A picture of health - Editor
by Janet Baldey
The day after the funeral I knew I would have to leave the village. Its crooked streets, that I had once thought quaint, now seemed sinister as if dark secrets festered around each bend in the road.
George, of course, doesn’t understand. But then, he couldn’t be expected to. He has no idea of the part I played in Harry’s death.
“What do you mean? I thought you liked it here?” With an irritated shake of his newspaper, he had stared at me over the top of his spectacles.
I had lowered my head in a mute and miserable silence. I couldn’t meet his eyes and I couldn’t explain. Things had changed. Every day, the odour grew stronger and now its sickly scent permeates the whole house.
A few days ago I had stood, my nostrils flaring, trying to identify its source.
“Are you getting a cold?” George had said.
“Can’t you smell it?”
“Smell what?” He had looked at me, his eyebrows raised.
I clamped my lips together, fighting the urge to scream. Our daughter’s baby is due soon and she wants to stay with us while her husband is away on business. George was flabbergasted when I refused. But, I am adamant. I cannot allow my daughter into the house when its very air is tainted. That is why I am determined we must leave before the baby is born.
Abruptly, I turn away staring out of the window at the maze of streets that seem to have a single purpose. They all lead to the church on the hill: the place where I had first met Harry.
A few days after moving in, we decided to take time out from unpacking and explore our surroundings. Eventually, our wanderings led to St Etheldreda’s, a sturdy Norman church perched on top on the highest prominence in the village and obviously built to withstand all that nature could throw at it. As we pushed open the heavy oak door, its quiet beauty delighted me and suddenly I felt so happy. It was as if I had come home.
“It’s idyllic.” I said. “I swear I shall go to church every Sunday.”
George laughed and shook his head but I was determined to play my part in the life of the village. After all, this was where I intended to end my days.
The next Sunday I sat lost in the music until the swelling chords of the organ faded away as the service ended. Gradually, I became aware of rustling as the congregation rose and shuffled along the uneven stone aisle towards the entrance and the waiting vicar with his outstretched hand. When it was my turn I found his handshake firm, he seemed genuinely pleased to see me and I walked out into the chill afternoon insulated by the warmth of his greeting.
Once outside, I stood looking at the gravestones tilting towards the earth. Encrusted by lichen, their lettering was difficult to decipher and as I bent to peer closer, I felt a light touch on my arm.
“Excuse me, madam.”
The voice was soft and as I looked up I saw it belonged to the verger who had been standing in the porch when I arrived.
“May I?” He extended a hand.
Blood rushed to my cheeks as I realised I was still clutching the prayer book he’d handed to me as I entered the church.
“I’m so sorry!”
He smiled. “There’s no need to apologise. At our age, we tend to get a little forgetful.”
A pair of baby blue eyes met mine. Although his face was unlined, it had the translucent quality of either the very young or the very old and a light breeze set his fine, white hair dancing about his head like thistledown. At a rough guess he looked to be at least eighty and I was a little taken aback to be bracketed in the same age group.
His eyes twinkled into mine as he turned to leave.
“I look forward to seeing you next week.”
As I walked down the hill, I thought again how lucky we were to live here. As if agreeing, the sun came out for the first time that day and the mellow stone houses glowed in the sudden light. Surrounded by lush green hills, the village reminded me of a drop of honey in the bowl of an emerald spoon. As I walked homewards, I gradually became aware of light footsteps tapping along behind me. The odd skipping sound intruded into my thoughts but I resisted the urge to turn although it was with some relief that I reached my gate. As I did, the footsteps slowed and I heard a familiar voice.
“It seems that we are neighbours. Goodnight my dear.”
Relieved, I recognised the verger’s soft voice and stood watching as he trotted past me and vanished up the overgrown path of the cottage next door.
A few days later the weather had turned hot and humid; perspiration trickled down my arms and the handles of my shopping bags chafed against my sweaty hands as I struggled home from the Wednesday market.
“Wine, garlic, rosemary, scallops, pasta, chocolate, candles….” I ticked off the items in my head as I puffed along. Then, I stopped dead. “Damn and blast! I’ve forgotten the roses. There’s got to be yellow roses. They’re Jenny’s favourite.”
Tonight was a special occasion. My daughter Jenny was coming to dinner, together with her husband. They had some special news. Jenny had refused to tell me over the telephone but I had heard the suppressed excitement in her voice and had guessed what it was. For years now Jenny had longed for a child and I felt a surge of anticipation. I could think of no other news that would make her voice bubble with such joy.
