CREATIVE Christine Harrison

NWR Issue r23

Cruel Train

Chapter 5

Away from the cathedral’s shadow was a jaunty, bohemian but quite well-heeled area. Media people lived here when they could afford it.
Lizzie sat having a cup of really good coffee, something not to be had in her stuffy little hotel. She had come to check out the wool shop where Hilary Thomas worked but so far hadn’t found it. Expensive dress shops, very good delicatessen, antique shops and a proper butcher, but so far no wool shop.
She asked the handsome young Italian behind the counter if he knew where it was. He looked baffled. ‘Knitting,’ she said, doing knitting actions. He shrugged and wiped the counter with a fine dismissive flourish, wiping away such stuff. Lizzie was aware that some small part of this rejection was because of her scarred face. People like women with pretty faces best – it was innate in human nature. She was used to these reactions. Charles Baker’s flirtatious response had been unusual; its potency was still with her. Perhaps everything was about sex in the end she thought.
She stirred her coffee, then pressed the warm spoon down the line of the scar. She had made friends with it long ago. It had shaped her life. Because of it she had set up in business for herself – this after several failed interviews. Because of it she was released from some forms of vanity. She wore her hair in an attractive bob and used lovely bright red lipstick, but at a deep level she didn’t care.
But faces told so much. She searched crowds for the faces of her lost people. She knew from experience that after a while you begin to see the missing person in theatres, in busy shops, all over the place as you momentarily turn your head. Once she thought she had seen the young man she was looking for going up the escalator as she was coming down. To this day she was not sure. And as she thought about this and drained the last of her coffee she glimpsed through the plate glass window with its gold lettering, the red-headed girl tearing along the street with a swift striding walk. She saw the bright red hair, glimpsed the face with that wide mouth. It was like being in a film. This is how it happens in films – the thought raced through her brain. Or in dreams. Out in the busy street Lizzie matched the girl’s long loping stride and managed to keep her in her sights. She sensed her energy and wilfulness as they threaded their way through shoppers, jumping out of the way of old people before they were knocked over. Was she fleeing from something or someone, or perhaps flying towards someone or some urgent destination.
And now, looking wildly round for her, Lizzie thought the red-headed girl had vanished. She was just in time to see her disappear into a florist. As Lizzie approached the open door, the cool bitter scent of chrysanthemums came to meet her. Inside a fountain splashed in the middle of the spacious high-ceilinged shop, White chrysanthemums stood in silver buckets. There was a picture on the wall of a woman with lilies. But there was absolutely no one in the shop.
Lizzie ventured into the back of the place, and there seated on a low stool surrounded by Michaelmas daisies and golden rod, her red hair falling over her face, was a young girl, who when she looked up, actually did not look like Lotte at all. Only the mouth a little, and the hair. This pale girl had a wan troubled look, her former energy quite spent now. She had freckles, and dark circles under her eyes. On the table beside her was a bag of something from the bakers, – her lunch she had dashed out for most likely. Was this really the same girl she had followed?
‘Can I help you madam?’
‘I thought you were someone else. Someone I know. You look like her.’ She didn’t really look like Lotte, and Lizzie did not really know Lotte anyway, although she felt she did. ‘There’s no one else here?’
‘No.’
‘I could have come and robbed the till – if there’s no one else here.’
The girl looked sarcastic, she had other things on her mind. ‘I’m on my own on Wednesdays. It’s usually quiet.’
‘Michaelmas daisies,’ said Lizzie. The girl said nothing, but went on stripping the lower leaves with cold freckled hands.
‘I’ll have a bunch of anemones if you have any.’
‘They’ll be in later this morning.
‘I’m looking for a wool shop, I can’t find it.’
‘Round the corner and then as if you’re going towards the cathedral.’

