Friends

30 January 2010

Tea for Two (Repeat)

The tiny kitchen, with the fire lit and the oven on, was probably too warm for September, but the intention had been to create an ambience as resplendent as an autumn day. Golden and welcoming. A brass coal scuttle glimmering in the hearth, reflected the fire's amber glow. On the spacious windowsill, inside a frame of ecru drapes, a huge bronze pitcher was crammed with preserved beech leaves and dried wheat. Bunches of dried corn were tucked amidst the porcelain plates that stood side by side on a wooden rack.

The room, which she fancied was once a scullery, was where Gentle spent most of her time. Its smallness was comforting. She could bake or read or knit squares for Oxfam and forget the isolation of the enormous, inherited house. It was far too big for a woman living alone but today George was coming to tea. The prospect excited her. For far too long she had functioned like an ageing spinster when in fact she was only forty-three.

Not having enough recreation was her biggest difficulty. With only housework to occupy her she was becoming dull and uninteresting. Redundancy had struck hard. It had eliminated colleagues, assurances that they would keep in touch forgotten directly the office doors slammed to. Polly Moss had stayed in touch; she wasn't one of those perfunctory acquaintances who bandied pledges like confetti, but she was in the throes of a wild intrigue with Gary Starr, an all-in-wrestler, and was currently away with him on tour. Although the two friends regularly spoke on the phone it wasn't the same as getting together for a proper chin-wag.

The solution to enforced solitude was in Gentle's own hands. She could go out, join a social club, mix with the opposite sex. If she could ignore the phobia of abandonment she might find it easier to mingle. At times she felt doomed to dwell in eternal isolation, time surging ahead and dragging her into immortality. However, that brand of depression was rare. Mostly, she got on with life, grateful for excellent health and reasonable prosperity.

Gentle had opted for a solitary lifestyle after three serious relationships were shattered. The first by reason of death when a week ahead of their wedding her boyfriend contracted killer meningitis; the second terminating when the man who swore undying devotion was involved in a steamy sex scandal with his boss's wife; and the ultimate liaison that ended when her third beau took an unhealthy interest in female fashion. For a while Gentle had wondered about her ability to attractthat kind of man. The episodes had wholly killed off her appetite for male companionship … until she met George and came to value his friendship.

Humming softly, she sorted the cutlery, choosing silver for the salad and delicate bone-handled knives for the scones. Would George commend her cooking? Would he like her home?

She had been drawn to him by his apparent regard for animals. When she first saw him in the park he was hunkered down to talk man to dog with a Yorkshire terrier. The next time he was perched on the school wall whispering to a cat, his beard blending very well with the animal's white fur. Several times she saw him by the lake tossing bread to the ducks. Sometimes he fondled the donkeys' manes; always he slipped titbits to dogs when their owners weren't looking. A man with a virtuous heart!

Gentle sniffed the air, inhaling the delicious smell of baking that made her mouth water. Satisfied the scones were cooked she scurried to the oven. Pulled open the door. Grabbing a heavily-singed oven cloth, she withdrew the tray and unloaded the scones onto a dish decorated with cornflowers, with divisions to take pots of jam and clotted cream. Arranged to her liking she deposited the dish adjacent to an oval platter of carved ham and a cut-glass bowl filled with green-leaf salad.

Hearing the grandfather-clock chime the half-hour, Gentle glanced at her watch. Three-thirty. Ninety minutes to countdown. Her stomach lurched. What had she done? What did he want? In the three years she had lived here only tradesmen had entered this house. Would she shape up as a hostess? Could she adequately converse with such an erudite man? It was one thing to twitter away making small talk, it was quite another to take part in profound topics such as politics, or the arts, or issues of an educational nature. Panic rose in her breast.

She tried to suppress her anxiety by twitching curtains, plumping cushions, straightening the framed landscapes; an inessential activity in that snug and shipshape room. Feeling the tremor in her lower lip she bit hard to make it stop, cursing her nervousness. She brushed a hand through chestnut curls that had been so carefully styled. Realising her mistake she rushed to a mirror to check its condition, releasing a sigh when she saw that no harm had been done. But anxiety continued to dangle its ice-cold digits and she sank wretchedly into a wooden armchair.

Silently Gentle counted the Denby cups hanging on the Welsh dresser. The monotony of the mental exercise was guaranteed to calm her. Four ... What had possessed her to accede to his request? Seven … What had he in mind when he asked to call? Twelve ... Why was she in such a terrible spin? She was behaving as if she was expecting a suitor instead of an elderly companion.

Polly had been aghast when she learned his age, claiming that Gentle must be mad to associate with such an old man. He was old enough to be her father. Gentle had chuckled, thinking how like her deceased parent he was. At least in features. They even shared a name. When Polly heard about the similarity, she joked that her father's spirit had returned to protect her. Gentle hadn't enlightened her about his lack of concern for his children.

Kicking off her slippers, she pondered on the unusual relationship with George. She felt safe with him, as if he was indeed family. Lacing her fingers she let her hands lie in her lap, remembering the first time he acknowledged her and how amazed she had been to see the familiar glint in his eye and an almost recognisable little-boy grin.

'My name's Gentle Appleyard,' she said, proffering her hand and praying he wouldn't laugh at her silly name.

The winter sun had burst through the cloud the second he bade her good morning, lighting his face and igniting his smile. Or so Gentle thought. She was later to learn that his inner well-being was the cause of the illumination. Now that she was near to him, she noticed the smoothness of his skin, almost baby-like in its texture. His green overcoat was unbuttoned, displaying a beige polo neck shirt beneath a toning sweatshirt embellished with a sporty logo. His choice of clothes belied his age, she thought, inching a fraction nearer the man she had spent hours scrutinising from afar. They were sitting on a corroded iron bench with diverse messages scratched in what was left of the basic black paint.

'Only place to be on a fine day,' he said, favouring Gentle with another bright smile. 'Though the benches are not what they were.' He gazed at her, quite candidly. 'Do you come here often?' Hazel-flecked blue eyes held hers until she felt the colour rise in her cheeks, compelling her to look elsewhere.

'Every day,' she said, shyly, crushing a desire to reveal her study of him, to disclose her approval of his demeanour, and profess to being envious of his self-assurance.

He fingered his whiskers, and then extended his hand so rapidly that Gentle jerked backwards. The movement made him laugh but he was instantly contrite and concerned about her welfare, reassuring her with an apology. The way he was with animals, Gentle thought as she adjusted her collar.

'I was about to introduce myself,' he said. 'But maybe now you have no desire to become acquainted.'

Although Gentle's smile was coy she felt somewhat coquettish inside, as if the practice of picking up men was routine. She was not at all certain how she would feel in such a circumstance since she had never before spoken to a stranger. 'My name's Gentle Appleyard,' she said, proffering her hand and praying he wouldn't laugh at her silly name.

'Gentle Appleyard,' he repeated, angling his head skywards as he experimented with the name. 'Gentle name for a gentle lady. Delightful.'

Gentle blushed, wishing he would release her hand so that she could mask her trembling mouth.

'And I'm George,' he said, restoring his gaze to her face. 'George Tensing.'

Gentle tried to suppress a giggle. 'That's a coincidence. I live in a property called Tensing House. I moved there when Bridget Road was demolished.'

'Ah, yes. The motorway development.'

They debated the development and the major upheaval it had caused. The residents had been agreeably compensated though George said he failed to see how one could be sufficiently recompensed for losing one's home. Gentle kept her own situation to herself. It was, after all, no-one else's business.

They met frequently after that, always in the park. George didn't actually invite her to join him, merely specified the time he would be there, permitting Gentle the freedom to schedule her own afternoons. Nevertheless, except for one occasion when a migraine kept her closeted in a darkened room, she visited the park whenever he said he would be there. Her admiration of him grew. Fondness ripened like blossoms in spring.

Their friendship was precious. There was an affinity she couldn’t define, a closeness equivalent to that experienced with family members. He was as vigilant as a father, as waggish as a brother. And now, at his request, he was coming to tea. She didn't know why but trusted he wasn't intending to propose, for although she adored him it was as a sister for a favourite brother or a daughter for a beloved father.

Gentle toured the ground floor for a final inspection, speculating on what he would say when he arrived at the imposing house. Would he judge it too grand? She had made no mention of the fact that her abode was a gift or that her benefactor chose to remain anonymous. She inhabited this beautiful home, free as a bird with no-one to call her to task, yet the plumes of perpetual puzzlement weighed heavy.

There had been no other choice for Gentle, when she was booted out of the family home in Bridget Road, but to accept the fantastic offer of occupancy, albeit from an unrevealed source. It would be more substantial than an apartment, which was all she could have afforded. At the beginning she had shrunk from moving out, believing she was forsaking the ghosts of her family, but the conditions: the rubble, the diggers, the houses plummeting like swatted flies, forced her to heap her paraphernalia into crates and get out. With tear-drenched eyes she had bid her ghosts adieu: father, mother, two younger brothers and a sister, all dead.

