As I was going up the stair,
I met a woman who wasn’t there.
She wasn’t there again today;
I wish that she would go away.
Every story has many beginnings, but one of mine happened here. I was thirteen, recovering from a hideously unflattering haircut— about which I was comforted by my father’s logic, "There’s only a week between a bad haircut and a good one" —and had just enjoyed four squares of Cadbury’s milk chocolate in a hapless attempt to console myself for this being the last day of the summer holiday. Well, it wasn’t exactly the very last day before school started, but it was the last day here in Norfolk, with Aunt Rose and Uncle Bob; after this it was all downhill. Our mother was practically salivating at the idea of getting us back to school and ending the six- week bacchanalia. It was time for us to wear uniforms again and be miserably subjugated. We were children for pity’s sake; we weren’t supposed to be running feral, were we?
So here I was, clinging to the last few precious moments of a gilded afternoon, as if my life’s blood drained out. That sun melting behind the distant pines was my will to live, my own strength fading away. Everything was horrible. Nothing would ever be good again.
Like I said, I was thirteen.
Somewhere below, my father pressed the car horn and I determinedly ignored it. He worried about practical things, like traffic and getting home in daylight. If only he could appreciate the sorrowful, drooping beauty of a sunset and not keep looking at his watch. But I despaired. My father, much as I loved him, had no patience for my meandering soul. He lived his life by right and proper, rule and schedule, as dictated by our mother. Sometimes I wondered if I truly was the fruit of their loins, or if I had, as was often suggested, been left on the doorstep by gypsies.
Soon they’d send the Good Daughter to find me, but she wouldn’t dare come up here, where it was damp and—God forbid—slimy. Little brat.
I wanted to stay here forever, to live at Souls Dryft, with Uncle Bob and Aunt Rose. The chimneys of their house were visible from this high vantage point in the crumbling, flint stone tower of the castle ruins and they seemed to reach up to me like the arms of a child. The house wanted me to stay, I was sure. But for now I was merely a sulky teenager and had no choice.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t stage the occasional protest and keep them all waiting. I was a horrible child. Ask anyone. But when you’ve been a child as many times as me it gets rather samey.
Perched half-way up that ancient stone staircase, I thought I was blessedly alone for just a few minutes more. I was not, of course, but I didn’t realize it then. The creature hadn’t yet begun to cause trouble, because she was asleep. Inside me.
And I— the worst maladroit that ever put one foot before the other—was unknowingly about to wake her.
Sleepy fingers of sunset fumbled over that mossy old stone ruin and found me there with my scuffed, dog-eared notebook, pen poised at the top of a new page. Here goes.
The ink moved smoothly, quickly, but it was no longer guided by my hand. It was led by someone else, someone stronger, older, wiser. Someone who wanted to tell me a story. I didn’t know, back then, that she needed something in return, so I let her write:
An introduction to a most lamentable heroine,
whose melancholy lesson is here to be learned,
in a story contrived from select scenes of jiggery pokery
and ending in her comeuppance, most rightfully deserved.
She has no qualities one might expect in a heroine. As you would too, had you so little conscience, she sleeps deeply and contentedly. In peaceful repose, her face reveals nothing of the wickedness within, but for that scar on her chin — the souvenir of a childhood tumble from some height. Consider, if you will, that ladies in her day and age are not supposed to climb trees, let alone fall out of them.
While we have this moment and she is suspended in sleep and time, let me tell you something of her in warning. You may decide against making her acquaintance, in which case I shall save you the trouble of reading further.
Firstly, she has been known to curse like the proverbial sailor on shore leave; secondly, she has no qualms in winning an argument by any method, including, not just her flapping tongue, but her strong teeth. She believes in vengeance as the only salve for the many injustices against her, real or imagined. Her eyes are never softened with tears, for she is a hard-hearted soul, and the only occasion her cheeks are known to blush, is when they have just been rightfully slapped. There are folk who will tell you that she is always found where she is least wanted and never found when needed.
With these odds against her, she should let some other, more deserving soul take her place in our story. Yet she knows nothing of our expectations in a leading lady. Even if she did, she would be careless of her scant chance at winning our favor and would likely thumb her nose.
So, if you seek any great learning or moral lesson herein, best look elsewhere. I promise nothing more than a tale of one obstinate, wicked woman, about whom — most folk will tell you — she has nary a good, honest bone in her body.
