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Family Of Strangers

Family Of Strangers

Book excerpt

Found and Lost

She found me a short while later, sitting on a bench as far from the gate as I could get. Hands folded in my lap and my mind far away, the first I knew of her presence was when her hand gently covered mine. Although it was an unexpected touch from a stranger, my instincts didn't cause me to jump or recoil and I looked up into her face. `May I join you?' she enquired gently, although she didn't wait for me to answer.

Looking back now, I realise that I'd felt safety in the way she held my hand beneath hers.

Up until that act of warm companionship, I'd felt more frightened than I had ever imagined possible. My hand had relaxed beneath hers; just one part of me that felt some release from fear.

This diminutive lady holding my hand made me think of a child holding the string of a balloon, feeling it bouncing and bobbing in the wind, where release would see it escape high into the endless sky. Then it would drift and bob through clouds and breeze, until it grew too small for the limits of the eye and would never be seen again. I thought I could be the balloon and reality was this old lady's grip, from which I could easily slip away. I didn't want her to let go.

My day already felt so unreal that a tea invite from a little old lady I'd only just met seemed almost normal in comparison. It had started off just like any of a hundred other days before, with not a hint of what would soon be revealed.

I used to work in a shop, a small and friendly place. In the twenty-four months I worked there I'd grown fond of all Mr Grayson's regular customers knowing their likes and dislikes and, for a few, their peculiarities. Mr Grayson and his wife are very kind and I've always been happy in their company. My job was like a comfortable pair of slippers or an old jumper; it was reassuring and familiar. Over time it moulded to fit me, and me to it I suppose, the same way that the town I live in seems to have done.

Fielding is a small, uncomplicated place; the main street runs straight through the centre like the unyielding trunk of a tall tree – there are the usual parks, houses, schools and shops which run through the centre, providing its core and centre of activity. A church stands at the very edge of the town with a farm to its left. There are fields curling around to the right and the church’s face is turned to the town it serves. It sits slightly raised on a natural incline befitting its status, its foundations laid two hundred years ago and its doors perpetually open.

I wasn't raised in Fielding but spent my childhood in the arms of its close and smaller neighbour, Rushton. Rather than following the widespread tradition of leaving home only when marriage enveloped me, I moved to Fielding on my own in May 1937 having found my job and a lovely couple to lodge with. My new independence fitted, as they say, like a glove.

I know I took my straightforward and happy life for granted, rather than realising how fortunate I'd always been to live in security and contentment.

The day I found myself sitting in the park was during a strange time of nationwide doubt and insecurity. So many people were voicing their opinions about if and when our country and its men might once again have to step forward and face the horrors of war. Although too young to have experienced the Great War – I was born in the year it ended – the ripples and repercussions are still felt often and stories, anger and sadness are effortlessly stirred. It's an old wound and although from outward signs it appears largely healed, it remains so fragile that even the slightest trauma can cause the sticky blood of recollection to flow freely once again.

I prayed many times that we wouldn't be thrown into such terror once more. The most common opinion at the time was that conflict was certain, but we could find reassurance in the fact that all would be over by Christmas. I certainly hoped the forecast would prove true, although some voices were heard muttering that we'd all said that before. I'd not known the paralysing fear of waving goodbye to a loved one until, uniform clad, they disappeared from sight for months or forever. In my innocence, despite the rumbling throb of unease always just audible throughout our daily lives, I had been free of care or worry. Such fear was, for the moment, unknown to me.

Saturdays were, and still are, my favourite day of the week although my habits have changed a little now. My old routine was to hop on the bus, as soon as work finished at one, and travel the eight miles to Rushton to spend the afternoon with my closest friend, Annie. This often included a trip to the library to restock, with us comparing notes and recommending new reading matter to each other. I don't have so much time for reading now and the library only welcomes me now and then, as you would a distant but much loved friend.

Many of my old Saturdays were completed by sharing one of Aunt Kathleen's lovely family meals. I'm smiling now as Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Bob are always telling me I must visit more often, even though I never fail to pop in whenever I'm back in Rushton.  As is a customary sign of respect, I grew up calling Annie's parents Aunt and Uncle; I still do, even now.

