Author: Paul House
Pages: 216
Publisher: Diiarts
Price: £10.99
Price: £7.99

Common Places: Chapter 1




   My sister had the children (five in all) and I had my mother. And it was not because my sister, Ethel, was prettier than I was, although that is certainly true. It was because I was older and it was thought to be my obligation. Because I always knew it was going to happen, I didn't think too much about it but just slipped into my rôle with as little fuss as I had made during the rest of my life. And I don't resent it. Although I have every right to. My mother would come in when I was still a dreamy young woman and she would always find something, any little thing to moan about. This plate is not clean, this corner of the kitchen has not been swept, what on earth have you done to your hair? When the other way round, because she did sometimes do her little bit, when you found a dirty plate, you washed it again. But you did not make a fuss. Then again, you did not dare to. And there was also once a brother, Harry. But when you are old, the memory is sometimes stupidly inadequate. At other times, all you need is the smell of freshly cut grass beyond the open window or the sound of hymns drifting over the winter night from the church.

    Harry went to fight in the war and never came back. Not because he was killed. No, he was too smart to get himself killed in something as stupid and unproductive as a war. It was after the war that he made a small fortune smuggling cigarettes and medicines in the bottom of a pram between East and West Berlin. But before he left to go to war, he took me out into the garden and said, "Let me give you a piece of advice, Leah. It may sound silly but believe you me it has stood me in good stead. Always carry about five pounds around with you. You never know when it's likely to come in handy. After all, nobody's ever going to give you a bargain on credit, are they?" But who was ever going to offer me a bargain? But then, Harry was like that, always on the make, always picking up things on the off chance. Still, he always covered up for me whenever he could. Like one memory which won't go away. No matter how hard I try to wipe it out, it stays. We couldn't have been more than five or six. He was in the street playing with the boy from next door in a cart they'd made from orange-boxes, and I was out the back playing with Ethel. Or rather Ethel was with me. She didn't actually play a lot, just seemed to watch while other people did things. There was this little marrow that Father had grown from a seed. And it looked so tasty just lying there in the sun, the light shining on the green and yellow stripes that I couldn't help but take a bite. We thought nothing of it, Ethel and I, particularly because it was bitter and nasty, but every day the marrow grew bigger. And every day the bite-mark grew bigger with it. I would go out into the garden and place a leaf over the wound, stick it down with spittle, and withdraw to an upstairs room to watch Father as he inspected what he called his allotment. It wasn't anything like an allotment, no more than a handful of vegetables, a few raspberry canes and a gooseberry bush. But he didn’t look at the marrow. And still it continued to grow, and the wound grew with it. You could see the little marks of teeth getting bigger every day. So I told Harry.  Then, one evening, when Father was listening to the wireless, Harry said, "I hope you weren't thinking of taking that marrow for a prize or anything?" And Father said, "It's the best damned marrow I've ever grown." "Because I bit it," said Harry. When Father beat him, I felt the same kind of guilt I've felt ever since. I've felt guilty for almost everything I've ever done. But perhaps never quite so much as I did then.

    Maybe the most annoying thing for me was the fact that they all, all of them, seemed to think that I had been born a maiden aunt, that I had never been capable of the sin of biting marrows, that I had never loved anything except perhaps dressmaking and the piano. At the end, they seemed to think I had grown weary, tired of always looking after, or out for, someone else, that I sank towards death with equanimity, knowing I had taken all the right decisions, happy with my lot. Nobody would have believed, or even entertained the possibility that I might have lamented the fact, that having been cheated out of any lasting excitement in life, it was not right that I should have to die. And so they put the lie in the newspaper the next day.

        BROWNE, Leah Elisabeth,
        passed away peacefully at the
        Goodman Trust Memorial Home,
        aged 83. No flowers, please.
    
    I remember it was musky in the house after the funeral, and I was pleased about that. The thick brocade curtains had been drawn across the recently cleaned windows of the front room where Mrs Brassington had been hard at it all week to make the house look worthy. The children could not be expected to feel much sadness, of course. Not even my namesake, Leah Elisabeth. All they remembered, I’m sure, was an old woman with bony hands. And then, as the conversation tightened and faltered and became little more than a string of pleasantries punctuated by the polite chinking of sherry glasses, I could see that Leah Elisabeth could only think of when she had played out in the garden with a bald, yellow tennis ball, throwing it up against the wall at the back of the house as her father mowed the lawn and chopped the firewood, storing the logs below a greasy green tarpaulin near the coal bunker and the garage that was rented out to the neighbours.

