FICTION: The Still Room by Sarah Strangeways

Mother used to tell me over and over and over again:

‘The wages of sin are death,’ she’d say.

‘What’s sin?’ I’d ask.

‘’Sin’s another word for Naughtiness. Remember what the wages of sin are.’

‘What’s sin? What are wages?’ I’d say.

But she didn’t answer.

That’s why I never left home, you see, I was too afraid of the answers. But it was Mother who collected the wages in the end. Not me.

Yes, I still live here at Rosebank and next door there’s Elm View and on the other side Jessamine Cottage. Then there’s the Willows. No actual willows or elms – but a Beatitude of roses – Mother’s roses.  I’ll tell you about them later…

I’ve been all on my own since Mother was …Taken…Taken?   Who took her? Jesus, I suppose – or was it God? Anyone’s guess… Well, anyway I’m just rattling around here on my tod – been here all my life and reckon I’ll finish up here too!

Mother had a lovely funeral. She would have smiled. She liked that kind of ‘do’ – all those daffs and tulips heaped up.  Oh, we ‘do’ things here according to the strict gospel of ‘ Mr Rev’ – our own  Very Reverend Philip Blake – he did her proud. She’d had her differences from him from time to time, of course. Mrs Rev always thought Mother didn’t arrange the flowers formally enough for church – she’d redo them on the sly! Then the fireworks got going!  Mr Rev used to try and pour oil on troubled waters. He’d summon aid from the ‘Almighty’… dear, dear Philip…completely wasted on that snobby woman!  He once told me that trying to sort out Mrs Rev and Mother was his most perilous path up Mount Difficulty!  He loves his little gems of quotes and jokes – and has a copious cornucopia of academic humour.

It was grey and still, the day of her funeral. The sun peeped out just as Mother’s coffin was arriving. Like a Blessing, Dorothy said.   I’d requisitioned Mother’s black straw hat and her swanky antelope skin gloves.  Reckon I looked as much a picture as Prince Harry’s Meghan!  Couldn’t help noticing my dear Philip (the Rev to you) couldn’t take his eyes off me! (Wondered dare I nudge or wink or very, very softly whistle? No -no. Better not.}

This time of year, our village goes quiet as the grave. (Which isn’t always as peaceful as it sounds!)  I don’t cut through the churchyard any more now – I know Mother doesn’t rest easy. Last time I went through I heard someone behind me screaming completely silent accusations – at the top of its voice. Suppose Dorothy had heard? Or worse still, Mr or Mrs Rev?

My friend Dorothy calls in every day.  ‘Come on now,’ she urges ‘You’ve been granted a merciful release. How about a weekend break for us both by the sea? We deserve it! Margate? Llandudno? Southend? Here we come! Time to think of Number One and spread our wings – before it’s too late.’

Yes, I know she’s right. She’s always right, isn’t she? But somehow, I can’t get around to finding them. My wings, I mean. Perhaps they’ve been too long out of action and have withered away.

But then – Oh, Mea Culpa!  As Mr Rev would say, pointing an eloquent finger so as to assassinate his whole meagre flock – then turning it on himself…my gentle Mr Rev! My dearest Philip! My own lamb! But not mine – nobody’s mine now Mother’s gone! No knight in shining armour ever came to whisk me off my feet. No…am I silly? Or sad? Or pathetic? Or just plain bad? Oh, I’m to blame! For everything!  Very… extremely culpa! Or am I? Not sure.  I’ll tell you about it.  See what you think.

Dorothy dreams up small outings from time to time. Nothing much, but anything for a change (she dictates.) Just an evening with the Over 60’s or a lunch given by the Inner Wheel. An afternoon at the flower-arranging display put on by the Ladies’ Circle. A Fashion show at Jenkins Outsize perhaps. But somehow, we never get to any of them. Dorothy says it’s my fault.  ‘Oh, get a life!’ she shouts, quite raucously. She’s right. I haven’t got one, have I? She’s like one of those old crows who scold me when I venture out to hang up the washing. It’s true – It’s always my fault! I’m to blame – I cower indoors. But there’s nowhere like home, is there?  There’s so little left since Mother passed away. I feel stretched out thin and dry. Like old yellowed newspaper that rips at the slightest touch. But there’s nobody who might touch me to try that out, is there?

Putting together my potpourri has been a comfort to me lately. There’s precious else apart from Mother’s gruesome mongrel so I’ll tell you about it. It was when I was taking poor Patch for his obligatory ‘walkies’ that I thought of collecting all those lovely petals scattered on Mother’s grass and carefully drying them like she used to. I’ve picked them ever since.

So many roses – moss roses running riot, butter-coloured roses, pink roses, tiny red roses that tap high on the kitchen window. It came to me in a flash and with a surge of joy – and I’ve picked the roses ever since, laid them all out on Mother’s big bed. What’s the harm? I spread them all out carefully and turn them twice a day. It gives me more…peace of mind than going to church ever did. As if I’ve put something wholesome where Mother used to lie. Oh well, I’m just trying to turn them into potpourri – as Mother did. I blot each petal meticulously with tissue paper before laying them out one by one on Mother’s bed. The drying is a bit like wiping away tears. I like doing that – tender loving care for every single petal.

