‘It smells like a public convenience in there,’ said Daniel.

Sheila was standing in the hallway still wearing her coat, wondering in a half-hearted way about dinner.

‘It’s the thingy.’

He looked at her. ‘What thingy?’

‘The bulb thing.’ She waved her hand, unable to find the right word. ‘You know, the whatsit that clips onto the side of the bowl.’

‘Well it’s dreadful.’

She had a feeling there was some kind of problem with the flow – too much of the purple liquid striped the white porcelain, bubbled into the water and left a strong chemical odour trailing the length of the hall. It was a supermarket-own brand, on special offer, and unable to resist a bargain, Sheila had bought three of them. Her mother would have been proud.

‘It’s supposed to smell like lavender,’ she said vaguely.

‘Lavender?’ Daniel sounded incredulous. ‘How’s anything designed for that purpose actually going to smell like lavender?’

‘We need one. It’s got disinfectant inside.’ Most of her mind was now engaged with sorting through the contents of the freezer. The chops wouldn’t thaw in time, but she was fairly certain there was a pizza in there somewhere, she could almost see it.

‘Can’t you take it out?’ he said.

Sheila’s attention moved from the freezer to her husband’s vexed expression. ‘Take it out yourself if it’s bothering you.’ Despite forty years of the Women’s Movement – more – it was still Sheila who snapped on the Marigolds every week and tackled the toilet. ‘I have no biological advantage when it comes to lavatory bowls.’

‘Oh,’ Daniel made a dismissive gesture, ‘Don’t get all Woman’s Hour on me, there’s enough of that going around at work.’ His new boss was a stickler for equality; she’d introduced flexible working hours and spent a long time gender-neutralising various handbooks. Sheila hadn’t met the new boss, but liked the sound of her – much more than Rog, he of the paunchy belly and two-tone shirts, the way he’d say, ‘And how’s Sheila?’ when they met, as if she needed special treatment. It was more than the tweeness of being referred to in the third person, something to do with the pronouncement itself, the elaborate giving-over of attention.

Sheila went to hang up her coat.

‘But you have to agree, it shouldn’t be making the whole passageway smell like this?’ said Daniel when she returned.

Were they still having this conversation? Not that it was a conversation, hardly that – an exchange, she’d call it. When was the last time they’d had an actual sit-down-with-a-glass-of-wine conversation? Talked to each other. Discussed foreign policy or The Church of England, or … something? She couldn’t remember. Other couples must be having them. Behind the rows of lit windows she passed every evening there must be people who wanted more from each other than a cursory How was your day, before full speed ahead to Newsnight.

‘Don’t you think?’ He prompted.

Godsakes. ‘Well do something about it then. I’m not the only one who can unfix a disinfecting bauble.’ Bauble, that definitely wasn’t right.

Daniel loosened his tie. ‘Did I say you were?’

‘Not in so many words. Look,’ she said roughly opening the freezer in a quest for the pizza. ‘I did not come into this world to worry about this sort of mind-blisteringly tedious …’ she smacked a chilly pillow of peas, ‘… nonsense.’

‘I know you didn’t,’ he replied, filling a glass with water. She was taking out block after block of unidentifiable frozen items, a box of fish fingers so heavily encased by crystalised freezer-snow she wondered if they could ever be salvaged. A frozen chicken drumstick had come loose from its packaging and she regarded it, the unappetising curl of fatty skin like a slack stocking, the visible cartilage hacked rudely through. What sort of life had it enjoyed? Once she would only have chosen free-range chicken, but when was the last time she’d stopped to properly consider the fate of the creatures she shared the earth with? There wasn’t time anymore, or at least there never seemed to be time. What was she doing with her weeks and years on earth – making sure everyone had enough clean socks?

‘What’s up?’ asked Daniel. ‘Is it Moany Mona again?’

But Mona hadn’t been in the office for a couple of days, and work hadn’t been too bad. Sheila didn’t know exactly what was up, except that she was just sick of it, sick of this – this meaning the semi-detached, and the commute to work, and the junk mail forever fanning the doormat, sick of giving her attention to the fragrancing/disinfecting arrangements of the downstairs loo. She wedged everything back in the freezer and closed the door.

‘I’ve been thinking.’ She said, formulating the thoughts which up until now had only been notions, curling like smoke in her imagination.

Daniel leaned against the worktop, waiting.

‘Is this what we want from our lives?’

He glanced down at his socked toes as if they might offer up an answer, then returned his eyes to her. ‘What do you mean?’

She paused for a moment before launching in. ‘There’s a place in Cornwall run by a lovely young couple with three small children. They have a website.’

He bounced the glass lightly in his hand, still waiting.

‘I’d like to go there for a bit – you too, of course, and the kids.’

‘What kind of place?’

‘It’s a sort of …’ she hesitated. ‘Community, I suppose you’d call it.’

He was frowning now, the way he did when he found a spot on his tie.


‘They share a big house with other families, a few acres of land, grow their own vegetables, keep livestock. Everyone mucks in together, and it just makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, sharing the domestic tasks, the cooking, you know, building furniture.’ He asked what sort of furniture, but she carried on, ‘There’d always be someone around to talk to. It’s how life should be.’ Daniel’s expression hadn’t changed. ‘People still work, of course. They haven’t dropped out.’ In her mind’s eye, Sheila had already transported the family there, the kids were riding horses, she and Dan were in their wellies, building or planting, or just walking freely through the bluebell woods which the magazine had captured in luxuriant swathes.

