Novel: Chapter One

Chapter 1: Frieda A Beginning

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises towards her day after day, like a terrible fish.

I knew I’d never die young. Illness, suicide, murder: none could touch me, Old age was something I expected. But this old? No. I must be over a century by now. I couldn’t imagine being this old. What’s surprised me – apart from the obvious horrors of skin swinging from joints and my once fiery eyes disappearing into floury flaps – is that I’ve mellowed. I’m not the evil bitch I used to be, I don’t seem to enjoy inflicting the little cruelties that were such a pleasure when I was younger. The little, mean-spirited jabs I would dole out to people who had upset me are few and far between nowadays.

I still have a good go every now and then – that fuckwit Andy didn’t realise it was me who, with a flick of my fingers, forced his tool box to crash to the floor spinning spanners clattering across my flagstones, one thwacking his elbow. A wince squeezed flat the puffed smuggery of his face and I enjoyed watching him struggle to maintain his facade of the affable handyman here to help out poor old Mrs B. who lived up the hill. Poor old Mrs B. my arse.

He comes because he’s discovered my habit of slipping notes between the pages of my books. Since he started working at the house I noticed my Wuthering Heights was £50 lighter, Beloved had lost a twenty and my complete Shakespeare had been picked clean. Greasy fingers, more used to prying apart the pallid thighs of local tarts, have been inserting themselves between the pages of my books and milking them dry.

Firing him would be tedious. Besides, I quite like flexing the old muscles and torturing him, just a little: the sour slime clinging to the edges of the cup of tea I make with a smile, the fragment of glass I spit into his boots so he walks with a grimace as he comes to the door. Sadly, though, I find as I age my powers have more of a cost; they are strong as ever but inflicting pain leaves me with a hangover, no matter how justified the punishment.

Hah! The irony. It is almost as if a deity in which I don’t believe has decided to try and make me into a better person as I grow closer to death – good deeds seem to make my hair curl and my step lighter – bad ones give me indigestion and a headache. A shame, as I always wanted to be the girl from whose mouth toads leap, not the insipid moron who spills forth diamonds and pearls.

With irritation, I watch Andy washing his hands in the kitchen sink splashing arcs of water which puddle on my wooden counters. His position at the window means I can admire the spreading bald patch which he takes such pains to conceal. I wonder if he has to hold his wife’s hands down in bed in case she tugs at his failing follicles in a moment of passion. I snort at the thought of the poor woman being inspired to passion by this dough ball of a man.

‘Something funny, Mrs B?’ Andy asks, drying his hands and turning to me where I sit, crooked as a sixpence, at the kitchen table.

‘No nothing, dear,’ I reply, squinting up at him and attempting a kindly smile. I don’t think it works as he looks nervous. He often does when he works up here, I think he finds me watching him rather unsettling. It also means he can’t get away with the little tricks of which I knew he was fond. Even now I see his restless little eyes scanning the kitchen, looking for jobs he could offer to fix – at a cost, of course. ‘What do I owe you, Mr Slade?’ As expected, he begins to pack up rapidly, throwing over his shoulder that he would get Angie to send up an invoice, his words almost disappearing in the clatter of his retreat as he slams the door.

Contemptuous little shit. Andy has no balls. His eye-watering bills have to be paid as he’s the only plumber in the village; he should have a house as big as mine with what he charges but he pisses it away. Gambling. Hence the light-fingered petty thieving he does on the side. I watch him as he climbs into his van. The wind thrashes a spiteful handful of rain against the window pane and I blink, re-focus and smile. With a pass of my hand, the paint on his doors begins to peel.

The headache starts, sharp and sudden and I groan with the pain of it. Bloody thing. Couldn’t they see the man was a cock who deserved everything he got? I draw a line across my forehead and although the pain eases, it doesn’t go away. Stumping up the stairs I shiver in the cold before reaching the bedroom and easing into my bed. All thoughts of that idiot recede as I lie back and survey the ceiling.

Familiar landscapes shift and twist before my eyes as I drift; faces form and dissolve, skies and sunsets pass. Every minute of my years lies heavy in my bones.

Dreaming about Charlie was always an irritation but I didn’t seem to be able to help it. Dear God! You’d think I would have forgotten all about him by now – it’s been years. I was sixteen when I fell in love, twenty when he died and now, here he is, over eighty years later haunting my dreams. My powers were raw then, not easy to control although the shine of them could be seen in my hair, my eyes;  men flocked to its gloss and charm. I was such an idiot – I had no idea. I thought it was the size of my breasts, the hand span of my waist, the depth of my painted smile.