Sometimes I worry about pulling to pieces the newly opened flowers. They don’t have a chance, do they? You know – to nod on the wall in the sunshine or to feel the tickle of the bees. To drink the rain. To have a life – as Dorothy yells at me; ‘Get a life!’

Lately there have been these little fat beetle-y things that drop out of the flowers – oh dear! They try to scramble to safety, crawling hopelessly over the table. They’ve nowhere to go, have they? I try to rescue them, but when I touch them they die. They just roll onto their little fat black tummies, wave their legs in the air and give up. I’m killing them, aren’t I? They make me cry at times, those ill-fated beetles, those vandalised roses.

Am I killing the roses or keeping them alive? Which? Good question – which? Let’s face it. It’s just more killings. Where will it all end up?

Oh well, the roses are nearly over now. I’ve been…stealing them from Mother’s garden, haven’t I? I’m nothing more than a common-or-garden thief. Aren’t I? Except the bloody garden is mine now, isn’t it? Oh, I’ll miss laying them out on Mother’s bed – where she herself was laid out at the end. They made a good job of her – they altered the look on her face from that terrible snarling sneer of fear she had when she fell to a look of utter peace – of contented sleep.

I was a devoted daughter. Could have got married but poor dear Philip wasn’t available, was he? Mrs La-de-da Rev bagged him good and proper. I just cared for Mother, nursed Mother, pampered every little whim of Mother’s – did for her no matter what. Until the end.

Yes, I did for her.  I did her in – what was that I said? She had a fall. I did say fall, didn’t I? Not push? Because of course it was a fall – and not uncommon at her age, the doctor said. And I’d told her again and again not to attempt the stairs on her own.

But Mother was as stubborn as the proverbial mule. If she wanted to do something nothing on earth would prevent her. But then a terrible thought flashed through my mind, as it had on many occasions before – to be instantly dismissed of course like I always tried to dismiss it. Mother would have said it must have come from the Devil himself – but that day I had raised my hand. Not to push, of course not! To…help…to…rescue, I suppose it was – was it?

You see, Mother wore these beautiful lace collars she’d always worn. All my life, anyway, Hand-made she said, in a town called Bruges. In Belgium. They never wore out. They were just part of Mother. She never wore out either. She wore them to her death. At her death. What I’m trying to say is that they might have caused her death- I’m not sure.

I used to launder them every single day by hand. And iron them. And, on the collar, holding them together, she wore her cameo – a lovely golden brooch with a lady’s head in profile. It had belonged to her grandmother and one day it would be mine. No – I’ll never wear it or her lace collars – never. Not even on the day I die. No – it’s not for the likes of me at all! At all! At all!

The problem was that the clasp on the brooch had gone. I should have taken it to be fixed. But I hardly ever get into town, do I?  I should have done it. If only I had she’d still be alive today. But I didn’t.  As Mother used to say, ‘The road to Hell is not only paved with good intentions, but also strewn with What Ifs.’

I was halfway upstairs when I heard her. I was desperate for five minutes quiet before embarking on her bedtime routine. I’d just reached the top when I heard her slippers shuffling up behind me. She was panting just like Patch.

‘It’s my brooch, Mary,’ she wailed, swaying right down below me. ‘Can you spare a minute just to pin it, dearie.’

‘Oh you and your bloody brooch, Mother! Get down those stairs sharpish!’ I think I yelled at her, God forgive me.

‘Just pin it for me, dear!’

Well, I’d pinned it only five minutes before. And I’d pinned and pinned and pinned it all through the day.

I was standing at the top of the stairs, as I’ve said. And her just below me, all unsteady – I think I thought – not sure what I thought…Why not push her? Be done with it. Finish it all. That’s what I thought. And I raised my hand.

And she fell.

Never a sound except the soft bumping and then the crack of her head on the tiles at the bottom. Her face was distorted with fear. Fear of me? I’ll never know.

I live at Rosebank and next door is Elm View. Then there’s Jessamine Cottage, Then the Willows. Not an elm or a willow in sight. There’ve been heaps and heaps of roses. The best are over now. Never mind. – soon Dorothy will be calling in for a cuppa and a natter about the weather. She wouldn’t come if she knew. Would she?

Well, I’ve laid the last of the summer’s petals out on Mother’s bed. They’re a treat – all the different colours. And the little fat black beetles have gone. I’ll turn the petals over twice a day with Mother’s tweezers. Twelve fifteen and four fifteen sharp. And they’ll turn into fragrant, pretty wafers – a bit like Mr Rev serves out in church. They change and shrink. Decently and seemingly. Sweet-smelling, not stinking. And they keep still…still…still. It’s a proper Still Room. Very proper. Quiet and peaceful. Not screaming blue murder.

Then I’ll store them away to be cured. And the bed will be empty again. Till next year when I could start all over again, perhaps. Or perhaps not…

A cold wind stirs the curtains of Mother’s room. Shadows flicker over the sampler at the head of the bed, which reads ‘Thou Lord Seest Me.’

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Sarah Strangeways

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Sarah has written short stories for the BBC which were broadcast on Radio 4 when they had a daily slot for them. Since then she has had short stories published in magazines.

If you enjoyed ‘The Still Room’ leave a comment and let Sarah know.

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