But she will soon wake. Rain drums hard at her window and leaks through the rafters above. One drop, oozing through a crack in the old wood, lingers a moment, stretching, and then falls, aimed directly for the tip of her nose. Peace is about to be shattered.
* * * *
"Hurry up, Grace!" my mother yelled from the car. "What on earth are you doing up there?"
Leaping down the last few steps of the tower, notebook almost slipping from my fingers and with my heart thumping wildly, I had no breath to answer. Fortunately, "What on earth are you doing?" is something my mother asked out of habit, in the same way that other people cursed or lit up cigarettes when anxious. She didn't really want to know, especially in my case.
I felt windblown, chewed up and spat out, because, in the time it took the sun to sink finally out of sight behind those tall pines, an entire lifetime had rushed through me and it was still there, like a generator, throbbing deep in my bones. The being that had possessed my pen for those few moments, had taken my body likewise on a journey. But it hadn't lasted long. Not this time.
Now I was a child again. How did that happen? Oh, the injustice.
The Good Daughter, Marian, was in the back seat, blowing bubbles with her gum, letting them go "smack". No one told her off, too distracted by my naughtiness, as usual. Let me tell you something about Marian; she was the compensation for me —as in "Thank God we have one daughter we can rely on." And that other cherished nugget, "At least we have one daughter to do us proud." Apparently, by the time I was three, my parents decided they had better try again, despite the fact that neither of them knew what to do with the first child they produced. Marian was a proper baby, one they could all gurgle over. The sense of relief was tangible; even I felt it at her christening, as I sat on the kitchen floor decapitating a doll with a bread knife, listening to all the aunts and uncles dutifully paying homage to the Sainted Child.
Marian did her coat buttons up without being told. She was always picked first for teams. Not that I was jealous. No ten year old should have blinding white socks, is all I’m saying.
"Just look!" My mother’s voice ripped into the summer evening, scattering wildlife. Even the fat, docile doves took flight from the tower in a sudden panic of disgruntled warbling. "She’s torn her shorts again. I don’t know why I bother trying to make her look decent."
Marian opened the car door, sliding over so I could jump in. Rick Astley was playing on the radio; "Never Gonna Give You Up." My father’s finger itched for the volume knob, but my mother handed him a sticky square of flapjack, which required both hands to eat – one carefully cradled in anticipation of falling crumbs — and he ate whatever she gave him, despite the fact that none of us were starving. For the journey home, the car was crammed full of provisions, as if we might be stranded in some desolate place and World War Three break out before we got back.
Primly posed on her side of the seat, Marian exclaimed, "You’re a mess, fuzzy head!"
"Shut up Princess Pea Brain."
"Spotty, Spotty, Fatso." She pinched my arm, whispering, "If you can pinch more than an inch…"
I pinched her back. "Bag of bones. Stinking, maggoty corpse!"
"Ow," she screamed. "Mum, tell her!"
Our mother dutifully craned her head around. "For Heaven’s sake Grace, shut the door. You’re letting flies in. You’ve got chocolate on your face again. Don’t put your muddy feet on the back of my seat."
Ah, back to the old routine.
"Where were you all that time?" Marian demanded, as if she had any right to question a genius.
"Marian," I assured her calmly and solicitously, "you are a hideous, festering carbuncle on the face of humanity."
While she was still absorbing the insult, I twisted around to watch Souls Dryft and the ancient tower ruins slowly disappear from the back window. No, I reminded myself – nothing is gone forever. I couldn’t see them now, but they were still there.
"I won’t tell you again Grace. Stop kicking the back of my seat!"
Sighing, I flipped open my notebook. With all these distractions sent to try me, I hadn’t got beyond the beginning yet, but I must struggle valiantly onward. The entire literary world eagerly awaited the outpourings of my fevered mind. Surely.
"And don’t write in the car, Grace, or you’ll make yourself sick." My mother turned the radio down and the music faded away to a whisper.
Marian blew another bubble, popping it loudly in my face.
Thus I was absorbed again into my own life, but I thought how fantastic it would be, if I really could be transported to another world, just by running up that old stone staircase. Anywhere else would suit me just fine. Surely Jane Austen and Emily Bronte never put up with such as this.
One day, I’d return here to write an ending.
But my past, like a runaway train, was already catching up with me.