- Author : Rebecca Lloyd
Dust was first published in Mercy and Other Stories
by Rebecca Lloyd
Much has developed since the day in April I stumbled out of the Quiet Garden with blood running freely down my cheek. The intensity that has arisen over the months cannot be quelled, and I find myself engaged now in a monstrous negotiation, the nature of which I scarcely comprehend, and one that shifts ground continually. As much as I would keep Beth naïve, I sense in her silences that she is on the edge of recognition. I am touched as much by her innocence as I am by her fierce protectiveness of me—but I would keep her in ignorance for I have yet to comprehend the matter myself. I know only that I am involved in urgent entreaty on her behalf, yet I feel my resourcefulness weakening daily.
It is already November and the numbing draughts have taken up their habitual places and creep at will through the old kitchen. Beth has padded the windows with newspaper, and outside the sky is inky and swollen. She is determined to stay, and I can do nothing more to urge her to leave. There are many repulsive details I keep from her, but lately she has come to understand a little of what we are up against, although she struggles to deny it.
She has locked all the doors to the unused rooms upstairs, thinking to make the top corridor safe. At night she is anxious, and would have it that we sleep in the same room together as we did when we were children, as if by doing so things would change. I do not try to convince her otherwise; conversation between us has taken a strange turn lately. She and I should have much to talk about for we have not seen each other since the day she left in 1905, less than six months after our parents died.
She does not tell me about her life in Edinburgh, and she does not ask me how I have fared here alone—as she would have it. She asks me oblique questions and watches me all the time when we are together in the house. She wishes to protect me, she says, just as she did when we were children. She is older than me by seven years and her memories of our childhood differ from mine; I do not recall her protection. I remember only suffocating resentment should I find her in my hiding places. On many occasions in the summer months, I spied on her from the Quiet Garden, daring her to tread the path that would lead her to me, but she never did. She stayed instead in company on the south lawn playing with the dogs. She fancied that were one of us to be there, the other could be free. She declares that we were close as children, and would be so again, were I to allow it.
The Quiet Garden stands above the lower lawns. Curved steps spotted with orange lichen lead up to a platform of ancient pitted stonework no bigger than a large room, and surrounded on three sides by gigantic yew hedges. The place has a penitent heavy feeling about it that attracted me singularly when I was a girl. A stone ornament in the shape of a Greek urn stands off centre in the square, and it was close to this, on an old bench, that I would sit reading. Chinking blackbirds warned me if someone was approaching, and there was time to slip away through a narrow passageway between two overlapping hedges before I was found. The place was my refuge. As soon as I was released from company, I hastened there to the silence, relieved to be cut free from the panting of the dogs, my sister’s pale face, and the rough bitter jokes our parents flung at each other between their deck chairs all through the summer days.
I am certain that it is Beth’s return that has brought about the feverous escalation. Although through the years, I have been aware that the two of them, our parents, linger. It is only since Beth came home that they have made themselves so very obvious. It was barely two weeks after she arrived when I first found myself in conflict with them. I had walked the gardens, the south lawns, the nut tree path, and up to the stables and fields beyond. I returned then to sit in the Quiet Garden. It was late afternoon, chilly but bright, the sun silvering the air around me. I cannot tell now if the phenomenon had been sudden or gradual, and as useless as it is to say, the only words I can find to describe it are that things started to bend. It was as if I had swooned, but the swooning was outside me. The edges of the flagstones appeared to warp, and staring at them did not return them to their proper place. I looked away and noticed that the yew hedge on the west side was curving inwards.
I became aware that there was moisture on the back of my neck, and reached my hand up. A bubbly wetness covered my palm. I stood up quickly and looked behind me, and as I did so, what I took to be a shower of small stones slashed at my face. I was conscious of the abnormality of the thing; the force with which the objects hit my cheeks and brow would have needed some visible person to be no further away than three or four paces.