Gentle's father, George, committed suicide after Matilda, her mother, died in childbirth. Twenty-five years ago. The baby, baptised Caroline, also died. The triple tragedy motivated Peter and Graham, Gentle's harum-scarum brothers, to go completely off the rails, taking to drink in a big way. Both were killed in a horrifying car crash for which they were unreservedly responsible. Ghosts were all Gentle had to call her kin.

Tensing House, as instructed by the solicitor who summoned her to see him about an urgent matter, had been assigned to her by an unknown donor; a most generous gift, he said, looking down his nose as if the subject disgusted him, as if the transaction was disreputable and sordid.

Gentle was unable to take in the significance of the settlement and implored the lawyer to shed some light. She gleaned this much: that the donor, who craved anonymity, was a friend of her mother, and as her mother had passed away long ago the likelihood of discovering the identity was remote. The lawyer remained mute and, at length, Gentle suspended the inquisition. Keys were handed over; the residence and contents were hers. Despite that, apart from sporadic checks, Gentle stayed with her ghosts until the bulldozers were well into their annihilation of Bridget Road.

The pleasant evening she had carefully and so delightedly prepared for had crumpled like the debris in Bridget Road

George arrived punctually at five o'clock, carrying a colossal bouquet of bronze carnations. He presented them with a slight bow which generated another fracas in the pit of Gentle's stomach. She stuttered her appreciation and prayed they weren't a precursor for some sort of declaration. Perhaps she shouldn't have worn a dress with plunging neckline but it was the only one that complemented the decor, a blend of sage and cream with a dash of subtle orange at the neck.

After putting the blooms in water, she led the way to the library, still intact with her benefactor's books, where she intended to serve tea. The same autumn-like flavour had been accomplished by filling an array of ceramic vases with more preserved foliage and roping in some yellow ribbon. The log fire was blazing, its flames reproduced in two glass decanters on an Italian escritoire. A low varnished table, identical in length to the two beige couches either side, was already laid. Neatly folded Irish linen napkins indicated the seating arrangement. Scents of firewood, potpourri and lavender polish gave the setting a homely quality. Dimmed lighting hid the stains on the wallpaper that came with the house, a predisposition to redecorate having fully eluded her.

George's outfit: taupe cords, polo neck shirt, and a rust-coloured suede jacket, perfectly fitted the room. Remarkably at ease, he warmed his backside in front of the fire before sliding to a place at the table. He unfurled his napkin and planted it on his knee with enviable aplomb. 'This is exceedingly civilised,' he remarked as he dug the salad servers into the bowl and transferred a bundle of lamb's lettuce to his plate.

'I thought salad would be safest, not knowing your preference.'

'My preference, dear Gentle, is for simple fare.' George aimed his fork at the cornflower dish. 'And I'm rather partial to home-baked goodies like those delectable scones.' He stabbed the fork into a slice of ham then helped himself to a segment of pork pie.

'Would you like pickles with your meat?'

'No thanks, m'dear. I like them but they're not overly fond of me. Pickles, particularly onions, give me a gippy tum.' George speared a cherry tomato and viewed his surroundings, taking in the magnificent portrait of an elderly man above the mantelpiece. Gentle tracked his glance and denigrated the artist again for not signing his work; a signature might have solved the secret of the estate. Ethel Rhodes said the portrait had always been there, but she didn't know the subject.

Ethel was Gentle's immediate neighbour, a middle-aged widow who had lived in the area for twenty years. When her husband was alive, they often visited the house. It was she who unveiled the owner's identity: Gilbert Mellish, describing him as an elderly bachelor who had chosen to take more modest accommodation. No, she did not have the address. No, she was not aware that Mr Mellish had any family.

Gentle had striven to trace the man but the solicitor declined to divulge any more. ‘Mr Mellish,’ he said, ‘was entitled to do what he liked with his personal domain. He was also entitled to his privacy. Miss Appleyard must either take it or leave it. Goodbye.’ Gentle shook her head at the memory of the man's curtness and recalled Polly's reproof that she hadn't thought fit to shove a fist in his scowling face.

'Is something wrong?' George asked.

'Just me and my pointless thoughts,' she said, and wondered if she should explain about the house. She decided against it. It was such an improbable tale; he wouldn't believe a word of it. Seeing that George had finished his salad, she passed him the dish of scones. 'Can I tempt you?' she enquired.

'Definitely, m'dear.' George attacked a scone with his knife, his gleeful expression as he spooned the jam and piled on the cream akin to a child let loose in a sweet factory.

Like Dad, Gentle thought. The same Cheshire cat grin that stretched from ear to ear whenever he got his hands on the cream. She said as much to George. 'Honestly,' she said, 'you remind me of my father. Without exception, when he…'

A loud clunk cut her short. George had dropped his knife. Moreover, in an attempt to rescue it, he nudged his plate into his cup and the lot went down in hot pursuit. Dollops of jam smeared the Axminster. Milky tea dribbled down the leather couch. Crimson-faced, he eyed the mess, tugging his beard in his agitation.

Gentle shot up. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'I'll soon have it cleaned up.' She loped towards the kitchen, side-stepping an ivory jardinière containing a giant weeping fig. Dodging a king-size, circular pouffe she raced through the kitchen door, gathered floor cloths, and hurtled back.

George was still sitting on the couch, plainly crestfallen. His complexion had resumed its natural pallor but the way he kept parting his beard laid bare his nervousness. Gentle rested on her heels and stared at him. Why was he so flustered over a minor casualty? It wasn't as though he'd smashed the Royal Doulton.

'I'll go, m'dear, before I do more damage.'

'But...'

'I must. I don't feel so good.'

Certainly, he was not his regular happy-go-lucky self. 'I'll see you home, George.'

'No, really, I'd rather walk alone. The fresh air will do me good.' George advanced towards the hall and the cloakroom where he had installed his coat and hat.

Gentle trailed after him. 'If you're absolutely sure...'

'Yes, m'dear. I am. A decent sleep will see me right for tomorrow's trip to the park.' He swivelled to face her and then did something altogether unexpected. He put his hand on her shoulder and bent to kiss her cheek. 'Shall I see you tomorrow?' he asked in a low voice.

Gentle nodded. 'I'll be there,' she said as he scurried into the night, but she didn't think he could have heard for he peered straight ahead as he hurried along the gravel drive. Watching from the doorway, Gentle raised her arm to wave, but George carried on and all she could do was retreat into the house. Tears were looming as she attached the brass door chain and slid home the bolts. Severe sadness overtook her. The pleasant evening she had carefully and so delightedly prepared for had crumpled like the debris in Bridget Road. She felt as if she, too, had been demolished. If only she hadn’t insulted him so.

Gentle trembled, fearing the concept of uncharted territories

The following morning, still mentally damaged, Gentle busied herself in the house. To prevent further morose thoughts maturing she toiled like a Trojan at her chores. She changed and washed the bedclothes, tidied the wardrobe, ironed her blouses and stored them on hangers, and polished the bath until it shone. Then she embarked on a ground floor vacuuming session, whirring round like the crazy woman she felt. After a turbulent night spent constantly brooding and trying to interpret George's hasty exit she was, to some degree, unhinged.

Library cleaning concluded, she wheeled the machine into the hall and steered it towards the cloakroom. She was in two minds about going to the park, anticipating that the afternoon would be futile. George would probably shun her, if he showed up at all, while she would be at a loss for words. Tweaking the arm of the red coat she wore most often and rearranging the shoulders on the hanger, Gentle persuaded herself that the black one would be more suitable today.

Chastising herself for being a fool, she switched on the vacuum and proceeded to clean under the padded bench that lined the wall. A chat with Polly would improve her mood; on the other hand, consultation might return her to fathomless doldrums. Gentle propelled the vacuum so vigorously under the bench that it became wedged behind one of the support posts. Exasperatedly, she flicked off the machine and stooped to free it. Trying to manoeuvre a hefty machine in such a confined space wasn’t easy and eventually she lay on her belly so that she could use both hands. Her fingers touched a number of lost items which she pulled out of the way: a brown glove, a pad of yellow post-it notes, and a leather purse.

With the appliance finally detached from its restraint, Gentle finished cleaning the void beneath the bench then started to pocket the things she had fished out, intending to put them in the bin. However, what she had taken for a purse was, in fact, a wallet, grey leather with initials in the corner. Distinctly baffled, she stood for some moments staring at it, running her fingers over the embossed letters: G.G.M. It was, it must be, the property of Gilbert Mellish. She collapsed onto the bench as comprehension developed and with it a certainty that enlightenment was near. The tremendous excitement that surged through her body clouded the belatedness of her find and the fact that in three years it had not earlier emerged.

