“So, tell me again, what does this Miss Elizabeth of yours do?”, Stuart, looked over at me, one hand on the steering wheel, his eyebrow raised in amusement.
“She’s a taxidermist”, I mumbled, choking slightly on my half eaten sandwich.
“A taxi driver? Like Uber? Is that safe to do, at her age?”
I play punched him on his arm, giggling.
“Shut up Stuart! You know what a taxidermist is. She stuffs dead animals. Preserves them for posterity. That sort of thing…”
“So, presumably, she has a lot of these dead animals about her house as well?”
“Yes. But it’s not creepy. It’s charming. Really, why are you being like this about her? You haven’t even met her yet!”
“Like what honey? I’m just curious about this batty old aunt of yours”
“She’s not my aunt. Not a blood relative. More like a substitute grandma. Anyway, concentrate on the road. It’s getting dark, and I don’t want to miss the slip road to her place.”
I was nervous, and I think Stuart sensed it. Not for the reasons that he believed though. Yes, Miss Elizabeth was the only ‘family’ I had left after Mam passed, and I hadn’t taken any man to her place before. She was bound to be judgemental. She always was. But it could cut both ways. What would Stuart think of me after meeting her? We had only been dating three short months, and I wanted to him to see the best of me at all times. I wanted him to see me as cool, collected, organised, in charge of my own life and destiny. Hadn’t he said he liked independent women?
Miss Elizabeth had seen all sides of me. She had seen me on my knees, and picked me up, and set me back on my feet. She had seen me at my rawest, most vulnerable state, and given me solace. I didn’t want Stuart to know about that. It was too early for any of that.
“So, why are we eating these sandwiches if we are going to hers for dinner, hey?”
“Stuart!”, I groaned, “I’ve told you. She’s not the best cook. She’s enthusiastic, but….”
He laughed then. “I’m only teasing, pumpkin. I don’t care what I eat, as long as I’m with you.”
I looked outside at the darkening skyline, and smiled at my reflection in the window. This was going so well. I hoped nothing would ruin it.
She was just so goddamn beautiful. From the first time I spotted her in the coffee shop, to when I accidentally, on purpose, knocked her books out of her arms, I had been captivated. I played it cool. It was the only way, with girls like her. She thought she was the lucky one to have landed me. Little did she know.
I sneaked a quick peek at her. Her profile was like an ice blonde Grace Kelly. A glacial beauty. A touch-me-not. How different she was in reality. Warm, funny, unaware of her effect on men and unconcerned about her looks. I was taking it slowly. She had been skittish as a colt in the beginning. It had been a strange push and pull game, where I had to pull without making it obvious. Till I finally reeled her in.
Yet it was I who was left reeling. Falling in love had been a strange experience. Suddenly nothing mattered more than her. All thoughts of self preservation evaporated. All caution was thrown to the winds. Years of self discipline melted away. I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with her.
This Miss Elizabeth of hers worried me a bit. Most women succumbed to charm and flattery, but not if they were a bit off. A spinster in her 70’s, a taxidermist who lived in the middle of nowhere sounded a bit off. I’d really have to gauge how much charm to apply without coming over as too smooth.
“Tell me about Miss Elizabeth. How did you get to know her?”
She turned and smiled at me.
“She was our neighbour. She used to be a mid wife. She helped my mum when she was pregnant with me. They became really good friends after.”
“And what have you told her about me?”
“Just that I’m bringing a friend to dinner”, she chewed on her lip a bit. “It’s been a while since I saw her and I’d really rather she met you first before forming an opinion”
Her nervousness was palpable. I gave her hand a little squeeze.
“Hey, it’ll be okay. She’ll love me, I promise. You’ll be fighting her for me soon enough”, I grinned at her expression, as she punched me on the arm again. God, I loved this girl.
