Hansel and Gretel

 “Bettina has farrowed.”  The letter said in my Uncle Owen’s stilted terminology.  “Ten perfect little piglings, four boys and six girls.”   I was shown the picture.  A cluster of grinning faces sniggered back at me.

“Ten!”  I was impressed.  Lots of things impress you when you are six.

“Poor Bettina!”   My mother sympathized. “Perhaps Emil will take you to see them when we visit next month.”

Emil and Mitzi, his wife, were the bailiffs at Uncle Owen’s farm in the New Forest.  The German couple were nice people, and the congenial Emil, particularly, always had time for me.  

Owen’s ‘farm’ had few agricultural references, which set it as much apart from the farms surrounding my home in the West Country as a monastery from a hermit’s cell.  Yes, there was a herd of cattle, and there were tumultuous chickens, irascible geese and implacable ducks.  And there were pigs, of course.   But all these were a backcloth:  the star performer was the farmhouse.   The farmhouse was Uncle Owen’s showcase.  

Uncle Owen was ‘Something in the City’ (the City of London, that is).   He had bought the farm for weekend entertainments to enhance his business, so the house reflected this.  A long, thatched building with exposed timbers, it gazed serenely out over an acre of manicured lawn towards two sagacious chestnut trees. To the east a driveway lined by firs and rhododendrons, to the west a tennis court – my uncle’s preferred sport was tennis, at which, despite his large frame, he was a formidable exponent.

On hot days we would lunch beneath the panoply of the chestnuts, on wet days in the brown heat of the farm kitchen.  I would eat frugally and say nothing.  And on this particular afternoon Emil took me to see Bettina’s litter.

“You see they are not little piglets anymore.”  He said, lifting me so I sat on the wall of their yard.  They weren’t.

Twenty little eyes looked up at me, assessing me instantly.  Ten healthy mouths muttered conspiratorially. 

“We are weaning them.  Really they are already weaned, I think, but for a few days more they stay with Bettina.”  Emil informed me.  “We have to get them back to her now.  Would you like to help me do this?”

I needed no second bidding.  Inside the yard, with its gate closed behind us, I watched as Emil opened a loose box to reveal the recumbent Bettina, still massive with milk, resting within.  She did not bother to rise.  Ten healthy pig-children regarded me with renewed interest. 

“We go each side, I think.”  Emil advised.

The pig-children would not give up their freedom easily.  I remember my enjoyment of the chase, and I am sure the pigs were having just as much fun.   Furthermore, they taught me respect.  They showed me their skill in evasion, their fleetness of foot, their wicked sense of humor.  As Emil and I cornered one group they split into two, then into pairs.  They teamed up, then divided again.  They twisted, they turned.  They made dummy runs to wrong-foot us, and one even became cheeky enough to push my legs from under me so I fell flat on my back.  After a few seconds of uninterrupted view of an azure blue sky, the face of a triumphant piglet appeared, grinning down at me.   Several minutes of pure entertainment later, during which Emil and I were comprehensively out-maneuvered, Bettina’s delinquent children finally consented to be herded to her bosoms.  It was their decision, not ours.

I needed washing.  So did my clothes.  How somehow I avoided censure I can’t recall, but probably it was because Emil came to my defense.  Anyway, upon learning of my adventure my mother laughed for at least five minutes, and that evening when I wafted in to dinner everyone very pointedly sniffed.    In that and other ways I think the memories of my chase stayed with me for a week, not least because next day I was made to ride home in our car beside an open window.  It was a cold journey.

Family crises arose even more frequently than usual that year, so we were back at the farm no more than a month later, recuperating from the debt collector wolf-pack which frequently set up camp outside our home.

I asked to see the pigs.  Emil and Mitzi exchanged glances.  Eventually, Emil gestured to me.  “Come.”  He said.

The yard, scene of our epic chase, was deserted.  A farm was a business Emil explained: selling young pigs was one of the ways it made money, and I think I understood his euphemistic use of the word ‘selling’ sufficiently and was as yet young enough to need to choke back my regret.

“But these two we keep!”  Emil said grandly.

The little building, with its open space at the front surrounded by a low wall, was designed for pigs and, to my joy, two young pigs occupied it.  Two young pigs who seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, full of squeaky eagerness as they shoulder-barged each other to the wall to greet us.  A boy and girl both well on their way to adolescence now, I swear they remembered me, just as I swear the boar was the very same one who looked down upon me from the sky on the day of our epic game.

Emil and I leaned upon the wall, communing with them for a while.  Then he said:  “You know we have no names for them.  You can name them if you like.”

I must have spent most of that day there, just talking to those pigs; and they, in their turn, talked of their view of the world, one strangely reminiscent of my own:  they expressed sadness and understanding for the loss of their brothers and sisters, and lamented that Bettina, now returned to the field with the other pigs, seemed to have no time for them.  They accepted my gifts of apples with magnanimity.  I became their friend.

