When you want for company, your judgement slips. You talk to people that you shouldn’t. You offer kindness to the undeserving. Sometimes you’re even foolish enough to give your ear to children, who I’m sorry to tell you are the most undeserving of all.
I think old people should be allowed to decorate their houses as they see fit. I like yellow and green and candy pink. And I like window boxes and hanging baskets and flowers. If I were to make a bunch of marzipan flowers and put them on a cake, people would smile, but when I hang them in my window, people say I’ve lost my mind. What’s the difference? No one eats them either way. I tell this to the upper body of the woman in the post office, who may be standing behind the counter or sitting on a high stool, or, for all I know, have no legs at all. She scowls through the glass screen at the world on the other side – the world where the rest of us live. She watches us as she might the umpteenth rerun of an old film, hardly bothering to focus because she already knows how it ends. She stamps the book, licks her thumb and counts out my money on top. Then she posts the package back at me through the letter box sized gap at the bottom of the glass. It’s like a game of pass the parcel, only without music or wrapping paper or bonhomie and in which the person who ends up with the parcel seems to be the loser. The game ends. She gazes through me while I shuffle away and am replaced by the next scene.
Outside, though the cold nips at my knees through sagging tights, I break sweat under the weight of my bags and my own tired body, and the stairs I have yet to climb. They are well used stairs – homely, you might say if what you meant was a slightly shabby place where people sit around and chat and sleep and empty their bladders. I’ve heard it’s worse after the fourth floor but I live on the third so I wouldn’t know. I’ve no interest in the unfortunates living higher up and for the most part they’re kind enough not to visit me. So you can imagine that when I turned onto the walkway and found the girl leaned up against my front door I was taken by surprise. Her legs were stretched out in front of her, across the width of the walkway and her body was slumped forward so that her face hung over her knees. She may have been dribbling – it’s hard to remember details now – but the overall impression was that of a sock once full of bird seed intended for sparrows having since been ravished by crows; A once upon a time plump and appetising thing now meagre and wretched and waiting for the end to come. The girl looks up with a face that hasn’t seen water for days – except perhaps for a few angry tears – and mumbles something about bread. She says that her father has sent her away. What else could I do?
I look away as she gulps the tea down and eats my last piece of fruitcake in two gruesome mouthfuls. It’s clear that I need to have manners for the both of us. It is bizarre, after so many years, to sit across from another person at my kitchen table – a person whose cheeks are bulging as unapologetically as her constantly swinging legs are scuffing my floor. I worry about the lino – thinking that I’ll have to use bleach to bring the peppermint stripes back up to a shine – and this is why it’s only when she’s gone that I notice that my flowers have gone along with her. I guess if you’re hungry enough everything tastes good, even marzipan.
Fortunately all of this happens on a Monday – the day on which I always make a fresh batch – so I busy myself with pinks and purples and set about forgetting the girl with her sagging seedy body and dirty face. If only she had forgotten me.
She comes back on a Friday – when the air is thick with baking because it’s shortbread day. She refuses to move back from the front door, even when I threaten her with a can of whipped cream.
‘I have something for you auntie’, she says, and I say I don’t want anything that a person like her has to give me, but she sends them through anyway – first one, then two, and then a shower of silver coins. They drop down onto the doormat, waiting for me to pick them up. It takes a while for me to bend these days and while I’m at it she pokes her fingers through the letter box, lifting the flap so that our eyes meet, through the small rectangular opening, from our respective sides of the door. It feels familiar somehow – not dissimilar to my interactions with the woman at the post office except that she makes no effort to be anything more tempting than half a body, content to keep the colour of its eyes hidden behind tinted specs and a thick glass screen. On the other side of my letterbox now, a full complement of body parts linger – fingers with gnawed cuticles, and lips gripped between teeth, and eyes dark and sweet as chocolate.
‘Can I come in?’ she asks. What could I do?
Another surprise comes when I realise that she’s not alone, but by the time I have the wherewithal to protest they’re already inside. The girl has brought a friend along – a boy, I see – who is little more than an Adam’s apple and legs.
