OLYMPIC SUMMER • by Sarada Gray

(in the summer of 2012 the London Olympics coincided with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee)

It’s only money: that phrase had repeated a thousand times in Leuka’s head, but it didn’t help. At least it was a fine summer’s day: it was easier to face destitution when you could sit in the sun and watch the bees as they pollinated your tomatoes and beans. Easy enough then to pretend you could live on fresh air and sunshine; that God or Nature would provide; that genes were not in essence selfish. But indoors on the table — held up by the four post-free days of the Diamond Jubilee — lay that morning’s letter from the bank.

Destitution. What did those four syllables mean anyway, on a day like today, in a country like theirs? There were people sleeping under bridges — it had been on the news, along with the Olympics and the Greek debt — but it was hardly likely she and Leon would come to that. Destitution seemed far-off, a little darkness in the corner of her heart: easy to ignore, at least as long as the sun shone.

But once she’d drunk her coffee a cloud came over — a black cloud, small but intense, and looking as though it could easily cover the garden in a sheet of rain. A breeze had got up and the bees had disappeared, as if they knew something was coming. Leuka shivered: she gathered up her empty cup and the sketch pad with a pale broad bean just emerging on it and went indoors.

Indoors on the table lay the letter. Leon hadn’t come home yet; hadn’t picked it up and scanned it as she had, her eye going straight to the large black letters at the bottom, the stark black letters O/D. She took the sketch pad upstairs, but when she closed her eyes, all she could see were those black figures on the naked white page. They weren’t even real; just numbers on paper — but those tiny digits had the power to tie up their lives like Gulliver in Lilliput. It was so frustrating! Usually by painting she could work through her problems. But not today: today her art was nothing, just marks on paper.

The Greeks probably had a word for that, too.

She laid her palette-knife down and went to look out of the window. The sun was still shining on the cars that lined the road into the city; the road where only a few days before, the Queen and Prince Phillip had driven past. Jubilee, Leuka seemed to think, was a Biblical idea; a time of cancelling all debts and starting again. A custom more honoured in the breach, probably, even in those days… She looked down at what passed for their garden: the patio, the tiny strip of earth stuffed with vegetables; the still, watery ‘O’ of the pond. She’d meant to fill the pond with lilies and paint them like Monet, but she never had — and as she leaned against the window-frame the surface of the water began to shiver. It had started to rain; that little cloud had arrived and was now disgorging its load over their garden. The rain intensified and seethed, as only summer rain can, so that the tomatoes and beans were bent over in the sudden onslaught. Once more she felt a stab of resentment at the thought of that letter.

She turned back to her canvas. There might be something there worth saving… but all she could see was the tally of their debts, summed up in that square black font. She closed her eyes but it made no difference: the figures still swam.

She picked up her brush again and tried to reason with herself. They were the privileged ones; unlike those promised Jubilee-work (not even paid work!) then bussed into London and left under a bridge. Unlike those evicted from their homes so some landlord could coin a year’s rent from an Olympic fortnight.

It didn’t help. And yet something was emerging: she stood by the easel and waited. It was the bridge that came first: Westminster Bridge. At first you wouldn’t even notice the huddled mass of people underneath; they would seem composed of the darkness. Hunched, defeated, abandoned, they wait for someone to collect them, while up above, men and women in suits are lunching on a terrace. She would call it Earth Has Not Anything to Show Less Fair.

And then it was done: she stood back, the palette-knife dripping yellow and adding to the Jackson-Pollock effect of the floorboards. She was just coming out of the shower when she heard the front door: from the landing she watched him coming upstairs, the letter in his hand. His face looked like thunder, but then he caught sight of the still-wet canvas bathed in the evening sun, and his mouth opened in a silent ‘O’.

(Wordsworth’s poem ‘On Westminster Bridge’ opens with the line
‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’.)

Sarada Gray is a Londoner; she grew up under the flight-path to Heathrow Airport and in the shadow of a church spire. She now lives in the centre of England and wrestles with radio drama, short stories, flash fiction, poetry and — eventually — a novel. She has two children who are home-schooled, and until recently she taught yoga but now writes full-time.

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