Despite all the changes that the world absorbs, we always seemed cocooned in our two friendly towns. As my own little world felt warm and safe the occasional signs of bigger worldly changes – such as the lack of availability of certain things in the shops, or rumours of evacuations, or the drafting of young men – almost didn't feel real. Back then I carried on with life mostly unchanged. There was, of course, the occasional conversation with people visiting the shop about what may or may not happen in the months to come; sometimes I heard similar talk among those passing their time in the street. But things happened to other people, not me, and life in our closely linked towns carried on undisturbed and unchanged.

Beginning and End

On the Saturday in April when I thought life ended, I stepped onto the bus bound for Rushton and sat in my usual seat two rows behind the regular driver of the route. Eight miles later, I let a quick goodbye float over my shoulder as I hopped down the bus steps and headed for the library. Annie wasn't outside, so I ventured in to look for her. We never had a set plan of where to meet; sometimes it was outside, at other times we found each other inside among the deliciously long corridors of books which waited to reveal their stories to us.

As Annie wasn't yet there I wandered up and down, occasionally taking a book down from a shelf to decide if it would be going home with me. If books were living things, I wondered if they would hold their breath with anticipation when lifted from the shelf to be considered. Maybe they would then sigh dejectedly through their silent pages if replaced. I whispered `sorry' as I replaced a book and smiled to myself as I walked along the aisle. I'd have to tell Annie; it would make her laugh.

The minutes passed. Annie wasn't there. An hour passed. Annie wasn't there.

I'd collected a few books as I strolled between the shelves, two for me and one that I thought Annie might enjoy, but I couldn't wait in line to sign them out. I left them on a lone chair at the end of one of the literary rows, something I would normally frown upon if I saw another patron do the same, and hurriedly left. Something inside me was disturbed, unsettled, but I couldn't find the source of it, the reason remained just out of reach. Annie was never late; maybe my disquiet came from a concern that she was unwell.

I was at her house in ten minutes, when it would usually have taken twenty.

`Hi!' I called breathlessly, pushing open the back door. `Aunt Kathleen, Uncle Bob! Annie, are you home?' The sing-song tone of my casual greeting was ringing in my ears, a smooth veneer covering rough edges of unease which grew sharper as worry chipped away at them.

`Hello lovely,' smiled Uncle Bob, coming in after me from the garden. `I didn't expect to see you today.' He kissed me on the cheek and went to the sink to wash the earth from his hardworking hands. I looked at the back of his dear, balding head as he stood at the deep white stone sink. Turning to face me, he picked up the towel to dry his rough hands.

`I confess that I wasn't actually planning to come by today, Uncle Bob, but I'm looking for Annie.' No time for happy and pointless small talk.

Then it came.

The moment my life changed.

`Sorry love, I don't know her. Does your Auntie Kath?' Uncle Bob was now rummaging and rattling about in a drawer. `Ah, there you are.' He held up a ball of twine, proudly showing me what he'd discovered in the drawer's chaotic depths. `Got a few jobs to do down at the veg plot today, so I won't stop. Tell Aunt Kath to put the kettle on in a bit, will you love? Come for dinner soon, won't you?'

Then he kissed me again and was gone.

I stood there, completely immobile, staring after Uncle Bob through the kitchen window as he disappeared down the path and out of view, waving a hand up to me without turning around. He can't have heard me properly, I reasoned, as I repeated his words in my head. As there was no sign of my aunt, I headed through the hall towards the front of the house then turned and jogged up the narrow stairs. I turned right at the top, towards Annie's room.

`Annie? Are you there?' Annie's bedroom door opened slowly with my tentative nudge. I stood in the doorway staring, realising a second later that my mouth had dropped open. There was no Annie, but there was also no Annie's room. The space that had been Annie's – where we'd spent many hours as we grew up, giggling and imagining, playing make believe – was gone.

The walls were bereft of Annie's few pictures. None of her personal things seemed to be there. No dressing gown thrown across the bed, nor books on the nightstand. No hairbrush on the dressing table or tatty childhood teddy bear on the chair. No notebooks with oddments of paper sticking out, or a mound of pencils and pens. The furniture remained, but nothing more. I crossed the room to the chest of drawers to find them now containing pillowcases and sheets. The wardrobe then; an old winter coat of my Aunt's, Uncle Bob's dual-use wedding and funeral suit. I felt sick and covered my mouth with my hand.

Footsteps climbed the stairs behind me. A voice.

`Hello Eva. Were you looking for me?'

I spun around when I felt my aunt's hand on my arm.

`Um, no, I was actually looking for Annie. We were supposed to be meeting at the library.' My aunt's face confirmed that Uncle Bob had heard me correctly, and he wasn't the only one having some sort of breakdown – she looked concerned for me, as though I was the one who was confused.