‘You mean community as in commune?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘For a weekend?’

‘I was thinking more like a few months.’

‘Months? Bloody hell, Sheila, if you want some outdoor living we could go camping.’ In a few short steps he’d crossed to the other side of the kitchen and sat down on a stool beside the waist-high bench. Sheila remembered how the young estate agent had referred to it all those years ago as the breakfast bar. In all her years of living in the house she’d never once eaten breakfast at it.

‘You’re not serious?’ he said.

Was she serious? Yes, she was, right then and there, staring at her husband, former Glastonbury enthusiast, former bass player in a band called The Units, former vendor of The Socialist Worker. Actually, that was only the once, and he’d been covering a shift in the Student Union for his mate who’d been too hung-over to stand up, but that was beside the point. Back then they’d had passion. Ideals. They’d had conversations.

‘Where’s this come from?’

‘Nowhere. Me. I want something different. There’s got to be more than this, hasn’t there?’

‘We’re forty-eight.’


‘I know you went on a few trips to Greenham Common back in the day, but this is real life. What about the mortgage?’

‘Greenham was real life too.’

She’d been for three long weekends and also stayed for a fortnight in her student holidays. And she’d met some amazing women, some strange scary ones, admittedly, like Grendel who wore a poncho-cum-blanket and spent hours keening with a placard at the roadside, but others who changed the way she thought about the world. The discussions. The singing. She and five other women had cut a hole in the perimeter fencing one night and sneaked into the airbase. She still remembered the code name for the bolt cutters: black cardigans. They’d felt so alive. She wanted that again, that aliveness.

‘You go to work every day, come back exhausted and need the weekend to recover,’ she said, ‘I do the same. We hardly ever go on proper family outings. The kids watch too much telly.’ Surely it wasn’t too late to change? ‘We’ve turned into our parents. At least I’m turning into my mother – she was always the one who cleaned the toilet.’

‘Lavatory,’ mumbled Daniel. His thoroughly middle-class parents had taught him rules about settee and lounge and serviette: using the word toilet was worse than saying tits to a vicar.

‘Oh,’ she batted away his interruption. ‘The point is, it doesn’t have to be like this. It shouldn’t have to be like this. We’re only going to be here once.’ By here she meant earth, not West Wickham.

She fetched the magazine from her shoulder-bag, the one she’d been re-reading on the train. The commute was getting worse, she was sure of it, all those blank faces sheltering inside rubbishy newspapers, pictures of girls falling out of nightclubs, tales of random savagery. But elsewhere there were still people living meaningful lives.

Daniel moved his gaze from her to the article, as if uncertain about what he was expected to do with it.

‘Look at how they live,’ she said, encouragingly. He took in the photographs – the young man fixing an outhouse roof, his infant daughters collecting eggs in their podgy hands, the elfin wife chatting to an unidentified figure with raggy red hair. ‘They’re not cranks – he used to be a lawyer.’ She pointed out the paragraph. ‘And she has a Masters in International Relations. You see, it makes perfect sense, co-operation, sharing. It’d be fun. Exciting.’

Daniel handed her back the skiddy pages of the weekend supplement and looked at her squarely. ‘Is this because I don’t clean the lavatory?’

‘No.’ Was it? Perhaps, a bit. She tried to identify what had made her pore over the article. She was speeding through her life – all the decisions she was ever likely to make, the important ones, had been made: career, husband, children. What now? She cast her eyes towards the photographs again. There they were, that beautiful, bright couple with their lovely daughters striking out towards the future, forging a new way of living, striding through the bluebells, not doing what their parents did, not becoming the next generation of Sheila and Daniels. That’s what she wanted, she realised, studying the image. She wanted to be them. She wanted to step into the magazine and feel the warm eggs in her hand, to know she was living the right life, that nothing was too late.

When she glanced up she caught Daniel contemplating her. He gave her the raised eyebrow. She still liked the way he did that, even now, even if he didn’t do it while wearing a Free Tibet T-shirt and toting a copy of The Socialist Worker. Recently they’d been going through a dull patch: cooking, eating, sleeping, work. Some women had affairs during a dull patch, didn’t they? She couldn’t imagine herself having an affair, not that she particularly wanted one, but it probably elicited some sort of thrill, all that pumping and grasping and guilt.

‘I’m not sure Grace would go for the good life,’ said Dan.

The thought of their fashion-addicted fifteen-year-old mucking out animals and running through meadows wasn’t something Sheila could easily imagine either. She sighed.

He put an arm around her. ‘Shall I open a bottle?’

‘All right.’ She gave up on the pizza. They could get a take-away for a change. Nothing involving poultry.

He followed her from the kitchen into the living room, exhaling heavily on the way. ‘God it does smell strong though, doesn’t it, that disinfecting gadget?’

‘Pretty keen,’ she agreed. ‘Better put it on your To Do list.’


She paused and glanced behind her. ‘I mean it.’

‘I know,’ he replied seriously.

‘What do you think they’re called anyway, those whatsits?’ It must have said on the packaging.

He suggested a few names, most designed to sound ridiculous. She countered. He laughed. Neither of them reached for the remote control or wanted to quickly check their emails before dinner or remarked on how tired they were. They sat down on the sofa together with their wine, carrying on the conversation until the last commuters straggled home, and then one of them noticed the dark and got up to draw the curtains.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.