Another Story for the New Year
(A sequel to ‘A Story for New Year’s Eve’)
Published by Madeleine Masterson at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Madeleine Masterson
It was pretty grim outside. The wind had got up. A blustery sudden wind, warm for this time of year. You blamed the wind and the drafts for all the strange noises about the house, and when the kitchen door creaked and closed on its own.
The gulls glided and circled overhead and the rubbish blew up the street. The letterbox rattled, not in anticipation of long awaited news, but in protest at the driving winds. It was not seasonal weather. Dustbin lids opened and closed by themselves and the washing lines danced like skipping ropes adorned with coloured plastic pegs.
Father Merry looked up from the article he was studying, and drifted off to the sound of the Radio. It was that nice Sunday morning presenter, and she had one of those voices, soothing, informative and, most important, not patronising. ‘- And now to play us out, Louis Armstrong….’ As ‘all the time in the world’ spread its magical rich sound all around the small cluttered study, Father Merry caught sight of the headline on his Sunday paper.
“MYSTERY FALL but no suspicious circumstances surround the death of Ms Alice Snood.”
She had lain there, it said, face pressed up against the letterbox at ground level (thus preventing the post) for the entire Christmas holiday. Finally, the Postman had reported it as an obstruction to the delivery of royal mail and the police were summoned. Alice’s sister had duly arrived to see to the arrangements and identify what was a pretty awful body, as her older sister.
“Leaves everything to the Clergy!” continued the article. Father Merry, smiled without humour at this, for he had buried her, at her request (contained in the Last Instructions), in the local graveyard and even now was overseeing an expensive headstone for the plot. Her sister, Elizabeth, had been forgiving towards him if not towards her dead sibling. ‘You’re doing me a service Father,’ she told him, ‘I want as little to do with this, as Alice did with me – and Dad.’
The Postman, who had tried to peer through the glass front door, thought he saw a shadowy person moving upstairs and was keen to talk about this in the cosy claustrophobic office where he sorted his mail before delivery. ‘If I had known it was a dead body blocking the letter box, I’d have run for it!’ and he shivered, thinking how close he had been to it. The stiff and cold body of Alice Snood. He now made a point of hurrying past the house, thanking whoever it was who had the mail redirected.
The mourners had been a small gathering of the neighbourhood, mostly there out of interest in what family their snobby neighbour had; and very disappointed to see it amounted to one. Alice’s sister attended out of duty, and left as soon as the earth was flung onto the lowering coffin. With more curiosity, one of the group bent down to read the card, resting there on the only wreath of flowers; expecting a biblical quote, they were surprised to read instead a few lines from a poem by W H Auden:
‘Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances, and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story; there is more than meets the eye.’
The curious neighbour would remain so, as whoever had written it had neither attributed the lines to any poet, nor had they said who they were. Doubly mystified the woman from further along the High Street hurried over to re-join her group and make up what she didn’t know.
Father Merry did know. He knew that it was Alice’s sister who had arranged for the only wreath of flowers to accompany the coffin, and recognised the poetry quote from a copy of W H Auden poems. The lines were from a poem written in 1936, called: ‘At Last the Secret is Out.’ From a collection of Love poems.
But what then, he thought, was the secret?
January was underway, and the unseasonal weather continued. Walking up the cobbled streets of the Old Town, on the uneven paths and gutters, people hid under umbrellas and hoods and hats all hurrying home. One of them lingered a while, checking the sign that had gone up outside Alice’s last dwelling. Gregory, the young man from the estate agents had met Elizabeth at the house, seeming to take measurements without leaving the room, and telling her how much to expect. It appeared that Alice dying in the property could affect this.
‘Best not to mention it unless you get a direct question – no one wants you to lie….’ he advised. Elizabeth felt a bout of hysteria coming on and tried to think of something to ward it off. The debt she was in? The last failed relationship? No, all this was suddenly immensely funny. Gregory moved upstairs to inspect the boiler, for some reason housed in a cupboard on the second floor. Elizabeth used the space to ‘get a grip’, and then found that just being in the room alone, was enough to quell any emotion. For a moment, they all seemed shut down, as she felt frozen and as if she were to observe something, which however terrifying, she could not counter or shield with human emotion. She opened her mouth to say something – it could have been to tell Gregory she was leaving, now, – but words did not come out.