Then her words confirmed it.

`Are you alright? Come and sit down, love.' She looked so worried, but I felt no warm flood of affection or reassuring comfort at her concern. All I felt was anger. It was an emotion that I now knew I'd never experienced the full force of before. Until this moment, I'd pinned the word anger to feelings which could be better labelled as irritation, frustration or annoyance. This was the first time I'd ever had true cause to be angry and the sensation was hard and unpleasant, sitting like a cold jagged rock in the depths of my stomach after scratching the back of my throat on the way down. This new emotion, until then a stranger, made my head heavy and every muscle tense. I struggled to talk through this intense new feeling and the dry abrasiveness in my throat.

`The last thing I want to do is sit down Aunt Kathleen.' The sharp tone to my voice surprised me as it left my lips because I'd never raised my voice to her in my life. `Where's Annie? Where are all her things? What's going on?' The questions tumbled out, falling over each other and giving her no time to respond in between. I stopped to watch her. And waited. Her puzzled eyes gazed at me for a moment, as if she was working out what to say or do next.

`Darling, please sit down. Are you poorly?' She put her hand up to feel my forehead but I pulled away. There was a noise downstairs. My aunt half turned her head as if to direct her voice over her shoulder and down the stairs, still watching me all the while. `Bob? Is that you? Eva's not well. Can you come up?' Her expression, and the way her voice was projected down the stairs while she blocked my path, reminded me of the day she'd found a little bird who'd managed to get lost and make its way down the chimney into the living room. She'd cornered it, blocking its escape to freedom, while calling over her shoulder for my Uncle Bob to come and help. Maybe he'd catch me in a pillowcase too, and set me free outside.

She turned back to me `Come on love – stay with us for a few days so we can look after you. Are you feverish? You must have a temperature, you're delirious.' One hand rose again to cup my forehead, the other firmly held my elbow as if she expected me to collapse. I yanked my arm away.

`Really, I'm fine. It's you two who are sick, not me. Where's your daughter?' The words were spat rather than spoken.

`Eva, you're not making any sense love.' Her voice was slow and soft. `We live on our own. Since you moved to Fielding it's just the two of us. There are no children, sweetheart, you know that.' She sighed and sank into the old wicker chair which waited faithfully on the landing to be called into service, always there but rarely used.

Uncle Bob had reached the stairs and was standing still, as if frozen in motion, halfway up. Pictures flashed through my mind from a book of Sleeping Beauty that I'd had when I was small. All the castle residents had been frozen, at the very moment the princess pricked her finger, part way through whatever task they'd been undertaking at the time; a maid cleaning, a cook stirring something on the range, a guard outside the palace gates, a little boy chasing a dog in the courtyard. Uncle Bob had joined them, immobile as a statue. He still had the ball of twine in his hand, which if not for the awful scene that was being played out, might have seemed amusing. Now, however, it seemed as if he'd just been waiting, string in hand, to climb the stairs. Now the string seemed almost threatening, as if he was approaching to truss up the madwoman standing at the top of his stairs.

Watching me, Aunt Kath called, ‘Get the doctor, Bob'. She spoke the words too loudly, as if she thought Uncle Bob was further away than he was.

`I… don't… need… a… doctor,' I enunciated slowly, offering them one syllable at a time. Recovering, my aunt stood, putting her arm around my shoulder. I shrugged her away for a third time, pushing past her and knocking into Uncle Bob's arm as I hurried down the stairs. `This is ridiculous!' I threw the words out behind me with venom. `I'm going back to the library. She's bound to be there by now. Then Annie can tell me what this ridiculous charade is all about.'

I stopped and turned at the bottom of the stairs and was met by the twine that I'd dislodged from Uncle Bob's hand. It had bounced down the stairs after me, as if also trying to escape. It now lay unravelled and tangled at my feet. I looked back as my aunt who had joined my uncle at his halfway point, his arm winding protectively around her slumped frame. My anger was fading and morphing from rock hard rage into delicate, fragile and trembling fear.

`I don't know what on earth you're doing, but this has to stop right now.' I paused, hoping for explanation. `Have you had a row with Annie?' Then I asked a little more softly, `What can be so bad that you'd disown her?' I sighed and shook my head, a touch of exasperation joining the fear and confusion and mixing into a strange cocktail I didn't like the taste of.

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