When Miss Elizabeth sold her semi in our London suburb and bought the barn conversion in Dorset, I’d really thought she’d gone cuckoo. For a woman of her age to choose isolation wasn’t healthy. She needed people, community, a church where she could volunteer. She’d laughed at my concerns.
“My dear”, she’d explained wryly, “I’ve had my fill of people. Especially the ‘churchy’ types. Hypocrites all of them! There is not an ounce of goodness in them. I’d rather surround myself with nature and animals. What’s unhealthy about that?”
Three years later, she was indeed thriving. Lily, her mini Schnauzer kept her company. They went for long walks together. They collected dead animals and birds. They listened to music, whilst Miss Elizabeth devoted her time to her life long passion for taxidermy. She was ruddy cheeked and strong of limb. The grey pallor of hospital lighting had long since faded from her face.
What would she make of Stuart? He was handsome of course, but she had never been one for outside packaging. He was charming and caring and made me laugh. I hoped she would see that, and wouldn’t be too harsh. Miss Elizabeth had never had time for men. She’d had her heart broken a long time ago, Mam had told me. Since then, the foolishness of love and romance held no appeal for her.
“There, there”, I indicated. “That’s the turn off”
My heart started beating unevenly. Why was I so nervous? Even if she didn’t like him, would it really matter? After all, I owed her nothing. Except my life and my sanity.
We’d left the motorway and were cruising through a small village. The sunset bathed everything in a warm, orange glow. It was postcard pretty, with little curving lanes, wisteria covered houses, the usual pub filled with people enjoying their first drink after a hard day’s work. Friendly people, simple people, people who knew nothing of the cut and thrust of living and working in the city. It was idyllic. The sort of place you wanted your children to grow up in. It was beautiful, and it turned my stomach.
“Stuart?”, Mary looked at me enquiringly, “What are you thinking about? You were miles away….”
I smiled at her. It was too early to tell her. Maybe someday when I trusted her more, or maybe, when I trusted myself enough.
“Nothing much….just how lovely it all is”
“It is, isn’t it? I so envy people who live in places like these. I grew up in a semi detached, two bedder, with nothing but the planes that flew overhead to relieve the monotony”
“Your mum worked at the airport, right?”
“Yes, at Security. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but it paid the bills”
“And your dad?”
She seemed to be willing to reveal a bit more about herself today, and I was eking out the details gently.
“My da..”, she sighed, “I only saw him twice. Once when he came to collect his football stuff from the house. I must’ve been five. And then, the second time…right at the very end….”
“The end of what?”
She clammed up suddenly. I knew not to push her. It wouldn’t work. Instead I concentrated on the road. Dusk had fallen, the village was long behind us, and now we were in uncharted territory.
I knew I was being difficult. Stuart had tried, many times before, to ask about da. I just couldn’t talk about him. It wasn’t just the abandonment. I was scarcely alone in having been brought by a single mother and an absentee father. Scores of my school friends grew up in similar environments. No, it wasn’t that. How could I explain it all to Stuart? How would he view me after?
We hadn’t been entirely honest with each other. We were willing to share our thoughts and our bodies with one another. Yet so unwilling to share our histories. Why? What was he hiding?
“Stuart, look out for a sign on the right. It should say ‘Steeplechase Lane’. Any minute now”
I peered through the descending darkness. I had only ever driven here in the daytime. Everything seemed so much more mysterious in the dark, a landscape that was suddenly shorn of its innocence.
“I see it”, he remarked and swung into the lane that would lead us to Miss Elizabeth’s house.
The lights were blazing in all the rooms as I pulled into the drive. How odd, it occurred to me, that a woman living on her own would have all the lights on. Pensioners were normally careful with their bills. Unless she had money to burn. Mary seemed to read my mind.
“It’s an old habit of hers. She keeps all the lights on”
“To chase the monsters away?”, I chuckled.
“Come on Stu, don’t be mean!”
I smiled at her, and gave her hand another squeeze. For this girl I could endure an evening with an eccentric granny.