Knowing that she had only one way out, past the landing with that mirror at the top and down those stairs, frightened Elizabeth into staying frozen to the spot. When Gregory reappeared all business like and triumphant, having found boilers, gas and electric meters all conveniently placed nearby, well he didn’t notice her white face or wonder at her open mouth; ‘I’ve got all the information I need Ms Snood – shall we?’ and he waited for her to go down the stairs first, leading the way to the front door.
Now, a few days after, gazing at the For Sale sign, she prayed for someone to make any reasonable offer so she could be rid of it.
And Gregory, in the Estate Agents further along the High Street, was more or less thinking the same. He had told him Mum all about it, and his girlfriend Elaine.
‘If I sell that property after all the gossip, the recent headlines and whatnot, you can all buy me a large drink!’ His mum, who worried about her son on just about any level, advised him not to go in there alone. ‘Who knows what really happened,’ she warned. Elaine, keen to set herself apart from this intense relationship, offered to go with him if he did go. Also keen to break free, Gregory smiled at Elaine and said he was up for it.
The For Sale sign shivered a little in a wind that blew up out of nowhere, and Elizabeth turned for home. She didn’t look back and with any luck would not need to return, if Gregory did his job. Remembering the overwhelming and strange atmosphere of the house the last time she was up there, she increased her pace as if followed by it and only when nearly home, relaxed a little. Alice might be dead but her presence was not, and with this unsettling thought Elizabeth turned the key to her own front door, went quickly in and closed it.
Jean, freed from cleaning the house whilst Alice was in it, and doubly free since her mysterious fall (Jean thought it was), was surprised to learn her cleaning services were still required. Gregory had discovered her number via his mother –‘I cannot recommend this woman enough. Lost her husband, no children and having to keep herself going. And, Greg, she has an excellent reference from Father Merry.’
Gregory managed not to say Father Who? As that sounded daft, like some television series, one of those dramas he turned over after one minute. You had to give things a chance, and it would give him some edge with Elaine who did watch all that guff.
‘If you reckon Mum, I’ll give her a shout.’ It was a landline number so he left a short message, which Jean was glad to respond to, until she learned which house needed her services.
‘You don’t mean Alice Snood’s old place? Realising her unfriendly tone, Jean followed this up with –‘What a coincidence! I used to clean for Ms Snood.’
Gregory explained that now it was up for sale, and the sister Elizabeth didn’t really want anything to do with the property (beyond getting rid he thought, what a hard hearted woman!) – It would be easier to get a buyer if it had a little facelift in the form of a clean-up – and perhaps a sort out? ‘Elizabeth said she was more than happy for me to arrange a clearance – she didn’t want any of it.’ (Again he thought this was so lazy, especially as she lived in the same town.). ‘Would you like the job – is it alright to call you Jean? We pay a good hourly rate and could take you on as a temp – there are always properties to look after.’
Jean wanted to say yes please to all the other jobs that might come her way, and no, no, no to going back into that town house. Her head won and she said how much she would love the work. The minute she finished the call she rang Father Merry,
‘I said yes, but how on earth can I go back in that house?’
‘Because Jean, I will come with you. Perhaps between us, we can lift the harm that seems to have settled there.’ Not just that, thought Father Merry, as it means I can spend time with Jean and bolster her up. They both looked forward to seeing each other, and valued the friendship they now had. In other circumstances it could have been more, but weirdly, in accepting something less it was of more value that any short lived love affair, this rich companionship.
Initially, apart from the cold and faintly musty smell, the house revealed nothing except the usual unlived in feel of an empty property. Jean marvelled, like the postman before her, at the lack of leaflets and circulars on the doormat. She went straight on to wondering if it was the same doormat that Alice had laid on, and couldn’t get up the stairs quickly enough. When it was first built, the novelty of going upstairs to the living quarters was new, and having your garage and basement below equally modern. Most people had reconverted these properties, preferring their downstairs to be downstairs, but Alice had always enjoyed this now retro, sixties appeal; and placing the mirror at the top of the stairs, just at the small landing before you turned right into the living and kitchen area – that meant she could see the shape of who was at the glass fronted door. Often they remained a shape at the door as Alice decided against answering it.
‘So far, so good Jean!’ Announced Father Merry, and she had to agree. There was nothing to worry about for now. Ignoring the chill as she inspected the next level up, the bedroom and bathroom on the second floor, she hummed to herself and wished now she’d brought the radio; even that annoying lunch time presenter would have been a guard against the silence. The more she tried to forget Alice, the more she remembered her.