Eagerly, she opened the notecase. One side contained assorted papers; the other was designed to accommodate credit cards: American Express, Barclaycard, and an RSPB visa. The papers were purely scribbled notes and exhibited not one useful bit of information. No address or telephone number or telltale receipt. Impatiently, she unzipped a bulky compartment and discovered a set of sepia snaps secured by a rubber band. Suspecting she was about to unearth some long-awaited answers, she withdrew the pack and hurriedly removed the band.

Outside, a gang of refuse collectors bombarded each other with friendly abuse as they slung rubbish into the cart. Ethel Rhodes would soon be there, gathering and folding black plastic bags and posting them like letters through various doors. It was Gentle's custom to invite her in for morning coffee; she would have to give it a miss today.

She laid the photographs on the bench, equidistant like the line-up for solitaire. One was of a wedding group in twenties clothes and another, taken on a riverbank, was of the blonde bride and her poker-backed groom. The couple were captured again, this time with an infant in knickerbockers. They looked frightfully posh. The man held a splendid cane and his wife wore a disgusting fox fur. In the hall, the letterbox rattled. A faint plop signified the arrival of the plastic bag. Gentle held her breath, presuming Ethel would ring the bell. When no sound came, she reverted to the photographs, selecting a puckered one from the other end of the row, the result of endless handling. A more up-to-date snap, conceivably taken in the fifties, a different woman gazing at the child in her arms, her features hidden by a curtain of dark hair.

As she replaced the picture, Gentle's eye took in the next one. She lifted it, starting in surprise. How like George the man was. Same build, same Assyrian beard, though naturally darker considering the difference in the generation. Gentle examined the man's face, noting the jutting eyebrows and distinctive Roman nose, and she knew suddenly that it was George. More youthful, but undeniably him. An involuntary cry escaped her lips. Her hands flew to her mouth. The snapshot fluttered to the bench. Gentle trembled, fearing the concept of uncharted territories. She swept the snap aside, then, as abruptly, retrieved it. Her discernment had been ousted by overwhelming consternation. She skimmed the reverse for an inscription. There was none, not even a date. Disheartened, she sifted through the outstanding snaps. They were of no help.

What should she do? How should she deal with this bizarre enigma? Gentle was examining her reflection in the bathroom mirror where she was sluggishly titivating in readiness for the outing to the park. Like yesterday, her nerves were in shreds. Polly would know what to do. She'd have it sewn up in seconds. Don't know what you're worrying about, she'd say. It's not as though you've unlocked the secrets of the grave. Challenge him. Maybe he'll disentangle the riddle. But Polly wasn't home. Even the answering machine was unavailable.

Gentle's only recourse was to tackle George outright about his relationship with the mysterious Gilbert Mellish. It was vital she determined the connection between herself and him. She teetered between forgetting the whole affair and grubbing about until she unearthed the truth for herself, but why should she do that when the facts were a mere half-hour away. By evening, like it or not, by diplomatic confrontation, the history of Tensing House and its master could be resolutely established. George, she would say, lightly so as not to alienate him early on, I have come across a picture of your double, a veritable effigy of yourself.

She fixed her make-up with loose powder, dabbing an extra bit on her nose to reduce the shine, and then deftly applied the merest smear of coral lipstick. Her freshly shampooed hair was tidy and the style intact, an extra quantity of ultra-firm hair spray had competently done its job. A modicum of Vol de Nuit behind the ears and on the lapel of her heather and navy dress and she was set to go. She cleared the shelf of cosmetics, stuffing them in a rattan box, dropping cotton wool and sodden tissues into a raffia bin. Occasionally, when she was late, she left the mess until she came back; today, the chore was a stalling ploy, Only when the glass shelf was spotless did she go downstairs to don her black coat.

The stunned silence that succeeded the extraordinary pronouncement was eventually broken by Gentle's belated gasp. Her umbrella thudded to the ground. So dumbfounded was she that she could not speak

George was feeding a gaggle of Canada geese and talking reassuringly whenever one ventured to take the bread from his hand. He obviously discounted the steady drizzle for his soft-felt hat was squashed into the pocket of his Barber jacket. Much good will that do him, Gentle thought, as she huddled into her paisley umbrella. Leaving the path, she stepped across the grass to where George was shooing the geese away.

'That's all, boys and girls,' he said, bestowing Gentle with a sheepish grin. 'Hello, m'dear. Wasn't sure you'd wander out on such a miserable day, especially after my discourteous exodus.'

In spite of Gentle's determination to keep her cool, she thrust her hand in her pocket to bring out the grey wallet. Stitches popped as she wrenched it out.

'Brilliant,' George exclaimed. 'You found the wallet. I couldn't think what had happened to it. Didn't realise I'd left it behind. Thought I'd lost it in the bank, but the manager said no-one had handed it in.'

An unbearable wave of disquiet circulated Gentle's internal system. There was no question it was Gilbert Mellish's wallet; the initials confirmed it. So what was George doing with it? George was holding out his hand, palm upwards, waiting for her to hand it over. Idiotically, she thought how deeply-etched his life-line was and how red the flesh embedding the shank of a gold signet ring.

'Are you all right, m'dear?'

By degrees, Gentle's wits returned. Without a doubt, there was a lucid explanation. 'I thought it belonged to Gilbert Mellish,' she said, offering the wallet. 'He was ... is … my benefactor. There was a photograph of you. I thought ...'

George reddened. There was a lull so intense that Gentle thought his malady had recurred. 'It looks as if I have been found out,' he said. Gentle was surprised to see him grinning. He plucked the photographs from the wallet and leafed through until he came to the one of him. Perusing it briefly, he inserted it behind the one of the woman and child. He pressed his lips firmly together as though subduing an additional comment.

Gentle was exhaustively flummoxed. She tilted the umbrella and tested the air with her hand. The rain had stopped. A military jet streaked through the sky, observed by children in a nearby school-yard. It was home-time for them. They knew where their homes were. Gentle wasn't so sure. She wasn't convinced of anything any more.

George stowed the prints in the wallet and snapped it shut. Thoughtfully, he contemplated Gentle as if deliberating what to say, while Gentle furled the umbrella and endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to envisage what the eventual upshot would be.

George confessed: 'My name is also Gilbert. Gilbert George Tensing-Mellish.'

The stunned silence that succeeded the extraordinary pronouncement was eventually broken by Gentle's belated gasp. Her umbrella thudded to the ground. So dumbfounded was she that she could not speak. She simply gawked.

'I hoped you would never find out.'

'Why?' she whispered. Gentle meant why did he give her the house but George thought she was responding to his last statement and he replied that, rightly or wrongly, he had reckoned it in her best interests not to know.

'Come,' he said, examining the dull sky. 'Let's take shelter before the next deluge. He picked up the paisley umbrella, took her arm, and escorted her to the deserted bandstand. It smelled damp. Puddles lay where rain had penetrated the punctured tarpaulin cover. The floor was littered with sweet papers, ice cream cups, and a pizza box. A baby's pink bootee was wedged in the rails. The perimeter bench was cluttered with crushed Carlsberg cans which George had to dispose of before they could sit down.

It was at that desolate site that Gentle Appleyard's entire existence was pulverised and rebuilt, the script rewritten with a change of characters. It came to light that Gilbert George Tensing-Mellish had a bigger role to play in Gentle's life than she could ever have guessed.

Gentle wrapped her arms around her body, swaying slightly as
she embraced the dawn of understanding

George had got to know Gentle's parents at a local youth club. They played table tennis and participated in tournaments. Matilda had been the strongest player and pretty soon outdistanced her artistic boy friend. She progressed to champion level, but didn’t win a title. Her head at that time was filled with ideas of betrothal and her concentration lapsed. She was unable to resist the attentions of the handsome academic.

'Seems like a hundred years, looking back,' George said.

Gentle listened intently, unaware that she was corkscrewing her handkerchief, damp now from continual swabbing of raindrops in her hair. She did not interrupt. She was anxious for details of her parents' early lives, for neither had shown an inclination to air their past. Both were unresponsive to their children's curiosity. It was as though mortality had not commenced until they met. They were orphans, she knew that; they met in an orphanage in Birmingham. Perhaps that was why they didn't recount their exploits, or describe their romance, or spoke of friends, electing to forget the lamentable events.

'We lost touch when I went abroad,' George said. 'India. Five years, sketching the scenery and the people. Remiss of me not to ...' He broke off as two breathless juveniles appeared at the entrance, piloted by a heaving Alsatian puppy on a well-chewed lead.

'Sorry, mister,' the tallest boy said, intimidated by George's menacing glare. 'Majorette wanted a pickle.'

'Well, take Majorette elsewhere. There's enough moisture in here without adding more.' George winked at Gentle as the boys were led sharply away by the energetic hound. 'Majorette indeed. Ridiculous name for an animal. So, where was I?'

At Gentle's prompting, he continued his account. 'George and Matilda were married by the time I returned,' he said, wincing as he said it. He fell silent, hanging his head as if ashamed. 'I shouldn't be discussing them with you.'

Gentle urged him to go on.

'They weren't as happy as one would have expected them to be considering how ardent they'd been at the start of their engagement.'