I noted that my body was afraid; my blood had quickened and brought about a pulsing in my ears, and my cheek stung. In my thinking, I was as yet too startled to be frightened even though I sensed a frisson of malice that transcended the ordinary. I was instead, indignant and very repulsed. I backed away slowly and then turning, took the steps too quickly, twisting my ankle as I went.
‘Some small cuts on my cheek, Beth,’ I said later. ‘It must have been one of the village children, they’re quite rough nowadays. Their fathers, you know, so many of them died in the war.’
The following morning, I found Beth standing in the gap between the yew trees at the edge of the Quiet Garden. I do believe she was searching the flagstones, looking for a scattering of small sharp objects to give credence to my story. ‘What are you doing out here?’ I asked.
‘I was concerned about the attack on you, Annie,’ she said, ‘and you do look very wan.’
‘Life has been a great strain hereabouts. Goodness, it is only two years since the end of the war, and there cannot be a soul in England who has not been dreadfully upset by the whole thing,’ I told her.
For a while, the Quiet Garden reclaimed its tranquillity and June passed by pleasantly enough, although there was a faint chill in the air. I sensed nothing immediately harmful, although I had become nervous enough to be startled even by the movement of birds in the bushes beyond. Beth and I had agreed to stay within calling distance of each other and come together again as dusk distorted the shadows of the trees on the lawn.
They did not return again until late in October, and this time I confronted them boldly by calling out their names. I have wondered if it was my insolence that gave them vigour, for they were upon me suddenly with brutal energy. Sometimes I fancied my neck was kissed or my hair brushed, and if I resisted, I was beaten. On one occasion, I was obliged to slip back into the house quietly and dispose of my frock that had been so badly torn that mending it would have been pointless. They would pull at me so and pester me, and it was as if I were mesmerised as their administrations became more intimate in nature.
I tried, at first, to keep a record of the particulars, as if by doing so I could assert the authority of all my forty-five years, but when later I read my jottings, I found that my writing was always the nonsensical scribbling of a child, and I could make no sense of it.
I have failed to keep the dark business away from Beth. She has become so nervous and brooding that the slightest matter upsets her terribly; she has but to drop a spoon on the floor and she will be in tears. She has set about once again, finding ways to stop the vicious draughts moving freely in the house and banging shut the doors as they always have done. She insists that we keep an electrical light on during the night. ‘Where do you go for such long stretches of time?’ she whispers at me repeatedly. She has become so persistent in her questioning that I am obliged to reveal a little of what is unfolding. ‘But why must you go to the Quiet Garden? It is winter now, and I know you go there even at night.’
‘I go because I must. Concern yourself only with inside matters. I alone am responsible for things outside, and for finding ways to keep them there.’
‘But what is out there that pulls at you so, Annie dear?’
‘It is just a habit.’
‘It is very eccentric, and I’ve become dreadfully fearful for you.’
‘Some small eccentricities are unavoidable in those who have lived lonely for so long.’ I did feel a great tenderness for Beth in her bewilderment, but I could not tell her then that I had no will in the matter. I could not say that the compulsion to keep tryst in the Quiet Garden was outside my own making; that the meetings were as unavoidable as when I was a child mute with obedience, bolstered only by the belief that eventually adulthood would free me from further misery. Sometimes I could see them clearly, before ever I reached the garden; they paced up and down along the yew hedges, impatient with my slowness.
In the middle of November, an occasion arose when Beth looked at me very levelly; she had led me to the kitchen, and stood with her back against the door. ‘Be truthful with me, it is to do with them, is it not? You think they are out there in the Quiet Garden.’
‘I cannot deny it. Of course it is them. The spitting and stones—who else would engage in such puerile activities?’ I did not describe how once my head was pulled sharply backwards so that I struggled for breath, or how on one occasion they would have my clothes from me and leave me to stand naked, and I witnessed my garments hanging in the air unsupported.
‘I did not realise you thought about them so much anymore. I do not,’ Beth said.