‘He’s my brother’, she says and the Adam’s apple appraises me through stubby lashes and lifts one of his wispy limbs in greeting. They are neither of them big, but still they manage to fill my hallway with dangling shadows – the kind that Daddy longlegs throw on summer nights when they puff themselves up and play tricks with the light. The girl is clutching a plastic bag in her fist and it’s not only because it is full of silver that I invite them to follow me into the back room. Perhaps I am nervous. Or lonely. Oh how loneliness addles the brain.
They seem happy enough sitting in the wingback chairs on either side of my old sideboard. They admire my collection of chocolate dolls and, when invited, pull fistfuls of fruit jellies from the mason jars in which I’ve kept them since some pre-millenial Christmas. The girl tells stories – sad and shocking ones – involving an indifferent father, a string of criminal stepmothers and some dubious moral choices. The boy nods his head in agreement though his scrawny neck seems to baulk at the task. The girl does all the talking, and says, once she has opened the bag so that I have a good view of the silver coins,
‘We can pay our way.’
The girl and her brother stay the winter, eating my cakes and marzipan leaves and only stepping out every once in a while to replenish the sugar and top up the coins. It seems rude to ask where the silver comes from, so I don’t, but whenever they slip me a coin or three I add extra sugar to their treats – coconut drops and apple pies and flapjacks drowned in molasses. We stick together – a simple matter of fair exchange. The two of them start to fill their skins and I can pay the electric bill. I clear the arrears all in one go, and this is clearly, for the woman in the post office, a plot twist of sorts. She looks at me, instead of through, and blinks. Her stamp, with its regulation red ink, is caught in a fleeting hover before it comes banging down. Subtle differences I know, but so often the ones on which stories rise and fall.
On valentines day I pull a tray of cupcakes from the oven. While I wait for them to cool I find myself singing out loud – a song I’m surprised to remember, from a distant place that I’ve long forgotten. What is it that invites memory I wonder? The view from this window perhaps? The green revealed now that the frost has cleared, with it’s clusters of purple crocus heads sprung up in hope – colours to remind us that somewhere in time, brighter, warmer places exist? A double edged sword if ever there was one; nostalgia and anticipation, equally ready to cut you down. The girl is standing in the doorway, twisting a plait between nail bitten fingers.
‘Auntie’, she says, ‘we’re going home’.
It shouldn’t have surprised me I know, or made me so sad, and I should have let them go, I really should. You must understand how bright the colours – the green and purple mingling outside, the unrelenting red of the icing in the bowl in front of me. Life at its most vivid and insistent, was all around.
They soon get used to the routine – leaving the house only one at a time, the door locked behind them, the key tied to a liquorice lace around my neck. While one slips out into the dusk with the packages – sherbert wraps, fondant sticks – the other frets, and they take it in turns to whine and scratch the varnish from my sideboard. Nothing seems to calm them now, not candy sticks or sugared almonds, not even Turkish Delight. I think its because their teeth are gone and their arteries are starting to stick. Whichever one of them is out on the street knows not to come back until the goods are sold and not, for the sake of their sibling’s health, to stay out beyond sunrise. I spend the early mornings counting coins, and tying them in bags, which I stash under my bed.
The woman in the post office snatches my book away and tears the cover in two. There are questions I need to answer, she says, a number I need to call. She doesn’t give me the number and I don’t ask for it.
‘I guess that makes me self-employed?’ I say, and she doesn’t laugh. I guess she’s seen that film before – the one in which poor people use humour instead of murder to stave off hunger. She doesn’t know that I’ve rewritten this script – that I now have multiple income streams, that the pension book was never going to make the director’s cut.
Sometimes when the girl and her brother come back, they trail blood into the house. Fighting, I think, with other youngsters who’d have your eye out for a bit of fudge and a liquorice all sort.
‘Cut down on the sugar’ I tell them, but they rarely respond – barely have one eye to open between them. They hardly move at all these days unless it’s to burn holes in my furniture and steal my fresh macaroons. I’m beginning to understand why their father sent them away. It’s a good job I’ve got counting to do – bags of silver under the bed and of late, a little gold too.
I have to cut the plug from the TV. You’d think addiction was something new the way these ad campaigns run from morning til night. I’ve no energy for telling children to ‘just say no’ anymore than I have for telling ants to sit still. Why waste breath on idle persuasion when a honey trap will do? A knob of butter rolled in sugar keeps them – children and ants alike – occupied for hours. If only killing the TV was enough. It becomes clear, on the morning that the bullets come through the door with the post, that we can’t stop the outside world from encroaching on our sweet little lives.
