Heather Stewart: Keeling Cottage!

Through the cocoon of my blanket, through the holes in my moth-eaten drapes, through the film of grey dirt on my window, through the lopsided posts of the back fence, I can see the railway line. The track lies not ten feet from the house, three from the end of my garden; it sits up for me, on an embankment, a long thin smile curving round the house. My grandmother watched them lay it when she was a girl, now I watch it lie while I grow old. This is where I’ve always lived, this grey sagging, flaking shack, always standing still, just like me, while the trains bolt along their rail, taking people, bringing them, never ending circles. My worn mattress has my joints aching and I’m hungry, but the day doesn’t start until 8:12am, the morning train, and so I wait. There is a crack, and a pulse of air hits the house, gusts through my room and takes my breath away, just as it does every morning.

It gives my heart an extra kick and now I must face the world outside my blanket.

I get up and pull back the tendrils of cotton still hanging at the window. From the line of iron and time-blackened wood I look left, to the workshop where my father used to spend his days. He used to work on the line, maintenance. I never went in there after he died. The bedroom door is a half-twisted wafer, hardly worth closing, but Max knows to wait outside, such a smart dog, my Yorkshire Terrier. He follows me out to the kitchen and waits again. I eat first. Potato cakes I made last night to save myself the trouble this morning. The stove is dark brown with grease but I’ve run out of cream cleaner and it can wait a few more days. I fry them, eat three and give the fourth to Max. Afterwards I pick him up and he sits on my lap, and we listen to the old crackled radio as the morning ticks on. The pots stay unwashed, laundry growing in a pile, the floor stays a little tacky, the weeds carry on growing in the garden. I carry Max over to the computer and we open my email, the receipt for the shopping delivery in two days time. Check everything again. There’s still time to change it if I want, but it took the best part of my allowance as it was. One delivery per fortnight. No one else comes to visit except the train that whips by twice a day.

The background noise from the radio starts to annoy me and I turn it off, let Max outside and follow him out onto the ankle high grass. The house isn’t much, but it was all that was left to me and so I stay, have nowhere else to go. Leaving the door open I go back in, put on gardening clothes, fetch a hat, unearth some tools from a pile of boxes in the kitchen, find some gloves. It’s hot outside. I start pulling weeds, there are so many, and they break when I pull on them, leaving the roots. I sit back on the grass and Max looks at me. He’s eleven, his gamboling days are over, as are mine. He plods over to me and we go back inside, get some water. It’s lunchtime already and there’s half a tin of corned beef waiting for the two of us.

*

11:57am, they’re not late yet, nearly, not yet. The window has a grey film over it but I can still see the track that leads down to the road, perched on the window seat half-full of old magazines and wrapped up plates I never use. I should sort through them but I never find the time. I see it, the van, it slows and pulls up the lane – I hope there are no missing items – nothing but essentials on my lists.

‘Morning madam, I have your shopping for today.’

‘Come in, come in, can you take them through to the kitchen?’

The delivery man tramps through and dumps my groceries rather unceremoniously on the floor. Nothing best be squashed. I sign his contraption and he goes again. Two weeks till the next one. Somehow they’re never the same person. Always a stranger.

*

There’s almost nothing left, I finished some crackers I’d been avoiding this morning while Max finished the corned beef that I’d left in the fridge all this while. Now there are two days to the next delivery and nothing but flour and oil. I add salt and make a sickly batter. It tastes of everything that wants to kill me, clog up my arteries, send my heart into spasm until I lie dead long enough for Max to start eating me. Not even clever Max could open the back door to run for help, it’s far too stiff and rusted. The front door I haven’t seen in years, the porch is my extra storage space, full of shoes, books, tools, knick knacks I haven’t had chance to sort through. The pancakes make me feel sick and I look at Max, he seems happy enough, laid on the rug. He had the protein. Why is that? Why did I give him the food I needed, why are we so beholden to our poor pets? Why do we need their comfort so much? Need their hearts beating with ours, something else alive. I let him lick my hand and switch the lights off early, replace them with a candle, the flame is annoying, but it is cheaper, and reliable. My eyes flick back to the computer screen one last time before I close my eyes in my chair. Connection failed. That’s what I thought.