You do not – and this is important to all those of you who do not know – make a pet of a pig.  You befriend him.  If he doesn’t like you he can be quite fearsome, and he is never yours to do with as you will.  He has a mind of his own, and he meets you on your own intellectual level.  He will happily discuss matters of import with you but he will have opinions of his own, and though he may be far too courteous to freely express them, you will know by the little give-aways in his attitude when he disagrees with yours. 

“Did you think of their names?”  Emil asked me as we prepared to leave.

“Hansel and Gretel” I said, remembering my bedtime story of the two lost children.  “We’ll call them Hansel and Gretel.”

At home I kept their picture on my wall.  Each night in the instructed ritual of prayer I mentioned the two pigs.  I talked to them from the threshold of sleep, vividly dreamt of them, drew them in my exercise book.  

It was Christmas before I would return to the farm – a family Christmas with a small host of guests, most of whom I have forgotten now, and several of whom I never really knew.  Through the beery greetings and the waves of conversation I sought the only two friends who were special to me.

The little pig-pen was empty.

Panic-stricken, I plunged into the forest of humanity in search of Emil.  I found him with Mitzi in the kitchen, operating the machinery of food.  As I tried to enter he barred my way.  “For little boys it is dangerous in here.”

“Where are they?” I demanded, tearful by this time.  “What’s happened to Hansel and Gretel?”

I could not miss the solemnity in his tone.  “Ah, little man!”  Emil said. “They grow too big to be together in the pen now, you see?  Your Gretel, she is with the other pigs but you may not recognize her.  Pigs, they grow up fast, you know?”  He smiled indulgently.  

I swallowed hard.  “And Hansel?”

“Hmmm?”  

“Hansel.  Where’s Hansel?” 

Emil sighed, and a wisp of cloud dimmed the bright blue of his eyes.   “Hansel is gone.”  He said.

Gone?  The big kitchen table was prepared for dinner, a bright red and white gingham cloth laid crisply across its knurled wood top.  The brasses which lined the kitchen walls flickered in red sympathy with the fire burning in the open hearth, a fire before which a spit was slowly turning.   Busy elsewhere, Mitzi spoke sharply to Emil in German.  With a pat on my shoulder the big man stood aside so I could see – so I could watch, as with a cup of its collected juices he basted the creature that was turning on the spit.  And I knew.  Although I was just a child I saw and felt through all my heightened senses the tragedy of men’s greed, in the rich smell of meat in that big room and the expressions the bailiff and his wife could not conceal, I knew.

So I saw Hansel just one more time.   I saw him in the humiliation of death, those philosopher’s eyes sightless, disported on a bright red and white gingham cloth before a raucous, baying audience of salivating revelers who laughed at my distress, rebuking me when I ran from the sight.

There would be other visits to the farm, visits which, as a child, I was forced to make, but they were not made willingly.  I never got over a feeling of revulsion whenever I entered the farm kitchen, or the spark of disgust which grew in me with the years for Uncle Owen‘s over-indulgent friends.  The memory of a brief acquaintance is evergreen, and though they are long departed, I keep Hansel and Gretel alive in my heart.

The Newquay Train

The text read:  ‘You must come and see this’.  

Lambert came.

That was in 2014, when Tamsyn and he had been searching for a house in a rural setting near Tamsyn’s childhood home for nearly two years.  Property after property had failed to meet their exacting needs, whether by reason of location, size or simple character, so when Tamsyn’s latest find hove into view around the corner of a quiet country lane, Lambert was ready to be persuaded.

“It’s an odd shape.”  Lambert commented.  “Familiar, somehow.”

“It’s a railway station,”  Tamsyn told him.  “Not now, of course, but once.  I think it’s beautiful!”

There was, Lambert conceded, something very plucky and brave about the white rendered façade of ‘Brueburn Halt’, although he would have hesitated to call it beautiful. 

“No rails, they took them up years ago, but you get your very own station platform!”  The estate agent enthused, standing on it, “Endless potential!”  He added, failing to be specific.

“My question is why?”  demanded Lambert,  “Why a station, here?  There isn’t a village for miles.”

“It is odd,”  Tamsyn agreed  “I grew up not a dozen miles from here, yet I don’t recall this station.  I imagine the line was closed before I was born, so I can’t answer you, I’m afraid.  Seeing it yesterday was like it was the first time, you know?”  

Within its doors, Brueburn Halt was a dusty time capsule, wood cracked and peeling, festoons of wallpaper in patterns and colours long forgotten shredded from its walls.  In the darkness behind its boarded windows Lambert sniffed at rising damp like a terrier, poked at plaster, winced at damp ceilings, quailed at the single foetid bathroom.

“It’ll need to be completely gutted.  Are you sure you want this, Tams?”

Tamsyn floated balletically from room to room.  “Yes, oh, yes!  We must have it, my sweetest – we must!”

