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The Widow's Tale by Tom Melly

© Tom Melly

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I hadn’t noticed him at the funeral, or at the house afterwards, but others had. ‘Skulking around,’ was how one of the twins described him, although now of course she doesn’t remember him at all.

His absence from my recollection of that day is not, I suppose, that surprising. I had been in the front row in the church, counting the broken panes in the stained glass and watching a minute spider make its way across a prayer book. Anything but look at my daughter’s coffin.

I doubt he’d have stepped inside a church anyway. Not welcome. I know he was there for the burial because of the adders’ teeth, but I never saw him, peculiar as he was – a bone-thin crow with a bone-white face in a ragged black coat. Perhaps he was like a shadow without an owner, insignificant until noticed, but after that you wouldn’t dare look away.

So, the service, the graveyard, a clod of wet earth on a trowel handed to me like a gift, the heavy clump as it fell onto the dark wood, and then the walk back along the lanes to the house, eyes straight ahead as I passed the silly little shrine that had sprung up outside it – damp messages and dead flowers and a teddy bear that wasn’t even hers – and then inside to take the cling-film off the sandwiches and open the wine. The rest of that afternoon I can only remember in fragments. I remember watching my daughters move amongst the guests, tearful and poised and theatrically solemn. I remember a motorbike going past and everyone shuffling nervously and either falling silent or talking too much, too loudly. I remember looking at the photograph of my husband on the mantelpiece and thinking “well, this is just getting silly,” just to see what a joke tasted like, and remembered something from the bible about a mouthful of ashes. I remember people trying to say the right thing to me, and saying the wrong thing because there was no right thing.

“We’re going to ask the council to put up a sign.”

“A sign?” For a moment I thought she meant a memorial.

“About speeding.”

“But he wasn’t speeding,” I said, more confused than anything. “I wish he had been.” Now it was her turn to look confused. “Then he wouldn’t have hit her,” I added, worried that she’d misunderstood me. “The timing would have been all wrong.”

She looked a bit thrown by this, and decided to change the subject. “It must be nice to think she’s so close,” she said nervously. “You’re very lucky.” Then she clasped her hands to her face, and I wondered for a moment if I’d hit her. I didn’t think so. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, and I tried to laugh to show that it really didn’t matter, and I remember something breaking inside me, a cog, a spring, something slipping loose, and I needed my daughter to be alive so badly, I needed to smell her and hear her and shout at her for taking her sisters’ clothes and makeup, and none of those things would ever happen again, and I couldn’t see how it was possible to bear it for a moment longer or why I would want to.

The next thing I truly remember was being in my room as dusk fell, lying on the bed in the dim grey light. From downstairs, I could hear a few quiet voices, and a little while later the twins came and told me that nearly everyone had gone, just a few people helping clear up, and did I need anything?

Yes, I thought, but I just asked for some tea.

“It’ll have to be black. All the milk’s gone off.”

They sat with me while I drank it, and that must have been when they told me about him.

“Was that weirdo really a cousin?”

“What weirdo?”

“He looked like a scarecrow and he wasn’t wearing any socks. He said he was related to Dad, and that he was our cousin. Then he stole most of the sandwiches.”

“Stole? You mean ate.”

“He was shoving them in his pockets.”

A tramp, I told myself, or whatever you’re meant to call them now, and I wondered if he’d taken anything else. The twins began to prattle, speculating about their mystery relative, before lapsing into adolescent gossip. I must have snapped at them, and they left soon after, mildly offended with me, and I promised to call out if I needed anything.

The grey dusk deepened, draining the colour from the room, and a gusting wind began to brush against the house, dashing hard pellets of rain against the windows. I lay still in the darkness, a vessel in danger of spilling, and thought about my husband’s family.

I knew almost nothing for certain about them, except that he’d hated them and had refused to talk about why. His parents died a few years before we met, but he’d run away from home long before then. There’d been an older brother, but I only found out about him when he’d died too. A letter had arrived shortly after the twins were born, and my husband had passed it to me without comment. He had not gone to the funeral.

I assumed there’d been abuse and that, in time, it would be something he would want to talk about, but then, suddenly, it had been too late. An ulcer, such a silly, stupid thing.

And now a possible nephew turning up at my daughter’s funeral.