I wonder why it’s Charlie, of all of them, who I keep seeing recently. Not just in my dreams, but out of the corner of my eye as I walk through the wood, or in the smoke of the fire in the morning; Charlie’s face peers at me, his mouth working but I hear nothing. Ach, I don’t know what he wants and don’t care much. With a strong bend of will I power the dream away from Charlie’s face and slip with relief into a memory of sinking under water in the Indian Ocean over seventy years ago. Again I watch the rising stream of bubbles and feel the corrugated curves of white sand under my feet.

Waking is an abrupt and disorienting plunge back into the realities of my age and I don’t need to glance at my grandmother’s clock on the bedside table to know it is a few minutes past four in the morning. ‘The witching hour,’ I grunt to myself and open the door to let in Eldritch who has been waiting for me.

I draw some comfort from the hard push of her skull as she rubs her head against my knuckles; I pull her eyelids back, stroking the soft darkness of her fur. She knows me so well, I think, as she leaps onto the arm of my little chair by the now cold fire. I have no time for her during the day, but at night, when my ghosts follow me, she knows her presence is welcome.

Sighing, I settle in my chair and catch sight of my face in the window. The black mirror shows my folds and lines and my eyes are hollow. I know with a bit of fire, some words and a pass of my hand I could, for a while, tighten my skin and darken my hair, but it is too exhausting to even consider and so I empty my head and stroke the damn cat and avoid my reflection as dawn begins to spread across the wood.

///////////

I must have dozed off in the chair as I wake that morning stiff and cold. I have to shake my head to throw off the shreds and threads of voices which cling to my ears and mouth. I don’t eat much nowadays, food makes me 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.

Today, 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 B. Look at her! Over a hundred and still walking!’ Oh, their vacuous inanities grate and I long to show them something worth their admiration, I dream of spreading my arms like flames and rising into the air as their mouths drop open, the disgusting chewing 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 my walk along the green tunnels of the lane that twist 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 tourists hoping to find Miss Fucking Marple.

The rain sizzles on my skin and I breathe to rein in the irascibility that’s fizzing at the tips of my fingers. The green moss of the air fills my lungs and slides its energy into my bones and muscles 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 Charlie’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 reach for the nearest tree for support and sink to the ground. This was happening more and more often and the effects were unpleasant. And why the memories of Charlie? 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 Charlie on Margate sands of all places?

With a tsk of annoyance I pull myself up and recover 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 has left me and when I reach the shop I am in bad spirits. Mrs Gray, the owner, is 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, white hair pinned close to her narrow skull she flashes me a saccharine smile.

‘Mrs B, how nice to see you. Can I help at all?’

‘I’m fine,’ I grunt, ‘I can find what I need.’ I sense her raising her eyebrows behind my back at Maeve, the Doctor’s wife who has just come in, and I clench my hands into fists before my fingers started working some mischief beyond my control.

I need tea and something for the cat, but I find Maeve in front of me, blocking my way. A good-looking woman, perhaps a little blousy for my taste, but she has clear skin and fine red hair and her eyes are kind.

‘Mrs B., 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 try to push past her but she stands firm. I knew she would.

‘Yes, Mike 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 laughs and I want to kill her.

‘As I said, I’m fine.’ I glare at her then show my teeth in a smile. ‘Do send my regards to your husband. And I hope Dylan is feeling better?’ I cock my head to one side in faux sympathy and enjoy Maeve’s expression which flitters through bewilderment to fear as she processes 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 seems not to be quite so golden after all. I see her eyes widen and her pupils dilate. If I look 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 jerks away from me and turns so I could pass. Mrs Gray looks over, eyes alive with curiosity but Maeve’s ashen face shuts her up and she bustles across to the till.

I decide to cut across the Green on the way home. The sky has cleared and the breeze is fresh helping the headache which crawls around my temples. Unfair, I thought. I hadn’t been mean, just unkind. Still, wouldn’t hurt to… I see the new playground sitting at the bottom of the hill. Children crawl and squirm across all manner of wooden buildings made up of ladders and slides and poles. A few mothers are dotted about, smoking and blank faced.

A little girl sits on a bench crying as if her heart would break. I can see nobody to whom she seems to belong. I settle next to her, taking care to make myself as inconspicuous as possible.

‘Hello, dearie,’ I say in my most comfortable Grandma voice. ‘What’s wrong?’  She’s been crying for so long her blonde hair is stuck to her face with tears. Her cheeks are as red as apples. She can’t have been much older than four and I look again to see who was with her. Still no one. I give her my best twinkle and she calms down enough to hold out her hands.

A ruined doll gazes at me, her features smeared by a rough hand. I suspect the group of boys screaming around the group of poles nearby. I hold the toy with exaggerated care. The arms have been wrenched loose and dangle. Meeting the girl’s eyes I hold a finger to my lips and pass my hand over the doll, whispering meaningless words. I close my eyes until I hear the girl gasp. I am aware of a surge of pleasure as I pass the restored doll back and the girl’s face, bright as a star, looks at me in astonishment.