“The house has been empty for two years,” The agent, a little square man, lowered his voice confidentially, “The old lady who owned it went a tiny bit do-lally in the end; used to sit outside on the platform day and night, rain or shine.  Said she was waiting for a train.  A train!  No rails, see?  They took her into care in the end, I believe.  Big white van – you know?”

“We know.”  Lambert assured him.  “I’ll put in an offer.”  He added.

Lambert honoured his pledge to ‘gut’ Brueburn Halt.  Extensions mushroomed, courtyards were paved, bathrooms proliferated like sanitary rabbits; worktops of black marble glittered in programmable lighting, windows widened, doors deepened:  no swatch of expensive fabric was left unconsidered.  Lambert did not lack sentimentality, though: through it all, the old station platform remained untouched.

There was more, you see, between Lambert and Tamsyn than could be defined in years, although the generally accepted twenty-five was certainly a disparity worth reckoning.  A banking millionaire, Lambert took pride in his wife’s beauty and admired how approaching middle age had not dimmed the child in her; her elegance, her grace – in fact, he was obsessed by her. Tamsyn, prima ballerina for one of the world’s finest ballet ensembles was his pearl beyond price. 

Loved her?  No, not that.  Valued her?  Certainly.

At those social occasions so important to Lambert’s profession Tamsyn’s radiance would draw the rich and influential unfailingly to her flame.  She raised his profile, as she would put it, above the other hippos in the wallow.  When she first met him, Lambert had been rich; with her tutelage he had become very, very rich.  Now, ready in his advancing years to retire, he was gratified when Tamsyn likewise expressed a wish to hang up her pointe shoes – and return to the countryside of her childhood.

It did not occur to her septuagenarian husband that Tamsyn’s retirement idyll might seek to replicate the simplicity and innocence of those formative years.  He could think of her cradled in none but the most perfectly satin-lined nest.  If the confines of Brueburn Halt were smaller than those to which he was accustomed, there was no reason it could not equal the sumptuousness of, say, their St. John’s Wood apartment or their summer villa at Cannes.  If she showed dissent (as from time to time she did) at his lavish tastes he scarcely regarded it, even rather liked it.  Financial despot that he was, he enjoyed a little combative friction – and he always won.

This is not to say Tamsyn was ungrateful.  She claimed to be impressed by the refreshed appearance of ‘Brueburn’ (Lambert had dropped the ‘Halt’, thinking it inappropriate), professing enthusiasm for their shared future in this peaceful spot.

“Oh, Lamby, we shall grow old here, together!”

 And if Lambert had not caught her in this room or that within the house now and then, standing alone and quite still, her expression pensive, her eyes clouded and remote, he might have believed.  Yes, she assured him, the quirkiness of the surviving station platform amused her, the open pathway of the old track bed awakened thoughts in her of long country walks with dogs, she said.  Lambert raised an eyebrow – he had not considered there might be dogs.

Of course there were no dogs, no Tamsyn, either.  If the idyll of retirement seduced her, Brueburnquickly palled.  Party season on the Riviera beckoned, and when that bored her, London society demanded her presence.  She was still, she insisted, in demand professionally.   Much the same could be said of Lambert, whose declared intention to ‘retire’ presented many challenges.   Brueburn languished; St. John’s Wood was so much more convenient.

“I don’t feel comfortable, there,” Tamsyn eventually confided to friends when she spoke of Brueburn.  “One imagines one can relive one’s past, doesn’t one, whereas truthfully one cannot?  Too much has changed.”  And with a vapid sigh:  “For the better, one must suppose….”

Throughout the summer of 2016 Brueburn remained shuttered and deserted.  Come autumn, Lambert decided to place the old station house back on the market.  One late September day he drove from London with this in mind. 

Lambert arrived at ‘Brueburn’ to find its doors already opened, the climate turned on, and his music system playing a coloratura piece from Lakme, one of Tasmyn’s favoured operas.  At first these things seemed to suggest – in fact they spawned the  hope – that his partner had preceded him, although as far as he knew she was still in London, where she was expecting him to re-join her in a couple of days.  But though he explored the much-altered station house from end to end, he found no-one.  A mystery then.  At length he decided Mrs Broadbent, who cleaned the house once each week, must have made these preparations for his coming. He contented himself with that tenuous explanation, poured himself a drink before venturing outside onto the old platform.  Here he rested, as he had hoped to do more often, immersing himself in the sounds of rustling leaves and the drying wind of the season.

Some minutes elapsed before he saw her.   Further along the platform, on an old railway bench that had escaped his notice hitherto, a girl in a printed cotton dress sat reading a paper-backed book.   

  Lambert approached her, though not unkindly, “Hello, young lady.”  The platform was part of his private property but she might not know, after all; why should she?  “What brings you here?”

Wordlessly, without lifting her eyes a moment from her book, the girl extended a hand in which she held, pinched between her forefinger and thumb, a small, green ticket.

