I’d known the lady over the road ever since I can remember. She’d known me since I’d turned the ripe old age of two. Days, not years. Puffy cheeks. Wide-eyed.
I’d lived on the same street as her all my life, although I can only recall knowing who she was when I turned four. I’d kicked a ball into her front garden and watched her gaze at me as I went to get it back.
Yet in all the time I had been aware of her, I’d never once seen her leave the confines of her house or garden. Maybe she’d been out the back, but considering she’d never gone past the front gate, I highly doubt it.
You may ask, and quite rightly, how could I know she’d never left. Was I on the lookout all day every day, for the past thirty years? The answer, of course, is no. But I knew, as did everyone else, that Mrs. Welch never left. Ever. An assured certainty.
Life came to her.
She had the house directly opposite. The last in a long row of terraced buildings. Number 40. Gated garden at the front, yard at the back.
We didn’t live on one of those streets where you opened the front door and stepped straight out onto a tarmac path. Our terraces were one of the bigger rows in the town. Situated on a more affluent street. Boxed gardens and cars parked out front.
Mrs. Welch had never owned a car. My Dad told me as much before I went to stay that night at her house when I was twelve. The childminder had canceled at the last minute, so my Dad wandered over the road to ask if she could look after me. She, of course, said yes. Mrs. Welch was not an unkind woman. I’d been wary of her when I was younger – a childlike fascination, but she’d never once said a bad word to me. Waved hello, and spoke to my Mum regularly, although in the confines of her gated garden. They talked about the weather, the news, and from time to time, the neighbours who nobody liked. They’d moved into number 11 in 2000, and had brought, as my mother put it, “bad vibes” with them ever since.
However, it was the night, aged twelve, when I went to stay with Mrs. Welch, that I became fascinated, and slightly obsessed, in getting her to leave the house, and understanding why she couldn’t.
Before that evening, I’d not really known Mrs. Welch, no more than any other friendly neighbour. And thus, everything she did, I found odd. In the first instance, whenever she went into the front garden, she tied a piece of string around her left pinkie finger, the other end tied to the front door knob, to make sure she was still attached. My mum feigned ignorance every time they spoke, but I knew she thought it peculiar too.
In the second instance, away from the string, and away from the lack of exiting her property, there seemed to be absolutely nothing wrong with Mrs. Welch. She made, to my young self, very little sense.
The answers were to be found in her house. Or so I hoped.
As with any childhood memory, there are blurs and stop-gaps. I recall almost nothing of the journey to her house that night. Walking over, as I’m sure I did, grumbling about how I was too old to be looked after. I don’t know what I ate for tea, although I’m sure I had some, and I don’t really remember leaving the next morning. All I can be sure of is what the house looked like. What lay inside. From one wall to the next, one room to another.
The layout was identical to ours. The front door opened straight into the hallway, where stairs ran up the right-hand wall, a bathroom waiting at the top of the landing. Turn left and you’d be straight into the front room, carry on down the hallway and you’d meet the kitchen, dining room, and, around a small crook of a wall, a downstairs toilet, and a basement. Go upstairs and going left was the only option. Three bedrooms, each curling around the sides of the top staircase rail, with access to the attic directly above the second.
It was, for want of a better word, ordinary. The layout at least.
Yet, Mrs. Welch appeared to have frozen the house in a singular moment; everything inside was dated. In the hallway stood a curled oak coat stand, brimming with jackets and exactly four flat caps. At the top of the landing a grandfather clock, upright and regal, chiming every quarter hour. The front room was laden with a mismatch of Turkish rugs, thread in burgundy and trimmed in shades of gold and olive. The TV was housed inside a cabinet, kept warm and unused in its confinement.
No mod-cons to be found in the kitchen either. Where we’d just bought the latest style fridge-freezer, ice quite literally on tap, Mrs. Welch didn’t seem to have one. Fridge nor freezer. Old pictures hung everywhere. In black, white and sepia tone.
Whilst we were in the millennium, Mrs. Welch was not.
The most peculiar room of all, however, was the one upstairs. I assumed it was a bedroom, but when Mrs. Welch had gone to sleep that night, or so I hoped, I snuck out of my room and into it.
Box-shaped, it was a storage space for what appeared to be a young child’s personal belongings. A bedroom in a past life. There were a variety of toys. Some in boxes labeled as such, but others on display, sitting atop the slanted shelves that ran across the back of the garishly decorated wall. Eyes stared back, accusing me of what was a crossed line. A stuffed bear, now ridged with age, begged me to leave. A brass monkey was surely waiting to crash its miniature symbols around my ears. Crush them quick.