Gentle reflected on her parents' unhappiness, hearing once more the nocturnal arguments. Separately, they portrayed as kind, tolerant, and caring parents, leastways to the outside world, but those characteristics could only be attributed to her mother. At other times, one sensed the sparks waiting to ignite. To their merit, they struggled to sustain near-normal behaviour so that the children would not be affected; maintaining an atmosphere so harmonious that no outsider would suspect anything was amiss. That was daytime. At night, things went terribly wrong. That was when, in the seclusion of their own space, their disputes ricocheted like exploding shells. That was when, converged in gloomy recesses, Gentle and her brothers encountered the qualms of insecurity. Notwithstanding, regardless of their trepidation and revulsion, Gentle and the boys respected their father and adored their mother. That's why their deaths were so painful.

With echoes of the past occupying her mind, Gentle missed a lot of George's nostalgic narration and by the time she tuned in he was reminiscing about the dinner he laid on for Matilda's birthday. 'I gave her a brooch. A butterfly. She prized it like it was a crown jewel. How radiant she looked when she opened the box. Her hair gleamed in the candlelight. The shawl collar of her chiffon dress encircled her throat like a soft cloud.' George moaned at the memory. 'She gave me permission to pin the butterfly to her lapel. I thought I would go insane with affection for her.'

'Where was this, George?'

'Why, at home, m'dear. Tensing House.'

A presentiment took shape in Gentle's overactive imagination, an inkling that it was because of her mother she had been given the house. Restraining herself from babbling, and willing now to receive whatever clarification came, she enquired if it was on account of her mother that he entrusted the house to her.

'I gave you the house, m'dear, to salve my conscience, because you are your mother's child. I would have provided for her and her family if she would have allowed it, but she dreaded public disgrace. No matter that your father's knowledge of her disloyalty converted him to a brute or that he beat her unmercifully, she perceived that her children's innocence was of paramount importance.'

Finding the revelation distressing, Gentle twisted away and peered through the sheeting rain. A courting couple were canoodling by a broad oak, heedless of the inclement weather. What a pity her mother had not seen fit to turn a blind eye to her principles, thought Gentle, wondering how she hadn't discerned that she was a victim of domestic violence, or even that her mother had a paramour. Nor had she grasped the worthiness of her values. Gentle wrapped her arms around her body, swaying slightly as she embraced the dawn of understanding, and recognized the forfeits her mother paid. She had trodden a principled path in her denial of love and all for the sake of moral standards. Gentle challenged her mother's prudence in enduring beatings when a man like George abided in the wings, a man who idolised her, who would have comforted and sheltered her, and cherished her to the end of time.

Gentle's imagination was operating at such a pace she was losing the thread of George's revelations and missing significant details. The picture was almost complete, but she needed to backtrack, to the year her mother's birthday was celebrated in Tensing House. She swung round and asked. 'When was the birthday dinner? Was it long before she died?' She was thinking about poor baby Caroline.'

'Oh no, m'dear. It was the year before you were born.'

Confounded by the startling announcement and totally unprepared for its implication, Gentle was devoid of rational speech. She could only gape in astonishment. She'd had the notion that Caroline was his daughter, instead it seemed... Gentle swallowed. This was a new slant. It suggested that her creation was due to him and not the man who raised her. An echo of shouted words ascended from the past, when she and her brothers were sheltering in the dark, quietly querying what their father meant when he labelled their mother a whore, and why he was ordering her to pack her bags and go to her fancy man. And mother, exhausted by the years of bickering, insisting she would not leave the children; and father, refusing to let them go. And the subsequent screams, their father bellowing, for some strange reason, his own name: George. Bloody George.

Gradually, as recollection faded, Gentle returned to consciousness. George was indulgently contemplating her. 'Are you telling me… ?’

'Yes, m'dear.'

'You are my … our father?'

'Yes, m'dear.'

The clock intruded on the quietness, its minute finger thumping around the hour, interrupted periodically by a faltering blip on the six

That night, while sipping a beaker of hot chocolate, George's leather-bound chronicles abandoned beside her on a mulberry chaise-longue, Gentle finally admitted that subconsciously she had known from their first meeting that they were related. The fire was ebbing, the last fragment of charred timber ready to cave-in. Great-grandfather Mellish smiled benevolently from his gilt frame. The clock intruded on the quietness, its minute finger thumping around the hour, interrupted periodically by a faltering blip on the six. As an accompaniment, someone's car alarm rang out.

The lounge was lit by a single lamp, ample to read by without disturbing George, who was dozing in the fireside chair. A velvet cushion supported his head. She had covered his knees with a tartan travel rug in case his slumbers deepened. He was worn out and no wonder, having borne the burden of confession that should have been endured by her mother. Gentle had begged him to stay, and they laughed when she did. Inviting a man to stay in his own house had seemed hilarious. He had a singular sense of humour. He didn't deserve to have been so unfairly rejected.

Noiselessly, she slithered from her seat and kneeled alongside him, reaching up to stroke the edge of his beard. A whit more silky growth and he could play the part of Saint Nick and deliver gifts at Christmas. But his gift to her, the gift of belonging, could never be equalled or accepted so emotionally. Gentle searched his countenance, scanning the laughter lines and the minor imperfections: liver spots and a tiny scar on his brow. The affinity was so strong, so vibrant, it was surprising he didn't wake and catch her out.

She was thrilled with him. It was as if the other George, her pseudo Dad, had not existed. She wished her brothers could have known him. They, like her, would not have deduced that he had sired the entire Appleyard stock. What would they have said if they had known? Peter, the noisy one, often conceded his disgust for their father's arguing and yelling, sometimes mimicking the seething rages so well that Gentle fretted they could become immutable. Graham was a mystery. Quiet, uncomplaining, outwardly reacting as if the situation was ordinary family conduct, except that Gentle habitually heard him crying in the confines of his room. Caroline, poor mite, hadn't had the chance to learn any of it.

Returning to her seat, Gentle cupped her beaker and sipped the chocolate, letting the steam drift into her face. She lowered her eyelids and mused about her family, whose ghosts had taken alternative identities. Mother: a sweetheart and a mistress; siblings: all bastards; and father: a barbarous impostor. Primarily, Gentle understood his attitude. He must have thought the assaults were justified even though, according to George, the marriage was never consummated. Equally, she appreciated that her mother's frustration had driven her into George's arms. That she worshipped him there was no doubt, she had gleaned that from George's diaries, each entry infused with elements of rapture and delight, passion and enchantment, and the melodrama that accompanied each welcome birth - barring Caroline who died with her mother, she, too, a victim of George Appleyard's brutality.

Gentle drained the last mouthful of chocolate and selected another diary. The only one in white leather. Raising the cover, she saw more photographs of her grandparents and George in his knickerbockers. There was also a portrayal of the woman and child. She extricated it from the protective film and turned it over. A dedication was penned in black ink. At the foot, a squiggly arrow had been inserted to draw attention to a block of kisses the size of a postage stamp, below which was written: To dearest Bertie, with all our love, Matilda and Gentle. The date was Gentle's first birthday. With tears in her eyes, she looked at George and saw that he had stirred. He was smiling, and his smile depicted a contented soul, personifying a man who had, at last, achieved his rightful place in his daughter's heart.

24 January 2010

Carbon Copy Murders

This is Tyburn House, as was. It's now known as the Tyburn Pub and looks vastly different, surrounded by a car park, with major roads and streaming traffic. But a long time ago dances were held and the district was much quieter. Tyburn House is a three minute drive from my house and other places mentioned are equal distances. This is the true story attached to the area and the question is DOES MURDER REPEAT ITSELF?



The Case of the Carbon Copy Murders 157 Years Apart



On 27 May 1817, the body of murder victim - Mary Ashford (aged 20) was found in a flooded sandpit at Erdington, a village situated five miles from Birmingham.





157 years afterwards (to the day and hour) history repeated itself in a most brutal way when Barbara Forrest (also aged 20) was strangled and left in the long grass near to a children's home in Erdington where she worked as a nurse.



More intriguing similarities between the murders came to light when police investigated the second murder.

  • Both murders occurred on Whit Monday, 26 May, the first in 1817 and the second in 1975.
  • Like Mary Ashford, Barbara Forrest was raped before being murdered.
  • Both victims were found within three-hundred yards of one another.
  • Ashford and Forrest shared the same birth date.
  • Both girls visited their best friend on Whit Monday eveningto change into a new dress for a local dance party.
  • After each murder a suspect was arrested with the name Thornton and, in both instances, Mr Thornton was charged with murder ... and acquitted.


Uncanny coincidences.


At six-thirty on the morning of 27 May 1817 a labourer on his way to work in Erdington came across a pile of bloodstained female clothing near to Penn's Mill. He notified the police who conducted a search of the area. They found footprints made by a man and a woman that led to the aforementioned sandpit.