Lambert stared at it.

“Don’t you want to clip this?”  The girl asked in a thin voice.

Intrigued, Lambert took the little piece of cardboard from from her hand.  It was stamped third class for Newquay, and dated September 24th, 1949.  “Where did you get this?”  He asked, in a tone less certain than before.

The girl inclined her head towards the house.  “Ticket office.  D’you want to clip it, mister?”

“No, you keep it.”  Lambert passed the ticket back to her.  And he found himself saying:  “They’ll clip it on the train.”  He stepped back, suddenly finding the intimacy of the space repelling and certain in the knowledge he was not wanted there.  Leaving his intended lecture concerning trespass unsaid, he retreated to the drink he had abandoned on the platform’s edge.  When he turned to look again, the girl had gone.

“Describe her to me.”  The estate agent said, when he came to estimate ‘Brueburn’ for resale.

“About thirteen, brown hair, thin and quite pale.  Tall, for her age, probably.  I didn’t see her standing up.  Cheap white cotton dress with a red print.  Roses, I think.”

The agent thought for a moment, then shook his head.  “Nope.  I don’t know anyone like that.  Local kid, though, prob’ly; I can’t know them all.  Do you mind if I have a quick look around?  You’ve done so much to the place…”

Instead of returning to London as he had planned, Lambert ‘phoned his partner.  “Tassy darling, I’ll be staying down here for a couple more days, can you manage without me?”

Tasmyn sounded piqued.   “Sweetie, you know I need to give Rory some answers.  He doesn’t have backing, and I promised him you would make up any shortfall.”

“Is this about Le Corsair?  It’s a classical ballet – surely he can’t be begging in the streets for finance.  Why do I need to become involved?”

“The subject matter is a little controversial.  I don’t think it’s been performed here for years, which is why I want to do it.”

“What do you mean, precious; you ‘want to do it’?  I thought we’d promised each other, no more leads.”

“And we had. Oh, Lamb, I have never danced Medora, it’ll be the last, I promise…”

“I think you’d better come down here.  Wrap things up as soon as you can.  I’m going to need some substantial persuasion.”

“Oh, dear – are you, Lamby?  I shall have to do my very, very best.  You’ll wait for me?  You won’t go jetting off somewhere?”

To curtail a syrup of endearments, Lambert switched off his ‘phone.  He was disquieted by events in the latter days of Tasmyn’s career, as it became evident that her talents were falling from favour and he was repeatedly asked to paper over the financial cracks.  A full-scale classic ballet promised to be rather more than a crack.  He pondered his decision to sell Brueburn afresh.  Maybe this was the time to insist their mutual retirement pledges be put into action. 

She was there again, the girl.  He came out onto the platform expecting to see her:  the same dress, the same paperback book; the same ticket?

She looked up, her intense green eyes meeting his.  “You keep pestering me,” she said.

“You’re on my property,” he replied; and when she gave no response:  “What’s your name?”

“I don’t know as I should tell you, old man comin’ after young girls, and that,”  She retorted.  “Crim’nal, that is.”  She returned to her book.  “I’m Janice, Janice Brathwaite.  My dad’ll come after you.  He’s fierce, my  dad.”

“Well, Janice, you’re trespassing.”

“I’m not.  I’m waitin’ for a train.”

Lambert felt as if he was struggling against something – a weight of atmosphere surrounded the girl.  “There are no trains anymore, Janice; the tracks are gone, do you see?  There’s no ticket office, because the station’s my house, now.”

“I’m goin’ to London.”  

“Your ticket – the one you showed me yesterday  – that said you were going to Newquay.”

The girl rounded on him, her voice rising to a scream.  “LONDON.  T’is LONDON I’M GOING!”

Lambert found himself being blown backward as if by a gale.  The pressure to put distance between himself and the girl was irresistible.  He turned and almost ran back to the shelter of his house with Janice’s voice screeching after him every step of the way.  “LONDON! LONDON!  LONDON!”

Only when he was safely indoors did he look back up the platform from a staircase window. There was no sign of the girl.

Later that evening he Googled ‘Janice Braithwaite’ on his laptop, his search returning only current Facebook references and a few genealogy hits, none of which seemed to apply to a little station called Brueburn Halt, or its long-forgotten estate.  Undeterred, he found the name of the largest local newspaper and paid his way into its archives where, by refining his search to the date of Janice’s ticket, he found the news item he sought.

Railway Death

A tragic accident at Brueburn Station occurred yesterday, when a local man was hit by a train travelling to Newquay and Penzance.  The man, who appears to have fallen from the platform, was pronounced dead at the scene.  Services on the line were suspended yesterday, but are said to be running as normal this morning.  The deceased was named as Norman Talbot Braithwaite.  He leaves a wife and daughter.  Relatives have been informed.

