The Castle Shakes
I went every few days, when I could. (John said I was a martyr.) I brought Mrs Elmwood's post in. The letterbox at the end of the long track to the Castle, had long been too public an outing for her. The post office didn't stand a chance. I collected her regular parcels from Gardener's Paradise or T.W.Seeds and such, and took them to the Castle, along with any envelopes from the box. There was always something, even if I made it every day. She asked me not to come on Sundays though. No post on Sundays, she told me pointedly. The letters, and me, were now her only contact with the outside world. And Hugo Boss, our ancient and idiosyncratic terrier, who routinely, rudely, searched Mrs Elmwood's kitchen, much to her disdain. She didn't like me bringing him in and her eyes would fall down hard on him every few moments, checking what he was up to.
I've made so many visits, the memories of them have run together and it's hard to pick out particular days or the details of them. Two things stick in my mind though, because of what happened afterwards. One day, we came into the Castle kitchen as usual, Hugo blithely clicking across the flagstones, sniffing. Mrs Elmwood told him tightly 'The cats aren't here.' Then to me, 'A glass of elderflower Samantha?', already on her way to the dresser to get a glass. She always offered me a drink of something cold. Water mostly. Elderflower when she'd made it. Never tea or anything you could really chat over or something that might mean sitting down. Several times I'd tried to bring up Charlie or Sorrenta, although I avoided the topic of Mr Elmwood.
As my belly obviously grew, she'd made no comment. Not until I explained my due date was soon and I might not be able to pop by for a few days, but I could ask someone else, maybe Sue from the shop.
'Boy or a girl?' she'd asked.
'No idea. Just healthy. I don't mind really, I think John would love a little girl.'
'You didn't find out first then.'
I waited for the reproach about my reckless lack of preparation. I expected 'I don't know why you haven't found out when the technology is there to use, blah, blah, etc, etc..' But Mrs Elmwood's mind went in an unexpected direction, blowing the whole conversation off course like a sharp sea wind.
'I did and it spoilt it. I knew I was having a girl.'
I should have asked why, but I'd been too surprised. Or maybe I was just so used to smoothing over these bitter little interactions, that my good manners or maybe what John called my 'daft buggerness', kicked in automatically.
'Sorrenta must have been a beautiful baby,' I said
Silence. The typical response to Sorrenta's name. But then, it seemed the sea wind was still blowing in unexpected directions.
'Well, she was the way all babies are. Pink and angry. I was pleased she was healthy. She didn't have her father's illness, I could tell that straight away. But she was too like me. She grew up very beautiful. I was beautiful you know? I used to be a fashion model, did you know that? I'm not boasting Samantha. I was cursed by it, and my daughter was too.'
All sorts of questions formed on my tongue. Images bloomed in my mind, bleeding together like ink in water. Perfect Sorrenta, the one I used to know, seventeen, lithe, languid and preternaturally poised, like she was already a woman of the world. My old teen feelings of
inadequacy made tiny prickles against my seemingly imperviable adult skin. Sorrenta had never seemed cursed I thought. If anyone, that was me. I was the thirteen year old nuisance with the pudgy face, who could never think quickly enough of the cool things to say.
Again, I was too slow to respond. Mrs Elmwood went on, 'I hoped I'd have puppies.' She laughed at her own joke. 'Give birth to a litter of black labs. Who'd want a child over Labradors?' She made a little snort of disgust. I think that's what it was, or was she still laughing? Keeping things light, and on safe ground, I said, 'I'm not sure I could cope with a whole litter of whats going on in here. Whatever it is, it's definitely gambolling around like a boisterous puppy, all over my insides.'
Mrs Elmwood ignored me, 'I can't have a dog now of course. I don't walk out anymore. The cats look after their own exercise. I was always a dog person before. They love you more I think.'
She looked down at Hugo, who was wedging his head enthusiastically under the dresser, making it shiver and the china clink.
