Excerpt from Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Three Things About Elsie

by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon X
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
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  • Published:
    Aug 2018, 384 pages

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Sarah Tomp

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"There's never a particularly good turnout these days." Elsie pulled her cardigan a little tighter. It was the color of mahogany. It did her no favors. "That's the trouble with a funeral when you're old. Most of the guest list have already pipped you to the post."

"She wasn't here very long," I said.

Elsie pushed mashed potato onto her fork. "What was her name again?"

"Brenda, I think. Or it might have been Barbara. Or perhaps Betty."

The skip was filled with her life—Brenda's, or Barbara's, or perhaps Betty's. There were ornaments she had loved and paintings she had chosen. Books she'd read, or would never finish, photographs which had smashed from their frames as they'd hit against the metal. Photographs she had dusted and cared for, of people who were clearly no longer here to claim themselves from the debris. It was so quickly disposed of, so easily dismantled. A small existence, disappeared. There was nothing left to say she'd even been there. Everything was exactly as it was before. As if someone had put a bookmark in her life and slammed it shut.

"I wonder who'll dust my photograph after I'm gone," I said.

I heard Elsie rest her cutlery on the edge of the plate. "How do you mean?"

I studied the pavement through the window. "I wonder if I made any difference to the world at all."

"Does it matter, Flo?" she said.

My thoughts escaped in a whisper. "Oh yes, it matters. It matters very much."

When I turned around, Elsie was smiling at me.

* * *

"Which one was that, then?" I said.

The pink uniform had left us with a Tunnock's tea cake and the Light Programme. Elsie insisted it was called Radio 2 now, but perhaps she'd given up correcting me.

"The one with a boyfriend called Daryl and acid reflux," said Elsie. We watched the uniform make its way up the stairwell of the flats opposite, flashes of pink against a beige landscape. "Enjoys making mountains out of molehills."

"Is she the one with a wise head on her shoulders?" I said.

"No." Elsie stirred her tea. "That's Saturday. Blue uniform. Small ears. You must try to remember. It's important."

"Why is it important?"

"It just is, Florence. I might not always be here to remind you, and you'll need to remember for yourself."

"I always get them mixed up," I said. "There are so many of them."

There were so many of them. Miss Bissell's "army of helpers." They marched through Cherry Tree, feeding and bathing and shuffling old people around like playing cards. Some residents needed more help than others, but Elsie and I were lucky. We were level ones. We were fed and watered, but apart from that, they usually left us to our own devices. Miss Bissell said she kept her north eye on the level ones, which made it sound like she had a wide range of other eyes she could choose from, to keep everybody else in line. After level three, you were moved on, an unwanted audience to other people's lives. Most residents were sent to Greenbank when they had outstayed their welcome, which was neither green, nor on a bank, but a place where people waited for God in numbered rooms, shouting out for the past, as if the past might somehow reappear and rescue them.

"I wonder what level he's on." I peered out at number twelve. "The new chap."

"Oh, at least a two," Elsie said. "Probably a three. You know how men are. They're not especially resilient."

"I hope he's not a three, we'll never see him."

"Why in heaven's name would you want to see him, Florence?" Elsie sat back, and her cardigan blended in with the sideboard.

"It helps to pass the time," I said. "Like the Light Programme."

* * *

We sat by the window in my flat, because Elsie says it has a much better view than hers, and the afternoon wandered past in front of us. More often than not, there's something happening in that courtyard. Whenever I'm at a loose end, I always look out of the window. It's the best thing since sliced bread. Much more entertaining than the television. Gardeners and cleaners, and postmen. No one ever taking any notice whatsoever of anyone else. All those separate little lives, and everyone hurrying through them to get to the other side, although I'm not entirely sure they'll like what they find when they get here. I doubt it was anything to do with the woman who dished up our baked beans, but a short while later, two men arrived to collect the skip. I watched them. They loaded someone's whole life into a truck and drove it away. There wasn't even a mark on the pavement to say where it had been.

Excerpted from Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon. Copyright © 2018 by Joanna Cannon. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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