‘Why should you? You have been gone all this long time, and I have been here with them.’ She came towards me and I moved away, she could not change things that had already been done. ‘They are here, and they are very eager to make acquaintance with you again,’ I shouted.
‘Annie, hush, I cannot bear to see you so tormented. They are merely memories.’ I saw her shudder.
‘You do not believe me, do you, Beth?’
‘How has this all come to be, do you suppose? Ever since I came home you have been fitful and really quite strange, Annie.’
‘It is because of what we did.’
‘But it was you who first suggested it, if I recall.’
‘Perhaps, but you agreed. They have been about since then, sometimes together and sometimes separate. I have seen them by the water’s edge, or up by the stable. Never have they ventured into the Quiet Garden until your return. And they come back ferocious, more so than they were in life.’
I felt quite broken up and I did not resist her when she took my hand in hers and looked down upon it as if it were her very own. ‘Annie, perhaps if it really is us who have caused it, stopping it would also be possible, do you not think?’ There was a curious tone to her voice that made a child of me.
‘How, how could we stop it?’
‘Perhaps you alone can stop it. Where is the fine spirit I so envied you when we were little? You were not afraid to move away from them and find your childish sanctuaries.’
‘I think you should leave, Beth. That is the only way this business can be halted.’
‘I do not regret what we did, it was not malicious. Besides, I do not wish to leave you again.’
‘You did so without hesitation the first time.’
‘Poor Annie. I did not know you suffered because of that, truly I did not.’
I let her take me in her arms and pull my head down onto her shoulder, for I was all done in with my torment. ‘It was monstrous and pagan, the thing we did,’ I whispered.
I felt her tremble against me. ‘Can one be guilty of a thing if one does not understand the implications of it, do you imagine, Annie?’
‘Of course!’ I pulled away from her. ‘If those you have harmed think otherwise. That was exactly what our parents did think, as you very well know. We were guilty of things we had no knowledge of all the time.’
The relationship between our parents was debauched, and my sister and I lived in the murkiness of it. We crept between the intensity of the hatred they felt for each other and the extravagant ways they menaced each other’s bodies and thoughts. We spent time in the kitchen with our silent cook when we felt the need for the company of an adult through days in which our parents did not leave their bedroom. Or days in which they grappled together through the rooms of the house, shouting. There were times of quietude, but these were brief and their length unpredictable.
We did not think they would damage us when they were alive. They seemed hardly to notice we were there, and when they did, they looked at us as if surprised. Father spoke to us with a hesitating formality that seemed to suggest that had things been otherwise, his enthusiasm for our company would have been boundless. Our mother had a myriad of different ways to show us that her life before our births had been thrilling.
I would not have minded those facts alone; the house with its two staircases and extravagant gardens supplied much of what I needed as a child, and Beth tells me now the same was true for her. We would come across each other in the old sure places of sanctuary—in the cupboard under the back stairs, or in the spidery storage room in the winter. In the summer, we would find our way separately to the stables or the broken greenhouse and curse and rejoice at the same time if the other was there. Only the Quiet Garden remained mine, for it was too queer and sombre for Beth.
Despite their depravity, our parents were conservative people in the 1880s, and in the way of Queen Victoria, they never changed their opinions about the vileness of cremation. Beth believes it was because the first enthusiasts were gifted people such as Mr Millais and Mr Trollope. We suffered through many mealtimes listening to them threaten each other with cremation when death mercifully freed each from the other.
I recall one conversation over lunch—I believe it was in 1885 when Beth was seventeen, and I, ten years of age. The Woking Crematorium had just been opened, and a Mrs P., very well known for her opinions and presence in literary circles, was cremated there. In December of that year, the body of an extra-large woman was also subjected to the same treatment, successfully.
‘So then,’ began our father, ‘it occurs to me that this cremation business is a fitting end for obnoxious women, be they vile of body or mind, or in some cases both.’
