Spooning in Alaska by Rosalind Stopps
It was public knowledge that Martha coped really well when her husband of thirty years left her for an older, fatter model named Gloria. Everyone told her so.
'You're coping really well,' said her sister Ruth, 'welcome to the singles club.'
'You're coping really well,' said her friend, Louise, 'life doesn't end just because you haven't got a man, does it Dave?'
'You're coping really well,' said her son Ed, 'can I borrow £10, just until my student loan comes in? I can't ask dad.'
Martha stirred her tea with a pencil and thought about the day Dan left, two weeks before.
'Our relationship has gone stale, it's different with Gloria,' he had said, 'she and I have so much in common.'
Martha had considered this for a minute. She knew Gloria from her zumba class- it was that kind of neighbourhood. Everyone knew everyone else a little bit, but no one knew much about anyone.
'She collects ornamental spoons,' Martha said, remembering a short conversation after class, 'is that the something you have in common?'
Dan looked embarrassed. 'There's stuff you wouldn't understand,' he said.
'Oh, I understand teaspoons,' Martha said, not realising until later that this would be the last sentence of their relationship.
Martha thought about this as she sucked the tea off her pencil, before putting it back in her desk-tidy. Later that night, after several more people had rung to tell her how well she was coping and how brave she was, Martha collected up every teaspoon in the house. On impulse, she placed one in Dan's suitcase when he came to collect some clothes the next day. She left another under Ed's pillow, and then Martha gathered momentum. She took spoons to all of her friends' houses and left them - under rugs, on mantelpieces and under sofa cushions. She didn't have to listen while her friends told her how well she was coping because she was too busy thinking of where and how she could best conceal a spoon. She remembered her mother using the word spooning for 1940s snogging and, she thought, the word described her new private passion very well.
When nearly all of her own spoons were gone, even Ed's baby spoon with the rabbit on the handle, Martha began to take spoons from other places. She took a spoon from the cafe at the hospital where she worked and left it on the cistern of a public toilet in Soho. She took a spoon from the cafe in the park at the end of her road and left it on the 171 bus. Martha could see that her spooning was getting out of hand, but on the plus side, her weekends were filling up nicely.
'You're always out,' said Ed, sounding peeved, 'you're as bad as dad'.
Martha would have liked to argue that one with him but she was on her way out, with a busy day ahead. She visited several London landmarks, or rather the cafes of several London landmarks. Martha collected teaspoons from Buckingham Palace, the Tate Gallery and the British Museum, and she took them to resting places on notable gravestones. There was Hepzibah Simkins who had born ten children 'alone and with fortitude' , Emily Littleton who 'brightened the lives of all who knew her, despite her many sorrows' and Juliana Estevez, who 'died alone, without benefit of friends, in a foreign land' - a spoon for each of them. The last one was for Karl Marx in Highgate. By the evening, Martha was tired. Ed was staying with a friend, Dan was spooning with Gloria somewhere not far away and everyone else she knew was busy.
Martha's house seemed very lonely as she ate her blueberry yogurt with a fork. She flicked through a magazine and stopped at a travel advertisement, a picture of snowy mountains and tumbling waterfalls. There was something about the picture that drew her in, and she longed to be there, to get away. To leave behind her private spooning and to become the public coper that everyone told her she was.
Alaska. The last frontier, a place to forget spoons, the challenge of a lifetime. Martha knew what she had to do.
'I'm going to Alaska,' she said to Ed, 'you'll have to stay with your dad.'.
'I'm going to Alaska,' she told her sister and her friends, 'I don't need company, I'm happier alone.'
'I'm going to Alaska,' she said to Dan, 'don't worry, I have enough money.'
'I've seen this sort of thing before,' her friend Louise said, 'menopausal madness.'
'Are you sure you don't want me to come?' asked her sister, 'I've heard those cruise ships are a hotbed of senior sex.'
'I'm pleased that you are coping so well,' said Dan, 'did you bleed the radiators?'
Martha packed her bag and kissed Ed goodbye. She flew to Seattle, boarded the ship and waved farewell to people she didn't know on the shoreline as it pulled away. The first night in the ship's restaurant, Martha told her dinner companions that she was on her own because her husband had died. At breakfast she added that her sister was also dead and by the time the boat reached Juneau she had killed off everyone she had ever met apart from Ed. Most of the other passengers avoided her if they possibly could, which was what Martha thought she wanted.
Alaska was a good place to be alone, even when surrounded by thousands of other ship borne tourists. It was beautiful. Wooden houses in paintbox colours, photogenic bears at the water's edge and more places to spoon than Martha could ever have imagined. She tried to fight the thoughts, but everywhere she went she couldn't help noticing the most marvellous places and wondering which would be best. Under the snow at the top of a path across the mountains once used by unlucky prospectors? Behind a waterfall deep in the woods? On top of some blue ice floating beside the boat in Tracy Arm Fjord? Martha considered all of these and more. She thought about dropping a spoon into the sea at the deepest point of the fjord, or hurling one onto the shore of an uninhabited Canadian island. Nowhere seemed quite right.
On the last night at sea, Martha met Ellington in the buffet restaurant. It was stormy, and they did a little dance to avoid crashing into each other with their trays.
'Excuse me ma'am, can I sit with you?' he asked, and Martha decided to manage without her dead family and her spooning. By midnight Ellington and Martha were drinking brandy and dancing in the Rendezvous Lounge.
'I came to Alaska to find myself,' said Ellington, 'and instead I found you.'
By the next morning, Martha knew that she could face going home again.
'Hi mum,' said Ed, 'I missed you, where are all the spoons? I made you some pasta in case you're hungry.'
'Hi hon,' said her sister, 'I've been dying to hear how things went. Any action in the old guys department?'
'Hi Martha,' said Dan on the phone, 'I thought I might come round later, to collect some books and we could catch up, you know?'
Martha did know, or she thought that she did. Dan was looking for excuses to drop by, and that would have made her ecstatic just a few weeks ago, Before Alaska.
'I'm sorry Dan,' she said, 'I'm busy tonight.'
Martha put the phone down and made a cup of tea. As she stirred it with one of her new spoons, made from Alaskan mammoth tusk and carved for the discerning collector by craftsmen, Martha began to laugh.
© Rosalind Stopps, 2012
Rosalind Stopps lives and works in South East London, where the mean streets and unexpected loveliness provide most of her inspiration. She has an MA in creative writing from Lancaster and is currently working on a novel (again). This week she has stories being read at Liars League in London and New York.
Spooning in Alaska was read by Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney on 11th July 2012