Excerpt

Something Like Breathing

Angela Readman

January 14, 2019 
The following is from Angela Readman's novel, Something Like Breathing. Set on a remote Scottish island in the 1950s, the novel follows Lorrie as she befriends Sylvie, a shy neighbor with a mysterious hidden gift. Angela Readman is a twice-shortlisted winner of the Costa Short Story Award. Her debut story collection Don’t Try This at Home won The Rubery Book Prize and was shortlisted in the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.

Bunny Tyler believed in God and Tupperware. I’m not sure which she believed in more. Wherever she went, she carried a duck-egg handbag containing a Bible, a revolutionary cheese grater, and a storage pot. One hand remained on the clasp, ready to whip out the contents at any given moment, should anyone need spiritual guidance. There was no Tupperware on the island until she discovered it; even the mainland had never set eyes on it before.

Bunny’s pen pal in Florida had sent her a sample. Caroline Craig was married to a man Bunny’s husband served with. The wives, both lonely and curious about life beyond their front doors, started corresponding at the suggestion of their husbands.

I buried my sister today, Caroline wrote. We hadn’t seen each other for years. I drove across two states with a truck full of Bundt cake. Bringing something was the only thing that stopped me going crazy. When I got there, the cake was still fresh as a daisy. Thank God for Tupperware!

It hadn’t been long since Bunny’s husband suddenly passed away. In the time it takes letters to cross in the post, everything had changed. Bunny picked up a pen and found herself unable to write the words “my husband has died.” Instead, she’d replied asking her friend to tell her more about this Tupperware, please.

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It was shiny and clean. It made everything last so much longer. Bunny imported a crate and set about converting the island with a missionary zeal.

“This will change your life!” she said, whipping out a salad pot in the grocers. Women in the village still quoted the occasion. It was proof she has airs and graces, that one, always has, always will.

It wasn’t only storage pots that took Bunny’s fancy. Whenever the mood struck her, she’d import a box full of some kitchen gadget or other, and set out to sell it to whoever she met. “You wouldn’t believe what I have to show you! This will save you so much time…” she’d say, waving around a peeler that made short work of potatoes. “I can save hours of your life. Just look!”

I skipped around to Sylvie’s and avoided the hinges on the gate, sticky with oil. There were no men living at the property, not that I knew of, but a man arrived every weekend, always carrying something. Last week, he brought an oilcan.

The rabbits dusted my shoes with their tails. I bent down. “Can I pick one up?” I cradled a rabbit and rubbed the sunlight in its ears. “What’s his name?”

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“Pie.” Sylvie studied the grass on her shoes.

“What’s his name?” I pointed at a rabbit so perfect my brother would have done anything to pull it out of a hat.

“Stew.”

I didn’t understand. Not straight away. The rabbits weren’t christened because they weren’t pets. Their job was to breed and hop into pans, their leftovers interned in plastic coffins in the cold store. Bunny was saving for a fridge. She dreamed of drinking milk in the middle of the night without trudging outside in her dressing gown. If I’d known about the rabbits, I’m not sure I’d have waved at her carrying an armful of kitchen-ware and trotting across the lawn in her heels.

The plastic boxes in her arms slotted into one another Russian-doll style. Bunny looked down at them as she said “better place” and I couldn’t be sure if she meant my grandmother had gone to heaven or Tupperwareland.

“You must be from next door? Lorrie, is it? Lovely to meet you.” The sunlight was a halo behind her, cupping her curls.

Bunny beamed as if angels or the King of Kitchen Gadgets had landed on her lawn.

“I’m so sorry about your grandmother last year. Lovely lady,” she said. “I’d let her have my redcurrants and she’d give me her apples, so we could both make jelly all year round. Well, she’s gone to a better place now.”

The plastic boxes in her arms slotted into one another Russian-doll style. Bunny looked down at them as she said “better place” and I couldn’t be sure if she meant my grandmother had gone to heaven or Tupperwareland.

“Come on in,” she said. “I’ll make lemonade.”

Bunny charged around her kitchen sprinkling sugar and slicing lemons. It was nothing to whip up a batch. When it came to Bunny Tyler and I, everything was nothing. If I came over after supper, apple crumble withheld because I’d grabbed a crowbar and lifted the floor in my room, she’d whip out the caramel wafers, or pop open a container of lavender shortbread. No problem. Nothing was too much trouble, providing I followed her rules: cross my legs at the ankles, use a coaster and always say please and thank you.

“It’s wonderful to see Sylvie with such a confident girl. Perhaps you could teach her a thing or two.”

Bunny proffered the biscuit barrel, looking at her daughter. I’d once seen a beauty queen hand over her crown with the same look on her face. Beautiful disappointment.

“If you’d only speak up and smile now and then, like Lorrie,” she said, “people might like you!”

“I like her as she is,” I said.

I wasn’t sure if I did yet. Sylvie was so quiet I wasn’t sure there was much to like, but in the conspiracy of children against adults it was the right thing to say. Bunny stirred clanking ice in the frosty jug. Sylvie scratched her knuckles, back and forth, in the same place until the skin was raw. I sensed a silent war between them I was fighting both sides of. I was a hero and a traitor all at the same time.