Someone else was remembering Alice too. Elizabeth had brought one thing back from Alice’s house, and it was an old suitcase full of family photos, and letters. People don’t do this anymore she thought, not with their smart phones and digital cameras. Not the same thrill, scrolling down a computer screen, as opening the catches on an old suitcase and smelling that distinct aroma of old papers and ink. And staring for ages at an old photo of yourself and Dad on the beach, she thought. It wasn’t too long before another, more horrid memory surfaced, of Alice and her string of lovers, the last one being Elizabeth’s friend (or so she believed) not that this had made any difference. Watching Alice at work, so to speak, Elizabeth saw how impossible it was to persuade her friend to ignore her advances and protect their long standing companionship. To no avail. The inevitable onslaught of Alice’s well-honed charm and social skills got the desired result and Frank disappeared for a while – until Alice ended it. By then, their friendship, Elizabeth with Frank, was also over, and it was this that caused such a row – her Dad (who was always smiling in his photos) made no secret about who his favourite girl was, and Alice could not forgive it.
It had been Alice who was with her father on the day he suffered the fatal heart attack; according to her sister, she had rung for an ambulance which then took over an hour to get to the small village. By the time the paramedics turned up, her father had lain there suffering as Alice said she was unable to give any resuscitation or medicines, and would have passed away on the old patterned carpet where he had been laying had it not been for the attention of his old stray cat; the cat seemed to be keeping him alive somehow – that was until Alice threw a book at it. By a miracle, her father had survived this only to have what Alice called a tragic accident, whilst recuperating at her old town house. A fall on the stairs, and Elizabeth still recalled the awful phone call to tell her this. She had been planning a visit to bring him home. Elizabeth knew better than to ask all the questions but they stayed there, in her mind, and now with Alice gone, perhaps she would never know the answers.
The sound of the old clock ticking away on the mantelpiece brought her back to the present. It had belonged to her Father all those years, handed down to him from his father, so she supposed it was a family heirloom. At first, when she had gone down to the old family home, meeting up with Alice, she had not wanted anything and was glad to see it all go in a house clearance; the lady who took that job on, from the village antiques shop called, rather oddly she thought, The Beehive, had given them a fair price for it all, even buying some things for herself. The clock had been one such item, so it was with great surprise when Elizabeth accepted a parcel from the postman, to find it contained the very same clock! The note inside explained:
I hope you don’t mind me returning this to you? You’ll think me daft but it seemed to be telling me something (to do with the ticking!) and I even thought I ‘saw’ what happened to your Dad. Very strange, and do forgive me I don’t mean to upset you.
I think your Dad must have wanted this clock to be with his daughter now.
Whatever the clock had prompted Pamela to see or hear, Elizabeth noticed nothing unusual, and liked to hear the steady sure ticking. If anything it seemed to be saying, ‘got the money’ ‘got the money’ – and to be sure, she had! The Will that had left everything to Alice, unchanged by her Father who had left it too late to do so, had of course all come to her anyway. And, it seemed, this woman Pamela might throw some light on what really happened that day. Now, if only she could shake off this last piece of Alice, the property for sale, that would be the end of it.
January had passed quickly into February, and the really bad weather saving itself up perhaps until the New Year was underway, arrived. A cold and damp day with sleet did nothing to make the house for sale any more appealing, and as Jean turned the key in the lock, ready to give it a quick going over, she wished hard that it would sell. ‘Please someone buy it!’ she called up to the grey afternoon sky. Father Merry had promised to meet her but it was too cold to wait outside, so Jean decided to be brave and wait in the tiny hallway – she could always leave the front door a tiny bit open.
It wasn’t too cold either once she did go inside, as the central heating was on a timer and her visit had coincided with a burst of heat. In her mind she had the picture of her old employer, Alice, leaving her notes and money on the mantelpiece; better to remember that than imagine her falling down these very stairs and lying where her old cleaning lady now stood. With this thought, the front door blew shut trapping the corner of her long scarf inside it, and any courage Jean had summoned up in the first place to come into the flat, went.
It seemed to take her fumbling hands minutes to perform the simple task of re- opening the door, and then, not being able to move the small metal knob which had set the door to the locked position. Somehow it had jammed and there she was temporarily jammed along with it. ‘But I can take my scarf off,’ she realised, and quickly did so. The idea of being trapped in the small hallway by the front door was all her nightmares come true, but so too, was being alone in the flat anyway. She flicked the switch for the hall light to come on, and when it did, it seemed to throw shadows where there had been none and instead of making the flat brighter, the opposite. There was a framed picture on one side of the stairway, going up to the top landing overseen by the long mirror. Jean didn’t remember the picture before and as for the mirror, she used to clean it really quickly as it reflected at an odd angle; showing the stairs going down to the front door of course, but also showing the first floor landing into the kitchen and living room. Once, Jean had caught Alice looking at her from the living room doorway, just staring at her really. ‘Don’t look at it.’ She told herself now and instead had another renewed effort at the front door.