Lambert lay awake long into the night, more than once hearing, when the night was free of other sounds, what he thought to be the thunder of a distant train  – the chuff of smoke and steam, the click-clack of carriages, the hoot of a warning whistle.   When at last he slept, he dreamt of his house as once it was – ticket office, waiting rooms and platform canopy with the tracks laid afresh and gleaming with use.  And when he woke he knew what he must do.  As soon as he had cleared his business calls he returned to the search engine.  He remained there some time.

That afternoon the girl was there, seated and reading as before.  Ignoring the forbidding aura that surrounded her, he walked right up to the seat, which was a long bench, and sat down beside her.

“Hello Janice.”  He said.   She did not reply.  “I’ve read a lot about you,”  Lambert went on.  “About the competitions you won.  You were very good, even when you were only seven or eight years old.  But that was almost seventy years ago.  How old are you, Janice?”

“Thirteen.  I’m thirteen.”   Lambert sensed a wave of antipathy – he could describe it no other way – pushing against him.  Janice was producing her ticket again.  “I’m waiting for my train.  I’m going to London.”

“Your ticket says Newquay.”

“Then it’s wrong.  WRONG!  I’m going to LONDON!”

“Don’t excite yourself, girl.”  Lambert told her, resisting the urge to retreat, no matter how strong it became.  “Why don’t we talk about the first time you came here?”

“Nothing to say.” The full weight of Janice’s will thrust at Lambert, physically moving him away.

“You came with your Dad, didn’t you?” As if at the turn of a key, he felt Janice’s resistance suddenly stop.  She got to her feet, and stood wide-eyed, staring down at him.  He looked her up and down, the slight figure in her cotton dress, and he knew.  He was certain. “Your Dad was taking you to school in Newquay, but you didn’t want to go to school, did you?  You wanted to go to London to begin doing the thing you loved and to make a living from it – even at such a tender age you knew you could do that.”

“But he wouldn’t let you, would he?  It was a spur of the moment thing.  No sign of the ticket clerk, few people on the platform, the train rolling in.  You were so gifted at judgement of balance it took only the slightest push, might not have seemed deliberate at all.  He didn’t fall beneath those wheels, Janice, you pushed him.”

“Pushed him.”  The girl repeated the words slowly, rolling them around in her head.  “Pushed him.”

Satisfied, Lambert turned and walked away.  That was why she returned here, he told himself.  He didn’t know how often she was doomed to re-enact that dreadful day – he didn’t care.  She was no more than an empty ghost to him now.  When he turned around, she would be gone.  And she was.

The hour had turned six when Tamsyn’s car rolled onto the forecourt of ‘Brueburn’ and its svelte, exquisitely coiffured driver emerged to Lambert’s effusive greeting.  “Tams, my sweet love, you have no idea how lonely I’ve been!”

“Oh, Lamb, I’m so sorry!  I had the most dreadful, dreadful drive!  The traffic, my dearest!  But are you well?  You sounded so serious on the ‘phone.”

“Never better my sweet, never better!  We have serious matters to discuss.   It’s an enchanting evening, so when you have quite recovered come and join me on the platform:  I’ll have your Moscow Mule dressed and ready.”

Very well, my dear, if I must.  Although even the platform is somehow a little bit disturbing. One does one’s absolute best to love it here, doesn’t one?  I shall be with you in a trice!”

Tasmyn’s ‘trices’ were usually on the long side, so Lambert was well prepared by the time she floated from Brueburn’s interior garbed in yards of expensive silk.  “I’ve made an effort for you, darling, you see?”  She shuddered.  “Oh, god, this place gives me the creeps!  Why on earth did we imagine we might ever live here?”

“We did not make that decision,”  Lambert replied mysteriously,  “We were invited and we came.  You look so very beautiful tonight, my dear: if beauty were ever eternal it would find its home in you.”

“Lamby, what a sweet thing to say.”  Tasmyn’s eyes squinted against the evening sun,  “You didn’t tell me we had a guest?”

“Ah, the girl!  You can see her too.  I’m so glad, I thought I was going slightly insane.  She’s our resident ghost, Tasmyn.  Come and meet her – she’s quite memorable.”

“Memorable – whatever do you mean?  I’m not in the mood to socialise, dearest, especially with a ghost, if that’s what she is.  She looks rather too substantial, to me.  Anyway, I do believe she’s coming to meet us.”  Tamsyn’s eyes, wanting glasses she would never wear, narrowed.  “What’s her name?  She looks oddly familiar…”

“She does?”  The distance between the two females was now no more than a dozen yards.  Both stopped.  Disbelief was reflected on each of their faces.  Lambert; he had to believe.  He had known that afternoon, when the girl got to her feet; now, walking and standing, her turned out hips were too obvious.  “Tams, my darling, you should have told me your real name.”

There were times, Lambert had learned, when the truth defies rational explanation.  He had travelled widely and seen enough to know this to be true. 