    "Aunt made the best cabbage. The best greens," my nephew Leslie was saying, then. But he did not seem to be speaking to anyone, unless, perhaps, it was to me. "I think she was happy at the end, though, don't you?" he went on, needing someone to agree with him. Finally it was his wife Dora who said, "Lord knows we did our best! And I think they looked after her."

    Looked after her! When the pain was so bad I could not even envisage it ever stopping or ever having not been there, all I got were flowers and smiles and people treating me as though I were a child. But then when the pain went away finally, the flowers were nice, it's true. Flowers always brighten up a room after all. Like the ones standing on top of the piano, meticulously arranged by Mrs Brassington, which Peter was touching with the tips of his fingers. Dora, who knew about Peter's tendency to break things, bustled him away towards the sandwiches, also meticulously arranged by Mrs Brassington.

    They seemed to me to have grown almost oblivious to the real reason for the gathering, or perhaps they simply wished to put the idea of death behind them, to be able to concentrate instead on the little intricacies of living. I had noticed it before, the way people can turn a blind eye to suffering. When Harry disappeared during the war, no one wanted to believe he was dead, which of course he wasn't, but it was the explanation we were given at the time. And although the whole street knew, no one so much as mentioned it once. As though by not talking about it, it would go away. When Harry turned up again - he never spoke of what had actually happened to him, what had kept him "missing in action" for over two months - when Harry turned up again, everyone felt that their behaviour had been justified because they had known all along that he wasn't dead. I shall not be coming back, though, no matter how much they ignore my absence.

    Mourning, then, was brittle sentences and Cousin Madge dabbing at possible tears with a handkerchief. Leah Elisabeth walked over to the shiny, upright piano and ran her hand over its closed and muted surface. She turned away and glanced into the long dressmaker's mirror which was propped up against a wall and hidden behind the half-open door. The piano had not been played since my arthritis and the mirror had not been used for over twenty years. Yet, there they stood, reminders of the futility of it all. And to hear them talking, you'd think that that mirror and the tailor's dummy upstairs had been the centre and the purpose of my life. To hear them talking, you'd think I'd never done anything, never harboured anything as embarrassing as thoughts and feelings of my own.

    "Every family should have its maiden aunt, I've always thought," said Dora suddenly, but she didn't really seem to be speaking to anyone any more than Leslie had been. She was gazing blankly towards a narrow gap between the curtains where a dull, grey light seemed to emphasise more the dreariness of the afternoon than to brighten it. I thought it a strange thing to say but, in a way, I knew what she meant. I might have phrased it differently myself. I think that looking after me gave them all something to do, not anything as significant as to give them a purpose in their lives, but it somehow drew them all together in their caring. Leslie visited because he genuinely wanted to, I am sure of that. He cut the grass and the firewood too, not to feel useful, but because he wanted to please me. I couldn't embarrass him with too much affection, though. He would not have liked that. He would have thought I had not understood. Unlike his younger brother, Ted, who I had to pamper. But Ted was altogether more vulgar and brash, said whatever he felt whenever he felt like saying it. He reminded me a little of my own father, although nobody could have ever accused him, my father, of being vulgar. Although he did spit from time to time. There was a pillar in the village square and he said his family had been spitting against that pillar since the Norman invasion. My mother's objections were unlikely to put a stop to it and Ted was expected to carry on the tradition. Ted, who had a voice like honey when he sang at Christmas, was leaning towards Leah Elisabeth and pressing a box of sweets into her hand. "Now, then, you run off and play," he said.

    I could see Leah Elisabeth out in the garden. She was a pretty girl, ten or eleven, I think. I lose count. There are so many children now. The garden was narrow and long with a small, square plot of lawn traversed by half a dozen paving stones. On three sides the lawn was bordered by flower beds, and on the fourth there was an old plum tree. A brick bird-bath stood in the centre of the lawn, a small puddle of half-frozen water in the round stone dish. No birds though. They knew better than to come. Leah Elisabeth was walking slowly round to the side of the rectangular semi-detached house. She didn't know what to do with herself and I felt glad I had left the house to her and Frank in my will. It meant they would have to get to know each other at least, if only to sort out the legal red-tape of their inheritance. Leah Elisabeth climbed up on to the smutty lid of the coal-bunker and her throat tightened. It was almost possible to convince myself that she missed me, but I knew that wasn't so. It was not my death that made her sad. At least, not mine as opposed to anybody else's.