At some point, I must have fallen asleep. I was woken a little after midnight by a pelting against my window, and I thought about rain soaking into loose soil. The pelting came again, and I turned on my side, hoping to fall back to sleep, and saw a shaft of moonlight falling across the floor. The skies must be clear. I got up from the bed, lifted the window sash and cautiously peered out.

He had been getting ready to launch another volley of loose earth and pebbles up at me, but now he dropped it and cocked his head to one side, and I saw my husband’s narrow features from twenty years ago, but recast into something wolfish and sly. “Got a car?” he said.

“What? Who…”

“Nephew. Got a car?”

I stared down at him for a while, wondering what on earth I was expected to do. Then I remembered. “You need to go or I’ll call the police.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. “Your funeral.” He gave a brisk laugh and turned away, and for a moment I thought he would leave. Then, reluctantly, he turned back and glared up at me. “You want her back or not?”

I steadied myself against the frame. “What are you talking about?”

“Your daughter. You want her back? I can do that.”

“Nonsense.”

“I can do magic.”

I wish to make it clear that I did not believe this for a moment, and for several seconds I just stared at him. Then I closed the window, pulled on my clothes and went quietly downstairs and outside. The moon had just been covered by a blade of cloud, and for a moment I couldn’t see where he was. Then a low patch of darkness moved in the shadow of the hedge, the moon brightened again, and I stood there in silence, watching while he rooted like a dog, sniffing and questing around the spot where my daughter had died.

Hope is an odd emotion. We tend to think of it as something good, a last stand, but really it’s just cowardice – a way of telling lies to ourselves without even needing to believe them. My daughter was dead, and nothing could change that, but I stood there, waiting for him to finish whatever it was he was doing, because why not? I should have screamed at him and called for help, but the worst thing possible had already happened, and now hope was worming its way into my head, telling me that if I walked away I would always be left wondering. Hope is a penniless man searching his pockets one last time.

Eventually he finished and came over. “Car?”

I folded my arms and glared at him. “This is monstrous. How dare you do this to me.”

He just grinned. “Whispering.”

It was true, I had been whispering, and by doing so I’d conceded something and he’d caught me out. I felt trapped and was glad for it. “I just want this nonsense over with and you gone,” I said, which was true I suppose, but a lie all the same.

Now he was positively smirking. “Fine, whatever. Car.”

“Why do you need a car?” I demanded. So, he was just a thief. “The churchyard’s just up the road.”

“Not going to the churchyard,” he said, and he dug in his pockets and pulled out a tattered sandwich. “Been there. Threw in some adders’ teeth.”

“Adders’ teeth?”

“Stop the earth holding her too close.”

I snorted, a sudden burst of contemptuous derision. “You’re mad.”

“Maybe, but what if I’m not?”

Trapped again. Hope. We glared at each other for a while, and then I turned away and went back into the house to fetch the keys and my coat. “I’m coming with you,” I said.

“Too bloody right. Anyway, I can’t drive.”

That took me by surprise, but I concentrated on unlocking the car and we climbed in. I put the key into the ignition and then glanced up at the house and stopped. “You’ll need to push,” I said. “I don’t want to wake the twins.”

He climbed out without complaint and I gripped the wheel and tried to pretend that anything I was doing made sense. He knocked on my window and pointed at the handbrake. I nodded, and a few seconds later we began to roll forward. I steered into the slope of the lane and he hopped back in beside me. When I neared the bottom of the hill, I started the engine, and we drove in silence until we reached the main road. “Which way?”

“East.”

So we headed towards the sea, moon-silvered hedgerows and fields slipping past on either side and I wondered what on earth I thought I was doing. I did not like this young man. This close, he had an animal smell, exotic and feral, and there was an habitual and contemptuous cruelty in his face and voice. I thought of the twins and remembered that I hadn’t even brought my phone.

“Show me some magic,” I demanded, furious with myself for being there, furious for asking. Madness and stupidity. “Show me, or I won’t go any further.”

“Give me your purse and I’ll make it disappear,” he said, and then he smirked and waggled his fingers. “Abracadabra.”

We neared an all-night garage. “I need petrol.” I glanced at the gauge. There was still half a tank, but he would need to lean over to see it, and I slowed and pulled in without him saying anything. He just sat there shoving fragments of half-pulped bread and ham into his mouth.

I climbed out and filled the tank and, as I headed in to pay, he wound down the window. “Buy some bin bags.”