I pulled the flowers and wine out of the boot, as she re applied her lipstick quickly. Her powder blue dress had baby pink geraniums on it. The lipstick matched the pink. Little details that had never registered with the women I’d dated before. She’d put her hair in a pouffy pony tail that looked terribly chic. I preferred her hair down, but couldn’t deny how beautiful she looked this evening. She caught me staring and blew me a kiss. Then she indicated with a tilt to her head that we’d better hurry.
I stood slightly behind her, balancing the wine and the flowers, as she rang the bell and then used the knocker to reinforce our arrival.
“Down Lily!”, a husky voice commanded from behind the door. Then it swung open to reveal a woman in her early 70’s, holding her dog down by its collar.
“Stuart….”, I heard Mary scream as the ground reached up to meet me.
His skin was leached of all colour. Between Miss Elizabeth and I, we had managed to drag him into the hallway of the house. Lily kept circling him, whimpering. Miss Elizabeth was using a cold compress, and had elevated his feet on a little footstool.
“Has this happened before Mary?”
“No, never”, my voice trembled as I looked down at him, so pale and helpless.
“Then not to worry. It could be stress induced, or low blood pressure. He should get checked out, but he looks like a healthy young man. Oh, he’s coming around”
Stuart groaned a bit as he moved his head to the side. I stroked his forehead, and whispered, “It’s okay, I’m here. Don’t worry”
His eyelids flickered open. He looked confused, tried to sit up, and fell back again.
“Don’t let him get up yet Mary! I’m bringing a glass of juice for him. A sugar infusion till we get to the bottom of this”
I nodded, and watched her walk briskly to the kitchen.
“Stu, my darling, what happened to you?”
The colour was returning to his face. His eyes met mine in recognition. Embarrassment replaced the confusion.
“Did I just pass out Mary? Bloody Hell! How long was I gone for?”
“There is no need for such language young man! You were unconscious for just a couple of minutes, or else I would’ve been dialling 999. Here, drink this”
I noted his bemused expression as Miss Elizabeth held him up, forcing him to drink the whole glass of juice. Then we helped him to his feet, and into the living room, where he sank into the armchair with obvious relief.
“Well, that’s one way to make an entrance”, he looked over at me, and then sheepishly towards Miss Elizabeth.
“Darling, I’m just glad you’re alright”. He was looking more like himself now. I went over and gave him a quick hug. Then I turned and gave Miss Elizabeth a hug too. She hugged me back stiffly. That had always been her way.
“You had better retrieve the wine. I managed to get to the flowers before Lily”
I shot out of the room to the sound of Stuart laughing softly.
What made me faint? That seemed to be the question of the evening. I had been given a wine spritzer to nurse when I could’ve done with something far stronger. I could hardly protest given I’d been eating dust a half hour ago. I looked around me while Mary and the martinet caught up. The high ceilings were the legacy of the barn, that much was evident. What surprised me was the choice of furnishings. Everything was minimalistic almost to the point of being spartan. Clean lines, Scandinavian furniture and a predominance of white was the background to what this woman considered art: Taxidermy.
There were birds, squirrels, foxes, owls and even a cat or two. Each one stuffed to look as though it were still alive, glassy eyes notwithstanding. Each one in a pose that signified motion. The bird about to take flight, the cat on the prowl, the squirrel nibbling on a nut. There was expertise here, and showmanship. I saw no charm however. It made my spine tingle to be surrounded by so much death.
“Has there been a lot of stress at work for you Stuart?”, Mary enquired gently.
“Not particularly. Nothing I haven’t dealt with before, and nothing I can’t handle sweetheart”
It hadn’t been stress or low blood sugar or any of the things the infernal woman was droning on about. Just for a moment I felt like I had a grasp on the reason, but it slipped away again. All I could feel was a sudden, irrational dislike of this Miss Elizabeth. Of her clinical home and all the dead fauna that inhabited it. A dislike I had to mask for the sake of Mary. A dislike that shook me more than my fainting spell had.