But now, my heart sank. I would have to go back for the roses. That would mean a rush to prepare the meal and I wouldn’t have time for the long, cool bath I had promised myself. Irritated, I pushed open the front door and rushed into the kitchen feeling hot, sticky and thoroughly out of sorts. Dumping my bags on the table I made for the sink and filled a glass with water. Just as I began to drink, the doorbell shrilled and I started, spilling water all over myself.
Fuming, I started to dab at my blouse. I stalked towards the door and wrenched it open.
“Yes?” I said.
Shivering in the doorway was a huge bunch of yellow roses. Their perfume wafted towards me, then the flowers shifted to one side and a pair of blue eyes appeared.
“My rose bushes are running riot this year. I wondered if you would like some.”
Again, I recognised the voice and shook my head in disbelief.
“This is amazing. How did you know I needed roses? You must be a mind reader.”
With a broad smile, I took him by the arm and drew him into the house.
For the next half hour, he sat in my kitchen as I plied him with tea and told him all about my daughter and the dinner party and how his gift would make all the difference.
He said little, but sat perched on a stool, his head on one side, looking for the entire world like a benevolent sparrow.
At last, I ran out of steam and realised that I had been monopolising the conversation.
“I’m so sorry. I’ve been gabbling on. You must be bored to tears but thank you for listening. Now it’s your turn. Tell me about yourself. Do you have a family?”
“I did, my dear. I had five beautiful children. They are all dead now.”
My mouth opened, but no sound came out. Through the stunned silence, the tick of the kitchen clock counted the seconds. I couldn’t think of a thing to say and he didn’t elaborate. Instead, he slipped down from the stool.
“I feel I have outstayed my welcome. Do have a very pleasant evening.” With a slight inclination of his head, he lifted the latch and let himself out.
I sat at the table for a long time after he’d left. I felt crass and boorish as I remembered how I had jabbered nonsense about yellow roses not realising I was talking to a man who had lived through tragedies that would have broken most people. To lose one child was bad enough. To lose five was unimaginable. I wondered what had happened. A house fire maybe? He hadn’t mentioned his wife. Perhaps she was dead as well. I eventually roused myself but his words nibbled away at me and I prepared the meal as if I was on auto-pilot.
Jenny had clapped her hands with delight when she entered the dining room and saw the table. Its centrepiece was the huge bowl of yellow roses that gleamed in the candlelight and had its double reflected in the polished mahogany. My guess had been right and as we raised our glasses to the new baby, the sparkle of the wine reflected our jubilation. But even when I should have been so happy, my mood was depressed. Jenny’s child was just starting its long journey and I couldn’t help thinking of Harry and brooding on all the things that could go wrong.
As the days passed I thought about Harry more and more. I felt desperately sorry for him and worried that he was lonely so I determined that, in return for his kindness, I would invite him around for tea. To my surprise I found him excellent company. Witty and garrulous he had been a verger at the church for many years and knew everyone connected with it. He offered to introduce me to the Ladies’ Circle and almost before I knew it I was on the flower arranging and tea making rotas. After that he became a regular visitor and we would often sit for hours in my sunny kitchen while he regaled me with spicy bits of gossip about the other members of St Etheldreda’s. He also started to talk about his family and I encouraged him in this because I had noticed that, although he floated around the periphery of the church society, he was mostly solitary and seemed to have no close friends. I soon learned a great deal about Arthur, Tom, Mary, Jane and Louise although I never pried into the causes of their deaths, not wishing to open old wounds.
Gradually, I began to carve a niche for myself in the village and rarely had I been more content. My main worry at this time was that George had not taken to Harry. At first he was polite, then icily polite and then he made himself scarce whenever Harry called round. On hearing the doorbell, he’d glance out of the window and then look at me sourly.
“The boyfriend’s here,” he’d grunt and then bury himself back into his book or decide the vegetables needed weeding.
“You’re not jealous, are you?” I said once, hoping to see a flash of humour light up his face. His expression didn’t change.
I should have known it was too good to be true. It was just before Harvest Festival and all afternoon I’d been busy in the garden picking the last of our home grown vegetables to donate to the church. Harry had been helping me and had also raided his garden so that now the table was piled high with knobbly potatoes, orange carrots and squashes, beans and ripe tomatoes. The low rays of the sun slanted through the windows highlighting our offerings and I smiled with satisfaction.
“Right, now for a well earned cup of tea.” As I turned towards the sink, Harry perched himself on top of his usual stool.
“Would you like to see a photograph of my children?” Harry’s voice was barely audible over the rush of water streaming into the kettle. I froze for a second, then quickly turned off the tap. This was a breakthrough.