“Lambert, what have you done to me?”  Tasmyn’s voice pleaded.  “What have you done?”

“I’ve brought you to face your past.”

No further words were spoken.  The two figures stepped towards each other and embraced.  And when the embrace was ended, only one very old woman stood on the platform at Brueburn Halt.  As she wavered and seemed she might fall, Lambert came to her, supporting her.  From her quivering fingers he took a small, green ticket.

“You won’t be needing this now.”  He said.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

A Material Girl

This week’s short story contribution from the archives:

She did not remember when it began.

At first it was not a fear – not as such; but just a nagging sensation that something she had accepted without question for so long, was no longer quite right.  Ella considered this as she loaded the washing machine – was it a sound that first alerted her?  If so, when?  Days ago?  weeks?  Months, maybe?  No, not years.  It couldn’t possibly have been as long as a year…

Perhaps it wasn’t a sound at all. After all, this was a utility room, and no matter how expensively equipped, it was often filled with sound:  hard, practical sound.  So perhaps it was one of those taut strings in her brain slightly vibrating; at so low a tone, at so deep a frequency she couldn’t actually hear it.  Or even the cool basement air, so exquisitely conditioned by the silent machinery of the house.  It was simply – there.

And now it was louder.   Or more vibrant.  Or rarified to such an extent she had difficulty in breathing.  Which was why she always stayed close to the door, ashamed to admit to an instinct to actually run, yet comforted by the firm feel of the latch behind her.  She couldn’t account for it.

Above her head, the games room with its snooker table solidity was empty, now that James no longer played.  It was kept locked.  So the unpleasantness, whatever it was, couldn’t emanate from there.

She emptied her basket of clothing into the washer, reflecting how small her needs were, now her husband had gone.  A single wash each week was well within the capacity of these glorious machines, so, much as she admired them as possessions, they tested her strong sense of practicality; and she really did not like being here, in this windowless room, in this stately old house.  

Ella’s reaction to the room was shared.  Angelina, her erstwhile housekeeper, had been equally reluctant to spend time down here.  In fact the woman had refused point-blank to go anywhere near the utility room in the end.

“Is bad place!  Very bad!  I am not surprised if dead people under floor in there!”

Angelina had talents in other directions which removed any question of dismissing her at the time, so Ella had choked back her own hatred of the place and taken the task of loading and discharging the machines upon herself.     But now?  A more modest utility space would suffice, would it not?  And in place of this?   Machine set, she retreated to the door, casting a backward glance over those smooth, tiles, clad walls and shining steel appliances.  A basement swimming pool maybe?  Then at least if Angelina’s suspicions were correct, the digging process would surely find out.   She would suggest this to Maggie when they met this morning.  Maggie would agree, of course.  She always did.

Maggie and Ella had remained fast friends since their childhood years:  same school, same tough, ghetto estate.  Two girls alike in their gritty approach to life, both firm in their intention to raise themselves above their impoverished beginnings, determined to consign the famine of their early years to memory.  Each had known a measure of success:  Maggie’s was a successful business, carefully honed into a franchise that had gone ‘national’ more than a decade since.   And she had married well, too:  Fergus, her husband, ran a flourishing construction business.  Maggie seemed happy with him, something Ella could not quite understand.

It was many years since the pair of lifelong friends had joined hands in a pledge that nothing; least of all love, should distract them from their ambitions.  No man would stand between them and fortune, though men were not without use; far from it.  To marry well was imperative; the fast track to a fortune:  to love, however; that was anathema to their plans.  Affection should never cause them to swerve or falter along their certain road to riches.

 “He should be rich, and he should be good-looking, if possible.”  Ella decreed.  “It would help if he was older; much older.”

“So far,”  Maggie commented, “I’ve found those things rarely go hand in hand.”

“Which makes the challenge all the greater!”  Ella said.  “But once you have found him…”

“Never let him go?”

“God, no!  We want the money, not the man.  Money and independence, Mags!  Think of it!”

“Divorce, then?”

Ella reflected for a moment.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  Are you with me?”

“Hell, yeah!”

A few years would have to pass before Maggie and Ella were at the same party as multi-millionaire James Morgan Maltravers.  Ella set her cap at the fifty-year-old socialite so single-mindedly most who witnessed it agreed the poor man had no hope of escape.  Comments frequently referred to Ella’s ‘claws’, but she was unabashed.  Their marriage adorned the pages of ‘Hello’, helicopters almost drowned out the utterance of their vows.  Maggie, a strangely sad maid of honour, watched as her friend pledged her life to James Maltravers.  Should Ella have noticed?  Should she have seen those first signs that Maggie’s resolve was showing signs of weakening?

The honeymoon was barely over when Ella and Maggie met for coffee.  Maggie’s eyes betrayed her fervour of anticipation:  “So, when’s the divorce?”  It was only half a joke.

Ella bit her lip.   “It isn’t quite that simple.”  She admitted.

