Thursday, January 14, 2016

Beryl in the Dark

I hear there's a hot new book called The Widow written by former journalist Fiona Barton. It reminded me to look out a short story I wrote at the tail-end of 2009. It's a different take on things, but I thought I might as well put it up here.

Beryl in the dark

Widowhood isn’t bad. Truth to tell, I decided that before the sudden death of my beloved husband, and I take comfort from how quickly I adapted. Naturally, I’m lonelier with Arthur gone, and in bed, my feet are colder, but I have Radio 4 when the silence gets too loud, and last year I bought a pair of cream angora bed socks for my feet which helped considerably. It’s probably a good thing my sexual urges are long dead – not that they were ever that strong. But I did my wifely duty for Arthur and he appreciated my efforts. Once a fortnight, he’d bring a box of Terry’s All Gold in from the car, and I knew his needs that night wouldn’t be entirely satisfied by the orange cream. I myself always preferred the caramel crunch.

It’s a miserable day – never quite got light - and if that journalist wasn’t hanging around by the front door, I’d be tempted to slip out and treat myself to a box of chocolates. These days, I allow myself the odd binge and to hell with the consequences for my hips - I’ve arrived at the age where extra flesh is no great burden. Indeed, it’s some comfort to feel yourself to be a substantial figure – there’s far less chance of being blown away by the wind.

She arrived just past one, and every half an hour on the dot, she calls me on her mobile phone. I’ve turned off the answer phone so she can’t leave a message again which irritates her. She’s a slip of a thing called Emily Walsh, and I’m glad to say, she seems reconciled to failure - her hard little face is tight and bad-tempered on those occasions she leaves the car, bundled up in her oversized, red, waterproof coat, to pee behind the hawthorn hedge. Doubtless, she’d like to go back to her London newsroom and drink Fairtraded coffee, but whoever else she’s calling on that phone won’t let her. It’s all well and good for them, she’s thinking. They’re not the ones wasting their lives away, buffeted by cold winds in across the fields from the North Sea and soaked to the marrow by the unforgiving Norfolk rain. She should have got herself a proper job. I’ve no time for journalists – even the pretty ones - the lies they told about Arthur.

I can last three weeks without leaving the house in the event of invasion, epidemic or siege. There are plenty of tins – sardines, ravioli and beef stew, I bake my own wholemeal bread with sunflower seeds from packets, and in the freezer as well as single servings of pork casserole and meat and potato pie in handy foil trays, there’s milk, all swollen and grey-looking in those enormous plastic bottles. I never use those containers in the kitchen, instead, I decant milk into a small, rose-blown china jug that was once my mother’s. She’d fetch her own milk from the dairy in an earthenware jug and carry it home up the high street, never spilling a drop. I’d do that myself if I had a choice - so much nicer than a trip to the supermarket, though I admit those places have their uses. I bought a plastic bucket of jelly spiders and snakes when I went in last week ready for Halloween. I’ve no neighbours to speak of, but the woman at the farmstead up the track brings her twins down trick or treating. Last year, the boy came as a vampire and the girl a green-faced witch. Macabre of course and a thoroughly silly American habit, but the children themselves were charming. They had black cauldrons for the chocolate coins I gave them all wrapped up in gold paper - the woman was most grateful. She’s what they call a “single parent” I suspect. That’s to say, I’ve never seen the children’s father. Nice manners though. I always insisted on nice manners when I was teaching. My class knew to hold open the door for me and stand up when we had a visitor in class, they said “Sir” and “Miss” and quite right - the world would be a better place if everyone had better manners. Arthur had lovely manners. Exquisite. When he came in late at night, and woke me, he was always so apologetic.

I’m old – you’d think she’d show some pity, but none of it. She’s back, knocking at the door and peering in through the windows. There’s someone who could learn better manners. I’ve drawn the curtains – knock away dearie. I never did mind the dark. Not even when Mammy locked me in the cupboard when she caught me in some childish wickedness. I acted as if I did of course – to get out quicker, but she never caught on. I’d be hollering and crying something fearsome, but inside my own head, I was laughing at her. Emily’s put another note through the door asking me to talk to her – terrible handwriting. It’s on headed paper. They must travel with headed notepaper – how very old-fashioned. She must keep it in the glove compartment – I’ve not noticed her go to the boot. I’m surprised they don’t e-mail me, but perhaps they think I’m too old for a computer. I rather like the computer. It’s astonishing what you can find on the internet these days – I spend hours looking through it all. I don’t buy anything too hardcore of course, and I’m careful to erase my history. Best of all, I’ve picked up a couple of lovely recipes for jam – one with lime and ginger, most unusual. Like those photographs with the dogs. It seems ridiculous to think I’m a cyberspace astronaut, but here I am, helmet on, “following” famous names and bored housewives in Maine, both. Everyone looking to connect. It might help if they got out more of course. I make that point to them on occasion, although they don’t like it.