The pit was searched and the corpse of a well-known local girl named Mary Ashford was recovered. Her arms were heavily bruised and her clothing was bloodstained.


Police enquiries inn the area established Mary Ashford's last movements on the previous day.


On Whit Monday 26 May, Mary travelled from Erdington to Birmingham to sell dairy produce at the market. She had then made arrangements to visit a friend's house to change her dress prior to attending a Whitsuntide dance at Tyburn House.


Mary arrived at her friend's house at six o'clock in the evening and, after changing into the new dress, she and Hannah Cox went to the dance. Most of the evening Mary spent in the company of a young man called Abraham Thornton, while Hannah danced with Benjamin Carter.


At midnight the foursome left to go to their respective homes. At a place known as the Old Cuckoo Hannah and Benjamin separated from Mary and Abraham and went off in another direction.


At about three-thirty Mary Ashford was seen walking towards the home of Hannah Cox's mother, described by a witness as 'walking very slowly.' At the Hannah's house, Mary changed back into work clothes and left to return home at four o'clock.


Mary Ashford was seen on two more occasions that morning. One witness testified that he had seen the girl in Bell Lane around four-fifteen; another saw her ten minutes later in the same lane. Both witnesses noted that Mary had been alone in Bell Lane.


Not long after these inquiries into Mary Ashford's last movements, the detectives interviewed Abraham Thornton, who said he couldn't believe she had been murdered, adding that he was with her until four o'clock that morning.'


Thornton was arrested later that day. During interrogation he admitted that after leaving Tyburn House he had sexual intercourse with Mary but denied rape and murder.


In a deposition he stated that after leaving their two friends he and Mary walked across a field. Reaching a stile, they sat talking for fifteen minutes. Afterwards they went Hannah's house in Erdington so that Mary could change her dress. Abraham said he waited outside but when Mary did not appear he went home alone.


Thornton's statement was backed up by three witnesses who had seen him at that time. One witness even talked to the young man for a while.


The police investigation came too a dead end.


No one saw Mary and Abraham together after they were seen by the stile in Bell Lane at three o'clock in the morning.


The trial took place in August and the jury required only six minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.


Thornton was not to remain free for long. On 19 October he was re-arrested after Mary's Brother, William, invoked an ancient statute allowing a process called Appeal of Murder. This time the trial took place in London at Westminster Hall where on 17 November 1817 Thornton created a sensation by countering one ancient charge with another.


Asked to plead Guilty or Not Guilty, he replied, 'Not guilty, and I am ready to defend the same with my life.'


He was then handed a pair of gauntlets, one of which he placed on his left hand, the other he threw onto the floor of the court.


It was not taken up.


Objections to the trial were disregarded by Lord Ellenborough who proudly told the court 'It is the law of England.'


If Ashford accepted the challenge and won Thornton would be executed immediately, but if Thornton won he would have to be freed and would no longer have to appear in court in connection with the Ashford murder.


Thornton emigrated to the United States of America.


To this day criminologists have tried to determine who murdered Mary Ashford.


On 27 May 1975 Barbara Forrest was found dead in a ditch near Erdington. Her partly clothed body lay undetected for over a week.


Barbara had worked at the nearby Pype Hayes Children's Home. Her facial features bore an almost identical similarity to Mary Ashford and, like Mary, Barbara had also been strangled after being raped.


The police made inquiries and later arrested Michael Thornton, a Birmingham child care officer who worked at the home where Barbara had also worked.


Like Abraham Thornton in 1817, Michael Thornton was tried for the murder of Barbara Forrest. He too was acquitted.


Both murders took place around the same time of day, and both victims had been to a friend's house to change into a new dress before going out in the evening of Whit Monday to a dance.


Uncannily, each victim had feelings of impending doom, Mary had 'bad feelings about the week to come', and Barbara had a premonition that 'this is going to be my unlucky month. I just know it.'


Uncanny? Coincidental? We'll probably never know!





18 January 2010

Unearthly Pranks (Repeat)

Perched on precarious stepladders, Sarah Gamble interrupted the shelf cleaning to sniff the air. She had earlier thought she had imagined it, but it was no fantasy - the ghastly stench of fermenting fruit was back. Without hesitation she jumped to the floor and wrenched open the airing cupboard door, hauling out neatly stacked yellow towels and white diapers. In the flurry of activity she thought how awful it would be if her second child's apparel began to disappear.

When the last item had joined the others on the quarry tiles Sarah examined the cupboard, eyeing the timber board which hid the hot water tank through which not even the flimsiest towelling bib could escape. She began to chew her lower lip as recollections surged of past experiences, strange smells and mysterious losses, toys and clothes finding their way out of the apartment never to be seen again, and Jimmy's stories of someone breathing on his arms. Sarah shuddered at the memory. Leaning against the steps, screwing the yellow duster into a ball, she recalled that first Christmas when the ordeal started.

Sarah and Jacko were delighted with the apartment, Jacko in particular liking the river view beyond the garage. If we had a dog, he'd say, whenever he parked his great bulk in front of the French windows, I could walk him along the river bank. Sarah was thankful they didn't have a dog, or a cat, or a budgie. All her time was taken looking after Jimmy, running the home, and doing a full time job. Tending pets did not figure in her daily programme.

The apartment was on the ground floor of one of those huge converted Victorian dwellings, once the residence of a well-to-do family if the servants' bells were anything to go by. Jacko thought the misshapen rooms were grotesque until he got used to them but Sarah loved the alcoves and crannies that gave the rooms character. Jimmy took to his new quarters with the eagerness of a three-year old on the threshold of discovery.

'Still love the place, Sarah?' asked Jacko, six months after they moved in. They were reclining on the rust-coloured three-seater taking a breather from installing Christmas lights.

Sarah shifted her nude legs to a more comfortable position on Jacko's lap, absently fiddling with her blonde fringe. 'Moving here was the best thing we ever did,' she said. 'It’s great for Jimmy to have a garden to play in.

Jacko reached across to stroke her cheek. 'It's a pity there are no other kids around. He'll get lonely later on.' Playfully he tweaked her nose. 'Unless ....'

Sarah cuffed his arm. 'Don't get ideas, Jacko. I'm not ready for another kid.' She swung her legs to the floor to avoid her husband's nomadic hand, primly straightening her skirt and adjusting the neckline of her hand-knitted pink top. But she didn't object when he seized her face and began to devour her lips … and she cursed when Jimmy called out that he wanted a pee.

Later that evening when Jimmy was asleep, snoring gently and clutching the leg of a majestic brown bear, Sarah pushed a lock of flaxen hair from his brow and rearranged his quilt. The resemblance to his dad was uncanny even at this young age. Both had deep blue eyes and both knew how to use them to good effect. She prayed that when finally she allowed herself to conceive she would produce a daughter with the ability to resist the roguish good looks of Jacko and his son.

Back in the lounge, Sarah settled beside Jacko on the couch. The television was on low, a game show in progress. Two single lamps were reflected in the window. The coals on the fire burned bright orange. When small pieces of charred wood shot onto the hearth Jacko put out a restraining hand to stop her from jumping up. 'Leave them,' he whispered, pulling her close and nuzzling her neck.

But Sarah's ever-alert ears detected a sound. Thinking Jimmy was in the room, she glanced over Jacko's shoulder. One of the lamps had gone out which accounted for the 'phut' sound she'd heard. Bulbs don't last five minutes, she thought, as Jacko probed her ear with his tongue. The next instant, stiffening with alarm, she pushed him away and stared open-mouthed at the opposite wall. Over the stereo an independent shaft of light slowly descended and circled an unopened bottle of Bristol Cream. The beam had no obvious source and maintained its shaft-like shape even as it toured the bottle's curves. Fearfully, Sarah nudged Jacko's chest and pointed.

Without a word Jacko rose and left the room. Sarah heard him unlock the back door and go outside. The shaft continued its orbit … up, across, and down. Jacko passed the window and disappeared into the dark. For a moment Sarah worried in case he didn't come back but he soon reappeared, giving a comical grin as he pulled a silly face and pressed nose and finger-tips against the cold glass … eleven ghostly blobs that somehow had the power to dismiss the light shaft and leave the bottle intact.

On his return, Jacko explained his assumption that a child was responsible for the illusion (angling a mirror at the light was a trick he played on sister Fran), but he’d found nothing in the garden to confirm his theory. No glass, no kid. He had forgotten that the garden was solidly fenced, the gate locked and bolted, and the residential area devoid of offspring.

CHRISTMAS MORNING

Jacko opened the sherry while Jimmy tore through his presents like a whirlwind, casting aside a new blue coat and a pillowcase of assorted toys in order to play with a sizeable red train, a gift from the paternal grandparents. By mid-morning the apartment looked like a tip, causing Sarah some embarrassment when Mr and Mrs Biggins, the elderly couple next door, came to contribute a colouring book and crayons to Jimmy's acquisitions. They stayed for mince-pies and sherry and listened to the tale of the spooky visitation.