The woman had stopped talking and was looking at me, as though waiting for a response. Mary looked concerned.
“I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. Could you repeat that please?”
“I said”, she replied with exaggerated politeness, “would you care for some dinner?”
Something was wrong. Horribly wrong. I could’ve cut the tension with a knife. Both Stuart and Miss Elizabeth were behaving normally, but I could detect the undercurrents. Was he concussed? Was she cross? What was going on?
Miss Elizabeth had set the table with her best china. I was touched that she had gone out of her way to impress my plus one. Then why did I suddenly feel that she didn’t want us there anymore?
“I remember this set from Wimple Close!”, I exclaimed delightedly. White with red poppies. It had brought back a rush of happy childhood memories, of dinners around at Miss Elizabeth’s when mam and she had chatted into the wee hours, and I had fallen asleep in front of the fireplace.
“I’ve had it a long time Mary. Much before Wimple Close too”
“I never did ask you, where did you live before Wimple Close? It feels like I’ve known you all my life”
“Well, you have. Remember I was there when you were born”
I kept up the chatter, hoping Stuart would join in. He stayed stubbornly silent. I could tell he was assessing her, and assessing me alongside. I looked at Miss Elizabeth anew. Her face seemed craggier than usual, the lines on her forehead deeper, but her eyes had lost none of their fire. They snapped and crackled as they always had. They could frighten you away, or frighten your demons away. In my case, it had been the latter. I was ever so grateful, and for the first time this evening, felt a prick of annoyance with Stuart.
“Let me help you bring the food in. Stuart can keep Lily company”
He started at my tone, and looked at me askance. I swept out behind Miss Elizabeth, hoping that he would regain his good manners in our absence.
A headache was starting up at the base of my skull. I rubbed it gently, noticing the tender spot behind my ear. Was it my earlier fall, or was it something else? The same spot hurt every time I remembered. I tried not to. I had pushed it as far back as I could. Sometimes though, something would trigger the memory.
I closed my eyes with a sigh. I could hear them bustling about in the kitchen, Mary’s sweet murmur interspersed with the woman’s hoarser voice.
A voice I had heard before! A lifetime ago. I sat up with a start, my heart pounding, my head threatening to explode. I looked at the white plates with the poppies on them. These too I had seen. My head was swimming with the memories it could no longer contain. I felt hot and cold alternately. Mary had just entered the room with a dish in her hand. She rushed towards me, throwing the dish on the table.
“Stu….you look awful! What’s the matter?”
“I…I need to throw up…”
I could hear them speaking outside the bathroom, low worried tones. I had retched into the toilet, bits of lunch and sandwich heaved out of me, till all that remained was the stomach acids that had accompanied them. I rinsed my mouth and washed my face, then took a good long look at myself in the mirror. I was a thirty five year old man who looked like he’d seen a ghost. Which I suppose I had.
I took several deep breaths. I could not afford to fall apart. Not here. Not now. The day of reckoning had arrived. I was damned if I was going to mess it up.
Stuart had insisted we stay. I wanted to drive him to the nearest A&E. He wasn’t having any of it. In truth, he looked better. He was laughing at something Miss Elizabeth had said, and all that previous tension had dissipated. Had I imagined it?
“Here let me help you”, he took the salad out of her hands and set it on the table. “Everything smells delicious. I am absolutely ravenous”
Miss Elizabeth was still wary. I couldn’t blame her. He was an unknown quantity. What with his fainting, strange behaviour and throwing up, anyone would think he was an odd bod. Thankfully, hardly anything rattled her composure.
I had to admit, whatever she’d cooked up did smell delicious. She was ladling some meat dish into my plate.
“What is it?”
“Pigeon”, she added potatoes and salad, and handed me the plate.