Mother blanched. ‘The entire business of course was started by an individual who could be regarded as a true example of the stupidity and vanity of men.’ She coughed loudly and drank noisily from her water glass, ‘a ridiculous old Welsh man who claimed to be a Druid, if I recall correctly. Last year, wasn’t it? Teddy dear, you remember, he tried to cremate the body of his infant child and was arrested for his foul behaviour.’
I cast a glance at Beth and she looked away, we shared the same goal at that moment of judging a suitable pause in the sharpening exchange so that we could beg to leave the table. But our father turned his eye upon us. ‘Ask your mother to pass the salt cellar, Beth,’ he said. His moustaches were horridly wet.
‘Mother, Father would like the salt cellar,’ Beth mumbled.
‘Inform him that he must obtain it for himself.’
Beth leant forward towards her plate and began to weep silently. As often occurred, I intervened. ‘Oh, do let me get it, it is nearest to me,’ I said, as if the task would give me pleasure.
I watched my mother’s dark eyes travel across the vegetable dishes, the water glasses, the napkin rings, and up my neck until they rested on my face. ‘Do eat up, Annie. Otherwise what a surprise you will have at breakfast tomorrow.’
Beth fumbled for her handkerchief and buried her face in it so that our parents were not visible to her. Father began his customary tapping of the tines of his fork on the table edge as mother positioned the water jug and gravy boat around her as if building a fortress.
We were eating mutton and peas. To this day, the thought of it fills me with horror. I had devised a way of disposing of mutton and other meats as a child. I was frequently abandoned at table when Beth and my parents had left to go about their chores. At a chosen moment, with only the cook as guard, I slipped the meat into my pocket and claimed to have eaten it. Released from the table I went quickly to a spot on the edge of our land and buried the flesh, trying at the same time to push away the curious fantasies that came to me in the process.
Our parents died quite suddenly within hours of each other in 1905. In this, their last year, they had been shadows to each other about the place. They were like two deranged beings looking constantly for ways to thwart the other, their war poisonously silent. I was thirty and Beth nearing forty. We had made nothing much of our lives, for it was difficult in our circumstances to engage with the outside world. I knew Beth had a small circle of friends in those days, but of course she never did bring them back to the house. I, on the other hand, had only my books and my thoughts.
Mother died first. She dropped onto the dining room floor by the window quite suddenly and with no sound. He came in to stare at her as he often did—sometimes for half an hour without blinking. He made a small noise at the sight of her and wandered off into the garden. We found him later dead under the willow tree, his face still moist with tears. We had them cremated at West Norwood. For father we chose a simple ceramic urn in the Greek style, for mother a smaller, more rounded clay vessel. We stood them side by side on the dining room table and looked at them.
Beth laughed hard and for a long time, until I began to smile. ‘Don’t look so rueful, Annie, we are free.’ We had on the table between us a small bottle of Father’s malted whiskey. As the last remnants of the spring sunlight fell on the urns, we finished the liquor. ‘Are we in a ghastly stupor?’ Beth asked me, as we gazed at each other.
‘Putting them in these awful vessels would suggest it, I suppose,’ I replied.
‘No, they’re very fitting, Annie. The proud one is for a man and the little bevelled one is for a woman.’ She jabbed her finger at them, ‘A gentleman and a lady, a lady and a gentleman,’ she announced with unnecessary loudness.
I reached out and moved the vessels closer together. ‘What on earth are we going to do with them now?’
‘Put them in the attic out of harm’s way,’ she whispered. ‘I cannot tell you, Annie, how I cherish the silence now that they have gone. I too have plans to go.’
‘Did they really do some of the things I remember, Beth? Did I see them rolling down the lawn together when we were children and falling into the stream, both naked?’ I recalled the scene often, the spongy flesh of my father reddening in the grip of my mother’s bony fingers as they propelled each other towards the wet edges of the stream.
Beth nodded. ‘It is true that the relationship between them was frenzied at the time, but later on they did not box each other around so much; their wickedness became subtler, and I was glad you were too young to notice what they next embarked upon. They started to hide each other’s things and father cut holes in her dresses, little discreet ones nastily placed. From time to time, she tried to damage his automobile. Then, for a while she hunted him as though she were a different person.’