Mr Biggins squatted on the floor to play with Jimmy's toys, a move which for the first time drew Jimmy's concentration away from the train. Mr Biggins leafed through the colouring book but Jimmy showed more interest in a plastic cone that fired balls into the air. One ball, to be exact. Knowing his son's prowess for losing small things Jacko had hidden the other five. Mr Biggins showed Jimmy how to fire the ball then catch it in the cone but the youngster's co-ordination was as yet unformed and the second time he tried the ball rolled under a dining-chair. Seeing his face crumple Sarah promptly moved the chair to retrieve it. There was no sign of the white celluloid ball.

Leaving his sherry glass on the table Jacko crossed the room and stood at Sarah's side, gawking in disbelief at the place where the ball had disappeared. Mr Biggins wondered if it had bounced behind the radiator - an ineffective one situated three feet from the ground, but their probing was abortive. There was no opening big enough for a ball to get through.

Jimmy was lamenting his loss. While Sarah held him in her arms, as much for her benefit as his, Mr Biggins and Jacko searched the area. They examined the skirting board but nothing could have rolled through a quarter-inch knot-hole in the wood. There was no hiding place on either the chair or the adjacent stereogram. The carpet was firmly fixed to the floor and, unless there was a concealed trap door, the wall was intact. They had literally watched the ball go.

'Hope you don't mind my asking,' said Mrs Biggins, ‘have you lost things before?'

At first Sarah thought the question was an accusation and was about to word a denial when Mrs Biggins spoke again.

'The previous tenants lost things. In fact, he left her because of it. Said he couldn't take her carelessness any longer. They had a dreadful row. We heard it quite distinctly with the windows open.'

'Well, I won't be leaving,' gasped Jacko, breathless from lugging the stereo to its rightful place.

Mr Biggins reinstated the chair in front of the radiator. 'Glad to hear it, lad. Can't abide marriage break-ups. Young 'uns these days don't have enough commitment.'

Sarah was quiet, reflecting on other objects that had gone astray: toys from Jimmy's room, his pants and cotton tops from the airing cupboard. All Jimmy's things! Incredulously, she shook her head as it occurred to her that the airing cupboard was in a corresponding position to the radiator on the other side of the wall. She turned to Mrs Biggins. 'Jimmy's stuff goes missing. Clothes and toys. Did the other couple have children?'

'No, but there was a family here before them who had a daughter, a lovely, curly-headed child. She was five when she died. Drowned in the river.'

'How tragic,' Sarah said, making a mental note never to allow Jimmy near the river alone. Maybe the child's ghost was purloining Jimmy's stuff. She quickly suppressed the idea as ridiculous. Ghosts didn't steal. Neither did they wear clothes
In the new year Sarah began to notice strange smells around the airing cupboard, inside and out, like over-ripe fruit. Unable to find the cause, she began supervising Jimmy's fruit intake, sitting with him until he finished and personally trashing the core. But the smells persisted, notably when Jimmy was around. Only traces remained when he was at nursery school.

She discussed the matter with Reg Phipps, the guy who lived on the upper floor, a bruiser of man, scaffolder by trade. She mentioned it because of his habit of hovering in the communal yard, nibbling the last remnants of apple before tossing the core in the bin, speculating on the possibility of a link. Considerately, Reg offered to investigate and the following Saturday he arrived at the back door armed with a tool box. Jacko was taken aback, but agreed with Reg that all avenues should be explored to trace the cause of the smell. Between them they completely dismantled the cupboard. They found nothing, neither an apple pip nor a piece of orange peel, yet the fruity fragrance pervaded the kitchen as fresh as if newly released from its skin.

'That's that,' said Jacko as he tightened the final screw. 'There's nothing more we can do. The smell remains a mystery.'

THE MONTHS PASS

In September Sarah knuckled down to night school studies and on alternate evenings Jacko played darts with Reg. Sometimes Sarah took advantage of Jacko's absence by studying history in a hot bath, holding her revision book free of lavender-smelling suds. It was the ultimate in luxury for the bath was sited in the warm kitchen with the telephone near to hand.

One Tuesday, during a leisurely soak, the telephone rang. It was Marie, a friend from work. Outside a storm raged. Listening to Marie's version of an incident at work, Sarah sipped her coffee, then ran the hot tap, slithering down until her shoulders were covered with foam. The blinds shivered at the window, reminding her to get a draught excluder fixed before winter set in.

While Marie rattled on about the boss, Sarah heard a noise above the wind. It sounded like someone entering the yard. She strained to listen, hearing the dustbin lid scrape open, then clang shut, and the gate forcibly drawn to. She was dumbstruck since Reg was the only other person to use the yard and he was out playing darts.

Swiftly cutting the call, she abandoned the phone and climbed out of the bath, donned a cotton robe and hurried to the bedroom window which had to be passed to reach either the road or the front of the house. Seeing no-one, she put it down to the wind playing tricks with her imagination. Yet as soon as she returned to the kitchen and heard the same noises she knew she was wrong.

Metal on metal, wood against wood.

Once more she raced to the window; again there no-one was there.

Clutching her robe to her, she checked Jimmy's room. He was sleeping peacefully, one hand tucked under his chin, his teddy tucked under his neck. As Sarah eased the toy away, she glanced through the window. The kitchen light shone through the transom over the door, illuminating the gate. As expected it was closed, bolted at the top as well as half way down. Sarah was suddenly scared. Only a giant could have unbolted and rebolted the gate from outside. Even Reg wasn't that big. Her eye alighted on the refuse bin, its black rubber lid secure … and wondered how long it had been since the metal bin with the noisy lid had been replaced by plastic.

A YEAR GOES BY

A year after the first encounter with the unknown, Reg came up with the idea of calling the spirit's bluff, believing the whole thing was nothing more than a young spirit wanting to play. Though why a spirit should want to play with Jimmy's things was beyond Sarah’s comprehension.
The stink of seasoned fruit had continued to come and go, dependent upon whether Jimmy was in or out. Parts of his train set had strayed, all but three of his vests had walked, and a lace vanished before her eyes from one of his trainers.
Seeing Sarah upset over that prompted Reg to suggest that she ask for its return and see what transpired. He’d been discussing the matter with someone at work, someone who knew about psychic matters. Against her better judgement she agreed to give it a go.

She chose an evening when Jacko and Reg were out, taking two glasses of Southern Comfort to give her courage, bravely deciding to ask for the return of the original ball and work through the other items if nothing developed. Tremulously, she ventured into the kitchen and stood centre-stage, feet apart, one hand resting on a chair, eyes cast upwards. 'Please can we have our ball back?' she said, feeling utterly foolish as the words left her mouth.

Nothing happened, not a rumble nor a groan let alone a promise to stop thieving, but Sarah was sure the smell grew stronger as she spoke. Moving nearer to the airing cupboard she tried again, drawing herself to full height and adopting a masterful approach, threatening the spirit with extinction if the ball wasn't immediately given back.

Nothing!
Just an incipient citrus smell.


Two days later, outside the greengrocers, Sarah bumped into Mrs Biggins. 'How's Jimmy,' asked the old lady, stuffing a cabbage in her bag.

'He's fine, thanks.'

'I thought I heard him in the garden the other day, but then I realised he'd be at nursery. It did sound like him, though. I was looking after next door's cat while they were away, feeding it and letting it out to do its functions. When I came to call him in the rascal wouldn't come. I called 'til I was nearly hoarse. Someone said, He's here, Mrs Biggins. Could've sworn it was your Jimmy.' Mrs Biggins transferred her shopping bag to the other hand. 'It was definitely a child's voice and I naturally assumed ... except, come to think, it sounded more like a girl.'

That afternoon, dressed in jeans and a couple of warm sweaters, Sarah toured the garden planning what vegetables to grow. Daffodil shoots were already an inch out of the ground. A watery sun shone, giving the place a premature springtime feel. She stooped to uproot a tuft of grass from the border, tugging it free of hard soil, and there, nesting in the weeds, was a white celluloid ball, grubby but unharmed, still bearing the imprinted trade mark of Jimmy's toy.

SARAH IS RECONCILED

Returning the last towel to the cupboard, Sarah chastised herself for being over-sensitive. If the child's spirit was pilfering baby things, it must mean the poor thing was making Polly welcome. Jimmy was never hurt so why should Polly be at risk? Lifting her eyes to the ceiling, she cried, 'Okay, little one, choose which bib you want and I'll iron it for you.'

Sarah could have sworn she heard a faint chuckle when Polly's bib, the one with the parading yellow ducks, fell from the top of the pile and floated to the table, where it lay in a crumpled heap alongside the iron.

