One of the nurses pushed me round the large garden in a wheel chair – was I really that weak? Weak in the body or weak in the head? I kept my mouth shut.
Every few minutes it was loud, a railway train rushed past the end of the garden, long ones, short ones, good trains, all steam-hauled. This was no museum line run by anorak-wearing enthusiasts, no, this was the 1950s in Cheadle. The cars on the road the other side of the old people's home had running boards, the 1950s in Cheadle.
OK, OK, I was not a forty-year-old grain dealer with an office in Brussels with a wife and three kids any more, I was an old lady in the 1950s in Cheadle. I did not understand, but I kept my mouth shut, I grew stronger, I made plans.
I discovered that the centre of Cheadle was close, less than a kilometre away. I knew how to open the front door and go for a walk in the garden, there was a hidden lever to pull, which the demented did not know about.
The garden was pleasant, there were two gardeners, the railway was loud, but not frighteningly loud, I could sit and read a newspaper, when it wasn't raining, which was often. Three days without rain was unusual, almost a state of emergency. The nurses got use to me being independent.
I walked to Cheadle several times, it wasn't far, just a small town, but more interesting than the home, though it stunk of burning coal and coke.
Hey, don't I know that woman? She was wandering across the busy road, she was one of the demented. I took her back to the home. “Hello Nurse Cassidy, I found Mrs Wilkins wandering, so I brought her back. Where? In the High Street.”
I was reading the local newspaper which was full of local crimes and local football matches in the garden when I found a job advert: French, Dutch, Italian, spoken and written, part-time in Cheadle. Maybe I could earn some pocket money.
“I'm Ken and this is my wife Maggie. We run a small import-export company for small machine parts. We need someone who can communicate with our suppliers in Europe.”
I got the job, buying and selling all over Europe. This was nothing new to me, except what was being bought and sold. I mean, what is a type fifteen double drive chain? But Verity knew.
Verity was Ken's unmarried sister and knew all about the “parts”, she also ran a storeroom filled with the most requested parts.
I spent the mornings and also Saturday mornings on the phone to contacts throughout Europe, getting prices, delivery dates, quantities and orders. I stayed in a tiny and decrepit bedsit in the Stockport Road. It was fun for the first three months, but I knew that I could do better.
I started my own business, I paid Ken and Maggie for the phone calls I made, buying and selling grain all over Europe. I worked all day ordering parts and grain. I was a dealer.
I started small, it was odd dealing with the fathers and grandfathers of the men with whom I had dealt with in a previous life. I was successful and I decided to buy a house – two semi-detached homes in one building with a garden – I bought the lot.
“Oh yes, and then we can have children.” I asked Ken and Maggie if they wanted to live in one half.
“Oh no, you just want to drive wedge between me and my brother Ken.” Verity was most upset.
“No, no. I want you, Verity, to come and live with me in the other half, three bedrooms you know.”
“Hello Mrs Spikerman.”
“Could you spare a few minutes, I have something to tell you. I have a job in Cheadle and have bought a house to live in. Yes, it means leaving the home. Thank you for looking after me, I really needed help back then in the winter.”
“No, there is no problem with that, you don't need to worry. Here's a cheque, that should cover it and more.”
“You're very generous, Mrs Spikerman.”
“There is something I want to tell you, Verity. I'm not trying to get between you and your brother. You are right that the sales of parts from the storeroom brings in very little money compared with deliveries from our suppliers. The first is your job and the second is mine. Ken deals with the local companies and Maggie does the bookkeeping and import taxes.”
“We are a team, you know. And what's more, what you do is the icing on the cake. Why do you think that we have so many local customers? They deal with us, because they know that when a type fifteen double drive chain breaks on one of their machines we probably have a new one in our storeroom.”
“What happened this morning? A phone call:” “I want a new type fifteen double drive chain as soon as possible for our double bifurcating machine. It's broken and we need it for the express order to be ready for delivery this afternoon. Can you help, please?”
“What did I do this morning? I called ten contacts all over Europe to find some type fifteen double drive chains. I found five. They are arriving next week. What did you do? You found one in the storeroom. You put it and a mechanic to fit it in a taxi and sent them to our desperate customer who was and is terribly grateful.”
“Who do you think he will call when he needs more spare parts? Think about it, Verity.”
I woke up, it was dark, why when you wake in the dark does it take time for your eyes to adjust to the dim? There was someone else in the room, who? It was Verity. It was Verity and she was looking at me. It was Verity and she was looking at me and she was naked.
Perhaps she was sleepwalking, maybe I should get out of bed and help her back to her room. I said very softly “Come into bed!”
She walked to the side of the bed and got in. I put an arm around her and she cried. She was still there when the alarm clock rang “Time for breakfast.” I softly kissed the back of her neck.
She ate her breakfast without speaking and stared at me the whole time. “And that was the third thing I wanted to tell you about you; we'll talk about it tonight.”
We didn't; we did something else.
“That was the second thing that I wanted to tell you, Verity. You don't like men. You put your brother Ken on a pedestal, but you are not interested in other men.”
“It's OK, it's not illegal, you have Queen Victoria to thank for that. I'm your secret lover and that's OK.”
The four of us celebrated Xmas together in our new home. It was very different from what I remembered from what I call my previous life. Very odd. And even odder was New Year's Eve – no celebration at all.
We watched black and white TV, Scots dancing on swords, apparently it was allowed to celebrate in Scotland. Ken and Maggie had fallen asleep on the sofa. I took Verity to the front door and opened it.
We went outside and stood on the cold street. “Look up there, the moon has got a halo, that means ice crystals in the air.” I stood an empty bottle on the ground and placed a rocket I had kept since the fifth of November in it. I lit the blue touch paper – WHOOSH!
We walked back inside, the TV was playing the national anthem, we were standing, very patriotic.
Verity loved me, that was clear, but I did not love her. I was very fond of her, I wanted to be with her, it was fun to be with her, but I had to say it.
“Something tells me that I will leave Cheadle sometime soon, why or how I do not know. I haven't made any plans, I'm happy here, even happier here with you. I don't want to go. I know that what I am saying makes you unhappy, but I can't hide it from you.”
“Tell me more about yourself, René!”
“I was born in Rochefort, a small town in the south east of Belgium. No, not famous for the cheese, that's Roquefort in France. As you have already guessed, my mother tongue is not English, but French.”
“I later married and had three children and a small business in Brussels. How I came here to Cheadle I don't know. I was found wandering in the snow wearing just a nightie. A policeman rescued me and took me to the home.”
“And now the hard bit. I was born in 1978 and I was born male, a little boy.”
We took the children to the funfair at Whitsun, they rode on the tiny children's carousels and the donkeys and decorated everything, including their faces, with candy floss. Verity wanted to try all the big rides, first the bumper cars, I drove. The caterpillar was fun, especially when the roof unfolded over all the riders, Verity kissed me all over.
The whip was violent, Verity almost vomited. No, she did not want try the rockets, but I did. There were eight rockets, that went round and round, each at the end of a steel arm. I pulled the silver lever, there was a hiss of compressed air and up I went. I pulled the lever to MAX and climbed above the trees. I looked down and waved at Verity.
But what does the little red lever do? I pulled it. The rocket broke away from its arm and I flew over the roof of the bumper cars and over the roofs of Cheadle. I think that it was Cheadle.