'You shouldn't bring Hugh round though. He pokes his nose in everything and upsets the cats. You haven't trained him well enough.'
The conversation had moved back to things I'd not done right.
When Laurie was born, she came to the Castle too. First in a sling and then when she started toddling. I would squeeze her little hand in mine as we trudged slowly up the long drive. The push chair was pretty useless on the rough waves of gravelly track, but it was still easier to bring it to help ferry the post, and to loop Hugo's lead on. As I expected, Mrs Elmwood was polite but not really interested in my reproduction. Laurie on the other hand seemed to take an immediate interest in Mrs Elmwood. Maybe it was the two cats, who ran to greet her every time and seemed to revel in her squashy petting. The brown tabby one, 'Tabs' and the black one, 'Darkie', an unfortunate jarring throwback to Mrs Elmwood's childhood in South Africa. Luckily the black cat's name wasn't ever heard out of the house. He was old and pretty soon his lifespan would catch up with modern life and his name would die out with him.
Mrs Elmwood was getting old too. I worried that soon she would struggle to maintain the house and garden and then what would she do? It was what she did. Inside her castle walls all day, all year, year after year. She dusted dark wood furniture, plumped cushions and polished the silver and the brass. I was the only witness to this. Her only visitor. The other thing she did, her passion, was the walled garden, built like a fortress with high walls, presumably made at some point from scavenged thick stone from the original castle. I suppose it kept out the salt and wind that funnelled down the valley from West Pen.
She had a small vegetable area, but the garden was mostly dedicated to a luxurious mass of flowers of all descriptions, giving a year round colourful foliage. She was quite the gardener. It was her secret life and it's what gave me hope that she was actually ok, inside her lonely old brain. I'd often find her here. She'd always be that bit less chippy if I talked to her in the garden. She'd sometimes even take my arm and almost stroll with me through the blooming beds. She'd reel off the scientific names crisply, sometimes making me repeat them, a much too late attempt at educating me. She was horrified I'd never learnt latin at school (Not exactly a priority at Lingly comp) and had no idea of the correct pronunciation. I didn't pay much notice, her real fury was reserved for the various bugs that fought to destroy her beloved creations. I once watched as she secateured dozens of tiny green caterpillars in half, clipping each one neatly while bellowing profanities, proper shockingly rude words for an old lady. I thought I would giggle about it later, although at the time I was too shocked. I didn't tell John in the end. It would only have stirred up his ongoing grudge against my Mrs Elmwood visits. He said I was poking my big brown nose in where I shouldn't.
Maybe John was right. The last time I came to the garden, I left in a hurry, my heart racing. I'd been in a fluster before I even got there though. I'd had to carry a largish parcel that hadn't fitted under the pushchair. I'd handed it over to Mrs Elmwood with some relief. It had been an awkward juggle of dog lead, child and parcel up the garden path. Laurie was usually less of a problem in the garden, but I'd always keep Hugo on the lead. I'd learnt after the first time when Hugo's terrier need to dig had not proved compatible with a row of carefully planted bulbs.
This time, Hugo's lead somehow slipped my grasp, at the same time as Laurie had decided to wade into a pile of Vygies, trampling their narrow hot pink petals; a Mrs Elmwood favourite. South African. Scientific name mesembryanthemum, one I'd had to repeat several times before Mrs Elmwood was happy. So I'd been busy trying to lift up snapped flower heads and tackling Laurie's continued desire to splash in Mrs Elmwood's flowers. Luckily, Mrs Elmwood hadn't noticed yet and was clicking and muttering as she tried to get a thumb nail into some packing tape, twisting the huge parcel this way and that on the grass. Hugo had then disappeared into the rhubarb, after a fat pheasant. I'd shouted after him, squashing Laurie's flailing limbs clumsily against my body. Mrs Elmwood appeared by my side. 'Let him. I want that pheasant out. I shot at him yesterday but I'm out of bullets.' She screwed up her face. 'Can't see like I used to either.'