12 January 2010

Eleanor Nobody, the Sequel


Several times I have been asked to write a sequel to the story about Eleanor Nobody. For a long time I tried and continually got it wrong. Why? It’s simple, I was trying to write the wrong conclusion. So I tried again and this is the outcome.

~~~~~

She opened her eyes and knew that today was not a good day.

Eleanor lay motionless beneath the grey overcoat. She could hear the laboured breathing of the old man next to her, but she didn’t stir. Time enough, she thought. When morning came she would attract someone’s attention. Until then she would ease his suffering as best she could. Warmth was the main thing and some soup to heat his innards. Eleanor gazed through the space in the rafters, seeing the stars speckling a velvet black sky, and once more thought of the woman who befriended her some years ago. She wished she could remember her name.

Reaching across to the old man she secured the blue spotted scarf around his neck and gently pushed his knapsack further into his side to block some of the draught. The old shed was full of holes but she’d been lucky to find it … and the old guy who now lay beside her on the driest part of the floor. Goodness only knows how long he’d been there. He was poorly when she arrived and in four weeks he’d shown no improvement. Bronchial trouble, she reckoned, and would have summoned the medics if only he’d allowed it. She was reluctant to interfere and override his wishes; hadn’t she left the shop doorway for similar reasons.

Eleanor snuggled into the coat and continued to gaze through the hole in the roof, trying not to think of how cold she was or that it was her birthday. She wouldn’t have known the date but for the newspaper blown against the shed two days ago. The memory of a birthday cake filtered across her mind, when that kind woman gave her chocolate √©clairs that rightly belonged to her boss. Whatever happened to her? Guilty thoughts seized her, not for the first time, of that Christmas two, no three years ago, when she ran away. She couldn’t stay, could she, not when the prospect of a family Christmas was on the cards. It wasn’t said in so many words but it was plain that an invitation was forthcoming.

The first signs of morning roused her. Daylight creeping in, the start of the dawn chorus, changing perspective from night to day. It was bitterly cold so the early birds were likely thinking about breakfast. The farmer had several nesting boxes in his yard; on those times when she felt disinclined to wander the lanes Eleanor would sit outside and watch the feral pigeons. If she had any food available she would toss them a few crumbs. Reaching for her bag she checked to see if there was anything left of the crusty roll she’d bought at the local shop, found only the stick of barley sugar given to her by a young girl at the behest of her Mom. Eleanor had saved it for an emergency so she replaced it in her bag.

Hearing the old man groan, Eleanor turned to face him. Leaning on one elbow, she whispered, ‘Is there something I can do, Jed?’

Jed’s chest wheezed; he groaned and said nothing.

The shed was dilapidated, its repair probably not on the farmer’s list of priorities. He knew they were there. He’d seen her going out and looked the other way. It made Eleanor feel more comfortable about being there. The normal routine was to sleep in the shed at night and move out at first light but Eleanor knew the day was coming when Jed would be too frail to make the effort. She wondered, what was the best thing to do? The situation was definitely a downside to being homeless and without friends.

Deciding to leave Jed where he was, Eleanor collected her bag of personal belongings and left the shed, trudging up the lane towards the gate that led to the farmhouse. She was torn between getting on with her aimless day and pushing through the gate to seek assistance. She wasn’t one to cry for help but she realised that if she didn’t Jed might die in that cold shed.

Thoughts of the kind woman filtered through Eleanor’s head and she wished fervently that she could remember her name. She would give good advice if she was here. Eleanor admonished herself for thinking stupid thoughts and walked briskly away from the gate. Her mind was made up; she would get Jed some food.

Her first stop was half a mile up the road at the small market town where ablutions could be carried out and food obtained, only this time she needed to get food for Jed as well. People were already setting up their stalls so Eleanor wandered about in the hope of catching the woman who sold hot soup and bread rolls to the stallholders. On a good day she would let Eleanor have a carton of soup for free, on a bad day she turned her away with a curse. Eleanor hoped today might be a good day.

There was no sign of the soup lady which was a pity since hot liquid food would have been good for Jed. Eleanor peered longingly at the display of fruit and vegetables outside the greengrocer’s shop, thinking some soft fruit might be easy for Jed to eat, but shouted orders to clear off from inside the shop had her moving quickly away. Even though she could have paid for a bit of fruit, she wasn’t in a fighting mood.

Turning the corner she paused and sniffed the air, picking up the smell of roast meat emanating from the butcher’s shop. Chicken, she thought. Ah Jed, wouldn’t you like a taste of chicken? It had been a long time since she’d eaten meat. Eleanor walked towards the butcher’s window.

As she approached she saw the soup lady coming out of the door, followed by the butcher who’d come out to inspect his window. The woman acknowledged Eleanor with a wave. She must have been in a good mood. Taking advantage, Eleanor drifted towards her, wished her a good morning.

‘Aye, but it’s cold. You must be perished.’

‘I’m okay,’ said Eleanor. ‘My friend isn’t though, he’s sick. Probably dying!'

‘Dying?’

Eleanor explained the symptoms.

The woman was horrified. ‘Sounds more like pneumonia, the lad should see a doctor.’

Eleanor told her he was an old man, very old and very sick. At this point the butcher asked where the old man was so Eleanor told him they were squatting in a farm building down the road.

‘So you’re the folk Gerry Westbury talks about. He said he had visitors on his property.’ To Eleanor’s surprise he didn’t use the word unsavoury when he referred to ‘visitors’. The butcher looked quickly at the soup lady. ‘We should investigate, Mary.’

Mary agreed and offered to take soup and bread. The butcher said he would supply some cooked chicken portions and whatever else he thought might be easily digested. Eleanor was overcome by their kindness and overwhelmed when the butcher transported her and Mary to the farm in his blue van.

Jed was where Eleanor had left him, no longer covered by the coat. He seemed almost lifeless, his face drained of colour. He was conscious but it was obvious he was a very sick man. The butcher whipped out his mobile phone and dialled 999, giving details and emphasising the urgency of his call. Eleanor removed her coat to cover Jed but the Butcher told her to put it back on or she’d freeze to death. He went out to his van and collected some green tartan blankets to wrap around Jed.

The farmer’s wife appeared while they were all bending over Jed, the butcher arranging blankets while Mary spooned a little soup into his mouth. Feeling frightened, Eleanor knelt beside him holding his hand.

Folding her arms against her chest, the farmer’s wife said, ‘Well, well, if it isn’t my friend Eleanor Nobody.’

Eleanor froze, then released Jed’s hand and slowly turned. She’d known who it was the minute she heard the voice. Judith. At last she remembered.

As Judith walked towards her, arms outstretched, Eleanor struggled to stand. Using both arms Judith hauled her to a standing position and embraced her. She felt elated that the woman she had worried about for the last few years was here on her farm. Looking Eleanor straight in the eyes, she murmured, ‘Welcome to my home.’

Eleanor felt in her bones that today was a good day.

*****

Eleanor went with Jed to the hospital and she stayed with him until he died, holding his hand so he’d know he wasn’t alone. She could have just left him there but she couldn’t abandon a friend when he was poorly. The only friend in the world, she’d thought, until today proved her wrong. Judith had been her friend but she couldn’t see it at the time. If only she hadn’t crowded her private space!

*****

A week later, Eleanor sat in the empty cowshed gazing at the paraphernalia for milking cows. It was warm in there, yet she shivered. She felt stifled and fretful. Any minute now Judith would call her in for dinner. Eleanor didn’t know if she could tolerate another meal in that homely kitchen. A meal on a china plate, a flower painted cup on a saucer, things she had grown out of. Judith was a fine cook and her pies were real tasty but Eleanor wasn’t used to eating regular meals. Her stomach couldn’t cope with the sudden influx of food. Casting her mind back she recalled that it was food that made her run away from this caring person. That, plus the fear of again being beholden.

Her work was done; she had seen that Jed ended his life in the care of professionals, now there was no time for daydreaming. And the offer of a job on the farm was just that, a daydream. She’d come a long way in a week. Judith had insisted she stayed with them, although she was tactful enough not to suggest that she slept in the house. Instead she had a room in one of the outbuildings, cleaned out and done up for visitors. It was peaceful … and oppressive. Sometimes four walls were worse than none at all. Sleeping in a bed wasn’t for her, so every night she had slept on the floor with her coat for covering and her bag for a pillow. Same as always. She was too old to change.

Maybe she should be grateful, maybe she should be a lot of things, but she couldn’t alter who she was. The outdoor life suited her; there were no commitments to worry about, no arguments to mar the day, no worries. She had everything she needed to get by and no-one to tell her what she should or shouldn’t do. No rules, no obligation.

Automatically Eleanor’s hand slid up to her chest to the place where she used to pin a yellow rose. Of course, it was lost, and that’s how she felt. Lost! It had been a reminder of days gone by, given to her by a nurse in the ward where she bore her son. ‘You’ve got no flowers,’ she said, ‘so I brought you this.’