“How do you mean?”

“His people made me sign a pre-nup.  If I leave, I get only the contents of my suitcase. “

“Zounds!”  Maggie buried her lip in her coffee cup.  “Wedded bliss, then.  Poor you!”  

“For a while, perhaps.”  Ella acknowledged, thoughtfully.  “The pre-nup doesn’t cover death.  I was able to negotiate that, at least.  If he dies, the majority of his estate comes to me.”

“Ella!  You’d murder him?”

“No, no.  Of course not.  Would I?”

“Quite possibly.”

“Well, I wouldn’t.  For a start, his family lawyers are firmly convinced I’m a gold-digger and they will be watching me like hawks.  Nevertheless there are ways…”

Ella found ample compensation in the loveless years that followed.  She had, after all, largely achieved her dream – a mansion in a leafy suburb and a fantasy lifestyle.  Only Maggie, who knew Ella so well, and one other, could discern the substance behind Ella’s mysterious comment; ‘there are ways’.  Although Ella never elaborated further, Maggie watched her friend’s relentless pursuit of her scheme with a mixture of grudging admiration and horror as James Maltravers’ naturally quite retiring nature was subjected to a social maelstrom of parties, a crammed agenda of political projects, and  a frenetic succession of exotic foreign vacations.   

The one other was Angelina, whose position as Ella’s housekeeper seemed extremely secure and comfortable.  Angelina was discreet: discreet about her employers’ sexual athletics, even though at times she found it difficult to get out of their way, and reserved in her opinion concerning the growing regimen of prescribed medicines in James’s bathroom cabinet.  Angelina’s special talent was cooking; and her remarkable ability to cram the maximum amount of calories into the least plate-space.

You see, Ella had discovered James’s weakness.  James was addicted to food.  Looking on, she pecked like a bird at her own portions while her husband, kept afloat on a pontoon of alchohol, wolfed his way through trenchers of buttered vegetables, roasted meats and compound sauces.   As a reward, Ella might have expected James’s girth to reflect the richness of his diet, as Angelina’s undoubtedly did.  But no, he remained as slim as a whip while his pallor altered from a healthy pink, through beetroot red, to an ominous grey.

Meanwhile, the good life was there to be lived, so Ella lived it to the full.  She lacked for nothing other than the independence she craved, and the only smeary bit on her rose-tinted window was Maggie.  Somehow her friend had lost enthusiasm for the aims they had shared.  Despite Ella’s urgent warnings, rather than reap the harvest of her success in business, Maggie had chosen to marry Fergus.  They shared a gentle, almost resigned affection Ella could not penetrate, no matter how often she reminded her friend of their original vows to one another.  Maggie’s only response would be a sad smile, which Ella suspected was an expression of pity.

“Look, Mags, you’ve done well, there’s no denying.  You’re wealthy,  even.  But you haven’t got to where we promised to be:  you can’t leave your business, so there are no summers on the Riviera, no homes in the Bahamas.  There’s no yacht in your harbour.  You’ve given up on it, girl!”

Maggie replied with that same smile.   “No, I haven’t.  Give me some time.”

This conversation was raised again in the year of Ella’s twelfth wedding anniversary, when her beloved husband’s overloaded flesh finally surrendered to a massive heart attack which, by the time Ella had found the telephone to summon medical help, had already proved fatal.  Maggie attended the funeral; more in support of her friend than for any other apparent reason, because Ella was being shunned by James’s family, and together they indulged in a little genteel weeping.

“He was such a kind man.”

“He was always so thoughtful.   How is Fergus?”

“Healthy.”

The subject came to prominence just once more, on the first anniversary of the passing of James Maltravers.   Maggie’s mobile fluttered.   

“Mags sweetie.  Come over for coffee, yes?   Or maybe something stronger?  It’s a year today, after all!  Kind of a celebration, here, and me rattling round this great mausoleum all by myself.”

“You sound sort of scared?”

“I’ve been in that damn laundry room again.  It seriously spooks me, that place.”

Maggie arrived within the hour, bearing Champagne.  “Where’s Angelina?”  She asked, as soon as she arrived.

“Hell, Mags, where you been?   I had to let her go; oh, ages back.”   Ella dismissed any possibility of conversation on that subject with an airy gesture.  For some reason she felt she should not admit to ‘paying Angelina off’.

“So you’re here on your own now?”

“Isn’t it wonderful?  I’ll get some fresh help, of course; but just for a while an echo or two seems good.”

“Yeah, dust is good.  What was it you said:  ‘rattling around in this mausoleum’?”

“I was depressed.  I’d been loading up the washer downstairs.  I’ve been thinking: maybe it would be better to have a pool down there, how about that?”

“Don’t rush into it.”

“Come on, babe, let’s get canned, yeah?”