When Jean was distracted or worried or just plain on edge, she left things or lost things. Her latest trick was leaving her purse at home; it had to be an important item for it to even register, so keys, purses and so on. There were many clever interpretations of this, but basically it was Jean’s wake up call to how stressed she was. She heard her mobile phone ringing and reached for her bag to answer it. Only her bag wasn’t with her and the ringing she could hear was on the other side of the front door where she had put the bag down to get in. At the same time as she realised this, the picture on the side wall to the stairs fell down and toppled slowly towards her; she had time to notice who was in the picture now and often wondered later at how she could see this for it was quite sudden and over quickly. The old man in the painting was seated in one of those comfortable old armchairs and on his lap a large ginger cat. His smile was knowing and happy as he posed for whoever the artist was (Elizabeth) and the time was recorded too, by the old clock on the mantelpiece behind him. As it arrived just by Jean’s feet, the glass shattered and spilled out onto her feet and the floor. The old man looked up at Jean now and seemed to be asking her something.
Father Merry had given up trying to contact Jean about being late and just set off to meet her outside anyway as planned. He knew (thought he knew) that Jean would wait for him outside rather than going in, as the place still had a bad atmosphere about it; he had been doing some research as to previous tenants and the overall history of the building and felt he was on the verge of uncovering something telling, and with these creative thoughts in his mind he arrived at the front door.
As if on command, the wind had risen and was now blowing quite a gale up. Father Merry peering through the double glazed door gathered his coat to him as it whipped back in a snapping blustery motion. The rain fell too, wetting him through in moments and dripping off his hair and face. ‘Jean are you in there?’ he shouted through the door at the blurry shape on the other side, and as he leant forward the door suddenly blew open and he fell into the hallway. No sooner had he clutched at the first thing he saw which was indeed Jean, but the same crying wind was overhead and shrieking back into the street. The lightbulb above their heads swung to and fro with the shock of it. It seemed to take something with it, as both Jean and Father Merry felt it pass through them before it left. The roll of thunder and the crash of the sheet lightening lit up the stairway and the mirror on the top landing before going as quickly as it had arrived.
The atmosphere inside bore out what Jean had thought as the wind or whatever it was swept past her on its way out; it was lighter and brighter, and unbelievably the sun was now shining through the windows in the upstairs living room. ‘I’ve brought the means to make us a cup of rosy,’ Father Merry plugged the kettle in and put tea bags in the mugs. ‘What did you make of that?’ Jean told him she had never been so scared especially by the falling picture – and when it seemed to reveal Alice’s father, well that had her transfixed. ‘I think that was him, his spirit I mean, leaving this flat and finally getting away from Alice. Literally, the breaking of the glass and the door opening. It opened for him to go out, not for you to come in!’
‘A kind of exorcism has happened Jean. And you appear to have been a conductor for it – a release for all the negativity simply by your clean spirt!’
‘My cleaning more like,’ Jean felt giggly now and hoped she wouldn’t go hysterical – crying and laughing were ok but not both at once. Still, after the mug of tea, she set to and got on with the clean up only stopping to give Gregory a quick ring at the estate agents to let him know all was well. Nearly all well. She had been clearing up the broken glass from the picture frame and carefully carrying the old photo back up the stairs when she noticed a huge crack in the mirror.
‘How on earth!’ Jean’s hysteria threatened to come back, as she gazed at the now distorted image of herself. ‘We’ll let Gregory know, and ask him to take it down for safety,’ said Father Merry, also seeing a strange vision of himself, peering over Jean’s shoulder. This final oddity forced Jean to quickly complete her cleaning tasks and leave. She had the photo though, from the broken picture frame, safe in her bag to pass on to the sister; she’d know what it all meant perhaps. Father Merry helped her back out into the street with her bags and locked the front door. He had said more than a few prayers for this place and the last occupant, and now prayed it would be a happy home for the next tenants.
‘Come on Jean, I’ll walk you home.’
‘No it’s alright Father, I’m going to call in at the estate agents first,’ she smiled and said her goodbyes; the sooner she offloaded the photo (for Elizabeth) and told Gregory about the mirror she could forget all about it. There were things in that mirror; old reflections of what had happened on those stairs that she didn’t want to dwell on.