I looked up my little Emily sitting out there with such ill grace. She’d be surprised how much I know about her – articles, old school, her twittering, an hour ago she accepted me as a friend on Facebook. Obviously, I don’t use my own name with these things – I’m a 30-year-old mother of two, living in Cornwall with an interest in crafts. The last bit is true as it happens. She’s popular enough – 382 “friends” but then she would have that number if she accepts just anybody. She gets annoyed with her mother for commenting on what she gets up to. The mother’s probably mortified. She’s wiling her time away with her laptop out there - it must have one of those dongles you can connect up to the internet with. I just hope she isn’t using my wireless connection.

Emily’s been depressed lately – from the heavy hints, I’d guess an affair with a married man went wrong. Judging by her photographs, she’d be advised to spend more time working and less time getting drunk and sleeping around – that way, they might want her back in the office occasionally. No manners and even fewer morals. I’ve known enough women like her.

For a moment there, I thought she might be about to leave – she started up the car but she’s switched it off again. She’s cold – turning on the heater and letting it run a while. What I don’t want her doing is asking questions in the village. Forget free speech, privacy should be enshrined as a human right. I only ask to live out my days in peace, Lord. Surely that’s not over-ambitious. I had enough excitement to last me a lifetime when Arthur was arrested, and in the run-up to the trial. It’s not much to ask – to spend the rest of my life as “that nice woman who came in the other day.” Nobody would recognize me. There was a time when I was glamorous – a head-turner. Arthur maintained I reminded him of Elizabeth Taylor. He was very gallant like that. I shudder to think what he’d say if he saw me now, but you can hide anywhere with a good perm and an elasticated skirt. Perhaps not if you’re a man. He’d understand. He always understood me perfectly. I had my vices and he had his. Doesn’t everybody? That’s what the police didn’t seem to understand. The young lady in the car for instance, smokes. That is what I call a nasty habit. These days there’s no excuse for smoking – it may very well shorten her life but she seems oblivious. I have a good mind to go out and tell her to stop throwing her cigarette butts out of her window. She winds it down an inch and flicks out the butt still burning then winds up the window again sharpish to keep the rain out. The twins will see them lying there when they come trick or treating - it’s no kind of example for them. I wonder what they’ll come as this year. I sincerely hope she’s gone by then, and doesn’t pester the mother who seems like a very nice woman even if she is divorced.

It’s not the most salubrious of addresses my solitary house by an abandoned garage, but I like it more than I thought I would. They built a by-pass and the garage became uneconomic. There was compensation and the garage owner sold the remains of the petrol station along with his house. It’s obviously quieter than it used to be but behind the copse of trees, juggernauts rumble through and cars, back and forth, going nowhere I want to go. I’ve never lived by the sea, though we had it in mind for our retirement, but the sound must be similar – a dull roar of engines and road, water and shingle. I don’t even mind the way at night lights wheedle their way through the curtains and across my ceiling as desperate drivers pull in thinking they can get petrol, and pull out again cursing when they realize it’s a ghost town garage, the pumps as useless and stubby as rotten teeth. I lie awake for hours waiting for these foolish travellers – their confusion makes me smile. I was always something of an insomniac and the older I get, the less sleep I need. Arthur on the other hand slept like a baby. He’d have his bath and clean his teeth, and once he was in his striped pyjamas, he’d be asleep within seconds. I used to wonder how he managed it when he had so much on his mind. Perhaps he used sleeping pills and never told me? He didn’t tell me everything. Breakfast was the time he’d make his confessions to me. I forgot to put the cat out last night. That sort of thing.

This house serves my purpose. I found it on the internet and it was cheap £49,000. I’d plenty left to live on once I’d sold the old place. Gerald saw to that. Gerald managed everything for me after his father died. He had the house sold in two weeks – at a huge discount of course. Some developer razed it to the ground – such a waste. They’d have been better off painting it all the way through. It’s amazing the difference a lick of paint makes to the atmosphere in a room. Gerald brought me round the cheque, kissed me on my cheek and hasn’t spoken to me since. Like his father, once he puts his mind to something, there’s no budging him. I considered sending him a postcard telling him where I am, but he wouldn’t reply so I hardly see the point. He has his own life, and I respect his decision. From the moment they’re born, you know there’ll come a day when they leave you. Gerald planned to change his name and move away from the area. The bank was very understanding.