She had treasured the silk flower; it was a reminder of the joy she felt for producing a boy. Later it became a reminder of the badness she’d brought into the world. Her son, a wicked man who lied, and stole, and gambled away her home. Perhaps it was as well she lost the rose when she moved on. Perhaps losing it had turned her fortunes. Judith’s reappearance in her life might be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps one day she would find peace.

But not here, not in these four walls, with a full belly and an obligation. She needed space to gather her thoughts and her wits. The kindest thing she could do for Judith was to go away, like she did before. It would hurt her more the second time, but Eleanor knew that she must lead her own life, return to the wilds, the roads, the haystacks, and freedom. She would never forget her; even though she treated her badly, Judith was the only person in the world she could truthfully call her friend.

For a brief moment Eleanor sat on, gazing blindly at an old copper kettle that lay in a pile of hay, and for the second time she prayed to God that Judith would understand. Eventually, she rose, picked up her bag, and moved slowly to the ill fitting door. Opened it, stepped outside. The wintry sun was shining, the grass by the door glistened. It was a pretty sight. After a brief and surprisingly sentimental glance towards the farmhouse, she opened the five barred gate and began the long walk down the lane.

Behind the kitchen window Judith watched, a single tear trickling down her cheek. She’d had great hopes of helping Eleanor to lead a normal life yet deep down she’d known she would feel uncomfortable, that she felt threatened by ordinary things. It was not in her power to change things. ‘Goodbye, Eleanor Nobody,’ she whispered. ‘May your God go with you.’

06 January 2010

Eleanor Nobody (Repeat)


The draper's doorway was shaped like a fifty-pence coin cut in half, with the shop door situated in the shortest stretch. That's probably why I didn't notice the poor soul huddled in the dark recess. The March wind was as cutting as a sculptor's chisel the morning I cut into the doorway to wait for the city bus. Five years ago in March. I know the date exactly. It was Jimmy Brain's fiftieth birthday. He was the office manager where I worked and he'd detailed me to get cakes for the staff. Fresh cream cakes, he'd asked for, but I'd cheated and bought them the night before; kept them in the fridge in an airtight box. Jimmy was too busy lamenting his age to worry about the freshness of cream cakes.

But it's not the birthday I'm telling you about, it's the encounter with the bag-lady. To this day I remember her peculiar stench, a stink like fetid drains wafting from her meagre person whenever she moved. The skin on her cheeks was so stretched I almost expected it to split, and I reckoned it had been some time since she'd had a proper meal. I gave her two chocolate eclairs. They were both mine, so it didn't matter. I should've only had one, but Jimmy wasn't one for keeping tabs on his purse strings. The woman's eyes shone when she saw the cakes. You'd think I'd dished up a three-course meal.

By the April, she got round to trusting me. Every day, after she'd sorted the contents of her plastic bag into prioritised order, she devoured my offerings of corned beef sandwiches and a beaker of soup. Even at weekends I took her something. I couldn't bear the concept of her starving while I gorged on bacon and egg.

Her name was Eleanor. Eleanor Nobody, she grumbled on one of her bad days. Arthritis plagued her when it was damp and that April was wetter than most. I couldn't conceive how someone with such a genteel name ended up sleeping rough. And why she chose the one by the bus stop was an utter mystery. I suppose it was interesting in a freakish sort of way. Something to look at. Same could be said for the commuters: it gave them something to blether over. Eleanor's outfit would be the talk of the town.

I always imagined vagrants as a grey race: grey underclothes, grey outer clothes, grey skin. Not so with Eleanor: she wore a coat the colour of winter berries, a midnight-blue skirt, off-white tee-shirt, green cardie, thick black stockings, and brown zip boots. All stained and tattered, in keeping with her current status. She had a yellow silk rose that had seen better days. Wore it like a medal on her chest. If she accidentally knocked it off, she'd scrub around until she located it and pin it back on. I took her one of those pins with a safety catch when I got to know her better and that put an end to her disquiet when the rose slipped off. I knew she was grateful by the cheerful grunt. Mostly, if I touched on a topic she didn't like, the grunts were harsh and unfriendly. Not that I took any notice. I'd got used to the fluctuating moods. I figured if I was in her boots I'd have entered the raving loony stage within a week.

Some days she was really informative. She had a son somewhere. Hadn't seen him since he was a teenager. Bastard, she called him. Born one and behaved like one. Ostensibly, she was ostracised by relations for begetting an illegitimate son. That was in Worcestershire. She couldn't remember precisely where; or else she didn't want to. It was May when she told me that. We were eating the ham rolls I'd saved from the night before. I considered it a great coincidence, her mentioning her son the day after my Jason's birthday. Jason was thirteen and I'd done a Sunday spread for a few of his cronies. Pizzas and quiche, that sort of thing. I should have known by their indelicate speech they wouldn't appreciate such fine savouries. Right lot of agitators, they were, complaining about the lack of chips. Perishing cheek, when they were eating for free. Not wanting to upset Jason on his birthday, I pacified them with portions of french fries. My old man, Gerry, remarked that Eleanor would have been glad of a few slices of quiche. He's got a kind heart. Certainly, Eleanor didn't find fault with cold pizza next morning.

We left the area in the September. Gerry changed his job, see. He was still with the same hook and rivet company, but he was transferring to another branch near Cannock. It meant moving house. Gerry was more than happy to leave but our Jason was a bit down-in-the-mouth about ditching his ruffian mates.

I told Eleanor at the end of August. She looked quite presentable that day, dressed in my old lilac coat and plaid skirt. She'd discarded the red coat as soon as I took it from the carrier. You should have seen her elation. It was an absolute joy. Anyway, to get back to the tale. Not for one minute expecting her to take it badly, I broached the subject of the move. Straight up, it was a good couple of weeks before she could converse properly but at length she softened and began taking an interest in our plans. I'd left work by that time so I could lengthen my visits to the doorway.

Without considering the consequences, I plotted a going-away do. A big breakfast, with tablecloth and camping stools, regardless of the inquisitive eyes of the strap-hangers on the bus. Gerry thought it was a bit foolhardy but I carried on. Trouble was, I inadvertently leaked the idea when I asked if Eleanor liked black pudding fried. She had a look of disbelief about her, treating me to wary glances when I surveyed the inlet for the best spot to lay a cloth, then checked the shop's opening times. I needn't have bothered. Three days before the event Eleanor Nobody disappeared.

The new house was terrific but I couldn't settle. I made it nice for Gerry and our Jason, but not having a job gave me too much time to brood. You'll think it daft but I was worried to death about Eleanor. What if she hadn't found a shelter as convenient as the last? Eventually, contemplating the possibility that she might have returned to Newtown, I resolved to investigate. With Gerry's blessing, on Christmas Eve, I went to check it out. Gerry was as guilt-ridden as me over deserting Eleanor, though I pointed out that in the end it was she who deserted us, in a manner of speaking. Gerry said, if I found her I should bring her for home for Christmas. Naturally, Jason shouted his mouth off. He said he didn't intend sharing the house with a smelly down-and-out. Not that he was the most sweet-smelling individual himself,but I guess he was entitled to a view.

The weather was as cold as that other day in March, especially at six o'clock in the morning. Calculating the journey would take three-parts of an hour I worked out that if I left at six I'd be there well before the draper opened up. If Eleanor had resumed occupancy she was certain to be there when I arrived.

I found, not Eleanor, but her treasured, ragged, yellow rose. It was on the floor, partially covered by newspaper, in the dark recess where Eleanor would have slept. I picked up the paper, a week-old edition of the Evening Mail folded so that the middle page was uppermost. Funny that, I never knew if she could read. As I leaned despondently against the shop window, it occurred to me that in nine months I'd learned very little.

The city bus drew up, on time as usual, its occupants on a final spree before the Christmas shut-down. I studied the faces as if I would find Eleanor there. Automatically, I rearranged the news-sheets in numerical order. Where on earth could Eleanor be? It was Christmas for goodness sake. She shouldn't be roaming the streets at Christmas. Pathos swelled inside me and, yes, the mournfulness that accompanies a graveside vigil. Folding the paper neatly, I bent to lay it beside the rose. Laying it to rest, I thought, shuddering at the implication. It was then I spotted an article ringed in red. Festive cheer for the Homeless. I read on. I was curious to know how people who had been abandoned by society could find festive cheer anywhere.

According to the feature St John's Crypt was the place for the homeless to be that Christmas. Several volunteers would forego their own festive repast to serve turkey dinners and plum pudding to the less fortunate ... Santa Claus would bestow appropriate gifts. Why is it that patronage often comes across as charitable condescension? At that time, the phrase foregoing their own festive repast smacked of pure pretension. I know better now.

Gerry took me to the Crypt the next day. And Jason. Gerry'd won him over with the promise of a computer. Second hand, admittedly, but Jason deemed it better than nothing. Clutching Eleanor's rose, I searched the queue outside the church. Eleanor wasn't there. Neither was she in the Crypt. The helpers didn't recall having seen a woman of her description.

I never saw her again but the lessons she unwittingly taught me, the importance of independence and the value of respect, have lingered on. Every Christmas since Gerry and I have helped at the Crypt. And Jason, bless him, on the strength of the episode with Eleanor is currently training to do social work.