    Leah Elisabeth picked at the dry, flaking paint of the coal-bunker and tore away a thin sliver of rotting wood. Perhaps what made her want to cry more than anything else was that her father, Leslie, had no firewood to chop and that someone else had cut the lawn.

    She flicked the splinter of wood away, slipped off the coal-bunker and went back to the garden. She looked up at the window of the small, box-bedroom at the back of the house and I could imagine her remembering her father saying, "Your Great Aunt was born up there, as was her mother before her."

    I never let anyone up into my bedroom because that was where I wrote to Frank, seated at a walnut writing-desk with my mind a thousand miles away from Rickmansworth. I don't think the children, or anyone else for that matter, ever ventured more than half-way up the stairs. Their own houses were so noisy, I think, that the silence of mine unsettled them. The silence and the still, unmoving air. But then, I may well be as wrong about that as I was about so many other things. If they did make it past the bend in the stairs - almost a landing - where the downstairs bathroom was, there was always the headless dressmaker's dummy to scare them away.

    Madge's baby was crying out from somewhere inside the house. I didn't even know what its name was. No one had thought to tell me. I knew it had been born, of course, because I was only sick, not stupid. People do tend to confuse the two things.

    Leah Elisabeth would have heard the baby as she sat with her back against the outside wall of the pantry on the cold concrete slabs of the path. Inside the house, I could hear Madge speaking. I thought, at first, she was washing up, but that was an illusion like everything else.

    "Well, I look upon it as a sort of wonderful affirmation," she was saying. "You know, like an affirmation of life in the face of death."

    Hilda Brassington would have thought that a silly thing to have said but out of respect for me she said nothing. At least, I would like to think it was some small notion of respect. Probably, it was no more than an unwillingness to recognise her own frailty. Hilda Brassington was, if nothing else, always extraordinarily practical. "I'll help you with the baby," she said. Her receptive, maternal arms, which had never had a baby of their own, clasped the wriggling, wet nappy and beetroot-blotchy legs.

    "Aunt Leah was a good woman," Madge was saying. The most incredible thing for me was not that she thought I had or had not been a good woman, but that she did not care that the sentiment was exactly what was expected. Of course, with Hilda, the expected was no impediment to communication. There she was, nodding her head and replying, "And a better neighbour."

    Madge scooped out powdered milk for the baby, levelled it off against the lid of the packet and then, suddenly, Hilda Brassington was presented with a taste of the unexpected.

    "I would breast-feed," said Madge, "But I don't see why my husband should have to make do with saggy breasts, do you?"

    Outside, in the garden, Leah Elisabeth had begun to climb the plum tree. Most of all, I think, she would remember steel-grey horn-rimmed spectacles and serious steel-grey eyes. It was never my intention to have serious eyes. I had always thought they might have been the one thing that could have betrayed me. Apparently not.

    Madge tapped on the window, out of habit. She did not like children to play in her presence. Hilda Brassington watched the little girl in the tree. She regretted having been drawn into this farce of communication which death had placed before them and she looked at Madge's granny-faced offspring so as not to have to speak. Madge, too, looked at the baby before she said, thinking aloud, "You know? I think that Aunt would have remained a virgin even if she'd had children."

    Perhaps it is only different criteria, differences in interpretation, a different way of seeing what is basically the same thing, but whatever the reason, I could not agree. Of course, I knew exactly what she meant when she said she saw me as an eternal virgin. After all, I had never exuded sex the way she did, especially not in the time she had known me. For her, as I think for all of them, I had always been old. In a way, this was partly because of my mother. She was old, not only in personality, but in fact, for all of them. She was a part of the last century, a part of Victorian England, which had miraculously survived and lived on to terrorise them. And so the house was old and I was old with it. We never had a television or a telephone until mother was long dead, so the children had no point of reference. They could listen to the humming of the valves of the old wireless, which looked more like a drinks cabinet than anything else, but they could rarely find a station which played anything they wanted to listen to, so all they could really do was play in the garden or listen to the grown-ups speaking. I was bound to be seen as an old woman long before my time. But now Leslie was calling them all into the front room because he was going to read the will.