I am still chuckling, albeit breathlessly, as I climb the hill towards home. Playing Mary Poppins can be as fun as playing Medusa, sometimes. The children are as tiny as ants from where I stand, but I can still see the little girl, a pink dot on the bench. She waves a tiny hand at me high up in the woods.

It is cold and late when I return. How I long for the start of spring. I hate these grey skies that weigh heavy on my shoulders. I feel older in the winter, and being trapped here with no chance of escape is a sore punishment indeed. The house looks forbidding and bleak and even Eldritch, curling round my legs and purring as I open the door doesn’t cheer me up.  I feed the stupid creature and look in my cupboards but no inspiration comes so I settle for liquorice root tea and a heel of bread.

The fire takes ages to take, so I end up having to use an impatient flick of my fingers; it is so cold and I am so tired. Eldritch and I watch the flames and I allow my eyes to droop in the heat that traces my face. This time the shift was more like a dream as I sit in the chair by the fire. The warmth on my cheeks turns into tight sunburn, and the smell of hot cat is replaced by charred sausages. The chair against my back becomes Charlie’s chest and I lie dreamily in his arms looking up at the sky. I turn to look at his sleepy features and say to myself with all the fierceness and certainty of youth, I will make you love me. I will.

Charlie again! Pulling up with a start I re-settle myself in the chair and poke at the fire. Funny, I had forgotten that night when I thought the world would end if I couldn’t make Charlie 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 sigh. I don’t like these odd flashbacks, violent as they are. My memory seemed to want to assault me, mug me so that I remember things as they were, not as I want them to be. I don’t want to remember Charlie like that, I want him to return to the faded photograph of a distant dream.

I throw the rest of my tea towards the guttering fire and pour wine into a heavy glass, admiring its red velvet depths before swigging back a gulp, making me splutter. Eldritch jumps and shakes her fur before stalking away with an irritable twitch of her shoulders. Something in the air shifts, I can sense sparks of energy behind me and I stiffen, not wanting to turn. I take another gulp and place the glass down on the side.

‘What do you want?’ I ask, never taking my eyes from the ashes in the fireplace. I hear nothing, and still I don’t turn around. Another crackle in the air, a touch on my shoulder and a whisper. Then, still.

I stand up, finish my wine and carry the glass to the kitchen. Then scream as loudly as I can ever remember screaming. The bones of my skull reverberate with the shock of the sound. I drop the glass and it smashes into a million pieces sending glittering fragments far and wide.

Charlie is sitting in my kitchen. I don’t mean some white-sheeted corpse is propped up against the counter but it is him. And he is smoking, one leg tossed over the other. Maybe this was it, I’d had a stroke and I am hallucinating. Clearing my throat, I try to speak but can only manage a croak. Sitting down opposite him I try again.

‘Charlie.’

He nods and blows a long silvery-blue skein of smoke across the table which makes me cough. I wave my hand in front of my face. If you’d asked me yesterday what Charlie 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 is shockingly familiar. ‘You haven’t changed a bit, ‘ I manage, ‘I wish I could say the same.’ I look down at my hands, lumpen and twisted with veins.

I can’t help it. My vanity is stronger than my sense. I close my eyes and pull down youth like a cloak, allowing it to settle around my shoulders. A sense of plumpness and blood rush to the surface of my skin, the leathery patchwork of liver spots disappearing and the pearl white damask of my childhood returning. Just for a moment. Even though my strength is draining like water, I hold on as long as I can. I want to face him as the girl I was, not the crone I had become.

His voice, when it comes is clear but with a strange distance to it, it has a crackle like static; the sound is an ill-tuned radio.

‘It’s been a long time.’

‘Over eighty years,’ I agree. ‘A lifetime. So 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 to a better place,’ he chuckles.

‘So why are you here?’

‘Call me your conscience,’ he says, ‘you’ve left it very late and there are things you need to do.’

‘Like what?’ I protest, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘Well, first, you never took on an apprentice.’

‘Rubbish!’ I say. ‘Who says I had to?’

‘You know that’s part of the deal,’ Charlie’s ghost continues, ‘but there’s more.’

‘What?’

‘It’s why I’m here, and not another of your legion of lovers,’ he raises an eyebrow at me.

‘They thought I’d listen to you?’

Charlie shrugs and meets my eyes. Anger and fear rise like snakes from my belly, twining and knotting in my throat.

‘I don’t want to leave here, this is all mine. You can’t do anything. It’s all so long ago – times have changed.’

‘You have to,’ he says, although his eyes are 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 turn away and stumble from the kitchen, leaving the box lying on the table, gleaming in the soft light of the moon. Eldrich streaks across the floor and I fall, spiralling in slow motion. I land with a thud in the darkness and groan as I feel my poor old bones snap like twigs.