Yet the strangest toy of all was not on a shelf. On a wooden desk right in the center of the left-hand side wall sat a circular track, with a steam train and four hollow carriages, each moving slowing around as if being tugged along by a gentle hand. The internal mechanism likely is broken. Inside the carriages, curled up pieces of string. Balled tight.
I’d never fled a room quicker in my life.
As I said, I don’t recall leaving Mrs. Welch’s house that morning. But what I do recall is a growing sense of unease about Mrs. Welch. A woman as gracious as her, no matter how odd, she shouldn’t be subjected to such voodoo. How could she sleep next to a room as alive as that? Did she even know?
I could never ask her, and I never did. Not directly. Fearing, I’m sure, what she would reveal. Some things are better left unsaid.
But I never did stop trying to get her to leave, even just for a moment. Trips to shops, excursions to the cinema, I even remember distinctly, aged fourteen, crashing my bike directly in the road outside her door as she stood in the garden. But she moved inward. Called an ambulance from inside. Considerate but cautious. She knew what I was up to.
It wasn’t until my thirtieth birthday that she finally decided to emerge. I’d not managed to escape the confines of my parent’s house. Dad had gotten sick when I was eighteen. Mum had cared for him until his death when I was twenty-seven. Cancer ate him inside out. I couldn’t leave, maybe for fear that mum would turn into a recluse, much like Mrs. Welch. I’d stayed ever since.
Walking back from town, meandering aimlessly down the street, debating whether to go home or simply keep on past, I heard a shout.
“Ruby! Ruby is that you dear?”
I crossed over the road, save to shout back.
“Everything okay Mrs. Welch?”
She was dressed in one of the coats that had hung about her stand. Wore a patterned headscarf instead of a flat cap.
“It’s time,” was all she said, and slung her canary yellow handbag over her shoulder. She had a string tied around her pinkie finger, the other end loose in the air, no longer attached to the front door. It caught a little on the gate as it closed.
She took my hand, in silence, and led me away from the street, away from the center of town, and towards the decrepit church down the muddy path I’d occasionally walked with mum.
“Mrs. Welch is everything…”
She put a finger to her thin lips. I said nothing more.
We squelched along the path until it turned to grass. I dragged my shoes along it to rid them of the mud and followed Mrs. Welch through an iron gate. It opened onto a damp church graveyard, which I knew was there. It’s where we’d buried Dad. I went in reluctantly. I don’t like to snoop on the dead. Or walk above them.
“Would you mind giving me some privacy dear?”
She ambled off towards the row of gravestones before I had a chance to reply, but I understood the sentiment. I shuffled in the opposite direction, away from the afterlife, away from Dad, and back towards the crumbling parish.
Twenty minutes passed, there or thereabouts, before I decided that I should check on Mrs. Welch. An eerie silence had fallen about the place and the bench I was perched on had started to make me ache. I strolled back, minding my step as I went.
I could see the back of her up ahead. I was about to call over when I thought better of it. It wasn’t until I got closer that it became clear Mrs. Welch was not crouching down in silent prayer. She was slumped and unmoving. Left cheek pressed against the cold stone. Gooseflesh rose about my arms.
I knew she wouldn’t answer. Touching her shoulder, slightly damp from the dewy air, I swept the grey coarse hair that had fallen about her face, escaping from the wrapped scarf. Complexion turned a pasty white.
Due to her angle, I couldn’t make out the name on the stone. Perhaps I shouldn’t have considered looking, snooping on a dead woman. Mrs. Welch no less. But curiosity doesn’t wait to be absolved of guilt.
I pulled her back slightly, away from the cold stone and towards my warm body, cradling her head in my palm.
William D. Welch
Son of George and Mildred Welch
Beloved brother of Lillian Welch
Died in the home of his birth.
Mrs. Welch’s left hand stuck as I went to shift her from the damp ground. I reached down. Her pinkie was still tied to the thread of string, now disappearing, stretched tight, into the mound of dirt below.
I held her close and rang for an ambulance.
A young writer from North Yorkshire, Emily has recently discovered that she actually likes creative writing, despite everything she may have previously said. Quite likely to be found in a local cafe drinking cups of tea and procrastinating about her work, (someone feed her please). She can also be found on Twitter @emily__harrison, and apologises in advance for her tweets.