    "There only remains, of course, the little matter of the will and it falls to me as Aunt's chief executor...." Leslie blinked through his heavy glasses at the bored relatives. Only he had refused to ask me for anything whilst I was still alive. In the old people’s home they had all descended like locusts. Ostensibly coming to see how I was, they had always managed to turn the conversation to the grandfather clock or the piano, the one or two jewels I still had that Frank had given me so long ago. They didn't even seem to want to try to hide it half the time, that was what I found so extraordinary. They just came right out with it. "If no one else has put in a claim (ha, ha,) I've always liked the grandfather clock." "Bruce has already taken it." That shut him up, old Peter, although it wasn't exactly true. The thing is, I suppose, that I didn't really care. None of it was any use to me any more, after all. Madge tried to be sensitive, I seem to remember, saying, "I don't mean I want it now, Aunt. When you've finished with it, I mean. When you have no further use." What was it she wanted? My garnet brooch in the shape of an elaborate cross, that was it. Well, I gave that to Leah Elisabeth.

    Leslie was rifling the pages of the will to attract attention. He felt distanced by his responsibility from the other members of the family. Dora had said that as he was executor, they could have first choice of the little that was left, the dining-room chairs, for example, but Leslie would have none of that. He called it an abuse of responsibility. So, now they would have nothing, he and Dora, because they had not asked. It might sound unkind, but I could not be bothered with it. I had grown so tired by the end that I began to wish I had nothing. Only then, no one but Leslie would have visited. So why did I leave him nothing? Well, I left his daughter half of the house.

    "But first, a few words." Leslie had prepared a speech, but it had already become an embarrassment. He knew it would sound pompous and insincere, for that was, somehow, always how he sounded when he opened his mouth to speak. He knew what he felt, but he could not say it, and so he resorted to set phrases and clichés, or he said nothing at all. "A life spent, first, looking after an invalid mother," Leslie was saying, manfully struggling towards conventional sentiment. Madge had decided not to bother listening and she lit a cigarette. "He's been left with nothing," she thought to herself, gazing towards the closed curtains, where the puffy Mrs Brassington was scowling towards her. Of course, no one would ever have dared to light a cigarette in the front room. "Well, let her scowl," said Madge quietly, "because she shouldn't even be here. I suppose kind-hearted old Leslie invited her. Kind-hearted old Leslie who took nothing of Aunt's belongings while she was alive. And now there is nothing left for him. Except the house. But what would he do with the house? I wonder if it was worth all that chopping wood and cutting grass?"

    Out in the garden, Leah Elisabeth was still at the top of the plum tree. She ran her hand over the knotted branches and smelt the wood. She pushed forwards and peered through the leaves into the vacant plot of land next door. The sections of concrete pipe that had been there ever since she could remember, seemed more entrenched into the dry earth than ever. There were weeds and nettles everywhere. Short lengths of string had been attached to small wooden surveyor's posts and she saw suddenly that someone intended to build there. She knew enough to know I would not have liked that and she sighed. Her father would, towards the end, make a special effort to take me out for a drive in the woods round Epping Forest. Once, he even took me as far as the New Forest to see the ponies, but I had to tell him it was really too far and, anyway, I loved the flowers, especially the bluebells, most. In the New Forest, I kept expecting a character from Ivanhoe to come riding out on a white charger. Epping Forest, just after the harshest frosts of winter, with its bluebells sometimes flowering before the last snows, was much more of a tonic for me than looking at horses.

    "And the house, plus its remaining contents, to Miss Leah Elisabeth Marsden and Mr Frank Hawe." It was an unfortunate name to have to end with, but Leslie was so relieved to have finished the reading of the will that he scarcely noticed. He sat back and sighed heavily. Nobody knew, nor did they seem willing to ask, who Mr Frank Hawe was. I found that a little surprising. I had wanted them to be surprised. I had wanted them to feel confused, disconcerted. But they all just sat back and accepted with equanimity the entrance of this stranger - Mr Frank Hawe. What was it that prevented any of them asking the simple question: Who, in God's name, is Mr Frank Hawe?

 





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Chapter 1