*

The night keeps coming and I don’t know what to do. I had to cancel the delivery last week so the plumbing could be fixed and now we’re out of food. Yesterday I plucked the last few scabby edible plants from the garden – three carrots no wider than my fingers, and a half rotten potato. Nothing decent grows here, nothing but weeds. Time still passes me, stood between the armchair and the sofa, a hand on each to steady me. Sleep seems out of the question while my stomach remains so hollow and painful. I drink some water, despising the cold feeling it brings to my throat and stomach on its way down. Despising everything. Back in the sitting room I open the cabinet and pull out an old bottle of whiskey. It was opened years ago but I’m not much of a drinker, certainly not whiskey – it was my brother’s – the last time he came over for Christmas before he died. I take a drink, it’s like acid burning over the chill of my insides, foul, leaving a bitter taste. Max is whining at me, he feels it too, not just the hunger but the feeling of abandonment, loss, questioning our own existence. What is Max’s purpose if not to comfort me? Can we last another week without food? I think so. We can both suffer for another week. Or we can both have a little comfort now. He looks at me, I pick him up, stand up, blood rushing from my head, swimming. He wimpers.

Is he the last thing I love in the world? He does not even know my name.

I fill the sink, Max watches, warm, soft, eyebrows twitching back and forth from me to the water and back again. I can feel his little claws through my cardigan. They hurt, I bear it. I put him in the water, he doesn’t struggle, trusts me, I push him under, he barely has the energy to kick but he tries, he tries because he wants to survive, he doesn’t understand the pain of growing old, how he will only suffer more as the years drag him down. But my love is dying under the water, this life, my only friend, witness, companion, and hot tears drip into the water from nowhere as cold water splashes up at me. Max’s last breaths. Then, the water, the air, everything is cold and still. There’s a dead dog in the sink and I can’t breathe, choke, knees give out and I’m on the floor. This is how we all end, one way or another.

*

I wanted to eat him, should have eaten him, and I tried. I took him out into the garden, that white dead bundle in an old soaked towel. Thought perhaps I could butcher him so long as there wasn’t a head. The lock on the workshop was rusted tight, the key wouldn’t even fit, so I smashed the side window with a stone, fetched more towels, pulled out the frame, cleared away as much broken glass as I could, dropping it in an empty bucket. Then I climbed in, over the bench of old tools, found an axe, tossed it outside. There was so much in here, and not just things, smells: old wood, varnish, grease, rust, wet metal, creosote, all reminding me of my father. I took the tools off the bench so I could climb out again more easily, back out into the night, just the light from the kitchen falling sour and yellow onto the grass.

Max lay on a stump. Not Max, just a dead dog. I hacked off the head, the legs, but there was still the fur, the skin. I got that far but could go no further, not that night. I buried the head and legs, screaming inwardly, it was so terrible, filthy, I felt the guilt would overwhelm me, the fear of what I’d done. I had to get out of the night. Back in the kitchen, the stark light on the beige table. Max went in the fridge, bloodstained towel and all. I’d have to face him another day, but if sleep was evading me before, it too had altogether abandoned me now. Axes, blood, the figures that come out of shadows, all flashed into my eyes as soon as I closed them. You can’t afford to fear the dark out here, with the black hills all around, and the supply so unreliable, expensive, but right now there was a demon in every doorway. I murdered my best friend.

Who will comfort me now?

I heave another mouthful of whiskey, still out on the cabinet top, then go over to the computer. It’s my most treasured possession, took the last of my savings. I search: will no one comfort me? Click on the few charity sites that pop up, talking companions, visitors, a bland condescending face to listen to my troubles. That’s not the kind of comfort I want. I change the search slightly, glad the person who installed it told me about proxies. I can’t satisfy myself anymore, I’m dying from the outside in, but surely there are those that know ways round that. They will come to comfort an old lady. Old ladies have plenty of money don’t they? He will come. I call the number, insist on tonight, give directions, afraid that tomorrow will bring sanity, reality with it and the madness of the night will subside. I need that just now.

I change my clothes, wash my face and hands, put on the back door light, wait. A knock at the door, it’s a young man, hard to see more in the dim light.

