I bit my tongue. Buttoned my lip. Zipped it. And embarked on the indefinite adventure to which I was now committed. No turning back.
Whose bonkers idea had it been, this sponsored silence? Jen had said over tea and scones one day, ‘Heavens Lou, you never stop talking!’ and then, ‘At least you told me about Carrie,’ then ‘I wish we could get her some real help.’ Sticking out of the waste-basket smothered in woolly dust from the Dyson I’d noticed a charity flyer ... ‘She could do with a dog!’ I’d said, coaxing cobwebs out of jam, and Jen had said,’ She can’t even mange herself now let alone a dog,’ and I’d said,’ No, I mean an assistance dog. Look.’ And then we’d had the idea.‘You have zillions of friends!’ said Jen,’They’ll all sponsor you. And be glad you’ve shut up for once!’ I gave her my best hurt look and then agreed to give it my best with one mad messaging fit to rally support for the cause.
And here I was, D-Day, Jen before me, fingers to her lips, about to tiptoe out of my back door, and not even allowed to say Goodbye! For how long? One girl in the local rag had managed it for 24 hours; I had promised to keep my monastic silence for as long as I could. Monastic. That was a laugh. My phone was my life. Shopping was an excuse to hobnob. And work ... well, my till would slow to a crawl over the Rice Krispies if a customer simply commented on the weather. That was us for the next ten minutes, and the store manager rolling his eyes to the ceiling. Tomorrow was Monday - how on earth was I going to cope?
‘Quietly, for a change!’ said Inner Me to Myself in the mirror. Nearly said it out loud. Always talking to myself. If I was on my own who else could I talk to? Oh, except for Meenoo. She never minded me rabbiting on as long as she was warm and fed and made to feel important. That was a point - where was she? ‘M...’ I started and then realised to my horror that I couldn’t call my cat! Could I cheat? No-one was listening after all. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I forgot the radio mike. That had been part of the deal - my flat was being monitored by Rache next door who was gleefully in on the whole unlikely project and volunteered to shop me if I so much as hummed. A frantic search of the silent flat turned up no cat. Panic stations. Flung open the front door, peered over the balcony, stared up and down the street. Cars passing ... people texting behind pushchairs ... a gaggle of youths hooded in the hot sunshine ... I hammered on Julia’s door. Was she in? Yes. Steps. Door opening. My next-door-but-one neighbour cautious in her nightie and curlers (well, it was Sunday.)
I stared at her, realising I couldn’t explain why I was there. Signalling madly I fled back to my hallway and grabbed a pen and an envelope.
CANT TALK SPONSORED SILENCE CANT FIND MEENOO CAN YOU CALL HER 4 ME
I beamed at Julia, thrusting my note under her nose.
‘Oh! I get it! OK Lou. Wait till I get a coat on over this and I’ll give her a yell.’ But it wouldn’t be my voice calling her! Would she come?
After about a quarter of an hour a fluffy grey face peeped round the corner by the steps and a moment later I had Meenoo in my arms.
‘Th...’ Oh how I wanted to say Thank You to my friend, and I couldn’t! All I could do was beam at her, hug her awkwardly with one free arm, and flee back to my own door before Meenoo could wriggle out of my grasp. She would have to stay in. Poor little cat. A prisoner for the duration.
Next thing I knew was my pocket was buzzing, phone going. Right hand on autopilot, speaker on, Johnno on the other end saying ‘Hi Lou, see you down the pub at 8?’ I didn’t know what to do. ‘Lou? Are you there? Are you OK? .... Lou? Lou?’ and he rang off. Blood and sand. This was ridiculous. Only thing I could do was text him. That wasn’t cheating was it? I’d ask Jen. Send her a text first. The reply came back at once,
‘Txt not cheating. Pub bad idea. C U at work.’
OK. No socialising for me, then. Why didn’t Johnno know what I was doing? Thought I’d told everyone. Ah well, tell him again.
So it was a quiet night in with the telly. Usual Sunday rubbish, but at least there were voices in my living room, and Meenoo purring comfortably in my lap. As I curled up for the night - unusually sober - I thought of Carrie. She was why I was doing this. Poor girl, MS. At her age. We all liked her, she had been one of the gang since we were racketing round in our teens; she was the first to try everything - Pilates, Zumba, meditation, even sky-diving, and now look at her in a bloody wheelchair limp as a wilting daff and nowhere to go but downhill. Johnno had got her some cannabis - he saw on the TV news that it helped some people with MS. Why the stupid government wouldn’t let people like her have a bit of weed to ease their pain and bring a little pleasure back into a miserable life was beyond all of us. Tears pooled in my pillow. My resolve strengthened. Tomorrow would be a challenge, but I’d crack it.
‘Mornin’ Lou! Y’alright?’ Reg the door man was in on it, and had remembered. He grinned at me and I pulled a face.
‘I’ll put Duck Tape round yer face if it’ll help!’
I stuck my tongue out at him and went for my overall.
‘What you need is a Notice.’ This was Maisie, practical as ever. ‘If you put it next to the till everyone will see and know why you can’t say anything. Hey, they might even chip in with some sponsorship! D’you want me to do one for you?’
‘Th ...’ I bit my tongue - really bit it, so hard it hurt and I tasted blood. I shook my head violently and foraged for a bit of clean cardboard.
‘Want a pen?’
Jen gave me the biggest hug I ever had in my whole life and I carefully wrote out my message to the world.
DOING SPONSORED SILENCE
FRIEND HAS MS
NEEDS ASSISTANCE DOG
It was the weirdest experience that whole Monday not saying a word to any of my customers, especially the regulars - some of them lonely souls - who always came to my till for a friendly chat; I couldn’t call across to Jen or Maisie or any of the others if someone was stuck for an item or I needed change. Everything had to be done with wildly improvised sign language which was at times so excruciatingly funny that we all fell about laughing and I ached in every muscle trying not to make a sound. At lunch break all eyes were on me.
‘I can’t believe how well you’re doing,’ said Jen. ‘I had money on you cracking up by mid-morning!’
I gave her The Look.
‘Respect,’ she said. ‘Keep at it, girl. We’re all rooting for you. We’ve got customers on side as well, so it’s looking more and more like Carrie will get her dog!’
It was so, so hard. But I managed to keep schtum right up to closing time and had a therapeutic weep all over Jen before legging it back home as fast as I could.
Meenoo had hidden again and I glared at the radio mike. My phone buzzed. I was about to turn it off in frustration when I realised it was a text. It was from Carrie! God, that must have been an effort. She wrote,
‘1daful wt UR doing Thx!!! XOXO ILY’
So I cried again, all over a repentant Meenoo this time, and had an early night with a large glass of red inside me.
Carrie’s message made me more determined than ever. I got through Tuesday, then Wednesday - almost bruised from the delighted hugs from my friends - then Thursday despite a false fire alarm that had us all scurrying for the exits, shepherding fearful and very annoyed shoppers before us; then on Friday one of my old ladies sneezed and I said ‘Bless you!’ without thinking and that was it, over.
‘Lou,’ said Jen with her arm round my shaking shoulders,’You bloody hero ! Do you realise you’ve raised enough this week to sponsor all Carrie’s training and support once she applies for her dog? I’m helping her with the form this weekend. Come and join us. Johnno’s bringing pot.’
I spent two days just listening.