“Bin bags?” I thought of reporters on the news, police in the background searching a muddy field, and lurid headlines the next day. “What for?” But he was already winding the window back up and didn’t answer. Given what was about to happen, I imagine that he was laughing, but I knew nothing of that, and just smoothed down my skirt and stepped inside the shop.

I was the only customer, and the single cashier on duty watched warily as I approached. I probably looked dreadful. “I need you to call the police,” I said. “And then we should lock the door until they get here. There’s a madman in my car.”

The cashier just looked at me, still wary, but now apparently irritated more than anything else. “Did you hear me?” I asked.

“Look Mohammed,” he said. “We talk English in here, so just pay for your petrol and get back on your camel, alright?”

I looked around, thinking I must have missed another customer – some kind of Arab presumably – but the shop was plainly deserted. “What are you talking about?”

“Speak English, you lazy sod.” Then he swore and rubbed a finger and thumb together. “Money. Baksheesh.”

The whole situation was inexplicable and absurd, and I stared at him in confusion, trying to make sense of it. When understanding came, it was almost a relief, and I glanced out of the window at my car waiting on the forecourt. The interior was in darkness, my nephew invisible, but I presume he was looking very pleased with himself.

“Listen, towel-head, are you paying up or what?”

I pulled out my purse and handed him a card. “Wait a moment.” There were a few shelves of groceries and I searched among them for rubbish sacks. “These too. And I’ve a good mind to report you.”

“Here,” he said, handing back the card and receipt along with some tobacco I hadn’t asked or paid for. “Now, piss off.”

I walked carefully back to the car and threw the roll of black plastic and tobacco onto my nephew’s lap as I climbed in. “Very funny. You could at least have made me look like a film star.”

He gave another vulpine grin. “He wasn’t scared of film stars. Anyway, you said you wanted to see some magic – finished messing around?”

“Yes.”

We carried on east.

“Can you really do it?” I asked.

“Maybe, if you do what I say.” He finished his scavenged meal and lit a crumpled cigarette. I was about to complain, especially when I smelt what sort of cigarette it was, but then he rolled down the window and leant out like a dog tasting the wind.

“Thank you,” I said.

He gave a bark of amusement.

“Why are you laughing?”

“Wasn’t why I opened the window. Pull over.”

I slowed and rolled onto the verge. He tore one of the bags loose and handed it to me. “There’s a dead fox back there. Pick it up.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Thought you’d stopped messing around?”

So I got out of the car, walked back up the road and scraped up the half-flattened carcass of a young vixen. Here and there, sprays of pale milk laced the darker gore, and I took care where I placed my shoes. It was not pleasant, and my hands were soon coated with a congealed mess of hair and clotting blood. When I tried to lift a ragged haunch, it fought back, unwilling to be taken, and a chill ran through me before I realised that I was standing on the tail.

I dumped the bag in the boot and wiped my hands as best as I could on a patch of grass before getting back in the car. “You could have warned me – I’d have bought some hand-cleaner.”

“She wouldn’t like the smell.”

“She? My daughter?”

“Someone else. You’ll see.”

We stopped three more times and I collected a pheasant, another fox and, finally, a badger. “She’ll like that.”

We reached the coast and headed north, turning off the main road and winding along a series of increasingly narrow lanes, the moon like a beacon in front of us. He lit another one of his marijuana cigarettes, and I thought about the corpses in the boot and the gore on my hands, and giggled, which somehow felt like the strangest part of the night so far.

“What’s so funny?”

“My church committee – I don’t know what they’d make of this.”

He gave a grunt that was halfway to being a laugh and opened the glove-box and rooted around amongst the mess of receipts and oddments.

“What are you looking for?”

“Food.” Giving up, he groped in his pockets before pulling out one final sliver of ham. After a cursory inspection, he popped it into his mouth and then carried on smoking. He really was disgusting, and his resemblance to my husband made it even worse.

“Why are you doing this?” I suddenly asked, surprising myself. “Why are you helping me?”

“Dunno. Felt like it.” He shrugged, almost imperceptible in the darkness. I think it was the only time I ever saw him truly uncomfortable. “Wasn’t planned – just turned up to make sure there was no funny business.”

“Funny business?”

“Something trying to get to me and killing her by mistake.” He waved the question aside. “There wasn’t anything like that, just an accident and a dead girl.”

“But you decided to help me?”