‘I heard you need someone Mrs. Keeling. I’ll take care of you.’

I keep silent and close the door behind him, hardly caring anymore, he can do what he likes with me.

*

Dawn still hasn’t fallen through the clouds but we are already up and dressed again.

‘Do you have my money Mrs. Keeling?’

‘Some of it, my pension doesn’t come through till next week.’ I feel more ashamed of telling him I can’t afford to pay him, that of hiring him at all, I can’t meet his eye. He is looking right at me. ‘You can take my jewellery.’

‘I don’t have time to fence jewellery, what else do you have, you must have a rainy day jar somewhere?’

He starts looking around but there’s too much stuff everywhere, and no money at all, he gives up and moves through to the sitting room. I follow him.

‘I didn’t mean to scam you, I just really needed someone, I can pay you next week.’

‘How about your laptop? It looks hardly touched, I could do with a new one.’

‘Please, take anything else, I need it.’

‘And I need paying, we all have to survive somehow.’

He walks over to my laptop, pulls the plug, I can’t lose that too. I try to stop him, pull it back from him, we struggle, my grip slips, he pushes me away and I fall backwards, land heavily. By the time I come around he and my last connection to the world are gone.

Not the last, there is still the railway.

It takes another day of hunger before I can cut into Max and eat his flesh. It disgusts me but I must, my body is failing and I do not want to die, I just don’t want to be alone anymore. Some strength returns immediately after I eat and I go back outside, pull out the tools from the workshop, lay them all out on the grass, drag out an old wooden chair to face the line, sit down just in time to watch the afternoon train go by. A few faces are visible, for a few seconds, then it disappears round the bend, lost to the hills. I stay in the chair, exhausted. It doesn’t go dark for hours, though I stay outside the whole time, listening to the silence interrupted by the occasional bird, flicking insects from my arms. I go back in as the sun drops behind the house and it gets cold. I cook some more of the dog meat – I’d been a vegetarian until this morning.

There is a bright full moon outside, but I bring a lantern too, and set to work on the track. It takes hours, I drift in and out of sleep but carry on, thin skin blistering, back aching. I don’t stop until one of the lines is twisted, and I can take out one of the rails that had lain there since my grandfather’s time, drag it into my garden, flatten out a patch of weeds. I fetch a mug of water, my skant pink blanket and another piece of dog, and sit back down to watch.

No early morning had ever passed so quickly. No final hours of self-doubt, no time to mend the track, no way of signaling anyone else to stop the train even if I wanted to. But I will not be alone anymore. 8:12am came, and so did the train, right on time, say what you like about the national railways. It came, thundering up the track so confidently, brusque as usual, then it hit the gap, seemed to skip over it, one carriage after another, bouncing along precariously but not faltering on the line. It didn’t stop, but it had to stop – it couldn’t ignore me, couldn’t ignore the gap in the rail – then the last carriage, the last contacts clipped the edge and didn’t realign. The bounces turned into a ripple and the train twisted awkwardly, slipping sideways and then, still hurtling forwards, it flipped over, shaking the ground with each crash and it rolled sideways, lengthways along the track, then snaked round into the field opposite until finally, it came to a crumpled, smoking stop.

The morning was silent again, just me and the train. I brought out some old binoculars sitting on the kitchen window ledge, glad I never got round to throwing them out, and sat back down to watch the survivors climb out of the wreckage, pulling injured out with them. Some of them see the cottage and come running towards me. I throw the binoculars into my tallest weeds and stand, kick the chair over, stoop my shoulders some more. They ask for a phone but I don’t have one, and they have no signal out here on their phones.

‘The nearest village is eight miles down the track from the front of the house,’ I tell them, and two of them run off to get help, a third runs back towards the wreckage. Let them find help, let them come, let them find me, eventually, but I will not be alone anymore.

nerd glasses with tape

Heather Stewart

Heather Stewart is a writer from the North West of England. She has written stories all her life and after graduating from the Open University in English Language and Literature, hopes to pursue her writing more than ever. As well as having poetry published in Stinkwaves magazine, she is a regular contributor to the Anglia Ruskin University blog and has her own travel blog on TravelBlog.org. She is currently studying at ARU in Cambridge while working on her first novel.

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