A Story: The Very, Very Old Woman Part 2
I must have dozed off in the chair as I woke that morning stiff and cold. I had to shake my head to throw off the shreds and threads of voices which clung to my ears and mouth. I don’t eat much nowadays, food makes me feel heavy and sluggish so a pot of tea seems to be enough. A few Dickinson stanzas feed me well and warm my old bones as I read of certain slants of light on winter afternoons.
My walk to the village is hampered by the damp rain that falls as I wrestle the gate shut behind me. Neighbours nod as they drive past; I see their mouths move as they talk to each other, I can almost hear their words, ‘there goes Mrs M. Look at her! Over ninety and still walking!’ Oh, their vacuous inanities grate and I long to show them something truly worth their admiration, I dream of spreading my arms like flames and rising into the air as their empty mouths drop open, the disgusting gum falling unnoticed as I disappear in billows of steam and smoke. Instead, I smile and twinkle, as they expect me to do and continue to walk along the green tunnels of the lane that twists down into Witchford.
Oh look at me in this fag-end of a village! I, who have danced naked with Picasso, flirted with Beckett and helped Orton to hide bodies. I have watched the sun set over Indian mountains, seen the dawn slide across the dunes of the Sahara. And here I am, in this foul, damp, shithole of an English village where I fulfil the fantasies of weekend cottagers hoping to find Miss Fucking Marple.
I can feel the rain sizzle on my skin and I breathe slowly to reign in the irritation that’s fizzing at the tips of my fingers. I feel the green moss of the air fill my lungs and slide its energy into my bones and muscle so my legs grow stronger and my arms loosen. My back straightens and I stride down the path and there is a sudden strange alchemy with which I have become familiar in the air; the greens of the wood blur and as I move I hear the caw of seagulls and then I am there again, sixteen, running down the sand, breathless and hot under a blazing blue-glass sky. In my hands two lemon ices melt and I lap at the delicious coolness, sticky on my fingers. I tumble to the ground almost into Henry’s lap and he laughs taking the ices from me. His skin is hot, the sun dazzles my eyes and then with a sickening lurch I am back in the wood, my chest heaving.
With a shaking hand I reached for the nearest tree for support and sank to the ground. This was happening more and more often and the effects were unpleasant. And why the memories of Henry? I have years and years at my disposal and yet this strange form of time travel seems inextricably linked with a boy about whom I haven’t thought for decades. Why wasn’t I getting the chance to revisit marvellous adventures travelling around the world or torrid love affairs with unsuitable men? Why Henry on Margate sands of all places?
With a tsk of annoyance I pulled myself up and recovered the basket that had rolled away. I will not let these incidents affect me. I will not let myself be troubled by something that happened so long ago with someone so long dead.
My energy had left me and when I finally reached the shop I was in bad spirits. Mrs Gray, the owner, was a sour-faced, interfering old biddy who never recovered from the shock of losing her husband to the local vicar. From what I hear the two of them are living together on the other side of Redbury but his name was never mentioned and to Mrs Gray, he was dead and buried. Standing by the meat slicer, arms folded across her blue bust and white hair pinned close to her narrow skull she flashed me a saccharine smile.
‘Mrs M, how nice to see you. Can I help at all?’
‘I’m fine,’ I grunted shortly, ‘I can find what I need.’ I sensed her raising her eyebrows behind my back at Maeve, the Doctor’s wife who had just come in, and I clenched my hands into fists before my fingers started working some mischief beyond my control.
I needed tea and something for the windows but I found Maeve in front of me, blocking my way. A good-looking woman, perhaps a little blousy for my taste, but she had clear skin and fine red hair and her eyes were kind.
‘Mrs M., I was just talking to Michael about you, how are you, are you well?’
‘Perfectly well thank you, if you’d just excuse me…’ I tried to push past her but she stood firm. I knew she would.
‘Yes, Michael was saying he hadn’t seen you for a while and you know how he likes to keep his eyes on the village elders!’ She laughed and I felt like killing her.
‘As I said, I’m fine.’ I glared at her then smiled, brightly. ‘Do send my regards to your husband. And I hope Dylan is felling better?’ I cocked my head to one side sympathetically and enjoyed Maeve’s expression which flittered through bewilderment to fear as she processed what I said. Hah! She must be wondering, what do I know? How do I know? Maeve and Michael’s dirty little secret, the golden boy who turned out not to be quite so golden after all. I could see her eyes widen and her pupils dilate. If I looked closely enough I am sure I would see in her glossy irises a tiny upside down image of her boy being carried away on a stretcher, vomit crusting his lips. Maeve jerked away from me and turned so I could pass. Mrs Gray looked over, eyes bright with curiosity but Maeve’s ashen face shut her up and she bustled across to the till.
I decided to cut across the park on the way home. The sky had cleared and the breeze was fresh and helped the headache which crawled around my temples. Unfair, I thought. I hadn’t been mean, just a little unkind. Still, wouldn’t hurt to… I scanned the park and settled on the new playground that sat jauntily at the bottom of the hill. Children crawled and squirmed across all manner of wooden buildings made up of ladders and slides and poles. A few mothers were dotted about, smoking and blank faced.
A little girl sat on a bench crying as if her heart would break. I looked around but could see nobody to whom she seemed to belong. I settled next to her, taking care to make myself as inconspicuous as possible.
‘Hello, dearie,’ I said in my most comfortable Mary Poppins’ voice. ‘What’s wrong?’ She’d been crying for so long her blonde hair was stuck to her face with tears. Her cheeks were as red as apples. She couldn’t have been much older than four and again I looked around to see who was with her. Still no one. I gave her my best twinkle and slowly she calmed down enough to hold out her hands.