The kitchen was lemon. The plastic table was cleaner than ice.

“It’s a lovely room,” I said. “My mother would be so jealous.” Don’t ask me how I knew this was the right thing to say to get in Bunny’s good books, but I did. Bunny dreamed of owning more kitchen gadgets than any other woman on the island, and displaying them with the most flair. I knew it, even then, I knew her kind. It wasn’t so different to mine.

“I just had it painted. I had that dresser built to fit there.” Bunny pointed at the dresser.

The wood was painted fire-engine red. Whoever made her it had sawed a heart and the silhouettes of a pair of rabbits into the plinth.

The room was the same as ours, but in reverse. The window was on the opposite side. The hob sparkled. I could see what my parents meant when they stared at crumbling walls and said, “I can see the potential.” This was a life they could see, if everything was put away and labelled correctly, which it wasn’t.

We’d been spooning sugar out of the coffee canister since I’d found the rat under my floor. I’d been desperate to get to the bottom of the smell in my room. The crowbar was lying on the stairs, carpet fibers still clinging to the steel. I pried up one floorboard, then another, and brought the rat down by  the tail. Dangling. Its skeleton visible, poking out of the fur. I winced to hold it, but I wanted my mother to see. I wanted her to realize I’d lifted a floorboard under the bed she’d slept in as a girl. It wasn’t the only thing I’d found.

If anything, he painted a picture of disaster too well.

“Do you want the tour?”

Bunny led us to the lounge. The plastic-covered sofa broke wind when Sylvie flopped down, but Bunny didn’t giggle. She stood by the TV the way a salesman stands beside a new car. No one on the island had ever owned a television before Bunny Tyler, she wanted me to know.

“It was the craziest thing. I got it with the life insurance. Women kept calling around the week it arrived. Their kids pressed their snotty noses against the window, smearing the glass to get a peek!” she said. “You’re welcome over anytime, Lorrie, if there’s anything you want to see.”

I suddenly loved her. There was no set at home yet. Dad always promised to get one as soon as he got a bonus. But no matter how many life insurance policies he sold, he always fell short. It wasn’t that he was a lousy salesman, as such. If anything, he painted a picture of disaster too well. People couldn’t wait to shoo him out of the house. They had somewhere to go. Someone to meet, dinner was ready. His what would happen if… was enough to put anyone off their shepherd’s pie.

There was a faded Virgin Mary figure on Bunny’s fireplace. The afternoon sun streamed through the curtains and bleached her features a little more each day. The statue’s painted lips were almost as pale as her face. Bunny wasn’t a Catholic, but she’d had the figure since childhood. Whenever she went out, she patted it and said, “Look after the house.” Whenever she came in, she ignored it. Next to Mary, a pair of wrinkled boots stood on the shelf. It appeared they’d been walking through mud and frozen with their laces undone.

“The sun’s coming out anyway. That reminds me, I’ve left plastic in the car.” Bunny flitted out to save her storage pots from warped lids. I nudged Sylvie in the ribs.

“What’s with the boots?”

“They’re his,” Sylvie said. “They’re the Miracle Boots.”

I had to hold my breath when she spoke. Really listen. If I missed a word, she’d never repeat it. The way she breathed his made me think Jesus had stopped by, slipped his sandals off at the door and come in for a cuppa without leaving a footprint on Bunny’s freshly scrubbed carpet.

“What do you mean?” I asked, but Sylvie was off, trudging upstairs to her room.

I followed. Beyond the swallows on the walls and the canary in a cage by the window, I could see my bedroom window. It looked cleaner at a distance.

“Have you been sick?” I gestured to a jug of flowers, a pot of vapor rub and a packet of cough drops by the bed.

“Not lately,” Sylvie said. “I’m always poorly though.”

“Always?”

“Pretty much.”

The canary started to sing. Its throat was a yellow pulse bobbing in and out, brighter than a summer’s afternoon. Sylvie kicked a glossy stack of magazines under the bed and slammed a diary in the drawer, flustered.

“You’ve got more than one copy of the same book.” I pointed to a shelf higgledy-piggledy with books for identifying birds and wild flowers, plus several editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“I love comparing the illustrations. Look.”

Sylvie turned to a page bookmarked by a folded Tunnock’s wrapper.

“This Alice is beautiful, but that one looks wise, like a little old woman is locked inside her somewhere.”

The page didn’t interest me as much as annuals about girls solving crimes of stolen peppermints at school, or my mother’s film magazines, but I looked. Sylvie had never showed me anything before. Every word from her had to be dragged out slower than pulling a splinter. She made it look as painful.

“Look at this one, compared to this.”

She flicked through the pages, showing me her favorite illustrations. If I was dying to hear about the Miracle Boots? Tough. I’d have to wait. I’d never seen her look so enthusiastic about anything.

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From Something Like BreathingUsed with permission of And Other Stories. Copyright © 2019 by Angela Readman.




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