I eyed it warily. I’d never eaten pigeon before.
“Mary, try it. It’s really quite gamey. Very nice indeed”, Stuart enthused tucking into his dish with relish.
“Thank you Stuart”, said Miss Elizabeth, “I try and eat as much local produce and meats as possible. There is a company that specialises in game, wild birds etc. I ordered this off them. I’m glad you like it”
“What do you do with the meat of all these?” He nodded at the various exhibits on her side board.
“Well, sometimes they are fresh enough for me to use, but mostly I do have to get rid of the meat. I may come upon these animals or birds a few days after their death, so quite often the meat’s gone bad”
“What about roadkill?”
At this, Miss Elizabeth stiffened.
Stuart didn’t seem to notice. “I mean, that must happen around here a fair bit? Animals run over by careless drivers. What a waste of good meat. Surely someone like you would find good use for it?”
“I don’t use roadkill”
Stuart had already moved on to another topic. I took a bite of the pigeon, but found it tasted like sawdust.
Tread carefully, I had to keep reminding myself. I had no proof except vague memories and sensory cues. I had to establish the veracity of my own recollection. Time had eroded many details, but some remained fresh to this day. I had to pepper the evening with those clues and watch her reactions. The first one had hit bulls eye.
“Umami- that is the elusive fifth taste, a sort of meaty, savoury flavour. I’d say this dish has it in spades. May I have some more?”
I forced myself to eat more. I wanted this woman confused and wrong footed. I felt sorry that Mary would have to witness this, but I had no choice.
“So, Miss Elizabeth, may I call you Elizabeth, Liz or Lizzie? Miss Elizabeth is such a mouthful”
“Elizabeth is fine Stuart. I don’t force Mary to prefix my name. It’s habit for her”
“Ah yes, habits are such curious things aren’t they? So difficult to break. For instance, I really do believe we come full circle in life”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Well, you are obviously a country girl, born and bred. Look how well you’ve acclimatised to living out here. I’m a country boy too, and I wonder if I’d want to retire to the village I was born in. I love the city though. I love the pace, the excitement, the honesty of it”
“Honesty? What a strange word to use for city living”
“Well, I meant it in the sense that there is no pretence. No hiding behind masks of civility. No communities gathering together to protect criminals in their midst”
“What are you on about?”, Mary interjected with a laugh. “You never told me you grew up in the country. Where?”
I looked straight into Miss Elizabeth’s eyes as I said softly, “A small village in Wiltshire called Chiseldene”
An involuntary gasp escaped her. Bingo!
I wasn’t sure what Stuart was playing at, but he almost seemed to be toying with Miss Elizabeth. I couldn’t understand any of it, and was starting to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps the quicker this dinner was over, the better.
He was leaning towards Miss Elizabeth now. “Know it? Chiseldene?”
“Can’t say I do”, she responded with difficulty. Two spots of colour were burning high on her cheeks.
“Oh but I think you do Lizzie. After all, that’s where you grew up too. Orchard Grove wasn’t it?”
I looked from him to her and back again. What was this?
All pretence of eating had been abandoned. We sat at the table, an uneasy threesome. Stuart, tense as a cat, ready to pounce. Miss Elizabeth cowering. Cowering? And I, uncomprehending, but knowing something terrible was unfolding here.
“Did you really think all your crimes would go unpunished? Did you think your past would never catch up with you Lizzie? Lizzie. That’s what my mum called you. Lizzie, her mentor. Her best friend”
“Stuart!”, I cried out, “Please…..I don’t understand. What is this? Do you know Miss Elizabeth? How?”
“Haven’t you been listening, my love? We are from the same part of the world. In fact, she was a very big part of my world then”
He gave me a wry smile.
“I’ve eaten in these very same plates. I’ve been rocked to sleep by her. I’ve even been on walks with her, to pick up roadkill. Remember Lizzie? Remember the meat we would salvage off them? You’d say ‘waste not, want not’ ”
That was something Miss Elizabeth said often. Open mouthed, I watched her shrink further into herself.