The pheasant ran and lurched up into the air, making it's jolting glottal alarm call. More of a jump than a flight, the pheasant landed on the other side of the path. Hugo raced round, barking, his lead flapping behind him. Eventually the pheasant found the way out over the wall, leaving Hugo dipping this way and that at the bottom. The cats chose this moment to saunter along the top, looking down disdainfully at their canine prisoner, sending Hugo into a further frenzy. Dirt went flying as he scrabbled. Some doggy logic told him to try and dig under the wall.
'No, Nooo' I yelled. Mrs Elmwood was right, I really needed a better trained dog.
Hugo was digging ever more frantically. He really thought he was onto something. Mrs Elmwood was shouting too. 'Stop, Stooooorrp!' She was really going to lose it with me this time. We were both trying to hurry round the rectangular flower beds to get to Hugo. Younger and faster, I got to him first. He was grunting with excitement. He was pushing his nose deep into the damp black soil. Petals shook loose from dislodged plants and fell on his coat, in and all around the hole he was making. He had found a bone. I saw the white gleam against the black.
'Fuck Hugo' I muttered, grabbing his collar, pulling him out of the hole. He wasn't letting go of his treasure though. He leant back with all his terrier might, gripping and tugging the bone, still stuck tight under impacted soil. Mrs Elmwood was there, breathing heavily next to me, leaning on the rake she'd no doubt picked up to shoo or beat Hugo with. 'It's where we put the pets. Hugo found where we put the family pets.'
'Oh I'm so sorry. Oh god Hugo! Let go! What a disaster'
I took Mrs Elmwood's description at face value. Of course you would have a pet cemetery if you live in a house that's called a castle. Hugo growled and twisted his head. Mrs Elmwood stabbed at the soil with the rake. The wide teeth pretty ineffectual at pushing the wet cakey earth. I stared at the hole. There was something else, metal, with a thick pin. A belt buckle. A lump of soil was over it before my brain could catch up. The rake and a wellington-booted foot stamping the earth back into order.
'Get out! Get out you stupid dog' Why'd you have to go digging here!'
'There was something else there Catherine.' I said
'All sorts of junk buried here Samantha. It was a rubbish dump for the last hundred years at least. Before I restored the garden. I need to put everything right now Samantha. It's time you went home now. Thank you for bringing the post and my parcel. It was very kind. Take your dog and child and now please leave me alone.
I did as I was told. Apologising as I bundled Laurie and Hugo out through the narrow gate. Both protesting. Mrs Elmwood shadowed us all the way, arms out like she was chasing chickens into a coop. My mind was thumping, feeling like the pheasant earlier, with it's hard beating wings drumming up a clumsy flight, while calling out an alarm. Getting away quickly seemed like the sensible option.
As I reached the lane and the pushchair's wheels at last moved smoothly, I wondered at what I had glimpsed. How long had that belt buckle been there, slotted between unspecified animal bones and other things? It didn't belong with dead pets, or rubbish. Could things rise up through the earth? Or fall through it? Did that happen? Was the soil in constant flux, shifting and tossing like a restless sea? I thought that the layers of the ground stayed largely still and could be relied upon, built upon. I understood, that yes, masses of energy seethe below our seas and mountains. I didn't think about it much of course, but I understood, that really, our little seaside cottages, our caravans and car parks, our carefully fenced off gardens, were insignificant as pins in the ocean in the grand scheme of history. I know that even here in our village, storms could take half a cliff path into the sea, or disappear a beach overnight, but surely there were no currents in the soil that could mix up buried bones with other things; things I recognised, that had stayed so well hidden behind those thick castle walls?
Was my imagination making mountains of it's own? Or could belt buckles and buttons and little bronze coloured studs, from a much loved pair of Levi jeans tunnel upwards, searching for daylight, searching for a friend to pick them up out of the dirt, cup them in a hand and remember someone they used to love? But instead, only find the jaws of a dog and the teeth of a rake in the hands of a brittle old woman? I was thoroughly shaken.