the thorns like baubles on a Christmas tree. “Look, this is me. Why don’t you come in for a cup of hot tea and a chat? Leave the beggar waiting around for a bit.”

Sharon’s head shook. “Oh, I can’t! I need to be there. Maybe some other time.”

“Come on, love. Look at the state of you, teary and freezing from the snow. You need someone to chat to and a hot cup of something to warm you up. In fact, I have that fizzy wine that you young ones drink. We could have a wee tipple together. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

Sharon bit her lip. “I really shouldn’t. Robert is expecting me . . . but . . .” Her voice trailed off.

A black car slowed down beside them, music blasting. From the open car window, two men with their faces hidden in grey hoodies shouted, “Want a shag, Hen?” Sharon stuck her middle finger up and they cackled and laughed. As the car revved off, a flash of dirty cold slush drenched the pavement. Sharon stepped back to avoid it, but Maude slipped on a patch of ice.

Sharon’s eyes widened and she grabbed Maude’s arms. “Maude. Maude, are you okay?” she whispered. “Ignore those arseholes. It happens sometimes.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine. Just a wee dizzy spell. I must have forgotten to eat lunch again, and that car gave me such a fright. Could you see me to my door please, love? Maybe help me sit down in my chair before you run off to see your fella?”

Sharon nodded, placing her palm at the old woman’s elbow, but slid herself when her phone rang. She grabbed it and answered. “Oh, Hi Rob! Yes, sorry, sorry . . . I’ve been watching the time, yes . . . Yes, but this old woman needed some help and well, she just fell. I’m just going to help her into her house . . . What? No Rob! I’d never do that! Her name is Maude. We’re just at that big house at the end of the bridge . . . uhm number Ninety-six . . . Okay, Okay. I’ll wait for you here. Rob. I’m so, so sorry. I was just . . .”

Maude rubbed the back of her neck and her face paled. “You deserve better, you know, Sharon. But off you go. I’m fine, really. No point in him walking all the way up here. I might be tempted to give him a piece of my mind and that would make matters much worse.” Picking up her bags, she closed the garden gate and shooed Sharon off. “Take care and thanks for the help. Look after yourself.”

Sharon dragged her hands through her hair. “I’m sorry. I can’t seem to do anything right.” She turned and fled back towards the bus stop.

The front door slammed. Maude trudged along the drab hall to the kitchen. The stench of old grease was thicker there, but it always clung to her straggly hair no matter which room she was in. A fly buzzed around a teacup. She batted it away, switched the kettle on and opened a new packet of Rich Tea.

From the hallway, the cupboard door creaked open, and Maude clenched her fists.

“You can come out now, John, but put the rope back in the toolbox. You won’t be needing it tonight. The stupid bitch gave our address to her boyfriend.” She rinsed her mug under the hot tap. Grey lumps of jellied food floated around dirty dishes. “And next time, get off your lazy arse and catch your own little playthings. I’m too old for this.”

Dipping a biscuit into milky tea, Maude sagged into the once-pink sofa. Lights twinkled on the Christmas tree. Bought to brighten up the room, they only accentuated what was missing. She sighed and turned up the volume of Coronation Street to muffle the ache inside her.

They always said red was the colour of rage, but they’re wrong. It’s drab grey.

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