“I didn’t decide anything,” he snapped. “I just saw you at the graveside and you looked a mess, that’s all. Anyway, pull over, we’re here.”

I nodded, and parked at the entrance to a field, and we were soon making our way over coarse turf sodden with dew, the smell of salt in the air, bags of dead animals bumping against our legs, the sea roaring in our ears. “Where are we going, and who is this ‘she’?”

“We’re going to a cave. There’s an Each living in it and she’s got your daughter’s thread.”

“Thread?”

“Her life – beginning, middle, end, the whole lot – it’s done now, but we’re going to stitch it back into the world.” We’d reached the edge of the field where the turf dropped away towards a shingled beach, and we both fell silent while we clambered down. At the bottom, he waited while I caught my breath. To the north, sandstone cliffs rose upwards, huge in the silvered darkness, and we set off towards them, stones and pebbles clinking beneath our feet.

“What’s an Each?” I asked.

“One of the Unseelie,” he said, as though that told me anything. “This one’s known as Jenny Bottle, but her real name’s _____. You need to remember that.”

I didn’t, of course. “How do you know all this?”

“Smelt her in your lane,” he replied, which wasn’t what I had meant. “She collects threads, but normally she just takes the drowned. Must have made a special trip to your place.”

“Why?”

“A death in my family can bring half the Court running.” He stopped and sniffed at the air and nodded to himself. “We’re just lucky it was Jenny who got there first. There’s a lot worse than her.”

The cliffs were now towering above us and I was perspiring from the effort of walking on the shingles with the heavy bags. One must have split, and I could feel my calf growing damp. “So what do we do when we find her?”

“I’m not doing anything,” he said. “It’s up to you now. Go into the cave, call Jenny by her real name, give her the food and bargain for your daughter.”

“On my own?”

“On your own. If she thinks I’m interested, the price’ll go up.” He handed me his bags and plonked himself down on the shingle. “It’s just after that spur over there.”

“If I’ve given her the food, what do I bargain with?”

“Her name. She’ll want it back, but don’t give it to her until you’re out of the cave or she’ll eat you. And don’t look at her too close.”

“Doesn’t she like it?”

“Dunno, but I know you wouldn’t. Just sort of squint at her.”

I have chosen to forget as much as I can about the cave and what took place in there, and I have largely been successful. What I do remember is the dim green light that filled it from a dozen or more glowing clusters of what I took to be lamps, but later realised were bottles. I remember an old woman, grossly fat, whose skin hung too loosely and which may not have been her own. I remember her hissing and cursing when I called her by a name I no longer know. I remember forgetting my nephew’s advice and looking at her face and for a moment thinking I might go mad. So many teeth.

I remember, when I told her why I was there, that she’d sympathised, and said she’d been a mother herself, and that she’d loved her children so much that she’d had to eat them all. I remember having to share the meal I’d brought, and thinking myself lucky to escape with chewing on a few mouthfuls of raw pheasant as I picked sinews and slivers of crushed bone from between my teeth.

Finally, she passed me one of the bottles that I’d mistaken for lamps, and at the mouth of the cave I gave her back her name, and that is all I choose to recall.

He was where I’d left him, waiting on the beach in the moonlight. “All done?” he asked.

I showed him the bottle. “What now?”

“It’s all sorted. Go home and put it in her bed. Then you wait – she won’t come back all at once, but she will come back.”

I had visions of my daughter returning limb by limb or worse. “How will I explain it to anyone?”

“It won’t be like that – I’ve made arrangements. Just pretend nothing’s happening. Be patient.” He lit one of his awful cigarettes. “Can you find the car?”

“You’re not coming with me?”

“I’ve got a few feathers to smooth. Nothing serious.” A shrug. He was lying but I don’t think he cared much either way. For a moment, the hardness dropped away from his face and he looked so tired of everything, so hopeless. “It’s nearly dawn – you’d better get going.” He rose and brushed himself down, hesitant. “One last thing.”

“What?”

“You might want to throw that bottle away. It’s not too late.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because everything’s got a price.” And he told me what the price of my daughter’s life was. I thought about it and thanked him and drove home. Once there, I put the bottle in her bed and climbed between my own sheets, grimed and bloody, and fell asleep, exhausted beyond belief.