A ruined doll gazed at me, her features smeared by a rough hand. I suspected the group of boys screaming around the group of poles nearby. Gently I held the toy and felt the arms had been wrenched loose and dangled. Meeting the girl’s eyes I held a finger to my lips and passed my hand over the doll, whispering meaningless words. I closed my eyes until I heard the girl gasp. I felt a surge of pleasure as I passed the restored doll back and her face, bright as a star, looked at me in astonishment.
I was still chuckling, albeit breathlessly, as I climbed the hill towards home. Playing Mary Poppins could be as fun as playing Medusa, sometimes. The children were as tiny as ants from where I stood, but I could still see the little girl, a pink dot on the bench. She waved a tiny hand at me high up in the woods.
It was cold and late when I returned. How I long for the start of spring, I hate these grey skies that weigh heavy on my shoulders. I always feel older in the winter and being trapped here with no chance of escape is a sore punishment indeed. The house looked forbidding and bleak and even Eldritch curling round my legs and purring as I opened the door didn’t cheer me up. I fed the stupid creature and looked at my cupboards but no inspiration came so I settled for liquorice root tea and a heel of bread.
The fire took ages to take so I ended up having to use an impatient flick of my fingers; it was so cold and I was so tired. Erdrich and I watched the flames and I allowed my eyes to droop in the heat that traced my face like hot fingers. This time the shift was more like a dream as I sat in chair by the fire. The warmth on my cheeks turned into tight sunburn, and the smell of hot cat was replaced by charred sausages. The chair against my back became Henry’s chest and I lay dreamily in his arms looking up at the stars. I turned to look at his sleepy features and said to myself with all the fierceness and certainty of youth, I will make you love me. I will.
Henry again! Pulling up with a start I re-settled myself in the chair and poked at the fire violently. Funny, I had forgotten that night when I thought the world would end if I couldn’t make Henry love me. I had told the story to myself so many times over the years that the truth of it had changed under my hand, like glass worn smooth by the endless movement of the sea. Now, all those years later it rested, like a pebble at the bottom of a pool of deep water, looking nothing like the jagged, grisly black rock it once was. I sighed. I didn’t like these odd flashbacks, violent as they were. My memory seemed to want to assault me, mug me so that I remembered things as they were, not as I wanted them to be. I didn’t want to remember Henry like that, I wanted him to return to the faded photograph of a distant dream.
I threw the rest of my tea into the guttering fire and poured wine into a heavy glass and admired its red velvet depths before swigging back a gulp so quickly it made me splutter. Eldritch jumped and shook his fur before stalking away with an irritable twitch of his shoulders. Something in the air shifted, I could sense sparks of energy behind me and I stiffened, not wanting to turn. I took another gulp and placed the glass carefully down on the side.
‘What do you want?’ I asked, never taking my eyes from the ashes in the fireplace. I heard nothing, and still I didn’t turn around. Another crackle in the air a touch on my shoulder and a whisper. Then, still.
Calmly I stood up, finished my wine and carried the glass to the kitchen. Then screamed as loudly as I can ever remember screaming. The bones of my skull reverberated with the shock of the sound. I dropped the glass and it smashed into a million pieces sending glittering fragments far and wide.
Henry was sitting in my kitchen. I don’t mean some white-sheeted corpse was propped up against the counter but it was him. And he was smoking, one leg carelessly tossed over the other. Maybe this was it, I’d had a stroke and I was hallucinating. Clearing my throat, I tried to speak but could only manage a croak. Sitting down opposite him I tried again.
He nodded and blew a long silvery-blue skein of smoke across the table which made me cough. I waved my hand in front of my face. If you’d asked me yesterday what Henry looked like, I would have had trouble remembering his features. Just a blur of blond hair, that he was tall, and olive-skinned. But looking at him now he was shockingly familiar. ‘You haven’t changed a bit, ‘ I finally managed, ‘I wish I could say the same.’ I looked down at my hands, lumpen and twisted with veins.
His voice, when it came was clear but with a strange distance to it, it had a crackle like static; a badly tuned radio.
‘It’s been a long time.’
‘Over seventy years,’ I agreed. ‘A lifetime. So is is this it? I’ve reached the end? You’ve come to take me away?’
‘No, I’m not the grim reaper come to spirit you away,’ he smiled spreading his fingers.
‘So why are you here?’
‘Call me your conscience,’ he said, ‘you’ve left it very late and there are things you need to do.’
‘Like what?’ I protested, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.
‘Well first, you never took on an apprentice.’
‘Rubbish!’ I said sharply. ‘Who says I had to?’
‘You know that’s part of the deal,’ Henry’s ghost continued with a shrug, ‘but there’s more.’
‘It’s why I’m here, and not another of your legion of lovers,’ he raised an eyebrow at me. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled something out and threw it onto the table between us. A small box, inlaid with gold. I took a sharp breath and sat back.
‘How did you?’ I stuttered, ‘that’s mine!’
Henry shrugged again and met my eyes. Something span between us but of what, I couldn’t say. Anger and fear rose like snakes from my belly and took hold of my throat.
‘But why? It’s all so long ago! Why bother raking up the past at my age?’
‘You have to,’ he said, although his eyes were sympathetic. ‘There’s a great deal to be done and even you can’t live forever, powers or no. Besides, I’m going to keep haunting you if you do.’
I let my rage give way. ‘I won’t fucking do it, and you can haunt me all you like, you little shit, it won’t make any difference. Fuck off!’ With a great choking sob I turned blindly away and stumbled from the kitchen. Eldrich streaked across the floor and I fell, spiralling in slow motion. I landed with a thud in the darkness and groaned deeply as I felt my poor old bones snap like twigs.