The Miracle of Maldon (Part Two of Three)
The Miracle of Maldon (Part Two of Three)
Mr King jiggled a key in the lock and opened his front door. It had been another roller coaster of a day. He loved his job but the whole classroom management thing was draining. He hung his keys up on a thin, wooden rail at the bottom of the stairs and headed to the kitchen. Inside one of the cupboards was a bottle of vodka. He poured himself a tumbler full. Replaying the day in his mind, he thought about how much Nineteen-Eighty Four was one of his favourite books. A story so relevant for these times; autocracy at its most extreme and a cautionary tale that should resonate with people. He wasn’t so keen on the charity announcement. Mr King grimaced at the thought. He believed in supporting good causes but was convinced that those bums on the street were there mainly due to self-inflicted reasons. Drunks, junkies and work-shy vagrants – they needed to sort themselves out.
He sat at the kitchen table on his own for a while. Looking up from his drink, he noted rays of sunlight filing through the slats in the blinds. He left them half-closed during the day. Force of habit. Mr King was a loner with no family at home. He had been a teacher since leaving Bristol University in 1981. Now in his late-50s, he often reflected on whether he had wasted opportunities to do something with his life. Working with adolescents was all he knew. There must be something else. Over the years he had become less and less enamoured with his place in the scheme of things and increasingly intolerant of children, in general. It rarely showed in public. The vitriol would bubble up in his downtime.
A scraping noise accompanied his chair being moved backwards as he rose. Shuffling out of the kitchen, Mr King made his way down the hallway and reached a door. Turning the handle, it swung open to stone stairs that led down to a basement. Flicking a light switch to his left on the wall, steps were revealed that were indented with wear. Taking the first few, he could now see a lightbulb dangling from a cord on the ceiling. It swung gently from side to side, illuminating clutter on the basement floor, shelving and a chest freezer in the corner.
An old woman shuffled along a litter-strewn pavement, the last of the afternoon sun shining down. It was temperate for this time of year with no sign of winter just yet. She wore a scruffy duffle coat that was open revealing a faded tee shirt that once paraded an image of a giant tongue and the word “Kiss”. Her tartan skirt was tattered and torn whilst her shoes were dilapidated, beige pumps. Her hair was a tangled thatch that curled over her piercing, blue eyes. With a hook of a nose and thin lips, she had an angular face that went a long way towards her reputation as a witch. She ambled along the street, quietly singing to herself. It was hard to make out the words but for those that could decipher them, they seem to be odd incantations; curious, lilting strains almost like whispering spells. People she encountered would step to one side to let her pass whilst avoiding eye contact but staring as soon as they thought that she wouldn’t look back.
It had been a reasonable day with a few coins received whilst she had been sat outside Bob the grocer’s store. She would find a spot close to the entrance to draw attention to herself as shoppers went in and out. She knew that the shop owner didn’t like her begging outside his premises. Few welcomed her being around. She had the double-whammy of the stigma of being a vagrant and many thinking that she was a witch. It was a toxic combination. In Bob the Grocer’s case, she knew that the shopkeeper would bear things for a short while being one of the kinder people she encountered most days. Things would change quickly if he caught her stealing an apple from the fruit stalls.
Looking up, she noticed a man with a clipboard marching towards her. He had a white shirt and striped tie on, albeit no jacket. Trousers and polished shoes gave him away as a case worker for the local council.
“So how are you today, Sarah?” He looked and sounded suitably concerned. The question was met with silence. Sarah thought to herself how this always played out the same way. The usual pattern of questioning around welfare issues which invariably led to an invitation to sleep overnight at a hostel. Whilst this was all very well, the problem was that staying at council accommodation was fraught with danger. Belongings would be tampered with, you could open your eyes and find some reprobate breathing in your face and the night would be filled by curious grunts and groans that made sleep impossible.
Sarah stared at the outreach worker. She had seen him several times before. With his beard, thick-rimmed glasses and short hair with sideburns, she estimated that he was in his twenties. He meant well but she was surprised by the Groundhog Day aspect of the conversations that played out.
“You know these talks always sound the same. You know I don’t need your help. I have better things to do than be cooped up with geriatrics and junkies. No…not for me.” Sarah’s Essex accent had a lilt of Irish in. It had been anglicised over the years; there was more colloquial English in it than Emerald Isle.
“I know you mean well enough. How about I find some money for your shelter and you leave me alone?” She stared at him with a steely expression.
The caseworker was confused. How could a down-and-out like this raise money for a good cause? She had nothing. His mind raced with thoughts before deciding that the old woman was having him on.
“I think it’s time I was leaving.” Sarah uttered, turning away to walk in the opposite direction. The hum of traffic from the main road underlined how busy things were in that part of town. A queue of cars was forming by a set of traffic lights that had turned red. A BMW had been pulled over by an unmarked police car across the road. The officer was out of his car, raising himself up to look taller before confronting the driver. The caseworker stood and watched as she shuffled off. He face broke into a wry smile as he shook his head.
It was a couple of miles walk back to Millwood School and the surrounding woods. Sarah meandered along, still murmuring to herself. The featureless road that led around the school arced away into the distance. She could see the fields of long grass and yellow dandelions beckoning. The old woman shuffled inexorably towards the cover of trees. The sun was making its way below the horizon signalling the beginning of the end of another October day.
As she made her way towards the woods, two figures stepped out of the shadows behind her, tracking her steps through the grass. They kept a safe distance so as not to be seen. The path taken was littered with empty bottles, tin cans and small, silver containers of nitrous oxide that was all the rage at the moment – laughing gas for the masses. As much as the woods were a no go area, the fields were as popular as they ever were for teenagers and transients.
The old woman finally disappeared across the threshold between the field and woods. Her stalkers, mindful of losing her, quickened their pace. It seemed odd that the last of the twilight had so quickly changed to night. Above them a cloudless sky paraded stars like tiny spots of white paint on a dark blue canvas. The local woods were more like a forest extending for several miles in all directions. The terrain was tricky in poor light with bushes, scrub and numerous ditches that could easily lead to a twisted ankle if tripped over.
The pursuers were struggling now to keep the woman in view. It was as though she was fading away before their eyes. The sounds of the night filled the woods. Bushes rustled and leaves bristled as the unseen fauna of the night roamed. The temperature had dropped right down and it was now much colder. Into the depths of trees they trekked, now unsure as to whether they were going in the right direction. They had lost sight of the old woman.
Image free to use at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maldon#/media/File:Maldon_Moot_Hall.jpg