‘Say what, Beth?’
‘She wrote menacing little letters, she would go to London and post them from there. I read a couple of them once; they were in the pocket of her outdoor cape. He knew of course. When she came back, he would tell her earnestly what had happened, and what he would do to the person were he to catch them.’
‘You said you have plans, what plans?’
She frowned. ‘Oh, not this very minute, Annie. I’ll tell you later.’
I thought about my mother’s face, porcelain white and sharp jawed. ‘Even so, Mama and Papa could not have lived without each other, could they?’
‘Well, that is it exactly, Annie. It was as though they had cast a fairy spell upon each other. It is strange to think that love between two people could be so vile a thing for other people to witness.’
‘I think we should scatter them in the garden, I believe that is a fashion now. We should get rid of these hideous things they are trapped in. Maybe they could make peace if we did so. Indeed, I know the very place; there is a tree on the edge of our land.’ It was an idle thought, spoken only to cast aside the gloom that had descended upon us. I reached out and took the lids off the urns. Beth stood up and peered into each of them cautiously. ‘Let us put them together,’ I said. We were drunk, I suppose—but funeral drunk with a steadiness of purpose.
I picked up father, and she took mother. We laid a cloth upon the table and let the gritty grey particles trickle together, moving our heads back as fine dust began to form around the urns. And then we dared to go further, we mixed them with the tips of our own fingers, mingling them into one pile.
‘Do you think this is legal, Annie dear?’
‘They belong to us. I suppose we could eat them if we wanted to, with peas,’ I replied frivolously, and to my utter shame.
All is now in the open between myself and Beth, I have shown her the recordings I made of their appearances and she affirms that they made no sense. ‘Perhaps you were in a trance, Annie,’ she murmured. ‘But even if we must live once more with Mama and Papa, they cannot harm us one jot, you know.’
She was very calm, and I could not help but feel furious with her. ‘You make so little of it,’ I shouted. ‘You think your sophistication can expunge them.’
‘It is you who can expunge them, Annie, you alone. You must try mightily to let them go. They haunt you because you allow it.’
‘Why can you not own that it is something we did together, and why can you not see that if you had not left, they would not be so very angry with us now?’
So, our positions in this matter became fixed. We agreed that under no circumstances should we let our troubles become known to others. When tradesmen call it is she who has the task of speaking to them, and it is she who attends to our meals and comfort in the house. Although I feel she could be close to nervous exhaustion, she is wonderfully attentive to me most of the time; on that, I cannot fault her.
Now that November is nearing its end, strong winds blow against the yew hedges and the Quiet Garden is very much alive. Some dry snow has fallen, and more is likely in December. The bench close to the stone urn is swollen with damp and its tendrils of lichen so milky green in the summer, have taken on a darker hue. I spend much time there.
I wear the wide blue ribbons that hung limp in my hair when I was a child, so that they do not mistake me for Beth. I find new ways to appease them, thinking to charm them into placidity; I dance for them and sing the songs of our childhood that they never heard. I take meals to the garden for them. I lay the plates out carefully upon the ground; I fancy that mutton and peas are well tolerated. Sometimes I sense that the plates have been disturbed and call to Beth in my excitement. But it may be as she says—that an animal has ventured by and taken parts of the food, a fox, she suggests, or a domestic cat—for it is not I who eats them.
But lately a further development has occurred which has cast a new light on my duties. I have not yet told Beth because it is an escalation of a horrible kind, and the thing I most feared. It has become essential that I find a way of containing Mama and Papa within the Quiet Garden, for they have begun to venture from it in the last few days. It is as if over the months since my first encounters with them, they have gained new knowledge. They are like two children on the verge of intellectual discovery, and I sense their excitement, and with it their increasing malevolence. They wish to gain entry to the house, and I must at all costs stop this happening, for it is clear to me that once inside they will find Beth, for whom they hunger terribly.