“But this is wonderful! Surely it is? This world is a small place after all”, I tried injecting some humour. Anything to lighten the atmosphere.
“Oh yes, the world is very small indeed. Unfortunately for some, eh Lizzie?”
There was a part of me that understood Mary’s confusion, a part that wanted to reassure her, to take her in my arms and say it had nothing to do with her, that everything would be okay. But the other part of me was too focussed on the woman sitting in front of me, too focussed on finally confronting my past. This other part wanted to reach into Miss Elizabeth’s and rip her heart out, the way she’d done mine all those years ago. And no, I had no way of knowing that everything would be okay.
I could see her mind trying to piece things together. I waited.
“You are Emma’s son?”, she finally whispered.
“The penny drops”, I leaned back in my chair. “Tell me Lizzie, when you fled from the village after all the chaos you had caused, did you ever stop to think about that nine year old boy you were leaving behind? That boy who had so suddenly and brutally been orphaned? Did you? Thought not”
Mary had gone white from the strain of trying to understand.She stood up suddenly.
“I am sick of this! Can someone please explain what is going on?”
“I will. I can”, the woman said calmly. It was quite startling to see her regain her composure so quickly. She looked over at me, as though to check if it was okay. I nodded. This would be interesting. Her version of events.
“I did know Stuart many years ago. He is right in saying I was his mother’s best friend, even though Emma was many years younger than me. There was a terrible tragedy in that village and I left for my midwifery course shortly after. I think Stuart, as a young boy, having gone through all that trauma, had to blame someone. And I see now that he blamed me”
She turned towards me. Her eyes had regained their gleam. She spoke softly, sincerely. “Please believe me Stuart, I would have done anything to help. I even wanted to take you in as my ward. Social services didn’t allow it. I am so so sorry. I wish I could have done something, anything to change what happened”
I started to clap, slowly. “Bravo! What a performance. No doubt you convinced everyone you spoke to back then as well”
“What was the tragedy?”, asked Mary. She looked at me for an explanation.
“Well, my mother stabbed my father to death. She was arrested, and shortly after, she committed suicide”
I stood dumbfounded for what seemed like an eternity. I could hear the clock ticking in the background, or was it my heart setting up its own tattoo?
Miss Elizabeth was looking down at her plate. Stuart was staring at her and if looks could kill…
“Why”, I finally whispered, “why do you blame Miss Elizabeth?”
He looked at me, and for the first time ever, I saw the desolation in his eyes.
“My dad was in the RAF. He was often posted abroad, and couldn’t always take his family with him. During one of his postings, my mum befriended a lady she met at Church. Your Miss Elizabeth. I must have been around eight then. I remember them becoming fast friends, very quickly. They started spending a lot of time together. My mum confided in her, trusted her”
Miss Elizabeth looked up then. “She was a lovely girl, Emma was”
“Do not speak!”, Stuart said, “It’s my turn to talk”
“Anyway, my mum seemed happy, and as a young boy, I was happy that she had found a friend. Little did I know what a poisonous viper this friend would turn out to be”
“How?”, I asked.
“It wasn’t her first rodeo. She had done this before. We didn’t know, as we had been in and out of the country while she had been up to her shenanigans. People tried warning my mum. She even received an anonymous letter in the post. She disregarded them all”
“What shenanigans? What had she done? You are not making yourself clear”
Miss Elizabeth stood up and started gathering all the dishes. “I don’t have to sit here and listen to all this. Wild accusations that have no substance to them. You are in MY house, and I don’t have to put up with this. Mary, take your friend and leave. We will talk another time”
Stuart carried on, as though he’d heard none of this.