It’s snug since I had the central heating put in, and the new kitchen was a good decision. The bathroom was old-fashioned with a scratched-up, claw-foot ceramic bath and a high cistern for the lavatory with a long chain, but I liked it that way so I’ve let it be. There’s two bedrooms – my own and one at the back which I keep as a hobby room - for crafts, pergamano, decoupage, and card making. I sit there snipping and cutting, lost to everything. Apart from the craft table, I didn’t bring much with me – everything new. A fresh start – Gerald disposed of it all. Even the cat went _ I’m not sure where. Gerald was never fond of her. I’d like to think he kept some memento of his old mum and dad but frankly, I doubt it. If Arthur was living here of course, the house wouldn’t be enough for him, he’d be digging out a basement room. He liked his basement did Arthur. He could have been a professional builder, the time and energy he spent in our basement. Our rockery was the envy of the avenue. And he dug out a goldfish pond several times only to change his mind at the last minute and fill it in again.

This is the first time I’ve lived on my own. When Mammy died so tragically, I was already engaged. Arthur moved straight in and we brought the wedding forward. I was 22 and he was 19 – too young they’d say these days, but I felt as old as the hills even then. Now, there’s only myself to please and no nay-sayers. I won’t have it that there are no consolations to widowhood. There’s church. I always enjoyed a nice church service though Arthur was never that keen. There’s a lovely one in the village. Norman. Beautiful kneelers - I’ve never tried cross-stitch but I’m willing to give it a go. I’m told it’s therapeutic. I’ve become quite a regular at vespers, and a reliable pair of hands helping out at the coffee mornings in aid of the lifeboats and the unfortunates caught up in the latest natural disaster. Flood or famine, count me in to hand round the macaroons. The vicar can take a hint as well which was a pleasant surprise. He offered to drop by but I don’t want strangers in the house. I put him off. Politely. He understood completely. I told him: “I’m sure you have enough old dears to visit, without adding me to your list, vicar.” He was relieved – needy parishioners can be a nightmare to men of the cloth. To all intents and purposes, I’m a widow, retired to the county where I holidayed as a child. Unfortunately I have no children of my own – God’s will. I almost believe it myself.

I’ve done a six-week writing class as well. That was an eye-opener. The things those women were willing to share with the class whilst writing about the seasons changing astonished me. What goes on during the menopause is not a matter for the iambic pentameter. And as for the gossip after class when they all trooped off for coffee together - as Mammy always said: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Arthur and I would sit in silence for hours on an evening as we watched television together, and at half–past seven we’d have a nice cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. If he didn’t fancy what was on, he’d go down to the basement to tinker around with whatever he had down there.

The reporter is hammering on the door like a lunatic. She’s losing the plot entirely. As if I would answer the door to a madwoman. I did the right thing buying a house in the middle of nowhere – goodness knows what the neighbours would think. I’m irritated though that she found me. If it happens again, I may have to move on and I’d almost decided to get chickens – Black rocks. They lay a lovely brown egg. You never seem to get a proper brown egg these days. I’m going to do some hoovering so I don’t have to hear her carry-on. I’ve hoovered today already. I always do my jobs first thing in the morning, working down from the top of the house to the bottom – bedrooms first, a quick going-over in the bathroom, a hoover round and a spit-and-dust. The kitchen I always keep straight. Nothing worse than a grimey sink. There she’s stopped. Perhaps it was her blood-sugar. She’s had nothing to eat all day and time’s getting on.

Thank goodness, she’s leaving, finally. I was beginning to get quite annoyed with her. I was shaking as I cut myself that last slice of seedcake, almost cut my finger. And that can get quite bloody. At least I can open the curtains now and drink my tea in peace. It’s almost time for the evening news. Arthur’s cellmate is on, maintaining Arthur made an arrangement to pay his family £5,000 if he didn’t call the prison guards while he hanged himself. Easy money if you ask me and a bit too late for his conscience to come calling. The wife was glad enough of it at the time. Greasy hair tied back in a pony-tail, a cigarette hanging out of her thin-lipped mouth, three snotty-nosed children hanging off her. The very picture of a convict’s trollop. Did he tell her what he had to do for the money? I thought not at the time, though she was no fool, there was a feral intelligence in those beady eyes of hers. She had a good look round the car park once she opened the boot of the car as agreed by the men-folk. Morrison’s 1pm – money in the boot wrapped in a plastic bag. Arthur warned me to make sure I wasn’t seen. Then something spooked her because she banged shut the boot and shovelled those children into that car so fast I doubt she even strapped them in. Doubtless she spent the money on drugs rather than food and shoes for the children – she was the type. I wondered afterwards whether the money was well-spent, whether the cellmate would have stopped Arthur hanging himself anyway. Unlike Emily, Arthur wasn’t exactly popular at the time, but I couldn’t risk him incriminating me at the trial. He understood that when I explained it all to him at visiting. He could see I was frightened – my hand trembling in his. He worshipped me, there’s nothing he wouldn’t have done to take that fear away. He kissed my fingertips - “Beryl lovie” - his breath warm on my skin for the last time.