The girl watches her brother trembling in his sleep – a recent habit – and asks what we’re going to do. I pull two bags from under the bed – silver, not gold – and tell her to get us protection. She’s quick on her feet that one – returns with a piece wrapped in cloth even before the fudge is set. It’s an impressive piece – heavy as a skillet; quicker than peanut brittle to break your teeth. That too goes under the bed, double wrapped, wedged between the silver and gold.
Sugar is everywhere, flooding the markets and whispers carry up from the stairwells warning that these are times in which anything can happen. I have bars fitted to my windows and a grill over the door – unsightly additions that make me want to weep. Wrapping them with coconut ice helps some, but not much. There is a narrow hatch in the door grill, which we can unlock to let in the post. I add this key to the lace around my neck and button my cardigan over the top. I can’t be too careful these days – more than once I’ve caught the girl looking at me as though I’m an insect she’d like to crush. I give her extra sherbert but even that keeps her happy for only a minute. Everytime I look in the sitting room I find her crying over the boy. He barely moves, except for his Adam’s apple, which pulses like the gills of a fish stranded in air. She begs me.
‘Easy to say you want to go home’, I tell her, ‘but after so long, I doubt you’ll remember the way’ That’s when she calls me a witch and I tell her she has no empathy and shed some tears of my own. Does she not think of me, I ask, boiling and stirring day after day, shrivelling up with age in front of my own oven?
Noone likes to argue though, especially not me, so by way of apology I make tea and cut slices of sweet potato pudding and we eat – even the boy manages a few crumbs – and after that we reward ourselves with an afternoon nap. I lie on my bed and dream that underneath it, instead of bags of silver, there are steaming bowls of soup. It’s funny how what’s sweet and shiny can make you forget about good things – yam and potato and plain flour dumplings.
I wake to familiar sounds – the girl and her brother coughing and crying and scrabbling under the sideboard no doubt looking for dropped crumbs. I hear them unwrapping the last of the jellies – crackling the papers and throwing them down. Crackling and scuffling like they own the place. Is it my nose or mouth that registers first – the sweet saute of candy floss, the honeycomb left too long in the pan, the barbecue run away with itself, the quiet creep of smoke? My strawberry lace is gone, and with it, the key, and the children. So ungrateful. So undeserving.
It’s hard to believe that the screams come from me, shrill enough to break out through the bars and grills, and to ricochet off of the walls of a grimy stairwell and still find no place to go. The cupboards crack and spit as they burn. All around me the perfume of fritters and toffee and flambe desserts. Food to die for.
A pair of fools they were too, to think that they could lock me in and leave me to cook. People have some strange ideas about old women who dabble in marzipan – even when they don’t live in little cottages in the wood.
‘Don’t worry love’. He has a reassuringly low register, this man – a voice that rumbles through the space between his helmet and his combat boots and seems to give an extra polish to the high vis stripes on his sleeves. There are others around, trailing bolt cutters and hoses, amid blue flashing lights, but it’s his rumble that I lean into as he carries me down the stairs.
‘It’s alright‘ he says, ‘You’re safe now’.
Once he’s deposited me in the back of an ambulance – just precautionary, he assures me – he pushes his helmet back and looks upwards, to where dampened smoke continues to spill from my broken windows. I can’t help but think what a youthful face it is, gazing up from its sturdy neck, shaking its head as it shares its suspicions
‘Deliberate I reckon’ he says, ‘though we can’t say for sure until the police have been in.’
‘Soon get to the bottom of it’ he says. ‘We always do.’
Why is it that we always want to get to the bottom of things? Why does an ending always have to involve the unearthing of missing pieces – dubious treasures dug out from the dark corners of cellars or attics or pulled from the backs of wardrobes? Imagine how much more appealing a film this would be if the bottom of things could be edited out? How much more fascinating an ending we might have if we skipped this particular cliché – if noone looked under the bed?
The ambulance doors are about to close. My saviour rumbles a brief goodbye. The reassuring hand he places on my shoulder transmits his words as a vibration through my bones
‘Just kids, I expect’.
‘Yes’ I say. ‘Just kids.’