The wool shop turned out to be in a narrow house that had been converted into a shop. Inside there was hardly room to turn around. Hilary Thomas was sitting on a high stool behind the counter and a customer nearly filled the rest of the space. The customer was Mrs. Dixon. Lizzie squeezed in and stood against a wall.
The place was padded out from floor to ceiling with coloured balls of wool. Hilary wore a complicated and hideous dress, obviously hand knitted. It had scalloped cuffs which fell over her thin nervy hands.
Mrs. Dixon was buying wool to make – so it seemed – little woollen fairies and pixies. (It must mean something, thought Lizzie.) Mrs Dixon was holding six of these little creatures in her large hand. When she opened her hand to show Lizzie what she had made, Lizzie saw it was veined with grime like a gardener’s hand. There was a gnome with a green jacket and tall orange hat, brown thigh boots and a white wool beard. This gnome had a wife, Mrs Dixon explained, and they should be sold as a pair. ‘They are not toys,’ she said. The four other little woollen people in her hand were all fairies with sequinned wings.
‘They’ll look nice in the window,’ said Hilary. ‘Last year I sold every one of them.’
‘They’re not toys,’ repeated Mrs Dixon.
‘I know that,’ said Hilary.
What a morning, thought Lizzie.
Mrs Dixon was asking for more scarlet two ply for the Queen’s mantle. ‘The Queen of the Fairies,’ Hilary knew exactly.
‘I’ll have to make another – I lost her.’ Flown off? thought Lizzie. Mrs Dixon gave her a straight look as if she read her thoughts. ‘A lot of work,’ she said. ‘Lots of colours in the wings. Very large wings. Nice little shoes. Everything.’
‘I expect she’ll turn up,’ said Lizzie, leafing through a pattern book. This fairy thing was a bit strange.
‘Are you looking for something in particular?’ Hilary asked her. ‘I’m closing soon, for lunch.’
‘Oh I’ll leave it for another day,; said Lizzie. ‘Now I’ve found where you are.’
‘But we still don’t know where you are dear,’ said Mrs Dixon. She said this kindly, rather than curiously, at least that was the impression she gave. Lizzie told her about her not very comfortable hotel, not far from The Cedars.
‘Still, a change from Hull,’ said Hilary, Lizzie wished they would forget about Hull.
‘Walk back with us if you wish. We are going to pick up Wolfgang from school. He is going in mornings which is so good now that Lotte has gone.’
‘Do you think Lotte will be back?’
Hilary shook her head. ‘No,” said Mrs. Dixon. ‘Just a feeling, dear,’ she added.
Lizzie would have liked to have pursued this, she would have expected more concern over a lost cat, but it was best not to go too fast. While Hilary tidied the shop, Lizzie went back to the florists to see if the anemones had arrived. The girl was eating a doughnut, and rinsed her fingers in the fountain before wrapping the flowers.
Mrs Dixon looked pleased when Lizzie gave them to her. They set off together, Mrs Dixon walking in front carrying her flowers, head up, as she had in the newspaper picture of her wedding.
‘We just have to pick up Wolfgang from his school,’ Hilary repeated. The children were standing with their teacher in the school porch waiting to be released to their parents one by one. ‘Did you notice Wolfgang’s teacher,’ she whispered as they collected the little boy. ‘Its Doctor Baker’s wife. Not the sort you’d think he would be married to is she?’
Lizzie had noticed the anxious looking teacher in a green cardigan, something the same sickly colour as Hilary’s hair. She imagined them together – Charles Baker and this timid looking wife. A dangerously charismatic man who had married a plain dependable woman as if he knew it would keep him in check? Perhaps it was that.
A car screeched to a halt at the crossing. Crossing the busy road Lizzie took Wolfgang’s hand. Hilary was still talking in her ear above the noise of the traffic.
‘Helen Baker,’ said Hilary. ‘She couldn’t stand the sight of Lotte Gruber. Funny isn’t it – when there’s no reason?’