When she did call into the estate agents, ready to say it was all her fault about the mirror, Gregory didn’t seem to want to hear about it, dismissing it as ‘not a problem,’ and going on to report he had a nice young couple coming to view! Jean handed him the photo to pass onto Elizabeth, and practically skipped out of the office. With any luck she would never have to clean that town house again.
Elizabeth took the call from Gregory at the estate agents, and sat down in amazement at what he had to say. Not only was there a prospective buyer, but it was to be him! Gregory had made an offer and in a daze, she had accepted. Given the circumstances, with all the publicity about her sister dying there and not to mention the horrid atmosphere she experienced every time she ventured up there, she wasn’t about to ‘consider’ the offer, or negotiate for more. The closure she wanted was in sight. Oh and there was a photo of her father to collect – funny she had never noticed this before on her forced visits to the property.
‘Yes. Yes. That’s fine to take your fiancée round – and you’ve got my solicitor’s details? Lovely – bye for now Gregory.’ Elizabeth stood up and went straight to the clock to give the wood a stroke and a pat for luck. This was her new ritual and one to lift her spirits. The ticking even seemed to match her mood, singing ‘in the money, in the money, in the money!’ She laughed at what she thought she heard and picked up the phone to ring her solicitor with the good news.
Gregory could not believe his good fortune, and thanks to his mother was about to get on the housing ladder at last. The money for a deposit was his and despite his mum’s diffidence about Elaine (‘no one is good enough for my Gregory!’) she realised they needed her practical help. ‘Your father would have wanted it Gregory, and if you think it’s a good buy, then make her an offer.’
All that was left to do was take Elaine round what was going to be her new home! Gregory didn’t think for one minute Elaine wouldn’t like it, or be put off by silly rumours; he had made sure all the news about Alice in the local paper was played down and when Elaine asked about it, he shrugged it off as a tragic accident – which surely it was? No, it was all to play for and he could not wait to go there with her.
Turning the key in the lock, and escorting Elaine through into the tiny hallway had to be one of his proudest moments. ‘Straight up there Elaine, and see what you think.’
Watching her walk up the stairs, towards the mirror at the top (the same one Jean had told him was cracked, but he was darned if he could see where), she turned to him – at least that was what he thought had happened – he thought she had turned to him and smiled and said ‘We’re going to keep that mirror right there Gregory, crack and all – I’m sure Alice would approve!’ What was she going on about? He couldn’t see anything untoward in the big long glass, and what did she mean about Alice? By then he was at the top of the stairs, and saw Elaine disappear up the hallway on his right into the living room – this was reflected back at him, and he paused to let her have a look round the room without him there. So when he looked again and saw her in the doorway he gave her a smile and the thumbs up.
The shadow in the mirror he put down to the lighting and the fact that Elaine was still in the living room when he joined her – that was nothing. The good news was she liked it. He reached for his mobile to give his mum a ring but then decided to wait; this was his and Elaine’s moment.
Jean saw the sold sign outside the town house a few weeks’ later and nearly punched the air with relief. ‘Yes!’ Father Merry who happened to be with her at the time, also sighed with relief. Now he could turn his attention to the story behind the property and with any luck the new owners would be amenable to being included in his history of the old town. Yes all in all, the tragedy of Alice Snood had opened more doors than closing them. They turned and walked together into the darkening afternoon, and the promise of a clear night.
For Elizabeth, the sister who had never really been there in life, and somewhat larger in death, could hurt her no more. The photo of her Dad, collected from the Estate Agents, was now in a new frame and next to the clock. She was looking at him now, and knew if he could speak, he would be urging her on to follow her dreams and get a life! ‘Well now Dad, I may just do that!’ Stroking the wood and patting it for luck, she looked forward to a future, which in a strange way, Alice had provided for.
It might be a happy new year after all.
Aha! Finally, in the grand tradition of story-telling, we bring you what happened next in the story of Alice Snood and her neighbourhood, including Father Merry and Jean; We last met them in Wonka’s story for New Year’s Eve and they are still hot on the trail of the mysterious town house and looking for explanations. As the wind gets up, blowing down the old cobbled streets, whipping up the dead leaves and causing a stir, snuggle down and treat yourselves to another of Wonka’s special stories for big children and small adults! And if you like this one, then do read Wonka’s Spooky Tale which is how it all began. Big Love and Happy New Year from me and Wonka X