“She made it a habit to befriend young women. Vulnerable women. Lonely women. Troubled women. Then she slowly manipulated them. Drip, drip, drip, she poured poison into their ears. She twisted the truth till they couldn’t differentiate between fact and fiction. Then she made them do her bidding. She made them commit the crime, while she stood on the sidelines, enjoying her handiwork. Nothing could ever be proved, as she never dirtied her own hands. But boy, did she enjoy the spectacle”
“No! No, that can’t be true. You are making this up Stu! Why would you do such a thing? Miss Elizabeth has been nothing but kind to me and my mother. If it weren’t for her, I would have been on the streets. How could you?” I started to sob. This was wrong. All wrong.
It was finally out in the open. The dreadful secret that I had carried like an albatross around my neck. I had been seen as the victim, the poor child of a criminally insane mother and an adulterous father. Even those who had suspected the truth could do nothing. There had been whispers of course, but Elizabeth’s family and friends had formed a protective circle around her. Then she had fled, and I had been nearly swallowed up by the system. If dad’s brother hadn’t taken on my responsibility, I would have become yet another statistic.
Nick tried to give me as normal an upbringing as possible. His wife and children welcomed and absorbed me into the heart of the family. They were my salvation. The only condition he ever applied was to never speak of the past. I didn’t. But I thought of it. Constantly.
As I grew, I started to make my own little enquiries. I went through my mother’s effects, and found the letter. I returned to Chiseldene, and asked around. Some people were kind enough to supply me with information. Some people were angry enough at the injustice of what had blighted my life, and the lives of others. Yet no one could provide me with the one thing I craved. The whereabouts of Lizzie.
Now, Fate had conspired to put me in the same room as the evil that had nearly finished me off. But as with everything, there was a price to pay.
“Every word of what I say is true Mary. If you don’t believe me, look at her face. The guilt is written all over it”
I looked at her face. A vein throbbed in her temple. Her eyes looked a bit manic. But she smiled at me, and shrugged as if to say, Poor boy. Pity him. Give him this moment.
I looked at him, and saw pure hatred writ large. How could he loathe the one constant in my life? Was he unhinged or was she guilty?
“Mary, listen to me!”, Miss Elizabeth willed me to look at her. “You’ve known me all your life. Do you think I am capable of any of these things? This man, this poor young man, has suffered because of the tragedy that befell him. But I am not to blame! It was his mother who decided she’d had enough of her cheating husband. What did I have to do with it? Emma was always a fragile sort. How was I to know she would end up killing her husband?”
“My mam killed my da”, I said slowly, thoughtfully. “You weren’t there then either. But you were – before and after”
She started to stutter, “H..h..he… attacked her. It was self defence. He had always been a wife beater. You know that”
“No, I don’t. All I know is what you told me. Mam died from her injuries”
“Yes, because her attacked her, don’t you see?”
Some of her irritation penetrated my reverie.
“But what if she attacked him first?”
“Mary! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Are you really falling for this charlatan’s story?”
White as a sheet, Mary faced Lizzie. It was a strange square off. One so stolid, so earthy, so substantial. The other so slight, so evanescent, so brittle.
My mind was racing to comprehend what had just happened. Was Mary a victim of this woman’s machinations too? If she was, and had only just realised it, I could just about grasp the magnitude of her shock. I had lived with my tragedy all my life. I had known the perpetrator and the consequences. Mary had lived with a lie. She had relied upon and been raised by the very same wickedness that had destroyed her home.
“What were you filling in my mam’s ears, day in and day out? Were you telling her that her husband was a layabout? A good for nothing, hopeless wife beater? Were you telling her what to do, and how to do it? Were you vomiting the same lies to her that you vomited to me after they were gone?”
Lizzie’s face had a hunted quality to it. She took a step backwards, shaking her head.