Chapter Six

Lizzie went back after several days of investigative spadework to her sea-captain’s house to pick up her mail, to think, to get her bearings, to find courage, to have a shower in her state-of-the-art shower.
It was a good place to think. Just gorse and rock. No trees. Stones worn smooth by the sea. Lizzie stooped and picked up a few, and took them inside her house.
The floor of the house was flagstone, the two steps up from kitchen to living room, worn down stone. The house itself had a stony silence. The staircase to the bedroom, though, was wood and rotten in places. It would get done one day.
Lizzie threw her briefcase on to the table and placed the handful of stones beside it.
Good to get back to the silence. If you lived a sort of lie, living an assumed character, you needed to get back in touch with yourself sometimes.
Without taking off her coat, she lit the stove and unpacked the food she had brought with her. She made hot chocolate and a cheese sandwich with rye bread she had bought at the deli, put milk in the fridge and tangerines in a bowl.
Still in her coat she sat at the table eating and drinking, peeling a tangerine. She began placing the stones in a circle as at a séance. Mrs Dixon was the largest pebble. George was the darkest one. Charles Baker was very smooth and white. Hilary slightly crumbly. She herself was dark, shining and beautiful. A hero stone.
After her meal she washed her hands carefully to get rid of the tangerine smell, and opened the small package from Germany. Lotte’s stepfather had sent on a diary the girl had left, presumably by mistake, when she visited him last Christmas. Touching its shiny black cover, Lizzie knew it had a life of its own and that it would surely have a place in the patchwork of what had taken place already and what was to come.
At this very minute what was happening to the girl? Her prey. She had a sudden picture of the lifeless blood-caked body, blood-caked hair, lying in a field, and quietly removed the image from her mind. She wanted her prey alive. She must be vigilant and take the long view.
She put some music on, and found her German dictionary. To her surprise, however most of the diary was written in English. The stilted entries seemed like a daily school task. No secrets here. The sort of diary that might be left open for anyone to read. There was one entry, though: I took Wolfgang to the park. He picked up sticks from the ground and throws them at the children. He is warlike. We met Shakespeare at the tea room. Who was Shakespeare? Later pages were blank as if she had got tired of it. Several were covered in doodles, the usual thing, hearts and flowers. There were only two addresses written at the back, one the stepfather’s in German, the other the Dixons’ – as if just to put something down. There was a separate mobile phone number. It was copied out over and over again, starting with large clear numbers and then in smaller and smaller ones like the mouse’s tail in Alice in Wonderland. Lizzie copied the number into her own black notebook.
Then she picked up George’s black stone. She had seen him one afternoon at the cathedral. She had gone because the canticles were Tallis and Byrd. After the service, he had looked absorbed and troubled, and tried to avoid her, but she wasn’t having any. ‘Oh George,’ she had said, ‘the crossbow. Have you tracked one down?’ It transpired that the troubled look was because he had been offered one but could not get to the out-of-town car breaker’s to see it. He did not drive. Of course she offered to take him there.
As they drove into the breaker’s yard Lizzie thought it did look a little like a mediaeval arms depot. ‘Wants flame throwers on this lot,’ observed George. He was nervous, almost shaking. There was no one about. Three dogs trotted quietly out of a shed – an Alsatian, a Rottweiler and a greyhound. ‘Hello boys,’ said George, through the wound down window. A man with bright hair like a dandelion strolled out. He had a red cravat and looked like a circus worker but his accent sounded public school as he called the dogs off.
George got out of the car. After a while he had emerged from the shed hugging the crossbow to his chest. ‘You bought it then.’ It had been found apparently in the locked boot of a Mercedes. So George had his crossbow. She put his stone back in the circle and picked up the crumbly Hilary Stone. Hilary had seemed less at ease in her own room at the Dixons, though she had lived there for years, than in her padded cell of a woolshop.
Excited by the disappearance of the nanny, as she called Lotte, after a Friday meeting she had asked Lizzie up to her room to chat. ‘She even left the sponge bag in the bathroom.’ ‘Oh is it still there?’ Lizzie had asked. ‘I’ve got it in my drawer for safe keeping.’ ‘That’s good of you.’ ‘Yes. I often used to look after Wolfgang when she was gallivanting.’ ‘Gallivanting?’ ‘I usually give him my foreign stamps to sort out.’ Hilary had penfriends all over the world, she told Lizzie. She suspected Mr Dixon of steaming open her mail and wondered how Mrs Dixon put up with the strain of living with such a man. ‘I think it all goes over her head, though – just as well.’ ‘Did the Dixons mind about Lotte’s gallivanting?’ ‘He minds other people’s business too much. Now tell me, does it smell of smoke in here? Cigarette smoke. No. Because he won’t have it in the house. Smoking. I have to – in my own room – open the window if I want a cigarette. I don’t know why I put up with it. He creeps about.’ She clutched her packet of cigarettes as she spoke. ‘Still, gallivanting is such a funny word isn’t it – it can mean anything.’ ‘It means what it says,’ said Hilary darkly.
Hilary kept a lot insider her, festering, thought Lizzie. ‘Hilary never smiles,’ Mrs Dixon had said. ‘Still, a reason for it.’ Mrs Dixon liked to have a chat if you caught her in the right mood. ‘Mr Dixon is an atheist you know,’ she had confided to Lizzie. ‘He imagines life as a firework that shoots across the sky and then fizzles out. We don’t see eye to eye on some things. Mr. Dixon said to me the other day that if you are a foreign person – I am German, you know – you never really know that person, there’s always something missing, anyway.’
She had rattled on, and Lizzie had let her, of course. She told Lizzie about her spirit guide who in life had been a dean at the cathedral, and sometimes spoke in Welsh which she could not understand but that he was very handsome. ‘Spirits have bodies.’ Lizzie was startled. ‘Indeed they have, ideal bodies of course. The body in its true perfection, all mutations, amputations, missing parts restored, scars healed.’ ‘No wings, then,’ Lizzie had said causing a micro expression to flit across Mrs Dixon’s face almost imperceptibly as she said firmly, ‘Angels exist, but they are of another order. Humans do not become angels. No.’ ‘I’m very new to it all. A lot to learn,’ Lizzie had said humbly.
Mrs Dixon made the spirit world seem like part of the web and woof of existence. Lizzie could clearly see how the possibility of the supernatural could give life an underlying purpose and excitement, especially to fractured lives.
Like her own, for example.

Lizzie picked up a scarf, and, wrapping it around her, went for a walk along the beach. She took the blank white stone which was Charles Baker with her. She could not make him out at all.
Giving in to a sudden urge, she threw him into the sea, a high curving throw and a nice splash quite far out. Tomorrow she would make her way back to find Lotte Gruber. Perhaps Shakespeare would lead her to where she was.

Christine Harrison’s latest book is a collection of short stories, Red Roses for a Blue Lady, published by Parthian last summer and reviewed here by Suzannah V Evans.

Photo by Liudmila Selyaninova/Shutterstock




       


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