Emily’s back. She must have parked the car around the corner out of sight. Would you credit it and bearing flowers? What an old chestnut. As if a bunch of tired dahlias would make me break my silence. You stupid, stupid girl. I don’t even like flowers, and just look at the time. The lady up the lane will be here within the hour. Alright, you’ve brought this on yourself. I’m opening the door. The look on her face as I open the door is almost worth the inconvenience. She virtually falls over her own pixie boots to get back up the path. “Alright my dear, come in.” I go into the kitchen and switch the kettle on. “Go in to the lounge and take a seat while I make you a cup of tea – you must be freezing.” She doesn’t need a second invitation. The chance to look round my lounge without me watching her. No photos. Nothing personal. A copy of The Spectator. I warm the pot, swirling the boiling water round its belly, ladling in the loose tea. I have a special mix reserved for visitors, and bring it through on a tray with my bone china jug of milk. It’s a shame I ate the last piece of cake earlier, but there’s homemade shortbread, fork-pricked and gritty with sugar. She shakes her head. Tea is fine. Of course, tea is fine. I watch her drink it. “Drink up,” I instruct her and she swallows it down. Have another cup and then we’ll talk. We talk and it’s more of a relief than I expected it to be. I tell her all about it.

We met in the working men’s club. Mammy with her port and lemon, myself newly qualified, stiff with boredom, and there he was through a fog of curling tobacco smoke and conversation. A messiah in a black satin shirt strumming a guitar trying to make them listen to his song. They didn’t hear him but I did. He wasn’t as educated as I was. Not as intelligent but I helped him, improved him, polished him till he shone – not that his talent ever got the recognition it deserved. His virtues were never recognized in the factory where he ended up. He and I both hoped he’d be made manager but he never got there, never got past floor supervisor. Perhaps he was too weak. Not enough of a leader for them. But they didn’t see him as I saw him. Arthur knew what he wanted. He was a man with appetites. Not even orange creams were enough. That first time, I made a suggestion he went on a little hunting trip – brought back what it was he needed - he wept at my feet with gratitude. I’d bring him a cup of tea while he worked. The girls always looked so relieved when I appeared at the door, and so very disappointed when I handed Arthur a digestive and took a seat to watch. He was a craftsman in his way. I tell Emily every last detail although she’s rude enough to fall asleep, drool hanging out of the corner of her pink lipsticked mouth, slumped in the corner of the settee like a ratty old cushion. My arm around her, I take her weight as we stagger up the narrow stairs to the back bedroom. Occasionally, she falls to her knees with a grunt, and I have to pull her up the last few stairs by her hair but she doesn’t complain. I get her into the bedroom and lie her on the spare bed, tying her ankles together with pretty pink silk ribbon and her wrists and ankles behind her back with pale blue. Yellow silk links the ankles to the wrists. I use my craft knife to slice the ribbon once I’ve pulled it from the cardboard spool – a small razor blade cut on the diagonal that slides up and down its plastic holder. Scraping the knife along the dangling strands of colour leaves ringlets of ribbon. Arthur always admired my finishing touches. She’ll be out for a while yet but for safety’s sake, I knot the black tights I’ve taken off her, slide them between her teeth and use them as a gag. “Congratulations dear – you have what you’d call a scoop,” I tell her, but she lies there mute, her eyes closed.

There’s her car of course but that doesn’t worry me unduly. I could drive it down to Norwich early tomorrow morning and leave it unlocked in the hope it would disappear. I’d have to get the train back and a cab home but there’d be time to do some shopping. Everybody knows how little old ladies like to shop. And there’s room in the freezer for more pie. Or there’s the quarry lake which can’t be more than a mile away. That I could do tonight. It doesn’t leave me quite so long with Emily, but long enough I expect and far too long as far as she’s concerned. Perhaps that might be tidier. There’s no trace of my special tea after 24 hours and I’ll be careful not to leave any other marks on her. She drives herself off the edge. Quarries are notoriously dangerous places. It might well be weeks till she’s found – if at all. And if she is? Depressed you see. Unstable. Too much time to think sitting in her car in the rain outside the widow’s house. No, I never spoke to her.

Right on cue, the doorbell goes and there they are, the nice woman from up the track and her two charming children. They’re dressed as monsters – the boy as Frankenstein and the girl as a ghoul. Every bit as charming as they were last year, the mother looking more tired than ever. “I wonder my dear whether you ever need a baby-sitter,” I ask, and her eyes light up.