“Of course.” Wiping my hands, I went back to the table and sat down.
Shyly, Harry handed over the photograph. The edges of the small snapshot were curled and its surface creased and dull; it was obviously very precious and had been pored over many times. I peered at it and then groped for my spectacles. As the blurred outlines swam into focus, I gasped. Time seemed to stand still as I sat there frozen to my chair, listening to the blood pounding through my veins. Then, I felt sick but I still couldn’t tear my gaze away. The faces of five children stared at me. But what faces and what children!
With misshapen limbs and great lolling heads, they sat limply, slumped one against the other, as if arranged by some hellish photographer. Wreaths of drool decorated their chins, their hair was sparse and their faces vacant punctuated by dull eyes that gazed outwards into nothing. At last my hand began to shake and I dropped the photo as if I had been burned.
“Aren’t they lovely?”
The sound of Harry’s voice brought me back and I stared at him feeling a flood of anger. I thought of all the times we had talked about his children. He’d told me that Mary loved to read, Tom drew like an angel and Louise ran like a gazelle. He had painted a picture of happy, lively, normal children and he had lied. I looked at his bland, enquiring face and seethed. What I had taken for shyness was obviously slyness. The children in that picture were totally helpless, clearly incapable of living independent lives. A new horror occurred to me, was the kindly man who had taken me under his wing also a hopeless lunatic?
My head began to drum.
“I think you had better go now. I’m getting a migraine.”
Unable to look at him any longer, I blundered out of the kitchen.
For weeks I had nightmares about that photograph. I stopped going to church and didn’t answer the doorbell. I hardly dared to leave the house for fear I would run into Harry. For my sins, I didn’t confide in George partly out of pride and partly because I didn’t want to explain the picture. So I moped around the house mourning my happy life that seemed to have disappeared forever.
Eventually my depression started to lift. After all I was soon to become a grandmother. Jenny’s pregnancy was well advanced now and early in December George and I decided to throw a small drinks party before it became difficult for her to travel. The night was fine and dry with just a hint of frost, most of the guests had arrived and the party was in full swing when I heard the familiar chime of the doorbell. I looked around for George. He was weaving his way through the crush, a plate of canapés in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get it.” I called.
I looked at the wavy outline pasted against the frosted glass and without a thought, pulled open the door, feeling the rush of cold air freshen my cheeks.
I’d already had a glass or two or wine but the alcohol seemed to evaporate in an instant as I stood staring at Harry. My mouth fell open.
“Good evening Rose. I have not seen you for so long, I wondered if you were well.” I saw he had a package clutched in his hands. “I’ve bought a very small gift for you both.” He peered into the crowd and then looked back at me. “Tell me, is that lovely young lady your daughter?” He stood there expectantly, obviously waiting to be invited in.
Fury consumed me. How dare he try to gatecrash my party? I glared at him as he stood snivelling on my doorstep. Then dread replaced my anger as I guessed what he had with him. I could imagine what would happen if he were to join the party. At some point in the evening, he would draw my daughter aside.
“I see you are expecting a happy event? Would you like to see a picture of my family?”
The thought made me sick. Jenny’s peace of mind would be destroyed just when she should be at her happiest.
I stepped towards him and slammed the door closed behind me. Blood thundering in my ears I pushed him backwards down the steps, he tripped and fell on one knee. The pale glimmer of his face staring up at me fanned the flames of my rage.
“Go away.” I hissed, “you are not welcome here.”
“But…..” He stumbled to his feet and raised his hands entreatingly. Suddenly, I saw it, a small scrap of white peeping out of his pocket. A scarlet tide almost blotted out my vision; I grabbed at him, snatched the photograph and flourished it wildly. Never again would it destroy someone’s peace of mind
“See!” I shouted. Shredding the picture into confetti, I threw it at him. Then I turned and marched back into the house.
Of course the party was ruined for me. After a while, I pleaded a headache and went to bed where I lay staring into the darkness seeming to hear the faint sound of sobbing.
I never saw Harry again. Months later I came across a knot of women standing on the corner of the High Street. Their faces were shocked. It seems that Harry’s body had just been discovered in the outside privy of his cottage. He had hanged himself: months ago.
George was puzzled when I refused to attend the funeral.
“I realised you must have fallen out,” he said “but you were great friends once.”
I didn’t answer.
It was on the morning of the burial that I first noticed it. Faint, at first daily it increases so that now the whole house reeks. When I first recognised the smell for what it was I scoured the whole house searching for its source. Not one fallen petal could I find, but daily I am suffocated by the cloying perfume of yellow roses. Jenny’s favourite.