Our #samplesunday at Driven Press today features Barbara Lorna Hudson's women's literary fiction novel, Timed Out.
Jane Lambert thinks she may have made a mistake putting her work ahead of love and family for so long. She’s left wondering what to do with her life now that she has retired.
Taking note of the sentiment from one of her retirement cards⎯Retirement is NOT the end. It’s a NEW BEGINNING⎯she decides it’s about time she looked for love again, and places a lonely hearts advertisement. Jane embarks on her new life, suffering disappointments and learning hard truths about herself, while never losing her gift for self mockery or her eye for the absurd.
Timed Out is a contemporary “coming-of-age” novel about different kinds of love and the search for a meaningful life.
Praise for Timed Out
Lovely lucid fiction, poignant and bittersweet. A story of late life romance told with honesty and wit.
—Adam Foulds, author of ManBooker shortlisted The Quickening Maze.
The important question of how we should live the last decades of our life is timely. Timed Out explores this question in a poignant and truthful manner.
—Michelle Spring, Cambridge novelist.
Please enjoy this sample chapter from the book . . .
To Venice with Maria. The first Madonna
Back in Cambridge, still nervous and indecisive, I explored the Internet dating sites and studied the lonely-hearts columns.
But all thoughts of dating were thrust from my mind when Maria rang. She came quickly to the point. “Jane, what I have to tell you is going to come as a shock, I’m afraid.” She sounded apologetic. “I’m just back from the hospital. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas.”
Before the news had sunk in, I blurted out desperate questions. “Are they going to operate? Will it be soon?”
“No. It’s inoperable.”
“Will you need chemotherapy? Or do they give you radiotherapy for that?”
“They can offer chemotherapy. But after they’d explained the prognosis I refused. No point.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Pleading to be allowed to help—it’s conventional, and it makes us feel better. And I was too much of a coward to ask what she meant about the prognosis.
“Perhaps you could come with me next time I have to see the doctor? It’s kind of lonely in the waiting room on your own.”
Throughout the rest of the summer, I accompanied Maria to her hospital appointments. I noticed that she looked paler and thinner, but we rarely spoke directly of her illness. The first time, on the bus back from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, I asked if she wanted to tell me more about it. “After all, you’ve listened to my troubles often enough. Now it’s my turn to listen.”
Our bus was passing the Catholic church, and she gestured towards it. “I’ve got my priest—and God, of course—for that sort of conversation. I can tell those two how angry and miserable I am and they have to listen—it’s their job. Your job, Jane, is to help me enjoy the time I have left.”
But she and I talked often about tragedy and anger in the lives of others: heart-rending child abuse cases, hate-fuelled riots in UK cities, the release of two youths who murdered a child when they were children themselves. In September came the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. Whilst I saw evidence here for the noxious effects of religion, Maria spoke sadly about other reasons for the crime, and blamed, not the perpetrators’ religion but, misrepresentation of its teaching and the man-made unfairness of our world.
One day in October, when we had come back to her flat from the hospital, Maria said, “Time’s running out for me, I’m afraid. Could you go with me, Jane? I’d like to see Venice again, before—”
I interrupted her. “I’ve never been to Venice. You’ve lived there and you speak Italian. So this is my God-given opportunity to see Venice with the perfect guide.”
Maria laughed. “I’m not sure about ‘God-given’—that’s a funny word for you to choose, Jane. And I’m not sure about the ‘perfect guide’ either. But I’m so glad you want to come. Just leave the arrangements to me.” She took some books on Venice from her shelves. “Have a look at these.”
Though she confessed to tiring easily, she insisted she felt perfectly well, and we prepared cheerfully for our holiday. I mugged up on the art and architecture. Though I try not to show it, I’m quite a philistine. Italian Renaissance painting doesn’t appeal to me: pinkish, fleshy adults, unattractive infants and weird scenes from the Bible or of Greeks and Romans.
And I don’t enjoy traipsing round a lot of churches. Even if the building and the pictures make me catch my breath, I think those candles are a waste of money and I loathe the smell of incense. A major difference between us was that Maria was a devout Catholic and I a non-believer.
- o -
We arrived in Venice by water. I was unprepared for the breathtaking panorama of the Venetian Lagoon and I kept saying “Oh, my!” till Maria corrected me.
“‘Wow’ is what you should say nowadays. We senior citizens have to move with the times, Jane.”
Maria beamed and looked repeatedly out over the lagoon and back at me.
“I’m so happy you have come,” she said. “I’m here to say goodbye to one of the loveliest places this world has to offer, but showing it to you makes the goodbye easier, somehow—like passing on a legacy.” When I failed to answer, unable to find words to tell her what I felt, she went on, “Don’t worry, I won’t talk like this any more, but thank you for being with me.”