Maggie understood it had not been an easy year for Ella:  James’s will had been contested, and yes, there was some unpleasantness, although nothing Ella couldn’t handle.   In the end, she had her inheritance.   She was a multi-millionaire; a status she had always sought.   Yet she seemed almost to prefer the solitude of her widowhood, for no-one with her kind of riches could fail to attract company of one sort or another.  The magnificent proportions of the house, with its endless corridors and extravagant excess of marble would have been intimidating to any lesser woman.   Why did the words ‘as cold as her heart’ pass through Maggie’s head?

The anniversary became an uninhibited morning lubricated by very good champagne, and by the time Maggie had poured out ‘one last drinkie’  Ella was drunk beyond shame.  She proclaimed her intention to go to bed.

“I’ve just got to take out some washing from the ‘chine.  That goddam noise, it’s so loud now.  I hate it!”

“You go ahead, Ell.  I’ll see myself out, yeah?”

So Ella was alone as she snaked her way down the stairs to the utility room in Maltravers House; buoyed up by wine and unsympathetically inclined towards those odd vibrations:  those sounds.   Yet once she was inside – once she had closed the door behind her – they found her again.   Louder now; much, much louder, like the tick of a thousand clocks they found resonance with the champaigne bubbles in her head and turned it:  around, and around, and around.    Stranded somewhere between anger and fear, Ella made a grab for her washing basket, missed, and crashed to the floor.  She was drunk – much drunker than she had thought.  Cursing, she raised herself and attempted to crawl towards the washing machine that waited for her at the centre of the bank of machines.  There seemed to be more and more machines:  washers and driers, pressers and steamers in ranks of cold steel that whirled about her.  What was happening to her head?   Her vision danced, her eyes were blurring.

At the edge of consciousness, Ella fell back onto the floor of the utility room.   Above her, faded and indistinct at first although growing in clarity with every moment, she thought she saw the image of her husband crucified against the ceiling, his body half in decay, his eye sockets empty, his outstretched arms festooned with rotted flesh.   Did she scream?   Was there anyone to hear her, to hear the explosion of noise, the staccato cracking rupture of the beams above her head?  ?  How profound was her terror as the ghost of James Maltravers rushed down upon her, to wrap her in a final, deadly embrace?

Maggie’s attorney laid aside any doubt.   “Your agreement with Mrs. Maltravers stands.   It has not been superseded by any new bequests.”

Maggie knew that it had not.  Ella had always been honest with her.  “I get everything then?”   She recalled the day, all those years ago, when she had sat in this same office with her friend as they pledged that whatever fortunes each should make, they would bequeath to the other.  

The attorney nodded.  “All of it.  The Maltraver’s estate with all of its liquid assets, property and land.  Now you have to decide when and how you wish me to initiate your divorce proceedings.”

As she opened the door to the street Maggie breathed deeply.   She had played a game and won!   She had been patient, she had taken her time, watching Ella’s scheming and revelling in the element of chance, the randomness of her own little plot.

The coroner had remarked upon the unusually localised nature of death watch beetle infestation in the Maltravers mansion, but conceded it was not unusual for these pests to make their home in old timbers.  The beams beneath the snooker table in the games room had been eaten through by the creatures, so it was only a matter of time before the 2400lb table plummeted through the floor into the utility room below.   The collapse of the table’s heavy Victorian lighting canopy and its impact like a hammer blow upon the table had triggered the process.   He recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Maggie, of course, knew why the infestation had been so concentrated.  She knew because she had put the beetles there, culture upon culture of them, down the years; and when Ella had described the loudness of ticking sounds she heard on that fateful morning, Maggie knew her moment had come.  While Ella, filled with Maggie’s drugged wine, was descending to the basement,  Maggie was upstairs, letting herself into the games room.   That rotten canopy needed no more than a nudge to bring it crashing down.

And now she had one more appointment to keep.   Angelina would be waiting for her in Starbucks.

Angelina and Maggie had known one another a long time, but their relationship had become much closer in the last year.   Angelina had supplied a copy key to the games room because, after Ella had dismissed her, she was no longer able to assist with Maggie’s sabotage.  Angelina, who knew everything, and who was already handsomely rewarded for her silence, was about to have another major payday.

Maggie ordered coffee, sat down opposite the big woman, and handed her an envelope.   When Angelina opened the envelope to reveal the check inside, her eyes widened.   “This is big, big lot of money!”

Maggie nodded.

“I do not ask for so much…”

Maggie stretched out both her hands and grasped Angelina’s pudgy fingers.  “We’re friends, aren’t we?   This is yours, you’ve earned it; you’re a rich woman now.  Together, Angie, we can go on and make this grow.  We can make much, much more money.”

“You would do that with me?”

“Yes!  Of course, yes!   That’s what friends do – they help each other.   All I ask in return is one little condition; an agreement, if you like.   If I die, Angie, all my money will go to you.   Yes; yes it will!  And I would like you to agree to do the same for me…”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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