“No, no, no. All I ever tried to do was help. Mary, you have to believe me. I raised you like the daughter I never had. I loved you”
“Love?”, Mary laughed. “Not love. You fed off fear and misery and calamity . You came in shortly after I walked in on them, didn’t you? I saw him on the floor, his head bashed in. I saw her sitting next to him, wounded and bloody, trying to say something to me. You grabbed me and took me out of the room. Why didn’t you let me stay? Why didn’t you let me hear what she was trying to say?”
“I was trying to protect you! You were sixteen. I could not allow you to stay on in the midst of that dreadful scene”
“Yet, you did. You stayed till the police arrived”
“I stayed to keep your mother company”
Mary shook her head, as if to clear it.
“You do have an answer for everything. What do you call a person like her Stu?”
How had I gone from believing in her to this? Had I always, sub consciously, doubted her? All those little details that hadn’t added up, her constant regurgitating of my father’s flaws, her ghoulish fascination with his death, her unwillingness to let me forget, had signalled something else, something beyond the simple guardianship she’d provided. But how could I have put a name on something so ambiguous?
“She’s a psychopath”, Stuart supplied, “But an extremely dangerous one, because you will never be able to pin anything on her”
Miss Elizabeth’s face had turned puce.
“Get out”, she spat at us. “Get out, both of you!”
The veins in her neck bulged as she moved towards us, her fist raised. Lily bared her teeth at us, growling, sensing her mistress’ anger.
“You come into my house, eat my food, then take the liberty of calling me names! Psychopath, am I? Very well, I AM. Yes, I enjoyed wreaking havoc in your pathetic little lives. Yes, your mother was a gutless cry baby Stuart, and yours Mary, was nothing but a whinging loser. Their husbands were no better. I did the world a service by getting rid of them”
She kept moving towards us, till her face was nearly touching mine. Her breath smelled rank, and her arm pits emanated a sour odour, like yogurt gone off. I could see bits of the pigeon meat stuck between her teeth. I recoiled, and she gave a short sharp laugh.
“Try proving it. Any of it. Your boyfriend’s got it right, my dear. Nothing will stick”
Stuart unfolded himself from the chair. He was beside me in a trice. He put his palm on her chest and pushed her. She staggered back.
“Don’t you dare touch Mary, you evil witch!”
He took my arm.
“Let’s go honey. I can’t abide being in this house another minute”
I gathered up my things quickly. We were nearly at the door when she called out.
“Don’t”, I said to Mary, “She’ll only play more games with your mind”
But Mary stopped and turned around, as did I.
She stood in front of us, deflated, all the fight gone out of her.
“What are you going to do?”
“We can’t prove anything, you know that Lizzie. Its our word against yours. Besides, what is the point? You’ve done enough damage as it is. You have to live with that on your conscience, if you have one. What we can do is walk away from you. Leave you to your own devices. Leave you to spend the rest of your days surrounded by all this necrosis. It has defined all your life, hasn’t it, this fascination with death and destruction?”
She shrank back, then looked towards Mary.
“You cannot leave me, Mary. You are the only family I have left”
“Watch me”, replied Mary glacially.
Lizzie’s face seemed to sag, and then she slumped to the floor. An incoherent burble escaped her. Her arm twitched, and she let out a low moan.
I rushed towards her. Lily was circling her, whining. I turned her over. The left side of her face had distorted into a twisted facsimile of her right.
“I think she’s had a stroke Mary. We need to ring 999”
Mary stood silently, watching me try to sit her up, while searching for my phone. I felt her hand on my shoulder.
“Let’s go Stuart”
“What? No! We can’t leave her like this”
She dragged me up. I looked at Lizzie’s beseeching eyes. I looked at that white house, at the birds and animals perpetually frozen in a twilight dance between life and death. I looked at Lily, her bitch, licking her face. I looked till I could look no more.
We walked out of the house in silence.
As I drove away, I saw all the lights blazing in my rear view mirror. I glanced at Mary’s silhouette, then looked back at the road in front of me.
Umami lingered on my tongue. Only, now it tasted a lot like revenge.
©Poornima Manco 2017