We disembarked at St Mark’s Square. The great graceful cathedral and the tall Campanile di San Marco were familiar from a thousand images in books and postcards—pleased recognition after the glorious surprise when I first saw the lagoon. We walked to our hotel through the arcades, past glittering shop windows filled with glass trinkets and disturbing ornamental masks. The hotel, just off the square, overlooked a gondola park. Lots of gondolas were moored there, and since it was December, none were plying their trade. Under their blue tarpaulins, they bobbed fretfully on the rippling greenish water. That first evening it snowed and the snow stayed. A rare occurrence in Venice, this made headlines. When I awoke I rushed to my window to check if the gondolas were still there as if they might have escaped during the night. Their tarpaulins were hidden under blankets of snow. That day, the snow stopped falling, the sky turned bright blue, and the waters sparkled. The city gleamed.
We crossed the lagoon to the island of Torcello and crunched through the snow along the empty track beside the canal. There was nobody about in the piazza except a ginger cat basking in a patch of sunlight outside the cathedral. Inside, we encountered Christ blessing us, but not looking very benign, the Last Judgement threatening, and the Virgin immensely tall and solemn. Even the Blessed Saved from the Fire did not look happy. I didn’t make jokes though—I couldn’t help feeling awed.
On our way back to the ferry, we stopped at Torcello’s only hotel and drank cappuccinos and toasted our feet beside an open fire. “It would be lovely to come to Venice again and stay in this hotel,” I said. Maria looked a little sad and said nothing, and I wished I could take back my words.
On Burano, “The Painted Island,” Maria hurried us past houses of ochre and blue and cream and yellow and terracotta, till we came to a vivid pink trattoria. She had booked a table there, and we ate pasta with a sauce of baby aubergines. “Oh Maria, this is my favourite vegetable. And the restaurant’s my favourite colour.”
Maria smiled. “Wasn’t it clever of me to find it?”
We visited every shop, spurning the cheaper souvenirs we could afford and admiring the exquisite lace and beads that were beyond our means. We laughed a lot and pointed things out to each other unnecessarily, as happy, excited tourists are prone to do.
ack in the city, during the four days we had left, we travelled up and down the Grand Canal on the waterbus and walked for miles, exploring the lanes, the little street markets, their stalls piled high with gleaming aubergines and peppers that glowed like jewels, and the campi with their ancient decorated well heads. We saw the Rialto, the Doge’s Palace, and the Accademia. My memory of these is blurred. All I can clearly remember is Maria saying, “The Council of Ten for torture, the Council of Three for death,” as we walked through the palace, and pointing out the three pink columns that commemorate some dreadful political disaster. And we visited many churches, of course. I felt uncomfortable when I saw Maria genuflect and kept my distance as she prayed. On the Sunday, I went shopping for a silk scarf while Maria attended mass.
Maria’s face often looked grey and strained. On our way back from the Doge’s Palace, I asked what was wrong.
“It’s all the walking, and my feet are cold.”
“Shall we have a rest?”
“No, Jane, there’s so much more I want to show you.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you’re in pain. You would tell me, wouldn’t you?”
“Just a bit of backache.”
- o -
A sweet face, luminous almost, lips curved gently in a hint of a smile. A blue robe. A blue such as you hardly ever see except in special flowers—massed bluebells, perhaps. A small painting, hanging by itself on a pale, plain wall in a humble church. It made me want to cry and, unusually for me, I sat for a long time, just looking. Maria waited beside me; we did not speak.
Outside, Venice was quiet under the snow. A few chattering local ladies out shopping in their furs and high rubber boots. Here and there a burst of noise from a gaggle of tourists.
Maria led the way along the alleys, crossing little bridges over narrow canals. We were no longer talking much. Somehow our visit to that church had put a stop to our unneeded commentary of “Oh look!” and “Isn’t that beautiful?”
This was our last day. By afternoon the snow was turning to slush and a heavy mist descended on the city. The special loveliness of Venice under snow was almost gone. As the light faded, we bought limoncello, gathered up our luggage, and sadly rode the waterbus to the airport.
- o -
Maria’s pains were not just a bit of backache. The cancer had invaded her bones. I went to see her in hospital every day until Christmas Eve. I spent the two-day holiday with my mother in Wales and then hurried back to Cambridge, full of anxiety. I went straight from the station to the hospital.
Maria was sitting up in bed. “I hope you didn’t rush back because of me, Jane. I’m doing well. They’re controlling the pain, and I’m going to be discharged. I’ll be all right once I get home.”
But she was not all right. The pain returned and the outreach services of the hospice proved insufficient. Within a fortnight she was brought back to hospital.
Now heavily medicated, she had days when she was unable to talk. On other days she seemed to rally a little. After she’d had a session with a beauty therapist, I found her smiling into a mirror. “See what a lot of good she’s done me,” she said. Her lips and cheeks were pink, and green eye-shadow and thick mascara emphasised her warm brown eyes.
“You’re looking better.”
“Don’t be fooled, Jane.”
While I tried to find the right words, she continued, “I can’t help feeling rather annoyed with God. I thought I’d have longer, and I didn’t expect this much pain. But He knows best . . . I can guess what you’re thinking, Jane. I can see it in your face.”
“Oh God, Maria!”