For the eight days following my daughter’s death, waking up had been a special kind of hell. There would be a moment of calmness when I would remember nothing, a fragment of peace lasting a heartbeat, and then a sudden, terrible assault of grief and horror. I would feel myself being crushed by the weight of it, by the weight of everything, myself, the room, the world. It was not the past that caused me such pain; it was the thought of the future, of the endless days of it. Even worse was the thought that one day the pain might end, that I would look at a photograph of my daughter and smile and share an anecdote, as though she’d been nothing more than a family pet. Some people had suggested as much to me, and I’d wanted to scratch their eyes out.

The morning after the cave, I weighed nothing at all. It was late and there was a cold cup of tea that one of the twins must have left earlier. I sat up and inspected myself and the room. My hands were clean, my clothes too, which were lying neatly across the back of a chair. My shoes had a few specks of mud from the churchyard, but that was all. In my daughter’s bedroom, I lifted the cover from the bed. There was no bottle.

I went downstairs. The twins fussed around me and made a fresh cup of tea and asked how I was. I said something about feeling numb which wasn’t true, but I couldn’t have answered truthfully anyway, and said I was going for a walk.

Outside, the car showed no trace of last night’s adventure. The makeshift shrine was still there. Up at the church, I stood for a while by the fresh grave, the earth beginning to settle after yesterday’s rain.

Be patient, he’d said.

I took out my purse and fumbled with the catch, and inside lay the receipt from the garage. All my cash had gone as well, along with a credit card I hardly ever used. Well, I would wait for a few days and then cancel it, and I tried to remember what the limit was.

Two days later, the gravestone failed to arrive, and the twins badgered me to call the stonemason. He’d offered me tea and held my hand when I’d cried in his shop, but now he had no record of the order, nor any idea who I was. I apologised for having disturbed him and told the twins the stone would be arriving the next day. It was not mentioned again. When I next went to the churchyard, the grave had gone, the turf smooth and undisturbed.

A letter arrived from her primary school, noting her improved attendance and hoping it would continue. It politely reminded me that unauthorised absences were not acceptable and that fines were an option.

A pile of wet towels and discarded clothes in a damp heap on her bedroom floor. They smelt of soap, my daughter, and a bath-bomb she’d stolen from the twins. The theft was noticed and they were furious, and I heard them chasing her through the house.

After supper, I cleared four plates from the table.

She sat down for breakfast the next morning, ate her toast and argued with her sisters about a pop-star. I busied myself with tidying up the kitchen, and when they asked, I told my daughters I must be coming down with a cold.

I watched her as she pulled on her coat for school. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Fine.” She looked around for her school bag. “Why?”

“I thought you looked a little pale. Why don’t you stay home today?”

I took her into town and bought her clothes and ice-cream and a toy she was too old for but wanted anyway. We ate pizza for lunch and I wondered if I’d get another letter from the school.

“This is like my birthday.”

“Yes, yes it is.”

* * *

My daughters are all grown now, and the twins have children of their own. I still go to church and encourage them all to do the same – given their ancestry it seems only sensible. Whether I am still welcome in a house of God, or even whether I care, is not something I dwell on.

I never saw my nephew again, although I think of him often.

I also think of my choice and the price my daughter has paid for it. I have been selfish I suppose, and sometimes when I think of Jenny Bottle and her children, I understand her more than perhaps is healthy. Still, I cannot imagine choosing differently. I cannot imagine anyone choosing differently.

I sometimes wish I could tell my daughter the truth, and ask for her understanding and absolution, but that would be an act of unspeakable cruelty. There are people, I suppose, whose lot is such that they could happily be told the limits of their lives, but I am certain my daughter is not one of them.

Time will not notice her. Quietly and unobtrusively, she will be forgotten. She will never have children of her own nor even a husband. No one will ever pick up a book by her, or find her name in a newspaper recorded against some event or deed, however insignificant, in even the smallest capacity. No one will stumble upon a photograph of her in a family album, or a mention in a diary or letter. There will be nothing curious about it, nothing to draw attention, just a litany of lost chances and misplaced records and mementos. It will not be a bad life but it will not be a life that anyone would have chosen.

The world has made room for her, but it has done so grudgingly. The weave has moved aside a little, but the pattern will converge again and she will leave no mark upon it. She will be ordinary, unremarkable and unnoticed, a little dull even, but content enough. That is, I remind myself, a perfectly accurate description of many lives, and perhaps we are happier for it.

I think of my nephew often.

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